Mulla Sadra

By Ibrahim Kalin. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2014. x+182 pp. $24.00 (paper). 


This introduction to the life and thought of Muhammad ibn Ibrahim ibn Yahya Qawami al-Shirazi (Sadr al-Din al Shirazi, or Mulla Sadra), is part of the Makers of Islamic Civilization series, conceived by the Oxford Centre for Islamic studies, edited by Farhan Nizami, and published by Oxford University Press. The self-described aim of the series is to provide a set of introductory texts on outstanding figures in the history of Islamic civilization. This volume represents an important contribution to the literature on a neglected period of Islamic philosophy, by a scholar who is emerging as one of the most important contemporary Muslim thinkers. 

Kalin states his own aims in the book in terms of its four main chapters. The first is to give a brief account of Mulla Sadra’s life and influence. The second is to describe the cultural and intellectual context in which his thought developed. The third is to introduce Sadra’s main intellectual contribution: his doctrine of the primacy of existence. The fourth “provides an overview of Sadra’s thought, and assesses the extent to which it succeeded (or not) in arriving at a coherent synthesis” (9). 

Kalin thoroughly accomplishes the first two of these objectives. He does a great job at putting Mulla Sadra in historical context, including the preceding rise of the Safavid dynasty with Shah Ismail’s conversion of the Safawiyya Sufi order from Sunnism to Twelve-Imam Shiism in 1501. Sadra emerges a generation later, as a major intellectual at the beginning of Shia ascendency in Iran. Kalin provides a clear and readable account of the intellectual climate of the time, including the akhbari-usuli controversy and the emergence of a new Shia-oriented Sufism. He shows how the work of Sadra emerged out of a bubbling cauldron of diverse ideas, including the peripatetic philosophy of al-Farabi and Ibn Sina, the ishraqi school of Suhrawardī, the Sufi metaphysics of Ibn Arabi, and the various schools of Shii and Sunni kalam. He is also generous in describing Sadra’s influence on future thinkers. 


Unfortunately, Kalin is not as successful with his fourth objective, of providing a critical assessment of the success of Sadra’s overall project; and the reason for this seems to be that the way he approached the third objective, of introducing the “primacy of existence” doctrine, upon which the success of Sadra’s project turns, was not such as to make a critical assessment possible. That need not necessarily detract from the book, because there is some reason to believe that the doctrine itself is simply not accessible to critical assessment, at least of any sort that can be accomplished in a book. As Kalin puts it:

"For Sadrā, one of the goals of philosophy is to equip us with the proper epistemic tools and cognitive means to ‘see’ the self-evident (badihi) reality of existence.  This, however, cannot be achieved by mental or rational analysis alone because demonstrative and rational analyses give us only a mental picture of existence, not its reality (82)."

But there is some ambiguity on this point, which first appears in Kalin’s account of Sadra’s view of the relation between irfan and burhan. On the one hand, he says that “gnosis is not without cognitive content, and a true sage can explain his vision by using ordinary rational arguments” (47). On the other, he quotes Sadra as saying “the knowledge of what is tasted and the knowledge of spiritual states cannot be captured in the garment of letters and words” (49). The latter position lends itself to Wittgenstein’s famous dictum, “that of which we cannot speak we must pass over in silence”. But the former characterization of Sadra’s position, and the fact that he did have a lot to write on the primacy of existence, wets the appetite for a satisfying burhani treatment of the topic; one that, as Kalin puts it, “ensures that we understand the relation between the concept and reality on the one hand, and between concepts on the other” (46). This would also be one which makes itself, and by extension the entirety of Sadra’s project, accessible to and therefore assessable by rational discursive means.

It would be an explanation of the doctrine of the “primacy of existence” in light of which one can interpret precisely what is meant by puzzling phrases like, “gradation of existence”, “intensity of existence”, “expanding existence”, “flow of existence”, and others. Such terms, it would seem, can only be understood metaphorically, since “gradation”, “intensity”, “expanding”, and “flow”, as normally used, describe sensible, qualitative, or quantitative changes in particular existing things, rather than existence as such. Taken at face value, they would lead the reader to imagine “existence” as a kind of pre-Socratic typology, like water or the boundless, the “gradation” and “flow” of which is being offered as an explanation of phenomenal diversity and change.

This cannot be what Sadra means. But one searches in vain for a clear account of what he does mean which does not involve such terminology. That something is expressed in metaphorical terms does not itself count against its validity, but the measure of success of philosophical discourse is the degree to which such imagery can be cashed in, if not for demonstrative proof, at least demonstrative clarity. To the extent that this cannot be done, and that epistemic recourse must be made to irfan, then, though one has not invalidated one’s claims (for we may grant that there are things that lie outside the grasp of discursive reason), two things follow. One is that the success or failure of philosophical projects that depend on the idea in question cannot be assessed by means of discursive reason. So, for example, if there is no way to understand the reality of existence other than by “tasting” it, then no book, no matter how well researched and written, is going to be able to give the means to clearly understand what the doctrine of the primacy of existence even means, much less to assess whether it actually does solve, as claimed, the problem of the relation of God and the world, the one and the many, or knowledge and reality. 


The second consequence, however, is that we can rationally assess the success of project, inasmuch as it consists in arriving at a coherent synthesis between the findings of qur’an, irfan, and burhan. For if it is impossible, without irfan, to understand what it even means to say (for example) that “existence is the principle reality by which things exist” (81), or that “existence establishes things as real existents but with varying degrees of intensity” (94), then the only rational conclusion is that such a project is doomed to fail. The primacy of existence cannot be proved by discursive methods.  

But as mentioned above, chapter four does not, despite Kalin’s stated aim, contain any critical assessment of the success or otherwise of Sadra’s project. Instead, it draws out the many important metaphysical, cosmological, and epistemological consequences of Sadra’s central ontological thesis, such as the doctrine of substantial motion and the unity of knowledge and existence. But, absent a clear account of the primacy of existence, the account of these doctrines remains obscure and steeped in metaphor. This would have been an appropriate space to examine the question whether the core Sadran proposition is clear and distinct enough to make coherent philosophical sense of the positions he infers from that, or whether the insight he is trying to express is simply beyond the scope of language and discursive thought. 

In pursuit of this the reader may need to refer to Kalin’s more technical works on the subject, along with that of other authors for which he has provided a generous list of references. Along with this, the merits of the book outweigh its shortcomings. The description it provides of this period and region of Islamic intellectual history is rich. The account of the connection between Sadra’s central thesis and his other doctrines, and the difference it makes in his overall thought, is comprehensive and informative. It constitutes an important addition to the exciting new series from our colleagues at the Oxford Centre. 


Edward Moad, Department of Humanities Qatar University