“Ostad Elahi’s personality cannot be adequately summarised by merely describing him as a ‘philosopher.’ His vast theological and philosophical culture (inherited from Plato and Aristotle via Arabic philosophy and Islamic gnosis) had a meaning for him only within the framework of an ethical reflection and a life conduct.”
Prof. James W. Morris
Ostad Elahi, jurist, musician, and philosopher, was born in Iranian Kurdistan in 1895. During his youth, in keeping with a family tradition, he lived a life of asceticism and contemplation. At age 24, he gradually distanced himself from this lifestyle, which he found ill-adapted to his times, and decided to study and live an active life in the midst of society. He joined the judiciary and contributed through his work to the broad secularisation of Iranian society. This journey is quite contrary to ordinary forms of conversion: rather than retreating from the world or embracing a traditional lifestyle, Ostad Elahi chose to renew and develop the active principles contained in the teachings of ancient wise men, in the midst of modern life. He was also an accomplished musician. His compositions and interpretations revolutionised the art of the tanbur and he was later acknowledged by musical specialists to be a master (Ostad) of the instrument. Ostad Elahi retired in 1957 and dedicated himself fully to music, research and writing. He put his reflections on ethics and spiritual perfection—the fruit of a lifetime of experience—into writing in several theological and philosophical volumes. He passed away in Tehran in 1974.
Family tradition and religious context
The family of Ostad Elahi belongs to a long mystical lineage that dates back to the 14th century. Their religious tradition, the Ahl-e haqq order, is a branch of Islam similar to Sufism. His father, Haj Nemat, was a scholar, the author of a remarkable poetic work, The Book of the Kings of Truth. Henry Corbin, who compared this book to “an entire Bible”, published it in the 1960s. Haj Nemat was a great figure of the Ahl-e haqq tradition; he was considered a saint with a strong aura for people in Iranian Kurdistan where he was born. For Ostad Elahi, the Ahl-e haqq tradition was an important topic of research. His father had already engaged in a critical review of this tradition: he blasted the mercantile deviations that had developed with time, as is sometimes the case in religious orders. Ostad Elahi completed this work in a theology book in which he selected and highlighted the truly ethical and spiritual aspects of his tradition. While setting forth the original principles, beliefs and rituals with fragments of ancient texts and elements of oral tradition, he also called into question the established practices that ruled the relationships between the religious leaders and the believers. In doing so, he threatened the material interests of those who had used their position in the order as a means to gain profit and power.
The development of an original system of thought
In addition to this scholarly work, Ostad Elahi undertook philosophical, moral and spiritual reflection and developed it well beyond the traditions of his culture. One of its most striking aspects is that it broke away from the ascetic and contemplative practices of classical forms of mysticism.
Ostad Elahi set forth certain aspects of his spiritual philosophy in two main written works: a short treaty on the soul and an essay on the poetic work of his father. However, he expressed his thought and the concrete results of his ethical and spiritual experience most thoroughly through his oral teaching, provided informally to a relatively small number of friends or family members. Some of the notes taken by his entourage were later gathered by his son, Bahram Elahi, and published in two books that contain anecdotes and reflections, maxims and accounts of real life experiences, exegesis of spiritual or philosophical doctrines expressed in simple and direct words by Ostad Elahi. These books, which can be compared to the Confessions of Saint Augustine or to the Experiences of Truth by Gandhi, were a great success in Iran where they were re-edited numerous times.
Humanism made tangible
The originality of Ostad Elahi’s thought is to be found in the way in which he connects strictly spiritual or eschatological issues (perfection, salvation of the soul) to the ethical issues of daily life. Ostad Elahi developed his thought based on his personal experiences, and in return applied its guiding principles to both his private and professional sphere. In this respect, his reputation for integrity and his devotion to the cause of Justice in an environment where corruption and influence peddling were commonplace are signs of the tangible impact of his thought. The particular attention he paid to orphans throughout his career is another example of his commitment. The thought of Ostad Elahi, therefore, is by no means merely theoretical, but is anchored in the tangible world; put into practice, his thought is an example of humanism at work.
