Ibn ‘Arabî’s Twofold Perception of Woman
Woman as Human Being and Cosmic Principle
Souad Hakim has taught Philosophy at the Lebanese University of Beirut, and Islamic thought and Sufism at Saint Joseph University in Beirut. She is internationally recognised for her many studies and translations of the work of Ibn 'Arabi and she lectures worldwide.
Among her published works is al-Mu'jam al-sufi : al-hikmat fi hudud al-kalimat (Beirut, 1981), a unique concordance of Sufi terminology, illustrated with many passages from Ibn 'Arabi's works.
Articles by Souad Hakim
In the Name of Allah the Rahman the Rahim
It is astonishing that a colossal Islamic scholar, Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabî (AH 560-638), who lived more than eight centuries ago, should have declared that woman and man are absolutely equal in terms of human potentiality. He interpreted the “degree” which was given to man over woman as an ontological matter, abolishing singular male images of the universe in favour of a binary conjugal conception, where male and female are coupled together in a necessary cosmic unity on the level of both Creation and Gnosis.
Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabî has presented a new vision of woman in the history of Islamic Culture. It is indeed a vision worthy of inspiring contemporary Muslims, of acting as a foundation for the reassessment of their notions and concepts about women in Islam, and of propelling the wheel of cultural change in the proper path.
For the purpose of outlining Ibn ‘Arabî’s vision, my research is divided into two main parts, each containing two subsections, that is a total of four, each holding the potential to be a springboard for a new wave of thought on the issue of women.
Woman as Human Being
Ibn ‘Arabî views human reality as one in all human beings, males and females. The two genders are equal in respect of humanity, and that is their origin. Maleness and femaleness are contingent states in the human essence. He says: “Humanity unites male and female, and in it maleness and femaleness are contingencies, not a human reality.” He also says: “Eve was created from Adam, and so she has two determinations (hukm), that of male by virtue of origin and that of female by virtue of contingency.” Based upon this gender equality as human being, woman is qualified to work in all the same occupations as a man does, and possesses the aptitude for the performance of all intellectual and spiritual activities. In the following, we study a woman’s aptitude for knowledge and spirituality.
Woman’s Aptitude for Knowledge
Texts preserve for us many reports from which one can prove the evident and direct participation of women in cultural and political life. This started at the time of the Prophet, the Companions, and lasted through the first few centuries of the Hijrah, until the dark ages when the role of the free woman in public life faded away to a role of owned slavery – whether by purchase or by capture as a result of war – in the field of arts and in the courts of rulers. This brought about a new kind of relationship of inequality between men and women, between a powerful authoritarian owner and a powerless owned, who would not shy away on most occasions from using guile and deception in order to achieve personal gain.
In spite of the appearance of a breach in the life of men’s and women’s societies, sufi circles remained, for the most part, open to both genders, looking upon woman as a human being and not as a female, as a person with exactly the same aptitude for divine closeness and gnosis as a man.
Ibn ‘Arabî further developed the vision of the sufis who preceded him, with regard to women being people of knowledge and gnosis. Woman manifested in his works in two aspects: the sufi and the fiqh fields.
Woman as Spiritual Teacher, Guiding Shaykh and Divine Mother
This characterisation was personified by a woman of gnosis from Seville, Fatima bint al-Muthanna of Cordoba. In his youth, Ibn ‘Arabî served her, himself, for about two years. This is longer than any period of time he spent in the “company” of a sufi gnostic, inasmuch as the words “serve” and “company” denote in sufi terminology, taking and learning from, being polished by association and company and service, all of which is unveiled by sufis in an educational method quite different from that of the faqih who requires intellectual force-feeding. When Ibn ‘Arabî says “I served”, it means he took the person served as a shaykh, a guide, and a spiritual teacher. Therefore, Fatima bint al-Muthanna was for Ibn ‘Arabî all that a shaykh is to a murid.
Ibn ‘Arabî, the murid, acknowledged the role of the Sevillean gnostic in his rebirth, and accepted his spiritual descent from her, which he never did with any of the shaykhs he accompanied and served during his lifetime. She was the only one he called “my mother”. And she used to tell him: “I am your divine mother, and the light of your earthly mother.”
