Combinatorial Wheel of Ramón Llull, 13th century
Liam has an interesting post right now on Ramón Llull, the 13th-century Spanish mystic, poet and philosopher. While reading about Llull's Ars, his system of mystic contemplation, and looking at the fascinating images of his combinatorial wheels, I was instantly struck by similarities to other systems developed by Jewish and Islamic mystics on the Iberian Peninsula around the same time period. I started digging around for information and, suddenly, Liam's post had revived my own interest in the history of mysticism in medieval Spain, which I began investigating about 10 years ago while living in Madrid.
Without overstating the case, I would argue that the world has rarely seen a more spiritually charged atmosphere than the one on the Iberian Peninsula in the 13th century. The most important work in Jewish mysticism, the Sefer Ha-Zohar [Book of Splendor], also known as the Zohar, was composed by Moses de Leon in Castile around 1280. Abraham Abulafia, creator of "ecstatic kabbalah," and one of the key figures in Jewish mysticism [Gershom Scholem dedicates an entire chapter to him in his landmark study Major Trends in Jewish Msyticsm], was born in Zaragoza in 1240. Abulafia had his first visions and started studying the kabbalah around 1270 in Barcelona, which was one of the major centers of kabbalah, along with Girona, just to the north. Other important kabbalists were scattered throughout Catalunya and Castile. Meanwhile, in Al-Andalus, the Moorish kingdom in the south of the peninsula, Ibn Arabi was born (Murcia, 1165) and spent the first part of his life. Arabi is one of the principle figures in the history of Islamic mysticism, and his magnum opus Futuhat is considered by some to be the major text of Sufism. Other important Sufis also thrived in Al-Andalus during that time, as Ibn Arabi discusses in his Sufis of Andalusia. Thus, some of the most important mystics in the history of Christianity, Judaism and Islam were composing some of the most important mystical texts of all time during a one-hundred year period in an area roughly the size of California.
Title page of the Zohar, Mantua edition, 1558.
(Just for good measure, this was also the time when the Knights Templar were active in Spain, and when St. Francis was walking across the country on his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella. Both the Templars and Francis had their own interesting interactions with Jews and Muslims of the time.)
But how did this Golden Age of Mysticism blossom in Spain? What brought about the Golden Orchard?
Christians probably arrived in Spain not long after the time of Christ, but there doesn't seem to have developed a tradition of mystical writing until after the conquest of the Moors. Saint Isidore did write a treatise on the allegorical meaning of numbers (Allegorise scripturae sacrae et liber numerorum), but he seems to have been an exception. Perhaps the dearth of Christian mysticism before the conquest was due to what Miguel Asín Palacios, an important scholar of Moorish Spain, called the "philosophical poverty of the Visigoths in the midst of their material plenty. Their culture, basically Biblical, had as its sources the works of some of the Holy Fathers, and did not include metaphysics." [The Mystical Philosophy of Ibn Masarra and His Followers. (E.J. Brill, 1978). A translation of the original Spanish work published in Madrid in 1914.] Early Moorish writers also commented on the apparent lack of science and philosophy in the peninsula before the conquest in 711. This is an interesting observation, as medieval mysticism was so interrelated with science, philosophy and poetry.
There are legends of Jews arriving in Spain during Biblical times (Tarshish is thought by some to have been in southern Spain), and some Jews probably came after Rome defeated Carthage in the Second Punic War, around 250 BC, but a large-scale immigration of the Jewish community to the peninsula didn't begin until after Titus' destruction of Judea in 135 AD, what we know as the Diaspora. Again, though, there seems to have been no real flowering of mysticism before the arrival of the Moors, probably for the same reasons that Christian mysticism didn't develop - the intellectual culture of the Visigoths. In addition, the Jews were often persecuted by the Visigoths and were probably just trying to survive. This persecution reached such a pitch that the Jews welcomed the Moors upon their arrival in 711.
The seeds of what I call the Golden Orchard, this time-space realm of tremendous mystical activity within the Iberian Peninsula, seem to have been planted in the 800s, with the arrival of Sufi mystics in Al-Andalus from the eastern parts of the Islamic empire. As the Moors consolidated their power on the peninsula and began to thrive economically, the fields of science, philosophy and especially poetry began to flourish throughout the kingdom.
The Jewish community, no longer persecuted as they were under the Visigoths, experienced an intellectual and cultural revival as well. A key factor was their learning of Arabic. The Moors placed great value on poetry and philosophy, and a great number of high-quality works were published, including most Greek classics which were translated into Arabic as part of an official program after the conquest. According to Jane Gerber in The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience (Free Press 1994), "[F]or the first time, Jews were exposed fully to the conceptual world of classical antiquity. . . . In this way, Arabization introduced them to an entire philosophical literature, originally written in Greek and Syriac, and to a new theological language capable of expressing new concepts. . . . Muslims and Jews both began to contemplate religious questions in a new way, thanks to the Arabic translations of Greek thought."
