The Bezels of Wisdom
translation and introduction by Ralph Austin
preface by Titus Burckhardt
Paulist Press, 1980
302 pgs
ISBN 0-8091-2331-2




Why should a student of Islam want to read Ibn al-Arabi's Bezels of Wisdom? Ralph Austin, in his introduction, exalts the work grandly: "Indeed, as an expression of profound insights into the very fundamentals of our human spiritual experience, the Bezels of Wisdom can have few equals in the spiritual literature of the world." For many Muslims Islamic mysticism--or Sufism--resides at the heart of the tradition. While so many textbook approaches tend to emphasize Islam's visible manifestations, such as the more easily understood "pillars of the faith," Sufi texts explore the tradition's inner, more esoteric dimensions, which provide fuel and a foundation for the practice of Islam in the world. Titus Burckhardt observes in his preface to the book that a reader of Ibn Arabi's works cannot help but be engaged in the text--precisely Ibn Arabi's aim: "We recognize eternal, universal truth because we find it in the very depths of our own being, in our heart." Ibn Arabi intends to break down the barrier between reader and text and in doing so to eliminate what separates an individual from God.

In his introduction, Austin captures the work's rewards and challenges:

All in all, The Bezels of Wisdom is a difficult and perplexing work, requiring considerable patience, subtlety and imagination from the reader who must be prepared to follow the Sufi master along the tortuous alleyways of his thought and exposition. Nevertheless, the work also affords many profound and often amazing insights into the deeper and more recondite aspects of mystical experience and expression.

Bezels provides a rich window into principles at the core of mysticism but simultaneously veils its meaning in a bewildering array of symbols and metaphors. For a teacher familiar with Sufism, the text can serve as an invigorating primary source especially when used selectively. For newcomers to Sufism, however, the work can be daunting, as it doesn't lend itself easily to a systematic, structured analysis. Ibn Arabi himself stated that in Bezels as well as his in some of his other works "I wrote at the command of God, sent to me in sleep or through mystical revelation." Since the text is therefore comprised of thoughts stemming from direct mystical experience, an objective, analytical approach will always fall short of capturing Ibn Arabi's true meaning. Nevertheless, if some of the more accessible chapters become the focus for student reading, a broader and deeper perspective on Ibn Arabi's thought can still ensue.

The term "bezels" refers to each prophet being the human setting for the sign of different aspects of divine wisdom. Each chapter focuses on a different prophet as the locus for a distinct type of divine self-manifestation. Ibn Arabi's favorite metaphors and principles emerge in almost all of his chapters, but several ruminations in particular may provide readers with reflections that--while still complex--provide relatively lucid accounts of tenets such as the Oneness of Being (wahdat al-wujud) the mirror, and the Complete Human Being (insan kamil). In the Shu'aib chapter, Ibn Arabi reveals the Oneness of Being as manifested in and through the Complete Human Being: "Who is here and what there? Who is here is what is there. He who is universal is particular, and he who is particular is universal. There is but one Essence." For the one who has realized the comprehensiveness of divine unity, no distinction emerges between the divine self and the human self. Ibn Arabi's intentional ambiguity concerning the third person pronoun bewilders the reader; to whom is Ibn Arabi referring when he writes "He"--the complete human being or God? Ibn Arabi strives to keep his readers' minds perpetually in motion, unable to reduce God or humanity to a static image. In having to struggle constantly to grasp Ibn Arabi's meaning, the reader remains open to the infinite possibilities in the text and by extension in the notion of self.

Ibn Arabi's Abraham chapter likewise upsets customary perspectives toward the relationship between the individual and God: "He praises me and I praise him. He worships me and I worship him. He has no other becoming except mine." Statements such as these would ordinarily be seen as constituting a form of blasphemy--putting oneself on a level with God. However, for Ibn Arabi, to assert a unilateral relationship with God is to limit God; only through realizing God's presence within the self can a realization of one self begin to emerge. The image for depicting this unity arises in the form of the mirror metaphor. Ibn Arabi writes in the Adam chapter, "Thus the [divine] Command required [by its very nature] the reflective characteristic of the mirror of the Cosmos, and Adam was the very principle of reflection for that mirror and the spirit of that form." In order to know himself truly, God creates the cosmos so he can see himself reflected in it. The Complete Human Being, exemplified here by Adam, becomes the perpetual polishing of that mirror so that one can know one's self fully. At the stage of perfect self-realization, what is the mirror and that which is reflected? Reflection and reflected are essentially one--a level of understanding Ibn Arabi strives to have his readers not know rationally but experience directly.

By the end of a consideration of the Bezels of Wisdom the reader has become conditioned to examine and reexamine the meaning of Ibn Arabi's words, to the point where the learning process trumps any notion of attaining some fixed, limited understanding of Islam's spiritual path. For teachers who strive to have their students engaged with open-ended material that leads toward questioning and introspection, the Bezels of Wisdom provides an ideal opportunity. review ©2000 by Jim Ehrenhaft and RSiSS

Jim Ehrenhaft
St. Alban's School

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