Transmigration and Resurrection

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The Literal and Technical Meanings of Tanāsukh (Transmigration)

Tanāsukh is derived from the root word n-s-kh and its literal function is associated with two characteristics:

  • Change and transfer, and
  • Succession of two things, one succeeding another.[1]

As such, the word naskh in the parlance of jurisprudence (fiqh) and its principles (uṣūl al-fiqh) means a ruling (ḥukm) in the sharī‘ah which is abrogated by another ruling, and each of these two characteristics of the literal meaning exist in it. In the parlance of theology and philosophy, however, only the first characteristic is taken into consideration with respect to the issue of tanāsukh (transmigration), for as we will explain, tanāsukh refers to the transfer of soul from one body to another. In this case, there is change and transfer, but it does not involve succession which is the coming of one after another.

In any case, change and transfer regarding the human soul have different kinds such as follows:

  1. The transfer of human soul from this world to another world;
  2. The transfer of human soul through transubstantial motion from the level of potentiality (quwwah) to the level of perfection (kamāl), like the soul of a newborn which has elements of perfection. He is perfectly in a state of potentiality and talent, and gradually attains perfection;
  3. The transfer of human soul after death in this very world; that is, instead of transferring to another world, the soul wanders in this very world and continues to live by entering into another body in this world.   

This meaning is the same tanāsukh which is referred to in Islamic philosophy, and later on, in Greek philosophy, nay in the circles of human thought. Mostly those who have no correct analysis and understanding of the Resurrection have resorted to it, with the justification that tanāsukh guarantees the principle of justice from the perspective of reward and punishment. For example, those who had good thought and deeds in the previous life will come back in this world and he will enjoy a comfortable life free from grief and sorrow (as a reward for him). On the contrary, those who were wicked and unjust in the previous life will lead a more degrading life (as a punishment for him). In conclusion, if today we can see some people leading a comfortable life while others are living in hunger and thirst, these are the results of their previous actions which have manifested in such ways, and nobody else or no group is responsible for it.

Belief in tanāsukh in this sense, in addition to being philosophically incorrect, has undesirable social consequences, for it can a strong leverage for the world-devourers to portray their own prestige and comfort as the fruits of their previous piety, and the misfortune of the miserable as the outcome of their wickedness in their previous lives, thereby suppressing the wrath and anger of the deprived and the oppressed. For this reason, countries like India in which poverty, deprivation and social gap are more conspicuous, the belief in transmigration is more deep-rooted in comparison to other countries.

Kinds of Tanāsukh

Tanāsukh in philosophy has different kinds which are as follows:

  1. Limitless tanāsukh;
  2. Descent-oriented limited tanāsukh;
  3. Ascent-oriented limited tanāsukh.

In terms of incompatibility with the Resurrection, these three kinds are not the same, for the first kind is totally incompatible with the Resurrection according to the discussions in philosophy, whereas the third kind is merely an incorrect philosophical idea, although belief in it does not necessitate opposition to the notion of the Resurrection. Moreover, the second kind is not also totally opposed to the notion of Resurrection, but since all of them are common in a single incorrect notion, i.e. the transfer of soul from one body to another, we also include the third kind in the classifications of transmigration.     

1. Limitless or Absolute Transmigration

This means that the soul of every human being continuously transfers from one body to another, and for this transfer, there is no limit in terms of individuals or time. In other words, at the time of death all human souls are bound to transfer from one body to another at all times, and accordingly, the notion of Resurrection is nothing but the return to this world in such a manner.

Regarding this kind of tanāsukh, Quṭb al-Dīn al-Shīrāzī thus says:

“Some of those who, in terms of philosophical training and attainment, occupy a lower level believe in such a sort of transmigration. That is, the souls continuously show themselves through death and through different bodies, and the decomposition and extinction of one body do not hinder the return of the souls to this world.”[2]

2. Descent-oriented Limited Transmigration

Those who believe in this kind of transmigration are of the opinion that at the time of their death, the human beings who occupy a higher level in terms of knowledge, action and theoretical and practical wisdom do not return to this world but will rather be attached to the incorporeal world (‘ālam-e mujarradāt) and there is no reason for them to return to this world.

But those who occupy a lower level in terms of theoretical and practical wisdom and whose souls are not a reflection of the intelligibles (ma‘qūlāt) and who have not totally succeeded in purging themselves of the vices will return in this world in order to be perfect in both realms (theoretical and practical wisdom) and thereafter they will be attached to the world of Light.

