Existentialism and Islam

Malick Elias

The first thing that comes to mind when the word “Existentialism” is being mentioned is the Post-Enlightenment European Movement championed for, by Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de-Beauvoir. Well perhaps what they were responsible for is laying down the philosophical premise that existentialism has become known by, that “Existence precedes Essence.” However, the attitude towards existentialism here is more speculative than ideological.

Well, how contrary is that doctrine (Existence precedes Essence) to the foundations upon which Islam stands? God has always pre-existed before even the essence of man (soul) was called into existence by Him. Is it not so? But to Sartre and his kind, not all to whom existentialism were to become known by, they were not referring to God and a Metaphysics of Being when he touted the slogan – existence precedes essence. What Sartre meant was that only after man comes into existence he defines his essence. The general idea behind this call, was to repudiate the religious beliefs, which held that man’s soul (his inner essence) was preprogrammed by God before entry into the world in some way. But does this not sound familiar?

In Islam there is a strong tradition that holds that aspect of the soul’ s destiny is determined before coming into this world. This belief, though founded upon reports attributed to Prophet Muhammad, its meaning is of course not conclusive. There are other Muslims who argue a different claim. One in which the soul enters this world in a Tabula Rasa or in a condition of having a “blank slate,” not knowing anything: “God brought you forth from the wombs of your mothers while you knew nothing, and gave you hearing and sight and hearts, so that you might be grateful.” (16:78) But can these views be reconciled? Is it not likely that the human soul was preconditioned to respond to external stimuli, in an epigenetic way, thereby leading to a reflexive interaction between the subject and environmental and social factors? That is rather than thinking about preordination (al-Qadr) in either a voluntaristic or non-voluntaristic way. Much of what really motivates human action is yet unknown to us, but it is worth speculating. I am leaving the door ajar because it is also quite possible that there are things specific to each of us that make us respond differently to internal and external stimuli. I want to believe in both narratives of the formation of selfhood. The traditional one that suggests some form of preconditioning, which upon entry into the world is temporarily forgotten, thus the tabula rasa effect after which one relearns anew ‘as one surges up into the world’ as Sartre posited; as these deep memories or perhaps archetypes (like biological urges), Jung way of referring to them, convey meaning through associations from the unfolding of lived experiences. I am inclined to this view, and anything else that makes sense and help us to unravel the mysteries of the universe. This attitude is what post-modernism means to me as Paul Feyerabend (1924-94) exclaims in his book “Against Method (1993)” describing himself as an epistemological anarchist, ‘anything goes’. Look there are many things that science has not yet explained and perhaps it never will, despite the hopes of the producers of Star Trek. Consciousness is one of them and in the context of our discussion, the phenomena of deja vu is another one. So I am inclined to think the impossible, that everyone is right, but only partially so. I am willing to embrace scientific as well as what some may choose to call “non-scientific” speculation. It is possible that a fundamental trait of the human species being that the Quran addresses him as “Insan” (إنسان) derived from the Arabic word “Nasiya” (نسى) which means “to forget”  – according to one view attributed to Prophet Muhammad’s nephew, Ibn ‘Abbas (May Allah be pleased with him) – depicts, yet only in the temporal world, that he will learn of his true essence as he immerses himself in the world. But the Quran also describes him as “Bashar” (بشر) does this then suggests his inclination to seek after all that brings him joy. Perhaps and perhaps not. The point I am making here is that man’s essence, his soul, his subjectivity as well as his existence, his social environment and well as the objectification he undergoes by those who desire to control his very being are both relevant and important to any discourse about what it means to be human. Therefore, if it may appear that at some point we advocate that man’s existence precedes his essence it is not because we support the entirety of Sartre’s project. It just means that from an Islamic point of view that slogan perhaps has a different connotation. To further establish this point let us briefly take a look at Mullah Sadra’s principality of existence which argues for a notion of the same principle of existence being prioritised over essence. 

Mulla Sandra (1572-1640)’s doctrine of the Principality of Existence (Asaalatul Wujood) is the result of a long discourse developing over centuries among early Muslim theosophers (Theological-philosophers). Forerunners of this holistic thinking are Ibn Sab’een (1217-1268) who popularised, Ibnul ‘Arabi (1165-1240) views on the Unity of Existence or “Wahdatul Wujood.” Ibnul ‘Arabi never coins the term “Wahdatul Wujood” and there is dispute whether Sadrud Din al-Qunawi (1207-1274), a trusted student and son-in-law by marriage to his mother was the one who did or was it Jalaluddin al-Rumi as subtly suggested by Professor William Chittick, a renown expert on Ibnul ‘Arabi. Like many important philosophical debates in Islam, the roots of Sadra’s principality of existence, goes back even further than Ibnul ‘Arabi to the thought of Ibn Sina (980-1037) and modified over the centuries. However, Mulla Sadra not only bought clarity to some particulars of the unity of existence, he also extended it with his demonstration of the gradation of existence (tashkikul Wujood), which is his explanation of how multiplicity relates to unicity. Of that extensive body of work the secondary sources provided by William Chittick, Seyyed Nasr Hossein and of late Ibrahim Kalin among others have been my retreat and reservoir of understanding. It is not my intention to become a philosopher, but only to examine comparisons in existentialist thought between Western and Islamic world-views.

In the context of Education, Professor’s Bayraktar Bayrakli’s treatise on “Existentialism in the Islamic and Western Educational Philosophies” (1996) provides a useful comparison of themes between the Western and Islamic educational traditions. Their work among others such as Abdurrahman Badawi (1917-2002) and Muhammad Iqbal (1875-1938) provides impetus to pursue developing a line of enquiry for the presence of existentialist strands of thinking in the Islamic Intellectual tradition in general and in education in particular. The view of existentialism, thus emerging from the reading of the scholars aforementioned is of a God conceived as Pure Existence and the metaphysical (ontological) basis of the world and the universe itself. A fundamental issue which will be developed early on in the following pages as I begin to explore the significance of an existentialist Islamic educational philosophy is the question of God’s Transcendence. Critics of the unity of existence phenomenology have argued that it is pantheistic, which is grounded in immanence and not transcendence. This means that if God is everything then the notion of His transcendence does not exist. Others have countered that, it is not pantheistic but panentheistic, that He is in everything and not everything which is pantheism itself. Mulla Sadra posits that He (Allah) is both existence and the essence of it and that all outside of it – if there be an outside – are in fact non-existents. What is profoundly significant about this line of thinking are ethical questions regarding the nature of good and evil; the purpose and meaning of experiencing the phenomena of existing are what are its ramifications for teaching the meaning of life questions in education. Follow us as we debate and negotiate these questions and more in the forth-coming articles.