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Between Anathematizing & Embracing Ibn Arab:

TRACING THE INTERNAL AND RELATIONAL CONFIGURATION OF ASHARISM AND SUFISM

Tarek Ghanem

If you would understand anything, observe its beginning and its development.
Aristotle
Enemies could become the best companions . . .What makes enemies of people, if not the eagerness,
the passion for the same thing?
Berenson Bernhard

Introduction: Yesterdays Heretic is Todays Friend of God

EGYPTIAN HOUSE OF FATWA (Dr alift) on April 12, 2005 under the serial number 5614 and titled
Anathematization of Ibn Arab, a question was submitted with copies of a few
pages from a digitized manuscript of the Hadith collection Kashf al-khaf wa
muzl al-ilbs by al-Ajln attached.1 The questioner, who is the editor of the
published manuscript, stated that he intentionally tampered with the text, omitting
a phrase that mentions Sufi theosophist Ibn Arab (560/1165638/1240) as being
The Greatest Master, may God sanctify his most luminous secret. This is due
to the consensus of the vigilant scholars of Sunni orthodoxy, he asserts, and their
consensus on the anathematization of Ibn Arab, the author of al-Fut^t.2
Citing numerous references by many illustrious scholars, the rather lengthy and
extensive fatwa he receives in response to whether the latter is an infidel assertively
adjudges that the upshot of the matter is that Ibn Arab Is one of the notable
scholars and Muhammadan inheritors, for whom God has coupled the honor of
the nobleness of knowledge with the sublime status of sainthood. . . . He was a
jurist following the school of jurisprudence (madhhab) of Imam Dwd al-<hir.3
N A FATWA REQUEST SUBMITTED TO THE

1. Isml b. Muhammad al-Ajln, Kashf al-khaf wa muzl al-ilbs. 2 vols. Dar al-Kotob alIlmiyah. Beirut, 1997.
2. The most extensive work that traces the polemics against Ibn Arabs doctrine is Alexander
Knyshs Ibn Arab in the later Islamic Tradition: The Making of a Polemical Image in Medieval
Islam (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999).
3. Unlike the theological affiliation of Ibn Arab and contrary to the fatwa, it is well established
that he did not follow the <hir school of jurisprudence, which was founded by Dwd al-<hir
(d. 270/883) and famous for its scholar Al b. azm al-<hir (d. 456/1064). He explicitly states in
a poem in his work al-Fut^t that he is an independent interpreter of Islamic jurisprudence
(mujtahid):
To Ibn azm they ascribe me all the while that,
I am one of those who refer to him not
Neither to any other do I resort; as my discourse is
The text of scripture so says! This is my expertise.
See Dwn Ibn Arab (The Poetry Collection of Ibn Arab), (Beirut: Dar al-Kotob al-Ilmiya, 2009),
p.47. One of the experts on Ibn Arab, Ma^md Ma^md Ghurb, who produced a series of
thematic compilations from Ibn Arabs books, asserts that Ibn Arab is undoubtedly an
independent scholar, not following any one madhhab. The reason for such confusion, he asserts, is
the continuous reference that Ibn Arab makes to jurisprudence as being a science of the hir, or
the external, even in his own jurisprudence-based writing. It is the very same name given to Ibn
azms school of jurisprudence. See the compilation of Ghurb, al-Shaykh al-Akbar Ibn Arab:
tarjumat ^aytihi min kalmihi (The Greatest Master Ibn Arab: His Biography from his Own
Writings) (Damascus: Ma~baat Na\r, 1993), p. 32. The origin of this widespread misinformation

His creed is that of the Asharites, which constitutes the Sunni orthodoxy and
consensus (Ahl al-Sunna wa al-jama).4 The issuing of an official fatwa by such
an institution manifests a significant development in the position of the Asharite
school toward Sufisms most celebrated figure. How could a such a controversial
figure go from being denounced by Asharisms classical proponents and most
authoritative scholarsas a heterodox5 by one of Asharisms most avid voices
Taq al-Dn al-Subk (d. 756/1355), an infidel6 by Sirj al-Dn al-Bulqn (d.
802/1399), and a master of evil7 by the Sultan of the Scholars Izz al-Dn b.
Abd al-Salm (d. 660/1262)to the saintly Asharite conformist that the above
fatwa portrays him to be?8 Why did many of the later influential Asharite scholars
move from such negative views to embracing Ibn Arab and even writing
numerous books and issuing many fatwas in his defense? What does this say about
Asharism9 and its relationship vis--vis Sufism?
The aim of this paper is not to interrogate the complex and multifaceted
relation between Asharism and Sufism. It is the aim of this paper to explore the
shift in the relation between Ibn Arab and Asharism, as one, still important,
indicator of a bigger and understudied change in the relationship between Sufism
and Asharism as a whole. First, it closely analyzes Ibn Arabs views toward
Asharism, by marking both a relevant distinction that Ibn Arab made between
early and later Asharism, and an explicit affinity that he expresses with the Ahl aladth movement, both of which are overlooked by many academics. Second, it
traces a gradual shift in perspective within the Asharite school toward Ibn Arab
and contextualizes the different types of endorsements of his doctrines given by
later high-profile Ashar scholars. That is, on the one hand, a doxographical
can be traced back to some entries of Ibn Arab in some early biographical encyclopedias like that
of Ibn al-Imd al-anbal and others.
4. The entire text of the fatwa can be accessed online under the title al-Shaykh al-akbar Mu^y alDn Ibn Arab a^ad al-aimmma al-alm wa al-waratha al-Mu^ammadiyyn (The Greatest Master
Mu^y al-Dn Ibn Arab: One of the Notable Scholars and Muhammadan Inheritors) on the proSufi website www.soufia.org: http://www.soufia.org/ibnaraby_warth.html (accessed September 18,
2010).
5. Ibn al-Imd al-anbal, Shadhart al-dhahab (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Tijr li al-~iba wa alnashr, 1966), 6:180.
6. Ibn ajar al-Asqaln, Lisn al-Mizn (Damascus: Idrat al-Talft, 1966), 4:364.
7. Shams al-Dn al-Dhahab, Siyar alm al-nubal (Beirut: Muasasat al-Risla, 1994), 23:48.
8. One intriguing point here is that some of these opinions and denouncements of Ibn Arab, like
that of Ibn Abd al-Salm and al-Subk, are said to have been revoked at later times by their own
authors, as stated by the narrations of other scholars. This issue will be examined at a later section
of this paper. This trend, however, exists not only in relation to Ibn Arab, where scholars are
narrated in their biographies to have orally expressed changes in their views regarding controversial
issues.
9. I would argue here that a similar transformation toward Ibn Arab that is worth studying, which
goes beyond the scope of the paper, takes place within Mturdism as well. For example, Ibn Arab
was crowned as being the supreme saint of Mturdism by the staunch Mturd Ottoman dynasty.
There is a whole spectrum within the Mturd school, varying from the hostile positions toward
Ibn Arab, like of the arch-critic Al al-Dn al-Bukhr (d. 730/1330), to the defending
authoritative anafite and Mturd scholar Ibn bidn (d. 1252/1336), to a late theologically
nuanced position by A^mad al-Sirhind (d. 1034/1624).

reconfiguration of Asharism into becoming more accepting of mysticism (and of


mystical theology) as being central to the theological ethos of Sunnism and, on
the other hand, of Sunni Sufism increasingly aligning itself with the doctrines of the
Sunni orthodoxy, especially those of Asharism. The context of this examination is
tracing, first, the major trends in the intellectual history and the interpretative
tendencies in both camps, second, the changes in their writing protocols and, third,
the resemblance shared in their central themes. This examination will demonstrate
how, in their internal and relational development, both camps have undergone an
analogous reform; moving from being closely based on Quran and Hadith, due to
a mutual formative intellectual alliance with the traditionist school of Ahl-aladth, and apologetic in their discourse, into becoming more inclusive and
ascending in their integration of external speculative and philosophical tools. Thus,
this mutual evolution signifies an important development in the history of Sunni
orthodoxy itself.

