Number 3.

2
August 2ôô3

The Other as Mirror:
Scriptural Reasoning and the Hermeneutics of Ibn Al-Arabi
Ahmed Af:aal,
Drew Universitv
This commentary is a tentative attempt to Iigure out how Scriptural
Reasoning might work within a Qur'anic universe, in light oI some oI the
remarks made by this year's learned contributors. In making this attempt,
I will be constantly reIerring to the hermeneutics oI Shaykh Muhyiddin
Ibn Al-Arabi (1165-1240 CE), who was an unusual Iigure in the Islamic
tradition in view oI his extraordinary spiritual genius and his wide-
ranging inIluence throughout the Muslim world.
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What Iollows is
neither a very accurate nor exhaustive rendering oI Ibn Al-Arabi's
hermeneutics, but my own interpretation oI how some oI his views might
help us in applying the insights oI Scriptural Reasoning to the study oI
the Qur'an; the rest oI this commentary is devoted to applying Qur'anic
reasoning to the issue oI "ruptures" as introduced by Ellen Davis.
Thinking of Scripture: Reflection and Listening
Alon Goshen-Gottstein has identiIied two distinct but interrelated stages
in approaching Scripture, which he calls "thinking oI" and "thinking
with" Scripture. The Iirst stage "involves the mind, discernment and
critical thinking in an attempt to understand Scripture Ior what it is."
This stage is "primarily an intellectual eIIort," but it also includes "an
eIIort oI listening, involving the heart.." The second stage involves the
development oI an understanding that shapes the lives oI the readers,
engaging their wills, minds, and hearts, structuring their thought through
which they know reality, guiding and directing them through their lives.
In an attempt to transpose these insights into the Islamic Iramework, I
Iound it useIul to divide the Iirst stage into two modes ReIlection
Mode and Listening Mode a distinction that seems to be implicit in
ProI. Goshen-Gottstein's description. In doing so, I am not implying any
particular sequence or relative privilege; on the contrary, I believe one
has to move constantly, to and Iro, between these two modes while
carrying out the complex task oI "thinking oI" Scripture. I hope that this
division could help in partially dealing with the problem created by the
excess baggage oI history, tradition, and modern methodologies that
scholars must carry and that tend to "obscure the spiritual sense oI
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Scripture." I am suggesting that it may be possible to try and restrict the
negative eIIects oI this excess baggage only to the ReIlection Mode, and
to primarily use the Listening Mode Ior gaining the Scripture's "spiritual
sense." While making this suggestion, I am wondering whether it is even
possible to separate the two modes in practice!
In the ReIlection Mode, we scrutinize the text, examining it as an object
oI our gaze. We explore the linguistic, etymological, and grammatical
issues; we locate the text in history and in the sociocultural context oI its
revelation; we draw upon the resources, opinions, and interpretations oI
the past. We try not to make the legacy oI the tradition a part oI the
Scripture itselI, recognizing that while this legacy oIten enriches the
meaning oI the text, it is not identical with the text, does not share its
sanctity, and can easily eclipse its inherent possibilities. In this mode, we
use all analytical and interpretive tools that we may Iind at our disposal.
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In the Listening Mode, we expose ourselves to Divine words in a state oI
humble receptivity. We open up our hearts to welcome the majesty and
sweetness oI Scripture, and instead oI questions, doubts, suspicions, or
concerns, we allow only aIIirmation and acceptance to emerge Irom our
hearts as the only appropriate response to Divine speech. We listen
IaithIully, prayerIully, and with Iull attention, allowing the letters and
sounds oI the Scripture to surround and overwhelm us, to permeate our
own beings or to make us part oI its universe. In this mode, we let the
Scripture do the work oI awakening within us a dormant consciousness
and a Iorgotten awareness oI God's presence.
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Admittedly, these two modes exist in tension with each other; yet the
tension, while diIIicult to negotiate, contains within itselI the possibility
oI giving birth to a selI-conscious and post-critical Iaith that may
otherwise be unachievable. II this tension could be creatively used then it
might be possible I hope that "our vocation as scholars" would
"ultimately Iacilitate|s|" rather than "hinder|s| our spiritual lives."
