Mulla Sadra’s Primacy of Being

averroes            Muhammad Kamal’s Mulla Sadra’ Transcendental Philosophy has the merit of explaining Mulla Sadra’s complex ideas without falling into the trap of oversimplifications. This book consists of five main chapters with the introduction and a conclusion. The other correctly maintains that Mulla Sadra’s philosophical doctrines are dictated by his metaphysics, known as the primacy of Being. Mulla Sadra, as a keen reader of Suhrawardi’s Ishraqi philosophy and his commentators, rejects the Ishraqi’s contention of primacy of essence. In the beginning of his philosophy profession, Mulla Sadra accepted the primacy of essence; however, he gradually became dissatisfied with the doctrine and took issue with it. Suhrawardi puts forward a disjunctive argument against the idea of primacy of being. To him, existence is either universal or particular. Particulars by virtue of being particulars are not self-subsistent; their existence is i‘tibari, since their existence is depended on universals. On the other hand, universals are self-subsistent and independent from other things. So existence is either particular or universal. If it is a particular, then its reality is mind dependent (i‘tabari) but not objective haqiqi. Suhrawardi finally concludes that being has not real existence, and it is an i‘tibari matter. Mulla Sadra found Suhrawardi’s anti-Being conclusion problematic.

In chapter four, the author focuses on Mulla Sadra’s ontological turn to establish primacy of Being. Mulla Sadra believes that Being is indefinable. For definition, at least according to Aristotelian philosophy, is genus plus differentia; however, Being is not a genus and has no differentia either. So it is not possible to define Being. Mulla Sadra, uses this metaphysical revelation in favor of his intuitive approach. Mulla Sadra’s mystic tendencies led him to believe that intuition, and not discursive philosophy, is epistemically capable to apprehend Being.

The chapter five deals with Mulla Sadra famous notion of primacy of Being. In Categories, Aristotle enumerates ten kinds or categories that things share one or another. It seems that the Categories is attempt by Aristotle to provide an ontological map of beings. However, in his Metaphysics, Aristotle develops a science to study being itself or as he calls it the science of being qua being. Some commentators believes that Aristotle dissatisfaction with his discussion in Categories led him to discuss being in a new way in the Metaphysics. However, Mulla Sadra finds Aristotle’s account on being inadequate. According to Kamal, Mulla Sadra views “the principality of Being and the reality of Being as a pre-ontological condition for the existence of all beings” (43). Yet, Mulla Sadra, like Suhrawardi, maintains that Being is indefinable. If definition, at least in Aristotelian sense, means genus plus differentia, it is not possible for Being, Mulla Sadra maintains, to obey this formula. Mulla Sadra states, “It has been establish that existence is a simple reality which has neither genus, nor persisting difference, nor species, nor dividing differences, nor individuation. Rather, its individuation is due to its simple essence and the essential distinction between its units and identity [occurs] only by means of [their] being the strongest and being the weakest;” (Al-Masha‘ir 55-65). In the sentence, “Human is a rational animal,” human is the genus while the differentia is rationality which distinguishes human from other animas. However, Being to Mulla Sadra is not a genus like human, since it is not a genus, it cannot have differentia either, since ontologically differentia’s existence is depended on genus. This new metaphysical revelation has extensive consequences for Mulla Sadra’s philosophy.

Mulla Sadra’s first solution to this puzzle is to view being as self-evident. It is difficult for the reader of Mulla Sadra after going along with the puzzles and perplexities that the notion of Being arises not be struck by his claim that Being is self-evident. I think one reason for Mulla Sadra to see Being as a self-evident notion is his confidence on intuitive knowledge. When we think about the existence of things, for instance, God, stars, trees, angles, we view them vividly through intuition; however, a discursive account on those notions will make them less evident.

It is hard to avoid judging Mulla Sadra’s contention about he primacy of being as trivial, i.e., the reality of a thing is its existence. For instance, what does that mean to say that the reality of a table is its existence not its essence? I think reality of a thing is not a different category than its existence. And at least, to me, as an armature reader of Mulla Sadra, it does not make sense to believe that the reality of a thing is or its existence. I can see a table before me and ask myself it is a real table or I am just hallucinating that there is a table, but once I ruled out the possibility of hallucination, I know that the table exist. Now, like Mulla Sadra to think that the table exists because of its reality not its essence, I think is just a category mistake.

