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Ibn ‘Arabī and Modern Thought
Peter Coates was Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Lincoln, where he taught courses in the philosophy of psychology. Since retiring he has, in the context of courses offered by the Beshara School, been involved, both in the UK and Australia, in residential courses for students of Ibn Arabi.
His book Ibn ʿArabi and Modern Thought - The history of taking metaphysics seriously was issued by Anqa Publishing.
Articles by Peter Coates
Podcasts by Peter Coates
The intellectual authorities of modernity are legion and diverse. In relation to modern philosophy, sociology and psychology there has been a decided tendency for this sub-set of disciplines to legislate what counts as acceptable rational enquiry and what constitute legitimate claims to know. In modern philosophy, in particular, there have been attempts to demarcate legitimate knowledge from disreputable metaphysics directly in line with Kant’s and Hume’s concern to curb what were deemed to be the extravagances and excesses of the speculative human intellect. More generally, modern philosophy, sociology and psychology have been much influenced by the scientific and technological world-view of modernity, both in their theorizing and their preferred methodologies. There can be little doubt that the findings of (and debates within) these academic perspectives, both collectively and separately, raise serious questions about the whole concept of rationality and its epistemological credentials which have implications far beyond the disciplines themselves. These are questions which make it pertinent and timely to ask how these preferred epistemologies of modern thought look in the light of the metaphysics of Wahdat al-Wujud. What follows are some preliminary observations, which form the basis of a more extended study, entitled “Ibn ‘Arabī: Degrees of Knowledge” and sub-titled “Modern Thought and the History of taking Metaphysics Seriously”.
First of all, even with only a precursory understanding of Ibn ‘Arabī’s viewpoint, one can hardly fail to be struck by the alarming modern-ness and freshness of his insights and the somewhat astonishing glimpses they afford into the era and times in which we live. We, as it were, quickly become aware that in reading Ibn ‘Arabī we are not dealing with some medieval theological fossil unrelated to modern times. It is one of the aims of the book (mentioned above) to show that, in fact, we are not dealing with a fossil at all but with the here and now. One might say that the reading of Ibn ‘Arabī is capable of transforming one’s view of the era of modernity: capable of reconceptualizing its metaphysical co-ordinates in order to bring out hitherto unnoticed features of its landscape. In short, we are presented with an invaluable opportunity to go beyond the self-descriptions of an age, particularly when this age is our own. In an important sense Ibn ‘Arabī and modernity are at home and, perhaps contrary to some opinion, not at all essentially antithetical. This, I suggest, is for two reasons: firstly, because of the universality and generosity of his vision, and secondly, because of his understanding of what constitutes the Era and, in particular, by extrapolation, what constitutes the unprecedented nature and actuality of our own times. These two considerations (and much, much more) are encapsulated in that remarkable and evocative hadith rendered in Ismail Hakki Bursevi’s translation and commentary on the Fusus al-Hikam by Ibn ‘Arabī in the Chapter on Aaron as “Do not revile the era, because the era, it is God.”
First, then, a word about the inestimable influence of the universality and generosity of Ibn ‘Arabī’s vision on my understanding of the relationship between the metaphysics of Ibn ‘Arabī and modernity. In this respect I would like to quote myself – that is, to read a small snippet from the first chapter of my book which deals with the book’s specific orientation and the contribution it proposes to make to the study of Ibn ‘Arabī. It is a theme of the book that there is an inescapable logical and historical entanglement between metaphysics and modern thought: a theme which would be lessened if it were not to include an understanding of a general feature of Ibn ‘Arabī’s metaphysical outlook which it is important to hold in view. This feature is difficult to pin down but it is extremely important – it is a kind of tolerance, openness and metaphysically-inspired generosity of outlook. It is the kind of outlook which will have nothing to do with the petty and the mean-spirited or the dogmatic and the intolerant. It is an outlook which continually re-affirms the great nature which God has essentially bestowed upon the human Self in making man in His image. There is a vastness about Ibn ‘Arabī’s metaphysics which makes it antithetical to any narrow religious fundamentalism or closedness and inflexibility of mind. In brief, Ibn ‘Arabī’s metaphysical writings reflect the strength, generosity and grandeur inherent in the vision of the original unity alluded to in the description Wahdat al-Wujud.
