Question:1 How do we explain and understand the contradiction and different opinions our scholars have over the school (madhab) of Ibn ‘Arabi? Some scholars, such as Imām Khomeinī, Allāmah Tabatabai’ī and Syed Kamāl al-Hyderī, praise ibn ‘Arabi and consider him to have a great status. Others, such as Syed Ja’far Murtadha and Syed Murtadha Shirāzī have considered him to be a heretic (zindīq) and someone who hated the family of the Prophet (nāsibī). Which of these two views have stronger evidence, and which of these two opinions should we act accordingly to?
Answer: In your question there are two points:
First point: It is perfectly normal for scholars to differ on the status of an individual such as ibn ‘Arabi. If you have read his books you would see for yourself that in many places, in particular his work Fusūs al-Hikam, he has written in an extremely ambiguous and cryptic manner. It is possible that in attempting to understand the dense Sufistic language [adopted by Ibn ‘Arabi] differences of opinion arise. And this is not a matter limited just to Ibn ‘Arabi, there are a number of individuals in history who have been the subject of ongoing discussions as to the nature of their school, whether they were a Shi’ī or Sunnī. An example of such would be Ghazzāli (d. 505), who a number of scholars, such as Faydh Kāshāni and others, have concluded that he became a Shi’ī at the end of his life. Another example is Fakhr al-Din Rāzi, from whom I have heard myself from a number of Ay. Hassan Zādeh Amulī’s students, that he (Hassan Zādeh) recites a two-unit prayer every evening for Fakhr al-Din Rāzi on account that Rāzi was Shi’ī! Additionally you might have heard some weird and strange things in relation to other historical figures, there are people now who are convinced that Einstein used to communicate frequently with Shi’ī scholars, and the name of Syed Burujerdī gets tangled in this story too. There are dozens and dozens of people in history upon whom scholars have argued over, especially in regards to individual from the Mu’tazila and the Sufī schools. The Salafīs would claim them to be Shi’ī whereas the Shi’ī would be divided on them, but in most cases you find the Sunnīs would claim them as their own.
Sometimes the cause of this dispute would arise from certain passages that can be found in their works that create confusion and ambiguity. At other times, the dispute may be due to different schools all trying to claim a great thinker and innovative scholar as their own, as it could be argued that it would be beneficial for that school to claim the individual for themselves. In addition, the dispute on the religious identity of the individual may result from differing criteria being used. For example you might see that anyone who considers Imām Ali to be greater than Abu Bakr whilst accepting the caliphate of Abu Bakr to be legitimate and correct would be considered by Sunnī scholars to be a Shi’ī. And it is on this basis that many Mu’tazila scholars have been considered to be Shi’ī as many of them have this belief, and some have even said “All praise belong to Allāh who has favoured the mafdhūl (Abu Bakr) over the fādhil (Imam Alī)” 2.
Another point that needs to be taken into consideration is that Sufism and I’tizāl were not independent schools or sects. At times you could see Mu’tazili thinking across the entire spectrum of different schools, and this is the same in respect to the Sufis and Urafa. Sufism and Mu’tazila were an intellectual and cultural movement, a methodology of ijtihad. It also appears to me that the Sufīs were not concerned with matters of belonging to certain schools or not, and this interest only crystallized after the time of Mulla Sadrā Shirāzī (d. 1050) when we got a step closer to ‘irfan becaming a school in its own right and was influenced by Shi’ism. However that in itself is a lengthy subjects with ِit’s own sections.
Second Point: The authority of our scholars (marja’iyyat) is in matters of jurisprudence. We refer to our jurists to clarify for us what the criteria of Islam and disbelief is. Or how a person can become Muslim, or how does a Muslim leave the fold of Islam. The jurists strive to be able to answer these questions by extrapolating rulings from the traditions that are available to them. These are the types of discussions which our jurists have in mind and give their utmost attention to. In this regard, the jurisprudential opinions they issue are legally binding for all those who emulate them. However, when it comes to ascertaining and clarifying whether such and such a person is a disbeliever, apostate, polytheist, Sunnī, Shi’ī, Zaydī etc, this sort of assessment is outside the jurisdiction of a jurist or the religious scholar, rather it is squarely up to the person himself to come to a decision. Therefore the person should study, research, listen to the different opinions that are out there, and after that, he should ask himself whether the jurisprudential principle [of Islam, disbelief etc.] relating to the historical figure is applicable or not.
It is for this reason that in my opinion the lay understanding of resorting to a jurist or a scholar to ascertain the school of ibn ‘Arabi, or any other historical figure, is incorrect. All of these instances would be considered to be part of the subject matter which is outside the jurisdiction of the jurists and is rather the responsibility of the individual himself. It is precisely like the case of whether a glass of water that is in front of me is impure or not. The solution to these issues are with the individual himself and he should simply apply the relevant jurisprudential ruling on the instance [and not take the glass of water to a jurist and give it to him to inspect!]. This situation is outside the realm of the jurist such that the opinion of the jurist should then become legally binding of some sort. To illustrate this point a little clearer imagine for a moment that the highest ranked jurist in the Islamic world came to the conclusion that Abu Hanifa passed away in the year 156 Hijra. Now consider that contemporary to this jurist you had a historian who concluded that Abu Hanifa passed away in the year 150. In this example, the opinion of the jurist is not legally binding on the historian [such that he would have to revise his own opinion and adopt the opinion on the jurist]. Similarly the laypeople wouldn’t be obliged to take the word of the jurist over that of the historian as these subjects are outside the scope of emulation (taqlīd) and outside the jurisdiction of the jurist.
To conclude, if you have looked around at the different opinions on Ibn ‘Arabi, and you are convinced by those who have concluded that he was a Shi’ī, or on the opposite, you are convinced he was a Sunnī, or a heretic, in this instance you can follow and act upon your own conclusion. Once you have gathered sufficient amount of information and undertaken research in this affair, such that you can come to a satisfactory conclusion, then you are able to take the opinion which you have decided even if every single jurist of the time says something opposite to you. This matter is one pertaining to subjects (mowdhu’at) and not religious verdicts (ahkām shar’ī). There is however one exception to this, and that is where the hākim shar’ issues a religious edict based on his authority (hukm walā’ī) or issues a judgement (hukm qadhā’ī), whereby both of these issuances are made in a legally binding fashion. However for such a thing to happen in these type of issues is extremely rare.