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Sufism and Deconstruction: The Honesty of the Perplexed

A comparative study of Derrida and Ibn Arabi

27/02/2012 - Author: Ian Almond - Source: Seeker after truth
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Jacques Derrida

Derrida and Ibn ‘Arabi on 'confusion’

I mistrust all systematizers and avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.

Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols


O’Lord, increase my perplexity concerning Thee!

Fusus al-Hikem

To confuse, etymologically, is to make things flow together. To remove the boundaries/borders/distinctions which separate things into categories, which enable differences to be. To be confused is to no longer know whether one thing might not be something else, to be uncertain of the identities and meanings of the things around us, to see the familiar suddenly turning to the unfamiliar before our very eyes.

Confusion takes place when we realize that our rational faculties are not enough to understand what is happening. That something has taken place in a language our rational faculties do not speak. In a sense, confusion takes place because of our rationality, because we insist on clinging to something which is blinding us to the ‘actual situation’. What is to be examined in this chapter is a certain desire for confusion in both deconstructive and Sufi thought, a certain perception of bewilderment as a more honest possibility of truth. Words such as ‘confusion’ and ‘bewilderment’ enable us to glimpse a similar vein of thought in both Derrida and Ibn ‘Arabi – that is, a similar affirmation of confusion as a difficult, courageous and desirable state.

Neither Ibn ‘Arabi nor Derrida seem to be afraid of bewilderment – or, for that matter, bewildering. Whether it is the constantly ‘exploding semantic horizons’ of the disseminating text, or the guidance which means being ‘guided to bewilderment’, the ‘acceptance of incoherentncoherence’ or the God Who is everywhere and nowhere, both Derrida and Ibn ‘Arabi part with a philosophical and Koranic tradition which sees confusion synonymous with error, failure, untruth and sin.

In the West, confusion has almost always been seen as the ‘problem’ of philosophy. Wittgenstein sums this idea up the best: ‘The philosopher goes wild, screaming helplessly, until he gets to the heart of his confusion.’ Whether it is Spinoza’s desire to understand the nature of human actions or Descartes’ project to overcome the anxiety of his own scepticism, a fear of confusion and doubt has always been the driving force behind most philosophical projects. Equally negative is the word in Islamic thought, where ‘confusion’ is used to describe any state of mental or spiritual regression, an inability to understand the will of God – or the consequence of a reluctance to do so. It is the kind of confusion `Ay al-Qudat Hamadhani felt before finally reading Al-Ghazali: ‘My heart was a tumultuous sea with no shores, in it was drowned all the ends and all the beginnings’. Ibn Tamiyah, in his Muqaddimat al-tafsir, insists the Prophet was sent to explain clearly (tubayyin) everything we need to know. Given such a premise, confusion in Islam can only ever be negative, falling upon those who cannot or will not understand. Therefore, God may well be the Guide (al-hdith) for the righteous, but He is also the Misguider (al-mudill) of the wicked, dispersing and confounding those who reject His counsel and follow evil. The fact that Ibn ‘Arabi can take such a standard Koranic (not to mention Biblical) motif such as 'confusion' and imbue it with a positive meaning – to the point of making bewilderment a gift from God – not only attests to the Shaykh’s daring originality, but also indicates how far Ibn ‘Arabi is prepared to radically re-interpret familiar sections of the Koran such as the Surah on Noah (Nuh). Re-interpretations which, as we shall see, will call into question some of the familiar claims for an ‘orthodox’ and ‘traditionalist’ Ibn ‘Arabi, centrally located in the mainstream of Islamic thought.

Derrida and Ibn ‘Arabi: lovers of clarity or confusion?

The works of Ibn ‘Arabi do not simply ennoble confusion – they also confuse. Of course, not everyone agrees on this point. Akbarian scholarship seems to divide itself into two parties over the question of the unity and coherence of Ibn `Arabi’s works. A. E. Affifi was probably one of the first English-speaking critics to discern no ‘appreciable degree of coherence or order’ in the Great Shaykh’s writings, merely a style ‘rampant, discursive and badly lacking in form and cohesion’. Later scholars, somewhat more sympathetically, have also testified to Ibn `Arabi’s works as (to use the Sufi’s own words) a place of bewilderment; for Mustafa Tahrali, ‘the general rules of discourse, especially that of non-contradiction, are not respected’ within the pages of the Fusus al-Hikam; it is ‘completely natural that the reader should be perplexed’ when reading it. Alexander Knysh extends this effect of perplexity to all of the Shaykh’s works, with their ‘confrontation of contradictory metaphysical and theological statements’. On the other hand, scholars more keen on seeing the ‘traditionalist (salafi)’ in Ibn `Arabi – such as Mahmoud al-Ghorab – insist it is the commentators who are responsible for any confusion surrounding the Shaykh’s words. Far from Affifi’s confused and inconsistent thinker, al-Ghorab’s Ibn ‘Arabi is a `Muhammedan mirror of the utmost clarity, symmetry and straightness’.

A similar gulf separates those of Derrida’s readers who argue he has a system and a systematic purpose, from those who feel it is precisely the a-systematic confusion of systems that is Derrida’s aim. Both admirers and detractors of Derrida’s work can be found amongst the latter group:

from Habermas’ famous and uncomplimentary charge of ‘a mystification of palpable social pathologies’ to Mark C. Taylor, who sees deconstructive readings as resulting in an ‘unending play of surfaces’.  Where John Ellis accuses Derrida of ‘mysticism’, self-contradiction and general incoherence, Richard Rorty is quite happy to find a philosopher who is no longer ‘serious’ (in the most Anglo-Saxon sense of the word) –a thinker who has simply dropped ‘theory … in favour of fantasizing about Derrida's philosophical predecessors, playing with them’.

For such critics, Derrida has not come to bring peace to philosophy, but confusion. The strongest resistance to this chaos-affirming version of Derrida probably comes from a group of admirers (Culler, Gasche, Norris) who see Derrida as being, far from any post-structuralist maverick, a serious philosopher ‘in the mainstream tradition from Kant to Husserl and Frege’ (Norris). For Gasche, deconstruction neither mystifies nor confuses but explicates – it attempts ‘to “account” for a heterogeneous variety … of discursive inequalities … that continue to haunt even the successful development of philosophical arguments’. In other words Derrida, to borrow Wittgenstein’s metaphor, shows the fly the way out of the fly-bottle. Not at all confusing, deconstruction clarifies, illuminates, it sorts out philosophy’s problems, settles its accounts.

