The Greatest Master Muhyiddin Ibn al-Arabi
The Greatest Master Muhyiddin Ibn al-Arabi

Most of these introductory articles are exracted from Volume I of the Single Monad Model of the Cosmos: Ibn al-Arabi's View of Time and Creation... more on this can be found here.

Time in Earlier Islamic Philosophy:

Muslim philosophers were in general greatly influenced by their Hellenistic predecessors, and therefore tried to apply their theories of time in relation to the related issues raised by the Qur’an and Prophetic Hadith. Many Muslim philosophers prior to Ibn al-Arabi, such as al-Kindi, al-Farabi, al-Razi, al-Ghazali, Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and Ibn Sina (Avicenna) analysed and criticized or adapted the differing conceptions of time in the schools of Greek philosophy represented by Aristotle, Plato and Plotinus (Badawi 1965).

For example, al-Ghazali,[1] in his famous 'Refutation of the Philosophers' (Tahafut al-Falasifa),[2] dealt with most of the standard philosophical and logical arguments regarding time and creation, and his criticism was also thoroughly discussed in Ibn Rushd's famous philosophical rebuttal, the Tahafut al-Tahafut.[3] However, one of the most influential Muslim philosophers who had many original views about time is Ibn Sina, who devoted long chapters in several works to discussing time and related issues according to the views of kalam theology and of previous philosophical schools.

Ibn Sina[4] started by summarising the metaphysical positions of all previous (Islamic and other) philosophers[5] and then criticizing their different ontological views. Although Ibn Sina, like Aristotle, closely relates time and motion, he stressed that motion is not the amount of time. He based his argument on the fact that different distances can be cut in the same time, or that the same distance can be done in different times, either due to the difference in velocity or due to stops on the way.[6] But ultimately he does define time by motion, though he adds distance to overcome Aristotle's difficulty regarding periodicity (see previous section). He says that time 'is the number of motion when it separates into before and after, not in time but in distance, otherwise it would have to be periodical.' (Nasr 1978: 224-6)

On the other hand, although Avicenna doubted the existence of physical time, arguing that time 'exists' only in the mind due to memory and expectation, he also showed that time is also real in the sense that it exists through motion which relates to physical matter; time is real, but it doesn't have a stand-alone essence, since it only exists through the motion of matter.[7] On the issue of the structure of time, Ibn Sina affirms that it is a continuous quantity, since he (like Aristotle) considers time to be the amount of circular motion which is continuous, and thus time is only divided by our mind's illusion into 'moments' or 'instants' (anat).[8]

On the other hand, the proponents of kalam theology, particularly the Ash‘arites,[9] based on their atomist view, consider time to be discrete, and they also talked about the re-creation of the world in time. Ibn al-Arabi acknowledges the positive insights in their position, but he also criticized their view as being incomplete (SPK: 97). We shall discuss Ibn al-Arabi's own view in detail in sections II.8 and V.6 below.

At the earliest stage of Islamic philosophy, the philosopher and mathematician al-Kindi[10] was generally affected by Aristotle and adopted his view that time is the number of motion.[11] However, arguing from the general Qur’anic principle that Allah is the One Who created the world; he asserted that the material world cannot exist ad infinitum because of the impossibility of an actual infinite. Therefore, he argued, the world requires an initial 'generator' (muhdith) who could generate it ex nihilo.

The famous Muslim physician and Neoplatonist al-Razi,[12] on the other hand, seems to have adopted Plato's notion (in the Timaeus) that time is 'the moving form of eternity', as well as Plotinus' notion that time is eternal; therefore he refused Aristotle's view of the unreality of time.

The influential philosopher al-Farabi,[13] on his part, focused on the metaphysical aspects of time. He also adopted Aristotle's view when he said: 'only the circular motion is continuous and time is related to this motion' (‘Abdul-Muta‘al: 113). But similar to Ibn al-Arabi, al-Farabi apparently also believed that the world is contingent or 'possible to exist' before its actual existence. Otherwise, if it were 'impossible' it wouldn't exist, or if it were 'necessary', it would have always been. Then he stresses that the world as a whole is in continuous formation (takwin) and corruption (fasad) 'in no time', while the parts of the world are forming and deforming in time (‘Abdul-Muta‘al: 115). This outlook is also similar to Ibn al-Arabi's view (see section II.3). To explain this important point we give the following illustration: if a young physicist was asked to describe the general state of a mountain, he may end up with some equations without any reference to time, because the mountain is rigid. But if we ask him to include in his study the fact that the mountain is part of the earth which is rotating around its axis and orbiting around the sun, and also the fact that the atoms in the rocks never rest, or even the motion of the insects and other animals that might be living there, as well as the motions of the wind, waters… etc. - then in that case the physicist might need to invent some new mathematics in order to be able to properly include the time parameter in his equations, even after making many approximations. So because we live 'inside' the world we feel time, but the entire world itself is out of time.

Many other schools of Islamic thought have speculated on the issue of time. It is good to notice, however, that in the Qur’an itself Allah never makes any direct reference to the usual Arabic word for 'time' (zaman or zaman), although many other time-related terms later explored by Ibn al-Arabi - such as the year (sana and ‘am), month (shahr), day (yawm/nahar) and night (layl) - were mentioned very often in the Qur’an, in addition to some divine Names that are related to time such as the First (al-awwal), the Last (al-akhir) and the Age (al-dahr).

