A critical analysis of knowledge by presence in The philosophy of illumination

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A. Introduction
Despite Suhrawardi’s genius, there are a number of objections that can be raised against some of his specific arguments. Here I wish to discuss several problematic points implied by the theory of knowledge by presence. Suhrawardi’s argues that after he thoroughly mastered the Peripatetic philosophy, he realized the inadequacies of such a philosophical methodology. He then improved certain aspects of the Peripatetic philosophy by adding and omitting certain arguments. As that point he had done what any brilliant philosopher would do. He then tells us through asceticism and initiation he had a vision of the truth. He reminds us on numerous occasions that the path of spiritual realization requires ascetic practices.

A. Mystical vision, as the basis of the validity of the philosophical principles
What is problematic in Suhrawardi’s claim is that through spiritual vision he has realized the validity of philosophical principles which he advocates. This is exactly what distinguishes gnosis ( irfan) from philosophy. The problem is as follows: What if there exists an argument or a set arguments in the works of Suhrawardi that are clearly false? In order to falsify Suhrawardi’s philosophical paradigm it is only necessary to find one instance in which Suhrawardi advocates a false argument. There are indeed such instances.

B. The consequences of basing philosophical argument upon mystical vision
Basing the validity of a philosophical argument contingent upon spiritual realization creates the following problems:
1. All the philosophical arguments must be sound, or else the spiritual vision of Suhrawardi is not authentic.
2. All the philosophical arguments are sound regardless of their apparent fallacies and therefore the vision is authentic.

As I indicated above, in the first case, it is not very difficult to find an argument of Suhrawardi with apparent flaws. How Suhrawardi can defend this position is puzzling. If I present a philosophical argument of Suhrawardi which is by any account fallacious to him, then he either has to admit that his spiritual vision was not real or that the validity of philosophical arguments is not necessarily related to one’s mystical vision. Since Suhrawardi has based his views on the premise that the truth of philosophical arguments can be realized through one’s illumination, then separating the validity of the arguments and spiritual vision would be violation of the fundamental principle upon which the ishraqi school is established. Suhrawardi obviously will not grant that his mystical experience has been a false one since that would place the ishraqi school in a dilemma.

It follows that Suhrawardi will have to adopt the position that all the arguments which he has presented have been checked by his spiritual realization and are correct, regardless of their apparent fallacy. The falsification of his arguments is therefore of no consequence since he knows that ultimately these principles are sound. This argument does not go very far and, in fact, brings about even a more fundamental problem. There have been many eminent philosophers of the ishrqi tradition who have refuted each other’s arguments. Lets us take only two of the greatest masters of this tradition, Suhrawardi and Mulla Sadra.

B. Mulla Sadra’s critiques of Suhrawardi
Mulla Sadra is by all accounts a man of superior intellect and profound vision whose spiritual and philosophical acumen is com parable to Suhrawardi. Mulla Sadra takes issue not only with Suhrawardi’s ontology, but in his commentary upon The Philosophy of Illumination he criticized specific arguments of Suhrawardi.

One can say that the apparent inconsistency between Mulla Sadra and Suhrawardi exists only within the philosophical domain and that on an esoteric level they remain in agreement. This would have been acceptable if Suhrawardi and other ishraqi sages had not derived the validity of their philosophical propositions from the authenticity of their spiritual vision. Mulla Sadra and Suhrawardi both claim to know the truth and both claim that the validity of their philosophical views is derived from the knowledge they have acquired directly in the form of revelation. Since they disagree with one another, one of the following alternatives must be the case:
1. The existing inconsistancies indicate they both are false,
2. The existing inconsistancies indicate one of them must be false.
3. They both are right.

C. The validity of arguments not based on mystical vision
One way of determining whose claim is correct is to apply the standard means of analysis and evaluation that philosophers have relied upon to determine the validity of their arguments. Those who do engage in such an analysis will soon find out that there are fallacies in the works of Mulla Sadra and Suhrawardi as well as their commentators. The problem to which I am alluding is a serious one, since if the validity of philosophical arguments is subject to the truth of one’s vision, then philosophy becomes subjective and relative and one has to accept that Suhrawardi and Mulla Sadra and their opponents are all correct, which is not possible because they contradict one another.

One may reply to my objection by arguing that truth is relative to the spiritual state of an individual, and while only the absolute the absolute truth is relative. Therefore, the existing differences between Mulla Sadra and Suhrawardi are superficial and ultimately they are in agreement even though they do not know it.

The above reply is not convincing in that philosophical principles, especially those of a rationalistic nature, do not lend themselves to exegesis and interpretation in the same way that mystical assertations do. To further clarify the above, let us consider the following example. Suppose Suhrawardi argues that the following argument is correct and Mulla Sadra argues it is false.
1. All men are mortal.
2. Socrates is a man (A)
3. Socrates is mortal.

Assuming Suhrawardi and Mulla Sadra both a genuine experience of truth, then they must necessarily agree with A, since the conclusion of the above argument is true and their philosophical view is derived from the authenticity of their spiritual vision. Then how are we to account for their disagreement in this regard? In such instances as the description of truth, God, or even the nature of mystical experience, inconsistencies can be explained by the fact that one’s understanding of truth is relative to his spiritual state. In case such as A, however, we have a clear and simple argument that is clearly either true or false. This creates a problem which is typical of those who have offered a philosophical analysis based on their mystical vision.

D. The relationship between intellectual argument and mystical vision from Abd al- Razzaq Lahiji point of view
Abd al- Razzaq Lahiji, one of the most celebrated commentators of Suhrawardi, in his book Gawhar murad, argues that the conclusion one arrives at through discursive reasoning is the same as that which is attained through illumination, with the only difference being the clarity. Lahiji raises an important issue which Suhrawardi has left unanswered, and that is, what if the knowledge attained through illumination is contradictory to the well established principles of knowledge? This is a question that Suhrawardi seems to take for granted by assuming that illumination and philosophical analysis, if carried out “properly”, will lead to the same conclusion. Lahiji realizes that neglecting the validity of a logical principle at the expense of an esoteric judgment may lead to anarchy, since the authority of the judgment itself is not verifiable.

Lahiji’s response is clever one. He maintains that if the result of one’s discovery through illumination were contrary to the principles of logic, then the person should not claim to be illumination. Although this principle guards the rational principle from subjective judgments, it gives priority to the discursive domain. As Lahiji states:

Therefore, a Sufi would either be a theosopher or a theologian. Without a firm grasp in theosophy or theology, and without benefiting from the men of vision, in accordance with the words of the ulama or its contrary m any claim to Sufism is pure forgery.

To further clarify the distinction between the principles of rationalistic philosophy and hikmat, Lahiji makes a distinction between knowledge of the scientific principles versus metaphysical beings. Whereas the scientific principles lean themselves to philosophical inquiries, ishraqi wisdom dose not.

R. Necessity of separating the spiritual realization and philosophical and scientific truth
To summarize, there exists a fundamental problem at the heart of the school of illumination, which arises when Suhrawardi makes the validity of the philosophical principles contingent upon one’s mystical vision. My proposed solution is that instead of arguing for a correlation between the spiritual realization and philosophical truth, Suhrawardi should separate them. It is perfectly justifiable for a mystic to remain ignorant of the science of biology and chemistry while claiming to know the truth. Accordingly, Suhrawardi has to differentiate between scientific and philosophical truth. He must then place them within a different category from truth that is attained through a mystical experience. Suhrawardi should say that knowledge of one category should not have any bearing upon the other one if he is to resolve the problem which I have discussed above. Suhrawardi should continue to consider philosophical training and especially mastery of Peripatetic philosophy to be a prerequisite for the pursuance of ishraqi tradition. This is justifiable if Suhrawardi considers it to be a necessary training and nothing else. However, it would be a fatal mistake for him to say that the validity of the philosophical principles, especially those contained in The Philosophy of Illumination, have been derived from his mystical experience, since some of those principles and arguments of Suhrawardi as Mulla Sadra, Lahiji and Sabziwari. Regardless of this objection, Suhrawardi ‘s philosophical arguments and mystical narratives are important and have their own merit. Within the philosophical domain, his works should be regarded as brilliant commentaries on Ibn Sina’s philosophy, with major differences in the fields of epistemology and ontology.

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suhrawardi and illumination school

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