The Reality of Revelation & Religious Experience | Part 2

These are transcripts of lessons on “Reality of Revelation and Religious Experience” delivered by Shaykh Haider Hobbollah once a week in 2021.

Lesson 2 – April 20th 2021

2. Another critique on the theologians’ interpretation is offered by the philosophers – particularly Sadrian philosophers and mystics – who say there is a methodological fallacy in the way theologians interpret religious texts. Theologians interpret the text in a very customary way, whereas philosophers and mystics believe reports that speak of metaphysical dimensions must be interpreted either in a very symbolic way or where we explain away the prima-facie so that it does not seem literal.

This is a hermeneutical assumption because these scholars believe God cannot speak about metaphysical realities with the laymen in any other way except by using simplistic language, not the language of specialists. Allah has to describe those higher immaterial realities in a way that an average person can understand to the best extent possible.

As such, philosophers believe theologians have approached religious texts that speak about revelation in a very fallacious way. Theologians have dealt with these reports just as a jurist deals with narrations concerning law and ethics where one understands them in a very customary way, whereas the narrations on revelation – and other metaphysical discussions – cannot be treated the same as narrations of law. Therefore narrations on revelation cannot be treated linguistically in the same way, since the language here is symbolic, figurative and metaphorical.

Theologians of course can respond by saying, unless we have already proven without a doubt that revelation is a metaphysical reality, there is no reason to treat the religious texts in a metaphorical and symbolic way. Their stance is of someone who does not yet know anything about revelation to begin with and so they are approaching the religious texts to learn about it. In this case, what justification do we have – as the theologians would argue – to treat the interpretation of these texts differently?

This is of course a lengthy dispute between the theologians, philosophers and mystics and we are not here to resolve this centuries-long dispute.

3. If revelation is the way the theologians say, then why would people around the Prophet (p) not hear it? If it is the case that the Prophet (p) heard something in his ears and it was something from the material realm, how is it possible no one else heard anything?

Theologians can also respond to this objection by saying, why is it not possible for revelation to be heard only by the Prophet (p) while Allah prevened others from hearing it? Just like Prophet Ya‘qūb (a) smelled the shirt of Yūsuf (p) and realized he was still alive, yet others could not smell that scent from that shirt. Likewise, if Prophet Sulaymān (a) could hear the ant conversing with him, this does not mean it was a conversation happening in a metaphysical realm, rather it was happening in this material realm, yet no one besides Sulaymān (a) could hear the ant.

4. Some critics have said, theologians have not been able to address and explain all forms of revelation. Quran is only one form of revelation, whereas we know there are times where Allah sent waḥī to others as well, such as the mother of Mūsa (a), or the disciples of ‘Īsa (a), or the command to Ibrahīm (a) to slaughter Ismā‘īl was revealed in a dream yet it is described as a revelation etc. Are these all revealed to these individuals like the Prophetic revelation or the way the Quran was revealed or do these differ?

This is not really a critique on the theologian’s view, rather it is simply demanding further explanation of their views and how they can consistently explain away other forms of revelation by God. Some theologians have indeed attempted to address this objection.

As a final point, the theologians’ view has been subject to a very crucial discussion in the last few decades, and that is related to whether the Quranic verses were constructed by the Prophet (p) himself while only the meanings were revealed by Allah, or were both the meanings and the literal words of the verses revealed on the Prophet (p) by Allah? From a theologian’s perspective, revelation is inclusive of both meanings and verses, and the Prophet (p) had no role to play in the construction of the verses whatsoever. This is corroborated by the numerous verses themselves which speak about revelation, the Quran being sent on the Prophet (p) and him being asked to recite the verses.

Revelation As Interpreted by Muslim Philosophers

Philosophers have addressed the topic of revelation for many centuries but perhaps the earliest and most significant discussions on it amongst Muslim philosophers were by Abū Naṣr al-Fārābī (d. 950 CE). As for why Fārābī decided to engage with the phenomenon of revelation in so much depth, there are multiple theories, such as it being related to epistemology, or perhaps it was merely to defend religious beliefs intellectually. During his era, there seems to have been a trend amongst some intellectuals – like Muḥammad b. Zakarīya al-Rāzī (d. 925 CE), or Ibn Rāwandī (d. 911 CE) – who began to reject prophethood. Some of these critiques were collected by Sayf al-Dīn al-Āmadī (d. 631 AH/1233 CE) in his work al-Aḥkām fī Uṣul al-Aḥkām and there are almost 40 different critiques against the concept of prophethood raised up until his time.

According to the Egyptian scholar Dr. Ibrahim Madkur in his work Fī al-Falsafa al-Islāmīyyah: Manhaj wa Taṭbīquhu, this trend was developing in the middle of the Islamic civilization, and so perhaps Fārābī was motivated to address this topic to defend revelation and prophethood.

