Suhrawardī, Shihāb al-Dīn Yaḥyā (c. 549 AH/1155 CE–587 AH/1191 CE)

views updated

(c. 549 AH/1155 CE587 AH/1191 CE)

Shihāb al-Dīn Yahyā Suhrawardī was born in Suhraward, ancient Media, in northwestern Iran. He died in Aleppo, in the full bloom of youth, a victim of the vindictiveness of the doctors of the Law and of the fanaticism of alā al-Dīn (the "Saladin" of the Crusaders). It is important that this philosopher not be confused with two other Sufis with similar names (Shihāb al-Dīn ʿOmar and Abuʾl-Najīb Suhrawardī).

A guiding thought dominates Suhrawardī's work: to restore the philosophy and theosophy of the sages of ancient Persia. Three centuries before it was effected in the works of the great Byzantine philosopher Georgius Gemistus Pletho, the conjunction of the names of Plato and Zoroaster was realized in the works of this thinker of Islamic Persia. Broadly outlined, this work (where the influence of Hermeticism and late Neoplatonism was also joined) brought forth an interpretation of the theory of Platonic Ideas in terms of Zoroastrian angelology. If his design reconciled itself with difficulty to the spirit of legalistic Islam, of religion and the Law, it was not, on the other hand, contrary to a spiritual Islam, bringing into play all its resources and profoundly influencing it. This employment in effect imposed on philosophy an exigency that assured it thenceforth of a completely characteristic place in Islam. Suhrawardī did not separate philosophy and spirituality; a philosophy that does not terminate in or at least tend toward a mystical and spiritual experience is a vain undertaking. Seeking out a mystical and spiritual experience without a preliminary philosophical position puts one in great danger of losing one's way. The influence of this doctrine has been considerable, especially in Iran, and endures even to the present.

The key word in Suhrawardī's entire work is (in Arabic) Ishrāq. Literally, it means the illumination of the sun when it arises (Aurora consurgens ). Transposed to the spiritual plane, it means a type of knowledge which is the very Orient of knowledge. Suhrawardī's principal work is titled ikmat al-Ishrāq, "Oriental" philosophy or theosophy (the term ikmat ilāhīya being the exact equivalent of the Greek theosophia ). It deals with a philosophy that is Oriental because it is illuminative and illuminative because it is Oriental. Between these two terms there is reciprocity rather than opposition (as C. Nallino believed). The disciples and perpetuators of Suhrawardī are known as the Ishrāqīyūn or Mashriqīyūn, the "Orientals." Suhrawardī himself is designated as preeminently the shaikh al-Ishrāq. Prior to Islam, these "Orientals" are to him essentially the sages of ancient Persia. Their "philosophy of enlightenment" originated with the concept of Xwarnah (Light-of-Glory in the Avesta and Mazdaistic cosmology; Khorreh in Persian). In its turn, this concept dominates the entire work of the shaikh al-Ishrāq. "Oriental" knowledge, which is its subject matter, is essentially a discovered "presential" knowledge (ʿilm hoūrī ), and intuitive perception, such as knowledge of oneself, in opposition to a type of representative knowledge (ʿilm ūrī ), through the intermediary of a Form or a species.

This is why an entire section of our shaikh's work (among approximately fifty titles, a trilogy, each of whose constituent elements is composed of a logic, a physics, and a metaphysics) is dedicated to freeing philosophy from all accumulated obstacles attributable to the abstractions of the Peripatetics and the scholastic scholars of Islam (the Mutukallimūn ). This preliminary study was crowned with the work cited above, where, from the analysis of the concept of being as Light, the theory of the procession of beings of Light is disengaged (complex angelic hierarchies, deduced somehow from the esoteric interpretation of the laws of optics). To the structure of these hierarchies correspond those of the plans of the universe, which are "symbolic of each other." Suhrawardī, more particularly, seemed to have been the first to found, systematically, an ontology of the mundus imaginalis (ʿālam al-mithāl ), a world of the Image and a world of the Souls (the malakūt ), acting as an intermediary between the world of pure Intelligences (the jabarūt ) and the sensible world. This is a world without which the visionary experiences of the prophets and mystics, as well as the suprasensible events that the philosophy of the Resurrection treats, would remain unexplained. From this another complete section of Suhrawardī's works, deliberately written in Persian, was introduced, especially to this world, as the first phase of spiritual initiation. It forms a cycle of symbolic tales in which Suhrawardī consciously followed Avicenna (Ibn Sīnā). He knew very well what he owed to Avicenna and why he was able to go further than he: Avicenna also had formulated the project of an "Oriental" philosophy, but he could not realize it, not having known its true source.

Thus did the work of the shaikh al-Ishrāq give rise in Islam to a current of philosophy and spirituality distinct from the three currents that are usually considered, that of Kalām (the rational scholastic scholars), that of the falāsifa (philosophers known as the Hellenists), and Sufism. It is currently said that the Ishrāq is to the philosophy of the falāsifa what Sufism is to the theology of the kalam. By doing this, Suhrawardī defended the cause of philosophy against the pious agnosticism of the literalist theologians, as well as against that of certain Sufi pietists. It was only because his work was ignored for so long a time in the West (where one was accustomed to assessing Islamic philosophy from the viewpoint of what was known of it by Latin Scholastics) that an exaggerated importance was attached to Averroes, whose work was considered as having attained the self-proclaimed pinnacle and terminal point of philosophy in Islam. Neither the Peripateticism of Averroes (with which the ontology of Malakūt was lost) nor the critique of the philosophy of Muammad al-Ghāzalī has had any influence on Oriental Islam, notably on Iranian philosophy. Even there, what develops is a "Suhrawardian Avicennism" to which is joined the influence of Ibn al-ʿArabī (of Andalusia, died 1240 CE, one of the greatest mystical theosophists of all time), which spread forth into the "prophetic philosophy" of Shīʿism. The influence of Suhrawardī's doctrines was later dominant in the School of Ispahan, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in the Iran of the Safavids (with the great names of Mīr Dāmād, Mullā adrā Shīrāzī, Mosen Fayż, Qāī Saʿid Qommī, and so forth), as it was also later preponderant in India in those circles influenced by the generous religious reform of Shāh Akbar. It still makes itself felt in Iran at the present time.


For an edition of the works of Suhrawardī, see Opera Metaphysica et Mystica, Vol. I, edited by Henry Corbin (Istanbul: Maarif Matbaasi, 1945), and Oeuvres philosophiques et mystiques (which is Opera Metaphysica et Mystica, Vol. II), edited by Henry Corbin (Teheran: Institut franco-iranien, 1952). The two volumes contain a long introduction in French.

See also Henry Corbin, Histoire de la philosophie islamique, Vol. I (Paris: Gallimard, 1964), pp. 284304 and the detailed bibliography on pp. 360361, and Terre céleste et corps de résurrection: de l'Iran mazdeen a l'Iran shiʿite (Paris: Buchet/Chastel, 1960), which contains translations of several of Suhrawardī's works.

Henry Corbin (1967)

About this article

Suhrawardī, Shihāb al-Dīn Yaḥyā (c. 549 AH/1155 CE–587 AH/1191 CE)

Updated About content Print Article