Islamic Studies Ibn al-ʿArabī
Alexander Knysh, Ali Hussain
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 February 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0206


Ibn al-ʿArabi (often called “Ibn ʿArabi”), Muhyi al-Din Muhammad (b. 560/1165–d. 638/1240), was born in Murcia (present-day Spain) and spent his formative years in Seville. After receiving an excellent education, he embraced Sufism and traveled widely in search of authoritative Sufi masters in both Iberia and North Africa. In 597/1201, Ibn al-ʿArabi set out on a pilgrimage to Mecca never to return to the Muslim West again. Ibn al-ʿArabi’s talents came to full bloom in Arabia (the Hijaz), Anatolia, and Syria. Rulers and leading scholars of these regions patronized Ibn al-ʿArabi and his disciples. The bulk of his works was composed there, including “Bezels of Wisdom” (Fuṣūṣ al-Ḥikam) and “Meccan Revelations” (al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya). His foremost follower, Sadr al-Din al-Qunawi (b. 605/1207–d. 673/1274), spread his ideas in Anatolia, Egypt, and beyond. Ibn al-ʿArabi died and was buried in Damascus, where his tomb is still being visited by his admirers. His written legacy consists of more than 100 works. In his vast corpus of writings, Ibn al-ʿArabi explored such controversial issues as the status of prophecy vis-à-vis sainthood (the latter, in his view, being more encompassing), the concept of the perfect man (identified as the supreme Sufi “gnostic” of his epoch and the spiritual “pole” of the universe), parallels between the human “microcosm” and its cosmic counterpart—the material world, the ever-changing and elusive self-manifestation of the transcendent Divine Absolute in the events and phenomena of the empirical universe, the different modes and realms of the divine will (namely, the existential as opposed to the normative), as well as the allegorical/esoteric aspects of the Muslim scripture. Contrary to a commonly held assumption, Ibn al-ʿArabi’s metaphysical system was not a “foreign implant” grafted onto the pristine body of “traditional” Sufism (as argued, for example by the French scholar Louis Massignon, 1883–1962). Rather, it was a natural development of certain tendencies inherent in Sufism from its very inception. With Ibn al-ʿArabi these tendencies evolved—probably under the influence of Ibn Sina and al-Ghazali—into a vision of God not just as the only agent, but also as the only essence possessing real and unconditional existence. This vision, which may loosely be described as “panentheistic,” was rebuffed by the influential Hanbali scholar Ibn Taymiyya (b. 661/1263–d. 728/1328), who condemned its followers as heretical “unificationists” (al-ittihadiyya) bent on undermining divine transcendence and blurring the all-important borderline between God and his creatures. A fierce polemic between the champions of Ibn al-ʿArabi and his detractors ensued that that continues until this day. It has divided Muslim intellectuals into two factions: one holds Ibn al-ʿArabi to be the greatest “gnostic” (ʿarif) of all times, while the other views him as a dangerous heretic whose doctrine of “the unity of existence/being” (wahdat al-wujud) threatens to undermine the very foundations of Islamic creed and communal life.

