Being: The Light of Lights

(An Analysis of Mullà Sadrà’s Commentary on the Verse of Light)

Mohsen Saleh


In exquisite Arabic Mullà Sadrà interprets the “Verse of Light”, manifesting his systematic, well-organized and eloquent style. His treatment of this verse shows his remarkable knowledge of all aspects of Qur’anic exegesis as well as the linguistic sciences, philosophy, mysticism, belles-lettres, natural science and theology. Amidst all these, it is the philosophical and gnostic aspects which are dominant. One glimpses the Peripatetic underpinnings of Sadrà’s logical arguments for the Being of God as Light, while human psychology is detailed in a manner reminiscent of Ibn Sínà’s writings on the soul. As for the mystical gnostic aspects, it is primarily the school of Ibn ‘Arabí and the school of Suhrawardí which are represented.

As we begin our investigation it will be useful to keep in mind the primary metaphysical doctrines for which Mullà Sadrà is renowned: the unity (wahda), principiality (asàla), and gradation (tashkík) of existence.[1] It is above all for his assertion of the principiality of existence over that of essence or quiddity that Mullà Sadrà is distinguished from his philosophical predecessors. The traditional argument had been that existence is a common attribute of all beings, hence it is “a most general concept… [having] only the reality of a ‘secondary intelligible (ma‘qul thàní)’ to which nothing in reality corresponds”.[2] This, said Sadrà, is to take a mistaken view of existence. Far from being a mere concept, existence (or Being) is the only reality. Essence, on the other hand, is a mere mental construct.

As for the concept of “unity of Being” (wahdat al-wujud), it has its source in the fundamental Islamic tenet of tawhíd (Unity). How does one reconcile the unity and transcendence of God, which forms the very core of Islamic belief, with the apparent multiplicity of existence?

Philosophers, theologians and mystics all tried to tackle this problem. Mullà Sadrà’s solution was to describe the situation as follows. While it is beyond dispute that God is one, one cannot deny that the multiplicity of existents is a fact of our experience. It is not, however, a question of dividing existence into two seemingly disparate realms: Creator and creation, unity and multiplicity, transcendence and immanence. One must grasp the notion of a unity which subsumes these distinctions and come to see that what appears to be multiplicity is simply modes within this unity.

One must realize that this is not simply a matter of theoretical speculation-an endeavor which, by virtue of its very limited nature, is unable to understand the nature of comprehensive unity. It involves nothing less than setting out on the path of self-annihilation (fanà’) in which one’s presumed individuality is extinguished in the overwhelming Presence of all-encompassing Being and is succeeded by the experience of the insubstantiation of God’s attributes and acts (baqà’), the Self-disclosing modes of Being.[3]

Unlike Ibn Sínà, Mullà Sadrà “conceives of being as a graded reality which remains one despite its gradation, while Ibn Sínà, although conceding the principiality of existence in each existent, believes the existence of each existent to be different from that of other existents.”[4]

The notion of tashkík, is also linked with that of “trans-substantial motion” (al-harakat al-jawhariyya). This involves change within the Aristotelian category of substance, a change whose possibility had been rejected by the Muslim Peripatetics. These latter admitted change in accidents (specifically in the categories of quality, quantity, place, and position) but claimed that were change to occur in substance, it would destory the quiddity of the thing in question. Mullà Sadrà, on the other hand, claimed that all existents, save those of immaterial intelligences, change in substance by a successive acquisition of forms. For Mullà Sadrà, substance is subjected to movement within the spatio-temporal dimension and, ultimately, beyond this dimension.

Of  particular relevance is the application of trans-substantial motion to the human soul. First, says Mullà Sadrà, the soul is “the same as the body”[5] and only by a gradual process of purification from the husks and shells of material concerns does it manage to separate itself from it. This process is often described by the metaphor of the journey, with the soul playing the part of the wayfarer. We shall see in the course of this tafsír the far-reaching applicability of this and the aforementioned concepts.

The principle arguments which Mullà Sadrà will put forward in his commentary on the Verse of Light are present at the outset in the traditional doxology with which every exegesis begins. God is the bestower of reason, goodness and generosity. The nature of these attributes will be discussed as the tafsír proceeds. Perhaps the most central point which Sadrà discusses in this work is alluded to in his praise of the Prophet, whom he calls “the dot in the circle of existence, the pivotal point of God’s secret in every existent”. As the tafsír develops and culminates in the final chapter on the Perfect Man, one discerns the centrality of the Prophet in this exposition. In addition, mention is made of the ahl al-bayt, the Prophet’s family, and their possession of true knowledge.

The tafsír of the Verse of Light is divided into a preface, six chapters and a conclusion. The preface is concerned with the prevalent definitions of light: the opinion of the vulgar: the opinion of the “veiled ones”, – the theologians and jurists – who are only concerned with the exoteric aspect: that of the Illuminationist School: and that of the “great Sufis”.

Sadrà dismisses the opinions of the exotericists who either consider light in terms of its essential and accidental forms, (the former being the light of the self-luminous bodies, such as the sun, and the accidental being that of bodies which are illuminated from outside), or who discuss the various ways in which the term “light” is applied linguistically.[6] The exoteric source cited in this regard is al-Zamakhsharí’s Kashshàf. Zamakhsharí (d. 536 A.H.), a Mu‘tazilí theologian and author of one of the most popular tafsírs, states that God is “like light”. For Sadrà, there is no question of God being “like” light; He is the real light, the Light of Lights and the Being of all existences.