As the central aim of this chapter is to examine the positive value that both deconstruction and Sufism give to confusion and bewilderment, such a course of action will bring us into conflict both with al-Ghorab’s Ibn ‘Arabi and Gasche’s Derrida. In Ibn `Arabi’s case, Mustafa Tahraligoes so far as to suggest that the paradoxes and contradictions in the Fusus form part of a more spiritual strategy – by literally arousing a state of perplexity in the reader, the Fusus begins the long process of detaching the reader from his/her reliance on rationality and logic. In a sense, the bewildering style of the Fusus is in itself a preparatory station on the way to a more divine perplexity – the hayrah which accompanies all knowledge of God.

Near the beginning of his book on Ibn ‘Arabi, William Chittick writes: `To find God is to fall into bewilderment’.  No sentence sums up more accurately the Sufi’s attitude towards confusion. Throughout both the Futuhat and the Fusus, Ibn ‘Arabi uses a variety of metaphors for bewilderment: it is, we are told, a station, a gift, a divine name, a tool, a knowledge and ultimately, one suspects, an ‘actual situation’ which underlies everything we think we know.

'To realise that one cannot know God is to know', says Abu Bakr, a Socratic disclaimer Ibn ‘Arabi never tires of quoting, and in a sense Ibn ‘Arabi’s radically positive view of bewilderment stems directly from this equally radical unthinkability of God.  Therefore, when Ibn ‘Arabi quotes the hadith ‘O Lord, increase my perplexity concerning You’ (as he frequently does), what he is really asking is:

O Lord, confuse and confound the simplistic limitations I have attempted to cage You within. Bewilderment becomes the best way the believer has of escaping the metaphysical trap of his own perspectiveness – not, in this case, by the proffering of some extra-linguistic knowledge (a secret name or sign), but rather by presenting and confusing the believer with a multiplicity of different Gods, some orthodox, some heretical, some intimately immanent, others aloof and transcendental. In the alarming, disconcerting contiguity of this myriad of different images, one can truly begin to understand how ‘the actual situation of the Divinity does not become delimited or restricted and remains unknown.’

For Ibn ‘Arabi, a profusion of different beliefs is testimony to God’s utter unthinkability. This idea of understanding what God is through a confusion of contrasting images has a fairly long genealogy, one which goes back at least to the first negative theologians of the early Church; it shows the apophatic possibilities of Ibn ‘Arabi as a negative theologian, one which become increasingly relevant to Derrida’s own critique of the via negativa.

Perhaps the sixth century Dionysius offers the most famous example in negative theology of how different constructions concerning God, once dismantled, can actually convey a better sense of God’s ineffability. In certain moments of The Mystical Theology and The Celestial Hierarchy, he makes the remarkable assertion that to call God drunk or hungover is more suitable than calling God good or wise, for ‘incongruous dissimilarities’ make us more aware of God’s unreachable otherness than equally finite adjectives such as ‘almighty’ and ‘all-knowing’. For the Areopagite, to call God at the same time ‘Almighty’ and a `worm’, ‘wise’ and ‘drunk’, is more accurately to address what one critic has called the language-defeating reality of God’. Dionysius self-consciously employs contradictory constructions of the divine Other to convey a more realistic sense of God’s utter unthinkability. Constructing and disassembling the various inventions of God that affirmative theology supplies presents an interesig sic; interesting? apophatic strategy. Dionysius offers an attempt to understand the Irriageless not through the abandonment of images but rather through the contiguity of conflicting ones.

In Derrida, we find a secular version of the same strategy. Understanding the Other involves an ‘absolute openness towards the wholly other’, a constant interruption, a repeated breaking-up of all the versions of the Other that the Same constructs for itself. Constant interruption is the necessary instability that provides the conditions for glimpsing the otherness of the Other through the broken ruins of one’s own constructions:

By interrupting the weaving of our language and then by weaving together the interruptions themselves, another language comes to disturb the first one … Another text, the text of the other, arrives in silence with a more or less regular cadence, without ever appearing in its original language, to dislodge the language of translation.

The tout autre works like an utterly unreachable sub-text, forever receding before all our interpretations, while remaining paradoxically the very condition of their possibility. Through the creation and destruction of all our conceptions of the Other, the continual irruption of the truly Other allows us to glimpse a very secular epekeina tes ousias:

‘At the moment when it erupts, the inaugural invention ought to overflow, overlook, transgress, negate … the status that people would have wanted to assign it or grant it in advance.’ Through such a subversion of the familiar, the completely unfamiliar may be perceived without any horizon of expectation. How far all of this lies from Ibn ‘Arabi’s diversity of Gods remains a difficult question. If Derrida sees the authentic relationship to the Other as a constant and necessary instability, a clarifying bewilderment through which one may momentarily glimpse the otherness of the Other, then perhaps Ibn ‘Arabi’s approachmight be redescribed as a constant shattering of our constructions of God, a necessary iconoclasm that allows one to glimpse the unmediated ‘ God-ness ‘ of God.

Although Ibn ‘Arabi goes to some lengths to show how ‘knowledge of God is bewilderment, and knowledge of creation is bewilderment’, there are certainly moments in both the Futuhat and the Fusus where this idea of perplexity as a mystical end-station on the believer’s journey is called into question. ‘Bewilderment’, far from being an essential state of things, is occasionally portrayed by the Shaykh in a different light –more as a temporary and inconvenient prelude to enlightenment (` arif) rather than any kind of knowledge in itself. In the middle of a discussion on the ‘transcendent reality’ which is, at the same time, ‘the relative creature’, Ibn ‘Arabi writes how ‘he who truly understands what we are discussing here is not confused’ – which means that he who is confused has not truly understood. Thus comprehension, not confusion, is the last thing to be experienced before an encounter with the divine. This belief that the desire for knowledge of God ends, epistemologically, in a moment of calm rather than turbulence is underlined further by the ending to the chapter on Lot:

The Mystery is now clear to you And the matter is well explained. For that which is odd Is enshrined within the even.

The dilemma emerges: which vocabulary has the last word in Ibn ‘Arabi, one which sees God as a holy, primordial, difference-dissolving state of confusion? Or one which leads the believer not to but through a confusion, towards an ineffable Something – the ‘mystery’ (sirr) which Ibn ‘Arabi so often refers to? Is God Perplexity itself, or rather a Something which lies on the other side of all our bewilderment?

For readers familiar with Derrida (in particular with Derrida’s work on negative theology), the question will be of some relevance. For if a giveaway moment of self-presence is to be found anywhere within Ibn `Arabi’s work – if the word logocentric’ is to be attributed to him at all – it hinges on this conception of God. For Derrida, all negative theologies – Islamic or Christian, Greek or Jewish – essentially perform the same gesture. By denying God attributes they claim to do away with the metaphysical shell of God in search of a truly radical encounter with the divine. However, such apophatic strategies do not deconstruct, they merely defer. For all their boldness, Derrida insists, even after all their negations, de-negations and auto-deconstructions, such negative theologies still remain ultimately metaphysical – they still keep ‘in reserve … some hyperessentiality’ (elles semble reserver quelque suressentialite) and thereby re-affirm the onto-theo-logic. If God is bewilderment itself, then the Shaykh cannot easily be accused of subscribing to a metaphysical, onto-theological idea of God – the very typeressentiality’ (suressentialite) which Derrida accuses both Eckhart and Dionysius of harbouring. However, if Ibn ‘Arabi is merely delineating a series of steps (of which bewilderment is only one) which will lead us, eventually, to some hallowed secret or mystery, then Ibn ‘Arabi is not radically questioning the idea of God but merely deferring Him, merely postponing His imminent meaning.