As already noted in our Introduction, with all the hundreds of books and recent studies that have been written about time in Islamic philosophy, both in Arabic and in other languages, it is very strange almost none have ever focused on Ibn al-Arabi. Many scholars have studied and compared the different theological, philosophical and physical views of time and existence, so briefly summarized above. However, none of these studies have ever, to the best of our knowledge, treated Ibn al-Arabi's unique concept of time, although - as we shall discover - it is actually the key to understanding his controversial theory of the oneness of being. The reason for this strange neglect could be not only his difficult and symbolic Sufi language, but also the fact that his concepts are intentionally dispersed throughout his many writings and not plainly stated in one place, as most other authors do. In fact, Ibn al-Arabi mentions in the Futuhat [I.141.13] that he wrote a treatise with the title of 'al-zaman' ('time') where we would expect to read at least an extensive summary of his view of time. However, apparently this precious work has been lost, although al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya seems to include most of his doctrine regarding time and other related cosmological issues.


[1] Al-Ghazali, Abu Hamid Muhammad B. Muhammad al-Tusi (450AH/1058AD-505AH/1111AD), outstanding Muslim theologian, jurist, thinker, mystic and religious reformer who later pursued and systematically defended the path of Sufism. See also: EI2, 'Al-Ghazali', II: 1038.

[2] Ibn Rushd, Tahafut al-falasifa (The Incoherence of the Philosophers) (1927), ed. M. Bouyges with a summary in Latin, Beirut: n.p.. This is a controversial work of theological refutation where al-Ghazali enumerated twenty maxims of the philosophers that he found that they could not incontrovertibly demonstrate, as they had claimed.

[3] Abu al-Walid Ibn Rushd (520AH/1126AD-595AH/1198AD) was the chief judge of Seville and a great philosopher known in the West as Averroes. There was no one higher than him in the matter of legal ruling (fatwa) for crucial issues. He was a top figure in the history of both Islamic and Western philosophy and theology. He defended philosophy against the Ash‘arite theologians (Mutakallimun) led by al-Ghazali, against whom he wrote his Tahafut al-Tahafut ('The Incoherence of the Incoherence'), translated from the Arabic with introduction and notes by Simon van den Bergh (Gibb Memorial Trust, 1978). See also: EI2, 'Ibn Rushd', III: 909.

[4] Abu ‘Ali al-Husayn ibn Abdullah Ibn Sina (369AH/980AD-428AH/1037AD), known in the West as Avicenna, was an important Muslim physician, scientist, mathematician and philosopher. See also: EI2, 'Ibn Sina', III: 941.

[5] Ibn Sina (1983), al-Shifa’ [al-Tabiiyyat, 1- al-Sama’ al-Tabi’i], ed. Said Zayed, Cairo: L’Organisation Egyptienne Générale du Livre: Cairo: 68. See also ‘Ala’ al-Din ‘Abdul-Muta‘al (2003) Tasawwur Ibn Sina li’l-Zaman wa Usuluhu al-Yunaniyya ('Ibn Sina's Concept of Time and Its Greek Origins') Alexandria: Dar al-Wafa’: 131.

[6] Ibn Sina, al-Shifa’ [al-Tabi‘iyyat, 1- al-Sama’ al-Tabi’i]: 72. See also: Al-‘Ati, I. (1993) al-Zaman fi al-Fikr al-Islami: Ibn Sina, al-Razi and al-Ma'arri ('Time in Islamic Thought'), Beirut: Dar al-Muntakhab al-'Arabi: 110.

[7] Ibn Sina, al-Shifa’ [al-Tabi‘iyyat, 1- al-Sama’ al-Tabi’i]: 74.

[8] Ibn Sina (1938) al-Najat, ed. Muhyi al-Din S. al-Kurdi, 2nd edn., Cairo: n.p.: 117.

[9] Named after their founding figure Abu al-Hasan al-Ash‘ari, this Sunni theological school had its origin in the reaction against what they viewed as the excessive rationalism of the Mu‘tazila (a movement founded by Wasil Ibn ‘Ata’ in the secind century AH/eighth century AD. The Ash‘arites insisted that reason must be subordinate to the literal data of revelation. They accepted some of the cosmology of the Mu‘tazilites, but put forward a nuanced rejection of their theological principles. See also: EI2, 'Al-Ash‘ari, Abu al-Hasan', I: 694; 'Ash‘ariyya', I: 696; 'Mu‘tazila', VII: 783.

[10] Abu Yusuf Ya‘qub Ibn Ishaq al-Kindi (185AH/805AD-256AH/873AD) is considered the historical 'father' of Islamic Philosophy. He was also a scientist of high calibre, a gifted mathematician, astronomer, physician and a geographer, as well as a talented musician. See also: EI2, 'Al-Kindi', V: 122.

[11] Al-Kindi (1950) Rasa’il al-Kindi al-Falsafiyya, Risala fi al-Falsafat al-ula ('Al-Kindi's Philosophical Letters, Letter on the First Philosophy (= metaphysics)', ed. Muhammad A. Abu Rida, Cairo: n.p.: 117.

[12] Mohammed Ibn Zakariyya al-Razi (251AH/865AD-313AH/925AD). See also: EI2, 'Al-Razi', VIII: 474.

[13] Abu Nasr al-Farabi (259AH/870AD-339AH/950AD) was one of the foremost Islamic philosophers and logicians. See also: EI2, 'Al-Farabi', II: 778.

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