On God, Souls, Afterlife and Islamic Philosophy

I recently came to know that there is a possibility that human beings do not have free will. This gave me a bit of a sigh of relief. I remember that a few years ago the topic of free will and its connection with Islam was broached up in front of me while I was sitting with a clique of learned people and I felt a little bit bad about myself as I did not have any clue as to what sort of a position I should take about it even if I had to do that in my mind. I still can’t figure out the repercussions of not having free will. I don’t know if it is a good thing or a bad thing to not have one.
After having read a lot of articles and a few books written against Islam, I tend to understand that one of the things that turns people off about this religion is its unreasonableness. This perceived, or real, or whatever, unreasonableness of Islam has many aspects to it: bizarre women rights, a lack of affinity for democracy, apostasy laws, militant jihad, a belief in the existence of a possibly imaginary God and in an afterlife, the ability of Muslims to get offended quickly on such trivial matters as publishing of funny caricatures showing their Prophet wearing turbans full of bombs and funny movies. All of these issues should be addressed and brought forward for the perusal of both Muslims and non-Muslims alike using certain unbiased scholastic methods. That whether Muslims have ever been capable of a philosophical thought process or not has to be seen through the lens of philosophical history of Islam.
A casual look at the early history of Islam suggests that study of philosophy was a well-established enterprise in Islamic civilization and that there was a considerable number of Muslim philosophers who addressed a variety of philosophical questions and raised numerous intellectual concerns that are still more or less relevant to the modern world. It is quite interesting to observe also that some of the notable Muslim philosophers, the names of whom have also never been unknown to the West, translated much of the significant Greek philosophy to Arabic. This includes the works of Aristotle and Plato. The notable Muslims philosophers are Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi, Avicenna, Averroes and Al-Gazel. These people and a few others are celebrated as Muslim philosophers in the Islamic as well as the Western world even today.
I find it worth mentioning here a definition of philosophy that I read in a book titled “A History of Western Philosophy” written by Bertrand Russell. I liked the definition so much that I still have it in my memory. It is somewhat like:
“Philosophy is concerned with the study of issues that religion refused to address and that science could not address”.
I think that this is a really nice and comprehensive definition of philosophy. If we look at the works of the above mentioned Muslim philosophers, we may want to argue, and as also suggested by Russell, that these people were not really philosophers but interpreters of (mainly Greek) philosophy. Nonetheless, Nonetheless these, and other influential scholars of Islam, had considerable influence on the latter generations of Western philosophers.
It also turns out that these Muslims scholars, and earlier Muslim philosophy, addressed many issues that are quite relevant to todays scientists and philosophers. These domains include, but are not limited to, cosmology, evolution, optics, psychology, education, science etc.
It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss in detail the achievements of earlier Muslims in each of these domains. The primary purpose of writing this article and of the research that it is based upon was to see that whether earlier Muslim philosophers were introspective about their religious beliefs or not. In other words it was sought to see specifically as to how the earlier Muslim philosophers conceived God, afterlife and other related concepts, such as that of an immaterial soul and its existence after death. It was also sought to investigate the nature of their openness on these issues in terms of mutual dialogues and criticisms of the related ideas. It was also sought to see as to whether such ideas had an element of oddity and idiosyncrasy attached to them given that they deviated from popular notions held by common people and, if so, how much of an appeal and impact they had on the thought process of general population. The last point is very cogent here as a study as it would reflect the general temperament of the society (both Muslim and non-Muslim) viz a viz the weirdness of philosophy. This is important because it is thought that philosophy does not naturally appeal to the average layman’s mind.
A closer look at the history of early Islamic philosophy reveals that Muslim scholars and intellectuals were quite concerned about their, and each others’, views about theological matters such as existence of God, nature of soul and that of afterlife. The eleventh century Islamic scholar, Bu Ali Sina, known as Avicenna to the West, developed a proof of God’s existence. The proof makes use of certain formal proving techniques of that time.
Similarly there was another Muslim intellectual, Al-Farabi, who was a predecessor of Avicenna, and from whom (along with the Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato) the latter took considerable inspiration for his work. Al-Farabi did considerable work in the realms of metaphysics and cosmology. His work on astronomy is highly inspired by that of Ptolemy and additionally has an element of metaphysics concerning existence of God attached to it. I found the account of his work written on his Wikipedia page quite interesting and I am copying an excerpt from that over here for the perusal of the keen reader.
The process of emanation begins (metaphysically, not temporally) with the First Cause, whose principal activity is self-contemplation. And it is this intellectual activity that underlies its role in the creation of the universe. The First Cause, by thinking of itself, “overflows” and the incorporeal entity of the second intellect “emanates” from it. Like its predecessor, the second intellect also thinks about itself, and thereby brings its celestial sphere (in this case, the sphere of fixed stars) into being, but in addition to this it must also contemplate upon the First Cause, and this causes the “emanation” of the next intellect. The cascade of emanation continues until it reaches the tenth intellect, beneath which is the material world. And as each intellect must contemplate both itself and an increasing number of predecessors, each succeeding level of existence becomes more and more complex. It should be noted that this process is based upon necessity as opposed to will. In other words, God does not have a choice whether or not to create the universe, but by virtue of His own existence, He causes it to be. This view also suggests that the universe is eternal, and both of these points were criticized by al-Ghazali in his attack on the earlier philosophers.
Al-Ghazali, well known as Al-Gazel to the West, wrote a book titled “The Incoherence of Philosophers” to cite his differences with Avicenna and Al-Farabi. Al-Ghazali was latter refuted by Ibn-Rushd, known as Averros to the West, in his “Incoherence of the Incoherence”. The latter incoherence by Averros is an interesting document in the sense that it is mostly in the form of a dialogue between himself and Al-Ghazali. More specifically, Averros, has taken critical comments and excerpts from the former incoherence and has given his rebuttals to them. A dialogue is copied here as an example from the latter Incoherence’s chapter titled, “Showing That They Are Unable To Prove The Existence of a Creator of The World”:
Ghazali says, on behalf of the philosophers:
The philosophers might answer: When we affirm that the world has a creator, we do riot understand thereby a voluntary agent who acts after not having acted, as we observe in the various kinds of agents, like tailors, weavers, and builders, but we mean the cause of the world, and we call it the First Principle, understanding by this that there is no cause for its existence, but that it is a cause of the existence of other things; and if we call this principle the Creator, it is in this sense. It is easy to establish by a strict proof an existent for the existence of which there is no cause. For we say that the world and its existents either have a cause or have not. If it has a cause, this cause itself either has or has not a cause, and the same can be said about the latter cause, and either we go on ad infinitum in this way, and this is absurd, or we arrive at a last term, and this end is the First Cause, which has no cause for its existence and which we call First Principle. And if the world existed by itself without cause, then it would be clear what the First Principle is, for we only mean by it an existent without a cause and which is necessarily eternal. However, it is not possible that the First Principle should be the heavens, for there are many of these and the proof of unity contradicts this, and its impossibility is shown on examination of the attribute of the principle. Nor can it be said that one single heaven, or one single body, the sun or any other body, can be the First Principle; for all these are bodies, and body is composed of matter and form, and the First Principle cannot be composite, as is clear on a second examination. Our intention is to show that an existent which has no cause is eternal by necessity and by universal consent, and only about its qualities is there a divergence of opinion. And this is what we mean by a first principle.
I say:
This argument carries a certain conviction, but still it,is not true. For the term `cause’ is attributed equivocally to the four causes: agent, form, matter, and end. Therefore if this were the answer of the philosophers, it would be defective. For if they were asked which cause they mean by their statement that the world has a first cause, and if they answered, `That agent whose act is uncreated and everlasting, and whose object is identical with its act’, their answer would be true according to their doctrine; for against this conception, in the way we expounded it, there is no objection. But if they answered `The formal cause’, the objection would be raised  whether they supposed the form of the world to subsist by itself in the world, and if they answered, `We mean a form separate from matter’, their statement would be in harmony with their theory; but if they answered, `We mean a form in matter’, this would imply that the First Principle was not something incorporeal; and this does not accord with philosophical doctrine. Further, if they said, `It is a cause which acts for an end’, this again would agree with the philosophical doctrine. As you see, this statement is capable of many interpretations, and how can it be represented there as an answer of the philosophers?
Clearly, it is not extremely clear as to what this small dialogue stands for, or what it tends to conclude. One would need to take a course in medieval philosophy to make sense out of these “incoherences”. However, this is a dialogue which shows a contradiction of views concerning the creator of the universe. The crucial point worth noticing in this and the rest of the Muslim philosophy is that Muslim intellectuals did contemplate on the nature of God and that they used to argue about it. Kalam, the cosmological argument, particularly deals with the issue of existence of God. It is also interesting to note that in Islamic philosophy skepticism was established by Al-Ghazali as part of the orthodox Ashari school of Islamic theology.
Much has been written on the nature of human soul and afterlife as well. This has been done, for instance, by Al-Farabi and Avicenna. According to Al-Farabi, the afterlife is not a personal experience as commonly conceived from the vantage point of religious traditions such as Islam and Christianity. Any individual or the distinguishing features of the soul, or the self, so to say, are annihilated after the death of the body. According to him, only the rational faculty survives, and that too, only if it has attained perfection. And then, it becomes one with all other rational souls within the agent intellect and enters the realm of pure intelligence.
One may conclude from this that the afterlife promised in the religious texts is not more than a metaphor. Much of these views were, however, inspired by works of Aristotle, of which the Muslim scholars were the chief interpreters at that time.
A keen reading of Muslim philosophy also suggests that earlier Muslim scholars were also bounded in their work by the orthodox beliefs and ideas of Islam held by themselves and the people around. This restricted their views on topics such as existence of God and afterlife. Muslim intellectuals nonetheless addressed this issue.
The idea behind writing this article was not to argue that whether God exists or not. Rather it was to elucidate that the earlier Muslim scholars had to confront this and related issues due to one reason or the other and that this is what made them write huge volumes of books.
We live in an era where scientific knowledge has advanced to a stage that many of the ideas which were held sacred due to their inherent mystery can now be verified. We are definitely not living in times in which our views about the cosmos are not dominated by the Ptolemaic astronomy. We are living in an age where doctors can perform clinical near death experiences to verify whether the subject had any experiences of an afterlife or not. The results, no matter what they may be, demand from us to adopt and abide by certain ethical rules, specially when we are about to wrong someone’s religious beliefs. This is important for the sustenance of the human race.
To make caricatures of personalities, whom people hold in high esteem, in the name of freedom of expression is a debilitating idea. It is quite natural that such gestures invite grotesque reactions. In similar vein, Muslims should also try to avoid getting uprooted at the slightest hint of a firecracker being blown elsewhere in the world.

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CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 On God, Souls, Afterlife and Islamic Philosophy by Psyops Prime is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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