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A Comparative Analysis of Mulla Sadra's Doctrine of the Primacy of Being

By: Muhammad Kamal
Parallel to the development of technology Heidegger's engagement with the question of Being (Seinfrage) opens a new horizon for ontological discourse. In the West this philosophical engagement of Heidegger is reminiscent of that of Mulla Sadra whose pre- occupation with the primacy of Being marked a decisive turning point in Islamic thought. This paper is a comparative analysis of Mulla Sadra's ontology with that of Heidegger. It argues that Mulla Sadra's ontological enterprise resembles in several ways that of Heidegger, except that Mulla Sadra's ontology is theo-logically realised. Similarities between them can be established on three grounds: Both thinkers advocate the doctrine of the primacy of Being. Argue against Plato's metaphysics. Hold the view that Aristotle's logic is incapable of revealing the meaning of Being.
From the 12th century, Suhrawardi's philosophy of Illuminationism occupied a focal place in the intellectual life of Muslims, particularly in the Persian speaking world. The philosophical thought of this school marked a vivid departure from rationalism to gnosticisim, or knowledge by illumination (al-ishraq). Suhrawardi (1171–1208), the founder of the Illuminationism school believed that knowledge of an object in the world came only through revealing its essence or quiddity. The Being of the object, unlike its essence, was a mental concept and had no external reality. To prove this point, Suhrawardi developed the argument that there were two possible ways of understanding the meaning of Being: by thinking of Being either as a universal concept shared by all existent beings or as a particular being. In the first case, Being remains a mental concept, but, in the second, it depends on its essence to exist because a particular being is equivalent to its essence, which makes the being the way it is.[1]
A universal concept such as 'blackness' is conceived only in respect to a particular black object; existence, then, as a universal concept, requires a particular being to reveal itself or to rely on for its existence. Thinking of existence as a universal concept, and then of its reliance on a particular type of being for its existence is similar to Aristotle's understanding of the relationship between universals and particulars. Aristotle, in rejecting the Platonic view of reality, argued for the dependency of universal determinations on particular beings and against the ontological status of universal determinations. In projecting his own views, Suhrawardi, on one hand, relied on Aristotle's argument, and, on the other, reversed the argument. He came closer to Plato by insisting on the dependency of particular beings on their universal determinations (essences), not vice versa.[2]
Mulla Sadra's new ontological enterprise begins with the advocacy of the doctrine of the primacy of Being. This shift in the directionality of his thought should be thematised as a 'turn' from the core elements of Suhrawardi's metaphysics, and it took place by forming a contrary philosophical view, by insisting that Being was not a mental property but an objective reality outside the domain of rational thinking. The meaning of Being could also be understood through its illuminative presence by a new cognitive tool. Based on such intuitive experience, Being seems to be the most evident of all things. It is the principle without which even 'non-being' is unthinkable.[3]
For Mulla Sadra, the doctrine of the primacy of essence leads to the concealment of the truth. It neglected the fundamental philosophical questions concerning the meaning of Being in favour of investigating the nature of something less fundamental. In al-Masha'ir, he remarks: "In the past, I used to be firm on the defence of the principality of essence, making existence a [mentally dependent] abstract entity, until my God guided me and showed me his proof. It became clear to me that the issue is opposite of what has been conceived and determined. Thank God who took me out of the darkness of illusion through the light of comprehension, who removed from my heart the clouds of these doubts through the rise of the sun of truth, and who held me close to the true discourse in this life and the life after. Existences are genuine [determinate] realities and essences are the eternal 'thisnesses' which have never inhaled the perfume of real existence at all. These existences are merely the rays and reflected lights of The True Light and of the Eternal Existence. Exalted Be His Sublimity! however, each of them has essential predicates and contains intelligible concepts called essences."[4]
The "darkness of illusion" described here is indicative of the domain of Suhrawardi's metaphysics. It is the state of untruth that reigns over the whole of reality in such a way that the meaning of Being becomes unattainable. It is the 'abandonment of Being' or 'nihilism' for Heidegger: a philosophical position undertaken by Western philosophers from Plato to Nietzsche. It represents the history of continuous negligence of the question of Being.[5] In both cases, in Western philosophical tradition as well as Suhrawardi's metaphysics what is abandoned is the Being of beings as a whole, and this has led to 'disintegration of truth', or the forgottenness of Being and thinking of Being as 'essence'.[6] This process of the concealment of truth in Heidegger's view is like "the process in which the light of a star that has been extinguished for millennia will gleam but its gleaming nonetheless remains a mere appearance"[7] The state of untruth or "darkness of illusion" as described by Mulla Sadra is the abandonment of Being. In this way, and on this view, Suhrawardi's metaphysics, like that of Plato, represents 'nihilism'. Overcoming 'nihilism' for Mulla Sadra and Heidegger could happen only through a turning to and revision of the primacy of Being in metaphysics. The possibility of another beginning and another epoch of Being. This is described by Heidegger in Contributions to Philosophy as a transition from the withdrawal of Being to the grounding question and the re-emergence of Being behind the appearance of beings.
