Kevin R. D. Shepherd



How do you view Islamic philosophy? You appear to rate Al-Farabi, Ibn Rushd, and also the ishraqi tradition of Islamic Iran, and you have written sympathetically about a Zoroastrian extension of ishraq. Yet how are we to regard all those medieval developments now? Can these seriously compare with modern Western philosophy and science?



The Falasifa


Ishraq and the Corbin-Nasr Presentation


The Social Theory of Ibn Khaldun


Getting a Perspective on Sufism


Suhrawardi’s Philosophy of Illumination


Contemporary Relevance of Islamic Philosophy

16.1  The Falasifa

Islamic philosophy is rather more complex than at first appears. Yes, I do esteem Al-Farabi, and also others of his category. They were so very different to insular religious scholars, sustaining a version of Greek philosophy in the face of disapproval. Known as falasifa, they included men like Al-Kindi, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Ibn Bajjah, Ibn Tufayl, Ibn Rushd (Averroes), and Ibn Sabin. They were a minority of intellectuals, existing between Spain and Central Asia. Their output was not uniform; differences in temperament appear to have been substantial.

The learned “litterateur” Abu Hayyan al-Tauhidi (d.c.1023) was a close associate of the philosopher Abu Sulayman al-Sijistani (d.c.985), who lived in Baghdad, being nicknamed the logician. The background to the activity of the Sijistani circle was rich in intercultural associations. Sijistani learned Greek philosophy from a Christian scholar and translator.

In this environment members of various religious groups – Muslims, Christians, Jews, Sabians, Magians – unified by a common love of ancient wisdom, pursued philosophical studies together. (Joel L. Kraemer, Philosophy in the Renaissance of Islam: Abu Sulayman al-Sijistani and his Circle, E. J. Brill 1986, p. 311)

However, there were differences within unity. For instance, Tauhidi was an adherent of Sufism, in contrast to Sijistani. Like other philosophers at this period, Sijistani believed in astrology. Tauhidi opposed that pursuit in one of his own works (ibid:45). Some strongly independent judgments were evidently expressed in such liberal circles of learning.

Abu Nasr al-Farabi (c.870-950) was one of the earliest falasifa (philosophers). His biography is vestigial. He is sometimes described as a Turk, being born in Turkestan (Transoxiana), though other commentators say that his family were of Iranian descent. Like Sijistani, he moved from Central Asia to Baghdad (in Iraq), where he became known as a philosopher and scientist. Farabi is reported to have declined a government role, living an ascetic life. At that period, Baghdad was an unrivalled centre of intellectual activity, famous for scholarly pursuits and bookstores. Translators had made available to Muslims the works of Aristotle (except the Politics), along with Peripatetic commentaries. See further Peter Adamson, ed., In the Age of Al-Farabi: Arabic Philosophy in the Fourth/Tenth Century (Warburg Institute, 2008).


Depiction of al-Farabi

Farabi is often described as a Neoplatonist. However, his stance as an Aristotelian logician is strong. He became known as the “Second Teacher” after Aristotle. His most famous work, Al-Madina al-Fadila (The Virtuous City), has been described in terms of an Islamicised version of Plato’s Republic. See Richard R. Walzer, ed. and trans., Al-Farabi On the Perfect State (Oxford University Press, 1985). See also Walzer, “Al-Farabi,” Encyclopaedia of Islam Vol. 2 (second edn, 1965), pp. 778ff. Despite his status as a logician, Farabi also wrote a lengthy work on music that became celebrated. His later biography gained legendary elements, which do not invalidate “in any way the substance of his thought embodied in a huge multitude of writings, nor the magnitude of his intellectual achievement which those writings manifest” (Ian R. Netton, Al-Farabi and his School, Routledge 1992, p. 4). See also Majid Fakhry, Al-Farabi, Founder of Islamic Neoplatonism: His Life, Works, and Influence (2002).

Over a hundred works in Arabic are credited to Farabi. Only a portion of these have survived, revealing a predominant commitment to logic, notably extending to linguistic topics. A number of Farabi texts only became available in recent decades, with a due need for translations. Some treatises formerly attributed to Farabi have since been disputed and reallocated to the later school of Ibn Sina. Farabi composed “loose commentaries” on classic Aristotelian texts, and also independent works on logic and language. He formulated “a conception of logic as a sort of universal grammar that provides those rules that must be followed in order to reason correctly in any language whatsoever” (Deborah L. Black, “Al-Farabi,” in S.H. Nasr and O. Leaman, eds., History of Islamic Philosophy Vol. 1, Routledge 1996, p. 180).

Identity problems were caused in Islamic philosophy by the existence of a text in Arabic known as Theology of Aristotle. This is actually a version of the Enneads of Plotinus (more specifically, a paraphrased rendition of Enneads 4-6). Aristotle was thus often confused with Neoplatonist metaphysics. Farabi generally avoided reference to this complication in his treatises on Aristotelian philosophy. One interpretation is that Farabi recognised the difference between emanationist cosmology and Aristotle; he himself apparently accepted the validity of Neoplatonist doctrine, regarding this as a valid complement to the Metaphysics of Aristotle.

Two of his major works are The Virtuous City (or The Perfect State) and The Political Regime (al-Siyasah al-Madaniyyah). His political philosophy is a Muslim Neoplatonist variant. He describes his version of the ideal city or state, conducive to the happiness of all citizens who work in perfect harmony. He also describes deviations from the ideal, including ignorant cities and wicked cities. Ignorant cities here encompass the deceptive category of “democratic cities, in which there is no single motivating end, where each citizen is left to seek whatever he or she deems best” (Black 1996:191). One feels that Farabi would have regarded many modern cities in this light. See also Miriam Galston, Politics and Excellence: The Political Philosophy of Alfarabi (1990).

Another major work of Farabi was Enumeration of the Sciences, later translated into Latin as De Scientiis, and used in Christian schools until the sixteenth century. That treatise, influenced by Aristotelian classification, examines numerous aspects of science and philosophy. Enumeration was frequently quoted and summarised in both Hebrew and Latin, and includes a chapter on political science, law, and theology. According to Professor Muhsin Mahdi, this chapter was for long unplumbed, recourse being needed to Farabi’s Book of Religion in order to comprehend the relationship between the three subjects stipulated. See further Mahdi, Alfarabi and the Foundation of Islamic Political Philosophy (2001), pp. 5-6. For the Book of Religion and the chapter from Enumeration, see Charles E. Butterworth, trans., Alfarabi, the Political Writings: Selected Aphorisms and Other Texts (2004).

“Alfarabi is notorious for the caution with which he writes” (Joshua Parens, An Islamic Philosophy of Virtuous Religions: Introducing Alfarabi, 2006, p. 5). His writing has been discerned to use a multi-level method marked by contradictions, digressions, and silences where a lengthy discussion could be anticipated. His aim was to encourage due reflection, not dogmatism. His caution is also viewed as a defensive measure in the face of pedantic attitudes. His exposition in political philosophy was not dialectical (as in Plato’s dialogues), but instead descriptive and rhetorical. However, underlying intentions were apparently very similar. See further Parens, Metaphysics as Rhetoric: Alfarabi’s Summary of Plato’s “Laws” (1995).

Another work from the Muslim Neoplatonist/Aristotelian is The Philosophy of Plato. One scholarly description of this compact text is that Farabi here “playfully elaborates the entire Platonic enterprise as a sequential quest.” The description further specifies “an archetypal account of the stages in a truly philosophic life.” See the foreword by Charles E. Butterworth and Thomas L. Pangle to Muhsin Mahdi, trans., Alfarabi: Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle (1962; revised edn 1969; Cornell University Press 2002 reissue, p. xiv). Protagorean relativism was confirmed by Farabi as one of the diversions to be avoided. In the same text, he refers to the claim of Protagoras that “the knowledge natural to man is relative to the conviction formed by each individual” (ibid., p. xv). In contrast, Farabi evidently believed with Plato that a greater (and more objective) knowledge does exist and can be attained.

A closely associated text is the Attainment of Happiness (Tahsil al-sa’adah). Farabi furthered the Platonist viewpoint: “Those who do not attempt to apply their theoretical perfection to practical and political pursuits cannot claim to be true philosophers: such people remain what al-Farabi calls ‘vain’ or futile philosophers” (Black 1996:190). The desired art of communication, in practical and political pursuits, is closely related to the philosophic life, which should surpass such activities as the contemporary mud-slinging visible between rival political parties.

Although the Islamic world was incapable for whatever reasons of assimilating Alfarabi’s profound rationalism in the medieval period, it may stand to benefit from his instruction now. (Joshua Parens, An Islamic Philosophy of Virtuous Religions: Introducing Alfarabi, State University of New York Press, 2006, p. 4)

The theme of accepting a multiplicity of virtuous religions is distinguished by Professor Parens from the cultural monopoly of any one virtuous religion. The inference here is that Farabi was attempting to negotiate an intention of religious dominance on the part of Islam. He himself is reported to have studied in Baghdad under Christian scholars. Both Christianity and Islam opted for dogmatic exclusivism in the later medieval period. This trend is frequently associated with the eclipse of philosophy in some sectors of the Islamic world.

The works of Farabi did not gain the same degree of exposure, in the Christian world, as did those of his successors Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd. He was nevertheless much esteemed in the Jewish philosophical tradition, receiving a celebrated encomium from Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), who described Farabi as a great man who composed excelling works (see also al-Farabi to Spinoza and Muslims and Europeans).

An Islamic philosopher, adhering to an Aristotelian purism, was Ibn Rushd (1126-1198), known to the Christian world as Averroes. He was active in the furthermost western territories annexed by the Arabs, mainly Andalusia (southern Spain). Born in Cordova, Ibn Rushd pursued the career of a lawyer. He was also a medic and wrote extensively on philosophy. A dedicated follower of Aristotle, his Arabic commentaries (via translations) became staple diet for many later Christian schoolmen.

Ibn Rushd notably clashed with the "orthodox Sufi" expositor Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali, who repudiated tenets of the falasifa. Like other falasifa, Ibn Rushd attempted to harmonise philosophy and religion. His Fasl al-Maqal (The Decisive Treatise) affirms that philosophy contains nothing opposed to Islam, and argues for the legality of philosophical investigation within Islam. In this unusual work, Ibn Rushd claims that the study of philosophy is “obligatory” (wajib). His defensive approach employed the conservative terminology of Islamic legalism, generally a very resistant sector to philosophy. See further Charles E. Butterworth, trans., Decisive Treatise and Epistle Dedicatory by Averroes (2001).

Ibn Rushd gained the role of a qazi (judge) at Seville, the capital of Andalus. He was also distinguished by various court appointments in both Spain and Morocco. He became chief qazi at Cordova and physician to the Caliph. Sadly, at the end of his life he was banished from Cordova as a heretic, his rationalism being too indigestible for religious orthodoxy. The Almohad ruler Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur banned the books of Ibn Rushd in 1195. The philosopher was interrogated. A number of his books were burned. The heretic was exiled to Lucena, a small Spanish town inhabited mainly by Jews. Two years or so later, the Caliph revoked the banishment and summoned Ibn Rushd to Marrakesh. The details are not clear; some commentators have doubted that the heretic was fully reassimilated to Islamic orthodoxy, despite his loyal supporters in Seville and Cordova.

Philosophy (falsafa) “is thought of by Ibn Rushd and his Arabic predecessors not as speculative in the modern sense, but as yielding a knowledge of reality which is demonstrative according to the Aristotelian conditions.... philosophy is thus thought of as a kind of science, giving certain truth to the qualified philosopher who reasons with sufficient care” (George F. Hourani, Averroes: On the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy, Luzac 1961, p. 20).

Ibn Rushd wrote commentaries in Arabic on most of Aristotle’s surviving works, having no access to the Politics. See, e.g., Charles E. Butterworth, trans., Averroes’ Middle Commentaries on Aristotle’s Categories and De Interpretatione (1998). Ibn Rushd was familiar with the sciences of medicine, astronomy, mathematics, and physics. Some analysts affirm that he also made contributions to psychology. Under the name of Averroes, he became well known in Christian Europe for his diligent commentaries on Aristotle (an uncertainty persists as to whether he knew Greek). Latin translators relied heavily upon his corpus; some of his works have survived only in Latin or Hebrew versions.

More than any of the other falasifa, Ibn Rushd influenced the Christian sector of commentary until the sixteenth century. Jewish philosophy was also a beneficiary of his labours. Gersonides (Levi ben Gershom) was an avid commentator on Ibn Rushd in the fourteenth century. For such reasons, Averroism has been regarded as the originating source for modern secular thought. See further Oliver Leaman, Averroes and his Philosophy (1988); Dominique Urvoy, Ibn Rushd (1991); Majid Fakhry, Averroes: His Life, Works, and Influence (2001).

In his commentary on Plato’s Republic, Ibn Rushd adopted an Islamising standpoint. His paraphrase of Plato does not survive in the Arabic original, but in a fourteenth century Hebrew translation. The paraphrase includes interpolations from Aristotle, Farabi, and others. Ibn Rushd was evidently an enthusiast of Plato. However, the Greek philosopher poses difficulties for the Islamic legal system (sharia) represented by the commentator. See Ralph Lerner, trans., Averroes on Plato’s Republic (1974).

The most original philosophical work of Ibn Rushd is considered to be the Tahafut al-Tahafut. The title here means Incoherence of the Incoherence, referring to his low estimation of the standpoint of Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali (1058-1111). The latter was a theologian and also an exponent of Sufism. Ghazzali had composed a book called Tahafut al-Falasifa, which means Incoherence of the Philosophers. This work insisted upon the separation of religion and philosophy, arguing that philosophers became infidels (kafirs) on key issues such as their support for eternity of the world (a doctrine of Aristotle) and their denial of bodily resurrection. Ghazzali’s main target was Ibn Sina (980-1037), a major Peripatetic exponent, who was also later contested by Aquinas.

Ibn Rushd refuted at length the objections of Ghazzali. He argued, for instance, that “resurrection” is an event of the soul alone, having nothing to do with the body. This teaching was an essential part of Islamic Aristotelianism. Many centuries earlier, Aristotle asserted that the “intellectual” component of the soul is incorporeal and capable of surviving bodily death. Ibn Rushd also maintained that Ibn Sina had distorted the exposition of Aristotle in certain respects, which meant that Ghazzali had been confused by substitute teachings. See further S. Van Den Bergh, trans., Averroes’ Tahafut al-Tahafut (1954).

Assessment of the falasifa is not straightforward. For instance, Ibn Rushd argued against two major predecessors. His “criticisms of al-Farabi and Ibn Sina, both in the Tahafut and the commentaries, are numerous and devastating” (Majid Fakhry, A History of Islamic Philosophy, second edn, Columbia University Press 1983, p. 287). According to Ibn Rushd, these two Muslim Neoplatonists had minimised the differences between Aristotle and Plato. Ibn Sina and Farabi were accused of having employed the emanationist doctrine of the Neoplatonists, mistakenly ascribing this to Aristotle. However, despite his rigorous tendency to Aristotelian purism, Ibn Rushd “remains in essential sympathy with Ibn Sina’s whole doctrine of man’s ultimate destiny” (ibid., p. 291). His two Spanish predecessors Ibn Bajjah (d.1138) and Ibn Tufayl (d.1185/6) “had both stated that man’s destiny consists in his eventual release from the prison of corporeal existence and his entry into a state of intellectual bliss” (ibid).

The theme of “conjunction” (ittisal) between the “material intellect” and the Active Intellect was favoured by Ibn Rushd in some compositions. He envisaged this achievement, securing the philosophical bliss, as being possible only to a few. That perspective has been viewed both as a rival to the Neoplatonist doctrine, and as something tangential to Aristotle.

The term ittisal is also strongly associated with Ibn Bajjah (Avempace), a court vizier who wrote about thirty surviving works. Ibn Bajjah adhered to a form of Neoplatonism associated with Ibn Sina and Farabi. In this avenue, the term Active Intellect is evocative. Ibn Sina criticised Porphyry, the disciple of Plotinus, for maintaining that the soul unites with the Active Intellect, a feat implying all-knowledge. Ibn Sina preferred a modification in relation to mysticism, employing the word ittisal (“contact” or “conjunction”) rather than ittihad (“union”). Some commentators deduce that Ibn Sina was here skirting the Sufi extreme that is often dubbed pantheism. Sufis did not refer to Active Intellect, a phrase associated with the Greek heritage. In the works of Ibn Sina and Farabi, the Active Intellect connotes “the disembodied intelligence that governs the terrestrial sphere.” See Lenn E. Goodman, “Ibn Bajjah” (294-312) in S.H. Nasr and O. Leaman, eds., History of Islamic Philosophy Vol. 1, 1996, p. 298. Professor Goodman defines ittisal as “intellectual contact with the Divine.” See also Goodman, Avicenna (1992). 

