Sufism and Deconstruction
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 Sufism And Deconstruction
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Ian AlmondIbn al-'Arabi
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Sufism and Deconstruction: A Comparative Study of Derrida and Ibn ‘Arabi

Sufism and Deconstruction – Book Sample


List of transliterations vii

Acknowledgements viii

Introduction 1

  1. The shackles of reason: Sufi/deconstructive opposition to rational thought 7
  2. The emancipatory project in Derrida and
  3. Ibn 2Arabi: freeing al-haqq and l 1écriture from the shackles of reason 10
  4. The emancipatory project in Derrida: freeing the letter from the shackles of the spirit 25
  • The honesty of the perplexed: Derrida and Ibn Arabi on ‘confusion’ 
  • Derrida and Ibn 2Arabi: lovers of clarity or confusion? 40
  • Deconstruction: untying knots, thwarting systems 46 Derrida on Babel: the tyranny of clarity 47
  • Ibn 2Arabi on the flood: sainthood as perplexity 55 Conclusion: actual situations 60
  • Sages of the book: the meaning of infinity in Sufi

and deconstructive hermeneutics 63

  • Livre and kitab: when is an empty text an infinite one? 67
  • A sea without a shore: the Koran as example par excellence of infinite textuality 70
  • Affirmative hermeneutics: celebrations of multiple meaning 74
  • Rabbis and poets 76
  • Inconsistencies 81

4 Mystery-tasting and abyssality: the secret in

Ibn 2Arabi and Derrida      89

  • Derrida on the secret of the non-secret 90 Ibn 2Arabi on the secret of idolatry 96
  • On the consequences of the secret 101
  • Conclusion: Derrida and Ibn 2Arabi on illusion 110

Conclusion – the post-structuralist dissolution of the subject: three Neoplatonic moments in the

Derridean canon 117

  • Blanchot on écrire and the ‘breakthrough’ 119 Benjamin’s Übersetzen as a return to the One 121 ‘What is an Author?’:
  • Foucault and the post-structuralist dissolution of the subject 126 Allah and écriture: the centre is not the centre,
  • ‘God’ is not the Real 128
  • Notes 135
    • Bibliography 155
    • Index 161

Introduction  –  Sufism and Deconstruction

At the time, one of them had claimed that “the existentialist of all time” had been Ibn 2Arabi who’d not only been imitated seven centuries later but also been robbed blind by the Western world…

Orhan Pamuk, The Black Book [01]Orhan Pamuk, The Black Book, trans. Güneli Gün, London: Faber and Faber,
1990, p. 73.

Perhaps every history of ideas is nothing more than a careful documentation of clandestine theft. From Heraclitus and Augustine to Aquinas, precedents for existentialism are found almost daily, even though Pamuk’s long and extraordinary novel, it should be said, finds little sympathy with this practice.

Parodying the familiar territorial instinct which, in many critics, seeks to re-appropriate vast sections of modern culture and whole centuries of thought on behalf of a single cultural source (invariably the critic’s own), Pamuk uses Ibn 2Arabi as an example of how certain Islamic/nationalist agendas in the ‘East’ (for desperate want of a better term) have tried to lay claims to the foundations of the West.

The Shaykh’s alleged influence on Dante’s Divina Commedia – although Pamuk never mentions the scholar who first suggested this, Asin Palacios, by name – is cited as one example amongst many of such wishful hermeneutics.

‘Robbed blind’ or not, one thing is certain:

Ibn 2Arabi is ‘hot’. In the 150 years since the first of Ibn 2Arabi’s works were printed in Europe[02]See M. Notcutt, ‘Ibn 2Arabi in Print’, in S. Hirtenstein and M. Tiernan (eds), the body of critical interest in a thinker previously unknown to the West has grown exponentially.

With a thriving Society, a plethora of critical studies and a quarterly Journal, Ibn 2Arabi (or the Shaykh al-akbar, the greatest master, as he is known in the Muslim world) has become associated with (to name but a few) quantum mechanics, Taoism, St Thomas Aquinas, Swedenborg, New Age mysticism, Kant and Chaos theory.

