Here are some observations of shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi in regard to ascetic practices. These remarks are to be found in his Ornaments of the Abdal (Hilyat al–abdal), which has been translated into French by Michel Valsân, aka shaykh Mustafa ‘Abd-al-‘Aziz. Two of the closest murids of shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi had asked him to write something for them from which they could benefit concerning the path of the hereafter.
Stephen Hirtenstein has presented us with an English translation, which he called The Four Pillars of Spiritual Transformation: The Adornment of the Spiritually Transformed.
Shaykh Ibn al- ‘Arabi wrote this short work in the space of an hour in January 1203 in Ta’if, while on a visit to the tomb of the cousin of the Prophet, ‘Abdallah Ibn ‘Abbas, as something that would be “of assistance for those on the Path to true happiness”. The booklet begins with an anecdote concerning one of his Andalusian companions. ‘Abd al-Majid bin Salama is praying in a secluded room. He gets somewhat afraid when another person suddenly stands next to him, although the room is locked. The newcomer is one of the substitutes (abdal).
Shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi proceeds to explain the exterior qualities of the spiritually transformed (abdal). He particularly focuses on the four essential prerequisites of spiritual discipline: silence, seclusion, hunger and vigilance, describing how these appear among both aspirants and the spiritually realized.
Hunger includes vigilance, and seclusion includes silence. According to the people of God seclusion is the chief of the four. The shaykh tells in his The Openings Revealed in Makkah that “none is in seclusion except one who knows himself, and he who knows himself knows his Lord. He has no object of contemplation except God, by virtue of His Most Beautiful Names, and he is characterized by them in both his interior and exterior.”
The English book provides a substantial introduction on the abdal, and a translation of Chapter 53 from The Openings Revealed in Makkah, which deals with the same subject matter.
Shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi sees silence, solitude, hunger and wakefulness as the four cornerstones of the way. Each of them has not only a physical aspect but also a spiritual reality.
The physical aspects:
1. Silence of the tongue (little speaking)
2. Solitude from other people (little meeting with the people)
3. Fasting (little food)
4. Little sleep
The spiritual realities:
1. Silence of the heart
2. Solitude of the heart
3. Hunger of the heart
4. Vigilance of the heart.
These last 4 aspects are not the ascetic practices dealing with physical deprivation and self-abnegation, but they deal with the attempt of negating everything but the Divine presence. Each of these 4 negations is then connected with a further degree which consists of abandoning these negations, e.g. the maqam (spiritual station) of silence is followed by the maqam of speech.
So different practices for different purposes. A practice serves its purpose for a certain time and then it should be abandoned according to what is relevant for that person.
Solitude is a means of realising the silence of the tongue. If you live isolated from people and if you have no one to keep yourself occupied with, then this leads in a natural way to the renunciation of words.
Solitude is of two kinds: the one of those who are aspirants (al–muridun), which consists of evading to mix in a material sense with others and the one of the verifiers (al–muhaqqiqun) which consists of inwardly evading the contact with things concerning creatures. This should not be explained in too simple a way. Creatures can also be seen as the locus of manifestation of al-Haqq, the divine Reality.
Shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi states in chapter 73 of The Openings Revealed in Makkah about the abdal: “They are seven, not exceeding or becoming fewer. By them, God maintains the seven climates. For each substitute is a climate in which is his authority:
- The first substitute is upon the footsteps of Abraham, the friend of Allah.
- The second is upon the footsteps of Moses, the speaker.
- The third is upon the footsteps of Aaron.
- The fourth is upon the footsteps of Idris.
- The fifth is upon the footsteps of Joseph.
- The sixth is upon the footsteps of Jesus.
- The seventh is upon the footsteps of Adam.
Shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi has seen these seven substitutes in Mecca:
“We met them behind the Hanabilah wall. I have not met anyone having a more beautiful conduct than them.”
Let’s conclude with what shaykh Ruzbihan Baqli of Shiraz states:
“God reveals to the substitutes the intricacies of the knowledge of the unseen. This embraces all stations, states, gnostic perceptions, divine unity, mystery and the mystery of mysteries. When they become like Adam with respect to what they don’t know, God instructs them.”