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The Central Point- Qunawi's Role in the School of Ibn Al-'Arabi by William Chittick

The Central Point- Qunawi's Role in the School of Ibn Al-'Arabi by William Chittick

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Published by: Tahir Ali on Aug 19, 2010
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11/30/2011

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The Central Point– Qūnawî’s Role in the School of ibn al-‘Arabî
By William C. Chittick 
I
BN
'A
RABÎ
met Sadr al-Dîn Qūnawî's father, Majd al-Dîn Ishāq, in Mecca in the year 1203and subsequently traveled with him to Anatolia. Sadr al-Dîn was born two years later. Athirteenth-century source tells us that after the death of Majd al-Dîn, Ibn 'Arabî marriedhis widow, thus becoming Sadr al-Dîn's step-father. Although we have no directconfirmation of this from the writings of Ibn 'Arabî or Qūnawî, we do know that Qūnawî became Ibn 'Arabî's close disciple and was given permission to teach all of his works.[1] Eventually he became a respected scholar of Hadith and had many disciples on the Sufi path. The initiatic chains that lead back to Ibn 'Arabî go through him. He died in 1274 inKonya, a few months after attending the funeral of his good friend Jalāl al-Dîn Rūmî.[2] Qūnawî was not nearly as prolific as his master, but he still managed to write six booksand a good number of treatises. He was also the teacher of four of the most influentialauthors in the school - 'Afîf al-Dîn Tilimsānî, Mu'ayyid al-Dîn Jandî, Sa'îd al-DînFarghānî, and Fakhr al-Dîn 'Irāqî. By the time of his death, Qūnawî was recognized as amajor transmitter of the teachings of al-Shaykh al-Akbar. His main contribution seems to be that he gave Ibn 'Arabî's teachings a structured coherence that largely determined theway they were read by later generations. Although his books are relatively short, they aremuch more systematic than those of his master and focus on certain key issues that became the linchpins of subsequent discussions.One reason for Qūnawî's influence was the status of the
 Fusūs al-hikam
, which becamethe main text that was studied in order to gain first-hand access to Ibn 'Arabî's perspective. The two most influential early commentaries on the book were Qūnawî's
 Fakk al-khutūm
, which explains the significance of its chapter headings, and thecommentary of his disciple Jandî. The latter was in turn the teacher of 'Abd al-RazzāqKāshānî, and Kāshānî the teacher of Dāwūd Qaysarî. In the Arabic-speaking countries,Kāshānî's commentary, which in many places is simply a summary of Jandî's, seems tohave been looked upon as the most authoritative, whereas in the rest of the Islamic world,the commentary of choice was more likely to be that of Qaysarî. What is clear is that thecommentary tradition leads back to Qūnawî, and that no one studied the
 Fusūs
withoutthe help of commentaries (or a teacher conversant with the commentaries). We canconclude that, generally speaking, the
 Fusūs
was interpreted not in the light of Ibn'Arabî's other books such as the
 Futūhāt 
, but rather in the light of Qūnawî's understandingof the text.Given Qūnawî's importance in determining the way in which Ibn 'Arabî was read, it isworth looking at the notion of 
wahdat al-wujūd 
in his writings. People assume that sinceIbn 'Arabî spoke for 
wahdat al-wujūd 
, so also did his disciple Qūnawî. Based on thisassumption I wrote an article twenty-five years ago called "Sadr al-Dîn Qūnawî on theOneness of Being."[3]It was only later, once I had become more familiar with thehistorical problems connected with the term
wahdat al-wujūd 
and the misunderstandingsthat have surrounded its use, that I revised my opinion concerning the role that it playedin Qūnawî's teachings.
 
As is clear to anyone who has looked at the sources, the notion that Ibn 'Arabî and hisfollowers believed in
wahdat al-wujūd 
was a relatively late development.[4]It is of course easy to find passages that approximate the expression
wahdat al-wujūd 
in thewritings of Ibn 'Arabî and some of his early followers. Moreover, it is obvious that Ibn'Arabî did accept that
wujūd 
is one. However, the
wujūd 
he is talking about is
al-wujūd al-haqq
, the Real Being, or the Being that is God.[5] Moreover, if it is true that "Being is one" (
al-wujūd wāhid 
), we can turn this sentence into a nominal phrase, thus giving usthe expression "the oneness of being" (
wahdat al-wujūd 
). It follows that we are notwrong to say that Ibn 'Arabî believed in
wahdat al-wujūd 
. Fair enough. But, the real issueis this: are we saying anything of significance? The fact is that by defining
wahdat al-wujūd 
in the way that I just did - that is, in a way that makes perfect sense in the contextof Ibn 'Arabî's writings - I have divested it of any technical meaning. The phrase simplyreiterates the declarative sentence,
al-wujūd 
 
wāhid 
. There is nothing remarkable about theidea that the Real Being is one. We are simply saying "God is one" in the philosophicaland theological language that was current among Muslim intellectuals. We are utteringthe first principle of Islamic thought,
tawhîd 
, the declaration of God's unity.In other words, to say that Ibn 'Arabî believed in
wahdat al-wujūd 
is to state the obvious.All Muslims who understand that
wujūd 
means
al-wujūd al-haqq
, the Real Being, knowthat Being is one; therefore they believe in
wahdat al-wujūd 
. To say that Ibn 'Arabî believed in it is to voice a truism. Why then did the later tradition make such a big issueout of belief in
wahdat al-wujūd 
? The answer is that technical senses were ascribed to theexpression by later authors, and some of these were problematic, to say the least. Thosewho criticized the expression had certain meanings in mind, and those who defended theexpression typically had other meanings in mind. When any of these authors said that Ibn'Arabî believed in
wahdat al-wujūd 
, they were attributing to him a doctrine that he didnot necessarily hold. This is the key point, and it helps explain why the expressionremains controversial. Anyone who says that Ibn 'Arabî, or someone else, believed in
wahdat al-wujūd 
should be prepared to defend his position by defining the specificmeaning of 
wahdat al-wujūd 
that he has in mind. If he claims that for Ibn 'Arabî,
wahdat al-wujūd 
means anything other than "God is one", he will need to provide solid textualevidence to prove his point.One of the characteristics of the writings of Sadr al-Dîn Qūnawî is that he is much moreinclined than his master to engage in discussion and debate with the philosophicaltradition. Unlike Ibn 'Arabî, Qūnawî had read Avicenna carefully (as well as other  philosophers). This is obvious in his correspondence with Nasîr al-Dîn Tūsî, the greatest philosopher-scientist of the day. The topic of the correspondence was the interpretation of Avicenna's basic teachings. Like any good scholar, Qūnawî quotes from Avicenna to prove some of his points. It would have been totally out of character for Ibn 'Arabî toquote from Avicenna - or from any philosopher or theologian. And remember that it isAvicenna who put the discussion of 
wujūd 
squarely at the heart of Islamic philosophy. Itwas utterly self-evident to Avicenna and to other philosophers that
wujūd 
is one - that is,if we mean by
wujūd 
the Necessary
Wujūd 
, which in philosophical language is oftencalled "the First Real",
al-haqq al-awwal 
, and which is none other than the God of theology.Qūnawî uses the expression
wahdat al-wujūd 
in two or three passages. In many more passages, he says, "
al-wujūd wāhid 
", that is, "Being is one". Nowhere, however, does he
 
suggest that there is anything special about
wahdat al-wujūd 
. It was not yet a technicalterm denoting something other than its literal sense. It was a phrase that came up in thenormal course of explaining the nature of divine unity in the philosophical vocabulary. Itis true that his disciple Farghānî frequently uses the term
wahdat al-wujūd 
in his twocommentaries on Ibn al-Fārid's
 Nazm al-sulūk 
, but in his writings it has a specific,technical sense that was not picked up by the later tradition. In short, none of Ibn 'Arabî'searly followers considered
wahdat al-wujūd 
a label appropriate for summing up hisschool of thought.The person who deserves the most credit for turning
wahdat al-wujūd 
into thedesignation for a doctrine seems to be Ibn Taymiyya (d.728/1328).[6]He declared thatIbn 'Arabî, Qūnawî, and various other figures - all of whom shared a predilection for using philosophical vocabulary to talk about God - were believers in
wahdat al-wujūd 
.And, he tells us,
wahdat al-wujūd 
is equivalent to heresy (
ilhād 
), atheism (
 zindiqa
), andunbelief (
kufr 
). In Ibn Taymiyya's usage, to say that someone believes in
wahdat al-wujūd 
is to say that he is not a true Muslim. And, I might add, given the way in which IbnTaymiyya defines the expression, Ibn 'Arabî and Qūnawî would have agreed with him.Anyone who understands
wahdat al-wujūd 
to mean what Ibn Taymiyya says it meanswould indeed be denying
tawhîd 
.As far as I have been able to tell, it is not until 'Abd al-Rahmān Jāmî, writing in thesecond half of the ninth/fifteenth century, that Ibn 'Arabî and his followers are labeled,with praise and approval, as spokesmen for the doctrine of 
wahdat al-wujūd 
, meaningthereby
tawhîd 
in philosophical language. Moreover, it is Jāmî who tells us that Sadr al-Dîn Qūnawî is the best guide for understanding
wahdat al-wujūd 
. In the section onQūnawî in his
 Nafahāt al-uns
, he writes, "He is the assayer [
naqqād 
] of the words of theShaykh [Ibn 'Arabî]. What the Shaykh meant in the question of 
wahdat al-wujūd 
will notcome to hand in a manner that accords with both reason and the Shariah unless onestudies Qūnawî's verifications and understands them properly."[7] After Jāmi, the term
wahdat al-wujūd 
gradually became almost equivalent to Ibn 'Arabî'sname. By the twentieth century, this was the general rule throughout the Islamic world.And of course, both Orientalists and the Ibn 'Arabî Society have adopted this usage.Today, in both the Islamic world and in the Western secondary literature, peoplecontinually make the connection between Ibn 'Arabî and
wahdat al-wujūd 
. But, generallyspeaking, those who do so make no attempt to define the expression in a way that wouldaccord with Ibn 'Arabî's teachings. Rather, they simply assume that its meaning isobvious - whether they consider it a good thing, or a bad thing.Let me turn back to Qūnawî and the "central point". What I have in mind is the role of Qūnawî in distilling Ibn 'Arabî's works down to certain basic notions that weresubsequently considered the crux of his teachings. Certainly, one of these issues is
wujūd 
.If we were to look at Ibn 'Arabî's works without the lens of Qūnawî and his followers, wewould probably not think that
wujūd 
is as central to his project as it appears with thehindsight of the tradition. This has everything to do with the fact that Qūnawî was wellversed in philosophy, where
wujūd 
was the fundamental issue. He tells us explicitly in hisletters to Tūsî that he wanted to harmonize philosophy and the "school of realization"(
mashrab al-tahqîq
), that is, the perspective of Ibn 'Arabî and his followers.[8]Qūnawîattempted to do this both in his correspondence with Tūsî and in some of his other 

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