So what is Ibn `Arabi’s ultimate idea of God – confusion or clarity? If the Fusus appears to give two different responses to this question – the chapters on Noah and Muhammed suggesting the former, the sections on Enoch and Hud the latter – some help comes from a later commentator of Ibn ‘Arabi, the fifteenth century `Abd al-Rahman Jami. Essentially, Jami discerns three kinds of bewilderment in the closing chapter of the Fusus. The first kind is the ‘bewilderment of the beginners’. This, Jami says, is a ‘common’ bewilderment, which most believers feel – the anxiety of those who seek meaning but have no belief or direction in which to travel. This first state of confusion is usually removed by ‘the determination of a quest’. For the ‘most part’ of the people, this leads to tranquillity – some, however, experience the second stage of bewilderment as they look around and see the believers who have ‘split up into numerous factions’ about them, ‘so the believer becomes bewildered and does not know which of the beliefs is the most correct in reality’. The removal of this bewilderment takes place when ‘no desire remains in the believer for the divine presence from a particular aspect or point of view’. Once this abandonment of isms and perspectives takes place, we move onto the third stage – which belongs to what Jami calls ‘the people of the final bewilderment’. Significantly, this is a station which even ‘the greatest spiritual luminaries’ do not exceed – ‘rather they ascend in it for ever and ever’. Writing almost two hundred years after the Fusus, Jami sees his predecessor’s bewilderment as no temporary bridge to a final, clarifying solution, but rather a strange land beyond God where true gnostics wander in all directions of their own accord. `So they enter the Trackless Desert in His contemplation, and their bewilderment is from Him, through Him and in Him’.

Abd al-Rahman Jamis comments bring to light three important aspects of the Shaykh’s ‘bewilderment’ – aspects which, we shall see, will reflecton our comparison with Derrida. First of all, there are different kinds of confusion, different types of bewilderment to be encountered by the believer. In some cases, attempting to overcome confusion is seen to be spiritually necessary; in others, it is futile and foolish. Second, Jami rightly (and uncritically) discerns in Ibn ‘Arabi a certain elitism –confusion is not for everyone. Apart from those rare spirits who are able to persist in perpetual bewilderment, the greater part of the faithful (Jami calls them the ‘people of the stopping places’ ahl al-mawaqif) stop short of the ‘final bewilderment’ and take shelter in a niche of clarity. One almost discerns a hierarchy of perplexity here, made possible not by knowledge but rather by non-knowledge. Those at the bottom are the ones with the clearest ideas, whilst those near the top are the most confused, the ones who have come closest to the secret of God’s mind-numbing unthinkability. Third, the ‘final bewilderment’ which J5nf sic refers to makes us wonder if, in Ibn ‘Arabi’s oeuvre, the true goal is not so much confusion but a certain attitude towards confusion; whether true hayrah is not so much a state but rather the calm acceptance of a situation, perhaps even the celebration of such a moment. Of course, how close such a ‘celebration’ would come towards the Nietzschean joyous affirmation of the play of the world’ (l’affirmation nietzscheenne… joyeuse du jeu du monde) we read in those famous closing passages of Derrida’s 'Structure, Sign and Play', remains to be seen.

Deconstruction: untying knots, thwarting system

There is something implicitly negative about the word 'deconstruction', even though elsewhere Derrida has suggested 'de-structuration' (translating Heidegger’s Destruktion) as more accurately conveying the sense of the term. The variety of images Derrida supplies to describe the effects of différance and dissemination is bewildering in itself: differance is anarchic, it ‘instigates the subversion of every kingdom’, it ‘escapes … and disorganizes structure’, it 'disembedds' the text, 'unsews' it, ‘explodes the semantic horizon’ of its subject. Such terms which illustrate the paradoxical etymology of confusion, with its simultaneous sense of convergence and divergence. Confusion is a word which literally means 'melting together' but which we often use in the opposite sense, to describe a situation in which many things are happening at the same time. Différance at once confuses and makes things simpler. It breaks down complexities, undoes complications, dismantles structures into their various components. At the same time it makes a text difficult to read, disabling its primary sense in order to free a plethora of secondary ones, robbing the text of its semantic rudder so that it can no longer be said to sail in any particular direction.

This emphasis on difference as something which undoes/unsews/ disrupts the text obviously makes use of the origins of the word 'text' (from the Latin textus, cloth). The text is a cloth which différance forever threatens to undo. `Dissemination endlessly opens up a snag accroc in writing that can no longer be mended … . No work can escape this stitch, this inherent, ever-present possibility of its complete undoing. It is interesting to note that the Arabic term Ibn ‘Arabi frequently uses for `belief’ (etiqiid, `aqida) has as its root meaning the tying of a knot, or to firmly. Thus, when Ibn ‘Arabi says how ‘Every group tie something has believed something about God’, what he means is ‘Every group has tied a certain knot about God’. The bewildering unthinkability of God unties every knot concerning Him, just as the unthinkable movement of différance undoes every text.

Despite the variety of metaphors Derrida offers for différance and dissemination, it should not be forgotten that Derrida, far from confusing the text, is simply showing how the text is already confused in itself. Deconstruction is a revelatory operation, not a stimulatory one. The 'essential drifting of the text' precedes any theoretical intervention –texts are always already drifting. If deconstruction brings anarchy to the text, it is only by showing how these unruly elements have always been seething and brooding underneath a calm façade of unity and coherence. Confusion and instability is the a priori condition of every text, regardless of whether it has been analysed or not. In the same way, for Ibn `Arabi the essentially bewildering nature of God precedes every attempt, be it Ash’arite or Mu’tazilite, to talk meaningfully about Him – ‘God is the root of every diversity (khilaf) in beliefs within the cosmos’. In both Derrida and Ibn ‘Arabi, confusion and perplexity seem to precede and underlie every attempt to form a system – a belief which inevitably imbues the desire for confusion with an element of honesty and courage (not to mention Nietzschean ‘integrity’), the desire to glimpse a 'truer', more confused state of affairs and not succumb to the temptation of the system. In Derrida’s case, this re-appraisal of confusion is most clearly seen in his  essay, ‘Des Tours de Babel’.

