The Master and the Light

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Ismail Salami

Considered as the founding father of the school of Illuminationist philosophy (a philosophy of "light" or intellectual intuition 'Arabic: hikmat al-ishraq), Suhrawardi sought a synthesis of Zoroastrian, Platonic, and Islamic ideas and used Zoroastrian angelology to elaborate on the Platonic Ideas.

He departed from Avicenna by creating a symbolic language through which he expressed his metaphysics and cosmology.

In his philosophy, he leans towards a kind of mystical outlook in a state where one renounces the affairs of the dark Cimmerian world and seeks after the spiritual world through lofty ambitions. His influence on the Muslim thoughts is manifest particularly on the philosophy of Mulla Sadra in his combination of Peripatetic and Illuminationist descriptions of reality.

He remained unknown in the West until Henri Corbin the French Iranologist made strenuous efforts to edit and publish his works in the twentieth century.


Born Shihab al-Din Yahya ibn Habash ibn Amirak Suhrawardi, Suhrawardi aka “Shayk al-Ishraq (The Master of Illumination) was born in 1154 in the small town of Suhraward, near Zanjan. He spent a few years in southwest Anatolia, associated with Seljuq rulers and then moved to Aleppo in 1183. There, he was received by Malik az-Zahir al-Din, the son of Saladin Ayyubi.

At the age of thirty-two, he completed his magnum opus “The Philosophy of Illumination” in 1186. Suhrawardi's tragic downfall came in 1191 when he was accused of corrupting the religion and laying claim to prophecy. The exact charges, which led to his execution, are a matter of scholastic controversy.


Suhrawardi considers a previous existence for every soul in the angelic domain before descending to the realm of the body. The soul is divided into two parts, one remaining in heaven and the other descending into the dungeon of the body.

The human soul is always sad because it has been divorced from its other half. Therefore, it aspires to become united with it again. The soul can only reach felicity again when it is united with the celestial part, which has remained in heaven. He holds that the soul should seek felicity by detaching itself from its tenebrous body and worldly matters and access the world of immaterial lights.

In his world vision, all creation emanates from the original supreme Light of Lights (nur al-anwar). In other words, the universe and all levels of existence are but varying degrees of Light - the light and the darkness. It should be pointed out that by light and darkness he does not mean Magian light and darkness.

Be it as it may, in Suhrawardi's view, it is always the beauty and dominion of the angel, which glitter most in the Ishraqi cosmos and which most, dazzles the sight of those who undertake the task of gaining a vision of it.

From this original Light of Lights issues Bahman (the Mazdean Vohumen) or the Nur al-a'zam (the Greater Light) or Nur al-'aqrab (the Most Proximate Light). Suhrawardi identifies this original Light with the Zoroastrian Bahman (late Zoroastrian (Mazdean) Vohumen) or "Good (or Divine) Mind".

In his division of bodies, he categorizes objects in terms of their reception or non-reception of light. Things, he believes, are divided into light and darkness, thing, which per se is light, and thing, which per se is darkness.

From this first Light emanates a longitudinal order of Lights, as each produces the one following it. Each Light is in a position of domination to the one below it, and love to the one above it and serves as a purgatory between the Lights above and below it. This order of Lights is also called the world of mothers because all other things stem from it in the cosmos.

He also suggests that the human soul seeks Nur al-anwar (the Supreme Light) at all times and enjoys the same degree of purity and knowledge it has attained in this life. In his tripartition of souls, he mentions those who have reached some measure of purity in this life (su'ada); those whose souls are darkened by evil and ignorance (ashqiya); and finally those who have already achieved sanctity and illumination in this life, that is, the sages or theosophers (muta'allihun).

In the meantime, the souls of the Gnostics and saints, after leaving the body, ascend even above the angelic world to enjoy proximity to the Supreme Light.

This supreme hierarchy is of two kinds: masculine and feminine. From the masculine pole issues further hierarchies of angels, which are transcendent spiritual Intelligences independent of any material body.

From the feminine pole of the Spiritual Lights spring the visible, astrological heavens, and the Earth. The heavens can thus be considered the crystallization of the original archangelic Light; the separation from the original Light of Lights, which is the only absolute Reality.


In his life span which was less than forty years, Suhrawardi produced forty-nine works, which may be classified under five categories:

1. A tetralogy dealing with Peripatetic philosophy and ishraqi (illuminative) theosophy. The tetralogy consists of Talwihat (the Book of Intimidations), Muqawamat (The Book of Oppositions), Mutarahat (The Book of Conversations), and Hikmat al-Ishraq (The Theosophy of Illumination).

2. A set of symbolic narratives such as Aql-i Surkh (The Red Archangel), Awaz-i Par-i Jibra'il (The Chant of the Wing of Gabriel), al-Ghurbat al-gharbiyah (The Occidental Exile), Lughat-i Muran (The Language of Termites), Risalah fiHalat at-Tufuliyya (Treatise on the State of Childhood), Ruzi Ba Jama'at-i Sufiyyan (A Day in the Company of Sufis), Risalah al-abraj (Treatise on the Nocturnal Journey), and Safar-i Simurgh (The Journey of the Phoenix). They expound the journey of the soul through the stages of self-realization to its ultimate salvation and illumination.

3. Shorter treatises expounding Illuminationist philosophy in a simple form such as Hayakil al-nur (The Temple of Light), al-Alwah al-Imadiyyah (Arabic and Persian), Partaw-namih (Treatise on Illumination), Fi I'tiqad al-Hukama (Symbol of Faith of the Philosophers), Al-Luma'at (The Flashes of Light), Yazdan-shinakht (The Knowledge of God), and Bustan al-Qulub (The Orchard of the Heart).

4. Translations of and commentaries on earlier philosophical works, Persian translation of Avicenna's Risalah al-Tayr, commentary upon his Isharat, composition of Risalah Fi Haqiqat al-Ishq.

5. A collection of prayers and supplications called al-Waridat wal-Taqdisat.


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