Ibn Arabi’s Reshaping of the Muslim Imagination

Ibn ʿArabī’s Reshaping of the Muslim Imagination

Dr. Cornelis van Lit – Utrecht University -Summer 2018 – Spring 2022

For the duration of four years, I shall be working on the writings of the medieval sufi thinker Ibn ʿArabī and his commentators, specifically on their notion of ʿālam al-mithāl (world of image) and, more generally, their thinking on the function of the imagination. I am patronised by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO).


Do you work on Ibn ʿArabī? Or on the concept of imagination in Islam? Do you have a good suggestion or do you wish to collaborate? I want to hear from you! Please get in contact with me.


Everything other than God is mere imagination. This is the remarkable proposition of Ibn ʿArabī (d. 1240), one of the most prominent mystical thinkers of Islam. Recent scholarship suggests that Ibn ʿArabī was enormously influential on Muslim culture in the late-medieval and early-modern period, and is perhaps a key factor in understanding the rise of modern Islamic movements such as Salafism. His thinking on the imagination is said to be a key element of that influence. However, the main carriers of that influence, the many dozens of commentaries on his work that came to be written, are virtually a terra incognita. Likewise, his influence more generally is only asserted based on a few examples. Combining both classical philological skills and cutting-edge Digital Humanities skills, this project intervenes in this issue by establishing what the influence of Ibn ʿArabī’s concept of imagination meant for later Muslims, from the thirteenth century all the way up until today. The commentaries from the first two centuries after Ibn ʿArabī, nineteen in total, will be the main focus of this study. Many of them will need to be accessed through manuscripts, virtually all of them will be used for the first time in modern scholarship. Using an innovative methodology called distant reading, the project shall measure the influence of Ibn ʿArabī and his commentators on the wider discourse of Islamic culture, including poetry, mysticism, theology, and philosophy. This methodology is able to uncover a social network of potentially hundreds of texts by looking in thousands of texts for a certain technical term or quintessential sentence that betrays influence of Ibn ʿArabī. By comparing the wording of these sources, partially automated using custom-made scripts, a genealogy can be established. This project, then, shall make a pioneering contribution to understanding Muslim intellectual culture of the late-medieval and early-modern period.


The project, provisionally, aims to produce a book and two articles. An international conference will also be organised, as well as several workshops, whose expenses are covered through the project. Do you wish to host a workshop? Get in contact!