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  Akhmim

2.       A  Reader of  Hieroglyphs

3.       The  Hermetic  Alchemist

4.       Egyptology  Debate  about  the  Hieroglyphs

5.       The  Sufi  Gnostic

6.       Canonical  Annals  of  Sufism

7.       Theory  of  Christian  Neoplatonist  Influence

8.       R. A.  Nicholson's  Neoplatonist  Theory

9.       The  Palacios  Version

10.     Leaven  of  the  Pythagoreans

11.     Conclusion



1.  The  Heretic  of  Akhmim

The ninth century figure of Dhu'l Nun, known as al-Misri ("the Egyptian"), is attended by the typically fragmented 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, and to probe accompanying data.

The full name of the subject is Abu'l Faiz Thauban ibn Ibrahim al-Misri (ca. 791/796 - ca. 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, though the necropolis complex is a different matter, exhibiting hundreds of rock-cut tombs.

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. Via intermediaries, he is reported to have transmitted hadith (traditions of the prophet) possessing the authority of Malik ibn Anas (d. 795) of Medina, founder of the Maliki law school which remained influential in Egypt and North Africa. Yet Dhu'l Nun was opposed by the Maliki jurists of Egypt prior to 829 CE, being condemned as a heretic for teaching on the subject of mystical experience. He appears to have survived the trial successfully.

At a later date, Dhu'l Nun was also in trouble with the Mutazilite theologians, then in power at Baghdad and elsewhere. That inquisitorial party forced him to depart from Egypt, apparently in 843 CE. He is reported to have visited Sufi circles in Baghdad, and subsequently to have preached in Samarra at the court of the Abbasid Caliph al-Mutawakkil (rgd 847-861). From 836, the new city of Samarra, north of Baghdad, was the military headquarters of the Caliphate for over thirty years, though Baghdad remained the cultural centre of Iraq.There are stories in the Sufi annals of Dhu'l Nun being imprisoned at Baghdad, though he was released on the orders of the Caliph and then returned to Egypt, where he spent his last years free of persecution.

One interpretation is that the imprisonment was caused by a friction with the Mutazili theological doctrine favoured by the Abbasid Caliphate at that period. (1) The Mutazili doctrine became harnessed to monarchical interests of the Abbasid dynasty, and was prone to a policy of inquisition (mihna) favoured by the Caliph, and assisted by wealthy Mutazili courtiers. That inquisition has been dated to 833-851 CE. See further Early Sufism in Iran, section 8, on this website. Many traditionists opposed the Mutazili system because of the doctrine that the Quran was created. The orthodox standpoint maintained the "uncreatedness" of the Quran.

Turning to other aspects of the record, there are apparently conflicting components in the profile of Dhu'l Nun as a Sufi gnostic and alchemist. He is credited with an insight into the meaning of the Egyptian hieroglyphs. "A number of poems and short treatises are attributed to him, but these are for the most part apocryphal." (2)

One modern commentary states:

"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." (3)

There was a big difference between the outlook of a Maliki traditionist and a Neoplatonist/Hermetic philosopher. Views on this matter have been divided, due to the strong factor of early Islamic Sufism in the career of Dhu'l Nun al-Misri. One argument goes that the Sufi identity rules out the Hermetic associations. Other analysts have been more flexible in approach.

2.   A  Reader  of  Hieroglyphs

The traditional profile of Dhu'l Nun as a reader of hieroglyphs has generally been dismissed, though with some concessions 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 online. 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 (see section 4 below).

Another factor is potentially significant. Some scholars have described the subject as a Nubian. In an earlier book, the present writer described Dhu'l Nun as "a Nubian or half-Nubian" (4)  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 was substantially Coptic, and also featured architecture from the pre-Christian period. Akhmim had a history going back to the Pharaonic Old Kingdom era some three thousand years before. (6)  It is possible that Dhu'l Nun spoke Coptic in addition to Arabic. The Coptic language represented the final stage of Old Egyptian, being written in the Greek alphabet, to which were added seven characters from the late demotic script deriving from Pharaonic times. The Copts were descendants of the dynastic Egyptians and had long since become converts to Christianity. They were tolerated by Islam as "people of a Book."

Thus, the Akhmim milieu of Dhu'l Nun was more complex than might appear. Attendant speculations about Neoplatonism require due clarification. The Cambridge scholar Edward Glanville Browne was rather enthusiastic in that direction (at the same time admitting ignorance of Sassanian undercurrents). Professor Browne favoured Neoplatonism as the strongest influence upon Sufism, and commented that both Plotinus and Porphyry are mentioned in the Fihrist (7) of Al-Nadim. (8)

Browne's pupil Reynold Alleyne Nicholson (1868-1945) adopted the "Neoplatonist theory," and controversially asserted that "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, though deductions of this type have been considered misleading. Nicholson made an improvement over certain other orientalists in specifying the Sabaean "heathens" of Harran rather than the Christian Neoplatonists. Though Nicholson clearly favoured Hellenism, he conceded that the "Greek" influence did not answer everything. "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)

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. 957), 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 historical account of Dhu'l Nun, deriving information from the 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, though there is no need to doubt that Dhu'l Nun was interested in the meaning of the ruins that were so visible in his environment. His "deciphering" would have been reported in accordance with local memory, which is not always the best guide at thirdhand. The subject was apparently not content with the conventional Arab disdain for the ancient idol-worshippers. It is evident that the inscriptions on ancient monuments were believed by "Hermetic" enthusiasts to be an index to the sciences of antiquity.

