Ineffable knowledge presents one of the most important and difficult problems of human consciousness. The insights gained in a state outside of knowledge have been examined in such varied contexts as the testimony of Holocaust survivors, discourse on pain and bodily trauma, and discussions of mystical experience (the direct apprehension of ultimate reality). Such experiences are vexing. They are moments of consciousness in which a person understands something of the utmost importance to communicate to others but is unable to do so. As Plotinus states in Ennead VI.9, the direct experience of ultimate reality must be “adjusted to our mental processes” before it can be expressed in speech or writing. Representing an experience outside of language (and often outside of thought itself) leads to a process of “translation” from silence to speech, resulting in writings that are often difficult, paradoxical, or confusing. Ironically, the mysterious gap between consciousness and representation provides the very space for the theologian or religious philosopher to convey new insights about ultimate reality.
This dissertation examines the philosophical implications of the subjects of epistemic silence and ineffability in three strands of medieval Islamic mysticism: Sufi mysticism, philosophic mysticism, and Ishrāqī (Illuminationist) mysticism. The writings of Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 505 AH /1111 CE) represent Sufism, those of Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn Ibn Sīnā (d. 428/1037) represent philosophic mysticism, and those of Shihāb al-Dīn Yaḥyā al-Suhrawardī (d. ca. 582-7/1187-91) represent Ishrāqī mysticism. The study of the role of silence and ineffability within Islamic mysticism simultaneously addresses two areas in need of critical attention in religious studies. First, silence and the ineffable are foundational features of mystical epistemology in Islam, and detailed analysis of these subjects adds to the overall understanding of mystical knowledge within Islam. This analysis also helps to demarcate the different types of mysticism in Islam, as Ibn Sīnā, al-Ghazālī, and Suhrawardī have profoundly different understandings of ultimate reality and how one can directly apprehend it. Second, by demonstrating these different understandings of mysticism and mystical experience, this dissertation addresses the need for greater engagement with Islamic mysticism within the critical discourse of religious studies.
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