Before introducing Mulla Sadra’s school, it is
necessary to take a glance at the historical background of Islamic
philosophy in Iran, and that of other schools of philosophy all over the world.
Nowadays, it is a proven fact for researchers that,
contrary to what was believed before, philosophy did not originate in Greece but in the
East, particularly, in Iran, and later it went to
different regions of Asia Minor and Mediterranean, Greece, Ionia, Syria, and
Lebanon. The school of philosophy developed before Aristotle was called
Illuminationist philosophy, which is sometimes called Pythagorean, Platonic,
and, perhaps, gnostic and Orpheistic philosophy, as well.
For a number of reasons, Aristotle did not agree with the
foundations of this school and, as a result, Peripatetic philosophy was
developed alongside it. Although his school (Peripatetic
philosophy) was forgotten, it was not completely destroyed after his death. The books written by
philosophers following this school and their students, as well as those of Plotinus and his disciples, were passed from hand to hand in the academic centers of
the Middle East till Muslims, persuaded by one of the Abbasid caliphs (7th
century A.D), translated them into Arabic.
Farabi (258-339 A.H/ 870-950 A.D), the Iranian
was the first who gave a philosophical system to the scattered translations
of books written on Illuminationist and Peripatetic philosophies and other
fields. That is why he was nicknamed the ‘Second Teacher’. He also wrote a
number of books and commentaries on the philosophical problems of his time.
After Farabi, some other philosophers appeared;
however, none of them was as conversant as Ibn Sina (370-428 A.H/ 980-1037 A.D).
He was a genius, and this aided him in creating a school of philosophy on the
basis of Aristotle’s limited principles at a very young age. Due to its depth of approach, its monotheistic perspective, and the plurality of
the issues and problems it discussed this new school was greatly superior to
that of Aristotle (introduced through translation). It was in the light of Ibn Sina’s
endeavors that the peripatetic Aristotelian philosophy
reached its zenith. At the beginning of his studies, Ibn Sina did not pay
attention to Illuminationist philosophy. In his period, the political atmosphere
of this vast Islamic country was so turbulent.
With the coming of the Abbasid’s to power and
their cruel oppression of Shi‘ites, and, particularly, their torturing and
killing of their leaders, a secret movement was started, called Batiniyyah
(Esotericism). The ideology of this movement was rooted in the Qur’an and the
hadiths narrated by the Holy Prophet and his descendants. The followers of
this movement, in addition to being completely familiar with Peripatetic and Illuminationist philosophies, actually believed in sophism and held ideas
similar to those of Pythagoras and Hermes. They tried to publicize their views
by philosophical and logical reasoning. This group can be considered as
preservers of different periods of philosophy among Muslims. One example of
their propaganda works includes a number of treatises, called Rasai’l
ikhwan al-safa’, which is a simple and concise collection of
issues related to philosophy and other sciences. The title of this work was a
cover term for the party and its leaders.
The government which supported the caliphs in
Iran and Iraq (the Seljuk dynarty, with the ministry of Khwajah Nizam
al-Mulk) confronted this apparently philosophical and gnostic but, in
fact, Shi‘ite and anti-caliphate movement harshly. For instance it founded a number of
schools in the forms of seminaries in Khorasan and Baghdad, called Nizamiyyah,
mainly employing those scholars and theologians who were against Shi‘isim for
opposing esoterics’ propagandas.
The most famous of all such theologians is Abu
Hamid Ghazzali (450-504 A.H / 1111-1059 A.D), who was born in Khorasan
(Neyshabur) and was involved in teaching, training missionaries, and teaching
against Shi‘ism in its famous Nizamiyyah School. Later he went to Baghdad and
founded a school of thought that was in sharp contrast and opposition to
Initially, he wrote a book as a summary of the
principles of Peripatetic philosophy and, later, in another book, he included
the controversies it involved in his own view. This book and his other books
spread quickly all over the lands ruled by the Seljuk governments (from the
present Afghanistan to the Mediterranean). Such endeavors resulted in the
confinement of philosophy to the majority of society (non-Shi‘ite people).
However, heedless to what was going on, Shi‘ite philosophers continued teaching,
writing, and publicizing philosophy and gnosis, and Shi‘ite seminaries were
officially involved in teaching Peripatetic and Illuminationist schools of
philosophy and mysticism and writing the related books.
