Here is Part Two of our seven-part series of reflections on the life, influence, and philosophical foundations of the cosmology of Shaykh Aḥmad Ibn Zayniddīn al-Aḥsāʾī. This post focuses on the writings of the Shaykh, primarily his opera majora (larger works).
Contents of the seven parts of this series:
- Life, Travels, Character and Charisma
- Works: Opera Majora and Minora
- Legacy and Influence I: Students, Close Disciples, Licensees, and Other Contemporaries
- Legacy and Influence II: Shaykhism
- Major Arcs in the Philosophy of Shaykh Aḥmad I: Preliminary Considerations
- Major Arcs in the Philosophy of Shaykh Aḥmad II: Objective Logic and Dialectics
- Major Arcs in the Philosophy of Shaykh Aḥmad III: Dialectical Metaphysics and the Project of Illuminationism.
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In WALAYAH SAMAWI
Shaykh Aḥmad Ibn Zayniddīn al-Aḥsāʾī: Biography, Impact, and Philosophical Essay (Part 2)
Shaykh Aḥmad was a prolific writer, and the range covered by his learning was encyclopedic. He wrote over 160 books and treatises: They range in size from large, multiple-volume compositions to short treatises only a couple or so pages in length. Keeping in mind that many of these works constitute collections of answers to multiple questions of other scholars and students, and that the answer to a single question sometimes constitutes a treatise in itself, then we will have to add to that number. Counting only his responses to the questions of scholars and others, these exceed 550.
The subjects covered by the Shaykh range over the entire gamut of disciplines of traditional Muslim civilization, including metaphysics, cosmology, mysticism, theology, ethics and mystical wayfaring, philosophy of language and law, jurisprudence proper, interpretation of the Qurʾān and the Ḥadīth, alchemy, mineralogy, astronomy, the occult Hermetic arts, poetry and literary arts, music, medicine, grammer, prosody, and others. About half of these works, including most of those in his
opera majora(see Subsection 2.1), are dated by the author. This and some scattered cross-references make it possible to do a chronological analysis of the author’s thought.
Even in what might be considered his mainly philosophical works he draws upon the resources of sciences across a large spectrum of fields, especially alchemy. One also finds that the same principles underlying the Shaykh’s dialectical philosophy are also applied in good measure to these other sciences as well. Indeed, there is hardly any field of interest approached by the Shaykh where he doesn’t contribute something of his own genius and originality; a clear unified thread of thought can be detected across all of his interests. Put another way: Shaykh Aḥmad’s vision of philosophy was very holistic and cosmological, in the Whiteheadian sense of
ce, the Shaykhiyyah of Basra and Kerman published, in nine volumes, a typeset transcription from the available manuscripts of the collected works of Shaykh Aḥmad (Aḥsāʾī 2009). Appropriately, they entitled it the second edition of
Jawāmiʿ al-Kalim(Aḥsāʾī 1856–59), a lithograph collection of over 90 works of the author published a generation after his passing by the Shaykhiyyah of Tabriz. The second edition has a number of works which were previously only available in manuscript form. Whereas the Shaykhiyyah of Tabriz published three of the largest works separately,
Jawāmiʿ al-Kalimproper. The most famous and largest work of the Shaykh,
Sharḥ al-Ziyārah al-Jāmiʿah al-Kabīrah, is still published separately.
Major Works and Opera Majora
Over two-thirds of the writings of Shaykh Aḥmad are in the field of philosophy. Of these, we may identify eight as the most important or comprehensive (listed in chronological order, and focusing on those works whose primary concern is philosophy proper):
Discussions of Language)
This incomplete treatise is a part of what was intended to be Section 3 of a larger work
Observations on the Principles) in the field of
principles of jurisprudence(
), i.e., philosophy of law. This was penned most likely during the pre-Iran period of the Shaykh’s life, when most of his jurisprudential works were written. Many of the Shaykh’s positions on issues of fundamental philosophical importance, such as his rejection of both the
univocity) of the word
‘existence’ as well as the
‘existence’ can hardly be appreciated without reference to his underlying philosophy of language. This work is thus critical for anyone seeking an accurate understanding of certain fine points in Shaykh Aḥmad’s philosophy.
