By Arif M. Khan
A garden among the flames! / My heart can take on any form:/ A meadow for gazelles, a monastery for monks,/ For the idols, it is temple, for devout pilgrim it is Kaba/ The tables of the Tora, the scrolls of the Quran/ My creed is Love; wherever its caravan turns along the way,/ That is my belief, my faith.
The author of this enchanting verse is Muhammed Ibn “Ali Ibn” Arabi, the great Sufi master and exponent of the theory of Wahdat-ul-wajood (unity of existence and being).He was born is 1665 AD in Murcia, a town of Muslim Spain known as Andalus. His followers in the East called him Sheikh Akbar (Great Master) and the West conferred on him the title of Doctor Maximus to revere his memory.
The environment in which Ibn Arabi grew up was marked by some measure of religious harmony, as three religious traditions----Jewish, Christianity and Islamic --- existed side by side. Many regarded them as different pathways leading to the same destination.
The zeitgeist of of contemporary Spain had deeply impacted Ibn Arabi, who has not only engaged in the pursuit of knowledge and ideas, but also focused on knowing reality through personal experience. Ibn Arabi is regarded as a Sufi teacher who did not confine himself to one tradition or dogma, but saw the unity of God in the unity of creation. His emphatic assertion “all that is left to us by tradition is mere words, it is up to us to find out what they mean” reflects his sensitivity to the demands of the times he was living in.
Ibn Arabi and his philosophy evoked varied reactions, some considered him a saint and the others a heretic. His books were banned. Once he was forced to flee from Egypt to escape the charge of heresy. Critics strongly resented his emphasis on employing reason to realise Truth, which was considered by Ibn Arabi as an expression of the divine. In a beautiful simile, Ibn Arabi says, “Light cannot be seen in itself, but only through the objects in which it is reflected. Similarly , God can be seen by the reflection on his creation, which is nothing but himself.” How contemporary society reacted to Ibn Arabi is best reflected in a story by Sheikh Muzaffar Ozak and included in Ibn Arabi’s book Futuhat al –Makkiya.
According to the narration, a teacher of Muslim law was delivering a lecture on the subject of heresy. One student got up and asked if the heretic under study was someone like Ibn Arabi. The teacher responded in the affirmative. This was during Ramadan, the month of fasting. In the evening, after breaking his fast, another student asked the same teacher, “Who according to you is the greatest saint of our times?” The teacher replied, “Ibn Arabi”.
The students were perplexed and questioned the teacher why only a few hours earlier he had described Ibn Arabi as a heretic. The teacher told them in an affectionate tone,”While in college we were among men of orthodoxy, bookish scholars and rigid legists, here we are among men of love.”
This story succinctly portrays Ibn Arabi as a sage who strove to seek harmony in diversity and defined “a true seeker as one who cannot stay died to one form of belief”. In his book Fusus, he warns, ‘Beware of becoming delimited by a specific knotting and disbelieving in everything else, lest great good escape you... Be open to the forms of all beliefs, for God is eider and more tremendous than that.
He should be constricted by one knotting rather than another. “Further, he said, “Men of knowledge know that God manifests in diverse forms”.
The universal humanism of Ibn Arabi, firmly rooted in the Quran, acknowledged that ‘each person has a unique path to the truth. which unites all paths in itself”. The impact of his writing has influenced both Sufism and the West’s philosophy and literature. His concept of “unity of existence or being “has much to offer in terms of creating religions harmony and a better and peaceful world.
Source: The Sunday Guardian