BESHARA AND IBN ‘ARABI – Book Sample
Contents – OF THE Book – BESHARA AND IBN ‘ARABI
- Acknowledgements viii
- Note on spelling and transliteration x
1 Setting the scene 1
- Sixties Britain as historical context 2
- Sufism and Sufi spirituality in the modern West 8
- Beshara as a movement of Sufi spirituality 10
- Introducing Ibn ‘Arabi and the Oneness of Being 14
- Concerning methodology, data collection and sources 18
2 Emergence and history 23
- Rauf in London: a chance meeting? 23
- Coalescence: the establishment of a spiritual center 28
- Reorientations 32
- Emergence, consolidation and expansion of the
- Beshara movement 35
3 Spiritual education: texts and contexts 45
- Study texts in English 45
- Inside the School of Intensive Esoteric Education 54
4 Bulent Rauf as guiding figure 69
- Origins 69
- Approach as adviser and guide 81
- Legacy 91
5 The Beshara perspective and the teaching of Ibn ‘Arabi 97
- Why Ibn ‘Arabi? 98
- Ibn ‘Arabi’s metaphysics as exposition of Absolute Truth 99
- Ibn ‘Arabi’s teaching as universal 102
- A direct personal message 104
- The spiritual evolution of man 107
- Preparing for the Second Coming of Christ 116
- The Second Coming as new age: ‘universality’
- and global unity 122
- viii contents
6 The spiritual life: culture and practice 135
- The end of religions and spiritual orders: a direct
- realization of Truth 135
- Spiritual practices: origins and adaptations 141
- Islamic–Sufi forms and interior realities 151
- The cult of saints 156
- An Uwaysi culture? 164
7 Projecting Ibn ‘Arabi for today’s world 171
- Beshara and Ibn ‘Arabi 171
- Avenues of engagement: bringing Ibn ‘Arabi
- into the wider culture 173
- Scholarly dissemination: the Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi
- Society, Beshara and ‘Sufi academia’ 177
- Ibn ‘Arabi and his readers: spirituality for the elite? 184
- Ibn ‘Arabi (re-) constructed? 188
8 Beshara and Sufism in the modern world 195
- Situating Beshara 195
- Sufism and the shifting sands of the West 207
- Modern Muslims, spiritual seekers and Sufism 214
- Epilogue 233
- Notes 241
- 1 Sufism and Sufi spirituality in the West: a working typology 405
- 2 The life and thought of Ibn ‘Arabi: recommended reading 406
- 3 A Beshara study session: Bosnevi’s Commentary
- on the Fusus al-Hikam 408
- 4 A Beshara dhikr 415
- 5 Life stories 417
- Select bibliography 451
- Index 470
Suﬁsm and suﬁ spirituality in the modern West
[For pre-modern Muslim societies] the multifarious activities that we subsume under the terms Suﬁsm and Islam were not spheres of existence separate or separable from religious life in general. It would not have been possible to formulate the statement ‘Suﬁsm has nothing to do with Islam’ prior to the nineteenth century.
Carl Ernst, The Shambhala Guide to Suﬁsm, p. xv
[T]he lectures hall was almost empty. A few loyal souls had shown up … But the vast majority of the seats were unclaimed. Esfandi had for some reason entitled his lecture ‘Fire and Surrender in the Islamic Way’, as if not remembering, or even caring, that Islam was hardly a popular subject around here [Santa Barbara, CA]. If he’d substituted the word ‘Suﬁ’, there’d have been blondes in the back row.