As is well known, the School of Illumination[7] was founded upon one principle: the “Light of lights”.[8] Their definition of light, taken from al-Ghazzàlí’s Mishkàt al-anwàr,[9] was that “light is a simple and self-manifesting reality which brings other things to manifestation”. “Light is an expression for that which is by itself visible and which makes other things visible”.[10]

Light, the Illuminationists believe, is not simply an equivalent name for existence. Although light, in its various gradations, is the ultimate cause of the things which exist, it is not the only thing that exists. Bodies and their concomitants are dark by nature. Existence, a mixture of light and dark, results as a consequence of what Suhrawardí calls, “brightness”.[11] This theory, however, is based on a philosophical division of light into the substantial and the accidental. Mullà Sadrà, like other Illuminationists, created a fourfold scheme: The first is the Independent Light, which is self-subsistent (ghaní), immaterial (mujarrad) or pure (mahz). This light is the cause of the other three kinds: Dependent light, i.e. accidental light (nur ‘arazí), which is a “luminous mode” inhering either in immaterial lights or physical bodies; self-subsistent light, which comprises the independent isthmuses, or barriers (barzikh), which are the dusky substances (jawàhir ghasiga) or material bodies; and finally, the accidental or dark modes (hay’at zulmàniyya) which include the nine accidental categories inhering in physical bodies and some other accidents of souls and intellects.[12]

The “great Sufis”, while agreeing with the definition of light as a simple reality, see this reality in terms of essence. Their argument is supported by the hadíth on the authority of Ibn Mas‘ud which equates the light of the heavens and earth to God’s light in the heart of the believer. Al-Sulami, in his Haqa’iq al-tafsír, commenting on the Verse of Light, quotes al-Hallàj as saying:

… in the head there is the light of revelation; between the eyes there is the light of intimate conversation with God (munàjàh); in the ear there is the light of certainty; on the tongue there is the light of clarity; and in the breast there is the light of faith.[13]

To Mullà Sadrà, however, like Ghazzàlí, Suhrawardí, Ibn ‘Arabí[14] and the later Illuminationists, the real light is God and all other usages of the term are metaphoric and have no real meaning. Obviously, Mullà Sadrà agrees more with the Illuminationists than with the Sufis who speak of the light of God metaphorically. Light, for him, is one of the names of God. Although light is present in all essences, it varies in intensity and perfection. Issuing from the divine, self-sufficient Light, it descends to the transcendental, intellectual, and spiritual entities and then to the celestial and elemental entities.

The reality of light and the reality of existence is one and the same. However, the reality of the existents depends on the gradation of light. The Illuminationists, nonetheless, distinguish between sensible light, accidental light, and the abstract light. They consider the existents that we see merely transient and not real. The inner meaning, according to Mullà Sadrà, is that bodies are particularizations of specific forms, the species. It is these which have to do more with light and existence than the shadowy and material bodies. This has some similarity to Plato’s world of ideas.

… There exist[s], first, the unchanging form, uncreated and indestructible, admitting no modification and entering no combination, imperceptible to sight or the other senses, the object of thought; second, that which bears the same name as the form and resembles it, but is sensible, has come into existence, is in constant motion, comes into existence in and vanishes from a particular place, and is apprehended by opinion with the aid of sensation.[15]

The reality of every existing thing, thus, is its manifestation, its Iuminosity. The existence of anything is equivalent to its grade of light; the greater its capacity to receive light, the more it is able to manifest being or the closer it comes to being self-manifest and manifesting others.[16]

Chapter one of Sadrà’s commentary is a discussion regarding the attribution of light to the heavens and earth. The existence of everything is equivalent to a light by which the quiddity and essence of the thing become manifest. God originates lights by His own luminous essence. This is the meaning of simple production. There is a correspondence between the essence of what is made and the essence of its Maker. It is in this very chapter that Mullà Sadrà elucidates his theory of the Principiality of existence. Unlike his predecessors, notably Suhrawardi and his own teacher, Mir Dàmàd, Mullà Sadrà believes that the quiddity is only a rational extraction and has no real existence except in the mind.[17] Existence cannot be ascribed to the quiddities, but rather to the existentiator, the Almighty. Existents have only a derived existence; like mirrors they merely reflect light-that is, being. With this symbol, derived from traditional Sufi teachings, especially those of Ibn ‘Arabí, Mullà Sadrà introduces the idea of spiritual refinement when he says that the more polished the mirror, the more reflective of light-being-it is.[18] As we shall see later, the most perfectly polished mirror is the Prophet, or Perfect Man, who is able to reflect Being in a most comprehensive manner.

In a subsection entitled “Thronely Wisdom”[19] Mullà Sadrà gives to the Peripatetic discussion of substance and accident his own interpretation based on Illumination. According to Aristotle substances are either primary or secondary. The primary ones are the concrete individual realities perceived by senses, such as “this man” or “this horse”; the secondary substances are the universals which come to exist in the mind as concepts-forms abstracted from matter, divisible into species and genera. Accidents, on the other hand, may be either essential, such as black in tar and heat in fire, or may be separable, such as pallor or warmth in human beings.

For Mullà Sadrà, it is evident that neither of these concepts exist in the way they were defined by Aristotle and the Muslim Peripatetic philosophers. What is thought of as “substantial” or “accidental” is, in reality, non-existent either in themselves or independently. Rather, they derive their borrowed existence from what is truly substance, that is God. Sadrà dismisses the notion of the underlying subject and its coincidences, stating rather that Real substance is none other than the Necessary Being and real accident is all contingent existences. Furthermore, these accidents do not subsist in the real substance in the way it is commonly believed that accidents subsist in substances. Accidents are everything that is “other than God”. It is God who constitutes the concomitants of His Being, which are none other than His beautiful names and their loci as possible contingents. It is in Him that they subsist. This is consistent with Sadrà’s notion that the quiddities have no real existence, so they have no need for an underlying subject, matter, or form, and are never conceptualized.

In another subsection, “Illuminated Glimmerings”, Sadrà asserts that the reality of light is only perceived by experiential witnessing and not by rational means. It is not grasped by the mind’s making a form of it, that is by conceiving of it as a universal. Universals need particularization in order to be manifested, and what is entified concretely is not the essence, since “essence” is a product of the mind. Conceptual knowledge deals with the universal rather than with the concrete, the individual, and as such is multivalent. Light/Being, on the other hand, is self-manifest and the cause of manifestation of everything else. This is an essence which is none other than Being itself; its Being is its essence. There is nothing concealed or hidden about this essence and it is not conceptual in any way. It is fully and unqualifiedly present.

