153 - A Matter of Taste: Ibn ʿArabī and Mysticism

Posted on 8 December 2013

Sufism, the mystical tradition of Islam, unites with philosophy in the work of Ibn 'Arabī.

Further Reading

• Ibn al-'Arabī, The Ringstones of Wisdom, trans. C.K. Dagli (Chicago: 2004).

• Ibn al-'Arabī, The Meccan Revelations: Selected Texts of Al-Futūāt al-Makkiyya, trans. M. Chodkiewicz, 2 vols (New York: 2002-4).


• C. Addas, Quest for the Red Sulphur: the Life of Ibn ʿArabī, trans. P. Kingsley (Cambridge: 1993).

• W.C. Chittick, The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn al-ʿArabī’s Metaphysics of Imagination (Albany: 1989).

• W.C. Chittick, Sufism: a Short Introduction (Oxford: 2000).

• C. Dagli, Ibn al-'Arabi and Islamic Intellectual Culture: From Mysticism to Philosophy (London: 2014).

• T. Izutsu, Sufism and Taoism (Berkeley: 1984).

• L. Lewisohn, The Heritage of Sufism, volume 1: Classical Persian Sufism from its Origins to Rumi (700-1300) (Oxford: 1999).

• G.A. Lipton, Rethinking Ibn ʿArabī (Oxford: 2018).

• A. Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam (Chapel Hill: 1975).


Peter Adamson 29 November 2013

Thanks to Mohammed Rustom for his invaluable advice and comments on this episode!

Peter Adamson 8 December 2013

In reply to by Declan Foley

Actually to be totally honest I do know what carding wool is, but I wanted to set up the joke about... well, I won't spoil it for those who haven't listened yet!

Sharagim 22 September 2018

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Dear peter
It is a job , was an usual job even till two decades ago , it is for de-lumping wool , and it has some sort of cultural connotations , because of the wandering hallaj who shouts his service to be heard and is a very humble vocation and the device which does hallaji has kind of rhythmic voice too.

Declan Foley 8 December 2013

"Yes to say yes to yes" What a terrific and enlightening program you present.

Thank God for it.

Ajmal 9 December 2013

Hello professor Adamson.

A wonderful episode (as usual).

I was wondering whether the concept of 'yes and no' of ibn Arabi regarding things in the corporeal realm (and divine realm) is similar to avicennan or aristotelian concet of relation.

For example, x is black, but not absolute black, because there is only relative things in the world in relation to other things, and it is more black (darker) in relation to w, and less black (lighter) in relation to y. If stayed with this line of reasoning, I think ibn Arabi is saying that x is (relatively more) black and not (relatively more) black (yes and no): yes in relation to w and no in relation to y.


Peter Adamson 9 December 2013

In reply to by Ajmal

Hi, thanks for your comment. That's an interesting thought but I would say that Ibn 'Arabi wants to suggest something more challenging and even paradoxical. The kind of relation you are talking about is asymmetrical, whereas he wants (apparently) to say that created things are equally both existent and non-existent. So it looks more like a denial of the law of non-contradiction than mere talk of relations.

On the other hand you may be onto something because later thinkers influenced by him (like Sadra) talk about being in terms of a gradation, so progressively less intense relations to being as one goes down the metaphysical scale from most to least real. Still, that wasn't the idea I was trying to articulate here regarding Ibn 'Arabi.

Ajmal 10 December 2013

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Hello again.

[..., whereas he wants (apparently) to say that created things are equally both existent and non-existent. So it looks more like a denial of the law of non-contradiction than mere talk of relations.]

According to ibn Arabi, the (corporeal) realm of existence is the location where contradictions do exist, a point mentioned by plato earlier. I believe ibn Arabi is somehow a platonist as well since his line of thought is in line with that of plato's.
Now, his notion of 'created things being equally existent and non-existent' emerges from the fact that, according to him, there is only one Existent, God, or Being (wujud), who is the ultimate reality or the Real (al-haqq). The ontological status of created things, according to him - based on the attributes of God as mentioned - is both existent and non-existent at the same time because a)they are found by God in His knowledge (thier forms in God's mind?) - hence are existents, and b)they share in nothingness in relation to their own entities (potentials who get actualized in becoming entities - fixed entities by being provided with existence by God) - hence are non-existents in themselves essentially.

According to Arabi, the status of created things is relative nothingness, because they are 'hanging between the sheer Being of God and absolute sheer nothingness'. God gives them being in the state of thier nothingness, hence they share in being in their essential reality of nothingness by being comprised of the light of being - hence, non-existent and existent.

