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Restoration of Mazdean motifs in Islamic Iran
Part I Part II Part III

Afshin Afshari
January 11, 2005

The deepest nostalgia of the Iranian soul along centuries is expressed in its yearning for the Saoshyant [In Persian, Sorush, the hidden savior]. -- Henry Corbin, Speech at the Tehran Museum of Archeology, November First 1945

The goal of this article is to introduce some essential elements of the philosophy of Sohrawardi, the great philosopher of Light, with special emphasis on his restoration, within the Islamic context, of certain Zoroastrian motifs; specifically: the Mazdean Angelology (see my previous article entitled "The Earth is an Angel"), the Farr, and the concept of the King-Priest (see my previous article entitled "The Tri-functional Ideology"). For a more detailed description of Sohrawardi's philosophy, see for instance [1].


With the advent of Islam, two separate movements of migration out of Iran of religious ideas gradually took place. The first was initiated by those Iranian Mages (called "Majus" in Islamic literature) who professed a radical dualism of the Principles of Light and Darkness based on the original Indo-European vedic religion (see "The Tri-functional Ideology"). Migrating to the North-Eastern borders of the Iranian world (Asia Minor), theses Mages later initiated, in Rome and elsewhere in the Roman Empire, a cult where the figure of the pre-Zoroastrian God Mithra became preponderant. A more powerful current of migration toward the South-Western borders of the Iranian world was fuelled by the so-called Khosrawanid Mages (called "Hellenized Mages" in Western literature) who, in accordance with Zoroastrian precepts, believed in the undisputed primacy of the Principle of Light symbolized by Ahura-Mazda and his Six Archangels. Having reached Egypt, this latter current of thought happily merged with the, then prevalent, philosophy of so-called "Eastern Neoplatonicians" based in Alexandria.

Sohrawardi [2] was the first Islamic philosopher who recognized the Iranian origin of some of these Neoplatonician ideas and set out to "repatriate" them back into Iran. In this endeavor, he felt strengthened by his sense of belonging to a dispersed but connected spiritual family sustained by the "Eternal Leaven" (khamir azali). The Eternal Leaven is a leaven which, behaving like a mystical sap, rises from spirit to spirit without the need for a "sufficient reason." Sohrawardi, who died a martyr at the age of thirty-eight, has written a number of books in Persian and Arabic. His major work, the treatise on Oriental Philosophy (Hikmat Ishraqi), is centered on the phenomenon of Ishraq (orient, sunrise) as the primordial epiphany of being. His philosophy was opposed by both the rationalistic Aristotelians and the traditional philosophers of Islamic Shari'at (the foqaha). The latter caused his death by convincing Saladin that he was an apostate (mortad).

Sohrawardi was against the view of religion as, primarily, a Law to be lived by without reference to the underlying esoteric Truth (haqiqat). Further, he considered that the esoteric Principle (batin) is alive and continues to produce inspirations (ilham) even after the advent of the Last of the Great Prophets (Mohammad).

The Ishraqi Philosophy

Sohrawardi, also known as Sheykh ol-Ishraq, is the founder of the ishraqi or Oriental philosophy. Here, "orient" does not have any geographical connotation. For Sohrawardi, ishraq (infinitive fourth form of the root sharq meaning "east" in Arabic) is the source of wisdom and represents, at the same time, the revelation of being (zohour), and the mystical intuition enabling its discovery (kashf). The rising Sun is taken as the supreme epiphany not only of the Knowledge but also of the knowing Subject. Ishraq is based on the transmutation of literal or symbolic truth (majaz) into the underlying spiritual truth (haqiqat).

The ishraqi "knowledge" is not abstract universal knowledge (ilm souri), it is intuitive "presential" knowledge (ilm hozouri) in the sense that, by its presence, the knower's soul "illuminates" the object of knowledge, empowering it to reveal its true spiritual essence. The interaction between subject and object of ishraqi knowledge is so close and intimate that it becomes impossible and irrelevant to distinguish one form the other (in perfect conformity with Western existentialist views).

It was Islam, and more precisely the Islamic gnosis of Ismaelite and Sh'ite philosophers, which provided Sheykh ol-Ishraq with his most effective resource: The ta'wil [3] or spiritual hermeneutics. Indeed, ta'wil, the spiritual exegesis of hidden meaning from Islamic canonical texts (mainly the Quran, and the Hadith of the Prophet and the twelve Imams), is the perfect example of an ishraqi transmutation.

First Motif: Angelology

The universe is an infinite succession of steps of gradual degradation of the Light down to its compete extinction in the pure darkness of demonic Matter. It is easy, in this context, to see how a hierarchy of being can be established based on the degree of illumination. It is Love that fuels the aspiration of beings to raise themselves to a higher level in the hierarchy of Light.

At the top of the hierarchy stands the Light of Lights from which all being proceeds. From it emanates the First Archangel, the Mazdean Bahman. From the illumination/reflection relation between the first and the second beings emanates a new Light, the Second Archangel. From the relation between the First and the Second Archangels emanates the Third Archangel, and so on.

Therefore, the whole of being proceeds from the original relation of conquering power and love, in Persian qahr va mohabbat (for Sohrawardi, qahr is the domination exerted by the Beloved over the Lover while mohabbat is the force that subordinates the Lover to the Beloved in the same way that the caused is subordinated to its causer), between the Original Lover, Bahman, and the Original Beloved, the Transcendent and Unique God.

In the same way that the Light of Lights is the Lord of the First Archangel, each species has its Lord or Angel of whom the corporeal entity is a projection: It is the projection of the Angel's Light into dark Matter which evokes life and movement. The corporeal species is like an icon (sanam) of its Angel, a theurgy (tilism) operated by him in the Matter which is, by itself, absolute darkness and death.

Sohrawardi names and describes all of the Archangels of ancient Iran: Bahman, the Archangel of animals, Urdibihisht, the Archangel of fire, Khurdad, the Archangel of water, Murdad, the Archangel of plants, Shahrivar, the Archangel of metals, and Isfandarmuz, the Archangel of the Earth (see my previous article, "The Earth is an Angel" for a detailed exposition of the Mazdean Angelology). It should be noted that the ontological status of the Mazdean Angels is far superior to that of the Biblical or Quranic Angels. Further, a Mazdean Angel is not exactly equivalent to the Jungian notion of Archetype [4] because while the Archetype exists as a result of the existence of what it typifies, the Mazdean Angel's existence does not depend on an inferior being (inferior in the hierarchy of Light). The Mazdean Angel is a self-conscious Light whose providence on the inferior beings consists, precisely, in their presence to his Light, the Light that brings them to being.

Corbin believes that, via the Mazdean Angelology of ancient Iran, Sohrawardi has introduced a new framework for understanding the Platonic Ideas (mothul aflatuni) [5]. For a more detailed discussion of this argument is provided in [1].

Second Motif: The Farr

The Light emitted by the Light of Lights, which orders the hierarchy of being, is the Khurrah (Avestan Xvarnah, Light of Glory) or Farr of the ancient Iran. Thus, the pure Light of Farr seems to be at the origin of being. It is the energy that attaches beings to existence. As described in the previous section, each being receives the Light from its Angel. This Light is emitted into the being's "corporeal temple" in proportion to its degree of preparation. Most souls in this world are in a state of "Occidental Exile" (ghorbat-e gharbi) residing in the dark abyss of demonic Matter (this state is beautifully rendered in Sohrawardi's "Story of the Occidental Exile" [6]).

The most important categories of Farr bestowed on human souls are:

-         The Farr of the "Aryans", the legendary knights/heros of Iranian epic (representing heroic energy or qahr)

-         The Farr of Zoroaster (representing spiritual energy)

-         The Farr of the kings such as Kay Khosrow (representing a perfect balance between the heroic and the spiritual energies)

The holder of the third category of Farr, the Farr kyani, is, in the words of Sohrawardi (in Partow-Nameh), "the natural ruler of the world". Here, Sohrawardi is reviving the pre-Islamic concept of the King-Priest: Ancient Iranians believed that the perfect ruler had to combine the energies and authorities of both the warrior class/function and the religious class/function in order to receive the heavenly gift of the Farr kyani (see my previous article "The Tri-functional Ideology").

Third Motif: The Perfect Sage or Imam

At each level of being, the Light of Lights has a vice-regent or Imam. The world is never deprived of Imams because it is they who sustain it. For instance, in the world of elements, fire occupies this hegemonic position. The Imam of humans, or the "Perfect Sage", is, according to Sohrawardi, necessarily someone who has personally experienced the vision of the pure Light of Farr; the same Light that Kay Khosrow and Zarathustra were given to contemplate. This requirement categorically excludes "pure" philosophers who lack the required spiritual investiture (Sohrawardi names Farabi and Ibn Sina as examples of such "pure" philosophers). 

The Imam's authority over the world is essentially a spiritual investiture, not a political one. Sohrawardi is quite adamant in the Partow-Nameh:

I do not mean that the political power is effectively in the hands of the sage Imam. No! The legitimacy of his investiture proceeds from his spiritual perfections. But sometimes the Imam is publicly recognized and officially invested (it was the case of the Prophets or the ancient kings Fereydoon and Kay Khosrow in whom the royal Farr was made visible) and sometimes the Imam is hidden.

The legendary king Kay Khosrow, holder of the Farr kyani, is the prototype of the Perfect Sage. From his name is derived the adjective khosrawanid used by Sohrawardi to designate the Sages of ancient Iran. In his Kitab al-alwah, Sohrawardi evokes Kay Khosrow's visionary ecstasy and the bestowment of the Farr kyani (or kyan-khurrah):

It so happened that Kay Khosrow the blessed remained absorbed in the prayer and a long meditation. Then came to him the Wisdom (Sophia) of the Lord sacrosanct and it guided him into the world of Mystery (ghayb) [... ] His soul received the imprint of the divine Sophia; the Archangelic Lights revealed themselves to him and in this face-to-face, he understood the subtle mode of reality named Royal Light of Glory (kyan-khurrah), that is, that it is the projection (ilqa) in the soul of a victorial element (qahir) in front of which heads bow.

It is said that Kay Khosrow was occulted from the world of men after his renouncement to temporal authority. He is the hidden King-Priest whose return is awaited by the Light seeking souls. Clearly, Sohrawardi's vision reunites in the same lineage the Kay Khosrow of ancient Iran and the hidden twelfth Imam of Shi'ism.

Through the ages, the nostalgia of the King-Priest, the contained and discrete yearning for the spiritual kingdom of the "Hidden Imam", has been a consistent constituent of the Iranian soul. And Iranian religions have always heeded this deeply rooted nostalgia: pre-Zoroastrian Kay Khosrow, Zoroastrian Sorush, Shi'ite hidden Imam. By their unfailing belief in the accomplishment of a Glorious Destiny which seems impossible within the limits of the human condition, the Iranian people has, in the words of Corbin, "chosen triumph in defeat."


[1] Henry Corbin (1971): "En Islam Iranien, tome II Sohrawardi et les platoniciens de Perse", Gallimard [in French].

[2] Shihaboddin Yahia Sohrawardi, also known as Sheykh ol-Ishraq in reference to his Ishraqi philosophy, was born in Sohraward in the year 1155. After an initial flirt with Sufism, he moved to Syria and became a close friend of Malik Zahir, son of Saladin (Salahoddin). He was put to death in the year 1193, after a takfir (infidelity) sentence was issued against him.

[3] Ta'wil or spiritual hermeneutics consists in "bringing back" the data to their origin, to their archetype. Therefore, Ta'wil is, essentially, the exegesis of symbols, the bringing out of hidden spiritual meaning from the material data of external history. It is a technique commonly used by Shi'ite philosophers (Sohrawardi, Mollí Sadrí, Mirdímad ... ) for the interpretation of Islamic religious texts.

[4] C.G. Jung rejected Freudian accounts of infant sexuality as the source of libido. He developed a rich account of the unconscious, positing shared primordial "archetypes" as elements established innately in the collective unconscious of all human beings rather than as features of individual personality.

[5] Plato used the word "Idea" to designate universal supra-sensible Forms. Forms are exemplar, ideal entities, which are instantiated in the sensible world. For any set of things that share some property, there is a transcendent Form that gives unity to that set of things.

[6] The story of a young prince who is exiled from his native "Orient" to an "Occidental" city whose inhabitants are "oppressors". A message from his family delivered by a hoopoe invites him to return home. To do so, he has to extract himself from the bottom of a well (the dark world of matter) where he is imprisoned and climb the mountain of Qaf.... Corbin [1] points out striking similarities between the "Occidental Exile" of Sohrawardi and the "Song of the Pearl" of the Acts of Thomas, thereby suggesting the existence of a common root for the Iranian spiritual tradition and the Christian gnosis.

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