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Ibn Sina’s famous distinction between essence and existence was
probably one of the most crucial events in the history of medieval
philosophy both Christian and Islamic. As is well-known, various
interpretations and criticisms of this distinction, particularly those offered by
Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and his Eastern contemporary, Suhrawardi, strongly
influenced the further developement of philosophy both in the Christian
West and the Islamic East.
It is probably no longer necessary in our day to insist on the fact that the
Islamic philosophical tradition, far from having received a deadly blow from
the attacks of al-Ghazall as an earlier generation of scholars had taken for
granted, has on the contraray not only survived, mainly thanks to
Suhrawardi, but experienced a rich and culturally significant development of
its own, particularly in Iran and the Shi‘ite world. The seminal works of
Henry Corbin sufficiently demonstrate this fact, as do those of Seyyed
Hossein Nasr, Fazlur Rahman and Toshihiko Izutsu ; and a surprisingly great
number of more recent studies, theses and dissertations on Suhrawardi,
Mulla Sadra and other important thinkers of the later periods prove that their
efforts were not in vain.
One of the major concerns of Professor Izutsu’s analysis of Islamic
philosophy was to suggest that it belongs essentially to a type of “Eastern”
philosophy which is ultimately based on a mystical perception of existence
rather than on the distinction of essences. For Suhrawardi’s ishraqi or
“oriental” philosophy, this would seem to imply that the traditional view
which labels it as “essentialist” rather than “existentialist” in nature can be
questioned. Of course, Izutsu himself readily admits that Suhrawardi’s sharp
criticism of the distionction in concreto between essence and existence he
mistakenly attributes to Ibn Slna has actually forced him into the
“essentialist” position for which he was later criticised by MuHa Sadra. Yet
as a mystic, Suhrawardi in fact prepared the ground precisely for Mulla
Sadra’s “existentialist revolution”. Indeed, as Professor Izutsu argues, his
dynamic reality of “Light” is hardly anything but Mulla Sadra’s
120 Recherches en spiritualite iranienne
“analogically graded existence”.1In this respect, it may also be worth noting
that even in his so-called Peripatetic works, Suhrawardi himself occasionally
uses the term “existence” (wujud) not in the sense of a secondary intelligible,
but exactly in the same way in which he speaks as an ishraqi about the
Reality of “Light”.2
The present paper is not concerned directly with either Suhrawardi or
Mulla Sadra but aims to make a similar argument for another creative
thinker who lived during the 13 th century in Transoxiana and Iran, and who
has recently been singled out as a typical representative of the “Philosophy
of Essence”,3 namely, ‘Aziz-i Nasafl. Nasafi, who wrote exclusively in
Persian, and in a very simple style at that, is of course much less well-known
among students of Islamic philosophy than either Suhrawardi or Mulla
Sadra. Students of Islamic mysticism, on the other hand, tend to regard him
simply as a popularizer of Ibn ‘Arabl’s “monism” - a perception which
needs qualification, as I have tried to show elsewhere,4 not only because Ibn
‘Arabl’s supposed “monism” is itself debatable, but also because Nasafl
himself was actually the first to systematically distinguish between various
kinds of “monism”, none of which is exactly consistent with Ibn ‘Arabl’s
doctrine. Although Nasafl placed his own knowledge humbly under the
“shadow” of his Sufi master Sa‘duddln-i Hamuya, who was indeed an
acquaintance of Ibn ‘ArabI and Sadruddln-i Qunyawl, he was in fact an
independent thinker and a scholar familiar with various intellectual traditions
including medicine and philosophy. Moreover, it is certainly worth
mentioning that Nasafi shows outspoken sympathies for only marginally
Islamic and even frankly non-Islamic doctrines, such as certain Indian forms
of “monism”, although he never leaves the magic circle of the catholicity of
his own Islamic-Iranian consciousness. Not unlike the Ikhwan al-Safa or
Ghazall in the Mishkat al-Anwdr, he may also be seen as a kind of
phenomenologist of religious and philosophical doctrines, as he attempts in
several of his works to give a systematic description of all conceivable
1.T. Izutsu, “The Fundamental Structure of Sabzawari’s Metaphysics”, in: M. Mohaghegh
and T. Izutsu, eds., Sharh-i Ghurar al-Fara’id or Sharh-i Manzumah. Tehran, Wisdom of
Persia Series I, 1969, 6 f. and passim. Reprinted in: The Concept and Reality o f Existence,
Tokyo, 1971.
2. E. g., Talwihat in Suhrawardi, Opera Metaphysica et Mystica ed. Henricus Corbin, I,
Bibliotheca Islamica 16a, Istanbul 1945, 116.
