Chapter 4: The Rational and Mystical Interpretations of Islam by A. E. Affifi
(A. E. Affifi is Professor of Islamic Philosophy, University of Alexandria, Alexandria, Egypt)
No account of Islam is complete if it does not take into consideration the extraordinary efforts which the various Muslim sects have made to understand Islam, and the results which they have achieved. Islam is not merely a body of doctrines expressed in the Qur’an and the prophetic Traditions; neither is it best represented by the orthodox school at any particular time. It is a living religion which has received and is still receiving its vitality from the people who confess it; it is a great movement which has passed through various stages of development over its long and complicated history, influencing and being influenced by the religious and cultural forces in its environment. Through the interaction between Islam in its original form and those external forces some of the fundamental concepts of Muslim dogmas and practices were reinterpreted and reshaped. Some of these interpretations are not orthodox, it is true, but they are nevertheless Islamic, at least insofar as they are based on Islamic texts, even though the texts are examined under a different light.
It is the purpose of this chapter to discuss the interpretations gleaned from the writings of the old schools of Muslims -- mystics and rationalists, including both the theologians and the philosophers -- who are not usually regarded by the orthodox school as strict Muslims, but whose influence on Muslim thought and practical religious life is felt even today. The earliest rationalists were known as Mu‘tazilites, and the mystics of Islam are the Sufis. The discussion in this chapter will be limited to the theological, philosophical, and mystical attitudes toward certain of the fundamental problems of dogmatic beliefs and religious practices in Islam.
The Theological Attitude
Islam, like all other great religions, has a theology of its own which aims at the establishment of its fundamental articles of faith and the refutation of heresy and innovation. The Prophet Muhammad was no theologian -- nor was any prophet before him. In fact, the revelations that prophets have brought into the world defy any serious attempt at a systematic theology. The systematization of religious dogmas in Islam was a task undertaken by the followers of Muhammad when the need for the establishment of a Muslim theology was felt. The criterion for the early theology was taken by writers such as Ibn Khaldun and Adud al-Din al-Iji to be the teachings of the early Muslims and the orthodox party. In the opinion of these writers the Mu’tazilites (rationalists) and the Shi’as and many other theological schools are heretical. This is too narrow a view to be adopted, and in dealing with Muslim theology here the term "theology" is used in a wider sense to include the speculative thinking of orthodox and non-orthodox theological schools.
The fundamental principle which Muslim theology has always endeavored to establish is the principle of the unity of God. On this principle Muslim theologians know no compromise. It is the keynote of Muslim faith and the root from which all other dogmas of Islam are derived. Hence Muslim theology is also called the science of unification (of God), because its object is to determine the nature of God and His attributes, and to explain the relation between Him and His creation, all of which follow as corollaries from a definite concept of Allah as the Absolute One.
The Qur’an, though not itself a book on theology, contains the rudiments of almost all theological problems. It speaks of God as the only one to be served, the Supreme Master and Ruler of the world. It asserts His absolute transcendence in these words, "Say: He is God alone. God the eternal: He begetteth not, nor is begotten; and there is nothing like unto Him" (Surah CXLI). The Qur’an contains a long list of the attributes of God over which there has been much discussion and disputation among the Muslim theologians. It condemns polytheism, atheism, and deism; and it emphatically denies the eternity of the world. Although on the whole it is sympathetic to Christianity, it rejects the Christian Trinity and all its implications.
In discussing these theological problems the style of the Qur’an varies considerably. Sometimes it takes the form of a logical argument -- a syllogistic proof or an argument based on analogy -- but more often it adopts the rhetorical style, calling on man to reflect upon himself and the wonderful world around him so that by means of such reflection he might know his Lord. When dealing with moral precepts the Qur’an appeals to man’s own conscience and bids him reflect upon his actions and the actions of his fellow men.
Such were the seeds from which, under favorable conditions, an elaborate theology developed in the Muslim world. There was no science of theology during the lifetime of the Prophet and the first four Caliphs. The early Muslims accepted the word of the Qur’an literally. They raised no metaphysical or theological questions. When they were in doubt about a Quranic verse dealing with God or any of His attributes they were told to accept it as it was stated in the Qur’an with no further explanation or interpretation. The idea was to have faith in Islam, to propagate it, and to defend it, rather than to inquire into its nature. The orthodox party represented by Ahmad Ibn Hanbal (died 241; AD. 855) adhered strictly to tradition and opposed any form of independent thinking.
Later on they even rejected the theological investigations made on strict Quranic lines, and looked with suspicion upon the teaching of the ascetics of their time. They would only allow discussion of questions related to the law (shari‘a) and the practical affairs of everyday life. But soon after the death of Muhammad political questions relating to his rightful successor were raised, and with them arose certain theological questions concerning the nature of the true Imam (Muslim head of state), the meaning of faith, sin, infidelity, punishment in the Future World, and so on. The interest was primarily political, but the contending parties gave their views a religious coloring, and there was much persecution and bloodshed in the name of religion. Political, or rather political-theological, parties appeared on the scene -- the Kharijites, the Qadarites, the Shi‘ites, the Murjites, and the Umayyads, who were the state party and the bitterest opponents of Ali and his followers. This was a period of strife and dissension within the Muslim community during which the whole future of Islam was at stake.
What interests us here is their discussion of faith, sin, and retribution. The Murjites -- literally those who postpone; here, those who postpone judgment until it is pronounced by God on the Day of Judgment -- were more tolerant than the others in their political views and more liberal-minded on theological questions. They believed that faith alone is sufficient for man salvation. The sinful believer who professes the unity of God and acknowledges His Prophet thus will not suffer everlasting punishment in Hell, a. view which was diametrically opposite to that of the Kharijites. They even went so far as to say that a believer need not be a professed Muslim, for faith is a confession of the heart while Islam is an outward or public confession of the tongue.
The question was taken up more seriously later when it lost its political significance and became a theological problem of academic interest. What is the real nature of faith, and what is its relation to religious practice? Does faith admit any degrees? That is, can one man be more faithful than another, or can one and the same person ascend higher and higher in the scale of faith? The Murjites denied the quantitative evaluation of faith, while the rest of the theologians held the view that faith admits increase and decrease. Faith is more nearly perfect when it is accompanied by actions, or better still, when it is so deeply rooted in the heart that it becomes the principle from which righteous actions necessarily follow. Faith which is not accompanied by good works is like a tree which bears no fruit, but true faith becomes a "faculty of the heart" -- as Ibn Khaldun calls it -- which urges the faithful to perform their religious obligations and to abstain from sin. "A true believer," the Prophet says, "commits no adultery and no theft." In other words, to have real faith and to sin is a contradiction in terms. The theory that faith increases and decreases has its roots in the Qur’an in such passages as this, "The believers are they whose hearts thrill with fear when God’s name is mentioned, and whose faith increases at each recital of His words, and who put trust in their Lord" (Surah VIII, 2).
Such were the beginnings of the era in which Muslim theology was being formed. But these rudimentary and altogether primitive speculations on certain religious problems soon assumed larger proportions when Muslim scholars who were skilled in the art of dialectic and tolerably conversant with Greek philosophy appeared on the scene. There were now two Important factors which helped the development of the new theology, one internal and the other external.
