Avicenna’s response to the challenge of time and temporality

By Hassan Arif
Submitted to Session P5469 (Time and Anthropology of Islam, 2019 Annual Meeting
Rel Stds/Theo
A large part of Islamic philosophical and theological tradition is identified by its practitioners as discursive (kalami, bahthi). This discursive philosophical and theological tradition which is largely carried out in Arabic, concerns itself with the founding texts of the Quran and the Hadith along with influences from ancient Greek philosophical and scientific texts, such as the writings of Aristotle and his commentators, which are translated into Arabic during the translation movement. The Quranic revelation and the writings of Aristotle are invariably concerned with the notion of time and temporality. Quranic revelation is aware that it is being revealed at a specific time in human history where humans at least in this life are subjected to time and temporality in contradistinction to the life that follows which is marked by permanence and eternality. It also claims that the One alone is truly eternal, both in the sense of timelessness and in the sense of persisting at all times (omnitemporal). Likewise, a fundamental Aristotelian distinction between actuality and potentiality is dependent on time where time is understood as a derivative of motion. In this paper I will support the case for considering time and temporality as categories which can be helpful in detecting change and flux in Islamic Intellectual tradition and towards a dynamic study of the anthropology of Islam. More importantly, I intend to complement the study of time and temporality by simultaneously exploring corresponding notions of timelessness, constancy, permanence and eternality. In contrast to the Quranic revelation, Muslim scientists and philosophers received multiple candidates for eternality from the Greek philosophical tradition which posed a considerable challenge in having a reasoned account of only one truly eternal entity. This challenge is further compounded by the distinction, stemming from the Quranic revelation and from the Greek philosophical tradition, between knowledge (‘ilm) which is certain and opinion (zann) which is not. It is presumed that to know something is to know its essence which lies beyond extrinsic factors such as time. I will argue that the distinction between knowledge and opinion along with competing candidates for eternality invariably involve the notions of time and temporality and this challenge should be taken seriously. I will examine the writings of Avicenna, who in my opinion takes up this challenge and responds by introducing the notions of necessity and contingency, claiming them to be independent of any consideration of time and temporality.