The Essence-Existence Distinction: Four Elements of the Post-Avicennian Metaphysical Dispute (11–13th Centuries)

In: Oriens
Author: Fedor Benevich1
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  • 1 Munich School of Ancient Philosophy

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The essence-existence distinction was a central issue in metaphysical disputes among post-Avicennian thinkers in the Islamic world. One group argued that what a thing is is different from that it is only conceptually. A rival view would have it that the distinction between essence and existence is real. The purpose of this article is to analyze the philosophical core of the dispute, by isolating the main arguments and their metaphysical foundations. I will study four central issues of the essence-existence debate: (1) the argument that existence is distinct from essence because one can conceive of an essence without knowing whether it exists; (2) the argument that if existence were really distinct from essence, existence would itself have to exist, leading to an infinite regress; (3) the question of whether God is responsible for the existence of essences only or also for their essential content (this relates to the problem of the ontological status of the non-existent); (4) the problem of whether essences are prior to existence.

  • 1

    See e.g. Maxwell J. Cresswell, “Essence and Existence in Plato and Aristotle,” in Theoria 37 (1971): 91–113 and Kevin Corrigan, “Essence and Existence in the Enneads,” in The Cambridge Companion to Plotinus, ed. by Lloyd Gerson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 105–29.

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  • 3

    Robert Wisnovsky, Avicenna’s Metaphysics in Context (London: Duckworth, 2003), 145–53 and Alain De Libera, L’ art des généralités: Théories de l’ abstraction (Paris: Aubier, 1999), 590–601.

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  • 5

    Wisnovsky, Avicenna’s Metaphysics in Context, 153; idem, “Essence and Existence in the Eleventh- and Twelfth-Century Islamic East (Mašriq): A Sketch,” in The Arabic, Hebrew and Latin Receptions of Avicenna’s Metaphysics, ed. by Dag N. Hasse and Amos Bertolacci (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2012), 27–50, at 30–1.

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  • 6

    Michael Marmura, “Quiddity and Universality in Avicenna,” in Probing in Islamic Philosophy, ed. by M. Marmura (Binghamton: Global Academic Publishing 2005), 61–70.

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  • 7

    Fazlur Rahman, “Essence and Existence in Avicenna,” Mediaeval and Renaissance Studies 4 (1958): 1–16, at 7.

  • 9

    Wisnovsky, “Essence and Existence” and Heidrun Eichner, “Essence and Existence. Thirteenth-Century Perspectives in Arabic-Islamic Philosophy and Theology,” The Arabic, Hebrew and Latin Receptions of Avicenna’s Metaphysics, ed. by Dag N. Hasse and Amos Bertolacci (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2012), 123–52.

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  • 25

    Abharī, Muntahā, pp. 379, l. 8–380, l. 8 and Kātibī, Ḥikmat al-ʿayn, 3.

  • 30

    Āmidī, Abkār al-afkār, p. 261, ll. 21–3.

  • 31

    Abharī, Muntahā, p. 380, ll. 3–8. If the option that Abharī wants to endorse in this treatise is the modulation (taškīk) of existence extramentally, then Avicenna would have fully agreed with Abharī here.

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  • 32

    Kātibī, Ḥikmat al-ʿayn, p. 3, ll. 12–3.

  • 33

    E.g. Šahrastānī, Nihāya, p. 158, ll. 2–6; Rāzī, Maṭālib, p. 291, ll. 7–8; Āmidī, Abkār al-afkār, p. 260, ll. 5–6; Šahrazūrī, Šaǧara, p. 214, ll. 20–2. Note that the equivocity of existence is sometimes mentioned as primarily applying to God’s case as opposed to everything else’s case. Yet it was interpreted in a wider way as applying to everything, as one can see clearly in Šahrazūrī and Šahrastānī. In my forthcoming paper “The Metaphysics of Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Karīm al-Šahrastānī (d. 1153): Aḥwāl and Universals,” in Islamic Philosophy from the 12th to 14th Century, ed. by Abdelkader al-Ghouz, I have shown how this doxographical tradition may have emerged from the debate over aḥwāl, in which the Ašʿarites mainly stood for nominalist positions. See also Fedor Benevich, “The Classical Ashʿari Theory of Aḥwāl. Juwaynī and His Opponents,” Journal of Islamic Studies 27, 2 (2016): 136–75.