The internal factor is the nature of the Qur’an itself. As has been pointed out in previous chapters, the Qur’an contains two different types of verses, those which form the main substance of the Book and are clear and definite in their meaning, and the comparatively few verses which are dubious or less definite. This is admitted in one of the Medina revelations which runs as follows, "He (God) it is who hath sent down to thee the Book. Some of its verses are of themselves perspicuous; they are the basis of the Book; and others are dubious. Those whose hearts are inclined to error follow the dubious verses, thereby seeking discord and seeking interpretation. But none knoweth its interpretation save God. Those who are firm in knowledge say: We believe therein- it is all from our Lord. But none will bear this in mind save men endued with understanding" (Surah III, 7).
The reason for the presence of these dubious verses in the Qur’an has been discussed by theologians. The majority incline to believe that they are purposely given as a trial in order to test the strength and validity of man’s faith. Those whose faith is firm accept them unquestionably, while others whose hearts are inclined to error -- as the Qur’an says -- reject them or interpret them in such a way as to cause discord in the Muslim community. Whatever the real reason may be, the fact remains that these dubious verses played an important role in stirring up dispute among Muhammad’s followers of the second generation. Out of these disputes emerged different parties, each supporting a different point of view. It is worth while quoting Ibn Khaldun on the subject. He says, in his Prolegomena:
In the Qur’an there are passages which describe God as an absolutely transcendent Being. Their meaning is clear and admits of no interpretation. They are all negative statements; and, on account of their clarity, are accepted by all believers. . . . The other passages which are comparatively few are suggestive of anthropomorphism [these are the dubious passages]. They were accepted [by the early Muslims] without any enquiry into their meaning. But the innovators of their time resorted to a different method, by subjecting the dubious passages to critical examination. Some exaggerated their anthropomorphic side and attributed to God hands, face, feet, and so on, thus falling into gross corporealism and violating the absolute transcendence of God which is explicitly mentioned in numerous other passages and with such undoubted clarity. . . . Others admitted anthropomorphism with regard to the attributes of God such as occupying a place, sitting on the Throne, coming and going and speaking in words, and so on. They, like the others, also drifted into corporealism.
The disputes centering around such passages had a far-reaching effect on the course of the development of many theological doctrines which occupied the minds of Muslims for generations. We can even find some traces of these theological disputes in modern times.
The second, or external, factor in the development of Muslim theology is the cultural influences which were brought to bear upon Islam from without. Up to the second half of the second century we meet only the individual men who expressed their opinions on some religious problems. There was no general or recognized system of religious thought; there were no real theological schools, although there were what we might call semi-theological parties.
The course of development changed when foreign influence came into play. Some ethical problems were raised, particularly the problem of determinism and free will. Such metaphysical problems as were inspired by the Qur’an also came to the fore -- the problem of the attributes of God, the divine attribute of speech and the Qur’an as the eternal word of God, the problem of beholding the vision of God in the next world, and so on. It is significant that most of the major issues in religion were discussed in Syria, which was an important center of Christian theology. We know that John of Damascus the great doctor of the Greek Church, was a Vizier (Minister) under the Umayyads, and that he and his pupil Theodorus Abucara wrote polemic treatises on Islam summarizing discussions between Christians and Muslims. Some of these treatises were written in a catechetical form: If a Muslim asks you such and such a question, answer so and so. This is taken as an evidence that direct contact between Muslim and Christian scholars must have taken place at an early stage. But while the possibility of such contact is admitted, there is no justification for the exaggerated view put forward by such scholars as De Boer, Von Kremer, and D. B. Macdonald that the development of Muslim theology was largely influenced by Christian thought.
The other foreign factor which influenced Muslim theology, particularly in its mature form, is Greek philosophy. We can see traces of it in almost all the leading theological theories -- either in the bearing of some Greek concepts on such theories, or in the way they were presented and discussed. Yet, here again, Greek ideas never remained unaltered; they were given such a turn as to harmonize with the fundamental concepts of Islam.
A consideration of the two major issues in Muslim theology -- God and the problem of divine attributes, and man and the problem of free will -- will illustrate the significant trends in the development of Islamic theological thought.
The Theological Conception of God.
A variety of concepts of God, ranging from crude anthropomorphism to absolute transcendentalism, have their roots in the Qur’an. V/hen the Muslim theologians began to reflect on the nature of God, they found themselves faced with two types of Quranic verses: those which describe God in relation to His creation, and those which describe Him in Himself. According to the former, God sees, hears, speaks to His people, creates with His hands, sits on His Throne, comes with His Angels, and will be seen on the Day of Judgment. They also ascribe to God typically human qualities such as pleasure and displeasure, love and hatred, and the like. These attributes are some of the ingredients, so to speak, of the personality of the one God who speaks to His servants and hears their call, loves the righteous, and hates the wicked. The Prophet says, "Pray to God as if thou seest Him, for if thou seest Him not, He seeth thee." That is, picture God as a person, for you cannot address yourself in prayer to the Absolute.
The second set of Quranic verses, those which describe God in Himself, refer to the divine attributes of transcendence by which God is distinguished from created beings. The question is: Can we predicate attributes of God at all? The Qur’an certainly does. God is described as omnipotent, as omniscient, as knowing and willing, as eternal, infinite, everlasting, and unlike all created beings. Some of these attributes are positive, others are negative. Can they all be predicated of God in the same way? The orthodox party maintain that they can, but they do not go into what such predication logically implies. The Mu‘tazilites examine the implications of such predication. The negative attributes present no difficulty and are therefore admitted by them. The positive ones are either reduced to negations or denied as separate entities distinct from or added to the divine Essence. They do not deny that God knows, wills, and does things, but deny that His knowledge or will or action is different from and coeternal with His Essence. They are all identical with the Essence. To assert the separate existence of the divine attributes which are eternal because they belong to God is to assert a plurality of eternal beings, which is contrary to the oneness of God. Some Mu’tazilites went so far as to deny all positive attributes. To say that God knows such and such a thing, they say, means that He is not ignorant thereof, and the same with the rest of the attributes.
It is interesting to notice that the first Muslim thinker to deny the divine attributes in the above sense was Wasil Ibn Ata (died 131; AD. 748) in his refutation of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, which he considered a plurality of eternal attributes in one Essence. His view received more elaboration in the later circles of the Mu’tazilites who gave it a more philosophical turn. God was reduced by them to a simple monad stripped of all attributes and qualities. Hence they were called by their opponents Mu‘attila, that is, those who render the divine attributes useless or functionless.
The opposite view was held by the orthodox party and later by the Ash‘arite school. Their argument on the whole is not very convincing, and most of it is quibbling with words. God, they say, has attributes, but they are neither identical with His Essence nor different from it. They are "states" which though distinguishable from the Essence are yet inherent in it. The whole trouble, it seems, rested on one fundamental misconception: they personified the attributes but went on thinking they were dealing with the ordinary simple attributes of God. To talk about an eternal attribute which is different from the divine Essence but coexistent with it is to personify it and give it the status of a substance -- a position very similar to that of the Christian Trinity. Had these theologians said that the attributes were mere intelligible relations qualifying the Essence, or mere names with which God has described Himself, the question as to their identity or nonidentity with the divine Essence and the other question as to their eternity or temporality would not have arisen.
The failure to realize the significance of describing the attributes of God from two different aspects is responsible for most of the disputes and futile arguments with which Muslim books on theology abound. The two contending parties -- the traditionalists and rationalists -- concentrated on one set of attributes to the comparative neglect of the other. The result was two extreme views, with corporealism or moderate anthropomorphism on the one side and absolute transcendentalism on the other. The Mu‘tazilites, who were the champions of transcendentalism, resorted to a method of interpretation which explained away all the anthropomorphic passages in the Qur’an, and they discarded the anthropomorphic Prophetic Traditions as invalid or not authentic. This was necessary to preserve their conception of the absolute unity and transcendence of God. The traditionalists wavered between immanence and transcendence but were more inclined toward immanence.