These two modes oI "thinking oI" Scripture roughly correspond to the
two ways oI approaching the Divine in the Islamic tradition. These have
been discussed by Ibn Al-Arabi in considerable detail, who shows that
both oI these ways Iind their justiIication in the Qur'an itselI. The Iirst is
the perspective oI tan:ih, which Iocuses on the incomparability and utter
transcendence oI God and is associated with such Divine names as
Majestic, Subjugating, WrathIul, Exalted, Independent, Holy, GloriIied,
and King; the second is the perspective oI tashbih, which Iocuses on
God's similarity to and immanence in creation, and is associated with
such Divine names as BeautiIul, Compassionate, Near, Loving,
Forgiving, and MerciIul. Both ways oI knowing are necessary because
each is only relatively valid, and exclusive dependence on any one oI
them causes human beings to Iall into error, conIusion, and ignorance.
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For Ibn Al-Arabi, these perspectives do not allow the human beings to
have any knowledge oI God's ultimate Essence, which is Iorever
inaccessible to all creatures, but only oI the way in which God chooses to
disclose and reveal HimselI through His attributes and names.
Ibn Al-Arabi associates the perspective oI tan:ih with rational, critical,
and discursive Iaculties, and the perspective oI tashbih with imagination
and unveiling. Reason tends to ignore the concrete embodiments oI
reality and continuously indulges in abstractions; with every gain in
philosophical sophistication, God is increasingly pushed away Irom and
out oI creation. While the perspective oI tan:ih is necessary and valid
God is the "beyond-and-beyond" and the "wholly other" it only tells
halI oI the story. Ibn Al-Arabi points out that one needs imagination and
unveiling in order to experience that God is immanent in and similar to
creation, and that God encounters us in concrete experiences, embodied
existence, and material realities.
While the perspective oI tan:ih Iiercely maintains the distinction
between Creator and creation, between signs and the SigniIied, between
symbols and the Symbolized, the perspective oI tashbih obliterates these
distinctions and helps us recognize the presence oI the Creator in the
creation, the presence oI the SigniIied in the signs, and the presence oI
the Symbolized in the symbols. Where the perspective oI tan:ih Iinds
multiplicity, the perspective oI tashbih encounters unity. The Qur'an, Ior
its part, clearly employs both perspectives, oIten in close proximity to
each other, e.g., ".there is nothing whatever like unto Him |tan:ih| and
He is the One who hears and sees |tashbih|" (42:11).
In the process oI "thinking oI" Scripture, using the ReIlection Mode can
be seen as involving the perspective oI tan:ih while using the Listening
Mode as involving the perspective oI tashbih. When we approach the
Scripture in the ReIlection Mode, we rely on our rational and critical
Iaculties and hope to achieve abstraction, analysis, explanation, and
diIIerentiation. When we approach the Scripture in the Listening Mode,
we rely on our spiritual and emotional Iaculties and hope to achieve
relationality, synthesis, understanding, and unity.
The very Iact that the perspectives oI tan:ih and tashbih lead to results
that are mutually exclusive and contradictory indicates that there must be
a third, higher level oI knowledge that transcends both oI them. Ibn Al-
Arabi would not want us to get trapped in either the ReIlection or the
Listening Mode. He would want us to employ both oI these modes in a
manner appropriate to them, but then to strive Ior tahqiq (veriIication) by
attempting to transcend all perspectives without rejecting any oI them.
Ibn Al-Arabi believes that reaching the level oI tahqiq a stage oI
human perIection where one is no longer constrained by the limitations
oI diIIerent perspectives is entirely dependent on God's grace.
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How can all this help us in approaching the Song oI Songs? I agree with
ProI. Ellen Davis that the rabbis who included it in the Biblical canon
knew what they were doing; they clearly saw the religious meaning oI
this poem that many oI us moderns are not able to perceive. It is possible
that at least some modern diIIiculties in interpreting the Song oI Songs as
a religious text have stemmed Irom an epistemological imbalance. In
more ways than one, modernity is characterized by an emphasis on the
perspective oI tan:ih and relative disregard Ior the perspective oI
tashbih. That is to say, too much reliance on rational abstractions and
less on concrete experience may be at the root oI why a poetic
expression oI erotic love seems to us to have nothing to do with our
experience oI God.
