Category: Persons

Mullā Sadrā

Iranian philosopher (ca.1571-1636), one of the leading Muslim thinkers after Avicenna and one of the most significant members of the School of Isfahan. His entire project reflects his attempt to combine reason with knowledge and revelation, philosophy with the (Shiite) theology and mysticism.

Life and Works

Sadr al-Din Muhammad ibn Ibrahim ibn Yahya al-Qawami Shīrāzī (born 1571/72, Hijra year 979), known as Mullā Sadrā, lived in Iran during the period of the Safavid dynasty. He was the only son of a courtly family of Shīrāz. During the first long period of his life he received, from his early age, philosophical and theological training in Qazvin and Isfahan, studying the ‘ancient sages’ and ‘what could be found in the books of the Greeks’ (Asfār, I.1), as well as the prophetic tradition and the interpretations of the Qur'an.

Unsatisfied with his studies he withdraw (c.1615) in Kahak, where through a life of spiritual exercise and purification he experienced a visionary-apocalyptic experience that determined the subsequent development of his thought. After fifteen years of isolation he returned to Shīrāz, dividing his time into teaching, writing, traveling and meetings with other thinkers of his time, and family obligations. He died approximately in 1640/1050 returning from his seventh pilgrimage to Mecca.

In the latest and most creative period of his life, he wrote much of his extensive work. The registered writings of Mullā Sadrā are more than forty-five, mostly philosophical works and treatises interpreting the Qur'an and the Hadiths , almost all written in Arabic.

Al-hikma al-muta‘aliya fi’l-asfār al-‘aqliyya al-‘arba‘a (The Transcendent Philosophy of the Four Journeys of the Intellect, 1638), widely known simply as Asfār, is considered his most important work. It is a comprehensive summary of his philosophical and theological theories, all of which he separately analyzes in his other works; a ‘philosophical encyclopedia’ that includes issues he considers as fundamental, starting from ontology and ending to ‘spiritual psychology’ and the resurrection. He offers a brief description of each issue, based on relevant views of previous philosophers and theologians, and then he develops his own position.

Philosophical Views

The assimilation of the ancient Greek thought and its combination with the traditional prophetic-apocalyptic contemplation led the thinkers of the late period of philosophy in Islam, including Mullā Sadrā, to a new way and philosophical approach of the outer world and the inner reality. As seen from the texts themselves, later philosophers in the East turned to Neoplatonism, that was considered to correspond more adequately to the principles of Islam and the spirit of the Quran and the Hadiths.

The philosophical field mostly affected by this ‘turn’ was metaphysics and, in particular, eschatology, which lies at the core of Mullā Sadrā’s interests, alongside epistemology and cosmology. In particular, his philosophical works focus on issues such as the purpose of creation, the nature and structure of the world, the possibility of essential knowledge of the things, the nature of the human soul and its relation to the body, the nature of God, the divine mediation, the meaning of earthly life, the meaning of death, the final judgment, and the afterlife.

For Mullā Sadrā revelatory knowledge, evidential reasoning and mystical revelation are three possible sources of knowledge that can be combined in order to provide access to an undeniable truth. This holistic way of practicing philosophy he calls ‘transcendent wisdom’ (or theosophy or philosophy• al-hikma al-muta'aliya). The main lines of his thought are: a) the ontological primacy, unity and gradation of Being, b) the substantial motion, c) the knowledge by presence and the unity of the cognitive subject with the subject (already known from Porphyry) and d) the independence and purification of the faculty of imagination from the material body and the resurrection of the spiritual body.

Platonic Influences

Mullā Sadrā and the School of Isfahan, in which he belongs, relied heavily on the School of Illumination and enriched their theory with elements of Ibn 'Arabī’s (1165-1240) thought. The starting point of the School of Illumination, and his founder Suhrawardī (1154-1191), was the criticism by some of its members of a number of Aristotle's ideas as they were expressed by Avicenna. After several centuries of prevalence of the Aristotelian thought, the Illuminationists made the final turn towards Platonism and Neo-Platonic tradition, which –in contrast to the earlier thinkers– was no longer identified with Aristotle.

It is this spiritual heritage that Mullā Sadrā decided to follow and his texts show remarkable understanding of the Platonic theories. In several of his works he analyzes thoroughly Platonic concepts such as space, the Ideas and forms, while Platonic or Neoplatonic influences can be located when he deals with issues such as the immortality of the soul, its relationship with the body and the posthumous union with the divine. As for many other Muslim Arab philosophers, his contact with Platonic thought was made primarily through the study of Timaeus. However, it is certain that he had access to other Platonic dialogues, as in Asfār he explicitly refers to Phaedo. Already in his definition of philosophy Mullā Sadrā indirectly refers to Theaitetus: the real philosopher achieves through a difficult process the philosophical exercise, i.e. the resemblance to his Creator.