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  • 36

    Rāzī, Arbaʿīn, p. 82, ll. 6–7.

  • 40

    Ḫayyām, Risāla fī l-wuǧūd, p. 105, ll. 8–10.

  • 41

    Suhrawardī, Ḥikmat al-išrāq, p. 46, ll. 1–2 (§ 57); al-Talwīḥāt al-lawḥiyya wa-l-ʿaršiyya, ed. by Naǧafqulī Ḥabībī (Tehran: Muʾassasa-yi Pažūhašī-yi ḥikmat-i wa falsafa-yi Irān, 2009), p. 193, l. 10.

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  • 42

    Rāzī, Mabāḥiṯ, p. 115, ll. 3–4; Nihāyat al-ʿuqūl, p. 345, ll. 13–4; Mulaḫḫaṣ, fol. 76r, ll. 8–9; Arbaʿīn, p. 85, ll. 21–3; Šarḥ al-Išārāt, 53. Naǧm al-Dīn al-Kātibī, al-Munaṣṣaṣ fī šarḥ al-Mulaḫḫaṣ, MS. or. 36. Leiden, fol. 92r, ll. 38–9 clearly identifies the Rāzian variant of the doubt-argument with Avicenna’s argument in Išārāt.

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  • 43

    Ḫayyām, Risāla fī l-wuǧūd, pp. 110, l. 15–111, l. 3.

  • 44

    Abharī, Muntahā, p. 280, ll. 19–21; Taḥrīr al-dalāʾil, p. 118, ll. 1–3; ll. 9–15 (is very close to Kātībī, Ğamīʿ al-daqāʾiq, 147–8). The same conclusion is drawn from the argument in Abharī, Talḫīṣ al-ḥaqāʾiq, fol. 89v, ll. 15–9. Cf. Šahrazūrī, Šaǧara, p. 216, ll. 1–3 uses the argument in order to show that traditional Ašʿarite theory of total identity of essence and existence is wrong, because the argument proves that they are distinct at least mentally. Cf. also Ṭūsī, Taǧrīd al-iʿtiqād, p. 63, ll. 8–9 and Ḥillī, Kašf al-murād, p. 8, ll. 5–9 where the argument is accepted, but taken only to establish the conceptual essence-existence distinction. See ibid., p. 10, ll. 10–15.

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  • 45

    Ibn al-Malāḥimī, Tuḥfa, p. 62, ll. 12–9.

  • 46

    Šahrastānī, Nihāyat al-aqdām, p. 162, ll. 7–18. Similarly Abū l-Barakāt, Muʿtabar, 20–1 states that existence is a condition for idrāk.

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  • 48

    Rāzī, Mabāḥiṯ, p. 115, ll. 12–3, cf. idem, Mulaḫḫaṣ, fol. 76r, ll. 9–11; Kātibī, Munaṣṣaṣ, fol. 92r, ll. 32–7. Rāzī (Arbaʿīn, p. 87, ll. 5–7) produced another argument. There Rāzī turns the argument around: in the mind, mental existence necessarily attaches to a conceived essence, in the extramental world—extramental existence, hence neither of them is necessary for essence. One could respond that this rather shows that any of them is necessary for essence.

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  • 49

    Rāzī, Mabāḥiṯ, p. 115, ll. 8–10. On the mental existence in Rāzī’s thought see Heidrun Eichner, “ ‘Knowledge by presence’, Apperception and the Mind-Body Relationship: Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī and al-Suhrawardī as Representatives and Precursors of a Thirteenth-Century Discussion,” in In the Age of Averroes. Arabic Philosophy in the Sixth/Twelfth Century, ed. by Peter Adamson (London: The Warburg Institute, 2011), 117–40.