The problem seems to be grounded in what can perhaps be called the
most characteristic Ieature oI Enlightenment rationalism. In general, that
rationalism elevated the capacities oI human reason over everything that
it viewed as non-reason. In the process, aspects oI human experience that
were seen as other than rational came to be treated with a certain amount
oI disdain. This epistemological arrogance oI rationalism attempted to
deprive the human beings oI the validity oI the Iull range oI their
capacities Ior knowing and experiencing reality, including those that are
embedded within the human body and in human emotions.
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In this context, the prominence given in the Qur'anic discourse to the
material and sensual world deserves our attention. The Qur'an describes
the universe as having been created "in truth" (e.g., 15:85; 44:39) just as
it describes God's revelation as having been sent down "in truth" (e.g.,
4:105; 17:105). Based on his understanding oI the Qur'an, Ibn Al-Arabi
views the constituents oI the material cosmos as so many Divine words
whose ultimate meaning is none other than God. The Qur'anic emphasis
on bodily resurrection alludes to the Iact that the body is an integral part
oI the human selI.
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This attention to the material and sensual world is a
Ieature oI the Qur'anic discourse that causes consternation among those
who would rather have an abstract and disembodied religiosity as iI
God reveals HimselI only in the spirit and not in the body. For Ibn Al-
Arabi, human beings encounter God not just in abstract theology, but
also and much more Irequently in the concrete, embodied, and
material aspects oI creation.
This implies that concrete human experience is one oI the most
accessible arenas where God can be Iound, and this includes the realm oI
sexuality and erotic love. But in order to Iind God in the arena oI
concrete human experience, the perspective oI tashbih is needed rather
than that oI tan:ih. It is only through the perspective oI tashbih that we
can experience the similarity and comparability between our yearnings
Ior a human beloved and our longings Ior God; between the pain oI our
separation Irom a human beloved and the torment oI our alienation Irom
God; between the pleasure oI our closeness to a human beloved and the
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joy oI our intimacy with God. Indeed, anyone who has ever been in love
can hardly deny the reality oI Hell and Paradise! As Omid SaIi
demonstrates, in the Islamic tradition these experiences have been most
eloquently expressed in poetry and by the SuIis, i.e., in a medium that is
supremely congenial to the perspective oI tashbih and by individuals
who have made the best use oI this perspective.
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The sacred nature and religious signiIicance oI erotic love and sexual
union have been recognized oIten enough in the history oI religions,
though certainly not in all Iorms oI religiosity. Ibn Al-Arabi, Ior
instance, believes that the greatest occasion Ior experiencing God's selI-
disclosure in this world is to be Iound in the act oI sexual union, which
gives a Ioretaste oI the joy oI human intimacy with the Divine in the
Paradise.
Thinking with Scripture: The Word becomes Flesh
The second stage oI Scriptural Reasoning is "thinking with" Scripture.
Once we have taken the preliminary steps to comprehend the Scripture in
both the ReIlection and the Listening Modes, we are iI God so wills
on our way to learn how to "think with" Scripture, i.e., how to allow
the wisdom oI the Scripture to shape our wills, minds, and hearts so that
our intentions, thoughts, and Ieelings work in harmony with that
wisdom. Both "thinking oI" and "thinking with" Scripture are processes
that must undergo constant selI-correction, most importantly in light oI
what the Scripture itselI has to say about these processes. In addition,
"thinking with" Scripture has a reIlexive inIluence on "thinking oI"
Scripture; the Islamic tradition has oIten recognized that knowledge oI
God is a Iunction oI obeying God.
The process oI "thinking with" Scripture appears to be one oI
internalizing and assimilating the Scripture, or, alternatively, getting
immersed in the world oI the Scripture. In the Islamic tradition, the
ultimate model oI complete internalization oI, or immersion in, the
Qur'an is provided by Prophet Muhammad himselI, whose behavior and
character was described as being identical with the Qur'an itselI. This
remains the ideal Ior all Muslims the goal oI embodying the word oI
God in the world oI Ilesh.
