The Metaphysics of Refraction in Sufi Philosophy: Ibn Arabi, Suhrawardi, and Mulla Sadra Shirazi

Refraction: The Vault of Heaven as Sublime Mirror of Earth, at the Mosque of Isfahan, Iran

“Every creature is ultimately the manifestation of the Face of God and its reflections through the immutable archetypes upon the mirror of nothingness.” Seyyed Hossein Nasr, The Garden of Truth: The Vision and Truth of Sufism, Islam’s Mystical Tradition (2007).

A Metaphysics of refraction, in which God dreams up the world, and we are the refractions of his light. What could this mean? This post will examine how this all plays out in the Sufi philosophies of Ibn Arabi, Suhrawardi, and Mulla Sadra Shirazi.

First, a little context. Any attempt to describe God in any devotional tradition is always complex and fraught with controversy, and in Islam, and Sufi Islam in particular, this is hardly an exception. However, the descriptions of God by Sunni Sufi Ibn Arabi, modified and systematized by the Shi’ite Sufi Mulla Sadra Shirazi, has without question described the most influential notion of God within Sufi doctrines. Mulla Sadra combines Ibn Arabi’s descriptions with Surhawardi’s metaphysics of light, which resurrect ancient Persian Zoroastrian beliefs on light and angels into Islamic form, while Ibn Arabi builds upon the Neoplatonist Islamic philosophy of Ibn Sina, known in the Latin west by the name Avicenna.

While the Latin scholastics generally assume that Islamic philosophy concludes with the writings of Avicenna and his semi-Aristotelian opponent Ibn Rushd, known in the Latin world as Averroes, these other figures, namely Ibn Arabi, Surhawadri, and Mulla Sadra are essential developments upon the insights of Ibn Sina. For they take Ibn Sina’s Neoplatonism, and restore and expand upon the mysticism which lay as latent potential within this cosmology since the times of Plotinus. And as will become apparent, there is much here that, via Ibn Sina and the intermediary of Maimonides, shows up in Spinoza, in ways that have crucial resonances with these later Sufi developments.

Closer to Quantum Physics Than You Might Think: The World as Creatures of Light

Manifesting the Divine: Essence, Names, and Creatures

According to Ibn Arabi, there are three levels of God, which are God’s Essence, his Names, and the Creatures of the World. For anyone who knows Spinoza, we see here what he calls substance, attributes, and modes. To put this in simpler terms, Ibn Arabi believes there is the core of God, his essence, then a second layer of his Names, which describe the ways in which he manifests in the world, and the third layer, which is the world of matter, the world we all see. In this sense, the names connect God in his purity to the world of things.

To put this more in terms used by Ibn Arabi, God’s essence is the aspect of him which, to use Ibn Sina, is the “necessary of existence,” or that which has as its essence to exist. The names are the attributes of God, such as the Merciful, or the Wrathful, and these describe the ways in which God exists. It is worth noting that these are derived from the Platonic forms, reconfigured by the Neoplatonists by mixing them with Aristotle’s notion of entelechies, to become form-forces. This is why anyone who knows Plato is likely to get confused with how the Neoplatonists, and anyone influenced by them, use the notion of ‘forms.’ For while Plato envisaged the forms as immaterial and static, the Neoplatonists put this all in an emanationist frame, such that, the forms seem as if to “desire” to manifest in the world. That is, they are forms which are also forces, for they emanate ingressions into that which is less perfect than them, which exists less purely, namely, matter, just as they are emanations of the pure essence, the only aspect of what is that is truly Real. This is what is debated under the notion of divine names in various forms of Islamic philosophy. Finally, individual entities in the world, often called ‘creatures’ in Islamic thought, things like stones or people, are complexes of attributes which are vibrated into existence by God, and in this process, they go from potential to actual.

Each thing in the world, then, is an inmixture, or to use Whitehead’s term, an ingression, of various attributes. A tree, for example, has greenness, tallness, strongness, etc., in particular proportions according to its nature. But the most important attribute, that of existence, that which makes these fantasms of possibility closer to being real, is when they are dreamed into existence by the only Real. And this means that the attribute of existence of everything is derived from God, who is the Real, the only Real, that which gives existence to all else to the extent that they participate in his Realness.

