Mulla Sadra's Transcendent Philosophy
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 Mulla Sadras Transcendent Philosophy
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  • Introduction 1
  • The School of Illuminationism and the Doctrine of the 12
  • Primacy of Essence
  • The School of Isfahan and Mulla Sadra’s Departure from 24
  • Suhraward’s Tradition
  • The Doctrine of the Primacy of Being: An Ontological Turn 42
  • The Systematic Ambiguity of Being and the 64
  • Trans-Substantial Change in the World Order
  • Mulla Sadra and the Problem of Knowledge 88
  • In Conclusion 106
  • Notes 113
  • Bibliography 125
  • Index 133



In the post Ibn Sinan period, the primacy of essence (asalat al-mahiyah) was one of the prime philosophical issues for Muslim thinkers. The school of illu-mination, headed by Suhrawardi, held the view that ‘essence’ not ‘existence’ was the only reality.

 Nothing in the external world corresponded to ‘exis-tence’, and hence ‘existence’ remained an empty concept and an intellectual property, whereas ‘essence’ was real and primary. By contrast, Sadr al-Din Shirazi (1571–1640), known also as Mulla Sadra,[01]Mulla is a religious title given to religious scholars in some parts of the Muslim world. spoke of the primacy of Being (asalat al-wujud) and promoted a new ontology.

From the twelfth century CE, the school of illumination occupied a focal place in the intellectual life of Muslims, particularly in the Persian-speaking world.

The philosophical thought of this school marked a vivid departure from rationalism to Gnosticism, or knowledge by illumination (al-ishraq). Shahab al-Din Suhrawardi (1171–1208), the founder of this school, believed that knowledge of an object in the world came only through revealing its essence or quiddity. The Being of the object, unlike its essence, was a mental concept and had no external reality.

To prove this point, Suhrawardi developed the argument that there were two possible ways of understanding the meaning of Being: either as a universal concept shared by all existent beings or as a particular being. In the first case, Being remains a mental concept, but in the second it depends on its essence to exist because a particular being is equivalent to its essence, which makes the being the way it is.[02] Shahab al-Din Yahya Suhrawardi, The Philosophy of Illumination, translated by John Walbridge and Hossein Ziai (Porov, Utah, 1999), p. 45.

A universal concept such as ‘blackness’ is conceived only in respect of a particular black object; existence, then, as a universal concept, reveals itself through a particular being. Thinking of existence as a universal concept, and then of its reliance on a particular type of being for its existence is similar to Aristotle’s understanding of the relationship between universals and particulars.

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 Aristotle, in rejecting the Platonic view of reality, argued for the dependence of universal determinations on particular beings and against the ontological status of universal determinations. In projecting his own views, Suhrawardi, on one hand, relied on Aristotle’s argument, and, on the other, reversed the argument. He came closer to Plato by insisting on the dependence of particular beings on their universal determinations, not vice versa.[03] Suhrawardi, The Philosophy of Illumination, p. 45.

Suhrawardi’s thought influenced the dominant philosophical tradition in Isfahan, where Mulla Sadra studied. Mulla Sadra’s teacher, Mir Muhammad Baqir al-Astarabadi (d. 1630), also known as Mir Damad, was one of the leading figures of the doctrine of illumination. But it seems that Mir Damad was not a blind follower of Suhrawardi, because he tried to reconcile the Gnostic ideas of Illuminationism with Ibn Sina’s ontology, or, as Nasr remarks, he provided the illuminationsit interpretation of Ibn Sina.4

 Mulla Sadra, at the beginning of his philosophical career, and under the influence of Mir Damad and this dominant philosophical trend in Isfahan, advocated the doctrine of the primacy of essence and was one of the followers of Illuminationism. To understand his turn from or criticism of Suhrawardi’s metaphysics it is also of the utmost importance to take into account the influence of Ibn Sina (979–1037) and Ibn al-‘Arabi (1163–1240) in Mulla Sadra’s project of a new type of metaphysics based on the primacy of Being.

 This project meant destroying the foundation of essentialism in pursuit of a serious ontological investigation into the truth of Being. To achieve this, Mulla Sadra had to admit his disillusionment with essentialism and abandon the notion of the primacy essence.

Mulla Sadra belonged to the ishraqi philosophical tradition. He changed his position and became a defender of the doctrine of the primacy of Being under the influence of ‘spiritual inspiration’ rather than a rationalistic discourse and logical investigation. He clearly states ‘until my God guided me and showed me his proof’, which expresses the occurrence of a mystical experience for Mulla Sadra.