In addition to this Greek influence by way of translation, the Jews were also influenced by the Arabic language itself. As they wrote more and more in Arabic, it was only natural to incorporate terminology and phrasing from the Arabic culture around them. Religious terms and concepts from Sufism began to find their way into Jewish mystical works. Diana Lobel discusses this religious cross-fertilization in A Sufi-Jewish Dialogue: Philosophy and Mysticism in Bahya Ibn Paquda's Duties of the Heart (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007). "Muslim Spain of the tenth through twelfth century, known as the 'Golden Age' of Hispano-Jewish poetry and letters, is a time of great convergence and cutltural creativity. Jewish courtiers such as Samuel Hanagrid are writing wine poetry; erotic Arabic poetry finds its way into the synagogue liturgy, even on the holiest days. Jewish philosophers are reading and writing philosophy in Arabic; Jews are studying with Sufi masters, integrating aesthetic practices and mystical thought into their own spiritual creativity."
Unfortunately, this "Golden Age" in Al-Andalus came to a close with the conquest of the kingdom in 1147 by the religiously intolerant Almohads, who once again began persecuting the Jews. This led to a Jewish migration to the northern Christian kingdoms. The tremendous sprouting of philosophical and mystical thought that began in the south not only survived the transition but began to blossom even more as kabbalistic centers sprang up in Barcelona, Girona and across Castile. Meanwhile, in Al-Andalus, Sufis such as Ibn Arabi continued to explore and write about their mystical paths.
These two threads, the Sufi and Kabbalistic, come together in the work of the Christian mystic Ramón Llull. Hebrew and Arabic both have numeric values for each letter of the alphabet, and Kabbalah and Sufism both have very developed mathematical-mystical systems. Gematria is the Jewish version. Abraham Abulafia, who I mentioned earlier, was the principle exponent of Gematria, and his system seems to have influenced Llull, particularly in the combinatorial wheels. Abulafia was active in the Kabbalistic circles of Gerona and Barcelona, where his system made its first appearance in 1270, not long before Llull's work. Moshe Idel, in his article "Ramon Lull and Ecstatic Kabbalah: A Preliminary Observation" (Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 51. (1988), pp. 170-174.), says that "Lull was in contact with important Jewish figures living in Barcelona, as the incipit of a lost work of his demonstrates." Llull scholars Pring-Mill and Hillgarth encouraged Idel to "pursue the line" on the "probability of the historical relationship between [Lull's theory of ars combinatoria] and the ecstatic Kabbalah," particularly the work of Abulafia.
Llull was also influenced by the work of Ibn Arabi. As Liam points out in his Llull post, the Ars was "a vast systemization of the world that had as an aim the demonstration of the relationship of all of reality to a certain number of God’s attributes or “dignities:” goodness, greatness, power, wisdom, etc. Llull's dignities are very similar to the Sufi concept of Hadras, or the one hundred names of Allah. I mentioned earlier Miguel Asín Palacios and his book The Mystical Philosophy of Ibn Masarra and His Followers (Brill 1978). Appendix VI is entitled “The Theory of the Hadras of Ibn Arabi and of the Dignities of Raymond Lull and other Analogies of the Two Systems.” Palacios says: “The terminology of the divine Dignities (Dignitates) is one of the indisputable keys of the relationship of Lull to Sufism. . . . This became completely confirmed when later the theory of Ibn Arabi about the divine names was compared with the development by Lull in his book Els cent noms de Deus and in the rest of his works. . . . Thus a comparative study of these one hundred Hadras with the Dignities of Lull leads to the full conviction that they are intimately related. First of all, one must note that Lull in his Els cent noms de Deus confesses to have written it in imitation of those [works] of the Muslims that revolve about the identical theme. . . . And if by chance there still should be a shade of doubt, Lull himself dissipates it in his Disputatio Raymundi christiani et Hamar sarraceni by putting in the mouth of the latter an enumeration of the ‘dignitates,’ almost identical in number and names with his. . . . The evidence of this imitation of the Hadras by the Dignities of Lull is reinforced when it is considered not singly but as one more case of the many which the system of Lull offers when compared with that of Ibn Arabi.”
The principle of the universe is movement... If it stops moving, it will return to non-existence. Ibn 'Arabi.
(The calligraphy is a property of Marsam Gallery Rabat - Editions Marsam, 15 avenue des Nations Unies, Rabat, Maroc)
It's not that Llull's work was not his own. As Palacios goes on to say, "Lull did not wish to be a Muslim but a sincere and very fervent Christian. For that reason the number and designation of hadras and Dignities cannot coincide. Lull chose those that do not conflict with the Christian and Catholic concept of God." Nor did Llull want to be a Jew. He simply incorporated aspects of other systems into his work, as the Jewish mystics had done in Al-Andalus. Going back even further, one can point to the influence of Christian monasticism and Gnosticism on the Sufis before they even arrived in Spain. Abraham Abulafia incoporated breathing exercises from Yoga into his own mystical technique. So the influences come and go like pollen carried by the honeybee from one field to another.
There are different kinds of trees in the Golden Orchard. But they all sway and are moved by the same wind, all watered by the same rain, and, in the end, they all reach up their branches to the same magnificent sun.
UPDATE: Liam has pointed out that today, June 26, is the Feast Day of Ramón Llull. (Some give the date as June 30.) He has, therefore, declared this Ramón Llull Week. Glad to participate. While I appreciate this sudden Llull-mania, however, I fear what will happen when the excitement passes. We will then be faced with the dreaded Llull lull.
Monday, June 25, 2007
Combinatorial Wheel of Ramón Llull, 13th century