Monday, 11 April 2011

Ibn Arabi on Interpreting Texts

Ibn ‘Arabî  repeatedly claims that he is not applying any external ideological paradigm or scheme of interpretation on the sources of Islamic tradition but only reflecting or meditating on them and internalizing deeper meanings implicit in them. He is not selectively reading them or forcing a certain interpretation on them in order to substantiate or legitimize independently conceived philosophical position such as monism or pantheism. From a traditionalist perspective there is no need to wrangle over interpretations, no point in debating the truth or attempting to find the absolute, final interpretation. The chaos we find in modern criticism on the issue of meaning and correct reading of a text doesn’t arise at all in Ibn ‘Arabî ’s view. As long as one approaches a text as an object and seeks for any hidden or final meaning and tries to establish his own standpoint on that basis one may not get anywhere. Meaning is experienced or revealed to a traveler on the path. One only needs to polish the mirror of the heart and it will reflect the truth, plain and simple. True knowing is being the object of knowledge. Truth is not in words but in states and stations induced on contemplating these words. Ibn ‘Arabî  reiterates time and again that God is to be tasted rather than discussed and this (dis)solves the problems of interpretation for good. Ibn ‘Arabî  offers a challenge to all theologians and critics to develop that higher perception he calls unveiling (kashf). From his perspective the enterprise of higher criticism applied to elucidation of sacred texts which make no reference to moral purification or polishing the mirror of self is laughable venture. Unless the sacred text is revealed afresh to one’s heart nothing can illumine its real meaning according to him. Modern civilization dictates terms to reality and doesn’t let reality to dictate and this is its undoing. Ibn ‘Arabî  champions the premodern view which privileges the rights of the Reality against us  but which modernity rejected by emphasizing individualism and subjectivism which dictate terms to Reality and advocates a discipline that silences the mind so that the unknown shall speak. Our problem is we are not receptive to the revelations of the Real. Modernism is arrogantly after interpretations, questioning and refining them but the encounter with the Real in all its nakedness eludes him. Because of his denial of intellectual intuition and revelation of any nontextual supralinguistic knowledge postmodernists like Derrida are unable to transcend the relativistic plane of language. Analytical philosophical tradition too is trapped in the cobwebs of language and linguistic analysis. These imply that he is denied the deliverance by truth or self realization as understood in the Akbarian worldview. The Faustian man, obstinately committed to perpetual interpretation, doesn’t open himself to reality as has been remarked by many a critic of modernism. He dictates terms to reality and doesn’t allow himself to be consumed/annihilated by it which is universally recognized as the condition of entering the higher life, life divine or birth in the kingdom of heaven as a jivan mukta. It is only modern civilization which is ever anxious to speak to reality rather than allow reality to speak to reality rather than allow reality to speak to it and that accounts for modern man’s obsession with the realm of interpretation. He doesn’t taste the Real as he has chosen to alienate himself from it; he wishes to eliminate the element of mystery and thus the sacred from the world. Life as a mystery invites us to be dissolved by it, consumed by it.  Modernity through rationalization and familiarization and consequent descaralization of the world has ceased to feel the extent of the mystery of what we ordinarily deem to be familiar things; to see phenomena as symbols of deeper reality of God. The more he interprets, the more he loses contact with the Real.
The Quranic claim that messengers have been sent to all the nations/communities is understandable and demonstrable only in the light of metaphysical exegesis of the Quran that Ibn ‘Arabî  provides. The doctrine of tawhid is intrinsic or innate to human mind and the discipline of sharia is meant to realize/develop this consciousness of God’s reality and unity.
Ibn ‘Arabî  says that there is not one intention of God that we need to get to. There is not one determinate meaning only. He opens up the space for potentially infinite meanings – every new reading should disclose new meanings of the sacred text according to him. He says that the author of the Quran intends every meaning understood by every reader, and he reminds us that human authors cannot have the same intention. Meaning closure that postmodernists are very much concerned about never happens in his view. The real meaning is with God but all meanings participate in that divine meaning. All things speak of the Beloved and are portals to the Infinite. Polysemy for him results not from infinity of contexts but because of multiplicity of souls or addresses. All this implies that fundamentalism and theological imperialism have no warrant.
He tells us, much to the delight of postmodernists, that the author of the Quran intends every meaning understood by every reader, and he reminds us that human authors cannot have the same intention. Ibn ‘Arabî  thinks that the sacred text containd inexhaustible riches of meaning which can’t be deciphered through a single reading or even multiple readings.  In fact for him there can be no final reading, no full stop to infinite never repetable creativity of God. Meanings in the three books – the book of verses, the book of universe, the book of the soul – are never repeated according to him. He accordingly tells us that if someone re-reads a Quranic verse and sees exactly the same meaning that he saw the previous time, he has not read it “properly” – that is, in keeping with the haqq of the divine speech. This is a strategy that ensures meaning closure that postmodernists are very much concerned about never happens. It also questions all totalizing and exclusivist fundamentalist interpretations. It best ensures that polysemy and polyphony of the sacred text is respected and men will ever be tolerent for divergent interpretations. We may note that polysemy results not from infinity of contexts but because of multiplicity of souls or addresses. We can’t be allowed the typical irresponsible Derridean play with the text where one makes it a point to misread, to deconstruct, to question, to hunt for the gaps. Ibn ‘Arabî  affirms multiplicity of meaning rather than no given or potential meaning to be laboriously, in all humility searched, a process which may require moral qualification also of which it is absurd to talk in the Derridean context. However there are convergences between the two approaches. There is no such thing as unique meaning or final interpretation or the only true interpretation for both Ibn ‘Arabî  and Derrida. Ibn ‘Arabî ’s Quran is an open intertext that contains layers upon layers of hidden meanings. Nothing can be a better antidiote to theological imperialism. About Truth he has written in the vein of Hafiz:
She has confused all the learned of Islam,
Everyone who has studied the Psalms,
Every Jewish Rabbi,
Every Christian priest.
However it must be noted that Ibn arabi is able to affirm and access the extratextual or extralinguistic reality and that differentiates him from all those who think we are trapped in the world constructed by language and metaphysics or knowledge of the beyond is impossible. This avoids relativism and nihilism. Postmodernism questions idols of thought and rational philosophies only to leave us in an agnosticism where nothing is certain, nothing holy, nothing true, nothing worthy, nothing dependable. Ibn ‘Arabî, on the contrary, traveling farther and farther on the road of negation, is able ultimately to access the Real and bring the joyful news of infinite riches that are hidden in It. He finds nothing but God’s face in all directions, in all places. He celebrates everything that there is. For him all experiences are to be treasured because they lead us greater and greater knowledge of God. For him life is a revelation of the Real which is made of the substance of joy and therefore is a carnival of lights. God is, in one mystic’s sweet phrase, “the Great Sweetness.” Richard Rolle saw mystic communion as the soul’s participation in a supernal harmony – that sweet minstrelsy of God in which “thought into song is turned.” If everything is a veritable theophany and thus epiphany for Ibn Arabi what else than bliss or Ananda would describe his essentially aesthetic appropriation of Reality?

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