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  • 51

    Suhrawardī, Ḥikmat al-išrāq, p. 46 (§ 57); idem, Talwīḥāt, p. 193, ll. 10–3; ʿIzz al-Dawla Ibn Kammūna, Šarḥ al-Talwīḥāt, ed. by Naǧafqulī Ḥabībī (Tehran: Markaz-i pažūhašī-yi mīrāṯ maktūb, 2008), vol. 2, p. 102, ll. 17–20; Šahrazūrī, Šaǧara, p. 216, ll. 9–15. The argument was already known to Rāzī (Nihāyat al-ʿuqūl, p. 359, ll. 1–2; Mabāḥiṯ, p. 115, ll. 15–7), who rejected it, on the basis of his theory that existence cannot be predicated of existence.

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  • 53

    Ḫayyām, Risālat al-ḍiyāʾ al-ʿaqlī, p. 63, ll. 13–6, cf. Ibn Ġaylān, Ḥudūṯ, pp. 74, l. 21–75, l. 2.

  • 54

    Ḫayyām, Risālat al-ḍiyāʾ al-ʿaqlī, p. 64, ll. 3–17; p. 65, ll. 13–4, cf. Abharī, Maṭāliʿ, fol. 114v, ll. 19–20.

  • 55

    Ḫayyām, Risālat al-ḍiyāʾ al-ʿaqlī, pp. 65, l. 17–66, l. 4.

  • 57

    Abharī, Taḥrīr al-dalāʾil, p. 118, ll. 16–9 and Šahrazūrī, Šaǧara, pp. 218, l. 9–219, l. 2.

  • 61

    Baġdādī, Muʿtabar, pp. 63, l. 14–64, l. 14. On should not be confused by Abū l-Barakāt’s use of the idea that some notions differ conceptually while being one extramentally. Though this is reminiscent of Ḫayyām’s position on essence and existence, Abū l-Barakāt is instead talking about the relation between existence and ‘being existent’, not essence and existence. Abū l-Barakāt has a quite idiosyncratic theory about the existence which is distinct from essence: he roughly holds that it is God. On this see my forthcoming “The Necessary Existent.”

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  • 63

    Ḫayyām, Risāla fī l-wuǧūd, pp. 108, l. 13–110, l. 6.

  • 64

    Ibn Ghaylān, Ḥudūṯ, p. 75, ll. 13–20. One way to escape this conclusion would be to admit that only whiteness is actually white, but this is not a move made by any thinkers in the period being discussed.

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  • 68

    Suhrawardī, Talwīḥāt, p. 193, ll. 18–20. The argument is accepted by Ibn Kammūna, Šarḥ al-Talwīḥāt, p. 103, ll. 23–104, l. 10 and Šahrazūrī, Šaǧara, pp. 217, l. 16–218, l. 4.

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  • 69

    Abharī, Kašf al-ḥaqāʾiq, p. 109, ll. 18–9. His “Baġdādian” solution could be derived from Rāzī, since both make similar claims. Abharī also mentions the argument in another pro-Rāzian treatise, Tanzīl al-afkār, however there he offers simply a blunt denial that any infinite regress arises.

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  • 72

    Rāzī, Mabāḥiṯ, pp. 115, l. 19–116, l. 19 and Nihāyat al-ʿuqūl, p. 378, ll. 5–16.

  • 73

    Baġdādī, Muʿtabar, p. 63, ll. 16–7.

  • 74

    Rāzī, Mabāḥiṯ, pp. 133, l. 21–134, l. 1.

  • 75

    Rāzī, Mabāḥiṯ, pp. 133, l. 10–134, l. 6.

  • 80

    Rāzī, Mabāḥiṯ, pp. 112, l. 17–113, l. 8.

  • 81

    Rāzī, Arbaʿīn, p. 87, ll. 1–4 and Nihāyat al-ʿuqūl, p. 379, l. 4.

