Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Sufism and Postmodernity

Modernity and post modernity have been negatively conditioned against traditional claims of religion. They have reacted against a wrong conception of religion, against reduction of religion to an ideology. It is religion taken as a metanarrative, a system, an ideology explaining things, as theology’s talking of the otherworld or eternity at the cost of this world and time here-now, elaborate creedal formula coached in terms of propositions privileging the religious as distinct from or opposite to the secular, bypassing or opposing the realm of Manifestation or Nature so as to cultivate God consciousness, as parallel system of cognitive truths to which science must conform, as exclusionist marginalizing discourse, as some theory about the world towards which (post)modernity has reservations. It is (exoteric) theology’s logical, rational character and its pre-occupation with theological/ metaphysical abstractions that have nothing to do with our immediate concern, with here-now or this moment or our existential concerns, that postmodernism subverts. Sufism’s escapes these criticisms because it foregrounds living, existential, concrete facets of life and addresses serious problems quite effectively as the paper shows. What looks abstract, esoteric and mystifying otherwise is made to look quite natural and simple.
Sufism squarely faces nihilism that is implied in the postmodernist rejection of idolatry, in the denial of all relative truths, in the denial of self or ego that exists in its own right. Sufism denies that there is any meaning in the world, any bliss in things finite, any beauty in the phenomenal or the perishable. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity in Sufi perspective. Everything perishes. All relative meanings, relative truths are denied as only Absolute is absolute. The Sufi transcends all the worlds, all time dependent thought constructions.
The Sufi “vision” transcends all seeing, all imagining, all constructions of thought and thus all perspectives on Reality. The Sufi doesn’t talk about Reality or God but talks Reality or God. He transcends the realm of “about” which theology is unable to do. That is why the Sufi doesn’t need to interpret and wrangle about the question of interpretation. He isn’t caught up in the textual world at all. He lives truth, is truth. He doesn’t need mediation of language. He is pure awareness, prereflective prelinguistic awareness. He has become a mirror as mind and separating principle of thought has disappeared. The Seer and seen has disappeared and only seeing is there. Language doesn’t enter here. No metaphysics of presence is there. No centralism. The Sufi is centered in God and thus in Nothingness or Void. God being not the name of a thing, a person, an entity and substance, a being, among other beings. God is Reality, Isness in wahdatul wajudi (which is not synonymous with pantheism as it emphasizes transcendence of God unequivocally) perspective. He is Pure Consciousness. He eludes all apprehension. One can well say He is not because Nothing is naught, blank, void to the conceptual intellect. Nothing is like Him. He signifies, in a way, impossibility of all signification. Nothing can describe Him. We shall elaborate this theme of unknowability of Absolute and vanity of all reasoning to show how Sufism escapes (and corrects in turn) postmodern agnosticism) critique.
To the most fundamental question regarding the why of existence Sufism has an answer that converges with the position of postmodernism. The last word is for the Mystery, impenetrable mystery at the heart of existence. The Sufis’ characteristic humility and tolerance could well be traced to this fundamental assertion about the unknowability of the Real in discursive terms. The Sufis often quote the Prophet’s tradition (which even if not authentic expresses something which plainly follows from the Quranic emphasis on divine transcendence) “God is a hidden treasure.” Absolute in itself has really never manifested and can't manifest. It remains unknowable. The Absolute in its absoluteness is Nameless and It has no signs by which It can be approached. It is beyond all perception, conception and imagination. No qualification or relation (even such a category as existence) can be attributed to It for It even transcends transcendence. No linguistic category can describe It. It lives in permanent abysmal darkness and is ‘‘the most unknown of all the unknowns.” It is Gayyibul-gayyib. None can have, in principle, access to It. The Pure Absolute or Essence (Dhat) in its fundamental aspect is beyond the insatiable human quest and all attempts to reach It, track it, pinpoint it, catch It in the net of language or realm of the finite or time, to conceptualize It, to imagine It, to speak about It, to affirm anything of It are doomed. Before the Ipseity or Dhat one can only be bewildered as Khaja Gulam Farid says “Where to seek! Where to find You Friend. All the fiery creatures, human