The works of shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi [part 8]

Shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi not only wrote books; part of his work consisted of guiding his students. The teachings of shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi have also come to us by means of his disciples. One of them was shaykh Ibn Sawdakin, who died 8 years later than his murshid in 1248 in Aleppo. He wrote a book wherein he recorded the detailed answers his shaykh gave him to his questions about the highest states and stations in Sufism.

It is called Kitab wasa’il as-sa’il (the “Book of the Tool to Help the One Who Asks Questions”), which received a German translation by Manfred Profitlich in 1973. I’ve heard that an English translation may come out in the near future. The book contains a discontinuous series of comments from the shaykh in response to the questions of one of his most beloved disciples. The comments are in the form of practical advice expressed in a simple and direct style. It is easy to believe that you are listening to the actual voice of the shaykh as he addresses himself to genuine murids, who have submitted to his guidance.

Master and disciple have known each other for at least 35 years. We can be certain that shaykh Ibn Sawdakin was one of the prominent and closest murids of the shaykh. Ibn Sawdakin has often been active in reading aloud several of the books of his murshid and can be seen as giving a trustworthy representation of the teachings of his shaykh. After the death of his murshid he gave lectures in his own house in Aleppo and also in Damascus, dealing with the massive work of his teacher. Some of the commentaries he wrote on the heavenly journey of his murshid and his contemplations, are simply the verbal commentaries by shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi given to him.

Here are some examples of what Ibn Sawdakin recorded:

1. “About this I (i.e. Ibn Sawdakin) have heard what he (may Allah be pleased with him, i.e. shaykh Ibn al-’Arabi) thought: Seeing the Beloved in a veil (ru’yat al-mahbub fi’l-hejab) belongs to the most perfect manifestations to be observed by human beings”.

2. (Ibn al-‘Arabi said to him): “I went into retreat before dawn (al-fajr) and I received illumination (fath) before the sun rose (…). I remained in this place for fourteen months, and so it was that I obtained the secrets about which I wrote afterwards”.

3. “O Lord, nourish me not with love, but with the desire for love” (Rabbi orzoqni shahwat al-hobb la’l-hobb).

4. “The shaykh (may Allah be pleased with him) has written the following curious and special poem, which is called the dhikr (remembrance of God):

Leave the remembrance and praise of God,
When you love Him with all your heart.
Only the hypocrite continues therewith,
When He Whom is being loved is present in the heart.
When you’d continue the remembrance of God,
Then you are a hypocrite”.

5. To finish, here is what Ibn Sawdakin has recorded about the opinion of shaykh ibn al-‘Arabi about lucid dreaming:

A man must endeavour to have presence of mind in dreams so that he may be the master of his thoughts, which he has gathered as a result of reasoning, even in sleep as in waking. If a man gets this presence of mind and makes it become a part of his habit, he will get its fruit in the barzakh (the intermediate world) and be highly benefited by it. Every man must strive to attain this habit, for God willing, it will be of great use”.

During his travels in the Maghreb, shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi once headed for Fez with the specific intention of finding a certain Muhammad al-Hassar. God had instructed him in a vision he had had in Marrakech that he was to take this man as his companion on his long journey towards the East:

“Know,” he writes in The Openings Revealed in Makkah, “that God had erected pillars of light as supports for the throne. I don’t know how many there are, but I have seen them. Their light resembles the light from lightning. However, the throne casts a shadow of the throne’s concavity, and it veils the light of He Who is seated upon it: the Merciful. I also saw the treasure which is underneath the throne; from it came the utterance ‘neither strength nor power save from God, the Elevated, the Great’.” 

“This treasure is Adam, peace be upon him! Above I saw many other treasures which I recognised, and beautiful birds that were flying everywhere. One of the birds that I saw was more beautiful than the others. It greeted me and informed me that I was to take it as a companion on my journey to the East. I was in Marrakesh when all this was revealed to me.”

