A glimpse of Ontology in philosophy of illumination

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1) Changing “Being” to “light”
Suhrawardi has commented on numerous subjects, often making original contributions in each field. As to his predecessors and their influence upon him, he was influenced by Ghazzali and his famous work Mishkat al- anwar that was of such great significance in formulating the ishraqi doctrine. He was also influenced by Hallaj and Bayazid, whom he quoted so often, and who for Suhrawardi were the perfect representations of true philosophers. Finally, there was Ibn Sina, the master of Peripatetics, whom Suhrawardi criticized but nevertheless adhered to certain stands of his philosophical structure such as Ibn Sina’s concept of hierarchy and emanation. Despite his own contributions Suhrawardi accepted the logic of the Peripatetics as a useful means of analysis. Let us elaborate on some of the areas where Suhrawardi’s contributions are more substantial.

A. Ontology
Suhrawardi adhered to the traditional ontology as far the hierarchical structure of reality is concerned. Within the context of levels of being, he sought to offer an exposition of various philosophical and mystical issues. He retained the notion of hierarchies of being but changed the matrix of this Ibn Sinian ontology from one of “being” to one of “light”. It is was precisely this kind of fundamental change that allowed him to offer an exposition of mystical and esoteric doctrines as well as many of the traditional philosophical issues, in particular the relationship between essence and existence. According to Suhrawardi, the nature of light is axiomatic in that all things are known through it Light is made up of an infinite succession of contingent dependent lights and each light is the existential cause of the light below it. The ultimate light, which is the same as the Necessary Being (wajib al- wujud), is for Suhrawardi the light of lights ( nur al- anwar), which he regards as he the ultimate cause of all things.

Although Suhrawardi’s ontological scheme was later criticized by some of successors such as Mulla Sadra and Hajji Mulla Hadi Sabziwari, it nevertheless provides a means by which ontological issues can be analyzed. As S.H. Nasr puts it, for Suhrawardi:

The ontological status of all beings, therefore, depends on the degree in which they approach the supreme light and are themselves illuminated.

2) Self –awareness and Levels of being
For Suhrawardi, just as light has degrees of intensity, so does darkness. Although he classifies light in accordance to the degree that it exists, by necessity his criterion for determining the ontological status of light is whether or not they are conscious of themselves. Therefore, self-awareness becomes a criterion for higher ontological status, which in the ishraqi system means a more intense degree of light.

For Suhrawardi it is ultimately awareness of one’s true nature that elevates a person’s ontological status. To demonstrate this, he employs Zoroastrian symbols of light and darkness to depict the contradictions and the inner strife that exists within man. The key to the existential dilemma resulting from this inner struggle between the ego (nafs), which in the Zoroastrian Weltanschauung is darkness, and man’s divine self, light, is knowledge or awareness of the reality of oneself.

3) Two ways for arriving at Ontology of light
Suhrawardi arrives at his ontology of light in two ways. First, the offers us philosophical arguments to establish the axiomatic nature of light by stating that light is the most apparent of all phenomena since everything else recognized and defined in terms of it. Suhrawardi argues that light is the necessary condition for things to be observed and therefore it is light and not being that should be the constitute element of an ontology.

Suhrawardi tells us that the principality of light and its ontological significance came to him first through ishraqi means. It the Hikmat al- ishraq he says:

The issues and truths therein (Hikmat al- ishraq) first came to me not through rational inquiry, but their attainment was through a different means. Finally, after understanding them, I sought their rational basis in away such that if I ignore them, nothing can make me their validity.

It is therefore imperative that in any discussion concerning Suhrawardi’s ontology one has to realize the visionary nature of this ontology and that ultimately his philosophical analysis is based on his mystical experience.


suhrawardi and illumination school


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