The rational interpretation of the Mu‘tazilites had its advantages as well as its disadvantages. In one respect it helped to liberate Islam from the materialistic and mythological concepts of God by insisting on the more spiritual and abstract attributes. But it was carried to an extreme by some of the rationalists who reduced the Godhead to an abstraction void of all content.
The enquiry into the nature of the divine attributes naturally led to a discussion on the nature of the Qur’an as the revealed word of God or the external manifestation of the attribute of divine speech. The orthodox, who held the doctrine of the eternity of the attributes, said the Qur’an was eternal. The rationalists said it was created, or there would be something eternal other than God, and this would be a violation of His oneness. The Prophet to whom the Qur’an was revealed did not hear the words of God, but heard a voice which God created in a material medium and which conveyed to him the content of the divine mind. The Qur’an as we know it is therefore created. This was the doctrine of the Mu‘tazilites which was championed by the Abbasid Caliph al-Ma’mun.
When the triumphant days of the Mu‘tazilites were ended, the orthodox party saw their opportunity once again and declared that all was uncreated, even the very Word written in the Book and recited in man’s prayer. The Ash‘arite school took up the problem later and discussed it on a higher level. They were influenced by older speculations on a similar subject, particularly the Christian and Jewish theories of the Logos, which in their turn were influenced by ancient Greek theories.
The Ash‘arites held that God’s speech was eternal. The Qur’an, the divine command, and the creative Word Be, were all forms of the eternal attribute of speech. "The command of God," says the Qur’an, "is such that when God wills a thing, He says to it: Be; and it is" (Surah XXXVI, 81). The creative command and the creative Word Be are therefore prior to all phenomenal existence. The Qur’an also says, "One of His signs is that the heavens and the earth are sustained by His command" (Surah XXX, 25). Thus the divine command is not only the instrument of creation, it is also the sustaining principle of the created world. Such verses were originally meant to emphasize the absolute sovereignty of God as the supreme Creator and Maintainer of the universe, but a new meaning was read into them by the Ash‘arites in support of a Logos theory comparable in many respects to the Christian and Stoic theories. The divine command and creative Word were personified and given power to create and sustain that which they create. Moreover, the Word, or Logos, is in one respect identical with God, in another different from Him and coeternal with Him. Thus the Word of God gradually took a place similar to that of the Memra in Jewish theology, and the Second Person in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.
The Ash‘arites went a step further. They distinguished between two kinds of speech, the external and the internal. The external, which consists of words and sounds and can be put down in writing, is created. The internal, which is expressed by such words and sounds, is identical with the divine consciousness and is therefore eternal. This distinction is certainly borrowed from the philosophy of the Stoics who spoke of potential and actual, or internal and external Logoi. It is also in line with the Christian theory of the Logos which distinguishes the Word which was from eternity with God and was God from the Word which appeared in a temporal manifestation in the form of Christ. Perhaps the earlier Ash‘arites did not express themselves in such plain words. They did not work out the metaphysical implications of their theory. They were more concerned with the problems of the eternity of the Qur’an which they thought they had proved. What they actually proved is the eternity of the divine mind or the divine knowledge, and the temporal manifestation of this knowledge when revealed to the Prophet. This position was taken up by al-Ghazali and later Ash‘arites.
Determinism and Free Will.
The ethical problem of determinism and free will has its roots in the much wider metaphysical problem of the conception of God in His relation to the world in general and mankind in particular. The pessimistic attitude of the Semitic mind toward the world as a fleeting shadow, the notion that it has value only as a place in which man prepares himself for a more permanent life, led to the conception that God is the absolute sovereign power which rules all things, including man and his actions. We have a definite trace of this conception in the Qur’an. God is the supreme King of Heaven and earth whose authority is not to be challenged. The following examples are typical of a large number of similar texts in the Qur’an. "He should not be asked concerning what He does" (Surah XXI, 23). "He createth what He will" (Surah XXX, 54) "He it is Who created you from dust" (Surah XL, 67). "He alone misguides whomever He pleases and guides whomever He pleases" (Surah XXXV, 8). And in talking to his people, Noah says, "Nor shall my counsel profit you if God wills to misguide you, though I fain would counsel you aright. God is your Lord, and unto Him shall ye return" (Surah XI, 34). This is one side of the picture; in its theological aspect it emphasizes the absolute authority of God over His creation, and in its ethical aspect suggests a deterministic theory of man’s actions.
The other side of the picture shows the same two aspects closely related to one another. God, who is described as supreme power and will, is also described as just. The following typical passage from thc Qur’an illustrates the justice of God. "We will not burden a soul beyond its power; with Us is a Book which speaks the truth, and they shall not be unjustly treated" (Surah XXIII, 62). "These are the signs of God: we recite them to thee in truth and God wills not injustice to mankind" (Surah III, 108). "God does them no
injustice; it is they who are unjust to themselves" (Surah III, 117). "In truth has God created the heavens and the earth that each soul shall be rewarded for what he has earned, and that they shall not be wronged" (Surah XLV, 22). Thus, according to the Qur’an, justice is an essential attribute of God, and it is inconceivable that God can be the absolute despot who wills and acts as He pleases even if His actions are contrary to justice.
It is obvious that the two opposite theories, determinism and free will, can be traced back to a conflict between two conceptions of the nature of God -- God as absolute power and God as just.
The early Muslims who were the true sons of the desert preferred to think of God after the pattern of a tribal God with unlimited authority, a conception from which they derived their ethical theory of determinism. Their God can do everything, even that which is unjust or unreasonable. On the ethical side they taught that man was nothing but an instrument in the hands of his Lord, subjected to the strictest laws of determinism. This theory, known as oriental fatalism, has caused Islam to be stigmatized as a fatalistic religion, but nothing could be farther from the truth, for Islam attaches the greatest importance to the role which man plays in the sphere of his actions.
The Mu‘tazilites, on the other hand, emphasized man s responsibility for his own actions. They argued against the despotism of God as well as against determinism and fatalism and put their whole trust in human reason, which to them was sacred. They taught that appeal should be made to reason first, rather than to the religious law. Reason tells us that we are the authors of our own actions and that some of them are right and others are wrong. Perception of right and wrong is an innate power of the human mind not due to knowledge taught by religion. Man therefore is a free agent and the maker of his own destiny. He is also the maker of his own moral law which must coincide with the religious law because the religious law is rational. There can be no religious injunction which is contrary to reason.
Man, however, is not purely rational, according to the Mu‘tazilites. There is an irrational element in man to which he sometimes yields. This is why he sometimes goes astray and falls into error and sin, and this is why religion is needed as a reminder to the forgetful and to those whose rational will is thwarted by carnal desires. The Muslim rationalists were certainly on the road to Kant. The good will is the only thing that has intrinsic value in moral life, and it is man’s own. Without freedom of the will and personal responsibility, retribution, punishment and reward, and the Future Life with its. Heaven and Hell are all empty words void of meaning.
Rationality is not only the guiding principle in man’s actions and beliefs, according to the Muslim rationalists; it is also the ruling principle in the cosmos. This world is the best of all possible worlds because it is the work of a supreme Mini The so-called evil in the world is an integral part of the goodness of the whole.
