Bibliotherapy

Michael Sebastian Noble-From Fakhr al-Din al-Razi’s‘Hidden Secret’-Part 1: Careful Monitoring

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Ceilings of the winter prayer hall, Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, ‘The Pink Mosque’ in Shiraz, Iran. Picture at Wikimedia Commons.

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Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is the first part of a series devoted to some key excerpts from Fakr al-Din al-Razi’s ‘Hidden Secret’ (al-Sirr al-Maktüm), in the exciting ground-breaking study of Michael-Sebastian Noble, ‘Philosophising the Occult, Avicennan Psychology and the ‘Hidden Secret’ of Fakr al-Din al-Razi’, De Gruyter-2021.

Note: Al Razi’s quotations in Michael-Sebastian Noble’s translation are in italic. The rest is his scholarly apparatus and exegesis.

‘The fulfilment of those conditions relating to the management of the body and those relating to the soul’s disposition serves but one aim: to remove all distractions which may arrest the soul’s attention so that it can focus on connection with the celestial spirits.’ (From Chapter 6. part 7. foreword)

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6.7.1. Physical Austerities

The adept is required to monitor carefully the quality of his diet. An imbalanced diet would impair his ability to connect with the celestial spirits for a number of reasons: if any one of the four humors gained preponderance in the body, the nature of his thoughts and imaginings would adopt the hue of the dominant humor and thus resist focusing on the connection he is trying to achieve:

Just as he must purify his heart from base, superfluous thoughts (kama wajaba ‘alayhi tanqiyat al-qalb ‘an fudul al-afkar al-radiyya) he must also purify his body from base superfluous humors (fudul al-akhlat al-radiyya). For, if he is dominated by one of the four humors, then his imaginings and thoughts (takhayyulatuhu wa-tafakkuratuhu) will accord with that humor, and the purpose will not be fulfilled.

Whilst humoral imbalance thwarts the soul’s noetic connection, the celestial spirits are averse to connection with a human soul that has been nourished on food derived from anything that possesses a spirit: strict veganism therefore becomes a necessity during the period in which the adept is attempting noetic connection (Hygeia note: noetic= of the intellect). On account of their propensity to ‘corrupt’ the brain, the Sabians, according to Razi, avoided all smoked foods and beans. Similarly, they avoided excessive eating which, being inevitably accompanied by excessive drinking, produces noxious vapours which confuse and debilitate the brain. Of course, such an understanding of the effect of nourishment on the body demands medical expertise. Razi remarks: ‘And so from this it becomes apparent that the practitioner of this craft must possess knowledge of medicine and he must also use everything which fortifies the brain and heart and which purifies them from stain and dirt.’

This strict diet is understood as purifying the brain and heart, which is necessary for the soul’s purification. The adept is also required to reduce his amount of consumption since the soul’s preoccupation with digestion diverts his attention away from employing the higher faculties:

Careful attention must be paid to one’s diet with respect to both quantity and quality. As for quantity, this involves its reduction-for preoccupation with eating is a great distraction preventing the soul from engaging in any other tasks. For, seldom is a man capable of perception and movement, let alone thought (fikr) and remembrance of God (dhikr) after excessive eating. This is the case because the soul cannot combine management of eating, with perception and movement. And so, it relinquishes management of perception and movement so that it is able to manage digestive process which prevents it from managing perception and movement, despite the fact that the soul is very familiar with both-so what would you suppose would happen with respect to thought and focusing on the World of the Unseen (insiraf ila alam al-ghayb) when the soul is unfamiliar with that?

Digestion therefore distracts the soul from engaging its higher faculties; thus, if the adept trained his soul to subsist on the barest minimum it needed to survive, the aim of connecting with the celestial intellects would be facilitated.

The ability to subsist on but little nourishment is viewed by Avicenna as one of the characteristics of those possessed by gnosis (‘arifin). In his ‘al-Isharat’ he provides a naturalistic account of how it is possible. He observes how fear can lead to the collapse of a man’s desire; cause the malfunctioning of his digestion; and render void his ability to perform actions of which he is otherwise entirely capable. This represents evidence that the soul’s state can affect the body. Commenting on this reasoning, Razi says:

If such is the case, then it is not impossible (fa-la imtina’a) that the immersion of the gnostic’s soul in the love of God the exalted, and its complete release from corporeal ties can be a cause for the descent into the bodily natural powers (al-quwa al-tabi’iyya) dispositions appropriate to that disposition, with the result that the natural powers do not engage in the dissolution of original nourishment (al-ajza’ al-asliyya) and hunger does not arise.

In his commentary to al-Isharat 10:4, Razi explains that when the bodily powers are disciplined by the rational soul, the former become attracted to the latter; when this attraction becomes powerful, they do no longer engage in their usual activity of digestion. Since physical nourishment is not dissolved by the bodily powers, which have been drawn towards the rational soul, the one possessed of gnosis can survive on but little food.

The importance of reducing consumption explains the forty days’ fast to establish this noetic connection which Razi attributes to the Sabians. He reports:

They said it is necessary that, at the beginning of the period of fasting they break their fast with an amount similar to that which they are accustomed to eating; then they should reduce it each nigh, regularly and in increments (Hygeia note: A slight, often barely perceptible augmentation), bit by bit, until finally by the end they break their fast on the barest minimum needed to stay alive. As for the quality, they have said that it is necessary to avoid eating anything that derives from something possessed by a spirit; indeed the food must consist of seeds, olive oil, and if not then of sesame oil and if they want to mix these seeds with herbs which the people traditionally cook with these seeds, then there is no problem with that. Once the forty days have been completed in this way then their souls have become pure, and their spirits immaculate; they become masters of the occult sciences (ghawamid al-ulum); and they are empowered to strike healthy bodies with disease and the reverse.

Strict diet and fasting thus purifies the human soul, releasing it from bodily preoccupations to connect with the celestial spirits from which it receives two things: occult knowledge and power.

End of part 1

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To be continued…

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