Foundation of Sufism

The most profound philosophical foundation of Sufism was received from the works of Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn al-Arabi (1165-1240), a famous philosopher and an outstanding poet. His legacy had had a decisive influence on the subsequent development of Sufism in all parts of the Islamic world. In addition, he opened a genuine poetic talent. His poems were recognized one of the pinnacles of Arabic Andalusian poetry. They were set to music and performed in the Sufi brotherhoods before collective rituals to bring the soul in proper condition. He was a descendant of Hatim al-Tai, who is still considered the most generous man among the Arabs. Sufi philosophy of Ibn Arabi differs by its originality and depth that allows putting it on a par with the most developed philosophical systems of the world. He was able to give a new character of new philosophical system to Sufism. Ibn al-Arabi’s philosophy and poetry contributed to the formation of Islam, which implies Muslim religion that presents the ultimate truth, the crowning revelation of all the prophets, and the universal religion. The philosophy of Ibn Arabi is one of the greatest pieces of Sufi heritage, keeping the secrets of general historical and individual Sufi experience.


Mysticism is one of the greatest spiritual and philosophical phenomena, existing at different stages of development of human civilization. This assessment is fully applicable to Muslim Sufism. However, Sufism, like any other major kind of mysticism, has its own characteristics, determined by the general cultural environment in which it originated, and how it reflects the culture, based on its inherent characteristics. The same applies to the specifics of the Sufi as a part of the general Muslim whole, which distinguishes Sufism from the main currents and the largest schools of Islam. However, it is a critical foundational component of this general Muslim cultural whole with all the diversity of its constituent areas and concepts, as well as advances in knowledge and practice. It can be said that Sufism is one of the most outstanding theoretical and practical models of Muslim culture.

All this makes Sufism extremely valuable for understanding the spiritual aspects of Islamic theoretical and practical reason. These aspects in most of its components go beyond Islamic worldview, following the mainstream of the best examples of the development of human experience. This fact was and still is the cause of much debate about the nature and characteristics of Islamic Sufism. It also contains one of the epistemological and spiritual research incentives of Muslim Sufism and the growing interest in it throughout the world. This process seems endless for two reasons. The first one is the infinity of the problems, which Sufism confronts. The second one is in the variety of its forms and the uniqueness of each of them, which gives grounds for their new interpretation at each new stage of development of science and practice.

In terms of the historical place in Muslim Sufism and its impact on the world, Ibn al-Arabi is one of the figures of major interest for practical and philosophical research. The matter is not only in the fact that he was able to earn the title of the greatest sheikh, but also in his great authority, as well as inexhaustible creative heritage, which he left behind.

Life of al-Arabi

The outstanding thinker was born in Murcia, in eastern Andalusia. In this area, the power belonged to Sultan Muhammad ibn Mardanishu, in whose service the father of the great thinker was. In Seville, where the family moved when Ibn al-Arabi was eight years old, the boy received a traditional Islamic education (Dehsen, 1999). Under the influence of Sufi ideals, Ibn al-Arabi quite early abandoned secular work and was initiated into the Sufis. A decisive influence on his Sufi learning was made by the fact that his father kept in touch with the great Sufi Abd al-Qadir Jilani (Dehsen, 1999). It is believed that the very fact of the birth of Ibn al-Arabi was associated with the spiritual influence of Abd al-Qadir, who predicted that he would be a man of outstanding talents. His father decided to give him the best education that could be obtained in Moorish Spain at the time. In Lisbon, Ibn al-Arabi studied jurisprudence and Muslim theology. Later, he went to Seville, where he began to study the Koran and the Hadith. In Cordoba, he attended the school of the great Sheikh Al-Sharrata and was very successful in law. Already at that time, Ibn al-Arabi showed such an intellectual ability that distinguished him among his contemporaries, who related to scholastic elite, whose intellectual achievements entered the Middle Ages in proverbs.

Despite the strict discipline that prevailed in academic schools, young Ibn al-Arabi spent almost all free time with the Sufis and began writing poetry. He lived in Seville for 30 years. His poetry and eloquence won him the highest authority not only in highly developed Spain, but also in Morocco that was one of the centers of cultural life.

In search of authoritative Sufi teachers, al-Arabi went to Andalusia and North Africa. He visited Marrakech, Ceuta, Bejaia, Fez, and Tunis. By the age of 30, Ibn al-Arabi had gained respect and fame in Sufi circles due to his potential abilities (in regard to philosophical and esoteric sciences), breadth of vision and piety.
In 1200, Ibn al-Arabi went to Hajj and remained in the East forever. Initially, he lived in Mecca, where he wrote his famous collection of poems Interpreter of Desires. It is a collection of poems and commentaries. In 1204, Ibn al-Arabi again went on a journey: this time to the north, to Mosul (Dehsen, 1999).

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Legacy of al-Arabi

From 1223 until his death (1240), Ibn al-Arabi lived in Damascus, using the auspices of religious and secular authorities (Dehsen, 1999). The Sufi left a great legacy behind his life. There is the reason to believe that about 400 works, of which 200 survived, belonged to him. His major philosophical works are Gems of Wisdom and Meccan Revelations, which were written by him at the end of life and absorbed the most mature fruits of his spiritual experience (Dehsen, 1999).

