Thirteenth century Sufi Poet mystic, and legal scholar Muhyi al-Din ibn al-Arabi gave deep and sustained attention to gender as integral to questions of human existence and moral personhood. Reading his work through a critical feminist lens, Sa’diyya Shaikh open fertile spaces in which new and creative encounters with gender justice in Islam can take place. Grounding her work in Islamic epistemology Shaikh attends to the ways in which in which Sufi metaphysics and theology might allow for fundamental shifts in Islamic gender ethics and legal formulation addressing wide ranging contemporary challenges including question of women right in marriage and divorce the politics of velling and women leadership of ritual prayers.
Sheikh deftly deconstructed traditional binaries between the spiritual and the political private conceptions of spiritual development and public notions of social justice, and the realms of inner refinement and those of communal virtue. Drawing on the treasured works of suffism, sheikh raises a number of critical question about the nature of selfhood subjectivity spirituality and society to contribte richly to the prospects of Islamic feminism as well as feminist ethics more broadly.
Sa’diyya sheikh is senior lecturer of religious studies at the university of cape Town.
Once upon a time a wise and generous story unfolded. This is how it might be imagined. It is cairo on a sweltering afternoon and the faithful are streaming into a beautiful simple mosque. The Friday (jumu’a) prayers are about to begin. In the courtyard people take their ablutions in the cool fountain water that provides welcome relief from the heat of the cairene afternoon. A group of women sitting close together is silently reciting the Quran. An old man his face kissed gently by time is sitting easily upright with eyes close meditating on the beautiful name of God. Two old friends, both returning to the city after years of travel, trade and learning are greeting each other with a tender embrace. A young man hand raised in supplication is softly murmuring his deepest yearnings into the hearing of the omniscient one. As the call to prayer is given a hush falls over the crowd with each person repairing to his her private supplications before the sermon begins.
The preacher ascends the stairs to the pulpit. She is the accomplished spiritual savant Umm Zaynab Fatima bint Abbas al-Bagdadiyya but renowned among the religious divines of cairo as jurist (faaiha) who provides practical legal responses to people questions (muftiyya). And yes it is the fourteenth century. And no there is no outrage or shock among the congregant that Shaykha Fatima is preaching to a mixed gathering of males and females in a mosque. In fact Shaykha reputation as a scholar has traveled with her to cairo. While living in Damascus she had trained as a jurisconsult among as elite group of Hanbali scholars known as the Maqadisa having studied with one of the great teachers of the city Shaykh Ibn Abi Umar. Among the women of Damascus and more recently Cairo she has come to be loved and revered as the wise one who provides refuge and guidance in their spiritual strivings.
She has studied with no less one of the leading male intellectuals of her time the protean Taqi al-Din Ibn Taymiyya. In public circles he has on occasion praised Shaykha Fatima not only for her intelligence and knowledge but also for her personal qualities of enthusiasm and excellence. Yet on this hot day in the Cairene mosque he sits among the congregants unable to quell his state of discomfort. To his great chagrin Shakhya Fatima easily even presumptuously ascends and defends from the pulpit as is unaware of the fact that she is after all only a women. This woman appears to be oblivious to any limitations of her sex. As he leaves the mosque after the service, Ibn Taymiyya realizes that his unease and acute irritation with Shaykha Fatima presence on the pulpit has so overwhelmed him that he had not even heard a word of her sermon. He goes home and falls into a restless afternoon sleep.
Ibn Taymiyya later recalled this incident: “it unsettled me that she mounted the pulpit to deliver sermons and I wished to forbid her. In Ibn Taymiyya inner struggle to stop this self assured women from public preaching he saw the prophet of Islam in a dream. The prophet put and end to his anxieties and according to Ibn Taymiyya rebuked him saying. This is a pious woman. The prophetic instruction quelled Ibn Taymiyya agitation reconciling him with Shakha Fatima roles as public preacher.
Who would have thought that one of the most renowned mujtahids of the premodern Muslim world Taqi al-Din ibn Taymiyya an individual whom may present day chauvinists claims as their religious luminary would have been subdued into accepting a woman authority by a dream? Indeed it was no less than the prophetic command that had castigated the Hanbali juriconsult. This dream not only challenged his fourteenth century gender lenses but continues to do so for other today, providing a stark contrast with the vision of women that are promoted by the contemporary votaries of ibn taymiyya. Very few of ibn Taymiyya followers will energetically recover this view of their intellectual exemplar either in terms of its gender implications or of the sufilike recognition of a prophetic dream. But many Muslim have not had the good fortune of an emancipator prophetic dream foretelling that women spiritual equality does in fact have social and ritual implications.
In the contemporary period a worldwide Muslim debate was sparked in 2005 when professor Amina Wadud led Friday ritual prayers in full view of the international media in New York City. Muslim prayer leaders (the imamte) around the globe issued fatwas (legal decree) regarding women leadership taking a variety of positions on the subject. Sahib BenCheikh the former grand mufti of Marseilles belonging to an older generation of male graduates of Egypt’s Al-Azhar University publicly participated in a congregational prayer led by another women in solidarity with the event in New York. Conversely, Dr. Ssoad Salehm a female Islamic law professor at Al-Azhar, declared that women ld prayers with mixed congregations constitute apostasy in Islam, an offense punishable by death under classical interpretations of Islamic law. Among her reasons for rejecting female imams, Saleh declared that the women body even if veiled stris desire. Ironically a few years earlier Saleh has applied to become Egypt’s first female mufti an application that was still officially pending at the time of the New York incident but might well be considered de facto unsuccessful. saleh’s positioning in the debates on women leadership in the mosque and in public rituals demonstrates current contestations over embodiment and gender, spirituality and leadership sexuality and power within the Muslim world.
Our perspectives on this fraught contemporary debate might be enriched by turning to the counsel provided by an eminent thirteenth century Muslim scholar Muhyi al-Din ibn al-Arabi in a striking contrast to the present day focus on women bodies as the inappropriate provocateur of male desire the premodern ibn Arabhi has a very different entry point for the understanding of gendered ritual leadership. He unperturbedly claims understanding of gendered ritual leadership. He unperturbedly claims ungendered and equal access to the position of imam on the basis that men and women have identical spiritual potential in the Islamic tradition. Without much fanfare ibn Arabi informs us that spiritual equality between men and women has very clear social and ritual consequences. It is not simply centuries that divide saleh from this premodern personality; it is also radically different assumptions on the nature of gendered human beings in light of an ontological spiritual and religious telos. Ibn Arabi thus categorically assert that women may lead mixed congregations of men and women in ritual prayers.
The story of women contemporary ritual leadership began in south Africa my birthplace in event that shaped me and planted the seeds for deeper study and clarity on issues of gender and spiritual in islam. The year 1994 was particularly memorable for Muslim South Africa because of two significant event. First the first nonracial democratic election book place singaling the official death of apartheid. Second professor Amina Wadud, a visiting scholar and author of a pioneering Islamic feminist work, Quran and woman delivered the Friday sermon (khutba) at Claremont main road mosque which I attended. The mosque had invited wadud to share her insight on Islam with its members who also decided to use the occasion to transform the gendered nature of their prayer space. Not only was a women going to give the all important Friday sermon but the female congregants would move from the balcony into the central space of the masjid on par with albeit separate from the men. For me a young committed Muslim women entering the newly open a receptive Masjid felt like stepping into the warmth of the sunshine after a lifetime of being concealed in the shadows a feeling somewhat akin to voting in my country of birth for the first time. In my experiential framework this minority congregation was boldly embodying a fundamental social justice imperative that was intrinsic to Islam. However even as this act of liberation unfolded many broader community contestation of this even were pervaded by assumption that women are somehow peculiarly and inferiorly defined by their bodies and that these female bodies in the proximity of men somehow diminish and threaten the sacredness of the mosque. Integrating justice and harmony into both personal and communal religious spaces constitutes a serious religious challenges for a number of contemporary Muslim which is why women free access to central spaces of worship and women ritual leadership remain controversial topics.
Wadud Khutba at the Claremont Main Road mosque was inspirational. Her words were like a glorious warm summer rain drenching us in mercy and radiating all kinds of existential possibilities. This was a spirituality ripe sermon inspired and inspiring beautiful and beautifying luminous and illuminting. She went to the very heart of the matter to the understanding of Islam as a state of engaged surrender in all of our most intimate and immediate relationship as human beings marriage pregnancy, childbirth and sites of intimate relationship to the divine one. For the first time in my adult life in a public religious space, I felt myself sincerely validated as a Muslim woman. While some sectors of the south Africa Muslim community enthusiastically hailed the event other segment of that community became incensed. The resulting conflict reflected fierce struggles regarding Muslim understandings of sexuality sociality and human embodiment.
