“Ibn Arabi chose me, I didn't choose him,” Dr. Ali Hussain told me over video chat one night at the dawn of December. “And I'm glad he did.” As we spoke, I felt vague murmurs of the same process taking place in me.
“I came across his writings while I was applying for the PhD in 2012,” Hussain continued. He’d completed a masters degree in artificial intelligence, but the burgeoning academic wasn’t drawn to programming. “I wanted to think and reflect on the idea of intelligence.” Hussain’s academic advisor suggested he devote time to reading, to exploring how his studies might intersect with his passions. This is how Hussain first became acquainted with Ibn Arabi, an Arab Andalusian Muslim scholar, mystic, poet, and philosopher.
Ibn Arabi portrayed by Ozman Sirgood on the Turkish TV Show
“Before he was an academic subject of research for me, he was someone who really healed me, religiously and spiritually, because I was not finding the answers I was looking for as someone who had artistic inclinations,” Hussain said.
Speaking with Hussain was my last work-related task for the day — a day which felt like it wanted to hurt me. This fall I’ve dealt with new levels of stress, new concoctions of COVID fatigue and seasonal depression, new depths of emptiness as the anger that once helped me work fades back to forgetting. This interview was not supposed to be catharsis, but it was.
Ibn Arabi was born on July 26th, 1165 to a well-off family. Hussain told me that as the son of a diplomat, Ibn Arabi fled to present-day Spain’s west coast due to the changing of dynasties in his native Murcia. The soon-to-be scholar described himself as a heedless youth prior to his spiritual awakening in early adolescence. “He started frequenting the cemetery in the city of Seville, where his family moved to,” Hussain stated. “He basically started having visions of previous prophets. The first vision he had was a Jesus at the cemetery, and he regards Jesus as being his first teacher.”
Ibn Arabi spent the first half of his life traveling the Iberian Peninsula — studying with Sufi guides, learning the basic sciences of Islam, and secluding himself from society on retreats, “living the life of a monk on the move,” as Hussain added. He spent the second half of his life living the same way in the East, traveling Cairo, Hebron, and Anatolia, known today as Turkey. After performing the pilgrimage, he settled in Damascus, where he lived the last years of his life.
Hussain told me that the ideas espoused by Ibn Arabi have proven controversial from the moment of their inception all the way to this present day. “The way I would describe the genius of Ibn Arabi, if we were to talk about his genius,” Hussain mused, “is not so much in anything new that he invented as much as his creative ability to put everything that has come before him into a new mix. If we were to talk in terms of art, he's a painter — he has the palette of all of Islamic knowledge, all of Sufi knowledge before him, and also Greek knowledge.”
The willingness to draw from these culturally disparate and sometimes secular sources illustrates Ibn Arabi’s true innovation — the belief that “God does not necessarily communicate only through texts and means that religious people deem sacred. God communicates, necessarily, through those things that we deem worthless, even.”
“He believes that everything in the universe is a manifestation of God,” Hussain elaborated, speaking directly to this point I typically harbored in private, this time backed by facts. God, the divine, the universe — in my opinion these terms all grasp at the same force. “The degree to which everything manifests God to its potential is the degree to which we may regard it as good or evil. For him, the difference between a saint and a sinner is the degree to which each of them manifests God's grace.” The degree to which we can regard a thing as ‘good’ lies in its utter commitment to honoring the distinct assembly of its atoms. If mine meant to come together as Vittoria Benzine, then I will respect that by being the most Vittoria Benzine possible.
Bearing these beliefs in mind, it seems important to determine which actions constitute ‘maifesting potential.’ Ultimately, it’s a matter of seeking. Ibn Arabi harbored an intense interest in language, finding fractal patterns of a greater spirituality in it, which Hussain calls “his sacred etymology.” He told me, “In English, we recognize that there is a connection between finding and being found. Being found can be thought of in two senses. In the case that something was lost and then it's found, but also in the sense that something did not exist and then it came to be. We say, for example, ‘this company was founded in in such a year.’ We don't mean that the company was lost, we mean the company didn't exist and then it was founded.”
