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the Message Continues ... 4/88



Newsletter for December 2008


hajj issue


Article 1 - Article 2 - Article 3 - Article 4 - Article 5 - Article 6 - Article 7 - Article 8 - Article 9 - Article 10 - Article 11 - Article 12 



By Dr. Sir Muhammad Iqbal
(An excerpt from his PhD thesis titled:

The Development of Metaphysics in Persia--A Contribution to the Muslim History of Muslim Philosophy)

(Part 1)



            The Persian mind, having adjusted itself to the new Political environment, soon reasserts its innate freedom, and begins to retire from the field of: objectivity, in order that it may come back to itself and reflect upon the material achieved in its journey out of its own inwardness. With the study of Greek thought, the spirit which was almost lost in the concrete, begins to reflect and realize itself as the arbiter of truth. Subjectivity asserts itself, and endeavors to supplant all outward authority. Such a period, in the intellectual history of a people, must be the epoch of rationalism, skepticism, mysticism, heresy - forms in which the human mind, swayed by the growing force of subjectivity, rejects all external standards of truth. And so we find the epoch under consideration. The period of Umayyad dominance is taken up, with the process of co-mingling and adjustment to new conditions of life; but with the rise of the Abbasid Dynasty and the study of Greek Philosophy, the pent-up intellectual force of Persia bursts out

again, and exhibits wonderful activity in all the, departments of thought and action. The fresh intellectual vigour imparted by the assimilation of, Greek Philosophy, which was studied with great avidity, led immediately to a critical examination of Islamic Monotheism. Theology, enlivened by religious fervor, learned to talk the language of Philosophy, earlier than cold reason began to seek a retired corner, away from the noise of controversy, in order to construct a consistent theory of things. In the first half of the 8th Century we find Wasil Ibn `Ata - a Persian disciple of the famous theologian Hasan of Basra - starting Mu`tazilaism (Rationalism) - that most interesting movement which engaged some of the subtlest minds of Persia, and finally exhausted its force in the keen metaphysical controversies of Baghdad and Basra. The famous city of Basra had become, owing to its commercial situation, the play-ground of various forces - Greek Philosophy, Scepticism, Christianity, Buddhistic ideas, Manichaeism (1) which furnished ample spiritual food to the inquiring mind of the time, and formed the intellectual environment of Islamic Rationalism. What Spitta calls the Syrian period of Muhammadan History is not characterised with metaphysical subtleties. With the advent of the Persian Period, however, Muhammadan students of Greek Philosophy began (1)During the `Abbasid Period there were many who secretly held Manichaen opinions. See Fihrist, Leipzig 1871, p. 338; See also Al-Mu`tazila, ed. by T. W. Arnold, Leipzig 1902, p. 27, where the author speaks of a controversy between Abu'l-Hudhail and Salih the Dualist. See also MacDonald's Muslim Theology, p. 133. properly to reflect on their religion, and the Mu`tazil thinkers (1), gradually drifted into metaphysics with which alone we are concerned here. It is not our object to trace the history of the Mu`tazila Kalam; for present purposes it will be sufficient if we briefly reveal the metaphysical implications of the Mu`tazila view of Islam. The conception of God, and the theory of matter, therefore, are the only aspects of Rationalism which we propose to discuss here.

            His conception of the unity of God at which the Mu`tazila eventually arrived by a subtle dialectic is one of the fundamental points in which he differs, from the Orthodox Muhammaden . God’s attributes according to his view, cannot be said to inhere in Him; they form the very essence of His nature. The Mu`tazila, therefore, denies the separate reality of divine attributes, and declares their absolute identity with the abstract divine Principle. "God", says.  

