The Idea of Human Unity in Ibn Arabi and Ramon Llull

Fatiha Benlabbah

Mohamed V University, Rabat

I will start by stating the obvious: all cultures are the result of permanent cross-fertilisation. They are not static: the dialogue between them, as well as the philosophical task of trying to be aware of myth itself, challenging and transforming it, and of searching for equivalences between different cultural discourses constitute the process by which each individual and each culture contribute to the destiny of humanity and the universe.

Interculturality is manifested as an intrinsically human and, consequently, cultural characteristic. It emanates from the awareness of the limits of each culture and the relativisation of all that is human.

Today, as before when the period of the great crusades had passed, interreligious dialogue imposes itself as a peremptory need. After the great crusades in the Christian world they tended to opt for another strategy, for spiritual enterprises against Jews and Muslims, for well-organised philosophical controversies promoted by the Inquisition. These enterprises, which enter the framework of crusades, have allowed reflections on religious otherness. From this point of view, it can be said that they have had, despite everything, a positive consequence: the discovery of Sufism by Christians and, in the Muslim world, the development of comparative religious studies. From here, we can affirm the birth of real dialogue between Christianity and Islam. We use the term “development” because these kinds of studies already existed in the Arab-Muslim world, in the 10th and 11th centuries, thanks to Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn Hazm. The latter, for instance, had researched the status of women in monotheist religions. It does not seem that at that time similar studies had been undertaken in the medieval Christian world. The truth is that later, above all from the 13th century, certain men appeared in Spain who, like Ramon Llull, and for reasons that history reflects, strove to broaden their horizons and encourage interreligious dialogue.

Evoking Ramon Llull today is not meaningless because, although he was a product of his time, his spirit goes further. He is located between two worlds, the western and the Islamic Arab. He is at the crossroads of different types of knowledge and influences. He makes his texts dialogue with Arab-Muslim texts, he poses the currently pressing question of religious otherness and expresses an ideal of humanity in his work.

Dialogue between his Own Texts and Others’ Texts or the Dialogical Value of Lullian Intertextuality

Ramon Llull’s work is a point of confluence of different types of knowledge, cultures and languages. In the Lullian intertext this knowledge and these languages enter into dialogue with the words of the author, a productive dialogue that makes Ramon Llull a necessary link in the visible and invisible chain of transmission of the philosophical, scientific and mystical knowledge. Avicenna, al-Ghazali – Sufis, possibly –, Hallay, Sustari, Ibn Sab’in, Ibn Arabi, Calila e Dimna, the Koran, etc, are directly or indirectly present in his work. He wrote his Book of Contemplation, a true mystical encyclopaedia, in Arabic. The Book of the Lover and the Beloved,which is a true art of contemplation, is the result of his admiration for the language of Sufis and the Sufi dikr. In the preliminary words of the Book of the Lover and the Beloved, the author recognises that Muslim mystics “possess words of love and brief examples that give great devotion to man.”It must be pointed out that Ibn Arabi is the father of Sufi language, the language of manifestation, of mystical revelation. Al-Sheij al-Akbar elevated the Sufi experience to new horizons; with him and thanks to him, the Sufi language evolved from being intimate to being existentialist. After Ibn Arabi, Sufi language became a language of all Sufis, in all times and places. It is a kind of “perfect language”, capable of expressing the subtleties of their thought and vision, therefore creating new notions. He employed derivation or ichtiqaq, qiyas or analogy, idafa or juxtaposition of nouns that introduce a metaphorical adjectival value, nisba, etc. These phenomena and others resulted in the creation of a new language in the work of the theosophist. Like Ibn Arabi, Ramon Llull longed to find the exact word, the new concept, to express his thought using derivation and the creation of new words.

For the production of his Book of the Lover and the Beloved, Ramon Llull used Sufi methods and techniques. He was inspired by the knowledge of the heart which was characteristic of Sufism and by the verbal asceticism of the Sufis.

Dialogue of Religious Controversy or Dialogue as a Confrontation

The relations between western and Arab-Muslim civilisation have been and continue to be surrounded by curiosity and mistrust; there is always a distrustful interaction between them. Ramon Llull, as a product of his time, has a contradictory attitude towards Islam and Muslims, which oscillates between curiosity, admiration and mistrust. Enlightened doctor and prosecutor of the infidels, as he used to define himself, he risked his life to “destroy” Muhammad’s religion, which led him to seek dialogue with the Muslim “other” to convert him to Christianity. After one of his mujadalat or disputations in Algeria he was stoned. To deter the “other” and convince him, to discern what is true from what is false, he strove to invent an Art, a rational demonstrative method. Dialogue or rational dialogism becomes therefore a need to understand the articles of faith and convince the other, during the disputations, through indisputable arguments. Like al-Ghazali and Ibn Arabi, known in the history of Sufism for their conciliatory spirit, Ramon Llull wanted to conciliate faith and reason through a syncretic and eclectic approach: knowing God through speculation and interior enlightenment. It has been shown that Lullian thought is a synthesis of Platonism and Aristotelism prepared by Neoplatonism and the Hellenising Arab philosophers (al-Kindi, al-Farabi, Avicenna…) and of Sufi thought. The spirit (ruh) in Sufism – especially in al-Ghazali and Ibn Arabi – is knowledge and being at the same time. Man has the possibility of linking them in his mind and in his heart respectively. Between the heart and the head, says Ibn Arabi, there is a coming and going that constitutes the essential pilgrimage… In his well-known dialogue of the “yes and no” with the philosopher Averroes, each one incarnates a possible path of knowledge. In fact, the dialogue between the philosopher and the theosophist is a dialogue on philosophical rationalism and mysticism or divine enlightenment as paths of knowledge. Before the doubt of the rationalist over the possibility of knowing through intuition and divine inspiration, the ambiguous, enigmatic and yet firm expression of the mystic stands out: “yes and no”. The contradiction alludes to the incapacity of reason to achieve absolute truth and the impossibility confronting the mystic of understanding and saying what in the ecstatic experience he sees or feels or is manifested to him. We consider that behind this brief story that Ibn Arabi tells is the essential element of his cognitive method. Ibn Arabi has his own doctrine of the nature of what exists. In his meditation or reflection he left aside the analytical and rational method opting for the intuitive and symbolic method based on imagination and allusion as ways of expression. It is normal, as a mystic, to deal with issues that reason alone, without the support of the dawq or intimate taste, cannot work out, and that ordinary language cannot express. He is, therefore, a philosopher who uses the language of the mystics and their symbols for the expression of his philosophy. In his doctrine, Ibn Arabi attempted to conciliate the rational with the intuitive and interior; from here comes the complex and hermetic character of his writing.

Dialogue as Controversy Respectful of Religious Otherness

Before giving in to the pressures of the intolerance of his time, Ramon Llull (who had not yet travelled to North Africa), wrote his Book of the Gentile and the Three Wise Men, in which he acutely set out the issue of religious otherness, stating the essential importance of dialogue and controversy respectful of humanity. The work is a restrained and serene synthesis of the three beliefs – Jewish, Christian and Muslim –, which attempts to coherently prove the existence of God with philosophical, theological and ethical reasons. In times of peace, the association of these kinds of necessary reasons is indispensable. The systematic explanation of the three religions is undertaken on an equal basis in the dialogue. Dialogue is not confrontation, and does not presuppose or aspire to demonstrate the superiority of one religion over another but rather is located beyond all desire for religious and cultural absolutism.

