Transcript: 188 - Sajjad Rizvi on Mullā Ṣadrā

Sajjad Rizvi talks to Peter about Mullā Ṣadrā's views on eternity, God's knowledge and the afterlife.
Podcast series

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: Today we're going to be talking about Mulla Sadra and his conception of philosophy. I've already covered him to some extent in the podcast, but perhaps you could just say a bit about who he was.

Sajjad Rizvi: Okay, so Mulla Sadra was a thinker in Safavid Iran who lived roughly between 1571 and 1635. He's arguably the most important philosopher, theologian, exegete of that period. And he wrote extensive works, which in many ways were the culmination of philosophical traditions that had gone before him, but also initiated a new way and approach to philosophy, which then had quite an extensive impact in the time after him.

Peter Adamson: Was he actually perceived as being the main philosopher of his time in his own day?

Sajjad Rizvi: Not necessarily, although within a few years of his death, we do have some contemporaries, later contemporaries, referring back to him - not always in a very complimentary manner, partly because by the later part of the 17th century, the study of philosophy was much more contested than it was in his time.

Peter Adamson: And I guess if people are attacking you that often means you're important.

Sajjad Rizvi: Exactly, yes. And so already in the 1660s, we have a couple of texts which cite him directly, cite passages from his works. So we know those works were circulating in some manner, particularly his major work, which is known as The Four Journeys, and attacking him, yes.

Peter Adamson: One of the interesting things I think about Safavid philosophy is that we see a kind of revival of the use of Greek sources, or at least Greek sources in Arabic translation, which had not been read quite so intensively ever since the intervention of Avicenna quite some centuries earlier, in the 10th and 11th centuries. What sorts of sources from the Greek tradition would Sadra have known? And why do you think that the Safavid thinkers suddenly go back to these Hellenic sources?

Sajjad Rizvi: Well, there are a number of sources that Mulla Sadra cites directly. There's of course the so-called Theology of Aristotle, the paraphrase of parts of Aeneid's 4 to 6 of Plotinus, which was very significant for earlier philosophy in the world of Islam, and then again became important in the Safavid period. And we know this because we have so many copies of manuscripts of the text from that period. We have commentaries on the text from that period. We have arguably two Persian translations of the text in that period, and extensive citations in the works of Mulla Sadra and others. So that's probably the most important work. And this is just a reflection of the fact that this is arguably the most important work from the Greek heritage in Islamic philosophy anyway.

Peter Adamson: Does it actually happen that the Theology of Aristotle edges out Aristotle, so that they would think of the Theology as the most important thing Aristotle wrote? Absolutely.

Sajjad Rizvi: And quite often Mulla Sadra and others who are contemporary to him would, for example, say "Aristotle said," and the quotation actually is from the Theology of Aristotle.

Peter Adamson: They thought it was by Aristotle.

Sajjad Rizvi: Absolutely, yeah. I mean, there were some people before him and also at his time who, well, not necessarily, they didn't necessarily see Aristotle as the author. They recognized that the Theology of Aristotle was a work from the Platonic tradition. So we do have sources before Mulla Sadra, which, for example, say "Plato said," and the quotation comes from the Theology of Aristotle, which is quite interesting. And one of those people, for example, was Suhrawardi in the 12th century who does that. And there's certainly a recognition that Aristotle fits within a Platonic tradition. But yes, it was broadly the case that they thought the Theology of Aristotle was a work of Aristotle's.

Peter Adamson: Okay. So what other sources then are they using besides the theology?

Sajjad Rizvi: From the Greek tradition, there are a number of other minor works, sort of minor Plotinian and Arabica. So you have the sayings of the Greek sage, some of those excerpts, which of course are from Plotinus are given, some of the excerpts from the Book of Pure Good, which is of course paraphrased from Proclus, that's sometimes cited. And of course you have another work, which is the so-called Golden Verses of Pythagoras, primarily through a commentary attributed to Iamblichus or to a Iamblichus. And we know this text was quite important in the period. And if you look at the modern edition of that text, it's primarily based on Safavid manuscripts. These other works are important because it gives you an idea of the sort of taste that Safavid thinkers had in the Greek tradition. This was very much a taste for late Neoplatonism.

Peter Adamson: So it's really almost as if we're back to the third, fourth, fifth century AD here in the 16th, 17th century in Iran.

