12th-century Sufis in the Maghrib

Sufi practice in the west of Islam in the twelfth century C.E., seems to have been an urban phenomenon: most of the western Sufis whose occupations are known were urban artisans.[1]  Most of them were well educated and independently minded; and they travelled widely, particularly to Mecca, so that there was always the possibility of easy diffusion of religious ideas from East to West.

Ibn al-‘Arabī

One of the most famous and radical of all the Sufis was born in Murcia in 1165.  Ibn al-‘Arabī would later be known as Muhyī al-Dīn (the revivifier of religion), or as Sheikh al-Akbar (the greatest master), – from which comes the adjective Akbarian, for anything pertaining to Ibn al-‘Arabī.[2]  As a teenager, he had had a vision of Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, representing one religion.[3]  He always warned Muslims against dogmatic exclusivity, saying that they would fail to comprehend the whole truth, if they held that God could be limited by any one creed.[4]

In 1184 he publicly committed himself at the Great Mosque in Córdoba to a life of voluntary poverty and renunciation.  He characterised this as the īsawī (Jesus) way to spiritual fulfilment, in which the emphasis is placed on how the individual thinks, feels and behaves.[5]  He also, of course, accepted the importance of the mūsawī (Moses) way, of adherence to a set of divinely inspired beliefs and laws; but he knew that most Muslims were used to following that path.  As he held that Muhammad’s revelation summed up all those that preceded it, the main thing that was required, of him and of his contemporaries, was the realisation of this message in the lives of all Muslims.[6]

In about 1198, in Fez, he saw a blinding light; he met a ‘youth’ who told him that he was the cloud blotting out his own sun and that he needed to know his real self (this ‘youth’ may be a Hayy ibn Yaqzān figure or the indwelling Active Intelligence); and he experienced his own mir‘āj, or ascension to the presence of God.[7]  On many occasions later in his life, he would describe the stages of this mystical journey, which was based on the mir‘āj, or ‘night journey’, or mystical ascent, of Muhammad.  At the point where, in Muhammad’s night journey, Jibrīl (Gabriel) left Muhammad to continue alone, i.e. when he had gone ‘beyond the lotus-tree of the boundary’ towards the presence of God, Ibn al-‘Arabī noted, writing of his own experience, that:

“If you do not stop at this point, a light will be revealed to you, in which you will see nothing but yourself.  Thereupon you will be seized by a divine ecstasy.”[8]

In the presence of the Divine Oneness, he felt

“blotted out, extinguished, obliterated, annihilated.”

On the descent, however, as he was re-clothed in what had been stripped away, he felt not only re-affirmed and re-assembled, but now, after his ineffable experience, he saw everything, not with “the eyes of the ego”, but with “the eyes of his Lord”.[9]  He characterised this return to the created world as:

“a return which yet involves no separation, for nothing exists other than God, His attributes and His acts.  Everything is He, proceeds from Him and returns to Him.”[10]

The oneness of being is a central fact in Ibn al-‘Arabī’s work.  As the historian, Rom Landau puts it, the Qur’ānic statement:

‘There is but one God,’

becomes the Akbarian claim:

‘There is nothing but God.’[11]

God is the being of everything.  Everything could be said to be a part of God.  In that sense, as Ibn al-‘Arabī put it in a piece about Christ, the statement that Christ is God is true, because everything is God; the statement that God is Christ is not true, because God is much more than that.[12]

He considered that the universe was eternal, and that the next world was a process that was forever in the making.[13]  He spoke about heaven and hell, but interpreted them in terms of this world.  Hell is slavery to selfishness, the failure to realise your oneness with God, even when all things return to Him in the end.  Heaven is selflessness, integrity, knowing that you are at peace with yourself and with everyone, and at one with God.[14]  Ibn al-‘Arabī’s religious experience, and the understanding that grew out of it, were unquestionably illuminist and pantheist; but it is unclear whether his major works can be used to describe western Sufi ideas of the time.  He left for the East in about 1201, never to return; and so his major works were all written or revised in the East.

Other sources of knowledge about western Sufi teachers

It will be necessary to look at earlier western figures; but here again Ibn al-‘Arabī will be helpful as, before he left, he composed two collections[15] of reminiscences of western Sufis, the Rūh al-quds and al-Durrat al-fākhirah, to take with him.

