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The spiritual mother of Ibn ‘Arabi

· ​Fatima of Seville ·

We are acquainted with Fatima bint Ibn al-Muthanna, a holy woman who lived in Seville between the 12th and 13th centuries, only thanks to an exceptional disciple of hers, the great mystic Ibn ‘Arabi (d. 1240), who left the portrait of this spiritual mother of his in three of his books. In two of them Ibn ‘Arabi mentions her among the teachers with whom he spent time in Andalusia in the first part of his life. The third book is his greatest work, The Meccan Revelations, written after his departure for the Muslim East. In the chapter on love in this book, from which comes the translation that follows below, Ibn ‘Arabi recalls many celebrated literary examples of men and women enraptured by the love of God, taken from the hagiographic literature. Fatima, however, is the only contemporary of Ibn ‘Arabi the events of whose life are recalled in this context, experiences closely interwoven with those of the author himself. The episode, unique in this version, of the meeting between his two mothers, his spiritual mother and his earthly mother, gives us an idea of how important his relationship with this elderly teacher was in both his spiritual formation and his affective life.

Fatima appears here, more than 90 years old, surrounded by disciples who serve her with filial devotion and by women who consult her for their needs. As the parallel portraits which Ibn ‘Arabi depicted in the other books in earlier years demonstrate, her poverty and her condition as a woman “head over heels in love with God” had exposed her to contempt and had caused her to be deemed an “idiot”. On one occasion the muezzin of the great mosque in Seville had even gone so far as to beat her with a stick on the night of the celebration of the Sacrifice. Fatima felt indignation but prayed God not to punish him. The muezzin subsequently incurred the wrath of the Sultan who, however, made do with slapping him, forgoing the infliction on him of any more severe punishment. Fatima commented: “If I had not interceded so that his punishment would be mitigated he would have been killed: Fatima’s extraordinary “rank” manifested itself when she was by then an “old woman” (in Arabic ‘ajûz, from a root which expresses weakness and powerlessness), in her power “to give form” to the surah known as “The Opening” (Fatiha). Over and above the thaumaturgical use of prayer, this miracle foreshadows a further level of meaning. As Ibn ‘Arabi explains in the chapter of The Meccan Revelations on the secrets of the Opening Surah, one of its names is “mother of the book” (umm al-kitab), not only because it is the prayer which begins the Qur’an but because it is the symbol of the matrix from which the book originates in the divine world. The prayer which is at the service of Fatima is the personification of a transcendent reality, made possible by the creative power of the saint’s recitation. The mission which Fatima entrusts to prayer prevents the husband of a devotee from taking a second wife, prevents the fulfilment of an act perfectly legitimate from the viewpoint of Islamic law but unjust to the extent that it causes division and suffering.

The intervention of a holy woman on behalf of another woman in a similar situation has a parallel in the portrait of Hukayma of Damascus, a saint who lived in the first half of the 11th century. As her biographer Sulami (d. 1021) recounts, one day a disciple of Hukayma, whose name means “little sage” or “little philosopher”, went to meet her and found her reading the Qur’an. As soon as she entered the teacher looked at her and said to her: I have learned that your husband has decided to take a second wife”. “That is so”, said the other. Hukayma continued: “If, as they say, he is a man of common sense, how can he accept that his heart be detached from God by involving himself with two wives? Do you know the interpretation of the verse: ‘The day whereon neither wealth nor sons will avail. But only he (will prosper) that brings to Allah a sound heart’ [Qur’an 26,89]?”. “No”, the other woman replied. “Its interpretation”, Hukayama continued “is that he will find God when in his heart there will be God alone”. The woman then recounted that having heard these words she began to wander through the alleys of the town swaying with happiness, with such transport that she feared people might think she was drunk. This woman in turn was a devout follower. She was called Rabi’a bint Ismail. And like the more famous Rabi’a al-Adawiyya of Basra she belonged to the same tribe. Her husband too was a well-known devotee but through her desire their union was chaste. In this case the second marriage was not thwarted but the answer of the “little sage” affirmed the spiritual superiority of the wife over the husband, and also the primacy of the spiritual nucleus of the Qur’an with respect to its normative parts.

Ibn ‘Arabi, The Meccan Revelations, from the chapter on love (bâb al-mahabba)

I knew personally one of the women endowed with love and wisdom, whom I served as a follower in Seville. She was called Fatima, the daughter of Ibn al Muthanna from Cordova. At the time when I was in her service she was more than 95 years old, but I was ashamed to look her in the face because, despite her age, she had pink cheeks and the fresh beauty of a 14-year-old girl in the fullness of her grace.

She had a spiritual state with God.

She preferred me to all the other disciples who visited her. She said: “I have never seen anyone like him: when he comes to me, he comes with his whole self, without leaving any part of him outside. And when he leaves, he leaves with his whole self, without leaving any part of himself behind”.

I often heard her saying: “I am surprised by those who say they love God but are joyless. When he is the object of witness, the eye contemplates him in all things, without him disappearing even for the blink of an eye. Those who are always weeping, how can they claim to love him? Are they not ashamed? If they are closer to him than to anyone else – for no one is closer to him than the lover who contemplates him – what are they weeping for? This is truly very strange!” Then she would say to me: “What do you say, son, to what I am saying? And I would answer her: “It is just as you say, Mother”.

She once said: “How strange! My Beloved has made me a gift of the Opening Surah of the Book (Fatihat al-kitab): it is at my service, and yet this power does not distract me from him”. On the day when she told me this I knew what rank this woman had reached. While we were sitting there, a woman arrived who addressed me. “Brother”, she said to me, “my husband who is now at Jerez de la Frontera is about to be married there to another woman. What do you think of that?”. “Do you want him to come back?”, I asked her. “Yes”, said the woman. I turned to the old woman and asked her: “Mother, didn’t you hear this woman’s request? She answered: “and what do you want, my son?”. I said: “That her wish – and mine – that her husband come back, be granted immediately”. “Yes sir!” she said. “I shall send the Opening Surah instantly to fetch this woman’s husband”. The Opening Surah which she was reciting with me gradually acquired a form. I recognized the rank she had attained when I saw that with her recitation she was drawing forth the Opening Surah in the form of an aerial body which she could send wherever she liked. After she had given it a form, I heard her say to it: “O Opening Surah, go to Jerez and fetch me this woman’s husband! Do not leave him until you have brought him back. The man left Jerez that very moment, he arrived in the briefest time necessary to make the journey and was reunited with his wife.

Fatima delighted in playing the tambourine and did so with great joy. When I asked her the reason why she answered: “I am celebrating for him, for he has taken care of me, he has given me a place among his friends and he has taken me into his exclusive service. Who am I that this great Lord prefers me to my equals? How proud is my Companion! And of indescribable jealousy! Every time that I have neglected him in order to earn something to live on with a job, he has struck me with a misfortune in the thing which kept me occupied”. In this regard he has made me see extraordinary things.

I was constantly at her service with my body. With my hands I built her a reed hut as tall as she was, in which she lived until her death. She would say to me, “I am your divine mother and Nur is your earthly mother”. And when my mother came to pay her a visit she would say: “Nur, he is my son and your father. Honour him and do not displease him!”.

Samuela Pagani




St. Peter’s Square

Oct. 19, 2019