The Early Ottoman Reception of Ibn ‘Arabi

A review of Friend and Foe: The Early Ottoman Reception of Ibn ‘Arabī, by Ahmed Zildžić.

Ahmed Zildžić’s dissertation, Friend and Foe: The Early Ottoman Reception of Ibn ‘Arabī, addresses the continuation of Islamic intellectual and spiritual traditions into the Ottoman period. Unfortunately, this has been neglected by both Ottoman historiography as well as histories of Islamic thought and spirituality. The prerequisites for such an undertaking – a command of different languages, contexts, ideas and intellectual trajectories – form an understandable deterrent to the systematic study of the continuation of pre-modern Islamic thought and spirituality in the Ottoman context. Nonetheless, tolerating such a lacuna does a disservice to the history of the Ottoman world, which tried to resolve many of the very same questions that had preoccupied the Muslim world for centuries. It does no less a disservice to the history of Islamic thought and spirituality more broadly, which was taken up and often enriched in the Ottoman period.

Zildžić‘s dissertation is a welcome addition to the emerging reversal of the aforementioned trend. It discusses the reception of Ibn ‘Arabī (d. 1240), one of the great thinkers and spiritual masters of the Muslim world as well as one of the “most polarizing figures in later Islamic thought” (p. 26), among the Ottoman learned class – “both those learned in religious sciences and Ottoman bureaucrats and administrators” (p. iv). The dissertation is framed around a proposition made by ‘Abdullāh al-Bosnevī (d. 1644), an Ottoman commentator on Ibn ‘Arabī’s Fuṣūṣ al-ḥikam. In brief, Bosnevī “contends that Ibn ‘Arabī’s saintly figure was largely intact among the Ottomans until Sultan Selim conquered the Arab world. After Selim’s seizure of the two traditional centers of Muslim scholarship that were in Mamluk possession, namely Damascus and Cairo, the heated debates regarding Ibn ‘Arabī’s acceptability, or lack thereof, from the works of Arab fuqahā’ who lived in those centers of learning were transferred into the Ottoman scholarly milieu and wrought havoc there” (p. v).

This suggests that the early Ottoman world was intellectually rather isolated from the Arabic-speaking heartlands of Islam, and as such evinced an independent and seemingly wholly positive engagement with Ibn ‘Arabī and his legacy. This, however, changed with the Ottoman conquest of Mamluk territories; the Ottomans were now confronted with the intellectual traditions of the Arabic-speaking world and the long and more contentious debates on the acceptability of Ibn ‘Arabī’s teachings.

The first part of the dissertation, consisting of chapter one (chapters two, three and four make up the second part), traces the question of Ibn ‘Arabī’s “acceptability” amongst the ulama back to its very beginning, i.e., to Ibn ‘Arabī’s own lifetime, in order to properly test Bosnevī’s thesis. Aware of the scope that a comprehensive analysis of Ibn ‘Arabī’s reception amongst the ulama would require, here Zildžić limits himself mainly to an examination of Ibn ‘Arabī’s ijāza. He sets out to figure what Ibn ‘Arabī himself had to say about his scholarly qualifications and what might have prompted him to write a detailed list of the teachers he studied with and the canonical texts he had mastered under those teachers. Based on “textual evidence in the ijāza itself” and its “almost confessional tone,” Zildžić proposes that “Ibn ‘Arabī was compelled to compose his ijāza by the environment and circumstances he lived in at the time” (p. 6). In other words, Ibn ‘Arabī was responding to the mounting criticism that had begun to appear in his own lifetime.

After briefly listing Ibn ‘Arabī’s qualifications in the study of Quran, hadith and fiqh, Zildžić arrives at an oft-discussed conclusion: the crux of the problem that members of the ulama had with Ibn ‘Arabī was the manner in which he received knowledge. Even though Ibn ‘Arabī had mastered the core sciences that an ‘alim, or member of the ulama class, was expected to, he did not accord book learning the paramount status that the ulama had accorded it. For Ibn ‘Arabī, book learning was secondary to the supreme source of knowledge, direct divine inspiration and unveiling. Thus, Ibn ‘Arabī’s spiritual experiences and writings “amount to nothing less than a grossly intolerable material transgression of the fundamental principles of scholarly authenticity laid down by the ‘ulama in order to protect the integrity of the Muslim umma as the scriptured society and its interpretative community, and thus to establish and maintain the social order of Muslim politics” (p. 37).

Zildžić further looks at The Interpreter of Ardent Desires, a collection of poems composed by Ibn ‘Arabī, which seems to have caused a great scandal. According to Zildžić, the reason why poetry of an erotic nature could be tolerated in general but not with Ibn ‘Arabī is because Ibn ‘Arabī was “acknowledged as an ‘ālim, even if nominally,” and he “could not enjoy similar liberties as that would set a dangerous precedent and would be totally opposite to the gravity of the task that the ‘ulama bore” (p. 32).

