Discussing the Three distinct interpretations of suhrawardion philosophy

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Suhrawardi is one of the most influential figures in the history of Islamic philosophy ,because of the significance of his intellect-tual contributions and because of the impact he had on his success – sors, in particular later Islamic philosophy which culminated in the “ School of Isfahan”. Despite the existing diversity of intellectual inquiries within Islam which range from the rationalistic philosophy of the peri-patetics (mashsha’is) and the intellectual intuition of the illumi- nationists (ishraqiyyun) to the ascetic and inner journey of the Sufis, there have been few philosophers who have made an attempt to synthesize these diverse schools of thought into a unified philosophical paradigm.

A. Unifying the School of wisdom, as the mast important action alone by Suhrawardi
Amirak Muhammad ibn Shihab al- Din Suhrawardi, the Persian philosopher of the 6/12 century and an advocate of what he called “ ancient wisdom” ( hikmat al-atiq), made an attempt to unify various school of wisdom in order to demonstrate the universal truth that lies at the heart of all divinely revealed religions. Unlike earlier Sufis and gnostics in Islam, Suhrawardi, maintained that philosophical discourse was a necessary training for those seeking to pursue the path of illumination. This was quite revolutionary since Sufis rejected rationalistic philosophy as exemplified by the Peripatetics who in turn rejected Sufism. The significance of Suhrawardi, become more clear when he is viewed as a gnostic who advocates both philosophical discourse and asceticism as an essential part of the path of illumination. He also incorporates various elements from such traditions of wisdom as the Egyptians, Greeks and Persians in order to bring a rapprochement between rationalistic philosophy, intellectual intuition and practical wisdom.

B. The Problems of taking to a visionary mystic/ philosopher
The foremost difficulty in writing on Suhrawardi ‘s school of illumination, as with any visionary mystic/ philosopher, is to find the qualified person who can comment from an insider’s point of view. The heart of the visionary’s brand of mysticism, is to have an intuitive knowledge of or an inner experience of, truth. By definition, then, commentators and authors of such a work would be qualified to explain this inner experience if they can relate to this message on experiential basis and therefore can speak as an insider.

As an outsider to a school of thought whose thrust remains the attainment of truth through a special mode of cognition, all an author can do is to engage himself in a close textual analysis and attempt to put them in coherent and well defined concepts. It is towards this aim which I have embarked upon an exegesis of various symbols used in Suhrawardi’s mystical narratives as well as the decoding of the dense language which he uses to keep the esoteric secrets from those who are not among the “brothers in purity”.

It is imperative to note that while mysticism remains one of the salient features of Suhrawardi’s philosophical school, he was not only a Sufi nor was his school of thought only mystical. Suhrawardi’s was a system builder and like many others of the same stature (i.e. Ibn Sina), he comments on various traditional philosophical topics, i.e. metaphysics, ontology, epistemology, logic, etc.

In recent years there has been a discussion among the scholars of Suhrawardi’s as to the true nature of his teachings and the nature of his specific contributions to Islamic philosophy. These discussions have led to emergence of three distinct inter-pretations of Suhrawardi philosophy. Before embarking on an exposition and analysis of Suhrawardi’s mystical ideas, it is necessary to briefly discuss these trends since it will enable us to place the mystical thoughts of Suhrawardi in an appropriate context.

This view, primarily held by H. Zia’i, argues that the salient feature of Suhrawardi’s philosophy is his Peripatetic writings and in particular his commentaries on logic and his critique of the peripatetic view of definition as a means of cognition. Zia’I, who considers the non-Peripatetic writings of Suhrawardi to be of secondary value hardly ever refers to his mystical narratives.

Zia’i’s interpretation of Suhrawardi’s thought is rather narrow and does not present the comprehensive nature of Suhrawardi’s philosophy of illumination as one that is inclusive of rationalistic philosophy but is not limited to peripatetic philosophy. I do not wish to provide an extensive response to the above view but this much should suffice, that even a brief examination of the corpus of Suhrawardi’s writings reveals the extent to which he went beyond the fashionable philosophical school of his time, namely the sort of logical analysis that was carried out by the Peripatetics. Furthermore, to ignore the vast body of Suhrawardi’s mystical narratives also ignores the reason he wrote these mystical treatises. If Suhrawardi did not consider them to be necessary, he would not have composed them with such care or given repeated instructions to his companions to safeguard them. The mystical narratives of Suhrawardi should be regarded as part and parcel of the doctrine of illumination and it is in such treatises that he offers the second component of the ishraqi school of thought, namely practical wisdom, something that the above interpretation completely ignores.

The view held by some of the prominent scholars of Islamic philosophy such as Mehdi Ha’ir’I and Sayyid Jalal al- Din Ashtiyani, regards Suhrawardi as a philosopher who remains essentially within the Ibn Sinian philosophical domain despite his inno -vations and deviations from the Peripatetic view.

A neo- Ibn Sinian reading of Suhrawardi takes a broader look at his philosophy and considers both Suhrawardi’s commentaries on logic and metaphysics and his ishraqi writings to be of great philosophical significance. Suhrawardi accordingly is regarded as one who by drawing from various sources, interprets Ibn Sina from a Neoplatonic view point, thereby synthesizing Aristotle, Plato, Pythagoreans and Hermeticism.

The above view in my opinion is more valid than the previous one but it too lacks emphasis on the mystical writing of Suhrawardi. Such notions as the attainment of knowledge through mystical experience and Suhrawardi’s explicit emphasis on asceticism as a necessary component of pursuing the wisdom of illumination is too often ignored by a neo-Ibn Sinian interpretation of Suhrawardi. Proponents of this interpretation, too do not pay the attention that the Persian writings of Suhrawardi deserve, often regarding them only as fine works of literature. The mystical narratives of Suhrawardi present in a metaphorical language that which the language of rationalistic philosophy often fails to achieve. Even Ibn Sina himself relies on the use of a symbolic language in his visionary recitals to propagate certain philosophical notions that ordinary language of peripatetic philosophy sophical not convey.

This interpretation of Suhrawardi as a theosophist ( hakim) is also advocated by number of prominent Suhrawardi scholars such as Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Henry Corbin. The thrust of this inter pretation is the multidimensional aspect of the Suhrawardi philosophy. According to this interpretation, rationalistic philosophy is prerequisite to the study of ishraqi philosophy and an integral component of it.

Unlike the former two interpretations, however, Nasr and Corbin argue that the role of rationalistic philosophy is a limited one according to Suhrawardi because it demonstrates the limita- tions of reasons to bring about knowledge of an existential nature. The intellect that yearns towards the absolute, transcends reason and through intellectual intuition (dawq) embraces the Divine truth. The faculty of intellectual intuition which exists potentially in man can be actualized if one is engaged in inner cleansing and purification which makes one receptive to divine wisdom. In one of his lengthiest treatises, Suhrawardi himself alludes to the practical as well as the theoretical dimension of hikmah and states:

He [God] is hikmah in that hikmah is of two divisions: one is pure knowledge and the other one is practical. Knowledge is to conceptualize the reality of the existent beings but praxis is the structure of action emanating from the essence of the doer.

In numerous places throughout his treatises, Suhrawardi explicitly addresses the role and place of the practical dimension of the ishraqi school by discussing in great detail specific Sufirituals, components of an ascetic path their spiritual consequence for the salik (he who is on the path).

I adhere to the third interpretation since it does not negate or exclude the first two alternative interpretations but gives appropriate credit to Suhrawardi’s mystical dimension as well.

It is obvious that Suhrawardi has written a variety of mystical narratives deliberately using the traditional Sufi symbolism and metaphors. Furthermore, the number of these treatises, the use of Sufi language and expressions, as well as explicit emphasis on such notions as the spiritual path, the need for a master and ascetic practices, all indicate one thing, namely Suhrawardi’s desire to disclose the place and significance of the Sufi component of the school of ishraq.

It therefore seems that disregarding the Sufi elements of the Suhrawardi’s thought s leads to misinterpretation of the school of Ishraq which is often followed by an attempt to place Suhrawardi in one of the traditional school of Islamic philosophy i.e. peripatetics. It is the opinion of this author that Suhrawardi did not rely on one methodology for the understanding of truth but that he made full use of possibilities that exist in the philosophical as well as the practical aspects of wisdom.


suhrawardi and illumination school


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