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Last Updated: 2009/08/29
Summary of question
Was Ibn Arabi Shia or Sunni?
1- What is your viewpoint on whether Ibn Arabi was a Shia or Sunni?
2- Can all of the many things he has said that are in contradiction with the fundamentals of the Shia school of thought be considered out of dissimulation and not being aware of the truth and weakness in understanding?
Concise answer

The complicated personality and his attitude towards different great personalities of different sects has made it difficult to determine what sect Ibn Arabi belonged to, thus there are different viewpoints on this issue. Some say he was Sunni, some say he was a twelve imamer Shia, some say he was an Ismaili Shia, some say he was a Maleki, some say he was higher than to have been affiliated to any sect and some even say he didn’t belong to any particular sect. Nevertheless, his works and writings imply that he was a Hanbali Sunni, showing tendency to some Shia beliefs at times as well.

It should be noted that some, like Sheikh Baha’i, consider him to be Shia. In this case, one has no choice but to say that the things he sometimes says that are in total contradiction with fundamental beliefs of the Shia are all out of dissimulation.

Detailed Answer

Muhammad ibn Ali ibn Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Abdullah ibn Hatam Ta’i, also known as Abu Abdillah, Ibn Aflatun, Ibn Suraqah, Ibn Arabi, Sheikh Akbar and Muhyiddin is a descendant of Abdullah ibn Hatam, the brother of the famous sahabi, Uday ibn Hatam, and his family tree traces back to the great Hatam Ta’i. His father, Ali ibn Muhammad, was an ascetic fiqh and hadith scholar and imam who was considered a sufi. His mother was from the خولان tribe of the Ansar.

Ibn Arabi was born on the seventh of Ramadan, 560 (ah), in Murcia, a city in Andulus. He passed away on the eighth of Rabi’ul-Akhar of the year 638 (ah) in Damascus and was buried in the north of this city, in a place called Salehiyyah at the bottom of the mountain of Qasiyun.

He was a Hanbali and one of the greatest Islamic mystics ever; a mystic who has stirred much debate regarding his personality amongst those for and against him, sometimes making other mystics, wise-men, jurists, and scholars strong advocates of his, and sometimes antagonists.[1]

Although there are many sources that have mentioned his biography and described his personality, nevertheless, most of them are either biased in his favor or against it, making it hard to reach the truth about him. Sometimes he is considered one who has achieved the highest levels of spirituality and one of the apostles of Allah (swt), while at other times being considered one who has turned away from religion and has innovated in it, misleading many as a result.

The best and most efficient way to get familiar with both his everyday life and personality, and with his spiritual character and what levels of spirituality he has achieved, is to refer to the writings and books he has left behind.

Now, keeping this little introduction in mind, we will engage in answering your question.

Was Ibn Arabi a Shia or Sunni?

In his books, cases can be seen that suggest he has spoken according to the Shia school of thought, to the extent that some have considered him to be Shia as a result.  Cases like what he has said in his book of Futuhat Makkiyyah, which is one of his most famous and important works. There, he says: “Ali ibn Abi Taleb is the closest individual to the prophet (pbuh) and the secret of all other prophets and apostles.”[2] Or like what he says about Imam Mahdi; that he is Allah's (swt) vicegerent on the earth, from the progeny of Lady Fatimah (as) and that he shares the same name as the prophet (pbuh). Scholars such as Sheikh Baha’i have been surprised from this statement and concluded that he was Shia. Sheikh Baha’i, Ibn Fahd Hilli, Muhaddith Seyyid Jaza’eri and Qadhi Nurullah Tustari are some of those who have considered him to be Shia.[3]

Nevertheless, it must be noted that all the phrase “Ali ibn Abi Taleb is the closest to the prophet (pbuh) …” implies is that when it comes to generative authority (wilayah takwini), no one matches Imam Ali (as), not that he is the immediate successor to the prophet (pbuh). Many Sunnis, especially the Mu’tazilah and mystics believe that Imam Ali (as) was higher than everyone else, to the extent that Ibn Abil-Hadid, who was a Sunni Mu’tazili and has a very famous commentary on the Nahjul-Balaghah, says (in the opening of his book when praising Allah (swt)): “و الحمد لله الذی فضل المفضول علی الافضل لمصلحة[4] (All praise is due to Allah (swt), who preferred and chose the lower [Abu Bakr] over the higher and more virtuous [Ali (as)] for a reason [that he knew of])”.