Already in his definition of philosophy Mullā Sadrā indirectly refers to Theaetetus: the real philosopher achieves through a difficult process the philosophical exercise, i.e. the resemblance to his Creator.

Know that philosophy is the perfecting of the human soul, through the cognition of the true natures of existents, as they truly are, through judgements concerning them that are ascertained through apodeixis, and not understood through conjecture, or adherence to prior authority, insofar as is humanly possible. Through philosophy, man acquires a resemblance to the Creator and ascribes a rational order to the cosmos. (Asfār, 1: 3)

The concept of the Platonic forms (al-muthul al-aflatuniyyah) is thoroughly analyzed in the first two of the four journeys of the soul that Mullā Sadrā exposes in Asfār and reappears in many other places of his work. Following Plato, who argued that reality has different grades, since there are necessary grades within the Forms that constitute the reality as such, the Iranian philosopher refers to gradations of the Form’s Being that consist embodiments of different intensity of the Existence.

In his attempt to overcome the problems that according to him provokes the Platonic conception of the existence of two worlds, Mullā Sadrā adopts the (known by Ibn 'Arabī) concept of a third, intermediate level of reality, the world of immaterial-spiritual forms ('alam al-mithal), whose existence permits the connection of the lower material world with the highest level of reality, where dwell the perfect and clear ideas. The three levels of reality correspond to an equal number of ways of Being.

i. The first way of Being is the world of natures, material beings, creations, that are subject to birth/genesis and decay. ii. The second way of Being is the intermediary world of forms that have size and of the sensory beings that have form without matter. iii. The third way is [the world] of intelligible Forms and immaterial Ideas [or archetypal images]. Asfār (Spiritual psychology, 555)

Regarding the question of the relationship of the body to the soul, Mullā Sadrā considers it necessary to release the soul from the matter, in order to achieve the posthumous union first of the spiritual body, and at a higher level, of the formless soul, with the Supreme Being. Nevertheless, he opposes the view that the soul of human beings is eternal and that its existence precedes the creation of the body (see Timaeus), and distinguishes between the species of ‘soul’, that pre-exists the entry in the material world only as a category, and the individual human ‘Adamic soul’ which has physical origin but survives spiritually –rejecting thereby the possibility of reincarnation.

The Adamic soul has a form of existence preceding the body, without this entailing the transmigration of souls, an without necessitating the pre-eternity of the (individual) soul, which is the well-known view of Plato. This (mode of pre-existence) does not require a multiplicity of individuals of a single species or their differentiation without reference to any matter or (material) preparedness; nor does it entail the soul’s being divided after having been one, in the manner of continuous quantities; nor does it presume the soul’s inactivity before (being connected with) the bodies. (The wisdom of the throne, 140)
Author: Matina-Ioanna Kyriazopoulou
  • Khaminihi, S.H. ed. Al-Hikma al-muta‘aliya fi-l-asfar al-‘aqliyya al-arba‘a {The Transcendent Philosophy of the Four Journeys of the Intellect} 9 τόμοι. Tehran, 2001-5.
  • Peerwani, L.-P. Spiritual Psychology: The fourth intellectual journey in transcendent philosophy, volumes VIII and IX of the Asfar. London, 2008.
  • Kalin, I., Chittick, W.C. Metaphysical Penetrations [Kitāb al-mashā‘ir]. Provo, 2014.
  • Chittick, W.C. The elixir of the Gnostics [Iksīr al-‘arifīn]. Provo, 2003.
  • Morewedge, P. The metaphysics of Mulla Sadra [Kitāb al-mashā'ir]. New York, 1992.
  • Morris, J.W. The wisdom of the throne [al-Hikma al-‘arshiyya]. Princeton,N.J., 1981.
  • Jambet, C. The act of being: the philosophy of revelation in Mulla Sadra. New York, 2006.
  • Kalin, I. Knowledge as Appropriation: Sadr al-Din al-Shirazi (Mulla Sadra) on the Unification of the Intellect and the Intelligible. Oxford, 2009.
  • Kamal, M. Mulla Sadra’s transcendent philosophy. Aldershot, 2006.
  • Nasr, S.H. Sadr al-Din Shirazi and his transcendent theosophy: background, life and works. Tehran, 1997.
  • Rizvi, S. Mulla Sadra and Metaphysics: The Modulation of Being. London, 2009.
  • Rizvi, S. Mulla Sadra Shirazi: His Life, Works and the Sources for Safavid Philosophy. Oxford, 2007.
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