Open Journal of Philosophy
2013. Vol.3, No.1, 55-62
Published Online February 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 55
Dressing after Dressing: Sadra’s Interpretation of Change
Muhammad Kamal
Asia Institute, The University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia
Received October 22nd, 2012; revised N ove mber 25th, 2012; accepted December 10th, 2012
This paper deals with the doctrine of transubstantial change advocated by Mulla Sadra in which sub-
stances as well as accidents are thought to be in constant and gradual change. Against Aristotle’s doctrine
of accidental change, Mulla Sadra argues that no stable ground can bring about change and since sub-
stance is renewable it cannot carry identity of a changing existent. Here we investigate whether identity is
possible or not. If it is possible then what becomes a ground for establishing identity of changing sub-
Keywords: Ontology; Existence; Essence; Change; Substantial Change; Accidental Change; Identity and
Sadra’s Ontology
While Muslim Peripatetic thinkers under the influence of
Aristotle accepted change in accidents, Mulla Sadra insisted on
change in substance. For him, change in accidents is thinkable
when substance undergoes change and transformed. Here I
intend to analyse Mulla Sadra’s doctrine of transubstantial
change. I also examine how the implications of this doctrine
have drastic consequences on the identity of a changing existent,
and discuss the possibility of establishing identity without rely-
ing on substance in Mulla Sadra’s ontology.
Sadr al-Din Muhammad b. Ibrahim b. Yahya Shirazi Qawa-
mi, (1572-1640), also known as Mulla Sadra, like Shahab Al-
Din Suhrawardi (1155-1191) and his teacher Mir Damad (d.
1631), believed that “essence” was real and stood as the on-
tological principle of all existents. But his discontent with this
doctrine made him alter his position and became the defender
of the doctrine of the principality of “Existence”. As described
by him, this change in attitude was the outcome of a mystical
experience and divine guidance stating that, “In the past, I used
to be firm on the defense of the principality of essence, making
existence a [mentally dependent] abstract entity, until my God
guided me and showed me his proof. It became clear to me that
the issue is the opposite of what has been conceived and deter-
mined. Thank God who took me out of the darkness of illusion
through the light of comprehension, who removed from my
heart the clouds of these doubts through the rise of the sun of
truth, and who held me close to the true discourse in this life
and the life after. Existences are genuine [determinate] realities
and essences are the eternal “thisnesses” which have never in-
haled the perfume of real existence at all. These existences are
merely the rays and reflected lights of The True Light and of
the Eternal Existence. Exalted Be His Sublimity! However,
each of them has essential predicates and contains intelligible
concepts called essences1.
Contrary to Suhrawardi’s ontological position, Mulla Sadra
does not accept the idea that “Existence” is unreal or that it is a
mental concept. For him, “Existence” is an objective reality and
the principle of all things. Its reality encompasses the lowest
and the highest. At the highest it is the existence of the Nece-
ssary Being. At the same time, “Existence” is different from
existents and transcends all logical categories and definitions,
for the simple reason that “Existence” has neither a genus nor
differentia2. This philosophy inaugurates a new system of on-
tology in which the theme of inquiry is “Being” as such, and
philosophy becomes the science of Being or ontology. Mulla
Sadra re-asserts this point in al-Mashair stating that “The
question of existence is the foundation of the principles of wis-
dom, the basis of philosophical theology, and the nexus of
[concern] of those in the circle [lit. the mill-stone, i.e., the cen-
tre] of the sciences of unity, the resurrection of so uls and bodies,
and of much else that only we have developed and articulated.
It gives them a synthesis [lit. a unity] through its explanation.
Anyone who is ignorant of the gnosis of existence is also igno-
rant of the major [lit. mother] subjects and most significant
quests, misses the refinements of gnosis and its subtleties, the
science of the divine and the prophets, the gnosis of the soul,
and its connection and return to the [primordial] source and
destiny [i.e., telos]. We therefore open this treatise on the prin-
ciples of the truths of faith, principles of wisdom and gnosis”3.
Philosophy qua ontology is engaged with an understanding of
the meaning of “Existence” rather than existents and “Exi-
stence” is a nucleus around which all other philosophical issues
revolve. The oblivion of “Existence” will affect our understand-
ing of other philosophical issues because “Existence” as the
sole reality and basis for all existents pushed to the background.
In light of the principality of “Existence”, any discussion de-
termining the nature of the relationship between existence and
essence seems irrelevant. For, existence is identical with es-
sence in the external world, and the difference between them
arises in thinking. The dichotomy between existence and es-
sence is conceptual and exists only in the mind. When we are
1Mulla Sadra & Muhammad b. Ibrahim (Sadr al-Din) Shirazi (1992), al-
ashair, translated by Parviz Morewedge, New York, p. 43. Mulla Sadra
(1999), al-Asfar al-Arbaa, 1, 1, Beirut: Dar Ihya’al-Turath al-’Arabi, p. 9.
See also, Mulla Sadra, (1981), al-Shawahid al-rububiyyah, Tehran: Uni-
versity Publication Centre, pp. 50 -51.
2Mulla Sadra, al-Asfar, 1, 1, p. 50.
3Mulla Sadra, al-Asfar, Vol. 1, p. 24. See also Mulla Sadra, al-Mashair, pp.
asked about the essence of an existing-entity we analyse its
universal determinations and distinguish them from its exi-
stence. For example, the existence of a table is in thinking is
different from its being brown and round. It is through our
analysis that we separate the existence of the table from its
essence and insist on the principality of one of them over the
other. Essence is a product of our conceptual analysis, having
no reality of its own. When we employ logical categories to
describe or define an existent, “essence” rather than “existence”
is realized and we do not talk about its existence. We do not say
that “The table is an existent,” but “It is brown and round.”
