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Suhrawardi, Hafiz and Zoroaster1


Sakhai, Kambiz


















12th century Shahab al-Din Suhrawardi and 14th century Khwajeh Shams al-Din Muhammad Hafiz are two of the most important intellectual figures in the history of Iran and the region in general. They are also important, in my opinion, for their attempt at integrating aspects of Zoroastrian thought into their work. Suhrawardi was able to appreciate the rational dimension of Zoroastrianis and Hafiz could grasp its celebration of life and happiness. In this article I would like to look into the contribution of Zoroaster to the works of Suhrawardi and Hafiz. I would also try to compare the Zoroastrian understanding of reason, life and happiness with the ideas of Suhrawardi and Hafiz in order to clarify the limitations of the worldviews of the latter two. 

Suhrawardi was in a unique position among the Sufis as far as the question of reason is concerned. He did not believe that intuition and the immediate knowledge that was gained through ascetic practices were enough to liberate us from the world of illusions in which we are captured. Flight from this world required, according to him, reason as much as the enlightenment that could be achieved through other means. Thus, the purification of the soul that was achieved through asceticism could prepare the seeker only from a psychological point of view. The real illumination comes through the light of reason. Unlike the mainstream Sufism, however, he did not limit the process of illumination to the psychological processes that involved emancipation from greed and narcissism. He believed that rational enlightenment was an equally important element for the salvation of the soul and it was as much necessary as the psychological catharsis was. Thus, for Suhrawardi the path towards illumination did not pass through blind faith and slavish obedience toward irrational powers. As we see Suhrawardi is very close to Zoroaster here.

Zoroastrian appreciation of reason as the best guide to truth is a well-known matter. What is not known, as much, is that Zoroastrianism is not only a rational worldview in the sense that it rejects blind faith and slavish approach towards any authority but it is also rational in a very specific sense. The reason upon which Zoroastrianism is founded is Communicative Reason. It is the kind of reason that requires dialogue and mutual understanding. Zoroastrianism asks its adherents to enter a dialogue and argue in a rational manner in support of their claims. Thus, the Zoroastrians are not only supposed to provide reason in support of their belief but they also have to provide their opponents with the equal opportunity to defend their own positions in a rational manner. The force of the better argument is the only kind of force that is considered to be legitimate in this religion.

The difference between the two approaches to reason is that for Zoroaster reason is “this worldly” and should help human beings establish a society that fights against death and destruction. Reason, for Zoroaster, arms human beings with the necessary weapons they need to transform the existing reality and make it a world that does not tolerate deceit, violence and cruelty. For Suhrawardi, on the other hand, it serves the more abstract purpose of unification with the universe. Unification that is achieved not through the revolutionary transformation of this world but through flight from it. Although the latter purpose is noble too it is contaminates with the general tendency of Mysticism to make salvation dependent upon escape from the world and denial of life.

Hafiz, on the other hand, invites us to celebrate life and be happy in this world instead of being worried about the other world and denying the pleasures of life to ourselves. He declares himself an enemy of the kind of morality that is life denying and based on asceticism. Reason, faith and morality are worth nothing for Hafiz if they did not promote happiness and if they did not serve life. His hedonism and his life affirming attitude brings him close to Zoroastrianism.

The problem with Hafiz’s approach is, however, that He believes mistakenly that promotion of life and happiness would necessarily go against reason and morality because the only type of reason that he knows is the reason that justifies the Dogmas held valid by the dominant classes of his time and the only morality that he knows is the repressive religious morality of his time. Thus, he claims that the only path to salvation is the one that passes through drunkenness and loss of reason and ignoring moral precepts.

The emphasis that Hafiz puts on the wine is very significant in this regard. He wants the readers of his poems to realize that salvation is not achieved through reason and rational communication with other human beings. Reason, for Hafiz, is not only not our ally but our worst enemy in this regard. It is something that has to be surmounted. 

The same should be said about his peculiar understanding of pleasure. Hafiz tries to negate the morality that considers the denial of material and bodily pleasures a virtue.  There is nothing wrong to criticize this kind of morality. The problem is, however, that Hafiz ontologizes this specific type of morality. He wants to convince us that the pursuit of happiness is synonymous with the fight against morality in general, and not just this type of morality. All we have to do is to not to obey the commandment of the repressive religious morality and act exactly in opposition to what is forbidden by it. Therefore, the kinds of pleasures that he recommends are the ones that are within reach even in the existing world that is based on duplicity, violence and injustice and not the ones that require the person to fight for a world that is more just and more compatible with human needs. Pleasure and happiness are not problematic for Hafiz. The only difference between him and the defenders of the official morality is that he recommends us to do what they forbid. The rest is the same. He does not require us to cultivate in ourselves new needs and new desires that are more human and more rational.   

Zoroastrianism, unlike the Abrahamic religions, does not believe that salvation and the struggle against the evil requires the denial of the body, pleasure and matter in general. Evil, according to this religion, is the force that brings about destruction of the material world, misery, pain and death. Thus, according to the teachings of Zoroaster the struggle against the evil is by necessity connected to the promotion of life, happiness and all kinds of pleasures including material and bodily pleasures. Therefore, one does not have to abandon one’s reason and become immoral in order to enjoy life and be happy.  So, the type of pleasure that is appreciated in this tradition is radically different from those pleasures that have been disfigured as a result of thousands of years of repression. Pursuit of pleasure and happiness do not require rebellion against rationality and moral precepts of Zoroastrianism. They go hand in hand and nurture each other.

In conclusion we can claim that although Zoroastrian ideas like reason and happiness have been adopted by Suhrawardi and Hafiz they have been distorted, to a certain extent. The life affirming character and the discursive nature of Zoroastrian reason have been lost in this transition. The same thing has happened to the needs and desires that have to be gratified. They too have been tarnished and lost their dynamic nature.  A thorough appreciation of the contributions of Suhrawardi and Hafiz requires us to locate the roots of their ideas in Zoroastrian analysis of reason and happiness as well as its revolutionary understanding of the process through which human needs and desires are shaped.

1 This article was featured on vohuman.org on August 18, 2006.