174 - Leading Light: Suhrawardī

Posted on

Suhrawardī, founder of the Illuminationist (ishrāqī) tradition, proposes a metaphysics of light on the basis of his theory of knowledge by presence.



Further Reading

• J. Walbridge and H. Ziai (ed. and trans.), Suhrawardī: The Philosophy of Illumination (Provo: 1999).

• H. Amin Beidokhti, Avicenna Illuminated: Suhrawardī’s Critique of Aristotelian Categories and Hylomorphism (Berlin: 2024).

• H. Eichner, “‘Knowledge by Presence’, Apperception in the Mind-Body Relationship: Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī and al-Suhrawardī as Representatives and Precursors of a Thirteenth-Century Discussion,” in P. Adamson (ed.), The Age of Averroes: Arabic Philosophy in the Sixth/Twelfth Century (London: 2011), 117-40.

• J. Kaukua, Suhrawardī’s Illuminationism: A Philosophical Study (Leiden: 2022).

• R. Marcotte, “Suhrawardi al-Maqtul, The Martyr of Aleppo”, Al-Qanṭara, 22 (2001), 395-419.

• J. Walbridge, The Leaven of the Ancients: Suhrawardi and the Heritage of the Greeks (Albany: 2000).

• J. Walbridge, The Wisdom of the Mystic East: Suhrawardi and Platonic Orientalism (Albany: 2001).

•  H. Ziai, Knowledge and Illumination: A Study of Suhrawardi’s Hikmat al-Ishraq (Atlanta: 1990).

Stanford Encyclopedia: Suhrawardi


Shahreem on 5 May 2014

Well, philosophy

Hi, Peter.
I was wondering what you think of Mulla Sadra's Transcendental tradition. His idea that existence is a precursor to essence seems like a seductive offer. However, if we were to apply that same principal to Avicenna's idea of an impossible existent, like the round-sphere you mentioned, wouldn't that imply that the impossible exists? In that case, it would rule out any notion of any impossible existent. This appears to raise many problems in the Avicennean framework. Interestingly, Avicenna's proof of god's existence also comes to my mind. If God's existence determines his essences, as opposed to the reverse, then doesn't the argument that all of God's attributes are necessary become jeopardized?
I might be wrong in my assumption, but I'll let my age of 17 take the blame for that.
And I couldn't be more grateful for the podcasts! You've inspired me to take up philosophy as one of my majors--along with history--when I go to college. Keep up the good work!

In reply to by Shahreem

Peter Adamson on 5 May 2014


Thanks, that's great to hear!

I will actually be devoting (I think) three episodes to Sadra in a couple of months, including one interview. So I will be covering him pretty thoroughly. That's an interesting point you make about his view of the "primacy of existence." But I don't think he would need to admit that it contained impossible objects. As I understand it, the idea is more that existence is a unity, albeit a fluid and always changing one that presents itself in many forms. The impossible would be excluded from that unity. Then we humans come along and impose boundaries or determination on existence, sort of like cutting up something into pieces that is itself a continuous whole - and those boundaries are essences, which are purely mental even though they capture something about existence (e.g. that certain bits of it are remaining in more or less the same state over time, even if they are also changing).

You're also right on the money that this is going to have a lot to do with Avicenna's proof of God - well before Sadra, as we'll be seeing, there is a long series of disagreements about how that proof works and whether we should really imagine that God has both an essence and existence. Sadra belongs to the camp who believe that God has no real essence (pretty obviously, since Sadra thinks that no essences are real, they are mental constructs).

But as I say, more on this in due course!


Raihan Ahmed on 18 May 2014

I would also suggest Seyyed

I would also suggest Seyyed Hossein Nasr's essay on Suhrawardi in his book "Three Muslim Sages", and/or Henry Corbin's chapter on Suhrawardi in his History of Islamic PHilosophy, as short and thorough introductions to Suhrawardi. As Corbin and Nasr present a different perspective from Marcotte, Walbridge, and Ziai, it would be beneficial if the "further reading" section reflected the range of possibilities in presenting and interpreting Suhrawardi's work. Corbin and Nasr's work on Suhrawardi is essential reading in the study of Islamic philosophy.

In reply to by Raihan Ahmed

Ishraq on 19 May 2014

"Corbin and Nasr's work on

"Corbin and Nasr's work on Suhrawardi is essential reading in the study of Islamic philosophy."

You need to motivate this claim. Their works are not essential reading precisely because they're not, properly speaking, studies in Islamic *philosophy*. They seem more like a "mystification" of the man and his works, more or less cut from the same cloth as their whole approach to Avicenna (which as we now know has been thoroughly refuted by Gutas and the like).

In reply to by Ishraq

Sawyer on 19 May 2014


I have a lot of reading to do on this topic, but I have no doubt that all contemporary inquiries into centuries past are on some level ideologically situated. On the subject of Avicenna, with perhaps potential significance for the study of Suhrawardi, the perspective advanced by Aaron Hughes in "The Texture of the Divine: Imagination in Medieval Islamic and Jewish Thought" seems to critically synthesize both perspectives, at the very least rising above the hardly neutral polemic that either side's approach is entirely refutable.

In reply to by Sawyer

Ishraq on 20 May 2014

"[...] the perspective

"[...] the perspective advanced by Aaron Hughes in "The Texture of the Divine: Imagination in Medieval Islamic and Jewish Thought" seems to critically synthesize both perspectives [...]."

Oh really huh. Well, pray tell how he goes about doing that.

In reply to by Ishraq

Peter Adamson on 20 May 2014

Nasr and Corbin

Hi folks - Just to weigh in here briefly, I am of course betraying my own preferences in the bibliography above but I didn't mean to imply that Nasr and Corbin's work is negligible. If nothing else both of these scholars have helped draw attention to otherwise largely neglected figures. I have cited Nasr elsewhere on this website (and will again when I get to Sadra). With Corbin there is of course the additional issue that he wrote in French - I usually cite English secondary literature here on the website - but a number of his books have in fact been translated into English.

