Sunday, October 05, 2008

Ibn Sina -Avicenna Islamic Philosophy

Ibn Sina (Avicenna) (973-1037):
On Medicine, c. 1020 CE
Medieval Sourcebook

Avicenna (973-1037) was a sort of universal genius, known first as a physician. To his works on medicine he afterward added religious tracts, poems, works on philosophy, on logic, as physics, on mathematics, and on astronomy. He was also a statesman and a soldier, and he is said to have died of debauchery.

Medicine considers the human body as to the means by which it is cured and by which it is driven away from health. The knowledge of anything, since all things have causes, is not acquired or complete unless it is known by its causes. Therefore in medicine we ought to know the causes of sickness and health. And because health and sickness and their causes are sometimes manifest, and sometimes hidden and not to be comprehended except by the study of symptoms, we must also study the symptoms of health and disease. Now it is established in the sciences that no knowledge is acquired save through the study of its causes and beginnings, if it has had causes and beginnings; nor completed except by knowledge of its accidents and accompanying essentials. Of these causes there are four kinds: material, efficient, formal, and final.

Material causes, on which health and sickness depend, are--- the affected member, which is the immediate subject, and the humors; and in these are the elements. And these two are subjects that, according to their mixing together, alter. In the composition and alteration of the substance which is thus composed, a certain unity is attained.

Efficient causes are the causes changing and preserving the conditions of the human body; as airs, and what are united with them; and evacuation and retention; and districts and cities, and habitable places, and what are united with them; and changes in age and diversities in it, and in races and arts and manners, and bodily and animate movings and restings, and sleepings and wakings on account of them; and in things which befall the human body when they touch it, and are either in accordance or at variance with nature.

Formal causes are physical constitutions, and combination and virtues which result from them. Final causes are operations. And in the science of operations lies the science of virtues, as we have set forth. These are the subjects of the doctrine of medicine; whence one inquires concerning the disease and curing of the human body. One ought to attain perfection in this research; namely, how health may be preserved and sickness cured. And the causes of this kind are rules in eating and drinking, and the choice of air, and the measure of exercise and rest; and doctoring with medicines and doctoring with the hands. All this with physicians is according to three species: the well, the sick, and the medium of whom we have spoken.

IBN SINA, Abu 'Ali al-Husayn b. 'Abd Allah b. Sina, is also known to the West as Avicenna.

Ibn Sina (Avicenna) is one of the foremost philosophers in the Medieval Hellenistic Islamic tradition that also includes al-Farabi and Ibn Rushd His philosophical theory is a comprehensive, detailed and rationalistic account of the nature of God and Being, in which he finds a systematic place for the corporeal world, spirit, insight, and the varieties of logical thought including dialectic, rhetoric and poetry.

Central to Ibn Sina’s philosophy is his concept of reality and reasoning. Reason, in his scheme, can allow progress through various levels of understanding and can finally lead to God, the ultimate truth. He stresses the importance of gaining knowledge, and develops a theory of knowledge based on four faculties: sense perception, retention, imagination and estimation. Imagination has the principal role in intellection, as it can compare and construct images which give it access to universals. Again the ultimate object of knowledge is God, the pure intellect.

In metaphysics, Ibn Sina makes a distinction between essence and existence; essence considers only the nature of things, and should be considered apart from their mental and physical realization. This distinction applies to all things except God, whom Ibn Sina identifies as the first cause and therefore both essence and existence. He also argued that the soul is incorporeal and cannot be destroyed. The soul, in his view, is an agent with choice in this world between good and evil, which in turn leads to reward or punishment.

Reference has sometimes been made to Ibn Sina’s supposed mysticism, but this would appear to be based on a misreading by Western philosophers of parts of his work. As one of the most important practitioners of philosophy, Ibn Sina exercised a strong influence over both other Islamic philosophers and medieval Europe. His work was one of the main targets of al-Ghazali’s attack on Hellenistic influences in Islam. In Latin translations, his works influenced many Christian philosophers, most notably Thomas Aquinas.

IBN SINA followed the encyclopedic conception of the sciences that had been traditional since the time of the Greek Sages in uniting philosophy with the study of nature and in seeing the perfection of man as lying in both knowledge and action. He was also as illustrious a physician as he was a philosopher.


Ibn Sina was born in AH 370/AD 980 near Bukhara in Central Asia, where his father governed a village in one of the royal estates. At thirteen, Ibn Sina began a study of medicine that resulted in ‘distinguished physicians . . . reading the science of medicine under [him]’ (Sirat al-shaykh al-ra’is (The Life of Ibn Sina): 27). His medical expertise brought him to the attention of the Sultan of Bukhara, Nuh ibn Mansur, whom he treated successfully; as a result he was given permission to use the sultan’s library and its rare manuscripts, allowing him to continue his research into modes of knowledge.

When the sultan died, the heir to the throne, ‘Ali ibn Shams al-Dawla, asked Ibn Sina to continue al vizier, but the philosopher was negotiating to join the forces of another son of the late king, Ala al-Dawla, and so went into hiding. During this time he composed his major philosophical treatise, Kitab al-shifa’ (Book of Healing), a comprehensive account of learning that ranges from logic and mathematics to metaphysics and the afterlife. While he was writing the section on logic Ibn Sina was arrested and imprisoned, but he escaped to Isfahan, disguised as a Sufi, and joined Ala al-Dawla. While in the service of the latter he completed al-Shifa’ and produced the Kitab al-najat (Book of Salvation), an abridgment of al-Shifa’. He also produced at least two major works on logic: one, al-Mantiq, translated as The Propositional Logic of Ibn Sina, was a commentary on Aristotle’s Prior Analytics and forms part of al-Shifa’; the other, al-Isharat wa-‘I-tanbihat (Remarks and Admonitions), seems to be written in the ‘indicative mode’, where the reader must participate by working out the steps leading from the stated premises to proposed conclusions. He also produced a treatise on definitions and a summary of the theoretical sciences, together with a number of psychological, religious and other works; the latter include works on astronomy, medicine, philology and zoology, as well as poems and an allegorical work, Hayy ibn Yaqzan (The Living Son of the Vigilant). His biographer also mentions numerous short works on logic and metaphysics, and a book on ‘Fair Judgment’ that was lost when his prince’s fortunes suffered a turn. Ibn Sina’s philosophical and medical work and his political involvement continued until his death.

Reason and reality

Ibn Sina’s autobiography parallels his allegorical work, Hayy ibn Yaqzan. Both clarify how it is possible for individuals by themselves to arrive at the ultimate truths about reality, being and God. The autobiography shows how Ibn Sina more or less taught himself, although with particular kinds of help at significant moments, and proceeded through various levels of sophistication until he arrived at ultimate truths.

Such progress was possible because of Ibn Sina’s conception of reality and reasoning. He maintains that God, the principle of all existence, is pure intellect, from whom other existing things such as minds, bodies and other objects all emanate, and therefore to whom they are all necessarily related. That necessity, once it is fully understood, is rational and allows existents to be inferred from each other and, ultimately, from God. In effect, the totality of intelligibles is structured syllogistically and human knowledge consists of the mind’s reception and grasp of intelligible being. Since knowledge consists of grasping syllogistically structured intelligibles, it requires the use of reasoning to follow the relations between intelligibles. Among these intelligibles are first principles that include both concepts such as ‘the existent’, ‘the thing’ and ‘the necessary’, that make up the categories, and the truths of logic, including the first-figure syllogistics, all of which are basic, primitive and obvious. They cannot be explained further since all explanation and thought proceeds only on their basis. The rules of logic are also crucial to human development.

Ibn Sina’s stand on the fundamental nature of categorical concepts and logical forms follows central features of Aristotle’s thought in the Prior Analytics (see ARISTOTLE §§4-7). Borrowing from Aristotle, he also singles out a capacity for a mental act in which the knower spontaneously hits upon the middle term of a syllogism. Since rational arguments proceed syllogistically, the ability to hit upon the middle term is the ability to move an argument forward by seeing how given premises yield appropriate conclusions. It allows the person possessing this ability to develop arguments, to recognize the inferential relations between syllogisms. Moreover, since reality is structured syllogistically, the ability to hit upon the middle term and to develop arguments is crucial to moving knowledge of reality forward.

Ibn Sina holds that it is important to gain knowledge. Grasp of the intelligible determines the fate of the rational soul in the hereafter, and therefore is crucial to human activity. When the human intellect grasps these intelligible it comes into contact with the Active Intellect, a level of being that emanates ultimately from God, and receives a ‘divine effluence’. People may be ordered according to their capacity for gaining knowledge, and thus by their possession and development of the capacity for hitting on the middle term. At the highest point is the prophet, who knows the intelligible all at once, or nearly so. He has a pure rational soul and can know the intelligibles in their proper syllogistic order, including their middle terms. At the other end lies the impure person lacking in the capacity for developing arguments. Most people are in between these extremes, but they may improve their capacity for grasping the middle term by developing a balanced temperament and purity of soul (see LOGIC IN ISLAMIC PHILOSOPHY §1).