3. Parviz Morewedge, Essays in Islamic Philosophy, Theology, and Mysticism, Departement
of Philosophy, SUNY at Oneonta, 1995* 92-98.
4. “Le paradoxe de la ‘face de dieu’: ‘Aziz-e Nasafi (VIITXIII6 siecle) et le ‘monisme
esoterique’ de ITslam”, in: Studia Iranica 25, 2 (1996) 163-192. References not supplied
here may be found in this article. [Here : pp. 127-154].
cAzIz-i Nasafi and the Essence-Existence Debate
world-views, and to classify them according to their essential characteristics.
Thus, in his as yet unpublished Kitdb-i Tamil,5he presents the world-views
of six anonymous “migrators” (salik) ranging from extreme creationism to
extreme monism. Each of these says Nasafi, represents one among the
“stations” of the awliya’, but none of them possesses the full truth by
himself. In a somewhat similar way, he discusses in his major work, the
Kashf ul-Haqayiq,6the views of three different groups: the ahl-i sharl'at (or
those adhering to the traditional body of religious Islamic knowledge), the
ahl-i hikmat (or the Philosophers) and the ahl-i wahdat (or the “monists”),
each of these three groups being themselves sub-divided in two. The first
group consists of the Sunnis and the ShiTs, the second is divided into the
traditional (i.e., Avicennian) philosophers and the dissident ones, termed ahl-
i tanasukh or “transmigrationists”, whereas the two sub-groups belonging to
the third group seem to correspond to two kinds of Sufis - probably the same
two kinds which are sharply distinguished from each other by a much later
writer studied by Professor Izutsu7 as the “ignorant” ones and the “great”
ones among those Sufis who believe in “oneness of both existence and
existents”. Nasafi calls them the “People of Fire” (ashab-i nar) and the
“People of Light” (ashab-i nur), respectively. Both these kinds of “monists”
recognize “existence” (wujud) itself as the only Reality; but the “People of
Fire” are, in fact, rather a sort of pseudo-monists since they make a
fundamental distinction between this unique Reality of Existence and the
World, which does not really exist according to them: it has only the
appearance of existence, like a fata morgana, due precisely to the unique
property (khassiyyat) of true Existence which is to make appear as existent
whatever is not Itself. One might therefore say that these pseudo-monists are
still thinking in a way in essentialist terms since they are making of existence
itself a kind of super-essence having a property, which distinguishes it from
everthing else. By contrast, Nasafi’s “People of Light” do not make this
difference between God and the World, Reality and Appearance, Existence
and Non-existence at all. For them, the individual existents (afrad-i
mawjudat) as a whole are, simply by virtue of being existent, the Reality of
Existence itself. One could hardly take a more radically “exitentialist”
position !
5. An edition of this work is being prepared by the author.
6. Ed. A. Mahdavi Damghani, Tehran, 1344/1965.
7. “The Fundamental Structure”, 127 f./Arabic text 263 ff. See also Muhammad TaqI al-
Amull, Durar al-Fawa’id (= al-Ta ‘liqa ‘ala Sharh al-Manzuma) ed. Hasan al-Mustafawi,
Teheran2, 1377 h. 1., I, 87 f.
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Yet in some of his writings, Nasafi indeed appears as if he wished to
advocate an “essentialist” position. This is notably the case in the collection
of treatises known under the (probalby spurious) title Kitdb al-Insan al-
Kamil - a collection which, in the edition of Marijan Mole,8 consists of 22
treatises plus a number of variant versions. Like most writings of Nasafi, it is
arranged in a pedagogical order leading through several levels of
understanding from the exoteric to the most esoteric knowledge; and it
should be noted that the “essentialist” passages in question are found in
treatises 11, 12 and 13 corresponding to Variants 3, 4 and 5, all of these
forming part of “Volume II” of the original collection.9 We may therefore
safely assume that they are concerned with an advanced but not the most
advanced level of knowledge. The common subject matter of these treatises
is cosmology, that is to say, the relationship between the traditional “worlds”
or domains of Jabarut, Malakut and Mulk, whith Nasafi explains here in a
way that reveals indeed a Neoplatonic outlook, although it is not
Neoplatonism pure and simple. What is relevant for our discussion here is
that Nasafi identifies the highest of these three “worlds”, Jabarut, with the
domain of pure potentiality and essence (mdhiyyat, dhat), whereas both
Malakut and Mulk, that is to say, both the intelligible (ma'qul) and the
sensible {mahsus) “worlds”, together make up the domain of “existence” or,
more precisely, “external existence” (wujud-i khariji).10 In relation to this
double world of “external” or “actual” existence, the superior world of
essences and potentialities is said to be a world of “non-existence” ( ‘adani),
although these entities are still “true realities” (haqdyiq) and “things”
(ashya). As a matter of fact, Nasafi in this context sometimes prefers the
term “realities”, sometimes “things”.11 He also makes it clear that the term
“thing” is preferable because it is in accordance with Qur’anic and
traditional religious language, e.g., 15: 21: “There is not one thing whose
treasures would not be with Us, and we only make it descend in a well-
known measure”.12 Moreover, he explains that “thing” is a more
comprehensive notion than “existent”, since a “thing” may be either
“existent” or “non-existent”13- a point which reveals that these entities have
in reality at least as much to do with the Mu'tazili Kalam notion of “non­
8. Azizoddin Nasafi, Le Livre de I ’Homme Parfait, ed. Marijan Mole, Bibliotheque Iranienne
11, Tehran/Paris, 1962 (henceforth= Insan).