Deﬁning suﬁsm is not easy.61 The term and the concept it is used to designate are highly contested, and insiders and outsiders disagree among themselves and with each other as to what it is.62 It is a reasonable claim that most of those involved in suﬁsm today (and those who study it) understand it as an intrinsic part of the Islamic religious tradition, reﬂecting continuity with historical realities. Many Western scholars have narrowly equated it with the ‘esoteric’ or ‘mystical’ core of Islam, existing parallel with its ‘exoteric’ aspect, which is upheld through observance of the revealed law (sharia).63 However, it can legitimately be projected more simply as ‘the interiorization and intensiﬁcation of Islamic faith and practice’.64 As such, and as it has been projected by the great historical suﬁ theoreticians themselves, it is the beating heart of traditional Islamic religion and piety, from which it cannot be separated.65 Nonetheless, many Muslims today consider suﬁsm the chief internal threat to Islam, and their polemics aim precisely to separate it from the religion. These eﬀorts represent a recapitulation of attempts by its opponents at diﬀerent points in Islamic history to denounce certain suﬁ forms, teachings and practices as illegitimate, and extrinsic to the tradition.66
The same insistence that it had ‘no intrinsic’ relation to Islam (or only the
most tangential one) was a central characteristic of suﬁsm as ‘discovered’ two hundred years ago by orientalists. They presented it as an abstract mystical philosophy of possibly external origin, disconnected from Islamic scripture, law and ritual and detached from its profoundly important social context.67 Many of the assumptions underlying this orientalist image of suﬁsm survive in the West today. This is the case in scholarship and popular perceptions, and among those who have adopted suﬁ resources as the matrix of their spiritual quest, or a source of inspiration in this. At the same time, other scholars and practitioners of suﬁsm in the contemporary West underline its Islamic context in doctrinal, legal, ritual and sociohistorical terms.
Alongside Indian traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism,68 from the late nineteenth century the tradition of suﬁsm attracted the attention of Western
Sufism and Sufi spirituality in the modern west – BESHARA
intellectuals interested in Eastern spirituality. During the twentieth century it gained appeal, and established a presence in the Western arena of alternative religions and spirituality. In recent years, suﬁsm has increasingly caught the popular Western imagination, as suggested by the observation, cited above, made by a character in a novel by Pico Iyer.69 Expressions of suﬁsm in the West have received relatively little scholarly attention, when compared with other dimensions of the Islamic experience.70 There have been some recent attempts to bring coherence to study of the ﬁeld by tracing the history of suﬁsm in the West and developing ways of understanding its great diversity there.71 Studies tend to converge upon a twofold typology diﬀerentiating between expressions that consider suﬁsm an integral part of the Islamic religion and those that do not.72 Those in the ﬁrst category may make concessions to the Western context, perhaps through a gradualist approach to their followers’ practice of the Islamic ritual prescriptions. They may also focus more on their speciﬁcally suﬁ identity and teaching, rather than the associated Islamic ones. Nevertheless, they can be located squarely within the sphere of mainstream Islamic belief and practice.73 In contrast, elements of the second type de-emphasize the Islamic source and content of their suﬁ identity and teaching. They tend to favor a perennialism outlook based on the belief that there is a universal, eternal truth underlying all religions, located in their mystical core, which ultimately renders the external shell unimportant. Accordingly, they do not stress (or even require) the embrace and practice of Islam by their followers.74
In order to reﬂect their respective emphases and for the sake of simplicity,
these two types of suﬁsm in the West are described in this volume as ‘Islamic’ and ‘universal’,75 while keeping in mind that the boundaries between them can be blurred. Some Islamic suﬁ groups have thus evinced a context-driven elasticity that can appear to propel them into the other category, while questions remain as to whether some universal suﬁ groups harbor the embrace of Islam by their followers as a long-term goal.76 Mutual perceptions and relations among practitioners of these two forms of suﬁsm are often problematic. Some Islamic suﬁs denounce universal suﬁs for practicing ‘pseudo-suﬁsm’, denying that a wholesome spiritual path is possible in the absence of Islam.77 For their part, the implicit claim of universal suﬁs to return to the ‘essence’ of suﬁsm suggests that other forms (read ‘Islamic’) entail eﬀort wasted on inessentials.78 Building on a dichotomy thus evident on the ground, a straightforward typology of Islamic and universal suﬁ ﬁgures in the West that also takes into account their religious and cultural provenance is provided in Appendix 1, as a basis for the proper situating of our subject. With regard to Islamic suﬁsm, recent scholarship has developed more nuanced approaches to understanding the diﬀerences that mark its various expressions from each other.79 Described by one scholar as an area that is ‘something of a backwater’,80 universal suﬁsm has generally not attracted the same scholarly attention.81 As its prominence in the West is increasingly recognized, it is gradually becoming established
as a serious subject of study.
setting the scene – BESHARA
It remains to point out that the term ‘suﬁsm/suﬁ’ is used in this volume to designate all ﬁgures and trends that self-describe thus, be these universal, Islamic, contemporary or historical.82 This is irrespective of whether other suﬁs, non-suﬁ Muslims, opponents of suﬁsm and scholars would agree with this self-description. The term is also applied to those ﬁgures and trends that draw substantially on suﬁ resources without self-describing in terms of suﬁsm. In such cases, and in discussing diﬀerent forms of suﬁsm in diverse cultural contexts, it seems more appropriate at times to use the term ‘suﬁ spirituality’, hinting at a distancing from traditional Muslim forms of suﬁsm in doctrinal and organizational spheres.