In relation to the older debate about the respective scopes of grammar and logic, Ibn Sina argues that since logic deals with concepts that can be abstracted from sensible material, it also escapes the contingencies of the latter. Language and grammar govern sensible material and therefore have a different domain; indeed, languages are various and their rules of operation, their grasp of sensible material, are likewise articulated variously (see LANGUAGE, PHILOSOPHY OF). Nevertheless, languages make available the abstracted concepts whose operation is governed by logic; yet if language deals with contingencies, it is not clear how it can grasp or make available the objects of logic. At times, as for example in al-Isharat, Ibn Sina suggests that languages generally share a structure.

Theory of knowledge

In his theory of knowledge, Ibn Sina identifies the mental faculties of the soul in terms of their epistemological function. As the discussion of logic in §2 has already suggested, knowledge begins with abstraction. Sense perception, being already mental, is the form of the object perceived (see SENSE AND REFERENCE §I). Sense perception responds to the particular with its given form and material accidents. As a mental event, being a perception of an object rather than the object itself, perception occurs in the particular. To analyse this response, classifying its formal features in abstraction from material accidents, we must both retain the images given by sensation and also manipulate them by disconnecting parts and aligning them according to their formal and other properties. However, retention and manipulation are distinct epistemological functions, and cannot depend on the same psychological faculty; therefore Ibn Sina distinguishes faculties of relation and manipulation as appropriate to those diverse epistemological functions (see EPISTEMOLOGY IN ISLAMIC PHILOSOPHY).

Ibn Sina identifies the retentive faculty as ‘representation’ and charges the imagination with the task of reproducing and manipulating images. To conceptualize our experience and to order it according to its qualities, we must have and be able to reinvoke images of what we experienced but is now absent. For this we need sensation and representation at least; in addition, to order and classify the content of representation, we must be able to discriminate, separate out and recombine parts of images, and therefore must possess imagination and reason. To think about a black flag we must be able to analyse its colour, separating this quality from others, or its part in the image from other images, and classify it with other black things, thereby showing that the concept of black applies to all such objects and their images. Imagination carries out this manipulation, allowing us to produce images of objects we have not seen in fact out of the images of things we have experienced, and thereby also generating images for intelligibles and prophecies.

Beyond sense perception, retention and imagination, Ibn Sina locates estimation (wahm). This is a faculty for perceiving non-sensible ‘intentions that exist in the individual sensible objects’. A sheep flees a wolf because it estimates that the animal may do it harm; this estimation is more than representation and imagination, since it includes an intention that is additional to the perceived and abstracted form and concept of the animal. Finally, there may be a faculty that retains the content of wahm, the meanings of images. Ibn Sina also relies on a faculty of common sense, involving awareness of the work and products of all the other faculties, which interrelates these features.

Of these faculties, imagination has a principal role in intellection. Its comparison and construction of images with given meanings gives it access to universals in that it is able to think of the universal by manipulating images (see UNIVERSALS). However, Ibn Sina explains this process of grasping the universal, this emergence of the universal in the human mind, as the result of an action on the mind by the Active Intellect. This intellect is the last of ten cosmic intellects that stand below God. In other words, the manipulation of images does not by itself procure a grasp of universals so much as train the mind to think the universals when they are given to the mind by the Active Intellect. Once achieved, the processes undergone in training inform the mind so that the latter can attend directly to the Active Intellect when required. Such direct access is crucial since the soul lacks any faculty for retaining universals and therefore repeatedly needs fresh access to the Active Intellect.

As the highest point above the Active Intellect, God, the pure intellect, is also the highest object of human knowledge. All sense experience, logic and the faculties of the human soul are therefore directed at grasping the fundamental structure of reality as it emanates from that source and, through various levels of being down to the Active Intellect, becomes available to human thought through reason or, in the case of prophets, intuition. By this conception, then, there is a close relation between logic, thought, experience, the grasp of the ultimate structure of reality and an understanding of God. As the highest and purest intellect, God is the source of all the existent things in the world. The latter emanate from that pure high intellect, and they are ordered according to a necessity that we can grasp by the use of rational conceptual thought (see NEOPLATONISM IN ISLAMIC PHILOSOPHY). These interconnections become clearer in Ibn Sina’s metaphysics.


His life is known to us from authoritative sources. An autobiography covers his first thirty years, and the rest are documented by his disciple al-Juzajani, who was also his secretary and his friend.

He was born in 370/980 in Afshana, his mother's home, near Bukhara. His native language was Persian. His father, an official of the Samanid administration, had him very carefully educated at Bukhara. His father and his brother were influenced by Isma'ili propaganda; he was certainly acquainted with its tenets, but refused to adopt them. His intellectual independence was served by an extraordinary intelligence and memory, which allowed him to overtake his teachers at the age of fourteen.

It was he, we are told, who explained logic to his master al-Natili. He had no teacher in the natural sciences or in medicine; in fact, famous physicians were working under his direction when he was only sixteen. He did, however, find difficulty in understanding Aristotle's Metaphysics, which he grasped only with the help of al-Farabi's commentary. Having cured the amir of Khurasan of a severe illness, he was allowed to make use of the splendid library of the Samanid princes. At the age of eighteen he had mastered all the then known sciences. His subsequent progress was due only to his personal judgment.

His training through contact with life was at least equal to his development in intellectual speculation. At the age of twenty-one he wrote his first philosophical book. The following year, however, the death of his father forced him to enter the administration in order to earn his living. His judgment was swiftly appreciated. Having consulted him on medical matters, the princes had recourse to him also in matters of politics. He was a minister several times, his advice being always listened to; but he became an object of envy, sometimes persecuted by his enemies and sometimes coveted by princes opposing those to whom he wished to remain loyal. He took flight and was obliged to hide on several occasions, earning his living by medical consultations. He was imprisoned, escaped, lived for fourteen years in relative peace at the court of Isfahan and died at Hamadan, during an expedition of the prince 'Ala’ al-Dawla, in 428/1037. He was buried there; and a monument was erected to him to celebrate the (hijri) millenary of his birth.

If his works are to be understood, they should not be thought of as those of a philosopher who lived in his books. He was occupied all day by affairs of state, and he laboured by night on his great works, which were written with astonishing rapidity. He was never safe, and was frequently compelled to move; he would write on horseback, and sometimes in prison, his only resource for reference being his memory. It has been found surprising that he differs from Aristotle in his works: but he quoted him without re-reading him, and, above all, his independence of mind inclined him to present his own personally worked out thought, rather than to repeat the works of another. Besides, his personal training was different. He was a man who lived in touch with the concrete, constantly faced with difficulties, and a great physician who dealt with specific cases. Aristotle's Logic seemed to him insufficient, because it could not be applied in a way that was sufficiently close to life. Many recent controversies have been aroused since the study of his works has increased, especially at the time of his millenary, but the most plausible view of his personality is still the following: he is a scientific man, who attempts to bring the Greek theories to the level of that which needs to be expressed by the study of the concrete, when apprehended by a great mind.

The secret of his evolution, however, will remain concealed from us as long as we do not possess such important works as the Kitab al-Insaf, the ‘Book of Impartial Judgment’, which investigated 28,000 questions, and his ‘Eastern Philosophy’, of which we have only a fragment.


The corpus of Ibn Sina's works that has come down to us is considerable, but incomplete. To the many questions that were put to him he replied hastily, without always taking care to keep his texts. Al-Juzajani has preserved several of these; others have been transmitted with different titles, others lost. The manuscript of the Insaf disappeared at the sack of Isfahan, in his own lifetime. The fundamental bibliography is that which al-Juzajani included in his biography, but it is not exhaustive. G. C. Anawati lists a total of 276 works, including texts noted as doubtful and some apocryphal works, in his bibliography of 1950. Mahdavi, in 1954, lists 131 authentic, and 110 doubtful works. Ibn Sina was known primarily as a philosopher and a physician, but he contributed also to the advancement of all the sciences that were accessible in his day: natural history, physics, chemistry, astronomy, mathematics, music. Economics and politics benefited from his experience as a statesman. Moral and religious questions (not necessarily pertaining to mysticism), Qur’anic exegesis, statements on ‘ufi doctrine and behaviour produced minor writings. He wrote poetry for instructional purposes, for he versified epitomes of logic and medicine, but he had also the abilities of a true poet, clothing his philosophical doctrine in images, both in verse (as in his poem on the soul) and in prose, in symbolic narratives whose meaning has given rise to controversy.

Medicine is the subject of separate works; but natural history and mathematics are thought of as parts of philosophy. Thus, his principal treatise on these sciences is included in the great Kitab al-Shifa’, ‘Book of Healing [of the Soul]’, in the same way as that on Metaphysics, while the famous Qanun fi 'l-tibb, ‘Canon of Medicine’, is a separate work.

