The Book of Wisdoms

Book of Wisdoms Cover

This was written upon the request of White Thread Press for the recent publication of The Book of Wisdoms.

The Book of Wisdoms is a gathering point for a multifaceted approach to the Kitab al-Hikam, a traditional and much loved Sufi text. It draws together, in English, Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah’s Kitab al-Hikam, in al-Muttaqi arrangement, with Gangohi’s commentary. Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah’s Kitab al-Hikam, widely known for its perspicacity and succinctness, is said to cover all the key aspects of the Sufi path. Al-Muttaqi’s arrangement of the Hikam places the aphorisms together by theme, helping to highlight many of the key points of this terse text. Gangohi’s commentary on this arrangement explicates the key aspects of each of the aphorisms. Yet, beyond these, The Book of Wisdoms brings together the Kitab al-Hikam accompanied, for the first time in English, with the original Arabic, the absence of which was missed in previous publications.

To simply state that this work comprises of Gangohi’s commentary would be to overlook the importance of its publication. Commentary literature on the Kitab al-Hikam has been acknowledged as a genre that has been almost overlooked by both translators and scholars and The Book of Wisdoms makes a good step towards rectifying this situation. Regarding Gangohi’s commentary, the editor notes that its composition was stimulated by the desire that the Kitab al-Hikam “might be more fully comprehended by the ‘laymen’” and that it “aims at guiding the novices to their goal.” Yet, this in no way implies that Gangohi’s commentary is solely for the layperson or novice. The meaning of the text gains depth through constant allusions to the Qur’an and Hadith and these implicit references invites the reader to delve into the text to unearth these interconnections. Also, al-Muttaqi’s arrangement of the aphorisms helps draw together many of the themes of Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah’s work, which are signaled by the chapter headings.

The text of the commentary is a welcome addition to those who are interested in the work of Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah. The editor has maintained a consistency between Danner’s translation of the Hikam and the translation of Gangohi’s commentary, which facilitates the transition from aphorism to commentary, making reading easier. The Qur’an and Hadith quotes are clearly marked and referenced, and many of the allusions are also highlighted with the corresponding Hadith quoted in footnotes, aiding referencing. Extensive references are provided, offering ample resources for further research. However, two points should be made. Firstly, Chapter 26 has been reorganised, differing greatly from the available publication of Ikhmaalush Shiyam. While this should not trouble most readers, these changes are not always marked, nor is there a justification for them. Secondly, at a number of points Ahmad Zarruq’s commentary of the Hikam, which we hope one day will have its own translation, is included, where Gangohi’s commentary stops.

The editor’s introduction evinces the difficulty of pitching Sufism as an integral aspect of Islam. This difficulty is twofold: non-Muslims often see Sufism as transcending Islam, while many Muslims believe that Sufism was added at a later date. Without delving into the background of these well-known positions, it should be acknowledged that the editor makes an attempt to rectify these views by arguing that Sufism is a) intrinsic to Islam; and b) a “valid form of Islamic spirituality.” These are both difficult claims to combat within the confines of an introduction. This task is further complicated by the inclusion of “a non-Sufic discussion of the soul” which involves the “ihsanic method of Islamic spirituality,” which often has “a negative reading of Sufism.” On this point it is worth mentioning that Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah, who was in his time a respected Jurisprudent, was originally of the view that there was nothing beyond the letter of the Law until he met his Shaykh, whose knowledge of the relationship between the exoteric and esoteric aspects of Islam, eradicated this view.

This texts illustrates that the tradition has such depth that it can be entered into from many directions. By not overwhelming the reader with possibilities, The Book of Wisdoms allows the Kitab al-Hikam, and its commentary, gives the reader an entry point into one of the most profound aspects of the Islamic tradition. It is accessible, without avoiding the many controversial issues in the field.

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