Printer Friendly

Divine Love: Islamic Literature and the Path to God.

Divine Love: Islamic Literature and the Path to God. By WILLIAM C. CHITTICK. New Haven: YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2013. Pp. xxix + 490. $85.

The problem with this fine book is that it is likely--against its own will--to give grist to the mill and perpetuate the poisonous fallacy that when we speak of love in Islam we are speaking of Sufism and, as we know, "Sufism is not really Islam, after all." Therefore, even though the copious and frequently ravishing texts mined here have as their focus the problem and gift of love, especially as this is bound up with the quite universal blessing and curse of being human, in the end it is "Sufism" and not "Islam" that will be seen as the source of this beautiful, complex, and existentially compelling discourse. Alas. But, perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves; let us first describe the form and contents of the book in the light of what its highly regarded author says is its purpose. This purpose is, of course, indicated in the title, where it is clear that we are to understand the subject to be "Islamic Literature" not "Sufism" or "Sufi Literature." Furthermore, this title draws our attention to the distinctively Islamic idea of "the path to God" in anticipation of the type of misreading mentioned above. For the full antidote, however, we must attend to the author's thoughtful and frank discussion in the preface of what he is up to in this book (pp. xi-xxvi): Chittick is weary to the soul with the stupid, quasi-racist, tenacious bromide that "If it is Islam it cannot be love." As for structure, the book is divided into three parts: "The Origin of Love" (pp. 1-145); "The Life of Love" (pp. 147-276); and "The Goal of Love" (pp. 277-437), preceded by a foreword from S. H. Nasr (pp. vii-x) and the aforementioned, essential preface by the author. The book closes with notes, a selective bibliography, a very welcome index of Quranic verses, an index of hadiths and sayings, and an index of names and terms (in all, pp. 439-90).

Starting with the Quran and hadith and moving into the spiritual teachings, frequently clustered around Quranic vocabulary (the main sources are works of exegesis), by the Ikhwan al-Safa[??], Avicenna, [??]Abdallah Ansari, and the two authors to whom pride of place is given, Maybudi and Sam[??]ani, Chittick wishes to demonstrate in beautiful translations of Persian and Arabic that love in its various forms and guises is of central and utter importance to the sons and daughters of Islam, however they might identify themselves, not to mention to God himself and his prophets and messengers. The scriptural starting point may be seen to comprise three Quranic texts and three well-known hadiths. From the Quran: (1) 7:172, the a-lastu bi-rabbikum? verse marking the timeless and placeless, "beginningless" beginning of consciousness and history on the day of the covenant in the Islamic monomyth; (2) 5:54, He loves them and they love Him. explicating the primary relationship between God and humanity; and (3)3:31, Say: If you love God follow me and God will love you, which was, according to the exegetical tradition, addressed to Muhammad. From the hadith we have (1) the extra-canonical but enormously influential "I was a Hidden Treasure (kuntu kanzan makhfiyyan) and desired to be known, therefore I created creation in order to be known"; (2) the canonical and equally important nawafil (supererogatory good deeds) hadith: "When my servant approaches me with nawafil I love him and when I love him I am the hearing with which he hears, the eyesight with which he sees, the hand with which he works, and the foot with which he walks." Finally, the canonical "hadith of ethical beauty," in which Gabriel asked the prophet Muhammad the meaning of ihsan: "To worship God as if you see him, for if you do not see him, surely he sees you."

These scriptural "icons," along with many others, recur in numerous contexts throughout the book and are read and explicated from many different angles. The key Quranic terms for love are hubb/mahabba; wudd/mawadda; hawa; wala/walaya. Chittick also reminds us that our translation of derivatives of the Arabic word rahma almost always fail to connect with the defining semantic substrate of maternal, unconditional [alpha][gamma][alpha][pi][eta] love. The extra-Quranic words, including Persian terms, are [??]ishq and its derivatives, dusti, and mihr. One interesting and apposite translation choice deserves to be acknowledged. Since Gerhard Bowering's study of the role of the day of the covenant in al-Tustari, scholarship has acquired a more refined appreciation of the centrality of the covenant mytheme in Islam (Sufi or otherwise). The passages translated here frequently refer to the commitment of love and devotion contracted at that time, symbolized by the Quranic affirmative bala (and the resonance of this word with bala[??] "trial, test, difficulty"). This provides Chittick with an occasion to demonstrate one of the more generative "axioms" of the tradition: love and knowledge are intimately connected and in reality identical. He demonstrates this by translating the word ma[??]rifa and its derivatives not as "gnosis"--almost de rigueur in recent years--or even as "knowledge," a perfectly accurate choice. Rather, "recognition"--with its Platonic overtones--is chosen to say that all acts of true knowledge must ultimately lead to the primordial event in which the servant acquired identity and spiritual valence in response to God's question. Thus, the other frequently encountered extra-canonical hadith, "who knows the self knows his [her] Lord" (man [??]arafa nafsahu fa-qad [??]arafa rabbahu) actually means to recognize, recall what was already known. In such a way all acts of intellection lead to the union of lover and beloved. Thus, a single word is shown to be a cultural event of the greatest importance. There are a few translation choices one is bound to query, e.g.. The "Brethren of Limpidness" for Ikhwan al-Safa' and the use of "limpid" whenever this word or its cognates appear rather than the old workhorse "purity." It takes some getting used to. However, Chittick is also a master teacher and it pays to attend to such suggestions with respect.

