Even as medieval Christian Europe moved cautiously towards the confrontation between faith and reason that erupted in the Renaissance and enthroned rationality in the Enlightenment, the reverse process had unfolded in the Muslim Middle East. Increasingly temporalized notions of apostolic succession had enervated the Platonic theology of Augustine and drained off the element of tolerance from religious discourse. The reintroduction of Aristotelian reason and methodology through Muslim Spain became a plank of salvation against stifling priestcraft and a reassertion of human dignity through the potentiality of the mind. In the Muslim world, the rise of the 'ulama – the community of those versed in Qu'ranic Law – gave an extremely conservative tone to orthodoxy, but the absence of a priesthood prevented even the 'ulama from claiming absolute possession of truth. At first, guardians of the law ignored the 'foreign influences' of Greek philosophy, but in time the rise of the Peripatetic Mu'tazalites or rationalists forced even the orthodox to look for metaphysical foundations for their views.
In the eleventh century Abu'l Hasan al-Ash'ari began to formulate the kalam, or theology, which, whilst rejecting the strict view that no Qu'ranic doctrine requires either explanation or justification, nonetheless supported the teachings of the 'ulama. This movement provided the platform for the great philosopher and theologian, al-Ghazzali, to turn the tide against the Mu'tazalites in the East. A renowned jurist whose religious doubts had been transcended through profound Sufi teaching, al-Ghazzali rejected mechanistic Aristotelian logic in favour of a faith illumined by disciplined intuitive insight. Whilst the Mu'tazalites retired westward to Spain, where Ibn Masarra heralded the movement which, in philosophers like Avicenna and Averroes, would bring the breeze of freedom to Christendom, al-Ghazzali opened wide a door in the East for the illuminationist doctrines of al-Suhrawardi and the gnostic perspectives of Ibn al-'Arabi.
Shihab al-Din Yahya ibn Habash ibn Amirak al-Suhrawardi was born in A.D. 1153 in the village of Suhraward near modern Zamjan in Persia. In time he would be called al-Maqtul, 'he who was killed', and al-Shahid, 'the martyr', but subsequent centuries settled on a name that at once described him and pronounced its judgement – Shaikh al-Ishraq, 'Master of Illumination'. As a young boy, he went to Maraghah, the city where later the Mongol emperor Hulagu built his great observatory, and there studied with Majd al-Din al-Jili. As he grew older he journeyed to Ispahan, where he became a student of Zahir al-Din al-Qari. One of his co-disciples was Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, whose name is synonymous with rejection of philosophy. Though little is known of Suhrawardi's character, al-Razi, who stood against much that Suhrawardi affirmed, offered an unuttered summation. Years after they had parted and after Suhrawardi was dead, al-Razi was given a copy of one of his treatises. Upon receiving the volume, he kissed it and wept.
Once his formal studies were completed, Suhrawardi travelled throughout Persia to learn from the living treasury of Sufi adepts who lived in schools and communities across the land. Recognizing an authentic spiritual insight in some of those he met, he entered the Sufi path and turned to meditation with the same disciplined concentration that he had brought to his studies. Between prolonged periods of spiritual withdrawal, Suhrawardi extended his travels into Anatolia and the Levant. His wanderings increased his love for this part of the world, and he found in himself a deep desire to remain. One journey from Damascus led him to Aleppo, and there he met Malik Zahir, the son of Saladin. Malik Zahir filled his court with Sufis and scholars, and found Suhrawardi altogether appealing. Suhrawardi gladly accepted his invitation to remain at the court.
Unfortunately, others at court did not share Malik's appreciation of Suhrawardi. His remarkable facility in philosophy as well as in Sufi doctrines aroused the jealousy of others neither so brilliant nor so erudite as himself. His free, almost audacious, public expression of mystic teachings shocked less daring minds and infuriated the orthodox 'ulama. His unequalled mastery of the art of debate threatened other teachers and even offended some of them. Seeing that his natural supporters stood aloof from Suhrawardi, the 'ulama seized the opportunity to demand his execution for heresy. Malik refused to consider such a charge, and the 'ulama appealed to Saladin. Although Saladin would not deign to involve himself in unseemly squabbles in normal times, he had just seized Syria from the Crusaders, and he needed the full support of the 'ulama to establish his authority. He pressured Malik to acquiesce to the accusers. Suhrawardi was arrested, and he died in prison in A.D. 1191. Only thirty-eight years old, he unwittingly followed in the dread footsteps of al-Hallaj, whom he admired and quoted in his own works. Unlike his mentor, however, he left no doubts as to his own wisdom, and he bequeathed to the world a magnificent system of thought and a sweeping vision.