Secondly, even our Sunni brothers believe Imam Ali (as) to be their fourth khalifah, but that doesn’t make them Shia; therefore, just because one believes that Imam Ali (as) was a good person and that he was higher than others, it doesn’t necessarily mean he is Shia.

Although Ibn Arabi has spoken in favor of Ali (as) here, he has also stated in Futuhat Makkiyyah that Abu Bakr’s caliphate was legitimate and that he was the khalifah after the prophet (pbuh).[5] Also, in another place in the same book, he emphasizes that Abu Bakr was higher than Ali (as) and that he was imam; he says: “The people know of Abu Bakr’s superiority over the rest and consider him to deserve the caliphate the most.”[6]

Once again, in the same book[7], he mentions Tirmidi’s narration and accepts that after the prophet (pbuh), the highest amongst the Muslims was Abu Bakr.  He also narrates poetry that conveys that no one falls between and separates Abu Bakr from his companion, the prophet (pbuh).[8]

There are also cases in his works that leave no doubt about him not being a Shia; he names individuals such as Muawiyyah and Mutawakkil and considers them to be Qutbs.  He says[9]: “The Qutb whom is referred to as the ghawth, is the point in which Allah's (swt) looks at [channels His grace to], and in every era it is an individual who is one of the near ones to Allah (swt) and the highest in his time; some of them are those who have outer (Dhaheri) and inner (Bateni) caliphate and authority, like Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, Ali, Hasan, Muawiyyah ibn Yazid, Umar ibn Abdil-Aziz and Mutawakkil the Abbasid, while some only bear inner caliphate and authority, such as Ahmad ibn Harun Al-Rashid Al-Sibti and Abu Zayd Bastami; most Qutbs are like this.”

Taking this passage into consideration, a few questions come up:

Which of the Shias believe in the khalifahs he mentioned in that order? This passage is a clear instance of what Imam Ali (as) has said: “How sluggish this world is! It so sluggish to the extent that they have to say Ali and Muawiyyah, and put these two names next to each other!”[10]

Does the Shia believe in the inner and outer authority of a person like Umar ibn Abdil-Aziz?!

Is there any Shia who considers Mutawikkil, the enemy of the imams (as) to be an inner khalifah and can still count himself as a lover and friend of the Ahlul-Bayt?!

Haj Mirza Husein Nouri, a muhaddith (narrator of hadith) and skilled jurist (the teacher of Sheikh Abbas Qummi, author of the Mafatihul-Jinan) says: “Amongst all Sunni scholars and nawasib, Ibn Arabi has shown the most enmity towards the Shia. The reason being that in his Futuhat, when speaking of the different Qutbs, he has mentioned Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, Ali and Imam Hasan, Umar ibn Abdil-Aziz and even Mutawakkil all in one line and next to each other and considered all of them to bear both inner and outer caliphate and authority, while Mutawakkil is the one who ordered Imam Husein’s grave to be destroyed and prevented the people from visiting it.”[11]

Allamah Tabatabai, author of Tafsir Al-Mizan says: “How can one consider Ibn Arabi to be on the [right] path, while he considers Mutawakkil to be one of the apostles of God?”[12]

Ayatullah Ashtiyani says: “Ibn Arabi just doesn’t seem to want to get along with the Shia. It is like he hasn’t seen any hadiths from the imams (as). Of course, in very few cases when he does see a saying of the imams (as), that being from Sunni narrations, he honors and praises it to the extent that one thinks that not only was he a Shia, but a very firm and devout Shia drowning in Shiism [signifying his extremism in being a Shia]!”[13]