Sajjad Rizvi: Absolutely. I think it's a very conscious effort at going back to the earliest tradition - going back to understanding what the heritage was, because there's a sense in which what Mulla Sadra and the thinkers in his time were doing is that they are trying to rethink or to see where philosophy culminates, where does the conception of philosophy culminate? And that requires them in a sense to go back to the beginning.

Peter Adamson: Presumably though, they're not only drawing on these Neoplatonic sources that originally came from Greek, they're also drawing on the previous Islamic tradition. And I suppose maybe the most important source for Sadra would be Ibn Arabi. Is that right?

Sajjad Rizvi: Yes, but there are also others. So in terms of a lot of the ideas that Sadra has, which indicate a monist tendency, and a lot of his ideas about the nature of the soul, certainly Ibn Arabi and the school of Ibn Arabi. So the commentators on Ibn Arabi such as Qaisari are very important. And of course, there are the works from the Peripatetic tradition or the Avicennan tradition itself. And there what is quite interesting is that he cites extensively Fakhr al-Din al-Razi through the Eastern discussions. And he cites that text as an example of what the Peripatetic tradition says on all sorts of issues. And we already know from some recent studies of how important Razi was for the conceptualization of philosophy in the later period.

Peter Adamson: Incidentally, I think it's maybe worth sort of emphasizing what you just said implicitly, which is that they call Avicennian philosophy Peripatetic philosophy. So in other words, they think Aristotelian philosophy and Avicennian philosophy are the same thing.

Sajjad Rizvi: Yes, I think that's very clear. And that's very explicit, in fact. So they definitely see Avicenna as modifying and taking forward the Peripatetic project. And then that's expressed through, of course, his own works, such as The Cure, but also the works of his direct disciple, Bahman Yar. And then of course, the work of Razi, the early Razi perhaps.

Peter Adamson: It's quite ironic, isn't it? Because they think Aristotle is Plotinus and then they think Avicenna is Aristotle. Yes. But actually, what's interesting is that Sadra makes a distinction. So there are at least a couple of passages in his major work, The Four Journeys, where he actually says Aristotle is superior to Avicenna, because the Aristotle that he's thinking of is one which is mystically inclined, i.e. Plotinus. And he says that one of the problems with Avicenna is that because he didn't have that sort of mystical taste, he was a lesser thinker than Aristotle.

Sajjad Rizvi: All of this is quite reminiscent in a way of Ghazali, because when Ghazali wrote his famous Incoherence of the Philosophers, he speaks fairly indiscriminately of "the philosophers" and attacks the philosophers, but by that he basically means Avicenna. And one of the things he does is to identify three areas in which the philosophers fell into unbelief. One is the eternity of the world, which they endorse, wrongly. Another is God's knowledge of particulars, which they wrongly deny. And the third is the resurrection of the body, which they again deny. And Sadra, because he in a sense wants to champion philosophy, he's actually got a stake in defending philosophy against these three charges. But I guess his goal would be to show that philosophical arguments can be given to defend the correct view on each case. So the non-eternity of the world, the fact that God does know particulars, and the fact that the body is resurrected. Is that roughly right?

Peter Adamson: I think it is. In fact, it would be fair to say there's a lot of later Islamic philosophy - basically after the 14th, 15th century in particular - is concerned with trying to respond to these theological attacks. And that's partly because what happens to the course of philosophy and theology in the medieval period. To a large extent, a number of philosophical ideas are then incorporated into theology. But that also leads to theology - by which I mean Kalam, the Kalam tradition - actually becomes far more sophisticated, but also more important in the study that you have in the seminaries. So because of that, there is this need for those who are primarily interested in philosophy, by which they were talking about Hikmah and not Falsafa, not Greek inspired philosophy in the early period. They felt the need to respond to these theological accusations and felt that they could make a case for why it was that philosophy was still the supreme science and that philosophy was still the best place to articulate theological arguments.

Sajjad Rizvi: And so do they actually think, 'okay, well, there are two things here.' There's Kalam, which is let's say theology, and there's Hikmah, which is let's say philosophy. And you've actually got a choice about which one to do. So they don't think that Kalam and philosophy are just fused into one single tradition.

