Posted by on Sep 5, 2015 in Blog, Reflections | 3 comments

It has been some time since posting our most recent installment, on objective logic and dialectics, in this seven-part series on the life, legacy, and philosophy of Shaykh Aḥmad Ibn Zayniddīn al-Aḥsāʾī. Things for this writer have been incredibly busy and it has taken much longer than expected to return to this. A number of readers also posted very interesting questions which remain on this author's radar screen for reply and discssion: apologies that things have taken more time than intended.

Contents of the seven parts of this series:

  1. Life, Travels, Character and Charisma
  2. Works: Opera Majora and Minora
  3. Legacy and Influence I: Students, Close Disciples, Licensees, and Other Contemporaries
  4. Legacy and Influence II: Shaykhism
  5. Major Arcs in the Philosophy of Shaykh Aḥmad I: Preliminary Considerations
  6. Major Arcs in the Philosophy of Shaykh Aḥmad II: Objective Logic and Dialectics
  7. Major Arcs in the Philosophy of Shaykh Aḥmad III: Dialectical Metaphysics and the Project of Illuminationism.

With Part Seven this series comes to a conclusion. It should be reiterated that this and the previous installments in this series of reflections are provisional and may not be in their final state; all are subject to further editing. These pages will, inshāʾa Ãllãh, be updated with corrections and improvements as needed. For citations and the like, the definitive versions will be the ones that make it into print publication, unless otherwise noted here.

Inshāʾa Ãllãh this series has been of benefit to our readers, and may it continue to serve as a resource to those interested in this long-neglected but all-important thinker. As G. W. F. Hegel once wrote, “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.” Shaykh Aḥmad was the last original philosopher of traditional Muslim civilization: He appeared at the twilight of its decline, on the cusp of the rise and dominance of that contemporary darkness of spirit – despite all of its concomitant technological advancement – that arrogates for itself the label “modernity”. In significant ways Shaykh Aḥmad was far ahead of his time: It is the view of this writer that the gems of his genius will eventually play an important role in the upcoming revolution of the consciousness of humanity; in the transformation and the sublation of the current age of darkness of spirit into one of scientia and light. Inshāʾa Ãllãh!


