Arabic Epistemology of Reflection of Transcendence

“Reflection” and “self-reflection” are modern philosophical terms, but they reconfigure age-old mental activities that were long familiar under other names. “Speculation” in the Middle Ages was a kind of poetic knowing through analogy with created, physical beings mirroring the metaphysical realm and serving as vehicles for the ascent to God. This is the path followed famously by Bonaventure’s Itinerarium mentis in Deum.' Such mirror vision transpires “through clouds of corporeal likenesses” and is appropriate for us as finite, sensuous creatures. “Contemplation,” in contrast, was purely intellectual. For the mystic Richard of St Victor, speculation took place “when we perceive through a mirror, but contemplatio when we see the truth in its purity without any covering and veil of shadow.”[1] The latter mode is like angelic vision. Any such rigid segregation, however, breaks down in Dante, who uses these terms sometimes interchangeably, elaborating on the “speculativa vita” of the angels under the rubric of the “contemplative life” as the “more excellent and divine” (Convivio II.iv.10-13).

Yet another crucial strand of medieval tradition emphasized the idea of self-reflection as entailing integrally a reflection of theological transcendence. Islamic thinkers (and Jewish ones, eminently Maimonides, writing also in Arabic) in the centuries directly preceding Dante had developed this notion in precise philosophical and subtly theological terms. Dante’s deep debt to this Arabic-Aristotelian philosophy is well known. It becomes explicit especially in his Convivio, notably books III and IVxx-xxi, for example, in the idea of intellectual perfection—la

felicita mentale—as the epitome of happiness and the goal of human life. Following cues from Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics (K, 7, 177a), the perfection of the intellect by the philosopher counted as blessedness itself and even approached divinization.

Islamic philosophers, furthermore, translating this into the terms of their revealed religion, viewed prophecy as a matter of intellectual perfection.[2] Avicenna (Ibn Sina, 980-1037) placed the prophet at the top of the ladder of knowledge as possessing the highest degree of receptivity to intelligible forms. For Avicenna, intellection presupposes a conversion of the soul to its Source. This movement is akin to that of the “separate intellects” or angels who intellectually intuit themselves only in turning to their Source. Intellection requires a conversion of the soul back to its Origin, for only by this conversion does the soul grasp itself. The soul must know itself in and through its Cause or Ground.

Avicenna holds, moreover, that the intellect knows interiorly rather than exteriorly: it does not receive intelligibles from an external source, but rather reflects them by reflecting on itself and becoming transparent to itself, after the prophetic motto: “Whoever knows himself knows his Lord.” This reflection is a mirror relation that presupposes the simultaneous presence of the soul and the intelligible form that it reflects. If the soul turns away from the intelligible form, the image vanishes—just as a mirror requires the presence in front of it of whatever it reflects. Nevertheless, the initiative for this relation comes ultimately from the intelligible world, which reflects itself in the mirror of human intellect. Self-reflection is most fundamentally the activity of separate (divine) substances that use human intellects as their instruments for self-reflection.

Averroes (Ibn Rushd, 1126-98) advanced the thesis of the unity of intellect (which figures among the propositions condemned in 1277), according to which man is no longer the agent in thinking but is potentially a participant through an exceptional effort of “separate intellect” in the thinking of intellect itself and as such. “Intellect thinking itself” was the original and true form of all thinking. Humans, in their limited manner, only take part in it. Human thinking was thus essentially a mirroring of the thinking transpiring in the universal intellect that Averroes found in the “separate intellect” of Aristotle’s De Anima. Averroes’s most truly “great commentary” (but not “’1 gran comento” of Inferno IV. 144) in this regard is that on Book A of the Metaphysics, where Aristotle focuses

Arabie Epistemology of Reflection 185

on thought thinking (or mirroring) itself as the most pleasurable of activities.[3] Only intellect that is always in act, unlike ours, can fully enjoy the pleasure of thinking, and it is at its most intense in thinking of thinking itself.

Man’s becoming, like the angels, a mirror of divinity was fundamental to the mystical itinerary to God of Islamic thinkers in the Sufi tradition. Al-Ghazali (1058-1111) builds on Avicenna’s theories in order to exalt the religious, revealed, inspired aspect of knowledge in this perspective in which knowing has to pass through and derive from the unity of divinity, which, however, cannot be properly conceived by finite minds. There is thus always an element of ««knowing that is built in at the foundations of any knowing exercised by human beings. This predicament of un/ knowing is expressed in the Islamic tradition by the mirror analogy, with its structure of triangulation through a transcendent term. Speculation thereby renders possible a kind of union of created with increate being— such as is realized especially in the ecstatic state famously by Al-Hallaj and Al-Bistami. However, the mirror analogy enfolds a reminder that revealed knowledge furnishes a likeness and does not exhaust the reality of God, who remains the Unknowable.

Al-Ghazali, as mystical philosopher, champions a knowledge by illumination that simply falls from God into the soul. Still, he is careful to avoid conflating image and reality. Rational knowledge of divinity remains distinct from simple mirror reflection: discursive knowing of causes is not the same as immediate reception of truth as a whole. But which is superior? There is here a deep-seated tension between philosophical and mystical ways of knowing. Is the perfect mirror purely passive, or does the created intellect contribute to the object known by becoming that object itself?

In either case, Islamic philosophy’s greatest breakthrough toward modernity, which is picked up and developed by Dante and his tradition, is the notion that intellectual knowing (tahqiq) is “to know things by verifying and realizing their truth and reality for oneself. One cannot verify the truth and reality of things without knowing them first hand, in one’s own soul, without any help from anyone other than God.” In experiential or “intellectual,” as opposed to transmitted, knowledge (taqlid),

the human soul knows by directly reflecting divine truth in itself. And it knows itself in this same (self)reflection. True self-knowledge knows the nothingness of the self and the absoluteness of the Other that it can know at first only as Nothing. In this approach to self-reflection, monotheism leads toward an “existentialist” conceiving of the self in relation to an Other who is absolute and not just our idea.

This knowing of nothing, moreover, opens a space for the operation of the imagination. Imaginative construction is necessary in order to make an image of what is properly speaking invisible. Al-Farabi (c. 870-950) developed a theory of symbolic expression based on ontological analogy that presupposes a participative relationship between being and beings beyond all that finite definitions can contain. Words working analogically on the mind prefigure transcendent realities.[4] This bridging prophetically to the transcendent through the imagination was modeled by Ibn Arabi (1165-1241) in relation to Al Khadir, his protecting angel. An immediate heavenly connection frees the imagination, as intellectual, to be a truly poetic and productive imagination rather than remaining strictly bound by the senses, as in Aristotle. This conception of imagination in Ibn Arabi owes much also to the Persian theosophist and martyr Suhrawardi (1155-91) with his “interworld” of images and archetypes.11

Direct knowledge of reality in its absoluteness (haqq)—as opposed to knowledge that one takes ready-made and formulated from others, without repeating and verifying it in one’s own experience—is one of the essential aspects of the knowledge through self-reflection that Dante develops by appropriating insights of Islamic philosophy. This heritage is a mighty challenge to the passing along of information bites that dominates the economy of knowledge in our electronic age. A strong line of continuity connects Dante with Islamic intellectual wisdom in its potential for mounting a fundamental critique of modernity. The ensuing parts of the present book leverage this tradition indirectly through Dante in constructing the genealogy of an alternative modernity.


  • [1] Robert Javelet, “Saint Bonaventure et Richard de Saint-Victor,” in Bonaventuriana. Miscellanea in onore di Guy Bougerol, ed. Chavero Blanco and Francisco de Asís (Rome: Antonianum, 1988), Part 1, 63-96. 2 Dale M. Coulter, “Contemplation as ‘Speculation’: A Comparison of Boethius, Hugh of St Victor and Richard of St Victor,” in From Knowledge to Beatitude: St Victor, Twelfth-Century Scholars and Beyond. Essays in Honour of Grover A. Zimm Jr., ed. E. Ann Matter and Lesley Smith (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press 2013), 205, 210, 217, quoting Richard of St. Victor’s De area mystica. 3 Gregory B. Stone, Dante’s Pluralism and the Islamic Philosophy of Religion (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006) demonstrates its centrality for Dante.
  • [2] Didier Ottaviani, “La prophétie comme achèvement intellectuel à la fin du moyen âge,” Nouvelle revue du seizième siècle 21/1 (2003): 11-24. 2 Meryem Sebti, “Réceptivité et spéculation dans la noétique d’Avicenne,” in Miroir et savoir: La transmission d’un thème platonicien, des Alexandrins à la philosophie arabo-musulmane (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2008), 156, citing Avicenna’s Sifa, Métaphysique, ed. C. G. Anawati et S. Zayed (Cairo 1960), VIII, 7, page 369. Sebti works this out in more detail in Avicenne. L’âme humaine (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2000), 113-24.
  • [3] Averroes, Grand commentaire de la métaphysique, ed. M. Bouygues (Beyrouth: Dar el-Machreq Editeurs, 1990), 3rd ed. 2 Alexander Treiger, Inspired Knowledge in Islamic Thought: Al-Ghazali’s Theory of Mystical Cognition and its Avicennian Foundation (New York: Routledge, 2012), 31-33. 3 See Jules Janssens, “L’âme-mirroir: Al-Gazali entre philosophie et mysticisme,” Miroir et savoir, 214, 217. 4 William C. Chittick, Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul: The Pertinence of Islamic Cosmology in the Modern World (Oxford: Oneworld, 2007), 23. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Knowledge and the Sacred (Albany: SUNY Press, 1989) recuperates this type of knowledge, which he often calls “recollection,” as it is practiced in an encyclopedic range of world religions.
  • [4] Philippe Vallat, “Vraie philosophe et faux prophète selon Farabi: Aspects historiques et théoriques de l’art du symbole,” Miroir et savoir, 117-43. 2 Henri Corbin expounds this “mundus immaginalis”: mundus-imaginalis. Accessed August 21, 2018.
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