From the point of view of such an all-embracing outlook it becomes clear that any analytical treatment of modern thought such as the book proposes requires that we give to modern intellectual authorities (like philosophy, social science and psychology) their due place and value. That is, give to them at least the value and importance that any student of modern culture, history, philosophy, science or literature would give who has benefited from their intellectual force, content and forms of analyses. The theoretical architecture of modern thought will quite legitimately continue to “roam in its own specific playing field”, to use Ibn ‘Arabī’s own locution. We must avoid any closedness or inflexibility of mind regarding it: for, in one sense, modern theoretical culture is an ever-open playing field capable of self-transformation. Or to put the matter in another way, it is fruitful to avoid any fundamentalist conceptualization of it, secular or otherwise. Modern thought reflexively encapsulates and refracts, in one way or another, the defining characteristics of our own era. It also exemplifies the predispositions of the intellectual authorities themselves. We need not conclude, therefore, that contemporary theoretical discourse is to be regarded as anything absolute or self-sufficient. If we allow that the intellectual authorities of modernity (and perhaps postmodernity?) to some extent reflexively encode the self-descriptions of the age, then to go beyond these descriptions is not to see them as groundless or worthless but to see them rather as limiting cases or particular theoretical frames of reference which illustrate, within the axiomatic co-ordinates of their respective domains, the principle of the immanencing of knowledge so vividly portrayed in the saying (often referred to by Ibn ‘Arabī) “I conform to the opinion my servant has of me”. There can be little doubt that this important principle is perfectly in keeping with the metaphysical largesse of Ibn ‘Arabī’s viewpoint.
But as we know, Ibn ‘Arabī’s is much more than a metaphysical theory. In fact, it is not primarily a metaphysical theory at all, although it can be to some extent metaphysically formulated as, for instance, Izutsu’s classical study exemplifies. Again I quote from my own study:
What is clear is that the metaphysics of Ibn ‘Arabī is not a personal intellectual construction of his own. To conceive it as such would be to misconstrue the whole point that the metaphysics of Wahdat al-Wujud intends to convey. It is precisely because it is not a personal intellectual construction that it avoids the accusation of being based on the extravagances of the human intellect. If such metaphysical insights concerning “the whole as a whole” are left off the intellectual agenda or left unaddressed one can never be sure that local, regional, cultural and intellectual preferences are not mistaken for a more universal point of view.
This point raises the whole question of the status and epistemological reliability of the intellectual constructions of modernity. Chapter Two of the book deals extensively with this philosophical question. It deals with the authority Ibn ‘Arabī ascribes to reflective reason as a source of knowledge in the light of Kant’s and Hume’s attempt to curb the excesses of speculative reason and further in the light of the Kantian imperative for “the self examination of reason by itself”. This leads to a careful consideration of two very influential intellectual constructions of the twentieth century: Logical Empiricism and Modern Existentialism. Of course, the Logical Empiricists were influenced very much by their interpretation and reading of another famous and equally influential twentieth century philosophical classic: Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. For quite some time scientifically inspired Empiricist views of the nature of knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, became dominant in all kinds of academic areas including, in particular, modern philosophy and modern psychology. By contrast I chose to examine contemporary Existentialism because of its antithetical stance towards the dominance of a purely objective scientific attitude towards human knowledge. Between them these two contemporary schools of thought represented, on the one hand, a philosophy of the Object and, on the other hand, a philosophy of the Subject. And even more importantly they illustrated rather nicely the essentially contested nature of human intellectual constructions of this kind and degree of generality. Nietzsche, that alleged inaugurator of modernity, called such views “expedient falsifications of reality” by which he meant that we must recognize the perspectival nature of all humanly constructed systems of knowledge. Of course, much post-empiricist and even postmodern theories of knowledge do recognize this and this perhaps is part of their appeal and strength. Again, quoting from my text:
Part of Ibn ‘ Arabi’s strategy is, if we may employ a semantic item of much postmodern theorizing, to deconstruct and re-evaluate such partial human constructions from a more universal ontological vantage point. A universal viewpoint from which the whole creation is seen as possessing a perfectly rational structure in which “everything” has its allotted place, including human reason itself.