Ibn Arab: Life and Context


Muhammad b. Al b. Muhammad Ibn al-Arab, also known by the honorific title
the reviver of religion (Mu^y al-Dn) and the shorter agnomen Ibn Arab,10
was born in Murcia in Andalusia in 560/1165. His father was a notable bureaucrat
in the court of the Almoravid kingdom. His family witnessed the turmoil of the
falling of that dynasty into the hands of the Almohads. He studied Islamic sciences
under the best Andalusian scholars of his time. He left Andalusia at the age of
thirty-five to embark upon an epic journey to Mecca for Hajj, in which he met and
studied with some of the most esteemed scholars of that time. He visited Egypt,
Palestine, Syria, Iraq, and Anatolia. From 620/1226 until the end of his life he lived
in Damascus. Although he is said to have kept his distance from rulers, some
Ayyubid and Seljuk princes patronized him. He attracted a following of disciples
who attended his lessons and accompanied him in his travels. He studied Quranic
sciences, Hadith, jurisprudence, Sufism, and other exoteric and esoteric sciences
like numerology (jafr).
Claude Addas sketches the theological landscape during Ibn Arabs
lifetime in Quest for the Red Sulphur, probably the most comprehensive biography
of Ibn Arab in English, noting that Asharism was the most popular school in
Andalusia as well as in the rest of the Muslim world, and Imm al-aramayns
Irshd was one of the most frequently studied works.11 Addas also demonstrates
that Ibn Arab faced opposition to and rejection of his doctrines during his
lifetime, including antagonism from some Sufis in Cairo that caused him to leave
the city. Ibn Arab is a contemporary of many influential scholars, like the
10. The agnomen Ibn Arab, not the original one with definite article al- of the surname, became
widely adopted to distinguish Ibn Arab from the famous Andalusian Mlikite jurist and student of
al-Ghazl with the same last name, Ab Bakr Ibn al-Arab (d. 542/1148).
11. Claude Addas, Quest for the Red Sulphur (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 1993) p.104.

aforementioned al-Izz b. Abd al-Salm, Fakhr al-Dn al-Rz (Asharsms most


famous theologian), the famous Sufi masters Ab al-asan al-Shdhil and Shihb
al-Dn al-Suhraward, and the eminent philosopher Avicenna.12
As one of Medieval Islams most prolific authors, Ibn Arab allegedly
composed between 300400 treatises and books. Some estimates even go above
600, many of which are not extant.13 However, he is famous for two works: Fu||
al-^ikam (Bezels of Wisdom), a controversial work both in terms of its content and
authorship, and his magnum opus al-Fut^t al-Makkyya (The Meccan
Revelations).14 The Meccan Revelations is a multi-volume mystical encyclopedia
that he started composing during his visit to Mecca and continued adding to and
amending over the years. The Meccan Revelations stands to offer the most
comprehensive and reliable account of Ibn Arabs theological views and mystical
doctrines.
In order to contextualize Ibn Arabs relationship with the Ashar school, it
is most fitting to start by examining from the prism of the intellectual history the
context in which the theological project of Abu mid al-Ghazl (d. 555/1111), a
famous Asharite theologian, Shfi jurist, and a scholar of Sufism, is situated. Ibn
Arab had a special reverence for al-Ghazl. He commented and built on many of
the theological views of al-Ghazl, who is known for his important and
authoritative contribution in creating a synthesis of Sufism and Asharism,
especially in his magnum opus I^y ulm al-dn (The Revival of the Religious
Sciences). Ibn Arab is said to have passed away with al-Ghazls The Revival on
his lap, a book that he taught to his disciples.15 The same way we find the
theological architect of Ibn Arab drawing heavily from metaphysics, we find a
synthesis between Sufism and kalm in al-Ghazls thought. This intellectual
project of al-Ghazl, which is a product of a particular moment in history, is best
described as,
[T]he consummation of a much older relationship between Asharism and Sufism, It is a story
whose origins even pre-date Ashar himself, and go back to the prefiguration of Asharism in
12. Ibn Arab had communication and encounters with some of these figures. His letter to al-Rz
is relevant to this discussion and will be examined. For analysis of his significantly symbolic
encounter with Avicenna, which signifies a vehement stance towards the latters strand of Hellenic
philosophy, see Steffen Stelzer, Decisive Meetings: Ibn Rushd, Ibn Arab, and the Matter of
Knowledge, Alif vol.16, (1996) pp. 1955.
13. Many of the works attributed to Ibn Arab are of questionable authenticity. However, his letter
to Fakhr al-Dn al-Rz is referenced in al-Fut^t (1:293), and the reference shows evidence that
Ibn Arab was informed of the death of al-Rz, by making a supplication, May Allah have mercy
on his soul. One of the most authentic references of Ibn Arabs authorship is his ijza (certificate
of authorization) to the King, Ab Bakr Ibn Ayyb, written in 632/1234, in which he details his
written works.
14. Thus far selected texts from volumes I and II of The Meccan Revelations have been translated
into English: Ibn al-`Arab, Muhyidin, Chodkiewicz (ed.), William Chittick (tr.), James Morris (tr.),
The Meccan Revelations (Pir Press, 2001).
15. Abd al-Bq Mift^, Khatm al-Qurn: Mu^y al-Dn Ibn Arab (Marrakesh: Dr al-Qubba alZarq, 2005), p.263.

earlier counter-Mutazilie theologyThis combination of Sufism and Asharism triumphed


ultimately under Ghazls patrons, the Seljuks, the major Sunni Turkish power operating in
Iran, Iraq and Anatolia from the mid-eleventh century to the end of the twelfth (and to the
beginning of the fourteenth century in Anatolia). Within the Suljuk context, Ghazl is generally
seen as completing the project already under way in previous generation with al-Qushayr (d.
1072), whose widely influential Treatise (Risla) and esoteric commentary on the Quran
assume an Asharite framework.16

Ibn Arab and Asharism


It is worth noting that both Sufi works The Meccan Revelations and The Revival
follow a trend of beginning with a statement of creed, a trend that will be further
analyzed shortly. Before textually examining the views of Ibn Arab toward
Asharism, there are three general concepts from his scholarly and epistemological
outlook that affect his general theological views and which must be addressed
beforehand. First, as with jurisprudence, Ibn Arab is explicit in his stance as being
a full-fledged independent scholar (mujtahid) in both his jurisprudential and
doctrinal tenets of faith (aqda). This is why in his jurisprudential writing he
revisits the opinions as well as the proofs of former mujtahid imams and in many
occasions differs with them, producing what amounts to an independent, albeit
defunct, school of jurisprudence.17 This is also why within the realm of theology he
neither consistently nor implicitly adopts a single theological outlook belonging to
a certain school or scholar.
Second, Ibn Arab is adamant in his rejection of the role of tawl
(figurative interpretation) in deriving doctrinal positions. This is why despite many
metaphysical and mystical doctrines that are seen by many as being cryptic, to say
the least, for him the uncomplicated aqda of the commonality (al-awm)not
that of the kalm specialists who employ tawlis superior. This is due to the fact
that such a catechism is free from dialectical polemics and obsession with rational
proofs. In fact he asserts that the tenets of faith of laymen are valid and make
them [true] Muslims as long as they dont examine the science of kalm; in order
to preserve the purity of their primordial nature (fi~ra). . . . once one of them delves
into tawl, he thus has gone beyond the ruling on laymen, joining one of the
categories of the people of analytical examination and tawl; being either correct
or faulty in relation to what externally contradicts the Shariah.18
Third, Ibn Arab at the same time takes an inclusive approach toward
differences in doctrine. This is evident in his tolerant understanding of alleged
16. Toby Mayer, Theology and Sufism, p. 271 in Tim Winter (ed.), Classical Islamic Theology
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
17. An important work in this regard is the previously mentioned jurisprudential encyclopedia of
Ibn Arab that Ma^md Ma^md Ghurb has gathered from al-Fut^t and classified in
accordance to the classical order of fiqh works. See Ma^md Ghurb, al-Fiqh ind al-Shaykh alAkbar Mu^y al-Dn Ibn Arab.
18. Mu^y al-Dn Ibn Arab, Al-Fut^t al-Makkyya (Beirut: Dr dir, n.d.), 1:507.