The influence of this gnostic lady on the rebirth of Ibn ‘Arabî appears in the few passages he relates in the Futuhat which include her contemplations and the gifts of sainthood that were granted to her. She used to say to Ibn ‘Arabî for example, “I wonder at him who says he loves God and yet is not rejoiced by Him, for He is the one witnessed by him, His eye observes him in every eye, and He is not hidden from him, not for one moment.”
Ibn ‘Arabî came to know her station when she told him that the Fatiha of the Quran served her. He learned first-hand when she recited the Fatiha for a matter she desired and he read with her. As a result of her reading, she created a three-dimensional ethereal image of the Fatiha, and asked it to carry out such and such an order. He also mentions benefiting from this gnostic lady’s knowledge in the field of the science of letters, which is a science of saints.
Therefore, the Sevillean gnostic manifested in the life of Ibn ‘Arabî in the position of guiding saint and spiritual teacher, and he was not embarrassed to learn from her, or to surrender to her leadership, or to stand as a murid before her knowledge. This is practical proof of Ibn ‘Arabî’s declaration that a woman can be a shaykh and a spiritual guide, and that men are allowed to be among her disciples. So let no attention be paid to those who do not see that a man can be the disciple of a woman on the pretext of the mixing of the sexes, because historically and to this day, women have been numbered among the disciples of male shaykhs. The issue here is the aptitude for knowledge and learning, which allows a woman to take on her rightful role in the life of a disciple.
Woman as Endowed with Direct Understanding (faqiha) and Prayer Leader (imam)
Ibn ‘Arabî bestows upon Bilqis (Queen of Sheba) the rank of Faqiha. When she surrendered to Islam, she did not become a follower of Solomon, nor did she submit to his guidance. Rather, she remained free in her belief from following an envoy or an imam, free from intermediaries. She revealed that she possessed direct belief in God, exactly like that of the Envoys, when she said: “I submit with Solomon to Allah, Lord of the universes,” in contrast to the Pharaoh who said: “the Lord of Moses and Aaron”.
By examining Ibn ‘Arabî’s life, we can say that he is a man of knowledge and experience, not a man of theory who speaks about woman as an invisible/hidden being. This means that when he described woman’s aptitude and acknowledged her abilities and her equality to man, he was thinking of those women he knew and not theorizing on the “issue of women”. Ibn ‘Arabî’s statements on women are based on a broad experience of life, in which women revealed to him their powers and aptitudes. As regards equality between the sexes in the field of their competency in knowledge, he held the view that a woman could be imam, leading both men and women in prayer. He says: “There are people who permit women to lead the prayer unconditionally, for both men and women, and I agree with that.”
And this is very much a contemporary issue, which no Islamic scholar in the twenty-first century would dare to agree with. I suppose the reason is that many legal authorities are trapped into passing judgments by linking scriptural passages with other passages, rather than by intermingling passages and life as it is lived.
Woman’s Spiritual Aptitude
In addition to what has been referred to regarding woman’s spiritual aptitude in discussing the Sevillean gnostic Fatima bint al-Muthanna, one of Ibn ‘Arabî’s shaykhs, we may pose a question: what spiritual ranks are open to a woman, and what ceiling is there which she cannot pierce?
To begin with, Ibn ‘Arabî affirms woman’s attainment of human perfection, in other words becoming “Perfect Man” as in his ontological definition. He says: “Perfection is not barred to women. If woman is indeed one degree lower than man, this is a degree of coming into being (ijad) since she was created from him, and this does not detract from [her attainment of] perfection.” In addition, when Ibn ‘Arabî defined “Perfect Manhood” in the Futuhat al-Makkiyya, he pointed out that this is for both males and females. Likewise, when he detailed in the Futuhat “the Country of the Interior” (dawlat al-batin) and the number of universal ranks and activities in the interior, he mentioned that they were open to both men and women.
To counteract the historical stereotypical image of woman’s natural weakness, Ibn ‘Arabî writes about her power: “And there is no more powerful creature in the universe than woman – for each angel that God has created from the breaths (anfas) of women is the most powerful of angels.”
Ibn ‘Arabî goes so far as to say that men and women share all the ranks of sainthood, even that of the Pole (qutb). But what is this superior rank which is open to women? And what does it mean for a woman to be a “Pole” in the eyes of al-shaykh al-akbar?
