IBN ‘ARABI’S LIFE
For those unfamiliar with Ibn ‘Arabi’s biography, let me provide a thumbnail sketch: Arabic texts commonly call him Ibn al-‘Arabi (with the definite article). He often signs his works Abu Abd Allah Muhammad ibn al-‘Arabi at-Ta’i al-Hatimi. He came to be called Muhyi ad-Din, “The Revivifier of the Religion.” He was born in 1165 in Murcia in Andalusia (Spain).
His father ‘Ali was apparently employed by Muhammad ibn Sa‘id ibn Mardanish, the ruler of the city. In 1172 Murcia was conquered by the Almohad dynasty, and ‘Ali took his family to Seville, where again he was taken into government service. Ibn ‘Arabi was raised in the environs of the court, and recent research shows that he underwent military training. He was employed as a secretary by the governor of Seville and married a girl named Maryam from an influential family.
Ibn ‘Arabi received no unusual religious education as a child, and he tells us that he spent much of his time with his friends in pastimes and gaiety. In his early teens, however, he was overcome by a spiritual call that quickly led to a vision of God. He tells us that everything he subsequently said and wrote was “the differentiation of the universal reality comprised by that look” (F. II 548.14). In this early period he had a number of visions of Jesus, whom he calls his first guide on the path to God.
Ibn ‘Arabi’s father told his friend, the philosopher and judge Averroes, about the change in his son.According to Ibn ‘Arabi’s account,Averroes requested a meeting.The exchange that took place,which has been recounted in several studies of Ibn ‘Arabi, particularly that of Corbin, highlights the wide gulf that Ibn ‘Arabi perceived between the formal knowledge of rational thinkers and the unveiling of those whom he calls the “gnostics”
(‘arifun), those who have true insight into the nature of things.
Once Ibn ‘Arabi underwent his initial conversion to Sufism, he dedicated his life to the spiritual path. An ambiguous passage in the Futuhat has been interpreted to mean that he did not enter formal Sufi training until he was nineteen, but the life-altering vision and the meeting with Averroes had certainly taken place
several years’ earlier, “before his beard had sprouted.”
Eventually he studied with many Sufi shaykhs (two of his accounts of these have been translated by Ralph Austin in Sufis of Andalusia). He also studied with numerous masters of other Islamic sciences. In one document, he mentions the names of seventy teachers in fields like Hadith (sayings of the Prophet), Qur’an recitation, Qur’an commentary, and jurisprudence. He left Spain for the first time when he was thirty, traveling to Tunis. In 1200, a vision instructed him to go to the East. In 1202 he performed the hajj and met, among others, Majd ad-Din Ishaq, a scholar from Malatya. He accompanied Majd ad-Din back to Anatolia. On the way, he stayed for a time in Mosul, where he was invested with an initiatory cloak by Ibn al-Jami’, who himself had received it from Khadir (Khizr),the undying spiritual guide who makes his first appearance in
Islamic sources in the Quranic account of his mysterious meet ing with Moses (Q. 18: 65–82). Ibn ‘Arabi recounts a number of his own meetings with Khadir, and Henry Corbin has highlighted these in his foundational study. There is no basis,however, for Corbin’s suggestion that Khadir was Ibn ‘Arabi’s primary guide on the spiritual path.
For some years Ibn ‘Arabi traveled from city to city in the regions of Turkey, Syria, and Egypt, and he again visited Mecca and Medina. In 1211–12 he was in Baghdad, perhaps accompanied by Majd ad-Din Ishaq, who had been sent there by Sultan Kay Ka’us I (1210–19) of Konya on a mission to the caliphal court. Ibn ‘Arabi was on good terms with this sultan and wrote him a letter of practical advice. He was also a companion of the
ruler of Aleppo, al-Malik az-Zahir (1186–1218), a son of Saladin. Later on he was a teacher of the Ayyubid ruler of Damascus, Muzaffar ad-Din (d. 1238). His hobnobbing with royalty demonstrates two things: first, his own upbringing, since he would have been trained in all the right ways of speaking and acting demanded by high society; and second, the important role that scholars played as advisers,consultants,and even teachers to kings. His relations with royalty should also be sufficient evidence that his “mysticism” was no barrier to
involvement in the social and political institutions of the time.
According to some accounts, after Majd ad-Din’s death, Ibn ‘Arabi married his widow and raised his son, Sadr ad-Din Qunawi (d. 1274). Qunawi became Ibn ‘Arabi’s leading disciple, training many well-known scholars and leaving behind a number of important books. In 1223 Ibn ‘Arabi settled down permanently in Damascus, where he taught and wrote. A circle of disciples, including Qunawi, served him until his death in 1240. His major project during these years was the Futuhat, of which we have two recensions. But he was a prolific author, and
Osman Yahia, in his comprehensive study of 850 works attributed to him, estimates that 700 are authentic and over 400 extant.
Many of these works are short treatises, but many more are full-sized books. He is said to have begun a Qur’an commentary whose unfinished version was longer than the Futuhat, but no manuscripts are known to have survived. The most famous of his books are these three: Fusus al-hikam (“The Ringstones of the Wisdoms”). Over the centuries Ibn ‘Arabi’s students held this book in highest esteem and wrote well over one hundred commentaries on it. Basing himself largely on Quranic verses and hadiths, he shows how
each of twenty-seven prophets from Adam down to Muhammad disclosed in his own person and prophetic career the wisdom implied by one of the divine attributes.
Al-Futuhat al-makkiyya.This is a vast compendium of metaphysics, theology, cosmology, spiritual anthropology, psychology, and jurisprudence.Topics include the inner meanings of the Islamic rituals, the stations of travelers on the journey to God and in God, the nature of cosmic hierarchy, the spiritual and ontological meaning of the letters of the Arabic alphabet, the sciences embraced by each of the ninety-nine names of God, and the significance of the differing messages of various prophets.
Tarjuman al-ashwaq (“The Interpreter of Yearnings”). This short collection of love poetry, the first of Ibn ‘Arabi’s works to be translated into English, was inspired by his meeting during his first pilgrimage to Mecca with Nizam, the beautiful and gifted daughter of a great scholar from Isfahan. He also wrote a long commentary on the poems to prove to one of his critics that they deal with spiritual truths and not profane love.
- SEVEN DAYS OF THE HEART Prayers for the Nights and Days of the Week (mycaravanofdreams.com)
- Ibn Arabi’s “What the Seeker Needs” (1) (mycaravanofdreams.com)
- Ibn Arabi’s “What the Seeker Needs” (2) (mycaravanofdreams.com)
- Ibn Arabi’s “What the Seeker Needs” (3) (mycaravanofdreams.com)
- Ibn Arabi’s “What the Seeker Needs” (4) (mycaravanofdreams.com)
- The Duality of Womanhood in Islamic Mysticism: The Female Profane and the Feminine Sacred (amanitapieces.wordpress.com)
- Parents of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) (aqaid.wordpress.com)