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A Commentary on the Mystical Thoughts of Avicenna in Risalah fi’l- ‘ishq
TH-553: Intro to Islamic Theology Dr. Yahya Michot December 17, 2012
Malik 2 Treatise on Love (Risalah fi’l- ‘ishq) by Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Sīnā, who is better known as Avicenna in the Western world, is one of the most influential works on divine love. Plato’s influence on Avicenna’s psychology with an Aristotelian impact regarding love is evident in this work. This psychology has resulted in a congruent hierarchical order linked to the human soul straying from the conception of suppressing the soul in order to reach the All Good or perfection.1 Avicenna begins by dividing Treatise on Love into seven sections: an introduction as love pervading in all beings; five sections on love within inanimate beings, vegetative soul, animal soul, and those who are noble-minded (gallant) for beautiful faces and divine souls; and then concluding his thoughts. Love, in Avicenna’s eyes, is the cause of existence. This cause for existence, which is governed by God, strives the being towards perfection and through the accompanied innate love for perfection, they may unite with its perfection. In this endeavor towards perfection, the being belongs in one of three categories: it has arrived at perfection, it has reached maximum defect, or it fluctuates between the two. However, God can love as well. The Being or God is too high to be governed by love; thus, It is the object of love Itself, and Its love for Itself is the most perfect of loves. He concludes by stating, “In all beings, therefore, love is either the cause of their being, or being and love are identical in them. It is thus evident that no being is devoid of love…”2 Simple inanimate entities love as well, causing them to exist. They belong to three categories: matter (real), form, and accidents. Matter expresses its love by
Fackenheim 211 Fackenheim 214
Malik 3 “yearning for form.”3 If matter loses its form, then it will quickly find another form to remove it from absolute non-being. In this way Avicenna defines absolute nonbeing as the attachment to non-being which causes evil; thus, to be in a state of absolute non-being is removing the being from the Absolute Good or perfection. Form, which is the entity that removes matter from non-being is therefore classified under substances. In addition, “metaphysicians assess a special value to it, i.e., to form over matter with respect to the attainment of substantiality.”4 Form loves by clinging to its subject and rejects anything removes it away from its subject. Accidents manifest their love by seeking a subject in which they can exist.5 Vegetative souls express their love in three parts: nutrition, growth and procreation. Love in the animal soul is necessary otherwise their existence would be without function. Their faculties function in providing the ability to discriminate harm from pleasure through their external sense-perception. They also provide rest in the enjoyment of imagination through their internal sense-perception. Finally, they provide desire for revenge as well as mastery and avoidance from weakness and humiliation through their irascible faculty.6 Love in the animal consists of two parts: natural (involuntary) love and spontaneous (voluntary) love. Natural love is the innate nature in which the animal strives to reach its aim unless prevented from an external force. Specifically, natural love is analogous to a stone arriving at its natural resting place unless hindered by an obstacle. In contrast, spontaneous love
Fackenheim 215 Fackenheim 241 5 Bell – Avicenna’s Treatise on Love 77 6 Denomy 203
Malik 4 is the ability of the animal to turn away from natural love whenever willed, such as a donkey leaving barley in the event of an approaching wolf. In addition, Avicenna emphasizes the variances between the vegetative faculty and the appetitive faculty. Love for the non-rational animal (non-humans) is equivalent to the vegetative soul. However, the animal soul is accompanied with free will, thus giving it higher excellence. In this regard Avicenna means that the soul is divided into a hierarchical order in which beings are distinguished. However, not every being will contain each soul as plants only contain vegetative souls, and nonrational animals contain both vegetative and animal souls. Although they are particular, “the appetitive animal faculty resembles the vegetative one by reason of the absence of free will in it, while, on the other hand, the vegetative faculty sometimes resembles the appetitive one, because it reaches its aim through free will.”7 In addition to similarities, adjoining of faculties is an alternative relationship in which the higher faculty in excellence bonds with the lower faculty. As a result, there is an “increase in nobility and ornament for the lower faculty.”8 This adjoining of faculties is heavily bonded between the rational and animal soul specifically. The rational soul enables the human to execute functions from the animal soul such as sexual intercourse, aggression, and imagination in a nobler manner. In addition, if the rational soul understands that harmony exists within the First Object of love, then the animal soul develops an instinct with the assistance of the rational soul rather than an independent lower faculty.