Shaykh Aḥmad Ibn Zayniddīn al-Aḥsāʾī: Biography, Impact, and Philosophical Essay (Part 7)
Major Arcs in the Philosophy of Shaykh Aḥmad
Dialectical Metaphysics and the Project of Illuminationism
The True is explicated via symbol. The False is explicated via disputation.—
Sharḥ al-Mashāʿir
(Aḥsāʾī 2009, Vol. 3, p. 313).
Whoever cognizes standing as in Zayd is standing has surely cognized God.—Shaykh Aḥmad, quoted by Mullā Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad Naṣīr Gīlānī, in the latter’s own commentary on
We began this brief introduction to the dialectical metaphysics and objective logic of Shaykh Aḥmad with the observation that his metaphysics involves a presuppositionless struggle of cosmological meditation on the four-part system of macrocosm, microcosm, the Qurʾān, and Ahlulbayt 
. The Illuminationists in general, and those of the school of Isfahan in particular, were also profoundly concerned with the Qurʾān and the teachings of Ahlulbayt 
. Moreover, many of them had experience in or had otherwise studied other occult, Hermetic sciences involving the identification of correspondences between macrocosm and microcosm. Āqā Muḥammad Bīdābādī, the great teacher or Ḥājj Muḥammad Ibrāhīm Karbāsī and of Mullā ʿAlī Nūrī, was deeply interested in alchemy. The four-part system of correspondences was, in its broad outline, familiar to them. The critical difference is that, for the Illuminationists, each category of this framework was evaluated separately with respect to axiomatic presuppositions, in accordance with the doctrine of Aristotelian cognitivism. According to Shaykh Aḥmad, this is the monkey wrench that kills the free and presuppositionless movement of consciousness that constitutes objective logic.
As the modern mathematician and dialectical philosopher Lawvere astutely points out, the purpose of axioms and foundational principles is not to provide some absolute set of unassailable truths. Rather, the purpose of axiomatic foundations is to
…concentrate the essence of practice and in turn use the result to guide practice. (Lawvere 2003, p. 213)
This insight constitutes a special case of a favorite dialectical principle of Shaykh Aḥmad, one often repeated by Imām ʿAlī 
nexal consciousness
) the depths of
praxial wisdom
) are fathomed; through praxial wisdom the depths of nexal consciousness are fathomed…
Cosmological meditation
) constitutes the life of the heart of the one with vision, just as a walker with a light walks in the darkness beautifully free of entrapments and with few interruptions.
Axioms are only provisional: To absolutize them stunts the movement of presuppositionless consciousness that is opened via
cosmological meditation
). Absolutized axioms and principles are examples of the
being referred to by the Imām here.
In this regard, Sabzawārī makes a curious point. In the main text of his
Sharḥ al-Manẓūmah
, he remarks (Sabzawārī 1990, p. 44),
“Not one of the philosophers has claimed that both [existence and essence] are principial [i.e. that they are both in fact extensions of the concept
Then, in a footnote to this passage he adds (Sabzawārī 1990, p. 212),
“Among our contemporaries there is someone [Shaykh Aḥmad] who does not consider the principles of philosophy [as axiomatic]: This person claims that both [existence and essence] are principial.”
Although Sabzawārī makes his point in a pejorative context, he has it right when he says, in effect, that Shaykh Aḥmad does not absolutize the principles and axioms of traditional scholastic philosophy.
In the history of philosophy there are two main approaches to metaphysics and cosmology, viz., ontology and dialectics. Ontology in the scholastic, Parminidean sense is based on Aristotelian cognitivism within a single universe of discourse. Aristotelian cognitivism holds that there are ultimate, absolute first princples (axioms); the metaphysician knows the principles to be true via rational intuition. In Illuminationism, the effort to determine the correct set of axioms is aided by mystical insight. Each other proposition within the metaphysical system is then known to be true via rational derivation (e.g., deduction) from the axioms. Shaykh Aḥmad rejects Aristotelian cognitivism in the field of ontology in the Parminidean sense, but accepts Platonic deductivism. According to Platonic deductivism, the practitioner of ontology in the scholastic sense generally does not know one’s princples to be true; in the best case scenario one only knows that one’s metaphysical propositions follow from the principles. Put another way, generally they do not know either their principles or their conclusions; the most they may know are implications of their principles.
The dialectical, Heraclitean approach to metaphysics is, in contrast, based upon Hermetic logicism throughout an interconnected set of universes of discourse. Hermetic logicism holds that, given an inter-connected system of categories, then the main philosophical struggle of the metaphysician is to identify the best symbolic category within which to contextualize the cosmological investigation of any particular fact. In a strong sense, the dialectical
symbolic category
) takes the place of the ontological first principle
axiom. Once the proper symbolic category is determined, provisional axioms are intuited via an objective logical investigation of the symbolic category in conjunction with some other cosmological category of fact.
A truly dialectical philosophy cannot absolutize axioms and principles, cannot restrict itself to Aristotelian cognitivism. The move from ontology to dialectics, the move from the priority of presuppositional subjective logic in a single universe of discourse to that of presuppositionless objective logic in multiple, interconnected universes of discourse: This shift must keep axiomatic systems fluid, not fixed. If one cardinal philosophical sin may be attributed to the scholastic (as well classical) traditions of Islāmic philosophy, it was the inability to step outside of their own ontological box governed by an ossified subjective logic and absolutized axioms. Although it was, in a strong sense, the very aim of the Illuminationist project to make exactly that step, in the end it failed in this task (despite other very important accomplishments). The remark made by Jonathan Barnes in a slightly different (but related) context sums up a key aspect of how Shaykh Aḥmad viewed pre- dialectical Islāmic philosophy:
“Thought was fettered; and if the old thinkers and scientists sang, they sang in chains”
(Barnes 1993, p. xi). Then, through the consistent and persistent application of presuppositionless consciousness (involving the dialectic of nexal consciousness and praxial wisdom mentioned above) Shaykh Aḥmad ingeniously accomplished a major breakthrough in the history of Islāmic philosophy in general and Illuminationism in particular: He showed a way of stepping out of the scholastic ontological straitjacket and into a more flexible and open phenomenological and dialectical philosophy.
We may go even further: It is only an objective logic that can provide the appropriate and continuous philosophical linking mechanism between mystical cognizance and propositional knowledge. It is only the objective mapping of the categories of mystical experience into true propositions (
) expressed within the appropriate universe of discourse that makes Illuminationism a genuinely viable philosophical project. Yet, ironically, it is exactly this mechanism that traditional Illuminationism misses, in both its essentialist formulation (Suhrawardī) as well as its existentialist formulation (Mullā Ṣadrā). Each degree of
requires a particular universe of discourse, with a determination of the system of subjective logic that is most appropriate to that universe of discourse. Moreover, the role of mysticism stops at the presumed first principle or axiom; then rationalism takes over from mysticism. But if we want to genuinely fulfill the hope and promise of Illuminationism, if mystical cognizance is to have a continuous role, then we need something more. The subjective logical system perfected by Aristotle cannot by itself replace this mechanism; the single universe of discourse ossified by the scholastic tradition cannot fulfill it.
In conclusion: The philosophers of Isfahan in their evaluation of Shaykh Aḥmad made a critical mistake: They confused the enterprise of metaphysics per se with that of ontology in the scholastic sense. To reemphasize what we mentioned above (see page 41): Shaykh Aḥmad is not doing metaphysics via ontology in the scholastic, Parminidean sense. But the enterprise of metaphysics per se is not identical to that of ontology. There is an alternative to ontology within metaphysics and that is dialectics, with its associated objective logic. This constitutes metaphysics and cosmology in the honored tradition of Heraclitus, of Hermes and the alchemists, of Lao-Tzu and the Taoists, and of Hegel.
Yet Shaykh Aḥmad is also an Illuminationist in a broad sense. Indeed, Shaykh Aḥmad’s
constitutes the dialectical phase of Islāmic philosophy in general and of Illuminationism in particular. Analogously, Suhrawardī’s
constitutes the essentialist phase of Illuminationism; Mullā Ṣadrā’s
constitutes its existentialist phase. Mullā Ṣadrā in particular, e.g., via his theory of
substantial motion
), took traditional metaphysics in a processual direction as far as it could go without breaking out of ontology in the Parminidean sense. But the deep insights and contributions of Mullā Ṣadrā did not go far enough, and most of the philosophers of Isfahan could not see the next step. The next revolution in Illuminationist metaphysics would have to break out of the chains of Parminidean ontology and into the open spaces of Heraclitean dialectics. In this context we may consider the broad perspective of Shaykh Aḥmad’s place in the large- scale history of philosophy. Bringing this revolution to pass, viz., the shift within metaphysics from a rigid ontology and subjective logic to a flexible dialectics and objective logic: This was the great accomplishment and contribution of Shaykh Aḥmad ibn Zayniddīn al-Aḥsāʾī.
The distinction between Aristotelian cognitivism and Platonic deductivism (and the definition of each) is due to John Corcoran and Hassan Masoud (Corcoran and Masoud 2015); the name
‘Aristotelian cognitivism
’ is due to Idris Samawi Hamid. In this abstract Corcoran and Masoud
“argue that Plato didn’t hold deductivism but attributed it to Socrates for expository purposes.”
It is worthwhile to note that Shaykh Aḥmad does appear to agree with Aristotelian cognitivism in the mathematical sciences (Aḥsāʾī 2009, Vol. 4, p. 245).
As an example, this is one of Shaykh Aḥmad’s first principles:
) imitates the
) of its proximate
The author owes a debt of gratitude to John Corcoran, Ali Y. Al-Hamad, and Abbas Mirakhor. The inspiration for this chapter comes from Mawlānā Muḥammad ibn ʿAlī ibn al-Ḥusayn 
; to him we most humbly dedicate this work.
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