al-Tawhidi, Abu Hayyan (c.930-1023)

Al-Tawhidi was an Arabic litterateur and philosopher, probably of Persian origin, and author of numerous books which reflect all the main themes of debate and reflection in the cultivated circles of his time. His basic outlook could be defined as a kind of simplified and vulgarized Neoplatonism, influenced by Gnostic elements, with four hypostases: God, Intellect, Soul and Nature. He also has a strong interest in moral questions on both the individual and social level.

'Ali ibn Muhammad Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi was probably of Persian origin. However, Arabic is the only language he is known to have used, and most of his life was spent in Baghdad and in Rayy (Tehran) at the court of the Buyid princes and their ministers, in particular the famous Ibn Sa'dan. It is in the latter's presence that the discussions recorded in al-Imta' wa'-mu'anasa (Enjoyment and Conviviality) took place. His last years were spent in Shiraz, where he died in ah 414/ad 1023.

Al-Tawhidi is a representative of Arabic belles-lettres (adab) rather than a philosopher in the strict sense. However, some of his main works report discussions devoted to philosophical themes and shed interesting sidelights on questions dealt with in a more systematic fashion by the great Arab philosophers. It goes with the genre adopted by al-Tawhidi that he rarely expresses his own opinions; his main authority is his master, Abu Sulayman al-Sijistani. He also appears to make extensive use of the Rasa'il Ikhwan al-Safa' (Epistles of the Brethren of Purity), although their name is rarely cited (see Ikhwan al-Safa'). Another source of inspiration is the ethical thinker Ibn Miskawayh, with whom he exchanged a philosophical correspondence, al-Hawamil wal-shawamil (Rambling and Comprehensive Questions). Among Greek philosophers, Aristotle is by far the most commonly invoked authority.

Al-Tawhidi's main philosophical work is al-Muqabasat (Borrowed Lights). Al-Imta' wa'-mu'anasa also contains some philosophical material, besides some which is predominantly literary or grammatical. In metaphysics, he follows the basic Neoplatonic scheme of emanation (see Neoplatonism in Islamic philosophy). The First, frequently called the Creator, is the source of the world of nature which emanates continuously from him; God is thus also characterized by his generosity. Intellect, Soul and Nature are the three main levels of being, or hypostases, emanating from the First. The process is sometimes expressed in terms of illumination; the Intellect receives its light from the First, the Soul from the Intellect and Nature from the Soul. Elsewhere, the soul is considered as being pure light. Conversely, the First is said to encompass the Intellect, which in turn encompasses the Soul and so forth.

Many paragraphs are devoted to the human soul, concerning which al-Tawhidi takes up positions that can be defined as Platonic. The soul subsists by itself and is not tied down to the body; on the contrary, it uses the body as an instrument. The soul does not arise from the mixture of the elements; thus the Galenic theory is implicitly rejected, although it is ascribed in one passage to Zeno (probably meaning the Stoic) (see Galen; Zeno of Citium). The union with the body is described as a kind of fall in a way which has clear antecedents in some soteriological conceptions of Gnosticism and Neoplatonism (see Gnosticism; Neoplatonism). In the course of the soul's descent from the heavenly realm it became covered in scales or veils, which it will cast off after physical death, that is, when it relinquishes the body. The soul becomes like a rusty mirror; just as the latter is no longer capable of reflecting external objects, the soul forgot what it knew in the intelligible world. Its true nature is also more fully active in sleep. In our ordinary waking life, we do not remember the world where our soul originated because we have been overcome by matter. These two states of the soul, incarnate and immaterial, correspond to the two realms of intellection and sense-perception. Intellection is an immediate form of apprehension, devoid of reflection and deliberation, whereas sense-perception is linked to discursive and inductive modes of thought, such as syllogism.

Humanity is thus in an intermediate position between the world of intellect and the world of nature. The latter is integrated into the emanationist scheme more neatly than is the case in Greek Neoplatonism; nature is a life force which emanates from the First Principle and penetrates all bodies, giving them their forms and linking them together. The Aristotelian definition of nature as principle of motion and rest is also quoted more than once.

Al-Tawhidi evinces a keen interest in linguistic questions. He predictably maintains the superiority of Arabic over other languages, but also discusses such topics as the respective place and function of prose and verse (see Aesthetics in Islamic philosophy). It is thanks to him that we have a report of the controversy between the partisans of logic and Greek culture and those of traditional Arabic grammar. Another discussion tackles the sensitive problem of the relationship between philosophy and religion. Among the current themes of his time, that of the characters and respective merits of the nations is taken up on several occasions. In the field of ethics, he devoted an entire epistle to friendship, and this is one of his more personal and interesting works.

See also: Ibn Miskawayh; Neoplatonism in Islamic philosophy; al-Sijistani

Copyright © 1998, Routledge.

List of works

al-Tawhidi (c.977-82) al-Hawamil wa'-shawamil (Rambling and Comprehensive Questions), ed. A. Amin and A. Saqr, Cairo, 1951. (A correspondence with Ibn Miskawayh on a variety of topics.)

al-Tawhidi (c.983-5) al-Imta' wa'-mu'anasa (Enjoyment and Conviviality), ed. A. Amin and A. al-Zayn, Cairo, 1953. (A collection of forty 'nights' or gatherings devoted to the discussion of literary, philosophical, religious, grammatical and other subjects.)

al-Tawhidi (c.996) al-Muqabasat (Borrowed Lights), ed. M.T. Husayn, Baghdad, 1970. (A collection of 106 discussions, mainly theological and philosophical.)

al-Tawhidi (c.1010) al-Sadaqa wa'-sadiq (Friendship and Friend), ed. I. Keilani, Damascus, 1964. (A short personal essay on friendship.)

References and further reading

Berge, M. (1979) Pour un humanisme vécu: Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi (Towards a Living Humanism: Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi), Damascus: Institut Français de Damas, 1979. (A general study of Tawhidi's life, works and thought, the only such in a European language.)

Leaman, O. (1996) 'Islamic Humanism in the Fourth/Tenth Century', in S.H. Nasr and O. Leaman (eds) History of Islamic Philosophy, London: Routledge, ch. 10, 155-64. (Analysis of the nature of this important period of Islamic philosophy, concentrating on the ethical thought of the period.)

Rowson, E.K. (1990) 'The Philosopher as Littérateur: al-Tawhidi and his Predecessors' , Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Arabisch-Islamischen Wissenschaften 6: 50-92. (Short study of al-Tawhidi in English.)

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