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September 8, 2016

Ibn Arabi: A Muslim scholar whose time has come?

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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One of Islam's greatest scholars was the Andalusian, Muhi-Al-Deen Ibn Arabi (1165 - 1240 CE), who was truly a "renaissance man" long before that name was applied to the 15th - century resurgence of arts, letters and science.

Ibn Arabi was a philosopher, judge, imam, teacher, poet, Sufi master and, with more than 85 books to his credit, one of the most prolific writers of the Muslim world’s golden age.

His masterpiece and legacy is the multi-volume 12,000-page Al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya (Reflections at Mecca). I am very proud to own and to have read a copy of it in the original Arabic, edited and printed in Egypt in 1985.

Al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya was written over a 20-year period while Ibn Arabi was settled between Mecca and Damascus, the city where he died.

Topics contained in this vast opus include: why and how one comes to know and love God; inner meanings of Islamic rituals and how they can help in our journey to God; the nature of cosmic hierarchies; spiritual meanings of the traditional 99 Names of God; and the significance of messages taught by the various prophets.

Once pushed aside, and even denigrated by other Muslim scholars, Ibn Arabi’s writings should be reconsidered today in light of their universal relevance. At a time when spiritual literacy is at an all-time low among young people – Muslims and other faith groups as well – he has much to offer today’s educators.

Although Ibn Arabi’s classical writing style is too complex and convoluted for many present-day readers, his message is simple and universal: to “live,” you must trigger within yourself both knowledge and love of the Creator and creation, including yourself. If you do not embrace both elements in relating to God, you are effectively spiritually dead. Living in a state of knowledge and love is meant to be a lifelong journey, one to enjoy and celebrate.

Considered the most significant and profound reflection on Islamic thought ever written, Al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya has never been entirely translated into English from its original classical Arabic, although that achievement is now not far off.

Dr. Eric Abu Munir Winkel, one of the few to have extensively translated Ibn Arabi’s work, has undertaken the gargantuan task of making Al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya available in English. He recently announced that the first 12 volumes – of a projected 37 – have been completed.

Why it has taken so long is not due at all to intellectual neglect: it is because the literal translation of classical Arabic, an intensely poetic and highly nuanced language, is almost impossible.

In fact, the best approach would be to rewrite Ibn Arabi’s reflections afresh in English. But this too is a daunting prospect. It requires a multi-disciplinary approach with access to expert resources covering topics that include (but are not limited to) Islamic law, history, sociology, science, metaphysics, cosmology, spiritual anthropology, psychology, and jurisprudence.

Thus the only way a translator can handle this material is to know the complete work in Arabic, understand the multi-faceted methodology that Ibn Arabi uses, find the right words and appropriate sentence constructions in English, and connect enough of the context through footnotes for the reader to proceed.

So far, for example, there have been two German translations of Ibn Arabi’s mystic poems, the Tarjuman al-Ashwaq. One is aimed at a general readership; the other includes Ibn Arabi’s own theological and metaphysical commentary, along with his original poetic texts.

However, I can tell you some salient points about Ibn Arabi’s approach to life in Al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya that make him a very relevant writer and thinker for our own century.

First, he humbly reminds readers that he is neither an author nor composer, because in these fields writers are constrained by their chosen thesis and knowledge of the topic, or by the parameters of the science they are discussing.

Also, he never claims to be the only holder of Truth. He refers instead to the views of other scholars, while posing readers more questions than answers.

The only constraint Ibn Arabi placed on his work was the desire to ensure his reflections were supported by Qur’anic teachings and the Hadith (recorded sayings of Prophet Muhammad).

The reader is expected to understand from the outset that the choice and arrangement of topics are not in the writer’s hands. Any “translator” of Ibn Arabi is therefore operating more as commentator, providing a context for understanding.

In this way, Ibn Arabi takes the willing reader on a spiritual journey of the first order, reflecting on just one verse of the Qur’an: “When We [God] want some thing to be, We only say to it, ‘Be!’ and it is.” (16:40).

If you travel patiently with him, the spiritual rewards at the end of your journey through Al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya are huge, for this book will fill your soul with life again. It was certainly worth it for me.

Dr. Winkel has observed that: “The Futūḥāt is not a conceptually organized text, and key themes and terms are not explained when they first appear. Thus, in order to understand what Ibn Arabi is saying in any particular instance, the translator must know (and reference for the reader) the full context, drawn from the entire text … Explanations are needed to fill in the contextual gaps which a contemporary [12th or 13th century] listener, in tune with Ibn Arabi and his subject matter, would not have needed.”

From my own research, I have found Dr. Winkel, who currently resides in Atlanta GA, to be as fascinating a person in his own right as his far-sighted teacher, Ibn Arabi.

Born in the US, he studied at Penn State and the University of South Carolina, mastering many languages, among them Arabic. He also studied the scriptures and holy books of multiple religions, including the Qur’an.

After graduation, Dr. Winkel taught at the International Islamic University in Malaysia and was Senior Fulbright Scholar in Islamabad, Pakistan. He was also Dean of Students at the International Institute of Chinese Medicine in Santa Fe, New Mexico. During his spiritual journey with the writings of Ibn Arabi he converted to Islam. He has an 11-year-old son, Munir, whose name in Arabic signifies “bright and shining,” or “illuminated.”

In another commentary on Al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya Dr. Winkel elaborates on its structure:

“The Futūḥāt describes a tangible vision Ibn Arabi experienced in Mecca. Although the work has been described as a vast compendium, it is much more than that; neither is it an encyclopedia of concepts. It is above all an integral transcription of a complex, wholly palpable, experienced vision. In order to depict what he saw, Ibn Arabi draws on different kinds of language: legal and poetic, geometric and theological. Because these languages are difficult, and especially so for readers removed by seven centuries in time (and in culture, religion, and worldview), scholars tend to emphasize the difficulty, even impossibility, of translating or managing to convey even portions of this text.”

He adds that; “Despite being a written text, the work is oral in format. Generally, in a systematic written text, an author defines terms, makes arguments, and draws conclusions. The reader can move from page to page to re-read a definition or review the ramifications of an argument.”

These conventional expectations are not fulfilled in Ibn Arabi’s book, yet even with the difficulties it poses for the 21st-century mind, I strongly believe that by carefully simplifying his highly spiritual and universal teachings in both Arabic and English, Al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya could be of great benefit to today’s young Muslims, as well as students of other religions.

Ibn Arabi’s time may indeed have come – a mere eight centuries after he first set pen to paper. So knowing that Dr. Winkler has progressed so far in making this dream of mine a reality is a source of tremendous optimism and joy.

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Dotan Rousso. Holds a Ph.D. in Law—a former criminal prosecutor in Israel. Currently working as a college professor in Canada.

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