theological errors of different theological schools. Of special interest here is his


attitude toward both the Asharites and the rationalist Mutazilites, whom he calls
the people of reasoning among the community of Muslims (ahl al-nar min alMuslimn).19 At points we find him endorsing theological positions from both
schools, at points criticizing both, and at points synthesizing. An example of this is
his adopting the Asharite position on the beatific vision (ruyat Allh), however,
with a Mutazilite qualifier; that is, the gaze of the believers will be commensurate
with the believers preparedness.20
Nonetheless, many experts on Ibn Arabs teachings like Henry Corbin21
and William Chittick22 portray the theology of Ibn Arab as being equally outside
both the Asharite and Mutazilite schools. Although Ibn Arab does not explicitly
state an adherence to either doctrinal school, an examination of his positions
shows that many scholars have overlooked an important distinction that Ibn
Arab makes between the earlier and later views of the Asharite school; a
distinction that positions his theology closer to Asharism, at least, according to
him, in its early stages. This distinction can surely offer a context relevant to
understanding later positions that allege that his views fall within the realm of the
Asharism; or that he allegedly adhered to that school, as claimed in the
aforementioned fatwa.
Scholars who have overlooked Ibn Arabs theological proximity to the
Asharite school have based their views on several references that he makes when
rejecting doctrinal views advanced by both camps, the Asharites and the
Mutazilites. Although there are clear differences that Ibn Arab holds with Ashar
doctrines, there is evidence of a much greater affinity with that school, greater than
originally assumed by many scholars. For example, he shows a great deal of
respect for the early Asharite methodology and its founders; an admiration that he
does not bestow on Mutazilism. Relevant here also is a mystical vision in which
Ibn Arab unveils the twelve categories of people who will go to the hellfire,
admonishing that the Mutazilites are one such category.23 Also, when examining
the three references to the founder of Asharism, Ab al-asan al-Ashar (d.
324/935), in The Meccan Revelations we will find that they are all positive. In the
first reference Ibn Arab declares his agreement with al-Ashar doctrine regarding
the occurrence of the beatific vision and expresses his agreement with al-Ashar,
19. Ibid., 2:523.
20. Ibid., 4:245246.
21. See Corbin, Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn Arab (Tennessee: Kingsport Press,
1956), pp. 203205. In a discussion of the doctrine of occasionalism, Corbin stresses that the views
of Ibn Arab fall within neither those of monism nor Asharism. There is no mention of any
closeness or commonality in his views with Asharism.
22. Chittick is one of the most prolific authors on Ibn Arab in Western academia. For example, his
valuable work The Self-Disclosure of God: The Principals of Ibn al-Arabs Cosmology, (Albany:
State University of New York Press), p.59, he asserts that Asharism and Mutazilism typically take
opposing views and that Ibn Arabs doctrines normally do not adhere to either.
23. Ibn Arab, Al-Fut^t, 3:94.

saying His position is truthful.24 Regarding the doctrine of the regeneration of


the fixed archetypes (tajaddud al-ayn), which will be discussed later in this paper,
Ibn Arab cites that The followers of al-Ashar have affirmed that in contingent
matter, while the imagination of philosophers is defective.25
In relation to the founder and major early authoritative scholars of
Asharism, Abd al-Bq Mift^, a leading scholar on Ibn Arabs teachings, asserts
in his valuable biography of Ibn Arab Khatm al-Qurn (The Seal of the Quran)
that Ibn Arab has a special respect for the early Asharite imams and their
doctrine. He affirms that he mentions with reverence the deferential Imams of
kalm like Ab al-asan al-Ashar and Ab Is^q al-Isfarayn (d. 418/1027) and
the Imam al-aramayn [al-Juwayn] (d. 505/1111), marking a clear distinction
between them and later scholars of that school.26 The following passage from The
Meccan Revelations on proofs of divine oneness is thus crucial in contextualizing
Ibn Arabs perceived difference between early and later Asharites:
The Most-Sublime says, Were there gods in earth and heaven other than God, they would
surely go to ruin (21:22) thereby showing righteousness in the continuation of the world and
its existence in this state. This proves that had the existentiator not been one, the existence of
the world wouldnt have been feasible. This is the proof of the Real of His own oneness, which
matches intellectual reasoning. . . . Some have gone overboard, taking a different path and
shunning such proofs as the aforementioned. They thus have combined ignorance with bad
deferential decorum (adab). . . . It is only the later kalm scholars that have approached the
subject with analysis that so does; unlike their earlier counterparts like Ab mid [al-Ghazl],
Imam al-aramayn, Ab Is^q al-Isfarayn, and al-Shaykh Ab al-asan [al-Ashar]. They
thus have not diverted from the signification of this proof and rather sought to establish it by
virtue of having deferential decorum with Allah and knowing its proper signification.27

New studies that examine the theological views of Ibn Arab testify that
many of the central differences that he holds with Asharism are not categorical,
but rather are related to two main reasons. The first of which is the excessive
intellectualism and polemical dialectics of many its later scholars in their attempt
to advance their theological views, while abandoning the rule of mystical tools like
unveiling (kashf) and spiritual discipline. The second reason is their failure to
develop its doctrines enough to reach their full logical conclusions, at least from a
metaphysical standpoint. Two examples that illustrate the previous two cases are
provided here. In both examples a reference of al-Ghazls relevant position will
be made in order to provide a better comparative context for Ibn Arabs views
regarding the corresponding Asharite doctrine. In the first case, Ibn Arab takes
the same position as that of al-Ghazl, siding with the earlier, less dialectic
Asharite school, and in the second he denounces the later Asharite view for falling
short of reaching it ultimate end.

24. Ibid., 7:278.


25. Ibid., 8:109.
26. Abd al-Bq Mift^, Khatm al-Qurn (Beruit: Dar al-Kotob al-Ilmiyah, 2009) p.75.
27. Ibn Arab, Al-Fut^t, 1:289.

In a significant scholarly letter, Ibn Arab corresponds with his


contemporary and probably the most famed Asharite theologian of his time,
Fakhr al-Dn al-Rz (d. 606/1209).28 The purpose of the correspondence, in which
Ibn Arab expresses his admiration for al-Rz, is two-fold: first, to explain the
erroneousness of al-Rzs view on the possibility of fully knowing God
cataphatically (ijb) through the use of the intellect, and second, to call on al-Rz
to adopt the Sufi apophatic approach (salb) to knowing God through spiritual
illumination instead. In the letter, Ibn Arab makes the following reference that
appears to allude to a group of later Asharites in comparison to al-Ghazl:
A person with high aspirations should not waste his life in studying contingency and its details,
thus missing out on his share of [knowing] the divine. Such a person should free himself from
the sway of his own intellect. Otherwise, the intellect always takes its sway. This approach,
however, is not truthful. Knowledge of God is different from knowledge of the existence of
God. The intellect can only know God by virtue of His existence; as a matter of an apophatic
(salb) approach, not affirmation (ithbt). This is contradictory to the consensus of the
philosophers and kalm specialists, except for our master Ab mid [al-Ghazl], may Allah
sanctify his soul. He is in agreement with us on this matter; exalting God by asserting that He
cannot be known through the intellect, be it via contemplation or examination. A reasonable
individual should thus clear his heart from contemplation, should he wish to know God by way
of beholding (mushhada). . . . So aim to have high aspirations, to get no knowledge from Allah
Most High except through unveiling (kashf).29

