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Muhyiddin ibn ʿArabi

A Biography

Shaykh Gibril Fouad Haddad

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Born in the Spanish township of Murcia on 17th of Ramadan 561 AH (27th or 28th of July 1165 AD) with respectable family roots of Banu Tayy, this unique mystic of Islam, Muhammad Muhyiddin ibn ʿAli ibn Muhammad ibn al-ʿArabi al-Ta’i al Hatmi is universally known as al-Shaykh al-Akbar (The Greatest Master). His father, ʿAli ibn Muhammad served in the Army of Ibn Mardanish, and later when Ibn Mardanish died in 1172 AD, he swiftly shifted his allegiance to the Almohad Sultan, Abu Ya’qub Yusuf I , and became one of his military advisers. While still a boy of eight years old the family of Ibn ʿArabi left Murcia and took Seville for their home. In Stephen Hartenstein’s words: “Ibn ʿArabi (ق) spent his youth age in the most advanced city of that time, an atmosphere steeped in the most important ideas – philosophical, scientific and religious – of his day. For the young Ibn ʿArabi, twelfth century Seville was no doubt the equivalent of today’s London, Paris and New York” (Hirtenstein 36).


Sheikh Ibn ʿArabi’s (ق) dogmatic and intellectual training began in the cultural and civilized centre of Muslim Spain as Seville was known in 578 AH. Most of his teachers mentioned in the ijaza wrote to King al-Muzaffar were the ʿulama’ of the Almohad era and some of them also held the official posts of Qadi or Khatib (Addas 97). He was just a young boy when his father sent him to the renowned jurist Abu Bakr ibn Khalaf to study Qur’an. Ibn ʿArabi (ق) learnt the recitation of the Qur’an from the book of Al-Kafi in the seven different readings (qira’at). The same work was also transmitted to him by another muqri, ʿAbd al-Rahman ibn Ghalib ibn al-Sharrat (Addas 44). At the age of ten, he was well-versed in the Qira’at; afterwards he learned the sciences of Hadith and Fiqh from the famous scholars of the time. 

He studied Hadith and Sira with the muhaddith ʿAbd al-Rahman al-Suhayli, who taught him all of his works. He also attended lectures of Qadi Ibn Zarkun, who transmitted to him Kitab al-Taqassi of Al-Shatibi and issued him an Ijaza (permission of transmission to others.)

Later he studied under ʿAbdal-haqq al-Azd al-Ishbili his works on Hadith; these are Ahkam al-Kubra, al-Wusta and al-Sughra. In addition to his own works, he also transmitted to Ibn ʿArabi (ق) the writings of the famous Zahiri scholar, Ibn Hazm al-Andalusi (Addas 45). The complete list of his teachers and masters can be found in a scholarly certificate Ijaza given to Sultan al-Ashraf al-Muzaffar, in this document Ibn Arabi (ق) mentioned 70 of his teachers and masters (Ibn ʿArabi, “Ijaza li Malik al-Muzaffar”).


Ibn ʿArabi (ق) was about sixteen when he went into seclusion. He himself never explicitly mentioned the reasons behind it. Yet the following factors are worth considering: A story heard 150 years after his death relates that Ibn ʿArabi (ق) was at a dinner party which rounded off with wine. As he took the wine cup to his lips, he heard a voice: “O Muhammad, it was not for this that you were created! ” (Addas 36). This gave him an urge to quit worldly pursuits and to embark upon the search of God. Another important cause of this retreat was a vision of the three great Prophets, Jesus, Moses and Muhammad (s). Ibn ʿArabi (ق) says: “When I turned to this path, it was accomplished through a dream-vision (mubashshira) under the guidance of Jesus, Moses and Muhammad (s).

In it, Jesus urged him to take to asceticism (Zuhd), Moses divulged to him that he would get to the infused knowledge called “al-ʿilm al-ludunni ” and the Prophet Muhammad (s) advised him to follow him step by step; “Hold fast to me and you will be safe!” (Addas 41). As a consequence of this retreat and the spiritual insights granted to him, two things seem to have happened: firstly, he began to study Qur’an and Hadith and secondly, Ibn ʿArabi (ق) was sent by his father to meet the great philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes, 1126-98).