The formidable scholarship upon which this book is based (of a depth and rigor many might sigh for in vain) remains, as it should in this case, luminously transparent. In short, this is not an academic book in the usual sense. Thus, the several hundred pages of lucid and creative translation are encumbered with a grand total of two-and-a half pages of endnotes. Chittick wants us to concentrate on the message, not on the decorative filigree of extensive apparatus reflecting scholarly credentials (which in this case would be pleonasm). The book is the fruit of decades of scholarly devotion of the highest caliber and deepest commitment. It is a book of urgent need that speaks to and translates with accuracy and felicity a specifically islamicate approach to the problem of being human in the world. Based on meticulous, painstaking, and masterful philological prowess and method, it offers to our particular time and place a much needed tonic--or elixir. Love is the centerpiece of this book that claims that love is the center and circumference of Islam. The evidence adduced in the service of this argument is indeed persuasive.

We are told in the preface that this is quite likely the first volume of a two-volume study. In the second volume, which is to focus on developments in the discourse of divine love--ultimately also a pleonasm: all love is divine--from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries in Arabic and Persian, the discourse would be more technical and more focused on the highly and tensely wrought ontological meditations, paradoxes, and conceptual arabesques involved in the various philosophical or theological explications of love found in the conversation that began in the tenth century with the Ikhwan al-Safa[??] and continued with Avicenna, al-Suhrawardi's al-Maqtul, Ibn al-[??]Arabi and his school through to Mulla Sadra and beyond. (In this context, it occurs to one that a third volume devoted to love in the fiqh literature--beyond the Hanbali--also perhaps deserves to be born.)

Even though the book may not be "academic" in the standard sense, it makes numerous contributions--of the first water--to the academic study of Islam. First and foremost, it is a most welcome and magisterial engagement with Maybudi's insufficiently known tafsir (which is, incidentally, the subject of a recent, quite serviceable 2006 monograph by Annabel Keeler) at the philological level. The translations of the anagogical third dimension (the ishara sections) of the twelfth-century Persian Kashf al-asrar on the subject of love are simply splendid. The second major contribution is closely aligned: the introduction (for all intents and purposes) to the world of learning of another twelfth-century Persian literary and spiritual virtuoso, Ahmad ibn Mansur Sam[??]ani (d. 1140). In the process the intriguing scholarly puzzle of who got what from whom tantalizes the discursive imagination and presents itself as a bona fide problem of real importance. It has long been known that Maybudi's Quran commentary was to a greater or lesser degree inspired by and based on the tradition ascribed to the earlier [??]Abdallah Ansari (d. 1088), supposedly one of Maybudi's teachers. Chittick disturbs this certitude by pointing out that Maybudi obviously acquired much of his material through the unnamed Sam[??]ani. Further, Chittick's decision to stop at the twelfth century is largely determined by the insight that the great and vastly better-known love theorists of the thirteenth century, universally acknowledged and in some cases fully domesticated geniuses of the soul, Ibn al-[??]Arabi (d. 1240) and Rumi (d. 1273), repeat many of the general attitudes and insights, if not the actual language, found in the Maybudi--Sam[??]ani oeuvre. Therefore, at several critical points the idea of their originality must be revisited and rethought and their status reconsidered and adjusted accordingly. The value of Chittick's achievement here is underscored by what is well known to readers of this joumal, that his prodigious and prolific studies and translations of Ibn al-[??]Arabi are truly unsurpassed and that his contribution to Rumi scholarship, though not nearly as prolific, is nonetheless highly regarded for its scholarly depth, method, and integrity. Thus, when he tells us that Ibn al-[??]Arabi and Rumi are not quite as original as he himself once thought, we can safely put it in the bank and admire his honesty and scholarly integrity. On the other hand, some may fault him for not delving more deeply into the scholarly problem of the authenticity of some of these texts ascribed to Ansari, just as some may cavil at the complete absence of social, political, and historical context in the book. Ultimately, Chittick is simply much more concerned with what is being said than with who said it, modulo the important scholarly discoveries upon which this book is based. This is a clear example of the transparency referred to above. As for the lack of historical context, he simply says: "I have observed the norms of careful scholarship, so perhaps my colleagues will not be too hard on me for ignoring the social and political contexts of the times" (p. xv).

It is very difficult to find a typographical error. I have none to report. It seems, however, that there is an omission in the index of names and terms where the generally very helpful decision of providing death dates lapsed with Abu l-Majd Sana[??]i (d. 1131, incidentally, as was read earlier on p. xxi). In this day and age of shoddy book production, such an achievement stands out and should be applauded. Unfortunately, however, the review copy I received had been poorly manufactured. The binding disintegrated upon the third opening. It seems almost churlish to mention, but reviews are sometimes read for their spicy criticism. This is the best I can do here.

Chittick says: "The language of most of the authors I quote is immersed in the mythic imagination, with its concrete imagery and appeal to the immediate concerns of human souls" (pp. xv-xi). I would therefore like to close with one of his paraphrases of Rumi on the all-pervasive and all-consuming reality of love (p. 423):
The goal of lovers is to return to the beginningless nonexistence from
which they came, the beginningless and endless realm of love. Despite
some of the imagery, this is not understood to mean the loss of
individuality. It can better be understood as the reintegration of the
metaphorical self with the tme self. As Rumi put it in a tale told to
illustrate the Hidden Treasure [a reference to kuntu kanzan
makhfiyyan], we were all fish swimming in the ocean, unaware of
ourselves and the water. The ocean wanted to be recognized, so it threw
us up on dry land, where we flip and flop and call it love. When we go
back home, we will be the same fish that we always were, but now aware
of our identity with the water.


COPYRIGHT 2017 American Oriental Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2017 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Lawson, Todd
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2017
Previous Article:Malik and Medina: Islamic Legal Reasoning in the Formative Period.
Next Article:Early Tantric Vaisnavism: Three Newly Discovered Works of the Pancaratra.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters