Further reviews:

Articles in the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabî Society, are listed on the Journals page.


Ibn Arabî et le voyage sans retour Claude Addas

Paris, éditions du Seuil, 1996. 140 pages.

Review by James Morris in Journal of the Muhyiddîn Ibn 'Arabî Society, vol. XXIII (1998), pp. 90-92

Claude Addas' latest book on Ibn 'Arabi is something considerably more ambitious than an abridged and more accessible version of her definitive bio-bibliographical study [Ibn 'Arabi, ou la quete du soufre rouge. Paris, 1989; also available in English translation, Cambridge, Islamic Texts Society, 1993.]. It is really the first serious attempt in modern Western languages at a comprehensive, but popular introduction to the life, works and central teachings of this great mystical thinker. The need for such a broad introductory study accessible to college students and others approaching Ibn 'Arabi for the first time has long been evident, and all serious students of the Shaykh al-Akbar will appreciate the many daunting difficulties which the author has confronted in composing this dense and complex volume.

To begin with, this study might well be subtitled "The Seal of (Muhammadan) Sainthood": while carefully sketching out the eventful historical background of Ibn 'Arabi's life and travels from Andalusia to Anatolia and the eastern borders of the Arab world, the author has focused throughout on those dramatic experiences and visions most central to the mystic's distinctive conception of his own universal and very specific mission, for the most part using the Shaykh's own descriptions. The result of that approach is not only a remarkably sober "spiritual autobiography" - without the familiar tendencies of hagiographic writing one encounters in almost any tradition - but also a detailed exposition of the key "Akbarian" teachings expressed, for the most part, within the framework of those same key autobiographical passages. Thus the reader encounters Ibn 'Arabi's central theme of pure "servanthood" through its concrete expressions in his own lifestyle (avoidance of possessions, etc.); his distinctive understanding of "sainthood" through the fascinating stories of his early Andalusian companions and spiritual teachers; or his conception of the world of Imagination through his own transforming initiation into that realm. Even the fascinating subject of the Shaykh's mysteriously wide-ranging historical influences is introduced, at the conclusion, through the very different personalities and approaches of his own immediate disciples and students.

The pedagogical and aesthetic attractiveness of this personalized, autobiographical approach is especially evident in contrast with the only two chapters (out of 12) where the author sets aside this broader biographical framework and instead provides a straightforward doctrinal exposition - still expressed almost entirely in Ibn 'Arabi's own words - of his characteristic teachings concerning the "Unicity of Being", the divine Essence and Names, and the process of divine self-manifestation. While these chapters are masterful summaries of incredibly complex theological and metaphysical concepts, the very requirements of concision and condensation produce a kind of dense philosophical exposition - inevitably very close to centuries of earlier classical Islamic commentaries - which will be intellectually challenging for most uninitiated readers.

An additional virtue of this volume, which clearly sets it apart from the earlier biographical or survey chapters by Corbin, Asin, Nasr, Austin and many others which have had to serve this introductory purpose in the past, is the author's consistent attempt to draw her readers' attention to those distinctive features of Ibn 'Arabi's writing - especially his diverse styles (including the special role of his poetry), his inventive language, and his constant reliance on Qur'an and hadith both in his inspiration and his rhetorical expression - which are such a powerful dimension of his writings' impact and lasting influence. Although these fundamental aspects of Ibn 'Arabi's work cannot readily be conveyed in summary form, the author has rightfully and repeatedly emphasized their importance in a way which should help novice readers to better appreciate those dimensions of his writing when they go on to explore the growing body of translations of his major works.

In short, there can be no question as to the comprehensive scope and scholarly reliability of this work: the author has included all the major themes of Ibn 'Arabi's writing, for the most part expressed in his own words, and has placed them carefully in the context of his major writings and both their immediate and their wider historical settings. There is everything an "outsider" would need by way of orientation for undertaking the study of reliable translations. One can only hope that the burgeoning interest in Ibn 'Arabi and the rapid proliferation of translations of his major works will eventually call forth, in contemporary idiom, the sort of popular, creative transfigurations of his insights that are to be found, as Addas points out, in so many later Persian (and other Islamicate) poets. But even those readers aesthetically drawn to more poetic, personal, and creative re-interpretations of the Shaykh's writings are likely to find Dr. Addas's books essential reference works for decades to come.

[From Recent books in English received in the MIAS Library, 1st March 2001.

The Voyage of No Return, Claude Addas, translated by David Spreight. Islamic Texts Society, Cambridge, 2000. Paper-back. 134pp.

This is an English translation of a book which appeared in French in 1996, and which has already received a full review by James Morris in Volume 23 of the Journal. Its appearance in English is very welcome for, as James Morris points out, this is "the first serious attempt in modern Western languages at a comprehensive but popular introduction to the life, works and central teachings of this great mystical thinker".

Clearly based upon Addas's own more detailed biography of Ibn 'Arabi, The Quest for the Red Sulphur, The Voyage of No Return takes its form from Ibn 'Arabi's life, beginning in Andalusia in 1165 and ending in Damascus in 1240. Addas has a clear sense of the social and political context in which Ibn 'Arabi lived, and also of the cultural context - of the kinds of ideas that were current, the works he would have read, the state of Sufism both in the Maghreb and in the east, and the way that his ideas were disseminated and 'systematised' by his followers.

Her narrative skillfully weaves together the story of his earthly life with an account of his spiritual journey, and summarises the events and stories which illustrate the major principles of his teaching. She discusses some of the most important ideas - wahdat al-wujud (unity of being), absolute servanthood, the 'ayn al-thâbita, his concept of sainthood - and gives details of the major works. Her account differs from Red Sulphur in some respects; she includes, for instance, the findings of the latest research which indicates that Ibn 'Arabi came from a military family and was himself a soldier as a young man. She also includes material from her own recent study of Diwân al-ma'ârif, the massive collection of poems which Ibn 'Arabi collated towards the end of his life. Not only does this contain significant new autobiographical material, but, she claims, "certain indications in the prologue... suggest that... his poems, abstruse and enigmatic though they often were, were meant to be vehicles of the most esoteric aspects of his teaching" (p.48). Thus, Ibn 'Arabi confided his position as Seal of Muhammedian Sainthood in several verses even though this knowledge was kept private during his lifetime, trusted only to his closest disciples. It was al-Jandi, the student of his step-son and spiritual heir Íadr al-din Q¬nawi, according to Addas, who began to communicate it to a wider audience.

This is a short work which covers a great deal of ground, and it is distinguished by its attempt to put Ibn 'Arabi's life and thought into some kind of wider context. Addas brings in references to events in the Christian world and to ideas discussed by Christian theologians, and her survey of Ibn 'Arabi's heritage extends to the present day as she assesses the contribution made by his followers and principle commentators, from his personal disciples such as Íadr al-din Q¬nawi to Jili and Nabal¬si and his most famous modern champion 'Abd al-Qâdir al-Jaz'iri - including some account of his detractors such as Ibn Taymiya, and the controversy he has provoked within the Muslim world.

In short, this is an excellent introduction to the life and work of the Shaykh al-Akbar, eminently accessible to non-specialists. It will act as a stepping-stone, for those new to Ibn 'Arabi, to the more detailed biographies such as Red Sulphur and Stephen Hirtenstein's The Unlimited Mercifier, but it also contains enough new material and original insight to engage the attention of long-standing students.