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  • Sufi Aesthetics: Beauty, Love, and the Human Form in the Writings of Ibn ‘Arabi and ‘Iraqi
  • Oliver Leaman
Sufi Aesthetics: Beauty, Love, and the Human Form in the Writings of Ibn ‘Arabi and ‘Iraqi, by Cyrus Zargar, 2011. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, xi + 235 pp., $59.95. ISBN: 978-1-5700-3999-7 (hbk).

The first thing to say about this book is that it has very little to do with Sufi aesthetics. The subtitle is however accurate, and the author has many useful things to say on the topics of beauty and love directed towards human beings in the thought of many of the leading Sufi thinkers. The notes are really excellent and the discussion of hadiths and passages from the Qur’an exemplary. This material will be unfamiliar to many readers, even those who are fairly at home in the literature of Sufism. According to Zargar, the central feature of Sufi psychology is the gaze, and through the gaze a connection can be made, albeit often only with difficulty and after a process of preparation, with what is real. What the gaze is focused on is generally something material, and how we get from these contingent features of the world to what lies behind them is something that Zargar explains at some length. Quite what the purpose of comparing Ibn al-‘Arabi and Fakhr al-Din al-‘Iraqi is escapes this reader. The book has the flavour of a doctoral dissertation, although I have no idea if this is what it was, and the comparison never produces much of interest. These are two similar thinkers, with al-‘Iraqi clearly being highly responsive to the earlier Ibn al-‘Arabi, and we fail to learn precisely where they differ apart from on issues of style, or why a comparison is worth pursuing at all.

On the positive side the author does provide some really impressive discussions of the major Arabic technical terms related to beauty, love, and attention, and provides a sensible account of how they are interconnected. He rightly argues that we will not understand what the main views of the thinkers on these topics are unless we grasp these terms clearly. On the other hand, one never really knows how to assess this sort of discussion since the criteria for success and failure are all rather mysterious, not surprisingly given the mystical context within which we are operating here. So for example we get an interesting discussion of some hadiths and their interpretation by Ibn al-‘Arabi, [End Page 95] such as the Prophet’s apparent dislike of the smell of garlic. Since this is the Prophet speaking it must be more significant than just a personal dislike, Zargar rightly suggests. Yet surely there is nothing wrong with garlic, since if there was God would not have created it. We naturally dislike its smell, Ibn al-‘Arabi thinks, but we should acknowledge the wonderfulness of everything, garlic (and its smell) included. The development of love and attraction into focusing on more than just the physical, while focusing on the physical also, is something that the Sufis go in for a good deal, and the fluidity of their language is well described here. The status of gazing at beardless youths is discussed thoroughly, although by the end we are never very sure of how far it is taken to be acceptable or otherwise. A problem with the sort of approach we find in Sufism is that there are many ways around what have been previously taken to be a clear distinction between the acceptable and the forbidden, and we are never clear on where the author stands. Something that is otherwise forbidden may be acceptable if it is taken to reflect some feature of the cosmos, which in turn reflects God, its creator, and in relating to the inferior and morally suspect object we may nonetheless be able to set ourselves on the route to coming closer to God. This account of how the issue was transformed from the sixth to the seventh century actually shows that it was not changed at all, merely reformulating the Arabic theory of Ibn al-‘Arabi into...


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pp. 95-97
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