beings, forces of Nature and the entire world is amazingly drowned in the sea of bewilderment. The Sufis, devotees, men of wisdom and learning have ultimately lost. Arshi and Bistami while embracing each other cry in vain…saints, prophets, mystics, poles and even messengers and deities incarnate proclaim weepingly that He is beyond the reach of vision. Scientisits, erudites, gnostics and professionals in all humaility have admittedly resigned. Ask Farid naive and simple: where do you find”(Qtd. in Qaisar, 1998:132). Essence (Dhat) in its fundamental aspect – and thus Meaning/Truth/ Presence/ Identity/ Reality per se – is beyond the human quest. God is “an unattainable ideal, a hopeless quest” as Whitehead wrote in his Science and the Modern World. Before the Ipseity or Dhat one can only be bewildered according to Ibn ‘Arabî. The world is ultimately a Mystery, a Mystery of Mysteries and no rational or scientific approach could finally and completely demystify it. The world will never cease to be an object of wonder and fascination and Beauty never cease to be worshipped or sought or God glorified. Man must travel ceaselessly as love will never be satiated and man’s quest for the Absolute will have no full stop in all eternity. Artists, scientists, mystics, philosophers and lovers shall never be out of business. Rationalization, familiarization, demystification and descaralization of the world that ultimately makes it inhuman, alienating and absurd and disrespectful towards the environment can’t happen in the Akbarian perspective that sees one essence and divine face in everything. Ibn 'Arabî says in Risâlat al-Anwâr "You should know that man has been on the journey ever since God brought him out of non-being into being.” The goal is not reached. For it is “the unspeakable, the impossible, the inconceivable” as Stace would say (Stace, 1952: 2). The goal is only glimpsed, sensed, and then lost. Meaning or Truth is never grasped in its fullness. It ever recedes. Truth escapes all our searching. We can have a vision of it, rather a faint glimpse of it through the phenomena which are His symbols. Knowing God is realizing that He in his essence can’t be known.“Gnosis is the realization of thy ignorance when His knowledge comes” as Junaid has said (Qtd. in Perry, 1979).
The postmodernist only sees the fact of our ignorance and nothing dispels his darkness because he chooses to be blind by denying that we can go outside language and history or discourse and thus intuition is denied especially by Derrida. Since all contradictory truths are unified in the Truth as al-Jili says one needn’t despair and be a skeptic. Postmodernist rightly sees the fact that logic or reason (Aristotelian) is wooden legged and bedeviled by contradictions. But the Sufi though acknowledges this would unify all contradictions in Truth and celebrate life’s contradictions, its mystery, its transcendence of logic and reason. The gnostic sees by means of God Himself as Sarraj says and since God by definition is Truth so the Sufi sees Truth (or our inability from human perspective to see the Truth) and sees it whole, undiluted, directly. The Quran denies man knowledge of Truth as long as he remains a self, a separate subject. Exclusivist totalizing attitude is rejected by the Quran in these words: “Over every possessor of knowledge is one more knowing.” So we must all acknowledge our ignorance and let other speak as postmodernists would have it. Whoso sees God transcends both speech and silence, as Niffari has said (Perry, 1979). Since “All are one, both the visible and the invisible” as Shabistari says (Perry, 1979). The charges of dualism, binary thinking, marginalization and exclusivism can't be labelled on Sufism. Oneness and undifferntiatedness of Being and emphasis on the subject’s inability to know the highest Principle or Absolute appropriates all possible problematization by deconstructionists. The Sufi is one who has put duality away and sees two worlds as one. One he seeks, knows, sees and calls as Rumi tells us. Even the binary of truth and falsehood, good and evil are transcended in Sufi vision. “Since I have known God, neither truth nor falsehood has entered my heart” as Abu Hafs Haddad said (Perry, 1979). This is because the Sufi is in a state where neither good nor evil entereth as Abu Yazid says (Perry, 1979).
The problem for postmodern man is how to reject nihilism. Mistrust in the ability of rational thought or rational metaphysics in the context of God, insistence on the ultimate unknowability or ungraspability of the Real/writing, a positive appraisal of "confusion" as a genuine means of "breaking through" to the Other/Real beyond our metaphysical constrictions, infinite impossibility of the text and disbelief in the autonomous substantiality of the self are some of the common points between Ibn ‘Arabî and Derrida, the key postmodern figure as Ian Almond has noted in his study titled Sufism and Deconstruction. It appears that 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?
