To those that, like me, spent their lockdown evenings watching Diliriş: Ertuğrul, Ibn ʿArabī will be a familiar name. Draped in the robes of a dervish, Ozman Sirgood’s character wanders the landscapes of medieval Anatolia, dispensing scriptural wisdom and delivering spiritual guidance to the eponymous protagonist and his plucky tribespeople. To the swashbuckling Etruğrul Bey, Ibn ʿArabī is no less than his Pīr-o-Murshid: a teacher of sacred truths possessing profound percipience and, at times, assuaging his personal crises through the power of prayer. It is a charming portrait that is painted, and one can be forgiven for brushing over its many ahistorical aspects and dei ex machina. Although the history books do not attest to a meeting – let alone a master-disciple relationship – between these two powerhouse personalities, their fictional on-screen exchanges do make for interesting viewing and offer a degree of didactic import for the receptive audience. This is perhaps more true of nowhere but Pakistan. Some two years since the series first aired in Urdu, images of Sirgood’s character continue to adorn the walls of shopping malls, car windows, and WhatsApp profile pictures all over the country; while dicta and distiches attributed to the “Greatest Shaykh” (Shaykh al-Akbar) have integrated into popular and liturgical discourses.
This trend may be relatively new to our neck of the woods, but Muḥyīddīn ibn al-ʻArabī al-Ṭāʼī al-Ḥātimī (1165-1240 CE) himself is not. In fact, his literary compendium was first introduced into South Asia some seven centuries ago, and his metaphysical and cosmological postures have had a lasting impact on the development and direction of subcontinental Sufism. From the Kashmiri Kubrawīs to the Seraiki Suhrawardīs, the influence of Ibn ʿArabī’s thought and practice is palpable. But what did this Arabo-Andalusian authority posit exactly, and how did his works come to assume such prominence in the annals of our history? That question is itself deserving of a Ph.D. thesis. For now, let us take a whistle-stop tour of the life and literature of this towering figure.
Born in twelfth-century Murcia, Ibn ‘Arabī descended from Arabian and Berber bloodlines. His father, a military man, enjoyed significant success as an administrator and courtier under sequential ruling dynasties.1 Army training was something Ibn ‘Arabī would also undergo, although he would never see active service in the theatres of operation. Instead, a life of learning and introspection awaited him. From a tender age, he gravitated towards gnosticism and mysticism, having experienced a series of gripping visions as a child, including visitations from the Prophet Jesus ﷺ who advised him to practice material renunciation. Ibn ʿArabī’s visions profoundly shaped his methodology in matters of scholarship during later years. He rejected the scholastic rationalism of Ibn Rushd (1126-1198 CE), which prevailed in Moorish Spain at the time, believing rational intellection to be limited. Instead, he opined that higher truths are discerned, realized, and actualized only through a process of intuitional intellection which is itself achieved and fine-tuned through advancement along the spiritual path. In this respect, his epistemology strikes a chord with aspects of the Eastern Islamic tradition, in particular the preference for non-discursive frameworks found in Ibn Sīna’s peripatetic philosophy, Suhrawardī’s school of illuminationism (Ḥikmat al-ishrāq) and, in later years, Mullā Ṣadrā’s transcendent theosophy (Ḥikmat al-muta’āliyah).
In this vein, Ibn ‘Arabī sought out the leading luminaries of Spain and North Africa and received their instruction in matters of mysticism. In 1198, he set out for Makkah, where he compiled his literary masterpiece, Al-Futūḥāt Al-Makkiyah (The Meccan Openings). The Futūḥāt is nothing short of colossal; its contents are encyclopaedic and give treatment, both poetically and prosaically, to a series of complex matters including cosmology, angelology, and metaphysics. Many years later, he supplemented the Futūḥāt with a shorter work, Fuṣūṣ al-ḥikam (The Ringstones of Wisdom), which elaborates his phenomenology, in particular man’s nexus with the cosmos; the spiritual stations of the Prophets; and the intricacies of Divine Unity (Tawḥīd). In many respects, Fuṣūṣ al-ḥikam represents the crescendo of Akbarian thought and may lay claim to being the Shaykh’s magnum opus. Critically, both works draw on both the rational and the revealed: Ibn ‘Arabī relies on the Qur’ān, Aḥādīth, and jurisprudence in constructing much of his theosophy, yet he also describes certain ideas in his oeuvre as having been gifted by Prophetic, saintly, and celestial figures who appeared to him in episodes of spiritual “self-disclosure” (Tajalliyyāt) or what we might call apparitions or epiphanies today.