1.The Mu`tazilas belonged to various nationalities, and many of them were Persians either by descent or domicile. Wasil Ibn `Ata - the reported founder of the sect - was a Persian (Browne, Lit. His., Vol. 1, p. 281). Von Kremer, however, traces their origin to the theological controversies of the Umayyad period. Mu`tazilaism was not an essentially Persian movement; but it is true, as Prof. Browne observes (Lit. His., Vol, 1, p. 283) that Shiite and Qadari tenets, indeed, often went together, and the Shiite doctrine current in Persia at the present day is in many respects Mu`tazilite, while Hasan Al-Ashari, the great opponent of the Mutazilite, is by the Shi'ites held in horror. It may also be added that some of the greater representatives of the Mu`tazila opinion were abi'as by religion, e.g. Abu'l-Hudhail (Al-Mu`tazila, ed. by T. W. Arnold, p. 28'. On the other band many of the followers of Al-Ash`ari were Persians (See extracts from Ibn `Asakir ed. Mehren), so that it does not seem to be quite justifiable to describe the Asharite mode of thought as a purely Semitic movement.

Abu’l-Hudhail, "is knowing, all-Powerful, living; and His knowledge, power and life constitute His very essence (dhat)"(1) in order to explain the pure unity of God Joseph Al-Basir(2) lays down the following five principles:-

            (1) The necessary supposition of atom and, accident.
            (2) The necessary suppostion of a creator.
            (3) The necessary suppose of the conditions (Ahwal) of God.
            (4) The rejection of those attributes which do not benefit Allah
            (5) The unity of God in spite of the plurality of His attributes.  

This conception of unity underwent further modifications; until in the hands of Muammar an Abu Hashim it became a mere abstract possibility about which nothing could be predicated. We cannot, he says, predicate knowledge of God (3), for His knowledge must be of something in Himself. The first necessitates the identity of subject and object which is absurd; the second implicates duality in the nature of God which is equally impossible. Ahmad and Fadi (4)disciples of Nazzam, however, recognised this duality in holding that the original creators are two –God  

1 Shahrasrani Cureton's ed., p. 3+.
2 Dr. Frankl Ein Mu`tazilitischer Kalam - Wien 1872. p. 13.
3 Shahrastani Cureton's ed., p41. See also Steiner - Die
mutaziliten, p. 59
4 Ibn Hazm (Cairo, ad. 1) Vol. IV, p. 197. See also Shahrastani
Cureton's ed., p. 42.  

the eternal principle; and the word of God - Jesus Christ - the contingent principle. But more fully to bring out the element of truth in the second alternative suggested by Mu`ammar, was reserved, as we shall see, for later Sufi thinkers of Persia. It is, therefore, clear that some of the rationalists almost unconsciously touched - the outer fringe of later pantheism for which, in a sense, they prepared the way, not only by their definition of God, but also by their common effort to internalise the rigid externality of absolute law.
            But the most important contribution of the advocates of Rationalism to purely metaphysical speculation, is their explanation of matter, which their opponents - the Ash`arite - afterwards modified to fit in with their own views of the nature of God. The interest of Nazzam chiefly consisted in the exclusion of all arbitrariness from the orderly course of nature (1). The same interest in naturalism led Al-Jahiz to define Will in a purely negative manner(2). Though the Rationalist thinkers did not want to abandon the idea of a Personal Will, yet they endeavoured to find - a deeper ground for the independence of individual natural phenomena. And this ground they found in matter itself. Nazzam taught the infinite divisibility of matter, and obliterated the distinction between substance and accident (3). Existence was regarded as a quality super-imposed by God on the pre-existing material atoms which would have been incapable  

1 Steiner - Die Mu`taziliten ; Leipzig, 1865, p. 57.
2 Ibid. p. 59.
3 Shahrastani,: Cureton's ed., p. 38.

of perception without this quality. Muhammad Ibn `Uthman, one of the Mu`tazila Shafiis, says Ibn Hazm (1) maintained that the non-existent (atom in its pre-existential state) is a body in that state; only that in its pre-existential condition it is neither in motion, nor at rest, nor is it said to be created. Substance, then, is a collection of qualities - taste, odour. colour - which, in themselves, are nothing more than. material potentialities. The soul, too, is a finer kind of matter; and the processes of knowledge are meremental motions. Creation is only the actualisation of preexisting potentialities (2) (Tafra). The individuality of a thing which is defined as "that of which something can be predicated" (3) is not an essential factor in its notion. The collection of things we call the Universe, is externalised or perceptible reality which could, so, to speak, exist independent of all perceptibility. The object of these metaphysical subtleties is purely theological. God, to the Rationalist, is an absolute unity which can, in no sense, admit of plurality, and could thus exist without the perceptible plurality - the Universe.
            The activity of God, then, consists only in making, the atom perceptible. The properties of the atom flow from its own nature. A stone thrown up falls. down on account of its own indwelling property (4). God, says Al-`Attar of Basra and Bishr ibn al Mu'tamir,  

