The Origin of Man in Pre-Eternity and His Origination in Time:

Mulla Sadra and Imami Shi‘ite Tradition

 Maria Dakake


Mulla Sadra’s philosophy of being is really one of seamless becoming. It poisits a seamless transformation between various states of being and between the various orders of the soul – vegetative, animal, rational and beyond – through the medium of an individual human being’s “substance” (jawhar). The paramount challenge for such an ontology is to explain the way in which a particular human reality can move from the timeless realm of pre-eternity, through incarnation in time during its earthly life, back to the timelessness of post-eternity without undergoing some ontological disjuncture between its existence in the world of permanence and its existence in the world of temporality and change. It is the problem of the “mabda’” and the “ma‘ad, or the “origination” and the “return”.  In this paper, our discussion will be concerned primarily with Mulla Sadra’s understanding of the first stage of this process – namely, that of the nature of the pre-eternal reality of human beings and their transfer from the world of pre-eternity to that of earthly life, or the question of the mabda’ specifically. In particular, we will examine Mulla Sadra’s beliefs regarding the mabda’ in connection with some Imami Shiite views of this same issue. Mulla Sadra, of course, was a devout Imami Shiite, and we hope to demonstrate that on this issue, his thinking is clearly consistent with some major Imami doctrinal interpretations.

Now, from one point of view, Mulla Sadra was a philosopher and operated within that discipline (falsafah), while the Imami thought to which we will be referring would rather be placed in the discipline of theology, or kalam. However, both the philosophy of Mulla Sadra and the strain of Shiite kalam with which we will concern ourselves, transcend the limitations of their own specific disciplines. Mulla Sadra would not classify his writings as mere philosophy, but also as “wisdom” or “theosophy (hikma, ‘irfan)”.[1] Imami Shi‘ite hadith tradition likewise contains a prominent gnostic or ‘irfani strain. It is in this transcendent realm that the two formulations meet.

We should begin with a brief statement of Mulla Sadra’s view of the origin of man in pre-eternity and the way in which individual men then come to exist in the world of temporality. According to Mulla Sadra, all individuals who exist in the earthly realm simultaneously have an existence in the timeless realm of the spirit.

That is, prior to – and throughout – their origination in time, all men exist as a kind of spiritual reality or as an “immaterial soul”. It is only when this spiritual reality comes to be embodied in base matter, and so receives a body and a “material” individuation, that the soul, properly speaking, comes into being. The soul is, in effect, the boundary or barzakh between the divine and the base, or the spiritual and the material in man.[2] This barzakh is not fixed during the course of an individual’s lifetime; on the contrary, it is constantly shifting through the process of substantial motion. Now, the “substance” of man is precisely the mixture of spirit and matter of which he is constituted; and it is this very substance – and not the accidents which subsist therein – which is altered and transmuted as an individual passes from potentiality to actuality in the development of this physical, psychic and spiritual faculties. All movements from potentiality to actuality (and movement can only take place in this direction)[3] represent an intensification of the being (wujud) through the process of “trans-substantial motion” of all contingent, ternporally existentiated creatures.[4] The being or wujud of these  contingent realities derives from the Being of the One, Necessary Being, which is God, Himself; and the Being of God is extended into that of contingent realities through the principle of “tabi‘a”, or “nature”, which acts like a principle of energy, analogous to the force which causes the rays of the sun to extend from the sun, while at the same time remaining necessarily connected to it.[5] Thus even as an individual soul moves from potentiality to actuality, as parts of its body grow while others fall away, even as its very substance is transmuted, it remains a continuous essential reality subsisting through its own atemporal spiritual reality, and on the highest level, through the unity of Being, itself.[6]

In this paper, we will compare Sadrian and Imami Shi‘ite thought on the issue of the pre-eternal origin and earthly incarnation of man with regard to two aspects in particular. First, we will examine their respective conceptions of the distinction between the various aspects of man: his spiritual reality, his material reality (or his body) and the soul which lies between them. We will be particularly concerned to elaborate upon the relationship between “spirit” and “soul” in the nature of human origins and the process of human becoming. Secondly, we will examine the implications this relationship has for the issue of divine compulsion and human free will as determinants of the spiritual destiny of individual men.

The three aspects of man: spirit, soul and body

It is clear that Mulla Sadra is concerned to refute any suggestion of an ontological disjuncture in an individual’s passage from one state of being to another. He is particularly concerned to refute any and all notions which involve the false doctrine of reincarnation or more specifically the “transmigration of souls” (tanasukh). This doctrine has been ascribed, he notes, to many earlier thinkers, including Plato (although he argues that this attribution is false and arises from a misreading of Plato’s own intentions).[7] Mulla Sadra further notes that the doctrine of tanasukh is also present in the Indian traditions (which he subsumes under the general heading of “teachings of the Buddha”), as well as in the doctrines of some Islamic thinkers, namely the “Brethren of Purity (Ikhwan al-safa)” and, unwittingly, in the dogma of certain “literalist” thinkers in mainstream Islamic thought.[8] Reincarnation, or the transmigration of souls (tanasukh), as Mulla Sadra explains, posits the transfer of an individual human soul from one material body to another within the sensible world. He clearly distinguishes this from the transformations implied in the mabda’ and the ma‘ad, by noting that these refer to transfers between the sensible and supra-sensible worlds, not between different material forms within the sensible world.[9]