The latent entities are brought into existence by a process which involves God’s essential attributes. Light falls upon what is dark by nature- the material world in its potential state. God’s command activates this light through His attribute of “willing”. God’s willing, existentiating, knowing, and illuminating are simultaneous and non-temporal events and are inseparable from His essence, which is His very Being. God’s intellecting is His existentiating is His illuminating is His willing.

This passage is reminiscent of the highly condensed formulation found in Ibn ‘Arabí’s Fusus al-hikam, in which he describes God’s self-manifesting essence:

The Reality wanted to see the essence of His Most Beautiful Names or, to put it another way, to see His own Essence, in an all-inclusive object encompassing the whole [divine], command, which, qualified by existence, would reveal to Him His own mystery. For seeing of a thing, itself by itself, is not the same as its seeing itself in another, as it were in a mirror; for it appears to itself in a form that is invested by the location of the vision by that which would only appear to it given the existence of the location and its self-disclosure to it.[20]

The quiddities of everything that exists contingently are in a state resembling darkness until the light of God brings them forth and makes them manifest. This is supported by the Prophetic tradition, “God the Almighty caused the creation to exist in darkness, and then He shed His light upon it”.[21] Heaven and earth represent the totality of the cosmos which receives God’s creative light and becomes manifest as quiddity and essence. The cause of the thing’s existence is the “shining” of His light.

In a subsection called “Revelatory Support”, Sadrà speaks as a pure gnostic and affirms the intimate connection between himself and God. The gnostic’s heart is a receptacle for the Light and a place where he may witness the Truth insofar as he is capable of dong so. It is this Light which illuminates and guides him on the path towards the Lord. The heart is the locus of tawhíd, the declaration of God’s unity, and the annihilator of distance and separation.[22]

The next passage deals with a theme very common to Sufis, that of the contradictory or opposing names of God. God is described as being First and Last; Manifest and Hidden; the one who guides and the one who leads astray. It must be emphasized that this apparent duality does not compromise in any way the absolute and non-delimited Being who is above all names. These names are subsumed in the all-comprehensive Name, Allah, which is the “face” of His relation to creation. There forever remains a “face” which is utterly transcendent and “unknowable”.

Therefore, insofar as Being possesses these two aspects of transcendence and immanence, the Divine Names can be divided into what is known as the “majestic” Names and the “beautiful” Names. The majestic Names reflect the incomparability of Divinity. To the creature, they are Names experienced as severity and wrath. On the other hand, the beautiful Names reflect the similarity of the Divinity to His creation. They are experienced as mercy and kindness. Mercy, as the Qur’an affirms, precedes wrath; or, as Mullà Sadrà states, the beautiful Names are essential attributes of the divinity while the majestic Names are accidental, brought into play as concomitants of the contingent existences.

Being is pure light, non-being is pure darkness. It is only in the intermediate realm, the “barzakh” state in which light and darkness intermingle, that things become visible and manifest. The contingent world requires the admixture of “negative” qualities in order to discern the “positive” ones. There are, in reality, only positive qualities, beautiful Names, sheer Light/Being. But in their pure and absolute reality they cannot be seen. “Evil” as such has no existence whatsoever since it is pure darkness, pure non-entity. Evil cannot be ascribed to God, who is pure good. Evil is a concomitant of contingent existence. Hence, light, which Mullà Sadrà perceives and describes as the “Muhammedan light”, is an essential and substantial light while the fire of Iblis is accidental. Light pervades the heavens, which are equated with what is spiritual, while fire pervades the earth, which is equated with what is corporeal.

In the second chapter Mullà Sadrà continues his exegesis of the rest of the verse by explaining three symbols: the “niche”, “lamp”, and “glass”. The importance of the nature of “witnessing” is once again emphasized while the themes of “Muhammedan light” and the Divine Names are discussed further.

Sadrà has said from the beginning that vision cannot withstand sheer Light, and entification cannot encompass sheer Being. An intermediary is needed. Light is being, diffused through the glass, and Being is encompassed by the Perfect Man, Muhammed. Thus witnessing is only possible from behind the Muhammedan lamp-glass. Absolute Unity is incomprehensible and cannot be expressed or experienced. God is known only through His Names and their theophanies. Each Name has two faces: one of which is dissolved in sheer Being, the other of which is reflected in creation.

Sadrà likens this condition to the case of a lamp. The lamp and its light appear as one thing, yet can be broken down into two components: light, which is undifferentiated; and the holder, which is the locus and receptacle of this light. If the “lamp” is equated with the synthetic Name of God, “Allah”, then “Light” will be the equivalent to sheer Being, while the “holder” will be this all-encompassing Name.

It is also possible to imagine the lamp as representing the Prophet. In this case, light is the equivalent to his existence, while the holder is the equivalent to his quiddity. Thus, three levels of interpretations have been propounded: the literal “lamp” – composed of light and holder – as it exists concretely; the metaphoric “lamp” – composed of existence and quiddity – as witnessed in the Prophet; and the metaphoric “lamp” – composed of Being and contingent – as ascribed to the Almighty God.

Hence, the “lamp” becomes a symbol common to both Allah and the Prophet. The difference between the two is a matter of relation between Lord and servant, between what is necessary and what is contingent. The Prophet receives God’s light as does a mirror and in turn reflects this light to all of his community. This is the meaning of the intercession of the Prophet Muhammed, which is needed even for the prophets. When they contemplate the model of the Prophet, they witness the reflection of God. By following his example of perfect servitude, they will attain a station of mastery and favor with their Lord, signified by the reference to the creative word “kun”![23]

In the “admonition” that follows, however, Mullà Sadrà warns the gnostic from falling into the error of confusing any contingent existent with God.[24] The difference between Lord and servant is like the difference between the real and the reflection of the real, between the source and the shadow. Another way of considering the relationship between the Lord and the servant is exemplified in the Qur’anic verse of the Trust. Our qualities, our possessions, indeed our very existence, are given to us in trust for a very short time after which they must be returned to their Guarantor and for which they must be accounted for.

