Michael Noble on the Occult Roots of Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī’s Counter-Avicennan Soteriology

There was no greater concern to Islamic thinkers of the pre-modern Islamic period than the question of individual salvation—not least to Avicenna (d. 427/1037). In naming one of his most popular philosophical summae al-Najāt (The Salvation) he held out to the intellectual elite the promise that the soul could be perfected in its theoretical and practical dimensions, and delivered from the perdition of philosophical error. So comprehensive was his scientific vision that it represented nothing less than a philosophical soteriology that demanded a response—of either assent or dissent—from the proponents of the various philosophical and theological schools of the time.

From the Ashʿarī theological perspective, Tahāfut al-falāsifa (Incoherence of the Philosophers) of al-Ghazālī (d. 505/1111) was one of the most influential rebuttals. From within philosophy, Kitāb al-muʿtabar fīʾl-ḥikma (The Book of Philosophy Reconsidered) of Abūʾl-Barakāt al-Baghdādī (d. 560/1165), was commensurately influential. Synthesizing both of these critiques was al-Maṭālib al-ʿāliya min al-ʿilm al-ilāhī (The Sublime Goals of Metaphysics) of the philosopher Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d.606/1210), whose response to Avicenna was so systematic and integrated that it constituted a counter-Avicennan soteriology. What has been occluded from historical awareness is the fact that the Rāzīan soteriological vision owed much to the profound engagement with occult science—a fact that only comes into focus when the final soteriology of his late career is read in light of the Avicennising theory of the Ṣābīan talismic craft that he formulated in his early work al-Sirr al-maktūm (The Hidden Secret).

The Avicennan Soteriology

Key to the Avicennan soteriology was the ability of the philosopher to connect with the Active Intellect—the last of the ten immaterial intellects that are the emanated effects of eternal divine self-contemplation. Being co-ordinate with the lunar celestial sphere, it was the metaphysical cause of both the prime matter and the plethora of forms constituting the natural kinds of the terrestrial world. Serving as auxiliary causes, celestial motions primed terrestrial matter to receive such forms. Moreover, whilst the souls that governed such motion were cognisant of their particular sublunary effects, they were not their primary goal. For, the celestial souls’ desire to realise the perfection of their immaterial metaphysical causes—the supracelestial intellects—was the motivation of their circular activity. The Avicennan Active Intellect was also the metaphysical cause of the single human species and the individual souls that it comprises. Essential to Avicenna’s epistemology and theory of prophethood, it was the Active Intellect that brought the human soul to perfection.

The exigencies of Avicenna’s epistemology that distinguished between particular items of knowledge and universals demanded that he posit for the human: a complex of internal senses, seated in the physical substrate of the brain, to account for human perception of particulars, both sensible and non-sensible; and an immaterial intellect to cognise universals. Commanded by the intellect, these internal senses served the process of abstraction (tajrīd) whereby particular percepts that have been received from the external world are stripped of their material concomitants, priming the soul to receive universals from the Active Intellect.

He identified three categories of prophethood: (1) the philosophical—the prodigious capacity to hit, both rapidly and prolifically, on the middle terms of syllogisms to generate demonstrative proofs; (2) the imaginational—the ability to connect “noetically” with the celestial spheres to receive knowledge, in the form of veridical dreams and visions, of future events and hidden matters; and (3) the thaumaturgical—the power to act at a distance on the terrestrial world in ways that breach the empirical norm. Since humanity was a unity in species, no two individuals being distinguished by any essential difference, all three categories could be displayed, to varying degrees of intensity, by anyone. This was a “democratising” account of prophethood—and for thinkers like Rāzī who wanted to safeguard its exclusivity for a unique class of human—a dangerous one. It was the latter two Avicennan categories of prophethood—the imaginational and the thaumaturgical—that provided the conceptual tools with which Rāzī constructed his theory of the talismanic craft. Both categories were predicated on Avicenna’s multiple internal sense theory which accounted for how the human cognises, processes, and manipulates the particulars of sense data.

He identified five such internal senses. (1) The common sense that organised the “forms” of sensory data, transmitted from the external senses, into an integrated experience. (2) The “operative” faculty a bimodal cognitive organ that functioned either in the modality of the imagination, or in the modality of cogitation. (3) The estimative faculty (al-wahm) which perceived particular, non-material, cognitive data known as “intentions”. The estimative faculty is internal sense faculty that is crucial to the talismanic craft. A faculty that humans possess in common with higher animals, examples of its percepts included the predatory intention of a wolf towards a sheep, and the amatory intention of a ram towards a ewe. Since forms and intentions were fundamentally different kinds of percept, Avicenna reasoned that they required two distinct storage facilities: (4) the “form memory” (al-khayāl) and (5) the “intention memory” (al-dhikr). All five were seated in the physical substrate of the brain, in the pneuma of which they performed their cognitive roles.