Egyptian hieroglyphs

The theme of barabi (Egyptian tombs and temples) probably reflects a form of hearsay of the kind which infiltrated to the Caliph al-Mamun (rgd 813-833). Circa 820 that Abbasid ruler of Iraq assembled a large group of engineers and stonemasons for the purpose of forcing an entry into the Great Pyramid at Giza. The cupidity of the Caliph had evidently been aroused by rumours of buried treasure, though objects of learning were also rumoured to be concealed within this gigantic edifice. Al-Mamun genuinely patronised learning, and 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 was perhaps thirty years old at that time, and doubtless heard of the event.

Archaeologists have viewed al-Mamun as commencing the habit of pillaging the Pyramids. Ancient monuments became a source for quarried stone, and the Giza Pyramids eventually lost their protective casing of limestone blocks, after an earthquake loosened the blocks. Those architectural components at Giza were appropriated by subsequent regimes and reused to construct the palaces of Mamluk and Ottoman Cairo. However, that was far in the future in the time of Dhu'l Nun, and he appears to have been genuinely concerned to understand the meaning of the resplendent architectural survivals visible along the banks of the Nile. The Pharaohs and their religion had blurred in the Coptic memory since the fifth century CE.

The Arabic word barba (plural barabi) was applied not merely to ancient tombs, but to temples and 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 was that the barabi had been built in order to reproduce or display techniques of the ancient crafts. The tenth century Fihrist of Al-Nadim implies that the barabi were made for the practice of alchemy.

The ubiqitous hieroglyphs were believed to hold the key to ancient sciences, which the Fihrist associates with Hermes; a legend developed that Hermes had become the king of Egypt. Hermes Trismegistus was a complex figure in Greek texts, being identified with revelation and initiatory significances. Some modern commentators have dwelt on parallels with the Egyptian god Thoth, patron of learning and lord of wisdom, an association deriving from the era when the Egyptian priesthood were still in existence (until the fourth century CE), prior to the ban on all pagan cults by the Emperor Theodosius.

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, and this was the reason why Greek settlers applied the name of Panopolis to the ancient town. The early Coptic Christians subsequently employed the name of Khmin (from which Akhmim apparently derived). During the Christian Coptic era, a number of monasteries appeared in the area, and the mood was then strongly against the pagan monuments, which were subject to destruction. The early Muslims were far less iconoclastic, and the literati identified such monuments with Hermes Trismegistus.

In the time of Dhu'l Nun, an ancient temple (apparently devoted to Min) 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 may even have been as large as the Karnak temple complex so famous today. The Akhmim temple was not destroyed until the fourteenth century, the stone being used for local buildings. Archaeologists have recently confirmed that a significant temple did exist at Akhmim, though findings and reports are still regarded as preliminary. The Graeco-Roman era and earlier periods have been stipulated. The discovery of two large statues of Ramessid association caused widespread interest. Much excavation work remains to be done.

The Akhmim temple is likely to have provided a major focus for the ruminations of Dhu'l Nun about antiquity. He may have heard about Greek alchemists of the "Hermetic tradition," men who had lived in Akhmim and elsewhere in earlier centuries. The most famous of these alchemists is now Zosimos of Panopolis (fl. c. 300 CE), whose writings were known to the Arabic alchemical tradition, though very little is known about the life of Zosimos. (11)

3.  The  Hermetic  Alchemist

Confirmation of Dhul Nun's "dual" background is found in the accounts given by the bibliographer of science Said al-Andalusi (d. 1070) and by Ibn al-Qifti (1172-1248). The former composed the Tabaqat al-Umam, which surveys the sciences amongst the Greeks and other nations. Al-Qifti is more well known and was born in Egypt, later becoming a wazir (minister) to the Ayyubid rulers of Aleppo. The Tarikh al-Hukama (History of the Philosophers) is a compendium of Al-Qifti, and this 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." (12)

The indications are that the esoteric knowledge referred to in this passage was convergent with the Sufi path of saintship. The association with Jabir ibn Hayyan is of interest, the latter having the name of al-Sufi, as we know from the Fihrist of Al-Nadim, who urged the authenticity of Jabir in the face of some contemporary criticism of the rather prolific Jabir Corpus. The full title of Al-Nadim's book is Fihrist al-Ulum (Index of Sciences), and the author was a bibliophile of some standing.

Al-Nadim (c. 935- 990) may have been a government secretary at Baghdad, and 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 was originally written as a catalogue for his family bookshop at Baghdad, but developed into an "erudite encyclopaedia of Islamic culture" to employ a description by 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. (13)  He was definitely one of the more erudite Shi'i Muslims, and was evidently in sympathy with the Hermetic art, to which he devoted a separate chapter at the end of his tome. (14)

Al-Nadim names Dhu'l Nun al-Misri as one of the philosophers who spoke of the Hermetic art (i.e., alchemy), and 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. (15)  Again, there is the same dual connotation: ascetic Sufism and philosophy in a Hermetic version.

Hermeticism is currently a strange word in popular usage, and has too often been employed undiscerningly. The Hermetic "mysteries" are celebrated in the Greek texts now known as Corpus Hermeticum, dating back to the early centuries of the Christian era, and perhaps earlier. 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, (16) though the Corpus contains less than twenty. These are sometimes called the "philosophical" Hermetica (in the revelatory sense), being distinct from a larger body of more diverse "occultist" texts. This literature was produced by a Greek-speaking milieu in Egypt with syncretistic tendencies, and some native elements have been credited. 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 various texts represent trends of popular Graeco-Egyptian religious thought during the Ptolemaic, Roman, and early Christian periods.

