Ibn 'Arabi, ou la quete du soufre rouge. Claude Addas.
Paris, Gallimard, 1989. 391 pp.
Review by James Morris in Studia Islamica, vol. LXX (1989), pp. 185-187
The lifetime of Ibn 'Arabî (560/1165-638/1240) spans one of the most fascinating periods of Islamic history: an age when the political shrinking of the Dar al-Islam (through the Reconquista, Crusades and Mongol invasions) paradoxically coincided with the remarkable creative flourishing of a constellation of saints and mystical writers (Abd al-Qadir Jilani, Attar, Rumi, the two Suhrawardis, Abu Madyan and Najm al-Din Kubra and their disciples) who were to have an extraordinary historical, intellectual and spiritual influence on a much wider Islamic world for centuries to come. So it is all the more ironic that this multi-faceted figure, whose voluminous writings, teachings and disciples brought together and transmitted so many of those influences throughout later Sufism, earning him the honorific title of the "greatest master" (al-shaykh al-akbar), is still best known in the English-speaking world, at least, simply as a "mystical philosopher". The present study is not only the first substantial biography of this extraordinary figure: it is also a superb (and remarkably concise) introduction to his thought and spiritual teaching (in its practical and scriptural, as well as its metaphysical dimensions), to its wider Islamic intellectual context, and to the social history of the nascent "Sufi" movements in the many different regions where Ibn 'Arabî traveled and taught.
Paradoxically enough, Dr. Addas is able to do justice to all these wider, outward dimensions of Ibn 'Arabî's historical significance, while at the same time rooting her account in the bountiful autobiographical (and often vividly visionary) evidence scattered throughout his own writings, precisely by taking seriously his own self-image of his special mission as the "Seal of the Muhammadan saints" (khatm al-awliya'). The thread of her narrative follows Ibn 'Arabî's own gradual discovery of this unique spiritual vocation, as it began with his first youthful inspirations, unfolded through his initiatic encounters with many masters, companions and members of the hierarchy of saints in the Maghreb (some of them familiar to readers of his Sufis of Andalusia), and was confirmed in a series of decisive visions (in Fes and Mecca) near the midpoint of his life; and it concludes with the prodigious literary output, teaching, and constant travel through which he sought to fulfill that mission. Without lapsing into hagiography - and indeed with a healthy scepticism about the anecdotes provided by later hagiographers (and enemies) - the author thereby succeeds in portraying a coherent, convincing portrayal of aspects of the Shaykh's many-sided life and work that most earlier studies have (for understandable reasons) tended to present in isolation: 1) the visions and inspirations which are the avowed source of all his teachings; 2) his constant insistence on the central role of the Koran and hadith (and on spiritual practice explicitly rooted in them) as the essential keys to Islamic spirituality; 3) his own characteristic metaphysical formulations and explanations of those teachings (best known through the Fusus al-Hikam); and 4) the full range of historical activity and influence (revealed here through a painstaking study of his later travels, disciples and relations with various rulers and other religious scholars, as well as his actual writings).
However, for all the author's efforts at placing Ibn 'Arabî in his own historical context, most readers' lasting impressions are likely to be not so much of a "life", of a particular individual's outward story, as of the wider lessons and teachings he sought to convey. The apparent contradiction between the visionary mystic or poet revealed in so many of Ibn 'Arabî's own writings and the far more systematic teacher and thinker portrayed by later interpreters becomes less paradoxical when one begins to recognize how each apparently random "vision" or anecdote is almost always intended to convey certain spiritual lessons - teachings which do become increasingly coherent as one becomes familiar with the vision informing them. Dr. Addas' own portrait, based at is on an almost unparalleled familiarity with Ibn 'Arabîs edited and unedited works, faithfully conveys her subject's own sense of his life as an ongoing, pre-destined spiritual mission. And her discussions of later Islamic sources, including both the Shaykh's disciples and defenders and his equally vociferous detractors, are especially revealing in pointing to some of the more universal and less immediately visible (non-literary) dimensions of that influence, whether it be through the initiatic chains of the khirqa akbariyya or through his constant insistence on the spiritual dimensions of the Qur�an and hadith as fundamental to the practice and message of Islam - an insistence that has made him an emblematic figure in recurrent conflicts of authority and intepretation in the Islamic world down to our own day, even among parties with little real knowledge of his works.
Virtually all modern treatments of Ibn 'Arabî's life have relied on Asin-Palacios' pioneering efforts, based primarily on the Futuhat and the accounts of his earlier Andalusian companions in the Ruh al-Quds and Durrat al-Fakhira. Dr. Addas' extensive researches are based on a wealth of additional material, including the autobiographical passages in many of the Shaykh's other works (including many still unedited treatises); the sama' certificates in manuscripts of his writings (building on the bibliographic work of O. Yahya); the oral tradition of teachings later recorded by his disciples (Ibn Sawdakin and Badr al-Habashi, as well as the better-known Eastern tradition represented by Qunawi and Awhad al-Din al-Kirmani) and their students; recently edited lives of saints and related Sufi documents from the same period; and the widely scattered tabaqat references to disciples, teachers and other figures mentioned by Ibn 'Arabî. Unlike many earlier studies, Dr. Addas' treatment reflects a constant sensitivity to the local situations and social contexts in question. One particularly important example is the way contemporary sources indicate Ibn 'Arabî's apparently widespread acceptance and esteem among the 'ulama' and jurists of Damascus during his own lifetime - thereby underlining the apocryphal character of many of the anecdotes supplied by later hagiographers and critics alike, and pointing to the still largely unexplored symbolic role of Ibn 'Arabî (along with al-Ghazali) in the widely scattered later disputes between various Sufi groups and their influential critics.
The more detailed results of the author's research, which should prove invaluable for subsequent students of his writings and their posterity, are summarized in a number of tables given as an appendix, including a detailed chronology of his works (often updating Yahya's Repertoire generale) and their autobiographical references, Ibn 'Arabî's own silsila's and those of the later khirqa akbariya, and a biographical index of his own teachers (in all the traditional Islamic disciplines) and literary acquaintances. The extensive bibliography will be useful to both specialists and general readers (e.g., for its citation of many lesser-known modern translations from the Futuhat).