The Life and Work of Muhyi-al-din Ibn Al-Arabi

The Life and Work of Muhyi-al-din Ibn Al-Arabi


The author of the Fusus al-Hikam or The Bezels of Wisdom was born on the twenty-seventh of Ramadan in A.H. 560, or the seventh of Au­gust, A.D. 1165, in the township of Murcia in Spain , which was ruled at the time by Muhammad b. Mardanish. His full name was Muham­mad b. ‘Ali b. Muhammad Ibn ai-‘Arabi ai-Ta’i al-l:latimi, which indicates that he came of an ancient Arab lineage. His father, who may have been chief minister to Ibn Mardanish, was clearly a well­known and influential figure in the fields of politics and learning. The family seems also to have been a strongly religious one, since three of his uncles became followers of the Sufi Way.

With the defeat of Ibn Mardanish at the hands of the Almohads, Ibn al-‘Arabi’s family took the precaution of moving to Seville where, thanks to the magnanimity of the ruler, his father very soon estab­lished a prominent position in the society of that city. When all this happened, Ibn al-‘Arabi was only eight years old. It was in Seville that he began his formal education, being sent to sit at the feet of the contemporary masters of traditional learning. Among the subjects he studied at this time were the Qur’an and its exegesis, the Traditions of the Prophet, Arabic grammar and composition, and Islamic Law. Ibn ai-‘Arabi has left us quite a detailed account of his masters and the subjects he studied. His education must have been successful, since he later obtained employment as a secretary to the governor of Se­ville. At about this time he married a girl of a good family, called Maryam. Fortunately, this new wife was also well acquainted with men of great piety and clearly shared with her husband his aspiration to follow the Sufi path.

Although Ibn al-‘Arabl did not become formally initiated into the Sufi Way until he was twenty years of age, it seems clear, especial­ly from the account he himself gives us of his spiritual masters, that he had kept frequent company with the Sufis and studied their teach­ings from an early age. One might also deduce from his writings that the youthful Ibn al-‘ Arabi had attained to considerable spiritual in­sight while still in his teens. This is shown most strikingly in Ibn ai­’Arabl’s own account of a meeting, arranged by his father, between him and the celebrated philosopher Averroes.

I spent a good day in Cordova at the house of Abu ai-Walld Ibn Rushd [Averroes]. He had expressed a desire to meet with me in person, since he had heard of certain revelations I had received while in retreat, and had shown considerable astonishment concerning them. In consequence, my father, who was one of his close friends, took me with him on the pretext of business, in order to give Ibn Rushd the opportu­nity of making my acquaintance. I was at the time a beard­less youth. As I entered the house the philosopher rose to greet me with all the signs of friendliness and affection, and embraced me. Then he said to me, “Yes!” and showed plea­sure on seeing that I had understood him. I, on the other hand, being aware of the motive for his pleasure, replied, “No!” Upon this, Ibn Rushd drew back from me, his color changed and he seemed to doubt what he had thought of me. He then put to me the following question, “What solution have you found as a result of mystical illumination and di­vine inspiration? Does it agree with what is arrived at by speculative thought?” I replied, “Yes and No. Between the Yea and the Nay the spirits take their flight beyond matter, and the necks detach themselves from their bodies.” At this Ibn Rushd became pale, and I saw him tremble as he mut­tered the formula, “There is no power save from God.” This was because he had understood my allusion.

This passage also reveals a characteristic of Ibn al-‘Arabl that is evident in many of his writings, namely a supreme self-confidence that often made him intolerant of the achievements of others.

During the process of his spiritual apprenticeship he must have studied many subjects of a mystical nature, among them the meta­physical doctrines of the Sufis, cosmology, esoteric exegesis, and per­haps the more occult sciences such as astrology and alchemy. There is certainly much evidence of his acquaintance with such matters throughout his works. Although much of this learning may have been received from spiritual masters in a formal way, he must also have culled much from example and constant association with experts in these subjects. In addition to the more theoretical side of the Mystic Way, Ibn al-‘Arabi and his fellow disciples were undoubtedly urged by their teachers to cultivate and practice the rites and methods of the orders. These would have included frequent invocation, prayer, fast­ing, night vigil, retreat, and periods of meditation. Such learning and the accompanying practices often led to experiences of a supersen­sory nature, many of which Ibn al-‘Arabi claims to have had during his life. In order to encourage such experiences, Ibn al-Arabi, even while he was still a young man in Seville, would spend long hours in the cemeteries communing with the spirits of the dead.

