Al-Andalus, the portion of the Iberian Peninsula controlled by Islamic states from the eighth century to the 15th, distinguished itself in that era as a center for all kinds of scholarship. The historical region produced Ibn Tufail and his better-known disciple Ibn Rushd (aka Averroes), a pair of medieval intellectuals who dabbled in topics from astronomy to theology. When scholars reflect on al-Andalus’ philosophical legacy, however, one name tends to rise above the others: Ibn Arabi, a mystic and poet who still enjoys popularity in the Muslim and Western worlds.
Born in 1165 in Murcia, a city now situated in the southeast of Spain, Ibn Arabi wasted little time in his quest to tour much of the world and reshape its philosophies. At 35, he visited Mecca to perform the Hajj. After four years, he relocated to Anatolia before settling in the Levantine city of Damascus, where he died in 1240. By then, Ibn Arabi had left behind a substantial paper trail. While the accuracy of the count remains subject to debate, sources attribute 800 works to him.
Ibn Arabi saw philosophy as a way to analyze the nature of existence and knowledge.
Like fellow Andalusians Ibn Tufail and Ibn Rushd, Ibn Arabi saw philosophy as a way to analyze the nature of existence and knowledge. He dove into arguments at once controversial and obscure, such as the debate between philosophers and theologians about the extent of God’s omnipotence. As arcane as such disagreements might seem, they carried real consequences: an intellectual on the wrong side of a dispute could face accusations of heresy, a charge often brought against philosophers who quoted the ideas of non-Muslims such as Aristotle and Plato.
Ibn Tufail and Ibn Rushd fell into this contentious category, challenging Islamic orthodoxy with writings implying that philosophy offered a surer path to truth than did religion. Ibn Tufail’s novel “Hayy ibn Yaqzan” caricatures conservative Muslims as backward and reactionary, and Ibn Rushd questioned even the most foundational aspects of Islam. Both philosophers engaged with the work of Aristotle, an undertaking that could come with severe consequences.
After some Andalusian theologians objected to Ibn Rushd’s philosophies, which they considered heretical, a local caliph burned many of the scholar’s books and sent him into exile.
Ibn Arabi avoided such a fate by looking for philosophical guidance in the Quran, not Ancient Greece. He liked to cite the Quran or borrow terms from it, a departure from al-Farabi and other philosophers influenced by the Ancient Greek tradition. Whereas they saw philosophy as a way to understand revelation and the universe as a whole, Ibn Arabi viewed Islam as the starting point for his complex philosophical conclusions about God and the world around him.
Ibn Arabi viewed Islam as the starting point for his complex philosophical conclusions about God and the world around him.
The ideas that Ibn Arabi conveyed in his writings proved so complicated that generations of scholars have debated how to interpret them. The most significant schools of thought tied to Ibn Arabi include “wahdat al-wujud,” an Arabic phrase connoting the belief that God encompasses the entirety of reality—itself a reinvention of “tawhid,” an Islamic term referring to the indivisibility of God. Though this philosophy gained traction with Ibn Arabi’s disciples, he himself never used the expression “wahdat al-wujud,” and academics disagree about whether he believed in it.
“Wahdat al-wujud” became a core belief among some proponents of Sufism, an Islamic form of mysticism on which Ibn Arabi had a profound impact. Ultraconservative Muslims took a less charitable view. Ibn Taymiyyah, a medieval theologian whose work remains popular with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, argued that “wahdat al-wujud” amounted to heresy because it made no attempt to establish a boundary between God and what God created.
This criticism notwithstanding, Ibn Arabi retains a substantial following in the Middle East and the West. “The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy” remarks that he “can be considered the greatest of all Muslim philosophers.” A Saudi author landed the International Prize for Arabic Fiction for a novel on Ibn Arabi in 2017, and an Emirati television channel produced a miniseries about him in 2019. The Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society, which publishes its own academic journal, has branches in Australia, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Ibn Arabi retains a substantial following in the Middle East and the West. “The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy” remarks that he “can be considered the greatest of all Muslim philosophers.”
In many ways, Ibn Arabi’s poetry has earned an even better reception than his philosophy. The Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society maintains a selection of his poems in English translation, asserting, “Poetry is an essential dimension of Ibn Arabi’s work.” Scholars have begun translating his poems into several Western languages, and a German researcher has explored the “erotic overtones” of Ibn Arabi’s work, to which Ibn Taymiyyah likely would have taken offense.
Even in more recent times, Ibn Arabi’s legacy has sparked controversy yet again. In 1979, the Egyptian Parliament banned one of his books, “The Meccan Illuminations,” after ultraconservative factions found the text heretical. Despite Ibn Arabi’s deviation from Ibn Tufail and Ibn Rushd, the work of the three Andalusian philosophers sometimes invites the same hostile reactions.
The al-Mesbar Studies and Research Center – an Emirati think tank – expects a more positive future for Ibn Arabi. “Muhyiddine bin Arabi is lately enjoying a resurgence in the region, due to indigenous Arab efforts to foster humanism amid a crisis in human relations,” al-Mesbar said while announcing the publication of its 2018 book about him, “Akbari Sufism: Ibn Arabi, History, and Text.” “Some Arabs adopt the hope that a climate of tolerance and brotherhood can be restored by reviving Islamic intellectual traditions that embody these principles.”
“Some Arabs adopt the hope that a climate of tolerance and brotherhood can be restored by reviving Islamic intellectual traditions that embody these principles.”
Given the ongoing arguments about the meaning of Ibn Arabi’s writings and whether he himself even espoused “wahdat al-wujud,” the possibility that his teachings can inspire any kind of unity seems remote. Muslims’ and non-Muslims’ enthusiasm for studying Ibn Arabi, however, offers a key opportunity for academic and cultural exchange that scholars can hardly afford to waste. As a legendary philosopher, Ibn Arabi deserves the attention of researchers across the globe.