General Surveys of Ibn al-ʿArabi’s Works and Thought

There have been several attempts to survey the wide range of topics in Ibn al-ʿArabi’s thought. Chittick 1989 and Chittick 1998 are the most important works of this genre. They include many translated sections from his magnum opus, al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya. Moulinet 2010 also offers a general survey of Ibn al-ʿArabi’s thought, but focuses on his other seminal, if also highly controversial, work, Fuṣūṣ al-Ḥikam. The latter is also the main object of Izutsu 1966–1967, a pioneering study that introduces the Western reader to Ibn al-ʿArabi’s most renowned (and controversial) treatise. Nettler 2003 also discusses the Fuṣūṣ, but with special emphasis on Ibn al-ʿArabi’s prophetology. The Sufi thinker’s conception of sainthood (walaya or wilaya) is explored in Chodkiewicz 1986. The author compares Ibn al-ʿArabi’s treatment of the concept khatm al-walaya (seal of sainthood) with the ideas of al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi, the 3rd/9th–4th/10th century Iranian mystic of Arab background who articulated this critical notion of the Sufi doctrine for the first time. In another study, Chodkiewicz 1992, the author explores the exoteric foundations of Ibn al-ʿArabi’s “encyclopedia of esotericism,” al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya. By highlighting the “Qurʾanic structure” of this giant opus, Chodkiewicz aims to prove Ibn al-ʿArabi’s overriding loyalty to the Qurʾan, the prophetic tradition (hadith/sunna) and the Islamic law (al-shariʿa). In this way, Chodkiewicz implicitly defends Ibn al-ʿArabi against accusations of ignoring or making light of the literal aspects of the Divine Revelation in favor of its esoteric meaning. Morris 2005 seems to share a similar motivation in presenting Ibn al-ʿArabi’s al-Futūḥāt, Fuṣūṣ, and other treatises as manuals of spiritual realization (tahqiq) and moral discipline (tarbiyya) rather than purely esoteric manifestos. The more esoteric and metaphysical aspects of Ibn al-ʿArabi’s thought have received considerable attention among Western students of Sufism. Particularly, the topic of his mystical cosmology has been the subject of academic discussions over the past five decades. Corbin 1958, a classic study of Ibn al-ʿArabi’s concept of ʿalam al-khayal (the “imaginal”/imaginary realm), is indispensable for any student interested in mystical cosmology and epistemology. More recently, Haj Yousef 2008 has furnished a detailed discussion of Ibn al-ʿArabi’s perception of time and its various measurements (days, months, years, etc.).

  • Chittick, William. The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn al-ʿArabī’s Metaphysics of Imagination. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989.

    A crucial reference on Ibn al-ʿArabi for both scholars and lay readers. Chittick addresses practically every major aspect of Ibn al-ʿArabi’s thought, using philosophically based rubrics, such as ontology, epistemology, and anthropology. The book contains annotated translations of sections of the Futūḥāt, with the translator’s concise introductions of each theme or concept. The indices at the end of the study are very detailed and helpful.

  • Chittick, William. The Self-Disclosure of God: Principles of Ibn al-ʿArabī’s Cosmology. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.

    Alongside his Sufi Path (Chittick 1989), this study by Chittick is an essential reference for anyone interested in Ibn al-ʿArabi’s thought. The author specifically addresses the difficulties of translating the key terms and concepts of the al-Futūḥāt and Fuṣūṣ from the original Arabic into English, suggesting a number of neologisms. Unlike Sufi Path’s philosophically inspired organization, the structure and terminology of the Self-Disclosure is somewhat more representative of Ibn al-ʿArabi’s own classificatory categories.

  • Chodkiewicz, Michel. Le Sceau des saints: Prophétie et sainteté dans la doctrine d’Ibn ʿArabi. Paris: Gallimard, 1986.

    A study of walaya/wilaya (sainthoodin Ibn al-ʿArabi’s oeuvre and its roots in the earlier Islamic thought. Chodkiewicz focuses his attention on the genealogy of the concept khatm al-walaya (the seal of sainthood), which is critical to the Sufi worldview, as initially articulated by an Arab-Persian mystic al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi (d. c. 910) and later appropriated and recast by Ibn al-ʿArabi in accordance with his own overall world outlook. The English version was published by the Islamic Texts Society in Cambridge (UK) in 1993 as Seal of the Saints: Prophethood and Sainthood in the Doctrine of Ibn ʻArabī.

  • Chodkiewicz, Michel. Un Océan sans rivage: Ibn ʿArabi, le Livre et la Loi. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1992.

    Unlike most books on Ibn al-ʿArabi that privilege his esoteric side, this study discusses his Sharia-bound motivations as reflected in his magnum opus, al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya. Chodkiewicz seeks to demonstrate what he sees as a remarkable similarity between the structure of the al-Futūḥāt and that of the Qurʾan. Thus, Un Océan sans rivage is an essential introduction to this often underappreciated aspect of Ibn al-ʿArabi’s legacy, while at the same time being an overview of the diffusion of Ibn al-ʿArabi’s thought within various Sufi orders. The English translation of this work was published by the State University of New York Press in 1993 as An Ocean Without Shore: Ibn ‘Arabi, the Book, and the Law).

  • Corbin, Henry. L’imagination créatrice dans le soufisme d’Ibn ʿArabi. Paris: Flammarion, 1958.