Xaratustra on 17 August 2016


Thanks Peter!

Finally reached the episode on Suhrawardi after listening to other 173 great episodes! All these sophisticated philosophers, and me down here (in the cave).

I wish someone could write the “How to become a sage for Dummies” book, I would be the first to buy it. Anyone?

Daniel on 26 January 2021

Perso-Islamic Philosophy instead of "Eastern Tradition"

Dear Prof. Dr. Peter Adamson,


thank you for your sound explanations on Suhrawardi and his thoughts.

I would like to ask, if its wouldn't be better to rename the so called "Eastern Tradition" , Perso-Islamic Philosophy?

The reason being that all thinkers of the Eastern-Tradition like f.e. Farabi, Ghazali, Avicenna, Nasir-Khusraw, Fakhr-ad-Din Razi, Suhrawardi, Mir Damad, Dashtaki, Mulla Sadra etc. were Iranian Ethnics and product what scholars like R.N.Frye call Perso-islamic Culture. Moreover most of these Thinkers would not only write in Arabic but also in Persian language.

It would be bold to ignore Persia's rich pre-islamic intellectual Tradition and think that with the advent of Islam all other pre-islamic schools  of thought  (Mazdakism/Manichaiesm/Mithraism/Zoroastrianism) would just vanish without leaving a deep impact.


Best regards,



In reply to by Daniel

Peter Adamson on 27 January 2021


Right, this is actually a question I get a lot and I think I've answered it here on the site at some point before, but maybe a few years back so it might be hard to find my response! In general I am not very sympathetic to the tendency in some modern scholarship to claim as much as possible of the Islamic philosophical tradition as being distinctively "Persian." For one thing I think this is sometimes misleading, like, was Farabi "Persian" in any sense that a modern day English speaker would understand by this term? The term is rather ambiguous between "connected to ancient Persia," "connected to the Safavids/modern Iran," and "in Persian speaking areas" but of course Persian overlapped with Arabic and other languages in this period. Then most importantly, it is not true that all these thinkers thought o themselves or their intellectual project as importantly Persian in a cultural sense. Like, I don't know of anywhere where Avicenna emphasizes his purported Persian-ness. So just as I avoid emphasizing that certain figures in the tradition were "Arab" (though I speak of "Arabic philosophy" sometimes, i.e. the language) I don't really like the idea of "Persian" or "Perso-Islamic" or whatever; to be honest I think such terminology is usually a reflection of a modern political agenda more than anything historically well-founded. By contrast more precise terms like "Safavid" philosophy could certainly be useful and I do use those in the series.

Daniel on 29 January 2021


Dear Prof. Dr. Adamson,

thank you for expressing you thoughts on that topic. 

I would like to start by introducing the notion of West- and East-Iran, to strength my argument why it makes sense to speak of Perso-Islamic Tradition rather than Eastern Tradition. From around 1000 BC until  11-12 Century Central Asia was predominantly Ethnically and Culturally Iranic. What is today called Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, parts of Kazakhstan was inhabited by Sogdians, Khwarezmians, Saka, Bactrians (all of them East-Iranian Lanuages) and the Parthians (Speaking an West-Iranian language). These people share not only linguistical similarities with Persians/Medes in Westiran, but had also common ideologies rootes in Zoroastrianism, later on also in Manichaeism and Buddhism. Moreover these people would share similar Calendars, Mythology and were for some time even politically unified (Achaemenids/Sassanian-Period).

From the 7th Century with the Islamic Conquest of Central Asia, many Persian-speakers would be involve in the progress of Islamization of Central Asia, wo that Persian Language would become lingua Franca in East-Iran (Central Asia). With the Persian Samanid-Dynasty there occur what scholars call Iranian Intermezzo or Iranian Renaissance, were East-Iranics would adopt Persian language and customs and Persian Literature came to birth with Poets like Rudaki, Ferdousi, Nasir-Khusraw etc. In the case of Farabi it is indeed hard to see any affinity to his Persian cultural background, yet one can identify Sogdian Words in his writings indicating that he was a Persianized Sogdian from Faryab in modern-day Afghanistan. To see in what sense there is continuity between pre-Islamic Persian (more precise Iranic) thought, one needs to start studying middle Persian texts. But there are many aspects in Persian Sufism f.e. that can be traced back to Mazdakism; Suhrawardis notion that God is pure light and that other beings are made of his own essence is also expressed in the Middle-Persian Bundahishn (with the difference that this idea is embedded in a Dualistic setting).Worth mentioning that Suhrawardi’s Symbolism is full of allusions to Zoroastrian Mythology; Razi idea that next God there were 4 eternal principles (time, place, matter and soul) has also similarities to the Bundahishn were God and time, place, tradition are thought to be eternal; Avicenna’s notion that moderately consumption of Wine has positive Effect on health has its precursor in Pahlavi-writings etc.

Quote:” I don't know of anywhere where Avicenna emphasizes his purported Persian-ness. So just as I avoid emphasizing that certain figures in the tradition were "Arab" (though I speak of "Arabic philosophy" sometimes, i.e. the language) I don't really like the idea of "Persian" or "Perso-Islamic" or whatever; to be honest I think such terminology is usually a reflection of a modern political agenda more than anything historically well-founded. “

Avicenna was born in this cultural sphere and is known to write Persian Poems himself. Moreover Avicenna would be the first to use Persian as a language for Philosophical Treatises and can be considered the father of Persian-Language Philosophy. You are right in arguing that Avicenna or Farabi are not expressing their Persian-ness in their works, but do Thales, Plato, Heraclitus, Parmenides express their "Greek-ness" in their writing? Worth mentioning that we speak of Classical Greek Philosophy, yet there was never a political unified entity that we can name as "Greece" nor were the people writing in Greek necessarily Greek-Ethnics or expressing genuine Greek Ideas.

