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In An Essay on Man, the eighteenth-century British poet Alexander Pope offers a succinct formulation of an age-old philosophical doctrine about reality. This doctrine, which Arthur Lovejoy refers to as the “great chain of being,” maintains that existence is hierarchical and organically linked, structured as it is upon the descending degrees of being. Reality begins with and proceeds from God, the Supreme Being, and ends in the most miniscule and discrete kinds of beings. Each thing in the cosmos, including the cosmos itself, forms a vital link with the other parts of this great chain. In Pope’s words,
Vast chain of being, which from God began,
Natures ethereal, human, angel, man,
Beast, bird, fish, insect! what no eye can see,
No glass can reach! from infinite to thee,
From thee to nothing!—On superior pow’rs
Were we to press, inferior might on ours:
Or in the full creation leave a void,
Where, one step broken, the great scale’s destroy’d:
From nature’s chain whatever link you strike,
Tenth or ten thousandth, breaks the chain alike.1
Pope did not write An Essay on Man to make a philosophical argument about the great chain of being but as a way to rhetorically persuade readers to acknowledge the purposefulness of human life, the relativity of evil, man’s inability to know the ways of God, and, ultimately, God’s absolute justice and goodness.
Now, what would a philosophical argument that advances the notion of the great chain of being look like? There are many ways this cosmic picture can be explicated, and the Islamic intellectual tradition provides a sophisticated philosophical exposition that arguably influenced medieval Christian thought through the medium of the Latin scholastic tradition.2 This means Pope’s formulation may be indebted to Islamic metaphysics in some fashion.
The term “Islamic metaphysics” characterizes a tradition that seeks to approach “divine matters” (ilāhiyyāt) from a variety of intellectual and spiritual vantage points. Muslim metaphysicians have always sought to discern and explain the nature of God, the structure of the cosmos, and the “situation” of the human soul in the cosmos in light of the divine nature in whose image it has been created. In short, Islamic metaphysics can be called “the science of the Real, and the real science.”3
The basic starting point of Islamic metaphysics is the given-ness of the situation of existence or being (wujūd)—there are things that exist, what we call “existents” (mawjūdāt). Now, what is their mode of existence? That is, how do they exist? Have some of them always been there, with other existents coming later? This inquiry leads us to the question of what causes things to exist.
But first, we need to clarify two key terms: “necessary” (wājib) and “possible” or "contingent" (mumkin). For example, if a person exists, we know that she has come to be in the world through the union of her parents. But if her parents ceased to exist, she would still be alive. This is because her parents are accidental causes, not essential causes, and her continued existence does not depend on the subsistence of her parents; the child’s sustenance is actually dependent on other factors, such as her cells. Her cellular structure, in turn, depends upon molecules, which depend upon atoms, and so on.4 In other words, her existence is in reality necessary through many other layers of simultaneous, sustaining causes.
As should be clear, her existence is not necessary in itself. Rather, it is possible, or contingent, and necessary through another. She could just as well not have existed, but when all the right factors came together, and she came to be, what sustained her was the simultaneous and causal presence of a host of other things.
This is true of all things that exist: each is possible in itself and necessary through other simultaneously existing, sustaining causes. If all things are part of an essentially ordered series of causes, then what is the ultimate cause of this series? It is impossible to have an infinite regress of essential causes because there cannot be derived things that exist that themselves are ultimately underived. This, then, means there is a cause that is neither possible in itself nor necessary through another; rather, it is necessary in itself and is the cause of all other causes. That which is necessary in itself must exist, and do so without a cause because it is the cause of all other causes. All other things ultimately depend upon it for their existence. This being is referred to as the Necessary Being (wājib al-wujūd)—namely God—and is akin to Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover.5
In such a cosmic picture, being is the basis of all reality. Each thing that exists is an individual being, and it is also there by virtue of being as such. Even though we know of this ever-present reality of being, because we are also individual beings, we are unable to get at the reality of being as such. As the thirteenth/nineteenth-century philosopher Mullā Hādī Sabziwārī (d. 1289/1873) puts it,
Being’s concept is amongst the best-known of things.
Yet its reality lies in utter obscurity.6
The Persian philosopher and mystic Mullā Śadrā (d. 1050/1640) adds greater clarity to the problem:
The reality of being is the most manifest of all things through presence and unveiling, and its quiddity7is the most hidden among things conceptually and in its inner reality. Of all things, its concept is the least in need of definition on account of its manifestness and clarity, and on account of its being the most general among all concepts in its comprehensiveness. Its identity is the most particular of all particular things in both its determination and concreteness, since through it all that is concretized is concretized, all that is realized is realized, and all that is determined is determined and particularized. Being is particularized through its own essence, and is determined through itself.8
Let us unpack the implications of the texts just cited. The concept (mafhūm) of being is among “the best-known of things,” which is to say that the idea of being occurs to all of us naturally or self-evidently because we are mired in it and are ourselves “beings.” Yet seeking to understand its reality (ĥaqīqah) is a more difficult task. Where is being so that we can define it and trap it into a conceptual grid amenable to analysis? We can point to individual instances of being—that is, to beings, including ourselves—but none of this reveals being as such.
