Sadra and Existentialism

Atiya Syed

Sadra’s theory of existence reveals some striking similarities between Sadra and the modern European philosophical movement of existentialism. However, before

 embarking on this journey of finding out the affinities between the two philosophies, it is essential to give a brief introduction of existentialism in general. This I propose to do before beginning the comparative study of Sadra and existentialism.

Frank Thilly[1] attributes the beginning of existentialism to the discovery of Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) after a long period of relative obscurity. Just before the First World War the afore-mentioned discovery began to exert profound influence on German Philosophy. This influence rapidly increased between the two World Wars, spread beyond the boundaries of Germany and molded the philosophy of existentialism in France, Latin-America and the United States.

According to Paul Foulguié, the term “existentialism” is neologism, derived from the substantive “existence”, from which had been derived “existential”, to which had been added “ism”. Existentialism as a philosophy affirms the primacy of existence. The question arises: Primacy in relation to what? The answer is: In relation to essence.

Another question is: what does it mean to exist? It is difficult to answer, for existence is not an attribute, but the reality of all attributes. One finds existence in that which exists, but not existence in itself.

According to the classical definition that which is real, not merely possible, exists. For the modern existentialists existence is not a state, but an act – the actual transition from possibility to reality.

In the words of Guido de Ruggiero: “Existence" is explained by all existentialists as an emergence – a coming of being out of being”.[2]

In recent years the word “existentialism” has gained popularity mainly through the words of Jean-Paul Sartre. Therefore, people seem to think that existentialism means his particular brand of nihilism. Existentialism began, however, as a religious and theistic mode of thinking. Hence we can divide the existentialists into two groups:

i. Theistic existentialists

ii. Atheistic existentialists

Although existentialism is a philosophy, which is very difficult to define, yet we can describe certain general characteristics of this mode of thinking. These are the following:

a. It is a reaction against all forms of rationalism, which assumes that reality can be grasped primarily or exclusively by intellectual speculation. In the words of David E. Roberts, “It is an emphatic denial of the assumption that construction of a logical system is the most adequate way to reach truth”.[3]

b. Existentialism makes a sharp distinction between subjective and objective truth and gives priority to the former. The word subjective can be misunderstood. In everyday language the word means prejudiced, biased and unreliable. However, when an existentialist speaks of “subjectivity”, they have in mind something very different. They are not denying that through science, Common sense and Logic men are capable of arriving at objective truth. But they insist that in connection with ultimate matters in search for ultimate truth the whole man, and not only his intellect or reason is involved. His emotion and his will must be aroused and engaged so that he can live the truth he sees. The fundamental difference is between knowing about the truth in some theoretical, detached manner and being grasped by the truth in a decisively personal way.

c. Existentialism affirms that priority of existence. This priority is affirmed in relation to essence. Essence is what a thing is. By saying so we state those characteristics that it possesses in common with all the objects of the same kind. These characteristics constitute the universal essence. It is the universal essence that is indicated when we speak simply of essence and this is determined by definition.

The above-mentioned basic philosophical formulation of the modern existentialism is also the major thesis of Sadra. In a way he anticipated the modern existentialists by indicating the primacy of existence against essence. In his youth Sadra belonged to that school according to which the reality of an existent comes from its essence. In other words, whether “existence” as used for various existents is merely a mental construct (i'tibari) or the essence possessed reality. However, later on he became a defender of asalat-i-wujudi or defender of the principality of existence. But the change did not come through reasoning or mental reflection. In his Kitab al-masha'ir, he describes his conversion in the following words:

In earlier days I was a passionate defender of the thesis of the principality of quiddity, until God provided me with guidance and permitted me to witness His demonstration. All of a sudden my spiritual eyes were opened and I was able to see that the truth of the matter was contrary to what the philosophers in general had held. Praise be to God who by means of the light of illumination guided me out of the darkness of the baseless idea (of the principality of essence) and established the thesis which will never change. [Masha'ir, ed. By Corbin, p. 35, of the Arabic Text. English translation by Izutsu – The Concept and Reality of Existence, p.104].

In the above-mentioned words, Sadra describes his “conversion”, but in almost all his discussions of the general principles of the Transcendent Theosophy, he offers a number of proofs for this view, rejecting all the arguments of Suhrawardi and others in favour of the principality of quiddity.