Beshara as a movement of suﬁ spirituality
Introducing the Beshara movement
The physical focus of Beshara is its School of Intensive Esoteric Education located near Hawick in the Scottish Borders. Buried in the grounds is its guiding ﬁgure, Bulent Rauf (1911–87). Rauf’s lasting contribution was to recruit the legacy of Ibn ‘Arabi by way of response to the spiritual search of counterculture youth he encountered in England from the late 1960s. Since 1975, the School has oﬀered extended residential courses cantering on study, work, meditation and spiritual practice. The teaching of Ibn ‘Arabi forms the heart of the study curriculum, and spiritual practices prescribed derive from the Islamic–suﬁ tradition. The aim is to enable students to realize their potential for perfectibility through existential self-knowledge based on the notion of the ‘Oneness of Being’. Individual self-realization is situated within a vision of the global unfolding of a new era reﬂecting a fundamental reorientation of perspective based on universality and unity.
Most of those who have studied at the School establish a relationship
with it and join the network of others who have studied there. Returning to society, they nurture and apply the awareness awakened at the School, endeavoring at the same time to serve the ultimate aim of global reorientation through their individual contexts. The wider community that surrounds the School enjoys a distinct internal culture, evincing features that create insider cohesion and support. For example, those who participate in it use internally designated names among themselves. They meet regularly to study together and again on speciﬁc dates to join in collective spiritual practice. Many return to the School for intensive ‘refresher’ study. They give financial donations to the School according to their means, and some have bequeathed funds to it by will. Where possible, they publicize its work and introduce interested individuals to it. They have a common worldview, creating shared responses, values and priorities, in spite of diﬀerent life circumstances. The perspective that underpins Beshara shapes their self-perception and understanding of the world, and they often pass this on to their children, who as young adults might
Beshara as a movement of Sufi spirituality 11
also attend the School, producing a degree of intergenerational continuity of involvement.
While the School is eﬀectively its pivot, a distinct movement thus emanates from and supports this central institution. We designate it the ‘Beshara movement’. For reasons that will become clear later, we eschew the term ‘membership/member’ in favor of the looser term ‘association/associate’ to describe participation in it. As used here, the term associate designates an individual who has typically (but not always) completed a Beshara course and remains active in the movement, in the sense of continuing to believe in and support its worldview and goals. They may spend spells at the School, serve full-time as staﬀ for speciﬁc periods there, attend study groups at home, or participate in the coordination of relevant activities.83
Key questions; scope of this volume – BESHARA AND IBN ‘ARABI
Beshara has not been subjected to signiﬁcant independent analysis,84 although both the movement and Rauf have been referred to in passing in some of the literature on suﬁsm in the West.85 Rauf is typically introduced in the context of discussions of an early associate of his by the name of Tim (Reshad) Feild, as the latter’s ‘teacher’, and most treatments highlight the perceived Mevlevi connections of Feild, Rauf and Beshara.86 Some mention the Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi Society (MIAS), established under the auspices of Beshara, as an example of organizations in the West that disseminate information relating to suﬁsm, but they do not always register the connection between it and Beshara.87 Literature on NRMs in the West generally fails to mention the movement, or mentions it only in passing.88
This volume provides a detailed description of Beshara. It adds an original case study to the relatively limited literature on suﬁsm/suﬁ spirituality in the modern West, and to the few studies of NRMs there that draw on the Islamic–suﬁ tradition. Given the insatiable interest in anything to do with the contemporary Islamic–Western encounter, it is a timely contribution. However, its relevance extends beyond the speciﬁc ﬁelds of Islamic and suﬁ studies, and relations between Islam and the West. The emergence and continued existence of the subject of this volume thus point to broad religious, cultural and sociological issues in contemporary Western societies that continue to provoke lively debate. At the same time, it throws into sharp relief the interface between religion and modern cultural transformations in a global perspective. For example, Bashara’s success in one majority Muslim arena exposes the impact of changes brought by modernization and globalization on religious life in these contexts. Such wider themes form the large backdrop to the volume.
