Dhu'l Nun al-Misri was born at Akhmim in Upper Egypt and died at Giza, near Cairo. After his death he became a celebrated Sufi (of the ninth century CE). There are also reports of his link with Hermetic philosophy and alchemy, revived by early Muslims in a distinctive variant. Dhu'l Nun has been mentioned over the centuries in various formats and interpretations, including those of modern scholars.

Map centre: Akhmim (Panopolis) in Upper Egypt


1.       The  Heretic  of  Fustat

2.       A  Reader of  Hieroglyphs

3.       Akhmim

4.       The  Hermetic  Alchemist

5.       Egyptology  Debate  about  the  Hieroglyphs

6.       Thrice  Greatest  Hermes

7.       The  Rosetta  Stone

8.        Zosimos  of  Panopolis

9.        A  Reputed  Student  of  Alchemy/Medicine

10.      The  Sufi  Gnostic

11.      Canonical  Annals  of  Sufism

12.      Ibn  Khallikan

13.     Theory  of  Christian  Neoplatonist  Influence

14.      R. A.  Nicholson's  Neoplatonist  Theory

15.     The  Palacios  Version

16.     Leaven  of  the  Pythagoreans



1.  The  Heretic  of  Fustat

The ninth century figure of Dhu'l Nun, known as al-Misri ("the Egyptian"), is attended by a typically fragmented mode of reporting found in the annals of early Sufism. Other Islamic commentators are also involved in the record. The following remarks are an attempt to penetrate the complexities and obscurities.

The full name of the subject is Abu'l Faiz Thauban ibn Ibrahim al-Misri (c.791/796-c.860 CE). He was born at Akhmim (Ikhmim) in Upper Egypt, an ancient town on the east bank of the Nile. In Pharaonic times, Akhmim was a cult centre of the fertility god Min. Local governors were buried in the extensive necropolis at Akhmim from the third millenium BC onwards. The New Kingdom Pharaoh Ramesses II is associated with the building of a large temple in the vicinity. Very little of the original architecture at Akhmim survives today.

Location of Fustat. Courtesy The Oriental Institute, University of Chicago

The Egyptian Muslim Dhu'l Nun travelled as an ascetic in Arabia, Palestine, and Syria. Different aspects of his career are reflected in the sources, a factor which has caused some uncertainty. Different dates are also supplied. “At some stage (presumably when he was still young) Dhu’l Nun moved to al-Fustat” (Ebstein 2014:563). Fustat was the capital of Islamic Egypt, situated near the Nile Delta, far to the north of Akhmim. This geographical demarcator is associated with two different roles, a Hermetic alchemist at Akhmim and a Sufi gnostic at Fustat.

Dhu’l Nun twice became a heretic, the dates being variously given. One version states that he was arrested on a charge of heresy in 829 CE (Arberry 1966:87). This is too early for other assessments. Following the accession of the Abbasid Caliph al-Wathiq (rgd 842-847), that monarch gave the order for a qazi (legist) in Egypt to impose stern restrictions upon all dissidents from the official Abbasid doctrine concerning the Quran. Many scholars in Egypt were imprisoned or fled into hiding, wishing to avoid flogging or execution. Dhu’l Nun himself fled from the persecution. However, he returned afterwards, being now willing to acknowledge official dogma. This compromising report is not found in any of the orthodox Sufi sources, (1) which dominate the traditional history of Sufism.

The right wing Mutazili doctrine, harnessed to monarchical interests of the Abbasid dynasty, resorted to a policy of inquisition (mihna) against dissidents. This was favoured by the Caliph and assisted by wealthy Mutazili courtiers and theologians. That inquisition has been dated to 833-848 CE (possibly terminating in 851). See further Early Sufism in Iran, section 8. Many traditionists opposed the Mutazili system because of a doctrine that the Quran was created, a theme facilitating royal influence. The orthodox standpoint maintained the "uncreatedness" of the Quran.

A sequel occurred in which Dhu'l Nun was again in trouble with dogmatic interests during the following Abbasid reign. This is given a late dating of 858-59 CE. Exponents of the Maliki law school in Egypt (apparently at Fustat) censured his mystical teaching as an innovation. They branded him a heretic (zindiq). The governor of Egypt despatched him to the court of the Caliph al-Mutawakkil (rgd 847-861) at Samarra in Iraq. From 836, the new city of Samarra, north of Baghdad, was the military headquarters of the Caliphate for over thirty years (Baghdad remained the cultural centre of Iraq). This episode gained dramatisation in later Sufi annals, with anecdotes glorifying the saint. There are stories of his imprisonment. He was released by the Caliph, afterwards returning to Egypt. (2) En route he made a brief visit to Baghdad, where he allegedly visited Sufi circles.

Turning to other aspects of the record, there are conflicting components in the profile of Dhu'l Nun as a Sufi gnostic and Hermetic alchemist. Attributed compositions require caution. "A number of poems and short treatises are attributed to him, but these are for the most part apocryphal." (3)

He was accused of being a philosopher and an alchemist, and the genuineness of his mystical state was sometimes doubted; Ibn an-Nadim's Fihrist (2: 862) in the tenth century mentions two of his works among alchemistic scriptures.... According to the tradition [of Sufism], Dhu'n Nun [Dhu'l Nun] formulated for the first time a theory of marifa, intuitive knowledge of God, or gnosis.... Nicholson was inclined to accept Neoplatonic influences upon Dhu'n Nun. Since this mystic lived in Egypt, where Neoplatonic and hermetic traditions were in the air, and was regarded by some of his contemporaries as a 'philosopher,' he may well have been acquainted with some Neoplatonic ideas. (4) 

One argument is that the Sufi identity rules out Hermetic associations, which are not mentioned in Sufi sources. An alternative here is to credit that the early life of Dhu’l Nun, at his native Akhmim, was a temporary phase of exposure to “Hermetic” influences, subsequently superseded by his role as a proto-Sufi gnostic at Fustat and Giza.

One could envisage that Dhu’l Nun started life as a Maliki traditionist, transited to the ambience of a neo-Hermetic enthusiast, subsequently becoming a proto-Sufi gnostic. His local "Hermetic" reputation, apparently relating to his early years at Akhmim, is superfluous to his mature mystical career. He appears to have spent many years in the Fustat area of Lower Egypt.

2.   A  Reader  of  Hieroglyphs

The traditional profile of Dhu'l Nun as a reader of hieroglyphs has generally been queried or dismissed, along with some concession to attendant factors. "Accounts of his ability to read hieroglyphs, though untenable, may function as a topos expressing his links with an Egyptian Hellenistic wisdom tradition." The quote is from Gerhard Bowering, "Du'l-Nun Mesri, Abu'l-Fayz Tawban" (1996), Encyclopaedia Iranica. Professor Bowering here refers to both the Islamic historian Masudi, and the traditionist (and annalist of Sufism) Abu Nuaym al-Isfahani (d.1038), as mediators of the hieroglyphicist lore. An alternative view of the "reader of hieroglyphs" has emerged from Egyptology (section 5  below).

Some scholars have described the subject as a Nubian. According to Professor R. A. Nicholson, the subject "was a Copt or Nubian." (5)  His father Ibrahim was a Nubian slave who had converted to Islam, becoming a client (mawla) of the Quraysh tribe of Arabs closely associated with Mecca. In brief, Dhu'l Nun was one of the Egyptian mawali, an unprivileged native of the Nile valley who learnt Arabic culture and language under Quraysh auspices. He was probably black-skinned. His maternal line of descent is not clear.

Whatever the precise details of his parentage, his background milieu at Akhmim was substantially Coptic, also featuring architecture from the pre-Christian period. Akhmim had a history going back to the Pharaonic Old Kingdom era some three thousand years before (and even earlier). (6) Dhu'l Nun may have spoken Coptic in addition to Arabic.

The Copts were descendants of the dynastic Egyptians; they had long since become converts to Christianity. They were tolerated by Islam as "people of a Book." The Coptic language represented the final stage of Old Egyptian, being written in the Greek alphabet, to which were added six (or seven) characters (depending upon the dialect) from the late Demotic script deriving from Pharaonic times. Coptic became the written form of Egyptian language during the third century CE, when Greek was the official tongue. Coptic grew more pervasive in the sixth century, eventually gaining official status as a religious language. In this adapting process, Christianity outlawed the use of ancient Egyptian scripts. The hieroglyphs subsequently became a subject of enthusiast discussion and fantasy, being interpreted for many centuries as a symbolic and ideographic script.

When the Arab Muslims arrived in Egypt, Coptic was the vernacular tongue for most of the native population, and also a literary language. The monopoly of classical Greek had been broken by Coptic monasteries, which supplanted Greek schools as cultural centres. During the fifth century CE, literary texts began to be written in Coptic. Greek remained the administrative language of the rulers, but lost out to Arabic.  The Copts resisted use of Arabic for almost two centuries, afterwards capitulating substantially, with the consequence that Coptic became outmoded after the eleventh century. Translations from Coptic into Arabic did not apparently commence until the tenth century.  (7)

Thus, the Akhmim milieu of Dhu'l Nun was more complex than might at first appear. Coptic must have been a strong undercurrent factor, with many Coptic speakers in that area. Attendant speculations about Neoplatonism require due clarification. The Cambridge scholar Edward Glanville Browne was rather enthusiastic in that direction. Professor Browne favoured Neoplatonism as the strongest influence upon Sufism. He observed that both Plotinus and Porphyry are mentioned in the Fihrist of al-Nadim. (8)

Browne's pupil Reynold Alleyne Nicholson (1868-1945) adopted the "Neoplatonist theory." Nicholson controversially asserted: "The immediate source of the sufi theosophy is to be sought in Greek and Syrian speculation." The clarification followed that he here meant Iraq, Syria, and Egypt, territories which are more open to such an interpretation. However, deductions of this type have been considered misleading. Though Nicholson clearly favoured Hellenism, he conceded that the "Greek" influence did not answer every question. "Sufism has always been thoroughly eclectic," he observed, "absorbing and transmuting whatever 'broken lights' fell across its path, and consequently it gained adherents amongst men of the most opposite views." (9)

Egyptian hieroglyphs, Valley of the Kings

Conventional Sufi sources tend to depict Dhu'l Nun as a pious Muslim and a Sufi gnostic. A complement is afforded by the report of the historian Masudi (d.956), the "Herodotus of the Arabs." Born in Baghdad, Masudi travelled for many years before settling in Egypt at Fustat (Old Cairo). His extensive Muruj al-Dhahab provides the first extant semi-historical (or pseudo-historical) account of Dhu'l Nun, deriving information from inhabitants of Akhmim during a visit made by the historian to this township. Masudi wrote:

Dhu'l Nun al-Misri al-Akhmimi, the ascetic, was a philosopher who pursued a course of his own in religion. He was one of those who elucidate the history of these temple-ruins (barabi). He roamed among them [the temples] and examined a great quantity of figures and inscriptions. (10)

Masudi offered a version of some inscriptions which Dhu'l Nun claimed to have deciphered. This report confirms the early fame of the subject as a "hieroglyphicist." Modern scholars are inclined to be incredulous of ninth century archaeology. Dhu'l Nun is said to have discovered a book in the temple of Akhmim; Masudi quotes two sayings and a poem allegedly derived from this book. Dr. Ebstein has pointed out the lack of any mystical or alchemical meaning in these quotations. "Their attribution to Dhu'l Nun seems to be spurious: in other sources, these two sayings and the aforementioned poem are ascribed to figures other than Dhu'l Nun" (Ebstein 2014:598). The same analyst concludes that the Masudi lore seems to have originated in Egyptian alchemical circles active in the first half of the tenth century, which may mean two generations after Dhu'l Nun.

The discovery of occult knowledge, either by deciphering images on the walls of ancient Egyptian temples or by unearthing books that are buried within them, is a well known topos in Arabic alchemical and Hermetic literature. (Ebstein 2014:598-99)

Another scenario was provided by the Andalusian scholar Abu Ubayd al-Bakri (d.c.1094). We are told that Dhu'l Nun acquired alchemical knowledge as a young man while serving a priest (rahib) who officiated at the temple of Akhmim (ibid:602). This priest taught him to read the writing found on the temple walls, evidently a reference to hieroglyphs. Temple priests had ceased to operate before the arrival of Islam, so this story is not convincing.

Exactly what Dhu'l Nun did at Akhmim remains very obscure from a factual point of view. He might easily have become interested in the ruins that were so visible in his environment. He may not have been content with the conventional Arab disdain for ancient idol-worshippers. Inscriptions found in ancient temples and tombs were certainly viewed by subsequent Hermetic enthusiasts as an index to the sciences of antiquity. They were wrong.

The only priests left in Akhmim were the Coptic Christian variety. Many of these men were apparently not especially interested in the pagan temples. However, there is solid proof of an intercultural and polymathic incentive on the part of obscure Coptic literati at this early period.

The first translation of Greek and Coptic alchemical sources into Arabic occurred in the early eighth century. There was a two-way process at work, exemplified by four extant Coptic alchemical manuscripts of the ninth/tenth centuries. These are early testimonies to the influence of Arabic alchemy (al-kimiya). (11)  These Coptic documents are relevant for the history of science. They have been dated to the ninth and/or tenth centuries CE, a very early date for alchemical manuscripts. These Coptic alchemical works are thought to be translations of almost contemporary, but still undiscovered, Arabic texts. “The probable provenance of (at least some of) the Coptic manuscripts in the environs of Akhmim sheds further light on the importance of that Upper Egyptian town as a centre of alchemy in [the] late antique and early Islamic period” (Richter 2015:183).

The Coptic alchemical dossier belongs to a distinctive group of late Sahidic manuscripts dealing with matters such as medicine, mathematics, astrology, or just alchemy, while referring to taxonomies and technical terminologies of contemporary Arabic science. All these texts bear witness to the intellectual efforts of educated members of the Christian Egyptian society, who were willing and still able to think and write in their native language, to grapple with the new culture [of Islam]. (Richter 2015:183)

Akhmim is very strongly implicated in literary activity spanning the Coptic and Arabic repertories during the ninth and tenth centuries. The exact date of commencement is elusive. Any participation of Dhu’l Nun in this activity is conjectural, but probably more relevant than popular stories about barabi. If Dhu’l Nun could speak Coptic, he might have been able to learn about contemporary developments in Coptic Christian research that clearly registered Muslim contributions.

Persistent Hermetic beliefs, in the esoteric nature of hieroglyphs, were (and are) very misleading. The irony is that if Dhu’l Nun really did penetrate that ancient script, he would have realised the mundanely exoteric nature of much hieroglyphic inscription. Egyptian hieroglyphs did not comprise an esoteric doctrine. They generally commemorated royal and funerary events. Many of the hieroglyphic formats are found in tombs; these do not relate to “spiritual secrets” but so very frequently to an anticipated afterlife of the deceased.

Many wealthy ancient Egyptians wanted their tombs and coffins decorated with hieroglyphic guides to the afterworld. Funeral texts, together with spells to assist the afterlife, were a convention in hieroglyph inscriptions. The Coffin Texts were very popular from circa 2000 BC. These hieroglyphic creations included over a thousand magical and liturgical spells. Some modern tourists resort to a contemporary vogue of “hieroglyphs for everyone” as they visit famous tombs and decode inscriptions. There is nothing esoteric or redemptive in that pastime.

