The Other as Mirror: Scriptural Reasoning and the Hermeneutics of Ibn Al-Arabi

Ahmed Afzaal,
Drew University

This commentary is a tentative attempt to figure out how Scriptural Reasoning might work within a Qur’anic universe, in light of some of the remarks made by this year’s learned contributors. In making this attempt, I will be constantly referring to the hermeneutics of Shaykh Muhyiddin Ibn Al-Arabi (1165-1240 CE), who was an unusual figure in the Islamic tradition in view of his extraordinary spiritual genius and his wide-ranging influence throughout the Muslim world. [1] What follows is neither a very accurate nor exhaustive rendering of Ibn Al-Arabi’s hermeneutics, but my own interpretation of how some of his views might help us in applying the insights of Scriptural Reasoning to the study of the Qur’an; the rest of this commentary is devoted to applying Qur’anic reasoning to the issue of “ruptures” as introduced by Ellen Davis.

Thinking of Scripture: Reflection and Listening

Alon Goshen-Gottstein has identified two distinct but interrelated stages in approaching Scripture, which he calls “thinking of” and “thinking with” Scripture. The first stage “involves the mind, discernment and critical thinking in an attempt to understand Scripture for what it is.” This stage is “primarily an intellectual effort,” but it also includes “an effort of listening, involving the heart….” The second stage involves the development of an understanding that shapes the lives of the readers, engaging their wills, minds, and hearts, structuring their thought through which they know reality, guiding and directing them through their lives.

In an attempt to transpose these insights into the Islamic framework, I found it useful to divide the first stage into two modes — Reflection Mode and Listening Mode — a distinction that seems to be implicit in Prof. Goshen-Gottstein’s description. In doing so, I am not implying any particular sequence or relative privilege; on the contrary, I believe one has to move constantly, to and fro, between these two modes while carrying out the complex task of “thinking of” Scripture. I hope that this division could help in partially dealing with the problem created by the excess baggage of history, tradition, and modern methodologies that scholars must carry and that tend to “obscure the spiritual sense of Scripture.” I am suggesting that it may be possible to try and restrict the negative effects of this excess baggage only to the Reflection Mode, and to primarily use the Listening Mode for gaining the Scripture’s “spiritual sense.” While making this suggestion, I am wondering whether it is even possible to separate the two modes in practice!

In the Reflection Mode, we scrutinize the text, examining it as an object of our gaze. We explore the linguistic, etymological, and grammatical issues; we locate the text in history and in the sociocultural context of its revelation; we draw upon the resources, opinions, and interpretations of the past. We try not to make the legacy of the tradition a part of the Scripture itself, recognizing that while this legacy often enriches the meaning of the text, it is not identical with the text, does not share its sanctity, and can easily eclipse its inherent possibilities. In this mode, we use all analytical and interpretive tools that we may find at our disposal. [2]

In the Listening Mode, we expose ourselves to Divine words in a state of humble receptivity. We open up our hearts to welcome the majesty and sweetness of Scripture, and instead of questions, doubts, suspicions, or concerns, we allow only affirmation and acceptance to emerge from our hearts as the only appropriate response to Divine speech. We listen faithfully, prayerfully, and with full attention, allowing the letters and sounds of the Scripture to surround and overwhelm us, to permeate our own beings or to make us part of its universe. In this mode, we let the Scripture do the work of awakening within us a dormant consciousness and a forgotten awareness of God’s presence. [3]

Admittedly, these two modes exist in tension with each other; yet the tension, while difficult to negotiate, contains within itself the possibility of giving birth to a self-conscious and post-critical faith that may otherwise be unachievable. If this tension could be creatively used then it might be possible — I hope — that “our vocation as scholars” would “ultimately facilitate[s]” rather than “hinder[s] our spiritual lives.”

These two modes of “thinking of” Scripture roughly correspond to the two ways of approaching the Divine in the Islamic tradition. These have been discussed by Ibn Al-Arabi in considerable detail, who shows that both of these ways find their justification in the Qur’an itself. The first is the perspective of tanzih , which focuses on the incomparability and utter transcendence of God and is associated with such Divine names as Majestic, Subjugating, Wrathful, Exalted, Independent, Holy, Glorified, and King; the second is the perspective of tashbih , which focuses on God’s similarity to and immanence in creation, and is associated with such Divine names as Beautiful, Compassionate, Near, Loving, Forgiving, and Merciful. Both ways of knowing are necessary because each is only relatively valid, and exclusive dependence on any one of them causes human beings to fall into error, confusion, and ignorance. For Ibn Al-Arabi, these perspectives do not allow the human beings to have any knowledge of God’s ultimate Essence, which is forever inaccessible to all creatures, but only of the way in which God chooses to disclose and reveal Himself through His attributes and names.

