Tahafut al-Falasifa

(Incoherence of the Philosophers)


Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111 CE)

Translated into English from Urdu Translation by Sabih Ahmad Kamali


Problem XVI
Refutation of their theory that the souls of the heavens are aware of all the particulars which originate in the world


They say:

The Preserved Tablet means the souls, of the heavens. The impression of the particulars of the world upon the souls of the heavens is like the impression of the memorables upon the faculty of memory, which is located inside the brain of man. In neither of these two cases is that which receives impressions like a hard and broad body upon which writing is inscribed, as children write upon a slate. For the multiplicity of this writing requires something extended on which to be written. And if the writing is infinite, the material bearing it will be likewise infinite. But an infinite body is inconceivable; and infinite lines on a single body are not possible. And an infinite number of things cannot be delineated by a finite number of lines.


They assert that:

The heavenly angels are the souls of the heavens. The cherubim — i.e., the Favourite (or drawn-near) Angels — are the immaterial intelligences, i.e., self-subsisting substances, which do not exist in space, and which do not act upon bodies. It is from these intelligences that particular forms descend upon the heavenly souls. The intelligences are nobler than the heavenly souls. For the former give, while the latter receive. He who gives is nobler than he who receives. Therefore, the nobler of the two is symbolically called the Pen. Says God (exalted be He): 'He taught by the Pen.' The Pen is like the engraver which gives: like a teacher — whereas he who receives is comparable to a tablet.

(This is their thesis. Our criticism of it is to be different from the criticism of their thesis in the preceding problem. For what they said there is not impossible. It only purports to show that the heaven is a living being which moves by reason of a purpose. Now, that thesis is possible. But this one tends to affirm that a creature can have the knowledge of infinite particulars. Such a thing has actually been held to be impossible. Therefore, we demand that they prove it; for in itself it is but a claim.)


And they try to prove it by saying:

It has been proved that the rotatory motion of heaven is volitional. And will follows the thing willed. And a universal will can he directed towards an object of will that is universal. But from the universal will nothing proceeds. For every actual existent is definite and particular; while the universal will bears the same relation to all individual particulars. Therefore, nothing can proceed from it. It is necessary that there should be a particular will for a definite movement. Hence the sphere, in a definite and particular movement from one point to another definite point, has got to have a particular will for that movement. It follows that it has an imaginative representation of particular movements by means of a bodily faculty. For particular things are perceived by bodily faculties alone. And every will does of necessity depend on an imaginative representation — i.e., knowledge of the willed thing, be it particular or universal.

Since the sphere has an imaginative representation or comprehension of particular movements, it must by consequence comprehend all that necessarily follows from those movements — namely, the variety of its relations to the Earth, which result from the fact that some of its parts are rising, while others are setting; some are in the middle of the sky for some people, and down below for others. Similarly, the sphere knows the consequences of the difference of its relations which emerge anew from the movement, such as the six-sided or four-sided formations, or conjunction or opposition, and so on to all the celestial phenomena. And all the terrestrial phenomena are to be traced back to the celestial phenomena, either without any intermediary, or with one or more than one intermediary. In short, every thing which exists in time has a temporal cause, and so on, until in the ascending order the series comes to an end with the everlasting movements of the heavens, some of which movements are caused by others.

Thus the series of causes and effects reaches its upper limit in particular celestial movements. And that which has an imaginative representation of the movements must also have the representation of the consequences of those movements, and of the consquences of the consequences, and so on to the end of the series. Therefore, the sphere knows what will take place in the future; for the occurrence of all that is likely to take place becomes necessary by virtue of its cause, when the cause is realised. We do not know what will happen in the future; for we do not know all the causes of such happenings. We could know the effects, if we had the knowledge of the causes. For instance, if we knew that fire will come into contact with a piece of cotton at a particular time, we would know of the burning of that piece of cotton. Or when we know that a certain person will eat, we know that his hunger will be satisfied. Or when we know that a certain person will tread over a certain spot where a treasure lies hidden — beneath something so fragile that when someone walks over it, he is bound to stumble upon the treasure-we know that this man will become rich on account of the treasure. But we do not know these causes. Sometimes, a few of these causes are known to us; consequently, we have an intuitive anticipation of the occurrence of the effect. If we could know most of the causes, or the most powerful among them, we could have a clear presumption about the occurrence of the effects. And if we could know all the causes, we certainly would have the knowledge of all the effects. But the celestial things are many; and they have a way of mixing with the terrestrial phenomena. Therefore, it is not in man's power to be aware of them. On the contrary, the souls of the heavens know them, because they know the primary causes, their effects, the necessary effects of those effects, and so on to, the end of the series.