Hieroglyphs were generally reserved for inscriptions carved on slabs of stone or, more frequently, incised and painted on walls. The basic forms did not change at all from the earliest inscriptions to those in temples of the Roman period…. For administrative, accounting and legal documents, as well as the archival notation of other texts (from literary compositions to religious or funerary rituals), a cursive method of writing was adopted at an early stage in Egyptian history [employed on ostraca and in papyri]. Greek tourists visiting Egypt in the Late Period called this cursive system "hieratic," since from what they observed they assumed that it was restricted to members of the priesthood; this contrasted with the “demotic” script, which seemed to them to be used by the population at large. In fact, the demotic was only a later version of hieratic which had evolved by the seventh century BC. (Grimal 1992:33-34)

Symbolic speculation about Egyptian hieroglyphs became popular amongst the Greeks in late antiquity, the attendant beliefs eventually passing to the European Renaissance. An influential work of the fifth century CE, known as Hieroglyphica, was composed by Horapollon, apparently the grandson of an Alexandrian scholar (Van Minnen 2016:69). This work gained an exotic reputation for decoding nearly 200 hieroglyphs. The effort of Horapollon was attended by a tendency to literalism that obstructed phonetic rendition.

Moving into the Islamic era, the Arabic word barba (plural barabi) was often applied to tombs, also to temples and other ancient monuments of Egypt. That term was apparently a transcription of the Coptic word p'erpe (temple). Arabic writers give various explanations of the function of barabi. The craftsmanship of the monuments was much admired. One explanation urged that barabi were constructed to reproduce or display techniques of the ancient crafts. The tenth century Fihrist of Al-Nadim implies that barabi were made for the practice of alchemy. The ubiqitous hieroglyphs, found in tombs and temples, were believed to hold the key to ancient sciences.

3.  Akhmim

Akhmim, the birthplace of Dhu'l Nun, had the Egyptian name of Khent-min (or Ipu). The Greeks identified the ithyphallic god Min with Pan. This was apparently the reason why Greek settlers applied the name of Panopolis to the ancient town (also known as Khemmis). The archive of Ammon, a fourth century lawyer (scholastikos), informs that Panopolis contained temples and churches, a theatre, a gymnasium, and a school of philosophy (Blanke 2019:20).

The White Monastery, near Akhmim (Panopolis)

The early Coptic Christians at this town subsequently employed the name of Khmin (from which Akhmim seems to have derived). During the Christian Coptic era, a number of influential monasteries appeared in the region, strongly associated with the fourth century Pakhom (Pachomius). Coptic Christianisation in Egypt was complete by the sixth century.

The most famous of the local monasteries is the White Monastery, named after the limestone used in construction. This was a fifth century Coptic phenomenon (starting earlier), at first harbouring only thirty monks. Under the abbot Shenoute (d.1465), the monastic numbers in his federation increased to a reputed four thousand inmates. The figures of 2,200 and 1,800 are given for monks and nuns respectively (the nunnery was located at Atripe). Shenoute was a prolific writer; he encouraged literacy in the membership, some of whom were engaged in the copying of manuscripts. An extensive library accumulated. The White Monastery declined after the Arab invasion; the site was apparently still prospering in the early eighth century, surviving for a time. Heavy taxes are often cited as a cause of decline. The monastery was in ruins by 1441. The only portion of the White Monastery surviving today is the church complex. Over two miles away, in the same district of Sohag (near Akhmim), the Red Monastery is a similar partial survival from the same federation (see further Blanke 2019).

In more general respects, the ancient Panopolis milieu is very imperfectly known. The alchemist Zosimos was active here at circa 300 CE, remaining obscure in many accounts. The Egyptian priesthood retained an elite status at Panopolis during the third century CE, when Hellenising influences infiltrated. Panopolis "was not really Hellenistic" (Van Minnen 2016:55). The reason being that influence from the northern towns, more especially Alexandria, was far less strong in the south. There were "relatively few Greeks in Upper Egypt," these being mainly soldiers and related categories. The so-called Greeks, living in Roman Egypt, were perhaps descendants of a mixed Greek and Egyptian population (ibid). Alexandria was the hub of literary and scholastic prowess, the provinces being considered inferior in accomplishment by the Graeco-Roman elite. The celebrated fifth century poet Nonnus, active at Panopolis, was a Christian primarily writing for the elite of Alexandria.

Akhmim, in the time of Dhu'l Nun, is described as "a Christian town with a noteworthy scientific tradition, where a great many people knew Greek, Coptic, and Arabic." (12)  The extent of fluency in Greek is not really clear. Dhu'l Nun might have acquired a knowledge of Greek in his native town, in addition to his Arabic education. However, most scholars would probably consider this unlikely; even the philosopher Al-Farabi does not appear to have been familiar with Greek. A more likely second language for the Nubian was Coptic.

Medieval Arab authors generally commented on the flourishing textile industry at Akhmim, plus the remains of Pharaonic temples. They said little about the Christian monasteries, although some of these were named. By the twelfth century, there were seventy churches in or near Akhmim (Blanke 2019:20).

Akhmim has been described as "the capital city of Copts" (O'Donnell 2006:74). The early life of Dhu'l Nun therefore has a strong Coptic background necessary to bear in mind. The relevance of later Arabic anecdotes is much in question. "The anecdotes about Dhu'l Nun al-Misri include a visit to the (deserted) Triphierion for inspiration, along the lines of Gessius' visit earlier. This could be a baseless accusation, modelled on what was known in the area about Gessius" (Van Minnen 2016:70).

The Triphierion was originally a Ptolemaic temple, situated outside Panopolis, not far from the White Monastery of Shenoute. In 298 CE, the temple was secularised by the Romans, apparently as a punishment for the local revolt against the oppressive Emperor Diocletian (rgd. 284-305). The temple became a Roman palatium or palace (ibid:56-57). Gessius, formerly a governor of the Thebaid, was resident in Panopolis after 378 CE, owning vineyards and a commercial bath house. He would visit the Triphierion every night, there performing a sacrifice.

The elite pagan Gessius was eventually confronted by the monastic leader Shenoute (Shenouda). As a consequence, Gessius pledged to become a Christian (ibid:65). Shenoute claimed to have destroyed the Triphierion by fire. Centuries later, Dhu'l Nun was reported to visit local temples in Akhmim; the Arabic accounts are vestigial, not understanding much, if anything, of either the Roman or Coptic phases. Those centuries still pose many questions for international specialist scholarship.


Model of Akhmim Temple; limestone statue of Meryut Amun at Akhmim

Akhmim remained a strong Coptic centre during the early Islamic era. In more recent centuries, the ancient temples were almost completely dismantled, being used as a quarry for mosques, schools, and houses. The ancient city lies underneath the modern Akhmim, making excavation very difficult for archaeologists. In 1981, part of a large temple with a monumental gate was unearthed, believed to date to the Graeco-Roman era. Another and earlier temple at Akhmim has also been partly exhumed, associated with Ramesses II, a Nineteenth Dynasty Pharaoh.

In the time of Dhu'l Nun, an ancient temple still existed at Akhmim. That edifice seems to have been of substantial size and in a good state of preservation; the twelfth century Arab geographer Ibn Jubayr recorded his visit and testifies to many hieroglyphic inscriptions in evidence. The Akhmim temple might even have been as large as the surviving temple complex at Karnak so famous today. The Akhmim sanctuary was not destroyed until the fourteenth century. The very recent discovery of two large statues, of Ramessid association, caused widespread interest. A large limestone statue of Meryut Amun is now celebrated as outstanding sculpture; the woman depicted was apparently the daughter of Ramesses II.

The ancient sites of Upper Egypt, and Lower Nubia, escaped much of the desecration occurring in more northern areas after paganism was outlawed in the late fourth century. "They endured only because they lay on the frontier of the Roman Empire." (13)

The Akhmim temple became strongly associated with Dhu'l Nun by the tenth century. This temple (barba) was the subject of ongoing enthusiasm amongst Arab commentators. Ibn Duqmaq (d.1407) believed that this shrine had been constructed by Hermes. His contemporary al-Maqrizi (1364-1442) asserted that the hieroglyphs on the temple walls conveyed the secrets of Egyptian science. These claims were fluent in the absence of historical information and more relevant linguistic data.

The Khitat of Maqrizi is a source on Egypt and the history of Cairo. His version of Dhu'l Nun is anecdotal, reflecting a medieval Islamic tendency to destroy ancient Egyptian remains:

Dhu al-Nun not only took the Pharaonic monuments as archives of knowledge - they also provoked his anxiety. We are told [by Maqrizi] that in the great temple of Akhmim, Dhu al-Nun would read the remarkable images, absorbing their great wisdom (hikmatan 'azimatan), and then destroy them. (14)

4.  The  Hermetic  Alchemist

Reference to the Hermetic background of Dhu'l Nun is found in three other well known Arabic accounts. The bibliographer of science Said al-Andalusi (1027-1070) composed the Tabaqat al-Umam, surveying the sciences amongst the Greeks and other nations. Said classified the Nubian with the alchemical figure Jabir ibn Hayyan (d.815), to whom is attributed a vast number of works in Arabic. This notice was quoted with an addition by al-Qifti (1172-1248), born in Egypt, later becoming a wazir (minister) to the Ayyubid rulers of Aleppo. Qifti composed the Tarikh al-Hukama (History of the Philosophers). A passage from this work states:

He [Dhu'l Nun] professed the art of alchemy and belongs to the same class as Jabir ibn Hayyan. He devoted himself to the science of esoterics (ilm u'l batin) and became proficient in many branches of philosophy. He used to frequent the ruined temple (barba) in Akhmim. And it is said that knowledge of the mysteries therein was revealed to him by the way of saintship.  (15)

The esoteric knowledge, referred to in this passage, was apparently considered convergent with the Sufi path of saintship. Jabir ibn Hayyan was an alchemist at the court of the Caliph Caroun al-Rashid. He gained the name of al-Sufi, as we know from the Fihrist of al-Nadim, who urged the authorial authenticity of Jabir, confronting contemporary criticism of the prolific Jabir Corpus. The full title of Nadim's book is Fihrist al-Ulum (Index of Sciences), the author being a bibliophile of some standing.

Nadim (c.935-990) may have been a government secretary at Baghdad. He was certainly the son of a warraq (book dealer and copyist scribe), to whom he served an apprenticeship. In that era, bookshops were major meeting places for scholars. The Fihrist, originally written as a catalogue for his family bookshop at Baghdad, developed into an "erudite encyclopaedia of Islamic culture," to employ a description from the modern translator Bayard Dodge. al-Nadim seems to have gained his name from being a "court companion" (nadim), probably in the capacity of a secretary or librarian. (16) He was definitely one of the more erudite Shi'i Muslims. Nadim was evidently in sympathy with the Hermetic art, to which he devoted a separate chapter at the end of his tome.

Nadim identifies Dhu'l Nun al-Misri as one of the philosophers who spoke of the Hermetic art (i.e., alchemy). Nadim further states that Dhu'l Nun applied himself to ascetic practices and also "left a tradition related to the Art," concerning which he wrote books (Dodge 1970 Vol. 2:850, 862). The dual connotation here is ascetic Sufism and philosophy in a Hermetic version.

A View at Giza

Hermeticism is currently a strange word in popular usage, too often being employed undiscerningly. Earlier beliefs were also confusing. A persistent medieval myth spread the doctrine that Egyptian Pyramids were built by the legendary Hermes. The Pyramid lore is not impressive to historians; that lore was influenced by Biblical, Quranic, and other legends. This lore may have developed in late Roman Egypt.

One of the facts is that the Abbasid Caliph al-Mamun (rgd 813-833) assembled a large group of engineers and stonemasons for the purpose of forcing an entry into the Great Pyramid at Giza. This was circa 820 CE. The cupidity of the Caliph had evidently been aroused by rumours of buried treasure. Objects of learning were also believed to be concealed within this gigantic edifice. Al-Mamun genuinely patronised learning. He perhaps wished to gaze upon the fabulous maps of celestial spheres said to exist in a secret chamber. Though his danger men were able to force their way into the "King's Chamber," the monarch was evidently disappointed with the result. Dhu'l Nun, who was perhaps thirty years old at that time, doubtless heard of the event.

Archaeologists view al-Mamun as commencing the habit of pillaging the Pyramids. Ancient monuments became a source for quarried stone. The Giza Pyramids eventually lost their protective casing of limestone blocks, after an earthquake loosened the masonry. Those architectural components at Giza were appropriated by subsequent regimes and reused to construct the palaces of Mamluk and Ottoman Cairo. However, that quarrying operation was far in the future at the period of Dhu'l Nun.

The Hermetic "mysteries" are celebrated in Greek texts now known as Corpus Hermeticum, dating back to the early centuries of the Christian era. The rather credulous Neoplatonist Iamblichus, in his Mysteries of Egypt, stated circa 300 CE that Hermes had written twenty thousand or thirty-six thousand books. (17) The Corpus Hermeticum contains less than twenty texts attributed to Hermes. These are sometimes called the "philosophical" Hermetica (in the revelatory sense), being distinct from a larger body of more diverse "occultist" texts, so frequently attributed to the pervasive Hermes. This literature was produced by a Greek-speaking milieu in Egypt with syncretistic tendencies. The "occultist" texts include alchemical and astrological Hermetica. A more notorious category of writings, known as the Greek and Demotic Magical Papyri, are obsessed with spells. These texts also elevate Hermes.

Many of the magical spells that are addressed to Hermes aim to elicit arcane information, frequently by inducing the god to appear in a dream. (Fowden 1986:25)

Hermeticism was closely related to alchemy, a favoured "art" amongst the Greeks. Both Arab and Iranian Muslims took up this "art," with some differing approaches in evidence. Discovery of the "elixir" was associated by some with a spiritual achievement, though interpreted by others as a quest for tangible objectives, including literal gold. Dhu'l Nun is associated with the former category. He was highly esteemed by Egyptian alchemists of an early period. Abu Hari Uthman ibn Suwaid al-Akhmimi is described by Nadim as "a leader in the art of alchemy." His dating is uncertain. Circa 900 CE is sometimes a preference. He may have lived two generations after Dhu'l Nun. Amongst the books of Akhmimi was one entitled Clearing Dhu'l Nun al-Misri of False Charges. (18) This was possibly a reference to the accusations of heresy (section 1 above). The underlying situation escaped record.

The early Islamic phase of alchemy is strongly associated with Akhmim, as a consequence of output from Uthman ibn Suwayd al-Akhmimi and Butrus al-Hakim al-Akhmimi, both of them apparently late ninth century/early tenth century figures.  Uthman ibn Suwayd is viewed as the probable author of the original Turba Philosophorum, a work combining alchemy and Greek philosophy, the teachings attributed to a gathering of early Greek philosophers over whom Pythagoras presided. That text was translated from Arabic into Latin. Butrus al-Hakim composed works citing Hermes and Zosimos of Panopolis (Akhmim), only one of whom was a historical figure. The name of this author is stated to reveal that he was a Christian (Van Minnen 2016:70), indicating a strong Coptic affinity.

Dhu'l Nun is also quoted as an alchemical authority in the Ma' al-Waraqi, composed by Muhammad ibn Umayl al-Tamimi, known as al-Hakim (the sage, or loosely "philosopher" in some translations). This Egyptian alchemist (known as Ibn Umayl) has been dated to the first half of the tenth century.

