John Alden Williams's The Word of Islam is an unconventional book that attempts to bring (via Williams's own translations, interpretations, and commentary) Muslim holy writings to non-Arabic readers. The goal is simply "... to let Islam speak for itself." In his Introduction, Williams begins with a metaphor:

... [E]very great religion is an ocean, with many bays, inlets, and umplumbed areas; we cannot pour it into a bottle and hold it up to the light. We can only come to it, smell it, taste it, touch it, observe what thrives there, and listen to its many moods. Our apprehension of it will be incomplete, but we will not falsify it by reducing it to an image or a model.

This new book tries, with a bit more confidence than I felt with [my] first one, to let Islam's word come through. After all, I have been listening to this particular ocean for an additional thirty years. Yet I am well aware that the ocean, ever itself, is also in a process of changing its boundaries and its colors, even that living people have the power to pollute it. It will be there when they are gone, but it may not be quite the same.

The Word of Islam offers tantalizing glimpses of an alien culture almost incomprehensible in its patterns of thought. Chapter IV, on the Sufi thread within Islam, is particularly fascinating in its discussion of the Spanish pantheist Muhyi al-Din Ibn al-'Arabi. As Williams characterizes him:

He has had a profound influence on later Sufism, and doubtless on Christian and Jewish mysticism as well. His very prolific writings, filled with striking images and strange expressions, brought Sufism to a rather dangerous state of explicitness. They have remained controversial in Muslim circles until today, being regarded as sheer infidelity by some. The problem with monism for Islam is that if everything shares in one divine essence, then evil is finally an illusion, and the Law is a delusion. Such Sufism is likely to become a speculative system of metaphysics, self-indulgent and devoid of moral earnestness. Yet Ibn al-'Arabi also wrote about the mystical implications of Islamic Law; one cannot say that he is hostile to it, only that his vision transcends it. His stay in Mecca was a time of great spiritual exaltation. The Ka'ba represented for him the point of contact between the visible and invisible worlds, and a lady whom he met there represented for him all perfection. She inspired some beautiful poetry that—he wrote later—must be interpreted spiritually.

Perhaps this echoes aspects of the Biblical "Song of Solomon", as do other writings of al-'Arabi with their delicate gender-imagery concerning what Williams translates as "... the Divine Reality in woman". (cf.

And elsewhere, in a memorably anti-Socratic vein, al-'Arabi observes:

Some of us are ignorant of knowledge of God, and say, "To know that one cannot know Knowledge is knowledge." Others of us know and do not say such a word, which is the last word; to them knowing gives silence, rather than ignorance. ...

Now is the time to be quiet.

(from The Gems of Wisdom, written in 1232, title alternatively rendered as The Bezels of Wisdom; another translation, by R. W. J. Austin, reads: "Some of us there are who profess ignorance as part of their knowledge, maintaining [with Abu Bakr] that 'To realise that one cannot know [God] is to know.' There are others from among us, however, who know, but who do not say such things, their knowledge instilling in them silence rather than [professions] of ignorance. ..."; cf. EngineeringEnlightenment (1999-10-19), FaceToFaceWithGod (2001-11-13), OceansOfNotions (2001-12-10), ...)

TopicFaith - TopicLiterature - TopicPhilosophy - 2005-06-05

(correlates: UnfortuneCookies, CertaintyAndDoubt, NoGodButGod, ...)