The Qanun appears to have formed a more consciously coherent whole than the philosophical works. Because it constituted a monumental unity, which maintained its authority until modern times when experimental science began, and because it still remained more accessible than Hippocrates and Galen, it served as a basis for seven centuries of medical teaching and practice. Even today it is still possible to derive useful information from it, for Dr. 'Abd Allah Ahmadieh, a clinician of Tehran, has studied the therapeutics of Avicenna and is said to use them with good results, particularly in treating rheumatism.

The Qanun is the clear and ordered ‘Summa’ of all the medical knowledge of Ibn Sina's time, augmented from his own observations. It is divided into five books. The first contains generalities concerning the human body, sickness, health and general treatment and therapeutics (French translation of the treatise on Anatomy by P. de Koning, 1905; adaptation giving an incomplete resume of the first book, in English, by Cameron Grüner, 1930). The second contains the Materia Medica and the Pharmacology of herbs; the page on experimentation in medicine (115, of the Rome 1593 edition) quoted in the Introduction to the French translation of the Isharat, 58, is to be found there. This passage sets out the three methods-agreement, difference and concomitant variations-that are usually regarded as characteristic of modern science. The third book deals with special pathology, studied by organs, or rather by systems (German translation of the treatise on diseases of the eyes, by Hirschberg and Lippert, 1902). The fourth book opens with the famous treatise on fevers; then follow the treatise on signs, symptoms, diagnostics and prognostics, minor surgery, tumours, wounds, fractures and bites, and that on poisons. The fifth book contains the pharmacopoeia.

Several treatises take up in isolation a number of the data in the Qanun and deal with particular points. Some are very well-known: their smaller size assured them of a wide circulation. Among the most widely diffused are treatises on the pulse, the medical pharmacopoeia, advice for the conservation of health and the study of diarrhoea; in addition, monographs on various remedies, chicory, oxymel, balsam, bleeding. The virtues of wine are not neglected.

Physicians were offered a mnemonic in the form of a poem which established the essentials of Avicenna's theory and practice: principles, observations, advice on therapeutics and dietetics, simple surgical techniques. This is the famous Urjuza fi 'l-tibb, which was translated into Latin several times from the 13th to the 17th century, under the title Cantica Avicennae (ed. with French trans. by H. Jahier and A. Noureddine, Paris 1956, Poeme de la Medecine, together with Armengaud de Blaise's Latin translation).

Ibn Sina's philosophical works have come down to us in a mutilated condition. The important Kitab al-Shifa’ is complete (critical text in process of publication, Cairo 1952-). Extracts chosen by the author himself as being the most characteristic make up the Kitab al-Najat, ‘The Book of Salvation [from Error]’, which is not an independent redaction, as was thought until 1937 (table of concordances established by A.-M. Goichon in La distinction de l'essence et de l'existence d'apres Ibn Sina, 499-503). The Kitab al-Isharat wa 'l-tanbihat, ‘Book of directives and remarks’, is complete (trans. into Persian and French), as is the Danishnama-i 'Ala’i, ‘The Book of Knowledge for 'Ala’”, a resume of his doctrine written at the request of the prince 'Ala’ al-Dawla. We have only fragments of the Kitab al-Insaf, ‘Book of Impartial Judgment between the Easterners and the Westerners’, which have been published by A. Badawi, and a small part of the Mantiq al-mashriqiyyin, ‘Logic of the Easterners’, which is the logic of his ‘Eastern Philosophy’, the rest of it being lost. A fairly large number of minor writings are preserved; they illuminate points of detail which are often important, but are far from completing the lacunas.

Ibn Sina's was too penetrating a mind, and one too concerned with the absolute, not to venture outside the individual sciences. He looked for the principle and the guarantee of these, and this led him to set above them, on the one hand, the science of being, Metaphysics, and, on the other, the universal tool of truth, Logic, or ‘the instrumental science’, as the falasifa termed it.

As far as one can tell in the absence of several of his fundamental works, he seems to have been an innovator particularly in logic, correcting the excess of abstraction which does not permit Aristotle to take sufficient account of change, which is present everywhere and at all times in the terrestrial world; and, thus, of the difference between strict (mutlaq) meaning, and concrete meaning, specified by the particular ‘conditions’ in which a thing is actualized. As a physician, he enters into logic when he admits a sign as the middle term of a syllogism. He gives it the force of a proof, as the latter is recognized in a symptom in medical diagnosis (see Introduction to the French trans. of the Isharat).


In Metaphysics the doctrine of Ibn Sina is most individual, and is also illuminated by his personal antecedents. On the other hand, his thought was fashioned by three teachers, of whom, however, he knew only two by name: Aristotle and al-Farabi, who introduced several of the great concepts subsequently developed by Ibn Sina. The third was Plotinus, who came down to him under the name of Aristotle, in the so-called ‘Theology of Aristotle’ [see aristutalis], which was composed of extracts from Plotinus's Enneads, and presented as the culmination of Aristotle's Metaphysics. This error of attribution dogs the whole of Avicenna's work. As a born metaphysician he earned the title of ‘Philosopher of being’ but as a realist he wished to understand essences in their actualized state, so that he is just as much the ‘Philosopher of essence’. The whole of his metaphysics is ordered round the double problem of the origin of being and its transmission to essence, but to individually actualized essence (cf. Goichon, La distinction de l'essence et de l'existence d'apres Ibn Sina, Paris 1937).

It is at this point that a free interpretation of Aristotle and Plotinus gives him his theory of the creation of forms by emanation. This is linked with a cosmogony taken from the apocryphal Theology, but is also inspired by hylemorphism and Aristotelian data on the soul. The extensive place occupied in his thought by the intelligence prompts him to this startling view: the gift of being is linked with the light of the intelligence. Moreover, Ibn Sina is a believer; in accordance with Islam he believes in God as the Creator. None of the philosophies handed down from pagan antiquity takes account of this. He attempts to integrate dogma with his philosophical formulation. In fact, he does not succeed very well, but he continually works in this direction.

The first certitude apprehended by the human mind, he says, is that of being, which is apprehended by means of sense-perceptions. The idea of being, however, is so deep-rooted in man that it could be perceived outside of the sensible. This prefiguration of the Cartesian ‘Cogito ergo sum’ appears to have two causes: intuition (Hads) is so powerful in Ibn Sina (see in the Physics of the Danishnama the part that it played for him) that he bases himself here on a metaphysical apprehension of being; in addition, since the human soul, according to him, is a separate intelligence, which leads its own spiritual existence while being united with the body, it is capable of apprehending itself directly.

The second certitude is that the being thus apprehended in man, and in every existing thing, is not present there of necessity. The essence of ‘man’, ‘horse’ or ‘stone’ does not imply the necessity of the existence of a particular man or horse. Existence is given to actualized, concrete beings by a Being that differs from all of them: it is not one of the essences that have no existence in themselves, but its essence is its very being. The Creator is the First Cause; as a consequence of this theory the proof of the existence of God is restricted to Metaphysics, and not to Physics, as happens when God is proved to be the prime mover.

A Western controversy enters here: did Avicenna really believe in the analogy of being? It is true that he does not place the uncreated Being in the genus Substance or in a genus Being; but if he proceeds from knowledge of created beings to that of the uncreated Being, is not this a proof that he considers their natures to be allied? He certainly apprehends an analogy between the being of substance and that of accident, as he states explicitly, but did he go further? (see M. Cruz Hernandez, passim).

Ibn Sina did not formulate the distinction between the uncreated Being and created beings as clearly as did Thomas Aquinas, but the latter does base himself on Ibn Sina's doctrine; only being is in God, God is in no genus and being is not a genus. He then sets out his thought precisely (cf. Vasteenkiste, Avicenna-Citaten bij S. Thomas, in Tijdschrift voor Philosophie, September 1953, citations nos. 12, 13, 14, 15, 20, 148, 330, pp. 460-1, 473 and 491).

With the principles established, two reasons for the omission of the conclusion are plausible, but neither involves the distinction not being made. Either, having set it out and admitted it, he withdrew it with difficulty because of the confusion between the data of Aristotle and Plotinus, or, as G. M. Wickens (Avicenna, scientist and philosopher, 52) suggests, he does not speak of it as a discovery because the celebrated distinction was then generally admitted-as Abu Hayyan al-TawHidi says. But Ibn Sina maintains that God, as he conceives Him, is ‘the first with respect to the being of the Universe, anterior to that being, and also, consequently, outside it’ (E. Gilson, L'esprit de la philosophie medievale2, 80-1).

