Sunday, 25 December 2016

Reading Ibn Arabi and Ibn Taymiyyah

We need to read these thinkers first in historical context and proper perspective, and then judge.

The question of our attitude to Sufism has divided modern Muslims. ISIS, and even some revivalists who don't share ISIS politics, share significant part of their theology, premised on certain negative reading of Sufism. Should we side with Ibn Taymiyyah perceived as staunch opponent of Unitarian Sufism or Ibn Arabi who is perceived to be its greatest exponent? For some analysts Salafis are playing into hands of Imperialists and dividing Ummah.
      So how do we tackle these accusations and counter-accusations? I propose to say a few words on Ibn Arabi to clarify the issue and ask if Ibn Taymiyyah can be considered his real opponent notwithstanding his takfeer of him. (Against Ibn Taymiyyah, some great Ahle-Hadees scholars, from the Indian subcontinent especially,  have been highly praising Ibn Arabi.) I don’t claim to understand Ibn Arabi better than his seeming opponent but only to point out that as an expositor of traditional metaphysics he can’t be criticized by any theological critic as this is a category mistake.
      We hardly serve Islam or Muslim cause by focusing on only divergence between two camps: anti-Ibn Arabi Salafis vs. pro-Sufi schools. There are only minor differences between the two camps as far as legal/ethical rulings (that Sharia centric position is anxious to guard) is concerned. Differences in theology and metaphysics need to be acknowledged and “settled” through what is shared by both parties – use of logical or rational arguments) I see exemplary Sufi ethics in Jamaat leaders ( who hold onto Taymiyyah position)  such as Syed Maududi while I see many self styled Sufi teachers or scholars not even qualifying for being mureeds. Belief in Tawhid unites all Muslims and interpretation of it can never be final or one only. We must have humility to say Walahu aalamu bisawwab when it comes to expounding our interpretation of Tawhid. For Ibn Arabi the greatest station to feel bewildered and not to claim final knowledge regarding truth. “Excesses” or misuse of Ibn Arabi’s views invites Ibn Taymiyyah or Sirhindi to correct and vice versa.  And then we have Shah Waliullah and others who are able to reconcile both camps. Modern Western thinkers and most of Muslim scholars who know both theology and philosophy and modern science are closer to Ibn Arabi than to his critics. Like it or not, it is an age of Ibn Arabi and it is through his direct or indirect influence that most of the most sophisticated Western scholars have come closer to Islam in its most universal or metaphysical understanding. Ibn Taymiyyah is a great soldier seeking to guard one of the lofty peaks of Islamic sciences from “stupid friends” while Ibn Arabi guards its most sensitive frontiers from the most accomplished enemies.
      We need to learn to read Ibn Arabi’s Fusoos and Futuhaat before rejecting him or regurgitating what Ibn Taymiyyah said of him. But we can’t read him unless we master key terminology used by him. And that needs hard discipline of learning metaphysics and upholding lofty ethical standards. About intellectual qualifications some of us can stake a claim but regarding ethical qualifications required I think lesser mortals like us can hardly claim.
      The fact I propose taking Ibn Arabi seriously is because dilemmas of modern and postmodern thought can be best tackled by turning to his exegeses of Islam. He is the spokesperson of genuine Salafi position if we take our great saints and sages from Hasan Basri to Shaikh Alawi to be representatives of Islamic Tradition.  For those who ignore last few centuries of human thought or don’t understand fundamental thrust of  spiritually oriented Islamic intellectual tradition or wish to campaign for their own sects Ibn Arabi may have no relevance.
      We must not forget that it is so easy to misunderstand him or misread him and great thinkers have misread him. Regarding Ibn Taymiyyah  it has been shown that he didn’t have access to the right or whole corpus of Ibn Arabi (so we can partly understand his differences) and we must not forget that he was quite probably Qadri Sufi and Ibn Arabi’s chain of Masters includes the founder of Qadri Order.  If I sound too technical or scholarly here it can’t be helped as Ibn Arabi and his critics have used this technical jargon and appreciating this controversy needs some familiarity with it and correct use of terms. Ibn Arabi and Ibn Taymiyyah are colossal intellects. Reading them demands humility to be educated and commitment to understanding.
      Hardy any student of comparative religion can deny that Unitarianism wrongly associated with so-called wahdatul wajud is the metaphysical as compared to dualistic theological interpretation of religion and is the esoteric core of Islamic and all other authentic traditions. The problem with most discussions on Sufism is that they confound theological and metaphysical planes and mostly approach metaphysical issues from theological background resulting in confusing the whole matter. We are bombarded with fatwas against some of the great  Sufis from certain theologically minded Sufis and legists. The campaign against wahdatul wajudi doctrine and its chief expounder Ibn Arabi shows the pervasive influence of this key confusion and category mistake in the history of Islam. When some of my anti Ibn Arabi friends talk about him they use legalist-theological language and meaningful dialogue fails to go forward. So I don’t debate. But I respect their commitment to what they consider to be the unalloyed truth upheld by the Prophet (SAW) and Companions. I wish things were so simple and access to pure Islamic position unmediated by history or language and immune to all political influence possible.  I don’t wish to take cudgels with those who think that Sheikh Sirhindi has debunked Ibn Arabi and wahdatu-shuhood is a more authentic interpretation of Sufism. Those who think this way make some assumptions that I, along with traditionalists, don’t condone. Schuon, Chittick, Nasr and others have conclusively shown that these assumptions (that form key to Ibn Taymiyyah’s/Sirhindhi’s critique) are not correct. These assumptions include, among others the following:

  • Ibn Arabi and wujudi Sufism compromise Creator-creature distinction. (This impression arises if we refuse to use Absolute-relative binary and illegitimately transpose Lord-servant or Creator-creature binary too far into metaphysical domain.)
  • He implicitly downplays certain recognized tenets of law. (This is flatly contradicted by practice of great wujudi Sufis including Ibn Arabi who have been respectful of law, to its last details.)
  • He is positing a unity based on subjective state and more advanced Sufis travel further and come to again affirm distinctness of the world/man and God. (Nothing is more fundamental than objectivity of the Real and focus on eliminating merely psychological or subjective influences in metaphysical realization.)
  • He implicates transcendence of good/evil binary leading to suspension of central doctrine of Islam. (More profound defence of central doctrines has never been written than in the pages of Futoohat.)

      Failing to read Ibn Arabi is to miss a life’s treasure and turn a blind eye to the Taj Mahal of Islamic spirituality. It is not the question of liking or disliking a person but our attitude towards Metaphysics and Symbolism or heart’s way to Truth that is at stake in having a view for or against ibn Arabi. Neither Reshis nor great Shah-i-Hamdan nor Kashmiri Sufi poets can be perfectly understood without understanding Ibn Arabi. Even the great Iqbal is only a development of a footnote on Ibn Arabi. Ibn Taymiyah should – and could – be seen as an ally of Ibn Arabi’s mission to spread the message of divine mercy and great self-transcending ethics. They differ only in focusing on legal or spiritual-metaphysical dimensions of the same revelation they uphold to be the final message for humanity.
PostScript: In search for a consistent and genuine Sufi, or Salafi,  one wonders if they are mirror images  and recalls Jibran’s parable of two sisters - beauty and ugliness - who, after taking a bath, misidentified and thus exchanged clothes and people mistake one for the other till date.

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