A Pageant Faded: Ibn al-'Arabi, Shakespeare and the Artist-Saint

Sufi Playing the Ney
Sufi Playing the Ney

In the preface to Henry Corbin’s Alone with the Alone, one of the most illuminating journeys into the life and writings of the Sufi saint Ibn al-ʿArabī (d. 1238), Harold Bloom states that

For our culture, at this time, it may be more pragmatic for seekers to discern the reality of the Active Imagination in Shakespeare, rather than in Ibn ʿArabī or Suhrawardī, though under Corbin’s guidance Ibn ʿArabī and the other Sufi sages will help us to define the imaginal realm in Shakespeare.

With these words, Bloom sanctifies an intimacy between a religious saint like Ibn ʿArabī and literary saint like Shakespeare. A connection that seems to be altogether lost in modern religious life.

In what realm do artists and saints meet and converse? Instinctively, we surmise that such a sojourn does not take place amidst legalistic debates or theological controversies. The key to understanding the geography of such a hosting space may be in the hands of Oscar Wilde and T.S. Elliot who tell us, respectively, that “no great artist ever sees things as they really are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist” and “the point of intersection of the timeless with time, is an occupation for the saint”. Beyond time and appearances, and with a little artistic license, we mold these two sentiments into a new poetic sculpture and say that both the artist and saint can perceive the timeless spirit animating the perishing forms in the world.

There are several reasons why a saint like Ibn al-ʿArabī would be considered a suitable comparison to Shakespeare for Harold Bloom. For one, the Andalusian mystic believed that human beings are in a new libās (clothing) of outer forms at every moment. These ṣuwar (images) merely allude to our spirit which is boundless and beyond any single bodily specter. All in all, a human being’s life, even before birth and after physical death, goes through various stages of the spirit revealing itself in different external approximations of its endless meaning. Each of these forms resembles its predecessor and successor but is also necessarily different than them, for as Ibn al-ʿArabī states: “There is no repetition in creation!”

Shakespeare grants us a spiritual nod in As You Like It: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.” Or in the other powerful monologue from The Tempest:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors, As I foretold you, were all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air: And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces, The solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve and, like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.

Like so, the pageant of time, religion and culture fades between Ibn ʿArabī and Shakespeare to reveal the intimate spirits of the saint and artist and then re-veil, once again, the intimately married visions and unique creative effulgence of each vocation to beautifully perform: “There is no repetition in creation!”

In a previous blog post, titled “The Cemeteries Are Empty”, we traveled into the world of Matisse and Cezanne and witnessed how art museums are indeed mausoleums that house the spirits of artist-saints roaming freely within the paradises of their art work. Here we continue that journey by further emphasizing that it might not be the jurist or theologian who resembles the saint in the witnessing act of reality unfolding, but rather the artist in their openness to the depths of their being wherein both divine revelation and creative inspiration descend and the resulting hospitality within us ascends. The heart, which the Sufis regard as ʿarsh al-raḥman (throne of the most merciful God), is the only seat capable of traversing across a stormy wave of forms and images instantaneously while simultaneously witnessing the ocean of spirit unleashing them.

Unfortunately, modern religious institutions have reduced the importance of this dīn al-ḥaqq (religion of the Real/Truth) to multitudes of rationally limited theological and legalistic differences. It is for this reason that a saint like Ibn al-ʿArabī, already some nine centuries ago, set the rational faculty aside as a suitable route for digesting this ‘intersection of the timeless with time’. The word ʿaql (rational faculty) in itself indicates an ʿiqāl (harness) and limitation. As Ibn al-ʿArabī tells us, this is because the ʿaql likes to define and abstract, inevitably reducing and oversimplifying in the process what is witnessed to a specter that can be imprisoned within.

This is also why saints like Ibn al-ʿArabī regard doctrinal beliefs, ʿaqāʾid (creeds), to be distasteful and a straying away from tasting the presence of unbounded reality; precisely because the ʿaqīda (creed) is nothing but an ʿuqda (knot) that one must tie in their mind in order to fit what is infinite and timeless under the jurisdiction of the ʿaql that knows only nicely fitted abstract categories and definitions. Instead, the actor’s exit and entrance into this world of forms comes in the way of the qalb (heart), which Ibn al-ʿArabī tells us is the only organ able to dance across the taqallub (fluctuation) of manifestations and forms that the wind of reality of brings.

This vision is supported for Ibn al-ʿArabī by the statement of the Prophet Muhammad: “the qulūb (hearts) of human beings are between the hands of al-raḥmān (the most merciful). He turns them whichever way He wills!” Whereas numerous theologians and exegetes have interpreted this narration to mean that one’s inclination towards belief or disbelief is a matter of divine will; Ibn al-ʿArabī reveals his artistry by departing from such a doctrinal bifurcation towards the vastness of divinity and interprets the fluctuation to be instead across the infinite procession of forms and images.

This ancient strand of saintliness in Islam, Christianity, Judaism and other faith traditions hearkens to a time when the artist’s creative inspiration was presumed to come from the same niche as divine revelation. This is why for the ancients, a ‘genius’ was a wise spirit that accompanied artists, as opposed to a psychological specter within a creative person. We conclude by making the case for the return of the vision of the artist-saint and a spirituality that is at once rooted in scripture yet blooms beyond its linguistic form to a boundless ocean of other forms and images. This is not to subject art to theology or a legal tradition, but rather to set it as a mirror between the artist and saint, so that saintliness can witness its artistry and vice versa … and then the two may meld into one.

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