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Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi, known as "al-Shaykh al-Akbar," or greatest shaykh, was born in 1165 in Murcia, Spain. His father held an important post in the government, first of Ibn Mardanish and later of his rival Abu Yaqub Yusuf, the Almohad ruler. When he was seven, his family moved to Seville where, despite an initial attraction to youthful diversions, an even stronger inclination toward the devotional life began to emerge. Even as a very young man he began to undertake retreats, spent considerable time in cemeteries communing with spirits, and realized astounding mystical insights.
Ibn 'Arabi tells us little about his first formative retreat other than to say that, unlike most other mystical wayfarers, he was seized by a kind of divine attraction or ecstasy, rather than proceeding by disciplined stages. This completely involuntary illuminative event was followed by a more sober conversion, which took place in a mystical vision of the Prophet Jesus. At the urging of this master, the young man pledged himself to an ascetic life and gave away all his possessions to his father. Subsequently, he lived on gifts and alms, trusting in God for his needs. Following this turn to the Sufi Path, he was to become successively the disciple of Moses, then of all the other prophets prior to Muhammad, and finally of Muhammad himself. Henceforth, the young Ibn 'Arabi became a bona fide man of the Sufi Way. He studied the traditional Islamic sciences with some of the foremost scholars of Andalusia, and concurrently realized, in a very short time, the panoply of mystical stations he describes in his various writings.
By around the age of twenty, Ibn 'Arabi had acquired his first Sufi teacher, Abu al-'Abbas al-'Uryabi, an illiterate peasant whom he met in Seville. Among this shaykh's many virtues was that he had realized the station of perfect servitude, the highest of all stations. Al-'Uryabi was not the only shaykh that young Muhyiddin frequented during the thirty years he spent in Andalusia prior to his departure to the east. In his two compendia devoted to Andalusian saints, he lists and describes some seventy-one Sufi shaykhs, four of them women, from whom he received important spiritual direction.
Ibn 'Arabi's own spiritual state was made clear to him in three successive visions between the years of 1190 and 1202. In them, he saw all of the messengers and prophets as well as "all the believers-those who have been and those who will be-until the Day of Resurrection." He learned that the major reason why the prophets and messengers had assembled in the spiritual world was to congratulate him at being designated the Seal of the Muhammadan Sainthood-the heir to the Seal of the Prophets, Muhammad. As he explains in his Futuhat, the Seal of the Muhammadan Sainthood combines all the qualities of all the saints; and since prophets are also saints, it includes all the qualities of all the prophets, excluding those pertaining to their legislative roles.
In 1193, Ibn 'Arabi made his first journey beyond the Iberian Peninsula to North Africa. He stayed in Tunis for a year, studying with Shaykh al-Mahdawi, a disciple of the famous Algerian saint Abu Madyan, whose tomb is a site of pilgrimage to this day. When Ibn 'Arabi returned to al-Andalus, he began to compose the first of his more than 300 works. His primary activity, however, seems to have been spiritual wayfaring in order to study Sufism and Prophetic Traditions. Between the years 1195 and 1200, he was engaged in constant travel between Spain and North Africa, while concurrently traversing another landscape, not visible to the physical eye. To many of these purely spiritual locales he gave evocative names, such as "God's Vast Earth" where "spirits are corporealized and bodies spiritualized," and the "Abode of Light," where all destinies are known from beginning to end.
But the greatest vision he experienced at this time was no doubt the spiritual ascent (mi'raj) he made in imitation of the Prophet's (corporeal) ascent to the seven heavens and to the Divine Presence Itself. Mounted on the fantastic beast Buraq, symbolizing spiritual aspirations, he traveled through the seven celestial spheres, each one presided over by a prophet. Beyond the seventh heaven lies the goal of every mi'raj: the "Lote Tree of the Limit," alluded to in the Qur'an. It was here that he became, as he puts it, "nothing but light." He realized that, despite the multiplicity of God's names, attributes, and acts, there is but a single Being to which they refer, and that "the journey that [he] made was inside [him]self, and it was toward [him]self he had been guided."
The year 1200 marks the beginning of Ibn 'Arabi's journey to the east. He was never again to return to Spain. From North Africa he went first to Cairo, then to Hebron-where he visited the tomb of Abraham-then Jerusalem, where he prayed at the al-Aqsa Mosque. His final goal was Mecca, where he intended to perform the pilgrimage. Among his many visions and meetings with remarkable men and women there was his astonishing encounter with the strange personage he calls the Fata, or youth, evocatively described in the first chapter of the Futuhat. One evening, when he was performing the ritual circumambulations around the Ka'ba, a mysterious youth accosted him. Was he an angel or a human being? The embodiment of the Black Stone, or the personification of the Holy Spirit? Ibn 'Arabi's celestial twin or an epitome of the Futuhat itself? Perhaps he was all of these and more. After describing their conversation, recounted in poetry and rhymed prose, a pact between the young man and the Shaykh was concluded. The result of this epiphany is the some two thousand tightly-packed folio pages of the Futuhat, a mystical masterpiece.
Ibn 'Arabi was to spend roughly two years in Mecca, but the experience of meeting the Fata seems to have been the decisive event in his life. Subsequently he made it his aim to "counsel God's servants." Whether addressing jurists or Sufis, rulers or simple folk, the Shaykh made it a point to convey his message, orally and in his many writings, to all the believers he encountered and at the level of their varied understandings. Some of the texts he wrote were short, composed at a single sitting; some ran to hundreds of pages-even thousands of pages, in the case of the Futuhat-and were the product of years of labor and revision.
Just as his early years were devoted to constant wayfaring throughout Andalusia and the Maghreb, Ibn 'Arabi spent the years spanning 1204 to 1220 traveling back and forth across Syria, Palestine, Anatolia, Egypt, Iraq, and the Hijaz. During this time he acquired many disciples, continued his literary output, and even became an advisor to the Seljuq sultan Kayka'us. It was not until the final twenty years of his life that he ceased his peregrinations and in 1221 settled permanently in Damascus.
At the end of 1229, an event occurred that resulted in the writing of the Shaykh's best known book, the Fusus al-Hikam, or "Bezels of Wisdom." In a dream, he saw the Prophet Muhammad, holding a book. The Prophet told him: "This is the book of the Fusus al-Hikam. Take and give it to humanity so that they may find benefit from it." The twenty-eight chapters contained therein-each one devoted to a different prophet and elucidating a particular facet of wisdom-were, according to Ibn 'Arabi, inspired by the Prophet with no personal input on his part whatsoever. The Fusus has remained to this day his most provocative and most frequently commented upon work.
Ibn 'Arabi died in Damascus in November 1240. Over the centuries, his teachings spread east as far as China, disseminated by devoted students-many of them gifted mystics and poets in their own right. For the past century, the west has also played a part in this process, as scholars and translators continue the effort to bring the Shaykh's remarkable writings to the attention of the contemporary world.
Copyright Angela Jaffray