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May 10, 2017
Is the Matter of Metaphysics Immaterial? Yes and No
When God wills a thing, God says, “Be,” and it is.
– Qur’an 36:82
God was, and there was nothing with God.
– Prophet Muĥammad ﷺ
Being is the essence of the Divine Being.
– Abū al-Ĥasan al-Ash¢arī
It would be easily understandable if someone became so annoyed at all these false notions that for the rest of his life he despised and mocked all the talk about being—but, in this way, he would be deprived of the truth of existence and would suffer a great loss.
The Greek word philosophia is composed of two words: philo, which means “love,” and sophia, which is the highest of Aristotle’s five intellectual virtues—speculative wisdom, as opposed to prudence, or practical wisdom. The pursuit of philosophy—essentially a process of asking, and seeking answers to, questions about the most fundamental issues concerning our world and ourselves—has been a universal quest across time and place. All peoples philosophize to greater or lesser degrees; those who don’t either look to others knowingly to philosophize for them, or unwittingly imbibe the philosophies of others. Unfortunately, philosophy, once the honored servant of theology, now barely serves itself. Hence, most religions no longer produce exemplary thinkers who can protect and defend their faiths with the time-tested tools of philosophy, and most believers no longer ask the central questions about our world, let alone seek their answers. Religion is reduced, at best, to “blind faith” and, at worst, to fanatical conformity that often leads to enmity towards those outside their faith and even virulent violence towards those within and without. A revival of philosophy—and, in particular, metaphysics—is crucial for a restoration of genuine faith fortified with reason and genuine civilization that cultivates care for the common good.
“Metaphysics” was a term used in the first century B.C. by Andronicus of Rhodes, the editor of Aristotle’s works, to refer to Aristotle’s treatise on theology, which Andronicus had placed immediately after Aristotle’s book on physics: The term literally means “what follows physics” and simply identified the book’s physical location. The label, however, stuck. Over time, it came to mean “the study of what is beyond the physical world.” Aristotle himself referred to the subject at times as “theology” and at others as “the first philosophy,” given its pursuit of the first causes of things, not to mention its ranking, in his estimation, as the most important human pursuit among our varied intellectual endeavors.
The metaphysician seeks to understand being—or existence—as being, unlike the physicist, who wants to understand being as physical objects in motion, or the mathematician, who explores being as abstracted quantities, or the natural scientist, who studies being in all the diversity of its animate and inanimate species. The metaphysician also attempts to understand the various types of being, including the immaterial—in the realm of realities beyond matter, such as God, angels, the human soul, and the experiential world of non-quantifiable quality.
Metaphysics is also the science of abstraction: the attempt to grasp the nature of things in their immaterial and universal essences. (The physical sciences, in this way, have a metaphysical dimension in that their universal laws are statements about essence abstracted from particular instances.) Metaphysics aims to understand first principles, including those of causation itself, its nature, scope, and limits. This invariably means it investigates the contents of our minds, including our presuppositions (all that we assume or take for granted), how it is that we perceive the world, and the effects of those presuppositions on our active life, which are left unexamined by most people—hence, Socrates’ famous dictum, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”1
Ultimately, then, metaphysics reveals a method of analysis to understand problems from first principles, which then allows the challenges that those problems present to be addressed at their causative levels—at their hidden roots, not just their visible branches. In this way, metaphysics precedes method.
Over a millennium after Aristotle, “the Proof of Islam,” Imam Abū Ĥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 505/1111), perhaps Islam’s greatest theoretical jurist, theologian, and intellectual, concluded that “theology” (meaning metaphysics) is the only universal science, writing in his last and most original and significant work, al-Mustaśfā:
The only universal knowledge among the religious sciences is theology, and all the other sciences, such as law and jurisprudence, prophetic tradition, and exegesis, are particular sciences.… It is the theologian [metaphysician] alone who ponders the most general of things: that is being itself.… Revelation does not present anything that contradicts reason, but it does present matters that are inaccessible to unaided reason. For instance, the intellect alone cannot determine that obedience to divine law is a means to salvation in the afterlife, or that disobedience can result in damnation, but it cannot judge it to be inconceivable either. One can also determine that miracles necessitate the veracity of one who is able to perform a miracle as a proof of his truthfulness. So, if the Messenger ﷺ tells us of such, it is the intellect that verifies this by way of it. This is what theology contains.