However, this apparent impetus of Ibn Sina is interrupted by the data of Plotinus, for they inspire the emanatist theory of creation. The Qur’an, like the Old and New Testaments, explains creation by a freeQact of will on the part of God. For Ibn Sina, by way of Plotinus, the necessary Being is such in all its modes-and thus as creator-and being overflows from it. (Here the reader will ask himself the question: ‘Is it an analogous being? is it not rather the same being?’) Moreover, this emanation does not occur freely, and creation involves intermediaries, which are also creators. From the One can come only one. The necessary Being thus produces a single Intelligence. This, having a cause, necessarily possesses a duality of being and knowledge. It introduces multiplicity into the world; from it can derive another Intelligence, a celestial Soul and a celestial body. Ptolemy's system becomes the framework of creative emanation; emanation descends from sphere to sphere as far as a tenth pure Intelligence, which governs, not a sphere, but our terrestrial world, which is made, unlike the others, of corruptible matter. This brings with it a multiplicity which surpasses human knowledge but is perfectly possessed and dominated by the active Intellect, the tenth Intelligence. Its role is demonstrated in a poetic and symbolic form in the ‘Tale of Hayy b. Yaqzan;, a name that refers to the active Intellect itself.

The philosophical origin of this active Intellect is the passage in the De Anima in which Aristotle refers by this name to the active part of the human soul. Ibn Sina irremediably mutilates the latter by taking away from it this active part, and with it its most noble action and its highest intellectual function: abstraction of intelligibles. This active Intellect, which, according to Aristotle, produces all intelligibles, is now a separate Intelligence. Thus the human soul receives them passively, and so cannot think except by leave of the Intellect; comprehension, knowledge and the sciences are now no longer its affair. It can elaborate only that which is given to it by the active Intellect. The latter produces not only these intelligibles but also all the substantial forms that are created in accordance with the models that it has conceived in conformity with the potentialities of matter. It is in this way, Ibn Sina replies to Plato's anxious question (Parmenides, 131 a-b), that the concrete being can share in the Idea. The active Intellect has an ability which Plato sought for in vain: it apprehends the two series of relative perceptions, both the forms with their mutual relationships and the concrete beings with their mutual relationships; in addition, it apprehends their common repository, which is its own essence (cf. Goichon, La theorie des formes chez Avicenne, in Atti XII congr. intern. de filosofia, ix, at 137-8). A reply is also given to the question of Aristotle as to the provenance of form and the contribution of the Ideas to sensible beings (Metaph., Z 8 and M 5).

The human soul by itself can attain only the first three degrees of abstraction: sensation, imagination and the action of estimation that extracts individual non-sensible ideas. It then apprehends the intelligible that is given to it from outside. Intuition is due to its joining with the active Intellect.

Being and intelligence overflow like a river from the necessary Being and descend to the extreme limits of the created. There is an equally full re-ascent, produced by creatures' love and desire for their creators, as far as the supreme Principle, which corresponds to the abundance of this gift. This beautiful concept, which could derive only from a soul inclined towards religion, has been thought of as mystical. The Risala fi 'l-'ishq, ‘The Epistle on Love’, however, is primarily a metaphysical explanation of the tendency of every being towards its good, and a physical explanation of the motion of the stars; they imitate in their fashion, which is material, the unceasing action of the pure Act. The spheres, in fact, thus imitate the unceasing desire of the celestial Souls which correspond to each one of them. The rational soul of man tends towards its good with a conscious motion of apprehension of, and love for, the active Intellect, and, through it, for the necessary Being, which is pure Good. In the highest states, however, it can tend directly towards the latter.

Ibn Sina believed firmly in the immortality of the soul. Corruption cannot touch it, for it is immaterial. The proof of this immateriality lies in its capability of apprehending the intelligibles, which are in no way material. He is much more hesitant on the question of the resurrection of the body, which he at first admits in the Shifa’ and the Najat, and then denies in the epistle A•Hawiyya, after indicating in the ‘Tale of Hayy b. Yaqzan’; that this dogma is often an object of temptations. He appears finally to have decided to understand it in a symbolic sense.

Among the fierce controversies to which Avicenna's thought has given rise is the discussion as to whether or not he should be considered a mystic. At first sight, the whole range of expressions that he uses to speak of love's re-ascending as far as to the Creator leads one to an affirmative interpretation-not in an esoteric way [see Hayy b. yaqzan], but in the positive sense of the love of God. The more one studies his philosophical doctrine, the more one finds that it illuminates these expressions. The stages of the Sufis, studied in the Isharat, leave rather the impression of experiences observed by a great, curious and respectful mind, which, however, does not participate. Ibn Sina is a believer, and this fact should be maintained in opposition to those who have made of him a lover of pleasure who narrowly escapes being a hypocrite, although there is so much seriousness in his life and such efforts to reconcile his philosophy with his faith-even if he is not always successful. He is far above the gnosis impregnated with occultism and paganism to which some would reduce him. Is he a mystic in the exact sense that the word has in Catholic theology? It reserves the word for one whose whole life is a great love of God, in a kind of intimacy of heart and thought with Him, so that God holds the first place in all things and everything is apprehended as related to Him.

Had it been thus with Ibn Sina, his writings would give a totally different impression. Nevertheless, at bottom he did perhaps apprehend God. It is in the simple expression of apprehension through the heart, in the secret of the heart (sirr), in flashes, however short and infrequent, that we are led to see in him a beginning of true mystic apprehension, in opposition to the gnosis and its symbols, for at this depth of the heart there is no longer any need for words.

One doubt, however, still enters in: his general doctrine of apprehension, and some of the terms that he uses, in fact, in texts on sirr, could be applied at least as well to a privileged connexion with the active Intellect, and not with God Himself (cf. Goichon, Le ‘sirr’ (l'intime du coeur) dans la doctrine avicennienne de la connaissance). Again, on this question, the absence of his last great work, the ‘Eastern Philosophy’, precludes a definite answer.

This irreparable lacuna in the transmission of his works does not allow us to understand in what respects he wished to complete, and even to correct, Aristotle, as he states in the prologue. As a hypothesis, suggested by his constant efforts to express the concrete and by his biography, we may suppose that he wished to make room for the oriental scientific tradition, which was more experimental than Greek science. The small alterations made to Aristotelian logic are slanted in this direction. In metaphysics, it is probable that he was shocked by the contradictions between Plotinus and Aristotle that were evident in the texts which the knowledge of the time attributed to one single author, and that he wished to resolve these anomalies by giving new explanations.

Influence of Ibn Sina

The transmission of Greek science by the Arabs, and the translation of the works of the Arabs into Latin, produced the first Renaissance in Southern Europe, which began in the 10th century in Sicily, flourished in the 12th round Toledo, and soon afterwards in France. The two principal works of Ibn Sina, the Shifa’ and the Qanun, made him an undisputed master in medicine, natural sciences and philosophy.

From the 12th to the 16th century the teaching and practice of medicine were based on him. The works of Abu Bakr MuHammad b. Zakariyya’ al-Razi were also known, and he was considered to be a better clinician; but the Qanun provided an irreplaceable didactic corpus, for the Kitab al-Kulliyyat fi 'l-tibb of Ibn Rushd corresponded only with the first part of the Qanun. The latter was translated in its entirety between 1150 and 1187 by Gerard of Cremona, and, in all, eighty-seven translations of it were made, some of which were only partial. The majority were into Latin, but several Hebrew translations were also made, in Spain, Italy and the south of France. The medical translations are less good than those of the philosophical works; some words transcribed in Arabic from Greek were not understood or identified, and some Arabic technical terms were more or less transcribed in Latin, and remain incomprehensible. The Qanun formed the basis of teaching at all the universities. It appears in the oldest known syllabus of teaching given to the School of Medicine at Montpellier, a bull of Clement V, dating from 1309, and in all subsequent ones until 1557. Ten years later Galen was preferred to Ibn Sina, but the latter continued to be taught until the 17th century. The editing of the Arabic text, at Rome in 1593, demonstrates the esteem in which he was still held. (On the teaching of the works of Avicenna in the universities, see A. Germain, L'Ecole de medecine de Montpellier ..., Montpellier 1880, 71; Stephen d'Irsay, Histoire des universites franaises et etrangeres des origines a nos jours, Paris 1933, i, 119; C. Elgood, A medical history of Persia ... until the year 1932, Cambridge 1951, 205-9). Chaucer reminds us in the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales that no doctor should be ignorant of him. Almost all, in fact, possessed either fragments of the Qanun, especially the ‘Fevers’ and the ‘Diseases of the eyes’, or shorter writings, the treatise on the pulse or that on ‘Diseases of the heart’. All Arab authors, from the 7th/13th to the 10th/16th century, are dependent on Ibn Sina, even though they question him, like the father of Ibn Zuhr (Avenzoar), or augment and correct him, like Ibn al-Nafis, who recorded his discovery of pulmonary circulation in his commentary on the Qanun; he wrote a summary of the Qanun which any physician could obtain more easily than he could the original text.

In the West several physicians learned Arabic for the sake of the works of Ibn Sina. The first known influence appears in the works of a Dane, Henrik Harpestraeng, a royal physician who died in 1244. Arnold of Villeneuve, born at Valence, translated the treatise on the diseases of the heart, as well as some of the books of al-Kindi and other Arab authors. Some surgeons also quoted him as their authority: William of Saliceto in Italy, and his disciple Lanfranc, the founder of surgery in France; Guy of Chauliac, who died in 1368, and whose teaching employed Arabic terms and doctrines. At the University of Bologna, anatomy was still being taught in Arabic terms in the 14th century.

