Journeying from the apparent to Absolute Being
Ibn Sabʿīn and his predecessors
by Carlos Berbil Ceballos 
The predecessors of Ibn Sabʿīn in Eastern al-Andalus
In this brief introduction, we will look at the known origins of the doctrine of Absolute Being in the geographical area of Murcia and its surroundings.
The first figure to be mentioned in the biographical sources in connection with the mystical teaching of Absolute Being is Abū ʿAbd Allāh al-Shawdhī al-Ḥalawī, a qāḍī and faqīh who lived in al-Andalus and North Africa during the 12th century. According to Louis Massignon, al-Shawdhī developed a doctrine inspired by some aspects of Sufism as seen in al-Ḥallāj, and he encouraged, as reflected in the classical sources, the participation of his followers in politics. He also claimed that religious sciences were inaccurate in themselves, which was a cause of criticism among some religious scholars.
Granada’s famous polymath Ibn al-Khaṭīb (d.1374) summarized the doctrine of Absolute Being (al-wujūd al-muṭlaq), when criticizing it, as follows:
The Creator (al-Bārī) is the union of all that is apparent and all that is hidden, and there is nothing other than Him; the essence of everything is God, and the multiplicity of things in time and space, what is hidden and what is apparent, pain and pleasure, existence and nonexistence, happen only in imagination.
Out of such illusion happening in our mind, all is One (wāḥid), and that One is the Truth (al-Ḥaqq). Each servant is made of Truth (Ḥaqq) and falsehood (bāṭil), and if falsehood is removed, what remains is Truth (i.e. God).
Ibn al-Khaṭīb gives an example of this view in the words of Ibn Aḥlā, according to which the servant is ‘Truth with some attributes of falsehood (Ḥaqq aqāma bāṭilan bi-baʿḍ ṣifāti-hi)’. It is also interesting that he explicitly states that this doctrine had many adherents in the eastern part of al-Andalus (Sharq al-Andalus) and the Ricote valley (Wādī Riqūṭ).
The person we mentioned at the beginning, al-Shawdhī, had a number of followers who spread his doctrines and practices over the following years, both in al-Andalus and North Africa and even in the East. One of them was Ibn al-Marʾa (born in Malaga, d.1214, Murcia), who had studied al-Muwaṭṭaʾ with ʿAlī Ibn Ḥirzihim (d.1163), known today as ‘Sidi Harazem’, who had been the master of Abū Madyan (d.1198). Ibn al-Marʾa was, therefore, a Maliki faqīh, and according to the biographical sources he had learned both kalām (dogmatic theology) and the doctrine of Absolute Being from al-Shawdhī, who would have secretly initiated him. According to Dominique Urvoy,
Ibn al-Marʾa had great and lengthy success among common people, both in Malaga and Murcia, where he settled later on. He did not look for popularity, but he was close to people and was sympathetic in relation to their concerns. He knew how to talk to people using understandable comparisons, and some characterized him as having a cunning and joking spirit.
The next figure that deserves to be mentioned among the followers of Absolute Being is Ibn Aḥlā of Lorca (1184–1247). After receiving his basic training in Islamic sciences from at least three teachers, Ibn Aḥlā was put in prison in Murcia. Subsequently, he was released and settled in his hometown, Lorca, where he became powerful and started developing his project, combining the political and the theological. Biographical sources say that he became the ruler of the population (taʾammara bi-Lūrqa). In this respect there were two divergent views of him: on the one hand, he is said to have chased away those who opposed his theological doctrine, and as a result, many people pretended to follow his ideas in order to keep their properties and status; on the other hand, he apparently behaved as a virtuous ruler and was able to maintain and improve the situation of the local inhabitants. Whatever the truth of the matter, he remained there as ruler until his death in 1247.
Biographical sources have preserved some short verses of poetry that capture his thought in relation to Absolute Being. For example,
How much I suffer from the fiction (wahm) that
something is taking me away from You,
dividing in me what is indivisible in itself.
The most important figure among the adherents of the doctrine of Absolute Being, Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Ḥaqq, known as Ibn Sabʿīn, was born in the Ricote Valley sometime between 1216 and 1218. In contrast to his predecessors and masters, several of his works have been preserved. He called himself Ibn Sabʿīn (‘son of seventy’), as well as Ibn Dāra (‘son of the circle’). Both names have a connection with each other and with his beliefs: the number 70 was written at the time using a circle in a certain set of figures, and he also used to represent ‘being’ as a circle, in which the outside of the circle represented Absolute Being, and the inside represented the apparent forms of limited or controlled existence, with no real distinction between the two modes of being, since their essence is the same.