The meeting was very significant in the sense that Ibn ʿArabi (ق) answered his questions in ʿYes’ and ʿNo;’ and Ibn Rushd declared: “I myself was of the opinion that such a thing (i.e. spiritual knowledge without learning) is possible, but never met anyone who had experienced it” (OY: II, 372).


Ibn ʿArabi’s (ق) contact with spiritual masters began in Seville. At that time the pursuit of the spiritual life normally involved keeping company with many different masters instead of only one master. Ibn ʿArabi has described brief biographies of his masters in his book Ruh al-Quds. Al-ʿUryabi of ʿUlya was one of those masters who visited Seville nearly in 1184, and Ibn ʿArabi (ق) met him at that stage of his life when he had already embarked on the Path. One can call al-ʿUryabi as his first teacher (al-murshad al-awwal), a relationship which is always of significance in Sufism. Shaykh al ʿUryabi had reached the high spiritual state of total servitude (ʿubudiyya), which in Ibn ʿArabi’s (ق) eyes surpass all others. Later on meetings with his Shaykh transformed Ibn ʿArabi’s (ق) life so quickly that he wrote in Futuhat : “While our Shaykh al-ʿUryabi was ʿIsawi at the end of his life. I was ʿIsawi at the beginning of my life on this path. I was then taken to the states of Musawi sun illumination. Then I was taken to Hud (as), and after that to all the Prophets, there after I was taken to Muhammad (s). That was the order for me in this path” (OY: III, 361-2). Some of his masters are:

1 Abu al-Abbas al-ʿUryabi

2 Abu al-Hajjaj al-Shubarbuli

3 Abu Ya’qub Yusuf al-Kumi

4 Abu Yahyh al-Sanhaji

5 Abu ʿAbd Allah Ibn Qassum

6 Abu ʿAbd Allah al-Sharafi

7 Abu ʿAbbas al-Kashshab

8 Abu ʿImran al-Murtuli

9 Salih al-ʿAdawi

10 Abd al-ʿAziz al-Mahdawi

11 ʿAbd Allah al-Mawruri

12 Abu Madyan al-Ghawth (Rahmatullahi `Alayhi)

Detail about his masters and their relationship with Ibn ʿArabi (ق) can be found in Ruh al-Quds, Durrat al-Fakhira and Futuhat al-Makkiyya.


Factually speaking, Shaykh al-ʿUryabi (ق) initiated Ibn ʿArabi’s (ق) contact with Khidr in Seville, when he was only a youth. Ibn ʿArabi (ق) says: “I met Khidr (as) in Qus al-haniyya in Seville, and he said to me: “Accept what the Shaykh says!” I immediately turned to the Shaykh [ʿUryabi (ق)] and before I spoke he said: “O Muhammad, does that mean that every time you contradict me, I will have to ask Khidr (as) to instruct you in submission to the masters?” I replied: “Master, was that person Khidr?” He answered: “Yes!” (I, 331; Addas 63). That was his first meeting with Khidr (as). Later Ibn ʿArabi (ق) met Khidr (ق) several times. In 1193 at the age of 28 Ibn ʿArabi (ق) visited Tunis and the main intention behind this visit was to meet with the great disciples of Abu Madyan, notably ʿAbd al-ʿAziz al-Mahdawi and Ab┴ Muhammad ʿAbdallah al-Kinani. He stayed there for less than a year during which he realized the station of pure servant-hood and the Muhammadian inheritance.

On return from Tunis, he met Khidr (as) for the second time; it happened when he was returning from Tunis by boat, on a lunar night he saw a man walking on the water towards him. On reaching the boat, Khidr (as) stood on the sea and showed him that his feet were still dry. After that Khidr (as) conversed with Ibn ʿArabi (ق) in a language which is peculiar to him (OY: III, 182).

