Shaykh al-Akbar Sidi Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi (d. 636/1221)
The Venerated Qutb, Sidi Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi al-‘Hatimi, known throughout the Islamic world simply as the "Greatest Master" (al-Shaykh al-Akbar) as his master Sidi Abu Madyan al-Ghawt (d. 594/1179) used to call him, is acknowledged to be one of the most important Sufi teachers in the Islamic world. A vastly prolific writer and visionary, he is generally known as the prime exponent of the concept of the Unity of Being (wahdat al-wujud), even though that particular term, by which his teachings came later to be designated, was hardly used in his own milieu. His emphasis, as with any mystic, lay rather on the true potential of the human being and the path to realizing that potential, which reaches its completion in the Complete Man (al-Insan al-Kamil). Shaykh al-Akbar wrote at least 300 works, ranging from minor treatises to the huge thirty-seven-volume Meccan Illuminations (al-Futuhat al-Makkiya) and the quintessence of his teachings, the Bezels of Wisdom (Fusus al-Hikam). Approximately 110 works are known to have survived in verifiable manuscripts, some 18 in Shaykh al-Akbar's own hand. He exerted an unparalleled influence, not only upon his immediate circle of friends and disciples, many of whom were considered spiritual masters in their own right, but also on succeeding generations, affecting the whole course of subsequent spiritual thought and practice in the Arabic-, Turkish-, and Persian-speaking worlds. In recent years his writings have also increasingly become the subject of interest and study in the West, leading to the establishment of an international academic society in his name.
Shaykh al-Akbar's thought is characterized by a profound visionary capacity, coupled with a remarkable intellectual insight into human experience and a thorough knowledge of all the traditional sciences. It has been tempting for scholars to characterize him as a mystical philosopher, a formulation that is rather at odds with his own teachings on the limitations of philosophical thinking. He was as much at home with Quranic and hadith scholarship as with medieval philology and letter symbolism, philosophy, alchemy, and cosmology. He could write with equal facility in prose or poetry, and utilized the polysemous ambiguity of the Arabic language to great effect—the characteristic resonances of rhymed prose (saj’), which are to be found in the Quran, abound in his works. The complexity of his writings makes him one of the most demanding of authors, and difficult to comprehend, leading some Islamic scholars to oppose and even reject his positions. Among his admirers, his writing was always considered to be the most elevated exposition of mystical thought in Islam, and therefore unsuitable for the untrained mind. He combines a detailed architecture of spiritual experience, theory, and practice, with descriptions of the attainments of other masters he met and of his own personal visions, insights, and dreams. It is his propensity to recount stories from his own direct experience, primarily in order to make a teaching point, that allows readers to gain such a detailed insight into his inner world, and also allows us to reconstruct his life and times with some accuracy.
Shaykh al-Akbar’s life
Born on July 28, 1165, in Murcia, Muslim Spain, Abu Abdellah Sidi Mohammed b. Ali b. Mohammed Ibn Arabi al-‘Hatimi al-Ta’i al-Andalusi al-Maghribi, as he signs himself (often shortened to simply Ibn Arabi), was brought up from the age of seven in Seville, the provincial capital of the Moroccan Almohad Empire during the heyday of Andalusian Muslim culture. His father served as a professional soldier in the sultan's entourage, and for a time the son seemed destined to follow in his footsteps. Contrary to the romantic picture painted by later writers, the family was well-off, but neither noble nor very religious. He seems to have been blessed with an extraordinary visionary capacity from a very young age, and the seminal experience of his youth took place when he was about fifteen or sixteen years old. Without having had any formal training and apparently under the impulsion of an irresistible inner demand, he undertook a retreat alone just outside Seville, probably in the ruins of the old Roman city of Italica, where he had a remarkable dream-vision of the Prophets, Sidna Isa (Jesus, peace be upon him), Sidna Musa (Moses, peace be upon him), and the Chieftain of the Universe: Sidna Mohammed ibn Abdellah (peace and blessing be upon them). According to his own testimony, each of them is said to have given him a piece of advice: Jesus, whom he referred to as his first teacher, exhorted him to follow the spiritual life, and instructed him to practice renunciation and detachment; Moses, whom Shaykh al-Akbar regarded as epitomizing the reception of divine inspiration, promised that he would be given knowledge by God directly, without any intermediary; and, finally, Sidna Mohammad, who rescued him from a host of assailants, told him: "Hold fast to me and you will be safe". As a consequence of this instruction, Shaykh al-Akbar says, he began his study of the Tradition of the Prophet (al-‘hadith al-sharif).
