Who was Mulla Sadra?
(b.1571 - d.1641)
The encounter between Islam and ancient Greek, Syriac and Persian thought and culture first took place during the mid-seventh century, after the Muslim conquest of Egypt, Syria and Iraq. As a result, falsafah (or Islamic philosophy) emerged as a distinct intellectual tradition in the Muslim world, although it was not until the early part of the ninth century that Muslim philosophers like al-Kindi began to write widely on Islamic philosophy. Their writings subsequently inspired other great philosophers like Abu Bakr al-Razi (see chapter 49), al-Farabi (see chapter 44) and Ibn Sina (see chapter 25) to produce their own philosophical works.
Islamic philosophy thus continued to flourish in the Islamic East, until Islamic iconoclasts like Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (see chapter 17) and Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (see chapter 71) emerged in the eleventh and twelfth centuries to launch a blistering intellectual attack against the falasifah (Muslim philosophers). In this battle of ideas, the traditionalists emerged victorious, which marked the beginning of the end of philosophical thought in much of the Islamic East. However, in parts of Persia and Muslim India, Islamic philosophy continued to thrive thanks largely to the efforts of influential Shi’a philosophers and thinkers like Qutb al-Din al-Shirazi (who lived in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries) and Baha al-Din al-Amili and Mir Damad (both of whom lived in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries). But it was in the works of Mulla Sadra that Islamic philosophy found a new, fresh impetus and a degree of intellectual rigor and sophistication.
Sadr al-Din Muhammad ibn Ibrahim al-Qawami al-Shirazi, better known as Mulla Sadra, was born in the Iranian city of Shiraz into a notable Persian family. His father, Ibrahim, worked as a senior civil servant for the local ruler and attained a position of political eminence. As the only boy in the family, Mulla Sadra was brought up in a comfortable environment surrounded by much wealth and luxury. Although he began his early education at home, Mulla Sadra was known to have been very studious and a voracious reader of books. His sharp intellect, coupled with his highly retentive memory, enabled him to learn and retain a large quantity of information with relative ease.
Impressed by his intellectual abilities, his family enrolled him at his local school for a thorough education in Persian, Arabic, Islamic sciences, literature and philosophy. It was not long before he successfully completed his elementary education. If Shiraz was a prominent centre of Islamic learning, then Isfahan (which was the capital of Persia and the commercial heart of the country at the time) was an equally famous centre of learning and scholarship. This prompted Mulla Sadra to leave his native Shiraz and move to Isfahan where he pursued advanced training in both the religious and philosophical sciences, under the guidance of eminent scholars and thinkers like Shaykh Baha al-Din al-Amili (b. 1547-d. 1621) and Shaykh Mir Muhammad Baqir Damad (b. 1561- d. 1631), better known as Mir Damad.
As a highly respected authority on Islamic sciences, Baha al-Din became the shaykh al-Islam (supreme religious authority) of Safavid Persia, in addition to being a noted mathematician, alchemist and Sufi (Islamic mystic). Mir Damad, on the other hand, was one of the most influential philosophers and jurists of his generation and was thoroughly familiar with the philosophical thoughts of the early Muslim thinkers and also excelled in Shi’a jurisprudence. Mulla Sadra studied Islamic theological, philosophical and mystical thought under the tutelage of these eminent scholars, before joining the class of Shaykh Mir Findiriski, who was a renowned Sufi and one of his contemporaries. The latter taught him both Peripatetic (mashsha’iyah) philosophy and traditional theosophy (hikmah), in addition to aspects of Sufi thought and practices.
After completing his advanced education while he was still in his mid-twenties, Mulla Sadra became very enthusiastic about mysticism, which infuriated the conservative ulama (religious scholars) in Isfahan who accused him of espousing un-Islamic ideas and thoughts. When the hostility of the religious scholars became unbearable, he was forced to leave Isfahan and return to Shiraz. But here, too, he became embroiled in religious controversy because he chose to defend certain mystical-cum-gnostic doctrines which the ulama considered to be heretical and blameworthy from a traditional Shi’a perspective. Happily, on this occasion, his influential father came to his rescue and protected him from his opponents.
The Shi’a scholars’ reaction against his ‘unorthodox’ interpretation of mysticism eventually convinced him to leave Shiraz and settle in Kahak, a remote village located on the outskirts of Qom, one of Iran’s most famous centres of Shi’a religious learning and scholarship. During his long stay in Kahak, he led a simple and ascetic lifestyle, and devoted much of his time to meditation, spiritual retreat and intellectual activities. Being competent in both the religious (ulum al-din) and philosophical sciences (ulum al-aqliyah), Mulla Sadra analysed and re-evaluated the religious, philosophical and mystical ideas and thoughts of his predecessors (especially the Illuminationist philosophy of Shihab al-Din Yahya Habash Suhrawardi (see chapter 90) and the beliefs of Mir Damad and the School of Isfahan) in order to shed new light on Islamic philosophical and metaphysical thought.
His retreat at Kahak not only enabled him to re-examine the ideas and thoughts of his predecessors, but he also developed his own religious, philosophical and metaphysical ideas during this period. Reminiscent of al-Ghazali’s spiritual experience and awakening, he recalled how his mind became infused with the Divine ‘intuitive truths’ during his retreat. This, he said, revitalised his body and spirit, and sharpened his intellect so much that he no longer felt depressed or despondent about anything, for the Divine light (nur) which entered his being henceforth illuminated his path.
After almost a decade in Kahak, Mulla Sadra returned to Shiraz, where he began to lecture on religious sciences and write books and treatises on metaphysics, philosophy, mysticism and Shi’a theology. When his name spread throughout Shiraz on account of his vast learning and scholarship, the ruling Safavid elites offered him lucrative Government jobs but he politely turned them down. The Safavids came to power in Persia at the beginning of the sixteenth century and being ithna ‘ashari (or Twelver) Shi’as, they made this the official religion of Persia. Under Safavid patronage, Shi’a religious learning and scholarship began to flourish across Persia. Mulla Sadra lived during the heyday of Safavid rule; a time when the ruling elite competed with each other to build schools and colleges throughout Persia, and in so doing they created a culture of education across the land.
After his name reached the corridors of power, the Safavid ruler Shah Abbas II (b. 1632-d. 1666) reportedly ordered the governor of Fars to build a religious seminary in Shiraz where Mulla Sadra could teach and train a new generation of Shi’a religious scholars and thinkers. Despite his busy teaching schedule, he found time to author many books and treatises including Kitab al-Mabda wa’l Ma’ad (The Book of Origin and Return), al-Shawahid al-Rububiyah (The Divine Witnesses), al-Hikmat al-Arshiyah (The Wisdom of the Throne), al-Masha’ir (The Apprehensions) and Kasr Asnam al-Jahiliyah (Demolishing the Idol of Ignorance), not to mention scores of commentaries on the works of Ibn Sina and Suhrawardi.
Although Mulla Sadra wrote about fifty books and treatises in total, his most famous and influential work was al-Hikmat al-Muta’aliyah fi’l Asfar al-Arba’ah (The Transcendental Wisdom Regarding the Four Journeys). In this book he provided a comprehensive but, equally, fresh and integrated exposition of Islamic philosophical and metaphysical thought. According to him, philosophy and prophecy are like two sides of the same coin being, as they are, repositories of the same heavenly truth. Just as revelatory and mystical approaches to Reality can provide a sound expression of the Truth (al-Haqq), in the same way, he argued, a philosophical approach to Reality can also shed fresh light on the Truth.
In Mulla Sadra’s opinion, there was no contradiction between revelation (wahy), reason (aql ) and gnosis (irfan); on the contrary, he argued that they were all complementary sources of knowledge which help to create a clear, correct and comprehensive understanding of the Truth. To prove this point, he traced the history of religion and philosophy from his own time – through the Muslim philosophers, Shi’a Imams and Sufis – all the way back to the ancient Greek philosophers who, he claimed, had received inspiration from Abraham who, in turn, received the Truth directly from Adam.
By developing such an unusual interpretation of philosophical history, he was able to argue that revelation (wahy), philosophy (hikmat) and gnosis (irfan) had originated from one and the same source; thus, they had to be complementary rather than contradictory. This paved the way for him to create a synthesis between Greek philosophy, the gnostic wisdom of the Sufis and the Peripatetic thought of the falasifah, with Shi’a theology. It is this synthesis which became known as hikmat al-muta’aliyah (or the ‘transcendental wisdom’).
As an unsually industrious scholar and thinker, Mulla Sadra painstakingly surveyed the intellectual history of Islam before undertaking a thorough study of the Greek philosophical tradition. Thereafter, he presented his findings in his Asfar al-Arba’ah. Heavily influenced by the Peripatetic thought of Ibn Sina; the Illuminationist (ishraqi) philosophy of Suhrawardi; the Sufi cosmology of Ibn al-Arabi as well as Shi’a theology, Mulla Sadra accepted Neoplatonic emanationism, but rejected Aristotelian philosophy. He also adopted Ibn al-Arabi’s concept of nur muhammadiyah (or the ‘Muhammadan Light’) but vehemently opposed Ibn Sina’s notion of the eternity of the world. Furthermore, he accepted that the Prophet Muhammad was the ‘Seal of the Prophets’ (khatm al-anbiya) but, at the same time, he stated that the true meaning of the revelation would not become clear until after the advent of the mahdi, the final Shi’a Imam.
In so doing he not only reconciled philosophical and gnostic thought with Shi’a theology, but he also developed a fresh and integrated Islamic worldview. In other words, through his metaphysical philosophy (hikmat al-muta’aliyah), Mulla Sadra attempted to harmonise philosophy, gnosticism and theology in order to answer some of the most fundamental questions concerning God, His Nature and Attributes, the meaning of life, the purpose of creation and the nature of resurrection – all surveyed through the lenses of revelation, reason, intuition and experience – thus being, as it were, the final summing up of a whole philosophy. Whether one agrees with all his ideas or not, one cannot fail to admire his sincerity of purpose, vast erudition and considerable analytical skills and ability.
Despite being a full-time teacher and a prolific writer, Mulla Sadra found time to train scores of influential scholars who also became prominent exponents of philosophy, mysticism and theology in Persia. His most famous students included thinkers like Muhammad ibn Murtada (b. 1598-d. 1680), who is better known as Mulla Fayd Kashani, and Abd al-Razzaq ibn Ali ibn Husayn al-Lahiji (d. 1662) – both of whom were married to his daughters. In addition to this, Mulla Sadra performed the sacred hajj (pilgrimage to Makkah) seven times and died in Basrah at the age of seventy while he was on his way home from completing his seventh pilgrimage.
Today, he is considered to be one of the great Muslim philosophers on account of his original contributions in the field of Islamic philosophy. However, other than in Iran and parts of Iraq and India, his ideas and thoughts are not widely known in the Muslim world. Moreover, his works were not translated into Western languages until relatively recently; as such, his religious, philosophical and mystical thoughts have not received much exposure in the West either.
By contrast, in Iran some of the country’s most eminent scholars and thinkers have acknowledged their profound debt to Mulla Sadra. Thanks to some contemporary scholars, his works are now being increasingly disseminated across the west.
Mulla Sadra (Profile 97) is an excerpt from The Muslim 100 - The Lives, Thoughts and Achievements of the Most Influential Muslims in History - Muhammad Mojlum Khan