Dark Doctrines in Islamic (Moslem) Philosophy
by Tani Jantsang
(Information from A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani, pub.1991 by Warner Books. Chapter 11: Divergent Paths of Thought, pp. 172-181)
Pieces of the Dark Tradition can be found in the works of the Islamic philosophers, who always remained a fringe group in Islamic society. This is not surprising since the Middle East was a lot closer to the people who originated all Dark Doctrine thought. Philosophers were not the primary intellectuals of Islam – they were second to the very influential scholars of hadith (“sayings of the Prophet”) and the Koran, who based their studies on proper interpretation of written scripture and oral tradition.
Both philosophers and Sufi mystics challenged the Islamic establishment’s emphasis on written and spoken doctrine. Sufi mystics emphasized revelation and direct, personal communion with God in their practices, which sometimes included orgiastic dancing and chanting (one Sufi said that e.g. when walls split open he communed with angels). Islamic philosophers inherited much of their tradition from the Classical Hellenic world (including the logic of Aristotle and Neo-Platonic cosmology), and believed that human reason, not just revelation from the Koran, could lead to truth.
This kind of philosophy reached its culmination in the work of Ibn Sina (known in Europe as “Avicenna” – 980-1037), who attempted to articulate Islamic doctrine in terms of Aristotelian logic and Neo-Platonic metaphysics, and whose thinking became very influential in later Islamic thought. Ibn Sina tried to explain a problematic aspect of Islamic doctrine: the apparent contradiction between the unity of God and the multiplicity of created beings. (This is very similar to the Darkness is One, yet that same Darkness in all things.) Ibn Sina’s Neo-Platonic school conceived the universe as being formed by a series of emanations from God, with God as the First Cause or Creator and necessary Being in whom essence and existence were one. From God, there was a series of ten intelligences, ranging from one First Intelligence down to the Active Intelligence which governed the world of embodied beings.
It was from this Active Intelligence that ideas were communicated to the human body by a radiation of divine light, (i.e., the Vajra) and thus that the human soul was created. Ibn Sina called this radiation of divine light ishraq, and said that it enabled men to attain contact with the hierarchy of Intelligibles. (Some later writers used the term ishraq to refer to the ancient esoteric wisdom of the east – sharq is the Arabic word for ‘east’ – and to a systematic formulation of the ultimate Reality which lay behind the words of the Koran [an attempt to formulate such a philosophy by al-Suhrawardi caused a scandal and al-Suhrawardi’s execution by the ruler of Aleppo in 1191]). “Light” symbolism was common to both Sufi mysticism and the words of the Koran, which said: “God is the Light of the heavens and the earth: the likeness of His light is as a niche wherein is a lamp (the lamp is a glass, the glass as it were a glittering star) kindled from a Blessed Tree, an olive that is neither of the East nor of the West, whose oil well-nigh would shine, even if no fire touched it: Light upon Light (God guides to His Light whom He will)” (Koran, 24:35-9).
According to Ibn Sina, just as the soul was created by this process of descent from the First Being, a process animated by the overflowing of divine love, so human life should be a process of ascent, a return through the different levels of being towards the First Being, by way of love and desire. Ibn Sina said that prophecy was the highest kind of human intellect – the prophet could participate in the life of the hierarchy of ten Intelligences, and could rise as high as the First Intelligence. Not just prophets, but also highly spiritually gifted men, could attain this by the way of ascesis [exercise and self-discipline].
These ideas of Ibn Sina seemed to contradict the literal interpretation of the “divine revelation” of the Koran. The prominent intellectual Ghazali attacked the ideas of people like Ibn Sina in a tract called Incoherence of the Philosophers, pointing out three “errors” of the philosophers: 1. The philosophers believed that the emanations of divine light infused matter but did not create it. 2. They limited the knowledge of God to universals, ideas which formed particular beings, not the particular beings themselves (this view was incompatible with the Koranic image of a God concerned for every living creature in its individuality). 3. They believed in the immortality of the soul but not of the body. In sum, Ghazali said that the God of the philosophers was not the God of the Koran, speaking to every man, judging him, and loving him.
A century later, another champion of the philosophers emerged to challenge Ghazali: Ibn Rushd (known in the West as Averroes – 1126-98). Rushd addressed Ghazali’s criticisms of philosophy, and said that philosophy was not incompatible with the Koran. He said that not all the words of the Koran should be taken literally – those that seemed to contradict the conclusions of the philosophers should be taken metaphorically. He also warned that most human beings were incapable of philosophical reasoning, and that philosophy was for the elite (khassi), while literal meaning was sufficient for the generality (‘amm). Dialectical reasoning (kalam) was for minds in intermediate positions, since it used logic in order to support the level of truth appropriate to the ‘amm.
The works of Ibn Rushd do not appear to have had a lasting influence in subsequent Islamic thought (although Latin translations of some of his books made a deep impact on western Christian philosophy). However, the ideas of Ibn Sina remained of central importance in religious and philosophical thought. By the twelfth century there was starting to be a rapprochement between kalam and philosophy. A logical structure was erected to defend and explain Koranic doctrine.