Contrary to this amicable attitude, Ibn Arab has a rather hostile stance
towards the erudite scholar al-mid (d. 550/1155). He is even said to have incited
the ruler of Damascus against him, which was one of the reasons for the jailing of
the latter.30
In relation to the second case, a fitting example here that illustrates Ibn
Arabs rejection of an Asharite doctrinal position which is not developed enough
to reach its theological conclusion, is that of Asharisms atomism. Despite
atomism being at the core of the Ashar theological outlook which is situated in
28. There is no evidence that al-Rz responded to the letter. Neither does he mention Ibn Arab in
any of his writings, as confirmed by one of the most popular contemporary Ashar scholars with a
strong presence on the internet, the Jordanian scholar Sad Foudah (b. 1967). He is an author of
many works in defense of traditional Sunni orthodoxy and the science of kalm. He has his own
website that is dedicated to the Ashar teachings of Imam al-Rz under the name www.al-razi.net.
The moderator of the website, comments on the reason why Imam al-Rz did not respond to Ibn
Arabs letter by arguing that It seems that the Imam [al-Rz] dismissed the letter due to his high
status [at the time]. He was given a leading scholarly position. It seems that the letter was also sent
to him during his last days before his death. See http://www.aslein.net/archive/index.php/t9177.html (accessed September 19, 2010). See earlier reference on Ibn Arabs awareness of the
death of al-Rz as noted in al-Fut^t.
29. Rislat al-Shaykh al-Akbar il Imm al-Rz (The Letter of Greatest Master to Imam al-Rz),
published as part of al-Tarq il Allh: al-Shaykh wa al-murd min kalm al-Shaykh al-Akbar
Mu^y al-Dn Ibn al-Arab, edited by Ma^md Ma^md Ghurb, (Damascus: Ma~baat Na\r,
1991).
30. See asan al-Shfis valuable work, al-mid wa aruhu al-kalmiyya (al-mid and His
Kalm Views) (Cairo: Maktabat Wahba, 1991), p.46.

10

opposition to that the Mutazilite position which assigns some interdependence


between created matter and God, Ibn Arab believes that the Asharite school did
not take a more proper position with regard to this occasionalist doctrine.
Asharite atomism was developed to assert an unyielding transcendentalism and a
belief of absolute divine omnipotence over all created matter, with created matter
receiving its power of duration at each moment. However, as Toby Mayer asserts,
Ibn Arab sees that the Asharites are on the right lines in their doctrine. But they
fall short in maintaining theoretical distinction between accidents and substances
within the cosmos.31 In comparison, Ibn Arab takes the atomism from this
Asharite paradigm of occasionalism and moves it toward the end of the spectrum
and positions it within a different one: that of theomonism instead. That is, created
matter has no ontological status per se and thus the universe perishes unceasingly
and is recreated at every moment.
Another important connection in situating Ibn Arabs doctrines in relation
to Asharism is the affinity between his scholarly outlook and that of the Ahl aladth school, emphasizing similarity and divergence. As will be examined shortly
in the outline of the intellectual history of Asharism, there is evidence of strong
ties with the Ahl al-adth paradigm in the formative period of this theological
school. As for Ibn Arab, there is an explicit proof that he himself makes of his
adherence to Ahl al-adth school, unlike any other intellectual school. This
adherence, however, has also been understudied by many experts. First, in addition
to Sufism, Ibn Arab had a strong scholarly interest in Hadith studies, and wrote
at least nine works on Hadith, including abridgments of both famous authentic
collections (sing. |^^) of both al-Bukhr and al-Tirmidh.32 In many occasions he
cites his avid interest in Hadith studies. He also is reported to have studied with
the most authoritative Hadith scholars of his time, including Ibn Ab Jamra (d.
599/1202) and Abd al-aqq al-Azd al-Ishbl b. al-Khar~ (d. 581/1195). Also a
cursory reading of Ibn Arabs writings on deriving legal opinions and doctrines
especially from Hadith, let alone Quran, can prove him to be arguably the
staunchest literalist interpreter of Hadith.
Ibn Arabs adherence to the Ahl al-adth methodology is explicit. The
Ahl al-adth movement, a scholarly group that favored a close adherence to the
Quran and Hadith in deriving legal opinions in the second/eighth and third/ninth
centuries against the Ahl al-Ray (school or reasoning), seems to have had a major
influence on Ibn Arabs scholarly outlook. In his treatise al-Mubashirt (The
Bearers of Glad Tiding) he explicitly affirms:

31. Toby Mayers, Theology and Sufism, p. 274 in Tim Winter (ed.), Classical Islamic Theology
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
32. Other works include an abridgment of Ibn azms al-Mu^all and al-Ghazls Mishkt alanwr, and al-Awl f asnd al-^adth (On The Elevated Chains of Ascriptions). In addition, there
he also wrote Kitb al-abrr fm ruwiya an al-Nab min al-adiyya wa al-adhkr (The Pious Ones
in The Prayers and Supplications that are Narrated from the Prophet), and Al-I^tifl fm kna
aliyhi al-Nab min al-a^wl (The Celebration in the Mentioning the States of the Prophet).

11

Before my scholarly interest started, some of our companions tried to encourage and push me
to read books of al-ray (reasoning), while I had knowledge of neither this nor of Hadith. I saw
myself in a dream as if I was in a vast space and a group of armed men were trying to kill me,
while I had no place to hide. I saw a hill with the Prophet, Allahs peace and blessings be upon
him, standing on it. I resorted to him. He embraced me very tightly. He told me, My loved
one, hold on to me and you shall be safe. . . . From that moment on I studied Hadith.33

There are other proofs from same treatise of his affinity with the Ahl aladth movement.34 However, probably the most significant message Ibn Arab is
making is the implication of another dream that he narrates in which he reveals the
spiritual ranking of the imams of four madhhabs that came to form Sunnism in
direct relation to their proximity to the Ahl al-adth paradigm, and vis--vis that
of Ahl al-Ray; moving from A^mad Ibn anbal on one end of the spectrum to
Ab anfa on the other end, respectively.35 As we will examine shortly, such a
linkage corresponds to an early affinity with the Ahl al-adth movement that
matches the formative stages of both Asharism and Sufism.
Such endorsements of the methodology of Ahl al-adth, however, are far
from being fully applied. There are differences that separate Ibn Arab from the
methodology of that school. Even though Ibn Arab arrives at his doctrines by
applying staunch literalism, typical of Ahl al-adth, to scripture, his writings
manifest a discrepancy in two main methodological difference with that of Ahl aladth. First, even when Ibn Arab advanced a staunch literalist doctrine, he
normally arrived at it with speculative esoteric hermeneutics; something he didnt
see as being figurative or rationalist as that of Ahl al-Ray. A good example of this
his objection to categorizing divine attributes,36 which many theologians have
33. Ibn Arab, al-Mubashirt, added as an addendum to al-Khayl wa al-ruya wa al-mubashirt,
edited by Ma^md Ghurb (Damascus: Ma~baat Na\r, 1993), p.77.
34. Ibid., 77. In the same treatise he also mentions another dream in which he meets Imam Mlik b.
Anas (d. 179/795), one the founders of the four jurisprudential schools that came to form Sunni
orthodoxy, in a majestic dress and sees a friend of his who follows Ahl al-Ray with his gaze being
fixed on dumpsters that he is being gradually pulled toward. Imam Mlik then warns him against
following al-ray which will lead him to the same fate of his friend and advises him to follow and
study Hadith instead.
35. Ibid., 78. Also in another dream, that Ibn Arab narrates, Ab al-Abbs A^mad b. Man|r alarr reports that his master Abd al-Azz b. Ab Bakr al-Qurash al-Mahdaw narrates a dream in
which he asks the Prophet Muhammads closest companion, Ab Bakr al-iddq (d. 13/634), O
Ab Bakr! What is the status of the Imams for you? He said, The foremost one to follow us is
A^mad b. anbal, then al-Shfi, then Mlik, and then Ab anfa. Ibn al-Arab then comments
that he told this dream to the jurist Azd al-Iskandar in Mecca in 599/1202, standing near the
Kaba. He answers him with saying that he, al-Iskandar, has an even more intriguing story, that is,
that a righteous man came to some his friends in a dream and told them that he saw the earth when
the two angels that Muslims believe come to interrogate a person right after he or she dies. He
mentions that there are two types of books: ones that are elevated in respect, which are books
following the Ahl al-adth outlook, and ones that are on the ground as a sign of rejection, which
adhere to the Ahl al-Ray methodology (p.78).
36. Ibn Arab, al-Fut^t, 1:251. Where Ibn Arab sees assigning new attributes to God as
ultimately empty rhetoric. Also in al-Fut^t (3:157) he stresses that grouping divine attributes into
seven categories is baseless.

