Mir Damad

(950–1041/1543–1631)
   Nicknamed ‘Son-in-Law’ (damad) because of his relation to the famed Shi‘ite theologian al-Karaki, Mir Muhammad Baqir Astarabadi was the founder of the enormously influential School of Isfahan, and was accordingly also given the honorific title of ‘Third Teacher’ (al-mu‘allim al-thalith), after Aristotle and al-Farabi. The School of Isfahan formulated a philosophy that blended Peripateticism, Illuminationism, Sufi gnosis (‘irfan), and Shi‘ite (esp. Imami) theology. It is an eclectic synthesis that has dominated modern Islamic thought throughout Iran, Iraq and Muslim parts of South Asia. Apart from his advantageous historical situation and his creative ability to synthesize and build upon the insights of these diverse intellectual movements, one thing that sets Mir Damad apart from previous Islamic philosophers is his deep, extensive learning in the traditional (naqliyya) as well as rational sciences (al-‘ulum al-‘aqliyya), for example Qur’anic exegesis (tafsir), jurisprudence (fiqh), the sayings of the Prophet and Shi‘ite imams (hadith), and more loosely, theology (kalam). Although he composed a number of important works in these areas of knowledge (not to mention poetry, mystical treatises, and commentaries on Peripatetic thinkers such as al-Farabi, Ibn Sina and al- Tusi), his reputation stands primarily on his original philosophical works, the most important of which is The Fiery Embers (al-Qabasat). The central issue of this book is the interface between time and eternity, and by extension, the much-disputed question of the originatedness (huduth) or eternity (qidam) of the world. In order to finesse the respective conceptual problems of both creationism and eternalism, Mir Damad articulates a complex cosmology predicated upon a subtle three-fold distinction between eternity (sarmand), atemporal preeternity (dahr) and time (zaman). These three states of being are perhaps most clearly understood in relational terms: eternity (or the ‘everlasting’) is a state in which there is a relationship only between the changeless and the changeless, atemporal pre-eternity (which S. H. Nasr suggestively translates as ‘aeveternity’ or metatime) involves a relation between the changeless and the changing, and time has to do with the relation between the changing and the changing. By introducing dahr as a kind of mediating buffer between sarmand and zaman, Mir Damad defuses the dilemma of either eternalizing (and thus deifying) the world or infecting God with change (and thus in effect de-deifying Him). On his account, the existence of our temporal world is preceded, not by nothingness (as the traditional creation ex nihilo model would have it), but rather by what exists in atemporal preeternity (i.e. pure archetypes). Thus the world is neither eternal nor originated in time; it is originated in atemporal pre-eternity (huduth-i dahri). Mir Damad’s synthetic but original cosmology had a considerable influence on subsequent thinkers. He is known for a number of other related contributions, for example his treatment of the problem of change in the divine will (as implied by revelation), his resourceful new approach to the problem of free will and predestination, and his nuanced codification of the question of the primacy of essence vs. existence. Mir Damad’s greatest student was Mulla Sadra – undoubtedly the single most important and influential modern Islamic philosopher. As is the case with every great thinker, he was not content merely to reiterate his teacher’s views, and eventually came to reject a number of Mir Damad’s key doctrines, among them the theory of metatemporal origination and the primacy of essence. Mulla Sadra differed quite strikingly from his teacher in his manner of presentation as well. Whereas Mir Damad’s style is often dense, unwieldy and rather diffi- cult to navigate, Mulla Sadra mastered the art of writing in a clear and elegant style. The disadvantage of this literary prowess was that it made his philosophical doctrines more accessible to religious authorities (‘ulama’), who viewed them as blasphemous and accordingly persecuted him. Mir Damad, on the other hand, encountered no such religio-political harassment. Whether his intellectual freedom was a function of the great esteem in which he was held by the Safavid Shahs ‘Abbas I and Safi I or due to the impenetrable nature of his writing is something of an open question. If it was a function of his inaccessible style (as Mir Damad allegedly confessed to Mulla Sadra in a dream), the question remains whether that itself was due to politically prudent dissimulation (taqiyya) or just the seemingly irreducible complexity, subtlety and originality of his philosophical insights.
   Further reading: Corbin 1993; Nasr 2006

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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