This triple vision also had one other direct result: the great philosopher, Ibn Rushd (Averroes), who was nearing the end of his life in Cordoba, asked to meet him, and their celebrated meeting included a most extraordinary exchange, touching on the very nature of the spiritual quest: in response to Ibn Rushd's question about whether mystical illumination produces the same results as rational inquiry, Shaykh al-Akbar replied: "Yes and no, and between the yes and the no spirits take wing from their matter, and necks are separated from their bodies", leaving the philosopher dumbfounded. This response not only indicates Shaykh al-Akbar's understanding of the gulf between the philosophical and the mystical, between intellectual reflection and spiritual retreat, but also his appreciation of how mystical thought can include and accommodate apparently contradictory notions.
Within two years, Shaykh al-Akbar had irrevocably dedicated himself to a rigorous spiritual life, turning his back on the military career that his father had wanted him to pursue, and entrusting everything he possessed into his father's keeping. From this time he began to frequent other spiritual masters. An account of the many Sufi teachers, male and female, that he met in Seville, Cordoba, and other major cities of Andalusia and the Maghreb is given in one of his most accessible books, The Spirit of Holiness (Ruh al-quds fi munasahat al-nafs), which provides a wonderful insight into spiritual teaching in his time. Some of his teachers were poor and illiterate and referred to Shaykh al-Akbar as their spiritual son, like his first master, al-‘Uryani, or one of his female teachers in Seville, Fatima bint Ibn al-Muthanna, who was already ninety-six years old when they met and appeared superficially as a simpleton, "though she would have replied that he who knows not his Lord is the real simpleton". Others, such as Sidi 'Abderrahman al-Tamimi al-Fasi (d. 1206) and Sidi Abu Yaqub ibn Yakhlaf al-Qumi al-Abbasi were more apparently learned, and introduced Shaykh al-Akbar to the teachings of the Moroccan poles: Moulay Boushayb as-Sarya(d. 561/1146), Sidi Abu Yaaza Yalnur (d. 572/1157), and Sidi Abu Madyan al-Ghawt (d. 594/1179), and to central texts of Sufism. Shaykh al-Akbar reports in Ruh al-Quds fi munasahat al-nafs,
“Our master and imam Abu Yaqub ben Yakhlaf al-Qumi al-Abbasi —may God be pleased with him—had been a companion of Abu Madyan and had met several of the men of God in his country. He lived for a time in Egypt and married in Alexandria… He was offered the governorship of Fez, but declined it. He possessed such a sure knowledge of the spiritual way that Abu Madyan who was the founder and expounder of this way in the Maghrib, said of him: Abu Yaqub is like a safe harbour for a ship.' He was generous, much given to dhikr (remembrance of God), and gave alms in secret. He honoured the poor and humbled the rich. I was obedient to him and was educated by him—and what an education it was... He had a powerful spiritual will and for the most part followed the way of the malamatiya. Seldom was he seen without an expression of total concentration on his face. But whenever he saw a poor man, his face would light up with joy… Whenever I sat before him, or before any other spiritual master, I would tremble like a leaf in the wind, my voice would desert me, and I would be unable to move my limbs. People would notice this. And if the master were in dulgent to me, and sought to put me at my ease, it only increased my awe and reverence for him. This master had love for me, but concealed it by showing favour to others, and by displaying a distant manner towards me, commending what others had to say while taking me to task. He went so far in this, that my companions who studied with me under his charge, began to think little of my spiritual gifts. And yet I alone of the whole group, as the master later said, reached the goal. Of my many experiences with Abu Yaqub, the following is worthy of mention. I must first explain that at the time concerned I did not yet know the Epistle of al-Qushayri (a fundamental work of Islamic mysticism). I was unaware that anyone had written about this spiritual way, and did not even know what the expression Sufism meant. One day the master mounted his horse, and bade me and one of my companions follow him to Muntabar, a mountain that was about an hour's ride from Seville. As soon as the city gate was opened, my companion and I set out on foot. My companion carried in his hand a copy of AI-Qushayri's Epistle, of which as I have said, I knew nothing. We climbed the mountain and at the top we found our master, who, with a servant, had gone ahead of us. He tethered his horse, and we entered a mosque