Ibn Umayl was one of those exercising an interest in the ancient temples and their wall-paintings. He describes two "quasi-archaeological expeditions" to a temple at Busir al-Sidr, with the purported intention of finding documents of alchemical wisdom. (19) This follows a common theme in Hermetic literature, one apparently not intended to be taken literally. Nevertheless, details supplied in the Ma' al-Waraqi prove that Ibn Umayl must actually have visited the temple specified, where he saw a statue of Imhotep, though without recognising the archaeological significance. (20) Whatever the interpretation here, some "sayings" of Hermes Trismegistus quoted by Ibn Umayl were taken from Greek originals, while others are considered to be of tenth century Arabic origin. (21)

Diverse linguistic channels include translations of Hermetica into Middle Persian at the Sassanian court of Shapur I, a monarch of the third century CE (Bladel 2009:12). Coptic translations of Hermetica are found in the Nag Hammadi Codices. Arabic versions started to appear in the eighth century CE. Some of the Arabic Hermetica were translated from Middle Persian.

There are probably more works attributed to Hermes surviving in Arabic than in any other language, and the majority of them are still unknown and unpublished. (Bladel 2009:10)

A strong Islamisation of Hermetic lore occurred by the tenth century. Masudi and Nadim identified the Quranic prophet Idris with Hermes. More spectacularly, Idris became assimilated to an extravagant theme of three ancient sages, each named Hermes (whom the Muslims called Hirmis). An influential version of these Hermai was contributed by Abu Mashar al-Balkhi (787-886), an Iranian astrologer at Baghdad who expounded "a weird conglomeration of ideas derived from Indian, Sasanian, and Greek sources" (D. Pingree, "Abu Masar," Encyclopaedia Iranica). His Kitab al-Uluf (Book of Thousands) posited an "antediluvian astronomy" revealed to the three Hermai, allegedly on the basis of a manuscript buried at Isfahan before the Flood. Kitab al-Uluf (now lost) favoured a myth of cyclically recurrent floods and catastrophes, subject to an astrological determinism based on the conjunction of planets.

In this fantastic lore, the first Hermes (the prophet Idris) is depicted as living in Egypt, building the Pyramids and temples. Because he feared that all knowledge would be lost in the pending Flood, he constructed the temple of Akhmim, whose walls were reputedly inscribed with the secrets of all sciences and arts. The second Hermes was believed to have lived in Babylon; a teacher of Pythagoras, he was skilled in philosophy and medicine, while reviving the sciences lost in the Flood. The second Hermes also represented the Zoroastrian tradition of wisdom. The third Hermes was associated with Egypt, as a master of philosophy and alchemy. (22)

Inclusion of the Akhmim temple, in this exotic format, attests the fame of that barba amongst Muslims as far east as Baghdad. Abu Mashar was a contemporary of Dhu'l Nun; his account of three Hermai was preserved by other writers, including al-Qifti and Said al-Andalusi.

5.   Egyptology  Debate  about  the  Hieroglyphs 

A recent contribution comes from the Egyptologist, Dr. Okasha El-Daly, a Professor at the Institute of Archaeology (London). His book Egyptology: The Missing Millenium (2005) has served to emphasise medieval Arab interest in ancient Egyptian culture. That interest was extensive, more so than has generally been credited, during the many centuries occurring between the Graeco-Roman era and European interest. "The book discusses an impressive body of materials - travel accounts, linguistic treatises, chronicles, and treasure-hunting manuals - that have remained surprisingly understudied" (Colla 2008:135).

The author contests a conventional view of some Western scholars that Muslim Arabs had no interest in pre-Islamic cultures. According to Dr. El-Daly, ninth/tenth century Arabic-speaking literati plumbed the fact that phonetic values were crucial to the decipherment of hieroglyphs.

The El-Daly thesis highlights the Arab interest in ancient Egypt as being inspired by such factors as Quranic reference to Pharaoh, reports of early Muslim travellers, and encounter with the Copts. Forms of archaeology occurred. However, manuals for treasure hunting were a blight, leading to destruction and stone quarries, developments lamented by some Arab scholars. Attempted decipherments of ancient Egyptian scripts were made with the assistance of Copts; some Muslim scholars are said to have been familiar with Coptic. (23) Coptic writings were accessible at Coptic monasteries.

Dr. Okasha El-Daly

The El-Daly coverage mentions many medieval Egyptian writers, such as the ninth century Ayub ibn Maslama, who reputedly deciphered various texts for the Caliph al-Mamun during the royal visit to Egypt. A document attributed to Dhu'l Nun al-Misri is described as a guide to deciphering many scripts, including the hieroglyphs. A familiarity with Coptic is here indicated. The basic implication is that Dhu'l Nun was a scholar in this subject who was able to decipher the hieroglyphs, however partially (El-Daly 2005:57ff, 163ff). A version of this contention is as follows:

Al-Misri spent most of his life living in or beside one of the temples at Akhmim in Upper Egypt, El-Daly points out. There, surrounded by hieroglyphs and Coptic-speaking priests, he would have been perfectly positioned to learn ‘the language of the walls of the temple, i.e., hieroglyphs,’ El-Daly says. This is more than pure speculation, he adds, because al-Misri himself indicated as much in his attributed al-Qasida fi al-Sanah al-Karimah (Poem on the Noble Craft), in which he stated he was a student of the priests and was aware of the knowledge they possessed, still visible on the walls of temples. He also recorded that he made a connection between the spoken Coptic of his day and the ancient Egyptian language, and recognised that the hieroglyphs had phonetic value – the same connection Champollion would make ten centuries later. He left behind a record of his research, Kitab Hall al-Rumuz (Book of Deciphering Symbols). Tellingly, al-Misri’s book included a table of Arabic letters and their Coptic equivalents, which proved a valuable resource for later medieval Muslim scholars…. While some believe El-Daly overstates the importance of medieval Muslim scholarship on the hieroglyphs, and they are thus doubtful of its Egyptological value, El-Daly himself says that he never set out to unseat Champollion or credit medieval Muslim scholars with as deep an understanding of the hieroglyphs as the French savant or his successors. (Tom Verde, Arab Translators of Egypt's Hieroglyphs, 2017)

There is some textual indication that Dhu’l Nun al-Misri did not spend “most of his life” at Akhmim, probably only his earlier years. Any dateline is conjectural. However, he may well have been an enthusiast of Coptic. The Hermetic texts attributed to him are dismissed by some scholars as later improvisations. One response to El-Daly reads:

Some [Arabic-speaking] authors attempted to decipher ancient Egyptian, which they recognised was similar to Coptic, but their attempts were not successful and their understanding did not develop past a general sense that hieroglyphs had a phonetic value along with their symbolic value. (Schick 2009:223)

El-Daly has also stressed the significance of Ibn Wahshiyah, an alchemist who was not an Egyptian but an Iraqi (or Iraqi Aramaean) living at Kufa. His attributed Kitab Shawq al-Mustaham profiles 93 scripts or "occult alphabets," including the Egyptian hieroglyphs. El-Daly implies that some of the hieroglyphs were deciphered by Ibn Wahshiyah. In the absence of proof, this is a controversial issue.

Al-Nadim records that he had read a work by Ibn Wahshiyah (d.930), supplying a transcription of the alphabets (or "calligraphies") in which books on alchemy and related subjects were written. Amongst these alphabets were the Faqitus and the Musnad. The former has been suggested to mean Coptic, while the latter could be a reference to the esteemed hieroglyphs. Nadim adds that these scripts could be found in books relating to "the Art, magic, and charms, in the languages with which people originated science." (24) A confusion between science and the sector of magic and talismans was still rife during the European Renaissance.

Ibn Wahshiyah al-Nabati (who is said to have translated from Syriac into Arabic) was an alchemist, "a magician who made talismans" according to Nadim, who also referred to this alchemist by the epithet al-Sufi. The subsequent Sufi teachings eschewed magic and talismans.

A critical response to El-Daly's research acknowledged the "wealth of medieval Arabic extracts from manuscripts, many of which have never been published before." The concession was made that Egyptologists "usually completely ignore Egypt's Islamic period." However, "the author [El-Daly] clearly believes that the Arabic writers knew the meaning of some hieroglyphs, due either through transmitted knowledge or via bilingual texts, though this is not shown convincingly." The critic implies that Arabic writers merely "paired hieroglyphs with their own alphabet." Furthermore, the claim of El-Daly that Ibn Wahshiyah "correctly identified determinatives, which he distinguishes from alphabetical letters" is not accepted by the reviewer. Eyma objects: "What seems rather to be the case is that Ibn Wahshiyah suggested that hieroglyphs might represent sounds as well as ideas, a notion which does not have much to do with an accurate knowledge of ideograms versus phonograms, let alone determinatives."

The critical reviewer expressed the conclusion that an Arabic decipherment of the hieroglyphs did not occur. The presumed "knowledge of ancient Egypt" was inseparable from the more rudimentary observation of surviving monuments, or derivation from Graeco-Roman and Coptic written sources. However, the critic also stated: "The book [of El-Daly] has convinced me that the Arabic writers had a serious historical interest in ancient Egypt, an interest which has been undervalued considerably." Further, in relation to their suggestion that hieroglyphs had phonetic values, "the work of some medieval Arabic scholars may well have inspired, via Kircher, the work of Champollion" (quotations are from the egyptologyforum book review, dated June 2005, by A. K. Eyma).

Another critical online feature says that El-Daly's "far-reaching, rather enthusiastic evaluation of the material has been contested in several reviews." The attribution of the Shawq al-Mustaham to Ibn Wahshiya is here considered doubtful; this work early circulated under his name. "Most of these [93] alphabets are just fantastic inventions." A further observation is: "Although Ibn Wahshiyya's alleged correct interpretation of the hieroglyphs appears to be doubtful, his 'treatise of the 93 alphabets' should be regarded as a fascinating and telling example of the Medieval Arabic Egyptomania" (Isabel Toral-Niehoff, Egyptomania in Medieval Arab Culture). A clarification is made:

The interest for esoterics in Islam was a widespread phenomenon among cultivated people and not a matter of popular ignorance and superstition. Frequently it came along with a Neo-Platonist worldview and a fascination for magic scripts, allegories and symbols, common among Sufis, Shi'is and especially Ismailis. (Toral-Niehoff, last article linked)

Amongst the varied Arabic writers portrayed by Dr. El-Daly is Ibn Abd al-Hakam (803-871), a contemporary of Dhu'l Nun. This Egyptian historian was born at Fustat (Old Cairo); his orally transmitted Futuh Misr is described as the first book written by a native Egyptian of the Islamic era. That work reveals the author as a nationalist historian, possibly in reaction to the harsh treatment of his family by the Abbasid Caliph al-Mutawakkil. Ibn Abd al-Hakam praises the Copts, displaying "a good knowledge of native traditions and of the ancient history and monuments of Egypt" (El Daly 2005:165). Such undercurrents of native reaction to the distant Abbasid rule may have been one of the influences at work in the career of Dhu'l Nun al-Misri.

6. Thrice  Greatest  Hermes

Thoth, alias Hermes Trismegistus

The Arabic Hermetic tradition developed from the Greek predecessor, which originated in Egypt during the Roman era. Hermes was profiled as an ancient sage whose teachings were available in the books attributed to him. The Hermetic texts (Corpus Hermeticum) were apparently composed during the second and third centuries CE. There is a strong association between Hermes and Thoth, the ibis-headed Egyptian god of writing (hieroglyph) and the patron of scribes.

The god Thoth appears in the Pyramid Texts, dating to the third millenium BC. Thoth remained an important deity in Egypt until the Christian emperors closed down the temples, a process mainly occurring during the fourth and fifth centuries CE. "Although the Hermetic treatises were written in Greek, they thus professed to have originally been authored by an ancient Egyptian god" (Bull 2018:1).

The Hermetic corpus was later to achieve a widespread influence in Europe, where Hermes was at first believed to be a contemporary of Moses. Hermetic doctrine was regarded as an ancient theology. Exactly how this corpus originated is still a matter for specialist analysis:

Certain anonymous sages in ancient Egypt, apparently over several generations, wrote treatises on science and philosophy in Greek while professing to be part of a distinctly Egyptian tradition. A number of these works portray dialogues between various Egyptian gods, some given Greek names and others retaining their Egyptian names. The principal character in these texts is Hermes, the Greek syncretic equivalent of the Egyptian god of knowledge and writing, Thoth.... The Hermes here is often dubbed Trismegistus, the "thrice-greatest," an epithet in loan translation from an old Egyptian title of Thoth, found first in Greek in the usage of Egyptian priests of the Ptolemaic period as "greatest and greatest great god." In this way the Egyptian Hermes is distinguished from the mischievous Olympian messenger god Hermes of Greek mythology. (25)

The elaborate presentation caused the Hermetic texts to be erroneously regarded as very ancient. Those texts became influential, subsequently circulating in many languages, the wide geographical compass being the Roman and Sassanian empires (and later Europe). A basic factor appears to be that these texts were written in Greek by Egyptians (or Greeks) living under Roman rule. More specifically, the case has been argued that the authors were Hellenised Egyptian priests maintaining a form of initiatory ritual (Bull 2018).

There is no reason to assume that Iamblichus was mistaken in believing that Egyptian priests were behind the Hermetica. (Bull 2018:14)

The quotation relates to a well known dispute between the Neoplatonist philosophers Porphyry and Iamblichus. This conflict is often summarised in terms of Porphyry protesting against the tendency of Iamblichus to elevate theurgy, meaning the performance of ritual acts. The overall argument is evocative. Iamblichus authored the work known in Latin as De Mysteriis Aegyptorium (The Egyptian Mysteries). This Syrian theologian criticised Porphyry for his views on ritual, especially blood sacrifice. Porphyry, the disciple of Plotinus, advocated vegetarianism in the philosophical life, arguing strongly against blood sacrifice, then a very common practice from Rome to India. In contrast, Iamblichus contended that blood sacrifice "was a god-given ritual effective in activating certain cosmic connections between humans and greater spirits that would aid souls in one part of their journey toward union with the highest gods." (26)

This was part of a more extensive disagreement represented in De Mysteriis. The friction is relevant to understand:

Porphyry seems to have held the view that ritual (or theurgy) could only get one so far on the path to reunion with the highest gods and was in fact optional for philosophers. Iamblichus, on the other hand, held that every stage of the path toward union was attended by god-given, efficacious rituals without which even the most devoted philosopher could not advance. (Marx-Wolf 2014:33)

The theurgist approach was in opposition to the school of Plotinus, whose Enneads were a very different kind of work to De Mysteriis. The plethora of rites found in diverse ancient texts is no proof of any philosophical profundity.

There are two basic types of Hermetic literature, meaning the "popular occultist" texts and the "philosophical" texts of the Corpus Hermeticum. These categories are viewed by sceptics as modern innovations that would scarcely have been recognised by Roman era readers (Copenhaver 1992:xxxii). Both categories relate to a common environment. Magic, astrology, and alchemy are included in the popular occultist array of fascinations.

In relation to Dhu'l Nun, we do not know if he was familiar with any texts of the Corpus Hermeticum. In his day, there was no knowledge of their history. That corpus became celebrated by enthusiasts as a timeless archaic testimony to the Egyptian mysteries. In fact, no proof exists that Hermetic texts mediate any reliable theology of the diverse Pharaonic eras antedating the Macedonian conquest. Some Hermetic texts may conceivably have an origin in the Ptolemaic era, perhaps as early as the fourth century BC (Copenhaver 1992:xvi). The Hellenistic filter, imparting a Roman era complexion to Thoth, passed muster as Dynastic authenticity until Isaac Casaubon (1559-1614) discovered that the Corpus Hermeticum was a late improvisation. This classical scholar and philologist proved that the Corpus could not have been composed earlier than the first century CE.

