Ibn al-Arabi

From New World Encyclopedia

Middle Eastern scholar
Medieval era
Name: Ibn Arabi
Birth: 1165 C.E. in Spain [1]
Death: 1240 C.E. in Damascus
School/tradition: Sufism
Main interests
Notable ideas
Influences Influenced
Al-Ghazali Shah Nimatullah

Ibn al-'Arabi (1165 C.E. - 1240 C.E.) was a Muslim mystic, philosopher, poet, and writer who came to be acknowledged as one of the most important spiritual teachers within Sufism, the mystical tradition of Islam. Ibn Arabi was a prodigiously prolific author, producing at least 300 works on various subjects, with his own mystical philosophy reaching its quintessential expression in, The Seals of Wisdom (Fusus al-hikam). His writings emphasized the potential of the human being becoming a Perfect Person (al-insan al-kamil), and he is known as the prime exponent of the doctrine of wahdat al-wujud (وحدة الوجود, "unity of being"), though he never used this term in any of his works.

Ibn Arabi exerted significant influence on Islamic spirituality, not only among his immediate circle of friends and disciples (many of whom were considered spiritual masters in their own right), but also on succeeding generations, deeply affecting the subsequent course of spiritual thought and practice in the Arabic, Turkish and Persian-speaking worlds. In recent years, his writings have also become a topic of increasing academic interest in the West, leading to the establishment of an international academic society (Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society) whose primary goal is to further the understanding of this great philosopher's teachings.


Ibn al-Arabi (born Abū `Abd-Allah Muḥammad ibn Ali ibn Muḥammad ibn al-`Arabi al-Ḥātimī al-Ṭā’ī) was born in Murcia, in south-eastern Andalusia (Spain) in 1165 C.E., where he was immersed in the fertile metropolitan climate of Iberian Islam. He spent his youth as a student—learning the most current theories of mathematics, cosmology, linguistics, and theology. As a teenager, he experienced a sudden revelation, in which he was interrupted from his carefree existence by a divine call:

In the middle of one of these nightly parties in Seville he heard a voice calling to him, "O Muhammed, it was not for this that you were created." In consternation he fled and went into retreat for several days in a cemetery. It was here that he had his seminal triple vision in which he met, and received instruction from, Jesus, Moses, and Muhammed—an illumination that simultaneously started him upon the spiritual way and established him as a master of it.[2]

In the years that followed, he traveled throughout the Western Islamic world (the Maghreb), visiting communities and initiating studying with various scholars and mystics, from al-Andalus to Tunis. In 1202, he embarked on the sacred pilgrimage to Mecca (the hajj), where he settled down and reflected for the next three years. This period of contemplation culminated in the writing of several works, including his magnum opus: The Meccan Illuminations.

After his eventful sojourn in Mecca, ibn Arabi traveled through the Levant and Anatolia, and finally settled down in Damascus. During this period, he raised a family, instructed numerous disciples (from various social classes), advised kings and rulers, and completed a vast number of books. He died in 1240 C.E., and his tomb is still an important pilgrimage site for many Muslim groups.

Literary output

Ibn Arabi wrote at least 300 works, ranging from minor treatises to the huge 37-volume Meccan Revelations (al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya). The quintessence of his teachings is considered to be, The Seals of Wisdom (Fusus al-hikam). Approximately 110 works are known to have survived in verifiable manuscripts, some eighteen in Ibn Arabi’s own hand. He wrote with equal facility in prose or poetry, and utilized the polysemous ambiguity of the Arabic language to great effect. The characteristic resonances of rhymed prose (saj’), also found in the Qur'an, abound in his works.

His mystical thought

A profound visionary capacity, coupled with a remarkable intellectual insight into human experience and a thorough comprehension of all the traditional sciences, marks out Ibn Arabi from comparable figures in Islam. It has been tempting for scholars to characterize him as a mystical philosopher, a formulation that is rather at odds with his own teachings on the limitations of philosophical thinking. He was at least as comfortable with religious insight (Qur'an and Hadith scholarship, theology, and mysticism) as with more secular modes of inquiry (medieval philology and letter symbolism, philosophy, alchemy, and cosmology).

As a mystic, Ibn Arabi is best known as the prime exponent of the idea that would later be termed wahdat al-wujud (وحدة الوجود, "unity of being"), though he has never used this term in any of his writings. More specifically, he argued for the ontological primacy of God (Allah), stating that all worldly qualities and categories are simply manifestations of the divine nature: “Our description [of the world] is merely our own attribution, an account we give of an attribute that exists through Him.”[3] By thus locating the Divine in the world, ibn Arabi suggested that the mystic could gradually learn to manifest these "Names (natures) of God" through practice:

Even though all perfect human beings (i.e., the prophets and the "friends" (awlia') of God) are identical in one respect, each of them manifests God's uniqueness in another respect. In effect, each is dominated by one specific divine attribute—this is the theme of the Fusus al-Hikam [The Seals of Wisdom]. Moreover, the path to human fulfillment is a never-ending progression whereby people come to embody God's infinite attributes successively and with ever-increasing intensity.[4]

A further development of Sufi practice by ibn Arabi was his valorization of mental ("imaginary") experiences in the mystic quest. In the traditional Sufi understanding, the things of the world are "an infinite display of ayat or signs, the intelligent interpretation and contemplation of which leads one, inevitably, back towards the absolute and unitive truth of God."[5] The manner in which ibn Arabi's view emerges from the conception of the names is fairly evident. However, he takes this conception in a rather novel direction. Specifically, he argues that advanced spiritual seekers develop the ability to enter into a cosmic realm, between this reality and final Unity, wherein these signs are more present. It is the task of humanity to learn to properly interpret these imaginary realities; to increase “spiritual eyesight” until each of these forms emerged from the Divine.[6] As such, this interstitial realm was important, because it determined one of the ways that the mystic could correctly prepare himself or herself to encounter the Divine.