Contemporary gender politics relating to Islam is not restricted to the issue of women imams or internal differences within the Muslim world. Wide ranging geopolitical dynamics and ideological contestations are played out on the bodies of muslim women. Representations of Muslim women vacillate between dominant western image of Muslim women as the only truly liberated women. The debated on both sides are often simplistic, rigidly formulated, authoritarian, ideologically loaded, and contingent on the political forces of the day. Examples abound. French public schools prohibit Muslim women from wearing head scarves (hijab) ostensibly as a marked as a symbol of authentic Islamic identity. U.S. politicians strategically invoked the plight of Afghani women as a way to build public support for the American-led invasion of Afgani women as a way to build public support for the American-led invasion of Aganistan in 2001 yet are notably silent about the Saudi Regime appalling women right record as a result of the two countries intimate political economic relationship. In many part of the Muslim world notion of gender equality are often interwoven with larger postcolonial identity struggles about indigenous values cultural allegiances, and loyalties and disloyalties. The global context for discussions of gender justice and Islam is therefore ideologically fraught with contestation of the nature of religion, law and secularism; citizenship, identity, and empire; freedom, equality and self-expression.
Many antagonists in these debates share the assumption that Islam is a monolithic religion with a singular all embracing gender paradigm. Such generalizations not only belie the complex varying realities of contemporary Muslim women but also ignore the rich diversity of the Islamic tradition that is informed by the mélange of Arab, Turkic, pesian, Andalusian, African and south Asian histories and cultures. Gender dynamic among Muslim are as complex and polymorphous as the realities of women (and even men, for that matter) in other religious social and political contexts while there are undoubtedly universal aspects within islam that all fall within a cohesive religious category this unity is mostly accompanied by myriad diversities.
Among contemporary Muslims, gender contestation occur within a tradition characterized by diverse gender episteme. Contenders in gender debates often cull the primary Islamic sources of the Quran and hadith had their traditional legacy of interpretation especially jurisprudence to find positions that for example either support or reject women ritual leadership. Many of the arguments are of an epistemological nature that is contestation over which among these various legal position count as authoritative Islamic knowledge. Such argument often are limited in scope primarily addressing the outer symptoms of gender injustice such as women imamate or the politics of hijjab. These types of debate fail to address the way in which the underlying theological category of the human being is gendered.
While such gender contestation are necessary and important a richer understanding of gender debates in Islam requires more than simple epistemological disputation about which traditional sources to prioritize and authorize in relation to specific issue. Debates on women roles as imam or the religious necessary of hijab for example demand exploration and interrogator of the foundational premises and constructs of gender. Contesting position on gender are after all underpinned by specific assumptions regarding human nature and existence in fact by specific anthropological cosmological and ontological constructs. A through investigation of gender thus demand an analysis of these related philosophical constructs in Islam.
Islam, Gender Politics, and the “Deeper Question”
I use the term “religious anthropology” to indicate a focus on the fundamental concern of what it means to be human within the Muslim tradition. This focus addresses question of the nature and vision of human being as depicted within an Islamic worldview. For the believer, it addresses the age old ontological question “Who am I?” and “What is the nature of existence?” within the context of Islam.
The question of what is means to be a human being immediately beckons the inquirer to the next level of inquiry: what does it mean to be a gendered human being? Does Islam provide notions of a universal essence that transcends gender? Does Islam teach that men and women have essentially different nature? And if so do all women and all men share some universal female or male essence respectively? Or rather is there a combination of sameness and differences between men and women that is do men and women share certain attributes while differing in terms of other attributes? Definitions of beings human invariably provide meanings of beings gendered.
A final related question in addressing religious anthropology focuses on the relationship between gender and moral capacity. Does the religion set out different moral and existential goals for men and women? Or does Islam posit a single ungendered map for human moral agency? Are the ultimate goals human morality within an Islamic framework the same for men and for women? In sum how do gender differences relate to a person moral capacity?
Definition and understanding of religious anthropology are closely linked either implicitly or explicitly to an ontological framework. “Ontology” refers to a theory about the nature of reality or the nature of being. Its most basic questions and concerns are the following: What actually exists? What is the nature of being? What is? An ontological level of inquiry in term of human nature asks the question “Who an I?” in relation to the entire universe of existence to all that is. Ontology focuses on “the most fundamental categories of beings and … the relations among them. Ontological question thus place our understanding of gendered human beings and a religious anthropology within a broader framework of understanding the nature of reality.
While ontology deals with existence in general its intimate companion cosmology, provides a map for understanding the universe in its totality it. Cosmology concerns an understanding of the order and relationship between the various part of the created universe. Questions that arise in relation to cosmology might include the following; what is the nature of the universe? How was it created? For what purpose and toward what destiny was it created? What are a human beings origin place and purpose in this universe? Thus a cosmological level of inquiry in Islam enables the inquirer to situate notions of human nature and existence within a broader framework of understanding the nature of all creation. In a study of Islamic cosmology one also finds macrocosmic mappings of gender that resonate in varying ways with understandings of human genderedness.
A strong relationship exists between these seemingly abstract constructs of religious anthropology ontology and cosmology on the one hand and the realpolitik of gender on the other. Underlying many of the gender inequalities in traditional Islamic legal and ethical formulations are problematic assumptions about the nature of men and women. Many opponents of women imamate for example argue that a woman in a central sacred space stirs sexual desire in male congregants distracting them from their religious devotion. How might these individuals respond to the challenge of men being stirred sexually by the presence of other men in the mosque? Their stated argument against women imamate is premised on a rather convoluted gendered view of humanity in which carefully constructed and highly problematic religious universe is created or the moral benefit of men at the expense of women.
On the one hand men are assumed to be the natural leaders and spiritual authorities in sacred spaces. The prevailing status quo naturalizes male control of the public religious space so that women mere presence in a mosque often needs to be explicated explained justified or vilified. The dominant order of things is such that women are inherently positioned as impostors in the public sacred space. Women otherness is defined in this view as primarily in relation to a powerful sexualized body that ultimately desacrealizes the mosque for male worshippers particularly if the women occupies center stage as the leader of the ritual congregational prayers.
These constructs reflect a patriarchal religious anthropology that is at once binary and hierarchical. Women and femaleness are constructed as sexual carnal and often by extension emotional and irrational engendering chaos. This sexualized feminine realms is seen as oppositional to spirituality intellect and rationality which are associated with maleness and men. Thus men are superior and are inevitably leaders and authorities over the lesser human beings who is the female this gendered split between the principles of body and the mind presents us with Cartesian dualism in Muslim garb.
On the other hand this argument attributes enormous power to female sexuality and paradoxically reduces men to hapless victims of their own libidos. While women possess and overwhelming sexual allure heterosexual men have little capacity for resistance. Because of men inability to focus on God in the presence of the female body women need to be outside men field of vision. Male subjectivity in this guise is defined by and caught in conflict between the realm of the transcendent divine that men are seeking and the presence of the immanent female body that they simultaneously desire.
Ironically even perhaps humorously such an argument significantly diminishes male humanity. From this perspective a man is effectively a perpetual moral adolescent subject to uncontainable heterosexual instincts and his locus of self control has escaped into the shadows just outside of his personal command. His ineffectiveness in monitoring his own body and behavior necessitates vigilant policing of the outer environment. Women whose essence is characterized by a chaos-creating sexuality needs to be remove rendered invisible dispatched into luminal spaces and derived of voice. Thus with such effort toward and effect on women the spiritual sanctity of the mosque (for men) is retained a dubious notion of moral agency indeed.
These types of arguments are based on a religious anthropology that defines men and women as essentially different and more especially gives gender differences distinct hierachal values. Ontologically women are lesser then men and are hence accountable to divergent moral and ethical standards. Men and women are anointed with varying types and levels of moral capacity in the world. This asymmetrical moral compass generates a normative framework when men dominate and lead in the public world and women are ideally relegated to the invisible spheres of the private and the domestic. As such the contemporary Muslim politics of the imamate is essentially underpinned by questions about human nature that are based on specific understanding of genderdness. These understanding must be rendered fully and on an individual basis if gender contestations are to move forward in terms of changing social mind sets rather than merely tackling issues or “symptoms”.
These debates on the imamate also illustrate that anthropological and ontological assumption prefigure ethical and legal norms. Thus genuinely challenging the widest possible forms of sexism in society requires delving challenging the widest possible form of sexism in society requires delving into question about the constituent nature of humanity male and female from a religious perspective. How is the primary God human relationship from a religious perspective understood to mediate relationship between the sexes? Framing questions in this way might intimately link ontology to understanding of religious anthropology while simultaneously addressing gender as an intrinsic part of a broader Islamic cosmology.
The Islamic tradition in fact possesses some rich multi multitextured and deeply grounded approaches to gender with regard to politico-legal issues. The thirteenth century muslim polymath Muhyi al-Din ibn al-Arabi offers precisely such an approach when addressing the issue of women imamate. Within an Islamic cosmology Ibn Arabi the contemplative mystic asserts men and women have equal capacity to attain the divinely ordained vision of spiritual completeness. Indeed for ibn Arabi the equal ontological capacity for spiritual completeness shared by men and women defines an Islamic view of human nature. On the basis of his assumptions regarding a universal and ungendered human capacity promoted in Islam the incisive jurist asserts that a women leadership in ritual prayer is licit before men and women, adding somewhat dismissively that “one should not pay heed to anyone who opposes it without proof. In his arguments on the subject ibn Arbi Skillfully unmasks the pervasive problematic or limited web of ontology and religious anthropology underlying gendered political issues in Muslim thought.
