al-Suhrawardi, Shihab al-Din Yahya (1154-91)

Al-Suhrawardi, whose life spanned a period of less than forty years in the middle of the twelfth century ad, produced a series of highly assured works which established him as the founder of a new school of philosophy in the Muslim world, the school of Illuminationist philosophy (hikmat al-ishraq). Although arising out of the peripatetic philosophy developed by Ibn Sina, al-Suhrawardi's Illuminationist philosophy is critical of several of the positions taken by Ibn Sina, and radically departs from the latter through the creation of a symbolic language to give expression to his metaphysics and cosmology, his 'science of lights'. The fundamental constituent of reality for al-Suhrawardi is pure, immaterial light, than which nothing is more manifest, and which unfolds from the Light of Lights in emanationist fashion through a descending order of lights of ever diminishing intensity; through complex interactions, these in turn give rise to horizontal arrays of lights, similar in concept to the Platonic Forms, which govern the species of mundane reality. Al-Suhrawardi also elaborated the idea of an independent, intermediary world, the imaginal world (alam al-mithal). His views have exerted a powerful influence down to this day, particularly through Mulla Sadra's adaptation of his concept of intensity and gradation to existence, wherein he combined Peripatetic and Illuminationist descriptions of reality.

  1. Al-Suhrawardi and the philosophy of ishraq
  2. Epistemology
  3. Logic, physics, metaphysics and cosmology
  4. The language of ishraq

1. Al-Suhrawardi and the philosophy of ishraq

Shihab al-Din Yahya ibn Habash ibn Amirak Abu 'l-Futuh al-Suhrawardi, known as al-Maqtul (the Slain) in reference to his execution, and usually referred to as Shaykh al-Ishraq after the Illuminationist philosophy (hikmat al-ishraq) which he espoused, was born in ah 549/ad 1154 in the village of Suhraward in northwest Iran. After studying in Maraghah (with Majd al-Din al-Jili, who also taught Fakhr al-Din Al-Razi) and Isfahan, he passed several years in southwest Anatolia, associating with Seljuq rulers and princes, before moving to Aleppo in ah 579/ad 1183. Here he taught and became a friend of the governor, al-Malik al-Zahir al-Ghazi (son of the Ayyubid Salah al-Din, famous in European literature as Saladin), who later also befriended Ibn al-'Arabi. However, he fell foul of the religious authorities, and was executed in ah 587/ad 1191 on the orders of Salah al-Din, in circumstances which remain unclear but which involved charges of corrupting the religion and allegations of claims to prophecy, and may also have had a political dimension.

Al-Suhrawardi clearly intended his philosophy to make a distinctive break with the previous peripatetic tradition of Ibn Sina, but the significance of this break has been interpreted in a number of ways. For subsequent Islamic philosophy, he was above all the conceiver and main proponent of the theory of the primacy of quiddity. While the predominant trend in Western scholarship has been to depict him as the originator of a distinctive mystical and esoteric philosophy, recent Western scholarship has emphasized his critique of peripatetic logic and epistemology and his own theories in these fields (see for example Ziai 1990).

Ibn Sina famously tackled the question of mystical knowledge in the last section of his Kitab al-Isharat wa-'l-tanbihat (Remarks and Admonitions), thus assuring a place for this area of knowledge within the domain of hikma (wisdom). It was al-Suhrawardi, however, who turned mystical and intuitive knowledge into a paradigm of knowledge in general. This epistemology then served as a basis on which to construct both a critique of peripatetic philosophy and an original philosophy of lights, or Illumination (ishraq). Yet, however important it was for al-Suhrawardi to stress his radical departure from peripatetic philosophy, he also emphasized the necessity for those who would follow his method to study the peripatetic method closely.