After this discussion of the “lamp”, Mullà Sadrà moves on to a gnostic elaboration of “niche”, “lamp” and “glass” attributed to some of the early interpreters. This interpretation which assimilates the “niche” to the breast, the “lamp” to spirit, and the “glass” to heart, is congruent with Ibn Sínà’s model of physical, psychological, and cosmological tropes. It consists of three levels of meaning corresponding to the worlds of dominion (mulk), the barzakh, which is called here a‘ràf, and the malakut. The first level is purely physical: the breast consisting of the corporeal frame, or perhaps the liver, as the seat of the natural soul; the heart as the corporeal fleshy organ; and the spirit, which pertains to the animal psychological perception of particulars and its motive of powers of concupiscence and irascibility.

The second level, in which the breast, heart, and spirit are equated with the natural, animal, and ensouled human spirits, is common to all human beings. It is concerned with “practical philosophy”, i.e. the moral purification everyone is capable of undertaking in preparation for his final end.

In the third level, breast, heart and spirit are respectively: animal soul, rational soul, and acquired intellect. This latter, when it comes in contact with the Active Intellect – the last of the emanated non-material and separate intellects according to Muslim Peripatetic philosophers – perceives the intelligibles. In terms of the celestial hierarchy, the Active Intellect is the equivalent of the Sanctified Angel (Gabriel) and the Pen. As for the heart on this level, it is equivalent to the Throne of God, and God’s Name, the Merciful (al-Rahmàn), while the breast is equivalent to the Footstool.

Although the first level, the corporeal world, needs no explanation since it is the world we are most familiar with, the other two levels deserve a brief comment. The malakut is the angelic realm and the place where eschatological events take place. The barzakh between the mulk, or corporeal world, and the malakut, or the spiritual world, is called the a‘raf, or “Heights”, based upon the Qur’anic verse: “And on al-a‘raf are men who know each of them by their marks”.[25] Mullà Sadrà simply refers to this isthmus as the world of spheres, although in the Wisdom of the Throne he peoples this level with “those who have become perfect in knowledge and understanding”. These perfect ones can see the states of the people of Heavens and Hell.[26]

Mullà Sadrà then interprets the meaning of the “blessed olive tree”[27] which is neither of the east nor of the west. He first dismisses the notion that this tree is like the trees of our world. This “tree”, as described in the Qur’anic verse, has clearly a macrocosmic and microcosmic sense, both physical and supra-sensible dimensions.

Mullà Sadrà begins his interpretation by speaking of the anatomy of the heart, starting with the pine-cone shaped and fleshy organ made up of physical elements and compounds. It has an external and internal aspect and this latter has in turn three other internal aspects. The relationship of these aspects to one another is likened to various cosmological relationships, beginning with the relationship between external/earth and internal/heaven.

Mulla Sadrà uses the common trope of “husks” which surround the innermost kernel of the hearth. Again, with reference to Avicennian psychology, Sadrà draws up a system of analogies which equates the first layer of the internal aspect with the animal soul which is second to the rational soul and the third to the rational substance emanated by the Active Intellect upon this soul. This “rational substance” is equivalent to the universal concepts which are deposited in the matrix of potential intellect which then may develop into the Active Intellect just as the sperm develops into the human being.

The ascending process of the intellectual development—from potential intellect, to intellect in habitus, to actual intellect and then to acquired intellect, is obviously taken from Ibn Sínà and al-Fàràbí. The traits of the acquired intellect, that is witnessing the forms of the intelligibles at the level of the sublime Pen and the Preserved Tablet, and uniting with the “favored angels”, (the cherubim), however, draw upon Qur’anic rather than philosophical terms. The Pen, according to mystics such as Ibn ‘Arabí, is equivalent to the Muhammedan reality pertaining to the “world of the souls”. These worlds derive their names from the Qur’anic verse: “We shall show them our signs upon the horizon and in themselves, so that it becomes clear to them that He is the Real (41: 53)” and were commonly used to signify the macrocosm and microcosm.[28] Therefore, when Sadrà gives the correspondences of: “niche” to the corporeal world, “glass” to the Throne, “lamp” to Great Spirit, “tree” to universal hyle, “oil” to the world of the ensouled spirits, and “fire” to the eternal power, he is in fact describing the macrocosmic world of malakut. The first phrase “light upon light” pertains to the light of Divine Mercy and knowledge, while the second pertains to the Sublime Spirit and the Active Intellect.

Sadrà leaves the interpretation of the “world of souls” to another chapter which deals with Ibn Sínà’s philosophical interpretation of the same notion. In his al-Ishàràt Ibn Sínà puts forth the following scheme: The “niche” is equivalent to the hylic intellect. The “glass” is equivalent to the intellect in habitus, and the “tree” to the deliberative faculty. The “oil” is equivalent to intuition and the “lamp” to the intellect in act. The “fire” is equivalent to the Active Intellect.[29]

In a subsection called “Illuminative Unveiling” Sadrà discusses several interpretations of the tree as being “neither of the east nor of the west”. When this description is applied to the intellectual realm, its meaning is outside the genus of place. When it refers to something physical, its meaning is some intermediate quality. When it refers to the deliberative or hylic faculty, it has to do with an intermediate state between the two worlds this world and the hereafter. It is also possible that it means that it is neither contingent nor necessary.

Putting it in the context of the rest of the other symbols, Sadrà says that “niche” is the universal nature: “glass” is the universal soul; “tree” is Divine power; “oil” is the Divine desire; the “lamp” is the universal Intellect, and “fire” is the final cause. These terms, however, suggest the Neo-platonic scheme of hierarchised emanations. The light of God emanates upon the Universal Intellect, a self-luminous substance which in turn emanates upon the Universal Soul. The latter is completely receptive of this light which it, in turn, sheds upon the naturally dark universal nature, where it is received according to the varying capacities of corporeal substance.

The “oil” which renders this kindling possible is the divine desire to activate the potential relationship of the Names, in this context described as the “tree”, or the Divine power. Since this Power is concomitant to Being, and is only activated in relationship to the creations, it cannot be said to belong to either the “east”, or sheer Being nor to the “west”, or sheer non-entity. In other words, and as mentioned earlier, the status of the Divine Names is contradictory. If subsumed in God’s unity, they are non-existent contingencies, but when existentiated by God’s wish and command, they become necessary entities.

In “Thronely Wisdom” which follows, Sadrà says it is possible that the “olive tree” is the totality of the world of bodies, since it cannot be defined by direction; hence it is “neither of the east nor of the west”. In this case, the “oil” is the sheer potentiality of existence, which can be ignited by the light according to its preparedness, that is, according to its natural capacity and physical constitution. The “niche”, then, is the totality of the hylic entities, or prime matter. The “lamp” is the totality of the world of souls which also varies with respect to its capacity of ignitions, and the “light” is the totality of the world of intellects, again, differ as to their receptivity of the light of Divine knowledge

In the next two passages Sadrà emphasized the favored position of the First Intellect, the Muhammedan reality. In the first passage, Sadrà begins with a discussion of the Mohammedan light. It should be remembered that the early interpretation attributed to Muqàtil b. Sulaymàn mentions this notion, and was adopted later by Sufi and Shí’í circles. In his interpretation, as we have seen, he equated the lamp with Mohammed through whose intercession humankind finds guidance to the Truth. Following Muqàtil, the Sufi interpreter Sahl al-Tustari added the notion of Muhammed as a column of light:

When God willed to create Muhammed, He made appear a light from His Light. When it reached the veil of the Majesty, hijàb al-‘azama, it bowed in prostration before God. God created from its prostration a mighty column like crystal glass of light that is outwardly and inwardly translucent.[30]

The Muhammedan light is the source of all the other prophets’ lights, as well as of the lights of the malakut and the lights of both this world and the world to come. This is the meaning of the Prophet’s saying: “I was a Prophet when Adam was between water and clay.” The primordial nature of his essential light was created before any other created existence.

The Muhammedan light, as Sadrà states by citing this prophetic tradition, was the first thing which God created. Since another prophetic tradition states that the first thing which God created was the Intellect, the two are often seen as identical. In the school of Ibn ‘Arabí, for example, the first intellect represents the perfect Man in the world of spirits (jabarut), just as his soul is represented by the world of imagination (malakut), and his body is represented by the world of sense (mulk). Beyond the first intellect lies the reality (haqíqa) of the perfect Man, that is his permanent immutable entity (‘ayn thàbita), which is the same as the presence of the Divinity (al-hazra al-uluhiyya).[31] It is he who reflects the Divine Comprehensive Name “Allah” as if in a mirror. This status is not given to any other prophet.

In the final chapter, which is also the longest, the nature of the perfect Man is made clear. He is the locus of the Divine Name, “Allah”, which is the totality of all the Divine Names. He is also the vicegerent of God’s creation, as attested by the Qur’an, and is responsible for it.

The Names of God are in reality infinite in number and reflect various and particular qualities of God, such as His Mercy, His Compassion, and His Might. Everything in creation reflects one or more of the Names, but only in the perfect Man are all the Names found in a synthetic form. Since he contains all the Names existing in the universe, he is both microcosm and macrocosm; servant and lord. As Sadr al-Dín al-Qunawí states:

He is the intermediary between God and creation. Through him and from his level of existence the effusion of God and the succor which is the cause of the subsistence of ‘other than God’ reach the world, all of it … If it were not for the fact that he acts as the isthmus … nothing in the could be the receptacle for the unique divine succor, because of the lack of correspondence and relationship.[32]

The position of the Muhammedan reality in the chain of emanation is both as first and most noble of contingent existences and as the final goal of all existents on their return to their Lord. In this manner the Muhammedan reality parallels the First Intellect which is also said to be both the first cause and the final goal. As part of his general practice of drawing analogies between the macrocosm and microcosm, Sadrà likens the human being’s intellect to the First Intellect to the extent that he actually claims their virtual identity in the view of those who possess spiritual insight.

The goal of the human intellect is to attain union with the Active Intellect and by this means to achieve independence from material existence, a process which begins in this world but is fully realized only in the hereafter. The notion that one can acquire a “second existential nature”, which is free from attachment to material forms, by a perfecting process in which one strives to make oneself god-like to the best of one’s capacities, is common to both Sufism and philosophy. This was a very important element in Platonic[33] and Neo-platonic writings where it was mentioned as one of the primary goals of the philosophic life. The possibility of the human being’s acquired intellect joining the Active Intellect was discussed by the foremost Muslim philosophers, such as Fàràbí, Ibn Sínà and Ibn Rushd who did not always agree on this subject.

The case with Mullà Sadrà took a new understanding. Sadrà believes that the Active Intellect is not only prior to the other contingents but it is also a fruit of their self-perfecting efforts. It is, in other words, something which corresponds to its own predetermined primordial nature. Sadrà alludes to a secret when he uses this term in the plural as “Active Intellects”. This secret, as he asserts, few have understood. However, Corbin mentions that Abu al-Barakàt al-Baghdàdí spoke of more than one “Active Intellect”.[34] Perhaps, unlike other philosophers, what Mullà Sadrà and al-Baghdàdí are hinting at is that this is the only explanation for having many prophets, saints and Imàms.

As the chapter proceeds, Sadrà returns to the discussion that he started in the earlier parts of his commentary, that of the substance and accident. Taking the Aristotelian categories, he now makes the Divine Names correspond to this scheme. The Divine essence, he says, is like substance which is always surrounded by accidents what corresponds to accidents here are the Names, some of which are genera, some species, and so forth. There are Names which are generated from the bringing together of other Names, just as simple substances are brought together to form composite ones. In fact, there seems to be a perfect correspondence being made between substance and essence on the one hand and the accidents on the other.

