Giorgio’s first love of the poet Dante led him to Ibn ‘Arabi. He tells the story of a winding journey from academic failure to intellectual and spiritual inspiration. In between, he was head of religious studies in a Jesuit school for 30 years. A few months ago he moved to Italy where he has started a philosophy group near Lake Como.
Giorgio Rebollini, Italy/online
After failing miserably in my secondary school studies in Italy, my mother was disappointed with me, and sent me to work aged 16. A couple of years later I registered for an evening secretarial course. In Italy, whatever course one followed, the study of Dante’s Comedia [Divine Comedy] was in the syllabus. So, in between touch-typing and shorthand I attended lectures on it. The Comedia was literally my first love. Dante’s passion for the love of virtue, knowledge and truth became mine, his journey my journey.
Move to England
At 21, on completion of my National Military Service, I went to England, hardly knowing a word of English. In need of a work permit, I arrived as a young male au-pair.
England gifted me with an intellectual re-birth with the opportunities in its higher education system. Within twelve years of my arrival I qualified as teacher of French, then a degree in Italian and Renaissance Studies. This of course included a more in-depth study of Dante!
Meeting the School
Two years after my move to England, in 1970, I joined The School of Philosophy in London. An advert in the underground was the call. However, the very strict Catholic upbringing I had received asserted itself, and I left for some years.
Meeting Ibn ‘Arabi
Re-joining the School some 25+ years later and settling recently in Malta brought Dante’s studies back. On reading one of the commentaries of the Comedia, I noticed a small footnote that jumped out at me: Ibn ‘Arabi also wrote about his own spiritual journey. The more I looked into it the more Dante was saying to me “Go there, this is your next step”.
But soon I realised that Ibn ‘Arabi could only be fully appreciated with a knowledge of Arabic. So I applied myself to another language. Arabic is a language of extreme pliability and richness owing to its base on ‘roots’. Each of the 28 letters of the alphabet, their permutations and associations, and their numerical value are the signifiers of degrees of being. Sound, letters and numbers are that by which the Creator gives rise to and sustains the universe.
Aside from all that, Arabic calligraphy is the most beautiful I have ever encountered; it is sheer joy to write.
From the 8th-14thcenturies the Moslem empire saw the growth of Sufism, an extraordinary outpouring of spiritual energy. Sufism aimed at immediate knowledge of the eternal, giving liberation from the chain of individual existence. It was in this intellectual and spiritual environment that Ibn ‘Arabi was born in 1165, a hundred years before Dante, in Murcia, Andalusia.
Ibn ‘Arabi’s life
He was born into a noble family which destined him for a prestigious career. But at the age of 14, Ibn ‘Arabi responded to a call to withdraw from the world. Called by Jesus, he went to live in a cave for 14 months.
After consulting with his father, Ibn ‘Arabi renounced all his possessions, henceforth lived on gifts and alms from companions of the way. This poverty was the outward sign of the ‘station’ of pure servitude, or emptiness before God; an outward sign to preserve him from the illusion of sovereignty.
From 14 onwards he submitted himself to the direction of many Sufi teachers, some of whom were women, for training in all the academic subjects and practices available. His training also consisted in following the particular disciplines recommended to him by his masters, such as the daily examination of one’s thoughts and actions, and practice of the ‘recollection’ of names of Allah. Unusually, illumination came first, training afterwards!
In precise philosophical language, Ibn ‘Arabi describes the stages of his inner spiritual journey. As a ‘traveller’, through reflective thought, he journeyed through the degrees of Being to the Oneness of Being,and the order of the Divine Names as found in the Koran. This was the process of moving away from everything that veiled Him. Ibn ‘Arabi perfected his knowledge by means of contemplation and further spiritual ‘unveilings.’
During one of these experiences he describes his inner journey through the heavenly spheres, encountering all the prophets, and being granted the essence of their character traits and relationship with God. He also describes the attainment of particular ’stations’, permanent states of being. The station of ‘revelation’, he describes as seeing simultaneously God in each thing and each thing in God. Then never ceasing contemplating the many in the One and the One in the many.
The Meccan revelations of Ibn ‘Arabi
In periods of his life Ibn ‘Arabi was granted ‘unveilings’ (revelations), in Fez but, more significantly, during his pilgrimage to Mecca. During this pilgrimage two important encounters occurred; the first with a mysterious young man who communicated with him without speaking, “I have no knowledge apart from the knowledge of Myself. My essence does not differ from my names. I am Knowledge, the Known and the Knower. . .”. Ibn ‘Arabi received from him how and what he was to write in his major work, The Meccan Revelations.
This philosophical treatise deals with everything that needs to be known and practised for self-realization, as well as cosmology, astrology, grammar, the science of letters, and more; his other minor works centred on a particular subject. Yet he always insisted on the need for a living teacher.
The second encounter was with the beautiful Lady of Nizam who, in their many conversations, understood him intuitively. She inspired him to write some of the most beautiful mystical poetry ever composed in Arabic,‘The Interpreter of Desires’.
I am struck by the extraordinary richness of this poetry which partly lies in the many-layered meanings arising from root-words. Ibn ‘Arabi refers to the Lady of Nizam as: “the central jewel in a strung necklace”.
It had always seemed that in the historical cycle of ‘renaissances’ there was an unfilled gap. Plato, Jesus, Plotinus, and Ficino, but nothing convincing in the 12th century.
My opinion is that each renaissance gives rise to a great master but that he represents and fulfils the work of a much larger movement, in our case Sufism.
The rise of Sufism starting in 8thcentury Andalusia reached its apex in the 12th with its most splendid manifestation, Ibn ‘Arabi (also known as the Great Master, Sheikh al-Akbar).
Why I love Ibn ‘Arabi
Two aspects of his teaching attract me and enrich my life: the recollection of the names of God, and the science of letters. Sufis speak of the ‘divine names’ as all the possibilities or universal essences contained in the divine essence immanent in the world. The practice of meditating on a specific name is the remembrance of the innate knowledge of God’s presence in that particular way and leads to its realisation in one’s being.
Ibn ‘Arabi draws me because he speaks both to my mind and heart. Because of his wholehearted devotion to God, his Sufi masters, and his disciples; because he speaks the Truth as he ‘tasted’ it, and because of his indefatigable effort in letting it be known far and wide through his many writings and travels throughout the vast Moslem empire. And because, as with all wise men, he awakens the Truth which abides within me.
Giorgio attends the School online. For more information go to: PPO
Interested in another story like this? Read about St Cuthbert.