Sadra’s conversion, though not religious, was certainly, an existential experience. In this respect he reminds us of the various existentialists who passed through an experience in which the reality or existence was revealed to them, not through rational reflection, but through an existential experience.

The existentialists are not concerned with speculating on existence in general, i.e. on the essence or concept of existence. According to Kierkegaard, this implies a contradiction, with which he reproaches Descartes’ famous dictum, “I think, therefore, I am.” In short, modern existentialism is concerned, as G. Marcel says with “the indissoluble unity of existence and the existent”.

Sadra maintains that existence cannot be defined. It is the most basic and evident of all realities and also concepts. It is the most primary of all the concepts with the aid of which all the other concepts are understood, and the reality of existence is the most immediate and primary experience of reality – an experience which is the foundation of our knowledge of the external world. Man’s awareness of existence is immediate and intuitive. No mental analysis can hope to reach it.

Existence in its purity can become neither an external object on the physical plane to be perceived nor a finite concept in the mind to be logically defined. However, this immediate intuitive understanding of existence can be later on conceptualized. In contrast to this concept of existence in mind (in the terms of modern existentialism it means ‘essence of existence’), the reality of existence is the most difficult of all things to know in depth, for it requires a spiritual preparation which is not possessed by all people. However, if any one is contemplative, he becomes aware of the profound mystery of existence.

Existentialism is considered a reaction against the classical European philosophy, which is basically essentialistic from Plato to Hegel. Similarly, Sadra by advocating the principality of existence brings a revolution in the world of Islamic philosophy, long before the modern existentialism.

The problem of the relation between existence and essence was a hot issue for the Latin Scholastics as well as the Muslim Peripatetics, and it goes back to Fārābī and Ibn Sīnā. So during that period metaphysics remained essentialistic.

According to H.Nasr, “It was Sadra with his doctrine of the principiality of existence who transformed the Aristotelian mould of earlier Islamic philosophy”.[4]

The philosophy of existentialism maintains that we cannot really understand anything, which we cannot deduce or construct. An existent on the other hand cannot be deduced and conceptualized. It is unique. Hence theoretical knowledge is inadequate. Similarly, Sadra says that existence, which is the sole reality, is never captured by the mind, which can only grasp essences and general notion. There is fundamental difference between essence and existence. Essences do not exist per se but only arise in the mind from particular forms or modes of existence and hence, are mental phenomena. But the mind is not capable of capturing the objective reality of existence. It will try to form and abstract mental concept, which will necessarily falsify the true nature of existence. In other words, Sadra like the modern existentialists maintain that what exists is uniquely particular. Therefore, it cannot be known through concepts, deductions and mental constructs; because, these are general notions and existence is unique and particular.[5]

The modern existentialists agree with Sadra that existence is not an attribute, but the reality of all attributes. According to the classical conception that which is real and not merely possible, exists. It gives the impression that existence is a state of being.

However, both Sadra and modern existentialists disagree with the afore-mentioned view and maintain that it is not a state but an act of being – the actual transition from possibility to reality. Nasr says, “Mullā Sadra had elevated true metaphysics to the level of the very act of being, that mysterious fiat lux which caused things to leave the ocean of non-existence and become endowed with the gift of existence”.[6] In other words, for Sadra metaphysics must be concerned not with things, which exist, i.e., existents, but with the very act of existence, “which is a ray cast from Pure Being Itself in the direction of nothingness”.

Existentialism is sometimes characterized as reaction against rationalism. For example, it is said that the experience of Kierkegaard is a vindication of the irrational and immediate such as existence, faith and personality against the universal values of reason which annual what is singular and individual; in other words, against Hegelian rationalism.

Guido Ruggiero points out,

Existence in its irrationality, its surge towards the transcendent is a lively appeal against the abstract concept of idealism. In every epoch there has been reaction against it in the name of irrationality, individuality and existence.[7]

The above-mentioned view is further strengthened by a brief study of the existentialist attitude towards reason. Pascal, for instance, contrasts between reason and the heart. Clearly, Pascal does not regard the two as utterly opposed, for he insists that both kinds of truth are reached by conquering willful desire. It is obvious that rational demonstration must be free from emotional bias. But he also holds that the fruits of the heart are at the opposite pole from believing whatever I happen to want to believe. A man’s whole nature must be transformed by God before such truths can be grasped. Faith and reason belong to different orders, but they need not come into conflict with each other. Actually both are indispensable. Reason employs principles, which are basically similar in all men. But only faith can reach what is unique in each man.

