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Ibn al-`Arabi, another Epoch-Making Factor in the Development of Sufism

Ibn al-`Arabi, Muhyi al-Din Muhammad b. `Ali Ta’i Andalusi, known as al-Shaykh al-Akbar, was heir to the Sufi heritage of the east and the west of the Islamic world, the interpreter of the secrets of the early and the late Muslim mystics, and the founder of a new school based on a synthesis of practical as well as theoretical aspects of Sufism. His elaboration of such topics as wilayah and the end of prophecy (khatamiyyat), the notion of the unity of existence (wahdat al-wujud) in its broadest connotation, and the concept of the Perfect Man (al-insan al-kamil) transformed tasawwuf from the form of a science formulated by Abu ’l-Qasim Junayd to a mystical worldview, what may be termed a philosophy of mysticism or Sufi hikmah. He even established a technical mystical parlance inspired by the terminology of the Qur’an and Hadith as well as what was in currency, overtly or covertly, in the eastern and western parts of the Islamic land among theologians, the followers of Ikhwan al-Safa, and other seekers after hikmah. The synthesis of this vast lexicographical heritage called for comparative acumen as well as a fertile imagination, both of which Ibn al-`Arabi possessed in abundance. A corpus of some 400 works of varying length has been attributed to Ibn al-`Arabi (560 – 638 AH), at least, half of which has survived. They include both poetry and prose, including divans, which he used as material in the construction of the edifice which was the Islamic Sufi hikmah. The distinctive aspect of Ibn al-`Arabi’s comprehensive mystical worldview is its uniqueness in the whole of Islamic Sufi history, which in terms of its content and approach may be placed on a par with what is presented in the Treatises of Ikhwan al-Safa, the Ihya’ al-`ulum of Ghazzali, and the Hikmat al-ishraq of Suhrawardi Maqtul. His worldview, as reflected in his magnum opus al-Futuhat al-Makkiyyah as well as his Fusus al-hikam, is possessed of such depth and breadth that for many centuries a true understanding of it was only possible through numerous commentaries written on these two major works, as well as the occasional epitomes, which came to dominate the entire spectrum of Islamic culture from Rum to Syria and India, and from Fars to Iraq and Transoxiana, a influence that continues unabated to this very day. 

Al-Futahat al-Makkiyyah, which in terms of its comprehensive discussion of topics on tasawwuf is comparable to Ibn Sina’s book of Shifa’ as regards its wide range of philosophical discussions, is a de facto encyclopedia of Islamic tasawwuf and `irfan, which, none the less, betrays varied influences. These comprise a wide spectrum, from non-Muslim to that of various philosophical and theological schools in Islam, and from the Qaramitah and Isma`ilis to, even, Shi`ites. 

Al-Futahat al-Makkiyyah is the seminal work of the Muslim mystic, in which he has practically included all that is contained in his other works, though in a more refined manner. Asin Palacios, the Spanish scholar who devoted a large body of his research to the life and works of Ibn al-`Arabi, considers the Futuhat as the bible of Sufism and his comprehensive analysis as impossible, owing to the vast multiplicity of its topics. 

Fusus al-hikam, on the other hand, is among the few mystical works used as textbooks at religious seminaries. Ibn al-`Arabi compiled a summary of the work titled Naqsh al-fusus, as well as his protégé Sadr al-Din Qunawi (d. 672 AH), who wrote an exegetical summary of his master’s work under the title of Fakk al-Fusus. The vast body of commentary on Fusus al-hikam is an indication of the novelty as well as the subtlety of its complex topics, a complexity which at times appears to have been intentional on the part of the author. 

Ibn al-`Arabi exerted a deep influence over the mystical works of later generations. This influence is readily detectable in such works as the Lama`at of Fakhr al-Din `Iraqi, the poems and treatises of Muhammad Shirin Maghribi Tabrizi, and the Gulshan-i Raz (The Garden of Secrets) of Shaykh Mahmud Shabistari. Ibn al-`Arabi’s influence also extended to such mystical authors and poets as Sa`d al-Din Hamawi, Sa’in al-Din Turkah Isfahani, Taj al-Din Husayn Khwarazmi, Sayyid `Ali Hamadani, `Abd al-Rahman Jami, and Shaykh Muhammad Lahiji, the commentator of the Gulshan-i Raz.

