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Recent Publications – 2012

Cover image Ibn 'Arabi's Mystical Poetics, Denis McCauley, 2012

Ibn 'Arabi's Mystical Poetics

Denis E. McAuley, Oxford University Press, 2012. 288 pages. Cloth, ISBN  9780199659548.

This book is the first full-length monograph devoted to Ibn 'Arabi's Dīwān (collected poems), and it will help to bring about new ways of seeing Ibn 'Arabi's poetry as a whole.

By Diwan is meant the Bulaq Diwan, printed in Cairo in 1271AH / 1855. The author puts aside editorial questions about the Diwan, which have absorbed the energies of many previous scholars – such as why the Bulaq Diwan contains only a fraction of Ibn 'Arabi's known poetry – and really makes a qualitative enquiry into what is there. The core of the book is not even a study of the Diwan as such, but is based on a sample of the poems in it.

The opening chapters include an examination of Ibn 'Arabi's poetic style, and a review of three places where he wrote in prose about the meaning of poetry. The concluding chapter includes a look at Ibn 'Arabi's poetic legacy in the example of 'Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulusi.

Between the opening and the conclusion there are six studies of different series of poems or kinds of poetry in the Diwan. For example, Chapter 3 is entitled "Ibn 'Arabi and the Qur'an: A Series of Poems". Chapter 4 is entitled "Ibn 'Arabi and the Poets: Imitiations and Replies." Chapter 6 is called "'Ultra-Monorhyme': A Stylistic Eccentricity in Comparative Perspective," and it appeared in the Journal of the Society, and can be found on this web site.

These studies are not exhaustive treatments, but based on close reading of a number of examples.  

The poems are examined through their poetic form and in a literary context. As the author puts it: "The poetry should not be seen as a series of hyperlinks to the Fusus or Futuhat. Each poem is an autonomous work, and is more than the illustration of a set of ideas drawn from somewhere else. When faced with a problem, it is often tempting to assume that if one throws enough passages from the Fusus at it, it will go away. Most often, the problem needs to be solved on its own terms." (p. 12)  He also says, "the poems do not lend themselves to skim reading."

So in these studies the discussion of the poems is as narrowly textual as possible, and they are seen less in relationship to Ibn 'Arabi's prose writing, than in relationship to other medieval Arabic poetry, and sometimes with medieval poetry in other languages altogether. It might have been good if the poems been quoted in full before being analysed.

The results of this study are fruitful, and bring out the originality, vigour and variety of Ibn 'Arabi's writing, as well the fact that it is the work of a cultured man of his time. You don't have to agree with everything the author says to conclude that this book clears a lot of ground, and is part of a movement at this time which is substantially changing the way Ibn 'Arabi's poetry is understood and appreciated.

The book includes as an Appendix the Arabic text of the poems referred to in translation in the text. In common with other books from academic publishers at this time, its price of £70 will put it outside the reach of many individuals, but we may hope for a paperback edition in future.

Cover image Sufi Narratives of Intimacy, Sa'diyya Shaikh, 2012

Sufi Narratives of Intimacy – Ibn 'Arabi, Gender, and Sexuality

Sa'diyya Shaikh, The University of North Carolina Press, 2012.  Cloth, 285 pp, ISBN 978-0-8078-3533-3

This book comes with a ringing endorsement by Vincent Cornell: "A revolutionary work of scholarship. Sufi Narratives of Intimacy should become the indispensable starting point for all theologically oriented studies of gender in Islam. This is a work that cannot be ignored – it should become a classic of Sufi studies."

The Introduction starts with two vivid, surprising and enlightening illustrations, stories about what happened on two occasions when a woman delivered the sermon to a Muslim congregation after the Friday prayer, one in the fourteenth century and one in the twenty-first.

Questions about relationships between women and men colour all aspects of human life, and carry the enormous payload of vested interest and emotion which underlies what the author calls the realpolitik of gender relationships. To find a clear vision in this arena is a huge challenge. To be able to discuss issues in a way which does not trigger the obscuring judgements which almost every person harbours, requires a manner of writing which is full of self-awareness.

