Posted by on May 2, 2015 in Blog, Reflections | 10 comments

In our previous installment we completed our survey of the life, works, and influence of Shaykh Aḥmad Ibn Zayniddīn al-Aḥsāʾī. We are now at the halfway point. The second half of our survey, consisting of the final three installments in this series, will focus on the philosophical foundations of the cosmology of the Shaykh.

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.

Beginning with Part Five we are now entering new territory, exploring hitherto uncharted vistas. These installments are considerably more advanced than the previous posts: They feature original research with respect to the philosophy of the Shaykh. This includes discoveries that will not be found anywhere else, in any language. Inshāʾa Ãllãh you will find the second half of this journey intellectually stimulating.


Shaykh Aḥmad Ibn Zayniddīn al-Aḥsāʾī: Biography, Impact, and Philosophical Essay (Part 5)
Major Arcs in the Philosophy of Shaykh Aḥmad
Preliminary Considerations
Among the conditions of Wisdom is that the investigator not place all of his reliance upon his principles and axioms. Whoever does that will hardly ever hit upon the truth. Rather, he will see each given thing which corresponds to his principles as correct, even if his ego discovers that that thing is outweighed [by something else]: When he turns towards its being outweighed, he still complies with it owing to his dependence on his principles. And he will see each given thing which is in conflict with his principles as false, even if he finds within his ego that that thing outweighs [what he already holds to be the case] or otherwise finds its truth; owing to his over-reliance on his principles. But maybe the actual mistake is in his principles…—
Sharḥ al-
(Aḥsāʾī 2009, Vo. 1, p. 282).
Approaching the propositional content of
) with a clean slate and no presuppositions: That is perhaps the key
point of attack
in Shaykh Aḥmad’s iconoclastic approach to philosophy and science. Of course there is an overarching context and, in particular, a chosen framework of sources. There is no escape from the pre-philosophical choices that must be made, though even those choices also have a presuppositionless aspect. The presuppositionless movement of consciousness guides one to the pre-philosophical choices, and the pre-philosophical choices guide the presuppositionless movement of consciousness.
philosophy is, first and foremost,
philosophy. It calls for the cultivation of one’s entire
subjective self
, of one’s entire microcosm; as an
objective reflection
of the world, as a mirror of the macrocosm. This emphasis on the entirety of the subjective self points to the fact that the theoretical and practical cannot at this, or at any point, be separated:
Sometimes, by
’ is meant
theoretical wisdom
; and sometimes,
practical wisdom
. Now we mean by
’ that Wisdom which is, at once, both theoretical and practical… …—
Sharḥ al-
(Aḥsāʾī 2009, Vo. 1, p. 282)
In night and day the microcosm meditates on Heaven and Earth. The struggle of the microcosm, in its subjective
) to objectively reflect the macrocosm is symbolic of the relationship between receiving and accurately sending back. Receiving and sending back, in turn, is symbolic of the relationship between a principle of revelation (or descent) and one of ascension (or ascent). Finally, the relationship between a principle of revelation and one of ascension is symbolic of something the Shaykh and his intended audience already possess: the Qurʾān and the Ahlulbayt 
. According to a famous tradition of the Prophet of Islām:
“Just as I fought for the
descending from the origin
), you, O ʿAlī! will fight for the
ascending to the origin
So from the initial point of attack, Shaykh Aḥmad makes a pre-philosophical commitment. As a Shīʿī Muslim there is already an
commitment to the Qurʾān and the Ahlulbayt 
as the sources of Wisdom. If those sources are indeed true, in a strong sense of
, then these two in their relationship to one another must also
correspond to the relationship between macrocosm and microcosm, between the objective horizons and the subjective self. Thus the presuppositionless, objective movement of consciousness involves a
cosmological meditation
within a four-way system of
universes of discourse
) and the maps between them: an objective mapping between the macrocosm and the microcosm (movement one), an objective mapping between the Qurʾān and the teachings of Ahlulbayt 
(movement two), and, most critically, an objective mapping between movement one and movment two, e.g., from macrocosm to the Qurʾān and from microcosm to the Ahlulbayt 
. It is within this framework that the enterprise of presuppositionless philosophy takes off, and in which the ultimate aim of
takes place:
We will show them Our signs in the horizons [macrocosms] and in their selves [microcosms] until it becomes clear to them that He is the True.