The Metaphysics of Light: Pure Light, Colored Jewels, and Refractive Screens

Surhawadri reconfigures this all in terms of light. In pre-Islamic Zoroastrianism, the god Ohrmazd was a god of light, and the entire cosmogeny was built of refractions of this light. Suhrawardi, a Persian Sufi executed for his radical beliefs, reworked these notions, but in an Islamic frame. He sees God as the only pure light, and by means of a subtractive function, imagines the attributes of God’s names as giving rise to colors of light, and the existent entities or creatures as bits of opacity which refract these colored lights in various ways. In this way, we can think of the attributes as jewels that refract the pure light into colored light, and the entities as bits of opacity, which is to say, screens, upon which intermixings of these colored lights are projected.

This is in fact incredibly similar to the ontology of light described by Bergson in Matter and Memory, and developed by Deleuze in his Cinema books. While there’s no reason to believe that either Bergson or Deleuze knew about Suhrawadri (though it is remotely possible that Deleuze knew of him through Suhrawardi’s French translator and advocate, Henry Corbin, a contemporary of Deleuze’s), it does seem that Plotinus, Spinoza, and Leibniz, were shared by these French thinkerswith Plotinus as the likely common ancestor.

One of the most influential inheritors of Ibn Arabi and Suhrawadri, the Persian philosopher Mulla Sadra, adopts many of their innovations, but adds the notion of intensity. While Ibn Arabi believed that the attributes of the Names are separate from God’s essence, which were both distinct from the creatures, Mulla Sadra argues that God is the most intensely Real, the attributes less real, and creatures less real still. However, everything in the universe becomes more intense the closer it comes to God. And God is defined, as it is for all from Plotinus to Ibn Arabi forward, as that which is both unchanging yet also able to give rise to all that exists or ever could by emanation. And our world simply is an attempt to bring some of this perfection into us, but our inability to do so leads to multiplicity, the shattering of the material world into many aspects. Only the complex recombination brings us closer to God.

And yet, what would this look like? God is the ultimate intensity of all aspects of the world, for God gave rise to it, but is bound by none of it. God is pure power to exist, to exist more fully, and to have all the aspect of the world as potentials within it, all at once, and to be able to actualize all of them at once in all their permutations. This is most similar, in fact, to the human mind, that which is able to think of all things it sees without having to ‘be’ them.

World as Crystalline Regime, With a Pull Towards Liberation

Dreaming the World Towards Freedom

And here we see why Ibn Arabi believes that our imaginations and dreams, which is to say, visions, are one way in which we get in touch with God. For if the world is God’s dreams, then our dreams, when we are in sync with God, in which our ego is in suspension, a state called fana’ by the Sufis, participate in God’s, not in the imperfect manner of all matter, but in purified form. Just like Neoplatonists, even down to Spinoza, felt we came into sync with the Agent Intellect when our reason comes into sync with that of the ‘way of the world,’ so to speak, so it is with Imagination with Ibn Arabi. For between the Agent Intelligence, the Reason of the World, and the Things of the World, is the Agent Imagination, which is to say, how God expands upon the pure forms of reason, and incarnates them into things.

But what does this mean? If God’s attributes are qualities, then only by their combination into refractions do they come to exist, for example, as ‘this’ tree, rather than as tallness, greenness, and other sets of disjunct qualities. Only when they are linked into a full knot or image does a particular entity come to ‘exist,’ and in this sense, we can think of existence precisely a this knitting of qualities into knots or images of this sort. From such a perspective, the qualities are the forms or categories, the generalities of reason, while the imagination produces combinations which gives rise to things.

When humans imagine, they recombine images derived from the images which comprise the world, and these images are less ‘heavy’ that those in the world, and in this sense, more free. And this means they are closer to God, for like God, humans can recombine images and intertwine them freely. What humans can’t do, and which God does effortlessly, however, is make imaginations real. However, when our imaginations come into sync with those of God, our visions can tell us something essential about the world, and this is why Ibn Arabi and Mulla Sadra after him believe that prophecy, which is to say, evidence communicated to us directly by God, is the most true evidence we can have of anything.