Mulla Sadra has no problem with this view as long as “essence”
is described as the product of intellectual consideration, and is
only in thinking, “From the mental point of view, however, the
prior factor is essence, because it is a universal mental notion
which is realized in its [deep-seated sense] of being in the
[mental realm]; it is not obtained [in the mode of being concrete]
from existence, except in a general and mental concept”4. Es-
sence is a determinate factor in the intellectual process and the
abstract conceptual activity of thinking. But it has no ontologi-
cal reality by itself and at the same time cannot exist outside
thinking. It is the principle factor in thinking but not in the ex-
ternal world. This priority of essence in this respect is a priority
in meaning rather than a priority in existence. It is also not a
priority in terms of causality or temporality because essence
cannot become the cause of existence and does not precede it in
time. There is nothing but “Existence”, and the modification of
“Existence” in different forms. Each form represents a particu-
lar manifestation of “Existence”. The relation between “Exis-
tence” and its resultant forms is like that of the ground with the
grounded. “Essence” cannot be independent of “existence” ex-
cept in thinking. This can also be refuted as for something to be
in thinking is itself a mode of existence or it is something that
exists in the intellect. Even in this case “essence” is inseparable
from existence.
In making the distinction between “Existence” and its modes,
there is an emphasis on purity and simplicity of “Existence”,
while the modes of “Existence” are described as composite
entities. The simplicity of “Existence” is an ontological prereq-
uisite for its principality because every composite existence
presupposes prior existence of its components. For this reason,
we cannot think about the existence-essence relationship at this
ontological level of “Existence”. “Existence”, qua reality, is the
realm of simplicity. Dualism or Existence-essence dichotomy
arises when an existent is intellectually analysed but in reality
what we experience and confront is mere existence. Dualism is
not found in the world, but only in thinking. Intellectual analy-
sis is applicable only to the modes of “Existence”. It is impossi-
ble to apply it to “Existence” because it is pure, simple, and has
no quiddity otherwise it does not become the ontological prin-
ciple for the multiple existents in the world.
In this ontology change is also seen as real and the existen-
tialist characteristic of the world. It is the process of the self-
disclosure of “Existence” in which emanation of the lower
ranks of existence, the rise of multiplicity and the gradation of
“Existence” together become possible. But the notion of change
in Mulla Sadra’s ontology includes substance as well as acci-
Mulla Sadra has come with a new interpretation of change
with significant implications on the concept of identity carried
by substance. Against Aristotle’s doctrine of accidental change
he argues that a stable and enduring ground such as substance
cannot bring about change in its own accidents as accidents do
not exist independent of substance alteration in the accidents
should be seen as the result of change in substance and not vice
versa, “The renewal of the source, therefore, certainly brings
about the renewal of the effects”5. Aristotle approved of change
in the categories of quality, quantity, position and space, while
“substance” remained durable simply because there was no
contrary to it6. An individual substance, Socrates for example,
would go through accidental changes. He becomes a philo-
sopher or a father but his “essence” does not change. Aristotle
built his theory of change on the foundation of Plato’s meta-
physics dualism and made a sharp distinction between what
was changeable and what was not in all existents. There are
metaphysical roots to this analysis based on the conviction that
accidental change requires a clear distinction between a sub-
strate: something stable and something in transition. By con-
trast, Mulla Sadra’s ontology is a monism, in which change
becomes a characteristic of reality. The flow of emanation is a
process where multiple existents become manifest. This onto-
logical monism accommodates multiplicity and turns out to be
the foundation for the principle of unity in multiplicity or mul-
tiplicity in unity. Emanation of the modes of “Existence”, the
gradation of “Existence” and identity in difference are all
grounded in the principality of “Existence” and direct our dis-
cussion to the notion of change.
When we examine the doctrine of the principality of “Exis-
tence” and the belief that “Existence” encompasses all existents,
we realize that “Existence” is used univocally (common to all)
as well as equivocally (different in each case). It is the principle
of identity and difference. To attribute identity to “Existence’
and difference to something else is a contradiction because in
this ontological system there is nothing other than “Existence”.
The modes of “Existence” represent its gradation and gradation
signifies the difference that arises within the unity of this reality.
A particular existent shares the same reality with other existents
and at the same time it is different from them. All existents are
also different from “Existence”. The presence of all existents is
the outcome of the self-manifestation of “Existence” in the ac-
tual world. The truth of “Existence” is in one way a unity,
which becomes the foundation for ontological monism. This
unity has also internal multiplicity and gradation. The very
same reality that is shared by all existents is that by which they
are different from each other. This truth is demonstrated by the
self-manifestation of “Existence” and cannot be grasped with-
out thinking about change.
As mentioned earlier, Muslim Peripatetic thinkers accept Ar-
istotle’s doctrine of accidental change, which includes change
in the four categories of quality, quantity, position and space.
The accidental change is also described as a gradual increase or
decrease in the intensity of the quality and quantity, or a grad-
ual shift in position and finally locomotion. But all these cate-
gories belong to substance, which is itself a category with dis-
tinct characteristics. One of the peculiar characteristics of sub-
stance is unchangeability. A careful examination of Aristotle’s
philosophy will reveal that even substance is changeable, but in
5Mulla Sadra, (2010), al-Asfar, 3, stage 7, chapter 20, translated by Mahdi
Dehbashi, London: ICAS Press, p. 104.
