ILLUMINATIONISM or Illuminationist Philosophy (Ar. al-ḥekma/al-falsafa al-ešrāqiya; Pers. falsafa-ye ešrāqi), first introduced in the 12th century as a complete, reconstructed system distinct both from the Peripatetic philosophy (falsafa-ye maššāʾi) of Avicenna (d. 1037) and from theological philosophy (kalām-e falsafi). Most medieval historians as well as specialist historians of philosophy concur that Illuminationist philosophy is a “novel” and a most complete system (al-neẓām al-atamm) constructed by the young Persian philosopher Šehāb-al-Din Yaḥyā b. Amirak Sohravardi (1155-91).

The basic meaning of ešrāq (Illumination) is “rising,” more precisely “rising of the sun” (Lane, Arabic English Lexicon I, pp. 1539-41). The term is used extensively in Arabic and Persian philosophical texts, signifying a special intuitive mode of cognition with no temporal extension (i.e., a-temporal), spatially coordinated “in” (fi) the knowing, self-conscious subject (Ar. al-mawżuʿ al-modrek bi’l-ḏāt; Pers. man-e dānanda/ḵod-āgāh). In other words, it applies to the relation between the “apprehending subject” (al-mawżuʿ al-modrek) and “apprehensible object” (al-modrak). The term ešrāq is also widely used in popular discourse. In its general, non-technical usage in ordinary language, it signifies the “mystical” as well as the range of extraordinary types of knowledge, including personal inspiration (elhām).

The 12th-century forerunners. Illuminationist philosophy is not the sole creation of Sohravardi. Earlier 12th-century, non-Aristotelian texts started a trend that culminated in Sohravardi’s construction of the new system. Firstly, the famous physician and scientist, Abu’l-Bara-kāt Baḡdādi, composed a novel, philosophical, three-part text titled Ketāb al-moʿtabar (The book evidential), which challenges Aristotle (as presented in Islamic Peripatetic texts, mainly in Avicenna’s Šefāʾ) in regard to scientific methodology, but especially in physics. He is one of the first 12th-century philosophers to elaborate on an old tradition, whose roots are to be found in Plato’s idea of sudden inspiration put forth in light imagery in his Seventh Letter (341C, 344B). This was later discussed by Speusippus (see Merlan, p. 64), and was the subject of an entire treatise by St. Augustine (see Allers). The favorite Platonic metaphor of light and vision of the Republic V-VIII is repeated in almost all Illuminationist texts. The notion that primary principles of science are obtained by “evident self-reflection” is stated briefly by Baḡdādi in his “Introduction” (al-Moʿtabar, p. 3); however, Sohravardi is most likely the first philosopher to utilize the Platonic metaphor in logic and epistemology, as well as cosmology. He states that certain types of knowledge are “evident-in-themselves” and are immediately known by the subject. This is one of Illuminationist philosophy’s main non-Aristotelian principles, described by Sohravardi as fundamental to philosophy.

The next 12th-century figure who wrote non-Aristotelian texts was the Persian mathematician and logician, ʿOmar b. Sahlān Sāvaji, who, though unknown in Western studies, was a creative logician, and famous for his works on the foundations of mathematics (see Bayhaqi, Tattema Ṣewān al-ḥekma,p. 137; Hāji Ḵalifa, I, p. 217; Sāvi, in EI). Sāvaji’s extant texts are demonstrative of his creativity in restructuring the traditional nine Books of the Arabic Organon, by defining a two-part logic: “expository propositions” (Ar. al-aqwāl al-šāreḥa, Pers. goft-e rowšan konanda); and “proof theory” (ḥojaj). His innovations served as the model for Sohravardi’s "Rules of Thought” (al-Żawābeṭ al-fekr), which is the Illuminationist restructured logic presented in the text The Philosophy of Illumination, Part One: I.1: sec. 1-7. Many Illuminationist technical innovations in formal logic—such as reduction of terms; formal redefinitions of the Second and Third Figures of Syllogism as simple inferences, or reductions, based on the First Figure; critical re-evaluation of negation in simple and compound propositions—may be regarded as extensions of Sāvaji’s ideas (see Sāvaji, Tabṣera, pp. 3-5; and Ziai, 1990b, chap. 1). The fact that Baḡdādi and Sāvaji are among the three Islamic philosophers Sohravardi does name is indicative that he had studied their work.

Introduction to Sohravardi’s Illuminationism. Sohravardi, the founder of Illuminationist philosophy, was born in 1155 in northeastern Iran in the hamlet Sohravard, and was executed by the express command of Saladin the Ayyubid in 1191 in Aleppo, where his tomb still stands. The most widely known Illuminationist text by Sohravardi is titled Ḥekmat al-ešrāq (The Philosophy of Illumination), which is a testimony to Sohravardi’s novel and innovative approach to philosophical discourse distinguished from Peripatetic philosophy. He aims to refine and augment Avicenna’s Peripatetic system and is careful that the Philosophy of Illumination does not decline to the position of “handmaiden” of theology, as with the works of many thinkers from the late 12th century and 13th century on who followed Ḡazāli’s guidelines to limit philosophy by theological presuppositions, notably Aṯir-al-Din Abhari in his famous and very widely used philosophical primer Hedāyat al-ḥekma. Starting in the 13th century historians, notably Šams-al-Din Šahrazuri, elevate the novel Illuminationist system to the rank of an independent “school” of philosophy, and often praise it as the only creative continuation of philosophical investigation in post-Avicennan periods.

In its technical use within philosophical systems the term illumination (ešrāq) is coupled with the term “vision” (mošāhada), and together they inform of the unified epistemological theory, Knowledge by Presence (ʿelm-e ḥożuri), first constructed and named in the 12th century by Sohravardi. This unified epistemological theory is the crowning achievement of the system, Philosophy of Illumination, where the term “illumination” signifies the most general act of knowing and the term “vision” signifies the act of the subject, in terms of generalized knowledge. The epistemological process of vision-illumination leads to knowledge (dāneš) in the most general sense, and the action “knowing” is expressed by the term dānestan (to know, inclusive of all types), acted by a subject, dānanda, related to an object, dānesta. The unified epistemology is extended over the inclusive range of types of knowing. For example, in vision as external sight (Pers. didan; Ar. ebṣār), the subject (Pers. binanda; Ar., mobṣer) and the object of sight (Pers. dida; Ar. mobṣar), when identified by the one-to-one relational correspondence (the Illuminationist relation between any subject and object, eżāfa-ye ešrāqiya, replacing predication) that triggers Knowledge by Presence, will indicate the function of sight. Extended beyond external sight, and in its generalized form, the Illuminationist unified epistemological theory posits that, when any knowing subject (modrek/dānanda) and any knowable object (modrak/dānesta) form “sameness” by an identity preserving relational correspondence in the generalized domain of knowing (edrāk/dānestan), then, and only then, knowing is actualized, as stated by Sohravardi: “knower, known, and knowing are here one” (i.e., the same: al-modrek wa al-modrak wa al-edrāk hāhonā wāḥed).

Medieval historians, and contemporary scholars, differentiate Peripatetic philosophy and Illuminationist philosophy in terms of ontological, epistemological, and cosmological principles. The philosophical position most widely used to distinguish the two schools, initially by Mollā Ṣadrā (d. 1640) in his Taʿliqāt and later upheld by the contemporary thinker Sayyed Jalāl Āštiāni in his complex text titled Hasti, is the Illuminationist ontological principle “primacy of quiddity” (aṣālat al-māhiya) over that of “primacy of being” (aṣālat al-wojud)—the latter is commonly thought to be the principle Peripatetic ontological view.

Illuminationist philosophy departs from Peripateticism in relation to: terminology; epistemological priority of the intuitive over the purely syllogistic; and use of constructed ontological-based meta-language of light applied to all entities in the whole continuum of reality, where existent things in each segment of the cosmos (Intellect, Soul, Matter, plus an added fourth realm named ʿĀlam al-ḵayāl, translated, mundus imaginalis by Henry Corbin) are said to be lights of various degrees of luminosity and are propagated from the source of being, the Light of Lights. The Light of Lights is one with respect to all possible modes, and all other “lights” are propagated from it according to rapidly increasing sequences such as 2n. The multiple abstract lights (anwār-e mojarrada) of the Illuminationist system form the cosmological theory of multiplicity of intellects (kaṯrat-e ʿoqul), which is another distinguishing feature of the system in relation to the Peripatetic numbered and discrete separate Intellects (ʿoqul-e mofāreq).

Perhaps the most widespread use of Illuminationist Philosophy has been epistemological theory. The impact of Illuminationist Knowledge by Presence (ʿelm-e ḥożuri), which posits a posterior epistemological position to acquired, or representational, knowledge (ʿelm-e ḥoṣuli),has not been confined to specialist, philosophical circles, as has Illuminationist logic, for example. The epistemological priority status given to intuitive knowledge has dominated “speculative mysticism” (ʿerfān-e naẓari) in Iran, and is also widely intimated in Persian poetry.

