Mulla Sadra’s Philosophy of Platonic Spirit

One of the striking principles of Mulla Sadra’s philosophy is the principle of the corporeality of the origination of the soul and its spirituality over the course of time, which is known as jismaniyyat al-huduth wa ruhaniyyat al-baqa.

Unlike the earlier Illuminationist scholars and philosophers who believed that the man’s soul is immaterial and pre-exists in the Kingdom of heaven before its uniting with the body and after the formation of a baby it enters into its body and begins to live with it. Mulla Sadra maintained that the soul, in the earlier stages of its formation is material in its nature and originating from matter, then later, adopting a distinct way, turns to separate from the matter and attains the culmination of its separation.

Mulla Sadra, like the other Muslim philosophers, referred to this entity in his works using the word “spirit” (ruh) and the soul (nafs)[1] interchangeably– which brings about many questions. Is the spirit identical with the soul, or does it have other meanings as well?  If the spirit implies an immaterial concept then, what is it? What is its relation to the soul?

Mulla Sadra in his works, besides the word “soul” (nafs), uses the word spirit (ruh) in the following meanings:[2]

First, a meaning, which is known as “Steam Spirit” (ruh bukharí) by the Peripatetic philosophers and physicians. In most of his works, Mulla Sadra refers to this spirit as a subtle mass, or perhaps an immaterial thing situated between the body and the soul as an intermediate link between them. In one of his works after referring the various kinds of the mental and cognitive faculties of man, he says:

For each of these faculties and tools, there is a special spirit which is a warm and subtle mass and a product of four-fold humours.[3]

In another place, he states:

What is called animal soul, is not this angelic soul, but it is related to this world and will cease to exist, never reaching the Hereafter.[4]

Second, the word spirit (ruh) also refers to a great and powerful angel who is an intermediate link between the Divine will of God and the creature referred to as the “Holy Spirit”(ruh al-Qudus) as mentioned in the Holy Qur’an and hadíth. In his works Mulla Sadra often regards “spirit” (ruh) as a set of intellects or angels saying:

Because of their perfection and actuality, intellects are like a single thing, and this single thing-which, in fact, refers to infinite intellects- is sometimes called “spirit.[5]

Third, ruh is used to mean the soul.  Mulla Sadra, used the words spirit and soul interchangeably (e.g. “al-Shawahid al-rububiyyah”, p. 293), and sometimes, he refers to the spirit as an extension of the soul, a stage of its perfection and its full separation.[6]

Fourth, in another meaning the spirit, which unlike the soul is an immaterial actualized reality, that descended from its heavenly plane to the corporeal world and abided in the body, and after the death and departing from the body, if it maintains its competence, it will return to its abode, otherwise it will be sent to other place. This is the same “spirit” as advocated by the Illuminationist philosophers, particularly, Socrates and Plato.  The main theme of our discussion is to shed some light on Mulla Sadra’s views regarding this subject.

From a philosophical point of view, the belief in this heavenly spirit apparently opposes Mulla Sadra’s well-known theory and his belief in the corporeal origination of the soul. If the soul is the same as the spirit, and we consider the spirit to be a separate entity, which despite its perfection, has descended from the Heaven to the Earth and entered the body, then it makes no sense to consider it as originating from the body, which came into being with substantial motion of matter, and with this same permanent essential motion, will attain the culmination of the separation. Upon death it will depart from the body and be freed.

With regard to the differences in the definition of spirit and soul, to believe simultaneously in both may lead one to contradiction. Consequently, where Mulla Sadra, besides believing in corporeal origination of the soul, and affirming its precedence over the body, an important question will be arouse that need to be answered.

Mulla Sadra noted such compromise and compatibility and while trying to maintain the “corporeal origination” of the soul, he attempted also to justify the spirit as prior to its body.  Later we see that he eventually accepted it.

So with his rigorous belief in the material origination of the soul, why did Mulla Sadra take into account the theory of the separate and pre-existent spirit, never ruling it out?