Hermeticism was closely related to alchemy, which was a favoured "art" amongst the Greeks. Both Arab and Iranian Muslims took up this "art," though some differing approaches were involved. The 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. It seems that Dhu'l Nun was in the former category. He was highly esteemed by other alchemists who belonged to the same Egyptian milieu. Uthman ibn Suwaid Abu Hari al-Akhmimi was perhaps a younger contemporary, and described by Al-Nadim as "a leader in the art of alchemy." Amongst the books of al-Akhmimi was one entitled "Clearing Dhu'l Nun al-Misri of False Charges." (17) This was possibly a reference to the accusations of heresy (see section 1 above).

Dhu'l Nun is also quoted as an alchemical authority in the Ma' al-Waraqi of Abu Abdulla Muhammad ibn Umayl al-Tamimi, known as al-Hakim (the sage, or loosely "philosopher" in some translations). This Egyptian alchemist (known as Ibn Umayl) probably lived during the first half of the tenth century. Ibn Umayl was one of those who had an interest in the ancient temples and their wall-paintings, demonstrated by his description of two "quasi-archaeological expeditions" to a temple at Busir al-Sidr with the purported intention of finding documents of alchemical wisdom. (18) This follows a common theme in Hermetic literature, and one apparently not intended to be taken literally, though it has been pointed out that the 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. (19) Whatever the interpretation here, some "sayings" of Hermes Trismegistus quoted by Ibn Umayl were taken from Greek originals, though others are considered to be of tenth century Arabic origin. (20)

Early Islamic alchemy was evidently in close affinity with the Hermetic tradition inherited from the Greeks. The hieroglyphs were associated with a complex lore considered esoteric by the Muslim Hermeticists, a grouping who came into existence during the ninth century. These men were "philosophers" (hukama) in a "neoPythagorean" or "Neoplatonist" sense associated with Iamblichus rather than Plotinus, who was revived during the ninth century in a translation confused with Aristotle (i.e., the so-called Theology of Aristotle).

There was a strong Islamisation of Hermetic lore by the tenth century. Masudi and Al-Nadim identified the Quranic prophet Idris with Hermes, a figure then associated with the evocative "Sabaeans" of Harran (in Mesopotamia), who in the early ninth century claimed their prophet as Idris/Hermes, thus gaining "protected people" (dhimmi) status under the Caliph al-Mamun. According to Shahrastani (1086-1153), the pagan people of Harran claimed to be the Sabaeans named in the Quran (surah 2 verse 62).

Idris became assimilated to a threefold Hermes. Muslim scholars tried to make sense of antique lore by concluding that there were three ancient sages named Hermes, whom they called Hirmis. Hermes Trismegistus became known in Arabic as Hirmis al-muthallath bi'l-hikma, meaning "Hermes, threefold in wisdom." A more common rendition was Hirmis al-Haramisah or "Hermes of the Hermai." This theme underwent various adventures, an influential version being contributed by the Muslim astrologer Abu Mashar al-Balkhi (787-886), who wrote the Book of Thousands, now lost, though the section on Hermes was reproduced in other sources. The first Hermes (the prophet Idris) is here depicted as living in Egypt and building the Pyramids and temples. Because he feared that all knowledge would be lost in the pending flood, he built 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 and to have taught Pythagoras, being skilled in philosophy and medicine and 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.

This elaborate lore notably acted as an index to ancient religions and Greek philosophy for the Arabic-speaking literati. Preoccupation with Hermetic wisdom and "secrets" was a means of negotiating the orthodox Islamic disapproval of the alien traditions. In view of the Akhmim legend, the threefold Hermes lore could easily have fascinated Dhu'l Nun al-Misri.

Al-Nadim records that he had read a work by Ibn Wahshiyah (fl. 900 CE), which gave 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. Al-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." (21) The confusion between science and the sector of magic and talismans was still rife during the European renaissance. Ibn Wahshiyah (who is said to have translated from Syriac into Arabic) was an alchemist and "a magician who made talismans" according to Al-Nadim, who also referred to this alchemist by the epithet of al-Sufi. In these early days of Islam, the title of al-Sufi was used rather loosely, it would seem; the later "orthodox" connotations of the word sufi effectively restricted application of the terminology to a much more closely defined religious format. The Sufi teachings eschewed magic and talismans.

4.   Egyptology  Debate  about  the  Hieroglyphs 

The preoccupation with hieroglyphs has to be seen in due perspective, and was evidently related to a minority trend in which Hermetic "philosophers" of Islam, and other scholars, investigated "ancient sciences" in the available languages of Arabic, Syriac, Coptic, and Greek. Most Islamic alchemists were probably limited to the Arabic tongue.

Dhu'l Nun's birthplace of Akhmim (Panopolis) has been described as "a Christian town with a noteworthy scientific tradition, where a great many people knew Greek, Coptic, and Arabic." (22) Dhu'l Nun might therefore have acquired a knowledge of Greek in his native town, in addition to his Arabic education. However, most scholars would consider this unlikely; even the philosopher Al-Farabi does not appear to have been familiar with Greek.