Ibn Tufayl (d.1185) of Granada was another philosopher who moved in court circles, exercising the role of a royal physician. He has also been described as a Sufi. Ibn Tufayl was reserved about Ibn Bajjah’s criticism of a Ghazzali reference to mystical experience. Ibn Bajjah was evidently sceptical of the use of symbolism in place of “pure ideas.” Ibn Tufayl implies that Ibn Bajjah was too involved in the pursuit of wealth to appreciate the Sufi life. The distinctive work of Ibn Tufayl was Hayy ibn Yaqzan, a philosophical fable which describes a self-taught philosopher growing up on an island without parents or cultural trappings. The underlying theme here is that of escaping the conditioning imposed by affiliation to any one tradition or programme of learning. Ibn Tufayl apparently favoured an ideal of synthesis between Neoplatonist Aristotelians and Sufis, whom he believed to share the same underlying objective. See further Lenn E. Goodman, trans., Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, a Philosophical Tale (1972); Taneli Kukkonen, Ibn Tufayl: Liiving the Life of Reason (2014).

16.2  Ishraq and the Corbin-Nasr Presentation

The Arabic word ishraq (illumination) denotes the philosophy of Shihab al-Din Yahya Suhrawardi (c.1154-1191). “Not only does Suhrawardi’s ontology provide ingenious and original insights for the analysis of the traditional problems of philosophy, but his mystical narratives offer a symbolic and profound view of human nature” (Mehdi Amin Razavi, Suhrawardi and the School of Illumination, Curzon Press 1997, p. 148). The ishraqi synthesis of philosophy and mysticism is subject to different interpretations. Some commentators have tended to describe Suhrawardi as an atypical Sufi, while another format affirms his Neoplatonist orientation.


Henry Corbin

There were diverse exponents of ishraq over the centuries. Not too much was known of them outside Iran when I began to study this phenomenon in the late 1970s. The subject was something of a challenge, which is perhaps understating. My main cues for ishraq were Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Henry Corbin (1903-1978). The output of Professor Corbin was in French (which I could decipher), though some translations existed. His Opera Metaphysica et Mystica de Sohrawardi (3 vols, 1945-70) was a landmark in textual endeavour. As an amateur, I was duly appreciative of his labours. However, I also became irritated by many of Corbin’s interpretations, couched in a Jungian idiom. Furthermore, Corbin tended to depreciate the “Peripatetic” or logical ingredient of the Suhrawardi texts in Arabic, a habit which at first I accepted in good faith but later reacted against. Some specialist scholars have strongly disagreed with Corbin’s form of exegesis, due to his preference for symbolic and mystical aspects of ishraq. See 16.5 below.

Professor Nasr was a collaborator with Corbin in Histoire de la Philosophie Islamique (1964), and also contributed to the last volume of Opera Metaphysica. These two scholars thus became closely associated. Nasr was much more related to scientific sources via his training in the history of science. He wrote more clearly than Corbin, and I preferred the annotations of Nasr, even if Corbin was often more prolific in this respect. Although some critics said that Nasr was dogmatic about Islam, I found his range of references impressive and very useful. A new world was gradually opening up in my studies – a world so diversely inhabited by Peripatetic philosophers, Ishraqis, Sufis, Ismailis, and yet other categories.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr was a liberal Shi’ite Muslim who gained his Ph.D at Harvard University. See 16.6 below. He was tolerant of other religions and expressed a partiality for the “perennialist” exposition of Frithjof Schuon (which is controversial in academic ranks). His early works included Three Muslim Sages (1964) and Science and Civilisation in Islam (1968), both of which were published by Harvard University Press. The former book afforded a sympathetic treatment of Suhrawardi, Ibn Sina, and Muhyi al-Din ibn ‘Arabi. The first two were philosophers, and the third a Sufi gnostic.

Sufi mysticism is an ambivalent subject to conventional Islam, even though generally moving at a strong tangent to the assimilation of Greek philosophy. Some coverages of Islamic philosophy allocate space to Sufism, which gained diverse exponents, including the theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali (1058-1111) and the gnostic Ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240). “Although Ibn ‘Arabi is often critical of the philosophers, in general he prefers their views to those of the mutakallimun” (William C. Chittick, “Ibn ‘Arabi,” in S. H. Nasr and O. Leaman, eds., History of Islamic Philosophy Vol. 1, Routledge 1996, p. 500). Theologians were called mutakallimun. The reaction of theologians to philosophy could be extreme. Their reaction to forms of Sufi mysticism was likewise agitatory.

In the Sunni world, the orthodox reaction against philosophy was victorious, though far less successful in the Shia world, where Mulla Sadra Shirazi (c.1571-1636) is associated with a synthesis of philosophy and theology occurring during the Safavid era. This unusual and high profile Iranian thinker was celebrated by Professor Nasr in his book Sadr al-Din Shirazi and his Transcendent Theosophy: Background, Life and Works (1978). The phrase “transcendent theosophy,” associated with Corbin, is contested by certain other Islamic specialists. See Nasr, “Mulla Sadra: his teachings” (643-662) in Nasr and Leaman, eds., Hist. of Islamic Philos. Vol. 1, 1996, p. 659 note 4, informing that Fazlur Rahman and Hossein Ziai “protest that the usage of such a term prevents Western philosophers from taking Mulla Sadra seriously as a philosopher.” Nasr responds that “logical positivists, deconstructionists and other such modern schools which deny even the category of truth in an ultimate sense in philosophy, will disregard a person such as Mulla Sadra no matter how the name of his school is translated into English” (ibid).

Mulla Sadra (Shirazi) formulated the philosophy known as al-hikmat al-muta’aliyah, translated by Corbin in terms of transcendent theosophy. Professor Hossein Ziai has preferred the rendition of “metaphysical philosophy,” urging that the theosophic gloss “does not indicate the philosophical side of the original genius of Sadr al-Din’s thinking” (Ziai, “Mulla Sadra: his life and works,” in Nasr and Leaman 1996:638). Ziai recommends Fazlur Rahman, The Philosophy of Mulla Sadra (1975). Mulla Sadra’s teaching fused different doctrines, selecting arguments from the Peripatetic, ishraqi, and irfani (gnostic) traditions, aligning these with a format of Shia Islam. According to Ziai, Mulla Sadra’s “systematic philosophy is neither Peripatetic nor Illuminationist (ishraqi) but a novel reconstruction of both” (ibid:641).

The Peripatetic element in Mulla Sadra decodes strongly to Ibn Sina, some of whose works are cited by the later Iranian exponent. It has been thought that Mulla Sadra agreed substantially with the basic arguments of Ibn Sina, with disagreements on minor points in passages cited. See Jules Janssens, “Mulla Sadra’s Use of Ibn Sina’s Ta’liqat in the Asfar,” Journal of Islamic Studies (2002) 13(1): 1-13. Mulla Sadra’s magnum opus known as Asfar al-Arbaeh (The Four Journeys) is still a favoured text in the educational curricula of Iran. See also Zailan Moris, Revelation, Intellectual Intuition and Reason in the Philosophy of Mulla Sadra (2003); Sajjad H. Rizvi, Mulla Sadra Shirazi: His Life and Works and the Sources for Safavid Philosophy (2007).

The industrious synthesis of Mulla Sadra involved complexities. For instance, “he criticised specific arguments of Suhrawardi” (Amin Razavi 1997:114). The original context of ishraq can be pursued independently from the output of Safavid era thinkers. Some considerations relevant to this endeavour are mentioned in 16.5 below.

16.3  The Social Theory of Ibn Khaldun

Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) was born at Tunis “into a noble Arab-Spanish family of scholars and civil servants” (Majid Fakhry, A History of Islamic Philosophy, second edn 1983, p. 323). Certain other analysts have suggested a paternal Berber descent. Whatever the genetic factor, this Sunni scholar and historian is now duly credited as an early sociologist. Ibn Khaldun was critical of philosophy, here reflecting the biases of his time. However, his own philosophy of history exhibits some unusual emphases in his distinctive work Muqaddimah, to which I devoted several pages in my first published work (Psychology in Science, 1983, pp. 55-62). See further Franz Rosenthal, trans., The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History (3 vols, 1958). See also Walter Fischel, Ibn Khaldun in Egypt (1967).

The Muqaddimah was the lengthy introduction to an ambitious “world history” (centred on Islam) entitled Kitab al-Ibar, of particular interest for the history of Western Islam and the Berber peoples, with whom Ibn Khaldun was closely familiar. The Muqaddimah can stand alone as an independent work. In this book, Ibn Khaldun employs the central concept of asabiyyah, an Arabic word translated as “social cohesion” or “group solidarity” (I preferred “community spirit” in the book Psychology in Science). Ibn Khaldun endeavoured to chart the rise and decay of civilisations known to him, meaning principally the Berber peoples. He was ingenious in depicting the contrast and overlap between urban and desert societies.

An elaborate presentation of tribal developments is provided by Ibn Khaldun. Tribes at the margin of civilisation are resistant to paying taxes and indulge in local feuds. “But once united under the leadership of a group having an asabiyyah with a religious message (da’wah), they are able to assault the central government” (Abderrahmane Lakhsassi, “Ibn Khaldun,” in S. H. Nasr and O. Leaman, eds., History of Islamic Philosophy Vol. 1, p. 354). A theme here is that “wolves” become “sheepdogs” in relation to government and urban life. The wolves are feuding tribes of the desert who manage to create a new dynasty via their asabiyyah.

