Beauty Love and the Human Form in the Writings of Ibn ‘Arabi – Book Sample
Contents of Beauty Love and the Human Form in the Writings of Ibn ‘Arabi
- • Perception according to Ibn ‘Arabi: God in Forms 11
- • Perception according to ‘Iraqi: Witnessing and Divine Self-Love 31
- • Beauty according to Ibn ‘Arabi and ‘Iraqi: That Which Causes Love 45
- • Ibn ‘Arabi and Human Beauty: The School of Passionate Love 63
- • ‘Iraqi and the Tradition of Love, Witnessing, and Shahidbazi 85
- • The Amorous Lyric as Mystical Language: Union of the Sacred and Profane 120
Introduction – Beauty Love and the Human Form in the Writings of Ibn ‘Arabi
Less bounded by logic and the expectations of reason, dreams seem to create their own rules. A friend might appear in the form of someone else—and yet the dreamer never hesitates to recognize her.
A person might even change forms in the duration of a dream, or fly, or experience non sequitur shifts in health, or meet those who have died. Abstract concepts such as “strife” might appear in tangible forms such as animals or the wind.
Yet while often strange and unpredictable, dreams do observe the boundaries of human experience. Forms, lights, symbols, sounds, and scenes in the dream world all have some basis in the world of wakefulness.
In other words, dreaming does not propose an entirely new method of perception, nor does it introduce visions or thoughts completely unfamiliar to the human imagination. Rather, a person comes to the dream world with presuppositions, memories, and familiar faculties (especially sight and audition).
What the soul encounters during the unconsciousness of slumber is not material like the world of the outer senses; that is certain. Equally certain, however, is the seeming materiality of the soul’s experience: The soul sees in forms. This fascinating and yet everyday phenomenon of dreaming gives us a starting place for discussing visionary experience in the Sufi tradition.
This is not a book about dreams. Rather, this book considers those who encountered the world around them with the spiritual clarity we might only have in dreams: medieval Muslim mystics, who apperceived the divine in matter and in forms. However distant we may feel from the proclamations of the Sufis, in our most profound dreams we have all beheld the abstract in images and sounds. We have all “seen,” via representational forms, that which cannot be seen: deceit, friendship, emotions, hopes, and meaningful abstractions. While this differs from mystic experience, we can at least begin to familiarize ourselves with mystical claims of encountering meaning in sensory fashion.
I hope that by reflecting on the altered perception claimed by mystics, through this example as well as throughout the present book, the complex and contradictory language of mysticism will come to new life. Islamic mysticism particularly yearns for such new life. After all, a labyrinth of misunderstandings, surrounding Islamic mysticism and even Islam itself, has arisen from a failure to acknowledge the relevance of vision.
By considering the sensory as a vehicle for that which the soul beholds, the imaginative literature of Islamic mysticism will seem far less imaginary. The erotic poetry produced by medieval Muslim mystics will seem far less allegorical. Moreover, the paradise found in the Qur’an, in the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, and in centuries of Islamic literature, will seem far less simplistically profane.
Let there be no ambiguity about this. This study, while focused on a particular school of witnessing and love found in the world of Sufism, responds to questions raised by those who have mishandled the Islamic tradition. Some, coming from a perspective in which neat distinctions between sacred and profane or spiritual and corporeal must exist, have failed to understand Sufi expressions of eroticism in poetry. Others have taken the matter even further.
Recent discussions of the Qur’anic paradise as an abode of meaningless sensual pleasure, as a meeting place for lascivious, self-righteous fanatics, have so misunderstood the spirituality and vision behind Qur’anic paradisal imagery that a new perspective is necessary, one informed by some of the most profound instances of contemplation on Islam’s sacred sources.
While it might take many chapters to work through the complexities of this vision and its workings, my hope is that, by the end of this book, one can understand that what is granted to mystics in this world can be granted to the believer in the next, namely, visions of God, his attributes, and his names, in a manner that corresponds to the propensities of the human experience and acknowledges the purposefulness of that human experience.