Casaubon detected biblical, Jewish and Christian language and ideas, thus anticipating the findings of such modern experts as C. H. Dodd. He saw Greek diction too abstract to be early, Greek etymologies and puns impossible in a translation from Egyptian, historical references and doctrinal views that required a much later date than commonly supposed. (Copenhaver 1992:introduction page l)

More recently, an argument from a British scholar urged that Neoplatonism was so much "in the air" during the life of Dhu'l Nun that he must have been influenced by this tradition (section 14 below). There is no proof in that respect. If this proto-Sufi was familiar with any Neoplatonist works, we do not know which corpus, whether the Plotinian or the Iamblichean. The lack of textual clarity in his era would have entailed handicaps for many investigators. In the Islamic world, Plotinus was revived during the ninth century in a translation confused with Aristotle (i.e., the so-called Theology of Aristotle).

7. The  Rosetta  Stone

Any suggestion of a ninth century Rosetta Stone seems preposterous to modern sceptics. Dhu'l Nun would have needed to know Coptic, and a multilingual artefact would have been a priority. There were probably numerous surviving objects that displayed two or three languages in conjunction, including hieroglyphs. According to the El Daly theory (section 5 above), Dhu'l Nun was familiar with Coptic and recognised the phonetic dimension of hieroglyphs. Whether any investigator could have achieved due phonetic calculation is another matter. Some sceptics say that Dhu'l Nun could only have created an eccentric ideographic version of what he believed the hieroglyphs to mean. Certainly, Athanasius Kircher was unable to achieve accuracy many centuries later.

Rosetta Stone (at the British Museum), showing scripts in Hieroglyphic, Demotic, and Greek

Athanasius Kircher (1602-80) was a German Jesuit polymath partial to Hermetic philosophy. He is sometimes considered the founder of Egyptology. However, his efforts to decipher the hieroglyphs were a failure. Kircher believed that he had decoded the hieroglyphs; his translations were imaginative and subsequently regarded by Egyptologists as nonsense. "It was also Kircher's claim to possess a key medieval manuscript translation of the hieroglyphic language that garnered him so much attention.... Kircher even asserted that he could read and translate the ancient script. Though much of his work was later discredited and many of his translations dismissed, Kircher is acknowledged for being the first scholar to link the Coptic language correctly to its roots in hieroglyphics" (Athanasius Kircher).

The French scholar Jean Francois Champollion (1790-1832) is celebrated as the first man to decipher the hieroglyphic system. He achieved this feat as a consequence of studying a granodiorite slab only four feet high, found near Alexandria in 1799 by the French army of Napoleon. That Ptolemaic era stele was subsequently known as the Rosetta Stone, acquiring a new home in the British Museum. The famed stele bears the same inscription in three scripts: classical Greek, Demotic Egyptian, and hieroglyphs. At the age of 18, Champollion had already mastered eight antique languages, including Coptic. His fluent knowledge of Coptic was the key factor in cracking the Rosetta code, thus penetrating the phonetics of ancient Egyptian. He grasped that the hieroglyphs have to be read as a phonetic script, not as a symbolic script.

Many scholars in Europe assumed that hieroglyphs were merely primitive picture writing. The Christian disdain for ancient Egyptian religion was an associated factor. In contrast, Champollion discovered that the ancient pictorial script possessed a phonetic basis, the language being Egyptian and related to Coptic. However, there was nothing esoteric in the Rosetta Stone hieroglyphs. The contents were concerned with a taxation benefit awarded to the temple priests of the day by Ptolemy V, who restored their economic privileges of earlier times. The Rosetta Stone dates to the early second century BC.

What had been considered a mysterious, pictographic cult object, manipulated by a sinister, elite priesthood to exert social control over the masses was, in reality, a highly sophisticated, rational form of writing, which communicated the spoken language of Egypt. (M. M. Weissbach, How Champollion Deciphered the Rosetta Stone)

8. Zosimos of Panopolis

Zosimos (circa 300 CE or later) is often described as a Greek alchemist, which can be misleading. He was apparently a Christian savant with a strong commitment to Democritus. “Zosimos must have been conceived primarily as a Christian scholar whose eclectic background included Hermetic, Jewish and Platonic literature” (Dufault 2019:117). His patron was a wealthy woman named Theosobeia. In three epistles to her, Zosimos criticised rivals in alchemy, describing them as magoi (magicians) and demon-worshippers, while equating their inferior methods with Egyptian temple practices (ibid:93ff).

This unorthodox Christian scholar believed “tinctorial recipes concealed divine knowledge and that they were amenable to allegorical interpretation” (ibid:93). He employed the theme of gold transmutation “to discuss eschatological self-transformation” (ibid:115). The objective was a serene afterlife.

His treatise On Copper and on the Working of Copper is extant in a fifteenth century Syriac manuscript. “Most recipes from this book appear to have been taken from the Egyptian art of preparing cult statues; while Zosimos discusses this art, he also distances himself from the cult of the statues” (ibid:125). Zosimos presents his rival Nielos as an admirer of the Egyptian statues; the rival suffered from a “lack of intellect” and enjoined his disciples to “know thyself.” That well known phrase was evidently considered a rhetorical ploy in this instance. Those practitioners remaining “after the abandonment of temple cults were ignorant” (ibid:131).

In his Final Abstinence, Zosimos is clearly critical of Egyptian deities. “The gods of the Egyptian temples had stolen control over the ancient tinctorial art a long time ago and had lured their priests into sacrificing to them. In exchange, the priests received success in a debased form of alchemy” (ibid:137). In the same work, Zosimos credits Democritus with a unique allusion to ancient tinctures (ibid:131). Greek philosophy was here superior to the temple distraction.

The philosopher Zosimos opposed magic and theurgy. “Both Zosimos and Porphyry argued that philosophers should avoid blood sacrifice or ritualistic means to produce the return of the soul to the divine” (ibid:140).

Dhu’l Nun is supposed (by some pro-Hermetic commentators) to have been a successor of alchemy as taught by Zosimos. For instance, “Dhu’l Nun clearly stood in the same line of tradition as Zosimos” (Kingsley 1995:390 note 56). If so, then the Nubian may be considered an anti-theurgist with strong reservations about magic. What Zosimos really taught has often been missing in books relating to alchemy. The obscurity has assisted widespread confusion. Zosimos was not a typical Hermeticist and nor a typical Christian. At the transition period between Hellenism and Christianity, many older beliefs were still credited by converts to the new religion.

The opponent Nielos was evidently a Hermetic enthusiast, a type of theurgist in his regard for ritually empowered or “animated” statues of the gods that were tended by Egyptian priests. In contrast, the tinctorial recipes are thought to have originated in artisan circles, such as those who made the gold for ancient Egyptian statues and other works of craft. The metallurgical recipes received elaborate “esoteric” interpretation from systematisers, who must often have benefited from wealthy patrons desiring to know the code. Many centuries later, alchemy became regarded as relevant for the history of chemistry.

9.  A  Reputed  Student  of Alchemy/Medicine

Dhu'l Nun is reputed to have studied alchemy and medicine, something very difficult to confirm. Alchemical works attributed to him are considered doubtful or spurious by some experts. (27) The channels of “alchemy, medicine, magic” are sometimes bracketed together in the field of non-Sufi studies. Magical spells or amulets appear even in Coptic medical texts, a survival from earlier Egyptian idioms. "In the ancient Mediterranean, as in many other times and places, the line between the two [medical and magical] was often very fine" (Coptic Magical Papyri, 2019).

Early Greek alchemical works show strong links with medicine, a connection which is less obvious in relation to Arabic alchemy, save for the instance of Abu Bakr Mhd ibn Zakariya al-Razi, the Iranian physician and alchemist who died circa 925. At this period, scientific acumen was certainly increasing amongst Muslims. The Greek medical compendia of Alexandria were translated into Arabic during the ninth century, being incorporated into new medical encyclopaedias. Coptic physicians also existed; one early Coptic medical manuscript, perhaps ninth century, provides over 200 prescriptions, with no spells or incantations (W. R. Dawson, Egyptian Medicine Under the Copts, 1923).

Arabic medical texts received considerable input from both Jewish and Coptic communities in Egypt. The relatively low profile Coptic medical texts gained various media such as ostraca, papyrus, and paper (Richter 2016). This discovery has been made in the face of accusations about a disinclination to learning amongst the Copts. Not all Coptic literature was religious.

At an unknown date, Dhu’l Nun became a traveller and ascetic, moving in different countries, perhaps including Iran. This does not mean that he never studied alchemy or medicine in his early life, or even during his travels. One can only link the possibility with known developments at that period. “It is only with the Abbasid ruler al-Mamun (r.813-833) that scholarly medicine was revived and saved from oblivion” (Biesterfeldt 2010:66). The situation in Egypt is more obscure.

The need for caution, when consulting many reports and assumptions, should be axiomatic for any historian. This consideration attends an issue which has received prodigious scholarly attention for many years. The demise of the Alexandrian Library later surfaced in animated European discussion from Gibbon onwards. The fact that differences of reporting still exist in the twenty-first century is testimony to the need for due context even concerning well known subjects, let alone those with a more obscure profile.

A strongly disputed contention is that the Alexandrian library was burned by the Arab army in 642 CE, when Roman rule ended. The earliest version of this allegation dates to 1198 CE, coming from the physician and traveller Abdul Latif al-Baghdadi, who briefly mentions “the bookstore which was burnt by Amr, by order of Caliph Umar” (Qassem 2008:207). That theme has been considered a fabrication. “This report cannot be taken seriously as it is undocumented, besides stating inaccurate historical facts” (ibid).

The scenario of burned books achieved a longer version from the pen of Ibn al-Qifti (d.1248), who was copied in this respect by the influential Syriac Bishop Gregory Bar Hebraeus, spreading the rumour to Europe. According to modern critical interpretation, the fiction cannot be traced earlier than these three sources, at a time when trends in Islamic learning were changing for the worse. The anti-scientific and anti-philosophical tendencies were then mounting. In reality, the early administration of Islamic Egypt preserved the literary heritage of the country, apparently including what had survived from the Alexandrian Library, which had been destroyed long before in two separate episodes that were centuries apart.

The war between Julius Caesar and Ptolemy resulted in catastrophe for the Alexandrian Library at 48 BC, when that royal institution was “almost certainly” burned accidentally (El-Abbadi 1990 and 2004). That library held a vast number of Greek, Hebrew, and Mesopotamian scrolls. Much later, Christian demolition of the Serapeum, a temple at Alexandria, destroyed an important extension to the same library. That event occurred when the Emperior Theodosius I banned pagan worship in 391 CE.

Over two centuries later, the Arab general Amr ibn al-As (573-664) led the Muslim invasion. During the reign of Caliph Umar, Amr became the new governor of Egypt, gaining a reputation for justice. He did not permit the Islamic army to destroy or ravage. "The tale that he [Amr] ordered the famous library at Alexandria burned is fictitious, appearing six hundred years later" (Marsot 2007:4). A recent report from the British Library informs: “Medical and philosophical instruction seems to have continued in Alexandria for more than a century after the Muslim conquest” (Aileen Das, Greek Philosophy and Medicine).

The second Caliph Umar prohibited any Arab from owning land in Egypt; no land could be confiscated from the natives. The invading Muslims relied on poll-tax (jizya). During subsequent Islamic reigns, the Copts revolted against increasing taxation and hardship, meeting with severe repression. A number of Copts then converted from Christianity to Islam in the hope of escaping oppression (Marsot 2007:4).

The victorious general Amr maintained the Coptic bureaucracy of Egypt and also founded Fustat, a new city where he acquired considerable wealth. The consequent frictions and strife within Islam aggravated the gulf between Arab Muslims and Copts. At distant Baghdad, the Abbasid Caliphs and their courtiers acquired extensive riches. The first Abbasid Caliph, Abu Abbas as-Saffah (rgd. 750-754 CE), ruthlessly eliminated his rivals, who included the Umayyad predecessors. “The wars within the caliphate during the early Abbasid period are now deemed far more disruptive than the Islamic conquests” (Mavroudi 2014:298). (28)

These trends were resisted by the far-flung ascetic population, of varied complexion. Their ranks included Dhu’l Nun al-Misri, who was remembered for a distinctive contribution, attended by an unfortunate lack of historical documentation.

10.  The  Sufi  Gnostic

During the first century of Abbasid rule, ascetic renunciation was widespread, but not forming any homogenous movement (Karamustafa 2007:1). Different trends were in operation. One version says: “By the early tenth century Sufism had developed from a quest of isolated individual ascetics into a religious movement” (Lapidus 1988:115). This phenomenon has many blanks in factual detail, the basic accounts being replete with anecdotes.

Some Arabic sources strongly associate Dhu'l Nun with Fustat (Old Cairo), a garrison town of the Delta which replaced Alexandria as the capital of Egypt. This thriving city apparently became the base, or home, of Dhu’l Nun for the remainder of his life. The date of his move north from Akhmim is elusive.

Fustat was built soon after the Arab conquest in 641 CE. This multicultural city included Jews and Christians. In 751 the Abbasid dynasty started a new military suburb called al-Askar ("the army"). This site was originally planned as a separate city, in the interests of dynastic control. The plan failed. Al-Askar eventually merged with Fustat, creating a large metropolis by the Tulunid era commencing 868. Cairo was later founded nearby, being built to the north in the late tenth century, eventually absorbing Fustat (today Old Cairo).

A discrepancy is apparent in different versions of the skeletal biography. Dhu’l Nun  is said to have received his early theological education in Syria and Arabia, even studying with the founder of the Maliki law school, namely Malik ibn Anas (Knysh 2000:40). This legist died in 795 at Medina. He was therefore too early a contact for the Nubian, unless the latter was born much earlier than his generally accepted dateline in the 790s. Dhu’l Nun is credited as transmitting traditions (hadith) from the Maliki founder via intermediaries. This role of canonical piety is at odds with the alternative view of his early life in terms of a polymathic encounter with Hermetic subjects, basically alchemy. “These connections have proved a major source of embarrassment for those interested in maintaining the purely Islamic nature of Sufism” (Kingsley 1995:389). A demarcation, between interests of his early career and his later role, is more rarely referred to.

At some point Dhu'l Nun adopted an ascetic life; he is reported to have travelled in North Africa, Arabia, Syria, Palestine, Basra, and even Iran. He is said to have visited the Muslim ascetics on Mount Lukkam, near Antioch. According to the tenth century report of Kalabadhi, he encountered a female ascetic in Syria who criticised the lifestyle of affluent town-dwellers. A later variant of this anecdote is found in Hujwiri's Kashf al-Mahjub, which describes an encounter during a journey from Jerusalem to Egypt. The matriarch carried a staff and wore a woollen garment of the type that became closely associated with Sufis. (29)

Key events were the two stigmatisations of Dhu'l Nun as a heretic (section 1 above). The information is sparse, also inflated with regard to the intervention of the Caliph al-Mutawakkil (rgd 847-861). (30) The historian al-Khatib, in his History of Baghdad, reports that Mutawakkil gained respect for the Egyptian, acquitted him, and asked him to describe sainthood. The speech attributed to Dhu'l Nun (31) is an embellishment.