1. Ibn Hazrn (ed. Cairo) - Vol. V, p. 42.
2.Shahrastani : Cureton's ed., p. 38.
3.Steiner : Die Mu`taziliten, p. 80.
4.Shahrastiani : Cureton's ed., p. 38.

did not create colour, length, breadth, taste or smell all these are activities of bodies themselves(1). Ever the number of things in the Universe is not known to God (2). Bishr ibn al-Mu'tamir further explained the properties of bodies by what he called "Tawallud" - interaction of bodies(3). Thus it is clear that the Rationalists were philosophically materialists, and theologically deists.

            To them substance and atom are identical, and they define substance as a space-filling atom which, besides the quality of filling space, has a certain direction, force and existence forming its very essence as an actuality. In shape it is squarelike; for if it is supposed to be circular, combination of different atoms would not be possible(4). There is, however, great difference of opinion among the exponents of atomism in regard to the nature of the atom. Some hold that atoms are all similar to each other; while Abu'l-Qasim of Balkh regards them as similar as well as dissimilar. When we say that two things are similar to each other, we do not necessarily mean that they are similar in all their attributes. Abu'l-Qasim further differs from Nazzain in advocating the indestructibility of the atom. He holds that the atom had a beginning in time; but that it cannot be completely annihilated. The attribute of "Baqa" (continued existence), he says, does  

1 Ibn Hazm (ed. Cairo) : Vol. IV, pp. 194, 197.
2.Ibid. Vol. IV, p. 194.
3.Shahrastani : Comatose's ad., p. 44.
4.In my treatment of the atomism of Islamic Rationalists, I am indebted to Arthur Biram's publication : "Kitabul Masa'il fil khilaf beyn al-Basriyyin wal Baghdadiyyin".,
not give to its subject a new attribute other than 'existence; and the continuity of existence is not an additional attribute at all. The divine activity created the atom as well as its continued existence. Abu'l-Qasim, however, admits that some atoms may not have been created for continued existence. He denies also the existence of any intervening space between different atoms, and holds, unlike other representatives of the school, that the essence or atom (Mahiyyat), could not remain essence in a state of non-existence. To advocate the opposite is a contradiction in terms. To say that the essence (which is essence because of the attribute of existence) could remain essence in a state of non-existence, is to say that the existent could remain existent in a state of non-existence. It is, obvious that Abu'l-Qasim here approaches the Ash`arite theory of knowledge which dealt a serious blow to the Rationalist theory of matter.




Side by side with the development of Mu`tazilaism we see, as is natural in a period of great intellectual activity, many other tendencies of thought manifesting themselves in the philosophical and religious circles of Islam. Let us notice them briefly -

            1. Scepticism. The tendency towards scepticism was the natural consequence of the purely dialectic method of Rationalism. Men such as Ibn Ashras and Al-Jahiz, who apparently belonged to the Rationalist camp, were really sceptics. The standpoint of Al-Jahiz who inclined to deistic naturalism (1), is that of a cultured man of the time, and not of a professional theologian. In him is noticeable also a reaction against the metaphysical hairsplitting of his predecessors, and a desire to widen the pale of theology for the sake of the illiterate who are incapable of reflecting on articles of faith.

