Transcendent Philosophy © London Academy of Iranian Studies

Ronald L. Nettler. Sufi Metaphysics and Qur’anic Prophets: Ibn ‘Arabi’s Thought and Method in the Fusus al-Hikam. Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 2003, pp. 223, paperback, £19.99. Few non-scriptural works, in any civilisation, can have been the subject of more numerous and more detailed commentaries, extending over more centuries, than Ibn ‘Arabi’s famous Fusus alHikam—even without mentioning the long repetitive chain of polemical attacks, continuing down to the present day, that also mirrors the ongoing religio-cultural centrality of the Fusus and the rest of the Shaykh’s immense corpus of writings. Central to that remarkable historical tradition are two distinctive features that we find again at the heart of Ronald Nettler’s long-awaited new volume of commentary, covering eleven of the twenty-seven chapters of the Fusus: a uniquely revealing penetration into the most decisive universal metaphysical and spiritual teachings of the Qur’an; and a uniquely complex and demanding rhetoric whose intentionally provocative, paradoxical, and multi-faceted language and symbolism is itself sui generis and distinctively different from the styles and approaches found in Ibn ‘Arabi’s other works from different periods of his life. Since Professor Nettler’s book is so unusually structured, in essence, as a genuinely original commentary—i.e., focused on aiding the detailed understanding of Ibn ‘Arabi’s actual text and Qur’anic teaching, and not (as for example with T. Izutsu’s beautifully instructive chapters in his famous Sufism and Taoism) conceived as a wider summary of Ibn ‘Arabi’s entire metaphysical-spiritual ‘system’ and the collective insights of earlier commentators, it may well be considered the first really original English link in that long commentary tradition. The remainder of this review will attempt to highlight some of the many distinctive features of this new commentary, especially as they appear in contrast to standard earlier

as the author seems to intend. or the paradoxical relations between the contrasting perspectives of divine Unicity and the perceived multiplicity and temporality of our ‘ordinary’ experience of the world. and (at least ideally) a broad range of pertinent Islamic intellectual traditions. and the apparent ethical (and theological) paradoxes or dilemmas which inevitably flow from those recurrent metaphysical paradoxes. the Qur’an. is the very particular dialectical method that the author self-consciously applies. throughout this study. To begin with the selected subjects of this commentary. the particular merits of this volume will surely be most apparent to informed readers with a solid familiarity with the Fusus. The distinctive features of this original and constantly thought-provoking study.approaches that are likely to be familiar to many readers of this journal. More unusual. fresh insights and a more self-conscious critical perspective on the otherwise often unconscious presuppositions of earlier Sufi and philosophical interpretive traditions. the particular restrictions and selectivity involved may well frustrate readers already familiar with and initially expecting the wide-ranging aims and assumptions of earlier Islamic commentaries (assumptions also typically embedded in the Fusus translations available in Western languages)—but hopefully that same disciplined intellectual focus may also suggest. In both of these respects. have to do with (a) its relatively narrow and highly specific selection of topics. which immediately set it apart rather dramatically from the earlier traditions of Fusus commentaries. His treatment of the carefully selected passages from each chosen chapter . though. Nettler has carefully focused on two of the most central—and most persistently controversial—features of the Fusus al-Hikam: Ibn ‘Arabi’s metaphysics of ‘the One and the many’. and (b) its self-consciously limited methodological approach. Prof. to approach and illuminate these two interrelated primary topics. For although the author ‘hopes the book will serve the needs of newcomers to Ibn ‘Arabi as well of those of advanced students and specialists’.

This is presented as a kind of shared base level of popular beliefs. kalam. been throughout history among the fiercest (and certainly most uncomprehending) critics of this work and its author. but also more pointedly Neoplatonic thinkers) presupposed by Qunawi. both the wider contexts of practical spirituality and constant experiential references assumed throughout the Fusus. Prof. Qaysari. In other words. traditions and unexamined opinions about the ‘literal’ meanings of the Qur’anic (and usually corresponding Biblical) and extra-scriptural elements assumed in Ibn ‘Arabi’s particular exegetical developments. Nettler’s dialectic normally begins with a clear summary introduction to what he consistently presents as the ‘exoteric’ ground of Ibn ‘Arabi’s exegesis.of the Fusus concerning these subjects normally begins not with the vast auxiliary complex of intellectual and spiritual methods. This broad popular background—which was normally assumed by traditional commentators and therefore often neglected in Western-language ..e.) who have. practices and assumptions presupposed by earlier commentaries. and the most influential later commentators. not surprisingly. Kashani. and the relevant Islamic traditions (including but by no means limited to what was later termed ‘Sufism’). and the equally central complex traditions of Islamic philosophy (especially Ibn Sina. from Qunawi onward. Instead. but instead with a more rigorously conceptual kind of theological-intellectual dialectic that is apparently designed to mirror the particular exegetical approach to the simple text of the Fusus alHikam—shorn of those usual interpretive and practical contexts—that has typically been followed by a certain class of clerical Muslim readers (trained only in the traditional ‘religious sciences’ of fiqh. etc. the author—himself a scholarly specialist well aware of earlier commentary traditions and of the wider practical spiritual and intellectual contexts of Ibn ‘Arabi’s work as a whole—has outwardly excluded from this approach what were in fact the essential methodological bases of earlier commentaries: i. Ibn ‘Arabi’s other writings. for the sake of simulating a kind of ‘direct’ and unmediated approach to the actual text of the Fusus.

