God, imitation of


God, imitation of
(tashabbuh)
   A characterization of philosophy that became influential among classical Islamic philosophers. The source of this definition seems to be Greek – specifically, Plato’s ideal of ‘becoming like God so far as it is possible’ (Theaetetus 176b–c; cf. Symposium 207e–209e and Timaeus 90a–d) – although one can find comparable, indigenous ideas within the Islamic tradition, e.g. the Sufi project of bringing one’s character traits into accord with the character traits of God (al-takhalluq bi akhlaq Allah), i.e. assuming or manifesting the divine attributes.
   In philosophical contexts there are at least three distinguishable ways in which the notion of the imitation of God gets interpreted. The most noteworthy is the moral-intellectual interpretation, according to which the philosopher imitates God by knowing the truth, cultivating or perfecting his character, and doing good. One finds variations on this idea in al-Kindi, Abu Bakr al-Razi, the Brethren of Purity, Miskawayh and Ibn Tufayl, among others. Less common is the political interpretation adopted by al-Farabi and Ibn Maymun (Maimonides), in which the philosopher-legislator (1) acquires a theoretical knowledge of God and the world, (2) constructs an ideal state as the counterpart of the universe, and (3) imitates the actions of God by endeavoring to establish the state in space and time, taking into consideration the prevailing cultural-historical conditions and constraints. Finally, there is what might be called the natural scientific interpretation advanced by Jabir ibn Hayyan, in which the philosopher imitates the Creator of the universe by acquiring the science of generation and ultimately learning how to produce minerals, plants, animals, and even an artificial man.
   The project of assimilating oneself to God faces unique and potentially severe challenges within the Islamic tradition. It raises the problem of tashbih (‘making similar’, i.e. anthropomorphizing in a way that fails to recognize God’s transcendence) and drifts dangerously close to the sin of shirk (‘associating’ or ‘sharing’, i.e. attributing divinity to things other than God). In part for this reason, the above interpretations typically have to do with imitating God’s actions rather than His essence. In general, philosophers were understandably conservative in their claims about the extent to which one could really make oneself similar to God, emphasizing the qualification built into Plato’s original formulation: ‘becoming like God so far as it is possible.’
   Further reading: Altmann and Stern 1958/79; Berman 1961; Druart 1993

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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