The Muhammadan Inheritance

Ibn ‘Arabi / Heir to the Prophets

~William C. Chittick

Ibn ‘Arabi’s followers often called him “the Seal of Muhammadan Sanctity” or, a bit more literally, “the Seal of Muhammadan Friendship.” It seems rather clear that he laid claim to such a rank, at least in some of his poetry. But what exactly would the expression have meant to him and to the tradition that he represents?

The expression is derived from a title that the Qur’an gives to Muhammad, “the Seal of the Prophets.” This is typically understood to mean two things: first, that Muhammad was the last of the 124,000 prophets sent by God to the human race; and second, that the Qur’an, the revelation received by Muhammad,brings together and synthesizes all the knowledge given by God to all previous prophets.

“Friendship” derives from the Quranic term “friend” (wali). This Arabic word has a range of meanings, any or all of which may be meant when it is used: friend, someone close, someone given authority, benefactor, protector. The Qur’an makes it one of God’s names, and it also speaks of God’s friends and the friends of Satan. The friends of God are those whom he has brought near to himself, those whom he protects, and those to whom,on the basis of their special closeness, he has given a certain authority and rulership, if only over their own egocentric tendencies.

By the time of Ibn ‘Arabi, “friend”was a standard epithet for those Muslims of the past who had come close to embodying the model of human perfection established by Muhammad. Western scholars have commonly translated wali as “saint,” but this word should be used with caution, since it has specifically Christian connotations that do not necessarily apply in the Islamic context.

The idea of friendship with God is a major theme in Ibn ‘Arabi’s writings. In brief, he follows the mainstream of the Islamic tradition by asserting that God chooses as his friends those who embody the best qualities of the human race. God’s friends are first and foremost the prophets. His revelations to the prophets then make it possible for others to become his friends as well. Each prophet is a source of guidance and a model of human goodness and perfection.

Those who achieve the status of friendship with God by following a prophet may then be given an “inheritance” from that prophet.The inheritance has three basic dimensions:works, or proper and appropriate activities; states, or inner experiences that manifest noble character traits; and stations of knowledge, or firm rootedness in the true understanding of reality in its diverse modalities. 


Ibn ‘Arabi considered the goal of religion to be the achievement of human perfection in the three modalities of works, states, and knowledge. He commonly calls those who achieve the goal “Perfect Man” (al-insan al-kamil), one of his best known technical terms.The word insan has no gender connotation, so in this context the English word “man”must be understood in the same way. The main scriptural source for the notion of human perfection mentions both men (rijal) and women (nisa’): Muhammad said, “Among men, many have reached perfection, and among women, Mary and Asiyah [the wife of Pharaoh].”

The primary examples of those who achieved perfection are the prophets, beginning with Adam. They can be defined as those perfect human beings whom God created as paradigms for the human race.

In many ways the most important and fundamental dimension of perfection is knowledge, which entails discernment and putting things in their proper places. Ibn ‘Arabi writes, “As a man moves closer to perfection, God gives him discernment among affairs and brings him to realization through the realities” (F. II 525.2).

“Realization” is the full actualization of human status, and “the realities” are things as they truly are, that is, as they are known by God. To be given realization through the realities means to understand the realities for what they are and to respond to them in the appropriate manner. Realization, in other words, demands both knowledge and works. A good deal will be said about this dual sense of the word in coming chapters.

Approaching perfection by following a prophetic paradigm brings along with it knowledge of a certain configuration of realities.The realities are infinite, so God alone can know them in their simultaneity. Nonetheless, human beings may come to know the principles of all realities. In many passages, Ibn ‘Arabi connects the modes of knowing the realities with the names of God that are so frequently mentioned in the Qur’an. The prophets have special insight into the manner in which specific divine names manifest their traces and display their properties in the universe.

Each prophet has left an inheritance. A purported hadith often cited by Ibn ‘Arabi says, “The ulama” – that is, the scholars, those who have knowledge of God and the prophetic teachings – “are the heirs to the prophets.” In his view, every age must have at least 124,000 friends of God, one heir for each prophet (F. III 208.14). The prophetic inheritances delineate the possible modes of authentic experience and correct knowledge of God, the universe, and the human soul. In other words, to attain true knowledge, one must know and act in accordance with a paradigm of human perfection embodied in a prophet. No one comes to know things as they are without these divinely appointed intermediaries.

The question of how people can gain a prophetic inheritance is central to Ibn ‘Arabi’s writings.The simplest answer is that, to the extent human initiative plays a role, people must follow a prophet’s guidance. However, the guidance of most prophets has not come down to us.The only way to receive an inheritance from those prophets is to take it through the intermediary of Muhammad, whose message comprises everything given to all previous prophets. In the last analysis, however, it is God himself who chooses to bestow an inheritance on any given individual.