Umrān al-Sābi’i’s Questions Imam Reza (as) - part 1

‘Umrān al-Sābi’i was a great philosopher and was the spiritual leader of the tribe of the Sābi’a during the time of the Imām, peace be on him. He was summoned by al-Ma’mūn in order to examine the Imām, and he had prepared for him the most difficult and vaguest philosophical questions.
(‘Umrān) al-Sābi’i put forth his deep question, and (said) that the (religious) scholars of Kūfa, Basrah, Syria (Shām) and al-Jazira were not able to answer it. He asked the Imām to answer it. The Imām smiled at him, saying: “If there is (a person called) ‘Umrān al-Sābi’i among the group (of the people), then you are he.”
“I am he,” replied ‘Umrān.
“‘Umrān, question (me). You must be just. Beware of nonsense and injustice,” declared the Imām.
(‘Umrān) al-Sābi’i bowed his head, and then he said to the Imām with politeness and magnification: “By Allah, my master, I want nothing except that you establish for me a thing to which I will cling and (which I) do not pass.”
(‘Umrān) al-Sābi’i expressed his good intention, for he wanted to understand the reality and nothing else.
The Imām, peace be on him, said: “Question (me) whatever you desire.”
The session was full of (religious) scholars and leaders; among them was al-Ma’mūn. They kept silent, that they might listen to ‘Umrān al-Sābi’i’s questions and to the Imām’s  answers to them. Then (‘Umrān) al-Sābi’i put forth his questions as follows:
Q1 (i.e. question 1): “Can you tell me about the first being and about what he created?” As for the thing about which (‘Umrān al-Sābi’i) questioned, it is the first thing and the first material from which Allah created all things. The thing about which he questioned was not the existence of Allah, the Almighty Originator. That is because Allah’s existence can easily be recognized by those who have awareness and will, and have no doubt, for all things in the universe display the existence of their Creator, and for it is impossible for effect to exist without any cause. Now, let us listen to the answer of the Imām, peace be on him, to this question:
Ans. 1(i.e. answer 1): “As for the One, He has always been One Being; He has neither limits nor accidental qualities; and He will always remain so. Then He created unprecedented, different creatures with accidental qualities and different limits, (i.e. He created them) not through a thing which He established nor through a thing which He limited nor according to a thing which He imitated or adopted as a previous exemplar for them. Then, after that,  He made the creatures, choice and non-choice, different and harmonious (in) types and tastes. He (created them not) for a need of them nor for an excellent rank which He did not attain but through them nor did He see for Himself an increase or a decrease in what He created.”
This paragraph gives an account of the answer of the Imām, peace be on him, as follows:
Firstly, Allah, the Exalted, is One; there is nothing with Him; He has neither limits nor accidental qualities like those possible being; He is One Being; He has always been and will always remain so. His Oneness is neither numeral nor qualitative nor generic; rather it means that He is not associated with material and immaterial things. He occupies the most perfect rank; none of possible beings is like Him, for they are ascribed to Him as  made things ascribed to maker, so Blessed is Allah!
Secondly, the view of the Bedouins was that every image should depend and occupy a certain matter. This view is right regarding things other than the Necessary Being, the Most High. As for Him, He does not create things from previous things nor from a things which He had created. Rather He says to thing ‘be’ and it is. He originated the creation of things not according to thing which He imitated or adopted as a model. He has the greatest power which originates the creation of things of which He has no need, for He is the Only Source of favor toward creatures.
The Imām, peace be on him, turned to ‘Umrān (al-Sābi’i) and asked him: “‘Umrān, did you understand this (matter)?”
“Yes,” he replied, “by Allah, master.”
“The Imām added:” “Know, ‘Umrān, that if He had created what He created for a need, He would have not created anything except  those whom He asked for the help in His needs, and that He should have created a hundred fold of what He  created. That is because the more the helpers are, the more powerful their leader(sahib) is. As for need, ‘Umrān, it is impossible, for whatever  He creates, other needs arise, but you can say that the creatures need each other. As a result I can say that He did not create the creatures for a need, and He preferred some of them to others while He had no need of those whom he had preferred; nor had He a vengeance on those whom He had abased.”
This statement completes that which is before it (and shows) that Allah, the Exalted, created the creatures while He had no need of them; rather they have need of His favor, His mercy, and His
bestowal. He is absolutely munificent, so he spreads mercy and
beneficence over all beings and creatures. An example of His bounty
is that He prefers some of His creatures to others while He is in no need of those whom He prefers; nor has He a vengeance on those whom He abases.
Q2: “Master, was the Being known to Himself by His Own Self?”
