The Pakistani champion of Ibn Arabi

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By Akbar Ahmed
In the city of Islamabad, dominated by dull bureaucrats and ambitious politicians, live many unsung heroes of the land. One such hero is the scholar-activist Dr. Ayesha Leghari, the champion of the great Sufi scholar-saint Sheikh Ibn Arabi.

She is a voracious reader: “My favourite book,” she explained to me, “is of course the Quran followed by The Life of Muhammad by Martin Lings. These days I am reading The Study Quranedited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr. It is a phenomenal contribution to the English speaking world for a better understanding of the Sunni, Shia and Sufi Quranic translation and commentary tradition.” Her influences are expectedly broad, from Bulleh Shah, Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, Hafez, and Rumi to Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, Voltaire, and the Brontë sisters.

Dr. Leghari is grateful to many mentors for her scholarship, including her paternal uncle, Sardar Farooq Khan Leghari, the former President of Pakistan: “He always encouraged his daughters and nieces to excel, he was an extremely bright, upright, honest, patriotic man.”

But it is to Ibn Arabi that Dr. Leghari constantly returns. Her PhD from Melbourne University in Australia is based on the study of Ibn Arabi and she has written extensively on the Sheikh; her magnum opus is Creativity: Ibn Arabi’s Traditional Islamic Philosophy of Education(2017). Ibn Arabi is almost unknown in Pakistan, and Dr. Leghari has emerged as one of the preeminent scholars of his philosophy.

Ibn Arabi lived in Andalusia, Spain, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries at a time when Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived, worked, and created together in Europe. A Sufi mystic, he earned the titles Sheikh al-Akbar, which means the “greatest master” and Muhyiddin, or “reviver of religion.” He traveled widely across the Muslim world and wrote over 350 works, including some of the finest poetry in the Arabic language.

There are at least four main points derived from Ibn Arabi which Dr. Leghari stresses and which need to be widely known:

First, is Ibn Arabi’s core concept of the notion of Tawhid or the unity of the universe. Dr. Leghari felt that Ibn Arabi’s greatest contribution to Islamic thought was “his masterly articulation of the core Islamic concept of the Oneness of God known as Tawhid in Arabic. God is Transcendent, beyond all of creation like the purity of Light.”

“God is Al-Haq, the Truth, the spirit is closer to God and therefore its connection with reality is stronger, the soul is an intermediate reality and body is the least real of all. When the body is given paramount importance, running after power and pelf, the lowest egotistical levels of the soul, known as nafs e ammara, become the centre. This is how the spirit and soul become corrupted.”

Our “primordial human nature” which is given to us by God, Dr.Leghari explained, is “treating all of God’s creatures as being manifestation of the One True God. All humane traits are developed when we treat everyone else as we would like to be treated ourselves because each human being is made in the image of the One Almighty God.” If people do not follow their natures, “the result would be the distortion and inversion of values that make us human.”

The second core concept of Ibn Arabiis that of Al insan al kamil, or the perfect human being. These are those people, Dr. Leghari explained, who have “attained enlightenment… God grants them the ability to guide souls towards higher levels of light.” This concept shapes Dr. Leghari’s ideas of activism like protecting the environment, as “Such people are shepherds whose work is to protect not just human beings but the mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms. The preservation of the environment should be given highest priority as we are linked organically with the cosmos around us.”

A third core concept of Ibn Arabi is that of “knots” which is significant for inter-faith relations. Ibn Arabi believed, Dr. Leghari noted, that “God reveals Himself to different people in different ways. This means that God cannot be limited by any one belief those people who only focus on outer rituals without giving due emphasis to the inner character building aspect of religion deny the possibility that God could manifest Himself in other forms of belief other than the ones that they themselves possess. But the arifin, those who have realised the truth, know that ‘God never discloses Himself in a single form to two individuals, nor in a single form twice.’”

A fourth key concept of Ibn Arabi’s work is the balance between the feminine and the masculine and the particular importance of the feminine, which is fascinating as it came so many centuries ago. For Ibn Arabi, the feminine, or jamali, and masculine, or jalali, are “divine traits” that are part of a larger whole and are “responsible for the creation of everything in the universe.”

“God,” Dr. Leghari explained, “has given precedence to his jamali traits of love, mercy, compassion, wisdom, etc., as compared to His jalali traits such as The Avenger, The Abaser, The Wrathful, the Mighty etc., so that human beings too learn to use these feminine nurturing traits to find peace and harmony on earth and the hereafter.”

“But it is important to realise,” she added, “that the masculine traits such as the ones mentioned above also need to be used by following God’s laws as laid down in the Quran and Sunnah, in times of threat, war and abuse of one’s rights. In fact, it is the balanced use of both of jamali and jalalitraits that saves people from falling into error, extremism, militancy, and cruelty (zulm).”

Dr. Leghari has translated this principle into action in her struggle for the rights of women and families in Pakistan and heads the “Ammaji Project” dedicated to the uplift of women.

When I asked her what was the relevance of Ibn Arabi’s thought for Pakistan and the world today she replied: It is essential in this day and age, where materialism is inverting the order of values. The physical world is given central importance and the spiritual world is considered ephemeral and unimportant. There is a negation of the concept that the cosmos has a living spirit and soul which is affected by the human spirit and soul.”

Hence, education is a key component of Leghari’s advocacy, and she has specific suggestions about how education in Pakistan, for example, can be transformed for the better. Leghari promotes an enriching and expansive vision of education shaped by her study of Ibn Arabi. “My work,” she told me, “deals with Islamic philosophy of education and it clarifies the goals and sets the ideal. If one is not clear about the ideal, beautifully expounded by Ibn Arabi and other great saints, philosophers and polymaths of the Islamic intellectual tradition, then it is impossible to attain it The big gaps in our education system are: the lack of language and mathematical skills, creativity, adab or manners, and character building.”

Dr. Leghari’s voice should be widely heard both in Pakistan, in the region, and in the wider world which is so troubled with violence and intolerance. There is no doubt that Ibn Arabi’s message of love, unity, and compassion is desperately needed.

(The writer is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, Washington, DC, and author of Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity.)