at the top of the mountain in order to pray. After the prayer, we sat with our backs towards the prayer-niche (mihrab). The master handed me Qushayri's Epistle and told me to read from it. I was unable, however, to utter a single word. My awe of him was so great that the book even fell from my hands. Then he told my companion to read it, and he expounded on what was read until it was time for the afternoon prayer, which we said. Then the master said: 'Let us now return to town.' He mounted his horse, and I ran alongside him, holding on to his stirrup. Along the way he talked to me of the virtues and miracles of Abu Madyan. I was all ears, and forgot myself entirely, keeping my eyes fixed on his face the whole time. Suddenly he looked at me and smiled and, spurring his horse, made me run even more quickly in order to keep up with him. I succeeded in doing so. Finally he stopped, and said to me: 'Look and see what thou hast left behind thee.' I looked back and saw that the way along which we had come was full of thorn bushes that reached as high as my tunic, and that the ground was also covered with thorns. He said: 'Look at thy feet!' I looked at them and saw on them no trace of the thorns. Took at thy garments!' On them too I found no trace. Then he said: 'That comes from the grace engendered by our talking about Abu Madyan—may God be pleased with him—so persevere, my son, on the spiritual path!' Thereupon he spurred his horse and left me behind.
Perhaps the most crucial influence was his friend and mentor in Tunis, Sidi Abdellaziz al-Mahdawi, a master who seems to have shared Shaykh al-Akbar's depth and subtlety of mind and with whom he spent two extended periods. In addition to these contacts, Shaykh al-Akbar undertook a lengthy retreat of at least nine months, following which, in Cordoba in 1190, he experienced a remarkable vision of all the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) and messengers, from Sidna Adam (peace be on him) to the Seal of Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him). After his first visit outside Andalusia to Tunis where he stayed with Shaykh al-Mahdawi in 1194, Shaykh al-Akbar composed probably his first major work, Contemplation of the Mysteries (Mashahid al-asrar), a series of fourteen visionary episodes and dialogues with Almighty God, written specifically for the disciples of al-Mahdawi. His father died soon after, and as the clouds of war gathered prior to the Almohad victory over the Castilian army at Alarcos in 1195, Shaykh al-Akbar took his mother and two sisters to the peaceful Moroccan city of Fez. The Shaykh visited Fez three times, once in 1195, in 1197-8, and finally in 1201, when he called in on his journey East. It seems that he met many of the important Sufis and muhaddith of the city and it was the scene of some of his most important spiritual experiences, so much so that he regarded second only to Mecca as a 'holy city'.
The City of Fez
His first visit was marked by his meeting with 'Abderrahman al-Tamimi al-Fasi (d. 1206), a well-known muhaddith and Sufi who was the Imam of the al-Azhar mosque in the Ayn al-Khail district. During this time, he attained to the 'Abode of the pact made between plants and the Pole', through which he was able to predict the crucial Almohad victory at Los Alarcos. He also attained for the first time the 'Abode of Light' where he was instructed in the difference between sensible and subtle bodies. His second visit was longer, lasting between 2 and 3 years. He travelled there with his family, (his mother and his two sisters, plus a maternal cousin), settling them in Fez and so releasing himself from his domestic obligations so that he could pursue the spiritual path unhindered. It is during this visit that he is said to have lived near to the Al-Azhar Mosque, and that he spent many hours there is contemplation. This was the period of intense spiritual experience where his reputation as a spiritual master in his own right grew. It was here that he experienced:
- His second investiture of the khirqa of Khidr at the hands of al-Tamimi,
- His second attainment of the 'Abode of Light' which he describes as follows: "I obtained this station in 593 at Fez, during the 'asr prayer at the al-Azhar Mosque in the 'Ayn al-Khail. It appeared to me in the form of a light that was if anything more visible than what was in front of me. Also, when I saw this light the status of the direction 'behind' ceased for me. I no longer had a back or nape of a neck, and while the vision lasted I could no longer distinguish between different sides of myself. I was like a sphere; I was no longer aware of myself as having any 'side' except as the result of a mental process - not an experienced reality."
