Saturday, May 17, 2014

Mullā Shamsā Gīlānī, a much neglected philosopher of the 17th century

If you’ve ever seen the famous 2002 Iranian TV serial Rowshantar az khāmūshī about Mullā Ṣadrā, you might remember one of his friends ever ready with a joke, very much the life of the party called Shamsā. This is a fictional portrayal of the philosopher-theologian Mullā Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad Gīlānī, student of Mīr Dāmād and close friend of Mullā Ṣadrā. Here in episode 12 he is moping around, lovestruck and chatting with his friends. 

Mullā Shamsā was certainly quite a serious thinker. We know very little about his life beyond the fact that he was a student of Mīr Dāmād, as he attests at many occasions in his works, and a close friend of Mullā Ṣadrā. He studied at the Madrasa-yi Shaykh Luṭfullāh in Isfahan and may have taught there later. He probably also knew Niẓām al-Dīn Aḥmad Gīlānī (the physician about whom I wrote recently because he was also a student of Mīr Dāmād and a direct contemporary). Not much is known about his whereabouts. Perhaps his own well-known student was ʿAlī-qulī b. Qarajghāy Khān (d. 1091/1680) the author of a Persian philosophical summa Iḥyāʾ-yi ḥikmat (edited by Fāṭima Fanāʾ, and published by Mīrās-i maktūb in Tehran in 1998 in two volumes) as well as a Persian gloss on the Neoplatonic classic Theologia Aristotelis (Uthūlūjiyā). He died probably before 1064/1654, a few years after his teacher and his friend. 

He was quite a prolific glossator and writer of treatises. In the former category, he wrote a gloss on Sharḥ al-ishārāt of Ṭūsī, on the gloss of Mīrzā-Jān Shīrāzī on Sharḥ Ḥikmat al-ʿayn (which has recently been published in Qum by Majmaʿ-yi zakhāʾir-i islāmī), on Sharḥ al-hidāya of Maybudī which was rather popular as an Avicennan text in this period (a number of figures in the circle of Mīr Dāmād and his teacher Sammākī wrote on it), a gloss on Khafrī's gloss on the section on proof for the existence of God in Sharḥ al-Tajrīd of Qūshchī (Sāʿatchīān edited and published the Khafrī a decade ago), and a gloss on the Shamsīya circle in logic. In the later, he wrote a number of works in metaphysics from the Avicennan concerns of the period to engaging with the thought of Mullā Ṣadrā: Risālat al-wujūd, al-Ḥikma al-mutaʿāliya, Ithbāt al-wājib, Taḥqīq aḥwāl al-mawjūdāt/maʿnā l-wujūd, as well as studies on the Neoplatonic dictum ex uno non fit nisi unum and the ontological mode of 'nafs al-amr'. 

I first came across his work in two ways: first, the famous anthology of Corbin and Āshtiyānī contains some excerpts of his Ḥudūth al-ʿālam (which I discuss below), and second, in a manuscript of his risāla on wujūd (entitled Taḥqīq maʿnā l-wujūd) in the British Library (from the Delhi Collection - a great but much under-used part of the BL's holdings) in which he criticises Mullā Ṣadrā on both the ontological primacy and gradational nature of existence providing further evidence that his metaphysical innovations took some time to be accepted (I argue in ongoing research on the 18th century that Mullā Ṣadrā began to be established as the hegemonic thinker late in that century). 

Most recently, ʿAlī-Riżā Aṣgharī (who recently produced an excellent critical edition of Muḥsin Fayż Kāshānī's Kalimāt-i maknūna and has taken it upon himself to edit all of Mullā Shamsā's corpus and make this neglected thinker better known) has edited, with Ṭūbā Kirmānī, Masālik al-yaqīn fī bayān ʿumdat uṣūl al-dīn, a theological treatise on the nature of God published by the Mullā Ṣadrā Research Institute in Tehran in 1392 Sh/2013.