The root of the doctrine of free will is to be found in the Qur’an itself and there is no justification for seeking an external source for it. In fact, the Quranic passages in favor of free will by far outnumber those which are suggestive of determinism. "And say: The truth is from your Lord: let him then who will, believe, and let him who will be an infidel" (Surah XVIII, 30). "This truly is a reminder: and whosowills, takes the road to his Lord" (Surah LXXVI, 29). "Say: Everyone acts after his manner; but your Lord knows who is best guided in his path" (Surah XVII, 84). "He who does evil or acts unjustly against himself, then asks pardon of God, will find God forgiving, merciful. And he who commits a crime, commits it to his own hurt" (Surah IV, 111-12).
According to the Qur’an man is free to choose his actions and beliefs, and he merits punishment or reward according to whether his choice is right or wrong. It is for God to show the right path, and for man to follow it or not follow it. Everything is predestined in the sense that it is predetermined by man’s nature and known as such to God from eternity. The eternal knowledge of God does not interfere one iota with man’s choice. Only in this sense can any meaning be attached to moral and religious obligations. Man alone works out his salvation, and this by faith and good deeds. Faith is rarely mentioned alone in the Qur’an; it is usually coupled with good deeds as the necessary prerequisites for entering paradise. "Bring good tidings to those who believe and do the good things that are right, that for them are gardens ‘neath which rivers flow" (Surah II, 25). "Those who have believed and done the good things that are right, they shall be the inmates of Paradise" (Surah II, 82).
The Philosophical Attitude
The attitude of the Muslim philosophers toward Islam is somewhat different from that of the theologians. The main object of the theologians was to defend, in their own way, Islamic dogmas. The philosophers sought to reconcile Islamic dogmas with philosophic ideas, to arrive at a conception of God which would satisfy the requirements of free thought as well as those of religious beliefs. The conception of God as the ultimate ground of all phenomenal existence had, somehow or other, to be brought into harmony with the conception of the personal God of Islam. To what extent the attempt was successful we shall see later.
The first Muslims to philosophize about the simple ideas of Islam were the Mu’tazilites. They were followed by the philosophers al-Kindi, al-Farabi, and Ibn Sina (Avicenna). The philosophers were on the whole contemptuous of their predecessors. Even al-Ghazali could not conceal his disappointment with the method of the theologians. "Their method," he says, "is right only insofar as it accomplishes their own objective; but it is of no avail to anyone who admits nothing but self-evident truths."
Generally speaking one can say that the theological method had no philosophic basis, though this applies more to the school of the Ash’arites than the Mu‘taziites. The Ash‘arites were skeptical in their attitude toward sense data. They denied causality and causal necessity and even refused to call God the First Cause. They taught that natural phenomena appear to be uniform not because they are subject to necessary
laws but because the human mind reads sequence into them. At any moment God may interrupt such uniformities and cause miraculous things to happen. Nothing takes place as a result of interrelations between natural phenomena. Everything is fresh creation. Their whole conception of God and the natural world was different from, and directed against, the Aristotelian philosophy which forms the basis of the thinking of the Muslim philosophers.
It is impossible to give an account of the individual systems of all the philosophers of Islam here. In this general treatment of the subject the aim will be to set forth the attitude of the school of al-Farabi and Ibn Sina, who represent Muslim philosophy in its strict and more limited sense. Ibn Sina in particular represents this philosophy in its mature and final form in a clear and well-reasoned manner. His object, like that of all Muslim philosophers before and after him, was to find a formula by which religious dogmas and philosophic principles can be reconciled. In this he was the faithful follower of al-Farabi. For both of them Greek philosophy was almost infallible, yet they acknowledged, in their own way, the basic theological principles of Islam. Their philosophy therefore is a mixture of ideas often irreconcilable except with the help of the drastic method of explaining away the opposite concepts. It is also highly eclectic in character, but eclecticism was not entirely the work of the Muslim mind as some scholars maintain. Two of the most important sources from which the Muslim thinkers drew considerable material reached them in an already eclectic form -- Neoplatonism and Hermetic philosophy. Plato and Aristotle had already been brought into some harmony and their ideas interpreted in the light of the ancient wisdom of the Orient with its characteristic religious sentiment. This made them all the more appealing to the Muslim philosophers whose aim was to philosophize Islam.
When Greek thought found its way into the Muslim world, the philosophers found themselves faced with a problem which they attempted to solve. On the one hand Islam called them to a simple faith in God who is the sole creator and sustainer of the world. It offered them no philosophy or even a basis for one. On the other hand, Greek philosophy in the form in which it came to them represented the final achievements reached by the Greek mind in its search for a solution of the problem of existence. It was impossible for Muslims to accept without alteration any religious teaching which, outwardly at least, contradicted their philosophic ideas. But it was equally impossible to go the full length with Greek philosophical theories and accept their necessary consequences. Therefore, the only way left open to them was to reconcile the two. The question was -- which of the Greek philosophical theories should they accept? Aristotle’s theory of a Prime Mover who set the whole world in motion, then left it to its own fate? Or Plato’s theory of God as the supreme Idea of Good -- whose relation to the existing world he left unexplained? Or the Stoic’s theory of pantheism? Or the Neoplatonic theory of emanation?
Those were the chief Greek theories of the nature of God known to the Muslims, and none of them could possibly be accepted by them without serious modification. The pantheistic view of reality never appeared in the Muslim philosophy of the type we are discussing here, but a full-fledged theory of pantheism was put forward later by the greatest of all Muslim mystics, Muhy al-Din Ibn Arabi. We shall say more about him later. The Muslim philosophers made use of Platonic, Aristotelian, and Neoplatonic ideas in constructing their own metaphysics, in which Islamic ideas also play an important part. But even the Islamic concepts were interpreted in such a way as to make them more philosophical, thus narrowing the gulf between Islamic and pagan thought.
The problem with which Muslim philosophers were faced was that of the relation between the external world, with its multiplicity of spatio-temporal and changeable phenomena, and an ultimate, immutable, and unchangeable First Principle. In philosophical language, the problem was that of the relation between the one and the many, or the noumenon and the phenomena; in theological language it was the problem of God and the universe. The Greek thinkers were far from the idea of the Godhead as explained in revealed religions. Aristotle’s philosophy is one of strict determinism in which both the material world and God are subject to a supreme law of self-necessity. The metaphysical-poetical conception of Plato reduces God to a mere abstraction. It was the Neoplatonists who, though in the main adhering to their pagan tradition, put forward some sort of a philosophy of religion. It is no wonder therefore that they paved the way for establishing Christian and Muslim philosophy of religion, and that their influence in Muslim religious thought in particular was predominant.
The attempt to reconcile Islam with Greek philosophy in general and Neoplatonism in particular was an honest but a very daring one. Whether the Muslim philosophers succeeded or failed is another matter, but the fact remains that through making the effort they made their genuine contribution to the history of human thought. They also exposed themselves to the severest criticism of their adversaries. Ghazali’s vehement attacks on their views will be referred to later.
Ibn Sina is generally regarded as a true representative of the philosophy which sought to reconcile Islamic and Neoplatonic thought. His metaphysical views are regarded by no less an authority than Ghazali as being the most typical of his school, and when Ghazali launches his attacks against the philosophers he has Ibn Sina in mind all the time. Al-Farabi is also an excellent type, but he lacks the clarity and comprehensiveness of his successor. Al-Kindi is more of a logician, natural philosopher, and theologian. Ibn Rushd’s (Averroes) greatness is to be found more in his commentaries on Aristotle than in independent philosophical thought. The rest of the Muslim philosophers of the West are mere satellites moving around al-Farabi and Ibn Sina.