Derrida on Babel: the tyranny of clarity

Derrida’s essay, being itself an analysis of Benjamin’s famous essay on translation `The Task of the Translator’, displays its title with an obvious irony, quite apart from the ambiguity of ‘Des Tours’ (Some tricks? Sometowers? Some detours?). Derrida’s essay on translation has to begin with Genesis : 1-9, the destruction of the tower of Babel which is simultaneously the birth of the translator, the ethnoclastic event which makes translation possible. What is most immediately striking about ‘Des Tours’ is the way in which Derrida re-interprets the episode of Babel using his own terms, retelling the Old Testament story like a medieval typologist, this time not Christianizing but post-structuralizing the chapter from Genesis to transform it into a deconstructive parable. Genesis : 1-9 is no longer just a story about the pride of man thwarted by the Omnipotence of God: it is also a tale about an unfinished structure, a monocultural and monolingual project (the Shemites) with universalist intentions being thwarted not by thunder or earthquakes but by language itself

'Now the whole world had one language and a common speech' (Genesis). The Babel episode, whilst purporting to be a Biblical explanation for the multiplicity of tongues, also marks the beginning of confusion for man in the Bible. It marks the beginning of a fragmentation of cultures, a dispersal of different tongues, the deliberate introduction of a nefarious (and divinely delivered) multiplicity into the totalizing project of the Shemites. Not surprisingly, Derrida discerns clear parallels to deconstruction in all of this:

In seeking to ‘make a name for themselves’, to found at the same time a universal tongue and a unique genealogy, the Shemites want to bring the world to reason, and this reason can signify simultaneously a colonial violence (since they would thus universalise their idiom) and a peaceful transparency of the human community.

The Shemites, no longer simply tower-builders, have become system-builders. Believers in universal truths, metaphysical construction engineers, trying to build a structure which would both symbolize and disseminate their supremacy – not only over other peoples ('colonial violence'), but also over language. The Shemites want to take over the deistic function of eponymy and ‘make a name for themselves’ – subdue and control language, decide what they may and may not be called, control which signifieds get allotted to which signifiers. Apart from injecting something strangely Biblical into Derrida’s own deconstruction of Western metaphysics (Is Derrida a modern Jeremiah, railing against the Babelian pretensions of structuralism and phenomenology, science and sociology?), the passage emphasizes how the pride of the Shemites blinds them to the futility of their project. For this is precisely what Babel – to Derrida – represents: ‘an incompletion, the impossibility of finishing, of totalising … of completing something on the order of system … and architectonics.’ Derrida has spent a life exploring this impossibility of ever putting a stop to meaning, of ever making a text say one thing, coherently and consistently, and nothing else. Thus, the futility of the Shemites’ project is also the futility of Husserl’s, whose Cartesian project sought to ‘return to the things themselves’ and seek out `the foundation of objectivity’, the futility of Foucault’s L’histoire de la folie, which believes it can talk in a rational–analytical way about madness without ever succumbing to the rational/insane dualism it purports to critique; the futility of Levinas’ Totality and Infinity, whose aim of re-establishing a `non-violent’ relationship with the wholly Other is revealed by Derrida to be nothing more than a ‘dream’ – the ‘dream of a purely heterological thought’ (le reve d’une pensee purement heterologique). In all these instances, the Shemites’ mistaken conviction that their structure can actually get the better of language is replicated.

What is even more interesting than this contemporary allegorizing of Biblical pride is the way Derrida sees God as a synonym for deconstruction. It is ‘from a proper name of God … tongues are scattered, confounded or multiplied’. God is the arch-deconstructor of the story – it is He who confounds the sign-system of the Shemites by fissuring it, fracturing it, causing it to double and triple until the Shemites no longer know who they are or what it is they were planning to do. For all this humbling, abasing and confounding, however, Derrida’s God is not simply an agent of deconstruction, but also a God who deconstructs Himself:

And the proper name of God (given by God) is divided enough in the tongue, already, to signify also, confusedly, ‘confusion’. And the war that He declares has first raged within his name: divided, bifid, ambivalent, polysemic: God deconstructs. Himself.

It is a point Derrida has made several times: not even God escapes différance. Or, in more secular terms, even the deconstructive critic must fall prey to the same semantic instabilities s/he has detected in others. The pat distinction between deconstructor and deconstructed is dissolved. For Derrida, no-one or -thing, no God or mystic, neither Husserl’s brackets, Heidegger’s Sein nor Levi-Strauss’ bricoleur can escape the ‘metaphysical complicity’ of language. As soon as we begin to deconstruct, we have already deconstructed ourselves. When God delivers confusion and chaos upon the designs of the Shemites, He is actually inflicting Himself upon them. Derrida has already suggested this at the very beginning of the essay with a quote from Voltaire’s Dictionnaire Philosophique:

'I do not know why it is said that Babel signifies confusion, for Ba signifies father in the Oriental tongues, and Bel signifies God; Babel signifies the city of God, the holy city. The Ancients gave this name to all their capitals'.

It’s not difficult to see why Derrida makes use of Voltaire’s ‘calm irony’ (ibid.): Voltaire is implying, tacitly, what Derrida is later going to declare openly – that both the origin and the nature of confusion (Ba-Bel) is not diabolical, but divine. Of course, Voltaire’s alternative etymology of Babel is a clear swipe at Augustine; in Civitas Dei, Augustine distinguishes between the city of God (Jerusalem – peace, silence, unity, lawfulness, immutability) and the city of men (Babylon –disruption, noise, discord, confusion, change). Whereas the saint sees divinity as the remedy for confusion, even suggesting ‘vision of peace’ as an etymology for Jeru-salem, Voltaire sees Babylon as the first and true city of God. Divinity is another name for confusion.

Just as God precedes history, confusion precedes order. Or, as Derrida might say, confusion inhabits order, pervades order, gives meaning to order. In Derrida’s version of Genesis, no calm, transcendental deity deconstructs the tower – rather, one version of confusion gives birth to another. Which is why ‘Des Tours de Babel’ is so important for our own argument –it is one of the few places in the Derridean oeuvre where Derrida actually joins Ibn ‘Arabi in using ‘confusion’ as a divine name. What Derrida does in ‘Des Tours’ is call into question the simplicity of God, criticize the standard and fairly simplistic images of deity we have, remind us of the confusing and overwhelming complexity of the thought of God. It is a theme Derrida has certainly touched on elsewhere – twenty years earlier, in his essay on Jabes (in many ways the most Kabbalistic of Derrida’s essays) Derrida is comparing the ‘God’ we can know with the ‘God’ we cannot:

If God opens the question in God, if he is the very opening of the Question, there can be no simplicity of God. And, thus, that which was unthinkable for the classical rationalists here becomes the obvious itself. Proceeding within the duplicity of his own question-ability, God does not act in the simplest ways; he is not truthful, he is not sincere.