Pascal says, “The senses, reason and faith each have their separate objects and their own degree of certaint”. (Provincial Letters).

Kierkegaard– who is considered to be the father of modern existentialism, preaches a philosophy of irrationalism. He does not deny the appropriateness of objective, scientific and logical thinking. In other words, he does not negate the practical utility of mathematics, natural science, history and metaphysical speculation. However, he protests against those who claim that this is the whole story, i.e., it is all-inclusive.

To sum up, in his own way every existentialist has expressed his dissatisfaction with reason and rationalism. Here the question arises. What is Sadra’s attitude towards reason?

Sadra repeatedly tells us that the nature of existence and its uniqueness can only be experienced. As we have pointed out earlier his “conversion” is based on experience, which gave him intuitive certainty.

Sadra maintains that when you try to conceptualize, it ceases to be existence and becomes an essence. The intellectual content of the experience have to be “lived through” to be fully realized; if it is only entertained as rational propositions, they lost their character as truth.

 Sadra insists that when something is known repeatedly by direct perception or intuition, it cannot be refuted by purely logical reasoning.

The above-mentioned views show that according to Sadra human mind is structured to understand only concepts. The concepts are nothing but general ideas or essences. The mental ability, which formulates concepts, is reason.

So when Sadra asserts that the mind can understand only essences, but not existence, which is an objective reality external to the mind; it implies that reason cannot grasp existence; because, reason only captures the notions, concepts and essences. But existence is not a concept or notion. It is an objective reality.

Thus in a way Sadra, like the modern existentialists, is expressing dissatisfaction with rationalism and points out the limitations of reason. Like them he seems to confirm that reason cannot understand the ultimate truth, i.e., the reality of existence which is unique and particular. The reason can capture what is general and mental.

Sadra like the existentialists emphasizes that rational propositions and logical proofs are not as conclusive as the experience living the truth. In other words, conclusions based on experience.

In spite of the above-mentioned similarities between Sadra and the modern existentialists, there are a number of differences between their philosophies. In this respect we should keep in mind the following points:

1. The modern existential philosophy is basically humanist. The fundamental question of the modern existentialism is that when man is in question which principle is prior – essence or existence? Their answer is that in the case of man existence precedes essence. What it means to exist? For them existence is not a state. It is transition from possibility to reality. However, it is not sufficient to pass from one state to another in order to exist. True existence presupposes liberty. It follows that for the modern existentialism existence is a prerogative of man. Existence is perpetual transcendence, i.e. passing beyond that which one is. It is our essence that we choose the person we wish to be. Thus essence is subsequent to existence, since in order to choose we must exist. This with certain differences is the thesis of all modern existentialists. It is only in man that existence precedes essence. The reason is that he alone in the world of our experience is free. All other beings are predetermined. Only in the case of man after his choice we come to know what he has chosen. This discussion shows that the modern existentialism is fundamentally humanist, i.e., its starting point and the pivot is man who alone has the capability to choose, and from this point of view he alone is free. We have already pointed out that Sadra is an existentialist in the sense that he too, believes in the principality of existence. But the question is: whether his philosophy is humanist too, like the modern existentialism? In my humble opinion, it is not humanistic. No doubt, Sadra in his metaphysics is essentially concerned with Being. But he is fully aware of the supra-ontological nature of the Supreme Principle and its status above all limitations. His discussion of the Absolute in its completely undetermined and supra-ontological aspects reveal that his doctrines do not remain bound to the ontological level, even while making use of ontology. The metaphysics of Sadra begins with the Absolute Principle, which transcends all limitations. Then leads to Being, which is its first determination, and the creative Principle. Finally, it concerns itself with existence, in both its universal and particular aspects.

