Beshara and Ibn 'Arabi
A Movement of Sufi Spirituality in the Modern World
By Suha Taji-Farouki
Anqa Publishing Copyright © 2007 Suha Taji-Farouki
All rights reserved.
Setting the scene
Across Britain today and in various other parts of the non–Muslim world, small groups of committed individuals meet regularly to study in devotion the challenging writings of Muhyi al–Din Ibn 'Arabi (1165–1240), an Andalusian sufi (mystic) widely recognised as the most influential thinker of the second half of Islamic history. This book is the story of their encounter with him. For many, this began during the 'sixties' (often projected as the years 1963–73), when Ibn 'Arabi was discovered by counterculture youth in Britain searching for new spiritual ways. He had arrived there in the company of a descendant of the Ottoman elite, and their joint legacy is the movement that calls itself Beshara. Since the mid–1970s, Beshara has offered substantial courses in 'esoteric education' drawing on Ibn 'Arabi's teaching, through a dedicated school. Those who have studied there make up an extensive international network of individuals personally committed to this teaching and to the actualisation of the Beshara vision.
Through the story of Beshara many other stories can be told, and some of them are unfolded in this book. There is the broad canvas of transformations in the religious–spiritual landscape of the advanced societies of the post–war West: these changes first appeared prominently during the sixties, and have grown significantly since. There is the specific story of sufism in the West: associated with love, beauty and an inclusive humanism, this has long been popular among Westerners (in contrast with suspicions of Islam as dogmatic, rigidly legalistic and exclusivist). And finally there is the particular encounter between sufism (and Ibn 'Arabi) and the New Age.
The story of Beshara and Ibn 'Arabi also raises many questions concerning the future, at a time of tension between 'Islam' and the 'West', and of heightened global interaction and exchange. What does it suggest concerning trends in attitudes towards sufism and Islam in Western contexts? Given that its story includes a successful encounter with a majority Muslim setting, might it also shed light on possible future trends in Muslim attitudes? What does it reveal concerning the current state of sufism and its possible future? This book offers some answers to such questions.
Two fields of study are bridged here: religion and spirituality in the modern West, and historical and modern Islamic and sufi traditions. We have endeavoured to avoid the assumption of detailed specialist knowledge of either, and provide a basic introduction to key studies of recent religious change in the West (including New Age studies), as well as sufism and the life and thought of Ibn 'Arabi. The hope is that readers of diverse backgrounds will find adequate guidance and something of interest in the full notes, where references range from introductory surveys to specialist works.
In the first part of this chapter we briefly outline the historical context out of which Beshara emerged. We profile sixties Britain, discuss the counterculture associated with the period, and introduce the phenomena of New Religious Movements (NRMs) and the New Age. Here and in the subsequent introduction to sufism and sufi spirituality in the modern West, we introduce working definitions of terms and concepts used in the volume. We should point out here that NRMs, the New Age and the sufi presence in the West all predated and outlived the sixties. We draw on analyses of these phenomena as they appeared later in the twentieth century whenever this lends greater clarity (with the necessary qualifications). We also draw on some discussions of the USA/Western Europe where this illuminates the British case.
Having thus set the scene, we introduce Beshara as a movement of sufi spirituality that emerged in sixties Britain, and pose specific questions to map out the agenda for study. We then introduce Ibn 'Arabi as the movement's major inspiration, and clarify the notion of the Oneness of Being attributed to him. (This brief treatment is supplemented with suggested further readings on his life and thought in Appendix 2.) Finally, we discuss methodological orientations and the methods of data collection adopted, addressing questions raised by the use of certain types of sources and data.
Sixties Britain as historical context
Take me on a trip upon your magic swirling ship, My senses have been stripped, my hands can't feel to grip.
Bob Dylan, Mr. Tambourine Man
The counter culture ... insists that we are men, not things ... It defines the proper (human) categories which make us holy. It is unique in its promise that humanity can finally be human.
Frank Musgrove, p. 19
No more falsehoods or derisions, golden living dreams of visions
Mystic crystal revelation and the mind's true liberation.
The Fifth Dimension, Aquarius
For people of a certain age, memories of the 1967 Summer of Love in San Francisco, Woodstock in 1969 or the Glastonbury Festivals of the early 1970s will never fade. The significance of the social and cultural developments symbolised by such events reached far beyond the lives of those directly involved, however, and scholars, the media and cultural commentators on both sides of the Atlantic have periodically revisited them. In Britain in the summer of 2004, for example, cultural events were organised to debate the achievements and merits of the landmark decade of the 1960s, and to evaluate the legacy for posterity of this moment in history. It was a time that brought substantial and long–lasting change to the country's identity, thanks to certain significant social and cultural transformations. One social–cultural historian of twentieth–century Britain has construed the period c.1958–c.1973 as a 'cultural revolution', in which the dominant features were 'self–expression', participation, joy and release from the social controls which had held British society in thrall since Victorian times'. Dislocations took place in spheres of class, race, relations between the sexes, and relations between the youthful and middle–aged. The youthful emerged as the vanguard in the significant and influential minority comprising what has been widely dubbed the 'counterculture' of the time. It stood for human, egalitarian values against the premises of a society built on economic growth, and was marked by a distrust of authority and suspicion of leadership. Some sociologists have suggested that counterculture youth threw into stark relief the constitutive developments of modernity. They thus embodied a social and existential 'homelessness', generated by the impact of modernisation and its institutions on consciousness and social life in modern societies.
The counterculture evinced certain major orientations, reflecting for those involved the outcome of the individual encounter with the structures of the modern technological–bureaucratic world. There was a bid for liberation from the controls and limitations of primary institutions experienced as coercive and repressive, and radical disillusionment with the 'mainstream' meanings and values they provided. This encompassed traditional religion, its plausibility having in any case been thrown into crisis by the undermining effects of pluralisation, itself a product of the processes of modernisation. In their homelessness, counterculture youth undertook of necessity a turn to the self as the only remaining source of meaning and significance. One major counterculture orientation thus found expression in a search for ways of life that nurture 'the authentic self'. The idea of pursuing this by taking the 'journey to the East' indeed became so popular that the countercultural interest in Eastern traditions (religions of the 'Orient') was one of the most striking features of the sixties.
As hinted at above, changes in patterns of religious belief were not confined to counterculture youth: they were more broadly evident in the industrialised societies of the post–war West. In Britain traditional patterns associated with institutional religion declined significantly, especially from 1960 (measured as ritual participation and institutional attachment). This suggested a future based on an 'empty church' scenario. It also encouraged a confident mood among sociologists convinced that the death–bell had begun to toll for religion in the advanced societies of the West (as it would, eventually, in other societies). At the same time, however, new forms of religious expression began to proliferate, leading to a new level of religious diversity in British society. Such developments added to the mounting evidence that was eventually to confound those who had predicted the inevitable demise of religious belief and life, based on their confidence in the secularisation thesis. The new forms of religious expression in Britain included groups which sociologists describe as NRMs. NRMs are groups that are religious (insofar as they offer an answer to some of the ultimate questions traditionally addressed by religions), and that have been founded in their present form and cultural environment since 1945. The counterculture served as a significant catalyst in the emergence of NRMs, and furnished an important recruitment base: thus many came to prominence during the sixties. Dubbed 'neo–Oriental' NRMs, a good number of them specifically answered to the countercultural 'turn East'.
In the wider society, interest in the phenomenon of NRMs was mostly framed at first in terms of social deviance, when some groups emerged as a social problem. Sociologists have largely driven the academic study of NRMs since: combined with psychologists and scholars of religious studies, they have mapped the field through a voluminous literature. This literature elucidates the profiles and motives of NRM–joiners from the baby–boomer generation (born just after the end of World War II and forming the young adults of the counterculture), and later generations. A typical joiner has been young (often in their twenties), white, better educated, from a middle–to upper middle–class household, and equally likely to be female as male. A major attraction for joiners has been the emphasis in many NRMs of a specifically experiential religiosity, striking a chord with a search for 'an intense experience of the self' and a direct, personal encounter with the transformative sacred. It has typically taken the form of a mystical monism based on the notion that the divine can be found within, a principle found in the mystical traditions of all major religions (but often conflated with Indian traditions). This emphasis is coupled with practices that lead to an experience of union with the sacred/ ultimate reality, during which the 'ordinary' self is transcended. It should be clear from this that many NRMs offered joiners 'spirituality' as opposed to 'religion'. The distinction between the spheres denoted by these terms had been long in the making, but it came into particularly sharp focus during the sixties (and has gained further prominence since).Alongside these spiritual offerings, the leader/teacher/guru institution proved an important pull factor for many joiners. It not only responded to their search for leaders with authentic charisma,but also to their implicit yearning for representations of authority in a culture marked by growing uncertainty. The fellowship and supportive community provided by NRMs also had evident appeal for the 'homeless minds' generated by modernity.
