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All That Ibn Arabi Wishes Is We Shift Our Utilitarian Perspectives to That of Non-Judgmental Aesthetic Ontological One


By Dr Muhammad Maroof Shah

08 Nov 2018

In continuation with previous column “Why Read Ibn Arabi?” a few more points to consider for those who have problems with life/religion/Sufism or with advocacy of Ibn Arabi.

Besides/instead of looking at the world from God the King and man the subject angle as has been the case with major Muslim revivalists, (and the anxiety of this world and otherworld as has been the case with exoteric theologians and those who haven’t heard of postmodern thinkers) one may consider appreciating that God alone is there playing a game, projecting Himself in the mirror called the world/man. God is more than a King, a Lover and the Beloved playing hide and seek that constitutes the drama we call life. How thankful we should be of those who play the other – our enemies, critics or opposite team in a contest – as they make life interesting or at least eventful. Just be a spectator (actualize the name Shahid) deep inside though outwardly one might adopt a role given situation requires, say try hitting, Afridi style high and handsome sixes and resist bullying – and the life seemingly full of sound and fury becomes a festival of lights and celestial songs.

      We have nothing to lose in any case. We indeed need to be saved from hell because we have wrongly imagined a hell in the first place. The reality is God has decreed Mercy for Himself and as such He needs no reminder to have mercy on us but we need to be reminded that we are already blessed, showered with mercy in every case. God has not prepared any hell but from the vain desires and imagined phantoms and wild thoughts we project. The fuel for hell is self-will and that explains why pride can’t be forgiven and has to be eliminated through burning. We are all actors on a stage and those who want to be directors ape God and deserve to be hurled to hell and we find them burning everywhere as we see how self assertion/agency is punished by vain desire for revenge or rage against what can’t be cured or lamentations and regrets for defeats.

      All that Ibn Arabi wishes is we shift perspective from our chosen or given perspectives, judgmental legalistic utilitarian perspectives to that of non-judgmental aesthetic/artistic ontological one and the problems created out of binaries dissolve. Jihad, moral struggles etc. catered by Shariah would remain at the levels they pertain to but, as Barbariq would see at the level of Haqiqah, it is really God fighting from all sides in Mahabharata.

      Sha’riah constitutes rules of the game/authority of Umpire to be respected to help every player play natural game to perfection. Outside/after the game, we all exchange smiles and handshakes. Hell is taking winning or losing seriously and seeking to play foul or exchanging sides/roles or assuming to be In-charge of the game/Director of the whole show. Heaven is focusing on playing one’s part in the game well without an anxiety against losing. We all win, in a way. We are already winners if we knew. We just play for the sake of joy as little children do, as God does. If God creates for the joy of self-expression or observing His hidden beauty, why shouldn’t we imitate Him and not behave as shopkeepers or traders? We are heaven; we don’t go to heaven. We simply manifest our own riches as heaven and our penury as hell. This is the Akbarian insight we find developed in the 20th century in Imam Anwar Shah Kashmiri and Imam Khomeni.

      Ibn ʿArabī has been described by Shaykh Muibb Allāh who has been called a second Ibn Arabi as “free of ecstasy and states.”  For him “the great Sufis avoid states at all cost, because these are passing gifts that have no ultimate significance.” This disarms those novices in Sufism who keep bragging about their secret achievements/states/ecstasies. Sufism is hard work on stations/virtues and the best key is humility while the supreme station is “the station of no-station” which means keeping wonder alive – reliving the child in us. This objective of wonder/defamiliarisation/quest is also the ultimate end of philosophy, art and arguably of science.

      Some fear Ibn Arabi, some find him obscure or difficult and some think he was misguided. In order to see the merit in these assessments, we need read him in original/translations and a selection from over 100 traditional commentators and at least one or two standard biographies. For Kashmiris who revere Syed Ali Hamadani, his debt to the Greatest Master and his work on his Fusoos is important. Imam Khomeni had such a reverence for the Fusoos that he recommended that work to then USSR president Gurbachev and expressed his disagreement with Dawood Qaysari for seeking to explain away or interpret (Taʾwīl) of some statements in Fusoos as the former for him is a sort of revelation as Ibn Arabi himself claimed to have received it from the Prophet (S.A.W).

Izatsu in his Sufism and Taoism and Chittick in his magisterial works have done much to make him more accessible. To read him only through the eyes of a minority of theological critics is like forfeiting the opportunity to travel in the airplane on the advice of those who have primarily travelled only through land transport. To accuse him of misguidance in general involves a compliment if one reads it at ontological plane as Ibn Arabi would invite us to.

However, to imply its pejorative meaning involves problematic privileging of someone who in turn may have been/may be accused of misreading the Master. It also presupposes one has a better understanding of such notions as guidance and better access to the secrets and mysteries and depths of Divine Names Al-Hadi (the Guide) and Al-Mudhill (Who leads astray).

