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Beasts of Burden

Why our official culture isn't sure it wants us to know about Ibn Arabi and Rumi

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The two tales each contain a beast of burden: a donkey, let us say. One story takes place at the western end of the Islamic world late in the 12th century; the other, a few decades later, toward the eastern edge of that world. In certain ways, they are stories of "long ago and far away," and of other people. But my purpose in telling them reflects the intuition that they have a strange pertinence after Sept. 11, 2001, and that their ultimate subject is us, the understandings we need for survival versus those that our world has given us.

The beast, the donkey, in the first story appears at a funeral in Cordoba, in Moorish Spain, in the year 1198. It is carrying, on one side, the body of the deceased, a famous jurist and philosopher, and, on the other, a load of his books. A young man observing the scene hears one of his companions remark on the arrangement: the dead master counterbalanced by his heavy, inert works. "I made note of all this as a warning and a reminder," the young man later wrote.

Obviously, this incident offers only flecks of comedy or drama. Its meaning is largely symbolic. Regarding the symbolism of the moment for the young man, our Western imaginations might well descry an Arabic analogue of Keats' "Ozymandias." But the scene's symbolism for the world is what intrigues me, and regarding that I will risk extravagance in saying that it symbolizes the entire, perilously schizoid world we presently inhabit. That's because of how it pinpoints a critical historical and cultural juncture: the separation of Western philosophy from its Islamic brother.

Averroes, the dead master on the donkey, has an honored place in the annals of Western thought, as well he might. He was the Arab world's last philosophic superstar in the West, whose commentaries on Aristotle more or less completed the vast transmission of ancient Greek thought through Islam to medieval Christendom. It is barely an exaggeration to say that his work, once relayed north of the Pyrenees, laid the essential intellectual foundation for the rationalistic, empirical mode of European thought that would eventually produce scientific revolutions and modernity itself.

Averroes (who's known to the Islamic world as Ibn Rushd) was, nevertheless, a devout Muslim and theologian. As his Aristotelian background might suggest, however, his religious thought was itself basically rational, the product of scholarship and reflection.

Not so the young man at his funeral, who came to be known as Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi. Though he too was an intellectual giant of the highest order, Ibn Arabi's mode of thought combined rationality with intense and consistent visionary experience. By his own account, he was initiated into his vocation as a teenager by no less than Jesus (his primary master), Mohammad and Moses.

It was not long afterward that he met Averroes, who was a friend of Ibn Arabi's father and was curious to question the boy who supposedly had been granted sacred visions. According to Ibn Arabi's later account, the skeptical philosopher wanted to know if what he had learned from divine illumination equaled knowledge gained through speculative reflection. When Ibn Arabi gave a gnomic answer showing that his knowledge was real and superior, "Averroes turned pale, I saw him tremble; he uttered the ritual phrase 'There is no power save in God'--for he understood my allusion."

In the year 1200, at age 35, Ibn Arabi left al-Andalus for good. He would spend the rest of his life roaming the Middle East as a renowned mystic and teacher. As a writer he was stupendously prolific. Though much of his time was spent traveling and in contemplative retreat, he reputedly authored some 700 books; the most recent critical edition of one of those runs 17,000 pages. Scholars have noted that there's practically no variation in the quality of his writing in different periods; it's all superlative.

The post-Dark Ages West has never known any thinker like Ibn Arabi. Just speculating on such a figure would be like imagining that Kant and St. Francis, or Einstein and William Blake, had been born in the same body. In the East, he was and remains controversial: Egypt chased him out with death threats in the early 1200s, and last banned his books in 1979. But much of the Islamic world knows him as the Shaykh al-Akbar--the greatest master--whose vision of the unity of the divine and the created, and of the paramount importance of compassion, remains pervasively influential.

In the second story, which takes place in early December 1244, a donkey traverses the streets of Konya, in present-day Turkey, carrying an eminent, erudite professor. Suddenly a dervish, a wild itinerant mystic, reaches out, grabs the animal's bridle and demands the professor tell him which is the greatest: Mohammad or the Sufi visionary Bayazid. When the professor answers, "Mohammad, of course," the reply comes: "Then what is the meaning of this? The Prophet said to God, 'I have not known thee as I should have,' and Bayazid said, 'Glory be to me. How high is my dignity.'" Hearing this, the professor faints. When he rises from the dust, he steps into enlightenment--and the transformation of world literature.

This is one of several stories depicting the first meeting of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, poet, and his master, Shams of Tabriz. Rumi worked for more than 30 years following the encounter, and like Ibn Arabi, he was extremely prolific. His massive poem the Mathnawi is often called "the Persian Koran," which gives an idea not just of its size but of its impact. Again, he is a figure who has no real equal in the West. In Andrew Harvey's apt encapsulation, Rumi "combines the mystic awareness of a Buddha or Christ with the intellect of a Plato and the literary genius of a Shakespeare."