The most elaborate and lasting formulation of an ultimate Reality behind the words of the Koran was made by Ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240), an Andalusian Arab whose father was a friend of Ibn Rushd, and who attended the funeral of the philosopher. He made a pilgrimage to Mecca, where he claimed to have a vision in which he became aware of the Ka’ba as the point where the ultimate reality impinges upon the visible world. He described the universe as an endless flow of existence from and back towards the Divine Being: a flow of which the primary symbol was Light. This process could be regarded, in one of its aspects, as an overflowing of love from God, the desire of Necessary Being to know itself by seeing its Being reflected back on itself.
This creation took place by a manifestation of God’s Being through His Names or attributes. The Names could be seen in three aspects: in themselves as being part of the essence of the Divine Being; as eternal archetypes or forms; and as realized in specific and limited existent beings. In their active form the Names were known as Lords: they manifest themselves in images produced by the creative imagination of God, and concrete beings were an embodiment of these images.
‘Arabi had the idea of the “Perfect Man” (al-insan al-kamil), who most fully manifests the nature of God, and is a visible embodiment of the eternal archetype, the “Mohammedan Light.” There was an invisible hierarchy of “saints” (people possessing ma’rifa, or inner knowledge) who preserved the order of the world, headed by a qutb, or pole, for each age. He said that all revelations through prophets and lawgivers were revelations of the same Reality; all men worshipped the same God in different forms.
‘Arabi said that the descent of creatures from the necessary Being is also an ascent towards God. The path of ascent, illuminated by inner knowledge (ma’rifa – knowing God through knowing the self), leads through various stages, permanent advances in the spiritual progress. There are stages of this inner knowledge. On this path one can reach the archetypal images, which are sensible manifestations of the Names of God in the intermediate “world of images” (‘alam al-mithal). Beyond that, one may be given a vision of God, in which the veil is momentarily lifted and God shows Himself to the seeker. There are two moments in such a vision: that in which the seeker ceases to be aware of his own personality and those of other creatures in the radiance of the vision of God (fana); and that in which he sees God in His creatures (baqa), lives and moves among them but remains conscious of the vision.
Ibn ‘Arabi described the universe as being characterized by wahdat al-wujud, or “unity of being or existence.” The meaning of this phrase caused much controversy. Some interpretations of this idea led to a problem of reconciling “unity of being/existence” with the Koranic doctrine of the infinite distance and separation between God and His creatures. In subsequent ages, commentators on Arabi were divided between those who said his ideas contradicted the fundamental tenets of Islam, and those who defended the orthodoxy of his ideas. His works remained controversial even among Sufis.
A major opponent of the ideas of men like Ibn Sina and Ibn ‘Arabi was Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328), a Syrian defender of Islamic orthodoxy and unity under the Mamaluk regime. Taymiyya emphasized the importance of living in accordance with the Koran.
Taymiyya criticized Ibn Sina on fundamental points. Taymiyya said that: the universe had been created from nothing by an act of Divine Will (not by emanations); God knows human beings in their particularity; they know Him by his revelation, the Koran (not by the exercise of their reason). Taymiyya’s criticisms of ‘Arabi’s ideas were even stronger, since he considered them a greater threat to the Islamic community. Taymiyya totally rejected the speculative theosophy of ‘Arabi and others. According to Taymiyya: man was not the manifestation of Divine Light, but a created being; man could not be absorbed into God’s Being; the only way by which he could draw nearer to God was obedience to His revealed Will, the Koran. (This person spoke the words of klippoths!)
Taymiyya’s criticisms demonstrate a failure to grasp the inner meanings of the philosophers, and he proposed instead a very scholastic, sterile adherence to written moral traditions. Taymiyya’s ideas played an important role in the Muslim society of his time and afterwards, but became one school of thought among many in a diverse Islamic world. His tradition was revived by the Wahhabi religious movement in the eighteenth century, which led to the formation of the Saudi state in central Arabia.
However, followers of Taymiyya and ‘Arabi were able to peacefully coexist in Sunni Muslim society, and some Muslims tried to reconcile the two thinkers. One sufi order, for instance, studied both schools of thought, considering Taymiyya to represent shari’a (or Muslim law), and ‘Arabi to represent the haqiqa (or truth to which seekers of the Sufi path aspired).
Finally, there is this beautiful poem
The Refusal of Iblis by Muhammad Iqbal
I am no creature of mere light
That I should bow to man.
He is a base-born thing of dust,
And I am of fire born.
The blood in the veins of the world
Is lit up by my flame.
The tearing speed of wind is mine,
And mine is thunder’s boom.
I forge the atoms’ harmony,
The elements’ concourse.
I burn, but also shape: I am
The fire that makes the glass.
The things I make I break to bits
And scatter in the dust,
In order to create new forms
From fragments of those lost.
This restlessly revolving sky
Is a wave of my sea;
And in my throbbing substance dwells
The shape of things to be.
The stars’ bodies were made by You;
I am their motive force.
I am the substances of the world.
I am life’s primal source.
The body draws its soul from you.
But I arouse the soul.
While You waylay with blissful peace,
I lead with action’s call.
I never begged obedience
Of slaves who always pray.
I rule without a hell: I judge
Without a Judgement Day
That low-born creature of earth, man,
Of mean intelligence,
Though born in Your lap, will grow old
Under my vigilance.