IBN ‘ARABI AND MODERN THOUGHT – Sample Book
Contents of IBN ‘ARABI AND MODERN THOUGHT
1 The orientation of this study 1
- Introduction 1
- Ibn ،Arabi’s picture of reality 3
- The question about questions: knowledge and
- its essential direction 4
- Metaphysics, historically positioned discourses
- and human aspiration 10
- Degrees of knowledge: the principle of immanencing 20
- Ibn ،Arabi and modern thought: a recon¥gured
- topography 23
- Notes 33
2 Ibn ¡Arabi: philosophy and reason 37
- Ibn ،Arabi, Averroës and philosophy as demonstrative
- science 37
- Philosophy, reason and metaphysics 43
- Reason and essential contestability 50
- Reason and commitment 54
- Scienti¥c philosophy 59
- Philosophy of the subject 68
- Wahdat al-wujud, wisdom and reason 74
- Notes 78
3 Ibn ¡Arabi and the era 81
- The metaphysics of the era: creation and change 81
- Social science and the emergence of the modern era 88
- The reorientation of the self: science, technology
- and industrialization 98
- Modernity, postmodernity and relativism 108
- Notes 120
- viii ~ contents
4 Ibn ¡Arabi and the self 123
- The metaphysics of self-knowledge 123
- Modern psychology and the self 135
- The treatment of the self in modern scienti¥c psychology 135
- The relative invisibility of the self under the searchlight
- of experimentalism 137
- Self and experience beyond the experimentalist paradigm 141
- The turn towards a discursive–critical perspective 146
- Further comments on the treatment of subjectivity and
- self in psychology and computational models of mind 148
- Wider perspectives on the mind and self in the early
- history of psychology: the case of Wundt and James 156
- Psychology, post-empiricist views of science and the self 165
- Psychology and essential contestability 169
- The self as sui generis 170
- Psychology, therapy and the self 172
- Feminism and the self 177
- Postscript 181
- Notes 183
Name index 193
Subject index 195
As the subtitle suggests, the approach of this study is to examine certain aspects of contemporary thought and theorizing in the light of the metaphysical teachings of the twelfth-century Andalusian Muhyiddin Ibn ¡Arabi. With some notable exceptions, much modern thought has not felt it necessary to delve deeply into its own metaphysical foundations nor to take seriously the history of metaphysics in general.
At the risk of oversimplifying it is arguable that the intellectual in¦uence of the early twentieth-century revolution in British philosophy, the general alignment in the West of science and technology with the calculative rationality of industrial capitalism, and the equating of science and technology with human and social progress engendered an intellectual atmosphere in which there did not seem to be much room left for metaphysics. In some cases, metaphysics was regarded with outright intellectual hostility.
In short, the relationship between modern thought and metaphysics has had a chequered career. In one form or another metaphysics has endured. It has endured partly because the relationship between metaphysics and knowledge has always been a key issue, from Plato’s Republic1 through to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 2 and beyond, into the relativistic view of knowledge of that which is called postmodernism. The promise of industrial capitalism also suffered some severe setbacks in the twentieth century and there is a feeling that its human costs are beginning to noticeably outweigh its human bene¥ts: it is engendering its own metaphysical crisis
The availability of English translations of the writings of Ibn ¡Arabi offer an extraordinary opportunity to re-examine the depth and signi¥cance of the issue of the relationship between metaphysics and modern thought in the light of one of the most profound metaphysical teachings the world has ever known.
Without the outstanding contribution to the studies of Ibn ¡Arabi of such scholars as Henry Corbin, Claude Addas, Ralph Austin, Michel Chodkiewicz, William Chittick, Toshihiko Izutsu and James Morris (to cite some of the central ¥gures to whom the present study is indebted) such a task would simply not have been feasible.
In this respect it is perhaps useful to point out to those who want to situate the thought and ideas of Ibn ¡Arabi in their historical and cultural setting, the recent study by Addas, Quest for the Red Sulphur, a masterpiece of scholarship, insight and exposition. Alternatively, for an emphasis on the elucidation of Ibn ¡Arabi’s key philosophical ideas consult the excellent study by Izutsu, Su¥sm and Taoism.
Equally, for a study which situates the recurring themes of Ibn ¡Arabi in their Quranic setting, consult Chittick’s The Su¥ Path of Knowledge. Because such studies as these cover the historical and exegetical ground admirably the present study does not engage in detailed historical analysis of the life and works of Ibn ¡Arabi. Finally, for an excellent and accessible introduction to the teachings of Ibn ¡Arabi, consult The Unlimited Merci¥er by Stephen Hirtenstein.
I mention these recent studies to differentiate their respective orientations from that of the present study which, although also exegetical, analytical and comparative, is so in quite a different sense. There is enough material, however, in the present study for the reader who is new to the metaphysical teachings of Ibn ¡Arabi to grasp the logic, power and beauty of his overall picture of reality. The basic orientation of this study is to analyse the underlying conception of knowledge that permeates the metaphysics of Ibn ¡Arabi and compare it with the paradigmatic assumptions about knowledge that permeated much of twentieth-century theoretical culture.
Ibn ¡Arabi’s picture of reality
Without doubt, the key to understanding the entire corpus of Ibn
¡Arabi lies in the central idea of wahdat al-wujud 4 – the Oneness of Being. For Ibn ¡Arabi, wahdat al-wujud (also translated as the Unity or Oneness of Existence) is an inescapable ontological fact. The referent of this condensed description is Being – not a particular being – but Being in general, as it were. It has as its referent that Being which is the source and ground of all beings. In this sense, God is Being (wujud).
This formulaic description, whilst perfectly according with Ibn ¡Arabi’s view, has to be treated with care in this truncated form.5 The Arabic triliteral wujud also means ‘to ¥nd’. For Ibn ¡Arabi this implies that it is incumbent upon the human person to ¥nd out what the Oneness of Being means for them, their lives and their existence. This is not simply an intellectual or conceptual “¥nding” but a journey into the experiential depths of their reality posited as no other than an individuated expression of the Oneness of Being itself. In fact, it is the concept of the Oneness of Being that negates, for Ibn ¡Arabi, any implication of an ontological duality.
There is only One Unique Being which reveals itself in a multiplicity and in¥nity of its own forms, and which possesses two fundamental dimensions, transcendence and immanence. This is why Ibn ¡Arabi’s doctrine of wahdat al-wujud is misdescribed if it is described over-simplistically and disparagingly as pantheism6 for the One Unique Being transcends the immanence of its own forms. It transcends its “theatre of manifestation” whether this be the human-social world, the world of nature, the cosmos, or any other possible mode of manifestation.
Ibn ¡Arabi unfolds the extraordinary human implications of the ontological fact alluded to by the phrase wahdat al-wujud 7 with an optimistic, relentless and disarming logic. Above all, Ibn ¡Arabi insists on the central role and privileged status of the Human Self, or at least each individual’s potential status as a possible exemplar of the archetypal human, known as insan-i-kamil, the complete or perfect human being. In his general metaphysical scheme of things insan-ikamil, or the fully developed human being, can be conceived of as a bridge or isthmus which connects the internal or interior aspects of the Single Unique Reality with its external or exterior aspects.