Ibn Arabi, a theosophist and pacifist who also lived in a period of great religious intolerance, left us an extremely positive vision of love. For Ibn Arabi, love is the peak of the Sufi objective; it is on the last step of his initiation staircase, because it can be considered as the true synthesis of all virtues. Moreover, love for God is imperfect and even inconceivable without love for God in Creation (in each aspect of the revelation) and without love for the small creatures of the world. Loving the other first and foremost as a creature of God is a way of loving the Creator. True love for God unifies. Ibn Arabi devoted his life to the search for perfection. His life was an evolution towards truth and peace. He had a comprehensive knowledge of the other religions in the Book of the Gentile and the Three Wise Men, as is reflected in his work. The author of Al-Futuhat al-Makkiya made evident in his writings and through his own and most intimate experience his vision of religions, his ideal of a united humanity, with love as the base and foundation:

My heart can take on all

Appearances. Because the heart varies

In accordance with the variations of the most

Profound consciousness. It can take the form of

A gazelle prairie, of a monastic cloister,

Of a temple of idols, of a ka’ba of

Pilgrims, the tables of the Torah, the

Legacy of the pages of the Koran. My duty

Is the payment of a debt of love. I accept

Freely and with pleasure any weight which

Is assigned. Love is like the love of lovers, except that instead of

Loving the phenomenon, I love the essential.

This religion, this duty, is mine, and it is

My creed…

In contrast to Ramon Llull, who had a utopian dream of a humanity united by a single belief and a single language, Ibn Arabi believed in the unity within diversity, in the truth of difference, as is reflected in his work Al-Futuhat al-Makkiya: “I believe all that the Jew and the Christian believe, all that is true in their respective religions and in their revealed books, as I believe in my revealed book […] And, in truth, my book contains their book and my religion their religion. Thus, their religion and their book are implicit in my book and in my religion.”

Ibn Arabi’s reflection on religions and cultures was based on the Koranic text which states the difference as necessary human reason and advocates tolerance and mutual understanding: “Oh, people! We have not created you based on a male and a female: we have made you by forming peoples and tribes so that you know each other.”

The French philosopher Jacques Derrida said that dreaming is not only legitimate but a duty. The most foolish utopias appear as an expression of the desire to improve. Gilbert Sinoué, whom I place in the line of Ibn Arabi and Ramon Llull in terms of the ideal of humanity united, wrote these words that we make our own: “We must keep our dreams in our memory with the precision of the sailor who continues to stare up at the stars. Later we must devote every hour of our life to doing as much as we can to get closer to them, because nothing is worse than resignation.”

Gilbert Sinoué is a contemporary French writer, the author of a book entitled Le livre du saphir which, because of the message it contains and the vision of the religions it sets out, constitutes a prolongation of Ibn Arabi and of the Book of the Gentile and the Three Wise Men. The work tells us of men separated by everything in the Spain of the Reconquest and of the Inquisition: a rabbi, a Franciscan monk and a sheikh meet, dialogue, unite their prodigious knowledge to access the Book which, in the end, reveals itself as the Blue Book, that of everyone.

Since the 13th century, when Ibn Arabi and Ramon Llull lived, there have been men who have drawn the contours of the truly universal by cultivating the taste or appetite for knowledge

Since the 13th century, when Ibn Arabi and Ramon Llull lived, there have been men who have drawn the contours of the truly universal by cultivating the taste or appetite (dawq) for knowledge, for dialogue, for what is not immediately understandable or reducible.

For his part, Ramon Llull oriented part of his work to the construction of a language that was a demonstrative logic to convert infidels to Christianity. His apologetic discourse differed from that of the Arab writers of his time, who moved outside these coordinates. All of them shared the objective for the believer to achieve greater understanding and moral experience of his faith. Through his readings and translations of Arabic works, such as al-Ghazali’s Al-Makasid, which are an assimilation of contents, styles and languages, Ramon Llull brought about a notable concern to improve the instruments that allowed exchange between diverse cultures in the European framework. This is why his work is still valid. It is necessary to point out here the role of language in the production of an intercultural mosaic of different types of knowledge and concepts of distinct origin, mainly Islamic. All this, together with the significance of Llull’s influence in 16th century Spanish mysticism, makes up a highly considerable intercultural mosaic that we must keep in mind when approaching dialogue in any of its forms.