On reaching Andalusia in late 590 AH, Ibn ʿArabi (ق) had his third meeting with Khidr (as), this time Khidr (as) performed a miracle to provide evidence to a companion of Ibn ʿArabi (ق) who denies the existence of miracles. A common feature of all these meetings with Khidr (as) was that they took place in the presence of a high rank spiritual master initiating Ibn ʿArabi (ق) into the knowledge of Divine mysteries.


In the year 586, Ibn ʿArai (ق) had a rare vision in Cordoba, in which he met all the Prophets from the time of Adam to Muhammad (s) in their spiritual reality. Prophet Hud (as) spoke to him and explained him the reason for their gathering. We can trace what Hud (as) told him in Ruh al-Quds when Abu Muhammad Makhluf al-Qaba’ili – a saint of Cordoba – died, the Prophet Hud (as) said: “We came to visit Abu Muhammad Makhluf al-Qaba’ili” (Ibn ʿArabi (ق), “Ruh al-Quds” 116). According to a tradition among the direct disciples of Ibn ʿArabi (ق), Hud (as) explained that the real reason for their gathering was to welcome him (Ibn ʿArabi (ق)) as the Seal of Muhammadan Sainthood (khatm al-wilaya al- muhammadiyya), the supreme heir (Addas 76).

Stephen Hartenstein writes in Unlimited Mercifier: “It is from his return from Tunis, we find the first evidence of Ibn ʿArabi (ق) beginning to write; later in 1194, he wrote one of his first major works, Mashahid al-Asrar al-Qudusiyya (Contemplation of the Holy Mysteries) for the companions of al-Mahdawi and perhaps around the same time, in a space of four days, also composed the voluminous Tadbirat al-Ilahiyya (Divine Governance) in Mawrur (Moron) for Shaykh Abu MuHammad al-Mawruri” (Hirtenstein 91).


The next five years were a time when Ibn ʿArabi (ق) entered into a different world. Having been brought up under the instruction and guidance of various spiritual masters of the West, he now came into his own as a Muhammadan heir. As from this point the real genius of Ibn ʿArabi (ق) began to emerge and he became universal. Shortly after his return to Andalusia from North Africa in 1194 AD, Ibn ʿArabi’s (ق) father died and within a few months his mother also died. Now the responsibility of the upbringing of his two young sisters fell upon his shoulders. His cousin came to him with the request that he should take up his wordly duties, and give up the spiritual life (Hirtenstein 110). It was a time of great uncertainty for Seville because of war. The third Sultan, Abu Yusuf Ya’qub al Mansur offered him a job but Ibn ʿArabi (ق) refused both the job and an offer to marry off his sisters and within days he left Seville heading toward Fez, where they settled.

In Fez Ibn ʿArabi (ق) met two men of remarkable spirituality, one of them was a sufi Pillar (awtad), his name was Ibn Ja’din and the second one known as al-Ashall (literally, “the withered” for the reason that he had a withered hand) who was the Pole (qutub) of his time. It was a happy period of his life, where he could utterly dedicate himself to spiritual work. In Fez in 593 AH, he entered a new degree of vision in the form of light. In that vision, when he was leading a Prayer in the al-Azhar Mosque, he saw a light which was more visible than what was in front of him, he says:

“I lost the sense of behind [or front]. I no longer had a back or the nape of a neck. While the vision lasted, I had no sense of direction, as if I had been completely spherical (dimensionless).” (II, 486)


This light vision is a kind of foretaste of his great journey of light; in 594 AH at the age of 33 Ibn ʿArabi (ق) was taken on one of the most extraordinary journeys of all: the ascension (al-mi’raj). Ibn ʿArabi (ق) wrote a book named Kitab al-Isra (Book of the Night Journey) immediately after this spiritual experience. Some sections of Futuhat and Risalat al-Anwar (Epistle of Light) also elaborate the hidden meaning of these ascensions. It is quite interesting that Ibn ʿArabi’s (the Muhammadan heir) ascension is an exact and faithful replication of the Prophet Muhammad’s ascension; while the Prophet’s ascension took place bodily, his ascension was a dream, vision of a heart or the vision of forms. These divine events are determining the way forward for his ultimate role as the Seal of Muhmmadan Sainthood. Ibn ʿArabi (ق) tells us that in 594AH, in Fez Allah laid bare to him its true import and showed him the signs of his function. In al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya Chapter 43 starts with an open claim to the Seal of Muhammadian Sainthood, he says:

“I am the Seal of Sainthood without any doubt, by virtue of the inheritance of the Hashimite, along with the Messiah” (OY: IV, ;71 Elmore, “Islamic Sainthood” 56.)

