The Correct Method for Studying Philosophy – Ayatullah Ramazani

Translator’s Intro

When I first got to the hawzah, I remember jumping around from teacher to teacher, looking for advice regarding the best strategy and plan on how to tackle my future studies.  I’m certain that most other hawzah students did the same when they first arrived and incoming students are still desperately seeking guidance as to how to make their studies here more fruitful.  My naïve and immature expectation was that all students, teachers, and scholars would generally be on the same page, with maybe minor differences here and there.  The problem was that each scholar I sat with had their own idea, with their own set of premises, that I couldn’t fully comprehend at that time.  Thankfully, I learned quickly that the greatest blessing and takeaway of the hawzah is how to appreciate the vast assortment of differences in thought, ideology, approach, methodology, and application.

Some of our best teachers would make it point to remind us, “No teacher or scholar should be telling you to do things X way and not Y way because anything other than X way is wrong, misguided, etc…”  Some view difference of opinion as something negative, as a cause of confusion and deviance for people.  They assume that people just want one single path towards “the truth”, with no room for doubt or questioning.  We should reply to them that when someone gazes up at space or looks out at the ocean and gets lost at the seemingly infinite beauty, can we say or even think anything other than SubhanAllah?  The Infinite is meant to be glorified and appreciated, not limited, restricted, and rejected.  There can be much more stated in regards to this issue, but let’s leave it for another post inshAllah.

Ayatullah Hasan Ramazānī is one of the most prominent students of Allamah Hasanzādeh Āmolī, focusing on the intellectual sciences, particularly ‘irfān.  As far as I know, most schools in the hawzah do not follow his suggested path towards studying Islamic Philosophy.  In fact, most western students are actually following a syllabus in direct contradiction to his advice!  Most teachers and schools force students to begin their studies in philosophy with Allamah Ṭabāṭabāī’s (q) Bidāyat ul-Hikmah (The Beginning of Metaphysics) or in some rare cases Ayatullah Miṣbāḥ Yazdī’s (h) Āmūzish e Falsafeh (Philosophical Instructions).  Both of these are based on Mulla Sadra’s (q) Transcendent Theosophy (al-ḥikmat ul-muta’ālīyah), which according to Ayatullah Ramazānī, is not how a seminary student should begin their philosophical studies.

Obviously, this translation will be directly beneficial to hawzah students and even academics.  And of course, I understand the irony of writing this intro about not limiting oneself to a single path for an article which seemingly contradicts my point!  For seminary students reading this, I hope the point that I’m trying to get across becomes obvious, especially those who are adamant about following one specific path in the hawzah that has been “certified by top scholars”.  If the advice of one of the most well-known ‘urafā’ of our time is not being followed by the majority of the schools here, then what does that say about our studies?  What does this say about those students and scholars who are adamant about judging others according to their own limited criteria without researching the other options available?  This is also a humble reminder and a warning to the communities back home to be on guard against overly judgmental and negative thoughts coming from students and scholars, especially if they are trying to degrade and disgrace others in the hawzah based on their own limited criteria.  A true student, scholar, and researcher should be providing you with different points of view, highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of all different sides, and, in rare instances, possibly indicating why one opinion may have strength over the others.  This should show you how well the seminary student has investigated and hunted for the truth, even if it goes against their own personal inclinations.

This, of course, isn’t meant to deter or discourage anyone nor judge any student’s hawzah study path.  The point of this short, slightly out of place intro, is to help all of us remember that we’re all students trying to get to the truth.  As much as we would all like to believe we’re open-minded and following in the path of true Islamic scholarship, any true researcher and truth-seeker would never limit themselves to anything, whether it be a worldview, ideology, approach, methodology, etc…  In this post-modern, post-truth, post-millennial world, in this era of mass confusion, rampant arrogance, and compound ignorance, what we need now, more than ever, is a lesson in ādāb ul-ikhtilāf, the etiquettes of handling differences of opinion.