I believe this is not the denial of law of non-contradiction in one way - that created things' ontological reality IS of a contradictory state. Plus, the law itself, elaborated by aristotle, tells that it is only valid when things are considered in relation to other things, not that if something is tall, it is absolutely tall, but relative to a shorter thing, making a thing tall and short at the same time (which is somewhat platonic as well).


Peter Adamson 12 December 2013

In reply to by Ajmal

That's an interesting comparison you draw to Plato. So your idea is that Ibn 'Arabi is simply talking about compresence of opposites. That of course isn't in any way a denial of the law of non-contradiction: I am tall and short, but only relatively to two different things (say, a cat and a giraffe). I guess I thought that Ibn 'Arabi was saying something rather more paradoxical than this since he seems to think that the insight he's expressing somehow goes beyond what can be captured by normal human reasoning (e.g. it is better accessed through imagination), which wouldn't be true for the mere compresence point which is perfectly comprehensible. But you are right that this is part of what is going on, since he clearly does want to say that created things are existent compared to utter non-being but non-existent compared to God. Maybe the paradoxical part is not the compresence as such but the application of compresence to something like being/existence, which one wouldn't normally think is susceptible to degrees? If so then he is anticipating the tashkik idea of Tusi, Sadra etc.

"...he clearly does want to say that created things are existent compared to utter non-being but non-existent compared to God." 

I rather think that he (Ibn Arabi) means something like quantum physics' nothing "as undifferentiated potential": "Under the modern view of quantum physics, various fields pervade all of space, and particles are simply excitations, or waves, in these fields. Even in a vacuum, experiments show, fluctuating fields produce a background of transient particles and antiparticles. Does a space pulsating with gravitational waves and bubbling with particles really qualify as empty? It depends on the scientific definition of “nothing,” Weatherall argues, which may not conform to intuition."(https://www.sciencenews.org/article/void-dives-physics-nothingness). Do I "understand" this better then Ibn Arabi? No.

Artem Kaznatcheev 2 November 2014

Sorry for the late comment, I've only recently discovered your podcasts and have been catching up over the past couple of months. It is great listening!

You talked about Ibn Arabi describing reality as a veil and only an appearance disguising the one-ness of God. To me, this sounds a lot like Spinoza; is there a direct influence? Or are they just picking up on a common theme? Or am I misinterpreting one or both philosophers?

Eman Haram 10 August 2016

Dear Mr. Adamson

I recently discovered your this site and was astonished by the comprehensivness of the program, that I have shared it with few colleagues / family who are interested in Islamic history and beyond.

I was wondering if it is possible to obtain the name of the vocalist and the piece played at the introduction and ending of this episode (153), as I couldn't find the credits anywhere. It was as beautiful as the talk, and couldn't get the voice out of my head.

Thank you 

Eman Haram

Anthony 26 February 2017

Where can I find more information of the Sufi stories talked about 5 minutes into the podcast?

You mean like with the guy on the roof? I got those from the Schimmel book listed in the bibliography of this episode (see above), pages 109 and 125.

AHS 22 March 2017

It's important to remember that the idea of wahdat al-wujud is not something intrinsically original to Ibn Arabi, a mistake made often by many, he never used the term itself. The equating of the divine with being/existence, was something that could be found as early as the late 700s. Even Al-Ghazzali described God as 'wujud' and the rest of the world as practically non-existence in both his Mishkat al-Anwar and and Ihya Ulum al-Din. And whilepeople such as Al-iji and Taftazani, may have objected to the main bulk of his ideas they had become increasingly mainstream from the 16th century onwards. It's also important to remember that the term 'Sufism' has no prescedence in Arabic or Persian. We must bare in mind that Sufis were not a monolithic group that gathered around a philosophical idea, for example there is a wide differance between someone like Junaid Baghdadi and his counterparts and many Sufis, such as the Shattariya, would reject the doctrine of Fana (annahilation). Nor were Sufis usually monastic or monk like. Tasawuf was akin to a field of study, a profession, and many Sufis were also scholars of various sciences, Rumi for example was a famed Hanafi jurist, and many of the academically inclined were themselves Sufis, for many being one was unavoidable. Themes of an almost masochistic, self-effacing love was, and remains, a core, nearly unavoidable theme in Islamicate literatures, nor was one a 'Sufi' by virtue of certain philosophical beliefs. I think its worth mentioning here that 'Sufism', in the classical sense, is virtually dead. While we like to romantically think of Sufis as monastic mytics detached from this world, they were in fact deeply rooted in Muslim social sturctures and world outlook. Today, its no longer a living tradition and it's legacy has been under attack for over a century. I felt the need to make these comments because extremists on both sides like to claim that 'Sufism' has no precedent in Islam, that it is essentially 'un-Islamic' and should be treated autonomously or in isolation from Islam. That the idea of equating God with being/existence is an un-monotheistic trend  limited to a few, such as Ibn Arabi, and was resoundly rejected by 'orthodoxy'.

