ISTANBUL - Turkish Daily News
The symposium “Ibn Arabi and the Modern Era” was held last week with 17 scholars from around the world to portray Ibn Arabi's approaches to convey the heart of Islam.
Lectures were in Spanish, French, Arabic, English, and Turkish, which were simultaneously translated through adjustable headsets and titles included “The Wisdom of Animals,” “From the knowledge of Oneness to Faith” and “The Alchemy of Happiness” illustrating the range of themes covered and the different approaches taken by Ibn Arabi. The symposium was organized by the Turkish Women's Cultural Organization, or TÜRKKAD, in cooperation with the Directorate for Cultural and Social Affairs of the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality. Cemalnur Sargut, TÜRKKAD's Istanbul office's head, said that understanding Ibn Arabi would help shed light on the problems facing the 21st century by showing us how to love people without seeing differences and how all of creation is in unity with the one.
Though the lectures in the symposium were aimed at academics and laymen alike, the language and concepts were steeped in esoteric knowledge, not easily decipherable for the uninitiated. Dr. James W. Morris from Boston College's department of Theology was one of the lecturers at the symposium and confided in his audience that 30 years of studying Ibn Arabi hadn't made it any easier to comprehend. The Turkish Daily News sat with him to understand Ibn Arabi's relevance to the modern era and to learn more about his personal voyage toward studying Islam.
Morris first encountered mystic poet, Mevlana, through his book “The Mathanawi” and felt that it “completely awoke something in me that I wanted to know more about. I spent my whole life trying to deepen something I strongly intuited in it.” Another influence in his life was Annamarie Schimmel, his teacher at Harvard while he was doing his graduate studies. “She knew the scholarship, but was the real thing.” Her best friend was Semiha Verdi, who knew Kenan Evren and taught religion at the first Theological faculty in Ankara.
Richness of a language
Morris learned Persian to have a better comprehension of Mevlana's works and Arabic to understand the Koran. When asked if reading the Koran affected him in the same way as the Mathnawi, he said it did, but it just took longer. “You have to know Arabic so well. You cannot translate the Koran. The Arabic is like fireworks in meaning. You can't get that into Indo-European languages because every key word has dozens of meanings that intertwine with that same root in other places in the Koran. It is like chords in music. You can study this chord and that chord, but only when you put it together does it become extraordinary music.”
Five pillars of Islam common in all religions
Morris asked, “Is there anything in the five pillars of Islam that tells you how to dress or how you should wear a beard or what kind of toothpick you should use?” The most important thing is prayer and to make a connection with God. Morris said that one of the first things that Ibn Arabi talks about is that every prophet has revealed these principles and each religion has a different form of essentially the same teaching.
Ibn Arabi wrote many chapters about the pillars of Islam (Belief, Worship, Fasting, Almsgiving, and Pilgrimage) and its relationship to practice. For Ibn Arabi, it is not doing the five pillars of Islam, but living it that matters. Morris cited examples of parents disciplining their kids, husbands and wives who think they are treating each other well, but all the while driving each other crazy. All because they are doing what they think is right in a wrong manner. “If you don't practice things in the right way then you will do harm.”
How does one know if they are practicing Islam in the right way? Morris said that one should reflect on what their practice is leading them to. “If our actions are not generating the result of the good and the beautiful then what is being done is wrong.” He said the word, “Muhsinoon” is repeated frequently in the Koran and it means “the people who create things that are beautiful and good.”
Solving global conflicts through knowledge
How does one create what is beautiful and good? Morris stated that it is through “iman” or knowledge. He said the word is often translated as belief, but that the word “belief” is never mentioned in the Koran. “Iman is the light in the heart, a direct knowledge and knowing of God's names, the angels, the books and his messengers. The Koran insists repeatedly and so does the hadith that in order to practice “deen” you have to have faith in all of those things. It is a very great challenge. You would think that if Muslims or Christians took that seriously, then they would be out reading the Vedas and other holy books.”
Morris said Ibn Arabi and Mevlana teach us that this world is similar to a school in which we are all students who must learn from each other. He adds that those people who are transforming things into the good and beautiful are the ones that we can learn from.
Ibn Arabi has had a large impact on Islamic thought throughout history, Morris said, but the modern era is especially in need of a voice that will unite conflicting voices together to solve problems that face all. “Nobody has to go without education, food, or medical care. We have to work for a global solution and cooperate with others to make the answers possible.”
Is Islam misrepresented?
According to Morris, Islam is misrepresented and misunderstood especially by the people who claim to defend it. He says that Ibn Arabi makes it explicit that the Koran is about “Deen” not “Islam.” Deen is the way we live and Islam is to surrender. “For most people when they talk about Islam, they are talking about a political ideology. It doesn't have much to do with the Koranic teachings. It is frankly a perversion of the teaching of the Koran.” In today's media, he added, Islam has been reduced to slogans and waving of political party flags.He elaborates on this point by saying that the Koran only uses the term “shariah” once. When it does so, it refers to the pathway that leads to God of every soul. The more commonly used meaning of Shariah, as God's law, is found in tradition. He says that people become very attached to this tradition and want to impose it on other people, but that it is not God's Shariah. “I am very fortunate to teach to people who don't know Islam because then I do not have to un-teach the misunderstandings.”