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Ibn `Arabi in the Later Islamic Tradition
The Making of a Polemical Image in Medieval Islam

Alexander D. Knysh
Albany: SUNY Press, 1999.
ISBN: 0-7914-3968-2

Born in 1165 A. D., in the Andalusian town of Murcia, Muhyi'l-Din Muhammad Ibn `Ali Ibn al-`Arabi, was heir to a mystical tradition tinged by an asceticism (his teachers were Abû'l `Abbâs al-`Uranyi, the illiterate, and Mûsâ al-Mirtuli, a scholar) which rendered his habits quite different from those he discovered in the East. He had left home on pilgrimage to Mecca at the age of thirty five, never to return, for he had felt welcome in the lands of the Ayyubids under whose protection he was able to travel widely--an important requirement for any scholar of those times--and was well received in the Hijaz, Syria, Iraq and Anatolia by fellow sufis with whom he shared his information. He made Damascus his home, raised two sons and was finally buried there where he died in 1240 A. D.[p. 8]. If the practices mentioned most frequently in his writings, namely, devotion to the Qur'ân, poverty, and asceticism, were notions which belonged with the spriritual elite of al-Andalus, nevertheless, his two most well known works, Futûhât al-Makkiya and Fusûs al-Hikam, were written in the East and did not fail to express Eastern influence.
    It is not only for his remarkable synthesis of Eastern and Western approaches to Mysticism, however, but the dangerously ambiguous and desultory nature of his writings, as well, that Ibn `Arabi, the Shaykh al-Akbâr, is renowned (and no wonder, given the fact that Al-Ghazâli's Ihyâ `Ulûm al-Dîn had but recently been burnt in Morroco, to say nothing of the fact that Yahya al-Suhrawardi, the shaykh al-Ishrâq had died in prison at the age of thirty eight in 1191 A. D.).
    Alexander Knysh investigates the impact of Ibn `Arabi's contribution to expose the dilemma which, in a sense, every believer, Ibn `Arabi included, must confront: What is the nature of man's relationship with God? In this regard, the message has not been clearly stated by either God or His Prophet, and Ibn `Arabi's explanation, the doctrine of wahdat al-wujûd (oneness of being), combined with that of insân al-Kâmil (the perfect man), is inevitably complex. As Knysh explains, "Ibn `Arabi’s metaphysics describes the world as a product of the divine self reflection that prompts God to manifest himself in the things and phenomena of the empirical universe [p. 13];" while Ibn `Arabi’s theory of the perfect man--"that human individual who has perfectly realized the full spiritual potential of the human state"--claimed that "man was a microcosmic reality in which God contemplates himself in the most adequate form [p. 15]." Such a man was the very cause of creation. Moreover he explains the ideal man as the wali or supreme saint, and the qutb or spiritual pole of the epoch, who was entrusted by God with leading humanity to salvation. Indeed, Ibn `Arabi seems to have toyed with the notion that in fact he was this perfect man. These ideas offended mainstream Muslim theologians who (mis)took it for a denial of the otherness of God, and saw in it an expression of Ibn `Arabi’s egotism.
    Whether this was indeed what the sufi philosopher intended to assert is a moot point and it is the history of the debate that ensued, that occupies Knyshe’s attention in this volume. If the subject of Knysh’s volume is the theological controversy that raged over Ibn `Arabi’s contributions, the theme of his work seems to be the nature of scholarly discourse that emerged in the various parts of the Islamic world, including Spain, Egypt, and Yemen, from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries. Interestingly what one observes is the repetitive nature of the discourse despite the different historical and political contexts in which it occurs.
    Needless to say the book is a fascinating read. Knysh’s grasp of the intellectual issues that occupied the Muslim mind is excellent. The book is clearly a must for any library of Islamic texts.

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