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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