 From then on, Mulla Sadra devoted his time to defending his ontological position and the general principles of his tran-scendent philosophy. The ‘darkness of illusion’ described here is indicative of the domain of Suhrawardi’s metaphysics, in which a state of untruth reigns over the whole of reality so that the meaning of Being becomes unattainable.

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 It is reflected in the ‘abandonment of Being’or ‘nihilism’discussed by Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), and is a philosophical position from Plato to Nietzsche representing a history of negligence of the question of Being.5 In both the Western philosophical tradition and Suhrawardi’s metaphysics, what is lost or abandoned is the being of beings as a whole, which has led to the ‘disintegration of truth’ or the ‘forgottenness’ of truth and the thinking of Being as ‘essence’.6

Turning from this type of metaphysics became a serious philosophical enterprise for Mulla Sadra after his departure for Kahak, a village near Qum, and his choosing a solitary life for more than a decade. The overcoming of the ‘darkness of illusion’ would be achieved by deconstructing Suhrawardi’s metaphysics and in reconstructing an ontology based on the primacy of Being.

The new ontology dealt with the primordial philosophical question of the meaning of the being of beings, rather than with familiarity with beings or essence. Overcoming Suhrawardi’s metaphysics meant a radical change to recognizing the priority of the question of the meaning of Being.

The reason for Mulla Sadra’s self-imposed exile was reportedly political. His fame in Isfahan had met with jealousy on the part of a group of religious scholars who were politically ambitious and determined to gain patronage from the rulers of the day.7

There was, however, more to this opposition than jealousy. Fazlur Rahman stated that, in addition to his sympathy for Ibn al-‘Arabi’s doctrine of the Unity of Being, Mulla Sadra’s ideas were too radical for the religious circle of the time.8 The political position of his father at the Safawid court played an important role in saving him, but he was forced to make a choice between defending his views and turning to seclusion. He chose the latter, with a sense of disillusionment with the rational method of the Peripatetic Neoplatonic philosophy and essentialism of the school of illu-mination.

After his time in solitude, he returned to Shiraz, where he founded a school, where he taught thinkers such as Mulla Muhsin Fayd Kashani and ‘Abd al-Razzaq al-Husayn al-Lahiji. In later centuries, Persian Muslim thinkers such as Mulla Hadi Sabzawari, Mulla Ali Nuri and Mulla Ali Mudarris Zunuzi came under his influence. Today, Muslim thinkers such as Abdul Hasan Qazwini, Muhammad Kazim Assar and Muhammad Hussain Tabatab’i adhere to Mulla Sadra’s philosophy.9

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As mentioned earlier, the turn from the primacy of essence to the primacy of Being in Mulla Sadra’s thought belonged to his period of solitude and to his teaching in Shiraz. During that time the question of Being rather than essence proved to be ‘the foundation of the principles of philosophy’.10 For him, the primacy of Being was fundamental in the sense that Being and not essence was the only reality on which the multiplicity of beings (essents) stands.

Certainly, what Mulla Sadra tried to prove in his ontological enterprise of discovering a unified ground had been discussed earlier by Aristotle in the Metaphysics, Book VII. For Aristotle, the diversity of the modes of Being leads to the question of its underlying unity.

But the difference between Aristotle and Mulla Sadra arises with the doctrine of the categories and the epistemological significance of this doctrine for knowing reality. Aristotle proposed ten categories, of which the most fundamental was substance, with others, for example quantity, quality, relation, place, time, posture, state, action, and passion, dependent for their existence on substance. These cate-gories are classes or genera, the application or which makes possible knowledge of every mode of being and reality. Mulla Sadra’s metaphysics asserts the realm of this principle of unity beyond the domain of the cate-gories.

For this reason, Being remains indefinable.11 It is neither a genus for another entity, differentia, or species, nor a common or specific accident. Understanding its meaning cannot be based on anything more prevalent than itself.12

This negative approach, however, does not mean that nothing about Being or this unifying principle can be known. The indefinability of Being points out the inherent shortcomings of Aristotle’s logic and rational appre-hension; meanwhile the inability of this type of logic and epistemology should not eliminate the question of its meaning. The failure of the rational apprehension of Being was not an obstacle to Mulla Sadra’s ontological enterprise or to inquiry into its meaning. He denounced pure rationality, and

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References / Footnotes

01Mulla is a religious title given to religious scholars in some parts of the Muslim world.
02 Shahab al-Din Yahya Suhrawardi, The Philosophy of Illumination, translated by John Walbridge and Hossein Ziai (Porov, Utah, 1999), p. 45.
03 Suhrawardi, The Philosophy of Illumination, p. 45.