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Home Articles Articles A Sufi of Andalucia

A Sufi of Andalucia

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Muhyiddin Ibn al-Arabi, known as a’Sheikh al-Akbar, was born on 27th Ramadan 560 H (August 7th, 1165) in Murcia in south-eastern Spain.  He came from an ancient Arab family with fine social and cultural connections as well as strong religious tendencies.

The family moved to Seville where Ibn al-’Arabi received his formal education.  He seems to have done well at his studies and to have shown considerable promise, since he was later employed as a secretary by the governor of Seville.  At about this time he married a girl called Maryam, the daughter of  Muhammad b. ‘Abdun, a man of great standing and influence.  Not only did she come from a good family but she shared his aspiration to follow the Way.
Ibn al-’Arabi himself tells that he was initiated into the Sufi Way at the age of 20, but he clearly spent much of his early youth in the company of the Folk (those following the Sufi path).  He met Ibn Rushd (Averroes) who was a close friend of his father, and studied the mystical sciences under various Sheikhs and masters.  Two of these were women - both of them advanced in years.  One was called Shams of Marchena and the other Fatimah of Cordova, about whom Ibn al-’Arabi relates the following:
“I served as a disciple one of the lovers of God, a gnostic, a lady of Seville called Fatimah bint Ibn al-Muthanna of Cordova.  I served her for several years, she being over ninety-five years of age ....  She used to play on the tambourine and show great pleasure in it.  When I spoke to her about it she answered, ‘I take joy in Him Who has turned to me and made me one of His Friends (Saints), using me for His own purposes.  Who am I that he should choose me among men.  He is jealous of me for, whenever I turn to something other than He in heedlessness, He sends me some affliction concerning that thing.’ ...  With my own hands I built for her a hut of reeds as high as she, in which she lived until she died.   She used to say to me, ‘I am your spiritual mother and the light of your earthly mother.’  When my mother came to visit her, Fatimah said to her, ‘O light, this is my son and he is your father, so treat him filialy and dislike him not.’”
It was not until he was 30 years of age that Ibn al-’Arabi travelled beyond the shores of the Iberian Peninsula.  During the years 590 - 593 he journeyed to Tunis and Fez and spent his time in meditation and study, having various spiritual experiences and meeting twice with al-Khidr.
In 599 he made the journey to Mecca where he performed the hajj.  While he was in Mecca he was given evidence that he was the Seal of Muhammadan Sainthood, about which he had received inspirations in Fez in 594:
“I saw, as in a dream, the Ka’bah built of gold and silver bricks; but when I looked at a spot on the face between the Yemeni and Syrian corners I noticed that there were two bricks missing, one of gold, the other of silver, one on the top row and the other on the row below it.  Then I saw myself being put into the place of the missing bricks ... I woke up and thanked God and said to myself, “I am to the other followers of my kind (the saints) as the Apostle of God is to the other prophets.””
He continued his travels, and while in Egypt encountered hostility from people who misunderstood his words.  Sheikh Abu al-Hasan of Bugia was able to save him from death or imprisonment by interpreting his words. After he had been saved from the danger, he said “How may one be imprisoned in whose humanity divinity resides”.  Abu al-Hasan replied “O Sir! these are the expressions of mystical fervour, and one who is intoxicated is not to be held blameworthy.” 
Ibn -al’Arabi was discouraged and distressed by the developments in Egypt and returned to Mecca in 604 to pursue his study of the Traditions.  Later he travelled to Aleppo and Konya.  His great learning and spiritual powers left a deep impression on the people of Konya.  His closest disciple there, Sadr al-Din al-Qunawi, says of him, “Our Sheikh Ibn’Arabi was capable of communicating with the spirit of any of the prophets and Saints of the past.  This he could do in three ways: (1) he would call down the spirit to this world and perceive it embodied in a form similar to that which it had in life; (2) he would see it in his sleep; (3) he would abstract himself from his body and meet the spirit.” This visit to Konya was of great importance for the future of oriental Sufism, as Sadr al-Din of Konya, Ibn ‘Arabi’s closest disciple there, received from him licence to pass on a large number of his works, and left many important commentaries on his master’s works.  More significantly, he became the link between the great Andalucian master and many of the greatest representatives of Persian Sufism, notably Jalal al-Din Rumi.
Ibn ‘Arabi met the great Sufi Sheikh, Shihab al-Din ‘Umar al-Suhrawardi in Baghdad.  The following describes the meeting:
“...both of them bowed their heads for an hour without uttering a word to each other and then parted.  When Ibn ‘Arabi was asked his opinion of al-Suhrawardi he said “He is embued from head to foot with the norm of the Prophet”.  When asked for his opinion of Ibn ’Arabi, al-Suhrawardi said “He is an ocean of divine truths.”
In the year 620 Ibn ‘Arabi went to settle in Damascus where he was to remain until his death, except for a brief visit to Aleppo in 628.  His long travels, his enormous literary output and the rigorous privations of his calling had all taken toll of his health.  He was invited by the ruler of Damascus, al-Malik al-’Adil to take up permanent residence in that city.  Here he was treated with great honour.  Here he completed his great al-Futuhat al-Makkiyyah and also his much shorter, but very important, Fusus al-hikam, which he intended as a synopsis of his teachings.  It consists of 27 chapters each of which is named after one of the prophets.  In addition he completed his major collection of mystical poems, al-Diwan al-akbar.
Ibn ‘Arabi died in Damascus on the 28th  Rabi II, 638 H, aged 76.
Ibn’Arabi was an important influence on medieaval Christian theology and was known by theologians as Dr Maximus, a direct translation of a’Sheikh al-Akbar.


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