Ibn Sab’in and Islamic Orthodoxy: A Reassessment

This article originally appeared in The Journal of Islamic Philosophy, Vol. 8 (2012). An earlier version of this article, under the title “Ibn Sab’in – A Man Accused,” appeared in The Treasure: Australia’s Sufi Magazine, no. 27 (2010), pp. 14 – 18. A PDF of the article can be found here: CookSab’in2012


Amongst the various images of Ibn Sab’in (c. 614/1217-668/1270), most widely known for his responses to questions posed by Frederick II, painted by contemporary scholars, the majority could be considered pejorative. It has been suggested that he was a Neoplatonic philosopher, a Peripatetic philosopher, a Pythagorean philosopher, a Hermeticist, a Kabbalist, an alchemist, a heterodox Sufi, a crypto-Shi’ite, a plagiariser, a pantheist and an arrogant seeker of fame. It may be that Ibn Sab’in was one or more of these things. However, almost no attempt has been made to examine him in light of accepted Islamic doctrine. In this article an attempt is made to show that some of the accusations against Ibn Sab’in result from de-emphasising the centrality of Islamic doctrine within his work.

The anti-Ibn Sab’in polemic has a long history. It probably started during Ibn Sab’in’s lifetime. However, as Knysh has shown,[1] the history of the anti-Ibn Sab’in polemic has a long connection with the anti-Ibn ‘Arabi polemic, with the two often mentioned side by side and subjected to the same criticism for allegedly espousing a strong form of monism seen by some as inconsistent with the Islamic view of tawḥīd.[2] As Knysh shows, those criticising figures such as Ibn ‘Arabi and Ibn Sab’in often did so without an in-depth knowledge of their works, such that “on the surface, we are dealing with a purely theological controversy that may or may not conceal an underlying conflict of interest.”[3] A case in point is Abd al-Haqq al-Badisi (ca. 1311), a critic of Ibn Sab’in, who, upon revealing his ignorance of the intended audience of the latter’s Budd al-‘Ārif, proved “beyond any doubt that he had not read the book before criticising it,” which Cornell sees as “typical of the ad hominem arguments against Ibn Sab’in that one finds in Islamic writings.”[4] Casewit writes that many of the accusations against Ibn Sab’in “are invalidated by Ibn Sab’in’s own writings, and suggest that some of our author’s critics were not even familiar with his works.”[5] Despite this, these accusations are repeated in much of the literature with little to no attempt to either contextualise or refute them. By repeating these accusations, despite evidence to the contrary, the image of Ibn Sab’in as a controversial thinker is maintained, thus increasing the difficulty establishing another, less controversial, image of him.

Ibn Sab’in’s status as a misrepresented thinker is widely acknowledged. Several writers note that “most reports about him by pre-modern Muslim scholars, hagiographers and Sufis are derogatory.”[6] Yet, despite this, characterisations of him as a “bitter and tormented spirit” by Louis Massignon and as a “bold and tormented philosopher” by Henri Corbin are oft repeated.[7] Cornell acknowledges that the “negative image of Ibn Sab’in has hardly improved over time”[8] and that he is “one of the most misunderstood figures in the history of Islamic thought” so much so that “nearly everything that has been written about Ibn Sab’in is problematical.”[9] As a result “he remains among the least understood and most disparaged figures in Islamic history.”[10] However, despite the acknowledgement of such problems, it is suggested that the literature that highlights these issues, in their own manner, maintain the problematic status of Ibn Sab’in in as far as they advance interpretations of this figure without examining viable alternatives. It is difficult to see what is gained by doing so. Cornell provides a clear example of this in an attempt to list the contrasting images of Ibn Sab’in:

What is one to make of this enigmatic figure? Was he a crypto-Shi’ite, a poser, a seducer of women as al-Badisi maintains? Was he a subversive philosopher whose doctrines incited unrest? Was he a pseudo-Sufi who sought fame at bargain-basement prices by plagiarizing the works of mystics with more established reputations? Or was he a reckless monist who flirted with heresy, as Ibn Khuldun suggests?[11]

 While these are all possibilities, they are all, to varying degrees, derogatory. I now draw attention to two interpretive methods that contribute towards maintaining Ibn Sab’in’s status as a controversial thinker. The first method characterises him as leading a life filled with controversy, which can be seen to be maintained as a result of emphasising and utilising particular readings of Ibn Sab’in’s life at the expense of other, less controversial, readings. Secondly, and more importantly, his works are considered to be controversial and heterodox in that they espouse a non-Islamic doctrine with examining them on their own grounds. While changing the image of Ibn Sab’in as “controversial thinker” would require more than can be presented here, an attempt is made to show that the current hermeneutic paradigms applied to Ibn Sab’in are problematic. This paper is in three sections. Sections one and three address the issue of biography, with part one addressing issues regarding Ibn Sab’in’s life and part three addressing the event of his death. Section two addresses the issue of content by showing how some of the labels mentioned above as refuted by the content of Ibn Sab’in works.