God and the World
Ibn Sina prefers to call God the Necessary Being, or the Self-Subsistent Being, rather than Allah. His intention is to bridge the gulf between the religious and philosophical concepts of the Deity, and thus to be able to follow up his analysis of being and necessity, or self-subsistence, to their logical conclusions. The name Allah has some Muslim associations which make it unphilosophical.
Ibn Sina starts his analysis of the relation between God and the world with a consideration of the notion of being -- a purely ontological procedure -- which he divides into necessary and contingent being. The necessary being is that being whose existence is self-necessitated; it exists per se; its essence and existence are identical; the supposition of its nonexistence involves contradiction. The contingent being is that which has no essential or necessary reason for its existence; its being or nonbeing are equally possible; its essence is different from its existence. This is the phenomenal world; it is all that is "other than God." Ibn Sina says that the mere fact that we have a notion of the Necessary Being proves that He exists. Existence is a positive quality of perfection, and if we have an idea of the Perfect Being, that Perfect Being must exist, or our idea would be self-contradictory. This is the ontological argument used in modern philosophy by Descartes and Leibnitz, though the consequences which Ibn Sina draws are different.
Ibn Sina also makes use of the Aristotelian distinction between necessity and contingency, but goes far beyond what Aristotle has said in the subject, both in his proof of the existence of God and in his explanation of the relation between God and the universe. He criticizes the cosmological argument of the theologians by which they infer the existence of an eternal Creator from the existence of the phenomenal world. Contingency, he says, not origination in time, is the cause of the dependence of the world upon God. To say that it is origination in time -- that is, creation -- leads to these absurdities: that God’s will and creative power were idle for an infinite time before the creation of the world; that to choose the creation of the world at a certain time, and not before or after that time, must have been due to circumstances outside God’s nature, which means that some sort of change must have taken place in Him; and that the world after it has been created could very well be independent of its Creator, since its need of Him is only for creation and not for preservation after creation.
A contingent universe, on the other hand, has no temporal beginning and is dependent for its existence and the continuity of its existence on God. It is an eternal being which derives its existence every moment from God. There is only logical -- not temporal -- priority between them, the priority of cause to effect. The cause has never existed in time before its effect in this case. We can also call it priority of rank since the cause is usually regarded as superior to the effect. Here Ibn Sina is in complete agreement with Aristotle and in complete disagreement with the theologians who insist on the idea of creation, which is one of the principle dogmas of Islam. The world, they hold, was created out of nothing by the will of God and at the time He appointed. No question should be asked as to why it was not created before or after, because such relations as before and after have no application within the domain of the eternal Will. This is the argument adduced by Ghazali in his refutation of the philosophers’ doctrine of the eternity of the world.
In spite of his theory of the eternity of the world, Ibn Sina describes God as the Maker, the Fashioner, and sometimes the Creator of the world. These epithets occur in the Qur’an and have one definite sense in common -- bringing the world into existence from nothing. Ibn Sina, who believed in the impossibility of creation out of nothing, explains these terms in such a way as to deprive them of their temporal significance. That which comes into being need not always have a temporal beginning, nor need it be the result of an act of will. It can be the result of a spontaneous and necessary overflowing of being from an original source, like the overflowing of the rays from the sun. This is the case with regard to the world in its relation to God. If eternity and necessity are essential attributes of God as the Primary Cause, so must they be attributes of His actions, which are His effects.
Thus we see how far Ibn Sina went in his deterministic philosophy. Necessity is the fundamental law to which both the phenomenal world and God Himself are subjected.
The Attributes of God.
The conception of God in Muslim philosophy, in spite of all that has been said, is not quite the same as the Aristotelian conception. God, according to al-Farabi and Ibn Sina, is not a mere principle of action within the material world but is an independent and transcendent Being over and above the material world, forever producing it and preserving it.
Their conception of the Godhead is both theological and philosophical. God has two different kinds of attributes: metaphysical attributes, which can be inferred directly or indirectly from the definition of God as the Necessary Being; and theological attributes with which God describes Himself in the Qur’an. Even the metaphysical attributes are often tinged with a religious color and explained in a way which makes them partly ethical and partly theological. This is because these philosophers are forever oscillating between philosophy and religion, although their loyalty on the whole is to philosophy.
According to Ibn Sina the divine attributes are simplicity, oneness, absolute perfection, pure goodness; God is the contemplator and the contemplated; God has no equal nor opposite.
Simplicity logically follows from the definition of God as the Necessary Being; for complexity, whether material, quantitative, or even intelligible, is contrary to necessity and self--subsistence. The complex, whatever it is, is dependent on its constituent parts and on something else to make it a whole. It follows, therefore, that God is not a material substance, is not divisible, is not a compound of two or more substances, and is not definable.
Oneness is an attribute of God, for God is one m every He has no partner who participates either in His or in His attributes. This is the first article of the faith. Plurality of gods contradicts the notion of self-necessity.
Absolute perfection is an attribute of God. God is perfect and complete. In Aristotle’s language, God is pure actuality; there is nothing that is possible in Him which is not actually realized -- His will, His knowledge, and His action, the whole of His nature. Everything else is in the process of becoming. The perfection of everything other than God is a potentiality which God brings into an actuality.
Pure goodness is an attribute inferred from God’s being free from matter and potentiality. Goodness here is equivalent to positive being, the opposite of evil or not-being. All other things possess the two aspects of being and not-being, because in one respect they are actual and in another they are potential. God is not only the pure good, He is also the fountainhead from which good -- positive being -- is forever flowing into everything in the world. The whole realm of existence turns toward Him in love-like fashion for the good it receives from Him, for the qualities of being through which the world advances along the road to perfection. The world in fact does love God, because it loves the good, and good is the only thing that is loved for its own sake. Through love, therefore, God sets the whole world in motion, and whatever takes place in existence is the fruit of this love.
Ibn Sina, who is not so successful in his theory about God as the Active Cause, admirably succeeds in portraying Him as the Final Cause. His argument here is potent, clear, and free from verbal quibbling. In fact, it is the most beautiful part of his metaphysics; it is here that his philosophy and mysticism meet. The relation between God and the external world is here expressed in terms of love and revelation -- love on the part of the world, and revelation on the part of the Beloved. The divine act of bestowing being on things is the very act of self-revelation. God reveals Himself to His creatures in a manner suitable to the requirements of their inner nature, which is fixed and immutable, or in proportion to the degree of perfection which they aspire to achieve. The divine Providence is the work of a mind which comprehends an orderly system gradually unfolding itself. The self-unfolding of the phenomenal world is paralleled in the eternal self-revelation of God, and the two processes are inseparable. Ibn Sina’s theodicy, aesthetics, and optimistic theory of the nature of the world branch off from this mystical philosophy. It is here that he seems to be more under the influence of Plato and Plotinus than Aristotle.
For Ibn Sina, God is essentially an intellect whose sole activity is to contemplate Himself. He is the contemplator and the contemplated, the subject and the object in one. There is no duality in Him as there is in other minds. Duality of any kind is contrary to His absolute unity and simplicity.