            2. Sufiism - an appeal to a higher source of knowledge which was first systematised by Dhul-Nun, and became more and more deepened and antischolastic in contrast to the dry intellectualism of the Ash`arite. We shall consider this interesting movement in the following chapter.
            3.The revival of authority - Isma`ilianism - a movement characteristically Persian which, instead of repudiating freethought, endeavours to come to an understanding with it. Though this movement seems to have no connection with the theological controversies of the time, yet its connection with freethought is fundamental. The similarity between the methods, practised by the Isma`ilian missionaries and those of the partisans of the association called Ikhwan-al-Safa - Brethren of Purity - suggests some sort of secret relation between the two institutions. Whatever may be the motive of those who started this movement, its significance as an intellectual phenomenon should not be lost sight of. The multiplicity of philosophical and religious views - a necessary consequence of speculative activity - is  1. Macdonald's Muslim Theology, p. 161. apt to invoke forces which operate against this, religiously speaking, dangerous multiplicity. In the 18th Century history of European thought we see Fichte, starting with a sceptical inquiry concerning the nature of matter, and finding its last - word in Pantheism. Schleiermacher appeals to Faith as opposed to Reason, Jacobi points to a source of knowledge higher than reason, while Comte abandons all metaphysical inquiry, and limits all knowledge to sensuous perception. De Maistre and Schlegel, on the other hand, find a resting place in the authority of an absolutely infallible Pope. The advocates of the doctrine of Imamat think in the same strain as De Maistre; but it is curious that the Ismailians, while making this doctrine the basis of their Church, permitted free play to all sorts of thinking.

            The Isma`ilia movement then is one aspect of the persistent battle (1) which the intellectually independent Persian waged against the religious and political ideals of Islam, Originally a branch of the Shiite religion, the Isma`ilia sect assumed quite a cosmopolitan character with Abdulla ibn Maiman - the probable progenitor of the Fatimid Caliphs of Egypt - who died about the same time when Al-Ash`ari, the great opponent of Freethought, was born. This curious man imagined a vast scheme in which he weaved together innumerable threads of various hues, resulting 1 Ibn Hazm in his Kitab al-Milal, looks upon the heretical sects of Persia as a continuous struggle against the Arab power which the cunning Persian attempted to shake off by these peaceful means. See Von Kremer's Geschichte der herrschenden Ideen des Islams, pp. 10, 11, where this learned Arab historian of Cordova is quoted at length.

In a cleverly constructed equivocation, charming tot the Persian mind for its mysterious character and misty Pythagorean Philosophy. Like the Association of the Brethren of Purity, he made an attempt, under the pious cloak of the doctrine of Imamat (Authority), to synthesise all the dominating ideas of the time. Greek Philosophy, Christianity, Rationalism, Sufiism, Manichaeism, Persian heresies, and above all the idea of reincarnation, all came forward to contribute their respective shares to the boldly conceived Ismailian whole, the various aspects of which were to be gradually revealed to the initiated, by the "Leader" the ever Incarnating Universal Reason - according to the intellectual development of the age in which he incarnated himself. In the Ismallian movement, Freethought, apprehending the collapse of its ever widening structure, seeks to rest upon a stable basis,, and, by a strange irony of fate, is led to find it in the very idea which is revolting to its whole being. Barren authority, though still apt to reassert herself at times, adopts this unclaimed child, and thus permits herself to assimilate all knowledge past, present and future.

            The unfortunate connection, however, of this movement with the politics of the time, has misled many a scholar. They see in it (Macdonald, for instance) nothing more than a powerful conspiracy to, uproot the political power of the Arab from Persia. They have denounced the Ismallian Church which counted among its followers some of the best heads and sincerest hearts, as a mere clique of dark murderers  who were ever watching for a possible victim. We must always remember, while estimating the character of these people, the most barbarous persecutions which drove them to pay red-handed fanaticism in the same coin. Assassinations for religious purposes were considered unobjectionable, and even perhaps lawful among the whole Semite race. As late as the latter half of the 16th Century, the Pope of Rome could approve such a dreadful slaughter as the massacre of St. Bartholomew. That assassination, even though actuated by religious zeal, is still a crime, is a purely modern idea; and justice demands that we should not judge older generations with our own standards of right and wrong. A great religious movement which shook to its very foundations the structure of a vast empire, and, having successfully passed through the varied ordeals of moral reproach, calumny and persecution, stood up for centuries as a champion of Science and Philosophy, could not have entirely rested on the frail basis of a political conspiracy of a mere local and temporary character. Isma`ilianism, in spite of its almost entire loss of original vitality, still dominates. the ethical ideal of not an insignificant number in India, Persia, Central Asia, Syria and Africa; while the last expression of Persian thought - Babism - is essentially Isma`ilian in its character.

