The understanding and proper care or development of the human soul (nafs) is a matter of great concern within the Islamic philosophical tradition. It is a topic on which Qur’anic revelation and Greek philosophy intersect in provocative but productive ways. Many philosophers – most notably the Peripatetics – accepted in one way or another Aristotle’s account of the soul as put forth in De anima. They appropriated the notion of the soul as the ‘form’ or ‘actuality’ of the body, which in itself is only potentially alive. They also took up Aristotle’s three-fold model of the soul (vegetative, appetitive and rational), according to which the human being possesses nonrational powers of nutrition, growth, reproduction, locomotion and sensation that it shares with plants and animals, as well as an additional intellective part. The intellective part of the soul has two aspects: the practical, whose function is to manage ethical, social and political affairs in accordance with the good, and the theoretical, whose even higher function is to understand the intelligible, eternal aspects of the universe. While the mashsha’i philosophers focused a great deal on Aristotle’s psychology of the external and internal senses (producing a number of new insights into the nature of sense perception, common sense, imagination, memory, etc.), their chief concern was with the proper self-understanding and cultivation of the rational part of the soul, which they considered a necessary condition for the full actualization or perfection of our nature, and thus the attainment of happiness.
   Taking as their starting point Aristotle’s brief but suggestive distinction between the ‘agent’ and ‘potential’ intellect in Book III of De anima, the mashsha’i philosophers identified four developmental stages of the intellect (‘aql). The first is the ‘potential’ or ‘material’ intellect (al- ‘aql bi al-quwwa; al-‘aql al-hayulani). This is the human being’s innate capacity for receiving intelligible, universal forms. It is not literally corporeal, as the name might suggest, but rather simply a kind of unactualized potentiality (one might think of this analogously as a person’s raw capacity to learn how to ride a bike). The second stage is the ‘habitual’ intellect (al-‘aql bi al-malaka). This is potential intellect that has now developed the ability to grasp and employ universals in thought, yet is not perpetually doing so (cf. someone who has actualized their initial potential to learn how to ride a bike, but is not at present riding it). This is sometimes associated with the acquisition of primary intelligibles or axiomatic truths, such as the principle of non-contradiction. The third stage is the ‘actual’ intellect (al-‘aql bi al-fi‘l). Here the intellect has acquired secondary intelligibles from primary intelligibles, and is ready to employ them all at any time. One might think of this as rather like stage two, but more so (i.e. someone who has completely mastered the art of riding a bike, and in effect has nothing left to perfect there, but who is not actually riding at the moment). The fourth and final stage in the development of the intellect is referred to as the ‘acquired’ intellect (al-‘aql al-mustafad). Although there is some controversy among the philosophers as to how precisely this should be understood, the general idea is that it consists in the perfection of the intellect through the acquisition of all intelligibles. In this state, the human intellect is fully actualized, having achieved stable contact with the ‘active’ intellect (al-‘aql al-fa‘‘al). The active intellect is the efficient cause that actualizes the movement of all human thought. Aristotle himself had little to say about this mysterious power. Some of his Hellenistic commentators understood it as simply part of the make-up of each individual’s psychology; others associated it with God. The Islamic philosophers conceived of the active intellect as the last of a Neoplatonic chain of celestial intellects emanated from God’s self-knowledge. Its function is to give rise to and govern the sublunary sphere, by imparting order and intelligibility to it while also actualizing human thought. When we fully and actively grasp the intelligible structure of reality, we achieve a conjunction (ittisal) with the active intellect and assimilate ourselves to it. For some thinkers (e.g. al- Farabi), this conjunction is what makes immortality possible; for others (e.g. Ibn Sina), it is simply the condition of real happiness.
   The Qur’an envisions the human soul as temporally created by God, yet subsequently eternal. It is separable from the human body, but will ultimately be joined to it again on the Day of Resurrection. Aristotle, on the other hand, viewed the soul as the animating and organizing principle of the body. He seems to have seen the two as inseparable (in the way that form and matter are inseparable), so it would appear that the soul is subject to generation and destruction just as the body is. However, he does hold out the possibility that something about the nature of the intellect in particular (specifically, its eternal objects of knowledge) makes it conceivably separable from the rest of the soul, and thus possibly immortal. The vast majority of Islamic philosophers took up some version of this position. Some thinkers retained a more robust conception of immortality that extended to the entire soul, for example Abu Bakr al-Razi, who was generally more sympathetic to Plato than to Aristotle (he even defended a version of the pre-eternity of the soul and metempsychosis), and Ibn Sina, who argued for the substantiality of the soul as such in a way that seemed more reconcilable with Qur’anic revelation. Most philosophers, however, viewed the intellect alone as immaterial and incorruptible, and thus eternal. They also typically conceived of eschatological notions such as Paradise and Hell in purely spiritual-intellectual terms, rejecting the Qur’anic doctrine of bodily resurrection as a crude but necessary figurative sop thrown to the uncomprehending vulgar multitude. This position was famously attacked by al-Ghazali, who nonetheless accepted the philosophers’ general notion of the soul’s incorporeality, making it less unpalatable to more orthodox, traditionalist tastes. Two mashsha’i positions deserve separate mention because of their controversial nature. Al-Farabi argued that the intellective part of the soul is not immortal by its very nature, but rather becomes immortal only by being actualized in the manner described above. The unperfected intellect remains merely potential, that is, bound up with matter and thus subject to generation and destruction along with the rest of material nature. The precise character of achieved intellectual immortality in al-Farabi’s texts is never entirely clear, but insofar as it involves a union with the active intellect, it seems not to be personal or individual, at least in any substantive sense. Indeed, al-Farabi may very well have ultimately rejected the notion of the immortality of the soul altogether, for he is reported to have said in his commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics that human happiness exists only in this life (via conjunction with the active intellect) and that the idea of the soul, or even the intellect itself, surviving the death of the body is senseless mumbo-jumbo.
   Ibn Rushd reaches a somewhat different conclusion, although one arguably anticipated by both al-Farabi and Ibn Bajja. According to Ibn Rushd’s newly purified, hardline Aristotelianism, the ‘material’ intellect (al-‘aql alhayulani) cannot be mixed with matter, because if it were, it would not be potentially able to receive intelligible universals. But if it is by necessity immaterial, then the body cannot function as its principle of individuation. And in the absence of any principle of individuation, there can be only one material intellect. Thus, immortality is not personal or individual but rather collective, or perhaps better, universal. This doctrine, often referred to as ‘monopsychism’ or the ‘unicity of the soul’, was quite controversial in Jewish and Christian intellectual circles, although it was virtually ignored by subsequent Islamic thinkers, who had already turned their attention to new, more philosophically sophisticated forms of Ash‘arite and Shi‘ite theology, Sufism, and Illuminationism, along with the good old unpurified Neoplatonic Aristotelianism of Ibn Sina. Yet insofar as such movements and their offshoots adopted some version of Neoplatonic emanationist metaphysics, they too frequently envisioned the afterlife as a kind of conjunction – if not identity – with the divine.
   See afterlife; al-‘Amiri; epistemology; al-Farabi; floating man argument; al-Ghazali; Ibn Bajja; Ibn Rushd; Ibn Sina; Mulla Sadra; al-Razi, Abu Bakr
   Further reading: Davidson 1992; al-Farabi 1963, 1973, 1985; Goodman 1969; Ibn Rushd 2007; Ibn Sina 1952/81; Smith and Haddad 1981

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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