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ISHRĀQĪYAH , from ishrāq ("illumination"), is the name of a school of esoteric philosophy in Islam. The two major currents of thought in the development of Islamic philosophy, one exoteric and the other esoteric, are known respectively as falsafah ("scholastic philosophy," derived from Aristotle and Plato) and ʿirfān (a special type of philosophy derived from a metaphysical experience of Being through spiritual realization). Introduced into the West from the twelfth century onward through numerous translations from Arabic to Latin, it was falsafah that almost exclusively came to constitute "Islamic philosophy" in the West, while the other important tradition, that of ʿirfān, was left in complete obscurity. But ʿirfān has always been a creative force in Islamic spirituality, and as such it has produced a type of philosophy that is quite different from, and in many respects sharply opposed to, falsafah.

Imaginal Thinking

The word philosophy tends to suggest the inner act of thinking as a logical outcome of reason. One has to be reminded, however, that philosophic thought is not necessarily activated only on the level of pure reason. Because human consciousness is extremely complicated and multilayered, various forms of thinking can be realized at different levels of the mind. "Imaginal" thinking is one of them.

"Imaginal" thinking, also known as "mythopoeic thinking" or "mythopoesis," is a peculiar pattern of thinking that evolves through interconnections and interactions among a number of archetypal images in a particular depth-dimension of consciousness. In the technical terminology of Islamic ʿirfān, this depth-dimension is called the ʿālam al-mithāl, meaning literally the "world of symbolic images." The type of philosophy produced by this kind of thinking naturally manifests remarkable differences from philosophy as a product of pure reason.

Imaginal thinking is not confined to Islamic ʿirfān. Quite the contrary; many different systems of philosophy that have come into being in various Asian regions reflect self-expressions of "imaginal" consciousness. The "illuminationism" (ishrāqīyah ) of Suhrawardī represents one case, the "unity of being" (wadat al-wujūd ) of Ibn ʿArabī another. Complicating the matter with regard to the Islamic variety of "imaginal" or esoteric philosophy, however, is the fact that the majority of the first-rate thinkers in this domain were also great masters of Scholastic, exoteric philosophy, so that both the "imaginal" and the rational modes of thinking appear in subtle entanglements on the textual surface of their works. This is notably the case with men like Suhrawardī and Ibn al-ʿArabī.

Suhrawardī, in particular, is known to have written three voluminous books on scholasticism, Kitāb al-talwīāt, Kitāb al-muqāwamāt, and Kitāb al-muāraāt, the famous trilogy attesting to his rarely surpassed accomplishment as an exoteric philosopher, prior to embarking upon the production of his major work on Illuminationism, ikmat al-ishrāq (Theosophy of Illumination). As indicated by the title, this is essentially a product of imaginal thinking, representing a peculiar kind of esoteric philosophy based on a metaphysical experience of light. Yet it begins with a sober exposition of the principles of Aristotelian logic before gradually becoming an "imaginal" presentation of the hierarchic structure of the angels of light. It is important to note that this seemingly odd combination of the exoteric and esoteric modes of thinking, together with the very conception of ishrāq, can be traced back to Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna).

Ibn SĪnĀ and "Oriental Philosophy"

In a number of respects, and particularly with regard to the idea of ishrāq, Ibn Sīnā may be considered an important precursor of Suhrawardī. Quite characteristically, however, in Ibn Sīnā's work the rational and "imaginal" modes of thinking are still consciously and methodically separated from one another, so that falsafah and ʿirfān are conceived as two independent and essentially different types of philosophy (although in the process of the structuralization of Ibn Sīnā's symbolic narratives, we sometimes notice technical concepts of Aristotelianism creeping into the "imaginal" space of ʿirfān ).

It is important to note that of the two types of philosophy Ibn Sīnā himself laid greater weight on the imaginal (i.e., esoteric) than on the rational (i.e., exoteric). At the outset of his magnum opus, the famous Kitāb al-shifaʾ (Book of Remedy, known in the West in Latin translation as Sufficientia ), which is a huge systematic exposition of Peripatetic philosophy, Ibn Sīnā declares that what he is going to write does not represent his personal thought but is intended to acquaint the students of philosophy with the thought-world of the ancient Greeks, Aristotle in particular.

As for his own "true thought," he seems to have long cherished the idea of giving a direct expression to it in a completely different book, Al-ikmat al-mashriqīyah (Oriental Philosophy), of which the now extant Maniq al-mashriqīyīn (The Logic of the Orientals) is only the introductory part. Whether completed or not, the book itself has not come down to us. Besides this work we have a few short treatises of esotericism and some symbolic tales from his own pen.