Both treatises are excellent summary of what can be called ‘anthropology’ of Ibn al-Arabi. They present a look at man as a supreme creation of Allah and, at the same time, contain many other important aspects of his teachings. The starting point of both works is a favorite idea of Sufi thinkers that man is the cause and the ultimate goal of creation of the universe; he is similar to both God and the created world. In modern parlance, God and the universe are anthropomorphic, and therefore, can be known by man in the process of self-awareness (Rustom, 2006, p.55).
In 1299, the greatest teacher saw a vision, in which the Prophet commanded him to write a book called Gems of Wisdom (Dehsen, 1999). He diligently executed the command. Thus, the most popular work of Ibn al-Arabi was created. It developed the concept, which later was called ‘Unity of Being’ (Rustom, 2006, p.53). It became the most important direction of Sufi thought. This work made an indelible impact on his contemporaries and subsequent generations of educated Muslims. It is hard to find an educated Sufi theologian, who does not know about it. The rare book in the history of Muslim civilization was a source of both heated debates and numerous comments. It is not surprising that until recently, it had almost entirely absorbed the attention of scholars of the great Sufi. There is no doubt that the book deserves it, because it contains rare depth and insight that reveal the essence of religion and faith.

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In Meccan Revelations, Ibn al-Arabi describes the joint ascent to the truth of the philosopher and Sufi. The higher knowledge of the mysteries of life, which is received by the heart at the time of Sufi inspiration or as a result of the revelations, is different from intellectual knowledge that is obtained in a reasonable way. Such a comparison of the Sufi path and intellectual knowledge of the divine essence can be found in Meccan Revelations in the form of an expanded metaphor. Each celestial sphere forms a certain stage of the ascent, where both travelers obtain knowledge. Philosopher gets it directly from the celestial spheres, while mystic receives it from the spirits of these spheres, ghosts, which tell him the truth.

The success of Ibn Arabi is explained by his profound knowledge of the achievements of Islamic civilization in various areas, such as the Koran knowledge, philosophy, linguistics, fiqh, mathematics, astronomy, etc. His works are characterized by high ideological saturation, but, at the same time, they are written in a very difficult language, and their content may not be always clearly understood. In addition, works of Ibn Arabi are characterized by a certain confusion of presentation: some scenes are replaced by others. All these difficulties of reading and understanding the philosophy of Ibn Arabi encourage researchers to create different kinds of comments to his works.
The works of Ibn Arabi are characterized by consistency, versatility and depth. This is evident in the huge influence of his philosophy on the practice of Sufism in the next centuries. His concept in the field of epistemology is the most important link of his philosophy. It sheds light on many aspects of his work, causing confusion and misunderstandings among researchers. However, this concept is crucial to understanding the process of intellectual development of Ibn Arabi, his ways of knowing the world and his emergence as a Sufi, as well as the specifics of his Sufi philosophy and its moral values, including in relation to the modern era.


The source of his inspiration was dreams, but the consciousness of Ibn al-Arabi did not lost its activity. Using this Sufi ability, he could establish a contact between the hidden depths of intelligence and ultimate reality, which he characterized as a determining factor of all visible events in a familiar world. His teachings emphasized the importance of the use of these abilities, unknown to most people and perceived as usual occult. Ibn al-Arabi believed that a man should control his thinking in his sleep. The development of this kind of vigilance will allow a person to be familiar with intermediate measurements and it will be very useful. Everyone has to work hard to find this extremely valuable ability. The attempts to interpret Ibn al-Arabi’s works using any frozen methods are hopeless. His ideas were the result of internal experiences and expressed in a particular form, which performed its functions.

In numerous poetic works that have a double meaning, Ibn al-Arabi tried to convey not only these two values, but also to show the effectiveness of each of them. If Ibn al-Arabi used terms that were used by someone earlier, he would not wish people to consider them as the result of outside influences. By resorting to this method, he appealed to people using terminology that was part of their cultural heritage. Some poems of Ibn al-Arabi seem to be transformed into each other: he began to develop a topic in one poem, and ended it in another. He did it deliberately in order to prevent automatic associative processes to lead the reader to the side and give him the usual pleasure. Ibn al-Arabi taught people, and did not entertain them.

Ibn al-Arabi confused the scholars because he was a conformist in religion, while remaining an esotericist in inner life. Like all Sufis, he argued that there was a consistent, persistent and quite acceptable relationship, which led to human insight, between any formal religion and the inner understanding of that religion.

Many ancestors of Ibn Arabi were characterized by an outstanding military and administrative talents and religious fervor, forcing them to leave all earthly affairs, and expiate the sins by violent feats of asceticism and piety. The main reason for Arabi’s final and unconditional choice of mystical path as the only possible form of personal self-realization was hard life lessons of his youth: the early death of his father, who supposedly predicted the day of his death, and a dangerous illness, during which Ibn Arabi pursued images of hell and torment. In this vision, the holy prophets came and announced that they would take him under their patronage. In another vision, he saw his mystical marriage with all the stars of heaven and all the letters of the alphabet. This wonderful dream was also regarded as a sign of divine chosenness.

