Epistemology and the Transcendent Philosophy

Ali Shirvani

1. In the Transcendent Philosophy, no separate section has been devoted to the discussion of epistemology and the compatibility or incompatibility of human knowledge with the outside world.  It has rather been discussed scatteredly under issues such as knowledge, mental quality, immateriality of the soul and, particularly, mental existence.

2. With regard to the history of the issue of mental existence, some contemporary philosophers hold the following ideas:

Mental existence is one of the much-discussed topics in philosophical fields. It was introduced for the first time by Muslim philosophers. As we see, Ibn Sín has not made the least reference to this issue in his books, and even the term mental existence is absolutely non-existent not only in his writings, but also in those of philosophers living before him, such as Frbí. The problem of mental existence was for the first time introduced and discussed in separation from other issues by Fakhr al-Dín Rzí (d. 606 A.H) in his al-Mabhith al-mashriqiyyah[1] and Khwjah Nasír al-Dín Tusí (d. 672 A.H) in his Tajríd al-itiqd. [2]

Khwjah Nasír al-Dín Tusí and his succeeding philosophers posed this discussion to react to the theologians denial of philosophers definition of knowledge, according to which knowledge means the acquisition of the form of a thing by the intellect. Later the theologians presented a new theory maintaining that knowledge belongs to the category of relation and, in this way, denied the very basis of mental existence. Such an approach prompted Muslim philosophers to propound the issue of mental existence and try to adduce certain reasons to prove it.[3]

3. In evaluating the first part of the above-mentioned theory, it must be noted that although in Ibn Síns books no independent chapter has been devoted to the problem of mental existence, the concepts of mental existence or existent in the mind can be found in his words. Accordingly, we cannot consider Fakhr al-Dín Rzí as the first person to initiate this discussion. In his Talíqt, Ibn Sín writes: The universal (general) meaning exists in the mind rather than in the outside. For example, when the existence of the universal animal is particularized (and exits universality), it will change into a human or another animal form.[4]

Ibn Sín has also expressed his views in al-Ishrt wal-tanbíht that completely conform to the issue of mental existence:

The perception of something involves the presence of the image of the reality of that thing before the perceiver so that he could observe it. Therefore, either the above-mentioned reality, when perceived, is exactly the same as the reality outside the receiver, which is incorrect, or an image or example of that reality is formed in the essence of the perceiver so that the image of the reality is exactly the same as the reality itself (in essence), which is correct. [5]&[6]

4. In the discussion of mental existence, it is claimed that objects, in addition to their external existence, which is known, evident and certain, possess another existence that is called mental existence and stands against external existence. As Mull Sadr says,

Unlike a small group of exoteric scholars, philosophers unanimously maintain that objects, in addition to their evident existence, which is clearly known to everyone, possess another existence or manifestation which is referred to as mental existence.[7]

Two claims have been made in the above statement:

1. There are two types of existence: mental existence and external existence;

2. Mental existents are in quiddative unity with external existents.[8]

As far as it concerns ontology, the main task of the Transcendent Philosophy as a branch of philosophia prima discussing the principles of existence qua existence is dealing with the first claim, or the primary kinds of existence, rather than the second. However, an epistemological treatment of the issue directly concerns the second claim. Accordingly, the proofs adduced to demonstrate mental existence[9] are directly related to the first claim. Nevertheless, the second is certainly a part of what the people of the Transcendent Philosophy say, and that is why, in order to prove their claim, they maintain, Objects, in addition to their existence in the outside, possess another existence in the mind.[10] And sometimes they state, Things, in addition to this mode of apparent (external) existence, possess another existence, too.[11]

The above quotations explicitly denote that, a single thing exists both in the external world and in the mind rather than two different things. Of course, this does not mean objectivity in the existence of a single entity; it is rather a kind of identity and unity on the basis of which one can claim that the same external thing is known in the mind. This is an epistemological claim in relation to ontology and has been the topic of several discussions. Due to the same reason, and through perceiving the same point, some contemporary philosophers following the Transcendent Philosophy have interpreted this claim as follows:

