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The Act of Being

The Philosophy of Revelation in Mull Sadr

by Christian Jambet
Preface to the English-Language Edition
When a philosophical work written by a Westerner attempts to articulate the
essential elements of a philosophical system constructed by an Iranian
Shi'ite of the seventeenth century, the potential reader has the right to ask:
For what reasons has the author of this book spent so many years reading
the works of this man who will always remain a foreigner, whose very face
he will never know, and whose beliefs belong to the intellectual universe that
came to an end, in the West, with the mathematization of physical space,
with the end of political theology, and with the great revolutions that
radically modified the image of reason?
Rarely does such a question fail to become an objection. After reading The
Act of Being, an erudite and attentive friend, who had long before included
my first work on Islamic philosophy in the series he was then editing,1 wrote
to me in all honesty that for us today there is not much to learn from my
dear Mulla Sadra. Working before the age of modern science, deeply rooted
in the soil of metaphysics, subject to the demands of religious revelation,
Sadra, like all the thinkers of Islam, is merely an object of learned study and
of the history of philosophy, a kind of scholarly curiosity or even an
antiquated exhibit fit for a museum.
This objection is not entirely without merit. I would even like to add a few
arguments to it, in order to see whether it is possible to refute it in a serious
The first argument against such an undertaking is of a historical nature. The
interest that Western culture has shown for Islam, for its thinkers, poets, and
mystics, has its own history. Roughly speaking, this history has had three
major phases since the eighteenth century: first there was the "Oriental
Renaissance," as Raymond Schwab has called it.2 Then, in response to the
positivism of Ernest Renan, there was the discovery of the great spiritual
figures of Islam, as part of a quest aimed at starting a dialogue between the
mystics of the three religions of the Book Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Finally, today, the intent is no longer to gain self-knowledge in proximity with
Islam, but rather to come to know Islam in its foreignness, or even its
fundamental hostility toward ourselves. A concern no longer for the same, for

similitude, but for the other, for difference, for the absence of any common
space. This more recent perspective, which is eager to take up the
vocabulary of war ("clash of civilizations," and so on) is the unreflective
response to the political emergence of Islam at the present moment of world
The first phase can be associated with the names of Goethe and Hegel, the
second with those of Louis Massignon, Henry Corbin, Richard Walzer, and
Seyyed Nasr. The third phase, our own, is seen as the time of the sociologists
and the political scientists. The history of this research would thus show that
the period when Orientalism was closely linked with the colonial era, and
with that of the emancipation of colonized peoples, has ended. The present
is seen as a time involving the reciprocal criminalization of the West and the
Islamic East, the hegemony of "revolutionary" doctrines in Islam, and the
ruin of all "dialogue" between the peoples of the Book. The major conflicts
centered in the Middle East are said to overwhelm a more spiritual Islam,
drowning it in blood a spiritual Islam whose death knell was rung during
the Islamic revolution in Iran.
The second argument is closely related to the first. Islam, it is said, is above
all a political religion and gives rise essentially to political theologies, such
that the only reason to study its ideologues would be to illuminate this
politics, identified entirely with the "struggle on the path of faith." The
philosophers, mystics, and poets should be placed on the shelf of curiosities
because they lack any concrete effectivity and reflect a scholarly culture cut
off from the popular masses who make history. This observation is not false.
The works of a thinker such as Sadra, like those of Avicenna, al-Farabi, and
Ibn Hanbal, remain unknown to the people and are of interest only to
scholars. The separation between philosophy, spirituality or Qur'anic studies,
and popular culture obviously promotes a religion for simple, ordinary people
characterized by a naive adherence to the letter of the Qur'an, to traditional
customs, and to the teachings of local preachers, who may be more or less
well informed. The simplicity of Wahhabism no doubt partially explains its
success, and it promotes the expansion of the Islamist political ideologues.
These considerations certainly do little to weaken such an argument.
Let us remark, however, that the culture of religious scholars is more
consequential than is often acknowledged. In Iran, and more broadly in the
Shi'ite world, the actors on the political stage use the discourse of classical
philosophers or theologians, citing it and adapting it for their own purposes.
It suffices to recall the example of the Ayatollah Khomeini, or one of his
successors. If Khomeini turned his back, in a way, on Mulla Sadra's thought,
he nevertheless knew it very well, and his political gesture cannot be
explained without taking into account his internal dialogue and his critical
relation with the great Iranian mystic and philosopher. You turn your back
only on someone who rules over you and who for that reason influences

you in the very gesture of separation.3 In the Sunni world, the rupture
between mystical religion and political religion is in itself a major historical
fact that only the study of the spiritual philosophy of Islam allows us to
illuminate in a satisfactory way.
It therefore seems to me that the doubts and confusions can be dispelled if
we examine their presuppositions.
The first objection to there being any present interest in studying the
philosophies of Islam emphasizes the irreducible fracture that separates the
Western system of thought based on the
discourses of Descartes, Locke, and Kant from the system of thought that
finds its completion and fulfillment in seventeenth-century Iran. Islamic
metaphysics is said to have only a single virtue, namely that it transmitted
Aristotle to the Latin Middle Ages, despite which it subsequently lost itself in
the sands of perpetual commentary and sterile repetition. To the extent that
Western metaphysics arrives at an end with German Idealism in the
nineteenth century, it would be doubly useless to search for any living truth
in the books of the Muslim philosophers. If there is any truth, it can only be
modern, stripped of metaphysical illusions or else located in the
deconstruction of the truths of metaphysics. Only those amateurs of mystical
sentiments, who have no ambitions to attain the concept, could find any
interest in these "Oriental" thinkers.
An attentive examination quickly undermines such certainties. It is now well
established that the flourishing of philosophical thought in Islam did not
come to a halt in the thirteenth century. The image, presented by Ernest
Renan in his well-known work on Averroes, of a Muslim philosophy
disappearing after the immense work of the Andalusian commentator, no
longer exerts as unchallenged a seduction today as it used to.4 On the
contrary, reasonable scholars will admit that one cannot treat Islamic
thinkers after the thirteenth century as if they were simply "mystics" or
"spiritual masters" devoted entirely to an inner salvation devoid of any
conceptual intelligence. One goal of the present work, among the other
purposes it attempts to serve, is to show how a number of discourses,
including metaphysics, the exegesis of the Qur'an, the sciences inherited
from the Greeks, Sufism, and morality, were progressively constituted into
coherent systems. The internal movement of the spirit toward its perfection,
in the form of the spiritual worship offered to God, and the work of the
concept in no way exclude one another but rather express one another to
the point that this form of knowledge was able to actualize the ontological
wealth of the Islamic religion, and that it did so in the work of Mulla Sadra,
which I attempt to study here.
The interest one may bring to these thinkers is therefore not simply an
antiquarian passion. It is a matter of discovering not an old and worn-out

artifact but rather what Islam says about being as being. It is also a matter of
knowing what Islam says about its own being, its own decision concerning
being, in the way it conceives the physical universe, man, destiny, moral
obligations, and the relation between concrete existents or intellectual
realities and their ultimate foundation. It is a matter of understanding the
ontology of Islam in both senses of the expression: the doctrine of being that
Islam slowly brought to completion, and that which constitutes the being of
Islam itself, its ontological foundation.
The faithful Muslim has little concern for this last question, since he is
persuaded, in his faith, that the existence of Islam is the norm, is selfevident, is inscribed in the nature of things willed by God. But the
philosopher's mission is to interrogate this ontology of Islam, less to
"deconstruct" it than to understand it. This means understanding the
ontology of Islam in the thought of the authors of Islam, in their texts,
somewhat in the sense in which Michel Foucault considered the work of
genealogy or archaeology and in which he spoke of an "ontology of the self."
If we admit this much, then the "political" argument loses its force and
with it the epistemological argument. Studies in political science are too
often susceptible to the illusion that it is possible to sever political discourses
from the classical metaphysical ones, and then to study them separately,
connecting them only to the modern political or religious practices that
correspond to them. But this view of things, insufficient in the study of the
concepts of Western knowledge, becomes downright absurd when it comes
to Islam. In Islam, as in ancient Greece, politics is the discourse on legitimate
authority. What kind of authority deserves to be respected? What kind of
authority deserves to be the foundation of power? In Islam, the only
legitimate authority is that of God, as he is revealed in his books (announced
by the prophets), in his "messengers," and in the acknowledged successors
of these "messengers" (for example, in Shi'ite Islam, the imams). How could
one understand political practices, however shocking or contestable in our
eyes, without illuminating them through the exegesis practiced by Muslim
authors on the religious revelation of these practices and, consequently,
without paying precise attention to the ontology of Islam that is unveiled by
the philosophers and theologians, or even by the mystics? It is not in the
surface discourse perpetually rehashed by the Muslim jurists that the truth of
the political order is best revealed in Islam, but in the works of the
philosophers, whether they turn away from politics or attempt to found it.
Most often, philosophical and theological syntheses are conscious
testimonies to the profound tension that animates Islam, a tension between
a temporal vocation and a spiritual vocation that are simultaneously united
and opposed.
The choice of an author like Mulla Sadra thus becomes very clear. In order to
understand this choice, we must not forget the importance of messianism for

the ontology of Islam. Related to the "Servant" whose coming was

announced by the prophets of Israel, to the "Suffering Servant" in the Old
Testament, and to Jesus, and not without influence from the figure of Mani,
who invented the notion of the "seal of prophecy," Muslim spirituality is an
intense meditation on the essence, the prerogatives, and the demands of the
complete Servant in proximity to his Lord. He is the Perfect Man, and the
thinkers of Islam, inspired by the work of Ibn al-'Arabl, focused their thought
on the definition of this Perfect Man, on his future coming, and on his silent
and active presence in this world and in the other metaphysical worlds.
Already, Shfite thought, particularly Isma'llism, had thus proposed a scheme
of sacred history, unfolding from its origin in the creation of Adam until the
coming of the awaited Resurrector.
The study of such an ontology of history, one of the richest versions of which
we are presenting here, is extremely important if we want to move forward
in the comparative study of the three messianisms Jewish, Christian, and
Muslim. Such a study reveals a conception of human becoming that includes
the exigency of man's divinization, or rather of his fulfilled resemblance to
God, who made man in his own image and established him as "caliph of God
on earth." The concept of the essential motion of all existents toward that
point where the Perfect Man becomes the mirror of the divine names, a
concept that we find in Mulla Sadra, remarkably illuminates the dynamic
orientation of Islam. Part of what is at stake in such a study is a philosophy of
history that renounces the assertion of a supposed "disenchantment of the
world," and that renounces any abdication before a supposed
"secularization" of historical time, seeing the every day as only a surface
phenomenon, beneath which the conflict internal to biblical and Qur'anic
messianism carries on its work. Toward what end? Toward what
reconciliation? Toward what irreducible alterity? These are the very
questions we face today.
The epistemological argument that maintains that these systems of thought
are rendered obsolete by modern science or by the ascendancy of modern
political thought disregards something that is nonetheless glaringly obvious.
It is pointless to say to an entire culture that it is "behind," or that it has not
completed the necessary journey to the age of scientific truth. It would be
more useful to ask: Why, today, has such a culture, combined in a very
complex way with multiple contributions from the West in technology,
economy, and ideology begun to move, on the historical stage, so
decidedly against the grain, and in such a flagrant way? Why is the present
historical moment characterized by such a historical initiative?
To answer this by attempting to justify the "modernity" of Islamic science is
pointless. To answer by deploring the "perverse" effects of a dead thought or
a culture blocked in its development is to proffer a contradiction in terms.
How, indeed, could a dead thought have any living effect (contestable or not,

that is not the question here) if it is truly dead? What it would be necessary
to understand, rather, is the following.
On the one hand, we would need to understand how the philosophy of Islam
has a certain living power, from the very fact that it is not foreign to world
history, because it is connected to and even interlinked with our own
metaphysical destiny, both Greek and biblical. In the past, it already gave life
to some of the most enduring categories of our vision of the world. A central
example is provided here, when I examine the question of the existence of
essence, in an attempt to give what I call the Avicennian moment its full
On the other hand, we would have to ask how, against the background of a
common metaphysics, Islam has maintained convictions foreign to those that
made possible the development of modern philosophy in the West, as well as
the worldviews that derive from these convictions. That is, we would have to
ask how it is not a thing of the past but rather lives according to its own
rhythm, in a mode of historical life with its own logic, its own time, and its
own autonomous finalities.
Such work goes far beyond the ambition of the present study. But it is at
least within this perspective that I have written it. I would like to specify my
method. My goal here was not primarily that of a historian of Islamic
philosophy, although I do believe that I have been faithful to history and its
demands. It is as a philosopher that I have attempted to read the
philosophers, whether Western or Eastern, who are interrogated here. My
only ambition has been to receive as faithfully as possible what Sadra and
those associated with him were trying to say, and to render manifest, in the
language of a Western philosopher living today, the mode of appearance of
being evident for these spirits in their immediate and direct vision. My
method strives to be the phenomenology of a becoming, of a metamorphosis
of thought, from its Hellenic bases to the Islamic figure of an absolute that is
different from the absolute unveiled in Western Christian thought. That is my
obvious debt to Hegel, whose teaching still seems indispensable to me,
whatever the contestations with which practically all contemporary
discourses have assailed it.
Finally, I would like to express my gratitude and admiration for the
scrupulous and rigorous work done by Jeff Fort in translating this work into
English for he has done more than translate it; he has given it another life
in a fitting and adequate philosophical language (and that is his specific
contribution to this text), in all faithfulness to the original French. His work
provided the occasion for a number of corrections and specifications, and in
that sense, too, it cannot be seen as the passive reconstruction of a book in
another language. Any errors or omissions in this book fall to me; the
improvements and elucidations, however, owe a great deal to him. And for

this I offer him my warmest thanks.

Christian Jambet
Paris, August 2004
1. Christian Jambet, La logique des Orientaux: Henry Corbin et la science des
formes (Paris: Seuil, 1983), published in the series L'Ordre Philosophique,
edited by Francois Wahl.
2. Raymond Schwab, The Oriental Renaissance: Europe's Rediscovery of
India and the East, 1680-1880, trans. Gene Patterson-Black and Victor
Reinking (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984). First published in
French in 1950, this book deals primarily with the discovery of India, but it
also illuminates the appropriation of Persian culture by the philosophers of
German Idealism and, more generally, the intellectual opening of Europe to
"Oriental" systems of thought.
3. On contemporary Shiite Islam as the result of a long history in which an
essentially mystical religion succumbed to a political interpretation of the
question of authority, allow me to refer to a work I recently co-authored:
Moham-mad-Ali Amir-Moezzi and Christian Jambet, Qu'est-ce que le shi'isme?
(Paris: Fayard, 2004).
4. Ernest Renan, Averroes et L'averroisme, 3rd rev. ed. (Paris: Michel Levy
Freres, 1866).