- He encounterd the Pole of his time in the garden of Ibn Hayyun's garden in Fez.
- He underwent his mi'râj, or spiritual ascension, in which he
was taken to each of the celestial heavens in turn, and met there the
Prophet associated with the sphere. He wrote the first account of this
journey (Kitab al Isrâ) in Jumada 594H whilst still in Fez.
"I gained in this night-journey the true meaning of all the Divine Names, and I saw them returning to One Named and One Essence. This Named was my very object of contemplation; that Essence was my very being."
- He also came to know the identity of the Seal of Muhammedian Sainthood on which he resumed his ‘Anqa’ Maghreb fi khatm al-awliya wa shams al-Maghreb (The Western Phoenix in the Seal of Saints and Sun of Morocco). He described this majestic figure as "the inheriting saint, who receives from the source, who recognizes the degrees and ascertains the entitlement of their holders, in order to give each creditor his rightful due, for that is one of the virtues of the Chieftain of the Envoys, the Captain of the Community."
- He met his one of closest disciples, Badr al-Habashi, who was to stay by his side from this time on, travelling with him to the east and eventually dying in 618H in Malatya.
The Aïn al-Khaïl mosque opposite the residence of the Shaykh al-Akbar
In 1198 Shaykh al-Akbar returned to the Iberian Peninsula for the last time, to bid farewell to the land of his birth. At the same time several other substantial works flowed from his pen, often in response to direct requests from friends and disciples, in particular Sidi Badr al-Habashi. In Cordoba he attended the funeral of Ibn Rushd, which, poignantly, featured a donkey laden with the master's body in a coffin on one side, counterbalanced by his works on the other. His decision to leave Andalusia for good may have been partly in response to instability in the wake of the death of the Almohad sultan in 1199, which many saw as marking the end of an age. At the same time, his leaving was certainly also motivated by the desire to accomplish the pilgrimage to Mecca. The final visit to Fez took place as he travelled East, never to return. We assume that he took the time to say goodbye to his mother and his sisters, but through his writings we know only that he met up with Muhammed al-Hassâr, whom God had instructed him to take East with him in dream whilst he was in a Marrakesh. They travelled together to Cairo, where al-Hassar died of the plague. As he traveled on his way to Marrakech in 1200, he again underwent a spiritual transformation. He had a vision in which a Sufi saint of two centuries earlier informed him that he had attained the highest degree of sainthood, known as the Station of Closeness.
After spending another six months in Tunis with his friend al-Mahdawi, Shaykh al-Akbar visited all the major sites of pilgrimage: Hebron, Jerusalem, and later the City of Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him); Medina, and, finally, Mecca, where he arrived in mid-1202. For him, this pilgrimage was a physical re-enactment of the ascension he had undertaken inwardly. Three episodes held special significance for him. The first was a meeting with a young girl, Nizam, who "surpassed all the people of her time in refinement of mind and cultivation, in beauty and in knowledge." The love that she evoked within Shaykh al-Akbar's heart led to an outpouring of yearning, and she became the inspiration for his famous collection of poems, The Interpreter of Ardent Desires (Tarjuman al-ashwaq). In the style of the great Arabic qasida, these poems express the poet's longing for the Divine Beloved, who is ever out of reach but whose traces can be found in the abandoned encampments of the caravan train. This was for Shaykh al-Akbar the first awakening of love of women, characterized by the tradition that God made women worthy of love for the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him), and as a consequence he married Fatima, the daughter of a Meccan notable. While Nizam personified wisdom and beauty, her father was a well-known muhaddith, or transmitter of Prophetic traditions, and Shaykh al-Akbar assiduously collected these, making one of his works, the Mishkat al-Anwar, a collection of 101 hadith qudsi (divine sayings, in which God speaks through the mouth of the Prophet peace and blessing be upon him). Shaykh al-Akbar also states that when he came to know the tradition that God had made women worthy of love for the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him), he was awakened to love of women, and relinquished his near-monastic life to marry the daughter of a Meccan notable.