There is a great deal of discussion about the knowledge of the Divine Mind. The theologians, following the Qur’an, hold that God knows everything past, present, and future, seen and unseen. They say that He is omniscient, that nothing takes place in the world which is not in accordance with His prior knowledge. The philosophers, on the other hand, maintain that God’s knowledge is primarily of Himself and that, knowing Himself, He knows the world in a general way. He is the Ultimate Cause of things, as we have explained, and knowledge of the cause entails knowledge of the effect. They argue that knowledge of individual happenings in the world depends on a temporal relation between the knower and the known and therefore involves change in the knower, but God’s knowledge is above time and change.
Ibn Sina also maintains that God has neither an equal nor an opposite. He has no equal because it is impossible for two necessary beings (gods) to be. He has no opposite because two opposites must be similar in one respect and dissimilar in another respect, in which they are said to be opposites -- and God has no similar in any respect whatsoever. Therefore He has no opposite.
The Muslim philosophers do not omit the Quranic attributes of God such as omnipotence, omniscience, justice, generosity, and the like, but they interpret them philosophically or explain them away. We have already given the attributes of knowledge and will as examples. So it is quite evident that their concept of God is neither the pagan conception of the Greek philosophers nor the strictly orthodox Islamic conception. The denial of creation in its ordinary sense and the doctrine of the eternity of the world are definitely non-Islamic. In their view, however, they have shifted the problem to a higher plane by maintaining that the world is the outcome of God’s inner necessity and the eternal urge within Him to give an outward manifestation of His bounty and generosity.
Although on the theoretical side the Muslim philosophers certainly seemed to be anti-Islamic, at least in some of their views, on the practical side they were true Muslims, insofar as we can gather from their biographies. Al-Farabi is said to have led a saintly life of religious devotion and contemplation. Ibn Sina, though allowing himself some bodily indulgences, is not reported to have neglected his religious duties. It is true that his conceptions of Heaven and Hell and the Resurrection are somewhat unorthodox, but he does not completely deny the orthodox concepts. We will conclude this section with his own words, taken from his Nine Epistles:
The ultimate object of man wherein lies his greatest happiness in future life is to gain knowledge of the realities of things so far as his nature allows, and do what is incumbent upon him. Only in this way does man’s soul become more honorable and perfect, an intelligible microcosm comparable to the existing Macrocosm, and become ready to enjoy the greatest happiness in the world to come.
The Mystical Attitude
The mysticism of Islam is known as Sufism, a name said to be derived from the Arabic word suf which means wool, referring to the woolen mantles worn by the Sufis. With Muslim mysticism we see the climax of the development of religious life and teaching in Islam. Neither the philosophers nor the theologians nor the canon lawyers have contributed so much as the mystics toward deepening the meaning of their religion and enriching its teachings. It is due to them that Islam, in the way they understand it, can be compared with other great religions of the world, for mysticism is the only ground on which the great religions meet.
Muslim mysticism has, from the time of its inception, been a spiritual revolution against a variety of forms and systems, both social and religious. After a long period of hard struggle, Sufism established itself in two quite different ways: as a religious philosophy and as the popular religion of Islam. During some of its flourishing periods, the Sufis were counted by the millions all over the Muslim Empire and in some countries their influence was so great that the heads of their orders were the practical rulers, with supreme authority in every major problem concerning the religious or secular institutions. Such influence can be found even now in some Muslim communities.
As an ideal mode of spiritual life, Sufism has passed through various stages. At some times it was thoroughly orthodox, at others so far removed from orthodoxy as to become a mere system of religious philosophy. It has also undergone some periods of stagnation and corruption during which its followers completely lost sight of the noble and lofty ideals of the original founders, preserving an outward appearance of ritual with nothing to correspond to it in the heart. But these remarks belong more to the history of Sufism. Our immediate object here is to try to set forth the mystical attitude toward Islam so far as it can be gleaned from the lives and teachings of the great Sufi masters, leaving everything else out of our account.
The special attitude of the Muslim mystics toward Islam was quite clear from the time their movement started. Until the end of the second century (eighth century AD.) religious laws were based on the literal texts of the Qur’an and Prophetic Traditions, and scrupulously carried out. They were thoroughly studied and strictly adhered to in practice. Knowledge of the canon law -- jurisprudence -- was the most venerated of all knowledge, and adherence to its rules was the ultimate aim as well as the true mark of every pious Muslim. When the Sufis appeared on the scene, they came with another religious ideal. To them the examination of the esoteric meaning of the law was a more worthy objective than the study of the law in its esoteric sense. Hence arose the distinction between the outward expression of the law and its inward significance, and with it the distinction between the study of jurisprudence on the one hand and Sufism on the other. The jurists became known as the externalists and the Sufis as the internalists. Gradually the opposition between the two camps grew more and more intense as they realized that they stood for two different conceptions of Islam and its teachings.
The differences between the legalists and the Sufis were apparent in their interpretations of the meaning of religious law and the ways in which it should be derived and justified. They differed as to the nature of worship and the way it should be performed. They did not agree as to which actions are lawful or unlawful or what parts of the law are basic to Islam. Nor did they agree as to the object and value of obligatory and supererogatory religious devotions. Is God the object of formal worship or of love? They differed on many points of Islamic dogma, especially concerning the conception of God in His relation to man, and the meaning of the unity of God.
It is obvious that such disputes touch the very core of Islam, and it is no wonder that the Muslim theologians and jurists became the bitterest enemies of the Sufis and fought them on all fronts for centuries. The first opposition to their movement came from the traditionalist Ahmad Ibn Hanbal (died 241; AD. 855). He could not conceal his admiration for a Sufi like al-Harith al-Muhasibi (died 243; AD. 857), but admitted that al-Muhasibi spoke in his sermons a language unknown to him, the language of the Sufis. He did not doubt his sincerity but was full of suspicion and apprehension. Relentless persecution of the Sufis was carried on by Ibn Hanbal’s party and other theological sects in order to put an end to their growing influence.
Gradually the new mysticism of Sufism -- or rather, the new religious spirit -- gained ground. It was realized that Islam as understood by the jurists was ultimately reduced to formal ritual which consisted in the performance of certain bodily movements. Prayer, fasting, and pilgrimage were well-defined and measured physical movements, almost void of genuine feeling. Such an attitude toward Islam was sure to satisfy the externalists whose main concern was to give precise definitions to religious terms, lay down general laws, and see that they were strictly observed. It did not satisfy the religious sentiment of the Sufis, who looked for a deeper meaning behind the outward forms. Qushayri tells us that Ruwaym of Baghdad (died 303; AD. 915) said, "All people hold fast to external appearances [of religion], but this community [the Sufis] holds fast to realities. All people consider it their duty to observe the external aspect of the religious law; the Sufis consider it their duty to strive after piety and unremitting sincerity." In these few words Ruwaym sums up the whole situation by pointing out the real difference between the Sufis and the rest of the Muslims in their respective attitudes toward Islam. For the Sufis, Islam is haqiqa, a reality hidden behind words and forms, while for the rest of the Muslims it is principally words and forms.
Such a distinction was practically unknown to the early Muslims. The idea started with the Shi‘a who taught that the Qur’an, like everything else, had two aspects, one external and the other internal. The latter is what the Sufis call the esoteric meaning of the Qur’an, which is only revealed to the chosen people of God. They extended the idea to everything in Islam. A real contrast was made between the shari‘a (religious law) aspect of a religious principle or usage and its haqiqa aspect, that is, between the religious law as such and its real meaning.
