A Gnostic philosopher
Mir Damad is primarily a gnostic philosopher, arguing that the activity of the mind makes possible the experience of spiritual visions, while visionary experience gives rise to rational thought. He brings together a variety of different traditions in Islamic philosophy, incorporating both the sort of philosophy advocated by Aristotle and its later development by the Neoplatonists, and combining them with the mystical views of Islamic thinkers. The principles of his thought are the backbone of the celebrated 'School of Isfahan', which developed this rich mixture of philosophical traditions even further. His approach to the analysis of being was a considerable extension to previous views on this subject, and enabled him to make important contributions to the notion of time. Mir Damad's philosophical style is characterized by a treatment of abstract concepts behind which lies the living experience of the mystic.
1. Life and philosophy of being
2. Philosophy of time
3. Philosophical style
1. Life and philosophy of being
Mir Burhan al-Din Muhammad Baqir Damad, whose poetic nom de plume was 'Ishraq' and who was also referred to as 'the Third Master' (after Aristotle and al-Farabi) was born into a distinguished religious family. Another honorific title by which Mir Damad has been known is Sayyid al-Afadil, 'Prince of the Most Learned'.
Mir Damad was born in Astarabad but grew up in Mashhad, the religious capital of Shi'i Persia. He received his early education there, and studied Ibn Sina's texts closely (see Ibn Sina). Prior to coming to Isfahan during the reign of Shah 'Abbas, he also spent some time in Qazvin and Kashan. In Isfahan, Mir Damad continued his education, paying equal attention to rational and transmitted sciences. He died in ah 1041/ad 1631 when he fell ill on his way to Karbala, in the entourage of Shah Safi. He was buried in Najaf.
As is evident from his contemporary sources, Mir Damad was recognized simultaneously as a jurist, a mystic and a philosopher - a rare but not altogether impossible combination in Muslim intellectual history. His writings reflect his comprehensive and encyclopedic interests. He wrote on philosophy and theology, prophetic and Imami traditions, Shi'i law, Qur'anic commentary, ethics and mysticism as well as on logic. Mir Damad's ascetic exercises have been noted particularly by some of his biographers (see the introduction to the 1977 edition of Kitab al-qabasat (Book of Embers), page xxviii). These exercises are combined, if his biographers' sometimes hyperbolic tone is to be believed, with a precocious attention to philosophy.
Despite his prominent status as both a mystic and a jurist, an uneasy combination made possible by certain specific features of the School of Isfahan, it was principally as a philosopher that Mir Damad recognized, praised and distinguished himself, as in his many self-praising poems, for example:
I conquered the lands of knowledge, I lent old wisdom to my youth. So that I made the earth with my al-Qabasat The envy of the heavenly abodes
Al-Qabasat is Mir Damad's most significant philosophical work, containing the essence of his philosophy. Al-Qabasat consists of ten qabas ('a spark of fire') and three conclusions. Its central question is the creation of the world and the possibility of its extension from God. The first qabas discusses the variety of created beings and the divisions of existence. In the second he argues for a trilateral typology of essential primary notions and the primacy of essence. The duality of perspectives through which essence is subdivided and an argument to that effect through pre-eternal principles constitutes the third qabas. In the fourth, Mir Damad provides Qur'anic evidence, as well as references from the Prophetic and Imami traditions, to support his preceding arguments. The fifth qabas is devoted to a discussion of the primary dispositions through an understanding of natural existence. The connection (ittisal') between 'time' and 'motion' is the subject of the sixth, where Mir Damad also argues for a 'natural order' in time. Here too he argues for the finality of numeral order and against the infinity of numbers in time-bound events (al-hawadith al-zamaniyya). He then devotes the seventh qabas to a refutation of opposing views. In the eighth, he verifies the divine authority in the establishment of such orders and the role of reason in ascertaining this truth. The ninth proves the archetypal substance of intellect (al-jawahar al-'aqliyya); in this chapter also, Mir Damad argues for the existence of an order in existence, a cycle of beginning and return. Finally, in the tenth qabas, he discusses the matter of divine ordination (al-qada' wa al-qadar), the necessity of supplication, the promise of God's reward, and the final return of all things to his judgment.