Asabiyyah emerges as both a causative priority and a value factor. If asabiyyah is weak in manifestation, then cultural decline is the consequence. Ibn Khaldun expresses numerous permutations on this theme. He charts several stages in the sequence of growth and decay of the monarchical state.

At first, the ascendancy of the monarchy is based on the general support of the people. When tyranny develops, tribal bonds between the ruler and his subjects are seriously weakened. The resultant stage of decadent and exploiting royal power is here seen to engage in the selfish pursuit of wealth, accompanied by burdensome tax levies and the superfluous construction of monuments or grand buildings in rivalry with the show of power by other rulers. This apparent strength resorts to a wastage of resources in the gratification of royal pleasures. Originally the product of asabiyyah, the monarch now ruins that factor of tribal and social solidarity. Cultural decay is caused throughout the state. This situation invites a fresh influx of tribal invaders.

The determinism, here depicted as being at work in events, does not altogether match the modern attitude in sociology. Ibn Khaldun also defers to the will of Allah, viewed as being operative in the process of cyclical change outlined. This philosophy of history is therefore partly traditionist.

I mentioned Arnold J. Toynbee’s assessment of the Muqaddimah in terms of “the most distinctive work of its kind to have been produced in any age” (Psychology in Science, p. 56). The literal words of Toynbee (1889-1975) on this subject were: “undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place.” This appraisal comes from an early volume in Toynbee’s lengthy work A Study of History (1934-61). Toynbee was a British historian whose 12-volume magnum opus is controversial; his liberal assessment of Ibn Khaldun dates to the 1930s.

Some Western analysts suggest that the Toynbee assessment is exaggerated. However, when one takes into consideration the global circumstances of social exegesis in the fourteenth century, Ibn Khaldun does stand out strongly in a number of respects, and also for some time thereafter. For instance, he expressed an early version of political economy. “Some analysts have discerned in the Muqaddimah the beginnings of several disciplines which have become independent sciences only very recently” (Psychology in Science, p. 56).

16.4  Getting a Perspective on Sufism

Sufism is a variegated phenomenon. The early centuries of Islam produced ascetic trends, eventually merging into Sufi pedigrees that sought validation by claiming an origin in the prophet Muhammad. Sufism is not clearly visible until the eighth century CE.. The Sufi identity became widespread long before the medieval period when Sufi orders (or dervish orders) developed elaborate organisational trappings and codified practises.

I am one of those who are not content with reading Sufi poetry. I wanted to find out the historical background of various trends and entities. During the late 1970s I commenced a study of Sufism and ishraq, though not with the same range of references and texts that I subsequently gained in CUL (Cambridge University Library). I was not very familiar with Islamic philosophy, and also wished to follow up sources mentioned in J. Spencer Trimingham, The Sufi Orders in Islam (1971). That book was published by Oxford University Press, gaining some approving reviews. The American Anthropologist called Trimingham's contribution “an extremely useful general history of the Sufi orders.” The bibliography was a strong challenge to most amateurs.

My investigations into Sufism were at first afflicted by some preconceptions acquired from popular literature. There were different layers of the phenomenon that are only tapped by close study. I became aware of the pronounced variations in psychology of the subjects encountered. There were orthodox Sufis and liberal Sufis, and also zealots. Many fascinating intricacies on record do not appear in general treatments of the subject. Classification grew ever more complex. The field of investigation ranges from Spain to India and beyond. The early reports of Arab and Iranian Sufis are attended by hagiological drawbacks, a factor which continues into later eras. Yet I was determined to persevere.

Numerous dervish orders came into being from the twelfth century onwards. Independent mystics also existed. There was resistance to Sufism on the part of many jurists and theologians. By the fourteenth century, a strong degree of assimilation was in evidence. Ibn Khaldun (see 16.3 above) wrote a work in support of Sufism that hedges the subject with legalist considerations. Indeed, Ibn Khaldun here opposed the earlier distinction made by Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali (1058-1111) between the legalist and the Sufi (Lakhsassi, art.cit., pp. 356-7). Ghazzali was also an advocate of Sufism. He argued that Sufi experiences were outside the domain of legalism, requiring a more expansive gauge than the criteria employed by Islamic law.

There are four basic ethnic sectors involved in this study: the Arab, the Iranian, the Turkish, and the Indian (which includes components of the other three). I was an early consumer of Saiyid Athar Abbas Rizvi, A History of Sufism in India (2 vols, 1978-83), an erudite work by a liberal Muslim scholar. Indian Sufism is complex, and very revealing in the variety of detail. I ended up taking a more sociological angle in certain respects, to some extent assisted by works like M. Mujeeb, The Indian Muslims (1967), described by the publishers as “the first comprehensive and objective sociological study of the Indian Muslims.”

However, I also concluded that it is not possible to penetrate these subjects by sociology alone. This matter admits of a philosophical primacy that can include mysticism in diverse forms. A major problem with mysticism is the fact that it can be superficially imitated and also degraded. I concluded that there were many imitators in dervish orders, as in Hindu sects. Though I moved on to anthropology and the global history of religions, I was careful to maintain a strong angle in the multi-faceted Islamic civilisation that covered so many territories.

At CUL (Cambridge University Library) there were many learned journals relating to the Islamic world, and many works on the falasifa (philosophers). Sufism now began to look rather different. I became much more aware of the Shia environments in addition to those of Sunni Islam. Another complexity was that I had commenced a study of Zoroastrianism, which became more detailed than I had ever thought possible (see no. 18 below). Henry Corbin was sympathetic to Zoroastrianism, but did not cite the extensive range of sources that were available in CUL. As an amateur Iranist I pursued entities like Zarathushtra, Mani, Abu Yazid al-Bistami, Hallaj, Ibn Sina, Suhrawardi, the obscure Azar Kaivan, and the much better known Mulla Sadra Shirazi. This quest occurred alongside researches in Western philosophy and science, and yet other subjects which found a place in my notebooks.

ali shah

Qajar era portrait of the Nimatullahi dervish Mushtaq Ali Shah, who was killed by a mob at Kirman in 1794. Watercolour dated 1864-5.

A sad feature about later centuries of Shia Islam is that Sufis were frequently persecuted by the ulama (scholars of the religious law). One Shi’i divine became known as the “Sufi killer.” The vengeful attitude began in the Safavid era and continued into the nineteenth century Qajar period. Sufism was often of the so-called “popular” variety. Sympathy can easily arise for the underdog. Babis and Zoroastrians were also disliked by the conservative Shia theologians. Fortunately, Zoroastrians were an officially tolerated “people of a book.”

My unfinished Survey of the Sufi Phenomenon opted for a predominantly biographical format, admitting both an empathy and a critical spirit. After ten years of intermittent composition, I stopped writing that survey in 1989, by which time the manuscript was becoming lengthy; this endeavour was a personal project independent of any publishing schedule. The manuscript ended at the close of the thirteenth century CE. Arab and Iranian Sufis were primarily treated, though I had earlier made notes on the Indian Sufis. My version of Shirdi Sai Baba (d.1918) related to a probe of Deccani Sufism. The overall data attests that this figure was a Muslim Sufi and not a Hindu. A process of "Hinduisation" occurred in many popular sources. See Gurus Rediscovered (1986), Part One. A new version appeared in my Investigating the Sai Baba Movement (2005), Part One. See also Shepherd, Sai Baba of Shirdi: A Biographical Investigation, 2015; Sai Baba: Faqir of Shirdi, 2017.


Shirdi Sai Baba

The versatile faqir who inhabited the dilapidated rural mosque at Shirdi (a village in Maharashtra) was an eccentric but arresting figure. At first Sai Baba was shunned by the local Hindus; however, in later years he gained an increasing following amongst them. His Muslim supporters became a minority. One of these, Abdul Baba, left an important notebook in Urdu, evidencing the identity of the saint as an unorthodox Muslim Sufi. The significance of Abdul’s notebook was established in Marianne Warren, Unravelling the Enigma: Shirdi Sai Baba in the Light of Sufism (1999; revised edn, 2004). See 23.4 below. The annexation of this saint by the reincarnation claim of Sathya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi is now a very controversial matter. The Sai Baba Movement is often misunderstood. Furthermore, anti-Muslim bias in both America and India has obstructed due perception of relevant data. See Shirdi Sai Baba Issues.

