Ibn Arabi: The misunderstood mystic

Why Ibn Arabi is still the greatest Arab philosopher and how his message of mercy is as relevant today as it ever was

Ibn Arabi
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Ibn Arabi

Ibn Arabi: The misunderstood mystic

It is difficult to think of a greater philosopher produced by Arab-Islamic culture than Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Al-Tai, commonly known as Ibn Arabi, who stands in answer to those who say the Arabs did not produce philosophy, or that the medieval philosophers of Arabia were non-Arabs who converted to Islam.

Born of the Arab tribe of Al-Tai, Ibn Arabi was a 12th century thinker whose metaphysical philosophy resembles that of the much later 18th century German intellectual Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

Ibn Arabi prolific work - around 850 pieces of literature - were based exclusively on Arab-Islamic culture. Other noteworthy philosophers emerged from the Arab-Islamic culture, including Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Ibn Bajja (Avempace), and Ibn Rushd (Averroes), but all were disciples of the Aristotelian school of philosophy.

Of course, they were no mere translators of the Greek master’s works - they discussed his thoughts and concepts in-depth, with Ibn Sina even going so far as to challenge them. Still, they never stepped beyond the realms of Aristotelian philosophy.

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Ibn Arabi

Free from theological confinement

Ibn Arabi was no stranger to Greek philosophy. Indeed, some of his texts clearly show a deep knowledge of it. One can assume that he learned a great deal from Ibn Rushd’s summaries of Aristotelian works, whilst later declaring his detachment from the philosophy of Ibn Rushd and the Greeks in general.

Ibn Arabi’s philosophy is religious-metaphysical in nature, as evidenced in verse:

My heart has become capable of all forms

For gazelles a pasture, and for monks a convent

I follow the religion of Love, whichever path its caravans take

For love is my religion and faith.

We can see from this that Ibn Arabi was a unique intellectual and distinguished philosopher who lived through the medieval ages, a dangerous period of bloody religious wars, ex-communications, murders, and displacements.

Lover of all, judge of none

Within but removed from that, Ibn Arabi was a mystical figure whose unconditional love for all of mankind is bracingly evident. For him, people are the essence of life in this world. As such, he never distinguished Muslim from non-Muslim. Rather, he was filled with love and compassion for all.

It should come as no surprise, then, that love is a core theme of Ibn Arabi’s philosophy. He believed that it was love that prompted God to create the world, and that love is the spirit that governs all human conditions and situations.

Love is a core theme for Ibn Arabi. For him, love prompted God to create the world and love is the spirit governing all human conditions and situations

Today, it is difficult to suggest a new approach to Ibn Arabi's philosophy and his interpretation of Islamic holy scriptures when some doubt his faith in Islam in the first place. Reinterpreting his sayings is fraught if there are confusing and conflicting impressions of his philosophy.

Likewise, if Ibn Arabi invented one of the best theories of coexistence with "the other", along with a practical perspective of good citizenship, some might ask if he would still, then, be considered a true Muslim. Are we better seeing his thoughts and texts as dissociated from Arab-Islamic heritage, influenced by Christian or Indian mysticism?

A man of faith still

Some writers, both religious and secular, think of Ibn Arabi as an atheist, yet this could not be further from the truth: he was a true man of faith, albeit with a distinctive personal perception of God. He believed that faith in Islam requires faith in previous religions as well, because Islam complements those faiths, rather than replicates them.

His concept of complete faith is that of a religion of love which is only perfected through belief in all religious manifestations, yet contrary to some claims, Ibn Arabi never advocated for the unity of all religions. Quite the contrary.

His concept of complete faith is that of a religion of love which is only perfected through belief in all religious manifestations, yet contrary to some claims, he never advocated for the unity of all religions

He acknowledged Islam, Christianity, and Judaism as distinctive, but saw them as various manifestations of the one and same religion, even if each had its own prophet and laws. Meanwhile, he considered Islam to be the ultimate religion, the one true religion that encompasses all the variants of religious manifestations.

There is no doubt in the Arab-Islamic nature of Ibn Arabi's philosophical concepts, as he also calls for praying and performing religious rites and obligations, yet he reveres Christianity and Judaism no less than he does Islam.

He believed that all rivers flow from the same divine fountain. It is the philosophy of a Muslim believer in God who never confined himself to clerics' religious rulings. Rather, he reserved his right to interpret religious scriptures from a personal perspective, stemming solely from the principle of mercy.

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Ibn Arabi (1165-1240). Found in the collection of the Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society Latina. 

Overriding principle of mercy

In his texts, Ibn Arabi stresses the good names of Allah and their never-ending effect on existence, saying: "The presence of the merciful God is manifested through the demonstration of His mercy in various aspects. The number of creatures receiving His mercy is uncountable, and so it is impossible to count cases of divine mercy".

Nevertheless, some of Ibn Arabi's sayings are controversial, even confusing. For instance, when he says "most people are idol worshippers", he refers to believers of all religions - not just Muslims - who either attribute human characteristics to God or else consider Him too exalted to have any connection with mundane affairs.

When he says 'most people are idol worshippers', he refers to believers of all religions - not just Muslims - who either attribute human characteristics to God or else consider Him too exalted for mundane affairs

This was Ibn Arabi's "theory of self-moulded images" - that each group would mould an image of God out of their own exclusive interpretation, then worship that image. Both are therefore restricted to the image of God that they paint themselves.

Ibn Arabi used other names to describe the "idol" in his theory, including "the God of beliefs", "the fabricated God," "the moulded God," "the doctrinal truth", and "the fabricated truth". All are labels that describe a perception of God created by humans.

His theory recalls a saying by Greek philosopher Xenophon who said: "Lions perceive God to be a lion, and horses perceive Him to be a horse." So, despite the many human-made images of God, none represent the real deity, who remains a mystery to all.

Going beyond the mind

In other words, when we depict God in a certain manner, we are worshipping one of our own species and its manifestations. Worshippers of idols worship the image of God they imagine, which is nothing more than a limited depiction of the real deity.

Like other oriental and occidental mystics, Ibn Arabi blamed the human mind. He thought its limitations in grasping the endless manifestations of divine creation was the problem.

Instead, he pointed to the heart as one's guide in seeking a relation with God, for once a human heart reaches the level of perfection, it can embrace all beliefs.

Ibn Arabi felt the human mind could not grasp the endless manifestations of divine creation, so pointed to the heart as one's guide in seeking a relation with God

Ibn Arabi was not against using one's mind, but rather, he favoured transcending it, with transcendentalism a core pillar of his philosophy. This rejects any depiction of the world at a particular moment in time with a view to believing that depiction to be the truth.

He explored the essence of existence. After realising that his mind and senses were of little help in doing so, he resorted to the Sufi mystic awareness - or 'the ecstatic dimension of awareness' - as his trusted path to the truth.

Ibn Arabi also rejected the Sufis' "unity of existence" principle and their claim that they possessed the vision of the truth. He saw their experiences as depictions produced by the mind that restricts their perceptions to their own selves.

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Ibn Arabi (1165-1240). Arab Andalusian Sufi mystic and philosopher. Colored engraving. 19th century.

Learning from an infidel

Some consider Ibn Arabi an infidel. They might be astonished to learn what scholars who studied his texts have learned. For a start, he never deviated from the essence of Islamic holy scripture, but he did regard all interpretations by clerics as non-binding, on the basis that they were personal, human judgements.

Ibn Arabi never deviated from the essence of Islamic holy scripture, but he did regard clerical interpretations as non-binding

The mystic Sufi experience is a perception of the world as an absolute manifestation of one monistic [unified] entity. Mystics of the three monotheistic religions regard that entity to be God, and since they also believe that God is the essence of all things in existence, they eventually believed in the 'unity of existence'.

The latter term was never mentioned by Ibn Arabi, but it was nevertheless attributed to him, given his teachings and sayings, such as "the whole existence is but one" and "there is only God".

The ongoing legacy of Ibn Arabi

Eight centuries after his death on 16 November 1240, no other Muslim thinker has had such a daring and scientific attitude towards the interpretation and reinterpretation of Islamic holy scriptures.

Furthermore, his merciful approach can be a great source of inspiration for us today. He saw mercy as the key to interpreting the holy scripture, and we desperately need such merciful interpretation today. Mercy was the foundation of his beliefs, his guiding principle when formulating his views or interpretations of Quranic verses or hadiths.

It unlocks each of Ibn Arabi's sayings and interpretations, which he approached by alienating himself from literal interpretations and instead exploring the widest possible horizons of meaning and understanding of divine revelations.

Ibn Arabi's path is the one we should follow if we genuinely wish to create a new Middle East where everyone can coexist in peace and mutual respect and achieve their common interests.

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