Intellect and Intuition

Their Relationship from the Islamic Perspective 

~Seyyed Hossein Nasr 

In a world in which the intellect has become synonymous with reason and intuition with a “biological” sixth sense concerned with foretelling future events, it becomes difficult to understand what intellect and intuition, these two key faculties upon which knowledge is based, can mean in the context of Islamic thought. To understand the meaning of these terms in the traditional Islamic universe where the light of the One dominates all multiplicity and multiplicity is always seen in the light of Unity, it is necessary to examine the actual terminology employed in Islamic languages, particularly Arabic and Persian, to denote the concepts of intellect and intuition.

In modern western languages  the fundamental distinction between intellect and reason is usually forgotten and the term intellect is used as the equivalent of reason. In Arabic and other Islamic languages a single term,  al-‘aql, is used to denote both reason and intellect, but the distinction between the two as well as their inter-relation and the dependence of reason upon the intellect is always kept in mind. Al-‘aql in Arabic is related to the root ‘ql which means basically to bind. It is that faculty which binds man to God, to his Origin. By virtue of being endowed with al-‘aql, man becomes man and shares in the attribute of knowledge, al-‘ilm, which ultimately belongs to God alone. The possession of al-‘aql is of such a positive nature that the Holy Quran refers over and over again to the central role of al-‘aql and of intellection (ta‘aqqul or tafaqquh) in man’s religious life and in his salvation.

But  al-‘aql is  also used as reason, intelligence, keenness of perception, foresight, common sense and many other concepts of a related order. Moreover, each school of Islamic thought has elaborated in great detail certain aspects of the the meaning of intellect as it pertains to its perspective and inner structure.

As far as the word intuition is concerned, such terms as hads and firāsah have been usually used. These terms imply a “participation” in a knowledge which is not simply rational but not opposed to the intellectual as the term is understood in its traditional sense. Another set of terms more prevalent in texts of philosophy, theology, and Sufism are  dhawq, ishrāq, mukāshafah, basīrah, nazar and badīhah. These terms are all related to the direct vision and participation in the knowledge of the truth in contrast to indirect knowledge upon which all ratiocination is based. This contrast is emphasized also in the usage of the term al-‘ilm al-hudūrī or “presential knowledge” as opposed to al-ilm al-husūlī, or “attained knowledge”, but these terms refer to the difference between intuition as a form of a  knowledge based upon immediate experience and ratiocination as indirect knowledge based upon  mental concepts. In no way, however, do all these terms, as used in traditional Islamic languages stand opposed to al-‘aql; rather, they serve as its complement in its profoundest sense. Islam has never seen dichotomy between intellect and intuition but has created a hierarchy of  knowledge and methods of attaining knowledge according to which degrees of both intellection and intuition become harmonized in an order encompassing all the means available to man to know, from sensual knowledge to the “knowledge of the heart”.

To understand fully the relationship between intellect and intuition in Islam, it is necessary to turn to those Islamic intellectual perspectives which have brought  to actualization various possibilities inherent in the Islamic revelation. They include, as far as the present discussion is concerned, the purely religious sciences such as Quranic and Sharī‘ite studies, theology, various schools of philosophy and finally Sufism.

In the religious sciences the function of the intellect is seen only in light of its ability to elucidate the verities of revelation. It is revelation which is the basic means for the attainment of the truth, and it is also revelation which illuminates the intellect and enables it to function properly. This wedding between revelation and the intellect makes it in fact possible for the mind to “participate” in the truth by means of that “act” or “leap” which is usually called intuition and which is inseparable from the faith which makes knowledge of the truth possible.
Some of the more esoteric commentators  of the Holy Quran have emphasized the complementary nature of revelation and intellect which in fact  has been called particular or partial revelation (al-wahy al-juz’ī), while objective revelation which causes a new religion to become established is called universal revelation (al-wahy al-kullī). Only through the objective and universal revelation do the virtualities of the intellect become actualized. It is only by submitting itself to objective revelation that this subjective revelation in man, which is the intellect, becomes fully itself, capable not only of analysis but also synthesis and unification. In its unifying function the intellect is salutary and is able to save the soul from all bondage of multiplicity and separateness. The instrument of revelation, the Archangel Gabriel, is also the Holy Spirit which illuminates the intellect and enables it to possess the faculty of intuition. In the light of revelation, the intellect functions not merely as reason but as intellectual intuition which, wed to faith, enables man to penetrate into the meaning of religion and more particularly God’s word as contained in the Holy Quran. Man must exercise his intelligence in order to understand God’s revelation, but in order to understand God’s revelation the intellect must be already illuminated by the light of faith and touched by the grace issuing from revelation.

As far as Islamic theology or Kalām is concerned, it is engaged more in the understanding of the will of God than reaching the universal dimensions of the intellect. This is especially true of the dominant school of Sunni theology founded by Abu’l-Hasan al-Ash‘arī. The Ash‘arite school is based on a voluntarism which reduces the function of the intellect to the purely human level and remains nearly oblivious to the aspect of the Divinity as objective Truth and Knowledge.

For this school, truth is what God has willed and the intellect has no function outside the external tenets of the religion. Although the extreme form of voluntarism found in the earlier school ofAsh‘arism was somewhat modified by the later school (al-muta’akhkhirūn) of such men as alGhazzālī and Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, Ash‘arism has remained throughout its history as a school of theology in which the intellect is made subservient to the will of God and not considered in its function of returning man to the Deity and penetrating into the heart of tawhīd.

