Local Erbil writer works to revive ancient Kurdish philosophy

An illustration of 12th century Kurdish philosopher Shahabaddin Yehya Surawardi. (Photo: Archive)
An illustration of 12th century Kurdish philosopher Shahabaddin Yehya Surawardi. (Photo: Archive)

In an attempt to prove that the Kurdish people have a rich history of both philosophy and ancient wisdom, a writer in Erbil has been devoting his time to the effort of translating and analyzing the works of Surawardi, the 12th century founder of a mystical school of thought known as illumination.

Although many Eastern and Western scholars agree that illumination, sometimes called illuminationism, is one of the more significant philosophies of the period, it is not widely studied in academia. There are, however, exceptions such as Henry Corbin, the French philosopher who calls Surawardi the “Master of Illumination.”

When Shahabaddin Yehya Surawardi (1155-1191) was young, he was trained Avicennan Peripateticism, a form of Islamic philosophy. He wrote that he was later spurred by a dream-vision in which Aristotle, dead for some 1,500 years at the time, appeared to him. This caused Surawardi to reject the teachings of his youth and undertake the task of reviving an older, related philosophical tradition.

Hoshang Mohammed, a contemporary Kurdish writer and translator from the capital city of the modern-day Kurdistan Region, states that Surawardi founded his school to revive ancient Kurdish wisdom, as opposed to a more Persian-centric view.

Surawardi’s teachings, identified with theosophy, are collectively known as the “science of lights,” something he claimed he had perfected through mystical practice, reinforced later by logic and experience.

Due to his controversial arguments, thoughts, and ideas, he was criticized by the Islamic leadership of the time, leading to his death in 1191 at the hands of Saladdin, the sultan of Egypt and also an ethnic Kurd.

Hoshang thinks that Surawardi was not truly against the core teachings of Islam, nor was he against any other religions and ideologies. He was well-versed in the standard spiritual teachings of the time, out of which he created his own.

“One of Surawardi’s sources for his works was the holy Quran,” Mohammed says, but says it clearly wasn’t the only source drawn upon.

Hoshang Mohammed, a Kurdish writer and translator from Erbil.
Hoshang Mohammed, a Kurdish writer and translator from Erbil.

Surawardi’s books were published in Arabic, the lingua franca of the time and region. Mohammed thinks that they might have originally been written in Kurdish, but were never published as such for reasons that are now lost to history.

Dating Surawardi’s specific works can be challenging and not all of them have firm dates attached to them. John Walbridge, an expert in Islamic philosophy, names his major works as such: A book about the journey of the soul called Temples of Light, a tome describing his own philosophy entitled Flashes of Light and Intimations (1180), Philosophy of illumination (1186), Paths and Havens (1180s), and Opposites (1180-1185), a further explanation of various issues discussed in his previous writings. Other short works available for study to modern academics include his letters and multiple other manuscripts.

Mohammed has so far translated three modern editions of Surawardi’s output from Arabic to Kurdish: The Philosophy of Illumination (2020); From the Letters of Surawardi (2020); and a smaller scale work called The Red Angel (2020). He has also analyzed these works in a book entitled “Reading Surawardi’s philosophy of illumination (2020). He is set to publish two more books about the great thinker: One that looks at epistemology from Surawardi’s perspective and another that casts Illumination as a critical contemplation from Surawardi to Nietzsche.

Mohammed has taken this responsibility to also establish a cornerstone for a school of criticism for Kurdish literature. He told Kurdistan 24 that this philosophy proves that Kurdish people had their own philosophy and had an influential place in Eastern, Western, and Islamic cultures.

Mohammed says he has collected different kinds of evidence that show that Surawardi, also known as the “murdered master,” was indeed Kurdish. He lived in Kurdish-majority areas and was accompanied by Kurdish people in the following Kurdish cities and towns: Suraward, Maragha, Amed, Mardeen, Miafarqeen, and Aleppo.

Suraward is a village that belongs to Kurdistan, he says. “Ibn Hawqal says the majority of Suraward dwellers are Kurdish, and the village resembles Sharezoor in its beauty.”

Mohammed goes back to the 13th century’s philosopher Ibn Khalakan, who referred to Surawardi as Kurdish, as well as Ibn Taimiya, who in his masterpiece clearly states, “Surawardi is Kurdish.” Other sources, he adds, refer to the name of the village as Suhraward, Suraward, or Sutrabard as a village within Kurdistan territory.

Surawardi mixed pre-Islamic gnosis with Greek philosophy and synthesized it with Islamic wisdom. He thought that the Greek philosophers such as Plato and the Egyptian Hermes shared the same ancient wisdom long before and that his philosophy of illumination was its rediscovery.

Since none of his works was translated into Latin, though, he remained unknown in the West.

"In northwestern Iran, Sohravardi (Surawardi) carried out the great project of reviving the wisdom or theosophy of ancient pre-Islamic Zoroastrian Iran,” says Henry Corbin, the French philosopher.  

When asked why he has chosen to focus so much of his effort and time on the old master, Mohammed says that Surawardi’s philosophy can guide those individuals who are lost today in the materialistic world.

Not only that, he adds, Surawardi can guide them to live and think better, think critically.

Editing by John J. Catherine