ISFAHAN SCHOOL OF PHILOSOPHY (l’école d’Isfahan), the term coined by Henry Corbin (1903-78) and Seyyed Hossein Nasr (1933-) to describe a philosophical and mystical movement patronized by the court of Shah ʿAbbās I (r. 1588-1629), centered in the new Safavid capital of Isfahan, and initiated as part of the wider Safavid cultural renaissance associated with his reign. The political power and stability of the Safavid Empire at the turn of the 17th century and material and social conditions afforded by the new capital provided the context, patronage, and opportunities for intellectual flourishing. The Isfahan School of Philosophy (maktab-e falsafi-e Eṣfahān) represents the apogee of the “Shiʿite renaissance” of the Safavid period (Landolt, 2003, p. 2). According to Corbin and Nasr, the key elements of the School and its foremost thinkers and proponents shaped the intellectual history of Safavid Persia, often in an adversarial conflict with the rise in power of a juristic hierocracy opposed to metaphysical speculation and mystical experience. The introduction of this phase of post-Avicennian philosophy was designed to further refute the myth that the polemics initiated by Abu Ḥāmed Moḥammad Ḡazāli (d. 1111, q.v.) in his Tahāfot al-falāsefa had brought philosophical speculation in Islam to an end. Thus, Corbin and Nasr offered a radically different concept of philosophy in Islam and a method for studying intellectual history that has been influential ever since, whilst also attracting the criticism of a number of detractors. The significance of the notion of the School of Isfahan lies in the methodology that it proposes; as such the question arises whether such a method and notion is coherent, and whether it provides a viable historical-critical and philosophically sensitive understanding of philosophy in the Safavid period.
Origins. The term was first coined by Corbin in an article that he wrote on spiritual visions of Mir Moḥammad-Bāqer Estrābādi, better known as Mir(-e) Dāmād, in the festschrift for Louis Massignon (Corbin, 1956). This article had a number of significant aims: first, to insist that our academic understanding of philosophy in Islam was impoverished and that philosophy did not end in Islam with Ḡazāli’s famous attack; second, that historians of art and architecture were already familiar with the significance of Isfahan as a cultural center and it was time to recognize its significance as a center of philosophical and theological learning (cf. Corbin, 1962b, p. 85); third, to establish a particular philosophical tradition associated with the Safavid period in the history of philosophy, so that one could learn from the insights of the philosophers of Isfahan; fourth and concomitantly, to introduce important contemporaries of Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), Descartes (1596-1650), and Leibniz (1646-1716) to an occidental audience, to make these thinkers of Isfahan as familiar to Western students of philosophy as they were to Persians (Corbin, 1956, pp. 331-33). Corbin identified Mir Dāmād as the founder of the School of Isfahan and its main influence. He saw in him a philosopher who was at once a keen analytic mind and a spiritually enlightened individual aware of the religious foundations of knowledge, a thinker who represented a higher philosophical synthesis beyond the quarrels between Avicennism and Averroism, a philosopher who lived a philosophical life and combined ratiocinative thought with spiritual exercises. The School of Isfahan thus represented a Hegelian synthesis that one ought to engage with to discover the mature thought of spiritual and intellectual Islam (Corbin, 1956, p. 334). Corbin identified the significance of esoteric Shiʿism in the School of Isfahan, a metaphysic of imamology and a form of Sufism that represented a continuity with the primordial spiritual traditions of Persia, and he noted the importance of Neoplatonism to the thought of the School, mainly mediated through the famous adaptation of the Theology of Aristotle (Ar. tr. Oṯulujiā) of Plotinus. He identified the three main figures and thinkers of the School: Mir Dāmād, his colleague Shaikh Bahāʾ-al-Din ʿĀmeli (q.v.), and their student Ṣadr-al-Din Moḥammad Širāzi, better known as Mollā Ṣadrā, and their key works such as al-Qabasāt of Mir Dāmād and al-Asfār al-arbaʿa of Mollā Ṣadrā. Finally, he completed his description by juxtaposing the esoteric and metaphysical speculation of the thinkers of the School of Isfahan with the “orthodox” Shiʿite theology and jurisprudence of Moḥammad-Bāqer Majlesi (Corbin, 1956, p. 339). The School of Isfahan thus represented the enlightened spiritual and intellectual elite in opposition to the political and theological orthodoxy of the Safavid establishment.
This pioneering article, which included a critical edition of a short Arabic text of the School, was followed about a decade later by “The School of Iṣfahān” by Nasr (Nasr, 1966). This article fleshed out in a more systematic fashion some of the key influences, features, and elements of the School through an exposition of its three main thinkers Mir Dāmād, Shaikh Bahāʾ-al-Din ʿĀmeli, and Abu’l-Qāsem Mir Fendereski. Mollā Ṣadrā was significant enough to merit a separate chapter in the same collection. Nasr considered the School of Isfahan to represent the supreme intellectual achievement of Twelver Shiʿism (Nasr, 1966, pp. 904-5). Thus he situated the philosophical tradition within the spiritual and theological tradition of Islam, whence its inspiration. He characterised the thought of the School as ḥekmat, a wisdom and “divine science” that combined gnosis (in particular the sapiential and metaphysical Sufi thought of the school of Ebn al-ʿArabi, q.v.), theosophy, and philosophy (Nasr, 1966, p. 907). To the pantheon of the School, he added the names of Mollā Moḥsen Fayż Kāšāni and ʿAbd-al-Razzāq Lāhiji (qq.v.), both students and sons-in-law of Mollā Ṣadrā. In later works, Nasr would supplement the list with the following generation, in particular the great Shiʿite Neoplatonist Qāżi Saʿid Qomi, following Corbin’s lead in his recapitulation of the key thinkers of the School of Isfahan in the fifth section (livre V) of his monumental En Islam iranien. It was Nasr who critically added the feature of perennial philosophy (jāvidān-ḵerad, al-ḥekma al-ḵāleda) to the study of the School of Isfahan, even though Corbin himself was averse to perennialism and traditionalism (Nasr, 2001, p. 50). Like Corbin, Nasr insisted on the prophetic roots of the thought of the School of Isfahan. Furthermore, for them both, the School of Isfahan represented the high point of Persian Shiʿite civilization and thus the totality of the intellectual production was subsumed under this paradigm in the study of intellectual history ever since. The influence of the School of Isfahan was thus seen to extend wherever this civilization imprinted its traces, including significantly India (Nasr, 1986, pp. 696-97; Rizvi, II, pp. 211-24). Nasr also popularized the notion of the five sources of the School of Isfahan: the Peripatetic philosophical tradition, the Illuminationist tradition founded by Shaikh Šehāb-al-Din Sohravardi, the Sufi metaphysics of Ebn al-ʿArabi, the theological traditions of both Sunni and Shiʿite Islam, and esoteric Shiʿism (ʿerfān-e šiʿi; Nasr, 1986, p. 658). The thought of the School was thus a higher synthesis of these streams that influenced and nurtured it.
The final significant feature in establishing the School of Isfahan paradigm was the collaborative project initiated by Corbin and Sayyed Jalāl-al-Din Āštiāni (d. 2005) in 1964 to produce editions of the texts written by the major figures of the School “from Mir Dāmād to the present day.” Four volumes of texts were published in the 1970s, introducing twenty-eight thinkers and their texts (both in Arabic and Persian) with extensive contextualizations and philosophical introductions written by Āštiāni in Persian and Corbin in French. Making the texts was a critical requisite, given Corbin’s desire to make the thought of the School of Isfahan accessible such that “reading Mollā Ṣadrā should become as normal as reading Kant” (Landolt, 2003, p. 3). This collection (Anthologie des philosophes iraniens . . .) was, and remains, a major contribution. It extended the scope for studying philosophy in post-Avicennian traditions and provided the material refutation of the idea that philosophy in Islam had died with Averroes as well as proof of the intellectual achievements of Shiʿite Persia. The first thinker included in the anthology was Mir Dāmād, the founder of the School, and the last took the story beyond the Safavid period into the Qajar period, in itself suggesting the intellectual continuity from the Safavid period into the 20th century. The success of the label has meant that the philosophy of the Qajar period is called the School of Tehran and the philosophical-theological movement of the late Timurid and early Safavid period is called the School of Shiraz.
Methodology. The School of Isfahan became a paradigm for the study of Islamic intellectual history. Corbin and Nasr were very clear that they envisaged a particular way of understanding philosophy that was both historically sensitive without becoming “historicist” (Corbin, 1977, p. 25) and philosophically sophisticated so as to demonstrate the value of Irano-Islamic philosophy to the wider world. Embedded within the paradigm were certain key theoretical assumptions, two of which are worth considering in detail. They felt that they were merely representing faithfully the true intentions of the thinkers of the School. Subsequent critics have separated the content of the thought of the School of Isfahan from the methodological paradigm of the “School of Isfahan” as advocated by Corbin and Nasr.
First, Corbin and Nasr had a particular conception of what philosophy is. The pursuit of “wisdom” was neither constrained by the specialization and suspicion of metaphysics of the analytical tradition, nor by the grand designs of the European traditions of philosophy. Philosophy was a lived experience, a way of life that incorporated rational and supra-rational elements and had at its core both a deep spiritual intuition fostered by a meditation on scripture and an esotericism. Corbin used the term “philosophie prophétique” to describe this thought. Corbin states that he discovered this aspect of Islamic philosophy only after a pilgrimage into the spiritual heart of Islam in search of the inner guiding principle of the sapiential tradition of Shiʿite and Iranian Islam (Corbin, 1962a, pp. 49-50). Shiʿite philosophy is privileged not only because it is inspired by the Islamic revelation, but also because it adheres to the principle of eternal presence and the disclosure of being through the person of the Imam from pre-existence through to the age of expectation of the parousia (ẓohur) of the Twelfth Imam (Corbin, 1971, esp. pp. 62-68). Prophetic knowledge is inherited by the Imams insofar as they are awliāʾ, and thus from the niche of prophecy and the light of walāya, philosophy spreads forth in the Safavid period (Corbin, 1962a, p. 55). Nasr was less effusively philosophical (and one may say more apologetic): “The roots of Islamic philosophical thought lie in the Quran, the Hadith and the sayings of certain Shiʿite Imams. These roots grew into a tree that was, however, nurtured primarily by the Greco-Alexandrian philosophical tradition” (Nasr, 1999, p. xxvi). Nasr conceived of philosophy as an aspect of a Sufi conceptualization of stages of enlightenment and spheres of human experience, beginning with the law (šariʿa), the Sufi path (ṭariqa), and metaphysical reality (ḥaqiqa). Ḥekmat related to the ultimate level and was the wisdom that was bestowed by God, as the Qurʾān (2:269) says, “He grants wisdom to whom He pleases; and he who is given wisdom is given a great good” (Nasr, 1996, p. 63) Such a conception of philosophy rested on the assumption of a harmony in the School of Isfahan between the claims, dictates and doctrines of revelation, reason and mystical intuition (Nasr, 1999, pp. 6-8), which is the topic of a doctoral dissertation (Moris, Revelation, Intellectual . . .) on Mollā Ṣadrā, supervised by Nasr.
Second, Corbin proposed a phenomenological hermeneutics for reading the texts of the School. Prophetic philosophy entailed the deployment of a prophetic hermeneutics of taʾwil, of studying the phenomena, the ẓāher, while seeking to return to its original essence hidden within, the bāṭen. He insisted that this hermeneutics did not forgo the phenomena and in fact was saving the appearances (sozein ta phainomena) and engendering what he described as kašf al-maḥjub, unveiling the hidden without discarding the veil (Corbin, 1977, pp. 22-33; Nasr, 2001, p. 51). It was in this sense that the method of analysis proposed by Corbin and Nasr was both historical (saving the appearances of the text) and philosophical (disclosing the essence of the text). The text as a symbol is nothing in itself but indicates an essence. At the same time, however, the apparent nature of the text is not a mere transparency that one can forgo (cf. Wasserstrom, pp. 85-90). Everything that exists is thus a symbol of both the word and the world, and this concept was directly related to the Sufi notion representative of the school of Ebn al-ʿArabi that everything was a sign/symbol for the ultimate essence, God. Imagination becomes a key instrument for discovering the essences and underlying forms (Jambet, 1981a, pp. 37-51; hence Corbin’s “discovery” of the imaginal as a key ontological bridge between the world of bodies and the world of forms that he considered to be central to the thought of the School of Isfahan, beginning with Mir Dāmād (Corbin, 1986, p. 462). Given the significance of mysticism in their model of philosophy, they recognized that seemingly irrational character of many of the texts that they championed and proposed a concomitant hermeneutic of dealing with apparent contradictions and paradoxes: the coincidentia oppositorum (Corbin, 1971-72, IV, pp. 84-105, 134-50; cf. Wasserstrom, pp. 67-82). The coincidence of opposites was a commonly discussed medieval notion that juxtaposed two seemingly contradictory realities. Corbin expressed this in his understanding of two key Safavid thinkers. In his discussion of the eschatology of Mollā Ṣadrā, he argued that the holistic metaphysics of being and presence expounded by this thinker did not allow for the traditional and clear separation of this physical world and the celestial afterlife, the world of the body and the world of the spirit. Historicism insists on the separation; the search for spiritual meaning forgoes the separation (Corbin, 1960, tr., pp. vii-ix). Thus, there were two coincidences of seeming opposites: spiritual body and celestial earth. The study of the imamology of Qāżi Saʿid Qomi raises the second case of the coincidentia oppositorum. It is related to the basic paradox of monotheism, the exclusive understanding of divine unicity being considered as unique (Corbin, 1976, pp. 71-72). Esoteric Shiʿism extricates itself by posing the coincidence of the nature of the Imam as at once divine and human, bearing a divine face and a human face. The superior and privileged nature of esoteric Shiʿism is once again central to the understanding of intellectual history. The suggested concept of philosophy and hermeneutics makes this clear. Furthermore, since Corbin and Nasr were not interested in Arab Shiʿite thought or in legal philosophy, esoteric Shiʿism with its symbolic world mediated by the almost imaginal existence of the Hidden Imam, was in itself an illustration of the continuity of the essential spirituality of Persia.
Critiques. Since the paradigm for studying intellectual history proposed by Corbin and Nasr has controversial doctrines relating to hermeneutics, the nature of philosophy, the “essence” of Persia, and the nature of Shiʿism, it is not surprising that there has been a wide range of criticisms. The first and quite common criticism of the School of Isfahan paradigm for studying Islamic philosophy is the description of the philosophical tradition as theosophy. While it was a laudable desire on the part of Corbin and Nasr to insist that philosophy in Islam did not end with Averroes, the shift to theosophy, for some critics, signals an embrace of the irrational and vaguely mystical. If philosophy is supposed to be clear and precise in its articulation of ideas, by contrast theosophy is mystifying and obscure. There are two types of criticisms of this tendency. The first rejects the notion of prophetic philosophy and finds little of value in the works of the Safavid period. Critics such as Dimitri Gutas are quick to point out that philosophy in Islam was neither inherently and essentially mystical nor was it an inquiry rooted in the spiritual tradition of Islam. The real problem is that the Corbin-Nasr approach reduces philosophy to mysticism and theology (Gutas, pp. 17-18). Islamic apologetics cannot explain philosophical traditions in Islam as such, since essentialist arguments about the primordial nature of thought and its divine origins are belied by historical contingencies and contextualizations. Corbin and Nasr, however, were quite careful about the etymology of the term ‘theosophy’ for labelling the thought of the School of Isfahan; for them, it is a direct rendition of the Arabic term used by these thinkers, al-ḥekma al-elāhiya (Corbin, 1986, p. 14) and signals that the conception of philosophy and wisdom in the School of Isfahan is rooted in the Islamic revelation and especially the Shiʿite interpretation of it. Nevertheless, the fact that the term theosophy is associated with the arcane spiritualism movement of the Theosophical Society in the 19th century does not allow for serious engagement. The second type of critique against the paradigm argues that misleading labelling accounts for the neglect of the philosophical importance of the thinkers of the Isfahan period. Hossein Ziai has been at the forefront of this critique insisting that labelling post-Avicennian thought, in particular the School of Isfahan, detracts from the analytical value of the thought (Ziai, 2005, p. 405). The late Fazlur Rahman, the author of so far the best monograph on Mollā Ṣadrā, has similarly argued that to interpret post-Avicennian texts as an ill-defined mysticism or theosophy (he was particularly concerned with the interpretation of Mollā Ṣadrā) would be at the cost of the “purely intellectual and philosophical hard core, which is of immense value and interest to the modern student of philosophy” (Rahman, p. vii).
A second criticism of the Corbin and Nasr approach is that it seems to essentialize the spiritual nature of Persia and to privilege esoteric Shiʿism. This has had an effect on subsequent studies both of Shiʿism and of the intellectual history of Persia. Corbin himself signalled the culmination of the School of Isfahan in the spiritual heterodoxy of the Šayḵi school (Corbin, 1971-72, IV, pp. 205-300). It is thus not surprising that both Mangol Bayat and James Morris have read the oppositional, spiritual dissent of the School of Isfahan as conveying a legacy that filtered through to Bahaʾism and a plethora of spiritual heterodoxies of the present. The spiritual continuity of Persian Islam was thus seen as being radical and oppositional. The Iranian revolution and the political and juridical face of Shiʿism poses a serious challenge, especially when in the form of an individual like Ayatollah Khomeini one encounters a deep affinity to the thought of the School of Isfahan with a radical political agenda that was completely ignored by Corbin and Nasr.
