Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Who Is Ibn Arabi?

Encyclopedic scholar, mystical philosopher, mystic, theologian, “the Seal of the Muhammeden  Saints,” Ibn ‘Arabî, known as the "Greatest Master," is the most influential Sufi-metaphysician and the greatest exponent of Divine Love in the history of Islam. His works are arguably the deepest and densest explorations of varied dimensions of the Islamic Tradition. Though an exponent of mystical unveiling he appropriates the religion of reason of Late Antiquity and builds one of the most imposing “systems” of thought, at once rational, mystical and religious directed towards attaining the supreme aim of eudaimonia, sa'âda which has been the prerogative of traditional philosophies, religions and wisdom traditions of the world. He is, self avowedly, the heir of the prophetic and mystical wisdom of countless generations and indeed it appears that God hid nothing from him and he is undoubtedly unrivalled in unpacking multidimensional meanings and significance of Islamic tradition. Combining in himself all the traditionally recognized paths to the Ultimate Reality –mysticism, philosophy, poetry and religion – he is a man of all seasons representing Islam’s multidimensional – theological, mystical, metaphysical and aesthetical – genius and is, arguably, the medieval Islam’s greatest contribution to the world and quite relevant to the era of postmodernity. His integral spirituality appropriates of all the traditional paths to God, all the basic forms of yoga – bhaktic, jnanic and karmic. Every orthodox tradition can claim him. He has resonances everywhere, in the universe of faiths and philosophies. His notion of man is most comprehensive in world history. He is universally orthodox. He is the conscience of world spirituality, a challenge to all secular worldviews and the central theses of rationalistic scientistic modernity and relativist postmodernity which are blatantly ignorant or choose to be ignorant of the rights and joys of the sacred or transcendence.
            It has rightly been remarked that the subsequent Muslim thought is largely a footnote on Ibn ‘Arabî. No other saint has written so much and that too of such a quality. He is the most prolific philosopher-mystic of history. His is the most comprehensive formulation of Islamic spirituality. Ibn ‘Arabî  demonstrates why and how Islam stands for the rights or primacy of intelligence and objectivity. He is the most universal of mystic-philosophers as he has ample room for all kinds of outsiders – atheists, heterodox thinkers, sinners etc. He is widely traveled not only on the earth – human atmosphere – but also in the heavens – divine stratosphere. His dialogues with previous prophets and saints constitute one of the most profound encounters with transcendence and proof of intimations of the higher life of Spirit. His notion of man is most comprehensive in world history.
He is first of all a metaphysician and then a theologian. Whether it is his exposition of tawhid, epistemology or eschatology he could primarily be appreciated in metaphysical terms. His religious thought is subservient to his metaphysical intuitions. He doesn’t approach Reality from speculative ratoicinatory framework which is the prerogative of a philosopher or a theologian and that is why he transcends dualistic philosophical and theological framework and the limitations necessarily connected with them which have precipitated great problems in the history of religion and philosophy, especially in the modern West. For a sage there is ultimately no problem or contradiction because he, through intellective intuition transcends all problem creating and logical thought structures and paradigms. At the realizational level all conflicts that are centred on or revolve round reason and language are transcended. Ibn ‘Arabî  is first and foremost a sage, a gnostic and he is only secondarily a thinker or philosopher concerned with systematic and coherent view of the world that follows from fundamental intuitions and received wisdom of the prophets. He preserves the centrality of Revelation but at the same time pleads for the independent rights of mystical and metaphysical intuitions theoretically available to anyone who takes the necessary pains in self-discipline. He speaks the universal language of love that everybody can understand. In more than 400 books (according to one estimate) he formulated and promulgated with extraordinary clarity and force the meanings and expression of the principle of unity of existence, which is at the heart of world traditions.
