Sunday, October 7, 2007

Ibn 'Arabi: A Brief Introduction

Ibn ʽArabī (1165–1240)

Muḥyīʾl-Dīn Muḥammad ibn ʽAlī al-ʽArabī is perhaps the most influential Sufi of the medieval period and continues to inspire Sufi movements in the contemporary world as well as institutions devoted to him such as the Muhyiddin Ibn ʽArabi Society in Oxford. Popularly known as Ibn ʽArabī, he is often also given the honorific of al-Shaykh al-Akbar (The Greatest Sufi Master) because of his influence, his writings and spiritual authority for Sufis throughout the ages. His impact on Islamic intellectual history has been such that one might appropriately paraphrase Whitehead and argue that the subsequent history of thought, metaphysics, and self-realisation in Islam is a series of footnotes to Ibn ʽArabī.


An Arab of the tribe of al-Ṭayy, he was born in Murcia in Southern Spain in 1165 during the rule of the Almohads. His father may have been a significant courtier of the local ruler Ibn Mardanīsh (d. 1172) and, after his fall, entered the service of the Almohad sultan Abū Yaʽqūb Yūsuf (d. 1224) in Seville. He later claimed to have experienced visions as an adolescent that inspired him to the Sufi path. In the hagiographical account of his meeting with the philosopher Averroes (Ibn Rushd, d. 1198), an acquaintance of his father, in 1180 in Cordoba, he is already presented as a spiritually precocious young man. The philosopher, impressed by his knowledge, embraced him and said, ‘Yes’. The young man replied, ‘Yes’, but seeing the resultant joy on the face of Averroes, said, ‘No’. The philosopher’s colour changed and he asked, ‘What kind of solution have you found through illumination and divine inspiration? Is it just the same as we receive from speculative thought?’ Ibn ʽArabī replied, ‘Yes and no. Between the yes and the no spirits take flight from their matter and necks break away from their bodies’. This highly stylised account is designed to assert the superior insight of the Sufi in comparison to the philosopher at a time when Ibn ʽArabī had not yet taken a Sufi guide. It also reveals his ambivalence towards philosophy: he always claimed to have mastered philosophy and in his works displayed knowledge of philosophical terms and arguments, but remained critical of the inability of rational speculation to arrive at the truth and reality of existence. Alongside his studies in jurisprudence and theology, he studied the works of Sufis such as Ibn al-ʽArīf (d. 1141) and Ibn Qaṣī (d. 1151), and began to frequent Sufi masters in Seville, especially Abūʾl-ʽAbbās al-ʽUraybī, his first master. He claimed a connection with the famous Maghribi Sufi Abū Madyan (d. 1198), both through a spiritual initiation (as he never met him) and through that Sufi’s disciple ʽAbd al-ʽAzīz al-Mahdawī in Tunis. In his work Ruḥ al-Quds, he gives an account of his contacts with Sufis including two female spiritual guides, Shams of Marchena and Fāṭima of Cordoba. In the 1190s, he left Andalusia for the first time to study with Sufi masters in Tunis. He continued his travels in search of knowledge and had further visions of famous Sufis and Prophets. He acquired a companion ʽAbd Allāh al-Ḥabashī who would remain a disciple and scribe.

By 1200, he left Andalusia for good, partly due to the political upheavals and headed East. By this time, his fame had spread and he was met in cities like Cairo by Sufis and scholars. He may also have believed in his superior spiritual authority following a vision in 1198, when he realised that he was the seal of Muḥammadan sainthood, a rank that would place him at the head of the spiritual hierarchy in the totality of sacred space and time after the Prophet. He set out for the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1200 and spent a few years there, pivotal years that inspired his magnum opus al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya (The Meccan Revelations), a vast treasury of knowledge, and Tarjumān al-Ashwāq (Interpreter of Desires), a set of allegorical love poems addressed to Niẓām, the daughter of his friend Abū Shujāʽ. His travels took him to Konya in 1210, which established a link later to flourish in the Mevlevi Sufi order that drew upon his teachings. Finally, in 1223 on the invitation of the Ayyubid ruler al-Malik al-ʽĀdil, he settled in Damascus, where he died in 1240 and was buried in the cemetery of the Banū Zakī.


