Ibn Masarra, Muhammad ibn ‘Abd Allah

Ibn Masarra, Muhammad ibn ‘Abd Allah
   The earliest Andalusian philosopher in the Islamic West, Ibn Masarra was a charismatic figure who founded a Sufi hermitage in the mountains outside his birthplace in Cordoba. His followers – the masariyya – sought inward or esoteric (batini) knowledge, practised asceticism (zuhd), examined their consciences daily and cultivated virtues such as humility, patience, the forgiving of wrongs and love of one’s enemies as a means to the purification of the soul. Few of Ibn Masarra’s writings remain; most of what is known about him comes down to us from second-hand accounts by Ibn Hazm, al- Shahrastani, al-Shahrazuri, and Ibn al-‘Arabi, among others. These accounts are generally unsympathetic, Ibn al-‘Arabi’s being the noteworthy exception. There are several reasons why more traditional thinkers were distrustful of Ibn Masarra’s thought. First, although he believed that reason and revelation constituted two mutually confirming paths to the same goal (i.e. salvation through knowledge of God’s unity), he boldly suggested that each approach was sufficient unto itself. Second, like his father, Ibn Masarra maintained strong Mu‘tazilite commitments, at a time when that once-influential theological movement was coming under increasing attack. Thus, in an attempt to preserve God’s absolute unity (as well as to protect human free will), he distinguished between the Creator’s eternal knowledge and power on the one hand and His created knowledge and power on the other. To traditionalists, this denied divine omniscience and omnipotence, since it implied that God knows things only as universals and not as particulars. Third, whether fairly or not, Ibn Masarra’s philosophy was typically affiliated with the ambitious – if rather speculative and mythical – Neoplatonism of Pseudo- Empedocles. This fact alienated traditionalists and rationalists alike. The former found the residual elements of pagan Greek thought too pronounced to tolerate (despite a heroic attempt to reconcile the atemporal, automatic and necessitarian process of emanation with God’s free willed, deliberate, creative action in time). On the other hand, Islamic Peripatetics like al-Farabi and Ibn Sina found Ibn Masarra’s unsystematic Neoplatonism to be intellectually undisciplined and wooly-headed. But in methodological terms, what set Ibn Masarra apart from both traditionalists and rationalists was his heavy reliance on symbolism, esoteric images and visionary language – in part a function of his initiatory Sufism, in part a clever protective measure against the increasing unacceptability of his ideas. The strategy proved relatively successful; although his followers would later come under persecution, the master lived and died peacefully. And in spite of such criticism and persecution, Ibn Masarra’s philosophical mysticism would survive to have a considerable influence on subsequent generations of Sufis, most notably, Ibn al-‘Arabi.
   See Ibn al-‘Arabi; Mu‘tazilites; mysticism; Neoplatonism; Sufism
   Further reading: Asín Palacios 1972/97

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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