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Islam and Metaphysics

Metaphysics – the science that presides over all othersLet us look into the convoluted understanding of metaphysics and the conflict between theories of different philosophers before we unveil the intellectual genius of Imam Ali. As Physics describes the world of matter and its motion through space and time, Metaphysics strives to define the subject matter.

Metaphysics – the science that presides over all othersIn the ocean of philosophy, metaphysics – while being more general and universal than any other science – is one of the most neglected treasures by the majority of mankind. Islam can easily boast of elucidating indispensable metaphysical aspects through the Holy Qur’an and its beautiful interpretation by none other than Imam Ali (peace be upon him) in Nahj al-Balagha. Let us look into the convoluted understanding of metaphysics and the conflict between theories of different philosophers before we unveil the intellectual genius of Imam Ali. As Physics describes the world of matter and its motion through space and time, Metaphysics strives to define the subject matter. Metaphysics or ‘beyond physics’ is the study of philosophy examining the true nature of reality, whether it is visible or not.

Metaphysics also studies the concepts of being and knowing; essence and existence. Many famous philosophers such as Aristotle, Plato, Kindi, Farabi and Avicenna (ibn Sina) have defined metaphysics and tried to contradict theories of each other. Due to these differences in definitions, people have failed to understand the true significance of metaphysics. As philosophers always tend to contradict each other because there are no specific set of laws in philosophy compared to science, there is bound to be a ‘shift’ in theories about metaphysics when one compares, for example, the ideas of Aristotle and Avicenna. The fight for survival of these philosophers leaves a mystifying impression on non-philosophers – including scientists – to understand the concepts of metaphysics, resulting in a failure to interpret the hidden, beautiful meaning of the Qur’an as interpreted by Imam Ali.

Here, we will examine how these philosophers tried to define God by comparing the concepts of two primary philosophers, Aristotle and Avicenna, and other philosophers who agree with one or the other. Following this, we will explain the concept of God through the metaphysical aspects of the Holy Qur’an and Nahj al-Balagha.

According to Aristotle, God must be the first cause or the first principle of all the substances. Aristotle agrees that theology is an integral part of metaphysics since God is the principle of being. In his epistle, On the Aims of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Farabi explains metaphysics as a universal science comprising general concepts as being, unity, species, accidents etc. However, Avicenna disagrees with Aristotle’s ideas and explains that the subject matter of metaphysics cannot be limited to one category. Further, he says that the proof of God can be found by modes of existence and through the argument that contingent existence requires an existence which is necessary. Avicenna’s theory of causality implies the idea of bringing into existence. Also, Avicenna escapes from the infinite ladder of the principle of principles by insisting that the whole of being has no principle, and the principle is the principle of the caused being only. More significant arguments on metaphysics of Avicenna against Aristotle can be found in the informative articles, Ibn Sina’s Concept of God and Ibn Sina’s Arguments Against God’s Being a Substance, by Dr. Legenhausen.

Before becoming overwhelmed with the heavy philosophies of these great philosophers, let us not lose focus and now examine how articulately Imam Ali approaches the concept of God in his famous book through metaphysics.

The philosophical perceptions of the Divine Essence and Attributes of God have been explained in a miraculous manner in Nahj al-Balagha. Many non-Shi’a Muslim writers and Qur’an interpreters are of the view that the only correct way to interpret Qur’anic verses is through experimental methods based on the secrets of natural phenomenon. These scholars of other schools believe that Shi’a scholars give less importance to experimental sciences as compared to metaphysics. Certainly, the experimental and scientific methods to deduce the meaning of the Qur’an with the help of natural phenomenon have been given justified importance, however some of the verses require more understanding of the metaphysical aspect, which will be clarified here.

Despite the Qur’an asking people to reflect upon the signs of God in nature, there still remain many problems of theology that can never be explained in their true sense merely through nature or the created world. A great scholar, martyr Murtuda Mutahhari, in his must-read book, Glimpses of the Nahj al-Balagha, explains each of these aspects of metaphysics, its challenges, and solutions of explaining Qur’anic verses through the support of the works of Imam Ali. Qur’an poses many problems that cannot be solved by the experimental and scientific approach of nature alone. For example, the basic problem of the unity of God requires an in-depth philosophical analysis as done in Nahj al-Balagha. Other problems include predetermination and free-will, revelation and intuition, none of which can be explained by sole experimental methods of nature, although writers of other schools of thought wrongly stress upon the contrary.

A few of the many verses of the Qur’an that require metaphysical understandings about God are:

  • And His is the loftiest likeness in the heavens and the earth. (30:27)
  • And He is God in the heavens and the earth. He knows our secrets, and what you publish. (6:3)
  • He is the First and the Last, the Outward and the Inward. He has knowledge of everything. (57:3)
  • Allah is One and Absolute. (112:1-2)
  • This is a scripture that We have revealed unto thee, full of blessings, that they may ponder its revelations, and that men of understanding may reflect. (38:29)

Likewise, many other verses require philosophical guidance, and who can guide us better than Imam Ali? Explaining the concepts of God, Imam Ali says in Nahj al-Balagha:

“God is not inside things in the sense of physical penetration and is not outside them in the sense of physical exclusion. Times do not keep company with Him, and implements do not help Him. His Being precedes times. His Existence precedes non-existence and His eternity precedes beginning. By His creating the senses it is known that He has no senses. By the contraries in various matters it is known that He has no contrary, and by the similarity between things it is known that there is nothing similar to Him. He has made light the contrary of darkness, brightness that of gloom, dryness that of moisture and heat that of cold. He produces affection among inimical things.” (Sermon 186)

This truly is an extraordinary way of explaining the infinite power, being, essence and existence of God that no other philosopher can dare to challenge. Imam Ali also clarifies the metaphysical problems of time and God existing before time, by saying that His being precedes time itself. He transcends all time, number, limit and all kinds of quiddities.

Further, he exerts that Divine Essence is absolute and infinite, and the ideas of limits, forms and conditions are not applicable to God. Explaining the concept of God through metaphysical interpretation of the first verse in Surah Tawheed, Imam Ali explains that Divine Unity and Oneness of God is not numerical because numerical unity implies the assumption of the recurrence of oneness of another thing or a defect being restricted to numbers. But, these verses imply that this Unity of God denotes that any multiplicity, or any second to this Unity, is invalid.

Martyr Mutahhari in Glimpses of the Nahj al-Balagha cites a stunning example based on this concept. He states that if we assume our universe to be infinite, it is then not possible to entertain any other universe beyond it, because whatever we assume would be identical or a part of this universe. He further clarifies that an infinite universe of 5 dimensions will contain an infinite number of universes of four dimensions, likewise our universe with three spatial dimensions and one dimension of time. The point is that the supposition of another being similar to the Being of God (just as the supposition of another physical universe besides an infinite universe) leads to an impossible assumption because the Being of God is absolute. The same book also tells us that the concept of Divine Unity not being a numerical quantity is an entirely original Islamic concept and unparalleled in any other school. This concept is not found in the works of any early philosophers such as Farabi, Avicenna or even Aristotle.

Imam Ali says: “Praise be to Allah, for Whom one condition does not proceed another so that He may be the First before being the Last or He may be Manifest before being Hidden.” (Sermon 65) This clarifies that His Manifest-ness and Hidden-ness are identical, just as His First-ness is identical with his Last-ness.

These and many more metaphysical elements of Nahj al-Balagha are unique and pivotal for any discussion concerning God. These impressions as well, cannot be found in any metaphysical lesson of any other school or philosopher, including Aristotle, Plato, Avicenna and other Muslim philosophers of early Islam.

One famous Indian freedom fighter, Chandrashekhar Azad, has said: “If yet your blood does not rage, then it is water that flows in your veins. For what is the flush of youth, if it is not of service to the motherland?” This passionate quote can be applied as a good metaphorical example for youth to serve not only the motherland but all of humanity, by sticking to our Holy Ahlul Bayt. It is a shame on us that despite having the genius and versatile personality of Imam Ali in our homes (reflected in Nahj al-Balagha), we fail to represent him in all fields, including philosophy and metaphysics.

About Jafar Hasan

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  • Hadi

    This was an engaging piece, particularly the section discussing divine unity and numerical unity which I found very interesting. I would have liked the article more if the author had taken a look at the modern (western) discussions regarding metaphysics. As far as I know, after Kant and his interrogation of the capacity of “reason”, philosophical attempts to understand the metaphysics have been seriously undermined (Kierkegaard ideas are good to look at as well). In general, I liked the article and I think the argument would be enriched if the traditional/Aristotelian (including Mutaharri) philosophy was read in a comparative context with the modern western philosophy.

  • Jafar

    The reason for not putting other modern philosophers was because of the length of the article. However, most of the modern philosophers agree with these philosophers of the past….There exists, metaphysics studies of Taoism and Kundalini in other religions of buddhism and hinduism but both of them cannot be integrated here.

    For more detailed modern reading, you can go for contemporary William Chittick’s views and also Dr. Leugenheusen reviews.

    Also, the target was to look at it from a critical scientist’s view rather a philosopher’s perspective. 😉

    Thanks 🙂

  • Jafar

    Dr. Legenhausen*

  • dima

    it’s a very interesting piece I wish however we had more bibliographical references …( with specification)

  • Nauman Usmani

    very nice work !!

  • Nicole Harris