One of the mistaken assumptions which leads many to inadvertently confirm the false doctrine of reincarnation or tanasukh, according to Mulla Sadra, is that of the pre-existence of the individuated human soul.[10] According to Mulla Sadra, there is a kind of individuated human existence in the realm of pre-eternity, but this is not a material in this spiritual realm, they are not differentiated with respect to “matter”.[11] It is precisely such a differentiation with respect to matter that characterizes the nature of human existence in the earthly realm, or in time, and which gives it its existence as “soul” or individuated soul. From this perspective, it is imperative to distinguish between Mulla Sadra’s conception of “spirit (ruh)” and that of “soul (nafs)”. It is the spirit which has pre-eternal existence, while the soul is engendered or originated precisely by the meeting of spirit and matter.

The spirit (ruh)

At the highest level, the Spirit (ruh), for Mulla Sadra, is none other than the First or Active Intellect, and is therefore the most direct emanation from God, emanating from Him as do the rays of the sun from the sun. To the extent that the Spirit is with God, it is uncreated, and it constitutes, in fact, the creative principle itself. That is, the Spirit or Intellect (in its highest level) is not created by the divine command “Be! (kun!)”, but is itself the divine command “Be!”[12] Thus, if the Spirit is created, it is at least not created “in time”, for it is itself the command through which all other beings arc originated in time. If the Spirit and the Intellect are one and the same, at their highest levels, they become differentiated at lower levels.

As the Spirit becomes more and more remote from its source, and consequently weakened, it comes to represent correspondingly lower levels of intellect, and finally the various human and subhuman levels of the soul. The connection between the various levels of Spirit and Mulla Sadra’s particular view of the various levels of intellect and soul is rather clearly illustrated in a commentary he offers in Kitab al-masha‘ir. This commentary is particularly relevant for our purposes in that it is, in fact, a commentary on a certain passage found in the Imami Shiite theologian Ibn Babawayh’s standard work of Shi’ite theology: Kitab al-i‘tiqad. It thus offers us our first and rather direct point of comparison with Imami Shiite doctrine. Let us begin by summarizing Ibn Babawayh’s exposition of the various levels of “spirit”. According to Ibn Babawayh, there are altogether five “spirits” – the Holy Spirit (ruh al-quddus), the spirit of faith (ruh al-iman), the spirit of potency (ruh al-quwwa), the spirit of appetite (ruh al-shahwa), and the spirit of growth (ruh al-madraj). Ibn Babawayh further tells us that it is only the messengers of God (rusul), the prophets (anbiya) and the Imams who can be said to possess all five to these spirits. The believers, for their part, possess four of the spirits, those of faith, potency, appetite and growth; while the unbelievers and animals possess only the three lowest spirits of potency, appetite and growth, lacking both the Holy Spirit and the spirit of faith.[13] In Kitab al-masha‘ir, Mulla Sadra offers a lengthy gloss the Shiite theologian’s exposition by relating the levels of spirit to those of intellect and soul, clearly explaining the capabilities or faculties present at each level. On the highest level, the Spirit, or the Holy Spirit (ruh al-quddus), is none other than the primordial and original spirit which is with God, and which remains with Him. This, he says, corresponds to the philosophical concept of the “active intellect (al-‘aql al-fa‘al). The “spirit of faith”, on the other hand corresponds, from the philosophical point of view, to the “acquired intellect (al-‘aql al- mustafad)”. That is, it represents the intellect which becomes actualized in man after having been potential. Thus it represents a level only attained in full by those realized souls who have passed completely from potentiality to actuality during the course of their earthly lives. The spirit of potency (quwwa), according to Mulla Sadra, is none other than the level of the rational soul (al-nafs al-natiqa) which likewise corresponds to the “material intellect (al-‘aql al-hayulani)”, or the purely potential intellect before it becomes actualized in certain human beings. The remaining two spirits, those of appetite and growth, do not represent levels of “intellect” at all, but rather correspond to the animal and vegetative souls respectively.[14]

As for assigning the different levels of “spirit” to the various orders of creation, Mulla Sadra’s view generally agrees with that offered by Ibn Babawayh himself, although there are some minor differences implied. Firstly, Ibn Babawayh places unbelievers and beasts together in the category of those possessing the three “spirits” of potency, appetite and growth.[15] Mulla Sadra, however, would deny the “spirit of potency”, which he identifies with the rational soul, to any but human animals or human unbelievers. It is true that, according to the Sadrian perspective, unbelievers may be reduced in the next world to the subhuman forms of beasts (something which we will discuss below), by virtue of their misuse of the “material” or “practical” intellect, but they nonetheless remain in possession of the faculty to achieve this realization throughout the course of their earthly lives. A second distinction is implied by the fact that Mulla Sadra restricts the fourth spirit, the spirit of faith, to only the true believers – that is, the gnostics (‘urafa’)[16] – a category which represents and extreme minority of individuals. Now Ibn Babawayh, like Mulla Sadra, ascribes this level to the “true believers”, but in Shi‘ite thought, the category of “true believers” is not limited to that of the gnostics (‘urafa’), but in principle includes all orthodox Imami Shi‘ites – a category somewhat broader and more inclusive than Mulla Sadra classification would suggest. However, it should be noted that there are plenty of Shi‘ite traditions which speak about the extremely small number of true believers.[17] If Ibn Babawayh’s category of “true believers” is taken to suggest a rather small elite within the Shi‘ite community itself, rather than the Shi‘ite minority within the larger Islamic umma, it may in fact coincide with Mulla Sadra’s own restrictions for this level. Thirdly, Mulla Sadra claims that the fifth level – that of the Holy Spirit or the Active Intellect – is one which is restricted to the “awliya”. The term “awliya”, of course, includes the prophets and the Imams, to whom Ibn Babawayh likewise assigns this highest of levels. However, the term “awliya” is a bit more ambiguous or open-ended than that, and may include certain ultimately realized individuals in addition to the prophets and the Imams; however, as Mulla Sadra does not elaborate on this point, it cannot be said for sure that this is the case.