This hypothesis (philosophers well-known theory concerning mental existence) is based on the fact that our perception of objects means the presence of the very essence of objects rather than their existence in our mind. The essence of objects could exist in two places; the objective world, which is outside our mind, and the world of our soul. Consequently, there is one essence with two types of existence in two places.[12]

This claim of philosophers could also be expressed in this way: What exists in our mind exists exactly as it is in the external world, as well. In other words, instead of saying what exists in the external world exists in our mind, and then trying to demonstrate mental existence, through a little deliberation, we find out that what is obvious and clear to us is in fact the mental existence of things, and that if there is anything to be demonstrated, it is the external existence of things. If the issue is posed in this way, its epistemological imprint will be more evident, and the logical order of discussion will be followed more properly.

5. No acceptable proof can be found in the statements of the advocates of the Transcendent Philosophy for demonstrating that what is in the mind and what is in the outside are the same in essence. All the proofs for mental existence, as the historical contexts of their presentation necessitate, have been adduced to prove the first part of the claim; that is, when gaining the knowledge of something, a specific thing is realized in the soul to which external effects could not be applied, and which is called mental existence.

All we can say about the second part of the claim is that it has been propounded to nullify the idea of image merely through resorting to the rejection of sophistry. Allmah Tabtabí has summarized this issue in his book Nihyat al-hikmah. [13]

According to the theory of images, what comes to the mind has no quiddative conformity with the external object and does not reveal its essence and reality; it is rather an image which represents the object in some way. In rejecting this theory, Allmah Tabtabí says,

If what is realized in the mind is just an image of the external object, and if the relation between the two is like the one between a statue or picture and what it represents, there will be no quiddative compatibility between that mental form and the external object; as a result, sophistry will arise. This is because, in this case, all our knowledge will be in fact the same as ignorance. Moreover, man can shift from the signifier to the signified only if he has the previous knowledge of the signified, whereas according to this theory, the knowledge of the signified, itself, depends on signification and the transition from the signifier to the signified.[14]

If it is stated that what comes to the mind not only lacks any essential compatibility with external objects, but is also incapable of signifying them, and that the relation between the mental existent and the external existent is similar to that between the code and the decoder, the answer according to Allmah Tabtabí is:

If all our knowledge and perceptions are false and lack any external revelation, sophistry will arise, and this will lead to contradiction. In other words, this theory contradicts itself and its truth necessitates its falsity. This is because if we claim that all types of knowledge are false, the very claim itself is false, since it comprises a part of our knowledge. Thus the above-mentioned proposition is false and, as a result, its opposite, i.e. some of our knowledge conforms to reality is true.[15]

The author of this paper finds the claim that knowledge is the center of either everything or nothing[16] quite ambiguous. In other words, if we deny the quiddative similarity between our perceptions and the external world, it does not indicate that we have no knowledge of this world. We are not even allowed to say that all our knowledge is false.

6. The truth is that the possibility of the realization of the knowledge of external realities has always been an evident and indisputable fact for Muslim philosophers, in general, and for the advocates of the Transcendent Philosophy, in particular. Now, if there has been anyone among them to believe in signified or non-signified images and similar theories, it is because they have failed to provide an answer to the criticisms targeted at the theory of mental existence.[17] It goes without saying that if convenient answers are provided, there will remain no reason for them to deviate from the theory of mental existence.

7. In a part of his book, al-Asfr, Mull Sadr argues that if the proofs of mental existence are complete, they can demonstrate the second part of philosophers claim as well; that is, they can prove that external matters themselves, rather than something different from them, can have a kind of existential mode in the mind.

If the proofs of mental existence are complete, they signify that all known things themselves have an existence in the mind, rather than something whose reality is contrary to them, such as written imprints (written words) and vocal forms (uttered words). This is because nobody ever claims that writing Zayd and saying Zayd are exactly the same as Zayd himself. Such a claim would be contrary to the concept and perception of Zayd, since the principles of Zayd have been applied to it, and the essential and accidental qualities of Zayd are predicted on it.[18]

    The fallacy of this statement lies in the fact that first we suppose we know the reality of Zayd, then consider it identical with the mental form and maintain that the mental form is the same as Zayd, and later predicate the essences and accidents of that external reality on the mental form of Zayd according to a known assumption. This reveals that what has occurred to our mind is the same as the reality of Zayd.

