• Book Title:
 Ibn Arabi Heir To The Prophets 2
  • Book Author:
William C. Chittick
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Born in Spain in 1165, Ibn ‘Arabi is at once the most influential and the most controversial Muslim thinker to appear over the past nine hundred years. The Sufi tradition looks back upon him as “the greatest master” (ash-shaykh al-akbar), by which is meant that he was the foremost expositor of its teachings. Modern scholarship is rightly skeptical about grandiose titles, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that this specific title is not out of line.

On the quantitative side, Ibn ‘Arabi’s massive al-Futuhat al-makkiyya (“The Meccan Openings”) provides more text than most prolific authors wrote in a lifetime. Manuscripts of several hundred other works are scattered in libraries, and scores of books and treatises have been published.

But “greatness” is not to be judged by bigness, so we clearly need to look at the contents of all those pages. Probably no one has ever read everything Ibn ‘Arabi wrote, and few specialists would even claim to have read the whole Futuhat.

Even so, “reading” is one thing, “understanding” something else. Ibn ‘Arabi has always been considered one of the most difficult of authors. This is due to many factors, not least extraordinary erudition, consistently high level of discourse, constantly shifting perspectives, and diversity of styles.

Thorough analysis and explication of a single page of the Futuhat demands many pages of Arabic text, and the task becomes much more challenging when it is a question of translation into a Western language.

One might suspect that Ibn ‘Arabi’s works are difficult because he wrote unnecessarily complicated rehashes of earlier works. In fact, we are dealing with an approach to Islamic learning that is remarkably original, so much so that he has no real predecessor.

Certainly, there were important authors during the previous century who also expressed Sufi teachings with theoretical sophistication, but compared even to the greatest of these, such as Ghazali, Ibn ‘Arabi represents a radical break.

Ghazali speaks for much of the early Sufi tradition when he tells us that “unveiling” – that is, the unmediated knowledge that God bestows on his special friends – should not be set down in books (though he does not always follow his own advice). Ibn ‘Arabi sweeps this prohibition aside and spreads out the fruit of unveiling for all to see.

It should not be imagined, however, that in setting down his “unveilings, witnessings, and tastings” Ibn ‘Arabi is simply providing tantalizing glimpses of the spiritual realm in the manner of a mystic visionary.

One might get the impression that Ibn ‘Arabi was primarily a “mystic” by reading Stephen Hirtenstein’s excellent introduction to his exterior and interior life, The Unlimited Mercifier: The Spiritual Life and Thought of Ibn ‘Arabi.

Hirtenstein translates a good percentage of the autobiographical passages from Ibn ‘Arabi’s studied works, and many of these speak of visions and unveilings. In fact, however, the vast majority of his writings are argued out with a rational precision that puts him into the mainstream of Islamic scholarship.

After his death in 1240, Ibn ‘Arabi’s teachings quickly spread throughout the Islamic world, and they kept on spreading wherever Islam went, from Black Africa and the Balkans to Indonesia and China. The reason for this spread was certainly not that the masters of the various forms of rational discourse that shaped the Muslim elite were overawed by his mystical credentials.

 Quite the contrary, they were convinced by the soundness of his arguments and the breadth of his learning. They paid attention to him because he offered powerful proofs, drawn from the whole repertoire of Islamic knowledge, to demonstrate the correctness of his views.

Many of these scholars adopted his basic perspectives and a good deal of his terminology, and many also criticized some of his teachings or made sweeping condemnations. But no reputable scholar could simply ignore him.

Ibn ‘Arabi’s doctrines and perspectives did not have the limited, elite audience that one might expect. They also seeped down into the nooks and crannies of Islamic culture.

This happened in many ways, not least through the widespread reach of the Sufi orders, which played important roles in shaping society all over the Islamic world. Several of the orders claimed him as one of their intellectual and spiritual forebears.

Ibn ‘Arabi’s popularity among the Sufis should not be understood to mean that he was widely read by them. In fact, the vast majority were not scholars and did not have the requisite training to study his writings. Generally, however, those with an intellectual calling, who often ended up as guides and teachers, spoke a language that was largely fashioned by him and his immediate followers.

Ibn ‘Arabi’s influence also spread through the enormously popular poetry of languages like Persian, Turkish, and Urdu. Many of the great poets were trained in Sufi learning and employed concepts and perspectives drawn from his school of thought.

Partly because of his pervasive influence and widespread name recognition, Ibn ‘Arabi came to be targeted by reformers and modernists from the second half of the nineteenth century. He specifically and Sufism generally were chosen as convenient emblems for every shortcoming of traditional Islamic society.

 More recently, interest in his writings has made a remarkable comeback throughout the Islamic world, especially among young people disillusioned with the various forms of modern ideology, “fundamentalism” being the latest of these.

Many of the early Orientalists dismissed Ibn ‘Arabi as incoherent. Later work, especially the groundbreaking studies of Henry Corbin and Toshihiko Izutsu, gave him academic respectability. Whatever scholars may think of the contents of his writings, no one can deny that he represents a watershed in Islamic history and a major determining force in the course of later Islamic civilization.

Those who still believe in the civilizing mission of the West and the supremacy of scientific rationality over all other forms of knowledge may think that Ibn ‘Arabi’s pervasive influence on premodern Islamic culture is sufficient proof against him. Others may find him a refreshing voice, offering perspectives that throw light on the human situation in any time and any place.

For those unfamiliar with Ibn ‘Arabi’s biography, let me provide a thumbnail sketch: Arabic texts commonly call him Ibn al-‘Arabi (with the definite article). He often signs his works Abu Abd Allah Muhammad ibn al-‘Arabi at-Ta’i al-Hatimi. He came to be called Muhyi ad-Din, “The Revivifier of the Religion.”

He was born in 1165 in Murcia in Andalusia (Spain). His father ‘Ali was apparently employed by Muhammad ibn Sa‘id ibn Mardanish, the ruler of the city.

In 1172 Murcia was conquered by the Almohad dynasty, and ‘Ali took his family to Seville, where again he was taken into government service. Ibn ‘Arabi was raised in the environs of the court, and recent research shows that he underwent military training. He was employed as a secretary by the governor of Seville and married a girl named Maryam from an influential family.

Ibn ‘Arabi received no unusual religious education as a child, and he tells us that he spent much of his time with his friends in pastimes and gaiety. In his early teens, however, he was overcome by a spiritual call that quickly led to a vision of God.

He tells us that everything he subsequently said and wrote was “the differentiation of the universal reality comprised by that look” (F. II 548.14). In this early period he had a number of visions of Jesus, whom he calls his first guide on the path to God.

Ibn ‘Arabi’s father told his friend, the philosopher and judge Averroes, about the change in his son. According to Ibn‘Arabi’s account, Averroes requested a meeting. The…..

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