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:
“The one among us must imagine himself as though he is created all at once and created perfect (kamil), but that his sight has been veiled from observing external things, and that he is created falling in the air or the void in a manner where he would not encounter air resistance, requiring him to feel, and that his limbs are separated from each other so that they neither meet nor touch. He must then reflect as to whether he will affirm the existence of his self (dhatahu).
“He will not doubt his affirming his self existing, but with this he will not affirm any limb from among his organs, no internal organ, whether heart or brain, and no external thing. Rather, he would be affirming his self without affirming for it length, breadth and depth. And if in this state he were able to imagine a hand or some other organ, he would not imagine it as part of his self or a condition for its existence.
“You know that what is affirmed is other than what is not affirmed and what is acknowledged is other than what is not acknowledged. Hence the self whose existence he has affirmed has a special characteristic of its being his very self, other than his body and organs that have not been affirmed.
“Hence the one who affirms has a means to be alerted to the existence of the soul as something other than the body — indeed, other than body — and to his being directly acquainted with [this existence] and aware of it (Ibn Sina as quoted in Marmura, p. 387).
Ibn Sina seems to take for granted the self’s awareness of itself as a distinct entity, independent of its own body and sensations. Descartes, on the other hand, affirms the selfsame awareness through methodical doubt. He can doubt the existence of everything, his senses, his body. What he cannot doubt however is his self because doubting requires the prior existence of an entity that can doubt. Hence the epigraphic, “I think, therefore I am.”
But what was this self — the antecedent of the pronoun “I” of “I think …”? Did it refer to the body or to the soul or mind? For most people, including even most of the Muslim speculative theologians, the “I” stood for the body, as “observed and experienced by the senses.” Not so for Ibn Sina and Descartes who vigorously argued for the distinction of the human soul from the body and the latter’s patent irrelevance for man’s immediate self-consciousness. The Suspended Man of the experiment, created at once in a fully adult and perfect state, has no awareness of his body, of any internal or external organ, whether heart or hand, and even if he did, the loss of one or more limbs at some future point would not entail the loss of self-consciousness, which is immediate and continuous. The Suspended Man is here affirming the existence of the self as something apart from his body and limbs. For, if the rational faculty were to know through a physical organ, so that its peculiar activity would be incomplete except by the use of that physical organ, it would necessarily follow that it would not know its own self, … nor its act of knowing(as quoted in Druart, p. 36).
Hence the awareness of the self cannot reside in the body or its organs, which Ibn Sina therefore considers expendable, in that they only fulfill certain needs. If those needs did not exist, there would be no use for the body or organs. But this will not result in the extinction of the self’s knowledge of itself, which is entirely unmediated and the most primary of human cognitions. Indeed he considers the body a burden, something entirely irrelevant for the perception and affirmation of one’s essence.
Descartes, too, arrives at a similar conclusion:
“[B]ecause on the one hand I have a clear and distinct idea of myself — insofar as I am a thing that thinks and not an extended thing — and because on the other hand I have a distinct idea of a body — insofar as it is merely an extended thing, and not a thing that thinks — it is therefore certain that I am truly distinct from my body (as quoted in Druart, p. 35).”
It is obvious that the overriding aim of both thinkers in their engagement with the self and its direct apprehension of itself is no other than to underscore their being two radically different entities: one material and therefore perishable (body), the other simple and incorporeal and therefore not liable to corruption (soul/mind). Through their different methods of reasoning both came to conclude that notwithstanding the intimate connection of body and soul, the latter was of an infinitely superior order. While the soul’s distinction and independence from the body did imply its spirituality and immortality, it yielded a dualistic view of the human being and left quite a few questions unanswered, among them the union of body and soul in the human being despite their essential difference and the individuation of a soul in a particular body. And while Ibn Sina could just as well do without the body, Descartes, for whom the connection between the two is far more intimate, is hesitant to discard it as easily.
This, of course, is a very sketchy, bare-bones account of a profoundly complex philosophical issue. It scarcely touches on the main problem — namely, the means of access to a consciousness of one’s self — without engaging with its minutiae, in the exposition of which minutiae the two philosophers from different cultural backgrounds and easily six centuries apart reveal their amazing reflective similarities and not a few of their disagreements, thereby enriching the history of ideas with their extraordinarily keen powers of philosophical discourse. For anyone interested in a perusal of the issue in greater depth and detail than is offered here, I would suggest reading Fazlur Rahman, Avicenna’s Psychology, Thérèse-Anne Druart, “The Soul and Body Problem: Avicenna and Descartes” (in Thérèse-Anne Druart, ed. Arabic Philosophy and the West), and Michael Marmura, “Ibn Sina’s ‘Flying Man’ in Context,” in Monist 69 (1986) to whom I am myself indebted for the little I have come to know about human self-consciousness.
Muhammad Umar Memon is a writer, translator and editor of The Annual of Urdu Studies. He is Professor Emeritus of Urdu Literature and Arabic Studies, University of Wisconsin–Madison