With two central chapters dedicated to him in Routledge’s recent History of Islamic Philosophy, it appears that Muhyiddin Ibn 2Arabi (1165–1240) is finally joining the handful of token ‘Easterners’ (Rumi, Averroes, Avicenna) known to non-experts in the West.

As often happens, this surge of popular Western attention in Ibn 2Arabi has also instigated a certain rearguard action amongst the more orthodox elements in Ibn 2Arabi scholarship.

Thus a critic such as Mahmoud al-Ghorab can demonstrate, in twenty pages, how Ibn 2Arabi was neither a Shi1ite, nor a philosopher, nor an Isma1ili, nor an esotericist, nor a figure especially sympathetic to Jews and Christians, but rather a ‘Muslim’ and a ‘Traditionalist (salafi)’.[03]See al-Ghorab’s ‘Muhyiddin Ibn al-2Arabi amidst Religions and Schools ofThought’, in S. Hirtenstein and M. Tiernan (eds), op. … Continue reading

Even William Chittick, a towering figure in Ibn 2Arabi studies, appears wary of associating the Shaykh with modern theorists who ‘claim that language determines all of reality’ [04]W. G. Chittick, The Self-Disclosure of God: Principles of Ibn al-2Arabi’s
Cosmology, Albany: SUNY Press, 1998, p. xxxii.
. There is an understandable desire for context in all of this (Derrida’s ‘indispensable guardrail’),5 even if establishing exactly what that context is – and whether Ibn 2Arabi is being read in or out of it – remains easier said than done.

It is certainly not the object of this book to claim that Ibn 2Arabi was the existentialist – or post-structuralist – of all time, as Pamuk jokes. Rather, we will be trying to understand Sufism and deconstruction, to abuse an analogy from Benjamin, as different fragments belonging to the same, long-shattered vase.

In dealing with texts whose origins lie almost eight hundred years and many more kilometres apart, it is not the intention of this study to turn a thirteenth-century Sufi into a postmodern theorist, any more than it is our desire to ‘islamicize’ Jacques Derrida or transform his writings into a form of Islamic mysticism (producing a ‘Jacques of El-Biar’, as John D. Caputo has already quipped).6

Over the past fifteen years, scholars from comparative religion and theology departments around the world have been rediscovering in their own religious traditions various precedents for Derrida’s deconstructive writings, a trend there is certainly every reason to encourage. Figures such as Pseudo-Dionysius, Meister Eckhart, Sankara, Lao-Tzu and Ayn alQudat Hamadani have all been credited with deconstructing the rigid logocentric assumptions within their own respective faiths, rescuing a more authentic spirituality from the legalistic metaphysics of their times.7

Certainly one aim of this study is to show how a similar deconstructive process can be found in the writings of Ibn 2Arabi – a demonstration, however, which is far from turning the Great Shaykh into a medieval post-structuralist.

Hopefully, such comparisons will act as a point of departure for this study, and not as a destination in themselves. Rather than simply serving

Introduction 3

up a postmodern version of the Futuhat and the Fusus al-Hikam, a number of more serious questions will be raised: what is the exact relationship between these two thinkers? How analogous can the vocabulary of a Sufi saint be to the work of a contemporary French theorist who, on his own admission, ‘rightly pass(es) for an atheist’?8 Do the metaphors, strategies and motifs of deconstruction change their meaning at all in the context of a comparison with Sufism? Can Ibn 2Arabi teach us how to read Derrida differently (and vice versa)?

Derrida’s interest in Islam, it has to be said, has been slight.9 Apart from a handful of remarks in The Gift of Death and some remarks on Algeria, comments on Islam and Islamic thought have been conspicuously absent in a writer who spent the early, formative years of his life in a Muslim country (Algeria).

What Derrida has been interested in, however, is mysticism – or more precisely, the ways in which many commentators have either tried to re-describe Derrida as a mystic/negative theologian, or have re-proposed figures from the mystical tradition such as Eckhart and Pseudo-Dionysius as predecessors for deconstruction. Over the years, Derrida has spent a considerable amount of text objecting to both these counts – amongst which the most significant work appears to be his 1987 essay, ‘How to Avoid Speaking: Denials’.

In ‘Denials’, Derrida takes issue with the ‘Greek… and Christian paradigms’ of negative theology and tries to show how, even though ‘the onto-theological re-appropriation [of différance] always remains possible’,10 thinkers such as Pseudo-Dionysius and Eckhart are ultimately concerned with something very different – the preservation of a ‘hyperessentiality, a being beyond Being’.11 Nevertheless, in restricting his choice to Greek and Christian versions of the apophatic, Derrida – who, far from being Greek or Christian, describes himself in Circumfession as a ‘very Arab little Jew’ – is aware of the various traditions he has not included in his face-to-face with negative theology:

I thus decided not to speak of negativity or of apophatic movements in, for example, the Jewish or Islamic traditions. To leave this immense place empty, and above all that which can connect such a name of God with the name of the Place, to remain thus on the threshold – was this not the most consistent possible apophasis? Concerning that about which one cannot speak, isn’t it best to remain silent?12

It is an interesting admission – or o-mission – and one which inspires a number of questions: what exactly is the difference between the

4 Introduction

Greek/Christian negativity Derrida is willing to talk about and the Jewish/Islamic versions he feels he cannot? Is Derrida hinting at a certain deconstructive success in Jewish and Sufi mysticism, a success not to be confused with their Greek/Christian counterparts and all their Hellenized dependency on the logos and the epekeina tes ousia? Or, on the contrary, does Derrida believe the Jewish /Islamic traditions he is unfamiliar with to be just as metaphysically vulnerable as the Greek/Christian negativity he so confidently deconstructs?

Derrida’s allusion to the famous last line of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus (Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen) remains unclear – why is the ‘immense place’ of Judaism and Islam so unspeakable? What gives it special treatment?

The ‘unspeakable’ (Unaussprechliches) the young Wittgenstein referred to was a very unDerridean unspeakability, a place outside the world of facts and things – it seems unlikely that Derrida would use such a transcendental space to locate a genuine alternative to the Greek /Christian paradigm. If the meaning of Derrida’s ‘cannot speak’ lies in the fact that the author does not ‘belong’ to the traditions he has chosen to pass over, then the omission becomes even more curious: an Algerian Jew who feels ‘at home’ writing about a Syrian monk, a German Dominican and a Bavarian phenomenologist, but hesitant in offering comments upon his own (albeit abandoned) faith – or, for that matter, on an Islamic tradition (Ibn Masarrah, Ibn 2Arabi, Ibn Rushd) based to a large extent in Moorish Spain, in the very ‘Christian Europe’ Derrida has quite rightly critiqued elsewhere.

So what is the real reason for Derrida’s decision ‘not to speak’ of Jewish and Islamic traditions, in his counter-deconstruction of negative theology (for this is what ‘Denials’ is, fundamentally)? Why does Derrida choose to stay in Christian Europe?

Perhaps there are no complex reasons, but only straightforward ones: maybe Derrida simply doesn’t know enough about the School of Gerona or the Sefer ha-bahir or Ibn 2Arabi or Mevlana or Suhrawardi. Perhaps he can’t read Arabic or Aramaic. Perhaps he was too enticed by the possible genealogy of three figures such as Pseudo-Dionysius, Eckhart and Heidegger (each of whom has read his predecessor) to wander off into the strange deserts of Kabbalism or Persian esotericism.

There may even be the possibility that Derrida, in a distinctly underconstructed moment of political correctness, was more attracted by the deconstruction of a European Christian tradition than a non-European Islamic/Judaic one; after all his talk of ‘a Europe united in Christianity’ and the ‘logocentric impasse of European domesticity’,13 perhaps Derrida felt a more pressing need to

Introduction 5

deconstruct Euro-Christian logocentrisms rather than their Islamic or Jewish equivalents.

This all sounds rather cynical, and perhaps unjustly so. Whatever the reasons for Derrida choosing not to talk about Islamic mysticism, one thing remains clear: Derrida provides the sort of explanation only a negative theologian would offer. His silence, we are told, is the most ‘consistent possible apophasis’ he can offer on the question of Islam. Which does suggest, unkindly or not, that ‘Islamic traditions’ belong to something far too radically autre for a French post-structuralist to write about. Islam becomes the unspeakable Other once again, an Other simply out of place in any critique of Christian negative theology.