Understanding Sufism, Understanding Gender
Ibn ‘Arabi’ deep rooted reponse to the issue of women imamate is also suggestive of his primary discursive tradition Sufism. In addressing the nature of human beings, society and God, sufi scholars often reveal a specific preoccupation with ontology or the nature of reality. Drawing both on contemplative interpretations of the primary Islamic sources the Quran and hadith and mystical experiences Sufi thinkers address most questions including understanding of gender in relation to the ultimate nature of reality.
Within the Islamic tradition Sufism is often described as the inner path (tariqa) that allows a person to attain the goals of ethical and spiritual cultivation. When relating Sufism to other dimension of the Islamic tradition a popular hadith tradition suggests a tripartite structure of moral obligation that is islam (outward conformity) imam (inward faith) and ihsan (virtuous excellence). Some Muslim thinkers suggest using the metaphor of the embodied human being to understand these different element of moral obligation for the seeker. Jurists they suggest focus on assessing outward conformity with religious precepts that might be associated with the limbs of the body. Theologians and philosophers are concerned with notions of faith and belief which in turn correspond opt the mind. Sufism focus on the inner processes of spiritual cultivation and experiential knowledge both of which culminate in virtue and may be seen to be located in the heart. As such Sufism seeks deeper and more complete knowledge of the inner dimension of reality (or realities) that will facilitate a more intimate relationship with God and greater submission to the divine will. Islam, Imam, and Ihasan are all considered integral to the optimal moral functioning of each human being. To make full sense within this schema, inner understanding take as given the outer forms of religion, historically Sufism has for the most part operated within the norms of Islamic tradition while concurrently pointing to realities beyond them.
My focus on gender in Ibn ‘Arabi’s work is largely framed by the potential of sufi discourse to address gender questions at a deeply rooted level of religious meaning. I examine the dynamic interplay among sacred texts, mystical cosmologies and social reality engaging at the nexus of these three critical junctures the religious construction of gender. Assisted by a feminist lens I explore in particular how love sexuality marriage and related gender dynamics are conceived imagined and created in the works of a major sufi thinker in a formative period of the Islamic legacy. I probe questions about the elements that constitute humanity male and female from a religious perspective the processes by which the primary god human relationship is gender and the understanding of these perspectives to mediate intimate relationship between the sexes. I hence unpack various narratives of masculinity and feminity within these texts.
My investigations’ into the relationship between gender and ontology are vested in the possible implication for core ethical values in Islam. Focusing on intimate relationship and the realm of sexuality as well as public gender dynamics the framework of ibn Arabi mystical cosmology is rich ground for an examination of seemingly abstract philosophical concepts such as ontology and religious anthropology on the one hand and the concrete daily relationship between men and women on the other.
Islamic narratives about personal intimate relationship and public gender imaginaries often share central gendered assumption. In particular patriarchal epistemologies have often configured the intimate realms of love, marriage, and sexuality as domestic, private and outside of the political sphere thereby rendering them invisible and inviolable. Feminists have rendered transparent the insidious reach of ideology and patriarchal politics into the sphere of the private. Deconstructing the binary between the private and the political has revealed the systemic nature of gendered power dynamics that pervade intimate and family relationship. Whether sexual, marital, emotional, or familial, all intimate relationship are entwined in dominant narratives of gender that are imminently political in nature.
Drawing on these feminist insights, I examine the interconnections between the personal and the political in my sources focusing specifically on the way in which marriage, sexuality, and intimate relationships are configured, I keep these personal/political narratives of gender in conversation with sufi ontology and anthropology to contribute to the contemporary search for a relevant Islamic ethics of gender justice.
I claim neither that Sufis hold a monolithic position on gender nor that Sufism is an ahistorical panacea of all things good and wonderful for women. To be sure, Ghazali, a central Sufi thinker who exposed the limitations of a law not based on ethical praxis concurrently conceptualized an ethics of justice that is comfortable and even often complicit with male domination. Thus Sufism does not automatically cure people of sexism. In its historical development and its multiple contexts, Sufism like all other areas of Islamic thought has been characterized by tension between patriarchal inclination and gender egalitarian impulses.
