Spotlight on Sayeh Meisami

A blog contribution from the author of Knowledge and Power in the Philosophies of Ḥamīd al-Dīn Kirmānī and Mullā Ṣadrā Shīrāzī (2018): Islamic Philosophy and Persian Mythology

The bulk of foundational philosophical writings produced by Persianate philosophers during the mediaeval and early modern times is traditionally studied, translated, and published under the labels of “Islamic philosophy,” “Arabic philosophy,” and more recently “philosophy in the Islamic world.” While many scholars in this field of study are already aware of the pragmatic usage of such titles as mainly suggesting certain historical and linguistic conditions, both the “Islamic” and “Arabic” labels have nevertheless served to overshadow the unique Persian influence on the development of metaphysics in the Persianate context. By Persian influence, I am referring to the impact of mythological narratives about the nature of reality rooted in Zoroastrianism, the ancient religion of Persia which still has adherents in Iran and India. Zoroastrian theory of reality is based on a mythical cosmogony that unfolds through the antagonism between the forces of light and darkness. Zoroastrian discourse on the origin and composition of the universe revolves around two apparently conflicting narratives. These two narratives derive from the older Zoroastrian scripture, namely the older Avesta, and the younger Avesta. The older Avesta pictures the cosmic dynamics as a battle between Ohrmazd, the god of light, and Ahriman, the god of darkness. In contrast, the younger texts tend to present Ohrmazd as the only creator of the world. There is also a third ‘heretical’ narrative that regards Ohrmazd and Ahriman as the twin sons of Zurvān that is characterized as the infinite time. Nevertheless, despite their different creation narratives, all versions of Zoroastrianism construe the dynamics of the natural and the spiritual worlds in terms of the binary opposition between light and darkness. In my new research project, I use this binary outlook as a lens for revisiting the formation and development of the medieval and early modern metaphysics in the Persianate context.   

There is no question that the formative metaphysical discourses generated in Persia by Fārābī (d. 950) and Avicenna (d.1037) were heavily influenced by both Greek philosophy, notably Aristotle, and the Islamic creation narrative in the Quran; Yet, I argue that the most pivotal conceptualization of reality, i.e. the binary interpretation of reality in terms of existence and essence in the metaphysics of Avicenna, was also shaped by the Zoroastrian polarized interpretation of the real in terms of light and darkness. Little attention has been paid to the latter influence, which is a major gap in the field of Islamic philosophy. My current research is a breakthrough in this regard. I argue that the polarity of light and darkness in Zoroastrian metaphysics was not only a primary influence on the metaphysics of the formative period of Islamic philosophy, but also a catalyzing factor behind centuries of later philosophical debates over which of the two polar concepts of existence/essence applies to realities as such, and the attempts to reduce one to the other. The later development of the debate is best exemplified by the metaphysics of Shihāb al-Dīn Suhrawardī (d. 1191) and Mullā Ṣadrā Shīrāzī (d. 1640) with their opposite positions in the debate.  

This research project is significant in several ways. First, it builds on my previous endeavors to offer a novel perspective on philosophy in the Islamic-Persianate world via discourse analysis that has so far attracted a good amount of attention by the scholars and students of Islamic philosophy. In my Knowledge and Power in the Philosophies of Ḥamīd al-Dīn Kirmānī and Mullā Ṣadrā Shīrāzī (Palgrave 2018), I have employed discourse analysis to bring to light the impact of the Shiʿa narratives of the imam’s epistemic authority on the narratives of political authority in the medieval and early modern Shiʿa world. In my application of this method, I approach philosophical systems as a field of discourse formation that integrates the mythological and religious narratives in its cultural vicinity, a quality which makes unnecessary any discussions about the actual affiliation or intention of the philosophers in question. For example, in my analysis of Avicenna’s formulation of existence/ essence polarity in light of Zoroastrian mythology, I am not methodologically bound to address the possibility of his affinity with Zoroastrianism or his conscious integration of religio-mythical narratives in his metaphysics. Secondly, my research challenges the dominant narrative of the Islamic influence as the raison d’etre of the existence/essence dualism in Islamic metaphysics. Thirdly, it will be a watershed in the history of philosophy by investigating the origins of Islamic metaphysics beyond the Greek influence. That said, this project serves humanities scholars by offering a model for challenging the methodological isolation of disciplines that usually results in ignoring the various ways in which apparently distinct discourses, for example philosophy and mythology, mingle to engender novel ways of looking at the world. 

Sayeh Meisami is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Dayton. She has so far published three books and several articles in the interdisciplinary field of Islamic philosophy and religion.