Ibn Sīnā’s Interest in Religion

Abū ‘Alī ibn Sīnā

Abū ‘Alī al-Husayn ibn ‘Abd Allāh ibn Sīnā, one of the most famous figures in medieval Islamic philosophy, used to read his father’s copy of the Encyclopaedia of the Brethren of Purity.  He became one of the foremost participants in an eleventh-century flowering of Persian culture.[1]  Born far to the east near Bukhārā (now in Uzbekistan), which was both an Islamic centre and the seat of a large Buddhist monastery, Ibn Sīnā mastered the whole of the school curriculum at an early age, and then took on Indian mathematics, jurisprudence and Greek logic, before pushing forward with his own studies in philosophy, science and medicine.  Eventually, using al-Fārābi’s commentaries, he managed to understand Aristotle’s Metaphysics.

As an adult he wandered from one court to another in Persia, seeking patronage as a physician and a wise man, and producing a great number of weighty and elegantly written books.  Much of his work was accomplished in Hamadhān and Isfahān (in the west of modern Iran).  He was appointed vizier at the court at Hamadhān, was forced out by the army, and then recalled when the prince needed his medical attention.  Here he was probably at his busiest, with political activity during the day, and philosophical activity at night with a study group of friends.[2]

Because of the quantity and quality of his work, his ideas travelled widely throughout Islam, and after his death in C.E.1037, his name became identified with Islamic Neoplatonism.  This may be unfair to al-Fārābi, the 10th-century systematic philosopher, who had laid down all the foundations, as Ibn Sīnā always acknowledged.[3]  It will be Ibn Sīnā’s works, however, that will certainly be of primary importance in the Andalus (Islamic Spain).

His emanationist metaphysic

Ibn Sīnā’s metaphysics do not differ greatly from those of the Brethren of Purity, i.e. all creatures emanate from God, or Necessary Being,[4] in an eternal out-flowing of being.[5]  The first emanation is the Universal Intellect, or the creative mind of God.  After that, Ibn Sīnā posits a slightly different structure.  There is a hierarchy of 9 Intelligences or Angels, each slightly farther from pure being than the one above it, and each one generating its own soul and its own sphere of heaven.  The 10th Intelligence is the Active Intelligence or Agent Intellect.  It generates the World Soul, but it is too far from the source of all being to produce a heaven: it produces matter and the world of nature, which is this world of generation and corruption.  The Agent Intelligence is the giver of forms to this world.[6]

The universe could therefore be seen as 10 spheres enclosing each other.  The smallest, at the centre, is our world, with its Agent Intelligence and World Soul; encompassing it are the 7 planetary spheres and the 2 outer spheres (that of the fixed stars and, above that, the primum mobile, which gives movement to the whole universe).  As in much Christian Neoplatonism, these 9 celestial spheres are attached to the 9 ranks of angel (from the lowest, angels, to the highest, cherubim or seraphim, – which of these should be given precedence differs in different traditions).

On the soul (psychology)

On the soul, Ibn Sīnā gives an illustration to answer the question: how can the World Soul produce three different kinds of soul, vegetative, animal and rational?  The World Soul is compared to fire.  Fire is one and indivisible; but it acts on different materials in different ways, according to the different properties of those materials.  Some it warms; some it illuminates; some it burns.  Similarly, the World Soul can engender a vegetative or an animal or a rational soul, depending on the receiving material.[7]  Of these, only the rational soul is immortal, but Ibn Sīnā does not believe, like the Brethren of Purity, in the transmigration of souls.  At death, the soul is separated from the body, but retains its individuality.[8]

The human soul has two aspects or faces.  The practical, worldly or corporeal face looks down towards the body and the material world, because the soul has to understand them and care for them.  The theoretical, spiritual or angelic face looks upwards to the ideal forms for inspiration, and to the Agent Intelligence for illumination.[9]  These two faces can be represented by the figures of Salāmān and Absāl, whom Ibn Sīnā often uses as types of the active and contemplative sides of human nature.[10]