The status of the isthmus resides not in itself but in what it connects and summarizes: the insan-i-kamil combines the inward and outward aspects of Reality. Hence, the true ontological dignity of the humankind cannot be over-rated. For Ibn ¡Arabi, the essential dignity of humankind resides in the fact that God, out of His love to be known, created man in His image.
For the student who is just beginning to grasp the magnitude which Ibn ¡Arabi accords to human potential (and its grounds), it becomes abundantly clear that Ibn ¡Arabi’s philosophy is one of profound hope and is in perfect concordance with the sentiments of another of his contemporaries, Jalaluddin Rumi, when Rumi writes “Come, come whoever you are … ours is not a caravan of despair”. As Addas also concludes, the “dominant quality” of the writings of Ibn ¡Arabi is “the quality of a universal message of hope”.8
The concept of insan-i-kamil represents the ideal to which human beings can aspire. As S. H. Nasr9 carefully points out, such an aspirational philosophy places before us the grandeur of what a human being can be (or can become), and contrasts it with the pettiness of what in most cases a human being is. Ibn ¡Arabi’s universal philosophy addresses itself to the potential or the ideal. It addresses itself to the inescapable metaphysical foundations of human reality: the inseparability of all human life and potential from its source or essence. It implies no Utopian idealism for it is ¥rmly grounded in the facts of humanly lived experience and the means of its transformation from the only too human to the more than human, or perhaps the truly human.
The question about questions: – IBN ‘ARABI AND MODERN THOUGHT
knowledge and its essential direction
For Ibn ¡Arabi the foundation of all knowledge, no matter how objective or impersonal some forms of knowledge appear to be, has its grounds in self-knowledge: the kind of knowledge which cannot be ultimately divorced from the knower nor from the thing known. To put the matter in contemporary existentialist terms Ibn ¡Arabi’s is a participatory 10 view of knowledge which recognizes that in every act of knowing stands the knower. All knowledge for Ibn ¡Arabi is necessarily a form of self-knowledge. The basic question becomes “Who is known?” rather than, simply, “What is known?”.
In this reorientation of epistemological emphasis it is the question “Who is known?” which becomes the question to be borne in mind in every situation and in all domains of knowledge. This fundamental question is, for Ibn ¡Arabi, capable of giving the quest for knowledge its proper direction and centrality. In the metaphysics of wahdat al-wujud there is only One Being and only One Knower. Because of this it is necessary for the ¡arif, the knower, in the contemplation of his or her selfexperience, to recognize who it is that is the true knower and the known.
This is why Ibn ¡Arabi can write so evocatively: “What ails thee that thou wouldst not sense me through the tangibles? what ails thee that thou wouldst not comprehend me through the scents? what ails thee that thou wouldst not see me? what ails thee that thou wouldst not hear me? what ails thee? what ails thee? what ails thee?”11
Let us explore further this idea that all knowledge is a form of self-knowledge. Consider, for example, a domain of knowledge which seems remote from the personal and the intimate – that is, basic arithmetic. The basic truths of arithmetic, such as 2 + 2 = 4, seem to be objective, impersonal and abstract truths whose validity is independent of the knowing subject and whose truths are independent of anyone knowing them to be true. Such a view accounts well for the non-arbitrary nature of the arithmetical enterprise and allows for further mathematical discovery and analysis.12
It is such features of mathematical truth which lead some mathematicians to a Platonic understanding of the nature of mathematical knowledge itself. Such a view is encapsulated in the following statement by Bertrand Russell made early in his mathematical career: “mathematics takes … us from what is human into the region of absolute necessity, to which not only the actual world, but every possible world, must conform … it builds an habitation … eternally standing … where our ideals are fully satis¥ed.”13
If we choose to describe such a view as Platonic it must be in a loose sense if for no other reason than the fact that the fundamental orientation of Plato’s theory of knowledge was the realignment of the soul towards that which it already knows,14 and it certainly seems unlikely that Russell would have had this in mind. Also, for Plato, this entailed no escape from what is human but a realization of what human reality essentially is. Plato’s view of knowledge, in essence, is a form of self-knowledge of the kind exactly recommended by Ibn
¡Arabi. Interestingly, one of Ibn ¡Arabi’s appellations was Son of Plato and Ibn ¡Arabi himself referred to Plato as the Divine Plato. But this point aside, Russell’s early view of the nature of mathematics underwent a profound sea-change in later life. He says, for example, that “mathematics has ceased to seem to me non-human in its subject matter. I fear that, to a mind of suf¥cient intellectual power, the whole of mathematics would appear as trivial, as trivial as the statement that a four-footed animal is an animal.”15
This view suggests that the propositions of mathematics are simply human productions having no eternal standing. In this regard the mathematical universe can be considered as an aspect of the general human capacity to construct symbolic worlds. Mathematics, like many other forms of human knowledge, is rooted in the human subject’s capacity to wonder, to create and to discover. Just how deeply personal and gripping this mathematical capacity can become is colourfully illustrated in the life of the twentieth century, largely selftutored, Hindu mathematical genius Srinivasa Iyengar Ramanujan.16 For him, as the great English mathematician John E. Littlewood is recorded to have said, “every positive integer was one of his personal friends”.
What is also noticeable in Ramanujan’s work is the obvious isomorphism between his adherence to the Hindu Upanishadic concept of in¥nity and his contribution to the mathematics of in¥nity. For him mathematics was unquestionably a form of metaphysical expression which had its origins in the deepest recesses of the human self. And in Ramanujan’s case the Self needs to be understood in the conceptual light of the classical Hindu Vedic literature. There are indeed some remarkable parallels between Ibn ¡Arabi’s conception of the Self and the Upanishadic world picture.
Whatever view we hold concerning the foundations of mathematics,17 the constant production of signi¥cant and new mathematics (so well attested to in Ramanujan’s work) – although, as a matter of course, subject to rigorous mathematical analysis – cannot itself simply be the outcome of such analysis.
As Ramanujan himself was quite aware, its roots lie elsewhere. It is when we consider the human creative source of the mathematical enterprise that it is possible to glimpse the subtlety and richness of a philosophy, such as Ibn ¡Arabi’s, which endows an ontological and epistemological theophanic role to the creative imagination.18 In other words, here is an understanding which conceives of the imagination as having a speci¥c ontological reality capable of receiving ideas and images (that is, knowledge) directly from the Divine source, including mathematical inspiration. Ramanujan himself once said “an equation for me has no meaning unless it expresses a thought of God”.19
He would have had little dif¥culty in accepting Ibn ¡Arabi’s claim that “there is not one single thing that cannot be known through revelation or spiritual experience”.20 From such a viewpoint the roots of all knowledge are inextricably tied to the personal. But our epistemological understanding of the nature of this inextricability is metaphysically recon¥gured when the individual is pictured as a unique and essentially in¥nite theatre of God’s manifestation to Himself “from all eternity”.
Under this metaphysical rubric all forms of knowledge potentially re¦ect a revivifying and trans¥guring entanglement between the knower and the known. It was existentialists like Nikolai Berdyaev and Miguel de Unamuno who insisted that behind every effort to know stands the knower. For them (and for existentialism in general) philosophizing is not done by reason alone “but with the will, with the feelings, with the ¦esh and with the bones, with the whole soul and with the whole body. It is man that philosophizes.”21 Further aspects of this existentialist insight into the relationship between the knower and the known are carefully elucidated by John Macquarrie when he remarks:
fundamental … is the difference between knowing a fact and knowing a person – a difference so deeply felt that many languages have separate verbs for expressing the two kinds of knowing … For the existentialist the paradigm of knowledge is not the objective knowledge of empirical facts sought by the sciences, but knowing persons. Such knowing may be either the subjective … knowledge of self, or the knowledge of other persons gained through encounter with them … What then is peculiar about the kind of knowing which the existentialist takes to be paradigmatic? The answer would be that such knowing is characterized by participation. It is not obtained by observing something external to oneself but by immersing oneself in that which is known.22
The basic structure of Ibn ¡Arabi’s metaphysics of unity adds a new and extraordinary profundity to the conception of knowledge as a form of encounter, whether the encounter is within the deepest recesses of oneself, or the encounter with another human being, or with ideas or music or literature or even with the power, beauty and awesomeness of nature. For Ibn ¡Arabi there is an important sense in which all knowledge is potentially a form of encounter. To understand this let us return to the metaphysical premise of wahdat alwujud that there is only One Being and, thereby, only One Essential Knower. This One Being has in itself in¥nite modalities, some of which constitute the appearance of the phenomenal world as we know and experience it, including us. As the “theatre of manifestation” the phenomenal world is the place where the One Being reveals itself constantly and kaleidoscopically in an in¥nity of its own forms.
Or as the Quran says: “Each day He is upon some task.”23 The only reality that the phenomenal world has is as a forever-in-the-making modality of the One Being. The phenomenal world is an apparently externalized expression of the internal relationships of the One Being. The One Being manifests as apparently other and it may appear that this otherness implies a fragmentation of the original Unity. But this is not and cannot, in fact, be the case according to Ibn ¡Arabi. There is only a perceived fragmentation or an apparent otherness or an apparent externalization.
From our point of view it may appear as if the cosmos is inhabited by separate individual consciousnesses and separate objects of all kinds. The reason for such perceived fragmentation might be, as Izutsu argues,24 that reality appears as a plurality of particulars because of the structure and nature of human cognition itself and the ¥nitude of human consciousness. Af¥¥ 25 af¥rms a similar point when he rehearses Ibn ¡Arabi’s view that it is because our
¥nite minds cannot grasp the whole as whole that we perceive it as a plurality of things. But, according to Ibn ¡Arabi, in spite of this perceived fragmentation, what we are actually encountering is not many separate things or individuals but the in¥nite manifestations of the One and Only Being. It is the corner-stone of Ibn ¡Arabi’s mystical philosophy of knowledge that the raison d’être of human kind is to return to the vision of the original Unity and this is, to put it in existentialist terms, the fundamental human project. For Ibn ¡Arabi, to return to this total vision of the original Unity (known as tawhid or Union) is the epistemological gold standard. It is the unalloyed awareness that there is Only One Being and Only One Knower.
Among the in¥nite modalities of being and knowing, not all encompass such a total vision. The scienti¥c enterprise, whilst depicting the extraordinary wonder of the workings of the cosmos, can also, by its very modality as an empirical study, enclose its understanding of the cosmos within its own relatively circumscribed impersonal frame of reference. It can veil the cosmos as theophany or, in Macquarrie’s sense, it can veil it as encounter. But clearly it need not, as Einstein reminds us:
The most beautiful and profound emotion … is the sensation of the mystical. Those to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, are as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty … this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness.26
What Einstein alludes to here is expressed in the very language of personal encounter and in no sense is this insight diminished by scienti¥c discovery. In fact, scienti¥c discovery is one of the modes in which such intimations of a “most radiant beauty” can be discerned, or also ignored. In contrast to Einstein on this point Ibn ¡Arabi cannot stress too strongly that what “really exists” is far from being “impenetrable to us”. On the contrary, the source of “the highest wisdom” and the “most radiant beauty” constitutes the foundations of human reality and it would run counter to the Divine love to be known if it remained irrevocably impenetrable.
Metaphysics, historically positioned discourses and human aspiration
To proceed further with the exploration of the conceptual contours of Ibn ¡Arabi’s metaphysics of unity it is pertinent at this stage to revisit the question “Why does metaphysics matter?” The answer must be to do with the fact that metaphysical questioning has always been directed towards a comprehensive account of the nature of Being (as, for example, in Plato or Aristotle), or directed towards the nature of what it is possible for human beings to know (as in Kant or Hume), or what it is possible or desirable for human beings to become (as in Aquinas, Spinoza, Marx or Freud). It is arguable that there is not any major theorist in the Western intellectual tradition who was not forced to choose in matters of metaphysics. Whilst metaphysics itself has historically been seen as a branch of philosophy – sometimes considered a disreputable branch – it can also be said to distinguish itself from philosophy in its characteristic attempt to offer a comprehensive account of the whole as a whole. It is quite possible for a particular metaphysical account to engender, from its own inclusive perspective, a critique of the assumptions of the metaphysics behind such philosophies as rationalism, logical positivism or existentialism. Metaphysics, in this sense, does not deal piecemeal with the particular contents of our conceptual apparatus.
Traditional metaphysics, which has typically addressed itself to comprehensive questions about the whole as a whole, often postulates the existence of a reality which is unutterable, unknowable, incomprehensible, unquali¥able and unfathomable. This is undoubtedly the case with the metaphysics of Ibn ¡Arabi, according to whom there is a dimension of “the Majesty of God”27 which is beyond the grasp of human conceptualization. In Ibn ¡Arabi’s metaphysics this unknowable essence is described as the “Absolute Unknowable” and sometimes as the “First Presence”.
It remains essentially Unknowable (except to Itself) and conceptually unspeci¥able. However, the magnitude of its presence as Origin is indicated by the “First Unveiling” or “First Individuation” and by all the further modalities and consequences which follow from this “Most Holy Effusion” (al-fayd alaqdas).28 He expresses this in such a way as to emphasize the simultaneity of the situation, as it is that we ourselves, in essence, signify our Origin. In the Quran one is frequently reminded in various ways that God is closer to us “than our jugular vein”. In this context, we can now consider the enigmatic and paradoxical nature of Ibn ¡Arabi’s meeting with “the youth steadfast in devotion”:
I … met the eagle stone of the youth steadfast in devotion who is both speaker and silent, neither alive nor dead, both complex and simple, encompassing and encompassed … I grasped what he was and his signi¥cance … that he was far beyond all considerations of space and time. When I had realized this … I kissed his right hand … and said to him, “O bearer of tidings, look and see how
I seek your company and desire your friendship.” Then he indicated to me by hint and sign that he was created to speak only by signs … I begged him to reveal his secrets to me. He said “Behold the details of my structure and the order of my formation and
you will ¥nd the answer to your question set forth in me, for I am not one who speaks or is spoken to, my knowledge being only of myself and my essence being naught other than my names. I am knowledge, the known and the knower.”29
The questions which traditional metaphysics, such as Ibn ¡Arabi’s, address about the nature of Being require and imply a profound shift in our cognitive orientation. Such a shift opens up a vast spiritual and epistemological landscape hitherto hardly imaginable.
Ibn ¡Arabi’s doctrine of wahdat al-wujud, Oneness of Being, is inherently a dispositional ontology. What is clear is that the metaphysics of Ibn ¡Arabi is not a personal intellectual construction of his own. To conceive it as such would be to misconstrue the fundamental idea that the metaphysics of wahdat al-wujud intends to convey. It is precisely because it is not a personal intellectual construction that it avoids the accusation of being based on the extravagances of the human intellect. If such metaphysical insights concerning the whole as a whole are left off the intellectual agenda or left unaddressed, one can never be sure that local, regional, cultural and intellectual preferences are not mistaken for a more universal point of view.
What can be said at this stage is that metaphysics suggests that piecemeal strategies are insuf¥cient. The defence of metaphysics is usually located in the production of some “bold new vision of the nature of the world”30 which naturally carries with it some degree of conceptual articulation. Such a universal point of view like that of Ibn ¡Arabi’s, can only be regarded as providing a revised view of the world, if what is meant by revised is seeing that the whole is more than the sum of its parts and that the parts can only be properly understood from the point of view of the whole. Ibn ¡Arabi’s metaphysics is predicated on God’s vision of Himself in the in¥nity of His own forms. This extraordinary metaphysical picture does not entail that the ordinary stock of “fundamental concepts and categories of human thinking”31 have to be abandoned.
In fact, the revised picture of the world as expounded by Ibn ¡Arabi is a picture in which these fundamental concepts and categories of human thinking have their place and value. But the acknowledgement of their relative usefulness is also an acknowledgement of their relative limitation. Human concepts and categories cannot penetrate the true nature of “the Real” as Izutsu indicates when he says “the … world is real in so far as it is the absolute truth or Reality as perceived by the relative human mind in accordance with its natural structure.”32 Ibn ¡Arabi’s remarks on the incapacity of re¦ective thinking to uncover anything other than a profoundly limited and in¥nitesimal fraction of reality also alludes to this situation.
But let us make another general point about the nature of metaphysics. Very often developments in the physical sciences have encouraged metaphysical revision. In this regard it is noticeable that there is an increasing movement among many recent leading scientists towards a reconceptualization of the metaphysical foundations of modern science. Such theorists as Bohm, Sperry, Goodwin, Mae-Wan Ho, and others, advocate an account of scienti¥c epistemology which encapsulates, as an indispensable premise, a more unitive understanding of the encounter between the knower and the known: the observer and the observed are seen to be inextricably interconnected.33
When Rom Harré suggests “particularly in physics itself, philosophical considerations have always been very much to the fore in the thinking of the great physicists. Metaphysics, that is, critical re¦ection on the nature of the ‘world’ to be investigated, has played a central role not only in the formulation of theories, but also in the development of empirical methods,”34 we can conclude that metaphysics and physics are far from being poles apart.
Finally, there is another general feature of Ibn ¡Arabi’s metaphysical outlook which it is necessary to hold in view. This feature is dif¥cult to pin down but is extremely important: it is a kind of tolerance, openness and metaphysically inspired generosity of outlook. It is the kind of outlook which will have nothing to do with the petty and the mean-spirited, or the dogmatic and the intolerant. It is an outlook which continually reaf¥rms the great nature which God has essentially bestowed upon the human Self in creating man in His image. There is a vastness about Ibn ¡Arabi’s metaphysics which makes it antithetical to any narrow religious fundamentalism or a relative closedness and in¦exibility of mind, secular or religious. In brief, Ibn ¡Arabi’s metaphysical writings re¦ect the strength, generosity and grandeur inherent in the vision of the original Unity alluded to in the description wahdat al-wujud.
In any comparison between traditional and modern thought it is a primary conceptual requirement that we are familiar with the metaphysical scaffolding of our own theoretical culture. As Robin Horton argues in his excellent article about the similarities and differences between traditional religious thought and Western science,35 it is only familiarity with our own twentieth-century theoretical culture which will provide the “vital key to understanding” the nature of traditional cultures and thought. He suggests that social anthropologists, for example, have been blinded by the personal idiom utilized by traditional tribal cultures in their everyday explanations and general metaphysical views of their worlds (i.e. references to gods, spirits, ancestors and so on). Horton contends that because traditional thinking is couched in the personal idiom rather than in the impersonal idiom of modern science, anthropological studies have failed to take account of the important similarities of rational strategy between the two different approaches.
He does, however, identify a number of important instances where they coincide, the most fundamental of which are the following: both enterprises exemplify (a) the quest for explanatory theory which is directed towards the quest for unity underlying diversity, order underlying apparent disorder, regularity underlying apparent anomaly and (b) in both cases, such explanatory theory places things in a causal context wider than that provided by common sense. In short, both traditional religious thinking and modern scienti¥c thinking exemplify similar rational strategies but they are expressed in different linguistic idioms – the former in a personal idiom and the latter in an impersonal idiom.
Horton then goes on to locate the major theoretical divergence, namely, that in traditional cultures “there is no developed awareness of alternatives to the established body of theoretical tenets”. From this position he concludes that traditional cultures are relatively closed whereas modern scienti¥c cultures are intrinsically open. How open modern Western scienti¥c and technological culture actually is to “alternatives to the established body of theoretical tenets” is a moot point, particularly in relation to the question of what constitutes enlightened human progress. If we con¥ne Horton’s suggestion speci¥cally to scienti¥c research programmes then it seems largely true that scienti¥c culture subjects its own theoretical productions to radical self-appraisal in the light of alternative theories.
By comparison, some traditional religious metaphysics may seem to be relatively closed ways of viewing the world. If we were searching for contemporary illustrations of the radical closedness of some religious metaphysics it is probable that we would cite modern forms of religious fundamentalism. We know that religious fundamentalism is an increasing problem in the modern world.
However, it may be, as Parekh36 points out, that religious fundamentalism is “a speci¥c kind of response to a religion facing a crisis of identity and authority”. According to Parekh such a response to crisis involves the ignoring of tradition and the construction of “a highly simpli¥ed and ideological system of beliefs” which “radically reconstitutes the religion concerned”. If we accept this view, then fundamentalism is an aberration of the original tradition it seeks to represent.
In relation to the metaphysics of wahdat al-wujud it is clear that such a concept does not constitute a “highly simpli¥ed … ideological system of beliefs”, nor does it involve any ideological simpli¥cation of Islam. One of the refreshing recommendations of Ibn ¡Arabi’s thought is “that the person of knowledge (¡arif) does not get caught up in any one form of belief”. This essential recommendation stems from a metaphysics which allows for the awareness that all human knowledge is, to some extent, perspectival, conditioned and relative.
The ¡arif’s directive is to seek the “knowledge inherent in God” (¡ilm laduni) and not to be imprisoned within ideologically closed ways of viewing the world. The ¡arif is advised to be the hayula or essence of all beliefs in the metaphysical sense conveyed by the famous line from Ibn ¡Arabi’s Tarjuman al-Ashwaq (The Interpreter of Desires), “My heart has become capable of every form”. Here again we sense the sheer vastness of his metaphysics which makes it intrinsically antithetical to all forms of fundamentalism, cognitive or metaphysical.
It is historically true that, despite the more recent developments discussed earlier, the Western intellectual tradition (especially in the period of European intellectual history known as the Enlightenment) has tended to emphasize the hiatus between the knower and the known, between the object and the subject, between the mind and the body and between the creator and creation. For René Descartes the divorce between mind and body, whilst radical, did allow their alleged conjunction in the “pineal gland”, but for those Enlightenment supporters of Deism, the divorce between Creator and Creation was more absolute. For the Deists there had to be an unbridgeable gulf between Creator and Creation in order to achieve the objective of excluding any form of knowledge by revelation. Deism presents the picture of a radically non-theophanic cosmos.
For the Deists, God had created the Cosmos and then left it to run according to its own laws without any further interference. It was the conception of a distant, yet providential God whose only traces were to be discovered in the design and order and beauty present in the Universe. Isaac Newton, the central hero of the Enlightenment thinkers, favoured the “argument from design”.37 For the Deists, the “argument from design”, which was so famously criticized by their contemporary David Hume, was persuasive and appealing precisely because it represented for them a rational proof of the existence of God which did not appeal to revelation. Classical Newtonian physics had demonstrated unequivocally that the universe was ordered and law-like. It seemed to them that the Newtonian picture of a deterministic universe regulated by immutable laws left no room for revelation, or divine intervention, or sent prophet, or revealed text, or miracle. The secrets of nature could only be discovered by human observation and reason: the universe was to be properly conceived of as an empirically and scienti¥cally closed system. This was not Newton’s own view – he remained deeply interested in the occult
– but it was a view that became predominant among many of the
Such newly emerging intellectual conceptions of the Cosmos, coupled with developing ideas about the scope of scienti¥c and technical knowledge, soon became unalterable and unquestionable truths amongst some of the new and in¦uential enlightened intellectuals (e.g. Diderot, D’Alembert, Voltaire). Such beliefs underwent, as a modern sociologist of knowledge might remark, a process of rei¥cation: they became taken-for-granted “facts”.
Of course, there were many reactions against this intellectual entrenchment, notably encapsulated in the tenets of Romanticism and, much later, in the doctrines of Existentialism. Theradical divide between knower and known was further challenged with the rise of twentiethcentury quantum physics. But such entrenchment takes a while before it “melts into air”.38 All in all, the Enlightenment Project – as Habermas was later to call it – and the reactions it provoked, brought into new prominence the question of the nature and scope of knowledge and its relation to human subjectivity, progress and aspiration. This in itself is one of the crucial questions facing the twenty-¥rst century: what is the nature of the relationship and responsibility between knower and known? The philosophy of Ibn ¡Arabi has a direct and urgent relevance to this question.
It is because of the importance of, and the meaning that Ibn ¡Arabi attaches to knowledge, that the present study attempts to elucidate his underlying conception of knowledge and compare it with the paradigmatic assumptions about the nature of knowledge that permeated much of twentieth-century Western theoretical culture. One might legitimately say that to traverse the intellectual landscape of modernity in the light of Ibn ¡Arabi’s wahdat al-wujud is a salutary and exhilarating exercise.
Before embarking on such an enterprise, it is perhaps necessary and useful to address another substantial general problem. This is the issue of understanding Ibn ¡Arabi’s metaphysical requirement of viewing the whole as a whole in relation to the issue of the relativism of the positioned discourses which constitute contemporary intellectual history. Clearly, such speci¥c domains of knowledge as history, science, psychology, sociology and so on have their own frames of reference and their own intrinsic assumptions and methodologies.
To illustrate what is at issue here let us take the case of the academic discipline of modern history. Carr39 remarks in his discussion of the historian and his information that “the facts speak only when the historian calls on them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the ¦oor, and in what order and context.” This observation implies that all history is inherently a historiographical enterprise which inevitably re¦ects the theoretical and ideological commitments of the historian. More recently the historian Keith Jenkins40 insists that “the idea that somehow the past can be re-created objectively” (that is, without bias) is to ignore a major premise of modern historical scholarship that history is a “series of readings, all of which are positioned”. For Jenkins there is no possibility of an “unpositioned center … The only choice is between a history that is aware of what it is doing and a history that is not.”41
In summarizing his case, Jenkins cites the work of another contemporary theorist Hayden White, to the effect that
we should no longer naively expect that statements about a given epoch or complex of events in the past “correspond” to some pre-existent body of “raw facts”. For we should recognize that what constitutes the facts themselves is the problem that the historian … has tried to solve by the choice of metaphor by which he orders his world, past, present and future.42
It appears, therefore, that historians in the practice of their trade are dealers in interpretive, explanatory and ordering metaphors which are intrinsically positioned. As a result, all historical discourses are culturally and ideologically positioned discourses. This is no doubt why Carr reminds us ¥rst to “study the historian before you begin to study the facts.”43 However, these comments on the philosophy and methodology of modern history seem to run counter to any metaphysical requirement of viewing the whole as a whole.
What can be concluded from this – and it is an important point to make – is that it is not through positioned discourses that one can arrive at such a metaphysical vision as that proposed by Ibn ¡Arabi. Two responses emerge: one is articulated in Henry Corbin’s short monograph in which he argues, in effect, that there are two incommensurable and opposing paradigms of history: the ancient, oriental and sacred, and the modern, Western and secular. The second response, which is the one preferred in the present study, is to re-examine and reconceive this apparent dilemma in the light of Ibn ¡Arabi’s metaphysical principle of the immanencing of knowledge.
Let us ¥rst consider Corbin’s argument. He identi¥es the hegemonic paradigm of the modern age as that historical paradigm which represents “man as being in history”: human beings are seen essentially and fundamentally as historical and cultural beings. This historical model, he continues, de¥nes history as “an exterior history of ‘historical phenomena’” which posits “the mirage of a historical causality”.
In short, for Corbin there is an almost empiricist assumption operating in modern historical analysis which insists that not only do human beings live in the historical and cultural mode but they are no more than historical and cultural beings. One might usefully add here, although Corbin does not, that from such an historical perspective human being are both the producers of history and culture and are, themselves, products of their own productions or those of their predecessors. Such a view allows for radical historical and social change, both intended and unintended. The central issue here is the closedness of this assumption which Corbin regards “as the great failing of so-called modern thought”. It is the assumption that “… the state of society is … the primary datum”. Corbin summarizes his case thus: “the great failing of so-called modern thought
… is relentlessly set upon closing up all the outlets which could lead beyond this world. This is what is known as agnosticism. It has utilized for its purposes sociology, historicism, psychoanalysis and even linguistics.”44
Whatever insight there undoubtedly is in Corbin’s assessment, strategically it leads him to oppose the dominant epistemological presumptions of one era with those of another. In the adoption of such a strategy there is a clear tendency to construct a kind of judgmental impasse. Whilst certain readings of Ibn ¡Arabi may seem to legitimize this impasse, nevertheless, in strict accordance with Ibn
the orientation of this study ~ 19
¡Arabi’s doctrine of wahdat al-wujud, it will be argued, it must be treated with some caution. Corbin and Nasr both attest that much of modern Western theoretical culture involves a “desacralization” of knowledge and both authors acknowledge the necessity of what Nasr, in his Gifford Lectures,45 calls the rediscovery of the sacred and the revival of tradition. There is little doubt that the notion of tradition that Nasr invokes is one in which teachings of the spiritual magnitude of Ibn ¡Arabi would have some vital contribution to make. But the question which naturally arises is, how are we to view, in the light of Ibn ¡Arabi’s wahdat al-wujud, the alleged desacralized forms of modern theoretical culture?
Firstly, in order to save the “transcendent” meaning of cultural, historical and social phenomena, it is not strategically necessary to counter one era against another, or one paradigm of history against another, as Corbin seems to do. Ibn ¡Arabi allows for “degrees of knowledge”46 and levels of understanding and insight: he cites approvingly Junayd of Baghdad’s saying “The colour of water is the colour of its container”. Part of what is alluded to here is that everything has its place and value, even though it may represent a partial or limited point of view. Its limitation is in its being “coloured” by the nature of a particular human belief.
On this view, the predominant colouring of “modern thought” (that is, assuming for the moment that there is a “predominant colouring”) results directly from the degree of self-knowledge of the theorizers themselves. But we would not want to say, for instance, that a theorist who proposes some form of new mathematics or a new theory about the effects of unemployment or poverty is necessarily devoid of self-knowledge in the sense Ibn ¡Arabi deploys the term.
Academic theorizing does not imply self-knowledge or agnosticism or atheism or belief in the sacred, although in some individual cases such theorizing may take some such assumption as its premise or conclusion. It is more likely to be the case that much contemporary theoretical culture would simply not consider these assumptions relevant to their investigations or equally feel any need to pronounce on them. It is not, therefore,
academic theorizing per se which is at issue. What is it then?…
Degrees of knowledge: the principle of immanencing
According to Ibn ¡Arabi the Real in its continuous and in¥nite Selfdisclosure conforms “to the opinion” that “His servant has of Him”. In this sense the Real conforms to the mental constructions or beliefs of the servant. The servants themselves can be regarded as unique loci which condition or colour the matter according to their particular and unique nature as individuations. The Real discloses itself continuously and in¥nitely to all and sundry.
The servant’s belief is the cognitive manner in which the Self-disclosure of the Real is understood or misunderstood, cognitively conceived or misconceived.47 Or better still, it is the manner in which the Self-disclosure is received and conditioned by the human receptor. This ultimately depends, for Ibn
¡Arabi, upon the established potentiality or essential predisposition of the human receptor. Accordingly, the predisposition of the servant crucially con¥gures and determines the nature of self-experience. For most individuals, Ibn ¡Arabi suggests, their predisposition is a most hidden thing which unconsciously structures their moral and aesthetic self-experience as well as their cognitive experience. In short, what Ibn ¡Arabi intends, by the locution the belief of the servant, is the essential and unique predisposition of the person. It is these established potentialities which con¥gure and condition the Selfdisclosure of the Real. This is the principle of immanencing. And it is Ibn ¡Arabi’s treatment of the principle of immanencing which Corbin underestimates in his discussion of the problem he sets himself.
The principle of the immanencing of knowledge and the logical role it plays in the weltanschauung of Ibn ¡Arabi offers a fascinating insight into a concern that, in one way or another, has haunted much contemporary theorizing: that is, the problem of relativism – moral, religious, cognitive, aesthetic and so on.
In addition, we can respond to this issue from another Akbarian direction. There is in Ibn ¡Arabi’s thinking an important role for the expression “secondary causes” – such as the economic, social, scienti¥c, and cultural determinants characteristic of a particular era. For Ibn ¡Arabi the primary and generally unseen cause of all phenomena is God, whereas the apparent or secondary causes are as many and varied as the things and processes of the universe such as biology, history, culture, economics, art, ideas, books, lectures, bank accounts, marriage, and so on.
Secondary causes are mediating mechanisms or causes through which certain ends can be accomplished: they are, as Chittick48 points out, fundamentally constitutive of the cosmos. They are the continually changing conditions which allow human life to exist and develop. According to Ibn ¡Arabi they are the “outward forms of unseen realities” which “God did not establish … aimlessly”.
They are also the working out of things at the level of phenomena and thereby accrue a certain veracity, causal in¦uence, attraction and importance as lived human experience. This clearly and appropriately attributes to the study and analysis of social, historical, cultural and physical phenomena its due value. It is the kind of worth and value which any serious student of modern history, sociology or natural science would con¥rm.
But Ibn ¡Arabi says that secondary causes are much more than this. In one obvious metaphysical respect they act as a veil over their true nature as theophany. In another equally metaphysical respect they can act also as a constant reminder of our human dependence. Consider how intrinsic to modernity are economics, science, and technology and how much modern life depends upon, for example, the vicissitudes of the stockmarket and the reliability, security and privacy promised by computerized telecommunications. This dependency on secondary causes is, for Ibn ¡Arabi, not only an external and literal dependence but is indicative of a more essential poverty and dependence. The “theatre of manifestation” which we experience and describe (from certain points of view and for certain purposes) as biological, physical, economic, historical, and cultural stands in indissoluble dependence on and poverty towards wahdat al-wujud in its non-manifested, transcendent origin, like that – to use one of Ibn ¡Arabi’s telling metaphors – of a shadow to its originator.
Because of these considerations the present strategy will be rather different from that proposed by Corbin. We will consider what is to be lost or gained in explaining and interpreting cultural and historical phenomena under differing theoretical assumptions and perspectives. This will not entail a presumption of an in-built agnosticism as Corbin assumes, but there will be a presumption of what I call differentiated seeing. This is a term which, I intend to show, re¦ects a rather different insight into the state of affairs than Corbin’s term agnosticism, without negating it entirely.
The process will be one of viewing human experience from a variety of paradigmatic settings in order to make apparent what each theoretical setting reveals and conceals, rejects or accepts, loses or gains. Each paradigm can be viewed as a particular mode of differentiated seeing bringing out certain aspects of the phenomena at the expense of concealing others. It is analogous to Junayd’s “the water takes on the colour of the container”. We have an illuminating example of this in the case of modern physics. Quantum mechanics reveals light as made up of particles, whereas wave-theory reveals light as wave-like. The problem, as Harré points out, is that if the physicist, using “particle-creating equipment”, forces the world to display itself in one way then it loses at that moment the ability to reveal the properties it would have revealed had we not done so or had the physicist deployed “wave-creating equipment” instead.49
Such an analytical and comparative procedure facilitates an extraordinary glimpse into the diversity of modernity’s intellectual productions: from modernist to postmodernist paradigms. These intellectual productions may themselves be regarded as a kind of “theatre of manifestation” which reveal one of the ways in which the Self-disclosure of the Real is “every day engaged in a different business”. Academic theorizing itself can be viewed as a particular “theatre of manifestation” which can be amusing, silly, serious, engaging, misleading, insightful and sometimes riveting. Bearing all this in mind, we can take to heart Kierkegaard’s advice not to review “all systems of philosophy … and show up the inconsistencies within each … and so construct a world in which I did not live but only held up to the view of others”: this is not the intention of the present study.50
The purpose of these comparisons will be to explore the epistemological implications of Ibn ¡Arabi’s remarks on the principle of immanencing vis-à-vis contemporary theoretical culture, without necessarily denying the validity of the slant cast by any particular paradigm or theoretical perspective or even individual thinker.
To insist, for example, that contemporary social and economic historians can only proceed professionally by basing their explanations on contemporary social and economic phenomena, is to make a point about the perspectival nature of the knowledge with which they deal: that is, about its boundaries and limits. Within such theoretically and empirically de¥ned parameters a whole set of differently positioned discourses may co-exist, not always too happily, which colour the type and tenor of a particular theorist’s explanation.
Was it not that alleged inaugurator of modernity, Friedrich Nietzsche, who pointed out that, in this sense, all human knowledge is perspectival: “the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing the more complete … our ‘concept’ of this thing”?51
Ibn ¡Arabi’s wahdat al-wujud allows for such differentiated seeing without, unlike Nietzsche, denying the reality of non-perspectival knowledge-in-itself. In so doing, Ibn ¡Arabi can consistently hold that the Divine source of the “act of bringing to be” remains “unseen” and this applies to the theorizer and the theorizer’s theorizing as well as to what is being explained and theorized about.
Ibn Arabi and modern thought:
a reconfigured topography
With this in mind, the present study is essentially an analysis of the concept of knowledge deployed by Ibn ¡Arabi with an examination of its possible bearing on some of the twentieth-century epistemologies prevalent in the industrial (and post-industrial) West.52 To this end it will be necessary to sketch the main philosophical and intellectual traditions of Western industrial culture and the theories of the human self which inform them.
The genre of this study is an open discourse between the ancient and the modern, the traditional and the scienti¥c, the industrial and the personal. Embracing recent developments in the natural and social sciences, there are three main areas of modern thought which are of primary concern: philosophy, sociology and psychology.
All three disciplines have been strongly influenced by the trajectory and developments of science and technology within modern industrial culture. For example, how else is it possible to explain the rise and popularity of computational theories of mind in psychology? With an increasingly extensive literature available on the possible metaphysical implications of recent developments in physics and biology, these particular discussions will not be treated separately but will be integrated where and when relevant.
Pivotal to our present discussion is how the theoretical landscape of modern industrial technological culture (and perhaps postmodern culture?)53 appears from the all-inclusive topography of Ibn ¡Arabi. This is quite a complex question which cannot be settled prematurely by any form of theoretical dogmatism (say, for example, by assuming that the methods of modern science represent the only reliable foundations of knowledge) or by any over-eager doctrine of eschatology, such as the view that the tendency towards increasing secularization within industrial capitalism heralds a state of religious and moral bankruptcy and ¥nal collapse.
Our ¥rst task is to locate some trigonometrical and metaphysical co-ordinates. What becomes immediately apparent as we proceed is the unexpectedly and thoroughly modern nature of much of Ibn ¡Arabi’s thought. Clearly, some of the thematic preoccupations concerning the holistic nature of human aspiration, value and completeness to which Ibn ¡Arabi constantly draws our attention are still present in contemporary culture, even when these themes are thoroughly secular or secularized.
Such recurring human, transcultural themes come as no surprise: perhaps what is surprising, though, are the forms these themes take in modern industrial culture and the light which Ibn ¡Arabi’s metaphysics throws on them. It is still, however, relatively rare in the history of European culture to locate thinkers who even begin to approach the breadth of vision and universality of Ibn ¡Arabi’s philosophy of Being. Two eminent ¥gures in the history of Renaissance philosophy are worth mentioning in this respect: Giovanni Pico and Nicholas of Cusa.
Both men, like Ibn ¡Arabi himself, cannot be ¥tted neatly into the usual classi¥catory categories. Pico emphasizes, in strikingly Akbarian fashion, the fundamental dignity and central place of man in the cosmic scheme of things “against the increasing tendency of medieval religion to depreciate man’s nature”;54 and, interestingly, Nicholas of Cusa’s deployment of the concept of learned ignorance provides a parallel illustration of Ibn ¡Arabi’s insistence that it is beyond the power of human discursive reason to fathom the in¥nity of God, “in whom all opposites coincide”.
In general, the main difference between Ibn ¡Arabi’s insights into the nature of the self and modern theories of the self reside not so much in matters of detail but precisely in the universality of the point of view from which the whole matter of the human self is viewed. Let us explore this further.
It is theoretically commonplace to modern analysts of culture and consciousness to say that human consciousness is, in some sense, selfre¦exive. This means the human mind can ask questions about itself, about the origin and value of its own species and about its possible future, and in this self-re¦exivity we have the roots and possibility of scienti¥c, aesthetic, religious, ethical and technological knowledge. Or, at least, the roots of what has been commonly accepted as such knowledge. It is generally accepted that the self-re¦exive capacity of the human mind is what distinguishes human consciousness from animal consciousness. This distinction is acknowledged, for instance, by Charles Darwin when he remarks that “It may freely be admitted that no animal is self-conscious, if by this term is implied that he re¦ects on such points, as whence he comes or whither he will go, or what is life and death and so forth.”55
The capacity of the human being to ask questions about itself, about (and via) its own nature, rests on two vital and inter-related human dispositions and powers: linguistic competence and imaginative capacity. It may be that in the history of modern thought Ludwig Feuerbach’s oft-cited formulation will suf¥ce as a suitable example of the importance of this insight: “But only a being to whom his own species, his own nature, is an object of thought, can make the essential nature of other things or beings an object of thought.”56 Of course, the Feuerbachian enterprise essentially emphasizes the nontranscendent and strictly immanent nature of human-beingness, whereas for Ibn ¡Arabi human reality expresses and synthesizes both the immanent and the transcendent in a unique and single reality described as wahdat al-wujud.
Nevertheless, Ibn ¡Arabi’s philosophy would make perfect sense of Feuerbach’s assertion that “in religion man contemplates his own latent nature”,57 but without the Feuerbachian limitation of reducing theology to anthropology. Ibn ¡Arabi would certainly have seen the value of Feuerbach’s attempt to cast aside the speculations of what had arguably become an almost Medieval dogmatic dualistic theological enterprise. Ibn ¡Arabi had scant regard for theologians who, in the Islamic context of his day, he often characterized scathingly as “Doctors of Law”.
But equally Ibn ¡Arabi would have insisted, unlike Feuerbach, that both the divine and the human are aspects of a Single Unique Reality, other than which there is not.
The truth or reality of this Single and Unique ontological situation is, for Ibn ¡Arabi, what is experientially revealed to the knower in the contemplation of their own self-experience and in the contemplation, to use a Feuerbachianism, of their own latent nature.
For Ibn ¡Arabi the full value and signi¥cance of the human subject can only be grasped sub specie aeternitatis, as Spinoza might have put it. There is a correct viewing distance; for instance, when using the analogy of viewing a painting, an incorrect viewing distance would be looking at it from too close a proximity. From such a viewing position any attempt to describe it, even when apparently veridic, would also be completely misleading.
Such descriptions would be likely to involve a complete failure to recognize what it is that is really being seen. One central implication would be that the immediate and engrossing nature of each person’s biological, psychological and cultural landscape (and the historical circumstances and events which de¥ne and constitute their particular era) provide too narrow a circumference when viewed solely from within the historical and theoretical co-ordinates which de¥ne them.
Developing the analogy a little further we may say that the correct viewing distance entails a radical shift of viewpoint. It is not simply the intellectual possibility of such a shift of perspective which interests Ibn ¡Arabi but the actual accomplishment of it.
The profound difference between the theoretical adoption of such a cognitive shift in consciousness and the complete realization of it is intimated in the account of the meeting between the great Andalusian philosopher Averroës (Ibn Rushd) and the young Ibn ¡Arabi. In the conversation which ensues between them there emerges the ¥rst glimmerings as to what might be the nature of this profound difference: a difference which turns Averroës’ cheeks pale and makes him doubt his own thought.
Consider the following:
I spent a good day in Cordova at the house of Abu al-Walid Ibn Rushd. He had expressed a desire to meet me in person, since he had heard of certain revelations I had received while in retreat and had shown considerable astonishment concerning them. In consequence, my father, who was one of his close friends, took me
with him on the pretext of business, in order to give Ibn Rushd the opportunity of making my acquaintance. I was at the time a beardless youth. As I entered the house the philosopher rose to greet me with all the signs of friendliness and affection, and embraced me.
Then he said to me “Yes!” and showed pleasure on seeing that I had understood him. I, on the other hand, being aware of the motive for his pleasure, replied, “No!” Upon this, Ibn Rushd drew back from me, his colour changed and he seemed to doubt what he had thought of me.
He then put to me the following question, “What solution have you found as a result of mystical illumination and divine inspiration? Does it coincide with what is arrived at by speculative thought?” I replied, “Yes and no. Between the Yea and the Nay the spirits take their ¦ight beyond matter, and the necks detach themselves from their bodies.”
At this Ibn Rushd became pale and I saw him tremble as he muttered the formula, “There is no power save from God.” This was because he had understood my allusion.58
We begin to see that for Ibn ¡Arabi the theoretical mind cannot adequately or imaginatively conjecture about the reality which is being alluded to even though the theoretical intellect can entertain the possibility of its existence. Averroës’ personal intellectual matrix underwent a kind of “existential wobble” on hearing Ibn ¡Arabi’s reply: to “doubt his own thought” was to doubt the capacity of re¦ective thought itself to adequately deal with the domain and nature of mystical experience.
Such a thesis does not suggest the irrationality of mystical experience but implies a view about the limits and reliability of human reason. For Ibn ¡Arabi, some of the worst aspects of human speculative reason were to be seen in the work of theologians. But neither does the reality to which Ibn ¡Arabi alludes present us with a case of “unveri¥able metaphysics”: quite the reverse for the whole raison d’être of human existence, for Ibn ¡Arabi, is to reach that veri¥able condition known as tawhid or Union.
Let us be clear also that the universality of perspective which Ibn
¡Arabi advocates necessitates that the study of his philosophy cannot adequately be conceived of as merely a specialized study of some obscure medieval Arabic metaphysics to which only the classical Arabist has the proper means of access. This in no way negates the profound gratitude and indebtedness that non-Arabic speaking students of the writings of Ibn ¡Arabi owe to the work of classical Arabists for the recent proliferation and substantial translations of his works into English, and also for much accompanying exegetical material. As mentioned above, there is enough translated material of suf¥ciently high quality available now in English to arrive at a rounded picture of the world-view of Ibn ¡Arabi. Importantly, misdescriptions of his viewpoint and clear errors of understanding have been cleared up, or at least have been shown for what they are. We shall return to this point brie¦y towards the end of the present chapter when we examine Af¥¥’s attempt to philosophically dismiss Ibn ¡Arabi as a pantheistic monist guilty of systematically misusing the verb “to be”.
The main point to be emphasized here is that Ibn ¡Arabi’s metaphysics are grounded in universal human social and personal experience which cannot be limited to particular cultural settings, although their expression may well take on the characteristics and idioms of particular times and places. Izutsu’s classical comparative study of the mystical traditions of Ibn ¡Arabi and Lao Tsu lends testimony to this point. In this sense the wahdat al-wujud of Ibn ¡Arabi is and will remain thoroughly modern and universal, as it was and always has been thoroughly ancient and universal.
The metaphysical orientation of Ibn ¡Arabi is the Oneness of Being, from whence it follows with impeccable logical precision that all human experience is, ipso facto, an expression of that inescapable metaphysical fact, whether it is recognized as such or not. This means that the universality already referred to includes cosmological as well as historical, cultural and psychological experience; nothing can be excluded. Neither can such universality be limited, or even con¥ned to these types of phenomena: again this is a strict logical implication of Ibn ¡Arabi’s ontology. It is not an ontology of “many things” but, rather, an ontology of “a disposition to appear as” or, to put it in the language of Ibn ¡Arabi, “a Love to be Known”.
In abstract terms, Ibn ¡Arabi’s monumental and largely original contribution is to provide (in extraordinary and comprehensive detail) a dispositional ontology with which to view the matrix of personal, social, historical and spiritual experience, both ancient and contemporary. And this is not to take into consideration the immensely practical nature of that same ontological world-view. According to Izutsu, what I have signi¥ed as a dispositional ontology lies at the heart of all mystical traditions. In the case of Ibn ¡Arabi its logical and inner structure is articulated with such completeness and magni¥cence that it is unsurpassed in the great mystical and religious literature of the world.59
As I have noted elsewhere,60 Ibn ¡Arabi’s vision of reality as it is documented in the Fusus al-Hikam or the Futuhat al-Makkiyah cannot be appropriated to an ontological system. It is not an intellectually worked out axiomatic metaphysics along the lines of Spinoza or F. H. Bradley: it is a living metaphysics full of cadences, moods, modalities, and breath-taking vision, and imbued with a disarming and relentless logic. It reveals and unfolds, time and time again, its own shimmering ontological beauty.
The mytho-poetic ambience of the Fusus al-Hikam is not the result of rational systematization. Ibn ¡Arabi’s writings, in general, do not exemplify any Hegelian system-building propensity. Nor are they an attempt to codify knowledge along the lines of the Encyclopédie of the eighteenth-century French Enlightenment.
It is probably this apparent lack of rational systematization which has led some commentators, quite wrongly, to describe the Fusus al-Hikam as badly lacking both form and cohesion. A closer analytical scrutiny suggests that the unity of its structure resides in the consistency of its two main themes: the Oneness of Being and the raison d’être of Adamic kind, and also in its potential inner experiential effect on its reader. To use a metaphor of modern chaos theory, the deeper ontological unity of, for example, the Fusus al-Hikam of Ibn ¡Arabi is con¥gured by a hidden “attractor”: the “Love to be Known”. The variety of internal styles and modalities within the text itself conform to this order, cannot be separated
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