The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn al-'Arabi's Metaphysics of Imagination. By William C. Chittick.
Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1989. Pp. xxii + 478. 24.50 paper; 74.50 cloth.
Review by James Morris in Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 111.3 (1991), pp. 601-602
This new book is the first English introduction to Ibn 'Arabî's truly magnum opus, the Meccan Illuminations, and the first introduction designed to prepare non-specialist readers to explore that famous mystic's writings on their own. (That a work of almost 500 double-column pages can still be termed an introduction is a reflection at once of the breadth of Ibn 'Arabî's own ambitions, the very length of the Futûhât itself -- a text as prolix as his more widely read Fusûs al-Hikam is condensed -- and the ongoing "volume" of that writer's influence in later Islamic civilization.) Previous scholarly works on Ibn 'Arabî, including the classical studies by Nyberg, Asin-Palacios, Corbin and Izutsu, have typically sought to present what those authors believed to be most relevant or interesting to their own diverse modern audiences. Whatever the merits of those different approaches, only readers already well acquainted with the Arabic texts can judge how adequately they have succeeded and to what extent their interpretations (as is almost inevitable) have taken on a creative life and direction of their own. Thus the specific focus on Ibn 'Arabî's own aims in this most recent study is not simply a function of the anthologizing method -- which could easily have been applied to generate yet another "system," as with the earlier Islamic commentators on whom Prof. Chittick has written in the past. More importantly, it also reflects an ongoing, collective scholarly effort that has done much in recent years to bring into clearer focus the particular intellectual and social historical contexts of Ibn 'Arabî's (and many other Sufis') writing and teaching, thereby freeing the study of his creative personal contributions and often highly original perspectives from centuries of later philosophi'And poetic reworkings and religious polemics that came to be associated with his name. (Those efforts have been summarized especially in recent major biographical studies by M. Chodkiewicz and C. Addas, soon to be available in English translation.)
The overall presentation and order of subjects in this volume is that adopted by Ibn 'Arabî himself (following earlier Kalam) in the doctrinal sections within his own Introduction to the Futûhât: it begins with the cosmic theological and ontological context of human action (Parts 1-3 here), and then continues with the processes and pitfalls of spiritual realization (the "Return", Parts 4-7), which for this mystic involve above all the indispensable role of the symbolic imagination (hence the subtitle of this work). But while this division might suggest the sort of.2 systematic, abstract philosophi'Approach so typical of subsequent Muslim commentators, from Qûnawî on down to Mullâ Sadrâ and Sabzawârî, readers will find that Prof. Chittick's careful reliance on Ibn 'Arabî's own words, through nearly 700 translated passages selected from the entire Futûhât, happily gives a very different and much more readable picture. In fact the second, epistemological part of this work actually conveys the human, experiential "inside" (the bâtin) of what was first presented in far more abstract terms in such a way that students familiar with cognate religious literature from different religious traditions will quickly grasp the common principles and concerns expressed here in a complex symbolic vocabulary grounded in the Qur'an and hadîth.
But the very difficult opening theological and philosophic discussions do provide the common language (primarily Qur'anic) and conceptual framework that is assumed throughout Ibn 'Arabî's writings; and this is certainly the aspect of his work most unfamiliar to virtually all modern readers. (The translator, as explained on p. xxi, has prudently put off for a separate, later volume a promised survey of the mystic's cosmology, cosmogony and influential theories concerning the macro- and micro-cosmic "Perfect Man".) The remaining two-thirds of the work, however, are devoted to the more practical side of Ibn 'Arabî's writing, a careful "spiritual phenomenology" of the intimate dialectic between scriptural sources and guidelines, rational considerations, and personal spiritual experience (the naql, 'Aql and kashf of so many generations of later commentators), deeply rooted in earlier Sufism and Islamic spirituality, which is the central leitmotif of all of Ibn 'Arabî's teaching. Throughout the work, both in notes to the translation and his own explanatory passages, Prof. Chittick has especially emphasized and carefully identified the Islamic scriptural framework and inspiration of all of Ibn 'Arabî's writing (sometimes neglected in earlier presentations). As a result, the extensive (and reliable) indexes of Qur'anic verses, hadîth sources and technical terms will no doubt provide a helpful working tool for students of both earlier and later Sufi traditions. (Indeed this volume now provides perhaps the best available English example of a coherent, comprehensive commentary on the entire Qur'an.)
Finally, a word of praise -- and a simultaneous caution -- is required concerning the method of translation and broader pedagogical approach adopted here. Students of Ibn 'Arabî, beginning with the earliest commentators, have always had to wrestle with his incredibly creative, multi-leveled use of Arabic language and scriptural symbolism; and interpreters for a modern audience (above all given the immense scope of the Futûhât), are faced with the additional problem of explaining detailed scriptural references and technical vocabularies in the vast range of Islamic disciplines that were relatively familiar in the original context. Throughout these faithful and close translations, Prof. Chittick has typically selected a single English word to translate the corresponding Arabic term, and has carefully introduced the many complementary meanings of those key terms (often using Ibn 'Arabî's own explanations) at their first occurrence. This has the obvious -- indeed indispensable -- advantage of obliging readers to enter into the mystic's own resonant semanti'And symbolic universe, but could lead to grave misunderstandings for those who might happen to skip over (over eventually forget) the full original explanations.
The same careful pedagogical aims are expressed throughout the organization and selection of translations in the book as a whole. This is not in any way the sort of anthology or popular sourcebook that one could pick up to discover "Ibn 'Arabî's views" on a particular question, or that is designed to outline his "mystical philosophy". It is designed and organized as a whole in such a way that the topics and translations in each section integrally build on and presuppose material first presented in earlier chapters: thus it is essential, for students not already intimately familiar with these texts, to read this book through carefully from the very beginning. The result of that approach, for those who can devote the requisite attention to this study, is that they will truly be prepared to appreciate the profound inseparability of form from the "content" and operative intentions of Ibn 'Arabî's own writings, whose distinctive rhetoric was never really imitated even within later Islamic tradition. Like other classics in that tradition, but with its own unique style, the Futûhât was meant to mirror each reader's state while gradually drawing them into an intimate process of discovery involving the whole being: readers of this volume will be able to see how that is so, and continue their explorations.