Sadr al-Din al-Shirazi (Mulla Sadra) is perhaps the single most important and influential philosopher in the Muslim world in the last four hundred years. The author of over forty works, he was the culminating figure of the major revival of philosophy in Iran in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Devoting himself almost exclusively to metaphysics, he constructed a critical philosophy which brought together Peripatetic, Illuminationist and gnostic philosophy along with Shi'ite theology within the compass of what he termed a 'metaphilosophy', the source of which lay in the Islamic revelation and the mystical experience of reality as existence.
Mulla Sadra's metaphilosophy was based on existence as the sole constituent of reality, and rejected any role for quiddities or essences in the external world. Existence was for him at once a single unity and an internally articulated dynamic process, the unique source of both unity and diversity. From this fundamental starting point, Mulla Sadra was able to find original solutions to many of the logical, metaphysical and theological difficulties which he had inherited from his predecessors. His major philosophical work is the Asfar (The Four Journeys), which runs to nine volumes in the present printed edition and is a complete presentation of his philosophical ideas.
Sadr al-Din Muhammad ibn Ibrahim ibn Yahya al-Qawami al-Shirazi, known variously as Mulla Sadra, Sadr al-Muta'allihin, or simply Akhund, was born in Shiraz in central Iran in ah 979-80/ad 1571-2. He studied in Isfahan with, among others, Mir Damad and Shaykh Baha' al-Din al-'Amili, Shaykh-e Baha'i, before retiring for a number of years of spiritual solitude and discipline in the village of Kahak, near Qum. Here he completed the first part of his major work, the Asfar (The Four Journeys). He was then invited by Allah-wirdi Khan, the governor of Fars province, to return to Shiraz, where he taught for the remainder of his life. He died in Basra in ah 1050/ad 1640 while on his seventh pilgrimage on foot to Mecca.
Safavid Iran witnessed a noteworthy revival of philosophical learning, and Mulla Sadra was this revival's most important figure. The Peripatetic (mashsha'i) philosophy of Ibn Sina had been elaborated and invigorated at the beginning of the Mongol period by Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, and there existed a number of important contributors to this school in the century before Mulla Sadra. Illuminationist (ishraqi) philosophy, originated by Shihab al-Din al-Suhrawardi, had also been a major current (see Illuminationist philosophy). The speculative mysticism of the Sufism of Ibn al-'Arabi had also taken firm root in the period leading up to the tenth century ah (sixteenth century ad), while theology (kalam), particularly Shi'ite theology, had increasingly come to be expressed in philosophical terminology, a process which was initiated in large part by al-Tusi (see Mystical philosophy in Islam; Islamic theology). Several philosophers had combined various strands from this philosophical heritage in their writings, but it was Mulla Sadra who achieved a true fusion of all four, forming what he called 'metaphilosophy' (al-hikma al-muta'aliya), a term he incorporated into the title of his magnum opus, al-Hikma al-muta'aliya fi'l-asfar al-'aqliyya al-arba'a (The Transcendent Wisdom Concerning the Four Intellectual Journeys), known simply as the Asfar.
Mulla Sadra made the primacy of existence (asalat al-wujud) the cornerstone of his philosophy. Aristotle (§§11-12) had pointed out that existence was the most universal of predicates and therefore could not be included as one of the categories, and al-Farabi added to this that it was possible to know an essence without first knowing whether it existed or not, existence thus being neither a constitutive element of an essence nor a necessary attribute, and that therefore it must be an accident. But it was Ibn Sina who later became the source for the controversy as to how the accidentality of existence was to be conceived. He had held that in the existence-quiddity (wujud-mahiyya) or existence-essence relationship, existence was an accident of quiddity. Ibn Rushd had criticized this view as entailing a regress, for if the existence of a thing depended on the addition of an accident to it, then the same principle would have to apply to existence itself. This was merely an argument against the existence-quiddity dichotomy, but al-Suhrawardi had added to this another argument, asserting that if existence were an attribute of quiddity, quiddity itself would have to exist before attracting this attribute in order to be thus qualified. From this, al-Suhrawardi deduced the more radical conclusion that existence is merely a mental concept with no corresponding reality, and that it is quiddity which constitutes reality.
It was this view, that of the primacy of quiddity (asalat al-mahiyya), which held sway in philosophical writing in Iran up to Mulla Sadra's time. Indeed, Mir Damad, Mulla Sadra's teacher, held this view. However, Mulla Sadra himself took the opposite view, that it is existence that constitutes reality and that it is quiddities which are the mental constructs. By taking the position of the primacy of existence, Mulla Sadra was able to answer the objections of Ibn Rushd and the Illuminationists by pointing out that existence is accidental to quiddity in the mind in so far as it is not a part of its essence. When it is a case of attributing existentiality to existence, however, what is being discussed is an essential attribute; and so at this point the regress stopped, for the source of an essential attribute is the essence itself.
A concomitant of Mulla Sadra's theory that reality and existence are identical is that existence is one but graded in intensity; to this he gave the name tashkik al-wujud, which has been usefully translated as the 'systematic ambiguity' of existence. Al-Suhrawardi, in contrast to the peripatetics, had asserted that quiddities were capable of a range of intensities; for example, when a colour, such as blue, intensifies it is not a new species of 'blueness' which replaces the old one, but is rather the same 'blue' intensified. Mulla Sadra adopted this theory but replaced quiddity with existence, which was for him the only reality. This enabled him to say that it is the same existence which occurs in all things, but that existential instances differ in terms of 'priority and posteriority, perfection and imperfection, strength and weakness' (making reality similar to al-Suhrawardi's Light). He was thus able to explain that it was existence and existence alone which had the property of combining 'unity in multiplicity, and multiplicity in unity'.
Reality is therefore pure existence, but an existence which manifests itself in different modes, and it is these modes which present themselves in the mind as quiddities. Even the term 'in the mind', however, is merely an expression denoting a particular mode of being, that of mental existence (al-wujud al-dhihni), albeit an extremely attenuated mode. Everything is thus comprehended by existence, even 'nothingness', which must on being conceived assume the most meagre portion of existence in order to become a mental existent. When reality (or rather a mode of existence) presents itself to the mind, the mind abstracts a quiddity from it - being unable, except in exceptional circumstances, to grasp existence intuitively - and in the mind the quiddity becomes, as it were, the reality and existence the accident. However, this 'existence' which the mind predicates of the quiddity is itself merely a notion or concept, one of the secondary intelligibles. It is this which is the most universal and most self-evident concept to which the Aristotelians referred, and which al-Suhrawardi regarded as univocal. But in reality there are not two 'things', existence and quiddity, only existence - not the concept, but the reality - and so 'existence' cannot be regarded as a real attribute of quiddity; for if this were possible quiddity would have to be regarded as already existent, as al-Suhrawardi had objected.
Another of the key properties of existence for Mulla Sadra is its transubstantiality, effected through what he termed motion in substance (al-haraka fi'l-jawhar) or substantial motion (al-haraka al-jawhariyya). The peripatetics had held that substance only changes suddenly, from one substance to another or from one instant to another, in generation and corruption (and therefore only in the sublunar world), and that gradual motion is confined to the accidents (quantity, quality, place). They also held that the continuity of movement is something only in the mind, which strings together a potentially infinite series of infinitesimal changes - rather in the fashion of a film - to produce the illusion of movement, although time as an extension is a true part of our experience. What gives rise to movement is an unchanging substrate, part of the essence of which is that it is at an indefinite point in space at some instant in time; in other words, movement is potential in it and is that through which it becomes actual. Mulla Sadra completely rejected this, on the grounds that the reality of this substance, its being, must itself be in motion, for the net result of the peripatetic view is merely a static conglomeration of spatio-temporal events. The movement from potentiality to actuality of a thing is in fact the abstract notion in the mind, while material being itself is in a constant state of flux perpetually undergoing substantial change. Moreover, this substantial change is a property not only of sublunary elemental beings (those composed of earth, water, air and fire) but of celestial beings as well. Mulla Sadra likened the difference between these two understandings of movement to the difference between the abstracted, derivative notion of existence and the existence which is reality itself.
Existence in Mulla Sadra's philosophical system, as has been seen, is characterized by systematic ambiguity (tashkik), being given its systematic character by substantial motion, which is always in one direction towards perfection. In other words, existence can be conceived of as a continual unfolding of existence, which is thus a single whole with a constantly evolving internal dynamic. What gives things their identities are the imagined essences which we abstract from the modes of existence, while the reality is ever-changing; it is only when crucial points are reached that we perceive this change and new essences are formed in our minds, although change has been continually going on. Time is the measure of this process of renewal, and is not an independent entity such that events take place within it, but rather is a dimension exactly like the three spatial dimensions: the physical world is a spatio-temporal continuum.
All of this permits Mulla Sadra to give an original solution to the problem which has continually pitted philosophers against theologians in Islam, that of the eternity of the world. In his system, the world is eternal as a continual process of the unfolding of existence, but since existence is in a constant state of flux due to its continuous substantial change, every new manifestation of existence in the world emerges in time. The world - that is, every spatio-temporal event from the highest heaven downwards - is thus temporally originated, although as a whole the world is also eternal in the sense that it has no beginning or end, since time is not something existing independently within which the world in turn exists (see Eternity).
Mulla Sadra's radical ontology also enabled him to offer original contributions to epistemology, combining aspects of Ibn Sina's theory of knowledge (in which the Active Intellect, while remaining utterly transcendent, actualizes the human mind by instilling it with intellectual forms in accordance with its state of preparation to receive these forms) with the theory of self-knowledge through knowledge by presence developed by al-Suhrawardi. Mulla Sadra's epistemology is based on the identity of the intellect and the intelligible, and on the identity of knowledge and existence. His theory of substantial motion, in which existence is a dynamic process constantly moving towards greater intensity and perfection, had allowed him to explain that new forms, or modes, of existence do not replace prior forms but on the contrary subsume them. Knowledge, being identical with existence, replicates this process, and by acquiring successive intelligible forms - which are in reality modes of being and not essential forms, and are thus successive intensifications of existence - gradually moves the human intellect towards identity with the Active Intellect. The intellect thus becomes identified with the intelligibles which inform it.
Furthermore, for Mulla Sadra actual intelligibles are self-intelligent and self-intellected, since an actual intelligible cannot be deemed to have ceased to be intelligible once it is considered outside its relation to intellect. As the human intellect acquires more intelligibles, it gradually moves upwards in terms of the intensification and perfection of existence, losing its dependence on quiddities, until it becomes one with the Active Intellect and enters the realm of pure existence. Humans can, of course, normally only attain at best a partial identification with the Active Intellect as long as they remain with their physical bodies; only in the case of prophets can there be complete identification, allowing them to have direct access to knowledge for themselves without the need for instruction. Indeed, only very few human minds attain identification with the Active Intellect even after death.
Even this brief account of Mulla Sadra's main doctrines will have given some idea of the role that is played in his philosophy by the experience of the reality which it describes. Indeed he conceived of hikma (wisdom) as 'coming to know the essence of beings as they really are' or as 'a man's becoming an intellectual world corresponding to the objective world'. Philosophy and mysticism, hikma and Sufism, are for him two aspects of the same thing. To engage in philosophy without experiencing the truth of its content confines the philosopher to a world of essences and concepts, while mystical experience without the intellectual discipline of philosophy can lead only to an ineffable state of ecstasy. When the two go hand in hand, the mystical experience of reality becomes the intellectual content of philosophy.
The four journeys, the major sections into which the Asfar is divided, parallel a fourfold division of the Sufi journey. The first, the journey of creation or the creature (khalq) to the Truth (al-haqq), is the most philosophical; here Mulla Sadra lays out the basis of his ontology, and mirrors the stage in the Sufi's path where he seeks to control his lower nafs under the supervision of his shaykh. In the second journey, in the Truth with the Truth, the stage at which the Sufi begins to attract the divine manifestations, Mulla Sadra deals with the simple substances, the intelligences, the souls and their bodies, including therefore his discussion of the natural sciences. In the third journey, from the Truth to creation with the Truth, the Sufi experiences annihilation in the Godhead, and Mulla Sadra deals with theodicy; the fourth stage, the journey with the Truth in creation, where he gives a full and systematic account of the development of the human soul, its origin, becoming and end, is where the Sufi experiences persistence in annihilation, absorbed in the beauty of oneness and the manifestations of multiplicity.
Mulla Sadra had described his blinding spiritual realization of the primacy of existence as a kind of 'conversion':
In the earlier days I used to be a passionate defender of the thesis that the quiddities are the primary constituents of reality and existence is conceptual, until my Lord gave me spiritual guidance and let me see His demonstration. All of a sudden my spiritual eyes were opened and I saw with utmost clarity that the truth was just the contrary of what the philosophers in general had held.... As a result [I now hold that] the existences (wujudat) are primary realities, while the quiddities are the 'permanent archetypes' (a'yan thabita) that have never smelt the fragrance of existence.
Therefore it is not surprising that Mulla Sadra is greatly indebted to Ibn al-'Arabi in many aspects of his philosophy. Ibn Sina provides the ground on which his metaphilosophy is constructed and is, as it were, the lens through which he views Peripatetic philosophy. However, his work is also full of citations from the Presocratics (particularly Pythagoras), Plato, Aristotle, the Neoplatonists (see Neoplatonism in Islamic philosophy) and the Stoics (taken naturally from Arabic sources), and he also refers to the works of al-Farabi, and Abu'l Hasan al-'Amiri, who had prefigured Mulla Sadra's theory of the unity of intellect and intelligible. This philosophical heritage is then given shape through the illuminationism of al-Suhrawardi, whose universe of static grades of light he transformed into a dynamic unity by substituting the primacy of existence for the latter's primacy of quiddity. It is in this shaping that the influence of Ibn al-'Arabi, whom Mulla Sadra quotes and comments on in hundreds of instances, can be most keenly felt. Not only is that apparent in Mulla Sadra's total dismissal of any role for quiddity in the nature of reality, but in the importance which both he and Ibn al-'Arabi gave to the imaginal world ('alam al-mithal, 'alam al-khayal).
In Ibn Sina's psychology, the imaginal faculty (al-quwwa al-khayaliyya) is the site for the manipulation of images abstracted from material objects and retained in the sensus communis. The imaginal world had first been formally proposed by al-Suhrawardi as an intermediate realm between that of material bodies and that of intellectual entities, which is independent of matter and thus survives the body after death. Ibn al-'Arabi had emphasized the creative aspects of this power to originate by mere volition imaginal forms which are every bit as real as, if not more real than, perceptibles but which subsist in no place. For Mulla Sadra, this world is a level of immaterial existence with which it is possible for the human soul (and indeed certain higher forms of the animal soul) to be in contact, although not all the images formed by the human soul are necessarily veridical and therefore part of the imaginal world. For Mulla Sadra, as also for Ibn al-'Arabi, the imaginal world is the key to understanding the nature of bodily resurrection and the afterlife, which exists as an immaterial world which is nevertheless real (perhaps one might say more real than the physical world), in which the body survives as an imaginal form after death.
Philosophy has always had a tense relationship with theology in Islam, especially with the latter's discourse of faith (iman) and orthodoxy. In consequence, philosophy has often been seen, usually by non-philosophers, as a school with its own doctrines. This is despite the assertions of philosophers themselves that what they were engaged in was a practice without end (for, as Ibn Sina had declared that what is known to humankind is limited and could only possibly be fulfilled when the association of the soul with the body is severed through death), part of the discipline of which consisted in avoiding taqlid, an uncritical adherence to sects (see Islam, concept of philosophy in). It is the notable feature of Mulla Sadra's methodology that he constantly sought to transcend the particularities of any system - Platonic, Aristotelian, Neoplatonic, mystical or theological - by striving to create through his metaphilosophy an instrument with which the soundness of all philosophical arguments might be tested. It is a measure of his success that he has remained to the present day the most influential of the 'modern' philosophers in the Islamic world.
See also: Existence; Ibn al-'Arabi; Ibn Sina; Illuminationist philosophy; Islamic philosophy, modern; Metaphysics; Mir Damad; al-SabzawariJOHN COOPER