Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Ibn ‘Arabi, Schuon, and Universalism

Ever since Ivan Aguéli drew the attention of René Guénon to the work of the great Sufi mystic Muhyiddin ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240), Traditionalists have seen Ibn ‘Arabi as a perennialist universalist, if not as a Traditionalist in other ways. This understanding of Ibn ‘Arabi has become very widespread in the West, given the major role played by Traditionalists in the translation and interpretation of Ibn ‘Arabi. it is now comprehensively contested in a new book by Gregory A. Lipton, Rethinking Ibn ‘Arabi (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

Lipton knows well both the work of Ibn ‘Arabi and the work of modern Schuonian scholars, which enables him to see how this work forms one whole, and also to see what lies behind it. This is not just René Guénon and Perennialism, however, but also wider intellectual currents in the West. Lipton introduces Schleiermacher and Kant into his discussion, and parallels between them and Schuon’s thought are drawn. Lipton also introduces, more controversially, Ernest Renan (1823-92) and Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855-1927), two key thinkers of race in the Aryan-Semitic frame. Finally, he interrogates the very idea of religious universalism. This is a lot to do in one relatively short book (with copious endnotes).

The book consists of an introduction, four chapters, and a conclusion. The introduction presents the issues that the book addresses and the main arguments that it will develop. The first chapter discusses what are probably now the most often quoted lines of Ibn ‘Arabi, at least in Western languages:

My heart has become capable of every form: it is a pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christian monks,

And a temple for idols and the pilgrim's Ka’ba, and the tables of the Torah and the book of the Koran.

I follow the religion of Love: whatever way Love's camels take, that is my religion and my faith.

The translation is by the great Cambridge Orientalist Reynold A. Nicholson (1868-1945), and the passage has been widely used to demonstrate Ibn ‘Arabi’s religious universalism. This is the very widespread understanding that much of Lipton’s book contests—an understand that did not start with the Traditionalists but, as Lipton shows, with Nicholson and the great Austro-Hungarian Orientalist Ignaz Goldziher (1850-1921).

Lipton makes his argument in two main parts. In chapter one, he shows that—despite the views of Goldziher, Nicholson, Henry Corbin, Toshihiko Izutsu, Michael Sells and Reza Shah-Kazemi—Ibn ‘Arabi may have welcomed variety in interpretation, especially for someone occupying a high spiritual station, but he never welcomed diversity in religion, understood in terms of allegiance, path and law (sharia). In chapter two, Lipton shows that—despite the attempts of William Chittick and others to argue against this—Ibn ‘Arabi clearly subscribed to the standard Islamic view that the revelation of Islam abrogated all previous revelations.

Having revisited Ibn ‘Arabi to contest the very prevalent reading of him as a religious universalist on the perennialist model, Lipton then, in effect, asks why and how such a view ever became established in the first place. This leads him to discuss leading Traditionalists and Traditionalist scholars (Guénon, Schuon, Nasr, Chittick and Shah-Kazemi) in his third chapter, and then to focus on Schuon’s “Aryanist discursive practices” in his fourth chapter. This is where he brings in Schleiermacher, Renan, and Chamberlain; Kant is brought in mostly in the conclusion, which develops a number of new points. The fourth chapter is based on Lipton’s 2017 article on Schuon’s Aryanism, previously mentioned on this blog here.

Lipton’s Rethinking Ibn ‘Arabi is essential reading for anyone interested in Ibn ‘Arabi or in religious universalism in Islam, and also of definite interest for those interested in Traditionalism, as it shows how Traditionalist views have molded the general understanding of Ibn ‘Arabi, and also places Traditionalism in three interesting contexts in which it has never been placed before—Nicholson and Goldziher, Kant and Schleiermacher, and Renan and Chamberlain. The book also makes an important point about universalism—that although at first sight universalism looks all-inclusive, it can often in fact be exclusivist, claiming a universal validity for one particular interpretation. Lipton argues that this is what happened in the case of Schuon, whose views, he argues, were ultimately “hegemonically supersessionist, subtly authorizing its own perfection, while classifying the religions of Others as necessarily incomplete” (p. 150).

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