There was a gratifyingly positive response to yesterday's post Let us change the way we listen. Too often these days I despair of the direction that classical music is taking; but the open-minded response to my advocacy of non-duality shows there is room for an alternative to the pervasive "nips and willies" approach pioneered by Norman Lebrecht and endorsed by so many classical musicians who should know better.
Underpinning my post was the metaphysical cantus firmus of the twelfth-century Andalusian Sufi mystic, poet, and philosopher Ibn 'Arabi. At the core of his teaching is the concept of waḥdat al-wujūd - oneness of being. This proposes a monist (non-dual) alternative to the more generally accepted dualist thinking of Aristotle, Averroes, Descartes, St. Thomas Aquinas and others. Monism views all existence as being part of a single unitary whole. This leads to the interpretation that all great religious/knowledge traditions converge in a single Truth, a viewpoint that led to Ibn 'Arabi's teachings finding favour with the syncretic counterculture of the 1960s. But since then he has fallen out of fashion. A sleeve note for a 2001 tribute by Moroccan and Andalusian musicians from the Sufi tradition on the innovative Pneuma label - see artwork above - explains that: "As far as we know, this is the first time that a complete recording has been made of the poetry of Shaykh al-Akbar [Ibn 'Arabi] including a broad selection of passages from the Tarjumān".
This neglect of Ibn 'Arabi stands in stark contrast to the popularity of his fellow Sufi Mevlana Rumi. In 1994 Publishers Weekly announced that Rumi was the bestselling poet in America, and an exiled Iranian academic in Pico Iyer's 2003 novel Abandon opines that Rumi is "quickly supplanting Rilke and the Dalai Lama as the reigning king of greeting cards"*. My own comprehensive music library yields, in addition to the Pneuma disc, just four Ibn 'Arabi settings on the CD Mystic by the Syrian/French composer Abed Azrié (who influenced Philip Glass) and the single instrumental track Hommage à Ibn Arabi on Keyvan Chemirani's crosscultural Melos project. To my knowledge there has not been a setting of Ibn 'Arabi's poetry by a Western classical composer; but I may be wrong and I welcome correction by my erudite readership**.
As discussed in an earlier post Rumi has been set by a role call of Western composers including Philip Glass, John Tavener, Karol Szymanowski, and Jonathan Harvey. So why not Ibn 'Arabi whose message transcends sectarian divides? It may well be because of a misapprehension that the opacity of his metaphysics*** carries over into his poetry. If that is the case an acquaintance with Ibn 'Arabi's verse will quickly dispel that misapprehension. Here is what is probably his best known poem 'A garden among the flames' reproduced from the website of the Oxford based Ibn 'Arabi Society:
A garden among the flames* Franklin D. Lewis' invaluable Rumi, Past and present, East and West gives a salutary warning about the dangers of Rumi-mania which can be read via this link.
a garden among the flames!
My heart can take on
a meadow for gazelles,
a cloister for monks,
For the idols, sacred ground,
Ka'ba for the circling pilgrim,
the tables of the Torah,
the scrolls of the Qur'án.
I profess the religion of love;
wherever its caravan turns along the way,
that is the belief,
the faith I keep.
From Poem 11 of the Tarjuman al-Ashwaq, translation by Michael A. Sells.
** The non-classical Vast Earth Orchestra, which has links with the Ibn 'Arabi influenced Beshara community that sprung from the 1960s counterculture, has recorded some interpretations of his poetry. But, for me, they represent all that is wrong New Age artistic expression, and I cannot recommend them.
*** For an accessible introduction to Ibn 'Arabi, Stephen Hirtenstein's The Unlimited Mercifier is recommended.
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