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Fez Festival of Sufi Culture 2014 – In the Footsteps of Ibn 'Arabi

The Fez Festival of Sufi Culture (not to be confused with the Fez Festival of Sacred Music) has been an annual happening since 2007, and each year it has grown in size and scope. This year it was a seven day event devoted exclusively to the thought of Ibn ‘Arabî.

The Festival took place in the grounds of the Batha Palace at the edge of the old medina. The days were devoted to wide-ranging discussions on different aspects of Ibn 'Arabî's life and work. These took the form of panel presentations – 'round tables' – followed by lively interaction with the audience, chaired by the founder and organiser of the Festival, Dr Faouzi Skali. Speakers were invited from all over the world; France, Morocco, Spain, USA, Nigeria, Mali, Bosnia Herzegovina, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

The event culminated in consideration of two exciting proposals. The first is to set up a 'University of Sufi Culture' to continue and expand the work of the Festival. The final day was devoted to an open discussion about this, involving all the speakers and the audience where everyone was invited to contribute to the vision of what this might entail. Faouzi Skali made clear that this is not a university of Sufism per se but rather a way of establishing and protecting the values of Sufi culture (practiced by both Muslims and non-Muslims alike) such as tolerance, mutual respect, compassion, the love of beauty and the development of taste (dhawq).

The second proposal is for a centre of Ibn Arabi studies, which is to be built by the municipality next to the al-Azhar mosque in the old medina. This is one of the oldest mosques in Fez which has a special relationship to Ibn Arabi, who stayed with its Imam during his three visits to the city; it was the recorded site of several important spiritual experiences, including his mir’aj (night journey) and his entry into the station of 'without a nape of the neck' (i.e. 360° vision). One of the highlights of the week was our visit as a group to this lovely little mosque, where the Imam invited us to climb to the top of the unique, octagonal minaret with a panoramic view across the city.

Drawn from a report by Elizabeth Roberts on the Beshara website. Read the full report

Young Writer Award 2013

We are delighted to announce the results of the 2013 award for the best essay by a scholar under 35 years old. Thank you to all those who sent in entries; the standard overall was very high and it was not easy to choose winners. We are pleased to announce that the $1000 award has been granted to Axel Takács from Harvard University, USA, for an excellent essay correlating the ideas of Ibn ʿArabī with the medieval Christian mystic, Thomas Gallus. The judges were also very impressed by the entry from Samer Dajani from SOAS in London, UK, and would like to give him an honorary mention for his essay on the role of Ibn ʿArabī in the transmission of prophetic traditions.

We hope that those people who were not awarded the prize this year will persist in their studies of Ibn ʿArabī’s ideas and resubmit for the next award in 2016, if still elligible.

Our thanks to the Beshara Trust, who co-sponsored the prize this year.

Winner: Axel Takács

Beyond the Intellect: Perpetual Expansion and Transformation in the Anthropocosmic Vision of Thomas Gallus and the Akbarian Tradition.

Axel Takcs, winner of Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society Young Writer Award 2013

Synopsis:

This article brings into comparative theological dialogue the mystical vision of Thomas Gallus (ca. 1200-1246) and the Akbarian, Islamic tradition inaugurated by Ibn ʿArabī (d. 1240). The aim is to demonstrate how, through a complex relationship between epistemology, cosmology, anthropology, and mystical theology, the goal of the mystical experience, as elaborated by Thomas Gallus and interpreted through the complementary lens of the Akbarian tradition, is far from a stable and one-time event (such as “union” or “annihilation”). Rather, both Gallus and the Akbarian tradition put forth an anthropocosmic vision of humanity wherein the microcosmic experience of the mystic is a direct reflection of the macrocosmic process of the universe, something that never ends and is far from stagnant or limited.

