Mulla Sadra

(c. 979–1050/1571–1640)
   Sadr al-Din Muhammad al-Shirazi, more commonly known by his honorific title Mulla (‘Master’) Sadra, is without doubt the most important and influential of the modern Islamic philosophers. He studied with the great formative thinkers of the School of Isfahan (Mir Damad, Shaykh-i Baha’i and possibly Mir Abu al-Kasim Findiriski), building upon their insights to formulate his own ‘transcendent wisdom’ (alhikma al-muta‘aliya). Mulla Sadra’s original philosophy blended and transformed Ibn Sina’s Neoplatonic Aristotelianism, al-Suhrawardi’s Illuminative wisdom, Ibn al-‘Arabi’s Sufism, and the theology of the Ash‘arite Sunnis and Twelver Shi‘ites in an even more ambitious and resourceful way than his teachers had imagined possible. Like Mir Damad, he placed great importance upon the traditional sciences (e.g. grammar, Qur’anic exegesis, jurisprudence, reports of Muhammad and the imams) as a source of knowledge as well. Thus his transcendent wisdom can be seen as a synthesis of revealed knowledge (Qur’an), demonstrative knowledge (burhan) and mystic gnosis (‘irfan).
   One of the things for which Mulla Sadra is most immediately known is his rejection of al-Suhrawardi’s claim about the primacy of essence, which Mir Damad himself had defended. The debate about the primacy of essence or existence is traceable to Ibn Sina’s distinction between existence (wujud) and existent (mawjud), and his idea that existence is an ‘accident’ (‘arad) superadded to an essence (a position held before him by the kalam theologians). Mulla Sadra adopts (albeit reinterprets) the first doctrine and rejects the second. Al-Suhrawardi had claimed that existence (as a universal over and above particular existing things) is simply a mental abstraction or secondary intelligible that possesses no reality prior to or independent of the human mind. Mulla Sadra drives a wedge into al-Suhrawardi’s essentialist position by distinguishing between existence as concept (mafhum) and existence as reality (haqiqa). Insofar as the latter constitutes the existential or ontological ground of everything, it cannot simply be a mental abstraction. If anything can be said to be an abstraction lacking in extra-mental reality, it is essence. Further, existence cannot be an accident or attribute because it can be neither described nor logically defined. Description presupposes that we move from what is known to what is less known, yet what is more immediately known and self-evident than existence? Logical definition, on the other hand, presupposes the identification of genus and specific differentia, which by necessity excludes certain entities. But as Ibn Sina (following Aristotle) recognized, existence is so general and fundamental that there can be nothing outside of it. Indeed, in accordance with Ibn Sina, Mulla Sadra maintains that existence can only be known through intuition (hads), a kind of direct, non-discursive apprehension which he also sometimes characterizes in Illuminationist and Sufi terms (e.g. illuminative presence [al-hudur alishraqi] and unveiling [kashf]).
   Al-Suhrawardi had conceived reality as a hierarchy of lights of varying degrees of intensity or luminosity. Mulla Sadra takes up this notion of intensity and radicalizes it by applying it to existence itself. According to Mulla Sadra’s metaphysics, things possess a greater or lesser degree of existence. Since existence is not only the ground of all entities, but the source of their reality or truth (haqiqa) and thus their meaning, the more existence a thing possesses, the more it is saturated with reality-truth and meaning. Al-Suhrawardi’s hierarchy of lights thus gives way to an ontological hierarchy of existence-realitytruth- meaning, with God at the apex and inanimate material objects at the bottom. On the one hand, this entails that existence is not homogeneous; things exist in qualitatively different ways, with widely varying degrees of intensity, richness and complexity. On the other hand, Mulla Sadra rejects the idea that there is a hard and fast distinction between fixed, essentially different types of being. For him, all things are on a kind of continuum, which he describes as the graduation or ‘systematic ambiguity’ of existence (tashkik al-wujud). This insight is closely connected with two other important ideas in Mulla Sadra’s metaphysics. The first is that all things are the manifestation of, and exist only as a part of, one great unitary reality. In other words, Mulla Sadra sees his metaphysics of graduated existence as disclosing the same essential insight as Ibn al-‘Arabi’s mystical experience of the oneness of existence. Second, Mulla Sadra’s cosmos is a profoundly dynamic one, characterized by deep change and constant flux. Rejecting Aristotle’s metaphysics, in which change applies only to qualities but not to the fundamental underlying substances, Mulla Sadra introduces the idea of substantial motion (al-harakat al-jawhariyya), according to which entities are not essentially stable things, but rather more like processes through and through. Although al- Suhrawardi’s metaphysics of illumination (and before it, the Neoplatonic model of emanation) had already begun to move away from Aristotle’s substance metaphysics by emphasizing continuity and permeability over mutually exclusive, substantial combinations of form and matter, its ontological hierarchy of lights was still essentially static. For Mulla Sadra, existence is a systematically ambiguous continuity not only because all beings are (in ontological terms) more or less intense manifestations of the one true reality-existence, but because (in temporal terms) their identities are fluid and not ultimately stable. Only the oneness of existence retains an essential identity in the midst of its teleological development, as all things move towards greater intensity and perfection. This dynamic, anti-essentialist model has significant implications for a number of other traditional concerns, one of which is the question of the originatedness or eternity of the world. While Mulla Sadra understands the overall process of the unfolding of the universe as eternal, his metaphysics of deep change effectively suggests that the universe is repeatedly and continuously created in time. In this way, he bridges the seemingly insuperable chasm between the creationist theologians and eternalist philosophers.
   His notion of the systematic ambiguity of existence has significant implications as well for the conception of the soul. On Mulla Sadra’s account, the soul is ‘bodily in origination but spiritual in subsistence’, which means it becomes increasingly spiritual or intellectual as it grows richer and denser and more intense in existence-realitytruth- meaning. By articulating a dynamic, developmental and ultimately monistic ontology in which there is no hard and fast distinction between the material and the spiritual, he bypasses the kind of mind-body dualism that was being codified in Europe during his own lifetime, and which would create so many problems for modern western philosophers.
   Mulla Sadra’s epistemology is closely bound up with his metaphysics as well, and produces a number of important insights that enable him to move beyond the impasses of previous philosophers. One of these is his retrieval of the Avicennan notion of intuition, and his corresponding critique of the Peripatetics’ emphasis on abstraction (tajarrud), that is, the act of grasping intelligibles by mentally extricating or disentangling them from the concrete particulars in which they are embedded. On Mulla Sadra’s view, this is a rather paltry, anemic kind of knowing, which by its very nature cannot capture the true reality of the object of knowledge. Instead, he conceives of true objects of knowledge as something more akin to self-intellecting Platonic Forms. The more the human intellect comes to know these intellgibles, the more intense and perfect it becomes, until it unifies with the active intellect itself. On this point, Mulla Sadra differs from both Ibn Sina and al-Suhrawardi in positing the unification of the intellect and the intelligibles (ittihad al-‘aqil wa al-ma‘qul), whereas the most his mashsha’i and ishraqi predecessors would have admitted is their conjunction (ittisal). This leads him to privilege the Illuminationist idea of knowledge by presence (al-‘ilm alhuduri) over the kind of propositional knowledge typically valorized by the Peripatetics (i.e. ‘knowledge by representation’ [al-‘ilm al-irtisami]). Building upon Ibn Sina’s ‘floating man’ argument, al-Suhrawardi’s idea of self-luminosity or immediate non-discursive reflexive awareness of one’s own existence as the paradigmatic case of knowledge, and the general sense of existence (wujud) as comprising both ‘being’ and ‘finding’, Mulla Sadra argues for the ultimate unity of knowledge and existence.
   Mulla Sadra’s single most important work is the multivolume Transcendent Wisdom Concerning the Four Intellectual Journeys (al-Hikma al-muta‘aliya fi al-asfar al-‘aqliyya al-arba‘a), usually just referred to as The Journeys (al-Asfar). He also wrote a sprawling (albeit incomplete) philosophical commentary on the Qur’an which synthesizes Ibn al-‘Arabi’s Sufi symbolic-esoteric reading, the Shi‘ite Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq’s interpretations of Qur’an and hadith, insights from Fakhr al-Din al- Razi’s Sunni Ash‘arite theology and al-Tusi’s Twelver Shi‘ite theology, and al-Farabi and Ibn Sina’s Peripatetic interpretation of scripture. Among Mulla Sadra’s influential shorter philosophical works, three have been translated into English: The Wisdom of the Throne (Hikmat al-‘arshiyya), The Book of [Metaphysical] Penetrations (Kitab al-Masha’ir) and The Elixir of the Gnostics (Iksir al-‘arifin). Mulla Sadra’s works are particularly remarkable for the clarity and eloquence of expression, much more so, say, than those of his teacher Mir Damad. Unfortunately, this caused him problems with some of the religious authorities of seventeenth-century Safavid Persia. He was harassed, persecuted and forced into exile for his allegedly blasphemous conclusions by the Akhbaris, literalists who might be thought of as the Shi‘ite version of the Sunni Hanbalites. Indeed, despite the recognition and support Mulla Sadra garnered from less anti-intellectual quarters and the considerable number of students he attracted, his influence was relatively minor, at least initially. It was only in the nineteenth century that the Master’s ‘transcendent wisdom’ was fully appreciated and codified. Among his intellectual progeny may be counted Mulla ‘Abdullah Zunuzi, al- Sabzawari, Muhammad Rida Qumsha’i, Mirza Mahdi Ashtiyani and the twentieth-century thinker, Muhammad Husayn Tabataba’i.
   See Aristotle; epistemology; Ibn al-‘Arabi; Ibn Sina; metaphysics; Mir Damad; al-Sabzawari; Sufism; al-Suhrawardi; Twelver Shi‘ites
   Further reading: Kamal 2006; Mulla Sadra 1982, 1992, 2002; Nasr 1978, 1996, 2006; Rahman 1975

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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