Ibn ‘Arabi is a controversial figure in Islamic history. He is also largely unknown to many Muslims which I feel is such a huge shame because of not only the incredibly important place he holds in the spiritual community but also the large impact he has had on Islamic culture and civilisation in the past.
I am definitely no expert on Ibn ‘Arabi, but I have a deep love for Islamic spirituality and am constantly trying to discover more about God through great men such as he.
The biggest problem I feel with trying to learn from the works of Ibn ‘Arabi is that he is kind of like the Heidegger of philosophy, or almost any complex theory in mathematics. They are subjects that feel impossible for the lay person to understand as they are trying to convey complicated ideas that are built on layers of slightly less complicated ideas.
In order to be succinct they only use high level language, but this means that most people who do not have any specific knowledge of the area cannot really decipher it.
I came across a fantastic article from the Ibn ‘Arabi society that highlights this beautifully in discussing the title of one of Ibn ‘Arabi’s most well known works, the Fusus al Hikam, translated as the Bezels of Wisdom. It primarily deals with the roles that the different prophets have played in Divine revelation.
In the book, Ibn ‘Arabi pairs each prophet with a certain wisdom. Jesus (as) is paired with the wisdom of prophecy/ascendancy, Musa (as) with the wisdom of eminence and Muhammad (pbuh) is paired with the wisdom of singularity/universality. The reasons for this are given very beautifully in the two words of the title.
Ibn ‘Arabi describes the wisdom of divine revelation as a type of light that descends from the heavens to mankind. But in order to allow the message to be understood by humankind, it requires a focus. This is the role of the prophets. To focus and enable the wisdom in the message of God to be understood.
Ibn ‘Arabi describes each of the prophets not as the jewels themselves, but as bezels or ringstones. This word which I had never heard of before is used to describe the part of jewellery that clasps onto jewels. It is defined in some dictionaries as ‘the rim which fastens and encompasses a jewel’.
So then what does the jewel represent? The type of revelation and wisdom passed to a given prophet. Ibn ‘Arabi envisions the light of God as being pure white light, that contains all aspects of wisdom and knowledge. The prophets act as holders of certain aspects of that wisdom to allow for the transmuting of this pure white light into a certain range suitable for a time and place. So white light comes in, and red light shines forth from the ruby, green light from the emerald, blue from the sapphire etc. This is how colour works in nature. A ruby receives white light, and absorbs all but the red light, which it emits, giving it the red colour we associate it with.
So following this metaphor the prophets were created for the singular purpose of being the perfect receptacle (a container or device for holding or receiving something) for the Divine knowledge. Their purpose was to receive the Divine Light and emit only certain parts that are suitable for a certain place and time.
Now, at the time of Ibn ‘Arabi apparently they did not have precision cutting tools as we do in this day and age, so if a jewel was found it was not cut to fit a bezel, but the bezel was formed to perfectly fit the jewel. This is an indirect manner of Ibn ‘Arabi’s belief that all prophets were made to perfectly fit the appropriate wisdom, and not vice versa.
Also, the Arabic word for bezel, Fass, can also mean quintessence, so in addition to being the holder of this divine wisdom, the prophets were also the personified quintessence, or perfect example, of the given wisdom. As an example of this, Musa (as) is given as the holder of the wisdom of eminence, and Ibn Arabi explains this through the Qur’anic ayat where God says to him “Fear not, you are the more eminent” (20:68). This is in response to Pharaoh, who had claimed “I am your lord, the most eminent!”.
So God sends down the same message to each of the prophets, but they act as the holders of the jewel that passes on a certain part of the message.
And all of this process and method are described in two words: Fusus al Hikam (Bezels of Wisdom). When I read this is when I fell in love with Ibn ‘Arabi’s works. And I hope that this inspires someone else to experience something of this incredible man’s works.
The link to the many podcasts from the Ibn ‘Arabi society biannual conferences (held in Oxford and the US every year) can be found here. These people are doing an amazing job, may they be rewarded inshaAllah!