The Caliph al-Mutawakkil reversed the policies of his predecessors, dispensing with the Mutazili doctrine and the associated inquisition. The earlier situation had buttressed "the religious importance of the Caliph" by implying that the Quran was "subject to authoritative Caliphal interpretation." (32) This political strategy dated back to the reign of al-Mamun (813-833), who enforced the Mutazili doctrines and initiated the inquisition. Al-Mamun's calculating support for the Mutazili right wing coincided with his crushing of the revolt in Egypt amongst the discontented peasantry. The less privileged Arab settlers made common cause with the subordinated Copts at that time. These dissidents lost to the imperial regime, which diverted Egyptian revenue to Baghdad, a disastrous policy aggravating the ruin of agriculture in the Nile valley. (33)

Al-Dhahabi (d.c.1350), an Arab historian and theologian of Damascus, reiterated the conventional version of Dhu'l Nun's heresy, in terms of upholding the conservative religious view that the Quran was uncreated. In view of other details, one suspects that the heresy possessed a deeper content which escaped memory. This matter is independent of the queries relating to an esoteric commentary on the Quran ascribed to Jafar Sadiq. Dhu'l Nun is associated with this book in an editorial capacity. That commentary (tafsir) was accommodated to a Shi'i perspective. (34)

Upon his return to Egypt from Iraq, Dhu'l Nun settled at Giza (then a village), not far south of Fustat. He was now living in the shadow of the Old Kingdom Pyramids and the Sphinx. The unknown views of Dhu'l Nun about those monuments might have been more convincing than some fantasies of Western occultists in recent times. After his adventures with the establishment, the Nubian mystic may have regarded residence in rural Giza as a safety precaution against urban interference. His death occurred at Giza.  His tombstone has been commemorated, located in one of the cemeteries at Old Cairo. (35)

The Giza Pyramids

The tenth century Sufi annalist Kalabadhi early reported the answer of Dhu'l Nun to a question concerning the gnostic ideal: "He [the gnostic] is a man who, being with them, is yet apart from them" (Arberry 1935:140). This Arabic reflection is reminiscent of a Persian phrase later favoured by some Sufis: "Be in the world but not of the world."

The sources credit Dhu'l Nun with a large number of disciples in tasawwuf (Sufism). Some Sufi annalists (including Sulami and Qushayri) affirm that one of his disciples was Sahl al-Tustari (d.896), an Iranian from Ahwaz who also became celebrated in Sufism. Another early source reported that Tustari visited Egypt, (36) the details being fragmentary.

A late medieval monograph, attributed to the Egyptian polymath al-Suyuti (d.1505), is a compilation of earlier materials. That memorial breaks down into seven sections, revealing circumscribed emphases attendant upon the canonisation of Dhu'l Nun in Sufism. The presentation comprises (1) the miracles of Dhu'l Nun (2) his mystical career (3) his sayings (4) his prayers (5) his encounter with the Caliph al-Mutawakkil (6) his poems (7) a collection of the hadith (traditions of the prophet) transmitted by him.

The religio-mystical poetry ascribed to the subject has been judged authentic by some scholars. Whereas the attributed alchemical writings have been considered discrepant with the practice of Sufism. The French scholar Louis Massignon was influential, via his "Islamic theory" of Sufism, in casting doubt upon the accounts of Dhu'l Nun by Islamic historians and bibliographers, instead favouring the canonical annals of Sufism. (37) Unfortunately, both of these categories of reporting reveal limitations and legendary elements.

The gulf between religiosity and gnostic (arif) psychology is indicated in a reported saying of Dhu'l Nun: "Ordinary men repent of their sins, but the elect repent of their heedlessness." (38) The Arabic term ghafla (heedlessness) was inverse to sincerity (sidq), a key term in early Sufi texts. According to the Dhu'l Nun transmission: "Sincerity (sidq) is a divine sword which cuts all bonds." (39) A related emphasis of this Egyptian mystic was avoidance of any pretension to gnosis, a failing that was apparently common. Another of his sayings reads:

Contrary to those who externalise their asceticism and boast of their religious accomplishments, the true mystic hides his spiritual achievements from the eyes of others. (40)

The Nubian warned that the practice of asceticism should not become a livelihood. The temptation to a form of vanity is here under discussion. Another of his sayings is; “Man’s fiercest enemy is the nafs, his lower self or ego.” The nafs had to be subdued, otherwise the problem could magnify out of control in the ascetic proud of his supposed advancement. In contrast, the genuine mystic was retiring, always maintaining silence, and avoiding disputes. (41)

Another sector also met with the disapproval of Dhu’l Nun. In a number of his extant sayings, he criticises the ulama (religious leaders) and hadith scholars who boasted of their knowledge.

Seeking fame and a high social status, and using their religious knowledge as a means for gaining worldly benefits, these ulama are always keen on cooperating with the political authorities. (Ebstein 2014:596)

11.   Canonical  Annals  of  Sufism

The influential annalists of Sufism report the career of Dhu'l Nun in a conventional “orthodox Sufi” manner. A traditionist commentator is Abu Nuaym al-Isfahani (948-1038), who included Dhu'l Nun in his lengthy Hilyat al-Awliya. He did not neglect reference to the belief in reading hieroglyphs. The overall strategy of Abu Nuaym has aroused comment. He "intended to integrate the Sufi movement into orthodox traditionist Islam" (W. Madelung, "Abu Noaym al-Esfahani," Encyclopaedia Iranica). He supplied an elaborate multi-volume "pious genealogy" for Sufism, beginning with the first four Caliphs, while omitting reference to Hallaj, a controversial mystic of significance. Abu Nuaym was writing as a traditionist and not as a Sufi. (42) Assimilation to religious orthodoxy was a general development at this period, commencing in the tenth century.

The Sufi annalists do not provide us with a biography of Dhu’l Nun. Instead, fleeting references and anecdotes comprise his hagiographical profile, leaving many quandaries for the historical approach. His sayings receive more attention than any other factor. Many of his dicta were relayed by the Iranian exegetes Abu Nasr Sarraj, Sulami, Qushayri, and Ansari. The sparse narrative complement is attended by presumed miracles (karamat). The twelfth century Iranian poet Attar of Nishapur  embellished anecdotes in his famous Tazkhirat al-Awliya (Memorial of the Saints).

Some of these fragmentary reports give the subject a high rating, apparently because he was regarded as an innovator in gnosis. Hujwiri (eleventh century) remarks that this "son of a Nubian" was "one of the best" Sufi exemplars. The commentator adds that the people of Egypt did not believe in Dhu'l Nun until after his death, a realistic detail. However, Hujwiri proceeds to give a rather pious explanation for the change in public opinion, including the claim that religiously significant words were found inscribed on the forehead of his corpse. (43) There is no reference to hieroglyphs, alchemy, or the Akhmim environment. Fustat is similarly amorphous.

Long after, in distant Herat, Jami (fifteenth century) awarded Dhu'l Nun high praise in his Nafahat al-Uns. This famous Persian writer describes the Egyptian as "the head of this sect (Sufism): they (the Sufis) all descend from, and are related to, him." (44) The few pages which Jami devotes to Dhu'l Nun are in the standard idiom of hagiography; the anecdotes and sayings do not convincingly profile ninth century events.

Dhu'l Nun is described by Hujwiri and others as a major exponent of marifa (gnosis) and the Sufi path. Kalabadhi (tenth century) reported the Egyptian being asked: "What is the end [objective] of the gnostic?" The enigmatic answer came: "When he is as he was where he was before he was." (45)

The philosophical reader begins to suspect that the esoteric language of Dhu'l Nun al-Misri was not an open book to his contemporaries. However, quite apart from the enigmatic mode, "orthodox Sufi" compilers had evidently lost contact with a largely forgotten Egyptian milieu. This is perhaps understandable in that the early annalists of Sufism were Iranians and Iraqis.

In their present form, the sayings ascribed to Dhu’l Nun cannot be said to accurately represent Dhu’l Nun’s very own words – they are rather the product of a long process which included both oral transmission and written-literary formulations. (Ebstein 2014:571-572)

The general meaning conveyed need not be in doubt. The Nubian gnostic “apparently adopted a negative attitude towards the preoccupation and obsession with miracles” or karamat (Ebstein 2014:593). The relevance of distracting karamat was here contradicted by Egyptian marifa and the proto-Sufi struggle with nafs.

12.  Ibn  Khallikan

One of the Arabic sources is Ibn Khallikan (1211-1282), a qazi (legist) of Cairo and Damascus. He authored a large collection of biographies in his Wafayat al-Ayan (Obituaries of the Eminent). The entry on Dhu'l Nun here describes him as a "celebrated saint," and "one of those who taught from memory the Muwatta of the imam Malik." The Muwatta is a famous hadith collection compiled by the traditionist Malik ibn Anas (d.795). A complement to this orthodoxy is the statement: "Ibn Yunus says in his History, that he [Dhu'l Nun] was acquainted with philosophy and spoke with elegance." (46)  This is apparently a reference to Ibn Yunus al-Muarekh (d.958), father of the famous astronomer of Fustat, his namesake Ibn Yunus (d.1009). The pater was a traditionist and historian who wrote about Egypt. Unfortunately, his works did not survive.

The reference to philosophy is very generalised, with no clear context. Ibn Khallikan does not provide a biography of Dhu'l Nun, but instead anecdotes and sayings, along with interposed poetry. He does not refer to hieroglyphs or temples. The saint’s “pious exhortation” to the Caliph al-Mutawakkil is briefly mentioned. His cue for renunciation of the world is described as a miraculous event in which “the ground split open and two trays came forth, one of gold and the other of silver.” History can be very elusive in retrospective accounts.

Ibn Khallikan includes a bizarre anecdote about a disciple of Dhu’l Nun. This man departed from Egypt for Baghdad, where he attended a “religious concert,” meaning sama. He died in the excitement. When news of this reached Dhu’l Nun, he led his other disciples on a walk to Baghdad, where they found the musician who had conducted the ill-fated concert. Another concert commenced. The saint uttered a loud cry and the musician fell dead. The saint said: “We have taken vengeance for our companion’s death” (MacGuckin 1842:292). Ibn Khallikan then describes an associative event in his own earlier years, when another sama musician died during a concert, from “ecstasy” or excitement.

The sama was very popular by the thirteenth century, being associated with certain Sufi Orders. This custom, far more obscure in the time of Dhu’l Nun, may have been innovated during the tenth century. Sama is evocative of both Turkish and Persian dispositions; the ninth century Egyptian scene is a relative blank.

The sama became a feature of early Sufi practice, but of what it consisted, apart from the singing of mystical poems to induce ecstasy, it is difficult to tell, since most writers spend their time either attacking or justifying, rather than describing, these "excesses." (Trimingham 1971:195)

Dhu’l Nun predated the Sufi Orders by several generations. Well meaning scholars  like Ibn Khallikan effectively overlaid later enthusiasms and idioms upon the pre-Sufi and proto-Sufi subject.

13.  Theory  of  Christian  Neoplatonist  Influence

Since the nineteenth century, the influence upon early Sufism of Dionysius Areopagiticus has been emphasised by Christian investigators. This theory was more recently urged, in relation to Dhu'l Nun, by the Roman Catholic scholars Louis Gardet and Georges Anawati.

The Pseudo-Dionysius was composing circa 500 CE, often being identified as a monastic writer, possibly living in Syria. He ascribed his output to Dionysius the Areopagite, an Athenian converted by the apostle Paul. His real identity is unknown. His corpus has been considered idiosyncratic. The myth of apostolic authenticity was demolished by the discovery that Pseudo-Dionysius substantially employed Neoplatonist sources, especially Proclus. Some analysts concluded that he preserved Neoplatonist influences in the face of official Christian intolerance; the suggestion appeared that he was effectively a pupil of Proclus, the fifth century pagan Neoplatonist. However, another form of exegesis argues that Pseudo-Dionysius was a Christian theologian disguised as a Neoplatonist, intending to master the pagan sources and thus defeat the rival sector. (47) See also Damascius.

Some commentators have referred to the less prominent Stephen Bar Sudaili, described as a Syrian Christian monk of Origenist views, an obscure figure dating to the early sixth century CE. He is credited with the work in Syriac known as The Book of the Holy Hierotheos. Some Christian scholars have described this document rather disparagingly as a "quasi-Gnostic" treatise. However, a translator assessed Hierotheos as "one of the most amazing mystical books ever written by a Christian," adding that "no other Christian writer ever accepted so completely, or stated with such audacity, the pantheistic philosophy." The same scholar concluded that the Book of Hierotheos was directly or indirectly indebted to Pseudo-Dionysius.  (48)

The mystics amongst the Eastern Christians were much nearer forms of Sufism (or proto-Sufism) than the Latin church. A degree of compatibility with some early Sufi exponents is not difficult to concede. However, in the case of Dhu'l Nun, some have questioned the attribution to Christian sources of his formulation concerning the "stages, stations and states" in the Sufi path, "perhaps under the influence of the ascetic and mystical spirituality of the Oriental monks (we think of the Ladder to Paradise by St. John Climacus)." (49) Climacus (523-606) wrote in his Scala Paradisi about an ascent leading by gradual stages to the perfection of mystical life. Other commentators have attributed to Plotinus the influence for such conceptions, which are notoriously difficult to ascertain in terms of textual and ideological background. Furthermore, the traditional idea that Dhu'l Nun was the innovator of Sufi gnostic concepts does not stand the test of due analysis. To quote an assessment of Professor Arberry:

He [Dhu'l Nun] is generally credited with having introduced the idea of gnosis (marifa) into Sufism, but this would appear to be incorrect since the conception certainly occurs in the fragments of earlier ascetics. Dhu'l Nun is ... said to have known the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, and to have been familiar with the Hermetic wisdom. A number of short treatises of extremely doubtful authenticity are attributed to him; his poems and prayers, so much as are preserved of them, give a truer impression of his mode of thought, which is marked by distinctly pantheistic tendencies. (50)

14.   R. A.  Nicholson's  Neoplatonist  Theory

Reynold A. Nicholson. Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London

The "purist" Neoplatonist interpretation of Professor Reynold A. Nicholson (1868-1945) argued for the influence of Plotinus on Dhu'l Nun, without implying any direct textual influence as a necessity for this theory. Rather, Greek Neoplatonism was "in the air" such Sufis breathed. (51)

This Cambridge scholar also referred to Dhu’l Nun, in terms of identity, as “an alchemist and magician” (Nicholson 1906:313). There was also the description of this entity as “an ascetic, philosopher, and theurgist,” one who lived “among the Christian Copts” (ibid:315). The wording implies an Iamblichean orientation of theurgy rather than a Plotinian approach. There is no convincing indication that Dhu’l Nun performed rituals or invocations at Akhmim; any local rituals were those of Christian Coptic priests.

From the early ninth century onwards, Muslim thinkers gained familiarity with Greek philosophy, often via Christian scholars and translators. Aristotle came to be the most well known authority in the Islamic world, to some extent mutated by the teachings of Proclus and Plotinus, which passed as Aristotelian. Circa 830 CE, the so-called Theology of Aristotle was translated into Arabic by the Syrian Christian Ibn Na'imah al-Himsi. Though believed to be a work by Aristotle, the Theologia Aristotelis is actually a version of books IV-VI of the Enneads of Plotinus; this redaction proved influential amongst Muslim philosophers from the time of al-Kindi (d.c.866), who was active in Baghdad.