By studying Beshara, it is possible to reﬂect on approaches to the study
of suﬁsm in the modern West more generally. For example, a recent conference asked: ‘Are insights on “NRM” s/ “New Age” movements relevant to an understanding of contemporary Suﬁsm? Or is there a signiﬁcant diﬀerence
12 setting the scene
between both types of movement?’89 It concluded that no strict boundary operates between suﬁ groups and ‘New Age-type movements’, pointing to ‘questions of conceptualization as well as sociological explanation’.90 By way of contribution to this debate we ask whether, as an NRM, Beshara can be seen as a part of the New Age. Quantities of literature on suﬁsm and translations of suﬁ texts stocked by New Age booksellers point to a substantial interest among their customers. At the same time, certain suﬁs in the West have been willing to cooperate and join in activities with New Agers.91 Some scholars assume the existence of a relationship between certain expressions of suﬁsm in the West and the New Age, but this has not been investigated systematically or in detail.92 We explore this suﬁ–New Age nexus through a case study spanning over three and a half decades. We examine conceptual and operational aﬃnities, and investigate the approach that shapes New Age appropriations of suﬁ resources.93 We also explore the potential implications of this nexus for contemporary Western attitudes towards suﬁsm and Islam as its tradition of origin.
The primary interest of this volume is in the realm of tradition and its
cultural transmission, adaptation and application in modern contexts. In speciﬁc terms, it is in the recruitment of teachings, texts and practices associated with the pre-modern Islamic suﬁ tradition by elements of the counterculture in sixties Britain, through the intervention of a Muslim descendant of the Ottoman elite. Investigation of this theme through Beshara is certainly sustainable intellectually. Nonetheless, some associates may take issue with the assumption that the ‘Islamic–suﬁ’ dimension is suﬃciently deﬁning of their movement’s character/worldview to justify this focus. We anticipate and acknowledge their potential objections to this primary aspect in our framing of the subject, which we partly reﬂect in the volume title. Building on it, we consider how Beshara illuminates the trend of Western suﬁsm it reﬂects, and explore its possible future prospects.
The internally contested Islamic–suﬁ dimension of Beshara yields various
more detailed research questions.94 How do its teachings and approach to spirituality relate to those of traditional suﬁ thought, and of Ibn ‘Arabi, whose school the movement implicitly claims as its spiritual lineage? Which aspects of doctrine and practice associated with Ibn ‘Arabi does Beshara perpetuate? How does the movement relate to the deﬁning tradition of Ibn ‘Arabi’s worldview? In what ways does it perpetuate this tradition, and how does it utilize its major textual sources? To what extent does it depart from the characteristic values and sociocultural attitudes of this tradition? How (if at all) did Rauf’s function in Beshara reﬂect the role of the traditional suﬁ teacher/guide? How have the various aspects of his function been undertaken since his death? How does the adopted approach compare with traditional suﬁ approaches to achieving continuity? Through what imagery, style and language is the Beshara vision conveyed? How does this reflect Rauf ’s own historical– cultural background, and to what extent does it represent a response to the contemporary Western milieu? What, then, is the matrix of cultural forms?
Beshara as a movement of Sufi spirituality 13
through which spiritual teaching and practice take place in Beshara? To what extent and in what ways does Beshara practice reﬂect traditional elements of Islamic and suﬁ practice? How do the genres of discourse and methods of communication used by Rauf and Beshara relate to those of traditional suﬁ spirituality? Are traditional Islamic and suﬁ understandings of sacred space and its use evident in Beshara? Are the arts and aesthetics used to convey or nurture a sense of the sacred in Beshara, and if so, how does their use relate to traditional Islamic and suﬁ approaches?
The following chapters reﬂect on some of these speciﬁc lines of investigation. The volume as a whole respond to the key question concerning Beshara and the New Age by elaborating the movement’s main features in terms of the context of its formation. Chapter 2 traces its emergence and history, closely following the movement’s internal collective memory. Beshara arose out of a syncretic multi-faith center directed by an English suﬁ who had encountered Rauf. We map the conﬂuence of trends that led to the center’s formation, exposing the spiritual genealogy of the major ﬁgures involved and tracing the gradual crystallization and preponderance within it of the approach that would characterize Beshara. We examine the consolidation and institutionalization of the emergent movement, achieved especially through the creation of dedicated schools and an academic society. The distinctive Beshara approach to spiritual education forms the subject of Chapter 3. Here, we examine major study texts prepared for internal use based on Ibn ‘Arabi’s teaching. We describe residential courses as an integrated framework for spiritual education and explore the School as a purpose-designed facilitating environment. The focus of Chapter 4 is Bashara’s guiding ﬁgure. We explore Rauf’s origins, his family background, formative and possible later inﬂuences on him, and his spiritual associations. We characterize his approach as adviser and guide, and evaluate his legacy for the movement.
