Rethinking Ibn 'Arabi

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Gregory A. Lipton
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , May
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Gregory A. Lipton’s Rethinking Ibn ‘Arabi offers a corrective reassessment of a towering figure in the history of Islamic mysticism, Muhyi ad-Din Ibn ʿArabi (d. 1240). Lipton challenges a number of scholars from the 20th century--perhaps none more so than Frithjof Schuon (d.1998)—who consider Ibn ‘Arabi to hold a universalist view of religion. Also known as perennialism, this view tends to hold all religions as parts of a whole revolving around a central God or divine principle and places a priority on interior, mystical experience over outward forms of religion. According to Lipton, these scholars conflate “Ibn ‘Arabi’s theomonism, which recognizes that all beings ultimately worship one God, with the much different assertion that all historical religions share an underlying essence” (Lipton, 50). A significant part of Lipton’s argument is that the Western, perennialist reading of Ibn ‘Arabi, completely ignores that at the center of Ibn ‘Arabi’s universe was the Muhammadan Truth (Haqiqah Muhammadiyyah) and the revealed law (shari’ah) the prophet was sent with. 

 By tackling Schuonian Perennialism, Lipton voices a much-needed critique of “universalism” in Euro-American religious scholarship along the lines of Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (University of Chicago Press, 2005). Like Masuzawa, Lipton shares the goal of exposing the universalizing tendencies in Western scholarship, and the way in which universal claims privilege the claimant’s worldview and culture over others. He argues that “underlying Schuon’s so-called universalism is a hegemonic discourse of religious authenticity founded within nineteenth-century Aryanism” (Lipton, 121).

Further, Lipton asserts that Schuon attempts to “denude Ibn ‘Arabi of his own Islamic exclusivism and distill from him a Vedantic essence—that is, a pure esotericism capable of transcending the so-called Semitic veils of exoteric religious form” (122) and “effectively de-Semitizes Ibn ‘Arabi to legitimize his own Aryan ideal of authentic religion, the religio perennis” (122). It becomes apparent by the fourth chapter that Schuon’s philosophy contains a not-so-subtle racial undercurrent, and that claims to objectivity or perennial truths carry a distinct message of cultural hierarchy that places the West and a perceived Indo-European religio-racial category at the top.

 Against the claim that Ibn ‘Arabi was a religious “universalist,” Lipton levels several counter-arguments citing ample examples from Ibn ‘Arabi’s work.  It is telling that Ibn ‘Arabi “prefers to refer to religion in the plural as ‘revealed laws’ (sharāiʿ), as opposed to ‘religions’ (adyān)” (34). Lipton maintains that Ibn ‘Arabi is a “staunch supersessionist” (9) because of the “abrogation”(naskh) of other laws with Muhammad’s revelatory mission and its law. Lipton’s task for much of this work is to demonstrate that, like many of his contemporaries, Ibn ‘Arabi held the “the abrogation (naskh) of all of the (previously) revealed laws (jamīʿ al-sharā’iʿ) by Muhammad’s revealed law (sharīʿa)” to be “divinely decreed”(9). Ibn ‘Arabi himself discusses tahrif which refers to the allegation that Jews and Christians distorted the revelations which they were sent, either in meaning (taḥrīf al-maʿānī), or distortion of the physical text itself (taḥrīf al-naṣṣ) (see Qur’an, 2:75; 4:46; 5:13; 5:41).

Among the strongest points, Lipton cites a letter wherein Ibn ‘Arabi “rebukes” the Seljuk Sultan, Kayka’us, for his leniency toward the Jewish and Christian populations, the “Protected People” or “ahl al-dhimma, which included the “raising of Church bells, the display of disbelief (kufr) and the proclamation of associationism (shirk)” (55). Ibn ‘Arabi is referring to the Pact of ‘Umar (Shurut ‘Umar) which stipulated limitations on the religious buildings and open practice of Christianity or Judaism in Muslim cities. This was deemed important enough to include in ‘Arabi’s celebrated, Meccan Openings (Futuhat al-Makkiyya) (57). The Qur’anic basis which Ibn ‘Arabi cites is 9:29 which commands Muhammad to “fight the Jews and Christians until they submit to his law and consent to pay the jizya “in a state of humiliation”(82). In short, questions of power, authority, and dhimmi status were not absent from Ibn ‘Arabi’s mind, and his experience was more than likely colored by the events of his day such as the crusades and “reconquest” of his homeland of al-Andalus (Islamic Spain). 

Lipton’s work explores a contestation of the “universal” and the “particular” in Islamic mystical philosophy and the role of Western perennialists like Frithjof Schuon in constructing an image of Ibn ‘Arabi that privileges their worldview. Lipton helpfully navigates Continental intellectual history, and the resulting genealogy exposes the layers of Enlightenment and Romantic thought fueling Schuonian Perennialism, and also the troubling legacy of 19th century Aryanist scholarship. Ultimately, this is a valuable look at the writings of Ibn ‘Arabi which offers a counterpoint to the scholarship that emphasizes the “universal” over the “particular” in his philosophy--in a similar vein as the contests explored in Aaron Hughes’ Rethinking Jewish Philosophy (OUP: 2013). Lipton adds to a conversation surrounding what Shahab Ahmed termed “the Sufi-philosophical (or philosophical-Sufi) amalgam”(Ahmed, What is Islam, 2017: 31). It remains to be seen how one might reconcile these contrasting interpretations of Ibn ‘Arabi’s work and-more broadly-how to read the “particular” and the “universal” in philosophical Sufism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Adam Tyson is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at the University of California, Riverside.

Date of Review: 
June 10, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gregory Lipton is Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Macalester College, where he also held a Berg Postdoctoral Fellowhip in Religious Studies.


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