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The Development of Metaphysics in Persia

The Development of Metaphysics in Persia Part 1

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The Development of Metaphysics in Persia.

by Muhammad Iqbal.


The most remarkable feature of the character of the Persian people is their love of Metaphysical speculation. Yet the inquirer who approaches the extant literature of Persia expecting to find any comprehensive systems of thought, like those of Kapila or Kant, will have to turn back disappointed, though deeply impressed by the wonderful intellectual subtlety displayed therein. It seems to me that the Persian mind is rather impatient of detail, and consequently dest.i.tute of that organising faculty which gradually works out a system of ideas, by interpreting the fundamental principles with reference to the ordinary facts of observation. The subtle Brahman sees the inner unity of things; so does the Persian. But while the former endeavours to discover it in all the aspects of human experience, and ill.u.s.trates its hidden presence in the concrete in various ways, the latter appears to be satisfied with a bare universality, and does not attempt to verify the richness of its inner content. The b.u.t.terfly imagination of the Persian flies, half-inebriated as it were, from flower to flower, and seems to be incapable of reviewing the garden as a whole. For this reason his deepest thoughts and emotions find expression mostly in disconnected verses (G_h_azal) which reveal all the subtlety of his artistic soul.

The Hindu, while admitting, like the Persian, the necessity of a higher source of knowledge, yet calmly moves from experience to experience, mercilessly dissecting them, and forcing them to yield their underlying universality. In fact the Persian is only half-conscious of Metaphysics as a _system_ of thought; his Brahman brother, on the other hand, is fully alive to the need of presenting his theory in the form of a thoroughly reasoned out system. And the result of this mental difference between the two nations is clear. In the one case we have only partially worked out systems of thought; in the other case, the awful sublimity of the searching Vedanta. The student of Islamic Mysticism who is anxious to see an all-embracing exposition of the principle of Unity, must look up the heavy volumes of the Andalusian Ibn al-'Arabi, whose profound teaching stands in strange contrast with the dry-as-dust Islam of his countrymen.

The results, however, of the intellectual activity of the different branches of the great Aryan family are strikingly similar. The outcome of all Idealistic speculation in India is Buddha, in Persia Bahaullah, and in the west Schopenhauer whose system, in Hegelian language, is the marriage of free oriental universality with occidental determinateness.

But the history of Persian thought presents a phenomenon peculiar to itself. In Persia, due perhaps to semitic influences, philosophical speculation has indissolubly a.s.sociated itself with religion, and thinkers in new lines of thought have almost always been founders of new religious movements. After the Arab conquest, however, we see pure Philosophy severed from religion by the Neo-Platonic Aristotelians of Islam, but the severance was only a transient phenomenon. Greek philosophy, though an exotic plant in the soil of Persia, eventually became an integral part of Persian thought; and later thinkers, critics as well as advocates of Greek wisdom, talked in the philosophical language of Aristotle and Plato, and were mostly influenced by religious presuppositions. It is necessary to bear this fact in mind in order to gain a thorough understanding of post-Islamic Persian thought.

The object of this investigation is, as will appear, to prepare a ground-work for a future history of Persian Metaphysics. Original thought cannot be expected in a review, the object of which is purely historical; yet I venture to claim some consideration for the following two points:--

(a) I have endeavoured to trace the logical continuity of Persian thought, which I have tried to interpret in the language of modern Philosophy. This, as far as I know, has not yet been done.

(b) I have discussed the subject of ?ufiism in a more scientific manner, and have attempted to bring out the intellectual conditions which necessitated such a phenomenon. In opposition, therefore, to the generally accepted view I have tried to maintain that ?ufiism is a necessary product of the play of various intellectual and moral forces which would necessarily awaken the slumbering soul to a higher ideal of life.

Owing to my ignorance of Zend, my knowledge of Zoroaster is merely second-hand. As regards the second part of my work, I have been able to look up the original Persian and Arabic ma.n.u.scripts as well as many printed works connected with my investigation. I give below the names of Arabic and Persian ma.n.u.scripts from which I have drawn most of the material utilized here. The method of transliteration adopted is the one recognised by the Royal Asiatic Society.


Pre-Islamic Persian Philosophy.



-- I.


To Zoroaster--the ancient sage of Iran--must always be a.s.signed the first place in the intellectual history of Iranian Aryans who, wearied of constant roaming, settled down to an agricultural life at a time when the Vedic Hymns were still being composed in the plains of Central Asia.

