The Greatest Master Muhyiddin Ibn al-Arabi
The Greatest Master Muhyiddin Ibn al-Arabi

Most of these introductory articles are exracted from Volume I of the Single Monad Model of the Cosmos: Ibn al-Arabi's View of Time and Creation... more on this can be found here.

The Contrasting Approaches of Sufism and Philosophy

The Contrasting Approaches of Sufism and Philosophy:

We want to start this chapter by quoting Ibn al-Arabi's famous story of his first encounter with the great Aristotelean philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes, already mentioned in section I.7) when Ibn al-Arabi was still relatively young, but already famous for his immense knowledge and unique views. According to that account, Ibn Rushd arranged with his friend - Ibn al-Arabi's father - to meet the young mystic in order to hear what he had to say about (his Aristotelean) philosophy. As Ibn al-Arabi recounts this story in the Futuhat:

And I entered one day in Cordova into (the house of) the judge Abu al-Walid Ibn Rushd, as he wished to meet me after he had heard about what Allah opened up for me in my spiritual retreat, for he had been expressing his admiration of (or 'amazement at') what he had heard. Then my father - because he was one of (Averroes') friends - sent me to him for something on purpose in order (for him) to meet me. I was still young; my face had not yet put forth a beard, and my moustache had not yet grown.[1]

When I entered to see him he stood up for me out of love and respect, embraced me and said (exclaiming): 'Yes'! I replied: 'Yes'. So his joy was magnified because I understood him. Then I realized what made him feel happy, and I said: 'for Allah's sake, No!' Then he turned sad, his colour changed and he doubted his philosophy.

Then he asked: 'So how did you find it in unveiling (kashf) and divine effusion (fayd ilahi)? Is it the same as what thought had led us (philosophers) to?' I replied: 'Yes … No, and between the "yes" and the "no", spirits fly away from their (bodily) matter and necks from their bodies'.

So his (face) colour turned pale, he began to tremble and sat down reciting the hawqala [that is to say: la hawla wa la quwwata illa bi Allah ('there is no power and no strength but in Allah')], and he knew what I alluded to (in responding) to him….


This mysterious exchange of these few words and gestures between these two pillars of Islamic thought, a Sufi and a philosopher, is an attempt to express in symbolic language what is very difficult to explain in more explicit language. Ibn al-Arabi alludes here to an essential realization that is beyond normal human comprehension, something that is apparently against our everyday experience or otherwise very difficult to believe. Yet on the other hand, it is something that can be ultimately summarized in only two words: 'Yes' and 'No', or even 'Yes' alone, because "No" is "not Yes".[2] In fact, Ibn al-Arabi's 'digital' answer here: 'Yes/No' (or '1/0', 'True/False', which ultimately amounts to: existence/non-existence) is the best and shortest expression of the creation - summarising the essence of the paradoxical metaphysical insights alluded to in the initial poem of the Futuhat translated at the beginning of this chapter.

The difficulty of expressing this universal Reality in simple words comes from the fact that we live in a diverse world of infinite multiplicity, while at the same time the truth/reality behind this world is literally too simple to be believed [Al-Masa’il: 163]. The ultimate Real is Allah, and Allah is uniquely One, while the world is apparently many - so the metaphysical challenge is how to link the (imaginary) multiplicity of the world to the Real One, through some unseen intermediaries.

Philosophers and scientists in general try to understand the world through observations, while the methods of Ibn al-Arabi and other Sufis rely upon modes of perception that jump directly into the unseen in order to approach the Real directly. As Ibn al-Arabi often points out, observations are subject to many mistakes, due to the inaccuracy of the tools employed, whether human senses or technical equipment, while true visions - as opposed to our sometimes problematic interpretations of them - are always correct [I.307.12, III.7.21].[3] On the other hand, philosophers and scientists use logic and experiments to deduce their theories and explain their observations, while Sufis in general often describe their visions without paying too much attention to explaining them in a logical manner, especially when some of their visions, though real and true, may be outwardly or apparently illogical.[4] As a result, certain Sufis like Ibn al-Arabi may attain a very high state of knowledge of reality more quickly and more accurately than philosophers (as Ibn al-Arabi certainly implies in his account of his meeting with Ibn Rushd), but they find it very difficult to explain their views to others who have not 'tasted' it their way. So when they try to explain their insights, not many people will understand what they say.