A recent (and controversial) contribution from an Egyptologist, Dr. Okasha El Daly (see egyptology), has served to highlight the issue of medieval Arab interest in ancient Egyptian remains. That interest was extensive, more so than has generally been credited. The El Daly thesis has emphasised the Arabic interest in ancient Egypt as being inspired by Quranic reference to Pharaoh, reports of early Muslim travellers, and the Copts. Forms of archaeology occurred, though 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)

The El Daly coverage mentions many medieval Egyptian writers such as the ninth century Ayub Ibn Maslama, who is said to have deciphered various texts for the Caliph al-Mamun during the latter's visit to Egypt. However, a major importance attaches to Dhu'l Nun al-Misri, and attention is given to a manual attributed to him that was located in Turkey, being an eighteenth century manuscript copy. This manual was 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. (24)

This achievement is viewed as being facilitated by recourse to the contemporary Coptic language, preserved by Christian priests. Dr. El Daly has also stressed the significance of the alchemist Ibn Wahshiyah, who was not an Egyptian but an Iraqi (or Iraqi Aramaean), and who has long been the subject of specialist probes and disagreements. (25) The latter's Kitab Shawq al-Mustaham profiles ancient scripts, including the Egyptian hieroglyphs. El Daly implies that some of the hieroglyphs had been deciphered by Ibn Wahshiyah.

A critical response to the El Daly 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, who objects that "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, and that 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 that "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, "the work of some medieval Arabic scholars may well have inspired, via Kircher, the work of Champollion." (The quotations are from the egyptologyforum.org book review, dated June 2005, by A.K. Eyma.)

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, and displays "a good knowledge of native traditions and of the ancient history and monuments of Egypt." (26) 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.

5.  The  Sufi  Gnostic

Some Arabic sources say that Dhu'l Nun early visited Fustat (Old Cairo), a garrison town of the Delta which replaced Alexandria as the capital of Egypt.

A report that the Alexandrian library was burned by the Arab invaders during the 640s has been regarded as spurious by modern scholars. The fiction cannot be traced earlier than circa 1200, at a time when the trends in Islamic learning were changing for the worse, and the anti-scientific and anti-philosophical tendencies were mounting. The early administration of Islamic Egypt preserved the literary heritage of the country, including what had survived from the Alexandrian library, whose contents had been committed to the flames centuries before the coming of Islam. In reality, the medical literature of Alexandria was made available to later translators and practitioners, as confirmed by the number of notable native physicians among the Copts during the pre-Fatimid era. The Greek medical compendia of Alexandria were translated into Arabic during the ninth century, being incorporated into new medical encyclopaedias. (27)

In the time of Dhu'l Nun, scientific acumen was increasing amongst liberal Muslims; he himself is reputed to have studied medicine in addition to the Quran and hadith. At some point he adopted an ascetic life; he is reported to have travelled in Arabia, Syria, and Palestine. He is said to have visited the Muslim ascetics on Mount Lukkam, near Antioch. According to the early (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 episode (possibly relating to the same entity) is found in Hujwiri's Kashf al-Mahjub, which describes an encounter occurring 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. (28)

Key events were the two stigmatisations of Dhu'l Nun as a heretic (section 1 above), though the information is sparse, and also inflated with regard to the intervention of the Caliph al-Mutawakkil (rgd 847-861). (29) 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 that is put into the mouth of Dhu'l Nun (30)  has been regarded as an embellishment.

The Caliph al-Mutawakkil reversed the policies of his predecessors, dispensing with the Mutazili doctrine and the associated inquisition, a situation which had buttressed "the religious importance of the Caliph" by implying that the Quran was "subject to authoritative Caliphal interpretation" (31) This situation 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 that occurred in Egypt amongst the discontented peasantry. The less privileged Arab settlers made common cause with the subordinated Copts at that time, but lost to the imperial regime, which diverted Egyptian revenue to Baghdad, a disastrous policy which encompassed the ruin of agriculture in the Nile valley. (32)

The orthodox reporting of 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 "second" heresy possessed a deeper content which escaped memory. This question is independent of the queries relating to an esoteric commentary on the Quran ascribed to Jafar Sadiq, a book with which Dhu'l Nun is associated in an editorial capacity. That commentary (tafsir) was accommodated to a Shi'i perspective. (33)

Upon his return to Egypt from Iraq, Dhu'l Nun apparently settled (or resettled) in the Fustat (Old Cairo) area. Fustat was the first Islamic capital of Egypt. Cairo was built to the north in the late tenth century, and eventually absorbed Fustat (today Old Cairo). The Abbasid Caliphs moved the capital to the closely adjacent city of Al-Askar during the period 750-868, which encompasses the life of Dhu'l Nun.

His death occurred at nearby Giza (then a village), 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. His tombstone has been commemorated, located in one of the cemeteries at Old Cairo. (34)

The Giza Pyramids

The sources credit Dhu'l Nun with a large number of disciples in tasawwuf (Sufism). It seems unlikely that he trained all of them in an exclusively ascetic lifestyle.The tenth century Sufi annalist Kalabadhi early reported the Egyptian's answer to a question concerning the gnostic ideal: "He [the gnostic] is a man who, being with them, is yet apart from them." (35) This Arabic reflection is reminiscent of a Persian phrase later favoured by some Sufis: "Be in the world but not of the world."

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) though the details are fragmentary.

The 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 which reveal the 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 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. Yet 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) This subject of the relegated "Hermetic" Dhu'l Nun is capable of evoking disagreement, though it is necessary to be realistic in deciphering the profile.