This question is very deep. Al-Shaykh al-Ja‘far has explained it as follows: “You may get a thing and establish it as reality through a scientific discovery. That thing divides into its own identity and dismisses other than it, and thus it is bounded. Stone cannot be obtained scientifically unless the nonexistence of all its opposites is added its identity. (In other words), the scholar cannot recognize and attain being unless he dismisses all things except it. This was the reason for ‘Umrān’s question about whether He, the Exalted, recognized Himself by Himself. At that time, if the Imām’s answer had been ‘yes’, ‘Umrān would have asked another question: “Did recognizing Himself by Himself require dismissing reasonable beings other than Him?”
Ans. 2: He, peace be on him, said: “Knowledge is acquired by something which negates its opposites, so that the thing itself would be existing through what it is negated, without the existence of anything which contradicts its existence, a need arises to negate that thing about itself by defining what is known about it.” Then the Imām turned to ‘Umrān and asked Him: “‘Umrān, did you understand?”
“Yes, by Allah, master,” replied ‘Umrān. The result of the answer of the Imām, peace be on him, was that what al-Sābi’i had mentioned would be correct if the known being was compared with many things opposing it, so it required dismissing those things in order to get the known (being). However, as for Allah, the Exalted, Creator of the universe and Giver of life, He had nothing to compare Himself with it, so He was in no need of dismissing it in order that He might decide His will through that dismissal.
Q3: “Tell me, then, by what means did He come to know what He knew ¾with mind or without mind?"
By this question al-Sābi’i intended to force the Imām to confess that Allah, the Exalted, was compound, for He had mind.Ans. 3: “If it had been by mind, would He then find anyway not to appoint for that mind a bound where knowledge ended?”
The Imām wanted (to say) that it was necessary for mind to recognize His reality and essence. Then he asked him the following question: “Then what is that mind?”
Al-Sābi’i kept silent and was unable to say anything, for the Imām did not leave any room for him to establish his belief. Then the Imām turned to him and said: “Is it all right if I ask you  about the mind and you define it by another mind? If you answer in the affirmative, then you would make both your claim and  statement void.”
The Imām established perfect argument and definite proof of the voidness of the belief of al-Sābi’i, who thought that Allah, the Exalted, could be recognized by mind. Accordingly, there should be another mind to recognize the selfness of Him, the Exalted. This mind depends on another mind, and so on. This matter leads to an endless chain. If the second mind depends on the first mind, it will result in vicious circle. The philosophers and theologians have unanimously greed that both matters (i.e., endless chain and vicious circle) are not corrupt because they result in corrupt matters. Then the Imām completed his argument and his proof, saying: “‘Umrān, is it not incumbent on you to know that the One cannot be described by mind, and it is not said that He has more than one deed, work, and make. None imagines that He has views and members like those of the creatures. Therefore, understand that and correct (your beliefs) with it as long as you have come to know of (it).”
The Imām, peace be on him, wanted (to say) that Allah’s different deeds and works were not similar to those of possible beings who were in need of means and mediations such as intellect and all manifest members to carry them out; it is impossible for Allah, the Exalted, to have such means and mediations.
Q4: “Do you not tell me how the bounds of His creatures are?”
‘Umrān questioned (the Imām) about the bounds which distinguish the creatures from each other. The Imām answered him:
Ans. 4: “You have asked, then know that the bounds of His creatures are of six kinds: touched, weighed, seen, that which has no taste (soul), seen but has no weight nor touch nor sense nor color nor taste, ordination, accidental qualities, shapes, length, width. Among them are act and movements which make things, do them, change them from state to state, increase them, and decrease them. As for works and deeds, they set out, for they have no time more than that which is ordained for their need. When it (deed) finished by thing, it sets out with movement, and effect remains. It takes the same course of speech which goes and its effect remains.”
The Imām’s answer is full of mentioning characteristics and qualities by which things are distinguished, whether they are living beings or not.
Q5: “Master, will you not tell me about the Creator? If He is One, there is nothing other than Him and nothing is with Him, has He not changed (His Essence) through His creating the creatures?”
This question means that the natural realities founded by Allah, the Exalted, require changing the Almighty Creator due to their change. This means that they are united with Him in His selfness; this is impossible.
Ans. 5: “He (Allah) is Eternal. He, the Great and Almighty, does not change through His creating the creatures, but the creatures change through His changing them.”
The result of the answer of the Imām, peace be on him,  is that the Almighty Creator is the Maker and Founder of all things and is Eternal, so He requires no change out of the change of possible beings and creatures.
Q6: “Master, with what have we recognized Him?”
Ans. 6: “With other than Him.”
All the seen and the unseen things in the universe are evidence for the existence of the Almighty Creator. We have recognized Him through His creatures, and believed in Him through His marvelous make. He has become manifest and clear during this time in which man has invaded outer space. The great make of Him, the Exalted, has manifested itself for mankind through what He has deposited in this space, such as the stars which are neither counted nor numbered, and which move according to regulation and accuracy. If they oppose their course, they will collide and disappear, and no trace of them will remain. So glory belongs to Allah, the Wise Originator!