Ibn Sīnā always stresses that there must be two levels of religion, for these two basic psychological types.  For the majority of people, the severe self-control and prolonged intellectual effort of the contemplative life are inappropriate.  Such people need to be told what to do by a prophet, who has received the full illumination of the Active Intelligence.  A prophet can give them as much as they can hope to assimilate of the divine revelation, in the form of infallible moral laws, backed by divine sanctions.[11]

Sometimes Ibn Sīnā expands this division of humankind, from two categories into three.  Firstly, there is the believer, who worships according to the accepted cult and is satisfied with rituals and externals.  Secondly, there is the ascetic, who renounces the world, and who tries to make himself worthy of God’s care.  Finally, there is the gnostic or contemplative, who needs to understand everything and who hopes to experience God in himself and to be filled with his light.[12]

The first two try, in their very different ways, to win future rewards through present investment.  Those in the third group encompass all three methods: they use piety and asceticism in order to receive an overwhelming and enlightening vision, which then reinforces their desire for holiness.[13]

The possibility of mystical ascent

Ibn Sīnā knows that, in this third group, the individual works hard to purify his soul, so that it is ready to accept the light of truth when it is offered.  Once that soul realises that it can tear itself away from mundane concerns, it can rise through the angelic hierarchy of intelligence.[14]  (The word ‘intelligence’ is used to mean something both spiritual and intellectual: ‘understanding’ seems to provide a good meaning for it, in contrast to ‘intellect,’ which usually refers to a purely rational mental faculty.)  Some will only manage to comprehend the perfect forms that exist in the Active Intelligence;[15] others will ascend to the spiritual illumination of mystical experience.

He has a lot to say about prayer, which should be central to the religious lives of all men, whether they are ascetics, believers or contemplatives.  Prayer is the way by which an ordinary believer is led to an appreciation of the more inward and spiritual meaning of things, because it helps the soul to free itself from bodily encumbrances.[16]  How can corporeal, finite man converse with the infinite and the divine?  It can only be done if an individual is able, temporarily, to raise his soul above the corporeal and finite.  What he calls this inner form of prayer, or “interior devotion”, will enable him to

“contemplate God with a pure heart and a spirit abstracted and cleansed of all desires.”[17]

His writings do not give a clear indication as to how far he is speaking from his own experiences.  Some assume that the illumination he received was only intellectual.  What is certain is that, in his system, the vision of the mystics is, of all blessings, the most desirable and the most valuable.  This is what wise men should be seeking.[18]

In al-Ishārāt, he describes the mystic way as a graded and coherent ascent, and he takes this description from Sufi tradition.[19]  (This may be divided into seven stages, although he does not number them himself.)  The initiate must first have the will to direct his life to seeking for God.  The second stage is that of purgation and self-discipline, purifying the soul from corporeal ties.  Next, there

“appear to the gnostic, flashes of the Divine Light,”[20]

which bring joy, but are short-lived.  As they become more frequent, he sees God in all things.  The next stage is one of peace and quietude, when the brief lightning flashes have become a perpetually shining flame.  He is now accustomed to God’s presence.  As he becomes transfigured by his contemplation of God, so he is alienated from his old selfishness, and his soul becomes more and more like a polished mirror, reflecting the face of God.  Finally his individual self is naughted in God:

“He passes away from himself.”[21]

This is the apogee of individual progress, the highest state to which humanity may aspire.  In Ibn Sīnā’s eyes, the Sufi holds the final key to human perfection and religious fulfilment.

“When he has come to this, he has attained complete union with God.”[22]

The mystical tales attributed to Ibn Sīnā

Whatever the relationship may have been between Ibn Sīnā’s religious writings and his own experience, he was acutely conscious that his whole religious and philosophical position needed to be much more inclusive.  It was too heavily dependent on Greek science, and on Judaeo-Christian and Islamic scriptures, which had all been developed in the same monotheist culture.  At times he referred to this system as his ‘occidental philosophy’, and suggested that it needed to be complemented by an ‘oriental philosophy’, which would bring in the wisdom of the East.[23]  Some commentators think that this ‘oriental philosophy’ would have been an esoteric initiation, to help his readers to progress beyond his own carefully rational system.  Others think that his ‘oriental philosophy’ is to be found in the mystical tales that are attributed to him.[24]  Two of them, which are ascribed to him by the earliest references (and which quickly made their way into the Andalus) will be briefly considered here.

