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

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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.

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

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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 Press1996) 105–29.


Robert WisnovskyAvicenna’s Metaphysics in Context (London: Duckworth2003) 145–53 and Alain De Libera L’ art des généralités: Théories de l’ abstraction (Paris: Aubier 1999) 590–601.


WisnovskyAvicenna’s Metaphysics in Context153; 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.


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


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


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 Metaphysicsed. by Dag N. Hasse and Amos Bertolacci (Berlin: De Gruyter 2012) 123–52.


AbharīMuntahā pp. 379 l. 8–380 l. 8 and Kātibī Ḥikmat al-ʿayn 3.


ĀmidīAbkār al-afkār p. 261 ll. 21–3.


AbharīMuntahā 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.


KātibīḤikmat al-ʿayn p. 3 ll. 12–3.


E.g. ŠahrastānīNihāya 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.


RāzīArbaʿīn p. 82 ll. 6–7.


ḪayyāmRisāla fī l-wuǧūd p. 105 ll. 8–10.


SuhrawardīḤikmat 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.


RāzīMabāḥiṯ 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-MulaḫḫaṣMS. or. 36. Leiden fol. 92r ll. 38–9 clearly identifies the Rāzian variant of the doubt-argument with Avicenna’s argument in Išārāt.


ḪayyāmRisāla fī l-wuǧūd pp. 110 l. 15–111 l. 3.


AbharīMuntahā 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.


Ibn al-MalāḥimīTuḥfa p. 62 ll. 12–9.


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


RāzīMabāḥiṯ 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.


RāzīMabāḥiṯ 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.


SuhrawardīḤikmat 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.


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


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


ḪayyāmRisālat al-ḍiyāʾ al-ʿaqlī pp. 65 l. 17–66 l. 4.


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


BaġdādīMuʿtabar 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.”


ḪayyāmRisāla fī l-wuǧūd pp. 108 l. 13–110 l. 6.


Ibn GhaylānḤudūṯ 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.


SuhrawardīTalwīḥāt 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.


AbharīKašf 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.


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


BaġdādīMuʿtabar p. 63 ll. 16–7.


RāzīMabāḥiṯ pp. 133 l. 21–134 l. 1.


RāzīMabāḥiṯ pp. 133 l. 10–134 l. 6.


RāzīMabāḥiṯ pp. 112 l. 17–113 l. 8.


RāzīArbaʿīn p. 87 ll. 1–4 and Nihāyat al-ʿuqūl p. 379 l. 4.


ṬūsīTaǧrīd 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.


ĞuwaynīŠāmil124–6; 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.


Wisnovsky“Essence and Existence” 30.


RāzīArbaʿīn 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).


AvicennaDānišnāma Manṭiq15–6.


ŠahrastānīNihāyat 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.


ŠahrastānīNihāyat al-aqdām p. 155 ll. 6–8.


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


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


RāzīMuḥaṣṣal 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.


RāzīMuḥaṣṣal 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.


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


ĞuwaynīŠāmil pp. 129 l. 11–130 l. 2.


ṬūsīTalḫīṣ al-Muḥaṣṣal p. 84 ll. 8–13.


ṬūsīTaǧrīd al-iʿtiqād p. 71 ll. 7–8.


ḤillīKašf al-murād pp. 63 l. 23–64 l. 14.


ŠahrastānīNihāyat 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.


ŠahrastānīNihāyat al-aqdām p. 160 ll. 11–7.


Ibid. p. 160 ll. 10–2.


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


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


AbharīKašf 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.


ŠahrastānīNihāyat 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.


RāzīMabāḥiṯ134–7; Mulaḫḫaṣ fol. 80r ll. 11–6; Muḥaṣṣal 56–8; Arbaʿīn 82–100.


RāzīArbaʿīn pp. 90 l. 20–91 l. 3; ibid. p. 99 ll. 17–22.


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


Ibn KammūnaŠarḥ 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.


RāzīArbaʿīn pp. 87 l. 21–88 l. 10.


RāzīMabāḥiṯ p. 126 ll. 22–4; ibid. p. 129 ll. 5–6.


RāzīMabāḥiṯ p. 129 ll. 12–3.


RāzīArbaʿīn p. 88 ll. 8–10.


RāzīMabāḥiṯ p. 129 ll. 10–3 and ibid. 127–8 on other essential attributes.


E.g. see RāzīMabāḥiṯ pp. 132 l. 12–133 l. 19.


RāzīMuḥaṣṣal60–4. 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.”


AbharīKašf 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.


RāzīMabāḥiṯ p. 128 l. 25.


Ibid. p. 128 l. 12.


AbharīKašf p. 109 ll. 6–11.


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


AbharīMuntahā 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.


KātibīĞamīʿ al-daqāʾiq148.


ŠahrazūrīŠaǧara p. 214 ll. 13–4; Ḥillī Asrār p. 415 ll. 8–9.


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


ḤillīKašf 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.


Cf. ḪayyāmRisālat 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.


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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