Ibn Sīnā's use of words meaning "Orient" and "Oriental" is significant here, for the word mashriq ("Orient"), from the root shrq, literally means the "place (ma -) where what is designated by the root shrq becomes activated," that is, the original point of "illumination" (ishrāq ). The "Orient," in other words, is not a geographical notion, but a term designating the East in a mythopoeic or spiritual geography.

The "Orient" in this particular context is the sacred locus from which the divine light makes its appearance, illuminating the whole world of being, "the place where the sun rises," the ultimate origin of all existence. In the Persian commentary on Ibn Sīnā's mythic-symbolic tale, ayy ibn Yaqan (a proper name, literally "Living, son of Wakeful"), one of his disciples (Abū ʿUbayd al-Juzjānī?) explicates the symbolism of "Orient" and "Occident" in the following manner. Utilizing in his own way the Aristotelian theory of the distinction between "form" and "matter," he begins by stating that matter in and by itself has no existence, whereas form is the source of existence. Matter, in other words, is pure nonexistence. But his Iranian frame of reference naturally and immediately translates this proposition into another, namely, that matter in itself is sheer darkness. And he assigns matter (as darkness) to the Western region of the cosmos in the "imaginal" map of his symbolic geography.

The implication of this position is clear. Ibn Sīnā defines the Orient as the original abode of form (light), and thus symbolically as the world of "forms," or existential light, while the Occident is the world of "matter," that is, of darkness and nonexistence.

Matter turns into existence only by the influx of the all-existentiating luminous energy of form, coming from the divine Orient through the intermediary of ten angelsthe number limited to ten in conformity with the ten celestial spheres of Hellenistic astronomy. Directly reflecting the divine light, the angels embody the highest degree of existential luminosity, while all other beings and things that become luminous (i.e., existent) through the illuminating activity of the angels are less bright (i.e., less densely existent). The existential luminosity naturally grows less and less intense as the rays of the divine light go down the scale of being (i.e., become further and further removed from its original source), until they merge almost totally into the darkness of matter when they reach the lowest stage of being.

As long as they do exist factually, the "things" in the empirical world are not sheer darkness. They are shadowy existents, faint reflections of the divine light. But since it is matter that is overwhelmingly dominant in this domain, the empirical world is "imaginally" represented as a world of darkness. In some privileged cases (notably the prophets), however, the human consciousness may suddenly flare up in glorious light under the influence of the Active Intellect (Gabriel, the angel of revelation), illuminating the world of darkness in which the souls of ordinary human beings are imprisoneda typical theme of Gnosticism.

Such, in brief outline, is the general plan of the "Oriental philosophy" of Ibn Sīnā. Underlying it is clearly a vision of the cosmos as the interplay of light and shadow, a vast "imaginal" field in which the divine light appears in infinitely various and variegated forms, determining itself in accordance with various degrees of interfusion with material darkness through the light-transmitting activity of the angels. It is a Gnostic vision of the world permeated with the "imaginal" presence of the angels of light.

SuhrawardĪ, Founder of the IshrĀqĪ School

The esoteric worldview manifested in Ibn Sīnā's philosophy, with its strong Gnostic influences, was inherited in turn by Shihāb al-Dīn Yayā ibn abash ibn Amīrak al-Suhrawardī (11531191), the real founder of the Illuminationist school in Iran. Significantly enough, Suhrawardī, who has come to be known by the honorary title Shaykh al-Ishrāq, "master of illumination," traces the "tradition" of his Illuminationist philosophy back to Hermes Agathodaemon (who appears in Islam under the figure of the prophet Idrīs). It must be remembered that long before the rise of Islam, the Mediterranean school of Hermetism had established itself in Alexandria, and from this center it had infiltrated into the wide domain of the Middle East. There, in the city of Harran, the "followers of the prophet Idris," the Sabaeans who venerated the Corpus Hermeticum as their scripture, cultivated the esoteric learning of Hermetism and propagated it in various directions. Through one of these it must have reached Suhrawardī.

