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Review

The Ringstones of Wisdom (Fusūs al-hikam) by Ibn al-’Arabī.

Translation, introduction, and glosses by Caner K. Dagli. Kazi Publications’ Great Books of the Islamic World Series, Chicago, 2004, 314 pp.

From the Journal of the Muhyddin Ibn 'Arabi Society, Vol. XXXIX, 2006.

Not only is this new translation of the Fusūs al-hikam by Caner K. Dagli free of major misunderstandings, but it draws the reader in. It has clarity, power and energy. Caner Dagli is a doctoral candidate at Princeton University’s Department of Near Eastern Studies. Having discussed the project with Seyyed Hossein Nasr, the necessity for a new translation became clear to him. This is a high recommendation, Seyyed Nasr being also the editor of the series published by Great Books of the Islamic World.

The utmost care needs to be taken in reviewing such a book, not only due to the recommendation by Seyyed Hossein Nasr but because of the importance of the text and the rarity of the translations we have at hand. Until now there was only a translation in English from the one in French established by Titus Burckhardt, and a second translation by R.W.J. Austin. Caner Dagli tells us that these translations helped him, at least at the beginning of his work, and that he has used the ‘Afīfī edition of the Arabic original. For this review, I have relied only on my reading of the ‘Afīfī edition and on Dagli’s translation, not wanting to be drowned in a comparison of the three versions.

I should mention here that there is another translation, made by Bulent Rauf in English, of the Fusūs and its long commentary in many volumes from the Ottoman Turkish attributed to I.H. Bursevi. There is also a French translation of the text by Charles-André Gilis.

Let me start with commending our author’s excellent introduction, in which he explains a lot of his choices, most of which are based on W. Chittick’s translations of technical Sufi terms. His introduction also clarifies a lot of concepts that are referred to throughout the book. The Ringstones of Wisdom consists of twenty-seven chapters, each representing a Ringstone of a particular wisdom in the Word of a different prophet, such as The Ringstone of the Wisdom of Light in the Word of Joseph. These titles already present us with a problem. We have to explain the word "Ringstone" (i.e. fass, singular for fusūs) and the term "Word".

Dagli writes:

... the fass is that part of the ring which is either the central gemstone or is the object into which a design is carved for the purpose of imprinting a seal … fass can also carry the meaning of a thing’s quintessence or the point upon which matters hinge, and the Arabic construct allows one to read the titles in this way: "That quintessence which the Wisdom of Light is". The "wisdom" can be thought of as a station of spiritual understanding and realization, or the special spiritual quality bestowed upon a person by God … "Word" evokes the symbolism of the Breath of the All-Merciful (nafas al-Rahmān), which is to say the Breath of God. (p. ix)

I will stop quoting our author at this point, for the precision that he brings to us is extremely enlightening. Indeed, Rahma, God’s Mercy, is the most recurrent theme of the Fusūs. Ibn ‘Arabī himself tells us that he has talked about Rahma over and over in his text. And again if we are to read him carefully, each chapter more often than not starts with a Quranic quotation related to its particular prophet, in order to link it very quickly to the Prophet Muhammad and to God’s Mercy. It is as if God’s Rahma were coming out of the pages to engulf the reader.

Nowhere is this effect clearer than in the Wisdom of Zachariah. Let me quote from it (pp. 219, 221):

Know that God’s Mercy encompasses everything in existence and in determination ... The divine Names are things, and come from a single identity. What is first encompassed by God’s Mercy is the thingness of that identity which existentiates Mercy through Mercy. So the first thing encompassed by Mercy is itself; then the thingness indicated; then the thingness of all existents that exist, which have no end, neither in this lower world nor in the Hereafter, neither in accident nor in substance ...

God’s Mercy flows in beings
And runs its course through essences and identities
Mercy’s superior rank, if thou comest to know it
By witnessing with meditation, is exalted.

On reading Dagli’s version, however, we seem to stumble over a serious blockage with the use of the word "slave", for the Arabic ‘abd. This is a very unfortunate choice which, it seems to me, puts the reader ill at ease. It is a term of major importance which recurs in practically every other sentence. It is also a cornerstone concept of the Islamic creed. The word ‘abd designates the ideal station of the faithful, the Prophet Muhammad being the Perfect ‘Abd, al ‘Abd al-Mahd, i.e. having given himself totally to God when he answered His call. This response comes from free will. It is the answer to God’s question: "Am I not your Lord?" By no means has man, who has answered "Yes" to this question, been coerced into accepting his Lord’s Will, as the use of the term "slave" would imply. A slave, by definition, is one who has been forced into slavery. In the Islamic context, ‘abd is a man who has accepted freely his Lord’s Law over him, and has surrendered himself to His Will. Besides, turning to Souad Hakim’s dictionary of technical Sufi terms in Ibn ‘Arabī’s work, under the word ‘abd we find that she quotes the Al-Khalīl dictionary and adopts his definition at length, warning the reader to specifically differentiate between ‘abd, slave and ‘abd, the worshipper of God.

Ibn ‘Arabī explains in many instances in the Fusūs the freedom of the ‘abd, notably in the Wisdom of Lot:

I did not ordain for them the unbelief that afflicts them, then seek of them something beyond their capacity to give. Nay, I only deal with them in accordance with what I know them to be, and I only know them through what they grant Me from themselves, from what they are; if there is any wrong, they are the wrongdoers. Because of this He said, "But it is they who wrong themselves."(p. 144)

Another example where a choice made by Dagli could have been different is in the case of the word "obedient", used over and over again at the beginning of the Word of Jacob. Dagli uses it to translate dīn, i.e. religion, and words coming from the root q-y-d, i.e., link or tie. We read: "‘… die not except in a state of surrender.’ That is, die not except in a state of obedience to Him". Dagli uses the word "obedience" for the Arabic munqādūn, which means "led to, taken to", and it occurs many times. Surrender in my mind is not obedience; surrender contains a dimension of free will. Let me say here that the whole chapter is about understanding the meaning of conforming to the Will of God. When one conforms by obeying the Law, discussion is unnecessary. But when disobedience occurs, Ibn ‘Arabī investigates this meaning in many ways, which broadens the word and gives it a much deeper dimension. For Ibn ‘Arabī, irāda, free will, is a prerequisite for spiritual life. The servant is the one by whom the religion, dīn, exists: he is the one who performs the prayer and therefore institutes the religion. As we know, God has split prayer into two parts, one done by Him, the second by His ‘abd. It is explained at length in the Ringstone of Muhammad: "I have divided the prayer into halves, between Myself and My slave." I am trying to say that I would favor a term that preserves and stresses the active element in the subject: a term that would have shown these connotations which are so important to Ibn ‘Arabī, as we know that Ibn ‘Arabī tends to use a word in all its meanings and connotations, such as "acceptance" for example. Equally, prayer makes things happen; it can change the order of things in the cosmos and this idea confers power to the servant. The relationship between obedience and free will is a subtle one and it is difficult to navigate between the two.

Translating Ibn ‘Arabī is an awesome task, especially the Fusūs al-hikam. The translation of such concise prose necessarily becomes a commentary. Caner Dagli has provided us with a new text, which is a new reading of the original. The fact that he seems to choose always the more radical of terms when confronted with a choice may be a quality, for the result is a vigorous text. The Arabic is often subject to many interpretations: it can easily mean more than one thing and Caner Dagli gives both or however many interpretations necessary in the footnotes and explains his choice, for a translator has to choose. Therefore his work’s greatness resides also in the extensive footnotes he has provided; not only his, but many from the commentaries of Dawūd al-Qaysarī, and ‘Abd al-Razzāq al-Kāshānī, who were famous disciples of Ibn ‘Arabī. Quoted extensively, they shed light on the text with the kind of references one needs. He also provides links between the chapters themselves.

A new translation is a new reason for reading this major text. I am grateful to Dagli for giving me the occasion for doing so and for giving it to all the new and old readers of the Fusūs al-hikam. The text rings true. It creates a renewed desire to read both the original text of the Fusūs and its translation.

Simone Fattal