Ibn ‘Arabi: The Seal of Muhammadan Sainthood

Irfan Permana P.

 If you are a walī, you are the heir of a prophet. And if you have inherited knowledge from Moses or Jesus or from any prophet in between, all you have actually inherited is Muhammadan knowledge. (Ibn ‘Arabi, Futūhat)

It goes without saying that Shaykh al-Akbar Ibn ‘Arabi (560-638 AH/ 1165-1240 AD) to anyone who is not well informed is one of the most controversial figures in Islamic history. His world-view which he claimed coming from his visionary knowledge and personal experience, undoubtely, made him popular that made it such a threat to the extreme muslim community.

One of the most controversial issue is about his claim as the seal of Muhammadan sainthood which continued until today. What really underlies his claim? This paper will examine this topic, beginning with the concept of sainthood which is closely related to “The Muhammadan Reality” (haqīqa Muhammadiya) and “The Perfect Man” (al-insān al-kāmil).


The idea of friendship with God is a major theme in Ibn ‘Arabi’s writings. In brief, he follows the mainstream of the Islamic tradition by asserting that God chooses as his friends those who embody the best qualities of the human race. God’s friends are first and foremost the prophets. His revelations to the prophets then make it possible for others to become his friends as well. Each prophet is a source of guidance and a model of human goodness and perfection.Those who achieve the status of friendship with God by following a prophet may then be given an “inheritance” from that prophet. According to one of Ibn ‘Arabi’s doctrines about sainthood (walāya), God’s friends are those who inherit their knowledge, stations, and states from the prophets, the last of whom was Muhammad.

The walī is the one who is selected by God to be for Him. Ibn ‘Arabi remarks on what was said in the holy Hadith: “I shall declare war on whoever makes an enemy of My (lī) walī” The Hadith did not say: “I shall declare war on whoever makes an enemy of the walī” It included the word ‘lī‘ (My) to emphasize that this human was selected by God to be from among His chosen ones, from among those on whom He bestows His care and friendship. Consequently, this position brings privileges and requires special efforts and endeavours.

In his conception of sainthood, the saint (walī) is the widest concept comprising prophet and apostle; and the apostle is the narrowest of all. As al-Qāshāni says, ‘every apostle is a prophet, and every prophet is a saint, but not vice versa’.[1] Diagram below may make the conception more clear.

There are relationship between apostle, prophet, and saint. But before analysing Ibn ‘Arabi’s views on the subject, we should go into the doctrinal basis of the role assigned to Prophet Muhammad, i.e. haqīqa Muhammadiya or “the Muhammadan Reality”.

Although the appearance of phrase haqīqa Muhammadiya was late and rise historical problem, the concept that it represents in abstract terms is one of the most traditional in Islam, where it is clearly symbolized as the Muhammadan light (nūr Muhammad). Moreover, the association of the Prophet with a symbolism of light is not, in Islamic terms, a human invention, but is based on the actual words of God. In the Qur’an (33:46), Muhammad is called ‘a torch which illumines’ (sirajan muniran); another verse (5:15) says that ‘a light has come to you from God’, which is interpreted by the commentators as a reference to the Prophet.  The doctrine of haqīqa Muhammadiya soon gave rise to an idea which appears in many texts prior to Islam, under various guises.

For (some) Muslims, the ‘light’ is not simply a metaphor. According to the comment of verse 68:1 given by Ja’far al-Sādiq, the Muslim spiritual masters and also sixth imām of shi’ah, the nūn—which occurs at the beginning of the verse—is the light of pre-eternity out of which God created all beings and which he bestowed on Muhammad. This is why it was said (in verse 4 of the same sūra): “You are endowed with a sublime nature”—endowed, that is, with this light which you were privileged to receive in pre-eternity.[2] Furthermore, detail explanation of the doctrine of nūr muhammadi and its relationship with walāya is given by Ibn ‘Arabi and started by some questions to be discussed: ‘Who was the first to be endowed with existence? Where was he endowed with existence? In accordance with what model? What is his aim?

Another concept, which forms a complement to the haqīqa Muhammadiya, is that of the Perfect Man (al-insān al-kāmil). The terms are not purely synonymous, but express differing views of man. Haqīqa Muhammadiya is in terms of his primordiality, whereas al-insān al-kāmil in terms of his finality. The doctrine of the Perfect Man is also become the essence of Ibn ‘Arabi’s teaching. The phrase was already used before, but it was believed that Ibn ‘Arabi was the first who used the phrase of ‘The Perfect Man’ as a technical term.[3] This perfection is possessed only by Muhammad, the ultimate and total manifestation of the haqīqa Muhammadiya. It is equally the goal of all spiritual life and the very definition of walāya. Therefore, the walāya of the walī can only be participation in the walāya of the Prophet. For the saints, to be the heir of one of the prophets is always to be the heir of Muhammad.[4]

As already mentioned, in Shaikh’s conception of walāya, walī is the widest concept comprising prophet and apostle; and the Apostle is the narrowest of all. Every apostle is a prophet, and every prophet is a saint, but not vice versa. Concerning the concept of saint, the first point should be noted is that walī is properly a Divine Name. The fact that walī is one of the Names of God implies that it is an aspect of the Absolute. In this respect, the Saint is radically different from the Prophet and the Apostle because the words nabī and rasūl are not Divine Names; they are peculiar to human beings. Walī is a Name of God, but God has neither called Himself nabī nor rasūl, while He has named Himself walī and has made it one of His own Names.

Since walī is a common name to God and Man, the walāya will never be stop to exist. As God exists everlastingly, the sainthood will exist forever. As long as there remains in the world even a single man of the highest spiritual power who attains to the rank of sainthood—and, in fact, such a man will certainly exist in every age—the sainthood itself will be kept intact.

Since the saint is the widest concept in terms of extension and is the most basic one at that, there can be no Prophet, no Apostle unless the sainthood is first established. The Prophet is a saint who adds to his sainthood one more distinguishing mark; namely, a particular knowledge of things unknown and unseen. And the Apostle is a Saint who adds to his sainthood and prophethood one more characteristic; namely being conscious of the mission and capasity of conveying Divine messages to the people who follow him.

Therefore, the first requirement for a man to be a Perfect Man is to be in the rank of a walī, and that walāya is the most fundamental and most general attribute of all types of Perfect Man. Walāya implies, first and foremost, a perfect knowledge of the ultimate truth concerning the Absolute, the world, and the relation between the Absolute and the world. A man who has attained to the rank of sainthood has a clear consciousness that he is a self-manifestation of the Absolute, and that, as such, he is essentially one with the Absolute, and, indeed, ultimately is the Absolute itself. He is also conscious of the fact that, on the analogy of the inner structure of himself, all the phenomenal many are self-manifestations of the Absolute and are, in the sense, one with the Absolute. This precisely is the consciousness of the ultimate and essential ‘oneness of Being’ (wahdah al-wujūd).

As mentioned above, the Prophet is a saint with the addition of a different qualification. So the prophet unites in one person two ranks, and the Apostle unites in himself three different ranks. There are thus three different ranks recognized: sainthood, propethood, and apostleship. The question is naturally raised as to which of them is higher than which. With regard to this question, the most problematic point, according to Ibn ‘Arabi, concerns the position of sainthood. Against those sufis who regard sainthood qua sainthood as higher than propethood and apostleship, he emphatically states that it is only when these two or three ranks co-exist in one person that we can tightly regard his sainthood as higher than this propethood and apostleship.

All Apostles, in terms of their sainthood, are equal and stand on the same level, but in actuality they must necessarily differ one from the other because of their intimate relations with the concrete situation of the age and country in which they live. And the same is true of the Prophet. The nature and rank of an Apostle is decisively affected by the conditions, material and spiritual, determining the situation of the nation of which he happens to be the Apostle. Likewise, the rank of a Prophet is gravely affected by the amount of knowledge he actually has.

One of the key–terms of Ibn ‘Arabi’s theory of walāya is the seal (khātam), meaning the ultimate and final unit of a series. According to him, the term khātam appears in two phrases:

  1. The Seal of the Prophets (khātam al-anbiyā’) or Seal of the Apostles (khātam al-rusul)
  2. The Seal of the Saints (khātam al-awliyā’)

In conformity with the commonly-accepted usage in Islam, the first phrase ‘seal of the Prophets’ designates the Prophet Muhammad himself. The phrase in itself has nothing original about it; it is an expression often used in accordance with the common belief in Islam that the Prophet Muhammad represents historically the last ring of a long chain of Prophets, there being absolutely no possibility of an authentic Prophet appearing after him.[5]

In Ibn ‘Arabi’s understanding of sainthood (walāya) and its hierarchies, in particular introducing the theme of the Seal of Sainthood which takes three forms – Jesus, who is the Seal of Universal Sainthood, the Mahdi who precedes him at the end of time, and the Seal of Muhammedian Sainthood, which according to Ibn ‘Arabi, ‘is a man of noble Arab birth, living in our time’ etc., declares in one passage of the Futuhât al-Makkiyyah: “I am the Seal of the sainthood, no doubt, (the Seal of) the heritage of the Hashimite (Muhammad) and the Messiah”.

When Ibn ‘Arabi claimed to be the “khātam al-awlia’ al-muhammadiyah”, he was saying that no one after him would inherit fully from the prophet Mohammad. Muslim friends of  God would continue to exist until the end of time, but now they would inherit from other prophets in as much as those prophets represent certain aspects of Muhammad’s all-embracing message.

Ibn ‘Arabi confided his position as Seal of Muhammadian Sainthood in several verses even though this knowledge was kept private during his lifetime, trusted only to his closest disciples who began to communicate it to a wider audience.


The Muhammadan Reality is at once the beginning of all sainthood in Islam and the end, as it were, and how this reality is percolated throughout the generation of Prophets and Messengers sent by God. Many generations of saints are in turn reflections of the refractions of Muhammadan light. Thus, there could be other people after Ibn al-‘Arabi who also claim to be Seals of Sainthood without fundamentally challenging the Shaykh’s exclusive claim to being the Seal of Muhammadan Sainthood.

When Ibn ‘Arabi claimed to be the “khātam al-awlia’ al-muhammadiyah”, he was saying that no one after him would inherit fully from the prophet Muhammad. Friends of God in every age will continue to inherit from Muhammad, but they will no longer have access to the entirely of Muhammad’s works, states, and sciences. The modalities of the inheritance will be defined by their connection to specific prophets embraced by Muhammad’s all-comprehensive prophethood.

After the Muhammadan Seal, “No friend will be found ‘upon the heart of Muhammad’” (F. II 49.26).[6] Ibn ‘Arabi’s claim to be the Seal of the Muhammadan Friends has appeared pretentious and even outrageous to many people over the centuries. Hostile and critical scholars have dismissed it out of hand.The fact remains, however, that no author writing after him has come close to matching the profundity, freshness, and detail of his interpretation of the sources of the Islamic tradition. Whether or not one would like to call him the Seal of the Muhammadan Friends, it is difficult to deny him the title “Shaykh al-Akbar” or “The Greatest Master.” []


  1. Azhari Noer, Kautsar. Ibn al-‘Arabi, Wahdah al-Wujūd dalam Perdebatan. Jakarta: Paramadina, 1995
  2. Chittick, William C. Ibn ‘Arabi: Heir to Prophets.Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2005
  3. Chodkiewicz, Michel. Seal of the Saints: Prophethood and Sainthood in the Doctrine of Ibn ‘Arabi. Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1993
  4. Izutsu, Toshihiko. Sufism and Taoism: A Comparative Study of Key Philosophical Concepts, Berkeley-Los Angeles-London: University of California Press, 1984

[1] Izutsu, Toshihiko, Sufism and Taoism: A Comparative Study of Key Philosophical Concepts, Berkeley-Los Angeles-London: University of California Press, 1984, p.263

[2] Chodkiewicz, Michel, Seal of the Saints: Prophethood and Sainthood in the Doctrine of Ibn ‘Arabi, Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1993, p.65

[3] Azhari Noer, Kautsar. Ibn al-‘Arabi, Wahdah al-Wujūd dalam Perdebatan, Jakarta: Paramadina, 1995, p.126

[4] Chodkiewicz, op.cit., p.71

[5] Izutsu, op.cit., p.269

[6] Chittick, William C. Ibn ‘Arabi: Heir to Prophets. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2005, p.16


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