To sum up, for Sadra existence is a universal principle and its primacy is not true in the case of man alone. All the objects of the universe come under its domain. This leads to the conclusion that Sadra’s existentialism is not humanistic. It is much wider in this respect than the modern existentialism. On the one hand, it is all-inclusive as far as the objects of this universe are concerned, i.e. it is basic to the exposition of the nature of Reality in its source and various levels of manifestations. On the other hand, it is supra ontological. But the modern existentialism, especially in its systematic expositions in the thought of Heidegger and Sartre, is basically a discussion of the ontological or ontology.

2. Another fundamental concept of the modern existentialism is “Nothingness”. The question of Nothingness pervades the whole of Being. The classical metaphysics would say that from nothing comes nothing. An existentialist would say that from nothing comes Being. For them the problem of Being and Nothingness is identical. Hegel was aware of it.

He maintains that Pure Being is Pure Nothing. Unless man has the courage to encounter Nothingness, he cannot enter into his own essential nature and ask a metaphysical question. The question arises: how can we arrange for an encounter with the Nothingness?

Heidegger proceeds to analyze the ordinary language, in order to get a clue. A layman would say, “Nothing is the opposite of everything that is”.

The implication of this answer is that only by first encountering everything that is and then having it succumb to negation, we could hope to encounter Nothingness. This takes us into metaphysics proper, which raises the question: “What is what-is or being. Actually, we cannot comprehend what is this what-is in totality or its total annihilation, i.e. nothingness.

But there are certain experiences, which reveal it. For instance, boredom is such an experience. Boredom does not mean being bored with this or that, but with everything. Everything – the totality of what is, seems colorless, tasteless and meaningless. Similarly, according to Heidegger anxiety is a fundamental way to attune to the Nothing.

In al-Asfar[8], Sadra clarifies the connotation of 'adam (nothingness). According to him it is a wide and simple term. There is no disagreement about its meaning. The only difference is created when it is attributed to different objects. The difference is due to these objects. Reason imagines different objects with different accidents.

For example, cause, effect, condition, conditioned, etc., after thinking about them, the reason adds to them the concept of “nothing”. Then the notion of nothingness of cause or condition arises. This is true that nothingness of one contrary creates the possibility of the being of the other contrary.  For example, nothingness of blackness makes room for the existence of whiteness. But this difference is only relative. Apart from this, one nothingness cannot be distinguished from the other.[9]

To sum up, nothingness is only one and it cannot be divided into different kinds. In other words, it is undifferentiated. In reality there is no such thing, which can be called “nothingness”. Therefore, if anyone asks you, “What is nothingness?” you cannot point out, “This is nothingness”. In that case, if nothingness is considered a cause, it only means that existence is not the cause.[10]

Sadra[11] concludes that nothingness does not exist. Then he proceeds to analyze how the human reason is capable of having a notion of something, which does not exist, and then uses it as a subject. He maintains that reason has the ability to imagine and construct all sorts of notions and concepts. For instance, it can construct its own nothingness; even the absolutely non-existent. In other words, for Sadra nothingness is only a mental construct, not a reality. The discovery of existence is through existence. On the other hand, discovery of nothingness is through existence.

From the above-mentioned discussion we can draw the following conclusions:

a. Sadra does not seem to believe that “nothingness” is absolute. For him it is relative. In modern existentialism nothingness is fundamental just like being. For Sadra it is secondary to Being and existence.

b. Sadra’s statements show that he means by “nothingness” only the logical act of negating rather than nihilation. Heidegger would say that the former (i.e., logical negation) is only a superficial mode of the latter (i.e., nihilation). The conflict between people, the violence of loathing, the pain of refusal and the bitterness of renunciation, are far more powerful forms of nihilating than the logical act of denial.

c. The afore-mentioned discussion shows that Sadra is trying to understand ”nothing” through reason; whereas in the case of “existence” he has already realized that reason cannot understand objective reality. A modern existentialist would say that “nothingness” too, has to be understood not through reason, but through experience.

d. For Sadra “nothingness” is only a mental construct. For the modern existentialism it is an existential reality.

3. The afore-mentioned points lead us to another difference between the modern existentialism and Sadra. Sadra is trying to understand 'adam through reason; while the modern existentialist through a rational (if not irrational) experience, like anxiety, etc. The philosophers like Kierkegaard, have preached the doctrine of irrationality of existence, which cannot be grasped by reason.

Similarly, Sadra teaches that existence cannot be grasped by the conceptual reason. His emphasis on the fact that truth has to be experienced, shows his resemblance with the modern existentialists.

