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Tag: Muslim

Eco: The Concordia Universalis of Nicholas of Cusa


Meister des Marienlebens, Kreuzigung, Passionsalter aus Bernkastel-Kues, 1460. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“The seductive potentiality of Lull’s appeal to the principle of universal concord is revealed by the resumption of his project, two centuries later, by Nicholas of Cusa. Nicholas is famous as the figure who revived Plato during the years between the crisis of scholasticism and the beginning of the Renaissance.

Nicholas also propounded the idea of an infinitely open universe, whose centre was everywhere and whose circumference nowhere. As an infinite being, God transcended all limits and overcame every opposition.

As the diameter of a circle increased, its curvature diminished; so at its limit its circumference became a straight line of infinite length.

Likewise, in God all opposites coincide. If the universe had a centre, it would be limited by another universe. But in the universe, God is both centre and circumference. Thus the earth could not be the centre of the universe.

This was the starting point for a vision of the plurality of worlds, of a reality founded on mathematical principles, which can be submitted to continuous investigation, where the world, if not infinite in a strict sense, was at least capable of assuming an infinite number of guises.

The thought of Nicholas is rich in cosmological metaphors (or models) founded upon the image of the circle and the wheel (De docta ignorantia, II, 11), in which the names of the divine attributes (explicitly borrowed from Lull) form a circle where each supports and confirms the others (I, 21).

The influence of Lull is even more explicitly revealed when Nicholas notes that the names by which the Greeks, Latins, Germans, Turks and Saracens designate the divinity are either all in fundamental accord, or derive from the Hebrew tetragrammaton (see the sermon Dies sanctificatus).

The ideas of Lull had spread to the Veneto towards the close of the fourteenth century. Nicholas probably came into contact with them in Padua. Their diffusion was, in part, a reaction against a scholastic Aristotelianism now in crisis; yet the diffusion also reflected the feverish cultural atmosphere generated by close contacts with the East.

Just as Catalonia and Majorca had been frontier territories in contact with the Muslim and Jewish worlds at the time of Lull, so the Venetian Republic had opened itself to the world of Byzantium and of the Arab countries two centuries later. The emerging currents of Venetian humanism were inspired by a new curiosity and respect for other cultures (cf. Lohr 1988).

It was thus appropriate that in this atmosphere there should have reemerged the thought of a figure whose preaching, whose theological speculations, and whose research on universal language were all conceived with the aim of building an intellectual and religious bridge between the European West and the East.

Lull believed that true authority could not be based on a rigid unity, but rather on the tension between various centers. It was the laws of Moses, the revelations of Christ and the preaching of Mohammed that, taken together, might produce a unified result.

Lull’s doctrine acted as a mystical and philosophical stimulus and seemed an imaginative and poetic alternative to the encyclopedia of Aristotelian scholasticism, but it provided a political inspiration as well.

The works of a writer who had dared to put his doctrine into the vernacular proved congenial to humanists who, on the one hand, had begun to celebrate the dignity of their own native tongues, but, on the other hand, wondered how it was possible to establish a rational discussion which broke the boundaries of national traditions, a philosophy which could reanimate the body of encyclopedic scholasticism by injecting the leaven of exotic new doctrines, expressed in languages still entirely unknown.

In his De pace fidei, Nicholas opened a polemical dialogue with the Muslims. He asked himself Lull’s question: how might the truth of Christian revelation be demonstrated to followers of the two other monotheistic religions?

Perhaps, Nicholas mused, it was a mistake to translate the persons of the Trinity as “Father,” “Son” and “Holy Ghost.” Perhaps they should have been given more philosophical names (better understandable by other cultures).

In his ecumenical fervor, Nicholas even went so far as to propose to the Jews and the Muslims that, if they would accept the Gospels, he would see that all Christians received circumcision. It was a proposal, as he confessed at the end, whose practical realization might present certain difficulties. (De pace fidei, XVI, 60).

Nicholas retained from Lull the spirit of universal peace as well as his metaphysical vision. Yet before the thrilling potential of Nicholas’s own vision of an infinity of worlds could be translated into a new and different version of the art of combination, new ideas would have to fertilize the humanist and Renaissance world.

The rediscovery of the art of combination would have to wait for the rediscovery of Hebrew, for Christian kabbalism, for the spread of Hermeticism, and for a new and positive reassessment of magic.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 69-72.


More on Ibn Wahshiyyah and Magic

“The magic of Ibn Washiyya consists of invocations to astral deities, magical recipes and forms of action. Most of the invocations are given only in Arabic, but a minority is also provided with the supposed Aramaic original.

The text of these is heavily corrupted, as far as the manuscripts are concerned, but in the original the Aramaic may well have been flawless; in any case, several Aramaic words and expressions may still be recognized.

The Arabic script and the inability of the later copyists to understand the foreign words make a mess of the text, as we know also happened to the romance kharjas, which were definitely originally composed by poets who knew, at least to some extent, the language they used.

The Nabatean corpus contains very many invocations to astral deities, often in connection with magical preparations. The Filāha provides a very forceful invocation to Zuhal, Saturn, in the beginning of the text (pp. 10-11).

One may draw attention to the association between Zuhal and black objects, animals, stones and plants (Filāha, p. 12), which is typical of chthonic deities, the planet Zuhal retaining his older chthonic connotations; throughout the book he is considered the god of agriculture.

The burning of fourteen black bats and an equal amount of rats —black ones I suppose— before praying to Zuhal over their ashes is to be seen as a magical preparation for an invocation for apotropaic reasons, to avoid the destructive and nefarious power of the deity.