Among other things, learning to "think with" Scripture means learning to
align our own reasoning style in harmony with that oI the Qur'an. The
least that can be said about the Qur'anic style oI reasoning is that reading
it exclusively Irom the perspective oI tan:ih or only Irom the perspective
oI tashbih is not going to take the reader very Iar in the direction oI
knowledge. The Qur'anic style oI reasoning may be seen as a dialectic
between the perspective oI tan:ih and that oI tashbih. For every thesis, it
seems that an antithesis exists somewhere in the Qur'an; yet this does not
indicate the presence oI a contradiction, a deIect Irom which the Qur'an
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claims to be absolutely Iree (4:82). For instance, the Qur'an emphasizes
retributive justice while simultaneously stressing Iorgiveness in the same
context (42:39-43); Iollowing the logic oI the Qur'an, this cannot be a
contradiction. It is, in Iact, a nuanced interplay between the contradictory
demands oI tan:ih and tashbih respectively. Through this dialectical
style oI reasoning, the Qur'an seems to be giving an implicit invitation
and a tacit challenge to rise above the perspectives oI both tan:ih and
tashbih. This extraordinary Ieat which is what "thinking with"
Scripture is perhaps all about in the Qur'anic context is impossible to
achieve without Iirst understanding and accepting both oI these
perspectives as correct and valid in their own right.
Primordial Ruptures: Beyond Identity and Distinction
This leads us to one oI the most important insights Iound in this year's
contributions, which is Davis' recognition that the Song oI Song
indicates the possibility oI healing in three primary spheres oI
relationship: the ruptures between God and humanity, between man and
woman, between humanity and nonhuman nature. I will attempt to apply
the Qur'anic style oI reasoning suggested above to the question oI these
ruptures as a test case.
While the Qur'an recognizes the presence oI these and other ruptures, it
does not always treat them in negative terms. In explaining a number oI
situations characterized by selI-other duality, the Qur'an seems to
indicate that in each case separation or rupturing has Iollowed a
primordial state oI unity, implying that these ruptures are creative in their
eIIect. According to the Qur'an, the creation oI man and woman came
about out oI a single and apparently non-gendered entity (4:1); the
diversity oI religious communities took place due to the Iragmentation oI
an originally uniIied community (10:19); the multiplicity oI races and
ethnicities owes itselI to diIIerentiation in the progeny oI a single human
Iamily (49:13); the separation oI human beings Irom non-human nature
took place when God breathed His spirit into a being that was created out
oI earthly matter (15:28-29). For Ibn Al-Arabi, more Iundamental than
all oI these ruptures is the primordial polarization oI Reality into God
and the cosmos.
From the perspective oI tan:ih, the diIIerentiation between the two
members in each selI-other duality is complete and irreconcilable. From
the perspective oI tashbih, the two members in each duality represent
two aspects oI the same reality, and are in Iact inseparable one might
even say indistinguishable Irom each other. In other words, in every
instance oI what is experienced as a selI-other duality, each member
contains a part oI the other within itselI, as iI the two were ontologically
interlocked and interdependent. Consequently, when one looks at the
other, one Iinds not only the other but also one's own selI; similarly,
when one looks at one's own selI, one Iinds not only oneselI but also the
other. This implies that one needs one's other in order to know one's own
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selI and to satisIy the desire oI being known by the other, both oI which
are prerequisites at least in the case oI human beings Ior Iully
becoming oneselI.
I reIer to the non-Qur'anic Divine saying that SaIi has also quoted,
according to which God said: "I was a Hidden Treasure so I loved to be
known; thereIore I created the creation so I may be known." This Divine
saying locates the cause oI the coming into existence oI the cosmos in
God's loving to be known by His "others." For Ibn Al-Arabi and his
Iollowers in the Islamic tradition, there is only one Reality, one true
Being, which is identical with Divine Essence. To say that "there is no
god but God" is to say that "there is no real but the Real." From the
perspective oI tan:ih, God created the cosmos so that He could be known
by His creatures; Irom the perspective oI tashbih, however, these created
"others" have no existence oI their own because there is only one true
Being. The status oI these created beings is ambiguous at best, as they
hang somewhere between Absolute Being and sheer nothingness.
