William C. Chittick: Ibn ’Arabi: Heir to the prophets
BY: DR. DIETER KUHL
William C. Chittick’s book Ibn ’Arabi: Heir to the prophets is part of the series Makers of the Muslim World to be published between May 2005 and May 2009 featuring over 50 volumes. Each volume will consider the life, work and legacy of a man or woman who has shaped the course of Muslim history by his or her contribution to the political, social, cultural, religious or intellectual Muslim landscape.
William C. Chittick is Professor of Religious Studies and Persian Languages in the Department of Asian and Asian-American Studies at Stony Brook University, New York. He considers Ibn ’Arabi or Ibn al-’Arabi (born 1165 in Mur-cia in al-Andalus, Spain, and died 1240 in Damascus) the most influential and controversial Muslim thinker of the last 900 years. He came to be called “Muhyi al-Din”, “The Revivifier of the Religion”.
The Sufi tradition looks back upon Ibn ’Arabi as “the greatest master” (ashshaykh al-akbar), the foremost expositor of its teaching. Ibn ’Arabi’s massive al-Futuhat al-makkiyya (The Meccan Openings) provides more texts than most prolific authors wrote in a life time. Manuscripts of several hundred other works are scattered in libraries.
Ibn ’Arabi has always been considered one of the most difficult authors. This is due to various factors – consistently high level of discourse, constantly shifting perspectives, a diversity of styles. In addition, he is a remarkably original thinker, so much so that, according to Chittick, he had no real predecessor. Compared even to al-Ghazali (10581111), Ibn ’Arabi represents a radical break. Though a mystic and though many of his works speak of visions and unveilings, the vast majority of his writings are argued out with rational precision that puts him into the mainstream of Muslim scholarship.
After his death in 1240, Ibn ’Arabi’s teachings quickly spread throughout the Islamic world. Muslim scholars were convinced by the soundness of his arguments and the breadth of his learning. Several of the Sufi orders claimed him as one of their intellectual and spiritual masters. His influence also spread through the enormously popular poetry of languages like Farsi, Turkish and Urdu. Many of the great poets were trained in Sufi learning and used concepts, pictures and perspectives drawn from Ibn ’Arabi’s school of thought.
Ibn ’Arabi’s writings have been taken up by reformers and modernists from the second half of the 19 century. More recently, interest in his writings has made a remarkable comeback throughout the Islamic world, including among scholars like Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid and especially also among disillusioned young people.
The first two chapters deal with the relation between Ibn ’Arabi’s teachings and his self-perception as Seal of the Muhammadan Saints and lovers of God (understanding God, knowing self, the divine and human form). Chapters 3 and 4 address the relationship between God and human beings in terms of love and remembrance (wujud, the genesis of love, love’s throne, human love of God, achieving the status of Adam, the perfect servant, the House of God). Chapters 5 and 6 discuss the nature of knowledge, its role in human becoming, and the importance of correctly apprehending the phenomenal world (reliable knowledge, realization, the rights of God and man, the soul’s haqq, eternity, constant transformation). Chapters 7 and 8 offer a few glimpses into the world of imagination, specifically its relation to the soul and death (the soul’s root, the Gods of belief, self-awareness, death, love). The final chapter looks at the central role of divine mercy in the afterlife (good opinions of God, the return of the All-Merciful, mercy’s precedence, essential servanthood, surrender).
William C. Chittick’s book, full of quotes of Ibn al-’Arabi, makes very interesting reading. It forces a Christian reader constantly to compare Ibn ’Arabi’s writing with biblical terms and concepts. It is amazing how much is similar, though, of course, in some essential areas there are distinct dissimilarities (Christology, Soteriology).