To name this Tradition “Eastern-Tradition” could lead to the idea that one is referring to Indian or Chinese Iran, whereas Perso-Islam is justified on historical-, cultural-,political- account and most likely also in regard of continuation between pre-Islamic Persian school of thought and the Perso-Islamic Tradition- although many work has to be done to work out these continuations.


kind regards

In reply to by Daniel

Peter Adamson on 29 January 2021


Well actually, upon further reflection I guess that I would have no absolute objection to someone trying to tell a story about "Persian philosophy" and trying to define a roughly coherent cultural sphere surrounding Persia/Iran; this could be one way of dividing up the historical/cultural territory and perhaps it would be illuminating. My objections to it are more a reaction to the versions of that project that have been produced so far, which do seem colored by nationalist sentiment and tend to be less nuanced than your note here (also they have tended to be bound up with other problematic tendencies, notably that of reading the whole tradition backward through the lens of Mulla Sadra). But as should be clear from my other comments here on the site and from the series itself, the idea of an "authentically" or "essentially" Greek, Persian, African, or whatever kind of philosophy is diametrically opposed to my approach: I always try to emphasize both the inner complexity of more or less unified traditions and the blurry boundaries between traditions. And I believe strongly that there are more than one valid way to divide up the history of philosophy, which is why I would be relaxed about your idea of a "Persian" philosophy as long as you don't say that it is more legitimate than covering philosophy in the Islamic world more broadly, as I did. But that project would be quite different. (Like, a series on Persian philosophy would obviously not include, say, al-Kindī or Averroes except perhaps as context for the sources and reception of figures like Avicenna.)

By speaking of "Eastern tradition" I of course was referring to the Eastern Islamic world, I think that is pretty clear if you actually listen to the episodes or read the book: it is not an attempt to lump together Safavid thought, say, with Chinese thought, but is just by way of contrast to Andalusia and the Maghreb. Though even here things get blurry given the span of the Ottoman empire.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Daniel on 30 January 2021

Chinese Philosophy

Dear Prof. Dr. Adamson,

i am really looking forward to your Poadcasts about Chinese Philosophy! I hope that you are also going to cover Mohism.:)


Best wishes!

Hossein on 8 February 2021

That Frightening Word: Persian!

I just want to second what Daniel said. I find it pretty odd that just to give one example, Herodotus is comfortably called (ancient) Greek, but when it comes to Farabi, Avicenna, Razi, etc. all of a sudden a different set of standards are applied, and a moralist approach makes a vague fear of "Nationalism" relevant. (I can be wrong but I feel even in the case of Africana philosophy the thinkers are more easily called by their Ethnic/Cultural roots). It seems to me that some sort of implicit bias must be at play here. An unhealthy Orientalism maybe? Plus, I find a sitting-on-the-fence approach to the issue intellectually problematic and potentially very misleading since it tends to promote the status quo.

In reply to by Hossein

Peter Adamson on 8 February 2021

Persian (again)

Right, as I say above I think one could cut up the history of philosophy in such a way that "Persian philosophy" occupies a place. I would just want to add that the "nationalism" issue is not a vague fear. I have in mind specific examples scholarship (which I won't name to avoid being rude but you can probably imagine what I have in mind if you know the field) where everything of value in Islamic philosophy is assimilated to a "Persian" tradition that is being projected back on figures who are not best understood in this way, and it seems pretty obvious that this is an expression of certain political attitudes having to do with the Iranian Revolution of our own era.

Farabi would be an excellent example: he is in my view best understood within the context of the revival of Aristotelianism that happened in 9-10th century Iraq and included Kindi and a lot of Christian philosophers, so we are talking there about Iraqis and Syrians. So that is an example of what I would want to avoid: insisting that because Farabi was from central Asia, he is to be classified as Persian and primarily or exclusively understood through that paradigm. On the other hand it would absolutely make sense to think of, say, the school of Shiraz and Mulla Sadra as distinctively Persian, and the same goes for at least some figures of Muslim India. Whether you can tie any of this to pre-Islamic Persia is another matter; to put it mildly, this would take some work, but a figure like Suhrawardi is helpful because he does claim to be drawing on ancient Persian wisdom and there is surely something to that, though I would caution against just taking his historical reconstructions as factual accounts of his philosophical lineage.

Then crucially, Avicenna is a less clear case, I would say. The prospects for this whole Persian narrative depend a lot on that question because Avicenna is such a dominant figure. To be honest I do still think "post-Avicennan" philosophy is probably a more useful concept for what happens after him in the Islamic East, and in fact even in the Ottoman empire and parts of the Islamic world as far flung as west Africa. But as I've often said there is more than one way to divide the cake, and if someone wanted to write a history of Persian philosophy along the same lines of what we are doing on Africana philosophy, I would be really interested to see how it looked.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Hossein on 8 February 2021


Just to avoid unnecessary back and forth: would you elaborate on this: "... is an expression of certain political attitudes having to do with the Iranian Revolution of our own era."

In reply to by Hossein

Peter Adamson on 8 February 2021

Iranian revolution

Well, like I say I was trying to avoid throwing around accusations at specific scholars but I believe that even before the revolution, around the time of the Arab nationalist movement there was already Iranian scholarship that sought to define a specifically Persian contribution to the history of philosophy (as a kind of counterweight) and then, since the 1970s, we have scholars both inside and outside Iran - some of whom left because of the Revolution - trying to delineate a history of Persian philosophy that fit with the idea of Iranian greatness being perpetuated, reborn, etc. And you can think about how things like Shiite theology and its implications for epistemology and metaphysics has been integrated, or not, into this historiography. Even Khomenei referred to the Ishraqi tradition. This isn't necessarily that bad a thing, incidentally, and certainly not unusual: all historians of philosophy have some axe to grind whether they realize it and admit it, or not. British philosophers have long emphasized the greatness of British philosophy, and being in Germany I can tell you that Kant comes up a lot even when you might not expect him to! I am just saying that it it may be where scholars are coming from when they try to frame most or all of the history of philosophy in the Islamic world as distinctively Persian.