Maliki jurists and right wing Mutazili theologians would probably have been indifferent and uncomprehending even if Dhu'l Nun had succeeded in deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphs, though any suggestion of a ninth century Rosetta Stone merely seems preposterous to modern sceptics of antique ingenuity. He would have needed to know Coptic, and a multilingual artefact would have been a priority. According to the El Daly theory (section 4 above), Dhu'l Nun was familiar with Coptic, and there were numerous surviving objects that displayed two or three languages translating the same hieroglyphic text. The same innovative Egyptologist has emphasised that Champollion benefited from study of the book on Coptic grammar by Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), a seminal work relating to Arabic manuscripts. El Daly has also stressed that Champollion was at some pains to study Arabic.

Kircher was a German Jesuit who established the link between hieroglyphics and Coptic, and he has been considered the founder of Egyptology. However, his efforts to decipher the hieroglyphs were misfounded. 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, and acquired a new home in the British Museum. The stele bears the same inscription in three scripts: classical Greek, demotic Egyptian, and hieroglyphs. The knowledge of Coptic possessed by Champollion has been deemed the key factor in penetrating the phonetics of ancient Egyptian. He grasped that the hieroglyphs had to be read as a phonetic script, and not as a symbolic script.

Champollion could read Coptic and Greek, and by investigating the seven demotic signs in Coptic, he was able to trace the significances in some of the hieroglyphs. Afterwards he ingeniously created an alphabet to decipher the remaining hieroglyphs. There was nothing esoteric in the stele hieroglyphs, as 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 stele dates to the early second century BC.

El Daly has argued that ninth century Arabic-speaking literati had plumbed the fact that sounds were crucial to the decipherment of hieroglyphs. He has made the accusation that a Eurocentric view subsequently ignored the findings of Arabic scholarship (more especially in the case of Ibn Wahshiya).

In relation to other linguistic matters, there have been conjectures about a basic appellation. The Arabic name Dhu'l Nun can mean "Lord of the Fish," (nun can mean "fish" or the letter nun, i.e., n). The sobriquet is found in the Quran, (38)   and referring to the Biblical entity Jonah and his adventure with the whale (= fish). Jonah is acknowledged by the Quran as a prophet. According to one suggestion, the associative name may have been bestowed upon Abu'l Faiz Thauban as a title of some gnostic significance. Others merely read "he of the letter nun," though that alternative involves a further conjecture as to the meaning intended. Certainly, some Persian Sufi sources awarded associations of mystical achievement to the "fish" theme denoted. In his discourses known as Fihi Ma Fihi, Jalal al-Din Rumi (d. 1273) cites a tradition of Muhammad: "Do not prefer me above Jonah son of Matthew, in that his ascension was in the belly of the whale while my ascension was in heaven upon the Throne." (39)

The gulf between religiosity and gnostic (arif) psychology is indicated in a reported Sufi saying of Dhu'l Nun: "Ordinary men repent of their sins, but the elect repent of their heedlessness." (40) The Arabic term ghafla (heedlessness) was inverse to sincerity (sidq), which was a key term in early Sufi texts. Many heedless people imagine they are sincere, including presumed mystics. According to the Dhu'l Nun transmission: "Sincerity (sidq) is a divine sword which cuts all bonds." (41)  A related emphasis of this Egyptian mystic was that of avoiding any pretension to gnosis, a pretension nowadays too frequently visible in diverse cults and sects.

6.   Canonical  Annals  of  Sufism

Orthodox annalists of Sufism tend to report the career of Dhu'l Nun in an unsatisfactory manner, despite the more exemplary contribution of Abu Nuaym al-Isfahani (d. 1038). The latter was a traditionist of Iran who devoted a substantial section to Dhu'l Nun in his lengthy Hilyat al-Awliya, and who did not neglect to include the belief in the prowess of the Egyptian gnostic with hieroglyphs. Abu Nuaym is associated with transmission of the Syrian and Iraqi traditions, as distinct from the less prolific Egyptian reports of the subject. Abu Nuaym was writing as a traditionist and not as a Sufi. (42)

Upon close inspection, it is mainly the sayings of Dhu'l Nun which receive attention in the annals of canonical Sufism. Many of his sayings were relayed by the Iranian exegetes Abu Nasr Sarraj, Sulami, Qushayri, and Ansari. The biographical complement is very anecdotal, and attended by presumed miracles (karamat). The twelfth century Iranian poet Attar of Nishapur typically embellished anecdotes in his Tazkhirat al-Awliya (Memorial of the Saints).

Some of these reports give the subject a high rating, apparently because he was regarded as an innovator in gnosis. Hujwiri (eleventh century) comments that this "son of a Nubian" was "one of the best" Sufi exemplars; Hujwiri appears to be influenced here by the belief that Dhu'l Nun followed the path of "blame" or malamat (a term closely associated with Khurasan, though not with Egypt). Hujwiri adds that the people of Egypt did not believe in Dhu'l Nun until after his death, a realistic detail, but then 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.

Long after, in distant Herat, Jami (fifteenth century) gave high praise to Dhu'l Nun in his Nafahat al-Uns. The 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 dicta do not convincingly profile ninth century events. Dhu'l Nun is stipulated by Hujwiri and others to have been an 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 that prospect, the "orthodox Sufi" sources 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.

7.  Theory  of  Christian  Neoplatonist  Influence

The "Christian Neoplatonist" interpretation was not excluded by the "Islamic" theory (relating to Sufism) associated with Louis Massignon. Since the nineteenth century, the influence upon early Sufism of Dionysius Areopagiticus has been emphasised by Christian investigators, and more recently urged in relation to Dhu'l Nun by the versatile Roman Catholic scholars Louis Gardet and Georges Anawati.

The Pseudo-Dionysius was composing circa 500 CE, and is often 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. Different scholarly theories about his exposition can be confusing. 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, and 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, having the intention of mastering the pagan sources and thus defeating the rival sector. (46) See also Damascius.

Some commentators have referred to the less prominent Stephen Bar Sudaili, who has been 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 the treatise as "one of the most amazing mystical books ever written by a Christian," and 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.  (47)

The mystics amongst the Eastern Christians were much nearer pagan and Oriental heresies 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, it is very questionable to attribute his formulation of the "stages, stations and states" of the Sufi path to Christian sources, "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)." (48) 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 preferences. 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 a relatively early 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." (49)

8.   R. A.  Nicholson's  Neoplatonist  Theory

The "purist" Neoplatonist interpretation of Professor Reynold A. Nicholson argued for the influence of Plotinus, though not implying any direct textual influence as a necessity for this theory. Rather, Greek Neoplatonism was "in the air" such Sufis breathed. (50)   That theme is open-ended, and does evoke significant complexities, though not of a definitive kind.

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, though 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 was 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.

It is not known whether Dhu'l Nun al-Misri was familiar with Greek. Certainly, the Coptic language had adopted the Greek alphabet. There was an unusual degree of linguistic overlap in certain aspects of the Egyptian culture at this period. Although the official language of the Islamic administration in Egypt had been changed from Greek to Arabic at the order of the Caliph in 694 CE, the Byzantine administrative system 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 have the Arab settlers take over the administration, which then formed 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, and also Greek numbers, were used in official documents three centuries after the administrative reform was commenced. (51)  

A relevant point is that the 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 the more selective sources involved in Christian Neoplatonism. (52)

One of the Arabic sources is Ibn Khallikan (d. 1282), a qazi (legist) of Damascus who produced a large collection of biographies in his Wafayat al-Ayan. The entry on Dhu'l Nun here describes him as a philosopher (hakim) and learned man who spoke elegant Arabic. (53)  A polymathic range is deducible. Some analysts of Sufism have been liberal in their assessment of such sources. It has even been asserted that Dhu'l Nun was "well versed in philosophy, law, literature, alchemy, ancient Egyptian history, and hieroglyphics," and furthermore that he was "the model of a renaissance man." (54)  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 online).

9.  The  Palacios  Version

A contemporary of the British scholar Reynold A. Nicholson was the Spanish Arabist Miguel Asin Palacios. The latter wrote an appendix on Dhu'l Nun in his book about Ibn Masarra (d. 931) of Spain. Though brief, this appendix was sufficiently evocative to be influential.

A Christianising accent is discernible in some interpretations of Palacios, who viewed the Nubian (and non-Arab) ethnicity of Dhu'l Nun, and 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 in which the hermit Palamon had taught the Coptic saint Pachomius (Pakhom) several centuries before, the latter founding 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, and this 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. (Elsewhere, there is an earlier reference to a Maliki ascetic as a teacher of Dhu'l Nun, though with chronological and other contextual difficulties.)

Via Said al-Andalusi and Al-Qifti, Palacios acknowledges that Akhmim had the repute of being an "ancient centre of the esoteric sciences," the Arabic tradition attributing to Dhu'l Nun a knowledge of alchemy and magic, "the Hermetic art of deciphering the hieroglyphs," and the interpretation of dreams.

Citing Ibn Khallikan and others, Palacios construes that the subject's teaching and fame as a saint provoked the envy of legists and aroused fear in the civil authorities. His "ideas about the ecstatic union" were condemned as heretical, though he was acquitted in a trial before the ruler of Egypt. Palacios tends to conflate the first and second frictions with orthodoxy (section 1 above), saying that the subject was afterwards sent to a prison in Baghdad, and subsequently vindicated by the Caliph al-Mutawakkil. (57)  

10.  Leaven  of  the  Pythagoreans

The "Islamic Neoplatonist" interpretation 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, though ultimately linked to Hermes, the "father of philosophers" (walid al-hukama). The "leaven of the Pythagoreans" devolved upon the "brother of Ikhmim," 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 Bazid Bistami, Hallaj, and Kharaqani. Dhu'l Nun is here an Islamic NeoPythagoran or Hermeticist, linking to Pythagoras and the ancient Egyptians in the rather complex "philosophical genealogy" emphasised by Suhrawardi in terms of a continuing ancient wisdom spread amongst different nations. (58) The theme of "the eternal leaven" (al-hamirat al-azaliyya) referred to a wisdom tradition which Suhrawardi claimed to inherit.

Investigating this claim of Suhrawardi, Professor John Walbridge has stated that "Dhu'l Nun was as much an alchemist as a Sufi." (59) The persistent tradition of alchemy at Akhmim is difficult to ignore. The same American scholar cites the suggestion of Garth Fowden that Panopolis was the centre of a cult which produced the Corpus Hermeticum during the early Christian era. Whether or not that suggestion is accurate, 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, who was associated with Thoth.