This new mode of life and the consequent stability of the inst.i.tution of property among the settlers, made them hated by other Aryan tribes who had not yet shaken off their original nomadic habits, and occasionally plundered their more civilised kinsmen. Thus grew up the conflict between the two modes of life which found its earliest expression in the denunciation of the deities of each other--the Devas and the Ahuras. It was really the beginning of a long individualising process which gradually severed the Iranian branch from other Aryan tribes, and finally manifested itself in the religious system of Zoroaster[2:1]--the great prophet of Iran who lived and taught in the age of Solon and Thales. In the dim light of modern oriental research we see ancient Iranians divided between two camps--partisans of the powers of good, and partisans of the powers of evil--when the great sage joins their furious contest, and with his moral enthusiasm stamps out once for all the worship of demons as well as the intolerable ritual of the Magian priesthood.

[2:1] Some European Scholars have held Zoroaster to be nothing more than a mythical personage. But since the publication of Professor Jackson's admirable Life of Zoroaster, the Iranian Prophet has, I believe, finally got out of the ordeal of modern criticism.

It is, however, beside our purpose to trace the origin and growth of Zoroaster's religious system. Our object, in so far as the present investigation is concerned, is to glance at the metaphysical side of his revelation. We, therefore, wish to fix our attention on the sacred trinity of philosophy--G.o.d, Man and Nature.

Geiger, in his "Civilisation of Eastern Iranians in Ancient Times", points out that Zoroaster inherited two fundamental principles from his Aryan ancestry.--(1) There is law in Nature. (2) There is conflict in Nature. It is the observation of law and conflict in the vast panorama of being that const.i.tutes the philosophical foundation of his system.

The problem before him was to reconcile the existence of evil with the eternal goodness of G.o.d. His predecessors worshipped a plurality of good spirits all of which he reduced to a unity and called it Ahuramazda. On the other hand he reduced all the powers of evil to a similar unity and called it Druj-Ahriman. Thus by a process of unification he arrived at two fundamental principles which, as Haug shows, he looked upon not as two independent activities, but as two parts or rather aspects of the same Primary Being. Dr. Haug, therefore, holds that the Prophet of ancient Iran was theologically a monotheist and philosophically a dualist.[4:1] But to maintain that there are "twin"[4:2]

spirits--creators of reality and nonreality--and at the same time to hold that these two spirits are united in the Supreme Being,[4:3] is virtually to say that the principle of evil const.i.tutes a part of the very essence of G.o.d; and the conflict between good and evil is nothing more than the struggle of G.o.d against Himself. There is, therefore, an inherent weakness in his attempt to reconcile theological monotheism with philosophical dualism, and the result was a schism among the prophet's followers. The Zendiks[4:4] whom Dr. Haug calls heretics, but who were, I believe, decidedly more consistent than their opponents, maintained the independence of the two original spirits from each other, while the Magi upheld their unity. The upholders of unity endeavoured, in various ways, to meet the Zendiks; but the very fact that they tried different phrases and expressions to express the unity of the "Primal Twins", indicates dissatisfaction with their own philosophical explanations, and the strength of their opponent's position.

S_h_ahrastani[5:1] describes briefly the different explanations of the Magi. The Zarwanians look upon Light and Darkness as the sons of Infinite Time. The Kiyumart_h_iyya hold that the original principle was Light which was afraid of a hostile power, and it was this thought of an adversary mixed with fear that led to the birth of Darkness. Another branch of Zarwanians maintain that the original principle doubted concerning something and this doubt produced Ahriman. Ibn ?azm[5:2]

speaks of another sect who explained the principle of Darkness as the obscuration of a part of the fundamental principle of Light itself.

[4:1] Essays, p. 303.

[4:2] "In the beginning there was a pair of twins, two spirits, each of a peculiar activity". Yas. x.x.x. 1.

[4:3] "The more beneficial of my spirits has produced, by speaking it, the whole rightful creation". Yas. XIX. 9.

[4:4] The following verse from Buudahish Chap. I. will indicate the Zendik view:-- "And between them (the two principles) there was empty s.p.a.ce, that is what they call "air" in which is now their meeting".

[5:1] S_h_ahrastani; ed. Cureton, London, 1846, pp. 182185.

[5:2] Ibn ?azm--Kitab al-Milal w'al-Ni?al. Ed. Cairo. Vol. II, p. 34.

Whether the philosophical dualism of Zoroaster can be reconciled with his monotheism or not, it is unquestionable that, from a metaphysical standpoint, he has made a profound suggestion in regard to the ultimate nature of reality. The idea seems to have influenced ancient Greek Philosophy[6:1] as well as early Christian Gnostic speculation, and through the latter, some aspects of modern western thought.[6:2] As a thinker he is worthy of great respect not only because he approached the problem of objective multiplicity in a philosophical spirit; but also because he endeavoured, having been led to metaphysical dualism, to reduce his Primary Duality to a higher unity. He seems to have perceived, what the mystic shoemaker of Germany perceived long after him, that the diversity of nature could not be explained without postulating a principle of negativity or self-differentiation in the very nature of G.o.d. His immediate successors did not, however, quite realise the deep significance of their master's suggestions; but we shall see, as we advance, how Zoroaster's idea finds a more spiritualised expression in some of the aspects of later Persian thought.

[6:1] In connection with the influence of Zoroastrian ideas on Ancient Greek thought, the following statement made by Erdmann is noteworthy, though Lawrence Mills (American Journal of Philology Vol. 22) regards such influence as improbable:--"The fact that the handmaids of this force, which he (Herac.l.i.tus) calls the seed of all that happens and the measure of all order, are ent.i.tled the "tongues" has probably been slightly ascribed to the influence of the Persian Magi. On the other hand he connects himself with his country's mythology, not indeed without a change of exegesis when he places Apollo and Dionysus beside Zeus, i.e. The ultimate fire, as the two aspects of his nature". History of Philosophy Vol. I, p. 50.

It is, perhaps, owing to this doubtful influence of Zoroastrianism on Herac.l.i.tus that La.s.salle (quoted by Paul Janet in his History of the Problems of Philosophy Vol. II, p. 147) looks upon Zoroaster as a precursor of Hegel.

Of Zoroastrian influence on Pythagoras Erdmann says:--

"The fact that the odd numbers are put above the even has been emphasised by Gladisch in his comparison of the Pythagorian with the Chinese doctrine, and the fact, moreover, that among the oppositions we find those of light and darkness, good and evil, has induced many, in ancient and modern times, to suppose that they were borrowed from Zoroastrianism." Vol. I, p. 33.

[6:2] Among modern English thinkers Mr. Bradley arrives at a conclusion similar to that of Zoroaster. Discussing the ethical significance of Bradley's Philosophy, Prof. Sorley says:--"Mr.

Bradley, like Green, has faith in an eternal reality which might be called spiritual, inasmuch as it is not material; like Green he looks upon man's moral activity as an appearance--what Green calls a reproduction--of this eternal reality. But under this general agreement there lies a world of difference. He refuses by the use of the term self-conscious, to liken his Absolute to the personality of man, and he brings out the consequence which in Green is more or less concealed, that the evil equally with the good in man and in the world are appearances of the Absolute". Recent tendencies in Ethics, pp. 100101.

Turning now to his Cosmology, his dualism leads him to bifurcate, as it were, the whole universe into two departments of being--reality i.e.

the sum of all good creations flowing from the creative activity of the beneficial spirit, and non-reality[8:1] i.e. the sum of all evil creations proceeding from the hostile spirit. The original conflict of the two spirits is manifested in the opposing forces of nature, which, therefore, presents a continual struggle between the powers of Good and the powers of Evil. But it should be remembered that nothing intervenes between the original spirits and their respective creations. Things are good and bad because they proceed from good or bad creative agencies, in their own nature they are quite indifferent. Zoroaster's conception of creation is fundamentally different from that of Plato and Schopenhauer to whom spheres of empirical reality reflect non-temporal or temporal ideas which, so to speak, mediate between Reality and Appearance. There are, according to Zoroaster, only two categories of existence, and the history of the universe is nothing more than a progressive conflict between the forces falling respectively under these categories. We are, like other things, partakers of this struggle, and it is our duty to range ourselves on the side of Light which will eventually prevail and completely vanquish the spirit of Darkness. The metaphysics of the Iranian Prophet, like that of Plato, on into Ethics, and it is in the peculiarity of the Ethical aspect of his thought that the influence of his social environment is most apparent.

[8:1] This should not be confounded with Plato's non-being. To Zoroaster all forms of existence proceeding from the creative agency of the spirit of darkness are unreal; because, considering the final triumph of the spirit of Light, they have a temporary existence only.

Zoroaster's view of the destiny of the soul is very simple. The soul, according to him, is a creation, not a part of G.o.d as the votaries of Mithra[9:1] afterwards maintained. It had a beginning in time, but can attain to everlasting life by fighting against Evil in the earthly scene of its activity. It is free to choose between the only two courses of action--good and evil; and besides the power of choice the spirit of Light has endowed it with the following faculties:--

1. Conscience[10:1].

2. Vital force.

3. The Soul--The Mind.

4. The Spirit--Reason.

5. The Farawas_h_i[10:2].--A kind of tutelary spirit which acts as a protection of man in his voyage towards G.o.d.

The last three[10:3] faculties are united together after death, and form an indissoluble whole. The virtuous soul, leaving its home of flesh, is borne up into higher regions, and has to pa.s.s through the following planes of existence:--

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