An author must revert to shorthand at points, and this might be the summary or the summary of the book: "I focus especially on Ibn 'Arabi's works because some of his radically egalitarian gender narratives challenge more traditional hegemonic Islamic discourses on gender. At the same time I subject other gendered elements of his work to rigorous ideological examination and critique in particular. I keep his complex gender narratives in constant conversation with his ontological, cosmological, and anthropological mappings of human possibilities. Ibn 'Arabi's work reflects some of the diversity, complexity, and sophistication that characterise the Islamic intellectual tradition. To sustain this vitality within the tradition, it is religiously, ethically, intellectually, and politically imperative to concentrate on emancipatory gender discourses indigenous to the Islamic legacy. This project is particularly urgent in the light of the dogmatic, absolutist, repressive, and misogyinst positions that are part of contemporary Islamic political trends. . .  I consciously mobilize resources from the past for a different future." (p. 28)

As well as presenting a heavily contested issue in the Muslim world to the mirror of Ibn 'Arabi's writings in the hopes of seeing it better, this kind of examination is bound also to provoke new ways of seeing for students of Ibn 'Arabi.

Portions of this book can be viewed on Google Books.

Cover image In Search of the Lost Heart, William Chittick, 2012

In Search of the Lost Heart: Explorations in Islamic Thought

William C. Chittick. Edited by Mohammed Rustom, Atif Khalil, and Kazuyo Murata. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012, xiv + 411 pp.

From the review by Joel C. Richmond, in Vol 51 of the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi Society.

An in-depth exploration of Islamic thought is no small matter. In a period of history when peripheral questions have taken centre stage and so much of the substance of Islamic knowledge is forgotten, it is rare to find an interpreter who is up to the task at hand. Readers of the Journal are surely familiar with the many profound studies and translations that have been offered by William C. Chittick over the last 40 years. Less familiar, however, are his countless and rare articles, buried in academic journals and, until now, earnestly waiting to be rediscovered.

To compile and republish all of Chittick's many essays into one large, imposing volume would have been ideal, but due to the voluminous output of the author we can safely assume this was not a viable option. Yet here the editors have done something even more creative and useful: twenty-six (painfully selected) essays are arranged into four topical sections, which aim to guide us into the unity of Islamic thought. Part I deals with 'Sufism and the Islamic Tradition'; Part II: 'Ibn al-ʿArabī and His Influence'; Part III: 'Islamic Philosophy'; and Part IV offers Chittick's thoughtful 'Reflections on Contemporary Issues'.

The four sections as a whole are designed to allow the reader to progressively explore the many diverse expressions of Islamic thought.

In addition to essays dealing with the Quranic roots of religious inclusivism and the importance of humanity's harmony with nature, the collection closes with the essay 'In Search of the Lost Heart', which is a comparison of learning as a means of finding the heart in both Confucian and Islamic traditions. Chittick uses the two traditions to show how the true meaning of education has been largely misunderstood in the modern world. He points out that to merely acquire information is not what these ancient and medieval thinkers intended when speaking on the importance of education. Instead, education was to be a process of inner transformation, which in its completion not only brings about virtue and goodness in the individual, but also brings about these same qualities within communities. Chittick gives diverse examples of how this understanding of learning was applied historically; through these comparisons, he is able to indicate how these traditions of learning might remain relevant when applied to our own, ever-changing, and challenging context.

The many studies offered here will be of exceptional benefit to students attempting to locate the unity that encompasses the many currents of Islamic discourse. Benefit will also be gained by specialists seeking to increase their knowledge pertaining to some of the most complex thinkers in the history of Sufism and Islamic Philosophy. Without hesitation, we can suggest that this edited volume of Chittick's most important articles is essential reading for all those interested in exploring the heart of Islamic thought.

Cover image Ibn 'Arabi's Mystical Poetics, Denis McCauley, 2012

Know Yourself – An explanation of the oneness of being

Ibn 'Arabi / Balyani. Translated from the Arabic by Cecilia Twinch. Beshara Publications, Sherborne, Glos., UK. 2011. Paper back, ISBN 978 0 904975 65 9

"When the knowledge comes upon you, you know that it is through God that you know God, not through yourself. Suppose, for example, that you do not know that your name is Mahmud. . . and that you think that your name is Muhammad. If you then learn that you are really Mahmud, you do not stop being who you were. The name Muhammad is simply taken away from you because of your knowledge of yourself - that you are Mahmud and you were only Muhammad by ceasing to be yourself. . . Nothing has been taken away from Mahmud: Muhammad did not pass away into Mahmud and Mahmud did not enter into Muhammad or come out of him, nor did Mahmud become incarnated in Muhammad. When Mahmud knew himself, that he was Mahmud and not Muhammad, he knew himself through himself and not through Muhammad. Because Muhammad never was, so how could anything be known through him?" (pp 38-39)

From the Introduction by Cecilia Twinch:

"This is a new translation of the first complete work attributed to Ibn 'Arabi to appear in a western language. The earlier translation has been instrumental in making Ibn 'Arabi's name known in the West over the last century, even though the author of the book is now considered by many scholars to be Balyani, a near contemporary, who may well have been influenced by his thought.

The translation has been made using several Arabic manuscripts from libraries in the UK, Turkey and Syria. The sheer quantity of manuscripts available shows how popular the book has remained for more than seven centuries, and how many times it has been copied and recopied by hand. . .

The most popular title for the book is the Treatise on Unity (Risalat al-ahadiyya), which is similar to the title of a work which is definitely by Ibn 'Arabi, The Book of Unity (Kitab al-ahadiyya) or The Book of Alif. . . Many of the manuscripts have as the title or sub-title: On the meaning of the saying of the Prophet Muhammad, peace on him, 'Whoever knows their self knows the Lord.'" (pp. 2-3)

Cover image Intimate Invocations, Samer Akkach, 2012

Intimate Invocations: Al-Ghazzī's Biography of 'Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (1641-1731)

Samer Akkach,  (Leiden and Boston: Brill, Islamic History and Civilization series, Hardback, 850 pp.)

This is the third book connected to 'Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī produced by Samer Akkach, the first being 'Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī: Islam and the Enlightenment (2007), and the other, Letters of a Sufi Scholar: The Correspondence of 'Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (like the present work, also published by Brill.

Intimate Invocations is a critical edition of the Arabic text of al-Wird al-Unsi wa-l-Warid al-Qudsi fir Tarjamat al-'Arif 'Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulusi. This was a biography of al-Nabalusi written fifty years or so after his death, the author being his great-grandson, Muhammad Kamal al-Din al-Ghazzi (who died 1799).

To summarise some of the points Samer Akkach says: Although there was a biography of al-Nabulusi written by one of his close disciples in the year he died (1730), that was clearly hagiographical in intent. Not only is al-Wird al-Unsi much longer and more detailed, but it encompassed a number of different points of view. Although he had sympathy for Sufism, al-Ghazzi was not himself a Sufi, and he was writing at a time when there was a lot of anti-sufi sentiment, about a highly challenging Sufi, who had spent his whole life fighting with the official religious establishment for what he believed in. Religious fundamentalism reached a crescendo in al-Ghazzi's time in the works and missionary activities of the Hanbali scholar Muhammad Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792). A key point of Ibn 'Abd al-Wahab's denunciations of popular practices such as the veneration of saints, construction of shrines over their graves, visiting tombs and seeking intercession, was that these showed lack of reason.

In the brief English language Introduction, Samer Akkach compares the way in al-Nabalusi himself treated the karamat al-awliya' (miracles and graces of the saints), particularly in his work Kashf al-Nur 'Ashab al-Qubur (Disclosing the Light about the people of the Graves), with the way in which his great-grandson sought to defend Sufism as "piety", and to shift the argument from issues of dogma and faith to issues of morality and ethics.

It is a fascinating story, which resists many simplifications so easily accepted.

Cover image Ibn 'Arabi and the Contemporary West, Isobel Jeffery-Street, 2012

Ibn Arabi and the Contemporary West: Beshara and the Ibn Arabi Society

Isobel Jeffery-Street, Equinox Publishing Limited, 2012. ISBN 9781845536718

Professor James Morris  said of this book,

"Ibn Arabi and the Contemporary West tells several remarkable and intertwined stories. In the context of Islamic Studies, it recounts the recent transmission of universal spiritual teachings that were once central to the spread of Islam as a world religion and civilization, but then were lost and often rejected in the aftermath of colonialism, to the UK and the wider English-speaking world; and it concludes with the unexpected ways that spiritual heritage is now being rediscovered by new generations across the Muslim world. In that new, global setting, this study also sketches the background of the multi-faceted, increasingly global adaptation of Ibn Arabi s teachings which for centuries had helped integrate and inspire the burgeoning creative expressions of the Islamic humanities and spirituality across Asia and Africa by contemporary artists and thinkers working in many of those same fields today: including philosophy, ecology, architecture, psychology, spirituality, and religious thought. And on a more human, immediate level, this is the story of the lasting inspiration and personal influences of a single quiet spiritual teacher and those he inspired, detailing the formation, teachings, and expanding development and outreach of the Beshara movement."