    A valuable contribution to the study of Ibn al-ʿArabi by a Western scholar who spent his whole life studying in the vicissitudes of Muslim esoteric thought. Corbin offers a nuanced and highly personal discussion of “the imaginal realm” (ʿalam al-khayal) that plays a key role in Ibn al-ʿArabi’s cosmology and gnoseology. While criticizing the Western academic establishment for its disparaging treatment of mystical metaphysics, Corbin’s attempt to tie Ibn al-ʿArabi to Shiʿism is characteristic of his general preoccupation with the Shiʿi/Ismaʿili esotericism that he considered to be the all-important core of Islamic spiritual and intellectual tradition. The English translation of this book by Ralph Manheim was published by Princeton University Press in 1969 as Creative Imagination in the Ṣūfism of Ibn ʿArabī.

  • Haj Yousef, Mohamed. Ibn ʿArabī: Time and Cosmology. New York and London: Routledge, 2008.

    This study by a Western-trained follower of Ibn al-ʿArabi examines the latter’s cosmology with special reference to zaman (time), and how its various measurements—yawm (day), saʿa (hour), and shahr (month)—are calculated by Ibn al-ʿArabi in his works, especially his early treatise ʿUqlat al-Mustawfiz. The author is also interested in comparing Ibn al-ʿArabi’s intellectual paradigm with modern scientific theories current in quantum physics, such as string theory.

  • Izutsu, Toshihiko. A Comparative Study of the Key Philosophical Concepts in Sufism and Taoism: IbnʿArabı̄ and Lao-tzŭ, Chuang-tzŭ. Tokyo: Keio Institute of Cultural and Linguistic Studies, 1966–1967.

    The book’s title suggests a comparison between Ibn al-ʿArabi’s thought and Lao Tzu’s Taoist philosophy. Using al-Qashani’s (d. 730/1329) commentary on the Fuṣūṣ al-Ḥikam, Izutsu furnishes a detailed summary of Ibn al-ʿArabi’s thought seen through the eyes of his later interpreter. Curiously, the actual comparison between Sufism and Taoism occupies only 20 out of the 400 pages in this study, the rest being but a detailed examination of the principal themes of the Fuṣūṣ.

  • Morris, James. The Reflective Heart: Discovering Spiritual Intelligence in Ibn al-ʿArabī’s Meccan Illuminations. Louisville: Fons Vitae, 2005.

    Morris’s studies of Ibn al-ʿArabi generally explore two underlying motivations in the latter’s writings: tahqiq ([self-]realization) and tarbiyya (moral-ethical training or discipline). This work is no exception. It presents Ibn al-ʿArabi as an “orthodox” scholar of both Sharia and Sufism, whose various treatises, no matter how provocative at times, should nonetheless be considered as pedagogical manuals for mystical seekers. In this respect, Morris’s approach to Ibn al-ʿArabi’s legacy is akin to that in Chodkiewicz 1992.

  • Moulinet, Philippe. Les Clefs d’Ibn Arabî: Commentaire intégral du Kitāb Fuṣūṣ al-Ḥikam, le Livre des Chatons des Sagesses d’Ibn Arabî. Paris: Dar Albouraq, 2010.

    This study focuses solely on the text of Fuṣūṣ. In this survey of the keynotes of Ibn al-ʿArabi’s thought, Moulinet reveals his own mystical leanings by offering quotations from the works of Ahmad al-ʿAlawi, a 20th-century Sufi master, with the purpose of placing Ibn al-ʿArabi in the context of contemporary Western meditations on spiritual quests in a largely secular society.

  • Nettler, Ronald. Sufi Metaphysics and Qurʾānic Prophets: Ibn al-ʿArabī’s Thought and Method in the Fuṣūṣ al-Ḥikam. Cambridge, UK: Islamic Texts Society, 2003.

    A study of Ibn al-Ibn ʿArabi’s prophetology in the Fuṣūṣ. Nettler explores Ibn al-ʿArabi’s esoteric/allegorical understanding of the Abrahamic prophetic figures and their symbolism, which constitutes the principal content of this controversial and difficult work. Alongside several annotated translations of the Fuṣūṣ (e.g., Ralph Austin’s Bezels of Wisdom, published by Paulist Press in 1980), Nettler’s Sufi Metaphysics goes a long way in unpacking Ibn al-ʿArabi’s daring insights into the structure of the cosmos, the nature of religious faith, and what he viewed as the hidden, esoteric aspects of the Revelation confined to divinely inspired Sufi “gnostics.”

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