Perhaps Ibn ʿArabī’s crowning achievement is the doctrine of Waḥdat al-wujūd (Unity of Being). Let us heed a word of caution here: Ibn ‘Arabī never actually used the term Waḥdat al-wujūd, and it is potentially misleading to describe him as its founding father. It is probably fair to say that he laid its foundations and set the scene for its fruition, however. But putting aside these questions of historicity, what does the concept itself entail? Defining the Unity of Being is a gargantuan task; it is something theologians, philosophers, mystics, and academics have grappled with for centuries. As such, I do not propose to set out an exhaustive definition, but simply seek to sketch an indicative picture. In essence, the Unity of Being simply means that there is no reality save for God’s Reality. We are not real per se, but derive our reality from God’s Reality, which is the only reality. Put in Avicennan terms, God is the Necessary Being (Wājib al-Wujūd) and we are but contingent existents (mumkināt). Consider the following analogy. The sun is real, but what about its rays? To the untrained eye, the sun’s rays might seem to possess an independent existence. But think a little closer, and we might reason that the rays are in fact an extension of the sun itself, a bi-product whose existence is not self-subsisting, but simply contingent and dependent on its source, the sun. In the same way, the proponents of Unity of Being hold that only God is real, and that man, creation, and the cosmos are manifestations of that single Reality.
It is a complex doctrine that has not always gone down well. A gamut of thinkers, ranging from literalists to reformists, have critiqued its premises and implications. Their primary bone of contention is that it tends to render man indistinct from God, which is not only sacrilege but potentially pantheistic. By blurring the lines between the Creator and the created, the architects of the Unity of Being introduce a degree of ontological unification into Sufi metaphysics which goes against the grain of revealed religion. For Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328 CE), Ibn ʿArabī’s theory offends against the principle of God’s unicity (waḥdah) and should be excised from the canons of classical Islamic scholarship. God is God, man is man, and that is that – so goes the argument. But for its adherents, the Unity of Being is not in the slightest blasphemous; rather, it is an expression of the highest monotheistic truths. God and man are indeed separate phenomena, having distinct essences and modi operandi. But to insist that man possesses an existence that subsists separately from God is itself a denial of His Unicity. Put another way, Unity of Being is the metaphysical consequence of monotheism.
But “how so?” we may ask. Essentially, it all begins with Creation, the moment we were engendered and imbued with essence. For the Muslim mystic, creation is more than the moment of genesis; it is an act of Divine self-disclosure. God sought to be known, and to that end enshrined His own Names in the cosmos and encoded them in man.2 In what Ibn ‘Arabī calls the Sacred Effusion (al-Fayd al-Muqaddas), Prophet ’Ādam ﷺ received a capability at the dawn of creation that neither angel nor jinn had previously known: an intellect that would be the receptacle of God’s secrets, and a heart that would be the locus of manifestation of God’s glory. We, as descendants of ’Ādam ﷺ, are similarly endowed according to the Sufis. As such, we can reach the peaks of perfection and attain union (but not unity) with God, all whilst remaining intrinsically and essentially human. So the Unity of Being is far from heterodox; rather, it is a tool for unearthing the esoteric treasures buried deep within the orthodox expressions of faith.
