- In Search of the Lost Heart: Explorations in Islamic Thought by William K. Chittick
Over the course of four decades, William Chittick has done more than anyone to elucidate for an Anglophone audience’s benefit the theosophical side of Sufi literature and later Islamic philosophy. Chittick’s many books, articles, and translation works – the latter often accompanied by copious commentary – manage the tremendous feat of wedding accessibility and fluid prose to an uncompromising fidelity to the complexities of the tradition being conveyed. Besides giants such as Ibn al-‘Arabi (d. 638/1240) and Rumi (d. 672/1273), Chittick has introduced to an English readership a host of lesser-known voices from across later Islamic speculative writing. The result has been a seemingly endless series of interlocking and overlapping studies, all of which cohere to form a rich tapestry presenting a fabulously many-hued religious and intellectual tradition.
In all this, Chittick’s authorial voice has proved an uncommonly effective vessel and teaching tool. Chittick is almost uniquely capable of immersing readers in a complex topic within the space of just a few short paragraphs or pages; the expressiveness and conviction of his prose style have no peer that I know of in the English language. It is therefore an especial delight to have collected a large selection of Chittick’s shorter essays, many of which will entice a general reading audience and equally many of which will prove useful in a classroom setting to Islamic studies teachers of various stripes. (I for one would have loved to have something like Chapter 3, on weeping, available to me when teaching the ritual aspects of Islam last year.) Overall, Part I, with its series of short studies on aspects of later Sufism, serves as an effective introduction to Chittick’s themes.
This is not to say that there would not be plentiful scholarly insights hidden within the folds of these highly literary essays as well. In [End Page 239] particular, Chittick has provided long, loving glimpses into how God, cosmos, and soul are realigned within later Islamic speculation and spirituality, so that ‘human beings have the unique role of coordinating and harmonizing all of creation’ (45). This notion of the human being as microcosm and fulcrum for relating God to cosmos and vice versa is of course a primary theme in Ibn al-‘Arabi; Part II of this collection is accordingly given over to the shaykh al-akbar and his influence. Scholars and students of Shi‘a thought will find much that is useful here, as also in Part III, which bears the title ‘Islamic Philosophy’. The line separating Parts II and III seems to me fluid: noteworthy is the fact that Chapter 11 (‘Qūnawī, Neoplatonism, and the Circle of Ascent’), possibly the most philosophically minded of the Akbarian chapters, and Chapters 19 and 20 from the philosophy portion of the book (on ‘Mulla Ṣadrā on Perception’ and ‘Eschatology in Islamic Thought’), are by far the most heavily annotated. These are all theory-laden expositions of technical matters, and they show that Chittick can switch to a scholarly mode of exposition when the situation warrants.
The collection is rounded out by four looser pieces providing ‘Reflections on Contemporary Issues’ (Part IV). These meditations take on the airs of sketching out a living Islamic thinker’s – truthfully, a practicing neo-Sufi’s or metaphysically minded modernizing Muslim’s – response to questions of war and peace, the environment, religious pluralism, and esoteric Islam’s compatibility with Confucianism. Such occasional writing can easily feel dated and even facile; Chittick’s saving grace is his firm grounding in the Qur’an even when his thinking is at its most impressionistic.
The editors have focused on those of Chittick’s essays not readily available online. Assuredly this is prudent; it does mean, though, that the book is not quite the one-stop destination for Chittick’s shorter studies that it could be. Several of Chittick’s seminal essays...