Monday, 11 April 2011

Ibn Arabi's World Affirming Spirituality

Ibn ‘Arabî strongly maintains inseparability of the corporeal and the spiritual in the human being. For him the world of matter is not profane or cursed as it as it is the “Breath of the Compassionate,” an effect of divine mercy on the inexistent things. It is essential to the realization of Spirit.  Deriving everything by applying first principles or seeing them as an expression of divine names and attributes he is logically is led to celebrate the body at both the macrocosmic and microcosmic levels and argues that the Universal Body is the first determinant of cosmic principles of arithmetic, geometry, and music. It is in fact the matrix for all corporeal entities in the known universe. He champions the view of affirmative transcendence. Catering to rights of both the individual and the society, contemplation and action he interprets retreat (khalwa) which asceticism and monasticism in different traditions advocates in such a way that it becomes quite compatible with active social or worldly life or jalwat which is emphasized by world-affirming socially conscious traditions such as Islamic and Chinese traditions. His view of sexuality and women also illustrate his view of affirmative transcendence. He sees in sexual union a prototype of the experience of fana though he insists that what is required is to witness God in woman, which he sees as he grandest and the most complete contemplation, because it is a witnessing of God as actor and acted-upon simultaneously (Fusūs). Sexual union is a form of contemplation, a foretaste of paradise as Ghazali also believed, and if carried with full awareness can lead to higher states of consciousness – an assertion that finds full expression in Tantricism and Kashmir Shaivism. The body is a theophany and thus the temple of God. Passion and desire are ultimately from God and directed to Him. There is nothing profane in itself. All actions are ultimately authored by God and thus can’t be evil in themselves.
The world of forms or manifestation is not a vain show; it is real and expresses a mode of Divine Life. Every event is meaningful and full of portents for the discerning people. Nothing is gratuitous. All so-called things are places of theophany rather than distractions which veil God. Everything can impart knowledge. So what room is there for escaping? And where shall one escape as wherever we turn there is God? One can flee to God only. All things can be enjoyed in God as for Eckhart.
            According to Ibn ‘Arabî a Sufi ideally goes to God from creation and comes back to creation with God. There are lures of samadhis or ecstasies that pull man back from creation but ideally a Sufi makes whole life a form of yoga, an experience of union with God as Aurobindo also would characterize his own integral spirituality.
            He affirms ceaseless becoming and change and says in his Kitâb al-isfâr 'an natâ'ij al-asfâr that there is no escape from ceaseless travel in all the worlds. The unity of the Real implies that that it is one and unique in its every act; the notion of divine infinity or All-Possibility implies that there is no monotony and no repetition in creation. This implies endless creativity and dynamism and subsumes much that is positive in process philosophies. Akbarian God never ceases creating/manifesting even though He is also the still center of existence. Though Being centred he sees only becoming the lot of man and brings together the insights of two divergent streams of philosophical thought – those of Parmenedies and Hereculus. Ibn ‘Arabî ’s view of history though not clearly or explicitly formulated would appropriate fundamental insights of Hegel regarding opportuneness of everything at a particuler movement and ultimate teleolgical heavenward (in the annals of the Spirit) movement of history. In fact Hegel had read something of Rumi and praised it very much and Ibn ‘Arabî  and Rumi share much between them – Ibn ‘Arabî  is largely Rumi in prose.
Ibn ‘Arabî ’s comment on the prophet’s practice of retreat in a cave in his earlier life expresses his affirmative view forcefully in which he states that had the Prophet gazed on the face of God in the people from which he fled to avoid constriction he felt in their presence he would have stayed with them as he later came to know. To quote his another statement:

But because there is no absolute separation between states, not even ultimately between God and creation, the return to society (return to creation) is merely a vertical descent after an ascent to God. Thus, for him whom God has given understanding, retreat and society (khalwa and jalwa) are the same. Rather, it may be that society is more complete for a person and greater in benefit, since through it at every instant once increases in knowledge of God.

For Ibn ‘Arabî, there is no visible thing which is not a manifestation of God capable of imparting knowledge. All so-called things are places of theophany rather than distractions which veil God. One of the purposes of retreat, then, is witnessing the Beauty of Oneness without as well as within, so that there is not seen to be this separation, this differentiation, between within and without.
Wherever you turn, there is the Beauty of His face.
Ibn ‘Arabî   strongly insists on the importance of this "world" as an essential aspect of human perfection and the essential ground of man's superiority to the purely spiritual beings. He strongly contrasts the lower, "immature" state of those "Knowers" ('arifun) who deny the reality of this world, and the station of the warithun (the true "heirs" of the prophets) who are always aware of God's theophanic Presence throughout this world. Zen and “this worldly” Islam have strongly emphasized the sacred character of this world. Samsara is indeed nirvana, heaven is indeed here on earth, and eternity is indeed here and now. But all these things are a matter of personal realization; only the one who has reached the other shore, who has been vouchsafed the vision of God can say so and not the one who is yet caught in the world of time and senses. Ibn ‘Arabî  asserts that this is the best possible world, a thesis made famous by Ghazali and later Leibnitz. In fact this easily follows from his understanding of divine names. The world is the expression of divine generosity and mercy. If the world were not the best it would entail an absurd proposition that God is ungenerous. If this world is gratuitous, and shows no signs of wisdom of the Designer as evolutionary perspective asserts then all attempts to wish it better and care for it are ultimately doomed on metaphysical grounds. There can be no lasting peace, order and equilibrium on earth unless we find and relate to these things in heaven. The Chinese express this notion very well and in fact it is found in other traditions. And it is Ibn ‘Arabî  who gives such an idea firm metaphysical anchorage.
Ibn ‘Arabî  sees God only (who alone is ultimately real for him) and therefore he, like other great mystics, celebrates the holiness and wholeness of life and his is not a sin-centred perspective. The lover of the Real sees neither sin nor guilt, neither distance or real alienation from the Real nor damnation for those who have gone astray – in fact there is no going astray ultimately, no slackening of God’s control. Nothing needs to be done to reach God, just awakening from the sleep of inattention or heedlessness. The world is the playground of God’s attributes and it is human, all-too-human weakness to evaluate in anthropocentric and moral terms. The attributes of majesty are not to be loathed at. Iblis is a friend in disguise as for Hallaj and the leader of the lovers as for Rumi. For Ibn ‘Arabî  God’s trickery (makr) is educative. What we ordinarily call evil and sin is not so at root or in the larger framework of divinely willed action. The sage is situated beyond good and evil. But all this doesn’t mean he makes a joke of traditional eschatology and commandments and is blind to the painful reality of suffering here and hereafter. His genius lies in respecting the traditional understanding of these things which make religion a serious thing, a matter of life and death but at the same time pleading for a deeper understanding at the plane of haqiqah where theological or religious notions get a metaphysical translation and become quite comprehensible.

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