Ibn Sina's philosophy is a call to open our minds and hearts to the truth which encompasses our existence and the holy month of Ramadan is an opportunity to heed this call
Ibn Sina (980-1037), one of the greatest philosophers of all times, is not the first name that comes to mind for a spiritual reading. After the Quran and hadith, most Muslims turn to popular religious books on ethics and the hereafter or read about the life of Prophet Muhammad and early Islamic history. To many, Ibn Sina appears to be too abstract, too intellectual, perhaps more Greek than Islamic. But a closer look reveals a surprisingly different picture.
Ibn Sina was called the "Prince of the Physicians" for his work in medicine. He was not a jurist or preacher; he was a philosopher par excellence. His writings bear the marks of a first rate mind. What he has to say about the meaning of existence, the purpose of human life, the structure of the universe and its spiritual meaning goes beyond standard philosophy. His conception of existence offers much for serious philosophical and spiritual reflection.
In a section of "Remarks and Admonitions," one of his last works, Ibn Sina compares and contrasts the two perspectives of the philosophers and the mystics (al-arifin). The philosophers obtain knowledge through intellectual investigation and logical demonstration; the mystics through witnessing, experiencing and "tasting." The two modalities of knowing are complementary and lead to veritable knowledge for the mind and heart.
The mind, the seat of logical and scientific knowledge, is not bereft of spiritual taste and ethical refinement. Nor is the heart devoid of intellectual content. Knowledge is not a list of items or an inventory of facts; it is a revelatory and sapiential experience, leading to understanding and salvation.
As the famous story between Ibn Sina and Khaja Abdullah Ansari narrates, the philosopher knows what the mystic sees and the mystic sees what the philosopher knows. "Knowing" and "seeing" are like the two sides of a coin. The goal is to reach the truth based on intellectual rigor on the one hand and spiritual refinement on the other.
Ibn Sina's treatise on love explains one of the most powerful forces in the world of creation. Following his Greek and Islamic predecessors, he explains love in ontological terms: love penetrates everything. It is God's infinite love that has caused the existence of all things. The beauty of things is derived from their form, not matter. What we consider to be beautiful in the human state comes from the beauty of the soul. What makes us unique and worthy is our spiritual beauty. Furthermore, all love is ephemeral except spiritual love - the one love that endures and rises above ugliness and pettiness.
This is all related to Ibn Sina's greatest revolution in the history of philosophy, which was his concept of existence. Our philosopher could not have conceived a situation in which the act of existing was separate from possessing meaning. Being is co-terminus with meaning. Clearly, Ibn Sina took this from the Quranic concept of creation: God did not create anything in vain, says the Quran. Everything exists for a purpose. Meaning is not something we mentally impose on things. It is the other way around: the mind discovers meaning in things through sense experience, analysis and synthesis.
Ibn Sina posits the Necessary Being as the only real being and all else as deriving from it. The Necessary Being is one and does not need another substance for its existence; otherwise we would have an infinite chain of causation. The Necessary Being causes all other beings to exist as "contingent" beings. This suggests that things could have been very different from what they are. They may not have existed at all. But since they exist in a real sense, there must be a reason for the way they are.
Ibn Sina argued for the utter contingency of the world but insisted that this did not make the world a mere illusion. The world is real but in a special sense. By itself, it cannot be self-sufficient. It is a contingent being. Through its connection with a higher principle, however, it becomes immensely important and revelatory because it reflects the wisdom and benevolence of its Creator.
A key premise here is the notion that existence precedes everything. It was on this key premise that Ibn Sina declared that we "are" before we think. Descartes was wrong to say that "I think therefore I am." It is the other way around: I am, therefore I am able to think. The ultimate ground of certainty must be existence, not my mind.
That is why Ibn Sina saw philosophical skepticism as a sort of mental disease. He advices the skeptic who doubts the existence of the world should to leave the philosophy class and see a doctor. He has suggested to throw the skeptic into the cold waters of the Tigris to realize his foolishness. In the 20th century, Wittgenstein agreed in with a more moderate tone: "A doubt without an end is not even a doubt." All this can be attributed to the confidence of medieval realism, which not only believed in the reality of a world independent of our minds but also held that the world is essentially intelligible because it is ultimately derived from existence. This ontological optimism was coupled with the religious outlook of Abrahamic monotheism that conceived the world as a teleological work of art by a benevolent and intelligent artisan.
Ibn Sina's philosophy is a call to open our minds and hearts to the truth which encompasses our existence. It is an invitation to understand reality with a sharp mind and open heart. It is an offer to "think" with the philosopher and "see" with the mystic. It is a plea to understand reality as a whole and know our place in it.What better time than the holy month of Ramadan to heed this call?
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