Ibn Al-Arabi associates the perspective of tanzih with rational, critical, and discursive faculties, and the perspective of tashbih with imagination and unveiling. Reason tends to ignore the concrete embodiments of reality and continuously indulges in abstractions; with every gain in philosophical sophistication, God is increasingly pushed away from and out of creation. While the perspective of tanzih is necessary and valid — God is the “beyond-and-beyond” and the “wholly other” — it only tells half of the story. Ibn Al-Arabi points out that one needs imagination and unveiling in order to experience that God is immanent in and similar to creation, and that God encounters us in concrete experiences, embodied existence, and material realities.

While the perspective of tanzih fiercely maintains the distinction between Creator and creation, between signs and the Signified, between symbols and the Symbolized, the perspective of tashbih obliterates these distinctions and helps us recognize the presence of the Creator in the creation, the presence of the Signified in the signs, and the presence of the Symbolized in the symbols. Where the perspective of tanzih finds multiplicity, the perspective of tashbih encounters unity. The Qur’an, for its part, clearly employs both perspectives, often in close proximity to each other, e.g., “…there is nothing whatever like unto Him [ tanzih ] and He is the One who hears and sees [ tashbih ]” (42:11).

In the process of “thinking of” Scripture, using the Reflection Mode can be seen as involving the perspective of tanzih while using the Listening Mode as involving the perspective of tashbih . When we approach the Scripture in the Reflection Mode, we rely on our rational and critical faculties and hope to achieve abstraction, analysis, explanation, and differentiation. When we approach the Scripture in the Listening Mode, we rely on our spiritual and emotional faculties and hope to achieve relationality, synthesis, understanding, and unity.

The very fact that the perspectives of tanzih and tashbih lead to results that are mutually exclusive and contradictory indicates that there must be a third, higher level of knowledge that transcends both of them. Ibn Al-Arabi would not want us to get trapped in either the Reflection or the Listening Mode. He would want us to employ both of these modes in a manner appropriate to them, but then to strive for tahqiq (verification) by attempting to transcend all perspectives without rejecting any of them. Ibn Al-Arabi believes that reaching the level of tahqiq — a stage of human perfection where one is no longer constrained by the limitations of different perspectives — is entirely dependent on God’s grace.

How can all this help us in approaching the Song of Songs? I agree with Prof. Ellen Davis that the rabbis who included it in the Biblical canon knew what they were doing; they clearly saw the religious meaning of this poem that many of us moderns are not able to perceive. It is possible that at least some modern difficulties in interpreting the Song of Songs as a religious text have stemmed from an epistemological imbalance. In more ways than one, modernity is characterized by an emphasis on the perspective of tanzih and relative disregard for the perspective of tashbih . That is to say, too much reliance on rational abstractions and less on concrete experience may be at the root of why a poetic expression of erotic love seems to us to have nothing to do with our experience of God.

The problem seems to be grounded in what can perhaps be called the most characteristic feature of Enlightenment rationalism. In general, that rationalism elevated the capacities of human reason over everything that it viewed as non-reason. In the process, aspects of human experience that were seen as other than rational came to be treated with a certain amount of disdain. This epistemological arrogance of rationalism attempted to deprive the human beings of the validity of the full range of their capacities for knowing and experiencing reality, including those that are embedded within the human body and in human emotions. [4]

In this context, the prominence given in the Qur’anic discourse to the material and sensual world deserves our attention. The Qur’an describes the universe as having been created “in truth” (e.g., 15:85; 44:39) just as it describes God’s revelation as having been sent down “in truth” (e.g., 4:105; 17:105). Based on his understanding of the Qur’an, Ibn Al-Arabi views the constituents of the material cosmos as so many Divine words whose ultimate meaning is none other than God. The Qur’anic emphasis on bodily resurrection alludes to the fact that the body is an integral part of the human self. [5] This attention to the material and sensual world is a feature of the Qur’anic discourse that causes consternation among those who would rather have an abstract and disembodied religiosity — as if God reveals Himself only in the spirit and not in the body. For Ibn Al-Arabi, human beings encounter God not just in abstract theology, but also — and much more frequently — in the concrete, embodied, and material aspects of creation.

