For four weeks, I commuted along the Erasmus-Herrmann Debroux line of the Brussels Underground. Two weeks later, explosions further down the line brutally ended the lives of many. Often-heard stories like these were soon followed by the well-crafted arguments of opinion makers. Struck by the quantity of their arguments, one feels speechless at times. What is there left to say?
Granted, it is important that people break their heads over the issue, that thoughts be shared, explanations refuted and refined, but amidst this hubbub of opinions and analyses, there is always the desire to shift our attention to something which cannot be captured in straightforward language. At a loss for words, people focus on the flowerbeds at la Bourse (a square in Brussels) or revisit in thought the portraits on the tiles of the Maelbeek metro station: the faces of passers-by, though drawn in lines as clear as the arguments which flood newspapers, provide something which transcends the verbal stir. One might also turn to a poem written by a Muslim mystic more than seven centuries ago.
The Greatest Master
Though known to academics and traditional scholars, the man in the street is not familiar with Muhammed Ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240), also known as the Shaykh al-Akbar. Many don’t know that Ibn ‘Arabi sought to give a philosophical expression to the mystical dimension of Islamic thought in over 500 writings and that he wrote some of the finest poetry ever written in the Arabic language. So why not spread some of this Sufi’s verses via Mvslim.com, especially in times when some of us have the impression of being ‘amidst the flames’?
O Marvel! a garden amidst the flames.
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 Qur’an.
I follow the religion of Love: whatever way Love’s camels take,
that is my religion and my faith.
(For a version of this part set to music, listen to Amina Alaoui’s great interpretation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gujD_MRCp-8).
A Sufi with his heart on his sleeve
A religion of Love? Love’s camels? Love seems to be all over the place in this poem. Indeed, in the verses leading up to the ones shown here, Ibn ‘Arabi adopted the voice of a lovesick poet parting from his beloved. This idea of love is central to Sufi thought: Sufis see themselves as being madly in love with God: feeling the distance which separates them from the Creator, they strain every nerve to get closer to Him.
These verses belong to the last part of a poem in Ibn ‘Arabi’s collection of love poems entitled Tarjumān al-ashwāq (‘The Interpreter of Desires’), which was written in Mecca during the Shaykh’s first hajj and inspired by the meeting with a girl called Niẓām. Struck by its sensual imagery, critics accused Ibn ‘Arabi of having written a collection of porn poems. The latter, however, explained that his poems were more than erotic musings; although they are undeniably all about Niẓām, the poems simultaneously seek to lay bare the mystical layers of Islam:
Every name I mention in the book alludes to her, and every abode I describe means her abode, whilst at the same time I never cease to indicate divine inspirations, spiritual revelations and elevated correspondences.
Love, of course, is felt with the heart. Whereas Islamic philosophers associated ‘ilm, knowledge, with ‘aql, the intellect, and theologians tried to untangle the intricacies of Qur’anic interpretation using the rational discourse of kalam, Sufis maintained that intellectual knowledge didn’t suffice to get closer to God. They instead assigned a central place to qalb, the heart, which to them is the seat of ma’rifa or mystical understanding. Mystical wisdom, in other words, is based on direct experience, on taste. Could taste teach us how to find a garden amidst the flames?
Flux over fixedness
Sufis like Ibn ‘Arabi were able to see the truth in forms other than those of their own religion. In fact, when saying that his ‘heart has become capable of every form’ and by professing the ‘religion of Love’, Ibn ‘Arabi accepts that each person has a unique path to the Truth, and that that Truth unites all paths in itself.
This idea is again related to the Sufi critique of rationality: Ibn ‘Arabi relates the intellect, ‘aql, the root of which means ‘rope’, to the binding or tayqīd of reality into fixed forms, which is perhaps what opinion makers do in their at times monocausal explanations of radicalisation. Of course, if one wants to know anything at all, one sometimes takes snapshots in order to come to grips with the indeterminate. Yet Ibn ‘Arabi points out that to take partial categories for total may lead to a fixation on a particular viewpoint. Ibn ‘Arabi goes so far as to reinterpret this clinging to viewpoints – think of the Daesh ideology, or of the idea of Islam being incompatible with European values – as an expression of idolatry and infidelity. When you fetishize a certain idea, the image that you have of the supposed truth becomes an illicit god. Similarly, Ibn ‘Arabi sees infidelity as the denial of the gods of other’s beliefs. By denying these manifestations of the Truth, one denies the Truth itself, as it subsumes all of the paths leading to it.
Just as Ibn ‘Arabi when he wrote the poem, the lover in this poem passes through several pilgrimage stops and circles around the Ka’ba (reinterpreted in Sufism as the lover’s heart). Not only do these pilgrimage stops lead the lover to God via ‘the book of the Qur’an’, but also along the paths of Christianity – ‘a convent for Christian monks’ – and Judaism – ‘the tables of the Torah’. As such, the poem is an antidote to bigotry: going through this process of getting rid of forms to be filled by others, preferring flux over fixedness, the lover shows that he is truly receptive of the beauty in ‘whatever way Love’s camels take’.
Tolerance or taste?
Now then, all of the above seems a mindfuck which may be revelled in by die-hard mystics, but what can this poem mean to us today, to us, contemporary Muslims and non-Muslims?
Just to make things clear: this isn’t a fluffy poem which advocates a bland blend of hugging religions. It is firmly rooted in Islamic thought; a closer reading would lay bare a structure grounded in the shari’a and the tariqa leading to haqiqa and ma’rifa. And yet, it also speaks to people whose camels take another way. Although spiritual consumerism is to be avoided, the poem can teach us a lot if we read it in our own context, provided we’re also willing to let go of our own ‘forms’ so as to be receptive of Ibn ‘Arabi’s.
Could we read the poem as a pamphlet for tolerance, needed in troubled times in which we face a fraudulent caliphate which throws homosexuals off towers on one side and populist politicians finding sympathetic ears all over Europe on the other? The unexpected answer is: certainly not. In fact, this poem goes so as far as to make the question of tolerance irrelevant; the mystical transformation of the lover’s heart does not spark off toleration of the ones we don’t understand, yet advocates a complete embracement of all walks of life, a deep understanding of other beliefs which goes beyond mere knowledge. Instead of facilitating often-heard claims like “We have to get to know the Muslim population”, this poem opts for ma’rifa, spiritual understanding, promoting a poetics of taste. This direct experience can only be felt, not thought, and clearly not be expressed in cold analytical language. If we take Ibn ‘Arabi’s religion of love seriously, we will understand that we don’t have to ‘know’ Muslims or non-Muslims but have to open up to each other and appreciate the oneness in diversity Sufi masters already discerned as early as the 13th century.
I greatly benefited from the works of Stephen Hirtenstein and the articles on the splendid website of the Ibn ‘Arabi Society written by Michael Sells, Ghasem Kakaie and William Chittick.
Website of the Ibn ‘Arabi Society: http://www.ibnarabisociety.org/index.html.