From Humors to Pure Light: Knowledge and Virtue in the Allegories of Suhrawardī
One cannot help but wonder what the general mood was in Aleppo in 1191 during the days when the people of the city learned that their prince had put to death the young philosopher Shihāb al-Dīn Yaḥyā al-Suhrawardī. Was the philosopher well known? If so, did the masses see him as a wild-eyed magician, a brilliant sage, or something else? From the little we know it seems to have been a matter of debate, some sympathizing with him, others viewing him as a heretic.1 Still, one wonders if they knew what was lost. By the age of thirty-six when he was executed, having composed his entire corpus in ten short years, Suhrawardī had developed a new philosophical system. This system, he claimed, drew on the wisdom of the ancient Greeks and Persians and rectified shortcomings in Peripatetic philosophy, espoused by Avicenna and his followers. Suhrawardī proposed an epistemology—knowledge by presence—that has engrossed Muslim philosophers to this day, one neatly integrated with his views on the emanation of light.
He called this system in its entirety the “Philosophy of Illumination” (ḥikmat al-ishrāq), and those who aligned with and developed it were called Illuminationist (ishrāqī) philosophers, as opposed to the Peripatetics (mashāʾī). All this from a man whose world-renouncing style of dress brought others to mistake him for a donkey-driver, when he entered Aleppo. Indeed, he was known for his ascetic practices, such as eating food only once a week.2 Yet he was also known to have engaged in magic—causing things to appear instantaneously—and, perhaps fatally, to have acquired the doting regard of the prince, al-Malik al-Ẓāhir (r. 1186–1216). When the prince’s father, the legendary Saladin, learned that Suhrawardī was training his son to become an ideal sovereign for all humanity, an illuminated philosopher-king perhaps in a chain of imams, he demanded that his son execute the philosopher.3 It is likely that Suhrawardī was then deprived of food until he died.
- HOW HUMANS ENCOUNTER LIGHT: THE CONSTITUTION, THE FACULTIES, AND KNOWLEDGE
As with Avicenna, Suhrawardī’s system is far too comprehensive to be summarized succinctly. What follows pertains to his ethics. God, in Suhrawardī’s philosophy, is the “Light of Lights,” and His light emanates throughout creation. (To identify God with light has precedence in verse 24:35 of the Qurʾan, which describes Him as “the light of the heavens and the earth.”) The central intermediary for the relationship between God’s pure light and the light we can experience is the Active Intellect (which is also the angel Gabriel), the last in a chain of ten intellects. Suhrawardī describes the intellects as the highest, dominating lights; these lights are simultaneously archetypes and angels, each of which brings lower entities into being by contemplating them.
The highest realization of the human essence has its angelic archetypes in Gabriel.4 This light bestows upon the human frame life and virtue; when embodied, it becomes “the commanding light” (al-nūr al-isfahbad or al-nūr al-mudabbir), which is the sense of “I” or “ego” that each person has, or in other words, the soul.5
This commanding light manages the human frame, which Suhrawardī calls the “human fortress” (al-ṣayāṣī al-insānī), an abode of darkness that allows the light to act, know, perfect itself, and eventually ascend toward the source of light. In fact, this commanding light has no place in which it can be located, nor can it be approached in any way, other than in its management of the human fortress.6 The commanding light comes into existence only with the formation of each individual human body. Because it comes to exist in the body and because of the varieties of bodily constitutions, every soul is unique, even if it originates in a universal light.7 One should be careful not to confuse Suhrawardī’s views with those of Mani (d. ca. 277 CE), the founder of Manicheism, especially since Suhrawardī himself rejects Manichean doctrines, such as dualism, as inauthentic to the ancient Persian tradition.8 Light (or the soul) is not trapped or even located in the body; the soul is immaterial and merely acts through the body. You might think of it as analogous to your sense of volition or “will,” which came to exist as your body (including the brain) formed. Your will directs your body to act but cannot be located as an actual measurable “thing” inside your body. This is even more the case if you imagine your will as originating in God’s will.
Because the commanding light has come into being as a relationship between light and matter, the soul must come into individualized existence through the body.9 That body, that human fortress, is a collected balancing of properties (the four natures), and it is dark. Yet the human body still excels other bodies in its receptivity to the perfections of light.10 This means that the human soul is more distinguished (sharīftar) than the souls of other beings possessing constitutions, namely, animals and plants.11
At times, Suhrawardī’s views on the body and its faculties seem to resemble those of Avicenna, especially in The Book of Radiance (Partaw-nāma).12 For example, he agrees with Avicenna that the faculties are housed within the brain and that those faculties support the intellect. Yet there are differences. The concept of a “common sense” adopted by Avicenna—a consolidation of various senses into one sense—allows Suhrawardī to make a case for all of the inner senses as ultimately being one unified perceptive ability of the commanding light. The soul (or the “commanding light”) encounters knowledge in differing ways through the external senses, so that a multiplicity of five senses occurs only because of the commanding light’s veiled state within the tenebrous confines of the body.13 The senses are, therefore, varied instantiations of the singular essence of the commanding light, namely, the sort of perception or knowledge that we might call “vision.”14 Concerning retentive imagination, Suhrawardī, in contrast with Avicenna, holds that the imagination reflects forms existing eternally in a separate realm.15 Concerning creative imagination, Suhrawardī disagrees with the Peripatetics in that he sees the creative imagination as engaged not only in an “activity” but in a mode of “perception,” because he posits that imagination engages in a kind of vision after a veil has been lifted.16 Suhrawardī emphasizes that knowing is a process of uncovering forms that exist elsewhere in a realm between the material and the immaterial, even for the imagination. Just as light has emanated to encompass everything, so too the human soul (the commanding light) emanates in the process of knowing, returning to the origin of light.17 In this process, archetypal lights direct the human soul toward objects of knowledge.18
Suhrawardī’s divergent stance on knowledge came after a time in which he was “taxingly occupied, absorbed in thought and acts of self-renunciation because the question of [the nature of] knowledge weighed so heavily upon me, and that which had been mentioned in various books was not, in my opinion, sound.”19 Aristotle appeared to Suhrawardī in a dream, commanding him, “Refer to yourself, and it will be resolved for you.” In this conversation, Aristotle presents philosophical demonstrations that knowledge in its most absolute form mirrors the manner in which a person knows himself or herself, such that the immaterial human essence is “intellect (al-ʿaql), the subject of intellection (al-ʿāqil), and its object (al-maʿqūl).”20 Intellection (al-taʿaqqul) is “the presence of a thing to the immaterial human essence, or, if you prefer, its lack of absence.”21 It is a “lack of absence” because to know is actually to receive a thing, unveiled and illuminated. This is why many can know directly, without undergoing demonstrative knowledge. In fact, in the dream, Aristotle appears completely unimpressed by Islamic philosophers who have mastered the intellectual sciences. They have only endeavored in “knowledge by traces” (al-ʿilm al-rasmī). He extols, on the other hand, those who have endeavored beyond such traces and into “knowledge by presence, supernal connection, and witnessing,” namely, two Sufi saints with no Aristotelian output: Abū Yazīd al-Basṭāmī (d. 848 or 875) and Sahl al-Tustarī (d. 896).22 Thus, Aristotle, or actually Suhrawardī, elevates experiential (dhawqiyya) knowledge above demonstrative (baḥthiyya) knowledge, and, in fact, it seems that demonstrative knowledge is merely an inferior grade of experiential knowledge.23 Largely because of Suhrawardī’s position on knowledge and the forms, his philosophy differs enough from Avicenna’s to be categorized as the second major “school” of Islamic philosophy. The model of “knowledge by presence” prevails in academies of Islamic philosophy today, although it has been modified and adapted into a newer philosophical system, that of Muḥammad ibn Ibrāhīm al-Shīrāzī, known as “Mullā Ṣadrā” (d. 1635–6).