For this reason, they assert

In sleep one sees what will happen in the future. This is so, because of his contact with the Preserved Tablet, and the perusal of it. Sometimes, that which he discovers at that time sticks to his memory in its original form. But sometimes, the faculty of the Imagination quickly transforms it into a symbol ; for it is the nature of that faculty to transform things into symbols, which may bear some relation to the original, or may have been changed to their opposites. Thus the real percept disappears from the memory, leaving behind an imaginary form. Consequently, there is need for the interpretation of what has been represented by the Imagination through a symbol. For instance, a man is symbolically represented by a tree; a woman by a sock; a servant by some household utensil, and a custodian of charitable funds by linseed oil. The linseed oil is the cause of the lamp, which is the cause of light. From this principle, therefore, the science of the interpretation of dreams branches out.


And they assert:

Contact with the souls of the heavens is vouchsafed, when there is no obstruction. In our waking life, we are preoccupied with what the senses and the passions bring to us. Our interest in sensuous things prevents us from achieving that contact. But when in sleep our sensuous preoccupations are partially abated, the capacity for contact with the souls of the heavens is restored to us.


And they assert:

In this way, a prophet has a glimpse into the Hidden World. The psychic powers of a prophet are so high that the outward senses do not submerge them. It is for this reason that he sees in waking life what others see only in dreams. Even in the case of the prophet, the imaginative faculty represents through symbols what is seen. Sometimes, the actual thing remains in his memory; at others, it is a symbol of it which remains. Therefore, this kind of inspiration requires to be interpreted, even as dreams require interpretation. If all that is to be did not exist in the Preserved Tablet, the prophets could not know the Hidden Things in dreams or in waking life. But the Pen 'has dried over what is going to be till the Day of Judgment.' What this means we have described.

(So this much we desired to reproduce to make their theory understandable.)


We will say:

How will you disprove one who says that God enables the prophet to know the Hidden Things, and that, therefore, he knows them, without any preparation having been made by him? Similarly, it maybe said, he who has a dream comes to know the hidden things, because God, or one of the angels, enables him to know them. Therefore, all that you have described is superfluous; there is no argument to prove it. Nor can you advance an argument to prove things like the Preserved Tablet and the Pen which have been mentioned in the Holy Law. The meaning you have given to these things is not recognised by the followers of the Sacred Law. Since it is not open to you to approach these things from the point of view of that Law, all that remains for you to do is to take the rational point of view. But even if the possibility of all that you have mentioned is taken for granted (it can be taken for granted inasmuch as the denial of the finitude of the known things is not a necessary condition for it), still its existence cannot be known, and its reality cannot be verified. The source of the knowledge of these things is the Sacred Law, not Reason.

The rational argument you advanced to begin with is based on many premises. We will not go to the length of refuting all of them. However, we will take up three of them for criticism.

The first is your assertion that the movement of the Heaven is volitional. We have already considered this question, and shown how your claim can be refuted.

Secondly, even if in the spirit of compromise this argument is taken for granted, still your assertion that this volitional movement of the Heaven requires particular representation corresponding to particular movements will be objectionable. Indeed, you would not admit that there are parts in the celestial body. For this body is one, and its division is possible only in the Imagination. Still less divisible is its movement, for that is a continuous whole. Therefore, it may suffice for the sphere to have a desire for the complete utilisation of all the places possible for it — as they themselves have maintained. And for that purpose, a universal will and a universal representation will suffice.

Let us give an example of the universal and the particular will to make it clear what the philosophers mean. If a man has a general intention of going on pilgrimage to the House of God, his is a universal will from which no movement will proceed. For movement occurs as a particular thing, in. a definite direction, and to a certain extent. If the man directs himself to the House, he will have incessantly renewed representations — e.g.. of the place he treads along, of the direction he takes, etc. Each particular representation follows a particular will for movement from the place to which a preceding movement has brought him. So this is what they mean by a particular will which is said to follow a particular representation. This meaning is indisputable. For there are different directions leading to Mecca, and the distance is not definite. Hence the man on Pilgrimage needs the specification of one place after another place, and one direction after another direction, by advancing from one particular will to another.