The Recital of Hayy ibn Yaqzān

The first is not really a story, more an imaginative attempt to describe psychological states and philosophical theories.  It is called the Recital of Hayy ibn Yaqzān.  I shall use the interpretation in the commentary by Ibn Sīnā’s Persian disciple, al-Jūzjānī.  The narrator (who symbolises the soul) meets a wise man, who is full of experience, is constantly on the move, shows no signs of ageing, and inhabits the “most holy dwelling”.  He gives every sign of being part of the Divinity.  His name is Hayy ibn Yaqzān, which means Living, son of Watchful.

At first, Hayy spends a lot of time helping the narrator to control his three unruly companions.  These three companions symbolise imagination, anger and greed, – faculties of the rational, animal and vegetative souls, in that order.  It becomes clear that Hayy is the Active Intelligence, working within the individual (a Christian would call him the Holy Spirit), – which is why he is forever journeying (because he is present in all humans everywhere).[25]

Hayy describes to the narrator two unknown worlds.  If one could journey beyond the Occident, one would find a vast muddy sea and a dry salt desert, where all crops fail, all creatures are monstrous, and all buildings crumble.  This is the abominable world of matter without proper form, of chaos before creation, of hell.

Beyond the Orient, however, one would find a spiritual world of form without matter, of the angels in their celestial spheres, where the righteous souls enjoy their beatitude.  This is the heavenly paradise that all humans should be striving towards.  If the journey were to be completed, it would end in a vision of “the King”, but that would be so bright that it would be blinding.  What is to be sought is a place of proximity, which will give the soul a beatific vision.[26]

“Sometimes certain solitaries among men emigrate toward Him.  So much sweetness does He give them to experience that they bow under the weight of His graces […] and when they return from His palace, they return laden with mystical gifts.”[27]

Hayy ibn Yaqzān ends his discourse (to the soul) by saying:

“Now, if thou wilt, follow me. Come with me toward Him.”[28]

The Recital of Salāmān and Absāl

The second tale is the Recital of Salāmān and Absāl, which is a transformation of an original Hermetic story with that title.  Jūzjānī mentioned that Ibn Sīnā had written his own version, and Ibn Sīnā certainly referred to such a version in several of his works, without any indication, one way or the other, as to whether he was the author.[29]

Salāmān’s wife falls in love with Salāmān’s brother, Absāl. The latter avoids the situation by going off to war, conquering lands for his brother and making him a famous king.  Salāmān’s wife, who is again rejected by Absāl on his return, bribes the cook and the majordomo to kill Absāl, by giving him a poisoned drink.  When Salāmān finds out what they have done, he forces his wife, the cook and the majordomo to drink their own poison, and then he abdicates and goes into a retreat.[30]

The following interpretation is taken from the commentary of the philosopher and Arabist, Henry Corbin.  The story is about one individual, Salāmān, whose spiritual side (Absāl) always does what is right, is always there to help and is constantly trying to bring this person to perfection (kingship).  The individual is, however, in constant danger from his animal appetites and emotions, symbolised by the wife and her servants, the cook (greed) and the majordomo (anger).  When they poison the faithful and helpful brother, this is an indication of the power that humans allow to their appetites and emotions; it shows how dangerous they can be.  Finally, Salāmān mortifies his lower nature (by punishing the wife and servants).  At last he can begin to live a new spiritual life.[31]

His final years

The Recital of Hayy ibn Yaqzān was written in prison, after the death of his patron in Hamadhān.  When Ibn Sīnā was released, he fled to the court at Isfahān, where he spent the remaining 14 years of his life.  Here he did original work in science, particularly astronomy, finished many of his great summaries of knowledge, and could at last enjoy himself.  For a very able and arrogant man, it had been quite a frustrating life; but at last, at Isfahān, he had security and honour, and could devote himself to learning.[32]

His great contribution, as far as this history is concerned, is that he put the Sufi on the topmost rung of his hierarchy of worth; he made mystical experience something to be admired, openly discussed and honoured, rather than to be hidden, feared or persecuted.  Admittedly, this was not the case throughout Islam; but for about a century, Sufi mysticism was allowed open encouragement in many areas.

