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Illuminationism (also, Illuminationist philosophy) is the name given to a school of philosophy founded in the twelfth century by the innovative Persian philosopher, Shihāb al-Dīn Suhrawardī (d. 1191), who is well-known by the honorific epithet, "Master of Illumination" (Shaykh al-Ishrāq).


The philosophy of Illumination is a holistically constructed system that aims to refine the period's peripatetic philosophy, which was known predominantly in the corpus of philosophical writings by the acclaimed Persian philosopher and scientist, Abū ʿAlī Sīnā, well-known in European traditions as Avicenna, the latinized version of his name. The intense Greek-inspired scientific and philosophical activity from the ninth to the eleventh centuries, centered mainly in Baghdad (the Abbasid Caliphate's political, cultural, and scientific capital), but also in the emerging centers of learning in Iran (such as the cities Rayy, Hamadan, Isfahān, and Nayshpur) as well as central Asian centers of Pesianate.

Linguistic and cultural influence produced remarkable results manifest in many texts covering the range of pure and applied sciences, including medicine, astronomy, mathematics, logic and philosophy, and so on. In this, the creative period of Islamic philosophy, two domains of intellectual endeavor, political philosophy and holistic theoretical philosophy, are defined and creatively expressed in texts that together constitute the dominant side of Islamic philosophy to this day. In practical philosophy the Persian thinker Abu Nar Fārābī (875950)Abunaser, or Alfarabius in medieval Latin texts, also called "The Second Teacher"creates seminal works of political philosophy, such as Opinions of the Inhabitants of the Virtuous City, where he redefined Greek political philosophy and theorized that human beings could gain access to "prophetic" yet objective knowledge through conjunction with the Active Intellect, not restricted to Divine Will. His political order, legislated by a founding prophet-lawgiver and "scientifically" reformed by learned (ʿulamā ) guardians, ensured just rule necessary for the universal pursuit of earthly and eternal happiness.

In theoretical philosophy Avicenna's texts, Healing (al-Shifā ); Directives and Remarks (al-Ishārāt wa al-Tanbīhāt ); and Deliverance (al-Najāt ) define Islamic Peripatetic philosophy, which has had the greatest impact on all subsequent philosophical works to this day. This highly creative rationalist philosophical endeavor was, however, seriously curtailed by the antirationalist movement of Ashʾarite theology augmented by the antiphilosophical polemics of the state-sponsored theologian, Abu āmid Ghazzālī (d. 1111). This is where Illuminationism is critical, for had it not been for the definition and construction of the philosophy of Illumination by Suhrawardī the unbound and creative philosophical endeavor could have died out altogether in the history of Islam. As is, in part due to antirational polemics and fundamentalist religious zeal, much of Islam's intellectual life became confined by structures defined and dictated by Juridical creed.

The impact of such polemics is seen in the philosophical sphere where scholastic philosophical compositions after Avicenna are reduced to the production of "textbooks" (e.g., Athīr al-Dīn Abharī's Guide to Philosophy [idāyat al-ikma ]) limited by theological presuppositions, whereas philosophy, if allowed, is employed solely as the handmaiden of theology. For awhile the Mongol rule of eastern Islam did allow for a properly free and creative scientific endeavor, which in the philosophical domain is exemplified by noted thinkers who, starting in the thirteenth century, wrote commentaries on Suhrawardī's texts and also composed independent works, some distinctly inspired by the Illuminationist system.

It is in this respect that one can witness an Illuminationist-inspired analytical trend that helped rescue genuine philosophy from deteriorating altogether to dogmatic theology or to ideological mysticism. In part the origins of Illuminationism may be viewed as attempts to respond to antiphilosophical polemics. The Illuminationists' daring philosophical position, however, was that peripatetic philosophy itself needs to be refined and reconstructed to remove a set of presumed logical gaps, and to provide epistemological and other theories to better explain being, knowing, and cosmology. For the most partspecifically in philosophical circlesAristotle's authority was unquestioned, and Avicenna's work was considered the perfect and consistent Arabic and Persian expression of Aristotelian philosophy. Suhrawardī is among the first philosophers to raise well-reasoned, nonpolemic, and nonideologically driven objections against Aristotelian philosophy. His aimto refine philosophical arguments by rethinking the set of questions that constitute holistic systemsdoes lead to novel analysis covering the principles of knowledge, ways of examining being, and of new cosmological constructs. The Illuminationist legacy exemplifies refined rational process, and must not be confused with polemics to refute reason, nor to change reason to subjective, social, and ethical mysticism.