Because oI this ambiguity which makes everything God/not God at
the same time the "others" act act as mirrors oI/Ior God, making God
"known" by reIlecting His attributes to each other and also back to God
HimselI.
The God-cosmos "rupture" is thereIore supremely creative; it needs to be
experienced, appreciated, and celebrated. For Ibn Al-Arabi, every event
and entity in the created universe represents the selI-disclosure oI God
through which God makes HimselI "known." This phenomenon oI selI-
disclosure is precisely what the Qur'an reIers to in terms oI avaat (signs)
oI God Iound in the created universe as well as within the human selI.
From the perspective oI tan:ih, creation consists oI signs that signiIy
none other than the Creator; Irom the perspective oI tashbih, the Creator
is Iound within these signs which have no existence apart Irom what they
signiIy. These two views apparently contradict each other but do not
cancel each other out; the presence oI a third perspective, that oI tahqiq,
indicates that the ontological relationship between God and the cosmos
actually goes beyond both distinction and identity.
In this context, the God-human rupture cannot be an existential
separation but primarily a consequence oI "IorgetIulness" on the part oI
the human being. God is too close to the human being Ior this rupture to
be an existential separation; it is precisely due to this intimacy that
Iorgetting God directly leads to Iorgetting one's own selI. The Qur'an has
warned: ".and be not like those who became oblivious oI God, and
thereIore God caused them to be oblivious oI their own
selves." (59:19). The reverse is also true; it has been well-recognized in
the Islamic tradition that knowledge oI God is dependent on knowledge
oI selI; in Iact, the two are actually one. The Islamic tradition attributes
to Prophet Muhammad the saying "he who knows himselI knows his
Lord," but the same idea is also Iound in diIIerent Iorms within the
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Christian tradition.
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The close relationship between the knowledge oI
selI and the knowledge oI God is explained by the Iact that human
beings have been created in the "image oI God," which implies that
while every creature or phenomenon in the created cosmos reIlects a
limited conIiguration oI a Iew attributes oI God, the human being has the
unique potential oI reIlecting all oI God's attributes in their Iullness, and
thereby becoming the best possible mirrors oI God through which He
might become "known." The Qur'anic command "Dye yourselves in the
color oI God." (2:138) and the prophetic saying "Produce in yourselves
the attributes oI God" point to the same duty oI striving towards the
Iullness oI human perIection. According to Ibn Al-Arabi, each human
being has the potential to achieve this perIection by becoming Al-Insan
Al-Kamil; the actualization oI this potential, however, is dependent
entirely on God's grace.
Consequently, a rupture in the God-human relationship implies human
beings' Iorgetting oI their own potential, which is the same calamity as
Iorgetting God. To the extent that human beings know their own selves
i.e., the highest potential with which they have been endowed they
come to know God in whose image they have been created; and the
extent to which they come to know God, they are able to realize their
potential by approximating the ideal oI human perIection.
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The degree
oI existential reality that human beings can achieve is a Iunction oI the
degree oI their knowledge oI God and selI. The gradual realization oI
their potential makes human beings increasingly unique in the hierarchy
oI being, so that in an apparent paradox their identity with and
distinction Irom God will go on increasing indeIinitely.
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A similar scenario might apply to the rupture between man and woman.
Human beings standing on the opposite sides oI the gender line view
each other as diIIerent Irom themselves. In seeing each other as diIIerent,
they are absolutely correct Irom the perspective oI tan:ih; however, the
perspective oI tashbih establishes the identity and essential similarity
between them. All unjust situations oI domination and abuse in gender
relations result Irom an overemphasis on the perspective oI tan:ih and a
disregard Ior that oI tashbih. Neither man nor woman is able to achieve
human perIection without actualizing the full range oI human
potentialities, i.e., qualities and attributes that are designated as
"masculine" as well as those that are believed to be "Ieminine," in
appropriate proportion. While it takes the perspective oI tan:ih to realize
and Ioster one's potentialities that are believed to correspond to one's
own gender, it requires the perspective oI tashbih to do the same Ior
those that are thought to correspond to the opposite gender. Yet, the
presence oI a third perspective, that oI tahqiq, indicates that the
ontological relationship between man and woman actually goes beyond
both distinction and identity.
