You are on page 1of 13



Malek—I came in on Tuesday to discuss my paper, but you weren‟t there. I also returned

your History of Islamic Philosophy book—it was very helpful.

However, I still have concerns about my paper, specifically because I have no

background at all in philosophy and my paper focuses on a subject that you teach for a

class, so I‟m sure you can see in an instant any and every logical flaw in this paper.

I think I‟ve done a pretty good job researching and not overextending my

assertions to those things over which I have no authority, but I am still hesitant because

of the extreme gulf between my knowledge of Oriental Philosophy and yours.

I guess I‟m not sure what the point of this note it, other than to ask you not to

grade this paper as if I had taken your Islamic Thought class. I am far more

disadvantaged when it comes to knowledge than students in that class as I haven‟t had the

luxury of 16 weeks of lectures on this topic.

That being said, enjoy the paper.

Ibn Sina

By Tom Schultz

In the Orientalist tradition, Islamic philosophy has been characterized as

inherently opposed to Western ideas of rationality. Edward Said details this relationship

extensively, commenting that “it is Europe that articulates the Orient” (Said 57), and

stating that the traditional Orient is defined simply in opposition to the West. Because

Western thought is predicated on rationality, Eastern modes of thought must be

inherently irrational, according to Orientalist thought.

In examining medieval Islamic philosophy, however, one sees that this conception

does not hold. Islamic thinkers of the medieval era drew heavily from classical Greek

philosophy, integrating Platonic and Aristotelian concepts with Islamic theology and

thought. Ibn Sina integrated “an analysis of… four elements (Platonic, Aristotelian,

Plotinian, Qur‟anic)” (Gibb 496) into his metaphysical ideas, and he indeed fostered a

position that featured “Greek as the majority, Islam as the minority.” (Gibb 497).

Adopting the essence/existence distinction typically ascribed to Aristotle, Ibn Sina

applied this theory to Islamic theology and “was the first to articulate this distinction

explicitly and make it a cardinal theme in his philosophy” (Morewedge 426). The Greek

philosophers utilized by Islamic thinkers were the same ones that formed the basis for

modern Western thought, and in this way Ibn Sina and his contemporaries are said to

have bridged the gap in some ways between traditionally “Western” philosophy and

Islamic religious doctrine.

However, to say merely that Ibn Sina and his colleagues combined the two

inherently different modes of knowledge—reason and revelation—into one coherent
philosophy would be to grossly oversimplify their contribution to metaphysical study. In

many ways, Ibn Sina‟s metaphysical philosophy rejects aspects of both traditional Islam

and classical Greek thought, and in doing so it does not merely strike a middle ground

between the two ideologies. Ibn Sina defines a philosophy that stands on its own rather

than as a compromise between two other philosophies, and in its rejection of both

Western thought and traditional Islamic philosophy, Ibn Sina‟s philosophy demonstrates

a strong commonality with the Islamic school of Sufism.

(A short disclaimer: Though this paper treats Islamic theology as opposed to

Western notions of rationality, this is not due to any sort of Orientalist tilt. Rather, it is

due to the fact that almost every religion, including Islam, relies mainly on revelation

rather than reason as a basis for its doctrines.)

Sufism has been categorized at separate times as an integral branch within Islam,

as an adjunct philosophy to Islam, and as an entirely separate faith. However, broadly

speaking, Sufism represents one of three roughly separate schools of Islam, the others

being Kalam (theology) and philosophy. While Kalam centers largely on practical Islam

and Shariah and Islamic philosophy utilizes rational inquiries into God‟s nature, Sufism

focuses on the internalization of Islam, the purification of the self, and the development

of an individual relationship with God. Sufism is perhaps best articulated by Ahmad ibn

'Ajiba, who defines Sufism as “a science through which one can know how to travel into

the presence of the Divine, purify one‟s inward from filth and beautify it with a variety of

praiseworthy traits” (Michon xii). While not ignoring elements like practice and thought,

Sufis endeavor “not only to act like the Prophet (islam) and to think like him (iman) but

also to be aware like him of God‟s presence in all things, including themselves, and to act
appropriately (ihsan, dhikr)” (Chittick 246). This focus upon awareness is a cornerstone

of Sufism and a tenet that sets it apart from other schools of Islam. In attaining dhikr,

Sufism rejects many elements of both Kalam and Islamic philosophy. Unlike Kalam,

Sufism is regarded as “a way rather than a set of disciplines and doctrines” (Jurji 99),

focusing on the internal, rather than the external, search for God. And unlike philosophy,

Sufism “involves an enlightened inner being, not intellectual proof; revelation and

witnessing, not logic” (Nurbakhsh 2). God, according to Sufism, cannot be divined

through any rational means, and must be experienced only through revelation.

In examining Ibn Sina‟s philosophy, attention must first be paid to the distinction

he makes between essence (mahiyya) and existence (wujud), a dualism he adopts from

Aristotle but does not leave unmodified. Ibn Sina agrees with Aristotle that all existent

beings are derived from substance, or essence. A triangle, for instance, exists physically

only as a manifestation of the perfect concept of a triangle. But while Aristotle tends to

focus on essence and subjugate existence, Ibn Sina recognizes that the relationship

between essence and existence is indeed reciprocal to some degree: “There is no abstract

corporeal form without matter,” he writes in Donish-Nameh, “…corporeal form is

contained within matter itself, and the body is formed of this form and this matter” (Sina

72). However, while recognizing that material existence is significant, Ibn Sina still

emphasizes and gives primacy to essence. Ibn Sina‟s two primary contentions in regards

to metaphysical dualism are that “existence is in addition to essence” and that “existence

is an accident of essence” (Morewedge 427), suggesting the existence is merely a

manifestation of essence, and that “accidents” of essence (existence) are bound by

temporality and spatiality. Ibn Sina departs from Aristotle further in dividing existence
into “contingent existence”—things that possibly exist, and that may enter into and exit

existence, and “necessary existence”—things that must exist. A necessary existent, in

other words, “is such that if the thing to which it belongs is assumed to be non-existent,

an impossibility arises” (Inati 240).

The concept of necessary existence begs the question of a being that is necessary

in itself, or the Necessary Existent. According to Ibn Sina, the only being necessary in

itself, arrived at through an ontological process, is the “first cause” of the universe, or

God, whom he describes as “the most beautiful, perfect, and best, who apprehends itself

at this ultimate beauty and goodness and in the most complete manner of apprehension,

and who apprehends the apprehender and the apprehended as one in reality” (Al-Najat

282). The Necessary Being is free from matter and thus perfect, and all other existence

emanates from this Existent. This Necessary Existent is comparable to the Sufi concept of

emanation, where “if we place our existence next to [God‟s] Existence, ours is seen to be

totally derived from his, such that we have no existence” (Chittick 178). In dividing

essence from existence, then, Ibn Sina comes to a conclusion almost identical to that

made by Sufism.

Ibn Sina‟s metaphysics begin to coalesce further with the philosophy of Sufism in

discussions of the human soul and the knowledge of God. In articulating the soul, Ibn

Sina attempts “to reconcile Aristotle‟s account, which is not unequivocally dualist in

nature, with an account which not only conceives of the soul as being a separate self-

standing substance, but also subscribes to the immateriality, the incorruptibility, and

immortality of individual souls” (Khalidi xix). Ibn Sina ascribes to the human soul an

intellect, and only by ascending through different ranks of intellect can one come to know
God. The lowest of these ranks is “material intellect,” which Ibn Sina describes as

“[belonging] to the soul that has not yet received any of the perfection [realization] that is

its due” and that which “is present in every individual of the species” (Khalidi 29). The

material intellect is inherent in every human at birth, and is in many ways a tabula rasa

endowed with the potential to know God.

After the soul has acquired basic logical axioms such as “things equal to the same

thing are equal to each other” (Khalidi 30), it is said to possess the “habitual intellect,”

the faculty of reason, and when the soul begins to utilize this faculty, it possesses the

“actual intellect.”

At the top of Ibn Sina‟s hierarchy of intellects is the “acquired intellect,” which is

attained when the soul fully grasps the knowledge it possesses. In relation to God, an

acquired intellect marks “the end of the actualization process, [when] the soul becomes

the mirror image of the Active Intellect [God], containing the very same knowledge”

(Khalidi xx).

Ibn Sina‟s hierarchy of intellects exhibits immediate parallels with Sufism, a

philosophy centered on dhikr, the remembrance and awareness of God. Ibn Sina agrees

with Rumi, for instance, that “knowledge of God, man, and the world derives ultimately

from God Himself, primarily by means of revelation” (Chittick 11). Ibn Sina cites the

means of this revelation as the “Active Intellect” (God) that “endows the soul with the

form of the intelligibles” (Khalidi 57). Though the hierarchy of human intellects that Ibn

Sina proposes is based on certain levels of rational intelligibles, the means through which

one comes to know these intelligibles is God, the Active Intellect. This suggests that logic

emanates from God and that God is thus above logic, characterizing Ibn Sina‟s
philosophy not as hyper-rational but as supra-rational and based on revelation. Moreover,

Ibn Sina‟s levels of intellect are quite similar to the Sufi Way, which requires the

individual to “undergo a process of inward transformation” and to “climb the ascending

rungs of a ladder stretcheing to heaven and beyond” (Chittick 11). The Sufi way is “not a

one-step process”, according to Rumi, but a “journey” with many different steps. The

Sufi “attainment to God,” when an individual is made “upon the Form of the All-

Merciful,” can be compared to Ibn Sina‟s acquired intellect, wherein an individual

mirrors God in his thoughts and ways. To sum up, both the Sufi attainment of God and

Ibn Sina‟s levels of intellects are complex series of stages based on revelation, rather than

human reason, and in this way they are remarkably similar.