Peter Adamson: I think there was a sense in which Kalam and philosophy generally understood is fusing - in so far as the Kalam texts were incorporating philosophical sections, particularly the preliminary sections in the texts, which talked about the nature of existence and knowledge. But there's still a sense in which Kalam, just as Falsafa, is considered to be a lesser type of inquiry, as opposed to Hikmah. And there are reasons related to method. There are reasons related to the scope of the science and so forth, which mean that they want to champion Hikmah over these, and they want to, in a sense, take away from the claims that some of the Kalam thinkers were making for the significance of their particular discipline. So I think that is definitely happening in that period. So it's really about reorienting notions around the hierarchy of the sciences, the classification of the sciences, which is going on in the period. And that ultimately involves, in a way very similar to Avicenna, a complete sort of eclipse of Kalam.

Peter Adamson: Right. Okay. So let's look at some of these challenges that came from Kalam, and in particular from Ghazali, to the philosophical tradition and start with the eternity of the world. What does Sadra say about this issue?

Sajjad Rizvi: Right. So Sadra is writing at a time in which, broadly speaking, most theologians and arguably most philosophers think that there is, in a sense, an impass between two very different positions. One is, of course, that the world is created and it's created in time, and this account is somehow more faithful to the scripture. And that certainly seems to have been Ghazali's position, at least in the Incoherence, perhaps not in some other texts. And the other position, of course, is that the cosmos is a natural and logical progression from an emanation from a super-abundantly good One, which is a source of everything. And that basically means that there cannot be any role for divine volition, divine choice, divine creation, as we would normally understand that. Sadra wants to, in a sense, have it both ways. He wants to have a cosmos which always has been, and which is a product - almost a natural product of the existence of the divine One, but also one in which there's a space for the divine to constantly intervene in the universe, into the cosmos, in the process of continual or 'renewed creation,' as the term goes. And this concept of renewed creation partly goes back to Ibn Arabi, in fact, the term in Arabic is "khalq jadid," which you find in Ibn Arabi. And he does it through this conception that he has that substances, which are the basic, in a sense, building blocks of ontology of the cosmos, are constantly in process of motion. And they're in a constant process of becoming. And at every level of becoming there is a direct connection between them and divine causality. So it's God which facilitates the becoming of each of these substances. So every substance, beginning from the most basic material things, such as rocks, all the way through to the most intelligent humans and beyond, are in this process of a path towards the divine and in the process of becoming perfected. And at each stage of that becoming perfect, it is God who actively is facilitating this.

Peter Adamson: So the thought then would be that you've got this, I guess, endless process, so a process that's been going on forever, but there's no stability or fixity to it because everything's constantly being called back towards God or moving towards God. And so there's a sense in which things aren't eternal, because they're subject to change. And in fact, some kind of radical change, changing in their very being as they move back towards God. But on the other hand, it doesn't matter so much how long this has been happening. So the key thing is not that there was a time at which everything started to exist. The key thing is that everything is going to kind of flux as it moves towards God.

Sajjad Rizvi: Absolutely. It's the whole idea that there is fundamentally a singular reality or singular existence, but also in a dynamic process. And that dynamic process has always been, it has always been in this process of unfolding. Now, of course, one of the reasons why this is quite radical is because if one goes back to Avicenna and of course other thinkers before him, they would think that the idea of motion as substance is a bit odd. And certainly they explicitly deny it. So classically, motion only exists within four of the categories, four of the accidental categories if you go back to our Aristotelian category theory. And this is something that Sadra is denying partly because of the way in which he's conceiving of the totality of existence as unity. So for him fundamentally, the reason why substantial motion is important is because of Sadra's views on the nature of existence. That existence is the primary thing in a sense ontologically. It's what binds everything together. It's what defines the continuity of what is in existence and in reality. So what that basically means then is that for change to happen in a particular category or an accident, it can't really be the case that it can happen on its own because accidents really don't have any existence on their own. Accidents can only exist within substances.

Peter Adamson: And substances themselves are changing all the time.

Sajjad Rizvi: Exactly. So that's why substances themselves have to also change. It's not just the category of quantity or quality that is changing, but it's changing because the very substances. And the classic example, of course, that he uses, which is a very old one, is 'how does the human develop from the embryo to the old man?' And his argument is this is not just about accidental changes at different stages of life, the form in which that human is presented, but rather because the very substance of that human is changing.

Peter Adamson: Okay. Let's move on to the second topic then, which was God's knowledge of particulars. And roughly the problem here was always 'Aristotle thinks that when you know something, it's because you have a grasp of some kind of universal truth. And since God is supposed to know everything, he should also have grasp of universal truth.' But for example, he doesn't have a sensation like a visual faculty, which is what we use to grasp the particulars that fall under those universals. So the suspicion that you find in people like Avicenna is that God only knows universals. And then the puzzle is whether you can also find a way for him to know particulars as well. So could he know Sajjad as well as knowing the universal man? What does Sadra have to say about this?

Sajjad Rizvi: I think there are two ways that Sadra has to deal with it. One is to go back to this whole issue of what we mean by perception and even sense perception. So ultimately, when he's talking about sense perception, he's not talking about the physical senses perceiving or grasping something from an extra-mental object. But rather, he sees the perceptions, including the senses, as directly related to the functions of the rational soul itself. So it's ultimately the rational soul, which is seeing, tasting, feeling, hearing, and so forth. And everything that exists in a sense outside of the human is really different types of preparations for how it is that the soul makes sense of it. So ultimately then, everything in terms of perception is somehow happening internal to the soul. But it also means that what that rational soul is then grasping are actually particulars. They're not universals abstracted from extra-mental objects.

Peter Adamson: For instance, if I look at you and I see you right now - listeners, you can't tell, but he is here visually as well - but I look at you and I get an image of you in my eye, my physical eye. But that's not seeing. He would say that what's the seeing is the particular you being present to my rational soul in an act of genuine sight.

Sajjad Rizvi: Yes. And that's, in a sense, that's how perception is working. And of course, the fact that you use presence is quite useful there because that brings me to the second point, which is that knowledge is ultimately always through presence.

Peter Adamson: And this is a theme that's already in Suhravati.

Sajjad Rizvi: Absolutely. And it is the Suhravatian idea of knowledge by presence, which he takes up. And the ultimate exemplar of knowledge by presence is God's knowledge. It's both his self-knowledge and also his knowledge of everything that is other than God. So because of presential knowledge, also God can know everything in its particularity.

Peter Adamson: And not through representations, but by these actual particulars being present to him.

Sajjad Rizvi: Absolutely. Since the representations are normally understood to be universals.

Peter Adamson: Right. So what's the relationship between his grasping them in that way? I mean, if I'm present to God right now by God knowing me, but I'm also an existent, which is in flux and constantly changing by moving towards God, are those somehow the same thing? Or is it like I'm trying to get to the version of myself that God's perceiving all the time? Or how do those two things come together?

Sajjad Rizvi: I think it could partly also be the fact that, in a sense, that's why it's important for God to perceive the particular because that particular is constantly changing. So if it was only to grasp the universal, then you'd have to start asking the question of, well, 'what are the features of that universal, which would somehow be fixed in time?' And that becomes trickier because he wants the content of that universal to be rather empty.

Peter Adamson: So it's as if God is knowing me as something that's coming towards him all the time.

Sajjad Rizvi: Absolutely. And the very fact of the path that that individual may have towards God is also something which is open to God's knowledge. So that's part of the pull feature as opposed to the push. There's effort which is being made from that individual and the path towards God, but then God is also pulling that individual towards him.

Peter Adamson: Like a magnet.

Sajjad Rizvi: Yes. And there's always this kind of interesting dialectic between the push and the pull, between the act of becoming, the act of being prepared to receive more and more.

Peter Adamson: It's just Neoplatonic procession and reversion.

Sajjad Rizvi: Absolutely. And I think I've always actually said that the best way to understand someone like Sadra is precisely in terms of Neoplatonism. And it's so clear from the sources, but it's more and more that the comparison with late Neoplatonism I think is a very fruitful way of understanding it.

Peter Adamson: Speaking of where the soul is going, let's look at the third topic on which Ghazali accused the philosophers of unbelief, which is the resurrection of the body. If I'm being called back towards God all the time, one obvious thought, especially if you were a Neoplatonist actually, is that I improve my situation and get closer to God when I'm freed from the body. Why then would Sadra or anyone influenced by Neoplatonism think that I need to have a body after I die so my soul is released from the body and then later on it gets a body again?

Sajjad Rizvi: Well I think Sadra actually has two accounts. One is precisely the one you mentioned, which is that ultimate perfection lies in a spiritual or immaterial survival of the soul. And that's expressed for example in his famous doctrine where he defines the soul as something which is material in its beginning but spiritual in its survival, its end, where it has in a sense outlived the body. But Sadra is very keen that he also finds a solution to Ghazali's third accusation. And so for him what constitutes the body of the afterlife is a very significant one. He has to deal with this problem of 'how does God resurrect bodies' without just saying 'well that's what it says in the scripture,' which would be an easy solution and in fact that's what Avicenna for example at one point says, that's what the scripture says, "we can believe it but I can't prove it."

Peter Adamson: It's interesting actually isn't it that Sadra would feel the pressure to do this so he actually does think that you have to use philosophy and give philosophical arguments for how these things happen. He's not just willing to say 'well believe it because it's been revealed to us.'

Sajjad Rizvi: Absolutely because that's part of his project as I said of trying to reinsert, in a sense, philosophy as this ultimate science, as this ultimate discipline which then defines everything else and which should act as the primary discipline that you acquire in the seminary. And that's actually one of his most important legacies is the re-centering if you will of philosophy in the curriculum.

Peter Adamson: How then does the soul then get a body back?

Sajjad Rizvi: So it comes back to this definition of how the soul fundamentally is related to the creative agency of the divine for which there are certain scriptural texts cited and he also makes use of Ibn Arabi's ideas about the spiritual endeavor, so to speak, of the soul. So what basically happens is that the soul - at the death of the body of course leaves the body, the body is corrupted, it becomes non-existent - but the soul of course continues to have the faculties that it had in this world. It continues in particular to have the faculty of imagination, and of course we all know going back to Avicenna and perhaps beyond, that the real powerhouse of the soul is the imagination. So it's the imagination which then is capable of producing, it's capable of creating, it's that part of the rational soul which is always in a sense linked into the divine and it's also the one which is capable of making sense of the memory that the soul has. So the soul of course has the memory of the person or the body to which it was attached and it uses that memory of the body to then produce a new body which resembles, which is recognizably the same as for example Sajjad as he was when he was still alive, but recreated in a perfect manner.

Peter Adamson: So you look even more handsome than you do now.

Sajjad Rizvi: Absolutely, yes, astonishingly, radiantly so. But certainly the idea that people in the afterlife - certainly those who've been good - are then placed in a perfect form in paradise, is of course something which is scriptural. And in fact in that section on the afterlife and paradise he actually cites precisely those prophetic sayings and the sayings from the Shia Muslim tradition that people in paradise are eternally youthful and good looking and fit and all the things that you would want over an afterlife, and that's precisely because it's the imaginative faculty of the rational soul which has survived which has then produced this because it's what in effect is acting as the instrument of divine creative agency.

Peter Adamson: Finally, let me ask you something about Sadra's afterlife as it were which is what happened to him after he died, or rather what happened to his works, what was his intellectual legacy in the Safavid period and beyond?

Sajjad Rizvi: I think his legacy is very important, his legacy continues in fact. Today the ideas of Mulla Sadra are probably dominant in the Shia seminary, particularly in Iran, that's still the case. You still have TV programs in Iran on Sadra's philosophy on far more obscure ideas than we've discussed today. But in the immediate aftermath what happened was that there was a legacy in Iran and that took a while to kick in. It really is probably in the later part of the 18th century that people start teaching his texts, writing commentaries and glosses on his works, partly because the philosophical curriculum remained centered upon Avicenna for quite a while. But it's probably the case that already from the early part of the 18th century when people were teaching Avicenna they were doing so through a Sadrian prism, so to speak. In India of course he had a massive impact, and this is primarily through his work, the Commentary on the Guidance, the work of Abhari in the 13th century. And this was adopted as a school text from arguably the end of the 17th, certainly the 18th, early 18th century and it was extensively glossed upon so much so that in India around a hundred odd commentaries were written on Mulla Sadra's commentary from the early 18th century all the way through to the early 20th century. So his work then became the basic core of the philosophical curriculum in India. And it actually was significant in this production of a new curriculum in India which was known as the Dars-i Nizami established in the middle of the 18th century which I guess you might deal with in a later episode. And the significant thing about the Dars-i Nizami was its significant championing of philosophy as the ultimate science of the seminary, and privileging the rational sciences over the scriptural ones.

Peter Adamson: It's interesting isn't it that just as Avicenna had pushed Aristotle out as the main philosopher to whom everyone responds, now we have Sadra, at least in these realms, pushing Avicenna out and becoming the main philosopher.

Sajjad Rizvi: Yes and so far as really in the later period, both in Iran and India, when they really are talking about philosophy or "the philosopher," increasingly the default understanding is Mulla Sadra. 


Add new comment

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