Apart from Ibn al-‘Arabī’s books, there is a certain amount of information about the renowned Sufi Sheikh, Abū Madyan, who was born near Sevilla in the 1120s.  He put himself under the direction of a renowned Sufi in Fez, and went on to live a life of voluntary poverty and austere self-abnegation, learning to subjugate the will of the flesh.[16]  After making the pilgrimage to Mecca, he settled at Bejāia (Bougie, nowadays in Algeria), where many came to him, especially from his native Andalus, to follow his path of Sufism.  He stayed there until he was summoned to the Almohad (Muwāhhid) court to answer charges of heterodoxy; he died on the way, in 1197 or 1198.[17]  Unfortunately, most of the early evidence collected concerning Abū Madyan was not written down until the thirteenth century by al-Ghabriny,[18] and so is not sufficiently good evidence for this study of 12th-century Sufism.

Ibn al-‘Arīf and the Mahāsin al-Majālis

Ibn al-‘Arabī named two western Sufis among his choice of four of the greatest Sufi gnostics of all time: they were Abū Madyan (from the generation preceding his own) and Ibn al-‘Arīf (from the generation before that).[19]  Abū al-Abbās Ahmad ibn al-‘Arīf al-Sinhajī (1088-1141) of Almería was known as a poet, philosopher, saint and mystic, and the author of a Sufi book called the Mahāsin al-Majālis.  He had been denounced to the earlier Almoravid (Murābit) sultan, ‘Alī ibn Yūsuf, probably because of his popularity among disadvantaged sections of society, and had died while facing investigation in Marrakech in 1141.[20]

There may well have been a political motivation behind this charge, and it may have involved the politico-religious Ismā‘īlī movement.  There may have been Ismā‘īlī activity in the area, since Ismā‘īl al-Ru‘aynī had caused a split in the Masarrī religious movement (followers of the mystical philosopher, Ibn Masarra), by politicising the Masarrī group in Almería in the 11th century.[21]  Ibn al-‘Arīf may have had Ismā‘īlī connections, because the title of his book uses an Ismā‘īlī term, majālis, taken from their missionary meetings, which were called ‘sessions of wisdom’ (majālis al-hikma).[22] 

When he was summoned before the authorities, he was one of three extreme ascetics to face censure.  The first, al-Mayūrqī, who had travelled to the East, was whipped and released.  The second, Ibn Barrajān, was condemned to death on the charge that 130 communities recognised him as imām.[23]  There is no evidence that Ibn al-‘Arīf, who looked up to Ibn Barrajān, among others, for guidance,[24] had sought power of any sort:[25] it would certainly go against all the advice in his own book about the mystical life.  He did however, praise some religious writings by his colleague, Abū’l Qāsim ibn Qasī, who went on to found a politically orientated religious community at Silves, known as the Murīdūn (novices), which dominated the Algarve for several years; but that happened after Ibn al-‘Arīf’s death.[26]

Whether or not Ibn al-‘Arīf had any subversive political affiliations, his Mahāsin al-Majālis was an important Sufi work.  The extant manuscripts are admittedly late – of the 14th and 15th centuries – and the edited text does seem to contain a later, false ending on the 40 charismatic gifts of those who are obedient to God (which will therefore be ignored).[27]  However, the major portion of the text hangs together as one piece, and its authenticity is confirmed by the quotations from it in the work of Ibn al-‘Arabī.[28]  It is a book directed at those already well advanced on the path to mystical fulfilment, and it deals with states, or experiences, which will be encountered, – and which, in almost all cases, must be overcome, – as necessary obstacles in the ascent to God.

It teaches the renunciation of everything – including, at the appropriate time, the joys of mystical experience itself – lest they tempt the seeker to remain at that stage, and stop short of union with God.  Asceticism is necessary for the novice, but the mystic has to go beyond asceticism to the point at which he has no more preoccupations of any sort.  He does not abstain from worldly things: he takes no notice of the world at all.  Similarly, he has to go beyond abandonment of the will, to the point where he has no will to abandon.  He has to go beyond patience, sadness, hope, fear, gratitude, and so on, all of which depend on a realisation of separation, to the point where there is no separation and the mystic is completely absorbed into God, in the union of love.[29]  The Mahāsin al-Majālis will be studied, together with information about contemporary Sufis in the Maghrib, to look for signs of an illuminist and pantheist tradition in this area of Islam in the 12th century.