The turn from the primacy of essence to the primacy of Being belonged to Mulla Sadra's period of solitude and his teaching in Shiraz. During that time the question of Being rather than essence proved to be 'the foundation of the principles of philosophy'.[8] The primacy of Being became fundamental in the sense that Being and not essence was seen to be the only reality on which the multiplicity of beings and all essences (essents) could stand.
The question of the possibility of an overcoming of this type of metaphysics or the "darkness of illusion" and "disintegration of truth" is a serious philosophical enterprise for Mulla Sadra. The overcoming of the "darkness of illusion" could be achieved by de-constructing Suhrawardi's metaphysics and by re-constructing an ontology based on the primacy of Being. Meanwhile the overcoming of Suhrawardi's metaphysics meant a radical change in a philosophical position for recognising the priority of the question of the meaning of Being.
Certainly, what Mulla Sadra has tried to prove to locate in his ontological enterprise is a unified ground that had already been discussed earlier by Aristotle in the Metaphysics, Book VII. The diversity of the modes of Being led Aristotle to think about the unity beneath it. But the difference between Aristotle and Mulla Sadra arises with the doctrine of the categories and the epistemological significance of this doctrine for knowing reality. Aristotle proposed ten categories, of which the most fundamental was substance, along with the others quantity, quality, relation, place, time, posture, state, action, and passion, which all depend for their existence on substance. For Aristotle these categories are classes or genera, their application renders knowledge of every mode of being possible. Mulla Sadra's metaphysics asserts the realm of this principle of unity beyond the domain of the categories. For this reason, Being remains indefinable.[9] It is neither a genus for another entity, differentia, or species, nor a common or specific accident. Understanding the meaning of Being cannot be based on anything more prevalent than itself.[10] This negative approach in light of Aristotle's logic, however, does not hinder philosophers such as Mulla Sadra and Heidegger in their investigations into the meaning of Being. The indefinableness of Being refers to the inherent shortcomings of Aristotle's logic and rational apprehension; meanwhile the inadequacy of this type of logic and epistemology should not eliminate the task of ontological inquiry. Mulla Sadra denounced pure rationality and dependence on Aristotle's logic, and relied instead on intuition or mystic experience for knowing the inner-reality of Being. He writes: As it has been stated the reality of existence is neither genus, nor species, nor accident, since it is not a natural universal. Instead, its inclusion happens in another mode of inclusion, and no one has gnosis of it except the mystics' i.e. those who are firmly grounded in mystical knowledge.' [3:7] Sometimes it is interpreted as the spiritual soul [i.e. Holy Spirit] other times as that grace 'which extendeth to all things.'[7:156]. Sometimes [it is as the] 'Reality from which entities have been created', according to the mystics. [Also, it is] the expansion of the light of existence to the structures of contingent entities, and the essences, which are receptive to it; finally [they speak of] its descent towards the abodes of inner-natures.[11]
The rationalist preoccupation with epistemology does not constitute a reawakening of the question of Being because it presupposes subject-object dichotomy. It depends on having turned away from Being to the beings. Mulla Sadra's epistemology is significant for eliminating subject–object dichotomy and reawakening the question of Being. It is worth mentioning that in inquiring into the meaning of Being, Mulla Sadra agreed with Suhrawardi that Being was not apprehended rationally and that the Aristotelian logic failed to reveal its truth, whereas essence was conceived rationally. Essence did not exist by itself but arose in thinking when a particular mode of Being was conceived. For this reason, essence should be thought of as a mental phenomenon that existed in thinking and for thinking and not as an external reality or something having its own ontological status.
