Shias and Sunnis are divided over many issues, including the issue of interpreting sacred text. Both quote the Quran and the traditions in favour of their positions which are often exclusive on particular questions. Dialogue between Shias and Sunnis is thus hinged on agreeing to a theory of interpretation, or exegesis, of the sacred book. Is it possible to revisit certain great thinkers, respected by both Shias and Sunnis, or having influenced both Sunni and Shia thinkers, to help us carry out this dialogue? I think, yes. And that thinker is the master of gnosis, Ibn Arabi.
Ibn Arabi – the greatest Shaykh in the Sunni world – has been appropriated by Shia thinkers, including Mulla Sadra, the greatest Shia philosopher, and Imam Khomeini, the architect of the Iranian revolution.
Today, we try to see how Ibn Arabi advises us to approach the Quran and the question of divergent interpretations.
He repeatedly claims that he is not applying any external ideological paradigm or scheme of interpretation on the sources of Islamic tradition but only reflecting or meditating on them and internalizing deeper meanings implicit in them. He is not reading them selectively, or forcing a certain interpretation on them in order to substantiate or legitimize independently conceived philosophical positions such as monism or pantheism.
From a traditionalist perspective of Ibn Arabi, there is no need to wrangle over interpretations, no point in debating the truth or attempting to find the absolute, final interpretation. The chaos we find in modern criticism on the issue of meaning and correct reading of the text doesn’t arise at all in Ibn ‘Arabî ’s view. As long as one approaches a text as an object and seeks for any hidden or final meaning and tries to establish his own standpoint on that basis one may not get anywhere.
Meaning is experienced or revealed to a traveler on the path. One only needs to polish the mirror of the heart and it will reflect the truth, plain and simple. True knowing is being the object of knowledge. Truth is not in words but in states and stations induced on contemplating these words. Ibn ‘Arabî reiterates time and again that God is to be tasted rather than discussed and this (dis)solves the problems of interpretation for good. Ibn ‘Arabî challenges all theologians and critics to develop that higher perception he calls the unveiling (kashf).
From his perspective, the enterprise of higher criticism applied to the elucidation of sacred texts which make no reference to moral purification or polishing the mirror of the self is a laughable venture. Unless sacred text is revealed afresh to one’s heart, nothing can illumine its real meaning, according to him.
Ibn ‘Arabî says that there is not only one intention of God that we need to get to. There is not one determinate meaning only. He opens up the space for potentially infinite meanings – every new reading should disclose new meanings of the sacred text, according to him. He says that the Author of the Quran intends every meaning to be understood by every reader, and reminds us that human authors cannot have the same intention. Meaning that the closure postmodernists are so concerned about never happens. The real meaning is with God but all meanings participate in that divine meaning. All things speak of the Beloved and are portals to the Infinite. Polysemy, for him, results not from infinity of contexts but because of multiplicity of souls or addresses. All this implies that fundamentalism and theological imperialism have no warrant.
Ibn ‘Arabî thinks that the sacred text contains inexhaustible riches of meaning which can’t be deciphered through a single reading or even multiple readings. In fact, for him, there can be no final reading, no full stop to this infinite, never-repeatable creation of God. Meanings in the three books – the book of verses, the book of the universe, the book of the soul – are never repeated, according to him. He accordingly tells us that if someone re-reads a Quranic verse and sees exactly the same meaning as before, he has not read it “properly,” that is, in keeping with the haqq of the divine speech. This is a strategy that ensures people will ever be tolerant of divergent interpretations.
There is no such thing as the unique meaning or the final interpretation or the only true interpretation for both Ibn ‘Arabî and such postmodern thinkers as Derrida. For Ibn ‘Arabî, Quran is an open inter-text that contains layers upon layers of hidden meaning. Nothing could be a better antidote to theological imperialism. About Truth he has written in the vein of Hafiz:
She has confused all the learned of Islam,
Everyone who has studied the Psalms,
Every Jewish Rabbi,
Every Christian priest.
So which is the correct interpretation, Shia or Sunni? Why should we accept to get trapped to answer the question either way? Are not all interpretations human and thus not absolute? Isn’t Truth alone the absolute and who can say he has known Truth in all its infinite faces? Islam has scores, if not hundreds, of schools of jurisprudence, theology, Sufism, exegeses. Philosophers, mystics, artists, poets and many great scholars in the Shia and Sunni camps have been cordial with one another. How come little minds clash? Isn’t it only politics that explains it? Theological differences that exist don’t imply war between communities. As humans, we are all different. So are our responses to God, our ways of expressing faith and belief. Our unique egos call for unique responses. As many souls, so many paths, runs a Sufi adage. And God judges us according to our view of Him, according to a prophetic tradition. Who can impose his view as the only true one? To think we know the truth and ours is the only (or final) meaning that God intended is to claim omniscience or infallibility.