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Ibn 'Arabi : Life

The following year in Mecca he began writing his monumental al-Fotuhat al-makkiya; the title, "The Meccan Openings," alludes to the inspired nature of the book. In 601/1204 he set off from Mecca on his way to Anatolia with Majd-al-Din Eshaq, whose son Sadr-al-Din Qunawi (606-73/ 1210-74) would be his most influential disciple. After moving about for several years in the central Islamic lands, never going as far as Persia, he settled in Damascus in 620/1223. There he taught and wrote until his death. Ebn al-'Arabi was an extraordinarily prolific author. Osman Yahia counts 850 works attributed to him, of which 700 are extant and over 450 probably genuine. The second edition of the Fotuhat (Cairo, 1329/1911) covers 2,580 pages, while Yahia's new critical edition is projected to include thirty-seven volumes of about five hundred pages each (vol. 14, Cairo, 1992). By comparison, his most famous work, Fosus al-hekam (Bezels of widsom), is less than 180 pages long. Scores of his books and treatises have been published, mostly in uncritical editions; several have been translated into European languages.

Although Ebn al-'Arabi claims that the Fotuhat is derived from divine "openings"ómystical unveilingsóand that the Fosus was handed to him in a vision by the Prophet, he would certainly admit that he expressed his visions in the language of his intellectual milieu. He cites the Koran and Hadith constantly; it would be no exaggeration to say that most of his works are commentaries on these two sources of the tradition. He sometimes quotes aphorisms from earlier Sufis, but never long passages. There is no evidence that he quotes without ascription, in the accepted style, from other authors. He was thoroughly familiar with the Islamic sciences, especially tafsir, feqh, and kalam. He does not seem to have studied the works of the philosophers, though many of his ideas are prefigured in the works of such authors as the Ekhwan-al-Safa' (q.v.; Rosenthal; Takeshita). He mentions on several occasions having read the Ehya' of Ghazali, and he sometimes refers to such well known Sufi authors as Qoshayri.

In short, Ebn al-'Arabi was firmly grounded in the mainstream of the Islamic tradition; the starting points of his discussions would have been familiar to the 'olama' in his environment. At the same time he was enormously original, and he was fully aware of the newness of what he was doing. Most earlier Sufis had spoken about theoretical issues (as opposed to practical teachings) in a brief or allusive fashion. Ebn al-'Arabi breaks the dam with a torrent of exposition on every sort of theoretical issue related to the "divine things" (elahiyat). He maintains a uniformly high level of discourse and, in spite of going over the same basic themes constantly, he offers a different perspective in each fresh look at a question. For example, in the Fosus al-hekam, each of twenty-seven chapters deals with the divine wisdom revealed to a specific divine wordóa particular prophet. In each case, the wisdom is associated with a different divine attribute. Hence, each prophet represents a different mode of knowing and experiencing the reality of God. Most of the 560 chapters of the Fotuhat are rooted in similar principles. Each chapter represents a "standpoint" or "station" (maqam) from which reality, or a specific dimension of reality, can be surveyed and brought into the overarching perspective of the "oneness of all things" (tawhid).

Ebn al-'Arabi assumed and then verified through his own personal experience the validity of the re-velation that was given primarily in the Koran and secondarily in the Hadith. He objected to the limiting approaches of kalam and philosophy, which tied all understanding to reason ('aql), as well as to the approach of those Sufis who appealed only to unveiling (kashf). It may be fair to say that his major methodological contribution was to reject the stance of the kalam authorities, for whom tashbih (declaring God similar to creation) was a heresy, and to make tashbih the necessary complement of tanzih (declaring God incomparable with creation). This perspective leads to an epistemology that harmonizes reason and unveiling.

For Ebn al-'Arabi, reason functions through differentiation and discernment; it knows innately that God is absent from all things (tanzih). In contrast, unveiling functions through imagination, which perceives identity and sameness rather than difference; hence unveiling sees God's presence rather than his absenceótashbih. To maintain that God is either absent or present is, in his terms, to see with only one eye. Perfect knowledge of God involves seeing with both eyes, the eye of reason and the eye of unveiling (or imagination). This is the wisdom of the prophets; it is falsified by those theologians, philosophers, and Sufis who stress either tanzih or tashbih at the expense of the other.

If Ebn al-'Arabi's methodology focuses on harmonizing two modes of knowing, his actual teachings focus more on bringing out the nature of human perfection and the means to achieve it. Although the term al-ensan al-kamel "the perfect human being" can be found in earlier authors, it is Ebn al-'Arabi who makes it a central theme of Sufism. Briefly, perfect human beings are those who live up to the potential that was placed in Adam when God "taught him all the names" (Koran 2:30). These names designate every perfection found in God and the cosmos (al-'alam, defined as "everything other than God"). Ultimately, the names taught to Adam are identical with the divine attributes, such as life, awareness, desire, power, speech, generosity, and justice. By actualizing the names within themselves, human beings become perfect images of God and achieve God's purpose in creating the universe (Chittick, 1989, especially chap. 20).

Even though all perfect human beingsói.e., the prophets and the "friends" (awlia') of Godóare identical in one respect, each of them manifests God's uniqueness in another respect. In effect, each is dominated by one specific divine attributeóthis is the theme of the Fosus. Moreover, the path to human fulfillment is a never-ending progression whereby people come to embody God's infinite attributes successively and with ever-increasing intensity. Most of Ebn al-'Arabi's writings are devoted to explaining the nature of the knowledge that is unveiled to those who travel through the ascending stations or standpoints of human perfection. God's friends are those who inherit their knowledge, stations, and states from the prophets, the last of whom was Mohammad. When Ebn al-'Arabi claimed to be the "seal of the MoHammadan friends" (khatam al-awlia' al-mohammadiya), he was saying that no one after him would inherit fully from the prophet Mohammad. Muslim friends of God would continue to exist until the end of time, but now they would inherit from other prophets inasmuch as those prophets represent certain aspects of Mohammad's all-embracing message (Chodkiewicz, 1986).

The most famous idea attributed to Ebn al-'Arabi is wahdat al-wojud "the oneness of being." Although he never employs the term, the idea is implicit throughout his writings. In the manner of both theologians and philosophers, Ebn al-'Arabi employs the term wojud to refer to God as the Necessary Being. Like them, he also attributes the term to everything other than God, but he insists that wojud does not belong to the things found in the cosmos in any real sense. Rather, the things borrow wojud from God, much as the earth borrows light from the sun. The issue is how wojud can rightfully be attributed to the things, also called "entities" (a'yan). From the perspective of tanzih, Ebn al-'Arabi declares that wojud belongs to God alone, and, in his famous phrase, the things "have never smelt a whiff of wojud." From the point of view of tashbih, he affirms that all things are wojud's self-disclosure (tajalli) or self-manifestation (zohur). In sum, all things are "He/not He" (howa la howa), which is to say that they are both God and other than God, both wojud and other than wojud.

The intermediateness of everything that can be perceived by the senses or the mind brings us back to imagination, a term that Ebn al-'Arabi applies not only to a mode of understanding that grasps identity rather than difference, but also to the World of Imagination, which is situated between the two fundamental worlds that make up the cosmosóthe world of spirits and the world of bodiesóand which brings together the qualities of the two sides. In addition, Ebn al-'Arabi refers to the whole cosmos as imagination, because it combines the attributes of wojud and utter nonexistence (Chittick, 1989).


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