In the "imaginal" dimension of Suhrawardī's consciousness, however, the history of Illuminationism (which he straightforwardly identifies with the history of philosophy in general) takes on a remarkably original and peculiar form. Ishrāqī wisdom as the only authentic actualization of the "perennial philosophy" (ikmah ʿatīqah ) of mankind has its ultimate origin in the divine revelations received by the prophet Idris, that is, Hermes, who thereby became the forefather of philosophy. This Hermetic wisdom was transmitted to posterity through two separate channels: Egyptian-Greek and ancient Iranian. The first branch of Hermetic wisdom, after flourishing in ancient Egypt, went to Greece, where it produced such Gnostic sages as Pythagoras, Empedocles, Plato, and Plotinus. The tradition was maintained in Islam by some of the eminent early ūfīs, including Dhū al-Nūn (d. 859) and Sahl al-Tustarī (d. 896).

The second branch of Hermetism, represented in ancient Iran by the mythical priest-kings Kayūmarth, Farīdūn, and Kay Khusraw, developed into the Sufism of Bāyazīd al-Basāmī, generally known in the West as al-Bisāmi (d. 874), and Manūr al-allāj (d. 922).

Suhrawardī considered himself the historical point of convergence between the two traditions, unifying and integrating into an existential, organic whole all the important elements of the Hermetic wisdom elaborated in the long course of its historical development. And to the integral whole of Gnostic ideas thus formed Suhrawardī gave a peculiar philosophical reformulation, structured in terms of the Zoroastrian symbolism of light and darknessthe term Zoroastrianism here understood in the sense of the spiritual, "esoteric" teaching of Zoroaster as distinguished from the "exoteric."

East-West symbolism

In approaching Suhrawardī's Illuminationist philosophy, the first thing we must pay attention to is the symbolism of East and West. Qiat al-ghurbah al-gharbīyah (The Narrative of the Occidental Exile), which he composed in Arabicmost of his symbolic tales or narratives are in Persianmakes it clear that he attaches the same "imaginal" meanings to "Orient" and "Occident" as did Ibn Sīnā. Thus, the Orient for him too means the Orient of lights, the sacred place in which divine light originates, the source of spiritual as well as cosmic illumination, whereas the Occident is the abyss of material darkness, in which the human soul is imprisoned and from which it must set itself free so that it may go back to its real home, the Orient.

Hierarchy of lights

Rejecting (or radically modifying) the Aristotelian doctrine of hylomorphism, which explains every existent in terms of a conjunction of matter and specific form, Suhrawardī employs a completely different ontology, of Gnostic origin, explaining all things as degrees of light (or as various mixtures of light and darkness); the Aristotelian "form" thereby appears metamorphosed into an angel as a luminous being. Suhrawardian philosophy thus turns out to be an ontology of light, with varying degrees of intensity, in a hierarchical order.

Light, says Suhrawardī, is that which illuminates itself, and by so doing illuminates all other things. Light, otherwise expressed, is that which exists by and in itself (i.e., light is existence) and by its own existence brings into existence all things. Light thus defies definition, while all other things can and must be defined in reference to it. Light, in short, is nothing other than the ontological "presence" (uūr ) of the things; it is the ultimate source of all existence. It follows, therefore, that the whole world of being must be realized as a grandiose hierarchy of lights, beginning with the absolute light in the highest degree of luminosity and ending with the weakest lights just about to sink into the reign of utter darkness (ghasaq ), that is, absolute nonexistence.

What stands at the top of this cosmic hierarchy of light is the "light of lights" (nūr al-anwār ), which, in the terminology of Islamic theology, is God. Beneath it, spreading down to the domain of the densely dark bodies in the physical world, are various degrees of light (existence), which, in Suhrawardī's system, characteristically appear in the guise of angels who govern the world of being.

Unlike Ibn Sīnā's angelology, which is Neoplatonic, Suhrawardī's is fundamentally Zoroastrian. Rather than being limited to ten (corresponding to the ten heavens of Ptolemy), the number of angels is innumerable. Their function, moreover, is not limited to the Neoplatonic angels' triple intellection of their origin, of themselves, and of those that come out of them. As a result, the hierarchy of Suhrawardī's angelology is far more complicated than that of Ibn Sīnā. There are, to begin with, two different basic orders of angels, "longitudinal" (ūlī) and "latitudinal" (ʿarīi), with regard to their successive generations, their spatial disposition, and their functions.

Longitudinal and latitudinal order

The longitudinal order of angels lays the primary foundation of the world of being in its entirety as a "temple of light," or rather, a dazzling complex of "temples of light" (hayākil al-nūr ; sg., haykal al-nūr ), radiant with angels reflecting the "light of lights" and mutually reflecting each other. Their procession is described by Suhrawardī in the following manner.