Thus it is that this book, much like the writings of the Sufis it discusses, largely concerns vision, especially the envisioning of the divine in forms. If the word “beauty” also arises, it is only because God, when seen, is the Absolutely Beautiful. Seeing God—as impossible as that may or may not be in this temporal world of ours—stands as the apex of spiritual felicity, not only in Islamic mysticism, but even in the Qur’an itself.
Vision in Islamic Mysticism – Beauty Love and the Human Form in the Writings of Ibn ‘Arabi
It is reported in the Qur’an that when Moses requested to see his Lord more directly, two things occurred. First, he was told of the hopelessness of such immediate vision. Second, he was told to gaze upon a mountain. When his Lord disclosed himself to that mountain and it crumbled, Moses fell in a swoon of bewilderment.
It is significant that the term “self-disclosure” (al-tajalli), used by certain medieval Muslim mystics to describe God’s all-pervasive manifestations throughout the cosmos, derives from this one Qur’anic passage. After all, in the context of this verse (7:143), God’s awesome manifestation takes place wholly on account of the longing of one of his very elect friends for direct vision. Not only is this longing for vision one of the major preoccupations of mystics in the Islamic tradition, but vision’s relationship to divine manifestations becomes an important theme in medieval Sufi texts. More
generally speaking, one can also argue that mystical experience concerns and certainly affects perception above all else.
Yet among the less carefully considered dimensions of the Sufi tradition is the matter of mystical perception and the vision of beauty it entailed, a vision often proclaimed but, when approached from the outside, usually either misunderstood or described in far too general terms.
The relevance of beauty to the tradition, especially in the seventh/thirteenth century, when contemplative writings concerning this matter flourished, appears in many emphatic pronouncements that perceptive encounters with divine beauty in human forms can occasion ecstatic love in a manner unlike and unrivaled by anything else.
For this reason, what follows is a study of perception, beauty, and the applications of these two concepts according to the writings of medieval mystics in the Islamic tradition, especially two mystics who will concern us centrally.
For this reason and for this reason alone, I have used the word “aesthetic” in this book’s title. The intention here is not to summon the various complex connotations this word has acquired. Rather, Sufi theoretical literature explicitly proposes its own understanding of beauty—discussed here with an emphasis on one object of beauty, the human form.
The word “aesthetic,” then, aims solely to capture the observation that there existed among such mystics a distinctive mode of perception, one that resulted in an evaluation of beauty related both to the cosmos as well as to the individual human experience. I argue that many writers, readers, speakers, and listeners have applied this evaluative system to poetry, whether in composing such poetry or in interpreting it.
Two Visionaries in the Sufi Tradition
Both of the mystics to be discussed lived during the sixth/twelfth to seventh/thirteenth centuries (Hijri dates are followed by Common Era dates), and both can be called “Akbaris.”
The term “Akbari” derives, in fact, from a title of esteem given to one of the subjects of this study: Muhyi al-Din Muhammad ibn ‘Ali ibn al-‘Arabi (560/1165–638/1240), known as al-shaykh al-akbar, that is, the “Greatest Shaykh.” This term is often applied to those who had direct association with Ibn ‘Arabi or his students and yet can be expanded to include those who sympathized with and even adopted his cosmological and ontological vision.
Our second Akbari mystic, Fakhr al-Din Ibrahim ibn Buzurjmihr ibn ‘Abd al-Ghaffar ‘Iraqi (ca. 610/1213–1214 to 688/1289), spent seventeen years of his adult life associated with the Indian Suhrawardis in Multan and was introduced to his teacher, Ibn ‘Arabi’s most eminent student, Sadr al-Din al-Qunawi (d. 673/1273–1274), relatively late in his saintly career.
Other than when pertinent to the topic at hand, the biographical details of these two mystics will not concern us here, especially since they have been discussed ably elsewhere.
Claude Addas has written a carefully researched biography of Ibn ‘Arabi, and Julian Baldick has discussed the life of ‘Iraqi, among others who have concerned themselves with one or even both of these mystics. Of some interest to this study is the merging of two Sufi traditions, Ibn ‘Arabi’s from the West and the Suhrawardi tradition from the East, to comment on one particular phenomenon in mystical perception: witnessing and experiencing love for the divine in forms.
