, Volume 74, Issue 3, pp 261-278
Date: 03 Nov 2012

Two modes of unsaying in the early thirteenth century Islamic lands: theorizing apophasis through Maimonides and Ibn ‘Arabī

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Abstract

This comparative study juxtaposes two celebrated medieval examples of negative speech, apophasis, and theorizes the languages of unsaying in the great medieval thinkers, Maimonides (d.1204) and Ibn ‘Arabī (d.1240). The paper coins a distinction between ‘asymmetrical’ versus ‘symmetrical’ approaches to language as a heuristic to analyze the two philosophical apophatic accounts comparatively. While apophatic thinkers in Neoplatonic traditions generally oscillate between these two poles in their various apophatic moments, the paper argues that Maimonides and Ibn ‘Arabī represented the climax of these two non-linear poles in a visible tension and conversant with each other. I frame philosophical apophasis in the medieval Islamic lands in terms of the problem of God’s transcendence versus imminence. Maimonides celebrates apophasis and claims that negative speech, asymptotically approaching silence, is the only genuine praise to God. As an uncompromising exponent of absolute transcendence, and a severe critic of those who ascribe attributes to God, he privileges apophasis to kataphasis; he presents negative speech as a medium of purification and spiritual progress. Ibn ‘Arabī, on the other hand, is critical of this widespread asymmetry, and defends the gathering together of transcendence and imminence for human perfection. His intricate theory of transcendence and imminence appeals to a dialectical logic, explaining why kataphasis and apophasis are symmetrical in front of the Absolute. The productive tension between two apophatic minds challenges Hegelian habits of reading the history of thought, as well as various scholarly prejudices about medieval intellectual landscapes.