 (Q 41:53)
With this peek into
objective logic
we are already getting ahead of ourselves. We have yet to define the concepts
in any precise manner. But the point of attack needed to be made explicit. So let’s now step back for a moment.
Approaching the philosophy and cosmological meditations of Shaykh Aḥmad is a difficult task. In part, this is because his presuppositionless approach cannot be mapped in any one-to-one manner to the principles or methodology of any major philosopher, scientist, or theologian of Muslim civilization preceding him. For example, Mullā Ṣadrā, for all of his genius and creativity, was basically an
) philosopher in the tradition of Suhrawardī. Suhrawardī, for all of his criticism of Ibn Sīnā, still argued from Peripatetic methods of discourse rooted in Aristotelian logic and apodictic method. Shaykh Aḥmad was, in a strong sense, much more radical. In vain do so many Western scholars try to peg our Shaykh as a follower of Mullā Ṣadrā, of Mīr Dāmād, of Suhrawardī; or even, absurdly, of Ismāʿīlī and
thought. For Shaykh Aḥmad, most definitions and concepts of any significance, from any source, are filtered through his presuppositionless objective logic within the exact perimeters of the four-way system of categories mentioned above. In that context, no outside axiom, principle, or method is sacrosanct except to the degree that it can survive being critically filtered through that four-way system.
Thus one has to be very careful when approaching the technical terminology of the Shaykh. In developing his own technical vocabulary he looks for clues pregnant within the language of the Qurʾān and the Ahlulbayt 
, viz., the Arabic language. Indeed, the fundamental problems of Peripatetic and Illuminationist
find their original context, not in a
language such as Arabic, but in an
language (Greek). The traditional
had hardly ever expressed genuine philosophical interest in Arabic, except for the tangential or secondary purpose of retrofitting or reinterpreting it for the purpose of more precisely expressing Greek thought. After all, a crucial requirement of the original project of Classical Islāmic philosophy was that the Arabic language be
imposed upon
to fit the needs of Greek thought; this task was finally accomplished by al-Fārābī. The principles, axioms, and overall framework of Classical and Illuminationist philosophy are thus fundamentally independent of the language of these two fundamental sources. For Shaykh Aḥmad this is no longer the case.
With respect to language: The movement of presuppositionless consciouness through the four-way system of universes, and the
of other concepts and objects of thought through that four-way system, leads to at least two effects pertaining to language:
The objective development of the raw philosophical potential latent within the Arabic language, without dependence on the Greek linguistic context of traditional
per se.
of the language of traditional philosophy to serve as a vehicle for expressing the outcomes of presuppositionless cosmological meditation. That is, as one filters the problems of traditional
(or any other science) through presuppositionless cosmological meditation via the four-way system of universes, the terminology has to be dissolved and recombined so that it functions at a higher level commensurate with the results of that meditation.
Expressions such as
’ (German
’) raise echoes of Shaykh Aḥmad’s Western European contemporary G.W. Hegel (d. 1831
). Words such as
’ and
’ have an alchemical ring. Phrases expressing multiple universes of discourse in objective mutual correspondence carry a Hermetic or objective-logical flavor. Locutions such as
‘movement of presuppositionless consciouness
’ carry a Heraclitean vibration. This is no accident: The immediate outcome of presuppositionless philosophy turns out to be irreducibly
in a very important sense of
The spirit of Western philosophy, as well as both Classical and Scholastic Islāmic philosophy is
Parminidean, Platonic, and ontological (with an emphasis on subjective logic). The spirit of the philosophy of Shaykh Aḥmad, in sharp contrast, is fundamentally Heraclitean, Hermetic/alchemical, and
(with an emphasis on
objective logic
). Process, transformation via tension between opposites, and symbolic correspondence constitute the fundamental categories of
. In Classical Islāmic philosophy these are
to the fundamental Parminidean problem of being per se.