As indicated by the compatibility of these two traditions, the general principles of witnessing and beauty are not restricted at all to the Akbari tradition; for many of the Sufis mentioned, witnessing might be considered any accomplished mystic’s definitive occupation. There is, however, a unique and insightful perspective given to matters of witnessing in the cosmology of Ibn ‘Arabi.
The Cosmology of Witnessing – Beauty Love and the Human Form in the Writings of Ibn ‘Arabi
In the case of both mystics, witnessing and love together pervade the entire cosmos. This might be expected from ‘Iraqi, who openly sympathizes with a Suhrawardi forefather, Ahmad Ghazali (d. 520/1126), whose treatise Sawanih alludes to a cosmology of love. The pervasiveness of love and witnessing has been less discussed, however, with regard to Ibn ‘Arabi. For both of these authors, witnessing and love result from one omnipresent reality: existence itself.
This oneness is real and allinclusive, to such an extent that a complete distinction between God and creation amounts to a sort of idolatry, since it posits the independent existence of that which maintains a constant state of need vis-à-vis God.
This notion of oneness manifests itself in an understanding that the cosmos consists of realms, realms that affect one another so that every stage or realm closer to absolute existence dominates and becomes manifest in the stage beneath it, that which is further from absolute existence. Lower realms, those further from pure existence, moreover, determine the mode of manifestation or “form” for those ontologically above them.
Because of this cosmological system, all things have spiritual significance and reflect the highest source from which even God’s very own names have come. Ibn ‘Arabi and ‘Iraqi often describe this descent of pure existence as a settling of the unbounded in more bounded locales, or as a matter of meaning and form.
Meaning is pure spirit, while form is that which allows the mystic to interact with meaning. This relationship is sometimes depicted in terms of a word: If one were to trace a written word back to its original source, one would be led to a very abstract thing, namely, an idea in the mind.
This idea, unbounded by the sensory, takes on the shape of a mental word. This word can then become pronounced on the tongue and written onto paper, in both cases involving composite letters that make it up. The abstract has now become concrete, stage by stage, and meaning has now entered the boundaries of form; generosity, for example, has become a giving hand.
For Ibn ‘Arabi and ‘Iraqi, this process occurs throughout creation, so that everywhere one looks, meaning has become manifest in form.
Yet since meaning itself has derived from the Real (the name “the Real,” al-haqq, refers to God as himself, not necessarily related to his creation), this process constitutes a divine self-disclosure. The specifics of this phenomenon are discussed in more detail, but this paradigm serves as the basis for perception and beauty according to Ibn ‘Arabi and ‘Iraqi.
No less significant than the cosmos in discussing perception and beauty is the soul. The soul receives all that surrounds it, from supersensory meaning to the physical world it senses.
Ibn ‘Arabi proposes a system of perception focused on the soul as receiver. While the soul does have an important creative hand in the process, its encounter with the beautiful (and thus with the divine) depends on its own inclinations and the physical constitution to which it corresponds. Existence is one reality, but as different souls receive it—according to the constitutions of those who possess such souls—existence can be perceived variously. It is because of this that, according to Ibn ‘Arabi, beauty and ugliness are relative matters.
Beauty and Lovability
Beauty in the writings of both of these mystics corresponds to “lovability,” that is, the extent to which a perceived object evokes love in its perceiver. This too is not distinct from receptivity. Every perceiving subject has a predisposed inclination to loving itself; it searches for that which corresponds most to itself. When it sees that which serves as its mirror, it delights, deems that object beautiful, and experiences love. On one hand, this explains human fascination with other human beings.
Nothing in creation resembles one human more than another human. On the other hand, this explains why the truly beautiful is the divine; the divine is existence itself, an existence that each of us can recognize as our own mirror image, since a breath from the divine spirit corresponds to the very soul of every person. The gnostic (a word used in place of the Arabic ‘arif, which describes a mystic accomplished in esoteric knowledge of God) constantly senses that his or her perception corresponds to God’s perception. Thus, for the gnostic, the beautiful is the Real.
