How to Study the Futûhât

Ibn 'Arabi's Own Advice

~James Winston Morris 

It is no secret for those who have spent any amount of time with the works of Ibn 'Arabi, even with such relatively 'simple' and straightforward texts as the hagiographical vignettes translated in Sufis of Andalusia, that all of his writings are meant to function as a sort of spiritual mirror, reflecting and revealing the inner intentions, assumptions and predilections of each reader with profound - and sometimes embarrassing - clarity. And nowhere is that mirroring (or refractive?) function clearer than in the immense secondary literature attempting to explain or otherwise convey the voluminous teachings of this 'Greatest Master' (al-shaykh al-akbar), beginning with the contrasting approaches of his own close disciples and continuing down to our own day.

For if virtually all Sufi writings are meant to be mirrors, Ibn 'Arabi's works are mirrors of a very peculiar and in some ways utterly unique sort. The novel and highly personal manner in which he integrally combined the contrasting approaches of earlier Islamic intellectual traditions that had focused respectively on spiritual disciplines and contemplation, intellectual and scientific inquiry, and the elaboration of scriptural and prophetic teachings - the tripartite scheme of kashf (unveiling), 'aql (intellect), naql (religious tradition) found in virtually all his later commentators - was never really repeated or adequately imitated by any subsequent Islamic author. Instead his readers and commentators, whether ancient or contemporary, Muslim or non-Muslim, have almost inevitably tended to focus their attention on one or two of those perspectives. The typical result - and indeed the underlying method - in such cases has been to separate the 'content' from the 'form' of the Shaykh's teachings in ways that tend to ignore and indeed render invisible that remarkably effective spiritual pedagogy which is in fact the unifying aim and persistent focus of his many rhetorical styles and techniques.

One symptom of that neglect is the lack of any detailed study of the complex Introduction (muqaddima) to Ibn 'Arabi's famous 'Meccan Illuminations' (al-Futûhât al-Makkiya), in which he has provided some essential keys to his underlying intentions and rhetorical methods throughout that notoriously difficult work. Now that extended translations of major sections from the Futûhât are beginning to become available, it may be especially helpful to present these passages in which the Shaykh gives perhaps his most complete discussion and explanation of the many different audiences and types of readers for whom he composed that work. While his reflections here are obviously relevant to understanding all of his writings (including the better-known Fusûs al-Hikam) - and indeed to the study of mystical literature and spiritual pedagogy more generally - they are indispensable for anyone wishing to decipher and integrate the phenomenal diversity and sheer volume of earlier Islamic traditions brought together in the Futûhât.


"We said: From time to time it occurred to me that I should place at the very beginning of this book a chapter concerning (theological) creeds, supported by definitive arguments and salient proofs. But then I realized that that would (only) distract the person who is properly prepared and seeking an increase (in spiritual knowledge), who is receptive to the fragrant breaths of (divine) Bounty through the secrets of being. For if the properly prepared person persists in dhikr and spiritual retreat, emptying the place (of the heart) of thinking, and sitting like a poor beggar who has nothing, at the doorstep of their Lord – then God will bestow upon them and give them some of that knowledge of Him, of those divine secrets and supernal understandings, which He granted to His servant Khadir. For He said: 'A servant among our servants to whom We have brought Mercy from Us and to whom We have given Knowledge from what is with Us' (18:65). And He said: 'So be aware of God, and God will teach you' (2:282); and, 'If you are aware of God, He will give you a criterion (of spiritual discernment: furqân); and 'He will give you a light by which you will walk' (57:28)."

[139] Someone said to [the famous Sufi] al-Junayd: 'How did you attain what you've attained?' 'By sitting under that step for thirty years', he replied. And Abu Yazid (al-Bistami) said: 'You all took your knowledge like a dead person (receiving it) from another dead person. But we took our knowledge from the Living One who never dies (25:58)! So the person with concentrated spiritual intention (himma) during their retreat with God may realize through Him – how exalted are His gifts and how prodigious His grace! – forms of spiritual) knowledge that are concealed from every theologian (mutakallim) on the face of the earth, and indeed from anyone relying on (intellectual) inquiry (nazar) and proofs who lacks that spiritual state. For such knowledge is beyond (the grasp of) inquiry with the intellect.

For there are three levels of knowledge. Knowledge through the intellect ('ilm al-'aql) is whatever knowledge you obtain either immediately or as a result of inquiry concerning a 'sign', provided that you discover the probative aspect of that sign. And mistakes with regard to this kind of knowledge (come about) in the realm of that thinking which is linked together and typifies this type of knowledge. That is why they say about (intellectual) inquiry that some of it is sound and some is invalid.

The second (level of) knowledge is the knowledge of 'states'. The only way to that is through immediate experience: it can't be defined intellectually, and no (conceptual) proof can ever establish that knowing. (It includes things) like knowledge of the sweetness of honey, the bitterness of aloes, the pleasure of intercourse, love, ecstasy, or passionate longing, and other examples of this sort of knowledge. It is impossible for someone to know this kind of knowledge without directly experiencing it and participating in it. So (what are termed) 'mistakes' with regard to this kind of knowledge, among those who have immediate experience, are not really such. (For example, in the case of) someone whose organs of taste are overcome by yellow bile, so that they find honey bitter-tasting, what actually touches the organs of taste is the yellow bile (and not the honey).

[140] The third (level of) knowledge is knowledge of (divine) secrets: this is the knowledge that is beyond the stage of the intellect. It is knowledge of 'the inbreathing of the Holy Spirit in the heart,' and it is peculiar to prophets and saints.