Reassessing Ibn Sab’in’s Life

Little is known of Ibn Sab’in’s life, though there is little doubt that it contained intrigue. Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Haqq ibn Sab’in was born in Ricote Valley, Murcia, in 613/1216 or 614/1217. This makes him part-contemporary with Ibn ‘Arabi, also born in Murcia in 560/1165, though “neither figure mentions the other in their writings, nor is there evidence of the two great mystics ever having met or having read each other’s works.”[12] The events of his life that are known show both times of trial and hardship as well as times of relative ease. However, this has not stopped statements such as “his life consisted of misfortune and suffering”[13] which could be summed up as “consisting entirely of controversies, quarrels and persecutions, [such that it] seems to have been a long and painful trial.”[14] To sum up Ibn Sab’in’s life like this is, without further evidence, inadequate. Furthermore, a statement such as “around 1250 AD he left for Cairo, where for some time he was left in peace”[15] problematises the view that he was constantly harassed. Although “almost nothing is known about other members of Ibn Sab’in’s family,” it is known that the political situation within which he grew up was dominated by turmoil and the rapid collapse of Almohad authority on the Iberian Peninsula causing him to move “in the direction of Granada first and then to Ceuta.”[16] This is generally accepted as the first of many changes in residence. Whilst various reasons for these multiple relocations have been suggested, this constant relocation has been used to implicate Ibn Sab’in’s guilt. It has been suggested that “time and time again, it seems, he triggered suspicions, confrontations and open hatred among the local political authorities and ‘ulamā, and he was forced to continue his journey further eastwards,” though all that can be said with honesty it that “it is difficult to reconstruct a coherent picture of Ibn Sab’in’s career and especially to explain why exactly he was forced to leave his place of residence so many times.”[17] He finally came to reside in Mecca where “Ibn Sab’in’s tranquil life in Mecca gave him leisure to accomplish some of his writings.”[18] Ibn Sab’in died in Mecca in 668-9/1270.

Despite the lack of evidence regarding Ibn Sab’in career, this has not stopped controversy being read into his life. By following the events of his life chronologically it is possible to see that Ibn Sab’in allegedly caused controversy wherever he went. One of his first moves was to Ceuta. Here, the Budd al-‘Ārif was “received rather controversially” which has led to “claims that Ibn Sab’in was expelled from Ceuta after the publication of that text” despite the fact that “modern scholarship has not yet been able to reconstruct the exact circumstances of these events.”[19] Later he moved to Sabta. It has been intimated that during Ibn Sab’in’s sojourn in Sabta he was financed by dirty money and surrounded by disreputable people. This adds to the controversy by suggesting that Ibn Sab’in’s income was unlawful, voiding any eschatological benefit that may result from it. Evidence for this is that Sabta’s Governor Ibn Khalas (r. 635-43/1238-46), who financed his intellectual and artistic pursuits by skimming tax revenues from the city’s custom-houses” was also Ibn Sab’in’s patron.[20] Ibn Khalas’ retinue of protégés “included the poet Ibn Sahl (a Jewish convert to Islam and notorious homosexual) and Ibn ‘Amira, the Chief Judge (qadi al-jama’a) of Sabta, who was respected for his intelligence, but distrusted as a politician” and of whom “the common people of Sabta were scandalized by their ideas and behaviour.”[21] It is amongst these figures that Cornell places Ibn Sab’in.

There are apparently two pieces of evidence for including Ibn Sab’in amongst Ibn Khalas’ entourage. Firstly, that Ibn Sab’in’s work Budd al-’ārif “was in fact written for a legalist (faqīh),”[22] according to Cornell, suggests that “it is likely that Ibn Sabin’s interlocutor was Ibn ‘Amira, the Chief Judge of Sabta.”[23] While tenuous, this reading is one possibility, it ignores the Sufi tradition of calling attention to, what they see as, the narrow interpretation of Islam by the exoteric jurists.[24] Secondly, much weight is placed on the view that “Ibn Khalas solicited Ibn Sab’in’s help in answering philosophical questions put to the caliph by Frederick II von Hohenstaufen (r. 1215-50).”[25] However, contrary to this suggestion that Ibn Khalas used Ibn Sab’in, it has been suggested that Frederick II “was told about a man in the West, Ibn Sab’in, to whom he sent his questions through the Almohad caliph al-Rashid (r. 630/1232-640/1242) and his governor in Ceuta, Ibn Khalas”[26] and again that the questions came to al-Rashid “addressed to Ibn Sab’in as a scholar whose reputation had reached even the Sicilian court.”[27] This alternate version sees Ibn Sab’in being sought out by Frederick II rather than him being enlisted by Ibn Khalas, which throws doubt on Ibn Sab’in’s supposedly disreputable associates and allowance.[28] Further doubt is thrown on the first version of the story since “it is hardly conceivable without further explanation that Ibn Khalas commissioned Ibn Sab’in with the composition of the Sicilian Questions if he banished him from the city only a little later for having composed a quite similar text.”[29] Thus, to advance one view of Ibn Sab’in, without examining the alternatives, maintains his status as a controversial figure through the omission of contrasting evidence.