In this kind of transmigration, there are two types of limitation. One is limitation in terms of individuals in the sense that not all individuals will have the same destiny and instead returning to this world after death, the perfect individuals will be attached to the world of Light and eternity. Another is limitation in terms of time. That is, even those who shall be returned to this world for their perfection will not remain forever along this path. In fact, one day when they are able to get rid of their theoretical and practical defects, they will be able to get out of their cages as the perfect human beings do, and be in unison with the world of Light.

3. Ascent-oriented Transmigration

This theory has two bases:

  • Of all the animate objects, plants have more readiness and ability to receive the grace of life.
  • The human disposition is worthier than the plants in acquiring a superior life. The human being deserves to receive a life which is beyond the levels of the plants and animals.

Keeping in view these two principles (more readiness of plants and more worthiness of the human beings), the Divine grace which is the same life pertains first to the plants and after undergoing their evolutionary process to the level near to that of animal, it appears in ‘palm’. It moves closer to the domain of animals, and after evolving and reaching the level of monkey, it pertains to the level of the human being after a step higher and it continues to its evolutionary process until it reaches the highest level from the lowest one.[3]  

A Review of the Absolute Transmigration

Two objections can be raised against absolute transmigration:

  1. Once all souls perpetually undergo transmigration, there will be no more opportunity for the Resurrection whereas taking into account the reasons mentioned earlier,[4] the Resurrection is something essential and definite.

Perhaps since they have not discerned the reality (Resurrection), those who subscribe to this theory have resorted to superstition and replaced the Resurrection with transmigration. However, the reasons for the necessity of the Resurrection do not regard such ‘return’ as the end-point of the Resurrection, for the purpose behind the Resurrection is not limited to the reward and punishment. As long as transmigration is consistent with the alleged former life of a person, it can guarantee the Divine justice. However, the necessity for the Resurrection has many reasons which cannot be met except with the belief in the transfer of the human being from one life to another.

  • The soul which transfers from one body to another is either of two states. It is either an existent mixed with or embedded in the matter, or an immaterial existent adorned with body and corporality.

Under the first assumption, the human soul has an accidental quality (‘arḍ) or form (ṣūrah) embedded in the matter whose transfer from one subject to another is impossible because the reality of accidental quality and embedded form is self-negation, and transfer necessitates that during the transfer the embedded soul is devoid of subject and a particular essence.

In other words, the soul which is embedded in the body must have a subject before and after the transfer and must be devoid and needless of it during the transfer. This assumption necessitates contradiction because since it is embedded in the body, it needs a subject and embeddedness in the body is the very identity or requisite of that identity. While in the state of transfer, therefore, it shall also this characteristic whereas in that state, it does not have such subject which is embedded in it.

The second assumption necessitates that an existent which worthy of perfection and advancement nevers attains the desired perfection, for desired perfection means theoretical and practical perfection, and if the human soul continuously transfers from one body to another, it will never attain perfection in theory and practice and in terms of the reflection of the truths in the soul, purging of the vices and acquisition of virtues.

Yes, in this world the soul can be able to attain four rational levels [of perfection] (that is, from prime matter (hayūlā) to habitual intellect (‘aql bi’l-mulkah), and then to actual intellect (‘aql bi’l-fi‘l), and finally to intellectus adeptus (‘aql bi’l-mustafād)), but once it attains complete incorporeality and becomes independent from the body, it will become more perfect in terms of gnosis and discernment of the truths. For this reason, consistent attachment of the soul to the body is incompatible with Divine grace.[5]     

It is to be noted that the soul’s attachment to the body is in conflict with the notion of the soul’s attainment of the ideal perfection if it meant controlling or taking charge of the body, and not meant to receive reward and punishment, as will be realized in corporeal Resurrection.

Descent-oriented Transmigration and Regression

Descent-oriented transmigration does not include individuals who are perfect in theory and practice; rather, only the individuals who are imperfect in theory and practice shall be returned to the world. That is, after death the soul of a person enters into another human body, a plant or an animal.

A Criticism on This Theory

At the time of separation from the human body, the soul attains a particular perfection and some of its faculties become actual, and no one can deny the fact that the soul of a human being – for example, a forty years old person – is not comparable with the soul of a one year or two years old child. In descent-oriented transmigration – in which, for example, after death the soul of a forty years old person enters into another human body – the situation is either of the two conditions:

  1. Having such actualities, the human soul is attached to the fetus of another human being.
  2. By removing the actualities it acquires, the human soul is attached to the fetus of another human being.