Ibn Sina‟s acquired intellect, moreover, can be seen as a supra-rational state of

being, much like the Sufi attainment of God. The acquired intellect differs from the actual

intellect in that the actual intellect can “reason about [intelligibles]” but “is not

acquainted with them and does not consult them in reality,” whereas acquired intellect “is

acquainted with [intelligibles]… in actuality” (Khalidi 30). This suggests that the

acquired intellect features a knowledge that is beyond reason, one that simply knows the

world without deducing it. This intellect is similar to Rumi‟s state of annihilation and

subsistence, wherein “everything that pertains to [man‟s] existence must become

naughted and obliterated,” and “he will know consciously and actually—not just

theoretically—and with a true and spiritual realization, that everything he is derives

absolutely from God” (Chittick 179). The important similarity here is not necessarily the

annihilation of self but the realization of God apart from theory. In this respect, Sufism

and Ibn Sina‟s intellects share a strong commonality.
Ibn Sina articulates another intellect, called the “holy intellect,” that he sets apart

from the other levels of intellect in that it possesses a keen intuition of the Active Intellect

and “does not need great effort, education or instruction to connect with the Active

Intellect” (Khalidi 31). According to Ibn Sina, the holy intellect “is very refined and not

shared by all people” (Khalidi 31) and marks a strong connection with the Active

Intellect that is inherited rather than developed. This “holy intellect” could explain the

existence of Prophets in Islam and in Sufism, where “union is often achieved by means of

a mediator between man and God, whose God-like aspirations relates an aspect of man‟s

„soul‟” (Morewedge 468). In both Sufism and traditional Islam, the holy intellect can be

ascribed to Muhammad and perhaps the Imams, while in Sufism the holy intellect can

also be attributed to some Sufi Masters, whose enhanced consciousness helps them to aid

others in the search for God.

The similarities between Ibn Sina‟s metaphysical philosophy and the doctrines of

Sufism are striking but become much more significant when their relationship to

traditional Islamic doctrine and to Aristotelian thought is considered. The theory of

emanation, for instance—the notion that “the ultimate being is related to persons by the

emanation of the contingent realm” (Morewedge 9)—is unique to Ibn Sina and Sufism. It

differs significantly from traditional Islam, which holds that “Verily your Lord is God /

Who created the heavens / and the earth in six days” (Qur‟an, 10:3) and that “He has

created Man / He has taught him speech / (and intelligence)” (Qur‟an 55:3-4). Man and

the world are regarded in the Qur‟an as willful ex nihilo creations of God, rather than

emanations. The difference is small but holds significant implications. Sufism, for

instance, allows that “it is possible for persons to relate to the ultimate being by means of
(mystical) union” (Morewedge 9). Correspondingly, Ibn Sina writes that “this substance

(i.e. the Active Intellect) is also intelligible” (Khalidi 57), implying that it is possible for

an individual to achieve a union with God to some degree. Traditional Islamic theology,

on the other hand, holds that “God is logically independent of the world; hence, it is

possible for the world not to exist while God exists” and that “there is nothing in God‟s

nature that is also an essential constituent of man‟s nature” (Nasr 212). These two axioms

portray a God much different from Ibn Sina‟s Necessary Existent in that the Islamic God

is a substance detached from the world‟s existence, while Ibn Sina “does not regard the

Necessary Existent as a substance” at all, but as a radiator of light inseparable from the


The doctrine of emanation also differs from the Aristotelian account of creation,

which asserts that God and the universe are co-eternal and have both existed since the

beginning of time, implying that “matter exists and has always existed independently of

the ultimate being” (Morewedge 4). Aristotle notes in Metaphysics that “neither the

material nor the form of a thing comes into being when the thing comes into being,”

(Aristotle 1070), agreeing with the assertion that the universe has existed in potentialities

since the beginning of time. Obviously, this theory opposes Ibn Sina‟s emanation

doctrine, which posits that the universe is radiated from God and necessarily depends on

Him for its existence.

The theory of emanation has important implications regarding man‟s relationship

to God that differ greatly from those made by traditional Islam and Aristotelian thought.