After periods of retreat in Egypt, Aleppo, and Konya, Ibn ʿArabī retired to Damascus, where he would spend the remainder of his days writing, reflecting, and teaching. In 1239, he breathed his last and was laid to rest at Mount Qāsiyūn on the outskirts of the city. Interestingly, the location itself is steeped in lore and legend, having been identified by some with the Cave of the Seven Sleepers referenced in the Qur’ān. According to tradition, it was the Ottoman Sultan Selim the Grim (1470-1520 CE) who constructed the shrine complex that stands on the site today. It is said that Selim made it his first priority to resuscitate Akbarian philosophy after centuries of neglect in the Near East. Although it may not have gained tremendous traction in Arabic-speaking dominions until Selim’s conquest, the same cannot be said of the Islamic East. In fact, Ibn ʿArabī’s immediate spiritual and intellectual successors belonged mostly to the Persianate world, a cultural sphere stretching from the Balkans to Bengal.3
It was primarily Ṣadr al-Din Qūnawī (1207-1274 CE), Ibn ʿArabī’s son-in-law and close confidante, who preserved and disseminated his works in the East.4 Historians have speculated whether his famous Konyan contemporary, Molānā Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī (1207-1273 CE), was privy to, or a beneficiary of, this exercise.5 Irrespectively, as a result of Qūnawī’s efforts, aspects of Akbarian thought were incorporated into a range of Islamic esoteric traditions. The receptivity of Anatolia and Iran to these ideas may perhaps owe to the penetration of Neoplatonism, Avicennism, and Illuminationism in those lands during historical antiquity. But perhaps most interesting is Ibn ʿArabī’s ability to transcend denominational and dogmatic differences: If we survey the commentarial tradition from the medieval to the modern age, we find both Sunnī and Shī‘i authorities weighing in with colossal contributions on Ibn ‘Arabī and his body of thought, proving that his works perfused both great schools of faith.
But what of South Asia?6 What legacy, if any, did Ibn ‘Arabī leave in our corner of the world? In a nutshell, the answer is “immense.” Although not all subcontinental Sufis embraced Akbarian thought, the fact of the matter is that there was a significant degree of critical engagement with it on a philosophical plane. From Kashmir to the Deccan, our subcontinental sages debated – and sometimes berated – Ibn ‘Arabī and his ideas. So whilst critics might sometimes reduce South Asian Sufism to a miscellaneous mosaic of malangs and mazārs, there is in reality a rich intellectual tradition underpinning the dramatis personae and beautiful buildings: a tradition that has pronounced Akbarian aspects.78
It is hard to say, with certainty, who introduced Ibn ʿArabī to the subcontinent. Prevailing discourse tends to give that distinction to Mīr Sayyid ‘Ali Hamadānī (1312-1384 CE), a Persian luminary who settled at Srinagar in the wake of Tamerlane’s Central Asian invasions and taught the principles of Kubrawī Sufism to the Kashmiris. Anecdotally, this is interesting in light of his spiritual pedigree: He was an initiate of ‘Ala al-Dawla Simnānī (1261-1336 CE), an aristocrat-turned-ascetic who led the charge against Akbarian ideas in Ilkhanid Iran. Irrespective of his master’s position, however, Hamadānī leapt to the defense of Ibn ʿArabī and the Unity of Being in his commentarial and epistolic oeuvre, with a string of subcontinental disciples following suit.
Aside from Sayyid Hamadānī, there were multiple medieval encounters with Ibn ʿArabī which deserve our attention. To the south of Kashmir, along the banks of the Chenab, Multan was forging a name for itself as a centre of learning par excellence. The city of blue-tiled mausolea, previously an Ismaili Fatimid stronghold, emerged as the seat of the Suhrawardī Order during the Middle Ages. Its grandmaster, Shaykh Baha’ al-Din Zakariyya (1170-1262 CE), possessed spiritual gifts of a very high order and drew in the masses with his call to piety and social and economic reform. Interestingly, his son-in-law Fakhr al-Din ʿIrāqī (1213/14-1289 CE) would go on to lead a branch of the Seraiki saints into exile; and in Konya, he later would study Akbarian ideas at the hands of none other than Ṣadr al-Din Qūnawī. ʿIrāqī’s pièce de résistance, Divine Flashes (Lama’at), is a unique concoction of Akbarian and Suhrawardī elements, evidencing a profound degree of cross-pollination between Ibn ʿArabī and the Indo-Persian tradition.