Fackenheim 217 Fackenheim 218
Malik 5 The love of the noble-minded for external beauty is innately embedded within the rational being. In its natural state, love for external beauty is animalistic. However, the noble-minded love for external beauty is only noble, in certain circumstances, if there is a relationship between the rational and animal soul. If the noble-minded loves external beauty with the animal faculty alone, then it is not considered to be noble. Specifically, three urges result from external beauty: urge to embrace it, the urge to kiss it, and the urge for conjugal union with it.9 Avicenna concludes by stating, “Whoever is filled with this type of love [rational and animal soul] is a man of nobility and refinement and this type of love is an ornament and a source of inner wealth.”10 The divine souls, whether human or angelic, have no claim to divinity if they do not acquire knowledge of the Absolute Good. The way a divine soul can reach perfection is through knowledge of the First Cause, which is analogous with the Pure Good. Avicenna does not mention how one obtains this knowledge; however, this concept is very similar to the method Ibn ‘Arabī suggests in his work Treatise on Being (Risale-t-ul-wujudiyyah). He says, ”He who knows himself understands that his existence is not his own existence, but his existence is the existence of God, without his existence becoming the existence of God (whose name be exalted) and without his existence entering into God or proceeding for from Him, or his existence being along with Him or in Him.”11
Fackenheim 221 Fackenheim 222 11 alaban 20
Malik 6 Furthermore, Avicenna continues by proving that the First Cause is the complete sum of perfections. The path of perfection for the divine soul resides in two aspects: the effort to assimilate to the essence of the Absolute Good through noble deeds and to exist in harmony with their nature in congruence with the latter. The state of perfection is for the angels and those humans who have perfected their imitation of the essence of the Absolute Good. However, the state of preparation exists with humans only for the angels’ existence is eternally perfect. To be in a state of preparation means to have the desire to find knowledge in order to reach perfection and thus concluding that the object of love for the divine souls is the Pure Good. In addition, Avicenna fails to mention if one is able to digress from the state of perfection to the state of preparation or even worse. Is there a state below the state of preparation? Are all Muslims at least within the state of preparation? What state are non-Muslims in? While not necessary to discuss this any further, it would be interesting to further analyze his stance on the different states. Regarding his conclusion, Avicenna brings his thoughts together as cited in the following:
We want to show in this chapter (i) that every single being loves the Absolute Good with an inborn love, and (ii) that the Absolute Good manifests Itself to all those that love It. However, the capacity of the latter to receive this manifestation differs in degree, and so does the connection they have with It. The highest degree of approximation to It is the reception of Its manifestation in its full reality, i.e., in the most perfect way possible, and this is what the Sufis call unification (ittihâd). In Its excellence It desires that Its
Malik 7 manifestation should be received, and the existence of things depends on it.