Al-Suhrawardi's writings fall into several categories. First, there are his four major philosophical works, written in Arabic: Kitab al-talwihat (The Intimations), Kitab al-muqawamat (The Oppositions), Kitab al-mashari' wa-'l-mutarahat (The Paths and Heavens) and Kitab hikmat al-ishraq (The Philosophy of Illumination). These were apparently intended by al-Suhrawardi to be studied in this order, and roughly follow a progression from a more or less conventionally peripatetic style to one in which the 'science of lights' is expressed through its own technical vocabulary and method, a progression described by al-Suhrawardi as a movement from a discursive philosophy (hikma bahthiyya) to an intuitive philosophy (hikma dhawqiyya). The second group of works contains a set of symbolic narratives, mostly in Persian but a few in Arabic, expounding the journey of the soul through the stages of self-realization and offering striking images of some of the notions of Illuminationism while seeking to cultivate the kind of intuitive vision at its heart. The remaining works consist of a number of shorter treatises in Arabic, such as the Hayakil al-nur (The Temples of Light), and others in Persian expounding Illuminationist philosophy in a simpler form, a collection of prayers and invocations, and some miscellaneous translations (or versions) and commentaries.

2. Epistemology

By basing his philosophy on light, al-Suhrawardi was able to introduce two important notions which may be thought of as the seeds of the entire system: that of intensity and gradation, and that of presence and self-manifestation. It is possible to see his philosophy as experiential, although his notion of experience was not confined to that obtained through the senses but embraced other forms including that of mystical experience. Ibn Sina's explanation of knowledge is based on the inhering of the form of the thing known in the mind of the knower, but for al-Suhrawardi such knowledge only guarantees certainty and the correspondence of knowledge with reality, because there exists a more fundamental kind of knowledge that does not depend on form and which is, like the experience of pain, unmediated and undeniable. The prime mode of this presential knowledge (al-'ilm al-huduri) is self-awareness, and every being existing in itself which is capable of self-awareness is a pure and simple light, as evinced by the pellucid clarity with which it is manifest to itself. In fact, being a pure and simple light is precisely the same as having self-awareness, and this is true of all self-aware entities up to and including God, the Light of Lights, the intensity of whose illumination and self-awareness encompasses everything else. The main constituent of reality is the hierarchies of such pure lights, differing solely in the intensity of their Illumination, and thus of self-awareness (see Illuminationist philosophy).

How then is the philosopher to realize this self-awareness? The prospective Illuminationist must engage in a variety of recommended ascetic practices (including forty-day retreats and abstaining from meat) to detach himself from the darknesses of this world and prepare himself for the experiences of the world of lights. The heightened pleasure afforded by this latter kind of experience is emphasized. Having spiritually purified himself, the philosopher is ready to receive the Divine Light and is rewarded with visions of 'apocalyptic' lights which form the basis for real knowledge. At this point the Illuminationist must employ discursive philosophy to analyse the experience and systematize it, in the same way as with sensory experience.

The relation between this direct intuitive knowledge and the philosophy of Illumination is compared to that between observation of the heavens and astronomy. The major portion of al-Suhrawardi's writings is devoted to this last stage of rational analysis and systematization, although he sometimes relates his visions. His symbolic narratives in Persian are in some sense a record of these, although in them al-Suhrawardi, the author, is never explicitly the first person. The narratives have a pedagogic function, and are guides to the kind of experiences to be encountered by the seeker and to their interpretation; indeed a central figure in these narratives is often a guide, the lord of the human species, sometimes though not exclusively identified as Gabriel.

3. Logic, physics, metaphysics and cosmology

The unfolding of reality in Illuminationism is governed by the different ways in which the pure lights interact to produce further levels of lights and darknesses, and by the subsequent interaction of all these different levels with each other, resulting eventually in a densely populated universe. The pure lights are the causes of three other categories of entities: accidental lights (actual physical light, and certain accidents of intellects and souls), dark modes (accidental categories in bodies excluding accidental lights) and intermediary isthmuses (barzakhs) or boundaries (bodies). The luminous properties of these degrees are also properties of self-awareness; thus for example, an accidental light subsists in something other than itself, and is also in need of something else to be aware of itself.

Existence as such does not perform much more than an explanatory role in Illuminationism, quite different from the central position it occupied in peripatetic philosophy, a major question for which was the nature of the relationship between existence and quiddity. However, it is important to notice that light does not merely act as a substitute for existence: existence, and its explanatory function, is rendered totally redundant. The lights (and darknesses and barzakhs caused by lights) in al-Suhrawardi's system are discrete entities whose interactions in turn bring about other lights. There is thus a primacy of the entity, and al-Suhrawardi regards existence as such to be no more than a mental abstraction having no external reality. Furthermore, although lights differ in intensity, there is nothing in this system to correspond with Ibn al-'Arabi's wahdat al-wujud (unity of being) (see Ibn al-'Arabi); al-Suhrawardi would not have said that all reality is light, but that it is lights. It is for these reasons that he was subsequently held responsible for the idea of the primacy of quiddity (asalat al-mahiya), although he did not use this expression himself. It was Mulla Sadra who, four centuries later, built upon the insight that reality was in effect a continuum of graded intensities, but a continuum of existence, not of light. He was thus able to fuse al-Suhrawardi's system with those of the peripatetics and Ibn al- 'Arabi into a metaphysical theory in which reality was nothing more than existence itself, and to turn quiddity into the purely mental abstraction which existence was for al-Suhrawardi.

His insight concerning presential knowledge (which al-Suhrawardi himself declared was vouchsafed to him by Aristotle in a dream) suggested solutions to weaknesses which al-Suhrawardi had detected in Ibn Sina's philosophical system. The most important of these concerned the theory of definition, and the problem of definition as the basis of scientific knowledge. First, he objects that it is impossible to give a complete definition, for a complete definition should contain all the constituents of the definiendum, and such an enumeration is impossible. Second, the peripatetics held that definition is a means of proceeding from the known to the unknown; but the essential constituents, al-Suhrawardi asserts, are just as unknown as the definiendum, so this cannot be so. Contained within this is also an objection against induction: how can one know if the collection of essential elements of a thing is complete merely by enumerating them? His conclusion is that prior knowledge is always necessary and presupposed.

Another area of disagreement with peripatetic philosophy was the categories, which were treated by al-Suhrawardi not in his logic, but in his physics. He reduces the accidental categories to four (quality, quantity, relation and motion), and holds intensity to be a property of substances as well as of accidents. With change in intensity, there is no change in the essence of an accident (a colour, for example) or a substance (such as cause and effect); the only difference is the degree of perfection.

As is to be expected, al-Suhrawardi's physics also contained a new theory of vision. He not only rejected the idea that the forms of objects were imprinted in the eye, but also the other current theory that light was emitted from the eye and fell onto the object. Vision is only possible, according to al-Suhrawardi, when the soul is illuminated by the light, substantial or accidental, of the object, and thus he brings vision within the compass of his illuminative theory of knowledge.

The physical or elemental world as depicted by al-Suhrawardi rejects the peripatetic division of matter and form, and substitutes for it a world of bodies composed of varying mixtures of light and darkness, which permit the passage of light to different degrees. Above the physical world the lights are arranged in a vertical array, corresponding to the emanationist scheme of Ibn Sina. However, these pure, immaterial lights are not restricted to ten as are the intellects of the peripatetic scheme. Al-Suhrawardi says only that they are limited to the number of stars in the fixed heavens; thus they are indefinite in number, but not infinite. Moreover, these vertically arrayed 'triumphal' (qahira) lights interact with each other to produce a horizontal array of similarly immaterial, 'regent' (mudabbira) lights. Each of these horizontally arrayed lights is the lord of a species, analogous to the Platonic Forms, but with the important difference that they are lights which 'govern' the species under them rather than universals. The species are depicted as 'idols' (asnam) of their archetypes. It is the interactions of both the vertical and the horizontal lights which give rise to the bodies of the lower world, which are also classified into degrees depending on the extent to which they receive and transmit light, each being a boundary (barzakh) between light and darkness. Al-Suhrawardi also elaborated the idea of the immaterial imaginal world ('alam al-mithal), situated between the physical world and the world of the lords of species. This is the locus for the kinds of veridical experiences recounted in his symbolic narratives, an unmediated account of which can only be given in this way and not through discursive reason. Al-Suhrawardi's cosmology is a good deal more complicated than this survey has suggested, employing a detailed terminology for the divisions of lights which classifies them in a variety of different ways.

