International Journal for Philosophy of Religion

, Volume 74, Issue 3, pp 261–278 | Cite as

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



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.


Apophasis Kataphasis Moses Maimonides Muḥyī al-Dīn Ibn al-‘Arabī Medieval philosophy Negative theology 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. al-Fārābī, Abū Naṣr. (1998). On the perfect state [Mabādi’ ĀrĀ’ Ahl al-Madīnah al-FĀḍilah] (R. Walzer, Rev., Intro., Trans. and Comm.). New York: Great Books of the Islamic World, Inc. (First published in 1985).Google Scholar
  2. al-ḤallĀj, al-ḥusayn ibn Manṣ ūr. (1913). KitĀb al-ṬawĀsīn (L. Massignon, Trans., Ed., and Notes). Paris: Librairie Paul Geuthner.Google Scholar
  3. al-Maghribī, Samaw’al. (1964). Silencing the Jews [ IfhĀm al-Yahūd] (M. Pearlman, Ed., Trans., and Intro.). New York: American Academy For Jewish Research.Google Scholar
  4. al-Ṭūsī, Naṣīr al-Dīn (1999). [ Sayr wa Sulūk] Contemplation and Action: The Spiritual Autobiography of a Muslim Scholar: Nasir al-Din Tusi (S. J. Badakhchani, Ed. and Trans.). London/New York: Institute of Ismaili Studies/I.B. Tauris.Google Scholar
  5. Blumental, D. (2006). Maimonides and mysticism. In Philosophic mysticism (pp. 128–151). Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Campany, R. F. (2003). On the very idea of religions (in the modern west and in early medieval China). History of Religions, 42(4), 287–319.Google Scholar
  7. Chittick W. C. (1989) The Sufi path of knowledge: Ibn al-‘Arabī’s metaphysics of imagination. SUNY Press, AlbanyGoogle Scholar
  8. Chittick W. C. (2007) Sufism: A short introduction. Oneworld Publications, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  9. Chodkiewicz M. (1993) An ocean without shore: Ibn ‘Arabī, The book, and the law. SUNY Press, AlbanyGoogle Scholar
  10. Ernst C. W. (1985) Words of ecstasy in sufism. SUNY Press, AlbanyGoogle Scholar
  11. Franke W. (2007) On what cannot be said. University of Notre Dame Press, Notre DameGoogle Scholar
  12. Goodman, L. E. (1988). Matter and form as attributes of god in Maimonides’ philosophy. In R. Link-Salinger (Ed. in chief), J. Hackett, M. S. Hyman, R. J. Long, & C. H. Manekin (Eds.), a Straight path: Studies in medieval philosophy and culture. Essays in honor of Arthur Hyman (pp. 86–97). Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press.Google Scholar
  13. Ibn al-‘Arabī, Muḥyī al-Dīn. (1946). Fuṣūṣ al-ḥikam [Bezels of wisdom]. Abu’l ‘Ala ‘Afifi (Ed. and Intro.). Beirut: DĀr al-KitĀb al-‘Arabī.Google Scholar
  14. Ibn al-‘Arabī, Muḥyī al-Dīn. (1428/2007a). ‘KitĀb al-FanĀ’ fī al-MushĀhadah. In RasĀ’il Ibn ‘Arabī (pp. 17–23). Beirut: DĀr al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah.Google Scholar
  15. Ibn al-‘Arabī, Muḥyī al-Dīn. (1428/2007b). ‘KitĀb al-Alif, wa Huwa KitĀb al-Ahadiyyah. In RasĀ’il Ibn ‘Arabī (pp. 37–45). Beirut: DĀr al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah.Google Scholar
  16. Ibn al-‘Arabī, Muḥyī al-Dīn. (1428/2007c). ‘KitĀb al-JalĀlah, wa Huwa Kalimat “Allah”. In RasĀ’il Ibn ‘Arabī (pp. 46–54). Beirut: DĀr al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah.Google Scholar
  17. Ibn al-‘Arabī, Muḥyī al-Dīn. (1428/2007d). ‘KitĀb al-A‘lĀm bi-IshĀrĀt Ahl al-IlhĀm. In RasĀ’il Ibn ‘Arabī (pp. 75–82). Beirut: DĀr al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah.Google Scholar
  18. Ibn al-‘Arabī, Muḥyī al-Dīn. (1428/2007e). ‘KitĀb al-YĀ’. In RasĀ’il Ibn ‘Arabī (pp. 107–114). Beirut: DĀr al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah.Google Scholar
  19. Ibn al-‘Arabī, Muḥyī al-Dīn. (1428/2007f). ‘KitĀb al-Azal. In RasĀ’il Ibn ‘Arabī (pp. 115–122). Beirut: DĀr al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah.Google Scholar
  20. Ibn al-‘Arabī, Muḥyī al-Dīn. (1428/2007g). ‘KitĀb al-AnwĀr. In RasĀ’il Ibn ‘Arabī (pp. 123–131). Beirut: DĀr al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah.Google Scholar
  21. Ibn al-‘Arabī, Muḥyī al-Dīn. (1428/2007h). ‘KitĀb al-IsrĀ ilĀ MaqĀm al-AsrĀ,’ in RasĀ’il Ibn ‘Arabī (pp. 132–183). Beirut: DĀr al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah.Google Scholar
  22. Ibn al-‘Arabī, Muḥyī al-Dīn. (1428/2007i). ‘RisĀlah ilĀ al-ImĀm al-RĀzī. In RasĀ’il Ibn ‘Arabī (pp. 184–191). Beirut: DĀr al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah.Google Scholar
  23. Ibn al-‘Arabī, Muḥyī al-Dīn. (1428/2007j). ‘KitĀb Naqsh al-Fuṣūṣ. In RasĀ’il Ibn ‘Arabī (pp. 394–400). Beirut: DĀr al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah.Google Scholar
