Mulla Sadra, a 17th century Muslim sage, resemblance of his system to Whitehead’s process philosophy

By: Louwrens Willem Hessel, Leiden, Netherlands

Introduction Of all the world’s religious systems Islam seems to be the furthest removed from Process Philosophy and –theology. In this respect it is at the opposite end of Buddhism, of which its affinity to process thought has been noticed for a long time. Islam is usually characterised as static, rigid, inflexible. Of course it has not always been like that, but with the death of the great Al Ghazali (A.D. 1111) developments appear to have come to a dead end, at least in the major, Sunni branch of Islam. Even today the certainty of an unchanging revelation is the top value in Muslim universities. But development did not really stop; it shifted to the Shii branch of Islam and for a long time remained beyond the horizon of western philosophers. So at the same time that Descartes concluded that reality falls apart in two kinds of substances, each with its own adventures, but in themselves unchanging, and had to invoke God to keep his system from incoherence, there was this Muslim sage Mulla Sadra of Shiraz (died 1641) criticising the very concept of substance and replacing it by the idea that all reality is forever in a process of change. Not just moving, as atoms move in space, but changing internally. Changing into what he called ever higher levels of existence. Muslim philosophy is always under the suspicion that it is in fact theology, always under the spell of holy revelations in a holy book, invulnerable and immune against criticism. But such is not the case with Mulla Sadra’s philosophy. The basis of his thinking is human experience and although he uses verses from Koran and Hadith as illustrations and decorations (and sometimes as a display of orthodoxy, to save himself from persecution) he never appeals to them as proofs of the truth of what he was saying. The origin of his own highly original vision was neither Koran nor Hadith, but a series of mystic insights, or rather “intellectual intuitions”, experienced during the years of his forced seclusion, to which he was condemned by the religious establishment of his days. And far from appealing to these as a kind of privileged personal knowledge, he remained in discussion with the entire Islamic philosophical world and criticised it on rational, not religious, or mystic, grounds. Whitehead said that “mysticism is a direct insight into depths as yet unspoken” and that the purpose of philosophy is not to explain away but to rationalise mysticism and this is exactly what we see Mulla Sadra doing.

Existence vs essence It is not only in their ontology but also in their convictions about the task of philosophy itself that the similarity is striking. Whitehead describes his Actual Occasions as growing into existence by integrating prehensions of their actual worlds into ever new unities which in turn are prehended and taken up in subsequent events. This is evolution two centuries before Darwin.Peirce. determinate and integrated. “Apart from Actual Occasions there is nothing. It sounds like Whitehead’s bold statement that even God must be in the grip of creativity.S. He speaks of “an instinctive grasp of ultimate truth”: “The sole appeal is to intuition”. an to exist is a verb. indeterminate levels to more concrete. nor Plotinus’ idea of timeless emanation. What Mulla Sadra does is to make a new start: Not Plato’s unchanging ideas. and without the unaccountable haphazardness which is at the base of Western evolutionary doctrine. Whitehead’s words are: “The explanatory purpose of philosophy is often misunderstood. “The many become one and are increased by one”. but real process is fundamental for all reality.Substantive motion (haraka jauhariya) The key term of Sadra’s system is the idea of substantive motion or better transsubstantiation. without a visit to the Galapagos islands. and the process of becoming one is from vague and less determinate to ever greater determinateness and concreteness. unitary forms. He then tried to express it for others. “The process is all there is: a unitary actuality is everything” (Mulla Sadra’s words). knowing full well that it can never be captured or explained by any number or combination of essences. . ones. Henri Bergson. Philosophy must explain abstraction. (It reminds and warns us of the Western trend to reduce “God” to a set of concepts and to reduce physics to physical laws plus initial conditions).e. Similar ideas in the West had to wait till the times of C. All existence is inexorably temporal as it moves from more general. neither Aristotle’s unchanging substances. it is the doctrine that the entire field of existence i. God exists. William James. Becoming rather than being is the pre-eminent character of existence. The answer is: in no way. It is a complete mistake to ask how concrete particular fact can be built up out of universals. or rather: perish and are reborn. which in their turn further evolve into ever higher stages. It is not the accidents but the substances themselves that change. nothing” (Whitehead’s words). that is previous. It seems that Mulla Sadra has experienced a kind of conversion from the then current idea that philosophy has to do with finding the essences of things. to the direct experience of what he calls “the overwhelming presence of existence”. Even more striking is the similarity of his entire system to Whitehead’s process philosophy. not concreteness”. Even God is not outside this universal movement. all things (he would call them grades of being) ceaselessly evolve into ever higher forms and that this happens by including and thereby transcending all lower.

