Ibn Sab'in, Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Haqq (1217-68)

Ibn Sab'in is well-known in Islamic philosophy for presenting perhaps the most radical form of Sufism. He argued that everything is really just one thing, part of the deity, and that breaking up reality into different units is to deny the nature of creation. He was hostile as a result to the attempts of the philosophers who were inspired by Aristotle to develop logic as a means to understand reality. The best way to attain the truth is the mystical path, and this is achieved by appreciating the unity of everything, not by analysing reality into separable concepts.

Ibn Sab'in came from Murcia (southeast Spain) and embraced the same type of philosophical thinking and writing as the main mystic of the twelfth century, Ibn al-'Arabi. Ibn Sab'in moved to Mecca after the year ah 642/ad 1245, where he remained until he put an end to his life. His pre-eminence in Sufi circles won him the title 'Qutb ad-Din' (the Pole of Religion). He belongs to a school of Sufism which views existence, both in its divine and worldly forms, as one indivisible unit. An important work is Asrar al-hikma al-mashriqiyya (The Secrets of Illuminationist Philosophy). The most important source of Ibn Sab'in's philosophy, however, is his book Budd al-'arif (Escape of the Gnostic) which deals with the path to knowledge, which he wrote in ah 643/ad 1245 after moving from Spain to Morocco. In this book, Ibn Sab'in poses the fundamental question of how a Sufi can reach truth and prepare for the reception and comprehension of divine perfection. In answering these questions, he discusses the opinions of the philosophical schools that preceded him, proving the inability of those schools to reach the truth.

In his writings, Ibn Sab'in attempted to enter the realm of Sufism by way of philosophy, explaining in his presentation of the history of Islamic thought that such disciplines as philology, scholastic theology (kalam) and philosophy are but milestones along the Sufi's path to perfection. Thus the discipline of the Sufi who has achieved perfection is the essence of all the other disciplines. In his attempt to determine the manner in which a Sufi attains unity with God, Ibn Sab'in examines the manner in which a person achieves knowledge. By knowledge, he means the discipline of logic and the ability of such a discipline to help one to achieve divine knowledge (see Logic in Islamic philosophy). He then deals with a host of concepts with a special focus on the 'intellect' and the 'self' as being the tools for achieving knowledge and as having a primary role in bringing the Sufi closer to God. Ibn Sab'in is close to most Muslim Sufi thinkers in their initial emphasis on other disciplines that a Sufi should master, particularly logic. He differs from them, however, in his conclusions about the role of logic. Whereas most philosophers, particularly the Aristotelians, view logic as a tool which helps us to know the world and which founds the theory of knowledge (see Aristotelianism in Islamic philosophy), Ibn Sab'in views the role of logic as being random and worthless, since for him knowledge is only knowledge of God. Such knowledge is subject in its meaning to one consideration, a consideration of the internal experience based on our stimulation and sensations, sensations with standards and bases superior to the standards and methods of logic.

Since according to Ibn Sab'in the unity of existence is the criterion for understanding existence, examination of the various phenomena in existence would be incompatible with such unity and hence would mean the postulation of the idea of a God superior to and separate from his creations. In Ibn Sab'in's concept of absolute unity of existence, following that of Ibn al-'Arabi, the separation of God from his creation is inadmissible. He presents the 'intellect' and the 'self' as the means which lead us to the divine Being. In this theory, Ibn Sab'in is critical of his predecessors who viewed the mind or intellect as no more than a means for the acquisition of knowledge; he views the intellect as being of divine origin. His defence of this theory is based on the Prophetic hadith (tradition) that 'the first thing God created was the intellect; God then told it to come forward which it did, and then told it to go away which it also did.' Ibn Sab'in's attempt to demonstrate the possibility of the intellect contacting the divine is based on this relationship, namely that the intellect is a divine creation and as such the mind can directly and without any mediation communicate with its origin. The philosophers' attempt to reach a higher level of knowledge through making contact with the active intellect is a less ambitious attempt than that of the Sufis, who make unity with God their chief concern.

Like the intellect, the self is not merely a means by which perception takes place but should rather be perceived as a goal in itself, a goal which constitutes the knowledge that the Sufi seeks. In Ibn Sab'in's theory the self, like the intellect, is a divine creation. The path that leads to unification with God, then, is based on the discovery of the self or, more correctly, discovery of the secret which God has entrusted to us. Unification with God is thus an internal experience which does not follow the philosophers' accounts. For whereas the philosophers saw the path to God as a matter of proof, Ibn Sab'in saw such a path as a matter of experience based on a particular discovery through which the truth becomes evident, so that the Sufi feels that God is closer to him than his own jugular vein.

See also: Mystical philosophy in Islam

Copyright © 1998, Routledge.

List of works

Ibn Sab'in (1217-68) Budd al-'arif (Escape of the Gnostic), ed. G. Kattura, Beirut: Dar al-Andalus, 1978. (Most complete summary of Ibn Sab'in's critique of philosophy and defence of Sufism.)

Ibn Sab'in (1217-68) Asrar al-hikma al-mashriqiyya (The Secrets of Illuminationist Philosophy). (There is no published edition of this work.)

Ibn Sab'in (1217-68) al-Kalam 'ala'l masa'il al-siqliyyah (Philosophical Correspondence with the Emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen), ed. S. Taltkaya, Correspondance philosophique avec l'Empereur Frédéric II de Hohenstaufen, Paris, 1943. (His discussions with the king of Sicily, the Emperor Frederick II, about the main principles of Aristotelianism.)

References and further reading

Taftazani, A. and Leaman, O. (1996) 'Ibn Sab'in', in S.H. Nasr and O. Leaman (eds) The History of Islamic Philosophy, London: Routledge, 346-9. (General account of Ibn Sab'in's thought and times.)

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