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A. Existence and Essence
For Suhrawardi, to know something is to know its essence and not its existence. Let us now see how Suhrawardi argues for this position and what its ishraqi implications are.
Contrary to the Peripatetics, Suhrawardi maintains that existence is a mere concept and has no external reality or manifestation. His argument for the principality of essence (asalat al-mahiyyah), which distinguishes him from most of the Muslim philosophers, undermines role of existence as that upon which the reality of thing depends. In The Philosophy of Illumination he argues that all beings exist equally and it is not the case that some existent beings exist more than others, an indication that existence is universal concept. The problem which follows from this is that such things as “whiteness” are also of universal natures which nevertheless are regarded to be universal essence as well. If “ existence” were not pure “whiteness” or “sweetness”, then it would not be a universal concept, but would be a particular. But, if they the same, then, it would be the same as essence. This means every existing being would have its own particular existence. Suhrawardi seem to argue that if this be the case then this “particular existence” would be equivalent to the essence of the thing. From this, Suhrawardi concludes that existence is a purely mental concept, whereas the particular essence has an actual existence which makes a white or black object be white or black. On this he states:
Attribution of existence to blackness, essence, man and horses are regarded to be the same, and therefore the concept of existence is a concept than is more universal than each of them. The same is true of the concept of essence in its absolute sense and the concept of truth and the nature of beings in their absolute sense. Therefore, we claim that such categories (existence and universal essence) are pure mental concepts since if we (assume) that existence consists only of pure blackness, necessarily the same will not hold true with whiteness and (together) cannot include whiteness and essence.
Suhrawardi goes on to further argue for the principality of essence by concluding the following:
1. Existent objects and existence are two separate things.
2. Existence can be conceived only in respect to an existent being.
3. Existence beings precede existence in their order of coming into existence.
Since existence as a universal concept requires an existent being in order for it to manifest, and since existent beings require an essence in order to be, then essence must precede existence in the order of actualization. In other words, since essence is needed for an existent being to exist and existence is contingent upon an existent being, then existence is contingent upon the essence.
Suhrawardi offers two types of arguments, the support for both of which is based on the impossibility of the existence of an infinite succession of contingent dependent beings. He argues that existence if and only if existent beings exist. He states this in a very complicated argument which is as follows:
If we say that whenever something is non- existent, is existence is necessarily not-actualized, and then its existence is nonexistent. This is because with the assumption that its existence is non-existent, whenever we conceive of existence and say that it does exist, it becomes necessary that the concept of existence be different from the existent object.
Suhrawardi in the above argument seeks to demonstrate that existence has no actual reality and as a concept it is contingent upon the existence of the existent beings and therefore its presence is derived from the existence of the existent objects which themselves own their existence to essence. This is the first argument for the principality of the essence ( asalat al-mahiyyah) which became the basis of the ishraqi doctrine.
Suhrawardi’s second argument for the principality of the essence is based on the fallacy of a teleological argument. On this Suhrawardi states: Therefore, if we say that what we assumed not to exist came into existence and the existence of that which was not and then was created, we realize that coming into being is different from existence. It becomes necessary that existence should have existence and we have to define existence by existence, and this continues ad infinitum. [ It was stated that ] an infinite succession of beings is impossible.
In the above, Suhrawardi argues that if existence had actually existed, i.e. a table, and yet was different from essence, then it must have an existence and so on. This process aould go on ad infinitum, which is absurd.
Suhrawardi’s view on the principiality of the essence is absolutely crucial in the understanding of his philosophical views. To know something, for Suhrawardi’, is to know its essence and that cannot be done through the senses, since senses can only perceive the appearance. Therefore, either we cannot know anything, which is absurd, or there is an alternative exultation. Suhrawardi’s explanation of what this alternative is will be elaborated upon in the section on “ Knowledge and Presence”.
B. Necessary and contingent Beings
Having argued for the principality of essence over existence by maintaining that essence is a necessary being and existence is contingent upon it, Suhrawardi goes on to equate essence with light.
Having argued against an infinite regress of contingent dependent beings, which is crucial for the validity of Suhrawardi ‘s ontological frame work, Suhrawardi offers a complex argument that all existent beings Light are of a contingent nature.
To argue for this, Suhrawardi offers an argument in two parts. In the first part he argues that while no being exists by necessity (except the light of lights), all beings exists necessarily. His argument goes as follows: Thing either exist by necessity or they are contingent. Contingent entities because of the presence of their cause and, should their cause be absent, the effect, which is the entity in question, would not exist either. Therefore, the existence of existent objects is due to the existence of their cause, and from this Suhrawardi concludes that objects, whether they exist or not, are contingent since they are caused. On the other hand, since every event has to have a cause and this process cannot go on forever, can conclude that there has to be ultimate cause whose existence is necessary.
The second part of Suhrawardi’s argument is more complex. He states: If, as some have assumed, it is true that existence excludes the contingent from its contingency and makes it necessary, then it is necessary that non- existing should exclude the non-existent from non- existence and make it not- possible which means there cannot be a thing as contingent being.
Suhrawardi’s argument maintains that if that which comes into existence loses its contingent nature and becomes necessary, then by a logical inference its opposite, which is non-existent by virtue of its non-existence, should make all non-existent not-possible. From this it follows that it is not logical possible for anything to be contingent. The converse would also have to be true.
However, Suhrawardi has already maintained in the first part of this argument that all existing objects are contingent, which is contrary to the conclusion of the above argument. In the above arguments, Suhrawardi not only criticizes the ontological views of the Peripatetics which he elaborates upon in numerous places in The Philosophy of Illumination, Intimations, Opposites, and Conversations, but also strengthen his own ishraqi view through the implications of the arguments.
suhrawardi and illumination school
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