Jasper 16 May 2018

To what extent was Ibn Arabi influenced by Ghazali? Take for example, this passage from Ghazali's Mishkat: "Allah alone is the Real, the True Light, and beside Him there is no light at all". This sounds almost identical to what Ibn Arabi is saying.

I believe it is widely accepted that he was influenced by Ghazali, yes. Sorry, I am not with my books just at the moment so I can't look up the details of which works is thought to have drawn on. You might check Chittick's books on Ibn Arabi mentioned in the further reading.

Devin Buckley 28 July 2018

Where can I find the music you always play in these clips? I love it!

Peter Adamson 28 July 2018

In reply to by Devin Buckley

Yes it's good isn't it? If you go to "Links" below there are sources and links, where possible, for all the clips used in the series.

Ralph 15 August 2018

Chittick’s works on Ibn Arabi seem extensive and well detailed, but are there any other major surveys of Ibn Arabi’s work of a similar depth? I can’t put my finger on it but I’m deeply apprehensive of Chittick’s work, it reeks of Guenonian Traditionalism and feels very new agey at times. 

Peter Adamson 16 August 2018

In reply to by Ralph

Yes, I know what you mean - his enthusiasm for Ibn Arabi, while deeply sincere, can also be a bit offputting (at one point he says something about how Ibn Arabi was obviously the greatest philosopher who ever lived). It would be great if an analytically trained philosopher would really tackle Ibn Arabi, but that doesn't really exist. You might however try Claude Addas' "Quest for the Red Sulphur: The Life of Ibn Arabi".

Jon 17 August 2022

I started this series to learn more about Greek and Roman philosophy, and I have continued on to this point. However, I am having difficulty with the constant references to ‘god’ and the implicit acceptance that god exists. I understand this is an important superstition that existed before Darwin and current science which continues to this day, but I can’t help feeling that continuing to listen to the various interpretations of ‘god’ is a huge waste of time. (150 podcasts down and 250+ to go.)

Do we reach a point in the podcast where the existence of god is not assumed and this becomes less of a series on theology? 

By the way, the only way I can keep my sense of humor and perspective is to substitute ‘magical clown’ mentally whenever I hear the word ‘god’. Or think about the Wizard of Oz. 

Right, that is not an uncommon reaction. In fact I discuss this in the Frequently Asked Questions here on the site, it's the last one in the list.

To add to what I say there, though: you have to bear in mind that 99% or more of humanity in history have been theists. So naturally, 99% of philosophy is from a theistic point of view - the existence of philosophy by atheists is with a few exceptions very recent in the grand scale of things and has also been restricted to a small area geographically. So in a way your question amounts to "when will you get to philosophy that was written by people who are like me, by being highly unusual in the history of humankind, being openly atheistic?" The answer is: when I get very close to the period and place you live in. (It's sort of like saying: when will your history of food finally get to cheeseburgers? Because I'm not interested in cuisines with no cheeseburgers!)

However I do understand what you mean: like, if this philosophy was all resting on a huge assumption you reject, then why bother with it? Even if many people, even the vast majority of people past and present, have made this mistake, it is still a mistake. But there are numerous answers to that: first, these pre-modern thinkers in fact do not assume the existence of God, as you've probably noticed they argued for it a lot. So as an atheist you owe it to yourself and them to think about why those arguments might fail (comparing God to a magical clown is not a good start; in fact your temptation to do that shows you are probably underestimating the cogency and power of philosophical theology - I say that as a fellow atheist). Second, even in the medieval period they do talk a lot about all kinds of philosophical topics other than God, from chemistry (where their views were also false of course!) to political theories to epistemology. Often God does come up, but surprisingly, often He does not - I once looked at the Latin medieval episodes and noticed that fewer than half have anything to do with theology or God, except perhaps tangentially. Third, even when they do think explicitly about God, the ideas are often transferable to an atheistic context. A good example is the free will debate: in the Islamic and Christian traditions free will was often considered in the context of understanding divine freedom, but the points made can be applied to human freedom.

Anyway the upshot is that even for a convinced atheist there is plenty of reason to be interested in the whole history of philosophy, and one thing that we can learn as atheists is just how recent and unusual it is to disbelieve in God at all, never mind to have the luxury of taking it as a default assumption from which philosophy can proceed.

