Three Muslim Sages

Avicenna, Suhrawardi & Ibn Arabi 
By Seyyed Hossein Nasr 

[Whole book online]


The metaphysics of Avicenna is essentially concerned with ontology, and it is the study of being and all the distinctions pertaining to it that occupy the central role in his metaphysical speculations. The reality of a thing depends upon its existence, and the knowledge of an object is ultimately the knowledge of its ontological status in the chain of universal existence which determines all of its attributes and qualities. 

Everything in the Universe, by the very fact that it exists, is plunged in Being; yet, God, or Pure Being, who is the Origin and Creator of all things, is not the first term in a continuous chain and therefore does not have a "substantial" and "horizontal" continuity with the beings of the world. Rather, God is anterior to the Universe and transcendent with respect to it. It is God as conceived in the religions of the Abrahamic Tradition; it is God not only as envisaged by the Muslim Avicenna but also by Jewish and Christian philosophers who shared a common conception of the Supreme Deity and who, like Avicenna, reformulated the tenets of Greek philosophy in monotheistic terms.

Avicenna's study of existence- an existence which is shared by all things without its being reduced simply to a genre common between them - depends upon two fundamental distinctions that characterize the whole of his ontology. These distinctions concern the essence or quiddity (mahiyah) of a thing and its existence (wujud) on the one hand and its necessity, possibility, or impossibility on the other. Whenever a person thinks about something, immediately, in the framework of his mind, he can distinguish between two different aspects of that thing: one is its essence or quiddity, which is all that would be included in the answer given to the question, what is it? (quid est, or ma hiya), and the other is its existence. For example, when a person thinks of a horse, he can distinguish in his mind between the idea of the horse, or its quiddity, which includes the shape, form, color, and everything else that comprises the essence of the horse, and the existence of that horse in the external world.

In the mind the quiddity is independent of existence in the sense that one can think of the quiddity of an object without in any way being concerned with whether it exists or not. In the external world, however, the quiddity and existence of each object are the same; they are not two components having each an independent external reality which are added together to form an object, as one would add cream to coffee or water to dough. It is only in the mind, in the analysis made by human reason, that these two elements become distinct and one realizes that every object in the Universe has a quiddity to which existence is added.

Avicenna, after making this basic distinction, emphasizes that although the existence of a thing is added to its essence, it is the existence which gives each essence, or quiddity, its reality and is therefore principia! (asl). The quiddity of a thing is in fact no more than its ontological limitation abstracted by the mind. It was against this basic tenet of Muslim philosophy that Suhrawardi and Mir Damad spoke in later centuries, claiming on the contrary the principiality of quiddity over existence. And it was in defense of Avicenna's view that Mulla Sadra, seven centuries later, once again championed the principiality of existence over essence, adding, moreover, that the existence of each thing is not a totally separate form of existence but that all existence is a degree of the light of Being; that there is the transcendent unity of Being ( wahdat al-wujud) hidden behind the veil of the multiplicity of quiddities and particular forms of existence.

Closely connected to this fundamental distinction between quiddity and existence is Avicenna's division of being into the impossible (mumtani'), possible (mumkin), and necessary (wajib). This division, which gained acceptance by later Muslim philosophers as well as by Latin scholastics, does not appear in such a formulation in Aristotle but is original with Avicenna. In fact, Avicenna bases the whole of his philosophy upon the distinction among these three divisions and the relation which quiddity and existence have in each case with each other. If one considers the quiddity of an object in the mind and realizes that it could not accept existence in any way, that is, it could not exist, that object is impossible and cannot exist, as in the case of a second Principle for the Universe whose existence would be metaphysically absurd and would lead to contradictions. If the quiddity of an object stands equal vis-a-vis existence and nonexistence- that is, if it could exist or not exist without in either case causing a contradiction or impossibility- that object is a possible being, like all creatures in the Universe whose quiddity could either take on existence or remain nonexistent. Finally, if the quiddity is inseparable from existence, and its nonexistence would involve absurdity and contradiction, it is necessary. In such a case the quiddity and Being are the same, and such a Being is the Necessary Being, or God, who could not not be since His Essence and Being are the same; Being is His essence and His Essence, Being. It is only He that possesses Being in Himself and is self-subsistent; all other existing things have their existence added to their essence as accident and are therefore contingent beings. The being of the whole Universe has no higher status than that of contingency and depends for every moment of its existence up'on the Necessary Being that keeps all things in existence by the continued effusion of the light of its Being upon them.

The Universe and all things in it are therefore possible beings and metaphysically contingent upon the Necessary Being. Moreover, the possible beings are themselves of two kinds: ( 1) those that, although possible in themselves, are made necessary by the Necessary Being, and ( 2) those that are simply possible without any kind of necessity attached to them. The first class consists of the pure and simple intellectual substances, or the angels, who are the "eternal effects" of God in the sense that they are made necessary by Him. The second comprises the creatures of the world of generation and corruption who already contain the principle of "non-eternity" within themselves, who are thus born only to wither and die away.

Besides this division of possible beings into the "eternal" and temporal, or permanent and transient, Avicenna also divides being according to whether it is substance or accident, applying to the quiddity of existing things the Aristotelian categories as systematized by Porphyry. According to this distinction, quiddities are either accidents or substance, depending on whether they are dependent on something else, like the color on a wall; or independent, like the material of the wall itself. The category of substance is itself divided into three kinds, as follows:
1. Intellect ('aql) which is completely divorced from matter and potentiality.
2. Soul (nafs) which although divorced from matter has need of a body in order to act.
3. Body (jism) which accepts divisibility and has length, depth, and breadth.

The elements of the Universe, therefore, which are contingent and possible in their totality, are also divided into three substances which comprise the various domains of the cosmos and form the constituents from which the Universe is made and in terms of which the sciences of the cosmic domain are understood.

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