Let us fast forward three centuries to the heyday of the Mughal Empire. The reign of Akbar the Great (1556-1605 CE) laid the foundations for a composite culture, where religio-cultural communities became welded together in a web of alliances, intermarriage, and politico-fiscal reform. The Red Fort was a place of great intellectual curiosity and exchange, where Uzbek Sunnis, Persian Shī’i, Portuguese Jesuits, and Bhakti Brahmins engaged in a remarkably free-spirited ecumenical dialogue. By the 1580s, however, the Emperor went off-piste and declared his allegiance to a new faith of his own design: the “Religion of God” (Dīn-i-Ilāhī) which incorporated aspects of Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Islam. We can speculate as to whether Akbar was driven by pragmatism or his own sense of messianism in breaking with the orthodox Hanafism of his forefathers, but what is certain is that the clergymen were less than pleased by the Fort’s shift towards syncretism. The developments in Delhi prompted one Shaykh Aḥmad Sirhindī (1564-1624 CE), a Punjabi theologian, to rally against the new creed and systematically defunct it: a feat for which he remains known to this day. But Sirhindī, known to his followers as The Reviver of the Second Millennium (Mujaddid Alf-i-Sānī), also waded into a second debate that had gripped his co-religionists at the time, namely the place of the Unity of Being within traditional Sunnism.
According to Sirhindī, the position is more nuanced than the Akbarians would have it. There is no Unity of Being; rather, there is a Unity of Perception (waḥdat ash-shuhūd). What this means is: God and man have separate but interconnected existences, perhaps like the Sun and the stars, but there is nothing to stop the most elevated souls from reaching a stage in their own self-refinement whereby they come to perceive God and all else as sharing a single reality. This is consistent with the Sufi doctrine of Annihilation in God (Fanāʾ Fi’llah), where spiritual perfection, entailing self-effacement, renders one lost in the love and vision of God. For those few, saintly souls who achieve this degree of loftiness, it is plausible that all that is seen is God or an extension of His Godliness (Hama Aust). But Sirhindī emphasizes that, where this is the case, it reflects those souls’ own subjective discernment as opposed to an objective state of reality.
The Unity of Perception proved popular with the Naqshbandīs of South Asia and to this day remains the Order’s preferred position. However, Shāh Walīullāh Dehlawī (1703-1762 CE), the legendary eighteenth-century polymath, would later temper the debate, demonstrating that the two positions are in fact very similar. In his view, the points of diversion were mostly terminological and the substantive dispute falls away when one reappraises the nomenclature of being and perception. A close contemporary, Shāh Kalīm Allāh Jahānābādī (1650-1729 CE), was less placatory and treated the subject more tenaciously. A distinguished scholar and chief of the Chishtīs, Shāh Kalīm Allāh regarded Sirhindī’s position as erroneous. His Arabic-language treatise, Sawa Al-Sabīl (The Right Way), provides a critical deconstruction of the Unity of Perception and presents a robust philosophical defence of Ibn ʿArabī and Fuṣūṣ al-ḥikam. However, according to tradition, Shāh Kalīm Allāh did not endorse disseminating the doctrine to society at large. In fact, surviving epistolic evidence suggests that he instructed his disciples to deliberate the issue behind closed doors only. The overriding principle, it seems, was that the Unity of Being was not for mass consumption but should be reserved to those hommes des lettres learned in the exoteric and esoteric sciences.
Interestingly, Shāh Kalīm Allāh is the preceptor of almost all the great Chishtī masters who led the renaissance of that ancient fraternity in Punjab during the eighteenth century. As such, the great seminaries of that province – Chishtian, Kot Mithan, Shidani, Taunsa, Sial and Golra, to name a few – can be considered scions of the Kalīmī school. The stroke of genius associated with these institutions, in my view, is their bridging the gap between the jurists and the mystics of Islam. It was this marriage of the mazār and the madrasa that paved the way for a new dawn in the history of Punjab, giving rise to great works of theology, hagiography, and poetry at a time when the regional breadbasket was besieged by war, revolt, and economic hardship. Interestingly, the princely families of South Punjab patronized this new cadre of saint-scholars with exuberance: the Saddozai, Khakwani and Abbasi Nawabs, for example, would go on to offer the disciple’s pledge of fealty to members of the nascent Chishtī intelligentsia. Above all, the pioneers of this movement clung firmly to the Unity of Being but heeded the advice of Shāh Kalīm Allāh to confine its discourses mostly to the company of the lettered or initiated. Notwithstanding this position, one can glimpse the occasional, endearing nod to Shaykh al-Akbar in the balladry of the era. For instance, Khawaja Ghulam Farīd (1845-1901 CE), the Seraiki Shakespeare, pays gentle homage with the following words:
مرشد فخر جہاں نے کیتم اے ارشاد ۔
عارف ابن العربی ساڈا ہے استاد ۔
سمجھ فرید ہمیشہ رہو غیروں آزاد
My Master, Fakhr-e-Jahān,
gave me this Counsel:
The Sage Ibn ‘Arabī is our Instructor.
Understand this always, Farīd;
The love of all else, keep free from indeed.
By the turn of the nineteenth century, Punjab was battle-worn. After passing hands between Mughal, Afghan, and Sikh rulers, the province was annexed by the British in 1849. What followed was an era of seismic shifts: canal colonies, agricultural revolution, mass migration, and English education. With this radical reconfiguration of the status quo, one might expect the worldview of a wandering, twelfth-century mystic to fall out of favor. But to our surprise, Akbarian philosophy was given a fresh lease of life even in these transformational times. Recent scholarship has shed light on how Ibn ʿArabī’s writings equipped Islamic thinkers with a repository of ideas that had the potential to provide intellectual responses to European philosophies that had begun to gain traction in the new modus vivendi. H.A. Khan has interrogated this trend in a remarkable recent article, European Philosophies and the Ideas of Ibn-ul-Arabi in 19th-century Sufi Context of Punjab.9 Essentially, the moral theory of the European Enlightenment posed a novel set of challenges for the Punjabi Muslim: positivism, naturalism, and utilitarianism sought to remove God, Divine Order, metaphysics, and intuition from the academic’s arsenal. In so doing, traditionalist epistemologies were dismissed as mere pseudo-science, and a posteriori knowledge derived from empirical inquiry was rendered sacrosanct. Against this backdrop, Khan demonstrates how the Chishtīs of Punjab rallied to the defense of the traditional sciences and constructed an alternative moral framework for their coreligionists by drawing on a predominantly Akbarian repertoire. Incidentally, it is interesting to note that for decades Akbarian authorities operated out of the Sufi’s hospice and not urban universities. For instance, the archives of history tell us that when Allama Iqbal (1877-1938 CE) sought to deliver a lecture on Akbarian horology at an English university in 1933 he turned not to a professor of intellectual history, but to Pir Mehr ʿAli Shāh (1859-1937 CE) – the celebrated saint of Golra Sharif – for an exposition of Ibn ʿArabī’s theory of time. Indeed, it was not until the mid-twentieth century that Western institutions opened their doors to Akbarian studies, paving the way for the advent of the great Ibn ʿArabī scholars Henri Corbin, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Martin Lings, William Chittick, Sachiko Murata, Michel Chodkiewicz, and Claude Addas.
This brings me to the final chapter in our history: the modern era. When PTV aired Ertuğrul in Urdu for the first time in April 2020, readers may recall the sense of ebullience that gripped the nation. Almost overnight, Halime, Turgut, and Bamsi became household names. Soon enough, fauji bands played their pipes to Turkic tunes at Punjabi weddings; alp caps and sequined hairpieces skyrocketed in sales; and the ‘eyvallah’ greeting – accompanied by a hand on the heart and a nod of the head – became a familiar gesture in a region more accustomed to the salutes of salām and the genuflections of adāb. On a more contentious note, the purported shared heritage of the Pakistani and Turkish peoples – whether through bonds of blood or via cultural continuities – became a hot topic. Not only did the valorization of Turkic traditions divide camps, but the claim in some quarters that Pakistani culture derives directly from a Steppic supra-civilisation set hares running. To some, it was an affront to the beauty and originality of South Asian Muslim culture to relegate its achievements to the mere relics of past centuries’ rulers. To others, it was simply a matter of history: the Mamluks, Tughlaqs, and Mughals were Turks, and Pakistanis are their ostensive cultural and lineal descendants. To spectators on the outside, the Ertuğrul debate spoke to competing visions of Pakistani identity, reigniting age-old questions about our place as a nation at the crossroads of cultures and civilisations.