“For Ibn Arabi,” Hussain continued, “there is a connection between the three letter word wajada, which means ‘to find,’ and the word wujud, which means ‘being or existence.'" However, Ibn Arabi’s native Arabic possesses a third connection not necessarily present in English — a connection to the word wajd, which means ‘ecstasy.’ A feeling of ecstasy alerts us that we’re getting closer to the truth, like a game of ‘hot and cold’ from childhood.
Following this, all love and all desire between people and ideas and objects carries splintered shards of divine love itself, because, as Hussain told me, “we perceive in our beloved that which we are seeking, that which that which we long for, that which we perhaps don't have and we seek to have. In reality, we are seeking to complete ourselves through divine names and attributes. So love is the foundation. Only if you have love will you be willing to go through the arduous journey of seeking.”
That sounds about right for our rom-com culture that idealizes two-part completeness through the twin flame, the soul mate. However, following the thought path a bit further, the seeker realizes that seeking doesn’t end on wedding day. Seeking also doesn’t end when you’re driving the Maserati off the lot. It doesn’t end upon assuming the corner office. “This is really difficult for us to accept, I think,” Hussain noted, but “Ibn Arabi says the object of love never actually exists, because it's always out of reach. There is always this infinite nearness.” What we think we want — the thing, reduced to its simplest terms, is rarely our true target.
Fortunately, Hussain also pointed out that “To say that the final destination is not achievable is not to say that there aren't destinations along the way. The road rests on a road trip should not distract you from the destination. The road rests are places that you stop and take a break. But the destination keeps going and going…The thing that Ibn Arabi is trying to say is that if you're never satisfied with the journey, then slow down and pay attention because the very road that you're traveling on is actually the one that you're trying to reach.”
A focus on fully inhabiting the self while striving for divinity runs rather counter than the path laid out in popular media. Unlike the corporate commodification of self-improvement through spirituality, our collective conscious understands that true spirituality involves a commitment to service. Contrary to common wisdom though, this value is not mutually exclusive from a deep adoration for the notion of self.
The decisive factor boils down to perspective. Where the spirit and soul are often colloquially interchangeable, Ibn Arabi differentiates them as two distinct entities. Hussain said that Ibn Arabi likens the soul to the ego, “a child that is born from the marriage between the body, who is the mother, and the spirit, which is the father.” This ego-child has the capacity to oscillate between its parents. As such, “The journey is really a journey of fluctuation — ascending with our ego and disciplining our ego so it becomes really part of our spirit.”
“The spirit in Sufism is the breath of God,” Hussain continued. “The Spirit knows no sin, it is pure light. It is the ego that has this weakness of either being attached to the material world or being attached to the spiritual world. The higher self is really depending on where your ego is, because that same higher self can be a lower self.”
Mainstream spirituality often vilifies the ego, but Hussain explained how Ibn Arabi viewed the ego, the soul, as a crucial portal between the body and spirit, an isthmus between these two realms. “It's the same realm where imagination and creativity and art comes from,” Hussain said, adding that “he’s essentially setting the source for arts and creative inspiration as being the same source of divine revelation.”
Ibn Arabi’s work inspired subsequent generations who drew from the pantheon that came to include his ideals. Hussain told me that Rumi’s father was friends with Ibn Arabi, and a later colleague of Rumi’s in Konya was actually Ibn Arabi’s foremost disciple. In more modern terms, Ibn Arabi continues to inspire new scores of seekers like Hussain. “I have such distinct and eclectic interests,” Hussain stated, ranging from the deep metaphysics of religion to acting, music, and video games. “I could not find a way to synthesize all of that. I always felt out of place, that if I wanted to present myself as a religious scholar, I would have to sacrifice the music, I would have to sacrifice the video games, I would have to sacrifice the movies.”
However, Hussain noted, “That other stuff was important to me because I intuitively perceived the sacred in it, and I never knew that I did until I came across Ibn Arabi. Ibn Arabi did two main things for me: he allowed me to synthesize myself, for myself. And second, he gave me the language to describe that which I already knew intuitively.”
One night in early December, I sat down to a digital interview, haggard and hurting and leaning on the collaged scraps of ideas that typically sustained me. As I heard Hussain divulge the deepest insights of Ibn Arabi, I also gained the profound sense that something I already knew intuitively was being put into eloquent language, uttered by someone with the studied background to assert it. I did not know I was seeking, but what I was seeking found me.