Ibn Al-?Arabi (1165–1240)

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IBN AL-˓ARABI (1165–1240)

Ibn al-˓Arabi was a prolific, influential, and controversial scholar whose writings, based on close readings of the Qur˒an, combined the perspectives of jurisprudence, philosophy, kalam, and Sufism. His more complete name is Muhammad ibn ˓Ali ibn Muhammad ibn al-˓Arabi al-Ta˒i al-Hatimi.

He was born in the Moorish kingdom of Murcia, where his father was a government official. After his family moved to Seville, a visionary experience shook him out of adolescent concerns. He famously recounts how his father took him, his beard not yet sprouted, to visit the great philosopher Averroes, who was awed by the God-given understanding he saw in the boy. He studied hadith and the other religious sciences with many teachers in Andalus. In 1200, a vision instructed him to go to the East. In 1202 he made the pilgrimage to Mecca, then traveled widely through the Arab countries and Anatolia, and in 1223 settled down in Damascus, where he taught and wrote until his death. He is the author of over four hundred highly sophisticated and technical treatises, including the encyclopedic al-Futuhat al-makkiyya (The Meccan openings), the celebrated Fusus al-hikam (The ringstones of wisdom), and a few collections of poetry. His teachings became controversial with Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328).

In the later literature Ibn al-˓Arabi's name is closely associated with the notion of wahdat al-wujud ("oneness of being"), though it is difficult to explain why this should be so simply on the basis of his writings. Few of his works have been studied with care by modern scholars, but it is safe to say that they circle around a number of themes. Chief among these is the depiction of the various paths to perfection represented mythically by the 124,000 prophets sent by God, though he focuses on Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. He is commonly labeled a "Sufi," but not by himself; he would have much preferred the term muhaqqiq, "realizer" or "verifier," the active participle of the word tahqiq. Derived from the word haqq—truth, reality, worthiness—tahqiq means to see all things in relation to the unity (tawhid) of al-haqq, the absolute truth and reality that is God, and then to act appropriately. To achieve tahqiq, one must open the two eyes of the heart (qalb), which are reason (˓aql) and imagination (khayal). With the eye of reason, the heart verifies that the absolute haqq is transcendent and incomparable with any created thing. With the eye of imagination, it verifies that this same infinite haqq is immanent and present in every created thing. The indispensable guidelines for achieving tahqiq are provided by the Qur˒an and the sunna.

The Fusus al-hikam, object of well over one hundred commentaries before modern times, offers an epitome of Ibn al-˓Arabi's methodology and goals. In twenty-seven chapters it discusses twenty-seven wisdoms, each designated by one of the fundamental attributes of reality, such as holiness, realness, light, unity, and mercy. Each wisdom is embodied in a divine word (kalima) that takes human form, the first of which is Adam and the last Muhammad. Adam incarnates the wisdom of the name Allah, which comprehends the meaning of all the divine names. It was Allah—not the Creator or the Compassionate—who created Adam in his own image, and it was Allah who "taught him all the names" (Q. 2:30). Human perfection is then to realize every divine attribute as one's own, in keeping with the prophetic saying, "Assume the character traits of God." The children of Adam represent the infinitely diverse synthetic images of God that arise because of the differing proportions in which the divine names become manifest in each individual. The twenty-six perfect human beings to whom the remaining chapters are devoted realized the full divine image while simultaneously displaying the characteristics of one specific divine attribute. Each chapter builds on references in the Qur˒an and the hadith to illustrate the applicability of the revealed passages to the prophet in question and to human beings in general.

The Fusus has attracted much attention partly because its often obscure contents allowed scholars to demonstrate their mastery of the science of tawhid. Its sometimes provocative interpretations of Qur˒anic verses, rare in Ibn ˓Arabi's other writings, aroused the ire of a great number of critics and produced an extensive secondary literature of attack and defense.

See alsoFalsafa ; Kalam ; Tasawwuf ; Wahdat al-Wujud .


Addas, Claude. Quest for the Red Sulphur: The Life of Ibn ˓Arabî. Cambridge, U.K.: The Islamic Texts Society, 1993.

Chittick, William C. The Self-Disclosure of God: Principles of Ibn al-˓Arabî's Cosmology. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.

Chodkiewicz, Michel. An Ocean Without Shore: Ibn Arabi, the Book, and the Law. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

William C. Chittick