The young man was no ordinary disciple, however, and the self­confidence already referred to, together with a growing sense of his own spiritual authority, often created a rather difficult relationship between him and his masters. On one occasion he disagreed with his Shaikh al-‘Uryani regarding the spiritual state of a certain person. Later, in a vision, he was corrected. He himself readily admits that he was a novice at the time.

Two of Ibn al-Arabi’s spiritual teachers at this time deserve spe­cial mention since, unusually perhaps, they were women, both of them considerably advanced in age when he became their disciple. One of them was Shams who lived in Marchena,6 the other Fatima of Cordova. Of the latter he says, “I served as a disciple one of the lovers of God, a gnostic, a lady of Seville called Fatima hint al-Muthanna who lived in Cordova. I served her for several years, she being over ninety-five years of age …. with my own hands I built a hut for her of reeds, as high as she was, in which she lived until she died. She used to say to me, ‘I am your spiritual mother and the light of your earthly mother.’ ” A more detailed account of Ibn al-‘Arabi’s experi­ences at this time may be had in my translation of his own account of this period of his life, Sufis of Andalusia.

Toward the end of this period Ibn al-‘Arabi’s own reputation as an authority on spiritual matters was growing and he felt himself more and more able to dispute on matters of doctrine with well estab­lished shaikhs. He says, “I had heard that a certain shaikh of the order in Andalusia had denied the possibility of assuming the attribute of self-sufficiency. On this point I disputed with him frequently in front of his students, until he finally came round to my point of view on the matter. ”

Sometime in the 1190s Ibn al-‘Arabi left his native shore and traveled in North Africa, spending his time mostly in Tunis, where he took the opportunity of studying The Doffing of the Sandals by Ibn Qisyi, the Sufi leader of the rebellion against the Almoravids in the Algarve. He later wrote a large commentary on this work. During his stay in Tunis he visited and consulted with many Sufi shaikhs. It is possible that he met the famous Shaikh Abu Madyan at this time.

Ibn al-‘Arabi returned to Seville from Tunis after a relatively short time, perhaps because of political troubles in the region. On his return to Seville he had one of those apparently chance mystical en­counters that characterize so many of his spiritual relationships. While he had been in Tunis he had composed a poem about which he told no one.

On my return to Seville … a complete stranger came to me and recited, word for word, the poem I had composed, al­though I had not written it out for anyone. I asked him who had composed the lines, and he replied that they were by Muhammad Ibn al-‘Arabi. Then I asked him when he had learned them, and he mentioned the very day on which I had composed them, despite the great distance. I then asked him who had recited them to him to learn. He said, “One night I was sitting at a session of the brethren in the eastern part of Seville, when a stranger who looked like a mendicant came and sat with us. After conversing with us he recited the lines to us. We liked them so much that we wrote them down and asked him who had composed them, to which he replied that they were being composed by Ibn ai-‘Arahi in the oratory of Ibn ai-Muthanna. We told him that we had never heard of such a place, to which he replied that it was in Tunis where they had just been composed.”

About this time he made a pilgrimage to a shrine at Rota, on the coast, after which he traveled once again to North Africa, this time to Fez, where he heard news of the Almohad victory over the Christian armies at Alarcos in 1194. A conversation he had in Fez at this time helps to illustrate some of the more abstruse aspects of mystical learn­ing with which Ibn al-‘Arahi was conversant, that of the science of numbers and letters. “I asked a certain man of God what he thought [of the victory]. He said, ‘God promised His Apostle a victory this year … in His Book … in the words, “Surely we have given to you a clear victory”; the glad tidings being in the two words “clear victory” fathan mubinan] …. consider the sum total of the numerical value of the letters.’ This I did and found that the total came to 591 [A.H., the year of the victory].’

Remains of a mihrab niche in the cellar of San Juan de Dios church in Ibn Arabi′s hometown of Murcia. At the time of Ibn Arabi′s birth in 1165, it was the site of Murcia′s principal mosque
Remains of a mihrab niche in the cellar of San Juan de Dios church in Ibn Arabi′s hometown of Murcia. At the time of Ibn Arabi′s birth in 1165, it was the site of Murcia′s principal mosque

The following year he was back in Seville studying the Tradi­tions of the Prophet with his uncle. By this time he was much sought after by aspirants to spiritual learning and many of the would-be dis­ciples who visited him treated him with what, Ibn ai-‘Arabi thought, was excessive formality. It is an interesting glimpse into his character to read his account of the way in which he tried to modify their ap­proach to him. Speaking of one particular meeting, he says, “Their respect for me prevented them from being relaxed, and they were all very correct and silent; so I sought a means of making them more re­laxed, saying to my host, ‘May I bring your attention to a composi­tion of mine entitled Guidance in Flouting the Usual Courtesies, and expound a chapter from it to you.’ He said that he would very much like to hear it. I then pushed my foot into his lap and told him to mas­sage it, whereupon they understood my meaning and behaved in a more relaxed manner.” A year later he returned to Fez, primarily to spend time in the mosques and shrines in meditation, but also to gath­er with other men of the spirit to talk about their experience on the Way. During his stay he had a strange experience of spacelessness. On another occasion, while meeting with some others in a garden, he claims to have met the spiritual Pole of the age. Once more he expe­rienced a growing sense of his own spiritual authority and also of his special status in the spiritual hierarchy. He says of this, “I learned of the Seal of M1uhammadan Sainthood in Fez, in the year 594, when God acquainted me with his identity and revealed to me his mark.”16 He later had a vision in which it was revealed to him that he himself was the Seal.

This stay in North Africa, however, was also cut short by the threat of persecution by the Almohad rulers, who were beginning to suspect the Sufi orders of fomenting resistance to their regime. In­deed, at this time, relations between the Sufis and the political rulers were tense and uneasy, since the former often regarded the latter as usurpers of legitimate Islamic authority and offenders against the Sa­cred Law. The advice generally given by the shaikhs to their disciples was to have as little to do with rulers as possible. In his biographical sketches of his masters, Ibn al-‘Arabi tells of the occasion when he re­fused to eat food the Sultan of Ceuta had provided for a Sufi gather­ing, which refusal almost resulted in his arrest. He also describes the behavior of one of his shaikhs who was particularly opposed to the rulers of the day.

Ibn al-‘Arabi probably spent the next two years or so in his na­tive Andalusia visiting friends and a growing number of his own dis­ciples. Sometime during this period he attended the funeral rites of the philosopher Averroes, whom he had met as a young boy. Aver­roes had died in Marrakesh and his body was brought to Cordova for burial. Like most Sufis, Ibn ai-‘Arabi was rather skeptical of the value of philosophical speculation and this is reflected in lines he composed at the time of the funeral: “This is the Imam and these his works; would that I knew whether his hopes were realized.”

The year 1200 found Ibn al-‘ Arabi in Marrakesh, where he spent some time with a certain Abu ai-‘Abbas of Ceuta. It was during this visit to what is now Morocco that Ibn al-Arabi received the call to travel to the East. While in Marrakesh he had a vision in which he was told to go to Fez, where he would meet a certain Muhammad al­-Hasar whom he was to accompany to the eastern Islamic lands. On reaching Fez, Ibn ai-‘Arabi met al-Hasar and they traveled together in faith and hope on the road to Egypt. On the way they visited Bi­jayah and Tunis visiting fellow Sufis and old friends. They did not linger, however, pressing on with their journey until they reached Egypt, where they stayed in Alexandria and Cairo. Ibn al-‘Arabi’s companion, al-Hasrr, died there, and after a brief stay, Ibn ai-‘Arabl continued his journey alone to the holy city of Mecca.

He had not been long in the Holy City before the reputation of his spiritual learning and authority spread among the more pious families of Mecca, and he was soon being received with honor and re­spect by the most learned of its citizens. Foremost among them was Abu Shaja Zahir b. Rustam, whose beautiful and gifted daughter was to inspire Ibn al-‘ Arabi to write a fine collection of mystical poetry, The Interpreter of Desires, which was later to lead to accusations that he had written sensual love poetry.  One suspects that the relationship between Ibn al-Arabi and this young woman had something of the quality of that between Dante and Beatrice, and it serves to illustrate a strong appreciation of the feminine in him, at least in its spiritual aspect. This insight into the spiritual significance of the feminine is most evident in the last chapter of the present work, where he inter­prets the saying of the Prophet, “Three things in this world have been made beloved to me, women, perfume, and prayer.” He says of the lady in question, “This shaikh had a virgin daughter, a slender child who captivated all who looked on her, whose presence gave lus­ter to gatherings, who amazed all she was with and ravished the senses of all who beheld her … she was a sage among the sages of the Holy Places.”

No doubt, while Ibn al-‘Arabi was staying in Mecca, he would have visited the Ka’abah regularly to perform the rites and for medi­tation. On two of these occasions he had important experiences that heightened his spiritual awareness and confirmed him in his feeling that he enjoyed a special spiritual status in the cosmic scheme of things. The first experience was a vision of the “Eternal Youth” who represents, so to speak, the fusion of opposites, the coincidentia opposi­torum in whose wholeness all tensions are resolved. This archetype has, more recently, been the object of study by C. G. Jung and his school. The second vision confirmed that it was he who was the Seal of Muhammadan Sainthood. It is certainly true to say that, for the Sufi world, Ibn al-‘Arabi holds a very special place, being always re­ferred to as the Greatest Shaikh [al-Shaikh al-akbar], nor can there be any doubt that his influence on all later generations of Sufis has been enormous and crucial, especially through the work translated here and also The Meccan Revelations [al-Fut’uhat al-Makkiyyah). However, the relationships that were to cause such influence lay still in the fu­ture.

During this time Ibn al-‘Arabi would also have been deeply en­gaged in study and writing. Indeed, he began the composition of his monumental The Meccan Revelations at this time. He also completed four lesser works, including the biographical sketches of his Andalu­sian masters.

In 1204 Ibn al-‘Arabi left the Holy City and traveled to Baghdad, staying there only briefly before going on to Mosul, where he spent a year or so in study and writing, the result of which was his Mosul Rev­elations on the esoteric significance of ablution and prayer. Also while he was at Mosul he was initiated for the third time.

By the year 1206 Ibn ai-‘Arabi arrived in Cairo to spend some time with friends. His reputation, however, had gone before him and it was not one that recommended him to the religious authorities of Cairo. The learned divines of that city denounced his teachings and ideas to such an extent that popular reaction promised to threaten his very life. One must understand that much of what Ibn al-‘Arabi taught for the benefit of his fellow Sufis was unpalatable to exoteric attitudes, seeming as it did to undermine Islamic verities. Even a cur­sory study of The Bezels of Wisdom will suffice to show clearly how great was the gulf between the insights of the Andalusian master and the received interpretations of Islamic doctrine. This sort of antago­nism to Ibn al-‘Arabi’s teachings has continued down to the present day in certain circles of the Muslim World, since all mystical experi­ence tends to express itself, when it does so, in terms often abhorrent to minds firmly fixed within rigid doctrinal limits. Ibn al-‘Arabi’s life was saved, however, by the timely intercession of a friend in Tu­nis who wrote a letter of recommendation to the Egyptian ruler, the Ayyubid, al-Malik al-‘Adil.

Understandably depressed and upset by these developments, Ibn ai-‘Arabi left Egypt and returned to the more appreciative society of Mecca, there to take up his studies once more and to renew old friendships. After some twelve months or so he traveled by way of Aleppo to Asia Minor, arriving in the city of Konya in 1210. Once more the master’s by now formidable reputation went before him, so that he was received with great honor and generosity by the ruler of Konya, Kay Kaus. It is told of Ibn ai-‘Arabi that he gave away the ex­pensive house allotted to him by Kay Kaus as alms to a beggar.

In a very short time the people and Sufis of Konya took the new­ly arrived master to their hearts, and it was as a result of the spiritual contacts he made there that his influence became so dominant in all later Sufism down to the present day. The key figure in this process was the local disciple of Ibn al-‘Arabi, Sadr ai-Din al-Qunawi, who wrote extensively as a commentator on Ibn al-‘Arabi’s teachings and who, by his later contacts with such towering exponents of oriental Sufism as Jalal al-Din Rumi, helped to bring about that remarkable synthesis of oriental and Andalusian Sufism which was later to flow­er in writers like ‘Abd al-Karim al-Jili.

After quite a short stay Ibn ai-‘Arabi proceeded northward through Kayseri and Siwas toward Armenia, returning southward, through Harran, to arrive in Baghdad once more in 1211. On his trav­els in northern regions Ibn ai-‘Arabi relates that he saw the Euphrates frozen over so that whole caravans could move across it.

In Baghdad he had a short, silent meeting with the celebrated au­thor of the Knowledge of the Mystical Sciences [‘Awiirif al-ma’arij], ‘Umar ai-Suhrawardi, at the end of which the latter described Ibn al-‘Arabi as “an ocean of divine truths.”

In 1212, Kay Kaus of Konya wrote to him seeking his advice re­garding the proper treatment of his Christian subjects, and Ibn ai­’Arabi’s reply is very revealing of the nonmystical side of his charac­ter, since he advised Kay Kaus to impose on them the full rigor of Is­lamic Law regarding the restriction of their public worship. (This letter serves to illustrate an important aspect of Sufism that is not widely understood, namely that, while reaching beyond Law and doctrine in their inward search for experience of the divine Reality, they nevertheless recognize the necessity of law and doctrine for the Community.

After a visit to Aleppo in 1213, Ibn al-‘Arabi returned to Mecca in 1214 to deal with the criticisms, which were continuing, of his col­lection of mystical love poems, The Interpreter of Desires. Religious scholars objected to them as being inappropriate to religious feelings, being, they said, too erotic for pious sensibilities. Ibn ai-‘Arabi there­fore composed a full commentary explaining the inner meaning of his verses. In their defense he wrote, “All our poems are related to divine truths in various forms, such as love themes, eulogy, the names and attributes of women, the names of rivers, places, and stars. ”

During the next few months it is possible that Ibn ai-‘Arabi visited Medina and Jerusalem. However, in 1215 he was once again in Asia Minor, meeting with Kay Kaus at Malatya, where he seems to have spent much of the next four to five years, instructing and super­vising his many disciples.48 During the year 1220-1221 he was in Aleppo, where a previous ruler had earlier treated him with great honor. Indeed, the increasing respect and confidence shown to Ibn al­’Arabl by more than one ruler seems to have worsened his relation­ships with jealous jurists and theologians, by reason of the growing influence this respect entailed. His own irritation with such men emerges on several occasions from the pages of his books.

From the year 1223 until his death in November 1240, Ibn ai­’Arabl, by now probably exhausted from his many travels, his prodi­gious literary output, and the sacrifices of his calling, took advantage of an offer by al-Malik ai-‘Adil [d. 1227] to settle in Damascus. This ruler’s son, al-Ashraf, continued to support Ibn al-Arabi after his fa­ther’s death. During this period of semi retirement the master used his time to finish the massive Meccan Revelations and his major collection of poetry, the Diwan. More relevantly, it was during this time that he wrote The Bezels of Wisdom as the synopsis of his teachings.

As far as we can tell, Ibn al-‘Arabi married three times in the course of his life, first Maryam, while he was still a young man in Se­ville;  second Fatima, the daughter of a Meccan nobleman;  and third an unnamed lady, the daughter of a judge in Damascus. He had three children, Sa’d al-Din, born in Malatya in 1221 and died in 1258; ‘lmad al-Din, who died in 1268; and a daughter, Zainab. Of these, we know only that Fatima was the mother of ‘lmad al-Din. In the Futuhat Ibn ai-‘Arabi relates a very touching meeting with his young daughter. “When I arrived at the meeting place, I went with a group of people who were with me to look for them in the Syrian caravan. My daughter caught sight of me and cried, ‘0 Mother, there’s my father!’ Then her mother looked and saw me in the dis­tance. Zainab went on calling out, ‘There’s my father! There’s my fa­ther!’ … When I reached her she laughed and threw her arms about me, shouting, ‘Father! Father!’ ”

Although Ibn al-‘Arabi’s physical offspring may have been mod­est, his spiritual and literary legacy is not. Among the many Sufis who have sought to express their insights and experiences in writing, Ibn al-‘Arabi was, perhaps, the most prolific of all, having contribut­ed significantly to every aspect of Sufi thought, both qualitatively and quantitatively. He himself lists no fewer than 251 titles. While it is true that many if not most of these titles are relatively small and mi­nor works, the list, nevertheless, includes that massive compendium of Sufi exposition, The Meccan Revelations, which by itself would have been considered a major contribution. Unfortunately, most of these works exist today only in manuscript form, some of them in Ibn al­’Arabi’s own hand, very few having been printed, even fewer edited, and still fewer translated into non-Arabic languages.

Therefore, the proportion of Ibn al-‘Arabi’s works available to the non-Arabic reader is very small. Of the two most important and definitive works, The Meccan Revelations and The Bezels of Wisdom, only a partial translation of the latter by T. Burckhardt, La Sagesse des Prophetes, had been published until the present translation. Transla­tions of small sections of The Meccan Revelations exist as quotations in other works on Ibn al-‘Arabi Considering that the A.H. 1329 printing of this work contains over 2,500 pages, a translation of the whole work would indeed be a daunting task. Partial or whole translations of smaller and less general works are to be found in Asin Palacios,  El Islam Cristianizado [Madrid, 1931], in various numbers of Etudes Tradi­tionelles, and in A. Jeffrey’s Reader on Islam [The Hague, 1962]. My own contribution [before the present translation], Sufis of Andalusia, is biographical and not really concerned with his teachings.

Of the printings and editions of Ibn al-‘Arabi’s works, the most readily available are AI-Futuhat ai-Makkiyyah [The Meccan Revelations] [printed A.H. 1274, 1282, 1293, and 1329]; A. A. Afifi’s edition of the Fusus al-Hikam [the present work] [Cairo, 1946]; H. S. Nyberg, Klei11ere Schriften des Ibn al-Arabi [Leiden, 1919], Rasii’il lbnul ‘Arabi [Hyder­abad-Deccan 1948], and the Tarjuman ai-Ashwiiq [Beirut, 1961].

Books on Ibn al-Arabi’s system of thought and spiritual teach­ings are also rather few. By far the best of these, especially for the present work, is Izutsu’s Comparative Study of Key Philosophical Con­cepts in Sufism and Taoism, which is a very thorough and penetrating study of The Bezels of Wisdom. A profound study of certain important themes in Ibn al-‘ Arabi’s thought is H. Corbin’s Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘A ra bi [London, 1970]. S. H. Nasr has provided a very useful study of Ibn al-‘Arabi in Three Muslim Sages [Harvard, 1964]. Two more philosophically oriented studies are A. A. Afifi’s The Mystical Philosophy of Muhid Din lbnul Arabi [Cambridge, 1939] and S. A. Q Husaini’s The Pantheistic Monism of Ibn ai-‘Arabi [Lahore, 1970].

It is clear from the author of these works himself that his writ­ings are not simply the result of long mental and intellectual delibera­tions, but rather that of inspiration and mystical experiences, which makes the task of translating his writings and of interpreting what he writes a formidable one. He says, “In what I have written, I have nev­er had a set purpose, as other writers. Flashes of divine inspiration used to come upon me and almost overwhelm me, so that I could only put them from my mind by committing to paper what they revealed to me. If my works evince any form of composition, it was uninten­tional. Some works I wrote at the command of God, sent to me in sleep or through mystical revelation.” Sometimes the pressure of mystical revelation was so strong that he felt compelled to finish a work before taking any rest. For example, he claimed that his Hilyat al-abdal was written in the space of an hour, that The Bezels of Wis­dom was all revealed to him in a single dream, and that, while engaged in writing The Meccan Revelations, he had filled three notebooks a day. What Ibn al-‘Arabi is claiming here is that his written works are as much the result of spiritual revelation as of his own thought process­es, the implication being that any attempt to treat what he wrote as a philosophy or ideology is doomed to failure. He would, of course, have admitted that the language in which he expressed his inspira­tions owed much to the intellectual terminology of the day, educated as it was by the various traditional and cultural influences to which he was exposed throughout his life. This, however, only makes the attempt at interpretation and classification the more difficult in that, by fixing on the many trees of familiar words, expressions, symbols, and ideas, one may so easily lose sight of the forest of his experience.

Hide picture