A Philosopher’s Tale: The Remarkable Life of Ibn Sab’in

By Frances Khairallah Noble

A Muslim Suicide
By Bensalem Himmich
Translated from the Arabic by Roger Allen
Syracuse University Press, 2011

Set in Spain during the turbulent 12th  century, “A Muslim Suicide” follows the radical Sufi philosopher, Ibn Sab’in, in his daily life as he negotiates the political, religious, and cultural upheavals of his era. The Crusaders seek to reclaim Spain from the Muslims; Muslims argue religious doctrine amongst themselves; and government leaders engage in corruption. Because of Ibn Sab’in’s inclusive moral and ethical views, and the size and devotion of his followers, he becomes the unwilling enemy of them all.

Sab’in narrates his own story in great detail, usually offering philosophical and religious perspectives to his experiences—whether it concerns the act of making love, seeking his lost manuscript, , living in solitude, fleeing to Mecca, taking refuge in an underground cellar, or having milk poured by a friend. Under the best, as well as the most difficult circumstances, he gives praise to God and affirms life on earth. Sab’in simultaneously maintains distance and lives immersed in what is happening around him. How to lead a worthy life; how to act; the nature of man and his dilemmas: these overriding subjects consume him, and he recognizes their relevance to the mundane as well as the sublime.

Yet, in the end, Sab’in commits suicide. Or does he? Is his mind clouded by fever and hallucination? Does he in fact kill himself? Does he imagine an attacker? Or does he experience death at the hands of another who is his enemy? Does the manner of his death change the meaning of the words he spoke during his life?

Himmich allows his narrator considerable leeway—assuming the existence of a willing and persevering listener for the great philosopher. In addition to being a work of historical fiction, the book is, after all, a meditation: a reminder to slow down and think deeply. Not all readers will be so patient, however, and the story occasionally bogs down.

In a rich and majestic style well-matched to his subject, Himmich has woven together fiction and history to explore Ibn Sabin’s life, as well as a complex period of medieval Muslim history. “A Muslim Suicide” is complex, challenging, and rewarding. It is a book to be savored. Or as Ibn Sab’in advises, “…seek to understand the secrets, clear the path before you, and you will see both past and future.”

This review appears in Al Jadid Vol. 18, no. 67.

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