The doctrine of renunciation among western Sufis

Renunciation is always the necessary starting point.  Abū Ja‘far al-‘Uryanī, a blind Sheikh, living in Sevilla before 1184, advised seekers:

“If you will shut out the world from you, sever all ties, and take the Bounteous alone as your companion, He will speak with you without any intermediary.”[30]

Rejection of the world is also important in the teaching of Abū Madyan:

“The sublime state rests on two foundations: mortification of the senses, and prolonged study of the divine law.”[31]

Ibn al-‘Arīf is also sure that God cannot be seen by worldly eyes, nor understood by a mind immersed in material considerations.[32]  The world has to be rejected and the body mortified, before the soul can be illumined:

“If it were not for the darkness of the physical world, the light of the divine mysteries would appear.  If it were not for rebellion by one’s own self, the veils between God and man would rise.  […]  If it were not for worldly attachments, the fire of love for God would inflame human spirits.”[33]

Their experience of illumination

An experience of illumination by what Sufis called the ‘apostle of the truth’ in a Sufi meeting is described in Ibn al-‘Arabī’s al-Durrat.  It takes place in the house of Abū ‘Abdallāh Muhammad al-Khayyāt in Sevilla, before 1194:

“We were all sitting, facing the qiblah,[34] and everyone had his head between his knees, practising invocation or contemplation.  Suddenly a sort of sleep came over me, and I saw myself, and the whole company, in a very dark room, so that ‘if a man were to stretch forth his hand, he would scarcely be able to see it.’[35]  From each of us, there emanated a light from his essence, to illuminate the darkness immediately around him.  As we sat in the light of our own essence, a person came in to us, through the door of that dark room, and greeted us, saying: ‘I am the apostle of the truth to you’.”[36]

Such an experience of the light within brings joy, as Ibn al-‘Arīf knows:

“According to the ways of the mystical élite, sadness is a veil, because the knowledge of God is all-apparent, and the disclosure of this knowledge brings a happiness that removes all sadness.”[37]

The expression of their pantheism and union with God

Part of the wisdom, which comes with illumination, is to perceive that God is in everything.  There is a story about Abū ‘Imrān al-Sadrānī, from Tlemcen,[38] a contemporary of Abū Madyan, and his ascent of a mountain.  The mountain seems to symbolise God as Being, and climbing it may indicate a mystical ascent.  The interesting elements of the story can be quickly highlighted.  Abū ‘Imrān once reached the mountain ridge of Qāf, which surrounds the earth; he performed the forenoon prayer at its base and the afternoon prayer at its summit.  On being asked the height of the mountain, he replied that it was 300 years’ journey high.[39]  This place of infinite dimensions, at the limits of the universe, which can be climbed by the mystic who has escaped from the constraints of time, seems to be a symbol for a pantheist experience of God as eternal Being.  Mountains, because they seem at once unchanging and uplifting, have always made good symbols for the presence of the eternal, the divine, God as Being.

Ibn al-‘Arīf quotes a poem by al-Hallāj, which proclaims that God is everything and in everything, while also being beyond everything.[40]  The Mahāsin al-Majālis usually describes the union with God in terms of a union of two lovers, whose wills become one.  In a perfect union, the will has to be naughted.  Will is important for the novice, who must use his will to persevere in the search for perfection; but for the mystic, it is an obstacle to complete union.[41]

According to this book, all the mystical exercises and states of the mystic way are eventually to be surmounted, for

“The Sufis believe that whatever is inferior to God is an obstacle that separates them from Him.”[42]

In the end, one has to abandon everything and rely wholly on God, having no will of one’s own at all.  One should be like the corpse in the hands of the one who washes it.[43]  The extreme passivity preached here could lead to the dangers of quietism (that is, being so quiet and peaceful that one does not put up any resistance, even to obvious evils, which one could help to put right).

Another ever-present danger is that of debased pantheism.  When talking to two learned men about his inner experience of the overwhelming presence of God, Abū Madyan suddenly felt himself to be so taken over by God that he cried out:

“Refer to me!  Address yourselves to me!  For I am the All in all.”[44]

The two necessary ‘deaths’ of the soul

The concluding part of the original text of the Mahāsin al-Majālis deals with the two necessary deaths of the soul.  This can be used to sum up the mystical teaching that this chapter has been considering.  The first ‘death’ is the mortification of the body before the purified soul can receive illumination:

“We are those who wade into the ocean of destruction,

 And our fire flashes in the twilight.”[45]

The second ‘death’ is self-transcendence, the passing away of the self into God.  The mystic must go deep below the surface of life, be ready to throw away any lifelines and to drown the self, in order to fathom the ocean of being beneath it.  Abandoning his own self, he will be like the drowning man in the poem:

“ ‘He saw an abyss and thought it was a wave;

When he reached its middle, he drowned.