As the governing faculty of this complex of internal senses, the estimative faculty merits particular attention. Although the intentions that it uniquely perceived were non-material, like the predatory intent of the wolf, they nevertheless inhered in material things. And just as those intentional percepts stood in a liminal position between the materiality of sensible forms and the immateriality of universals, so the estimative faculty itself mercurially mediated between the other internal senses and the intellect. When functioning soundly, it dutifully delivered the contents of its cognition to the immaterial intellect which subjected them to abstraction in order to arrive at universal truths. But since it inhered in the physical substrate of the brain—unlike the immaterial intellect—it could only understand things insofar as they are related to physical reality. For, not only did it perceive intentions, but it also reacted to them, arriving at its own judgments. Indeed, such are its emotional responses to certain intentional stimuli—such as encountering a wolf—that it can generate heat and coolness in the body. Other intentional stimuli can prompt it to take control of the operative faculty qua imagination.

Incessant in its activity—even during sleep—the operative faculty, functioning in its modality of the imagination, could draw on both sensible forms stored in the form memory and intentions stored in the intention memory to generate fictions such as a sea of mercury, an emerald mountain, or a terrifying ghoul. Indeed, it is during sleep that the soul was held to be especially receptive to intentions transmitted from the celestial spheres which, being the preparatory efficient causes of sublunary change, are cognisant of the effects of their own actions, and thus of future events. Such intentions are cognized by the estimative faculty which stimulates the operative faculty qua imagination to combine stored forms and intentions, drawn from the subject’s personal experience, to produce a dream that encodes knowledge data of future events. Such is Avicenna’s account of veridical dreams. Crucial to this noetic experience is the ability of the estimative faculty to both receive from the supernal realm and to command the operative faculty into activity.

By extension, so intense can be the estimative faculty’s reception of a celestial intention that even in a waking state, input from the common sense can be arrested, as the estimative faculty commands the imagination to construct a vision that corresponds closely with the celestial intentional input received. Thus does Avicenna subject the prophetic experience to scientific theorising—his account of imaginational prophethood.

Such experiences can even be induced, as was the practice of Avicenna’s Turkish shaman. Having been consulted by members of his tribe about a matter of collective concern, he launches into a sprint so vigorous that with his panting the pneuma in his brain undergoes dissolution, his internal senses are arrested, and input from the external terrestrial world ceases. As he loses consciousness, the estimative faculty makes noetic connection with the celestial realm. Gathering around him, members of his tribe listen carefully to what he utters in his state of delirium, and a decision is made accordingly. Thus, the noetics involved in prophethood and divination are essentially the same. What distinguishes the Turkic shaman’s divination from a prophet’s revelation is purely accidental: whilst the noesis of the former is induced, that of the latter involved no such deliberate effort, taking place in a soul that is singularly receptive to the supernal realm.

The estimative faculty was just as crucial to Avicenna’s scientific account of thaumaturgical prophethood. Since, in its reactions to intentional stimuli, it could affect the subject’s body, it was reasoned that it could also affect bodies at a distance. It is with an unusually powerful estimative faculty that a saint can perform his miracles, including healing, bringing down rains, averting plagues and pestilence, and causing earthquakes. The sorcerer—the moral antithesis of the saint—causes malicious harm at a distance with the same faculty. This is an entirely naturalistic account, which makes no accommodation for the efficacy of magical ritual per se other than for the purpose of bringing focus to the faculty’s power on the object of its intent. Indeed, the trajectory of Avicenna’s logic extended to affirming the logical possibility of a soul so unique that its estimative faculty could affect the entire elemental reality of this world—this was the Avicennan prophet. Indeed, in subjugating their baser desires, other souls, by virtue of a noetic connection with this prophetic soul, could be empowered to act in similarly prodigious ways. It is in the full actualisation of all three categories of prophethood that human perfection is realised. Truly legitimate political authority is the prerogative of this individual who, in reaching such perfection: “becomes almost a human god. Worship of him, after the worship of God, exalted be He, becomes almost allowed. He is indeed the world’s earthly king and God’s deputy in it.”

Reasoning from the changeless, divine simplex that was the Necessarily Existent, Avicenna’s naturalistic theory of prophethood accounted for how the prophet might perform his miracles without the need for direct divine intervention; and receive revelation in a way that accounted for both the subjective nature of its outer form, and the objective nature of its efficient cause. For a theologian like Rāzī, however, Avicenna’s account relativized the special nature of prophecy. But as the most sophisticated philosophical account of the phenomenon, it provided the ideal conceptual framework in which to explain the real efficacy of the Sabian occult science.

