Researcher of Political Science & Classical Islam. Initiated by the Khwajagan i-Naqshband.
“The qutb, the Axis, the highest in the hierarchy of saints, engages often in sexual intercourse and loves women…Many gnostics have failed to grasp this truth, for it is one of the secrets of which only a few of the “people of providence” (ahl al-‘inaya) understand” – Shaykh al-Akbar Ibn al-‘Arabi, Al-Futuhat al-makkiyya Vol. 2:573-574
“al-Junayd (d.910), the celebrated mystic of Baghdad, said, “I need sex just as I need food” – al-Ghazali
The Sufis are by definition those who hold to the superiority of hidden truths and hidden virtues over external meanings, status, and religious ostentation. In the earliest phase of Sufism, that of the ascetics, celibacy was favored by many who believed marriage, family, and other social relationships would distract them from absolute devotion to God alone. The early Sufis denied themselves all physical comforts, reduced their worldly possessions to an absolute minimum, and deprived themselves of sleep in order to pray and recite the Qur’an at night.
Although Sufi literature is directed toward a male audience in a context where the superiority of men over women is assumed to be the natural order, some women nonetheless did participate in the Sufi orders in medieval Islam. Credit for transforming Sufism into an ecstatic love mysticism is usually given to a woman, Rabi’a al-‘Adawiyya, who lived in Iraq and died in 801. For her, God was the Beloved who so filled her heart that she had room for no other. She closed her shutters in springtime, lest the beauty of the flowers distract her from the beauty of her Beloved. She refused all offers of marriage, preferring to devote herself exclusively to God.
But the archetypal Sufi was a man. Sufi ethics came to be known as futuwwa, “young manliness (javānmardi, javānmardān),” based on the word fata, meaning “young man,” literally a code of chivalry that demanded courage, self-denial, and heroic generosity.
However, far from being a separate dimension of life, sexuality is linked to mystical experience in a number of ways in the philosophy of Ibn al-‘Arabi, which has exerted considerable influence on the perspective of contemporary Sufism, and Sufi attitudes toward sexuality are distinct from those of other Muslims in some important aspects.
Sexual intercourse in most Islamic discourse is simply the satisfaction of a physical drive and a means to produce offspring. However, Ibn al-‘Arabi (1165-1240), goes beyond this merely functional view of sexuality to discover mystical significance in the sexual act itself.
Ibn al-‘Arabi’s philosophy holds to the essential unity of all being; all existing things emerged from the combination of the divine names with the elemental forms. Human marriage reflects this cosmic marriage, and it is by virtue of this correspondence that human sexuality derives its sacredness. In fact, says Ibn al-‘Arabi, Islamic Law is the best law in marriage because it alone has set the number of wives a man may marry at four, which perfectly reflects the marriage of the divine Spirit with the four elements to produce its “children,” all the material existents (Ibn al-‘Arabi, Muhyi ‘l-Din. Al-Futuhat al-makkiyya. 4 vols. Beirut: Dar Sadir. 1:138). Therefore, for Ibn al-‘Arabi, far from being the mere satisfaction of physical appetites, sexual union offers the gnostic the possibility of true mystical insight.
In his major work, The Meccan Revelations, Ibn al-‘Arabi states, “I used to hate women and sex at the start of my entry into this path.” He continued this way for eighteen years, until he came to contemplate the hadith in which the Prophet ﷺ says, “Three things have been made beloved to me in this world of yours: women, perfume, and prayer.” Ibn al-‘Arabi writes further, “I feared God’s wrath, for I hated what God had made beloved to his Prophetﷺ ” (Ibn al-‘Arabi, Muhyi ‘l-Din. Al-Futuhat al-makkiyya. 4 vols. Beirut: Dar Sadir). In his later work, Fusus al-hikam or The Bezels of Wisdom, Ibn al-‘Arabi contemplates a particular wisdom contained in the divine “word” expressed in each of the prophets. His chapter on the Muhammadan word is a reflection on this hadith concerning the Prophet’s ﷺ love for women, perfume, and prayer (Fusus al-hikam. 2 vols. ed. Abu ‘l Ala ‘Affin. Beirut: Dar al-kitab al-‘arabi. 1:214-226; – Bezels of Wisdom, trans. R. W. J. Austin. New York: Paulist Press.71-81).
In Ibn al-‘Arabi’s philosophy, God’s Names are manifested in creation, which then functions as a mirror. While all of creation manifests the Names of God, the Perfect Man, identified with the eternal Muhammadanﷺ reality, a spiritual essence that is the source of all prophethood, contains the totality of these names. All other things in creation contain only certain of the divine Names, but taken together, the cosmos, like the Perfect Man, reflects their totality. The Qur’an states that God molded Adam out of clay and breathed into him of his spirit (32:9). God’s longing for man is none other than a longing for this spirit that is in man, for man is created in his external aspect and is divine in his internal aspect. Therefore the hadith says that God made man in his own image. Just as man was made in the image of God, woman was made in the image of man. Woman is from man as man is from God, and just as God longs for man, so does man long for woman, “as something yearns for itself, while she feels longing for him as one longs for that place to which one belongs” (Bezels of Wisdom, trans. R. W. J. Austin. New York: Paulist Press., 274). Furthermore, “love arises only for that from which one has one’s being,” which for man is God. That is why the Prophet ﷺ said that God made women beloved to him. “His love is for his Lord in Whose image he is, this being so even as regards his love for his wife, since he loves her through God’s love for him, after the divine manner.” When a man loves a woman, he desires sexual union with her, because there is “no greater union than that between the sexes” (Bezels of Wisdom, trans. R. W. J. Austin. New York: Paulist Press. 274).
