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Sufism Spiritual Hermeneutics In The Sufism Of Ibn Arabi


Jun 1, 2004
Spiritual Hermeneutics in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi
Baljit Singh*

The word hermeneutics has recently become quite popular among the philosophy, social sciences and literary circles. But this is not something novel or modern. Hermeneutics originally meant interpretation of texts. This goes back to the ancient period of interpreting Greek, Latin and Sanskrit texts. The need of philosophy and exegetical studies was recognised by most philosophers and other speculators of all ages.

Originally hermeneutics has two primary functions: first to ascertain the exact meaning-context of a text, word or sentence; secondly, to discover the messages and significations contained in symbolic forms. Gradually its scope extended and the task became multifarious. To the modern exponents hermeneutics does not imply interpretation of classical lore and historical texts merely, it includes exploring the meaning and milieu of all human actions and intentions.

The Sufi Abu Bakr Muhammad Ibn Arabi was born in 1165 at Murica in Andalusia. In esoteric circles of Islam he is called 'Muhyi-al-din' 'the animator of religion' and 'ash-sheikh al-akbar' - 'the greatest master'. Amongst his works that survive 'the Futuhat al-Makkiya' and 'Fusus al Hikam' are the most celebrated. Futuhat is a kind of encyclopaedia of the Sufi doctrines. Ibn Arabi is mostly remembered for his theme of the wahdat-al-wajud (Oneness of being). This concept, according to Sirdar Kapur Singh, is very near to the spirit of Sikhism. Hermeneutics, or Tawil in the Islamic terminology, for Ibn Arabi was not only a theoretical activity but an applied science of soul in his sufi practice.

The language of Ibn Arabi, although at times abstract, is essentially symbolic one and makes use of all forms of symbolism ranging from the poetical to geometrical and mathematical. The principal involved in the use of symbols is basic one. According to Syyed Hossein Hasr it is what Ibn Arabi calls tawil, meaning literally to take something back to its origin or beginning. In the Universe nothing is just what it appears to be; that is, its reality is not exhausted by its exterior. Every phenomenon implies a noumenon, or, in Islamic terms, every exterior (Zahir) must have an enterior (batin). The process of tawil, or of spiritual hermeneutics, means going from Zahir to the batin, from the outward reality to the inner one. This could have been a message for Kant who denied any passage to noumenon.

For Ibn Arabi, as for other Sufis, symbolism is of vital importance, to the extent that the Universe speaks to them in the language of symbols and that everything besides its external value, has a symbolic significance as well. According to Ibn Arabi, the process of tawil can be applied to all phenomenon of Nature and all that surrounds man in his terrestrial life. This is so akin to the modern thought, especially, Heideggerian Existentialism, Mary Warnock, an authority on Existentialism writes, "The world is thought of as a Code, or set of symbols, and the purpose of the phenomenology is to interpret it. Thus Heideggar uses the expression 'hermeneutic phenomenology'". Moreover, the tenets of religion and the events occuring within the soul of man are also subject to this fundamental process of inner penetration of exegesis.

In Arabic, the phenomena of Nature, the verses of the Qur'an in which the Revelation is contained, and the inner states of soul are called ayat, that is, portentous signs. The Sufis compare the soul to the cosmos, on the one hand, and to the Qur'an on the other, identifying the higher states of being of the soul with the esoteric meanings of the Qur'an. There are seven degrees of existence for the soul as there are seven heavens and seven levels of interpretation. Of the Quran. The Sufi penetrates into the meanings of the manifestations and beliefs of religion and, finally, into his own soul and discovers, within all of them, the same spiritual essences for which these diverse realities are so many symbols. The writings of Ibn Arabi clearly depict the application of the method of symbolic heremeneutics to the revealed text, the Qur'an - as well as to the Universe whose creation is based upon the "blue-print" of the "macrocosmic Qur'an" and to his soul which as the microcosm contains all the realities of the Universe within itself. There is thus a macrocosmic as well as a microcosmic aspect to revelation. (cf Nasr)

Many Sufis have expounded cosmology in terms of the symbolism of the letters of the Arabic Alphabet as well as in terms of the Divine Names whose inner meaning is closely tied to their very shape when in the Arabic script. For Ibn Arabi and other Sufis the letters of the Arabic alphabet, that is, the letters of the sacred language of the Qur'an, symbolises the celestial essences of possibilities, which are manifested in the Universe as well as in the Qur'an. In the 'Futuhat', Ibn Arabi combines astrological symbolism with the science of names and letters by making each of the 28 stations of the moon correspond to the 28 letters of the Arabic Alphabet, each planet to one of the prophets and each sign of the Zodiac to one of the Divine Qualities so that the Universe is, thus, "Muslimized" and the revolution of the heavens appears as a process by which the light of Being is disseminated through the Universe by the various Qualities which "polarize" its light.

Thus cosmos is a print of macrocosmic Qur'an because the Divine Qualities described as the Divine Names in the Qur'an are immanent in the Universe as the Divine possibilities through which God manifests Himself in the world just as He describes himself in the Qur'an. Cosmos is an infinite display of ayat or signs, the intellectual interpretations and contemplation of which leads one back toward the absolute and unitive truth of God. Tawil or spiritual hermeneutics or symbolic exegesis is the science by which the Sufi realizes his eternal identity with God. Parallel passages, according to the late Prof. Puran Singh, can be quoted from the Sikh Scriptures in which the Universe is called an inscription. "These objects are the words by which we read life" - as in the Japji of Guru Nanak.


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