This implies that concrete human experience is one of the most accessible arenas where God can be found, and this includes the realm of sexuality and erotic love. But in order to find God in the arena of concrete human experience, the perspective of tashbih is needed rather than that of tanzih . It is only through the perspective of tashbih that we can experience the similarity and comparability between our yearnings for a human beloved and our longings for God; between the pain of our separation from a human beloved and the torment of our alienation from God; between the pleasure of our closeness to a human beloved and the joy of our intimacy with God. Indeed, anyone who has ever been in love can hardly deny the reality of Hell and Paradise! As Omid Safi demonstrates, in the Islamic tradition these experiences have been most eloquently expressed in poetry and by the Sufis, i.e., in a medium that is supremely congenial to the perspective of tashbih and by individuals who have made the best use of this perspective. [6]

The sacred nature and religious significance of erotic love and sexual union have been recognized often enough in the history of religions, though certainly not in all forms of religiosity. Ibn Al-Arabi, for instance, believes that the greatest occasion for experiencing God’s self-disclosure in this world is to be found in the act of sexual union, which gives a foretaste of the joy of human intimacy with the Divine in the Paradise.

Thinking with Scripture: The Word becomes Flesh

The second stage of Scriptural Reasoning is “thinking with” Scripture. Once we have taken the preliminary steps to comprehend the Scripture in both the Reflection and the Listening Modes, we are — if God so wills — on our way to learn how to “think with” Scripture, i.e., how to allow the wisdom of the Scripture to shape our wills, minds, and hearts so that our intentions, thoughts, and feelings work in harmony with that wisdom. Both “thinking of” and “thinking with” Scripture are processes that must undergo constant self-correction, most importantly in light of what the Scripture itself has to say about these processes. In addition, “thinking with” Scripture has a reflexive influence on “thinking of” Scripture; the Islamic tradition has often recognized that knowledge of God is a function of obeying God.

The process of “thinking with” Scripture appears to be one of internalizing and assimilating the Scripture, or, alternatively, getting immersed in the world of the Scripture. In the Islamic tradition, the ultimate model of complete internalization of, or immersion in, the Qur’an is provided by Prophet Muhammad himself, whose behavior and character was described as being identical with the Qur’an itself. This remains the ideal for all Muslims — the goal of embodying the word of God in the world of flesh.

Among other things, learning to “think with” Scripture means learning to align our own reasoning style in harmony with that of the Qur’an. The least that can be said about the Qur’anic style of reasoning is that reading it exclusively from the perspective of tanzih or only from the perspective of tashbih is not going to take the reader very far in the direction of knowledge. The Qur’anic style of reasoning may be seen as a dialectic between the perspective of tanzih and that of tashbih . For every thesis, it seems that an antithesis exists somewhere in the Qur’an; yet this does not indicate the presence of a contradiction, a defect from which the Qur’an claims to be absolutely free (4:82). For instance, the Qur’an emphasizes retributive justice while simultaneously stressing forgiveness in the same context (42:39-43); following the logic of the Qur’an, this cannot be a contradiction. It is, in fact, a nuanced interplay between the contradictory demands of tanzih and tashbih respectively. Through this dialectical style of reasoning, the Qur’an seems to be giving an implicit invitation and a tacit challenge to rise above the perspectives of both tanzih and tashbih . This extraordinary feat — which is what “thinking with” Scripture is perhaps all about in the Qur’anic context — is impossible to achieve without first understanding and accepting both of these perspectives as correct and valid in their own right.

Primordial Ruptures: Beyond Identity and Distinction

This leads us to one of the most important insights found in this year’s contributions, which is Davis’ recognition that the Song of Song indicates the possibility of healing in three primary spheres of relationship: the ruptures between God and humanity, between man and woman, between humanity and nonhuman nature. I will attempt to apply the Qur’anic style of reasoning suggested above to the question of these ruptures as a test case.

While the Qur’an recognizes the presence of these and other ruptures, it does not always treat them in negative terms. In explaining a number of situations characterized by self-other duality, the Qur’an seems to indicate that in each case separation or rupturing has followed a primordial state of unity, implying that these ruptures are creative in their effect. According to the Qur’an, the creation of man and woman came about out of a single and apparently non-gendered entity (4:1); the diversity of religious communities took place due to the fragmentation of an originally unified community (10:19); the multiplicity of races and ethnicities owes itself to differentiation in the progeny of a single human family (49:13); the separation of human beings from non-human nature took place when God breathed His spirit into a being that was created out of earthly matter (15:28-29). For Ibn Al-Arabi, more fundamental than all of these ruptures is the primordial polarization of Reality into God and the cosmos.

From the perspective of tanzih , the differentiation between the two members in each self-other duality is complete and irreconcilable. From the perspective of tashbih , the two members in each duality represent two aspects of the same reality, and are in fact inseparable — one might even say indistinguishable — from each other. In other words, in every instance of what is experienced as a self-other duality, each member contains a part of the other within itself, as if the two were ontologically interlocked and interdependent. Consequently, when one looks at the other, one finds not only the other but also one’s own self; similarly, when one looks at one’s own self, one finds not only oneself but also the other. This implies that one needs one’s other in order to know one’s own self and to satisfy the desire of being known by the other, both of which are prerequisites — at least in the case of human beings — for fully becoming oneself.

I refer to the non-Qur’anic Divine saying that Safi has also quoted, according to which God said: “I was a Hidden Treasure so I loved to be known; therefore I created the creation so I may be known.” This Divine saying locates the cause of the coming into existence of the cosmos in God’s loving to be known by His “others.” For Ibn Al-Arabi and his followers in the Islamic tradition, there is only one Reality, one true Being, which is identical with Divine Essence. To say that “there is no god but God” is to say that “there is no real but the Real.” From the perspective of tanzih , God created the cosmos so that He could be known by His creatures; from the perspective of tashbih , however, these created “others” have no existence of their own because there is only one true Being. The status of these created beings is ambiguous at best, as they hang somewhere between Absolute Being and sheer nothingness. Because of this ambiguity — which makes everything God/not God at the same time — the “others” act act as mirrors of/for God, making God “known” by reflecting His attributes to each other and also back to God Himself.

The God-cosmos “rupture” is therefore supremely creative; it needs to be experienced, appreciated, and celebrated. For Ibn Al-Arabi, every event and entity in the created universe represents the self-disclosure of God through which God makes Himself “known.” This phenomenon of self-disclosure is precisely what the Qur’an refers to in terms of ayaat (signs) of God found in the created universe as well as within the human self. From the perspective of tanzih , creation consists of signs that signify none other than the Creator; from the perspective of tashbih , the Creator is found within these signs which have no existence apart from what they signify. These two views apparently contradict each other but do not cancel each other out; the presence of a third perspective, that of tahqiq , indicates that the ontological relationship between God and the cosmos actually goes beyond both distinction and identity.

In this context, the God-human rupture cannot be an existential separation but primarily a consequence of “forgetfulness” on the part of the human being. God is too close to the human being for this rupture to be an existential separation; it is precisely due to this intimacy that forgetting God directly leads to forgetting one’s own self. The Qur’an has warned: “…and be not like those who became oblivious of God, and therefore God caused them to be oblivious of their own selves…” (59:19). The reverse is also true; it has been well-recognized in the Islamic tradition that knowledge of God is dependent on knowledge of self; in fact, the two are actually one. The Islamic tradition attributes to Prophet Muhammad the saying “he who knows himself knows his Lord,” but the same idea is also found in different forms within the Christian tradition. [7] The close relationship between the knowledge of self and the knowledge of God is explained by the fact that human beings have been created in the “image of God,” which implies that while every creature or phenomenon in the created cosmos reflects a limited configuration of a few attributes of God, the human being has the unique potential of reflecting all of God’s attributes in their fullness, and thereby becoming the best possible mirrors of God through which He might become “known.” The Qur’anic command “Dye yourselves in the color of God…” (2:138) and the prophetic saying “Produce in yourselves the attributes of God” point to the same duty of striving towards the fullness of human perfection. According to Ibn Al-Arabi, each human being has the potential to achieve this perfection by becoming Al-Insan Al-Kamil ; the actualization of this potential, however, is dependent entirely on God’s grace.