These lines have no possible room for doubt: Ibn ʿArabi (ق) is identifying himself categorically and explicitly with the Muhammadan Seal like Jesus (as).


In Fez 594 AH, ʿAbdallah Badr al-Habshi first met Ibn ʿArabi (ق) and for the rest of his life became a soul mate and a faithful friend, accepting Ibn ʿArabi (ق) as his master and guide. Al-Shaykh al-Akbar said about him in Futuhat:

“[He is a man] of unadulterated clarity, a pure light, he is a Habashi named ʿAbdallah, and like a full moon (badr) without eclipse. He acknowledges each person’s right and renders it to him; he assigns to each his right, without going further. He has attained the degree of true discrimination. He was purified at the time of fusion like pure gold. His word is true, his promise sincere.”
(OY: I, ;72 Hirtenstein 123.)

In the year 595AH Ibn ʿArabi (ق) returned to the Iberian Peninsula for the last time and it seems he had two intentions: to introduce al-Habashi to his friends and masters and to depart finally from the land of his birth. In December 595AH, Ibn ʿArabi (ق) was in Cordoba, at the funeral of Ibn Rushd, whom once he met some 18 years earlier. When the coffin was loaded upon a beast of burden, his works were placed upon the other side to counterbalance it. Ibn ʿArabi (ق) said the following verse on that day:

“Here the master, there his works – Would that I know if his hopes have been fulfilled!”

From Cordoba they travelled to Granada and met with ʿAbdallah al-Mawruri and Abu Muhammad al-Shakkaz. From Granada to Murcia, the town of his birth and stayed with an old friend Abu Ahmed Ibn Saydabun, a famous disciple of Abu Madyan who at the time of their meeting was evidently going through a period of fatra or suspension. They travelled again to Almeria, where they spent the month of Ramadan in 595AH and Ibn ʿArabi (ق) wrote Mawaqiʿ al-Nujum over a period of eleven nights. Perhaps in Almeria also, he started writing ʿAnqa’ Mughrib where a full explanation about the Seal of Saints can be found.

These were his last days in the West, where he started visiting his masters for the last time, and he collected his writings and ensured that he must at least have a single copy of all of his works as now he was departing toward the East forever. When he left Andalusia for the last time he appeared to have a vision of his future destiny at the shores of the Mediterranean as he later told his stepson Sadr al-din al-Qanawi:

“I turned towards God with total concentration and in a state of contemplation and vigilance that was perfect: God then showed me all of my future states, both internal and external, right through to the end of my days. I saw that your father, Ishaq ibn Muhammad, would be my companion and you as well.”
(Hirtenstein 127).

In the year 597 AH/1200 AD, he was in Morocco and took his final leave from his master Yusuf al-Kumi, who was living in the village of Salé at that time. This shows that he had finally completed his training under the teachers of his early years and was now ready to go to a new world. On his way to Marrakesh of that year he entered the Station of Proximity (maqam al-qurba).

“I entered this station in the month of Muharram in 597 AH… In joy I began to explore it, but on finding absolutely no one else in it, I felt anxiety at the solitude. Although I was realized in [this station], but I still did not know its name.”(II, 261).

Later Ibn ʿArabi (ق) finds Abu ʿAbd al-Rahman al-Sulami in it and he told Ibn ʿArabi (ق) that this station is called, the station of proximity (maqam al-qurba) (Hirtenstein 128).


