Cover of Ibn Al’ Arabi’s The Bezels of Wisdom (The Classics of Western Spirituality)
edited by R.W. Austin

[The following is part four of a series on a lecture presented in the Hofstra Great Books Series on December 5, 1993. For part three, click here.].

The Devout Scholar and the Text

In Islam there have been and continue to be both conservative and radical “theologians,” those whose wisdom almost anyone can benefit from and those who leave for posterity mainly the marks of their own highly strictured ignorance, mystics who dare to see beyond the literalist trap imposed by an all-too-human language and unthinking clerics who cling to tradition for little more than tradition’s sake.

From the wide array of Islamic scholars, it would be impossible to say who has been the wisest, the most respected, the most influential. But certainly on the short list we would find Muhyi al-Din Muhammad Ibn al-‘Arabi, an extraordinarily well-traveled man of the late 12th and early 13th centuries A.D. Born in Islamic Spain, he traveled that seemingly vast symbolic distance across the Mediterranean Sea to Tunis, made the pilgrimage to Mecca (Islam’s sacred capital) in 1202 CE, and after traveling throughout the central lands of the Islamic Empire, eventually settled in Damascus, where he became a highly respected teacher for the last eighteen years of his life. He himself had studied with over 90 masters and produced (we are told) an estimated 700 distinct texts (some 400 of which are still preserved), several of which could rightly qualify in this series as “great books” in their own right. His magnum opus, called Futuhat al-makkiya (The Meccan Openings) is a vast encyclopaedia of Islamic knowledge and Quranic interpretation; it would cover perhaps some 17,000 pages in a formal published edition.

An intellectual and mystic of considerable sophistication, Ibn al-‘Arabi is, as Bill Chittick (of SUNY Stony Brook) puts it, “squarely in the mainstream of Islam” in that he bases all his teachings on the Quran first, followed by the collected traditions or sayings (called hadith) attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. Ibn al-‘Arabi’s fundamentals in Islamic faith are about as “fundamental” as you can get. For this scholar the Muslim does not doubt the literal meaning of the Quran as God’s words; this is not regarded as a serious option. Moreover, despite the occasional rhetorical exchange engendered by the crusading Europeans, most Muslims of his day never encountered anyone who did not take the Quran as a revelation. It is hard for those of us who take for granted a modern secular framework in which doubt is endemic to admit that there were indeed contexts (and still are) where the vexing issue within a society or religious tradition was not belief versus unbelief, but perhaps more accurately more intense belief as compared to less intense belief.

For the philosopher Ibn al-‘Arabi, it is not common sense, nor is it scientific reasoning, nor is there rationalism in the restrictive Western philosophical sense, when the Muslim comes to the Quran. The fatiha is not an accident, for after all it is God who “opens” up the believer’s understanding to see something new or to see beyond what is apparent, all the while preserving the literal sense of the Quran as revealed in God’s own Arabic. Faith for the Muslim, this being necessarily grounded in the Quran as the revelation from God, precedes understanding.

Ibn al-‘Arabi writes:

“Then God undertakes to teach us through self-disclosure. We witness that which rational faculties cannot perceive through their reflective powers, but concerning which transmited knowledge has come. Reason has declared it impossible, the reason of the man of faith has interpreted it, and the simple man of faith has simply assented to it.”

To paraphrase, the Muslim who is not first a pious man or woman, who does not respect the established “tradition”, regardless of recognized individual failings in that tradition, will not and can not understand the Quran as God intended it to be understood. The straight path cannot be found through any form of doubt.

There is really nothing new or uniquely “Islamic” in this teleology of faith: “first you believe and then you will be able to understand.” I was taught this as a child attending a fundamentalist Baptist church in this country. I was told that we children of father Adam (whose sin we still must bear) do not on our own choose to find God or choose to believe what God is telling us in the Bible. It is God, the preacher said, who chooses us, elects us, saves us, when we didn’t deserve it at all. We don’t earn our way to a saving faith, we are saved by the grace of God and only then are we able to understand why this soul-saving is the end-all of all that is. All the time (of course) seemingly without damaging the rather ambiguous notion here of free will.

It is a wonderfully simple doctrine, easily and often abused, but not so easily dismissed. This religious “just do it and you will see” attitude is by no means an epistemological leaping-off point peculiar to religion, although we often cite it as a defining characteristic when we attack religion. For Ibn al-‘Arabi there is no traumatic “leap of faith” here, no sense that one must embrace something absurd, illogical, irrational, antagonistic to seeming reality, in order to see through the absurd to another type of truth. This Muslim scholar would have given a very different diagnosis to Soren Kierkegaard’s sickness unto death. The spiritually transmitted disease of doubt that we today seem unable to escape (any more than we can the common cold) does not appear to be endemic in Ibn al-‘Arabi’s day. The question of “how can I believe and be rational” did not plague Ibn al-‘Arabi’s thoughts, nor drive him to emotional, soul-wrenching torment. I am not being facetious when I observe that Ibn al-‘Arabi could not have written a 13th century version of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. The Quran is not only a revelation from God, a message to be accepted (this is what believers do) or rejected (this is what infidels do). For Ibn al-‘Arabi the Quran is the authentic, concrete, and linguistic embodiment of God Himself, of ultimate Being. Over the centuries ignorant Christians have falsely accused Muslims of worshipping Muhammad, as though a Muhammadan (the pre post-modern word used for a Moslem or Muslim) was parallel in some way to a Christian, worshipping a man (be he idol or be he the son of man). This homocentric critique of Islam misses the point of the religion completely.

Islam presents, no less than Judaism or Christianity, a fundamentally logocentric view of the reality of God. God exists because he speaks and thus defines himself in the process of revelation. The transcendent God of the Old Testament styled himself as “I am who I am,” self-righteously asserting himself as a being that needed no other name to be known. In the Christian Gospel of John we read: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Christian thus personifies God as word or knowledge in the metaphorical image of God becoming mortal man. Yet, this unique mortal dimension of God (Christ) is seen as more than a mere mortal.

Muslims, however, do not personify God’s revelation in the form of his human prophet, who is not thus denigrated for not being a demigod. Rather, the Muslim immortalizes the “word” in a real language — Arabic — as God’s eloquent and chosen way of encountering humanity. God — Allah in Arabic — chose to reveal himself in Arabic. Muslims do not believe this choice was arbitrary, not the result of some cosmic lottery to sort through the Babel of tongues for the one “the” revelation should best be put in. Moreover, since God’s message is revealed through the Arabic Quran, the message itself cannot be translated or properly communicated through another language. No Muslim can perform the necessary Arabized ritual of his faith in a language other than Arabic; the fatiha only opens the believer’s heart — in Arabic. One may understand what the Arabic words mean — as mere language — in English or whatever language, but only in Arabic is there the force of revelation. In fact, as Ibn al-‘Arabi mentioned, Muslims were not even to take a written Quran into enemy (non-believer) territory. Great book though it was, it was clearly seen as more than paper, pen, and ink. This is a useful point to keep in mind and I will return to it soon.

to be continued