al-Suhrawardi, Shihab al-Din Yahya


al-Suhrawardi, Shihab al-Din Yahya
   [Persian: Sohravardi]
(549–587/1154–91)
   Within the Islamic philosophical tradition, al-Suhrawardi’s status is perhaps second only to Ibn Sina. Although he was notoriously executed at the age of thirty-eight (on the orders of the Ayyubid sultan Salah al-Din, better known to the West as Saladin), in the course of his short life the ‘Slain Master’ (al-shaykh al-maqtul) gave birth to the celebrated ‘philosophy of Illumination’ (hikmat al-ishraq), a school of thought that would effectively change the course of Islamic intellectual history. In many ways, Illuminationist (ishraqi) philosophy can be seen as a response to the perceived shortcomings and inadequacies of Peripatetic (mashsha’i) thought, particularly as exemplified by Ibn Sina. Throughout philosophical works such as The Intimations (al-Talwihat), The Oppositions (al-Muqawamat), The Paths and Havens (al-Mashariwa al-mutarahat) and The Philosophy of Illumination (Hikmat al-ishraq), as well as a number of symbolic-allegorical narratives, al-Suhrawardi sought to replace – or at least supplement – the excessively discursive and deductive (bahthiyya) character of Aristotelian thought with a more intuitive, experiential and mystical wisdom (al-hikma aldhawqiyya). Yet his philosophy is never thereby vague, obscurantist or wildly speculative; indeed, his criticisms of Peripatetic logic and metaphysics are often sharp and analytical. One of the more important points on which al- Suhrawardi takes issue with Aristotle and his followers is the theory of definition as the basis of scientific knowledge. He argues that the Aristotelian project of definition is doomed to failure, because (1) a complete definition would have to include all the constituents of the thing defined, which is impossible, and (2) defining cannot actually proceed from the known to the unknown, as Aristotle pretends, since the constituents of the thing to be defined are no more known than the thing itself. Any attempt at definition, then, opens up an infinite regress in which the unknown is perpetually defined in terms of the unknown. Further, our inability to know definitively if we have hit upon a complete catalogue of essential constituents gives rise to the problem of induction, which undermines the Peripatetics’ ability to make universal claims. Indeed, for all his emphasis on syllogistic demonstration, Aristotle himself recognizes that scientific knowledge depends ultimately upon primary, necessarily true premises which themselves cannot be deduced. In a way, it is this foundation that al-Suhrawardi seeks to disclose through a kind of direct, unmediated, certain intuition, which is more fundamental than conceptual-discursive knowledge. He calls this knowledge by presence (al-‘ilm al-huduri), and its most basic mode is the luminescent self-manifestation or self-awareness of consciousness (not entirely unlike the preconceptual, intuitive, reflexive knowledge of one’s own existence that Ibn Sina points up in his floating man argument).
   Al-Suhrawardi conceives of consciousness as more akin to an illuminative lamp than a passively reflecting mirror; indeed, he describes self-aware beings as pure, simple lights. Yet more radically truth-disclosing mystical experiences can be cultivated through spiritual exercises, which reveal all of reality as a hierarchy of self-manifesting, luminescent beings of varying degrees of intensity or gradation, all of whom ultimately receive their emanated being from God, ‘the Light of Lights’ (nur al-anwar). Al- Suhrawardi’s metaphysics of illumination or ‘science of lights’ (‘ilm al-anwar), as he calls it, is enormously complex, with a vertical hierarchy of immaterial ‘victorious lights’ that emanate from God, in turn giving rise to a horizontal array of ‘regent’ lights, which are somewhat akin to Platonic forms (each being the ‘lord’ of a species), and the interactions between these two kinds of luminescent beings finally produce the bodies of the lower physical world, each of which is a kind of boundary or isthmus (barzakh) between light and darkness. Between the divine lights and the physical world, al-Suhrawardi also posits an imaginal realm (‘alam al-mithal, ‘alam al-khayal), within which such immediate, intuitive, mystical knowledge is disclosed.
   One consequence of al-Suhrawardi’s metaphysics is the so-called ‘primacy of essence’ (asalat al-mahiyya) over existence (wujud). Although he himself never actually uses this expression, existence is far less important to his system than it is to the Peripatetics (and Ibn Sina in particular); indeed he views it as a mere conceptual abstraction, a secondary intelligible universal with no reality outside the mind. Like Ibn Rushd, he argues that to posit the existence of existence above and beyond particular existents is redundant and results in an infinite regress, since existence would then become another existent, which would again require existence as a generality to make it real. Further, if (as Ibn Sina seemed to suggest) existence is an ‘accident’ (‘arad) superadded to an essence, then the essence would presumably have to exist already, before the accident could be added to it, thus rendering the general attribute of existence superfluous. Mulla Sadra famously disagreed with al-Suhrawardi’s general position on this question, arguing for the primacy of existence (asalat al-wujud) over essence, even though he would appropriate many other aspects of his predecessor’s metaphysics.
   The question of al-Suhrawardi’s intellectual sources is a difficult one. He saw his Illuminationist philosophy as being part of a long, distinguished lineage which was traceable back to ancient eastern and western sages such as Hermes Trismigistus, Zoroaster, Pythagoras and Plato. While his philosophy clearly has pronounced Mazdean and (Neo-) Platonic elements, this genealogy is probably somewhat fanciful. A more immediate and concrete historical influence is Ibn Sina, despite al-Suhrawardi’s views concerning the inadequacies of mashsha’i logic and metaphysics. It is possible to identify Sufi influences in his epistemology and ontology as well (see, for example, al-Ghazali’s Niche of Lights [Mishkat al-anwar]). His effect on subsequent thinkers is much less ambiguous: among those whose philosophies would have been impossible without al-Suhrawardi, one may count such great figures as al-Shahrazuri, Ibn Kammuna, Qutb al- Din al-Shirazi, al-Dawani, Mir Damad and Mulla Sadra, not to mention the many ishraqi thinkers active today in Iran. In addition to this, al-Suhrawardi had a considerable influence on later Sufi and Peripatetic thinkers, most notably Ibn al-‘Arabi and al-Tusi.
   Further reading: Aminrazavi 1997; Corbin 1998; Ha’iri Yazdi 1992; Nasr 1964; al-Suhrawardi 1982/99, 1998, 1999; Walbridge 1992, 2000b, 2001; Ziai 1990

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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