9. Insan 156-183 and 344-388.
10. E.g., Insan 157 f.
11. Cf.Insan 161 and 365.
12. Insan 355; cd. ibid 161; 348.
13. Insan 161; 172.
Aziz-i Nasafi and the Essence-Existence Debate
existent stable entity” («al-shay’ al-thabit al-ma'dum) as they do with
Avicennian “essences”.14 The same thing has been said, as is well known,
about Ibn ‘Arabi’s “immutable entities” or “archetypes” (al-a'yan al-
thabita),15 with which Nasafi in fact identifies his super-entities explicity.16
Thus, Nasafi’s “essentialism” should be qualified, first of all, for this reason
Now, as was indicated above, the doctrine just summarized does not in
fact correspond to the m0st advanced level in Nasafi’s teaching. In the Kashf
ul-Haqayiq, he makes this quite clear by pointing out that it is only the ahl-i
hikmat, i.e., the second of the three major groups, who consider essence to
be “prior” (sabiq) to existence,17 or as a “link” (wdsita) comprehensive of
both existence and non-existence,18whereas for the ahl-i wahdat, there can
be no such link because existence itself has no real contrary or opposite19
and is, therefore, itself the most comprehensive entity.20 Moreover, even in
those treatises of the Insan collection where Nasafi ostensibly advocates the
primacy of essence over existence, he also hints at the very opposite. Right
from the beginning, for example, he declares that the three realms to be
discussed are actually levels of one and the same existence (maratib-i
wtijud),21 and at the end, we learn that their relationship can only be one of
“togetherness” or “withness” (ma ‘iyyat),22 not emanation. The first level is
simply the implicit order of things ( ‘alam-i ijmdt), whereas the second and
third, i.e., the intelligible and sensible worlds, are the explicit order ( ‘alam-i
tafsil). Also, the changing nature of concrete existents in the lowest of all
worlds does not, paradoxically, give them any lower status in reality. Quite
14. On this Kalam view, see the fundamental article by Richard M. Frank, “Al-ma‘dum wal-
mawjud”, in: MIDEO 14 (1980) 185-210. On arguments for and against its Stoic origin
see especially Josef van Ess, Die Erkenntnislehre des ‘Adudaddin al-Ici, Wiesbaden,
1966, 200. it should be pointed out in this context that Suhrawardi (Opera I, 200-203)
strongly rejects this view, whereas Nasafi accepts it, but only as the point of view of the
ahl-i hikmat, not as that of the ahl-i wahdat (see also below).
15. For a convenient survey fo the scholarly literature on this subject see Egbert Meyer, “Ein
kurzer Traktat Ibn ‘Arabi’s iiber die A ‘yan at-tabita\ in: Oriens 27-28 (1981) 226-265,
esp. 227 f.
16. Insan 364 f.
17. Kashf 39.
18. Kashf 33.
19. Kashf 34.
20. Kashf 30.
21. Insan 159.
22. Insan 316 ff. Note that Nasafi evidently takes the notion of ma ‘iyyat from Mahmud-i
Ushnuhl’s (or Shams-i Daylamls) quite unique theory of “subtle ontic space”. On this,
cf. my “Sakralraum und mystischer Raum im Islam”, in: Eranos 44 (1975) 231-265, esp.
26Iff. [Here : pp. 327-355].
Recherches en spiritualite iranienne
to the contrary, while it must be man’s aim to see things “as they truly are”
(kama hiya), that is, in their essential nature, God sees them as they actually
exist, that is, evidently, as they develop over time; and it is this divine
“vision” of things in their existence which constitutes God’s own supreme
certitude ( ‘ayn al-yaqin; ihatat-i ‘ayni), as opposed to the lower kind of
certitude ( ‘ilm al-yaqin; ihatat-i ‘ilmi) which He has of the world of
“essences”.23 This latter hint, to which several others could be added,
actually involves what appears to be the most characteristic doctrine of
Nasafi himself: the idea that Existence itself is permanently involved in a
process of self-deployment or self-disclosure, “growing” like plants from
seed to flower - except that Existence as opposed to things does not actually
have such a “seed” or “essence” (dhat): it is, rather, pure unfolding (inbisdt)
and manifestation, and present to itself in the fully developed state of things,
which is also called the “Day of Resurrection”, or “the Face of God”, or the
“Perfect Man”.
This dynamic doctrine of “existence” - which in some ways seems even
more radical than Mulla Sadra’s - evidently corresponds to the most esoteric
level of Nasafi’s teaching. In the Kitab al-lnsan al-Kdmil, it has its place in
the second-last treatise of the collection (nr. 21), just before the final treatise
on “Heaven and Hell”. In the Kashf ul-Haqayiq, one version of it is said to
be the doctrine of the “elite among the philosophers” (khawass-i ahl-i
hikmat), but this version concerns only the two poles essence and existence,
potentiality and actuality, implicit and explicit order, seed and fruit - and
therefore misses the main point, namely, the expansion or unfolding of
Existence itself (inbisat-i wujiid), which is called the “Soul” (nafs) of God or
the “Lord” (rabb), and which is, of course, known only to the ahl-i wahdat.
The following is a translation of the relevant passage from the Kashf ul-
You must know that the monists say that everything existent in the world
has three levels and two forms: the levels of ‘Essence’ (dhat), ‘Face’ (wajh)
and ‘Soul’ (nafs), plus the ‘generic’ (jami'a) and the ‘differentiated’
(mutafarriqa) forms. This is so because everything, whatever it be,
necessarily is either in a station in which everything that is possible to appear
in that thing is altogether existent in potentia, such as the egg or the seed.
This station is called the level of Essence, and the form of this level is called
the ‘generic’ form. Or it must be in a station in which everything that was
possible to appear in that thing is altogether existent in actu, such as the
23. Insan 368 (reading ‘aynifor ghaybion line 21).
(Aziz-i Nasafi and the Essence-Existence Debate
perfect man or the perfect tree. This station is called the level of Face, and the
form of this level is called the ‘differentiated’ form. And the expansion and
unfolding of existence (imtidad va inbisdt-i wujiid) whithin these levels is
called the level of Soul.
What is meant by ‘expansion’ is not (physical) growth, for the latter is
called ‘motion of bodies’. Rather, the meaning of ‘unfolding’ is the spreading
out of existence. This is what is called the level of Soul; and the difference is
great between physical growth and the spreading out of existence...
Expansion and unfolding of Soul within these levels is (nothing but) His (i.e.,
God’s) taking possession of and placing Himself on the Throne ( ‘arsh); for
the levels of everything depend on the completeness (tamami) of the Throne.
That is to say that the Throne is something of many kinds; and the more
complete and perfect the levels, the greater and more magnificent is the
Throne. This is the meaning of (the tradition that) ‘The heart of the believer
is the greatest throne of God’.
This Soul is what the Founder of Religion (sahib-i sharVat) calls ‘the
Lord’, for both terms have the same meaning, as is indicated by (the
traditions) ‘Whoever knows his soul knows his lord’ and ‘Whoever knows
the Soul knows the Lord’. And this level of Soul, which the Founder of
Religion calls ‘Lord’, is above all levels. It is pure and free from opposition
and confrontation, and it transcends shapes and forms. Surely the sensualists
and those bound to mere imagination have no access to this level!
O Darvlsh! The meaning of ‘Lord’ and ‘Soul’ is not what the Religionists
and the Philosophers thought it to be. Nor is the (correct) interpretation of the
(Qur’anic terms) ‘Soul’ and ‘Lord’ the one made by the grammarians and
linguistics. ‘Soul’ and ‘Lord’ are to be interpreted as the expansion and
unfolding of Existence within its own levels. And the meaning of ‘Throne’ is
not what the Religionists and the Philosophers believed it to be; for ‘Throne’
is to be interpreted as the completeness of the levels. As for (God’s) ‘placing
Himself (on it, istiwa), it is of two kinds:
One is by way of knowledge - ‘And God embraces everything in
knowledge’ (65: 12) -, the other is by way of existence (az rah-i wujiid)
- for, ‘Are they not in doubt about meeting their Lord? Is He not embracing
every thing?’ (41: 54). Again, His ‘placing Himself (on the Throne)’ by
knowledge is of two kinds: implicit and explicit. But let us not extend our
talking and miss the goal!24
24. Kashf 39 ff. the printed text has some lacunae, which have been supplied here from the
MS. Tehran, Majlis 4136, 36 a-37 b.