Existence, says Sadrà, is one sole reality which is called the “Breath of the Merciful”, a concept taken from Ibn ‘Arabí. For Ibn ‘Arabí, this is the substance of the universe. He related it to the word “tanfis” from the same root, meaning to breathe forth or to relieve sorrow, and uses it as an analogy for the creative process:

Each characteristic of breath becomes the starting point for the explanation of a dimension of the relationship between God and creation. Thus breath is a vapor, relieves constriction in the breast, and is a vehicle for words; in the same way the Breath of the All-merciful is a cloud, relieves the constriction of the immutable entities (or the divine names) – which desire to see the outward manifestation of their properties – and is the vehicle for God’s words, which are the creatures.[35]

Thus, the existentiation of the Names and the contingencies are part of the same process, a merciful unloosing from the stricture of non-existence; the Names belong to the unseen world while their corresponding counterparts are present in the world of witnessing. Beyond these two worlds lie the world of the Divine Decree (or the Pen) and the world of spiritual destiny, which is the Tablet of decreed knowledge, or “Mother of the Book”. It appears that Mullà Sadrà is also influenced by Ibn ‘Arabí’s conception of the “Mother of the Book”, for among the five meanings he accords to this expression, one is that it represents the matrix of the divine truths differentiated in the divine knowledge.[36] It receives the decrees written by the Sublime Pen, or the First Intellect, the effects of the divine command “Be!” Below this is the world of the heavenly tablets, called the Book of Effacement and Establishment, which has two emerald covers. In Sufi terminology, the emerald signifies the Universal Soul.[37] The Universal soul is the receptive quality of the spiritual world.

All these worlds are, in fact, comparable to books which contain the forms and figures of the cosmos which the human being can, as it were; being to progressively read as he perfects himself until finally he arrives at the one who is the Inscriber of the Books. Staying within this metaphor, Sadrà also describes the Perfect Man as a book which brings together all the diverse forms of knowledge. The comprehensive nature of his knowledge is thus reiterated.

The Pen is the equivalent of his spirit and intellect, which is called the Mother of the Book; the Tablet is his heart, or rational faculty; the Book of Effacement and Establishment is this animal soul; and the “corporeal register” or “hylic record” is his physical nature. Only this last “book” is destroyed when he dies; the others are elevated to the spiritual realm to await the Day of Judgement. In reality, this Book is made up of two books, only one of which will be destroyed, that of the “dissolute”, whereas the other book, that of the “pious” will be preserved.

The arcs of descent and ascent, creation and “second creation”, meet in the center of the circle of existence; the First Intellect and the last spirit, which is the Mohammedan reality, are “one essence manifesting twice”. There is, at this juncture, a reverse of the tide of effusion and emanation whereby the world of diverse phenomena comes to be existentiated, for at this point the pull of attraction (jadhba) towards the one, the singularity, is felt.

Mullà Sadrà then enumerates how the Sublime Spirit and the Perfect Man are analogous. Both, for example, encompass all the contingencies with respect to knowledge and concreteness. The Sublime Spirit is, as has been alluded to, the Pen of the Real which writes on the tablets of destiny, then on the tablets of the soul, of the imagination and of sense. The inscriptions of all these tablets stem from the Pen of the Sublime Spirit, hence there is nothing in heaven and in earth, seen or unseen, that is not known to it. As for concreteness, the Sublime Spirit’s essence subsumes the essence of all the contingents; it is the agent of their manifestation and the end for which they are made.

The Perfect Man performs the same function for creation; he encompasses all the forms of knowledge and all the concrete entities. Within this microcosm are all the levels of the macrocosm, be they corporeal or spiritual, seen or unseen, high or low. The Perfect Man is the paradigm of God and it is through knowing him that one knows God. There is no other way. That is the secret contained in the injunction to know the Prophet and the Imam. Through the Perfect Man’s intercession, human beings are guided to their perfect ends and their eternal happiness. He is like a prism for the divine light, providing the human being with the divine sciences necessary for his second creation.

Not only does the perfect Man embrace all the Names and Attributes of God but also His acts. There are acts which can be described as “beings”, “inventions”, or “creations”. The first kind of act is dependent upon time, place, movement and matter; the second depend on place and matter, but not on time or movement; and the third does not depend on any of these Sadrà begins with acts which do not depend on instruments or movements, that is, creations, describing these as “sciences depending on faith”. These sciences are gained upon attaining to the level of the acquired intellect. The second type of acts, or “inventions”, has to do with the imaging forth of these intelligibilities as well as the activities which take place within the human organism without consciousness. The third type, or “beings”, corresponds to the actions which are voluntary, such as writing or praying.

Just as God commands His universe, so too does the Perfect Man command his. This takes place in four stages common to both. The first stage is solicitude, the second is decree, the third is the Tablet, and the fourth is external predestination.

The stage of solicitude occurs at the level of the innermost heart, or “mystery” (sirr). From there it descends to the inner heart, or rational soul, which is the place of decree. It is there that universal concepts and major premises are formed, and the determination comes to act. Then it descends to the imagination, the place of the Tablet, where the particular concepts and minor premises are formed, and the determination to act becomes decisive. The final stage is reached in the culminating actions which have followed upon this process of deliberation.

The limbs, like soldiers, are commanded to perform their predestined act in the external world. All of these acts have their counterparts in the heavenly spheres as well. Hence the verse of Light may also be interpreted cosmologically; the sun is equivalent to “lamp”. Celestial spheres are equivalent to “glass”. Prime matter is equivalent to “niche”. The “blessed tree” is the inherent potentiality of the physical world which neither can be said to belong to the intellectual nor to the material realms of existence.

In a subsection called “Glimmerings and Indications”, Mullà Sadrà concludes that the spiritual ipseity of the Perfect Man is where the divine unseen essence manifests itself, and that his ensouled ipsity is the place where the name “Allah” manifests itself. If one understands this “secret”, or mystery, then one has understood the meaning of the Verse of Light by “presential unveiling”. The secret is this: the Mohammedan light is the cause and agent for the creation which is present in varying degrees of intensity in every contingent existence. It is the face of “Allah”, seen reflected in innumerable mirrors with greater or lesser clarity. This is the meaning of the verse: “We shall show them our signs upon the horizons and within themselves until it becomes clear to them that He is God”.