Like Ibn ‘Arabi, Derrida is asking us to increase our perplexity concerning God. The ‘simplicity’ of God – the belief that God acts and works in essentially clear, meaningful ways – is opposed to the distinctly un-classical complexity and confusion of God. Derrida’s rejection of such ‘simplicity’ replicates, to some extent, Ibn ‘Arabi’s frequent Koranic reminder that God is like 'no thing' that we can know.

Of course after his essay on Benjamin, Derrida will go on to write a great deal about God and confusion – but never again as synonyms. In his later essays on Eckhart and Silesius, not to mention his more recent work on the Czech philosopher Jan Patocka, Derrida is more concerned with God as an infinitely deferred secret or ‘hyper-truth’, rather than any kind of divine, de-structuring chaos. In a sense, Derrida’s gesture in ‘Des Tours de Babel’ – that of depicting God as a holy confusion, a wild and forever fluctuating source of energy – has a number of precedents both in and outside Western thought, not least among them Boehme (-) and Eckhart. Derrida mentions Boehme himself towards the end of the essay: ‘the God of Boehme … who goes out of himself, determines himself in his finitude and thus produces history’. Boehme’s own idea of God as a dynamic, turbulent energy is most famously expressed in his idea of the Ungrund:

For all is comprised in the will, and is an essence, which, in the eternal unground, eternally takes its rise in itself, enters into itself, grasps itself in itself, and makes the centre in itself; but with that which is grasped passes out of itself, manifests itself in the brightness of the eye, and thus shines forth out of the essence in itself and from itself.

Given the Protean nature of differance, which is a ‘nothing’ (rien) and yet forever ‘differs from itself, defers itself and writes itself as diffrance’, it is clear why Derrida (at least in ‘Des Tours’) finds the ‘God of Boehme’ attractive – a writhing, seething force which emerges from a bottomless depth (Ungrund) to crystallize itself as history. The God of Genesis, after all, creates history by the destruction of a monument; with the abolition of one language, He gives birth to many more; by foiling the plans of one people, He creates a multiplicity of tribes.

All of which leads to the question: what exactly is Derrida saying in 'Des Tours' about confusion? Is it desirable or undesirable? Is it the birth of something new and positive – or an ineluctable fate which terminates every project we undertake?

Confusion, first and foremost, appears to be a punishment delivered in particular upon those who want to get rid of their own confusion.The Shemites are guilty of this cardinal sin: ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower … /Let us make ourselves a name,/that we not be scattered over the face of all the earth’. Seeing the world not as a place to affirm but rather to control, the Shemites are unhappy with their wandering, nameless status – and it is precisely this proud dissatisfaction with their nomadic condition which provokes their punishment. There is something faintly paradoxical here – ‘True homelessness and confusion will only be inflicted on those who do not desire it’, as if learning to love one’s perplexity is the only way ever to be free of it.

Part of the Shemites’ sin, it would appear, lies in the Shemites’ refusal not just to wander but also to accept the multiplicity of language. The only truly ‘proper’ (propre) name is that of `YHWH’; the Shemites, troubled by the fact that their name may take on different meanings for different people, yearn for a similar unambiguity. In this sense, the tower of Babel is (in the words of Richard Rorty) ‘an attempt to avoid relatedness … to speak a word which has meaning even though it has no place in a social practice’. The Shemites’ sin is the desire for meaning itself, pure, unambiguous, repeatable meaning, not to be at the mercy of contexts, or adrift in alien situations. Of course the Shemites fail in this –and Derrida’s conviction of the ‘impossibility of finishing’ such towers only reflects the more general impossibility of any proper name (even that of YHWH) to ever mean one thing and one thing only.

This desire to have a proper name – whether it is for one’s race, one’s movement or one’s work – does remind one of Freud. Freud certainly had paths he wanted his writings to travel along – as Derrida points out so cleverly in ‘Coming Into One’s Own’ – and was quick to admonish his followers whenever he saw a text straying from its desired trajectory. In his essay on Beyond The Pleasure Principle, Derrida examines Freud’s paternal hold on his writings, his desire to keep psychoanalysis ‘in the family’, as it were, not to let any of his texts run about on their own, orphan-like: `… the establishment of a science … should have been able to do without the family name Freud. Or able, at least, to make forgetting that name the necessary condition and the proof that science itself is handed on, passed down.’ The same unambiguity the Shemites want for their own name, Freud wanted for ‘psychoanalysis’. Freud shared the Shemites’ aversion towards confusion, the fear of being differently understood, a fear which can only spring from a desire for power.

Second, Derrida’s essay seems to oppose confusion to violence – at least, to a certain kind of violence, a ‘colonial violence’. The Shemites’ desire to ‘universalise their idiom’, of making the whole world speak their tongue and subscribe to their culture, ultimately belongs to what Derrida had earlier called (paraphrasing Levinas) a thought of ‘the One and the Same’ – in other words, a metaphysics which is ‘the origin … of all oppression in the world’. God’s gesture, therefore, becomes ‘multicultural’ in the most ironic sense of the term; the bewildering of the Shemites foils their imperialist intentions, confounding their architects and scattering their armies, disempowering them physically as well as semantically. Confusion, here, means the loss of all the reasons why one would want to control and subdue somebody; the difficulty in forcing someone to conform to one logos when a multiplicity of them abound. If rational metaphysics is ‘the origin … of all oppression’, and if confusion is precisely that which disables the will-to-metaphysicize, then it is not surprising to see how Derrida can discover pacific overtones in the idea of bewilderment. Confusion, far from being that which foils justice or creates a breeding ground for injustice, actually becomes a disabler of tyranny, a dismantler of the violent totality, a paralysing spanner thrown into the dictator’s machine.

Derrida, in typical fashion, questions this idea as soon as he expresses it. The Babelian project ‘can signify simultaneously a colonial violence … and a peaceful transparency of the community’. The divine abolition of a single tongue may well foil the aims of a ‘linguistic imperialism’, but it also removes a form of communication. A difficult question briefly makes its appearance: is (Genesis) about the thwarting of an empire or the destruction of a community? Is the removal of one bigger, `colonial violence’ only the beginning of a number of smaller, inter-ethnic ones? It is a surprisingly generous phrase, given Derrida’s antipathy towards words like ‘community’ (in which he sees ‘as many threats as promises’), not to mention the famous crossing of swords with Habermas and his communicative reason. The common idiom, however colonially imposed, would at least reduce the possibility of misunderstanding within the community – expressions, actions, gestures, would all be relatively ‘transparent’. The language game of the Shemites would be colonially singular, and its rules transparently (albeit incontestably) clear. Even though Derrida seems to be saying, in ‘Des Tours’, that God’s deconstruction of the tower is an example of what Derrida has elsewhere termed ‘just deconstruction’, the possible ‘peaceful transparency’ of the Shemites’ community does inject a note of ambivalence into the essay.

