Ibn al-‘Arabi, Muhyi al-Din


Ibn al-‘Arabi, Muhyi al-Din
(560–638/1164–1240)
   Although not a philosopher in the narrow, technical sense of the word, Ibn al-‘Arabi’s significance within the Islamic philosophical tradition is considerable. Arguably the most important of the Sufi mystics, ‘the Greatest Master’ (alshaykh al-akbar) and ‘Reviver of Religion’ (muhyi al-din) had his first illumination at the unprecedented age of fifteen, while growing up in Andalusia, prior to any formal religious or spiritual training. So unusual was this event that Ibn Rushd himself is said to have questioned the precocious youth about the content of his mystical experience, inquiring whether the insights it disclosed were the same as those attained via reasoning. ‘Yes and no,’ was Ibn al-‘Arabi’s disconcerting answer, ‘and between the yes and the no spirits take wing from their matter and necks are separated from their bodies.’ This formative experience started him on his spiritual journey, and along the way he produced an enormous body of writing that would leave an indelible mark on Sufi theory and practice. His two most important works are the voluminous Meccan Illuminations (al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya), which was prompted by another mystic vision he underwent near the Ka‘ba in Mecca, and the more concise Bezels of Wisdom (Fusus al-hikam), which is generally seen as containing the essential core of his insights. Countless commentaries have been written on the latter.
   Unlike most of the philosophers before him, Ibn al- ‘Arabi places little stock in the power of reason. While it plays an important role in enabling us to understand the nature of the materialworld in all its multiplicity and diversity, it is severely limited in its ability to produce knowledge of the highest realities. True knowledge is ‘knowledge of the mysteries’ (‘ulum al-asrar) or gnosis (ma‘rifa), which has as its practical prerequisite spiritual exercises that prepare the heart to receive an influx of divinely bestowed illumination. Mystic knowledge is ultimately made possible through theworld of the imagination (‘alam al-khayal), a kind of intermediary realm or isthmus (barzakh) between the visible world of material bodies (shahada) and the invisible world of spirits (ghayb) which most people have access to only in dreams. This is the place, according to Ibn al-‘Arabi’s symbolic reading of the Qur’an and hadith, where miracles, revelation and the events of the afterlife take place. It is also the locus of unveiling (kashf ), an event in which the gnostic experiences the divine unity behind the multiplicity and diversity of the cosmos. Imagination thus can be said to lie at the very center of Ibn al-‘Arabi’s mystic epistemology.
   According to Ibn al-‘Arabi’s metaphysics, God is unknowable in his essence, but the entire cosmos is a selfrevealing of God insofar as it is a manifestation of His names (asma’) or attributes (sifat). Indeed the divine names require the creation (or more accurately, the emanation) of the universe, without which they could not be given expression. This means that every creature, event and action in the universe is a divine act, and God is in a sense everywhere. This unity of all things with the divine is what later philosophical Sufis came to call the ‘oneness of existence’ (wahdat al-wujud). Traditionalists such as Ibn Taymiyya were appalled by the notion, which they interpreted as a kind of heretical monism or pantheism. Yet Ibn al-‘Arabi’s actual position is more subtle and nuanced than this. Although God comprises the totality of the cosmos (and can thus be said to be immanent), He also transcends it insofar as He is the essential unitary reality that gives rise to it. Accordingly, ‘panentheism’ might be a more accurate description of Ibn al-‘Arabi’s metaphysics. Further, the experience of ‘annihilation’ (fana’), i.e. the dissolution of the individuated, finite self in which one sees through the multiplicity of the manifest world and experiences its ontological unity, is followed by ‘perpetuation’ (baqa’), a state in which one sees the world with ‘two eyes’, as it were – simultaneously recognizing one’s creaturely uniqueness even as one also sees one’s unity with God. In this way, Ibn al-‘Arabi’s philosophical Sufism strikes a careful and subtle balance between the traditional theological poles of transcendence (tanzih) and similarity (tashbih). If the universe as a whole manifests the diversity of the divine names, the individual human being can be understood as its microcosm. Somewhat as the falasifa espoused the ‘imitation (tashabbuh) of God’, Ibn al- ‘Arabi speaks of assuming the character traits of God (altakhalluq bi akhlaq Allah), all of which lie latent within the human being as expressions of the divine names. The ‘perfect human being’ (al-insan al-kamil) is the person who manifests God’s attributes in balanced, harmonious proportion, an ideal Ibn al-‘Arabi associates first and foremost with the Prophet Muhammad (who is the archetypal perfect human being), and by extension with the other prophets and saints. Unperfected human beings are, to a greater or lesser extent, merely microcosmic fragments of the complete, original Muhammadan reality (al-haqiqa al-Muhammadiyya). As with the older philosophical ideal of tashabbuh, Ibn al-Arabi’s unique ethical perfectionism is closely bound up with knowledge of God as the Real (al-haqq), except that for him it is an intimate, experiential, mystic gnosis rather than a rationaltheoretical knowledge. He calls this stage of human ethical-epistemological perfection the ‘station of no station’ (maqam la maqam).
   After his death, Ibn al-‘Arabi’s bold and original ideas were denounced by the soi-disant defenders of tradition within Islam, who saw little in them but heretical monism and even antinomianism. On the other hand, his effect upon Sufi mysticism is simply inestimable, and his impact upon post-Illuminationist philosophers such as al-Dawani and Mulla Sadra is considerable as well. Indeed, one might even say that despite his controversial status in the Islamic tradition, Ibn al-‘Arabi is a towering figure whose overall widespread influence has few peers.
   See al-Ghazali; God, imitation of; Ibn Masarra; Ibn Sab‘in; mysticism; Neoplatonism; Sufism; al-Suhrawardi
   Further reading: Addas 1993; Chittick 1989, 1997; Chodkiewicz 1993; Corbin 1969/98; Ibn al-‘Arabi 1980, 2002

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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