It is often mentioned in the Islamic philosophical works, especially those that belong to the Avicennian tradition, that the Intellect (al-`aql), which is an aspect of the Soul, manifests itself at the Brain; and it is often assumed by readers and interpreters that the Intellect’s manifestation is limited to the Brain, especially when it is referred to the Brain as the Intellect’s “place.” However, Imam Fakhr al-Din al-Razi – may Allah be pleased with him – in his “Commentary on the Problematic Issues in the Canon of Medicine” contradicts such assumption. He says:
“And know that the Brain has other servants as well. The Five Senses provide the Brain with images of sensibly perceptible forms or qualities (sensory perceptions), and they abstract them to a degree, allowing the Brain faculties to work their way through them and to abstract them even further.”
So, basically, Imam al-Razi is stating here that the role of the Five Senses in cognition is not completely a passive one, since the process of abstraction of sensory perceptions begins at the Five Senses themselves. In other words, abstraction as a process does not wait for sensory perceptions to reach the Brain in order to begin, but rather, it is first applied to sensory perceptions at the Five Senses (touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste) and then it is applied even further at the Brain. Thus, according to Imam al-Razi, abstractions are born at the Senses and they grow at the Brain.
In Avicennian philosophy, the abstractions derived from sensory perceptions are called Primary Intelligibles (al-ma`qulat al-ula). The occurrence of Primary Intelligibles signifies the actualization of the second stage of the Theoretical Intellect named: The Habitual Intellect (al-`aql bil-malakah). Consequently, we can infer that, according to the aforementioned view of Imam al-Razi, the Habitual Intellect begins its actualization at the Senses, and therefore, the Theoretical Intellect – in its second stage – has a form of presence at the Senses, and that can only take place if the previous stage – the first stage – of the Theoretical Intellect, known as: The Potential Intellect (al-`aql al-hayulani), which has the capacity of receiving intelligible forms, is also present at the Senses.
It is thus clear that the Intellect, for Imam al-Razi, is not only connected to the body through its main agent – the Brain, but it is also attached to the entirety of the human body. The manifestation of the Intellect is, therefore, not limited to the Brain; and the physical Senses are not mere receptors and transmitters; and their role is not bound to the reductionist view of modern biomedicine – sending electrical signals, known as the nerve impulses, to the Brain. Rather, the Five Senses are equipped with an abstraction capability.
Moreover, one can trace Imam al-Razi’s explanation of the Senses to the fact that he moves away from the popular position that the Brain is the physical host of the Intellect and views the Brain as a “condition” for the manifestations of all faculties – intellectual and sensory. He claims in his latest philosophical work, “The Higher Issues of Metaphysics,” based on a lengthy argumentation, that the primary origin (al-mabda’ al-awwal) for the manifestation of the faculties is the Heart, and it is emanated from the Heart to the Brain – “the condition of their manifestation.” Consequently, the intellectual faculties are not confined to the Brain, but rather disseminated to the whole body. The primary origin of such dissemination is the Heart and the condition of such dissemination is the Brain.
In addition, Imam al-Razi also states in “The Higher Issues of Metaphysics” that, for example, while seeing is utilized by the eyes and imagination is utilized by the Brain, they are both actions of a metaphysical entity – The Soul. The one that sees is the Soul itself, and the one that imagines is also the Soul itself. That being so, abstraction is not conducted “by” the Brain, but rather conducted by the Soul – in this context called: The Intellect – “at” the Brain. Hence, for Imam al-Razi, abstraction can be partly conducted at the Five Senses, since after all, abstraction is conducted by the Intellect, not by the Brain nor by any other body organ.
Though he makes no reference in his “Commentary on the Problematic Issues in the Canon of Medicine,” but such view by Imam al-Razi provides a deeper understanding of the verse (21) in Surat Fussilat: “And they will say to their skins, “Why have you testified against us?” They will say, “We were made to speak by Allah, who has made everything speak; and He created you the first time, and to Him you are returned.” Thus, according to Imam al-Razi’s view of the Five Senses, we can conclude that the speech of the “skin” on the Judgement Day will not be a completely new utilization of it that had no existence in this life, but rather an actualization of its worldly potentials, because speech as an intellectual capacity is rooted in abstraction – as without abstraction human speech would not have been possible; and abstraction begins, as al-Razi stated, at the Five Senses.
Such deep understanding of the Five Senses, of course, does not conform with a modernistic view of the human body: a biological machine. According to modern neuroscience the Brain is imprisoned in the chamber called: The Skull, and it never experienced the external world and never will. The Brain creates its understanding about the physical nature through the electro – chemical signals it receives from the Five Senses. One might expect that this view would call upon us to engage more with nature, but reality defies expectation. In a modernistic world, people gaze at screens, not the skies; and they open Google to learn about the current weather instead of opening their windows.
According to Imam al-Razi, we have an Intellect, which belongs to the Soul, not just a Brain, which belongs to the Body; and the Intellect not only experiences the external world through the Senses, but it begins the journey of conceptualization at the Senses – i.e. in the physical world. Thus, we can move beyond the natural world – “the world of objects” – to the metaphysical realm – “the world of meanings” – only after we live the present fully and experience the physical mindfully; and as long as we are incarcerated in a pseudo-physical reality, reaching the metaphysical becomes impossible, and living the actual physical experience becomes outdated, to the point where it becomes unserviceable and more or less incompatible with the new – Virtual Reality Headsets!
Biography of Shaykh Ahmed Hussein El Azhary:
Shaykh Ahmed El Azhary is a researcher in Islamic intellectual history and a teacher of Islamic traditional sciences. He’s currently a teacher of Hadith, Usūl, Logic, and Kalam at Rawdatul-Na`īm under the supervision of Habib `Ali al-Jifrī; and at Madyafat Shaykh Ismaīl Sadiq al-`Adawī (RA), a prominent learning center by al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo.
Formerly, Shaykh Ahmed worked as a Lead Researcher at Tabah Foundation. He was appointed by Habib `Ali al-Jifrī to architect the philosophical framework of Suaal initiative – an initiative concerned with modeling an Islamic philosophical response to contemporary existential questions, supervised by Shaykh `Ali Jumu`ah, Habib `Umar and Shaykh Usama al-Azhary. Shaykh Ahmed continues to participate in Suaal initiative through essays, public lectures, and workshops.
Shaykh Ahmed studied Anthropology at American University in Cairo and received his training in Leadership Communication from Tulane University and The University of Alabama at Birmingham. He is also a life-long learner. He holds a diversified portfolio of almost 50 certificates in a variety of subjects – extending from Teaching Character and Clinical Psychology of Children and Young People to Complexity Theory, Model Thinking and Conflict Analysis.
Shaykh Ahmed began his journey of studying traditional sciences about 20 years ago. In addition to studying with scholars from al-Azhar, he had the privilege of studying with visiting scholars from Algeria and India in a one-on-one format and was thus given an exceptional opportunity to study and discuss advanced-level texts of different sorts and over a long period of time. Shaykh Ahmed has more than 70 Ijazas from scholars from all over the Muslim world.