in the philosophical and theological traditions of the Western religions(including Islam) raises the question of what spiritual meaning their gra-phocentrism or writing-centeredness held for them.It is no accident that the inferiority of the written was challenged fromthe margins of mainstream thought by these mystics. The great scholarof the Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem, pointed out that on the one handthe theosophers reaffirm and conserve traditional symbols, but on theother they attempt to reinvigorate them, for symbols lose their immediateexistential force over time as they become commonplaces c21. Especiallyin severe monotheistic religions, where myth has been suppressed, a mys-tic can make a great impact by appealing to images that have somethingof the mythical about them
but in this attempt to recapture the originalexcitement and impact of symbols great masters risk raising questions ofreligious authority, risk inspiring believers to question stagnant institutionsand practices. Mystics innovate by employing existing symbols in originalways, or inventing new symbols that can carry traditional meanings.The puzzle of letter-centered philosophy requires us to wonder if thealphabet itself can be a symbol. Paul Ricceur argued that in attempting tounderstand the internal meaning of symbolism, one must search amongits most primitive expressions. For there, "the prerogatives of reflectiveconsciousness are subordinated to the cosmic aspect of the hierophanies,to the nocturnal aspect of dream productions, or finally to the creativityof the poetic word" c31. In short, the authentic symbol has these threedimensions of the cosmic, the oneiric and the poetic. In religions of thebook can sacred letters, the stuff of scripture and of meaning itself, bearall three burdens
One approach to making symbols new is combining two of them inan original manner, and reading the two against one another. This is whatI would argue Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa'i (1753-18261, founder of the mys-tical Shaykhi order, does in regard to the images of the world-tree andletter symbolism in Islamic cosmology. In an essay on cosmology, heelaborates upon the two ancient, powerful symbols of the world-tree andthe world as written text, as a way of elucidating a saying attributed tothe Pro~hetMuhammad and of de~ictinghe emanation of the universefrom ~'od.haykh Ahmad addres'ses thve perennial contradictions bet-ween nature and culture, body and soul, stasis and change, and one ques-tion we must ask here is by what means he resolves these oppositionsand establishes the cosmic and spiritual harmony that is the hallmark ofa mystical system such as his.
(2) Gershom Scholem,
the Kabbalah and
trans. Ralph Mannheim (NewYork
Schocken Books, 19651, pp. 7-10, 21-23.(3) Paul Ricceur.
Beacon Press, 1969), p. 10