Masālik is divided into an introduction and three chapters. It was completed in Jumāda I 1060/May 1650. It is broadly a defence of Mīr Dāmād's metaphysics. In the introduction he states that he sets out to analyse three questions in the chapters: first, that extra-mental existence is identical to the existence of God - what is sometimes called aṣālat al-māhīya, namely that one ascribes existence to contingents but they have no reality - it also reflects a somewhat monistic approach to reality in which all that exists is God; second, that the divine properties and names are identical to the very essence of the divine countering both the Ashʿarī theological position on realist distinction as well as the Muʿtazilī denial of the attributes per se - neither nominalism nor realism; third, affirming the reality of divine knowledge, partly motivated by the need to establish how God knows particulars by arguing that neither the Avicennan theory of representation by which God knows particulars in a universal sense, nor the illuminationist/Ṣadrian position whereby God knows particulars by their presence to him are correct. As the text was written after the Ḥudūth, he refers back to his argument on this issue in that text and his critique of Mullā Ṣadrā. The third chapter takes up most of the space and is quite a sophisticated critique of the Avicennan tradition, citing the metaphysics of the Shifāʾ and Sharḥ al-Ishārāt, and along the way rebutting the famous objection to the necessary existence known as the objection of Ibn Kammūna (in this period - there is some evidence that it was philosophers in Shiraz at the beginning of the Safavid period who associated this critique with the Jewish philosopher). 

The Ḥudūth al-ʿālam was completed in Mashhad in Dhū-l-Qaʿda 1045/April 1636 and is forthcoming in a critical edition by ʿAlī-Riżā Aṣgharī (I am grateful to him for sharing a copy of it with me - and I will reciprocate by writing an English introduction to his edition). It is a text in the tradition of the 'Yemeni philosophy' initiated by Mīr Dāmād. Mullā Shamsā in his text explicitly responds to his friend Mullā Ṣadrā’s positions in his Ḥudūth al-ʿālam, drawing upon his own glosses on Khafrī on the Sharḥ al-tajrīd and defends Mīr Dāmād’s concept of perpetual creation as well as the metaphysics of essence; he criticises Mullā Ṣadrā (baʿḍ al-fuḍalāʾ al-muʿāṣirīn) for holding that all separable beings are incipient in time but at the same time holding that higher intellects have no temporal beginning. He also refers to his son Zayn al-Dīn Muḥammad who seems to have had scholarly credentials. 

We know from Mullā Ṣadrā’s own testimony that he had sent a copy of his work to Mullā Shamsā expecting a response. Mullā Shamsā begins with a set of metaphysical propaedeutics on essentialism and the need to posit a mental mode of existence (al-wujūd al-dhihnī). He then proceeds to discussing causality and the nature of priority and posteriority citing Avicennan texts that Mīr Dāmād also uses: the result is to say that causes precede their effects essentially at the level of nafs al-amr – which he later associated with perpetuity. The next preliminary principle – consistent with Mīr Dāmād concerns the nature and unity of predication and how the higher beings contemplate. Mullā Shamsā seems to pre-empt an objection made later about the nature of perpetuity and the lack of dimensionality. Non-existence at the level of perpetuity is not absolute as such partly for the simple reason that it is not existent or a receptacle for existence. He then moves onto Mīr Dāmād’s decoupling of temporality and motion and refuting the notion of unreal time. The next step involves an extended refutation for the coarse notion of the eternity of the cosmos. The final section tackles Mullā Ṣadrā’s treatise and his position. What emerges from reading this sophisticated text is the clear sense of a learned treatise that expounds upon Mīr Dāmād’s theory in far more accessible, terminologically clear, and comprehensible language.

Mullā Shamsā deserves to be better known - and allows us to nuance our over-reliance and emphasis on Mullā Ṣadrā in the Safavid period. Aṣgharī deserves much credit for bringing him to our attention and I'm more than happy to help. The more texts we have the better we can produce a reliable account of the history of philosophy in the Safavid period, and thus understand the nature of thought on the cusp of colonialism if we wish to know what it was that the European presence in South Asia and the Middle East changed. 

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