For more information about the life and works of Ostad Elahi, please refer to ostadelahi.com
The philosophy of Ostad Elahi
Process of perfection and ethical view of religion
In Ostad Elahi’s philosophy, the concrete approach to ethical issues rests upon a complete system of thought in which the concept of “right” holds a central place. Every spirit must realise itself in all its dimensions: it is its fundamental right. But in order for this to come to pass, one must know the true nature of the spirit. This is why the philosophical and theological principles that underlie the thought of Ostad Elahi are themselves sustained by a psychological theory of the workings of the spirit and the psyche. The view of Ostad Elahi is one of a world that is driven by a constant process of perfection, that applies to the entire universe and first and foremost, to the spiritual dimension of every being (called the “spirit” or “soul”). It reminds us, therefore, of the great philosophical systems inherited from the Greek tradition (Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus) via Arabic and Persian philosophy. According to this view, human life is a cycle of learning and development. It is up to every human being to cultivate real humanity within themselves and work to “make themselves as immortal as far as that is possible—as Aristotle’s saying goes—by means of the diligent practice of ethics: this practice is what enables the self to develop healthily and to allow all its virtualities to evolve to perfection. This practice, however, should be undertaken in the midst of society, within the framework of a normal and balanced life. At the same time we must encourage the development of a personal inner relationship with the divine, in other words, with a transcendence that, from a practical point of view, can be conceived of as the motor behind or energy source that fuels and orients any spiritual endeavour. In this, the thought of Ostad Elahi is an expression of the message that constitutes the “quintessence” common to all great spiritual traditions. This common message is independent of the ritual aspects specific to religious traditions. While he advocates a deep respect for every creed, Ostad Elahi emphasises ethics over traditional dogmas as a means of developing the soul. The ultimate values are altruism and attention, that is, the constant and sincere search for the fairest behaviour, word, and decision—one that takes into account the rights of all beings.
Ethics as the foundation of spiritual practice
Ethics, in its strongest sense, is at the center of Ostad Elahi’s thought: any endeavour that does not have as its core motivation the practice of ethics cannot be called “spiritual”. Consequently, what Ostad Elahi calls the “attention toward the Source” constitutes one of the key ingredients that enables a long-term commitment to the practice of ethics. By developing a daily inner relationship with a transcending, divine reference, human beings generate within themselves a desire for Good and become capable of concentrating an energy that enables them to gradually and efficiently gain control over the emotions and impulses that drive them to harm others and themselves. But attention itself cannot be separated from a process of cognitive maturation (“self-knowledge”) consisting in actively developing one’s spiritual intellect to reach a more and more acute understanding of the mechanisms that rule the self, particularly through one’s thoughts and emotions. Naturally, educating one’s own thought by means of sane and effective principles is the necessary condition for such cognitive development. Laying stress on the strictly rational dimension of the transformation of the self amounts to devaluing the ascetically-oriented aspect advocated in some spiritual rhetoric. For the objective is not to weaken the animal nature in man by drying up the very source of impulses, but rather to transmute one’s own substance by establishing a subtle equilibrium between the two poles, celestial and terrestrial, that compose the self. Concretely speaking, working on this adjustment consists in qualitatively transforming unstable characteristics (weak points) into real and lasting virtues. The true meaning of terrestrial, incarnate life is thus made clear: it is neither a punishment nor the final horizon for humans; it is a field of operations and a matrix out of which they must extract the best in order for the self to mature. Generally speaking, Ostad Elahi considers that the quest for altered states of consciousness or “supernatural powers” are mere “spiritual amusements” that are, at best, unproductive, and at worst, dangerous distractions that can harm one’s mental health and hinder one’s spiritual perfection.
Transmission of spirituality
Overall, Ostad Elahi was quite critical of the traditional master-disciple relationship, based on the submission and blind obedience of the disciple. He felt that this relationship, found in many spiritual traditions, is ill-adapted to a time when people want to rationally understand, in all conscience, the guiding principles of their lives. He believed that the transmission of spiritual knowledge should follow the model of educational training, based on in-person examples, rational explanations, and debate. The proper framework should be that of a teacher-student relationship: between a more experienced mind and a less experienced mind that seeks to understand. Such a relationship is incompatible with the unconditional submission that a disciple is supposed to offer to his master’s injunctions. It is also incompatible with any type of material or financial transaction, financial offerings or otherwise.
Beyond issues of transmission and learning, Ostad Elahi insisted more generally on the fact that, on our journey toward self-knowledge and perfection, we should never forego our freedom of conscience and our discernment. Because in the end, we must judge and decide for ourselves how we want to lead our life, in all its varying dimensions. No one can make this choice for us, and no one can impose a specific conduct upon us.
For more information about Ostad Elahi’s philosophy, you can read: Ostad Elahi’s thought in 7 Points.
See also the bibliography: Studies related to the life and works of Ostad Elahi.