Today it might sound pretty outlandish, but in fact the Latin West’s preoccupation with a number of philosophical issues since the Middle Ages had its precedent in the intense deliberations of the very same issues by Muslim philosophers centuries earlier. It could not have been otherwise. Being part of a monotheistic tradition, both had to confront similar questions that inevitably arose from the competing demands of revelation and reason, made relentlessly urgent by the challenge of Greek rationalist thought. In the Islamic context, one could either accept — as indeed the Traditionists, or Asharites, did — the entire gamut of Quranic concepts as axiomatic, or bi-la-kaifa, as the Asharite theologians demanded, even when they appeared logically contradictory — concepts such as free will and predestination, the nature of divine attributes, God’s radical uniqueness, yet His own description of Himself in starkly anthropomorphic terms, the eternity of the Quran or its creation in time, etc. Or one could come to grips with them rationally in the manner of the Mutazilites and the Mutakallimun (scholastic theologians). The impulse to engage rationally with these concepts was inherent in the tradition and bound to seek its fruition sooner or later. It was homegrown and not the product of slavish borrowing — not something extraneous grafted haphazardly upon a non-existent or at best shaky substratum. Borrowing there certainly was, but it was mainly in the instruments and methods of reasoning. The issues, at any rate, had emerged naturally from the all too apparent conflict between the word of God and human reason and the consequent desire to reconcile the two. The Christians, who had been exposed to the challenge of rationalist thought earlier than Muslims, had turned their freshly honed tools of systematic reasoning and argument upon the fundamentals of Islam, tellingly demonstrated in the heated Christian-Muslim debates, especially those between Muslim theologians and Yuhanna al-Dimashqi, commonly known as St. John of Damascus (c. 645 or 676–749), who had laid the logical foundation of the Christian dogmatic system in his treatise Dialectica. Later, following the translation of Greek texts and the emergence of pure philosophy (falsafa) among them, Muslim falasifa greatly refined the arguments but also enlarged the scope of philosophical subjects.
Even today, conscientious Western scholars admit the relevance of Muslim philosophy for Western thought and its influence on Christian scholasticism. While there is no evidence that St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) knew Arabic, his many arguments in Summa Theologiae and Summa Contra Gentiles about the existence of God seem to come almost verbatim from al-Farabi’s (c. 870–950) texts. If not directly, the latter’s influence can at least be deduced indirectly from the intellectual milieu of the former’s native Sicily, which was rife with Islamic cultural elements. His knowledge of Islamic thinkers, however, which he had acquired from his mentor Albertus Magnus (d. 1280) at Cologne, and Ibn Sina’s influence over him are established facts. And not just Aquinas, Catherine Wilson has convincingly traced a body of such indirect influences even on Malebranche, Leibniz and Hume in her “Modern Western Philosophy.”
More interesting perhaps is the case of René Descartes’ (1596–1650) “cogito ergo sum” and Ibn Sina’s (980–1037) thought-experiment about the imaginary “Suspended” or “Flying Man.” More about this case later, first a slight personal digression about my initial encounter with and subsequent interest in the problem of man’s consciousness of himself.
My fascination with the above issue dates from the late 1950s when, as teenagers, we were greatly enamoured of the “existentialism” of Sartre and Camus. It had taken the world of Urdu letters by storm. Balraj Manra was producing his own variations of the “absurd” in story after story and “I think therefore I am” was reverberating everywhere in the aivaans of Urdu with deafening tenacity. If memory serves me correctly, the pages of Jalibi Sahib’s gargantuan Naya Daur were a familiar venue for much spirited discussion about this latest French import. But for me, as perhaps also for many adolescents of my generation, the balance of concepts that came in the wake of existentialism never assumed any reality. We avidly read the fictional works of the existentialists Sartre and Camus, however the former’s Being and Nothingness remained largely obscure. And while the late Zamir Ahmad Badaiyuni could hold forth with astonishing ease about “consciousness,” “self,” “essence and existence” and which one of the two preceded the other, etc., the terms themselves failed to assume any palpable form in my mind woefully unschooled in philosophical thinking, or even to stir any deeper curiosity about the “self.”
And yet the phrase “I think therefore I am” (“cogito ergo sum”) — an unfathomable abstraction — somehow stuck to some dark corner of my consciousness as a seductive mystery, audaciously refusing self-disclosure, and quite as audaciously refusing to let go of me. Though I could hardly articulate why, I did find the idea hugely intriguing, and as soothing as the strains of a distant melody pouring softly into my ears. It was only some years later that it moved to the relatively brighter regions of my mind. I was reading one of Fazlur Rahman’s articles on Ibn Sina. He mentioned in passing that the Cartesian search for personal identity prefigures in Ibn Sina’s works on psychology. The problem of dhat (Urdu: zat; self) as an immaterial thing engrossed in contemplation of itself, with which Descartes was to wrestle in the seventeenth century, had been posed and answered rather graphically, though not without leaving a few loose ends behind, by Ibn Sina 600 years before Descartes in what has come to be known as Ibn Sina’s hypothetical thought-experiment about the man suspended in space or the void. This is how it goes: