, Volume 51, Issue 3, pp 395–406

Existence and Non-existence in Sabzawari’s Ontology


    • Asia InstituteThe University of Melbourne

DOI: 10.1007/s11841-011-0283-z

Cite this article as:
Kamal, M. SOPHIA (2012) 51: 395. doi:10.1007/s11841-011-0283-z


Sabzawari is one of the greatest Muslim philosophers of the nineteenth century. He belongs to Sadrian Existentialism, which became a dominant philosophical tradition during the Qajar dynasty in Iran. This paper critically analyses Sabzawari’s ontological discussion on the dichotomy of existence and quiddity and the relation between existence and non-existence. It argues against Sabzawari by advocating the idea that ‘Existence’ rather than quiddity is the ground for identity as well as for diversity, and that non-existence, like existence, is able to produce an effect.


ExistenceNon-existencePrincipality of existencePrincipality of essenceQuiddityPredicablesIdentity in differenceBecomingOntologyIntuitionMystic experience

Mulla Hadi Sabzawari (1797–1878) is a profound Muslim philosopher who lived during the Qajar dynasty in Iran. He developed his ideas under the influence of Mulla Sadra’s Existentialism. He wrote a number of books; among them is Sharh-i munzumah (Commentary on a philosophical poem), where he discusses different ontological issues and reflects on the meaning of ‘Existence’. Among these ontological issues the dichotomy of existence and quiddity and the relation between existence and non-existence, and Sabzawari’s analysis of them, are the subject of this article. I wish to criticise his views and argue against Sabzawari that ‘Existence’ rather than quiddity is the ground for identity as well as for diversity, and that non-existence, or the non-presence of existence like existence, is able to produce an effect.

Understanding Sabzawari’s analysis of these two ontological issues is not possible without reference to his intellectual background, in particular, his Sadrian Existentialism. This stood in opposition to Suhrawardi’s Essentialism, which advocated the doctrine of the principality of ‘Essence’ (and dominated the philosophical school in Isfahan during the Safavid dynasty). For Suhrawardi ‘Essence’ is the reality of everything. Something exists when its essence is manifest and known. Its existence is totally dependent on its essence. Besides, Suhrawardi argues that ‘existence’ is a concept that does not correspond to anything outside thinking.1 Mulla Sadra brought about a fundamental philosophical change by thinking ‘Being’ rather than ‘Essence’ as the sole reality. In this regard, and for the place of Mulla Sadra in history of Muslim philosophy, Seyyed Hossein Nasr states that ‘he founded a new intellectual school in Islam, which means that he was able to open up a new perspective’.2 This new perspective is inaugurated with a kind of ontology, in which ‘Being’ rather than ‘Essence’ is seen as the sole reality and the ground on which all beings stand.3 He also believes that ‘Being’ manifests itself in different modes. Every mode has a unique way of existence and is a grade of ‘Being’. The self-manifestation of ‘Being’ is called ‘gradation’, which gives rise to the realm of diversity where all beings undergo constant substantial and accidental changes in order to achieve perfection.4 Mulla Sadra’s ideas had a significant impact on the development of philosophy in Persia, not immediately after his death in 1640 but later, in the Qajar period.5 During that time, a philosophical school was established in Tehran, and Mulla Hadi Sabzawari emerged as one of the profound Sadrian philosophers, and the founder of a school in Khurasan.6

Using as his basis the complex ontological and epistemological structure of Mulla Sadra’s philosophy, Sabzawari revived the principality of ‘Existence’ and incorporated mystical knowledge into rationalistic discourse. For Sabzawari, reason is incapable of accessing the truth of ‘Existence’, which resists definition and description. In order to avoid a negative conclusion concerning our knowledge of ‘Existence’, it is necessary to search for a cognitive tool other than reason that is capable of apprehending the truth of ‘Existence’. Mulla Sadra, before Sabzawari, found that new cognitive tool and came to the belief that the truth of ‘Existence’ could be known in the mystic experience rather than in rationalistic discourse: ‘The knowledge of the reality of existence cannot be except through the illuminative presence and an intuition of the [immediate] determined [reality]; then there will be no doubt about its inner-nature’.7 For Mulla Sadra it followed that the only way to understand the truth of ‘Existence’ is through mystic experience. The problem of this cognitive tool was that not every individual is able to possess it; it is a spiritual capacity obtained and developed by the seekers of truth on the mystic path. The illuminative presence resembles the vision of the true philosophers in Plato’s Republic who obtain knowledge of the universal forms and finally of agathon the universal form of Good. For Plato, not every individual is capable of acquiring this knowledge as it is conditioned by self-emancipation from the dogma of the cave and reaching out to the source of light. This self-emancipation is seen as a philosophical task and the prerogative of a small number of individuals known as philosophers.8 The questions that arise here are: What is this peculiar nature of ‘Existence’? Why are we unable to access it rationally? If ‘Existence’ is the sole reality then can we think of the possibility of ‘non-existence’?

In opposing Suhrawardi’s doctrine of the principality of ‘Essence’, Sabzawari expresses his agreement with Mulla Sadra, stating, ‘In fact, (the philosophers) have been divided by upholding two theories. The first asserts that the principle of the realization of anything is “existence” while “quiddity” is merely something posited, i.e., a mental counterpart to “existence” that is united with the latter. This is the doctrine held by the most authoritative of the Peripatetics. And this is also the doctrine chosen here, as is indicated by the following verse: “Existence, in our opinion is fundamentally real”.9 Existence rather than essence is the sole reality and the ground for all ‘existents’. It constitutes the reality in every concrete existent. Every existent in itself is an individual case of ‘Existence’. It should be remembered that the relationship between ‘Existence’ and its own modes is not like the relationship between universals and particulars, simply because ‘Existence’ is not a universal concept like ‘blackness’ but the reality and an ontological ground on which everything stands. Described in this way, the ontological difference becomes essential for understanding the meaning of ‘Existence’ and determines its nature. It is possible to apprehend an existent, yet our knowledge of it will not guarantee accessibility to ‘Existence’. In rationalistic discourse, an existent is seen as a polarized entity and is analyzed into existence and quiddity, but this is not the case with ‘Existence’. ‘Existence’ cannot be conceptualized and quiddity be affixed to it. Meanwhile, it is self-evident and cannot be reduced to anything: ‘Its notion is one of the best-known things, but its deepest reality is in the extremity of hiddenness’.10 The self-evidence of ‘Existence’ is based on its nature as something simple and intuitively apprehended without mediation or representation. Yet, its reality is concealed and we are not able to grasp its truth. We know what the term ‘existence’ means but this does not assist us to understand the reality of ‘Existence’ as they are different and not the same. We talk about the existence of a tree, for example, while ‘Existence’ as such is beyond it. We find ourselves confronted with the enigma of understanding the truth of ‘Existence’ since its reality is transcendental and defies definition and description.

The inaccessibility of the truth of ‘Existence’ advocated by Sabzawari is based on Mulla Sadra’s interpretation of the meaning of ‘Existence’ in his major philosophical works, such as al-Asfar, a magnum opus that contains his entire philosophical system, and al-Masha’ir. Mulla Sadra holds the view that since ‘Existence’ has neither genus nor differentia it does not have a definition.11 A definition is applicable to the particular existents or to concrete instances with genus and differentia; it relies totally on the presence of these universal determinations. Whatever is defined should belong to a genus and have differences that distinguish it from other members of the same genus. Sabzawari emphasizes this by saying, ‘So, they, i.e., all (so-called) definitions, can neither be a “definition” in view of the fact that “existence” is (absolutely) simple, having neither specific difference nor genus, as we shall see presently; nor can it be a “description” because a “description” is obtainable only by an accidental property, which is part of the five universals whose division itself is based on the thing-ness of “quiddity”, while existence and its properties derive from an entirely different source from “quiddity”.10 It is worth mentioning also Mulla Sadra’s and Sabzawari’s view on this resembles that of Martin Heidegger, a Western thinker who maintained that ‘Existence’ is indefinable for the same reason. Heidegger commences his analysis in Being andTime (1927) with a discussion of three prejudices that arose in Western philosophy from the time of Plato against any inquiry into the meaning of ‘Existence’, and which led to the oblivion or ‘nothing-ness’ of ‘Existence’ as a philosophical standpoint and gave rise to metaphysical thinking and nihilism in the West. The three prejudices are: (i) existence is the most universal concept; (ii) it is indefinable; (iii) it is self-evident. Heidegger is in agreement with Mulla Sadra and Sabzawari in stating that ‘Existence’ is neither a concept nor a genus. Its universality encompasses the universality of every genus.12 Two factors support this claim that ‘Existence’ is indefinable: the first is related to the nature of ‘Existence’ as something simple; the second is a limitation in the traditional logic for defining ‘Existence’. These two factors become obstacles to any attempt to define ‘Existence’ because ‘Existence’ has no genus and is not a member of a higher class. Its simplicity and universality are unlike anything else.

Describing ‘Existence’, like defining it, is also doomed to failure. Description is possible in the presence of universal predicables, such as genus, species, difference, property and contingent accidents, but ‘Existence’ has no predicable.13 One may attempt to apply these predicables in an attempt to give quiddity to ‘Existence’, making it compound and mixed, but ‘Existence’ is simple and has no quiddity. If quiddity is assigned to ‘Existence’, then quiddity becomes an addition to it.14 In that case, ‘Existence’ will suffer division, presuppose its own parts, and be unable to become a unitary ground and apriori principle for the multiplicity of things. By contrast, the concrete existents are multiple and different in one way or another. Animals, for example, are not plants, yet they share existence. Existence is an ontological ground not only for the presence of the existents in the world, but also for their unity: ‘If we adopt the view that it is “existence” that is fundamentally real we would recognise that here, running through all the scattered “quiddities”, is one single reality (i.e., “existence”). This is comparable to the unity that we observe in things having extensions, whether they be immobile or mobile, for their multiplicity is mere potential, not actual’.15 What makes them different from one another are the universal determinations assigned to them in thinking. These universal determinations are conceptual and not real. ‘Existence’, rather than these universal determinations or quiddity, guarantees the actual presence of the existents in the world, and is one and the same in all of them. The unmixed nature of ‘Existence’, which becomes a ground for the principle of identity or sameness, is the reality of every existent. At the same time, whatever is existent and present in the world has a quiddity, and can be analysed intellectually into universal determinations. Here, according to Sabzawari, the dichotomy of existence and quiddity is a product of thinking. Sabzawari is also critical of Muslim thinkers who believe that existence is added to quiddity mentally. He developed four arguments to justify his criticism. In his first argument he stated that existence and not quiddity is properly negated. For that reason, existence is neither the same as quiddity nor a part of it.16 Sabzawari’s second argument is based on Ibn Sina’s view that the predication of quiddity by existence requires a middle term; it needs ‘what is accompanied by “because”’. The reason for this goes back to the nature of predication. The truth of some propositions, such as ‘intellect is existent’, requires a proof. By contrast, the predication of quiddity and its essential properties does not require any proof because it is self-evident.17 The third argument is related to the distinction between existence and quiddity in thinking through rational analysis. We rationalise the quiddity of something, for example a triangle, without regarding its external existence. In doing so we realise that ‘what is not disregarded is other that what is disregarded’. This will make existence something that occurs to quiddity.17 This also indicates that existence is neither the same as quiddity nor a part of it. The fourth argument states that if we think of existence as the same as quiddity or a part of it, then quiddity will need another existent because it is impossible for an ‘existent’ to be constituted by ‘non-existence’. As a consequence of this, ‘existence’ will become a part of a part and so on to infinity.18 As we see, Sabzawari has developed these arguments for the principality of ‘Existence’ and believes that ‘Existence’ is the unity, while multiplicity or diversity in the world is due to our apprehension of quiddity. This happens when the possible beings are conceptually analysed into the universal determinations. Whatever is found in the world is then the combination of existence and quiddity (zawj tarkibi). The latter is that by which each possible being is differentiated from all others. The quiddity of a horse, for example, is different from the quiddity of a table. Toshihiko Izutsu also confirms this kind of duality and states that ‘This fundamental fact about the two ontological factors is what Sabzawari refers to when he says that “existence” is the principle of unity, while “quiddities” raise only the dust of multiplicity’.18 He states clearly that quiddity, unlike existence, has given rise to diversity in the world. Existence determines the identity of all existents while quiddity becomes the source of their differences: ‘If “existence” were not fundamentally real there would be no unity actualised, because all other things raise only the dust of multiplicity’.19 Here, ‘all other things’ with the characteristic of multiplicity are quiddities of the existents. This distinction between identity and difference is the outcome of the ontological dichotomy of existence and quiddity in the realm of ‘Becoming’, for the reason that, as mentioned earlier, ‘Existence’ does not have quiddity. The unity of existence in intuition is accompanied by diversity assigned to the existents in thinking. Here, the problem is not whether this dichotomy is real or not. The question is concerned about the genesis of diversity. It is important to know whether ‘quiddity’ becomes an ontological ground for diversity or not.

The distinction between existence and quiddity is not found through intuition, for whatever is experienced in intuition is an existent and not quiddity. Quiddity is the product of the rationalistic analysis of an existent into universal determinations. These universal determinations are conceptual and have no reality of their own outside the domain of the human mind. Quiddity, in this way, remains in thinking and will never see the light of day. There will be no distinction between existence and quiddity in the external world and will have no ontological reality. Whatever is real and apprehended is existence. When we look at the non-ontological position of quiddity as something unreal, and if this unreality becomes the foundation for diversity, then diversity becomes fictitious. How can something unreal (not existent) become an ontological ground for diversity in the world? Quiddity corresponds to nothing outside thinking. It is unthinkable by itself without being attached to an existent in mind. By contrast, an existence stands by itself and does not depend on quiddity to sustain it. When we analyse an existent into universal determinations in order to grasp its quiddity, we counter nothing in the external world to represent it except an existent. All universal determinations are mere concepts. Their application is also intellectual. The reality, which is present to our experience, is an existent, a mode of ‘Existence’ in a concrete form, not quiddity. Up to this point our analysis has not contradicted Sabzawari’s, but a problem arises when the genesis of diversity is investigated and its reality is examined.

In my opinion, the principality of ‘Existence’ is all-embracing. All distinctions and all diversity are but apparent facets of the reality of ‘Existence’. Diversity is nothing more than the process of self-gradation of ‘Existence’ (tashkik al-wujud), in which ‘Existence’ manifests itself in a number of ways and gives rise to multiplicity. The difference between the multiple modes of ‘Existence’ is not inherited from quiddity in thinking but in the degree of intensity of ‘Existence’. Here, ‘Existence’ may be seen as the principle of identity as well as difference. All existents are essentially different modes of ‘Existence’. The differences among them are based on their own unique ways of existence: every concrete existent, in itself, is an individual case of ‘Existence’. Differences become real with their existential instances in the process of becoming, for example with priority and posterity, perfection and imperfection, strength and weakness resting in their existence not in their quiddity. If we rely on quiddity for bringing forth differences, then there will be no real diversity in the world, or, rather, diversity becomes an illusion because quiddity is only conceptual and is in thinking. The modes of ‘Existence’ are also different from ‘Existence’. The distinction between ‘Existence’ and its modes in the philosophy of Mulla Sadra and Heidegger is the foundation for the ‘ontological difference’ and the idea of identity in difference in the world.20 Hence, the description of ‘Existence’ as the principle of identity and of ‘quiddity’ as difference is problematic, for whatever exists in and outside the human thinking is ‘Existence’ in different modes and ‘Existence’ neither is nor has a quiddity. An assertion of the distinction between two individual instances of the modes of ‘Existence’ is not dependent on something unreal, because the difference is real. Thinking of quiddity as the birthplace of diversity renders the ‘ontological difference’ between ‘Existence’ and ‘existents’ fictitious. Total unity and identity without difference will remain outside the domain of human thinking; it will no longer be possible to talk about the gradation of ‘Existence’. We also know that the modes of ‘Existence’ that have come into being are different from ‘Existence’, and the relation between them is not like the relation between genus and species because ‘Existence’ is not a genus or a universal determination, but the reality on which every existent stands. There is no existent without ‘Existence’. At the same time an existent is not ‘Existence’ and vice versa. The ontological difference becomes a ground for a new type of relationship between ‘Existence’ and existents. On one side, it indicates their sameness or identity (not in the Aristotelian sense), and on the other it indicates their difference. This makes them identical in difference. As long as identity belongs to existence and all individual instances of the modes belong to ‘Existence’, difference is also real. It is based on the degrees of the manifestation of ‘Existence’ rather than quiddity.

The concept of ‘Existence’, like all other concepts, appears to be universal, but its universality transcends all other universal concepts. It is a unique universality and is distinct from the rest of the universal concepts. For example, the universal concept of ‘horse’ is applicable to all individual horses, and at the same time it is limited to the members of the class of ‘horse’ and does not include other kinds of animals. This universality is limited and exclusionary. By contrast, the universality of the concept of ‘Existence’ is unlimited and includes whatever exists regardless of differences. There is still another distinctive characteristic of the concept of ‘Existence’ that is not found in other universal concepts. This characteristic is revealed when ‘existence’, like a universal determination, is predicated to a subject in a proposition. It is true that, in a proposition such as (X exists), the predicate does not add anything new to the meaning of the subject (X). At the same time, the negation of this predicate will bring about a fundamental change in the reality of the subject. ‘Existence’ in this proposition is not an accidental determination like other predicables. It is the inner reality of the subject and an ontological ground for its presence in the world. Nothing is more evident and clearer than the concept of ‘existence’ in this proposition. What Sabzawari intends to explain here is that the reality of ‘Existence’ and its concept are both self-evident and do not need a definition or description.10 On the other hand, quiddity remains intellectual and has no external reality. Its distinction from existence belongs to the domain of thinking and a rationalistic apprehension of a concrete existent.

Sabzawari went further in dealing with the reality of ‘Existence’ by making a distinction between external and mental existents. For him, the mental concepts are nothing but intellectual existents: ‘A thing besides “existence” in the external world has an “existence” by itself at the mind’.21 The difference between an external existent and an intellectual existent relies on the way each one of them produces its effect.21 Real fire as an external existent is hot and burns, while the intellectual existent of fire is not capable of producing similar effects. The existence of fire is self-evident and is experienced by everyone regardless of his or her intellectual capacity; but we know that this particular existence is different from ‘Existence’. The problem arises with our knowledge of the hidden nature of this reality because it is neither accessible to reason nor can it be grasped in a definition.

The ontological difference draws a line between two realms: the realm of identity and the realm of diversity. The former is sameness and stability. It is not infected by generation and degeneration. This realm resembles the realm of ‘Being’ in Parmenides’ poem, which is described as ‘ungenerable and absolutely indestructible, unwavering, endless, ever-limb-one-whole; No was nor will: all past and future null; Since Being subsists in one ubiquitous. Now unitary and continuous’.22 It is not possible for ‘Existence’ not to be or to change into something else. In coming to be, an existent, which goes through change, should come into being out of either existence or non-existence. If it comes out of existence, it will not change because it already is. On the other hand, it cannot come out of non-existence or it would not exist because, as Parmenides believes, non-existence produces nothing and cannot become a cause for an existence. For both Sabzawari and Parmenides, there is no non-existence to stand in relation to ‘Existence’. If we think of ‘Existence’ as the sole reality and the foundation of all existents, then non-existence should not be ascribed to it. Existence has neither come to be nor will it cease to exist. At this ontological level, which is dominated by the principle of identity, ‘change’ does not take place; otherwise the identity and perfection of ‘Existence’ will be jeopardised. The denial of the reality of change is a logical consequence of the denial of ‘non-existence’ as the counterpart of ‘Existence’. Aristotle explained this point more clearly by saying that change takes place between contraries or between one contrary and an intermediate, which stands for another contrary, or between the contradictories.23 Following this belief, Aristotle denies change in ‘substance’ because it does not have a contrary. Here, there is a discrepancy between Aristotle and Sabzawari. Individual substances as particular instances of the modes of ‘Existence’ belong to the realm of identity in difference. The instances undergo change, and a process of coming to be and ceasing to be. The question that arises here is, how could an existent go through change if there is no ‘non-existence’? Sabzawari, unlike Parmenides, believes that the realm of identity in difference, which is the realm of the multiple modes of ‘Existence’ and ‘Becoming’, undergoes change due to non-existence. According to him, there are two kinds of non-existence that stand in relation to an existent. One of them annihilates its whole existence, and the other negates one, or more than one, aspect of its existence. The possibility of these two kinds of non-existence relies on the existence of the individual instances: ‘The absolute existence is a predicate used when a simple “whetherness” is in question, like “man is existent”, while the determined existence is a predicate used when a composite “whether-ness” is in question, like “man is a writer”. And the negation of these two is “absolute non-existence” and “determined non-existence”, and the negation of these two is “absolute non-existence” and “determined non-existence” respectively. The purpose of our specifying “non-existence” by the word “concept” is to indicate that this division, in the case of “existence”, is not confined to its concept, but extends to its reality’.24 When the predicate of a proposition such as ‘X is an existent’ is negated, and the whole existence of ‘x’ is annihilated, we deal with absolute non-existence of an existence known as ‘x’. The negation of one or more than one aspect of ‘x’, which is not the annihilation of ‘x’ in its entirety, will lead to determined non-existence. In the proposition ‘Socrates is not a Sicilian’, we negate one determination of Socrates, namely his being a Sicilian. The non-existence of this determination does not affect the whole being of Socrates. These two kinds of non-existence can also be called unlimited and limited. The unlimited non-existence is the total annihilation of an existent, whereas a limited non-existence is the negation of one or more than one of the determinations of an existent. Non-existence is not only logical and the property of negative propositions; it is also real because existence is real. At the same time, the reality of non-existence does not match the reality of existence because non-existence is not a ‘thing’ and a ‘thing’ is equal to an existence. Here, Sabzawari is critical of the views of some rationalist Muslim theologians, namely the Mu‘tazilas, who advocated the idea of an intermediary position between existence and non-existence for the ontological status of the divine attributes.25 This belief became part of their argument for the denial of the reality and eternity of these attributes, which were claimed by the traditionalist theologians, such as the Hanbelites. Al-Jubai (d. 933), one of the Mu‘tazila thinkers, believed that all existents were things before they came into being. Later, Abu Hashim, son of al-Jubai, developed this idea into the doctrine of Hal (state or subsistence), saying that the divine attributes were neither existents nor non-existents, but states in an intermediary position.26

The distinction between existence and non-existence lies not only in their reality, but also in the way they function causally. An existent can become a cause for another existent. Fire, for example, is a cause for burning a piece of wood. By contrast, a non-existence is a cause neither of another non-existence nor of an existence: ‘Likewise there is no real causal relationship between “non-existences”, even between two particular “non-existences”. If anyone asserts this, i.e., this causal relationship – as, for example, his assertion: the “non-existence” of a cause is the cause for the “non-existence” of the caused – the assertion is based on approximation and is but a figurative expression. For asserting their being causes is due to their resemblance to their positive counterparts’.27 Furthermore, Sabzawari insists that the distinction between the non-existences is a fiction or only in the imagination.27 The denial of the causal relationship between non-existences, or between non-existence and an existence, can be problematic and requires further attention. Sabzawari has explained this in an example of the causal relationship between clouds and rain. It is usually thought that the existence of the clouds in the sky would become a cause for rain. This determines the causal relationship between two existents, namely, the clouds and the rain. When there are no clouds in the sky we change our affirmative proposition into a negative one, and assert that the non-existence of clouds in the sky is the cause for the non-existence of rain or for the existence of a sunny day. Similarly, we assume that the non-existence of fire is a cause for the non-existence of heat in the room. This is based, according to Sabzawari, on the conversion of an affirmative proposition into a negative one and has nothing to do with reality.

Here, we may think of non-existence as having no ontological significance because it is not a thing and cannot become a cause for anything in the world: but how could an unreal non-existence in its absolute and determined forms become a vehicle for change in the realm of ‘Becoming’? How can we deny the distinction between them? The non-existence of Socrates is the negation of his existence; at the same time this non-existence is real because Socrates is no longer an existent. Besides, non-existence, like existence, can become a cause and produce its own effect. Otherwise, there would be no coming to be and ceasing to be. If non-existence is not a cause for an effect and produces nothing, then we stand with Parmenides and reject the reality of change. Sabzawari accepts Parmenides’ paradigm at the ontological level of ‘Existence’, but he believes in the reality of change in the realm of ‘Becoming’. The non-existence of clouds is, therefore, not a mere conceptual expression and a property of a negative proposition. It is an existentialist reality of the non-existence of clouds, which becomes a cause for the non-existence of rain and the existence of a sunny day. This does not mean that whenever there are clouds there would be rain, but that there is no rain without clouds. In the same manner, the non-existence of oxygen in a room will be fatal. This non-existence cannot be seen as something unreal or only in the imagination because its effect is real.