Since the divine essence is transcendent and inaccessible, man can only see God as he is reflected in creation, and for man there is no better way to contemplate God than in woman:
When man contemplates God in woman he witnesses him in a receptive mode [because woman was created from man], while when he contemplates [God] in himself, from the perspective that woman appeared from him, he beholds him in an active mode. When, however, he contemplates God in himself, without any regard to what has come from him, his witness is in the receptive mode, without any intermediary. So his contemplation of God in woman is the most complete and perfect, because in this way he contemplates God in both the active and receptive modes, whereas by contemplating God only in himself, he beholds him particularly in a receptive mode. Because of this the Prophet ﷺ loved women, because of the perfection of his witness of God in them (Fusus al-hikam. 2 vols. ed. Abu ‘Ala ‘l-‘Affin. Beirut: Dar al-kitab al-‘arabi. 1:217).
In Ibn al-‘Arabi’s view, because the Spirit of God contains the totality of all the meanings of the universe, and indeed is the place where opposites are conjoined, It is both active/male and receptive/female. Therefore it is insufficient for man to contemplate himself by himself to understand God; the best and most perfect kind of contemplation of God is in woman. Sexual union imitates God’s relationship with man, “the man yearning for his Lord Who is his origin, as woman yearns for man. His Lord made women dear to him, just as God loves that which is in His own image” (Bezels of Wisdom, trans. R. W. J. Austin. New York: Paulist Press. 274). What distinguishes the sexual act of the gnostic from that of ordinary men is that the gnostic perceives the spirit of God in woman, and by joining himself to her becomes aware of his own oneness with the Spirit of God and of God in his active and receptive aspects. Indeed, if one engages in sexual intercourse in the realization of the Spirit of God in woman, the act itself is a means for the mystic’s perfection. This is exactly the opposite of the intercourse of the lustful man for whom woman is merely a body without a spirit.
Elsewhere Ibn al-‘Arabi explicitly states that the qutb, the Axis, the highest in the hierarchy of saints, engages often in sexual intercourse and loves women:
He knows from the divine manifestations in sexual union what drives him to seek it and embrace it, for his worship cannot achieve for him or for any other gnostic more than can be attained by sexual union…He desires sexual union not for the sake of procreation, but only for pleasure. The consummation of sexual intercourse is itself commended in the Law…, and the sexual act of the one in this spiritual station is like the sexual union of the people of Paradise, only for the sake of pleasure, for it is the greatest manifestation which has been hidden from men and jinn, except for those servants whom God has specially chosen for it. Likewise, the intercourse of animals is purely for pleasure. Many gnostics have failed to grasp this truth, for it is one of the secrets of which only a few of the “people of providence” (ahl al-‘inaya) understand. If it did not have complete nobility indicating the weakness appropriate to servanthood, it would not have such an overwhelming pleasure which causes a person to pass away from his own strength and pretensions. It is a pleasurable subjugation, although subjugation precludes pleasure in the one who is subjugated, because the pleasure in subjugation belongs to the one who is subjugating, not the one who is subjugated, except in this act in particular. This nobility has escaped people, who have made it an animalistic passion from which they refrain – although they have called it by the most noble of names when they say it is animalistic, that is, a characteristic of animals/living beings, and what is more noble than life? So what they have deemed ugly with regard to themselves is the very thing that is praiseworthy for the perfect gnostic (Ibn al-‘Arabi, Muhyi ‘l-Din. Al-Futuhat al-makkiyya. 4 vols. Beirut: Dar Sadir.2:573-574).
It is not surprising to see that another characteristic of the qutb, according to Ibn al-‘Arabi, is love of beauty in all its forms, for they all express the absolute beauty of the divine.
Among some Sufis, it became the highest virtue to be (falsely) seen doing reprehensible things, for in this way men would be repulsed. The philosophy of Ibn al-‘Arabi allows that the very things that must be prohibited to the masses may be of the greatest benefit to the perfected gnostic (Ibn al-‘Arabi, Muhyi ‘l-Din. Al-Futuhat al-makkiyya. 4 vols. Beirut: Dar Sadir. 2:512). Indeed, mystical insight sometimes constitutes a reversal of things as they apparently are. Conventional wisdom is that modesty or shame (hiya) is part of faith. But the famous Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi (d. 1273) retorted, “Shame hinders you from true faith,” because it inhibits people from willingly sacrificing reputation and worldly interests in the way of God. (Schimmel, Annemarie. 1979. “Eros-Heavenly and Not So Heavenly-in Sufi Literature and Life” in Society and the Sexes in Medieval Islam, ed. Afaf Lutfi al Sayyid-Marsot, 119-141. Malibu, CA: Undena Pub.122)
Adapted from Mystics Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 3 (September 1992), pp. 82-93 published by Penn State University Press.