II. Origins and Construction of Illuminationist Philosophy

The most important and clearly stipulated aim of the philosophy of Illumination is the construction of a holistic system to define a new method of science, named "Science of Lights"(ʿilm al-anwār ), a refinement of Aristotelian method, and capable of describing an inclusive range of phenomena where peripatetic theory has been thought to have failed. Suhrawardī's novel ideas are expressed in four major texts that together constitute the new system and form an integral and ordered syllabus on the philosophy of Illumination. They are: the first text, the Intimations (al-Talwīāt ); and second its addendum, the Apposites (al-Muqāwamāt ), composed in standard peripatetic structure and language with the aim to present a working synopsis of Avicenna's philosophical system, but also to point out the elements where the Illuminationist position differs from that of the peripatetic and to introduce arguments to prove the former. The third text is the Paths and Havens (al-Mashāriʿ wa al-Mu?āraāt ), the longest of Suhrawardī's compositions, in which he presents detailed arguments concerning Illuminationist principles in every domain of philosophical inquiry set against those of the peripatetics, mainly the strictly Avicennan.

The fourth text of the corpus is the text eponymous with the system itself, the Philosophy of Illumination (ikmat al-Ishrāq ), and is the most well-known of all of Suhrawardī's works. This text is the final expression of the new analysis and its systematic construction; it is structured differently than the standard three-part logic, physics, and metaphysics of peripatetic texts, and it employs a constructed symbolic metalanguage named the "Language of Illumination" (lisān al-ishrāq ). All things pertaining to the domains knowing, being, and cosmology are depicted as lights, where distinction is determined by equivocationthat is, in terms of degrees of the intensity of luminosity. The One origin of the system is the most luminous, hence most self-conscious light, named the Light of Lights, and all other entities are propagated from it in accordance with the increasing sequence 2nwhere n is the rank of the propagated light starting with the First Lightand together they form the continuum luminous whole of reality.

The foundations of the new philosophy commence in logic, where Suhrawardī draws on an earlier twelfth-century Persian thinker, ʿUmar ibn Sahlān Sāvī, and his perhaps Stoic-inspired views in semantics and other parts of logic, and restructures the Peripatetic nine books of the Organon. The restructuring of peripatetic work becomes the most apparent distinguishing characteristic of Illuminationist texts since the twelfth century. For example, topics pertaining to semantics, and formal and material logic, plus a novel set of questions on fallacies, are placed togetherthis for the first time in the history of logicand given the title "Rules of Thought." There are technical innovations in Illuminationist formal logic, such as reduction of terms; formal redefinitions of the Second and Third Figures of Syllogism as simple inferences based on the First Figure; and the critical reevaluation of negation in simple and compound propositions, where negation is defined as an independent operator that distributes.

The traditional nine books of the Arabic Organon are rearranged according to a more well-defined concept of logic as a whole, where expository propositions (the Stoic logos apophantikos ) are distinguished from proof theory, and indicate a clear view of three-part logic: semantics, formal logic, and material logic. The Philosophy of Illumination 's restructured logic is seen as follows: Book Two of the Organon (the Categories ) is removed from logic and a reformulated theory that reduces the number of Aristotelian categories to fivethe Stoic four, substance, quality, quantity, relation, plus the fifth, motion, which is the common continuous category in all existent thingsis introduced in physics. Selected subjects introduced in Book One (the Isagoge ), Book Three (De Interpretatione ), and Book Six (the Topics ) are brought together in Section One, titled "On Things Known and On Definitions." Other selected subjects from Book Four (Prior Analytics ), Book Five (Posterior Analytics ), and Book Six (the Topics ) are brought together in the Section Two, which is titled "On Proofs and Their Principles."

Finally, selections from the remaining three Books of the Organon (Sophistical Refutations, Rhetoric, and Poetics )but mostly from Book Seven (Sophistical Refutations )are brought together in the Third Section, which is titled "On Sophistical Refutations and Disputations On the Validity of Illuminationist Principles Vs. the Peripatetic Principles," which further includes subjects traditionally treated in other Aristotelian texts (e.g., selections from De Anima ; questions on the physics of sight and sound; a critique of the Aristotelian dyad Prime Matter-Form; discussion of Platonic Forms; plus a novel discussion of subjects best described as foundations of mathematics). The Three Sections together are placed in Part One, titled "On Rules of Thought," from the book Philosophy of Illumination.

the paramount problem in illuminationist philosophy

The most important philosophical problem in which Illuminationist philosophy diverges from the peripatetics concerns the epistemology of obtaining primary principles and the first step taken in the construction of scientific systems. The Illuminationist position argues that: (1) the first step in science cannot be demonstrated based on the construction of essentialist definitions (al-add al-tāmm ); (2) laws of science cannot be formulated as universal affirmative propositions (because of future contingency there may be always elements discovered that negate universality); and (3) the peripatetic conjunction with the Active Intellect is a false position or law.

Suhrawardī argues in his "destruction" (hadam ) of the peripatetic formula that the essentialist definition is based on (1) an elaborate critique of predication aimed at rejecting it as tautological; and (2) the impossibility of counting each and every member of the constituents of the thing to be defined, a condition that must be met for the peripatetic essentialist definition to indicate the essence of the definiendum, which is similar the impossibility of a definition by extension. The alternative, as stipulated by Suhrawardī, is that primary principles must be known by "other" ways, which is then stipulated to be an immediate intuitive mode. Suhrawardī's Illuminationist critique of predication may be summed this way: to say "x is y" without knowing the essence of x prior to the predication does not inform of anything other than a change in terms x to y without added signification. Moreover, x includes {xi}, then for the predicative definition to inform of the essence, y must be identical to Σxi, which is not possible as {xi} may be uncountible, or unbound.

The peripatetic position, based on the Stagirites's own view stipulated in many of his texts, was that primary principles may be known through the cognitive mode named "immediate knowledge" but Suhrawardī argues that Aristotle's position on immediate knowledge had not been fully explained and was left ambiguous. This point is best exemplified in early passages of the Posterior Analytics, I.2: 71b.2072a.25, which may be summed up as follows: Science rests on necessary, true, primary, and most prior premises, which are known not through syllogistic demonstration, but by an "immediate," intuitive way. The Illuminationist position, however, is that Aristotle does not systematically present what is the intuitive, immediate cognitive mode; that he does not discuss an epistemological well-structured process that could describe primary intuition; and that he leaves this question in an ambiguous statebecause Aristotle refers to immediate knowledge as "opinion" (doxa ) in his works. Suhrawardī's Illuminationist construction of a unified epistemological theory, named "Knowledge by Presence," is claimed to resolve the ambiguity in Aristotle's position, and Suhrawardī is acclaimed for having, for the first time in Islamic philosophy, described intuitive knowledge in a systematic, "scientific" way.

The Illuminationist ontological position, called "primacy of quiddity," distinguishes philosophical schools in the development of Islamic philosophy in Iran up to the present day. It is also a matter of considerable controversy. Those who believe in the primacy of being, or existence (wujūd ), consider essence (māhiyya ) to be a derived, mental concept (amr iʿtibārī, a term of secondary intention), whereas those who believe in the primacy of quiddity consider existence to be a derived, mental concept. The Illuminationist position is this: if existence is real outside the mind (mutaaqqaq fī khārij al-dhihn ), then the real must consist of two thingsthe principle of the reality of existence, and the being of existence, which requires a referent outside the mind (midāq fī khārij al-dhihn ). And its referent outside the mind must also consist of two things, which are subdivided, and so on, ad infinitum. This is clearly absurd. Therefore existence must be considered an abstract, derived, mental concept.

III. Summary of the Main Topics of the Illuminationist Holistic System

(1) Principles of knowledge, and the first step in science, rest on the primary and immediate intuitive cognitive mode. This knowledge is of essence, is prepropositional, and rests on the atemporal Illuminationist relation between the self-conscious knower (mudrik ) and the essentially knowable thingthe object of knowledgethe known (mudrak ). This "relation" between the knower and the known, or knowing and being, is an identity preserving "sameness" and replaces the peripatetic principle of "conjunction" between the elevated human intellect and the Active Intellect.

(2) Reality is a continuum of monad-like "light" entities that are distinguished only by equivocation in terms of degrees of "luminousity" (nuriyya, istināra ). Self-consciousness is an essential specific aspect of all lights determining rank of each and every entity propagated from the One source, the Light of Lights. All entities are propagated according to the sequence 2n, where n is the ordered rank. Consciousness and degrees of abstraction from material extension decrease as n increases, and are associated with each and every member of the Whole (al-kull ), which is also conscious of self.