At this point, Sadrà breaks off his discussion of the Perfect Man and alludes briefly to eschatological matters to which he will also return later. He describes the states of the dead as something difficult for the philosophers to understand although the Gnostic can attest to their reality and to their meaning.

The Perfect Man enjoys a sublime station in the hierarchy of the cosmos, for everything was commanded to bow down to him because of his complete knowledge and his perfect power. His knowledge comprises all the exoteric and esoteric sciences, while his power will only appear in the hereafter.

Within the human being are all the paradisiacal forms as well as the infernal ones, and it is in the hereafter that he will witness the results of this acts as these forms divested of their matters. The blessed ones who dwell within the Garden will exercise the command “Be! And it is”, and obtain whatsoever they desire of the forms of good things. Those who dwell within the fire will be tormented by the forms of snakes, scorpions and the like. Those who can only grasp the form when it is materialized fail to realize the nature of these dematerialized forms.

‘àlam al-mithàl, or the world of likenesses, is the place where these eschatological event take place. It is also the place where one receives dreams and visions. Its status, as Chittick has pointed out, is ambiguous; it is more real and more luminous than the corporeal world, yet it is darker and more embodied than the spiritual world:

it is here … that the friends of God have visions of past prophets or that, after death, all the works of a person will be given back to him in a form appropriate to the intention and reality of the work, not in the form of the work itself.[38]

The contemplation of death, Sadrà tells us, is one of the greatest acts of worship since the veil of humanity is the thickest and most stubbornly attached of all the veils. Therefore, the Gnostic should long for death and prepare himself for this state by removing his regard from worldly things. Yet Sadrà insists that all the ascetic practices were worth nothing without divine attraction and favor. The most favored of all are the prophets and saints who receive knowledge from God’s presence (‘ilm laduní) rather than having to toil and strive by means of their intellects.

The stations and ends of the seekers are defined in Mullà Sadrà’s concluding testament. The people who are attached to material forms will be burned with fire and scattered to the winds. The people who are attached to the hereafter will be burned by the purifying fire which will turn them to pure gold. The people of God who are attached to Him along will be burned by light until they become a unique substance which has no equal in either worlds—the here or the hereafter. The first group is engaged in amassing the pleasures and profits of this world. The second group is occupied with prayer and worship. But the third is graced with inner knowledge and alone will encounter God.

This, then, is the essence of gnosis (‘irfàn); the presential knowledge that comes when the mirror of the heart has been polished and the light of God is reflected therein. Acts of worship and ascetic practices in and of themselves are only a means to facilitate this encounter. At each stage of the wayfarer’s journey is a voluntary death and the result is new creation. This is the meaning of trans-substantial motion, for in every moment the world is recreated and brought closer to its source and aim. By divesting himself of the “husks” or “veils” of his ego the gnostic begins to shine with the light of oneness (tawhíd).

In conclusion, Mullà Sadrà’s exegesis of the “Verse of Light”, every line of which provides a myriad of topics for contemplation and a vast array of analogies, is inexhaustible. The central issue, as we have seen, is the Perfect Man as the immanent synopsis corresponding to the transcendent Unity. Through him, as a reflection of the Light, human beings can see the light.



[1].  For a lucid summary of these doctrines, see Nasr, Islamic Life and Thought, pp. 162-168 and 174-181. “The whole doctrinal formulation of Mulla Sadrà is based on the unity, principiality and gradation of existence…” p. 162.

[2]. Fazlur Rahman, The Philosophy of Mulla Sadrà, p. 27. Concerning the disparity between Mulla Sadrà and his predecessors on the issue of the principiality of existence, see Nasr, Sadr al-Dín Shíràzí and His Transcendent Theosophy, pp. 90-91.

[3]. See Nasr, Islamic Life and Thought, pp. 174-175. “The source of this doctrine is an experience of the Unity of Being, an experience made possible through the discipline provided by Islamic esotericism, which can enable man to transcend the world of multiplicity and to reach the stations of annihilation (fanà’) and subsistence (baqà’)…”

[4].  Nasr, Sadr al-Dín Shíràzí and His Transcendent Theosophy, p. 91.

[5].  Nasr, Islamic Life and Thought, p. 163.

[6].  For general philosophical and scientific opinions concerning light, see A. I. Sabra, Ibn al-Haytham, Optics, vol. II, London: Warburg Institute, 1989, p. li. In addition, see F. Rosenthal, Knowledge Triumphant, Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1970, p. 155 ff., for the treatment of “light” in various Sufi and other religious traditions since antiquity.

[7]. Concerning this school and its background see, S. H. Nasr, Three Muslim Sages, Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press, 1964, chap. II, p. 52ff.

[8]. See Suhrawardí, Hikmat al-ishràq, edited with an introduction by Henry Corbin, Tehran: Institute Franco – Iranien, 1954, pp. 12-124, 134, 150, among others. For a discussion on Suhrawardí and his philosophy of Illumination see, Hossein Ziai, Knowledge and Illumination: A Study of Suhrawardí’s Hikmat al-ishràq, Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1990, pp. 161-166. See also a recent study on Illuminationism by John Walbridge, The Science of Mystic Lights: Qutb al-Dín Shíràzí and the Illuminationist Tradition in Islamic Philosophy, Cambridge (Mass): Harvard University Press, 1992, pp. 49, 59-61, 72ff.

[9]. Concerning Ghazzàlí’s influence on the Illuminationist school, see S. H. Nasr, Three Muslim Sages, pp. 54-55, 147 note 4. There is no doubt that Ghazzàlí laid the foundation for the later Illuminationist school in his treatise Mishkàt al-anwàr. Mulla Sadrà, nonetheless, mentions this fact in his introduction to his commentary on “the Verse of Light.” The translation.

[10]. Al-Ghazzàlí, op. cit., trans. p. 81, and Suhrawardí, Hikmat al-ishràq, p. 106 ff.

