Ibn al-ʿArabī’s Fuṣūṣ Al-Ḥikam: An Annotated Translation of “The Bezels of Wisdom”

  • Book Title:
 The Bezels Of Wisdom
  • Book Author:
Binyamin Abrahamov
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Our author, MuÎyÐ al-DÐn MuÎammad ibn ÝAlÐ ibn al-ÝArabÐ, was born in 560/1165 in Murcia in al-Andalus to a family of high social position. At the age of thirty-seven he left al-Andalus and travelled to the eastern lands of Islam, staying for various lengths of time in Mecca, Egypt, Syria and RÙm (Turkey). Finally he settled in Damascus (620/1223), where he died in 638/1240.

During these years he wrote hundreds of works, met many Sufis, whom he mentioned by name, and taught his mystical and philosophical ideas. Claude Addas gathered and analyzed many details of his biography, available in his writings in a very informative book Quest for the Red Sulphur: The Life of Ibn ÝArabÐ.1

My interest in Ibn al-ÝArabÐ’s writings began several years ago after coming across Chittick’s book The Sufi Path of Knowledge.2 As a student of Islam in general and Islamic theology and QurÞÁnic exegesis in particular, Ibn al-ÝArabÐ’s ideas seemed to me extraordinary even in terms of extreme Sufism.

From the first reading of his writings, he appeared to me as an original thinker3 whose daring concepts exceed the boundaries of Islam.4 Undoubtedly, his mixing of mysticism, theology, philosophy, hermetic sciences, and law5 in his voluminous6 writings is unprecedented. Furthermore, he used a complex style of writings, which contains symbols,7 allusions and rhetorical forms, with the presumption that he had an expert audience who could understand him.8

Add to these appealing factors his influence on later generations,9 even into the modern era,10 in the spheres of mysti-cism and philosophy, and you can understand why scholars and laypeople alike are eager to learn his thought.

The desire to know Ibn al-ÝArabÐ’s thought involves overcoming several difficulties. First, the presentation of his ideas in many works forces the reader to examine thousands of pages. Second, as noted, the amalgamation of different spheres of Islamic culture compels the researcher to be an expert in these fields in order to detect influences and to assess the author’s originality.

Third, Ibn al-ÝArabÐ’s style of writing is very complex and often terse and unclear. He also uses poetry as a means of conveying his thoughts.

To overcome the first obstacle, one can begin his study of Ibn al-ÝArabÐ by examining his FuÒÙÒ al-Îikam (The Bezels of Wisdom), because this treatise is relatively short (179 pages in Affifi’s edition) and contains the basic principles of his thought. It is worth noting that the Muslims’ reactions to Ibn al-ÝArabÐ’s teach-ings were derived from reading this work, because it was so accessible.11

 The two other impediments can be confronted by using the commentaries written on this work12 and the available translations.13 Naturally, the translator’s knowledge of Islamic theology, philosophy, mysticism and the QurÞÁn plays an important role in understanding the author’s approaches.

After considering these problems and the ways to solve them, taking into con-sideration the development in the research on Ibn al-ÝArabÐ that has been carried out over the past thirty years, and examining the present translations, I reached the conclusion that a new translation of the FuÒÙÒ is required to enhance the study of the Greatest Master (al-shaykh al-akbar).

 It is not my intention to criticize my predecessors to justify my own initiative in translating the FuÒÙÒ. Indeed, I owe much of my understanding of Ibn al-ÝArabÐ’s texts to previous translations. However, every translator finds his way to elucidating the text, to identifying its ideas and their sources, to recognizing QurÞÁnic paraphrases, and to avoiding the errors of language which lead to incorrect translation. A literal translation of a sentence into English seems superfluous, if the reader is unable to follow the idea  conveyed by the sentence in the light of its context.

Hence, I tried to translate the text in a simple and lucid manner, so that the reader may understand the purport in its context. This translation is destined not only for those who do not know Arabic, but also for those proficient in Arabic who might be perplexed in trying to understand this complicated text, in which even the meaning of technical terms changes depending on the context

. Hence, I added transcription of the Arabic terms and tried to explain these terms, for two reasons: Ibn al-ÝArabÐ was prudent in choosing his terms, and frequently no equivalent terms exist in English match-ing the Arabic terms.14

The FuÒÙÒ consists of twenty-seven chapters, each treating a different prophet and his distinctive essence.15 In the short introduction to the book, the author relates that he saw in a vision the Prophet giving him a book entitled FuÒÙÒ al-Îikam and commanding him to deliver it to the people. Elsewhere, Ibn al-ÝArabÐ testifies to the divine source of his writings.16 One might get the impression that our author tries to compare himself to MuÎammad, who received the whole QurÞÁn from the angel JibrÐl.

The book is replete with repetitions of the author’s ideas and terms. However, sometimes the same concept is discussed from different perspectives in such a way that minimizes the repetitiveness.17 Furthermore, as Austin observes, “The overall impression on the reader is lack of proper organization and continuity.”18 Notwithstanding Ibn al-ÝArabÐ’s statement of the book’s source, it seems that its chapters consist of lectures delivered before an audience.

The repetition of sen-tences and phrases, and mainly the reiteration of causal phrases, such as “because of” (li-anna), may support this supposition. Another possibility explaining the structure of the FuÒÙÒ is Chittick’s characterization of Ibn al-ÝArabÐ’s way of writing: “The writings of Ibn ÝArabÐ tend to be like sudden inspirations flowing from his pen with such force and velocity that they destroy horizontal and logical continuity. QÙnawÐ on the contrary is the model of logical consistency and point-by-point reasoning.”19 However, this description of Ibn al-ÝArabÐ’s style does not characterize all the passages in the FuÒÙÒ, for example the discussion of the uni-versals in ch. 1.

The structure of the chapter headings20 is one and the same. The first word faÒÒ (pl. fuÒÙÒ) denotes the bezel or setting in which the gemstone is set.21 Thus, the …

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