Consequently, a rupture in the God-human relationship implies human beings’ forgetting of their own potential, which is the same calamity as forgetting God. To the extent that human beings know their own selves — i.e., the highest potential with which they have been endowed — they come to know God in whose image they have been created; and the extent to which they come to know God, they are able to realize their potential by approximating the ideal of human perfection. [8] The degree of existential reality that human beings can achieve is a function of the degree of their knowledge of God and self. The gradual realization of their potential makes human beings increasingly unique in the hierarchy of being, so that — in an apparent paradox — their identity with and distinction from God will go on increasing indefinitely. [9]

A similar scenario might apply to the rupture between man and woman. Human beings standing on the opposite sides of the gender line view each other as different from themselves. In seeing each other as different, they are absolutely correct from the perspective of tanzih ; however, the perspective of tashbih establishes the identity and essential similarity between them. All unjust situations of domination and abuse in gender relations result from an overemphasis on the perspective of tanzih and a disregard for that of tashbih . Neither man nor woman is able to achieve human perfection without actualizing the full range of human potentialities, i.e., qualities and attributes that are designated as “masculine” as well as those that are believed to be “feminine,” in appropriate proportion. While it takes the perspective of tanzih to realize and foster one’s potentialities that are believed to correspond to one’s own gender, it requires the perspective of tashbih to do the same for those that are thought to correspond to the opposite gender. Yet, the presence of a third perspective, that of tahqiq , indicates that the ontological relationship between man and woman actually goes beyond both distinction and identity.

Human beings see nature as totally different from themselves, which enables them to objectify it as an inert mass of matter to be used for their own benefits. This is the perspective of tanzih , which is correct and useful to the extent that it has given rise to the numerous desirable aspects of science and technology. Too much emphasis on the perspective of tanzih , however, is responsible for the unbridled abuse of nature and a global ecological crisis that threatens the every existence of life on earth. It is only through the perspective of tashbih that human beings can come to acknowledge, in a meaningful and effective manner, that they themselves are part of nature and are inseparable from it. Whatever they do to nature, they do to themselves. Once again, the presence of a third perspective, that of tahqiq , indicates that the ontological relationship between human beings and nonhuman nature goes beyond both distinction and identity.

Consequently, human beings cannot become truly human without appreciating the opposite gender and the nonhuman nature, just as they cannot become truly human without knowing God — in terms of both distinction and identity.

[1] Ibn Al-Arabi has also been a controversial figure in Islam, revered and criticized with almost equal zeal. Much of this controversy can be traced to the inherent complexity of his writings; unable to decipher him directly, opponents have often formed superficial and incorrect views based on misleading and sometimes hostile secondary sources. While this tendency crept into early Orientalist approaches, more recent Western scholarship on Ibn Al-Arabi is yielding increasingly refined interpretations of his oeuvre, as seen in the works by Henry Corbin, Toshihiko Izutsu, Michel Chodkeiwicz, William Chittick, Sachiko Murata, James Morris, Claude Addas, and others. In writing this essay, I have relied mainly on Chittick’s translations and commentaries of Ibn Al-Arabi’s works.

[2] I believe that the Reflection Mode, in at least some of its manifestations, comes rather close to the Qur’anic sense of tadabbur , tafakkur , and ta’aqqul , all of which imply the use of intellectual capacities to gain an understanding of the Scripture (e.g., 2:242; 4:82, 10:24; 12:2, 16:44; 47:24).

[3] The Listening Modes appears to be close to the Qur’anic sense of tadhakkur , which implies a process of remembering a forgotten truth, particularly through the Scripture (e.g., 2:221; 28:43; 39:28; 54:17).

[4] Cf., Spretnak, Charlene. 1997. The Resurgence of the Real: Body, Nature, and Place in a Hypermodern World . New York: Routledge.

[5] Cf., Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. 1996. Religion and the Order of Nature . New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 235-292.

[6] Contemporary Islamic revivalists and Muslim modernists share a tendency with early Orientalists that views Sufism as a foreign introduction in Islam. It may be noted here that Sufism, as well as the perspective of tashbih that it emphasizes, are both Qur’anic in their origin and legitimacy. Sufism does not contain more foreign influences than what is the case with classical tafsir; the mere presence of non-Islamic influences does not make either of them a foreign introduction in Islam.

[7] Similar sayings are found in Clement of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose, Evagrius, Augustine, etc.

[8] Ibn Al-Arabi’s notion of the perfect human being seems to be identical with the Qur’anic notion of khalifah (God’s vicegerent on earth); both should be seen as possibilities or potentialities, not as a right that one possesses simply on account of being born a Homo sapience .

[9] I am not sure if Ibn Al-Arabi would agree with this interpretation of human destiny. In twentieth century Islam, the most eloquent proponent of self-affirming mysticism has been Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938) who had an ambivalent relationship with Ibn Al-Arabi. See his Secrets of the Self , English translation by R. A. Nicholson. London: MacMillan and Company Ltd., 1920.

© 2003, Society for Scriptural Reasoning