Fārābī’s analysis of revelation impacted not just Ibn Sīnā, but a whole generation of philosophers, as well as some Muslim theologians, and as well as some Christian and Jewish theologians like Albertus Magnus (d. 1280 CE) and Mūsa b. Maymūn (d. 1204 CE). Fārābī discusses the topic of revelation in two works: The Opinions of the People of the Virtuous City and The Political Regime. This shows that the topic of prophethood amongst early Muslim philosophers was being discussed in a socio-political context. In fact, the famous argument about how society needs Prophets in order to repel societal chaos was put forth by the philosophers, and it was only later that Muslim theologians took this argument from them. It is for this reason that Khwājā Naṣir al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī (d. 1274) in his Talkhīṣ al-Muḥassal and as well as Suyūrī (d. 826/1423) in his al-Lawāmi‘ al-Ilāhīyyah and Irshād al-Ṭālibīn, both describe this argument for prophethood as the argument of the philosophers (ḥukamā’).

We will only describe the interpretation of revelation for two schools of Islamic philosophy: the Peripatetic School and the School of Transcendental Wisdom. An exhaustive analysis of every philosophical school will be very time-consuming and outside the scope of these lessons. For the Peripatetic School we will describe the views of Fārābī and Ibn Sīnā, while for the Transcendental School we will describe the views of Mullā Ṣadrā.

The Peripatetics

It is known that Peripatetics were influenced by Aristotelean thought, especially regarding their beliefs about existence and the soul (nafs). It is also these two beliefs that make up the crux of the Peripatetical view on the reality of revelation. To understand their view, we first must know how they understood existence and the role of the soul in relation to it.

The Peripatetics – like most Muslim philosophers – accept the rule of unity (Qāʿidah al-Wāḥid) which states “From the One, Only One Proceeds”, or in other words, multiplicity cannot emerge from unity. What that meant was that since God is One, it is not possible for multiplicity to emanate from Him. As such they believed the starting point of reality is God, from who emanates only a single entity, which they refer to as the First Proceeding Entity (al-ṣādir al-awwal) or the First Intellect (al-‘aql al-awwal), then the Second Intellect (al-‘aql al-thānī) all the way till the lowest celestial intellects which is the Tenth Intellect, also known as the Active Intellect (al-‘aql al-fa‘āl). They have very detailed discussions on how the Second Intellect emanates from the First, how the Third emanates from the Second etc. and as well as how all these Intellects descend through their corresponding celestial spheres.

The Active Intellect is also known as the giver of forms (wāhib al-suwar) as it gives form to entities in this material realm, the portion of the universe below the celestial sphere of the moon. It gives form to trees, stones, mountains and all else that we see. Further, the Active Intellect also plays a role in granting knowledge to us. In this way, the Tenth or Active Intellect has both an ontological and epistemological relationship with our material realm. For the Peripatetics then, you have the immaterial realm, which are the Tenth Intellect and all the Intellects before it, and the material realm which is under the Tenth Intellect. This is contrary to the Illuminationist School who believed in three realms: the immaterial, the realm of similitudes (mithāl) where forms exist without matter, and the material realm where matter existed.

For Muslim philosophers who accepted the aforementioned theory of emanation, everything we see, experience and more, already exists within the ten Intellects. After the Tenth Intellect, however, is the formation of the material realm and all the multiplicity we observe. If one wants to get a closer understanding of their position through an example then this is similar to the Big Bang theory, when there was a point where only a singularity existed, followed by an explosion that resulted in the expansion of the universe. The Tenth Intellect is similar to the singularity that precedes the explosion which results in the multiplicity we observe.

On the epistemic side, Peripatetics had two discussions, one concerning the powers and faculties of the soul and one concerning the stages of the intellect. With regards to the powers of the soul, they believe there were three:

i) Al-Quwwah al-Ḥissīyyah – The Sensory Faculty

ii) Al-Quwwah al-Mutakhayyilah – The Imaginative or Representative Faculty: this faculty is able to perceive particulars and also able to combine and separate images, or produce new images.

iii) Al-Quwwa al-‘Āqila – The Rational Faculty: this faculty is able to perceive universals and can also connect with immaterial entities.

According to the Peripatetics, all three powers of the soul are extraordinarily strong for the Prophets (p). Their sensory faculty is so strong that they can perform miracles, their imaginative faculty is so strong that they can perceive all sorts of particulars as if they are in front of them, and likewise, their rational faculty is very strong.