Science, Philosophy, and Prophecy?

Here we see why Ibn Arabi and Mulla Sadra continue to be influential in the Islamic world today. What makes Mulla Sadra so influential in particular is the manner in which he brings this all into a Shi’ite frame, and as such, the school of thought he founded remains the dominant one in Iran to this day. The irony of all this is the fact that Sadra was against dogmatic forms of interpretation in his time, while today, he has been coopted for a regime that tries to dogmatically tie interpretation to one form. This is, as Corbin noted before the Iranian revolution, a contradiction, for Shi’itism, based on the esoteric interpretation of scripture which is possible for each individual, can only ever have an uneasy relation to forms of state power that often thrive on trying to fix interpretation into a particular form. The manner in which this is accomplished in Iran today is that the interpreters of scripture are limited to the Imamate, and those with heterodox views are persecuted.

While Ibn Arabi and Mulla Sadra clearly believed that prophecy was the most valid form of evidence, this is not necessarily a position which conflicts with science as we know it in the  west. Spinoza makes a similar point in his Ethics, when he speaks of the intuition of reason, culminating in the “intellectual love of God,’ as higher than deductive reasoning, even if they both arrive at the same truths. And this is the point made by Ibn Arabi and Mulla Sadra, namely, that philosophical truth and truth by revelation end at the same place, which is to say, at the truth. Or at least, this is what should happen in theory, but human limitations often shatter and refract these truths into many, often conflicting forms. But as any good scientist knows, many times, it is intuition, based on the beauty of certain formulations, their elegance, which often guides experiments into what is truly unknown. Reason only often works out why in hindsight.

And in fact, any deduction is always based on basic ‘intuitions’ of truths. I see that a tree is green, and I have ‘faith’ in that ‘intuition.’ From this I may deduce that the tree has chlorophyll in its leaves because of this, but without the primary intution of greeness, or of the intuitions which lead our culture to link greeness in plants with the presence of chlorophyll, and to the very procedures of deduction themselves, none of this would be possible. And so if we doubt the veracity of the intuition of ‘greeness,’ the whole house of cards falls apart.

But does this mean that science is no different than prophecy? Not quite. For Ibn Arabi and Mulla Sadra are clear that some visions could be misleading, harmful, etc. The way to tell the difference, for these Sufis, is complex. Firstly, there is the Qu’ran and the hadith, but these are open to many interpretations, and it is the goal of gnosis (used in the sense of access to hidden knowledge, rather than in relation to Gnostic Christianity) to help us understand which pertain to particular situations. And so it is the relationship to God which anchors which visions are true, and which are simply fantasies, and perhaps even harmful.

Dreaming in Sync Towards More Intense Refraction of Light

And so, those visions which are in sync with God are those which will ultimately be confirmed by reason as well, for prophecy and philosophy should, in theory, end in the same place. But what of science? Surely science is a collective dream of sorts, an enterprise in which theorists use strange symbols, like mathematical equations, often with no clear referents in the concrete world (the ‘x’ of algebra being the simplest form of this), and speak of things no-one has ever directly seen (ie: molecules, electrons, quarks), but in ways which produce real effects. Surely these collective imaginings, which are able to sync together with the appearances of the real world, indicate a coming together of forms and dreams which produce effects that seem, well, often quite effective. Whether or not they are ultimately good, however, depends on how they are used. But this can be applied to more than just science, but to all social discourses, like philosophy, psychology, and collective dreams of various sorts which language and various other technologies allow humans to share.

But how do we know when these are on the right track? If they lead us closer to God, they are, but what might that mean? If God is that which tries to liberate all that exists to be more like God, which is to say, maximally free and potent, then we end up with a Spinozist cosmology. We should all strive liberate all that exists to be more like a perfected form of the human mind, which is to say, maximally free and powerful. In this, we participate in God’s nature, which is to not be bound by selfish desires, but to have compassion on all around us, in our desire to liberate it as well, to give it maximum freedom to be all that can be.

All that accords with this is true, good, and beautiful, and all that brings us closer to this is truer, better, and more beautiful than the rest. It is more real, and to come in sync with this is to make the world that small bit better, to increase the intensity of freedom in all that is.