The first situation is invalid because the human perfection is in a way harmonious with the body. How can it be imagined, therefore, that the soul would regulate a body which is not harmonious with itself?

In other words, attachment of the soul to such a body means combination of two inharmonious things, for since it has been with the body for sometime, the soul has some perfections and actualities, and since it is attached to the fetus, it must be devoid of those perfections. For this reason, such a notion of attachment of the soul necessitates contradiction.

In the second assumption that the soul is attached to the fetus by negating perfections and actualities, this question is raised: Is negation of perfections and actualities an intrinsic characteristic of the soul, or is it an element external to it? The first instance is impossible because movement from perfection to imperfection cannot be intrinsic to a thing, and the second instance is not consistent with the Divine grace because Divine wisdom necessitates that God lets every creature attain perfection every possible to it.[6]

4. Ascent-oriented Transmigration

In the ascent-oriented transmigration, the trend of human perfection is from the plant to the animal, and from animal to human being.

Since the plant is more ready than the human being in acquiring life and the human being is worthier than other creatures, life (soul) must first be attached to the plant and then transfer to the human body through gradual evolution.

The question which is raised in this context is: Is the soul which transfers from the plant to the animal and then to the human being embedded in the body, such that the blueprints and ordinates are already embedded on the subject, or is it an incorporeal being which essentially does not need a physical body, although it utilizes the body as a tool for work and action.

In the first case, there are three possibilities:

  1. Prior state: The soul is embedded in the same prior subject;
  2. Subsequent state: After departing from the first body, the soul is embedded in the second body;
  3. In a state of transfer: The soul is detached from the first body but it is not yet attached to the second body.

In this third case, how can the soul preserve its being when its reality is to be an effect on others and to be a state in a place? The assumption is that in this case (third instance) it has not yet acquired any subject.

In the second case, the problem appears in another form. For example, if the soul which belongs to the animal is designated as an animal, it cannot be attached to a human body because an animal soul is determined and restricted to the animal level and its perfection constitutes only two faculties or powers, i.e. the power of desire (al-quwwat al-shahwiyyah) and the power of anger (al-quwwat al-ghaḍabiyyah). These two powers for the soul in that level embody perfection and if an animal soul in this level lacks these two levels, it is not actually an animal and it lacks the highest level of perfection it is supposed to possess.

This is so while for the human soul, merely these two powers or faculties do not embody perfection; in fact, these powers may hinder him in reaching the highest degree of perfection because the human soul will be able to attain perfection when it is capable of controlling these two powers.

Now, the question is, how can an animal soul can be the basis of human perfection considering the fact that the perceived perfections in these two are in conflict with one another. If an animal soul with such characteristics is attached to the human body, apart from being not helpful in his attainment of perfection, it will even bring him down the level of human being and relegate him to the level of animal, having the same instincts.

Of course, instead of having the notion of perfection as a continuous and incessant process, those who subscribe to this type of transmigration (tanāsukh) have imagined it to be something disconnected and discrete. In this sense, the difference between transmigration and transubstantial motion (ḥarikat-e jawharī) is that transmigration in this sense means perfection of the soul in discrete form and takes place on different subjects (plant, animal and human being), whereas the soul’s perfection in the transubstantial motion takes place continuously with the same body.

In clearer terms, according to this theory the plant soul seeks individuation and with these characteristics it attaches to an animal body and an animal soul with animal individualities – anger and desire as among the most obvious manifestations – is attached to the human body. As such, it continues its way to ‘perfection’. It must be noted, however, that this path will not lead to perfection; instead it will end up in human decadence into something lower in degree, for if the human soul saturated with anger and desire is attached to the human body, it will come out as a predatory human who understands nothing except anger and desire. Meanwhile, in the transubstantial motion, in its evolutionary path the inanimate body reaches the level of human being. But it will never reach the level of individuation (ta‘ayyun) or be specifically eligible to the characteristics of every level. It is here that the path from the inanimate objects to the other levels through this process is a source of perfection, whereas the earlier path is a mixture of contraries and degeneration in lower levels.[7]     

A Criticism of Absolute Transmigration

So far we have become familiar with the type of transmigration and the incorrectness of each of them. Now, we will give some critical remarks about absolute transmigration. Of the many proofs to invalidate transmigration, we shall highlight two points: 

1. Attachment of Two Souls into a Single Body

The notion of transmigration necessitates attachment of two souls into a single body and the aggregation of two souls in a single body. This proof is based upon two principles:

  1. Every body – that of a plant, animal and human being – whenever ready and meritorious to be attached with a soul, shall be endowed with soul by God, for the will of God is to let every being reach its ultimate perfection. In this case, the plant cell desires for plant soul; the animal fetus desires for an animal soul; human fetus desires for a human soul, and suitable soul shall be given to each of them.
  2. If ever after death of a person, his soul attaches to a plant, animal or human body, it follows that the body to which it attaches shall have a particular kind of distinction, individuation and life suitable to it.    