(3) There is a two-fold process, "vision-illumination" (mushāhada-ishrāq ), that acts on all levels of reality. In the corporeal realm of sense-perception, the process acts as sight (ibār ). The eye (al-baar ; or the seeing subject, al-bāir ), when capable of seeing, sees an object (al-mubar ) when the object itself is illuminated (mustanīr ). In the incorporeal realm every "abstract light" "sees" the "lights" that are above it in rank, whereas the higher illuminates it instantaneously, at the moment of vision. The Light of Lights (Nur al-anwār ) illuminates everything. Knowledge is obtained through this "coupled" activity of vision-illumination, and the impetus underlying the operation of this principle is self-consciousness. Thus every being comes to know its own degree of perfection, an act of self-knowledge that induces a desire (shawq ) to "see" the being just above it in perfection, and this act of "seeing" triggers the process of illumination. By means of the process of illumination, "light " is propagated from its highest origin to the lowest elements.

(4) The Illuminationist cosmos adds a fourth realm of being to the standard threeIntellect, Soul, and Matterof the peripatetic named "Mundus Imaginalis" (al-ʿālam al-khayāl), and is a boundary between the intellect and the soul. This realm, described as the "essence of wonders" (dhāt al-ʿajāʾib), is the veritable wonderland of visionary experience as described in the Illuminationist allegorical recitals, where time and space are different from time as measure and euclidean space. Movement into this realm brings about qualitative change described in amazing allegorical tales.

IV. Illuminationist Philosophy after SuhrawardĪ

The Illuminationist system continues after Suhrawardī's execution in 1191 through the composition of scholastic commentaries on his texts, and also by the gradual creation of independent work in the Illuminationist tradition by a number of leading philosophers, and thus gains widespread acceptance in scholastic centers of learning in Iran. There are two ways in which Illuminationist philosophy continues. Firstly, the thirteenth-century Persian philosopher and historian of philosophy, Shams al-Dīn Shahrazurī in his commentaries on Suhrawardī's texts, Commentary on the Philosophy of Illumination (Shar ikmat al-Ishrāq ); Commentary on the Intimations (Shar al-Talwīhāt ); and in his independent magnum opus encyclopedic text The Metaphysical Tree (al-Shajara al-Ilāhiyya ), emphasizes the symbolic, and the distinctly nonperipatetic components of Illuminationist philosophy. He also further extends and greatly embellishes the inspirational, allegorical, and fantastic side of Illuminationist texts. Secondly, later in the thirteenth century the well known Jewish philosopher and occulist of Baghdad, Saʿd ibn Manur Ibn Kammunam in his Commentry on the Intimations (al-Tanqīāt fī Shar al-Talwīāt ), and in his major independent philosophical work, The New Philosophy (al-Jadīd fī al-ikma ), as well as in his shorter works, such as Treatise on the Soul (Risāla fi al-Nafs ) emphasizes the purely discursive and systematically philosophical side of Illuminationist Philosophy.

The most philosophically important impact of the Illuminationist system is seen in the latest, creative, and holistic work in Islamic philosophy. This is the constructed system named "Metaphysical Philosophy" (al-ikma al-Mutaʿāliya ) by the famous Persian thinker adr al-Dīn al-Shīrāzī, best known as Mullā adrā (d. 1640). The most widely studied text by Mullā adrā is his The Four Intellectual Journeys (al-Asfār al-Arbaʿa al-ʿAqliyya ), where in almost the entire range of philosophical investigation the author draws heavily from the Illuminationist traditionthis after the texts of Avicenna and Suhrawardī are first carefully analyzed and then problems and arguments are reconstructed usually along the systematic principles of the Illuminationist system. The most enduring impact of Illuminationist systematic philosophy is in the domain of epistemology, where Mullā adrā adopts and refines Suhrawardī's unified theory Knowledge by Presence to discuss, among other things, God's knowledge, and the "scientific" validity of inspirational knowledge as well as of revelation. Mullā adrā's discussion of the proposition "sameness of knowing and being," or "unity of the knower and the known" (ittiād al-ʿāqil wa al-maʿ qūl ), is distinctly Illuminationist, whereas sameness, or "unity," is nonpredicative.

See also Mullā adrā; Suhrawardī, Shihāb al-Dīn Yahyā; School of Qom.


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Hossein Ziai (2005)