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Primacy of Existence Versus Primacy of Essence – What Is the Debate About?

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Abstract

The debate on the primacy of existence (aṣālat al-wujūd) versus the primacy of essence (aṣālat al-māhiyya) developed around the question of what fills the texture of reality. The primacy of existence states that only existence fills it, whereas the primacy of essence argues that it is the diverse and distinct essences which actually are.

The respective debate was initially developed in the School of Isfahan, moved to center stage and formulated as a strict dichotomy by Mīr Dāmād and later by his disciple Ṣadr al-Dīn Šīrāzī. It is a fact that Fārābī, Ibn Sīnā and Suhrawardī preceded the formulation of this debate. However, the first two are usually considered to have supported the primacy of existence while Suhrawardī is considered to have adopted the primacy of essence. The manner in which the debate developed influenced the narrative of the history of Islamic philosophy, a narrative that largely dominates the modern scholarship. The question that tends not to be raised, however, is what precisely this debate is about and whether its meaning and implications are really as clear as they are supposed or purported to be.

In this paper I aim at problematizing and questioning what has been taken as a matter of course in the research, i.e. the implication of the debate on the primacy of existence versus the primacy of essence, formulated as a strict dichotomy in a particular stage of Islamic philosophy.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Toshihiko Izutsu gives a clear account of the debate in his book: Toshihiko Izutsu (2007). The Concept and Reality of Existence. Kuala Lumpur: Islamic Book Trust, pp. 152–177, originally published at Tokio: 1971.

  2. 2.

    The position that essence and existence are both real and together constitute a complete unification is held for instance by Aḥmad Aḥsāʾī (1753–1826) and Moḥammad-Ḥādī Tehrānī (1837–1903). The latter argues for this position in his treatise taḥqīq al-māhiyya wa al-wuǧūd. To my knowledge this treatise has not yet been published, but a manuscript of it exists in the Marʿašī-Naǧafī-library in Qom under the title Ḥaqq al-yaqīn with the catalogue number 3135.

  3. 3.

    Considering the vocabulary employed in this paper it should be pointed out that the concept al-wuǧūd is rendered into existence and al-māhiyya into essence. The reason for this is the fact that the debate in question has its very particular history not only in Islamic philosophy but also in western philosophy up to the contemporary philosophy, most notably in existentialism and analytic philosophy, and it is in this context that the concepts of essence and existence are applied. Furthermore, the wide scope that this paper intends to cover mandates that these concepts be understood in their general sense and not reduced to their specific meanings adopted by a particular philosopher. However, in some of the quotations taken from English translations, quiddity is used instead of essence and the concept “al-wuǧūd” remains untranslated. In the second sect. I will provide some elaborations on the concept of al-māhiyya and its correlates in English, i.e., essence and quiddity.

  4. 4.

    This statement (mā jaʿala Allāh al-mishmisha mishmisha, bal. ʾawjadahā) is only attributed to Ibn Sīnā by later Iranian scholars. To my knowledge, however, it is not to be found in any of his works. In this regard see for example: Morteḍā Moṭaharī (1389 Sh). Šarḥ-e manẓūme. Tehran: Ṣadrā, p. 167. One of the oldest mentions is to be found in: Muḥammad Ṣāliḥ Māzandarānī (2000). Šarḥ uṣūl al-kāfī (12 vols.). Beirut: Dār iḥyāʾ al-turāṯ al-ʿarabī. Here see vol. IV, p. 172. Māzandarānī, however, attributes this statement to an unspecified “some” and does not specifically mention Ibn Sīnā.

  5. 5.

    Some scholars have indicated the conspicuous similitude between Ibn Sina’s understanding of the relationship between essence and existence with the following sentence in Quran and its compatibility with the Quranic content: “His command, when He wills a thing (šayʾ), is to say to it, “Be”, and it comes to be” (Sura 36: 82); see also Sura 16:40. In this regard see also: Rollen E. Houser (2016). Essence and Existence in Ibn Sina. In: Richard C. Taylor and Luis Xavier Lopez-Farjeat (eds.). The Routledge Companion to Islamic Philosophy. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 212–224, here see 214.

  6. 6.

    See: Shihāb al-Dīn al-Suhrawardī (1380 Sh). maǧmūʿe moṣannafāt-e Šeyẖ-e Ešrāq (2. vol.). Tehran: Pažūhešgāh-e ʿolūm-e ensānī wa moṭāleʿāt-e farhangī, p. 167.

  7. 7.

    See: Muḥammad ibn Ibrāhīm Ṣadr al-Dīn Šīrāzī (1383 Sh). Al-Ḥikma al-mutaʿāliya fī al-asfār al-ʿaqliyya al-ʿarbaʿa (Vol. I). Tehran: Ṣadrā, p. 50 and p. 487 ff. In the following I refer to this work by the abbreviated title al-Asfār. See also: Muḥammad ibn Ibrāhīm Ṣadr al-Dīn Šīrāzī (1981). Al-Šawāhid al-rubūbiyya fī al-manāhiǧ al-sulūkiyya. Mashhad: al-markaz al-ǧāmiʿ li-l-našr, p. 14.

