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The Mystic Lie by Dina Said

Updated: Nov 11, 2021

Image Credit: Paul Hoi

Ibn 'Arabi and Poststructuralism

The range of Ibn ‘Arabi’s writings reveals the limits of verbal representation as a means to rational knowledge. Although born from the context of Sufism, his thought speaks critically to poststructuralist theory. Research into the extant primary material which attempts to clear the fog of Ibn ‘Arabi’s teachings is still often masked in abstruse esotericism, both in reference to the Eastern and Western traditions of avant-garde philosophy and pious religiosity.

It is, therefore, more practical, considering prevailing scientific definitions of knowledge, to either set out to imitate the names and forms which Ibn ‘Arabi uses (and does not use), or to simply accent the mysteries of the mysteries which underly the tone of Ibn ‘Arabi’s letters.

In his 1980 translation of Ibn ‘Arabi’s “Bezels of Wisdom”, classical Arabic scholar R.W.J. Austin, echoed: “If my works evince any form of composition, it was unintentional. Some works I wrote…in sleep or through mystical revelation” (Austin, 13). His writing is not subject to strict interpretability, even if some of the terminology he employs might be. The creative writings of Ibn ‘Arabi defend liberal readings of Islamic texts.

To interpret is merely to expose the ungraspable nature of meaning, as the identity of the words which inspired the interpretation. In his tract, “Bezels of Wisdom”, Ibn ‘Arabi analyzes twenty seven prophets as metaphors for specific expressions of wisdom. Verbal meaning itself is the connection between the terms, Cosmos and Reality. Their meanings, however, are only understood as, “…a divine disclosure from which is ascertained the origin of the forms of the Cosmos receiving spirits” (Austin, 51).

Ibn ‘Arabi expresses a phenomenal fusion of philosophy and metaphor. Interpretations of his texts are a symbol of the fleeting nature of representation or interpretation, in reference to notions such as, “Reality”.

For modern, Western philosophy, the works of Ibn ‘Arabi are equally inspired by the type of logical forms which limit thought, within ever-decreasing possibilities of expression. Contemporaries of Ibn ‘Arabi had formulated such metaphysical speculation to the extent that the existence of the sacred had a monopoly on human thought, instead of freeing or expanding it into an honest recognition of thoughtlessness, transcendent of human cognition.

In the same way, rationalism took over Christian theology to the effect that God had become as dead as concrete, for the magic of its mythology had succumbed to a purist realism. While there are many exceptions to these circumstances, Ibn ‘Arabi served to counter what was then a mainstream fount of belief.

Ibn ‘Arabi returned the study of metaphysics to its source by pointing out that its methodologies ignored the significance of reflexive subjectivity. The vocabularies of secularism and theology overlap between Ibn ‘Arabi and Jacques Derrida, as summed up in a passage from Sufism and Deconstruction: A comparative study of Derrida and Ibn ‘Arabi by Ian Almond, published in 2004: “…for Ibn ‘Arabi, the philosophers and the theologians have yet to understand the simultaneous transcendence and immanence of God. For Derrida, Western metaphysics has never problematized the word ‘meaning’” (Almond, 9).

The relationship between Ibn ‘Arabi and modern Western philosophy, especially as expressed in the works of Derrida, is not based on the idea of positing absolute objectivity but in using the relational subjectivity of the author as basis for critique regarding the use of language to mean anything at all.

The meaning of any text, when read through the prism of Ibn ‘Arabi's philosophy, encompasses an open, infinitude of interpretations, returning human experience to the fundamental relationship between symbol and reality.

Ibn ‘Arabi, coming from a tradition of Quran studies amid the progressive, multicultural airs of medieval Seville, was no stranger to vast ranges of interpretation, and included an ontological hermeneutical practice that he termed, the “Oneness of Being.” This concept runs throughout his works, unifying them with his signature literary mark.

Derrida, is in a sense more radical saying, “…no text has a single, ‘proper’ meaning, but rather and infinite possibility of immanent ones” (Almond, 70). It is this oneness, or infinity of possibilities which transcends rational speculation.

Because there is no absolute point to a reading in accordance with the atheistic sentiments of Derrida, his analysis of meaning negates oneness as a hindrance to understanding. The essence of Ibn ‘Arabi’s textual interpretation is that of an encounter with oneness, which destroys the inherent identity of text which a reader might interpret.

In Sufi history, one movement which might relate to Ibn ‘Arabi's philosophy is called the “Malamiyya”, or the People of Blame. The idea that spiritual advancement is unidentifiable and inconspicuous is embodied in the social practice of the Malamiyya, who partake in normal, mundane, daily activities. Their spiritual work goes unseen. They do not wear different clothes, or use different words.

The inward turn that defines the path of knowledge might be described as, “…glimpsing the reality of the metaphysical abyss upon which one’s sign-system is founded…”(Almond, 110). It can be derived that since Ibn ‘Arabi stays confused, he respects the infinitely evasive, unknowable mystery. He knew that his every inclination to communicate would be subject to the elusive nature of meaning. He wrote to reveal the illusions of meaning.


Bezels of Wisdom. Ibn al-‘Arabi. Trans. By R.W.J. Austin. Paulist Press. USA. 1980

Sufism and Deconstruction: A comparative study of Derrida and Ibn ‘Arabi. Ian Almond. Published by Routledge. USA and Canada. 2004

Dina Said is a philosopher in Cairo, Egypt


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