Ibn Al-Arabi

Biography

(1165 – 1240)

Al-Arabi studied sciences and traveled extensively as a youth, and he was converted to Sufism and at the age of thirty he made the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), where he circled the Kabah (the holiest shrine in Mecca) and prayed and meditated for two years before resuming his travels.

In 1201, again in Mecca, al-Arabi had a theophany upon the vision of Nizam, the beautiful daughter of a sheikh. The vision inspired him to write a volume of love poems, The Interpretation of Desires, and along with several other mystical experiences (documented in the twenty-volume The Meccan Revelations), it profoundly influenced al-Arabi’s conception of God and cosmology. Nizam was an incarnation of Sophia, the divine Wisdom that was none other than the presence of God brought to the material world to make Him known. With his mystical experiences came the realization that, “Knowledge of mystical states can be obtained solely by experience; human reason cannot define it, nor arrive at it by deduction.” The rationality of the philosophers (Faylasufs), which emphasized the transcendence of God, could not adequately grasp the love and beauty that could be inspired by creatures, such as Nizam, in which “the object of love is God alone.” Such love and beauty was seen with the grace of God, and the Creative Imagination that he gave to human beings.

A central theme of al-Arabi’s mysticism is his definition of the nature of God. God, at the highest level, is an undifferentiated and transcendent Reality in which Being and perception are united as one, in which there is no separation of Creator from creation. This Reality is known as al-Haqq—the Real, the Truth. However, because of its essential goodness (an Islamic hadith has God saying, “I was a hidden treasure and I yearned to be known. Then I created creatures in order to be known by them.), al-Haqq divides itself into two parts—knower and known, subject and object, Creator and Created. Through the Creative Imagination of His creatures, who are able to see the divine archetypes that are reflected in the lower realms, God sees himself in creation, and there is union between knower (God the Divine Subject), and known (the creatures that are the objects). Insofar as human beings are conscious of their essence (using the Creative Imagination), which is not other than God Himself, they are the bridge between the two parts or poles of Reality, the means by which God knows Himself, and by which unity is attained.

In contrast to the intellectual path to union with God stressed by some other Sufi mystics and philosophers, al-Arabi’s focus was on love as the catalyst that unites the creature with the Creator. Creation was born through God’s Love, and it is through love that God and human beings are reunited, and the Creative Imagination sparked, as exampled by al-Arabi’s own experience with Nizam.

Al-Arabi believed in the uniqueness of each human beings' spiritual experience and path. As Frithjof Schuon said, “there are as many paths as there are human souls.” This characteristic of al-Arabi’s thought has two implications. First, it is difficult to understand the depths of the mystical experience through another person’s eyes; we must experience it for ourselves because our paths are unique; our vision of God who transcends objective reality is for us alone, made possible through the Word (logoi or Name) that God planted in our being. Secondly, since each person was given a different Word by which to find God, and by which God recognized himself in His creation, no single religion could fully express the Reality of God. “God” as represented in a given religion is not the same as the Ineffable God that could be known by the infinite but unique Names; our understanding of God is colored by our religion, and each is a valid revelation, but none can entirely encompass the Infinite Being, the transcendent God that unites all religions and all beings.

 

Content

Books and Reviews

Chittick, William, Imaginal Worlds: Ibn 'Arabi and the Problem of Religious Diversity

Chittick, William, The Self-Disclosure of God: Principles of Ibn Al-Arabi's Cosmology

Chittick, William, The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn Arabi's Metaphysics of Imagination

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, Three Muslim Sages: Avicenna, Suhrawardi, Ibn 'Arabi

 

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