Orhan Pamuk in The Black Book jokingly referred to Ibn ‘Arabi as “the existentialist of all time.” In his Sufism and Deconstruction: A Comparative Study of Derrida and Ibn ‘Arabi, Ian Almond, a teacher of English literature at Bosphorus University, is not interested in giving the medieval Sufi mystic a catchy label. Rather, his aim is to juxtapose Derrida’s hermeneutics with distinctive Sufi rhetoric. One of the main goals of this ambitious study is to show how a deconstructive process similar to Derrida’s can be found in the writings of Ibn ‘Arabi. Almond raises an intriguing question: “How analogous can the vocabulary of a Sufi saint be to the work of contemporary French theorist?” His book shows that “the work of Ibn ‘Arabi, far from being obscure Sufi esotericism encrypted in mystical Eastern terminology, actually asks the same questions and moves in some similar directions as a number of familiar figures in the West.”
Ibn ‘Arabi was born in 1165 in Murcia, Spain and died in 1240 in Damascus. Even though orthodox Muslim believers might never have read any of his works (ironically they might have at least heard of Derrida), he has been acknowledged to be one of the most important spiritual teachers within Sufism, the mystical tradition of Islam. His philosophy has been described as Neoplatonist and his religious views, pantheist. One of the main themes that run through Ibn ‘Arabi’s work is non-duality of God and the universe. His work is firmly rooted in the Quran, but his interpretation is far from orthodox. When the Quran declares, “There is but one God,” Ibn ‘Arabi maintains, “There is nothing but God.” To Ibn ‘Arabi the divine is the essence of everything, not the cause:
By knowing itself, the Divine essence knows all things within itself. Nevertheless it distinguishes them from itself as objects of its knowledge. This, however, does not imply that there is some duality between the known object and the knowing subject. Since, the Divine essence is the knower, the known and the knowing, there exists complete unity of the subject, the object, the function that establishes a relationship between them. (Landau 28)
Why compare Ibn ‘Arabi and Derrida? Even though Derrida never wrote anything substantial about Islam, he showed a keen interest in negative theology. In particular, he wrote about Meister Eckhart (1260-1327), to whose work Ibn ‘Arabi’s has been compared. As Almond explains, Ibn ‘Arabi, like Eckhart, elaborated on the themes that fascinated Derrida: “mistrust of metaphysics and rationality, insistence on openness, the idea of ‘God’ as construct, a hidden divinity in the soul, a radically generous hermeneutics” (Almond 6).
Derrida’s interest was primarily in the semantics (“ungovernable text”) and ‘Arabi’s, the spiritual (“unthinkability of God”), but secular and religious realms may not be as far away as they seem. Almond finds many parallels between the two thinkers’ concerns:
- Mistrust in the ability of rational thought/metaphysics in the context of God.
- Insistence on the ultimate ungraspability of the Real/writing.
- A positive appraisal of “confusion” as a genuine means of “breaking through” to the Other/Real beyond our metaphysical constrictions.
- Infinite impossibility of the text.
- Secret and Illusion.
- Disbelief in the autonomous substantiality of the self.
Of course, there are differences between Derrida and Ibn ‘Arabi. In Derridean terms, words like “transcendence” and “immanence” are “semantic vacuities.” One can only be understood as the absence of the other. In contrast, Ibn ‘Arabi did not ask whether the signifier can ever lead to anything other than the signifier itself: “Ibn ‘Arabi still believes in the positive, independent signification of such words and he still believes these meanings to be opposed to one another” (Almond 25). Nevertheless, Ibn ‘Arabi’s God deconstructs the opposition that the thinker himself did not abandon:“Ibn ‘Arabi believes in a God paradoxical enough, all comprehensive enough, impossible enough to be both immanent and transcendent at the same time. If Derrida rejects binary oppositions because it veils an absence, Ibn ‘Arabi resents the dualism because it veils a presence — the presence of a paradox, the ultimate, unthinkable Oneness of God” (Almond 25).
What might we gain from pondering the “uncanny similarity” between Sufi thinkers like Ibn ‘Arabi and modern philosophers like Derrida, as well as Benjamin, Blanchot, and Foucault whose works Almond also discusses in the last chapter of the book? Personally, I found the comparison of Ibn ‘Arabi and Derrida to be very stimulating and rather unsettling at times. These thinkers challenge us to rethink what we take for granted. Whether it is the idea of God or the Real, as Almond notes, “they wake us up to the overconfidence with which, all too often, we dupe ourselves whenever we talk about ‘truths’ we have never really questioned.” Might their thought be a useful antidote to the overconfidence of orthodox Muslims and secular liberals alike?
Sufism and Deconstruction is not an easy book for lay persons unversed in both Islam and modern Western philosophy. The book will reward those who have previous familiarity with the two thinkers and are willing to undertake further readings much more than those who casually pick up a copy of it. But it is worth making efforts to understand it.
Almond, I. (2004). Sufism and Deconstruction: A Comparative Study of Derrida and Ibn ‘Arabi. London and New York: Routledge.
Landau, R. (1959). The Philosophy of Ibn ‘Arabi. London: Ruskin House.
Sharif Islam is a Research Programmer at the University of Illinois Library Systems Office. Read his blog: Khepa Baul.