4. The language of ishraq

The integrity of al-Suhrawardi's complex philosophy is achieved in no small measure by the elegance and refinement of his means of expression. His original Illuminationist vocabulary - the Islamic roots of which are sometimes overlooked - is one aspect of this. Al-Ghazali had set a precedent with his Mishkat al-anwar (The Niche of the Lights), which commented on the Light verse in the Qur'an (24: 35). However, al-Suhrawardi also uses a number of other devices to stretch the reader's conceptual boundaries and to convey further dimensions of his total vision of reality. All the lights are related to each other in a downward sense by their being 'triumphal' or 'exalted', but cohesion is further maintained by the 'desire' or 'love' which the lower degrees feel for the upper, and by the explanation which this affords of such things as the joy we experience in the presence of the sun and our fear in the presence of darkness, and the delight which we take in certain minerals such as gold and rubies.

Al-Suhrawardi also chose to describe the horizontal lights as angels, using names of the Anshaspands of Zoroastrian mythology to denote them (Khordad, Murdad, Urdibihisht and so on), and he taps the vocabulary of Pahlawi for further terms. In various places in his works he also traces a genealogy for the transmission of illuminationist wisdom which goes back simultaneously through a Greek/Western line (including Pythagoras and Plato) and an Iranian/Eastern line including Zoroaster (see Zoroastrianism) to Hermes Trismegistus, and asserts that there have been illuminationists (ishraqiyyun) throughout time. All of this raises the question of precedents for, and influences on, al-Suhrawardi's thought, a subject which has caused some controversy in the Western literature on this subject. It is not necessary to go into the details of Corbin's largely phenomenological argument for the existence of a Persian ishraqi philosophical tradition independent from the peripatetic (Corbin 1971); it is sufficient to point out the paucity of historical evidence for such a thesis, and indeed the paucity of textual evidence for any specific conclusions about influences on al-Suhrawardi. The more economical approach is to regard his use of ancient Persian mythology and his genealogy as a means of expressing his overwhelming conviction that he had restored the original foundation of philosophy in the certainty of intuitive experience, a foundation which he believed had been undermined by the excessive discursiveness of such philosophers as Ibn Sina. He saw the traces of this foundation in the writings of Plato and Aristotle (who in the Islamic tradition was also the author of the famous Theology), in the remnants of the Zoroastrian religion which he encountered, and in the utterances and writings attributed to certain Sufis.

The influence of al-Suhrawardi on Mulla Sadra has been mentioned above, but there is in addition a long and lively tradition of commentaries on several of his texts. In the philosophical tradition which continued after the Mongol period in Iran and further east in India, al-Suhrawardi stands second only to Ibn Sina. Perhaps the greatest testimony to his lasting importance is the fact that to this day in Iran philosophers are still informally classified as either mashsha'i (peripatetic) or ishraqi, depending on their leaning towards rationality or mysticism.

See also: Ibn Sina; Illuminationist philosophy; Mulla Sadra; Mystical philosophy in Islam; Neoplatonism in Islamic philosophy; Platonism in Islamic philosophy

Copyright © 1998, Routledge.

List of works

al-Suhrawardi [Sohravardi, Shihaboddin Yahya] (1180?-91) uvres philosophiques et mystiques, vol. I: La métaphysique: I. Kitab al-talwihat. 2. Kitab al-moqawamat. 3. Kitab al-mashari' wa'l-motarahat, Arabic texts edited with introduction in French by H. Corbin, Tehran: Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy, and Paris: Adrien Maisonneuve, 1976; vol II: I. Le Livre de la Théosophie oriental (Kitab Hikmat al-ishraq). 2. Le Symbole de foi des philosophes. 3. Le Récit de l'Exil occidental, Arabic texts edited with introduction in French by H. Corbin, Tehran: Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy, and Paris: Adrien Maisonneuve, 1977; vol III: uvres en persan, Persian texts edited with introduction in Persian by S.H. Nasr, introduction in French by H. Corbin, Tehran: Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy, and Paris: Adrien Maisonneuve, 1977. (Only the metaphysics of the three texts in Vol. I were published. Vol. III contains a Persian version of the Hayakil al-nur, ed. and trans. H. Corbin, L'Archange empourpré: quinze traités et récits mystiques, Paris: Fayard, 1976, contains translations of most of the texts in vol. III of uvres philosophiques et mystiques, plus four others. Corbin provides introductions to each treatise, and includes several extracts from commentaries on the texts. W.M. Thackston, Jr, The mystical and visionary treatises of Shihabuddin Yahya Suhrawardi, London: Octagon Press, 1982, provides an English translation of most of the treatises in vol. III of uvres philosophiques et mystiques, which eschews all but the most basic annotation; it is therefore less useful than Corbin's translation from a philosophical point of view.)

