In my work on apophatic mysticism and philosophies of the unsayable, I have often encountered outstanding figures of genius who have made unmistakable the eminent role that Muslims have played in developing knowledge which, at its truest and highest, cannot but be an unknowing knowing. These voices and visionaries from medieval Muslim tradition are among the finest and subtlest witnesses illuminating our human predicament in which knowledge that can claim genuine universality can only be cast in the mode of learned ignorance. However, the wisdom of unknowing is one that needs to be approached cross-culturally because only the limits of any and every culture can open the dimension of the universal as transcending all cultures and their historically relative terms. Muslim culture, in this regard truly cognate with its Jewish and Christian sister cultures, has made strong claims to universality throughout its history. These claims have also been based on the sense of a transcendent divinity as source of all truth and value and as approachable for humans only by negative ways and means. In this essay, I explore these themes by looking at the mystical philosophy of Ibn al-Arabi, ineffability in the poetry of Rumi, and self-reflection in Arab medieval thinkers I compare them with similar notions in Western mystical traditions.
Ibn al-Arabi and Mystic Philosophy
Called the ‘supreme master’ or ‘greatest shaikh’ (al-Shaikh al-akbar), Ibn al-Arabi (1165–1240) is widely recognised as representing the peak of speculation in the mystic current of Islamic tradition known as ‘Sufism.’ He was born in Murcia in Andalusia into the midst of the great age of Muslim influence over the southern Iberian Peninsula from the eighth through the fifteenth century. However, with the rising power of the Almohads, generally suspicious of Sufis, he migrated from Spain to North Africa and thence to the Near East, summoned to Mecca in a vision and eventually settling in Damascus. Alongside the voluminous Meccan Revelations (al–Futuhat al-Makkiyah), the Bezels of Wisdom (Fusus al-Hikam) counts as his major work from among about 400 extant treatises that can be genuinely attributed to him.
Like Sufis before him and especially like al-Ghazali (1058–111), Ibn al-Arabi’s principal emphasis is on the oneness of truth and the unity of being (wahdat al-wujud). Wisdom is to wake up to one’s own identity with Reality (al-Haqq: the Real, the True), with Being-Perception. Outside this Oneness, all is illusion. Whatever is, to the extent that it is, cannot but be really just this oneness. Even the illusion of separateness belongs intrinsically to Reality’s consciousness of itself.