What Did Averroes Ask Ibn Arabi?

Muhhyidin Ibn Arabi and Ibn Rushd, or Averroes, were two pillars of the Islamic Golden Ages. Their meeting represents a quintessential conversation between rationalism and mysticism.

Mar 29, 2024By Maysara Kamal, BA Philosophy & Film

what did averroes ask ibn arabi persian al ghazali


In The Forty Rules of Love, Elif Shafak depicts a conversation between a philosopher and a mystic, where the former says “All that I know, he sees” while the latter remarks “All that I see, he knows”. Each of them represents a distinct epistemology, but is the only difference between them the roads they take to knowledge, or do they arrive at different epistemic destinations as well? That’s what Averroes’ famous meeting with Ibn Arabi brilliantly reveals.


The Religion of Philosophy

Mosque Illustration. Source: OpenArt


Averroes’ was both condemned and celebrated for his attempts to synthesize philosophy and religion. In The Meccan Revelations, Ibn Arabi referred to him as “one of the greatest masters of rational reflection”. Averroes combined his expertise as a jurist and philosopher to raise the status of rationalism to unprecedented significance. According to him, philosophy is a means of attaining absolute truth that is at the summit of all religious sciences. He not only argued that philosophy is permissible, but a moral obligation to some. He also argued that scripture should be considered allegorically where it contradicts reason, which is why only philosophers should interpret it. 


Meeting Ibn Arabi

Illustration of Islamic Thinker by Judas Isariot. Source: Pixabay


Ibn Arabi was only a teenager when Averroes wanted to meet him. He was a close friend of his father and had heard a lot about the young boy’s spiritual visions and knowledge. For a revered philosopher and jurist like himself to be intrigued by a teenager’s wisdom reveals the extent of profound experiences the latter must have had.


Soul’s Journey by Freydoon Rassouli. Source: rassouli.com

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Ibn Arabi visited his house in Cordoba and, upon greeting him, Averroes said ‘Yes’. Ibn Arabi answered ‘Yes’. Averroes was pleased with his answer and that he telepathically understood him, but then Ibn Arabi said “no” and the philosopher became distressed. He then asked him directly: “What solution have you found as a result of mystical illumination and divine inspiration? Does it coincide with what is arrived at by speculative thought?”. Ibn Arabi replied, “Yes and no; between the yes and the no spirits take flight from matter and necks detach themselves from their bodies”. Averroes turned pale as he recognized what the young boy was alluding to. Although their meeting was short and enigmatic, it became a reference point to the epistemic contrast of their schools of thought.


Rational vs. Experiential Epistemologies

The Two Hemispheres. Source: Pixabay


Almost all languages have two words for ‘knowledge’ that correspond to the distinct epistemologies of Averroes and Ibn Arabi. In Spanish it is ‘saber’ and ‘concer’, in French ‘savoir’ and ‘connaître’, in German ‘kennen’ and ‘wissen’, and in Arabic ‘ilm’ and ‘ma’arifah’. Each word denotes a qualitatively different kind of knowledge, which psychiatrist Iain McFilchrist identifies with the two hemispheres of the brain. The left hemisphere involves analytical, verbal, and logical cognition, whereas the right hemisphere involves experiential and intuitive non-verbal recognition. The former involves collecting and processing information, whereas the latter consists of a direct experience of the object of knowledge.


The Photographer by Roschenberger. Source: Pixabay


Consider, for example, the difference between studying photography and holding your camera to photograph. Experiential knowledge is the cognitive faculty through which we recognize a familiar face amidst a crowd of strangers, or identify a certain smell or flavor; it is a knowledge of ‘taste’, as the Sufis call it. Mysticism, considered epistemologically, is nothing but a term referring to the application of our experiential cognitive capacity to spiritual objects of knowledge. Averroes’ rationalism can arrive at informational conclusions about God, but for Ibn Arabi, these conclusions are a lived experience. 


The Akbarian Yes and No

Melodies of Divine Unity by Freydoon Rassouli. Source: rassouli.com


Ibn Arabi was not anti-philosophy, for not only do almost all his works deal with extremely complex philosophical questions, but his worldview relies on rationalism as much as mysticism. Akbarianism, the school of thought based on his teachings, purports a non-dual view of reality where everything that exists is a unique mode of expression of Being. Ibn Arabi famously writes that everything is simultaneously God and not God. From the perspective of Divine immanence, everything is One because it is a manifestation of one Being, but from the perspective of transcendence, everything is differentiated (other) by force of being only a limited locus of manifestation of Being.


The Eye of the Heart, illustration. Source: Pixabay


For this reason, Akbarian epistemology contends that our knowledge can never be perfected until we learn to experience immanence and transcendence simultaneously. He talks of ‘the two eyes of the heart’: the eye of reason perceives otherness (transcendence), whereas the eye of mystical experience witnesses unity (eminence). If one ‘eye’ is more powerful than the other, our ‘vision’ is flawed. In modern terms, we’d say that Akbarian epistemology relies on the balance and harmony of the two cerebral hemispheres.

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By Maysara KamalBA Philosophy & Film Maysara is a graduate of Philosophy and Film from the American University in Cairo (AUC). She covered both the BA and MA curriculums in the Philosophy Department and published an academic article in AUC’s Undergraduate Research Journal. Her passion for philosophy fuels her independent research and permeates her poems, short stories, and film projects.