Interview with James Morris

Ibn Arabi's vision for a fully human global civilisation

Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi (1165-1240) is one of the most influential Arab philosophers and mystics. James Morris, Professor of Islamic Theology at Boston College, explains why his writings are still popular and why, today, they give the most productive answer to fundamentalist approaches in Islam. Interview by Claudia Mende

Perhaps no other Islamic author has been so widely and constantly influential in the Arab world than Ibn Arabi. Why is that?

James Morris: The answer to your question is paradoxical, because almost all of Ibn Arabi’s writings are in very learned Arabic. They presuppose all the fields of religious learning that only a small group of religious scholars would know. So how can somebody who wrote for such a small audience be so influential later on, far beyond the Arabic-speaking world?

The answer is Ibn Arabi’s interpretive method of taking the revealed religious teachings back to their underlying spiritual experience, which we share as human beings in all times and places. He provided what we could call a universal “phenomenology of the spirit”, referring to the spiritual forms of awareness and experience that human beings have access to whatever their culture and language.

So poetry played a crucial role in spreading his ideas?

Morris: There are two reasons for this. First poets and musicians took his ideas and translated them into the new languages of Islam, as the latter was developing (after the Mongols) into a truly global religion. That transformation started with Persian and then expanded to new Muslim cultures in Africa and throughout Asia.

Just to give one striking example. In Indonesia, Ibn Arabi’s ideas served two functions. His writings explained the popular use of shadow-plays (wayang) used to teach about Islam. They clarify the role of such arts, while justifying the spiritual creativity of religion against others who had narrower, fossilised views of religion. Even today, poets, writers, artists and people pursuing the spiritual life all over the Muslim world can find clear explanations for what they are creating in the writings of Ibn Arabi.

And the other reason?

Morris: The second reason for his historical influence is that during Ibn Arabi’s lifetime, Muslim political rule was greatly threatened by the Mongols on one side and the Crusaders on the other. But soon after his death (1240), Islam again started to spread rapidly throughout Asia, the Balkans (with the Ottomans) and into West Africa as well.

Historical image of Ibn Arabi (photo: Arab48)
"Ibn Arabi’s perspectives focus on the duties and responsibilities human beings have in common – spiritually, ethically and intellectually – and not on what separates them. That is why Ibn Arabi is still so appealing to modern seekers. If we are to shape a global civilisation that is fully human, we obviously need the deep co-operation and creativity that flows from genuine spiritual understanding," says Morris

The vehicle for this popular spread of Islam was what we today would primarily call Sufi tariqas (“pathways”). But before the creation of those localised institutions, we always find a handful of charismatic individuals (the awliyā’ or “Friends of God”) whose practice and understanding of Islam naturally attracted other people to them. Most of these spiritual institutions and devotional practices were based on dhikr, “the remembrance of God”, in the familiar rituals of poetry, music, pilgrimage and festivals rooted in local languages (usually written in Arabic letters) and customs. But even now, if we want to understand the deeper meanings of this popular religious poetry and music (for example, famous praises of the Prophet Muhammad, in celebrations of his birth and mission) we have to go back to the interpretations of Ibn Arabi.

What about the contemporary world?

Morris: There is a whole complex chain of influences extending down to our own day. To take one striking example, the Persian master poet Hafez, who lived roughly a hundred years later, was deeply influenced by the teachings of Ibn Arabi. Then centuries later, Goethe learned Persian in order to read Hafez. Not only his famous “East-West Divan” but also much of Faust is deeply rooted in the understandings of the Koran that were conveyed to the German poet by Hafez. Then in our own day, when we encounter Wim Wenders’ extraordinary re-telling of Faust in his “Wings of Desire“ (Der Himmel über Berlin), that story is still so amazingly close to the teachings of the Koran that I often use it to introduce the Koran to my first year students.

At his tomb in Damascus Ibn Arabi is venerated as a saint. People come there for prayer and guidance. But what about his intellectual side?

Morris: There are three ways people conceive of Ibn ‘Arabi. Obviously “Sīdī Mohieddīn” is revered as one of the sacred figures of Damascus. But beyond that, we have to distinguish between how his work was used in the Arabic speaking world and his image in the rest of the Muslim world. In Arabic-speaking areas pretty much anyone could read some of his writings. So scholars, preachers and Sufi teachers there constantly used interpretations of the Koran and the hadith drawn from Ibn Arabi’s writings, which are all ultimately spiritual commentaries on the Koran and the hadith.

But in the Ottoman and Asian Muslim worlds, his work could only be read directly by students of the religious sciences able to read classical Arabic. So in those areas his influence was either among intellectuals or, more widely, through influential poets who took his guiding ideas and creatively adapted them in the local languages and rituals. So his ideas became popular through poetry and related music.

Ibn Arabi is known for his vision of tolerance and inter-religious harmony. How was this message received in his times?

Morris: The multi-religious empires of the Ottomans and the Moghuls in India often endorsed the teachings of Ibn Arabi because his ideas supported spiritual diversity and creativity through their focus on the dimensions of spiritual experience that are unique to each individual.

Ibn Arabi’s perspectives (like those of many other Sufi teachers) focus on the duties and responsibilities human beings share in common – spiritually, ethically and intellectually – not on what separates them. That is why Ibn Arabi is still so appealing to modern seekers. If we are to shape a global civilisation that is fully human, we obviously need the deep co-operation and creativity that flows from genuine spiritual understanding.

But still his understanding of the Koran is a literal one?

Morris: It is extremely literal – but that has to be explained, because that expression is quite paradoxical. Ibn Arabi’s understanding of the Koran is always profoundly rooted in the Arabic language, whose roots (like classical Chinese characters) have multiple, interrelated meanings. This reality is basically the opposite of our popular notion that “literal” means whatever is taught to children and the like.

In contrast, the Arabic of the Koran is always challengingly multi-faceted and multi-dimensional. So Ibn Arabi’s literalness helps us to see meanings, adapted to changing circumstances that are very different from commonly accepted beliefs. So for him, the “literal”, divinely intended meaning is the spiritual meaning – and that spiritual meaning evolves and deepens in the course of each reader’s life.

How do people in the modern Arab world receive Ibn Arabi?

Morris: Maybe half of his roughly 600 writings have survived till today. But many of his shorter treatises are included in his immense “Meccan Revelations” (al-Futūhāt al Makkiyya), which is now available, in its original Arabic, to audiences all over the world and increasingly in partial translations. His other most influential work book is the “Bezels of Wisdom” (Fusūs al-Hikam), widely translated and studied, though its intentionally paradoxical language doesn’t make it accessible for general audiences. Today we have more Arabic editions of his works, but they pretty impenetrable for today’s students, because of their constant allusions to scriptures and the classical religious sciences.

What makes them so difficult to read?

Morris: The Arabic writings of Ibn ‘Arabi’s times did not stand alone: they were meant to be explained by teachers. They presupposed the oral explanations of a master who could put them into the contexts needed by different audiences.

Is any research into Ibn Arabi being conducted in the Middle East today?

Morris: Today, in almost every Muslim country (not just in the Arab world), there is a growing interest in studying and teaching Ibn ‘Arabi’s works at university level, alongside the traditional study in Sufi and religious circles. This development certainly isn‘t accidental. The most positive and productive response to the familiar, simplistic slogans of recent religio-political ideologies is almost always to be found in the writings of Ibn Arabi, in the profound approach to the Koran and the hadith that is embodied in his writings.

Isn’t his focus on individual spirituality a challenge to orthodox Islam, too?

Morris: Although I find the notion of “orthodoxy” in Islam very problematic, in fact the heads of Al-Azhar have often been profound scholars of Ibn ‘Arabi (and Sufism more generally), while in Turkey today Ibn Arabi is seen as very “orthodox” (i.e., supported by the current government, in a conscious evocation of Turkey’s Ottoman heritage). In a popular Turkish Netflix series about the origin of the Ottomans (“Ertugrul”), Ibn Arabi is portrayed as a kind of pious mystical “super-hero” who in times of crisis re-appears and saves the day. In Iran, all the classical Persian mystical poets memorably expressed the insights of Ibn Arabi, while key recent religious intellectuals taught his writings: so again, he is equally revered – though for very different reasons – by both orthodox clerics and the wider population. And his ideas are equally popular and increasingly influential in countries from Senegal to Indonesia.

Is Ibn Arabi a reference for reformist Islamic theologians?

Morris: As reform today often refers to the Arab Spring, to the passions and the hopes of a vast majority of the population, Ibn Arabi still definitely inspires people. But for him the deeper reform (islāh) is always the reform of the heart and the intentions that inform how we build our families and communities.

Finally, we have to keep in mind that the intellectual Arab world today is often half in exile, half at home. A large number of Muslim intellectuals today live in Europe, the U.S., or the Far East, using many languages. These highly educated people seek a vision that is true to their religious tradition and at the same time makes sense in our globalised world. This is what Ibn Arabi offers them.

Interview conducted by Claudia Mende

© 2019

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