The nature of man in philosophy of illumination

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A. Darkness and veil of body
Suhrawardi adheres to the traditional distinction between the body and the soul. Body for him represents darkness, an absence or lack of light to which he refers as “body” (haykat).

Know that the “I” (nafs natiqah) is of a Divine substance which the powers and engagements of the body withdrew it from its abode. Whenever the soul is strengthened through spiritual virtues and the body is weakened through fasting and not sleeping, the soul is released and unites with the spiritual world.

Suhrawardi, who repeatedly offers arguments for the existence of an independent self from the body, follows a Neoplatonic scheme by considering the body to be a veil that prevents man from seeing the intelligible: Know that it is matter that prevents intellection since until you have abstracted something from matter and what is in matter, you cannot be the subject of intellection.

Corporeality by nature is the antipode of intellection or thinking, which he regards as belonging to be incorporeal world. The self, constitutes the true identity of a person, “a living substance which exists by necessity of its own essence”. On the contrary, the body has a tendency towards the lower world, and, relying on sense perception, denies the more transcendental pleasures and seeks the highest of the attainable pleasure of each senses.

B. Ontology of soul and body
Suhrawardi, who follows the hierarchical structure of Islamic ontology, explains the place of self and body in the context. Identifying the self with light, Suhrawardi, tells us that the self has a higher ontological reality for which the body, being lower, has a nature yearning. Suhrawardi’s analysis of the place, nature and types of light an elaborate one which will be discussed at a later point, but this hierarchical structure puts in place a mechanism whereby the need, yeaning and desire for man to follow the spiritual path becomes a necessary and natural process. No wonder Suhrawardi argues that all being involuntary yearn for light rather than the inferior status of darkness.

C. Spiritual ascendance in the mystical narratives of the birds
All beings by nature seek perfection, which explains why even animals are drawn to light. The ontology necessity of the spiritual ascendance is illustrated in the mystical narratives of Suhrawardi, in particular through the language of birds. The nature of man is such that in encountering the worldly pleasures, he is overcomes by forgetfulness. In the Risalat al- tayr he tells us:

With God’s grace, he who can remain steadfast in his determination at the time when lustful desires attack, is superior to angels and if one is overcome by them, is inferior to animals.

Suhrawardi begins his Risalat al- tayr describing the journey of a group of birds who in their flight to their original abode fall in the trap of the external beauty of the world and become prey to hunters. Identifying the self with one’s body as a mistake that the ego makes is a central theme in many mystical traditions, in particular Islam and Hinduism. Suhrawardi tells us due to the forgetfulness of human nature, we become accustomed to the corporeal world to the point of considering it to be our nature abode.

Speaking as one the birds, Suhrawardi tells us that he was reminded of his original condition when he saw that some of the birds had partially freed themselves. Through the guidance of his peers he too is partially freed and begins his flight while his legs are still in chains. The bird’s entrapment represents the human condition, trapped in the world of forms, chained by our lustful desires, hunted by our own ego and afraid of the hardships of the spiritual path. A few, however, are able to remember man’s origin and destination.

The birds continue their journey until eighth city which symbolizes the archetypal world. The man in charge of the city tells them that they must proceed to the top of mountain where His Majesty resides. The Birds finally arrive at the Divine throne, only to hear Him say that only he who has chained you can free you from bondage. Suhrawardi symbolically alludes to the fact that it is man who has condemned himself to his condition, suffering and bondage, and only he can free himself. The question now is how man can overcome his condition.

Suhrawardi’s answer to this question is two-fold. On the one hand, man’s condition is due to his weakness and giving in to his lustful desires. On the other hand, this is not the fault of man since our condition is derived from an ontological reality in which matter is the lower part which constitutes the body. However, man does possess potential consciousness to understand the exalted status of our “self”, which can then break the chains and free us.

D. The forgetful nature of man in the Red Intellect
In The Red Intellect, Suhrawardi discusses the forgetful nature of man through another narrative. A bird who has also, forgotten his origin meets a red-faced man who tells the bird he the first man of creation. But he too is a prisoner of the material world which Suhrawardi identifies with darkness. The red –faced man explains how man in his original Adamic state is white and luminous, but when mixed with the darkness of the created domain he has turned red The first son of creation describes man’s condition of fallenness by alluding to the wonders he has seen around the world.

I asked, from the wonders of the world, what have you seen? He said: ‘The Qaf mountain, the Tuba tree, twelve workshops, David’s shield, the sword of Blark, the fountain of life.”

The immensely rich symbolism Suhrawardi employs here provides us with a spiritual map which aids the salik to find his path. The Qaf mountain is our original abode from which everything comes and to which all thing return, a place that Suhrawardi refers to as “ nakuja abad” ( the nowhere but prosperous land). The mountains pearl is the first object of creation, the intellect which is the cause of illumination but whose misuse can lead to disasterous results. The Tuba tree symbolizes life and its fruits are the archetypes. It is upon this tree that the Simurgh (griffin), symbol of divine unity, has its nest. The twelve workshop are the kevels of reality or being, each of which is the existential cause of the one below it. The lower level of this hierarchical scheme is where the Davidian shield is woven, David, the Prophet of the old testament and the Quran alike, is known to have had a legendary shield known for its impenetrability. This shield symbolizes the attachments of our world which have made a prisoner of us all.

The shield of attachments is cut loose only by the sword of Blark, the power of will (himmah). Suhrawardi tells us that through determination, one should seek the fountain of life which he identifies as Sophia perennis .Having overcome oneself and the temptations of the body, the fountain of life is then attained Suhrawardi expresses this concept in a beautiful ode:

I am the falcon who hunters are I search of at all times.
My prey are the black eyed Gazelle
Who emanate from themselves hikmah
I am far word play, to me it is the meaning that matters.


suhrawardi and illumination school


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