Chapter 5 sets out the Beshara perspective, and elaborates Rauf’s distinctive application of Ibn ‘Arabi’s teaching in its construction. We consider the movement’s perception of the present times, its understanding of its own role in preparing for a new era and its vision of that era. In Chapter 6, we examine the Beshara conceptualization and practice of the spiritual life, emphasizing its perception of the religions and its distinctive spiritual culture, including the relation of the latter to the Islamic–suﬁ resources on which Rauf drew. Chapter 7 explores the Beshara projection of Ibn ‘Arabi. We consider the channels through which the movement brings his teaching (as appropriated by it) to a broader audience, exploring among others the case of the MIAS. We interrogate the characteristic emphases of the image of Ibn ‘Arabi projected by Beshara in light of competing projections.
In Chapter 8, we situate Beshara in relation to key themes and questions. We then use the speciﬁc case study to explore the possible future of suﬁsm in Western and Muslim arenas. Possible trajectories of universal and Islamic suﬁsm in contemporary Western societies experiencing signiﬁcant shifts in religiosity are mapped. We turn then to the fate of suﬁsm among certain
14 setting the scene
sectors of Muslim populations, considering the impacts of modernization and globalization in shaping constituencies for a reconstituted suﬁ spirituality that evinces aﬃnities with motifs and approaches widespread in contemporary Western arenas. Finally, we reﬂect in an Epilogue on some of the volume’s ﬁndings and methodological implications.
Introducing Ibn ‘Arabi and the Oneness of Being
Life and works
Ibn ‘Arabi was born in Murcia in the southeast of Muslim Spain in 1165, and spent the ﬁrst thirty-ﬁve years of his life in the western lands of Islam. His father served as a professional soldier in the army of the Almohad sultan in the provincial capital Seville, to where the family had relocated in 1172. Their circumstances were good and the young Ibn ‘Arabi acquired a broad education. The seminal experience of his youth took place when he was still an adolescent. It was a sudden mystical ‘unveiling’ in the form of a dream vision of Jesus, Moses and Muhammad, during a spontaneous retreat outside Seville. By 1184 he had entered upon the suﬁ path and dedicated himself to the spiritual life, turning his back on a potential career in the military and entrusting all his possessions to his father. He began to frequent spiritual masters in al-Andalus, Tunis and Fez. By 1194 he had composed his ﬁrst major work, the ﬁrst of nearly three hundred, all of which he claimed had resulted from divine inspiration.
In 1200 Ibn ‘Arabi decided to leave for good the land of his birth, and he
began to journey towards Mecca to perform the pilgrimage. This opened the ‘eastern’ chapter of his career, spent in Anatolia and the Levant, to which his best-known works belong. He passed through Marrakesh, Tunis, Cairo and Palestine, ﬁnally arriving in Mecca in 1202. While circumambulating the Ka ‘ba there, he experienced momentous visions that sparked the beginning of his magnum opus, al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya. They ultimately issued
also in his famous collection of poems, the Tarjuman al-ashwaq, and several
other works. More travels in the east followed: for example, he accompanied the father of Sadr al-Din Qunawi, who was to be his chief disciple and transmitter of his teachings, on a diplomatic mission. During this period he edited existing works, continued with the Futuhat, added further works to his corpus, and married and had a family. After 1223, he settled ﬁnally in Ayyubid Damascus under the patronage of one of its powerful families. His celebrated Fusus al-hikam appeared in 1229 received, by his own account, from the hand of the Prophet in a dream. He died in Damascus in 1240 and was buried in his adopted city.
