Ibn al-ʿArabī Biography


(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: Ibn al-ʿArabī formulated and made explicit the inner doctrines of Sufism and was the link between the Eastern and Western schools of that philosophy.

Early Life

Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn al-ʿArabī al-Hatimi al-Tai was born in Murcia, in Islamic Spain, in 1165, to a well-to-do and respected family. He spent his early years in Murcia, moving first to Lisbon and later to the more cosmopolitan Seville, where his family settled. There he received his formal education and was given the leisure to pursue a developing interest in mystical approaches to religion and the teachings of Sufism. In search of spiritual enlightenment, he sought out individuals known for their wisdom and spiritual insights who would be willing to take him on as a pupil and guide him in his quest. One such figure, Fatimah of Cordova, an elderly yet vigorous woman at ninety-five, became Ibn al-ʿArabī’s spiritual adviser for several years.

Students of Islamic philosophy customarily pursued a formal program of study in such subjects as cosmology, the metaphysical doctrines of Islam, analysis of the Koran for hidden meaning, and the science of letters and numbers. In addition, the student gained skills in the practice of private activities such as meditation, vigil, fasting, and prayer. Upon fulfilling these requirements, the successful aspirant was prepared to experience, understand, and control supersensory communications of several types. He was empowered with such gifts as visions, precognition, communing with the spirits of the dead, and healing. Ibn al-ʿArabī is reported to have been a proficient student who enjoyed numerous mystical experiences; he frequently visited cemeteries, where he spoke with the dead. It was during this intellectually fertile period of his life that he married the first of three wives, a woman named Maryam—the daughter of a man of influence and wealth—who was eager to partake of her husband’s spiritual experiences and quest.

At age twenty, and already initiated into the Sufi way, Ibn al-ʿArabī began to travel throughout Andalusia in search of greater enlightenment. During one of his stays in the city of Cordova, he was invited to the home of Averroës, the most celebrated Islamic disciple of Aristotelian philosophy of the age and a friend of his father. The well-established scholar and the young visionary represented opposite approaches to the question of knowledge: Averroës proposed that reason was the foundation of wisdom, while to Ibn al-ʿArabī, true knowledge resulted from spiritual vision. Nevertheless, Averroës fully understood Ibn al-ʿArabī’s goals and recognized that his visitor had attained a level of understanding superior to most. Ibn al-ʿArabī describes Averroës’ reaction to the visit thus:

He had thanked God, I have been told, to have lived at a time when he could have seen someone who had entered into spiritual retreat ignorant and had left it as I had done. He said: “It was a case whose possibility I had affirmed myself without however as yet encountering someone who had experienced it. Glory be to God that I have been able to live at a time when there exists a master of this experience, one of those who open the locks of His doors. Glory be to God to have made me the personal favor of seeing one of them with my own eyes.”

Ibn al-ʿArabī continued his peripatetic existence in Andalusia and North Africa, visiting sages, holding debates, and writing. He was also subject to frequent visions. In one such vision, received in 1198, he was ordered to depart for the Orient. Heeding the command, he arrived in Mecca in 1201 and remained there for four years, devoting himself to study, public discussion of his views, and writing. During his stay in the holy city of Islam, he married his second wife, wrote several works—including a famous collection of love poems—and began composition of his most famous book, al-Futuhat al-Makkiyah (the Meccan revelations), a lengthy compendium of esoteric knowledge.

Life’s Work

Sufism represents an Islamic tradition, as old as the religion itself, of a small group of devout believers—exemplified by the earliest followers of Muhammad the Prophet—who renounce the rewards and temptations of this world in order to lead a life of contemplation and prayer. The emphasis of the group is on the direct experience of God; its fundamental tenet is that “there is no reality but the Reality (God), and that all other realities are purely relative and dependent upon His reality.” The cumulative experiences and insights of those who followed the early Sufis constitute a complex doctrine; as a tradition, it was wrapped in heavy symbolism and obscure references, accessible only to those who could receive the dogma orally from an enlightened master. Ibn al-ʿArabī succeeded in changing the pattern of transmission by recording much of this wisdom in books, making it possible for the tradition, full of veiled allusion, to be communicated to wider audiences in clearer and more accessible form. He is known among the Sufis as “the greatest Shaikh” for his role as the first to set in writing the vast amount of doctrine contained in the Sufi oral tradition.

Ibn al-ʿArabī was a prolific writer, believed to have authored 250 separate titles. Aside from his writings on Sufism, he composed short treatises, letters, poetry, and abstract philosophical works. His most impressive work, however, is al-Futuhat al-Makkiyah. The motivation for writing the book, as the title implies, came from a compelling outside source—divine revelation—and the author is spoken of as simply the vehicle through which the message was recorded. The lengthy treatise, considered the main source book of the sacred sciences of Islam, is made...

(The entire section is 2384 words.)