Ibn Sina About Spirit (Avicenna)
This article covers the thoughts of Ibn Sina about spirit.
Being one of the most famous Muslim philosophers and scientists, Abu ‘Ali ibn Sina influenced almost all thinkers and Sufis who came after him. With his great genius, extraordinary love of science, resolution, and endeavor, he understood ancient philosophers well, and he had sufficient knowledge of the thoughts of such philosophers as al-Kindi and al-Farabi. In his works, he quoted from the philosophers of Ionian, Italy, and Elea, and made references to the thoughts of al-Kindi and al-Farabi as well. Therefore, knowing his ideas also means having knowledge of those of these two philosophers.
According to Ibn Sina, life is the result of feeling, motion, and the spirit. All activities related to consciousness and perception originate in the spirit and life. Nevertheless, the continuous and healthy manifestation of life requires the healthy operation of the physical system or mechanism.
Ibn Sina also discusses three souls or three varieties of the soul. They are the vegetable, animal, and human souls. The vegetable soul has two powers: the power of nourishment and the power of growth. There is also another power which he calls “the power of reproduction,” which serves the continuation of every species. The animal soul has the powers of motion and perception, or the powers that cause motion and perception. The power of motion has sub-powers of cause and agent. We can describe these as the power that causes something to happen and the power of doing it. The power of cause has two faculties: the faculty of desire, or of attractive and repulsive passions, and the faculty of anger, or of defensive passions. He sees the power of the agent, or the power that performs an action, as the origin of physical movements under the influence of the faculties of desire and anger.
Ibn Sina also mentions certain internal senses in addition to the five external ones. They are the common sense (sensus communis: the mental sense or faculty of general perception), which he calls “bantasya,” as well as the powers of supposition, imagination, recollection, and conceptualization. He offers detailed explanations concerning the duties and activities of these senses.
Ibn Sina assigns the most important place to the power of reason or intellect in his explanations of the soul. According to him, the human soul is not something material, nor does it subsist through the subsistence of the body. It is something immaterial and essentially independent of the body, but it needs the body in the fulfillment of its functions. It is a single substance, but it has many powers or faculties. These powers or faculties serve as means in the soul’s relationship with the body. In addition to these, each human being has two other powers, namely the power of knowing and the power of acting. The latter is related to the lower realms and makes them subservient to it, while the former builds relationships with the higher realms and tries to realize true humanity. In one respect, the power of knowing in Ibn Sina’s thought can be considered to be human reason or intellect, and the power of acting is the origin of human secondary or physical actions.
The power of reason has categories or abilities. It has the capacity or ability to reason and reflect; it can perceive self-evident facts and realities and indispensable truths which are necessary to know; and it has the rank of deduction in theoretical matters; and more particularly, in certain exceptional people, there is a level of extraordinary perception and reasoning. According to Ibn Sina, this last level of human reason or intellect is a sacred power endowed with the capacity to make contact with the Spirit of Holiness. Prophets have this power at the highest level, and then there are those who succeed them in continuing their mission, (but they do not receive Revelation). Ibn Sina accepts both Prophethood and the contact of the Prophets with the highest realms, and, unlike al-Farabi, acknowledges that the Prophets were endowed with the capacity to have some knowledge of the Unseen.
Ibn Sina maintains that the Prophets, who are those most knowledgeable of Divine truths, are able to make a powerful contact with the Active Intellect due to the full purification of their hearts, and to gain a sacred power through which they obtain knowledge of the metaphysical realm and truths. Knowledge pours into their hearts, either directly or through some means. If this knowledge comes not only as a meaning but also in the form of words, it is a manifest Revelation. But if it comes only as a meaning and its wording or expression is left to the Prophet himself, it is a Revelation that is not manifest. Ibn Sina also affirms that a soul which has attained this level of perfection can exert an influence on things. Therefore, he believes in both the miracles of the Prophets and the wonder-working of saints. He offers powerful arguments to prove these acts, many of which He based on the Qur’anic verse, God is the Light of the heavens and earth. The example of His Light is like a niche wherein is a lamp…. (24: 35). Following him, many other scholars such as Imam al-Ghazzali and Elmalılı Hamdi Yazır primarily, have made extensive interpretations of this profound source (the verse mentioned).
Ibn Sina stresses the spiritual nature of the speaking soul, and in his works titled an-Najat (“Salvation”) and al-Ishara (“The Indication”), he offers many arguments to support his idea, some of which are as follows:
- The speaking soul is aware of its existence without needing any external means or causes. It never doubts its existence, and is always conscious of it even during sleep or while in a state of intoxication or spiritual absorption. More than that, even at times when there is no contact with the outer world, the soul is aware of its existence. So, such a substance, the existence and functions of which everyone feels in himself or herself, and which perceives itself as itself, cannot be of a material nature, nor can it be the brain or nervous system. This sensitive, perceiving power, which is the cause of motion, is the spirit or the speaking soul. It is such a substance that, like a tree being related to its entire environment, through which it expands with its roots and branches, it affects all the organs and limbs of the human being.
- According to Ibn Sina, the human soul, which we call the spirit, is created together with the body. But it does not perish when the body dies; rather, it continues to live in another realm after death. The body is a system or mechanism employed by the spirit. When its period of employment ends, it is destroyed; but the human soul, which is a spiritual entity, continues to live eternally in another realm.
- The relation of the spirit with the body, and its control of it, is not of the nature of incarnation or union. It is a relationship of direction and administration, whether through the direct contact or not. As the existence of the spirit does not depend on the body, it does not perish through the death of the body. The spirit is a simple, indivisible entity and is not composed of atomic particles. Therefore, the spirit, which leaves the body through death—these are also Plato’s opinions about the spirit, but we are told that Plato explains the spirit’s further, permanent life as a cycle of transmigrations—continues its life in another realm, either in indescribable pleasure or in pain and suffering. The spirit which believed and did good, righteous deeds while in the world will live an eternal, happy life, while the other which spent its worldly life in unbelief and dissipation will suffer eternal misery. Although some claim that Ibn Sina, whose belief in the other, eternal world is indisputable, did not believe in the bodily resurrection, this might have come from a misunderstanding of his assertion that the bodily resurrection cannot be rationally proven.
- Abu Nasr Muhammad ibn al-Farakh al-Farabi (872–950 CE) was one of the greatest scientists and philosophers of the Islamic world in his time. He was also a cosmologist, logician, musician, psychologist and sociologist. He was born in Farab, modern Uzbekistan, and traveled to Baghdad to pursue higher learning. As a philosopher, al-Farabi was a founder of his own school of early Islamic philosophy known as “Farabism” or “Alfarabism.” Although he introduced Plato and Aristotle to Muslim philosophy, his school of philosophy moved from metaphysics to methodology, a move that anticipates modernity. He also wrote on politics. (Tr.)
- The phrase “common sense” was derived from a wrong interpretation of this concept. However, while common sense means the ability to behave in a sensible way, common sense in psychology or sensus communis is the faculty which initially receives and comprehends the perceptions of the five external senses.
- Elmalılı Muhammed Hamdi Yazır (1878–1942) was one of the most celebrated scholars of the last period of the Ottoman State, as well as of modern Turkey. He had expert knowledge of Fiqh (Muslim jurisprudence) and Qur’anic commentary. His monumental commentary on the Qur’an, Hak Dini Kur’an Dili (“The Qur’an, the Language of the Religion of Truth”) is among the best-sellers in Turkey. (Tr.)