At the Origins of Philosophical Sufism: Contextualizing the Muqaddimat al-Futūḥāt of Ibn ʿArabī (d. 638/1240)

By Ryan Brizendine
Submitted to Session P6470 (New Directions in Islamic Intellectual History, 2021 Annual Meeting
Rel Stds/Theo
All Middle East; Fertile Crescent; Islamic World; Syria; The Levant;
13th-18th Centuries; 7th-13th Centuries; History of Religion; Islamic Studies; Islamic Thought; Medieval; Middle East/Near East Studies; Mysticism/Sufi Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Given the importance of Ibn ʿArabī in the history of Islamic thought and the magnitude of The Meccan Openings (al-Futūḥāt al-makkiyya) as his masterwork and final testament, it is remarkable that his own long introduction to the work has been largely either overlooked or, in the two cases of focused attention, discussed only partially and more or less idiosyncratically. Comprising a detailed classification of knowledge with supplementary sections on knowledge by inspiration and the limitations of kalām followed by three creedal statements of increasing complexity and philosophical interest, it clearly represents a central text for Ibn ʿArabī’s epistemology in particular. A handful of studies have drawn attention to this but merely paraphrased a few passages (Yaḥyā 1972, Chodkiewicz 1988, Arnaldez 1989, Ḥāʾirī Yazdī 1992), while a couple have been devoted wholly to the text (Morris 1993, Rundgren 1993) yet restrict themselves to its first third and fail to provide the contextualization and analysis necessary to appreciate its full intellectual-historical significance.
The seminal importance of the closing “creed of the elect” in particular has been widely recognized: connecting Ibn ʿArabī’s ideas to contemporary philosophical and theological concerns (Winkel 2014), it forms a “quasi-scholastic disquisition ... [on] Sufi theology” on which “the whole book can well be viewed as an extended commentary” (Elmore 1996, Morris 1993). Yet this richest part of the introduction has been serially neglected—dismissed either as an elliptical, “symbolic expression” that is “quite mysterious” or as requiring too much philosophical unpacking to be readily explicable (Chodkiewicz 1988, Morris 2003, Winkel 2014). This paper argues instead that, while both the ideas expressed therein and their very adumbration and ordering indeed offer precious keys to Ibn ʿArabī’s thought and the origins of philosophical Sufism alike, they are not so allusive as to be inscrutable but rather become fully intelligible once set within the combined contexts of the Futūḥāt as a whole and contemporaneous discussions in falsafa and kalām, especially the works of al‑Ghazālī, Ibn ʿArabī’s most important precursor and model within the larger intellectual tradition.