Interior dome in the Alcazar palace in Seville, Spain.
Interior dome Islamic architecture at the Alcazar Palace in Seville, Spain, where the Sufi, Ibn el-Arabi, lived for years.

Ibn El-Arabi: A Classical Sufi Master by Peter Brent

Born into a Sufi family almost exactly a hundred years after El-Ghazali, almost exactly forty years before Rumi, Ibn el-Arabi, like them, displayed great gifts even in childhood. Brought up in the heyday of Arabic Spain (paradoxically, one of the most civilised societies in European history) he studied in Lisbon, Seville and Cordoba. All his life he wrote poetry; in it, he often returned to the theme of human love – deeply felt and magnificently described – used as a metaphor for the transcendent emotion that lies glittering at the core of all his work.

Yet ‘metaphor’ does inadequate justice to the reality he evidently experienced at both levels; either reading, the sensual and the mystical, is a true reading. He was, indeed, frequently attacked for being no more than a writer of erotic poetry who sought to cover his indulgence by claiming a spiritual meaning for it. The fact is that among the various levels of perception and feeling experienced by the developed person some are not less real than others, nor does the last stage cancel all those that have gone before. Each is true in its own way. The error is to imagine any one of them the total reality. The divine is the only total reality, and that includes all aspects, all levels.

Thus for Ibn el-Arabi his sensual response to feminine beauty was real, not imagined; yet, precisely because of its reality, he saw that beauty as a metaphor for the world’s beauty, the beauty of nature, just as he saw in the relation between men and women a metaphor for that between humanity and God. For if Genesis is true, then woman is made in man’s image as man is in God’s; thus, as God stands, in love and concern, to his creation, Nature, so man stands to woman. The feeling is real in its own terms, yet only becomes complete in the metaphysical dimension. Today we may reject Genesis and thus the metaphor may lose some of its particular force, but it is at our peril that we reject this awareness of the multiplicity of the real.

Ibn el-Arabi made such ideas explicit in his prose treatises, for he was a scholar more complete even than his doctorial critics. His explanatory notes to his love poetry seem to have satisfied the most puritanical and rigorously orthodox theologians that he had nowhere deviated from the approved path of righteousness. Thus his encyclopaedic survey of Sufi ideas, Futuhat-al-Makkiyya and his dissertation on various aspects of Sufism, Fusus-al-hikam, like his other books of theory and speculation, passed to succeeding generations not as the outpourings of a heedless poet, but as the considered works of a scholar acknowledged to be among the greatest of his time.

As Rumi and other Sufis have, Ibn el-Arabi emphasised (for example in Chapter XXII of Fusus-al-hikam) that beyond fana, the mystical annihilation of self, there exists another state in which that experience is, as it were, stabilised, made permanent. It was because of his awareness of this ultimate condition that he was able to accept the structures of orthodoxy. He realised that within every such structure, perhaps almost snuffed out by its weight but certainly once ablaze, there could be found the flame of mysticism. All great teachers – Moses, Jesus, Mohammed and others – had embodied that flame, and though human perversity might distort faith in the divine, as in the case of self-punishing ascetics, yet any true religion might be the mystic’s starting point. It is no wonder that throughout his life doctrinaire scholars and theologians, like men in narrow valleys which they believe to be the world, condemned his breadth of understanding as the dangerous deviations of a heretic.

This is an excerpt from Peter Brent's article entitled The Classical Masters, from Idries Shah's The World of the Sufi.

Peter Brent was the author of many books, among them a major biography of Darwin, entitled Charles Darwin: A Man of Enlarged Curiosity; also two studies of the mystical and religious traditions of the East, Godmen of India and Healers of India.