As a Muslim, Ibn Wahshiyya naturally has to keep his distance from this prayer, but as he claims to be translating an old text, the discrepancy between his Islamic religion and the text’s paganism does not surface. On the other hand, he, as himself, the translator, vouches for the efficacy of similar prayers in many cases.

In Sumūm, fol. 22a, he comments on the language of a prayer, Aramaic in the original, and says that the prayer may also be read in his Arabic translation. In this case, one can hardly avoid the conclusion that Ibn Wahshiyya himself believes in the power of the prayer, thus actually compromising himself.

Yet in the tenth-century Būyid Iraq this was not an issue. This leads us to the question of the religious worldview of the author. In some earlier studies, the supposed piety of Ibn Wahshiyya, called a Sufi in, e.g., his Kitāb Asrār al-falak, fol. 87b, has been contrasted with the paganism of Filāha.

In a sense, the question has been wrongly posed: Ibn Wahshiyya is definitely not an orthodox Sunni scholar, but a narrow definition of Islam as Sunni orthodoxy certainly distorts the picture.

The tenth century was full of esoteric speculation, syncretism and doctrines far from the hadīth-oriented religion of the ‘ulamā’, and much of this took an Islamic garb and often especially a Sufi cloak; we are speaking of the time when al-Hallāj was executed (309/922), either for his wild utterances or, perhaps more probably, for some court intrigues.

Being a Sufi did not automatically certify orthodox beliefs. — In fact, the topic should be properly studied; in some passages of Filāha (esp. pp. 256-262), both the  supposed author and Ibn Wahshiyya, the translator, are very outspoken in their verdict against ascetism and Sufism.”

Jaakko Hāmeem-Anttila, “Ibn Wahshiyya and Magic,” Anaquel de Estudios Árabes X, 1999, pp. 44-6.

There are 18,000 Worlds

“The creative power of God, however, not only in the one world that we know, but all nine sefiroth—with the exception of the first, in which no contraries exist since it is the Nought—unfold in their double action toward the sides of Stern Judgment and of Mercy, and each produces a thousand worlds in each direction.

The universe would thus contain a total of 18,000 worlds, a figure that once again takes up an old talmudic aggadah but that also has its counterpart in certain Muslim speculations, in Ismailite gnosis.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 452.

Revelation of Elijah

“Already in the case of the first Spanish kabbalists, among the disciples of Isaac the Blind, the magical elements in their doctrine of the kawwanah occasionally come to the fore, as we have seen. Similar elements are discernible in the “mysteries of the prayer” of the German Hasidim, in that he who prays must think of the various names of angels as they relate—in respect to the mysticism of words and numbers—to the words of the traditional prayer. But in the earliest kabbalist circles, as far as our information extends, this magical element is missing; at least it does not manifest itself openly.

The teaching of the mystical kawwanah in prayer corresponds perfectly, it seems to me, to the objective and psychological conditions surrounding a doctrine born into an exclusive circle of men who possess the gift of meditation. With it, a new layer is added to the old gnostic elements that were contained in the tradition of the Bahir, elements that these men continued to develop in greater detail.

The creation of this doctrine bears the seal of the vita contemplativa. No element of the old Kabbalah better corresponds to the tradition of a revelation of Elijah, and we may regard this tradition as testimony that in this circle something really new had burst forth from the depths. An indication, if not an absolute proof, of this connection may be found in the fact that the remarks concerning the revelation Elijah is supposed to have vouchsafed to Isaac the Blind or his teachers are found precisely in texts in which the kawwanoth of prayer were collected by the Spanish kabbalists at the end of the thirteenth century.

No other specific doctrine among the kabbalists expressly relates to this revelation and this, perhaps, provides us with a key to our problem. A notion analogous to that of gilluy ‘Eliyahu can be found in Sufi mysticism in the accounts of revelations of Khidr (the Muslim metamorphosis of Elijah). Reports or testimonies concerning such revelations exist with regard to Muhi al-din ibn Arabi (1165-1240) of Andalusia, who shortly before 1200 —the time of Rabad and Isaac the Blind—was still wandering about in Spain (cf. G. Husaini, The Pantheism of Ibn Arabi, 28.).”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 245-6.

Shabbatai Zevi and Sacred Hypocrisy

“The theological challenge facing Nathan of Gaza and other Sabbatian thinkers changed dramatically late in 1666, when Shabbatai Zevi was summoned to the palace of the Ottoman sultan. He emerged from the meeting wearing the Muslim cap. Having been threatened, Shabbatai Zevi did not hesitate for long before converting to Islam. Judaism was suddenly faced with a situation in which the messiah committed the worst possible sin that generations of Jews were educated to avoid. One has, when faced with a demand to convert, to become a martyr and “sanctify the holy name” rather than betray one’s God, people and tradition. Shabbatai Zevi, who should have been the example of religious perfection and who was regarded not only as a divine messenger but also as a divine incarnation, did the exact opposite.”

Scholem later explained that this was not only deliberate, but necessary, including the “discovery” of numerous verses and statements in the Bible, the Talmud and the Zohar that indicate the necessity of the messiah’s conversion to an “evil” religion.

“Several thousands of Sabbatians followed Shabbatai Zevi in the last decades of the seventeenth century and converted to Islam… Most Sabbatians, however, remained within Jewish communities, and created an underground of believers in all strata of Jewish society, simple people, intellectuals, and rabbis. They imitated their messiah in a kind of “sacred hypocrisy:” They pretended to be orthodox Jews, adhering to the ancient exilic tradition, while secretly they worshiped the messiah and the Torah of the age of redemption.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, pg. 89-90.

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