We will try to show, in response to this, how the work of Ibn 2Arabi, far from being some obscure Sufi esotericism encrypted in mystical Eastern terminology, actually asks the same questions and moves in some similar directions as a number of familiar figures in the West.

Ibn 2Arabi’s mistrust of rational/metaphysical thought, his awareness of the creative power of language, his keen understanding of the reliance of identity upon difference, his sophisticated hermeneutics and re-evaluation of selfhood… all allow him similarities with key figures in the Western philosophical tradition. Which is why the invisible presence of Meister Eckhart (1260–1327) makes itself felt throughout this book as a phantom third figure in our comparative study of Derrida and Ibn 2Arabi.

There are two reasons for this: not only is Eckhart the figure most often associated in the West with Ibn 2Arabi, he is also the figure most often associated by Derrida with negative theology.

Ibn 2Arabi has been called, by one critic, the ‘Meister Eckhart of the Islamic tradition’.14 A surprising number of Western studies and translations of Ibn 2Arabi mention Eckhart in passing (see in particular Dom Sylvester Houdehard), whilst scholars like Ralph Austin even speak of ‘striking resemblances’.

Even without having read a word of either thinker’s works, it is not difficult to see why so many scholars seem to link them together. Two thinkers who both attempt a radical synthesis of the mystical with the philosophical – and who subsequently suffer persecution from the authorities as a result; who embark upon lengthy pilgrimages/journeys, lasting years (Seville to Damascus, Erfurt to Avignon); two figures who draw their own set of disciples after them (Suso, Tauler, Davud Al1Qayseri, al-Qashani) to comment upon their works and disseminate their ideas.

Even the modern critical debates concerning the two are analogous – arguments over both thinkers’ orthodoxy and their denominational status (Shi1ia or Sunni? Catholic or early precedent of the Reformation?), the same allegations of pantheism, the same questioning of their clarity and coherence as thinkers (Denifle/ Affifi), the same comparisons with Far Eastern thought-systems (Suzuki, Ueda/Izutsu)… if one were to try and search medieval Christendom for an Ibn 2Arabi, Eckhart would appear to be the nearest alternative.

Although I have, elsewhere, gone to some trouble to show how Eckhart and Ibn 2Arabi develop from identical points of departure into ultimately different vocabularies, this abundance of comparisons between the Shaykh and the Meister is good news for our own examination of Sufism and deconstruction.15

Although Derrida has not written a word about Sufism, he has written a great deal about Meister Eckhart. As early as 1964, within the pages of Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale, Derrida displays a revealing knowledge of ‘Maître Eckhart’’s vernacular sermons, whilst in ‘How to Avoid Speaking: Denials’ he fleshes out the elementary points he had made concerning Eckhart twenty years earlier.

Naturally, this does not mean that what Derrida writes about Eckhart is automatically valid for Ibn 2Arabi as well. What Derrida’s fascination with Eckhart does do is give us an idea of where Ibn 2Arabi’s points of similarity with Eckhart (mistrust of metaphysics and rationality, insistence on openness, the idea of ‘God’ as a construct, a hidden divinity in the soul, a radically generous hermeneutics.. .) would be similarly prone to a deconstructive reading. Eckhart cannot simply be used as a handy Christian synonym for Ibn 2Arabi; the Meister can serve, however, as a useful barometer to measure Derrida’s own hostility and sympathy towards the wider ideas of mysticism and negative theology.

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References / Footnotes

01Orhan Pamuk, The Black Book, trans. Güneli Gün, London: Faber and Faber,
1990, p. 73.
02See M. Notcutt, ‘Ibn 2Arabi in Print’, in S. Hirtenstein and M. Tiernan (eds
03See al-Ghorab’s ‘Muhyiddin Ibn al-2Arabi amidst Religions and Schools of
Thought’, in S. Hirtenstein and M. Tiernan (eds), op. cit., p. 224.
04W. G. Chittick, The Self-Disclosure of God: Principles of Ibn al-2Arabi’s
Cosmology, Albany: SUNY Press, 1998, p. xxxii.