In his inclusive perspective the binaries of action and contemplation, grace and self effort, invocation and resignation or acceptance of divine will, religious and secular or sacred and profane, knowledge and faith, men and women, soul and body, matter and consciousness, good and evil, truth and error, guidance and misguidance, philosophy and metaphysics, theology and philosophy, symbol and history, myth and fact and the like appear as complementary polarities rather than as opposites as would follow from his nondualism which means transcendence of binaries or unification of polarities. In fact his logic is not the Aristotelian logic of either/or but the Eastern logic of polarities. The problems of dualist philosophies and theologies are dissolved in the grand Unity of Being, the vision of the One which is coincidentia oppositorum. The Akbarian perspective becomes inclusive because it is based on intellectual intuition which synthesizes rather than analyzes, and thus becomes universal as it foregrounds supraformal, supraindividual, metaphysical and esoteric instead of the limiting exoteric theological which is anthropomorphic, individual, formal and sentiment affected. It is love/knowledge/reality/mercycentric which are all integrating or universalizing entities. It sees Reality as Beauty that everyone willingly worships (God catches most people through the net of beauty as Plato says). He advocates a sort of perspectivism which implies epistemological pluralism that vetoes totalizing narratives and allows every possible angle on infinite faced reality. He embodies the perspective of “judge not” that Jesus advocated. He appropriates the conceptions of negative divine which is the hallmark of Buddhism and positive divine which is the hallmark of Islam and Judaism. Everyone can be heard as every path is a straight path in its own way. His integral spirituality appropriates all the traditional paths to God, all the basic forms of yoga – bhaktic , jnanic and karmic.
The Akbarian perspective becomes inclusive because it is based on intellectual intuition which synthesizes rather than analyzes, and thus becomes universal as it foregrounds supraformal, supraindividual, metaphysical and esoteric instead of the limiting exoteric theological which is anthropomorphic, individual, formal and sentiment affected. It is love/knowledge/reality/mercycentric which are all integrating or universalizing entities. It sees Reality as Beauty that everyone willingly worships (God catches most people through the net of beauty as Plato says). He advocates a sort of perspectivism which implies epistemological pluralism that vetoes totalizing narratives and allows every possible angle on infinite faced reality. He embodies the perspective of “judge not” that Jesus advocated. He appropriates the conceptions of negative divine which is the hallmark of Buddhism and positive divine which is the hallmark of Islam and Judaism. Everyone can be heard as every path is a straight path in its own way. His integral spirituality appropriates all the traditional paths to God, all the basic forms of yoga – bhaktic , jnanic and karmic.
He speaks for all men – nay for all creatures – as they stand as he is an “unlimited mercifier.” He vindicates man qua man without feeling any need to qualify him with this or that attributes or predicate as he sees God vindicated and His plan being worked out this very moment by everyone. Addas aptly states the Akbarian view:

Because all men worship God whether they know it or not, because it is the Sigh of the Merciful who has brought them into existence, because each of them bears within him the imprint of one of the infinitely multiple Faces of the One, it is to eternal bliss that they have been and are being guided from the beginning of eternity. (Addas 1993: 293)

Ibn ‘Arabî gives the most universal definition of Muhammadan where this becomes
not a designation of a particular historical community but the very name of universality and perfection. It is the name of a station, theoretically available to everyone, attainable to the select few who travel on and on, perfectly realizing all stations until he arrives at the station of no station in which one has nothing of one’s own and therefore mirrors the Real most perfectly and is not defined by any particular divine name or attribute but brings together all standpoints or stations (Twinch: 2004).
His universalism is also seen in his view of man as an end rather than a means to an end and that explains his statement in the Fusūs which cuts at the root of all ideologies that justify killing in ideological battles (Jihad is primarily in self defence and against oppressors of all kinds without regard to time or place or creed of the oppressor). He says: “The preservation of the human species should have a much greater importance than religious bigotry, with its consequent destruction of human souls, even when it is for the sake of God and the maintenance of the law.” This is because killing man is to cut off manifestation of God in him and his future descendents. This doesn’t take away the right to defend oneself against those who unjustly wish to cut this manifestation.