The Hidden Secret—the Sabian Science of Talismans

Given his intellectual concerns with Avicennism, it is all the more surprising that Rāzī should devote his early work The Hidden Secret —written no later than 1179—to recording and theorising on the talismanic craft of the Sabians. The Hidden Secret praises mastery of the craft as the pinnacle of human endeavour, disclosing to the soul the hidden mysteries of the cosmos and conferring the ability to act in the terrestrial world in ways superior to conventional means. Aside from a brief excursus explaining the theological errors of the Sabians, The Hidden Secret presents the craft neutrally, without any polemical or destructive agenda. So surprising is this that those thinkers who subsequently engaged with the work failed to reach a consensus as to why he wrote it: whilst some were convinced that in fact he was a crypto-Sabian who defended astrolatry, others were quick to deny his authorship. Such judgments, however, failed to consider the work in the broader context of Rāzī’s grand intellectual project and to properly distinguish the subject matter of the work from its authorial intent.

For Rāzī, the craft of the Sabians was a real science, the application of which produced observable results in the terrestrial world. Given such a conviction, for an intellectual nurturing the ambition of erecting a philosophical theology as comprehensive and systematic as its Avicennan competitor, the need to provide a scientific account of a craft that had serious implications for Islamic theology and prophetology was a serious concern.

The general introduction of The Hidden Secret presents the talismanic science as the culmination of philosophy, in pursuit of which, man is liberated from the mortality of corporeal existence, and ontologically transformed to join the rank of the celestial spirits who become his direct instructors in the arcana of the higher and lower worlds. It is with the descriptive definition of talismans, in light of which all subsequent discussion of talismans is to be understood, that Rāzī opens the first treatise, which contains the some of the work’s most theoretical discussions. Primarily, Rāzī understands “talisman” as a process:

“[…] the blending of heavenly active forces with elemental passive forces, for the sake of being empowered to make manifest that which runs contrary to the empirical norm or to prevent from occurring that which is consonant with it.”

It is the practitioner’s soul which, having severed “corporeal bonds” through spiritual discipline, connects with the “active heavenly forces” of the celestial spirits to “blend” them into a talismanic idol—the secondary sense of “talisman”—to direct these forces “to breach the empirical norm” in accordance with his intention. The operation was a two stage process. Firstly, with the required astrological configuration, he cast the appropriate metal into its mould to forge the talismanic idol. Then, with meditative focus, sharpened by ritualized action mimetic of his goal, he would direct the forces that were noetically “blended” into the idol to bring about that breach of the empirical norm that was his objective. The Sabian’s mastery of the intricate matrix of occult celestial-terrestrial correspondences was so complete as to be instinctual. Not only did it allow him to select the appropriate catarchic moment for pouring the metal into its mould but, assisted by the sympathetically aligned sense input data produced by the talismanic preparation and ritual act—which involved special diet, sacrifices, suffumigations, clothing, incantation and visualization—, it also served the psychological process of establishing noetic connection with the celestial spirits proper to his objective.

But at the core of the Hidden Secret is a long astral ritual in which no talismanic idol features. During the ritual that stretches over a number of years, and guided by his “perfect nature” (al-ṭibāʿ al-tāmm)—his personal daimon—, the aspirant invokes each of the celestial spheres. Throughout, he observes prescribed diet, actions and gestures all sympathetically aligned to the addressees of his planetary orisons. Mentally ascending the spheres, from each the aspirant gains occult knowledge and specific powers. With the completion of the long ritual, he perfects the theoretical and practical capacities of his soul, joins the ontological rank of the celestial spirits, and the heavenly spheres submit humbly to his will. He becomes “self-talismanised”—semi-divine.

The Hidden Secret—Philosophising the Occult

Rāzī’s philosophical account of the talismanic operation co-ordinated two theoretical levels: the human psychological and the cosmological. With regard to the psychological, Rāzī identified the Avicennan estimative faculty—the operative faculty in both imaginational and thaumaturgical prophethood—as the internal sense organ crucial to the process. He reasoned that, whilst, in some rare souls, the occult power of the estimative faculty was innate, it could also be developed and trained in others less fortunate through spiritual discipline. If, in the Avicennan account of imaginational prophethood, noetic connection with the celestial souls could occasion the transmission of knowledge items, so it could also facilitate the channelling of their power in accordance with the talismanic practitioner’s will and focused intent. Just as Avicenna’s Turkic diviner employed a physical procedure to secure his connection with the celestial realm, so Sabian spiritual discipline—albeit far more elaborate—achieved the same end. Fasting and the gradual reduction of food intake until the barest minimum necessary to sustain breath severed the practitioner’s “corporeal bonds” to terrestrial reality. The use, during this period, of fragrances, music and colours, protected the soul from any imbalances that might arise as a consequence of this stringently draconian regime. The uncompromising ascetic attitude that it demanded freed the soul from engrossment in material reality, allowing the practitioner to focus on the celestial world. With such fixed purpose, the operative faculty qua imagination confines its incessant activity of analogous association to the fixed purpose with which the estimative faculty has been primed.

