In the Name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful. All praise is due to the One, the One who is to be singled out in worship, our reliance. May the peace and blessings of Allah be upon our Master, Muhammad ibn ‘Abdillah, his family, and all of his companions. As for what follows:
A lot of contention has formed over the personality of ash-Shaykh ibn ‘Arabi and the “doctrine” of Wahdat al-Wujud. In this article, we will, by Allah’s permission, examine both topics. We will do this by posing a series of questions and answering them with brevity. May Allah, Most High, help us to undertake this effort.
Who was ibn ‘Arabi?
He was the Sufi, the erudite jurist, the poet, the illuminated Imam, “Shaykh al-Akbar,” Muhi ad-Din Abu ‘Abdullah Muhammad ibn ‘Ali ibn Muhammad ibn al-‘Arabi al-Hatimi at-Ta’i (d. 638 A.H.), who was born in Murcia, Spain, under the rule of the Almohad Caliphate. He is typically referred to as “ibn ‘Arabi,” to make clear the difference between him and the famous Maliki judge, al-Imam Abu Bakr ibn al-‘Arabi (d. 543 A.H.). Despite this, he signed his name as إبن العربي (“ibn al-‘Arabi”), not as إبن عربي (“ibn ‘Arabi”).
Without going too much into his biography, as the information regarding his life is quite expansive and available, both in Arabic as well as in English, he was a great scholar who traveled around the Muslim world, seeking knowledge, educating students, and authoring a plethora of well-known texts, such as Fusus al-Hikam, Futuhat al-Makkiyyah, Mashahid al-Asrar, and many others. His works number around 800, though most are lost today.
What did the scholars say about him?
Those scholars who have praised him are numerous, and we will mention some of their statements here:
Al-Imam ‘Iz ad-Din ibn ‘Abd as-Salam (d. 660 A.H.) called him the ❝Qutb (pole) of the religion.❞
Al-Imam Taj ad-Din Ahmad ibn ‘Ata’illah al-Iskandari al-Maliki (d. 709 A.H.) said: ❝Ibn ‘Arabi was one of the greatest of the jurists who followed the school of Dawud al-Dhahiri after ibn Hazm al-Andalusi…❞
Al-Imam as-Safadi (d. 764 A.H.) said about his work: ❝I saw that from beginning to end, it consists of the ‘Aqidah of Abu al-Hassan al-Ash’ari, with no difference whatsoever.❞
Al-Imam Siraj ad-Din al-Bulqini (d. 805 A.H.) said: ❝We seek refuge in Allah from saying that ibn ‘Arabi affirms Hulul (indwelling) and Ittihad (unity)! He is far above that. Rather, he is one of the greatest A’immah and among those who have probed the oceans of the sciences of Qur’an and Hadith.❞
Al-Imam Siraj ad-Din al-Makhzumi (d. 885 A.H.) said: ❝Our Shaykh, Siraj ad-Din al-Bulqini, and likewise Shaykh Taqi ad-Din as-Subki, used to criticize the ash-Shaykh (ibn ‘Arabi) in the beginning, then they changed their position after they realized what he was saying and the explanation of his intent.❞
Al-Imam as-Suyuti (d. 911 A.H.) said: ❝The scholars, past and present, have differed concerning ibn ‘Arabi; one group considering him a Wali of Allah, and they are correct, such as ibn ‘Ata’-Allah al-Iskandari and ‘Afif ad-Din al-Yafi’i; another [group] considered him a heretic, such as a large number of jurists; while others expressed doubts concerning him, amongst them adh-Dhahabi in al-Mizan… For my part, the last word concerning ibn ‘Arabi, and this is accepted neither by his contemporary admirers nor by his detractors, is that he be considered a Wali but reading his books is forbidden. He himself is related as saying, ‘We are a people whose books are forbidden to read.’ This is because the Sufiyyah, by convention, use a technical terminology known only to them and by which they refer to meanings in a way different from common usage.❞
Al-Imam ibn Hajar al-Haytami (d. 974 A.H.) said: ❝The truth is that ibn ‘Arabi and his group are the elite of the Ummah. Al-Yafi’i, ibn ‘Ata’-Allah, and others have declared that they consider ibn ‘Arabi a Wali, noting that the language which Sufiyyah use is appropriate among the experts in its usage, and that the knower of Allah, when he becomes completely absorbed in the oceans of Unity, might make some statements that are liable to be misconstrued as Hulul and Ittihad, while in reality there is neither Hulul nor Ittihad.❞
Al-Imam Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Kabir al-Kattani (d. 1327 A.H.) and al-Imam Muhammad ibn Ja’far al-Kattani (d. 1345 A.H.) described him as ❝Shaykh al-Akbar (the greatest Shaykh).❞
What is Wahdat al-Wujud?
From the literature of ash-Shaykh ibn ‘Arabi, a constantly reoccurring theme, which has been called into question, is Wahdat al-Wujud. The linguistic meaning of this phrase is “the unity of existence”; on face value, this definition, rightly, casts fear into Muslims who believe that Allah, Most High, is seperate from His creation, and above it in a metaphorical sense. A sort of internal alarm goes off within them. With this in mind, one need not worry, as its technical definition is free from such a blasphemy.
This phrase, in the technical terminology of the Sufis (Ahl at-Tasawwuf), carries with it a few different meanings:
- All of existence is nothingness, save for Allah, Sublime and Exalted, as the seventh Hijri century poet, ibn ‘Ata’illah, alludes to in the fourteenth line of his Hikam: ❝The Cosmos is all darkness. It is illumined only by the manifestation of Allah in it. Whoever sees the Cosmos and does not contemplate Him in it or by it or before it or after it is in need of light and is veiled from the sun of gnosis by the clouds of created things.❞
- The first point leads into the second. The words of ibn ‘Ata’illah, ❝…the manifestation…,❞ do not refer to Allah Himself, rather, they refer to the manifestation of Allah’s Noble Attrubutes by the signs that He has placed within the creation. I have prepared short anecdote to strengthen our understanding of this concept: A man walks out from his home and takes a deep breath. Upon his exhale, he recites the common glorification, “Subhan Allah (praise be to Allah).” His reason for saying this was his realization that if it was not for Allah, this world and all of its beauty, his life-force, and his person would not exist.
- Our attributes are a result of His Attributes. As an example, if it were not for His Beyond-Infite Mercy, our finite mercy would not be able to actualize. The proof for this saying is the Hadith narrated in Sahih Muslim (no. 6631), narrated by Abu Hurayrah, may Allah be pleased with him, that the Prophet Muhammad, may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him and his family, said, ❝Allah has one hundred parts of mercy, of which He sent down one between the Jinn, mankind, the animals, and the insects, by means of which they are compassionate and merciful to one another, and by means of which wild animals are kind to their offspring.❞
Why is there contention over this?
Those who are critical of ibn ‘Arabi, and his concept of Wahdat al-Wujud, are many, and amongst them are respected scholars. From them are the likes of ibn Taymiyyah (d. 728 A.H.), adh-Dhahabi (d. 728 A.H.), ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyyah (d. 751 A.H.), ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani (d. 852 A.H.), amongst others.
The opposition states that the above description of Wahdat al-Wujud is not consistent with what ibn ‘Arabi actually believed. Their proof is certain statements from the Shaykh which appear outwardly blasphemous in nature.
How to we get to the bottom of this and discover the reality concerning ibn ‘Arabi’s beliefs contained within his literature?
What must be understood about ibn ‘Arabi is that there are two barriers between us and understanding what he wrote:
- He wrote heavily in metaphor, undecipherable to the unlearned person, be they a layman or a scholar. This has been alluded to in his statement, ❝It is not permissible for those who do not understand our terminologies to study our books.❞
- Copious amounts of statements, even entire books, have been attributed to ibn ‘Arabi containing extreme herasy. Some of these fabricated sayings were composed during his life. For example, there is a story narrated about him in which he was walking in the market place where he picked up a book with his name written on its cover. He opened the book was was shocked to find that he had not actually written it, rather it was forged in his name. For this reason, the late eighth Hijri century scholar, al-Hafidh as-Suyuti compiled a book on this subject, defending ibn ‘Arabi, its title being “Tanbih al-Ghabi fi Tanzih ibn ‘Arabi (Warning to the Idiot concerning ibn ‘Arabi’s Vindication).”
How may we reconcile?
It is important, in such a discussion, to learn how to respect someone who is disrespectful. If one is to discuss with someone on this topic, it is important that they hear out the side of the opposition and bring forward what has been mentioned in counter-opposition.
The words of al-Imam adh-Dhahabi, a critic of ibn ‘Arabi are important to mention in this regard. He stated in his Muqizah (pg. 88-90) about making Takfir upon ibn ‘Arabi ❝It is, indeed, a position fraught with danger! For the critic of a true Sufi enters into the Hadith: ‘Whosoever shows enmity to one of My Friends, I shall declare war upon him.’❞
I will close with a poem of Shaykh al-Akbar ibn ‘Arabi, may the Lord of the worlds have mercy upon him, and sanctify his secret:
❝If not for Him and but for us none of what has come to be would be
in existence, nor would there have come those messages and revelations
from our Master, the Merciful One.
Bringing to us tales and rules by way of elaboration and explanation.
(In the Qur’an) He has called us ‘possessed of inner essences’ although
clever and crafty thinking is more our style.
All of which has brought us to submission (Islam), faith und virtue.
Exalted then be He who carried him by night that he might see Him
in a measured way and by degrees.
Only he whom the Merciful One has called Man is specially favoured with His form
and (is promised) gardens, rivers, fresh breezes and refreshing scents.❞