Ibn ʽArabī affected the apophatic style of many Sufis and often claimed that his experiences were ineffable. Yet, perhaps as a corollary of this claim, he was extremely prolific. He wrote short treatises recounting his views, his ‘ascensions’, and his understanding of certain key Sufi texts and doctrines. However, the majority of his tradition and scholarship has focused on two texts. The first is his vast compendium al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya (Meccan Revelations) inspired during his first pilgrimage in 1202, the first draft of which was completed in 1231 in Damascus; the second draft was later completed and rehearsed with his disciples in the last two years of his life. An autograph copy that was preserved by his disciple Ṣadr al-Dīn Qūnawī (d. 1274) survives and is known as the ‘Konya manuscript’ because of its provenance. The text is divided into 560 chapters of hugely variance in length, arranged in six sections. The work is prefaced by an introduction that introduces the reader to the epistemological method of Ibn ʽArabī and provides insights into his hierarchy of knowledge. The first section on inspired knowledge (maʽārif) includes a chapter on his key notion of the Perfect Man (al-insān al-kāmil), chapters on the spiritual reality of Islamic worship, and a key chapter (73) on the spiritual hierarchy and his known of sainthood (walāya). The second section on agency and transactions (muʽāmalāt) includes discussions of law, spiritual rank and station. The following section focuses on spiritual states (aḥwāl) and includes an ontological and spiritual commentary on the vast literature of Sufi works preceding him. The fourth section describes ‘points of ascent’ (manāzil) along the Sufi path and includes his discussion of eschatology. The fifth section on ‘mutual points of encounter’ (munāzalāt) draws on insights upon Qurʾanic and other scriptural texts. The final section on spiritual stations (maqāmāt) includes his commentary on the ninety-nine names of God, the return to God and a recapitulation of the whole work. The text has been studied since the thirteenth century although it does not have an extensive commentary tradition although his sixteenth century Egyptian devotee ʽAbd al-Wahhāb al-Shaʽrānī (d. 1565) did write an influential summary entitled al-Yawāqīt waʾl-Jawāhir fī Bayān ʽāqāʾid al-akābir (Rubies and Gems Explaining the Doctrines of the Elders).

His other main text has spawned a vast commentary culture. In 627/1230, he claims to have encountered the Prophet Muḥammad in Damascus who gave him a book to disseminate. This is Fuṣūṣ al-Ḥikam (The Ring-Settings of Wisdom), a work divided into 27 chapters, each one on the particular wisdom associated with one of the prophets mentioned in the Qurʾan. As such it can be seen as a metaphysical commentary upon the prophetology of the Qurʾan, and even as a mystical exegesis of the Qurʾan itself.


Reading Ibn ʽArabī can be quite taxing. He is not a systematic theologian like al-Ghazālī, nor a philosopher like Avicenna. Rather, writings, for him, are aids to spiritual guidance and tokens to facilitate the development of the soul towards perfection. Reading and the pursuit of knowledge thus exist within the context of the spiritually examined life seeking what is found.

Consistent with many gnostic thinkers and Neoplatonists, Ibn ʽArabī espouses a metaphysics and cosmology of the revelation of God or the One through the process of the cosmos’ becoming and the desire from the cosmos to return and revert to its origins in the One. He propounds the Sufi myth of creation based on the famous divine ḥadīth: ‘I was a hidden treasure and wished to be known so I created that I might be known.’ God was hidden but became manifest through love and desire. That creation which was an effect of that original eros then seeks to know itself (expressing the ḥadīth: ‘whosoever knows his self, knows his Lord) and return to its origins through love for that hidden treasure. The function of religion, of spiritual practice and of gnosis is to facilitate the path of self-knowledge and love that reveals for the seeker the Truth. The study of Sufi texts and meditation upon scriptures, therefore, is the quest for grace and provides spiritual ‘switches’ through the striking of words on the heart of the initiate to transform the self into a mirror that can truly reflect the Truth. This quest must further be guided by an appropriate spiritual master. Thus, the process of seeking and finding God requires the confluence of gnosis, love and discipline.