While negative understanding of women have been evident in some strands of sufi thought and practices from its inception particularly during its earlier ascetic variety, Sufism in other instances has also provided gender egalitarian spaces. As discussed in more detail in chapter significant evidence indicates the multitudinous approaches to piety adopted by early Sufi women. While varying levels of asceticism and spiritual discipline formed an integral part of the religious life of these women their pline formed an integral part of the religious life of these women their lifestyles varied from traditional gender roles as mothers and wives to nontraditional roles as independent individuals travelers, teachers, disciples, and solitary mystics. The departures of early Sufi women from traditional gender norms may have been rendered acceptable to other Sufis male and female largely by the greater priority most sufis accord to the individual inner state and by the concomitantly diminished significance of gender identity on the spiritual path. In some cases sufi practices have subverted traditional patriarchal religious anthropology in ways that might provide contemporary Muslims with creative resources for expanding the paradigm for gender justice in their societies.
In the instances however, some Sufis have accepted the traditional sexist understanding of the gendered human person thereby excusing the normative injustice characterizing patriarchal society. For example some Sufi anthropologies have reinforced the association of women with the baser, material spheres of existence thereby positing women as a threat to male spiritual seekers. While such an underlying anthology shares much with popular and highly visible patriarchal Islamic discourses the anthropology characterizing the more positive Sufi constructions of women is largely hidden. I elaborate on both types of anthropological constructs and engage them in dialogue with one another. Instead of avoiding contradiction this dialogue with one another. Instead of avoiding contradiction this dialectical criticism embraces competing rationalities as an instrument for engaging conflict that may offer new alternatives.
In the pages that follows, I illustrate that despite competing gender narratives, core Sufi assumption are inherently critical of power configurations that assert the superiority of particular human beings on any basis other than spiritual stature. In fact some Sufi stories reflect a critique of prevalent notions of intrinsic male superiority. I choose to fours on this area precisely because of the rich complexity of Sufi thought that addresses the core vision of reality within Islam as well as its intrinsically egalitarian spiritual impetus. From the polyphony of Sufi gender narratives Ibn ‘Arabi’ ideas in particular exemplify a superb articulation of these interrelated discursive possibility concerning cosmology and gender. His hermeneutics reflects a rich mélange of scholarly and scriptural tradition Sufi unveilings and like all other interpreters his socio historical positioning. While Ibn ‘Arabi’ and Sufi discourse in general offer some exciting possibilities for creatively and critically engaging questions of gender ethics nether the individual nor the discipline are monolithic.’
Situating Ibn ‘Arabi’
Abu ‘Abd Allah Muhammaed ibn ‘Ali ibn al-‘Arabi al-Hatimi al’Ta more commonly known as ibn ‘Arabi’ was born in Murcia in southern Spain in 1165. Muslim political rule over Spain lasted approximately eight centuries (711-1492 C.E). Andalusia as Muslim Spain was called reflected a fusion of its various legacies: the Roman empire the Christianized Visigoths and elements of Arab civilization brought by immigrants from the Islamic heartlands of Syria, Arabia, and Yemen. It was also an intellectual and cultural center characterized by rich interaction among Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinker as well a site where the intellectual legacies of ancient Greece and Rome were translated and studied. The Muslim of Spain together with their other religious and intellectual cohorts in Andalusia served as a conduit by which many of the lost scientific and philosophical text of the ancient Greco-Roman civilization were reintroduced to the western world. The collective intellectual corpus was to leave an indelible mark on European civilization.
Rom Landau a modern scholar, argues that at its peak, the intellectual zest and material splendor of Cordova and Seville surpassed those of Paris and possibly even of Constantinople. In this diverse sociointellectual milieu ibn ‘Arabi’ received his early education. He was exposed to Zorastrian and Mainchaean lore, Jewish and Christian theology Greek philosophy and mathematics and every Variety of Muslim intellectual achievement.
Ibn ‘Arabi’ was of Arabi lineage born to a family that was relatively well off. He was an only son and had close relationship with both of his sisters. Details regarding his mother are sparse. His father served in the military retinue of the Almohad sultan and became fairly well acquainted with some of the intelligentsia of the day including Ibn Rushd. Ibn ‘Arabi’ family members appear to have been religious with inclinations toward Sufism. At a young age Ibn ‘Arabi experienced mystical vision of God and subsequently traveled to various cities of learning in Andalusia seeking out the learned and the wise. In the formative period of his life Ibn ‘Arabi’ studied with two women saints Fatima of cordova and Yasmina of Mashena both of whom influenced him significantly and contributed to his spiritual development.
Until 1198 Ibn ‘Arabi’ traveled around Spain and north Africa meeting with scholars and Sufis. During this time he continued to have mystical vision which became the basis of his numerous writing. He began to write his magnum opus Al-Futuhat al-makkiyya (The Meccan Openings) in 1201, during his first visit to Mecca. Here he met a Persian Sufi women Nizam who came to represent for him the embodiment of divine love and beauty. In fact Ibn ‘Arabi’ appears to have had pervasive and rich interactions with women not only among his spiritual teachers but also within his family and among his disciples.
From Mecca Ibn ‘Arabi’ traveled to various cities encountering the spiritual figure of Khidr the prophet who initiates people directly into spiritual life from the unseen realms without the regular initiation into a traditional Sufi taria (path) Ibn ‘Arabi’ finally settled in Damascus where he completed the Futuhar which is considered an encyclopedia of esoteric knowledge and spiritual insight. This work took him close to thirty years to finish. He died in Damascus in 1240 at the age of seventy five.
There is no exact record of the number of books Ibn ‘Arabi’ wrote. He mention three hundered a significant number of which are extant with copies in various libraries in the Muslim world and in Europe. The Futuhat is the largest of his work comprising 560 chapters dealing with great variety to topics among them highly abstract principles of metaphysics and Ibn ‘Arabi’ personal spiritual experiences. One contemporary scholar of Sufism seyyed Hossein Nasr remarks that this compendium of esoteric sciences in Islam surpasses in scope and depth anything of its kind composed previously or since. Ibn ‘Arabi’ states that the Futuhat was the product of unveiling given to him by God rather than a product of personal reflection. This work has been studied and commented on by generations of Sufi and other scholar of Islamic.
Perhaps the most popular of Ibn ‘Arabi’ works in the fusu al-hikam (the Bezels of wisdom) which was written in 1229. Ibn ‘Arabi’ reported that this work was inspired by a vision of the prophet Muhammad who commanded Ibn ‘Arabi’ to take a book from the prophet hand and transmit it to the world for the benefit of humankind. In this text each “bezel” symbolizes a facet of divine wisdom respectively revealed to each of the prophet recognized in Islam. The Human and spiritual nature of each prophets was a vehicle for communicating and manifesting particular facets of the divine. The fusus and the futuhat are considered Ibn ‘Arabi’ tow most significant works.
Ibn ‘Arabi’ corpus also includes numerous works on cosmology such as Insha al dawar ir (The description of the encompassing spheres) and uqlat at-mustawfiz (The spell of the obedient servant); meditation on the Quran such as Isharat al-quran an fi alma al insane (Allusions of the Quran in the human world); practical advice to spiritual aspirants such as Risala al-Khlwa (A treatise on spiritual retreat); and poetry, such as the Tarjuman as-ashwq (the interpreter of desires).
Ibn ‘Arabi’ moved among discursive expressions ranging from theology mysticism philosophy and Quran exegesis to poetry biography and mythology. He constantly challenged normative boundaries in his substantive teachings his style of presentation often involved antinomies paradoxes and unusual allegories to convey spiritual insight or esoteric exegeses of the Quran methods that were commonly employed in work of mystical expression. Ibn ‘Arabi’ utilization of this vast varying range of expressions and discursive window makes for a hermeneutically rich body of spiritual insights.
Alexander knysh marvels at Ibn ‘Arabi’ adept and extraordinary style where in even the recurring motifs he used escape being mundane or repetitive. According to Knysh the variety of different discursive expression flowing from Ibn ‘Arabi’ expert hand “colours the very visions and experiences he endeavors to convey making it difficult to neatly separate content from form….[T]he new verbal shells transform the very meaning of these motifs. The diversity of disciplinary and linguistic expressions that Ibn ‘Arabi’ employs to present his ideas add a textured fluidity to his thought. Ibn ‘Arabi’ was heralded as one of the earliest and most sophisticated theoreticians’ of Sufi metaphysics and as a distinguished practical master in his time and contemporary scholars have illustrated the pervasive impact of his legacy in both popular and intellectual Sufi discourses.
Contesting Ibn ‘Arabi’
Ibn ‘Arabi’ is also perhaps one of the most contested figures in Muslim intellectual history. In a detailed study on polemical literature surrounding Ibn ‘Arabi’ knysh noted that from the thirteenth century onward practically every significant Muslim thinker found it necessary to comment on the “Controversial sufi master. In Muslim literature refutations of his work are interlaced with accusation of dangerous heresy a heresy that many of his accusers saw as the combination of a riotous mystical imagination with a pantheistic philosophy that threatened to destroy the foundations of Islam. Opponents of Ibn ‘Arabi’ included those antagonistic so Sufism as well as reformist sufis who accused him of deviating from “true Sufism” or “shari as Sufism,” a Sufism keenly observant of the law.
