This introduction to the life and thought of Muhammad ibn Ibrahim ibn Yahya Qawami al-Shirazi (Sadr al-Din al Shirazi, or Mulla Sadra), is part of the Makers of Islamic Civilization series, conceived by the Oxford Centre for Islamic studies, edited by Farhan Nizami, and published by Oxford University Press. The self-described aim of the series is to provide a set of introductory texts on outstanding figures in the history of Islamic civilization. This volume represents an important contribution to the literature on a neglected period of Islamic philosophy, by a scholar who is emerging as one of the most important contemporary Muslim thinkers.
Ibrahim Kalin states his own aims in the book in terms of its four main chapters. The first is to give a brief account of Mulla Sadra's life and influence. The second is to describe the cultural and intellectual context in which his thought developed. The third is to introduce Sadra's main intellectual contribution: his doctrine of the primacy of existence. The fourth provides an overview of Sadra's thought and assesses the extent to which it succeeded (or not) in arriving at a coherent synthesis." (p. 9)
Kalin thoroughly accomplishes the first two of these objectives. He does a great job of putting Mulla Sadra in historical context, including the preceding rise of the Safavid dynasty with Shah Ismaʿil's conversion of the Safawiyya Sufi order from Sunnism to Twelve-Imam Shiʿism in 1501. Sadra emerges a generation later, as a major intellectual at the beginning of Shi'a ascendency in Iran. Kalin provides a clear and readable account of the intellectual climate of the time, including the akhbari-usuli controversy and the emergence of a new Shʿia oriented Sufism. He shows how the work of Sadra emerged out of a bubbling cauldron of diverse ideas, including the peripatetic philosophy of Al-Farabi and Ibn Sina, the ishraqi school of Suhrawardi, the Sufi metaphysics of Ibn ʿArabi, and the various schools of Shiʿʿa and Sunni kalam. He is also generous in describing Sadra's influence on future thinkers.
Unfortunately, Kalin is not as successful with his fourth objective, of providing a critical assessment of the success of Sadra's overall project; and the reason for this seems to be that the way he approached the third objective, of introducing the 'primacy of existence' doctrine, upon which the success of [End Page 1] Sadra's project turns, was not such as to make a critical assessment possible. That need not necessarily detract from the book, because there is some reason to believe that the doctrine itself is simply not accessible to critical assessment, at least of any sort that can be accomplished in a book. As Kalin puts it:
For Sadra, one of the goals of philosophy is to equip us with the proper epistemic tools and cognitive means to 'see' the self-evident (badihi) reality of existence. This, however, cannot be achieved by mental or rational analysis alone because demonstrative and rational analyses give us only a mental picture of existence, not its reality.(p. 82)
But there is some ambiguity on this point, which first appears in Kalin's account of Sadra's view of the relation between ʿirfan, and burhan. On the one hand, he says that "gnosis is not without cognitive content, and a true sage can explain his vision by using ordinary rational arguments." (p. 47). On the other, he quotes Sadra as saying "the knowledge of what is tasted and the knowledge of spiritual states cannot be captured in the garment of letters and words." (p. 49). The latter position lends itself to Wittgenstein's famous dictum, "that of which we cannot speak we must pass over in silence." But the former characterization of Sadra's position, and the fact that he did have a lot to write on the primacy of existence, whets the appetite for a satisfying burhani treatment of the topic; one that, as Kalin puts it, "ensures that we understand the relation between...