According to Ibn ʽArabī, all that is sought and indeed found is God. The term wujūd that was used in the philosophical tradition to render the metaphysical notion of existence became the name for God, the Truth insofar as only He is found. In one’s phenomenal experience, everything that one encounters is the face and manifestation of God; only He is found in these myriad of forms. God brings everything into existence so that He can be manifest; but nothing exists in itself and therefore is non-existent, only possessing a rather annexed and derivative ‘image’ of existence.

This is Ibn ʽArabī’s famous concept of the unity of existence (waḥdat al-wujūd), although he himself never used the term. Modifying the Islamic declaration of faith, nothing exists except Existence/God. Consonant with Neoplatonic thinkers, he held that God is utterly transcendent, inaccessible to a communicable experience, a pure being (al-Wujūd al-Muṭlaq or al-Ḥaqq) that was devoid of properties. The cosmos, in contrast as a locus of attributes, multiplicities and accidents, is impoverished and completely dependent on that pure being. Only God exists really and all that we perceive as existing does so by virtue of being a self-disclosure (tajallī) or manifestation (maẓhar) of the hidden existence of God. His monism and scepticism about the reality of phenomenal experience did not entail an other-worldly rejection of life in this world, but entailed an ethics of community and moral agency of equivalence across different beings, an idea taken up by his Indian disciples later on and given the name sulḥ-i kull (peace to all). While the universalist intention of this doctrine is clear (since everything one experiences is ultimately the ‘face of God’), it does not mean that Ibn ʽArabī was a moral relativist who did not believe in the superiority of the application of the Law of Islam.

A concomitant of this doctrine is Ibn ʽArabī’s influential notion of the Perfect Man (al-insān al-kāmil) as an ontological presence and comprehensive microcosmic reality that acts as an isthmus (barzakh) between God and the cosmos, since he reflects the perfection of the divine, and in his humanity is their face and hopes oriented towards God. An alternative name for this notion is the Muḥammadan Reality (al-ḥaqīqa al-Muḥammadiyya) since this mesocosmic property existed in the nature of the Prophet and his spiritual successors. This notion of sainthood (walāya) plays a pivotal role in Ibn ʽArabi’s metaphysics. The quest for finding the One is mediated by the Perfect Man and by saints and reflects the manifestation of the One through grades of presence. God is manifest in the cosmos through grades of presence, in the higher intelligible world of forms (or the mind of God), at the level of the celestial beings such as angels, in the celestial spheres, and on this earth and its people. The most intense divine presence that manifests God is the Perfect Man, exemplified in the person of the Prophet Muḥammad and his spiritual successors, the saints. This hierarchy of sainthood has the role of spiritual guidance and perfection, facilitating the process by which people can realise their humanity and move towards the perfection of the Perfect Man. Ibn ʽArabī states that like prophethood, of which it is a mirror image and continuation, sainthood has a seal, indeed two seals. Just as Muḥammad was the seal of the Prophets, so too are there two seals of sainthood: one is the seal of absolute sainthood encompassing all space and time and all religious dispensations, and for Ibn ʽArabī this is Jesus; and the other is the seal of Muḥammadan sainthood, of the religious dispensation of Islam, and according to his own words, that seal is Ibn ʽArabī himself. Saints guide seekers towards finding the One, lead their spiritual development through the prescription of litanies, formulae of remembrance and invocations. They intercede and mediate and even after the death of the body continue to possess spiritual authority.