However, Mulla Sadra’s claim about the objective reality cannot be that shallow. Mulla Sadra responding to the criticism of Suhrawardi and his followers who believed that the physical world is mind dependent and not self-subsistent. Mulla Sadra, in contrast, maintains that the physical world cannot be mind dependent and they have an objective, and not a subjective, existence. Mulla Sadra is a realist about external world, while Suhrawardi is realist about the essence of things. To him essences are not subjective but self-subsistent. Chapter five is a continuation of chapter four on the problem of being with respect to trans-substantial change or as Mulla Sadra calls it harakata aljohariya. What is important to know about Mulla Sadra’s Being is that it is outside the time and does not undergo change.[1]

Chapter six deals with Mulla Sadra’s notion of knowledge. If things have objective reality, then the question is that how do we know them? Mulla Sadra first sates that being has quality of revealing. It reveals itself to the knower and knower by uniting with the knower knows the being. In fact, as stated before, Mulla Sadra’s account of being makes more room for intuition as a potent epistemic tool for acquiring knowledge of Being. Mulla Sadra’s account of knowledge is very similar to Suhrawardi’s, and it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the two. However, since Mulla Sadra defends the primacy of Being, he maintains that the appropriate object of intuitive apprehension is Being not the essence. Furthermore, since knowing requires a union between the knower and the known, the knowledge of Being a Being itself are not in fact two different things. Additionally, human intellect does not originate intuitive knowledge, and God as the source of intuitive knowledge emanates knowledge to human intellect with the mediation of the Active Intellect (89).[2]

If knowledge is the immediate perception of the object with no representational mediation by the knower, then by the same token the self-knowledge must be immediate and non-representational, by the presence of the self to the intellect of the knower. At the same time, since human cannot originate intuition, then God must be the source of self-knowledge. It is God that emanates the intuition of the self to a knower. For this reason, the source of self-knowledge must be divine, and at the same time mystical. When God emanates one’s self-knowledge to his intellect, then the person has self-knowledge. Therefore, the intellect’s function is not limited to conceptual thinking, but also intuitive apprehensions.

The important epistemological point is that knowledge by presence dissolves the subject and object distinction by stating that in the process of apprehension the knower and the known unify. The external world transfers into mental beings. It is important to understand that mental beings, unlike in the modern philosophy, are not subjective, to Mulla Sadra; in fact, they are real and objective. In this transformation the objects neither transform to concepts nor their representations; they transform into mental beings. The real is the truth, and mental beings are real. Mental beings are not mental representation of objects in the external world; the soul does not imitate attributes of objects. The external objects are the mental transformations of external objects. Strikingly, the soul does not necessarily need the external objects in order to understand them. As Kamal puts it, “The outcome of this view is that truth does not reside in the object known externally, but is defined in terms of its being known internally” (100). The truth is then the content of intuitive intellectuation.

Kamal views Mulla Sadra’s philosophy as a break with Ishraqi “essentialism.” For this reason, he maintains that Mulla Sadra brings about a new philosophical system that views the traditional philosophical problems a new light and presents new solution to old problems. I think Kamal is right about Mulla Sadra’s creative philosophical imagination and his innovations in thinking. However, I do not think that Mulla Sadra’s notion of primacy of Being is a radical with Suhrawardi’s primacy of essence. It seems to me that Mulla Sadra’s by and large relocates the old metaphysical problems by his contention of the primacy of Being. His Being, mostly, entails whatever Suhrawardi’s notion of essence entails. To Mulla Sadra, Being is necessary; it is the first principle of things, so it is an explanatory principle of a thing, while essence to him belongs to the realm of contingencies. The problems that the modalities of essence arise are similar if not identical to the problem of modalities that Being arise; therefore, I think that despite Mulla Sadra’s originality and philosophical merits, his notion of primacy of Being relocates the traditional metaphysical problems from the realm of essence to the realm of Being.


[1] The writer in many occasion tries to find similarity between the Western philosophers and Mulla Sadra’s account of Being. For instance, he believes that Mulla Sadra’s notion of Being shares many similarities with Heidegger’s notion of Being. I think these comparisons are misleading. First Heidegger’s notion of Being is ambiguous and sometimes impenetrable; therefore, using Heidegger’s vague and enigmatic explanations to explain Mulla Sadra’s complex ideal of Being is not very helping even for those who have a familiarity with both philosophers. In other occasions, similarities just do not exist. For instance Heidegger’s believes in historicity of Being whereas for Mulla Sadra Being is outside the time immune to change. The writer also brings up Hegel’s notion of dialectical change and compares it with Mulla Sadra’s notion of Being with respect to trans-substantial change. It is the case also with Hegel’s notion of the dialectical change, which also is a historical phenomenon, To Hegel, history through a dialectical change moves through the Absolute. However, for Mulla Sadra Being is not a temporal phenomenon.

[2] As he states in the case of self-knowledge, the knower does not take ownership of his self-knowledge, but it is God who originates knowledge. “No one can say: my knowledge of myself (bi nafsī ) is due to a medium which is my act, I am informed of myself by my act (ustudilla bi fi‘lī ‘alā dhātī ). That is because I can neither be informed of myself (dhātī) by an absolute act nor be informed by an act which originates from myself to myself (s.adara min nafsī ‘alā nafsī). If I am informed by an absolute act, an absolute act only requires an absolute agent, and only an absolute agent can be established by means of it, not an agent that would be me. If I am informed of myself (‘alay) by my act, I can only know my act after knowing myself (nafsī). Thus, if I can only know myself (nafsī) after knowing myself (nafsī), a circle results, and it is false. This therefore indicates that a human being’ s knowledge of himself (bi nafsihi) is not by means of his act” (Asfār I.10.2.4, III.505)

Alfarabi and Kalam (Theology) in the Mabadi’


In his Mabadi’ ara’ ahl al-madinat al-fadilah (Mabadi’ from now on), Alfarabi discusses various kalami issues such as God, His attributes, His relationship to the world, prophecy, and revelation. He also develops his philosophy of prophecy and epistemic status of knowledge that a prophet can possibly have, and the relationship between this knowledge and a prophet’s community. While Alfarabi discusses his philosophy of kalam, its subject-matters, and methods in his other works such as Enumeration of Sciences, The Book of Religion, and The Book of Letters, in the Mabadi’, he investigates mostly the relationship between religion, politics, and philosophy.

            Mabadi’s opening discussion is about the First Cause, which in Alfarabi’s corpus stands for God.[1] From his opening discussion on First Cause, it becomes apparent that from the beginning, Alfarabi makes the reader understands that his account of God and universe is not religious but philosophical. By this, he alludes to the idea that philosophy investigates everything in the universe that is known as existence, from earth to heavenly bodies and among them the status of revelation. This philosophical attitude is unprecedented among his contemporary religious fellows or other Abrahamic religions followers. The notion of First Cause goes back to Aristotle who introduces the notion in his Book 12 of Metaphysics.[2] Alfarabi’s notion of the First Cause is influenced by Aristotle. To him the First Cause is the cause of entire existence. It is with no deficiency. Although everything is dependent on it, it does not depend on anything else. It has no end, and it is an end in itself. It is the most excellent thing, and nothing existed prior to it. It is needless to say that except one crucial quality, Alfarabi’s notion of the First Cause shares many qualities of Aristotle’s same notion; this quality is emanation.

Even Aristotle’s First Cause, like Alfarabi’s, metaphorically speaking, lives a perfect life. However, Aristotle’s First Cause, unlike Alfarabi’s, lacks emanative quality. Alfarabi’s First Cause, through the other mediators, emanates the whole universe. The First Cause emanates the Second Cause and the Second the Third Cause and so on. The first Cause overflows the universe with its emanation.

Prophetology and the Soul

Another crucial topic that Alfarabi discusses in the Mabadi’ is prophecy (Nubuva’). His discussion of prophecy takes place in the context of his discussion on the soul and more precisely when he discusses the capacity of the faculty of representation with regard to intelligibles. The soul has cognitive and non-cognitive parts. The cognitive faculty consists of three parts. Tripartite cognitive part of the soul consists of sensible, representative, and rational faculties, and non-cognitive faculty consists of nutritive and appetitive parts. Needless to say, the rational faculty is superior to the two other faculties. Each faculty has its apt perfection when it perceives its most suitable object perfectly. Intelligibles as they are intelligible are suitable objects of rational faculty of the soul. However, the faculty of representation, because of its limitations, can receive the intelligibles, not as intelligibles, but as their imitations.

To him, the faculty of representation functions as an intermediate between the         sensible and the rational part of the soul. It receives the sensibilia from what the faculty of sense has received from sensibles. It also restores sensibilia, and it has a capacity to imitate what it has restored. Furthermore, the faculty of representation has a capacity to imitate intelligibles as much as its capacity allows. It entails that the capacity of the faculty of representation to receive intelligibles is not without limitations. He states

“If it is in its nature not to receive the thing as it is, its reception takes place by its     imitation of that thing through the sensibles which it finds in itself, which can imitate it. But since it may be beyond its capacity to receive the intelligibles as intelligibles, when the rational faculty provides it with the intelligibles which are present (in) it, it will receive them as they are in the rational faculty but imitate them with appropriate sensibles” (Mabadi’14.4.9-13).

