Mystic, philosopher, poet and sage Muhammad bin Ali Ibn al-‘Arabi or Ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240) is one of the world’s great spiritual teachers. He grew up in the Moorish culture of Andalusia in Spain, the centre of a remarkable cross-fertilisation of Jewish, Christian and Islamic thought. Through this centre the major scientific and philosophical works of antiquity made their way to Northern Europe. While Ibn ‘Arabi did not label himself as a Sufi, scholars generally classify him as such.

Ibn ‘Arabi is credited as the first to explicitly delineate the concept of “Wahdat ul-Wujud” (“Unity of Being”). This doctrine theorises a single and indivisible reality, which simultaneously transcends and is manifested in all things in the universe in a singular “reality”.

Sex and the divine

According to Egyptian scholar Heba Yosry, Ibn ‘Arabi taught that sexuality plays a significant role in the spiritual path toward the divine. In fact, sexual union provides a way to witness the indwelling divine presence, allowing humanity to know, be, and experience the divine presence in the multiplicity of its existence.

Ibn ‘Arabi saw all of existence as suffused with feminine and masculine essence, somewhat like a Taoist. For him the yearning between woman and man parallels this yin-yang quality of the universe. The ultimate purpose of union between the sexes isn’t utility, such as the production of heirs. The ultimate goal is complementarity in pursuit of oneness.

The mutual desire between lovers reflects a memory of their prior unity/androgyny. In The Bezels of Wisdom, Ibn ‘Arabi wrote:

Then God drew forth from him [man] a being in his own image, called woman, and because she appears in his own image, the man feels a deep longing for her, as something yearns for itself, while she feels longing for him as one longs for that place to which one belongs.

Yesry elucidates:

The feeling that man has towards woman is one of lack, where the whole yearns for its part, while woman’s feeling is that of a being severed from her origin, her home.

Together, they constitute “an organic duo who desire each other with the same intensity”.

Spiritual sex

Ibn 'Arabi and sacred sexIbn ‘Arabi explained that as a young man he turned away from women in pursuit of the divine. However, God then made women lovable to him (as He also did to the Prophet). Ibn ‘Arabi added that he had become the greatest of creatures in care of women and the most observant of their rights.

Ibn ‘Arabi is famous also for his love poetry, which combined adoration of a beloved with a profound understanding of such love’s power to reveal the divine. During his first pilgrimage to Mecca, he made the acquaintance of Nizam, the beautiful, talented daughter of a scholar from Isfahan. This fateful encounter inspired Ibn ‘Arabi’s infamous collection of verses, the “Tarjuman al-Ashwaq” (Interpreter of Desires). Muslim scholars who view Ibn ‘Arabi’s insight as blasphemous have been trying to explain away these poems ever since.

Yet if his critics understood union without physical gratification, they would feel no need to condemn his work. In his work Futuhat II 167 Ibn ‘Arabi makes it clear that he did not love women because of Nature (conventional, procreative sex). He pursued a different kind of sexuality.

He describes the origins of mammalian sexuality (which humans share with animals):

Sensory intuition was created from the most subtle parts of the animal spirit. It is the hottest thing in the body, so He called it fire. [Because sensory intuition does not comprehend the spirit or heart, it claims eminence and transgresses its proper domain in its judgements.] It refuses to accept the judgement of the intellect.

Ibn ‘Arabi taught that Satan (Iblis) removed Adam and Eve from Paradise by means of implanting in them this preoccupation with the sensory. That is, sensory intuition caused humans to lose the faculties that let them understand the spiritual body (and their true potential). He believed that humans became more animal-like, but didn’t realise it. Their sensory-driven minds prevented them from grasping their true potential.

Therefore, to achieve the ultimate goal of witnessing the divine presence, humans must exercise sexual self-control. Ibn ‘Arabi’s teachings suggest that sexual self-control is not about rejecting pleasure but rather about being wholly present with the divine. It also offers a means to perfect one’s surrender to the divine.

The marriage act

For Islamic mystics like Ibn ‘Arabi, the marriage act is the point where Nature and the Real potentially intersect. Here lovers can perceive the divine if they approach union consciously. Instead of experiencing solely the “animal”, in which marriage remains a spiritless form, lovers can directly experience the divine.

Ibn ‘Arabi’s perspective that the mutual desire between lovers harks back to a prior state of unity or androgyny echoes Gnostic and Platonic notions of the ‘Original Androgyne.’ He seems to suggest that sexual union can provide an embodied experience of this lost unity, an “as-above-so-below”  moment. The incorporation of sexual practices as a tool for spiritual development and as a way of achieving oneness with the divine echoes teachings from many esoteric and spiritual traditions. While Ibn ‘Arabi focuses on a particular Islamic mystic context, such practices are universal in nature. They include Tibetan Buddhist lineages, Taoist sexual practices, and various Hermetic approaches.

In some of his writings, Ibn ‘Arabi sounded remarkably like some of today’s theoretical physicists. As early as the 13th century, he taught that the world is an illusion. And that we merely imagine that it is an autonomous reality. This suggests that our identities in this world are equally illusory. Do we collectively imagine our experience of the world into existence? Perhaps through Synergy lovemaking we can answer this question.