The all-inclusiveness and flexibility of ibn Arabi's mystic vision make him both one of the most demanding of authors, and one whose subtlety has often confounded orthodox critics. In his writings, he combines a detailed architecture of spiritual experience, theory and practice, with descriptions of his own personal visions, insights, and dreams. It is his propensity to recount stories from his own direct experiences that allows readers to gain such a detailed insight into the inner world of one with such a unique religious and spiritual perspective.

Wahhabi criticisms of ibn al-Arabi

Some Wahhabi Muslims reject the notion that Ibn al-Arabi was a Muslim at all, based on discrepancies between Ibn al-Arabi's writings and the Wahhabi version of Muslim orthodoxy. Examples of such alleged discrepancies are found in Ibn al-Arabi's writings, Fusus Al-Hikam and Al-Ahkaam, which are said to make impious statements about Allah. For instance, the Fusus states, "Al-`Abdu Rabbun Warrabbu `Abdun" (which can be translated as "the slave (human) is the God and the God is the slave (human)."[7] While Muslim orthodoxy typically disdains such comments, Sufis rebut Wahhabi criticisms by suggesting that Ibn al-Arabi's statements were always considered to be the most elevated exposition of mystical thought, and therefore, to be unsuitable for the untrained mind. He used words in surprising ways as a means of affirming the radical immanence of the divine: For if Allah is not in the slave then how could the slave exist? Under this interpretation, Ibn al-Arabi's statement is directly congruent with the Islamic stress on the omnipresence of the Divine. Regardless, many mainstream Muslim scholars labelled his book Fusus Al-Hikam a blasphemy, causing him to be declared kafir (an unbeliever).

Works by Ibn al-Arabi

  • The Seals of Wisdom (also translated as The Bezels of Wisdom), or Fusus al-Hikam, often described as his Magnum Opus.
  • The Meccan Illuminations (Al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya), his largest work discussing a wide range of topics from mystical philosophy to Sufi practices and records of his dreams/visions.
  • The Diwan, his collection of poetry spanning five volumes, mostly unedited.
  • The Holy Spirit in the Counselling of the Soul (Ruh al-quds), a treatise on the soul which includes a summary of his experience from different spiritual masters in the Maghrib.
  • Contemplation of the Holy Mysteries (Mashahid al-asrar), probably his first major work consisting of fourteen visions and dialogues with God.
  • Divine Sayings (Mishkat al-anwar), an important collection made by Ibn Arabi of 101 hadith qudsi
  • The Book of Annihilation in Contemplation (K. al-Fana' fi'l-mushahada), a short treatise on the meaning of mystical annihilation (fana).
  • Devotional Prayers (Awrad), a widely read collection of fourteen prayers for each day and night of the week.
  • Red Sulphur (Al-Kabrit al-ahmar).
  • Journey to the Lord of Power, a detailed technical manual and roadmap for the "journey without distance."
  • Sufis of Andalusia, reminiscences and spiritual anecdotes about many interesting people whom he met in al-Andaluz.


  1. Toshihiko Izutsu, Sufism and Taoism.
  2. Stephen Hirtenstein, Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi: The Treasure of Compassion. Retrieved January 31, 2008.
  3. al-Kalabadhi, 17.
  4. William Chittick, Ibn Arabi. Retrieved January 31, 2008.
  5. R. W. J. Austin, The Bezels of Wisdom by ibn Arabi (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), 96.
  6. Izutsu, 15.
  7. The Seals of Wisdom, Chapter 6. Retrieved January 31, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Addas, Claude. Quest for the Red Sulphur. Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1993. ISBN 0-946621-45-4
  • Al-Arabi, Ibn. The Bezels of Wisdom. Introduced and translated by R. W. J. Austin. New York: Paulist Press, 1980.
  • Burckhardt, Titus. Mystical Astrology According to Ibn 'Arabi. Translated by Bulent Rauf. New Leaf Distributing Company, 1977. ISBN 1-887752-43-9
  • Chittick, William C. “Ibn al-'Arabi” from Sufis by Dr. Alan Godlas. Retrieved January 31, 2008.
  • Chittick, William C. The Sufi Path of Knowledge: ibn Arabi’s Metaphysics of Imagination. New York: State University of New York Press, 1989.
  • Hirtenstein, Stephen. The Unlimited Mercifier. Anqa Publishing, 1999. ISBN 0-9534513-2-1
  • Izutsu, Toshihiko. Sufism and Taoism: A Comparative Study of Key Philosophical Concepts. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
  • al-Kalabadhi. The Doctrine of the Sufis. Translated by A. J. Arberry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.
  • Nicholson, Reynold A. The Mystics of Islam. London: Arkana, 1989
  • Sells, Michael A. “Ibn Arabi’s Garden Among the Flames: A Reevaluation” in History of Religions (23, May 1984). 287-315.
  • Shah, Idries. The Sufis. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1971.

External links

All links retrieved January 25, 2018.


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