  8. 8.

    Raǧabʿalī Tabrīzī articulates his position on this matter in a chapter on essence in ‌‌ Al-ʾAṣl al-ʾaṣīl and argues for existence to be a mere concept. See: Raǧabʿalī Tabrīzī (1386 Sh). Al-ʾAṣl al-ʾaṣīl. Tehran: anǧoman-e āṯār wa mafāẖer-e farhangī, pp. 55–60.

  9. 9.

    Muḥammad ibn Ibrāhīm Ṣadr al-Dīn Šīrāzī (2014). The Book of Metaphysical Penetrations. Trans. by Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Provo: Brigham Young University Press, p. 37. Ṣadrā illustrates his discovery of the primacy of existence with the following powerful statements on the same page: “The majority of the later philosophers were not capable of understanding the purpose of such an explanation and those similar to it […]. As for myself, in the days gone by I was a vigorous defender of the thesis of the principality of quiddities and the conceptuality of wujūd, until my Lord guided me and made me see its proof. Then it was unveiled to me with supreme evidence that [the case of the quiddities] was the reverse of what they conceived and decided [concerning this matter]. Glory be to God Who, through the light of veritable understanding, allowed me to leave the darkness of opinion, Who made the clouds of doubt in my heart dissipate through the rising of the Sun of the Truth, and Who established me on the “firm doctrine” in this life and in the Hereafter.”

  10. 10.

    See: Ibid. p. 40 ff. For a short explanatory remark concerning the translation of the concept of jaʿl, see the editor’s introduction ibid, p. xxxix. The concept of jaʿl is a Quranic concept as well and has been one of the key concepts in the theological debate on the createdness or eternity of the Quran as the words of God. For this see: Nimrod Hurvitz (2016). al-Maʾmun (r. 198/813–218/833) and the Mihna. In: Sabine Schmidtke (ed.). The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 649–659, here see p. 652. Fazlur Rahman renders the concept jaʿl into “production” and discusses it in a chapter on “nature of causation”. In this regard see: Fazlur Rahman (1975). The Philosophy of Mullā Ṣadrā (Ṣadr al-Dīn al- Shīrāzī). New York: State University of New York Press, p. 63. Some text pieces from Ṣadrā’s Al-Šawāhid al-rubūbiyya related to the problem of jaʿl are translated in: Cécile Bonmariage (2007). Le Réel et les réalités. Mullā Ṣadrā Shīrāzī et la structure de la réalité. Paris: Vrin, see the text Nr. 17, pp. 275–283.

  11. 11.

    For examples see: Parviz Morewedge (1972). Philosophical Analysis and Ibn Sīnā’s ‘Essence-Existence’ Distinction. In: Journal of the American Oriental Society (vol. 92, No. 3), pp. 425–435; Amos Bertolacci (2012). The Distinction of Essence and Existence in Avicenna’s Metaphysics: The Text and its Context. In: Felicitas Opwis and David Reisman (eds.). Islamic Philosophy, Science, Culture, and Religion. Studies in Honor of Dimitri Gutas. Leiden/Boston: Brill, pp. 257–288; Rollen E. Houser (2016). Essence and Existence in Ibn Sina. In: R. C. Taylor and L. X. Lopez-Farjeat (eds.). The Routledge Companion to Islamic Philosophy. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 212–224; Nader El-Bizri (2001). Avicenna and Essentialism. In: The Review of Metaphysics (Vol. 54, No. 4), pp. 753–778.

  12. 12.

    Izutsu gives an elaborate analysis on this. See: Toshihiko Izutsu. The concept and Reality of Existence, pp. 133–151 (first published, Tokyo, 1971).

  13. 13.

    Ibn Sīnā (2013). Al-Taʿlīqāt. Edited by Seyyed Hossein Mousavian. Tehran: Iranian Institute of Philosophy, p. 220; in this regard see also chap. V of the following book: Damien Janos (2020). Avicenna on the Ontology of Pure Quiddity. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, pp. 631–715. Here see particularly p. 654.

  14. 14.

    Avicenna (2005). The Metaphysics of The Healing. Translated by Michael E. Marmura. Provo: Brigham Young University Press, p. 195.

  15. 15.

    Ibid., p. 200.

  16. 16.