After describing two kinds of non-existence, namely, absolute and determined, Sabzawari accepts no distinction between the non-existences as far as they are non-existences. According to him, one cannot determine the difference between the non-existence of Socrates and that of a chair, or the non-existence of Socrates and the non-existence of being Sicilian. But can a distinction be made between two existences? As explained earlier, Sabzawari believes that existence is univocal and homogeneous. It is shared by all existents. This will make the existence of Socrates and that of a chair identical and the same. The differences and diversity arise, as Sabzawari reckons, when their universal determinations or quiddities are analysed. There is no real distinction between them as far as existence is concerned. Their distinction is in their quiddity, which is conceptual and corresponds to nothing outside human thinking: ‘The “quiddities” by themselves are different from each other, and multiple, and spread the dust of multiplicity throughout “existence”, for “existence” becomes multiple in a certain way through the multiplication of its subjects, just as “existence” is the very centre about which turns the sphere of unity’.19

Sabzawari also advocates the idea that non-existence came to the world with human intellect. This idea is interesting and reminiscent of Jean-Paul Sartre’s analysis of nothingness in his major philosophical work Being and Nothingness (1943), where he describes nothingness as an aspect of consciousness, which is born with it and can also be experienced.28 In the same manner, Sabzawari states, ‘Our intellect has the power to represent the “non-existence” of itself. Thus the intellect is necessarily qualified by “existence” and “non-existence”. And also it has the power of representing the “non-existence” of others, namely other external “existents” so that the latter must likewise be qualified by “existence” and “non-existence”’.29 The human intellect, unlike other kinds of existents such as a table, is aware of its own deficiency. This awareness refers to the non-existence of some aspects of this being. The human intellect is born with this deficiency, and endeavours constantly to accomplish itself. Sartre also holds the view that nothingness is made to be and ‘appears within the limits of a human expectation’.30 In this way the non-existence of a table in the room is a factor experienced by the human intellect. I experience this non-existence in the world. Without my presence there will be no non-existence. I also understand my own existence as lacking, or, as Sartre says, ‘I am not what I am and I am what I am not’.31

It should be remembered that the apprehension of non-existence by the human intellect does not make non-existence subjective or only conceptual. Sabzawari’s claim is also true for existence, which, like non-existence, is revealed to the human intellect. The existence as well as the non-existence of a table is revealed to my consciousness equally, but that does not mean that they cannot be without my existence in the room. This is not solipsism; the presence of the human intellect is a condition for the revelation of both existence and non-existence. It is I myself not a non-conscious entity like the chair that experiences the existence and non-existence of the table in the room. Moreover, since the division of non-existence is made on the division of existence and non-existence is understood in relation to existence, non-existence should be prior or posterior to existence. In the case of something coming into being, non-existence precedes existence and becomes prior to it, whereas in ceasing to be, non-existence becomes posterior to existence. In both cases, in coming into existence and ceasing to be, non-existence has an ontological significance and impact on existence and its dynamic character. In addition to this, we conclude that ‘existence’, which is seen as the principle of unity, will also become the ground for diversity in the realm of ‘Becoming’.


For Suhrawardi’s arguments against the principality of Existence see: Shahab al-Din Suhrawardi, Hikmat al-Ishraq (The Philosophy of Illumination), translated by John Walbridge and Hossein Ziai, Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1999, pp. 44–46.


Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Sadr al-Din Shirazi and his Transcendent Theosophy, Tehran: Institute for Humanities and Cultural Studies, 1997, p. 69.


Mulla Sadra, al-Asfar al-Arba'a, vol.1, Beirut: Dar Ihya' al-Turath al-'Arabi, 1999, pp. 68–69.


Mulla Sadra, al-Asfar, vol. 1, p. 432.


Mulla Ali Jamshid Nuri (d. 1830) was a great scholar and profound Sadrian philosopher who studied at Mazandaran and Qazvin, and settled in Isfahan. He taught the philosophy of Mulla Sadra and the mystic ideas of Shaykh Ahmad Ahsa‘i, the founder of the Shaykhi Sufi order. He was also the teacher of Mulla Ismail Isfahani, Mulla Abdullah Zunuzi, Mulla Agha Qazvini, Muhammad Rida Qumshahi and Mulla Hadi Sabzawari. The Qajar ruler, Fath Ali Qajar, founded Khan Marvi’s school and invited Mulla Ali Nuri, a profound Sadrian scholar and philosopher, to teach philosophy in Tehran. It seems that Mulla Ali Nuri did not accept the offer but sent Mulla Abdullah Zunuzi, one of his students, to undertake this responsibility while he himself stayed in Isfahan. Mulla Hadi Sabzawari also studied philosophy with Mulla Ali Nuri for ten years.


Henry Corbin, History of Islamic Philosophy, London and New York, in association with Islamic Publications for the Institute of Islamic Studies, 1993, p. 351. See also: Seyyed Hossein Nasr, ‘The Metaphysics of Sadr al-Din Shirazi and Islamic Philosophy in Qajar Iran’, in Qajar Iran: Political, Social and Cultural Change 1800–1925, (eds.) Edmund Bosworth and Carole Hillenbrand, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1983, pp. 190–91.


Mulla Sadra, al-Masha‘ir, translated by Parviz Morewedge, New York: SSIP, 1992, section 57, p. 30.


Shahab al-Din Suhravardi (1171–1208), another Muslim philosopher, who advocated the principality of essence and is known as the founder of Illuminationism, believed in the illuminative presence of knowledge by presence.


Mulla Hadi Sabzawari, The Metaphysics of Sabzawari, translated from the Arabic by Mehdi Mohaghegh and Toshihiko Izutsu, New York: Caravan Books, 1977, p. 33. This book is commonly known as Sharh-i manzumah (Commentary on a Philosophical Poem). The commentary, entitled Ghurar al-fara’id, is divided into seven headings. Each heading deals with one aspect of Sabzawari’s philosophy. They are further divided into chapters and sections.


Mulla Hadi Sabzawari, The Metaphysics of Sabzawari, p. 31.


Mulla Sadra, al-Masha‘ir, pp. 7–8.


Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, translated by John Macquarie and Edward Robinson, London: Blackwell, 1992, p. 23. I have discussed the problem of the definition of ‘Existence’ in the philosophy of Mulla Sadra and Martin Heidegger in my book From Essence to Being: The Philosophy of Mulla Sadra and Martin Heidegger, London: ICAS Press, 2010, pp. 101–6.


These predicables are relations between a universal term and a subject in a proposition. Aristotle mentioned four of them: genus, specific difference, property and contingent accident. Later, Porphyry (234–c. 305 AD) added Species as the fifth predicable.


Mulla Hadi Sabzawari, The Metaphysics of Sabzawari, p. 32.


Mulla Hadi Sabzawari, The Metaphysics of Sabzawari, p. 35.


Toshihiko Izutsu, The Fundamental Structure of Sabzawari’s Metaphysics, Tokyo: Keio University Press, 1971, p. 51.


Mulla Hadi Sabzawari, The Metaphysics of Sabzawari, p.43.


Mulla Hadi Sabzawari, The Metaphysics of Sabzawari, p. 44.


Mulla Hadi Sabzawari, The Metaphysics of Sabzawari, p. 37.


Mulla Sadra, Al-Asfar al-Arba‘a, vol. 1, introduction by Shaykh Muhammad Rida al-Muzafar, Beirut: Dar al-Ahya’ al-Turath al-‘Arabi, 1999, p. 59. Martin Heidegger defined the ontological difference as the differentiation between Being and beings in The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, translated by Albert Hofstadter, printed by Indiana University Press in 1982 (see pages 17, 72 and 78).


Mulla Hadi Sabzawari, The Metaphysics of Sabzawari, p. 54.


Martin, J. Henn, Parmenides of Elea, a verse translation with interpretative essays and commentary to the text, London: Praeger, 2003, p. 26.


Aristotle, ‘Metaphysics’, Book Kappa, 12: 10–20, and ‘Categories’, 3b 24–32, in The Complete Works of Aristotle. Aristotle also explained his ideas on change and movement in ‘Physics’ Book 5, 1 and 2.


Mulla Hadi Sabzawari, The Metaphysics of Sabzawari, pp. 69–70.


Mulla Hadi Sabzawari, The Metaphysics of Sabzawari, pp. 75–77. These rationalist Muslim theologians were the members of the Mu‘tazila school founded in Basrah and Baghdad by some pupils of Hasan al-Basri (642–728) who had seceded from him. The Mu‘tazila attempted to interpret religion in the light of human reason. They strongly advocated the Unity of God (al-tawhid) by denying the reality and eternity of the Divine attributes, and believed in Divine Justice. For that they were called the people of Justice and Unity of God (Ahl al-‘Adl wa al-Tawhid). They also advocated the doctrine of free will.


Al-Shahrastani, Nihayat, Cairo, 1960. P. 132.


Mulla Hadi Sabzawari, The Metaphysics of Sabzawari, p. 79.


Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge: London, reprinted 1996, p. 7.


Mulla Hadi Sabzawari, The Metaphysics of Sabzawari, p. 84.


Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, p. 7. (Sartre also believes that nothingness provides the ground for negation and negative propositions and not vice versa (see p. 19).


Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, p. 79.


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