There are, however, three ontological positions in dealing with the primacy of Being or essence. Either Being is prior to essence or posterior to it, or Being and essence co-exist simultaneously. When Being is thought of as prior to essence, it signifies that Being can stand by itself without its essence. If, however, the primacy of essence is accepted as true, it implies that essence exists without Being. But for this, essence has to exist or needs another being to rely on, and for Mulla Sadra this is a vicious regress. The third position is that existence and essence co-exist simultaneously. This ontological view involves the notion that essence is in existence. In this case, essence again needs another existence to rely on for its existence. As a consequence of this, essence cannot be without prior existence.[12]
In arguing against these three ontological positions, Mulla Sadra concludes that the qualification of essence by existence, unlike the qualification of a body by colour, is an intellectual operation. Neither existence or essence is prior to the other, nor they do have a state of simultaneity, since nothing can be prior, posterior or simultaneous to itself. Both are ontologically inseparable and different only in thinking. He emphases: What has been said earlier is sufficient to refute this claim, for, existence is identical with essence in the external [realm] but different from it mentally. Therefore, there is no relation between them except in intellectual consideration. In [such an intelligible] consideration, the relation will have existence which in its inner-reality is identical with it, but is different from it in the realm external [to the mind]. This kind of as infinitum is stopped when the intelligible consideration is ceased.[13]
What, then, does the primacy of Being mean if these three positions are refuted? How can we talk about the primacy of Being? In answering these questions, we can think of the primacy of Being over essence and its modes like the primacy of a ground over the grounded. Mulla Sadra believes that Being and essence, like the ground and the grounded, are ontologically inseparable; they are different realities in thinking only.[14] When a being is conceived and analysed into its determinations, the Being of this being appears in thinking to be distinct from these determinations. This intellectual apprehension does not coincide with the inner reality of Being, because essence is not distinct from Being, nor is existence an addition to essence. It is only in thinking that the priority of one over the other, in particular of essence, becomes evident, because thinking analyses each entity into existence and essence. The latter appears as the prior factor due to its nature as a universal determination and thus apprehended by the intellect, whereas existence is not apprehended. Here, the primacy of essence becomes a mental factor, and Being remains as an ontological ground inaccessible to rational thinking. The distinction between Being and essence in the intellectual sphere is not similar to that between an object and its accident. Instead, it is like the connection that exists in the species between a genus and its differentia. Being is a being of an object; when we abstract an essence from it that essence will not subsist. Although an accident seems to be identical to the existence of an object, it is not the being of that object. Mulla Sadra supports this view by relying on Ibn Sina's ontology, agreeing with him that an accident needs an object to become existent, whereas the case with existence and essence is different.[15]
Heidegger, in interpreting the history of metaphysics, thinks that the abandonment of Being is rooted in Platonism, whereas for Mulla Sadra it is inherited from Suhrawardi's thought. Both of them meanwhile share the view that Aristotle's logic is incapable of revealing the meaning of Being. Reliance on the Aristotelian system of logic brings obstacles into our ontological inquiry. According to Heidegger, for instance, this reliance has led post-Aristotelian thinkers to neglect Being and to turn towards studying ontic entities instead.
Heidegger, in Being and Time (1927), makes similar claim. He argues that the post-Aristotelian thinkers accepted the dogma of negligence, and withdrew themselves from the genuine philosophical question of the meaning of Being, for three reasons. First, they thought that Being was the most universal concept, and that its universality 'transcended' any universality of genus. Second, since Being is the most universal concept, and is not an entity, it is therefore indefinable and escapes all attempts to define it in accordance with the rules of 'definition' provided in Aristotelian logic. Third, Being is self-evident.[16] Heidegger also attacks the post-Aristotelian philosophers for having neglected this fundamental question in their philosophical inquiries in favour of investigating the meaning of beings (seinden).[17] Heidegger rejects the three presuppositions, which support the dogma of negligence. Against them he argues that the universality of the concept of Being does not guarantee the clarity of its meaning and that the meaning of this concept is still the darkest of all. He agrees with the Aristotelian thinkers that Being is not an entity and is thus indefinable, and that Aristotle's concept of definition "definitio fit per genus proximum et differentiam specificam" is not applicable to Being. But the indefinability of Being does not invalidate the question of its meaning, and it should not hinder us from investigating this meaning. In his argument against the third presupposition, Heidegger insists that, although the concept of Being is self-evident, it is still veiled and needs further inquiry.[18]
An inquiry into the meaning of Being is not in the scope of regional ontology, because Being is distinct from beings. Similar to Aristotle's First Principle, it is a prior condition not only for the existence of beings but also for all scientific inquiry, yet it cannot be studied scientifically. "Fundamental Ontology", which takes Being into account, is substantially distinctive, and its subject matter is neither this nor that kind of being, but Being per se: "Basically, all ontology, no matter how rich and firmly compacted a system of categories it has at its disposal, remains blind and perverted from its own most aim, if it has not adequately clarified the meaning of Being, and conceived this clarification as its fundamental task".[19]
As mentioned before, Heidegger, in interpreting the history of metaphysics, thinks that the abandonment of Being is rooted in Platonism and for Mulla Sadra it is inherited from Suhrawardi's thought, which was developed under the sway of Platonism. For the sake of demonstrating similarities between Mulla Sadra's opposition to the doctrine of the primacy of essence and Heidegger's understanding of the history of metaphysics in Western thought we need to highlight the relationship between Plato's metaphysics and Illuminationism. In the introduction to Hikmat al-Ishraq Suhrawardi has explicitly referred to Plato and remarks that, In all I have said about the science of lights and that which is not based upon it, I have been assisted by those who have travelled the path of God. This science is the very intuition of the inspired and illumined Plato, the guide and master of philosophy, and of those who came before him from the time of Hermes, "the father of philosophy" upon Plato's time, including such mighty pillars of philosophy as Empedocles, Pythagoras, and others.[20]
The science of light came down from Hermes to the sages of the ancient Persia and Egypt then to Plato. After Plato the rationalistic approach of Aristotle broke the chain of continuity of this philosophical tradition. Discursive knowledge and rational thinking replaced intuitive knowledge. For this reason a thinker like al-Jurjani defines the adherents of Illuminationsim as "philosophers whose master was Plato".[21]
Suhrawardi has not only incorporated Plato's metaphysics into his own but he considers his philosophy of illumination as the continuation of the same philosophical tradition. He recognises Plato as one of the masters of Illuminationsim, "Plato and his companions showed plainly that they believed the Maker of the universe and the world of intellect to be the light when they said that the pure light is the world of intellect. Of himself, Plato said that in certain of his spiritual conditions he would shed his body and become free from matter. Then he would see light and splendour within his essence. He would ascend to that all-encompassing divine cause and would seem to be located and suspended in it, beholding a mighty light in that lofty and divine place."[22] At another place Suhrawardi compares Plato's philosophy with the allusions of the prophets. Thus Suhrawardi does not consider himself to be the founder of Illuminationsim but a follower of his masters such as Hermes and Plato.[23]
Plato assumed that the plurality of individual objects could be unified under the common essences or Ideas rather than Being. The essences are not abstract universal concepts but have their own reality. When reference is made to a universal concept such as 'blackness' of an individual black object we at the same time refer to an objective essence. Further, Plato also believe that essences do not rely on the individual objects to exist, for example the idea of 'blackness' does not depend on the existence of a black object because the universal idea of blackness is an essence, transcendent and spatially detached from all particular black objects. These Essences constitute the reality of individual objects but do not reside in them.