The doctrine of Ibn ʽArabī may also be categorised as a metaphysics and hermeneutics of mercy. In the Ring-Settings in particular, he stresses the relationship between divine mercy as an essential attribute and the property of existence, and the recognition of the self in and as the other through compassion. The first act of mercy is the provision of existence through God’s self-disclosure. Mercy encompasses everything (a Qurʾanic maxim) even mercy itself and is the most essential of the divine attributes. As such, it is a unitary and unifying entity. It represents God’s goodness, grace and favour towards all creation and especially to humans. The Qurʾan as the word of God, as an act of mercy, as a revelation of the divine speaks directly to the seeker, each particle of which is uniquely disclosing God. Just as God’s mercy is all-encompassing, the gaze of the seeker turned towards Him requires a compassionate approach to His manifestations in this world. God provides mercy within each human in the formation of their primordial nature (fiṭra) that inclines towards perfection, towards mercy (its origin) and recognises the token of its similitude in other human beings and ultimately in God Himself. An important implication of this is that religious and social diversities among humans are also manifestations of divine mercy, and that while the promise and threat of paradise and the hellfire are acts of mercy to encourage one to seek the love of God, God in His infinite mercy cannot permit any of His creatures to languish forever in the hellfire. Thus, Ibn ʽArabī argued that even figures infamous for their evil such as Pharaoh will be redeemed, and hellfire extinguished, a position for which he was severely condemned in later medieval polemics.

The School of Ibn ʽArabī

The increasingly philosophical sophistication of Ibn ʽArabī’s ideas already began in the work of his disciple and stepson Ṣadr al-Dīn al-Qūnawī, who entered into a correspondence with the scientist and philosopher Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī (d. 1274). The legacy of Ibn ʽArabī centred on the teachings of his major works and commentaries upon them. Qūnawī wrote the first commentary on the Ring-Settings, but it was ʽAbd al-Razzāq Kāshānī’s work that began the shift to a more philosophically intuitive understanding of his teachings. This convergence of Sufi metaphysics, philosophical theology and philosophy is a central feature of the later intellectual history of Islamicate societies and reveals the imprint of Ibn ʽArabī on the course of Islamic thought beyond the circles of Sufis. Through the work of the Shiʽi Sufi Sayyid Ḥaydar Āmulī (d. after 1385), these teachings entered and influenced Shiʽi thought and were profoundly transformed and naturalised. But perhaps the most important medieval conduit for the school was the famous Persian poet ʽAbd al-Raḥmān Jāmī (d. 1492). The poetic dissemination of the ideas of Ibn ʽArabī was especially significant in the work of the Persian poets of the Mughal-Safavid period, most notably Mīrzā Bedil (d. 1762) and Mīr Dard (d. 1785).

But there was also an experiential, Sufi initiatic inheritance through developing Sufi orders both in the Maghrib and the Islamic East. Some Sufi orders such as the Shādhiliyya in North Africa, Kubrawiyya in Iran and the Chishtiyya in India adopted wholescale the metaphysics of Ibn ʽArabī. Because the focal idea that they preached was waḥdat al-wujūd, the monistic unity of existence, they became known as the wujūdiyya, a term used pejoratively by detractors and as a badge of honour by like-minded individuals. As the school spread, so did the polemics and attacks upon monism and the spiritual hermeneutics of the school. The metaphysics and spiritual legacy of Ibn ʽArabī was dominant in Muslim India and famous Sufis and commentators on his works, such as Shaykh Muḥammad Ghawth (d. 1563), ʽAbd al-Quddūs Gangohī (d. 1537), ʽAbd al-Raḥmān Chishtī (d. 1683) and Muḥibb Allāh Ilāhābādī (d. 1641) spread his doctrines. From Western India, and especially mediated by the works of the Persian ʽAbd al-Raḥmān Jāmī (d. 1492) and Fażl Allāh Burhānpūrī (d. 1619), the doctrine of Ibn ʽArabī spread to the Malay world where important thinkers such as Ḥamza Fansūrī (d. 1590) and Shams al-Dīn Sumatrānī (d. 1629) were at the forefront of the wujūdiyya. Major commentaries continued into the 19th century, when Amīr ʽAbd al-Qādir, who led Algerian resistance to the French, wrote al-Mawāqif (The Stops) having settled in Damascus, and arranged for the publication of the Meccan Revelations. The Shādhilī-Darqawī-ʽAlawī order in Algeria through the leadership of Shaykh al-ʽAlawī (d. 1934) influenced a number of Sufi and perennialist groups espousing the doctrine of Ibn ʽArabī in Europe and North America, most notably the group following Frithjof Schuon (d. 1998). Even well into the late 20th century the Syrian Shādhilī Shaykh ʽAbd al-Raḥmān Shāghūrī (d. 2004) was teaching classes on the works of Ibn ʽArabī and transmitting his initatic khirqa (mantle). Similarly, the leader of the Iranian Revolution, Āyatullāh Rūhallāh Khumaynī (d. 1989) wrote commentaries on the works of Ibn ʽArabī and in his famous letter to the then Soviet President Mikael Gorbachov urged the study of the work of the famous Andalusian; the works of Ibn ʽArabī are still being studied in the Shiʽi seminaries of Qum.