One important caveat must be mentioned: The gnostic cannot witness the Real outside of the boundaries of form. Put simply, it can be said that while unveiling occurs outside of form, the witnessing of that which is acquired through unveiling occurs within form and within some sort of matter (what is called “matter,” however, need not be material in the physical sense).
Because of the formal human correspondence mentioned above, the form in which God’s self-disclosures are most fully witnessed is the human form. The human form not only evokes great love but also, in the thought of Ibn ‘Arabi, provides a comprehensive cosmological perspective.
Reading Sufi Literature as a Result of Sufi Aesthetics
Here it should be admitted that, to some extent, the impetus for this study has been the failure of many researchers to consider the mystical significance of ambiguous erotic verse. This is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the case of a poet unrelated to this study and thus mentioned only briefly in it: Shams al-Din Hafiz of Shiraz (d. 792/1390). The concern that has existed in the study of Persian and Sufi literature over his historical person, whether he was a sincere mystic or a libertine, has aroused a more important question, one overlooked in discussions of the poet:
Considering such ambiguity, why was the poetry of Hafiz so well received in the world of Sufism? In other words, the reception of ambiguous erotic lyric poetry must come from a set of values, a point implied by a later Akbari-influenced poet, ‘Abd alRahman Jami (d. 898/1492), in his analysis of Hafiz. Jami comments that although it is not known whether or not Hafiz was a formally initiated Sufi, nevertheless “his utterances accord with the disposition of this [Sufi] group to such a degree, that the like cannot be said of anyone else.”1
Many of those researchers who have concerned themselves with Hafiz, including Jan Rypka, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, and Ehsan Yarshater, have determined various degrees of veracity in the claim by Sufis that the poet was one of their own. From a purely historical perspective, their concern is justified. Most have discussed the matter in terms of symbol systems, allegories, and sacred-versus-profane imagery.
None, however, has offered a systematic explanation presenting the mystical appreciation for such ambiguities and sometimes seemingly farfetched interpretations of his poetry as a matter of reception, perception, and the evaluation of beauty, that is, aesthetics. The same applies to any other poet in classical Persian and Arabic literature whose works were received as having mystical significance, when their original context was either clearly for a human beloved or ambiguous at best. This might even include a number of poems by ‘Iraqi, whose collected poems undergo categorization in the sacred-profane dichotomy offered by Julian Baldick.
It should be added here that real equivalents for the words “sacred” and “profane” did not exist in the vocabularies of the Sufis who are discussed. Medieval Sufism did have a concept of ‘ishq-i majazi (metaphorical love) and ‘ishq-i haqiqi (real love), but these are far different in signification.
The metaphorical always indicates the real and relies on the real for its very existence, just as the real is known through the metaphorical; the two are inseparable. (Thus even the word “metaphorical” must veer from accepted En glish usage to convey accurately the meaning of majazi.)
A far better manner of understanding love and images of love in the context of these Sufis is to consider carefully their own terms, theories, and assertions.
While one might point out here that the word “aesthetic” did not exist either, it should be borne in mind that, while “profane” and “sacred” demand sharp divisions, the word “aesthetic” points to a unity indicated in Islamic mystical writings— an evaluative experience of beauty. In this regard, it is a word that helps those of us outside the tradition to approach a mode of perception restrictedly esoteric.
The word “aesthetic” also places a phenomenon in the world of Sufism in a framework that allows one to relate perception and evaluation to artistic expression. This relation, while left somewhat unsaid in the writings that concern us, undoubtedly existed.
The application of the comprehensive vision of these gnostics to poets possibly outside of their own tradition (such as Hafiz) or even clearly outside of their own tradition should not be seen as unnatural. While for some commentators this may have been a mere matter of words, for many, the mystical terms in their commentaries represented envisioned realities. It was not a matter of usurping beautiful poetry; rather, some commentators expressed cosmological reverberations that they actually beheld in such poetic imagery. Such is definitely the case for Ibn ‘Arabi’s commentary on his own collection of amorous verse, the Tarjuman al-Ashwaq. Nevertheless, it is not difficult to see why those exposed to Ibn ‘Arabi’s love poems had and still have their doubts, especially considering the saint’s earnest and sometimes even raw expressions of human-to-human love:
Soft breeze of the wind, hark! Relay to the horned oryxes of Najd that I uphold the promised pledge, the one of which you are aware. Say to the tribe’s girl: “Our rendezvous is the off-limits pasture,
in early-morning moments, Saturday, at the hills of Najd, upon the red bluff, by the stones piled high along the way, at the right side of the streams and the solitary marking.”
