The Reality of Revelation & Religious Experience | Part 3

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

Lesson 3 – April 27th, 2021

Ibn Sīnā agrees with the overall framework offered by Fārābī but differs in some particular matters. When it comes to details of how the soul of the Prophet (p) connects with the Active Intellect, or the nature of revelation when the Prophet (p) is awake or asleep, are some matters where he differs. Ibn Sīnā refers to revelation accessed while awake as waḥī and revelation received in sleep as an inbreathing into the heart (nafth fī al-raw‘). Ibn Sīnā also divides the Prophet’s religious experience into two: one where he (p) accesses universal truths and another where he accesses the unseen or events regarding the future. He says:

حقيقة الوحى هو الالقاء الخفى من الامر العقلى باذن اللّه تعالى فى النفوس البشرية المستعدة لقبول مثل هذا الالقاء اما فى حال اليقظة و يسمى الوحى و اما فى حال النوم و يسمى النفث فى الروع

The reality of waḥī is the concealed deliverance from the affairs of the intellect with the permission of Allah, human souls that have the capacity to accept such deliverances, either in a state of wakefulness where it is called al-waḥī, or in the state of sleep where it is called al-nafth fī al-raw‘.1

Perhaps the most significant point of difference between Ibn Sīnā and Fārābī is in the introduction of intuition (al-ḥads) in the former’s philosophy of revelation. Ibn Sīnā in one sense inclines towards Aristotelian thought more so than Fārābī in this discussion as he brings in the discussions of syllogism and links the idea of intuition with the sacred faculty (al-quwwah al-qudsiyyah). Ibn Sīnā explains elaborates his view in a number of his works, such as al-Ishārāt, al-Shifā’ and others as follows:

Intuition as defined by logicians is a specific ability that a person possesses and can improve on, where when they confront a matter or an unknown, they are able to arrive at a known relatively quickly. This is done by being able to identify the middle-term (al-ḥadd al-wasaṭ) as quickly as possible,2 and this ability itself differs from one person to another, both quantitatively and qualitatively. In terms of quantity, consider Zayd who comes to conclusion through intuition 25 times on any given day, and ‘Amr who comes to conclusions through intuition 15 times on that same day. Ibn Sīnā considers anyone who does not use intuition to arrive at any conclusions as stupid. In terms of quality, Ibn Sīnā says some people’s people ability to arrive at conclusions through intuition is very strong, and they can do so within a few seconds, while some others may take a slightly longer time to arrive at those same conclusions via intuition.

For Ibn Sīnā, the stronger one’s ability is to use intuition, the less they time they need to engage in formal study and gradual learning. If someone’s quantitative and qualitative aspects of intuition are very extraordinary, unique and special, such person is essentially the Prophet (p). This is also why Prophets do not need to gradually learn or be educated in schools, because a large portion of their knowledge is intuitive and they come to conclusions at a very quick speed. Ibn Sīnā clarifies this in his al-Shifā says:

فيمكن إذن أن يكون شخص من الناس مؤيد النفس لشدة الصفاء وشدة الاتصال بالمبادئ العقلية إلى أن يشتعل حاسا ، أعنى قبولا لها من العقل الفعال فى كل شىء وترتسم فيه الصور التى فى العقل الفعال ، إما دفعة ، وإما قريبا من دفعة ارتساما لا تقليديا ، بل بترتيب يشتمل على الحدود الوسطى. فإن التقليديات فى الأمور التى إنما تعرف بأسبابها ليست يقينية عقلية. وهذا ضرب من النبوة ، بل أعلى قوى النبوة ، والأولى أن تسمى هذه القوة قوة قدسية ، وهى أعلى مراتب القوى الإنسانية.

Thus there might be a person whose soul has been rendred so powerful through extreme purity and intense contact with intellectual principles that he blazes with intuition, i.e. with the ability to receive the inspirtation in all matters from the active intellect. So the forms of all things contained in the active intellect are imprinted on his soul either all at once or nearly so, not that he accepts them merely on authority but on account of their logical order which encompasses all the middle terms. For acceptance based on authority This is a kind of prophethood – indeed its highest faculty – and the most appropriate thing is to call this faculty ‘sacred faculty,’ and this is the greatest leve of the human facutly.3

Ibn Sīnā essentially says the Prophet (p) does not just have the imaginative faculty as Fārābī describes, rather the power of intuition is also a key component for revelation, and in fact it is even stronger and superior to the imaginative faculty. It is the intuitive faculty which even grants and facilitates knowledge to the imaginative faculty. According to Ibn Sīnā then, the difference between a philosopher and a Prophet is in their strength of intuitive knowledge, where the Prophet’s intuitive faculty is far stronger and accurate than a philosopher’s.

Another major difference between Ibn Sīnā and Fārābī is that the latter connects the concept of the Acquired Intellect (al-‘aql al-mustafād) with the active intellect; whereas Ibn Sīnā adds another intellect calld the Posessive Intellect (al-‘aql bi al-malakah) and links it with the Active Intellect in the case of prophecy. This is a very important step by Ibn Sīnā because he wants to connect the notion of intuitive knowledge with the Active Intellect and argue that Prophets did not have to engage in strenous activity to become Prophets and receive revelatio. This is contrary to Fārābī who believed Prophets still had to exert effort to acess revelation due to the concept of the Acquired Intellect.

Summary of Differences Between Fārābī and Ibn Sīnā

We can summarized the main differences between Fārābī and Ibn Sīnā on the topic of revelation in three points:

1. According to Fārābī, Prophethood and revelation are a result of an ascension and strenous effort, because it is something that is acquired (unlike what the theologians say). However, Ibn Sīnā believes this pathway is traversed rather quickly by the Prophet due to the stregnth of his intuitive knowledge.

The ascension pathway of Fārābī is gradual and acquired, whereas for Ibn Sīnā it is immediate and gifted.

2. Ibn Sīnā agrees with the role of the Imaginative Faculty, but does not connect it with the Active Intellect, rather he links the Imaginative Faculty with the quwwa mutakhayyila, but does not link it with Active Intellect. Ibn Sīnā liked it with immortal heavenly bodies (al-ajrām al-samāwīyah).

3. For Fārābī it is the Acquired Intellect that connects with the Active Intellect, whereas for Ibn Sīnā it is the Posessive Intellect.

The Peripatetics believed revelation had an epistemic aspect, where the Prophet (p) would receive knowledge. This is unlike some contemprary modern philosophers.

Observations on Peripatetics

We will mention a few critiques and observations that are often made against the Peripatetics. Before that, we should say that post-medivial era when Western thinkers began to critique traditional philosophers, one of their critiques was that the philosophers often given a very comprehensive view to their audience, that appears amazing and sounds very pleasant to the ears, but the biggest problem with their views is that they offer no evidence (as per the claim of their critics). In fact, someone like Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) – when critiquing Western philosophers – would say they are amazing painters and artists who have the ability to pain such elaborate pictures that sound very convincing.

We mention this point not because we necessarily agree with Bacon, but to say that many Muslim scholars who were against the philosophers would also often object in the same mannner, as will be seen.

1. The biggest hurdle for the Peripatetics is that their understanding regarding revelation has absolutely nothing to do with what is present in the Quran, or ḥadīth, or even in what was passed down from previous religions. In other words, what religious texts mention regarding revelation is not even remotely similar to the view of the Peripatetics.

In this vein, someone like Shaykh Makārim Shīrāzī in his Tafsīr Nemūneh has said the Quran and Sunnah consider revelation to be a connection with Allah, not with the intellects or other entities. In fact, Shaykh Makārim, very similar and in line with the opinion of other theologians and scholars of ḥadīth, believes the view of the Peripatetic’s leaves no essential difference between the philosophers and the Prophets. The Prophets are merely stronger philosophers.