In answer to the above, we can say that once a Pole, woman becomes possessor of the moment (waqt), master of the time, God’s vicegerent on His earth, representative of the Envoy in his community, heir to being chosen, cloaked and to acquiring Adamic distinction. Around her the world turns: she arranges its governance and the needs of the entire world rest upon her. God is in solitude with her without the rest of His creation, and He beholds none but her during her time. She is the highest veil. In the Presence of mithal, God erects for her a throne upon which He seats her, and then He bestows upon her all the Divine Names that the universe asks of her and she asks of Him/it. When she is seated upon the throne in the Divine Image, God orders the universe to pledge allegiance and to pay homage to her. Among her subjects are every being, high and low, except the highest of the angels, who are those lost in love (muhayyamun), and the singulars (afrad) of mankind, over whom she has no authority because they are like her, perfect, with the aptitude for what she has received of Polehood.
Ibn ‘Arabî is opposed to those who refuse to acknowledge the sainthood (wilaya) of women as well as men. He says in an unambiguous passage after stating that women can indeed reach the station of Polehood:
And do not be veiled by the saying of the Prophet, peace be upon him, “Prosper not those who give sovereignty to woman,” since we are discussing God giving sovereignty, not people giving sovereignty, and the saying was about those to whom people give sovereignty. Had there been nothing else in this matter but what the Prophet, peace be upon him, said, “Women and men are siblings (shaqaîiq)”, it would have been sufficient; that is to say, all that is rightfully a man’s, in terms of stations, degrees and qualities, is also possible for whichever woman God wills.
Therefore, men and women being “siblings” was the basis for Ibn ‘Arabî to denote that a sibling is similar, equal and of the same level. As a result, woman is equal to man in aptitude for all the stations of sainthood.
As for the ceiling that limits woman and that she cannot pierce, it is that of envoyship and prophetic mission (risala wa-ba’tha). Ibn ‘Arabî says that a woman shares the degree of perfection with man, and that man is favoured by superlative perfection: envoyship and prophetic mission. In that sense, she is equal to all muslim men after prophethood and envoyship has been sealed by the person of Muhammad, peace be upon him.
Female as Cosmic Principle
We move now from the concept of woman (marîa) as an independent individualized human being, to the concept of the female (untha) which thrusts her into a duo, a couple, a relationship with the other, “the male”. And it is here, on the level of femaleness, that differences in the roles and the cosmic degrees emerge. Ibn ‘Arabî says regarding the two aspects of equality and discrimination: “Whoever regards humanity equates women to men, and whoever regards maleness and femaleness, and God’s words: -Men have a degree over them [women],’ and made the actor prevail over the acted-upon, discriminates between men and women.”
We would like to point out here that femaleness is an ontological degree, a quality, position and role, not a specific being. This means that there is no ontological impediment preventing a male being in the degree of femaleness (a female male) or a female being in the degree of maleness (a male female), or for the same person to be in one place a female and in another a male. And what is meant by that will be clear when dealing with the subject in the following two subsections.
Female Woman: Completing Being and Gnosis for a Male Man
The first manifestation of female woman and male man appeared in the creation of Eve and Adam and in the consummation of their ontological marriage. We may observe that there is a strong presence of Adam and Eve in every male man/female woman relationship, according to Ibn ‘Arabî. It is as if the beginning of creation is the archetype for every true conjugal relationship that ever occurs in human history.
Ibn ‘Arabî relates his vision of the beginning of man, the first relationship between the two sexes and the quiddity of love of women to Divine Love, in a symbolic manner open to interpretation. We will attempt to summarize these comprehensive and complex perceptions as much as possible in the next two paragraphs.
Female Woman: Completing Being for a Male Man
Ibn ‘Arabî considers the first human body as that of Adam, and in its origin – in so far as we imagine it – it resembles a sculpture that a potter would create out of clay and then fire in a kiln. From Adam’s rib, God created the body of Eve, so it resembles in its origin a sculpture that a carpenter would chisel out of wood or stave. Ibn ‘Arabî describes the ontological yearning between Adam and Eve, something which spread from them to every human couple in being, saying: “- and God filled the place from which Eve was created with a hunger for her, for there cannot remain any void in being. When He filled it with air, he felt towards her a yearning as towards himself because she is a part of him, and she felt a yearning towards him because he is her homeland, from which she originated. So Eve’s love is love of homeland, and Adam’s love is love of himself.”