Ibn Sab’in’s final place of residence was Mecca. Here it is said that he was “adviser to its ruler, the Shārif Abu Numayy ibn Abi Sa’id (r. 652-701/1254-1301),”[30] or in the very least “succeeded in gaining a certain influence over the Shārif.”[31] This relationship with the Shārif is the only evidence supporting the accusation that Ibn Sab’in was a Shi’ite. While it is accepted that Abu Numayy was a patron of Zaydi Shi’ism,[32] there is a) no evidence that indicates Ibn Sab’in’s explicit conversion and b) no evidence indicating that Abu Numayy influenced Ibn Sab’in’s views. Despite this, the accusation that Ibn Sab’in converted to Shi’ism, originally made by his detractor al-Badisi, is repeated. While there is caution in these reports, as they suggest that he “may have converted”[33] to and that he has “been accused”[34] of Shi’ism, it is enough to throw doubt on Ibn Sab’in. If Ibn Sab’in was as thoroughgoing a monist as is suggested then it is unlikely that he would have had time for many of the propositions that are distinctly Shi’a. Furthermore, this accusation is invalidated by Ibn Sab’in imploring “his disciples to diligently observe the Shari’a and the Sunna of the Prophet” as well as “his reverent prayers on behalf of the Prophet.”[35] Thus, again, the inclusion of details such as these in reporting the life of Ibn Sab’in, especially when left unexamined, contributes little to our understanding of this figure. However, the inclusion of such details helps to convey the impression that he was a most controversial individual by throwing doubt on his orthodoxy.


Reassessing Ibn Sab’in’s Work

Ibn Sab’in’s work has received a critical reception. Issue has been taken with both its content and tone. In this part three issues will be addressed: Ibn Sab’in’s mode of expression, his alleged Hermeticism, and his alleged pantheism. An attempt will be made to show that, while there may be elements within his works that support such allegations, these issues arise from analysing elements of Ibn Sab’in’s work independently rather than examining them as part of an integrated whole.

Amongst these issues it is his mode of expression that has caused the most confusion. In some of his works Ibn Sab’in’s style is philosophical without any attempt to highlight Islamic nature of his thought. Macdonald acknowledges this, stating that “he was as much a mystic as Ibn ‘Arabi but was apparently more deeply read in philosophy and did not cast his conceptions in so theological and Qur’anic a mould.”[36] The result of this is that he has been accused of being “the last representative of the Arab peripatetic school,”[37] a “Hellenizing philosopher” and an “Aristotelian Sufi” whose “Sufism was suspect,”[38] that “perhaps the closest description of him would be that he was [a] Hermetic philosopher who was attached to Islam and Sufism,”[39] and that “this enigmatic mystic is seen to represent the darker, more heterodox side of Islamic esoterism.”[40] While it is true that “in his replies [to Frederick II] he certainly displays a very complete and exact knowledge of the Aristotelian and neo-Platonic systems” this in no way implies that Ibn Sab’in’s commitment to Islam was suspect, especially considering that he was “less a blind follower of Aristotle than is Ibn Rushd.”[41] One possibility for this is that Ibn Sab’in’s philosophically oriented works and modes of expression were “for a public audience” as other works “display him primarily as a Sufi” whose writing style is “reminiscent of the saying of the earlier Sufis.”[42] The categorisation of Ibn Sab’in as a ‘philosopher’ has even been called into question for “although he displays a mastery of philosophical learning … these considerations are dominated by the ‘mystical’ component.”[43] As a result, the critical reception of Ibn Sab’in’s work, combined with varying opinions regarding its categorisation, has further blurred an accurate understanding of his position.

Ibn Sab’in’s alleged Hermeticism also requires further discussion. Without denying that “no understanding of Ibn Sab’in will be complete without examining the influence of Hermeticism on his thought” and that his worldview “was shaped not only by Sufi doctrines, but also by Hellenistic and Hermetic teachings”[44] it does not follow that “it is not difficult to argue that Ibn Sab’in was more of a Hermetist than a Sufi,”[45] especially when his commitment to Islam and his insistence on “the Sharī’a and the Sunna of the Prophet”[46] are overlooked. If there were considered it is possible that the label of “Hermetist” would seem misapplied to Ibn Sab’in.