The early Islamic phase of alchemy is strongly associated with Akhmim due to the output of Uthman ibn Suwayd al-Akhmimi and Butrus al-Hakim al-Akhmimi, both of them apparently ninth century figures. Some scholars have deduced that Uthman ibn Suwayd was almost certainly the author of the original Turba Philosophorum, a well known work featuring alchemical views attributed to a gathering of early Greek philosophers over whom Pythagoras presided. That work was translated from Arabic into Latin. Butrus al-Hakim composed works citing Hermes and Zosimos of Panopolis (Akhmim). (60)

The strong convergence between mysticism and magic in the pre-Islamic Hermetic mindset is disconcerting. The famous Hermetic text Asclepius has been criticised 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 (circa 300 CE) 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 has earned approval for his dismissal of the undiscerning Hermetic conflations (now rampant amongst modern occultists). "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)

Alchemists varied in their outlook. Insofar as Dhu'l Nun is concerned, the Suhrawardi ascription of a Hermetic genealogy has been endorsed by Professor Walbridge in terms of:

"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." (63)

11.  Conclusion

Dhu'l Nun al-Misri is likely to remain one of the most fascinating figures in early Sufism. Categorical answers to dilemmas concerning his environmental context are elusive, though it is not convincing to annul the "Hermetic" component of his semi-legendary biography, as some commentators have done. Even if none of the attributed "Hermetic" texts are his own, his role at the intersection of formative Sufism and pre-Islamic Egyptian associations is evocative. An underlying question relates to whether a Sufi gnostic could be a philosopher. The Hermetic version of philosophy amounted to revelation, and not the rational thought which non-Hermetic Greek philosophers pursued in addition to the mystical legacies. There were thus different kinds of antique philosopher. The extent of Dhu'l Nun's polymathy is unknown, though it is not difficult to concede his familiarity with scripts, including the Coptic.

As an extension to these considerations, one could envisage that the subject started life as a Maliki traditionist, transited to the ambience of a neo-Hermetic alchemist, and ended up as a Sufi gnostic by 829 (though quite conceivably having been a Sufi or proto-Sufi ascetic at an earlier period). His profile as a heretic was duplicated in relation to the Egyptian Malikis and the right wing Mutazilis, and perhaps the same basic reasons were underlying. The conventional view that he was upholding Maliki literalism is not convincing. His local "Hermetic" reputation, apparently gained during his early years at Akhmim, may have continued as an aspect of his mature mystical career. He appears to have spent many years in the Fustat area of Lower Egypt, but that factor in itself is no guide to his mentation.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd

May 2010



(1)     See T. Mayer, "Theology and Sufism" (258-287) in T. Winter, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology (Cambridge University Press, 2008).

(2)      A. 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.

(3)      A. Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam (University of North Carolina Press, 1975), pp. 42-3.

(4)      Shepherd, Meaning in Anthropos (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1991, p. 109, deferring to possible Coptic (or Arab) maternal ancestry, and in a context of polymathy furthermore resistant to some European racial biases, a context which included the comment: "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."

(5)       R. 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, and adopted by the Quraysh.

(6)       N. Grimal, A History of Ancient Egypt, trans. I. Shaw (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), p. 89, and referring to the wealth of local rulers being "apparent in the provincial necropolises at Cusae, Akhmim, Abydos, Edfu and Elephantine."

(7)       E. G. Browne, A Literary History of Persia Vol. 1 (1902; repr. Cambridge University Press, 1928), pp. 419-20.

(8)       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," though he did not effectively separate the two traditions here conflated. Certain other influential scholars were preoccupied with the "Indian" theory at that date, and this situation tended to eclipse the Iranian factor.

(10)     This is the translation of Nicholson in "A Historical Enquiry Concerning the Origin and Development of Sufism" (1906).

(11)      Cf. Nicholson, art. cit., p. 313; G. Wiet, "Barba," Encyclopaedia of Islam Vol. 1 (new edn), pp. 1038-9; idem, "Akhmim," Ency. Islam Vol. 1, p. 330; Grimal, A Hist. of Ancient Egypt, p. 3, observing that "the Hermetic Corpus... was later to be the main means of access to a civilisation that had become incomprehensible to Christians." The closure of Egyptian temples during the fourth century CE ended with the massacre of the Serapeum priests at Memphis (ibid.).

(12)     The translation is from Nicholson, art. cit., who comments that the true character of Dhu'l Nun appears distinctly in this account. 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.

(13)     B. Dodge, trans., The Fihrist of Al-Nadim Vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1970), p. xv, who also infers that the author was a Mutazili sympathiser. Al-Nadim is known to have attended an Ismaili meeting, but Dodge says that this does not imply sectarianism.

(14)     In some of my books, I referred in notes to my Survey of the Sufi Phenomenon, an unpublished manuscript composed during the 1980s. Dhu'l Nun al-Misri was entry no. 23 in that ms., an entry which has since been edited and expanded for the current article. Entries 24 and 25 of that ms. related to Jabir ibn Hayyan and Ibn Wahshiya. The ms. was unfinished, but included thirteenth century figures; an earlier version described Indian Sufism until the nineteenth century.

(15)     Dodge, trans., The Fihrist of Al-Nadim Vol. 2, pp. 850. 862.

(16)     B. P. Copenhaver, Hermetica (Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. xvi, and referring to the inflated listings of Seleucus and Manetho.

(17)     Dodge, trans., The Fihrist Vol. 2, p. 865.

(18)     G. Strohmaier, "Ibn Umayl," Encyclopaedia of Islam Vol. 3 (new edn), pp. 961-2.

