Shah Rafi Uddin’s Metaphysics

blind men

John Godfrey Saxe’s (1816-1887) version of Blind Men and the Elephant:

It was six men of Indostan,
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approach’d the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, -“Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear,
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”

The Third approach’d the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” -quoth he- “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”

The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee:
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” -quoth he,-
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said- “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” -quoth he,- “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!


So, oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean;
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

Shah Rafi Uddin in his ‘Risala Fi Tatbiq al-Araa’ states a similar notion that human beings end their agenda too quickly and are swift to raise their objections before they have understood the bigger picture. The story of the blind men points us to the ‘bigger picture’- the elephant. Each of us has a limited perspective on the objective truth, but that doesn’t mean objective truth is not there. If we know the Whole Elephant is out there, shouldn’t this drive us to open our eyes wider and seek every opportunity to arrive at it as close as his humanly possible?

What Shah Rafi Uddin attempts to do is to define his ‘tatbiq‘ as knowing the causes that lead one to misinterpret the Objective Truth. To use our blind men analogy, why did each blind man interpret the elephant in a particular way and to know the causes of how closely or removed they are from the Truth.

His whole thesis is based on the assumption that there is an Objective Reality. This assumption of his is based on the metaphysics of Aristotelian logic that states that all opinions and beliefs are existent realities, and therefore this requires, as all existents do, that it have a cause to become an actuality.

Freser, in his ‘Aquinas: A Beginners Guide’ states that Parmenides (c. 514-450 BC) the Greek philosopher held that change is impossible. ‘For a being could change only if caused to do so by something other than it. But the only thing other than being, is non-being, and non-being, since it is just nothing, cannot cause anything. Hence, though the senses and common sense tell us that change occurs all the time, the intellect, in Parmenides’ view, reveals to us that they are flatly mistaken’.

Parmenides assumed that the only candidate for change is non-being or nothing. What Shah Rafi Uddin, Aristotle, and others would reply is that ‘this assumption is simply false. Take any object of our experience: a red rubber ball, for example. Among its features are the ways it actually is: solid, round, red and bouncy. These are different aspects of its ‘being’. There are also the ways it is not; for example, it is not a dog, or a car, or a computer. The ball’s ‘dogginess’ and so on, since they don’t exist, are different kinds of non-being. But in addition to these features, we can distinguish the various ways the ball potentially is: blue (if you paint it), soft and gooey (if you melt it), and so forth. So, being and non-being are not the only relevant factors here; there are also a things potentialities. Here  lies the key to understanding how change is possible. If the ball is to become soft and gooey, it can’t be the actual gooeyness itself that causes this, since it doesn’t yet exist. But that the gooeyness is non-existent is not the end of the story, for a potential or potency for gooeyness does exist in the ball, and this together with some external influence (such as heat) that actualises that potential suffices to show how change can occur’.

So far this is fairly straightforward. But what Shah Rafi Uddin, following Aristotle’s lead states is that mere potentiality is not enough for change to occur. ‘An additional external factor is also required. Potential gooeyness, for example, precisely because it is merely potential, cannot actualise itself; only something else that is already actual (like heat) could do the job. Consider also that if a mere potency could make itself actual, there would be no way to explain why it does so at one time rather than another. The ball melts and becomes gooey when you heat it. This then is the basis of Shah Rafi Uddin’s metaphysics – whatever exists – even ideas and opinions – are the result of an external actual reality.

Going back to our blind men analogy, the elephant is the actual reality which causes the different opinions to be held about it to the blind men; for without it there would be no opinion at all. And it is precisely to know the causes why each opinion differs, and what element of Truth each contains is what he defines as the science of tatbiq.  In his own concise words:

 معرفة قدر انطباق كل مذهب مع الواقع ، و قدر انحرافه عنه و معرفة سبب الانحراف

To learn more about this register for an online course on Shah Waliullah’s Hujjatullah al-Balighah


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