The second significant event took place at the Ka'aba in 1202. During the circumambulation (at-tawaf) Shaykh al-Akbar encountered a mysterious Youth, "both speaker and silent, neither alive nor dead, both complex and simple", who described himself as Knowledge, Knower, and Known. The youth's being inspired in Shaykh al-Akbar a series of insights, which he was told to write down and which became his Meccan Illuminations. Finally, while writing the Meccan Illuminations preface, Shaykh al-Akbar had a vision of his own role as heir to the Prophet’s spiritual teaching and Seal of Mohammedian Sainthood (Khatim al-Wilaya al-Mohammediya): just as the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) had been given the totality of Prophetic messages and meanings, so Shaykh al-Akbar saw himself being granted the "gifts of wisdoms" in a solemn ceremony of investiture. The Shaykh expressed his privileged status in the following words, “We no doubt sealed sainthood by inheriting the Hachimi and the Messiah”. This status as one who summarizes and completes the spiritual dimension of Islam was confirmed in a dream in the following year, in which he saw himself as two gold and silver bricks that completed the walls of the Ka'aba. However he retracted later when aware that the full, complete and absolute appearance in that maqam is to be for someone else named, Abul Abbas. He informed of an isthmus meeting with this Seal in his book ‘Anqa’ Maghreb fi khatm al-awliya wa shams al-Maghreb (The Western Phoenix in the Seal of Saints and Sun of Morocco), which he wrote prior to the Futuhat.
The momentous years in Mecca saw not only the completion of several works and the initiation of the Futuhat, but also brought Shaykh al-Akbar into contact with many well-known figures from the eastern lands of Islam. These included direct disciples of the great Baghdad Sufi Moulay Abdellqadir Jilani (d. 563/1148), as well as the adviser to the Seljuk court of Anatolia, Majduddin Ishaq al-Rumi (d. 1215). The latter became a close friend and patron of Shaykh al-Akbar, and they travelled together to Kunya to meet the Seljuk sultan. Typically for that time, Majduddin was both a man of political power and a spiritual teacher: as adviser to the Seljuk royal family, he encouraged Shaykh al-Akbar to settle in Majduddin's native town of Malatya in south-eastern Anatolia, to raise his growing family there, and to benefit people with his teachings. While Shaykh al-Akbar did live a more settled life writing in Malatya for a time, he also travelled in the Levant, building relations with and serving as adviser to kings and princes throughout the region, from Kunya to Baghdad, Aleppo, and Damascus. He had at least two wives and three children—two sons and a daughter. In addition, after Majduddin died, he took on responsibility for Majduddin's son, Sadruddin Qunawi (d. 1274), who would become his heir and most influential disciple. Shaykh al-Akbar's connections to Anatolia would have profound implications for the future course of Sufism there, as his teachings became part of mainstream Ottoman culture.
For the final seventeen years of his life Shaykh al-Akbar lived in Damascus, under the patronage of a wealthy and influential judge, Ibn Zaki. If Fez may be considered the fulcrum of his Western life as the place where his spiritual training was completed, then Damascus was certainly the axis around which his Eastern career revolved. The writing continued unceasingly, with the first draft of the Futuhat being completed in 1231 and a second recension of the entire work in 1238. As was customary at that time, the whole book was read aloud in sections before a group of friends and disciples, sometimes as large as thirty or more, with the author himself checking that the handwritten text was correct and the names of those present meticulously recorded. These listening certificates (sama’) are testimony to the enormous respect accorded to Shaykh al-Akbar by all sections of the spiritual and religious elite, in keeping with which he was named Muhyiddin ("the reviver of the religion"), as was his great theological Sufi predecessor, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058–1111), who had also taught in Damascus a century before.
It was not only the Futuhat which sealed his reputation: there were other works, most notably a huge Diwan of poetry completed in 1237, and the work that is perhaps his most influential masterpiece, The Bezels of Wisdom (Fusus al-Hikam), which he states was received from the blessed hand of the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) in a dream in 1229. The Fusus contains twenty-seven chapters, each related to a particular wisdom as exemplified by one of the prophets whose stories are told in the Glorious Quran: for example, the Wisdom of Divinity in the word of Adam (who was created in the divine image, and thus, just as Allah is the Name which includes all the Names, is the prototype who includes all humanity); or the Wisdom of Elevation in the word of Jesus (describing the elevated reality of Jesus, born of the water of Gabriel and the water of Mary, as spirit and son of spirit). These twenty-seven prophets represent the different modalities of human spirituality, facets displaying the jewels of divine wisdom, the full meaning of which is understood through the jurisdiction and collective wisdom of Sidna Muhammad, the Seal of Prophets (peace and blessing be upon him). This book has had a perennial appeal, giving rise to at least one hundred commentaries over several centuries and in several languages, and these constitute a whole history of Islamic mystical thought in themselves.
