Metaphysics relates to the idea that there is a realm beyond the physical. The study of metaphysics deals with the abstract nature of reality or the hidden underlying systems through which reality is constructed. A huge part of religion is in fact metaphysical in a sense that faith is based on the belief of the unseen. One cannot therefore separate religion from philosophy, since the former deals with notions that exceed any quantifiable or qualifiable scope. This “mysticism” present at the intersection between religion and philosophy, where one tries to understand the true nature of God takes on many forms. Some consider it an altered state of consciousness, a kind of ecstasy through self-surrender, while others believe such enlightenment can be achieved through study, practice or contemplation.
Even though there may be no direct understanding of such an “experience”, for the lack of a better word, there are certain natural underlying systems that give these metaphysical potentials a structure through ontology and nature. And it is through these that we can experience its duplication since we are ourselves bound within it. This is part of the reason why astrology and mathematics were considered as major disciplines in the 17th century during Islam’s Golden Age. Similarly, religious esoteric traditions that have been developed across different religious frameworks throughout history give us some insight into some underlying systems through which one can try and understand the nature of the unseen reality.
In the Judaic tradition, the Kabbalah refers to an ancient esoteric interpretation of the Torah. Its first text, the “Zohar”, was written in Spain during the 13th century, however its origin is greatly debated. Some claim that it was received by Moses on Mount Sinai while others believe it was Abraham who first laid it out.
The Kabbalah describes the physical world we live in as a world of outcomes or results, which is separated from the hidden (the hidden being the world of causes). The invisible forces of nature are actualised into the physical plane, creating a projection of tangibility. Furthermore, the Kabbalah tells us that allegories presented through religious scriptures are not mere stories accompanied with a moral advice, but signify what is actively happening within us at every passing moment. Think of this as energy flows that form the famous Tree of Life. Different manifestations of the Tree of Life can be found in various traditions, including in Chinese (the concept of Ying Yang) and Egyptian cultures. However, the most elaborate symbolic representation of the tree is said to have been derived from the Jewish Kabbalah. It represents the hierarchical chain of events that brings together what is present now and what is to come in the future.
The Tree of Life is divided in 10 spheres or Sephiroths. Each sphere represents a divine emanation from which pure energy flows. This energy constantly evolves and morphs as it moves from sphere to sphere descending into denser states of existence. Each sphere contains within it the spheres that comes after, forming a continuous chain. However, the movement of energy through them is non-linear. Instead, energy oscillates between the polarities and binaries. The stream of energy begins within a singularity i.e. the giver, emanating outwards into a multiplicity and then returning back to another singularity i.e. the receiver. The primary source of these emanations is the highest sphere called “Kether” or crown which signifies unity and absolute divinity. It is pure potential. Similarly, each sphere has its own unique essence.
We see a similar framework in Islamic traditions. In Islamic philosophy, the Arabic word fayd means “emanation” or the emanated things from God. Emanationist systems have been explored by various famous thinkers including Al Farabi and Ibn Sina. Their ideas were heavily influenced by Platonists and Aristotelian theories. In this, the process of creation starts with an ultimate pure form, God, that trickles down to a least pure form, physical reality, in which the degree of purity is quantified through the distance from the first pure emanation. The basic idea of Islamic emanation starts with the One, followed by spirit, soul and then the physical.
However, this concept deviates from classical religious thought because the world fayd is not used in the Quran. Rather, God describes Himself using the words khalq (creation or the one that creates) or Ibda (invention or the one that invents).
According to Al Farabi, absolute knowledge of the divine is the source of all existence. He argues that “since the Knowledge of God is eternal and absolutely perfect, the forms and types of all existent things exists eternally in God. Therefore, they are eternal”. His theory of emanation delves into celestial and sublunary (the becoming of the heavenly bodies) systems. The former relates to the 11 intellects. The first intellect or the second “existence” emanates from God, the first existence being God itself. By “thinking its own essence”, the intellect is able to bring into creation the first heaven. What follows is a series of intellectual activities that continue to take place and come to a halt once the 11th existence is reached. No more celestial bodies come to exist after this. The whole system is then further expanded upon through the study of the sublunary system. Various things come into existence through an array of mixtures, but the four elements — fire, water, air and earth — are the first “material” things to arise. Once these elements come to exist, their different mixtures bring into existence not only other bodies but other powers such as plants and animals.
Ibn Sina concurs with this proposed theory of emanation but takes a different route to prove it. He instead comes up with an ultimate proof of God’s existence by dividing the soul into notions of “being” and modalities. These modalities include the idea of necessity, contingency and impossibility. When these come together a condition is created for a “necessary being” and result in a “necessary existent”. However, if all beings converge onto a singular cause then that cause is independent of necessity and rather becomes dependent on its on essence i.e. “existent qua existent”. However, Al Ghazali later on critiqued both influential thinkers and refuted their theories, claiming that it reduced the idea of creation to mere causality.
While there may be immense similarity between the Judaic and Islamic process, an underlying difference is evident. The Judaic tradition seems to be more coherent because it adheres to a certain scientific rigour in its understanding. In contrast, the Islamic tradition seems to focus more on philosophical logic. It is because of this approach that we see a much more fragmented, albeit open, system in the Islamic tradition.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 9th, 2021.
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