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Civilization dialogue and mysticism: The Holy Quran and the metaphysics of Ibn al Arabi (Part 5)

Jan 14, 2011, 2:26 PM

The particular dynamics of being within the ontology of Ibn al-'Arabi helps us to understand why specificity and self-effacement should be the natural expressions of universality and self-realization; these dynamics also help us to see the intimate relationship between the deconstruction of identity and the perception of the universality of religion, as well as the necessity for the reconstruction or restitution of identity within a specific religious matrix. These ‘religious’ corollaries of being will be explored later in this section. For the moment, attention is to be focused on the fact that at the very summit of this spiritual ascent to ultimate reality and self-realization, Ibn al-‘Arabi receives from that Reality the verse of the Quran (cited above):

Say we believe in God and that which is revealed unto us, and that which is revealed unto Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and 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. (3:84)

 He then adds these words: ‘Henceforth I knew that I am the totality of those (prophets) who were mentioned to me (in this verse)': and also: 'He gave me all the Signs in this Sign'.

Since the word for 'sign' is the same as that for verse' (aya), this can also be taken to mean that all revealed verse are implicitly contained in this verse which establishes the universality and unity of the essence of the religious message, despite the outward differentiation of its formal expression. This last point is clearly implied another account of a spiritual ascent, in which Ibn al-'Arabi encountered the Prophet amidst a group of other prophets and is asked by him: ‘What was it that made you consider us as many?'

To which Ibn al-'Arabi replies: 'Precisely (the different scriptures and teachings) we took (from you)'.

Heavily implied in the Prophet's rhetorical question is the intrinsic unity of all the revelations. This principle is expressed in the following verse of the Quran (cited above), which Ibn al 'Arabi quotes then comments upon:

He hath ordained for you of the religion that which He commented unto Noah, and that which we reveal to thee (Muhammad), and that which We commented unto Abraham and Moses and Jesus, saying: Establish the religion, and be not divided therein. (42:13)

Then he quotes from another verse, mentioning further prophets, and concluding: Those are they whom God has guided, so follow their guidance. (6:90) He comments as follows:

This is the path that brings together every prophet and messenger. It is the performance of religion, scattering not concerning it and coming together in it. It is that concerning which Bukhari wrote a chapter entitled, "The chapter on what has come concerning the fact that the religions of the prophets is one." He brought the article which makes the word "religion" definite, because all religion comes from God, even if some of the rulings are diverse. Everyone is commanded to perform the religion and to come together in it… As for the rulings which are diverse, that is because of the Law which God assigned to each one of the messengers. He said, for each of you We have established a Law and Path. Had God willed, He could have made you one community. (5:48). If He had done that, your revealed Laws would not be diverse, just as they are not diverse in the fact that you have been commanded to come together and to perform them.

One sees clearly that Ibn al- 'Arabi is suggesting here a distinction between religion as such, on the one hand, and such and such a religion, on the other; it is religion as such that warrants the definite article (al-din). But such and such a religion, far from being marginalized in this perspective, are endowed with an imperatively binding nature by virtue of the absoluteness of its own essence, that is, by virtue of being not other than religion as such. For, on the one hand, religion as such, al-din, is the inner substance and inalienable reality of such and such a religion; and on the other, it is impossible to practice religion as such without adhering to such and such a religion. Apprehending the universal essence of religion, far from precluding particularity and exclusivity of formal adherence, in fact requires this adherence: to attain the essence one must grasp, in depth, the form by which the essence reveals itself. This is why, in the passage quoted above, Ibn al ‘Arabi continues by stressing the specific path proper to the final Prophet. It is that path ‘for which he was singled out to the exclusion of everyone else. It is the Koran, God's firm cord and all-comprehensive Law. This is indicated in His words, "This is My straight path, so follow it, and follow not diverse paths lest they scatter you from its road" (6:153)'.

This 'straight path' both excludes and includes all other paths: excludes by way of specific beliefs and practices, and includes by virtue of the single Essence to which the path leads, and from which it began. But one cannot reach the end of the path without the traversing its specific trajectory, without keeping within its boundaries, and thus making sure that one does not stray into other paths: And each one has a direction(wijha) toward which he turns. So vie with one another in good works… (2:148). One is instructed to turn towards one's particular goal, in a particular direction, and this is despite the fact that the Quran tells us that wherever ye turn, there is the Face of God (2:115). The ubiquity of the divine Face, then, does not imply that, in one's formal worship, the direction in which one turns to pray is of no consequence. For the Quran also says: Turn your face toward the sacred mosque, and wherever you may be, turn your faces toward it (when you pray). (2:144)

For Ibn al- 'Arabi, such combinations of principal universality and practical specificity are paradoxical expressions of a principle that goes to the very heart of his ontology, his understanding of the nature of reality: for 'part of the perfection or completeness of Being is the existence of imperfection, or incompleteness within it failing which Being would be incomplete by virtue of the absence of incompleteness within it. This is an example of the bringing together of opposites (jam 'bayn al-diddayn) which is emphasized repeatedly in the writing of Ibn al-'Arabi, pertaining to the paradoxes required on the level of language, if one is to do justice to the complexities of existence. Just as completeness requires and is not contradicted by incompleteness, so the incomparability (tanzih) of God requires and is not contradicted by comparability (tashbih), universality requires and is not contradicted by particularity, inclusivity requires and it is not contradicted by exclusivity, and no delimitation (itlaq) requires and is not contradicted by delimitation (taqyid).

Returning to the direction in which one must pray: on the one hand, the instruction to turn in a specific direction ‘does not eliminate the property of God's Face being wherever you turn.' On the other, the fact that God is there wherever one turns nonetheless implies the bestowal of a specific 'felicity' (sa'ada) as the consequence of turning in a particular direction for prayer. 'Hence for you He combined delimitation and nondelimtation, just as for Himself He combined incomparability and similarity. He said; "Nothing is like Him, and He is the Hearing, the seeing: (42:11).

Noting is like Him: this denial of similarity, this expression of pure tanzih or transcendence, is immediately followed by an apparent contradiction of this very incomparability, for 'He is the Hearing, the seeing'. As human beings also hear and see, this statement inescapable entails establishing modes of similarity or comparability between man and God. Ibn al-'Arabi, however, does not allow the mind to be restricted by this conceptual antimony, but rather takes advantage of the appearance of contradiction, using it as a platform from which to rise to an intuitive synthesis between these two opposing principles: the divine incomparability is perfect only when it is not conditioned by the very fact of being unconditioned by similarity, and vice versa. The divine none delimitation is only properly grasped in the light of delimitation, and vice versa. This paradox is powerfully delivered in the following passage:

He is not declared incomparable in any manner that will remove Him from similarity, nor is He declared similar in any manner that would remove Him from incomparability. So do not declare Him no delimited and thus delimited by being distinguished from delimitation! For if He is distinguished then He is delimited by His no delimitation. And if He is delimited by His no delimitations, then He is not He…

To be continued