Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi

O marvel!
A garden amidst flames!
My heart has become capable of every form:
it is a pasture for gazelles
and a convent for Christian monks,
and a temple for idols, and the pilgrim’s Ka’ba
and the tables of the Tora, and the book of the Koran.
I follow the religion of Love:
whatever way Love’s camels take,
that is my religion and my faith.

As with all great men, the documented facts comprising the life story of Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi (1165-1240) have become intermingled with innumerable legends. Yet it is often these stories that most accurately reflect the true character of a religious master and the reason for his existence. In this world, such persons are indeed what others recognize in them and what they make of them. Thus, the many stories and tales about Ibn Arabi attest to absolute mastery in his function as spiritual teacher and guide (sheikh). Even today, many Moslems refer to Ibn Arabi as "the Greatest Master" (al-Shaykh-al-Akbar).

Muhyiddin Abu Abdallah Muhammadi Ibn Ali Ibn Arabi al-Tai al-Hatimi al-Andalusi was born to a well-situated family in what is today Murcia, Spain. Because of war, they were forced to move to Seville where Ibn Arabi spent his childhood years. Early in life during extensive travels in Andalusia, Africa and the Middle East, he personally met many of the greatest mystics, spiritual leaders and philosophers of his time. He resided for extended periods in Egypt, Iraq, Syria and in today's Turkey. In 1223, he settled in Damascus where, with a circle of students, he remained until his death.

Although Ibn Arabi made many enemies due to his outspoken criticism of religious and philosophical dogmatism, he was - and is today- honoured as one of the greatest Sufis of all times and as a teacher of unrivalled status. Titles such as "Greatest Master", "Pole of Knowledge" or "Doctor Maximus" attest to his recognition in both East and West. As the prime representative of Sufism and with great clarity of vision, Ibn Arabi taught the absolute unity of all existence and its way of self-revelation- a message possessing inestimable potential for intercultural understanding, especially in times of burgeoning religious intolerance and blind fundamentalism.

Ibn Arabi's personal life history is well documented thanks to the preservation of many of his literary contributions. He spent his entire life in study, as an author and as a spiritual teacher. Moreover he was active in the social environment and in politics which made him a consultant to several kings as well. The extent of his knowledge and work is enormous. According to latest research, at least 350 works, some of which are very substantial, are attributed to Ibn Arabi. Not without reason, Ibn Arabi is known as "the Pole of Knowledge" in certain Islamic traditions.

The times in which Ibn Arabi lived were in spiritual upheaval and were turbulent for Jews and Christians as well. It was a time in which all three Abrahamian religious communities were in strong, direct contact with one another. However, even today the work of Ibn Arabi can be reconciling because all three religious communities basically go back to Abraham and all three pray to the same God below the surface of outer appearance.

Stefan Bommer
(courtesy of the author and chalice publications, translated from the German by Warren Richardson)