Mulla Sadrā’s Ontology and Theory of the Real

For any philosophy of reality, one begins with an ontology, or an account of the origin and foundation of reality. In Stephen White’s work on ontology after Heidegger, he points out how post-Heideggerian philosophers select what he calls their “weak ontology” from belief and not from science. These ontologies are weak precisely because it was Heidegger that pushed ontology, at least in the continental tradition, to an anti-foundationalist position. Any ontology is therefore a cognitive-aesthetic construction after Heidegger, lacking as we do a ground such as the Idea, logos, the Subject, etc.

To speak of an ontology of Islam we should recognize that such an ontology is based on a necessity and on a foundation that is rooted in God, and often in a polemical approach to prove God’s existence. With that being said, there is no one ontology that is received from the Qur’an, or even from a particular Islamic philosopher, but there are many ontologies of Islam, or many accounts of the nature of reality in Islam. An ontology is always up for grabs, and always developed out of a present discursive moment, and is often tied to a decision of the philosopher.

With this brief background, we might ask: what is Islam’s most comprehensive account of the nature of reality? I won’t get into the status of philosophy in Islamic studies or even traditional/classical studies today, but suffice it to say that most traditional Sunni approaches to classical knowledge reject major Islamic philosophical texts in their curriculum. The reasons for this refusal of philosophy are vast, but many locate the rejection of philosophy as growing out of al-Ghazali’s turn away from the philosophers. At the end of his seminal text, the Incoherence of the Philosophers he states that everybody who teaches the school of philosophy is an unbeliever (kâfir) and an apostate from Islam, who can be killed.

Speaking generally (very generally) since 9/11, a lot of western scholarship of Islam has avoided what was an otherwise blossoming field of Islamic studies in the late twentieth century, what was known as “perennial philosophy.” This school of thought approached Islamic studies particularly from the Shia tradition, and emphasized the esoteric and the mystical. It was the French philosopher/theologian Henry Corbin, amongst others, whose work on Ibn Arabi in particular, set the stage for a number of investigations into Islamic philosophy through a western lens.

Sadra is arguably the greatest post-Avicennian philosopher.
Sadra is arguably the greatest post-Avicennian philosopher.

Of course I greatly admire Sunni classical approaches to Islamic studies, and I have grown to respect many Shia philosophers, particularly through one of Corbin’s disciples, Christian Jambet. Jambet has done invaluable work on the philosopher Ṣadr ad-Dīn Muḥammad Shīrāzī, also called Mulla Sadrā, a 16th century Iranian Shia philosopher, theologian and the seminal thinker of ontology and metaphysics in Islam.

Sadra’s Doctrine of Reality

In what follows, I want to reference two aspects of Jambet’s text, “The Act of Being: The Philosophy of Revelation in Mulla Sadra,” his doctrine of reality and his idea of the self. In the text, Jambet argues, rightly I think, that Sadra’s philosophy constitutes the finest expression of what Islam has to say about ontology, or being qua being. To situate Sadra’s philosophical project, we can say that he attempts to synthesize Avicenna (metaphysics) and Suhrawardi (interpretation of being in the ontology of lights) into a new conception of reality, what is called “al-wujud” in Arabic, which is an existential term, as well as a verb.

Sadra’s adoption of Neo-Platonism led to an approach of exegesis known as apophatism, or the idea that God cannot be known and is completely other to human understanding. Apophaticism situates “him” (God) beyond the unknowable ipsety (individual selfhood) or the real, and beyond what Sadra calls “the act of being.” His philosophy attempts a synthesis between the Aristotelian conception of being as a being and pure intuition of the act of being (Jambet, 51). The energy of being makes it possible to think God and the existent and this allows us to arrive at the concept of substantial motion.

Sadra’s philosophy brings together two assertions from Aristotle: “God is pure act and energia is the truth of being.” But in order to bring the energetics of being to its furthest consequences, he willingly inscribes it within a theoretical framework that hierarchizes the existent according to Platonic models (Jambet, 26). Thus, the focal point of his text is neo-Platonic, that the real is One; that it is graspable, and that one can grasp the real as One only by a particular grasping of being. The problem of the real becomes intertwined with the problem of being for Sadra.

The mode of the truth of being is said in the inadequation of the prophet to God. In this sense, Islam is the bearer of an immanent ontology:

“Truth is thus not the adequate of the representation to the thing but the inadequation of man as prophet to the language of the divine speaker, the absolute subject supposed to speak – an inadequation experienced in anguish (Muhammad seized with terror after the visitation of the angel), an inadequation struggled against but never vanquished, in the infinite exegesis of the letter” (Jambet, 21).

Being is defined by Sadra as the “intensity of the real proceeding from its source through the hierarchy of worlds” (Jambet, 73), and ontology is therefore not an existential philosophy, but a doctrine of the reality of the real itself. To develop his doctrine, Sadra sought to re-think all of philosophy in order that God may be proven in a self-evident manner so that he does not arrive as a representational proof, and the route to this understanding of God comes through metaphysics, a metaphysics that seeks to identify what constitutes the act of being. The act of being is the divine effusion itself, but it cannot be represented in thought except through the “shadow of darkness that marks the limit of its act of being” (Jambet, 77).

“The site of the beautiful, the good, and the true is not the abstract knowledge of innocuous transcendentals but the immediate grasp of the beauty, truth, and goodness of being in the eternal center of every concrete existent, at the point where its victorious reality shines forth in its proper light” (Jambet, 84).

For Sadra, all philosophy is a type of exegesis. Its object, God, can only be attained by the Real – metaphysics is the science of the existent as existent. It culminates in the highest existent that is necessary by itself: God. If God is existence then the object of our highest knowledge will be the nature of existing rather than the quiddity of things” (47). The separation between the quiddity of being from the act of being is the very basis of his entire philosophy. To establish the act of being as the first existent, i.e. God, Sadra reverses Aristotle’s order of existents.

Sadra’s Conception of the Subject (self)

In addition to his philosophy of ontology, Sadra presupposes a theory of the subject that is comparable to Lacan’s conception of the subject, as the “signifier represents a subject to another signifier” i.e. a subject that emerges out of language. For Sadra, the subject (self) discovers that he is nothing other than an effect of the letter, and that his consistency is only an effect of the letter of the Qur’an.

The mode of exegesis that Sadra supports here is one that “traces the Book (Qur’an) from sensible darkness to intelligible light, and which passes the fidelity of inferior degrees where it tests all constraints of the matter up to the pure immaterial condition.” This approach all presupposes an annihilation of God through textual exegesis in order that the subject become a permanence in God. As Sadra remarks:

“We only contemplate the darkness of the letters of the Qur’an, because we are in the world of darkness… Consequently, sight only sees the colors and the meaning only obtains sensible realities, the imagination only configures imaginable things, the intelligence only knows the intelligible.”

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