Therefore, if we reach the conclusion that he was actually a Shia, we have no choice but to say that everything he has said that contradicts Shia doctrine has been out of dissertation, as Sheikh Baha’i has claimed.  He says that since Ibn Arabi lived in an environment that had been under the rule of the Umayyid dynasty for years, he had no choice but to dissimulate[14], or we have to say that his books have been altered; some believe his Futuhat had two transcripts in which much of what was in the first was omitted, giving its place to other things that didn’t originally belong to it in the second. The hand-written version by Ibn Arabi himself is the second copy, and the first has been written by one of his followers during the lifetime of Ibn Arabi. The multiple copies that exist of this book, make it for sure that the book belongs to Ibn Arabi and that its attribution to him is correct, nevertheless, such a matter increases the chances of alteration actually having taken place. What Sha’rani says is interesting, and if what he says is true, it will be surprising how much of Futuhat doesn’t belong to Ibn Arabi himself; Sha’rani says[15]: “When I began summarizing Futuhat, I came across passages that I believed were in total contradiction with the most fundamental Islamic beliefs that all Muslims agree on, therefore, after some doubt and worry, I omitted them. One day, I shared this experience with Sheikh Shamsuddin (death: 955 ah) who had transcribed a copy of Futuhat  himself and compared it with the author’s copy in Quniyyah, and after reading his copy, found that these passages didn’t exist in his copy either.” Sha’rani says that he became certain that all copies of Futuhat that were common in Egypt at his time, consisted of portions and parts that had been added to the book in the author’s name and that the same had taken place for his other books like his Fusus.

For further information on Ibn Arabi, you can refer to the following books:

1- Mohsen Jahangiri, Ketabe Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi.

2- Davud Elhami, Jostoju dar Erfane Eslami.

3- Davud Elhami, Davarihaye Mutezadd Darbareye Ibn Arabi.

[1] Jalaluddin Ashtiyani, Sharhe Fususe Qeysari (introduction), pg. 13.

[2] Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi, Al-Futuhat Al-Makkiyyah, vol. 1, pg. 120. This is the wording used in the book: “و أقرب الناس إلیه( ای الی خاتم الانبیا) على بن أبى طالب وهو سر الأنبیاء أجمعین)

[3] Seyyid Mohammad Baqir Kharrazi, Article on Ibn Arabi being Shia in the Hizbollah theological/philosophical periodical, pg. 64, no. 14, quoted by the book Majalese Sharhe Hale Ibn Arabi.

[4] Sharh ibn Abil-Hadid, vol. 1, pg. 3.

[5] Futuhat Makkiyyah, vol. 4, pg. 79, this is Ibn Arabi’s exact phrase: “هذا مما یدلک علی صحة خلافة ابی بکر الصدیق

[6] Ibid, vol. 3, pg. 372.

[7] Ibid, vol. 2, pg. 125.

[8] Ibid, vol. 2, pg. 260

[9] Ibn Arabi, Futuhat, vol. 2, pg. 6.

[10] Ahmad Mudarres Wahid, Sharh Nahjul-Balaghah, vol. 2, pg. 237.

[11] Husein Nouri, Mustadrakul-Wasa’el, vol. 3, pg. 422.

[12] Mohammad Hosein Tehrani, Ruhe Mojarrad, pg. 436 (footnote).

[13] Ibid, pg. 46.

[14] Da’eratul Ma’arefe Tashayyo’ (The Shia Encyclopedia), vol. 1, pg. 347.

[15] M.M. Sharif, Tarikhe Falsafeh dar Eslam, vol. 1, pg. 564, quoted by Abdul-Wahhab Sha’rani, Al-Yawaqit wal-Jawahir, pp. 2-13.

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