  • 82

    Ṭūsī, Taǧrīd al-iʿtiqād, p. 64, ll. 1–2; Ḥillī, Kašf al-murād, p. 11, ll. 17–25; Asrār, p. 417, ll. 1–4; Ibn Kammūna, al-Ğadīd fī l-ḥikma, p. 80, ll. 7–10.

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  • 84

    Ğuwaynī, Šāmil, 124–6; Šahrastānī, Nihāyat al-aqdām, p. 151, ll. 1–10. In fact, both distinguish between different Muʿtazilite views on the relationship between maʿdūm and šayʾ, but directly address only the position that identifies the two. That is why I call this a ‘supposed Muʿtazilite teaching’, since it would be an overstatement to ascribe it to all Muʿtazilites. I will not, however, add this qualification in what follows.

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  • 85

    Wisnovsky, “Essence and Existence,” 30.

  • 89

    Rāzī, Arbaʿīn, p. 91, ll. 5–7; p. 95, ll. 11–23; Ibn Kammūna, Šarḥ al-Talwīḥāt, pp. 16, l. 15–17, l. 7; Ḥillī, Kašf al-murād, p. 17, ll. 1–18. On Muʿtazilite arguments for the reality of the non-existent, and post-Avicennian solutions to them, see my forthcoming “The Reality of the Non-Existent Object of Thought: The Possible, The Impossible, and Mental Existence in Islamic Philosophy (11–13th c.),” Oxford Studies in Medieval Philosophy 5 (2018).

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  • 90

    Avicenna, Dānišnāma, Manṭiq, 15–6.

  • 91

    Šahrastānī, Nihāyat al-aqdām, pp. 155, l. 4–156, l. 13. At ibid., pp. 162, l. 7–163, l. 2, he anachronistically accuses the Muʿtazilites of taking over the philosophers’ essence-existence distinction, on the basis of the doubt argument, in order to establish their maʿdūm-šayʾ theory.

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  • 93

    Šahrastānī, Nihāyat al-aqdām, p. 155, ll. 6–8.

  • 94

    Ḫayyām, Risāla fī l-wuǧūd, p. 105, ll. 10–3; p. 110, ll. 9–10, may go back to Bahmanyār, Taḥṣīl, p. 284, ll. 1–2.

  • 95

    Ibn Ġaylān, Ḥudūṯ, p. 75, ll. 5–10. Ibn Ġaylān uses Ḫayyām’s notion of mustafād, yet he also draws aḥwāl into the discussion, as Šahrastānī did.

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  • 98

    Rāzī, Muḥaṣṣal, p. 59, ll. 2–16. I intentionally translate ḏāt in all cases as essence here, although for the Muʿtazilite doctrine the expression ‘self’ might be more fitting, given that Rāzī understands ḏāt as essence everywhere when paralleling it to Avicenna’s theory.

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  • 99

    Rāzī, Muḥaṣṣal, p. 55, ll. 5–7. Samarqandī, Ṣaḥāʾif, p. 87, ll. 1–4 and p. 90, ll. 5–8 also accepts the parallel. One should remember that Rāzī rejects the essence-existence distinction in Muḥaṣṣal. Cf. Burhān al-Dīn al-Nasafī, Šarḥ al-Asās, ed. by Gholamreza Dadkhah et al. (California: Mazda Publishers, 2015), p. 269, ll. 5–8 who uses the essential independence to prove the essence-existence distinction.

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  • 100

    Abharī, Taḥrīr al-dalāʾil, p. 119, ll. 3–10; Muntahā, pp. 283, l. 23–284, l. 4.

  • 101

    Ğuwaynī, Šāmil, pp. 129, l. 11–130, l. 2.

  • 102

    Ṭūsī, Talḫīṣ al-Muḥaṣṣal, p. 84, ll. 8–13.

  • 103

    Ṭūsī, Taǧrīd al-iʿtiqād, p. 71, ll. 7–8.

  • 105

    Ḥillī, Kašf al-murād, pp. 63, l. 23–64, l. 14.