Sohravardi’s new Illuminationist epistemological theory first critically evaluates the logical “law” of identity (sameness, equality) and how it applies to the relation between the subject, or the apprehending subject (al-mawżuʿ al-modrek) and apprehendable object (al-modrak). The theory is fully formulated first in the metaphysics of the text Paths and Havens: Book Three: On the Science of Metaphysics, which replaces Aristotelian predicative knowledge, thought to be inapplicable to prove validity of the process of obtaining primary principles (Aristotle concurs on this, Posterior Analytics 1.2), with the generalized theory of Knowledge by Presence. Said in logical terms this means that: “x is y”; or “x = y” (logical principle, or law of Identity, i.e., X = X); “sameness,” “unity,” “becoming one,” plus all other predicative propositions, are replaced with a generalized law of identity as relational correspondence between each and every one (koll wāḥed wāḥed) of individuals (āḥād) of two aggregate wholes (al-ejtemāʿ, a novel Illuminationist term), of both the “realm knowing,” and the “realm being,” which are realms “in” (fi) the continuum whole. This relation between subject (thinking, thought), and object (the thing thought) is named al-eżāfa al-ešrāqiya meaning “Illuminationist Relation.” It is a novel idea, and the term is first used by Sohravardi in several places of his text al-Talwiḥāt (Intimations). This original idea is best described as an identity preserving one-to-one correspondence between each and every member of two realms, being and knowing. The lengthy and elaborate process that terminates with the naming of relational correspondence between thinking and being, subject and object, thinker and the thing thought, is one of Illuminationist philosophy’s great achievements. The theory clearly defines the multi-level relation between “thinking subject” (al-mawżuʿ al-modrek, where the verb d-r-k replaces ʿa-q-l) and object, and is generalized. In this way non-predicative Knowledge by Presence is given priority over predicative knowledge, i.e., finally, “x is y” (and x = y) is replaced by {xi}R(q){yj}, which is named a general law of metaphysics, where R is the Illuminationist Relation between each and every knowing subject and knowable object.

Post-12th-century Illuminationist philosophy. Illuminationist philosophy was very popular in the 13th century, specifically after the Mongol conquest that ushered in with it a new political era. Ašʿarite theology was no longer dominant. The lavishly endowed new school at Marāḡa, directed by the Persian scientist-philosopher Naṣir-al-Din Ṭusi, recruited many scholars from all parts of the vast empire inherited by the Mongol warlords. New activity in all domains of science is attested by the large number of fresh texts, commentaries, and interpretations of earlier sciences. Illuminationist philosophy was eagerly sought primarily due to its political doctrine, because of its potential use in formulating the theory of Mongol rule, lending it scientific and proven authority (Ziai, 1992a).

The main 13th-century Illuminationist scholars are: Šams al-Din Moḥammad Šahrazuri, Saʿd b. Manṣur Ebn Kammuna (d. 1284), whose commentary on al-Talwiḥāt has earned the status of a textbook among Illuminationist philosophers in Iran, and Qoṭb-al-Din Širāzi. Also Ismāʿil b. Moḥammad Rizi whose work, titled Ḥayāt al-Nofus and dedicated to the prince Yusof Šāh son of Alb Arsalān Arḡun son of Hezār Asp, Atābak of Lorestān during the years 673-87/1274-88 (Rizi, pp. 12 ff.), may be seen as a Persian Illuminationist text. Though the text is mainly a synthesis of Sohravardi’s four major Arabic texts, the controversial doctrines are left out. Šahrazuri’s Illuminationist Philosophical texts, such as al-Šajara al-elāhiya, the first comprehensive and truly philosophical encyclopedia, and his lengthy Illuminationist commentary, Šarḥ ḥekmat al-ešrāq (Commentary on the Philosophy of IIlumination) are demonstrative of 13th-century creative philosophical thinking (see Ziai, 1990d; and Šahrazuri, 1993).

Other commentaries on Sohravardi’s texts were composed later, the most important of which are the 16th-century works by Jalāl-al-Din Davāni (d. 908/1502), and the extensive 17th-century Persian commentary by Moḥammad Šarif Neẓām-al-Din Heravi. Davani is the author of the celebrated work on ethics titled Aḵlāq-e Jalāli, and he held the position of vizier under the Āqquyünlü rulers of northeastern Iran. His commentary on Sohravardi’s Hayākel al-nur,titled Šawākel al-ḥur fi šarḥ hayākel al-nur,is well known. Ḡiāṯ-al Din Manṣur Daštaki (d. 948/1541), too, has written a commentary on Sohravardi’s Hayākel al-nur,titled Ešrāq hayākel al-nur le-kašfẓolamāt šawākelal-ḡorur. This is not one of the major Illuminationist theoretical works, but it is indicative of Sohravardi’s widespread impact.

Finally there is a possible, though not fully examined, impact of Illuminationist thinking in the West. This is exemplified by the interesting, though seldom mentioned, major paraphrase of important sections of Sohravardi’s text Philosophy of Illumination,done by the famous Nāṣerid vizier Lesān-al-Din Ebn al-Ḵaṭib in his Rawżat al-taʿrif bi’l-ḥobb al-šarif,composed in Granada, Andalusia.



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Idem and John Walbridge, The Philosophy of Illumination, English tr. of Suhrawardi’s Ḥekmat al-Ishrāq, plus a new critical ed. of the Arabic text, with introd., notes, and glossaries of technical terms, 2000.

(Hossein Ziai)

Originally Published: December 15, 2004

Last Updated: March 27, 2012

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