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Muhyi al-Din Ibn al-Arabi

Muhyi al-Din Ibn al-Arabi

Muhyi al-Din Ibn al-Arabi (1165-1240) was an outstanding Spanish-born Moslem thinker and mystic. One of the most prolific writers of the Islamic Middle Ages on the subject of mysticism, he also wrote love poetry.

Ibn al-Arabi was from Murcia, of a family which prided itself on ancient Arabian lineage. He received his education in Seville, where his father was a friend of the philosopher Averroës. A vision experienced during a youthful illness deepened Ibn al-Arabi's religious tendencies, and he began the serious study of tasawwuf, or Islamic mysticism. Until the age of 30 he studied with several Sufi (guides to the mystic life), both in Spain and in North Africa.

Ibn al-Arabi began to write in Morocco. His first pilgrimage to Mecca, in 1202, was (as for countless other Moslems) a deeply moving experience. He stayed 2 years in the holy city, writing there his encyclopedic exposé of mystic philosophy, Meccan Revelations, which he claimed was dictated to him by supernatural beings. At the same time and place he also composed a collection of love poetry inspired by a beautiful Persian woman named Nizam, although one of the introductory passages of the volume disclaims any worldly intention.

Pilgrims from Konya to Mecca induced Ibn al-Arabi to return with them and visit the Seljuk domains in Anatolia, which he did in 1205. He appears to have spent a good deal of time traveling, with passing references in his works to sojourns in Baghdad, Aleppo, Damascus, Jerusalem, Cairo, and again Mecca. He finally settled in Damascus, under the patronage of a wealthy family, and in his last years composed there one of his most important works, Bezels of Wisdom. The book is Ibn al-Arabi's summary of the teachings of the 28 persons recognized by the Moslems as prophets, from Adam to Mohammed, the author claiming that it was dictated to him in a dream by the prophet Mohammed himself. Ibn al-Arabi's tomb still exists in Damascus, where he died.

Ibn al-Arabi's importance for Islamic mysticism lies in the fact that he was a speculative thinker of the highest order, albeit diffuse and difficult to understand. His central doctrine is the unity of all existence: all things preexist in God's knowledge, and the world and everything in it is an outward aspect, the inward aspect of which is God. Man, more exactly the idea of man, is a microcosm uniting all the divine attributes. There is a "Perfect Man," and there have been several incarnations of the "Perfect Man," beginning with Adam and ending with Mohammed. With Ibn al-Arabi, Sufism moves away from anguished and ascetic searchings of the heart and conscience and becomes a matter of speculative philosophy and theosophy.

In terms of his influence Ibn al-Arabi, the mystic speculator, prepared the ground from which was to spring the rich harvest of Islamic—especially Persian—mystical poetry. There seems some evidence also that Ibn al-Arabi may have influenced Christian thinkers such as the Catalan Raymond Lull and possibly also Dante Alighieri.

Further Reading

Reynold A. Nicholson translated and edited Ibn al-Arabi's book of poems, The Tarjuman al-Ashwaq: A Collection of Mystical Odes (1911). A. E. Affifi analyzes his thought in The Mystical Philosophy of Muhyid Din-Ibnul Arabi (1939). Majid Fakhry, A History of Islamic Philosophy (1970), is recommended for general background. For Ibn al-Arabi's possible influence on Dante see Miguel Asín Palácios, Islam and the Divine Comedy, translated and abridged by Harold Sunderland (1926). □

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