If the Derrida of ‘Des Tours’ appears to be reluctant to come out and out and declare confusion to be a truly pacific state – that is, declaring bewilderment to be the only way of non-violently receiving the Other – we should not be surprised. As we have already seen in Of Grammatology,when using words like ‘violence’ and ‘colonial’ Derrida is often careful not to replicate Levi-Strauss’ error and fall into the trap of a tyrant/ victim, wicked/innocent dualism. Even though Derrida believes no order or community to be free of a certain violence, this does not mean anarchy is some form of blissful utopia. The most we can say about Derrida’s attitude towards confusion is that, when we are confused or bewildered, we are less likely to impose a single, reductive image onto the Other – just as Ibn `Arabi’s perfect gnostic, when in a state of complete bayrah or perplexity, is no longer willing or able to fix any image onto the Real.

Third, Derrida’s words on Babel underline one consistent feature of his varied and diverse corpus: a delight in multiplicity at the expense of unity. For Derrida the divergent is infinitely preferable to the convergent, the fragments are more interesting than the whole, the Many is preferable to the One. Bewilderment is to be encouraged, not resisted. The allegations of anarchy which have been levelled at Derrida, whilst exaggerated in tone and mistaken in motive, are correct to some degree: they concern a thinker who is as interested in dissolution as he is in design. The ‘dissemination’ of the Shemites (`YHWH disperses them from here over the face of all the earth/ They cease to build the city’), a working metaphor for the deconstruction of every would-be system, is the very kind of confusion Derrida seeks to affirm. This profoundly anti-Neoplatonic strain in Derrida’s writing, rather than seeking an impossible return to the One, affirms the dissolution of the One into the Many – if only because there never was a ‘pure’, ‘unchanging’ One to begin with:

… the quasi-`meaning’ of dissemination is the impossible return to the rejoined, readjusted unity of meaning … But is dissemination then the loss of that kind of truth, the negative prohibition of all access to such a signified? Far from presupposing that a virgin substance thus precedes or oversees it, dispersing or withholding itself within a negative second moment, dissemination affirms the always already divided generation of meaning.

This denial of any original ‘oneness’ or ‘wholeness’ (`virgin substance’) which might have preceded the multiple probably constitutes the most serious difference between Ibn ‘Arabi and Derrida, whose attitudes towards rationality and bewilderment otherwise encounter so many points of similarity. It is a passage which reveals Derrida to be the most un-Neoplatonic of thinkers, surprising only when one considers some of the favourites in the Derridean canon (Benjamin and Blanchot, for instance). Instead of the One, an emptiness lies at the heart of dissemination, a place where ‘there is no longer any depth of meaning’. The ‘actual situation’ for Derrida is an endlessly proliferating myriad of substitutions, without beginning or end, centre or periphery, in the midst of which the unenlightened forever attempt to build their theories, structures and truths, unaware that their metaphysical towers rest upon interminably shifting sands.

Ibn ‘Arabi on the flood: sainthood as perplexity

Were He to come out of a thing, it would cease to be. And were He to be within a thing, it would cease to be.
(Futuhat, 0)

Ibn `Arabi’s treatment of the seventy-first surah of the Koran on Noah (Nuh) is a good example of how the Shaykh bewilders the reader, by offering interpretations of well-known passages from the Koran which are almost the exact opposite of what they appear to mean. The hermeneutics of the Fusus are a lesson in perplexity in themselves: villains and tyrants are treated sympathetically, heroes are shown to be ignorant or misguided, condemnatory verses are reinterpreted as praise, idolaters are shown to be enlightened. As we shall see in a later chapter, Ibn `Arabi’s conviction that ‘the Reality of God lies in all things’ is perfectly translated into his Koranic commentary; the intention of God’s Holy Text lies in all possible readings, even in the most contradictory and outrageous ones. For now, we are merely interested in what Ibn `Arabi’s chapter on Noah in the Fusus says about bewilderment – and ultimately how this compares to Derrida’s own thoughts on confusion.

In a way, Ibn `Arabi’s retelling of the story of Noah follows Derrida’s version of Babel, insofar as both writers deal with a divinely delivered catastrophe – and both writers choose to redescribe this punishment as more of a blessing than a chastisement, more of a development or an advancement than a termination. The Koranic account of the flood does not differ greatly from that of the Biblical version with regards to the ultimate significance of the event – in response to the rising corruption and sinfulness of man, God resolves to wipe out the unbelievers with a divine deluge, saving only Noah and those around him from the waters because of their righteousness. The Koran differs only insofar as it shows, in some detail, the despair of Noah as he attempts (in vain) to persuade his people to leave their idols and repent, and his request to God that none of the proud unbelievers should be spared.In order to understand the Shaykh’s radical rereading of this surah, one has to remember God’s persistent emphasis on God as being simultaneously immanent and transcendent. In his attempt to reach the unbelievers Noah, far from being praised as a solitary bastion of righteousness in a decadent world, is criticized for only emphasizing the transcendent without mentioning the immanent: ‘Had Noah uttered this kind of saying, they would have responded to him …’. Even more notoriously, Ibn ‘Arabi interprets the final drowning of the unbelievers not as just punishment upon the sinful, but as the drowning of saints in the shoreless oceans of Allah: ‘they drowned in the seas of knowledge of God, which is what is meant by perplexity’. The stubborn idolaters, with their bewildering abundance of idols (Wadd, Suwan, Yaghuth, Ya’uq, Nasr : ), suddenly became the purveyors of a spiritual hayrah – one which eludes Noah, a figure still clinging to a one-sided view of a transcendent God.

Ibn `Arabi’s version of Noah is important because it tells us a number of things about the Shaykh’s attitude towards bewilderment; first and foremost, multiplicity is seen not as a problem, but as a means towards the solution. The perplexity necessary towards spiritual advancement can only be provided by multiplicity – in this case, the multiplicity of idols which ’cause confusion’ amongst Noah’s people. Only confusion can bring us nearer to God. One object of worship is not sufficient – it deludes the ignorant with an illusion of clarity, desists from complicating the thought of God, makes the believer think the holy is exclusive to the statue or painting s/he is worshipping. As soon as a multiplicity of idols appears, the locus of the holy – and thereby the nature of the Holy itself – is called into question. Distraction here becomes an anti-metaphysical tool, one used to lever and prize the intellect out of a certain niche and into a freer understanding of things. The perplexity the believer experiences at this multiplication of possibilities provokes a sincerer inquiry into the nature of God, one which will lead (the Shaykh believes) to the all-important realization that al-Ogg is present everywhere and in everything.

