Thu. Aug 13th, 2020

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An Answer to the Gross Misrepresentation of Ibn Al-Arabi’s ideas

11 min read

The following excerpt is taken from “Is Ibn al-‘Arabī’s Ontology Pantheistic?” by Mohammed Rustom pg. 64-67:

Ibn al-‘Arabī’s Ontology and Pantheism

It is worth noting that although there is no medieval
Arabic equivalent to the English word “pantheism,” in the
medieval Islamic world Ibn al-‘Arabī was often
misunderstood to be a pantheist. As Alexander Knysh
notes, the Shaykh’s explications of God’s self-disclosure,
“shocked his opponents who (mis)took it for a veiled
acknowledgement of the substantial identity between God
and the world.” The medieval polemic against Ibn al-
‘Arabī has undoubtedly exercised a great deal of influence
on subsequent generations of scholars down to modern
times. It is partly for this reason, and partly because of the
reductionist tendencies among the majority of scholars
writing in the nineteenth and early/mid-twentieth
centuries, that Ibn al-‘Arabī’s worldview was defined vis-àvis such simplistic expressions as “monism,” “pantheism”
or “panentheism.” In the first half of the twentieth century,
the Indian scholar S. A. Q. Husaini confidently named his
book on Ibn al-‘Arabī’s metaphysics The Pantheistic Monism of Ibn al-‘Arabī. In fact, Husaini was guided
through his research by Orientalists such as Miguel Asín
Palacios, who himself used a host of misleading terms to
“classify” Ibn al-‘Arabī’s writings. Scholars have also tried
to subsume Ibn al-‘Arabī’s ideas under neat categories
because of their own intellectual shortcomings. As James
Morris remarks, these were “reactions to the difficult
challenge of unifying and integrating such diverse and
challenging materials.” With regard to those Orientalists
who dismissed Ibn al-‘Arabī’s thought, William Chittick
notes, “The easiest solution was to call Ibn al-‘Arabī a
pantheist or to claim that he stood outside of orthodox
Islam and to move on to greener pastures. . . After all,”
Chittick sarcastically asks, “what would be gained by
admitting that the Orient had produced forms of
knowledge that cannot be filed into neat cubbyholes?”47
Clearly, we must approach a topic with the intention to
understand its subject matter on its own terms, not on our
terms. Thus, if we were to interpret the thought of
Nietzsche (d. 1900), who was an anti-systematic thinker,
and label it within the framework of our own points of
reference and terminology, we would be grossly
misrepresenting him. Needless to say, the same rule
applies to Ibn al-‘Arabī’s worldview. As Seyyed Hossein
Nasr argues in his Three Muslim Sages, pantheism is a
system whereas Ibn al-‘Arabī’s worldview is not. If the
Shaykh did not claim to formulate his ideas into a
metaphysical system of any sort, then from whence comes
the impetus to put them into one? Any word used to
describe Ibn al-‘Arabī’s ontology without recourse to the
Shaykh’s own terminology will definitely paint the wrong picture. Simplistic expressions cannot account for the Shaykh’s dynamic and elaborate metaphysical formulations, mainly because his teachings themselves
defy classification. Any attempt to classify Ibn al-‘Arabī’s
worldview with an expression or even a combination of
expressions will inevitably miss a great deal of what he was
trying to say. Pantheism emphasizes one aspect of the divinity,
namely, immanence. But it would be a plain misreading of
Ibn al-‘Arabī’s ontology to say that he only focuses on
God’s immanence. While Ibn al-‘Arabī emphasizes God’s
immanence, he definitely never ceases to stress His
transcendence. In fact, much of his writing is devoted to
demonstrating God’s transcendence. Ibn al-‘Arabī’s
conception of the cosmos as He/not He could only be
possible if God were transcendent. If He were only
immanent, then Ibn al-‘Arabī would have no need to call
the cosmos Not He. But, even in the realm of the cosmos
being He, it is not He with reference to His Essence. As
Titus Burckhardt points out, pantheism denotes that God
and the cosmos are united by their substance. In other
words, if God and the cosmos are identical, this would
mean that the same “substance” that comprises God also
comprises the universe. Yet God’s utter transcendence means that there is nothing at all by which He can be identified, including substance. This is why for Ibn al- ‘Arabī, the Qur’ānic assertion that “there is nothing like unto Him,” is taken in its most literal sense. God’s absolute
transcendence does not allow for His Essence to resemble
any “thing” in any fashion, let alone be identical with the
cosmos. If the cosmos is simply a manifestation of God’s
self-disclosures, then it would not in any way imply that
God is somehow diffuse throughout the universe. This is
because His self-disclosures occur through His divine
names, or through His manifest Being, not His Absolute,
non-manifest Being. This is why there does remain a
distinction between God in His non-manifest state and the
things in existence. As the Shaykh al-Akbar himself says,
“Hence He is identical to all things in manifestation, but
He is not identical to them in their essences. On the
contrary, He is He and the things are the things.”As we
have outlined earlier in this paper, the loci of
manifestation, which are nothing but the existentiated
objects of God’s eternal knowledge, receive His selfdisclosures through the dispersal of His divine names. From this perspective, even when the cosmos is He, it is never He in the same way as He is He to Himself. Each
thing in the universe manifests one of His names, and each
name points us to the divine Essence. However, in His
Essence, God remains alone and hidden forever.