  • 106

    Šahrastānī, Nihāyat al-aqdām, p. 161, ll. 1–7 and ibid., p. 146, ll. 1–3. On muḫaṣṣiṣ see Herbert A. Davidson, Proofs for Eternity, Creation and the Existence of God in Medieval Islamic and Jewish Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 154–212, Harry Wolfson, The Philosophy of Kalām (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1976), 434–44; and Frank Griffel, Al-Ghazālī’s Philosophical Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 170.

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  • 107

    Šahrastānī, Nihāyat al-aqdām, p. 160, ll. 11–7.

  • 108

    Ibid., p. 160, ll. 10–2.

  • 110

    Šahrastānī, Nihāyat al-aqdām, pp. 147, l. 14–149, l. 3. On this see my forthcoming “Šahrastānī’s Metaphysics.”

  • 111

    Ḫayyām, Risāla fī l-wuǧūd, p. 110, ll. 8–15. For other authors, see references infra.

  • 114

    Abharī, Kašf al-ḥaqāʾiq, p. 111, ll. 3–6, cf. Ḥillī, Asrār, p. 416, ll. 1–2. Rāzī, Muḥaṣṣal, p. 56, ll. 5–10 and Mabāḥiṯ, p. 136, ll. 6–14 (accepted later in Samarqandī, Ṣaḥāʾif, pp. 87, l. 9–88, l. 2) had another similar argument: since individuation is accidental and through the matter while neither of these is possible in non-existence, it is impossible in non-existence. Abharī could have got his premise from the same reasoning.

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  • 115

    Šahrastānī, Nihāyat al-aqdām, p. 160, ll. 14–7; Rāzī, Muḥaṣṣal, p. 56, ll. 3–4 (cf. Arbaʿīn, p. 98, ll. 4–11 or ibid., pp. 99, l. 22–100, l. 5); Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī, Talḫīs al-Muḥaṣṣal, ed. by ʿAbdallāh al-Nūrānī (Tehran, Institute of Islamic Studies McGill, Tehran Branch and Tehran University, 1980), p. 77, ll. 13–8; idem, al-Nafy wa-l-iṯbāt, ed. by Muḥammad T. Dānišpāžūh, Maǧalla-yi dāniškada-yi adabiyyāt wa ʿulūm-i insānī 3 (1975): p. 22, ll. 1–16; Ḥillī, Kašf al-murād, p. 15, ll. 15–24. Cf. also among the Išrāqīs Suhrawardī, Talwīḥāt, p. 176, ll. 16–7; Ibn Kammūna, Šarḥ al-Talwīḥāt, pp. 17, l. 10–18, l. 5; Šahrazūrī, Šaǧara, 39.

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  • 116

    Rāzī, Mabāḥiṯ, 134–7; Mulaḫḫaṣ, fol. 80r, ll. 11–6; Muḥaṣṣal, 56–8; Arbaʿīn, 82–100.

  • 117

    Rāzī, Arbaʿīn, pp. 90, l. 20–91, l. 3; ibid., p. 99, ll. 17–22.

  • 119

    Suhrawardī, Talwīḥāt, p. 194, ll. 1–3; Cf. Ḥikmat al-išrāq § 59, p. 46, ll. 8–11.

  • 120

    Ibn Kammūna, Šarḥ al-Talwīḥāt, pp. 106, l. 6–107, l. 6; al-Ğadīd fī l-ḥikma, p. 82, ll. 18–10; idem, al-Maṭālib al-muhimma, ed. by Ḥusayn Sayyid Mūsawī, Ḫiradnāma-yi Ṣadrā 32 (2003): p. 81, l. 8; Šahrazūrī, Šarḥ Ḥikmat al-išrāq, p. 185, ll. 8–18; Šaǧara, pp. 220, l. 12–221, l. 5.

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  • 121

    Rāzī, Arbaʿīn, pp. 87, l. 21–88, l. 10.