The reason behind his attention to the term spirit (not soul) is laid in his staunch belief in the religious texts, i.e. the Holy Qur’an and hadíth. There are certain passages there which explicitly acknowledge the pre-existence of the spirit.  According to the hadíth: “Allah created the spirits before bodies…”[7]

Since Mulla Sadra believes that the Revelation and authentic religious texts are superior to intellectual reasoning, he accepts it as an axiom (but a justifiable one), and in some cases, tries to reconcile it with his philosophical ideas.

In his Ta‘líqat ‘ala sharh hikmat al-ishraq (Glosses upon the Commentary upon the “Theosophy of the Orient of Light” of Suhrawardí) concerning the independent spirit, he states: “By the spirit of man and its precedence over the body, is meant the cause of its existence that precedes it.”  His words are as follows:[8]

And as regards the soul, those who believe in agreement between the demonstration and intuition, have known the soul as follows: “ there are many stations and degrees for the soul, though it is, at the same time essentially simple. Also they believe that the soul, because of its perfect causeness, pre-existed the body; and in fact, this cause is of a special character, according to which the soul’s command on the body depends on a special preparedness and certain other conditions. And also it is certain that the soul is created and, at the same time, will exist eternally after the death of body. And this is so, only because its [soul’s] cause exists eternally. Therefore, when you attain the knowledge of certainty of the fact that the cause of the soul pre-exists the body, and when you find the connotations of the causeness and causedness, then you will know that the soul pre-exists the body. And the existence of the cause of that soul is certain for the people of demonstration. But the perfection of the causeness is not certain.

In fact, such justification is a kind of denying the precedence of the spirit over the body for those who, like Plato, believed in the precedence of the spirit over the body and even consider it to be eternal, their intention is the precedence of the soul itself not its cause, that is, an objective and real precedence and not a precedence, relying on some other thing, such as cause or its existential premises.

In some of his works[9] (using Plotinus school and his book), he tries to reconcile these two ideas; namely, originated (hadíth) soul and eternal (qadím) spirit as follows: owing to his evolutionary stages, man is in fact, “three men”: 1) man of the sense which means the same ordinary person in its physical form 2) man of the soul that is immaterial and, at the same time, comprises all the organs of the man of sense but it is not visible and 3) the other man, who is the “man of intellect” that has a more perfect, separate and subtle form as compared to the former men and it is this man of intellect who joins the active intellect and becomes active intellect. [al-Hashr (Risalah fí) (Treatise on Resurrection)].

After this introduction, Mulla Sadra tries to consider the spirit as something other than the soul and equate it with “man of intellect” who is considered to be the intermediate link between natural man and the active intellects as well as other intellects.  He says that the spirit in the following verse, “…And I …have breathed unto him of My spirit”[10] is identical with the “man of intellect”.

Plotinus held that the reality of man is identical with the “man of intellect and the man of the soul”. The corporeal man is also the symbol and icon (sanam) of those two men as well as alongside them.[11]

In other works of Mulla Sadra there is an inclination toward separating the spirit from the soul.  In al-Hikmat al-‘arshiyyah[12] (which is apparently among his later works) he follow the same theory, but in the course of his thought, he gradually puts aside any kind of denial or justification of other ideas and believes in the pre-existence of the soul-like reality.  He equated the pre-existence of the spirit as it is mentioned in Islamic texts, to intellect, logic and reasoning, and says[13]:

“From what is said, and after intuition and rational reasoning, it became clear that the origination of the spirits is prior to that of the world of the bodies”[14]

Following the development of Mulla Sadra’s idea concerning the spirit-other than the soul-in his works in the end of his life, this flexibility and belief in precedence of the spirit over the body is made clearer and more explicit.  For example, in Asrar al-ayat,[15] he says so:

And know that the republic of philosophers did not know of the reality of the spirit and the nature of the soul, but very little. But, if we say that the soul pre-existed the body, most of philosophers have rejected it. And those who believe in this point, have not adduced arguments for their claim, and have not been able to answer the objections, introduced on it and to choose either alternative.

He doesn’t confine himself to this extent and in defense of the precedence of the spirit over the body, he attacks even on Ibn Sina and other Peripatetics who denied Plato and blames them by saying that despite the fact that they believe in the immortality of the “soul”, why do not they accept its pre-existence?!

In al-Hikamat al-‘arshíyyah[16]  Mulla Sadra  refers to certain verses in the Holy Qur’an concerning the spirit of man stating that:

It is surprising that most of the philosophers and the followers of Aristotle, like Ibn Sina and his students, believed in the immortality of the soul but they do not believe in the pre-existence of the soul before the creation of the body.

And he further adds:

O my dear! Be aware that we have come to this world from the Paradise of God and from that Paradise we have entered the Paradise of body, and from there we have entered this clay world which is the place of labor without any rewards and we will go to the other world which is the place of reward without any labors.

The expressions, “jannatullah” or “hazirat al-quds” with reference to the expressions such as “darul haywan” and “jannatul abdan” and “dar ul ‘amal” denote a specific place rather than the causes of the creation of man .  In other words, he considers the spirit to be a creature prior to the creation of the man’s soul and body, and a product of a world other than the material world, which existed before the existence of the body and soul and will exist after it, as well.  He further says in another part of al-Hikmat al-‘arshíyyah:[17]

The fact that the man’s soul existed before the body neither leads to the transmigration of the soul nor to the eternity of the soul as Plato believed, nor does it bring about the problem that a single species has individuals without physical distinctions and nor does it need to divide a single soul to many souls nor saying that before the creation of the body the spirit has been in suspension.

Following this discourse, he accepts not only the precedence of the spirit over the body but also considers the spirit to be the soul.  Of course, this is a loose interpretation; for we can consider each of these two words equivocal and use them interchangeably.  Regarding the issues of transmigration and other objections, Mulla Sadra explicitly stipulates that his intention of the precedence of the soul, or spirit over the body, is not to justify the former ideas as mentioned in Ta‘liqat ‘ala sharh hikmat al-ishraq, but by spirit he means an immaterial single and personal creature having specific existential properties similar with qualities of that soul which is united with the body.

In other place Mulla Sadra elegantly refers to this fact, and for instance in Asrar al-ayat[18] he says:

The world is comprised of two things: Command (amr) and Creation (khalq). Due to Command, Creation is stable and depends on it.  By combining Command and Creation, the cosmos or Macro Anthropo  comes into being and similarly, by combining the spirit and the body Micro Anthropo,( i.e. the man) finds life.

Therefore ,by comparing the man (Micro Anthropo) with the cosmos (Macro Anthropo) which is considered to be the cardinal themes of Illuminationist theosophy, the idea of the precedence of the spirit over the body will result.  In other words, just like the cosmos in which Divine Will and Command is precedent over the creation of the world and material things and the creation is resulted from the command and not vice versa, thus not only the spirit, like soul, does not originate from the material body but it is the cause of the body and is precedent over it as well.

Here we see that he doesn’t consider the cause as the spirit but vice versa; he considers the spirit as the cause and we find also that the intention of this justification in his Ta‘líqat ‘ala sharh-i hikmat al-ishraq (in which he relates the precedence of the spirit over the body to the perfection of causeness) is not the highest vertical causes and the primary causes but it is the same spirit which pre-existed the body parallel with the immaterial causes of the body, and after the creation, unites with the body and manages it, and in Mulla Sadra’s terminology, there appears a “ta’anuq” between the spirit and the body. In al-Mazahir al-ilahiyyah, also, he refers to this issue and says:[19]

Through His perfect power, God-the Glorified, created the circle of the Throne along with its intellect and soul, and took it as the refuge of the hearts and spirits. And through His perfect wisdom, he brought the earth into existence, and selected it as the house of the natures and bodies. Then according to His pre-eternal decree (qada) and Israfil’s trumpet, He commanded these spirits and hearts of the Throne to belong to the earthy bodies. Then, according to His certain destiny (qadar), He commanded these bodies and their preparedness to receive a part of times of these hearts and spirits, as it is instructed by God. And when the death comes, which will inevitably come… the spirit will return to the Lord of the spirits.