They threw the rope of their anchor to the bottom,

So the water enveloped and consumed them.’ ”[46]

Their possible influence

There is good evidence for a continuing tradition of pantheist and illuminist mysticism and philosophy, not just in Islam in general, but in the specific case of the Maghrib, up to the end of the 12th century C.E.

Several Spanish historians have already speculated about the possibility of Sufi influence upon thinkers in early 13th-century Latin Europe.[47]  It is time to consider whether there were any contacts between Avicennists and Sufis in the Maghrib and religious scholars from Latin Europe.  There were certainly plenty of Latin scholars who were keen to get their hands on Avicennist works, as they reached out to Islam for new knowledge in the later 12th century.   

It might be more accurate to say that many were seeking it, not directly from Islam, but rather from Jews and Christians who were escaping from those regions of Islam, which were being put under increasing pressure by European crusading expansionism.  Latin scholars of the 12th century knew about the greater depth of philosophical and scientific knowledge to be found in Islam, and they made great efforts to make some of it available to Christian intellectuals.  It will be interesting to see whether any pantheist and illuminist teaching may have been passed, at the same time, to the new Latin Avicennists.



[1] T.F.Glick (B.91) pp.151-2.
[2] M.Chodkiewicz (B.93) p.7.
[3] S.Hirtenstein (B.93) p.52.
[4] R.A.Nicholson: The Mystics of Islam (B.77) pp.87-88.
[5] S.Hirtenstein (B.93) p.60 & p.65.
[6] ibid. p.67 & p.79.
[7] ibid. pp.115-7.
[8] Ibn al-‘Arabī: Risālat al-Anwār,  tr.L.Sherrard, in M.Chodkiewicz (B.93) p.166.
[9]  Risālat al-Anwār, tr. L.Sherrard, in M.Chodkiewicz (B.93) pp.168-9.
[10] ibid. p.149.
[11] R.Landau (B.93) p.27.
[12] A.E.Affifi (B.93) p.20.
[13] ibid. p.29.
[14] ibid. pp.165-8.
[15] R.W.J.Austin (B.93) pp.17-20.
[16] M. Asín Palacios: Šādilīes… (B.93) pp.3-5;  J.J.L.Bargès (B.93) pp.3-4.
[17] J.J.L.Bargès (B.93) pp.11, 25 and 62.
[18] J.J.L.Bargès (B.93) p.70.
[19] M.Asín Palacios: Ibn al-‘Arīf… (B.93) p.22 (quoting Ibn al-‘Arabī: Futūhāt, II, 421).
[20] ibid. pp.1-5; and V.Cornell: Hayy in the Land…(B.92) pp.145-6.  The name Ibn al-‘Arīf presumably translates as ‘son of the gnostic.’  This may refer to spiritual sonship.  His actual father is thought to have been a Berber in the Almería garrison.  The son proved to be a prodigy in Islamic studies: see V.Cornell op.cit.p.145.
[21] M.Asín Palacios: Ibn Masarra… (B.91) pp.122-5.  Claude Addas (B.93) p.915 may be right that too much weight has been put upon the connection of subversive mystical movements with Almería; but there could be a reason for the link.  Valencia had a harbour, but was situated too close to the disputed frontier with Christendom to remain stable for long.  The port of Almería was therefore in the best position to guarantee a secure sea route to the East for the passage of seekers going to the sources of their inspiration, and their return with the latest books and intellectual developments.  It is known that, by this time, Almería had become the greatest port in the peninsula for the traffic in fine goods and textiles with North Africa and the Near East: see B.F.Reilly (B.91) p.66.
[22] The title in the French translation is la Beauté des Sessions, and in the English one, The Attractions of Mystical Sessions.  Many 10th and 11th-century Ismā‘īlī missionaries noted down what they intended to say in their ‘sessions of wisdom’ (majālis al-hikma), and their notes became books of religious instruction called majālis : H.Halm (B.86) pp.99-103; F.Daftary: The Ismā‘īlīs…(B.85) pp.225-6.
[23] M.Asín Palacios : Ibn al-‘Arīf (B.93) pp.4 -5; C.Addas (B.93) pp.919-921.
