in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Sunday, 13 December 2015

St John of the Cross and Islam

As the Christmas commercial mayhem continues to gather apace it is good to have the little oasis of St John of the Cross's feast day today - a moment of calm in the collective madness. Recently a number of people have asked me about putative connections between John and Islam (there being possible - though disputed - Islamic roots in his family history and having been brought up at a time when Muslim influence was still apparent in the Spain of his day). Accordingly I quote a little from my 'St John of the Cross - Outstanding Christian Thinker' that may be of interest -
Happy Feast Day - Viva Juan de la Cruz!

John and Islam

The first serious work to link John with the Muslim culture of Al Andalus was that of the Roman Catholic priest and scholar Miguel Asín Palacios (1871 – 1944)[1]. Born in 1871 in Zaragoza, Asín Palacios began his studies at the University of Zaragoza in 1887 where he fell under the influence of the famous arabist Julián Ribera which led to a lifelong interest in Arabic culture and writings, especially from Al Andalus. Ordained priest in 1895 he wrote his doctoral thesis on Al-Ghazzali which led to an enduring interest in tracing the influence of Islam on the literature and life of Spain, especially that of the Golden Age mystics. As such the methodological questions he raised have never gone away and continue to haunt sanjuanist studies. Writing after his death Zaragüeta compared his approach to Arabic sources with that of the English scholar John Henry Newman:

Like Cardinal Newman, author of The Grammar of Assent and other exquisite books on the interior life, (Asín Palacios) possessed a certain mental affinity which manifested itself in basic methodological principles, with which he could judge the results of his investigations into the unexplored territory of Muslim literature. (Zaragüeta y Bengoechea 1952:14)

Whilst Raimundo Lida is quoted as saying that ‘If all the literary production of Spain were to be lost, and only ten books could be saved, I would save one of Asín Palacios’ (quoted in López-Baralt 1991:xi).

In his 1933 article for the first edition of the journal Al-Andalus Asín Palacios argued for what he saw as textual evidence linking what he termed ‘the renunciation of charismata’ in John of the Cross and the Andalusian/North African Sufi school of the Shadilites. He sums up his understanding of the ‘renunciation of charismata’ thus:

The doctrine of renunciation has an underlying metaphysics whose fundamental principle is this: God is inaccessible to the creature; in regard to the absolute transcendency of the infinite Being who is devoid of all analogy with finite being, it is inferred that God is nothing that we can feel, imagine, think or desire. When this principle is applied to the mystical, it becomes axiomatic that everything the soul does to reach God, far from being an adequate and efficient means, will be an impediment, obstacle and veil that will deprive him of attainment of union. (Asín Palacios 1933:12)

‘The soul’ he continues therefore, ‘must empty itself, denude itself and liberate itself from all sensual appetite, from all self-interests, from every inclination toward and leaning on creatures… It must kill every initiative and autonomy of the free will in order to find calm, spiritual quiet, the aloneness with God that consists in self-annhiliation, the negation of self and total abandonment or relinquishment.’

Asín Palacios’s argument is interesting, not least because from the 1930s onwards it is found increasingly in the writings of scholars who want to seek a commonality between Islamic ‘negation mysticism’ and the Christian tradition of the via negativa. The classic exposition of this argument is found in Michael Sells’s The Mystical Language of Unsaying (Sells: 1994). Both Palacios and Sells see the ‘mystical strategies’ of the Christian mystical tradition as arising from a basic aporia: ‘the aporia – the unresolvable dilemma – of transcendence’ (Sells 1994:2), that is to say, the dilemma that arises when we try to give names to that which is beyond names: ‘any statement of ineffability, “X is beyond names”, generates the aporia that the subject of the statement must be named (as X) in order for us to affirm that it is beyond names’. In this respect Sells’s argument reflects that of Asín Palacios’s movement from theological statements about the nature of the inaccessibility of God to implications regarding individual ‘renunciation of charismata’ and as Asín calls it, ‘liberation from every intiative and autonomy of the free will’ found in ‘self-annhiliation, the negation of self and total abandonment and relinquishment’ (Asín Palacios 1933:12).

As we have seen, from the earliest moment when John’s doctrine was first open to serious theological scrutiny during his beatification process questions arose as to how truly Christian John’s teaching was. In more recent theological work on John’s teaching interpretations such as those of Sells and Asín Palacios which stress the similarity between John and Islam have been complimented by a growing body of literature that stresses the similar congruence between John and Buddhist modes of thought. These latter, like Asín Palacios, take the ‘self annihilation, the negation of self and total abandonment and relinquishment’ as the key launching pad for understanding the nature of the relationship between the two sets of writings.

[1] For more on the life and work of Asín Palacios see Valdivia Válor (1992)

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