Greetings of Peace. This blog contains selections from my correspondence and other sources on a variety of subjects related to religion, philosophy, and spirituality. I hope that they may be of benefit to the interested reader. Concerning the title of the blog, read this entry.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Dogmatism and the Traditional School

Not everyone has the capacity to drink directly from the spring of intellectual intuition as it wells up within the depths of the heart and I do not think that anyone should be chastised for delighting in the reproduction of passages of great profundity and beauty. Nevertheless, I do think that I know where your perspective is coming from. Most schools of thought pass through a period of initial creative impetus to one of reflection and systematization and the traditional school appears to be no exception. If there is any opportunity for true originality, perhaps it belongs most appropriately neither to the dilettante nor the codifier, but solely to the gnostic himself who is not of necessity confined within the boundaries and limitations of academic discourse, even if he or she happens to be a scholar.

I am reminded of a passage that I recently encountered in the Fahrasa of Ibn Ajiba. While detailing some of the spiritual charisms to which he bore witness, he recounted the following episode:

"Another time when I had gone to the mosque, also during the Night of Destiny, I remained to make the invocation after the dawn prayer and suddenly saw a man walking between the columns saying: "la ilaha illa llah; the market is finished!" I retorted: "There is still the Living One who does not die!" He then disappeared from my sight and replied: "What you say is true!" Then he added: "I composed a book in which I wrote, 'so and so said,' 'so and so said'; and did I get results?" Then he continued: "If you want to write, let it come from you!" I understood that he was referring to a work that I was writing in which I was repeating lots of things the ancient authors had said; he was bringing my attention to the fact that I should use my own faculties of thought to take out what was inside me."


The tendency to supply a collection of quotations in lieu of didactic exposition is for me one of the most striking characteristics of most classical and some contemporary Sufi manuals which also served as something of a challenge when I was not yet accustomed to it. I think that it may have been influenced by the precedents set by the codifiers of the Hadith with their meticulous documentation of the chains of narration as well as the tendencies toward self-effacement and reverence for tradition that you identified. Ibn Ajiba, who lived much closer to our era, may have been guided in his inspiration to recognize that, in the words of Frithjof Schuon, "what is needed in our time, and indeed in every age remote from the origins of Revelation, is to provide some people with keys fashioned afresh — keys no better than the old ones but merely more elaborated — in order to help them rediscover the truths written in an eternal script in the very substance of man's spirit."


What I had in mind concerning the boundaries and limitations of academia, quite irrespective of the current popular ideologies in circulation, are the rules of expression and exposition. Perhaps first and foremost of these is the rejection of authoritative expression in the absence of adequate documentation. This precludes the possibility of transmitting theoretical gnosis in this context, intellectual intuition, the mundus imaginalis, or the Prophet Idris for example, not being valid scholarly references.

Historically, it seems, most writings that we consider traditional did not ascribe to these types of self-imposed formal limitations. Nevertheless, not only do I agree with you that this does not make academic writing inherently bad by any means, I would also point out that there are many notable exceptions, writings presented according to the rules of western scholarship, but which possess a greater significance that may easily be overlooked because of this.

An excellent example of this is William Chittick's Ibn Arabi: Heir to the Prophets. On the surface, it appears to be simply another contemporary study of Ibn Arabi but upon further examination it proves to be not merely an academic work but a veritable contemporary Akbarian treatise, comparable to Abd al-Karim al-Jili's Universal Man, and rightly belonging to that heritage. There is even a noticeable tension in the work between the author's own inspired elocutions which frequently take center stage as it were, and the desire to maintain within the boundaries of scholarly acceptability by frequently mentioning Ibn Arabi's name, summarizing his perspective, or providing the occasional citation.

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