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The Development of Metaphysics in Persia

The Development of Metaphysics in Persia


Part 1 Pre-Islamic Persian Philosophy
Chapter 1-Persian Dualism
Part 2-Greek Dualism
Chapter 2-Neo-Platonic Aristotelians of Persia
Chapter 3 - The Rise and Fall of Rationalism in Islam
Chapter 4 - Controversy Between Idealism and Realism
Chapter 5 - Sufiism
Chapter 6 - Later Persian Thought

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Under the rude Tartar invaders of Persia, who could have no sympathy with independent thought, there could be no progress of ideas. Ṣūfīism, owing to its association with religion, went on systematising old and evolving new ideas. But philosophy proper was distasteful to the Tartar. Even the development of Islamic law suffered a check; since the Hanafite law was the acme of human reason to the Tartar, and further subtleties of legal interpretation were disagreeable to his brain. Old schools of thought lost their solidarity, and many thinkers left their native country to find more favourable conditions elsewhere. In the 16th century we find Persian Aristotelians — Dastur Isfahānī, Hīr Bud, Munīr, and Kāmrān — travelling in India, where the Emperor Akbar was drawing upon Zoroastrianism to form a new faith for himself and his courtiers, who were mostly Persians. No great thinker, however, appeared in Persia until the 17th century, when the acute Mulla Sadra of Shīrāz upheld his philosophical system with all the vigour of his powerful logic. With Mulla Sadra Reality is all things yet is none of them, and true knowledge consists in the identity of the subject and the object. De Gobineau thinks that the philosophy of Sadra is a mere revival of Avicennaism. He, however, ignores the fact that Mulla Sadra's doctrine of the identity of subject and object constitutes the final step which the Persian intellect took towards complete monism. It is moreover the Philosophy of Sadra which is the source of the metaphysics of early Bābism.
But the movement towards Platonism is best illustrated in Mulla Ha-dī of Sabzwdr who flourished in the 18th century, and is believed by his countrymen to be the greatest of modern Persian thinkers. As a specimen of comparatively recent Persian speculation, I may briefly notice here the views of this great thinker, as set forth in his Asrār al-Hikam (published in Persia). A glance at his philosophical teaching reveals three fundamental conceptions which are indissolubly associated with the Post-Islamic Persian thought: —
1. The idea of the Absolute Unity of the Real which is described as "Light".
2. The idea of evolution which is dimly visible in Zoroaster's doctrine of the destiny of the human soul, and receives further expansion and systematisation by Persian Neo-Platonists and Ṣūfī thinkers.
3. The idea of a medium between the Absolute Real and the Not-real.
It is highly interesting to note how the Persian mind gradually got rid of the Emanation theory of Neo-Platonism, and reached a purer notion of Plato's Philosophy. The Arab Muhammadans of Spain, by a similar process of elimination reached, through the same medium (Neo-Platonism) a truer conception of the Philosophy of Aristotle — a fact which illustrates the genius of the two races. Lewes in his Biographical History of Philosophy remarks that the Arabs eagerly took up the study of Aristotle simply because Plato was not presented to them. I am, however, inclined to think that the Arab genius was thoroughly practical; hence Plato's philosophy would have been distasteful to them even if it had been presented in its true light. Of the systems of Greek philosophy Neo-Platonism, I believe, was the only one which was presented in its completeness to the Muslim world; yet patient critical research led the Arab from Plotinus to Aristotle, and the Persian to Plato. This is singularly illustrated in the Philosophy of Mulla Hād', who recognises no Emanations, and approaches the Platonic conception of the Real. He illustrates, moreover, how philosophical speculation in Persia, as in all countries where Physical science either does not exist or is not studied, is finally absorbed by religion. The "Essence", i. e. the metaphysical cause as distinguished from the scientific cause, which means the sum of antecedent conditions, must gradually be transformed into "Personal Will" (cause, in a religious sense) in the absence of any other notion of cause. And this is perhaps the deeper reason why Persian philosophies have always ended in religion.