6Aristotle, (1995), “Categories”, 4a 10-20, in Complete Works of Aristotle,
vol. 1, (ed.) Jonathan Barnes, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University
4Mulla Sadra, al-Mashair, (The Metaphysics of Mulla Sadra), p. 38.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
a different way. It is sudden and not gradual, and is described as
generation (coming into existence) and degeneration (ceasing to
be). There is no room for a continuous and gradual change in
substance the way it occurs in its accidents7. Mulla Sadra re-
jects this doctrine and holds the view that an immutable sub-
stance is not capable of generating change in its own accidents.
Accidental change requires substantial change, “When we talk
about motion within the categories, there are four ways in
which this can be done: first, any category (maqulah) may be a
real subject of the motion; second, substance by means of a
category is the subject of motion, even though it is a substance;
third, any category is a genus of motion; fourth, substance is
transformed and changed gradually from one species of the
category to another or from one class within the category to
another. The latter is the correct alternative to the exclusion of
the others”8. In addition to this, and in order to communicate
his own position, Mulla Sadra expresses discontent with three
possibilities of change and chooses the fourth possibility as
valid. In the first possibility the categories of quality, quantity,
position and space are seen as subjects to change and not limits
within which change occurs. They become entities rather than
properties of the individual substances. With this analysis we
end up with Aristotle’s distinction between what is changeable
and what is not within them, “In the first assumption we say
that it is not the nature of black which gradually intensifies. If
the nature of black, therefore, remains unchanged and no pro-
perty is added to it and so it is not intensifies, then it remains
exactly as it was before. But if a black thing undergoes any
accidental change in its color and if the nature of blackness
remains unchanged, then no transformation takes place in that
nature.”9 It should be remembered that Mulla Sadra does not
deny change in accidents, he has problem with accepting stabil-
ity in substance. For him the possibility of accidental change is
preconditioned by substantial change. In what follows, and
contrary to the position of Aristotle and Muslim Peripatetic
philosophers, there is no dichotomy of immutable and mutable
in the process of change. Neither accidents nor substance can
escape change.
The doctrine of transubstantial change is also based on the
conviction that every individual substance is a composite of
potentiality and actuality. This is true because a substance in
the physical world is the combination of matter and form. As
long as a substance is composite and corporeal it will go
through change from potentiality to actuality. In al-Mashair
this point is re-stated and change is attributed to corporeal sub-
stances only, “This is substantial form as it applies to bodies; it
is the proximate principle concerned with essential movement
[of the body], and its rest and the source of its effects. There is
no body except that which is necessarily constituted by this
formal substance which is embedded in all its components,
namely that it is always in a state of modification, renewal,
being cut, disappearance, and destruction”10. Change becomes
problematic with incorporeal substances, as they are simple and
pure actuality. Whatever is pure actuality is not subject to
change because it has no potentiality and privation. In the world
of generation and degeneration there is nothing that corre-
sponds to pure actuality. Every existent is a composite of po-
tentiality and actuality. Change is impossible for an existent
that is actual in all respects and is without potentiality. Think-
ing about change as an existential reality of all corporeal sub-
stances and transformation from potentiality to actuality will
exempt non-corporeal substance from change. Mulla Sadra
accepts the existence of non-corporeal substances, and calling
them “rational substances”. These two kinds of substances are
ontologically as well as existentially connected and seem in-
separable, “The relation of that rational substance to this bodily
nature is that of perfection and imperfection, of root to
branch”11. Again these rational substances should not be mis-
taken for Plato’s universal forms. They are ideas in God’s
knowledge and become actually existents when they are ema-
nated and transformed into materialized forms in the world.
This also means that these substances existed eternally as ideas
in God’s knowledge. Their temporality is related to their pre-
sence in the material world and their temporal emergence
through the effusion of God. According to this analysis, the
subject of change is always corporeal or a body composed of
matter and form. Every existent that admits change has some-
thing potential in it, which means that it pursues something that
is not yet actualized. There has to be potentially something for
which change takes place. An existent that admits change is
therefore a substance composed of potentiality and actuality,
matter and form. Corporeal substances, unlike their counter-
parts, are loaded with potency and are capable of being actual.
As long as they carry potency, their existence will have a cer-
tain degree of privation, and they endeavor to achieve perfec-
tion through the gradual process of transubstantial change.
Nothing in the material world, even the substrate of Aristotle,
perdures under the sway of change.
Arguments for Change in Substance
Mulla Sadra developed three arguments for change in sub-
stance. The first argument is on the dependence of accidents on
substance. The second relies on the relation between cause and
effect. The third argument is borrowed and based on the views
of Suhrawardi on change. In addition to these three primary
arguments, Dehbashi mentions five secondary arguments, which
are derived from the first argument. One of these arguments is
not philosophical but religious and reflects on the Qur’anic
conjectures. Against Aristotle’s doctrine of accidental change,
which is based on the doctrine of metaphysical dualism, Mulla
Sadra insists that there will be no accidental change without
substantial change and states that, “Accidents, however, are
existentially dependent on the existence of formal substances.
But, as you know, motion itself has no reality except as con-
tinuous renewal and transformation (taghyir) of some entity; it
is not itself an entity, because motion is precisely the relation of
renewal, not an entity on which renewal depends”12. Accidents
are ontologically as well as existentially dependent on sub-
stance. What is accidental is necessarily substantial. All acci-
dental changes, therefore, should be subordinated to substance
simply because accidents have no reality of their own. It is the
continuous renewability of substance that brings about change
in accidents. Only with the idea of the mobile nature of sub-
stance one can understand change in accidents. This argument
can be analyzed in two ways. On one side, accidental change
cannot be generated by accidents as they do not exist by them-
selves. Their existence is very much part and parcel of sub-
stance. Every kind of change in accidents is generated by sub-
7Aristotle, “ Physics ”, 190a 1-30, in Complete Works of Aristotle, vol. 1.
8Mulla Sadra, al-Asfar, 3, stage 7, chapter 22, p. 111.
9Mulla Sadra, al-Asfar, 3, stage 7, chapter 22, p. 118.
10Mulla Sadra, al-
, 3, stage 7, chapter 19, p. 98.
11Mulla Sadra, al-Mashair, (The Metaphysics of Mulla Sadra), p. 81.
12Mulla Sadra, al-Asfar, 3, stage 7, chapter 25, p. 154.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 57
stance. On the other side, the argument is dealing with the de-
pendency of accidental change on substantial change. Acciden-
tal change does not take place without change in substance
because all accidents belong to substance. Mulla Sadra also
defines substance as “nature”; for example, he states that, “Phi-
losophers such as Ibn Sina (and others) showed that nature,
insofar as it is not in process, cannot be a cause of motion”13.
Here, for Ibn Sina and other Muslim Peripatetic philosophers,
nature or substance remains unchangeable. Sabzavari, in his
commentary on the meaning of “nature” in this context, identi-
fies it with the divine agent that becomes the ontological foun-
dation of every individual existent14. In this manner, change in
substance is the transformation of nature of an existent. A small
and solid seed of a plant changes into a soft fruit. Its softness,
which is an accidental change, is indicative of the ripeness of its
nature or substance. The seed accomplishes this stage of per-
fection through change in its nature. Now, the actual fruit is no
longer the seed, which was potentially a fruit. This perfection
cannot be achieved without change in the nature of this exis-
The second argument is focused on the relation between
cause and effect and the similarity in their properties. If we
think of substance as the cause of change then it should be
similar to its effect. We cannot say it is stable otherwise there
would be no similarity in their properties. It is not possible for a
cause to be stable while its effect is unstable. Here, Mulla Sadra
rejects the position of the Muslim Peripatetic philosophers and
states that, “Finally, the sum total of renewals, as effects, comes
to an end in nature as cause. The renewal of source, therefore,
certainly brings about the renewal of the effects”15. The dy-
namic characteristic of effect, the accidental change is grounded
in the change in the cause of it. There is no change in effects
without change in their cause. The relation of substance to
change will be seen as necessary. According to Dehbashi, the
necessary relation between cause and effect becomes a sub-
argument for the vindication of the transubstantial change16.
This could be interpreted in two ways. First, since the relation
between cause and effect is logically necessary, in the sense
that there is no cause without effect and no effect without cause,
there will be no change without substance. Second, we under-
stand that a changing substance is a composite of potentiality
and actuality and suffers privation in one way or another in its
existence. Existentially, and by nature a corporeal substance
requires change in order to overcome its own privation and
reach perfection.
The third argument is called “The Illuminationist Proof for
Transubstantial Motion” and based on the unity of accident as a
noun (i.e., blackness) with accidental as an adjective (i.e.,
black). Mulla Sadra remarks that “Every corporeal substance
has a mode of existence such that some of its accidents are
necessary and inseparable from it. These accidents are related
to the individual in the same way as the accidental properties of
derived differentiae are related to species. Most philosophers
call these inseparable accidents “specific differences”. But as a
matter of fact they are signs of specific differences. Here the
signs are a token of something interpreted conceptually. Thus
derivative real differences are interpreted conceptually by logi-
cal difference”17. Here the real distinction between “accident”
and “accidental” is denied; rather, the distinction between them
is conceptual and resembles the logical distinction between
genus, differentia, matter and form. The denial of the real dis-
tinction between “accident” and “accidental” outside thinking
unites both of them and at the same time establishes a necessary
relation between them. But the question that arises here is how
can this unity be employed for the justification of transubstan-
tial change? After establishing this unity between “accident”
and “accidental” Mulla Sadra turns to the necessary relation
between accidents and their corporeal substances and then to
the relation between accidental and substantial changes. For
him the relation between accidents and substances is similar to
that of differentia to species. When two things are necessarily
connected the change in one of them affects the other. In this
case, the change in accidents is identical to the “accidental”
change. Since the accidents are necessarily connected with sub-
stances the accidental change is identical to the change in sub-
These are the main philosophical arguments developed by
Mulla Sadra. There are other arguments or sub-arguments also
mentioned by Dehbashi, but not all of them are philosophical.
One of these arguments relies on a doctrine of the mystic tradi-
tion, advocating constant transformation of the archetypes, such
as the human beings, to achieve perfection. Another is religious
and based on Qur’anic conjectures. The religious argument is
an attempt to justify his doctrine of transubstantial change on
the grounds of faith. He quotes a number of Qur’anic verses
where the notion of change is cited: “On the day when the earth
changed into a different earth and the heavens into new heavens,
mankind shall stand before God, the One, who conquers all”18;
“The mountains, firm though you may think them, will pass
away like clouds. Such is the might of God, who has perfected
all things. He has knowledge of all your actions”19; “Were We
worn out by the First Creation? Yet they are in doubt about a
new creation”20. There are still more verses that allude to the
change in substance or the transformation of nature21. This
argument, however, relies totally on the Qur’anic verses as
evidence rather than logical arguments.
