Reading Ibn Arabi in Derrida’s time.

Book Review – Ummu Habeeba

Book – Sufism and Deconstruction: A Comparative Study of Derrida and Ibn ‘Arab

Author – iIan Almond

Could we imagine a twelfth-century Sufi master comparable to the doyen of post-structuralism,  Jacques Derrida? How do we relate a Sufi text such as ‘The Bezels of Wisdom’ to that of a post-Structuralist text? Is it a-historical to draw possible relationships between two people who lived in different time and space? Be that as it may, is it still not possible to find common causes among medieval Islamic scholars who engaged in philosophical debates concerning God, his attributes, the extent to which we can talk about his being and post-structuralists who dared disrupting the enlightenment notion of reason, self, and the other? These are the questions, I have been asking myself after having finished reading Ian Almond’s ‘Sufism and Deconstruction: A Comparative Study of Derrida and Ibn Arabi.’

When Derrida insists on demolishing the epistemic walls built around the sphere of language and literature, Ibn Arabi is adamant on questioning the philosophers and theologians who failed to understand the simultaneous transcendence and immanence of God. They enable a critique of rationalmetaphysical thought. However, if Derrida talks about semantic liberation, it is spiritualitymysticism that hovers around Ibn Arabi’s texts. For him, it is idolatrous to learn about the divinity for understanding social and legal practices and claim what is orthodox and what is heresy. He talks about an unthinkable God which is antithesis to what philosophers and theologians often think in terms of God and his attributes. This is where Derrida comes closer to Ibn Arabi. Derrida sees all metaphysical thinkers as basing their thought-systems upon a center which, as he says, is never really the center, rather a signifier which leads to other signifiers . Ffor him, there are only contexts, without any absolute center. Meanwhile, The sheikh sees all philosophical attempt of building ideas about God on something that is not really God. For him, among the endless images and forms, the philosophers and theologians have built their idea of God based on one or two images, mistaking them for Real. Ibn Arabi says that all these theologies are idolatries if they do not understand the infinite divine imaginations.

Both Derrida and Ibn Arabi delineated in great detail about the importance of confusion in pursuing knowledge. While Derrida conceptualizes confusion as the essential philosophical state, Ibn Arabi sees it as a temporary prelude to enlightenment ( ma’rifa), a mystical station where individual ego annihilates in divinity.

Ibn Arabi explains a series of stages to be traversed, of which confusion or bewilderment is only one, before annihilating our ego in the divine power. Thus, rather than essentializing God and his attributes, he postpones the imminent meaning of God. Like Ibn Arabi, Derrida too wants us to live in bewilderment regarding God. His insistence on the rejection of simplicity concerning God is analogous to Ibn Arabi’s continuous Quranic invocation that God is beyond our materialistic imaginations. For Derrida, living in bewilderment helps one to negate or disrupt the essentialized notions about the author, the text, and the reader. Whereas, Ibn Arabi has it that the state of confusion or perplexity concerning God will not allow one to impose a particular image or meaning onto the divine.

For me, living in pleasure and privilege is the ontological violence to those, whose human existence is an endless struggle to narrate themselves, to realize their being and becoming, an epistemic and an ontological voyage that disrupts our romantic way of understanding the other.I would argue that Sufism and deconstruction could be a guide to negate all forms of power , be it race, caste, gender, sexuality etc, and relocate our being in a social location that is ontologically situated outside of dominant power narratives.

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