12

done, despite the central role of divine attribute in his own elaborate metaphysical
construct. Second, unlike many of Ahl al-adth, Ibn Arabs sources and
references are not strictly scriptural. His writing is dissimilar to any other Ahl aladth scholar, both in terms of his sources and the nature of his writing. This is
due to the eclectic nature of his subject matter, as Michael Sells confirms,
which includes. . . . pre-Islamic and post-Islamic poetic themes, folk Islam, Islamic
and Greek metaphysics, scholastic theology (kalm), Hellenistic and postHellenistic Hermetic sciences (astrology, alchemy, and magic), Gnosticism, Shiism,
Islamic law, and of course Sufi thought.37 This also corresponds with the later
stages where both Asharism and Sufism moved away from the early literalism of
Ahl al-adth and became more ascending in their rationalist and philosophical
outlooks.

Sufism and the Ashar Attraction


It is appropriate at this point to provide a brief historical account of Sufism and its
relation with Asharism. Since the early days of Asharism, the majority of
Asharite scholars were either Sufis, had an appreciation for Sufism, were disciples
of Sufi masters themselves, or even authors of Sufi works. The same, however,
cannot be said about early Sufis in relation to Asharism. Many of the students of
the highly revered mystic al-asan al-Ba|r (d. 109/728), for example, were
affiliated with Mutazilism. Muhammad Ibn Karrm al-Sijistn (d. 250/864), the
founder of the staunch corporealist (mujassim) Karramyya sect, and a follower of
the anafite school, was known for his asceticism. Another is Ubaydullh alWil al-Sijz (d. 444/1052), a Hadith scholar who is said to have been an
anthropomorphist (^ashaw).
Early Sufism of the seventh and eighth century was not concerned with
theological doctrine; rather, it was much more focused on asceticism (zuhd) and
the centrality of adhering to the two main sources of Shariah, the Quran and the
Sunna, as means of gaining spiritual illumination.38 Despite some variations, this is
true of all four schools of asceticism that emerged in the first two centuries of
Islam: the schools of Medina, Basra, Kufa, and Egypt.39
Since its formative years, Sufism has had strong ties with the traditionist
movement of Ahl al-adth. Biographies of early Sufis in the work >abaqt al|fiyya (Generations of the Sufis), Ab Abd al-Ra^mn al-Sulam (d. 411/1021),
at once an authority on early Sufism and a Hadith scholar, show that many early
37. Michael A. Sells, Ibn Arabs Garden among the Flames: A Reevaluation. History of
Religions: vol. 23, no. 4 (May, 1984), pp. 287315.
38. Peter Awn, The Ethical Concerns of Classical Sufism, The Journal of Religious Ethics, vol.
11, (Fall, 1983), p. 241.
39. Abu al-Waf al-Taftazn, Madkhal il al-ta|awwuf al-Islm (Introduction to Islamic Sufism)
(Cairo: Dr al-Thaqfa li al-Nashr wa al-Tawz, 1983), p. 62.

13

Sufis were closely aligned with the Ahl- al-adth movement; with its emphasis on
strict adherence to transmitted religious texts over the more rationalist approach of
their rivals Ahl al-Ray. The link with the Ahl al-adth movement was seen in its
strongest manifestation in the later Sufi circles in Baghdad, which had a strong
affiliation with the anbalite madhhab, established by the aforementioned A^mad
Ibn anbal.40 Sufisms early reliance on chains of ascription (isnd) to authenticate
the transmission of Sufi knowledge and spiritual authority through an
uninterrupted chain (silsila) is probably a direct influence of the alliance with Ahl
al-adth that was generated during this period and which continued thereafter.
Until the end of the seventh and eighth centuries, no independent Sufi
literature was produced. Sufi teachings were either transmitted verbally, taken
directly from spiritual mentors, contained in either books of hagiography or a
commentary on Quran and Hadith, and almost inseparable from fiqh. For
instance, the earliest elaborate mystical work al-Riya li ^uqq Allh (The
Observance of the Rights of Allah) by al-rith al-Mu^sib (d. 242/857) is
entirely concerned with ethical conduct and teachings related to self-discipline and
self-examination.41 The book is practically void of any kalm issues, and is
unmistakably more focused on demonstrating the natural compatibility between
Sufi ethics and Shariah.
A relevant and important shift takes place in the ninth and tenth century in
the scope of Sufi literature, moving from demonstrating the interdependence of the
exoteric and the esoteric and ethical expressions of such a relation into becoming a
path (~arq) and a science for gnosis.42 Christopher Melchert vividly captures
this transition into a more theoretical and speculative spiritual science by
emphasizing an important shift of emphasis by Sufism: from focusing on asceticism
into focusing on mysticism or theophany.43 This general new shift in Sufism as
being a path and science within these two centuries was expressed in two main
approaches: a school that soberly coupled the esoteric side of the mystical path
with an unbreakable relation with exoteric sciences and another that was given to
the spiritual intoxication of the mystical experience. Perhaps the two most iconic
figures of both perspectives, both of whom provided a wealth of knowledge to the
theoretical and practical aspects of Sufism within their outlooks, are Ab al-Qsim
al-Junayd (d. 297/910), who was known as Shaykh al->ifa (or the Master of
Group), and Bayzd al-Bus~m (d. 260/874) was dubbed by some Sufis as Sul~n
al-Awliy (the Sultan of Saints). It must be noted here that al-Junayd was a
proponent of the Ahl al-adth school. Under his guidance, his student Ab Bakr
40. For more on the Sufi circles of Baghdad and their ideological affiliation with Ahl al-adth, see
Laury Silvers important work A Soaring Minaret: Abu Bakr Al-Wasiti and the Rise of Baghdadi
Sufism (Albany: New York State University Press, 2010).
41. Arthur Arberry, Sufism: An Account of the Mystics of Islam. (New York: Dover Publication,
2001) p. 47.
42. Al-Taftazn, Madkhal il al-ta|awwuf al-Islm p.99.
43. Christopher Melchert, The Transition from Asceticism to Mysticism at the Middle of the
Ninth Century CE, Studia Islamica, 83 (1996): 5170.

14

al-Wsi~, an important Sufi jurist and theologian, developed a rigorous and


subtle monotheism in keeping with Ahl al-adth theology.44 It is no wonder that
this central Sufi figure with his affinity with Ahl al-adth came out of Baghdad.
After this period, Sufis were under scrutiny for instances of perceived
theological heresies by some mystics, famous among them are the highly
controversial Man|r al-allj (d. 309/921) and Ab al-asan al-Nr (d.
294/907).45 It is during this crucial period of the ninth and tenth century that
Sufism needed to at once reform and unite itself in order to assert its conformity to
the Shariah. This was historically marked by the emergence of five influential and
timeless Sufi works composed at a relatively close period that, first, championed
views that separate Sufism from acts of piety prescribed by the Quran and the
Sunna and, second, linked Sufism doctrinally with the catechisms of the consensus
of Sunni orthodoxy.46 The most influential and elaborate early work in conforming
the doctrines of the Sufis to that of the Ashars is the al-Risla (the Treatise)47,
known among the Sufis as dustr ahl Allh (lit. the constitution of the folk of
God), by Ab al-Qsim al-Qushayr (d. 465/1072), a great specialist in Sufism and
a knowledgeable Asharite. Al-Risla, too had preliminary sections on catechism
and the inseparability of Sufism and Shariah. This writing protocol of including of
a preliminary on aqda became a tradition that continued in al-Ghazls I^y,
with its emphatic Asharite doctrines. There is no doubt that the spread of these
works has instilled a powerful and timeless link between Sufism and Asharism
that ensured the homogeneity of Sufism and its integration as part of the Sunni
orthodoxy, and especially in adhering to Asharism. Ibn Arab himself follows this
tradition in The Meccan Revelations with a testimony of faith prefacing his
mystical tome.