The attribution of Hermeticism to Ibn Sab’in seems to be recent.[47] Cornell develops a case for reading Ibn Sab’in as a Hermetist[48] and it has been readily taken up by others. Shihadeh believes that “Ibn Sab’in represents an elitist, primarily Hermetic mystical tradition, which exhibits little regard for orthodoxy and confessional boundaries.”[49] While Casewit holds that “perhaps the closest description of him would be that he was [a] Hermetic philosopher who was attached to Islam and Sufism.”[50] Ibn Sab’in’s thought apparently “reveals its Hermetic roots in its doctrinal eclecticism” for “he cites a vast array of Muslim and non-Muslim thinkers.”[51] Even if “doctrinal eclecticism” is a key feature of Hermeticism, one possibility for the citation of “Muslim and non-Muslim thinkers” within Ibn Sab’in’s work is to increase its receptivity amongst a variegated audience as has been acknowledge with regard to his more philosophically oriented modes of expression.[52] The acknowledgement of Hermes at the beginning of the Budd al-‘Ārif is taken as Ibn Sab’in’s recognition of “Hermes Trismegistos as the key to the sciences of spiritual realisation and illumination” and that “the revealed scriptures of the Prophets replicate Hermes’ teachings.”[53] Whilst Ibn Sab’in does mention Hermes at the beginning of the Budd al-‘Ārif, to categorise Ibn Sab’in as a Hermetist due to this overlooks the passages the mention the Prophet Muhammad both prior to and proceeding from this passage.

Those who advance the view of Ibn Sab’in as a “Hermetist” claim that Ibn Sab’in disregarded Islamic orthodoxy. The charge that Ibn Sab’in held “disregard for the Prophet Muhammad and Islamic law” is long standing with Ibn Khuldun (d. 1406) charging his with “over heresy, unwarranted innovations, and the most extravagant of detestable interpretations of orthodox doctrine.”[54] Evidence for the supposed disregard and decentralisation of Muhammad within Islam comes from the Budd al-‘Ārif where Ibn Sab’in writes that “the function of the prophets is not to originate doctrine but to reaffirm a primordial wisdom that transcends all of the revealed religions.”[55] This passage is taken to mean that “by positing the origins of this wisdom to a period long before the advent of Islam, Ibn Sab’in diminishes the centrality of Muhammad as a source of religious precedent”[56] and that Hermes “appears to take precedence over Prophet Muhammad.”[57] To further support this interpretation another section of the Budd al-‘Ārif is included which states that “the only disagreement is over the establishment of revealed laws [i.e. religions] and rules of conduct, which, in any case, are of one nature because they all guide and urge [man] towards the Truth.”[58] While this is one interpretation, to see these passages as decentralising and diminishing the role of Muhammad is only valid if the Islamic context is ignored because it overlooks the Qur’anic statement that “the Apostle, and the believers with him, believe in what has been bestowed upon him from on high by his Sustainer: they believe in Allah, and His angels, and His revelations, and His apostles, making no distinction between any of His apostles” (2: 285). Thus, if the above quoted passages of Ibn Sab’in are read in conjunction with this Qur’anic verse then Ibn Sab’in suddenly appears more orthodox. This is further supported by passages wherein “to his disciples Ibn Sab’in recommends his followers to seek harmony between the mystical path and religious law” stating “Do not differentiate between them, for they are synonyms,” from which it could be said that “Ibn Sab’in values jurisprudence also higher than theology (kalām) and philosophy since it is concerned with the very basics of the Islamic religion.”[59] His imploring “his disciples to diligently observe the Sharī’a and the Sunna of the Prophet,” coupled with “reverent prayers on behalf of the Prophet,”[60] reduces the validity of allegations regarding a dismissal of Muhammad and a disregard for Islamic law.

Ibn Sab’in is also accused of having pantheistic tendencies. It is suggested that “his Sufi doctrines were suspect because of his belief of God as the entire reality of all existing things, which implies a pantheistic tendency”[61] and that in his works “he demonstrates his concept of pantheism”.[62] It is also asserted that “the pantheism of Ibn Sab’in is based on the concept of waḥdat al-wujūd, the idea that only God really exists” meaning that “there no real basis to the distinction between the existence of God and everything else.”[63] It is also implied in statements such as Ibn Sab’in view of waḥdat al-wujūd “claims identity of the existence of Creator and creation.”[64] The controversy implicit in this doctrine is that it conflates creation and Creator, which is contrary to Islamic orthodoxy. The view that “the Sufis generally recognise a degree of existence relative to creation, but the proponents of ‘Absolute Unity’ (al-waḥda al-muṭlaqa), with Ibn Sab’in (d. 1270) at their head, make no concession and consider the universe as a pure illusion”[65] contradicts the accusation of conflation for while creation is considered “pure illusion” the reality of the Creator is affirmed. As a result a distinction has to be made between Creator as reality and creation as illusion. While further research needs to be done, there are indications that the label of pantheism does not capture the subtly of Ibn Sab’in’s position.[66] Chittick states that Ibn Sab’in’s use of the phrase “Allah alone” (Allah faqa) “is not a statement of a philosophical position, but an incitement to his readers to follow the Koranic injunction, ‘Say “Allah,” then leave them to themselves, playing their game of plunging’ (Sura 6: 91).”[67] Whilst this would require further examination, it does indicate that the use of “Allah alone” (Allah faqa) is not indicative of pantheistic tendencies.