Ibn al-Arabi entered upon the Sufi path in Seville, where he learned traditional Islamic sciences (Dehsen, 1999). He established close ties with Sufi teachers, who ran a primary course of initiation into the theory and practice of the Sufi path. Characteristically, he did not neglect familiarity with the thinkers of the opposite, rationalist direction, including famous Averroes (Ibn Rushd), who lived in neighboring Cordoba. Thus, in his youth, he had been at the crossroads of the most diverse ideological influences that later had a visible impact on the form and content of his writings.

Approximately ten years after his conversion to Sufism, Ibn Arabi left his native Spain and started wandering around Arab countries (from Morocco to Turkey, Arabia and Iran). The most important purpose at this stage was combining two largest Sufi traditions: Western and Eastern Muslims. In order to do this Arabi tried to engage potential adherents from different countries, who represented various Sufi orders and ideological movements. None of the many meetings passed in vain for him. Thus, in the ceaseless wanderings and communicating with holy men, Ibn Arabi gradually laid the foundation for his own ambitious and comprehensive system of esoteric interpretation of the Qur’an. Mystical experience in Fez, a city in Morocco, (the center of the North African mysticism) marked a transition to a qualitatively new level of esoteric initiation: like the prophet Muhammad, Ibn Arabi rose through the seven heavens the foot of the heavenly throne and saw the mystical light coming from God.

As for the attitude of Ibn Arabi to mind, he recognized the existence of several levels of mind, such as abstract and moral mind. Some people are superior to others in terms of the power of their mind, and this difference leads to differences in interpretation. Ibn Arabi believed that theoretical mind was limited only to the external perception of the true nature, and emphasized the value and importance of Sufi partaking (Zauka), considering it an ideal means of comprehension of the true spirit and mysteries of existence, which were not subjected to mind. The achievement of perfection in human knowledge and practice by acquiring the qualities of the Absolute turns a man into the spirit of existential body. Thus, the image of God gets needed completeness. This is the main goal of life due to the existing relationship between God, human and existence, which consist part of an integral unity.


Having opened such a phenomenon of Eastern culture as Sufism, European explorers were amazed at mystery and versatility of Sufi poetry, which, in turn, was proof that Sufism in the culture of the Middle East was something extraordinary and mystic. Sufi poetry is originally interpreted as the direction of the eastern romanticism. Later, the mystical philosophical element in the works of Sufi poets received attention of the researchers.

Careful examination of the main aspects of Sufi literary tradition, poetic forms, images and conventions results in the conclusion that this poetry is not just an inspirational personal creativity, but also a very complex, thoughtfully arranged genre with intricate ciphers to the symbolic interpretation that assumes more intimate knowledge of the subject. At the same time, Sufi poetry was greatly influenced by pre-Islamic and secular poetry, as many of Sufi poems contain the same images that can be found in secular poetry, but endowed with a mystical meaning. In order to understand this phenomenon, the acquaintance with some of the works of a famous Sufi philosopher and poet Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn al-Arabi will be helpful.

The verses of Ibn al-Arabi contain motives of Bedouin poetry (traditional Nasiba with description of camels, tents, deserts, abandoned encampments, etc.), and the themes and images of lyrics (perfect beauty of beloved, suffering lover, and moaning doves that symbolize fidelity and separation). There are also Quranic and Biblical characters. All these traditional images and motives bear symbolic and esoteric load.

The collection of poetry Perfect Harmony of Ibn al-Arabi in the combination with Massoudy’s calligraphy presents a beautiful mix of art and word. The calligraphy, which meets the words, creates a ground for understanding. On background colors that evoke desert landscapes, brush lines provide a visual expression to harmonic dance of the lover and the beloved.

Massoudy managed to bring new colors and life to the poetry with the use of an exceptional calligraphic style. As a result, Arabi’s poems produce the sense of experience of inner spiritual love, which is provoked by his encounter with a Persian woman, named Nizham, who became a symbol of the divine to a poet. Nizham became the emblem of flawless expression of love and beauty.


Ibn al-Arabi was one of those, who had the most powerful metaphysical impact on both the Muslim and the Christian world. He gave the world the unsurpassed examples of love poetry. None of the Sufi could so much affect the Orthodox theologians by the inner meaning of his works and life, as Ibn al-Arabi could. Arabi’s poems present a great example of how allegory and symbol, which are predominant structural principles of Sufi poetry, are built on the traditional way of Arabic classical poetry, thereby obtaining a new semantic meaning. Philosophical doctrine of Ibn Arabi was a conceptual expression of the attitude that prevailed during the centuries of development of Sufism. This attitude is not only contrasted picture of the world, characteristic of classical Arabic civilization, but it is a development along a certain line. Ibn Arabi was one of those scientists, who had the most significant impact on Sufism. Not by chance, a growing number of researchers in the history of philosophical thought converge on the fact that Ibn Arabi is the greatest master of Muslim and Sufi mysticism. Thus, Ibn Arabi gave a new impetus to the development of Sufism, ensuring its evolution and creative development for centuries.

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