In Islamic spirituality, which attaches great symbolic importance to the idea of "orientation," the term "pole" (as in pole star) is applied to exceptional individuals who serve as guides for the rest of humanity. Accordingly, Ibn Arabi is known as "the pole of knowledge" and Rumi as "the pole of love." Though very different in personality and approach, the two point in similar directions. Both stress that rationality, even at the genius level, is not enough; it must be subsumed in and totally transformed by divine illumination, which takes the consummate form of love. And both insist that direct knowledge (of God, defined as Ultimate Reality) is both the birthright and the destiny of every individual.

The latter insistence goes a long way toward explaining why an iron curtain seemed to slam down between the Christian West and Islam around the time Ibn Arabi last crossed the straits of Gibraltar. The medieval Church was not about assuring the average person's direct knowledge of God; it was about maintaining its own control over the access routes. Its outlook, built on that carefully maintained separation, entailed and enforced an endless succession of splits: between knowledge and faith, body and soul, philosophy and metaphysics, among countless others.

It also insured that the West would continue to define itself in terms of control: of matter through science; of the souls of "pagans" and native peoples through conversion; of resources, land masses, wealth, knowledge, you name it. Naturally, when this arrangement produced the inevitable backlashes, one of the first targets was the original instigator: religion. Yet here the rebels often succeeded only in confusing the dragon with the treasure it guarded.

Such a rebellion would not have occurred to Ibn Arabi or Rumi, who were interested in the perfection of religion, not its overthrow, but who also recognized the ultimate convergence of all paths. In his most famous poem (which I recently heard quoted on Larry King Live--thus has the world changed!), Ibn Arabi wrote,

O marvel! A garden amid the flames!
My heart has become capable of every form:
It is a pasture for gazelles,
And a monastery for Christian monks,
And a temple for idols,
And the pilgrim's Kaaba
And the tablets of the Torah,
And the Book of the Koran.
I follow the religion of Love:
Whatever way love's steed turns,
That is my religion, my faith.

This sentiment, which Rumi echoed almost exactly, is as radical in the 21st century as it was in the 13th. In fact, it may be more radical now in that it's harder for a contemporary audience to see that what he means by "Love" isn't the watered-down bromides of our pop culture but the blazing totality of absolute love: This is the crucible in which the many forms of faith are finally to be united.

In order to assist our culture, Rumi and Ibn Arabi's passionate, shared message of union/unity must first accuse that culture, and so it does. It tells us of the great loss we suffered when the curtain rang down between Islam and the West, and it suggests the damage still being done by our separation and ignorance. Beyond the division between their culture and ours, though, it underscores that the fateful split in the mind of the West between scientific knowledge and sacred understanding, control and compassion, has resulted in our present crisis, where our technical skill has so outrun our widsom that we face the peril of imminent species suicide.

Against this cataclysm, Ibn Arabi proposes an absolute fusion of knowledge and the sacred, just as Rumi proposes the total identification of art and personal religious vision. While those may sound like pat, idealistic formulas, the realities they indicate have the power to transform anyone who delves into the work of either thinker. Indeed, Ibn Arabi's vast oeuvre has implications that point beyond the philosophic cul de sac occupied by the likes of Jacques Derrida (whose interest in the 6th century Syrian mystic known as the Pseudo-Dionysus perhaps points in the same direction, however), and into the next phase of quantum physics. Rumi, meanwhile, can make you re-examine every idea you hold about art.

There's a funny thing, though. Our official culture, which not only is about control itself but still maintains controls imposed during the Middle Ages, isn't sure it wants you to know about either of these figures. Most surveys of philosophy still indicate that "Arabic philosophy" (a fusty misnomer) ended with Averroes, rather than beginning its amazing leap toward post-postmodernity with Ibn Arabi. And where's the university literature course that teaches Rumi as the coequal (or better) of Homer and Dante?

In a way, this is just fine. Most sanctioned "learning" today belongs to a dessicated paradigm that must soon perish or be transformed. Meanwhile, Rumi in recent years has reportedly become the best-selling poet in the United States, and interest in Ibn Arabi, who was all but unknown in the West 30 years ago, has quietly mushroomed. This is how real knowledge spread in the Middle Ages, and will again. Admirers of these figures, though, will tell you that they no longer belong to medieval Islam; they stand for the world's future.


To learn more about Ibn Arabi: An excellent introduction is Stephen Hirtenstein's lively, accessible The Unlimited Mercifier (White Cloud Press). Readers interested in the highest elevations are referred to Henry Corbin's breathtaking Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi (Princeton/Bollingen), itself a masterpiece of spiritual literature. More comprehensive presentations of Ibn Arabi's thought are to be found in William C. Chittick's The Sufi Path of Knowledge and The Self-Disclosure of God (both SUNY Press). Also see the Web site www.ibnarabisociety.org.

To learn more about Rumi: There are now countless Rumi books in stores, and personal taste will dictate one's preference of translations and interpreters. I highly recommend Andrew Harvey's The Way of Passion: A Celebration of Rumi (Putnam). Rumi's best-selling translator is a genial Georgian named Coleman Barks, the author of The Essential Rumi (Castle Books) and many others.


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