Ibn Sina and Mulla Sadra’s Arguments Against Tanasukh in the Afterlife of Souls

                                                                                                              Kiki Kennedy-Day

In considering the question of physical resurrection, one must determine the purpose of resurrection, and by extension, the Afterlife. For Ibn Sina, the reward of the Afterlife is contemplating God and the Intelligibles. The highest form of pleasure in Paradise is mental and spiritual. When a soul prepares itself for the vision of God by contemplation and developing the intellect it will be able to enjoy the highest level of Paradise. Ibn Sina describes physical pleasures as either for those who do not understand mental pleasures or as the symbol of spiritual pleasures. Therefore, the purpose of resurrection is to raise souls, the part of human beings which is perfectible, from their resting places in Ibn Sina’s view. Bodies are corruptible and difficult. They give us nothing but trouble while we live, and we should not desire to be re-embodied after the separation of soul and body at death.

Ibn Sina sets up his arguments in al-Adhawiyyah by discussing some Qur’anic descriptions of the last day, such as God coming in “canopies of clouds”.[1] This, and the well-known reference to God’s hand and face, are examples of metaphorical description. Ibn Sina also mentions the description of Paradise as the garden, with flowing streams of wine and milk, fruits, and voluptuous maidens. From the understanding of the descriptions of God as metaphorical, Ibn Sina trusts the reader to understand that the descriptions of Paradise are also metaphorical, that the true pleasure of Paradise is experiencing God.

On the other hand, Ibn Sina shows that he is fully aware that some people believe in reincarnation. He gives the following descriptions of various reincarnationists:

One sect holds an opinion that there is a return to bodies; they are the people of reincarnation.      

Another group holds the opinion that souls return to bodies in the material world and they are conveyed to the bodies. . . . As for the reincarnationists, they are divided in their opinions:

One group allows the return of a soul in all kinds of growing bodies, whether plant or animal. The second is the group who only allow reincarnation into the bodies of animals. Third, another group only allows entry of human souls into other human beings. Then there is a group who believes in reincarnation for the craving (al-shaqiyyah) soul until it becomes perfect and it is prepared to be purified of matter. Another sect makes reincarnation obligatory for all souls: both the wretched and the happy; the wretched come into natural bodies and the fortunate into agreeable bodies and spirits.[2]

For Ibn Sina, the soul will reach God through its intellect. His position is that the soul which is more developed, that is the soul that has developed its intellectual abilities, and has tried to comprehend the Intelligibles, will be able to fully enjoy heaven in the Afterlife. These are the higher souls. Lower souls, which are less developed intellectually, will be appeased with lesser pleasures. But the known enticements of Paradise–wine, houris, gardens–these are not the true delights. This is only a manner of speaking that the common people understand. The common people would not work to be good and follow religion if you actually told them their reward would be contemplating the Intelligibles, because they are not advanced enough to understand this. However, Ibn Sina never comes straight out and denies the existence of a physical Paradise, he keeps repeating that the utterances are metaphorical, symbolic or obscure.

Mulla Sadra extends Ibn Sina’s ideas further. He says that the body and soul develop in tandem. (His discussion of the origination of souls is not quite the same; as will be discussed below.) However, the body and soul are joined in life on earth. They work together and affect each other whether positively or negatively. Thus, a bad soul becomes worse through its actions and remains locked into its corporeality even after death. Although the body belonging to it has died, such a soul has not freed itself from material connections. The object of life on earth for Sadra was for the soul to move to a high intellectual plane. As a human being becomes intellectually and spiritually higher, the soul becomes more individuated and frees itself from mortal concerns. But regardless of whether souls develop well or badly, all souls develop; this is a process. In this sense when people die their souls have finished developing on earth.