Such novel and important views were bound to arouse the objection of the critics. In fact, Ibn al-`Arabi managed to incite the criticism of a large number of detractors. Among the oldest critics mention should be made of Shaykh `Ala’ al-Dawlah Simnani, who in his book of al-`Urwah li-ahl al-khalwah wa ’l-jilwah, directly and indirectly, criticizes Ibn al-`Arabi’s notions of the absoluteness (itlaq) of existence as well as his doctrine of the unity of being. The correspondence of `Ala’ al-Dawlah with `Abd al-Razzaq Lahiji on this subject is well known. `Ala’ al-Dawlah, later, in his Malfudat-i Chihil Majlis avoids criticizing Ibn al-`Arabi, a fact taken by scholars to imply that their dispute was more at the level of terminology than substance. 

One of the most controversial views of Ibn al-`Arabi is his theory about the faith of pharaoh and the way it will figure in his destiny, a doctrine with consequences for his overall worldview. This view which was in stark contrast to the prevailing position of the exegetes was brought to the fore owing to the existing circumstances. `Allamah Jalal al-Din Dawani (d. 918 AH) wrote a treatise titled The Faith of Pharaoh, in which he defended the position of Ibn al-`Arabi. Sometimes later, a Hanafite scholar of Mecca, known as `Ali b. Sultan Muhammad Qari Harawi, in his Farr al-`awn min mudda` iman fir`awn advanced arguments in rejection of Dawani and Ibn al-`Arabi. 

Ibn Taymiyyah (728 AH), the renowned Hanbalite traditionist, also made great efforts in refuting Ibn al-`Arabi’s position. In his treatise of Haqiqah madhhab al-ittihadi’in, he characterizes Ibn al-`Arabi’s view as wahdat al-wujud (the unity of existence) and considers it as incompatible with the Islamic doctrine. He also deems as heretical the views of the likes of Sadr al-Din Qunawi and `Afif al-Din Tilimsani (d. 690 AH) and lashes out against them more severely than was done by his predecessors. 

For all the disparagement to which Ibn al-`Arabi’s works were subjected, they, none the less, continued to exert their influence up to and beyond the time of Jami, and they managed to remain lively topics of discussion by the supporters and detractors alike. In both his al-Futuhat al-Makkiyyah and Fusus al-hikam, Ibn al-`Arabi employs unique or rarely used terminology whose understanding is often contingent upon a comparison of his various works. Several works may be of assistance in shedding light on his terminology. The first, by Ibn al-`Arabi himself, is a brief work on the terms used in the Futuhat called Istilahat al-sufiyyah, published as an appendix to the Ta`rifat of Jurjani. A work of the same title by `Abd al-Razzaq Lahiji is published in the footnotes to his Manazil al-sa’irin. Ibn al-`Arabi’s poems, contained in his Tarjuman al-ashwaq, divans, and scattered throughout the Futuhat and other works, are replete with mystical allusions, though some must be viewed as mere love poems, such as Tarjuman al-ashwaq which he later attempted to interpret as a work of mystical import, with much exertion, a fact that made Sufi poetry, like Sufi views and practices, the target of criticism by the opponents. Ibn al-`Arabi’s influence did not remain confined to the east and to Islamic mysticism. Its traces may be detected in the works of the Spanish theologian Raymond Lull as well as in the Divine Comedy of the Italian poet Dante Alighieri.

 source: Zarrinkoob , Abdol Hossein "Islam Entry" The Great Islamic Encyclopedia. Ed. Kazem Musavi Bojnourdi.Tehran: The Center of Great Islamic Encyclopaedia , 1989-, V.8 , pp.475- 477

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