For centuries, the importance of the word ‘ishq has been a topic amongst scholars. ‘Ishq literally means to love passionately13 or excess in love. Mystics were split by the use of the word. While Al-Ghazālī was in favor of its use, Ibn Khafīf was initially against it until understanding al-Junayd’s support for its use. Ḥanbalites such as Ibn Taymīyyah and Ibn Qayyim were hesitant in using the word, while others such as Ibn al-Jawzī were completely against it. 14 According to Bell’s understanding of Avicenna, “the use of the word ‘ishq in the context of sacred love and into the equation of ‘ishq with the divine essence, he is indeed close to a less cautious mysticism.”15 This would explain Al-Ghazālī’s refutation against Avicenna due to his excessive obedience to Greek philosophers. If ell’s analysis is accurate regarding Avicenna being a less cautious Sufi, then it is important to further differentiate ‘Ishq-i Haqīqi, literally translating to “the real love”, and ‘Ishq-i Majāzi, literally translating to “metaphorical love” in the Sufi tradition. According to Chittick’s analysis on the great Sufi scholar Fakhr al-dīn Ibrahīm ‘Irāqī, “In the perspective of an ‘Iraqi there is no irreducible dichotomy between divine and human love… There is a graduation from the love of forms, which is “apparent love” (Ishq-i Majāzi), to the love of God, which alone is “real love” (‘Ishq-i Haqīqi).”16 Suggesting that there is some sort of association between the two,
Fackenheim 225 Wehr 719 14 Bell – Avicenna’s Treatise on Love 79 15 Bell – Avicenna’s Treatise on Love 89 16 Chittick XV
Malik 8 it is then possible to reach ‘Ishq-i Haqīqi. Thus, if ‘Ishq-i Majāzi is analogous to the state of preparation for humans, then humans should be able to reach ‘Ishq-i Haqīqi through noble deeds concluding that Avicenna does believe humans can love God if perfection truly means ‘Ishq-i Haqīqi. However, while Avicenna clearly states that humans have an innate love along with a natural yearning for God, he does not explicitly state whether both can occur simultaneously. Therefore when debates occur between man’s lone ability to love God (supported by al-Ghazālī) and man’s lone ability to yearn for God (supported by al-Qushayrī)17, it is unclear where Avicenna stands. Thus, there are only three possible scenarios in which Avicenna could come to a conclusion: longing only occurs during the state of preparation and loving God only occurs in the state of perfection; longing only occurs during the state of preparation while both longing and loving God both occur in the state of perfection; or longing and loving God occur in both states. To think that loving God occurs in the state of preparation and longing for God occurs in the state of perfection is foolish because loving God, if possible, is clearly at a higher spiritual level than longing for God. The divine love discussed in Treatise on Love continuously shows relevance to God and rightfully so. It is interesting that Avicenna does not include love for the Prophet as a divine love. True, ‘Ishq-I Majāzi, a type of divine love, is the love between God’s creatures, and the Prophet Muhammad was indeed a man. However, the Prophet was the best of men and it was through him the revelation came. In this
Bell – Avicenna’s Treatise on Love 84
Malik 9 regard, to not mention the Prophet in the treatise articulates Avicenna’s deep psychology. Did he purposefully not mention him? Or was it a coincidence? While this topic is not relevant for any further discussion, it does shed light on the evolution of Islam over time in relation to praising the Prophet. ell’s scrutiny into Avicenna’s Sufi tendencies seems to be consistently related to man’s ability to love God. However, the approach is fundamentally different. The Sufis insist that man’s animal faculty is an impediment that inevitably draws one farther from God’s true love. In order to reach ‘Ishq-i Haqīqi, one must suppress this faculty in order to intensify the rational soul.18 Sufis call this tajrīd or tafrīd, and although an important difference, it is not necessary to understand. It is this very belief that Avicenna sought to undermine. To the Sufis, the rational soul of its own accord is the answer to finding love. As a philosopher, Avicenna sees that the use of faculties with the aid of the superior faculty not only leads one to perfection but also increases the goodness of that lower faculty. The animal faculty in a human alone becomes a hindrance if it is being used without the aid of the rational soul. For example, the act of sexual intercourse in itself is purely an act through the animal faculty and would result in divergence. The Sufis and Avicenna would agree upon this principle. However, in addition to fulfilling sexual desires, the understanding of species propagation through the rational soul is the method Avicenna continuously emphasizes, whether with the animal faculty or the vegetative faculty, in order to reach the state of perfection. Without the animal faculty the rational soul would