In al-Qabasat, Mir Damad engages in the age-old debate over the priority of 'essence' (mahiyya) versus that of 'existence' (wujud). He ultimately decides on the priority of essence, a position that would later be fundamentally disputed by his distinguished pupil Mulla Sadra. Al-Qabasat has remained a central text of Islamic philosophy since its first appearance. A number of philosophers of later generations have written commentaries about it, including Mulla Shamsa Gilani and Aqa Jani Mazandarani (Ashtiyani 1972). Mir Damad wrote al-Qabasat in response to one of his students, who had asked him to write a treatise proving that the Creator of creation and being is unique in his pre-eternality, pre-eternal in his continuity, continuous in his everlastingness, and everlasting in his post-eternality. In this text, therefore, he set himself to prove that all existent beings, from archetypal models to material manifestations, are 'contingent upon nothingness' (masbuqun bi'l-'adam), 'inclined towards creation' (tarifan bi'l-huduth), 'pending on annihilation' (marhunun bi'l-halak), and 'subject to cancellation' (mamnuwwun bi'l-butlan) (Kitab al-qabasat: 1). The question of the pre-eternity (qidam) or createdness (huduth) of the world is one of the oldest and most enduring questions of Islamic philosophy, deeply rooted in the early Mu'tazilite codification of Islamic theology (Watt 1962: 58-71; Fakhry 1983: 67-8; Leaman 1985: 11-12, 132-4). Mir Damad reminds his readers that even Ibn Sina considered the debate on this question to be 'dialectical' (jadali) rather than based on 'proof' (burhan).
For Mir Damad, being is circulated through a cycle of emanation from the divine presence to the physical world and then a return to it. In a progression of distancing emanations, the material world gradually emanates from the divine presence. From the Light of Lights (nur al-'anwar) first emanate the archetypal lights ('anwar qahira), of which the Universal Intellect ('aql-i kull) is the first component. From this stage emanate the 'heavenly souls' (nufus-i falakhyya), the 'ruling lights' ('anwar-i mudabbira), of which the 'universal souls' (nafs-i kull) is the primary member. The 'natural souls' (nufus-i muntabi'a) were subsequently created by the 'universal soul'. The archetypes of the heavens, planets, elements, compounds and the four natures were thus created. The final stage of this ontological emanation of being is the creation of matter from these archetypal origins. There is then a reverse order through which matter is sublimated back to light. Through this order, absolute or irreducible body (jism-i mutlaq) is advanced to the mineral stage of compound compositions. The minerals are then sublimated to the vegetative stage and then upward to the animal. Man is the highest stage of this upward mobility before the absolute matter rejoins the Light of Lights.
'Creation' (ibda') is the 'bringing into being' of something from absolute-nothing. That which is 'evident' (ma'lum), if left to its own 'essence' (dhat), would not be. It is only by virtue of something outside it (in other words, its cause) that it is or, more accurately, is brought into being. Things in their own essence have an essential, not a temporal, primacy over things that are located outside of them, such as their cause for becoming evident and manifest. Thus the secondariness of the caused over the primacy of its cause is an essential, not a temporal, secondariness. From this it follows that unless the relation between the cause and the caused is a temporal one, not every caused is created in time, that is, not every ma'lul (caused) is a muhaddath (created-in-time). Only that caused is created-in-time which is contingent upon time (zaman), motion (haraka), and change (taghayyur) (Kitab al-qabasat: 3). That created-being which is not subsequent to time is either subsequent to absolute nothingness, whose creation is called ibda' (or 'brought into beginning'), or subsequent to not-absolute-nothingness, in which case its creation is called ihdath (or 'brought into being in time'). If the created being is subsequent to time, it can have only one possibility, which is its being-in-time subsequent to its being-in-nothingness (Kitab al-qabasat: 3-4) (see Causality and necessity in Islamic thought).
2. Philosophy of time
There is also a hierarchical conception of time that Mir Damad begins to develop, mostly from arguments used by Ibn Sina, Nasir-i Khusrow and Khwajah Nasir Al-Tusi. First there is time (zaman), superior and more expansive than which is the atemporal (dahr) and ultimately the everlasting (sarmad). This hierarchy of timespan is also to be understood in terms of relationship. Sarmad postulates the relation of the permanent to the permanent; dahr, the relation of the permanent to the changing; and zaman, a relation of the changing to the changing. From this trilateral conception of time, Mir Damad reaches for his unique understanding of creation. Both huduth (creation) and qidam (pre-eternity) are of three kinds; dhati (essential), dahri (atemporal), and zamani (temporal). Essential pre-eternality (the counterpart of the essential createdness) is that whose being and actuality is not subsequential to its not-being (laysiyya) and/or nothingness ('adam). Atemporal pre-eternality (the counterpart of the atemporal createdness) is that whose being and actuality are not subsequential to its absolute nothingness in the span of the atemporal. On the contrary, from pre-eternity it is in-being. Finally, temporal pre-eternity (the counterpart of temporal createdness) is that temporal thing whose being is not specific to a time and whose already-being (husul) is constantly present in the course of all time, and of whose being has no temporal beginning.