Thus the soul cannot be reborn. It would make no sense for a soul to go through this process another time. It is as if the soul’s goal in life is to transform the body also into a spiritual being by developing the intellect. This will allow the soul to move on to the next level after death. In al-Asfar Sadra discusses in detail how a soul grows in stages and cannot repeat these stages after they are completed.[3] In the third stage, the soul experiences the life of the Intelligibles and the intellect. Once a soul passes through this stage it cannot be repeated, therefore there is no reincarnation. Throughout its life the soul passes from potentiality to actuality. It cannot then be stripped again of actuality. To be re-connected with another body, such as a beast, it would have to be totally stripped of all its characteristics, which is impossible.

In a further argument, Ibn Sina concludes that both pleasure and pain rest with the consciousness of pleasure or pain. Consciousness is a mental activity. It belongs to the intellect. Ibn Sina says the options are: bodily resurrection (without the soul); the soul’s resurrection (without a corporeal body); or resurrection of both together.[4] Sadra says in al-Mabda’:

The reality of the return (al-ma‘ad) is that in the return there is by itself the body of the individualized human person which died in its constituent parts in itself, not something resembling it, inasmuch as if one saw it he would say that it is in itself so-and-so who was on earth.[5]

Mulla Sadra interprets the body of the next life as a projection of the soul’s deeds and characteristics. He rejects the soul’s union with another body. For him, as for most of the philosophers the soul’s union with another body is a form of reincarnation, and therefore unacceptable. This includes any other body, even a replica of its original body. The philosophers tend to understand the idea of the soul’s re-union with a body after the death of the original body as reincarnation (tanasukh). Resurrection, as the reappearance of a previously-existing physical body, is contrary to the laws of both nature and logic. In terms of the laws of physics, matter once destroyed cannot be remade. A new substance, a new creation would be made out of the old elements maybe, but it would not be the self-same body a soul enjoyed in life. Plus there is the tedious question that the same matter is used over and over on earth, as bodies die, decay and are recycled through other organisms. Logically, nothing can be remade numerically identical to its first appearance in the physical world. The philosophers do not see that God’s following the limits of logic is a curtailment of God’s power. Rather it is a question of creation following a logical order. To think otherwise is illogical.

Both Ibn Sina and Mulla Sadra emphasize the symbolic or imaginative (non-literal) nature of the resurrection.

Mulla Sadra considers the body’s form to be a projection of the soul, which is a rather more extensive rendering of Ibn Sina’s ideas in the Adhawiyyah. Philosophers consider tanasukh (reincarnation or transmigration) to be nearly the same as bodily resurrection–as the separated soul is rejoined to a body. Therefore their arguments against tanasukh are an intrinsic part of their views on resurrection and the Afterlife. For Sadra, “. . . every separated soul’s substance (jawhar) must necessarily become a phantom, the like of which is raised from it because of its spiritual (nafsiyyah) character traits, ethics and external shapes. . .”[6] Immediately preceding this statement, he said that the inclinations, motions, shape and particular perfections of bodies in the earlier life leads to the phantoms in the Hereafter. The phantom bodies of the Hereafter are an analogy with the souls.[7]

In his comments on the Futahat in al-Asfar, Sadra repeats Ibn ‘Arabi’s remarks that spirits (ruh) make bodies alive, they are the forms of natural bodies.[8] Since one knows that, then is the essence of that spirit the essence (‘ayn) of the form in which it is apparent, or is it that in the essence of what is seen–like the blueness of the skies–or is it the spirit of that form like the spirit of the body, that is the rational soul; and that form is the true form? It exists like the rest of the true forms. These questions lead back to Ibn Sina’s position that a soul cannot be reincarnated because it belongs intimately to the body it lived with.

For Mulla Sadra soul and body have influenced each other, whether for good or evil, and have stamped each other with their identity. Once a soul has been connected to a body, and interacted with the body, it gains an identity, in connection with that body. He says:

The two of them (body and soul) emerge together from potentiality to actuality and the degrees of potentiality and actuality in each soul itself (mu‘ayyaniah) as compared with the degrees of potentiality and actuality in its particular body by which it continued when the bodily (aspect) was attached to the soul. And what is the soul except what emerges from potentiality to actuality in matter as its embodied shape.[9]

The soul cannot later go on and connect to another body, because it has a previously developed identity. So if a soul or spirit (ruh) gives a body form, how can it have another body? The more one reads Sadra the more one realizes that, like Ibn Sina, all his arguments come back to the fact that the soul is not replaceable for or interchangeable in different bodies.

Sadra is not as specific as Ibn Sina about the soul and body affinity in the beginning, rather individuality is treated differently in each philosopher. In a way it is hard to see how souls remain individual for Ibn Sina while Sadra asserts they are more individual after the death of the body. For Sadra the soul’s trajectory begins as an un-individuated, perhaps pre-existing form. It unites with a body and by its experiences with this composite entity, the soul evolves from potentiality to actuality, from vagueness to particularity. When the soul sheds the body at death it is a particular individual, and the higher its intellectual spiritual plane is, the more it is sui generis. On the other hand, for Ibn Sina, the soul was originally individual in some (unknown) sense, as it was attracted to and joined with a particular body because of that affinity. If that human leads a good life the person becomes less individual, not more, in contemplating the Intelligibles and looking to God in a spiritual, intellectual way. Thus, although both philosophers describe a similar arc, they envision the final results differently.

However, after its life the soul can project imaginally a different body based on its appetites and the life of that soul, according to Mulla Sadra. This is not really reincarnation, because it is not a corporeal being, if it appears as an animal, this is a kind of phantom of characteristics.

Ibn Sina has similar views about transformation based on characteristics. He says:

As for what is correct of the wise men's sayings in their allegories and metaphors, it is said that for every impious soul it is the case that it descends from its body, to a body resembling the nature of its major vice, until it is freed from matter. So, for example, the one whose vice leans toward lusts (appetites), is shifted to the body of a pig, while the one whose vice is in the direction of anger is shifted to a thing resembling the body of a lion, so that if a man had a vice in regard to social intercourse (dissolution in social relations) and he was low, reincarnation will be in the body of a fish. If he had been a hunter his soul will be reincarnated in the kind of animal which he used to hunt.[10]

It correlates with Sufi views of seeing the true reality in the next world, not this world.

In the Najat Ibn Sina says:

There is no doubt that the soul, when it exists as an individual, has the principle of its individuality to connect it with the external appearances which then earmark it as an individual. It is what differentiates it as an individual. These external appearances are the determinant to particularizing the soul by that body.  An affinity to the right match (Salah) is one of them (body and soul) to the other–this state and this affinity is obscure to us. . . . As for the separation [of the soul] from body, the souls already exist each one of them as a separate essence by the differentiation of their matter which they were, by the differentiation of the time of their origination, and their external appearances on account of which their bodies are inevitably differentiated in their conditions.[11]

In other words, for Ibn Sina, there is some aspect of individuality and attraction between the body and soul of an individual. Souls are not interchangeable, rather the appropriate body and soul come into being at the same time. As pure form, without matter, the soul cannot pre-exist the body or there would be one undifferentiated universal soul. The type of affinity they have for each other we cannot know or understand; it is a mystery to us. Ibn Sina is emphatic that individual souls do not pre-exist the bodies.

For Ibn Sina, the soul had an affinity for one body. This affinity, which causes a particular soul and body to bond, is of a mysterious nature. Mulla Sadra states that a spirit cannot enter another body on the death of the soul.

Despite all of his arguments and maneuverings in the end, Ibn Sina’s main argument against reincarnation is logical–that two souls cannot exist in one body.[12] Following Ibn Sina’s ideas, in Mulla Sadra’s opinion, it is not rational that half of an entity–which is body and soul–can become another entity which is what would happen if a formerly embodied soul were to attach to another body. In rejecting reincarnation, Mulla Sadra first reminds us of the soul’s essential connection with the body. Their composite being results in “essential substantive motion”. After this assertion he describes the soul’s journey from potentiality to actuality. If the generation of a body calls up a soul which is created for it, and another soul, which is being reincarnated also comes up, then a body will end up with two souls. Each body can only connect to a soul which individualizes it. The soul is responsible for particularizing this body.[13]

Ibn Sina quotes the verse, “There is not a wild beast roaming the earth nor a bird flying on two wings but they are communities like yourselves (S. 6.38)” in the middle of his discussion about reincarnation.[14] By the placement of this verse, immediately following the various ideas about reincarnation, he demonstrates that proponents of reincarnation think it has relevance to reincarnation. The proponents mentioned here who are believers in the Book (i.e. Muslims) claim not only that all animals have their own communities, but they share with us in being souls in potentiality. Does this mean, if they too have souls, that all creatures can reach the same level in the Afterlife? He lists the reincarnationists who think people are reborn as members of various animal tribes. Then he gives this quote. The two have the connection of some people using the verse to uphold reincarnation. This appears to be a weak argument, however, many authors quote this particular verse in discussions of the Afterlife.

For Sadra, the perfected souls will be hashur’d as actual intellects and will take their place as intellect in actuality. Souls that lack this craving for perfection will remain tied to matter even after the death of the body. They are hashur’d into an intermediate world, between the material world and the realm of Intelligibles. This is the realm of ghosts (‘alam al-ashbah al-miqdariyyah), the intermediate world. If the souls yearn for perfection they will go to Hell for a long time to be purified. The third type is the imperfect souls who will remain as animal souls, who are unable to cut themselves off from the senses. After the corruption of the body, they remain in the realm of the Barazakh (the realm between earth and heaven).[15]

Ibn Sina expressed his ideas about resurrection of the soul symbolically. The same is true for his analysis of resurrection.

Mulla Sadra took his ideas a step further. He expressed the ideas which Ibn Sina gave metaphorical and symbolic expression to as having a real existence. This existence was not on the plane of physical, bodily existence, but on a parallel level growing out of the imagination. Symbolism became more real, although it did not take physical form, it took a real symbolic, metaphysical form in Mulla Sadra. In this sense one may observe the seeds of Mulla Sadra’s thought in the writings of Ibn Sina.



[1]. Ibn Sínà, al-Adhawiyyah, p. 99; Qur’an S. 2: 210.

[2]. al-Adhawiyyah, p. 94-95.

[3]. al-Asfàr, v. 4, pt. 2, p. 21-22.

[4]. al-Adhawiyyah, p. 91.

[5]. al-Mabda’, p. 466.

[6]. al-Asfàr, v. 4, pt. 2, p. 31: 16 ff.

[7]. al-Asfàr, v. 4, pt. 2, p. 31: 21.

[8]. al-Asfàr, v. 4, pt. 2, p. 338: 6 ff.

[9]. al-Asfàr, v.4, pt.2,  p. 2: 14-17.

[10]. al-Adhawiyyah, p. 96.

[11]. al-Najàt, p. 223: 4-11.

[12]. See Michael Marmura, “Avicenna and the Problem of the Infinite Number of Souls,” in Medieval Studies, v. 22 (1960), pp. 232-239.

[13]. al-Asfàr, p. 10: 9-11. (This is a paraphrase.)

[14]. al-Adhawiyyah, p. 95: 10-11.

[15]. al-Asfàr, v. 4 pt. 2, p. 248-49.


- Ibn Sínà, al-Adhawiyyah fi al-ma‘àd, Beirut: al-Mu’assassah al-jami’ah al-dirasat, 1987.

- --------- al-Najàt. Ed. M. Fakhry, Beirut: Dar al-Afaq al-jadid, 1985.

- Mullà Sadrà, al-Hikmat al-muta‘àliyah fi al-Asfàr al-‘aqliyyah al-arba‘ah Tehran, 1959, v. 4, pt. 2.

- -------------- al-Mabda’ wa al-Ma‘àd, Beirut: Dar al-hadi, 2000.

- -------------- al-Shawàhid al-rububiyyah (Divine Witnesses), Mashad University Press, 1967.

- Rahman, F. The Philosophy of Mullà Sadrà, Albany; SUNY Press, 1975.

- ----------Avicenna’s Psychology (translation of K. al-Najat, Bk. 2, Ch. 6), Westport, CN: Hyperion Press, 1981 (reprint of 1952).



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