Finally, a general but important issue raised by Mulla Sadra but not addressed by Ibn Babawayh is the manner in which these various “spirits” come to be located in different human souls. Mulla Sadra explains the actualization of these levels in various earthly creatures with reference to his all-encompassing doctrine of the flow of wujud or Being. He comments: “These five spirits arc lights which differ in the intensity or weakness of their illumination; all of them exist through the one Being (wujud) whose gradated levels have been gradually acquired in those in whom they are found.”[18] The emanation of the “Spirit” can therefore also be equated with the emanation of wujud, or Being, which flows in various intensities throughout human incarnation in earthly matter, and thus corresponds to the various levels of the intellect.

The soul (nafs)

If the “spirit” can be taken to represent the flow of Being in differing intensities in various material human incarnations, then the soul must be considered the very divider (barzakh) between the two “scas” of spirit and matter,[19] and it owes its individual existence to the meeting of the two. This point is made most clearly in the formula often repeated by Mulla Sadra: “al-nafs jismaniyyat al-huduth wa ruhaniyyat al-baqa’ (the soul is bodily in its origination in time and spiritual in its timeless existence).”[20] The concept of a “soul” existing in time thus implies or, more accurately, requires material existence – it is originated in matter and, within the earthly realm, is inseparable from it. It is this understanding of the relationship of soul to matter which allows Mulla Sadra to decisively refute the doctrine of tanasukh, since it is the false presumption of the soul’s possible separation from matter or from a particular material form in this world which permits the idea of the soul’s transfer from that material form to another.

There are thus three realms to be considered in human existence: that of the spirit (ruh), that of matter or the body (jism) and that of the soul (nafs); and these three “realms” can also be understood through analysis according to the concepts of “form” and “matter”, which in human existence, correspond to “soul” and “body”, respectively.[21] In relation to the world of matter, the soul is perfect form, for it is in the human body that matter achieves its perfection.[22] According to this analogy, soul and body cannot be separated in this world any more than form and matter can be separated – we cannot, in this world, know matter without form, nor form without matter. This is not to say that the body has an eternal existence, as does the soul or spirit, or that it does not pass away. On the contrary the body is always passing away and being regenerated, but again, without disjuncture; this passing away and regeneration is executed through a transmutation of the substance of the individual (constituted of its form and its matter), and not of its essence.[23] Every substance subsists through its form and not through its matter, thus although from one point of view the body passes away and regenerates, from another point of view, it remains essentially the same body through the subsistence of the soul.

Mulla Sadra explains:

The decisive point in the body’s remaining this particular body (despite the constant transformation of its material constituents) is only the unity of the soul. As long as Zayd’s soul remains this soul, his body is also this body, since the soul of a thing is the perfection of its reality and individual substance. This is why it is said that this child is the one who will grow old, or that this old man was a child, even though with age he has lost all the (particular material) parts and organs that he had as a child. Indeed, one can rightly say that the old man’s finger is the (same) finger that he possessed in childhood, although in itself the childhood finger has disappeared with respect to both its form and its matter, so that nothing remains of it as a particular body; it only remains the finger of this man because of the persistence of his soul.[24]

In the world of matter, the soul is perfect form, but in the world of spirit, the soul is itself pure matter (hayula). It is only the inner nature and habits of a particular human being as exhibited during the course of his earthly life in the material world which determines his “form” in the next world.[25] Thus the soul exists in actuality in this world – representing the perfect form or actualization of matter in the human body – but simultaneously exists as pure potentiality in the next world, or world of the Spirit or lntellect.[26] The human soul is originated in this world with a kind of primordial perfection (fitra) – a perfection shared by all members of the human species – but in the next world it will be originated according to a second “fitra” whose nature or “form” or “species” will be determined by its good or evil actions and habits in this world.[27] Thus, in the next world, the form imposed upon the “soul as matter” may be perfect or imperfect, it may be that of any number of “species” which fall into four general categories, according to Mulla Sadra: that of angel, devil, brute beast or predatory animal.[28] Even in the case of perfect realization - something which is reached only by a tiny minority of individuals, according to Mulla Sadra – the soul does not “separate” from the body in this world, nor does the spirit separate from the soul; rather the soul is transmuted as to its very substance. The soul, which is spirit or intellect in potentiality, now becomes spirit or intellect in actuality, through the process of transubstantiation which, most importantly, does not admit of any essential separation of being between the three realms of body, soul and spirit, at least not in this world.