Hossein on 8 February 2021

Thanks for your answer,…

Thanks for your answer, Professor Adamson. Unfortunately, it seems to me as if you got a few dots of information correct but painted a whole picture based on them that is very misleading.

1) I am not quite comfortable with the term 'Arab Nationalism' since nationalism was, I guess, a concept invented to describe and categorize a certain historical phenomenon, mainly, in Europe. It has nowadays quite negative connotations for most Western audiences (more particularly for most progressive Western audiences). I find applying it to non-Western phenomena potentially misleading (just as calling a certain American phenomenon 'White Nationalism' may make a lot of sense while referring to Black activists or some Black activists as 'Black Nationalists' is not only misleading and insulting but also politically incorrect). Just an example of how this term can be misleading: it usually seems to me that many Western thinkers are working with the assumption that Patriotism, or more generally a coherent shared cultural identity of any value or relevance, is a Western prerogative and it cannot exist in other parts of the World, especially in Middle East where all that can possibly grow is Nationalism. (I am obviously relying on deference between Patriotism and Nationalism, which seems to me quite legitimate and, also, is not my own invention.)

2) I get a vibe of homogenizing from your remarks. As if you are assuming that in parts of this world, here roughly Middle East, we have hundreds of millions of people living with attitudes, cultures, worldviews, ideologies that are homogeneous: the apparent differences do not really matter, it's all the same! I find jumping from what you call Arab Nationalism to Iranian Scholarship one sign of this attitude. (Also, I would appreciate it if you can refer me to the actual examples of this scholarship before the 1970s, during the 1970s, and after it.)

3) I find relying on Khomeini's reference to the Ishraqi tradition another example of this attitude. Khomeini was a well-versed teacher of Islamic philosophy (and what is called, at least in Iran, Theoretical Mysticism) and was a follower of Sadra, or so he claimed. As a result, he referred to Sadra even more than Suhrawardi. But, what is the point? Is it that Khomeini was Nationalist and so was the revolution? If so then this is an example of painting a whole (misleading) picture based on one or two dots. Khomeini's remarks on patriotism, let alone nationalism, being backsliding, heresy, blasphemy is well recorded. But it is not only his words since the oppression of what they perceived as Persian culture (as opposed to Shiite culture) under him and his predecessor is also well recorded. Just to give one example: they went so far as considering the destruction of Persepolis, and the Tombs of Cyrus and Ferdowsi, banning Mawlānā (i.e. Rumi), and publicly announcing their plan which was later stopped due to public reaction. Of course, this is one of the most important Western misconceptions about the Iranian Revolution that you can easily find on news networks from CNN to Fox News but it would be particularly shocking if it shapes academic historiography too. Also, paying attention to the fundamental difference between the concepts of Ummah, Country, and Nation is necessary for understanding the ideology of Khomeini and the political system he invented.

4) Let's say we have two possible worlds: In W1 there was an ancient Persian civilization and culture that died for good more than a thousand years ago and it shares almost nothing with the culture, that for example, Avicenna was influenced by and with today's Iran (which was, purely accidentally, called Persia till around 1920). In W2, on the other hand, we can trace back a continuing identity through centuries and see a serious connection between, for example, today's Persian culture, Persian culture around 1000 AD, and ancient Persia and see that Iran was not called Persia till 1920 without a reason.

I hope you agree that the academic historiography of philosophy should be different in W1 and W2. I dare to claim that most historians and scholars of related expertise agree that our actual world is W2. (At the same time I find it very dumb to claim that all that is preserved from this historical phenomenon is completely and solely received by people living inside the borders of today's Iran. So, this is not the claim here. And, so far as I know, this claim is not popular at all.)  If so then the question is: Is this the picture we are getting from the podcasts (and more generally from most recent works on Islamic Philosophy)? I think the answer is no. Hence, to the extent that we are concerned with this particular aspect of philosophy, the podcasts mainly belong to another possible world.

5) You might push back here by saying that this is not the concern of the podcasts. But I do not find this plausible. I think we can very roughly distinguish four different approaches to the History of Philosophy: First, we have great philosophers like Jerry Fodor and Gilbert Harman who think that the history of philosophy is quite irrelevant and expired! Gilbert Harman, for example, thought that we can find all that is relevant in the history of philosophy in the recent literature of Analytic Philosophy. But this, I think is obviously wrong. As Robert Brandom likes to reply: "He says history of philosophy is irrelevant but at the same time he does a lot of history of philosophy himself, he just thinks it starts with Quine!" Second, we have, say, the Rawlsian style in which you only focus on the arguments of philosophers in a vacuum, without paying attention to their cultural background. This approach has proved to be very fruitful but has important limitations. Third, you have a moderate historicist approach (Bernard Williams is probably the best example, and probably Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, John McDowell, etc.) which argues since our Concepts have a direct influence on our final philosophical theories, and are partly shaped by our cultural background we should not read historical figures in the complete abstraction from these backgrounds. (Shame and Necessity is the shining example of this approach.) But this approach still pays more attention to the soundness of arguments. Fourth, a radical historicist approach which puts much more emphasis on cultural forces than arguments. Sometimes it feels as if it is only concerned with what caused certain figures to accept certain views.

I think the approach behind the podcasts is definitely not the first and fourth approach. But it also does not seem to fit into what I called the Rawlsian approach as the podcasts are not solely concerned with the reconstruction of philosophical argument. So, it must fit into the third approach or something sufficiently similar to it. But, to do this type of history of philosophy one needs correct historical assumption yet, as I argued before, it seems that there are important false assumptions at play here that can lead to serious confusions. Cultural backgrounds are regularly mentioned but sometimes with serious omissions. While it is unreasonable to expect the podcasts to go into every detail of the cultural/ethnic background of these philosophers, it sometimes looks that the podcasts avoid even mentioning the cultural and ethnic backgrounds of the figures. I find this problematic and unsuitable for the serious introductory study of historical figures that the podcasts promise (and deliver most of the time).