Q7: “Which thing is other than Him?”
Ans. 7: “His desire, His name, His attribute, and the like. All these are originated, created, managed.”
We have recognized Allah, the Exalted, through His will, His name, and His attributes, which are evidence for Him, may He be glorified. In the Supplication for the Morning, (it has been mentioned): “Oh He who demonstrates His Essence by His Essence.” All the beings in the universe depend on Him as the made depend on the maker.
Q8: “Master, which thing is He?”
Ans. 8: “He is light, namely He guides His creatures from among the people of the heaven and the earth. You have no right against me than my professing His oneness.”
Through his question, ‘Umrān intended to know the reality of Allah, the Exalted. He imagined that He, the Exalted, was like the rest of possible beings. This is impossible. Man does not know his own body and the small systems therein, so how can he know the essence of the Almighty Creator, the Shaper and Originator of the worlds? The Imām answered that he came to know of Allah through His manifest attributes, such as His guiding His creatures and other clear proofs which demonstrate the existence of their Almighty Creator.
Q9: “Master, was He not silent before (creating) the creatures and then He spoke?”
Ans. 9: “Silence is not except out of utterance before it. An example of that it is not said that the lamp is silent and does not utter; nor is it said that the lamp shines, so what does it want to do toward us, for light is from the lamp, not out of an act or make from it; it is not a thing other than it. When it shines for us, we say: ‘It has shone for us, so that we may seek light through it.’ In this manner you can understand your affair.”
The meaning of the answer of the Imām, peace be on him, is that silence and utterance follow one another in a matter which accepts them like the succession of  talent and non-talent. As for the utterance of Allah, it is not like the utterance of those speakers from among possible beings. In other words utterance and silence do not hold good for Him as they hold good for possible beings. The Shi‘ites believe that utterance is one of the attributes of action, and that it does not persist in the essence of Him, the Exalted, as the persisting of the essential attributes. That is because it is He, the Exalted, who creates utterance and speech when He wills (to create them). Imām al-Ridā, peace be on him, gave an example of that through the lamp, for it is not said that the lamp is silent, does not utter and, also ascribing the addition to the lamp, it is not optional for it (to utter). This is one of the possibilities regarding the explanation of the speech of the Imām, peace be on him.
Q10: “Master, the knowledge I have says that the Being is changed in His essence by His action of creating.”
Ans. 10: “‘Umrān, does your statement mean that the being does not in any way change its essence except when it affects its own essence in a way which changes it? Can you say that the fire changes its own nature, or that the heat burns itself, or have you seen anyone seeing his own vision?”
‘Umrān had already mentioned this question; nevertheless the Imām, peace be on him, answered it, and he, peace be on him, increased it in explanation. He said to him: “The being does not in any way change its essence. For example, the actions  which issue from soul do not bring about increase therein nor decrease. Yet, there is another example which is the eye. Though vision issues from it, it does not bring about increase therein nor decrease.”
Q11: “Will you not tell me, master? Is He in the creatures or are the creatures in Him?”
Ans. 11: “He is above all that, ‘Umrān. He is not in the creatures; nor are the creatures in Him; He is exalted above that. I will teach you what you do not know, and there is no strength save in Allah. Tell me about the mirror: are you in it or is it in you? If neither one of you is in the other, then how did you come to see your own reflection in it, ‘Umrān?”
The Imām, peace be on him, made it impossible for Allah, the Exalted, to exist in His creatures or they exist in Him. He gave an example of that through the reflection in the mirror; it is not in the mirror; nor is the mirror in it; rather it is light which brings about seeing the reflection in the mirror and it is not in any way in it. Ibn al-Fārid says:  
Through His Unity all many (things) has lasted for it, so
it has become correct and every cause has come to it.
The essence of union has become single for Himself, even
if its units fall under it.
I looked but did not see (anything) except pure unity
already covered by many (things) without any partner. Regarding this matter there are deep philosophical researches, but we have not mentioned them lest the book should be too long.
Q12: “Through the light between myself and it?”
This question is related to that which is before it, and we have explained it.
Ans. 12: “Can you see of that light more than what you can see with your own eyes?”
“Yes,” replied ‘Umrān.
“Then show it to us,” demanded the Imām.
‘Umrān kept silent, not knowing what to say. For the Imām did not leave any room for him to defend his own beliefs. Then the Imām continued his talk, saying: “I do not see the light except leading you and the mirror to come to know each other without being in either one of you. There are many such examples which the ignorant simply cannot observe, and the greatest example belongs to Allah.”

Reference :The life of Imām'Ali Bin Mūsā al-Ridā