Spencer 18 August 2022

Both the point made by Jon and Peter's response are very well made and speak to problems I have had with the topic of many episodes. For a good fraction of the Medieval and Islamic episodes, I became frustrated by the constant references to "God, God, God." I commonly shouted at the podcast "it is all make believe!." Actually, Jon's statement is much more relaxed than what I might have written. And Peter, that is a wonderful response, both acknowledging the frustration of people like me and restating even more clearly what you have stated quite a few times (that is, an explanation of why covering the contributions by theist-oriented philosophers is both legitimate and important). Well done, both of you!

Jon, if it helps, both the series on Byzantium and the Renaissance have relatively little theology--I liked those two series very much. Also, as I have listened to other podcasts, there are commonly references to characters that I have only learned about from Peter's podcast, including characters such as Duns Scotus, Bernard of Clairvaux, early church fathers, the Cappadocians, Avicenna, and quite a few others. 

Mostly, for me, this podcast has filled a significant gap* (*word used on purpose) in my knowledge of the intellectual history of humankind. Thank you Peter!

And, for some reason, I'm really in the mood for a cheeseburger!


Jon 20 August 2022

Thank you, Peter and Spencer. I did not expect such thoughtful responses. I have a couple of additional comments...

It seems to me that with the early Greek and Roman philosophers, there was not much difference between philosophy and religion. Aristotle and others were trying to figure out how the world might work - and 'forms' and the moon, planets, and stars in giant globes were reasonable guesses. The term 'god' or 'gods' could often be substituted for 'nature'.

With the coming of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims on the scene, 'god' takes on an entirely new meaning. In each case, an omnipotent being communicates directly with mankind through prophets, and 'god' becomes an almost tangible concept. Prior philosophers had discussed 'The One", but this was different.  As I listened to the podcasts, I was not aware of when this transition to theism occurred, but it is clear in retrospect. I think this transition could have merited an entire episode on its own.

Peter, you say above that 99% of humanity in history were theists. This would be an interesting fact, if true. I had assumed that then, as now, most people played lip service to the current religion of the era, but they really did not believe in the literal teachings of the church - stone tablets written by god, god deciding to have a child that he sent to be sacrificed, divinely inspired texts, and a prophet that was the final messenger of god. Sure, the religious leaders were theists, but were the leaders and the common people? My guess is that they just survived the best that they could and conformed to societal norms.

However, I understand your point that atheism only becomes acceptable in more current times, and even then only in certain parts of the world. So, all philosophy in the times and places under discussion must be viewed through the lens of theism. This makes sense, and I will continue to follow the podcasts through a new lens.

BTW, I apologize for the 'magical clown' remark. That was distracting and not appropriate for a reasoned discussion. I will try to come up with a better substitute, but I will keep it to myself.  

I actually think the picture in classical Greek philosophy is more complicated than that. For sure in the Presocratics the picture is much as you say: a kind of naturalizing of divinities. Plato does that to some extent but the Demiurge in the Timaeus is a lot more like the Christian God than like "Nature": he is described as creating the universe, giving generously from his goodness, designing things to be as good as possible, etc. Which is why the Timaeus was such a popular text in the medieval period. Then if you look at the Stoics, who might seem a great example for a naturalizing approach to divinity with their divine cosmic fire, it turns out that they wanted to ratify popular beliefs about the gods and they polemicized against the Epicureans for having gods that were too far from common beliefs (this is discussed at great length in Cicero's On the Nature of the Gods). Then when we get to late ancient Platonism we have a rather "non-religious" approach in Plotinus, as you mention (the One). But his student Porphyry is very sensitive to the worry that vegetarianism would conflict with religious practices, and Iamblichus and Proclus were super, super committed to pagan religious beliefs - they are no less theological than, say, Aquinas. (Proclus for instance wrote a massive work about how pagan beliefs about the gods fit with the Platonic dialogues, called the Platonic Theology.) So in short, I am skeptical that there was a transition of the kind you're describing: I think that since day one philosophy was in conversation with religious belief, and ranged from being critical to being corrective to being full of pious devotion. By the way the same is true in India and China - not sure if you have followed the Indian philosophy series but there we talk about how the so called "orthodox" schools came out of Vedic tradition, where there was great concern for ritual and so on.

As for the other issue about how religious people really were, of course this is to some extent unknowable, especially if we assume that insofar as atheism existed we would not have any direct evidence of it (because it would have been dangerous to express it). But for what it's worth I do think that effectively all pre-modern people, both elite and non-elite, were deeply religious and that religion shaped their worldview in a deep and fundamental way that is hard for us even to appreciate now. Even theists nowadays at least live in a world where atheism is a live option, and I really don't think that was true in pre-Enlightenment Europe.

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