6) As I hope it is clear by now, my concern is not what the suitable title for philosophy in parts of the Islamic world is. The concern is rather with the unhelpful ideological background assumptions that, in my opinion, will impede the goal of taking a serious step towards having a history of philosophy without important gaps.

7) Further, I do not think that just because certain scholars have shown unreasonable radical tendencies "to claim as much as possible of the Islamic philosophical tradition as being distinctively "Persian"" a good reason for omitting the cultural/ethnic backgrounds of the figures (whether the background is Persian, Jewish, or Turkish, etc.). First, how much influence do those scholars have today? Second, are your main target audiences well aware of these backgrounds in a way that may justify your evasion? Third, I leave it to you to find detailed analogous cases in the fields of, for instance, African-American studies or Latino studies. Is it productive, appropriate, or politically correct to do history of philosophy in these areas without mentioning the cultural/ethnic backgrounds of the figures? If no, what is the relevant difference that makes the same approach fine in the case of Islamic philosophy?

8) On your examples of Kant and British philosophy: I do find the example unhelpful since I do think that Kant is relevant to almost anything in philosophy, and that, in the post-medieval era, British philosophy, and more generally British intellectual products have obvious greatness. But, again, it is one thing to exaggerate the importance of your own cultural/ethnic group, and another thing not to recognize and not to mention the importance of others' cultural/ethnic groups. Especially, especially, when those other groups are underrepresented and misrepresented.

9) I completely agree that " it may be where scholars are coming from when they try to frame most or all of the history of philosophy in the Islamic world as distinctively Persian" and at the same time I believe "it may very well be where scholars are coming from when they try to frame most or all of the history of philosophy in the Islamic world in abstract from cultural/ethnic backgrounds."

In reply to by Hossein

Peter Adamson on 9 February 2021

Yet more on Persian culture

Well, taking my cue from your last point there I should say that this is turning into one of those conversations where someone is arguing with me by saying things I agree with. So perhaps I should clarify my own position. I definitely accept that Persian culture is an important context for understanding big swathes of the history of philosophy, and this should I think have been abundantly clear from the podcast series, especially the last part which delved into the Savafid period, talked about the importance of texts beginning to be written in Persia, cultural tension between Iran and the Ottoman empire, etc. (Here's a crude but telling metric: in the book version, the word "Persian" appears 68 times, and that is not counting cases of "Persia".) What I am resisting is really just the idea that instead of doing a series on philosophy in the Islamic world, I should have set it up differently and done a big series on "Persian philosophy." Which is, as I say, not to deny that someone could do a good book or podcast on Persian philosophy, but it would be a very different project - and if I were doing it over again I would still do it pretty much the way I did it, and not try to carve out Persian philosophy as one distinct story, and then separately cover the rest of philosophy in the Islamic world that is left over. One reason is that a Persian-only approach obscures something really fascinating about the whole topic, namely the way that within the multi-cultural and multi-religious Islamic empire(s) you have different populations and groups jostling up against each other and influencing each other. So for instance you don't want to miss out on the relevance of the Baghdad school of Christian Aristotelians for understanding Fārābī and Avicenna. Another reason is that, for many of the figures I covered in the classical period who were Persian, my approach is simply more illuminating: I would include Avicenna here, as I say, and another good pair of examples would be Abū Bakr al-Rāzī and Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, both of them from the Persian city of Rayy. In both cases there would be something to say about the Persian background of their work (e.g. the earlier Rāzī may have had a Persian teacher and one could speculate about Zoroastrian background for his cosmology) but that is in both cases a side issue: for the earlier Rāzī the main context to be aware of is the translations of Galen and the kalām and Ismāʿīlī authors he is debating with (the latter including another Persian, Abū Ḥātim al-Rāzī), for the later Rāzī it is Ashʿarism, Quranic tafsīr, and the reception of Avicennism in central Asia. There are some figures in the pre-Safavid era where Persian culture is much more important, like Nasir-e Khosraw or Suhrawardi: in both cases I mentioned them and pointed out the importance of their writing in Persian or mentioning Persian sages, etc. But this doesn't mean that the best or only way, or even a particularly illuminating, way to approach philosophy in the Islamic world up to the 14th c CE, say, is by trying to frame it all as "Persian philosophy" as if its ultimate fruition was only ever going to be the synthesis one finds in the Safavid period. So this is what I find dissatisfying in previous attempts to articulate a notion of Persian philosophy: they have tended to read the first 600 years or so of philosophy in the Islamic world through the lens of Mullā Ṣadrā and later Iranian thinkers (and I do suspect that one reason scholars have done this is because of political developments in modern Iran, but that is a side issue: the question is not what motivated such approaches but whether or not they have been misleading). Once we get to Ṣadrā, though, and since then, I think we have a much more clearly defined tradition one could call Persian philosophy, and it does absolutely have roots in the earlier period.

So to sum all that up, I guess what I'm saying is that "Persian philosophy" or perhaps "Iranian philosophy" is something I recognize as a real phenomenon, but it is not what I was trying to cover here; it is only a part of it (indeed, less than half of it). And whether it makes sense to think of a given figure as profoundly representing, or marked by, a distinctively Persian culture is really a case-by-case question, like you could disagree with me about Avicenna but agree with me about Fārābī. Obviously this is different from whether the figures in question were in fact Persians, which is just a simple historical matter and not an issue of interpretation - see my response to your comment below.

Hossein on 8 February 2021

Last remark

It just occurred to me that one can reconstruct your arguments along these not-so-charitable lines too:

1) If certain figures in Islamic philosophy are Persian, then the result will be that Persians were intellectually very productive.

2) But Persians cannot be that productive.


Those figures are not Persian.

I leave it to you and the potential readers of these comments to assess the merits of this argument. I just want to add that I've encountered real-life examples of it.

In reply to by Hossein

Peter Adamson on 9 February 2021

Last remark

Presumably my comment just above shows how far I am from thinking any of this; but just to clarify, there is a big difference between resisting a global narrative of (all worthwhile) philosophy in the Islamic world as "Persian philosophy" and denying that various figures were Persians. Of course the two Rāzī's and Avicenna, for instance, were Persians, and I have probably called them "Persians" in print dozens of times; and pointed out that Persian would have been the mother tongue of various philosophers who wrote in Arabic. If "Persian philosophy" just means "philosophy done by Persians" then fine, but I take it that the claim you have been arguing for was supposed to be richer and more illuminating than that. (Like, it is supposed to be a more powerful interpretive tool than, say, "left-handed philosophy" which is just philosophy done by left-handed people, and all we need to do to decide whether to include a figure in this group is know whether they are left-handed.)

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Hossein on 9 February 2021

Post-final remarks

I think I have contributed a lot to the confusion. I hope it was clear that I was not arguing for "a global narrative of (all worthwhile) philosophy in the Islamic world as "Persian philosophy"". I had several worries in mind but one of them that is more directly connected to your last remark is this: Can we have a valuable and respectable narrative of Persian Philosophy in the stronger sense? Or, is The History of Persian Philosophy possible? Saying no flies in the face of historical facts. But, once you admit this possibility it puts serious constraints on how other narratives of philosophy in the Islamic world should proceed (maybe unless the narrative is what I called Rawlsian in the strict sense: it just cares about the soundness of the arguments). Any narrative which does not pay enough attention to the possibility of "Persian Philosophy" is flawed even if on the face of things, it is just sitting on the fence. In other words, some (or maybe all) ways of sitting on the fence suggest the denial of the possibility of Persian Philosophy.

Furthermore, the constraints that follow from admitting this possibility are sensitive to the actual situation of the world and general background knowledge of the target audience. Therefore, writing an entry on Aristotle in SEP and not mentioning his cultural/ethnic background is compatible with acknowledging the possibility of Greek Philosophy, but writing an entry on Avicenna without mentioning his Persian background is not compatible with acknowledging the possibility of Persian Philosophy. (Suppose X did PhD in one of the top philosophy programs in the US. There is a huge chance that they have never read anything from Islamic tradition. At a certain point in time, they start reading some SEP entries on the figures, then some books or papers from respectable go-to sources. A while after this, I think, X will acquire an implicit bias against the possibility of Persian Philosophy. This is partly because his sources were utterly indifferent (or on the face of it 'neutral') to this possibility and partly because of other background ideological assumptions that are common in the West.)

Also, sorry about the confusion that my last point might have caused. I've never thought that you might actually think about those lines, that's why I said: "not-so-charitable interpretation" (I wish I had used stronger words). But, I felt the need to put that idea out there simply because, as I said, I've seen actual examples of this. There are people, without nearly enough knowledge, whose thinking can be modeled along these lines: "So X was Persian? Y too? Also Z? They claim Persians also had many great poets... And mathematicians too. Get out of here! Those claims can't all be true. Therefore: NATIONALISM!"


In reply to by Hossein

Peter Adamson on 9 February 2021


Right, good point. To be fair I think that Avicenna is nearly always introduced as a "Persian polymath" or whatever but without necessarily reflecting much on what the Persian setting meant for him. I will think about this as it bears on a book project I'm working on later this year, the Very Short Introduction to Ibn Sīnā (you heard it here first!).

Parenthentical last thought, about "nationalism": I was interested by your observation that this term is effectively a pejorative version of "patriotism." I think that isn't quite right because to my ear, a nationalist could (though need not) be someone who wants there to be a nation that doesn't yet exist, whereas "patriotism" is always about an already existing nation/country/people. The word is on my mind because we are looking a lot at African nationalism in the Africana series right now; I guess I don't hear it as being that pejorative, but rather descriptive regarding historical movements (on the other hand "nationalist" in certain contexts as applied to modern day politics does sound like an insult).

And bringing things full circle another thing our conversation here has made me reflect on is the possible parallel between Persian philosophy and African(a) philosophy. I can't help noticing that some of my arguments against Persian philosophy, or at least its more maximal scope, are a lot like objections we got to our way of setting up the Africana series. So I should think more about that as well, and whether my positions on the two questions are compatible. The parallel is one reason I am willing or even eager to concede that there is a possible project about Persian philosophy that I could get behind.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Hossein on 9 February 2021


Thanks a lot for the helpful reply. I'm looking forward to reading Very Short Introduction to Ibn Sīnā.

Jonathan Jonsson on 24 April 2022

Ethnicity in history and the shadow of Orientalism

The conversation between Hossein and Peter here is fascinating and brings out many good points! I can't resist adding my two cents, since issues like these are something I spend a lot of time thinking about. I think that there's a strong case to be made for a division between an Arabic-Islamic and Perso-Islamic cultural sphere in the time roughly between the Umayyads and the rise of the Ottoman Empire. Without any specialised knowledge, I think that the latter imperial Ottoman culture can be seen as a fusion of both, with particularly strong Persian influences on high Ottoman culture, but with its own Turkic elements and plenty of innovations. Please correct me if this is dead wrong. I suppose that with this Arabic/Persian division, the Perso-Islamic sphere would continue to thrive besides the Ottoman while interacting with it in complex ways, extending into the central Asian steppes and Mughal India, while the Arabic-Islamic tradition would then largely continue within an Ottoman imperial context, somewhat like Greek culture within the unified Roman empire. Arabic-Islamic/Perso-Islamic could be seen as analogous to a Latin Western and Greek Eastern division in Hellenistic and Roman times. What these neat divisions have in common is that reality is much more complicated. Marcus Aurelius was an actual Roman emperor and he chose to write philosophy in Greek, because that was the language of philosophy for him. To my knowledge, ibn Sina spent all of his life (please correct me if I'm wrong) in Persian-speaking areas, but for him, Arabic was the language of philosophy. Plenty of Jews in Hellenic times wrote in Greek just like many Jews would write in Arabic in Andalusia. I think that you can read Philo of Alexandria within: 1. The current of Jewish thought, 2. The current of Hellenistic thought, 3. The current of Alexandrian thought, 4. All of these. It depends on how you want to slice up history. I don't think that any of them invalidates the others. Maimonides wrote in Judeo-Arabic and Hebrew, synthesizing ideas from a Judeo-Christian-Islamic cultural milieu. It makes sense to me to place him as Peter does, as part of the broader Islamic World, it also makes sense to read him within the field of Jewish studies. It all depends on which way to slice up history that makes the most sense from the perspective of a researcher, as long as it is intellectually honest and can be reasonably argued for as based in fact.