* * *

Now let us return to the first question if this article and ask whether Mulla Sadra by believing in the precedence of the immaterial spirit over the body has excluded his well-known theory (i.e. the corporeal origination of the soul) or not. Or in spite of the fact that in some cases he regards the soul to be identical with the spirit applying them to a single thing does he make a distinction between them and regard them as two different things one which pre-existed the body and the other which came into being with the body? Or despite his explicit remark concerning the objectiveness of the spirit before the creation of the body, does he in some cases considers it to be a conceptual entity or luminous archetypes (Platonic ideas)?

In order to solve the problem easily it is better to coordinate ourselves with the religious texts and Islamic hadíths, that is, we must believe that there are two kinds of realities beyond the body which are separate from matter and are called the “ soul” and the  “spirit”.  In a hadíth from the fifth Imam (peace be upon him) it is reported: “Besides the vegetative soul and animal soul and human soul, man has a divine soul as well.”

Apparently Mulla Sadra believed accordingly and considered the human soul to have been created with the body but gradually becomes immortal and spiritual.

In other words, though, Mulla Sadra used the word “spirit” in other meanings, his final analysis considers the spirit to be a reality prior to the body and something other than it, which is immanent in it.

It can be concluded that the creation of the soul from the body (corporeal origination of the soul) that is an exceptional and extraordinary phenomenon stems from the immanence of the same Heavenly spirit; and the soul also exists alongside the spirit as well as after it. It is caused by it as well.

 In a chapter of his Sih asl (Risalah fi), regarding the combination and multiplicity of the souls and the essences of man he himself says:

And most of the scholars and philosophers were under the impression that the essence of man is the same in all, but it is not accepted by the people of insight (i.e., mystics).  There are many people who are alive because of the animal soul and they have not yet attained the station of the heart much less the station of the spirit and beyond…and knowing the soul and description of its station is an extremely hard task and nobody could attain it, unless the perfect men. [20]




[1]. In Arabic language it means “self”.

[2]. In European languages, also, a distinction is made between two words “soul” and “spirit”.

[3]. Mullà Sadrà, al-Shawàhíd al-rububíyyah, ed. Àshtíyàní, p. 194.

[4]. Ibid., p. 335.

[5]. Ibid., p. 152.

[6]. Ibid., p. 198.

[7]. Among them are some hadíths including:

“I was already prophet, when Adam was still in water and clay”; “The relation between believer’s spirit and God is stronger than the relation between beams of light and Sun” and “no one will ascend to the Heaven, unless he/she has descended from it”.

[8]. Quìb al-Dín Shíràzí, Sharh-i hikmat al-ishràq (Commentary upon “the Theosophy of the Orient of Light” of Suhrawardí), p. 441.

[9]. Mullà Sadrà, al-Hashr (Risalàh fí), Asràr al-àyàt, al-Hikmat al-‘arshíyyah.

[10]. The Holy Qur’an, 15: 29.

[11]. al-Hikmat al-‘arshíyyah.

[12]. Ibid., the second mashriq (Orient), the first ishràq (illumination), the seventh qà‘idah (rule).

[13]. But sometimes the discourse purports that by the spirit, the same great angel, commissioned to creation is meant.

[14]. Mullà Sadrà, al-Hikmat al-‘arshíyyah, the second mashriq, the first ishràq, the seventh qà‘idah.

[15]. Mullà Sadrà, Asràr al àyat, ed. Khwajawi, p. 147.

[16]. Mullà Sadrà, al-Hikmat al-‘arshíyyah, old edition, p. 184.

[17]. Ibid., p. 136, seventh qà‘idah.

[18]. Mullà Sadrà, Asràr al-àyàt, ed. Khwajawi, p. 103.

[19]. Mullà Sadrà, al-Mazàhir al-ilàhíyyah, ed. Àshtíyàní, p. 68.

[20]. Mullà Sadrà, Sih asl (Risàlah fi), Tehran University Press, pp. 26-27.




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