On the Reception and Interpretation of Suhrawardī’s Illuminationist Philosophy

This panel is being presented in memory of the late Prof. Hossein Ziai and reflects his interests.

It is now generally understood that Shihāb al-Dīn Yaḥyā Suhrawardī, “the Master of Illumination,” represents a key turning point in Islamic philosophy. The nature of that transition—the Illuminationist philosophy, ḥikmat al-ishrāq—is poorly understood in a number of respects: what was distinctive about his philosophy, how it was transmitted to his successors, and how they understood the nature of his contribution. There is, moreover, a major debate within the historiography of Islamic philosophy about the nature of Suhrawardī’s thought. This panel will address a range of these issues.

The first paper will draw on the evidence of manuscripts to address the transmission of the works of Suhrawardī to the philosophers who popularized them a century or so after his death. It will then address the question of how the pattern of manuscript production documents the reception of his works of him and those of his early followers, particularly in Safavid Iran and Ottoman Turkey. It will also deal with the differing patterns of transmission of Suhrawardī’s Arabic, Persian, and occult works.

The second paper will deal with the critical question of the relationship between the “Peripatetic” and “Illuminationist” in Suhrawardī’s works through an analysis of Ziai’s understanding of the role of definition and knowledge by presence and how these provide a clear philosophical distinction between the two philosophical school.

The third paper will deal with the reception of Suhrawardī’s thought by the most important of his successors, Mullā Ṣadrā. While Ṣadrā disagreed with Suhrawardī on basic issues, his method, objectives, critique of Avicenna, and approach to writing all go back to Suhrawardī.

The final paper, “Dealing with Mystical Philosophy,” addresses the pedagogical question of introducing Suhrawardī in modern classes on Islamic philosophy and how his works can be placed in dialogue with such key figures as Ghazālī and how the debates about the interpretation of Suhrawardī’s thought illustrate tensions within the Orientalist tradition.


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The manuscripts of the works of Shihāb al-Dīn Yaḥyā al-Suhrawardī, the Shaykh al-Ishrāq, his three most important 13th century followers—Ibn Kammūna, Shams al-Dīn al-Shahrazūrī, and Quṭb al-Dīn al-Shīrāzī—and their later commentators offer important clues to the reception of the Illuminationist (Ishrāqī) philosophy. While manuscripts are usually considered mainly from the point of view of establishing reliable texts of particular works, they can be made to yield considerably more information.

Based on some four hundred manuscripts that I have identified containing one or more such works, I will look at several questions that the manuscript record can shed light on:
1) The occultation of the works of Suhrawardī after his execution and through the first half of the 13th century.
2) The rediscovery and popularization of his works and thought in Ilkhanid Iran and Iraq.
3) The separate patterns of transmission of Suhrawardī’s Arabic and Persian works and their implications for interpreting the Illuminationist philosophy.
4) Patterns of reading as shown by the majmū‘as.
5) The Ottoman appropriation of Illuminationist thought as indicated by patterns of library holdings.
6) The occult works, authentic and spurious.

Taken together, these manuscript phenomena shed interesting light on the reception of the thought of Suhrawardī and the early Illuminationists.

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Much of Hossein Ziai's academic work was devoted to bringing the thought of al-Suhrawardī into (Western) philosophical curricula, where it had received comparatively little attention. Readings from al-Suhrawardī's allegories occasionally make it into the last, "grab bag" week of courses on Islamic thought, together with (perhaps) the writings of the Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ and various other peculiar individuals and groups. In this presentation I will introduce a pedagogical strategy for incorporating al-Suhrawardī's work into undergraduate studies in Islamic philosophy.

There are several benefits in implementing such a strategy. First of all, al-Suhrawardī, like al-Ghazālī, offers a striking counterpart to the Peripatetic tendencies in "classical" Islamic philosophy; indeed, his method seems to depend on expertise in Peripatetic metaphysics, thereby demonstrating a dialectic characteristic of post-Avicennan philosophy. His approach bears comparison to the theological reaction to the Avicennan tide evident in the post-Ghazālian Kalām tradition. Secondly, the critical and interpretive variety of Orientalist and philosophical responses to the Suhrawardian corpus offers students unique insight into the problems of Orientalist hermeneutics. Ziai's efforts to defuse Corbin's reading of al-Suhrawardī are in themselves instructive in the analysis and evaluation of Orientalist techniques; Corbin's original positions, however, remain influential. Finally, the accessibility of Ziai and John Walbridge's edition of Ḥikmat al-ishrāq allows for significant penetration of the material.