  24. Ibn al-‘Arabī, Muḥyī al-Dīn. (1428/2007k). ‘KitĀb IṣṭilĀḥ al-ṣūfiyyah. In RasĀ’il Ibn ‘Arabī (pp. 407–417). Beirut: DĀr al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah.Google Scholar
  25. Ibn SīnĀ (1957). al-IshĀrĀt wa al-TanbīhĀt [ma‘ Sharḥ Naṣ īral-Dīn Ṭūsī], Vol III. Analysis and annt. by S. DunyĀ (2nd Arabic ed.). Cairo: DĀr al-Ma‘Ārif.Google Scholar
  26. Ivry, A. L. (1986). Islamic and Greek influences on Maimonides’ philosophy. In S. Pines & Y. Yovel (Eds.), Maimonides and philosophy (pp. 139–156). Papers Presented at the Sixth Jerusalem Philosophical Encounter, May 1985. Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.Google Scholar
  27. Ivry A. L. (2005) The guide and Maimonides philosophical sources. In: Seeskin K. (eds) The Cambridge companion to Maimonides. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 58–81CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Kraemer J. L. (2005) Moses Maimonides: An intellectual portrait. In: Seeskin K. (eds) The Cambridge companion to Maimonides. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 10–57CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Kreisel H. (1997) Moses Maimonides. In: Frank D. H., Leaman O. (eds) History of Jewish Philosophy. Routledge history of world philosophies. Routledge, London, pp 195–223Google Scholar
  30. Maimonides, M. (1912). The eight chapters of Maimonides on ethics [Shemonah Perakim] (J. Gorfinkle, Ed., Annot., Trans., Intro, and Frwd.) New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  31. Maimonides, M. (2008/1429). DalĀlat al-ḥĀ’irīn [Guide to the Perplexed] (H. Atay, Ed., Intro. and Notes) (2nd Arabic ed.). Cairo: Maktabah ThaqqĀfah al-Dīnīyyah.Google Scholar
  32. MullĀ ṣadra, Muhammad ibn IbrĀhīm ṣadr al-Dīn ShīrĀzī. (2004). On the hermeneutics of the light verse of the Qur’Ān (L.-P. Peerwani, Trans., Intro. and Annt.) London: ICAS Press.Google Scholar
  33. Nasr, S. H. (1964). Three Muslim sages. Avicenna, Suhrawardī, Ibn ‘Arabī. Harvard studies in world religions. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  34. Nasr S. H. (1973) The meaning and role of “Philosophy” in Islam. Studia Islamica 37: 57–80CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Pessin, S. (2008). The influence of Islamic thought on Maimonides. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition). Stanford: Stanford University.Google Scholar
  36. Reines, A. J. (1986). Maimonides’ true belief concerning God. In S. Pines & Y. Yovel (Eds.), Maimonides and philosophy. Papers presented at the sixth Jerusalem philosophical encounter, May 1985 (pp. 24–35). Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.Google Scholar
  37. Rosenthal F. (1988) Ibn ‘Arabī between “Philosophy” and “Mysticism”: “Sufism and Philosophy Are Neighbors and Visit Each Other.” fa-inna at-taṣawwuf wa-t-tafalsuf yatajĀwarĀni wa-yatazĀwarĀni. Oriens 31: 1–35CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Sells M. A. (2004) Mystical languages of unsaying. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, ILGoogle Scholar
  39. Smith, J. Z. (2004). Religion, religions, religious. In Relating religion: Essays in the study of religion (pp. 179–196). Chicago: Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  40. Stelzer, S. (1996). Decisive meetings: Ibn Rushd, Ibn ‘Arabī, and the matter of knowledge. Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, 16, Averroes and the Rational Legacy in the East and the West, pp. 19–55.Google Scholar
  41. van Bladel, K. (2009). The Arabic Hermes: From Pagan Sage to Prophet of Science. Oxford studies in late antiquity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  42. Waardenburg, J. J. (2003). World religions seen in Islamic light. In Muslims and others: Relations in context (pp. 162–198). Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.Google Scholar
  43. Wolfson E. R. (2008) Via Negativa in Maimonides and its impact on thirteenth century Kabbalah. In: Hyman A., Ivry A. (eds) Maimonidean studies. Ktav Pub Inc., Hoboken, NJ, pp 393–442Google Scholar
  44. Wolfson H.A. (1976) The philosophy of the Kalam. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  45. Yovel, Y. (1986). God’s transcendence and its schematization. In S. Pines & Y. Yovel (Eds.), Maimonides and philosophy. Papers presented at the sixth Jerusalem philosophical encounter, May 1985 (pp. 269–282). Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Graduate Department of ReligionVanderbilt UniversityNashvilleUSA

Personalised recommendations