Non-Sufi Arabic sources describe Dhu'l Nun as a philosopher and alchemist; this factor prompted Nicholson to interpret him as a student of Hellenistic science rather than Christian Neoplatonism. (52)  It is not known whether Dhu'l Nun al-Misri was familiar with Greek. Certainly, the Coptic language had adopted the Greek alphabet. An unusual degree of linguistic overlap occurred in certain aspects of the Egyptian culture at this period. The official language of the Islamic administration in Egypt was changed from Greek to Arabic at the order of the Caliph in 694 CE. The Byzantine (or Coptic) administrative system nevertheless survived in Egypt for a further two centuries. No radical change seems to have occurred in the land of the Nile prior to the early eighth century, when the new Arabisation was implemented.

The Caliphal objective was to make Arab settlers prominent in the administration, thus replacing a Christian majority. Fiscal documents reveal that during the latter half of the eighth century, Coptic and Greek were equally as prevalent as Arabic. Further, and more surprisingly, Coptic and Greek phrases, also Greek numbers, were used in official documents three centuries after the administrative reform was commenced. (53)

Some analysts of Sufism have been enthusiastic in their appraisal of the Nubian proto-Sufi. The assertion can be found that Dhu'l Nun was "well versed in philosophy, law, literature, alchemy, ancient Egyptian history, and hieroglyphics." Furthermore, he was "the model of a renaissance man." (54)  To some extent converging likewise with Nicholson was a statement of Dr. Margaret Smith:

He [Dhu'l Nun] made some study of medicine and also of alchemy and magic and he must have been influenced by Hellenistic teaching. (M. Smith, Encyclopaedia of Islam, second edn)

Others are more stringent in assessment. "It is impossible to be certain whether or not Dhu'l Nun studied medicine, alchemy, and magic, though he is cited as the author of alchemical writings from the 9th century onward" (G. Bowering, "Du'l Nun Mesri, Abu'l Fayz Tauban," Encyclopaedia Iranica).

15.  The  Palacios  Version

Miguel Asin Palacios

A contemporary of the British scholar R. A. Nicholson was the Spanish Arabist Miguel Asin Palacios (1871-1944). He has been criticised for his viewpoint, as a Roman Catholic priest, in his approach to Islamic studies. However, he was a liberal commentator. Palacios wrote an appendix on Dhu'l Nun in his influential book about Ibn Masarra (d.931) of Spain.

A Christianising accent is discernible in some interpretations of Palacios. He viewed the Nubian ethnicity of Dhu'l Nun, plus the Thebaid environment (of Akhmim), in terms of explaining "how the introduction of Christian monastic asceticism and of the traditional theosophical occultism of Egypt into Islam was due to him." (55)  Both Christian and Hermetic influences were here being discussed as operative.

Palacios observes that Akhmim was in the vicinity of an event intrinsic to the Pachomian tradition. The hermit Palamon had taught the Coptic saint Pachomius (Pakhom) several centuries before. The pupil founded a monastery at Tabennesis (some distance to the south) in the fourth century CE. That is indeed an interesting geographical juxtaposition, though one which does not prove Christian influence from the monks of the Thebaid. Another Pachomian monastery was in the close proximity of Akhmim (Panopolis). However, the same town has also been viewed as the originating milieu for the Hermetic cult of the Graeco-Roman period; this development had nothing to do with Christianity. The outlook of Palacios may be gleaned from the following:

All the biographers of Dhu'l Nun agree that he was a very austere ascetic who submitted his body to the most rigorous mortifications. He lived continually in imitation of the Christian 'vagabonds,' wandering through the deserts of Nitria, beside the banks of the Nile, on the beaches of Egypt, and through the mountains of Lebanon. He searched everywhere for teachers.... But more than an ascetic, he is pictured as a mystic or ecstatic Sufi, the first (together with the Persian Abu Yazid al-Bistami) to be considered as such. (56)

The same scholar mentions the brief reference of Ibn Khallikan to the Sufi teacher of Dhu'l Nun, an obscure entity named as Shaqran al-Abid, meaning Shaqran the ascetic. Palacios suggests that Shaqran might have been "an ascetic of Christian lineage." Again, that is speculation; nevertheless, a Coptic identity is plausible. Elsewhere, there is an earlier reference to a Maliki traditionist as a teacher of Dhu'l Nun, an attribution with chronological difficulties. Sadun of Cairo is also reported as a mentor. However, the "real masters" of Dhu'l Nun appear to have been Shaqran al-Abid and Israfil al-Maghribi (O'Donnell 2006:74).

Palacios reflected that Akhmim had the repute of being an "ancient centre of the esoteric sciences." The Arabic tradition attributed to Dhu'l Nun a knowledge of alchemy and magic, "the Hermetic art of deciphering the hieroglyphs," and the interpretation of dreams. Palacios adds that the subject's teaching and fame as a Sufi saint provoked the envy of legists and aroused fear in the civil authorities. His "ideas about the ecstatic union" were condemned as heretical; he was subsequently acquitted. (57)  

The Spanish scholar accented a reference of al-Faradi, a biographer of Ibn Masarra (883-931), the Andalusian mystic. Faradi compared Dhu'l Nun with Ibn Masarra (Palacios 1978:86-87). Palacios tended to construct a firm equation between the two figures, employing this for a controversial theory in which doctrines of the marginalised influence dubbed Pseudo-Empedocles became the School of Ibn Masarra. The same Andalusian has been variously described as a Mutazili theologian, a Fatimid missionary, a Neoplatonist philosopher, and other variant identities (Stroumsa 2006:99-100).

In the "Pseudo-Empedoclean" theory of Palacios, Dhu'l Nun is described as a theurgist who influenced Ibn Masarra, creating a bridge for "the Hermetic chain of thought" in the "Almerian Sufi school" (Palacios 1978:128). This view has been strongly contested. There is no firm evidence for a theurgistic Dhu'l Nun, while the nature of Andalusian mysticism is portrayed in a different manner (Ebstein 2014).

16.  Leaven  of  the  Pythagoreans

The "Islamic Neoplatonist" version of Dhu'l Nun al-Misri was briefly and allusively expressed by the ishraqi philosopher Shihab al-Din Yahya Suhrawardi (d.1191). In his Arabic work Kitab al-mashari wa'l mutarahat, Suhrawardi refers to a spiritual genealogy including Empedocles, Pythagoras, and Plato, figures who are here ultimately linked to Hermes, the "father of philosophers" (walid al-hukama). The "leaven of the Pythagoreans" devolved upon the "brother of Ikhmim," namely Dhu'l Nun (and, via him, to Sahl al-Tustari).

The Arabic works of Suhrawardi refer to two lines of transmission, the other being the Iranian branch of the "leaven" associated with the Sufis Abu Yazid Bistami, Hallaj, and Kharaqani.

In the ishraqi format, Dhu'l Nun is an Islamic NeoPythagorean and Neoplatonist, linking to Pythagoras, Plato (or Plotinus), and the ancient Egyptians in a "philosophical genealogy," emphasised by Suhrawardi in terms of a continuing ancient wisdom spread amongst different nations. (58) The theme of "eternal leaven" (al-hamirat al-azaliyya) referred to a wisdom tradition which Suhrawardi claimed to inherit.

This very unusual pedigree has received substantially differing assessments. Some see the genealogy as a mere fiction unique to Suhrawardi, while others credit an unusual angle which, though incorporating the legendary Hermes, nevertheless moves outside Hermeticism and also Islamic convention. The standard format of silsila (lineage), adopted by the Sufi Orders, specified root derivation from the prophet Muhammad. In contrast, Suhrawardi defers to Greek philosophy and the Hermetic figurehead in addition to early Sufism.

Concerning the isnad (chain of transmitters) celebrated in Sufi silsila beliefs, a commentator has observed:

The names of certain of these early masters were incorporated in the mystical isnads of the tariqas (ways). The key figure in the lines of most tariqas is Abu’l Qasim al-Junaid (d.910), yet Dhu’n-Nun al-Misri, though continually quoted in support of mystical thought, is missing from the isnads. (Trimingham 1971:12)

Suhrawardi countered the omission in his unorthodox isnad. His inclusionist tactic can be differently interpreted. He did not elevate Junaid, a figurehead of the Baghdad school, instead favouring Hallaj, another entity generally ignored in silsila preferences.

Influenced by al-Qifti, one theory states: "Dhu'l Nun was as much an alchemist as a Sufi." (59) The equation is in doubt. The Coptic and Islamic traditions of alchemy at Akhmim are difficult to ignore; however, the issue of Dhu’l Nun as an alchemist has not been resolved. Professor Walbridge cites the suggestion of Fowden that Panopolis (Akhmim) was the centre of a cult producing the Corpus Hermeticum during the early Christian era. The so-called "Hermetica Belt" geographically features Panopolis in between Nag Hammadi and Hermopolis. At Nag Hammadi was discovered the now celebrated Gnostic library (including three Hermetic texts), while Hermopolis was the pilgrimage setting for the supposed tomb of Hermes Trismegistus, associated with Thoth. (60) None of these associations establish the lifestyle or output of Dhu’l Nun several centuries later.

The strong convergence between mysticism and magic, in the pre-Islamic Hermetic mindset, is disconcerting. The famous Hermetic text Asclepius is noted for theurgistic passages in which the objective was to manipulate a god into a statue. Such ideas doubtless reflected tendencies of the ancient Egyptian priesthoods. Professor Brian P. Copenhaver has observed:

Oddly enough, it was the alchemist Zosimos who took the strongest stand against magic of any Hermetic author, describing it as a blunt tool useless for purposes that need immaterial instruments. (61)

Zosimos of Panopolis (circa 300 CE) was in conflict with a rival whom he associates with Egyptian statues of the gods (Dufault 2019:93ff). "Hermes accuses even magic, saying that the spiritual man who has come to know himself has no need to direct anything through magic, even if it is regarded as good." (62)

Magic surfaced again in Arab Hermeticism. Suhrawardi does not focus upon magic, unlike some other authors in Arabic. Suhrawardi does not represent alchemy, but a form of Neoplatonism becoming known as ishraq.

One interpretation of the Suhrawardi isnad has been strongly questioned. In a brief cameo profile, Peter Kingsley interprets Dhu’l Nun in the context of his (Kingsley’s) version of Empedocles (Kingsley 1995:388-390). Magic is included in the overall celebration, extending to a glorification of Iamblichean theurgy:

Neoplatonic theurgists were known as magicians and considered capable not just of extracting men’s souls from their bodies but also of returning them, just like Empedocles; they were considered able to make rain and stop plagues, again just like Empedocles; they had visionary encounters with Hecate and in their rituals they used or actually wore the secret symbola of the gods, just like the Empedocles of legend; and they attached the greatest importance to the process of ritual immortalisation, evidently preceded by a sequence of death and rebirth, just as we find in early Pythagorean circles and on the closely related gold plates. (63)

Enthusiasm for theurgy can eclipse historical considerations of reality. Neither Suhrawardi nor Dhu’l Nun were Empedoclean or Iamblichean theurgists. Suhrawardi was a Muslim Neoplatonist philosopher with a basically rational approach, while crediting intuitive abilities. Dhu’l Nun was a far more obscure proto-Sufi mystic who may have had close connection with Christian Copts in the Akhmim locale; he might have been familiar with Coptic alchemical literature, if that existed in his day. During his later Fustat phase, he was evidently more concerned with negotiating the nafs (personality) inflation than wearing symbols of the gods in ritual performances.

Today, a pervasive drawback of inflation underlies the popular neo-Jungian projection of “spiritual teacher” persona. The nafs will sell the soul for lucrative income, a feat demonstrated on numerous "new spirituality" websites confirming what is, in some respects, the worst society ever known. No former society created the internet media, which spreads misinformation and sensation on a massive scale. (64)

Kevin R. D. Shepherd

May 2010 (modified May 2020)



(1)     Michael Ebstein, "Du'l Nun al-Misri and Early Islamic Mysticism, " Arabica (2014) 61:559-612, p. 564.

(2)     Ebstein, art. cit., pp. 564-66, commenting that “the anecdotes concerning the dialogue between Dhul Nun and al-Mutawakkil cannot be taken at face value.”

(3)      Arthur J. Arberry, trans., Muslim Saints and Mystics: Episodes from the Tadhkirat al-Auliya by Farid al-Din Attar (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966), p. 87.  

(4)      Annemarie Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam (University of North Carolina Press, 1975), pp. 42-3. Cf. Alexander Knysh, Islamic Mysticism: A Short History (Leiden: Brill, 2000), pp. 39-41. Cf. Patrick O. Donnell, "Dhu'l Nun al-Misri" (74-76) in Oliver Leaman, ed., The Biographical Encyclopaedia of Islamic Philosophy (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2006). Cf. Jawid Mojaddedi, "Dhu l-Nun Abu l-Fayd al-Misri," Encyclopaedia of Islam, third edn (online).

(5)       Reynold A. Nicholson, A Literary History of the Arabs (second edn, Cambridge University Press, 1930), p. 389. Nicholson had arrived at this conclusion in "A Historical Enquiry Concerning the Origin and Development of Sufism," Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1906), 303-348, where he describes the father of Dhu'l Nun as a native of Nubia or of Akhmim, adopted by the Quraysh. Cf. Ebstein 2014:563, stating: "His father was a Nubian," whose name is given as Ibrahim or Ahmad. Cf. Schimmel 1975:42, who says "born of Nubian parents." Cf. Knysh 2000:40, giving the description: "Born of a Nubian family at Akhmim." Cf. Van Minnen 2016:70, for a description as "the son of a converted Nubian slave from Panopolis." Cf. Shepherd, Meaning in Anthropos (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1991), p. 109, describing Dhu'l Nun as "a Nubian or half-Nubian," here deferring to possible Coptic maternal ancestry, also providing a context of polymathy resistant to some European racist biases. "I maintain that very few Europeans of the nineteenth century equalled the polymath acuity of the ninth century dissenter Dhu'l Nun al-Misri" (ibid.). This strong statement was made in response to the aspersion of Comte de Gobineau that "the European cannot hope to civilise the negro."

(6)       Nicolas Grimal, A History of Ancient Egypt, trans. Ian Shaw (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), p. 89, referring to the wealth of local rulers being "apparent in the provincial necropolises at Cusae, Akhmim, Abydos, Edfu and Elephantine." See also Naguib Kanawati et al, The Rock Tombs of El-Hawaish: The Cemetery of Akhmim (10 vols, Sydney: Macquarie University, 1980-1992). There are over 800 rock cut tombs at the mountain of Al-Hawaish, the ancient necropolis of Akhmim. The earliest date to the Fifth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom. Many of these tombs are uninscribed. See also Louise Blanke, An Archaeology of Egyptian Monasticism: Settlement, Economy and Daily Life at the White Monastery (New Haven, CT: Yale Egyptology, 2019). See also G. Wiet, "Barba," Encyclopaedia of Islam Vol. 1 (second edn), pp. 1038-9; idem, "Akhmim," Ency. Islam Vol. 1 (second edn), p. 330.

(7)      Jean-Luc Fournet, The Rise of Coptic: Egyptian versus Greek in Late Antiquity (Princeton University Press, 2020); Stephen Emmel, "Coptic Literature in the Byzantine and Early Islamic World” (83-102) in Roger S. Bagnall, ed., Egypt in the Byzantine World 300-700 (Cambridge University Press, 2007); Samuel Rubenson, The Transition from Coptic to Arabic.

(8)       E. G. Browne, A Literary History of Persia Vol. 1 (1902; repr. Cambridge University Press, 1928), pp. 419-20. While there are several references to Porphyry in the Fihrist, Plotinus is merely mentioned once by name in the translation of Dodge. See B. Dodge, The Fihrist of Al-Nadim Vol. 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1970), p. 614.

