Sadr al-Din Shirazi (Mulla Sadra) (b. 1571-1640)

One of the most important figures of post-Avicennan Islamic philosophy, and certainly the most eminent philosopher of the Safavid era in Iran. Known more commonly as Mulla Sadra, he was born in Shiraz where he received his early education.

He went to Isfahan to complete his studies in transmitted and intellectual sciences. In Isfahan, which was then a major center of learning, Sadra studied such transmitted sciences (al-‘ulum al-naqliyyah) as Qur’anic exegesis (tafsir) and jurisprudence (fiqh) with Baha' al-Din Muhammad al-Amili (d. 1031/1622). Amili, also known as Shaykh-i Baha'i, was the great theologian of the Safavid era and at once a philosopher, theologian, jurist, mathematician, architect, and poet.

In the field of intellectual sciences (al-‘ulum al-‘aqliyyah), Sadra studied with Sayyid Baqir Muhammad Astarabadi, known as Mir Damad (d. 1040/1631). Mir Damad’s al-Qabasat haqq al-yaqin fi huduth al-‘alam, known shortly as Qabasat, is a tour de force philosophical work combining the principles of Avicennan philosophy with the doctrines of the school of Illumination (ishraq), founded by Shihab al-Din Suhrawardi. Sadra had a close relationship with Mir Damad, and it was through him that he became a master of traditional philosophical schools. Some sources mention, among Sadra’s teachers, Mir Abu'l-Qasim Findiriski (d. circa 1050/1640-1), who was both a Peripatetic philosopher and an ascetic Sufi, and had traveled to India several times. It was under the intellectual patronage of these figures that Sadra developed his ideas and gave one of the most important examples of the unity of the transmitted and intellectual sciences in Islam.

After completing his formal education in Isfahan, Sadra was faced with the fierce opposition of some of the akhbaris in Isfahan, known for their strict literalism. In tandem with his predilection for spiritual discipline, Sadra refrained from the public life by withdrawing to a small village called Kahak, near Qom where he completed the groundwork for the composition of his major works. After a period of both physical and spiritual retreat, Sadra returned to Shiraz to teach in the Khan madrasah whose building is still extant today. In his personal life, Sadra lived the life of an ascetic, and died in Basra on the way back from his seventh pilgrimage to Mecca on foot. In addition to producing ground-breaking works in traditional philosophy, Sadra also trained a number of notable students, among whom 'Abd al-Razzaq ibn al-Husayn al-Lahiji (d. 1662) and Mulla Muhsin Fayd Kashani (d. 1680) are the most important.

Sadra composed works both in the field of transmitted and intellectual sciences, and they span through the entire spectrum of traditional philosophy from cosmology and psychology to metaphysics and Qur’anic commentaries. His monumental 4-part, 9-volume al-Hikmat al-muta'aliyah fi'l-asfar al-'aqliyyah al-arba'ah (“The Transcendent Wisdom in the Four Intellectual Journeys”), known simply as Asfar, can be read as a classical encyclopedia of philosophy minus the section on logic. His al-Shawahid al-rububiyyah is a rigorous treatment of some of the most difficult questions of traditional philosophy. Kitab al-Masha’ir, a work completed towards the end of his life, is Sadra’s own summary of his philosophical system, which he calls ‘transcendent wisdom’ (al-hikmat al-muta’aliyah). al-Hikmat al-‘arshiyyah is Sadra’s most important work on eschatology. Sadra was particularly interested in eschatology and wrote a number of treatises on the subject, among which Risalat al-hashr is to be noted. Sadra’s Qur’anic commentaries have been edited and published by Muhammad Khwajawi in 7 volumes.

Without doubt, the Asfar is the most important work of the Sadrean corpus in which every single problem of traditional philosophy is addressed from the point of view of Sadra’s transcendent wisdom. Sadra structures the entire Asfar according to the four journeys of the soul in the path of spiritual realization. The first journey is from the world of creation to the Truth and/or Creator (min al-khalq ila’l-haqq) where Sadra addresses the questions of metaphysics and ontology known also under the rubric of ‘general principles’ (al-umur al-‘ammah) or ‘divine science in its general sense’ (al-’ilm al-ilahi bi’l-ma’na al-a‘am). It is in this part of the Asfar that Sadra deals with the ontological foundations of his system including such issues as the meaning of philosophy, being (wujud) and its primacy (asalah) over quiddity (mahiyyah), gradation of being (tashkik al-wujud), mental existence (al-wujud al-dhihni), Platonic Forms (al-muthul al-aflatuniyyah), causality, substantial movement, time, temporal origination of the world, the intellect, and the unification of the intellect with the intelligible. The second journey is from the Truth to the Truth by the Truth (min al-haqq ila’l-haqq bi’l-haqq).