As for the stages of the intellect, the Peripatetics have some differences of opinion here, but we will explain Fārābī’s view as it is simpler:

i) Al-‘Aql bi al-Quwwah (Potential Intellect) or al-‘Aql al-Munfa‘il (Passive Intellect) or al-‘Aql al-Mādī (Material Intellect): This intellect grants a person the mere capacity to perceive and gain knowledge.

ii) Al-‘Aql bi al-Fi‘l (Actual Intellect): This is when one has perceived some matter, and the intellect goes from potential to actualization.

iii) Al-Aql al-Mustafād (Acquired Intellect): Fārābī believed this is the level of the intellect by which one can perceive immaterial philosophical intelligibles and universals that are derived from matter. It is at this stage where humans differ from animals.

The stronger one’s Acquired Intellect gets, the closer they get to the Active Intellect. Ibn Sīna adds another stage of the intellect here called al-‘Aql bi al-Malakah (Possessive Intellect) which we do not want to explain here.

As one can imagine, this is a very simplified summary of how the Peripatetics saw reality originating from God and as well as how they perceived reality from the perspective of humans looking upward towards the Tenth Intellect. Given this understanding, how did Fārābī and Ibn Sīnā understand revelation?

Fārābī describes revelation through two key points:

i) It is the connection of one’s soul with the Active Intellect

ii) It is the extraordinary strength of the Imaginative Faculty

According to Fārābī, the Prophet (p) has to unite with the Active Intellect, although this does not mean he (p) himself becomes the Tenth Intellect. The Tenth Intellect is like a coin, it has a side facing up and a side facing down. The side facing up links the Tenth Intellect with the Ninth Intellect, and no one – not even a Prophet (p) – can connect with it, but it is the side facing down which the Prophet (p) can connect with. In his The Political Regime, Fārābī refers to the side facing down as the Rūḥ al-Qudus and Ruḥ al-Amīn, the angel or spirit entrusted with giving the Prophet (p) revelation.

When the Prophet connects with the Tenth Intellect, the Intellect grants the Prophet (p) access to information and knowledge that it possesses. When the Prophet (p) receives revelation, all that is happening, with the grace of Allah (swt), is the Tenth Intellect granting the Prophet (p) access to certain pieces of information.

Until this stage, there is essentially no difference between a Prophet and a philosopher, because philosophers believe they themselves can also access this information and connect with the Tenth Intellect. How does Fārābī differentiate the Prophet from others? It is the second point that makes the Prophet (p) different and that is the strength of their Imaginative Faculty.

The Imaginative or Representative Faculty is at its peak for the Prophet (p). In chapter 25 of his book The Opinions of the People of the Virtuous City he explains that this faculty is so strong for the Prophet (p) that he can perceive particular knowledge of the past, past stories of the Prophets (p), knowledge of the present and of the future. In fact, it makes no difference whether he perceives these matters in dreams or while awake because in both cases he is connected with Active Intellect where he receives information as universals but is able to perceive them as particulars through the Imaginative Faculty as if they are in front of him. The Prophet (p) can detach his attention away from the material realm even while awake and therefore he can receive revelation while awake, just like how humans see dreams while they are asleep as that is when they are most detached from the world, although even then, most humans may only rarely see a true dream.

It is for this reason that the notion of dreams is very important for philosophers because it possess some epistemic value for them. In fact, they have also relied on both Shī‘ī and Sunni traditions to defend themselves such as:

الرؤيا الصادقة جزء من سبعين جزءا من النبوة

True dreams are one of the seventy parts of prophethood.

الرؤيا الصادقة جزء من ستٍ وأربعين جزءا من النبوة

True dreams are one of the forty-six parts of prophethood.

The strength of the Prophet (p) over the philosophers is his great ability to convert his extensive knowledge of universals and perception of philosophical intelligibles that he receives from the Active Intellect into particulars and inform people about it. Fārābī writes:

When this perfection occurs in both parts of his rational faculty, namely the theoretical and the practical faculties, and also in his imaginative faculty, then it is this man who receives Divine revelation, and God Almighty grants him revelation through the mediation of the Active Intellect.

Thus he is a wise man and a philosopher and an accomplished thinker who employs an intellect of divine quality and, through the emanation from the Active Intellect to his imaginative faculty, a visionary Prophet who warns of things to come and tells of particular things which exist at present.

This man holds the most perfect rank of humanity and has reached the highest degree of felicity, and his soul is perfected and in connection with the Active Intellect in the way we have mentioned. This is the sovereign over whom no other human being has any sovereignty whatsoever.1

Ibn Sīnā agrees with Fārābī generally speaking but adds a few important extra points which we will cover in the next lesson.


  1. Ārā’ Ahl al-Madīna al-Fāḍilah wa Muḍātāuhā, pg. 121.