Approaching the fundamental problems of religion and philosophy from a perspective of what Qunawi called  mashrab al-tahqîq, “the school of realization” which is to be differentiated from that the approaches of philosophy and scholastic theology, Ibn ‘Arabî  embarks on the most ambitious project of discovering or realizing the Real, the Supreme Principle and Ground of all reality and truth. He assigns himself the task of not only intellectually knowing but existentialy realizing truth and reality and the rights and worth of everything that is as is implied in the designation of the Supreme Principle as the True, the Real (Al-Haqq). This is a task of philosophy, religion, ethics, sciences and in fact all disciplines of knowledge and he comes up, employing most diverse means available to man – rational, empirical and mystical – , with the rarest of rare gems of wisdom which are in fact keys to the holiest and most sublime and fundamental mysteries of life. It is he, rather than Bacon or any modern thinker, who truly takes whole knowledge as his province keeping open all the gateways to supraindividual and suprapersonal reality/existence, the domain of non-self. Employing metaphysical perspective (which, by definition and as the perennialist authors point out, corresponds most closely to pure truth and is better called metaperspective or divine perspective due to its universality and comprehensiveness) instead of religious/theological which necessarily anthropomorphizes or rational philosophical approaches which inevitably is limiting because of the limiting faculty it uses (reason/reflection/logic/concepts/categories), he achieves, arguably, the most comprehensive synthesis or integration of diverse sciences in Islamic history and that in fact accounts for his universality and perennity. His aim ultimately is the vision of truth or knowledge of things as they are (essences/noumena) and to be that truth and thus fulfill the primordial vacation of man according to all traditions.
For Ibn Arabi only the Absolute is absolute and this implies that none of the religions, philosophies, ideologies or worldviews can claim absolute truth. Clinging to views, as the Buddha would express it, is inadvisable according to Ibn Arabi. Nothing can contradict or problematize/deconstruct a “perspective” (more precisely metaperspective or noperspective) that relativizes or even brackets off all human views of the Real/ the Truth or Al-Haqq. As a consistent nondualist he has no doctrines or beliefs of his own that are formulatable in propositional logical deconstructable categories to argue for or against. He anticipates most of key thought currents that have shaped the modern outlook but keeping guard lest they degenerate into isms or be absolutized as metanarratives.  The rights of experience, reason, intuition, revelation all are recognized but no empiricism or positivism, intuitionism, rationalism and fidesism is allowed to emerge. The rights of both time and eternity, immanence and transcendence, man and God, self and nonself, animate and animate worlds, visible and invisible realms, history and metahistory, this world and the otherworld are recognized. The truth or haqq of all possibilities, potentialities, manifestations are in principle taken care of. He is not exclusively a theologian or a mystic or a philosopher or an ideologue of this or that thought. He is not a humanist who doesn’t lift up his eyes to heavens and sees all possibilities and potentialities exhausted in earthly career, a rationalist philosopher caught in the categories of reason, a theologian who behaves as if God needed an advocate or special secretary and he is the one, a mystic whose rational life is flooded by subjective life of feelings but a humanitarian philosopher-mystic-theologian all simultaneously. Because he is a poet as well besides  being a philosopher or a theologian he embraces wider angle of what constitutes universal human experience. To our astonishment this king of gnostics is a muhaddis, a scholar of prophetic traditions – the naqli science – and mujtahidi mutlaq – a radical jurist with sophisticated and original views on fundamental legal questions. He is a strict monotheist but didn’t reject idolaters as utterly misguided finding God as the true object of worship despite what men would erroneously think sometimes. He is the strong upholder of universal orthodoxy, of purity of doctrine but found truth, though not the whole or exclusive truth in all doctrines. He is the hier of Abrahamic Tradition but doesn’t exclude even Pharoah from salvation. He is a proof of human greatness, comprehensiveness and catholicity. So subtle a thinker, so catholic a sensibility and so imposing and majestic the structure of his thought that it appears that he is simply incomparable in the history of religion and mysticism. When compared to such giants as Chuang Zu, Nagarjuna, Augustine, Sankara, Ramanuja, Abhinavgupta, Eckhart and other  giants in the history of religion and mysticism he appears unique in his prolificacy, breadth, boldness, influence and sense of a mission as the heir of the Prophet, the Seal of Muhammedan Sainthood. His towering personality and impeccable personal character have been noted and hailed by his adversaries and critics also. True to the Eastern logic of polarities as against the Western one of oppositions his teachings  are often bipolar or seemingly ambivalent and ambiguous because he is true to life in all its variegated hues and even contradictions.  