Le Sceau des saints: prophè'tie et saintété dans la doctrine d'Ibn Arabi, by Michel Chodkiewicz
Paris, Gallimard, 1986, 223 pp. + index.
Review by James Morris, from Studia Islamica, LXIII (1986), pp. 182-185
For students of Ibn 'Arabi and his place in Sufism and Islamic thought more generally, this pioneering study is likely to become a classic reference comparable to T. Izutsu's Sufism and Taoism, since it represents a radically different but ultimately complementary and indispensable approach to our understanding of the "Shaykh al-Akbar" and many essential (if far too frequently neglected) aspects of his work. However the broader interest and significance of this book - whose title seems deceptively modest until the author begins to reveal the full implications of Ibn 'Arabi's self-conception as "Seal of the (Muhammadan) saints" - is not limited to that particular field. The density and richness of the author's textual and historical materials and references, together with the scope and diversity of the methods and perspectives he brings to bear on this subject, are such that this study should likewise constitute thought-provoking reading for students of Islamic law, theology, history, comparative religion, and all the other fields where Ibn 'Arabi's comprehensive (and often controversial) vision continues to call into question many of the accepted categories through which we ordinarily tend to perceive both the traditional sciences of the Islamic world and cognate phenomena in our own lives. (One typical illustration of this wider relevance, discussed at some length in the introduction, is the way Ibn 'Arabi's understanding of "sainthood" tends to undermine - or transcend - the distinctions between "popular" and "learned" religious tradition frequently taken for granted by classical Muslim critics of Sufism, such as Ibn Taymiya, as well as by more modern observers.)
Most obviously, though, the essential historical contribution of this study is the way it systematically and rigorously re-establishes Ibn 'Arabi (i.e., his work, method and spiritual intentions) in his original Islamic (and practical Sufi) context, above all through hundreds of detailed references to his vast and still largely unstudied al-Futuhat al-Makkiya. In fact, not only most available Western studies but also the vast majority of subsequent references to the Shaykh even in Islamic and Sufi literature (and on both sides of the still vehement controversies surrounding him) are based almost exclusively on the Fusus al-Hikam, focusing primarily on his more universal metaphysical insights (or on certain of its "scandalous" expressions taken out of context), and inevitably tend to suggest that the "Islamic" elements in his work are at best the symbolic expression of a more personal, idiosyncratic philosophic doctrine (whether that may be viewed positively or negatively). Yet whatever the causes and merits of that approach (and the literature reflecting it), even a cursory survey of the Futuhat will quickly reveal to what extent the available studies and critiques - again both in Islamic and Western languages - have so far failed to convey Ibn 'Arabi's personal situation and manifold contributions in terms of practical Sufism (both method and experience), the central place of the Koran in his thought, his profound mastery of virtually all the traditional religious sciences of his day (kalam, fiqh, hadith, grammar, etc.), and above all the distinctive method and perspective (radically "sunni " in its presuppositions, as Mr. Chodkiewicz stresses) governing his spiritual and intellectual integration of all of those diverse traditional elements.
Here those fundamental aspects of Ibn 'Arabi's thought and work are amply illustrated in relation to his understanding of walaya (at once "closeness" to God and the spiritual "authority" or influence flowing from it) - a notion so fundamental to Sufism that, as the author acknowledges at the very beginning, its implications touch on virtually all the more familiar metaphysical themes of Ibn 'Arabi's teaching. Beginning with an illuminating survey of earlier Sufi allusions to this subject (especially with al-Tirmidhi and Ruzbehan Baqli), each chapter focuses on an essential conceptual facet of this reality as it is developed throughout the Shaykh's writings: wiratha, or the distinctive spiritual "heritage" of each of the prophets; niyaba, the "substitution" of each wali as manifestation (and fulfilment) of an intrinsic aspect of the universal "Muhammadan Reality"; and qurba, or the actual realization of his inner proximity to the divine. This core exposition skillfully clarifies a number of disputed (or more often simply misunderstood) problems in Ibn 'Arabi and other Sufi authors - questions such as the nature of the "Muhammadan Reality", the various types of "prophecy" (both nubuwwa and the �scriptural� risala), the relations of different members of the spiritual hierarchy (Qutb, Imams, Awtad, etc.), the special role for Ibn �Arabi of the "solitary ones" (afrad) and the "malamiyya", or the relation of the "Seals" of universal and Muhammadan sainthood�all while clearly showing their inner coherence and role in the larger context of Ibn 'Arabi's thought.
But the deeper value and extraordinary richness of the author's approach has to with the additional materials and perspectives that are brought in, at virtually every point, in order to illustrate and explain the broader context (at once historical, personal, and metaphysical) of Ibn 'Arabi's conception of walaya, as well as its subsequent fate (creative adaptation, rejection, and acceptance) among later Muslims, including both Sufis and their critics. Thus the explicitly "doctrinal" subject of each chapter is constantly supplemented by extensive documentation (or appropriate allusions) concerning (1) the scriptural sources of Ibn 'Arabi's understanding and expressions in the Koran and relevant hadith, illustrating his characteristic methods and criteria in using those materials; (2) the historical development of each question in earlier Sufism (or other relevant sciences, such as kalam); (3) related metaphysical themes or principles in Ibn 'Arabi's work; (4) subsequent controversies and criticisms (particularly by Ibn Taymiya); (5) the revealing autobiographical and experiential illustrations of these questions throughout Ibn 'Arabi's writings. The breadth of reading (especially in the Futuhat) and reflection evident in these supplementary "notes" - many of them containing the seeds of a monograph or even a whole book - will not escape specialists in the relevant fields; certainly they should ensure the future role of this work as an indispensable reference and starting point for students able to investigate these and related issues and the perspectives at greater length in the Futuhat and related Sufi writings.
Finally, if we have emphasized the original historical and scholarly contributions of this book, as the features most likely to interest readers of this journal, we must add that those critical qualities are combined throughout with a rare (if soberly expressed) sensitivity to the "ma�na ", the inner meaning and spiritual intentions of Ibn 'Arabi's treatment of this subject, and to its practical presuppositions. That deeper dimension - without which Ibn 'Arabi's thought would be reduced to mere kal a m - is brought out most explicitly in the concluding chapter: a revealing synthesis (with extensive translations and commentary from the R. al-Anwar, the K. al-Isra', and two autobiographical chapters of the Futuhat) of the Shaykh's accounts of his own mi'raj, the "twofold path" of spiritual ascension and return, which should offer even the most sceptical reader a more vivid sense of the realities underlying the technical discussions of the preceding chapters. In the end, Mr. Chodkiewicz' careful and rigorous insistence on the full historical context and original religious intentions of Ibn 'Arabi's work does not necessarily contradict the many authors who have emphasized the "universality" of the Shaykh's teachings, but it does bring out more openly the partial and essentially interpretive nature of their remarks, while at the same time suggesting the many crucial facets of his own work (and the larger Islamic traditions in which it is rooted) that still remain to be explored.