As for the cosmological dimension of his talismanic theory, Rāzī deployed Avicennan arguments to account for the Sabian belief in the celestial souls; their knowledge of the sublunary effects of their motions; and their receptivity to human communication through sacrifice and prayer. But he diverged from Avicennan cosmology in attributing to the outermost sphere that englobes the entire cosmos—not the Active Intellect that Avicenna co-ordinated with the lunar sphere—the role of the metaphysical efficient cause of the natural kinds in the terrestrial world. Moreover, the Sabian anthropology that he constructed denied humanity as a unity in species deriving from the Active Intellect: rather, humanity consisted of essentially differing groups of soul. Each group derived from a distinct astral spirit, which was the “heavenly father” of each individual member of its class.

It was known as the Perfect Nature (al-tibāʿ al-tāmm)—the Arabic cognate of the Greek Neoplatonic personal daimon. In the Avicennan system, it was connection with the Active Intellect that facilitated the theoretical capacity of the human soul. However, drawing on the counter-Avicennan philosophy of Abū’l-Barakāt al-Baghdādī, in the system of Razī’s Sabians, this role was assigned to an individual’s perfect nature. In dreams and hypnagogic visions, the Perfect Nature revealed itself, inspiring the individual with knowledge of the unseen and the arcana of the higher and lower worlds. More importantly, it was a stabilised connection with his perfect nature that was the necessary condition for the long ritual of planetary ascent at the completion of which the aspirant becomes “talismanised” with power over the terrestrial realm—the Sabian cognate of the Avicennan perfected man. Such was the importance of this connection for the occult philosophy that, in his parting counsel to the unnamed king to whom he addresses The Hidden Secret, he advises: “as for the one who would seek knowledge and the complete philosophy, he must invoke the Perfect Nature.”

Rāzī’s Counter-Avicennan Soteriology

Whilst he was one of Avicenna’s most dogged critics, Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī was also one of his greatest admirers—albeit a grudging one. It is no surprise therefore that the soteriology Razi formulated at the end of his career in his great theological summa The Sublime Goals of Metaphysics co-opted and adapted much of the structure and language of the comprehensive scientific worldview that Avicenna constructed, whilst subordinating it to those theological imperatives that could admit of no compromise. What is surprising, however, is the extent to which the theologian relied on astrology and Neoplatonic doctrines to topple that pillar of the Avicennan scientific project: the Active Intellect. Like the Sabians of The Hidden Secret, he apportioned its cosmological function as the metaphysical efficient cause of terrestrial forms and matter to the World Soul that governs the outermost sphere. And the Active Intellect’s function as the originating principle of the human soul, he assigned to the Perfect Nature (al-ṭibāʿ al-tāmm). And since, in Rāzī’s anthropology, humanity comprised numerous such classes, each divided from the other by essential difference, there were as many such perfect natures as there were classes of human.

In this way Rāzī cleared the ground to erect his own counter-Avicennan soteriology for members of the scientific elite, each of whom could realize the perfection of the theoretical faculty through a stabilised noetic connection with his own perfect nature, by means of which he could engage in scientific inquiry and pursue the sublime goals of metaphysics. Motivated by the concern to neutralize the explanatory power of the Avicennan naturalistic account of prophethood, his aim was to preserve the exclusivity of prophethood for an essentially distinct class of human, whilst providing the space for the personal soteriology of the scientific elite. What is even more surprising for the close reader of al-Rāzī’s oeuvre is that this grand soteriological project began in The Hidden Secret.

Author bio

Having received his degree in Arabic and Hebrew from St. John’s College, Oxford, Michael Noble was awarded his PhD from the Warburg Institute, London, in 2017. It was published this year by De Gruyter under the title Philosophising the Occult: Avicennan Psychology in the Hidden Secret of Fakhr al-Din al-Razi. Currently, he is based at the Ludwig-Maximilian University, Munich, where he is a post-doctoral researcher on the DFG-funded Heirs to Avicenna project, headed by Professor Peter Adamson. His research focuses on the reception of Avicennan psychology and cosmology. He has specific interests in post-Avicennan epistemology, theories of cognition and imagination, and the debates concerning the origin and nature of soul. His personal research aims at situating the Islamic occult sciences in the broader context of the creative dialogue between philosophy and theology in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

Copyright Michael Noble, 2021.