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Imaginal Worlds: Ibn Al-Arabi and the Problem of Religious Diversity

Imaginal Worlds: Ibn Al-Arabi and the Problem of Religious Diversity.
  • Book Title:
 Imaginal Worlds
  • Book Author:
Ibn al-'Arabi, William C. Chittick
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Imaginal Worlds – Book Sample

Introduction – Imaginal Worlds

Muhyi al-Din ibn al-‘Arabi *, known as al-Shaykh al-Akbar or the “Greatest Master,” is probably the most influential thinker of the second half of Islamic history. Born in Murcia in Muslim Spain in the year A.D. 1165, he exhibited his outstanding intellectual and spiritual gifts at an early age. In the year 1200, he was told in a vision to go to the East, and in 1202 he performed the pilgrimage to Mecca. From then on he traveled from city to city in the central Islamic lands, eventually settling in Damascus, where he died in 1240. He left behind some five hundred works.

His al-Futuha al-makkiyya* or “Meccan Openings,” which will fill more than 15,000 pages in its new edition, provides a few glimmers and flashes of the luminous sciences he acquired when God ”opened” for him the doors to the “Treasuries of Unseen Generosity.” He summarized his teachings in the most famous and often studied of his books, the Fusus* al- hikam* or “Bezels of Wisdom.” He synthesized Islamic law, theology, philosophy, mysticism, cosmology, psychology, and other sciences.

His numerous students spread his teachings throughout the Islamic world, and within two centuries there were few expressions of Islamic intellectuality untouched by his genius. He has continued to inspire some Muslim intellectuals even in the present century, and his influence has permeated popular forms of Islam.1

The significance of Ibn al-‘Arabi’s * extraordinary influence on Islamic thinking is suggested by a frequently quoted passage in which he recalls his meeting, as a youth of perhaps fifteen, with the famous philosopher Averroes, when the latter would have been fifty-five. Averroes perceived in the young Ibn al-‘Arabi the wisdom for which he had been searching all his life.

In cryptic language, the boy informed him that rational investigation was not sufficient to attain complete knowledge of God and the world2

The different perspectives of the two thinkers suggest the differing destinies of Islam and the West. The philosophical works of Averroes were studied carefully by Western philosophers and theologians, helping

them establish nature as an autonomous realm of intellectual endeavor. Under the discerning could be dispensed with. The world of nature became the proper site for rational analysis and dissection, and the result has been the ever-increasing fragmentation of human knowledge, with a total divorce between science and ethics. In contrast, Averroes was largely forgotten in the Islamic world, but Ibn al-‘Arabi’s * perspective was integrated into the mainstream of intellectual life. The result was a harmony between reason and spiritual perception.

Muslim intellectuals were rarely able to conceive of nature without seeing its roots in God. If the natural world is rooted in God, it cannot be studied without an investigation of the moral and ethical demands that this rooting entails. Only in recent times, with the political and cultural domination of the West, have Muslim intellectuals been able to break out of their traditional worldview and look upon unrooted knowledge as an object worthy of pursuit.

Western scholars have offered differing judgments about Ibn al-‘Arabi. During the first half of this century, most Orientalists ignored or dismissed him, while a small number of scholars, including H. S. Nyberg, Miguel Asin Palacios, and R. A. Nicholson, began the difficult task of studying and analyzing his works.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Titus Burckhardt, Henry Corbin, and Toshihiko Izutsu recognized the intrinsic philosophical interest of Ibn al-‘Arabi’s extraordinary corpus. Instead of limiting their studies to his role within the Islamic intellectual tradition, they tried to suggest the general relevance of his writings for the history of human thought. More recently, interest in Ibn al-‘Arabi has been increasing and other scholars have helped suggest the many facets of his personality and teachings. Especially worthy of mention among a large number of works are the thorough biography by Claude Addas, Quest for the Red Sulphur, and the two penetrating studies by Michel Chodkiewicz

The Seal of the Saints and An Ocean Without Shore.

The early Orientalists tended to neglect Ibn al-‘Arabi for a number of reasons. One of the most important of these is that his works are far too voluminous and difficult to encourage anyone not willing to spend many years studying them. A second is that most Orientalists were supremely confident that modern scientific methods had given them a superior understanding of all things, so they felt free to dismiss as unorganized, incoherent, or superstitious anything that did not strike their fancyand Ibn al-‘Arabi seldom did.

More recently, modern presuppositions about human nature have been called into question. The assorted intellectual and social movements that are lumped together as postmodernism, for all their excesses, give witness to the undermining of Western rationality.

The dissolution of contemporary certainties has had a great deal to do with the eagerness of scholars to look at non-Western thinkers in a search for the constants of the human spirit. Within Islamic civilization Ibn al-‘Arabi stands as a grand monument to the possibilities of preserving rationality while simultaneously transcending it, and he could not but act as a beacon for those looking for an exit from the impasses of modern and postmodern thought.

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