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Persian Philosophy

Introduction | Pre-Islamic Schools | Post-Islamic Schools
Introduction Back to Top

Persian Philosophy (or Iranian Philosophy), due to a series of large-scale political and social changes such as the Arab and Mongol invasions of Persia, has initiated a wide spectrum of schools of thought. In general terms, these can be split between the Pre-Islamic Period and the Post-Islamic Period.

Pre-Islamic Schools Back to Top

The Pre-Islamic schools include Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism and Mazdakism:

  • Zoroastrianism, which follows the teachings of Zarathustra (Zoroaster) appeared in Persia at some point during the period between 1000 - 588 B.C. Zarathustra was the first to treat the problem of evil in philosophical terms, and is also believed to be one of the oldest monotheists in the history of religion. His ethical philosophy is based on the primacy of humata (good thoughts), hukhata (good words) and hvarshatra (good deeds). He also founded a system of rational ethics called Mazda-Yasna (Worship of Wisdom). The Avesta and the Gathas are the primary collections of sacred texts of Zoroastrianism, composed in the Avestan language. Little was known of Zarathustra's ideas in post-Classical Western culture until the late 18th Century, but he had a significant influence on Greek and Roman philosophy.
  • Manichaeism, (also spelled Manicheism), was founded by the Persian religious preacher Mani (A.D.210 - 276). At its height, it was one of the most widespread religions in the world, from North Africa and Western Europe in the West, to China in the East. It died out before the 16th Century, although a modern revival has been attempted under the name of Neo-Manichaeism, and its influence subtly continues in Western Christian thought via St. Augustine of Hippo, who converted to Christianity from Manicheism. Manichaeism claims to present the complete version of teachings only revealed partially by teachers such as Zoroaster, Buddha, and Jesus. An important principle of Manicheism is its dualistic cosmology/theology, which it shared with Mazdakism (see below). Under this dualism, there are two original principles of the universe, Light (the good one) and Darkness (the evil one), which had been mixed by a cosmic accident, tainting everything except God. Man's role in this life is, through good conduct, to release the parts of himself that belong to Light.
  • Mazdakism, was founded by Mazdak (died c. 524 or 528), a proto-socialist Persian reformer who claimed to be a prophet of God, and instituted communal possessions and social welfare programs. Like Manichaeism, Mazdakism posited a dualistic cosmology, but where Manichaeism saw the mixture of good and bad as a cosmic tragedy, Mazdak viewed this in a more neutral, even optimistic, way. Mazdak emphasized good conduct, which involved a moral and ascetic life, no killing and no eating flesh (which contained substances solely from Darkness), being kind and friendly and living in peace with other people. He downplayed the importance of religious formalities, and criticized the strong position of Zoroastrian clergy, who, he believed, had oppressed the Persian population and caused much poverty.
Post-Islamic Schools Back to Top

Early Islamic Philosophy was very influential in the rise of modern philosophy, including the development of a strict science of citation; a method of open inquiry to disprove claims; the separation of theology and law, a precursor to secularism; the beginnings of a peer review process; the first forms of non-Aristotelian logic, including temporal modal logic and inductive logic; and even early theories of evolution.

The two main currents in early Islamic thought are Kalam (which mainly deals with theological questions) and Falsafa (which is founded on interpretations of Aristotelianism and Neoplatonism). To some extent, some schools are also considered Western in their outlook, include Avicennism, Illuminationism and Transcendent Theosophy (see below).

The main Post-Islamic schools include:

  • Mu'tazilism is an Islamic theological school of thought, based mainly around Basra and Baghdad (modern day Iraq). It was influenced by Greek and Hellenistic philosophy, and expanded the use of ijtihad (independent thought) to open questions of science and society. The Mu'tazilites focused on the Five Principles (Divine Unity, Divine Justice, Promise and Threat, the Intermediate Position, and Advocating the Good and Forbidding the Evil). The most celebrated proponent of Mu'tazilism was 'Abd al-Jabbar (935 - 1025), after which Mu'tazilism declined steadily and significantly.
  • Ash'arism is a school of early Muslim speculative theology founded by the theologian Abu al-Hasan al-Ash'ari (874 - 936). It marked the 12th-14th Century peak of innovation in Muslim civilization, and permitted philosophical methods to be applied to science and technology. In contrast to the Mu'tazilite school of theologians, the Ash'arite view was that the comprehension of the unique nature and characteristics of God are beyond human capability and that, while man has free will, he has no power to create anything. The most influential work of this school's thought was "The Incoherence of Philosophers", by the Persian polymath al-Ghazali (1058 - 1111), which laid the groundwork to "shut the door of ijtihad" in subsequent centuries in all Sunni Muslim states.
  • Avicennism was founded by Avicenna (also known as Ibn Sina), an 11th-century Persian Islamic philosopher. By the 12th Century (the Islamic Golden Age), it had become the leading school of Islamic philosophy. Avicenna attempted to reconcile Western Aristotelianism and Neo-Platonism with Islamic theology, and his metaphysics were very influential on the Western Scholastics and St. Thomas Aquinas among others. He initiated a full-fledged inquiry into the question of being, in which he distinguished between Mahiat (essence) and Wujud (existence). He proposed an ontological argument for the existence of God as the first cause of all things, and developed his own system of Avicennian logic which had replaced Aristotelian logic as the dominant system of logic in the Islamic world by the 12th Century.
  • Averroism was founded by the 13th Century Arab philosopher Averroës (also known as Ibn Rushd) and was based on his interpretations of Aristotle and the reconciliation of Aristotelianism with the Islamic faith. Among his main ideas were: that there is one truth (but at least two ways to reach it, through philosophy and through religion); that the world is eternal; that the soul is divided into two parts, one individual and one divine; that the individual soul is not eternal; that all humans at the basic level share one and the same divine soul (monopsychism); and that the resurrection of the dead is not possible. While it had relatively little influence in the Islamic world, which was then dominated by Avicennian philosophy and Ash'ari theology (see above), Averroism became very influential in medieval Europe, especially among the Scholastics, and it can be argued that it eventually led to the development of modern secularism.
  • Illuminationism is a school of Islamic philosophy founded by the Persian Sufi Shahab al-Din Suhrawardi (1155 - 1191) in the 12th Century. It is a combination of Avicenna’s early Islamic philosophy and ancient Iranian philosophical disciplines, dressed up with many new innovative and mystical ideas of Suhrawardi's own, although it is often also described as having been influenced by Neoplatonism. To the Illuminationists, essence is more important than existence, and intuitive knowledge is more significant than scientific knowledge. They use the notion of light, as the name suggests, as a way of exploring the links between God (the Light of Lights) and his creation, and takes the physical world to be an aspect of the divine.
  • Transcendent Theosophy (or al-hikmat al-muta’liyah) was developed and perfected by the Persian philosopher Mulla Sadra (Sadr al-Din al-Shirazi) (1571 - 1640), the foremost representative of the Illuminationist school of philosopher-mystics, and commonly regarded by Iranians as the greatest philosopher their country has ever produced. It is one of two main disciplines of Islamic philosophy live and active today.

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