But in the case of the celestial movement, there is only one direction; for a spherical body is self-revolving and moves within space beyond which it never goes. It is just movement which is willed in this case. There is only one direction, only one style, and only one pattern of movement. Therefore, it is like the downward tendency of a stone. The stone seeks the Earth by the nearest way — viz., the straight line. As far as the determination of the straight line is concerned, the stone does not need the renewed emergence — renewed as new conditions of being near to the End, or distant from it, or of having attained to it, or departed from it, arise — of an extraordinary cause, over and above its universal nature which seeks the Centre. Similarly, therefore, in the case of the celestial movement, a universal will for movement will suffice, and no additional factor will be required. If the philosophers assume that an additional factor will be required, they make an arbitrary assumption.

Thirdly, what is an utterly arbitrary assumption is their assertion that when the sphere has the representation of particular movements, it also has the representation of the subordinates and the consequences of those movements. Such a thing is sheer nonsense. It is like one's saying

Since a man moves, and knows his movement, he should also know whatever necessarily follows from his movement — e.g.. the parallel or unparallel positions, i.e., his relation to bodies which are above him, or below him, or on his sides. And when he walks in the sun, he should know the spots on which his shadow falls, and the spots on which it does not fall; the cooling effects of the interception of the rays of the Sun from those spots; the contraction of the parts of the Earth under his foot, and the separation of some other parts; the effects on his internal humours which have developed some warmth through the movement; the transformation of his bodily parts into sweat, and so on to all other events inside his body, or outside it, for which the movement is a cause, or a condition, or a preparatory or a stimulating principle.

This is nonsense, which cannot occur to any intelligent person, and by which only the ignorant can be taken in. And this is what the arbitrary assumption of the philosophers amounts to.

Moreover, we will say: Do these analysable particulars which are known to the soul of the sphere exist at present, or would you include among them such things also as are expected to happen in the future?

If you confine them to the present, it will contradict the awareness-on the part of the sphere — of the Hidden Things, and the awareness — on the part of the prophets, in their waking life: and on the part of the rest of mankind, only in dreams — of that which will be in the future through the intermediacy of the sphere. In that case, the purpose of your argument will be defeated: for the argument is based on the assumption — which is arbitrary — that he who knows something knows its subordinates and consequences, so much so that if we could know all the causes of things, we would know all future events. The causes of all the events may be present now, i.e., they may be contained in the celestial movement: yet this motion leads to its effect only through one or more than one intermediary.

But if the 'analysable particulars known to the soul of the sphere' extend to the future, which is infinite, how can the, soul of the sphere know in detail the particulars of an infinite future? How can the soul of a creature contain, at one time wherein there are no successive states, infinite and innumerable detailed and particular cognitions? He whose intellect does not testify to the impossibility of such cognitions has cause to lament the desperate condition of his intellect.

If they try to take the same stand against our doctrine of Divine knowledge, let it be known that it is agreed on all hands that the relation of Divine knowledge to its object cannot be compared to that between a creature's knowledge and its object. Whenever the soul of the sphere performs the same function as the soul of man, it follows that the two souls belong to the same kind: for being a percipient of particulars — through intermediaries — is their common characteristic. The validity of this comparison may not be conclusively proved: but there is strong probability for it. And even if this strong probability were not there, the comparison. would at least be possible. And mere possibility would refute their claim that the evidence to the contrary is conclusive.


If it is said:

By its substance, the human soul, too, has the right to perceive all things. But its preoccupation with the results of desire, anger, greed, malice, envy, hunger, pain, and in short the accidents of the body and the results of sensuous functions diverts its attention. For when the human soul attends to one thing, it ignores another. But the celestial souls are free from these qualities. No distraction befalls them; and no care or sensation can engross them. Therefore, they know all things.


we will answer:

How do you know that there is no distraction in their case? Is not their worship of the First Principle, and their longing for Him a distraction or preoccupation, which might prevent them from having the representation of the analysable particulars? Again, what is there to prevent one from supposing that there can be some other impediments besides anger, desire, or the sensuous impediments in general? How do you know that impediments are confined to that which we observe in our own case? In the case of men with mature minds, high aspirations or the desire for prominence is a preoccupation, which, however, can neither be imagined by children, nor recognised by them as a preoccupation or impediment. How, then, can one know the impossibility of something which is in this sense a preoccupation or impediment to the heavenly souls?

This much we intended to take up for discussion out of the sciences called by the Philosophers 'Metaphysical.'


(The Physical Sciences)

The sciences called by them 'physical' are many. We will mention some of them, so that it may be seen that the Sacred Law does not require a dispute over them, except on a few points which we have mentioned.

These sciences are divided into principal and subsidiary sciences. The principal sciences are eight: (i) The discussion of all that relates to body, qua body (i.e., division, motion, and change); and all that appertains to movement, or follows from it (i.e., Time, Space, and the Void). This is the subject-matter of the book called Physics. (ii) The inquiry concerning the various kinds of the component parts of the world (e.g., the heavens, and all that is in the hollow of the sphere of the Moon — viz., the four elements); the nature of these things, and the cause of the location of each one of these in a definite place. This is discussed in the book called De coelo. (iii) The inquiry concerning the laws of generation and corruption: development and reproduction and growth and decay; transformations; and the manner of the preservation of species, in spite of the corruption which overtakes individuals because of the two — i.e., Eastward and Westward — celestial movements. This is discussed in the book called Degeneration elcorruptione. (iv) The inquiry concerning the accidental conditions of the four elements whose mixture results in meteorological phenomena — e.g., clouds, rain, thunder, lightning, the halo, the rainbow, thunderbolts, winds, and earthquakes. (v) The study of the mineral substances. (vi) The science of botany. (vii) The study of animals. It forms the subject of the book called Historia ani­analium. (viii) The study of the animal soul, and the faculties of perception, showing that the soul of man does not die because of the death of the body, but that it is a spiritual substance whose annihilation is impossible.

The subsidiary sciences are seven: (i) Medicine. It aims at discovering the principles governing the human body; its various conditions (e.g., health and disease); the causes of these conditions, and their symptoms — so that disease may be prevented, and health may be preserved. (ii) Astrology. It is an estimate, based on the figures and constellations of stars, as to what will happen to the world and to people; how new-born babes will fare, and how the years will progress. (iii) Physiognomy. It infers moral character from physical appearance. (iv) Interpretation of dreams, which is an elucidation, derived from dream-images, of what the soul has observed of the Hidden World, and the imaginative faculty has represented through a different symbol. (v) The talismanic art, which combines celestial forces with those of some terrestrial bodies, so as to produce from the combination another. force which will work wonders in the world. (vi) The art of magic, which combines earthly substances to produce strange things from them. (vii) Alchemy, which aims at changing the properties of mineral substances, so that finally gold and silver may be produced through some controlled device.

The Sacred Law is not necessarily opposed to any one of these sciences. However, we shall select from them four points on which we have to criticise the philosophers

(i) Their postulate that the connection observed to exist between causes and effects is a necessary connection, and that it is not possible or feasible to produce a cause which is not followed by its effect, or to bring into existence an effect independently of the cause.

(ii) Their assertion that human souls are self-subsisting substances which are not impressed upon bodies, and that death means the severance of their connection with the bodies, when their directive function ceases. For, they argue, the soul exists in itself in any event. And, they assert, this is known by a rational argument.

(iii) Their assertion that the extinction of these souls is impossible; and that once having been produced, they have an everlasting existence whose annihilation is impossible.

(iv) Their assertion that the return of the souls to the bodies is impossible.

Criticism of the philosophers on the first point is necessary, for on that criticism is to be built the affirmation of the miracles which mark a departure from the usual course of events — e.g., the Rod turning into a serpent; the revivification of the dead; and the splitting of the Moon. He who thinks that the natural course of events is necessary and unchangeable calls all these miracles impossible. Thus, the philosophers interpret the Quranic references to the revivifi­cation of the dead, saying that it means the supersession of the Death arising-from-ignorance by the Life-resulting-from­knowledge. Or, they interpret the Rod's devouring the magic of the magicians, by saying that it means the refutation of the doubts — of the disbelievers by the Divine proof which was manifested at the hands of Moses. As regards the splitting of the Moon, they often deny the fact, and assert that the transmission of the Tradition has not been continuous and trustworthy.