Works of Ibn ʽArabī:

R.W.J. Austin (tr), The Bezels of Wisdom [Fuṣūṣ al-Ḥikam], New York: Paulist Press, 1981. Another recent translation is Ringstones of Wisdom, tr. Caner Dagli, Chicago: Kazi Publications, 2004. An older, partial translation is Titus Burckhardt’s Ibn ʽArabī: The Wisdom of the Prophets, tr. A. Culme-Seymour, Gloucester: Beshara Publications, 1975. Another translation based on the Ottoman translation and commentary of ʽAbd Allāh Bosnevī (d. 1644) is Bulent Rauf (tr), Fusus al-Hikam, 4 vols., Oxford: Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society, 1986.

Michel Chodkiewicz, William Chittick and James W. Morris (trs), Ibn al-ʽArabī: The Meccan Revelations, 2 vols., New York: Pir Press, 2002–2004. These two volumes contain selections from al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya. There is a Spanish translation of the introduction to the text: Victor Palleja (tr), Ibn ʽArabī: Las iluminaciones de la Meca, Madrid: Ediciones Siruela, 1996.

Pablo Beneito and Cecilia Twinch (trs), Contemplation of the Holy Mysteries [Mashāhid al-asrār al-qudsiyya], Oxford: Anqa Publishing, 2001.

R.W.J. Austin (tr), Sufis of Andalusia: The Rūḥ al-quds and al-Durrah al-Fākhirah, London: George, Allen & Unwin, 1971.

Reynold Nicholson (tr), The Turjuman al-ashwaq: A Collection of Mystical Odes by Muhyi’ddin ibn al-‘Arabi, London: Theosophical Publishing House, 1978.

Eric Winkel (tr), Mysteries of Purity=Asrār al-ṭahārah, Notre Dame: Cross Cultural Publications, 1995.

Michael A. Sells (tr), Stations of Desire: Love Elegies from Ibn ʽArabī, Jerusalem: Ibis, 2000.

Translations of sections are also available on the website of the Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi Society

Anqa Publishing specialises in producing editions and translations of his works

On his life:

Claude Addas, The Quest for the Red Sulphur, tr. P. Kingsley, Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1993. The definitive biography.

Stephen Hirtenstein, The Unlimited Mercifier, Oxford: Anqa Publishing, 1999. An accessible introduction that is aimed at Sufis and those seeking spiritual guidance.

On his thought:

Claude Addas, Ibn ʽArabī: The Voyage of No Return, Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 2001. A brief, selective but excellent introduction.

Salman Bashier, Ibn ʽArabī’s Barzakh: the Concept of the Limit and the Relationship between God and the World, Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004. An interesting study of a key doctrine that locates the doctrine within the history of Platonic philosophy.

William C. Chittick, The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn al-ʽArabī’s Metaphysics of Imagination, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989. A magisterial study based on extensive translations from al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya.

, Imaginal Worlds: Ibn al-ʽArabī and the Problem of Religious Diversity, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994. An effective and perennialist deployment of Ibn ʽArabī to argue for religious pluralism.

, The Self-disclosure of God: Principles of Ibn al-ʽArabī’s Cosmology, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. The second volume in his study of al-Fuṭūḥāt al-Makkiyya.

, Ibn ʽArabi, Makers of the Muslim World, Oxford: Oneworld, 2005. An authoritative yet brief introduction.