Biography

Axel Takács is currently in the doctoral program in religion at Harvard University, where he also received a Masters of Theological Studies in 2010. Before that, he obtained his American bachelor's degree in Christian theology and medieval Christian philosophy at Saint Louis University, a Jesuit institution. Axel is an aspiring comparative theologian who focuses his work on the intersection of theological and mystical epistemology and anthropology within the religious traditions of Christianity (himself a Roman Catholic) and Islam.

He became fascinated by the works of Ibn 'Arabi after having fortuitously stumbled into the classroom of James Morris during his masters studies at Harvard Divinity School.  At the time, he hadn't a clue who James Morris was, much less Ibn 'Arabi. He soon realized that there was a devoted group of students in Boston who were immersing themselves into the Shaykh's works, and decided to dive in along with them. Ever since, he has been committed to reading and researching the Akbarian tradition alongside these students and with the gracious and wise guidance of James Morris, without whom his interest in Ibn 'Arabi may never have flourished.

Upon completion of his doctoral dissertation in the next few years, he hopes both to teach at a university, preferably a Catholic theology department, and to publish works on comparative theology between the rich Christian theological heritage and the Akbarian tradition with a view to addressing contemporary spiritual concerns both within the Christian tradition and of the broader human condition.

Honourable Mention: Samer Dajani

The Centrality of Ibn ʿArabī in Popular Ḥadīth Chains

Samer Dajani, Honorable mention, Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society Young Writer Award 201

Synopsis

The importance that Ibn ʿArabī gave to ḥadīth has recently been emphasised in the works of Addas, Gril, and Hirtenstein. This study draws attention to Ibn ʿArabī’s contribution to the popularisation and spread of two aḥādith from a specific genre of ḥadīth known as the musalsal aḥādīth. A study of the chains of these traditions enriches our knowledge of the great scholars of Islam that respected Ibn ʿArabī as a trustworthy ḥadīth scholar. It also allows us a glimpse of how these traditions were passed along the same lines of Akbarī initiation and other types of authorisation from him. We find that it is due to Ibn ʿArabī and his adherents that these traditions carry on until this day, and enjoy widespread popularity among traditionalists.

Biography

Samer Dajani earned a bachelor’s degree in Arab and Islamic Civilizations from the American University in Cairo and a master’s degree in Islamic Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He is currently finishing his PhD at SOAS on Ibn Arabi’s school of jurisprudence. His interest in Ibn 'Arabi came through his study of the Idrisi tariqa which highly values the teachings of the Shaykh al-Akbar. He is the author of the recently published Reassurance for the Seeker (Fons Vitae, 2013).


Angela Culme-Seymour (1912-2012)

Angela Culme-Seymour, Honorary Life President of the Society from 1987, died on 22nd January 2012, aged ninety-nine. She was much appreciated by Society members and fellows during her time as President, and also by her friends, for her clear-sightedness, good sense and lightness of touch.

She was always modest about her abilities, one of which was her fluency in French. Her translation from French of La Sagesse des Prophètes (tr. Titus Burckhardt) [1] provided the first substantial access to Ibn 'Arabi's Fusus al-Hikam in English, a tremendous benefit for those interested in this essential work of the Shaykh al-Akbar. Aside from its wider benefit, it has been immensely useful over the years to students studying at the Beshara School in the Scottish Borders and on courses around the world. Volume 26 of the Ibn 'Arabi Society Journal featured an article by Angela entitled "Bulent and the Blue Fusus – The Story of a Translation", in which she gives a colourful account of how the translation came about. Link

She also translated 'Abd al-Karim al-Jili's Al-Insan al-Kamil [2] into English, again from Burckhardt's French version. Angela never shied away from a challenge, and it was not surprising when she agreed in her nineties to translate another work, Hazret-i Pîr-i Uftâde: Le Dîvân by Paul Ballanfat [3].

In 1977 she married Bulent Rauf, the first President of the Society, and Consultant to the Beshara Trust. They often travelled to Turkey during the summer months, but also spent much time at Chisholme House in the Borders, home of the Beshara School. After Bulent's death in 1987 Angela was based largely at Chisholme. She was a very accomplished painter, mostly in watercolours, and a gifted illustrator, producing a children's book called Pimpernel and Miranda in 1976. In later years she wrote her memoirs, assembling it partly from diaries, and publishing it as Bolter's Grand-daughter [4]. In it she describes her adventurous life in a fresh, captivating style, and although written mainly for her grandchildren it is an interesting read for others too.

Angela died at Chisholme, having been cared for by staff and students there towards the end of her life.

One of the obituaries to appear in the British national press began: "One of the great beauties of her age, Angela Culme-Seymour was loved by many. Spiritual, amorous, optimistic and intrepid, she moved easily among writers and artists and was immortalised by more than one of them in fiction or in paint." She lived life to the full.


A portrait from a magazine about 1938.

Angela Culme-Seymour at a book signing in 2002.


[1] The Wisdom of the Prophets, Beshara Publications 1975

[2] Universal Man, Beshara Publications 1985

[3] The Nightingale in the Garden of Love, Anqa Publishing 2005. The spiritual poems of the great Ottoman Sufi master, Mehmed Muhyiddin Uftade (1490-1580).

[4] Bolter's Grand-daughter, Bird Island Press 2001.

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Al-Azhar Mosque in Fez – 2011

Dee Mitting gives an update on the al-Azhar Mosque in Fez, which she visited in Autumn 2011.

Qarawiyyin mosque and university, Fez

Qarawiyyin Minaret and the green roofs of the old part of the university.

Moulay Idriss town

Sunset over Moulay Idriss.

Spring in the al-Azhar mosque, Fez

The Spring of the Horse as it gushes up – the dark bit is where the water surfaces. The water is so clear one can't tell the level as it overflows the side.

Interior of mosque

Inside the mosque.

The mihrab of al-Azhar mosque

The mihrab of al-Azhar mosque.

Octagonal minaret

Minaret of al-Azhar as seen from the ground. Not much has changed in the last few years, judging by previous photos.

The al-Azhar Mosque in Fez is a small mosque, situated in the Ain al-Khayl district of the Old City, and is where Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi spent much of his time when in Fez, which he visited three times over a period of six years between 1195/591 and 1201/598.

Fez and the Al Azhar Mosque

Fez, known as a holy city, has long gathered to itself people of a spiritual disposition (there are over 300 saints buried there), and is a major pilgrimage centre in the Islamic world. It is also a place of great learning – the oldest continuously functioning university in the world, the Qarawiyyin, is in Fez – as well as a place of rich cultural cross fertilization and interaction.

Fez was initially designated as a settlement by Moulay Idriss I, known as al Akbar, the Great or the Elder, who was the great, great grandson of the Prophet Mohammed (SA). Escaping turmoil in the east he fled west to the country we now know as Morocco. People from Cordoba, also fleeing attack, went south and settled, initially on the south side of the river. Moulay Idriss I himself did not settle here but in a location in the hills to the north west of Fez that is now named after him, close to the former Roman city of Volubilis. It was his son, also a deeply venerated saint, Moulay Idriss II, known as the Splendid (al-Azhar), who founded Fez in (AD) 808 with a prayer dedicating the city to God. The intention of its founder in initially naming the city al-Aliyah (the High) indicates a qualitative order of height given that geographically its centre lay in the lower part of the valley.

Abdul Ali, a city planner and involved with the reconstruction work in the old city, told me that the Al-Azhar Mosque predates the large and more famous Qariwiyyin mosque, built in 895, and that it is in the area first settled on the north side of the river. He suggests that it is the first mosque to have been built in Fez.

This jewel of a mosque is built around the Spring of the Horse, one of the numerous underground springs in and to the west of Fez which, refreshing the landscape and its river, imbue the city with life. It is named after the moment the horse of Moulay Idriss II knelt down to drink from this tiny gush of water. The consequent blessing conferred enlarged the spring to its present abundance. The mosque carries the name of its blesser, the Splendid (al-Azhar).

The spring fills the tank, which is lined with the local cobalt-blue and white tiles, and the water overflows into a lower channel, which then distributes this pure crystal clear water underground to the immediate district. One time when I visited, the mosque was closed, but the door to the spring was open and a young girl, jug in hand, was offering water for drinking and ablution.

Abdul Ali also told me that the unusual octagonal minaret, the only one in the Mahgrib, was initially constructed without the arch, which was included at a later date to allow the passage of horses and donkeys as the settlement expanded uphill.

The walls of the adjoining house collapsed onto the mosque in 2005 during prayer time. The reconstruction is now complete, although there are floor coverings to be added and perhaps some further details to be finished.

It was re-opened on the 1st Ramadan 2011. The tragedy of the collapse crushed ten people including the son of the present day imam. I was introduced to a man whose grandfather was among the dead and whose view is that to be taken in the state of the purity of prayer is a great blessing.

The proposal for the mosque to become a centre for the study of Ibn 'Arabi in Morocco and for a library to house his works has now become a proposal for the largest Islamic library in Morocco to be built adjacent to the mosque, which is to include the as yet undisclosed Ibn 'Arabi manuscripts.

It was extremely generous of the imam to allow me, not only into the room of the spring where women are allowed to enter, but also to pass through the prayer hall to the exit by the main door. It was in this brief moment of stillness that the atmosphere was acutely discernible – one of palpable peace, delight and sweetness.

Ibn 'Arabi in Fez

It is important to those who 'follow in the footsteps’ of Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi, that it was here in front of this mihrab that he was 'made into Light'. Here in one of two accounts, Ibn 'Arabi says,

"Know that the Prophet is all face and no nape or neck. That is why he declared, 'I see you behind my back'... when I inherited this station from him and it became mine, I happened to be directing the prayer in the al-Azhar Mosque in Fez. At the mihrab my entire essence became one single eye: I could see from every side of myself in just the same way that I could see my qibla. Nobody escaped my view: neither the person who was entering nor the person who was leaving, and not even those who were performing the prayer behind me..." (1)

He adds in the second account, "I was like a sphere; I was no longer aware of myself as having any 'side' except as a result of a mental process – not an experienced reality ... " (2)

Becoming nothing but Light was again affirmed for Ibn 'Arabi in Fez in the journey or mi'raj, described in the Kitab al-Isra' a book he wrote down in Fez in the year 594, a journey which " ... took place nowhere but in myself and it was towards myself that I had been guided; from this I knew that I was a servant in a state of purity, without a trace of Lordship." (3)

Fez was also one of the significant places in which the meaning of the total and complete Muhammedian Essential Divine Sainthood was progressively unfolded to Ibn 'Arabi, a process which began in Cordoba in 1190/586 when he was informed of his nomination. The knowing for sure that he was the “Seal and assistant” [4] happened in Fez four years later. However at that time this was established in the interior and not made known in the exterior until 1203/599 at which time Ibn 'Arabi was given the famous dream featuring the Ka’aba in which he saw himself "like two bricks of silver and gold which completed the wall and left nothing missing." [5]

The flow from emergence to fruition itself is a superlative elucidation of absolute servanthood in which the hidden and the manifest are of the Will of the Beloved.

References
  1. Claude Addas, Quest for the Red Sulphur, p. 149
  2. Claude Addas, Quest for the Red Sulphur, p. 149
  3. The Unlimited Mercifier p. 122
  4. Diwan; from Quest for the Red Sulphur p. 158
  5. Fusus al Hikam translated by Bulent Rauf

Particular areas

For information about forthcoming meetings and conferences, see the Symposium and Events page.

For information about recent publications, see the Reviews and bibliographies page.

To see the list of contents of the current issue of the MIAS Journal (Volume 47), see the Journals page.


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