As a believing Muslim, Mir Damad must accept the createdness of being. Neither essential createdness (al-huduth al-dhati) nor temporal createdness (al-huduth al-zamani) is subject to disagreement among philosophers because they are self-evident. It is only over the question of atemporal createdness (al-huduth al-dahri) that disagreement arises. God's creation of the universe, Mir Damad concludes, is of the ibda' (brought into beginning) and sun' (brought into createdness) kind as it pertains to atemporal createdness and of the ihdath (brought into being in time) and takwin (brought into existence) kind as it pertains to temporal createdness.
Mir Damad proceeds to distinguish between three kinds of 'worlds'. First is the Everlasting World (al-'alam al-sarmadi), which is the space for Divine Presence, his essence and attributes; second is the Atemporal World (al-'alam al-dahri), which is the space for the pure archetypes (al-mujarradat); and third is the Temporal World (al-'alam al-zamani), which is the space for daily events, created beings and generation and corruption. There is a hierarchical relationship among these three worlds: the Everlasting World encompasses the Atemporal and the Temporal. The Temporal World is the weakest and least enduring of the three.
As temporal events are contingent upon time - that is, there are times when they are not and then they are 'produced', or brought into being, in time - the same contingency governs the hierarchical order of sarmad (everlasting), dahr (atemporality) and zaman (temporality). Every inferior stage, such as zaman, is in actual state of non-being to its superior state, in this case dahr. The real existence of the superior stage is identical to the actual non-being of the inferior stage. Reversing the order, the accidental defectiveness of the inferior stage - zaman to dahr, or dahr to sarmad - is not present in the superior stage. In other words, the in-itself existence of the superior stage is the ipso facto non-existence of the inferior stage in-itself. Mir Damad then concludes that the contingent non-being of the world of the archetypals of the dahri stage in the stage of sarmadi existence is a real and self-evident non-being. Thus all created beings and their archetypals are consequent to real and self-evident non-being. Their creation is an atemporal (dahri) creation and not, as theologians maintain, a temporal (zamani) creation. From this it follows that beyond their essential creation (al-huduth al-dhati), all temporal events are contingent upon and consequent to three real modes of non-existence: temporal, atemporal and everlasting. All the archetypal beings in the stage of temporal being are also contingent upon and consequent to one kind of non-being, namely the everlasting; and, of course, the everlasting world is not contingent upon or consequential to anything.
What Mir Damad achieves through this systematic separation of a trilateral stipulation of existence is the effective isolation of God at the top of the hierarchy, where he can initiate and sustain the world and yet not be subsequent to temporal corruption, to which all visible creations must yield. Moreover, the necessary contingency of an agent of creation, which is evidently active in the zamani and dahri stages of existence, is not necessary in the superior stage of sarmadi. As one commentator rightly observes, 'by devising the concept of huduth-i dahri (atemporal creation), he has succeeded in establishing a compromise between the theologian and the philosopher, in other words, between the religious law and reason' (Musawi Bihbahani in introduction to 1977 edition of Kitab al-qabasat: lxix).
3. Philosophical style
Mir Damad's philosophical discourse is indexical and suggestive, symbolic and referential. He relies heavily on a thorough knowledge of previous Islamic philosophy, and has a particular penchant for obscure Arabic words. The legendary difficulty of his philosophical prose should be understood as a response to the anti-philosophical climate of the period promoted by the politically powerful nomocentric jurists. Perhaps the greatest philosopher of this period, Mulla Sadra, was forced to leave the capital city of Isfahan at the instigation of the high clerical establishment precisely because of the articulate clarity of his writing. A story in Qisas al-'ulama is illustrative: Mulla Sadra saw Mir Damad in a dream and asked why people condemned him as a blasphemer when he had just repeated what Mir Damad had already said. 'The reason is', Mir Damad answered, 'that I wrote about philosophical matters in such a way that the religious authorities ('ulama) could not understand them, and that nobody other than philosophers would comprehend them. But you have vulgarized the philosophical issues and expounded them in such a way that a teacher at an elementary religious school can understand them. That is why they have called you a blasphemer and not me'