The Peripatetics can respond to this critique by saying that religious texts are only simplifying these metaphysical and immaterial realities for the laity. The laity would not be able to understand these technical terms and jargon and so they describe these matters in symbolic or metaphorical language. In other words, God had to use concepts and language which refers to angels or other entities to describe the phenomenon of revelation to the laity. Furthermore, the Peripatetics will argue that someone like Fārābī has in fact explained these religious texts by reconciling between them and his philosophical views.

However, the theologians can also respond back by saying the Peripatetics do not explain all aspects of revelation that are described in the religious texts. For example, how do they reconcile the concept of nafth fī al-raw‘ with what we know about revelation, or how do they explain the fact that Gabriel is the greatest of all angels, yet the Peripatetics believe this is a reference to the Tenth Intellect, while he should be the First? These types of objections are made to show inconsistencies between the Peripatetics’ view and the religious texts. Of course, the Peripatetics would then generally respond by resorting to more forms of esoteric or allegorical interpretations (ta’wīl) of the narrations or verses of the Quran.

2. The entire foundation and premise of the Peripatetic’s view was based on an ontological reality that was based on Ptolemaic system, which was essentially all refuted after Copernicus. The entire system of the Intellects and their relation with the celestial bodies is brought under question, in fact, it was refuted, rejected, or weakened even by later philosophers like the Sadrians, numerous theologians and prominent scholars like Ghazālī (d. 1111), many arguing that such a concept has no evidence for it at all. Some of these scholars said there is no evidence that revelation is the connection of the soul with the Active Intellect, nor is there any evidence that the Prophet had great intuitive powers.

To put it briefly, the Peripatetics have just offered and painted a picture for us. The painting looks great and beautiful, but there is absolutely no evidence for it. Consider what ‘Allāmah Majlisī says regarding this view in his Biḥār al-Anwār4 and elsewhere:

وقال بعض محقّقيهم : إنّ نسبة العقل العاشر الّذي يسمونه بالعقل الفعّال إلي النفس كنسبة النفس إلى البدن فكما أنّ النفس صورة للبدن ، والبدن مادتها ، فكذلك العقل صورة للنفس ، والنفس مادّته ، وهو مشرق عليها ، وعلومها مقتبسة منه ، ويكمل هذا الارتباط إلى حدّ تطالع العلوم فيه ، وتتّصل به ، وليس لهم على هذه الاُمور دليل إلا مموّهات شبهات ، أو خيالات غريبة زيّنوها بلطائف عبارات.

Some of their researchers have said: The relation of the Tenth Intellect, which they refer to as the Active Intellect, with the soul, is like the relation of the soul with the body. Just as the soul is the form for a body and the body is its matter, likewise the Intellect is the form for the soul and the soul is its matter, and it shines upon it, and its (the Active Intellect’s) knowledge is acquired from it, and this connection is perfected until knowledge is examined within it and one is connected with it.

They do not have any evidence (dalīl) for these matters, except delusional and ambiguous arguments, or strange imaginations which they have beautified with nice phrases.

3. One could ask both Fārābī and Ibn Sīnā a very important question based on their description of revelation. The question is, is the witnessing of the Prophet (p) which is understood to be revelation, occurring within the Prophet himself or outside of him? To put it in contemporary Sadrian terms, is revelation from the genus of the self / integral wayfaring (naw‘ anfusī) or from the genus of the cosmos / external wayfaring (naw‘ āfāqī)? There are three possible responses the Peripatetics could offer:

i) They can say the Prophet (p) receives revelation from the Active Intellect via the Acquired Intellect, and due to his Imaginative Faculty or Sacred Faculty, he witnesses symbolic, cryptic and universal concepts of knowledge, but there is nothing that he sees or hears outside of himself.

If this is the case, then note the similarity of this explanation with the views put forth by Abdolkarim Soroush and Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari who believe revelation is an internal experience. In other words, the true component of revelation is what is received from the Active Intellect, and the unreal component are the images, concepts, sounds that get created for the Prophet (p) within himself.

