The Service of Love
University of Berkeley, California, October 12-13th 2002
The year we returned to our "home base" at Berkeley for the 15th U.S. symposium. As in previous years, there was a flurry of activity in the weeks leading up to the symposium resulting in the cancellation at the last minute of two of the speakers. I hope by now we have come to accept these re-arrangements as a necessary if unforeseen benefit. We were sorry not to see Omid Safi and Beatrix Machado but the five speakers who came and the 30-40 attendees enjoyed a particularly intimate and rich week-end which we would not have wanted to rearrange nor augment.
The symposium was dedicated to Layla Shamash, honorary fellow of the society, twice a past speaker in Berkeley and dear friend to many of us. Some of us there remembered studying with Layla, before it was published, the first translation of the Fusûs in English, (by Angela Culme Seymour from the French translation of Titus Burckhardt). Layla was always so anxious to receive the next chapter even though she could read the arabic in the original. When asked why she would say, "I can read it in arabic, but I can't understand it. I need everyone else to help me." We remembered that it is very much in that spirit that these symposia were conceived: to provide a condition where people of different languages, backgrounds, religions could come together to help each other reach the meanings in the work of Ibn 'Arabi.
Our first speaker was Luce López Baralt, from the University of Puerto Rico, whose talk was titled "The Philomena of St John of the Cross: Virgil's sorrowful Nightingale or the Sufi's Singer of Ecstasy". In this she traced the image of the nightingale in the C�ntico Espiritual of St John of the Cross, showing how much more it resembled the Sufi's ecstatic bird of mystical union than the mournful bird of western literature, associated with human melancholy. This illustrated her abiding theme: that the mysterious and profound mystical poetry of St John of the Cross was deeply informed by sufism.
Erik Ohlander from the University of Michigan spoke next of the relationship between Ibn 'Arabi and Suhrawardi. These two great teachers, contemporary with each other, have traditionally been seen as at odds: Ibn 'Arabi representing an elite form of mystical expression , Suhrawardi the cultivation of moral and ethical values in the Islamic community. Erik Ohlander stated his belief that wherever there is a genuine and crucial development within a particular tradition, as there was at the time of Ibn 'Arabi, there will be found conflict and contention and that this is part of the exposition. After a close reading of the contemporary texts he found nothing to show any disagreement between these two great teachers themselves - the conflict having developed between their followers in subsequent centuries.
Following this talk, Pablo Beneito read, in Arabic, the Prayer of Blessing by Abd al-Aziz al-Mahdawi, recently translated by himself and Stephen Hirtenstein. The English translation was read between each section. Many in the audience found this profoundly moving.
Jane Clark completed the first day with her talk and (most impressive) power point presentation of "Early Best-sellers in the Akbarian Tradition". In this she covered the early dissemination of Ibn 'Arabi's teaching, particularly, but not exclusively, through Sadruddin Konevi and in the Ottoman empire. She showed how extraordinary it is that these works were protected, not just in the physical manuscripts, but through the reception of their meanings in those followers inspired by them throughout the centuries. She compared these works to an ark carrying the essential spirit through the waters of their own time, through the expansion of Islam and into the present day where the same spirit appears, translated into many languages and lands on our shores.
After a delightful Thai dinner on the Saturday night we reconvened on Sunday morning to hear Pablo Beneito speak on "Naught but Love". He began by asserting that to know the essence of things is to realise that they are sheer love. The divine Trick is that He appears and disappears in the particular objects that love adopts. The perfect servant recognises the mercy of the Divine Trickster and learns to play the Divine game in the barzak - he has to be and not be, do and not do, know and be unable to know. In conforming to whatever may guide us to this perfect disposition we may be brought to the real service of love.
Completing the week-end's talks, we were very grateful to have Derin Terzioglu, from Bogazici University in Istanbul, who by great good fortune was teaching at Berkeley for a semester, offer her services at the last minute to fill the space left by Bia Machado's absence. Derin spoke on women, family and the sufi orders in the Ottoman empire in the early modern period which provided a fascinating insight into the daily spiritual life of that time.
The theme which kept emerging throughout the week-end was that the meanings in the work of Ibn 'Arabi are alive and revivifying. It was said in answer to a question from the floor that although many commentaries on the Muyiddin's work are extremely helpful in coming to a closer understanding, the experience of reading Ibn 'Arabi directly is of a different order. When the student can become receptive he or she can be brought by Ibn 'Arabi to the meaning. It is because of this life in the works that the texts have survived through the centuries and reveal themselves in translation and across cultures. The experience of seeing images of manuscripts in Ibn Arabi's hand, listening to sung passages of the Tarjuman (to which we were treated on Sunday morning) as well as hearing from speakers who had come together from different parts of the world to convey their love of the subject, made this event itself alive with meaning.
At the end of the plenary session Pablo Beneito entranced us with a story. Many of you may not know that one of Pablo's talents is as a story teller - an occupation which helped support him through university. I could not possibly do justice to his delivery here but next time he appears at a gathering near you ask him to tell you the tale of Truth and Fable.
November 21st 2002
The Fourteenth U.S. Symposium of the Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi Society, University of California, Santa Barbara October 20th and 21st, 2001
When the title of 'Responsibility' was chosen in the spring for this year's symposium in America there was a sense that it would have something to do with stewardship and care for the earth. The events of September 11th gave the title a new and very striking importance. The question of how to respond properly on a national, international and most of all on a personal level became supremely important for millions of people.
The Society well understood that there might be difficulties mounting the symposium at such a time, in an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear. Indeed, three of the original seven speakers had to cancel in the weeks immediately preceding. We greatly missed Bia Machado, Victoria Holbrook and Omid Safi who, for reasons which in some cases directly related to the recent events, were unable to come. We were very grateful to Eric Winkel for stepping in so generously at the last minute and to Alexander Knysh and Richard and Cecilia Twinch who braved the difficulties of air travel to be with us.
