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20246242 Cole the World as Text Cosmologies of Shaykh Ahmad Al Ahsa i

20246242 Cole the World as Text Cosmologies of Shaykh Ahmad Al Ahsa i

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The World as Text: Cosmologies of Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa'i
Juan R. I. Cole
Studia Islamica
, No. 80. (1994), pp. 145-163.
Studia Islamica
is currently published by Maisonneuve & Larose.Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available athttp://www.jstor.org/about/terms.html. JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtainedprior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content inthe JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use.Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained athttp://www.jstor.org/journals/mal.html.Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printedpage of such transmission.The JSTOR Archive is a trusted digital repository providing for long-term preservation and access to leading academic journals and scholarly literature from around the world. The Archive is supported by libraries, scholarly societies, publishers,and foundations. It is an initiative of JSTOR, a not-for-profit organization with a mission to help the scholarly community takeadvantage of advances in technology. For more information regarding JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.http://www.jstor.orgFri Feb 1 03:12:32 2008
The World as Text
Cosmologies of Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa'i
In the late twentieth century West, with the influence of a postmo-dernism that often insists on the "textuality" of the world, the letter-mys-ticism of the Gnostics, the Shi'ite Muslims, and the Kabbalists often raisesmetaphysical issues that sound remarkably contemporary. These thinkerssaw the world as constituted by divine letters, a profound reversal of thetendency in mainstream Western philosophy to privilege the spoken overthe written word, which one postmodern philosopher has castigated as"logocentrism"
In this alternative tradition, as we shall see, the cosmositself is nothing more or less than a text, spelled out by letters that arealso understood as the basic phonetic units of the language. Even the oralcommand of God, "Be
is interpreted as the enunciation of letter-pho-nemes that in turn generate further metaphysical marks. The written wordis therefore not seen as posterior to spoken language, nor parasitic upon
but is rather coeval with and inseparable from speech and from con-tingent being.Abelief in the textuality of the world and a willingness tosee the meaning of texts as extraordinarily elastic are probably all theseancient and medieval thinkers have in common with postmodernism, buttheir dissent from the emphasis on and primacy of the oral word common
(1) Jacques Derrida,
trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore :JohnsHopkins University Press, 1974), p. 49
idem, Limited Inc,
trans. Samuel Weber (Evanston
Northwestern University Press, 1988), p.
See also Harold Bloom,
Kabbalah and Criticism
(New York
Continuum, 1984), pp.
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
its Symbolism,
trans. Ralph Mannheim (NewYork
Schocken Books, 19651, pp. 7-10, 21-23.(3) Paul Ricceur.
Synzbolism ofEi1il
Beacon Press, 1969), p. 10
pp. 11-18.

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