from man down to even the seemingly lifeless events in inorganic nature. Universal knowledge of God For Mulla Sadra and for Whitehead novelty is a fundamental feature of the world and both recognise the Eternally One as its source. but it is a neoplatonism that takes time seriously. usually translated as “knowledge”. He explains that this concept of unity is “systematically ambiguous” and that it applies to God and to everything which is truly existent but to nothing else. It is comparable to ordinary . They translate tashkik by “gradation”. And even in man it is only in rare cases that consciousness of the Eternal One begins to dawn. It is a dynamised neoplatonism in which temporal coherence has taken the place of static unity. words to indicate the internal relationship between the growing actual entity and the facts of its actual world. There is a “universal intuitive knowledge of God” in all of nature. He speaks of low degrees of consciousness in all of subhuman nature. better translated as direct or intuitive knowledge. The corresponding words in Whitehead are: to prehend and prehension. It is not an external relation between knower and known. and yet remaining the same fountain. Whitehead has a separate word for this “low degree of consciousness”. an earlier mystic and philosopher for whom the unity of God had a static character. Reading his pronouncements one sees the image of a fountain which spurts forth an ever increasing multitude of jets in endless streams. of which the mathematical idea of unity is only an abstraction. meaning intensification and diminution in existence. what is it that keeps the world together? There must be some activity that binds the units of becoming into an overall process. but in his more careful statements he says it is ma’rifa. These are Mulla Sadra’s words. It is “mentality” or “mental feelings”. It seems as if many exegetes. Muslim as well as Western don’t really believe that Mulla Sadra means what he says: that there is a true inner becoming and an ongoing and universal development. for ever renewing itself. The words are neoplatonic. main pillar of Muslim faith) by his concept of “tashkik”. which he describes as “unity which by virtue of being one is many”. Existing is knowing and knowing is interpenetration. but a “form of existence” in which the “intellect” and the “intelligible” become “identical”: “attainment and possession are of the essence of knowledge” and “the knowable is the complete nature of the knower”.If becomings are all. which masks its temporal aspect. in accordance with traditional Muslim (and Christian) philosophy. One and yet many (tashkik) Mulla Sadra harmonises his doctrine of universal process with the doctrine of the unity of God (“tauheed”. Mulla Sadra’s vision is of a dynamic unity. Mulla Sadra uses the word ‘ilm. This comes from Suhrawardi. which only in advanced creatures like man reach the level of consciousness.

Now we seem far removed from Whitehead.e. But there are also Eternal Objects. Mulla Sadra is certainly more poetical than Whitehead usually is. Thus Mulla Sadra’s doctrine of God issues into a concept of forms whereas for Whitehead the Eternal Objects necessitate a doctrine of God. or pure potentiality. dynamic trinity. and so the world is understood as a shining forth of the Divine Unity. The difference will be shown to be a contrast. Sadra’s thinking had its origin in a trans-conceptual vision of divine existence having this character of being one. which in accordance with tradition he calls “intelligences”. although without the eyes we would see nothing. and which become attributes of God. and it is not Eternal Objects that He envisages but it is Himself Whom He contemplates.human sensation: only in rare cases are we conscious of our eyes. God as the only giver of existence in Sadra is comparable to the Primordial Nature of God who is the source of novelty and the enticer to definiteness in Whitehead’s system. with this qualification in mind. “environment” or “context” Whitehead’s Eternal Objects are Sadra’s platonic forms. but an act. and when we look at it from our human situation it is called “Breath of the Merciful”. Many and Creativity form a coherent. rather than a contradiction. Being one by giving birth to the many is like the mirror image of Whitehead’s “the many become one and are increased by one” It is more like: “The One gives rise to the many. Eternal objects and God With Mulla Sadra there is no parallel of Whitehead’s envisagement of Eternal Objects by God. This contemplation is not a state. such that “by virtue of being one it is many”. an infinite realm of possibilities. Once Eternal Objects have been introduced. there is a further parallel with Whitehead’s concept of concrescence. Whitehead needs the notion of God as a principle of concretion to envisage this infinite realm of eternal possibilities and to arrange them into grades of relevance on behalf of temporal actual . “Self-unfolding existence” is another description. although not actual. There is the category of the Ultimate. The actual world from which Actual Occasions arise Mulla Sadra calls “preparatory conditions”. Yet. which. and many interpreters of Whitehead regard the Eternal Objects as a kind of undue Platonism which they would like to eliminate. But the coherence of this entire realm of Eternal Objects with the three notions of the Ultimate is far from clear. and yet remains the One”. Ultimates It is exactly at these points that Whitehead has been criticised for being incoherent. rather than universal creativity. yet form a separate realm i. in which One. Mulla Sadra’s ultimate is God Himself.