In a useful summary of the “sources of trouble” (pp. 32-41), Zildžić opens with “the size of his output,” and “the many years of his productive life and stunningly industrious career as a writer,” which produced “a more or less systematically organized and comprehensive belief system – a single well organized textual and interpretative community” (p. 36). Aside from the abovementioned challenge to the traditional transmission of interpretative knowledge, Zildžić concludes this section with “one circumstance intrinsically connected with the inspirational genesis of his works that makes Ibn ‘Arabī difficult to accept for many Muslims. This is the unforgiving nature of his writings, this absolutistic ‘all or nothing’ affair that is very unfashionable among the ‘ulama and learned believers in general” (pp. 40-41).

In the second part of the thesis, chapters two to four, Zildžić “addresses the reception of Ibn ‘Arabī in “what may be provisionally called the Turkish world” (p. v). It sheds light on the highly important, albeit understudied years of Ibn ‘Arabī’s life in Anatolia, his legacy in Anatolia and ultimately its formative effect on the intellectual and spiritual fabric of the nascent Ottoman state.

Chapter two opens with a brief elucidation of the political and religious situation in pre-Ottoman Anatolia. It then summarizes Ibn ‘Arabī’s connections with the political and learned Saljūq and more generally Anatolian Muslim elites. One of these is Ṣadr al-dīn Qūnawī, Ibn ‘Arabī’s step-son and spiritual heir, who helped to define Ibn ‘Arabī’s ideas and thus shaped the main contours for future commentaries of Ibn ‘Arabī’s work. Ṣadr al-dīn Qūnawī’s hospice and great library became a center for the study of Ibn ‘Arabī’s teachings in Anatolia, which gathered around it many great minds and spiritual geniuses, who in turn produced a number of monumental commentaries on Ibn ‘Arabī’s works. The two main founders of the Ottoman ‘ilmiyye or scholarly institution, Dāwūd al-Qayṣarī and Molla Muḥammad Shams al-dīn Fenārī, were both thoroughly steeped in Ibn ‘Arabī’s teachings through Ṣadr al-dīn Qūnawī’s disciples.

Through a succinct summary of information extant in secondary sources and reference to primary sources Zildžić offers a rare perspective on Ibn ‘Arabī’s presence in Anatolia and its “impact on the ways in which the spiritual landscape of the region took shape in pre-Ottoman times” (p. 81). The Ottomans, naturally, relied heavily on existing traditions in Anatolia and incorporated, amongst others, “Ṣadr al-dīn Qūnawī’s zawiya and its textual treasures, waqfs, books and scholars, some of whom became pioneers in erecting a distinct Ottoman scholarly tradition, beginning with the Ottoman ‘firsts’: the first Ottoman medreses and their respective teachers, the first muftis and qāḍīs were not just under the heavy influence of Ibn ‘Arabī’s teachings but even its formulators and proponents” (pp. 81-82).

The third and fourth chapters respectively examine two major ‘Ottoman’ sources connected to Ibn ‘Arabī and his teachings. Chapter three analyzes a prognostic treatise attributed to Ibn ‘Arabī, which foretells the rise of the house of Osman and its just rule. Chapter four analyzes a corpus of Ottoman fatwas regarding Ibn ‘Arabī and his teachings.

The third chapter examines a short treatise attributed to Ibn ‘Arabī, al-Shajara al-nu‘māniyya fī al-dawla al-‘uthmāniyya. According to Zildžić “every aspect in relation to this work is dubious: its very existence in the original form is questionable … its content is obscure and largely impenetrable; its attribution to Ibn ‘Arabī and the attribution of the commentaries … are decidedly spurious; and the date of its composition, as well as that of the commentaries, is unknown and impossible to determine” (p. v). And yet it is a most important link in trying to understand Ibn ‘Arabī’s role in the Ottoman world, “not only in the circles of the Ottoman learned but also, and even more so in that it inaugurated him as a singularly significant figure in the Ottoman dynastic ideology” (p. 83). Zildžić lists two facts which he finds to be proof enough of the great influence that this work exerted: one is the sheer number of extant manuscripts and the other is that “despite its internal contradictions and more or less clear signs of lack of authenticity, [it] was never questioned or presented as a forgery” (p. 83).

This very interesting text “is a fine example of the Ottoman prognostic literature that thrived at the turn of the tenth century of Hijra” (p. 89). Its core message is “divine support for the victorious house of the Ottomans … because they are the most righteous polity after that of the Prophet, his companions, and their followers…” (90). It offers a spiritual account of Ottoman history, designed to equate the very emergence of the Ottoman house with divinely ordained justice and “social perfection” (p. 97). One of the best-known prognostications made in al-Shajara is, “When the sīn enters the shīn, then will emerge the tomb of Muḥy al-dīn.” The sīn refers to Sultan Selim, the shīn to Sham, i.e. Damascus, and Muḥy al-dīn obviously to Muḥy al-dīn Ibn ‘Arabī; Sultan Selim discovered the long-neglected tomb of Ibn ‘Arabī in Damascus. This direct connection and ensuing prognostications about the sīn (i.e. Sultan Selim) is part of a larger design to tie the Ottoman dynastic house to Ibn ‘Arabī and more broadly to divinely ordained victory and an age of justice (p. 92). A codified list of Ottoman rulers follows, which Zildžić determines to be “consistent until the time of Ibrahim I” (r. 1615-48). This, together with the fact that the oldest copies of the text were “penned precisely around that time,” i.e. Ibrahim I’s reign, leads Zildžić to “assume it to be very likely that the texts originated in the fourth and/or fifth decades of the XVII century” (p. 94).