The Renaissance brought a violent reaction; Leonardo da Vinci rejected Ibn Sina's anatomy, but, for want of another vocabulary, used the Arabic terms. Paracelsus burned the Qanun at Basle. Harvey dealt him a severe blow by publishing his discovery of the major circulation in 1628.

The natural sciences presented in the Shifa’ were much used by the mediaeval encyclopaedists, as were the treatises of al-Razi and apocryphal treatises. The ‘Treatise on Animals’ was translated by Michael Scot; Albertus Magnus employed the mineralogy (on Ibn Sina's scientific influence, see G. Sarton, Introduction to the history of science, ii, passim.). In physics, Ibn Sina was an Aristotelian, and as such inferior to al-Razi, who had discovered the existence of the vacuum, which he himself denied. However, he opposed the theory of the transmutation of metals, and hence alchemy (for citations to this effect from several Arab authors, see the introduction by Holmyard and Mandeville to their translation of Avicennae De congelatione et conglutinatione lapidum, Paris 1927, 6-7).

Ibn Sina's influence in philosophy was less absolute and more disputed, but more lasting, for the use made of him by St Thomas Aquinas embodied certain of his proofs in Catholic theology (cf. Goichon, La philosophie d'Avicenne et son influence en Europe medievale, Paris 1944, ch. III).

The translation of the Shifa’ came at a moment when Aristotle was scarcely known, and that only through the ‘Posterior Analytics’, the ‘Topics’ and the ‘Refutation of the Sophists’. The corpus that presented a ‘Metaphysics’, the ‘Treatise on the Soul’ and that on the ‘Heavens’, etc. seemed to hold another significance. It was, however, thought to be a simple commentary on Aristotle. For a century it received unreserved admiration; when Aristotle was better known, it was still thought that the Shifa’ augmented his work on the subject of the origin of the world, on God, the soul, the intelligence and angels. He was placed in the Neoplatonist and Augustinian traditions; his attempts to reconcile philosophy and faith corresponded with the ardent desires of the Schoolmen. He was forbidden by the decrees of 1210 and 1215, referring to ‘Aristoteles et sequaces ejus’, which banned Ibn Sina from the Sorbonne. But his role remained undiminished in private discussions.

After acclaim for his similarities with Christian thought came criticism of his divergences from it, violently initiated by William of Auvergne in 1230. Nevertheless, a pontifical decree of Gregory IX, in 1231, once more permitted the study of Ibn Sina's philosophy. The lacunas, however, were now apparent. Nonetheless, the thought of all philosophers was nourished by his, to such a degree that it is impossible to tell what it would have been like without him. Latin scholasticism owes to his opponent, William of Auvergne, the fact that it received from him the distinction between essence and existence, which William considered that he had found in him.

Another current of thought, stemming from English centres of study, developed particularly in the Franciscan order. It saw Ibn Sina as more of a philosopher, augmenting Saint Augustine: the active Intellect was like the sun of minds and the internal Master. They believed that he opened up a whole mystic world. Roger Bacon and Duns Scotus were influenced by him. The latter, however, based his doctrine of the univocity of being on the same text that Thomas Aquinas had used to support the opposite doctrine.

Selection was gradually practised in the corpus of Ibn Sina. He took his definitive place, together with Saint Thomas Aquinas. The distinction between essence and existence became one of the fundamentals of Thomist philosophy. It gave an explanation for the immateriality of angels; Saint Thomas's De Ente et Essentia is imbued with Avicennism. The better the theologian masters his own thought, the less he cites Ibn Sina (see the quotations in Vansteenkiste, op. cit.), but he still respects him. Saint Thomas's commentators, Cajetan and Jean de Saint-Thomas, writing respectively at the end of the 15th century and during the 17th, still allotted to Ibn Sina the place that he had taken in Thomism, the place that is definitely his.


Encyclopedia of Islam: © 1999 Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, The Netherlands


Saturday, October 04, 2008

Imam Al Ghazali Biography

Source: Al-Ghazali website

Al-Ghazali is one of the greatest Islamic Jurists, theologians and mystical thinkers. He learned various branches of traditional Islamic religious sciences in his home town of Tus, Gurgan and Nishapur in the northern part of Iran.

Al Ghazali was also involved in Sufi practices from an early age. Being recognized by Nizam al-Mulk, the vizir of the Seljuq sultans, he was appointed head of the Nizamiyyah College at Baghdad in AH 484/AD 1091. As the intellectual head of the Islamic community, he was busy lecturing on Islamic jurisprudence at the College, and also refuting heresies and responding to questions from all segments of the community.

Four years later, however, al-Ghazali fell into a serious spiritual crisis and finally left Baghdad, renouncing his career and the world.

After wandering in Syria and Palestine for about two years and finishing the pilgrimage to Mecca, he returned to Tus, where he was engaged in writing, Sufi practices and teaching his disciples until his death. In the meantime he resumed teaching for a few years at the Nizamiyyah College in Nishapur

Al-Ghazali explained in his autobiography why he renounced his brilliant career and turned to Sufism. It was, he says, due to his realization that there was no way to certain knowledge or the conviction of revelatory truth except through Sufism. (This means that the traditional form of Islamic faith was in a very critical condition at the time.) This realization is possibly related to his criticism of Islamic philosophy. In fact, his refutation of philosophy is not a mere criticism from a certain (orthodox) theological viewpoint. First of all, his attitude towards philosophy was ambivalent; it was both an object and criticism and an object of learning (for example, logic and the natural sciences). He mastered philosophy and then criticized it in order to Islamicize it. The importance of his criticism lies in his philosophical demonstration that the philosophers’ metaphysical arguments cannot stand the test of reason. However, he was also forced to admit that the certainty, of revelatory truth, for which he was so desperately searching, cannot be obtained by reason. It was only later that he finally attained to that truth in the ecstatic state (fana’) of the Sufi.

Through his own religious experience, he worked to revive the faith of Islam by reconstructing the religious sciences upon the basis of Sufsm, and to give a theoretical foundation to the latter under the influence of philosophy. Thus Sufism came to be generally recognized in the Islamic community. Though Islamic philosophy did not long survive al-Ghazali’s criticism, he contributed greatly to the subsequent philosophizing of Islamic theology and Sufism.

1 Life
2 Theological conceptions
3 Refutation of philosophy
4 Relation to philosophy

1 Life

The eventful life of Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazali (or al-Ghazzali) can be divided into three major periods. The first is the period of learning, first in his home town of Tus in Persia, then in Gurgan and finally in Nishapur. After the death of his teacher, Imam al-Haramayn AL-JUWAYNI, Ghazali moved to the court of Nizam al-Mulk, the powerful vizir of the Seljuq Sultans, who eventually appointed him head of the Nizamiyyah College at Baghdad in AH 484/AD 1091.

The second period of al-Ghazali’s life was his brilliant career as the highest-ranking orthodox ‘doctor’ of the Islamic community in Baghdad (AH 484-8/AD 1091-5). This period was short but significant. During this time, as well as lecturing on Islamic jurisprudence at the College, he was also busy refuting heresies and responding to questions from all segments of the community. In the political confusion following the assassination of Nizam al-Mulk and the subsequent violent death of Sultan Malikshah, al-Ghazali himself fell into a serious spiritual crisis and finally left Baghdad, renouncing his career and the world.

This event marks the beginning of the third period of his life, that of retirement (AH 488-505/AD 1095-1111), but which also included a short period of teaching at the Nizamiyyah College in Nishapur. After leaving Baghdad, he wandered as a Sufi in Syria and Palestine before returning to Tus, where he was engaged in writing, Sufi practices and teaching his disciples until his death.

The inner development leading to his conversion is explained in his autobiography, al-Munqidh min al-dalal (The Deliverer from Error), written late in his life. It was his habit from an early age, he says, to search for the true reality of things. In the process he came to doubt the senses and even reason itself as the means to ‘certain knowledge’, and fell into a deep scepticism.

However, he was eventually delivered from this with the aid of the divine light, and thus recovered his trust in reason. Using reason, he then set out to examine the teachings of ‘the seekers after truth’: the theologians, philosophers, Isma‘ilis and Sufis.

As a result of these studies, he came to the realization that there was no way to certain knowledge except through Sufism. In order to reach this ultimate truth of the Sufis, however, it is first necessary to renounce the world and to devote oneself to mystical practice.

Al-Ghazali came to this realization through an agonising process of decision, which led to a nervous breakdown and finally to his departure from Baghdad.

The schematic presentation of al-Munqidh has allowed various interpretations, but it is irrelevant to question the main line of the story. Though certain knowledge is explained in al-Munqidh as something logically necessary, it is also religious conviction (yaqin) as mentioned in the Ihya’ ‘ulum al-din (The Revival of the Religious Sciences).