(19)     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).

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

(21)     Dodge, trans., The Fihrist Vol. 2, pp. 864-5. Dodge says that Faqitus may mean Quftus, equivalent to Coptos. On Abu Mashar al-Balkhi and the threefold Hermes lore, see J. Walbridge, The Wisdom of the Mystic East: Suhrawardi and Platonic Orientalism (State University of New York Press, 2001), pp. 20-1.

(22)     E. J. Holmyard, Alchemy (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1957), p. 83.

(23)     See O. El Daly, Egyptology: The Missing Millenium - Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings (London: UCL Press, 2005).

(24)     Ibid., pp. 57ff., 163ff.

(25)     Still regarded as a curiosity is the translation by Joseph Hammer of Ibn Wahshiya's Kitab Shawq al-Mustaham. This bore 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 reference to Egyptian priests is misleading, as Ibn Wahshiya was referring to a Hermetic theme. This work is a distinctive, if idiosyncratic, catalogue of 93 cryptic alphabets (or ciphers) attributed to various ancient peoples and traditions, including the Egyptians, Greeks, and Hindus. Hammer gave what now reads as a very antiquated translation of a manuscript found at Cairo, the text of which is reproduced. It is apparent that Al-Nadim was referring to the same treatise.The ensuing European cycle of commentary on Ibn Wahshiya was varied, and resulted 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 Wahshiya 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), which dates the text in question at circa 600 AD, and describing that text as a translation from a Syriac version of an obscure Greek source.

(26)     O. El Daly, Egyptology: The Missing Millenium, p. 165.

(27)     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.

(28)      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., and observing that in the earlier centuries of Islam, women had a much larger share in religious scholarship than is usually appreciated.

(29)     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.

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

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

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

(33)      Cf. L. Massignon, Essai sur les origines du lexique technique de la mystique musulmane (second edn, Paris 1954), pp. 206-7, who treats 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.

(34)      See L. Massignon, Recueil de textes inedits concernant l'histoire de la mystique en pays d'Islam (Paris 1929), pp. 15-17.

(35)      Arberry, The Doctrine of the Sufis, p. 140.

(36)     This detail comes from a lost work of Ibn Bakuyah (d. 1037) that is 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, who urged that the alchemical and "cabbalistic" works of Dhu'l Nun  are apocryphal, and that the traditions pertaining to the hieroglyphs are erroneous. Massignon believed 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. The French scholar made no attempt to reconstruct the native Egyptian milieu. His views were closely followed by Dr. Margaret Smith, whose entry in The Encyclopaedia of Islam Vol. 2 (1965), p. 242, omits relevant Arabic sources on Dhu'l Nun such as Masudi, Al-Nadim, Said al-Andalusi, and Al-Qifti. She did, however, concede 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 recognises the Hermetic background provided by Said al-Andalusi and others, though asserting a Christian influence. Cf. C. Brockelmann, Geschichte der Arabischen Litteratur Vol. 1 (second edn, Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1943), p. 214, who lists 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)     Quran, surah 21 verse 87. The Pickthall translation says that Dhu'n Nun here means "Lord of the Fish," meaning Jonah. See M. M. Pickthall, The Meaning of the Glorious Koran (New York: Mentor, 1953), p. 239.

(39)     A. J. Arberry, Discourses of Rumi (London: John Murray, 1961), p. 114; A. Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam (1975), p. 416.

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

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

(42)     Abu Nuaym included over six hundred biographies in his Hilyat, though 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." See A. 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)    See H. D. Saffrey, "New Objective Links between the Pseudo-Dionysius and Proclus" (64-74) in D. J. O'Meara, ed., Neoplatonism and Christian Thought (State University of New York Press, 1982). See also B. McGinn, The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism Vol. 1 - The Foundations of Mysticism (London: SCM Press, 1992), pp. 157ff.

(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 that "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)    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.

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

(50)    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, though 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, prior to his transition to Islamic studies.

(51)    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.

(52)    Nicholson, The Mystics of Islam (London 1914), pp. 12-13.

(53)    A translation has long been available in M. de Slane, trans., Ibn Khallikan's Biographical Dictionary Vol. 1 (Paris: Oriental Translation Fund of Great Britain and Ireland, 1842), pp. 291ff.

(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)     M. 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., p. 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., pp. 165-6, 167-8.

(58)     See further H. 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., and referring to Suhrawardi as "a Sufi of sorts" (ibid., p. 30), though the main emphasis relates to Islamic Neoplatonism.

(59)      J. Walbridge, The Wisdom of the Mystic East: Suhrawardi and Platonic Orientalism (State University of New York Press, 2001), p. 44.

(60)      Walbridge, Wisdom of the Mystic East, pp. 44-5. See also G. Fowden, The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind (Cambridge University Press, 1986). See also P. Kingsley, Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic: Empedocles and Pythagorean Tradition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), pp. 389-90, stating that "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." On the Turba, see ibid., pp. 56ff. Concerning Egyptian alchemy, Kingsley interprets the evidence in terms of "very strongly implies the existence of a continuing and unbroken tradition in the place (Akhmim) from the third and fourth centuries AD down into the early Islamic period" (ibid., p. 59).

(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. This is a typical error of the Greek transmission concerning the Iranian prophet Zarathushtra, who was misrepresented in Greek lore as a magician.

(63)     Walbridge, Wisdom of the Mystic East, p. 46.