Equilibrium and Realization: William Chittick on Self and Cosmos

William Chittick, currently professor of religious studies at the State University of New York (Stony Brook), is an internationally renowned expert on Islamic thought. His contributions to the fields of Sufism and Islamic philosophy have helped paint a clearer picture of the intellectual and spiritual landscape of Islamic civilization from the seventh/thirteenth century onwards. Yet Chittick is not simply concerned with discussions in Islamic thought as artifacts of premodern intellectual history. His vast knowledge of the Islamic intellectual tradition serves as the platform from which he seeks to address a broad range of contemporary issues. In this short essay, I will outline Chittick’s writings on the self within the context of his treatment of cosmology. Rather than being outdated ways of looking at the universe and our relationship to it, Chittick argues that traditional Islamic cosmological teachings are just as pertinent to the question of the self today as they were yesterday.


Every student of Islamic thought is, in one way or another, familiar with William Chittick’s work. His numerous studies and translations in the fields of Sufism and Islamic philosophy have paved the way for a better understanding of the ideas of some of premodern Islamic civilization’s most difficult and profound writers.3 Yet Chittick has, as of late, also been actively involved in bringing his knowledge of the Islamic intellectual tradition to bear on a host of contemporary issues.

Muslim (and non-Muslim) thinkers often wonder how a figure like al-Ghazali (d. 505/1111) or Ibn al-`Arabi (d. 638/1240) would go about addressing today’s intellectual concerns. In fact, a good deal of literature seeking to do just that has begun to appear.4 But Chittick does not proceed along the same lines. He is more likely to view current issues through the lenses of the premodern Islamic intellectual tradition itself. His writings on today’s questions, therefore, draw on the general perspectives of the Islamic intellectual tradition to seek to get at the roots of the problems themselves.

It is with this in mind that his writings on cosmology and its relationship to the self should be understood. And this is why his work is particularly important today: it is a genuinely Islamic intellectual approach to a problem that has, by and large, not registered on the radar screen of twenty-first century Islamic thought.5Aproper understanding of the self and its relationship to the cosmos, Chittick maintains, is the most important question at present, since it is the failure to understand both of these realities that have resulted in our current human predicament.


Scientism and Cosmology

Chittick takes it for granted that, by and large, most peoples’ perspectives are colored by something called “scientism,” an outlook that gives primacy to the methods of science in any and all epistemological issues. Since scientism lies at the core of contemporary culture, from disciplines in the academy to technology and finance, it permeates the way humans think. From its perspective, things must be isolated, objectified, distanced from the observer, and subjected to rigorous scientific analysis in order to get at their true nature.

Scientism, therefore, restricts to a large degree the possibility of there being a harmonious relationship between the human self and the cosmos. Objects are “out there” and therefore distinct from us. Due to this rift between subject and object, the scientistic worldview can only conceive of the cosmos along quantitative lines, thereby rendering its content a mere conglomeration of facts and events shorn of any symbolic content.As Chittick puts it, those who have thoroughly imbibed the scientistic worldview:

[L]ook at things, and they cannot see them as anything but things – never
as signs or markers or pointers or symbols. From grade school they are
taught to believe that things are real in themselves, and that this reality
can only be expressed scientifically, which means mathematically and
quantitatively. If some qualities, such as colors, can be expressed in numbers,
they are real, but those qualities that cannot be expressed quantitatively
– and most cannot – are unreal.6

Taken to its logical conclusion, a reified and “objective” vision of the cosmos and its furniture results in a worldview in which the cosmic order gradually loses it spiritual significance.7 This, then, leads to abstraction, which makes the cosmos before us impersonal, thus rendering human interaction with it an utterly detached enterprise.8 Once there exists a gulf between self and cosmos, it becomes easier to manipulate the cosmos and its contents according to its inhabitants’ specifications.9

Readers familiar with the startling findings of modern physics will undoubtedly aver that the universe is not actually bifurcated, since it is one unit of sorts and something from which the observer can never be separate.10 Yet even if the new physics has something profound to say about the cosmos, the bifurcated conception of the universe continues to be most pervasive. For one thing, since it is still “officially” taught in schools,11 we learn very quickly that it is the most efficient way of controlling our natural surroundings in order to produce “results.” Thus, technology, material progress, and the purely instrumental nature of science dominate our perspectives, since it is through scientism that we can manipulate the cosmos in accordance with our needs and specifications.

Another reason the bifurcated worldview remains pervasive, despite what we know about the cosmos today, is that contemporary cosmology remains meaningless to most people. Even though such books as Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (and his even more accessible A Briefer History of Time)12 have been written to make contemporary physics’ findings accessible to the wider public, after reading through them we may justifiably ask what practical benefit this informative has for our lives. Indeed, these facts can be totally divorced from everyday human experience. Theoretical physics remains for the educated masses, not to mention the vast majority of people who would not bother reading a popular book on physics, an amazing set of findings with no real relevance to their lives. After all, how many contemporary physicists themselves see any practical relevance between the kind of work they do and the lives they lead?

Perhaps the most significant reason for why the bifurcated conception of the cosmos reigns supreme is because contemporary cosmology qua discipline is, itself, confined to scientism. That is to say while it conceives of a cosmic picture in which subject and object are not separated, it must eventually fall back upon the mathematical and quantitative in its formulations.

In other words, modern physics knows very well that the cosmos is a far more complicated place than was previously believed. But when it comes to making sense of the cosmic picture at which it has arrived through scientistic methods, it can only give scientistic answers. This rootedness in scientism ensures that contemporary cosmological theories will always be confined to the mathematical and the quantitative. But, as Chittick cautions, “[a]s long as the truncated worldview of scientism remains the arbiter, no opening to the Infinite is possible. At best, people will devise an ersatz cosmology that hardly lets them see beyond the horizons of popular culture.”13 Indeed, contemporary scientific cosmologies do not possess the means to say anything more than they say, since scientism is their “arbiter.”

Only when scientism is cast aside can cosmology become a symbology and speak to humans on a level beyond the mathematical and the quantitative. With a science of the soul that is mirrored in a science of the cosmos, an escape from what Henry Corbin (d. 1978) calls the “cosmic crypt”14 becomes a possibility. In such a formulation, one transcends himself/herself in order to transcend the cosmos. But without a sacred conception of the cosmos, there will be no accompanying science of the soul, and humans will therefore be trapped in the cosmic crypt without a means of escape. Without a means of escape, the need for an escape recedes into the background.

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