Another published work of mine was A Sufi Matriarch: Hazrat Babajan (1986), opting for brevity due to the scarcity of reliable materials, general non-comprehension of the faqir lifestyle, and academic resistance to a Zoroastrian disciple caricatured by the eccentric occultist Paul Brunton. The subject was an Afghan Pathan who lived her last years in Poona during the British Raj era. Hazrat Babajan (d.1931) lived a very simple and hardy life beneath a tree. The preliminary book was well received in several countries by enthusiasts of Sufism who could not find very much information on female Sufis. More detail can be found in my Hazrat Babajan: A Pathan Sufi of Poona (2014). See also Faqir of Poona.

A very different type of work was the unpublished Sufis, Batinis, Scientists and Philosophers of the Early Islamic Era, which projected diverse facets of the Islamic heritage. The ishraqi philosophy of Suhrawardi was an ingredient, along with several of the falasifa. I was happy to keep this 1980s composition on the shelf because I was aware that accumulating studies by some specialists could change the picture in certain respects. This did in fact happen. See further Early Sufism in Iran and Central Asia.

Some debate has attended the instance of Ibn Masarra (883-931), a Spanish Arab associated with the earliest wave of Andalusian Sufism. He was active at a retreat he established in the Sierra of Cordova. The details are meagre. When he died, zealous Islamic jurists persecuted his disciples, who had created an ascetic grouping or order known as the Masarriya. He is known to have composed four works, but only two of these have survived, posing certain problems of interpretation. His teaching is clearly incomplete in the extant texts. Ibn Masarra is considered important not least because he exercised an evident influence upon the more famous Arab Sufi Muhyi al-Din ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240). The predecessor has also been discussed in terms of a relation to philosophy.

Ibn Masarra became associated with pseudo-Empedoclean teaching. The Spanish Arabist Miguel Asin Palacios included a chapter entitled “Pseudo-Empedoclean Doctrine of Ibn Masarra” in his evocative book The Mystical Philosophy of Ibn Masarra and his Followers (Madrid 1914; trans, Leiden 1978, pp. 43ff). The Palacios ascription was based on the doxographer Said of Toledo, who affirmed that Ibn Masarra was a defender of the philosophy of Empedocles.

More recently however, Professor Samuel M. Stern deduced that the relevant passage in Said of Toledo was too conjectural to treat as definite. See Stern, “Ibn Masarra, Follower of Pseudo-Empedocles – an Illusion” in idem, Medieval Arabic and Hebrew Thought (1983). The accompanying conclusion emphasises that there is no need to conceive of Ibn Masarra as a Neoplatonist philosopher, but instead as a mystic who derived his teaching from Sufism. However, “the debate is not yet closed” (Claude Addas, Quest for the Red Sulphur: The Life of Ibn ‘Arabi, 1993, p. 58). We can be certain that Ibn ‘Arabi described Ibn Masarra as “one of the greatest masters of the (Sufi) Way in terms of knowledge, spiritual state and revelation” (ibid).

Ibn Masarra and Ibn 'Arabi represent a form of mysticism very different to that known in the eastern countries of Islam at that era. The unique character of Andalusian mysticism is also found in the Jewish trend of Kabbalah developing in the Christian sector of Spain during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The influential Zohar was a feature of this period. A possible influence upon these diverse occurrences was the Ismaili tradition, very influential in North Africa at that era. According to Dr. Michael Ebstein, Neoplatonism "dictates much of the terminology and ideas in the writings of Ibn Masarra and Ibn al-Arabi" (Ebstein, Mysticism and Philosophy in Al-Andalus: Ibn Masarra, Ibn Al-Arabi and the Ismaili Tradition, Leiden 2013, p. 231). To be more specific, the Neoplatonism under discussion here decodes to the Theology of Aristotle and Ismaili Neoplatonism. The text known as Theology is actually an Arabic version of Plotinus mistakenly attributed to Aristotle.

In Egypt, a very early Sufi was Dhu'l Nun al-Misri, a ninth century Nubian inseparable from a Coptic environment at the ancient town of Akhmim. This milieu is imperfectly known. Shifting the focus eastwards to Baghdad and the Iranian sector, there were many Sufis of differing tendencies, varying from the radical gnostic Abu Yazid al-Bistami (d.874) to the “sober” exponent Junayd of Baghdad (d.910). The subsequent phase of dervish orders involved a crystallisation of doctrine and etiquette.

Three well known figures, strongly associated with Sufism, are Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali, Ibn ‘Arabi, and (ishraqi) Suhrawardi. The first was a theologian, the second a monistic mystic, and the third a philosopher invoking Plato. The differences in expression are pronounced. Ghazzali opted to write a book called Revival of the Religious Sciences, which made Sufism compatible with religious orthodoxy. Ibn ‘Arabi composed the Meccan Revelations, a very mystical work replete with Quranic imagery and symbolism. Suhrawardi composed works in the Peripatetic mode that include allusive and eclectic references to pre-Islamic matters.

16.5  Suhrawardi’s Philosophy of Illumination

The major work of Henry Corbin is En Islam iranien (4 vols, 1971-2). This covers Iranian Islam via a particular form of exegesis. Despite Corbin’s admirable industry with texts and commentaries, his output has received strong criticism from some other specialist scholars. Metahistory is one accusation. See especially John Walbridge, The Wisdom of the Mystic East: Suhrawardi and Platonic Orientalism (2001), pp. 107-110, urging that interpretations by Corbin “are fundamentally flawed as scientific studies” (ibid:109).

I have to be considered a critic of such Corbin components as the “active imagination” theme, associated with Jung. Some feel that psychotherapy is not expedient in scholarship. There were related misgivings about Corbin’s influential Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi (1969). I was at first mildly partial to Corbin’s The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism (1978); however, I wished for much more history in the enveloping metaphysical exegesis. There are numerous other works by the same scholar, including Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth (1977) and the early Suhrawardi d’Alep: fondateur de la doctrine illuminative (1939). During the Second World War, Corbin was domiciled in Istanbul, where he prepared a critical edition of Suhrawardi’s magnum opus Hikmat al-Ishraq, appearing in 1945. Soon after came his exposition of the Zoroastrian symbolism found in Suhrawardi, published as Les motifs zoroastriens dans la philosophie de Sohrawardi (1946).

Corbin deserves due credit for his pioneering efforts in Iranian subjects. Nevertheless, his presentation of “Oriental Theosophy” (i.e., Suhrawardi) has been strongly disputed. Of relevance here is Corbin, Le Livre de la Sagesse Orientale: Kitab Hikmat al-Ishraq (1986), an incomplete but evocative translation of Suhrawardi’s major work. See also Corbin, L’Archange empourpre; quinze traites et recits mystiques (1976), for a translation of other Suhrawardi texts. The Suhrawardi corpus is split between Arabic and Persian works. The “anti-Aristotelian philosopher” of Iran is more logical in approach than is sometimes implied.

For many years there was no due English translation of the major work of Shihab al-Din Yahya Suhrawardi (d.1191), entitled Hikmat al-Ishraq. This was eventually supplied in John Walbridge and Hossein Ziai, The Philosophy of Illumination (1999). For a detailed analysis of Suhrawardi, see John Walbridge, The Leaven of the Ancients: Suhrawardi and the Heritage of the Greeks (State University of New York Press, 2000). This has gained a controversial reputation within the camp of Corbin supporters. Suhrawardi is here classified as a Neoplatonist, which does not seem at all unreasonable.

The major treatise of Suhrawardi is unusual. This is divided into two parts, the logical and metaphysical, the former involving a critique of Peripatetic concepts associated with Ibn Sina (Avicenna). The metaphysical part features the “science of lights,” evidencing a distinct mystical orientation and employing idioms unique to Suhrawardi. He is here concerned with a spiritual path commencing with purification and ending in illumination. The factor of illumination (ishraq) is related to a process of intuition (dhawq). The author indicates that Hikmat al-Ishraq “is an esoteric book, written for his disciples and not really intended for others” (John Walbridge, The Science of Mystic Lights, Harvard University Press 1992, p. 28). One might therefore expect difficulties of interpretation amongst people centuries removed from the event denoted.

Suhrawardi had rejected Ibn Sina for the ancient sages like Plato. He believed that the same wisdom (of the Greeks) had also existed amongst the Egyptians and Indians (Hindus), and likewise the ancient “Persian philosophers.” In his last years, Suhrawardi gained influence over the governor of Aleppo, al-Malik al-Zahir, the son of the powerful Sultan Saladin. Suhrawardi wanted to train the prince as a (Neo)Platonist philosopher-king. However, he was opposed by Islamic clerics. Suhrawardi was tragically executed at the order of Saladin. He is sometimes called al-Maqtul, the murdered, because of his premature death.

A recent American version of these events states: “Suhrawardi had to die." The reason being given that “it was Saladin, famed as the epitome of the wise king by his European enemies, who understood the philosophical issue correctly” (Walbridge, The Leaven of the Ancients, p. 210). Objectors do not believe that the wisdom of kings is such a definitive factor of justice.

In addition to the Hikmat al-Ishraq, Suhrawardi composed other philosophical works in Arabic evidencing a firm logical structure. A basic reason was that “bahth, or discursive philosophy is necessary – and Peripatetic methodology must be employed in the process of explaining what this intuition is” (Hossein Ziai, Knowledge and Illumination: A Study of Suhrawardi’s Hikmat al-Ishraq, Scholars Press 1990, p. 21). Suhrawardi “states that only a perfect combination of the two methodologies will lead to true wisdom (hikma)” (ibid:22). This combination relates to the logical and intuitive, being something quite apart from religious doctrine.

The modern interpretation of Suhrawardi is divided. Henry Corbin emphasised a revival of ancient Zoroastrian thought. Professor Walbridge counters: “For Suhrawardi, the central point of the philosophical tradition was Plato, not Zoroaster” (Walbridge 2000:7). Corbin’s emphasis upon Zoroastrian symbolism in Suhrawardi is here taken to task for overlooking the importance of the same philosopher’s systematic texts, composed in conventional philosophical terminology of the falasifa. Corbin tended to dismiss those accompanying "Peripatetic" texts as purely secondary. There are three major works related to Hikmat al-Ishraq, including the lengthy Paths and Havens (Al-Mashari wa’l-Mutarahat).

Suhrawardi’s philosophical critique of Ibn Sina is now viewed as the more applicable reference point. Walbridge duly criticises Corbin’s famed edition of the Suhrawardi corpus for omitting the logical and physical sections of major Arabic works. Further, Corbin’s translation of Hikmat al-Ishraq failed to include the section on logic that comprises a systematic critique of Ibn Sina’s Peripateticism. Instead, Corbin preferred to emphasise concepts like “the orient of light” that are not actually present in the text (ibid:223-4). Professor Corbin is thus seen to have created a lop-sided interpretation of the subject.

The observation is made that “Suhrawardi was certainly not a slavish follower of the Ancients, for he was a philosopher, not a sectarian nor an antiquarian” (Walbridge 2000:29). He strongly rejected Ibn Sina, who appears to have been considered a role model for indulgent living, and whose cumbersome syllogistic logic could be simplified to avoid wasting time. Moreover, Suhrawardi believed that the Peripatetic reliance upon human reason was inferior to the intuitive approach he associated with Plato, Pythagoras, and Empedocles (ibid:137-8).

Professor Walbridge also stresses that Suhrawardi would not have agreed with the exaggerated mystical profile awarded to Ibn Sina by Corbin (ibid:138-9). This theme does not deny some mysticism in Ibn Sina, the point being that Corbin’s version moved to an extreme. Cf. Corbin, Avicenna and the Visionary Recital (1960), which some scholars say is misleading. Cf. William Gohlman, The Life of Ibn Sina (1974). Suhrawardi’s thirteenth century commentator Shahrazuri referred to the laxities of Ibn Sina, who is reported to have been sexually indulgent, a factor contributing to his death, and a problem he was unable to remedy by his proficiency in medicine.

Continuation of the ishraqi tradition, after the death of Suhrawardi, is associated with three thirteenth century commentators, namely Shahrazuri (died after 1288), Ibn Kammunah (d.1284), and Qutub al-Din Shirazi (d.1311). There was no community or order appearing in the name of Suhrawardi. Affiliation remained an intellectual matter. Of the early writers, Shahrazuri has been considered the most faithful to the original texts. His commentaries on Suhrawardi are supplemented by the complex work Metaphysical Tree. Shahrazuri also produced a brief but valuable biographical report. That item attests Suhrawardi’s ascetic temperament, and describes him as being “much in the company of sufis, from whom he benefited” (W.M. Thackston Jr, The Mystical and Visionary Treatises of Suhrawardi, 1982, p.1).

Ibn Kammunah was a Jewish philosopher who lived in Baghdad. He is noted for emphasising the rational aspect of Suhrawardi, explaining him in a context intended to clarify the “often terse and difficult style” of the Muslim Neoplatonist. “He further attempted to reduce the philosopher’s symbolic language – which was so characteristic of Suhrawardi – to a more standard analytical one” (Hossein Ziai, “The Illuminationist Tradition,” in Nasr and Leaman, eds., Hist. Of Islamic Philos. Vol. 1, p. 492). Those comments apply to the Commentary on the Intimations. See further Ziai and Ahmed Alwishah, eds., Ibn Kammuna’s Al-Tanqihat fi Sharh al-Talwihat: Refinement and Commentary on Suhrawardi’s Intimations (2002).

The Suhrawardi text known as Intimations (Al-Talwihat) is one of three systematic treatises in Arabic that are grouped with the Hikmat al-Ishraq. Suhrawardi here aimed to summarise Peripatetic principles, and to reinterpret Aristotelian logic. Included is the theme of “knowledge by presence” (denoting an intuitive self-cognition), which is a teaching of Suhrawardi and not the Peripatetics. This subject occurs in his report of a vision (or “dream”) of Aristotle, apparently occurring in a state between sleeping and waking. Some have argued that “Aristotle” is here Plotinus, via the widely read Neoplatonist text mistitled Theology of Aristotle, which actually paraphrases some content in the Enneads.

In this vision, Suhrawardi converses with “Aristotle,” and at the end of the dialogue, asks him if Peripatetics like Farabi and Ibn Sina were real philosophers (like Plato). The negative reply includes a statement that “the Sufis Bastami (Bistami) and Tustari are the real philosophers” (Mehdi Amin Razavi, Suhrawardi and the School of Illumination, 1997, p. 10). Cf. Walbridge 2000:165ff, 225ff, providing a comprehensive translation from the Intimations, complete with the full names of Abu Yazid al-Bistami and Sahl al-Tustari (two ninth century Iranian Sufis of renown).

One might sympathise with Farabi in the demotion. A difference between Farabi and Suhrawardi was that the latter did not venture into overt political philosophy. The general data reveals Suhawardi’s strong sense of affinity with the Sufi tradition, confirmed by his reported ascetic tendencies. This is sufficient to merit the tag of “Neoplatonist Sufi” in the present interpretation.

According to Suhrawardi, the “science of light” (ilm al-ishraq) originated with Hermes, subsequently being transmitted via such figures in the West as Pythagoras, Empedocles, and Plato. Whereas in the East, this same transmission occurred via the “ancient Persian priest kings” and also Iranian Sufis such as Abu Yazid al-Bistami, Abu Hasan al-Kharaqani, and Hallaj (Amin Razavi 1997:10). This Suhrawardian claim gained the enthusiasm of Corbin, while arousing the scepticism of some other modern analysts. Suhrawardi was evidently serious about the combination of Greek philosophy and Iranian mysticism. He apparently conceived of his own role as a fusion of these traditions.

Qutub al-Din Shirazi was an Iranian scientist who composed an influential commentary on Hikmat al-Ishraq, using Peripatetic terminology rather than the “science of lights” vocabulary found in the metaphysical portion of Suhrawardi’s magnum opus. Shirazi is noted for his interests in astronomy and mathematics. Nevertheless, “all his life he wore Sufi garb, even at court” (Walbridge, The Science of Mystic Lights: Qutub al-Din Shirazi and the Illuminationist Tradition in Islamic Philosophy, 1992, p. 21).

By the sixteenth century, there were an increasing number of commentators on Suhrawardi. In Safavid Iran, a Zoroastrian mobad (priest), or ex-mobad, known as Azar Kaivan became a partisan of ishraq. He lived at Istakhr, near Shiraz. Kaivan was born circa 1530; the date given for his death varies between 1609 and 1618. Kaivan and his disciples were celebrated by Corbin as Zoroastrian ishraqis, which seems appropriate enough. Allegiance to Suhrawardi was not institutional. These Zoroastrians evidently found some vocabulary of Suhrawardi appealing. The varied references to Zoroastrian themes and symbols included a specific mention of Zaradusht (Zoroaster, Zarathushtra) in the Hikmat al-Ishraq. Suhrawardi notably incorporated a Zoroastrian angelology (of the amesha-spentas). In the introduction to his major work, Suhrawardi mentions “the basis of the Eastern theorem of light and darkness, which was the method of the Persian philosophers such as Jamasf, Farshawashtar, Buzurjmihr, and others before them” (Ziai, Knowledge and Illumination: A Study of Suhrawardi’s Hikmat al-Ishraq, 1990, p. 174).

