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  • A Response to Seyed N. Mousavian, “Did Suhrawardi Believe in Innate Ideas as A Priori Concepts? A Note”
  • John Walbridge

I should, I suppose, begin by taking some personal responsibility for this controversy. When my late friend Hossein Ziai and I published our edition and translation of Suhrawardī’s Ḥikmat al-Ishrāq (hereafter Philosophy of Illumination), we chose “innate” as our rendering of fiṭrī. I don’t remember discussing the rendering, and we did not bother to mention it in the glossary. Hossein had used this rendering in his first book, Knowledge and Illumination, stating that “innate ideas serve as the grounds for knowledge.”1 Others, however, have rendered the term and its source, fiṭra, as “nature,” “natural spirit,”2 or “innate disposition.”3

So what does fiṭra mean? Al-Tahānawī, in his dictionary of Islamic technical terminology, cites the famous saying of the Prophet, “Every child born is born with the fiṭra, but his parents make him a Jew, a Christian, or a Magian,” observing that “they disagree about its meaning.”4 More to the point is his discussion of fiṭrīyāt:

They are a class of necessary and certain premises. They are also called “propositions whose syllogisms are simultaneous with them.” What is meant by simultaneity is temporal simultaneity, so essential priority is not denied. The syllogisms referred to are the hidden syllogisms. They are called “hidden syllogisms” because if you examine them in detail and think carefully, they are that which the intellect judges to be so due to mediacy of something that is present and not absent from the mind when the two extremes of the syllogism are conceived.5

He goes on to give “four is an even number” as an example.

There are, in fact, two issues to settle here. The first is what fiṭrī means for Suhrawardī, in terms of both conceptions and assents. (I will use the Arabic term to avoid prejudicing the discussion.) The second question is whether such fiṭrī conceptions and assents correspond to what European philosophers beginning with Descartes meant by “innate ideas.” I will then look at two related issues: i‛tibārāt‛aqlīyya, literally “rational considerations,” and the ground of the certitude of awwalīyāt, “primary premises.”


Suhrawardī accepts the normal Islamic division of knowledge into conceptions and assents. Conceptions are thoughts of something, whether simple or composite, but without any affirmation or denial—for example, redness, horse, or mountain of gold—whereas assents combine conceptions with affirmations or denials, such as “apples are red,” “horses are not rational,” and “there is no mountain of gold.” In The [End Page 481] Philosophy of Illumination, the discussion of fiṭrī conceptions first arises in a paragraph introducing a critique of the Aristotelian theory of definition:

Man’s knowledge is either fiṭrī or not fiṭrī. When an unknown thing cannot be made known by pointing it out or bringing it to mind and it is something that cannot be attained by the true visions of the great sages, then knowledge of it must depend on things leading to it that are in an order and that are ultimately based on fiṭrī knowledge. Otherwise, knowledge of anything that man desires to know will depend on previously obtaining an infinite number of things, and he will not even be able to obtain the first step in knowledge—which is absurd.6

This is followed by an explanation of Peripatetic essential definition, concluding with an “Illuminationist principle” showing why this theory fails since it carries the consequence of making all knowledge impossible. The argument applies to fiṭrī assents, as well. There is a similar argument in the Talwīḥāt (Intimations), one of the works that Suhrawardī wrote in the Peripatetic mode, which is to say in the style of Ibn Sīnā:

Logic is therefore the science in which one learns the kinds of order that leads to acquiring knowledge and what occurs therein correctly and what does not so occur. The unknown follows the same pattern as the known in both classes. The unknowns in both classes require something known...