BMCR 2001.11.19

The Wisdom of the Mystic East: Suhrawardi and Platonic Orientalism

, The wisdom of the mystic East : Suhrawardī and platonic orientalism. SUNY series in Islam. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001. xiii, 170 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm.. ISBN 0791450511

This book is the third and last in a series of monographs that focuses attention on the martyred twelfth-century Islamic philosopher Shihab al-Din Yahya al-Suhrawardi and his “Illuminationist” school of Islamic philosophy. In Walbridge’s first book, The Science of Mystic Lights: Quth al-Din Shirazi and the Illuminationist Tradition in Islamic Philosophy, the author presented Suhrawardi through the eyes of his most widely read commentator, and provided some background on Suhrawardi’s “science of lights” philosophical system in relation to the prevailing Peripatetic philosophy. The author’s second book, The Leaven of the Ancients: Suhrawardi and the Heritage of the Greeks, categorized Suhrawardi as a Pythagoreanizing Neoplatonist whose philosophical system represented an attempt follow in the footsteps of Empedocles, Pythagoras, and Plato. This left Suhrawardi’s “oriental” elements as the subject of study for the present volume.

(It is difficult to review the directions and conclusions that the author states in this book without reading or consulting his statements and conclusions presented in the first two volumes of this series. Given that, the reviewer can only make comments on this particular book specifically, without reference to the author’s previous volumes, which is necessarily a disservice to the author.)

According to the author, Suhrawardi is popularly known as a Persianizing philosopher whose main purpose was to revive the wisdom of ancient Iran. The author provides some background in his preface on how the terms “Orient” and “orientalism” are used throughout the book, and states that the subject of the book is not so much the “oriental” in Suhrawardi’s thought as how the intellectual descendants of Plato and the Greek philosophers perceived the “oriental.” As background, Walbridge concludes in his second book that Suhrawardi’s philosophy requires mystical intuition, and the use of pre-Islamic Persian images and themes presented in this book help to support Suhrawardi’s own claim to be an exemplar of Platonic Orientalism. As such, the author presents the current book as a short history of Platonic Orientalism, especially tracing the Islamic and Illuminationist versions of this theme, which result not only Suhrawardi’s philosophical foundations but also in the historical and popular views of Suhrawardi that have arisen in recent centuries.

Chapter 1, “The Lure of Oriental Wisdom,” provides some background into the Oriental elements in Platonism. For Walbridge, it is the Being/Becoming distinction in Platonism that is at the heart of the Platonic fascination with the “oriental” and the exotic. Of the Greek philosophical traditions, only the Pythagoreans and the Platonists have an integral part of their philosophical world centered around a fascination with the Orient. Therefore, it is no accident that the revival of Platonism in Islamic philosophy in the twelfth century was closely linked with the rise of ecstatic Sufism. At the end of this chapter, the author presents a detailed outline of the contents of the next four chapters, as well as a summary of his position regarding Suhrawardi’s philosophical origins. This summary can be stated as follows: Suhrawardi was primarily a self-conscious Platonist, a reviver of Platonic and not Iranian wisdom; his orientalism rises primarily from his Platonic roots; and yet despite this, through a complex process of cultural interchange, he came to play a central role in the transmission of a mythology of ancient Iranian wisdom.

Chapter 2, “Hermes of Egypt: God and Philosopher,” outlines the mythological history of Oriental wisdom, dealing in particular with Hermes Trismegistus, Egypt, the Hermetic, and the general question of the attitude towards Greek religious ideas in Islamic thought. Some detail is provided concerning what was and was not Suhrawardi’s connection with ancient Iran. As an example, the author provides an Illuminationist reading and interpretation of the first text of the Corpus Hermeticum.

Chapter 3, “Light, Darkness, and the Kings of Ancient Iran,” deals specifically with the concepts of light and darkness in Suhrawardi’s thought, concepts that might seem to have some connection to ancient Iranian thought. The author discusses a close contemporary of Suhrawardi, Abu Hamid al Ghazali, an early twelfth-century Islamic philosopher whose thoughts and writings were similar to Suhrawardi’s yet resulted in a different conclusion.

In Chapter 4, “Buddha’s Gate of Gates: The Problem of Reincarnation,” the themes of reincarnation, metempsychosis, and the World of Image are discussed in relation to Suhrawardi’s views of India and Buddhism. Walbridge discusses these themes in relation to the current viewpoints of other major writers and religions available in twelfth-century Iran, and Suhrawardi’s place and position among them.

Finally, the author presents in Chapter 5, “The Past as Orient: The Ideological Heritage of Suhrawardi,” the process by which Suhrawardi was orientalized in the Iranian mind, tracing the notion of Persian sages from its origin in ancient Greece through its contemporary manifestation in modern Iranian nationalism. This interesting section of the book does a remarkable job of encapsulating the history/line of reasoning behind what ancient Persian wisdom was, how it developed, and how Suhrawardi has been linked to it in modern Iranian thought.

Extensive notes are provided for each chapter, and the book includes an extensive bibliography and index. Overall, Walbridge provides some fascinating information and conclusions regarding the origins of Suhrawardi’s philosophy in this third volume, and their validity is based not just on the contents of this book, but on the previous two volumes as well. My interest has been piqued by Walbridge’s scholarship in this third volume, and thus I am drawn to examine the first two volumes that he has published in order to corroborate and verify his conclusions and lines of thought.