He contains multitudes and lesser mortals have, in their zeal to see in black/white terms the essentially grey reality, accused him of contradictions. His position could well be expressed in terms of famous formulae of other traditions such as ‘The truth that can be named is not the Truth,’ ‘samsara is nirvana’ and ‘tat twam asi.’ As a spokesperson of Sophia Perennis and the Religion of Adam he appeals universally. He has only one maxim to preach to all which is to be light unto oneself. He pleads for tasting God/ Truth revealed in every experience and thus available to all and the sundry. He has only the  superabundant joy that God signifies to him to share. His heart has enough room for all men and all kinds of worship and even blasphemies, all kinds of beliefs including the position that transcends all beliefs or suspends commitment to all beliefs when he makes God the only Reality that is affirmed even in every act of denial. In the sanctuary of his heart all the universes disappear or dissolve and what comes out is the fragrance of love. His understanding of Divine Names is so comprehensive that nothing real or virtual/potential is left out unaccounted including all kinds of errors and blasphemies, perversions and misguidance. A consistent Unitarian is indeed expected to accommodate everything under and above the sun. A purely religious or theological view of Ibn Arabi is simply category mistake. Ibn Arabi can be approached or understood only through a perspective of love/unicity that transcends all dualistic discursive categorical conceptual paradigms. The One alone is, unique. Attawhid-u-wahid. Judge not as Jesus said. Those who have gone forth or passed away in fana to the other shore where the Unconditioned alone is can’t be judged because they don’t judge others. Ibn Arabi is precisely the statement of transcendence and thus incorruptibility of Spirit/Intellect. The Spirit in the Perfect Man transcends all the individualities of existence as Al-Jili, the great gnostic in the Akbarian lineage, said. With his one eye on the Absolute, the Reality that is majmaul azdad (coincidentia oppositorum in the terminology of Nicholas of Cusa), he unifies all contradictions that the world seems to throw before us and provides firm metaphysical basis for universalism but with his feet planted firmly on earth or samsara he recognizes the rights of the conditioned finite temporal world constituted by all kinds of dualities and sees moral distinctions as real and moral struggle to be of pivotal importance both for an individual and history. His Absolute doesn’t engulf the concrete existential individuality and the awful reality of suffering that marks the odyssey of life.  He charts out a method to move from majestic to beautiful names of God and thus securing the rights of the man of flesh and blood with all his agonies to be heard. His God is not just a cold unconcerned impersonal divinity but living personal one also which responds to prayer of every individual and even lauds human “weakness” to complain about all kinds of pains. Existentialists would hardly have any problem with the account of concrete human individuality presented by Ibn Arabi even if it is Absolute centric and essentialist metaphysics to which he remains committed. Ibn Arabi’s “system” demonstrates that there is much that is wrong with modern man’s understanding of metaphysics, the great Platonic tradition in which we can place him. Metaphysics is not an abstraction, existence devaluing essentialism, a supraindividualism that fails to take ample note of the individual with all his frailties, atemporal ahistorical bragging of eternity but quite respectful of temporality and history, a dissolution of the finite in the Infinite but recognition of the integral reality of plurality or diversity in the One or the Infinite itself which otherwise divorced from the mirror of attributes that the world of form and colour is  gets reduced to empty abstraction. Ibn Arabi’s Absolute is not static but dynamic ever revealing or manifesting itself, eternally in love with its exteriorized manifestations, realizing other modes of perfection in spatio-temporal realm, even in what is called as sin and failure. Thus passion, thought, will all are real in the life of God which is the life of everything.
Ibn ‘Arabî  is the most debated and the most misunderstood Sufi thinker. He has been charged with pantheism, polytheism, paganism, monism, deception etc. but all these charges are quite easily refutable and have been convincingly refuted by many scholars. He minces no words in rejecting heresy of incarnation. Ibn ‘Arabî’s first principle is unamnifest Absolute which is Mystery of Mysteries i.e., transcendent. He emphatically warns against what he calls illusions of unification (ittihad) in his Kitab al-Asra. He never uses the expression wahdatul wajud for which he is most famous though notorious in theological circles and though his disciples later coined the expression but they never used it in the sense of pantheism or in such sense as would warrant Ibn Taymiyyah’s condemnation as erasing all distinction of different levels of existence, of good and evil and of God and servant. He uses expressions which state both the theses of wahdat al-shuhud and wahdat al-wujud in conjunction and it is this combination, which Sirhindi later stressed but attributed only the latter to him, that expresses his integral understanding. Shah Waliullah and others have explained his position very well vis-à-vis Sirhindi. He rejects nothing that passes as the canon of exoteric Islam and affirms orthodox creed in the beginning of Futūhāt. He only reads deeper meanings in it and this doesn’t warrant condemnation from orthodox authorities. His theological critics like Ibn Taymiyah and neosalafi thinkers approach him from theological perspective which is a category mistake as he is basically approaching everything from the perspective of metaphysics of which theology is a distant and inadequate reflection or translation. He is a greater literalist in matters eschatological and juristic than many of his critics. His Unitarianism is not philosophical monism as many have been misled to believe. He sticks strictly to philology even if he sometimes seems to stretch too far his interpretative maneuverings. His respect for the sacred law is so unambigously stated in his understanding of furqan that one hardly needs to refute his theological critics who accuse him of nullifying divine commandments or erasing distinction between good and evil though he is against absolutizing these distinction as at the plane of union it is idolatry to maintain any distinction. Ibn ‘Arabî  saw himself as heir to guardian of prophetic wisdom and thus sacred law which is respectful of dualities at the plane of relativity. It is mysticism respectful of law and haqiqah identical with sharia as he once put it of which he speaks. This aligns him with traditional religious camp. He assimilates at once exoteric and esoteric, moral and intellectual, theological and philosophical, mystical and metaphysical, bhaktic and jnanic, human and divine perspectives in his comprehensive synthesis that respects prophets, sages, and philosopher-sages of all traditions wedded to revelation/intellection/gnosis. He upholds the rights of both the letter (forms) and spirit (supraformal truth) and believes that the best method to realize supraformal truth is not by disregarding forms as libertine gurus advocate but by realizing or penetrating the forms. This makes him an ideologue of law centred prophetic traditions.
He can provide the paradigm in which we could appropriate not only the great traditional philosophers like Plato and Plotinus, Nagarjuna and Sankara, Eckhart and Cusanus, Chaung Zu and Lao Tzu, Dogen and Confucius (serious attempts have been made in this direction already) but the saints of all hues, from almost all traditions and even modern philosophers like Nietzsche, Heidigger and Derrida. In fact the whole gamut of Tradition, as the perennialists use the term, is his province. Buddhism and antiessentialist postmodern thought could be read, without much stretching, as proving the negative part of the thesis of Ibn ‘Arabî  regarding essential nothingness of all phenomena. He qualifies as a world teacher. He encorages us to take Islam in the universal sense of submission to the divine will. His metaphysical view of the Muhammad as the Principle of Manifestation, as positivity of manifestation, as Logos rather than a mere historical personality can hardly be characterized as exclusivist. All prophets partake of the Logos that is Muhammad. History is moving prophetword. The electron, the earth, the sun, the galaxies all revolve round the centre called Muhammad. Being that which manifests or unveils Essence the Messenger is green in the leaves, red in the roses and gold in the rays of the sun. He is this life in its positivity, in its totality. And he is the silence of the darkness. And he is the joy of abounding life of the world.
He provides a possible approach to achieve unity of sciences or knowledge which is increasingly becoming difficult to achieve for modern education. He leads to an all-inclusive point of view, which is not limited to the world of nature, or to humanity, to science, economics or religion, but which sees all of these as faces of a single reality described by the doctrine of unity the kernel of which is, in the apt words of Young,
love and the love of that love, which is movement and life, and the perfection of completion, simple, positive, joyful news of their intrinsic and inseperable unity with their origin, offering freedom from the tyranny of the thought of otherness, in exchange for the certainty in one, absolute and all-embracing Reality, to Which, to Whom all service is due (Young, 1999).

I conclude by quoting his own statement regarding his work which, in a prophetic tone reminiscent of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, shakes the complacent absurdist skeptical nihilist postmodern world: “God appeared to me in the inmost heart of my being and said to me "Make known to My servants that which you have verified of My generosity... Why do My servants despair of My Mercy when My Mercy embraces everything?” (Futūhāt I, 709).

Ibn ‘Arabî , 1972–91, al-Futûhât al-makkiyya, 14 volumes, O. Yahia (ed.), al-Hay’at al-Misriyyat al-‘Âmma li'l-Kitâb, Cairo
Young, Peter, 1999, “Ibn '‘Arabî : towards a universal point of view,” (from the website of MIOS).

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