Sufism and Creativity: Finding your inner Christ
The contributions of the 12th century Muslim mystic, Ibn al-Arabi, to Sufism specifically, Islam and humanity more generally are indisputable. It is enough that James Winston Morris, a renowned contemporary specialist in his writings, described Ibn al-Arabi's importance with these words:
One could say that the history of Islamic thought after Ibn Arabi (at least down to the 18th century and the radically new encounter with the modern West) might largely be construed as a series of footnotes to his work.
Between the covers of Ibn al-Arabi's two most important writings: the massive The Meccan Openings and Bezels of Wisdom, Jesus Christ finds himself in more mentions and creative re-imaginings than in any work written by a Sufi mystic prior to Ibn al-Arabi and a seminal influence on many, if not all, later discussions of Christ in Sufism by Muslim mystics.
In two such instances, both within the narrative of the Meccan Openings, Ibn al-Arabi presents a fascinating reformulation of Christ’s importance in the context of poetry, eloquence and artistic creativity. These two excerpts not only highlight the depth of Ibn al-Arabi's divine illumination and vastness of his imagination, but also the importance of his perspective for our own understanding of art and the sacred dimensions of creativity.
The first of these comes whilst the author of the Meccan Openings is discussing his spiritual ascension, which intimates the exact procession of the prophet Muhammad's nightly journey and bodily ascension to the divine presence. When Ibn al-Arabi reaches the second heavenly sphere, he meets Jesus and John the Baptist and describes this heaven as:
The presence of oration, poetic meters, beautiful selection of words, mixture of affairs and the manifestation of a single meaning in a variety of forms.
As readers, we should wonder and wander about the connection between Jesus and John the Baptist, on the one hand, and oration, poetic meters and beautiful selection of words or the manifestation of a single meaning in a variety of forms, on the other hand. The secret to this relationship is given by Ibn al-Arabi in the second excerpt. However, before transitioning to that, it is worthwhile contemplating the Sufi mystic’s explanation as to why Christ and his cousin, John the Baptist, are residing in the same heaven.
This Ibn al-Arabi explains beautifully as the intimate marriage between spirit, which is the description of Jesus in the Qurʾan, and hayat (life), which is the linguistic and spiritual root of John's name in Arabic, Yahya, ‘the one who continuously comes to life!’ Thus, Ibn al-Arabi tells us:
Since life is intimately attached to the spirit, I found John at the side of the living spirit, Jesus.
In other words, the presence of Jesus and John the Baptist in the same heaven signifies the archetypal inseparability between the spirit and life, and is not merely a happenstance.