Jamaspa and Frashaostra appear in the legendary biography of Zarathushtra, while Buzurjmihr was a reputed courtier of the Sassanian era. In his Words of Sufism (Kalimat al-Tasawwuf), Suhrawardi states that the antique Persian wisdom should not be confused with the Zoroastrian magi or the heresy of Mani; a community of learned sages is specified (Walbridge, The Wisdom of the Mystic East, p. 60). Kaivan and his disciples would not have found difficulty in identifying with such references if they had set aside their Zoroastrian orthodoxy. They give strong indication of having accomplished a radical tangent from Zoroastrianism, being markedly ecumenical in their approach.

The Kaivan circle emigrated to Mughal India from Fars. This departure has been variously dated at circa 1570 and the early 1580s. The reason for leaving Iran was the oppressive climate imposed by militant Shia Islam. The Zoroastrian community in Iran had long been dwindling in numbers because of conversions and emigration from religious bias. The residual community were subject to petty harassments that could become severe. Although officially tolerated by Islam as “people of a book,” the Zoroastrians were prey to fanaticism and indifferent legal scruple. The new Shi’ite hierocracy of Iran was not well disposed towards outsiders. Bereft of social opportunities, many Zoroastrians had to live as manual labourers. Both they and their priests were despised as guebres (fire-worshippers) by the majority. Muslims escaped heavy penalties for molestation. “Mildness of the legal penalties incurred by their oppressors meant a constant threat of hooligan attacks, with robbery, rape, and sometimes murder” (Mary Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity and Constant Vigour, Mazda Publishers 1992, p. 158). The oppressed minority were even subject to demands for unpaid forced labour. See also 18.2 on this site.

By comparison, India during Akbar’s reign was a paradise of tolerance, where the Sunni regime was temporarily benevolent towards Hindus and religious minorities. The Mughal emperor Akbar (rgd 1556-1605) took a personal interest in liberal religious discussion, maintaining cordial terms with the Parsi Zoroastrians of India. “The monarch is known to have conferred the Islamic title of mulla upon at least two Parsi priests in deference to their religious learning” (Shepherd, From Oppression to Freedom: A Study of the Kaivani Gnostics, 1988, p.85).

Kaivan settled at Patna in North India. He appears to have been a retiring figure; not much is really known about him. Some of his disciples were very active after his death. In this way, the Kaivan school gained Hindu affiliates. A learned disciple of Kaivan, Farzaneh Behram ibn Farshad (d.1638), is reported to have numbered two Jewish rabbis amongst his own circle (ibid:115). The same disciple is known to have translated several Arabic works of Suhrawardi into Persian. By that time, activity of the Kaivan school had spread from Patna to Lahore and Kashmir. Details are for the most obscure and fragmented.

The main details of the Kaivan school are recorded in the associated Persian text known as the Dabistan-i Mazahib, composed in the mid-seventeenth century. Opinion differs as to whether the author was a Zoroastrian or a Shi’ite Muslim. The terminology is strongly idiomatic in many places. The Dabistan gained a very defective English translation by the British scholars Shea and Troyer, published in 1843. The Kaivan school are identified in this text as the Sipasiyan; the relevant details form only a small part of the coverage. The first chapter treats Persian religious traditions, including obscure sects in addition to the Sipasiyan and Zoroastrianism, distinguished as separate teachings.

The Dabistan continues with a version of Hindu sects. Included is one of the earliest historical accounts of the Sikhs. Also covered are Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Tibetan Buddhism, Sufism, the falasifa (Muslim philosophers), and the eclectic sect of Akbar known as Din-i-Ilahi. Other more obscure sects are described. The chapter on Judaism is of interest for the information obtained from Sarmad, an Iranian Jew converted to Islam, whose career ended in fatal friction with Sunni Muslim theologians (From Oppression to Freedom, pp. 118, 122ff). The author of the Dabistan was decidedly liberal by the standards of his time, and refers to numerous interviews he conducted with representatives of different religions and sects. He notably defends the universal outlook of Akbar. Whatever bizarre elements are included in the Dabistan, the range is unusual.

A more eccentric text, associated with the Kaivan school, is the Desatir. The author is unknown. The content has often been described as a forgery. This work credits composition to a “prophet” named as the Fifth Sasan, who is the last in a list of fifteen Persian prophets extolled by the Desatir. The first prophet is Mahabad, untraceable elsewhere, like subsequent names in the series. The seventh prophet is Hushang, a legendary Persian king. The eighth is his descendant Tahmurath, likewise celebrated in Iranian national history as known in many medieval accounts. Four other “prophets” are traceable via the Iranian national epic Shah-Nama (Book of Kings). The thirteenth prophet is Zardusht (Zarathushtra, or Zoroaster). The next is the First Sasan, apparently denoting the founder of the Sassanian dynasty. This “Mahabadian” tradition, exhibiting ishraqi themes, is regarded by some as an extension of the “ancient Persian wisdom” device employed by Suhrawardi.

The text of the “sacred writings,” attributed to the prophets of the Desatir, employs an innovative script dignified as the asmani or celestial language. Each sentence is given a translation in Persian. This text, like the Dabistan, has nothing to do with orthodox Zoroastrianism, and was conceivably composed in conscious opposition to sacerdotal norms. The Desatir proved appealing to some nineteenth century Zoroastrians, and also to late nineteenth century Theosophists who became acquainted with the English translation by the Parsi priest Mulla Firuz, published at Bombay in 1818 (From Oppression to Freedom, pp. 84, 155ff).

The manuscript of the Desatir owned by Mulla Firuz had been discovered in Iran, not in India, where this work seems to have been virtually unknown by that time. The Desatir is mentioned in the Dabistan, but had evidently reaped obscurity soon after, a factor implying a limited circulation of this text within the Kaivan school. The revival by Mulla Firuz was not related to the obscure origins. The nature of seventeenth century usage is speculative. In recent times, different scholarly views have been expressed about the Desatir, varying from hostile accusations of forgery to sympathetic concessions about the psychology of religious minority trends.

A contribution by Sir Jivanji J. Modi, the Parsi scholar, has for long been a relevant source on the Kaivan school. See Modi, “A Parsi High Priest (Dastur Azar Kaiwan, 1529-1614 A.D.) with his Zoroastrian disciples in Patna, in the 16th and 17th Century A.C.,” Jnl of the K. R. Cama Oriental Institute (1932) 20:1-85. The title of this article reflected conventional assessments. Modi revised the former dating of Kaivan to 1533-1618, and stressed a lack of evidence in the Dabistan for the later belief that Kaivan was a dastur or high priest. This belief dates to the early nineteenth century, when the Dabistan was translated from Persian into Gujerati and thereafter became a popular work (From Oppression to Freedom, p. 102, referring to Mobad Fardunji Marzban). Despite his wide knowledge of Zoroastrian matters, Modi was unfamiliar with ishraqi dimensions of the Kaivan school, a disability shared by other Zoroastrians who loosely associated that grouping with Sufism and Yoga. Cf. Corbin, En Islam iranien, Vol. 2, pp. 354ff. See also Corbin, “Azar Kayvan,” in Encyclopaedia Iranica Vol. 3 (1987). Cf. Walbridge, The Wisdom of the Mystic East, pp. 91ff. For the fate of Zoroastrians in Iran, see Background at Yazd.

Meanwhile, in Iran the ishraqi philosophy became a component of Shi’ite curricula. The most famous commentator was the Safavid theologian Mulla Sadra (16.2 above). A more recent interpretation of ishraq came from the twentieth century Iranian philosopher Mehdi Hairi Yazdi in his book entitled The Principles of Epistemology in Islamic Philosophy: Knowledge by Presence (1992).

16.6  Contemporary Relevance of Islamic Philosophy

To answer the most pointed question above, there are aspects of some medieval Arabic and Persian repertories that do, in my estimation, compare well with modern Western philosophy. The latter subject is not distinguished by any universal agreement about the themes in evidence. I would rather read Farabi or Suhrawardi than Foucault, Nietzsche, or Heidegger. The three European exponents have the negative connotations of relativism, nihilism, and Nazi sympathies respectively. Even if the Nazi associations of Heidegger are overlooked, as some insist should be the rule, the case for existentialism is not as sound today as was once believed a few decades ago.

A British commentator urges that the existentialist fashion, which arose immediately after the Second World War, “was in fact rooted in a process of reaction against the experience of Nazi domination and occupation” (Bryan Magee, The Story of Philosophy, 1998, p. 208). Martin Heidegger’s most famous work is Being and Time (1927). One of the early enthusiasts of that existential revelation was Henry Corbin, who subsequently graduated to Suhrawardi and the (so-called) School of Isfahan.

The nascent sociology of Ibn Khaldun is by no means inferior to the abstruse Tractatus (1921) of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951). In this influential book, Wittgenstein believed that he had solved the outstanding problems in philosophy. He subsequently changed his mind on that matter. The endpoint can so often become a new beginning. Even the later linguistic philosophy of Wittgenstein has not satisfied every quarter that all problems have been resolved. A thousand years ago, Farabi was a forerunner of the philosophy of language; the dimensions of his achievement have only recently been evaluated.

