Al-ʿaql in man is the loftiest substance,
luminous like the moon in his soul.
This book of philosophy, written in verse form, seeks to elucidate the traditional thought process of Fatimi imams. It opens with the consideration of al-ʿaql in man, which, as commonly understood, bears broad reference to the intellectual faculty of man.
Verse 1 states that ʿaql is a substance having a lofty status. It is not a form or a phase that comes over a thing. It is not an accident.
It would be relevant to consider the Fatimi concept of ʿaql at this stage. In the human being ʿaql is the spiritual entity as distinguished from the physical and represents the quintessence of the soul of man. It is not a mere attribute. Its existence is not by accident, but it is a creation of Allah.
The author here deals with a discussion of grave import to philosophic thought. To illustrate the concept that ʿaql is a substance, and not a mere phase, nor an accident, a brilliant simile is employed. The simile is simple to understand and beautifully conceived.
Pointing out where al-ʿaql exists and how it functions, he says that it is located in the soul of man, functioning like the luminous moon, which, though a substance in itself, does not radiate any light of its own, becoming lustrous only by absorbing light from the sun and reflecting it as its own. Likewise al-ʿaql though a substance in its own right, and of the highest status at that, does not shine by itself but only by receiving light from outside.
Like the moon, it has no doubt the capacity to receive the light from outside. But in the case of al-ʿaql in man, the capacity has first to be conditioned. Then the light must follow and will be received. The light will come from outside, from a ‘Higher Source’. The conditioning of ʿaql is achieved by training and discipline and the capacity it develops no less for meditation than for the acquisition of knowledge. Of course, in turn, this process of training, discipline and development of al-ʿaql, implies the conditioning of the faculties and senses of man.
At this stage it is pertinent to remark that the author in this verse masterfully condenses a philosophic thought and illustrates two attributes of al-ʿaql. It can be truly called the loftiest substance if it receives the light from the Higher Source and then becomes enlightened; and it shines only because it is a substance.
Though the author’s intention is to point to the existence of al-ʿaql in man and to describe its location and mode of functioning, the phraseology chosen and the method of expression adopted initiates the reader to nothing less than al-ʿAql al-Awwal himself, who may be broadly described as the first, the principal
creation of Allah, the highest in the celestial order, and also to al-Nafs al-Kulliyya, the second in creation, who imbibes in him the flow of knowledge and light from al-ʿAql al-Awwal.
We must pause here to understand and evaluate the concepts of al-ʿAql al-Awwal and al-Nafs al-Kulliyya in the Fatimi philosophy anent to the First Creation. According to the Fatimi concept Creation embraces the entire Creation from and out of which al-ʿAql al-Awwal ascends to the first and the highest position in
Creation by virtue of his reaching a quick and conclusive decision on tawhīd (the Oneness of Allah). He thus becomes the fount head, the first, the ultimate in perfection.
Al-Nafs al-Kulliyya followed the First in the attainment of the highest perfection and he accepted the First and thus attained the second position.
Thereafter, one by one follow in the line, each imbibing the radiance from that immediately preceding him. In the ultimate analysis it is the radiance of the First permeating throughout. All these are referred to as al-uqūl, the plural of al-ʿaql, and their world is referred to as ʿālam al-ʿaql or ʿālam al-ibdāʿ. Under this concept of Creation, the Creator stands beyond the reach of the count as He is the Creator of the first.
The reader will marvel at, and ponder deeply on, the significance of the link in this verse between ʿaql in man and al-ʿAql al-Awwal, the first, the highest in perfection. ʿAql in man can but shine and blossom only by borrowing the radiance of al-ʿAql al-Awwal through the chain of the intervening links earlier enumerated.
Similarly, there is a considered and significant link between the reference to al-nafs and Al-Nafs al-Kulliyya in the verse. The soul (al-nafs) cannot shine and achieve absolute emancipation until and unless it disciplines and conditions itself to receive the light and grace through Al-Nafs al-Kulliyya.
In this beautiful approach to the philosophy of Creation, al-ʿAql al-Awwal and al-Nafs al-Kulliyya at times are metaphorically called by Fatimi philosophers, the Sun and Moon of the ʿālam al-ʿaql. At this stage, the reader also receives an insight into the deep erudition of the author and his supremacy as an exponent of Fatimi knowledge and literary style. In the reader’s mind a question does arise as to why the verse whilst dealing with al-ʿaql makes reference, as it were,
to al-nafs. The answer to this may be found in the Fatimi view that the easier way to the correct understanding and reception of faiḍ (radiant grace) of al-ʿAql al-Awwal is through Al-Nafs al-Kulliyya.
In other words, it can be said to underline the beautiful Fatimi approach to knowledge that the light of the Sun could be understood better by looking at the Moon, rather than by beholding the Sun. The Moon is so much nearer, so much less dazzling, and as such, so much easier to gaze at and study.
This beautiful approach to knowledge lends a clue to the lunar basis of the Islamic calendar and is meaningful, leading the mind of the reader to the Quranic verse which translated reads: ‘It is He who made the Sun radiant (dazzling) and the Moon luminous and measured for her, the Moon, stages that ye might know the number of the years and the reckoning. Allah created not (all) that save in truth. He detaileth the revelations for people who have knowledge’. (Yūnus 10.5)
This is the second installment in the philosophical blog series. To read the first please click here.