Man, Existence and The Life balance (MĪZĀN) in Islamic Philosophy



This study focuses on three master ideas that found expression in the short transition to the Ottoman world and nowhere with more refinement than in the Persian heartland. All return to the single philosophic insight that ‘man measures every thing’, an obvious play on the Protagorean maxim,2 to which the ubiquitous issue of the mīzān (balance) was closely tied. Given the maxim’s enduring importance for medieval ‘philosophy’, taken in its bedrock sense,3 one is justified in asking who ‘man’ is and why he is so constituted as to be able to measure, let alone be the measure of every thing.

The medieval philosophers held that Man is the point of intersection between two worlds, divine and created, or the isthmus (barzakh).4 This is of more than just specialized interest. One of the most penetrating thinkers of our time, Martin Heidegger, recognized the ‘dual’ reality of man in his interpretation of Hölderlin’s poetic symbolism of earth, sky, etc. In so doing he placed himself within a tradition he had viewed mainly through the eyes of the Latin Schoolmen but which had been flourishing for fourteen centuries as a full-fledged civilization, not just as a current of thought. Short of laying claim to God’s hidden knowledge or, alternatively, to an inconsequential logical identity, isthmus is where questions of truth, certainty, the balance (mīzān) that determines them, and indeed of existence itself, are said properly to arise. By pointing beyond the narrow concerns of epistemology and psychology, this basically ontic orientation deepened the transformation of Peripateticism and lies at a great remove from the good-feel consumer ‘spirituality’ of our day, a sentiment many writers on ‘mysticism’ seem to reproduce with cloying regularity.


The last couple of decades have uncovered ever-deeper layers in Islam’s vast learning tradition, redrawing attention to …

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