Al-Sabzawari was the most influential nineteenth-century Iranian philosopher. His reputation rests in part on his Sharh al-manzuma, a commentary on his own Ghurar al-fara'id (The Blazes of the Gems), a didactic poem (manzuma) encapsulating in a systematic fashion an exposition of the existentialist philosophy of Mulla Sadra. He was also the most sought-after teacher of philosophy in his day, and many students travelled to Sabzavar to be taught by him. Famous for his saintliness as well as his erudition, he set the tone for much of twentieth-century Iranian philosophy.
Al-Hajj Mulla Hadi al-Sabzawari, the most famous of the philosophers of the Qajar period in Iran, was born in ah 1212/ad 1797-8 in Sabzavar in northeastern Iran. He studied logic, mathematics, law and metaphysics in Mashhad, where he moved at the age of ten after completing his preliminary education in Sabzavar. He pursued his interests in philosophy by moving to Isfahan to study for seven years with, among others, Mulla 'Ali Nuri (d. ah 1246/ad 1830-1), the foremost interpreter of his day of the philosophy of Mulla Sadra. He returned to Mashhad to teach for five years, and then accomplished the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj). On his way back from pilgrimage he spent a year in Kirman, where he married, before returning to Sabzavar where he spent the rest of his life devoted to teaching and writing. A remarkable number of students of philosophy came to study with him, not only from Iran but from Arab countries and India as well. So great was his reputation that Nasir al-Din Shah, for whom he wrote his Asrar al-hikam (Secrets of the Wisdoms), came to visit him in ah 1284/ad 1867, but al-Sabzawari's pious and ascetic way of life (several minor miracles are attributed to him), led him to refuse direct royal patronage. He died in ah 1289/ad 1873, having turned Mulla Sadra's legacy into the predominant philosophical school of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Al-Sabzawari's fame rests primarily on one work, his Ghurar al-fara'id (The Blazes of the Gems), a poem in which he gives a systematic and complete presentation of the philosophy of the school of Mulla Sadra, together with the Sharh al-manzuma, his own commentary on this poem, which he composed despairing of the philosophical ignorance of his contemporaries. The merit of this work lies not so much in any radically new theories, but in its plan and organization, which have made it the standard text for students of philosophy in Shi'i madrasas until the present day. The situation is now changing and new teaching texts are appearing, but most of these are still influenced by the Sharh al-manzuma in both structure and content.
In the centuries after Mulla Sadra, philosophers were on the whole inclined to write on specific topics, thus leaving a gap in so far as there was no text that treated the whole of post-Sadrian philosophy in a systematic and assimilable fashion to which students could turn. Al-Sabzawari filled this gap, first with his didactic poem, which was to be memorized, and second with his commentary, which elaborates the poem in the manner of a traditional teacher in the Islamic religious sciences. The completeness of the work can be gauged by its contents, which give a good idea of what subjects philosophy encompasses for the contemporary religious student in a Shi'i madrasa.
The first part is on logic, with the commentary separately subtitled al-La'ali al-muntazima (The Well-Ordered Nights). The second part (with commentary subtitled Ghurar al-fara'id), is divided into seven sections: (1) general principles (al-umur al-'amma), covering existence and related matters (unity, systematic ambiguity, modality, actuality and so on), quiddity and causality; (2) substance and accident; (3) metaphysical theology (al-ilahiyyat bi-'l-ma'na al-akhass), God's essence, attributes and acts; (4) natural philosophy, including discussions of matter and motion and a section on psychology; (5) certain supernatural phenomena, including dreams, miracles and prophecy; (6) the resurrection (ma'ad); and (7) ethics (akhlaq), with a brief treatment of spiritual values. It should be noted that (2) is essentially part of (1), that (1-4) form the core of the work, and that (5-7) are relatively short sections.
The commentary is amply provided with proofs and arguments, but there is also a marked emphasis on intuitive and mystical perception. This aspect of al-Sabzawari's thought is even more evident in his other works, which included commentaries on two of the key supplications in Shi'i devotional literature and the above-mentioned Asrar al-hikam, in Persian, in which eschatology is elucidated through metaphysical theology, psychology, ethics and the law (shari'a). This latter work is threaded through with poetic quotations. Al-Sabzawari was not only a poet in his own right (he has a Persian diwan, or collection of poems), but he also produced an elaborate metaphysical commentary on passages from Jalal al-Din al-Rumi's Mathnavi which amply reflects his own spiritual preoccupations.
Because of the elegance of his exposition of the entire scope of the Sadrian philosophy of his time, al-Sabzawari has attracted the attention of a number of modern scholars who, under the influence of his manifestly esoteric outlook, have tended to emphasize the mystical approach in nineteenth-century Iranian philosophy. Although this influence has tended to obscure other philosophical currents of the time and their legacy to twentieth-century Iranian philosophy, it cannot be denied that al-Sabzawari was the most significant philosopher of this period and the one who, through the large number of his students, exerted the most powerful effect on later generations.
See also: Islamic philosophy, modern; Mulla Sadra; Mystical philosophy in IslamJOHN COOPER