The point is that the contention that reason alone plays a decisive and unequivocal role in the theory-preferences of modernity is far from being borne out, even in such would-be rational procedures as natural science. In the theoretical discourses of philosophy, social science and psychology (the main areas with which the book deals) we can discern quite clearly – more clearly than one might at first be willing to admit – something of what Ibn ‘Arabī meant by the insight that the self-disclosure of the Real conforms to the mental constructions or beliefs of the receptor. We can see rather clearly sometimes that their preferred pictures of reality and preferred epistemologies seem to be equally related to the fundamental predisposition of the person as much as to any processes of reason. Or, to re-orchestrate Hume’s famous dictum, reason is the slave of predisposition. And a slave which, according to Ibn ‘Arabī, can uncover at best a mere fraction of the nature of reality. The findings of unaided reason may sometimes be very useful and even astonishing but they are not only provisional, perspective-dependent and sometimes unreliable but they also do not constitute the epistemic means for arriving at the fullness of truth. Nothing becomes more apparent than this as the theoretical architecture of modernity has increasingly taken up Kant’s challenge to submit reason to “the self-examination of reason by itself”. What is equally interesting is that the prevailing cognitive map provided by the intellectual authorities of modernity (which in one form or another are being assimilated by more and more young people entering higher education) is recognizing, with an acute clarity, the historically positioned and perspective-bound nature of its own productions. Its self-descriptions are largely that: self-descriptions; perhaps the need to move beyond such descriptions will one day be widely and keenly felt. But for this to happen it might not be a bad idea to engage in an assessment of the value of these self-descriptions in a tolerant and generous manner befitting the metaphysics of unity so beloved by Ibn ‘Arabī. My book may help to open a few doors in this direction: it will certainly hopefully ring a few intellectual bells. It is therefore a subtext of the present study that some of its potential readers might come to an understanding of the immediate and contemporary relevance of Ibn ‘Arabī’s thought not in spite of, but in view of their own acquaintance with the theoretical culture of modernity.
So one might say that initially it was the study of Ibn ‘Arabī plus my own professional academic experience of teaching philosophy and modern thought which determined the orientation of the book and its epistemological emphasis on the nature and role of knowledge. It behoves us also to remember that contemporary theorizing in philosophy, sociology and psychology are themselves products of modernity: of modern, industrial, post-industrial technological and global society. In no earlier society could we have had, for example, the development of computational theories of mind – itself a central theoretical issue in modern cognitive science.
Chapter Three is therefore devoted to the very notion of the modern era: its logical contours and characteristics, the intellectual authorities who make it their study, and to an understanding of it vis-a-vis Akbarian metaphysics. It is perhaps this section of the book which touches most directly on the lived-experience of our own times: of the ubiquitous alignment of science and technology with the economic rationality and values of Industrial Capitalism, with the associated ideas of human progress and with the global economy.
Modernity has been described as “the greatest transformation in human history since remote times”. This fundamental qualitative transformation began, according to the historian Eric Hobsbawn, in or about the 1780s.
As I express it in the text:
Thus begins modernity: the era of the Industrial Revolution, of Industrial Capitalism, of Science and Technology. There had, of course, been forms of science and technology long before this but it had never constituted a central defining characteristic of the era. And even more significantly, the adamantine alignment of science and technology with the rationality of Industrial Capitalism was unique in its history and strategic to its prodigious development.
This “Great Transformation”, as it is often described, gave birth to a new kind of intellectual authority – Sociology, whose founder figures provided a series of conceptual maps of the landscape of modernity. The calling cards of modernity undoubtedly became science, technology and economics configured in a historically unique and unprecedented form. Modernity and its consequences became the subject matter of sociology both in the theorizing of its founding triumvirate, Marx, Durkheim and Weber, and its contemporary theorists, like Anthony Giddens. The promises of modernity have suffered some serious setbacks in the twentieth century and there are those critics who suggest that its benefits no longer outweigh its human cost. In one sense, modernity is facing a metaphysical crisis, which at its most abstract level is a crisis about rationality itself. As Giddens, amongst others, suggests, the ever increasing dominance of the economic rationality of Industrial Capitalism, the rationality of the global economy, the ubiquitous rationality of technology and science can be seen to be replacing “tradition” in all forms of life. Written into the logic of modernity, as it were, is the replacement of tradition by reason – or certain forms of reason – what Max Weber called “Zweck-rationality”. In the twentieth century this has translated into an increasing sense of the sheer rapidity and intensity of social, cognitive, historical and global change which is a phenomenon that can bring with it a certain unsettling appreciation of the phrase “all that’s solid melts into air”. Or in Giddens’ words:
Rather than these developments taking us “beyond modernity”, they provide a fuller understanding of the reflexivity inherent in modernity itself. Modernity is not only unsettling because of the circularity of reason, but because the nature of that circularity is puzzling .. . Modernity turns out to be enigmatic at its core, and there seems to be no way in which this enigma can be “overcome”. We are left with questions where once there appeared to be answers, and I shall argue subsequently that it is not only philosophers who realize this. A general awareness of the phenomenon filters into anxieties which press on everyone.