As we know a number of Sufis such as Ibn‘Arabi (1165-
1240), Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207-1273), Shaykh Mahmud Sha-
bistari (1288-1340) and others, believed that the archetypes
were in constant renewal towards reaching perfection. The
mystic doctrine is also called the renewal of the images, mean-
ing that every existent is in constant renewal in the form of
dressing after undressing. The changing existent is annihilated
and receives a new existence based on the image of its previous
existence. No existent will ever continue between two moments
of change. The doctrine of transubstantial change is different
from that of the mystics in four ways. First, Mulla Sadra’s doc-
trine is not purely mystical. It is philosophical too and sup-
ported by logical arguments. Second, the change in substance
as well as accidents is existential because “existence” and not
“essence” is the sole reality. There is no distinction between
substance and its existence. We cannot say that existence is
something added to substance when they were emanated,
“Transformation of quantity, colour, or position, therefore,
18Qur’an 14:48.
19Qur’an 17:88.
20Qur’an 50:15.
21Mulla Sadra, al-Asfar, 3, stage 7 , chap ter 26, 17 8-79 . Fo r th e tr anslat ion o
these Qur’anic verses into English I have used N. J. Dawood’s translation o
the Qur’an pu blished by Penguin Books in 2003.
13Mulla Sadra, al-Asfar, 3, stage 7, chapter 20, p. 108.
14Mulla Sadra, al-Asfar, 3, stage 7, chapter 20, p. 104.
15Mulla Sadra, al-Asfar, 3, stage 7, chapter 20, p. 107.
16Mulla Sadra, al-Asfar, 3, p. 79.
17Mulla Sadra, al-
, 3, sta ge 7, chapter 26, p. 167.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
necessitates transformation of the bodily, substantial, and indi-
vidual existence. This is what we mean by transubstantial mo-
tion. Substance is the existence of substance, and accident is the
existence of accident”22. Third, it seems that the Sufi doctrine
does not make a distinction between corporeal and non-corpo-
real substances and keeps both of them under the influence of
change. By contrast, Mulla Sadra’s doctrine ascribes transub-
stantial change only to the corporeal substances, “The first ex-
istence is worldly, temporal, corruptible, and capable of de-
struction and without any stability at all. The second is perdur-
ing in God’s presence, incorruptible and incapable of destruc-
tion because whatever is known to God, the Exalted, [in his
exemplary idea] cannot be eliminated; that is to say, the know-
ledge of God, the Exalted, cannot be changed”23. Based on this
distinction between two kinds of substances there will be no
total annihilation of an existent when it goes from one stage of
change to another. Fourth, dressing after dressing (labs bada
labs) explains the renewal of substance under the influence of
successive changes towards accomplishing perfection. In this
process, substance, like its own accidents, does not persist in
the same state of existence. The change in substance, at the
same time, does not result in the annihilation of the previous
substance. It is preserved and elevated, which is described as
dressing after dressing.
Characteristics of Transubstantial Change
Transubstantial change is an indication of privation and im-
perfection of all corporeal existents which are embedded in
relative nothingness. Privation in the world is caused by varia-
tion in intensity of existence, which also gives rise to multiplic-
ity. The degree of intensity of existence is different from plants
to animals and from an embryo to an adult. For this reason,
each corporeal existent is conditioned by change and deter-
mined by its end. The idea of transubstantial change, therefore,
presupposes the state of imperfection in every existent. It
should also be remembered that there is no “absolute” privation
as every corporeal substance is composite of potentiality and
actuality and it is an existent. In transubstantial change the
agent of change and the changing existent are not two different
things. Substance changes internally and this gives rise to acci-
dental changes eventually. The agent of change is inherent in
the corporeal substance. In this case the agent of change will be
substance itself or the mover and the moving body will be iden-
tical.24 More specifically, the agent of accidental change is
substance and the agent of substantial change is the existence of
substance. This identification of the agent and object of change
is based on Mulla Sadra’s attempt to identify potentiality with
actuality, “Whatever is potential is exactly the same as that
which is actual”25. Potentiality contains actuality and vice versa.
Potentiality is implicitly an actuality and every actuality be-
comes potentiality for attaining another actuality. This process
continues until an existent arrives at the level of pure actuality
and the stage where it has no more potentiality to carry out
another actuality.
Transubstantial change is transformation of an existent from
imperfection to perfection or from a lower level to a higher
level of perfection. Evolution becomes the characteristics of
this movement. Every existent travels on its path towards per-
fection as part of an evolutionary process. For example, in hu-
man existence evolution aims at the perfection of human beings
(al-insan al-kamil). Mulla Sadra describes this end as the ulti-
mate objective achieved when a human being is unified with
the “Active Intellect”, “If man achieves the highest degree of
knowledge and perfection, he reaches the rank of The Active
Intellect on which depends the establishment of the Good and
Generosity. It connects to its primordial [state], [which is] the
last circle of existence”26. The idea of perfect human being is
essential in Mulla Sadra’s spiritual psychology, coming origi-
nally from Ibn‘Arabi’s theosophy. It explains the purpose of
human life and the end of the spiritual journey undertaken by
those who aim at attaining reunion with God. Under the influ-
ence of this Sufi notion and in light of transubstantial change,
Mulla Sadra points out the purpose of change in human exis-
tence saying, “We have explained earlier that all the existents in
this world are traveling towards God the Exalted, but they are
unaware of it due to the thick veils [of ignorance over their
souls], and piling up of darkness over them. But this essential
movement, and this journey towards God the Exalted is more
evident and manifest in man, especially in a Perfect man who
crosses all these [levels] of ascending arc.”27 Here, the evolu-
tionary character of transubstantial change is progress towards
the richer states of existence. This progression can be compared
with the dialectic movement in Hegel’s logic where movement
is described as progress in which every new moment is richer
than the previous one. An antithesis, for example, does not
annihilate or destroy its thesis but elevates it. Their synthesis
contains both of them. The evolutionary character of transub-
stantial change is not capricious or erratic but intentional and
systematic. It is determined by an increase in intensity of reality.
