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Ibn El-Arabi

Category: Mystic

Ibn El-Arabi (1165 –1240) was an Arab Andalusian Sufi mystic and philosopher.  Most of his youth was spent in Seville [Spain] where he had contact with a number of other well known mystics of the time.  He was helped, for example,  by the philosopher Averroes and also met with Khidr. 

Ibn Arabi seems to have been naturally blessed with the ability to have visions and under the influence of these visions he began to write. His interpretation of the visions owes a lot to the prevailing religious beliefs of the time.  These days we might interpret them differently. 

Shortly after his return to Andalusia from North Africa in 1194 AD, Ibn ‘Arabi’s father died and within a few months his mother also died. His two young sisters and he left Seville and settled in Fes [Morocco].  In Fes, when he was leading a Prayer in the al-Azhar Mosque, he experienced another vision:

“I lost the sense of behind [or front]. I no longer had a back or the nape of a neck. While the vision lasted, I had no sense of direction, as if I had been completely spherical (dimensionless).” (II, 486)

Students at Al-Azhar mosque in the 1880s. Photo taken
by Pascal Sebah (1823-1886): "Mosquée El-Azhar (étudiants)

Ibn ‘Arabi spent a considerable number of years travelling in the near East visiting people and ‘holy’ sites on the way. 

His route took him to all the major burial places of the Prophets, for example, Hebron, where Abraham was said to be buried; Jerusalem; and then Medina, the final resting place of Prophet Muhammad

He visited  Syria [Aleppo and Damascus], Palestine, Anatolia, Egypt, Iraq, Turkey (Chittick),  and he visited  Baghdad, and  Konya. During these travels he managed to meet with many local Sufis and hear many of the traditional stories of these regions.  According to Osman Yahia, for example, in Baghdad, Ibn ‘Arabi met with the Sufi Shihabuddin Suharwardi. 

During these travels he frequently visited and stayed in Mecca.

 

And it was in Mecca that he fell in love with the beautiful Nizam, the daughter of his friend Abu Shuja bin Rustem.

The love was platonic, not sexual and she  became the personification of his Higher spirit

Through her he attained the ‘mystic marriage’. 

He did not marry Nizam, he did not lust after Nizam, he just loved her

Each time he returned to Mecca, he spent time with his friend Abu Shuja bin Rustem and his daughter.

Many regard the works he produced in Mecca to be his most accomplished.  Around 1202 AD, for example, he spent a few years in mecca writing books like the  Al-Futurat al-Makkiyya.  He also wrote his most famous poetic work the Tarjuman al-Ashwaq in Mecca.

Through human love he attained Divine love.

The expressions of love he expressed in his poetry caused uproar and consternation in traditional Islamic society.  He was accused of writing ‘erotic verses’ under the cover of poetic allusions. His works were brought before a jury in Aleppo who simply did not believe that his poetry was a mystical expression of  Divine love.  He was forced to defend himself and wrote a commentary on these poems by the title of “Dhakha’ir al-A’laq”.  This gave him a temporary reprieve.

After criss-crossing the east for a period of 20 years, Ibn ‘Arabi decided to settle in Syria and spent the last 17 years of his life in Damascus. In Damascus, he devoted himself to writing and teaching.

On 22 Rabi‘ al-Thani 638 AH at the age of seventy-five, Ibn ‘Arabi died.

Louis Comfort Tiffany (American, 1848-1933). On the Way between Old and New Cairo, Citadel Mosque of Mohammed Ali, and Tombs of the Mamelukes, 1872

 

References

 

Some 800 works are attributed to Ibn Arabi, although only some have been authenticated. These include 

  • The Ringstones of Wisdom (also translated as The Bezels of Wisdom), or Fusus al-Hikam.
     
  • The Meccan Illuminations (Al-Futurat al-Makkiyya), his largest work in 37 volumes published in 4 or 8 volumes in modern times, discussing a wide range of topics from mystical philosophy to Sufi practices and records of his dreams/visions.
     
  • The Diwan, his collection of poetry spanning five volumes. The printed versions available are based on only one volume of the original work.
     
  • The Holy Spirit in the Counselling of the Soul (Ruh al-quds), a treatise on the soul which includes a summary of his experience from different spiritual masters in the Maghrib. Part of this has been translated as Sufis of Andalusia, reminiscences and spiritual anecdotes about many interesting people whom he met in al-Andalus.
  • Contemplation of the Holy Mysteries Mashahid al-Asrar probably his first major work, consisting of fourteen visions
     
  • Divine Sayings Mishkat al-Anwar, an important collection made by Ibn 'Arabi of 101 hadith qudsi
     
  • Tombs of the caliphs--Cairo-David Roberts
    The Book of Annihilation in Contemplation (K. al-Fana' fi'l-Mushahada), a short treatise on the meaning of mystical annihilation (fana).
     
  • The Universal Tree and the Four Birds al-Ittihad al-Kawni, a poetic book on the Complete Human and the four principles of existence
     
  • The Interpreter of Desires (Tarjuman al-Ashwaq) love poetry (ghazals) which, in response to critics, Ibn Arabi republished with a commentary explaining the meaning of the poetic symbols.
     
  • The Four Pillars of Spiritual Transformation Hilyat al-abdal a short work on the essentials of the spiritual Path

 

Observations

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