Mulla Sadra and the Doctrine of Trans-Substantial Motion


Golbaba Saidi


Among those philosophers and thinkers who have played a significant role in the dissemination of knowledge and the intellectual development of human beings, we encounter some people with a high scientific and philosophical status who have succeeded in taking a big step towards the promotion of human knowledge through establishing a new school of thought and yielding their philosophical innovations.

Of course, all those who are involved with philosophy and human thought are familiar with Mulla Sadra and his philosophy. The great philosopher, Sadr al-Millah wa’l Din Muhammad b. Ibrahim b. Yahya Qawami Shirazi, known as Sadr al-Muta’allihin or Mulla Sadra, is considered one of the greatest Muslim scholars and philosophers of the time. He was born in Shiraz and passed away in Basra in 1050 A.H. (lunar) on his way back from the hajj pilgrimage. His father, Mirza Ibrahim, was among the aristocrats of Shiraz, and it has been said that he held a ministerial post. Sadr al-Muta’allihin was his only son. Many books have been written about Mulla Sadra’s life and experiences as well as his philosophy. What distinguishes this philosopher from other Muslim philosophers is his specific philosophical approach, which created a great change in the world of philosophy and thought. He introduced amazingly new ideas through his “Transcendent Theosophy” which covers all his theological, mystical, philosophical, and scientific ideas. In Mulla Sadra’s school of thought, all philosophical, mystical, and theological problems, which are differently interpreted by the Peripatetics and Illuminatists, are solved. Yet, his school is not regarded as an eclectic one, but as a philosophical system by which he has succeeded in expounding various intellectual methods in a single and independent philosophical school. Following a rational approach, he has managed to express the philosophical problems in a way similar to that of the mystics. In other words, he has synthesized intuitive wisdom with demonstrative wisdom, and then mixed both of them with experimental and polemic wisdom and represented his own school of thought under the title of the “Transcendent Philosophy”. However, what has made him famous is his impressive philosophical innovation called the doctrine of “trans-substantial motion”. His name and “trans-substantial motion” are so tightly associated with each other that they remind us of the association between the name of Newton and his theory of “General Gravitation” or that between Einstein and “General Relativity”. In fact, the deep impact of this doctrine on Islamic philosophy and culture is not less than those of the two above-mentioned scientific discoveries on the realms of history, science, and thought. It is a pity; however, that Mulla Sadra’s ideas have often remained unknown and, except for a few people who have discovered the depth of high principles of Islamic philosophy and devoted all their power to a profound learning of original Islamic thoughts, others have sufficed to a superficial understanding of his ideas. And here, there are some opportunist imposters who try to sell the worthless results of their works to the unwise like a precious commodity to plunder their thoughts. In the middle of this chaos, one can never remain silent and simply be a watcher of what they are doing.

The present article is an attempt to reintroduce an original viewpoint belonging to the treasure of thousands of Islamic teachings. The doctrine of “trans-substantial motion” was selected as the main theme of this paper for it establishes a comprehensive worldview and a series of complicated philosophical issues such as “origination and eternity”, “motion and time”, “spirit and body”,  “creation and resurrection”, and the like could be clarified by resorting to it as a single criterion. A part of this article is also devoted to an explanation of the issue of motion, its universality, and its philosophical consequences.


Motion and the Related Ideas

What is motion and how could one explain it? Is it a quality or a state, or something else? If we deliberate on the qualities and states of things, we find out that all of them, including color, heat, volume, weight, etc., enjoy some kind of stability and rest and altogether characterize the existence of a thing. However, stability is not consistent with motion and, unlike form and color and the like, invites the thing to leave itself. The question is what kind of attributes motion and change are. Is the thing stable in itself and these are its states which change? Does the thing itself change with all its existence? Is it true that there is no motion at all in the world? Such questions have always attracted the attention of philosophers and scholars, and since the ancient times, they have found it very difficult to provide a convincing answer to the question of motion. However, they have found out that motion and change are qualities different from any other quality and; therefore, they have paid special attention to it and proposed different ideas in this regard which will be briefly pointed out here.

