The works of shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi [part 4]

Imam an-Nawawi has become famous because of his collections of ahadith. A Chishti pir once gave me the advice to make notes of those traditions which for some reason or other inspired me. That is why a Dutch translation has come out of the selection of 40 ahadith by this imam.

Imam an-Nawawi was according to some, one of the friends of God. When he died thousands of those living in Damascus came to pay him respect, because he was loved by them. During his days people criticized the ideas of shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi. He was asked about him. Imam an-Nawawi answered:

He is from a community which has passed. Our judgement is that it is forbidden for any man of intellect to think evil of any of the friends of God – may He be magnified and exalted! He must interpret their words and deeds until he has reached their degree. Unfortunately, the one lacking in success is not capable of that.

Let us now pay attention to the collection of sacred traditions collected by shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi. An English translation together with the Arabic text has come out as Divine Sayings – The Mishkat al-Anwar of Ibn al-‘Arabi. Those familiar with the light verse in the Qur’an will recognize the term Mishkat alAnwar or niche of lights.

This collection of divine sayings is indeed a niche of lights. You will know that one of the most important books of shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi is his The Openings revealed in Makka (Al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya). It is a difficult book and contains many chapters. You have to work hard to digest it. An example of difficult stuff is the second chapter wherein the shaykh comments on the inward science of letters.

After many hundreds of chapters, the culmination of this masterpiece is the final chapter. It is said that this chapter contains very useful material both for the beginner as well as for the advanced traveller on the Sufi path. This chapter contains many of the sacred traditions of the Mishkat al-Anwar. It is relatively easy to read. However, purposeful practice thereof is that which is important.

Shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi began his study of ahadith in Seville, Spain, at about the age of fifteen or sixteen, as the result of a remarkable spiritual experience. During a retreat he had a vision of Jesus, Moses and Muhammad (may God’s blessings and peace be upon them all), each of which gave him particular instructions.

In the vision he was rescued from danger by the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) who said to him:

My beloved, hold fast to me and you will be safe

Shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi then started a life dedicated to the imitatio muhammadi about which he says: “It was from that time on that I occupied myself with the study of ahadith”.

Acknowledged as a profound writer on Sufism and a murshid in his own right, shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi continued this study of ahadith during his whole life, eager to gain knowledge wherever it presented itself. It was during the middle part of his life, the two and a half years spent in Mecca, that he composed the Mishkat al-Anwar.

According to a Sufi from Tunis, shaykh ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al Mahdawi, the niche (mishkat) is the symbol of Muhammad’s body, while the “lamp” in the light verse is his heart, the “glass” his mind, the “star” his innermost consciousness (sirr). In the Mishkat al-Anwar the lights are the 101 divine sayings (ahadith qudsi) which appear in the “niche” of the Prophet who manifests the glory and beauty of these lights exactly as they are in reality.

Shaykh Ibn al-Arabi has been inspired to give good council to the people. He said: “I was given strict orders by God to sit and offer people advice”. This is an echo of what we read in his collection of divine sayings on p. 76: 

God, ever mighty and majestic is He, says: “The act of worship that is most beloved to Me is the giving of good counsel”.

An authenticated [sahih] hadith is one that has a known chain of transmitters, and each transmitter is both righteous and reliable, without there being any marginality or flaw in the chain. A validated [hasan] hadith is one that has a chain of transmission which is continuous until its end, and every transmitter is righteous but not completely reliable.

Its chain must also not include any marginality or defect. N.B.: Marginality [shudhudh] refers in the science of hadith to the contrast with an even more reliable source. Defect [‘illa] implies a flaw which is difficult to detect, due to the good faith in the perfection of the chain of transmission. That is the case, for example, of a complete and uninterrupted chain which quotes successively two persons who could not have possibly met.

There exists a very particular mode of verification, i.e., the verification by unveiling [at-tashih bi’l-kashf]. With regards to this phenomenon, shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi affirms that a hadith whose chain is weak may well prove to be authentic. The person to whom an unveiling has been given, will know through the “eye of certainty” [‘ayn al-yaqin] that the hadith under question is authentic.

The celebrated Ibn Hajar Haythami [d. 1566 C.E.] issued a fatwa on the verification of a hadith by way of unveiling:

This is indeed possible, and it is amongst the graces bestowed by the friends of God, as confirmed by al-Ghazzali, Barazi, at-Taj as-Subki, al-‘Afif al-Yafi’I amongst the Shafi’is, and Qurtubi and Ibn Abi Jamra for the Malikis.

“It is related that a wali attended a session directed by a jurist [faqih]. While the latter was citing a hadith, the friend of God interrupted him: ‘This hadith is false!’ The jurist then asked him: ‘Where did you get that?’ and the wali replied: ‘The Prophet [s.a.w.] is here and he is standing before you! He says that he never uttered these words!’ At that moment the jurist received an unveiling and he saw the Prophet [s.a.w.].”

To be continued in part 5