44. Silvers, A Soaring Minaret: Abu Bakr Al-Wasiti and the Rise of Baghdadi Sufism, p. 3.
45. Al-allj, whose locutions theopathiques (sha~^) utterances (to use Louis Massignons
translation of the term) were understood to carry a theme of divine indwelling (^ull) and cost him
his life by an official death sentence. Some of al-Nrs doctrines have stirred controversy. He was
tried in 264/878 and exiled to Syria away from his home in Baghdad. In addition to the disturbance
that al-Nr, al-Bustm, and al-allj stirred with their perceived heretical doctrines, the later
spread of the esoteric Isml Shiite sects (known as al-B~iniyya) confronted Sufism with
skepticism regarding its orthodoxy and relation to the Shariah.
46. According to Mayer (p. 268), these texts represent what amount to a watershed. These books
are: Qt al-qulb (Nourishment of the Heart) by Ab >lib al-Makk (d. 355/966), Kitb al-luma
(The Gleams) by Ab Na|r al-Sarrj (d. 377/988), al-Taarruf ala madhhab ahl al-ta|awwuf (The
Disclosure of the Path of the Sufis) by Ab Bakr al-Kalabdh (d. 379/990), >abaqt al-|fiyya (The
Generations of Sufis) by Ab Abd al-Ra^mn al-Sulam (d. 411/1021), and finally Kashf al-ma^jb
(the Unveiling of the Veiled) by Al al-ujwr (d. 463/1071) which was written in Persian. AlKalabdhs work, for example, has a lengthy preliminary section on Islamic catechism, which,
despite a few Mturd doctrines, is predominantly Asharite in nature. Al-Makks Qt also closely
adheres to Asharite doctrines.
47. The book is translated by Alexander D. Knysh under the title Al-Qushayris Epistle on Sufism
(Lebanon: Garnet Publishing Limited, 2007), and in an abridged version by Rabia T. Harris (tr.),
Laleh Bakhtiar (ed.) under the title Sufi Book of Spiritual Ascent (Chicago: Kazi Publications,
1997).

15

On a relevant note that ties Ibn Arab and Asharism, al-al^ al-afad (d.
764/1362), a celebrated historian and an Ashar Islamic scholar, commenting on
the testimony of faith at the preface of The Meccan Revelations, wrote the
following about Ibn Arabs aqda:
He [Ibn Arab] mentions his aqda in the first volume of the book al-Fut^t. I found it from
beginning to end the same as that of al-Shaykh Ab al-asan al-Ashar, without a
contradiction. The person who requested it [i.e., the testimony of faith of Ibn Arab] from me
was in afad; while at the time I was in Cairo. I thus only copied it and nothing else in a
booklet and wrote the following stanzas on the cover:
In this creed, there is nothing that necessitates disbelief or slander,
Neither is there anything that negates the sciences;
Be it transmitted or intellectual, endorsed by the scripture
It revolves around that of al-Ashar
With possibilities of adoption within his discourse.48

The Analogous Development of Asharism


After the previous short account of the history of Sufism, we now to turn to
Asharism. The eponym of Asharism is Imam Ab al-asan al-Ashar (d.
324/935), a former Mutazilite who turned into a traditionalist. He brings back the
rationalist tools he gained from Mutazilism to the aid of Sunnis in their
theological battles with the rationalist Mutazilites. George Makdisi in his Ashari
and the Asharites, asserts the view that the conversion of al-Ashar did not mean
that he chose the widely understood middle-way between the two extremes of
the rationalist Mutazilites and the traditionist school. He demonstrates a far
stronger theological proximity between the views of the founder of Asharism and
those of the extreme literalist anbalites, the die-hard school of Ahl al-adth.49
However, as many scholars affirm, as time progressed the Asharite views became
more similar to those of the Mutazilites.
During the first formative stage of the development of Asharismwhich
Ibn Arab favored as we demonstrated earlierits positions were tied to that of al-

48. Al-al^ al-afad, Al-Wf bi al-wafyyt (The Adequate Compilation of the Biographies of the
Deceased) (Istanbul: Nashart al-Islmiyya, 1931), 4:174.
49. George Makdisi, Ashari and the Asharites in Islamic Religious History, Studia Islamica, 17
(1962): 3780. Makdisi asserts that a close examination of al-Ashars al-Ibna an u|l al-diyna
(The Elucidation of the Principals of the Religion) shows him as pure follower of anbalism. asan
al-Shfi concurs with this position. Makdisi also notes that Ignaz Goldziher understood that the
theological stances of al-Ashar are plainly anbalite-Traditionalist, p.52. He notes how after its
founder, Asharism developed further away from the anbalite school. The main theme of
Makdisis work is based on his study of two biographical dictionaries: Ibn Askirs Tabyn and alSubks >abaqt.

16

Salaf50 (the early Muslims), who were continuously challenging the stances of both
Mutazilism and philosophy. From the beginning, the doctrines of Asharism have
granted it popularity among the Hadith scholars, kalm theologians, and, in
relevance to our examination, the Sufis.51 Later periods that witnessed the spread
of Asharism attribute this to its spread among Shfiites, who form the
predominant majority of scholars that defend Ibn Arab.
Just as with later Sufism, the second stage of Asharism witnessed a shift in
its interpretative tools, with a greater tendency to use speculative reasoning and
excessive figurative interpretation. In the case of later Asharism, it even starts
adopting many Mutazilite methodologies, at points, almost closely.52 The later
period shows three main features of the Asharite school: first, a reliance on
Aristotelian logic and an excessive use of Hellenic philosophy, second, an
increasing closeness with Sufism and Sufi doctrines, and third, a concern with the
Avicennian metaphysics, especially in ontology.
The last two features are relevant to the examination of Asharisms
relationship with Ibn Arab. In fact, within this period, Ashar literature saw an
increasing mix not only with philosophy, but also with Sufism:
Closeness between Ashar kalm and Sufism has increased in this later period. The kalm
scholars of this period did not find it invalid at times to attach to their works entire chapters on
Sufism; a matter that only increased as time went by. This feature of combining kalm, Sufism,
and philosophy all together was especially predominant amongst Persian scholars like Mir
Damad and adr al-Dn al-Shirz, aka Mulla adra.53

Two relevant and explicit examples of this closeness between Sufism and
Asharism that contextualize the closeness of Asharism and Sufism, and hence the
softening of Asharite views toward Ibn Arab, take place within the Asharite
school of al-Azhar. The first is related to a change in writing protocols and the
second is related to mutual concerns between Asharism and Sufism. On the first
issue, a shift in writing protocols takes place in the form of adding sections on
Sufism within standard books of Asharite doctrine; similar to what we saw earlier
50. For a lucid account of the history and change in the meaning and use of the term see Henri
Lauzieres The Construction of Salafiyya: Reconsidering Salafism from the Perspective of
Conceptual History, International Journal of Middle East Studies 42 (2010), pp. 369389.
51. See asan al-Shfi, al-mid wa aruhu al-kalmiyya, p. 88. This included the affirmation of
the pre-eternality of divine attributes (sing. |ifa, pl. |ift). With regard to predetermination, the
position of the school affords humans free choice (kasb) regarding their actions, however, mixed
with what amounts to crass determinism (jabr) by virtue of God being the true actor in the
universe.
52. According to asan al-Shfi, this period starts with Ibn Frak al-A|fahn (d. 406/1015) and
ends with Abd al-Karm al-Shahrastn (d. 548/1153). The most important scholar of that period is
al-Juwayn. Among the factors that strengthened Asharism at this period is the sponsorship of the
Seljuks in the East, the Almoravides in Morocco, and the Ayyubids. See asan al-Shfi, alMadkhal il dirsat ilm al-kalm (An Introduction to Kalm Studies) (Cairo: Maktabat Wahba,
1991), p. 121.
53. Al-Shfi, al-Madhkal, p.123.