Ibn ‘Arabi’s self-understanding pivots on an early vision, in which he was shown his destined role as the Seal of Muhammadan Sainthood. He was to become thereby the supreme heir of the Prophet, charged with being the unique, plenary manifestation of the Prophet’s implicit sainthood and exerting
introducing ibn ‘arabi and the oneness of being 15
spiritual authority over the Muslim saints. However, his conception of the reach of his role went beyond both saintly and Muslim communities, for he also highlighted his nature as ‘an absolutely merciful being’, a messenger of divine mercy who promised to intercede on the Day of Judgement on behalf of everyone he sees.95
Many subjects and ﬁelds of knowledge are addressed in Ibn ‘Arabi’s writings, which combine poetry, exegesis, speculative theology, jurisprudence and mythology. His discursive method involves a degree of elusiveness and the use of symbolic images and paradoxes. The latter reﬂected his conviction that the syllogistic methods of the philosophers and the imitative approach of earlier scholars were inadequate for conveying the complex dynamic of the relationship between God, man96 and the cosmos. This relationship pivoted on the underlying oneness and common origin of all aspects of the universe. For Ibn ‘Arabi, the universe was the product of God’s desire to see Himself manifested, as in a mirror. Hence, although the Divine Reality is transcendent, at the same time everything that exists is a manifestation of that Reality. Everything that exists is God, but is simultaneously a veil between the seeker and God. Man and God unite in a contemplative process in which man sees his own reality in the mirror of God’s existence, and God knows His Essence in the mirror that is man completed. This is the quintessence of Ibn ‘Arabi’s metaphysics.97
The entire oeuvre of Ibn ‘Arabi is ultimately and intimately concerned with the bedrock of Islam, tawhid (the unity of God), and its implications
for a proper appreciation of the ultimate nature and purpose of humankind in creation. His elaboration of this theme has been perceived by some as contravening the essential Islamic doctrine of divine transcendence, leading to a designation of his thought as a blatant expression of existential monism. In this view, he is the founder of the ‘heretical’ doctrine of the Oneness of Being.
The Oneness of Being
The doctrine of the Oneness of Being (in Arabic wahdat al-wujud)98 and the existential monism it assumes do appear to capture an important facet of Ibn ‘Arabi’s thought, for at one level he upholds the identity of God with His creation, and hence with man. Yet this understanding and its potentially antinomian implications must be evaluated in light of the fact that, at the same time, his thought remains deeply rooted in and faithful to the theistic worldview of the Islamic revelation, with its conception of God’s utter transcendence and His creation’s dependence on Him.99 Ibn ‘Arabi’s vision was multifaceted, ﬂuid and open-ended, his discourse shaped by ‘the tensions and paradoxes that arise from the attempt to articulate the ineﬀable nature of a transcendent divine’ (and ‘the dynamic between the ineﬀable and the intermediate’).100 It is then only natural that this should have been articulated via a language consciously unfettered by ‘ﬁxed’ or deﬁnitive (and thus
16 setting the scene
falsifying, reifying or reductionist) propositions and terminology.101 By way of illustration, as he used it, the term wujud itself combined a number of interrelated meanings, which Ibn ‘Arabi constantly kept in play, such as ‘being’, ‘existence’, to ‘be found’ and, by his own explicit deﬁnition, ‘ﬁnding the Real in ecstasy’.102 As Chittick puts it, the ‘ambiguity’ inherent in his understanding of the cosmic situation can better be suggested with paradox (Ibn ‘Arabi’s own huwa la huwa, ‘He/not He’, for example)103 than in a straightforward phrase such as wahdat al-wujud, which, moreover, he never used himself. Furthermore, the perceived centrality of wahdat al-wujud to his teaching must itself be questioned, for his major spiritual heir Qunawi makes it clear that the central point of this is neither wujud nor wahdat al-wujud, but the achievement of human perfection.104
Nonetheless, historically the term wahdat al-wujud has been the one most widely applied to designate the cornerstone of Ibn ‘Arabi’s doctrine, whether