In other schools of Kalām, whether it be Mu‘tazilitism and Māturidism in the Sunni world or Twelve-Iman Shī‘ite theology, a greater role is given to reason in its interpretation of God’s will as manifested in His revelation without, however, leading to  the type of position known as rationalism in the modern Occident. Nor do these schools of theology, envisage anymore than Ash‘arism, the role of the universal function of the intellect which includes what is known as intuition as a means of attaining true knowledge. The function of  Kalām  has remained throughout Islamic history to find rational means to protect the citadel of faith (al-imān). It has not been to enable the intellect to penetrate into the inner courtyard of faith and become the ladder which leads to the very heart of the truth of religion. In fact it is not so much in theology but rather in religious philosophy  and gnosis that we must seek for an explanation of the full meaning of the intellect and intuition and a complete methodology of knowledge in Islam.

In Islamic philosophy we can distinguish at least three schools which have dealt extensively with the methodology of knowledge and the full amplitude of the meaning of the intellect in its relation to intuition: Peripatetic (mashshā’ī) philosophy, illuminationist (ishrāqī) theosophy and the “transcendent theosophy” of Sadr al-Dīn Shirāzī.

Although the mashshā’ī school in Islam drew most of its teachings from Aristotelianism and Neoplatonic sources, it is not a rationalistic school as this term is usually understood in Western philosophy. The mashshā’ī school is based on a view of the intellect which is properly speaking metaphysical and not merely philosophical and distinguishes clearly between the reflection of the intellect upon the human mind which is reason and the intellect in itself which transcends the realm of the individual.

A complete treatment of the intellect and “a  theory of knowledge” is to he found in the writings of the master of Muslim Peripatetics, Ibn Sīnā. Basing himself upon the treatises on the intellect (al-Risālah fi’l-‘aql) by al-Kindī and al-Fārābī, Ibn Sīnā gave an extensive analysis of the meaning of the intellect in several of his works especially The Book of Healing (al-Shifā’), The Book of Salvation (al-Najāt) and his last masterpiece The Book of Directives and Remarks (Kitāb al-ishārāt wa’l-tanbīhāt). Basing himself upon the Alexandrian commentators of Aristotle such as Themistius and Alexander Aphrodisias and with full awareness of the Quranic doctrine of revelation, Ibn Sīnā distinguishes between the Active Intellect (al-‘aql al- fa‘‘āl)  which is universal and independent of  the individual and the intellectual function within man. Each human being possesses intelligence in virtuality. This is called material or potential intelligence (bi’l-quwwah). As the human being grows in knowledge the first intelligible forms are placed in the soul from above and man attains to the level of the habitual intelligence (bi’l-malakah). As the intelligible becomes fully actualized in the mind, man reaches the level of actual intellect (bi’l fi‘l) and finally as this process is completed, the acquired intelligence (mustafād). Finally above these stages and states stands the Active Intellect (al-‘aql al-fa‘‘āl) which is Divine and which illuminates the mind through the act of knowledge.

According to Ibn Sīnā every act of cognition involves the illumination of the mind by the Active Intellect which bestows upon the mind the form whose knowledge is the knowledge of the subject in question. Although Ibn Sīnā denied the Platonic ideas, he stands certainly closer to the realists of the medieval West than to the nominalists. It is not accidental that the followers of St. Augustine were to rally around the teachings of Ibn Sīnā once his works were translated into Latin and that a school was developed which owed its origin to both St. Augustine and Ibn Sīnā.

The mashshā’ī doctrine concerning the intellect and intuition can be summarized by saying that there are degrees of intellect which are attained as man advances in knowledge with the aid of the Active Intellect. As the intellect grows in strength and universality, it begins to acquire functions and powers which are identified with intuition rather than intellect in its analytical function connected with the act of ratiocination. The means of acquiring metaphysical knowledge is, according to Ibn Sīnā, intellectual intuition by which ta‘aqqul should be translated rather than mere ratiocination. But by intuition here we mean not a sensual or biological power which leaps in the dark but a power which illuminates and removes the boundaries of reason and the limitations of individualistic existence.

In traditional Islamic sources the  mashshā’ī school is usually called hikmah bahthiyyah (rational philosophy or more precisely argumentative philosophy) in contrast to the ishrāqī school which is called  hikmah dhawqiyyah (intuitive philosophy). Although mashshā’ī philosophy is by no means merely rationalistic as shown above, it is in the  ishrāqī or illuminative school of wisdom founded by Shaykh al-ishrāq Shihāb al-Dīn Suhrawardī that the intuitive aspect of the intellect is fully emphasized and a ladder described reaching from sensual to principial, metaphysical knowledge. Suhrawardī, like such Western metaphysicians as St. Augustine and St. Thomas, emphasizes the principle of adequation or adaequatio (adaequatio rei et intellectus)  according to which to each plane of reality there corresponds an instrument of knowledge adequate to the task of knowing that particular level of reality. But what characterizes and distinguishes ishrāqī epistemology is that according to this school every form of knowledge is the result of an illumination of the mind by the lights of the purely spiritual or intelligible world. Even the act of physical vision is possible because the soul of the beholder is illuminated by a light which in the very act of seeing embraces the object of vision. In the same way, the knowledge of a logical concept is made possible by the illumination of the mind at the moment when the very form of the logical concept in question is present in the mind.

As for higher forms of knowledge reaching into the empyrean of gnosis and metaphysics, they too are naturally the fruit of the light of the spiritual world shining upon the mind. In ishrāqī wisdom, therefore, there is no intellection without illumination and no true knowledge without the actual “tasting” (dhawq) of the object of that knowledge, that tasting which is none other than sapientia (whose Latin root sapere means literally to taste) or intuitive knowledge at its highest level of meaning.

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