However some of his supporters revere him as one of the most erudite intellectuals and spiritual savants within the Islamic tradition. The extraordinary stature and iconic position that he enjoys among his disciples and admirers is reflected in the epithet accorded him Shaykh al-Akbar (the greatest master). According to Quri a fifteenth century jurist among religious scholars opinions of Ibn ‘Arabi’ ranged from claims that he was an infidel to arguments that he an axial saint. Quri judiciously reserved judgment on Ibn ‘Arabi’ status.
One of the most strident and consequential critics of Ibn ‘Arabi’ was the fourteenth century Ibn ‘Arabi’ described as the doctrine of “wahdat al wujud [unity of being],” Ibn Taymiyya launched a frontial attack on the monistic tendencies of Akbarian metaphysics. In Ibn Taymiyya somber view such a metaphysical system disturbingly ruptured the clear boundaries between God and humanity between human freedom and predestination between good and evil. The intractable jurists argued that the goal of true Sufism was to serve God more perfectly not to delve into the impregnable mysteries of god being or desire intimacy with the divine.
Underlying much of the controversies about Ibn ‘Arabi’ metaphysical system were contestations of God relationship to humanity. Particularly threatening to Ibn Taymiyya and his ilk was the fact that Ibn ‘Arabi’ metaphysics blurred the clear hierarchy between God and humanity leading to particular types of immanentist inclinations that were not regarded as properly observant of God transcendence. For Ibn Taymiyya the view that human beings through love might know as existential intimacy with God was heretical bordering on Christian doctrines of incarnation (hulul) and union (ittihad).
Patriarchal theologies an reflected in some of the objections to women imamate often hold an excessive focus on elements of God distance and transcendence. Proponents of such approaches may also often denigrate materiality and the body and by extension women who are identified materiality and the body and by extension women who are identified primarily with the bodly principles. It is not therefore surprising that Ibn ‘Arabi’ worldview which integrates notions of humanity intimacy with God and views creation as a sphere of divine manifestation were also accompanied by positive evaluations of materiality of embodiment and of women. Ibn ‘Arabi’ particular assimilation of the notion of God immanence into a theological schema was found too bold in its assertions on human nature and too dangerous in terms of its social consequences. At the same time Ibn ‘Arabi’ insistence on both the transcendence and immanence of God pointed to the paradox of the divine nature that could never be contained by the fetters of human reason.
Yet other Muslim thinkers were known personally to have admired Ibn ‘Arabi’ idea while denouncing him publicly. Some religious scholars believed that Ibn ‘Arabi’ teaching should be restricted to an elite group of qualified adept Sufis able to understand the complexities and intricacies of his metaphysics. In this view the deep esoteric nature of his insight with their nuanced constellation of ideas would not be accessible to the general Muslim population which would invariably misunderstand and distort them. Adherents of this perspective saw Ibn ‘Arabi’ ideas as perilous only when they were exposed to the limitations of spiritually unrefined human beings.
Conversely other advocates of Ibn ‘Arabi’ reject depictions of him as an anarchist unconcerned with social order and as a metaphysician tearing away the shield of divine transcendence. One the contrary they argue he was one of the greatest living saints and his ideas reflect profound and startling insights into the heart of the Quran and sunna. Based on these primary sources and inspired by mystical unveilings proponents of this view assert that Ibn ‘Arabi’ cosmological panoply superbly integrated both divine immanence and transcendence into his theological schema. They astutely point to the glaring absence of peer opposition to Ibn ‘Arabi’ during his lifetime indicating that his contemporaries recognized his personal piety and impeccable adherence to Islamic rites.
Debates regarding Ibn ‘Arabi’ have not been limited to religious scholars rulers and politicians have also instrumentalized the enduring Ibn ‘Arabi’ controversy. The ottoman rulers were particularly enamored of the Shaykh al-Akbar kemal pashazde a sixteenth century ottoman statesman and scholar issued an official ban on public defamations of Ibn ‘Arabi’ ideas. Conversely are recently as 1979. Some members of the people assembly the lower house of the Egyptian bicameral parliament unsuccessfully attempted to enact an official ban on Ibn ‘Arabi’ teachings. Th. Emil Homerin point out how the Egyptian government attempted to use this religious controversy to gain political leverages. Conflicting images of Ibn ‘Arabi’ thus for centuries also been utilized to enable and disable varying ideological agendas.
The history and depth of engagement with Ibn ‘Arabi’ ideas even when mired in controversy reflect the importance of this thinker in Muslim tradition. The profound nature of his ideas and their possible and actual ramifications have persistently intervened in Muslim intellectual life from the thirteenth century onward. In part the earlier controversies regarding Ibn ‘Arabi’ ideas also prefigure some of the more intense debates on the place and nature of Sufism in the modern world.
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