17

in the inclusion of Asharite testimonies of faith in Sufi works. This, conversely, is


normally made as an addendum in the end of kalm texts; not in the beginning as
in the case of Asharite catechisms in the beginning of Sufi books. Examples of
such a trend in writing protocol are the last chapter of the iconic Ashar textbook
al-Kharda al-bahiyya (The Lustrous Untouched Pearl)54 by Shaykh A^mad alDardr (d. 1201/1789) (which was a part of the Azhari curricula), the last stanzas
in the classical and widely taught poetical Asharite aqda text Jawharat al-taw^d
(The Jewel of Monotheism) by Imam Ibrhm al-Laqqn (d. 1276/ 1860), and the
last section of Shaykh Mu^ammad Ilshs (d. 1299/1881) famous supercommentary on the treatise of creed by al-Sans.55
As for the issue mutual intellectual concerns, ontology has became the most
relevant topic shared by the two schools. This has demonstrated itself with the
spread of the influence of Avicenna, despite an earlier rejection of his views on
both sides. On the topic of being (mab^ath al-wujd) and differentiation between
God as a Necessary Being (wjib al-wujd) and creation as a contingent being
(mumkin al-wujd) is a case in point. Almost without exception, every major
Ashar work of kalm, from al-Rz onward, includes a section on this now
central Ashar topic. Perhaps in our investigation of tracing the convergence
between Ibn Arab and later Asharism, there is no element that is more apparent
than the centrality of ontology. In fact, this very topic is the essence of Ibn Arabs
entire mystical work with his famously complex doctrine of wa^dat al-wujd, or
the Unity of Being; a complex metaphysical doctrine of objective theomonism that
bears an undertone from Avicennas metaphysical doctrines.
In shedding light on what earlier seemed like an unlikely convergence,
Sayyid Hossein Nasr asserts:
Asharism, while not ceasing to oppose both the Islamic philosophers and certain types of Sufi
metaphysics, nevertheless became itself more philosophical and turned to the basic
philosophical and metaphysical issues dealt with by its adversaries. Its later treaties are
concerned with such issues as being and nonbeing, necessity and contingency, the relation of the
one to the many, substance and accidentsall of which were treated primarily by Islamic
philosophers. Later Asharism also deals with the science of God (ilhiyyt), which is so
amply treated in works of theoretical Sufism such as those of Ibn Arab and adr al-Dn alQunayaw, not to speak of the philosophers who used the term in their own way and identified
with metaphysics as expounded in their philosophical treaties. Asharism thus became one of
several major schools of Islamic thought vying with the philosophers, on the one hand, and the
theosophers and Gnostics, who dealt with matters of more direct and spiritual concern that the
Asharites, on the others.56

54. A translation of the main text, al-Kharda can be found online:


http://marifah.net/articles/alKharida-dardir.pdf (accessed September 24, 2010).
55. Called al-Qawl al-wf al-sadd bi khidmat shar^ aqdat al-taw^d.
56. Sayyed Hossein Nasr, Islamic Philosophy from Its Origin to the Present: Philosophy in the
Land of Prophecy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006), p. 132.

18

A Marriage Made in Heaven: Asharism and Ibn Arab


Turning into the examination of the shift in Asharite views of Ibn Arab, which
evolved as a manifestation of embracing mystical doctrines within Asharism as
Nasr underpins, we start to notice a shift in the views of Asharite scholars from
the ninth/fifteenth century onward. If there ever was a tension between jurists and
theologians on the one hand, and Sufis on the other, the Mamluk epoch surely
demonstrates a significant stage where Sufism gained a far wider audience, as did
Ibn Arabs teachings. This relatively sudden exposure is due to a widespread
presence of Sufi books at a later stage, which has not kept with the base of
development of Sufi ideas that were normally transmitted aurally. This spread of
Sufi book has made many scholars skeptical of some Sufism. As Knysh portrays
this historical moment, there were fears of Sufi exegetical methods ultimately
leading to antimonism and adoption of philosophical cosmology.57 It is by
challenging those very skeptical views that Asharite scholars have attempted to
demonstrate the rootedness of Ibn Arabs doctrines in the Shariah. It is perhaps
Ibn Arabs staunch transcendence (tanzh) that provided the seed for the change
in Asharite views toward him.
It is at that stage that the pendulum starts swinging in the other direction.
We start to witness that the towering Hadith scholar and Asharite Ibn ajar alAsqaln (d. 852/1448) also seems to offer two contradicting views on Ibn
Arab.58 It must be noted that some narrators report that both Izz al-Dn b. Abd
al-Salm and al-Subk, with their previously cited negative views of Ibn Arab,
might have changed their views regarding him.59 There was also an intermediate
category between denouncing and defending that is made of Asharite scholars
who chose not to give an opinion on Ibn Arab, whether with an endorsement or
denouncement.60
57. Knysh, Ibn Arab in the later Islamic Tradition: The Making of a Polemical Image in Medieval
Islam, 57.
58. In Ibn ajars Lisn al-Mzn (The Indicator of the Balance), which is a biographical dictionary
dedicated to the sub-discipline of discrediting and accrediting narrators (al-jar^ wa al-tadl) in
Hadith, we find that in the entry of his Sheikh Sirj al-Dn al-Blqn he narrates that the latter
denounced Ibn Arab as a heretic (4:364). Some critics see this as an endorsement of the opinion of
his teacher; however, in the same book, we find a positive biography of Ibn Arab (2/311314).
However, he eludes to Ibn Arab as being a believer divine indwelling like al-allj (2/315).
59. First, with regard to al-Izz b. Abd al-Salm, Ibn A~illh al-Sakandar, the famous Sufi
scholar (d. 709/1309) in La~if al-Minan (The Bequeathed Subtleties) (ed. Ma^md Abd al-alm)
pp. 141142, noted that al-Izz b. Abd al-Salm retracted from his earlier hostile opinion after
meeting his spiritual mentor Imam Ab al-asan al-Shdhil (d. 655/1258), the founder of the Sufi
order whose teachings are intimately tied to Asharism. Also al-Sharn in al-Yawqt wa aljawhir, p.10 mentions that both al-Bulqn and al-Subk retracted from their denouncements of Ibn
Arab.
60. This category includes the widely respected Shfi and Asharite scholar and symbol of
Sunnism, Imam al-Nawaw (d. 676/1278), who when requested to state his position on the beliefs
of Ibn Arab, declined to give an opinion either way. See al-Sharns al-Yawqt wa al-jawhir, p.
7. Other important scholars who favored silence are A^mad al-Muqr al-Maghrib (d. 1041/1578)