Thus when he says that the traditional teachings did not grip him in his adolescence, he means to say that he lost his conviction of their truth, which he only later regained through his Sufi mystical experiences. He worked to generalize this experience to cure `the disease' of his time.

The life of al-Ghazali has been thus far examined mostly as the development of his individual personality. However, since the 1950s there have appeared some new attempts to understand his life in its wider political and historical context (Watt 1963). If we accept his religious confession as sincere, then we should be careful not to reduce his thought and work entirely to non-religious factors.

It may well be that Al-Ghazali’s conversion from the life of an orthodox doctor to Sufism was not merely the outcome of his personal development but also a manifestation of a new stage in the understanding of faith in the historical development of Islam, from the traditional form of faith expressed in the effort to establish the kingdom of God on Earth through the shari‘a to a faith expressed as direct communion with God in Sufi mystical experience. This may be a reflection of a development in which the former type of faith had lost its relevance and become a mere formality due to the political and social confusion of the community.

Al-Ghazali experienced this change during his life, and tried to revive the entire structure of the religious sciences on the basis of Sufism, while at the same time arguing for the official recognition of the latter and providing it with solid philosophical foundations.

2 Theological conceptions

Al-Ghazali wrote at least two works on theology, al-Iqtisad fi'I-i`tiqad (The Middle Path in Theology) and al-Risala al-Qudsiyya (The Jerusalem Epistle). The former was composed towards the end of his stay in Baghdad and after his critique of philosophy, the latter soon afterwards in Jerusalem.

The theological position expressed in both works is Ash'arite, and there is no fundamental difference between al-Ghazali and the Ash‘arite school (see Ash‘ariyya and Mu‘tazila). However, some changes can be seen in the theological thought of his later works, written under the influence of philosophy and Sufism.

As Ash‘arite theology came into being out of criticism of Mu‘tazilite rationalistic theology, the two schools have much in common but they are also not without their differences. There is no essential difference between them as to God's essence (dhat Allah); al-Ghazali proves the existence of God (the Creator) from the createdness (hadath) of the world according to the traditional Ash‘arite proof.

An atomistic ontology is presupposed here, and yet there are also philosophical arguments to refute the criticism of the philosophers. As for God's attributes (sifat Allah), however, al-Ghazali regards them as `something different from, yet added to, God's essence' (al-Iqtisad: 65), while the Mu‘tazilites deny the existence of the attributes and reduce them to God's essence and acts.

According to al-Ghazali, God has attributes such as knowledge, life, will, hearing, seeing and speech, which are included in God's essence and coeternal with it. Concerning the relationship between God's essence and his attributes, both are said to be ‘not identical, but not different’ (al-Iqtisad: 65). The creation of the world and its subsequent changes are produced by God's eternal knowledge, will and power, but this does not necessarily mean any change in God's attributes in accordance with these changes in the empirical world.

One of the main issues of theological debate was the relationship between God's power and human acts. The Mu‘tazilites, admitting the continuation of an accident (arad) of human power, asserted that human acts were decided and produced (or even created) by people themselves; thus they justified human responsibility for acts and maintained divine justice.

In contrast, assuming that all the events in the world and human acts are caused by God's knowledge, will and power, al-Ghazali admits two powers in human acts, God’s power and human power. Human power and act are both created by God, and so human action is God’s creation (khalq), but it is also human acquisition (kasb) of God's action, which is reflected in human volition. Thus al-Ghazali tries to harmonize God’s omnipotence and our own responsibility for our actions.

As for God’s acts, the Mu‘tazilites, emphasizing divine justice, assert that God cannot place any obligation on people that is beyond their ability; God must do what is best for humans and must give rewards and punishments according to their obedience and disobedience. They also assert that it is obligatory for people to know God through reason even before revelation. Al-Ghazali denies these views. God, he says, can place any obligations he wishes upon us; it is not incumbent on him to do what is best for us, nor to give rewards and punishments according to our obedience and disobedience. All this is unimaginable for God, since he is absolutely free and is under no obligation at all. Obligation (wujub), says al-Ghazali, means something that produces serious harm unless performed, but nothing does harm to God.

Furthermore, good (hasan) and evil (qabih) mean respectively congruity and incongruity with a purpose, but God has no purpose at all. Therefore, God's acts are beyond human ethical judgment. Besides, says al-Ghazali, injustice (zulm) means an encroachment on others' rights, but all creatures belong to God; therefore, whatever he may do to his creatures, he cannot be considered unjust.

The Mu‘tazilites, inferring the hereafter from the nature of this world, deny the punishment of unbelievers in the grave from their death until the resurrection, and also the reality of the various eschatological events such as the passing of the narrow bridge and the weighing on the balance of human deeds.

Al-Ghazali, on the other hand, rejecting the principle of analogy between the two worlds, approves the reality of all these events as transmitted traditionally, since it cannot be proven that they are rationally or logically impossible. Another important eschatological event is the seeing of God (ru’ya Allah). While the Mu‘tazilites deny its reality, asserting that God cannot be the object of human vision, al-Ghazali approves it as a kind of knowledge which is beyond corporeality; in fact, he later gives the vision of God deep mystical and philosophical meaning. In short, the Mu‘tazilites discuss the unity of God and his acts from the viewpoint of human reason, but al-Ghazali does so on the presupposition that God is personal and an absolute reality beyond human reason.

3 Refutation of philosophy

Al-Ghazali’s relationship with philosophy is subtle and complicated. The philosophy represented by AL-FARABI and IBN SINA (Avicenna) is, for al-Ghazali, not simply an object of criticism but also an important component of his own learning.

He studied philosophy intensively while in Baghdad, composing Maqasid al falasifa (The Intentions of the Philosophers), and then criticizing it in his Tahafut al falasifa (The Incoherence of the Philosophers).

The Maqasid is a precise summary of philosophy (it is said to be an Arabic version of Ibn Sina’s Persian Danashnamah-yi ala'i (Book of Scientific Knowledge) though a close comparative study of the two works has yet to be made). In the medieval Latin world, however, the content of the Maqasid was believed to be al-Ghazali’s own thought, due to textual defects in the Latin manuscripts.

As a result, the image of the ‘Philosopher Algazel’ was created. It was only in the middle of the nineteenth century that Munk corrected this mistake by making use of the complete manuscripts of the Hebrew translation.

More works by al-Ghazali began to be published thereafter, but some contained philosophical ideas he himself had once rejected. This made al-Ghazali’s relation to philosophy once again obscure.

Did he turn back to philosophy late in life? Was he a secret philosopher? From the middle of the twentieth century there were several attempts to verify al-Ghazali’s authentic works through textual criticism, and as a result of these works the image of al-Ghazali as an orthodox Ash‘arite theologian began to prevail. The new trend in the study of al-Ghazali is to re-examine his relation to philosophy and to traditional Ash‘arism while at the same time recognizing his basic distance from philosophy.

Al-Ghazali composed three works on Aristotelian logic, Mi‘yar al-‘ilm (The Standard Measure of Knowledge), Mihakk al-nazar f'l-mantiq (The Touchstone of Proof in Logic) and al-Qistas al-mustaqim (The Just Balance).

The first two were written immediately after the Tahafut `in order to help understanding of the latter', and the third was composed after his retirement. He also gave a detailed account of logic in the long introduction of his writing on legal theory, al-Mustasfa min ‘ilm al-usul (The Essentials of Islamic Legal Theory).

Al-Ghazali's great interest in logic is unusual, particularly when most Muslim theologians were antagonistic to it, and can be attributed not only to the usefulness of logic in refuting heretical views (al-Qistas is also a work of refutation of the Isma‘ilis), but also to his being fascinated by the exactness of logic and its effectiveness for reconstructing the religious sciences on a solid basis.

There is a fundamental disparity between al-Ghazali’s theological view and the Neoplatonic Aristotelian philosophy of emanationism. Al-Ghazali epitomizes this view in twenty points, three of which are especially prominent:

• (1) the philosophers’ belief in the eternity of the world,
• (2) their doctrine that God does not know particulars, and
• (3) their denial of the resurrection of bodies.

These theses are ultimately reducible to differing conceptions of God and ontology. Interestingly, al-Ghazali’s criticism of philosophy is philosophical rather than theological, and is undertaken from the viewpoint of reason.

First, as for the eternity of the world, the philosophers claim that the emanation of the First Intellect and other beings is the result of the necessary causality of God's essence, and therefore the world as a whole is concomitant and coeternal with his existence.

Suppose, say the philosophers, that God created the world at a certain moment in time; that would presuppose a change in God, which is impossible. Further, since each moment of time is perfectly similar, it is impossible, even for God, to choose a particular moment in time for creation. Al-Ghazali retorts that God's creation of the world was decided in the eternal past, and therefore it does not mean any change in God; indeed, time itself is God's creation (this is also an argument based on the Aristotelian concept of time as a function of change). Even though the current of time is similar in every part, it is the nature of God's will to choose a particular out of similar ones.

Second, the philosophers deny God's knowledge of particulars or confine it to his self-knowledge, since they suppose that to connect God's knowledge with particulars means a change and plurality in God's essence. Al-Ghazali denies this. If God has complete knowledge of a person from birth to death, there will be no change in God's eternal knowledge, even though the person's life changes from moment to moment.

Third, the philosophers deny bodily resurrection, asserting that 'the resurrection' means in reality the separation of the soul from the body after death. Al-Ghazali criticizes this argument, and also attacks the theory of causality presupposed in the philosophers’ arguments.

The so-called necessity of causality is, says al-Ghazali, simply based on the mere fact that an event A has so far occurred concomitantly with an event B. There is no guarantee of the continuation of that relationship in the future, since the connection of A and B lacks logical necessity. In fact, according to Ash‘arite atomistic occasionalism, the direct cause of both A and B is God; God simply creates A when he creates B. Thus theoretically he can change his custom (sunna, ‘ada) at any moment, and resurrect the dead: in fact, this is 'a second creation'.

Al-Ghazali thus claims that the philosophers' arguments cannot survive philosophical criticism, and Aristotelian logic served as a powerful weapon for this purpose. However, if the conclusions of philosophy cannot be proved by reason, is not the same true of theological principles or the teachings of revelation? How then can the truth of the latter be demonstrated? Herein lies the force of al-Ghazali’s critique of reason.

4 Relation to philosophy

Philosophy declined in the Sunni world after al-Ghazali, and his criticism of philosophy certainly accelerated this decline. Nearly a century later, IBN RUSHD (Averroes) made desperate efforts to resist the trend by refuting al-Ghazali’s Tahafut in his Tahafut al-tahafut (The Incoherence of the Incoherence) and Fasl al-maqal (The Decisive Treatise), but he could not stop it. Philosophy was gradually absorbed into Sufism and was further developed in the form of mystical philosophy, particularly in the Shi'ite world.

In the Sunni world also, Aristotelian logic was incorporated into theology and Sufism was partially represented philosophically. In all this, al-Ghazali’s influence was significant.

Ghazali committed himself seriously to Sufism in his later life, during which time he produced a series of unique works on Sufism and ethics including Mizan al-‘amal (The Balance of Action), composed just before retirement, Ihy’ ‘ulum al-din, his magnum opus written after retirement, Kitab al-arba‘in fi usul al-din (The Forty Chapters on the Principles of Religion), Kimiya’-yi sa‘adat (The Alchemy of Happiness), Mishkat al-anwar (The Niche of the Lights) and others.

The ultimate goal of humankind according to Islam is salvation in paradise, which is depicted in the Qur’an and Traditions as various sensuous pleasures and joy at the vision of God. The greatest joy for al-Ghazali, however, is the seeing of God in the intellectual or spiritual sense of the beatific vision. In comparison with this, sensuous pleasures are nothing. However, they remain necessary for the masses who cannot reach such a vision.

Resurrection for IBN SINA means each person's death - the separation of the soul from the body - and the rewards and punishments after the `resurrection' mean the pleasures and pains which the soul tastes after death. The soul, which is in contact with the active intellect through intellectual and ethical training during life, is liberated from the body by death and comes to enjoy the bliss of complete unity with the active intellect.

On the other hand, the soul that has become accustomed to sensual pleasures while alive suffers from the pains of unfulfilled desires, since the instrumental organs for that purpose are now lost. Al-Ghazali calls death `the small resurrection' and accepts the state of the soul after death as Ibn Sina describes.

On the other hand, the beatific vision of God by the elite after the quickening of the bodies, or 'the great resurrection', is intellectual as in the view of the philosophers. The mystical experience (fans) of the Sufi is a foretaste of the real vision of God in the hereafter.

A similar influence of philosophy is also apparent in al-Ghazali’s view of human beings. Human beings consist of soul and body, but their essence is the soul. The human soul is a spiritual substance totally different from the body. It is something divine (amr ilahi), which makes possible human knowledge of God.

If the soul according to al-Ghazali is an incorporeal substance occupying no space (as Ibn Sina implies, though he carefully avoids making a direct statement to that effect), then al-Ghazali’s concept of the soul is quite different from the soul as 'a subtle body' as conceived by theologians at large. According to al-Ghazali, the body is a vehicle or an instrument of the soul on the way to the hereafter and has various faculties to maintain the bodily activities.

When the main faculties of appetite, anger and intellect are moderate, harmonious and well-balanced, then we find the virtues of temperance, courage, wisdom and justice. In reality, however, there is excess or deficiency in each faculty, and so we find various vicious characteristics. The fundamental cause for all this is love of the world.

The purpose of religious exercises is to rectify these evil dispositions, and to come near to God by `transforming them in imitation of God's characteristics' (Iakhalluq bi-akhlaq Allah). This means transforming the evil traits of the soul through bodily exercises by utilizing the inner relationship between the soul and the body.

Al-Ghazali here makes full use of the Aristotelian theory of the golden mean, which he took mainly from IBN MISKAWAYH. In order to maintain the earthly existence of the body as a vehicle or an instrument of the soul, the mundane order and society are necessary. In this framework, the traditional system of Islamic law, community and society are reconsidered and reconstructed.

The same is also true of al-Ghazali’s cosmology. He divides the cosmos into three realms: the world of mulk (the phenomenal world), the world of malakut (the invisible world) and the world of jabarut (the intermediate world). He takes this division from the Sufi theorist Abu Talib al-Makki, although he reverses the meanings of malakut and jabarut.

The world of malakut is that of God’s determination, a world of angels free from change, increase and decrease, as created once spontaneously by God. This is the world of the Preserved Tablet in heaven where God's decree is inscribed.

The phenomenal world is the incomplete replica of the world of malakut, which is the world of reality, of the essence of things. The latter is in some respects similar to the Platonic world of Ideas, or Ibn Sina's world of inteiligibles.

The only difference is that the world of malakut is created once and for all by God, who thereafter continues to create moment by moment the phenomenal world according to his determination.

This is a major difference from the emanationist deterministic world of philosophy. Once the divine determination is freely made, however, the phenomenal world changes and evolves according to a determined sequence of causes and effects.

The difference between this relationship and the philosophers' causality lies in whether or not the relation of cause and effect is necessary. This emphasis on causal relationship by al-Ghazali differs from the traditional Ash‘arite occasionalism.

The Sufis in their mystical experience, and ordinary people in their dreams, are allowed to glimpse the world of the Preserved Tablet in heaven, when the veil between that world and the soul is lifted momentarily. Thus they are given foreknowledge and other forms of supernatural knowledge.

The revelation transmitted by the angel to the prophets is essentially the same; the only difference is that the prophets do not need any special preparation. From the viewpoint of those given such special knowledge of the invisible world, says al-Ghazali, the world is the most perfect and best possible world.

This optimism gave rise to arguments and criticism even in his lifetime, alleging that he was proposing a Mu‘tazilite or philosophical teaching against orthodox Ash‘arism. He certainly says in his theological works that it is not incumbent upon God to do the best for humans; however, this does not mean that God will not in fact do the best of his own free will.

Even so, behind al-Ghazali’s saying that God does so in actuality, we can see the influence of philosophy and Sufism.

Al-Ghazali's criticism of philosophy and his mystical thought are often compared to the philosophical and theological thought of Thomas Aquinas, Nicholas of Autrecourt and even Descartes and Pascal.

In the medieval world, where he was widely believed to be a philosopher, he had an influence through the Latin and Hebrew translations of his writings and through such thinkers as Yehuda Halevi, Moses Maimonides and Raymond Martin of Spain.

Source: Al-Ghazali website


Al-Ghazali (1094) Maqasid al falasifa (The Intentions of the Philosophers), ed. S. Dunya, Cairo: Dar al-Ma‘arif, 1961. (A precise summary of Islamic philosophy as represented by Ibn Sina.)

- (1095) Tahafut al falasifa (The Incoherence of the Philosophers), ed. M. Bouyges, Beirut: Imprimerie Catholique, 1927; trans, S.A. Kamah, Al-Ghazali's Tahafut al-Falasifah, Lahore: Pakistan Philosophical Congress, 1963. (Al-Ghazali’s refutation of Islamic philosophy.)

- (1095) Mi‘yar al-‘ilm (The Standard Measure of Knowledge), ed. S. Dunya, Cairo: Dar al-Ma‘arif, 1961. (A summary account of Aristotelian logic.)

- (1095) Mihakk al-nazar fi’l-mantiq (The Touchstone of Proof in Logic), ed. M. al-Nu‘mani, Beirut: Dar al-Nahdah al-Hadithah, 1966. (A summary of Aristotelian logic.)

- (1095) al-Iqtisad fi’l-‘tiqad (The Middle Path in Theology), ed. I.A. Qubukçu and H. Atay, Ankara: Nur Matbaasi, 1962; partial trans. A.-R. Abu Zayd, Al-Ghazali on Divine Predicates and Their Properties, Lahore: Shaykh Muhammad Ashraf, 1970; trans. M. Asin Palacios, El justo medio en la creencia, Madrid, 1929. (An exposition of al-Ghazali’s Ash‘arite theological system.)

-- (1095) Mizan al-‘amal (The Balance of Action), ed. S. Dunya, Cairo: Dar al-Ma‘arif, 1964; trans. H. Hachem, Ghazali: Critere de l’action, Paris: Maisonneuve, 1945. (An exposition of al-Ghazali’s ethical theory.)

- (1095-6) al-Qistas al-mustaqim (The Just Balance), ed. V. Chelhot, Beirut: Imprimerie Catholique, 1959; trans, V Chelhot, ‘Al-Qistas al-Mustaqim et la connaissance rationnelle chez Ghazali’, Bulletin d'Etudes Orientales 15, 1955-7: 7-98; trans. D.P. Brewster, Al-Ghazali: The Just Balance, Lahore: Shaykh Muhammad Ashraf, 1978. (An attempt to deduce logical rules from the Qur’an and to refute the Isma‘ilis.)

- (1096-7) Ihya’ ‘ulum al-din (The Revival of the Religious Sciences), Cairo: Matba‘ah Lajnah Nashr al-Thaqafah al-Islamiyyah, 1937-8, 5 vols; partial translations can be found in E.E. Calverley, Worship in Islam: al-Ghazali’s Book of the Ihya’ on the Worship, London: Luzac, 1957; N.A. Faris, The Book of Knowledge, Being a Translation with Notes of the Kitab al-ilm of al-Ghazzali’s Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din, Lahore: Shaykh Muhammad Ashraf, 1962; N.A. Faris, The Foundation of the Articles of Faith: Being a Translation with Notes of the Kitab Qaw‘id al-‘Aqa’id of al-Ghazzali’s Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din, Lahore: Shaykh Muhammad Ashraf, 1963; L. Zolondek, Book XX of al-Ghazali’s 1hya’ ‘Ulum al-Din, Leiden: Brill, 1963; T.J. Winter, The Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife: Book XL of the Revival of Religious Sciences, Cambridge: The Islamic Text Society, 1989; K. Nakamura, Invocations and Supplications: Book IX of the Revival of tae Religious Sciences, Cambridge: The Islamic Text Society, 1990; M. Bousquet, Ihya’ ‘ouloum ed-din ou vivification de la foi, analyse et index, Paris: Max Besson, 1951. (Al-Ghazali’s summa of the religious sciences of Islam.)

- (1097) al-Risala al-Qudsiyya (The Jerusalem Epistle), ed. and trans. A.L. Tibawi, ‘Al-Ghazali's Tract on Dogmatic Theology’, The Islamic Quarterly 9 (3/4), 1965: 62-122. (A summary of al-Ghazali’s theological system, later incorporated into the Ihya’.)

- (1106-7) Mishkat al-anwar (The Niche of the Lights), ed. A. Afifi, Cairo, 1964; trans. WH.T Gairdner, Al-Ghazzali's Mishkat al-Anwar, London: The Royal Asiatic Society, 1924; repr. Lahore: Shaykh Muhammad Ashraf, 1952; R. Deladriere, Le Tabernacle des lumieres, Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1981; A.-E. Elschazli, Die Nische der Lichter, Hamburg: Felix Meiner, 1987. (An exposition of al-Ghazali’s mystical philosophy in its last phase.)

- (1109) al-Mustafa min ‘ilm al-usul (The Essentials of the Islamic Legal Theory), Cairo: al-Matba'ah al-Amiriyyah, 1322-4 AH. (An exposition and standard work of the Islamic legal theory of the Shaffite school.)

- (c. 1108) al-Munqidh min al-dalal (The Deliverer from Error), ed. J. Saliba and K. Ayyad, Damascus: Maktab al-Nashr al-‘Arabi, 1934; trans. W M. Watt, The Faith and Practice of al-Ghazali, London: Allen & Unwin, 1953; trans. R.J. McCarthy, Freedom and Fulfillment: An Annotated Translation of al-Ghazali’s al-Munqidh min al-Dalal and Other Relevant Works of al-Ghazali, Boston, MA: Twayne, 1980. (Al-Ghazali’s spiritual autobiography.)

Azan, Kuliah & Arabic Signs

Of the azan, kuliah and Arabic signs
Prof Dr M Tajuddin M Rasdi
Oct 3, 2008

I wish to comment on the recent arrest of a member of parliament who was allegedly requested by her constituents to take issue with Muslim Malays in regard to the azan or call to prayer, kuliah or religious lectures and Arabic letters for road signs.

The azan is the traditional call to prayer and seems to be synonymous with the birth and growth of Islam. In the eyes of the Muslims, the azan is as sacred to Islam as the performance of solat or prayers.

The issue of the azan came to the Muslims in Medinah where a group of them along with the Prophet were discussing various ways to gather Muslims at a particular time for prayers as there were no mechanical means of telling time at that time.

The Prophet disliked the suggestion to use bells or drums. Someone said that he had dreamt of a person calling out the prayers in a melodious voice. Umar Al-Khatab, who was the Prophet’s close companion, father-in-law and later-to-be Second Pious Caliph of Islam also mentioned that he had a similar dream.

When the Prophet heard the two accounts, he agreed for the call to prayer to be that of the human voice. Bilal, the black slave from Abyssinia, was asked by the Prophet to be the first muadzin and thus history was made.

The birth of the azan gave rise to the architectural feature of the minaret attached to mosques. From that historical account, it can be seen that the azan was born to solve the problem of ‘timing’ and gathering of Muslims. Thus, technically, if one has the means to tell the time, there is no need for the azan. The performance of prayers without the call of azan is valid.

However, the Prophet had stressed the importance and encouragement of the azan through many sayings about how Satan runs away when he hears the azan as well as the special rewards given to the muadzin.

When I was in Milwaukee, US, the Islamic Center was not allowed to make the azan audible to the community of non-Muslims and thus it was heard only within the building.

In Muslim-dominated countries, it should be acceptable by non-Muslims that the traditional call to prayer be audible since it takes only a few minutes and does not fall under the category of ‘disturbance’ due to its duration and traditional historical significance.

With respect to the kuliah or religious lectures or talks, it is simply an educational tool to teach Muslims about Islam and its values. The kuliah subuh is usually done immediately after morning prayers and lasts between 30 minutes to an hour.

It should not be necessary for the mosque committee to make the kuliah audible through the loudspeaker as this would breach the adab or manner of teaching religion as taught by the Prophet Muhammad.

Although the committee may have the noble intention of teaching those who had not attended the morning prayers, it is better that both Muslims and non-Muslims who are resting not be disturbed.

When advising the imam or prayer leaders in performing congregation prayers, the Prophet Muhammad reminded them to shorten their recitals to respect the rights of old people, people who had business to attend to and women who had to tend to little children.

The Prophet had also advised his companions not to hold religious teachings more than three days in a week as he feared this might cause hardship or boredom. The Prophet was very tolerant and accommodating in inviting people to Islam to make it easy initially on them.

The story of the Pious Umar Abdul Aziz when he was the governor of one of the provinces of Islam would serve to make a point as recorded by Imam Al-Ghazali in his magnum opus, the Ihya Ulumuddin.

Umar loved to perform the tahajjud or night prayer, I assume, at 3 or 4 am. He would recite the Quran loudly in the mosque in the hope that others would hear him and be awake to perform the prayers.

A man heard him and asked his son to tell the reciter to lower his voice and not to disturb people in their sleep. His son saw that it was the governor himself and did not dare to do so and reported to his father.

The man then said, "O, you who is reciting! If you wish Allah to hear your recitation, know that Allah hears everything and is not deaf. If you recite to make known that you are praying, then it is best you go back to sleep (one is not supposed to tell others that one is praying as it is a private ‘audience’ with Allah in the dead of night)".

The governor ceased his loud recitation henceforth. The message here is that doing good has its contexts and teaching religion must be done in a manner that is proper for the receiver.

With respect to the use of Arabic letters on signs, if the existing sign was written in Arabic or Chinese or Indian, it should be necessary to keep this historical significance especially if the people in the neighbourhood are still there to appreciate it.

It is necessary then to add Roman letters underneath them to spell out the words in a modern contexts. I do not think that signs must be written in various languages. It would indicate that Malaysians are not united under the national language. Vernacular letters can be justified in a historical site and context.

I hope that the following explanation is useful for Malaysians to understand the sensitivities of various cultures. It is because of a lack of education by the administration that such a situation of ignorance among the people of Malaysia exists.

Future leaders of the new Malaysia must take heed of such a problem and build a more tolerant citizenry towards a harmonious existence.

Source: Malaysiakini