Having presented a very brief review of some important points in Mulla Sadra’s perspective regarding the three aspects of man: spirit, body and soul, the question is: how does this relate to some representative Imami Shi‘ite views on the same subject? In Imami Shi‘ite literature, the doctrines and theories which pertain to the nature of human pre-existence and the origination of the human soul constitute an important part of the Imami Shi‘ite understanding of the nature of their own religious community and is cosmological role in the universe. This is because Imami doctrine is very much concerned with what could be interpreted as ontological distinctions between various levels of creation: angels, prophets, imams, believers and unbelievers; and the traditions regarding human origination in pre-eternity figure prominently in their thinking on this issue. Mulla Sadra, himself, testifies to the importance of this issue in Shi‘ite thought when he says, after relating a handful of Imami traditions on the subject: “The traditions handed down on this subject by our fellow (Shi‘ites) are so innumerable that it is as though the existence of the spirits prior to (their) bodies were one of the essential premises of the Imamite school...”[29] Moreover, in his own discussion of the issue of human cosmogony and ontology, Mulla Sadra relies to a significant extent on the material contained in these traditional Imami sources.[30] For this reason, the cosmological and especially the cosmogonic theory found in Shi’ite tradition bears comparative analysis with Mulla Sadra’s own continuous and holistic view of human origination.

The Imami Shi’ite view on this issue is most clearly contained in certain hadith collections: in the book of “Faith and Unbelief” in the canonical fourth – century collection of Kulayni’s Usul al-kafi, as well as in two other non-canonical collections, that of al-Barqi’s Kitab al-mahasin and al-Saffar al-Qummi’s Basa’ir al-darajat. In our discussion of this issue in Shi‘ite thought, we will concentrate mainly on the Imami traditions found in Kulayni’s Usul al-kafi, the earliest of the Imami Shi‘ite canonical collections. Mulla Sadra, himself, has written a partial commentary on the Usul al-kafi, but the commentary unfortunately does not reach to the book of “Faith and Unbelief”, in which the majority of these traditions are located. In comparing these sacred Shi‘ite traditions with Mulla Sadra’s own philosophical perspective, of course, we hardly presume know what Sadra’s own commentary on these traditions would have been. Rather, we seek to offer our own humble suggestions as to the way in which the two perspectives can be seen as largely consistent with one another.

The first three chapters in the book of “Faith and Unbelief” in the Usul al-kafi present numerous versions and adaptations of a central rendering of pre-eternal events which is structured around a few basic ideas. Most of the traditions center around the process through which God created the clay (tina) from which the substance of all human individuals is derived. He, in fact, mixes two types of clay. In most instances, both types begin with a “handful (qabda)” of earthly soil (adim), part of which God mixes with “sweet water” and the other part with “salty, brackish water”. The traditions generally relate that the clay made with the sweet water is the substance from which God created both the hearts and the bodies of the prophets, the Imams and the “pure souls”. The traditions then consistently tell us that God also made the hearts of the believers and/or the Shi‘ites of the “good clay”, but that He made their bodies of the lesser clay. As for the unbelievers or the enemies of the Shi‘ites, God has created both their hearts and their bodies of the impure clay made of the salty, brackish water. The simplest version of this tradition comes from the fourth Imam, ‘Ali Zayn al-‘Abidin (a): Verily God (‘azza wa jall) created the prophets from the superior clay (tina): both their hearts and their bodies. And He created the hearts of the believers from this superior clay, while He created their bodies from other than this. And He created the unbelievers from the inferior clay, both their hearts and their bodies. Then He mixed the two kinds of clay. This is why the believer may give birth to the unbeliever and the unbeliever may give birth to the believer. This is also why an evil action may be committed by a believer and a good action may be committed by an unbeliever. (The hearts of the believers yearn for that of which they were created and the hearts of the unbelievers yearn for that of which they were created.)[31] If we understand the clay, in either its superior or inferior form, to refer to the very substance of man, then it should make perfect sense, from a Sadrian perspective, that the hearts and the bodies of the prophet (and in other traditions, of the Imams and the pure souls) should be made of the “superior clay”. These individuals represent the “perfect man (al-insan  al-kamil)”, or the man whose soul has been integrated into the pure substance of the world of the spirit, even from the perspective of its attachment to matter, or of its material individuation in this world. For this reason it is said that both the hearts and the bodies of these individuals are formed of the pure or superior clay. The “believers”, on the other hand, should represent those individuals who, although on the path to realization, do not possess the spiritual perfection of the prophets and the Imams. Their souls are still composed of the opposing elements of spirit (symbolized by their hearts made of the superior clay) and of base matter (symbolized by their bodies made of the inferior clay). Nonetheless, the hearts of the believers yearn for that of which they were created, namely the perfect substance of the spirit, and it is precisely this yearning, we might suggest, which leads them down the path of spiritual purification and realization. In Sadrian terms, it leads them to acquire the habits of contemplation and purity which thus lead the soul to return to its spiritual perfection, or more precisely, to the spiritual perfection of the “perfect man”. The unbelievers, on the other hand, having even their hearts composed of the impure or inferior clay, yearn toward this inferior clay of which they were created, which, it is implied, leads them down their own path toward spiritual destruction.

