Monday, September 17, 2007

Ibn Arabi : Seal Of Mystics

The medieval Spanish Muslim mystic, Ibn Arabi is generally regarded as the shaikh- ul -Akbar or the greatest mystic in Sufi terms and in the Western world as Doctor Maximus. His influence, his vast teachings, erudition, writings, many of which have survived to the present day have exerted lasting influence on Sufi mystical thought in addition to re framing the way Sufism can be interpreted in present times for those who do not either understand it or find it too eclectic, too abstract and difficult to come to terms with.

Born in Murcia in Spain, and moving to Seville later, Ibn Arabi moved east wards towards the Arab world, where he achieved fame and some opposition before settling down in Syria, where he lies buried. Thus Ibn Arabi is a Spanish mystic, and his work should be seen in the context of Western Muslim mysticism.It is believed that he had epiphanies and near divine experiences as a young man. He travelled east wards towards the Arab world, visited many places, performed pilgrimages to the holy lands before settling in present day Syria, where he is buried. Ibn Arabi's thoughts and writings have been controversial, at least within conservative Muslim circles, where he has been denounced more than once as heretical and his philosophies and religious approach as outrageously beyond legal Muslim parlance. However, no one can ignore his metaphysics, his self absorbed and fresh attitude towards Sufi practices and his nuanced new eclecticism, which continues to surprise and interest the neutral observer.

One of his most original and daring philosophy is his concept of oneness of creation, also called Wahdat ul Wajud ( pantheism) in Arabic. My own understanding of this is that contrary to monotheistic teachings especially Islamic, Ibn Arabi invites the uninitiated to seek God within every created thing in the universe, allowing each person to re frame monotheism within the arc of created things. In other words, one can seek signs from the natural world, in stones, rivers or flowers and feel these to be peripheral or worldly emanations of the one being. This would allow the person to seek within the limits of his or her temporal experience, a sighting of the divine, the miraculous. This is in contrast to the bare monotheism of Islam, wherein any representation of the divine is heretical. This concept is akin to the one found in the Upanishads, that is of pantheism, but Ibn Arabi is generally considered to have originated this concept in the Muslim world. See here.

I have read with interest and some amazement about Ibn Arabi's life and the biography i refer to, called Quest for the Red sulphur is a well researched attempt to construct his life. written by Claude Addas, the writer allows the reader to glean from Ibn Arabi's experiences what nowadays would be considered impossible happenings. We understand all natural or other phenomena with scientific tools and rightly so and if we use psychological or other tools to understand mystical experiences, we findIbn Arabis life a vast enterprise in epiphany itself.
It is not possible to understand mystical experiences, in a world devoid of miracles and saints. It is beguiling to ask why sainthood has disappeared if at all and how outside canonical religion, one can make sense of this life, literature apart. It is all the more difficult to understand Ibn Arabi and his experiences, for most of these are in the realms of a unique mystic experience. However, another aspect of this experience is the flowering of it in Spain, the western fringe of Islam, a coming together in a non Arab climate of shattering, path breaking Sufi mysticism. Here Ibn Arabi is not alone, for Spain has produced great mystics, not just Muslim mystics, and Spain could be called the land of mystics. Ibn Arabi's work, partly conservative as all Sufi experiences must be, allows the sacred to be understood by the secular, the divine with the ephemeral, thoughts with words, such as had never happened before.

Ibn Arabi was a prolific writer and his greatest works are well preserved and now available in English. his seminal works, Revelations in Mecca, which Ibn Arabi is said to have been revealed to him in a vision and Bezels of Wisdom, difficult to read are cornerstones in Sufi thought. Almost all Sufis have expressed their gratitude and debt to Ibn Arabi, no matter what language they spoke. A profile of Ibn Arabi by William Chittick, famous scholar here. And a link to Ibn Arabi society here.


Alok said...

Thanks Kubla for introducing this thinker. It is important to keep remiding oneself how rich the intellectual tradition of the Islamic world was.

Alok said...

also check out this song which became hugely popular in India a couple of years back when it first came. The words are of the Sufi poet Bulleh Shah and is about the same mystical worldview. The song is in Punjabi but the english lyrics will come on screen. He is basically saying No to every label and to all ready-made self-knowledge.

Anonymous said...

What do you think of Al Ghazali? Quite a difference to this one, but nevertheless fascinating.

Kubla Khan said...

Hi Alok and Antonia

It is worthwhile to find that you liked this post. Ibn arabi is a giant amongst sufi mystics. his influence even on those who havent read him is immense. alok.....thanks for the song link. i listen to lots of world music without understanding the lyrics, so it does not really matter.
antonia.....Al Ghazzali is considered to be the greatest philosopher-mystic in islam. with him, the gates of independent reasoning were supposed to come to an end. such is his influence. i have a book of his called Deliverance from error, which i have read a bit. he wrote a book called the incoherence of the philosophers, to which Ibn Rushd( Averroes) replied with the incoherence of incoherence!
what an intellectual climate then.......and how rhetoric dominates things now!

* said...

that's certainly all interesting stuff. Al Ghazali preceded Vico I heard people say, but I know too little so I cannot judge. It is a shame arabic philosophy is not taught more.

Kubla Khan said...

yes, not being taught and a general deliberate ignorance.....permit me to say that this is the result of an imperial construct...a reticence to engage with islamic thinkers from the past, a kind of virulent familar antisemitism that has been witnessed in the past and present, a look of disdain perhaps at eastern thinkers generally.
the same attitude is not generally adopted towards western philosophers most of whom have presented stale theories one after the other, latched to Greek semantics as a whole.
the modern English novel is in shade, because of a dearth of ideas and reticence to look at the real issues, because of being afraid of politics in writing.
that is why the latin american novel is full of flowers, sometimes poisinous.

Anonymous said...

i agree and it is also the middle ages that are the problem, everyone thinks it is uninteresting, so most philosophy students don't even take Middle Ages classes where there still could be a slight chance that people could get to know to some arabic thinkers, while contemporary ones being taught that's impossible to find. i should think unfortunately the imperialistic part gets stronger again, evil terrorism and such. There surely are good english novels, they only get not published or at least not published by the big publishing houses.

Kubla Khan said...

i am glad you agree. tell me of a few good english novels!