19

Later periods witnessed what amounts to no less than a surge in Asharite


scholars who were vocal in their veneration and defense of Ibn Arab. There are
three methods that were used to express support of Ibn Arabs doctrines by
Asharite scholars. The first is an announcement of support, whether in their own
writingsbe it fatwas or treatisesor via narrations by others. As we will see,
there are a series of fatwas that precede a series of independent writings in defense
of Ibn Arab. Within this category, probably the most important early figure to
announce his endorsement for the doctrines of the Ibn Arab is the Shfi scholar
Imam Zakariyy al-An|r (d. 926/1519), who is considered an authority in the
Shfi school.61 Another significant endorsement of is a fatwa by Ibn ajar alHaytam (d. 973/1565), who is one of the top authorities in the later period of the
Shfi school.62
There are two other important new expressions supporting the doctrinal
views of Ibn Arab. The first is writing treatises and books with the soul purpose
of defending or explaining his views. One of the earliest traceable independent
treatises with the sole purpose of defending Ibn Arab is probably the work of the
influential linguist and Asharite Majd al-Dn al-Fayrzabd (d. 817/1414).63 The
most significant and high profile Asharite scholar to defend Ibn Arab is the
influential and prolific Hadith scholar and polymath Jall al-Dn al-Suy~ (d.
911/1505). Despite fully supporting Ibn Arab, however, his conclusion was to
prohibit reading his books.64 Nonetheless the Asharite scholar who is arguably the
and the famous Sharaf al-Dn al-Munw (d. 871/1466). See his biography in Shadhart al-dhahab:
5:194193.
61. In defense of Ibn Arab, al-An|r, in his commentary Asn al-ma~lib shar^ raw\ al-~lib
(Cairo: Mu|~af al-alab, 1910) 1:694, which deals with issuing fatwas and jurisprudence, rebuts
a book by Isml Ibn al-Muqr with the latters vehement anathematization not only of Ibn Arab,
but of anyone who even doubts his anathematization.
62. With regard to Ibn Arabs adherence of the Sunna, al-Haytam asserts, What we found from
the greatest of our wise sheikhs and scholarsis that the Shaykh Mu^y al-Dn Ibn Arab is among
the Gnostic saints of God. They [his scholars] are in concordance that he was the most
knowledgeable among his contemporaries, and that he was an authority to be followed, not a
follower in any science . . . he was among the most scrupulous of his time, and most assiduous in
adherence to the Sunna, and the greatest in spiritual discipline. See Ibn ajar al-Haytam, alFatw al-hadthiyya (The Hadith-Based Fatwas) (Cairo: Mu|~af al-alab, 1910), 1:664665.
63. Al-Fayrzabd is arguably one of the biggest defenders of Ibn Arab, especially in his al-Radd
ala al-mu~ari\n al Mu^y al-Dn (The Response to the Adversaries of Mu^y al-Dn) and alIghtib~ bi mulajat Ibn al-Khay~ (The Rejoice in Responding to Ibn Khay~), a treatise in
response to his contemporary, the Yemeni Hadith scholar Jaml al-Dn Ibn Khay~ (d. 839/1435).
Many later works in defense of Ibn Arab seem to draw on these two works. There are references
to other works in defense of Ibn Arab that were written around that same period but nothing is as
well-known as the work of al-Fayrzabd. Unfortunately, some of these works are either still
unpublished or in rare print.
64. In his widespread work, whose title presents a play on words from the earlier title of Ibn alMuqrs work, Tanbh al-ghab fi tabriat Ibn Arab (Cautioning the Ignoramus Regarding the
Acquittal of Ibn Arab), al-Suy~ offers an important shift in popular views of Ibn Arab. This
work offers a compilation of statements from other scholar on the saintly rank of Ibn Arab. In his
conclusion al-Suy~ believes both that neither of the two camps of his time, whether extremely pro

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most influential force popularizing the works of Ibn Arab is the Sufi scholar Abd
al-Wahhb al-Sharn (d. 973/1565). His two widely spread books, which were
published many times across the Muslim world and have contributed to the
popularity of Ibn Arab, are al-Yawqt wa al-Jawhir f aqdat al-akbir (The
Jewels and Gems in the Doctrines of The Greatest Ones), and al-Kibrt al-a^mar f
bayn ulm al-Shaykh al-Akbar (The Red Sulfur in the Knowledge of The
Greatest Master), the latter being a summary of The Meccan Revelations and
nowadays a standard introduction in Sufi circles to the study Ibn Arabs
doctrines. A noteworthy development in defending Ibn Arab is the special defense
of his aforementioned and controversial doctrine of wa^dat al-wujd. Perhaps in
this regard the most important Asharite scholar is Abd al-Ghan al-Nbuls (d.
1143/1730), who is also a prolific poet and author of al-Radd al-matn al
muntaqid Mu^y al-Dn (The Firm Response to the One Belittling Mu^y al-Dn).
Other than writing, the third and subtler expression that signifies the
change of Ibn Arabs status within Asharite scholarly circles is the transmission
of his works through documented chains of ascription (isnd), which include highprofile Asharite scholars. This surely carries an implicit and undeniable
endorsement. Among the influential scholars through whom those chains run are
Ibn ajar al-Asqaln, Zakariyy al-An|r, and the Shfi jurist Al alShumbramals.65
It must be noted however that the defense of Ibn Arabs doctrines was not
unconditional. An interesting and noteworthy point here is that, despite alSharns reverence for the doctrines of Ibn Arab, he asserts that whenever a
doctrine of Ibn Arab is different from the Asharites, one should leave it and
follow the Asharite position. In the introduction of al-Yawqt wa al-jawhir f
aqdat al-akbir he states,
Know my brethren that I examined countless books of the people of kashf (spiritual
unveiling). I never saw anyone with expansive statements like those of the perfected,
realized, mentor of Gnostics, al-Shaykh Mu^y al-Dn Ibn Arab, may Allah have
mercy on his soul. This is why I constructed this book based on al-Fut^t alone, and
with no other teachings from any other Sufis. However, I saw in al-Fut^t places that
I could not fathom. I mention them here for the scholars of Islam to establish the truth
and declare falsehood. Dear brother! Dont believe that I hereby mention them because
I believe in their validity. . . . I seek refuge in God from contradicting the majority of

or anti Ibn Arab, will agree to his final statement: asserting the sainthood of Ibn Arab and,
interestingly, at the same breath prohibiting the reading Ibn Arabs books due to their ambiguous
and enigmatic nature. See Jall al-Dn al-uy~, Tanbh al-ghab f tanzh Ibn Arab (Cairo:
Maktbat al-Adba, 1990).
65. See the mashyakha (or collection of the chains of ascription from shuykh) called Mashyakha
Ab al-Mawhib al-anbal by Abd al-Bq al-anabl, (Beirut: Dr al-Fikr al-Mu|ir, 1989),
p.27.

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kalm scholars and believing in the validity of the views of those who challenge them
among the people of unveiling who are infallible.66

Another contemporary nuance comes from Muhammad Sad Rama\n alB~, probably one of the most respected senior contemporary Asharite
theologians, who asserts that the ultimate measurement whenever an apparent
contradiction arises in dealing with Ibn Arab is the established consensus of
scholars of kalm.67

Conclusion
This paper examined a shift in the views of Asharite scholars and theologians
toward Sufisms crowned figure, Ibn Arab. It compared early hostile views by
Asharisms authoritative figures with later views that intensify vertically and
horizontally in asserting the compatibility of Ibn Arabs doctrines. It argued that
the reason for this is more than just a greater understanding of Ibn Arabs
doctrines, including a differentiation that he makes between the early and later
Asharism of his time; a differentiation that escaped many relevant theological
examinations. It also provides and an account of analogous undercurrents on both
sides that came to echo wider doxographical transformations that are best
represented by this shift; with both camps of Asharism and Sufism moving toward
expanding their interpretative tools to strengthen their intellectual powers in
defense of orthodoxy, drifting from the text-based methodology originating from
the mutual ideological foundations tied to the Ahl al-adth movement, to a
gradual drifting toward an ascending approach and acceptance of speculative
reasoning, Greek logic, and philosophical influences; to a shift in writing protocols
and; finally, to an avid interest in ontological topics. This relationship takes a full
circle in representing the intellectual story of what later came to be known as the
Sunni orthodoxy.
This paper hopes to open the door for more welcome topics of future
research, like investigating whether a similar change within Mturdism toward
Ibn Arab takes place, examining the existence of conflicting views by Asharite
scholars, which is always associated with a later change in the views, as narrated
by others, and engaging in a comparative study of available biographical entries of
Ibn Arab in biographical dictionaries. The biggest challenge that I found is the
surprising dearth of works that closely examine the relationship between Asharism
66. Abd al-Wahhb al-Sharn, al-Yawqt wa al-jawhir f aqdat al-akbir (Cairo: Mu|~af alalab, 1959), p.3.
67. See al-Salafyya: mar^ala zamaniyya mubraka l madhhab Islm (The Period of the Early
Muslims: A Blessed Historical Period, not an Islamic School of Thought) (Beirut: Dr al-Fikr alMu|ir, 1998), p. 204, in which he compares the full-hearted adoption of the teachings of Ibn
Taymiyya (d. 728/1328), the most famous polemicist critic of Ibn Arab, and that of Ibn Arab. He
argues against the full adoption of either view without consulting established scholarly positions.

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and Sufism; despite the crucial role that the dynamics of such a relation have
played in Islamic intellectual history.

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