Mulla Sadra's Transcendent Philosophy. By Muhammed Kamal


Pp. iv, 136 , Aldershot , Ashgate Publishing Limited , 2006 , $89.95/£45.00 .

Sadr al-Din Muhammad al-Shirazi, Mulla Sadra, lived in Iran from the last quarter of the sixteenth through the first half of the seventeenth centuries. Perhaps the most significant Muslim philosopher of the last four centuries, Sadra's doctrines began to be taught on the Indian subcontinent during the eighteenth century, and continue to be studied in universities and madrasa in Iran.(pp. 39–41) While no investigation in English has eclipsed Fazlur Rahman's The Philosophy of Mulla Sadra published over thirty years ago, important works have extended his analyses of Sadra's novel and profound integration of insights harvested from Peripatetic, Illuminationist, mystical, and Shi‘ite sources. Kamal assimilates many of Rahman's conclusions, but throughout places greater emphases on occasional comparisons and contrasts of Sadra's doctrines with positions of Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Bergson, and Heidegger.

The introduction portrays Sadra as belonging to the ishraqi philosophical tradition, and as being centrally concerned with discovering a ‘unified ground’ such as that sought by Aristotle in Book 7 of the Metaphysics. Kamal discerns Sadra's pursuit of this goal, which leads to his emphasis on the ‘indefinability of Being’ and ‘the inherent shortcomings of Aristotle's logic and rational apprehension’, to have anticipated Heidegger's later reflections on the ‘abandonment of Being’, although Sadra's metaphysical ‘ontology is entangled with theology’.(pp. 2–4) In developing this issue, many of Sadra's criticisms concern doctrines of the great twelfth-century founder of the tradition from which his own speculations developed, Shahab al-Din Suhrawardi, whose understanding of the priority of essence allegedly jeopardised the ordered ‘ambiguity of Being [that] represents the truth of Being as becoming’.(p. 7)

Chapter two proceeds to establish Suhwardi's incorporation of illuminationism into Avicenna's ontology and the doctrine of the unity of being of Ibn ‘Arabi in order to bridge ‘the gulf between Gnosticism and rationalism’. (pp. 22–23) Kamal emphasises Suhrawardi's principal inspiration in Plato's metaphysical doctrines over Aristotle, and notes in passing the research of John Waldbridge in this matter.(pp. 14–15) It should be added, though, that Suhrawardi attacked key Peripatetic doctrines such as the reification of metaphysical abstractions like existence in his defense of a variety of Platonic nominalism, which Sadra apparently did not remark. [cf. Waldbridge's The Science of Mystic Lights, and his essay in the Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy]

Chapter three details his departure from Suhraward's speculative tradition during Persia's transformation from a predominantly Sunni to a Shi‘ite Islam. This coincided with the foundation of the Safawid dynasty in which hostility towards Sunni thought and Sufism was matched by tolerance towards the illuminative philosophy of Suhrawardi.(p. 25) Even Sadra's mentor, who was so knowledgeable of the teachings of Avicenna and revered as the ‘Third Teacher’ after Aristotle and al-Farabi, Mir Damad, worked in a context that did not extend great sympathy for philosophical speculation. Of the approximately forty works on religion and philosophy produced by Sadra the author concentrates on his al-Asfar, a treatise that seeks to acknowledge being as ‘the ground without which nothing is thinkable’. It not only marked his departure from Suhrawardi's doctrines, but also led to his condemnation as being heretical by the institution of ‘ulama in Isfahan.(p. 35) It is divided thematically into four comprehensive reflections on: primary definitions and principles within metaphysics; explanations of nature, creation, and eternity; God's existence, unity, and attributes; the soul and eschatology.

Chapter four centers on Sadra's shift away from the Platonic-Illuminationist views to his position that ‘nothing is real but existence’, and how this ‘ontological turn’ suggests similarities to Heidegger's stress on ‘the principality of Being’ against any reduction to ‘ideas or their essences’. Although categorial definability of being leads to illusion, emphasis on the simplicity of the notion of being does not ‘invalidate the question of its meaning’.(pp. 43–44) In establishing this, Sadra offers eight fundamental dialectical arguments that ‘do not explain the meaning of Being but only its principality’, and each is aimed at countering what are purportedly positions of al-Farabi and Ibn Sina concerning the accidental nature of being.(pp. 49–53) Yet, in contrast to Heidegger Sadra does not seek to elucidate Being from Dasein, but rather to manifest an ‘onto-theology’.(pp. 56; 58) Kamal discerns certain parallels in Sadra's approach with elements of Hegel's efforts to overcome Kantian problematics, and he ends the chapter with a depiction of Sadra's division of the ‘modalities of diversity and multiplicity’, ranging from prime matter to the realm of unity. (pp. 58–61)

Chapter five emphasises Sadra's insistence on the ‘unequal distribution of the character of Being with different gradations of the Being of their beings’ which is called ‘the systematic ambiguity of Being (tashkik al-wujud)’.(p. 66) This ambiguity is a concomitant of the complementarity of the descending process from Being to minimal existence and ascending evolution towards perfection achieved through ‘the trans-substantial change [of] existential movement’.(pp. 69–73) Due to this radical ambiguity, time is identical neither with the subjective nor the objective, nor does its perpetual oneness with existential movement preclude its being eternal (p. 77) ‘The world is, thus, a temporal surfacing of the reality of Being, which continues eternally’. (p. 78)

The final chapter draws together the implications of Sadra's ontological doctrines in order to portray his correlation of the modalities of Being to sense, imaginal, and intellectual perception. Emphasising knowledge as manifestation and presence, Sadra distinguishes two intelligibles: what is accidental and dependent on material existence of the known, which is attained through the instrumentality of the body; and the essential, in which ‘the intelligent, in intellectualising the intelligible, intellectualises itself, and their complete unity is established as they depend on each other to exist’.(p. 101) A parallel distinction is applied to guaranty the uniqueness and utter simplicity of the Necessary's Being's knowledge which can suffer no multiplicity, for which ‘the self-knowledge of God is the knowledge of the world, because the world is the self-manifestation of God’.(p. 105)

As the author states in his concluding words, his primary aim in having executed this work was to ‘lead to further fruitful research and debate on the ideas and contribution’ of Sadra.(p. 112) One can only hope that others will delineate more precisely how many of Sadra's insights are explicit and implicit in Plotinus's reflections and those who were, in varying ways, his disciples, and how through a complex historical process still being investigated by a remarkable cadre of scholars, the pervasively influential and crucially important Arabic Plotinus so profoundly encoded much subsequent Islamic speculation, including that of Mulla Sadra.