Being Things with Words: Ibn 'Arabī's Theory and Practice of Language
What is language? Is it merely a tool for communication or can we understand it as something more – as a medium that structures our engagement with the universe? These are the questions that underpin Ibn ʿArabī’s magnum opus ‘The Meccan Openings’. Ibn ʿArabī (1165-1240 AD) was a prolific thinker and poet. His work not only integrates mysticism and philosophy, but also covers a wide range of subjects. In The Meccan Openings, Ibn ʿArabī constructs a linguistic cosmology that draws a network of correspondences between Arabic letters, numbers, celestial spheres, elements, natures, and beings.
Studies of theories of language in the Islamic tradition have tended to focus on its relevance to logic and grammar. However, recent work by scholars has prompted a much-needed reconsideration of cosmological approaches to language and their vital significance not only in the development of premodern and early modern Islamic thought, but also in the social and political realms. The Meccan Openings would later provide the metaphysical framework for practical techniques developed by key intellectual figures working within the political elites of the early modern Ottoman, Timurid, and Mughal empires.
By exploring the multivalent levels of signification that Ibn ʿArabī attributes to the written and spoken word, this project not only extends scholarship of premodern theories of language beyond the spheres of logic and grammar, but also presents a site for reflection on the operative function of language in the world around us, thus offering potential insights into the purpose of language in our contemporary digital age.