Beginning with Transcendent Theosophy is Inadvisable

Unfortunately, the present method of teaching and learning philosophy has been established as Bidāyat ul-Ḥikmah, then Nihāyat ul-Ḥikmah, and finally Sharḥ ul-Manẓūmah.  After completing these, students then begin studying Asfār.  This method leads to numerous problems for those specializing in philosophy, especially if they start this in their early years of hawzah studies.  These three works act as an abstract or short summary for Asfār; therefore, are all based upon Transcendent Theosophy.  Whoever wants to study philosophy should not begin with Transcendent Theosophy, which holds the purest, most elevated, and most precise philosophical ideas.  Thus, it is obvious that a beginner won’t have the ability to understand the material, nor will a teacher be able to properly deliver the information to them.  The discussions that appear in the beginning of Bidāyah, such as, the fundamentality of existence (aṣālat ul-wujūd), gradation in existence (tashkīk ul-wujūd), simplicity of existence (bisāṭat ul-wujūd), mental existence (wujūd ul-dhihinī), etc… are deeply profound discussions which are rooted in ‘irfān.  It’s not correct for these to be presented to those with no philosophical nor ‘irfāni background.

Negative Consequences of Starting with Transcendent Theosophy

  1. Many beginners don’t fully comprehend the ideas which are taught. Little by little, this can lead to individuals becoming discouraged and abandoning philosophy altogether.
  1. They don’t feel the discussions are important and as a result, don’t enjoy studying philosophy. They say to themselves, “Existence is not my God, nor my prophet, nor can it heal my illnesses, nor solve any of society’s religious problems.  What’s the point of the fundamentality of existence?  Why should I waste my time with these discussions?”  When someone begins with Peripatetic Philosophy (al-ḥikmat ul-mashā`ī); however, the situation regarding negative feeling, questions, and confusions is reversed.  For example, in Ibn Sīnā’s (q) book Ishārāt, in the section covering Ilāhīyāt, the discussion begins as follows: “Everything that is sensed exists.”  Is the opposite true, “Everything that exists is sensed?”  Or rather, no, the opposite of a positive universal statement is a positive particular statement, meaning, “Some things that exist are sensed.”  A beginner student can easily understand this, can feel the need to address this, and in turn, enjoy studying philosophy, as is essential.
  1. If someone does end up understanding the discussions, it’s usually understood incorrectly and is far from reality. This improper understanding stays with them till the end, or at the very least, takes over their mind and thinking for a long time.  Many years later, when they finally realize that all this time they’ve been way off the mark, they would have already done major damage by imparting these mistaken ideas to others. 

The Correct Way to Study Philosophy

In order to avoid future complications, we must begin our studies in philosophy by first going through Peripatetic Philosophy (al-ḥikmat ul-mashā`ī), which is suitable and appropriate for beginner-level understanding and ability.  After that, begin Illuminationist Philosophy (al-ḥikmat ul-‘ishrāqī), which is an objection and reply to Peripateticisim.  Alongside this, we should read also be researching issues in theology (kalām).

After completing all of these, it is necessary to complete 1 full series on theoretical mysticism (‘irfān un-naẓarī) by going through Tamhīd al-Qawā’id and Qaysarī’s introduction to Fusūs.  At this point, you can finally begin Transcendent Theosophy which is composed of four elements: Peripateticisim, Illuminationist philosophy, theology, and ‘irfān.  No doubt, if someone is not familiar with these elements, especially the essential ‘irfānī subjects, they won’t be able to truly reach the depths of the words of Mulla Sadra (q) within the discussions of the fundamentality of existence, the conventionality of quiddity, etc…

Proposed Syllabus

  • First, study Manṭiq ul-Muẓaffar and become familiar with the technical terms in logic. Then, Manṭiq ul-Ishārāt and Burhān ul-Shifā`, which contains the life-blood of logic and comes to the aid of mankind.
  • Allamah Ṭabāṭabā`ī (q) had told some of his students, even famous ones such as Allamah Hasanzādeh Āmolī and Ayatullah Javādī Āmolī, “I don’t think you are strong in logic. You need to study Burhān ul-Shifā`.”  Thus, he himself taught these esteemed personalities this book.
  • 1 complete series of Peripatetic Philosophy (Hikmat ul-Ishārāt and Ilāhīyāt ush-Shifā`)
  • 1 complete series of Illuminations Philosophy alongside a book on theology, such as Allamah Ḥillī’s (h) Kashf ul-Murād
  • 1 complete series of theoretical mysticism (‘irfān un-naẓarī) by going through Tamhīd al-Qawā’id and Qaysarī’s commentary of Fusūs, specifically the introduction

You can then finally begin the works of Mulla Sadra (q) such as Shawāhid ur-Rubūbīyyah or al-Asfār al-Arba’ah. Keep this syllabus in mind and inshAllah, over the course of 15 years, you’ll become a wise ‘ārif, in theory.  If alongside your studies, you maintain your acts of worship and spiritual traversing (sayr o sulūk), you’ll become a wise ‘ārif in practice as well.


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