To my mind, there may be kernels of truth to both narratives. All too often, dominant discourse seeks to construe our identity as either intrinsically Islamic or inherently Indic. But the reality is more nuanced than a simple invader-indigenous paradigm. In fact, our pedigree is at once subcontinental and Islamicate. Our precursors’ engagement with Ibn ʿArabī is a prime example of this multi-pronged heritage of ours. As we have seen, his works were readily received, summarily studied, carefully critiqued, and assiduously assimilated by some of our finest minds. At a time when Arabophone thinkers were generally less receptive to exploring Akbarian philosophy, South Asian exegetes were forensically figuring it out. What followed was an ambitious, albeit meticulous, programme to acculturate and rearticulate Akbarian ideas for the Indo-Muslim audience. As such, we might say that Ibn ʿArabī’s works were woven into the very fabric of our spiritual cultures.
The Spanish Sufi that shaped Indo-Persian spirituality: it is a formidable tale, and one that deserves greater visibility and exploration. But hone in a little closer and we can glean some heuristic gems too. For Ibn ʿArabī’s South Asia story is a potent reminder that we, as Pakistanis, occupy a position at the intersection of the Eastern and Western traditions. We are, in many respects, the heirs to multiple cultural currents and intellectual histories. So rather than pick between contrived categories of “local” and “foreign,” we might prefer to see ourselves as belonging to a historically transnational spiritual smorgasbord. And that, in my view, is something to be celebrated.
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- Namely the al-Murābiṭūn (“The Almoravids”, 1150s-1147 CE) and the al-Muwaḥḥidūn (“The Almohads”, 1121-1269 CE).
- Many a reader will be familiar with the esoteric dictum “I was a hidden treasure and loved to be known. So I created in order that I be known.” (کنت کنزاً مخفیاً فأحببت أن أعرف فخلقت الخلق لکی أعرف) which is also sometimes ascribed the status of Hadith Qudsi.
- I am indebted to Mohammad Ali Mojareddi for not only delimiting the ‘Persianate’ in these helpful terms, but for shedding light on the distinctive culture and contributions of Persianate civilisation to the intellectual and spiritual life of mediaeval and early modern Islam.
- Leaman, Oliver, The Biographical Encyclopedia of Islamic Philosophy, London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015, p168.
- See Clark, Jane, Towards a Biography of Sadr al-dīn al-Qūnawī, Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn ʿArabī Society, Vol 72, 2022, in particular paragraph 32.
- The authoritative work on this subject is William Chittick’s ‘Notes on Ibn ʿArabī’s Influence in the Subcontinent’, published in The Muslim World, Vol LXXXII, No 3-4 (July-October 1992). Chittick is without doubt one of the greatest contemporary scholars of Ibn ʿArabī, and in 1988-1989 conducted extensive research at libraries in Aligarh, Hyderabad, Delhi, Patna and Srinagar in relation to Persian and Arabic manuscripts on Akbarian thought. I am indebted to his notes in constructing my (inexhaustive) history on the reception of Ibn ʿArabī in South Asia.
- A term for itinerant, ecstatic mystics.
- A term for shrines, usually mausolea, constructed over the graves of Sufi saints or scholars.
- Published in Al Khadim Research Journal of Islamic Culture and Civilisation, Vol III, No II (March 2022). Available at: http://www.arjicc.com/index.php/arjicc/article/view/171
Fahrid Chishty AKC is British-Pakistani barrister specialising in criminal, constitutional and international law. He is a graduate of King’s College London and a member of the Honorable Society of Gray’s Inn. His interests beyond the law include Sufi metaphysics, Indo-Persian poetry and South Asian history.