In the second journey, we find a full account of Sadra’s natural philosophy and his critique of the ten Aristotelian categories. Among the issues discussed extensively are the categories, substance and accidents, how physical entities come to exist, hylé and its philosophical significance, matter and form (hylomorphism), natural forms, and the roots of the hierarchy of the physical order.

The third journey is from the Truth to the world of creation with the Truth (min al-haqq ila’l-khalq bi’l-haqq) where Sadra goes into his reconstruction of theology, which is discussed under the name of ‘metaphysics’ or ‘divine science in its particular sense’ (al-‘ilm al-ilahi bi’l-ma’na’l-akhass). It is in this section of the Asfar that the theological dimension of Sadra’s thought and his relentless attacks on the theologians (mutakallimun) come to the fore. Among the issues Sadra addresses are the unity and existence of God and the previous kalam proofs given of it, the ontological simplicity of the Necessary Being, the Names and Qualities of God, God’s knowledge of the world, His power, Divine providence, speech (kalam) as a Divine quality, good and evil (theodicy), procession of the world of multiplicity from the One, and the unity of philosophy (‘wisdom’, hikmah) and the Divine law (shari’ah).

The fourth and final journey is from the world of creation to the world of creation with the Truth (min al-khalq ila’l-khalq bi’l-haqq) where the great chain of being is completed with psychology, resurrection, and eschatology.

The concept of “journey” (safar) has two closely related meanings in Sadra’s thought. First, the intellectual journey of the traveler (salik) comes to an end in the present and posthumous state of human beings. Second, the material and spiritual journey of the order of existence, which begins with the creation of the world and the reality of being, is brought to full completion in its ultimate return to God. This part of the Asfar provides a thorough investigation of traditional psychology with material culled from the Peripatetic psychology of Ibn Sina and the gnostic views of Ibn al-‘Arabi. As in the other parts of the Asfar, Sadra presents a critical history of the ideas and theories on the human soul from the Greeks to the Muslim philosophers and theologians. Among the issues discussed are the soul and its states, various powers of the soul in its interaction with the physical and intelligible world, sense perception, imagination (takhayyul) and the imaginal world (‘alam al-khayal), his celebrated doctrine that the soul is bodily or material in its origination and spiritual in its subsistence’ (jismaniyyat al-huduth ruhaniyyat al-baqa’), impossibility of the transmigration of souls (tanasukh), spiritual and bodily resurrection, and the reality of heaven and hell.

Mulla Sadra stands at the crossroads of four major intellectual perspectives in Islam, which are the Illuminationist school (ishraq) established by Surawardi, Peripatetic school (mashsha’i) represented chiefly by Ibn Sina and Nasir al-Din Tusi, and the gnostic (‘irfan) school of Ibn Arabi with such prominent members as Sadr al-Din al-Qunawi and Dawud al-Qaysari, and Islamic theology (kalam). In many ways, the Sadrean corpus is an attempt to synthesize these major philosophical perspectives within the context of Sadra’s ontology. This was a natural result of Sadra’s concern to reconcile theoretical/discursive thinking with realized knowledge.

The tension between the purely theoretical, discursive and analytical thinking and metaphysical/intuitive knowledge, which is a ubiquitous fact across the world civilizations, had already been noted and described by Suhrawardi as an impediment on the way to realized knowledge. To overcome this dichotomous relationship, Suhrawardi proposed the unification of discursive mode of thinking (bahth), represented primarily by the Peripatetics, and realized or tasted knowledge (dhawq) exemplified by the metaphysician Sufis (‘urafa’). For Suhrawardi, the ideal philosopher or sage is the one who combines analytical thinking and intuitive knowledge, through which one reaches illumination (ishraq).

In his grand synthesis, Sadra incorporates Suhrawardi’s model and takes it even a step further by articulating the unity of revelation (qur’an), demonstration (burhan) and metaphysical or realized knowledge (‘irfan). He subjects nearly all of the major problems of traditional philosophy to the triple scrutiny of Qur’anic teachings, logical analysis and intuitive knowledge. In culling material from the four major intellectual perspectives, Sadra does not create a syncretic synthesis but rather integrates them into a coherent whole under the rubric of his transcendent wisdom. This is where Sadra becomes particularly important in the history of Islamic thought as the tradition of integrating the revealed and human knowledge reaches a remarkable peak in his system.

Sadra’s synthetic perspective leads him to the unity of what is called the transmitted and intellectual sciences. The transmitted sciences (al-‘ulum al-naqliyyah) comprise such disciplines as Qur’anic commentary (tafsir), hadith, and grammar (nahw), and their methodology is based on the literal transmission and analysis of the text under investigation. In contrast to the intellectual sciences, the study of transmitted sciences does not require rational analysis because the subject matter is not constructed like a philosophical or logical problem even though one can certainly develop a systematic discourse about it.

The study of Arabic grammar, for instance, is based on the simple fact that we learn it from others, and there is no logical reason, or lack thereof, for the use of Arabic verbs at the beginning rather than at the end of a sentence. The only source to which we can turn for an explanation is those who have used the Arabic language in this way, and the justification for this is to be found nowhere other than in the subject-matter itself.

By contrast, the intellectual sciences (al-‘ulum al-naqliyyah) are based not on imitation (taqlid) or mere transmission but on rational and intellectual analysis, which includes metaphysical intuition. The justification of a philosophical argument derives not from the received authority of a text or person but from its cogency and rationality. In this sense, the intellectual sciences require an intellectual effort or exertion (ijtihad) on the part of the philosopher or simply the seeker of knowledge. It would be absurd, for instance, to cite the authority of one’s teacher or a text to prove that two plus two is four or that A cannot be both A and non-A at the same time. In a broad sense, the aim of this methodological distinction between the transmitted and intellectual sciences, whose earliest formulation goes back to Muslim philosophers before Sadra, is to show the complementary nature of the two kinds and sources of knowledge, viz., the knowledge sent by God through His books and messengers and the knowledge acquired by the unaided human intellect. Sadra insists on this point throughout his writings both in the field of transmitted and intellectual sciences. In fact, it would not be a stretch to say that Sadra is the most notable Muslim philosopher to have devoted a large number of works to the study of the Qur’an. This is especially true when we consider his Qur’anic commentaries that take up a conspicuous space in his corpus, and his hermeneutics of Qur’anic exegesis, which presents an interesting blend of purely Qur’anic terminology with a strictly philosophical vocabulary.

Sadra’s unifying perspective runs through his entire corpus, and it is against this background that we should understand Sadra’s insistence on maintaining the close relationship that traditional thought had established between philosophy and sciences of nature. To translate this into the language of contemporary philosophy of science, the context of justification and the context of experiment were kept intimately close to one another, and this has prevented the separation of metaphysical and ethical considerations from the operation of physical sciences. This approach enables Sadra to move easily between physics and metaphysics. In fact, his natural philosophy is an application of his metaphysical principles to the order of nature.

Sadra was certainly not a scientist in the ordinary sense of the term. His writings on cosmology and nature, however, present one of the most articulate examples of natural philosophy. But it is extremely important to keep in mind the centrality of Sadra’s ontology for his natural philosophy as he reformulates nearly all branches of knowledge in the light of the all-inclusive reality of being (wujud). Sadra defines wujud, which can be translated as both existence and being depending on the context in which it is used, as the principal reality by which everything exists. As opposed to the views of the Illuminationists and the theologians, he defends the primacy or principiality of being (asalat al-wujud) against quiddity (mahiyyah), and defines it as the source of all existence and intelligibility. In contrast to the mental representation of being (mafhum al-wujud) which is abstract, conceptual, and static, the reality of being (haqiqat al-wujud) does not lend itself to mental analysis (i’tibar ‘aqli) except as a second order concept. But once formulated as an abstract concept, wujud no longer remains as a reality in concreto which defies all conceptualization.

It is within the context of this dynamic picture of being that Sadra introduces the most central concept of his natural philosophy, viz., substantial motion (al-harakat al-jawhariyyah). The doctrine of substantial motion is based on the premise that everything in the order of nature, including celestial spheres, undergoes substantial change and transformation as a result of the self-flow (fayd) and penetration of being (sarayan al-wujud) which gives every concrete individual entity its share of being. In contrast to Aristotle and Ibn Sina who had accepted change only in four categories, i.e., quantity (kamm), quality (kayf), position (wad’) and place (‘ayn), Sadra defines change as an all-pervasive reality running through the entire cosmos including the category of substance (jawhar).

His argument for introducing change into substance, which was not possible to explain within the confines of Aristotelian physics, is that change in the accidental qualities of physical bodies has to come from their substance because accidents can not have existence independent of the substance to which they belong. In fact, every accidental change is the result of a deeper change/motion (istihala, harakah) that takes place in the very substance and constitution of things. In both the accidental and essential processes of change, physical bodies undergo a substantial change. This holds true even for cases where we do not observe essential transformation in the physical constitution of things such as in the case of positional movement, i.e., when the object A moves from point B to point C. Sadra calls this kind of motions accidental and describes it as movement-in-movement (harakah fi harakah). In a nutshell, every accidental change, which is immediately available to our five senses, can be traced back to substantial motion. Seen under this light, substantial motion or change is an intrinsic feature of things, and since every positional movement, which we take to be the measure of time, is ultimately a modulation of substantial movement, time should be redefined in tandem with the existential transformation of physical substances. Once we take this step, we realize, as Sadra and his commentators have noted, that time is a dimension of physical bodies. Furthermore, since the celestial spheres, whose circular movement the Peripatetics had taken to be the ultimate measure of time, are themselves subject to substantial motion, we can no longer turn to them for the measure of linear time.

Sadra applies this theory of substantial motion to a number of metaphysical problems including the generation of the soul and temporal origination of the world. He defines the human soul as a being whose origination is bodily but whose subsistence is spiritual. To use Sadra’s words, the soul is a bodily or material substance in its origination and spiritual in its subsistence (jismaniyyat al-huduth ruhaniyyah al-baqa’). Through substantial transformation and perfection, the soul reaches a point where it leaves the domain of material existence and enters into the abode of spiritual reality. The process of essential change continues until the soul becomes completely separate from the limitations of bodily existence. Substantial motion of the soul, however, continues even after the soul has left its bodily home as the degrees of perfection for it are potentially infinite until it becomes re-united with its Divine origin.

In a similar fashion, Sadra explains the temporal origination of the world on the basis of substantial motion. If everything in the cosmos is in constant change, that is, in a different mode of being at every moment, then it is always different from what it was before and will be different from what it would be at the next instance of its existentiation. This suggests that every physical being is preceded by non-existence (masbuq bi’l-‘adam), and such an order of being, taken as a whole, can neither subsist by itself nor, in contrast to the Peripatetics, could be eternal (qadim). Thus the world of physical existence is temporally originated and renewed at every successive phase of its existential transformation. For Sadra, what makes this existential transformation possible is not an external agent that acts upon the world of nature antecedently but what he calls nature (tabi’ah) in a particularly Sadrean sense. Nature as defined by Sadra signifies the immediate cause of movement and transformation in physical bodies. In this sense, nature is the principle of change as an essential quality of things. Sadra, however, hastens to add that nature is also the principle of continuity and permanence because the preservation of natural forms, in spite of the ceaseless change of the natural realm, is a constant phenomenon in nature. Thus, in contrast to the modern image of nature as only the abode of change, Sadra construes nature as an order of being that carries in itself both the principle of change and permanence.

This dynamic view of being and cosmos leads Sadra to a world-picture that is thoroughly teleological, i.e., having a purpose (telos, ghayah). Sadra states in the Asfar that chance or accidental coincidences (ittifaqiyyat) are not constant in nature. On the contrary, everything in nature is directed towards a ‘universal purpose’ (aghrad kulliyah), and this is nothing but the existential actualization and perfection of the cosmos. The ever-continuous ‘intensification’ (tashaddud) of the order of nature comes about as a result of the self-effusion (fayd) of Being, which is, so to speak, God’s Face turned to the world of relative existence. In this regard, it would be fair to say that the world displays a dual nature: on one hand, it subsists by and is utterly dependent upon the Command of God (kun, esto). On the other hand, God has created the world in such a way that it possesses a remarkable regularity and constancy. It is thus through the binary relationship of these two ‘agencies’ that Sadra seeks to establish a harmonious relationship between the vertical and horizontal lines of causation. The Islamic occasionalists, especially the Ash’arites, had come to the radical conclusion that they had to accept vertical causality at the expense of horizontal causality in order to make space for miracles. Sadra, being acutely aware of occasionalism’s intrinsic difficulties and inconsistencies, defines the two lines of causality as in a perfect accord in that God sustains the world of creation in such a way that it is bound to be causal and rule-governed in the most concrete sense of the term. The great chain of being (da’irat al-wujud), of which Sadra has given one of the most sophisticated expositions in the history of philosophy, is thus construed as a unified structure that allows for a self-regulating dynamism on the one hand, and the perpetual presence of the creative act of God, on the other.

Ibrahim Kalin

March 2001

Selected Bibliography

Açıkgenç, Alparslan, Being and Existence in Sadra and Heidegger, (Kuala Lumpur: I.S.T.A.C., 1993).

‘Alawi, Hadi, Nazariyyat al-Harakah al-Jawhariyyah ‘ind al-Shirazi, (Beirut: 1983).

Ashtiyani, Sayyid Jalal al-Din, Sharh-i hal wa aray-i falsafi-i Mulla Sadra (Mashhad, 1382/1962).