In presenting his epistemology, Suhrawardī envisioned himself as reviving Plato’s lost teachings. In the aforementioned dream, Aristotle surprises Suhrawardī by praising his own teacher, Plato, with whom he famously disagreed.24 Such unexpected praise for Plato, along with Aristotle’s admission that his own writings on knowledge do not account for the intellect’s acquisition of particulars, is a confession by the “First Teacher,” who has seen the errors of Peripatetic (that is, Aristotelian) epistemology after death.25 The true ancient philosophy for Suhrawardī was that of Illuminationism—a philosophy in which light shines upon forms. It is possible that Suhrawardī saw the Stoics as champions of Plato’s purer, esoteric teachings and Aristotle and the Peripatetics (which would include, by extension, al-Fārābī and Avicenna) as somewhat misguided, materialist students of Plato.26 Plato’s esoteric teachings, like those of the Greek sages before him such as Socrates and pre-Socratics such as Empedocles, resonated with the statements of the ancient Persians concerning light and the archetypes.27 For that reason, Suhrawardī can link the Platonic archetypes to the names of Persian-Zoroastrian angels.28
Scholars such as Mehdi Ha’iri Yazdi have argued that Suhrawardī presents an epistemology fundamentally at variance with Avicenna’s.29 Jari Kaukua, however, interprets Suhrawardī’s knowledge-as-presence not as an entirely different model of human knowledge or cognition, but rather as an explanation of the manner in which God’s knowledge of particulars might be understood. Avicenna struggled with the way intellect (including God as Absolute Intellect) might comprehend particular things. Intellects apprehend universals and only universals, so that even something like your sister Fatima would only be known to the intellect as a collection of universal properties: She is funny, tall, generous, and of olive complexion. These universal properties are shared by many, and yet to the human perceiver there is something that makes your sister Fatima an individual unlike any other, something beyond a mere chance combination of universals. Avicenna would say that such knowledge of particulars comes from our engagement with the sensory world, since we perceive through bodily senses and encounter manifold particular things as distinct things.30 According to Kaukua, Suhrawardī solves this problem by asserting that God knows particulars because His knowledge is indeed perfect self-awareness. This is similar to the way humans are aware, most essentially, of themselves and acquire knowledge thereby of everything else that enters into the domain of the self.31 All of our experiences and sensory input occur in a context of self-awareness; the faculties of sight and hearing, for example, only see and hear when they present their objects of perception to the domain of the soul’s awareness. Once we are aware of ourselves, we can be aware of things outside of ourselves. Thus we humans create a domain of self-awareness; at the center of this domain is the soul’s nonabsence, a presence to oneself, which then expands to include awareness of things outside of the self. If one sets aside the fact that human self-awareness results from many material factors, such as the development and use of the senses, and supposes self-awareness to be a thing in its own right, then we might extend it beyond human cognition. God’s knowledge of particulars, then, becomes analogous to this sort of self-awareness (or self-presence) known by humans: Everything is an effect of God, so that He knows them in that they reside within His all-embracing domain of self-awareness (or self-presence).
Regardless of the degree to which he veered from Avicenna, Suhrawardī’s position on knowledge has significant implications for philosophical ethics for two reasons.32 First, Sufi exercises and self-purification become a path to knowledge that not only rivals discursive learning, but surpasses it. This leads to the second implication: Suhrawardī’s “knowledge by presence” means that the ethical pursuit of virtue has a sense of urgency, because knowledge is best attained by self-illumination, and virtue ethics is a necessary first step in that direction.
