Mullā Ṣadrā

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MULLĀ ADRĀ (ah 979/801050, 1571/21641 ce), popular name of Muammad ibn Ibrāhīm al-Shīrāzī; Persian philosopher, theologian, and mystic. As his name indicates, Muammad, titled adr al-Dīn ("breast-plate [defender] of the faith") was born in Shiraz; his father, Ibrāhīm ibn Yayā, is said to have been a governor of the province of Fārs.


Little is known of the details of Mullā adrā's life. He came at a young age to Isfahan, which was the Safavid capital and the center of a flourishing school of philosophy established by Muammad Bāqir Mīr Dāmād (d. 1631), Mullā adrā's mentor and a philosophic thinker of fairly high caliber. adrā also studied theology with Bahāʾ al-Dīn al-ʿĀmilī (d. 1621), a theologian, mathematician, and architect whose treatises on mathematics and science were taught at al-Azhar University in Cairo. His third teacher, Mīr Findiriskī (who died the same year as Mullā adrā), is believed to have taught adrā the Peripatetic philosophy of Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna).

Sometime in his youth, most likely during his middle twenties, Mullā adrā left Isfahan under persecution from certain traditionalist circles who, probably among other things, accused him of pantheism; he was also impelled by a strong inner need to base his thought on a more solid footing than the superficial method of debates and "verbal quibbles," as he calls them. He settled in the village of Kahak in the mountains near Qom (an important center of religious learning in Iran), where he led a solitary life, devoting himself to deep contemplation of the basic problems of truth and life, particularly of human destiny. This was accompanied by strenuous religious exercises as a means of spiritual catharsis, as he avers, and as preparation for the reception of truth. It is not certain how long he stayed in Kahak: reports vary from seven to fifteen years, but the latter figure appears to be more accurate within the periodization of his life suggested below. In any event, adrā informs us that during this stay, as he resigned himself to God and passively submitted to truth, his mind was "flooded with invasions of intuitive truth." This infused new life into him; he had gone into seclusion troubled and brokenhearted, but he came out of it with a new philosophical discovery, a discovery that was to serve him as the master principle for the solution of all philosophical problems, from the theory of movement, through epistemology, to the nature of the self and God. This was the principle of the reality of existence and the fictitiousness of essences. To expound this principle he wrote various works, including his magnum opus, Al-asfār al-arbaʿah (The four journeys).

After his stay in Kahak, adrā returned to his native town, Shiraz, where it is said a mosque school was built for him by Allāhwirdī Khan under orders from Shah ʿAbbās II. This was the "Khan School" mentioned by the seventeenth-century traveler Thomas Herbert as the most prominent school in Iran; it offered courses in philosophy, astrology (that is, astronomy: astrology is prohibited in orthodox Islam), physics, chemistry, and mathematics. The building, though badly in need of restoration, still stands today. Here adrā wrote practically all of his works and trained scholars, the most famous of whom were Mullā Fay Kāshānī and ʿAbd al-Razzāq Lāhījī. He is said to have died in Basra on a return from his seventh pilgrimage to Mecca; he was buried there. If reports are to be believed, he made several pilgrimages to Mecca on foot. Such a journey is not uncommon among Muslims, but in the case of a busy intellectual leader it would have been an almost incredible feat.

The life of adrā thus falls into three broad periods. The first covers his childhood and his period of study in Shiraz and Isfahanup to his early or middle twenties; the second is the period of his self-imposed exile in the village of Kahak, which, if it spanned fifteen years, would bring him to the age of almost forty, and the last period covers the last thirty lunar years of his life, which would give him a total of seventy lunar or sixty-eight solar years.


Mullā adrā tells us that in his early youth he held to the primary reality of essences and considered existence to be a "secondary attribute" contributed by the mind to external reality. This doctrine of "essentialism" arose with Suhrawardī al-Maqtūl, "the Martyr" (d. 1191), who criticized the view of Ibn Sīnā that existence is a "real" attribute of existents. Suhrawardī held that in reality there are only essences, and that existence is a most general attribute contributed only by the mind and with no counterpart in the external world. This doctrine became very popular after Suhrawardī and gave rise to the doctrine of the "unity of being" (wadat al-wujūd), according to which all beings share existence equally but differ in their essences, a doctrine often linked with pantheism since it asserts the unity of the existence of God with all beings. At some point during his period of seclusion, however, adrā abandoned this view in favor of the idea of the primary or sole reality of existence, which he then used as his master principle in all fields of philosophic inquiry.