If what you report is real, and if she truly suffers for me the agonizing yearning that I suffer
for her, so, in the heat of a sweltering midday, we will meet in her tent, secretly, abiding by the truest of promises;
then she and I will divulge all we have undergone of love-longing, and of the extremities of affliction and the pains of ardor.
Are these meaningless dreams? Or auspicious sleep-omens? Or talk of a time in which talking was my blessedness?
Maybe the one who put these wishes in me will make them appear
before me, so that their gardens give as gifts their gathered blossoms to me.2
Ibn ‘Arabi’s worldview and commentary suggest that all levels of artistic representation within such a poem thrive simultaneously: the tribal girl associated with Najd, the woman she represents, and the human-divine communications captured in every image. The echoes of spiritual significance a lover of God discerns in such poems, as clarified by the poet himself in his commentary, serve as the focus generally of this book and specifically of its final chapter.
Fascinatingly, as Ibn ‘Arabi’s teachings spread, so too did the propensity to write poetic commentaries, particularly on the erotic mystical poetry of ‘Umar ibn al-Farid (d. 632/1235), as well as Sufi glossaries of often sensual imagery. Some, including
8 Sufi Aesthetics
scholars of Ibn al-Farid, have argued that such interpretive endeavors neglect the particular outlook of the poet. Clearly, however, the Akbari School advocated a way of seeing all things that had the potential to subdue other forms of interpretation, rereading literature outside of its own tradition and even outside of the Sufi tradition. Moreover, Akbari-inclined Sufis relentlessly related their observations on desire and beauty to existence itself, so in many ways it mattered little whether the writer was commenting on poetry or on the Qur’an; since their statements referred constantly to a larger ontological vision, the implication was that such interpreters commented on the reality of everything. When one considers the interpretation of poetry in this light, as an aesthetic matter, a matter that relates to vision, then anxieties concerning the application of Akbari terms to other traditions might disappear, be alleviated, or at least seem more sincere.
Method and Organization – Beauty Love and the Human Form in the Writings of Ibn ‘Arabi
This book considers perception and beauty from the point of view of Sufis who never explicitly convey an aesthetic theory as such. Hence one main function of this study has been to analyze relevant passages within the writings of these mystics to determine the nature and applications of this vision. In support of developing an understanding beyond simply the observations of one author, this study is comparative. There are certainly noteworthy differences between these mystics, other than the fact that ‘Iraqi writes mainly in Persian and Ibn ‘Arabi writes exclusively in Arabic. While ‘Iraqi comes from a Persianate, Suhrawardi background, Ibn ‘Arabi is associated with the Sufis of al-Andalus. While ‘Iraqi’s language is usually poetic and terse, Ibn ‘Arabi often employs the language of the exoteric Islamic sciences, albeit in a manner peculiar to him. In his Lama‘at, ‘Iraqi to some extent represents the nexus of these two traditions. Yet more important than the differences are the similarities. In the values they share concerning love, beauty, and the human form, Ibn ‘Arabi and ‘Iraqi proclaim an unspoken aesthetic system. Moreover, while this system’s details differ from Sufi to Sufi, the general principles are shared by a number of mystics, who even refer to the view they have in common as a madhhab or “school of thought.” In other words, through comparative methods, this study outlines a general aesthetic view.
The focus throughout this book on source texts reflects the premise that the keys of interpretation for Sufi assertions, practices, and expressive undertakings lie in their own contemplative writings. This has been the case not in order to diminish other valid approaches to Sufism, Islamic studies, or literary studies, but because of the postulate that mystical experience resists external rational methods and can only be discussed, even if vaguely, through the language used by such mystics. The errors of seeking a comprehensive or even analogous understanding of the tradition’s
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