It has already been established that Sufism allows for man, an emanation of God, to come

closer to him and achieve a mystical union with the ultimate being via dhikr and
awareness of God. Ibn Sina articulates this same notion in his description of the levels of

intellect discussed previously in this essay.

Traditional Islam, however, dictates that man and God are essentially

irreconcilable beings, and that “man can at best hope to live a life that is in harmony with

the order ordained by the ultimate being” (Morewedge 5). Because God shares none of

the “essential constituent[s] of man‟s nature,” traditional Islam effectively proscribes man

from achieving any real “mystical union” with God, because God is unintelligible to man.

Exceptions to the rule, such as Muhammad, obviously exist, but Muhammad is merely a

servant of the word of God, explaining that “I follow only what is revealed to me”

(Qur‟an 10:15). Even those like Muhammad who can hear God‟s word cannot decipher it

themselves and can only transmit it. This subservient relationship of man to God is quite

different than the relationship described by Ibn Sina and common in Sufi literature.

Aristotle strikes a relative middle ground between Islamic theology and Sufism,

stating that “it is possible for persons to participate in God-like activities” (Morewedge 6)

but stopping short of the assertion that humans can ever achieve a union with God.

Aristotle gives contemplation as an example of a God-like activity in Nichomachean

Ethics: “the activity of God, which surpasses all others in blessedness, must be

contemplative; and of human activities, therefore, that which is most akin to this must be

most of the nature of happiness” (Aristotle 8-10). The obvious distinction between

Aristotelian thought and Sufism is the former‟s denial of any real potential union with

God. Sufism allows for a union with God upon the annihilation of the self. Rumi, for

instance, asserts that “No on will find his way to the Court of Magnificence until he is

[physically] annihilated,” referring to one‟s physical existence. (Chittick 179). Ibn Sina
makes a similar claim, consistently referring to the body as the “soul‟s instrument”

(Khalidi 47) and stating that “the greatest pleasure and the highest happiness and fortune

are found in union with the Necessary Existent” (Sina 102). It is clear from these

passages that Ibn Sina supports the Sufi view that the unification of the soul with the

ultimate being is indeed not only possible but desirable above all else. In this way, both

Ibn Sina and Sufi philosophy reject major elements of both Aristotelian thought and

traditional Islam.

It is quite clear that striking similarities exist between Ibn Sina‟s metaphysics and

the philosophy. One must bear in mind, however, that to simply equate Ibn Sina‟s

philosophy with Sufism would be a gross oversimplification. Despite their

commonalities, the two doctrines are, in most respects, fundamentally different. The

specific differences between the two philosophies will not be expounded upon in this

paper, but it bears mentioning that to link the two any more than has been done here

would be misleading.
Works Cited

Ahmad Ibn Ajiba. The Autobiography (Fahrasa) of a Moroccan Soufi. Trans. Jean-Louis

Michon. Kentucky: Fonz Vitae, 1999.

Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics. Trans. W. D. Ross. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute

of Technology UP, 2000.

Aristotle. Metaphysics Book X. Trans. W. D. Ross Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of

Technology UP, 2000.

Bogoutdinov, A. M. “A Notable Philosophical Production of the Tadjik People: Ibn

Sina‟s Donish-Nameh” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 11.1 (Sept,

1950): 25-39.

Chittick, William C. The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi. Albany:

SUNY Press, date unlisted.

Gibb, H. A. R. “The Millenary of Ibn Sina.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and

African Studies, University of London 14.3 (1952): 496-500

Ibn Sina. “On the Soul.” Medieval Islamic Philosophical Writings. Ed. Muhammad Ali

Khalidi. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, date unlisted

Inati, Shams. “Ibn Sina.” History of Islamic Philosophy. Ed. Seyyed Hossen Nasr and

Oliver Leaman. London: Routledge, 1996.

Jurji, Edward J. “The Illuministic Sufis.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 57.1

(Mar, 1937): 99-101.
Morewedge, Parviz. “The Logic of Emanationism and Ṣūfism in the Philosophy of Ibn

Sīnā (Avicenna), Part II.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 92.1.

(Jan, 1972): 1-18.

Morewedge, Parviz. “Philosophical Analyses and Ibn Sina‟s Essence-Existence

Distinction.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 92.3 (Jul, 1972): 425-435.

Murata, Sachiko and William Chittick. The Vision of Islam. St. Paul: Paragon, 1994.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. “An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrine.” Cambridge:

Harvard UP, 1964

Nurbakhsh, Javad. “What is Sufism?” The Sorbonne, Paris, 1963

The Qur‟an: Translation. Trans. N. J. Dawood. London: Penguin, 2000.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.