You should know from the above that one should begin one’s intellectual journey in the most universal of things first, and that is being. Then one should move from there by degrees to the particulars that we have mentioned, and, by that, one can establish the first principles of all the other religious sciences, including the Book, the Sunnah, and the veracity of the Messenger ﷺ…. So theology is the most exalted knowledge in rank, given that all other particulars proceed from it.2
Never in our history have Muslim scholars posited that revelation alone (sola scriptura) is enough, as opposed to revelation illumined by reason and tradition (prima scriptura).
Given the fallibility of the human intellect on one hand and humanity’s propensity for self-delusion on the other, scholars understood that intellectual training—in essence, a spiritual discipline—was a prerequisite to a sound understanding of revelation. The condition of human responsibility vis-à-vis revelation is intellect (¢aql in Arabic); intellect is imperative for faith and moral agency. Hence, enhancing the intellect’s ability to receive and realize the gift of revelation has always been at the center of Islamic learning. The scholars also believed that it is training in philosophy, more than in any other discipline, that hones and refines the intellect’s ability to reason well, and metaphysics and mathematics were at the heart of that training.
Muslims always recognized that rationality was a major part of faith and aided in its substantiation. This necessary symbiosis between reason and revelation provides a sturdy balance that protects people from both falling away from faith through an unexamined reliance on fallible reason and falling into provincial fanaticism through a faith that fails to employ reason. Faith and reason (naql and ¢aql in the Islamic tradition) are the two wings on which a believer takes flight; lacking either, he is like a bird with a broken wing, floundering on the ground in purposeless paralysis, agitated and helpless.
The two extremes of prioritizing faith over reason, as in the staunch traditionalist schools, and prioritizing reason over faith, as in the schismatic school of the Mu¢tazilah, emerged early in Islamic history as a dialectic that found its resolution in the moderate Sunni tradition, which provided the balance between the two. For example, where a literal reading of a revealed text leads to rational inconceivability or contradicts a scientific certainty, the tradition will place reason over a literalist reading and move to a figurative understanding of the text. One example is the famous tradition, “The Black Stone is the Hand of God on earth”: A literal reading would lead to an absurdity, as it is inconceivable that God has a physical hand contained in time and space, both creations of God.
Reason was also enlisted in understanding the two revelations of nature and scripture. Muslims understood that God’s self-revelation was twofold: the composed Qur’an (al-kitāb al-tadwīnī) and the cosmic Qur’an (al-kitāb al-takwīnī). Hence, the natural sciences were pursued with zeal because they were seen as a source of religious knowledge that strengthened one’s faith; Imam al-Ghazālī argues that the study of anatomy and physiology is among the greatest means of fortifying faith. Pre-modern Muslims, unlike their modern counterparts, saw design everywhere, and behind it a Designer (al-muśawwir). They knew it was necessary to explore the advances and discoveries of previous civilizations and incorporate them into their own body of knowledge. Like the leading thinkers of Western civilization today, Muslim intellectuals were great syncretists, which gave them an advantage over more provincial civilizations with xenophobic attitudes toward foreign cultures. Robust debates took place between the nascent Muslim culture and the preceding civilizations and their sciences, especially the Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian traditions.
The Prophet ﷺ had instructed his followers to “seek knowledge even in China,” and he taught them that, “Wisdom is the lost vehicle of the believer. Wherever he finds it, he has more right to it.” Thus, after discovering the richness of the Greek and Persian wisdom traditions, they were quick to integrate the best of what each had to offer into their studies.
Modern philosophy, by and large, has abandoned the pursuits of earlier metaphysics for a number of reasons. At the heart of the matter is the ancient debate about universals themselves, a conflict between the essentialist approach of the “realists” or “moderate realists” committed to what became known as the via antigua (the “old path”), and the nominalist approach committed to the via moderna (the “modern path”), championed by William of Ockham (d. 1347) in the Christian world, and arguably by Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 728/1328) in the Muslim world.8 Increasingly in Europe, philosophy and theology parted ways, and the “handmaiden of the queen of sciences,” untethered from theology, was now free to establish her own dominion, with a special emphasis on the empirical sciences; this, of course, failed to recognize that replicable subjective experience is also soundly empirical. Eventually, the overarching project of fortifying faith with reason, which had so preoccupied philosophers in the past, was largely relinquished. Only in the Catholic tradition and Eastern Islam did some vestiges of this project remain.
Unfortunately, the term “metaphysics” has been highly contested for some time now, its meaning ranging from new age occultism to David Hume’s famous assessment:
If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, “Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number?” No. “Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence?” No. Commit it then to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.9
Today, religious sciences are entirely divorced from “worldly” sciences, and the physical sciences are, in turn, divorced from the ethical considerations of the religious sciences. Here lies the root of our current crisis: In the West, we have elevated a particular type of reason and divorced it entirely from revelation, and, in the Muslim world, Muslims have rightly elevated revelation but largely divorced it from reason, which grants it a sound metaphysical foundation. Muslims long ago abandoned philosophy, both speculative and empirical branches and their concomitant pursuits, and of late have naively adopted Western science and its concomitant technologies, laden as it is with materialistic metaphysical assumptions; little or no thought has been given to the personal and societal upheaval such wholesale importation of these technologies might have on peoples and places. In this, they have failed to grasp something fundamental and consequential: Western science cannot be divorced from its metaphysics. The two are inseparable. It is their metaphysics that produced their science, and if one adopts a civilization’s science without understanding that it is the product of a particular worldview, one is unwittingly adopting that civilization with all of its attributes, including its social and spiritual ailments. This is not a critique of science; on the contrary, it is an affirmation that science is worthwhile when it serves a society, and it can only serve a society when its embedded assumptions are spiritually sound, but this can be ascertained only if those assumptions are fully revealed and understood. It is only then that a society can make a conscious choice about those assumptions and whether they are compatible with its own worldview, values, and religious traditions; if they are not compatible, they will suffocate and suppress the pre-existing ones. In many ways, the embrace of Western science and its inherently materialist worldview has taken a toll not just on Muslim societies but on the entire planet and its inhabitants, even its flora and fauna.
The moral concerns of a culture are too often set aside in the current pursuit of scientism and the worship of the idol of progress. Ethics, in particular, is impoverished when metaphysics is ignored. In America and in European countries, and in their satellite societies that have adopted Western science wholesale, we find certain humanistic ethical considerations based mostly upon utilitarian concerns, but their proponents offer no sound rational method of determining what is ethical and what is not. Currently in the West, it is the Catholic Church alone that maintains a rigorous ethical approach that is rooted in metaphysical principles, but that metaphysical foundation is not easily accessible to lay people, and the Church has lost its centrality in the lives of many believers. As such, the results of the Church’s rigorous ethical reasoning are often ignored by many of its adherents, who decide for themselves what path to take—which is the essence of heresy (from the Greek, “to choose for oneself”).
In the Muslim world, the current ethical concerns are not approached methodically. The philosophical tools that enable scholars to do so are rarely taught, and, when they are, it is usually without the depth and rigor necessary for crafting creative responses to ethical and other challenges. Even theology, when taught in the major Islamic learning centers, is mostly a truncated version, denuded of the deep metaphysical insights of its earlier practitioners. By the nineteenth century, students at Al-Azhar University in Cairo and other institutions were being handed highly reductive summaries of profoundly complex theological works; most did not have the requisite background to understand the content of such works.