The problem with the current laws and theories of physics and cosmology is that so far, although they have proved to be quite accurate and powerful in application, they have admittedly failed to unveil the ultimate reality behind the world. All scientific theories are descriptive rather than determinative. We have seen in section I.3 that the reason why science was not able to determine the reality of the world is that all cosmological models need a boundary condition: i.e., an exact description of what was the initial state when the world started, something which seems to be impossible to achieve by the intellect alone. That is why scientists work backwards: i.e., they try to find out the initial state of the cosmos by extrapolating in various ways from the current observations. As a result, all physics theories and known cosmological models, though they have achieved higher levels of understanding, have also brought new contradictions and paradoxes. They have succeeded in providing approximate possible creation scenarios, but failed to describe the reality itself. Although Ibn al-Arabi considers the intellect unbounded or unlimited as a receptive tool, it is quite limited as a ratiocinative thinking tool because it relies on limited senses [I.288.27]. Therefore, the intellect alone - as a thinking tool - can not describe the origin of the world because it is necessarily a part of it. Ibn al-Arabi affirmed this when he said that the limit of the observations of the philosophers (or astronomers) is up to the Isotropic Orb which is the first (outermost, and first created) material orb [II.677.1]; they can not see or detect anything beyond that. That is why the Sufis rely on the 'heart' (the locus of spiritual 'tasting' and inspiration, in the language of the Qur’an) rather than the discursive intellect.

On the other hand, Sufis have sometimes claimed to have achieved a high state of realization and even to have visualized the metaphysical structure and origin of the world (i.e., what physicists call the initial/boundary condition). Most of them, however, did not give proper attention to explaining the observable universe and relating it to that initial cosmological state. Even Ibn al-Arabi himself did not care too much about that: instead he declared that his aims are not to explain the world, but rather to acquire more knowledge of the world as a structure created according to the Image of Allah, so that he may acquire more knowledge of Allah Himself. All the same, however, throughout the Futuhat and other shorter books Ibn al-Arabi often gives a great many cosmological explanations and sometimes logical analyses of his metaphysical visions. This is why it is very important to study Ibn al-Arabi's writings, since they may provide a real link between philosophy and science, on the one hand, and mysticism and theology.


[1] It is believed that Ibn al-Arabi entered the spiritual path well before the age of 20. He mentioned in the Futuhat [II.425.13] that he entered 'this path' in the year 580AH (1184AD), and he was born in 560AH (1165AD) (Austin 1971: 23). Other scholars argue that this was in 1182AD or even earlier (Hirtenstein 1999: 51-60).

[2]  It can be argued that the words "No" or "not Yes" do not have a stand-alone significance, especially when we talk about existence. They only indicate the complementary of "Yes", because "No" in this sense means "non-existence" which is nothing; it is only the absence or negation of existence. This also has its pararells in digital electronics where the signal has two states; either there is a signal or not, which is translated as Yes and No or 1 and 0 respectively. But because the "0" is 'nothing', we are left with only the "1"; this "1" either exists or not.

[3] In his short book Ma la Yu‘awwal ‘Alayhi ('What can not be relied upon') (in Rasa’il Ibn al-Arabi; vol. I, Treatise 16: 2) and in his famous chapter 63 of the Futuhat, Ibn al-Arabi repeatedly affirms that true visions ('visionary unveiling', kashf suwari) are always correct, while mistakes actually may come from the individual's false interpretation, not from the vision itself. There are, however three kinds of spiritual visions: the 'good vision' is from Allah; 'psychological reflections' from the soul; and 'nightmares' from Shaytan. See also chapter 188 of the Futuhat, as well as our study of the Sura of Joseph: Yousef, Suluk Al-Qalb: 227-32.

[4] Right at the first page of the Introduction to the Futuhat, Ibn al-Arabi divides knowledge into three categories: 1- Logical (ratiocinative) knowledge (‘ilm al-‘aql); 2- the knowledge of inner experiential states (‘ilm al-ahwal); and 3- the '(inspired) knowledge of (spiritual) secrets' (‘ilm al-‘asrar). The knowledge of states is only obtained through direct experiential 'taste' (dhawq), while the knowledge of secrets is generally beyond the grasp of the intellect, though some of it becomes logical after being explained, but the intellect alone could not attain it [I.31.9].

Please note that some contents are translated Semi-Automatically!