Malik 10 have no purpose. To discard the animal faculty is to deplete the rational soul from reaching its potential and obtaining perfection. ell’s analysis is substantially backed with evidence but it does not fully explain the deep psychological foundation Avicenna has constructed in order to explain divine love. Michot’s view on this is unclear due to most of his works being in French. On the contrary, Gutas views Avicennism as deeply rooted in Aristotelian tradition. He claims that intuition does not entail mystical disclosure but is a mental act of conjunction with the active intellect. 19 This philosophy or intellectual system was an effort on Avicenna’s undertaking to describe the methodology in how one could achieve perfection through divine love. However, this philosophy, no matter how elaborate and beautiful it sounds, remains a philosophy and does not change the reality of the situation. Although there are a multitude of similarities between the Sufi’s thoughts and Avicenna’s thoughts, they initiate from different ideologies. In one regard, the Sufis took the reality of God’s existence as the starting point for their indulgence of love. They depended on God’s assistance in order to reach unification (ittihâd). In contrast, Avicenna took Greek philosophy and his thirst for knowledge of God as his roots. This is not to say that Avicenna did not rely on God’s assistance; instead he relied heavily on his own intellect. Consciously or subconsciously, Avicenna made impacts on Sufi thought in a similar way to Ibn Taymīyyah’s conscious influence on the Ḥanbalites. Bell states, “realize how far Ḥanbalism had come in this respect by the time of Ibn Taymīyyah,
Malik 11 or perhaps one should say how great was the leap the school had taken with him…required that the Ḥanbalites defended their doctrinal position in a language and style.”20 The Ḥanbalites views on love were already developed, but with the growth of different theological views, a mastery expression of those views had to be formed. Hence, Ibn Taymīyyah made a conscious effort to explain the Ḥanbalites view on love through kalām (theology). Although one could categorically deny that Avicenna was a Sufi, it would be unwise to think that Avicenna did not have any mystical thoughts within his works, especially in Treatise on Love. As Peter Adams states, ”The fact that Avicenna’s commentary alludes to the Sufi tradition, but without in the end endorsing Sufi mysticism, suggests, further, that Avicenna was not inclined towards mysticism.”21 However, similar to Ibn Taymīyyah for the Ḥanbalites, he gave the mystical scholars an intellectual system, which at times was very philosophical, so they could develop their Sufi tendencies and expand on topics they were unable to explain earlier. His purpose in explaining divine love was to create a logical system and give the human the ability to reach perfection through the doctrine of Islam and gaining knowledge. His inclusive method from inanimate entities to divine souls was an effort to display the vast importance of love in life, as love is the reason for our existence. While philosophical at its roots, his mystical influence throughout the Treatise on Love is apparent and cannot be overlooked.
Bell - Love Theory Hanbalite Islam 54 Adamson 11
Malik 12 Bibliography Adamson, Peter. Interpreting Avicenna: Critical Essays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. alaban , Abdallah. Whoso knoweth himself--: from the Treatise on being (Risale-t-ul-wujudiyyah). London: Beshara, 1976. Bell, Joseph Norment. Avicenna's treatise on love and the nonphilosophical Muslim tradition In: Der Islam. 63: 1 (1986), p. 73-89 Bell, Joseph Norment. Love theory in later Hanbalite Islam. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1979. Denomy, Alexander Joseph. The heresy of courtly love;. New York: D.X. McMullen Co., 1947. Fackenheim, Emil L. Al-Risalah fi’l- ‘ishq;., ‘A Treatise on Love by Ibn Sīnā,’ Mediaeval Studies, vol. 7, 1945, Gutas, Dimitri. Avicenna and the Aristotelian tradition: introduction to reading Avicenna's philosophical works. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1988. Iraq , akhr al, William . hittick, and Peter Lamborn Wilson. Divine flashes. New York: Paulist Press, 1982. Singer, Irving. The nature of love. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 19841987. Wehr, Hans, and J. Milton Cowan. A dictionary of modern written Arabic: (Arabic-English). 4th ed. Ithaca, N.Y.: Spoken Language Services, 1994.
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