It is important to note that in these Shi‘ite traditions, the human souls are precisely originated in matter and there is no indication of the existence of these individuated souls prior to their origination in matter, which is consistent with a key element of Mulla Sadra’s own cosmogonic belief, as stated above. There is no intimation of the “descent” of a pre-existing soul into bodily matter, a concept which Mulla Sadra regards as completely false, and for which he criticizes numerous Islamic and non-Islamic thinkers before him. He argues: It seems that the partisans of this doctrine esteem that the substance of the rational soul, prior to its having achieved the bodily organism and having thereby achieved the structure of “man”, exists previously and already in actuality in the world of the Intellect [= the world of the Spirit] according to its first, primordial perfection. It then descends into the body in order to realize the second perfection which that implies. Now, that is false, since you can understand according to the above premises that it involves an ontological anteriority or that it involves a chronological anteriority. It is impossible to countenance the idea that that which exists in the world of the Intellect would separate itself from that beautiful and noble world, or that it would be constrained and thus descend into the abyss of rampant beasts, in the mine of all evils and ignorance.[32]

According to Mulla Sadra, then the movement of the soul is not from initial perfection, to a state of bodily imperfection, and back to a second perfection.[33] Rather, the individuated soul originates through the mixture of a pre-existent spiritual reality and base matter (which may be signified by the clay as a mixture of “water” and “earth”, respectively, although the analogy is not perfect.). Its movement, therefore is from its state of an originally mixed and spiritually imperfect substance, toward a state of purified substance; and it is precisely the pure or spiritual element within the mixed substance of the human soul which alone leads it down the road to perfection. As the Shiite tradition claims, it “yearns for that of which it was made”; it is the spirit in man which longs for the spirit, or in other words, it is only that which comes from God that returns to Him.

There can be no yearning of base matter, or even of the body considered in its purely material aspect for the sublime spirit or the spiritual realm, for Mulla Sadra tells us, “neither in the body nor in the faculties of the body is there the perception of the immaterial substance, the reigning Light, such that one could speak of [the body’s desiring it”.[34]

Divine predestination and human free will of course, the implication that one’s spiritual destination is determined by the very substance of which one is created raises the issue of divine predestination or compulsion. Are some human beings compelled by their very substance to move toward their own spiritual destruction? While the “believers”, in the Shi‘ite tradition, whose hearts are made of the superior clay and whose bodies are made of the inferior clay have the opportunity to work with their hearts and against their bodies in the direction of spiritual perfection, it would seem that the “unbelievers” whose hearts and bodies are made of inferior clay do not even have the faculties to attempt to move in this direction.

There is also a second element in these traditions which likewise seems to suggest a kind of divine compulsion of human spiritual destiny.  According to many Shi‘ite cosmogonic traditions, not only are there two types of clay – made with sweet and salty water, respectively – but these two kinds of clay are then mixed together by the hands of God. After having mixed the two, God then separates the clay into two parts, one taken with His right hand and one taken with His left. This further dichotomy which is thus established between the souls on the right and those on the left seems to have an implication for the spiritual destiny of those two sets of individual souls. This is demonstrated when God commands those souls derived from the clay in His right hand to enter the fire. They do this with perfect obedience; and as a reward for this obedience, God makes the fire cool and harmless for them. He then commands those souls derived from the clay in His left hand to enter the fire, but they fear for their own safety, and thus disobey God by refusing to enter (in some cases after having been given two opportunities to do so by God.).[35] The traditions then explain that it was in this way that human “obedience” and “disobedience” were established.[36]

This particular element in the Shiite version of the events of pre-eternity is often presented as part of a commentary upon Qur’anic verse, 7:172, regarding God’s taking of a solemn oath from all of the children of Adam (a) for their recognition of His Lordship. The verse reads: “And when your Lord brought forth from the Children of Adam, from their loins, their seed, and made them testify of themselves, (saying): Am I not your Lord? They said: Yea, surely. We testify.”

Now, this particular verse is often discussed in connection with the “fitra”, or primordial perfection of man, and the awareness of “tawhid”, or the oneness of God and His Lordship, into which all human beings are born. However, in both Shi‘ite and Sunni tafsir traditions,[37] this verse is also connected with the tradition of the divine command to enter the Fire, and the obedience and disobedience of the people of God’s right hand and left hand, respectively – a tradition which seems to suggest that the obedience or disobedience of individual human souls in their earthly lifetimes is already determined (albeit by their own actions and not divine compulsion) in pre-eternity. Such an idea apparently conflicts with Sadra’s own view that it is only the habits and behaviors repeated and thus ontologically acquired during the course of an individual’s earthly life that determines his spiritual destiny, not choices made in the timeless realm of pre-eternity.

