Existence and Essence, A Discourse of Islamic Metaphysics

By: Herlianto. A

Mulla Shadra, a prominent Islamic existentialism. Photo/doc

Mazhabkepanjen.com - Existence and essence are central topics in Islamic philosophy, especially about metaphysics or ontology. These two terms are commonly known by Wujud and Mahiyyah. In fact, Wujud cannot necessarily be matched to existence in English word.

According to Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Wujud in Arabic can be equated with four terms in English namely Being, being, Existence and existence. Each of these terms has its own meaning.

Wujud is as Being refers to Absolute Reality (Necessary Being). It refers to being when it denotes to the whole of reality either absolute or not. It is equivalent to Existence if it means the first emanation, and equivalent to existence if it refers to anything other than the Absolute Reality.

This division is actually inseparable from the recognition in the ontology of Islamic philosophy of the levels of reality. Uniquely, in Arabic these levels of reality can be covered with the word Wujud only.

That the context of Wujud is very determining to what extend it would be interpreted. The same case with Ada, an Indonesian word, which is sometimes confusing to get the exact meaning.

While mahiyyah which means what is it, in English known as quiddity or essence or kuiditas in Indonesai tongue. Wujud and mahiyah are quite familiar to us. It's as simple as this: let's say there is one object, a chair for example. We're going to ask two questions, is there a chair? This question concerns to the question of existence. Then, what the chair is? This is a matter of essence.

 What Are Existence and Essence?

What are existence and essence? All Islamic thinkers agreed that the concept of existence or the concept of Wujud is self-evidence. It cannot be defined as the Aristotelian’s parts of definition, genus, species and difference. Everyone understood the concept of existence is the broadest and simplest concept.

While essence or mahiyyah is a concept to answer the question what is it? According to Seyyed Hossein Nasr, the essence is divided into two understandings in a special sense and in a general sense.

Special sense, for example, the attributes or characteristics of an object so that the object is different from other objects. Characteristics of wooden chairs, foam chairs, rattan chairs and so on. Each of these chairs has different features.

Essence has a general meaning in the sense of the essence makes something something (ma bihi huwa huwa). For example, what does make a chair called a chair. There are various forms of chairs (wood, rattan and foam) but they are still called chairs. In this case, it means that there is an essence of  chair it is chairness in each individual chair. Ibn Sina called this tems as natural universals (al kulli al tabi'i). This seems close to Plato's eidos.

But an important question raises, which one is the most basic between existence and essence? Is existence substratum of all reality or on the contrary? Is existence only limited to mere universality which is an attribute of essence, moreover existence cannot be perceived by our senses. It is existence that is fundamental, because essence without existence would not be actual or vice versa, we know nothing of existence except essence.

The debate about these two themes created two major currents in the study of Islamic metaphysics, namely existentialism and essentialism, the fundamentality of existence and the fundamentality of essence. The first school can be found in Ibn Sina and Mulla Sadra schools, the second school can be found in Suhrawardi.

The Different From Western Philosophy

So, up to this point there seems to be a difference between the study of ontology in the western and Islamic philosophical tradition. The debate on ontology of the west leads to two major currents: idealism and realism.

Idealism claims that the ultimate or authentic reality is in the mind, which is successfully conceived. For example, a chair. An authentic chair is a chair that is conceptualized as a whole, arranged in the mind.

Only the mind is capable of completely constructing what a chair is. Our vision will never be complete in seeing a chair, we are only able to see bits and pieces of it. So what mind conceptualizes is the riil.

Meanwhile, realism claims that what is authentic or essential is that which exists beyond the mind itself. That is reality that does not depend on our thought or perception. Thought exists or not does not determine the existence of reality. For example, ancient objects where humans do not yet exist. These objects actually existed even though there were no humans who perceived them at that time. A realist calls it ancestrality.

A contemporary debates promotes correlationists and anti-correlationists for other term of idealism and realism. Correlationist is an broader idealistic view which believes that as far as it relates to thoughts or perceptions, it is categorized as idealistic. The realist must have something completely detached from thought.

This claim deserves further discussion, because I think when something talked it relates to a thinking subject. Including the ancient objects or ancestrality itself, it is an ancient because of the relation to perceiving subject. Ancestrality is to be ancestral just for the subject not for others. Ancestrality is also correlationist, isn’t it?

Contemporary Existentialism

What is the difference of correlatonist from existentialism like Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Sartre? An interesting book about this written by Al Parslan Acikgenc entitled Being And Existence In Sadra And Heidegger: A Comparative Ontology is urgent to discussed here.

Al Parslan Acikgenc, one of the thinkers from Turkey, explained in the book which is his dissertation supervised by Fazlur Rahman, the ontological comparison between Mulla Sadra and Heidegger. Mulla Sadra is an existentialist figure of Islamic philosophy and Heidegger is a western existentialist figure.

Al Parslan found between Heidegger and Mulla Shadra a parallel view eventhough the two of them came from different eras and civilizational backgrounds. Both of them were talking about the fundamentality of existence.

Mulla Shadra was in the 16th century from Islamic civilization while Heidegger was in the 20th century from western civilization.

But it’s different from Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Sartre. The existentialism of these three figures are motivated by the social crisis that befell modern and contemporary society in the west, such as capitalism and imperialism.

They believed human existence is free. The idea of ​​freedom is important to end imperialism and capitalism which enslaves humans.

Thus what makes humans not free is a construction that comes from outside of existence. Either human constructions made by religion, education, or especially imperialism and capitalism. So, no wander if Nietzsche’s and Sastre’s existentialism is less friendly to religion.

Thus, a simple description of Islamic metaphysics in relation to various developments in contemporary philosophy view.

Post a Comment