            To return, however, to the Philosophy of the sect. From the later Rationalists they borrowed their conception of Divinity. God, or the ultimate principle of existence, they teach, has no attribute. His nature admits of no predication. When we predicate the attribute of power to Him, we only mean that He is the giver of power; when we predicate eternity, we indicate the eternity of what the Qur'an calls "Amr" (word of God) as distinguished from the " Khalq " - (creation of God) which is contingent. In His nature all contradictions melt away, and from Him flow all opposites. Thus they considered themselves to have solved the problem which had troubled the mind of Zoroaster and his followers.

            In order to find an answer to the question, “What is plurality ? " the Isma`ilia refer to what they consider a metaphysical axiom – “that from one only one can proceed". But the one which proceeds is not something completely different from which it proceeds. It is really the Primal one transformed. The Primal Unity, therefore, transformed itself into the First Intellect (Universal Reason); and then, by means of this transformation of itself, created the Universal soul which, impelled by its nature to perfectly identify itself with the original source, felt the necessity of motion, and consequently of a body possessing the power of motion. In order to achieve its end, the soul created the heavens moving in circular motion according to its direction. It also created the elements which mixed together, and formed the visible Universe - the scene of plurality through which it endeavours to pass with a view to come back to the original source. The individual soul is an epitome of the whole Universe which exists only for its progressive education. The Universal Reason incarnates itself from time to time, in the personality of the "Leader" who illuminates the soul in proportion to its experience and understanding, and gradually guides it through the scene of plurality to, the world of eternal unity. When the Universal soul reaches its goal, or rather returns to its own deep being, the process of disintegration ensues. "Particles constituting the Universe fall off from each other those of goodness go to truth (God) which symbolises, unity; those of evil go to untruth (Devil) which symbolises diversity”(1). This is but briefly the Isma`ilian Philosophy - a mixture, as Sharastani remarks, of Philosophical and Manichaean ideas which, by gradually arousing the slumbering spirit of scepticism, they administered, as it were, in doses to the initiated, and finally brought them to that stage of spiritual emancipation where solemn ritual drops off, and dogmatic religion appears to be nothing more than a systematic arrangement of useful falsehoods.

            The Isma`ilian doctrine is the first attempt to amalgamate contemporary Philosophy with a really Persian view of the Universe, and to restate Islam, in reference to this synthesis, by allegorical interpretation of the Qur'an - a method which was afterwards adopted by Sufiism With them the Zoroastrian Ahriman (Devil) is not the malignant creator of evil things but it is a principle which violates the eternal unity, and breaks it up into visible diversity. The ' Sharastani: Cureton's ed : p. 149.  idea that some principle of difference in the nature of the ultimate existence must be postulated in order to account for empirical diversity, underwent further modifications; until in the Hurufi sect (an offshoot of the Ismailia), in the 14th Century, it touched contemporary Sufiism on the one hand, and Christian Trinity on the other. The "Be" maintained the Hurufis, is the eternal word of God, which, itself uncreated, leads to further creation - the word externalised. "But for the 'word' the recognition of the essence of Divinity would have been impossible; since Divinity is beyond the reach of sense –perception” (1). The 'word', therefore, became flesh in the womb of Mary (2) in order to manifest the Father. The whole Universe is the manifestation of God's 'word', in which He is immanent (3). Every sound in the Universe is within God, every atom is singing the song of eternity (4); all is life. Those who want to discover the ultimate reality of things, let them seek "the named" through the Name (5), which at once conceals and reveals its subject.







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