A third criticism relates to the intellectual historiography of the Safavid period. The School of Isfahan paradigm suggests a tension and conflict between the practitioners of law and the spiritual and intellectual elite. It seems to mark a fissure between eros and nomos. Perhaps the most extreme case of a follower developing this idea is the work of Leonard Lewisohn, who posits an inevitable and essential clash between the law and spiritual and intellectual speculation. Sufism was an integral part of the School of Isfahan and led to its condemnation by anti-Sufi polemicists such as Mollā Moḥammad-Ṭāher Qomi. The clash between these two parties is often noted and cited by specialists of Safavid religious and cultural history. It is worth noting, however, that most of the members of the School of Isfahan were jurists as well, and were appointed to official positions in the hierocracy. The vagaries of shifting patterns of patronage in different reigns as well as the instability of factional politics probably accounts for more than an essential conflict between the “orthodox” jurists and the “heterodox” Sufis and philosophers. Andrew Newman in particular has lamented this problem in the historiography of Safavid Persia that pits “intolerant, orthodox clerics” against the scholars of the reign of Shah ʿAbbās I, who were primarily interested in philosophy and mysticism (Newman, 1986, pp. 165-66). As a corrective, Newman considers the career of Shaikh Bahāʾ-al-Din ʿĀmeli as an engaged political agent and foremost jurist. It is worth noticing, however, that Newman’s corrective is more effective against those who have understood Nasr and Corbin as advocating such a split. Nasr in particular has stressed the importance of the thinkers of the School at court, their association with royalty, and their status as major jurists and upholders of the law (šariʿa).
Consequently, John Walbridge has argued that the continuity of the Iranian spiritual and philosophical tradition advocated by Nasr and Corbin reflected an ahistorical appreciation of both pre-Islamic Iranian thought and the Illuminationist tradition. Furthermore, he identified the idea of a spiritual core of Persia that is essential and beyond history to be a factor within Pahlavi imperial ideology fostered especially through the Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy (Anjoman-e Šāhanšāhi-e Falsafa-ye Irān) that was set up with the patronage of the court and Nasr as its founding director. The stress on the spiritual, in contrast to the political, as the character of Persian intellectuals that the School of Isfahan paradigm suggested was thus exemplified in the career of Nasr himself. One ought to be careful about ascribing political motives of a totalitarian, anti-democratic and fascist nature to Nasr and Corbin; such accusations are quite unfounded (pace Wasserstrom, pp. 155, 170-79; Subtelny).
Finally, it may be worth considering what a philosophical school is. Usually the division of the history of philosophy into rival schools and groupings surrounding a thinker, a place, or a textual cycle is shorthand and recognized as a simplification. A school may be a particular institution founded by an individual, or a body of doctrines associated with a particular thinker, or an intellectual movement that comprises an interpretative community of a particular text. We may, for example, talk about the school of Plato as the Academy itself, or his followers who perpetuated his “esoteric” teachings, or the students who taught and studied his dialogues; but once we start talking about Platonism, Middle Platonism, and Neoplatonism, the idea of a unified school certainly begins to break down (cf. Dillon, pp. 1-29). In what sense then can we consider the Isfahan philosophers to constitute a school, especially since Nasr and Leaman used the term to designate thinkers who were not based in Isfahan? There is little doubt that they did not share a central text or a central doctrine or body of doctrines. Is the title merely an indication of Isfahan as the location of the early study of the School, in particular associated with the famous triumvirate of Mir Dāmād, Shaikh Bahāʾi, and Mollā Ṣadrā? It would certainly be foolish to misinterpret Corbin and Nasr’s theory as implying that the School of Isfahan was doctrinally united. For them, the School designates a wider movement with common conceptions of philosophy and hermeneutics as they have expounded. It does not entail a rejection of multiple doctrinal schools; in fact, Corbin himself explicitly discussed three different schools within the rubric of the School of Isfahan: the platonic school of Mir Dāmād, the existentialist school of Mollā Ṣadrā, and the apophatic school of Rajab-ʿAli Tabrizi (Corbin, 1977, pp. 63-77; idem, 1986, pp. 462-77). For Corbin, the main uniting factor of these three was not simply the geographical location of Isfahan but the essential and timeless nature of the prophetic philosophy they espoused.
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(Sajjad H. Rizvi)
Originally Published: December 15, 2007
Last Updated: April 5, 2012
This article is available in print.
Vol. XIV, Fasc. 2, pp. 119-125