Ibn Sabʿīn traveled extensively after his departure from Murcia, following the death of the ruler Ibn Hūd in 1237–38. He briefly stayed in Granada, and then settled in Ceuta, in North Africa. He married a wealthy woman there, allowing him to create a zāwiya where his followers could gather. We should highlight the fact that he started teaching at a very young age (when he was in his twenties).
During these years, he wrote his two most famous philosophical works: Al-Masāʾil al-Ṣiqilliyya (‘The Sicilian Questions’) and Budd al-ʿārif (‘The Prerequisite of the Gnostic’). Al-Masāʾil al-Ṣiqilliyya is a series of philosophical questions supposedly sent by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (d.1250), although the historical circumstances of the text are not clear, and it could actually be a guidebook for beginners in philosophy. The issues treated match some of the most urgent problems of his time: the eternity of the world, the divine science, the categories and the immortality of the soul. In Budd al-ʿārif, Ibn Sabʿīn develops the concept of the genuine Gnostic. The foundation is, of course, the concept of Absolute Being. It is worth quoting two of the Quranic verses he uses for this purpose:
(Al-Ḥadīd) (57:3) ‘He is the First and the Last, and the Outward as well as the Inward: and He has full knowledge of everything.’
(Al-Qaṣaṣ) (28:88) ‘… and never call upon any other deity side by side with God. There is no deity save Him. Everything is bound to perish, save His [eternal] self. With Him rests all judgment; and unto Him shall you all be brought back.’
The gnostics combine and exceed the perfections of the jurist, the theologian, the philosopher and the sufi. They have their own special knowledge, true gnosis, which is the gateway to the Prophet, from whom everything derives. Ibn Sabʿīn seeks to replace Aristotelian logic with a new ‘illuminative’ logic. The logic of the gnostic is not acquired through reasoning, but through intuition, and he avoids the multiplicity of Aristotelianism. In conclusion, the categories of logic are an illusion, as they all actually refer to the Absolute Unity of Being.
Ibn Sabʿīn is known for a certain lack of accuracy in his philosophy, both in his use of arguments and the exactitude of his terminology. It seems in fact that he considered philosophy an auxiliary discipline, always subordinate to the Divine Truth, which is absolute, with no names or attributes. It is also likely that this conception of philosophy is connected with the criticisms that he made of other thinkers and mystics. According to Taftazānī and Leaman:
Ibn Sabʿin’s main criticism of other thinkers is that they do not sufficiently emphasize the unity of everything which is implied in the waḥdat al-wujūd principle, since, if this principle is understood as he thinks it ought to be, the sorts of divisions and distinctions which we customarily make are merely indications of a greater and entirely unified reality.
It is also necessary to note that Ibn Sabʿīn was not an elitist philosopher, as this was probably not his intention. We can perceive here a continuity with the teachings of al-Shawdhī, who encouraged his disciples to meet common people and respond to their concerns. Ibn Sabʿīn was very popular among common people, and used to participate in political issues. It is this that was most likely the cause of the numerous persecutions he suffered in places he visited. It seems, when looking at him from this perspective, that we are dealing with a master who favored coherence between his experience and his speech over blind respect to authority, be it political, intellectual or religious.
Ibn Sabʿīn was banished from Ceuta shortly after completing Budd al-ʿārif. Between his departure from Ceuta and his arrival in Mecca between 1250 and 1253, Ibn Sabʿīn stayed for short periods in various places like Bādis or Bijāya (in modern Algeria), Tunisia and Egypt. It was during this period that he met the man who would become his most famous disciple, Abū l-Ḥasan al-Shushtarī, known for his mystical poetry. Once he arrived in Mecca, Ibn Sabʿīn continued to participate in politics, making him a prominent figure among North African residents in the city. He earned the trust of the local ruler, Abū Numayy, and composed in his name a letter of recognition for the Hafsid ruler of Tunis, al-Mustanṣir bi-Llah, in 1253.
During his years traveling through North Africa and living in Mecca, he wrote numerous letters and works of mystical content, as well as delving into the ‘science of the letters’, through the interpretation of hidden meanings in the letters of the Arabic alphabet. According to some newly found manuscripts attributed to him, he may have also had a knowledge of astrology and music.
There are several anecdotes that testify to the critical view that has generally been taken of him. For example, he is said to have retired to a cave waiting for revelation, as the Prophet did, but philosophically, as an emanation to the intellect. The various versions of his death follow the same pattern, as the biographical sources are divided between those who say that he committed suicide by cutting his veins, and those who report that he was poisoned by the king of Yemen al-Muẓaffar, who hated him for unknown reasons. In my opinion, such reports seem most likely to be part of a derogatory tradition, rather than actual accounts of fact.
A note on criticism
As we mentioned above, some scholars criticized the followers of the doctrine of Absolute Being, seemingly because their view of spirituality did not respect the rules created by the religious structure. In spite of this, most criticism seems to have been generated by secondary sources, by people who did not meet them personally or who were born after their death, as if they were attempting to stop the expansion of such views. This contrasts with the generally good reception and respect that these masters had among people wherever they lived, during their lifetime.
For example, followers of the doctrine of Absolute Being were accused of ‘believing in “the presence of God Almighty in beautiful forms” (ḥulūl Allāh taʿāla fī l-ṣuwwar al-jamīla) as well as being bad philosophers because of contradicting God and his prophets. They were also accused of defending the eternity of the world, denying resurrection and pretending they were intimates of God (awliyāʾ)’, as well as of being crypto-Christians within Islam and ‘innovative’ (ibtidāʿ).
On the other hand, there were those who argued that such accusations came from not understanding the true meaning of the doctrine of Absolute Being, that it made no pretensions to challenge the religious law directly, but to transcend and realize its ultimate purpose.
Let us end with a brief examination of a work attributed to him, which I am currently studying with the assistance of Drs. Pablo Beneito and María Dolores Rodríguez. I have studied this work in my Master’s dissertation, and I hope to explore it further, along with other works attributed to the author, in my thesis.
The title is al-ʿAwāṣim qawāṭiʿ al-qawāṣim, which we have translated as ‘The Citadels that protect from adversity’. A manuscript of the work can be found in the National Library of Egypt. It is a brief treatise, comprising five and a half pages, and divided into shorter subsections.
The first thing that stands out is the word that heads the title: al-ʿawāṣim. This can be translated literally as ‘capital city’ (as the main town in a region or a country), and it acquires a metaphorical meaning in the field of spirituality since it is related to concepts such as defence (ʿiṣma), preservation of the prophets from their enemies and from acts of disobedience. Indeed, for Ibn Sabʿīn these ‘citadels’ are a protection against adversities, as the title itself reads. In the preface to the work he also describes them as ‘salvific practices’ (munjiyāt). This metaphor of the ‘citadels of the soul’ is reminiscent of the work ‘Stations of the Hearts’ (maqāmāt al-qulūb) by al-Nūrī of Baghdad, the 9th-century Sufi mystic, a contemporary of other great mystics like Junayd and Manṣūr al-Ḥallāj. In this work, the heart of the believer is described as a circle of seven castles, each corresponding to a certain spiritual virtue, where knowledge of God is at the center, and Satan lies outside, trying to gain access by seducing the believer to abandon his practices and virtues. This work is considered the origin of the much extended metaphor that would reach Christian mystics centuries later through St Teresa of Avila.
So how are these citadels brought together, according to Ibn Sabʿīn? He explains in the preface that virtues (faḍāʾil), which allow one to distiguish destructive from salvific practices (‘citadels’), are contained in the different sections of the work (fuṣūl).
He then explains the content of the sections in three levels, each new explanation denying the previous one. First he states that the purposes (effects) and the principles (causes) resemble the branches of a tree and its roots. He then retracts, and says that they are rather key ideas where the purposes (branches) are implicit in the principles (roots), and where, in turn, the principles are contained within the purposes. At the same time he is relating these principles or causes to the ‘operational properties of the Quranic verses’ (khaṣāʾiṣ al-āyāt). Thus he introduces the Islamic worldview of creation as a sacred book and the Quran as a compendium of creation.
Despite this explanation, he retracts again, to emphasize that:
It is in fact the protective light of God, and His grace, which He grants to those that He wants in a better way, and His wisdom, which He gracefully gives to the one who is perfect from His servants, giving him greater perfection.
It is worth clarifying at least two consequences of this third explanation of the content of the work, which closes the prologue. On the one hand, Ibn Sabʿīn is claiming divine inspiration for this work. The attribute with which the light of God is named is ‘protective’ (mutawallī), a word that comes from the root (و / ل / ي), the same root for the word walāya, which describes the spiritual state of proximity to God. On the other hand, the archetype of the ‘perfect human being’ (al-insān al-kāmil), represented by the prophet Muḥammad, lies in the word ‘perfect’ (kāmil).
