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
An Arab of the tribe of al-Ṭayy, he was born in
By 1200, he left
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
His other main text has spawned a vast commentary culture. In 627/1230, he claims to have encountered the Prophet Muḥammad in
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.
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 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
Works of Ibn ʽArabī:
R.W.J. Austin (tr), The Bezels of Wisdom [Fuṣūṣ al-Ḥikam],
Michel Chodkiewicz, William Chittick and James W. Morris (trs), Ibn al-ʽArabī: The Meccan Revelations, 2 vols.,
Pablo Beneito and Cecilia Twinch (trs), Contemplation of the Holy Mysteries [Mashāhid al-asrār al-qudsiyya],
R.W.J. Austin (tr), Sufis of Andalusia: The Rūḥ al-quds and al-Durrah al-Fākhirah,
Reynold Nicholson (tr), The Turjuman al-ashwaq: A Collection of Mystical Odes by Muhyi’ddin ibn al-‘Arabi,
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,
Translations of sections are also available on the website of the Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi Society http://www.ibnarabisociety.org
Anqa Publishing specialises in producing editions and translations of his works http://www.ibn-arabi.com
On his life:
Claude Addas, The Quest for the Red
Stephen Hirtenstein, The Unlimited Mercifier,
On his thought:
Claude Addas, Ibn ʽArabī: The Voyage of No Return,
Salman Bashier, Ibn ʽArabī’s Barzakh: the Concept of the Limit and the Relationship between God and the World,
William C. Chittick, The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn al-ʽArabī’s Metaphysics of Imagination,
, Imaginal Worlds: Ibn al-ʽArabī and the Problem of Religious Diversity,
, The Self-disclosure of God: Principles of Ibn al-ʽArabī’s Cosmology,
, Ibn ʽArabi, Makers of the Muslim World,
Michel Chodkiewicz, An Ocean without Shore: Ibn ʽArabī, the Book, and the Law, tr. D. Streight,
, The Seal of Saints: Prophethood and Sainthood in the Doctrine of Ibn ʽArabī, tr. L. Sherrard,
Henry Corbin, Creative Imagination in the Ṣūfism of Ibn ʽArabī, tr. R. Manheim,
Gerald T. Elmore, Islamic Sainthood in the Fullness of Time: Ibn al-ʽArabī’s “Book of the Fabulous Gryphon”,
Masataka Takeshita, Ibn al-Arabī’s Theory of the Perfect Man and its Place in the History of Islamic Thought,
Ron Nettler, Sufi Metaphysics and Qurʾanic Prophets: Ibn ʽArabī’s Thought and Method in Fuṣūṣ al-Ḥikam,
Eric Winkel, Islam and the Living Law: the Ibn al-ʽArabī Approach,
Ian Almond, Sufism and Deconstruction: A Comparative Analysis of Derrida and Ibn ʽArabi,
Toshihiko Izutsu, Sufism and Taoism, Berkeley:
Michael A. Sells, Mystical Languages of Unsaying,
Reza Shah-Kazemi, Paths to Transcendence: according to Shankara, Ibn ʽArabī, and Meister Eckhart,
On his school:
Syed Naquib al-Attas, The Mysticism of Hamzah Fansuri,
Michel Chodkiewicz, The Spiritual Writings of Amir ʽAbd al-Kader,
Vincent J. Cornell, The Way of Abū Madyan,
, The Realm of the Saint: Power and Authority in Moroccan Sufism, Austin:
Alexander Knysh, Ibn ʽArabī in the Later Islamic Tradition: The Making of a Polemical Image,
, ‘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:
Sachiko Murata, The Tao of Islam: A Sourcebook on Gender Relationships in Islamic Thought,
Peter Riddell, Islam and the Malay-Indonesian World,
Sajjad H. Rizvi, ‘Mysticism and Philosophy: Ibn ʽArabī and Mullā Ṣadrā’, in R. Taylor & P. Adamson (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy,
Sayyid A.A. Rizvi, A History of Sufism in India, 2 vols.,