In this chapter Zildžić attempts to provide a framework for the emergence and role of prognosticative literature amongst the Ottoman learned classes. He then analyzes in some detail the major event described by al-Shajara, i.e. Ahmad Pasha’s declaration of independence in Egypt in 1524. This event put into question the Ottoman claim to sovereignty, especially in the old Islamic heartlands, and Zildžić posits that al-Shajara was part of a trend to engender and solidify ideological support for Ottoman territorial expansion (p. 115). Depending on the direction of expansion, different ideologies were employed: gazi ideology in the Balkans; “sectarian literature” against the Safavids; and prognostic and apocalyptic literature in Egypt and Sunni Muslim lands (pp. 115-16).

Zildžić proposes that another major motivation behind the composition of the treatise was – in correlation with the discovery of Ibn ‘Arabī’s tomb by the great conquering Ottoman Sultan Selim and Ibn Kemal’s famous fatwa upon Sultan Selim’s initiative – “a counterweight measure acting in opposition to the rising tide of criticism of [Ibn ‘Arabī] and his work that was prevalent in those traditional centers shortly before the advent of the Ottomans” (p. 118). In an interesting proposition, Zildžić sees al-Shajara as “a mutual exchange of support” between the school of Ibn ‘Arabī, which welcomed sultanic support, and the house of Osman, which readily employed Ibn ‘Arabī in their campaigns against the Mamluks and Safavids.

The fourth and last chapter opens with a brief elucidation of the fatwa and its role in Islamic society. It then examines the corpus of fatwas, both pre-Ottoman and Ottoman, regarding Ibn ‘Arabī and his teachings. The Ottoman fatwas analyzed by Zildžić were issued by different shaykh al-Islams, the appointed religious head of the Ottoman polity. The first fatwa, commonly attributed to Ibn Kemal, praises Ibn ‘Arabī as “the greatest shaykh,” and famously states that “whosoever is not confident he has attained the intended meaning in them [Ibn ‘Arabī’s writings], he should remain silent in this regard” (p. 137).

After untangling this famous fatwa, its implications and reactions to it, Zildžić looks at fatwas issued by each of the following shaykh al-Islams until Ebu Su‘ud. Ebu Su‘ud’s fatwa decided that anything in Ibn ‘Arabī’s writings which might appear at odds with Islamic law was a distortion of the original text. In short, the first and last fatwas, i.e. those Ibn Kemal and Ebu Su‘ud, are positive, while those issued in between are negative. Zildžić claims that “none of those fatwas, either positive or negative, betray a thorough familiarity with the works of Ibn ‘Arabī” (p. 160). They further “demonstrate very little difference from those formulated a few centuries earlier by … Ibn Taymiyya” (p. 161).

In conclusion, Zildžić writes that “there is no doubt that by merely stopping it for further development and elaboration … the royal decree [i.e. Ebu Su‘ud’s fatwa] changed the debate immensely. However, the attitude towards Ibn ‘Arabī and his corpus remained intuitive and largely a matter of temperament: those who accepted him were ready to defend him at any cost and the opposite was true of his opponents” (p. 161).

As noted above, this work is an important contribution to “post-classical” Islamic thought. It is especially useful to Ottomanists because it sheds light on Ibn ‘Arabī and his immensely wide influence from the perspective of the Ottoman world and the Ottoman dawla more specifically. While Ibn ‘Arabī’s influence on individual scholars from the Ottoman period has been brought to light before, to my knowledge, Zildžić’s work is the first to examine in some depth Ibn ‘Arabī’s deeply intricate connection to the Ottoman polity as such. This he has done through an examination of Ibn ‘Arabī’s influence on Ottoman ideology and fatwas on Ibn ‘Arabī’s teachings, issued by Ottoman shaykh al-Islams.

Emin Lelić
Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations
University of Chicago

Primary Sources:

Ibn ‘Arabī, Ijāza li-l-Malik al-Muẓaffar, ed. Badawi
Ibn ‘Arabī (attrib.), al-Shajara al-nu‘māniyya fī al-dawla al-‘uthmāniyya
Fatwas by Ottoman shaykh al-Islams on Ibn ‘Arabī and his teachings

Dissertation Information:

University of California, Berkley. 2012. 191 pp. Primary Advisor: Hamid Algar.


Image: Muhyiddin İbn Arabi Mosque, Şam. Photograph by Suver, 19 November 2007.

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