8. In his treatise, Tasawwur wa tasdíq, Mull Sadr adduces another proof that originally belongs to Shaykh al-Ishrq to demonstrate the compatibility of knowledge with the external world: When acquiring the knowledge of something, two things might happen: we know something or we do not, and in the second case, either we lose something or we do not.

After rejecting the last two assumptions and, consequently, demonstrating the first one, Mull Sadr says:

Therefore, the former assumption that considers the acquisition of knowledge as a kind of increase in the effect of the known object and its appearance in the knowers soul will be constant and evident. However, the point that the effect of a particular object is certainly contrary to the effect of any other object must be inquired. Hence, the acquisition of the perceived object in the mind means that a form of the very perceived and known object has appeared in the mind. Accordingly, this form does not ever belong to another object which is obtained by the mind through a different kind of knowledge. Thus it can be safely concluded that the knowledge of anything is the same as the scientific existence of that known object and not that of another known thing. The reason is that nothing could be in existence unless one of its forms which is the same as its scientific existence exists in the mind, exactly in the same way that there is an objective form for it in the outside the mind. This scientific form is undoubtedly the scientific existence of the same thing possessing an objective existence. What is more the mental existence of this thing is in contrast to the mental forms and beings of other objects, as its objective existence is also contrary to the objective existences of other objects. Therefore, it should be accepted that the mental form of everything is the same as its reality and essence in the mind. Due to its complexity, this point requires more deliberation.[19]

In the above statements, Mull Sadr emphasizes that there are distinctions among different types of knowledge and perceptions, that knowledge is a reality the essence of which is relation, and that we have the knowledge of one thing rather than anything other than that. Here, he concludes that the form of anything must be exactly similar to its reality and quiddity. However, it seems that here we are dealing with a confusion of conceptual conformity with affirmative conformity.

The authors intention of conceptual conformity is that each mental form represents what it belongs to. For example, the mental form of whiteness truly represents whiteness, and it is absolutely impossible for it to represent something different. At the stage of conception, all mental forms demonstrate their determinant reality, and this is an undeniable way of essential signification. In this regard and according to modern epistemology, when we say that I see this white object, its truth is accepted and there is no place for its denial. However, what is important in epistemological discussions is affirmative conformity, that is, to say, the external reality is also similar to what I have seen. This means that the color of this object in external reality and independent from my perception is like what I have observed. Obviously, this cannot be proven through resorting to the above statements.

9. Do the principles of the Transcendent Philosophy pave the ground for the recognition of the external reality through acquired knowledge? In other words, do the principles proposed by Mull Sadr, particularly, the principiality of existence, enable us to grasp the external reality and perceive the truth as it is through acquired knowledge, that is, the very common knowledge which is the subject matter of epistemology, and which all types of theoretical knowledge are considered as its components? According to a common definition, wisdom means the knowledge of the truths of objects as they really are, and as far as man can perceive them.[20] And a related question is: Is it possible to accomplish the task of obtaining wisdom through thinking, experience, sense perception, or other methods of acquired knowledge? Our answers to the afore-mentioned questions are negative for the following reasons:

1. According to the principiality of existence and the mentally posited nature of quiddity, the attribution of existence and realization to quiddity is metaphorical. This is because what is there in the outside, comprises external realities and fills the context of reality is existence rather than quiddity. The same principle indicates that the quiddity of everything is its rational representation, the mental image for its observation in the outside, and its shadow.[21] In other words, quiddity is the imagination of existence and its reflection appearing in rational and sensory objects.[22] Therefore, quiddity does not exist in the outside world, while what is in the mind is quiddity. Thus, on the basis of the principilaity of existence, even if the knowledge of quiddity is certainly demonstrated in the discussion of mental existence, it will not be the same as external realities.

2. According to the principiality of existence, motion is the mode of the existence of the flowing object and represents its gradual but continuous change. What is more, in the light of trans-substantial motion, the substance and essence of objects are in constant transformation and change, and since quiddity is the limit of existence, one quiddity is abstracted from each level of the moving object. And this reveals that quiddity lacks any actual realization for the moving thing, and that it is abstracted from its hypothetical limits and levels.

In fact, the meaning of motion in a category, according to the principles of the Transcendent Philosophy, is that at each moment of an objects motion, the moving object turns into one of the species of the different species of the category it belongs to, so that each species does not last more than one moment and immediately gives its place to its subsequent one. In addition, since the existence of moments within motion is hypothetical, the quiddities that emerge at each moment would be hypothetical, too.[23]

In sum, considering the fact that motion takes place in existence, and that the existence of the moving object is continually in change, a quiddity is abstracted at each moment of motion, and since the existence of moment in time is hypothetical, the existence of quiddity along motion would be hypothetical, too, and the moving object would not have an actual quiddity except for in Origin and Resurrection, i.e. when all motions stop. This is another reason indicating that the knowledge of quiddity is not the knowledge of an external reality.

3. According to the principiality of existence, external reality is the reality of existence. This reality lacks a mental form and never comes to mind, thus it could never be perceived by means of acquired knowledge. Mull Sadr and his followers have frequently referred to this issue in several places. According to Mull Hdí Sabziwrí, although the concept of existence is extremely evident and obvious, its depth and reality are extremely hidden.[24] Allmah Tabtabí writes, Obviously, the reality of existence lacks a mental form,[25] and, therefore, cannot be perceived by acquired knowledge. The reason is that the reality of existence is the same as externality, and if it occurs to the mind, it will be necessary for external existence to transform into mental existence, which is impossible.[26]

The reality of external existence cannot be known and perceived unless through presential observation. In fact, by means of concepts and acquired types of knowledge, one can only learn about the effects and concomitants of the reality of external existence. [27]

4. On the basis of the analysis provided by the Transcendent Philosophy concerning the problem of causality, the existence of the effect is a kind of copulative and connective existence.[28] That is, every effect is the same as its dependence on its cause and its relation to it; there is no dependence or essential existence for it. The relation between the existence of the effect and the cause is like the one between a letter and its nominal meaning. The meaning of a letter since it is a letter has no independent meaningful form in the mind; likewise, copulative existence since it is copulative has no independence by itself and is not considered alone or independently; therefore, it lacks quiddity.[29]

In fact, quiddity is abstracted from external existences only when one pays attention to those existences which are indeed copula, rather than viewing them as they are; i.e. copulative as such, or as independent existences. When the existences of external effects are considered this way, a series of related and independent concepts called quiddity are imprinted on the mind. For example, the meaning of a letter such as (in Arabic) when considered independently is capacity, and it is said that is used for denoting capacity. However, as loses its reality of being a letter here and becomes a noun, copulative existence, when considered independently, loses its feature of being a copula at the level of knowledge, rather than at the level of reality, and is taken into account as an independent existent. And this, itself, means getting far from reality.

Consequently, whatsoever existing in the outside is existence, and all existences are effects except for the Necessary Being. Besides, the existence of the effect is copulative and, therefore, lacks quiddity, yet by our acquired knowledge, we will know about nothing but quiddity. This indicates that, according to the Transcendent Philosophy, the distance between our acquired knowledge and external reality is too long.

5. In the last stage, the Transcendent Philosophy deals with the personal unity of existence and considers external existences as the shadows and manifestations of the single Truth of existence which belongs to the Necessary Being. This school of philosophy presents for external existences the same analysis that it does for quiddity, indicating that quiddity is the shadow and manifestation of personal existences. Accordingly, external existences are the shadow and manifestation of the unique existence of the Almighty. Regarding this Mull Sadr makes the following remarks,

The conclusion is that every existent, whether the intellect, the soul or an archetypal form, is one of the levels of the beams of true lights and the manifestation of the self-subsisting Divine existence from the view point of the people of truth and the Transcendent Philosophy. And when the light of the Truth is radiated (and the truth is revealed), all the illusions of veiled minds, indicating that possible quiddities have an existence in their essence, are removed and drowned in darkness (and their falsity is revealed), and one must say that the principles and concomitants of quiddities emerge out of the levels of existence; those existences which are themselves among the rays and shadows of the True Existence and the Unique Light (the Essence of the Necessary Being). The reasoning for this principle is among the types of knowledge God has granted me on the basis of His Eternal Wisdom and made it my share of knowledge through the emanation of His Bounties Therefore, as the God Almighty, through His Excellence and Mercy, granted me the grace of getting aware of sempiternal annihilation and eternal nullification of contingent quiddities and possible objects, He directed me to the right path through His luminous celestial reasoning. This path leads to the fact that existents and existence are restricted to a unique personal reality for which there is no partner in real existence, which comes second to none in the external world, and except for which, there is nothing in the world of being. And what in this world seems to be other than the Necessary Object of Worship is nothing but a beam of the manifestations of His Essence and Attributes, which are indeed the same as His Essence.[30]

10. In conclusion, from one point of view, the process of the historical development of epistemology in Islamic philosophy is as follows:

In the first phase quiddities are considered as external realities. It is believed that our system of acquired knowledge perceives these external realities (quiddities) by themselves, forms them exactly as they are in the mind and, as a result, gains access to external reality through knowing these quiddities. This reasoning is what we might interpret as raw realism.

In the second phase, quiddities are considered as being mentally-posited and also as the manifestation of external multiple existences. Since quiddity is mentally-posited, and since existence is principial, our knowledge of quiddities, as emphasized before, is limited to the surface or only one layer of external reality. At this stage, we do not and cannot perceive the depth and essence of existence and being by means of acquired knowledge; however, we can perceive the appearance, manifestation and shadow of external reality through knowing the quiddity. It is here that the distance between reality and appearance shows face. Reality is out of the reach of mental perception, and what is accessible to it is merely appearance.

In the third phase, external existences are also eliminated from the scene of reality and are limited and related to our perception of reality. In other words, like quiddities, particular existences are the manifestations of external reality; a reality which is inaccessible to our acquired knowledge, and, at the same time, whose essence and truth are out of the domain of Gnostic intuition and unveiling. Thus we can only acquire the knowledge of the reality of existence through unveiling and intuition, and the two, taken together, could merely open a small window towards reality.

The epistemological principles of the Transcendent Philosophy, themselves, demand a comprehensive study whose details could only be included in a separate book. It is the writers heartfelt wish to be able to accomplish the task of writing it.  



[1]. al-Mabhith al-mashriqiyyah, vol. 1, p. 41. 

[2]. Tajríd al-itiqd, ch. 1, problem 4.

[3]. Murtad Mutahharí, Sharh al-mazumah, vol. 1, pp. 255-299.

[4]. al-Talíqt, p. 183.

[5]. Ibn Sín, al-Ishrt wal-tanbíht, Tabíiyyt, part 3, ch.7.

[6]. Abd al-Razzq Lhíjí in his book, Shawriq al-ilhm (p. 520), in the chapter on the necessary knowledge and in relation to demonstrating mental existence, quotes a part of a treatise that he attributes to Ibn Sín. The quoted material includes the issue of mental existence and its related proofs.  Therefore, it cannot be claimed that this discussion was first opened by a theologian such as Fakhr Rzí. For more information refer to: Jawdí Àmulí, Rahíq makhtum, vol. 1, part 4, pp. 311-319.

[7]. Mull Sadr, al-Asfr, vol. 1, p. 263.

[8]. Jawdí Àmulí writes, Mental existence indicates the following issues: first, during the process of perception, something comes into existence in the mind; second, there is only one thing which exists in the mind; third, when perceiving something, the reality of the same external object is transferred to the mind, rather than its image or the distorted form of the that thing; fourth, knowledge belongs to the category of quality; and fifth, categories are essentially different from each other. Rahíq makhtum, vol. 1, part 4, vol. pp. 351-352.

