Mystic, philosopher, poet, sufi, Muhammad ibn al-Arabi was one of the world’s great spiritual teachers. In particular, he taught how to keep faith with reason. An important lesson for our society disrupted by tensions.
Known as Muhyiddin (the ‘Revivifier of Religion’) and the Shaykh al-Akbar (the ‘Greatest Master’), he was born in 1165 AD during the Golden Age of Islam, in Murcia, into the Moorish culture of Andalusian Spain, which benefited from the cultural influence arriving from Baghdad. In this booming city, in fact, the enlightened Caliph al-Mamum had founded, around 800 AD, the House of Wisdom, a school where many brilliant scholars of that time, alchemists, philosophers, mathematicians, academics of hieroglyphics, opticians, physicians and astronomers researched and shared information and culture in a climate of freedom. Most of them were Arab, but there were also Persian, Indian, Jewish and Christian scholars. Ibn Rushd one of the greatest Moorish philosopher and the Jewish theologian and physician Maimonides were both born in Cordoba, which was once the capital of Al-Andalus, the Moslem-occupied territories in the Iberian Peninsula during the period referred to in Northern Europe as the Dark Ages.
Ibn Rushd devoted his life to philosophy. In addition to other works, he also wrote ‘Comments on the works of Aristotle’ where he added his own interpretations of the Greek’s ideas. He always tried to conciliate the faith in Allah and reason, since he thought that they were two paths both leading to God. While, Ghazali, who was another great Islamic philosopher of that age, thought that philosophy was misleading in the search of God. A dispute between giants of thought, both of them were free-spirit people who loved truth and God. Who was right?
It is said that Ibn Rushd, who was then seventy and who had heard a great deal about a 14 year-old boy living in Cordoba, expressed the desire to meet him. The boy was Ibn Arabi. As he entered Ibn Rushd’s house, the philosopher asked Ibn Arabi the following question: “What solution have you found as a result of mystical illumination and divine inspiration? Does it coincide with what is arrived at by speculative thought?”. Ibn Arabi replied, “Yes and no”. He was convinced, in fact, that Ibn Rushd’s rationalistic path alone, did not let one arrive at the truth of revelation. Nevertheless it was a path to follow .
‘Perfection is not exhibiting’
Ibn Arabi’s fame spread far: he was philosopher, poet, mystic, sufi in the Islamic world. He often quoted the Arab al-Kharriz: ‘Perfection is not exhibiting miraculous powers, but sitting among people, selling and buying, marrying and having children, without forgetting, not even for a moment, the Divine Presence”.
Ibn Arabi stated that there are three forms of knowledge. The first is ‘intellectual knowledge’, which is in fact only information and the collection of facts, and the use of these to arrive at further intellectual concepts. This is intellectualism.
Second comes the ‘knowledge of states’, which included both emotional feeling and strange states of being in which man thinks that he has perceived something supreme but cannot avail himself of it. This is emotionalism. Third comes ‘real knowledge’, which is called the ‘Knowledge of Reality’. In this form, man can perceive what is right, what is true, beyond the boundaries of thought and sense. Scholastics and scientists concentrate upon the first form of knowledge. Emotionalists and experientialists use the second form. Others use the two combined, or either one alternatively.
Ibn Arabi was a brilliant teacher and he was aware that one can start from simple topics to arrive to talk about what is real. According to the words of the Quran: ‘wherever you look, is the face of Allah’. Some people reproached Ibn Arabi: “How can you teach if you just go for a walk with your pupils, or offer them food, or just have generic conversation with them? When do you really teach?”. Ibn Arabi replied: “First I have to find out what the real interest of the disciple is and what he really needs. Then I can start teaching”.
Since he was accused of having written sensuous and even sensual poems, Ibn Arabi was forced to write a commentary to explain his verses. But he, like the author of the ‘Song of Songs’ in the Bible, was a pure person who had understood that the love between a man and a woman is the most powerful parable to describe the love of God itself. Ibn Arabi distrusted intellectuals’ language; he knew that God’s spirit blows where it wishes and that truth has often confused many scholars. And he looked for the truth.
He wrote over 350 works including the Fusûs al-Hikam, an exposition of the inner meaning of the wisdom of the prophets in the Judaic/Christian/Islamic line, and the Futûhât al-Makkiyya, a vast encyclopaedia of spiritual knowledge which unites and distinguishes the three strands of tradition, reason and mystical insight. In his Diwân and Tarjumân al-Ashwâq, he also wrote some of the finest poetry in the Arabic language. These extensive writings provide a beautiful exposition of the Unity of Being, the single and indivisible reality which simultaneously transcends and is manifested in all the images of the world. Ibn Arabi shows how Man, in perfection, is the complete image of this reality and how those who truly know their essential self, know God.
He has profoundly influenced the development of Islam since his time, as well as significant aspects of the philosophy and literature of the West. He died in Damascus in 1240 AD. (K.L.)