Therefore, the male man does not feel satiation in being except by uniting with the female woman, she who is created from him and is in his own image.
This brings us to opening a window from which we can view Ibn ‘Arabî’s perception of female beauty, as far as we are able to tell. We say that the desired woman for whom Ibn ‘Arabî yearns is the woman created in his image. And by looking into his private life, we discover that Nizam bint Makinuddin is the only woman who was capable of becoming to him the “Eve” who came out of the body of “Adam”, and with whom he yearned to unite to achieve his satiation in being. He describes her at the beginning of his Diwan by qualities that serve to confirm what we have mentioned. He says:
[She is] the incomparable one of her era. Her home is the pupil in the eye, and the heart in the chest. She is of long experience.
Female Woman: Completing Gnosis for a Male Man
Ibn ‘Arabî discusses a delicate issue, something he does perhaps only once, in the last chapter of his Fusus al-Hikam. The matter is summarised in the fact that God (haqq) can never be witnessed divested of matter. And since witnessing cannot take place except in matter, a man’s witnessing of God in woman is the grandest and most complete witnessing. In this sense, female woman is one who completes male man in gnosis.
How did Ibn ‘Arabî present this idea?
It springs from contemplating the prophetic saying: “I was made to love three things of your world, women, perfume, and the freshness of the eyes [that was brought to me] in prayer.” It may be deduced that the basis is man’s yearning for his Lord, who is his origin, and that is why God made him love woman – for as God, the Most High, loves him who is in His image, He makes loveable to man the woman whom He extracted for him from him and who appeared in his image.
When man loves woman, he desires to conjoin and unite with her, and when the act is consummated pleasure overtakes all parts of the body, and it is as if he were annihilated in her. Thus, as God is jealous for his servant, He orders him to perform a full ablution in order that he be cleansed of “other”, and return to observing Him in the one in whom he has been annihilated, i.e. in woman.
God has cleansed man by complete ablution because he has to witness God in woman, and that is the grandest and the most complete contemplation, because it is a witnessing of God as actor and acted-upon simultaneously. Al-Qashani insists that this witnessing is in the act of copulation, whereas the actual passage signifies that it follows it and is a consequence to it.
Femaleness as Cosmic Degree
Ibn ‘Arabî shows a great deal of ingenuity when he makes femaleness a cosmic principle permeating through every creature and product, sharing with maleness the act of creation in every plane. Femaleness and maleness are equal in their ontological amplitude, but they are separate in their roles and degrees of being.
Femaleness is a degree of receptivity, of acted-upon-ness, and of being effected by maleness, which is the possessor of the degree of actor and acted-upon. It is also for maleness the place for depositing, seeding, growing, bringing into being, creating and manifestation. Each receptive and acted-upon and being effected is in the degree of female even if it be male; and everything which is a place for depositing, seeding, growing and creating, is in the degree of female even if it be male. Therefore, every creature in the universe is “female” on both the ontological and the gnostic levels. Ibn ‘Arabî says:
We are females for what He impregnates in us Praise be to God, there is not in this universe a male Those men whom custom designates They are really females: they are my soul, my avail.
He says: “The degree of every acted-upon is that of a female, and there is nothing that is not acted-upon. Action is in reality divided between the actor and the acted-upon: from the side of the actor comes the power or ability, and from the side of being acted upon comes the receptivity to being empowered.”
According to Ibn ‘Arabî, femaleness and maleness permeate through the articulations of being, each one of them bringing about the other. For there is no “male” actor, with its propensity towards depositing, seeding and creating, except through the existence of a “female” who is receptive to the action, a receptacle for that depositing, seeding, and creation. Femaleness and maleness are two conjoined, simultaneous, mutually corresponding principles, sharing one act. In spite of this, the degree of femaleness is one degree behind that of maleness. So how does Ibn ‘Arabî interpret the degree that man has over woman?
Ibn ‘Arabî transmutes “the degree” from its social and life context to one of Being. He regards man as being in God’s mentation before woman, as he was prior to her in existence. Since the Divine order is never repeated, the witnessing which happened to the former can in no way repeat itself to the latter, because He does not manifest in the same image twice, just as He does not manifest to two people in the same image, and this is due to the Divine Vastness. And this is the degree by which a man exceeds a woman.