This intellectual, moral, spiritual—and invariably political and economic—decay left Muslims with an utter inability to respond creatively to the current civilizational challenges, something that past generations had been able to do when faced with crisis. In the absence of such effective responses, Muslim societies were overwhelmed by the challenges and increasingly fell into disarray and self-destructive reactionary modes. Invariably, this prompted criticism from unlearned malcontents within the society. New narratives were put forth to explain the malaise of Muslim societies, placing the blame squarely on the abandonment of “worldly” sciences and on the scholars who emphasized spirituality and “otherworldliness,” all of which were seen as having blunted the competitive edge of Muslims vis-à-vis their historical rivals in Europe, culminating in the colonization of Muslim lands. Undeniably, some truth resides in this reasoning, but the primary cause of the decline, it seems, was the drift away from the philosophical method of inquiry in the metaphysical and physical sciences, both of which had flourished in the early period of Muslim dynamism.
This profound decline, and the colonization and subjugation of the Muslim lands at the hands of peoples many previously held in sheer contempt, sired a fateful turn in the late nineteenth century: Muslim societies became obsessed with mastering material sciences, especially engineering and medicine. The best intellects were often encouraged to pursue those fields with utter disregard for the social sciences—not just history and sociology but also the more important sciences of language and philosophy, both natural (using inductive reasoning) and speculative (using mostly the deductive method). All the major branches of learning suffered with this monomaniacal and ultimately quixotic quest, which ironically caused a brain-drain in the Muslim world due to Western universities that aggressively pursued “social sciences” resulting in a dearth of engineers and doctors in their societies. The Muslim and Hindu obsession with those professions filled this void in the West with an influx of immigrants. Again, with a strange twist of irony, the people in the West who often manage and oversee those recruited doctors and engineers usually have backgrounds in subjects such as history, political science, international relations, business management, and philosophy.
Advanced technology and the holy grail of transhumanism (with its utopian promises of a “more perfect” humanoid) are thrust upon us as a solution, yet these are no panacea for what ails us; they bring new problems of their own. The remedy we need is wisdom (sophia, ĥikmah). In the classical world, wisdom stood above two other intellectual virtues: understanding and science. When understanding (true first principles) and science (our body of acquired and accurate knowledge) work in tandem, wisdom is the outcome. Given the vast power for death and destruction that the human hand now wields, our manifold crises demand wise responses rooted in a real understanding of the sources of those crises: their spiritual, moral, and intellectual foundations. Our problems are not material: With our abundance of goods, we have a scarcity of goodness; our miraculous inventions multiply by the day, but our psychological returns diminish by the hour; we have vast and pervasive means of communication but a tragic breakdown and loss of real community. These problems are rooted in the human heart and nowhere else, and it is only there where solutions reside. But we must first learn to know our hearts. Seeking that knowledge was the obsession of sages and saints of previous civilizations, and they bequeathed to us great wisdom, experience, and strategies for its realization.
For Muslims, it should be obvious that our civilization is moribund and beleaguered; and, while it may well be the last theocentric culture in the world, it has undeniably lost its spiritual compass. That compass is imbedded in its revelation but can only be accessed with realized reason. The tools necessary to refine the hearts and minds that can restore that compass lie dormant in our great tradition. They are hidden in plain sight and await an awakening. The way forward is to look back before proceeding. As the sages stated, “Stop where they stopped, and then proceed.” In the Qur’anic story of the Seven Sleepers is great wisdom and part of an antidote to the age of the Anti-Christ: They fled persecution to a cave; after a mystical hibernation, they awoke and re-entered a world that was much changed. The Muslim community has slumbered long in a cave of its own creation. It is time to arise, awaken, and rediscover and renew our tradition; it is as authentic and applicable today as it was when it was the envy of the world. That awakening begins with being, simply being.
Do you believe the loss of metaphysics is the reason for the decline of faith in our times?
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