Ibn al-'Arabi, Muhyi al-Din (1164-1240)

Ibn al-'Arabi was a mystic who drew on the writings of Sufis, Islamic theologians and philosophers in order to elaborate a complex theosophical system akin to that of Plotinus. He was born in Murcia (in southeast Spain) in ah 560/ad 1164, and died in Damascus in ah 638/ad 1240. Of several hundred works attributed to him the most famous are al-Futuhat al-makkiyya (The Meccan Illuminations) and Fusus al-hikam (The Bezels of Wisdom). The Futuhat is an encyclopedic discussion of Islamic lore viewed from the perspective of the stages of the mystic path. It exists in two editions, both completed in Damascus - one in ah 629/ad 1231 and the other in ah 636/ad 1238 - but the work was conceived in Mecca many years earlier, in the course of a vision which Ibn al-'Arabi experienced near the Kaaba, the cube-shaped House of God which Muslims visit on pilgrimage. Because of its length, this work has been relatively neglected. The Fusus, which is much shorter, comprises twenty-seven chapters named after prophets who epitomize different spiritual types. Ibn al-'Arabi claimed that he received it directly from Muhammad, who appeared to him in Damascus in ah 627/ad 1229. It has been the subject of over forty commentaries.

Although Ibn al-'Arabi was primarily a mystic who believed that he possessed superior divinely-bestowed knowledge, his work is of interest to the philosopher because of the way in which he used philosophical terminology in an attempt to explain his inner experience. He held that whereas the divine Essence is absolutely unknowable, the cosmos as a whole is the locus of manifestation of all God's attributes. Moreover, since these attributes require the creation for their expression, the One is continually driven to transform itself into Many. The goal of spiritual realization is therefore to penetrate beyond the exterior multiplicity of phenomena to a consciousness of what subsequent writers have termed the 'unity of existence'. This entails the abolition of the ego or 'passing away from self' (fana') in which one becomes aware of absolute unity, followed by 'perpetuation' (baqa') in which one sees the world as at once One and Many, and one is able to see God in the creature and the creature in God.

  1. Epistemology
  2. Theology
  3. Ontology
  4. The 'perfect man' and the Muhammadan reality
  5. Imagination and mysticism
  6. Assessment

1. Epistemology

While still an unbearded youth, Ibn al-'Arabi was introduced by his father to the celebrated philosopher Ibn Rushd, who eagerly questioned him about his spiritual experiences. Ibn al-'Arabi describes the interview as follows:

He said, 'How did you find the situation in unveiling and divine effusion? Is it what rational consideration gives us?' I replied, 'Yes and no. Between the yes and the no spirits fly from their matter and heads from their bodies.'

(al-Futuhat al-makkiya I.154, in Chittick 1989: xiii)

This cryptic answer, which reputedly made the philosopher turn pale and tremble, implies the existence of divinely-bestowed knowledge which is superior to knowledge gained by 'rational consideration' (nazar). But what precisely is the relationship between them? Elsewhere, Ibn al-'Arabi speaks not of two levels of knowledge, but of three (for example, in al-Futuhat al-makkiya I.31). First, there is 'knowledge based on reason' ('ilm al-'aql), that is, knowledge which can be acquired by rational consideration. Here he probably has in mind the principal tenets of Muslim theology rather than the a priori self-evident propositions of logic and mathematics. Second, there is knowledge based on states ('ilm al-ahwal), which is what we would call empirical knowledge. He gives as examples the sweetness of honey, the bitterness of aloes and the pleasure of sexual intercourse, none of which can be known without 'tasting' them. Third, there is 'knowledge of mysteries' ('ulum al-asrar) - sometimes called 'gnosis' (ma'rifa) - which is specific to prophets and saints and is akin to Spinoza's scientia intuitiva (see Spinoza, B. de) It is futile to strive for this third type of knowledge, for it lies concealed in every man but is only unveiled when the divine light is effused into the hearts of those who are predisposed to receive it. 'Knowledge of mysteries' includes knowledge of the first type, except that it is acquired without reflection, and knowledge of the second type but pertaining to higher states not experienced by lesser mortals; potentially it embraces everything except the unknowable Essence. It is nothing short of divine knowledge for, in the words of the celebrated hadith qudsi (extra-Qur'anic revelation), when God loves his servant he becomes 'the hearing with which he hears, the sight with which he sees'.

