Suhrawardi and the Philosophy of Light

“The third class of the followers of Hermes were the Illuminationists, the descendants of Hermes’ sister.”

-Ibn Wahshiya, Ancient Alphabets

Islamic scholars faced confusion regarding Hermes Trismegistus. While recognizing his significance through attributed books on alchemy, astrology, and ethics, contradictory historical accounts and the enigmatic titles “Hermes” and “Trismegistus” led to multiple, conflicting interpretations of Hermes in Arabic sources.

The name Hermes is typically transcribed in Arabic as Hirmis, although variations such as Harmis and Irmis also exist. The translation of Hermes Trismegistus into Arabic includes expressions like Hirmis al-muthallath bi’l-hikma, meaning “Hermes, threefold in wisdom,” or Hirmis al-muthallath bi’l-ni’am, signifying “threefold in blessings.” However, a more commonly used rendition is Hirmis al-Harāmisa, which translates to “Hermes of the Hermai.”

Building on the assumption that Hermes was used by different persons and therefore was possibly an honorary title, Muslim scholars speculated that there were three distinct sages named Hermes, each residing in different times and locations. Once this notion took hold, it became relatively easy to attribute various pieces of available information to one of the three Hermai.

The concept of three Hermai was not unique to Muslim scholars; pseudo-Manetho referred to two Hermai. The first lived before the Flood and was named Thoth, responsible for inscribing stelae with hieroglyphics. The second, the son of Agathosdaimon and father of Tat, translated these hieroglyphics into Greek and compiled them into books deposited in Egyptian temples.

Several other Hermetic figures became entwined in these connections. Agathosdaimon, identified with Seth (Adam’s son) and Hermes’s teacher, was considered the “first (or second) ūrīyā.” Hermes Trismegistus was recognized as the third üriyā, although the precise meaning of this term remains unclear. It is likely related to the “first and second Arani,” who were prophets of the Sabians of Harran. According to ‘Abd al-Razzaq al-Kāshānī, a commentator on Ibn ‘Arabi, the Illuminationists claimed to be followers of these figures.

Enoch, credited with the discovery of writing and the recipient of divine revelations encompassing astrology, arithmetic, and astronomy, is easily equated with Hermes Trismegistus. Quțb al-Din Shīrāzi, a commentator on Suhrawardi, explicitly makes this connection, stating, “Hermes Trismegistus [Hirmis al-Harāmisa], the Egyptian, who is known as Idris the Prophet.”

Read more: The Arabic legend of the three Hermeses

Hermes in the work of Suhrawardi

Among the Oriental sages featured in Suhrawardi’s works, Hermes holds the highest prestige. He surpasses figures like Zoroaster, the Persian kings, and others, who primarily serve as embodiments of mythical interpretations of metaphysical light and Platonic Forms. Hermes also outshines Babylonians, Indians, and even the Buddha, who only appears in the context of reincarnation.

Hermes’ significance lies not only in his antiquity as the “father of sages” but also in his foundational role in the various traditions crucial to Suhrawardi. As the “father of sages,” he serves as the common ancestor of Greek, Egyptian, and Persian philosophical traditions converging in Suhrawardi’s philosophy.

Although strongly associated with Egypt as an Oriental sage, Hermes also underlies the Chaldaean and Egyptian traditions of wisdom in his Hermes persona. Thus, he emerges as the universal sage, transcending cultural and philosophical boundaries.

Philosophy as Revelation

Suhrawardi’s significant association with the Hermetic tradition centers around the theme of philosophy as revelation. What sets the Hermetica apart from Greek philosophy is their nature as revelations rather than reasoned arguments. 

The concept of intuitive philosophy in Suhrawardi’s philosophy aligns closely with the Hermetic notion of philosophy as revelation. Hermes views philosophy as a form of divine revelation without much further elaboration. Hermes imparts the true doctrine to a disciple, who accepts it based on the authority of his divine teacher.

A distinctive feature linking the Illuminationist mystics to the Hermetic tradition is the recurring cast of characters, including Hermes, Asclepius, Agathosdaimon, Tat, and others. While not universally applicable, this criterion proves valid in the context of Suhrawardi and the Illuminationists. 

Phrases in Suhrawardi’s works like “the messengers and lawgivers such as Agathosdaimon, Hermes, Asclepius, and others” indicate a direct connection with the hermetic texts, as these are precisely the characters featured in the Hermetica as we know them. Therefore, categorizing Suhrawardi as a Hermetist is a valid characterization.

Read more: The Lost Book of Alchemy by Agathosdaimon, the teacher of Hermes

Mystical lineage

Suhrawardi’s writings reveal a profound connection to the Hermetica through a mystical lineage that he traces back to the Sufis Dhu’l-Nün al-Misti and Sahl al-Tustari. In a dream recounted by Suhrawardi, Aristotle distinguishes certain Sufis, particularly Abū Yazid Basțāmī and Tustari, as true mystics. Dhu’l-Nün is an early Egyptian Sufi from Akhmim (ancient Panopolis). 

Akhmim resided in the “Hermetica Belt”, close to Nag Hammadi (less than 100 km to the north) and Hermoupolis (about 180 km to the south) where the tomb of Hermes Trismegistus was.

Hermetic Timeline

  • Third century – A soldier left in Akhmim an inscription venerating “the great god Hermes Trismegistus”, one of the earliest mentions of this name.
  • Fourth century – The Nag Hammadi library likely dates from this time.
  • Sixth century – A Christian source mentioned a sect of “Hermaioi” linked to the Egyptian mysticus Valentinus.
  • Ninth century – Butrus al-Hakim al-Akhmimi referenced Hermes and Zosimos in some of his works. 
  • Tenth-century – The renowned alchemist Ibn Umayl, also an Egyptian, recounted acquiring his knowledge through visits to an Egyptian temple. In his works, Ibn Umayl cited Hermes and Zosimos, drawing inspiration from lost Greek Hermetica.

Abū Sahl al-Tustari, an Iranian Sufi born around 818-896, was a disciple of Dhu’l-Nün, whom he encountered during a pilgrimage to Mecca around A.D. 834, Tustari is associated with anecdotes about their relationship. Some evidence suggests Tustari visited Egypt with Dhu’l-Nün, and he began teaching his own doctrine of God as light after Dhu’l-Nün’s death.

Read more: Zosimis, Dhu’l-Nun al-Misri and the continuation of hermetic wisdom

Occult sciences

Suhrawardi didn’t extensively delve into occult sciences in his writings. Interestingly, his philosophical works therefore align more closely with the philosophical Hermetica in this regard than the technical Hermetica that was far more popular in Arabic mysticism.

However, Suhrawardi’s philosophical system provides intellectual foundations for the occult sciences, offering explanations for astrology, magic, and likely alchemy in Illuminationist terms. He mentions the grand conjunction of the seven planets coinciding with the completion of “The Philosophy of Illumination.” 

Suhrawardi cites Hermes from pseudo-Apollonius on the concept of “perfect nature” (ţibā’ tâmma), a central doctrine in occult hermeticism. Additionally, he composed a prayer directed towards his own perfect nature. Biographical sources note his familiarity and also his practice with magical angelic language (simiya) and talismanic letter magic.

In the Illuminationist philosophy of Suhrawardi, knowledge emanates from light, and the advancement towards God occurs through self-awareness. Suhrawardi explicitly notes that Hermes (and Plato) spoke of personally experiencing the divine light as the soul transcends the body’s darkness. In Suhrawardi’s Intimations, Hermes is portrayed praying before a night sun in the temple of light, seeking deliverance from evil and ascending to the lofty reaches of the throne.

Suhrawardi’s writings consistently align with the themes found in Hermetic texts. They share a primary focus on theological matters, a reliance on revelation over reason, and a relatively lesser interest in and treatment of scientific subjects.

Suhrawardi contends that his own mystical vision of the Platonic Forms mirrors that experienced by Agathosdaimon, Hermes, and Plato. He encourages seekers to witness the light in the Kingdom of Power, echoing the visions seen by Hermes of “the light of powers beyond number.”

Drawing on another Hermes vision, Suhrawardi quotes, “Do not imagine that the lord of a species is a body or bodily, or that it has a head or two feet. You have found that Hermes said, ‘A spiritual essence gave me knowledge, so I asked it, “Who are you?” It replied, “I am your perfect nature (țibā’uka al-tāmma).””

Had Suhrawardi encountered an Arabic translation of the Corpus Hermeticum as known today, it likely would not have prompted him to revise his views on Hermes or his approach to the philosophy of Illumination. 


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