(9)       Nicholson, A Literary Hist. of the Arabs, pp. 389-90, observing that "no single cause will account for a phenomenon so widely spread." However, Nicholson failed to extend due analysis to the eastern sectors involved. He did state that "the Perso-Indian elements are not to be ignored," without effectively separating the two traditions here conflated. Certain other influential scholars were preoccupied with the "Indian" theory at that date, a situation tending to eclipse the Iranian factor.

(10)     This is the translation of Nicholson in "A Historical Enquiry Concerning the Origin and Development of Sufism" (1906). Cf. Ebstein 2014:597, giving the translation: "He visited them [the barabi] and examined many of the writings and images that were painted within them and drawn on them."

(11)     Tonio Sebastian Richter, “What kind of alchemy is attested by tenth century Coptic manuscripts?” Ambix: Jnl of the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry (2009) 56(1):23-35; idem, “The Master Spoke – Hitherto Unnoticed Coptic Papyrological Evidence for Early Arabic Alchemy” (158-194) in A. T. Schubert and P. M. Sijpesteijn, eds., Documents and the History of the Early Islamic World (Leiden: Brill, 2015).

(12)     E. J. Holmyard, Alchemy (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1957), p. 83. More up to date is Peter Van Minnen, "Nonnus' Panopolis" (54-74) in Domenico Accorinti, ed., Brill's Companion to Nonnus of Panopolis (Leiden: Brill, 2016). Van Minnen remarks that Dhu'l Nun "seems to have suffered the same fate as Zosimos, as the figurehead of a whole movement" (ibid:70). This is a reference to subsequent obscurity. Some details of Zosimos are recovered in Olivier Dufault, Early Greek Alchemy, Patronage and Innovation in Late Antiquity (University of California Press, 2019). On Horapollon, see George Boas, trans., The Hieroglyphics of Horapollo (Princeton University Press, 1969); Mark Wildish, The Hieroglyphics of Horapollo Nilous (Routledge 2018).

(13)    Grimal, A Hist. of Ancient Egypt, p. 3. Cf. David Peacock, "The Roman Period" (414-436) in Ian Shaw, The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt (Oxford University Press, 2000). Cf. Jean Bingen, Hellenistic Egypt: Monarchy, Society, Economy, Culture (Edinburgh University Press, 2007). Cf. Marc Van De Mieroop, A History of Ancient Egypt (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), pp. 316ff., on the Greek and Roman eras. Professor Grimal observes that "the Hermetic Corpus... was later to be the main means of access to a civilisation that had become incomprehensible to Christians" (Grimal 1992:3). The closure of Egyptian temples during the fourth century CE ended with "the massacre of the Serapeum priests at Memphis" (ibid.). Cf. Robert Morgan, History of the Coptic Orthodox People and the Church of Egypt (Victoria, Canada: Friesen Press, 2016), pp. 94-96. In 391 CE, the chief priest of Serapis at Alexandria was Olympius. That year, the Emperor Theodosius I confirmed the prohibition on pagan worship. In the conflict which followed at Alexandria, the Serapis priesthood (of the temple known as Serapeum) are reported to have captured Christians. If the victims refused to recant their Christian beliefs after torture, they would be slaughtered as sacrifices to Serapis and other Graeco-Roman gods. Helladius, a priest of Jupiter, is reported to have sacrificed nine Christians in one day. These priests were reputedly amongst those who continued illegal habits of human sacrifice, which could occur nocturnally. Olympius disregarded official warnings and continued to incite hostility against local Christians. The Serapeum became a fort. The Emperor then gave orders for the Serapeum to be destroyed, while extending pardon to the pagan priests and their followers. The imposing temple of Serapis was demolished after over six centuries of existence. Cf. The Temple of Serapis in Alexandria, which does not mention human sacrifice, stating that the pagans at Alexandria captured Christians whom they forced to perform sacrifice at the Serapeum, torturing them if they refused. We may believe the account of Rufinus (writing in 402 CE) that this temple or Serapeum "was elevated on an enormous platform" reached by a hundred steps (ibid.), reputedly of marble.

(14)     Richard J. A. McGregor, Islam and the Devotional Object: Seeing Religion in Egypt and Syria (Cambridge University Press, 2020), p. 191. On Maqrizi, see Karl Stowasser, trans., Medieval Egypt, Ahmad ibn Ali al-Maqrizi (CreateSpace, 2014). See also Nasser Rabbat, "Who was al-Maqrizi?: A Biographical Sketch," Mamluk Studies Review ( 2003) 7(2):1-19, online PDF. Maqrizi was an associate of Ibn Khaldun, who taught in Cairo after 1382.

(15)    The translation is from Nicholson, art. cit., who says that the true character of Dhu'l Nun appears distinctly in this account. Cf. Ebstein 2014:601, who is rather more critical, while translating the addition of Al-Qifti in terms of: It is said that the knowledge contained in temple images and patterns had been revealed to Dhu'l Nun. There are complexities in the transmission of Tarikh al-Hukama, which has been described in terms of being "not the author's original work but a compendium compiled about a year after he died by Muhammad b. Ali al-Zawzani." See J. L. Kraemer, Philosophy in the Renaissance of Islam (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1986), pp. 100-1. See also A. Dietrich, "Ibn al-Kifti," Encyclopaedia of Islam Vol. 3 (new edn), p. 840.   

(16)   Bayard Dodge, trans., The Fihrist of Al-Nadim Vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1970), p. xv, inferring that the author was a Mutazili sympathiser. Nadim is known to have attended an Ismaili meeting; however, Dodge says that this detail does not imply sectarianism.

(17)    Brian P. Copenhaver, Hermetica (Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. xvi, referring to the inflated listings of Seleucus and Manetho. See also G. Fowden, The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind (Cambridge University Press, 1986).

(18)   Dodge, trans., The Fihrist Vol. 2, p. 865. Cf. Ebstein 2014:600-601, who renders the title of Akhmimi's work as "Book which Dismisses Fanciful Presumptions Regarding Dhu'l Nun." Cf. Peter Kingsley, Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic: Empedocles and Pythagorean Tradition (Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 389-90, stating: "Writing little more, and perhaps even less, than a generation after Dhu'l Nun himself, either in the late ninth or the very early tenth century, his [Ibn Suwaid's] list of published works - all of them on the subject of alchemy, as their titles clearly show - includes a 'Book of Refutation of the Accusation Against Dhu'l Nun al-Misri' (Kitab sarf al-tawahhum 'an dhi-al-nun al-misri). It was this same Ibn Suwaid who... was almost certainly the author of the Mushaf al-jama'a: the Arabic prototype of the Turba Philosophorum."

(19)    G. Strohmaier, "Ibn Umayl," Encyclopaedia of Islam Vol. 3 (second edn), pp. 961-2; H. E. Stapleton and M. H. Husain, eds., "Three Arabic Treatises on Alchemy by Muhammad ibn Umail," Memoirs of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (1933) 12(1):1-213.

(20)    B. H. Stricker, "La Prison de Joseph," Acta Orientalia (1943) 19:101-137, decoding the description of Ibn Umayl's barba as a temple of Imhotep, though more a simple chapel rather than any elaborate edifice. Imhotep was a Third Dynasty courtier and priest who became deified as a local god of Memphis; he was known to the Greeks as Imouthes "and even survived the pharaonic civilisation itself by finding a place in Arab tradition, especially at Saqqara, where his tomb was supposed to be located" (Grimal, A Hist. of Ancient Egypt, p. 66).

(21)    H. E. Stapleton et al, "The Sayings of Hermes Quoted in the Ma'al-Waraqi," Ambix (1949) 3:69ff.

(22)    David Pingree, The Thousands of Abu Mashar (London: Warburg Institute, 1968); John Walbridge, The Wisdom of the Mystic East: Suhrawardi and Platonic Orientalism (State University of New York Press, 2001), pp. 20-1. Professor Walbridge comments:"It is painfully clear that Islamic scholars were thoroughly confused by the information they had about Hermes Trismegistus.... The historical accounts of Hermes were contradictory (and even for us, it is not clear where some of the information actually came from).... Several quite different accounts of Hermes coexist uneasily in the Arabic sources" (ibid:20).

(23)     See Okasha El-Daly, Egyptology: The Missing Millenium - Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings (London: UCL Press, 2005; new edn, New York: Routledge, 2016). For another approach, see Elliott Colla, Conflicted Antiquities: Egyptology, Egyptomania, Egyptian Modernity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007). For a review of El-Daly by Colla, see International Jnl of Middle East Studies (2008) 40(1):135-137. Colla remarks: "El-Daly traces the scholarly effort by Coptic and Muslim Egyptians to decipher pharaonic hieroglyphs and the long tradition of local historians who were 'proud of their past' and 'wrote almost exclusively on the history of Egypt from as early as the first century of Islam' " (art.cit, p. 135). Another review of El-Daly is Robert Schick, Near Eastern Archaeology (2009) 72(4):223.

(24)    Dodge, trans., The Fihrist Vol. 2, pp. 864-5. Dodge says that Faqitus may mean Quftus, equivalent to Coptos. There is a well known translation by Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall of Ibn Wahshiyah's Kitab Shawq al-Mustaham. This has the elaborate title of Ancient Alphabets and Hieroglyphic Characters Explained; with an Account of the Egyptian Priests, their Classes, Initiation, and Sacrifices in the Arabic Language by Ahmad Bin Abubekr Bin Wahishih (London 1806). The Shawq is an idiosyncratic catalogue of 93 cryptic alphabets attributed to various ancient peoples and traditions, including the Egyptians, Greeks, and Hindus. Hammer-Purgstall supplied translation and text of a manuscript found at Cairo. The translator describes the content as "one of the most curious, the most interesting, and the most valuable manuscripts that have been found among the treasures of the East" (ibid:xv). Al-Nadim was apparently referring to the same treatise. The ensuing European cycle of academic commentary on Ibn Wahshiyah was critical, resulting in accusations that one of his works was a forgery, namely the controversial Kitab al-falaha al-nabatiya (Book of Nabataean Agriculture). This disputed Arabic text exalts the ancient "Babylonian" civilisation; supposedly translated from "Babylonian" sources, the Nabataean Agriculture discusses "Sabaean" beliefs and superstitions, including magic. According to some scholars, Ibn Wahshiyah was not a Muslim, though others have disagreed. A recent analysis is J. Hameen-Anttila, The Last Pagans of Iraq: Ibn Wahshiyya and his Nabatean Agriculture (Leiden, 2006), dating the text in question to circa 600 CE, describing that text as a translation from a Syriac version of an obscure Greek source.

(25)    Kevin Van Bladel, The Arabic Hermes: From Pagan Sage to Prophet of Science (Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 4. The author states: "It seems likely to me that they [the Hermetic authors] included members of the Egyptian priesthood" (ibid:11). See also Christian H. Bull, The Tradition of Hermes Trismegistus: The Egyptian Priestly Figure as a Teacher of Hellenized Wisdom (Leiden: Brill, 2018). This hypothesis argues that Hermetic texts were composed by Egyptian priests familiar with Greek philosophy. 

(26)     Heidi Marx-Wolf, "Pythagoras the Theurgist: Porphyry and Iamblichus on the Role of Ritual in the Philosophical Life" (32-38) in Jordan D. Rosenblum et al, eds., Religious Competition in the Third Century CE: Jews, Christians, and the Greco-Roman World (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014), p. 33. In his treatise On Abstinence from Animal Food, Porphyry "argued that blood sacrifice was part of a conspiracy on the part of fallen, evil daemons" (ibid:33). The lore of daemons is disconcerting to modern scepticism. The word daemon sometimes referred to a benevolent spirit, existing somewhere between gods and humans. On Porphyry and Iamblichus, see also H. Marx-Wolf, Spiritual Taxonomies and Ritual Authority: Platonists, Priests, and Gnostics in the Third Century (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

(27)     Ebstein 2014:604, naming several specialists who have doubted the authenticity of works on alchemy attributed to Dhu'l Nun. These are principally Carl Brockelmann, Louis Massignon, Manfred Ullmann, and Josef van Ess. Julius Ruska and Arthur J. Arberry are also listed as sceptics. "Only [Fuat] Sezgin takes Du l-Nun's authorship of these alchemical works and poems for granted" (ibid:604 note 185). Cf. O'Donnell 2006:75, referring to the Nubian as "a philosopher, Sufi, and alchemist." This brief article does not mention the attributed works deemed doubtful. "He seems to have studied medicine, magic, and alchemy from the available Hellenistic literature of his time" (ibid:74). That is a very generalising statement. "A number of treatises are attributed to him, but none has survived" (ibid:75).

(28)      S. K. Hamarneh, "Medicine and Pharmacy under the Fatimids" (143-185) in S. H. Nasr, ed., Ismaili Contributions to Islamic Culture (Tehran: Iranian Academy of Philosophy, 1977), pp. 143-4; Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot, A History of Egypt From the Arab Conquest to the Present (1985; second edn, Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 4. Hans H. Biesterfeldt, “Alexandrian Tradition into Arabic: Medicine” (64-66) in Henrik Lagerlund, ed., Encyclopaedia of Medieval Philosophy (2 vols, Heidelberg: Springer, 2010); Maria Mavroudi, Greek Language and Education under Early Islam (Leiden: Brill, 2014); Tonio S. Richter, “Toward a Sociological Approach to the Corpus of Coptic Medical Texts” (33-54) in Mariam F. Ayad, ed., Studies in Coptic Culture: Transmission and Interaction (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2016). See also Mostafa El-Abbadi, The Life and Fate of the Ancient Library of Alexandria (second edn, UNESCO, 1990); Abbadi, “The Alexandrian Library in History,” in Anthony Hirst and Michael Silk, eds., Alexandria, Real and Imagined (2004; New York: Routledge, 2016), reporting “a growing census among serious scholars that both [Alexandrian] libraries had perished long before the Arabs conquered Egypt.” Cf. Roy Macleod, ed., The Library of Alexandria: Centre of Learning in the Ancient World (London: I. B. Tauris, 2004). Cf. Qassem Abdou Qassem, “The Arab Story of the Destruction of the Ancient Library of Alexandria” (207-211) in M. El-Abbadi, O. Fathullah, and I. Serageldin, eds., What Happened to the Ancient Library of Alexandria? (Leiden: Brill, 2008). The late Bernard Lewis (1916-2018) here complains: “Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, some writers are still disposed to believe and even repeat the story of how the Great Library of Alexandria was destroyed by the Arabs.” The quote is from Lewis, “The Arab Destruction of the Library of Alexandria: Anatomy of a Myth” (213-217) in ibid:213.  

(29)    A. J. Arberry, trans., The Doctrine of the Sufis (Cambridge University Press, 1935), p. 11; R. A. Nicholson, trans., The Kashf al-Mahjub (London: Luzac, 1936), pp. 101-2. These encounters are amongst those tending to support the conclusion of Ignaz Goldziher that, contrary to some assumptions, much is heard in Sufi and Islamic literature of female saints from the earliest to the most recent times. See Goldziher, Muslim Studies Vol. 2, ed. S.M. Stern (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1971), pp. 270ff., observing that in the earlier centuries of Islam, women had a much larger share in religious scholarship than is usually appreciated. Cf. Ebstein 2014:566-68, who views the anecdotes as legendary.

(30)     Arberry, Muslim Saints and Mystics, p. 87, does not differentiate between the two phases of censure. He states 829 (AH 214) as the year of Dhu'l Nun's arrest in relation to imprisonment at Baghdad. Others think that this was much too early, and that the subsequent problem in 843 (AH 228) amounted to an exile. See also J. Van Ess, "Der Kreis des Dhu'l-Nun," Die Welt des Orients 12 (1981):99-105.

(31)      For a translation of this speech, see Margaret Smith, An Early Mystic of Baghdad (London, 1935), pp. 81-2. Cf. idem, "Dhu'l Nun," Encyclopaedia of Islam Vol. 2 (1965), p. 242.

(32)     Ira M. Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies (Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 124, adding that "despite the reversal, the damage done to Caliphal authority was irreparable" (ibid.).

(33)     See Bernard Lewis, "Egypt and Syria" (175-230) in The Cambridge History of Islam Vol. 1 (Cambridge University Press, 1970), pp. 177-8. 

(34)     Cf. Louis Massignon, Essai sur les origines du lexique technique de la mystique musulmane (second edn, Paris 1954), pp. 206-7, treating Dhahabi's report as authoritative. Al-Dhahabi was professor of hadith at a madrasa (religious college) in Damascus. Cf. ibid., pp. 201 ff., emphasising the issue of Dhul Nun's editing of the tafsir

(35)      See Massignon, Recueil de textes inedits concernant l'histoire de la mystique en pays d'Islam (Paris 1929), pp. 15-17. Cf. Ebstein 2014:570, who says that Dhu’l Nun “apparently had resided and taught” at Giza prior to his death, by which time he appears to have been a well known entity. His tomb at Fustat was venerated from at least the twelfth century, if not before (ibid:570 note 46).  

(36)     This detail comes from a lost work of Ibn Bakuyah (d. 1037), mentioned in the Al-Sirr al-maknun fi manaqib Dhu'l Nun attributed to Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (d.1505), an Egyptian polymath of the Mamluk era. The Suyuti monograph on the life and sayings of Dhu'l Nun is covered in A. J. Arberry, "A Biography of Dhu'l Nun al-Misri" (11-27) in M. Ram and M. D. Ahmad, eds., 'Arshi Presentation Volume (New Delhi: Majlis-i Nasr-i 'Arshi, 1965). Arberry described this monograph as "a characteristic and not particularly accurate compilation of extracts from earlier sources, hardly worthy of being dignified with the name of a biography; its only claim to originality lies in his (Suyuti's) reclassification under distinct headings of the raw materials available to him. However, the extracts from lost or unpublished sources do merit bringing to light" (ibid., p. 16). Professor Arberry accordingly supplies those parts of the Arabic text which consist of quotations from Ibn Bakuyah's Akhbar al-Arifin. On the relationship between Dhu'l Nun and Sahl al-Tustari, see G. Bowering, The Mystical Vision of Existence in Classical Islam: The Quranic Hermeneutics of the Sufi Sahl at-Tustari (Berlin: Walter De Gruyter, 1980), pp. 50ff.

(37)   Massignon, Essai sur les origines (first edn, Paris 1922, pp. 184ff.; second edn, 1954, pp. 206-13), esp. p. 207, urging that the alchemical and "cabbalistic" works of Dhu'l Nun are apocryphal, while the traditions pertaining to the hieroglyphs are erroneous. Massignon emphasised that the authentic teaching of Dhu'l Nun is preserved in his sayings and anecdotes, as relayed via his Egyptian disciples and Baghdad admirers in the Sufi sources. Cf. Ebstein 2014:606, commenting that while Massignon considered the alchemical books attributed to Dhu’l Nun as apocryphal, he nevertheless did not deny the link of the Nubian with Hermetic tradition. The views of Massignon were closely followed by Dr. Margaret Smith, whose entry in The Encyclopaedia of Islam Vol. 2 (1965), p. 242, omits non-Sufi Arabic sources on Dhu'l Nun such as Masudi, Nadim, Said al-Andalusi, and al-Qifti. She did, however, comment that Dhu'l Nun must have been influenced by Hellenistic teaching. Smith duly observed : "A few books on magic and alchemy, attributed to him, have survived, but his mystical teaching is found only in what has been transmitted by other writers, including his great contemporary Muhasibi" (ibid.). Cf. M. Asin Palacios, The Mystical Philosophy of Ibn Masarra (1978 trans.), pp. 165ff., whose account of Dhu'l Nun utilises the Hermetic background mentioned by Said al-Andalusi and others, while asserting a Christian influence. Cf. C. Brockelmann, Geschichte der Arabischen Litteratur Vol. 1 (second edn, Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1943), p. 214, listing the works attributed to Dhu'l Nun, including the Mujarrabat, an extant manuscript on medicine, alchemy, talisman, and other subjects. On the alchemy of Dhu'l Nun, see also F. Sezgin, Geschichte Des Arabischen Schrifttums Vol. 4 (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1971), p. 273.

(38)   R. A. Nicholson, trans., The Kashf al-Mahjub, p. 298.  

(39)    Cf. ibid., p. 101, who renders: "Sincerity (sidq) is the sword of God on the earth: it cuts everything that it touches."

(40)     Ebstein 2014:575. Dr. Ebstein’s version of the sayings includes one reported by Abu Nuaym: “He who possesses divine knowledge (al-arif) is externally dirty but internally pure, whereas the ascetic (al-zahid) is externally pure but internally dirty” (ibid). A basic conflict in proto-Sufism was evidently that between gnostics and contrasting ascetics.

(41)    Ebstein 2014:574, 576, 577, observing that Dhu’l Nun’s version of the spiritual path “comes very close” to the malamatis, his near contemporaries at distant Nishapur. Cf. J. Spencer Trimingham, The Sufi Orders in Islam (Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 265, stating: "Although the Nubian, Dhu'n Nun, and the Mervian, Bishr ibn al-Harith, tend to be looked upon as originators of the malamati tendency, its true origins are to be sought in Nishapur." See Malamatis of Nishapur.

(42)     Abu Nuaym included over six hundred biographies in his Hilyat. The majority of these are devoted to pious men and traditionists of early Islam. Rather than being a Sufi, "it is more plausible to view him (Abu Nuaym) as a hadith transmitter who incorporated the Sufis into his traditionist vision of piety." The quote is from Ahmet T. Karamustafa, Sufism: The Formative Period (Edinburgh University Press, 2007), p. 90.

(43)    Nicholson, trans., Kashf al-Mahjub, p. 100.

(44)    Nicholson, A Literary History of the Arabs (1930), p. 386.

(45)    Arberry, The Doctrine of the Sufis, p. 138.

(46)    William MacGuckin (Baron de Slane), trans., Ibn Khallikan's Biographical Dictionary Vol. 1 (London and Paris: Oriental Translation Fund of Great Britain and Ireland, 1842), p. 291. This notice includes the statement: "His father, who was a native of Nubia, or of Akhmim, was a slave enfranchised and adopted by the tribe of Koraish [Quraish]" (ibid:291). His master in mysticism is named as Shukran [Shaqran] al-Abid (ibid:292). See also Gerhard Wedel, "Ibn Khallikan," Encyclopaedia of Islam, third edn (online). On the astronomer Ibn Yunus, see Ness Creighton, "Ibn Yunus" (126-127) in Emmanuel K. Akyeampong and Henry Louis Gates Jr, Dictionary of African Biography Vol. 3 (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

(47)    F. S. Marsh, trans., The Book of the Holy Hierotheos (London: Williams & Norgate, 1927), pp. 242ff. For other references see, e.g., C. Stewart, 'Working the Earth of the Heart': The Messalian Controversy in History, Texts, and Language to AD 431 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), p. 198, stating: "The Origenist monk Stephen Bar Sudaili (early sixth century) in The Book of the Holy Hierotheos uses the verb hbk to describe the eventual 'commingling' of the perfect mind (hawna) with the Good; here, however, the emphasis is on absorption or merger, for 'commingling' is a step beyond unification (hdayuta) and Stephen insists that all distinctions cease when the final 'commingling' occurs."

(48)    F. S. Marsh, trans., The Book of the Holy Hierotheos (London: Williams & Norgate, 1927), pp. 242ff. For other references see, e.g., C. Stewart, 'Working the Earth of the Heart': The Messalian Controversy in History, Texts, and Language to AD 431 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), p. 198, stating: "The Origenist monk Stephen Bar Sudaili (early sixth century) in The Book of the Holy Hierotheos uses the verb hbk to describe the eventual 'commingling' of the perfect mind (hawna) with the Good; here, however, the emphasis is on absorption or merger, for 'commingling' is a step beyond unification (hdayuta) and Stephen insists that all distinctions cease when the final 'commingling' occurs."

(49)    G. C. Anawati, "Philosophy, Theology, and Mysticism" (350-391) in J. Schacht and C. E. Bosworth, eds., The Legacy of Islam (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), p. 371. Cf. T. Mayer, "Theology and Sufism" (258-287) in T. Winter, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology (Cambridge University Press, 2008). On Christian influence, see Ebstein 2014:568, commenting: "There is reason to believe that some of these men and women were Christian monks or ascetics." The context here is that of receiving "ascetical and mystical teachings" from those persons Dhu'l Nun encountered during his journeys.  

(50)    A. J.  Arberry, Sufism: An Account of the Mystics of Islam (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1950), p. 52.

(51)   Nicholson, "A Historical Enquiry Concerning the Origin and Development of Sufism," Jnl of the Royal Asiatic Society (1906), 309ff., also allowing some credit to Gnosticism and conceding a possibility of "Persian and Indian ideas" having influenced Sufism. Nicholson had earlier drawn parallels between Plotinus and Rumi, without insisting on any direct influence. However, he did assert that "sufi metaphysics are cast throughout in the mould which Alexandria aptly contrived." See idem, Selected Poems from the Divani Shamsi Tabriz (1898; repr. Cambridge University Press, 1977), pp. xxxff. The preoccupation of Professor Nicholson with Neoplatonism reflects his training in classicism, antedating his transition to Islamic studies.

(52)    Nicholson, The Mystics of Islam (London 1914), pp. 12-13. Cf. Ebstein 2014:604: “The medieval image of Du l-Nun as a magician and alchemist who was influenced by the ancient Egyptian tradition was adopted by a number of modern scholars such as Reynold A. Nicholson.”  

(53)   A. M. Mukhtar, "On the Survival of the Byzantine Administration in Egypt during the First Century of the Arab Rule," Acta Orientalia: Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae (Budapest 1973) 27:309-19, pp. 311-12, 316.

(54)    These quotations come from the article by N.S. Fatemi in L. F. Rushbrook Williams, ed., Sufi Studies: East and West (London: Octagon Press, 1973), p. 51.

(55)     Miguel A. Palacios, The Mystical Philosophy of Ibn Masarra and his Followers, trans. E. H. Douglas and H. W. Yoder (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1978), p. 165. This book was first published at Madrid in 1914.

(56)     Ibid:166. The Spanish scholar also cited an interpretation that the Sufi meaning of the name Dhu'l Nun is "one endowed with the universal knowledge by divine illumination" (ibid., p. 165 note 2).

(57)     Ibid:165-6, 167-8. Cf. Michael Ebstein 2014:605-606, criticising Palacios for the supposition that Dhu'l Nun "functioned as a means or channel through which the ancient Hermetic tradition of Egypt, with its esoteric and occult sciences, entered Islamic mysticism, especially as it developed in al-Andalus." Speculations of Palacios about the "School of Almeria" and the so-called "Pseudo-Empedoclean" tradition were "severely criticised by later scholars" (ibid). See further Ebstein, Mysticism and Philosophy in al-Andalus: Ibn Masarra, Ibn al-Arabi and the Ismaili Tradition (Leiden: Brill, 2014), concluding: "It is Neoplatonic philosophy, in its unique form which is common to both the longer version of the Theology of Aristotle and Ismaili Neoplatonism, that dictates much of the terminology and ideas in the writings of Ibn Massara and Ibn al-Arabi" (ibid:231). Cf. Sarah Stroumsa, "Ibn Masarra and the Beginnings of Mystical Thought in al-Andalus" (97-112) in Peter Schafer, ed., Wege Mystischer Gotteserfahrung: Mystical Approaches to God (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2006).

(58)     See further Hossein Ziai, Knowledge and Illumination: A Study of Suhrawardi's Hikmat al-Ishraq (Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1990), p. 21 note 4; J. Walbridge, The Leaven of the Ancients: Suhrawardi and the Heritage of the Greeks (State University of New York Press, 2000), pp. 29ff., referring to Suhrawardi as "a Sufi of sorts" (ibid., p. 30). The main emphasis here relates to Islamic Neoplatonism.

(59)      John Walbridge, The Wisdom of the Mystic East: Suhrawardi and Platonic Orientalism (State University of New York Press, 2001), p. 44, stating: “Qifti mentions that Dhu’l Nun was assiduous in attending the barba of Akhmim.” The validity of the Qifti report has elsewhere been doubted. Walbridge adds: “Al-Qifti mentions that Dhu'l Nun also knew philosophy and that he acquired his knowledge from study of the signs and pictures in the ancient temples and tombs. Thus, in all likelihood, Suhrawardi's claim about Dhu'l Nun being the bearer of 'the leaven of the Pythagoreans' represents a tradition of the Egyptian alchemists about their own origins and that this tradition has some historical validity" (ibid:46). Suhrawardi himself does not say that Dhu'l Nun was a reader of hieroglyphs, or that he was an alchemist.

(60)      Walbridge, Wisdom of the Mystic East, p. 44. See also Garth Fowden, The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind (Cambridge University Press, 1986).

(61)      B. P. Copenhaver, Hermetica (Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. xxxviii.

(62)      Ibid. In the same quoted passage, Zosimos refers to Zoroaster as an advocate of magic. Cf. Dufault 2019:119: "According to Zosimos, his competitors practiced a form of alchemy comparable to the deceptive mageia of Zoroaster." The Greek transmission was flawed in relation to the Iranian prophet Zarathushtra, who was misrepresented as a magician. The rivals of Zosimos were apparently Hermetic enthusiasts.

(63)     Peter Kingsley, Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic: Empedocles and Pythagorean Tradition (Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 302-303. Kingsley assumes an unbroken alchemical tradition at Akhmim between the time of Zosimos at circa 300 CE and Uthman ibn Suwaid circa 900 CE. There is no proof of such a continuum. More realistically, "there is evidence from both periods alike for the proliferation of alchemical, or alchemically minded, circles either in Akhmim itself or in other associated centres with which people from Akhmim were in contact" (ibid:59). The extent of "proliferation" is not known. Another exaggeration is the statement: "Early Sufis such as Dhu'l Nun clearly stood in the same line of tradition as Zosimos from Panopolis (i.e., Akhmim), who already testifies over 500 years earlier to the radical spiritualising or introversion of alchemical procedure" (ibid:390 note 56). The subject of alchemy has confused many readers; alchemical procedure is not necessary for any introversion, whether psychological or spiritual.

(64)     Some investigators have been astonished at the large number of "new spirituality" commercial websites and blogs seeking subscribers. The full extent of this commerce might only be ascertained by a resilient form of cybertracking. The practitioners offer a diverse array of workshops, courses, seminars, and other means of client payment and donation. Many of the claims are exorbitant. I was one of those who early drew attention to anomalies at the well known Findhorn Foundation and Esalen centres. Today, the range of international promotion is far more extensive, contributing to various superficial myths and deceptions flourishing in the absence of critical ability on the part of consumers. In contrast, the critical archive includes Second Letter to Tony Blair and Commercial Mysticism.