Suhrawardī, Shihāb al-Dīn Yaḥyā [Addendum] (1155 or 1156–1191)

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Shihāb al-Dīn Suhrawardī is one of the most well known, innovative, yet controversial Persian philosophers of the history of philosophy in Iran. He was executed in 1191 at the age of thirty-six by the express command of King Saladin, most probably for his illuminationist political doctrine. This doctrine is Platonist in principle, and is based on Fārābī's structure of the ideal republic, commonly known as the "Virtuous City," in which justice is achieved based on the enlightened rule of the inspired philosopher-sage. Later Shī'a scholastic political thought draws heavily on Suhrawardī's illuminationist political doctrine.

Suhrawardī authored nearly fifty works, many of them devoted to the systematic refinement and reconstruction of philosophical arguments of the prevailing Avicennan peripatetic system of his time. Suhrawardī's stipulated aim was to refine the Greek-inspired Avicennan texts, and as such he is one of the first philosophers to challenge the unquestioned superiority of Aristotle. Suhrawardī's philosophical aim was not to refute rational philosophy, nor to reduce it to ill-defined mysticism; rather, his creative thinking represented a positive philosophical approach aimed primarily at constructing a consistent system to prove the rational validity of revealed knowledge, as well as the intuitive and the inspired, nonpredicative cognitive modes.

Medieval historians and scholastic commentators recognize Suhrawardī's innovative thinking and named him the founder of a new system, the "philosophy of Illumination." Recent analytical studies of Suhrawardī's Arabic and Persian works that together define the new system have led to the revision of earlier Orientalist misrepresentations of Suhrawardī as a mystic or a theosopher. Suhrawardī was above all a rationalist thinker whose ambition in philosophy was to construct a consistent holistic system to remove presumed logical gaps in the Aristotelian scientific system known to him in Avicenna's peripatetic philosophical corpus. The aim of Suhrawardī's reconstructed system was to define a new scientific method named the "Science of Lights" (al-ʿilm al-anwār ) that then is employed in the construction of a unified epistemological theory, named Knowledge by Presence (al-ʿilm a-uūrī ), capable of scientifically explaining an inclusive range of phenomena that cover the domains of sensation, intellection, intuition, inspiration, and revelation.

The Knowledge by Presence theory has been widely acclaimed in all major philosophical works in Arabic and Persianfrom Suhrawardī's own time to the presentas the crowning achievement of the philosophy of illumination, and was later employed by the major Persian thinkers in their probing of theories of knowledge. For example, the much acclaimed seventeenth-century Persian scholastic philosopher, Mullā adrā, uses the illuminationist theory of Knowledge by Presence to, among other things, explain God's knowledge of things as well as man's knowledge of God. This knowledge by presence is of essence, and its construction exemplifies Suhrawardī's aim to refine and reconstruct peripatetic arguments, not to refute them. Suhrawardī attempted to prove that the Avicennan Essentialist Definition (al-add al-tāmm, similar to Aristotle's horos and horismos ) does not provide knowledge of essence of primary principles; and that Aristotelian theory of intellectual knowledgewhich in its Avicennan peripatetic formulation is seen as conjunction with the Active Intellect (acting as dator formarum ), does not bestow principles of science to the knower.

In his analysis Suhrawardī first examined the logical law of identity and criticized knowledge by predication; he then took up the notion of union and conjunction in physics, finally constructing a unified theory as metaphysical law. The unified theory of Knowledge by Presence, then, is stated as an identity-preserving relation (literally an "illuminationist relation," al-iāfa al-ishrāqiyya ) between the domains "knower" and "known," or the intellect and the intellectedor simply knowing and being. This type of knowledge is the technical refinement of Plato's "intellectual vision" plus Aristotle's logical notion of "quick wit" (agkhinoia ); it posits priority to the self-conscious subject's immediate grasp of the real, manifest essence of objects. Suhrawardī's epistemological theory may be compared with Kant's notion of "immediate relation to objects," but is not to be reduced to Bertrand Russel's "knowledge by acquaintance," and in general anticipates Descartes's views on knowledge.

Suhrawardī's legacy defines the height of Arabic and Persian philosophy's twelfth-century rational response to the Ashʿarite and other Ghazzālī-inspired theological antirational dogma. This philosophical legacy continues to this day, where the philosophy of illumination is an accepted school of Islamic philosophy and is taught in Shiʿite scholastic circles in Iran. While the most major innovation of Suhrawardī's technical philosophical work may be seen in his unified epistemological theory, and while it is his illuminationist political doctrine that has had the widest impact on Persian intellectual and religious traditions, still illuminationist philosophy includes many technical innovations. To name a few: the definition of an independent modal operator in the construction of a superiterated modal proposition as the single form to which all types of propositions are reduced; the proof of the impossibility of the necessary and always true validity of the universal, affirmative proposition; reduction of the Figures of Syllogism, as well as other technical innovations.

Some of his ideas in ontology and cosmology should also be mentioned: In his system, God and the intellects are types of lights; creation is the propagation of abstract, countless, continuous lights as self-conscious entities, extended in durationless time from the source, becoming less intense with distance, and the source, the Light of Lights, is the most essentially luminous, thus the most visible and self-cognizant of all. The process of becoming indicates continuum being, and is defined by rapidly increasing sequences of light-essences within a time-space continuum, where measured time and Euclidean space apply to the corporeal realm, and time without measure and non-Euclidean space define a separate realm Suhrawardī names "Mundus Imaginalis," which is an "amazing" boundary "wonderland" realm joining the domain "intellect" with the domain "soul." This realm of being is named in many later works as the locus of experiential knowledge, and the idea also impacted textual traditions beyond the purely philosophical, notably wide-ranging Persian mystical poetry.

See also Illuminationism.


Two of Suhrawardī's philosophical texts are now available in bilingual editions. These texts are the best source for the study of his thinking:

The Book of Radiance: A Parallel English-Persian Text, edited and translated, with introduction, by Hossein Ziai. Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers, 1998.

The Philosophy of Illumination: A New Critical Edition of the Text of ikmat al-ishrāq with English Translation, Notes, Commentary, and Introduction by John Walbridge & Hossein Ziai. Provo, UT: BYU Press, 1999.

A number of studies have been published, and the reader may consult them as further reading on Suhrawardī and his philosophy of illumination:

Walbridge, John. The Science of Mystic Lights: Qu'b al-Dīn Shīrāzī and the Illuminationist Tradition in Islamic Philosophy. Harvard Middle Eastern Monographs 26. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Ziai, Hossein. "al-Suhrawardī, Shihāb al-Dīn." In Encyclopedia of Islam, 2nd ed. 781784.

Ziai, Hossein. "The Illuminationist Tradition." In The Routledge History of Islamic Philosophy, edited by S. H. Nasr and Oliver Leaman, 465496. London: Routledge, 1995.

Ziai, Hossein. Shams al-Dīn Muammad Shahrazūrī's Shar ikmat al-Ishrāq: Commentary on the Philosophy of Illumination. Critical edition, with English and Persian introductions, notes, and indexes. Cultural Studies and Research Institute 736 (1993): xxxix, 766.

Ziai, Hossein. "Shihāb al-Dīn Yayā Suhrawardī." In The Routledge History of Islamic Philosophy, edited by S. H. Nasr and Oliver Leaman, 434464. London: Routledge, 1995.

Ziai, Hossein. "Source and Nature of Authority: A Study of Suhrawardī's Illuminationist Political Doctrine." In The Political Aspects of Islamic Philosophy, edited by Charles Butterworth, 304344. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Hossein Ziai (2005)

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Suhrawardī, Shihāb al-Dīn Yaḥyā [Addendum] (1155 or 1156–1191)

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