Sufism and Deconstruction: a Comparative Study of Derrida and Ibn Arabi. By Ian Almond


London , Routledge , 2004 , $145.00 .

Although Ibn Arabi's thought has in the last several decades been the object of numerous studies by western scholars, it has not been considered, in any serious way, in a poststructural context like Derrida's which, while replete with vocabulary and linguistic concepts reminiscent of mystical theology, remains silent on the question of Islam. However, if Derrida has not written anything on Sufism, he has written a great deal about Ekhart who ‘can serve as a useful barometer to measure Derrida's own hostility and sympathy towards wider ideas of mysticism and negative theology.’ (p. 6) Almond's Sufism and Deconstruction, one of the few works to demystify Derrida's silence with regard to Islamic mysticism, begins with the claim that, to those interested in deconstruction and religion, reading Islamic mysticism can be as interesting as Neoplatonic negative theology.

The comparison begins with the observation that both thinkers appear critical of the metaphysical or rational approach of philosophers – but for different reasons. What guided Ibn Arabi's critique of all the rational schools of his time was the belief in a God or the Real (al-haqq) who is incomparable, infinite, and unique. As the unknowable entity, the Real remains untouched by every proposition or description we make about it. Positing such an infinite, ineffable God reduces all schools, including both negative and positive theologies, to necessary error, as each focuses on only one aspect of the Real, inevitably leaving out an opposing truth. The Real is both transcendent and immanent. In Derrida, however, what makes the philosopher's quest for truth deluded and futile is the equally unspeakable textual force differance which makes the text or ecriture ungovernable and unstable. The unspeakability which sets the two thinkers against rational thought has led some to identify differance with the God of negative theology - an idea the writer, following Derrida and Caputo, is quick to reject. Also the fact that differance remains linguistic, secular, and non-theological in Derrida's writing might lead us to think of deconstruction as a purely secular enterprise, with the idea of God something alien – a theme the author does not explore.

Unspeakability as a key concept running through almost all parts of the Ibn Arabi's work leads to confusion and bewilderment on the part of those who seek to attain knowledge of the ultimate truth or the Real. This confusion, which increases without limit, should not be evaluated only negatively; it appears rather as an affirmative, desirable, and positive result to both the deconstructionist and to the truth-seeker in Ibn Arabi. When the latter says ‘O Lord, increase my perplexity’ (p. 42), he seeks the Lord to help rid himself of limitations and simplistic beliefs concerning Him. Bewilderment is essential if the believer is to escape the metaphysical trap of his own perspectives. In Derrida, a positive appreciation of confusion is visible in his version of the Babel story in which Babel is used as an allegory for the Shemites' pride and desire to totalize a construction that can never be completed. Babel thus signifies simultaneously ‘an incompletion, the impossibility of finishing, and of totalizing’ (p. 49), with God as the arch-deconstructor who inflicts confusion on the Shemites so that they no longer know who they are and what they were planning. Derrida here, much like Ibn Arabi, seems to be criticizing the standard and simplistic images of God we necessarily begin with.

The next similarity is the infinite interpretability which Almond, following Borges, reminds us is no invention of the twentieth century. In this respect, Derrida's text is no different in effect from the openness of the Sufi towards the Koran as a text whose meanings are never exhausted. The endless interpretability is, however, here due to the infinite mind of an omnitemporal Author who responds to all his servants and who sees all the ways in which readers are going to understand His words. Unlike the poststructural reader who raises the text together with the death of the author, the truth-seeker can never dispense with the Sender who sends down information to the reader. This brings us to a crucial difference between Derrida and Ibn Arabi: the infinite interpretability or multiplicity which in Derrida threatens to disrupt unity, in Ibn Arabi is used precisely to express it. The single Real or One remains behind all multiplicity and ever new interpretations.

Although Derrida as a continental philosopher is not seeking a foundational truth or meaning, he yet speaks of a secret that is not the onto-theological God of negative theology, or anything that might have the last word on the meaning of a text. The secret is that there is no secret. Derrida, by mystifying the text and then demystifying the secret that is a non-secret or an illusion, replicates Ibn Arabi's discourse of the illusion or khayal that has veiled a great secret blinding us from seeing the truth of every entity or thing as a symbol for the Real. Although this secret, rather like Derrida's, is not out there ‘away’ from beings - it is rather right before our eyes – s till the process of demystifying in Ibn Arabi does not lead to a semantic void but rather to a semantic richness, to the fact that the Real is the secret behind all things.

Almond's book, erudite and interesting, should be considered a scholarly contribution to the discussion of mysticism and deconstruction as he opens up the possibility of appreciating Ibn Arabi's thought as evading the logocentrism that would make it vulnerable a Derridean deconstructive analysis.