Sunday, October 11, 2009

Assessing a recent book on Mulla Sadra by Bonmariage

The history of ideas is punctuated with philosophers who attempted to grapple with questions which were often considered to be perennial. One of the most significant of these was how to reconcile one’s desire for a totalising monistic account of reality with one’s phenomenal experience of pluralism, namely the problem of the One and the many. This question had a venerable tradition in the ancient and medieval trajectories of philosophy and was a major source of intellectual inspiration for philosophers and mystics in Islam. Broadly speaking within Islamic intellectual tradition, pluralism was seen as being championed by the modified peripateticism of Avicenna and monism promoted by the Sufi school of Ibn ʿArabī. A number of thinkers in the later period, especially from around the fifteenth century attempted a reconciliation of monism and pluralism beginning with the Shiraz philosophers Jalāl al-Dīn Dawānī (d. 1502) and Ṣadr al-Dīn Muḥammad al-Dashtakī (d. 1498) and their students. The eminent philosopher who attempted this synthesis as a means towards a new method and meta-philosophical and a ‘transcendent’ conception of philosophical inquiry, which he named ‘al-ḥikma al-mutaʿāliya’ in homage to the Peripatetic Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī (d. 1274) and Akbarian Sufi Dāwūd al-Qayṣarī (d. 1350), was Ṣadr al-Dīn Muḥammad Shīrāzī (d. c. 1635), popularly known as Mullā Ṣadrā.
Bonmariage’s monographic study of this issue in the philosophy of Mullā Ṣadrā is a revised version of her doctoral dissertation at the Catholic University of Louvain, supervised by Yahya Michot and Jules Janssens. The publication comprises in one volume the academic study and a selection of key passages translated from the work of Mullā Ṣadrā. This second part includes thirty-six texts chosen from his two major philosophical works al-Ḥikma al-mutaʿāliya fī-l-asfār al-ʿaqliyya al-arbaʿa (commonly called Asfār), and its epitome al-Shawāhid al-rubūbiyya fī-l-manāhij al-sulūkiyya. These are organised under three headings: on being, on the Necessary Being and the deployment of being from it, and the relationship between the Necessary and the contingent. The translations are good and well-supported by footnotes which refer the reader to relevant passages in other works by Mullā Ṣadrā, to works in the Peripatetic tradition that influence or contrast with the passages (such as works by Avicenna, his student Bahmanyār and al-Ṭūsī), to the Neoplatonic tradition exemplified in the pseudo-Aristotelian/Plotinian Theology of Aristotle, works of the Illuminationist tradition, and to the Sufis school of Ibn ʿArabī. What is clear from these selections, and this is confirmed in the analytical first part of the book, is that Bonmariage attempts to explain Mullā Ṣadrā primarily in terms of the Avicennan tradition. This is not surprising. Avicenna remains the most important figure in Islamic intellectual history and it is constantly with respect to his work that subsequent philosophers comment, object, refine, criticise and condemn. Mullā Ṣadrā’s work is an engagement with the history of Islamic philosophical traditions in which he deals dialogically with the major thinkers of the traditions, especially Avicenna. The extensive nature of the relationship between Avicenna and Mullā Ṣadrā still requires further investigation although a number of scholars (Ibrāhīmī Dīnānī, Saʿīd Raḥīmiyān, Jules Janssens, Yahya Michot among others) have written about it.
Bonmariage’s argument concerns the notion of tashkīk al-wujūd in the philosophy of Mullā Ṣadrā, a notion that she translates as the modulated singularity of being. The translation of ‘modulation’ seems to be drawn from Yahya Bonaud’s Paris dissertation on the philosophy and mysticism of Khomeini. Being for Mullā Ṣadrā is a singular reality (following the Akbarian theory of the oneness of being or waḥdat al-wujūd), but it comprises the Avicennan regard for plurality through undergoing gradation and degrees, in itself also an indication of a Neoplatonic synthesis of the one and the many. That being admits of degrees was a common position in Platonic traditions.
The analytical part comprises three sections: preliminaries on his biography, influences and the nature of ḥikma mutaʿāliya, the fundamental aspects of Sadrian ontology (namely, the three doctrines of the self-evident nature of being, the ontological priority of being over essence, and the modulated and singular nature of being), and the structure of the Real and of reality, the critical examination of the nature of God and his bestowal of being upon all that is other-than-God. The theological implications of such philosophy are clear. Ever since Avicenna, philosophers have sought to incorporate theological questions in their inquiry and claimed that their demonstrative methods of examining questions about the nature of God, for instance, are more effective and conclusive than kalām arguments. Thus the question of being for Mullā Ṣadrā is not extricable from the question of the nature of God and his relationship with the world. Bonmariage’s method of analysis is deeply textual; positions and arguments are well-supported with reference to the works of Mullā Ṣadrā and to those who influenced him. This is refreshing change from some who work on Islamic intellectual history and pronounce on elements of thought with any reference to the relevant texts that may substantiate their claims. The Sadrian conception of philosophy is textured and comprises a tasting of reality, a deep meditation on scripture and the notion of a Prophetic inheritance of wisdom, as well as the Greek heritage of Plato, Aristotle and the Neoplatonists. Pierre Hadot’s insight into the nature of philosophy as care for the self and as a spiritual exercise and commitment to a way of life is extremely useful for understanding Mullā Ṣadrā, and perhaps Bonmariage should have indicated this wider context for explanation. The main analytical chapters require a more substantial introduction to the nature of philosophy and the impacts of influences on Mullā Ṣadrā.
The chapters on Sadrian ontology are careful historical reconstructions of the development of key notions like being, the doctrine of its ontological priority and rehearsal of the main arguments about tashkīk. The ontological priority of being (aṣālat al-wujūd) demonstrates Mullā Ṣadrā’s critique of the Illuminationist tradition and a refutation of Suhrawardī’s argument against existence having reference. It also indicates the shifts in his own understanding from an early period, when under the influence of his teacher Mīr Dāmād (d. 1631) he was an essentialist, to a shift towards a monistic understanding that focuses upon being as ontologically prior. Bonmariage rightly traces the history of the notion of tashkīk to the Neoplatonic commentaries on Aristotle particularly on the Categories and relates the notion to the ancient tertium quid, and to kalām arguments about discourse concerning God and contingents, as well as the idea of modulation of lights in the Illuminationist tradition. However, the Sadrian notion is richer than such a logical concept. The concept for Mullā Ṣadrā entails and reflects an ontological commitment to a particular vision of reality. It is not mere semantics.
The presentation of the Necessary Being includes a discussion of his arguments for the existence of God, including the famous ‘proof of the veracious’ (burhān al-ṣiddīqīn) and engages extensively with the kalām tradition. It also shows how Mullā Ṣadrā draws on the Ibn ʿArabī’s tradition’s formulation of the three modes of being and how being is deployed, disclosed and emanated from the One. A key mode in which the One relates to the many is epistemological. Bonmariage does not remark that the discussion of divine knowledge was central to arguments for God’s existence in the theological tradition of commentaries and super-commentaries on al-Ṭūsī’s famous work Tajrīd al-iʿtiqād and hence it influenced this line of argumentation in Mullā Ṣadrā’s work. The real question with respect to contingents regards in what sense they can be said to exist. Rahman’s position was that monism dominates and the unreality of particular existences means that tashkīk fails to provide an adequate reconciliation of monism and pluralism. The affirmation of human will and the rejection of theological and Avicennan determinism implies that Mullā Ṣadrā’s commitment to the reality of contingents is not merely a conventional genuflection to a synthesis. The Sadrian formulation is paradoxical but multiplicity is confirmed under the rubric of unity. This is better understood through a Neoplatonic paradigm in which the logical and metaphysics of unity and multiplicity are akin to the Sadrian reconciliation. Of course, the final question is whether it works. How does a reader overcome the apparent contradictions in the work? This is where one returns to the cultural question of the conception and role of philosophy which is not a straightforward ratiocinative and discursive exercise but a commitment to cognising reality through reason, inspiration and intuition. It is ultimately rather difficult to both verify and confirm the Sadrian vision. But the creativity of the approach and the strong rejection of rehearsing positions needs to be adhered. Bonmariage has little to say about the legacy of Mullā Ṣadrā. His dominance of the intellectual life of the Shiʿi seminary in Iran is clear. But a more engaged and critical approach to his work and to his ontology is still requires. Tashkīk in this way is not merely a modulated approach to reality as such but is also an equivocation and suspension of a simple binary and discursive hermeneutics of the text.
Bonmariage’s book is a successful historical and analytical exposition of this key ontological position of Mullā Ṣadrā. It deserves to be read and to push people to engage with the later traditions of Islamic philosophy. One feels that it would have been improved by a more careful contextualisation of his thought and a consideration of the wider legacy of Sadrian thought which continues to resonate today.


Anonymous said...

What is the name of the book?

Mulla Sadra said...

I've just put in a link that works

Anonymous said...

Prompt, where I can find it?