Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi on Poverty


The following appears in “ibn ‘Arabi: Heir to the Prophets” by Dr. William C. Chittick.

Like Maulana Jalal ad-Din Rumi (r.a) and many other Sufi teachers, Muhyiddin ibn ‘Arabi (r.a) frequently explained love in terms of need, iftiqar, a word derived from the same root as poverty, faqr.  Poverty, in turn, is used much more often in Islamic texts than ‘Sufism’ to designate the inner dimension of Islamic teaching and practice.

Poverty or need is an inherent attribute of creatures in face of Allah (s.w.t.), Who is the Wealthy, the Independent, the free of all needs, al-Ghany.  ‘Poor’ and ‘wealthy’ are derived from several Qura’nic verses, especially the following:

O ye men!  It is ye that have need of Allah: but Allah is the One Free of all wants, Worthy of all praise. (Surah Fathir:15)

Allah (s.w.t.) Possesses all good and all wujud, existence. Whatever people possess comes from Him, so He Deserves the praise for it.

In Muhyiddin ibn ‘Arabi’s (r.a) vocabulary, poverty is equivalent to the philosophical term ‘possibility’ or ‘contingency,’ imkan, which refers to the fact that things have no claim on existence and stand in need of Real Wujud,existence if they are to come into existence. Wealth or independence refers to Allah’s (s.w.t.) ‘Necessity,’ wujub, the fact that He is and cannot not be.

Sufis sometimes debated as to whether the goal of the Sufi path was to be poor and needy toward Allah (s.w.t.) or to be wealthy and independent through Allah (s.w.t.). For Muhyiddin ibn ‘Arabi (r.a), poverty and wealth are two sides of the same coin, but poverty deserves to be stressed, because it is the fundamental situation of every Created thing. The entities are inherently poor, so their realities demand that they love and seek what they do not have. The object of their love and seeking is always nonexistent in relation to themselves. He wrote, “He who is wealthy through Allah is poor toward Him. But relationship to Allah through the word ‘poverty’ is more appropriate than relationship to Him through wealth.”

Although people are in fact poor toward the Real Wujud, existence, their poverty and need become specified and focused on specific forms. When people recognise the true nature of their poverty, they strive to have no object of need other than Allah (s.w.t.). Nonetheless, the object of seeking can only be nonexistent. Hence to love Allah (s.w.t.) means to love that which cannot be delimited, defined, constricted, or understood. It is to desire that which is nonexistent in relation to the limited and defined form that is oneself. The human soul may be an ocean without shore, but it can never be more than a shadow of Infinite Wujud.

In their states and beliefs, the Folk of the Path see being, kawn, and bliss, na‘im, as coming only from Allah (s.w.t.), so they are poor toward Him in that and toward no one else. It would not be correct for them to be poor toward Him while they have wujud, for then they would already be existent. Rather, they have this poverty toward wujud in the state of their nonexistence, and that is why He Gives them existence.

The true lover loves Allah (s.w.t.) Alone, not any specific gift of Allah (s.w.t.). Those who love specific objects are unaware that true love can focus only on what is absolutely nonexistent in relation to the lover. Only Wujud is absolutely other than the nonexistent thing, so only it can be the true object of love. This is why Muhyiddin ibn ‘Arabi (r.a) advises his readers, “Attach your poverty to Allah in an absolute sense, without any specification.”

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