On Life, Death, and Languages: An Arabic Critical Edition and English Translation of Epistles 29-31

Publication Year



Edited and translated Eric Ormsby, Ph.D. 1981.

  • A key section from a classic work of medieval Islamic learning
  • Provides students and non-specialists with access to an Islamic philosophical treatise
  • Notes to technical concepts and obscure passages elucidate the text
  • Full contextual and expository introduction to the text, translation, and edition
  • Appendices offer glossary of technical terms and concordance of manuscripts and printed texts

The Ikhwān al-Ṣafā)q (Brethren of Purity), the anonymous adepts of a tenth-century esoteric fraternity based in Basra and Baghdad, hold an eminent position in the history of science and philosophy in Islam due to the wide reception and assimilation of their monumental encyclopaedia, the Rasā)qil Ikhwān al-Ṣafā)q (Epistles of the Brethren of Purity). This compendium contains fifty-two epistles offering synoptic accounts of the classical sciences and philosophies of the age; divided into four classificatory parts, it treats themes in mathematics, logic, natural philosophy, psychology, metaphysics, and theology, in addition to didactic fables.

The three epistles in this volume are among the most accessible and appealing of the Brethren of Purity's treatises. In their down-to-earth yet elegant style, they present age-old teachings on three fundamental issues: the nature of death, and what this means for body and soul; the truth about pleasure and pain, both physical and spiritual; and the multiplicity of human languages and their origins, beginning with a discussion of natural and mechanical sounds and proceeding to human speech. Rich with metaphors and illustrative parables, here we find outstanding examples of adab in the Arabic literary tradition, refined and genial philosophical discourses that reveal a high degree of sophistication and considerable literary flair.

Table of Contents

Introduction to Epistles 29–31
Technical Notes to Epistles 29–31
Epistle 29: Translation
Epistle 30: Translation
Epistle 31: Translation
Arabic Edition of Risāla 29
Arabic Edition of Risāla 30
Arabic Edition of Risāla 31
Arabic Index


"What is also useful are Ormsby's comments on how he set about translating each of this epistles, balancing readability, accuracy, literal rendition, and technical communication." -- Sajjad H. Rizvi, The Muslim World Book Review

Series Title
Epistles of the Brethren of Purity
Oxford University Press