“I asked: ‘Who is this companion?’ The reply I was given was: ‘He is Muhammad al-Hassar of Fez. He has asked God to be able to go to the East. Take him with you!’ I answered: ‘I hear and I obey.’ I then said to he who was the bird: ‘You’ll be my companion, if God so wishes’.”

“When I arrived in Fez I searched for this man and he came to see me. I said to him: ‘Have you asked for something from God?’ He answered: ‘I asked of Him that He allow me to go to the East, and I was told that so-and-so will take you there. Since then I have been waiting for you’.”

Shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi took him as his companion and brought him to Egypt, which is where Muhammad al-Hassar died. During this travel, ‘Abdallah Badr al-Habashi, another murid of shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi, accompanied them.

Shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi has written his Mawaqi an-nujum (i.e. the Twilight of the Stars) for al-Habashi: “This book,” says shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi, “dispenses with the master, or rather the master himself also needs it. For among masters, one will be higher than another, and this book is on the highest level that the master can reach. There is no station higher in this sacred Law through which we are devoted to the worship of God. Those who own this book will find sustenance in it, with the help of God, since its benefits are immense.” 

Shaykh Ibn al-ʿArabi describes in particular the ways in which the seven external parts of the body (eyes, ears, tongue, hands, stomach, genitals, feet) and the central organ of the heart participate directly in Divine praise: “The knowledge of the obligations of these bodily parts is the knowledge of actions that lead you to (the realisation of) true happiness.”

He writes in the introduction of The Twilight of the Stars about al-Habashi: “He has left his country of birth (Ethiopia), separated himself from his brothers, left his country in his quest for the Truth, while avoiding contact with other people. He passed far away towns and crossed seas in order to find a leader who would guide him to Him.”

Shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi appeared in the life of al-Habashi in 1198 at Fez. Al-Habashi received a vision in Mecca that made it clear to him that he should become a disciple of shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi in the Maghreb. The shaykh writes this about al-Habashi in the start of The Openings Revealed in Makkah

As for my companion, his is a clarity without taint, he is a pure light. He is Ethiopian, his name is ‘Abdallah and he is like a full moon (badr) that is uneclipsed. He recognizes the right due to each person and renders it to him. He assigns everyone their due without falling into excess. He has attained to the level of distinction. Through fusion (sabk) he has become purified like pure gold. His word is true, his promise veracious.

The Openings Revealed in Makkah

Al-Habashi has not only witnessed the work of his shaykh regarding the spiritual hierarchy but has also participated therein as one of the four cornerstones. Shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi, writes about himself,  al-Habashi, a Tunisian shaykh and his servant: “We were the four arkan.” These four ‘corner supports’ are an obvious allusion to the four Pillars (awtad). 

The work of shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi as a murshid who indicates to his murids the subtleties of the Sufi path becomes visible when you’d read the Kitab al-inbah ‘ala tariq Allah (the Book of the Awakening to the Path of Allah) written by shaykh ‘Abdallah Badr al-Habashi. Here is a quote about wisdom:

الحکمة اٴشوق إلى من يأ خذها من الطالب لها 

Wisdom is more in love with the one who finds it, 
than the one who seeks it is in love with it.

لیس الحکیم من یتکلم با لحکمة ولا یستعملها وإنما الحکیم من تصرّفه وإن کان لا یعلمها

The sage is not the one who speaks of wisdom or uses it,
But the one whom wisdom makes act, even if one is unaware of it.

Shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi transmitted his khirqa to numerous of his students. This implied that he took the piece of clothing he was wearing in the spiritual state he was in at the moment, and clothed the student therein he wished to guide to perfection. He, however, mentions in his Diwan only fifteen persons, fourteen out of which were women (see part 9). Sa’diyya Shaikh in her Sufi Narratives of Intimacy – Ibn ‘Arabi, Gender, and Sexuality gives a different number (p. 102) and some other details (p. 246 footnote 17). When we take the number fifteen as the correct number, then this fifteenth person was ‘Abdallah Badr al-Habashi.