Approaching from the gnostic rather than the voluntaristic perspective the Akbarian “mysticism of infinity” shows how in our denial of truth we nonetheless affirm it – a curved path too is a straight path (more precisely we don’t need to travel at all on any path, to think of taking the straight path is to wrongly imagine a distance between the Real and its “children” which we are) – we are always equally close/distant from the center called God/Reality. All things are on the straight path upon even if it deviates for, as Ibn 'Arabī says in the Futūhāt: “… curvature is straight in reality, like the curvature of a bow since the straightness which is desired from it is curvature … and all movement and rest in existence is divine because it is in the hand of the Real” (Futūhāt II, 563). Akbarian views converge with such conceptions as Jaina theory of Syadvada and postmodern distrust of metanarratives and system-making and deconstruction of pseudo-absolutes and centrisms as he formulates his notion of hairah and personal lord and ultimate mysteriousness and unknowabilty/inaccesibility at a rational-empirical plane of the Essence of which everything is the manifestation or symbol. This is a vision of spiritual democracy too profound to be assimilated for even the most catholic and tolerant of theologies. He ingenious reinterpretation of key terms of exclusion such as kafir, fajir, zalim shows his catholicity. Even Satan is ultimately no outsider. How can there be any exclusion or marginalization in a perspective of complete nondualism Adopting basically metaphysical instead of religious perspective allows him to transcend dogmatic exclusivism that has traditionally been associated with religious perspective and in fact all exclusivism based on anything less than Absolute and there is nothing which is Absolute. With him the question is of man and his happiness or felicity and traditional religion, if properly read, is a means to that end rather than an end in itself in the name of which men could be divided or killed. His concerns are basically existential and thus universal to which everyone could relate. He submits to Truth only (that is his definition of a Muslim) and Truth is his only God, much in the manner of Gandhi who emphasized the Vedantic equation of Sat with Brahman. He finds Truth/ Reality of the substance of Joy and one with man and that is the good news he brings to the despairing nihilistic world. He has ultimately no dogmas to preach except openness to the reality without any imposition from conjectural self or mind. He brings the glad tidings that the world is indeed our home or we are the world and we are loved and Love is the be all and end all of all existence, all endeavors. The Real is, it can’t and needn’t be found or searched – rather it finds us. Wherever one turns there is the face of God as the Quran puts it and Ibn ‘Arabî reiterates time and again. Realizing this one becomes a flute and God the flute player. A love affair with the Real commences and one enjoys orgasm with the whole universe. This overwhelming desire for love can’t stop at any human substitute as the Tarjuman narrates.
Ibn ‘Arabî ’s perfect man is open to all forms, to infinite disclosures of God which change every instant. He lives moment to moment as he is abdul waqt, the servant of the Instant. For him, as for Zen, ultimately, there is no distinction between the immediate and the ultimate and there is no goal as such, each step is the goal, each moment is the goal. A blade of grass is inwardly the Absolute. There is no particular or exclusive way to salvation because all ways are already blessed. There is no need of salvation because all alienation or bondage is really illusory. All are saved; all are embraced by God because none has ever left God or the Garden of Eden except in his imagination. And it is that cursed mind and imagination which is the bane of man. Man needs to be saved because he suffers from the delusion that he needs to be saved. God is loving enough (Wadud) and strong enough to overcome all resistance on the part of man and willy nilly arranges his return to Himself.
References

Addas, Claud, 1993, Quest for the Red Sulphur: The Life of Ibn ‘Arabî , trans. Peter Kingsley, Islamic texts Society, Cambridge.
Qaisar, Shahzad, Metaphysics and Tradition, Gora Publications, Club Road, Lahore, 1998.
Ibn ‘Arabî , , al-Futûhât al-makkiyya, 14 volumes, O. Yahia (ed.), al-Hay’at al-Misriyyat al-‘Âmma li'l-Kitâb, Cairo, 1972–91.
Perry, Withall N., A Treasury of Traditional Wisdom, Bedfont,1979
Stace, W.T., Time and Eternity,1952.
Twinch, Cicila, “The Circle of Inclusion,” 2004 (from the website of MIAS).

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