The first sage who believed in the general flow and diffusion of existence was the well-known naturalist philosopher of the 5th century BC, Heraclitus. He was so obsessed by the world of motion and change that he regarded instability and becoming as the origin of everything and denied the existence of anything stable in the world. He assimilated the world to a river that is always in a state of motion and has no rest even for a single moment. He said “you can never swim in the same river twice since other waters are always flowing into it.” Contrary to him, other philosophers such as Anexagoras and Parmenides refuted the existence of motion relying on their own reasons. Particularly, Parmenides, who is among the founders of the philosophy of metaphysics, regarded the world as consisting of the same substance everywhere and denied the existence of any kind of motion and instability. He considered motion and change as being illusory and unreal and believed that stability and unity govern the world, and that being is always immutable and motionless. He also stated that what is seen as plurality and change is nothing but an illusion, since believing in the reality of multiplicity and change leads to contradiction, and that is what wisdom resists to accept. Zeno, one of the 5th century BC philosophers, who was a disciple of Parmenides accepted his master’s ideas on negating the theory of motion and proving unity. Through proof by reductio ad absurdum and indirect reasoning, he proved that the reality of the multiplicity and motion would lead to an impossible result. That is why Aristotle introduced Zeno as the founder of indirect reasoning. His arguments for negating motion and proving stability are known as Zeno’s paradoxes. Empedocles, the other thinker of the 5th century BC, tried to make a compromise between the schools of multiplicity and unity. He assumed that everything in the world has been created out of the four elements of fire, air, water, and earth, stimulated either by love or hatred. These elements join to each other by the power of love and are separated by the power of hatred. With regard to cosmology, Democritus and Leucippus, two other philosophers of the same century, argued that the world consisted of two things: vacuum and matter. Matter is divided to tiny and indivisible particles called “atoms”. In fact, they attributed the origin of changes in things to their internal motions. To get more acquainted with the opinions of different philosophers on motion, it would be useful to have a shift to the different definitions provided for motion by philosophers. On the whole, all the definitions can be expressed in three general and comprehensive frameworks as presented below:

1. Most ancient philosophers defined motion in terms of a gradual change. They said: “motion means the gradual change of a thing from potentiality to actuality.” And considering the components of this definition, the sages state that existents are of two types with respect to potentiality and actuality: The first type consists of those existents that are pure actuality and have no potency for perfection such as the Essence of the Truth, which is pure actuality and is not prone to motion. The other type includes those existents that, due to their acquired perfection, are in a state of actuality, and due to its loss, are in a state of potentiality and preparedness. Evidently, everything that has a predisposition for attaining perfection can move from potentiality to actuality. Since, if it is impossible to actualize perfection, it is revealed that the existent lacked perfection right from the beginning. Of course, there is disagreement among Islamic philosophers on whether the primary hyle is pure potentiality and no actuality can penetrate it. For example, Ibn Sina and others denied it and regarded its existence as being impossible.

2. The second definition is provided by Aristotle, Ibn Sina and their followers. Aristotle was the first philosopher who criticized the definition given by ancient sages and, in his definition, he completely took the opposite route. Following Aristotle, Ibn Sina and most Muslim philosophers have excluded terms such as “gradual” and “time” from their definitions to support that of Aristotle. They state that neither “gradual” nor “time” should be used in the definition of motion, since the meaning of “gradual” entails the meaning of “time”, and time itself is the measure of motion and is defined in terms of motion. They maintain that in defining motion in terms of time and time in terms of motion one enters a vicious circle. Aristotle defines motion in this way: “motion is the first perfection for those existents that have the potential for gaining perfections other than what they already possess.” For example, the child has the actuality of childhood and the potentiality to become a youth, sage, scholar, etc., and can gain these perfections through motion; therefore, his primary perfection is motion and the attainable ones are his secondary perfections. Hence, the perfections of existents are divided into primary and secondary ones. Compared to motion, all perfections are secondary and motion is primary. However, there is only one existent in the world that is actually perfect in all aspects, and free from potentiality for perfection, and it is nothing but the Essence of the Truth. Even the intellects and abstract souls have matter and potentiality in a general sense, and the limit of their quiddity and essential contingency is their very matter and potentiality.

3. The third definition is attributed to Pythagoras, Plato, and some Muslim philosophers. Pythagoras defined motion as absolute otherness and becoming. Plato also defined motion in the same sense and in line with the way Fakhr al-Din Razi presented Pythagoras’s definition in his Mabahith al-mashriqiyyah. Pythagoras defines motion in terms of otherness and he probably means that the state of the thing in this very moment is other than its states in the previous and the next moment. Evidently, Pythagoras’s definition does not match the other definitions for motion. According to his definition, although motion in things causes changes in their states, the existence of change in the world does not mean motion, since, when compared with each other, the quality of change applies to all existents. After interpreting motion in an Aristotelian sense in Physics of al-Shifa, Ibn Sina rejects the Pythagorean definition relying on the following reasoning:

Some philosophers have defined motion in terms of otherness since it leads to a change of states and causes transformation in the already existing thing. However, they are unaware that what causes change is not necessarily otherness and what causes something is not necessarily the same as that thing. If otherness were motion, every other thing would be a moving thing whereas it is not the case. Plato’s idea is also in agreement with that of Pythagoras. Contrary to what Ibn Sina claims, a group of thinkers such as al-Kindi, Farabi, and Isma‘ili philosophers share the same views with Plato in the definition of motion. Having construed motion as absolute change and a kind of transformation and due to not believing in gradualness in the nature of motion, they have considered corruption and creation as two kinds of the six-fold motions in describing the kinds of motion. On the other hand, theologians define motion as follows: “motion is the first engendered existence (kawn) in the second place and stillness is the second engendered existence in the first place.” In this way, they regard motion as consisting of engendered existence things, time as consisting of moments, and the body as being a composite of indivisible components. By the engendered existence thing they mean the first motion which is the moving agent of the same moment in the second place; and the stillness of everything is in opposition to its motion that is similar to the opposition between non-existence and permanence. Finally, in his “Hikmat-i ilahi”, Ilahi Qumsha'i, the jurisprudent philosopher, regards motion as the first act of love and the origin of all existents. He argues that since we consider the Necessary Being as the agent by love in terms of activity, then motion is His first act through which blessings are descended to contingents. Motion could be called the self-disclosure of act or the illumination of Divine light on other than God. It could also be regarded as the existential fiat “kawn” and the divine soul. In a general sense, motion is the first emanated, the first effusion, the single intermediary between the eternal and the originated, and the self-disclosure of the absolute light on the dark bodies of contingent things. According to the definitions provided by philosophers and theologians, motion is a spatially and bodily particular affair. This is not the same as the general meaning of motion which, of course, seems a comprehensive definition for motion to the author of this article.


The Renewal of Images and Trans-Substanitial Motion

Since there are certain similarities between “trans-substantial motion” as an important philosophical doctrine and the “renewal of images (tajaddud-i amthal)” proposed by the mystics, it is necessary to provide a brief account of the issue here. The renewal of images means that the existence of possible beings is in continuous change and transformation at any given moment in the form of dressing after undressing. In other words, the previously existing thing will always be completely annihilated and a new life will be breathed in it which is image to the previous one. That is why the mystics say: “no existent will ever survive for two successive moments.” By existent they mean all contingent existents including substances or accidents, and not only the accidental existents as proposed by Ash’ari theologians who say “the accident will not survive for two successive moments.” The term the “renewal of images” is derived from the Holy Qu'ran saying: “That We may transfigure you and make you what ye know not “ (56: 61) and “… yet they are in doubt about a new creation.” (50: 15) and “… Every day He exerciseth (universal) power” (55: 29).

To what is “…Every day He exerciseth…”  pointing?

It means that there is no end for the qualities of your perfection;

There is no end for the manifestation of your beauty;

Every time another ecstasy is revealed.

However, there are differences of opinions among mystics, philosophers, and theologians concerning the renewal of images and trans-substantial motion; for a mystic obtains the realities through revelation, illumination, and internal intuition while a philosopher is interested in rational demonstrations and syllogisms, and a theologian is entirely interested in religious issues. Yet, the illuminationist philosophers believe in the principle of the renewal of images and consider trans-substantial motion as being subordinate to it and generalize it to all the world, from accident to substance, material or immaterial. However, the Ash‘ari theologians consider it as one of the characteristics of accidents; Mu‘tazali theologians and the Peripatetic philosophers do not believe in the renewal of images and trans-substantial motion at all. Among the earlier Mu‘tazali theologians it was only the well-known scholar of the 2nd century (H), Nazzam Basri, who believed in the renewal of images and considered it as including both accidents and substances. Of course, a thorough discussion on the renewal of images and all the different ideas of mystics, philosophers, and theologians in this regard is not possible here. Hence, for the sake of brevity and sticking to the point, it is enough to say that the renewal of images is the foundation of Mulla Sadra’s trans-substantial theosophy; however, it is emphasized that there are differences between Mulla Sadra’s trans-substantial motion and the principle of the “renewal of images”. On the one hand, the subject of the renewal of images is existence itself while the subject of trans-substantial motion, in Mulla Sadra’s view, is the hyle or matter, which is acquired substantially. On the other hand, the renewal of images is applied to all the world of existence including the immaterials or materials; while as Mulla Sadra says, trans-substantial motion is not allowed in the world of immaterial and separate substances, since the state of expectation does not exist in that world and it entirely consists of actuality.

The main difference here is that the renewal of images includes both accidents and substances directly, while trans-substantial motion is directly related to substances and accidents are subordinated to them. For example, the quantitative and qualitative motions are subordinated to trans-substantial motion. Above all, according to Mulla Sadra, the nature, which is the subject of motion, has two aspects: existence and renewal. Existence is made (maj‘ul) while renewal is not, since renewal or becoming is an essential quality of nature and; therefore, it does not require a cause. But in the renewal of images the subject and object of renewal are nothing but a quality with subjective existence that is subject to simple and not composite making itself.

Now, it is necessary to explain trans-substantial motion from Mulla Sadra’s point of view to better clarify the differences between trans-substantial motion and the renewal of images.

From long ago, philosophers had different opinions concerning the subject or category of motion. To make the issue clearer, it is emphasized that the Peripatetic philosophers believed in one substance and nine categories of accidents and called the collection of them the “ten-fold categories”. One category was substance and the nine categories of accidents included quantity, quality, place, relation, situation, limit, action, and reaction. They defined substance and accident as follows: substance is a quiddity that does not need any subject in the outside; on the contrary, accident is not independent, and must be realized in a subject. Aristotle believes that motion occurs in the three accidental categories of quantity, quality, and place.

Ibn Sina adds another category to the above-mentioned categories and considers motion as occurring in four categories of quantity, quality, place and situation. An example for the quantitative motion is the growth of man and tree. For qualitative motion we can refer to the change in color or taste or one of the material characteristics of objects. Man’s walking or throwing a stone represent motion in place, and motion in situation can be exemplified by the change in the components of an object in relation to its surrounding and in relation to the components themselves, like the rotation of a globe around its own axis. In addition to these four categories, Mulla Sadra’s trans-substantial motion includes motion in the category of substance, too. He believes that motion is allowed in five categories; however, he regards motion as originally belonging to substance and accordingly to accidents. To prove trans-substantial motion, in addition to bringing evidence from the Holy Qu’ran and statements and works of great thinkers which implicitly or explicitly support his claim, he proceeds to present some rational reasons from the works of great thinkers as presented below:

1. We believe it to be an axiomatic and primary rule that every accident leads to a substance; thus all accidental motions should lead to trans-substantial motion, for motions in quality, quantity, place, and situation are motions in accidents and should lead to motion in essence and substance. The appearance of change and transformation in accidents suggests change in their essence and substance, since change is rooted in the thing itself and originates from within. The external factors just prepare the thing to walk in the path of change and move from within. In other words, the accident has a subordinate existent whose existence depends on the existence of substance. Then, upon the change in accident, we can necessarily conclude that substance which is the center and support for accident has also changed. To illustrate the issue we can refer to a passenger on a bus as an example for accident. He plays no role in going on the way and if he travels a distance it is because the bus was in movement. Thus, all the objects of the world are subject to motion.

2. Concerning the homogeneity of cause and effect it should be said that effect should suggest cause and be similar to it. Hence, the cause of an unchanging existent must be unchangeable and the cause of a renewing and changing existent should be a renewable and changeable one. Since the accidents of objects are the effects caused by and emanated from substance, then renewal and change in accidents suggest renewal in substance and indicate the occurrence of motion in essence and substance of things. By acknowledging the necessity of homogeneity of cause and effect and believing that effect is a descended manifestation of cause, one must admit that the substance of objects is in continuous renewal, origination, and change so that it can cause renewal and origination in its quantity and other accidental qualities. In this regard, philosophers say that the existence of accident in itself is the same as the existence of object; therefore, the accident has no independent existence compared to substance, and accident is the same as the connected and mortal existence in the existence of object. Accordingly, accidents depend on substance in their existence and attributes. In sum, renewal and origination in accidents stem from renewal and origination in substance.

3. The third argument arises from the discussion of the renewal of images. As mentioned before, theologians believed in the discontinuity of renewal and the renewal of images with regard to accidents; that is, in every moment the subject has an individuality other than what it possessed in the previous and next moment. On the contrary, mystics and those interested in research on substances and accidents have proved the renewal of images and believe that the effusion of existence dominates contingent quiddities at every moment; however, because of the similarity among these effusions, superficial people do not pay attention to their renewal and changes. Hence, it is possible to prove the change in substances and accidents through the renewal of images in contingents, and claim that the principles for existence are the same as those for quiddity and the change in the existence of substance is the same as the change in substance, and the change in the existence of accidents is the same as the change in accidents themselves.

4. The fourth argument represents Mulla Sadra’s view. He maintains that there is a goal for each being in its process of development which is obtained over time. It is through unity that one can reach it; that is, when the moving thing leaves the stages of perfection behind, it becomes the same as the very goal itself at the end of the movement. According to him, the material intellect, after reaching the level of the acquired intellect unites with the active intellect and this requires trans-substantial motion and a change in essence. Those who believe in trans-substantial motion, by resorting to the renewal of sciences, maintain that substances should be essentially in motion. The rational soul is also in a state of continuous change and reaches the level of desired perfection and unites with the active intellect due to the renewal of forms.


A Criticism on the Ibn Sina’s Objection

Like Aristotle and Farabi, Ibn Sina denies motion in the category of substance. In the third chapter of the second article of al-Shifa’s Physics, he says: “it is only metaphorically that we might talk about motion in substance, for motion does not occur at all in this category, because both the corruption and origination of substance occur all at once and there is not an intermediary point between its pure potentiality and pure actuality.” He also adds that the archetype of the object of motion must remain constant from the beginning to the end of motion in all situations; therefore, if we assume that the substance of the object remains the same as it was prior to motion, there will be no change in substance, whether sudden or gradual. And the resulting change of that motion can be seen in one of the qualities of substance such as transfer from one point to another which is motion in place; or man’s movement from ignorance to knowledge, which is motion in mental quality, etc. By resorting to apparently reliable reasons, he denies motion in the category of substance. Unfortunately, it is not possible to refer to all his reasons in this short article.

Using a series of profound and complicated sentences, Mulla Sadra replies: motion, whether in the four accidents or in substance, is always accompanied by the transmission of the moving thing from one individual of that category to another, or from a species to another, and if you consider the object of motion unchangeable in the motion of accidents, the object by itself and without its accidental characteristics is not adequate for being an object, but the individuated object can identify as an object only with a member of that accidental category, and the latter will not remain unchangeable during motion by itself; therefore, in accidental motion, the object does not remain the same in qualities; in other words, when an object is moving in a quality which includes both substance and accident, it assumes another quality at each moment, but the collection of these qualities produces a change because of their connection. Therefore, the sole meaning of trans-substantial motion is that when the object moves in itself, it assumes a different entity at every moment; these entities, however, because of their existential continuity appear as an individual entity. Hence, one can speak of the subsistence of object along with its trans-substantial change, or as Ilahi Qumsha’i in his  “Hikmat-i ilahi ” (Divine Wisdom) argues, the substance remains constant in states in motion. What remains constant despite the change in substance at all grades of motion is the reality of that substantial nature, whether genus or archetype, and the motion occurs in an individual of that nature or its archetypes. Since the accidental and substantial quiddities are separated form the grades of existence and existence is subject to gradation and has strengths and weaknesses, the existence of substance and the accident of its quiddity are also graded and have strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, the object of motion in trans-substantial motion of that nature is preserved in the grades of intensity and transmission in grades. What does not remain constant in motion is the levels of substance, and what remains constant in all grades is the real nature of substance. Therefore, the answer to Ibn Sina’s objection is that matter or the pure form as an obscure and absolute entity remains constant at all levels in trans-substantial and accidental motion; and this very obscure entity is sufficient for being a subject. That is, the subject possesses an absolute and obscure time and place in accidental motion and these are the levels of “place” which are in motion, and the subject itself enjoys some absolute qualities such as knowledge, temperature, or sweetness. Therefore, growth which is a quantitative motion would not be possible without “quantity” and transmutation which is a qualitative motion would not be possible without quality. Motion in substance, also, would not be possible without substance and trans-substantial nature; however, in trans-substantial motion the essence of substances and accidents is not corrupted and annihilated by the essence of motion, but an individual of their category changes to another one. Therefore, there is no distinction between the accidental and trans-substantial motion since the moving agent does not remain the same with all its qualities at the moment of motion and just one moment after it, and all this lies in the nature of motion. Much has been said in this regard including Mulla Sadra’s reasoning and his answer to Ibn Sina’s objection; nevertheless, to grasp the real depth of Mulla Sadra’s ideas, one requires much more information and deliberation which is out of the patience of this paper.


The Consequences of Trans-Substantial Motion

The theory of trans-substantial motion has a series of important consequences, some of which are presented below:

1. The world needs a creator. As mentioned before, motion exists in the substance of material things like a fluid phenomenon, and the magnificent system of creation which knows no rest and peace even for a single moment, is always in a state of change and transformation and; therefore, requires a mover. For if there does not exist a mover, all motions in the system of nature would entirely stop their existence.

2. The problem of the origination and eternity of the world has been explained and solved desirably within the framework of trans-substantial motion. According to this doctrine, all particles of the world are in temporal origination at every moment so that the whole has no entity other than the entities of its components and, like them, it is originated; hence no beginning can be found for this origination. On the other hand, time is defined as the measure of motion and exists in the substance of objects, and everything should be imagined with its specific time and motion; other wise, it will be imperfect. In other words, time is not an objective reality, separate from the essence of things. It is a mentally-posited quality resulting from motion in the essence of objects. If we understand the meaning of time, the meaning of the eternity of God and the immaterial existents, which are separate from matter, would be completely clear. Eternity is a reality which lies out of the realm of time. By interpreting the world as a kind of motion which is in the process of beginning, becoming, and need at every moment, the absurdity of the debate among theologians and philosophers on this issue becomes evident. The same holds true with respect to questions such as when the world was created, whether it is originated or eternal, etc. The world needs a creator at any time and, in this regard, there is no distinction between the world of the past and present, since time is a mentally-posited entity. The world is nothing but motion; and time, which is the fourth dimension of matter, is also motion and both of them need a creator.

3. The whole world is moving toward an immaterial end. As mentioned before, motion is the transformation of potentiality to actuality; and all the material world is always in a kind of change from potentiality to actuality and this motion cannot continue for ever and should have a direction and an end. Evidently, the end is something other than the material world itself. In Mulla Sadra’s philosophy, motion is a fluid existence and changes from potentiality to actuality, thus it must finally lead to an unchangeable and immaterial thing. Of course, the material world will continue its general and subordinate motion. Here, real existence belongs to that goal or end which is an idea of the witnessed world; in other words, the motion of the existent (mawjud) from the material world to the other world is, in fact, a journey from the inferior self to the superior so that the origin and the moving thing are the same. In its continuous motion, the universe traverses the various stages of the motion until it reaches the end which is the resurrection day. The final stage of motion is a cosmological quality at a level higher than that of material existents. There are a number of references to this fact in the Holy Qu’ran as follows: “ Do not all things reach Allah at last?” (42: 53), “Allah’s is the sovereignty of the heavens and earth and all that is between them, and unto Him is journeying” (5: 18). These verses directly indicate the presence of motion and change in the world and testify to the existence of a goal or end for motion, which is the Divine Presence. Leaving the outward behind and finding refuge in the inward is the same as reaching the Hereafter. Mulla Sadra has clearly expounded this fact by discovering the inner motion.

All in all, it is emphasized that what was said was just a summary of Mulla Sadra’s arguments for proving trans-substantial motion. A thorough explanation of the issue that is inevitably accompanied by some negative and positive viewpoints requires a more complete discussion which is out of the patience of this paper.


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