Shaykh al-Akbar’s Doctrine
Shaykh al-Akbar's writings reflect a comprehensive explanation of tawhid, the "Unity of God," or the assertion that God is One. While this has often been taken to mean the doctrine of the Unity of Being (wahdat al-wujud), the concept his school was later associated with, the crux of his teaching is perhaps better described as the perfectibility of Man, that is to say, the human potential for the fullest realization of Unity, the true nature of existence and the place and function of the human being within the universe. The one who asserts God's Unity and believes it to be true is capable of being transformed into one who knows what It means (Arif). It is becoming a "knower" or Gnostic that is the prime purpose of all of Shaykh al-Akbar's teaching.
Shaykh al-Akbar deconstructs all systems and reference points except for Being itself, the essence of the Real. This is the only absolute, the base for all phenomena, from which they have come and to which they return. At the same time, we may intellectually conceive of another absolute, pure non-existence, even though this cannot actually exist, and it is this conception that allows us to distinguish different aspects of Being. Sheer Being or Light cannot be perceived, embraced, or understood by any other than Itself, so none knows God but God. In fact this Absolute One is a total negation of all things, without exception. It is absolutely non-manifest, undetermined, unarticulated: even Allah, God, can only be considered as His outward face with regard to things. Being is refracted as "things," which lie in the relative ambiguity of being both existent/light and nonexistent/dark. Thus the world of creation, which is everything other than God, from the highest spirits to the densest matter, can be viewed as either dark or light, relative non-existence or existence. In one respect, the thing is He; in another respect, it is not Him. This plurality is one of aspects, not an ontological multiplicity. All aspects refer to God, the One who is named by all Names. "The creation is intelligible," Shaykh al-Akbar writes, "and God is perceptible and visible, according to the people of faith and the people of unveiled insight and experience". He emphasizes the mutual dependence of God and the world: without the world of creation, God cannot be known as Creator; without living things, God cannot be recognized as the Living.
According to Shaykh al-Akbar, these two mutually dependent sides must constantly be borne in mind, if the relationship between God and universe, Reality and appearance, is to be truly understood: on the side of non-existence there are all the possibilities of being or immutable entities (al-a’yan al-thabita), which he says "have never smelt the breath of existence"; on the side of existence there are the divine names, attributes, qualities, and actions. It is because of non-existence that God is described as transcendent (tanzih), and because of existence that He is known as immanent (tashbih). The first qualification is accomplished through the use of reason, whereas the second is made through the exercise of imagination. By employing both faculties, reason and imagination, together properly, the mystic becomes "the one with two eyes," that is to say, someone with perfectly balanced vision. The two aspects of God, transcendence and immanence, are summarized for Shaykh al-Akbar by the Quranic verse "There is no thing like Him, and He is the Hearer, the Seer" (Quran 42.11).
Shaykh al-Akbar's creed of rigorous Unity is at the same time one of supreme tolerance of diversity and openness to fresh understandings. Throughout his writings he frequently cites an earlier author who wrote that "in everything there is a sign pointing to the fact that He is One" (Futuhat I.491). Each created thing is at once a "receiver" of Divine Being and a "place" where God is manifest (madhar). Whether it is a gnat or an angel, every created thing has a particular dignity and closeness to God that demands respect. Insofar as it has no being of its own, its quality is what is implied by non-existence, e.g., total dependence and humility; insofar as it manifests the Divine Being, it is imbued with divine qualities such as Knowing and Living. The two fundamental aspects of all existence, which give rise to all the paradoxes and ambiguities of life, are reconciled for Shaykh al-Akbar in the heart of Perfect or Complete Man, who is receptive to all possible manifestations at every level, and has no particular inclination to one side over the other. While everything in the universe manifests certain divine aspects, it is only in and to Man that God is fully revealed and the meaning of the universe is made clear. Shaykh al-Akbar uses a Quranic account to contrast, for example, the elevated glorification of God by which the angelic host praise Him with the divine command for them to prostrate before Adam. Although the angelic nature appears to be the closest to the divine, the angels do not possess the all-embracing nature of Man, who is created in the divine image and possesses knowledge of every level and degree.
Because the ordinary perception of the world is that of multiple existences, each self-subsistent and different from others, it follows that human beings are veiled from their true reality by ideas of self-existence. Revelation, in different forms at different times but culminating in the total revelation granted to the Holy Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him), is needed to establish proper divinely guided modes of living. True fidelity to the essentials of religious law, however, is only possible for one who realizes its inner spiritual significance. To return to one's primordial nature voluntarily while in this world (rather than by the inevitable way of death) demands the shedding of illusions. This journey of awakening ends with the complete annihilation (fana’) of all other than God, out of which arises a new kind of existence (baqa’, literally "remaining") in full consciousness. Here the true human being becomes "the one with two eyes," seeing the One and the many, God in the creature and the creature in God, without being veiled by either. The world is seen as the theatre of divine theophanies (tajalli), renewed at each instant by the "breathing-out" of God. This Shaykh al-Akbar calls "the Breath of the All-Compassionate," a loving outpouring relieving the Divine Names from their state of constriction in latency and allowing them fullness in expression. There is, he stresses, "no repetition in revelation": no two moments are the same for anyone, nor is one moment the same for two people. Prophets and saints are those who have realized their essential non-existence, and return again to the world as guides who act in accordance with the celebrated divine saying (hadith qudsi): "I was a Hidden Treasure and I loved to be known; so I created the world that I might be known." For them God is forever manifest, as the veil of their own selfhood has been rent.
Continuity and Influences
أخذ العلامة الشريف البركة مولاي العربي العلوي الطريقة التجانية على يد المقدم سيدي محمد البوكيلي، وعن شيخ الجماعة سيدي أحمد بن أحمد بناني كلا، ثم أجازه فيها الولي الصالح سيدي محمد العربي بن السائح رضي الله عنه، وهو الذي سماه بالمحب، وقد استفاد منه أسرارا وعلوما كثيرة، ثم أجازه فيها كذلك الشريف البركة سيدي أحمد محمود دفين البحيرة بقبيلة الرحامنة، ثم أجازه فيها العلامة سيدي محمد بن محمد بن عبد السلام كنون وذلك بالإذن المطلق العام. قال في حقه الفقيه سيدي محمد الحجوجي في كتابه فتح الملك العلام في تراجم بعض علماء الطريقة التجانية الأعلام : وبالجملة فالرجل جهينة أخبار طريق أهل الله، وله معرفة كبيرة بدقائق علم التوحيد والتصوف، وخصوصا الفتوحات المكية، فله دراية بمسائلها العويصة والأجوبة عنها، وهو ممن منحه الله تعالى معرفة نكات غريبة في التصوف، فتراه يبدي من ذلك العجب العجاب، مما لم يتفطن له إلا أكابر العارفين الأنجاب، إلخ ...
The impact of Shaykh al-Akbar's teachings is difficult to measure: although no Sufi order was founded in his name, their influence has been at the heart of much of Sufi teaching ever since. Commentaries on well-known texts have sometimes used Shaykh al-Akbar's terminology and teachings, as in, for example, the famous commentary on al-Rumi's Mathnawi by the Khalwati Shaykh, Sidi Isma’il al-Anqarawi (d. 1631). The list of those who can be considered his direct followers reads like a roll call of some of the most famous masters and authors in Sufism: from his adopted son and heir, Sadr al-Din Qunawi—who taught in Kunya at the same time as his friend, Sidi Jalal al-Din Rumi (d. 1273), successfully transmitting the heritage of Shaykh al-Akbar to succeeding generations, and whose famous library preserved so many of his works—to Sidi Mu’ayyiduddin al-Jandi (d. 1300), Sidi Abdelrazzaq al-Kashani (d. 1329), Sidi Dawud al-Qaysari (d. 1350), Sidi Abdelkarim al-Jili (d. 1402), and Sidi Abderrahman al-Jami (d. 1492). Shaykh al-Akbar's work also inspired poets, such as the wandering Shaykh Sidi Omar Ibn al-Farid (d. 632/1217) and Sidi Fakhruddin al-Iraqi (d. 1289).
Contacts between the followers of Shaykh al-Akbar and Shadhili famous masters had already been established on a regular basis during Shaykh Sidi Abul Hassan Shadhili’s (d. 656/1241) own lifetime, starting shortly after his arrival to Alexandria. When we learn from the text of Latai’f al-minan fi manaqib Abi al-Abbas al-Mursi wa Shaykhihi Abi al-Hassan (The subtle blessings in the saintly lives of Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi and his master Abu Abul Hassan Shadhili) of Sidi Ibn Ata’Allah (d. 709/1287) for example, that while in Egypt the Shaykh met with at least two followers of Shaykh al-Akbar; there were an Egyptian named Abul ‘Ilm Yasin and the Anatolian Sidi Sadr al-Din Qunawi. The latter met with Abul Hassan in Cairo while serving as a special ambassador of the Saljuq Sultan of Rum. The Influence of Ibn Arabi’s doctrine is noticeable in a number of Shadhili teachings, such as when he departs from traditional Maghribi practice by placing the “Sanctity of Witnesses and the Elect” (wilayat al-shuhud wa ‘iyan), a station based on contemplation, above the “Sanctity of Guidance and Proof” (wilayat al-dalil wa al-burhan), a station based on the acquisition of evidentiary miracles. Even more striking is the Shaykh’s use of the term “Complete Man”, the meaning of which, in Shadhili’s lifetime, could only have been learned from a direct disciple of Ibn Arabi. Shadhili’s understanding of this concept portrayed the Holy Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) as an archetypical “Perfect Lord” (as-sayyid al-kamil), whose essence provided the existential paradigm for humanity in general. Additionally, the Shaykh also intimated that the “Complete Man (ar-rajul al-kamil) is not one who overcomes fear in himself; the Complete Man is (instead) one who overcomes, through God, the fear of what is other than Him.”
By the time of Shadhili’s successor Abul Abbas al-Mursi (d. 1285), who appears to have developed an explicit model of the Sufi Shaykh as a “complete man,” and especially under Ibn Atta’Allah al-Iskansaki, the foremost systematizer of the order’s doctrines, a strong Mashriqi and “philosophical” flavor becomes noticeable in the transmitted teachings of the Egyptian branch of the Shadhiliya. As mentioned previously, there is already a tendency in Lataif al-minan to shape Shaykh Shadhili’s words into a form consistent with the teachings of the second and third generations of his followers. Even one accepts the claim, made by Shaykh al-Mursi, that while in Egypt Shaykh Shadhili was strongly influenced by works (such as Khatm al-Awliya by al-Hakim at-Tirmidhi) that was not yet available in the Maghreb, this transformation still does not provide proof that Shaykh Abul Hassan’s own later doctrine were in full agreement with those of Ibn Arabi. It remains important to remember that the founding shaykh of the Shadhiliya order, while famous as a doctrinal innovator, still remained the persona of a “typical” Maghribi Sufi, whereas Ibn Arabi, although he originated in Muslim Spain, was not widely accepted in the land of his birth until the period of Sidi Mohammed ibn Slimane al-Jazouli (d. 869/1454), nearly a century and a half later. The first Moroccan Sufi to explicitly base his model of sainthood on the doctrine of Shaykh al-Akbar was Sidi Ali Salih al-Andalusi (d. 903/1488). This merchant-scholar and refuge from Granada was a disciple of al-Qutb Sidi Abdellaziz at-Al-Tabba’a (d. 1499) and headed the Jazouliya Zawiya in Fez.
While Shaykh al-Akbar's works have been publicly adopted at certain times by some Islamic governments, notably the Ottoman Empire and Iran, they have not been universally accepted within the Islamic world and have often been rejected as heretical. Later Muslim scholars have disagreed about the validity of his teaching: some were bitterly antagonistic to what they saw as heretical philosophizing endangering the moral framework of the whole community; others were equally keen to defend Shaykh al-Akbar's religious orthodoxy and spiritual stature. The scholars of the school founded by al-Qutb al-Maktum Mawlana Abul Abbas Tijani have developed a very deep spiritual affinity with Shaykh al-Akbar. This long polemic over Shaykh al-Akbar's legacy, with all its ambiguities and shifting positions, has lasted until the present day, and reflects both the central importance of the issues he addressed, and the fascination that the multifaceted writings and personality of the "Greatest Master" have exerted.