Further, his position of waḥda al-muṭlaq, unity of the Non-delimited, problematises the label of “pantheist.” It becomes incredible that he held pantheistic views as creation is considered limited to its illusory nature while waḥda al-muṭlaq posits the unity of that which has no limits or boundaries. As has been recognised, “pantheism emphasises one aspect of the divinity, namely immanence.”[68] Yet, waḥda al-muṭlaq rejects the bias towards the immanent by pushing the focus beyond the immanent and limited to that which is non-delimited (muṭlaq). Thus, this preliminary investigation indicates that “pantheism” inadequately captures Ibn Sab’in’s position.[69]

Further, Ibn Sab’in is accused of usurping the position of the Prophet Muhammad.[70] This is one of the more severe accusations, for it puts Ibn Sab’in against the orthodox Islamic view of Muhammad as the final prophet. Macdonald writes that “he is accused of posing as a prophet” though “it may be said that he had no need of the actual title, ‘prophet’; [for] many mystics held – heretically, it is true – that the walī stood higher than the prophet, nabī or rasūl.[71] Leaving aside this oft misquoted and misunderstood view, there is no evidence that Ibn Sab’in held this view. Rather as Macdonald goes onto acknowledge Ibn Sab’in holds the opposite view that “as distinguished from Ibn Rushd, the prophet, with Ibn Sab’in, takes higher rank than the sage.”[72] Rather than contributing to our understanding of Ibn Sab’in, this assertion, though retracted, throws doubt, abet uncritically, on Ibn Sab’in’s acceptance of Islamic doctrine.


Reassessing Ibn Sab’in’s Death

Even Ibn Sab’in’s death is embroiled in controversy. Akasoy tentatively writes that “in approximately 668/1270 Ibn Sab’in died in the holy city, apparently under suspicious circumstances.”[73] There are two descriptions of his death, one that states that he was poisoned and another that reports that he committed suicide. Despite the mutually exclusive versions, it is the more controversial suicide adopted by Massignon[74] and Corbin[75] that is repeatedly reported. According to this version it is said “that he took his life in the manner of the Stoics, by opening the veins of his wrists, is in no way improbable” for “it was the ultimate way of uniting himself with the Beloved, of fleeing a world that rejected him.”[76] Corbin’s graphic description stating that “he opened his veins, let the blood drain out, and breathed his last on the 2nd Shawwal 669/19th May 1270”[77] is an almost verbatim report of Amari’s earlier assertion.[78] It has also been stated that his suicide was an “alleged attempt to test the doctrine of reincarnation”[79] despite the fact that reincarnation has no place within Islam. The attribution of suicide to Ibn Sab’in is doubly condemnatory for it suggests that he violated both “the prohibition on killing within the sacred precinct as well as the prohibition on taking one’s own life.”[80] This story is repeated even though previous scholars have stated that “there is a poorly authenticated story that he died by suicide.”[81]

There is further evidence leading us to reject the story of Ibn Sab’in’s suicide. Casewit states that “his alleged suicide seems untenable firstly because it was related by one of Ibn Sab’in’s foes, and secondly because suicide is wholly contrary to both Islamic law and Ibn Sab’in’s philosophical beliefs.”[82] This is put further beyond doubt given that it was one of Ibn Sab’in’s detractors, al-Badisi, who “informs us that Ibn Sab’in did not commit suicide in Mecca, but ended his days as an adviser to its ruler, the Shārif Abu Numayy ibn Abi Sa’id (r. 652-701/1254-1301)” though he does add that this ruler “may have converted him [Ibn Sab’in] to Shi’ism.”[83] Al-Badisi further reports that Ibn Sab’in’s demise was most likely from poisoning for he treated a serious head wound Abu Numayy received from “the ruler of Yemen, al-Malik al-Muzaffar (r. 647-94/1250-95), a Sunni Muslim and ally of the Mamluks of Egypt, [who] had Ibn Sab’in poisoned.”[84] It has also been suggested that Ibn Sab’in “was on good terms with the Yemeni ruler … but his relationship with [the ruler’s] vizier, who was an anthropomorphist, was naturally strained” and as a result “he was poisoned by the vizier.”[85] Despite the evidence against Ibn Sab’in’s alleged suicide it is still reported, thus giving the figure of Ibn Sab’in as controversial an ending as his life and work are taken to be.

