Sunday, October 7, 2007

Sufism and Deconstruction

Sounds rather specious? Well read on...

Ian Almond, Sufism and Deconstruction: A Comparative Study of Derrida and Ibn ‘Arabi. London: Routledge, 2004. vii + 166 pp. £ 60.00

The intersection of deconstructive strategies for reading literary texts and the creative (indeed radical) hermeneutics (to borrow Jack Caputo’s phrase) of contemporary theology is becoming the mainstay of an exciting developing in thinking about the nature of God and religious texts. Caputo, Jean-Luc Marion and other eminent Catholic thinkers have already begin the process of juxtaposing the hermeneutical and heuristic insights of Jacques Derrida (and other post-Nietzschean and post-Heideggerian thinkers) with foundational scriptural texts and their pre-modern interpreters. In particular, there has been a notable tendency to compare medieval mystics and their playful usage and deconstruction of language with Derridean dissemination and difference.

The present work under review turns the deconstructive gaze towards the pre-eminent medieval Andalusian Sufi Ibn ‘Arabi (d. 1240) and attempts a critical comparison of his thought with Derrida’s on key issues such as the critique of hegemonic reason, the aporetic value of perplexity, the hermeneutics of the text and secrets of uncovering mystery. As befits a teacher of English literature, Almond’s work is directed towards specialists in literature and literary theory who are increasingly aware in the tradition of Caputo et al of the ‘religious turn’ of Derrida. The work thus focuses on one aspect of the intersection of Sufism and deconstruction and thus renders the main title is bit misleading. Almond links the analyses of Meister Eckhart and medieval mystics present in Derrida’s work with the interpretative strategies of Ibn ‘Arabi, especially since he describes Ibn ‘Arabi as the Muslim Meister Eckhart. He is not the first to notice the possible ‘deconstructive’ elements of the Sufi’s thought; in a work entitled Allah Transcendent: Studies in the Structure and Semiotics of Islamic Philosophy, Theology and Cosmology published in 1989, Ian Netton argued that Ibn ‘Arabi’s theological discourse and hermeneutics of the text is entirely reminiscent of a post-structuralist, deconstructionist reading. The excitement which non-specialists from theology and literature (and even some generally interested observers and practitioners of ‘spirituality’) exhibit towards Ibn ‘Arabi, whose work and studies on them are increasingly available in English and other European languages is reminiscent of the popular appeal of the Persian Sufi poet Jalal al-Din Rumi (d. 1274) in versions by Coleman Barks. Almond’s work is far more esoteric. Drawing upon the excellent scholarship of Ibn ‘Arabi specialists such as William Chittick, he attempts to reach out to new readerships and present Sufi thought beyond the rather restricted intellectual ghetto of Islamic Studies. For those of us who do work within that ghetto, attempt to reach out to our wider disciplinary fields is more than welcome as such moves demonstrate the disciplinary contributions that our work can make. Not for Almond the traditionalism and hesitancy to juxtapose Ibn ‘Arabi, a figure from the 12th and 13th centuries with modern thinkers. The charge of incommensurability and anachronism is pre-empted and discarded.

There is little point in quibbling about details, lack of linearity, selectivity and the oblivion of key aspects of Ibn ‘Arabi’s thought since they go against the grain of the Derridean approach which deliberately violates such barriers. Intentionalist, positivist, conventionalist and historicist scholars will probably be appalled by the method in this book. But that is what makes it potentially exciting and interesting, allowing for historical figures to emerge out of antiquarian interest into living dialogic relationship in contemporary academic fields of religious studies, literary studies and philosophy.

Chapter 1 allies Derrida’s critique of logocentrism and the myth of reason’s rule with Ibn ‘Arabi’s critical stance on the use of ratiocination and philosophical argument. Difference and the Sufi Real are related as similarly elusive notions. But the fleeting nature of definition and the incapacity of human attempts at ‘restricting the Real’ do not amount to any rejection. Admittedly Ibn ‘Arabi’s metaphysics is quite distinct from Aristotelianism. Nevertheless, ontological foundations and commitments are not eschewed, somewhat in the same manner of a critique of Derrida that would pose his explicit rejection of metaphysics to be in itself a ‘metaphysics in reverse’.

Chapter 2 plays on the double sense of the term confusion, a dissipation of meaning as well as the coming together of two flows. Bewilderment is a good thing. But again one wonders whether Ibn ‘Arabi’s sense of perplexity has more in common with the Socratic aporetic than with Derrida’s transgression against the linear clarity of the metaphysical tradition. The ultimate aim for Ibn ‘Arabi does indeed remain gnosis; his method is, to use the title of Chittick’s first famous work on him, the path of knowledge, which must necessarily begin with ignorance and confusion and lead to knowledge even if that is reversed in the notion of the docta ignorantia of the Neoplatonic tradition. Locating Ibn ‘Arabi within this tradition would provide at times for a more fruitful comparison given the works already dedicated to an application of Derrida to Neoplatonisms.

Chapter 3 moves onto the infinite textuality and the lack of closure in the text. However, multiple meaning still require some ethics of interpretation as well as a discussion of how and who may interpret and what their limits are. The inherent elitism of Ibn ‘Arabi (and of Derrida) cannot allow for a free infinitude of meanings.

Chapter 4 examines secrets, dissemination and disclosure. Unveiling meanings, esoteric readings of the text and rending the veil of mystery are common themes of Sufi hermeneutics and Almond could have made a greater contribution by locating Ibn ‘Arabic within the wider tendency. The conclusion ends with a consideration of how both Derrida and Ibn ‘Arabi herald the end of the subject, the death of the author and the dissonance between ‘God’ and the ‘Real’. Their strategies do indeed force us to think carefully and to revise our conceptual schemes. Other potential themes that Almond could have addressed but did not could include a study of the notion of the apocalyptic.

Traditional historians of religion and especially specialists on Ibn ‘Arabi will probably not like this book; it is often too far removed from the text and contexts of the Sufi’s work. Nevertheless, this is a challenging and interesting attempt at communicating Ibn ‘Arabi’s ideas through the prism of Derrida to a wider audience who would neither read the original or the studies of Chittick et al. For this, Almond ought to be encouraged.

[PS I will be posting a review of his latest work The New Orientalists soon]


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