Philosophy and Theology in the First Ṣafavid Centuries

The Post-Avicennian tradition of Islamic philosophy and theology is now increasingly accepted as equalling the so called classical period in depth, originality and conceptual rigour. The interest of philosophically inclined intellectual historians notwithstanding, our grasp of the later tradition is still fragmentary, and even recognizably important thinkers and contexts remain understudied, a prominent case in point being the philosophers and theologians writing during the first century of Ṣafavid rule. As a result, we often tend to read the better known thinkers of the second Ṣafavid century, with Mullā Ṣadrā at the spearhead, in relative isolation from their immediate context. Although it is clear that they engaged with the major figures of the preceding centuries (such as Avicenna, al-Ghazālī, Suhrawardī and Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī), it is more than likely that the focus of their thought and the angle of their approach were in equal measure determined by contemporary interests and debates.

It is against this background that the present panel convenes experts on both the first Ṣafavid century and the seventeenth century of Mullā Ṣadrā. Our aim is to chart the threads that run from the sixteenth to the seventeenth century, to locate missing links and nodes in the transmission of thoughts, and to re-assess the novelty of certain seventeenth century ideas (such as the primacy of existence, substantial movement, or the unity theory of knowledge) in this light. Our focus is on intellectual history, which means that we are primarily interested in ideas, their contexts of application, their transmission and their transformation. The papers will address questions pertaining to the philosophy of religion, the relation between philosophy and theology, and theory of knowledge.


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In classical Islamic philosophy, religion and philosophy constituted two different modes in which one presents and understands truth. Religion, particularly through the act of revelation, presented a rhetorical, narrative and persuasive account of the nature of reality and the relationship between God, humanity and the cosmos; but unless one accepted the prior truth of revelation, it could not yield certain knowledge, predicated on Aristotelian and Neoplatonic notions of argumentation and the burden of proof. Philosophy, on the other hand, as a demonstrative approach outlining the nature of these three realities and their intersections did yield certainty. In this sense, arguably both al-Fārābī and Averroes considered philosophy to be a superior discourse on metaphysics and ethics than religion.
From the middle period, especially as Illuminationist (ishrāqī) notions of philosophy became closer to religion, insofar as philosophy entailed a way of life and spiritual practices, the boundaries between religious and philosophical discourse blurred. By the time, one arrived at the middle Safavid period with the sage Mullā Ṣadrā Shīrāzī (d. 1045/1635), the clear generic boundaries between theological discourse, philosophy, speculative mysticism, and even exegesis (whether of the Qurʾan or of the sayings of the Imams) were set aside in pursuit of wisdom and truth. The role of the sage was to pursue wisdom and arrive as truth, to become divine-like (mutaʾallih) as a realized sage who understood the nature of reality and was capable of communicating it to different audiences in different modes. Philosophy as a way of life entailed a religious commitment and a ethical imperative to be in a particular way.
In this paper, I will analyse the notion of dīn, insofar as one might render it religion (whilst considering the problematic of this category in the study of religion as a discursive practice), in the thought of Mullā Ṣadrā, focusing on the discussion of the term as it is discussed in his magnum opus the Four Journeys (al-asfār al-arbaʿa) and in his exegesis of the Qurʾanic phrase ‘there is no compulsion in religion’ (lā ikrahā fī-l-dīn). What emerges is a holistic approach to knowledge and indeed to religious commitment that has implications not only for his views on the relationship of philosophy and religion but also on the modern theology of religions and ethical pluralism in a world of peer epistemic anxiety.

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Mullā Ṣadrā is famous for having endorsed the highly controversial theory of cognitive unity (ittiḥād). According to this theory, an act of knowing consists in an act of mental existence that is shared by the knowing subject and the known object. It can therefore be characterized as an attempt at a metaphysical description of knowledge, an answer to the question of the existence of knowing subjects and known objects insofar as they are knowing and known. Yet despite its alleged success in this metaphysical context, the theory leaves a problematic gap between the metaphysics and the epistemological question of truth and falsity. If the knowing subject is only actualized together with the objects it knows, how can we make a meaningful distinction between true ideas which correspond to mind-independent reality, and false ideas which fail in this regard? Ṣadrā recognizes the problem in his metaphysical discussion of knowledge, but instead of answering it, he simply states that epistemological questions of truth and falsity are secondary to the question of the metaphysics of knowledge. In this paper, I attempt to bridge the gap between his metaphysics and his epistemology. I argue that Ṣadrā inherits his approach from the illuminationist (ishrāqī) discussion of “presential knowledge” (ʿilm ḥuḍūrī) and that his way of identifying and dealing with the gap can help us better understand this highly influential but enigmatic concept.

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In my paper, I seek to critically analyze the epistemological discourse used by the Safavid philosopher Mullā Ṣadrā (d. 1045/1635-6) in its mutual relationship with the discourse of Shi‘ite authority. Not only is Mullā Ṣadrā’s philosophical system an organic whole in which a variety of human sciences are fused together, but also for him philosophy is a way of life, hence the relevance of the epistemic discourse he develops to religious and political context of his thought. Knowledge for Mullā Ṣadrā is not simply the content of the mind, but it is, as a form of being, existentially related to and identified with it. In this light, I will examine the discursive force of Mullā Ṣadrā’s theory of knowledge in rationalizing and intellectually establishing the authoritarian thought in Twelver Shi‘ism. In my analysis of the mutual empowerment of philosophical, theological, and mystical discourses in the epistemology of Mullā Ṣadrā, the term “synthetic discourse” plays a key role and Foucault provides me with the general interpretive perspective of the study of knowledge/ power dynamics and the relations between different discourses. From this perspective, I would argue that by relying on the power of synthetic discourse, Mullā Ṣadrā reinforces the relationship between epistemology and political authority. For example, it will be demonstrated that in his work the scriptural-theological narrative of “naming” of things by Adam gathers force along with the mystical narrative of divine names, which is in turn empowered by the theological discourse of divine attributes. The resultant complex discourse is intertwined with the philosopher’s epistemology that helps to rationalize/intellectually establish the absolute authority of the imam/perfect human/walī by virtue of his absolute knowledge. Apart from Mullā Ṣadrā’s magnum opus, al-Asfār, and some other major treatises, I am consulting his Commentary on Uṣūl al-kāfī, with an emphasis on “Kitāb al-ḥujja”.