Much work remains to be done in order to gain a fuller understanding of Ibn Sab’in. Suggestions are being made on how to approach and what to examine within the work of Ibn Sab’in, with one suggestion being to examine what “actual knowledge of the Guide of Maimonides Ibn Sab’in had and to what extent the Andalusian philosopher borrowed from this author.”[86] Another, acknowledging that “from time to time one may regret that Akasoy [in her study of the Sicilian Questions] has not paid more attention to the texts that have served as Ibn Sab’in’s sources.”[87] Though Akasoy admits that “it is possible, even likely, that future research will create an image of Ibn Sab’in which differs substantially from the image we have developed until now.”[88] Yet, without invalidating these suggestions, it seems that, given his controversial status, a more fundamental issue needs to be researched, namely the degree to which he was influenced by and affirmed the Qur’an and the Hadith and how this is expressed within all of his works, for this would help to reassess this intriguing figure and open further avenues of research regarding the foundations of his thought. On this issue, it has been suggested that the manuscript of Sicilian Questions has been rearranged[89] and that “it is likely that the original contained a defence of membership of the Islamic community, and perhaps some critical remarks on monasticism.”[90] However, this scarcely constitutes a shift in the hermeneutic paradigm. If there was such shift in the hermeneutic paradigm, as has been suggested here, then this would stem the tide of the production of predominantly pejorative images of Ibn Sab’in.

[1] Alexander D. Knysh, Ibn ‘Arabi in the Later Islamic Tradition (Albany: SUNY Press, 1999), passim.

[2] Ibid., passim. Knysh (ibid, 169) discusses individuals such as Ibn al-Qastallani (d. 686/1287) who grouped figures such as al-Hallaj, Ibn al-Farid, Ibn ‘Arabi, al-Shushtari, al-Tilimsani, and Ibn Sab’in together, “whom he disparagingly dubbed the ‘adherents of nothingness’ (laysiyya).” He (1999: 198) also highlights individuals such as Ibn al-Khatib (d. 776/1375) who felt that “Ibn Sab’in was a much more consequential figure for Western Islamic mysticism than the Greatest Master” for while it was felt that Ibn ‘Arabi “simply continued the old mystical tradition … Ibn Sab’in was the creator of an original philosophical system.” Furthermore, Eric Geoffroy, in Le Soufisme en Égypte et en Syrie (Demas: L’Institut Fraçais d’Études Arabes de Demas, 1995), mentions Ibn Sab’in only in conjunction with Ibn ‘Arabi, as if the two were one entity. While Johnson refutes this conflation, indicating that there is an important distinction between Ibn Sab’in and Ibn ‘Arabi, see N. Scott Johnson, “Ibn Sab’in, Shushtari and the Doctrine of Absolute Unity,” Sufi (1995) 25, 27.

[3] Knysh, Ibn ‘Arab., 45.

[4] Vincent J. Cornell, “The Way of the Axial Intellect,” Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi Society, 22 (1997), 47.

[5] Yousef A. Casewit, “The Objective of Metaphysics in Ibn Sab’in’s Answers to the Sicilian Questions,” Iqbal Review, 49 (2008), 102.

[6] Ibid., 101.

[7] In Anna A. Akasoy, “Ibn Sab’in’s Sicilian Questions: The Text, Its Sources, and Their Historical Context,” Al-Qantara, 29 (2008), 116; Casewit, “The Objective of Metaphysics,” 102; Cornell, “The Way,” 42; Louis Massignon, Recueil De Textes Inedits Concernant L’Histore De La Mystique En Pays D’Islam (Paris: Librairie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1929), 123; and A. Faure, “Ibn Sab’in,” The Encyclopaedia of Islam New Edition (Leiden: Brill, 1960 – 2006), 921 – 22.

[8] Cornell (op. cit., 42).

[9] Vincent J. Cornell, “The All-Comprehensive Circle (al-Ihata): Soul, Intellect, and the Oneness of Existence in the Doctrine of Ibn Sab’in,” in Sufism and Theology, ed. A. Shihadeh (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), 31.

[10] Casewit, “The Objective of Metaphysics,” 112.

[11] Cornell, “The Way,” 49.

[12] Casewit, “The Objective of Metaphysics,” 102.

[13] Maha Friemuth, “Ibn Sab’in, ‘Abd Al-Haqq,” Encyclopaedia of Islamic Civilisation and Religion, ed. I. Netton (London: Routledge, 2008), 265 – 66.

[14] Faure, “Ibn Sab’in,” 921. This passage is repeated verbatim by N. Hanif, Biographical Encyclopaedia of Sufis: Africa and Europe (New Delhi: Sarup and Sons, 2002), 77.

[15] Friemuth, “Ibn Sab’in,” 265 – 66.

[16] Akasoy, “Ibn Sab’in’s Sicilian Questions,” 117 – 18.

[17] Akasoy, “Ibn Sab’in’s Sicilian Questions,” 118.