and methodology that are a major thread throughout all of the Shaykh’s major works. At a second stage.traditions—is often quite essential to understanding Ibn ‘Arabi’s ongoing unusual rhetorical choices and allusions. for non-specialists. Freedom and determined Knowledge. very slowly revealing the contours of Ibn ‘Arabi’s metaphysical vision by constantly returning to the details of the actual text. especially in contrast with the Shaykh’s other works. conceptualisation.) And finally. and—rather understandably. his commentary then moves on to highlight the recurrent theological and ethical dilemmas (of divine Essence and Attributes. The careful selectivity and focus of Prof. given their radical unfamiliarity to contemporary audiences—are typically neglected by modern translators and Sufi exponents of his teachings. the author carefully delineates—usually employing his own extensive translations of key excerpts from the actual text of the Fusus—in a very clear and intellectually coherent way the initially challenging metaphysical paradoxes and (in comparison to unexamined beliefs) distinctive ‘esoteric’ insights that Ibn ‘Arabi goes on to develop out of the literal language and dramatic situations of his chosen scriptural texts. Prof. The net effect of this rigorously text-based and cumulatively ‘inductive’ exegetical approach. Unity and multiplicity. Nettler’s analyses and presentation of these controversial points only really becomes apparent if one reads this volume with constant reference to the full text of the Fusus—something that is now greatly facilitated. So this element may be particularly helpful to any beginning students actually approaching the Fusus through this study. Mercy and Justice) that earlier intellectual traditions of kalam theology and usul had already debated and elaborated for centuries prior to Ibn ‘Arabi. Nettler’s approach highlights the complex dialectical elements of kalam language. (Here again. is to oblige each reader to focus again and again on the set of often dramatically provocative intellectual and theological paradoxes which are indeed one of the most distinctive rhetorical features of the Fusus al-Hikam. by the fortuitous appearance of Caner Dagli’s greatly improved English translation of ‘The Ringstones of .

of the famous concluding image of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus: of what always lies beyond (or beneath) the ‘ladder’ of language and thought. There the Shaykh’s repeated highlighting of all the unavoidable existential dimensions of our human (basharic) ‘powerlessness’ takes his readers again and again to the poignant dead-ends of earthly existence—or to the doorway of surrender: reminding us of that recurrent universal ground of earthly suffering which is the engine of all spiritual realisation and of the . at the heart of each chapter. and above all practical spiritual life) and the philosophical sciences so constantly presupposed in most of Ibn ‘Arabi’s writings. and even more so in the later commentary traditions. 2004). Indeed philosophers encountering this volume will be reminded again and again. As with any commentary. The distinctive ‘theological rationalism’ inherent in this analytical exegetical focus does indeed highlight a kind of challenging and clearly provocative ‘intellectualism’ (a recurrent term here) whose underlying rhetorical purposes and presuppositions only become clear in light of the immense riches of the Futuhat and the wider spiritual traditions informing all of Ibn ‘Arabi’s works. Nettler’s memorable concluding analysis of the chapter on Lot.Wisdom’ (Kazi Publications. the particular virtues of this work’s restricted subjects and approach are also—precisely in the alternative subjects and complementary interpretive approaches that they selfconsciously leave out and ignore—potential pitfalls for readers without a more wide-ranging acquaintance with Ibn ‘Arabi and the traditions of which he was a part. Thus this approach certainly helps one to appreciate the multiple possible effects of the Fusus— including the vociferous polemical reactions alluded to earlier—on the limited number of religious readers who may have encountered it without the broad background in ‘Sufism’ (both theoretical. Thus the primordial limitations of this particular intellectualistic dimension of Ibn ‘Arabi’s thought—and its deeper rhetorical intentions—are beautifully alluded to in Prof.

gradual unfolding of the pathways of inspired knowing and actualised compassion. University of Exeter . Morris. James W.

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