Here Alfarabi clearly talks about the limited capacity of the faculty of representation to imitate all intelligibles. However, it is striking that in two passages further he claim that, The faculty of representation also imitates the rational faculty by imitating those intelligibles which are present in it with things suitable for imitating them. It thus         imitates the intelligibles of utmost perfection, like the First Cause, the immaterial           things and the heavens, with the most excellent and most perfect sensibles, like         things beautiful to look at; and the defective intelligibles with the most inferior and defective sensibles like things ugly to look at. (Mabadi’ IV, 14,6. 5-10)

Some of the things he lists here as suitable for the faculty of representation to imitate are the most excellent things in Alfarabi’s universe. So if Alfarabi believes that the faculty of representation is capable to imitate these most excellent things, but not as they are but as their imitation. To understand what his account of the soul in its fullest, one needs to understand what is an imitation according to Alfarabi, which for the sake of space I need to investigate later.

In the Mabadi’, he never states that prophecy requires the perfection of rational faculty; he is aware that prophets are not philosophers or they never had been philosophers. Perhaps it is for this reason that Alfarabi does not explain prophecy by perfection of the rational faculty, but as perfection of faculty of representation. However, the crucial point is that, in Alfarabi’s scheme of the soul, the faculty of representation is inferior to the rational faculty. To him, the Active Intellect emanates intelligibles not as intelligibles but as their imitations to the faculty of representation, while Active Intellect emanates intelligibles as intelligibles to faculty of reason. What implies in Alfarabi’s scheme of the soul is that prophecy is inferior to philosophy.

Divine things are those things that prophecy is concerned the most, and majority of people understand divine things through prophecy. How does Alfarabi view the statues of the divine things in the soul with regard to prophecy? In a crucial passage in the Mabadi’, he mentions the divine things with respect to the faculty of representation. His explanation is short and ambiguous as it is his customary attitude when he talks about sensitive topics. He says, “Regarding divine things, what the Active Intellect bestows upon the faculty of representation from intelligibles that it receives, it [the faculty of representation] receives them as imitations, [which are] foretelling [of divine things] (alkahinat)[3] IV,14, 7-8). In fact, alkahinat has a negative connotation in Arabic, especially for a rational philosopher like Alfarabi, and it actually means fortune telling based on astrology. Here Alfarabi in his ambiguous way compares the prophetical knowledge-claims of the divine things as the knowledge claim of a fortuneteller.

Although the faculty of representation is inferior to the rational faculty, prophecy is a manifestation of the ultimate perfection of the faculty of representation. Since Alfarabi gives philosophy and knowledge of intelligibles a superior epistemic status. It is for this reason that, unlike Alkindi, he maintains that kalam cannot be the First Philosophy. To him, First Philosophy is seeking knowledge of intelligibles through employing the method of demonstration. In fact, if all people could be philosophers, there would be no need for prophets since what prophets introduce to their communities are the imitations of those intelligibles that philosophers receive by the Active Intellect in their rational faculties. However, the fact is that people whom Active Intellect emanates intelligible are not many, and people who have to rely on the imitations of intelligibles are in majority. Consequently, religion has vital role for a well-ordered politics that a Farabian philosopher needs always to acknowledge.[4] However, a Farabian philosopher should not confuse intelligibles with their imitations.


[1] It is striking that in Mabadi’, he never uses the term Allah when he talks about God. I think this is more than a stylistic choice from our philosopher, and in fact it shows that his God is not the God of religions, but a philosophical God. Indeed, as we see in his further discussion he brings religion to the tribune of reason rather than giving higher position to prophetic knowledge.

[2] What is known as Aristotle’s notion of First Cause is what he calls it ὃ οὐ κινούμενος κινεῖ “that which moves without being moved.”

[3] I did not find Walzer’s translation of this sentence accurate. He translated the sentence as following, “But divinations concerning things divine will arise from the intelligibles provided by the Active Intellect, which it receives by taking their imitations instead” The problem with Walzer’s translation is that he mistakes divination (alkahinat) as the subject of the sentence while the subject of the sentence is divine objects.

[4] Imitation causes plurality of representation of intelligibles among nations. Each nation develops its own system of representations, which form the identity of the nation.

Works Cited

Alfarabi, Abu Nasr. 1968. Kita ̄b al-millah wa nus.u ̄s. ukhra. Ed. Muhsin Mahdi. Bayru ̄t:Da ̄r al-Mashriq (Arabic).

Alfarabi, Abu Nasr. 1995. Maba ̄di’ a ̄ra ̄’ ahl al-mad­inat al-fa ̄dila’. Bayru ̄t: Da ̄r va         Maktaba’ Alhila ̄l. (Arabic).

Alfarabi. 1998. On the Perfect State. Trans. Richard Walzer. London: Oxford University Press.