The contributions of the 12th century Muslim mystic, Muhyi al-Din 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 al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya (Meccan Openings) and Fusus al-Hikam (Bezels of Wisdom), 'Isa b. Maryam (Jesus the son of Mary) 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-ʿArabī 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 mi'raj (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 Yahya (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, Yahya, are residing in the same heaven.
This Ibn al-ʿArabi explains beautifully as the intimate marriage between ruh (spirit), which is the description of Jesus in the Qurʾan, and hayat (life), which is the linguistic and spiritual root of the name Yahya, ‘the one who continuously comes to life!’ Thus, Ibn al-'Arabi tells us that
Since life is intimately attached to the spirit, I found Yahya [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.
We now return to the secret of the relationship between these two prophetic figures, their respective allusive power to the spirit and life, and the artistic creativity of words and speech. In a second excerpt, still in the Meccan Openings, Ibn al-'Arabi explains the importance of Jesus in the grand narrative of the divine creative process:
Know that the created things are the unlimited kalimat (the Words) of God, just as He said regarding the existence of Jesus that he is: ‘His Word which He gave to Mary’ … And words, according to custom, are formed by organizing letters through the breath that comes from the speaker. They disconnect their breath according to various stations of pronunciation and, then, appear the essences of letters, according to specified measures; only then are words formed.
In other words, Jesus occupies the same heaven as the source of oration and eloquence of speech because he himself, as the Word, is an instance of a divine utterance and expression of God’s eloquence and oration. Moreover, Christ’s own miracle performance, which included blowing breaths upon birds of clay to bring them to life, is a prophetic intimation and mimesis of that divine creative process.
Here, we are also met with an implicit relevance of John the Baptist in this Christic root of eloquence and oration: as the spirit is inseparable from life, God’s spoken Words are inherently endowed with the spirit of meaning and life of movement and, likewise, the eloquence of human speech gives life to the spirit of meanings inherent in a speaker’s heart. Most importantly, Ibn al-'Arabi presents us with an enchanting and serene vision of God and the universe: that of the most eloquent of poets and His masterpiece of an epic.
Ibn al-'Arabi inherited an ancient mystical and philosophical tradition which held that human beings represent a microcosm, a miniature version of the universe in its entirety. Likewise, the cosmos, as macrocosm, is a large, complete and holistic human being. The consequence of such a conviction is that every nuance of the microcosm must, necessarily, find its parallel in the macrocosm and vice versa.
What this departs to us is the eloquent analogy that our most creative inspirations, aptitudes for eloquence and beautiful speech emanate from our very own internal second heaven, wherein reside our individualized Jesus and John the Baptist, the Word of God and life, spirit and movement. It is in this sense that, according to Ibn al-'Arabi, beautiful speech and – by extension – the creative process of art is a Christic movement that most closely intimates the divine creative process.
However, Ibn al-'Arabi also tells us that Jesus, as kalimatullah (Word of God), is intimately connected to a certain kalim (wound) that results from the divine infinitude imprinting itself upon the finite, empty canvas of the cosmos. Now, the contours of such a suffering become softened through its marriage with the redemptive healing birth of art. For if Sufis like Ibn al-'Arabi did believe in a crucifixion, it would be this one: the annihilation at every moment in the ocean of divine power, so that one can be born again incessantly as a majestic poem of God’s beauty!