Henry Corbin-Suhrawardī & The Ishraqi Path of Illumination
‘The magical bird Simorgh’, Illustration from the ‘Shahnameh’ epic.
Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an excerpt from Henry Corbin’s ‘L’Ange Pourpre, quinze traités de Sohrawardi’. Fayard, 1976. Henry Corbin sets the frame of Sohrawardi’s philosophy of illumination. Our English translation.
“There was among the ancient Persians a community whose members were guided by Truth and by which it followed Equity. They were eminent Wise men, not to be confused with the Magi (Majus). It was their noble philosophy of light-of which Plato, by personal experience, altogether with other older wisemen gave us such a testimony-that we have resurrected in our book called: ‘The Book of the Oriental Theosophy’. And I did not have any forerunner for this venture.” Shahāb ad-Dīn Yahya ibn Habash Sohrawardī.
Sohrawardi’s work is substantial for a man who died at an early stage of his life, at thirty-six years old; substantial not by the number of books written (around thirty, according to his biographer and disciple Shahrazuri), but by the soundness and the length of his doctrine that he himself and his circle characterized as a ‘resurrection’. This doctrine is designated summarily by the simple name of ‘Ishraq’. The word indicates solely the light of the sun at its rise, ‘aurora consurgens’. It is the East, as birth and origin of light (Oriens-origo). Of course, the word is not meant in the geographical sense. It is about the spiritual world, the ‘Malakut’, the East of the worlds in contrast of our terrestrial world. The rising sun is the sun of Malakut. With it, rises a way of knowing which is the knowledge of the ‘East’ of things, knowledge of beings and things in their ‘East’, because the knowing soul also rises to its own ‘East’. The ‘Eastern’ knowledge, ‘Ishraqi’, is characterized by a knowledge that is presence and compresence (Hygeia note: the quality or state of being present together) (‘ilm hozuri), by contrast with a knowledge that is simply a representation of things by the intermediary of a form or a species (Hygeia note: a group of the same genus) (ilm suri). It is maybe this that Avicenna was pursuing with his ‘Eastern Philosophy’, but Sohrawardi knew very well that Avicenna couldn’t carry out properly this task and that it was only him to achieve it.
This ‘eastern’ theosophy (ishraqi) originates from the ‘Easterners’ (ishraqiyun, mashriqiyun), a term that even did not take a more geographical or ethnic meaning. There is no link between eastern in the geographical sense and ‘eastern’ in the metaphysical sense. If the wise men of ancient Persia, that Sohrawardi claims as his spiritual ancestors, are ‘eastern’ wise men, it is not because they were located in the geographical east, but because their wisdom was ‘eastern’ in the meaning told earlier. And this is why Sohrawardi aimed at the task to resurrect their divine wisdom, their ‘theosophia’. We should not be satisfied with translating the word ‘ishraq’ by ‘illumination’. The word alludes to the inner vision of the ‘east’ of the rising light, that Sohrawardi will finally identify with the Light of Glory, the ‘Xvarnah’. It is an illuminative knowledge because it is ‘eastern’ and is ‘eastern’ because it is illuminating. The emphasis is hence put on this ‘eastern’ that is the Light of Lights, origin and rising of every light, and it is this that from one end to the other directs the philosophical doctrine and the mystical practice. This is why we translate ‘ishraqi’ by ‘eastern’, in the metaphysical sense of the word. This ‘eastern’ knowledge, is this ‘cognito matutina’ found in the Latin texts, hermetic and others. The Shaykh al-Ishraq is the ‘Doctor cognotionis matutinae’.
This ‘eastern’ knowledge that rises after the ‘orientation’ of the soul, the dawn of the soul at its ‘East’, span on multiple layers. Sohrawardi wanted to be the revivor of the wisdom of the wise men of ancient Persia. He definitely knew firsthand the fundamental data of the Zoroastrian wisdom, as his many references to the Xvarnah, the ecstatic kings of ancient Persia, to the sorting of the worlds in subtle (menok) and material (getik), and especially the angelical predominance in a world system where all the names of the Amahraspands , the Zoroastrian angels. It does not mean that we find with hi the classical cosmology proper to Zoroastrism per-se. Of course, we cannot deny the existence of esoteric currents in Zoroastrism, and we will have to take them into account when we will study closer the Zoroastrian reaction given in the XVIth century to the works of Sohrawardi. But the Shaykh al-Ishraq had re-thought all the data given to him, so to fulfill the task he imposed to himself. He interpreted the theory of the Platonic Ideas in terms of Zoroastrian angelology, and we are ought to keep in mind while reading him, the ‘mediating hierarchies’, the ‘series’ from Proclus’ universe. Besides, the figure of Hermes, the ‘Wisemen’s father’, holds a leading place, as much in its conception of ‘wisdom tradition’ than in its spiritual practice. Hermes is for him the visionary prophet of the ‘Perfect Nature’. Though, all these elements added would not be enough to hint at something close to the ‘eastern theosophy’, ‘Hikmat al-Ishraq’. What was needed was the inspired genius of the Shaykh al-Ishraq; himself being the first and the last explanation. As such, he was not the crafter of what we lightly call ‘syncretism’, so to not to consider a point of view embarrassing to us. He was the witness of a ‘Sophia Perenis’ of which that he had a keen sense.
It is because this ishraqi theosophy has been the spiritual path followed through the centuries by the Ishraqiyun, the disciples of Sohrawardi, that the repertories often called ‘Platonists’ in opposition to the ‘Peripatetics’ (the Mashsha’un). What characterizes this school, is that it takes as an indivisible ground philosophical study and spiritual experience (or mystical practice). A philosophical search that would not lead to a personal spiritual realization, is in the eyes of Sohrawardi a sterile venture, a waste of time. Reciprocally, to the many Sufis lightly vituperating knowledge as such, Sohrawardi considers that anybody who engages into the spiritual path without a proper philosophical education is prone to all the traps and illusions, all the troubles we call today mental illnesses, like schizophrenia. This dual requirement is the major marker of the ishraqi spirituality.
So, in order to conclude, the essential characteristics of the ishraqi doctrine, as philosophical doctrine and spiritual practice, are:
- The deliberate will to reconnect with the theosophy of the Light as taught by the wise men of ancient Persia.
- This very ‘resurrection’ blossoms a spirituality whose characteristics is to inseparably con-join the philosophical search for Knowledge and the fruiting of this Knowledge into a conversion, an inner metamorphosis of Man. The Knowledge in question will never be a theoretical knowledge, but by essence a salvific knowledge, that has always been the meaning of the word ‘gnosis’.
“What matters most, is that the pilgrim on his way to God makes a synthesis of the two methods. May his inner ascesis never be void of philosophical meditation, and reciprocally, may his philosophical meditation always be not devoid of an effort of spiritual purification. Or better said: May his spiritual method be a ‘barzakh’ (an in-between) that con-join the two methods, as such is the path followed by the ‘hokama mashriqiyun’, the eastern theosophist, the Persian Platonists.” Mullah Sadra Shirazi, a leading ishraqi figurehead of the Isfahan School. (ob. 1640)