Before introducing Mulla Sadra’s school, it is necessary to take a glance at the historical background of Islamic philosophy in Iran, and that of other schools of philosophy all over the world.

Nowadays, it is a proven fact for researchers that, contrary to what was believed before, philosophy did not originate in Greece but in the East, particularly, in Iran, and later it went to different regions of Asia Minor and Mediterranean, Greece, Ionia, Syria, and Lebanon. The school of philosophy developed before Aristotle was called Illuminationist philosophy, which is sometimes called Pythagorean, Platonic, and, perhaps, gnostic and Orpheistic philosophy, as well.

For a number of reasons, Aristotle did not agree with the foundations of this school and, as a result, Peripatetic philosophy was developed alongside it. Although his school (Peripatetic philosophy) was forgotten, it was not completely destroyed after his death. The books written by philosophers following this school and their students, as well as those of Plotinus and his disciples, were passed from hand to hand in the academic centers of the Middle East till Muslims, persuaded by one of the Abbasid caliphs (7th century A.D), translated them into Arabic.

Farabi (258-339 A.H/ 870-950 A.D), the Iranian philosopher,[1] was the first who gave a philosophical system to the scattered translations of books written on Illuminationist and Peripatetic philosophies and other fields. That is why he was nicknamed the ‘Second Teacher’. He also wrote a number of books and commentaries on the philosophical problems of his time.

After Farabi, some other philosophers appeared; however, none of them was as conversant as Ibn Sina (370-428 A.H/ 980-1037 A.D). He was a genius, and this aided him in creating a school of philosophy on the basis of Aristotle’s limited principles at a very young age. Due to its depth of approach, its monotheistic perspective, and the plurality of the issues and problems it discussed this new school was greatly superior to that of Aristotle (introduced through translation). It was in the light of Ibn Sina’s endeavors that the peripatetic Aristotelian philosophy[2] reached its zenith. At the beginning of his studies, Ibn Sina did not pay attention to Illuminationist philosophy. In his period, the political atmosphere of this vast Islamic country was so turbulent.

With the coming of the Abbasid’s to power and their cruel oppression of Shi‘ites, and, particularly, their torturing and killing of their leaders, a secret movement was started, called Batiniyyah (Esotericism). The ideology of this movement was rooted in the Qur’an and the hadiths narrated by the Holy Prophet and his descendants. The followers of this movement, in addition to being completely familiar with Peripatetic and Illuminationist philosophies, actually believed in sophism and held ideas similar to those of Pythagoras and Hermes. They tried to publicize their views by philosophical and logical reasoning. This group can be considered as preservers of different periods of philosophy among Muslims. One example of their propaganda works includes a number of treatises, called Rasai’l ikhwan al-safa’, which is a simple and concise collection of issues related to philosophy and other sciences. The title of this work was a cover term for the party and its leaders.

The government which supported the caliphs in Iran and Iraq (the Seljuk dynarty, with the ministry of Khwajah Nizam al-Mulk) confronted this apparently philosophical and gnostic but, in fact, Shi‘ite and anti-caliphate movement harshly. For instance it founded a number of schools in the forms of seminaries in Khorasan and Baghdad, called Nizamiyyah, mainly employing those scholars and theologians who were against Shi‘isim for opposing esoterics’ propagandas.

The most famous of all such theologians is Abu Hamid Ghazzali (450-504 A.H / 1111-1059 A.D), who was born in Khorasan (Neyshabur) and was involved in teaching, training missionaries, and teaching against Shi‘ism in its famous Nizamiyyah School. Later he went to Baghdad and founded a school of thought that was in sharp contrast and opposition to Batiniyyah (esotericism).

Initially, he wrote a book as a summary of the principles of Peripatetic philosophy and, later, in another book, he included the controversies it involved in his own view. This book and his other books spread quickly all over the lands ruled by the Seljuk governments (from the present Afghanistan to the Mediterranean). Such endeavors resulted in the confinement of philosophy to the majority of society (non-Shi‘ite people). However, heedless to what was going on, Shi‘ite philosophers continued teaching, writing, and publicizing philosophy and gnosis, and Shi‘ite seminaries were officially involved in teaching Peripatetic and Illuminationist schools of philosophy and mysticism and writing the related books.

The other well-known theologian who continued Ghazzali’s work more profoundly and on the basis of philosophical arguments Farkhr Razi (543-605 A.H / 1149-1209 A.D). He wrote a commentary on Ibn-Sina’s famous book, al-Isharat, which was, in fact, on the rejection of the ideas therein.