by his advocates or his adversaries.105 Application of the term reﬂecting a particular usage among his advocators ﬁrst appeared in the late ﬁfteenth century, when one of the greatest propagators of his teaching (‘Abd al-Rahman Jami [d.1492]) described Ibn ‘Arabi and his followers as ‘spokesmen for the doctrine of wahdat al-wujud’.106 For Jami, the doctrine signiﬁed ‘tawhid in philosophical language’.107 The role of Qunawi in shaping the perception of Ibn ‘Arabi’s work vis-à-vis the notion of wahdat al–wujud is pivotal.108 He was much more inclined than Ibn ‘Arabi to engage in debate with the philosophical tradition, having studied the writings of Ibn Sina, who had placed discussion of wujud (the term used in this case to render the Greek idea of ‘being’ or ‘existence’) at the heart of Islamic philosophy.109 However, although Qunawi himself used the term wahdat al-wujud in two or three places,110 this was not yet as a technical term, and it continued to denote its literal sense of tawhid. Qunawi employed it simply as a phrase appropriate to explaining the nature of divine unity in philosophical vocabulary. Before the ﬁfteenth century, Ibn ‘Arabi’s adversaries had applied the term to characterise his doctrine. Indeed Ibn Taymiyya (d.1328) probably made the greatest single contribution to ‘turning wahdat al-wujud into the designation for a doctrine’.111 He labelled as believers in wahdat al-wujud Ibn ‘Arabi, Qunawi and others who tended to use philosophical vocabulary to talk about God. For him, wahdat al-wujud was nothing other than uniﬁcationism (ittihad) and incarnationism (hulul). It was equivalent to heresy (ilhad), atheism (zandaqa) and unbelief (kufr).112 Notwithstanding the diﬃculties surrounding it, wahdat al-wujud remains convenient shorthand for Ibn ‘Arabi’s thought as an adequate deﬁnition of its fundamental theme.113 Like all shorthand, however, it has a potentially reductionist character that threatens to distort understanding of the thought system it purportedly describes.114 This tendency is compounded in Western literature by the challenges of translation, given the diﬃculty of capturing the shades of meaning conveyed by the term wujud as Ibn ‘Arabi uses it, noted above.115 It is important to keep such concerns in mind whenever application of the term to Ibn ‘Arabi’s thought system is encountered. In the
modern period, it has remained virtually synonymous with his name, both in the Islamic world and in Western literature. Muslim authors in particular often assume the doctrinal content signiﬁed by it: by citing certain historical authorities to the exclusion of others, they implicitly select one ‘content’ over another. This is then judged either positively or negatively, and Ibn ‘Arabi is either absolved of it or denounced for it, but there is little attempt to deﬁne the expression in such a way that it actually accords with the teaching it ostensibly designates.116
Impact and legacy – BESHARA AND IBN ‘ARABI
Ibn ‘Arabi’s teaching pivots upon an appeal to the individual to experience directly God’s Self-disclosure in the self and the world. Starting and ending with the Islamic revelation, it maps the individual journey of ‘return’ to the origin. In this respect, it eﬀectively reinstates at the center of Islamic belief a realization of the intrinsic relation of self and the world to Absolute Being, pointing to the means by which this realization can reach its fullest potential in the individual. Like al-Ghazali (d.1111) before him (who like him was honoured with the title ‘reviviﬁer of the faith’, muhyi al-din), Ibn ‘Arabi’s emphasis of the interior thus complements or completes the exterior, rather than contradicting it.117 The concern of such mystics is not to transcend or depart from Islam, but to repudiate a conception of it in which its deﬁning and animating mystical kernel is absent. In presenting an approach that is rooted in the revelation while giving its due to this central concern, Ibn ‘Arabi developed an intellectually satisfying resolution to the apparent contradictions between such signiﬁcant binary oppositions as transcendence and immanence, unity and multiplicity, similarity and incomparability, and even belief and unbelief.
Ibn ‘Arabi can reasonably be claimed as the most inﬂuential thinker of the second half of Islamic history.118 Credited with the systematic intellectualization of the earlier suﬁ tradition, his contribution has been a point of reference for most doctrinal suﬁ discourse since. However, his inﬂuence has also radiated beyond the suﬁs to thinkers more typically regarded as philosophers and theologians. Indeed, from the thirteenth century onward, most prominent Muslim thinkers have felt it necessary to deﬁne their position vis-à-vis him.119 Question marks concerning his orthodoxy have fueled polemics for and against him from the time of his death to the present day.120 At the same time, some suﬁs who revere him as a saint remain against the general circulation of his works, lest they sow confusion among those unqualiﬁed to read them.121
Like other great mystics, Ibn ‘Arabi had spiritual disciples and appears to have passed on a khirqa (suﬁ cloak of investiture), symbolizing the transmission of his spiritual blessing (baraka). Historically, the transmission of his baraka has proceeded parallel to the transmission of his teaching.122 His
present,123 albeit with such discretion that ins hidden (those who participate in its transmission are at the
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