Islamic Metaphysics

In this section of 'Islam in The Modern World', 'Teaching philosophy in light of the Islamic educational ethos', S H Nasr proposes new programs for an Islamic education on the academic level at least for the Muslim countries. He is obviously critical of the influence which Western, modern thought has already had on the minds of young Muslims of the West, but also of the East. These programs have to start with our own Islamic tradition, especially the various branches and tendencies of Islamic philosophy, and must include the criticism of modernity made in the West itself (because it reaches the heart of the problem), as well as the more basic courses. It is high time for philosophy to be taught seriously in the Islamic educational system, because

”the presentation of the Islamic intellectual tradition (is essential for an authentic revival of Islamic thought, and has to dismiss the) false notion of decadence in Islamic thought derived from European historical studies of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.” p.169

He proposes a comprehensive scope for the study of Islamic philosophy, and as a branch of the latter, Islamic metaphysics, from which we will be quoted below.

Furthermore the disciplines which have to be urgently reformed, strengthened and updated are the following:
- Islamic philosophy: logic and epistemology (the theory of knowledge, esp. methods, validity & scope)
- Islamic cosmology (science of the origin & development of the universe)
- The 'philosophy of nature' (time, space, substance, matter, cause and effect)
- Philosophical psychology
- The philosophy of art or aesthetics (the principles of beauty and artistic taste)
- Islamic ethics (the branch of knowledge that deals with moral principles)
- The social, political, and economic philosophies

Also necessary is the:
- Educational planning, for secondary and university education
- Compilation of dictionaries for philosophical and scientific terminology in Islamic languages

Islamic Metaphysics

S H Nasr

ed. Omar K Neusser

Quoted from Islam in The Modern World [01]

In nearly every branch of philosophy, the Islamic tradition is rich beyond belief, if only its sources were made known. This is especially true of metaphysics. Islamic metaphysics should be presented as what it is, that is, the science of Ultimate Reality, which is the one (al-Ahad) or Allah, who has revealed Himself in the Quran, and not as a discredited branch of rationalistic philosophy. There has been no Islamic school whose teachings are not based on the doctrine of the One, who is both Absolute and Infinite. In the study of this Sublime Principle, Muslim sages developed several languages of discourse, some based on the consideration of the One as Pure Being with an ensuing ontology[02] conforming to that view, but always seeing Pure Being not as the first link in the ‘great chain of being,’ but as the Source that transcends existence altogether. Others saw the One as Light (al-Nūr), according to the Quranic verse,

{ God is the Light of the Heavens and the earth. }, (25–35);

and yet others as the Truth (al-Haqq), which transcends even Pure Being, as the supraontological Principle whose first determination or act is in fact Being, for God said according to the Quran:

{ Be (kun) and there was! }, (36–82).

It is Western scholars of Islamic philosophy who have called Ibn Sīnā ‘the first philosopher of being’; and without any exaggeration or chauvinism, one could say that, in a sense, the development of ontology in the West is a commentary or footnote to Ibn Sīnā, but one that moves toward an ever more limited understanding of Being, until finally it results in either the neglect of ontology or a parody of it. Even the present-day Existenz Philosophie, identified with philosophers such as Heidegger, seems like a rudimentary discussion of love by someone who has never experienced it when compared to the philosophy of Being of a figure such as Sadr al-Dīn Shīrāzī, who writes about Being only after having drowned in the Ocean of Pure Being and who, after purification, has been endowed with the sanctified intellect that alone can speak of this Ocean.

In other philosophical subjects also, such as logic and epistemology, the Islamic tradition presents an immense richness that should be first resuscitated in a contemporary language and then taught to students. Only then should the various modern schools of logic and discussions of the questions of epistemology be presented. There are, of course, certain problems of contemporary concern that have no antecedents in Islamic thought, and it would be a falsafication of the truth, in fact a betrayal of the Islamic tradition, to read contemporary questions and their solutions back into the Islamic sources and find there, let us say, allusions to cybernetics, Riemannian space, or modern information theory, when in actuality they do not exist. But even in these cases, a mind disciplined in the Islamic sciences would be able to approach such subjects from the point of view of Islamic thought rather than as a tabula rasa. There are, of course, other concerns of a particularly modern nature, such as semantics and the question of causality, in which the Islamic tradition is remarkably rich. In such instances, the Islamic teachings could be presented first, and only then the current - and of course ever changing - modern theories and views taught to students who have to be concerned with such fields.

The modern world does not possess a cosmology in the real sense of the term, but there are many theories about the universe based on the generalizations of contemporary physics. In Islamic civilization, however, several forms of cosmology were developed, all related to the basic teachings of the Quran concerning the creation of the world by God, the higher planes of being associated with malakūt in the Quran, and so forth. [03]

These cosmologies, which are of an eminently symbolic character and cannot be negated by any form of modern physics and astronomy, should first be taught to the students along with their full metaphysical and religious significance, which would also explain such otherwise inexplicable events as the nocturnal ascension (al-miʿrāj) of the Blessed Prophet MHMD. Only after students have acquired a ‘feeling’ for and an intellectual appreciation of the Islamic universe, should they be exposed to various modern forms of so-called cosmology, all of which should be presented for exactly what they are, namely, theories based upon certain questionable, far-fetched extrapolations and usually empirically unprovable assumptions.

Students should also be taught about the various schools of the Islamic ‘philosophy of nature,’ which is closely related to cosmology. These schools have views concerning time, space, substance and matter, change, cause and effect, and many other subjects that form the basis of all natural sciences and that in fact have attracted the attention of several important contemporary Western scientists and philosophers of science. With modern physics being in quest of a new ‘philosophy of nature,’ the Islamic teachings on this subject are of the utmost importance for Muslim students of the sciences and perhaps even for the development in general of a new type of physics or science of nature sought by many perceptive minds today. The same could be said of Islamic works on the philosophy of mathematics, which have rarely been studied in modern times.[04]

Likewise, in philosophical psychology, the Islamic sources are replete with teachings that are of great value in the investigation of questions posed in psychology today. In this field, material can be drawn all the way from Quranic commentaries and Hadīth to Sufi ethical and psychological tracts, not to speak of the philosophical psychology of the philosophers themselves, such as Ibn Sīnā and Mullā Sadrā, and works of Islamic medicine.


[01] Islam in The Modern World, pp.177 - 179
Ontology: the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being.
Epistemology: the theory of knowledge, esp. methods, validity & scope.
Cosmology: science of the origin & development of the universe.
Aesthetics: the principles of beauty and artistic taste.
Ethics: the branch of knowledge that deals with moral principles.
[03] See S H Nasr, An Introduction To Islamic Cosmological Doctrines, in Science And Technology, ed. Ahmad Y. Hasan et al., Ldn 1989
[04] The valuable works of Roshdi Rashed are a rare exception, acc. to the author.