And it is only on three points that the philosophers affirm extraordinary miracles

(i) In regard to the faculty of imagination. They assert

When this faculty becomes mature and strong, and if sensuous preoccupations do not distract it, it catches a glimpse into the Preserved Tablet. Thereupon, the forms of particulars which will take place in the future are impressed upon it. This happens in waking life in the case of the prophets; and only in sleep in the case of all other men. This, then, is the prophetic property of the faculty of imagination.

(ii) In regard to a property of the faculty of theoretical reason. Say the philosophers

This property actually amounts to an intuitive power — viz., the quickness of transition from one object of knowledge to another. A man who has a sharp intelli­gence awakens to the proof, when only that which has been proved is mentioned to him; or when only the proof is mentioned to him, he awakens to that which has thereby been proved. In other words, he discovers it out of himself. Generally, when the middle term occurs to him, he awakens to the conclusion; or when only the two terms which occur in the conclusion are presented to his mind, the middle term which joins the terms of the conclusion arises in his mind. And people are divided into different classes in respect of this power. There are those whose awakening is self-determined. Then there are those who need some stimulus, however slight, in order to awaken. Finally, there are those who will not awaken, in spite of a stimulus, until they have taken considerable pains. Since it is possible that the side of deficiency should have its extreme end in those who have no intuition at all (so that, in spite of all stimuli, they are incapable of understanding the intelligibles), it is also possible for the side of possession or potency to have its extreme end in one who will awaken to all the intelligibles, or to most of them, in the shortest and the quickest time. And the difference is quantitative as well as qualitative — according as the awakening extends to some problems or to all of them, and according as it is more or less quick and immediate. Therefore, many a pure and holy soul has an intuitive understanding of all the intelligibles, which (understanding) is continuous and takes the shortest time. Such an one is the prophet, whose theoretical faculty is a miracle. He need not be taught the intelligibles; for, as it were, he learns by himself. And that is the quality mentioned in the Verse: 'Its oil would well-nigh give light though no fire were in contact with it, light upon light.'

(iii) In regard to the practical faculty of the soul. Say the philosophers

This faculty develops to such an extent that physical things can be influenced and controlled by it. For example, when our soul imagines something, the limbs and their faculties serve it, moving towards the direction imagined to be desirable. Thus, when a man imagines something sweet, his mouth waters, and the salivary faculty, which causes saliva to flow from its sources, comes into action. Similarly, when a man imagines sexual intercourse, a certain faculty comes into action, and the (genital) organ becomes excited. Or, when a man walks over a plank which is elevated, with its two sides supported on two walls, he has the possibility of falling overwhelmingly presented to his imagination. Consequently, his body becomes passive to the imagination; and he falls. If the plank rested on ground, he would walk over it, and would not fall. And this is so, because the bodies and the bodily faculties are created to be the servants and the subordinates of the soul. And the service differs according as the soul is more or less pure and powerful. Therefore, it is not improbable that the power of a soul should be so great that the physical forces outside its own body should have to serve it. For the soul is not impressed upon body; it has only a certain inclination towards, or interest in, directing it, the inclination or the interest having been created to be part of its nature. If, therefore, the physical parts of its own body can obey the soul, it will not be impossible for such parts outside the body to do the same. This is the reason why

when a man's soul contemplates the blowing of winds; the falling of rains; the gathering of thunderbolts, or the trembling of the Earth (in order to swallow up a people) — which are all natural phenomena whose occurrence depends on the appearance of Heat or Cold or Motion in the Air — then such Heat or Cold appears in the soul, and these phenomena arise therefrom, although no perceptible physical cause is present. This is the miracle of a prophet. But such a thing is bound to occur in the Air which is prepared to receive it. It is not possible for the miracle to go to such an extent as to transform a piece of wood into an animal, or to split the Moon which is incapable of being split.

(So this is their opinion about the miracles. We do not deny anything mentioned by them here; for such things do belong to the prophets. But we must criticise them for stopping just where they do, and for denying the transformation of the Rod into a serpent, or the revivification of the dead, etc. Therefore, this question necessitates an inquiry for two reasons. Firstly, in order to prove the miracles. Secondly, in order to uphold a doctrine on which all the Muslims are agreed — namely, that God has power over everything. Let us, therefore, pass on to the intended inquiry.


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