For example, in al-Asfar[12], he defines knowledge as an intuitive state, which leaves no room for illusion or doubt. It is also true that he narrates the story of his experience or conversion, through which primacy of existence was revealed to him. Yet he gives a number of rational arguments to prove his thesis. Indeed, he is very rational and methodical in building a well-knitted system on the basis of this thesis; whereas, most of the modern existentialists believe that reality of existence cannot be described through philosophical discourses. Hence, they write drama, novels and stories. On the other hand, it can be said that even among the modern existentialists there are thinkers like Heidegger, Sartre and Jasper, who have presented systematic philosophical expositions of their existential theses. However, it can be observed that Sadra’s attitude towards reason is not as antagonistic as that of some of the modern existentialists (e.g., that of Kierkegaard).

The above-mentioned discussion demands further elucidation of Sadra’s concept of knowledge based on experience. In al- Asfar[13] he writes, “sensation do not have the knowledge whether the object of their experience exists or not. It is the function of reason”.

In another passage he again asserts,

Sensation or the sensitive mind is totally unaware of the fact whether the object of sensory experience exists in the external world or not. Man attains this knowledge through experience. It is the function of the thinking mind or reason to get information about existence of the object of sensation.[14] 

Here Sadra gives the example of the insane, who see things, which do not exist. They cannot discriminate between the reality and delusions, because, their reason is not working.

The above-mentioned passages show that Sadra does not believe in the efficiency of sensations in reaching reality or in other words, existence (because, for Sadra existence is reality). In both the above-mentioned passages, he clearly maintains that it is only reason, which has the required capability. However, some confusion may arise due to the word “experience” used by him. The word “experience” has certain ambiguity. Hence, we should be very clear about its connotation. It may mean affective experience; again Sadra openly rejects. It may mean sensory experience, but we have seen that Sadra clearly denies it. It may mean some sort of cognitive experience. This is supported by Sadra’s standpoint. Again, it may mean mystic experience. Sadra does not accept it.

According to him truth must be experienced but this experience is intuitive apprehension of truth or rational experience.[15] He insists that when something is known by intuitive experience, it cannot be disputed by purely logical reasoning.

The afore-mentioned discussion reveals that though Sadra like the modern existentialists emphasizes that purely rational propositions and formal logical proofs are not conclusive, but he does not reject reason altogether. He believes in the rational apprehension of truth supplemented by intuitive certainty.

Fazal Rahman[16] points out that the intuitive experiences Sadra, has in mind, far from denying reason, is a higher form of reason, a more positive and constructive form than formal reasoning. Here, Fazl ur-Rahman quotes a passage from al-Asfar[17] in favor of his point of view.

This further strengthens our conclusions that Sadra is not as antagonistic to reason as the modern existentialists are; for him there is no opposition between reason and intuition.

4. The modern existentialism exhibits a number of negative attitudes and responses at the discovery of existence. For example, Pascal says, “I am shocked and astonished to find myself here rather than there”.

In La Nausea Sartre shows how Roquentin who hitherto just observes things or just uses them, discovers their existence. Then he realizes that the thing-in-itself (en soi) external to mind has no reason and its existence gives rise to nausea. Sadra, however, shows a different and certainly more positive altitude on discovering existence.

For him existence is a mystery and a manifestation of the divine act of Being and its breath – that mysterious fiat lux which causes things to leave the ocean of non-existence and become endowed with the gift of existence.


Seyyed Hussain Nasr[18] asserts,

One must be very careful in making any comparisons between the ontology of Mulla Sadra and modern existentialism despite some superficial resemblance concerning certain points. The metaphysics of Sadra is based on the inner vision of Universal Existence before all of its cosmic coagulations – a vision that is made possible only through tradition and the spiritual means contained within it. Western existentialism cannot but be parody and caricature of traditional metaphysics, since its exponents such as Sartre or even Heidegger are totally cut off from those spiritual means which alone makes that vision possible. … It is, therefore, an error of a most dangerous kind to confuse the two.

Despite the afore-mentioned warning by Nasr, I have compared in this article Sadra’s thought with Western existentialism. Reasons for this comparison are the following:

i. he basic philosophical thesis of Western existentialism and Sadra is the same, i.e., primacy of existence over essence.

ii. As I have pointed out earlier that Nasr seems to overlook the fact that Sartre and Heidegger are the representatives of atheistic existentialist. But among the existentialists there are theistic thinkers as well, e.g., Marcel, Berdaeyve, etc.

iii. Nasr seems to be under the impression that there is only one brand of existentialism. In reality, it is said that there are as many existentialisms as there existentialists, each preaching his own philosophy of existence. If this is so, we can claim that Sadra is an existentialist; because, he believes in the principality of existence over essence, and he preaches his own brand of existentialism which is different in many ways (which we have already mentioned) from Western or modern existentialism.

At the same time, we must remember that his frame of reference is Platonic Aristotelian philosophy and post-Greek Islamic thought. Therefore, the terms in which he thinks, are Greek and Islamic philosophical terms.

Although Western existentialism is a modern movement of thought, as Guido do Ruggerio says that even in the antiquity the thinkers were conscious of the issue of existence and essence. Heidegger supports his view in the very first chapter of Time and Being. I do agree with Ruggerio and Heidegger to some extent. But being Europeans, by “antiquity” they meant the Greek thinkers. In my humble opinion the Greek thinkers were not fully conscious of the issue. However, Plato indirectly brought it to the forefront by presenting the theory of Ideas. According to this theory, Ideas are essences, and essences are real. Existents are just the pale copies of essences or Ideas. The Muslims clearly formulated the issue of essence and existence. Ibn Sina introduced the polarization by distinguishing sharply between essence and existence in his ontology. Subsequently, the issue dominated the Muslim thought, but the mainstream remained essentialist. However, Sadra reacts against the mainstream and presents a different point of view. Just like the Western existentialism (which is a reaction against Hegelian philosophy) Sadra’s metaphysics is a reason against the Muslim Essentialism.

To sum up, perhaps Sadra is not an existentialist in the sense of modern Western existentialism; but he is an existentialist in his own right by presenting the thesis of primacy of existence, and like every existentialist he preaches his own brand of existentialism. In a way, he is a forerunner of modern Western existentialism as far as the philosophical formulation is concerned. Indeed, he has built a well-knitted, consistent and comprehensive system of thought on the basis of this basic existential formulation. No doubt he has many differences with modern Western existentialist (some of which we have already discussed in the present article), but so far we have not mentioned one fundamental point of departure from Western existentialism and that is, Sadra has also a theory of essences. According to Sadra essence does not possess any ultimate reality like existence, but in a sense it is real.  What he means by this reality, would lead us to the second part of his philosophy, i.e., his theory of essences. I propose to discuss this aspect of Sadra’s thought in another article at some other time.




1. Thilly, Frnak; A History of Philosophy, revised by Ledger Wood; 1958, printed in India, p. 578.

2. Ruggiero, G.d.; Existentialism.

3. Roberts, David E.; Existentialism and Religions Belief, New York Oxford University Press, 1959.

4. Nasr, Hossein, sadr al-Din Shiràzi and his Transcendent Theosophy, Tehran, 1997, p.112.

5. Sadra,al- Asfàr I, p. 37, lines 16-19.

6. Nasr, Hossein, Sadr al-Din Shiràzi and his Transcendent Theosophy, Tehran, 1997, p. 101.

7. Ruggiero, G.d.; Existentialism, p. 44.

8. Sadra, al-Asfàr al-arba'ah, Urdu translation by Manzar Hussein Gilani, 1941, Osmania University, Hyderabad, Daccan; p. 406.

9. Ibid;p. 407.

10. Ibid; p. 408.

11. Ibid; p.409.

12. Ibid; p.421.

13. Ibid; Part I, vol. II, p. 1422.

14. Ibid; Part X, vol. II, p. 1725.

15. Ibid; Part X,vol. II, p. 1726.

16. Fazl ur-Rahman; The Philosophy of Mullà Sadrà, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1975, p. 6.

17. Sadrà, al-Asfàr, ed. M. Rida al-Muzaffar, Tehran, 1378 A.H.

18. Nasr, Hossein, Sadr al-Din Shiràzi and his Transcendent Theosophy, Institute for Humanities and Cultural Studies, Tehran, 1997, p. 118.


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