Parviz Morewedge on “Muslim Philosophies of Religion in Light of Previous Zoroastrian and Monotheistic Traditions”

Parviz Morewedge (UCLA: B.A., Ph.D.) is the author/editor of 14 books and 70 essays/reviews. He taught for over 57 years at US Universities, including Cornell, Columbia, and UCLA and held seminars in 24 countries. He also served as a UN diplomat for 15 years and was employed for six years in logical design (PC and Automata). He is the CEO of Global Scholarly Publications, which has published 500 books and 10 journals. His hobbies are the early classics of Chinese, Japanese, and Russian cultures and visiting museums in NYC, his present residence. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

This essay depicts differences in the logic, method, and contents of major Islamic philosophies of religion and monotheistic religions. Greek and/or Western philosophers will be compared with their Islamic counterparts in a few disciplines. Regarding cosmogony, ibn Sina (970-1037) [widely acknowledged as the greatest Muslim philosopher] and N. Tusi (1201-1271), the chief Shi`a theologian, defend emanation from The Necessary Existent as a cosmogenic model (analogous to ‘the One’ of Plotinus) against Aristotle’s co-eternity and monotheistic creation model of the world out of “nothing,” which was considered meaningless by the Greeks and rejected by almost all of the Muslim philosophers.

I. Cosmology (especially in relation to time)

Ibn Sina’s ultimate being (the Necessary Existent), unlike Aristotle’s unmoved mover, is not a substance. Muslim philosophers often rely on the active intellect as the major link between the heavenly and the terrestrial realms. Christians and Muslims following orthodox theology accept the exceptional case of the immaculate conception of Christ by the Holy Ghost (4, V.1, pp. 277-281). Plotinus’ emanation has complex features: for example, the souls are sisters of the world soul—without there being a hierarchy, (The Enneads IV 3 (27), 1-8). The intellect (nous), is depicted as the father generating/perfecting souls for adulthood (V 9 (5), 4.9; also V 1 (10), 3.14). Our souls can be deceived by the attractions of entities embodied in the world, as a young girl may be deceived by a lover and taken from her father (VI 9 (9), 9.34; also V 5 (32) 12.36, vol. 8, pp. 57-87). Unlike Manichaean philosophers and some versions of the monotheistic traditions, ibn Sina and Plotinus consider “evil” as not an actuality but as a privation of the Good, analogous to “darkness” as a privation (adam) of light. According to ibn Sina, the ultimate achievable happiness is a union-blending (paiwand) with the Necessary Existent (6, p. 71)—which is comparable to Plato’s hint that the highest happiness of the individual soul is “likeness to God as far as is possible” (I.2.1; cf. Plato, Theaetetus 176b). Another topic is the notion of “temporality.” A. R. Biruni (973-1048) reconstructs the non-Greek, Indic version of time (4, V.1, pp. 102-106). Mulla Sadra (1572-1641) proffers a non-static, Hegelian version of substantial motion. Mir Damad (1561-1631) presents a tripartite model of “meta-temporality-eternity-and temporality” (3 ,V.4, pp. 25-26). N. Tusi, proves the incompatibility of classical atomism using Euclidean Geometry, advocating a Leibnizian type of “force-energy” found in an intentional phase of hermeneutic self-realization. Plato’s celebrated quote that “time is the moving image of eternity” (Timaeus 37d;) his Allegory of the Cave in The Republic, and the idea of Love as a ladder in the search for atemporality/immortality discussed in The Symposium, along with Plotinus’ ascent of the soul towards the One serve as sources of inspiration for subsequent mystical traditions. In sum, the relation between Islamic and other cosmological doctrines cannot be viewed as a simple derivation.

II. Free will

Free will is essential to the monotheistic models that uphold the thesis of “reward and punishment”. N. Tusi’s free will, analogous to D. Hume`s account of our psychology of “causation,” is intentional: (i) We feel free when we act according to necessity; (ii) we attribute free will to others when we are ignorant of the causes of their actions. Tusi follows ibn Sina in accord with the views of many Western philosophers, such as G. Leibniz, D. Hume, and B. Spinoza. The monotheistic presupposition of free will implies many dilemmas, for the ordinary use of “will” points to its being a dispositional rather than an occurrent property (e.g., the salt is white). Consequently, there can never be any perception that involves an impression of a “will.” I. Kant`s ethics is a conditional rather than a categorical reference or a “proof” for “free will”; at best it could be used as a pragmatic recommendation, along with J. Dewey’s type of approach, asking, for instance “free from what? What are laws of nature?” By identifying themselves with the total unity of the world, secular nature/sufi mystics interpret the notion of free will as an illusion of alienation.

III. Methodology in cosmology and the sciences

The syntactical approach of ibn Sina—like that of 20th Century logicians (culminating in R. Carnap’s philosophy)—offers a reconstruction of a meta-language model for problems in other domains, expressed however in ordinary languages and specific scientific inquiries. Here is an example taken from ibn Sina: wujud (being-qua-being) signifies the most determinable concept with three modalities: b-1 wajib (being a necessity), b-2, mumkin (being not an impossibility), and mumtani (being impossible). The syntactical concatenation of “necessity” with “being” implies “a necessary being,” from which one can deduce “the Necessary Existent,” that is neither a substance nor an accident, as it cannot have a definition.

In a similar tenor, N. Tusi applies a syntactical necessity to the notion of “The Maker, (not the creator)” as follows: The notion of being a mother implies begetting a child. Consequently, if the finite human being cannot relate directly to an infinite deity, then there must be an Imam (a messenger) who is revealed to humanity. Incidentally, the root of this tradition is found in Aristotle, William of Ockham, and G. Leibniz. By contrast, monotheism uses ordinary language, allegories, and analogies to present a view of the deity in its appeals to revelation. Sufis, like mystics of other traditions, employ allegorical theology that is embedded in intentionality but is absent from standard logical models.

A number of Muslim religious thinkers claim that due to the transcendent feature of the Divine, humans can access the results of God’s acts only as they construe these in terms of a world order (nizam-i khaiyr a- kuli); consequently, as stated by Nasir Khosrow (1004-1088), religion via Shahada (being a witness to the beauty of the world) and Science (attempting to formulate laws to explain the world) pursue the same object, namely the actual world (4,V.1, pp. 415-420). Mysticism, according to Plato and Plotinus (the great rationalists), is an allegorical account that is compatible with science similar to A. N. Whitehead’s (1867-1947) model of Process and Reality, viewed as a “meta-science.” Our interpretation rejects the views of a few contemporary writers, such as that of D. Gutas, who has an anti-rational view of mysticism; the claims of those who see Islamic philosophy as derived from Judaism, such as H. D. Wolfson, A. Ivry, and Len Goodman; and the early L. Wittgenstein (1889-1951), who states one should be silent on topics such as mysticism. This notwithstanding, there are thousands of accounts on mysticism written in almost every language for more than three thousand years!

The traditional arguments for the existence of God (ontological, cosmological, and mystical) have been subject to serious criticism; it is our opinion, that in spite of its phenomenological merit, a pragmatic account for the notion of God, like that given by American pragmatists, can be formulated as a language game that does not include “logical validity” for non-abstract terms. Here we recall that pragmatists in general, like F. Nietzsche (1844-1900), do not assume any primacy of “truth” over “value.” In the Iranian Zoroastrian tradition, the notion of “Asha” implies success, according to nature (like arete in Greek); in contrast, duruq is related to “drug”, something externally inserted on a patient and not derived from the natural constituents of an agent (3, V.2, pp. 431-436). Like Islam, Zoroastrianism opposes any form of ascetism, such as the celibacy of the clergy.

IV. Universals

Implied in Its being-knowledge, the notion of God in monotheism is not essentially connected with any specific time, space, event, or process; consequently, many themes in monotheism—e.g., God’s will being independent of a particular time—rely on Platonic language. Against the Platonic version of Universals, ibn Sina interprets a nominalist view of Universals as follows. The statement, “Here are four figures,” does not imply the existence of an actual entity ‘4’ in addition to fingers (4, V.2, 295-398; 6, pp. 32-36). In their account of the classification of the sciences, ibn Sina and Tusi, adopt an Aristotelian version, but add a hermeneutic practical science of the self (khud). Evidently, Muslim philosophers did not blindly follow their Greek predecessors.

IV. God-world relations

In Judaism, especially in the I-Thou contracts of Noah and Abraham, God is presented as distinct from the rest of the world. In the Islamic concept of Total Unity (Tawhid), and the mystic notion of Wahdat-al-wujud—analogous to B. Spinoza’s (1632-1677) ocean-wave (substance-mode) analogy—we experience only modes of a single reality; rejected is the bifurcation of nature. The reference to such an ultimate being is usually allegorical; in this vein Mahmūd Shabestarī’s (1288–1340) The Flowering of (the archetypal) Secret (Gulshan-i Rāz), asserts that “I” (the heart) and “God” (referred to as the phenomenon of reception of “the black beauty mark of a pretty face” are isomorphic icons of the same reality. Jalal ad-Din Rumi’s (1207-1273) master, Shams Tabrizi, responds to Rumi’s query, “who are you?” by asserting, “I am you”; this is analogous to St. Augustine`s reference to Christ as the “inner teacher” (3, V.4, pp. 536-539). In Africana philosophy, the self is identified as an aspect of home-nature, with love of home-nature (Ecco philia) being a salient mark of humanity, which is an extreme contrast to John Locke’s individualism.

V. Concluding remarks

For more than two hundred cases as well as further clarifications, refer to the author`s essays in Encyclopedias which invite non-specialists in Islamic philosophy to explore and discover new philosophical provenances.


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2. Borchert, D. M. (Ed.). (2006). Encyclopedia of philosophy (2nd ed., 10 vols). Thomson Gale.

3. Esposito, J. L. (Ed.). (2009). The Oxford encyclopedia of modern Islamic world. Oxford University Press.

4. Kalin, I. (Ed.). (2014). The Oxford encyclopedia of philosophy, science, and technology in Islam (2 vols.). Oxford University Press.

5. Craig, E. (Ed.). (1998). Routledge encyclopedia of philosophy (10 vols.). Routledge.

6. Avicenna (Ibn Sīnā). (1973). Dānish Nāma-i ʿalāʾi” (The book of scientific knowledge) (P. Morewedge, Trans.). Routledge and Kegan Paul.

7. Morewedge, P. (1992). Neoplatonism and Islamic thought (vol. 5). SUNY Press.

8. Helleman-Elgersma, W. (1980). Soul-Sisters: A Commentary on Enneads IV 3 (27), 1-8 of Plotinus. Brill.

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