Here, especially, one sees how important a role infinity plays at the heart of both Derrida and Ibn `Arabi’s thought. The forms of the Real, like the possible meanings of the deconstructive text, are infinite in number: there is no end to the ‘bottomless chessboard’ (echiquier sans fond) on which differance is put into play, any more than there is any bottom to the infinite oceans of God (`God possesses relationships, faces and realities without limit’). The confusion which the infinity of the Real/the Derridean text provides is seen by both Derrida and Ibn ‘Arabi to be perfectly desirable, even if they do lead in radically different directions. For Derrida, the bewilderingly infinite possibilities of the text leads to one conclusion: that the text is semantically vacuous, a sheet of symbols bereft of depth. Ibn ‘Arabi, however, viewing the perplexing variety of people’s beliefs, does not come to the conclusion that there is no God, but rather that there is ‘Something which cannot be known’ which both embodies and is embodied by all of these infinite manifestations.

A second point to be made is that Noah’s evangelical failure to save the unbelievers from the flood stems from his refusal to present God as a divine perplexity:
Noah summoned his people by night, in that he appealed to their intellects and spirits, which are unseen, and by day, in that he appealed to the external senses. But he did not unite the two as in the verse There is none like Him.

Noah literally refuses to con-fuse the idea of God by presenting Him as a simultaneous conjunction of opposites (immanent and transcendent). This monologic attachment to a simplistic understanding of God, essentially this distaste for confusion on Noah’s part, causes the unbelievers to ‘recoil’ and prevents them from climbing onto the boat. It is an unflattering portrayal of Noah for Ibn ‘Arabi to present – one which seems to class Noah with the proponents of the Kalam and the other philosophers who fetter (`iqal) themselves to a single image of God. Perhaps to recover some shred of orthodoxy, Ibn ‘Arabi contrasts this implicit ignorance of Noah with the keener wisdom of the Prophet Muhammed, who (in the Shaykh’s opinion) clearly understood something about God which Noah did not:

In the verse There is none like Him, similarity is at once implied and denied. Because of this Muhammad said that he had been granted knowledge of God integrating all His aspects. Muhammad unlike Noah did not summon his people by night and by day, but by night during the day an inner summons implicit in the outer one, and by day during the night the outer truth being implicit in the inner.

Unlike Noah, the Prophet is keenly aware of the ‘actual situation’ – he emphasizes neither the zahir nor the batin at the expense of one another, but rather blurs the distinction between both. Unlike Noah, the Prophet is not afraid of the con-fusion of God; this natural distance betweenNoah and Muhammad is not measured in terms of respect or divine favour, but rather in terms of how close each comes to accepting perplexity as a condition of the divine.

One of the more interesting metaphors Ibn ‘Arabi uses for such perplexity is that of a deluge, evoking the familiar image of God as a shore-less ocean. It is a metaphor which provides the most scandalous suggestion in Ibn `Arabi’s rereading of the surah; the unbelievers’ refusal to join Noah and climb on the boat is no tragic mistake, but rather a spiritually wiser move, one which saves them from the narrow onto-theology of Noah’s ark and allows them to drown ecstatically in the wider seas of ‘the knowledge of God’. By refusing to join Noah and heed the call to his transcendent God, they reject an unenlightened clarity in favour of their own perplexing truth – and pay for this choice, as Al Hallaj did, with their lives. Nevertheless, the spiritual stage the unbelievers reach as a result of their refusal is far higher than that of Noah. Once swept away by the flood, if they were ever to find land again (as Noah does), it would constitute no rescue but a spiritual descent: ‘Were He to deliver them onto the shore of Nature He would be lowering them from an eminent stage For true gnostics, evidently, oceans are preferable to arks.’

In the Futuhat Ibn ‘Arabi performs the same controversial gesture, taking familiar condemnations of the foolish and the prou the Koran and completely inverting their meaning so that they describe those few, distinct from ‘the common people’, who have discovered true perplexity. For example, the wayward described by the Koran in verses , those ‘who do not see’, are ‘deaf, dumb, and blind’ and ‘will never return to the right path’, are interpreted differently by the Shaykh in the last volume of the Futuhat:

But the elect are ‘in darkness, they do not see. Deaf, dumb, blind.’ they do not understand. Sometimes they say ‘We are we and He is He’, sometimes they say ‘He is we and we are He’ … (italics mine)

Darkness, incomprehension and aimlessness are the gifts of the perplexed – `… they will never return to the right path’. Bewilderment, amongst other things, means loss of direction. Suddenly, ‘never returning to the right path’ seems to be indicative of enlightenment, not ignorance. Ibn ‘Arabi infuses the idea of wandering with a positive sense which would be difficult to reconcile with orthodox Islam, given the importance of the path (al-sirat al-mustaqim) and its synonymy with the codes and traditions of the Shariah. In his chapter on Noah, Ibn ‘Arabi analyses this difference between the unperplexed – who proceed along a given path towards a goal – and the bewildered, for whom there is no longer any centre to journey towards:

He who experiences this perplexity is ceaselessly centred on the Pole God, while he who follows the ‘long’ path to a distant God is always turning aside from the Supreme Goal to search after that which is eternally within him, running after imagination as his goal. He has an imaginary starting point and what he supposes to be a goal and what lies between them, while for the God-centred man there is no restriction of beginning or end, possessing as he does the most comprehensive existence and being the recipient of divine truths and realities.

Ibn Arabi’s perplexity here is opposed to movement – confusion becomes a paralysing condition, it robs the believer of a goal, an object, an aim. As soon as one discovers that God is (immanently) in oneself as well as (transcendentally) ‘Somewhere’ outside, one no longer needs to make a pilgrimage, for the shrine is already inside the pilgrim. Hence the paralysis which confusion brings to the `God-centred’ (perplexed) man is by no means negative, but simply the rendering unnecessary of an illusory journey to something one already is.

The final point to be made about Ibn `Arabi’s remarks on Noah concerns the social implications of hayrah and its subversive potential. The chapter on Noah offers one of the few places in the Fusus where the faintly political possibilities of perplexity – discovering the Real within oneself – are alluded to, if not fully explored. Modern critics with political agendas can often be found re-interpreting various medieval mysticisms as revolutionary vocabularies, particularly those which emphasize the divine within the human. The clearest example of this is probably Ernst Bloch’s Marxist reading of Meister Eckhart in his Atheismus im Christentum. In Ernst Bloch, Eckhart’s insistence on the unity of God and the soul becomes a subversive, emancipatory gesture which ultimately sees ‘the treasure in Heaven as the property of man’ (die Schdtze im Himmel als Eigentum der Mensch). Thus for Bloch, Eckhart supplies not just an ‘aspiring subject’ but also a ‘blown-open, descending heavenly kingdom’ (gesprengter, niedersteigender Himmel).