- HOW HUMANS RETURN TO LIGHT: ETHICS AND ESCHATOLOGY AS SELF-ILLUMINATION
The absolute achievement in Suhrawardī’s philosophy is for the soul to associate itself so completely with the highest dominating lights and indeed the Light of Lights, that it supposes its own identity to be one with theirs.33 Yet the soul’s individual identity is also maintained through an awareness of its own individual essence and a memory of its control of the body, or, one might say, a memory of the process by which it attained the status of being light.34 Such souls now live in lights, much like images live in mirrors. Here their encounter with the Light of Lights is the ultimate bliss. Even in life, while the soul still manages the body, the spiritual wayfarer focused on illumination can experience different encounters with light, until he or she achieves a death-in-life and clings to the highest lights, receiving the sort of revelation that Suhrawardī associates with Plato, Hermes Trismegistus, Muhammad, and others throughout history.35
For those whose association with the highest dominating lights is not perfect, there are two lesser ways of achieving eternal felicity after death in Suhrawardī’s philosophy.36 The first is to follow the ethical mean until one achieves happiness, that is, the completion of virtuous character traits (al-suʿadāʾ min al-mutawassiṭīn).37 This involves offsetting the body. The second is to engage in self-renunciation until the ascetic becomes disassociated from the body (al-zuhhād min al-mutanazzihīn). These groups take delight after death in having whatever they want, by being able to call forth the perfect forms of things.38 Conversely, those who have failed ethically will be confined—after resurrection—in shadows that correspond to their negative character traits, shadows that draw their forms not from the luminous Platonic forms, but rather from those separate from such forms of light (nūriyya). These forms can be dark (ẓulmāniyya), or they can borrow illumination from forms of light (mustanīra). They are “suspended” between light and darkness (al-ṣuwar al-muʿallaqa).39 In Suhrawardī’s philosophy, the medial realm between light and matter, occupied by those either punished through forms or enjoying the forms (but not enjoying the bliss of pure light), is an “imaginal” one, one of “suspended images” (ʿālam al-muthul al-muʿallaqa).40 Its association with mystical vision and an eighth clime beyond the seven natural climes was the subject of much contemplation by Henry Corbin.41
One should not be under the impression, however, that the pursuit of the mean and the virtues is merely for a middling group of people. Rather, it is a starting point that should lead to higher contemplation and perfection, even if (for the middling sort) it does not. For Suhrawardī, just as for Avicenna, the intellect occupies the central place in his program for felicity. By referring to intellectual pleasure, and even comparing that pleasure to the pleasure of sex, Suhrawardī makes the case for a successful life, which is a life of the mind, supported by regulation of the body, that ends in unhindered spiritual vision. Suhrawardī argues that pleasure can be defined as a thing finding its perfection or even some lesser good. The pleasure of the soul (rawān) lies in its becoming an actualized intellect. As the soul uncovers truths, it absorbs those truths, or rather uncovers their existence in the soul. Once the soul becomes completely imprinted with intelligibles, it becomes actualized as an intellect, which corresponds with the highest stages of illumination and the apex of bliss.42
While less lofty, the ends of the practical intellect cannot be ignored. It is needed to actualize the intellect and live a full life. The practical intellect seeks to find its perfection in the absolute control of the body, so that it no longer has a passive role; rather, it has become a sovereign, and the body its subject. Once this has occurred, the person in question has achieved the virtue of justice.43 Suhrawardī follows Avicenna and Miskawayh in accepting Aristotle’s mean, so that temperance, courage, and wisdom demand a middle position. He clarifies that the “wisdom” of virtue ethics differs from the “wisdom” of philosophy. For the latter, there is no mean, since there is no limit to the wisdom the soul should wish to acquire.44 Suhrawardī gives the same advice that Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān gave to Avicenna’s narrator, namely, that the method for controlling the soul is to use the faculties against one another, creating balance, so that one arouses lust (or pleasure-seeking) to weaken the faculty of anger, and provokes anger (or self-discipline) to weaken the faculty of lust.45 The mean leads to happiness because it is an equilibrium. That equilibrium, the balancing of contradictory faculties, is the closest an embodied human can come to incorporeality (tajarrud), so that one might think of “balancing” as a sort of “neutralizing.”46 Once the body and its faculties have been neutralized, the intellect as light becomes free to contemplate, strengthen its associations with higher lights, and make its return, just as Plato, according to Suhrawardī, beheld “luminous spheres” after having achieved incorporeality.47 Of course, as mentioned above, Suhrawardī’s notion of a balanced life applies mostly to those who will not and perhaps cannot excel and become intellectually illuminated—that is, it applies to the masses seeking to be morally good. For those who seek the highest wisdom, he prescribes extreme renunciation of the worldly, especially food.
- THE ALLEGORIES
Suhrawardī has a richer allegorical corpus than most other major figures from Islamic philosophy, including Avicenna. Many of his narratives were written in Persian, which adds a sense of rarity to these stories, since Islamic philosophical texts tended to be written in Arabic, even by Persian philosophers. His allegories are thus highly valued by contemporary Persian-speakers eager to learn about Islamic metaphysics, as well as anyone interested in his original system of thought. They include (1) Risālat al-Ṭayr (“Treatise on Birds”), in which Suhrawardī imagines himself as a captured bird longing to ascend to the king; (2) Āwāz-i Par-i Jabrāʾīl (“The Sound of Gabriel’s Wing”), in which Suhrawardī recounts enigmatic discussions in a Sufi lodge or khānaqāh concerning, among other things, the archangel Gabriel’s wings as God’s vehicle of creation; (3) ʿAql-i Surkh (“The Red Intellect”), in which Suhrawardī’s conversation with an old, red-colored man encompasses mythological places and people that magnify the themes of light and darkness; (4) Rūzī bā Jamāʿat-i Ṣūfīyān (“A Day with a Group of Sufis”), in which Suhrawardī summarizes the teachings of his master, many of which concern astronomy, to a group of Sufis in a khānaqāh; (5) Risāla fī Ḥālat al-Ṭufūliyya (“Treatise on the State of Childhood”), under discussion below; (6) Fī Ḥaqīqat al-ʿIshq or Muʾnis al-ʿUshshāq (“On the Reality of Passionate Love” or “Solace to Passionate Lovers”), a treatise on beauty and love as a priori modes of knowledge for the intellect that includes Qurʾanic narratives, especially that of Joseph (Jacob’s son in the Bible) and Zulaykhā (the wife of Potiphar); (7) Risāla-yi Lughat-i Mūrān (“Treatise on the Language of the Ants”), which is a series of fables, mostly involving animals, focused on Sufi themes; (8) Risāla-yi Ṣafīr-i Sīmurgh (“Treatise on the Screech of the Sīmurgh”), which is allegorical almost entirely because of its introduction, in which the author describes the mysterious “sīmurgh,” a legendary bird, and continues to describe the pursuit of knowledge as a progression achieved by Sufi practices that leads to a tranquil heart and, ultimately, self-annihilation; and (9) Qiṣṣa-yi Ghurbat-i Gharbiyya (“The Tale of Western Expatriation”), in which Suhrawardī expands upon Avicenna’s Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān, continuing the latter’s consideration of symbolic climes in terms of a journey that involves imprisonment, escape, and a promise of reimprisonment. Suhrawardī’s allegories present some difficulties for newcomers to Islamic philosophy. They rely on allusions to literary narratives, Islamic scripture, and philosophical concepts, so that properly unraveling even a few sentences requires many notes and references. The goal below is a modest summary of “On the State of Childhood” that raises points relevant to virtue and moral psychology.