Having left behind all the traces of his past, Ibn ʿArabi began his long journey to the East from Marrakesh where he had a marvellous vision of the Divine Throne. In that vision, he saw the treasures beneath the Throne and the beautiful birds flying about within them. One bird greeted Ibn ʿArabi (ق), saying that he should take him as his companion to the East. This companion was Muhammad al-Hassar of Fez. He started travelling with his friends towards the East. After visiting the tombs of his uncle Yahya and Abu Madyan in ʿUbbad near Tlemcen, he stopped at Bijaya (Bougie) during Ramadan and saw a remarkable dream about the secrets of letters and stars. He saw himself united like the union in marriage with all the stars of heavens, after the stars the letters were given his union, and he united with all of them (Ibn ʿArabi (ق), “Kitab al-Ba’” 10-11). This dream was later interpreted as the great Divine knowledge which was bestowed upon Ibn ʿArabi (ق).

His next stop was Tunis 598 AH where he happened to see Shaykh ʿAbd al-ʿAziz al-Mahdawi whom he had met about six year ago. At the same time he continued writing works like Insha’ al-Dawa’ir for his friend al-Habashi. Resuming his travels, he arrived in Cairo in 598 AH/1202 AD where he met his childhood friends, the two brothers, ʿAbdallah Muhammad al-Khayyat and Abu al-Abbas Ahmad al-Harrari and stayed at their house in the month of Ramadan. That was a period of great devastation, terrible famine and plague for Egypt. Perhaps the death of his companion Muhammad al-Hassar was due to this plague. Ibn ʿArabi (ق) saw this devastation with his own eyes and a passage of Ruh al-Quds tells us that when people made light of Allah’s statutes He imposes the strictures of His Law upon them (Yusuf 240).

Ibn ʿArabi (ق) resumed travelling toward Palestine, and his route took him to all the major burial places of the great Prophets: Hebron, where Abraham (as) and other Prophets are buried; Jerusalem, the city of David (as) and the later Prophets; and then Medina, the final resting place of the Prophet Muhammad (s).


At the end of his long journey he finally arrived at Makkah, the mother of all cities, in 598 AH (July 1202 AD). The Makkan period of Ibn ʿArabi’s (ق) life can be viewed as the fulcrum of his earthly existence; he spent 36 years of his life in the West and the upcoming 36 years in the East, with about 3 years in Makkah in between. This three year period both connects and differentiates the two halves of his life. It was in Makkah that he started writing the very best of his works Al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya.

It was in Makkah that his status as Seal of Muhammadian sainthood was confirmed in the glorious vision of the Prophet; it was in Makkah that he had the dream of the two bricks and his encounter with the Kaʿba; (Hirtenstein 148) it was in Makkah that the love of women was first evoked in his heart by the beautiful Nizam, (Hirtenstein, 149) who became the personification of wisdom and beauty. It was in Makkah that he first savoured the pleasures of married life, marrying and becoming a father. His first wife was Fatima bint Yunus and their first son Muhammad ʿImaduddin was probably born in Makkah (Hirtenstein 150).

Again it was in Makkah that he produced the very best of his works, like the first chapters of Futuhat, the Ruh al-Quds, the Taj al-Rasa’il, the Hilyat al-Abdal and a collections of hadith qudsi named Mishkat al-Anwar. It is also worth mentioning that in Makkah he met some of the eminent scholars of Hadith of his time. Amongst them was Abu Shuja’ Zahir bin Rustam, father of the beautiful Nizam and Yunus ibn Yahya al-Hashimi (ق), who had been a pupil of the great ʿAbd al-Qadir al-Jilani (ق) in Baghdad. He not only introduced Ibn ʿArabi (ق) to the Prophetic tradition but also transmitted to him the teachings of the most famous saint in Egypt in the ninth century, Dhu’l-Nun al-Misri. Yunus ibn Yahya also invested him in front of the Kaʿba with the Khirqa (Mantle) of ʿAbd al-Qadir al-Jilani (ق). (Ibn ʿArabi (ق), “Nasab al-Khirqa”; Elmore “Mantle of Initiation” 1-33). It is believed that after wearing this Khirqa Ibn ʿArabi (ق) formally joined the Qadriyya Tariqah.

From sunnah.org with permission.



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