All of which does not mean to say a similarly emancipatory reading of Ibn ‘Arabi should be attempted – the only chains the Shaykh is keento break are purely metaphysical. What deserves comment in Ibn `Arabi’s Noah is the way the presence of the perplexed dissolves a certain social hierarchy – and the way Noah’s words (below in italics) presents the confusion of the unbelievers as a possible threat to society, one which might spread if not checked in time:

If you spare them, that is leave them, they will confuse your servants, meaning that they will perplex them and cause them to depart from their servanthood to assert the mysteries of Lordship in themselves, so that they will consider themselves as Lords after being servants. They will indeed be servants become as Lords.

If God is the dissolver of differences (Ile has no attributes (sifa)’), then everyone carries within them this capacity to dismantle hierarchy, regardless of their social position. Noah’s fear lies in this perceived threat of self-discovery; perplexity lifts the servant out of his servant-hood, causes everything to shimmer and change, relocating the Divinity not just in the hearts of caliphs and kings, but even down to the lowest rung of the social ladder. It is a passage which reminds us of Bloch’s observation – in Ibn ‘Arabi, true enlightenment turns-servants into Lords.

Conclusion: actual situations

Both Derrida and Ibn ‘Arabi’s attitude towards perplexity – their repeated mistrust of systems and system-builders, their consistent portrayal of clarity as an illusion based on the ignorance of a certain situation, their understanding of a certain dynamic force which pervades all manifestations/texts without ever revealing itself, along with their belief that the state of perplexity allows one to glimpse an elusive Other which remains invisible to those who are trying to think it … all these observations leads us to a number of general points as in the following list.

Perplexity is an ‘actual situation’. For both thinkers, confusion is a certain originary state of affairs which seems to precede God/the text and every attempt to talk about them. For Ibn ‘Arabi, the true gnostic sees through (without dismissing) the theologizing and philosophizing of his peers; he understands that ‘the whole affair of God is perplexity’, a divine flux which lies beneath every image and concept proffered about the Real. The deconstructive critic replicates this antedating of meaning with confusion by seeing through the apparent calm of the text and perceiving an “‘active, moving discord of different forces” beneath it’, always already about to subvert and undermine any and every interpretation.

Perplexity is an inevitable situation. The confusion which both differance and al-haqq perpetrate cannot be overcome; no theological vocabulary can tie the Real to one form, safe and constant, just as no hermeneutics can prevent the ‘essential drifting of the texe. The Real moves through a bewildering variety of manifestations, from zahir to zahir, just as the text moves through an equally bewildering series of differing interpretations. For both Derrida and Ibn ‘Arabi, the perplexing effusion of meanings and manifestations can neither be controlled nor resisted; bewilderment is a semantic fact of God.

Perplexity is an honest, difficult situation. The word for kafir (infidel, unbeliever’) comes from the Arabic root khafara, meaning to hide or conceal. Etymologically, a kfir is someone who hides the truth in his or her heart.  For Ibn ‘Arabi, this would mean refusing to acknowledge the perplexity of the ‘actual situation’ – that the Real both is and is not the creation, that He is simultaneously immanent and transcendent. The secret of the Akbarian soul – that it is a part of the Real – is concealed (kafara) thanks to the half-truth of transcendence (tanzih). ‘We forbid reflection totally,’ writes Ibn ‘Arabi, ‘since it makes the possessor heir to deceit and lack of sincerity’. ‘Covering’ or `concealing’ the radical unthinkability of God with our own versions of the deity makes our spiritual lives easier for us; if we desire a true encounter with the Real, we have to be prepared to experience perplexity and not simply seek reassurance in comfortable, familiar images.

In speaking (within a strictly Christian context) of a `deconstructive theology movement’, Derrida has suggested some similar theological applications of deconstruction – more than anything else, of ‘uncovering’ a spiritual authenticity:

… the point would seem to be to liberate theology from what has been grafted onto it, to free it from its metaphysico-philosophical super ego, so as to uncover an authenticity of the ‘gospel’, of the evangelical message. And thus from the perspective of faith, deconstruction can at least be a very useful technique when Aristotelianism or Thomism are to be criticized or, even from an institutional perspective, when what needs to be criticized is a whole theological institution which supposedly has covered over, dissimulated an authentic Christian message. And the point would also seem to be a real possibility for faith both at the margins and very close to Scripture, a faith lived in a venturous, dangerous, free way. (Italics mine)Despite the difference in contexts, Derrida is in effect saying something remarkably similar to Ibn ‘Arabi: the `metaphysico-philosophical’ constructions with which various institutions (the Ash’arites, the Mu’tazilites) have tried to simplify and regulate the nature of God over the centuries have been based on a ‘covering over’ of the true Divinity. Ibn `Arabi’s hayrah, in many ways, provides the Islamic precedent for a ‘faith lived in a venturous, dangerous, free way’. A faith free of metaphysics, free of veils, images and idols.

Perplexity is a desirable situation. For both deconstructive and Sufi alterities, the basic point remains the same: when we are confused, we see things which we miss when we think we know what we are doing. We see the difference of difference.

Heidegger often makes a similar point. When something goes wrong –a broken tool, an unexpected accident, an unfaithful partner – and our projects breakdown, we truly see for a moment how our world is structured and contextualized around us to give it meaning. In this moment of `breakdown’ we glimpse, says Heidegger, the `worldhood of the world’ (die Weltlichkeit der Welt). The perplexing multiplicity of manifestations enables the stunned believer to glimpse the `Godnes’ of God, just as the continually irrupting images of the Other enables Derrida to glimpse the otherness of the tout autre. Thus, a common opposition to rational/metaphysical thought in both Sufism and deconstruction also finds a common response: if metaphysics blinds/veils us from the actual situation – and if confusion is that which disables our rationalizing will to a system – then we will only truly begin to ‘see’ when we learn to desire confusion, not to flee it.

About Ian Almond:
Ian Almond teaches mostly in the area of South Asian and postcolonial literature and theory. He recieved his degrees from the British universities of Warwick and Edinburgh, and has spent most of his academic life outside his home country, teaching at universities in Italy and Germany and spending a research year in India. He lived for six years in Turkey, teaching at universities both in and outside Istanbul.
He is the author of four books: Sufism and Deconstruction (Routledge, 2004), The New Orientalists: Postmodern Representations of Islam (I.B.Tauris, 2007), a general military history of Muslim-Christian alliances Two Faiths, One Banner (Harvard University Press/ I. B. Tauris, 2009) and History of Islam in German Thought From Leibniz to Nietzsche (Routledge, 2009).
He has also published a number of articles in journals such as PMLA, New Literary History, ELH, the Harvard Theological Review and the left-wing UK journal Radical Philosophy.


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