Because of such complexities, especially in the symbolic use of language, the French scholar Henry Corbin rejected the label of “allegory” for Suhrawardī’s narratives. In Corbin’s phenomenological reading of Suhrawardī, such texts aim to awaken realizations within the reader not through rational processes made by means of allegorical equivalents, but rather through the use of “primordial” images.48 Such a view is supported by Rešid Hafizović in an imaginative article in which he asserts that storytelling (ḥikāya) among Sufis and philosophers demands an interpretation of symbols that should lead to an interiorization, such that the soul uses the text to undergo its own inward heavenly ascent or miʿrāj. Stories such as Suhrawardī’s Occidental Exile use historically situated language, such as names and events, to induce a self-awakening to an eternal drama of the soul.49 In defense of my use of the term “allegory,” however, is the tradition of writing commentaries on narratives by Suhrawardī, Avicenna, and other philosophers, wherein equivalents are made, but not seen as binding. Such narratives are “allegorical” insofar as they are meant to be deciphered, but are “symbolic” insofar as they are also meant to induce realizations, to have timeless and transcendent implications, and to carry multiple possibilities of interpretation. One such commentary, by contemporary scholar Mohammed Rustom, finds cosmological and even “allegorical” equivalents while still affirming that Suhrawardī’s style of narration, in which readers find themselves in the place of the narrator, allows readers to “unveil” the text and “unveil and therefore ‘become’ their true selves.”50
- “ON THE STATE OF CHILDHOOD”
In “On the State of Childhood,” Suhrawardī imagines himself as a child who sees a group of children walking to school to acquire knowledge. “I asked,” he says, “what is knowledge?” The children, not having an answer, refer him to their teacher and leave. Suhrawardī, or rather the Suhrawardī persona, regrets not having followed them, pursues them, and finds instead an old man standing in the desert, to whom he recounts everything. The old man announces the unlikely: “I am their instructor.” Suhrawardī pleads for knowledge, so the instructor teaches him the alphabet. Suhrawardī and the instructor spend increasingly more time together until all Suhrawardī’s time is spent with the old man, learning a great deal.
One day, while walking to his teacher, Suhrawardī is joined by a friend unfit for such learning (nā-ahl), whom Suhrawardī is unable to lose. Like Ḥayy’s friends in Avicenna’s tale, this tagalong represents the lower faculties. By combining two friends (the faculties of anger and desire) into one, Suhrawardī depicts the total effect of the body. When Suhrawardī sees his instructor holding up a tablet upon which is written “a secret,” it exhilarates him. An ecstatic sense of self-loss leads him to read everything for his literal-minded friend, who then laughs at him, feels sorry for him, and finally slaps him. “Have you lost your mind?” the friend asks, “No sane person would say things like this.”
The slap of a person dominated by a lack of self-restraint is the central event in another narrative—a story from Rūmī’s Mathnawī, further discussed in Chapter Ten. Here, as there, the slap is an attempt to bring balance: Suhrawardī’s friend experiences a cognitive dissonance when confronted by a reality that counters his view of the world, one so different that he must dismiss it as absurd and counteract it with a form of physical retribution. By not containing this secret, Suhrawardī is to blame. His teacher or “shaykh” disappears. In search of him, Suhrawardī encounters a different elderly spiritual advisor in a khānaqāh, one wearing a glimmering Sufi cloak or khirqa that is half-white and half-black. This advisor tells him, “Your shaykh is right. By revealing a secret that so excites the spirits of the illustrious dead that they dance in the sky to one who cannot even understand the difference between day and night, you earn a slap, and your shaykh won’t let you see him.”51
Suhrawardī apologizes, explaining that he had lost self-control, and the advisor helps him reunite with his shaykh. The shaykh explains the situation using a parable, one in a series of parables that transforms the narrative into a frame-tale.
The first parable recounts a salamander, who visits a duck’s dwelling in the chilly season of autumn. The duck, naturally suited to water, begins praising the qualities of his habitat, one of cold water, and the coming, colder pleasures of the pond in winter. Of course, the salamander—naturally suited to fire—can hardly tolerate the duck’s residence, and, as the duck continues his praise, becomes so angry that he erupts: “Were I not a guest in your home and also worried about those you’d leave behind, I wouldn’t let you live.”52 The salamander then storms out. The unworthy will, the shaykh explains, accuse you of heresy and more, if you reveal that which does not accord with their natures. When Suhrawardī wonders why he should care about the fault-finding of others if indeed the truth is with him, the master replies with another parable, one reversing an image from the Qurʾan (Q 24:35): The hearts of the unworthy are like wicks, which have been steeped in water instead of oil. No matter how many times the wick touches fire, it will not light. The heart of one familiar with truth, however, is like a candle that draws fire to itself from far away and lights. Like the candle, the worthy—the “people of meaning” (ahl-i maʿnā)—let their bodies be consumed in fire; when their bodies are completely consumed, the fire of pain and exertion burns out, light increases and becomes intimate knowledge of the Real.53 Suhrawardī was wrong to reveal that which his audience had no capacity whatsoever to know.
Suhrawardī then asks if there is hope to render familiar those hearts that are “strangers.” The shaykh’s response establishes an analogy between medicine and knowing God. A doctor treats his patient with concoctions suited to the humors, building a three-stage regimen of food (barley water, gruel, and then meat) that eventually allows the patient to know what to eat and what to avoid. So too does the doctor treat the “sick at heart.”54 Here the foods themselves have allegorical significance: The patient should eat plants consumed by a nocturnal worm with glowing breath and, subsequently, herbage consumed by a sea cow that grazes by the light of the moon.55 After this, the patient should ascend to the legendary Mount Qāf and find a tree upon which roosts the Sīmurgh, a phoenix-like bird from Iranian mythology. Having eaten the fruit of that tree, the patient will not need a physician, but, rather, will have become his or her own physician.56
Just as the worm and the cow refuse to recognize the sun as the origin of light for the worm’s breath and the cow’s beloved moon, Suhrawardī too doubts the sun’s power. How can it, he wonders, create enough light for the “gem of the night,” that is, the moon? Moreover, how is it that the earth does not block the light of the sun from reaching the moon, when the three are in syzygy, with the earth in the middle? We know, in fact, that Suhrawardī is wrong and that this would result in a lunar eclipse. Suhrawardī’s understanding of lunar nodes seems disconnected from astronomical advances in his day. Astronomers such as al-Battānī, known as “Albategnius” (d. 929), who lived over two centuries before Suhrawardī, had a better grasp of the working of eclipses, and those living a century afterward, such as Naṣīr al-Dīn Ṭūsī, developed models upon which Copernicus might have based his heliocentric system.57 Still, Suhrawardī’s teacher provides an answer by describing an explanatory diagram, however infeasible.
Their discussion of the planets becomes a reflection upon the relatively limited size of planet Earth, when compared with other heavenly bodies. Moreover, since Earth is divided among kings, the circumscribed nature of all kingdoms becomes obvious. Even kings, in other words, rule over something very limited in the grand, cosmological scheme of things. Earthly longings, especially for wealth and rank, are veils. “By what means can one live, if one has nothing?” Suhrawardī asks. To this, the shaykh responds, “Whoever thinks in this way will not abandon a thing, while the one who abandons everything will not think in this way.”58 The master describes a rich man whose dying wish is to see his palace completed; to wish to see the completion of a palace in which the man knows he cannot live represents the ultimate in worldly futility.
The shaykh then gives his student an example of a proper perspective on wealth. A merchant goes out to sea with all his belongings on board. A whirlpool threatens the ship, such that the sailors must jettison many valuable jewels. The merchant’s fears alternate between losing his wealth and losing his life, until the wind settles, and he is brought to shore. Having made it safely, the merchant throws everything he owns into the sea. When asked about this peculiar action, he responds that, when on the ship, discarding his belongings would not have saved his life. But he has now realized that tranquility lies not in material wealth, but in one’s physical wellbeing. Moreover, he worries that, just as he has so quickly forgotten the horrors of his near drowning now that he is safe, one day he might forget this ordeal and seek wealth once again by sea. Throwing it all away ended his ability to trade and his career as a merchant, but thereby assured soundness of life. The merchant’s seemingly backwards logic provides the shaykh an opportunity to mention dreams, which often depict future events in reverse, so that the dreamed birth of a child can mean death.
A diagram of Suhrawardī’s master’s answer
When Suhrawardī asks for a parable about “the state of true men,” the shaykh replies that he cannot indulge him. Here Suhrawardī confesses that the tablet that the shaykh once showed him did not, before, bring him great joy, but now “whenever I look at it, my state changes, and I become so moved by ecstasy, that I cannot fathom how I have become that way.”59 The master informs him that such pleasures are like the pleasures of sex; someone who is not yet sexually mature cannot know them. Suhrawardī tells his shaykh that this resembles the rapture of Sufis during their practice of samāʿ (audition). Here the shaykh describes the playing of the daf (a drum resembling a large tambourine) and the nay (a reed flute), and the manner in which melodies can correspond to the state of the listener. If this happens, the music strikes a sense of pre-eternal nostalgia, so that the soul begins to remember its origins. The soul, and not the ear, begins to listen, but in a realm appropriate to the soul, that is, the imaginal realm. Like the soprano’s shattering of glass, a correspondence between music and listener can temporarily undo the structures that veil us from our pre-eternal place with the Real.
The shaykh explains the dance-like movements of samāʿ that follow such ecstasy by comparing the body to a cage, and the soul to a bird within that cage. The bird of the soul cannot escape, so it makes the cage of the body move. The flailing of arms signifies an attempt to go higher than the feet will allow. The shedding of cloaks signifies an awareness of a realm beyond the material. Suhrawardī asks why a newcomer to a circle of Sufis in samāʿ is under their total control and can be asked to do virtually anything, from singing, to begging, to anything else. The shaykh explains that this reflects the situation of the newcomer, whose bird has flown, leaving only a cage: Since the person has indeed become a corpse, it is up to the group to do what they will with it. The aim of the dance, the shaykh concludes, is for the entire body to become a tongue expressing a state that the tongue itself cannot express; it is for this that the dancer is silent. Moreover, it is to quench the “fire of love” enkindled in the heart that the dancers drink water when the ritual is complete.60 Not all participants achieve this state, or deserve to be called “Sufis.” While all of them might wear the distinguishing dark-blue frock of the Sufi, some are mere bodies without soul, while the “true men” are all soul sewn up in a body.61
- AN ANALYSIS: VIRTUE AS A MODE OF KNOWLEDGE IN SUHRAWARDĪ’S ALLEGORY
The relationship between knowledge and virtue is this allegorical narrative’s central theme. The process described—from potential knowledge to actual knowledge and, ultimately, knowledge of God—parallels verse 16:78 of the Qurʾan: “God brought you out of the wombs of your mothers when you knew not a thing; he made for you hearing, sights, and hearts, so that you might be thankful.” The tale begins at learning’s origins, the alphabet, and ends with a dance that is beyond demonstrative reasoning, one entirely focused on experience. That Suhrawardī has called the work “On the State of Childhood” tells us that, in large measure, this is a reflection on the entire process of learning, throughout life, especially focused on a time when we all knew not a thing. When Suhrawardī saw the tablet as a child, he knew it meant something; it moved and even agitated him, but he found no pleasure in it. When he saw that same tablet later in life, after having acquired experience, it moved him to ecstasy. In Suhrawardī’s model of learning, one continuously returns to an object of knowledge, acquiring familiarity. That familiarity actually brings the soul to realize things that it knew before it affiliated itself with the body. As the soul returns, taking flight from the body, objects of knowledge become clearer, more recognizable, and more pleasurable. The end goal is intimate familiarity with God.
In fact, the symbol of the “tablet” in this allegory illustrates Suhrawardī’s model of learning as an experience of self-knowledge. The “tablet” (lawḥ) in the tale has Qurʾanic connotations: God swears by “the pen” (Q 68:1) and mentions a “preserved tablet” (Q 85:22), so that the two have become complementary symbols of the logos by which God creates, in Islamic metaphysics. The Pen writes the divine words of creation actively and is often associated with the Active Intellect, while the Tablet receives those words passively and is often associated with the Universal Soul (which one might think of here as both the soul of the entire cosmos and the archetype of the human soul). Thus, in writing a secret for Suhrawardī on the tablet, his master plays the role of the Active Intellect.62 In a sense, he has shown Suhrawardī that which is written upon Suhrawardī’s own soul. The tablet, then, is a mirror; the teacher has written a secret corresponding to the secret within Suhrawardī, one that will take him years to uncover and understand.
The ethical dimension of all this, as is often the case in Islamic philosophical ethics, lies in mastering the proper relationship between soul and body. Suhrawardī gives an example of one unsuited to perfecting the intellect and uncovering the secrets of his teacher, namely, the unworthy tagalong friend. The friend’s slap reveals him as subject to the dominating influences of his bodily faculties, in this case the faculty of anger. Internally, in terms of learning, one finds the forces of the body present in sensory input and estimation (wahm), both of which can cause a person to reject profound truths. The duck and the salamander underline the fact that ethical disposition (and hence intellectual aptitude) is to a degree inborn; the duck is constitutionally inclined to that which is cold and wet, while the salamander is constitutionally inclined to that which is warm and dry. One cannot expect conformity to an extreme incompatible with one’s constitution, much as one cannot share secrets with the literal-minded.
The connection between bodily perfection and ethical perfection is more than an allegorical one. The major theme of the middle portion of the narrative is strict control over one’s diet, such that what a person (or a glowworm or sea cow) eats affects his or her disposition. Not only is this an allusion to knowledge, often compared to eating, it is also more literally advice to monitor food consumption, so one eats according to a careful regimen. Suhrawardī’s focus on food, both for the body and for the heart via the senses, gives us a peek into his spiritual training program. Monitoring the diet and the senses would almost definitely have supported the higher endeavors of the intellect, namely monitoring one’s thoughts, engaging in remembrance, and contemplating metaphysics. In using the diets of the glowworm and the sea cow to make this point, Suhrawardī alludes to a verse of the Qurʾan in which the relationship between consumption and knowledge appears. The Qurʾan describes honeybees as inspired and as “eating from every kind of fruit,” emitting “from their bellies a liquid of varying colors in which is a remedy for humans” (Q 16:69). An early Sufi figure, Abū al-ʿAbbās Aḥmad ibn ʿAṭāʾ (d. 922), uses this verse to discuss overseeing the “food” that enters the heart at every instant, which is closely tied to guarding one’s knowledge from the impurities of ostentation. If one does this, and one’s knowledge becomes sincere, then sincere action will follow, and such knowledge will be a remedy for the ailments of others, like honey. If one’s knowledge is adulterated by a sense of display, however, then like beeswax, it is suited only for fire.63 Eating is more than a metaphor for learning for Ibn ʿAṭāʾ and for Suhrawardī. Rather, it is a bodily realization of something that occurs in a more perfect way for the spirit. For both body and spirit, externals must be internalized to become a part of the self. Because of this, it matters greatly what exactly is internalized.
The body also appears center stage in Suhrawardī’s discussion of samāʿ and the dance that accompanies it. Rhythm and melody excite the inner senses such that the soul remembers its pre-eternal origins. Then the soul longs to return. The body’s movement in dance not only represents the soul’s frenzied hurry to ascend from the confines of the body, it also serves as an example of the body’s role in that ascent. Through movement, the body’s presence is offset by an affected loss of control akin to that of a corpse. The closest a living body can come to death, Suhrawardī tells us, is its ecstatic movement in dance. Through samāʿ and the movements of the body, the soul becomes habituated to ecstasy and disengagement from the body.
Suhrawardī’s ethics promotes increasing the light of the intellect until it outshines the light of the animal soul. Indeed, the contempt of the sea cow for the sun comes from a misunderstanding: The sea cow does not understand that all light on earth, even that of the sea cow’s beloved moon, originates in the light of the sun. The sun in Suhrawardī’s philosophy represents the Light of Lights, and the moon represents recipients of that light. When the sun rises, the moon disappears because it has been outshined, not because it has ceased to exist. So too, when the intellect becomes complete, or when the light of the Light of Lights shines upon a person, the lower soul disappears, which Suhrawardī says rather directly, “By day, the light of the night-gem [of the moon] vanishes, invalidating the light of the [lower] soul.”64 Nighttime in the narrative is the best time to acquire light, because it is during the night that worshippers stay up, sacrifice sleep, and engage in acts of contemplation. While this allegory describes illuminative achievement far beyond humoral ethics, the pillars of such achievement are built upon proper constitutional disposition, control of the diet, management of the bodily faculties, and the sincere pursuit of truth.
The virtues of philosophical ethics appear transmuted in this text, elevated by a Sufi framework. Temperance becomes an absolute avoidance of all worldly attachments. Courage becomes a lack of concern with means, trusting utterly in God. Justice becomes recognizing the abilities and ranks of every person, not burdening someone with what he or she cannot bear, and keeping the secret undisclosed. Wisdom, the allegory’s main theme, becomes the inner reality of human existence, something to be chased, discovered, and rediscovered, until one achieves a wisdom far beyond demonstrative reasoning.
- ETHICS AS LIVED PHILOSOPHY: IN CONCLUSION
In his book Reason Unbound: On Spiritual Practice in Islamic Peripatetic Philosophy, Mohammad Azadpur argues that the Islamic Peripatetics, especially Avicenna and al-Fārābī, had certain ethical goals and methods or “spiritual practices” in mind that they located in the philosophical tradition that they inherited from the Greeks. Azadpur argues that we moderns can benefit from Islamic philosophy, including its “spiritual practices,” a phrase Azadpur traces to Pierre Hadot’s reading of Greek philosophy as a means to self-betterment. Azadpur’s argument is convincing, and it can qualify as an argument precisely because some degree of ambiguity exists in al-Fārābī and Avicenna’s writings. While both clearly had practical aims and even advice for how philosophy might be lived, the status given to developing the intellect through theoretical, discursive measures is so high that one might see spiritual practices as secondary, there merely for support, and not essential to their thought. Leo Strauss seems to have seen Islamic Peripateticism in such a manner, for example.
Yet, in the case of Suhrawardī, for whom philosophy as a program of experience becomes almost a trademark, there is no such ambiguity. It is thus fitting that Azadpur concludes his book with a discussion of Suhrawardī as the consummation of a lived philosophy taught by Avicenna and revised in more scriptural and even spiritual terms by Ghazālī.65 So prevalent are Sufi and ascetic practices, as well as a language of inspiration and allusions often tied to such practices, that a debate has arisen in Western scholarship concerning Suhrawardī’s philosophy: Is it primarily Sufi, or “mystical,” presented in philosophical language? Or is it at its core a modification of the Avicennan system, and “philosophical” and rationally oriented through and through? Scholars such as Henry Corbin, Jalāl al-Dīn Āshtīyānī, Mehdi Ha’iri Yazdi, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr see Suhrawardī first and foremost as a mystic. Scholars such as Hossein Ziai, John Walbridge, and Mehdi Amin Razavi generally see philosophy and mysticism as intertwined, such that philosophy is not secondary.66
In either case, Suhrawardī’s emphasis on ascetic practices helps us see humoral virtue ethics as a precursor to a much more demanding regimen of constant contemplation and rigorous control of the body’s forces. It is not surprising that Suhrawardī found the finest expression of that regimen in Sufism and considered Sufis to be the heirs to Plato and other ancient philosophers. Indeed, parallels between Sufi practices and the ancient Greek (and especially Stoic) spiritual exercises described by Hadot abound. Setting conditions for oneself at the beginning of the day, taking oneself into account at the end of the day, remembering death, maintaining an awareness of the present moment, and meditating upon key philosophical principles are practices as salient for the Sufis as they were for the Stoics.67 Hadot’s reading of philosophy does indeed seem to be the finest way to see Suhrawardī’s program, as well as other thinkers (such as Mullā Ṣadrā, as discussed by Azadpur) who championed both Sufi practices and philosophical speculation.68 According to Hadot, the Greek Christian term askesis (from which our “asceticism” comes) captures a set of “spiritual exercises” that Christians upheld, having inherited many of them—in form or in principle—from their Greek pagan forebears. Such exercises are “spiritual” insofar as they reorient a person toward a transcendent Other.69 Philosophy’s practical goal was to serve as a “therapeutic of the passions,” in that every philosophical school had its own set of formulae to induce personal transformation.70 Plato, for whom Socrates’ philosophically heroic death was a defining moment, held that the end of such a therapeutic lies in training to die—neutralizing the passions (desire and anger) in fortification of the intellect, so that a wisdom-seeker redirects her orientation toward universal and objective realities.71 Among later Platonists, such as Porphyry (d. ca. 305 CE), specific practices, such as a vegetarian diet, aim to awaken realization and uncover the deepest and most endless fathoms of knowledge, such as the soul’s immortality.72
Suhrawardī, in his “On the State of Childhood,” alludes to control of one’s diet in pursuit of illumination, much like Porphyry. Sufi practices—such as samāʿ—not only function as part of a philosophical program, but can also be subjected to rational speculation and allegorical exposition, it would seem for further effect. Indeed, Suhrawardī’s writings are infused with an emphasis on spiritual exercises that yield knowledge and thus inner perfection, exercises quite often prevalent among Sufis. In his “A Day with a Group of Sufis,” for example, Suhrawardī proclaims his shaykh’s teachings of world-abandonment as a pathway to knowledge. Two spiritual practices lead to one’s mounting the “steed of contemplation” into the “field of knowledge of the unseen”: First, finding pleasure in the isolation of retreat (khalwat), and, second, redirecting awareness, so that one exchanges one’s sense of “being” for “not-being,” which is a replacement of one’s sense of self for an awareness of the Other.73 Both are distinctly Sufi spiritual practices. Thus, while certain Sufis such as Rūmī might have rejected the ultimate truth-claims of the philosophers, Suhrawardī represents a nexus between Sufism and philosophy, going much further than Avicenna’s use of Sufi terms and practices, and embracing Sufi practices as a pathway to the completion of the intellect. It is fitting then, that this chapter on Suhrawardī might serve as a bridge between virtue in philosophy and virtue in Sufism.
1 Ziai, “The Source and Nature of Authority,” p. 305, n. 3.
2 See Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad ibn Maḥmūd al-Shahruzūrī’s (fl. 1282) comments in Suhrawardī, The Philosophical Allegories and Mystical Treatises, p. x. This is a parallel Persian and English text, including the original nine treatises (called Nuh Risāla) and Thackston’s translation. While I have referred to Thackston’s translations, the translations included here are my own and refer to the Persian text that he has edited, unless otherwise indicated. The same holds true for the other two parallel Persian-English books cited here, Ḥikmat al-Ishrāq and Partaw-nāma.
3 Ziai, “The Source and Nature of Authority,” pp. 322–9.
4 Amin Razavi, Suhrawardi and the School of Illumination, p. 82.
5 Suhrawardī, Ḥikmat al-Ishrāq, p. 132.
6 Ibid., p. 136.
7 Ibid., p. 132.
8 Walbridge, The Wisdom of the Mystic East, p. 61.
9 Suhrawardī, Partaw-nāma, pp. 26–7.
10 Suhrawardī, Ḥikmat al-Ishrāq, p. 131.
11 Suhrawardī, Partaw-nāma, p. 28.
12 See Suhrawardī, Partaw-nāma, pp. 30–2, as well as Ḥikmat al-Ishrāq, pp. 136–9.
13 Suhrawardī, Ḥikmat al-Ishrāq, p. 138.
14 Ibid., p. 139.
15 Ibid., p. 138; al-Kutubi, Mullā Ṣadrā and Eschatology: Evolution of Being, pp. 93–4.
16 Suhrawardī, Ḥikmat al-Ishrāq, pp. 137, 140.
17 Ibid., pp. 113–14.
18 Ibid., p. 113.
19 Suhrawardī, Opera Metaphysica et Mystica, p. 1:70.
20 Ibid., p. 1:71.
21 Ibid., p. 1:72; see also Ha’iri Yazdi, The Principles of Epistemology in Islamic Philosophy, pp. 183–9.
22 See Suhrawardī, Opera Metaphysica et Mystica, p. 1:74. Suhrawardī did see many Sufi figures as carrying on ancient, non-Peripatetic philosophical traditions. For Suhrawardī, al-Tustarī—whose theology also described God as light—bore the legacy of the Pythagoreans, much like Dhū al-Nūn al-Miṣrī before him. See Walbridge, The Wisdom of the Mystic East, pp. 45–6.
23 Marcotte, “Reason (ʿaql) and Direct Intuition (mushāhada) in the Works of Shihāb al-Dīn al-Suhrawardī (d. 587/1191),” p. 223.
24 Suhrawardī, Opera Metaphysica et Mystica, p. 1:74.
25 Ibid., p. 1:71.
26 Walbridge, “Suhrawardī, a Twelfth-Century Muslim Neo-Stoic?” pp. 524, 531–2.
27 Suhrawardī, Ḥikmat al-Ishrāq, pp. 107–8.
28 Amin Razavi, Suhrawardi and the School of Illumination, p. 83.
29 Ha’iri Yazdi, The Principles of Epistemology in Islamic Philosophy, p. 170.
30 Kaukua, “Suhrawardī’s Knowledge as Presence in Context,” pp. 311–12. The example of one’s sister is a rephrased version of that described by Kaukua.
31 Ibid., p. 320.
32 More than simply an emphasis on mystical unveiling, Suhrawardī’s presentation of knowledge even reconsiders the manner in which we define things: As opposed to a Peripatetic, essentialist definition that sets the parameters for a thing in a handful of words, Suhrawardī argued that things are perceived and known directly and in stages, an idea later expounded upon by his adherent and interpreter Quṭb al-Dīn Shīrāzī (d. 1311). See Walbridge, The Science of Mystic Lights, pp. 101–4.
33 Suhrawardī, Ḥikmat al-Ishrāq, p. 148.
34 Ibid., p. 148.
35 Ibid., pp. 160–1.
36 Ibid., p. 148–9.
37 I read the word mutawassiṭīn as having a dual meaning. It refers to those who are “intermediate” in that they have not reached the full completion of those fully disassociated from the body; in that sense, they are neither “complete” nor “incomplete,” nor are they “luminous,” nor “bodily,” but right in the middle of all these categories. It also refers, however, to their achievements in lower-level humoral ethics, such that they have achieved a balance, which Suhrawardī, like Avicenna, calls tawassuṭ (Avicenna, al-Shifāʾ: al-Ṭabīʿīyāt: al-Nafs, p. 1:287). One can find Suhrawardī’s use of the word mutawassiṭ for the equilibrium in the faculties of desire, anger, and intellect that results in the “virtuous disposition” (malaka fāḍila) in Partaw-nāma, p. 72. Of course, their being called the “felicitous ones” (al-suʿadāʾ) underlines the point, since it means “those who possess saʿāda” (ultimate ethical happiness, an equivalent of Aristotle’s eudaemonia).
38 Suhrawardī, Ḥikmat al-Ishrāq, p. 149.
39 Ibid., p. 149.
40 Al-Kutubi, Mullā Ṣadrā and Eschatology, p. 94.
41 Corbin, Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth, pp. 77–9.
42 Suhrawardī, Partaw-nāma, pp. 70–1.
43 Ibid., p. 71.
44 Ibid., p. 72.
45 Ibid., p. 82.
46 Ibid., p. 72.
47 Suhrawardī, Ḥikmat al-Ishrāq, p. 110.
48 Corbin, The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism, p. 32.
49 Hafizović, “The Symbolic Language of Ḥikāya as the ‘Interpretative Miʿrāj’ of the Soul within its Existential Drama,” pp. 14–15.
50 Rustom, “Story-Telling as Philosophical Pedagogy.”
51 Suhrawardī, The Philosophical Allegories and Mystical Treatises, p. 44. Here and below reference is to the Persian text.
52 Ibid., p. 45.
53 Ibid., pp. 45–6.
54 Ibid., p. 46.
55 The worm seems to be a glowworm, as mentioned in Kalīla wa Dimna (Pūrnāmdārīān, ʿAql-i Surkh, p. 344). These are not worms at all, but a species of beetle we call “fireflies” or one related to it. The female firefly glows but, unlike the male, cannot fly, so she has been described as a worm. The “sea cow” has been the object of some fascination, perhaps in part because of certain humanlike features. According to Georg Wilhelm Stellar, an eighteenth-century German zoologist, Aristotle and others made faulty claims about the sea cow or “manatee” as Stellar calls it, not to be mistaken for the actual manatee, which is a smaller, surviving species from the same order. The sea cow was believed to feed on grass or herbs on land, and to have nails like a human being (Stellar, De Bestiis Marinis, or, The Beasts of the Sea, pp. 40–1). As Stellar observes, it actually fed on seaweed and did not venture onto land, nor did it have fingers (or nails), and its head did not resemble a cow’s or a calf’s. Unfortunately, Stellar’s sea cows, which he observed in Alaska, are now extinct, on account of human hunting.
56 Suhrawardī, The Philosophical Allegories, p. 47.
57 Nasr, Science and Civilization in Islam, p. 170; Saliba, Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance, pp. 196–209. As Corbin mentions, the manuscripts do not provide a diagram of the shaykh’s solution, but it is described lucidly enough to be recreated. See Suhrawardī, L’Archange empourpré, p. 408, n. 12.
58 Suhrawardī, The Philosophical Allegories, p. 50.
59 Ibid., p. 53.
60 Ibid., p. 56.
61 Ibid., p. 57.
62 Pūrnāmdārīān, ʿAql-i Surkh, p. 340.
63 Al-Sulamī, Majmūʿat Āthār, p. 1:116.
64 Suhrawardī, The Philosophical Allegories and Mystical Treatises, p. 47.
65 Azadpur, Reason Unbound, pp. 116–17.
66 Marcotte, “Reason (ʿaql) and Direct Intuition (mushāhada) in the Works of Shihāb al-Dīn al-Suhrawardī,” p. 230, n. 2.
67 Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, pp. 83–9.
68 Azadpur, Reason Unbound, p. 119.
69 Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, p. 82.
70 Ibid., p. 83.
71 Ibid., p. 96.
72 Ibid., p. 100.
73 Suhrawardī, The Philosophical Allegories and Mystical Treatises, p. 41. Here I have made use of Thackston’s translation.