Published online by Cambridge University Press: 16 June 2020
The challenge of what this book has been calling the devotional object is not a new one. The solutions I’ve developed, such as the “resisting” object, or the “scattered subject” that violates material and temporal boundaries, might sound novel, but the paradigm and its challenges were recognized long ago in medieval Islam. One elegant and provocative statement on the matter came from the mystical philosopher Ibn ‘Arabi, who in the late twelfth century traveled from Islamic Spain, through Egypt, and settled permanently in Damascus. Despite his prodigious literary output, his lifelong obsession was the puzzle of the one and the many, or in more Islamic terms, the paradox of creation emanating from God, yet somehow remaining substantively independent. For Muslim mystics who came after him, Ibn ‘Arabi’s vast reflections on this paradox were a fertile place to explore issues such as the relation of the self to truth and to God. When the issue has been framed around the problem of an existence shared between the Creator and creation, the boundaries between knowing the self and knowing God seem to falter. Dancing across borders, Ibn ‘Arabi also turns toward the challenge of the devotional object. In his discussion of the prophet Elijah, Ibn ‘Arabi emphasizes the dual nature of truth, which extends beyond the transcendental to include the immanent. Employing a provocative technique, which remains controversial today because it does not shy away from pointing out the faults of some of God’s prophets, he focuses on the limitations of Elijah’s mission. After returning from his mystical vision, Ibn ‘Arabi tells us Elijah had lost his ability to lust, retaining only his intellect. Rather than taking this as the perfection of the prophet’s soul, finally having risen above the lower human appetites, Ibn ‘Arabi claims that complete wisdom is now impossible for the prophet. The fullest realization includes not only the intellect, but also the mute knowledge of the passions, which Ibn ‘Arabi at one point calls becoming “pure animal.” Building beyond the Aristotelian identification of a rational faculty peculiar to humans, the provocative lesson for us is to seek the wider embrace of all “things in (both) principle and in form” (bi-usuliha wa suwariha).