The medieval Andalusian Sufi Ibn Arabi has hovered in the background of my reading for a while, chiefly through Peter Lamborn Wilson’s writing (his brilliant Shower of Stars began as a presentation for the Ibn Arabi Society in Berkeley). My reading of James Hillman and Robert Romanyshyn found more and more emphatic gestures in the direction of Henry Corbin’s Sufi studies; and these in turn pointed directly at Ibn Arabi. Tracking down this authoritative biography of this highly influential visionary became inevitable.

It’s a good biography: carefully researched, balanced, with respect for the subject that is never overblown through any veneration the author may nurture. Newcomers to Islamic history and thought like myself will inevitably be bamboozled by the parade of Arabic names. And while the Islamic tradition of writing the names of all who attended readings of specific texts on certain dates in the back of copies of these texts may be a boon of immense proportions for divining clear intellectual lineages and personal associations, the information thus furnished makes for the occasional stretch of tedium in as meticulous a work of history as this.

Such attention to literal history may in one sense fly in the face of the “vertical”, timeless spirit of Ibn Arabi’s transhistorical mission, but this aspect is well represented by Corbin’s equally careful, but less literalist work, and Wilson’s anarchic meanderings. Here, the adherence to the linear details of Ibn Arabi’s passage through this world serves us in the way our own horizontal, worldly voyage should: as a container or vessel for the transcendant matters of the spirit. Ibn Arabi’s visionary experiences are so tremendous, so thoroughly marvellous, that the strong tracks that Abbas lays with her rigorous research are probably needed to keep this tome on course.

In all, not the most riveting read around. But anyone with an interest in esoteric religion and visionary consciousness should appreciate the efforts of Abbas in creating a solid point of reference for the life of this fascinating, edifying, and obviously important mystic.

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