It is true that the great teachers of Sufism agree that shari‘a should be strictly observed, and that the abandonment of shari‘a on the pretext that haqiqa, the reality or spirit of the law, has been obtained is not only impiety but infidelity. Haqiqa without shari‘a, they say, is baseless, and shari‘a without haqiqa is meaningless. A reasonable balance between the two is essential for a truly religious life. Such a balance is described by Ghazali in these words,
He who says that haqiqa is contrary to shari‘a, and the internal [side of religion] is contrary to the external is nearer to infidelity. Every haqiqa that has no root in shari‘a should be rejected. Shari‘a is the law enjoined upon people; haqiqa is seeing the work of Divine Providence. Shari‘a is worship of God; haqiqa is to behold him. Shari‘a is to obey the Divine Command; haqiqa is to know by mystic vision what God has predestined, what He has revealed and what He has concealed.
So, according to Ghazali, haqiqa is the spiritual justification and proof of religion. The true meaning of religious teachings is seen by the mystic in his heart. Its real nature is revealed to him. When, for instance, the mystic is called upon to worship God, the meaning of the Godhead and of worship is freshly perceived by the inner light. This is the general attitude adopted by the majority of orthodox Sufis and ardently defended by such men as Tustari (died 273; AD. 886), Kharraz (died 277; AD. 890), Junayd (died 297; AD. 909), and Ghazali (died 505; AD. 1111). But some Sufis went too far in emphasizing haqiqa and minimizing the importance of shari‘a and were eventually led into various degrees of the erroneous belief that the awareness of inner reality frees one from the moral obligations of the law. They represent the other extreme of Sufism which is condemned by the genuinely pious Muslims. Others among the Sufis held fast to shari‘a, but understood it in ways which were much wider and more liberal than the interpretation of the orthodox, looking upon the law as either a system of self-discipline or as a set of symbols representing hidden religious meanings.
Those Sufis who regarded the law as essentially a system of self-discipline rejected the claim that the shari‘a is a collection of norms and codes divided and subdivided into more norms and codes. For them it must not be understood within the narrow limits and strict definitions of the lawyers and theologians. The value of any religious work should not be judged on the basis of its compliance with the law; its value should be determined by the degree to which it fulfills the ideal of the lawgiver. Voluntary acts of devotion are considered superior to obligatory acts because they fulfill a higher ideal -- the love of God -- while obligatory acts of devotion only show submissive obedience to God’s commands. The Sufis quote the following Tradition in which God says, "In no way does My servant so draw nigh unto Me as when he performs those duties which I have imposed on him; and My servant continues to draw near to Me through works of supererogation, until I love him. And when I love him, I am his eye, so that he sees by Me, and his ear, so that he hears by Me, and his tongue, so that he speaks by Me, and his hand, so that he takes by Me."
This means that in the act of devotion he becomes completely absorbed in God and loses every vestige of his individual being and feels himself to be one with his Beloved. Such a state is not attained by the ordinary performance of religious duties. The Sufi seeks the attainment of the spiritual benefits which he gains through his acts of devotion, not the mere performance of outward acts as such. Thus the real essence of religion is that which resides in the heart, not that which is performed by the body. The religious command should be addressed to the heart, not to the bodily organs.
This attitude, noble as it is, seems to have paved the way to antinomianism in some Sufi circles. Religious duties, they argued, are a means to an end, and if the end is reached we can very well dispense with the means. Haqiqa, religious truth, is for them the end and shari‘a, religious law, is the means. That there were such men even in the golden age of Sufism who allowed themselves all sorts of license and indulgences under the pretext that they had reached their goal is evident from the scathing remarks which we read in the opening chapters of the treatise on Sufism by Qushayri (died 465; AD. 1072). He attacks most mercilessly the men of his time who believed that haqiqa frees one from the moral obligations of the law, and appeals for a revision of Sufism in the light of the teachings of the old masters, calling upon the Sufis to lead a true religious life in accordance with the Qur’an and the example of the founders of the Sufi path.
Qushayri’s warning was not in vain, for fifty years later it found a remarkable response in the writings of Ghazali who took upon himself the task of reconciling Sufism with Islam. He interpreted the principles of Sufism in the light of Islam and showed their interdependence. It is true that Ghazali was primarily concerned with the solution of his own spiritual problem when he was in search of the truth, but in solving his own problem he solved the problem for thousands of others who were and still are searching for the same truth. This truth he found in the Sufi way of life lived according to strict Muslim law. Religious truth is the inner meaning of the law revealed in the heart of the Sufi by the Divine Light.
In addition to the Sufis who looked upon the law as a means of self-discipline there were those who looked upon the shari‘a as a set of symbols standing for hidden religious meanings. Those symbols are of value only as a reminder or an occasion in which the hidden meanings are realized. The pious Muslim should perform the acts of worship prescribed by the shari‘a with his heart set on their spiritual meanings, otherwise his worship is merely an empty mechanical action.
This attitude takes into account the external, physical acts of worship as well as the internal acts of the heart. The danger is that it might lead to discarding the external acts altogether on the ground that they are superfluous. The Sufis who insisted on the observation of both the external and internal acts of worship read into the external teachings of Islam meanings undreamed of by canon lawyers. Prayer, for instance, is not regarded as a set of words to be uttered and movements to be performed but is looked upon as essentially a spiritual discourse between man and his Creator. All movements and words are symbols whose meanings form a part of that inner discourse. Similarly, pilgrimage is not a mere trip to the Holy Shrine of Mecca; it is the spiritual journey of the human soul to God. Each step of the journey, each of the rites of the pilgrimage -- such as circumambulation of the Ka‘ba, the kissing of the Black Stone, the standing on Mount Arafat -- is a symbol of great spiritual significance. Each bodily movement of the pilgrimage has a corresponding movement of the heart.
The mention of God, known as dhikr, is another example of the symbolic interpretation of Islamic worship. It is not a mere repetition of the name Allah, but is the silent recollection and contemplation of God, done in such a way that the heart of the contemplator becomes occupied with nothing but Him and the lover becomes completely absorbed in his Beloved.
The Sufis go through the rest of the forms of worship in the same way. The man who performs religious rites without observing their hidden meanings is, according to them, like a child who reads the words of a book without understanding them. His religious life is void because his heart is void. In the case of prayer and dhikr, such a man’s heart is occupied merely with the name of God, not with God Himself.
THE SUFI CONCEPTION OF GOD. Just as the attitude of the Sufis toward the religious teachings of Islam was a revolt against the jurists who stifled the true spirit of religion in order to preserve its form, their attitude toward God was also a revolt directed against the theologians and the philosophers. The barren speculations of the Muslim rationalists deprived the Godhead of its positive content, and God was reduced to a logical abstraction. The orthodox theologians made of Him a despot whose absolute power could do everything, even the impossible and the irrational. The philosophers, in their attempt to reconcile Islamic dogmas with Greek philosophy, were obliged to abandon many of the theological attributes of God, or explain them away, and put an active or final cause in place of a creator of the world. To the majority of the Sufis, God is essentially a personal being endowed with attributes which determine His relations with the world in general and man in particular. The outline of their picture of God is taken from the Qur’an, but the details which bring out the main features of the pictures are supplied by them, each in his own way.
God, they say, is the Creator of the world, the Maintainer, the sole Doer of everything, the Light of heaven and earth, the Merciful, the Compassionate, but above all He is the God who abides in the hearts of men. "Neither My heaven nor My earth contains Me," He says in a Tradition often quoted by the Sufis, "but I am contained in the heart of My servant who is a believer." So the Sufi does not look afar for his God, for the kingdom of God is in his heart if he can only see it.