Shaykh Aḥmad al-Aḥsāʾī was a dialectical philosopher, and his philosophy constitutes a dialectical philosophy.
From a purely philosophical point of view, this is the crucial point that must be grasped if one is to have any hope of genuinely understanding the Shaykh and properly contextualizing his thought. Contrary to the usual oft- repeated slogans made by his detractors: Shaykh Aḥmad understood the technical vocabulary of traditional scholastic
quite well. But that vocabulary had to first be dissolved and recombined, it had to be
, it had be at once
, and
lifted up
) in order for it to be able to function as the proper vehicle for presuppositionless cosmological meditation. We will give examples further on.
In a precise sense that we will discuss in the final section of this chapter, Shaykh Aḥmad actually does stand in intellectual continuity with the Illuminationist tradition, despite his sublation of its language that so frustrated some of the philosophers of Isfahan. That is, the over-arching concerns of the Illuminationist philosophy – such as the integration of mystical or spiritual content with the outward philosophical expression and proof of propositional content – are also concerns of Shaykh Aḥmad. So the outcome of presuppositionless cosmological meditation, and of the filtering of the language of traditional
philosophy through the four-way system of universes, constitutes a new and reborn
philosophy. In that sense Shaykh Aḥmad’s
constitutes the third and final phase in the historical development of Illuminationism in the history of Islamic philosophy.
Another difficulty in approaching Shaykh Aḥmad is his use of
categories. This phenomenology is not something to be brought in as a backdrop to, as complementary to, or posterior to an exercise in scholastic ontology. Rather, the phenomenology of
) has to be taken into account as an integral aspect of the movement of presuppositionless thought between the four nodes or categories of our four-way system. One of the most important outcomes of this exercise – and this must be counted as one of the Shaykh’s most brilliant contributions to philosophy – is at once a
account of predication to replace the usual
account. This is one area which left followers of Mullā Ṣadrā such as Mullā ʿAlī Nūrī and Mullā Ismāʿīl Wāḥidu al-ʿAyn quite flumoxed.
Bringing in phenomenology at the very beginning of the exercise of objective logic is critical to being able to properly account for things such as the dialectical unity of consciousness and existence. As Hegel famously remarked,
“The examination of knowledge can only be carried out by an act of knowedge”
(Weiss 1974, Foreword). More precisely for the purposes of our Shaykh:
The examination of
phenomenological knowledge
) can only be carried out by an act of cognizance.
But for the masses who have not phenomenologically realized the unity of consciousness and existence there is still hope, for the objective logic of the Shaykh maps this phenomenological category to a
symbolic category
that a beginning philosopher can comprehend, but provided that one starts off with a clean slate free of presuppositions.
That is, the Qurʾān and Ahlulbayt 
demand the struggle for an objective commitment to themselves, not a dogmatic one. See Hamid (2011a, Principle 2.1, pp. 33–35).
See, e.g., Morris’s ill-informed statement in Morris (1981, p. 71n). In the case of Āqā Muḥammad Karīm Khān Kirmānī, the case for Ismāʿīlī (but not Gnostic) influence is perhaps arguable, but more likely it is a matter of outer appearance only. Henry Corbin, just as he did successfully with Ismāʿīlī thought, certainly tried to fit Āqā Muḥammad Karīm’s theosophy into his own project of universal
. But it is a fallacy to project these hypotheses backwards and to identify them with the philosophical intentions of Shaykh Aḥmad per se.
See Abed (1991).
The distinction between objective logic and subjective logic will be made explicit in the next section.
Of all of Shaykh Aḥmad’s predecessors, Mullā Ṣadrā comes the closest to establishing process as an
category and not merely an
one. But he does not go quite far enough, as we will mention briefly further on.