The doctrine of the sole reality of existence implies (1) that essences are not real but are produced only in the mind by the impact of outside reality upon it and (2) that existence is in eternal progressive motion, which at each point assumes all previous grades of movement and transcends them. Let us now consider the fuller impact of each of these propositions. First, existence is "something whose nature it is to be in the external world," while mind is the natural home of essences. The moment we conceptualize existence, therefore, it becomes an essence and falsifies real existence; thus, existence cannot be known through conceptual reason but only through direct intuition, just as we know ourselves. As adrā puts it, "That which is directly experienced is existence, but that which is understood by the mind are essences." Even so, however, the concept of existence differs from all other concepts or essences, in that it alone presupposes real existence. Essences are dysfunctional to existence: the more something has of existence, the less it has of essence. God, the most perfect being, is therefore pure and absolute existence without any essence, although this fact does not, in adrā's view, negate God's attributes, because each of them, as an infinite and concrete entity, is identical with God's existence and is only conceptually distinguishable from the others, while essences are closed and mutually exclusive. Existence alone is all-inclusive; from it, the mind somehow partitions and carves essences for certain practical purposes, but the continuum of reality is falsified in the process.

Second, this continuum of reality is the continuum of eternal progressive motion, which is unidirectional and irreversible. This movement, which adrā calls "substantive movement," occurs in the very substance of everything and not just in its accidents or extrinsic attributes, such as color, shape, locus, and so on. This latter kind of movement is reversible in quality and quantityhot can become cold or vice versabut such extrinsic motion is dependent upon an inner, intrinsic one that is irreversible. This intrinsic or substantive motion is so imperceptible that we become aware of it only after a great deal of cumulative change has occurred and a critical point is reached. In view of his doctrine of "substantive motion," adrā, of course, denies that real motion has any enduring substratum. But contrary to the theologians (mutakallimūn ), who believe in atomism, he spends a good deal of effort to prove continuity, without which the whole idea of process would become impossible, and he would end up denying the very motion that he wants to establish. He therefore concludes by asserting that while the idea of a fixed and enduring substratum is real with regard to accidental movements, it is fictional with regard to substantive movement, which is itself a veritable unity wherein the potential and the actual or the "active" and the "passive" principles are one and the same. In a self-actualizing process, any dualism between that which produces change and that which is receptive of change vanishes.

In the entire field of reality, it is only existence that is characterized by substantive change. Existence alone is therefore "systematically ambiguous" (mutashakkik ) because it is "that which, by virtue of sameness, creates difference"; other phenomena, like extrinsic motion and time, are so only because they are contingent upon this substantive change. This substantive movement of the world process always proceeds from the general to the specific, from the genus to the differentia, from the abstract to the concrete, and every subsequent development contains the prior developments and transcends them. adrā also describes the process as movement from mutually exclusive to mutually inclusive parts of being, or from the "composite" to the "simple" being. He thus enunciates the principle: "The truly simple is all reality." A consequence of this principle is that what appears contradictory at a lower level of being appears as a synthetic unity at a higher level, since mutually exclusive factors progressively become mutually inclusive.

Whereas God is absolute existence, the perpetually and progressively moving grades of existence are the "modes" of existence; these modes, in proportion to the measure of existence they realize, are organized according to the principle of "more or less," or ad priorem et posteriorem, a principle that adrā borrowed from Suhrawardī. But while for Suhrawardī the principle of "more or less" applies to essences, according to adrā it applies to existence alone, and that is, as we have seen, the "systematic ambiguity" (tashkīk ) of existence. On the basis of this tashkīk of existence, moreover, adrā asserts that although in this life all humans partake of one species, thanks to the progressive motion from abstract to concrete in the evolutionary process, in future life every human will become a species unto himself. Strictly speaking, on this principle, every form or mode of being has an irreducible reality of its own, which cannot be dissolved without residue: each being, adrā tirelessly repeats, exists in its own right as a unique and unanalyzable particular (fard ). Yet so strong is the pull of the pantheistic-monistic worldview of his earlier days that adrā emphatically tells us that only God is real and truly existent; every other being is only a chimera, a pseudo-being beside God. Here lies the most basic tension in adrā's thought, one which he never seems able to overcome; it is the tension between his philosophical and his religious motivations. Thus, while he tells us that the question "why does the world move?" is a meaningless one, like the question, "why does fire burn?"for the only answer is "because this is its very nature"in the same breath, he insists that it is God who creates change at every moment in the world process, that nothing other than him has any reality whatever, and that all contingent beings are not just things related to him, but mere relations, a hardly intelligible proposition.

Nonetheless, adrā applies his fundamental theory of existence and its evolution to various traditional problems of philosophy with an amazing degree of consistency and success. Thus, in his theory of knowledge he argues strongly against the Peripatetic view that knowledge comes about by way of gradual abstraction of the object of knowledge from matter and its relationships until pure intellective knowlege is attained. If this is the case, then our intellective knowledge of an animal, for example, since it is abstracted from the matter of the animal, must falsify the object of knowledge, because the real animal has matter, and "concepts in the mind would become like engravings on the wall." Knowledge, in fact, since it is at a higher plane of being than material things, is more concrete, simple, and inclusive, until, at the highest level, the full knowledge-being equation is reached as in God.

In his eschatology, adrā rejects the doctrine of the transmigration of souls, giving as one reason, among others, that when a soul has developed in a body it cannot regress and start from scratch, which it would have to do if it joined a newborn body. Applying his doctrine of the systematic ambiguity of existence to the problem of will, adrā asserts that will (like knowledge and other intrinsic attributes) is commensurate with a particular form of existence. Fire, for example, has a certain tendency (like other natural objects) but no will; humans have a will with choice between alternatives. They have to choose because they are a mixture of power and powerlessness, knowledge and ignorance; their "free will" means that they have choice, but also that this choice has determinants. Philosophers who hanker after an "absolutely free will" for humans are running after a mirage. God has a free will without choice since, in his case, there is no question of alternatives to choose from; nevertheless, he does not work under constraint. Thus, an individual can say, "If I will, I will write; otherwise not," and God can say, "If I will, I will create; otherwise not," even if God must always create, given his nature; but fire cannot say, "If I will, I will burn; otherwise not." These differences are due to the nature of existence in each case.


The editor of Al-asfār al-arbaʿah (Tehran, 1958) puts the number of adrā's works at thirty-two or thirty-three; S. H. Nasr, in his study Mullā adrā and His Transcendent Philosophy, mentions forty-six, although he includes a number of items entitled "Answers to Questions." Although adrā wrote works of religion as well as philosophy, the latter are by far the more important, since the former are products of the application of his philosophical hermeneutics to religious tenets. His writings can also be divided into original works and commentaries; the commentaries on Ibn Sīnā's Metaphysics and Suhrawardī's ikmat al-Ishrāq are very important and certainly more influential even than most of adrā's smaller original pieces. His most important and comprehensive work is undoubtedly Al-asfār al-arbaʿah. The first part deals with ontology, discussing questions of existence, essence, and movement. The second, apparently addressing the categories of substance and accidents, deals with his natural philosophy. The third "journey" is devoted to a discussion of God's being and attributes, while the last deals with humanity and its destiny, which is the final purpose of the entire work. Two other important late works are Al-mabdaʾ wa-al-maʿād (The Origin and the Return, that is, of all being from and to God) and Al-shawāhid al-rubūbīyah (Divine Witnesses), held to be his last work; these are both in the nature of summaries of the Asfār.

Despite his fame, adrā had little influence in his own lifetime. As mentioned earlier, two of his pupils gained prominence. It appears that since he had synthesized several schools of Islamic thought and also wrote commentaries on some of their prominent texts, his works gradually became a focal point of philosophic studies in Iran and subsequently in the Indian subcontinent, where adrā's commentary on Ibn Sīnā's Metaphysics was taught and where numerous manuscripts of his works still exist uncataloged.


The latest edition of the Asfār (Tehran, 1960) so far includes three "journeys" in nine volumes; the publication of the second "journey," which exists only in the 1865 Tehran lithograph edition, is still awaited. The first great commentator on the Asfār was ʿAlī Nūrī (d. 1831), followed by a series of other commentators, the most able and prominent of whom was Hādī Sabzawārī (d. 1871). A list of important commentaries (which have never been published independently of the text) is given in the publisher's introduction to the recent edition of the Asfār mentioned above. adrā has had many "debunkers" as well, particularly Abū al-asan Jalwah (d. 1894), who claimed that adrā "stole" practically all of his characteristic ideas without naming his sources, a claim that of course cannot be taken seriously. For the past few decades, Iran has witnessed reinvigorated interest in adrā. The celebration of his four hundredth anniversary in 1961 occasioned the publication of some valuable information about him and his writings, along with editions of some of his previously unpublished works.

In the West, the first book on adrā's thought, Das philosophische System von Schirāzi (Strassburg, 1913), was published by Max Horten. This was followed by Henry Corbin's translation of Al-mashāʿir as Le livre des pénétrations métaphysique (Tehran, 1964). I have published a detailed critical analysis of adrā's philosophy based primarily on the Asfār entitled The Philosophy of Mullā adrā (Albany, N. Y., 1975). Seyyed Hossein Nasr's Mullā adrā and His Transcendent Philosophy (Tehran, 1978) contains useful information on the life and works of adrā. James Winston Morris has published an annotated English translation of adrā's treatise Al-ikmah al-ʿarshīyah entitled The Wisdom of the Throne (Princeton, 1981), with a lengthy introduction from an esoteric angle. For general bibliography, see Seyyed Hossein Nasr's work cited above.

New Sources

Dakake, Maria Massi. "The Soul as Barzakh: Substantial Motion and Mulla Sadra's Theory of Becoming." Muslim World 94 (January 2004): 107131.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, "Mulla Sadra: His Teachings." In Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Oliver Leaman, eds. History of Islamic Philosophy. New York, 1996, pp. 643652.

Kalin, Ibrahim. "Mulla Sadra's Religious Ontology of the Intelligibles and Theory of Knowledges." Muslim World 94 (January 2004): 81107.

Ziai, Hossein. "Mulla Sadra: His Life and Works." In Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Oliver Leaman, eds. History of Islamic Philosophy. New York, 1996, pp. 635642.

Fazlur Rahman (1987)

Revised Bibliography