In this sense reason is increasingly seen to be “human, only too human”. In the book I conclude a quite extensive and detailed treatment of these issues with:
Both modernist and postmodernist theories of knowledge are human intellectual-constructions which, if we are to follow the warnings of Ibn ‘Arabī, cannot arrive at “decisive certainty” concerning knowledge of “the Real”. Modernism extols the efficacy of human reason and Postmodernism affirms its inevitable relativity. Both are simply theories of knowledge which, from the point of view of Akbarian metaphysics, lack the theophanic epistemological credentials of Wahdat al-Wujud. When Giddens asserts that “modernity is enigmatic at its core, and there seems to be no way the enigma can be ‘overcome'”, he is perhaps not only attesting to the inability of the “circularity of reason” to overcome this enigma but implicitly recognizing also the boundaries of reason’s “own proper playing field”. According to Ibn ‘Arabī it is a kind of progress for reason to recognize its own epistemological boundaries for it attests to the incapacity of human beings to reach knowledge of the Real via unaided reason. The enigma of modernity can therefore be seen as indicating that we take seriously the possibility of alternative epistemic means of grasping and recognizing the theophanic significance of the era. We can perhaps be reminded of what George Berkeley records in The Principles of Human Knowledge: “We should believe that God has dealt more bountifully with the sons of men than to give to them a strong desire for knowledge which he has placed out of their reach.”
Before leaving this discussion on Ibn ‘Arabī and the Era there is a final observation which it is useful to make. For Ibn ‘Arabī, the modern Era, with its particular determining qualities of science, technology, calculative rationality, globalization, its polytheism of values and its matrix of meta-narratives testifies, like all eras, to the ontological fact “that every day He is engaged upon a task”. The unique configuration of predominating qualities of the modern era are none other than part of the infinity and inherent contents of the Self-disclosure of Being in its love to be known. To envisage the Era in this manner or to contextualize it from the universal point of view of Ibn ‘Arabī is not to alter phenomena, for they are what they are, but to begin to see “the theatre of manifestation” from its own point of origin and essence rather than it being coloured by the predisposition of a particular theorizer. That such a universal vision is existentially possible and attainable is at the heart of Ibn ‘Arabī’s metaphysics.
The final chapter and heart of the book is a look at what all this may mean for an understanding of the Self. It examines the question of the contribution of modern psychology to this central ontological issue. But perhaps enough has already been said to convey a fair idea of what prompted the writing and content of this book.
I could not finish, however, without profoundly acknowledging the generosity and tolerance of Bulent Rauf in providing the opportunity for a student steeped in the analytical tradition of twentieth century Western philosophy to engage in the study of Ibn ‘Arabī. If this was not an act of sheer generosity and tolerance – I do not know what is.
Reprinted from the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society, Vol. XXV, 1999.
 Reprinted from the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi Society, Vol. XXV, 1999. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Annual General Meeting of the Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabī Society in Oxford on 28 November 1998.
 Ismail Hakki Bursevi’s translation of and commentary on Fusus al-Hikam by Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabī. Rendered into English by Bulent Rauf. 4 vols (Oxford, 1986-91), Vol 4, p. 942.
 From W. B. Gallie, ‘Essentially Contested Concepts’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Vol. 56, 1955-56.
 Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity (Cambridge, 1990), p. 39.
 Vol. 35 (Chicago, 1987), p. 405.