The sections start after the prologue, twelve in all. Each one begins with the word faṣl (which can also mean ‘season’). It seems that Ibn Sabʿīn addresses in each of them a certain virtue, generally mentioned in the first sentence. For this reason, and given the doctrinal content of the work, each section can be understood as a certain station that the one who aspires to mystical union must pass through during their training. In this sense these ‘stations’ would be very close to the concept of ‘spiritual station’ (maqām), which is also mentioned in one of the sections of the work.
Since we are still in the process of studying the work, we will just discuss one of the sections, the third one, which is particularly interesting because of the writing style used by Ibn Sabʿīn. It reads as follows:
There is neither salvation (khalāṣ) nor pure worship (ikhlāṣ),
nor good manners (ṣalāḥ ʿāda), nor correction of worship (iṣlāḥ ʿibāda),
nor merit of knowledge (faḍīla ʿilmiyya) nor practical way (ṭarīqa ʿamaliyya),
for one who has not been enclosed by sciences (ʿulūm) nor pruned by experiential knowledge (maʿārif).
What is interesting about this section is the fact that the first members of each oppositional pair (salvation, good manners, merit of knowledge, sciences), and the second members (pure worship, correction of worship, practical way, experiential/Gnostic knowledge) create two complementary levels of practice and knowledge, thus this section becomes a source of meditation.
We should also highlight the metaphor of the garden and pruning. The enclosed garden is for the ‘worldly knowledge’ (ʿulūm). We could correlate these fences of knowledge with the permitted and prohibited actions, the field of the ḥalāl and the ḥarām. For this reason, it is necessary that the candidate is ‘enclosed’ or ‘limited’ by the sciences of religious law (al-ʿulūm al-Islāmiyya). It is equally necessary that the candidate is ‘pruned’ or adjusted by the Gnostic experiential knowledge (al-maʿārif).
It is also worth noting that the metaphor of the fenced garden and pruning comes at the end of the section, so that all the virtues listed above would be fruits of this ‘garden of knowledge’.
Finally, we may highlight the continuity of these metaphors of nature with those that appear in the preface when describing the content of the work (the principles as roots, and the purposes as branches), or with the word chosen to name the sections of the work, which is faṣl (‘season’).
1 First presented at MIAS Latina Symposium, October 2014, in Murcia.
2 José Miguel Puerta Vílchez, ‘Abū ʿAbd Allāh Ibn Aḥlà’ in Jorge Lirola Delgado, José Miguel Puerta Vílchez (eds.), Biblioteca de Al-Andalus, Vol. 2: De Ibn Aḍḥà a Ibn Bušrà (Almería: Fundación Ibn Tufayl de Estudios Árabes, 2009), p. 8.
3 Ibid. p. 49 (translation of all quoted passages by the author).
5 Ibid. The Ricote valley lies a few miles north of the city of Murcia.
6 Dominique Urvoy, ‘Abū Isḥāq Ibn al-Marʾa’ in Jorge Lirola Delgado (ed.), Biblioteca de Al-Andalus, Vol. 4: De Ibn al-Labbana a Ibn al-Ruyuli (Almería: Fundación Ibn Tufayl de Estudios Árabes, 2006), p. 111.
8 José Miguel Puerta Vílchez, ‘Abū ʿAbd Allāh Ibn Aḥlà’, p. 50.
9 Ibid. p. 51.
10 Abu-l-Wafā al-Taftazānī, Oliver Leaman, ‘Ibn Sabʿīn’, in Oliver Leaman, Seyyed Hossein Nasr (eds.), History of Islamic Philosophy (London & New York: Routledge, 1996), p. 347.
11 Anna Akasoy, ‘ʿAbd al-Ḥaqq Ibn Sabʿīn’ in Jorge Lirola Delgado (ed.), Biblioteca de Al-Andalus: Vol. 5, de Ibn Saʿāda a Ibn Wuhayb (Almería: Fundación Ibn Tufayl de Estudios Árabes, 2007), p. 35.
12 Translation: Muhammad Asad.
13 Abu-l-Wafā al-Taftazānī, ‘Ibn Sabʿīn’, p. 348.
17 Anna Akasoy, ‘ʿAbd al-Ḥaqq Ibn Sabʿīn’, p. 30.
19 José Miguel Puerta Vílchez, ‘Abū ʿAbd Allāh Ibn Aḥlà’, pp. 48–9.
20 Ibid. p. 50.