The concomitance of these two preliminary points is that two souls are attached to a single body. One is the very soul of the body which is endowed to it by God on account of its merit for it. The other is the soul which transmigrated from another body. The mixture of two souls in a single body is invalid for two reasons. Firstly, it is contrary to the comprehension of every human being. Every person finds himself having a single soul and a single identity. Secondly, in terms of the psychic attributes and data, the soul must constantly acquire two traits. For instance, anyone who knows of the rising of the sun or love someone else must constantly find this state of being in himself at a time.[8]  

In other words, the outcome of attachment of two souls in a single body to have two personalities, two individuations and two essences in a single person, and in essence, it necessitates that a single entity is pluralistic, and the pluralistic is singular, for an external individual is an individual of the universal human being and unicity necessity, but based upon the notion of transmigration, it has two souls, and thus, it must have two individuals from the universal human being, and this is the same singular plurality and pluralistic unicity.[9]

Reply to a Question

Question: When the plant cell, animal fetus or human fetus is ready to be attached with soul, what hinders the attachment of a transmigratory soul to another body? Therefore, the existence of two personalities and two souls in a single body will never be possible.

Reply: The hindrance for the attachment of transmigratory soul (new soul) to this plant cell, animal fetus or human fetus is not higher to its opposite, and that is the attachment of soul related to every cell or fetus is the hindrance to the attachment of transmigratory soul, and approval of one over the other is tantamount to giving preponderance without a preponderant (tarjīḥ bilā marjaḥ).

In other words, each of these bodies is ready for a single soul and the attachment of each of them is a hindarance for another attachment. As such, why should not accept one hindrance and disregard another hindrance?  

2. Lack of Harmony between the Soul and the Body

The composition of body and soul is a real and essential composition, and it is in a way similar to the composition of chair and table with pieces of wood and nails (industrial composition) or a chemical composition for that matter. In fact, the composition of the two (body and soul) is more sublime than those compositions, and there is actually a kind of unity between the two. Because of this unity, the human soul advances in harmony with the evolution of the body, and in every stage of life (infancy, childhood, adolescence, youth, adulthood, and old age), it has its own status or characteristic that the human faculties or powers gradually reach their level of actuality.

In this case, with the actual perfections that it acquires, how can the soul with compatible and unitied with a plant cell, animal fetus or human fetus when its perfections have reached the level of actuality while the body is in the first stage of perfections having only physical strength?

Of course, it must be noted that this argument is related to a case when the human soul is attached to a body lower than the human level and whose perfections have not yet reached actuality, but in case the soul is hypothetically attached to a suitable body, this argument is not applicable.[10]   

[1] It is thus written in Aqrab al-Mawārid, vol. 2, p. 1294:

النسخ فی الاصل النقل النقل.

Naskh is in essence continuous.”

Rāghib al-Iṣfahānī also writes in Al-Mufradāt fī Gharā’ib al-Qur’ān:

النسخ ازاله شیء بشیء یتعاقبه كنسخ الشمس الظل، و الظل الشمس، و الشیب الشباب.

Naskh is the removal of one thing by the other in succession, just as the sun removes shadow and shadow covers the sun, and old age removes youth.”

[2] SharḤikmat al-Ashrāq, p. 476.

[3] Isrār al-Ḥikam, pp. 293-294.

[4] See Lessons 4-9.

[5] SharḤikmat al-Ishrāq, p. 476; Al-Asfār al-Arba‘ah, vol. 9, p. 7.

[6] Al-Asfār al-Arba‘ah, vol. 9, p. 16.

[7] Al-Asfār al-Arba‘ah, vol. 9, pp. 22-23.

[8] Kashf al-Murād, p. 113.

[9] Al-Asfār al-Arba‘ah, vol. 9, pp. 9-10.

[10] Al-Asfār al-Arba‘ah, vol. 9, pp. 2-3.

(An excerpt from ‘Ali Rabbani Gulpaygani, “Discursive Theology Volume 2,” pp. 245-254, trans. Mansoor Limba (, 2019), pp. 51-56.)

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