It is possible that the descriptions of these apparently determinative pre-eternal events as found in Shi‘ite hadith sources and the seemingly contradictory Sadrian principle that a soul’s spiritual destiny depends upon its own willful actions in this life[38] can be reconciled by establishing a distinction between God’s foreknowledge of human destiny and His compulsion of that destiny. In Sadrian terms, the principle that the spiritual destiny of a given man is determined by his habits and actions committed in this world is explained as the last, and not always achieved, movement of the highest element of a man’s soul from potentiality (quwwa) to actuality (fil). From the Sadrian perspective, whether a development should take place within the physical, psychic or spiritual aspect of a man, it always represents a trans-substantial movement from potentiality to actuality. Thus, according to Mulla Sadra, while the child is still in the womb, it possesses in actuality only the vegetative soul – that which is nourished and which grows – and all other levels of soul are only possessed in potentiality. When the embryo develops into an infant and is born, the animal soul - that which senses and imagines – is actualized; and when the child reaches the age of reason (sometimes equated with the age of “speaking”) the rational soul (al-nafs al-natiqa) is actualized. Once the human soul has reached this level, it possesses the “practical” intellect, the faculty through which it may come to realize its intellectual perfection, or in other words, the faculty through which the intellective or immaterial soul may be actualized, after having only existed in potentiality. This final move only occurs in a small minority of individual souls; but short of having realized this final perfection, individual souls may pass from this world while in a state of moving either upward toward this post-rational perfection, or downward, toward a reduction of the uniquely human rational perfection. For this reason, according to Mulla Sadra, some souls (namely, those who reach intellective perfection) are transmuted into an angelic form in the next world; while the souls moving toward this, but dying short of it, are raised in the next life in the sensible paradise of the soul. Those who died while moving away from the direction of perfection, are thus transferred in the next life to the sensible hell,[39] and transmuted, as noted above, either into form of a devil, or into the subhuman forms of a brute beast or predatory animal - in accordance with their true inner nature[40] – hidden in this world, but obvious and apparent in the next.

Now all of this motion and transition from potentiality to actuality belongs precisely to beings created in time. Time, itself, is the measure of this constant motion of the world, the elements and human souls from potentiality to actuality, which is itself an illusion engendered by existence in the temporal world. But what can this have to do with God, with His immutable Essence, or with His quality of knowledge? God and the essential quality of His knowledge exist in pure actuality. Thus, from the point of view of God’s knowledge, all things exist in their actuality, while from the perspective of individual souls created in time, existence is experienced as the movement from potentiality to actuality. In a sense, then, what these spiritual or immaterial souls will become through their own actions and habits in the world of temporality, they already are in God’s knowledge and in the timeless state of pre-eternity.[41] Proof of this might be given by the very nature in which the oath or mithaq is taken by God from the Children of Adam (a). From one point of view, this event is ontologically prior to the existence of these souls in the material world, that is, before the spirit’s connection with matter and their passage through the various states of the soul. These individuals are brought forth as “particles” (dhurriyya), which suggests that they were existing in a state which precedes their full material individuation. Yet, they are asked a question by God (Am I not your Lord?) and they are able to answer. As viewed from the perspective of human becoming, this capability seems to imply the possession of at least the rational soul (al-nafs al-natiqa). However, after giving their answer and having accepted the mithaq or “primordial pact” with God, they are then once more returned to the loins of Adam (a). It is indeed as if these  individuals are, for this one instant, brought directly from a state of potentiality to a state of actuality and then returned to state of potentiality; but Mulla Sadra has made it clear that it is impossible for a soul to return to a state of potentiality after having been in a state of actuality.[42] This event, thus, must be understood as taking place within, or from the perspective of, God’s knowledge, and not from the perspective of human becoming.

Some of these themes relating to the meaning of the primordial pact (mithaq) which God takes for mankind, and the relative role of God’s creative will and human effort in the spiritual differentiation of mankind after their common origination in primordial perfection (fitra), are brought out in a lengthy tradition from the fifth Imam, Mohammed al-Baqir (a). The tradition relates a conversation between Adam (a) and God in connection with the taking of the Qur’anic mithaq:

Adam (a) said: O Lord, why do I see that some of the particles [taken from my loins] are greater than others and some of them have much light and some of them have little light and some of them have no light? God (‘azza wa jall) said: Thus I have created them, in order to test them in every situation. Adam (a) said: O Lord, permit me speech that I might speak. God (‘azza wa jall) said: Speak, for verily your spirit (ruh) is from My Spirit and your nature (tabia) is from other than My Kaynuna. Adam said: O Lord, had You created them according to a single archetype (mithal) and a single rank, and a single nature (tabi’a) and a single disposition (jibla) and a single coloring and a single life span and a single [set of] endowments, they would not transgress one against the other, and there would not be envy between them, nor hatred or differences over anything. God (‘azza wa jall) said: O Adam, you speak (literally, “spoke”, nataqta) through My Spirit, and through the weakness of your [own] nature (tabi’a) you make a pretense to that of which you have no knowledge, and I am the Creator, the All-Knowing. By My knowledge are there differences in their character and by My will is My command carried out in them and toward My arrangement (tadbir) and toward My decree (taqdir) are they traveling.

There is no alteration in My Creation. I only created the jinn and mankind to worship Me, and I have created Paradise for those who obey Me... and I created the fire for those who disbelieve in Me and disobey Me... and I only created you and [your progeny] to try you and to try them. You are urged to the best of acts in the life of this world in your lifetimes and before your deaths, and for this [purpose] was this world and the next created...[43] This tradition clearly manifests the ambiguity – perhaps deliberate ambiguity – over the issue of divine compulsion and human free will in the determination of one’s spiritual destiny. But it is clear that the ambiguity stems from the difference between the perspective of the unchanging knowledge and decree of God, and the perspective from the world of becoming which is ordained by God but only experienced as such, by created beings. On the one hand, God says that “toward My arrangement and toward My decree are they traveling”. On the other hand, God says that He only created mankind to try or test them, and that they are “urged”, but not compelled toward obedience and spiritual success; for this purpose “was this world and the next” – that is the world of human action and consequence – created. While Mulla Sadra does not give a specific commentary on this particular tradition, such an interpretation as we have suggested would seem to accord with Mulla Sadra’s commentary on another, very famous statement of the sixth Shiite Imam, Ja’far al-Sadiq (a), with regard to the issue of divine compulsion (Jabr) and human free will (tafwid), namely: “It is not [divine] compulsion and it is not free will, but the matter lies between the two (la jabr wa la tafwid, wa lakinna amr bayn amrayn.)” [44] In another treatise, Mulla Sadra gives a commentary on this tradition in particular. In this commentary he makes it clear that the fact that “the matter” [of human destiny] lies between divine compulsion and human free will does not mean that the matter is half one and half the other. It is not, he says, like tepid water which is neither hot nor cold, but only a kind of weak and imperfect hot or a weak and imperfect cold. The matter of human destiny is not determined by a divine will weakened or constrained by the human will; nor is it determined by a human will weakened or constrained by the divine will. Rather, the matter is determined fully by the will of God and fully by the will of man: we move of our own free will toward an end which God has likewise willed.[45]

Something of the divine/non-divine dichotomy in man, and its relation to human free will is also suggested in the part of the tradition in which Adam (a) asks God for the faculty of speech. God responds to Adam (a), saying: “speak, for verily your spirit (ruh) is from My Spirit and your nature (tabia) is from other than My Kaynuna”. Thus, on the one hand, it is by virtue of the divine in man (or the “ruh” which is derived from the Spirit of God) that Adam is able to speak; but on the other hand, it is by virtue of man’s separateness from God (generated by his own individual nature, tabia) that he is able to speak to God with words that are other than those of God and which may even contradict Him. Adam indeed demonstrates his free will and independence by using his newly  bestowed faculty of speech to call into question the manner in which God has brought humankind into being – in inequality, and thus destined for conflict. God responds to Adam’s expressed opinion by telling him, “... you speak (nataqna) through My Spirit, and through the weakness of your nature (tabia) you make a pretense to that of which you have no knowledge”. In other words, the human faculties – in this case, speech – are derived from their divine counterparts; yet every man is free to use those faculties in submission to and agreement with the divine will, or in opposition to and rebellion against it. Yet, paradoxically, it is in contradiction or rebelling against God that Adam – and indeed all men – demonstrate, not human strength vis-a-vis God, but rather their own human weakness and ignorance.

It is interesting that the tradition juxtaposes “ruh” or spirit (as representing the divine in man) to “tabia” or “nature”, representing man’s individuation and relative independence and separation from God as the two elements present in man. As mentioned earlier, Mulla Sadra uses the term “tabia” to refer to that energy which is the principle of all motion, of all substantial change, or the transfer of all realities from potentiality to actuality, and as the force or energy through which the wujud or Being of the one Necessary Being (God) is made to emanate in various intensities throughout all contingent beings. It is like the wave of energy through which that light of the sun is caused to extend through its rays beyond their source, while still remaining inescapably connected to it. Even if this particular Shi‘ite tradition does not employ the term “tabia” in the technical sense which Mulla Sadra has given to it, its meaning is not far from the same. As the rays of the sun extend further into darkness, they do not grow stronger by virtue of their distance from their source, but weaker. So, too, the will, knowledge and independence of man grows weaker and dimmer as it extends further from its divine source. Only when human will is nearest to the divine will does it reach its pinnacle of freedom, for it nears that absolute freedom which can only belong to God.

In conclusion, we would re-iterate the fact that although Mulla Sadra’s philosophy and Imami Shi‘ite hadith tradition and theology are technically separate disciplines, with their own principles and terminology, we believe that there is a profound intellectual consistency between the two. The spiritual authority of the Shi‘ite Imams allowed them to speak at great length on matters beyond the realm of ordinary knowledge; and for this reason Shi‘ite tradition deals with spiritual, cosmological or mystical topics to a far great extent than its Sunni counterpart.  Mulla Sadra, for his part, both operated within the received Islamic philosophical tradition, and at the same time claimed to have transcended it through his own mystical insights. It is precisely in this transcendent realm – the realm closest to the true source of all knowledge – that the two strains of though resonate with a clear consistency.




[1]. For an explanation of Mullà Sadrà's classification and explanation of the nature of his own thought and writing, see the chapter, “What is the Transcendent Theosophy?” in S. H. Nasr, Sadr al-Din Shiràzi and his Transcendent Theosophy, Institute for Humanities and Cultural Studies, Tehran, 1997, pp. 85-88.

[2]. Sadr al-Din al-Shiràzi, Wisdom of the Throne (trans. and ed., James Winston Morris), Princeton University Press, 1981, pp. 132, 142.

[3]. See, for example, Sadr al-Din al-Shiràzi, Ta‘liqàt' ala hikmat al-ishràq (Mullà Sadrà's commentary on the margins of Suhrawardi's Kitàb hikmat al-ishràq), Lith. Tehran, 1897, p. 476.

Note:  Mullà Sadrà himself mentions that it is in this commentary that he provides the clearest exposition on the theories regarding the nature of the pre-existence of the soul. See Wisdom of the Throne, p. 140.

[4]. Sadr al-Din al-Shiràzi, al-Hikmat al-muta'àliyya (14 vols.), Beirut, 1990, vol. 9, p. 159.

[5]. Wisdom of the Throne, pp. 121-123.

[6]. Wisdom of the Throne, p. 132.

[7]. Ta‘liqàt, p. 476.

[8]. Ta‘liqàt, p. 476 (for the attribution of this to Buddhists and the Brethren of Purity) and p. 479 (for the attribution of a doctrine entailing a kind of transmigration to the “literalists”, i.e., those who believe that “bodily resurrection” entail resurrection in the earthly body).

[9]. Ta‘liqàt, p. 476.

[10]. Ta‘liqàt, p. 479.

[11]. Wisdom of the Throne, p. 140; Ta‘liqàt, p. 479.

[12]. Sadr al-Din al-Shiràzi, Kitàb al-mashà‘ir, (ed. with French translation, Henry Corbin), Institut Francais d'iranologie de Teheran, Tehran, 1982, p. 61, Where Mullà Sadrà is quoting an unnamed authority for this principle, and agreeing with it.

[13]. Ibn Babawayh, A Shi'ite Creed, (trans. and ed. A. A. A. Fyzee), World Organization for Islamic Services, Tehran, 1982, p. 48.

[14]. Kitàb al-mashà‘ir, p. 62.

[15]. Kitàb al-i‘tiqàd, p. 48.

[16]. Kitàb al-mashà‘ir, p. 62.

[17]. For example, see in general Kulayni, Usul al-kàfi (7 vols., ed. `Ali Akbar al-Ghaffari), Dar al-Kutub al-Islamiyya, Tehran, vol. 2, pp. 242-244, for an entire chapter on this subject.

[18]. Kitàb al-mashà‘ir, p. 62.

[19]. Wisdom of the Throne, p. 148.

[20]. Ta‘liqàt, p. 479; Wisdom of the Throne, p. 132.

[21]. Ta‘liqàt, p. 476.

[22]. Ta‘liqàt, p. 476; Wisdom of the Throne, p. 148.

[23]. Wisdom of the Throne, pp. 120-122.

[24]. Wisdom of the Throne, p. 161.

[25]. Ta‘liqàt, p. 476; Wisdom of the Throne, p. 146.

[26]. Ta‘liqàt, p. 480.

[27]. Wisdom of the Throne, p. 145; Ta‘liqàt, p. 480.

[28]. Ta‘liqàt, p. 476; Wisdom of the Throne, p. 146.

[29]. Wisdom of the Throne, p. 141.

[30]. For example, see Kitàb al-mashà‘ir, pp. 58-63, where he quotes the Shiite theologians, Ibn Bàbawayh and al-Shaykh al-Mufid, the Imàmi traditionist al-Saffàr al-Qummi's Basà'ir al-darajàt, as well as other Shiite traditions found in Kulayni's Usul al-kàfi and al-Sharif al-Radi's Nahj al-balàgha, a collection of the sayings of ‘Ali b. Abi Tàlib (a). See also Wisdom of the Throne, p. 141.

[31]. Kulayni, Usul al-kàfi, vol. 2, p. 2, h. l.

[32]. Ta‘liqàt, p. 479.

[33]. In Mullà Sadrà's words: “... the derived [substance i.e., the spiritual element in man derived from its pre-existent spiritual reality] does not attract its source to it; but it is, perhaps led toward the source. The caused does not constrain the cause, it is [the cause] which is re-integrated into [the cause] and which moves toward it.” Ta‘liqàt, p. 479.

[34]. Ta‘liqàt, p. 479.

[35]. Kulayni, Usul al-kàfi, vol. 2, pp. 6-7, h. 1, 2, 3.

[36]. Ibid., vol. 2, p. 8, h. l.

[37]. For Sunni traditions, see Tabari, Jami' al-bayan fi tafsir al-Qur'an, vol. 9, p. 76.

[38]. It should also be noted that Mullà Sadrà says that the final realization of the pure spirit or intellect in man this rare and final completion of the actualization of man in his earthly life cannot be acquired merely through human efforts, but it requires, in addition, “a certain divine attraction”(Wisdom of the Throne, p. 132).

[39]. Wisdom of the Throne, p. 150.

[40]. Wisdom of the Throne, p. 138; Ta‘liqàt, p. 476.

[41]. Wisdom of the Throne, pp. 105-108.

[42]. Ta‘liqàt, p. 479.

[43]. Kulayni, Usul al-kàfi, vol. 2, pp. 8-10, h. 2.

[44]. Kulayni, Usul al-kàfi, vol. l, p. 160, h. 13. See, in general, Kulayni, Usul al-kàfi, vol. l, pp. 155-160 for other formulations and elaborations of this basic principle.

[45]. Sadr al-Din al-Shiràzi, Risàlàt khalq al-a'mal”, in Majmu'eh-i rasa'il-i falsafi-yi Sadr al-muta'allihin (ed, IIamid Naji Isfahani), Hikmat Publications, Tehran, 1996, pp. 276-277.


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