In another section in the Futuhat, Ibn ‘Arabî is intent not on erasing the ontological degree that belongs to man, but on making it equivalent to a spiritual degree belonging to woman. He says: “Do you not observe God’s wisdom in giving an increase to woman over man in terms of name? He says of man al-marî, while He says of woman al-marîah. Thus He increased her by ha-in pause (gram.) and by ta-in conjunction (gram.) when compared to the name “man”. So she has a degree over that of man’s in that station, which corresponds to His saying, -men have degrees over them [women]’ so He filled this gap with that increase for women (marîah).”
He follows up the linguistic context which manifests woman’s superiority over man, by saying: “… and had there been no honour paid to the feminine other than the fact that both the Divine Essence (dhat) and Quality (sifa) are feminine [in gender], that would have been sufficient”.
It is in this manner that Ibn ‘Arabî is insistent on placing woman on the same footing as man, for as he says, “the universe depends on two orders”, that is to say, on man and woman.
Ibn ‘Arabî’s positive and unadulterated view of woman is astonishingly modern when compared to contemporary perspectives, be it those of some Muslim extremists who treat women as a lesser being, or those of people who demand a reassessment, historical, linguistic, legal, theological, etc., of woman’s place in both the East and the West, according to some other kind of limitation.
This view also shows the humanity of Islam, cleansed of all the oppression, coercion and persecution of women that has been attributed to it. Indeed the vision of Ibn ‘Arabî extends far beyond the sixth-century Hijrah to fill woman with sanctity – and she is in dire need of it today – and to restore truly Islamic principles, which have been banished by the passage of years and masked by personal interests.
Translated from the Arabic by Nermine Hanno.
First published in the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society, Volume XXXIX, 2006.
 See Q. 2:228: "Men have a degree above them [women]".
 Ibn ‘Arabî, Al-Insan al-Kulli, Zahiriyya MS. 4865, fol. 2b.
 Ibn ‘Arabî, Al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya, vol. IV, p. 84.
 Fut., I.274.
 Al-Mu’jam al-Sufi, pp. 124-5.
 Fut., II.347.
 Ibid., II.135.
 Mu’jam, p. 213, Fusus al-Hikam, ed. A. ‘Afîfî, Beirut, n.d., pp. 156-7.
 Fut., I.447.
 Ibid., I.708.
 Ibid., II.588.
 Ibid., II.6-39, where Ibn ‘Arabî mentions men of numbers and men of ranks, and reveals in many instances that they include men and women.
 Ibid., II.466.
 Ibid., III.89.
 See Mu’jam, p. 680, Al-Ajwiba al-La-iqa by Ibn ‘Arabî, fol. 9a.
 Mu’jam, p. 912, Manzil al-qutb by Ibn ‘Arabî, p. 2.
 Mu’jam, p. 912, and Fut., II.555.
 Mu’jam, p. 913, and Fut., III.136-7.
 Fut., III.89.
 Ibid., III.88.
 Ibid., I.486.
 Ibid., I.124-5.
 The notion of "Eve going out of Adam and her place being inhabited by desire and yearning for her because there cannot remain a void in being" is repeated in many of Ibn ‘Arabî’s books.
 Fut., I.124.
 See Fusus al-Hikam, chapter on Muhammad.
 Ibid., and Sharh al-Fusus by Bali Efendi, Al-Nafisa al-Othmaniya Press, p. 427.
 See Fusus al-Hikam (final chapter) and Sharh al-Fusus, pp. 425-7; and Sharh Fusus al-Hikam by ‘Abd al-Razzaq Al-Qashani, Mustafa Al-Babi Al-Halabi Press, Egypt, pp. 332-3.
 Al-Qashani, Commentary on Fusus, p. 333.
 Fut., III.297, "Female, locus of creation".
 Ibid., IV.445.
 Ibid., I.507.
 See Fut., I.679.
 Fut., III.89, Ibn ‘Arabî deals here with the issue of the testimony of men and women, and draws many conclusions of great benefit worthy of our attention. We may also observe English possesses the same linguistic feature, where "wo-man" has an increase over "man".
 Fut., III.90.