Providing a definition of being requires grounding that definition in the reality of being itself. It is a basic logical axiom that a definition cannot contain the term that it seeks to define. So where is being? It is everywhere, and it is also nowhere because its reality is not completely manifest, or as Sabziwārī puts it, “its reality lies in utter obscurity.”
This is because the word being (or existence) is a synonymous term, not a homonymous term. That is, the word “being” can and does apply to any and all things. If we say that a car exists, or a building exists, or God exists, we are using the same word to denote the same meaning in each of these contexts. The contrary view, that the term “being” is homonymous, implies that when we say a car exists, a building exists, or God exists, we actually mean different things, even if the term “exists” is present in each of these statements.
A potential argument against the idea that being is a synonymous term is advanced by Śadrā’s opponent Mullā Rajab ʿAlī Tabrīzī (d. 1080/1669). He views such a position as a category mistake: the word being, when applied to God, is different from the word being when applied to everything other than God. There can be no sharing of the term when it is predicated (or asserted) of God and contingent things.9
An answer to this objection is that what we actually witness are modes of being, and being in its deployment (al-wujūd al-munbasiţ) has various grades not only when it is predicated of a particular subject, but in its reality itself. In this view, being remains a term that has both gradations and actual unity. Thus, it is a term that applies to God and to everything else (synonymy), but in varying degrees of its meaning; the cosmos therefore consists of the various degrees of intensity and diminution of being (modes of being).
Another way of framing this—because being is identified with light by some major schools of Islamic metaphysics—is to say that all things are rays of God’s light, albeit some rays being stronger than others.10 The reality of being, however, is identified as the aspect of God that does not manifest Itself, or what is called in Islamic philosophy “absolutely unconditioned being” (wujūd lā bi-sharţ maqsamī). It is as if the sun as such never manifests itself but only its rays do. Another term for being in its state of non-manifestation is “essence of exclusive oneness” (al-dhāt al-aĥadiyyah).11 Such notions explicitly ensure that this kind of metaphysics never amounts to a form of pantheism, despite the concerns of some theologians.12 Furthermore, because the order of time, change, and causation is only related to being when It manifests, change is never introduced into the divine nature. As the sage Maĥmūd Shabistarī (d. 740/1339) puts it in his Persian metaphysical poem The Rosegarden of Mystery (Gulshan-i rāz),
“Since God’s Light neither moves nor transforms,
It is not affected by alteration and change.”13
Consciousness as a Path to God
The fundamental insights to be drawn from the great chain of consciousness can help us solve a number of pressing contemporary problems. For example, we can engage the environmental crisis and go beyond the usual legal, economic, and social spheres; we can understand people as conscious beings who are encouraged to protect other conscious beings placed in their trust.40 If, for example, we believe a tree has consciousness, not just biological life, and that it participates in the same awareness, being, life, and consciousness as humans, we would likely feel more responsible about our custodianship over it.41
The great chain of consciousness allows us to discern the multiple orders of consciousness that result from the manifestation of the Supreme Consciousness. This can lead to a gradual awakening in an individual to not only the reality of the abstract concept of being, but also to the concrete and all-pervading reality of consciousness. With this realization, one can tie the seemingly disparate orders of reality together, seeing them as so many manifestations of the One Consciousness, whose beautiful Face remains hidden behind the tresses of its modes of manifestation (i.e., the myriad forms of individual consciousness).42
Through much study, a good deal of help, self-purification (tazkiyah), and the invocation and remembrance of God (dhikr),43 the bird of the soul can take flight, intensifying in consciousness along the way, and thereby becoming more real and aware. Here, obtaining self-knowledge and remembering God are paramount, as they help engender heightened awareness of the presence of God and of one’s true nature. For some of the great Muslim metaphysicians, such as Mullā Śadrā, individuals are only as “real” as their self-knowledge and remembrance of God, which results in their awareness of God and hence God’s “awareness” and remembrance of them:
Since forgetfulness of God is the cause of forgetfulness of self, remembering the self will necessitate God’s remembering the self, and God’s remembering the self will itself necessitate the self’s remembering itself: Remember Me and I will remember you (Q 2:152). God’s remembering the self is identical with the self’s existence, since God’s knowledge is presential (ĥuđūrī) with all things. Thus, he who does not have knowledge of self, his self does not have existence, since the self’s existence is identical with light, presence, and awareness (shuʿūr).44
Continuing its flight upward, the bird of the soul eventually exposes itself to the possibility of lifting its own partial consciousness from the cosmic scene as a seemingly other, knowing agent in order to behold the reality of Consciousness itself. It is to this that Ĥāfiż (d. 792/1390) alludes when he draws on another synonym for consciousness in texts of Islamic metaphysics, namely love. He offers sound advice for all conscious beings and lovers, wherever they may be along the journey back to their Beloved:
“Between the lover and Beloved there is no barrier.
Ĥāfiż, you yourself are the veil. So lift what stands in between!”45