He points out that there is a knowledge (intellectual intuition. Creativity and “God. Reasoning depends on the use of essences or concepts. His entire life after his return to the community of man was dedicated to attempts to make these intuitions accessible to others. The book ends with a confession of faith that declares that three things survive the birth and decay of all imaginable types of order in the world: Eternal Objects. Rather than classifying the concept of God under the “derivative notions” as in “Process and Reality” we now find God as one of the three “formative elements” of the actual world. The reason for the difference in outcome between these two approaches to metaphysics is not far to seek: religion springs from “supernormal experiences of mankind in its moments of finest insight” but a metaphysics based on such a direct intuition by special occasions must be shown to have universal validity if it should be metaphysics at all. see above) which is more basic and more reliable than our ordinary way of knowing by the senses (‘ilm). The whole enterprise stands in the context of the essence – existence dichotomy which he had inherited from his predecessors. For Mulla Sadra problems about Eternal Objects and the lack of evidence for the existence of God do not arise: there is only one Ultimate. in the same way as Whitehead never has doubted the existence of Eternal Objects. “a completed ideal harmony which is God”. and this is The One. some of whom even say that there must be two “ultimates”: one philosophical. They point to a serious lack of evidence for such or any. and they label their project as “decentring Whitehead”. from whom everything sprouts and to whom everything returns. and there the outcome is quite remarkably close to Mulla Sadra. Mulla Sadra’s way of universalising them parallels Whitehead’s criticism of Hume. It seems that Sadra never has doubted this doctrine. Now we are again in the vicinity of Mulla Sadra who has the term “prophesy” for such intuitions and said that they cannot be doubted by the one who has experienced them. at other places we find that God has a purpose (the attainment of value in the temporal world) and that it is a creative purpose. The question is: can Mulla Sadra make his doctrine acceptable by generalising from human experience in the way Whitehead said he did for his metaphysics. Whitehead’s usual approach is anthropological but in “Religion in the Making” we find this other route: metaphysics starting from religion.occasions. It is more like “pointing at” than like conceptualising. upon whose wisdom all forms of order depend”. ma’rifa. one religious. conception of God. and . But his concept of God seems unstable. on the same level as Creativity and Eternal Objects. After finding that religious experience in general does not include direct intuition of a definite person or individual and saying that there is “only a character of permanent and essential rightness in things”. There is a strong current in process thinking which regrets that process philosophy has thus come to be dominated by theologians.

using essences freezes existence. His power is described as a tenderness which looses nothing that can be saved. The alternative would imply that there is a spontaneous generation and a spontaneous disappearance of value. which itself always flows. in its centred as well as in its decentred version. Events whose characters are not discerned are yet known to exist by being signified by other events. unbounded by reason. We not only prehend states of affairs as they are for us here and now. Maybe it can be further widened to a direct experience. It leads to the question how philosophical pronouncements function in real life or. to what theologians would call personal revelations. in this case. in other words: how it functions is more important than its truth value. We prehend more than what we are normally conscious of. Whitehead said that in the real world it is more important that a proposition be interesting than that it be true. That the centre is an immutable. but when the network of occasions in the present epoch of the universe peters out all value will be gone. of an overarching dynamic unity of all reality. Dynamic. For him the centre is not just a unity (whatever that may mean). Not that value disappears with the perishing of each occasion. Whitehead’s system would remain centred. but it is a personal unity with thìs character. In a less explicit way but very clearly there is a similar trait in Sadra’s thinking as when he points to the opening surah of the Koran speaking of “The Compassionate”. because “its unity expresses itself in our moral and aesthetic judgments”. Along Whitehead’s way we may point in the direction of further broadening the scope of prehension. without which all value becomes trivial. to a comparison of the moral implications of Mulla Sadra’s theologically oriented process philosophy with Whitehead’s humanistic process philosophy. Essences are attempts to halt time. and when he openly goes against Muslim orthodoxy by pointing out the essential connection between the rise of Islamic tyrants and the then dominant Muslim conception of God as an arbitrary monarch. Complementary cognizance by adjective would be restricted to special occasions and perhaps to special persons i. It is the change from Hume’s sensationalism to a more adequate concept of experience. It would come as a relief that there is no evidence for such a centre. By this move. The answer depends on what we conceive as the character of the centre. but there are also direct prehensions of possibilities. omnipotent and emotionless Being has for a long time been standard orthodoxy in Christianity and in Islam. “The Benificent”.e. not as inferences but as direct experience. . if validated. It would be a kind of cognizance by relatedness. Whitehead’s concept of God very explicitly does not have this character.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful