The so-called Theology of Aristotle is the key bearer of Neoplatonism in the classical tradition of Islamic philosophy. Its influence upon key thinkers, such as Ibn Sina (d. 1037) who wrote a brief set of glosses upon it, is well known. What is perhaps not as widely recognised is the significance of the text for Safavid thinkers who returned to it as part of their cultural project of reviving their intellectual heritage and re-asserting the Neoplatonic turn in Islamic thought.
The number of manuscripts of the Theology that date from this period as well as the numerous citations of the text (including a possible Persian version of it composed by the Shirazi philosopher Taqi al-Din Abu’l-Khayr al-Farisi) attest to its significance. But more striking are two commentaries on the Theology from the later Safavid period: a Persian set of glosses associated with a Persian version of the text by ‘Aliquli b. Qarajghay Khan and an Arabic commentary on the first four mayamir of the text by the mystical thinker Muhammad Sa‘id al-Qummi known as Qadi Sa‘id and Hakim-i Kuchik (the younger philosopher in comparison to his elder brother and philosopher Muhammad Husayn).
Henry Corbin famously dubbed Qummi the archetypal Shi‘i Neoplatonist. His work expresses a complete complementarity between Neoplatonism as espoused in the Theology and the teachings of the Shi‘i imams. He glosses the narrations with citations of the Theology and explains the Theology with recourse to narrations and Qur’anic citations.
Clearly, his conception of the philosophical tradition is a singular prophetic wisdom handed down for Adam through Hermes and Plato to the Islamic philosophers.
There are two aspects to his reception of the Theology: his commentary which runs to about 150 pages and his citations of the text in his other works, in particular his magnum opus, a commentary on the hadith collection, Kitab al-tawhid of al-Shaykh al-Saduq, his commentary on Forty Hadith and his collection of treatises entitled al-Arba‘iniyyat.
What emerges is a highly idiosyncratic Neoplatonist, critical of Aristotle and Avicenna, rejecting the dominant ontology of Mulla Sadra, chiding Suhrawardi for his lack of fidelity to the Platonic tradition and upholding the insights of the Sufi tradition of Ibn ‘Arabi.
Qummi exhibits his Neoplatonism in two key areas. First, his God, the One is utterly transcendent and beyond being; as a hyperousion, it cannot be described in human language. Second, the soul pre-exists the body and is utterly independent of it thus allowing for mystical experience which requires that one ‘doffs’ one’s body and experiences the beatific vision of the world of intelligibles and ultimately ‘tastes’ the One. In Qummi’s thought mystical experience and philosophical discourse go hand in hand.
This paper asserts that in Qummi we have a truly independent minded thinker (more than merely a ‘philosopher’) who constructs his thought on the twin pillars of the earliest tradition: of Neoplatonism exemplified in the Theology and other texts of the Arabic Plotinus, and of Imami Shi‘ism expressed in the hadith of the imams.
Dr. Sajjad Rizvi is Senior Lecturer in Islamic Studies at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter. He is also Director of the Centre of Islamic Philosophy at Exeter. He read History and Middle East studies at Oxford University and completed his doctoral dissertation on the philosophy of Mulla Sadra Shirazi. A post doctorate at The Institute of Ismaili Studies, he is the author of Mulla Sadra Shirazi (2007) and Mulla Sadra and Metaphysics (2009) and is co-editor of An Anthology of Qur'anic Commentaries. He has three main research interests in Qur‘anic Studies (tafsir and hermeneutics), contemporary Islamic thought, and Shi‘ism.