Let us now turn to Mulla Hādī's system of thought. He teaches that Reason has two aspects: — (a) Theoretical, the object of which is Philosophy and Mathematics. (b) Practical, the object of which is Domestic Economy, Politics, etc. Philosophy proper comprises the knowledge of the beginning of things, the end of things, and the knowledge of the Self. It also includes the knowledge of the law of God — which is identical with religion. In order to understand the origin of things, we should subject to a searching analysis the various phenomena of the Universe. Such an analysis reveals that there are three original principles.[1]
(1).           The Real — Light.
(2).         The Shadow.
(3).         The not-Real -- Darkness.
The Real is absolute, and necessary as distinguished from the "Shadow", which is relative and contingent. In its nature it is absolutely good; and the proposition that it is good, is self-evident.[2] All forms of potential existence, before they are actualised by the Real, are open to both existence or non-existence, and the possibilities of their existence or non-existence are exactly equal. It, therefore, follows that the Real which actualises the potential is not itself non-existence; since non-existence operating on non-existence cannot produce actuality.[3] Mulla Had', in his conception of the Real as the operator, modifies Plato's statical conception of the Universe, and, following Aristotle, looks upon his Real as the immovable source and the object of all motion. "All things in the Universe," he says, "love perfection, and are moving towards their final ends — minerals towards vegetables, vegetables towards animals, and animals towards man. And observe how man passes through all these stages in the mother's womb."[4] The mover as mover is either the source or the object of motion or both. In any case the mover must be either movable or immovable. The proposition that all movers must be themselves movable, leads to infinite regress —which must stop at the immovable mover, the source and the final object of all motion. The Real, moreover, is a pure unity; for if there is a plurality of Reals, one would limit the other. The Real as creator also cannot be conceived as more than one; since a plurality of creators would mean a plurality of worlds which must be circular touching one another, and this again implies vacuum which is impossible.[5] Regarded as an essence, therefore, the Real is one. But it is also many, from a different staindpoint. It is life, power, love; though we cannot say that these qualities in here in it — they are it, and it is them. Unity does not mean oneness, its essence consists in the "dropping of all relations." Unlike the Sufis and other thinkers, Mulla Hādī holds and tries to show that belief in multiplicity is not inconsistent with belief in unity; since the visible "many" is nothing more than a manifestation of the names and attributes of the Real. These attributes are the various forms of "Knowledge" which constitutes the very essence of the Real. To speak, however, of the attributes of the Real is only a verbal convenience; since "defining the Real is applying the category of number to it" — an absurd process which endeavours to bring the unrelated into the sphere of the related. The Universe, with all its variety, is the shadow of the various names and attributes of the Real or the Absolute Light. It is Reality unfolded, the "Be", or the word of Light.[6] Visible multiplicity is the illumination of Darkness, or the actualisation of Nothing. Things are different because we see them, as it were, through glasses of different colours — the Ideas. In this connection Hādī approvingly quotes the poet Jāmī who has given the most beautiful poetic expression to Plato's Doctrine of Ideas in verses which can be thus translated: —
"The ideas are glasses of various colours in which the Sun of Reality reflects itself, and makes itself visible through them according as they are red, yellow or blue."[7]
In his Psychology he mostly follows Avicenna, but his treatment of the subject is more thorough and systematic. He classifies the soul in the following manner: —

The Soul





























1. Preserving the individual.
2. Perfecting the individual.
3. Perpetuating the species.

The Animal soul has three powers:—

1. External senses
2. Internal senses




3. Power of motion which includes.
    (a) Voluntary motion.
    (b) Involuntary motion.

The external senses are taste, touch, smell, hearing and sight. The sound exists outside the ear, and not inside as some thinkers have held. For if it does not exist outside the ear, it is not possible to perceive its direction and distance. Hearing and sight are superior to other senses, and sight is superior to hearing; since: —
I.  The eye can perceive distant things.
II. Its perception is light, which is the best of all attributes.
III. The construction of the eye is more complicated and delicate than that of the ear.
IV.The perceptions of sight are things which actually exist, while those of hearing resemble non-existence.
The internal senses are as follow: —
(1). The Common Sense — the tablet of the mind. It is like the Prime Minister of the mind sending out five spies (external senses) to bring in news from the external world. When we say "this white thing is sweet", we perceive whiteness and sweetness by sight and taste respectively, but that both the attributes exist in the same thing is decided by the Common Sense. The line made by a falling drop, so far as the eye is concerned, is nothing but the drop. But what is the line which we see? To account for such a phenomenon, says Wadi, it is necessary to postulate another sense which perceives the lengthening of the falling drop into a line.
(2). The faculty which preserves the perceptions of the Common Sense — images and not ideas like the memory. The judgment that whiteness and sweetness exist in the same thing is completed by this faculty; since, if it does not preserve the image of the subject, Common Sense cannot perceive the predicate.
(3). The power which perceives individual ideas. The sheep thinks of the enmity of the wolf, and runs away from him. Some forms of life lack this power, e.g. the moth which hurls itself against the candle-flame.
(4).  Memory — the preserver of ideas.
(5). The power of combining images and ideas, e.g. the winged man. When this faculty works under the guidance of the power which perceives individual ideas, it is called Imagination; when it works under the control of Intellect, it is called Conception.
But it is the spirit which distinguishes man from other animals. This essence of humanity is a "unity", not oneness. It perceives the Universal by itself, and the particular through the external and the internal senses. It is the shadow of the Absolute Light, and like it manifests itself in various ways — comprehending multiplicity in its unity. There is no necessary relation between the spirit and the body. The former is non-temporal and non-spatial; hence it is changeless, and has the power of judging the visible multiplicity. In sleep the spirit uses the "ideal body" which functions like the physical body; in waking life it uses the ordinary physical body. It follows, therefore, that the spirit stands in need of neither, and uses both at will. Hādī does not follow Plato in his doctrine of trans-migration, the different forms of which he refutes at length. The spirit to him is immortal, and reaches its original home — Absolute Light — by the gradual perfection of its faculties. The various stages of the development of reason are as follows: —
A. Theoretical or Pure Reason —
1st.          Potential Reason.
2nd.         Perception of self-evident propositions.
3rd  Actual Reason.
4th Perception of Universal concepts.
B. Practical Reason —
1st External Purification.
2nd          Internal Purification.
3rd Formation of virtuous habits.
4th Union with God.
Thus the spirit rises higher and higher in the scale of being, and finally shares in the eternity of the Absolute Light by losing itself in its universality. "In itself non-existent, but existent in the eternal Friend: how wonderful that it is and is not at the same time". But is the spirit free to choose its course? Hādī criticises the Rationalists for their setting up man as an independent creator of evil, and accuses them of what he calls "veiled dualism". He holds that every object has two sides — "bright" side, and "dark" side. Things are combinations of light and darkness. All good flows from the side of light; evil proceeds from darkness. Man, therefore, is both free and determined.
But all the various lines of Persian thought once more find a synthesis in that great religious movement of Modern Persia — Bābism or Bahāism, which began as a Shī'ah sect, with Mirzā 'Alī Muhammad Bāb of Shīrāz (b. 1820), and became less and less Islamic in character with the progress of orthodox persecutions. The origin of the philosophy of this wonderful sect must be sought in the Shī'ah sect of the Shaikhīs, the founder of which, Shaikh Aḥmad, was an enthusiastic student of Mulla Sadrā's Philosophy, on which he had written several commentaries. This sect differed from the ordinary Shī'ahs in holding that belief in an ever present Medium between the absent Imām (the 12th Head of the Church, whose manifestation is anxiously expected by the Shī'ahs), and the church is a fundamental principle of the Shī'ah religion. Shaikh Ahmad claimed to be such a Medium; and when, after the death of the second Shaikh'. Medium — ῌājī Kāzim, the Shaikhīs were anxiously expecting the manifestation of the new Medium, Mirzā ‘Alī Muhammad Bab, who had attended the lectures of ῌājī Kāzim at Karbalā, proclaimed himself the expected Medium, and many Shaikhīs accepted him.
The young Persian seer looks upon Reality as an essence which brooks no distinction of substance and attribute. The first bounty or self-expansion of the Ultimate Essence, he says, is Existence. "Existence" is the "known", the "known" is the essence of "knowledge"; "knowledge" is "will"; and "will" is "love". Thus from Mulla Ṣadrā's identity of the known and the knower, he passes to his conception of the Real as Will and Love. This Primal Love, which he regards as the essence of the Real, is the cause of the manifestation of the Universe which is nothing more than the self-expansion of Love. The word creation, with him, does not mean creation out of nothing; since, as the Shaikhīs maintain, the word creator is not peculiarly applicable to God alone. The Ouranic verse, that "God is the best of creators",[8] implies that there are other self-manifesting beings like God.
After the execution of 'Alī Muhammad Bāb, Bahāullāh, one of his principal disciples who were collectively called "The First Unity", took up the mission, and proclaimed himself the originator of the new dispensation, the absent Imām whose manifestation the Bāb had foretold. He freed the doctrine of his master from its literalistic mysticism, and presented it in a more perfected and systematised form. The Absolute Reality, according to him, is not a person; it is an eternal living Essence, to which we apply the epithets Truth and Love only because these are the highest conceptions known to us. The Living Essence manifests itself through the Univere with the object of creating in itself atoms or centres of consciousness, which as Dr. McTaggart would say, constitute a further determination of the Hegelian Absolute. In each of these undifferentiated, simple centres of consciousness, there is hidden a ray of the Absolute Light itself, and the perfection of the spirit consists in gradually actualising, by contact with the individualising principle — matter, its emotional and intellectual possibilities, and thus discovering its own deep being — the ray of eternal Love which is concealed by its union with consciousness. The essence of man, therefore, is not reason or consciousness; it is this ray of Love — the source of all impulse to noble and unselfish action, which constitutes the real man. The influence of Mulla Ṣadrā's doctrine of the incorporeality of Imagination is here apparent. Reason, which stands higher than Imagination in the scale of evolution, is not a necessary condition, according to Mulla Ṣadrā, of immortality. In all forms of life there is an immortal spiritual part, the ray of Eternal Love, which has no necessary connection with self-consciousness or reason, and survives after the death of the body. Salvation, then, which to Buddha consists in the starving out of the mind-atoms by extinguishing desire, to Bahāullāh lies in the discovery of the essence of love which is hidden in the atoms of consciousness themselves.[9] Both, however, agree that after death thoughts and characters of men remain, subject to other forces of a similar character, in the spiritual world, waiting for another opportunity to find a suitable physical accompaniment in order to continue the process of discovery (Bahāullāh) or destruction (Buddha). To Bahāullāh the conception of Love is higher than the conception of Will. Schopenhauer conceived reality as Will which was driven to objectification by a sinful bent eternally existing in its nature. Love or Will, according to both, is present in every atom of life; but the cause of its being there is the joy of self-expansion in the one case, and the inexplicable evil inclination in the other. But Schopenhauer postulates certain temporal ideas in order to account for the objectification of the Primordial Will; Bahāullāh, as far as I can see, does not explain the principle according to which the self-manifestation of the Eternal Love is realised in the Universe.


[1] Asrār al-ῌikam; p. 6.

[2] Ibid. p. 8.

[3] Asrār al-Hikam; p. 8. 2

[4] Ibid; p. 10.

[5] Asrār al-Hikam; pp. 28, 29.

[6] Asrār al-Hikam; p. 151.

[7] Ibid; p. 6.

[8] Sura 23; v. 14.

[9] See Phelp's 'Abbās Effendi, chapter, "Philosophy and Psychology"

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Chapter 6 - Later Persian Thought

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