The distinctly subordinate role given to reason in Ibn al-'Arabi's epistemology appears at first to be out of step with the Qur'an, which repeatedly urges man to engage in 'rational consideration' and 'reflection' (see Epistemology in Islamic philosophy). In his view however, there is no real tension because the main purpose of considering and reflecting is to lead man to the realization that he cannot reach knowledge of God through his unaided reason. This is illustrated in Chapter 167 of al-Futuhat al-makkiyya (The Meccan Illuminations), in which the progressive journey of the gnostic and the philosopher towards the truth is depicted in terms of a heavenly ascent akin to that experienced by Muhammad (the mi'raj). As they pass through each of the celestial spheres the gnostic is addressed by their spirits - the prophets who inhabit each sphere - and perceives their inner reality. The philosopher, on the other hand, learns only the phenomenal or apparent and becomes increasingly perplexed and sceptical until he finally becomes a Muslim and follows the path of the gnostic (see Gnosticism).

2. Theology

Although Ibn al-'Arabi has often been labelled a pantheist, he was far too subtle a thinker to have subscribed to the doctrine that God is everything and everything is God (see Pantheism). He believed that God per se - whom he called 'the Real' (al-Haqq) or 'the Essence' (al-dhat) - is absolutely unknowable because he transcends all humanly conceivable qualifications. God's 'names' (asma') or 'attributes' (sifat), on the other hand, are the relationships which can be discerned between the Essence and the cosmos. They are known to God because he knows every object of knowledge, but they are not existent entities or ontological qualities, for this would imply plurality in the godhead. It may help to understand the status of the 'names' (which of course must not be confused with 'the names of the names' known to us from the Qur'an and Islamic tradition) if we draw an analogy with the complex web of interpersonal human relationships. One and the same individual may be known to others variously as teacher, pupil, friend, enemy, father, son, brother, husband, lover and so forth. A man who knows another as his friend genuinely knows him, but does not necessarily know him as his teacher or his father and cannot know him as he is in himself without regard to others. Similarly, to know God as the All-Merciful, for instance, does not entail knowing him as the Vengeful or the Abaser, nor does it mean knowing his Essence even though each of the names denotes the Essence. The analogy must not be pressed, however, because unlike human beings, whose relationships are temporal, God has possessed the divine names from all eternity.

Thus far Ibn al-'Arabi's theology remains within the confines of Islamic kalam, although he seems in some ways to have more affinity with the Mu'tazila than with the Ash'ariyya (see Ash'ariyya and Mu'tazila; Islamic theology). However, he differs markedly from both in holding that, not withstanding the fact that in his Essence, God is independent of the cosmos, his names none the less seek the creation, for without it they would remain virtualities. The cosmos as a whole is the locus of their manifestation and it is only through it that their properties can be seen and understood. Moreover, since all the creatures in the cosmos and everything which they make or do are God's 'acts' (af'al), God is present everywhere and the all-inclusive name Allah may be used to denote the sum total of all things: divine Essence, divine names and divine acts. Nevertheless, since creatures have only relative existence (see §3), it also has to be said that he is nowhere to be found (see God, concepts of).

3. Ontology

In agreement with the Islamic philosophers, Ibn al-'Arabi distinguishes between the essence or 'quiddity' (mahiyya, literally the 'what is it?') of a thing and its 'existence' (wujud, literally its 'being found'), holding that the former is mentally separable from the latter. That is, one can define the nature of things (unicorns, pink elephants and so forth) regardless of whether or not they are actually found as phenomena. He also accepts the distinction between necessary being (wajib al-wujud), impossible things and possible things. The necessary being is God, the one reality who cannot not exist because his quiddity is being (see Being). Impossible things are things which cannot exist as phenomena although they may subsist in the imagination (see §5). Possible things are things which become 'existent entities' (a'yan mawjuda) when God chooses to give them existence; their existence or non-existence at any given time depends on his will. They have, however, been known to him eternally as 'immutable entities' (a'yan thabita). This latter term is rendered by Affifi (1938: 47) as 'fixed prototypes' and Izutsu (1983: 159) as 'permanent archetypes', expressions which suggest that like the Platonic Ideas they are the original models of which objects in the phenomenal world are multiple copies (see Universals). Chittick (1989: 84) objects to this on the grounds that although the 'immutable entities' actually become the 'existent entities', they are the things themselves prior to their being given existence in the world. Although I have adopted his translation as closer to the meaning of the Arabic, I have reservations about his interpretation, for there are passages in Ibn al-'Arabi's writings which seem to imply that some of the immutable entities are universals. Nevertheless it may well be the case that Ibn al-'Arabi's views on this subject were not entirely consistent.