Suhrawardi composed almost fifty substantial works in Arabic and Persian, the latter of such masterful prose that they became models for philosophical and narrative writing. Some of these were translations and commentaries, and others constituted cycles of prayer and invocation. Three large volumes of philosophy outlined and revised Aristotelian philosophy and went far beyond it, followed by his iridescent Hikmat al-Ishraq (The Wisdom of Illumination), the fons et origo of Ishraqi or Illuminationist teaching. He summarized his chief doctrines in a variety of shorter treatises, including The Temples of Light, Treatise on Illumination, The Flashes of Light and The Garden of the Heart. His most mysterious and intriguing works, however, are his spiritual narratives or symbolic journeys depicting the soul's pilgrimage through the visible and invisible cosmos to its ultimate illumination – The Song of the Wing of Gabriel, The Occidental Exile, The Nocturnal Journey and The Song of the Griffin, amongst others. The rich symbolism of the Pythagorean-Platonic, Hermetic and Zoroastrian traditions was so structured as to unveil to the intuitive eye the root of temporal existence and the reward for those who transcend it.
Although one can readily trace the intellectual and conceptual sources of Suhrawardi's Ishraqi thought, beginning with al-Hallaj and including Pythagoras, Plato and Hermes Trismegistus, this approach would fail to comprehend his own perspective. Suhrawardi discerned an ageless tradition centered in the principle of divine unity hidden in Zoroastrianism, in the ancient Hellenic and Hermetic philosophers and in the Hindu and Egyptian traditions. This wisdom, which he called al-hikmat al-laduniyah, Divine Wisdom, and al-hikmat al-'atiqah, ancient wisdom, is universal, timeless and always amongst human beings, though often limited in its expression by parochialism and the tendencies of traditions to close in upon themselves. According to Suhrawardi, this wisdom passed directly from the Divine to Hermes and from him to Egypt and Persia. The Egyptian branch eventually extended to Greece, and from Greece and the early Sufis of Persia it poured its beneficent light into Islamic civilization. Suhrawardi saw himself at the focus of a critical moment in history: these two sacred streams, whose source is one, came together in his teaching. He sought to unify in one grand doctrine the hidden truth of every authentic tradition.
For Suhrawardi, illumination has as its precondition both the power of discursive reasoning and unobscured intuition, both rigorous mental training and uncompromising purification of the soul. Depending upon the degree and ratio of development of these two, there are four classes of those who know. First of all, some individuals have felt such a thirst for spiritual knowledge that they have entered the path to wisdom. Secondly, a few have attained formal knowledge to an exemplary degree but have not experienced gnosis. The third class parallels the second, since its members have no acquaintance with methods of reasoning though their souls are stainless. The individual who is perfected in philosophy and has attained illumination is hakim mutaallih, literally, a theosopher, and is counted as one of that exceptional circle of sages which includes Pythagoras and Plato. Beyond this, one passes out of the human realm into that of the celestial hierarchy of invisible beings whose chief is the Quth, the Pole, that spiritual centre for whom the spiritual hosts are representatives as they are also the means to human illumination. The Quth can be geographically symbolized as the north celestial pole around which the vault of heaven turns. In his imaginary accounts of the soul's sojourn, the distinction between the shadowy occident and the luminous orient is turned on end, so to speak. The orient of light is the north pole and the occident is the world of the senses. Thus the "middle occident" is the visible heavens where light and darkness intermingle, and the true boundary between east and west is the sphere of the fixed stars.
Although the soul's true abode is the orient beyond the stars, the soul's necessary fall into matter has condemned it to an occidental exile. Illumination, ishraq, is the soul's return to its home through reason and intuition, where it will find peace and bliss. The emblematic topography across which the soul must travel reaches from earth through the empyrean to intimate what is beyond and covers the whole of manifest existence. Reality is Light. That Light varies in intensity from plane to plane, giving rise to the relativities of light and darkness. Light is indefinable because all degrees and things are defined in terms of it, whilst it is supremely self-evident. Though shadow is required as the form or container of light, it is only the light of a thing which allows it to exist.
Metaphysically, the soul's illumination is the unveiling of itself to itself, the release of the soul from the prison of shadows. The degree of light a being possesses, and therefore its ontological proximity to the Supreme, is also the degree of knowledge and awareness of that being. The relative proportions of light and darkness form a continuum from Deity, an-nur, the Light, to that unthinkable limit which is the utter absence of light, but planes can be distinguished by their direct symbols of the Divine. For instance, the heavens have the sun, and the elements have fire, whilst the soul has its sovereign dignity.
Each plane has its angelic host which sustains the world, is a means to knowledge, and is the paradigm man seeks to emulate. There are as many angels as there are stars in the sky, chief of whom are the archangels headed by Bahman, the Zoroastrian Vohu Manah, who is the greatest because closest to the absolute Light which is Deity. In divine topology, angels are divided into tuli and 'ardi, longitudinal and latitudinal orders. In the first order, each angel brings into being through radiation the angel below it, forming a feminine world of fructification. Here the superior angel stands in the relation of qahr or dominance to the one below, whilst the lower angel is related to the higher by mahabbah or love. Each angel is also a barzakh or bridge between those above and those below, veiling the purer light of a higher order by diaphanous obscuration and revealing it to the extent it can pass through. The interface of dominance and love germinates the masculine latitudinal order of angels which do not engender one another but subsist together. This angelic order corresponds to the Platonic ideas, for each is theurgic in effect, watching over and giving definition to a class or species of being in the visible world. A being responds by participation in the light of its angel, and so each being is itself a kind of theurgy. For Suhrawardi, the Platonic ideas – angels of the 'ardi order – correspond to the sevenfold powers or lights of Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian Lord of Light, manifest as the Amesha Spentas. Through love and receptivity, the radiating and irradiating tuli order crystallizes the angelic substances as the stars and other spheres of heaven, and the 'ardi order provides by reflection intermediate guardian angels for each species.
The archangel Gabriel is rabb al-naw' al-insani, the archetype of humanity. Gabriel is the lordly light within humanity, who functions theurgically in man as the revealer of knowledge. Each human being is also the reflection of an angel. When the pre-existing soul enters a body – a prison of shadows, the absence of light – it is separated from its angel, and the whole of incarnated existence is only the quest for union with one's true angelic self and for the return to one's natural level of light. In terms of Plato's language of the tripartite soul, the vegetative and animal faculties of the soul are the theurgic activity of the angels who form Nature. Man, a fallen angel, also possesses by theurgic reflection the powers of fantasy, apprehension, memory and creative imagination. The rational dimension of the soul derives from Gabriel, the lordly light. Taken together, the architectonics of Nature and the ontology of human nature empty psychology of intrinsic interest, for it is useful only as an aid to purifying the soul. Psychotheurgy, or self-transformation through self-purgation, entails an ethics of compassionate self-discipline. By invoking Gabriel, the lordly light in each and every human being, one can marshall the distinctly human powers to discern light from darkness, greater light from lesser light, and begin the long and arduous but also joyous journey back to the soul's angelic abode. One will come to see as self-evident that whatever elusive promises, temporary joys and insubstantial pleasures this world may contain, they are only dim refractions of the blissful illumination of gnosis.
Since the state after death is a precise function of the purity and knowledge attained in life, it is critical to recognize that each soul at any given time belongs to one of only three classes – those who are ignorant, those who are purified to some degree, and those holy ones who are illuminated even whilst in a body. Suhrawardi's grand vision of the cosmos is as real as a road map, which is true to but not the same as the land offered to the aspiring soul, so that it can end its sojourn in the occidental exile and turn towards the numinous orient. The journey to the east is really the trek to the north pole, the pole of one's being which is the Being and Light of all. Although Suhrawardi's teaching did not pass into Christian Europe, it profoundly influenced Jewish thought through mystics like Isaac Luria and the Safed Qabbalists. During the Moghul reign in India, he was translated into Sanskrit, and through Azar Kaiwan he influenced the Zoroastrians who eventually migrated to India. Though he died in disgrace, Suhrawardi held high the torch of ancient wisdom, made it brighter by his own mental and spiritual brilliance, and joined the endless line of mystics and teachers who see that the flame shall always burn for those who would light their way.