Teaching al-Suhrawardī introduces students to the most crucial aspects of Islamic thought from a rather unexpected perspective; the tension at the heart of the Islamic tradition—between what can be known and asserted and what must remain veiled from human cognition—is exemplified and even exploited in al-Suhrawardī's system. Hossein Ziai's legacy would be well served by the deliberate re-introduction of this system into our pedagogical practices.

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Suhrawardī’s influence on Ṣadrā’s thought cannot be overestimated. In fact, one cannot grasp Ṣadrā’s objectives and thought without understanding Suhrawardī’s views. One of these objectives and ideas is the notion that falsafa is an intellectual exercise whose purpose is only to prepare the seeker of knowledge to experience the truth through illumination. Thus, Ṣadrā regarded falsafa by itself as not a sufficient means to comprehend realities. Falsafa as a discipline went through a dramatic change in the twelve century through the works of Suhrawardī, the first to undermine Avicenna’s logic and metaphysics. Against Avicenna, he viewed falsafa as only an intellectual exercise and urged the students of philosophy not to consider it as a sufficient discipline for acquiring the truth. Nevertheless, it was only in the seventeenth century that the concept of falsafa as intellectual exercise has flourished in light of Ṣadrā’s attempt to set a different standards for doing philosophy. Although Ṣadrā did not agree with Suhrawardī on major issues in metaphysics and epistemology, Ṣadrā’s method and objectives can be traced back to that of Suhrawardī. In this paper I will show that although Ṣadrā regarded Suhrawardī’s effort of reforming Avicenna’s philosophy as incomplete, he followed the same method as Suhrawardī and shared the same aims and approaches. This also apparent from the fact that Ṣadrā followed Suhrawardī’s approach of writing different philosophical and mystical works each of which contains the same essential content but with different emphases according to their primary audience. Nevertheless, in all these works, the concept of falsafa as an intellectual exercise has been emphasized. First, I will present Suhrawardī’s idea of the meaning and limit of falasfa and how he arranged all his works according to this central theme. This in turn prepares the ground for presenting Ṣadrā’s view of falsafa and how he oriented all his writings toward the implication of this view in a way that is very similar to that of Suhrawardī. Thus, I will show how Ṣadrā’s view is an extension of Suhrawardī’s efforts with important changes and additions made in order to reconcile Suhrawardī’s view with his own approach.

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The purpose of this paper is to examine Ziai’s analysis and reconstruction of Illuminationist Epistemology and its distinction from the Peripatetic tradition. My paper will be divided into two parts. In the first part I will investigate Ziai’s view of the theory of definition in the Illuminationist tradition. I will show how Ziai brought to our attention two significant distinctions between the Aristotelian and Illuminationist views of the logical definition. The first distinction is related to the different senses of “definition.” While Aristotle logic is limited to two types of definition, real and nominal definitions, Illuminationist, Suhrawardi in particular, provides more complex and rich concept of definition. In his discussion of the notion of “expository proposition,” Suhrawardi affirms that it consists of five types of definition—complete essentialist definition, conceptualist definition, incomplete essentialist definition, complete description, and incomplete description. Another distinction is pertained to the formula of the definition. For unlike the Aristotle, Suhrwardi, in his treatment to the concept of definition questions epistemological and ontological foundation of definition. Ziai demonstrated to us how the methodology of definition, in Illuminationist tradition should be considered as one of the basic element of our philosophical approach to the subject matter of metaphysics.
The second parts of the papers focuses on the Illuminationist theory of perception, division of knowledge, and self-knowledge. In it I will show how Ziai’s analysis of key concepts pertaining to Illuminationist psychology, such as “knowledge by presence,” “formal knowledge,” illuminationist relation and “self-conscious” enable us to understand the significance of their system of epistemology and at the same time marks a clear departure from the Aristotelian psychology.