Sociologists of religion disagree on the cultural significance of NRMs for Western societies. Their interpretations tend to coincide with the broad lines of the debate on the secularisation thesis. Based on a projection of secularisation as 'a self–limiting process that gives rise to religious revivals', some see these groups as 'the vanguard of a revival of the sacred in the modern world', pushing back the frontiers of secularisation. Others see them as 'epiphenomenal symptoms' of a further stage in the ongoing secularisation/privatisation of religion in the societies of Western Europe and the USA, positing them as evidence of the continuing decline in religious vitality and influence there. Yet others see them as symptomatic of significant shifts in religious sensibilities and orientations in the West. Taking the case of the USA since the 1960s, Wuthnow has demonstrated that Americans increasingly turned from a religious life marked by a spirituality of 'dwelling' (based on identification with a geographically fixed community), to one of 'seeking', liberated from many traditional constraints and reflecting a new understanding of freedom partly shaped by the civil rights movement. A new religious environment was taking shape at this time, marked by a historically unique emphasis on freedom of choice, which fuelled the spiritual quest and encouraged seekers to make up their own minds in the marketplace of ideas and lifestyles, paying attention to their inner feelings. The upsurge of interest in spirituality among Americans during the late 1960s was further informed by a positive regard for diversity and personal exploration, such that people could move freely among different lifestyles and worldviews. The success of NRMs in the USA at this time, beneficiaries of these changes in the country's religious culture, served as an important indicator of underlying trends that would gain in scope as the twentieth century progressed.
The emergence of the sixties' counterculture in the USA and Western Europe not only fuelled the development of NRMs, but also saw the expansion of the New Age. Those who have studied it have pointed to the difficulty in identifying, describing and delimiting this phenomenon, which seems to elude any universally accepted definition. For the purposes of our historical discussion, it is necessary first to distinguish between the sixties, or counterculture, New Age, and what has been described as the New Age Movement (NAM). The latter term designates specifically a recognisable 'movement' into which the counterculture New Age (and its antecedents) crystallised during the 1980s. Recent analyses of this movement from the 1980s onwards (better informed by virtue of their vantage point) can illuminate the sixties New Age, given important continuities in content and orientation (notwithstanding certain differences that emerged during the 1970s). There are in fact still relatively few scholarly studies of the NAM from a detached viewpoint. At the same time, the eclectic diversity that comprises it presents a challenge to discerning a single worldview or underlying vision. Heelas' 1996 study advances one understanding of this vision, and the characteristic themes and attitudes that flow from it. The basic working concept of the New Age adopted in the present volume, whether in the context of the sixties or beyond, has been influenced by this. It is important to bear in mind that not all the emphases identified by Heelas (and others who have studied the New Age) are necessarily present, or manifest to the same degree, in every New Ager/New Age group. Where present, they are also subject to considerable variation. Defining New Age themes are set out in what follows, using italics to highlight key concepts.
The most pervasive and significant motif of the New Age, according to Heelas, is the notion that the person is, in essence, spiritual, based on the monistic assumption that 'the Self is sacred' and producing a characteristic 'Self–spirituality', the capital S indicating the true, 'higher' self. Positing inner spirituality as the key to moving from everything that is wrong with life to all that is right, New Agers consider it essential for the individual to move beyond the socialised self (the 'ego', 'lower self', 'intellect' or 'mind'). This enables a shift to a new realm of being which constitutes the authentic self and human nature, and represents perfection (as well as helping to change the world into a better place). New Age spiritual disciplines and practices furnish paths to the ultimate within, and by applying these New Agers become aware of what they are (the essential), and what they are not (that part of them which belongs to the artifices of society and culture).
Flowing from this 'Self–spirituality', there is a strong tendency for New Agers to be 'epistemological individualists' who insist that, first and foremost, truths come by way of personal experience. Accordingly, all voices of authority other than the self must ultimately be mediated by way of inner experience. The New Age is thus in large part quite radically detraditionalised or in other ways anti–authoritarian. Voices of authority rejected include those associated with established traditions and orders: this extends even to a rejection of 'beliefs' as such. Significant consequences arise for attitudes towards religion. In the New Age, it is effectively replaced by teachers 'whose primary job is to set up "contexts" to enable participants to experience their [own] spirituality and authority'. Religion is associated for New Agers with 'the traditional; the dead; the misleading, the exclusivistic'. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Beshara and Ibn 'Arabi by Suha Taji-Farouki. Copyright © 2007 Suha Taji-Farouki. Excerpted by permission of Anqa Publishing.
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