  • 123

    Rāzī, Mabāḥiṯ, p. 126, ll. 22–4; ibid., p. 129, ll. 5–6.

  • 124

    Rāzī, Mabāḥiṯ, p. 129, ll. 12–3.

  • 125

    Rāzī, Arbaʿīn, p. 88, ll. 8–10.

  • 128

    Rāzī, Mabāḥiṯ, p. 129, ll. 10–3 and ibid., 127–8 on other essential attributes.

  • 130

    E.g. see Rāzī, Mabāḥiṯ, pp. 132, l. 12–133, l. 19.

  • 131

    Rāzī, Muḥaṣṣal, 60–4. On aḥwāl, see e.g. Richard M. Frank, Beings and their Attributes (Albany: State University of New York Press 1978); Jan Thiele, “Abū Hāshim al-Jubbāʾī’s (d. 321/933) Theory of ‘States’ (aḥwāl) and its Adaptation by Ashʿarite Theologians,” in Oxford Handbook of Islamic Theology, ed. by Sabine Schmidtke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 364–83 and Benevich, “Juwaynī and His Opponents.”

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  • 137

    Abharī, Kašf al-ḥaqāʾiq, pp. 105, l. 20–106, l. 6, tr. Eichner modified; Tanzīl al-afkar, foll. 23v, l. 37–24r, l. 12; Zubdat al-ḥaqāʾiq, fol. 151r, ll. 5–11 and Bayān al-asrār, fol. 41r, ll. 11–9.

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  • 138

    Rāzī, Mabāḥiṯ, p. 128, l. 25.

  • 139

    Ibid., p. 128, l. 12.

  • 140

    Abharī, Kašf, p. 109, ll. 6–11.

  • 141

    Suhrawardī, Mašāriʿ, p. 344, ll. 9–10. For the application of identity terminology in the priority problem see ibid., p. 348, l. 3.

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  • 142

    Abharī, Muntahā, p. 281, ll. 17–22. Here his argument is close in form to the substance-or-accident argument in Suharwardī’s variant of the priority problem. Cf. Talḫīṣ al-ḥaqāʾiq, fol. 98v, ll. 19–21 and Taḥrīr al-dalāʾil, p. 117, ll. 6–16, where the argument rather follows the Rāzian variant.

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  • 145

    Kātibī, Ğamīʿ al-daqāʾiq, 148.

  • 146

    Šahrazūrī, Šaǧara, p. 214, ll. 13–4; Ḥillī, Asrār, p. 415, ll. 8–9.

  • 147

    Ṭūsī, Šarḥ al-Išārāt, pp. 576, l. 15–577, l. 6; Cf. Ḥillī, Kašf al-murād, pp. 48, l. 17–49, l. 2.

  • 148

    Ḥillī, Kašf al-murād, p. 9, l. 21–10, l. 16 on Ṭūsī, Taǧrīd al-iʿtiqād, p. 63, ll. 10–1; Ḥillī, Taslīk al-nafs, p. 29, ll. 11–2; and Abharī, al-Šukūk, 146–7. Ḥillī adds that existence is added to essence in nafs al-amr, which agrees with Abharī, Maṭāliʿ, fol. 41v, l. 20. Nafs al-amr is a sophisticated doctrine that cannot be addressed in this study. But in any case, their saying this does not require an extramental essence-existence distinction.

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  • 150

    Cf. Ḫayyām, Risālat al-ḍiyāʾ al-ʿaqlī, p. 64, ll. 9–12 who claims that the abstracted essences do not exist in the extramental world. I find it particularly striking how similar the position of one of the first conceptualists (Ḫayyām) and that of one of the last ones (Ṭūsī) are.

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  • 154

    Wisnovsky, “Essence and Existence,” 28–9. I would also disagree that the conceptualists argued against the Bahšamizing Sunnis, as suggested by Wisnovsky, because Ğuwaynī actually agreed that every ḏāt is identical to its existence, although he accepted the metaphysical reality of the entities called aḥwāl in general.

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