al-Suhrawardi [Sohravardi, Shihaboddin Yahya] (1154-91) Hayakil al-nur (The Temples of Light), ed. M.A. Abu Rayyan, Cairo: al-Maktaba al-Tijariyyah al-Kubra, 1957. (The Persian version appears in uvres vol. III.)

al-Suhrawardi [Sohravardi, Shihaboddin Yahya] (1180?-91) Mantiq al-talwihat, ed. A.A. Fayyaz, Tehran: Tehran University Press, 1955. (The logic of the Kitab al-talwihat (The Intimations).)

al-Suhrawardi [Sohravardi, Shihaboddin Yahya] (1186-91) Kitab hikmat al-ishraq (The Philosophy of Illumination), trans H. Corbin, ed. and intro. C. Jambet, Le livre de la sagesse orientale: Kitab Hikmat al-Ishraq, Lagrasse: Verdier, 1986. (Corbin's translation of the Prologue and the Second Part (The Divine Lights), together with the introduction of Shams al-Din al-Shahrazuri and liberal extracts from the commentaries of Qutb al-Din al-Shirazi and Mulla Sadra. Published after Corbin's death, this copiously annotated translation gives to the reader without Arabic immediate access to al-Suhrawardi's illuminationist method and language.)

References and further reading

Amin Razavi, M. (1997) Suhrawardi and the School of Illumination, Richmond: Curzon. (Clear and intelligent account of the main principles of his thought.)

Corbin, H. (1971) En Islam iranien: aspects spirituels et philosophiques, vol. II: Sohrawardi et les Platoniciens de Perse, Paris: Gallimard. (Corbin devoted more of his time to the study of al-Suhrawardi than to any other figure, and this volume represents the essence of his research.)

Ha'iri Yazdi, M. (1992) The Principles of Epistemology in Islamic Philosophy: Knowledge by Presence, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. (An original work on epistemology by a contemporary Iranian philosopher drawing critical comparisons between certain Islamic and Western philosophers; incorporates the best exposition in a Western language of al-Suhrawardi's theory of knowledge.)

Nasr, S.H. (1983) 'Shihab al-Din Suhrawardi Maqtul', in M.M. Sharif (ed.) A History of Muslim Philosophy, vol. I, Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1963; repr. Karachi, no date. (Still one of the best short introductions to al-Suhrawardi, particularly useful on the cosmology.)

al-Shahrazuri, Shams al-Din (c.1288) Sharh hikmat al-ishraq (Commentary on the Philosophy of Illumination), ed. H. Ziai, Tehran: Institute for Cultural Studies and Research, 1993. (Critical edition of the thirteenth-century original; Arabic text only, but a useful short introduction in English.)

Walbridge, J. (1992) The Science of Mystic Lights: Qutb al-Din Shirazi and the Illuminationist Tradition in Islamic Philosophy, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, for the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies of Harvard University. (A study of one of al-Suhrawardi's principal commentators, with a useful introduction on the philosophy of illumination.)

Ziai, H. (1990) Knowledge and Illumination: a Study of Suhrawardi's Hikmat al-ishraq, Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press. (A pioneering study of al-Suhrawardi's logic and epistemology, particularly his criticism of the peripatetic theory of definition; unfortunately this work suffers from sloppy production.)

Ziai, H. (1996a) 'Shihab al-Din Suhrawardi: Founder of the Illuminationist School', in S.H. Nasr and O. Leaman (eds) History of Islamic Philosophy, London: Routledge, 434-64. (Biography of al-Suhrawardi.)

Ziai, H. (1996b) 'The Illuminationist Tradition', in S.H. Nasr and O. Leaman (eds) History of Islamic Philosophy, London: Routledge, 465-96. (General description of the Illuminationist tradition.)

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