Michel Chodkiewicz, An Ocean without Shore: Ibn ʽArabī, the Book, and the Law, tr. D. Streight, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993. An important assessment of Ibn ʽArabī’s relation to traditional and jurisprudential learning in Islam.

, The Seal of Saints: Prophethood and Sainthood in the Doctrine of Ibn ʽArabī, tr. L. Sherrard, Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1993. Perhaps th best introduction to this key part of Ibn ʽArabī’s metaphysics.

Henry Corbin, Creative Imagination in the Ṣūfism of Ibn ʽArabī, tr. R. Manheim, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969. A pioneering and controversial study of the role of the ‘imaginal’.

Gerald T. Elmore, Islamic Sainthood in the Fullness of Time: Ibn al-ʽArabī’s “Book of the Fabulous Gryphon”, Leiden: Brill, 2000. An excellent study of sainthood which includes an annotated translation of ʽAnqāʾ mughrib.

Masataka Takeshita, Ibn al-Arabī’s Theory of the Perfect Man and its Place in the History of Islamic Thought, Tokyo: Institute for the Study of the Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, 1987.

Ron Nettler, Sufi Metaphysics and Qurʾanic Prophets: Ibn ʽArabī’s Thought and Method in Fuṣūṣ al-Ḥikam, Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 2003. Stresses the Qurʾanic nature of Ibn ʽArabī’s thought.

Eric Winkel, Islam and the Living Law: the Ibn al-ʽArabī Approach, Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1997. Another work that examines his relationship to Islamic law.

Comparative studies:

Ian Almond, Sufism and Deconstruction: A Comparative Analysis of Derrida and Ibn ʽArabi, London: Routledge, 2004. A creative attempt to bring Ibn ʽArabī to the attention of postmodernism akin to John Caputo’s studies of Meister Eckhart.

Toshihiko Izutsu, Sufism and Taoism, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983. A philosophically sophisticated, comparative study that reads Ibn ʽArabī through the prism of his commentators.

Michael A. Sells, Mystical Languages of Unsaying, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. A study of apophatic mystical theology comparing Plotinus, Eriugena, Ibn ʽArabi, Marguerite Porete and Meister Eckhart.

Reza Shah-Kazemi, Paths to Transcendence: according to Shankara, Ibn ʽArabī, and Meister Eckhart, Bloomington: World Wisdom, 2006.

On his school:

Syed Naquib al-Attas, The Mysticism of Hamzah Fansuri, Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 1970. A pioneering study of the wujūdiyya in the Malay world.

Michel Chodkiewicz, The Spiritual Writings of Amir ʽAbd al-Kader, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995. An introduction and selection of al-Mawāqif.

Vincent J. Cornell, The Way of Abū Madyan, Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1996. Edition, study and translation of the works of this famous Sufi who influenced Ibn ʽArabī.

, The Realm of the Saint: Power and Authority in Moroccan Sufism, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.

Alexander Knysh, Ibn ʽArabī in the Later Islamic Tradition: The Making of a Polemical Image, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999. An important study of the polemics around the image, life and ideas of Ibn ʽArabī.

, ‘ʽIrfan revisited: Khomeini and the legacy of Islamic mystical philosophy’, Middle East Journal 46, 1992, pp. 631–53.

James W. Morris, The Wisdom of the Throne, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981. An important work that demonstrates the relationship between Ibn ʽArabī and Mullā Ṣadrā (d. c. 1635) and includes a translation of the latter’s al-Ḥikma al-ʽArshiyya.

Sachiko Murata, The Tao of Islam: A Sourcebook on Gender Relationships in Islamic Thought, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992. Deploying the school of Ibn ʽArabī for a creative approach to the question of gender in Islam.

Peter Riddell, Islam and the Malay-Indonesian World, London: Hurst, 2001.

Sajjad H. Rizvi, ‘Mysticism and Philosophy: Ibn ʽArabī and Mullā Ṣadrā’, in R. Taylor & P. Adamson (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, pp. 224–46.

Sayyid A.A. Rizvi, A History of Sufism in India, 2 vols., Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1986.


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