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Ibn al-ʿArabī, Muḥyī al-dīn

Valerie J. Hoffman-Ladd
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Ibn al-ʿArabī, Muḥyī al-dīn

Muḥyī al-dīn Ibn al-ʿArabī was an influential Ṣūfī mystic and writer. Ibn ʿArabī is known as “the greatest shaykh” (al-shaykh al-akbar). His thought and terminology have formed the foundation of most subsequent Ṣūfī intellectual discourse, and his voluminous literary output, as famous for its abstruseness as for its content, has been the subject of numerous commentaries in many languages. His ideas, controversial even in his own time, continue to be an object of attack in the contemporary Muslim world.

Born in 1165 in Murcia, Spain, into a prominent family that included a number of Ṣūfīs, Ibn ʿArabī spent his first thirty years in Spain before traveling east, where he spent the last forty years of his life and composed his major works. After traveling through North Africa and much of the Middle East, he finally settled in Damascus, where he is buried. Although he founded no Ṣūfī order, his ideas had a profound impact on Sufism throughout the Muslim world. He is credited with creating a systematic Ṣūfī philosophy, but his writings do not present this philosophy in a logical exposition. Rather, they reflect his mystical impulses and present ideas in an often unconnected fashion that some readers find self-contradictory. His interpretations of Qurʿānic verses and sayings of the Prophet utilize an associative word analysis that is unconventional and, to some Muslims, blasphemous. His most comprehensive work, The Meccan Revelations, is dauntingly long and dense. Ibn ʿArabī 's ideas have been largely disseminated by his commentators, such as his disciple Ṣadr al-Dīn al-Qūnawī (1210–1274) and ʿAbd al-Karīm al-Jīlī (d. early fifteenth century); in the Arab world his ideas have been popularized by the widely read Ṣūfī writer ʿAbd al-Wahhāb al-Shaʿrānī (d. 1565).

The hallmark of Ibn ʿArabī 's system is his doctrine of the “oneness of being.” The only truly Real is God himself, who was, according to a saying of the Prophet, a hidden treasure desiring to be known. The Qurʿān says that the signs of God are contained in nature. Ibn ʿArabī takes this idea further by saying that God 's names are manifested in the cosmos, which functions as a mirror in which God sees himself. Although all of creation manifests the names of God, the perfect man, who is the only person to attain full humanity and is represented by a single person in every age, contains the totality of these names. The perfect man is therefore a microcosm and God 's most perfect mirror. The individuals who are the perfect men are each exemplifications of an eternal spiritual essence called the “Muḥammadan reality,” which is the articulating and mediating principle through which the creation comes into existence. God is the source of all love and beauty; our love for objects and people and our contemplation of beauty in other things are in fact a love for God and a witness of his beauty. Because the perfect man alone manifests the comprehensive divine name of God, he alone is able to worship God in reality. Ibn ʿArabī 's famous poem—in which he affirms that he is capable of worshiping God in any form, whether through the tablets of the Torah, a temple of idols, or the Kaʿbah—has sometimes been interpreted as advocating religious tolerance, but it is better seen as a proclamation of his own high spiritual standing.

Ibn ʿArabī 's philosophy has been criticized variously as pantheistic, as deifying Muḥammad, making all religions equal, creating an idol out of woman (because he affirms that man 's contemplation of God in woman is the most perfect contemplation of the divine), and interpreting the Qurʿān in an unconventional and dangerous manner. His Sufism is widely regarded as extremist, and even in his own life some scholars in Egypt wanted him executed as a heretic. In Egypt today there are continuing attempts to ban his works. The banning of his works would not, however, put an end to his ideas, which continue to be disseminated in a simplified and popular form through the Ṣūfī orders.

See also SUFISM, subentry onṢūFī THOUGHT AND PRACTICE.


Primary Sources

  • The Bezels of Wisdom. Translated by R. W. J. Austin. New York, 1980. Ibn ʿArabī 's most widely studied work, written near the end of his life, which sums up his philosophy most succinctly. In it, each prophet represents a certain wisdom contained in the divine name he embodies.
  • Divine Governance of the Human Kingdom: Including What the Seeker Needs and the One Alone. Translated by Al-Jerrahi al-Halyet. Fons Vitae, 1997.
  • Divine Sayings: The Mishkat al-Anwar of Ibn ‘ Arabi. Translated by Stephen Hirnstein and Martin Notcutt. Anqa Publishing, 2007.
  • Al-Futūḥāt al-Makkīyah (The Meccan Revelations). 4 vols. Beirut, n.d. His major work, which alone is more than most authors write in a lifetime. An edited version of this is being produced in Cairo by ʿUthmān Yaḥyā, who published the first volume in 1972.
  • The Meccan Revelations, vols. 1 and 2.Translated by Michael Chodkiewicz. Pir Press, 2002 and 2004.
  • Sufis of Andalusia: The Ruh al-quds and Al-Durrat al-fakhira. Translated by R. W. J. Austin. London, 1971. The lives of various Ṣūfīs of Spain, with many of whom Ibn ʿArabī had personal contact. Austin 's introduction details the life of Ibn ʿArabī through quotations from Ibn ʿArabī 's own writings, offering a fascinating insight into his mystical experiences.
  • The Tarjumán al-ashwáq: A Collection of Mystical Odes by Muḥyi ’ddín ibn al-ʿArabí. Edited and translated by Reynold A. Nicholson. London, 1911. Poems inspired by a beautiful and spiritual Persian woman he met in Mecca. Ibn ʿArabī later wrote a commentary to show that they were not mere love poems, but had an underlying mystical meaning.

Secondary Sources

  • Bashier, Salman H.Ibn al-ʿArabi 's Barzakh: The Concept of the Limit and the Relationship Between God and the World. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004.
  • Chittick, William C.“Ibn ʿArabī and His School.” In Islamic Spirituality: Manifestations, edited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, pp. 49–79. New York, 1991. Possibly the best succinct introduction to Ibn ʿArabī 's life, thought, and influence, by a well-informed scholar with a gift for clear exposition.
  • Chittick, William C.The Self-Disclosure of God 's Principles of Ibn Al-ʿArabi 's Cosmology. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.
  • Chittick, William C.The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn al-ʿArabī 's Metaphysics of Imagination. Albany, N.Y., 1990. Thematically organized introduction to Ibn ʿArabī 's thought that includes large portions translated from Al-Futūḥāt al-Makkīyah.
  • Corbin, Henry. Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ʿArabi. Translated by Ralph Manheim. Princeton, 1969. Important work by the famous French scholar of Islamic esotericism.
  • Elmore, Gerald T., ed.Islamic Sainthood in the Fullness of Time: Ibn Al-Arabi 's Book of the Fabulous Gryphon. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 1999.
  • Homerin, Th. Emil. “Ibn Arabi in the People 's Assembly: Religion, Press, and Politics in Sadat 's Egypt.”Middle East Journal40.3 (1986): 462–477. Account of the enduring controversy over Ibn ʿArabī 's ideas and its relevance in contemporary politics.
  • Morris, James Winston. The Reflective Heart: Discovering Spiritual Intelligence in Ibn ʿArabi 's “Meccan Illuminations.”Fons Vitae, 2005.
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