Skip to main content Accesibility Help

Mysticism versus Philosophy in earlier Islamic History: The Al–Tūsi, Al–Qūnawi correspondence

  • William C. Chittick

To say ‘mysticism versus philosophy’ in the context of Islamic civilization means something far different from what it has come to signify in the West, where many philosophers have looked upon mysticism as the abandonment of any attempt to reconcile religious data with intelligent thought. Certainly the Muslim mystics and philosophers sometimes display a certain mutual opposition and antagonism, but never does their relationship even approach incompatibility.

Hide All

page 87 note 1 The Peripatetics or followers of Aristotle are the ‘philosophers’ (al falāsifah) par excellence in Islamic civilization; throughout this article we will be referring to their particular school and for the most part will leave aside other figures who can also be called ‘philosophers’ in the traditional Islamic sense. See Nasr, S. H., ‘The Meaning and Role of “Philosophy” in Islam’, Studia Islamica, xxxvii (1973), 5780.

page 87 note 2 See Corbin, H., Avicenna and the Visionary Recital (Princeton, 1960).

page 87 note 3 Nasr, S. H., Science and Civilization in Islam (Cambridge, Mass., 1968), pp. 33–4.

page 88 note 1 See Nasr, S. H., ‘Renaissance in Iran - Hāji Mulla Hādi Sabziwāri’, A History of Muslim Philosophy, ed. by Sharif, M. M. (Wiesbaden, 19631966), II, 1316–32; also his ‘Sadr al–Dīn Shīrāzi (Mullā Sadra)’ in the same work, II, 952 61; also his Sadr al–Din Shirazi and His Transcendent Theosophy (Tehran–London, 1978).

page 90 note 1 Al–Qūnawī is extremely explicit about this point in his work Tabsirat al–mubtadi' wa tadhkirat al–muntahī, which I have translated in a forthcoming book on him.

page 91 note 1 Certain of the ‘theosophers’ have pointed out another dimension of the symbolism of the word, to which I have not seen reference in the writings of the earlier figures: since the 'aqi ‘ties’ and ‘binds’, and since on the human plane it reflects the First Intellect, it can serve to tie and bind man to God. There are innumerable references to this positive function of the 'agi throughout Islamic literature. To cite one significant early example, the sixth Shi'ite Imam said, ‘The 'aql is that through which man worships the All–Merciful and gains paradise’. See Chittick, W. C., A Shi'ite Anthology (London, 1980), p. 55.

page 91 note 2 See my forthcoming article, ‘The Five Divine Presences: from al-Qūnawī to al–Qaygarī’.

page 91 note 3 Mathnawī ed. and trans. by Nicholson, R. A. (London, 19251940), V, 463 (my translation).

page 91 note 4 Ibid. III, 2526–31.

page 92 note 1 For a Sufi view, see Chittick, W. C., ‘The Perfect Man as the Prototype of the Self in the Sufism of Jāmī’, Studia Islamica, LXIX (1979), 135–57.

page 92 note 2 This is a point to which Sufis such as Ibn al–'Arabī and al–Qūnawī often refer. By ‘God’ they mean God in the highest sense, the Godhead, or in their own terminology, the ‘Essence’ (al–dhāt) or ‘Sheer Being’ (al–wujūd al–mahd). If we say that God is ‘Nondelimited’, but do not qualify the statement as the author has done here, this means that he cannot be delimited in the usual sense. In other words, we are saying that Sheer and Nondelimited Being cannot manifest itself as the delimited existence which is called the ‘world’; i.e. that there can be no creation. But this is absurd. So to say that God is Nondelimited in the sense the author means here signifies that he is not even delimited by nondelimitation, for he manifests himself in theophany precisely through delimitation. In himself he transcends the duality implied by the two terms. For a discussion of the doctrine of the ‘Oneness of Being’ upon which this teaching is based, see W. C. Chittick, ‘Sadr al–Dīn Qūnawī on the Oneness of Being’, International Philosophical Quarterly, forthcoming.

page 92 note 3 Mu'ayyad al–Dīn al–Jandī (a disciple of al–Qūnawī), Sharh fusūs al–hikam, chapter on Shu'ayb; quoted by Jāmī in Nagd al–nusūs, ed. by Chittick, W. C. (Tehran, 1977), p. 205.

page 93 note 1 See for example the ninth section(namal) of his al–Ishārāt wa–l–tanbīhāt, on the ‘Spiritual Stations of the Gnostics’ (maqāmāt al–'ārifīn).

page 93 note 2 See S. H. Nasr, ‘Intellect and Intuition: Their Relationship from the Islamic Perspective’, forthcoming.

page 93 note 3 See my articles ‘The Perfect Man’ and ‘The Five Divine Presences’; also Chittick, W. C. and Wilson, P. L., Divine Flashes: The Lama'at of Fakhruddin ‘Iraqi (Classics of Western Spirituality, New York: Paulist Press), 1981, introduction.

page 93 note 4 Of course in European languages it is still valid to speak of the highest form of unveiling as deriving from the ‘intellect’, since this conforms to the terminology used by many figures in Christianity. But if one were to use this term to refer to what Sufis such as al–Qūnawī are speaking about, one must remember that it is not the translation of the word 'aql, but rather of such expressions as ‘Specific Face’ (al–wajh al–khāss: the Face of Gad turned specifically towards a given individual without any intermediary, ultimately identifiable with that individual's ‘immutable entity’, al–'ayn al–thābit, within God's knowledge ‘prior’ to creation). But since such Christian mystics as Eckhardt speak of something ‘untreated and untreatable’ at the inmost core of man's soul, and identify that something with the intellect, one would be justified in using the term to explain the Sufi concept. Eckhardt also refers to God as ‘pure intellect’, whereas no Muslim thinker would ever refer to God as 'aql in any sense (see for example Eckhardt's, , Defence, IX, 8; VIII, 6).

page 93 note 5 Mathnawī, I, 2128.

page 95 note 1 Matāli'–i īmān, ec'. by Chittick, W. C., Sophia Perennis, iv, I (1978), 71–2 (Persian section).

page 96 note 1 See Nasr, S. H., Three Muslim Sages (Cambridge, Mass., 1964), PP. 45–7; also Nasr, , ‘Nasīr al–Dīn al–Tūsī’, Dictionary of Scientific Biography, ed. by Gillespie, C. H. (New York, 1976), XIII, 508–14.

page 96 note 2 Others may prefer to call Averroes Avicenna's most influential follower, but that is only true in the West. In the Islamic world itself, Averroes was practically unknown and unread. One can say that this is because Averroes extended Avicenna's teachings even further in the direction of emphasizing the superiority of the intellect and therefore in effect drew him further away from the perspectives of revelation and unveiling. But al–Tūsī moved Avicenna toward these two dimensions of Islam and therefore helped to make him a ‘better Muslim’ and more attractive to the great majority of intellectuals, who believed in the validity of the Koranic revelation.

page 96 note 3 See Yahia, O., Histoire et classification de l'oeuvre Ibn al-'Arabī (Damas, 1964).

page 97 note 1 See Chittick, W. C., ‘The Last Will and Testament of Ibn al–'Arabī's Foremost Disciple and Some Notes on its Author’, Sophia Perennis, iv, i (Spring 1978), 4358.

page 97 note 2 This is obvious from his letter to al–Qūnawī (work 4) as well as such works as Amsāf al–ashrāf, a book on Sufi ethics which he wrote to complement his Nasirean Ethics.

page 97 note 3 See Nasr, , Three Muslim Sages, chapter I; also Corbin, H., Avicenna and the Visionary Recital.

page 98 note 1 I have prepared an edition of the main body of the correspondence (excluding work 3) from the following manuscripts, all of which are to be found in Istanbul. Works 2, 5 and 7: Şehid Ali Paşa 1415; Esad Efendi 1413, 3717; Ayasofya 1795, 2358; Haci Beşir Agˇa 355; H. Hüsnü Paşa 1160; Pertev Paşa 617; Carullah 2097; Hamidiye 188. Works 1, 4 and 6: Pertev Paşa 617; Ayasofya 2349, Baˇdath Vehbi Efendi 2053, Üniversite A.4122, Hamidiye 188, Esad Efendi 3717. I have only seen one manuscript of work 3 (Amcazade Hüseyin Paşa 447), although Brockelmann mentions two more in his Geschichte der arabischen Literatur (vols. 1, p. 450; SI, p. 808).

page 99 note 1 Tafsīr al–fātihah, also called Ijāz al–bayān fi tafsīr umm al–Qur'ān, the only one of al–Qūnawī's Arabic works to have a modern edition. See the list of his works in my article, ‘The Last Will and Testament’.

page 103 note 1 As was pointed out above, the Sufis feel that the theologians reach their conclusions by abusing the intellect and ignoring unveiling, and thus by misunderstanding the revelation. For a criticism of the theologians in the spirit that al–Qūnawī has in mind, see Schuon, F., Islam and the Perennial Philosophy (London, 1976), chapter 7.

page 103 note 2 See my article, ‘The Last Will and Testament’.

page 103 note 3 This important work, only recently published in the original Arabic and long unknown to Western scholarship, contains Avicenna's ‘Explanatory Remarks’ (al–ta'līqāt) concerning certain difficult aspects of his philosophy, and includes expositions of his own views as opposed to the official Peripatetic position. See the edition by 'A. Badawī (Cairo, 1973).

page 104 note 1 I do not wish to imply that either Sufi speculation per se, or Peripatetic philosophy as such, disappeared. Both, in particular the former, remained as independent schools of thought. But the main stream of intellectual activity in Iran and many of the other eastern areas of Islam came to be dominated by Mullā Sadrā's theosophy.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Religious Studies
  • ISSN: 0034-4125
  • EISSN: 1469-901X
  • URL: /core/journals/religious-studies
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed