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The Ulama in Safavid Iran

Moreso than some other Islamic societies, Islam in Iran remained influenced by Hellenism. Greek philosophers had been translated into Persian centuries before, leaving Islam in Iran more theological than in some other places. Islam had scholars called ulama. In Iran the ulama were trying to unite Shia beliefs with what they thought was best in ancient philosophy -- mainly Aristotelian and neo-Platonic influences. Among these ulama in Safavid times emerged philosophers whose influence was to extend into the twentieth century, to Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini among others.

A major Iranian philosopher in the early 1600s was Mir Damad, the founder of the School of Isfahan. He was interested in "eternity" and God having organized this eternity. Seeing time as absolute rather than relative to the motion of things as would be seen by future physicists, he labeled time as the essence of things. Unbothered by contradiction, and with a complexity that equaled Christian scholasticism, he described ranking in the order of things in relation to time while holding that all things had both an eternal essence and a temporal essence – with the temporal world pre-determined. He argued against happenstance, as those who believe in godly power do. He wrote of the material world constantly renewing itself and remaining connected to nature – in other words, that change is determined by laws of nature.

Damad's student, Mulla Sadra, was to be regarded as Iran's greatest philosopher. He also worked on the problem of time and the nature of things and overcame the contradiction between the eternity and the temporal. He too described the universe as having been created by God as both eternal and temporal. The essence of permanence he described as a mental construct in the minds of people as well as the mind of God, more so, of course, in the mind of God, who had knowledge of all. He argued in favor of Aristotle's natural science. Against Mir Damad and with the Aristotelians he argued that essence was an abstraction and subordinate to concrete existence. With the Islamic mystic philosopher Ibn al-Arabi, he spoke of existence (also called being) as having varying degrees of intensity and perfection. He spoke of an upward movement in the scale of being, from the simplest elements to the more complex human body with a soul. And beyond the body-soul complex is, he reasoned, a purer manifestation of the heavenly body-soul complex – the highest rank of order in the corporeal world. And beyond the corporeal world is God.

Ulama philosophers associated their ideas with the teaching of the Koran, as Islam demanded. Where necessary, the ulama philosophers applied allegory to the Koran, to match their point of view. But the ulama philosophers, Mir Damad and Mulla Sadra among them, were under pressure from those Shia who were not interested in philosophical complexities. Mir Damad, Mulla Sadra and other ulama philosophers were frequently rebuked by those ulama holding the majority point-of-view.

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