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Sufi Metaphysics and Qur€™anic Prophets, Author: Ronald L. Nettler, Publisher: The Islamic Text Society

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Sufi Metaphysicsand Qur'anic Prophets Ibn Arabi's Thought andMethod in the Fusus al-Hikam  

The Fusus al-Hikam is acknowledged to be asummary statement of the sufi metaphysics of the €œGreatestMaster€, Ibn 'Arabi (d.1240). It is also recognisedthat the Fusus is a work of great complexity both in itsideas and its style; and, over the centuries, numerous commentarieshave been written on it. Each of the chapters of the Fusasis dedicated to a Qur'an prophet with whom a particular €œwisdom€is associated. In Sufi Metaphysics and Quranic Prophets: Ibn'Arabi's Thought and Method in the Fusus al-Hikam, RonaldNettler examines ten chapters from the FususSufi Metaphysics and Qur'anic Prophetsserves not only as an explication of Ibn Arabi's thought inthe Fusus, but is also a great aid in the overall understandingof Ibn Arabi's thought.Ronald L. Nettler is university research lecturer in Oriental Studies,Oxford University, and fellow and tutor in Oriental Studies at MansfieldCollege, Oxford.

 An Excerpt:

The Man 
Muhammad b. 'Ali al-'Arabi al-Hatimi al-Ta-i, commonly known andreferred to as Ibn 'Arabi, was a major figure of Islamic religiousthought and of sufism, the mystical tradition of Islam. Ibn 'Arabi wasborn in Murcia in al-Andalus, Islamic Spain, on 27 July 1165 (17Ramadan 560). He grew up in a privileged position, as a result of hisfather's various posts of political importance. Inclining in his laterteen years toward a quest for intellectual, religious and spiritualtruth, Ibn 'Arabi spent the rest of his life on this path. From hislate twenties, he began his physical journeys outward from Spain, firstto the Maghrib several times and, in following years, to various pointsin the East. In 1223, Ibn 'Arabi finally settled in Damascus where, nowfinished with his wanderings, he lived out his remaining years, workingassiduously and producing a number of important works; among these wasthe Fusus al-Hikam, which Ibn 'Arabi claimed to have received in a vision from the Prophet Muhammad in that city.

Thelong period of travel was for Ibn 'Arabi the physical correlative andthe context of his concomitant intellectual and religious journey.Learning from others, as well as himself teaching them during hiswanderings, Ibn 'Arabi achieved an impressive literary productivityclosely linked with his physical movements. Each place, it seems,provided the human and creative resources which made possible thedevelopment and refinement of his outlook. The 'arc' of Ibn 'Arabi'slife, as Henri Corbin called it, was in this sense truly integrative.The result was an original perspective that in later Islam served toreorientate religious thought, whether sufi or other, in most profoundways.

Ibn 'Arabi's Sufi Thought

Ibn 'Arabi's sufi thought is highly complex and subtle. In both itsmethod and content, Ibn 'Arabi's thought resists any simple andstraightforward understanding; it yields itself only to the moststrenuous interpretative efforts and then only partially, often leavingunresolved problems and some degree of ambiguity. This is particularlytrue in the case of the Fusus al-Hikam, but it holds also for Ibn 'Arabi's other works which propound his characteristic sufi metaphysics. 
The difficulties derive mainly from conceptual and linguisticambiguity, and complex, overlapping and multilevelled ideas in anesoteric formulation. Additionally, there is a linguistic complexityborne out of literary richness and nuance, as well as the obfuscationgenerally associated with esoteric ideas. Then, as with much of theliterature of medieval Islamic religious thought, there is here also anoral factor. The texts derived to some extent from an interweaving ofdiscussion and writing. The discussion would be absorbed within thetexts and the texts in their final forms would thus reflect and containthe discussion. As in most cases the history of this process obviouslycannot be reconstructed, for this reason certain ambiguities willremain in the writings. These cannot easily (if at all) be resolved,because they originally arose in discussion and they remain there. InIbn 'Arabi's work, however, the complexity of his thought and thesubtlety of his expression remain the greater problem.

Despitethese barriers, modern scholarship, greatly aided by traditionalsources, has achieved a certain comprehension of Ibn 'Arabi's outlook.However provisional and sometimes obviously uncertain, our presentunderstanding does constitute a firm foundation for going forward. Ishould like now, however briefly, to provide some overview of Ibn'Arabi's thought, in particular as this is relevant to his Fususal-Hikam.While the understanding and explication below are my own, they willinevitably reflect also some views of other modern scholars who havecontributed to our common base of knowledge. As my purpose here is moregeneral than specific, I may not in all instances cite them, but Iremain grateful for their various contributions.

Sufi Metaphysics
The main term I use to describe Ibn 'Arabi's mystical thought is thatof sufi metaphysics. This term, in my view, incorporates theexperiential, personal element and its profound intellectualisationwith Ibn 'Arabi in his metaphysics. By metaphysics here I do not mean afull philosophical doctrine, as more narrowly and precisely formulatedin the true philosophical traditions; this is rather a far-reachingintellectual expression of intertwined experience and ideas whichaddresses ultimate transcendent issues of cosmogony and cosmology, Godand man, this world and the next. There is here much that may be drawnfrom traditional Islamic philosophical and theologicalthought-especially the problem of the One and the many with itscomponents of classical and post-classical ideas; there are also manyelements of the other Islamic religious and secular, intellectual andscientific traditions. Ibn 'Arabi, like many other great medievalMuslim intellectuals, was very much a polymath who brought all hepossessed to bear on the issues of his concern. Indeed, it is quiteclear even that he saw in his sufi metaphysics a basis for theresolution of the major outstanding problems of Islamic religiousthought in his time from a new perspective.

Thoughsometimes, then, redolent of aspects of philosophical metaphysics, Ibn'Arabi's outlook goes beyond and differs from the other tradition inits formulations, expressions and content. It is also different in itsvery reason for being, as an intellectualisation of the earliertradition of sufism-thus, again, the name 'sufi metaphysics'. Forthough it would be wrong to deny sufism prior to Ibn 'Arabi, whether'Western' or 'Eastern', any intellectual attributes or systematisation,the core and focal point of the tradition usually remained decidedly onthe side of personal religious experience and its expression. Thesebasic 'mystical' features understandably still remain critical for Ibn'Arabi and, by his own claim, they define and direct his sufi career;but his sufism must in great part be understood as anintellectualisation of that prior tradition, if it is to be understoodat all, and if its significance is to be appreciated. AnnemarieSchimmel has put it well:

But whatever the Spanish-born mystic who soon became known as ash-shaikh al-akbar (MagisterMagnus) might have intended, there is a world of difference between hisapproach to religion and the dynamic, personal religion of Hallaj. WithIbn 'Arabi, Islamic mysticism comes close to the mysticism of infinity,and his approach is theosophical or gnostic rather than voluntaristic,for his goal is to lift the veils of ignorance which hide the basicidentity of man and the Divine, while in early Sufism the element ofpersonal love between man and God was predominant.

Ibn'Arabi's sufi metaphysics is vast and vastly complex. Its main ideas,style and method, as said above, render it difficult to penetrate. Afocused survey of the main ideas, as these are formulated and appearespecially in the Fusus, will give more substance to thisgeneral characterisation of the metaphysics; it will also provide anecessary conceptual background for the Qur'anic analyses of the Fususmade in the following chapters. Preliminary to this survey, let us briefly consider Ibn 'Arabi's own view of the origin of the Fusus

Author: Ronald L. Nettler

ISBN: 978-1903682-067

# of Pages: 234

Type: PB

Publisher: The Islamic Text Society

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