One needs to have travelled on a certain road to warn others about merits or dangers of that road. Who can claim to have travelled better on the road on which Ibn Arabi has been travelling? Who has given us another Futoohat (which is one of the only three books that Allama Anwar Shah found he can’t write better)? To avoid reading Ibn Arabi or miss him is to miss the adventure and joy of engaging with the most provocative, the most exciting, the most influential, the most commented upon, the most brilliant, and the most informed mind in the last 800 years of Islamic history. It is also to miss arguably the best argument for Islam’s universality, it’s most attractive aesthetic dimension, it’s most profound metaphysics, its deepest layers of meaning/symbolism and its love and mercy centric understanding. It is also to miss arguably the best missionary Islam has produced who, according to Muhammad Hamidullah, one of the most successful missionaries of the twentieth century, best suits for introducing Islam to the European elite.

It is also to accuse the vast majority of Muslim scholars down the ages of being duped by Ibn Arabi and failure to guard the Tradition in whose name they have been speaking. For the Urdu readers, Ahmed Javed and Suheyl Umar have translated from Persian a modern classic study of Ibn Arabi. The argument that people would be misled if we advocate reading Ibn Arabi no longer holds water as there is enough material that has misled people in an age of misinformation and pseudo spirituality against which Ibn Arabi is arguably one of the best antidotes. Anyway Ibn Arabi has ample resources to ward off those not capable of breaking hard nuts. He is also an oasis in the desert of nihilistic currents in the post-Nietzschean age.

Charging today Ibn Arabi with pantheism, Hulool, suspension of ethic or Shariah or deliberately ignoring understanding/hermeneutical tools of Salaf is inexcusable given the great mass of Ibn Arabi scholarship today that has satisfactorily explained the charges. Few are informed about his "spiritual literalism": i.e., “his constant insistence on the ultimate coincidence (not simply in outward formulation) between the precise, revealed literal formulations of the Koran or Hadith and their essential spiritual truth and intentions as realized and verified by the saint” and his “usual favourable view of the unquestioning, implicit faith of the common believer, and his corresponding distrust of all contrived intellectualist "interpretations" (T’awil).” Today he would have endorsed Qaradawi’s proposal that (genuine) Sufis should become/are Salafis and (genuine) Salafis Sufis. 

Post Script:

Advocacy of Ibn Arabi is not an advocacy of his unique unprecedented opinions (Tafarudat) or belittling the tradition of internal criticism of some of his views. From his disciples like Qaysari and other contemporaries who approached him with caution and had some reservations on certain points, down to Sirhindi to Allama Kashmiri one finds great tradition of internal criticism of some of his individual opinions and exegetical moves.

Ibn Arabi is not to be identified with this or that view but should be seen as an attempt to unearth the view of no-view or view from nowhere and everywhere or truth in all the partial or limiting views and thus liberating graces of what is considered the deepest – metaphysical and esoteric – dimension of Islam as such.

 One may well transpose Gilson’s remark about Aquinas and say that it is better to say not that Ibn Arabi was right but he is right. Some of the most influential scholars in Indian subcontinent (whose legacy colours Kashmir’s spiritual landscape) – Syed Ali Hamadani, Sirhindi, Shah Waliullah, Imdadullah Mahajir Makki, stalwarts of Deoband, Beraeli and Ahl-e Hadith schools – have drawn much from Ibn Arabi/praised him greatly. Great number of most significant influential later Quran commentators, Fuqaha, Hadith scholars and almost all great later Sufi poets including Kashmiri Sufi poets, philosophers, poets and political figures including anti-imperialist fighters acknowledge debt to Ibn Arabi. Not to closely engage with Ibn Arabi (or by great pioneering poets and thinkers in respective traditions) is, generally speaking, not a qualification but a disqualification. He has been considered by stalwarts the last word on the science of secrets of Sha’riah.

He is one of the very rare scholars who could claim that he has attempted to implement in his life every Hadith/Sunnah that pertained him. One can’t cease thanking God for the gift that is Ibn Arabi. He offers for anyone who can dive pearls. If one doesn’t know how to dive, he/she may better avoid him and should refrain from passing comments.

Intellectual-literary elite in the Islamicate world in general has been breathing Ibn Arabi with the very the air that sustains them. Most of the great scholars today at the forefront of Islam’s dialogue with modernity and its crises, other religions, philosophies and cultures invoke Ibn Arabi. The world has already been crying to reclaim, like Imam Hussain (A.S), Ibn Arabi as its own. Reclaiming Ibn Arabi is reclaiming our share in divine mercy, love, beauty, joy, catholicity, pluralism and gender justice that have been hallmarks of Islamic Revelation and ideals of its culture/civilization.

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