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The Anti-Caliph: Ibn 'Arabi, Inner Wisdom, and the Heretic Tradition
by Peter Lamborn Wilson
III. Ibn 'Arabi and the Heretics
In the long and beautiful introduction to his Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi, the late Henry Corbin summarized, in effect, an idiosyncratic philosophy of `Oriental Wisdom' which illuminated all his writing. This essay presents itself as rooted in a tradition: Corbin mentions all his favourite figures (many of the same listed in the 'silsilah' of the present text as well). Corbin's essay focusses on certain events in the biography of the Shaykh al-Akbar, but Corbin's sub-text is in fact his own spiritual autobiography. As he says, he has lived certain events, temporal and a- temporal, historical and spiritual. The ta'vil in this context serves as more than a tool of the intellect or even of the Imagination: like a bathysphere, it offers to plunge the entire self, body included, into the depths - a Catastrophe Machine!
One of these events, Ibn 'Arabi's birthday, provokes in Corbin an indulgence in sheer occult synchronicity, the celebration of a coincidence which assumed for him an archetypal importance. According to the lunar calendar, this birthday (17 Ramazan 560/July 28, 1165) marked the first anniversary of the proclamation of the Great Resurrection at Alamut (17 Ramazan 559/August 8, 1164). Corbin's exquisite hagiography invites us to meditate on this double anniversary, this holiday, but does not stop to explain why. A clue has been offered, or perhaps one of Corbin's obsessions has briefly and rather mysteriously surfaced. What was the Great Resurrection and what connection might it have with lbn 'Arabi beside a happenstance of dating?
Corbin himself had plenty to say on the subject in other books, which cannot be too highly recommended. Here however a somewhat different slant is proposed, one based on the literal significance of the Great Resurrection of Ruz-i Qiyamat. In brief, Hassan 11, the Ismaili Pir of Alamut, proclaimed on this day a general esoteric abrogation of the Shariah. The veil of dissimulation (tagiyya) was lifted from the letter of the Law, and its outer form was shattered. 'The Chains of the Law have been broken.' The uncovering of the inner meaning of Revelation results in a benign reversal of its outward symbolism; those who participate in this gnosis are freed from both the, literal meaning and the legal stipulations of organized religion. In both senses of the word they have broken the code. The Ismailis (or 'Assassins') of Alamut signalled this general amnesty from the tyranny of Exoteric Authority by drinking wine for lunch in the middle of Ramazan: thus they broke their Fast forever.
Outward Islam must of necessity view the Qiyamat as antinomian, heretical and revolutionary - and indeed it did so, with good reason. No doubt, as Corbin emphasizes, Ismailism was primarily gnosis, Oriental Wisdom - but it also acted with overt militancy and stealthy terror to propagandize itself. In Islamdom, where politics and religion form parts of a seamless life and culture, 'heresy' works as both critique and polemic, as discourse and as war. Heresy speaks the same language as its surrounding culture but insists that certain words possess a catastrophic significance: hidden meanings capable of transforming an entire world suddenly from within itself, like a self-resurrecting phoenix.
The Qiyamat, then, represents a radical break with institutional, ritual and traditional Islam - a rupture which cannot be attributed to lbn 'Arabi. His autobiographical writings bear witness to a classical sufi intention to intensify the ritual aspect of Islam as part of his practical path. Nevertheless, the hyper-orthodox have always looked on the Shaykh as somehow risky, if not downright suspect.
For example, while living in Egypt he published his Interpreter of Desires, a book of poems celebrating his love for a young girl he met while circumambulating the Kaaba in Mecca. The local ulema smelled blasphemy; lbn 'Arabi hastily removed himself to Syria - and we can thank the outraged mullahs for inspiring his next work, the Interpreter of the Interpreter, in which he defends his erotic-mystical ambiguities with dazzling scholasticism. Centuries later (a few years ago) Ibn 'Arabi was again in trouble in Egypt: the Muslim Brotherhood and other reactionaries inspired a law banning publication of his Meccan Revelations. And scholars like Fazlur Rahman still blame him for the ruination of orthodox sufism.
Ibn 'Arabi's continental mass, so to speak, covers too much territory to fit on any single map. His writings have been used to bolster up the most impeccably orthodox mysticism - as in the North African sufi orders, for example - as well as many other types of Islamic esotericism, some not so orthodox. Treatises such as the R. al-ahadiyya (on the hadith 'Whoso knoweth his Lord'), which present a pure and radical monism, might well serve the outlaw purposes of Ismaili metaphysicians. Indeed, Corbin shows that Ismailis did make such use of Ibn 'Arabi's teachings on ta'vil, the Perfect Man, the Oneness of Being, etc. The Nizaris of Alamut experienced the Great Resurrection as an historical moment and as a mythic or Imaginal Archetype; what Ibn 'Arabi gave them was a new vocabulary with which to expand their exegesis of the Qiyamat and its radical ramifications.
"I o the Persian poets the Shaykh bequeathed still another map, one which begins its cartomantic project with texts like The Interpreter of Desires, and the 28th chapter of the Fusus al-hikam (on the hadith "Three things of this world are made worthy of love to tile: women, perfume and prayer'). Here Love is declared the equivalent or perhaps superior of religion; the human beloved becomes a Witness (shahed), a Theophany of the Real. Again, the poets received from Ibn 'Arabi a language of discourse with which to expand their comprehension of a complex already central to their very being: eros, desire, and the borderland between erotic and mystical consciousness.
Out of such speculation arose a spiritual practice, the `Witness Game', which uses Imaginal Yoga to transmute erotic desire into spiritual consciousness. The means include poetic and musical improvisation, dance, and `gazing' chastely at beautiful boys (whence the practice was also known as 'Contemplation of the heartless'),
This teaching was perfected in the centuries after Ibn 'Arabi's death by a series of gifted poets closely associated with his School - Fakhroddin Iraqi, Awhadoddin Kermani and Abdul Rahman Jami, to name three of the best-known. Without specific reference to the Witness Game, other poets such as Mahmud Shabistari and Shah Nematollah Vali synthesized Ibn 'Arabi's metaphysics with a general poetic and romantic symbolism. All this together constitutes what can be called a Persian 'School of Love' within the general context of a School of wahdat al-wujud.
Needless to say, although the poets of the Witness Game followed the letter of the Shariah and its sexual code, their dangerous game of Sublimation was condemned as rank heresy by such as Ibn Taymiyya, who complained, `They kiss a slave boy and claim to have seen God!' However orthodox (or not) the sufis might have been in their private lives, their poetry has given much aid and comfort to `real heretics' like the Ismailis, who would of course take quite literally such lines as Iraqi's:
Forget the Kaaba:
The vintner's gates are open!
Despite the protests of scholars like lvanov and even Corbin, the later (post-Alamut) lsmailis did not adopt Persian dervishi sufism simply as a mask. They incorporated such poets as Shabastari and Shah Nematollah wholesale into their grand synthesis, just as they did with Ibn 'Arabi's more austere metaphysics.
In mapping Ibn 'Arabi's influence on the heretical tradition, we see his language (or landmarks) taken up by erudite cosmopolitan philosopher-rebels and erudite aesthetical/emotional sufi poets. But as this synthesis moves Eastward from Andalusia through Egypt and Persia, it begins to acquire a more popular and cultic aspect as well. Shi'ite sectarians such as the Qizilbashi, Hurufi, Alevi, Bektashi, Ahl-i Haqq,, Ali Hahi, Kakhsari, Ovaysi - and the Shi'ite alchemists - all inherit something of the basic mix. In Afghanistan and North India the tradition includes the so-called Lawless (bi-shahr) dervish orders such as the Qalandars, the transvestite dancers and hashish-maulangs, heterodox sufi orders such as the Shattariyya ('Rapid Way') and certain offshoots of the Sohrawardiyya; also syncretistic sects such as the Emperor Akbar's Din-i Hahi, as well as various folkish combinations of Ismailism, Tantrik Hinduism, Bakhti yoga, millenarian Shi'ism and dervish madness.
All these names are dropped not merely to disturb the mystico-academic dust but to point toward a project; a tradition has been invoked, but only in order to ask of it whether it still lives, whether it still possesses a practical and soteriological (or 'salvific') vitality. Let us imagine that this tradition, which is no longer to be identified only with lbn 'Arabi, might be somehow personified or poeticized. Call it 'The Anti-Caliph', with reference to its heretical antecedents and in honour of the Fatimid Ismaili 'Anti-Caliphs' of Egypt such as Hakim Billah the alchemist whose name, 'the Wise', echoes the theme of our conference. This fictional character, the Anti-Caliph, who is also a text, will stand for our Imaginal reliving of the tradition it evokes.
The Anti-Caliph will exist only within the confines of this text, where it will act as an oracle, answering certain questions about the past, present and future. The Anti-Caliph may well be antinomian, heretical, mad, 'blameworthy' - but it demands recognition for its own 'traditional authority', and phrases all its answer$ in reference to its own authentic and coherent past.
We want to know the meaning of that past, but even more - if we can perform a little hermeneutic phenomenology and live at least for an hour within the Anti-Caliph's world - we will demand to know what it can teach us here on this most mysterious of planes ('everyday life') at this most precious of moments, the present. When the text is read, we can allow it to slip back into the Imaginal World again - and perhaps retain from it a few poetic facts.
"Sacred Activism is the fusion of the mystic's passion for God with the activist's passion for justice, creating a third fire, which is the burning sacred heart that longs to help, preserve, and nurture every living thing." - Andrew Harvey
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Some suggest it was the Sufis who introduced tantra to the European Troubadours.
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