The other well-known theologian who continued
Ghazzali’s work more profoundly and on the basis of philosophical arguments
Farkhr Razi (543-605 A.H / 1149-1209 A.D). He wrote a commentary on Ibn-Sina’s
famous book, al-Isharat, which was, in fact, on the rejection of the
In that century, two prominent Shi‘ite philosophers
and luminous stars of the sky of philosophy appeared in Iran. The first was Suhrawardi,
Shahab al-Din Yahya (549-587 A.H / 1153-1191 A.D), who revived the ancient
Iranian Illuminationist philosophy and wrote a book on Illuminationism. He
became famous as ‘Shaykh Ishraq’. Some have proved that he was a member of
Batiniyyah movement, and was, in fact, martyred by the Ayyubi government for political reasons (under
cover of being excommunicated by those
jurisprudents who were against Shi‘ism in Syria). However, his school of
philosophy still lives on.
Khwajah Nasir al-Din Tusi was the next philosopher who stepped into the domain of
philosophy shortly after Fakhr-Razi and Suhrawardi. He strongly defended philosophy against the attacks of
and can be considered as the reviver of philosophy after the assaults made by Ghazzali and Razi, as well as the founder of the most complicated form of the
science of theology ever developed. He was also the perfect master of all the sciences of
his time and his works in astronomy and mathematics
are world famous.
The Andalusian Ibn Rushd (the Spanish Muslim
philosopher, 520-595 A.H / 1126-1198 A.D) is the other figure who has become
well-known in the West and among Christians through the translation of Islamic
Arabic books in Andalusia into Latin during the Scholastic Period. One of
his most famous books is on the rejection of Ghazzali’s book, Tahafat
al-falasafah. He chose the title of Tahafat al-tahafat for his own
book, meaning the controversies of Ghazzali’s book.
After Tusi, a great number of Muslim philosophers
and theologians appeared (mainly in Iran); however, none of them succeeded in
attaining Mulla Sadra’s sublime status. Some of Tusi’s students (such as Qutb
al-Din Shirazi) founded a vast center for publicizing the Peripatetic and
Illuminationist schools of philosophy, theology, and gnosis. This center was
called the ‘Shiraz School’. It continued its activities for several years and
produced some well-known philosophers and theologians.
Although Mulla Sadra had left Shiraz in childhood,
he was greatly influenced by this school and, as we will discuss later, his
thoughts were the outcome of a synthesis of all the philosophical theories
taught there, and the fruit of the works of all the philosophers who where
involved in research and study in that school.
Simultaneous with the development of philosophy in
Iran and in the Islamic world, two other major schools of thought were in the
flourishing. The first was mysticism (Islamic gnosis), which was
rooted in the Qur’anic worldview and the Prophet’s tradition. Later it was
intermixed with the Illuminationist philosophy of ancient Iran and Plotinist
philosophy and gnosis, and propagated piety, ascetic practice, and practical
ethics. As a result, it turned into a powerful and independent school against
Peripatetic philosophy and developed several scientific and theoretical
dimensions after Muhyaddin Ibn-Arabi Andalusian (from southern Spain). The lives
of some of the proponents of this school remind the reader of Diogenes,
Pythagoras, Xenophanes, and Plotinus.
The other school was Islamic theology, which was
started by the descendants and people of the Prophet (p.b.u.h) and his
successor, Imam Ali (AS), and consisted of a collection of the interpretations
these two holy leaders had presented in response to people’s inquiries. The most
reputable publicist of this school was a man called Hasan Basari. In his
time, one of his students, called Vasil, separated from him and founded the
school of I‘tizal or Mu‘tazilah. Later, one of Vasil’s students
established another school of thought against Mu‘tazilah which is known
In the years to come, the followers of
Mu’tazilah greatly benefited from those works of Greek philosophers which
had been translated into Arabic and learnt a lot from their ideas. However, it
did not take long before they were suppressed under the pressure of different
governments and the domination of Asha‘rite theology.
From then on, theology continued its existence in
two branches: Shi‘ite theology (current among the Prophet’s descendants
and people), which had a longer history, and Asha‘rite theology, which
was, at times, strongly supported by the Caliphs. Finally, Khwajah Nasir al-Din
Tusi cast theology in the mould of philosophy. Mulla Sadra, too, resorted to its
principles in developing his own school of thought.