Human beings see nature as totally diIIerent Irom themselves, which
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enables them to objectiIy it as an inert mass oI matter to be used Ior their
own beneIits. This is the perspective oI tan:ih, which is correct and
useIul to the extent that it has given rise to the numerous desirable
aspects oI science and technology. Too much emphasis on the
perspective oI tan:ih, however, is responsible Ior the unbridled abuse oI
nature and a global ecological crisis that threatens the every existence oI
liIe on earth. It is only through the perspective oI tashbih that human
beings can come to acknowledge, in a meaningIul and eIIective manner,
that they themselves are part oI nature and are inseparable Irom it.
Whatever they do to nature, they do to themselves. Once again, the
presence oI a third perspective, that oI tahqiq, indicates that the
ontological relationship between human beings and nonhuman nature
goes beyond both distinction and identity.
Consequently, human beings cannot become truly human without
appreciating the opposite gender and the nonhuman nature, just as they
cannot become truly human without knowing God in terms oI both
distinction and identity.
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Ibn Al-Arabi has also been a controversial Iigure in Islam, revered
and criticized with almost equal zeal. Much oI this controversy can be
traced to the inherent complexity oI his writings; unable to decipher him
directly, opponents have oIten Iormed superIicial and incorrect views
based on misleading and sometimes hostile secondary sources. While
this tendency crept into early Orientalist approaches, more recent
Western scholarship on Ibn Al-Arabi is yielding increasingly reIined
interpretations oI his oeuvre, as seen in the works by Henry Corbin,
Toshihiko Izutsu, Michel Chodkeiwicz, William Chittick, Sachiko
Murata, James Morris, Claude Addas, and others. In writing this essay, I
have relied mainly on Chittick's translations and commentaries oI Ibn
Al-Arabi's works.
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I believe that the ReIlection Mode, in at least some oI its
maniIestations, comes rather close to the Qur'anic sense oI tadabbur,
tafakkur, and ta´aqqul, all oI which imply the use oI intellectual
capacities to gain an understanding oI the Scripture (e.g., 2:242; 4:82,
10:24; 12:2, 16:44; 47:24).
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The Listening Modes appears to be close to the Qur'anic sense oI
tadhakkur, which implies a process oI remembering a Iorgotten truth,
particularly through the Scripture (e.g., 2:221; 28:43; 39:28; 54:17).
|4|
CI., Spretnak, Charlene. 1997. The Resurgence of the Real. Bodv,
Nature, and Place in a Hvpermodern World. New York: Routledge.
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|5|
CI., Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. 1996. Religion and the Order of Nature.
New York: OxIord University Press, pp. 235-292.
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Contemporary Islamic revivalists and Muslim modernists share a
tendency with early Orientalists that views SuIism as a Ioreign
introduction in Islam. It may be noted here that SuIism, as well as the
perspective oI tashbih that it emphasizes, are both Qur'anic in their
origin and legitimacy. SuIism does not contain more Ioreign inIluences
than what is the case with classical taIsir; the mere presence oI non-
Islamic inIluences does not make either oI them a Ioreign introduction in
Islam.
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Similar sayings are Iound in Clement oI Alexandria, Gregory oI
Nyssa, Ambrose, Evagrius, Augustine, etc.
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Ibn Al-Arabi's notion oI the perIect human being seems to be
identical with the Qur'anic notion oI khalifah (God's vicegerent on
earth); both should be seen as possibilities or potentialities, not as a right
that one possesses simply on account oI being born a Homo sapience.
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I am not sure iI Ibn Al-Arabi would agree with this interpretation oI
human destiny. In twentieth century Islam, the most eloquent proponent
oI selI-aIIirming mysticism has been Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938) who
had an ambivalent relationship with Ibn Al-Arabi. See his Secrets of the
Self, English translation by R. A. Nicholson. London: MacMillan and
Company Ltd., 1920.



© 2003, Society Ior Scriptural Reasoning
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