It is a well-known phenomenon that widespread condemnation of a book will only serve to increase its allure. It then follows that when Ibn Khaldun (a Fourteenth Century historian) attempted to ban Escape of the Gnostic, he may have been doing the text a favor. In a legal opinion, Ibn Khaldun wrote, “the decision regarding such works and their ilk should involve taking all copies and putting them in the fire, then washing one’s hands so that all traces of their contents are erased.” The author of the clearly controversial Escape of the Gnostic, Ibn Sab‘in, is the narrator and focus of Bensalem Himmich’s novel, A Muslim Suicide (translated from the Arabic by Roger Allen). Born in Andalusia during the Reconquista, Ibn Sab‘in practiced Sufism, a mystic dimension of Islam that encouraged self-examination as a means to spiritual enlightenment. A firm proponent of separating religion from the state, he also cautioned against the growing trend of fanaticism in the Arab world. In his day, Ibn Sab‘in’s beliefs were scandalous enough that he was forced to flee first his birthplace, and then his adopted home of Maghrib. He eventually made his way to Mecca, where he supposedly slit his wrists and bled to death in the sacred Ka‘ba. This provocative death inspired Roger Allen’s title for the English translation, a choice that he justifies in his afterword. Though the original Arabic title translates to “This Andalusian,” Bensalem Himmich initially wished to call it “Suicide Inside the Ka‘ba” and requested that the Allen restore some of the controversy.
The novel opens with a lament: “Woe is me! Woe is me for what I have lost, leaving a huge void inside me. I have been asked to explain the nature of this loss by a voice that I’ve grown used to hearing in my dreams.” Indeed, Ibn Sab‘in’s tale is held together by his yearning for the loss of Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain), the loss of his beloved philosophical manuscript, and the loss of “spiritual nourishment” in the Arab world. In the first third of the novel, the missing manuscript is felt most acutely, and Ibn Sab‘in copes with his grief by seeking out sex. This came as a bit of a shock to me, given that he is characterized as a devout Muslim. Still, it is consistent with his character as he makes it clear that though he is religious, he feels no obligation to live the life of an ascetic. As a partial explanation of his promiscuity, he observes that the deterioration of the Spanish state has inspired sexual boldness in its women, even those of faiths that promote chastity. As a result, Ibn Sab‘in encounters Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and polytheist women who color his life with both sexual intercourse and religious discourse.
The novel takes a turn toward adventure when local officials (among them, his brother) threaten to imprison Ibn Sab‘in and his followers if he does not leave Spain. Intimidated by his unorthodox religious beliefs and vocal criticism of concessions to Christian Spain, they escort Ibn Sab‘in to Maghrib (modern day Morocco). Thus begins a long series of hasty flights and days spent hiding from government thugs. In Maghrib, however, he finds some respite and meets his wife, a wealthy widow who surpasses all his previous lovers in beauty and faith. In her loving household, Ibn Sab‘in writes his most famous work, Escape of the Gnostic:
bq For me the word escape [budd] implies a number of notions: a line of poetry, the fulcrum of a millstone, a firm principle, or you might even say that it and its synonyms all blend together to produce a single meaning, namely the loftiest ideal… the only path toward it involves uncovering its signs and secrets in the persona of an ever-striving humanity. Whoever knows himself knows his Lord, as the prophet hadith puts it. The “gnostic” of my title is one who realizes that adjuncts and additions are mere coincidentals, or rather fantasies. Time consists of periods and moments; place mere sectors and partialities; and all of them collapse into something inferior to both unity and genuine cognizance.
It is passages like this one that make A Muslim Suicide remarkable and characterize it as a work of fiction rather than a biography. Himmich manages to distill the essence of Ibn Sab‘in’s philosophy and imagine how it could have been produced by a living, breathing man.
Part of Bensalem Himmich’s success in this ambitious endeavor must be attributed to the fact that he himself is a philosopher. Full of allusions to scholars and political figures that influenced Ibn Sab‘in, this book represents not just his life but the intellectual climate of Sab‘in’s day. Himmich manages to strike a balance between making the novel accessible and upholding the complexity of thought and rhetoric one would expect of a narrator noted in the field of philosophy. I am reminded of the choice that translators make between bringing the source text closer to the reader and bringing the reader closer to the source text. In the process of translating the language and culture of Ibn Sab‘in’s era for a contemporary audience, Himmich chose to bring the reader closer to the source. This choice is appropriately reflected by Roger Allen’s translation into English. Unfamiliar as I am with Muslim Philosophy, I appreciated the addition of a glossary to provide background information.
A Muslim Suicide requires attentive reading, but it rewards with moments of ecstatic, poetic prose. In one of my favorite passages, Ibn Sab‘in addresses his followers:
I refuse to countenance the slightest degree of shirking or contempt. The reason is that the only genuine sense of relief I feel involves resisting the corpse that stays crouched on top of the chest of the living person and combatting those symmetries whose outmoded tyranny I can measure within the framework of ever-ascending and existential essentials of life. Beyond all that, my overriding task and indeed the very essence of my being involves turning my life into an incredible work of art, albeit incomplete – needless to say.
The notion of “resisting the corpse that stays crouched on top of the chest of the living person” encapsulates Ibn Sab‘in’s internal struggles throughout the book. From fighting the urge to give into the void he feels upon losing his manuscript, to working against the spread of Christian Spain, to running from murderous fanatics, to praying for unity with God in his final moments of fever-wrecked life, Ibn Sab‘in seeks always to combat that which would pull him into a forgettable, faithless existence. And that, needless to say, is life turned into art and a life worthy of a reader’s attention.
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