The ultimate goal of the Muslim mystics is to bring this state into full realization, to feel the presence of God in the heart in such a way that nothing else is allowed to occupy it. Their aim is the complete absorption of the individual self in the contemplation of God.
If we pass in review over the long and complicated history of Sufism, we find that three different conceptions of God -- ethical, aesthetic, and pantheistic -- appear in successive stages of its development. They all had their roots directly or Indirectly in the Qur’an and Prophetic Traditions, or were brought into relation with such texts by means of interpretation.
The ethical conception of God was predominant in the earliest period of Muslim asceticism. The essence of God was regarded as absolute power and will. God was the supreme author of all things, including men’s actions. The present life was essentially evil and therefore should be abandoned if the everlasting happiness of the Future World was to be attained. The early Sufis had an exaggerated sense of guilt and of the terrible torments that awaited the sinners in Hell. Consequently an overwhelming fear of God and His wrath seized their hearts, and their pious devotions were regarded as a means of escape from the judgment to come. They had almost forgotten the words of God in which He says, "My mercy embraces all things," and, "God pardons everything except associating other gods with Him." This fear colored the moral and religious life of the early ascetics, and determined their attitude toward God, the world, and their fellowmen.
The aesthetic conception of God in Sufi metaphysics was based on the idea of reciprocal love between God and man. The root of this doctrine is to be found in the Qur’an, but further elaborations of it were due to foreign influences coming from Manichaeanism and Neoplatonism. The first note in this direction was struck by the woman saint of Basra, Rabi‘a (died 185; AD. 801). From the third century onward, the doctrine of divine love became the dominant feature of Sufism. God was the Beloved of the Sufis, and loving Him for His own sake was the end of all their endeavor. It was no longer the fear of Hell or the hope of Paradise, but the hope of obtaining a glimpse of the everlasting beauty of God which motivated the Sufis. Rabi‘a says in one of her prayers, "0 God! if I worship Thee in fear of Hell, burn me in Hell, and if I worship Thee in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise. But if I worship Thee for Thine own sake, withhold not Thine everlasting beauty." Also attributed to her is the following verse:
Two ways I love Thee: selfishly,
And next, as worthy is of Thee.
‘Tis selfish love that I do naught
Save think on Thee with every thought.
‘Tis purest love when Thou dost raise
The veil to my adoring gaze.
Not mine the praise in that or this
Thine is the praise in both I wis.
(Translated by R. A. Nicholson in Legacy of Islam, pp. 213-14)
As time went on, the idea of divine love went deeper and deeper into the life and thought of the Muslim mystics. On the practical side it became the sole motive of their actions. Moral ideas centered around it, just as they centered around the fear of God in the earlier period. Altruism or selflessness became the highest virtue. This meant the abandonment of worldly pleasures and the absolute denial of selfishness for the sake of God. "The essence of love is self-denial," says Ghazali. "It is the ultimate end of all mystic stations. Every state that comes after it is a fruit thereof; and every station that precedes it is a step toward it." Jalal al-Din Rumi, the great Sufi mystic, says, "Love is the remedy of our pride and self-conceit, the physician of all our infirmities."
The Sufis devoted their lives to the worship of God because they loved Him and were anxious to win His love. On the theoretical side, divine love was regarded as the sole reason for the creation of the world. Creation is an expression of God’s love, it is His eternal Beauty reflected in an external form. The Sufis quote the following Tradition in which God says, "I was a hidden treasure and I loved to be known, so I created the creation that they might know Me." Moreover they maintain that love is the key to all Heavenly mysteries, and the essence of all true religion. It brings with it, not reasoned convictions, but convictions based on the infallible proof of immediate intuition. It is the celestial light that guides the traveler on his way to God.
Pantheism did not appear in Muslim mysticism -- or at least not in a systematic form -- before Muhy al-Din Ibn Arabi (died 638; AD. 1240), the greatest of all Arabic-speaking mystics of Islam. Pantheistic tendencies were seen as early as the third century, for instance in some of the utterances of Bayazid of Bistam (died 261; AD. 875), but they were not worked out into a consistent pantheistic doctrine. Ibn Arabi, on the other hand, was the first to produce a full-fledged pantheistic philosophy which left its indelible marks on the whole of Sufism ever since his time. The fundamental principle of this philosophy is the principle of the unity of all Being. His understanding of this principle is best summed up in his own words: "Glory to God who created all things, being Himself their very essence." In his Fusus he says,
O Thou who created all things in Thyself,
Thou unitest that which Thou createst.
Thou createst what existeth infinitely
In Thee, for Thou art the narrow and the All-embracing.
In Islamic pantheism the phenomenal world is reduced to a mere shadow of reality, and God is regarded as the only real Being who is the ultimate ground of all that was, is, and will be. There is no actual duality of God and the phenomenal world, but there is an apparent duality asserted by the unaided intellect, which is incapable of comprehending the essential unity of the whole. It is at most a duality of aspects of One Being -- not of two independent beings. Looking at the two aspects within one whole, reality is both God and the universe, the One and the many, the transcendent and the immanent, the internal and the external. If we think -- as we usually do -- in terms of duality, we predicate of Reality all pairs of opposite attributes. But mystic intuition asserts that God is the only Real Being who is above all description and qualifying attributes, and the world is a mere illusion.
There is therefore a definite place for God in this philosophy, although in some respects He is far removed from the God of Islam. Ibn Arabi makes a distinction which is the dividing line between his metaphysical theory and his theology; it is a distinction between God as the unknowable and incommunicable Reality, and God as the object of belief, worship, and love. His conception of God as the object of belief comes very close to that of the ordinary monotheist, but the gap between pantheism and strict Muslim monotheism was too great for him to bridge. God is the object of worship not in the sense that He is exclusively the God of the Muslims, the Christians, or the adherents of any other religion, but in the sense that He is the Essence of everything that is worshiped. He is not to be confined to any particular form of belief or creed. Everything that is worshiped is one of the infinite number of forms in which He reveals Himself. To confine Him to one particular form to the exclusion of all other forms is infidelity, and to acknowledge Him in all forms of worship is the true spirit of religion.
This is the universal religion which the pantheistic Ibn Arabi preaches, a religion which comprises all religions and unites all beliefs. In his Tarjumanu al-Ashwaq he expresses this conviction,
My heart has become a receptacle of every form;
It is a pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christian monks,
And a temple for idols, and pilgrims’ Ka‘ba,
And the Tablets of the Torah and the Book of the Qur’an.
I follow the religion of love whichever way its camels take;
For this is my religion and my faith.
The religion of love, according to Ibn Arabi, is religion in its widest and most universal sense. All worshipers do in fact worship God, although they appear to worship their particular gods. And since love is the essence of worship -- for to worship is to love to the extreme -- and since the objects of worship are nothing but the external manifestations of God, it follows that God is both the supremely beloved and the supremely worshiped One.
This brief discussion shows some of the ways in which the interpretations of Muslim theologians, philosophers, and mystics have contributed to the vitality of Islam throughout its long history, making their varied contributions to the development of Muslim thought and influencing Islamic practices. Although they have often been considered as unorthodox by the leaders of Islam, their attempts to provide a rational basis for Islamic beliefs and a mystical basis for Islamic worship have for centuries enriched and stimulated the Muslim community.