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Ibn 'Arabi and Modern Thought: The History of Taking Metaphysics Seriously

Ibn 'Arabi and Modern Thought: The History of Taking Metaphysics Seriously

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Ibn 'Arabi and Modern Thought: The History of Taking Metaphysics Seriously

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Lançado em:
Feb 1, 2002


These penetrating metaphysical and spiritual teachings cross the divides of culture and time, providing unexpectedly modern insight.
Lançado em:
Feb 1, 2002

Sobre o autor

Peter Coates is Professor of American and Environmental History at the University of Bristol. He is an environmental historian of the 19th and 20th century, particularly of the USA and UK. His principal research interests are in the study of human relations with the rest of the natural world over time with recent specific emphasis on energy environments and fluvial landscapes.

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Ibn 'Arabi and Modern Thought - Peter Coates


1 The orientation of this study


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 Andalu-sian 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 influence 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-Philosophicus² and beyond, into the relativistic view of knowledge ofthat 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 benefits: it is engendering its own metaphysical crisis.³

The availability of English translations of the writings of Ibn ‘Arabi offer an extraordinary opportunity to re-examine the depth and significance 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 figures 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, Sufism and Taoism. Equally, for a study which situates the recurring themes of Ibn ‘Arabi in their Quranic setting, consult Chittick’s The Sufi 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 Mercifier 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-wujud⁴- 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.⁵The Arabic triliteral wujud also means ‘to find’. For Ibn ‘Arabi this implies that it is incumbent upon the human person to find out what the Oneness of Being means for them, their lives and their existence. This is not simply an intellectual or conceptual finding 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 infinity 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-wujud⁷ 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-i-kamil, 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 firmly 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:

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 participatory¹⁰ 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 self-experience, 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 satisfied.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 sufficient 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 self-tutored, Hindu mathematical genius Srinivasa Iyengar Ramanujan.¹⁶For 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 infinity and his contribution to the mathematics of infinity. 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 significant 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 specific 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 difficulty 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 reconfigured when the individual is pictured as a unique and essentially infinite theatre of God’s manifestation to Himself from all eternity.

Under this metaphysical rubric all forms of knowledge potentially reflect a revivifying and transfiguring 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 flesh 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 al-wujud that there is only One Being and, thereby, only One Essential Knower. This One Being has in itself infinite 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 infinity 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 finitude of human consciousness. Affifi²⁵ affirms a similar point when he rehearses Ibn ‘Arabi’s view that it is because our finite 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 infinite 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 infinite modalities of being and knowing, not all encompass such a total vision. The scientific 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 scientific discovery. In fact, scientific 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, unqualifiable and unfathomable. This is undoubtedly the case with the metaphysics of Ibn ‘Arabi, according to whom there is a dimension of the Majesty of God²⁷ 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 unspecifiable. 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 al-aqdas).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 significance … that he was far beyond all considerations of space and time. When

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