To do this, of course, one needs to leave one’s self behind, or rather, not be limited by it, and rather, be liberated from the self, it’s partial viewpoints and cravings, and come into sync with this larger motion to liberation of all for and by all. To assist in the effort to help all emerge from itself into greater emergence. Such a project would use science and philosophy, but always in light of an ethical orientation to this larger project.

But such a project must defend the freedom of each and all to give rise to all the freedoms they can, and in this, there are necessarily many  pathways to this truth, and this is why Ibn Arabi believes there are many prophets to many peoples, and therefore, all the world is a theophany, which is to say, the appearance of God to aspects of himself. God reveals himself, and to each aspect of the world, there is a vision of God appropriate to it, a lure, as Whitehead would say, to greater freedom. The trick is figuring out which lure is the one that leads to God, and how to get there.

What seems evident, not only from the Sufi tradition, but many philosophical and devotional traditions, is that it lies in some form of negation of the partiality of the individual ego. Hegel argued that evil is particularlity with no regard for the universal, while Ibn Arabi would simply speak of “idolatry,” which is to say, reification for its own sake, blindness to the call of God to liberate all from and with all. Each aspect of all that exists has its God, it’s lure, the appearance of the true, good, and beautiful, which calls to them, and the side that calls them to think of their own narrowly defined self-interest. Only collective liberation, the desire to liberate all the world from others and themselves, can lead to liberation of the self, and vice-versa. Paradoxical as it may seem, the way to greater power and freedom for the self is to give it up for all other than the self, and vice-versa.

And this is where the Sufi path has much in common with that of the Buddhist and Hindu traditions, as described in previous posts. While there are many differences between these traditions, there are many theophanies, for God is theophany, God is the appearance of existence and its potential to better itself, intertwined together.

For those interested in reading more on these issues, the best general place to start is the really excellent Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy (2005), edited by Adamson and Taylor, or Majid Fakhry’s Islamic Philosophy: A Beginner’s Guide (2009). For anyone interested in the light metaphysics of Zoroastrianism, and its influence on Islamic thought, and Suhrawardi in particular, should check out Henry Corbin’s old but still excellent Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth: From Mazdean Iran to Shi’ite Iran (1960). Mazdaism is the religion begun by Zoroaster, its prophet, in worship of the God Ohrmazd, or Ahura Mazda, and is essentially synonymous with the term Zoroastrianism, the ancient religion of Persia.


~ by chris on May 17, 2012.

2 Responses to “The Metaphysics of Refraction in Sufi Philosophy: Ibn Arabi, Suhrawardi, and Mulla Sadra Shirazi”

  1. This is an amazing piece. Thank you.

    I have a question; what do you think the Shaykh al-Akbar would have said with regards to postmodernism?

    • good question! My guess is he’d appreciate the creativity of all the imaginations out there, but find the relativism deeply disturbing. Imagination for him is, I think, only good when employed in the service of theophany, of bringing one closer to God. And even though we can’t know who has a correct view of God, the attempt to bring the world closer to God’s love, which is to say, to liberate all aspects of the world to greater heights of creativity, seems hardly the agenda of today’s world. Capitalism tries to reduce everything to money, greatly reducing the imaginal potentials of this world as it destroys entire ways of life. Rather than collectively evaluate worldviews based on their ability to liberate the world, they are evaluated out of sight, in the boardrooms of multinational corporations. I’m not sure if Ibn Arabi would get this political, but I think there is an implicit politics in his critique of dogmatism and “binding” of God into specific forms, as well as his valuation of creativity in regard to the imaginal. While today’s era might seem to be an explosion of imagination, it’s really only imagination in the service of profit, and a radical impoverishment of precisely the type of imagination that Ibn Arabi would like to see, namely, new ways of loving each other and the world, both of which are aspects of God, the principle of creativity at the source of it all. So I think Ibn Arabi would find the financial fundamentalism of the west as disturbing as the selectively literalist fundamentalisms around the world today in many religions, not to mention the nationalisms or other parochialisms which close off what humanity could be if it learned to tolerate, love, and dream of better ways to do this.

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