November 4, 2014 By Abdul Vajid

Sufism and Deconstruction


What links a 13th century Sufi Sheikh to the 20th century Post-modern theorist? Ian Almond, professor of World Literature at Georgetown University explores this question in his 2004 book ‘Sufism and Deconstruction: A Comparative Study of Derrida and IbnArabi’. Almond says that his aim is neither to claim that Ibn ‘Arabi was a post-structuralist or existentialist nor to transform Derrida’s works into a form of Islamic mysticism (in the way many religious traditions did). But he wants to argue that deconstructive process similar to Derrida’s can be found in Ibn ‘Arabi’s numerous works.

Almond raises a fascinating question: “How analogous can the vocabulary of a Sufi saint be to the work of contemporary French theorist?”. This ambitious work aims to show that “the work of Ibn ‘Arabi, far from being obscure Sufi esotericism encrypted in mystical Eastern terminology, actually asks the same questions and moves in some similar directions as a number of familiar figures in the West.”

Ibn ‘Arabi was born in 1165 in Murcia, Spain and died in 1240 in Damascus. Though it is unlikely that a majority of Muslims might never have read any of his works, he is recognized as one of the most important spiritual teachers within the tradition of Islamic mysticism. Non-duality of God and universe is one of the most important statements in his works that are all firmly Quranic interpretations. However, his interpretations are ‘subversive’ and not to the liking of the orthodox aesthetics. To Ibn ‘Arabi the divine is the essence of everything, not the cause:

“By knowing itself, the Divine essence knows all things within itself. Nevertheless it distinguishes them from itself as objects of its knowledge. This, however, does not imply that there is some duality between the known object and the knowing subject. Since, the Divine essence is the knower, the known and the knowing, there exists complete unity of the subject, the object, the function that establishes a relationship between them.”

So what’s the purpose of comparing Ibn ‘Arabi to Derrida? Derrida never wrote anything notable about Islam apart from some remarks in The Gift of Death. However, he was keenly interested in a negative theology, especially the works of Meister Eckhart (1260-1327), to whose work Ibn Arabi has been compared to by many of his translators. As Almond explains, Ibn ‘Arabi, like Eckhart, elaborated on the themes that fascinated and influenced Derrida: “mistrust of metaphysics and rationality, insistence on openness, each notions of ultimate ‘real’/’God’ as material construct, a hidden divinity in the soul, a radically generous hermeneutics”. Derrida’s interest was primarily in the semantics (“ungovernable text”) and Ibn Arabi’s, the spiritual (“unthinkability of God”), but these realms may not be as far away as they seem. Almond finds many parallels between the two thinkers.

Both Derrida and Ibn Arabi kept a radical suspicion towards rational and metaphysical thought while dealing with concept of God/Real. Post structural thought has shown the social position of ‘rationality’ as a construct of power-relation- and self-asserted ‘certainty’. Sheikh on the other hand points to how rational thought limits God into the limitation of individual conception of reality and shackles of Language.

Ungraspablity of the real is another idea both minds grappled with. Almond shows how both these thinkers indicated the subjectivity of ‘real’. Derrida uses the example of a mirror. When we look at a mirror we see ourselves. He uses this metaphor to show how reality is just another construction of our interaction with aspects of the ‘ungraspable’ real. Interestingly, Ibn Arabi uses the same example in his Fusus. For Ibn ‘Arabi real is more than what we experience from it, and as said above any act of limiting this ‘more than’ is ‘shirk’.

“Try, when you look at yourself in a mirror, to see the mirror itself, and you will find that you cannot do so…. the recipient sees nothing other than his own form in the mirror of the Reality. He does not see the Reality itself, which is not possible, although he knows that he may see only his [true form] in it. As in the case of a mirror and the beholder, he sees the form in it, but does not see the mirror itself…”

Almond explains:

“Ibn ‘Arabi is hardly the first to make use of them –but it is an analogy which underlines Ibn ‘Arabi’s conviction of the unthinkable otherness of the Real. A Real which produces forms, but somehow can never be glimpsed. In this sense, the underside of the mirror becomes the ‘locus of disclosure’ for a profusion of forms –just as Derrida’s différance belongs to that ‘strange space… between speech and writing’, the unthinkable moment…, when texts become interpretations, when words become things.”

A radical infinity in text and disbelief in autonomous self arise from both the Sufi and deconstructive thinking. Both Ibn ‘Arabi, while dealing with the Qur’anic hermeneutics, and Derrida, while speaking about the meaning of texts, argued for the possibility of the infinity of meanings. Both thinkers formed an opposition towards the supremacy of one meaning over another as all meanings are equally legit and equally coming from the interaction with ungraspable real. For Ibn Arabi this supremacy is ‘Shirk’, for Derrida it’s ‘tyranny’.

There are some differences in their thinking, especially on the question of binary opposition of “transcendence” and “immanence”. It is “semantic vacuities” for Derrida, as it can only be understood as the absence of other.
Ibn Arabi’s take on this is very mystical. “Ibn ‘Arabi still believes in the positive, independent signification of such words and he still believes these meanings to be opposed to one another” (Almond 25). According to Ibn ‘Arabi the inherent paradox of ‘real’/’God’ that language inflicts comes up as binary opposition. “Ibn ‘Arabi believes in a God paradoxical enough, all comprehensive enough, impossible enough to be both immanent and transcendent at the same time. If Derrida rejects binary oppositions because it veils an absence, Ibn ‘Arabi resents the dualism because it veils a presence — the presence of a paradoxical, the ultimate, unthinkable Oneness of God” (Almond 25).
The confusion and bewilderment that arises from this paradox is a desirable experience for Ibn ‘Arabi, while rational thought of his time was obsessed with clarity. A very similar stance can be found in Derridean thought. For his critics, he had not come to bring peace to philosophy but to confuse. For both this concept of desirable confusion arises when we attempt to take stock of the heterogeneity of experience and meanings of ‘real’. Embracing confusion as a desirable stance is genuine mean of “breaking through” to the Other/Real beyond our metaphysical and linguistic constructions.

In such a radical and original way, these thinkers challenge what we take for granted. Almond says: “they wake us up to the overconfidence with which, all too often, we dupe ourselves whenever we talk about ‘truths’ we have never really questioned.” Their thoughts are useful to destabilize the overconfidence of meaning and its discontents in both Muslim tradition and western philosophy.

Derrida is still a groundbreaker that perplexed western metaphysics and rational thought. On the other hand, Ibn ‘Arabi, like Rumi, has become a ready source for quotes and images to be used in social media. There is radical unused possibility within Ibn ‘Arabi and many other Sufi thinkers of creative/decolonial political engagements. Ibn Arabi’s visions will help us to imagine much more creative aesthetics of Islam.

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