Farabi has been assessed by contemporary scholarship as one of the greatest minds of the medieval era, contributing original ideas on philosophy and religion that are relevant to contemporary philosophical and political discussions. His situation, within an intercultural Islamic milieu in Iraq, has significances extending well beyond the customary association of “logic and encyclopaedic sciences.” The major pioneer of the reassessment was Professor Muhsin Mahdi (1926-2007), described as the world’s leading expert on medieval Islamic political philosophy.

Born in Iraq, Mahdi’s academic career progressed via the American University in Beirut to the University of Chicago, and subsequently to Harvard University, where for nearly thirty years he held the James Richard Jewett Professorship in Arabic. His doctoral thesis was published as Ibn Khaldun’s Philosophy of History (1957), though he afterwards became an expert on Farabi. However, there have been many other contributors to the Farabian revival. See 16.1 above for reference to a few of these.

Western science definitely did surpass achievements of medieval Islamic science. That factor has never influenced my assessment of philosophy. Because Einstein was a more advanced scientist than Leibniz or Newton, we do not have to discount the vast number of letters which poured from the pen of the very cerebral Leibniz. We know that Einstein did not get everything perfectly correct, and so we can forgive Newton for his relatively pedestrian pace and still find something of interest in that direction. Further, neither Einstein nor Newton had the temperament for extended issues that were tackled by philosophers like Spinoza, Farabi, or Suhrawardi.

The recent upsurgence of terrorism, within Islamic extremist minorities, has spotlighted the factor of a majority who require different criteria. In Britain, the increased Muslim population has met with criticism from those who fear a different religion. In educational terms, the resolution is surely to be found in a more expansive programme that assimilates Islamic contributions at a more intellectual level than the purely religious dimension associated with fundamentalism.


Seyyed Hossein Nasr

One of the most influential modern interpreters of Islam is Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr, an Iranian émigré to America. Formerly a Professor at Tehran University, he subsequently became Professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University. His many books include Science and Civilisation in Islam (1968; new edn, 1992) and The Islamic Intellectual Tradition in Persia (1996). He also produced (in collaboration with W. Chittick) An Annotated Bibliography of Islamic Science (3 vols, 1975-91). See also The Complete Bibliography of the Works of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, ed. M. Amin Razavi and Z. Moris (1994). Nasr covers not only Islamic philosophy and science, but also the variegated satellite known as Sufism. This interest is reflected in his Sufi Essays (1972). His version of traditional priorities has gained both supporters and critics. A relevant volume is The Philosophy of Seyyed Hossein Nasr (The Library of Living Philosophers Vol. XXVIII, 2000). Frequently identified as a scholar, Nasr also became recognised as a philosopher, which is not a common occurrence in the erudite circles of library study.

Certain of Professor Nasr’s more outspoken works (e.g., Islam and the Plight of Modern Man, 1975; new edn 1988) ventured criticisms of Western culture that evoked objections. I risked opprobrium from home quarters in stating: “Nasr must be considered justified in what he himself described as a possibly audacious task of acting as an Oriental critic of the West, in effect reversing what orientalist scholars of Europe had been doing for over a century in relation to all Eastern cultures and religions” (Shepherd, Psychology in Science, 1983, p. 179 note 87). I did not agree with all the statements of Professor Nasr, though I was prepared to give due credit for his overall contribution.

A recent criticism from an American academic affirms that Nasr “has found in Corbin’s interpretation of Suhrawardi and Iranian philosophy a narrow path that allows him to avoid the dry legalism of Shi’ite legal scholars without rejecting the Shi’ite spiritual heritage as a whole” (John Walbridge, The Wisdom of the Mystic East: Suhrawardi and Platonic Orientalism, State University of New York Press 2001, p. 110). The basic complaint here seems to be: “Through Corbin it was possible to read the ancient doctrines of Zoroastrianism as symbolic prefigurings of esoteric Shi’ite philosophy” (ibid). Professor Walbridge has eludicated a Neoplatonist orientation (involving a complex disagreement with Ibn Sina) for Suhrawardi, a figure at the hub of this argument.

The critical source also says that, via Corbin, “Shi’ism could be reinterpreted in a way very similar to Adhar (Azar) Kayvan’s reinterpretation of Zoroastrianism four hundred years earlier” (ibid). Azar Kaivan was the obscure leader of a minority group of Zoroastrians who took flight from oppressive theological Iran to the more liberal climate of Mughal India. They had no adequate political representation in their homeland, unlike the Shi’ite divines (and also American academics). Offshoot treatises such as the eccentric Desatir require to be viewed in this light rather than be gauged in terms of the metahistory created by Corbin. See 16.5 above.

The Shi’ite spiritual heritage is not an easy subject to explain. Nasr was reared in this heritage, accomplishing a relatively unusual excursion into the history of science. His first book is still of interest in that respect, having strong associations with Harvard. I am here referring to Nasr’s An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines (1964; revised edn, 1978). This book was originally presented as a doctoral thesis to the Department of the History of Science and Learning at Harvard University in 1958. That thesis elevated traditional cosmology, using Arabic and Persian texts as support for the contention: while some elements of this cosmology were drawn from Alexandrian and other pre-Islamic sources, they became fully integrated in the Islamic worldview.

Nasr refers to “the challenge of the modern sciences which are the fruit of a totally different conception of the world” (Islamic Cosmol. Doctrines, p. xxii). The full list of pre-Islamic sources here reads “Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek, Indian, Chinese, and Persian” (ibid:xxi). An important chapter in the history of science is thus under discussion, from whatever angle this is viewed. The extraordinary diversity of ideational influences in early Islamic culture is reflected in certain philosophical formats of that era.

The same book analyses the philosopher Ibn Sina (d.1037), the scientist Al-Biruni, and the tenth/eleventh century grouping known as the Ikhwan al-Safa (Brethren of Purity). Ibn Sina was one of the leading falasifa, his interpretation of Aristotle amounting to a major codification. The scholar and scientist Al-Biruni (973-c.1051) was proficient in astronomy, mathematics and geography; Biruni is also noted for his interest in comparative religion, his India being a unique work in Islamic literature.

The Ikhwan al-Safa were a group of liberal Arab philosophers who lived in South Iraq. They have been described as Neoplatonists. Their encyclopaedic writings were presented in the form of 52 epistles (rasa’il). See also Ian R. Netton, Muslim Neoplatonists (1982), concluding that the Ikhwan were not members of the Ismaili sect, as has often been assumed. The Islamic orientation of the Ikhwan is here muted by other considerations. The attempt of the Ikhwan to unite various sciences, in a Neoplatonist worldview, entailed the discernible factor that “many of their beliefs were entirely outside the pale of Islam” (Netton 1982:106). Dr. Netton also states that the Rasa’il of the Ikhwan al-Safa “are a veritable mixture of Neoplatonic, Sufi and Hermetic elements” (ibid:52). An Islamic dimension is nevertheless in evidence. “Some ideas like the role of God and free will were treated both Islamically and Neoplatonically or Hermetically” (ibid).

The exegesis of Professor Nasr favours a concept of perennialism extending to the pre-Islamic period. Professor Mehdi Amin Razavi commented: “For Nasr therefore, the Persian intellectual tradition especially as it blossomed in the Islamic period is a clear example of perennial wisdom (jawidan khirad)” (Amin Razavi, introduction to Nasr, The Islamic Intellectual Tradition in Persia, 1996, p. xi).

The concept of jawidan khirad is associated with Miskawayh (d.1030), an Iranian Muslim philosopher to whom is credited a work known as Jawidan Khirad or Al-Hikma al-Khalida (Eternal Wisdom). This is a compilation of wisdom literature drawn from Persia, Greece, India, and elsewhere. The ethical aphorisms attributed to diverse sages are viewed by critics as part of a Persian “nationalism” striving for equality with Arab (and Greek) renown and pedigree. However, others have viewed the phrase jawidan khirad as a more intrinsic significator. The phrase has become associated with what is elsewhere known as “perennial philosophy,” inaugurated in Christian terms by Agostino Steuco (d.1548). Views of Nasr on the perennial theme can be found in his Knowledge and the Sacred: The Gifford Lectures 1981 (1981). See also Nasr, Islamic Philosophy from its Origin to the Present (2006), p. 8, referring to “differences of expression of the perennial philosophy depending on the intellectual climate in which the perennial philosophy is expressed.”

The subject of perennial philosophy has gained varying interpretations from partisans. A critical appraisal of recent Western versions can be found in article 14 on this website.

Copyright © 2021 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved. Uploaded August 2008, last modified July 2021.