[24] Claude Addas (B.93) p.921.
[25] C.Addas has found a letter from Ibn al-‘Arīf specifically condemning any revolt against any ruler in the name of religious reform: C.Addas (B.93) p.923.
[26] L.Massignon: Recueil de textes … (B.79) p.102; H.Corbin: Creative Imagination…(B.93) p.48; P.Guichard (B.91) p.698.  For Ibn al-Arīf’s appreciation of Ibn Qasī’s work: C.Addas (B.93) p.923.
[27] M.Asín Palacios: Ibn al-‘Arīf… (B.93) pp.64-72. Elliott & Abdulla translation (B.93) pp.92-120.
[28] M.Asín Palacos op. cit. p.8.
[29] Mahāsin al-Majālis, chap.2-11: French translation by F.Cavallera, in M.Asín Palacios: Ibn al-‘Arīf… (B.93) pp.32-56; English translation by W.Elliott & A.K.Abdulla (B.93) pp.24-78.
[30] Ibn al-‘Arabī: Rūh al-quds, tr. R.W.J.Austin (B  ) no.1,p.63.
[31] Quoted by al-Ghabriny, tr. J.J.L.Bargès (B.93) no.25, p.81: “Cet état sublime repose sur deux fondements, la mortification des sens et l’application à l’étude de la loi divine.”
[32] Mahāsin al-Majālis, chap.1: Eng. transl. pp.22-24 ; French transl. p.29.
[33] ibid. chap.1, tr. W.Elliott & A.K.Abdulla (B.93) p.22.  French tr. p.30: “ Tout ce qui n’est point Dieu est un voile qui le cache. S’il n’y avait pas la ténébreuse obscurité du monde physique, apparaîtrait sûrement en toute clarté la lumière du mystère divin. […] S’il n’y avait pas les affections terrestres, il est certain que les réalités spirituelles se révèleraient..”
[34] which marks the direction of Mecca.
[35] Qur’ān: 24:46.
[36] Ibn al-‘Arabī: al-Durrat, tr. R.W.J.Austin (B.93) no.14, p.109.
[37] Mahāsin al-Majālis, chap.6, tr. W.Elliott & A,K,Abdulla (B.93) p.42.  F.Cavallera, in M.Asín Palacios (B.93) p.39, has: “L’intuition ou gnose de Dieu (que sa gloire soit exaltée) dissipe par sa lumière toute obscurité et met en fuite par la joie toute tristesse.”  It goes on to quote Qur’ān 10:59.
[38] In modern Algeria.
[39] Ibn al-‘Arabī: Rūh al-quds, tr. R.W.J.Austin (B.93) no.19, p.122.
[40] Mahāsin al-Majālis, chap.9, Elliott & Abdulla Eng. tr. p.62; F.Cavallera French tr. p.48; cf. L.Massignon: Dīwān (B.79) M.10, pp.45-46.  Ibn al-‘Arīf quotes from al-Hallāj at least 3 times (chap.1, chap.9 and chap.11) and from Bāyazīd at least twice (chap.2 and chap.7).
[41] ibid. chap.2, Eng. tr. p.24; French tr. p.31.
[42] ibid. chap.12, transl by W.Elliott & A.K.Abdula, pp.78-80.  French tr. p.56.
[43] ibid. chap.2, Eng. tr. p.26; French tr. p.33.
[44] Quoted by al-Ghabriny, tr. J.J.L.Bargès (B.93) p.44: “Adresse-toi à moi, indique-moi.  C’est moi qui suis le Tout.”
[45] Mahāsin al-Majālis, tr. Elliott & Abdulla, chap.13, p.88. I will quote the French translation at greater length, because it makes the meaning clearer: “Nous n’avons à nous que ceux qui s’enfoncent dans les vagues de la mort, quand notre feu brille dans l’obscurité de la nuit commençante, […] jusqu’à ce que leur apparaisse l’éclat resplendissant de l’émotion extatique, qui met à découvert le feu latent de l’illumination divine” (pp.61-62).
[46] Ibid. chap.13, p.88.  The French translation, p.62, makes it clearer that these lines are a quotation from a familiar poem, which are being used here to symbolise the completeness of the mystic’s self-abandonment: “Car eux ne cessent de s’enfoncer dans les abîmes [de ces mers], tandis qu’à leur surface leurs vagues s’entrechoquent. / […]  ‘Il vit [dans la mer] un abîme qu’il croyait être une vague, quand il y fut en plein, il se noya. / On jeta [à l’eau] les câbles des ancres, jusqu’au fond; mais [la mer] les enveloppa et se ferma sur eux.’ ”
[47] M.Menéndez y Pelayo (B.67) vol.3, pp.141-151, M.Asín Palacios: Ibn Masarra… (B.91) pp.155-156, and M.Cruz Hernandez (B.91) vol.1, p.203: these three have also pointed to specific parallels with the Amalricians of early 13th-century Paris.  Also: S. Mézan (B.95) pp.100-102.

%d bloggers like this: