Tuesday, October 10, 2006

If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Ibn-Arabi

Title page of The Zohar, by Moses de Leon

While living in Spain, I began reading about some of the Jewish mystics who thrived there in the Middle Ages.
One of the most important texts in Kabbalah, The Zohar, by Moses de Leon, was only one of many works that came out of that environment. Moses de Leon eventually moved to, and was buried in, Ávila, one of the most spiritually charged places I’ve ever visited. About two hundred years later, the Christian mystic, Santa Teresa de Ávila, was born there to a family descended from Jewish converts. Her confessor was the great poet and fellow mystic, San Juan de la Cruz.

One afternoon, strolling down a dirt road outside of the village of Chinchón, I was mulling over all these Christian and Jewish mystics in Spain, when I had a thought that literally stopped me in my tracks: What about all the Moors in Spain? Were there Islamic mystics as well? Staring out at the orchards of olive trees and the small vineyards cascading down the terraced hill, I knew without a doubt that I was going to discover something interesting.

The Ecstasy of Santa Teresa, by Bernini

Turns out there were many, many Sufis in Spain in the Middle Ages. In fact, one of the greatest Islamic mystics of all-time was from Murcia: Muhammad Ibn 'Arabi. He was the author of over 300 works, including the al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya, which was over 5,000 pages long and ranks among the most significant books in Sufism.

In addition to a lot of other great information, The Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi Society offers the following brief bio:

Mystic, philosopher, poet, sage, Muhammad Ibn 'Arabi is one of the world's great spiritual teachers. Known as Muhyiddin (the Revivifier of Religion) and the Shaykh al-Akbar (the Greatest Master), he was born in 1165 AD into the Moorish culture of Andalusian Spain, the center of an extraordinary flourishing and cross-fertilization of Jewish, Christian and Islamic thought, through which the major scientific and philosophical works of antiquity were transmitted to Northern Europe. Ibn 'Arabi's spiritual attainments were evident from an early age, and he was renowned for his great visionary capacity as well as being a superlative teacher. He travelled extensively in the Islamic world and died in Damascus in 1240 AD.

Moorish Script in the Alhambra - Granada, Spain.
"There is no other sovereign but God."

So, in the space of approximately 400 years, Muslims, Jews and Christians living in Spain produced some of the most important mystical works in each of their respective religions. The Convivencia (“coexistence” or “cohabitation” in English) was a period of several hundred years when people from all three faiths lived together in Spain. Sometimes it’s made out to be more idealistic than it probably was in reality. On the other hand, especially given some of the hostile attitudes in the world today, the Convivencia proved at certain times in certain places to be one of the more positive and wondrous occasions in human history. But I digress.

I simply wanted to offer a poem by Ibn Arabi, who I discovered while experiencing my own weird version of the Convivencia:

A white-blazed gazelle
Is an amazing sight,
Red-dye signaling,
eyelids hinting,
Pasture between breastbones
And innards.
A garden among the flames!
My heart can take on
Any form:
Gazelles in a meadow,
A cloister for monks,
For the idols, sacred ground,
Kaaba for the circling pilgrim,
The tables of a Torah,
The scrolls of the Qur'an.
I profess the religion of love;
Wherever its caravan turns
Along the way, that is the belief,
The faith I keep.

The translation of his poem comes from a paper delivered in 2004 by Iberian medievalist María Rosa Menocal at the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Humanities Forum on Belief: Three Cultures or One? Muslims, Jews, and Christians and the Art of Coexistence in Medieval Spain.

Peace/Paz on a beautiful Tuesday . . .

1 comment:

crystal said...

Interesting - that was really a unique time/place combination of cultures ... I remember learnng about Aristotle's writings being brought forth from there (I think?). Teresa is one of my favorite siants, and another Spanish mystic, of course, Ignatius of Loyola.