#Article (Archive)

Civilization dialogue and mysticism, the Holy Quran and the metaphysics of Ibn al-Arabi. (Part 1)

Dec 3, 2010, 2:29 PM

This incisive article begins by noting the universality that subsists in the esoteric core of all religions, but which is especially emphasized even in the exoteric aspects of Islam-the ultimate religion and final "summing up". The paper makes the claim that the extent to which the religions of the other are given recognition in the Quran renders this scripture unique among the great revelations of the world. It continues by showing that this "inclusiveness" of Islam does not preclude exclusive claims that engender a religious identity for Muslims and that allow for normativity as well as da ‘wa. This Islamic juxtaposition between da wa and dialogue indicates implicitly that, rather than being see as two contrasting or even antithetical modes of engaging with the Other, these two elements can in fact be synthesized by wisdom. A dialogue based on wisdom would also be a form of dialogue which contrasts quite sharply with a relativistic pluralism which, by reducing all religious beliefs to a presumptuous lowest common denominator, ends up by undermining the belief in the normativity of religion. The kind of da ‘wa-as-dialogue that is proposed in this article charts a middle path, avoiding two extremes: a fundamentalist type of da ‘wa which alienates the Other on account of its blatant exclusivity, and a pluralistic mode of dialogue which corrodes the Self on account of its thinly veiled assault on normativity.


The notion of 'civilizational dialogue' has been proposed in recent years as an antidote to the poison disseminated by the sensational prophecy 'the clash of civilizations' made by Samuel Huntington. What is mean by a dialogue between civilizations is of course simple 'civilized dialogue', that is a mode of dialogue between individuals of different cultures and religions which seeks to accept the Other within a civilized framework; a mode of dialogue which respects diversity and difference, and upholds the rights of all individuals and groups to express their beliefs and to practice their faith without hindrance. In the Holy Quran one finds a clear enunciation of the manner in which civilized dialogue should take place in a context of religious diversity; it does so in several verses, some of the most important of which we shall cite here as the essential background against which one should view the metaphysical perspectives on the Other opened up by Ibn al-Arabi, verses to which we will return in the course of presenting these perspectives:

For each of you We have established a Law and a Path. Had God willed, He could have made you one community. But that He might try you by that which He hath given you (He hath made you as you are). So vie with one another in good works. Unto God ye will return, and He will inform you of that wherein ye differed. (5:48)

O mankind, truly We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another. (49:13)      

And of His signs is the creation of the heaves and the earth, and the differences of your languages and colours. Indeed, herein are signs for those who know. (30:22)

Truly those who believe, and the Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabeans-whoever believeth in God and the Last Day and performeth virtuous deeds-surly their reward is with their Lord, and no fear shall come upon them, neither shall they grieve. (2:62)

Say: We believe in God, and that which was revealed unto Abraham, and Ishmael, and Isaac, and Jacob, and the tribes, and that which was given unto Moses and Jesus and the prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and unto Him we have submitted. (2:136)

And do not hold discourse with the People of the Book except in that which is finest, save with those who do wrong. And say: We believe in that which hath been revealed to us and revealed to you. Our God and your God is one, and unto Him we surrender. (29:46)

Call unto the way of thy Lord with wisdom and fair exhortation, and hold discourse with them (the People of the Book) in the finest manner. (16:125)

It is on the basis of such verses as these that Martins Lings asserted that, whereas the universality proper to true religions can be found within each religion’s mystical dimension, or esoteric essence, one of the distinctive features of Islam is the fact that universality is indelibly inscribed within its founding revelation-as well as within its esoteric essence. ‘All mysticisms are equally universal… in that they all lead to the One Truth. But one feature of the originality of Islam, and therefore of Sufism, is what might be called a secondary universality, which is to be explained above all by the fact that as the last Revelation of this cycle of time it is necessarily something of a summing up.”


The extent to which the religions of the other are given recognition, and indeed reverence, in the Quran does indeed render this scripture unique among the great revelations of the world. It is thus a rich source for reflection upon the most appropriate way to address the various issues pertaining to dialogue with the religious other. The Quranic message on religious diversity is of particular relevance at a time when various paradigms of 'pluralism' are being formulated and presented as a counter-weight to the 'clash of civilizations' scenario. In the last of the verses cited above, 16:125, 'wisdom' (hikma) is give as the basis upon which dialogue should be conducted. The whole of the Quran, read in depth and not just on the surface, gives us a divine source of wisdom; imbibing from this source empowers and calibrates our efforts to engage in meaningful dialogue and to establish authentic modes of tolerance; it thus provides us, in the words of  Tim Winter, with a 'transcendently-ordained tolerance.' Wisdom is a quality and not an order: it cannot be given as a blue-print, a set of rules and regulation; it calls for human effort, a readiness to learn it, it needs to be cultivated, and it emerges as the fruit of reflection and action. As the words of verse 16:125 tell us, we need wisdom and beautiful exhortation, and we also need to know how to engage in dialogue on the basis of that which is ahsan 'finest' 'most excellent,' or 'most beautiful' in our own faith, if we are to authentically invite people to the path of the Lord. in  other words, we are being encouraged to use wisdom, rather than any pre-determined set of instructions, in order to discern the most appropriate manner of inviting people to the 'way of thy Lord', thus, how best to engage in da'wa. But we also need wisdom in order to discern that which is 'most excellent' in the faith of our interlocutors in dialogue. This creative juxtaposition between da ‘wa and dialogue indicates implicitly that, rather than being seen as two contrasting or even antithetical modes of engaging with the Other, these two elements can in fact be synthesized by wisdom: if one's dialogue with the Other flows from the wellsprings of the wisdom of one's tradition, and if one makes an effort to understand the wisdom-that which is 'most excellent'-in the beliefs of the Other, than this kind of dialogue will constitute, in and of itself, a 'most beautiful' form of da'wa. For one will be making an effort to allow the wisdom of one's tradition to speak for itself; to 'bear witness' to one's faith will here imply bearing witness to the wisdom conveyed by one's faith-tradition, that very wisdom which, due to its universality and lake of prejudice, allows or compels us to recognize, affirm and engage with the wisdom contained within and expressed by other faith-traditions. For, as the Prophet said, ‘Wisdom is the lost camel (dalla) of the believer: he has a right to it wherever he may find it’.

If wisdom is the lost property of the believer, this means that wherever wisdom is to be found, in whatever form, in whatever religion, philosophy, spirituality or literature-that wisdom is one's own. It is thus an inestimable tool in the forging of an authentic civilization. One has to be prepared to recognize wisdom, as surely as one would recognize one's own camel, after searching for it. This translates into the attitude: whatever is wise is, by that very fact, part of my faith as a 'believe': my belief in God as the source of all wisdom allows or compels me to recognize as 'mine' whatever wisdom there is in the entirety of time and space, in all religions and cultures...

To be continued