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The Soul of the World: Avicenna’s Theory of Prophecy
What must the world be like, to host natural laws as well as their violations? If miracles⁠ are to be understood as violations of nature, then it is difficult to make sense of such events within a natural account of the cosmos and its causal relations. Must one choose between a scientific worldview and a world with a God with untrammeled power and agency over the natural world? The following considers how philosophers of the Islamic world have negotiated these competing concerns. I explore the relative pay-offs and trade-offs in going one way or the other in the development of their theories of the natural and the divine.⁠ Specifically, I lay out an interesting strategy in Ibn Sina that attempts to preserve causal powers of nature as well as the possibility of the divine in overriding them. Ibn Sina introduces into the cosmos an extraordinarily powerful agent, a human nonetheless, who functions as a kind of “soul for the world”. Just as our souls influence our own bodies, the soul of a mystic and prophet is said to influence bodies other than its own. By working miracles into his system in this way, Ibn Sina’s theory of prophecy, I argue, brings together his scientific worldview as expressed in his thoroughgoing philosophical works, such as Kitāb al-Nafs of the Shifāʾ, with his more esoteric views expressed in his writings on mysticism, magic and the occult, such as the final part of his Ishārāt wa Tanbīhāt. My entry point into these issues will not be the usual one — i.e. Ghazālī’s reprimand of the philosophers for denying miracles (muʿjizāt). I begin instead with Ghazālī’s less known endorsement of the falsafa account of how prophets are able to enact miracles. Contrary to received views, Ghazālī’s critique is not that the philosophers plainly deny miracles, but that their theory of causation places undue limits on God’s power by excluding certain categories of events from the realm of possibility.⁠ Exploring the tension between the miracles they affirm and the miracles they deny might tell us something about how far a world with natural causes can be pushed to accommodate the miraculous, and where and why various philosophers of the Islamic world draw the line where they do. More broadly, the paper suggests that Ibn Sina’s philosophy cannot be properly understood in isolation from his “non-philosophical” works.
Religious Studies/Theology
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All Middle East
Islamic World
Mediterranean Countries
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