He is known as Arif bi-Allah (Knower of Allah), Muttabi' al-Sunnah (sincere follower of the sunnah of the holy Prophet), Khatm al-Wilah al-Muhammadiyyah (the greatest wali in Islam), Bahr al-'Ilm (ocean of knowledge) while at the same time as Kafir (infidel), Zindiq (heretic), Kazzab (great lier) and what not.
How great a controversial legend he is! Who is this most unread, misread, misunderstood, misinterpreted, misrepresented, most respected, most hated full of mysteries, wrapped in mysteries servant of Allah? Although his foes may not like it, history calls him Shaykh Akbar Muhyi al-Din ibn 'Arabi (d. 638/1240).
There are varied opinions about Ibn Arabi. Some declare him as Kafir on the basis of the so many heretical utterances in his writings which, they argue, are clearly against the Shari'ah. They include: Al-Sakhawi, Taftazani, Mulla Ali Qari, Ibn al-Maqri who says that whoever doubts in the kufr of Ibn 'Arabi's followers is himself a kafir, and many others. They are all great scholars of Islam.
Yet there are some who in clear terms declare him as a great Alim and one of the great Awliya of Allah. Even some Ulama of very high status who include some salafi scholars also declare him as a Mujtahid. For example Al-Manawi writes that Ibn 'Arabi was well versed in the sunnah. Imam Rabbani Mujaddid Alf Thani calls him a great Arif billah. Mian Nazir Husain Dehlawi had a great respect for him. He used to call him Khatm al-Wilah al-Muhammadiyyah (meaning that he was the greatest wali in Islam). Such eulogizers of Ibn Arabi include Shaykh al-Nablusi, Ibn Kamal Pasha, Abdul Wahhab Sha'rani.
Scholars like Ibn Abidin al-Shami, Ibn al-Imad al-Hanbali, Allama Jalaluddin al-Suyuti and al-Ghazzali are of the opinion that regarding Ibn Arabi tawaqquf (silence) is the best option for he is counted among the Awliya but as regarding his writings, it is haram to read them.
Imam Abdul Wahhab Sha'rani in his al-Yawaqit wa al-Jawahir has given a long list of those great scholars who have highly praised Ibn 'Arabi. They include: Majuddin Ferozabadi, the author of al-Qamus, Shaykh Sirajuddin Makhzumi, Kamal al-Din Zamalkani, Qutb al-Din Hamawi, Shaykh Salah al-Din Safdi, Hafiz Abu Abdulla Dhahabi, Shaykh Qutub al-Din Shirazi, Shaykh Mu'ayy al-Din Khajandi, Shaykh Shihab al-Din Suhrawardi, Imam Fakhruddin al-Razi, Imam Nawawi, Imam Yafa'i, Shaykh Muhammad Maghribi al-Shadhili, Shaykh al-Islam 'Izz al-Din Abdussalam, Imam Ibn Kathir, Allama Taqi al-Din al-Subki, Jalaluddin al-Suyuti, Jalauddin Rumi, Abd al-Rahman Jami and so many others.
Now the question is what is the reason for such great controversy? Why are so many people of very high positions totally against one another regarding the same personality? At the very outset let's admit that there are many things in the books of Ibn 'Arabi that seem clearly against the Qur'an and the Sunnah.
And there should be no second opinion about the fact that whosoever believes in those things as they are in those books does not remain a Muslim.
But still our problem does not get over. The fact that so many great personalities who have paid homage to Ibn 'Arabi despite the fact that such 'heretical' things might have been known to them also are still revered and respected by the Muslims unanimously. Nobody has declared them Kafir for praising Ibn 'Arabi. Let's try to revisit the sources to find out in our own humble way what actually can be the reason behind this controversy.
Ibn 'Arabi has written many books like Kitab al- Yaqin (TheBook of Certainty), Tarjuman al-Ashwaq (The Interpreter of Desires), Shajarahal-Kawn (The Tree of Being). But the most controversial things for which he hasbeen reprimanded by his critics are mostly found in Fusus al-Hikam (The Bezelsof Wisdom) and then in Futuhat Makiyyah (The Makkan Illuminations).
It is very interesting to know that in the same Futuhat on the basis of which issue for Arabi's Kufr has been raised, he in clear terms declares that whatever is against the Shari' is baseless disbelief (al-zindaqah al-Batilah). He also declares in the same book: there is no other way for us to reach Allah than what is in the Shari'ah.
He also says again in the same book that whosoever leaves the Shari'ah even for a moment gets ruined. The author as a humble student while reading the belief of Ibn 'Aabi in the Futuhat has found nothing against the belief of the ahl al-sunnah wa al-jama'ah. Let a sincere student evaluate the pronouncements of the Shaykh on which he made witness all the Muslims, men as well as women, and decide himself whether anything he declares to be his belief is against the Shari'h.
Unfortunately, most of the people today who vehementlydenounce Ibn 'Arabi and are hell-bent on proving him a deadliest enemy of Islamare mostly those who have neither read him seriously nor are they well versedto understand him. About these people Professor Latif Ahmad says:
"…. By this these people do not want to make a sinceresearch for truth but their sole intention is to fulfill their desire fordisputation or they think that they are knowledgeable and so use unfair meansto impose their ideas on others which is by all means below academic honesty."
There is one more reason which is very important to keep inmind while reading Ibn 'Arabi is that like many benefactors of the MuslimUmmah, his writing were distorted and such things were inserted into his workswhich later became the reason for great controversies about him.
Explaining the reason for denunciation of Ibn 'Arabi, ImamSha'rani says:
"Whatever people could not understand from the books of Ibn'Arabi was because its level is very high and whatever seems against theShari'ah or against the mainstream Islamic thought has actually been insertedin his books. I was first informed about this fact by Shaykh Abu TahirMaghribi. He then opened the manuscript of Futuhat which had been written byIbn 'Arabi himself and compared it with that which was in Qunia. I saw therewas nothing in the original about which I had reservations. Hence when I wrotean abridged version of the Futuhat, I did not write those things." (Emphasisadded)
The most controversial doctrine of Ibn 'Arabi is that ofWahdah al-Wujud. Although is not the originator of this doctrine, yet he is thefirst to discuss and explain it systematically.
The formidable critique of Wa hdah al-Wujud was Shaykh al-IslamTaqi al-Din ibn Taymiyah (661-728). But, unlike most others, as Mawlana AbulHasan Ali Nadwi puts it "he was fair and impartial in forming an estimate ofIbn Arabi's teachings." It is interesting to note that while Ibn Taymiyah isvery harsh against the followers of Ibn Arabi like Ibn Sab'in, Sadr al-dinKonya, Tilmisani and Billiyani, but at the same time he seems moderate whileevaluating Ibn Arabi:
"Ibn Arabi is nearest to Islam amongst them. His writings are comparatively seemly because he makes a distinction between manifestation and exteriority and pays due regard to the commands (al-amr) and prohibitions (al-nahi) and the laws (al-sharai').
He commends moral behaviour and devotions prescribed by the earlier mystic seers and that is why a number of puritans and Sufis adopt the mystical exercises recommended in his writings. A number of them are unable to comprehend these realities but those who come to understand and appreciate them, fathom the true meaning of these teachings". (Fatawa, v.2, p. 470)
I prefer not to discuss the issue of Wahdah al-Wujud here. Iintend to discuss it in future write-ups: Insha Allah.