[9]. There are three reasons in this regard: a) positive judgments of non-existents; b) conception of universal things; and c) conception of absolute and pure things.  See Allmah Tabtabí, Bidyat al-hikmah, phase 2, Nihyat al-hikmah, phase 3, Mull Hdí Sabziwrí, Sharh al-manzumah, part 1, on universal issues and in relation to mental existence, Mull Sadr, al-Asfr, vol. 1, first journey, part 3, chapter 1. It is worthy of mention that although Mull Sadr quotes, defends and explains the reasons for demonstrating mental existence and confirms its foundations, it can be inferred from some of his statements that the proofs of mental existence, or at least some of them, are incomplete. In this regard refer to: al-Asfr, vol. 1, p. 315. Here he expresses his doubts concerning the incompleteness of the related proofs and explicitly argues that the demonstration of mental existence through resorting to universal concepts is incomplete. Refer to al-Asfr, vol. 2, p. 72. Accordingly Jawdí Àmulí maintains, Judging Mull Sadrs words concerning mental existence require more deliberation and attention (Rahíq makhtum, vol. 1, part 4, pp. 356-357.

[10]. Mull Hdí Sabziwrí, Sharh al-manzumah, part 1, on mental existence.

[11]. Mull Sadr, al-Asfr, vol. 1, p. 263.

[12]. Mutahharí, Sharh-i mabsut manzumah , vol.1, p. 264.

[13]. Nihyat al-hikmah, phase 3.

[14]. Here, sophistry means lacking the knowledge of the external world. (See Nihyat al-hikmah, phase 11, ch.9)

[15]. For more information about the explanation provided by the Transcendent Philosophy concerning mental existence refer to Ali Shirvani, Sharh-i Nihyat al-hikmah, vol. l, pp. 121-143, and Sharh-i Bidyat al-hikmah, vol. 1, pp.175-258, Lessons of Philosophy.

[16]. This claim has also been repeated in Jawdí Àmulís statements: In the issue of knowledge, there is an emphasis on the identity and oneness of the mental form and the external form; otherwise, the acquisition of knowledge will certainly be blocked and sophistry will arise (Rahíq makhtum, vol. 1, section 4, p. 371).

[17]. Mull Sadr, al- Asfr, vol.1, p. 314.

[18]. Ibid., p. 315.

[19]. Rislat al-Tasawwur wal-tasdíq, published along with al-Jawhar al-nadid, p. 308.

[20]. Sharh-i Rislat al-mashir, p. 4. In his al-Mabda wal-ma'd (p. 146), Mull Sadr refers to this point, too.

[21]. Mull Sadr, al-Asfr, vol. 2, p. 236.

[22]. Ibid., vol.1, p.198.

[23]. Nihyat al-hikmah, phase 9, ch. 6.

[24]. Sharh al-manzumah, part 1, section 1, on the evidence of existence.

[25]. Nihyat al-hikmah, phase 1, ch. 2.

[26]. This point has also been mentioned in Martin Heideggers works. Accordingly, the concept of existence in the meaning of the a priori comprehension of the verb to be is absolutely evident.  Nevertheless, he maintains that its being evident in ordinary life does not necessarily mean that it is also obvious from a philosophical point of view. Heideggers major goal is to clarify such a meaning of existence in his works. See T. Izutsu, The Foundations of Sabziwrís Philosophy, translated by Jalal al-Dín Mojtabavi, p. 21.

[27]. al-Asfr, vol.1, p. 53

[28]. Ibid, vol. 3, p.19.

[29]. Regarding this point, Allmah Tabtabí writes: Copulative existences lack quiddity, because quiddities are concepts that are put forward in response to the questions concerning the what of objects, and are, therefore, independent in meaning, whereas copulative existences have no meaning which could be perceived independently. Nihyat al-hikmah, phase 2, ch. 1.

[30]. al-Asfr, vol. 2, pp. 291-292.


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