Everything that goes through transubstantial change is a mode
of “Existence” and hence conditioned by “Existence” ontologi-
cally. This makes change teleological, by seeking perfection
through undertaking a journey towards the origin.
Another characteristic of transubstantial change is related to
identity. Since substance is changeable it will be impossible to
establish the identity of an existent on it. At every moment of
change substance is continuously renewed and has a different
identity, “And so you have come to understand that the proxi-
mate agent of motion is some continuous renewal of identity. If
it were not so, it would be impossible for these natural motions
to come from it, that is, from the perduring.”28 Here one can
talk about identities rather than a single identity, or we can say
that transubstantial change generates a stream of identities until
the changing existent arrives at a level where no more change
in substance and formation of a new identity is required. The
26Mulla Sadra, al-Mashair (The Metaphysics of Mulla Sadra)88. Se e also:
Mulla Sadra, (1999), al-Mazahir al-ilahiyya, edited and annotated with an
introduction by S. Muhammad Khamene’i, Tehran: Sadra Islamic Philoso-
hy Research I nstitut e (SIPRIn) publicatio n, p. 65. Mu lla Sadra g ot the idea
of perfect human being from Ibn‘Arabi; in al-Asfar he states that, “The
Gnostic Shaykh [Ibn‘Arabi], the author of al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya, The
akkan Openings, chapter three hundred and sixty one says that he intended
to explai n th at t he Per fect man i s t he v iceger ent of God, an d is creat ed i n th e
[noetic] Form of the Compassionate.” See: Mulla Sadra, al-Asfar, 8, chapter
3, in Spiritual Psychology, the Fourth Intellectual Journey in Transcendent
Philosophy, vol. 8-9, translated, annotated, and introduced by Latimah-
Parvin Peerwani, (2008) with foreword by Sayyed Khalil Toussi, London:
ICAS Press, p. 121.
27Mulla Sadra, al-Asfar, 8, chapter 3, in Spiritual Psychology, the Fourth
Intellectual Journey in Transcendent Philosophy, p. 387.
28Mulla Sadra, al-
, 3, sta ge 7, chapter 20, p. 103.
22Mulla Sadra, al-Asfar, 3, stage 7, chapter 26, p. 169.
23Mulla Sadra, al-Asfar, 3, stage 7, chapter 26, p. 170.
24Mulla Sadra, al-Asfar, 3, stage 7, chapter 19, pp. 98-99.
25Mulla Sadra, al-Asfar, 3, stage 7, chapter 19, p. 100.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 59
renewal of identities is also called “dressing after dressing”
(labs bada labs), and Mulla Sadra refers to the Qur’an to au-
thenticate his view, “Were We worn out by the First Creation?
Yet they are in doubt about a new creation”29. But this idea of
constant renewal, unlike that of the Muslim Sufis, does not
entail the total annihilation of the previous form and the gene-
ration of something absolutely different. In transubstantial
change renewal is continuity, meaning that the newly generated
forms are different and at the same time connected with the
previous forms. The previous forms become a podium for the
generation of the new forms and both of them are existentially
connected and the same. With the idea of “constant renewal”
transubstantial change can be seen as “constant becoming”. All
existents at the level of microcosm as well as macrocosm in the
material world change substantially. They are generated and
degenerate i n time. “Becoming” is, t herefore, another aspect of
the reality of “Existence” through which the modes of “Exis-
tence” come into existence in the lower grades of existence in
the material world and then ascend to their archetypal states of
From the characteristic of “Becoming” we arrive at the no-
tion of “perpetual creation”. Becoming is the self-manifestation
of “Existence”, which leads to the creation of the material
world. In this process all corporeal substances are generated
and degenerate. They travel through various degrees of perfec-
tion in two different directions: descending and ascending.
These two directions correspond to an increase and decrease in
intensity of “Existence”. The self-manifestation of “Existence”
in these two directions never ends and is an interruptible act of
creation. These characteristics of the transubstantial change
cannot be understood independently. They are necessarily re-
lated in that the detection of one of them will lead to the other.
This does not mean that we interpret their relation in terms of
priority and posteriority because all of them are equally impor-
tant. Neither do we ascribe necessity to them in the sense of
causality and think that the second characteristic is a sequence
of the first. By arriving at the characteristic of “perpetual crea-
tion” through the characteristic of “constant renewal”, for ex-
ample, no causal relationship is involved. The necessary rela-
tion between these characteristics signifies that the disclosure of
one of them sheds light on the others and the truth of one of
them inevitably validates the truth of the other characteristics.
Transubstantial Change and the Principle of
Identity in Difference
Generally, there are four assumptions regarding change. The
first assumption is the denial of change, and represents the
views of Parmenides and other Eleatic thinkers. The second
assumption positions everything in the state of flux, and repre-
sents Heraclitus’s interpretation of reality. Third is the assump-
tion that not everything but only accidents change. Substance,
unlike accidents, remains stable. This was the view of Aristotle
and Muslim Peripatetic thinkers. The fourth assumption is ap-
parently consistent with the second assumption but attributes
change to substance as well as accidents. This assumption is the
dominant feature of Mulla Sadra’s interpretation of change. Our
concern is not the problem of identity with accidental change.