[11]. Compare Suhrawardí’s theory of ontology in Ziai, op. cit. p. 169, with Nasr’s summary on Mulla Sadrà’s ontology of the Transcendent Theosophy, pp. 90-91.

[12]. See Walbridge, op. cit., p. 49; compare with Ziai, op. cit., p. 169.

[13]. Rosenthal, op. cit., p. 159.

[14]. See al-Futuhàt al-makkiyya, Beirut: Dar Sadir, N. D., vol. 3, p. 274. Ibn ‘Arabí says: “God is sheer light. The impossible is sheer darkness. … [And] the creation is the barzakh between Light and darkness.”

[15]. Timaeus, 52a, trans. Desmond Lee, New York: Penguin Books, 1955 (rep. 1971), p. 71.

[16]. If one were to ask, how a contingent light can be self-manifesting, since it is dependent upon another light, Mulla Sadrà’s answer lies in the notion of simple production (al-ja‘l al-basít). See F. Rahman, The Philosophy of Mulla Sadrà, p. 63, regarding simple production vs. compound production.

[17]. Nasr, Sadr al-Dín Shíràzí and His Transcendent Theosophy, pp. 78, 81 fn 15.

[18]. See, for example, M. Sells, “Ibn ‘Arabí’s Polished Mirror: A perspective Shift and Meaning Event,” in Studia Islamica, 67 (1988), pp. 121-149.

[19]. It appears that when Mulla Sadrà refers to “wisdom gleaned from the throne,” he is referring to what he has received through his own illuminative experience, the spiritual experience which led the gnostics to claim highest  knowledge. This is manifested clearly in the writings of  Ibn ‘Arabí. See, for example, J. Morris, op. cit., p. 27.

[20]. Fusus al-hikam, trans. Austin, p. 50. For more discussion regarding the influence of Ibn ‘Arabí on Mullà Sadrà and other Shí‘í gnostics such as Haydar Àmulí see Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Living Sufism, London: Mandala Books, 1980, pp. 84-85.

[21]. See Sayyid Haydar Àmulí Jàmi‘ al-asràr wa-manba‘ al-anwàr, eds. Henry Corbin and Osman Yahia, Tehran: Institut Francais De Recherche en Iran, 1968, p. 257ff. Àmulí uses the same prophetic tradition and a similar argument concerning God’s unity and the issue of creation, in his interpretation of this verse. In comparing the two texts of Sadrà and Àmulí one may notice the latter’s great influence on Sadrà’s gnostic ideas.

[22]. Regarding the centrality of heart in Sufi wayfaring and its function in abridging the wayfarer’s low station to the state of gnosis and its participation in divine Attributes See Corbin, The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism, trans. Nancy Pearson, London: Shambhala Publication, Inc., 1978, p. 72ff.

[23]. Regarding the mystic’s understanding of the oneness of God and the wayfarer’s relationship to Him in terms of command, “Be!” see, R.C. Zaehner, Hindu and Muslim Mysticism. New York: Schocken Books, 1969, p. 133.

[24]. See the interesting discussion concerning the mystic’s self-deification in Zaehner, Ibid., pp. 130-133.

[25]. Qur’an 7: 46. For more discussion on this verse, see al-Asfàr al-arba‘ah, vol. 9, pp. 316-318, and The Wisdom of the Throne, trans. J. Morris, pp. 228-231.

[26]. J. Morris, the Wisdom of the Throne, p. 229.

[27]. For another extensive discussion of the World Tree and its symbolic meaning, see A. Jeffery, “Ibn al-‘Arabí’s Shajarat al-Kawn”, in Studia Islamica, X (1958), pp. 43-77, and XI (1959), pp. 113-160.

[28]. For a perceptive treatment of this theme, see S. Murata, The Tao of Islam, Albany (New York): State University of New York Press, 1992, pp. 23-27.

[29]. Ibn Sínà, op. cit., pp. 126-127.

[30]. G. Bowering, “The Prophet of Islam: The First and the Last Prophet”, in The Message of the Prophet, Islamabad: Government of Pakistan, 1979, pp. 49-50.

[31]. See Chittick, “Sadr al-Dín Qunawí on the Oneness of Being”, in International Philosophical Quarterly, 21 (1981), p. 178.

[32]. W. Chittick, “The Perfect Man in the Sufism of Jàmí”, p. 153.

[33]. See, for example, Plato’s I Alcibiades, as well as the Neo-platonic commentator Hermias who wrote a commentary on Plato’s Phaedrus in which the axion “he who knows himself becomes God” is mentioned; and Olympiodorus who wrote a commentary on I Alcibiades. In Islamic philosophical tradition this notion was held by Abu Bakr Muhammad b. Zakariyya al-Ràzí (d. ca. 925 C.E.). See “al-Síra al-Falsafiyya”, in Abu Bakr Muhammad Ibn Zakariyya al-Ràzí, ed., P. Kraus, (rep.) Beirut: Dar al-Afaq al-Jadida, 1973, pp. 98-111.

[34]. H. Corbin, Avicenna and the Visionary Recital, trans. Willard Trask, New York: Pantheon Books Inc., 1960, p. 88.

[35]. W. Chittick, The Sufi Path of Knowledge, New York: State University of New York Press, 1989, p. 127.

[36]. Concerning the meanings of this term in Ibn ‘Arabí’s writings see, Su’àd al-Hakim, al-Mu‘jam al-Sufi, p. 12.

[37]. See Jurjàní, al-Ta‘rífàt, Tunus: al-Dàr al-Tunisiyya li-al-Nashr, 1971, p. 61, where he defines emerald (zumurrud) as “the Universal Soul. When the potentiality in it was magnified in terms of intellect, which is its existential cause, and in terms of its self (nafsaha): it is called a jewel which is described by the mixture of two colors, the green and black”.

[38]. W. Chittick, The Sufi Path of Knowledge, p. 15.


© Copyright 2009 SIPRIn. All Rights Reserved.


 Print This Document

Save This Document on Your System