Suhrawardi’s life, socio-political conditions and the reasons of his death

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A. Birth place and the first educations
Suhrawardi was born in a village near Zanjan, a northern Iranian city. His full name is Shihab al- Din Yahya ibn Habash ibn Amirak Abu’I –Futuh Suhrawardi, who also received the title “ Shaykh al- ishraq” ( the Master of lllumination) and “al- Maqtul” (the Martyr). The date of his birth is not certain but his most notable biographer, Shahrazuri, indicated that he was born in 545/ 1166 or 550/ 1171 while S.H. Nasr, a notable of Suhrawardi, has stated the date to be 549/1170.

At an early age Suhrawardi went to the city of Maraghah, where he studied hikmat with Majd al- Din Jili, and he then traveled to Isfahan, where he studied philosophy with Zahir al- Din al- Qari and The Observations (al-Basa’ir) of Umar ibn Salan al- Sawi. He journeyed through the Islamic lands to meet the Sufi masters while practicing asceticism and withdrawing for long spiritual retreats. He tells us that he had looked for a companion with spiritual insight equal to his failed to find one.

Having wandered through Anatolia and Syria on one of his journeys from Damascus to Alleppo, he met Malik Zahir, the son of the famous Salan al- Din Ayyubi (Saladin). Yaqut ibn Abdallah al- Hamawi put the date of this journey to Syria at 579/1200. Sharazuri, his contemporary and bibliographer, writes:

Malik liked the Shaykh and he liked him. The ulama of Syria gathered around the Shaykh and heard his words. In discussions he clarified the thoughts of the hukama and their validity and weakened the opinion of the opponents of the hukama.

B. The Students and friends of Suhrawardi
It is not Know whether Suhrawardi did train a number of students or not, but it is known that he had a circle of
close friends and companions on whose request he composed The Philosophy of Illumination (Hikmat al- ishraq). Towards the end of this book, he refers to his companions as “ his brothers” and asks them to preserve the book from the enemies of wisdom. This again alludes to the existence of a certain group of friends or followers who knew him personally.

Perhaps for political reasons Suhrawardi’s friends found it difficult to write his biography. Sharazuri is the only one who speaks of him in a manner that suggests he had met him personally, though this is highly unlikely because neither Suhrawardi nor any other biographer of him makes reference to this point. It is possible that Sharazuri came to know of Suhrawardi through some individual who knew the master personally.

Suhrawardi ‘s keep intelligence, his vast and profound knowledge and finally his openness to other traditions of wisdom as well as his esoteric orientation, brought about hostility and antagonized the doctors of law at Malik Zahir’s court. Yusuf ibn Taqhri birdi in his book al- Nujum al- zahirah fi muluk wa’l –qahirah, describes a meeting between himself and Suhrawadi in which he calls him a “man with vast knowledge and a small mind.”

In comparison to other Muslim philosophers, especially Ibn Sina, he ranked himself as equal and stated: In discursive sciences I am equal, if not superior, but in intellectual intuition (dhawq) I am superior.

C. Suhrawardi’s mysterious death
Having advocated a type of wisdom which was inconsistent with the views of the orthodox jurists, they finally asked Malik Zahir to put Suhrawardi to death for believing in heretical ideas. When he refused they signed a petition and sent it to Saladin, who ordered his son to have him killed. Malik Zahir reluctantly carried out his father’s order and Suhrawadi was killed in the year 587/ 1208. Taqhribirdi indicated that Suhrawardi’s death took place on the Friday of the month of July (Dhu’l- hajjah). According to shahrazuri, there are different accounts of how he died. Sharazuri writes:

….he was throen in jail and eating and drinking was denied to him until he died. Some say he fasted until he joined with his Origin. Some are of the opinion that he was suffocated and yet others believe he was killed by the sword and there are those who say he was dropped from the wall of the fortress and then burned.

Suhrawardi’s death was as mysterious as his life. Except for a number of works, he did not leave much behind to shed light on his life. He shied away from people and only sought the companionship of learned men. His manner of dressing is said to have varied from day to day. One day he would dress in court style and the very next day he would dress modestly.

D. effect of socio-political conditions on Suhrawardi’s life and thought
In order to understand Suhrawardi’s philosophy, the sociopolitical conditions under which he lived must be understood. This is not to say that his philosophy is subject to historicity, but that some of the issues involved in his death as well as certain philosophical trends in his ideas may be further clarified if the circumstances under which his lived are better known. As S.H. Nasr states:

The cause for Suhrawardi’s death cannot be truly discovered until the situation of the region, historically, religiously, philosophically and socially is thoroughly investigated.

Suhrawardi’s lived during a turbulent period when northern Syria was undergoing a major change from being a strong Shi’ite center to a Sunni dominated region. He came to Aleppo at time when this transformation was taking place and when Saladin was seen as the last hope for Muslims as the strong man who could confront the Crusaders. In a situation such as this the more exoteric jurists were not in any mood to allow a young philosopher, perhaps with some Shi’ite tendencies. to “ corrupt” Saladin ‘s son, Malik Zahir, in whose court Suhrawardi’s lived.

In light of the above factors, one can view Suhrawardi’s as a Persian who inherited a rich vulture with Zoroastrian elements in it, a philosopher well versed in Peripatetic philosophy, and a mystic who tried to demonstrate that at the heart of all the divinely revealed traditions of wisdom there is one universal truth. Perhaps his desire to demonstrate such s unity had to do with the apparent hostility of different religions to one another, in particular Christianity and Islam. At a time when Christians and Muslims were engaged in a bloody war, Suhrawardi’ message of unity was perceived to be dangerous and even heretical doctrine.

E. The reasons for Suhrawardi’s death
There are several possible explanations for Suhrawardi’s death which can be formulated as follows:
1. Suhrawardi’s was advocating a form of Persian nationaliosm which is generally considered to be a reaction to be the domination of Arabs over Persia. This view, which is often supported by the presence of Zoroastrian elements in his doctrine, is in my opinion incorrect since it is contrary to the spirit of his philosophy and because Suhrawardi must have understood that the court of Malik Zahir, the center of the Arab would, was not the best plase to advocate Persian nationalism.

2. In his article, “The Source and Nature of Political Authority in Suhrawardi’s Philosophy of Illumination ,” H.Zia’I argues that Suhrawardi’ advocated a political doctrine which considered the “ king philosopher” to be the rightful ruler. This must been offensive to both the Caliph in Baghdad and Salah al- Din Ayyubi. As he states: While Suhrawardi’s categories of Divine philosophers-sages include a wide range of types, the most general being composed of the type called Brethren of Abstraction ikhwan al- tajrid) which includes the perfect philosopher referred to as God’s vicegerent (khalifat Allah) who may be the actual ruler (ra’is) of an era. Such an idea as advocated in the beginning of Hikmat al- ishraq must have been rather alarming to the more orthodox elements in Malik Zahir’s court.

3. It has been argued by some, including Sharazuri, that some of Suhrawardi’s companions called him “ a prophet of God” (Abu’l- Futuh Rasul Allah). If the above is true, then it may have been the likely cause of Suhrawardi’s execution. One can make a case for this by arguing that since Suhrawardi’s believed that he was the unifier of two branches of wisdom, he must have assumed a role for himself which was above and beyond that of a philosopher and mystic. The argument becomes stronger when Suhrawardi’ tell us that wisdom as such began by the Suhrawardi’ then implicitly argued that he was at least at the same rank as Hermes.


suhrawardi and illumination school


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