Change in accidents does not result in a change in the identity
of an existent simply because substance, which is thought to be
unchangeable, carries identity. This Aristotelian interpretation
of identity, which corresponds to the third assumption, is ren-
dered invalid when change is attributed to substance and iden-
tity becomes problematic. A careful examination of Mulla Sa-
dra’s ontology will help us to understand that even with tran-
substantial change something endures providing a certain type
of identity to whatever is in transition. What is this stable entity
underlying change in substance? If everything changes, includ-
ing substance, then what are the grounds of identity? As far as
identity is concerned there is a certain degree of perplexity in
Mulla Sadra’s philosophy. On one side we can describe his on-
tology as existential monism standing against metaphysical
dualism inherited from Plato. On the other side, Mulla Sadra
draws a distinction between corporeal and incorporeal sub-
stances, convincing us to believe in the presence of a stable
entity beneath the surface of the changeable world. Does this
mean that Mulla Sadra has not been able to liberate himself
from Plato’s tradition and in particular the doctrine of meta-
physical dualism? With these questions our analysis of his on-
tology and the doctrine of transubstantial change require a fresh
examination of the principle of identity. This task will also
necessitate proper investigation into the ontological foundation
of identity.
With the doctrine of transubstantial change the problem of
identity proves itself to be important in Mulla Sadra’s ontology.
Without identity there can be no unity within the existence of
an entity in flux over time, “In general, every material object,
whether it is the material of the stars or the elements, whether
soul or body, constantly require new identity and its personality
and its existence is never fixed”30. In thinking about identity of
an existent at different moments of change we deal with the
binary relation that holds this existent to itself; for this reason
and here we are not concerned about identity between two enti-
ties. If we believe that an existent goes through substantial
change then the changing existent cannot be one and the same
thing before and after change. The same existent must be dif-
ferent. Does this mean that identity of an existent at the first
moment of change is destroyed and another one is created
temporarily? The problem of identity can be traced back to
Parmenides’s ontology, “The one-that [it] is, and that [it] can-
not not be”31. Later Aristotle developed this notion of Par-
menides’s in his logical system into the principle of identity or
non-contradiction and it became one of the rules of thought
upon which rational discourse itself was based. Aristotle, in De
Interpretatione, states that, “For if every affirmation or nega-
tion is true or false it is necessary for everything to be the case
or not to be the case.”32 This statement confirms the law of
identity and rejects contradiction in a single statement. In the
truth of an expression, such as A is A cannot be otherwise at the
same time. It is not possible to say that A is A and not A.
Thinkers such as Spinoza and Hegel modified the law of iden-
tity as they believed that the Aristotelian law was abstract and
excluded the difference. For them, every determination was at
the same time a negation. For example, a proposition such as,
“The table is black,” means that it is not white. Every affirma-
tive proposition or judgement contains its opposite (negation)
implicitly. Transubstantial change signifies that the modes of
“Existence”, in particular those attached to matter, from the
30Mulla Sadra, al-Mashair, (The Metaphysics of Mulla Sadra), p. 80.
31David Gall op (1984). Parmenides of Elea, fragments, a tex t and translation
with an introduction, Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press
fragment 2.5, p. 55.
32Aristotle, “De Interpretatione”, 18a1, 35, in Complete Works of Aristotle,
Vol. 1.
29Qur’an 50:15.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
perspective of their identity are in a state of flux. Since all ma-
terial existents are modes of “Existence”, one way of establish-
ing their identity is through the principality of “Existence”.
Based on this ontological doctrine a changing existent remains
the same in regard to its “existence” at two different moments.
The substance and accidents of an existent undertake change
but its existence will continue. If “existence” of the changing
entity is annihilated and a new “existence” (not a new substance)
is created then nothing will remain as the unifying principle
between the two moments of change in the same existent. The
existence that undergoes change becomes non-existence and
consequently a totally different entity will come into existence.
We also know that existence is neither a substance nor acci-
dents. It encompasses all of them and subsists as the changing
entity does not ceas e to exist while it goes through change.33 On
the other hand, “existence” is not an accident because it does
not rely on a “substance” to exist. No accident can be by itself
without a substance. The case with “existence” is different as
“substance” can manage to subsist only through existence. With
this analysis the unity of an existent between two moments of
change becomes existentially conceivable and real in the world.
The “existence” of the changing existent will not vanish but
endures throughout the substantial change. Existence becomes
the principle of unity and identity. By establishing identity on
the principality of “Existence” we realize that neither substance
nor accidents can become the ontological foundation for iden-
tity. Whatever endures throughout the process of change is
nothing more than “existence” itself. Change becomes a single
continuum existentially, and can be seen as a gradual renewal
only in this ontological context. Otherwise it would be discrete
and disconnected. This interpretation of identity is consistent
with the existentialist ontology of Mulla Sadra and goes beyond
the views of Aristotle and Muslim Peripatetic thinkers who
strongly believed in the stability of substance.
Another possible way of dealing with identity is through the
distinction between corporeal and incorporeal substances. We
understand that this distinction is made on the grounds of their
attachment and detachment from “matter”. Incorporeal sub-
stances are simple; unlike corporeal substances are non-com-
posite existents. Since they are simple and immaterial they are
pure actuality. Whatever is pure actuality does not go through
change because change is a movement from potentiality to
actuality. All incorporeal substances are, therefore, unchange-
able and their identity is not in jeopardy. On the other hand,
potentiality represents “privation” in the existence of the corpo-
real substances. In order to triumph over such privation every
corporeal substance endeavors to attain its own actuality,
“When we spoke of the existence of essential motion through-
out bodily nature, which we will explain in detail with proof,
we also showed that necessarily any nature, celestial or terres-
trial has a perduring rational substance which functions as a
principle and also a substance which substantially in process.