Observations in Wisdom)
This relatively short text constitutes a synopsis of the metaphysical and cosmological system of the Shaykh. The original
Fawāʾidconsists of 12 chapters referred to as
). I have discussed its chronology in Hamid (1998, pp. 56–59), where I estimated it to have been written around 1224–25
ce. Upon further investigation, that has to be revised: Although there is room for even further research on the matter,
al-was apparently completed sometime during the Winter of 1223–24
ce. After completing his own commentary on this work, he added seven more
Commentaries or extended notes on the
Fawāʾidhave been written by at least three students of the Shaykh: Mullā Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad Naṣīr Gīlānī, Mullā Kāẓim Simnānī, and Sayyid Muḥammad Ḥusayn Shahristānī. But the most famous commentary is, of course, the one written by Shaykh Aḥmad himself (number five in this list of major works).
Sharḥ al-Ziyārah al-Jāmiʿah al-Kabīrah
Commentary on the Grand Comprehensive Visitation)
Began in Yazd and completed in Kirmanshah on the night before the Tenth of Rabīʿ al-Awwal, 1230
ce); he also completed an addendum exactly ten days later. In four volumes, this is Shaykh Aḥmad’s longest, most famous, and most controversial book. It is a commentary on a particularly long
), that is, a formula recited when one visits the grave of the Prophet, his daughter Fāṭimah, or one of the Twelve Imāms
(ṣ). A visitation may also be read from afar by anyone seeking spiritual communion with one or more of these figures. The particular visitation commented upon by Shaykh Aḥmad is the
Grand Comprehensive Visitationby the Tenth Imam ʿAlī ibn Muḥammad al-Hādī
(ʿa). Philosophically it is one of the most profound of this genre, covering various facets of the dialectics of the pristine Shīʿī cosmology and anthropology of
the perfect human(
al-). Drawing upon a broad spectrum of interdisciplinary expertise, brilliantly sewn together in a dense but consistent fabric, Shaykh Aḥmad’s massive commentary constitutes the most extensive and profound elaboration of this concept in the history of Muslim civilization.
Sharḥ Risālat al-ʿIlm
Commentary on the Treatise on Knowledge)
Apparently begun almost immediately after finishing
Sharḥ al-Ziyārah, this work was completed in Kirmanshah on the Fifth of Rabīʿ al-Thānī, 1230
ce). It is a piercing critique of the theological epistemology of Mullā Muḥsin Fayḍ Kāshānī, the disciple and son-in-law of Mullā Ṣadrā. The point of departure for the discussion is Mullā Muḥsin’s theory of the nature of God’s Knowledge of His creation. The perceived harshness of some of the Shaykh’s criticisms (Khwānsārī 1938, Vol. 1, p. 223) was used by some of his enemies to (falsely) claim that he had declared Mullā Muḥsin to be an unbeliever. Mullā Hādī Sabzawārī (d. 1797
ce) wrote a short treatise restricted to some critical remarks on a few of Shaykh Aḥmad’s introductory comments (Sabzawārī 1997, pp. 579–601).
Commentary on the Observations in Wisdom)
The Shaykh completed this work on the Ninth of Shawwāl, 1233 (August 1818). As the title indicates, this book is an elaboration of his philosophical epitome,
al-. After its completion the author penned another seven observations to be appended to the original twelve.
Sharḥ al-, along with the additional seven observations, together constitute a broad overview of the philosophy of Shaykh Aḥmad. Mullā ʿAlī Nūrī, the most prominent professor of Mullā Ṣadrā’s school at that time, wrote a set of annotations on
Sharḥ al-. We will say more about this in Section 4.2.
Commentary on the Metaphysical Penetrations)
This work is the first extensive commentary by Shaykh Aḥmad on an entire book of Mullā Ṣadrā; it was completed on Ṣafar 27, 1234 (December 1818). In
Sharḥ al-the Shaykh makes reference to
Sharḥ al-Mashāʿir(and vice versa); it is clear that he worked on both projects concurrently. As indicated by the title, this is a study of
al-Mashāʿir, in which Mullā Ṣadrā’s presents his ontological metaphysics of existence, with applications to theology and cosmology. The commentary of Shaykh Aḥmad critiques this, and he compares and contrasts it with his own dialectical metaphysics of existence and essence and its application to problems in theology and cosmology.