Another problem area is Ibn al-'Arabi's lack of precision in using the word wujud to mean both 'existence' and 'Being'. It was stated above that possible things become existent entities when God gives them existence, but it must be stressed that the existence which he gives them is relative existence. They become the 'loci of manifestation' (mazahir) of the names of God, who, as Essence, is alone Being in the strict sense. Another way of putting it is to say that each entity becomes a receptacle for Being, but that since entities differ from one another, they differ also in their capacity to function as vehicles of his self-manifestation.

4. The 'perfect man' and the Muhammadan reality

The first chapter of the Fusus al-hikam (The Bezels of Wisdom) is entitled 'The Wisdom of Divinity in the Word of Adam'. It begins with the assertion that the Real created the cosmos as an all-inclusive object in which he could contemplate the entities of his names, but that until he created Adam and breathed his spirit into him, the cosmos remained like an unpolished mirror. Here Ibn al-'Arabi's idea seems to be that the cosmos as a whole - the totality of existent entities - manifests all the divine names but does so in a diffuse way, whereas man, as a microcosm endowed with consciousness, brings them into sharp focus as a unity. Potentially every man is a microcosm, but in practice men differ in their polishing of the cosmic mirror, with only a select few realizing their primordial nature. These are the prophets and saints, all of whom belong to the category of 'the perfect man' (al-insan al-kamil). They alone assume the character traits of God, which are latent in all human beings, and manifest them in perfect equilibrium.

Muhammad is the 'perfect man' par excellence. Basing his argument on the hadith (sayings of the Prophet), 'I was a prophet when Adam was between water and clay', Ibn al-'Arabi propounds the view that as 'the Muhammadan reality' (al-haqiqa al-Muhammadiyya), Muhammad is identical with 'the first intellect' (al-'aql al-awwal), the eternal principle unifying the immutable entities. All the other prophets, beginning with Adam, only became prophets during their historical mission; each was the bearer of a fragment of this Muhammadan reality in a particular place and time, a bezel in which a jewel of the divine wisdom was displayed. None the less, after their mission the prophets continued to exert an influence through the saints who were their spiritual heirs.

5. Imagination and mysticism

The al-Futuhat contains a good deal of autobiographical material in anecdotal form, some of which strains credulity. For instance Ibn al-'Arabi, who was in no doubt that he himself was one of the most important saints in the history of Islam, tells us that he met and conversed with the prophets of old including Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. On one moonlit night, when on board a ship in the port of Tunis, he allegedly encountered Moses' spiritual guide al-Khidr, who came to him walking on the water without getting his feet wet, before going off to a lighthouse over two miles away, which he reached in two or three steps (al-Futuhat al-makkiyya I: 186). It is tempting to dismiss these visions as hallucinations induced by extreme ascetic practices or illness - on the occasion when he saw al-Khidr he had gone to the side of the ship because of a stomach pain which prevented him from sleeping - but Ibn al-'Arabi offers a different explanation based on his perception of the nature of the cosmos.

In his view, the cosmos comprises a hierarchy of three distinct worlds or levels: the 'world of spirits', 'the world of images' and 'the world of bodies'. The second of these - 'the world of images' ('alam al-amthal), also called 'the world of imagination' ('alam al-khayal) - plays a key role because of its intermediate position. It is the isthmus (barzakh) between the world of spirits and the world of bodies, the realm in which spirits are corporealized and bodies are spiritualized. The world of images is a really existent world, but in the waking state we are generally unaware of it; in our dreams, when our souls are no longer distracted by sensory input from the world of bodies, we function at this level, conversing with the departed and with those normally separated from us by geographical distances. What ordinary human beings experience only in their dreams, the mystic may experience at other times. Thus for example, when al-Khidr appeared to Ibn al-'Arabi, this took place in the world of images, al-Khidr - who belongs to the world of spirits - being corporealized for the occasion.

The supposition of this intermediate world of images also furnishes the key to understanding both the miracles performed by prophets and saints and some of the more bizarre descriptions of the hereafter in the hadith. As regards the miracles, Ibn al-'Arabi's starting point is the observation that we all can create things in our imagination or imagine things happening as we would like them to happen. The 'perfect man' is in addition endowed with extraordinary spiritual energy or himma, which enables him to bring the creatures of imagination out of the world of images into the world of bodies thus giving them existence. However, far from acting like a superman, he exercises restraint only employing his miraculous powers when commanded by God to do so. As regards the traditional descriptions of the hereafter, Ibn al-'Arabi maintains that they should be understood as comparable to dream imagery. In a celebrated dream, the Prophet was given a cup of milk to drink, which in the waking state he subsequently interpreted as knowledge. What is impossible in the world of bodies - the corporealization of milk as knowledge - is perfectly possible in the world of images. Similarly in the hereafter, our works will be weighed in the scales and death will be brought in the form of a salt-coloured ram. We who are resurrected will really see these things, but we will see them in the world of images.

6. Assessment

In view of the volume of Ibn al-'Arabi's work, much of which is still unpublished, any assessment of his philosophy must remain highly tentative. Although he was influenced by earlier Sufis and was conversant with the works of the falasifa and the disputes between the Mu'tazila and Ash'ariyya, the dominant influence on his thought seems to have been the Neoplatonism of Plotinus as mediated by the Epistles of the Brethren of Purity (Affifi 1938: 174-94) (see Ikhwan al-Safa'; Neoplatonism in Islamic philosophy). Nevertheless he differs from them in at least two important respects. First, despite his use of emanationist language, it is clear that for him 'emanation' (fayd) is a figure of speech for what is more accurately described as self-revelation. Second, he does not simply take from the Qur'an and hadith convenient pegs on which to hang his doctrine, but rather offers what amounts to a profound esoteric commentary on both.

See also: Islamic theology; Mystical philosophy in Islam

Copyright © 1998, Routledge.

List of works

Ibn al-'Arabi (after 1229) Fusus al-hikam (The Bezels of Wisdom), ed. A. Affifi, Cairo, 1946; trans. R.W.J. Austin, The Bezels of Wisdom, New York: Paulist Press, 1980. (A late work which contains the quintessence of Ibn al-'Arabi's spiritual doctrine in the form of twenty-seven brief chapters named after prophets who epitomize different spiritual types.)

Ibn al-'Arabi (c.1231-8) al-Futuhat al-makkiyya (The Meccan Illuminations), Cairo, 1911; partial trans. M. Chodkiewicz et al., Les Illuminations de la Mecque: The Meccan Illuminations, Textes choisis/Selected Texts, Paris: Sindbad, 1988. (The definitive synthesis of Ibn al-'Arabi's teaching, comprising 560 chapters which deal with every aspect of mystical knowledge.)

References and further reading

Addas, C. (1989) Ibn 'Arabi ou La quête du Soufre Rouge (Ibn al-'Arabi and The Quest for Red Sulphur), Paris: Gallimard; trans. P. Kingsley, Quest for Red Sulphur: The Life of Ibn 'Arabi, Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 1993. (Critical biography.)

Affifi, A.E. (1938) The Mystical Philosophy of Muhyid Din-Ibnul Arabi, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Pioneering work, still useful although polemical and somewhat dated.)

Austin, R.W. J. (1971) Sufis of Andalusia, London, George Allen & Unwin. (Biographical essay and partial translations of Ruh al-quds and al-Durrat al-fakhirah, which give valuable insight into the spiritual milieu of Ibn al-'Arabi's early years.)

Chittick, W.C. (1989) The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn al-'Arabi's Metaphysics of Imagination, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. (Exposition of Ibn al- 'Arabi's thought, based primarily on The Meccan Illuminations with extensive excerpts translated by the author.)

Chittick, W.C. (1996a) 'Ibn 'Arabi', in S.H. Nasr and O. Leaman (eds) History of Islamic Philosophy, London: Routledge, ch. 30, 497-509. (Clear and perceptive discussion of Ibn al-'Arabi.)

Chittick, W.C. (1996b) 'The School of Ibn 'Arabi', in S.H. Nasr and O. Leaman (eds) History of Islamic Philosophy, London: Routledge, ch. 31, 510-23. (Discussion of Ibn al-'Arabi's school.)

Chodkiewicz, M. (1992) Un océan sans rivage: Ibn al-'Arabi le livre et la loi (An Ocean Without Shore: Ibn al-'Arabi, the Book and the Law), Paris, Seuil; trans. D. Streight, Ocean Without Shore, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1993. (A study of the hermeneutical principles which govern Ibn al-'Arabi's approach to the Qur'an.)

Izutsu, T. (1983) Sufism and Taoism, Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press. (Pages 1-283 contain the classic account of Ibn al-'Arabi's ontology, based primarily on The Bezels of Wisdom as interpreted by early Muslim commentators. The book is a revised version of A Comparative Study of the Key Philosophical Concepts in Sufism and Taoism, 1966-7.)

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