What I am cautious of, and where I think Peter makes a very good point, is reading 'ethnicity' back into history. The way we use the word today carries with it connotations of ethnically homogenous nation states, which is a recent European innovation that we have sadly aggressively exported through colonialism (and I would argue, neo-colonialism), with disastrous results in certain places. Can we speak of a 'Persian ethnicity' in the 11th century? What would this mean?

My occupation here in Oslo is studying the Arabic language and "Middle Eastern Studies". The "Middle East" is a geographical division constructed from a European colonial perspective and has no solid geographical or conceptual borders. The way we still study it was largely constructed in post-WW2 American academia, where the intellectual landscape stopped looking at the world as a series of empires and instead imposed nation states as the dominant conceptual framework, each nation state with its own culture, national language, economy, political system, etc. Note that these terms, as we use them today, are no more than 100 years old. Before that, here in Europe we did "Orientalism", where each Great Culture (or rather, Race) had their classical language and foundational texts which explained their Essential Features; the Europeans were claimed to be rational and efficient, the Orientals were mystical and passionate, etc. etc. Many scholars thought that by studying the Qur'an and pre-Islamic poetry, you could explain the essential features of Arabs in the 20th century, just like learning Sanskrit revealed some essence of Indian people. I don't think that "Middle Eastern Studies" ever really replaced this. I see this current of thought still lurking under the surface, sometimes exposing itself through people like Huntington. Interestingly, this idea was also adopted by the new ruling elite in the postcolonial nation states. Sadiq al-Azm called this "Orientalism in Reverse". I encountered this first hand when writing my BA thesis on nation construction in Jordan. I read the diary of king Abdullah I of Jordan, who wrote at length about the "Arabic Race" and tried to spin their "essential tribal features" into something positive, something even better than the European essence. Something he could use for nation building. To my knowledge, the Pahlavi dynasty did something similar in Iran, trying to scrub history from the Islamic and multicultural heritage and instead talk about the great Persian civilization, sometimes drawing a straight historical line from Zoroastrian kings to the current Shah as an example of Persian greatness recurring in history. This was used for authoritarian nation-building and forced homogenization, such as combating the Kurdish and Turkic languages (who made up a significant portion of the population at the time of Reza Shah), forcing nomadic tribes to settle down, etc. "Claiming" al-Farabi as "authentically Persian" and putting him on postage stamps could become part of this narrative. I believe that this type of essentialising history should be resisted at any turn. I don't think that this means hiding their Persian origins... but it is a balancing act either way. And it is not limited to what we call the Middle East today. I recall an early podcast here where Peter was accused of "hiding the Greekness" of one of the pre-Socratics, when he referred to him as Ionian. Within the part of the series called "Classical Greek". As if any non-mention of the philosopher's greekness is an insult. To be clear, I am not accusing you of this, Hossein. But I have also met this kind of extreme insistence on "what an ancient philosopher REALLY was" in European contexts, and it usually seems misguided, filled with present-day nationalist presuppositions (for a modern example, one could argue over which country can claim Kafka, and I think the debate is extremely uninteresting).

In my case, what should I replace "Middle Eastern Studies" with if it is a made up concept that essentialises a very diverse part of the earth? When I go to Germany, my field is called "Islamwissenschaft". This makes some sense since it frames this diverse area as having a common reference point in the Islamic heritage, but it also threatens to essentialise religious diversity and give religion more causally explanatory power than may be warranted. After all, I focus on Arabic literature now, and I read plenty of Christians. Should I say that I am studying Arabic? Yes, but I am also interested in contemporary Iranian feminism, and it can't be studied in isolation from what happens in Arabic- and Turkish-speaking countries. Am I doing "Global Studies"? This means well, but it threatens to lose focus if all conceptual divisions disappear in the urge to be post-colonial and to de-essentialise. As scholars, we still need concepts. We need divisions. Otherwise the world just becomes either some form of abstract system theory or a "blooming buzzing confusion", to quote William James (don't worry Peter, I am not German so I will not bring up Kant here). So I work within the imperfect frameworks I have, and do either Middle Eastern Studies or Islamwissenschaft depending on where I am. I just try very, very hard to not do Orientalism.

I don't think that this podcast's division between Andalusia and the East is perfect, but no division is. I seem to hear in a lot of the podcast Peter talking about the Persian origin of philosophers, I don't think this is hiding anything. If the focus is "Islamic philosophy", then it makes sense to speak about a formative period in the centre, then western and eastern traditions. I think that if this podcast had more content on pre-Islamic Persian philosophy and could link this up with Islamic Persian philosophy, the term "Persian philosophy" would make sense. This would be cool actually. I hope that there is space to do pre-Islamic Persian philosophy one day!

As I understand it, and please correct me if I am wrong here, in the so-called Islamic Golden Age, there were two areas of linguistic influence very imperfectly delineated somewhere around the modern day border between Iraq and Iran (I don't think that it's a coincidence that in Baghdad, where the spheres would meet, so many ideas were exchanged). To the west, people spoke lots of languages like Syriac, Coptic, Berber, etc. under Arabic hegemony, and the population would over time gravitate towards assuming Arabic as both their everyday and intellectual language. In the east, the same was true for New Persian. It would extend into Central Asia and towards India, having a significant influence on Urdu, for example, and when Mongol and Turkic tribes settled in the areas, they would come to adopt Persian over time. I believe, and I may be wrong here, that Persian was the language of belles-lettres, poetry and court language, etc. while Arabic was the language of science and philosophy. Is this analogous to how the same person could write Roman law in Latin, but philosophy in Greek?

What I want to get at is the multilingualism of this time. What does this mean for ethnicity? If you could have a Turkic or Kurdish origin, speak Persian  and write in Arabic, what "were" you? If a Caucasian boy could be sold as a slave, learn Ottoman, Persian and Arabic and become a general in Egypt, what would the "ethnicity" be? What was Saladin? Kurdish or Arabic? (I have even heard claims that he was "really" Armenian, because of where he was born). I believe that the question is flawed. It becomes like the fights over who invented hummus. It misses the point that the people at the time did not divide the world in the way we do now.

So if anyone has read this far (I am so sorry), I actually have no idea about the above. I am genuinely asking questions. Do we know if ibn Sina spoke of himself as Persian? Do we know if ethnicity even played a role for someone like Saladin, was it something they thought of? Would the concept of "umma" trump ethnic or linguistic origin? Were there divisions along class lines, so that Ottoman and Turkish-speaking peasant meant very different things? I am a bit ashamed that I don't even know how to answer these questions. It would be interesting to hear from someone who knows more than me.

Jordan on 29 April 2022


OK, I'm nodding along, rolled my eyes at the existence as being not-nonexistence but yeah okay. But 13:07 I practically HEARD the record scratch. No no no Suhrawardī!!! Nuh uh!!

I'm going to skip all the "in my opinion"s because that can be assumed based on how I'm arguing with a dead guy who was an expert on this.

But no!!! The way we understand ourselves as people, distinct from the world around us, is by imagining ourselves as a person that we might interact with! We understand our personality traits in relation to other people's. If I like to read books while all my peers watch TV, I will think of myself as a reader. If I don't believe in God but my society has religion as a norm, I'll call myself an atheist. We understand ourselves as unique individuals by creating a border between ourselves and the world around us, defining ourselves by our similarities and differences to what we perceive. I know I'm a human because I've socialized with other creatures that have the same features I do who I was raised to communicate with as equals. I'm not a cat. I see myself in a mirror and recognize that it's moving the same way I am, and that it's a mirrored representation of myself, even though I cannot perceive what it can. (I don't see double or backwards around a mirror.) It's a give and take - I can anticipate how other people will act by projecting my own reactions to what happens to them. But I also interpret my own actions by how people react to me. 

When I'm stream-of-consciousness, experiencing without reflecting on those experiences, I'm not any less of a person. But my personhood, the constructed character of "me" who exists in my mind, isn't there. 

That's the whole reason that self-image is a thing! Why cognitive dissonance happens (I "am" a truthful person but I just told a lie! I have to either change my thoughts so that I somehow didn't tell a lie, or how this doesn't matter in regards to my personality, or change the personality traits that I think "I" have). This is why we talk about our own experiences in the format of stories where we're a character. 

I definitely don't immediately grasp myself (insert joke here). "Myself" as a person in my mind is always going to be lagging at least a little bit behind my actual self, because I'm always changing in at least tiny ways, and I haven't finished integrating current new info about my own actions/tastes/etc into my self-image. 

That's part of childhood development, right? Realizing that the things moving around are YOUR OWN limbs. Realizing that other people don't experience life in exactly the same way you do. Learning boundaries between yourself and other people. Basically, becoming a self-reflecting person.


So much of old philosophy is anchored in physics. I'm sure that if Suhrawardī had an understanding of light particles, he would be changing at least some of his theories, so it's hard to take this stuff at face value. Either you suspend your disbelief (and understand the argument accurately but unable to genuinely consider it plausible) or you don't (and it sounds meritless). I guess the best we can do is try to understand where they're coming from, then take the gist of their arguments and guess at how they would formulate new ones in the current day. 

Like, hm. If light travels at a known speed, then visible things aren't going to be immediately perceived, even if that delay isn't observable to the naked eye. I think this idea is founded on the concept of eyesight perceiving immediately. So we'd have to change the theory to be about something else with no discernible delay between existence and perception. Our brains take time even to process sensation. Maybe the only thing that would make sense for this would be thought - maybe not even conscious thought, which has to be mentally processed, but any kind of thought that the thinker can perceive. Like, from my limited understanding of neuropsych, thought is physically more of a pattern of electricity interacting with physical bits of our brains, so as soon as that pattern exists, it is perceived, since the pattern itself is the perception. I think??? 

But trying to expand that into an understanding of the universe is difficult. You could maybe skew this into interpreting the self as God and center of the universe, but I feel like that would be the opposite of Suhrawardī's broader point. Light obviously exists outside of the Earth (see: stars) but thought is less evidently extraterrestrial. 

On the other hand, the discussion about degrees of purity etc is more easily overlaid onto thought. We can argue pretty easily that some thoughts are more "pure" than others, although whether that's about metaconsciousness or sensation is like, eh, could go either way. Ditto for the interrelation of light making the universe move - pretty easy to see how the interrelation of thought can make a person or, more broadly, humanity work.

I don't know what the single cause would be though. Maybe he would get evolutionary-psychology about it, but again, that might not make sense for Suhrawardī's intentions. I feel like I'm trying to shove a human peg into a God-shaped hole (again, joke here...). I guess I am not totally clear on Suhrawardī's understanding of a literal light God in the first place. There's no obvious reason that God couldn't be a part of this concept. I mean, you could get all mystical about it and say that the planets are like, God's neurons, man, and our phone lines are God's thoughts.

I don't know. Maybe Suhrawardī would go more quantum physics about it, but I don't know much about that stuff.

I hope no one bothered reading this, since I just went nowhere fast.

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.