The relation of that substance to this bodily nature is that of
perfection to imperfection, of root to branch”34. Change, in this
manner, becomes necessary and the existential requirement for
every corporeal existent to fulfill itself. But one cannot think
about change in incorporeal substances and their identity does
not become an issue. Identity becomes problematic only when
corporeal substances are investigated.
It is true that Mulla Sadra accepts the existence of incorpo-
real substances and in al-Asfar, for example, he talks about the
differences between incorporeal and corporeal substances. He
considers the former to be incorruptible and incapable of de-
struction. But then what is the difference between this view and
that of Muslim Peripatetic thinkers? Has Mulla Sadra estab-
lished identity on a stable and incorporeal substance? Is this
view in contradiction with the doctrine of transubst antial change?
The distinction between incorporeal and corporeal substances is
not a reference to two different and separate realities, one ideal
and the other material. Mulla Sadra’s ontology does not accept
metaphysical dualism. The incorporeal substances do not have
their own reality in the way the ideal forms of Plato have it.
They are merely ideas in God’s knowledge and for this reason
they are incapable of destruction, “… whatever is known to
God, the Exalted, [in his exemplary idea] cannot be eliminated;
that is to say, the knowledge of God, the Exalted, cannot be
changed”35. Sabzavari in his commentary on Mulla Sadra’s
notion of rational or incorporeal substance confirms that these
substances are subtle realities, “whose stable aspect depends on
the lords of species”36. Incorporeal substances are not “real” in
the sense they do not exist in the temporal and changeable
world. Their existence is ideal in God’s knowledge. Since
God’s knowledge does not change the incorporeal substances,
these ideas remain stable. They are exposed to change only
when they are externalized and attached to matter in the tem-
poral world. Their attachment with matter transforms them
radically into corporeal substances and composite of potential-
ity and actuality. There is no incorporeal substance in the tem-
poral world. Whatever we find is the combination of matter and
form, potentiality and actuality and consequently changeable.
For this reason, the possibility of establishing identity on in-
corporeal substance in the world of material existence is doomed
to failure. One can talk about identity of the incorporeal sub-
stances when they are found as ideas in the mind of God; other-
wise nothing in the world (outside the mind of God) is stable.
Transubstantial change is applicable to all kinds of corporeal
substances including human existence. Human existence is also
in constant substantial change. For this reason, it is impossible
to establish the notion of personal identity on “substance”. This
is the ontological position of Mulla Sadra and he believes that
the idea of personal identity is fictitious and based on “resem-
blance” rather than stability of substance because every indi-
vidual is essentially in constant renewal, “Because of the simi-
larity of the forms which constituted the oneness of simple
body [body in the abstract], it has been assumed that there is
some single and stable form other than renewed. But this is not
so because it is one by definition and signification, but not nu-
merically ”37. There is a distinction between two forms of an
33Mulla Hadi Sabzavari holds a similar view, stating that “One of the nega-
tive pro perties is that ‘ existence’ is neither a su bstance, becau se ‘substan ce’
is a ‘quiddity’ which, when it is found in the external world, does not need a
‘substance,’ while ‘existence’ is not ‘quiddity’, nor an ‘accident,’ when
considered in its reality, i.e. the reality of ‘existence’.” Mulla Hadi Sab-
zawari (1 977). The Metaphysics of Sabzawari, translated fro m the Ar abi c by
Mehdi Mohaghegh and Toshihiko Izutsu, Delmar, New York: Caravan
Books, p. 70. This book is commonly known as Sharh-i manzumah (Com-
mentary on a Philosophical Poem). The commentary, entitled Ghurar al-
ara’id, is divided into seven headings. Each heading deals with one aspect
of Sabzavari’s philosophy. They are further divided into chapters and sec-
34Mulla Sadra, al-Asfar, 3, stage 7, chapter 25, p. 154.
35Mulla Sadra, al-Asfar, 3, stage 7, chapter 26, p. 170.
36See Subzav ari’s commentary in footno te (5), (al-As far, 3 , stage 7, chapter
25, p. 154). “Lords of species”is a term also used by Suhrawardi, which are
archetypes correspond to Ibn‘Arabi’s notion of immutable ideas (al-a
37Mulla Sadra, al-Asfar, 3, stage 7, chapter 19, p. 101.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 61
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
individual human existence at two moments of substantial
change. The second form, which has become actual, is different
from the previous form. As a consequence of this, there is
nothing but constant renewal and flux. How can we then estab-
lish personal identity? With thinking of transubstantial change
without considering the principality of “Existence” there is no
room for personal identity because nothing remains unchanged-
able and at every moment a new form is created. Even the Car-
tesian solution is of no assistance to us. Its notion of identity
depends on our imagination while conceiving similarity of the
forms. By relying on imagination to produce a notion without
corresponding to anything outside the mind, personal identity
becomes unreal. But we can find the ground for it existentially.
We argue that although a human being is substantially in proc-
ess and change constantly, she/he has an existential unity. The
identity and unity of every individual lies in “existence”. Tran-
substantial change is a continuous movement of existence,
which preserves identity and difference in itself. Existence and
not substance provides persistent identity within the changing
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