Ibn Sīnā’s books were not just important in the development of Islamic thought; the impact that their translation had in Europe has ensured that his Latinised name is known throughout the rest of the world, where he is called Avicenna.  As he has made a universally recognised synthesis of medieval Islamic Neoplatonist, Sufi and Neopythagorean thought, I shall use the convenient term ‘Avicennism’ from now on to describe such a philosophical position, whether it is found among Muslims, Jews or, later, Christians.



[1] S.M.Afnan (B.87) pp.39-56; L.Gardet: Quelques aspects… (B.89) p.537; A.M.Goichon: La philosophie… (B.72) p.13.
[2] S.M.Afnan (B.87) pp.57-78; A.J.Arberry in G.M.Wickens (B.87) pp.11-26.
[3] M.Fakhry (B.81) p.47.
[4] This just means that God’s being is not dependent (contingent) on any other being.
[5] O.Chahine (B.89) pp.118-121; A.M.Goichon: La philosophie… (B.72) pp.23-32.
[6] L.Gardet: La pensée… (B.89) pp.117-8; S.H.Nasr: Three Muslim Sages… (B.81) pp.29-30.
[7] F.Rahman (B.88) pp.66-68.
[8] Ibid. pp.57-64.
[9] J.Weinberg: Short History… (B.87) p.119.
[10] A.M.Goichon: Livre des directives et remarques (B.88) pp.484-5.
[11] A.F.Mehren: Traités… (B.88) vol.2, p.12; A.M.Goichon: op.cit. pp.488-490.
[12] A.F.Mehren: op.cit. vol.2, p.11.
[13] A.M.Goichon: Livre des directives et remarques (B.88) pp.484-490.
[14] L.Gardet: La pensée… (B.89) pp.159-160.
[15] ibid. pp.120-1.
[16] A.F.Mehren: Traités… (B.88) vol.3, pp.18-21; A.J.Arberry: Avicenna… (B.88) pp.56-59.
[17] Translated by A.J.Arberry: Avicenna… (B.88), p.57, from the Treatise on Prayer.
[18] L.Gardet: La pensée… (B.89) pp.192-3; S.M.Afnan (B.87) pp.194-5; A.M.Goichon: Livre des directives… (B.88) p. 483; L.Gardet: La connaissance… (B.89) p.48.
[19] A.M.Goichon: Livre des directives… (B.88) pp.491-7; A.F.Mehren: Traités… (B.88) pp.13-14.
[20] M.Smith: Readings… (B.79) p.48, translating from al-Ishārāt, part 2 sect.9.  For a French translation, see A.M.Goichon: Livre des directives…(B.88) p.493.
[21] ibid. p.48; French transl. p.496.
[22] ibid. p.49; Fr. transl. p.498: “…aboutissant à l’Unique. […] Que quiconque aime à s’en informer en franchisse les degrés jusqu’à devenir l’un des intuitifs, l’un de ceux qui arrivent à la source.”  For the whole section (al-Ishārāt, part 2, sect.9) see Goichon: Livre des directives… (B.88) pp.483-501.
[23] S.Pines: La philosophie orientale… (B.89) pp.9-11.
[24] ibid. pp.24-29;  S.M.Afnan (B.87) p.188.
[25] H.Corbin: Avicenna and the Visionary Recital (B.88) pp.137-141 and pp.285-307.
[26] ibid. pp.141-150 and pp.319-380.
[27] ibid. p.150; transl. into English by W.R.Trask from chap.24 of the Recital of Hayy ibn Yaqzān.
[28] ibid. p.150, from chap.25.
[29] H.Corbin: Avicenna and the Visionary Recital (B.88) pp.204-5.  (The Hermetic version can be found on pp.210-217.)
[30] ibid. pp.223-226.
[31] ibid. pp.227-230.
[32] S.M.Afnan (B.87) pp.70-78.

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