The Mystical Visions of Ibn al-‘Arabî (d. 1240)
– Dr. Diana Steigerwald
California State University (Long Beach)
“Whatever may be the philosophical doctrine to which we adhere, we observe, as soon as we speculate on the origin and the cause, the anteriority and the presence of the Feminine.”
– Excerpt from the Fusûs al-hikam of Ibn al-‘Arabî
The 13th century, even though politically overshadowed by the invasion of the Mongols and the end of the ‘Abbâsid caliphate, was also the golden age of Sufism. Known as Shaykh al-Akbar (the Greatest Shaykh), Muhyî al-Dîn Ibn al-‘Arabî was one of the most famous representatives of esoteric mysticism at the beginning of the 13th century. He was born in Murcia (city in Spain) in 1165 and at the age of eight he began his formal education and his parents moved to Seville. His work is complex, but it has an important philosophical aspect. He was one of the most prolific Sûfîs; 239 works are attributed to him. His most influential work, entitled Fusûs al-hikam (The Gems of the Wisdom of the Prophets), was inspired by a vision. In 1230, Prophet Muhammad appeared to Ibn al-‘Arabî in a dream, holding a book, and bade him to write down his teaching. This book relates the wisdom of twenty-seven Prophets. Many ideas inspired from Shî‘ism and Ismâ‘îlism are discernible in his works. Ibn al-‘Arabî was also inspired by al-Suhrawardî (d. 1191) who developed the Theosophy of Light establishing the Oriental Wisdom (Hikmat al-Ishrâq). One of its essential characteristics is that it makes philosophy and mystical experience inseparable. The disciples of al-Suhrawardî are designated as “Platonists” (Ashâb Aflatûn); Ibn al-‘Arabî was similarly surnamed “Son of Plato” (Ibn Aflatûn).
Sophia aeterna: Feminine figure
In one of his works, the Futûhât al-Makkiyya, which is about the divine revelations received in Mekka, he relates that he had a vision which transformed the course of his life. Although Ibn al-‘Arabî claimed to derive his knowledge from no physical intermediary, he traveled extensively during his life in North Africa, Syria, Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, and met many influential shaykhs. In Andalusia, he saw in a vision a marvelous celestial bird who ordered him to set out for the Orient.
At the age of thirty-six, Ibn al-‘Arabî went to Mekka and was greatly impressed by the Ka‘ba, a holy place, where the invisible (ghayb) world meets the visible (shuhûd) one. A noble Iranian shaykh gave him hospitality and, on the same occasion, Ibn al-‘Arabî met his daughter, who was gifted with the Eternal Wisdom (Sophia aeterna). In his Dîwân, he wrote: “Never have I seen a woman more beautiful of face, softer of speech, more tender of heart, more spiritual in her ideas, more subtle in her symbolic allusions. […] She surpasses all the people of her time in refinement of mind and cultivation, in beauty and in knowledge.” (Corbin 140) As the visible manifestation of Sophia aeterna, she is at the same spiritual level as Christ. She possesses the “Christic Wisdom” (Hikmat ‘îsawiyya).
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