Brief Biography of Shaykh al-Akbar
Born in the Spanish township of Murcia on 27th of Ramaḍān 560 AH, with respectable family roots of Banū Ṭayy, this unique mystic of Islam, Muḥammad ibn ‘Alī ibn Muḥammad ibn al-‘Arabī al-Ṭā’ī al-Ḥātmī is universally known as al-Shaykh al-Akbar (The Greatest Master).
His father, ‘Ali ibn Muḥammad served in the Army of Ibn Mardanīsh, and later when Ibn Mardanīsh died in 1172 AD, he swiftly shifted his allegiance to the Almohad Sultan, Abū Ya’qūb Yūsuf I, and became one of his military advisers. While still a lad of eight years the family of Ibn ‘Arabī left Murcia and took Seville for their home. In Stephen Hartenstein’s words: “Ibn ‘Arabī spent his youth age in the most advanced city of that time, an atmosphere steeped in the most important ideas – philosophical, scientific and religious – of his day. For the young Ibn ‘Arabī, twelfth century Seville was no doubt the equivalent of today’s London, Paris and New York” (Hirtenstein 36).
Ibn ‘Arabī’s dogmatic and intellectual training began in the cultural and civilized centre of Muslim Spain as Seville was known in 578 AH. Most of his teachers mentioned in the ijāza wrote to King al-Muẓaffar were the ‘ulamā’ of the Almohad era and some of them also held the official posts of Qāḍī or Khaṭīb (Addas 97). He was just a young boy when his father sent him to the renowned jurist Abū Bakr ibn Khalaf to study Qur’ān. Ibn ‘Arabī learnt the recitation of the Qur’ān from the book of Al-Kāfī in the seven different readings (qirā’āt). The same work was also transmitted to him by another muqrī, ‘Abd al-Raḥmān ibn Ghālib ibn al-Sharrāt (Addas 44). At the age of ten, he was well-versed in the Qira’āt; afterwards he learned the sciences of Ḥadīth and Fiqh from the famous scholars of the time. He studied Ḥadith and Sīra with the muḥaddith ‘Abd al-Raḥmān al-Suhaylī, who taught him all of his works. He also attended lectures of Qāḍī Ibn Zarkūn, who transmitted to him Kitāb al-Taqaṣṣī of Al-Shāṭibī and issued him an Ijāza (permission of transmission to others.)
Later he studied under ‘Abd al-Ḥaqq al-Azdī al-Ishbilī his works on Ḥadīth; these are Aḥkām al-Kubrā, al-Wuṣṭā and al-Ṣughrā. In addition to his own works, he also transmitted to Ibn ‘Arabī the writings of the famous Ẓāhirī scholar, Ibn Ḥazm al-Andalusī (Addas 45). The complete list of his teachers and masters can be found in a scholarly certificate Ijāza given to Sultan al-Ashraf al-Muẓaffar, in this document Ibn Arabī mentioned 70 of his teachers and masters (Ibn ‘Arabī, “Ijāza li Malik al-Muẓaffar” 7).
A life time Friend
In Fez 594 AH, ‘Abdallāh Badr al-Habshi first met Ibn ‘Arabī and for the rest of his life became a soulemate and a faithful friend, accepting Ibn ‘Arabī as his master and guide. Al-Shaykh al-Akbar said about him in Futūḥāt:
“[He is a man] of unadulterated clarity, a pure light, he is a Ḥabashī named ‘Abdallāh, and like a full moon (badr) without eclipse. He acknowledges each person’s right and renders it to him; he assigns to each his right, without going further. He has attained the degree of true discrimination. He was purified at the time of fusion like pure gold. His word is true, his promise sincere” (OY: I, 72; Hirtenstein 123).
In the year 595 AH Ibn ‘Arabī returned to the Iberian Peninsula for the last time and it seems he had two intentions: to introduce al-Habashī to his friends and masters and to depart finally from the land of his birth. In December 595 AH, Ibn ‘Arabī was in Cordoba, at the funeral of Ibn Rushd, whom once he met some 18 years earlier. When the coffin was loaded upon a beast of burden, his works were placed upon the other side to counterbalance it. Ibn ‘Arabī said the following verse on that day:
Here the master, there his works – هذا الإمام و هذه أعماله
Would that I know if his hopes have been fulfilled! يا ليت شعري هل أتت آماله
From Cordoba they travelled to Granada and met with ‘Abdallāh al-Mawrūrī and Abū Muḥammad al-Shakkāz. From Granada to Murcia, the town of his birth and stayed with an old friend Abū Ahmed Ibn Saydabūn, a famous disciple of Abū Madyan who at the time of their meeting was evidently going through a period of fatra or suspension. They travelled again to Almeria, where they spent the month of Ramadan in 595 AH and Ibn ‘Arabī wrote Mawāqi‘ al-Nujūm over a period of eleven nights. Perhaps in Almeria also, he started writing ‘Anqā’ Mughrib where full explanation about the Seal of Saints can be found.
These were his last days in the West, where he started visiting his masters for the last time, and he collected his writings and ensured that he must at least have a single copy of all of his works as now he was departing toward the East forever. When he left Andalusia for the last time he appeared to have a vision of his future destiny at the shores of the Mediterranean as he later told his stepson Ṣadr al-dīn al-Qūnawī:
“I turned towards God with total concentration and in a state of contemplation and vigilance that was perfect: God then showed me all of my future states, both internal and external, right through to the end of my days. I saw that your father, Isḥāq ibn Muḥammad, would be my companion and you as well” (Hirtenstein 127).
In the year 597 AH/1200 AD, he was in Morocco and took his final leave from his master Yūsuf al-Kūmī, who was living in the village of Salé at that time. This shows that he had finally completed his training under the teachers of his early years and was now ready to go to a new world. On his way to Marrakesh of that year he entered the Station of Proximity (maqām al-qurba).
“I entered this station in the month of Muḥarram in 597 AH… In joy I began to explore it, but on finding absolutely no one else in it, I felt anxiety at the solitude. Although I was realized in [this station], but I still did not know its name” (II, 261).
Later Ibn ‘Arabī finds Abū ‘Abd al-Raḥmān al-Sulamī in it and he told Ibn ‘Arabī that this station is called, the station of proximity (maqām al-qurba) (Hirtenstein 128).
Voyage to centre of earth
Having left behind all the traces of his past, Ibn ‘Arabī began his long journey to the East from Marrakesh where he had a marvellous vision of the Divine Throne. In that vision, he saw the treasures beneath the Throne and the beautiful birds flying about within them. One bird greeted Ibn ‘Arabī, saying that he should take him as his companion to the East. This companion was Muḥammad al-Haṣṣār of Fez. He started travelling with his friends towards the East. After visiting the tombs of his uncle Yaḥyā and Abū Madyan in ‘Ubbād near Tlemcen, he stopped at Bijāya (Bougie) during Ramaḍān and saw a remarkable dream about the secrets of letters and stars. He saw himself united like the union in marriage with all the stars of heavens, after the stars the letters were given his union, and he united with all of them (Ibn ‘Arabī, “Kitāb al-Bā’” 10-11). This dream was later interpreted as the great Divine knowledge which was bestowed upon Ibn ‘Arabī.
His next stop was Tunis 598 AH where he happened to see Syakh ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Mahdawī whom he had met about six year ago. At the same time he continued writing works like Inshā’ al-Dawā’ir for his friend al-Ḥabashī. Resuming his travels, he arrived in Cairo in 598 AH/1202 AD where he met his childhood friends, the two brothers, ‘Abdallāh Muhammad al-Khayyāt and Abū al-Abbās Aḥmad al-Ḥarrārī and stayed at their house in the month of Ramaḍān. That was a period of great devastation, terrible famine and plague for Egypt. Perhaps the death of his companion Muḥammad al-Haṣṣār was due to this plague. Ibn ‘Arabī saw this devastation with his own eyes and a passage of Rūh al-Quds tells us that when people made light of Allāh’s statutes He imposes the strictures of His Law upon them (yūsuf 240).
Ibn ‘Arabī resumed travelling toward Palestine, and his route took him to all the major burial places of the great Prophets: Hebron, where Abraham (AS) and other Prophets are buried; Jerusalem, the city of David (AS) and the later Prophets; and then Madīna, the final resting place of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).