    In addition to the mentioned chapter in al-Asfār, Ṣadrā discusses this theme in a short treatise titled “Primacy of the Instauration of the Existence”. In this treatise, Ṣadrā formulates two principles and fifteen arguments in order to demonstrate that the first effect and the first object of emanation is none other than existence and that “the essence is the object of instauration par accident and secondary to the instauration of the existence”. The treatise in question is published in a collection of philosophical treatises of Ṣadrā: Muḥammad ibn Ibrāhīm Ṣadr al-Dīn Šīrāzī (2001). Aṣāla jaʿl al-wuǧūd. In: Maǧmūʿa rasāʾil falsafiyya. Beirut: Dār iḥyāʾ al-turāṯ al-ʿarabī, pp. 233–242, here see p. 233, my translation. Also the Seventh Penetration of The Book of Metaphysical Penetrations is devoted to the problem of instauration. There Ṣadrā articulates eight witnesses or arguments for his position. See: Muḥammad ibn Ibrāhīm Ṣadr al-Dīn Šīrāzī. The Book of Metaphysical Penetrations, pp. 40–47.

  17. 17.

    See: Al-Asfār (Vol. I), p. 492 f.

  18. 18.

    Muḥammad ibn Ibrāhīm Ṣadr al-Dīn Šīrāzī. The Book of the Metaphysical Penetrations. P. 40. On the same page he hints at a fourth position regarding the problem of instauration which alludes to the fact that it is not the reality but rather the concept of existence that is the first effect and object of instauration: “Furthermore, it is not the concept of existent qua existent, as has been professed by al-Sayyid al-Mudaqqiq [Ṣadr al-Dīn Dashtakī Shīrāzī].”

  19. 19.

    Al-Asfār (Vol. I), p. 471. My translation.

  20. 20.

    Ibid., p. 479. My translation.

  21. 21.

    See: Ibid., p. 482 ff.

  22. 22.

    See: Ibid., p. 487 ff.

  23. 23.

    See: Ibid., p. 474 ff.

  24. 24.

    Ibid., p. 475. Compare: Faẖr al-Dīn Rāzī (1371 Sh). Al-Mabāḥiṯ al-mašriqiyya fī ʿilm al-ilāhiyya wa al-ṭabīʿiyyat. Qom: Bīdār, p. 494. My Translation.

  25. 25.

    Al-Asfār (Vol. I), p. 476. My translation.

  26. 26.

    Ibid., p. 492. My translation.

  27. 27.

    Ibid., p. 478. My translation.

  28. 28.

    Ibid., p. 492. My translation. Compare: Naṣīr al-Dīn Ṭūsī (1405 Q). Maṣāriʿ al-maṣāriʿ. Qom: Marʿašī-Naǧafī-Library Press, p. 189

  29. 29.

    Al-Asfār (Vol. I), p. 492. My translation.

  30. 30.

    See: Morteḍā Moṭaharī (1406 Q). Šarḥ-e Mabsūṭ-e Manzūme (Vol. II). Tehran: Ḥikmat, p. 422 f.; ʿAbdollāh Javādī Āmolī (1375 Sh). Raḥīq maẖtūm (Vol. V). Qum: Markaz-e našr-e ʾesrāʾ, p. 295 ff.

  31. 31.

    Muḥammad ibn Ibrāhīm Ṣadr al-Dīn Šīrāzī (1382). Šarḥ ilāhiyyāt šifāʿ (Vol. II). Edited by Naǧafqolī Ḥabībī. Tehran: Bonyād-e ḥekmat-e eslāmī-ye Ṣadrā, p. 800.

  32. 32.

    Raǧabʿalī Tabrīzī (1386 Sh). Al-ʾaṣl al-ʾaṣīl. Tehran: anǧoman-e āṯār wa mafāẖer-e farhangī, p. 64 f.

  33. 33.

    See for example: Ibn Sina (1405 Q). Manṭiq al-mašriqiyyīn. Qom: Marʿašī-Naǧafī-library Press, p. 17; Ibn Sīnā (1371 Sh). Al-mubāḥaṯāt. Qom: Bīdār, p. 272; Ibn Sīnā (1404 Q). Al-taʿlīqāt. Qom: Maktab al-ʾiʿlām al-islāmī fī al-ḥawza al-ʿilmiyya, p. 186.

  34. 34.

    Ibn Sīnā. Manṭiq al-mašriqiyyīn, p. 22–3. My translation.

  35. 35.

    See the Persian commentary on Ibn Sina’s Manṭiq al-mašriqiyyīn: Moḥammad Jaʿfar Asadī (1396 Sh). Manṭeq-e Mašreqiyyān. Translation and commentary. Zanǧān: Nīkān, p. 110.

  36. 36.

    According to Ṣadrā, he is quoting the passage from Al-taʿlīqāt of Ibn Sīnā, but this passage is not to be found in the mentioned book, see: Muḥammad ibn Ibrāhīm Ṣadr al-Dīn Šīirāzī. Al-Šawāhid al-rubūbiyya fī al-manāhiǧ al-sulūkiyya, p. 12. My translation. In this regard see also: Jules Janssens (2002).Mullā Ṣadrā’s Use of Ibn Sīnā’s Al-taʿlīqāt in the Asfār. In: Journal of Islamic Studies (13), pp. 1–13, p. 11.

    .

  37. 37.

    Muḥammad ibn Ibrāhīm Ṣadr al-Dīn Šīirāzī. Al-Šawāhid al-rubūbiyya fī al-manāhiǧ al-sulūkiyya, p. 11.

  38. 38.

    Ibid., p. 8.

  39. 39.

    Ibid., p. 11. In this regard see also: Ibrahim Kalin (2010). Knowledge in Later Islamic Philosophy. Mullā Ṣadrā on Existence, Intellect, and Intuition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 100 ff.

  40. 40.

    Ibid.

  41. 41.

    Ibid., p. 9; see also: Muḥammad ibn Ibrāhīm Ṣadr al-Dīn Šīrāzī. The book of Metaphysical Penetrations, p. 34, where he likens this relationship to that of differentia and genus.

  42. 42.

    Al-Asfār (Vol. I), p. 289.

  43. 43.

    Ṣadrā expounds on his idea of mental existence in the third part of the first chapter of al-Asfār (Vol. I), pp. 313–377.

  44. 44.

    Muḥammad ibn Ibrāhīm Ṣadr al-Dīn Šīirāzī. Al-Šawāhid al-rubūbiyya fī al-manāhiǧ al-sulūkiyya, p. 10.

  45. 45.

    Regarding this see: Sajjad H. Rizvi (2009). Mullā Ṣadrā and Metaphysics: Modulation of being. London: Routledge, p. 78 ff.

  46. 46.

    For the terms “L’ Ecole d’ Ispahan” and “School of Isfahan” see: Henry Corbin (1972). En Islam Iranien (Vol. IV). Paris: Gullimard, pp. 9–201; Seyyed Hossein Nasr (1996). The Islamic Intellectual Traditional in Persia. Edited by Mehdi Amin Razavi. London/New York: Routledge, pp.239–270. For both terms “Isfahan school” and “Tehran school” see: Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Mehdi Aminrazavi (eds.) (2015). An Anthology of Philosophy in Persia (Vol. 5). From the School of Shiraz to the Twentieth Century. London/New York: I.B. Tauris Publishers. In “General Introduction” (pp. 1–17), Nasr clarifies why these two schools of thought are to be distinguished within the period of seven centuries “from the time that Western history calls the Middle Ages to the modern period” (p. 1). The second part of this volume is dedicated to the philosophers of the School of Isfahan (pp. 119–368) and the third part of it to the thinkers of the School of Tehran (pp. 369–529).

  47. 47.

    In his voluminous work Ḥikmat-e Bū ʿAlī Sīnā, composed in Persian, Ḥāʾerī Māzandarānī argues elaborately that Ibn Sina and other philosophers such as Sohrawardī, Mīr Dāmād, Naṣīr al-Dīn Ṭūsī, and Khayyām, are adherents of primacy of essence. Regarding this see: Moḥammad Ṣāleḥ Ḥāʾerī Māzandarānī (1362 Sh). Ḥikmat-e Bū ʿAlī Sīnā (vol. III). Edited by Ḥassan Faḍāʾelī. Tehran: Šerkat-e sahāmī ṭabʿ, p. 37; see also p. 22 ff. His treatise Wadāyiʿ al-ḥikam fī kašf ẖadāyiʿ badāyiʿ al-ḥikam contains Māzandarānī’s elaborate rejection of the primacy of existence based on the criticism of badāyiʿ al-ḥikam, the comprehensive work of Ṣadrāian philosopher Āqā Ali Moddares Zanūzī (1819–1890). See: Ibid., pp. 25–126.

  48. 48.

    Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (2010). Al-taǧdīd wa-l-taḥrīm wa-l-taʾwīl. Beirut: Al-markaz al-ṯaqāfī al-ʿarabī, p. 19 f.

  49. 49.

    See: Mansooreh Khalilizand and Kata Moser (2020). Conversation with Aziz al-Azmeh. In: falsafa. Yearbook for Islamic Philosophy of Religion (Nr. 3). Edited by Ahmad Milad Karimi. Munich: Verlag Karl Alber, pp. 145–162. Here see p. 150–153.

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Acknowledgments

I am very grateful to the anonymous reviewers for their helpful remarks on an earlier draft of this paper. I also thank The Academy for Islam in Research and Society (AIWG) for the grant it provided me to revise the English in this paper.

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Khalilizand, M. (2022). Primacy of Existence Versus Primacy of Essence – What Is the Debate About?. In: Chatti, S. (eds) Women's Contemporary Readings of Medieval (and Modern) Arabic Philosophy. Logic, Argumentation & Reasoning, vol 28. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-05629-1_8

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