[18] Abu Wafa Al-Taftazani and Oliver Leaman, “Ibn Sab’in,” in History of Islamic Philosophy, eds. S. H. Nasr and O. Leaman (London: Routledge, 1996), 346.

[19] Anna Akasoy and Alexander Fidora, “Ibn Sab’in and Raimundus Lullus – The Question of the Arabic Sources of Lullus’ Logic Revisited,” in Islamic Thought in the Middle Ages, eds. A. Akasoy and W. Raven (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 436.

[20] Cornell, “The Way,” 43.

[21] Ibid., 43.

[22] Ibid., 47.

[23] Ibid., 47n21.

[24] A further example of this is Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah’s comment against the shallow-minded doctors of Islamic exoterism is most often read as referring to Ibn Taymiyya without even considering that it could refer to those who, like Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah in his youth, felt that beyond the letter of the law there was nothing else to seek.

[25] Ibid., 44.

[26] Akasoy, “Ibn Sab’in’s Sicilian Questions,” 120.

[27] Duncan B. Macdonald, Development of Muslim Theology, Jurisprudence and Constitutional Theory (Lahore: Unit Printing Press, 1903, reprint 1960), 263 – 64.

[28] This all predicates on an acceptance of Frederick’s authorship of the initial questions. While Macdonald, Muslim Theology, 263, calls the story “tolerably authentic,” Akasoy, “Ibn Sab’in’s Sicilian Questions,” 121, suggests that the whole story is contestable, writing that “a closer look at the time and place of composition of the Sicilian Questions reveals just how problematic the assumption of an authentic enquiry from Frederick might be.” If Frederick’s authorship of the questions is doubtful, then Cornell’s inclusion of Ibn Sab’in amongst Ibn Khalas’ disreputable entourage becomes equally doubtful. This is rendered further problematic with Anna A. Akasoy, “Reading the Prologue of Ibn Sab’in’s Sicilian Questions,Schede medievali, 45 (2007), 16, stating that “we can exclude the possibility that the contact with the Emperor from Sicily was entirely invented by a disciple of Ibn Sab’in, as is sometimes suggested” while it has been suggested that “Akasoy characterizes the work as a fictitious correspondence invented for dialectic purposes,” Jules Janssens, “A Remarkable Thirteenth-Century Compendium of Aristotelian Philosophy: Ibn Sab’in’s Sicilian QuestionsBulletin de Philosophie Médiévale, 49 (2007), 55.

[29] Akasoy, “Reading the Prologue,” 22.

[30] Cornell, “The Way,” 47.

[31] Akasoy, “Ibn Sab’in’s Sicilian Questions,” 118.

[32] Richard T. Mortel, “Zaydi Shi’ism and the Hasanid Sharifs of Mecca,” International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 19 (1987), 455 – 472.

[33] Cornell, “The Way,” 47.

[34] Al-Taftazani and Leaman, “Ibn Sab’in,” 346.

[35] Casewit, “The Objective of Metaphysics,” 102.

[36] Macdonald, Muslim Theology, 263. While this may be true for the Sicilian Questions, it is understandable given that he was apparently writing for a non-Muslim audience. However, this view would not hold if Ibn Sab’in’s criticisms of the Islamic jurisprudents and theologians were considered. His criticism of these groups is that they have gone too far away from the root of Islam, being Qur’an and Sunna, in their arguments for “he who remains with the root does not undergo transferal or transformation; he remains fixed in his knowledge and his realization. But he who stays with the branch undergoes transformation and transferal; things become many in his eyes, so he forgets and becomes negligent and ignorant” (Ibn Sab’in in William C. Chittick, “Rumi and Wahdat al-Wujud,” in Poetry and Mysticism in Islam: The Heritage of Rumi, eds. A. Banani, R. G. Hovannisian and G. Sabagh (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 83.

[37] Chittick, “Rumi and Wahdat al-Wujud,” 82.

[38] Faure, “Ibn Sab’in,” 921.

[39] Casewit, “The Objective of Metaphysics,” 112.

[40] Cornell, “The Way,” 41.

[41] Macdonald, Muslim Theology, 264.

[42] Chittick, “Rumi and Wahdat al-Wujud,” 82.

[43] N. Scott Johnson, “The Doctrine of Absolute Unity,” 25.

[44] Casewit, “The Objective of Metaphysics,” 101.

[45] Cornell, “The Way,” 58.

[46] Casewit, “The Objective of Metaphysics,” 102.

[47] Though it may be traced back to Massignon who stated that “Ibn Sab’in considered Hermes (= Idris) as the first philosopher spiritualist” (in André-Jean Festugière, La Révélation D’Hermès Trismégiste (Paris: Libraire Lecoffrt, 1949 – 1954), vol 1, 400). Massignon also indicates that, within Islam, Hermes is understood to be Prophet Idris or Enoch, a point that is not taken up by latter commentators on Ibn Sab’in’s Hermeticism.