In spite of the problems, we felt certain that coming together under the cloak of Ibn 'Arabi was the best thing to do at this time. He has articulated an invitation to the real possibility of mankind - to be in the place where all the contrary names can be witnessed as a single reality whose essence is love. To provide a space where the meanings which Ibn 'Arabi brings forth could be shared seemed to be the most responsible thing to do at the time.
Until this year all the U.S Symposia had been held in Berkeley, California. The Society had decided in the spring to explore other areas of interest and was very grateful to the new Center for Middle East Studies at the University of California in Santa Barbara for generously hosting the event this year. We were welcomed most hospitably and given a room with a view of the ocean in this quiet seaside town. Although the symposium was smaller than in previous years in terms of speakers and attendees it was felt strongly that everyone who was there was grateful to be so.
John Mercer opened the symposium with a talk entitled "The Eye of Compassion" which drew mainly from the daily prayers of Ibn 'Arabi (translated by Stephen Hirtenstein and Pablo Beneito in Seven Days of the Heart. These prayers, as was pointed out, exhibit a perfect balance between praise and request.
God requires us to ask and according to Ibn 'Arabi the essential request is to be educated in the degree of witnessing where everything is renounced except God. Humility is the essential ground for this. Responding is natural and innate in us. We respond to the love which permeates everything by allowing ourselves to be receptive and in accordance with the Being from whom the love emanates. This receptivity is perfect openness of the heart so that the Being appears exactly as it is. The responsibility is to be vigilant and protect the heart from anything other than God entering into it.
Eric Winkel, in his talk, "And among them, Allah be pleased with them, are the water men", translated two sections of the Futuhat: a passage relating to fasaad (ruinous activities) and one relating to zuhd (leaving everything to God).
According to Ibn 'Arabi the heart is the organism through which is manifested those things for which the Law Giver made man responsible, such as the obedience of his limbs. If the heart is not healthy and nourished the energy diminishes and the imagination becomes fasaad and at this point the eye is blinded from perceiving what is appropriate. These are the people described in the Surat al-Baqara "When they are told, don't do fasaad (ruinous activities) on the earth. They say, We are the ones making things right!"
The people of zuhd are the people who leave everything to Allah. They prefer haqq over khalq and over their selves. When Allah asked Abu Zayid "What do you want?" He replied, "I want not to want! I am the murad (the one wanted) and you are the murid (the one wanting)." This is zuhd - leaving everything other than Allah.
This section in the Futuhat continues "And there are among them (these people of zuhd) water men who worship Allah in the depths of the sea and rivers. No one knows them" - the full explanation of this was not given in the passage and we were left to dwell on the image!
After Eric Winkel's talk a section was read from the Commentary on the Fusus, the Chapter on Jonah. In the light of recent events it seemed very relevant to hear stated so clearly the responsibility towards human life and the injunction to value it above religious orders.
Richard Twinch ended the first day of the symposium with a delightful slide show of Morocco in the footsteps of Ibn 'Arabi. It was a visual feast followed by nourishing one at a local Moroccan restaurant to which the speakers retired on Saturday night!
Sunday morning opened with Cecilia Twinch's talk, "You are My mirror ...", an Introduction to the "Contemplation of the Holy Mysteries" (Ibn 'Arabi's Mashahid al-asrar) recently translated by Pablo Beneito and herself.
She prefaced her commentary by speaking of the place of safety and the response which springs from love shown in the Quranic words "For the friends of God, there is neither fear nor is there sadness. For those who believe and guard against evil, there are good tidings (bushra) in this world and the next".
The visions described in the "Contemplation of the Holy Mysteries" , we were told, only appeared to Ibn 'Arabi after he had entered "God's Vast Earth" and the world of the imagination. This is the place which contains what is newly happening and what was always so, where symbols become alive, meanings are manifest, and where the co-existence of vision and discourse is possible. It is inhabited only by those whose servitude is complete and submission is pure. In this place the contemplations are not passive but active -- one sees with one's own eyes and bears witness. In the Epilogue to the Contemplations Ibn 'Arabi says "the one who stays with the image is lost, and the one who rises from the image to the reality is rightly guided".
The final talk of the symposium was given by Alexander Knysh, who spoke of "The Realms of Responsibility in Ibn 'Arabi's al-Futuhat al Makkiya. " Ibn 'Arabi describes different levels of responsibility expressed by different categories of people. There are those who are incapable of reflection over their faith and are destined to follow the recommendations of exoteric scholars, who derive it from Muslim scriptures. The responsibility of these is to stay within the confines defined to them by their learned pastors. The second group of people are the theologians who argue whether human actions are the products of the actors or if all actions belong to God, leaving no room for human discretion. Ibn' Arabi dismisses both these arguments as falling short of the real goal and being confined to this world only. The third group are the knowers of God who inhabit God's Vast Land where things of the phenomenal world reveal their genuine essence. In this world once the person has left the arena of the Law, he will see that all his evil actions were in fact, in relation to God though not in relation to himself, good acts. This is the meaning of the Koranic phrase "God will change their evil deeds into good deeds".
Several themes reappeared in each of the speaker's talks. The most essential seemed to be that the real place of responsibility is in "God's Vast Earth" where the meanings of everything are revealed and the real condition of responsibility, the only state in which one can enter this place, is the state of complete submission to God where the heart is pure of anything other than Him.
At the end of the last talk, the sea mists finally cleared and for the first time the much advertised view of the Pacific could be seen from the balcony and we were treated to a brilliant sunset. It was a fitting end to the week-end.
November 17th 2001