cogent observations, knowledge, and majestic light(
Sharḥ al-Ḥikmah al-ʿArshiyyah
Commentary on the Throne Wisdom)
This work is the second of Shaykh Aḥmad’s two major commentaries on the writings of Mullā Ṣadrā; it was completed on Rabīʿ al-Awwal 27, 1236
hl(near the beginning of February 1821
ce). This is the author’s longest and most famous work after
Sharḥ al-Ziyārah. It is an extensive, critical commentary on
Throne Wisdom); a summary of the Mullā’s theology, cosmology, psychology, and eschatology. Not quite as difficult as
Sharḥ al-Mashāʿirbut no less profound and original, this commentary contains some of the most extensive discussions of eschatology to be written in Islāmic philosphy after Mullā Ṣadrā’s own section on this topic in his
Risālah fi al-Umūr al-Iʿtibāriyyah
Apparently never completed, this is in all likelihood the last major book penned by the Shaykh. It makes reference to the seven additional
) mentioned above; the short time frame in which the
Sharḥ al-ʿArshiyyahappeared after the previous two books makes it very unlikely he wrote
Sharḥ al-ʿArshiyyah. Its theme is a critique of the general practice of scholastic philosophers and theologians to define things out of existence via analytical reductionism. Here, as elsewhere, Shaykh Aḥmad identifies and drives home what Alfred North Whitehead would later call
“the fallacy of misplaced concreteness”. This work also points to the priority the Shaykh gives to objective logic over ontology, as we will discuss later (in Subsection 4.2). The first half of this work takes on scholastic theology in the tradition of Naṣīruddīn Ṭūsī and Fakhruddīn Rāzī. The second half of this book includes a critical commentary on an entire
) of the theology portion of Mullā Ṣadrā’s
al-Asfār al-Arbaʿah. The
Iʿtibāriyyahconstitutes one of the best illustrations of Shaykh Aḥmad’s original and iconoclastic approach to the entire scholastic tradition of
) preceding him.
The final seven works of the eight mentioned in the list above represent the philosophy of Shaykh Aḥmad in its most mature form; they constitute his
opera majora. Indeed, they constitute the most complete expression of the last major philosophical school of traditional Muslim civilization, occurring as it did just prior to the onset of what we now call
Minor Works and Opera Minora
Space does not permit an inventory of all of Shaykh Aḥmad’s numerous other philosophical works. Some of them, such as
al-Risālah al-Rashtiyyah, are very long and contain deep and original answers to multiple questions on mysticism, alchemy, and other Hermetic sciences: In some cases an individual answer is long enough to stand out as a book in its own right. Other works contain insightful answers to questions from his own students on difficult passages in major works such as
Sharḥ al-. A number of the points that the then contemporary
falāsafahof Isfahan misunderstood or found difficult to comprehend in their perusal of, e.g., the commentaries on Mullā Ṣadrā are explained in some of the shorter treatises as well.
From a plethora of
) and individual answers to questions, one can construct a veritable
opera minoraof the philosophical works of the Shaykh. This
opera minoraconstitutes an indispensable resource in any effort to attain a profound understand of the Shaykh’s philosophical work.
According to Whitehead (Whitehead 1978, .p. xii),
…it must be one of the motives of a complete cosmology to construct a system of ideas which brings the aesthetic, moral, and religious interests [of a given civilization] into relation with those concepts of the world which have their origin in physical science.↩
Sharḥ al-Mashāʿir, and
Sharḥ al-Ḥikmah al-ʿArshiyyah.↩
We will discuss the distinction between ontological and dialectical metaphysics in Subsection 4.2.↩
One manifestation of the vicissitudes suffered by the school of Shaykh Aḥmad, from his passing up to the present day, can be seen in the fact that there has not been one single study done on this all-important philosophical work, neither from within any of the major Shaykhī communities nor from anywhere else.↩
See Lāhījānī (1963, p. 167). On the other hand, and despite his professions of admiration for the Shaykh’s profundity, Lāhījānī generally steers away from any discussion of these
“cogent observations”by Shaykh Aḥmad in their own right.↩
This work had a major influence on Āqā Muḥammad Karīm Khān Kirmānī, founder of the Shaykhī community centered in Kerman and Basra (see page 30). He creatively reworked and distilled some of its themes into a theosophical synthesis reflecting his own genius and originality of thought.↩
This is a fantastic series! Thank you!
You are most welcome!