[48] See Cornell, “The All-Comprehensive Circle.”

[49] Ayman Shihadeh, Sufism and Theology (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), 6.

[50] Casewit, “The Objective of Metaphysics,” 112.

[51] Cornell, “The All-Comprehensive Circle,” 35.

[52] Chittick, “Rumi and Wahdat al-Wujud,” 82.

[53] Cornell, “The All-Comprehensive Circle,” 46n18.

[54] Casewit, “The Objective of Metaphysics,” 101.

[55] In Cornell, “The way,” 58 – 59.

[56] Ibid., 59.

[57] Elizabeth Sirriyeh, Sufi Visionary of Ottoman Damascus (New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2005), 11.

[58] In Cornell, “The Way,” 59n69.

[59] Anna Akasoy, “The muhaqqiq as Mahdi? Ibn Sab’in and Mahdism Amongst Andalusian Mystics in the 12th/13th Centuries,” in Endzeiten. Eschatologie in der monotheistischen Weltreligionen, eds. W. Brandes and F. Schmieder (Berlin: Walter de Gruyer, 2008), 319.

[60] Casewit, “The Objective of Metaphysics,” 102.

[61] Friemuth, “Ibn Sab’in,” 265.

[62] Friemuth, “Ibn Sab’in,” 266.

[63] Al-Taftazani and Leaman, “Ibn Sab’in,” 347.

[64] Akasoy, “The muhaqqiq as Mahdi,” 316.

[65] Eric Geoffroy, “L’apophatisme chez les mystiques de l’Islam,” Revue des sciences religieuses, 72 (1998): 399.

[66] The inadequacy of the label of “pantheism” with regard to Ibn ‘Arabi’s work has been shown by Mohammed Rustom, “Is Ibn al’Arabi’s Ontology Pantheistic?” Journal of Islamic Philosophy (2006) 2.

[67] Chittick, “Rumi and Wahdat al-Wujud,” 82. Though Johnson, “The Doctrine of Absolute Unity,” 26, seems to disagree with this stating that “Allah alone” (Allah faqat) entails a position that surpasses “all attributes and distinctions; [for] anything else posits dualism.”

[68] Rustom, “Ibn al-‘Arabi’s Ontology,” 66.

[69] This is without dismissing the possibility that Ibn Sab’in holds a sort of panentheistic position. Though this would require further study, it cannot be simply dismissed on the same grounds of rejecting “pantheism,” as has been suggested, see Rustom, “Ibn al-‘Arabi’s Ontology,” 64.

[70] Macdonald, Muslim Theology, 263.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Ibid.,264.

[73] Akasoy, “Ibn Sab’in’s Sicilian Questions, 118. Though Akasoy, “The muhaqqiq as Mahdi,” 327, does mention that Ibn Sab’in was “a man who died in Mecca in 1270, according to some sources by slitting his wrists” without including the possibility of his poisoning.

[74] Akasoy, “Ibn Sab’in’s Sicilian Questions, 118.

[75] Henri Corbin, History of Islamic Philosophy, trans. L. Sherrard (London: Kegan Paul International, 1993), 264.

[76] Faure, “Ibn Sab’in,” 922. Corbin, History, 264, states that “Ibn Sab’in chose of his own free will” to commit suicide “because he desired to be united with God.”

[77] Corbin, History, 264.

[78] Michele Amari, “Questions philosophiques adressées aux savants musulmans par l’empereur Frédéric II,” Journal Asiatique, 5 (1853), 256.

[79] Cornell, “The Way,” 42.

[80] Sirriyeh, Sufi Visionary, 11.

[81] Macdonald, Muslim Theology, 265.

[82] Casewit, “The Objective of Metaphysics,” 104.

[83] Cornell, “The Way,” 47.

[84] Cornell, “The Way,” 47.

[85] Al-Taftazani and Leaman, “Ibn Sab’in,” 346.

[86] Patrizia Spallino, “Les questions siciliennes de Ibn Sab’in: nouvelles perspectives de recherché,” Schede medievali 45 (2007): 100.

[87] Janssens, “A Remarkable Thirteenth-Century Compendium,” 65.

[88] Akasoy, “The muhaqqiq as Mahdi,” 320.

[89] D. Urvory and M. Th. Urvory, “Les thèmes chrétiens chez Ibn Sab’īn et la question de la spécificité de sa pensée,” in Studia Islamica 44 (1976), 103, states that “they have certainly been rearranged,” while Akasoy, , “Ibn Sab’in’s Sicilian Questions,” 123 n.26, believes that the fifth question “is not part of the original text” and that “at a certain stage the order of the pages of the manuscript containing the Sicilian Questions became mixed up with pages of the same or another manuscript.”

[90] Urvory and Urvory, “Les thèmes chrétiens,” 103.

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