Avens, Robert, “Theosophy of Mulla Sadra”, Hamdard Islamicus  9:3 (1986), 3-30.

‘Awn, Faysal Badir, Fikrat al-Tabi’ah fi’l-Falsafat al-Islamiyyah, (Syria: University of ‘Ayn al-Shams, 1980).

Badur, Salman, “al-Harakat al-jawhariyya fi falsafati Sadr al-Din al-Shirazi”, Dirasat ‘ulum             al-insaniyyah wa’l-turath 11: 4 (1984), 29-40.

---------, “Mitafiziqa al-wujud fi falsafati Sadr al-Din al-Shirazi”, Dirasat ‘ulum al-insaniyyah wa’l-turath 13: 4 (1986), 215-235.

Corbin, Henry, “Le Thème de la résurrection chez Mollâ Sadra Shirazi (1050/1640) commentateur de Suhrawardi (586/1191)” in Studies in Mysticism and Religion Presented to Gershom G. Scholem (Jerusalem, 1967), pp. 71-115.

--------, “Mollâ Sadra Shirazi” in En Islam iranien, (Paris, 1972), Vol. IV, pp. 52-122.

Craig, William L, The Cosmological Argument from Plato to Leibniz  (London: Macmillan Press,1980).

Dhanani, Alnoor, The Physical Theory of Kalam Atoms, Space, and Void in Basrian Mu’tazili Cosmology, (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1994).

Fakhry, Majid, Islamic Occasionalim and its Critique by Averroes and Aquinas (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1958).

Izutsu, Toshihiko, The Concept and Reality of Existence (Tokyo: The Keio Institute of Cultural and Linguistic Studies, 1971).

---------,‘The Concept of Perpetual Creation in Islamic Mysticism and Zen Buddhism’ in Mélanges Offerts a Henry Corbin ed. S. H. Nasr, (Tehran: 1977).

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, Mulla Sadra and His Transcendent Philosophy (Tehran: 1997, 2nd edition).

--------, “Mulla Sadra: His Teachings” in A History of Islamic Philosophy ed. by S. H. Nasr and O. Leaman (London: Routledge, 1996), Vol. I, pp. 643-662.

--------, “Mulla Sadra as a Source For the History of Islamic Philosophy” Islamic Studies, 3:3 (1964), 309-314.

--------, “Mulla Sadra” The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Paul Edwards (Editor in chief), Vol.5 (New York: The Macmillan Company and The Free Press, 1967), pp. 411-413.

--------, (ed.) Mulla Sadra Commemoration Volume (Tehran, 1380/1960).

--------, “Sadr al-Din al-Shirazi (Mulla Sadra)” in A History of Muslim Philosophy, ed. M. M. Sharif, (Wiesbaden: 1962).

Rahman, Fazlur, ‘Mulla Sadra’ Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol. 10,  (New York: 1987), 149-153.

--------, ‘Mir Damad’s Concept of Huduth Dahri: A Contribution to the Study of God-World Relationship Theories in Safavid Iran’ Near Eastern Studies 39 (1980), 139-151.

---------, The Philosophy of Mulla Sadra, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1975).

--------, 'Essence and Existence in Avicenna' Mediaeval and Renaissance Studies, IV (1958), 1-16

Sadr al-Din al-Shirazi (Mulla Sadra), al-Hikmat al-muta'aliyah fi'l- asfar al-'aqliyyah al-arba'ah, ed. By Muhammad Rida al-Muzaffar (Beirut: Dar Ihya’ al-Turath al-’Arabi, 1981) 9 Vols.

---------, al-Shawahid al-rububiyyah fi manahij al-sulukiyyah, ed. by Sayyid Jalal al-Din Ashtiyani in 2 volumes together with Sabziwari’s commentary (Mashhad, 2nd edition, 1981).

---------, Kitab al-Masha'ir, ed. by H. Corbin as Le Livre des Penetrations métaphysiques (Tehran: 1982). This edition includes the French and the Persian translation of the Masha'ir along with Corbin's introduction and commentary.

---------, Rasa’il Falsafi, ed. S. J. Ashtiyani (Qom: Markaz-i Intisharat Daftar-i Tablighat-i Islami, 1362).

---------, al-Hikmat al-‘arshiyyah translated by James Winston Morris as The Wisdom of the Throne An Introduction to the Philosophy of Mulla Sadra (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1981).

---------, al-Mazahir al-ilahiyyah fi asrar al-‘ulum al-kamaliyyah, ed. by Sayyid Muhammad Khamanei (Tehran: Bunyad-i Hikmat-i Islami-yi Sadra, 1378).

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