Around 1180, two of the greatest Arab thinkers met in Spain. The philosopher Averroes had heard of a young man who had visions at night: Ibn ‘Arabi was probably no more than fifteen years old, but he was well educated as the son of a courtier in Murcia, so he was awed by the interest that the elderly sage took in him:
When I was led to him, Averroes stood up, showed his affection and consideration, and kissed me. Then he said to me, “Yes.”’ I, in turn, said, “Yes.” His joy increased upon seeing that I understood what he was referring to. Thus, upon realizing the reason for his joy, I added, “No.” He cringed, lost his color, and was overcome with doubt. “So, what have you found through the lifting of the veil and divine inspiration? Is it identical to what speculative thought gives us?” I replied, “Yes and no; between yes and no, spirits take flight and necks come off.” (Ibn’ Arabi, FutuhatI)
Living between “yes’” and “no” required a clarity of mind that would lead the young man to abandon his worldly place in Spanish caliphal society. Ibn ‘Arabi withdrew to a cave in a cemetery, according to at least one biographer, staying for fourteen months. “I began my retreat before dawn and I received illumination before sunrise”, he later claimed. He called himself the “seal of saints” – as Muhammad had been the last and final “seal of the prophets”.
It is difficult to overstate the influence of this immodest mystic, who, almost 900 years later, is remembered as the “Great Sheikh” of mystical Islam, and whose tomb in Damascus remains a place of pilgrimage. Many of the subsequent developments in Islamic thought after his death in 1240 – especially in the Arab East and Persia – were in reaction to his writings. While figures like Rumi or Averroes are proverbial names – even if few people know why their writings matter – Ibn ‘Arabi has yet to take his rightful place high up in the global canon. The American professor Michael Sells’s The Translator of Desires is the first English edition of Ibn ‘Arabi’s poetic masterwork since Reynold Nicholson’s translation of 1911.
Ibn ‘Arabi’s account of his meeting with Averroes, like much of the history of mysticism, veers between the meaningful and deeply silly. EG Browne remarked that there were a few eastern thinkers who had surpassed the Great Sheikh for his “abstruseness”. He was also one of the most prolific writers of Islam, with some 400 works to his name – among which his key text, Meccan Illuminations, spans thirty-seven volumes. The twentieth-century Egyptian scholar of Sufism, AE Affifi, sought to reduce this vast and unruly corpus to a gnostic philosophy of love. He wrote that Ibn ‘Arabi’s “ultimate goal of love is to know the reality of love and that the reality of love is identical with God’s essence”. It is a measure of his influence, his difficult style and his wealth of thought that Ibn ‘Arabi is best known by ideas that were thought up by his successors, not himself – such as the “unity of being” that was systematized by Persian thinkers in the following few centuries.
There are few writers as overexplained as Ibn ‘Arabi, or as little understood. Medieval commentaries on the Great Sheikh number in the thousands – beginning with Ibn ‘Arabi’s own commentary on The Translator of Desires that he wrote to refute accusations that his verse was erotic, rather than allegorical. There was “a mystical signification to the words used in ordinary speech”, he explained. Bosoms, flowery scents, peacocks, along with the pearly teeth and killer glances of the beloved, are all explained away by cumbersome allegory and allusions to the Qur’an. Sells has left out the Great Sheikh’s line-by-line comments, substituting his own lengthy endnotes for each poem and thereby adding his explanations to a long tradition of exegesis.
Ibn ‘Arabi wrote far fewer poems than he did scholarly works. Yet The Translator of Desires contains what are, as Sells says, the “most anthologized” verses in ‘Arabic literature:
My heart can take on any form
For gazelles a meadow
A cloister for monks
A temple for idols,
tablets of Torah,
scrolls of the Qur’an
I profess the religion of love
Wherever its camels turn,
there lives my faith
Early European orientalists seized on these lines as proof of Ibn ‘Arabi’s alleged pantheism. But then, the uses and abuses of the mystic are many. In the West scholars have tried to show how Ibn ‘Arabi influenced Dante’s Divine Comedyas well as to show that he was really a Christian, or rejected Islam altogether – the latter theories being thed fantasies of nineteenth- and twentieth- century European thinkers.
Affifi, who trained under the Cambridge orientalists Nicholson and Browne, likewise declared Ibn ‘Arabi a total pantheist. “There is no possible means of reconciling his philosophy with Islam”, he argued. “The orthodox garb with which he so persistently drapes his pantheistic ideas is a sham appearance purposely put there.” Affifi later wrote a history of Sufism, which he declared the “true Islam”. This study remains a popular history of the subject for literary Egyptians – many of whom still find themselves living in a society where outwardly they must obey religion. The Harvard doyen of Islamic mysticism, Annemarie Schimmel, delivered a cooler judgment – somewhere between “yes” and “no”. She said these verses professing “the religion of love” were “a statement about the author’s own lofty spiritual rank” rather than a call for tolerance.
Instead of dwelling on questions of Ibn ‘Arabi’s pantheism – something of a red herring – Sells points out that hadith, or the sayings of the Prophet, is the key to understanding him. There is no better hadith to illustrate this than that of this collection’s second poem, when the Prophet addresses God: “I take refuge from you in you”. This is the mind-bending notion of the collapse of time that longing and desire, or divine shawq, brings about in Ibn ‘Arabi’s thought. Sells does well to highlight pre-Islamic poetry in Ibn ‘Arabi – it is often forgotten that he ends his famous lines about the “religion of love” by harking back, not to any prophets, but to the legendary lovers Qays and Layla, and others of ancient ‘Arabia. To say that Islam is the “religion of love”, as Afifi would have us believe, begs the question of its firmly un-Islamic roots in the ‘Arabic language.
The refusal of a clear “no” or “yes” throughout his thought made for Ibn ‘Arabi enemies among the orthodox both during and after his lifetime. As recently as 1979, there was a push in Egypt’s parliament to ban the sale of his books. The Great Sheikh has, however, had no trouble making converts of his own kind. It is a sign of how the dense spiritualism of Ibn ‘Arabi and his followers resists analysis that the academic field of Sufism seems irresistibly to take up its language. It was later said of Nicholson that he found his spiritual bearings through the study of these mystics, after having been shaken in his Anglican faith. The great French orientalists Louis Massignon and Henry Corbin took up the language of Islamic mysticism with vivid fanaticism – and sought to bend Ibn’ Arabi towards their own florid ideas. Sells himself has reverently written of the “mystical dialectic” elsewhere in his work.
Perhaps the most moving conversion of Ibn ‘Arabi’s detractors was that of his father, who did not share his son’s zealous regard for the afterlife until he was on his deathbed. “My child”, he said, in his last words to his son, “everything I heard you say and that I did not understand, and which I sometimes rejected, is now my profession of faith.”
Amir-Hussein Radjy is a writer based in Cairo
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