From the "light of lights," representing the highest and ultimate point of cosmic-metaphysical luminosity, proceeds the archangel Bahmān, who is the "nearest light" (nūr aqrab ). Directly contemplating his own origin, the "light of lights," the archangel Bahmān reflects it without any intermediary. And this immediately brings into being another light-entity, or archangel, which is doubly illuminated, receiving as it does illumination directly from the "light of lights" and from the first light from which it has arisen. The double illumination of the second light immediately generates the third light, which is now illuminated four times, once by the "light of lights," once by the first light, and twice by the second light (the second light being, as we have just seen, itself doubly illuminated). And so continues the downward procession of the archangels, resulting in the constitution of the "longitudinal" order of lights. Each one of these angelic lights is called in Suhrawardī's technical terminology a "dominating light" (nūr qāhir ), with "forceful domination" (qahr ) one of the basic principles determining the activity of these angels.

This longitudinal order of archangels of light has in itself two mutually opposed aspects, the masculine and the feminine, from the former of which issues an essentially different order of angels, the latitudinal. Unlike the archangels of the longitudinal order, the latitudinal angels do not generate one another, but simply coexist horizontally, positioned side by side, thus constituting the world of eternal "archetypes" that are "imaginal" equivalents of the Platonic ideas. Suhrawardī calls them in this capacity the "lords of the species" (arbāb al-anwāʿ ; sg., rabb al-nawʿ ). Every thing in the empirical world specifically stands under the domination of a lord of the species; in other words, every individual existent in our world has its corresponding metaphysical archetype in the angelic dimension of being, somewhat like the ontological relationship between the individual and universal realms in Platonic idealism. Each existent in the empirical world is technically called the "talisman" (ilasm ) of a particular angel governing and guarding it from above. And the angel in this capacity is called the "lord of the talisman" (rabb al-ilasm ).

As for the feminine aspect of the longitudinal order of angels, it primarily has to do with such negative attributes as being dominated, being dependent, being receptive to illumination, being remote from the "light of lights," nonbeing, and so on. The fixed stars and the visible heavens come into being from it as so many hypostatizations of the luminous energies of the archangels. And this marks the ending point of the Orient and the beginning point of the Occident.

The latitudinal order of angels gives rise to still another order of angels, whose basic function is to govern the species in the capacity of vicegerents of the "lords of the species." These deputy angels are called by Suhrawardī the "directive lights" (anwār mudabbirah ; sg., nūr mudabbir ). Using the characteristic Persian word ispahbad, meaning "commander-in-chief," Suhrawardī calls them also "light-generalissimos" (anwār isfahbadīyah ). These are the angels who are charged with maintaining the movement of the heavens, and who, as the agents of the "lords of the species," govern all the species of the creatures in the physical world, including human beings, whose shared "lord of the species" is the archangel Gabriel (Jibrīl). The "deputy governor" (ispahbad, the "light-generalissimo") of Gabriel resides in the inmost part of the soul of each human being, issuing directions concerning his or her internal and external acts.

As will be clearly observable even from this very brief, and necessarily incomplete, exposition, Suhrawardī's Illuminationist worldview is fundamentally mandalic in nature. The world of being in its entirety is conceived or imaged as a vast cosmic mandala composed of innumerable angels of light spreading out in geometric designs along longitudinal and latitudinal axes. Here we have a typical product of mandalic consciousness completely self-realized in the form of a vision of the whole world of being appearing as an "imaginal" space saturated with light.

Post-Suhrawardian Developments

Suhrawardī's life was extremely short; in the citadel of Aleppo where he was imprisoned as a propagator of anti-Islamic "new ideas" he was murdered at the age of thirty-eight in the year 1191. But after his death the influence of his Ishrāqī teaching grew stronger in the Islamic world, particularly in Iran, where it exercised the greatest influence on the historical formation of the philosophy of Shiism.

The long chain of followers of the Master of Illumination begins with Shams al-Dīn Shahrazūrī (thirteenth century), who studied personally under Suhrawardī or under one of his direct disciples. He wrote the first systematic and most extensive commentary on the ikmat al-ishrāq, thereby preparing the ground for subsequent interpretations of this fundamental work of Illuminationism. It was, as a matter of fact, in complete reliance on this commentary that Qub al-Dīn Shīrāzī (d. 1311) composed his famous commentary on the ikmat al-ishrāq.

Shahrazūrī was in reality a far more original thinker than Qub al-Dīn Shīrāzī, and his commentary was far more important and interesting than Qub al-Dīn's, which is now known to be an abbreviated version. Qub al-Dīn's fame, however, soon overshadowed that of his great predecessor, so that his commentary came to be regarded as virtually the commentary on the ikmat al-ishrāq ; thus from the early fourteenth century until today almost all those who have been interested in Suhrawardian Illuminationism have read or studied the book mainly through the interpretation given by Qub al-Dīn.

The historical importance of Qub al-Dīn lies in the fact that besides being an ardent propagator of Illuminationism, he was also a disciple of adr al-Dīn Qūnawī (or Qunyawī), a personal disciple of Ibn al-ʿArabī and his son-in-law, and that through this channel he was well versed in the wadat al-wujūd type of philosophy. In fact, Qub al-Dīn is counted among the greatest expositors of Ibn al-ʿArabī's ideas. Combining thus in his own person these two important currents of the post-Avicennian Islamic philosophy, Qub al-Dīn fundamentally determined the subsequent course of the development of the Ishrāqī school. Indeed, after Qub al-Dīn, Suhrawardian Illuminationism quickly assimilated into its structure the major ideas of the "unity of existence" that had been independently developed by the school of Ibn al-ʿArabī.

The work of integration reached its first stage of completion in the Safavid period in Iran. The two centuries of the Safavid dynasty (14991720), during which the city of Isfahan was the political and cultural center and Twelver Shiism was the recognized form of Islam, realized what is often called the "renaissance of Islamic [Shīʿī] culture." It was in the flourishing city of Isfahan that the intellectual heritages of Ibn al-ʿArabī and Suhrawardī were harmoniously integrated into an organic whole through the works of generations of outstanding thinkers. These thinkers are now referred to among historians of Islamic philosophy as the "school of Isfahan," the greatest figure in which is uncontestedly adr al-Dīn Shīrāzī (popularly known as Mullā adrā, 15711640).

Mullā adrā's philosophy is a colossal and complicated system, synthesizing ideas derived from various sources in conjunction with his own quite original thoughts. As regards Illuminationism, Mullā adrā made thoroughly explicit what had from the beginning been implicit (and occasionally explicit), namely, the complete identification of "light" with "existence." In this way, "existence" became totally synonymous with "luminosity." The existence of each thing is in the metaphysical-"imaginal" vision of Mullā adrā nothing other than a degree of light, a luminous issue or illumination from the "light of lights." The "light of lights" itself is completely identified with what is referred to in Ibn al-ʿArabī's wadat al-wujūd system as the "one," that is, existence in its primordial state of absolute undetermination, but ready to start determining itself in an infinity of different ontological self-manifestations.

See Also

Falsafah; Hermetism; Ibn al-ʿArabī; Ibn Sīnā; Images; Mullā adrā; Nūr Muammad.


Works by Suhrawardī in Translation

Shihaboddin Yayā Sohravardi's "L'archange Empourpré," translated by Henry Corbin, in Documents spirituels, vol. 14 (Paris, 1976), is a collection of symbolic narratives and short essays of Suhrawardī, translated into French from Persian and Arabic, with copious notes. It is indispensable for all those seeking initiation into the mystical world of the Master of Illumination.

Works on Suhrawardī and Illuminationism

Seyyed Hossein Nasr's "Shihāb al-Dīn Suhrawardī Maqtūl," in A History of Muslim Philosophy, edited by M. M. Sharif (Wiesbaden, 1963), vol. 1, pp. 372398, is by far the best introductory exposition of the Illuminationism of Suhrawardī. See also his "The School of Ipahān," in the same source, vol. 2, pp. 904932, and "The Spread of the Illuminationist School of Suhrawardī," Islamic Quarterly 14 (JulySeptember 1970): 111121, a short but important paper that traces the historical development of Illuminationism in Iran, India, and Turkey down to modern times. See also Henry Corbin's Sohrawardī et les platoniciens de Perse, vol. 2 of En Islam iranien (Paris, 1971), one of the most important works on Suhrawardī.

New Sources

Walbridge, John. The Wisdom of the Ancient East: Suhrawardi and Platonic Orientalism. Albany, 2001.

Ziai, Hossein. Knowledge and Initiation: A Study of Suhrawardi's Hikmat al-ishraq. Atlanta, 1990.

Toshihiko Izutsu (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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