In the Symposium, Plato describes a procedure or itinerary through which one could view the universal ideas. One can arrive at realising the essence of 'beauty' by ascending from the beautiful objects ofthe sensible world to the notion of beauty and then from there to the form of this essence, which is universal and self-subsistent.[24] The individual objects, which are detached from these essences, are objects of 'opinion'. By contrast, the essence of beauty is not in the domain of 'opinion' but an idea that can be 'known'. Here and in the Platonic context knowledge corresponds to the apprehension or intelligibility of the essences when the human mind is turned upwards in the method of ascent.[25] This kind of knowledge in the Republic has become a prerogative of philosophers who seek to turn their mind upwards in order to see the universal transcendent essences. A philosopher is not interested in a multiplicity of individual objects but in their unified essences or the sources of their existence. For Suhrawardi, this upward-turn or the sight of the sun in Plato's theory of cognition is illumination (al-ishraq) and the source of true knowledge. It is a cognitive tool for knowing the essence and not Being because essence is real.
We can see that there is not only the convergence of views between Platonism and Illuminationism but in my opinion the latter also has a parasitical relation with the former. Further influence of Platonism on Illuminationaism can be found when we deal with Plato's analogy of the Idea of Good with Light. Among all essences the essence of the Good is thought to be the highest and the source of all other essences. This notion of the Good is also compared to the sun or the 'Light', shining upon all other essences and making them visible and intelligible.[26]
The essence of the Good is in somedegree the foundation of all other essences. It is the Essence of all essences, and the existence and intelligibility of all essences are thinkable only in their relation to the essence of the Good. For Suhrawardi the world is also made up of contingent lights, which depend for their existence on the ultimate light or the Light of lights (nur al-anwar). The Light of the lights plays the role of the Essence of the Good or a Necessary Being on which the existence of all contingent lights depend. Coming back to Heidegger's description of the history of metaphysics we realise that he, like Mulla Sadra, argues against same philosophical tradition. Nihilism or the darkness of illusion is a default of Being and of its truth. It is human inability to understand the meaning of Being and consists in not taking the question of Being as a primordial philosophical question. The possibility of overcoming this type of metaphysics is central to Mulla Sadra's and Heidegger's philosophies. Both of these thinkers have gone to great pain to denounce nihilism in which essence triumphs over Being, and the truth of Being is obliterated by the darkness of illusion.
[1]. Suhrawardi, The Philosophy of Illumination, translated by John Walbridge and Hossein Ziai, Porov, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1999, p. 45.
[2]. Ibid.
[3]. Mulla Sadra. Al-Masa'ir, translated by Parviz Morewedge, New York: SSIP, 1992. P. 260
[4]. Mulla Sadra. Al-Masa'ir, translated by Parviz Morewedge, New York: SSIP, 1992, p. 43.
[5]. Martin Heidegger. An Introduction to Metaphysics, translated by Ralf Manheim, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987. P. 203. See also: Contributions to Philosophy (Enowning), translated by Perviz Emad and Kenneth Maly, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999. Pp. 96-8.
[6]. Ibid.
[7]. Heidegger, Martin. Nihilism, Vol. 5, (ed.) David Farrell Krell, it is also published in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, translated by Walter Kaufmann, New York: The Modern Library, 200. P. 849].
[8]. Mulla Sadra. Al-Mahsa'ir, p. 3.
[9]. Sadr al-Din Shirazi. Al-Asfar al-Arba'ah, Vol.1, Muhammad Husayn Tabatabi (ed.), Da'irat al-Ma'arif al-Islamiyah, Qum, 1958, p. 25.
[10]. Mulla Sadra. Al-Masha'ir, p. 7.
[11]. Ibid., p. 9, also see. Al-Asfar al-Arba'ah, Vol.1, p. 315.
[12]. Ibid., p. 28.
[13]. Ibid., p. 33.
[14]. Ibid., p. 28.
[15]. Ibid., p. 40.
[16]. Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. Blackwell, 1992. P. 25.
[17]. Ibid, p. 2.
[18]. Ibid, pp.22-23.
[19]. Ibid, p. 31.
[20]. Suhrawardi. Hikmat al-Ishraq, translated by John Walbridge & Hossein Ziai, Utahi: Brigham Young University Press, 1999. P. 2.
[21]. Nasr. S. H. Three Muslim Sages, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964. P. 62.
[22]. Suhrawardi. Op. cit., p. 110.
[23]. Ibid.
[24]. Plato. Symposium, 210 e 1-212 a 7
[25]. Plato. Republic,, 475 e-480 a
[26]. Ibid., 509 b 6-10

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