If this is the case, then how would the Peripatetics explain the words of the Quran? Are the words of the Quran a true component or an unreal component? How could they be a true component, given words are part of the sensory realm, not the Active Intellect. If words are the unreal component, then that would imply the words of the Quran are the Prophet’s (p) own construction. This is of course a real issue for the Peripatetics, as this view implies a position that goes against the view of the Muslims at large which is that the Prophet (p) received words as revelation from Allah, not that he was making them up himself. This is why Mullā Ṣadrā says the views of the Peripatetics in reality implies the rejection of revelation altogether:

و هذا الأمر المتمثل بما معه أو فيه ليس مجرد صورة خيالية لا وجود لها في خارج الذهن و التخيل كما يقوله من لا حظ له من علم‌ الباطن و لا قدم له في أسرار الوحي و الكتاب كبعض أتباع المشائين معاذ الله عن هذه العقيدة الناشئة عن الجهل بكيفية الإنزال و التنزيل

This representation which accompanies him or is within him is nothing but an imaginary concept that has no existence outside of the mind and the imaginative faculty, as has been professed by some who have no fortune of being blessed with the esoteric knowledge, nor any understanding of the secrets of revelation and the Book, like some of the followers of the Peripatetics – May one seek refuge in Allah from this belief which originates in ignorance towards the nature of full transmission (inzāl) and gradual revelation (tanzīl).5

ii) The Prophet (p) received knowledge from the Active Intellect, but his Imaginative Faculty is so strong that he indeed see things externally to himself.

If that is the case, then we still have to ask the question: Is what the Prophet (p) was witnessing a reality or not? If it was a reality then the Peripatetics have to explain how that is the case, and if not, then we will return to the same issues as mentioned in the previous point. same issue as the previous possibility.

iii) The Imaginative Faculty directly connects with the Active Intellect and creates a conception for the Prophet (p). This created conception could either be material or immaterial. If it is immaterial, then the question is: How did the Prophet (p) witness these concepts empirically especially given the Peripatetics did not believe in the existence of the realm of similitudes (mithāl).

If it is material, which means the Prophet (p) connects with the Active Intellect first, and then the Active Intellect creates something material in front of him with which he (p) connects to subsequently, then this is a strange and incoherent phenomenon. Does the Active Intellect create a body (jism) in front of the Prophet (p) which is deceiving the Prophet (p) – what exactly is going on?

These are questions and objects that the Peripatetics would have to answer. From next lesson onwards we will begin describing the view of Sadrian philosophers.


  1. Rasā’il Ibn Sīnā, pg. 223.
  2. Consider this passage from Ibn Sīnā where he explains the matter in more detail:

    If a person can acquire knowledge from within himself, this strong capacity is called intuition (al-ḥads). It is so strong in certain people that they do not need great effort, or instruction and actualization, in order to make contact with the active intellect. But the primary capacity of such a person for this is so powerful that he might also be said to possess the second capacity; indeed, it seems as though he knows everything from within himself. This is the highest degree of this capacity. In this state the material intelligence must be called “Divine Spirit.’ It belongs to the genus of inellectus in habitu, but is so lofty that not all people share it. It is not unlikely, indeed, that some of these actions attributed to the “Divine Intelligence” because of their powerful and lofty nature overflow into the imagination which symbolizes them in sense-imagery and words in the way which we have previously indicated. What proves this is the evident fact that the intelligible truths are acquired only when the middle term of a syllogism is obtained. his may be done in two ways: sometimes through intuition, which is an act of mind by which the mind itself immediately perceived the middle term. This power of intuition is quickness of apprehension…. It is possible that a man may find the truth within himself, and that the syllogism may be effected in his mind without any teacher. This varies both quantitively and qualitatively. [Fazlur Rahman (trans.), Avicenna’s Psychology, pg. 35-37.]

  3. Al-Nafs min Kitāb al-Shifā’, vol. 1, pg. 340
  4. Biḥār al-Anwār, vol. 1, pg. 101
  5. Al-Asfār, vol. 7, pg. 25