In that century, two prominent Shi‘ite philosophers and luminous stars of the sky of philosophy appeared in Iran. The first was Suhrawardi,[3] Shahab al-Din Yahya (549-587 A.H / 1153-1191 A.D), who revived the ancient Iranian Illuminationist philosophy and wrote a book on Illuminationism. He became famous as ‘Shaykh Ishraq’. Some have proved that he was a member of Batiniyyah movement, and was, in fact, martyred by the Ayyubi government for political reasons (under cover of being excommunicated by those jurisprudents who were against Shi‘ism in Syria). However, his school of philosophy still lives on.

Khwajah Nasir al-Din Tusi was the next philosopher who stepped into the domain of philosophy shortly after Fakhr-Razi and Suhrawardi. He strongly defended philosophy against the attacks of Sunni theologians, and can be considered as the reviver of philosophy after the assaults made by Ghazzali and Razi, as well as the founder of the most complicated form of the science of theology ever developed. He was also the perfect master of all the sciences of his time and his works in astronomy and mathematics are world famous.

The Andalusian Ibn Rushd (the Spanish Muslim philosopher, 520-595 A.H / 1126-1198 A.D) is the other figure who has become well-known in the West and among Christians through the translation of Islamic Arabic books in Andalusia into Latin during the Scholastic Period. One of his most famous books is on the rejection of Ghazzali’s book, Tahafat al-falasafah. He chose the title of Tahafat al-tahafat for his own book, meaning the controversies of Ghazzali’s book.

After Tusi, a great number of Muslim philosophers and theologians appeared (mainly in Iran); however, none of them succeeded in attaining Mulla Sadra’s sublime status. Some of Tusi’s students (such as Qutb al-Din Shirazi) founded a vast center for publicizing the Peripatetic and Illuminationist schools of philosophy, theology, and gnosis. This center was called the ‘Shiraz School’. It continued its activities for several years and produced some well-known philosophers and theologians.

Although Mulla Sadra had left Shiraz in childhood, he was greatly influenced by this school and, as we will discuss later, his thoughts were the outcome of a synthesis of all the philosophical theories taught there, and the fruit of the works of all the philosophers who where involved in research and study in that school.

Simultaneous with the development of philosophy in Iran and in the Islamic world, two other major schools of thought were in the flourishing. The first was mysticism (Islamic gnosis), which was rooted in the Qur’anic worldview and the Prophet’s tradition. Later it was intermixed with the Illuminationist philosophy of ancient Iran and Plotinist philosophy and gnosis, and propagated piety, ascetic practice, and practical ethics. As a result, it turned into a powerful and independent school against Peripatetic philosophy and developed several scientific and theoretical dimensions after Muhyaddin Ibn-Arabi Andalusian (from southern Spain). The lives of some of the proponents of this school remind the reader of Diogenes, Pythagoras, Xenophanes, and Plotinus.

The other school was Islamic theology, which was started by the descendants and people of the Prophet (p.b.u.h) and his successor, Imam Ali (AS), and consisted of a collection of the interpretations these two holy leaders had presented in response to people’s inquiries. The most reputable publicist of this school was a man called Hasan Basari. In his time, one of his students, called Vasil, separated from him and founded the school of I‘tizal or Mu‘tazilah. Later, one of Vasil’s students established another school of thought against Mu‘tazilah which is known as Asha‘rites.

In the years to come, the followers of Mu’tazilah greatly benefited from those works of Greek philosophers which had been translated into Arabic and learnt a lot from their ideas. However, it did not take long before they were suppressed under the pressure of different governments and the domination of Asha‘rite theology.

From then on, theology continued its existence in two branches: Shi‘ite theology (current among the Prophet’s descendants and people), which had a longer history, and Asha‘rite theology, which was, at times, strongly supported by the Caliphs. Finally, Khwajah Nasir al-Din Tusi cast theology in the mould of philosophy. Mulla Sadra, too, resorted to its principles in developing his own school of thought.




[1]. Farabi’s father was originally Iranian and served as a sirdar (commander) under one of the rulers of Turkistan. He went from Khorasan to Farab, where Farabi was born.

[2]. All the problems of Peripatetic philosophy, before the translation of related books by Muslims, amounted to 200; however, this was increased to 700 by Islamic philosophers, and, later, they propounded a number of complicated problems which had not been previously discussed in Greece.

[3] Suhraward is a town in Azerbaijan in Iran. There is also another man who was a contemporary of Suhrawardi and bore the same name, but he was a sophist.