Ibn' Arabi - Path of Gnosis
Ibn' Arabi - subtleties of ethics
Among the Sufis Ibn al-`Arabi is the most prolific writer and contributed to almost every aspect of Sufi thought. He wrote over two hundred manuscripts, most of which are unpublished, let alone translated into English. His two major works are The Meccan Revelations (The "Futuhat"), a magus opus exposition on his philosophy, and The Bezels of Wisdom (or Wisdom of the Prophets) (The "Fusus"), a revelatory description of the different aspects of The One Being. One scholar writes, "The influence of Ibn al-`Arabi on the general development of Sufism can scarcely be overrated. For most of the Sufis after the thirteenth century, his writings constitute the apex of mystical theories, and the orthodox have never ceased attacking him" (Schimmel 263). Some scholars have placed Ibn al-`Arabi as the beginning of a new theosophical monism in Sufism, which came after the doctrine of ascetism in earlier Sufi writings. Although some accused Ibn al-`Arabi for being responsible for the decay of true Islamic religious life, and that he destroyed the very idea of God in Islam; others have come to regard his work as a necessary systematic explanation of what most earlier Sufis already believed.
Muhyi Al-din Ibn Al-Ibn al-`Arabi was born on the 27th of Ramadan in A.H. 570, or August 7, 1165 A.D. in Murcia, Spain, which at that time was under Muslim rule. His family was well-known and influential in politics, education, and were followers of the Sufi Way. They moved to Seville, where Ibn al-`Arabi began a formal Islamic education and presumedly sat at the feet of the great scholars and Sufis of that area. Before twenty years of age he married a girl of good family, named Maryam, and obtained employment as a secretary to the governor of Seville. Ibn al-`Arabi traveled extensively throughout the Middle East, meeting the greatest Sufi Masters of that time, and gained an unquestionable reputation for his spiritual presence and knowledge. He married three times and had three children. From 1223 until his death in 1240, he settled down in Damascus, supported by the ruler's son, Al-Ashraf.
Although he was not officially initiated into the Sufi Way until twenty years, he did study with Sufi teachers, read many of the classics of religion and philosophy, and practiced prayer at a very early age. He regularly went on retreat from an early age and had many visions. One of his eccentricities was to spend long times in cemeteries communing with spirits. He was known to have great confidence in his own spiritual station and often challenged his teachers. Ibn al-`Arabi confides in one of his books that virtually everything he taught and wrote about was revealed to him in a great mystical vision during a retreat in his early twenties.
His most influential teacher seemed to be Fatima of Cordova, a woman saint, whom Ibn al-`Arabi called a gnostic and lover of God. He says, "I served her for several years, she being over ninety-five years of age... with my hands I built a hut for her of reeds, as high as she was, in which she lived until she died. She used to say to me, `I am your spiritual mother and the light of your earthly mother'" (Austin 4). He also wrote that he was greatly effected in her presence by her "enchanting beauty", though she was quite old.
After having studied in Schools and with the great teachers of Andalusia, Spain, he went traveling to Mecca and then throughout the Middle East. Ibn al-`Arabi stayed with many learned and spiritual leaders, such as Abu Rustam in the Holy City of Mecca. Rustam had a beautiful and gifted daughter, of whom Ibn al-`Arabi writes, "This shaikh had a virgin daughter, a slender child who captivated all who looked on her, whose presence gave luster to gatherings, who amazed all she was with and ravished the senses of all who beheld her" (Austin 8). She inspired Ibn al-`Arabi to write a book of love poems, "The Interpreter of Desires," which caused continual controversy throughout his years, although the relationship appears to not have been carnal. Scholars objecting to the poems as being inappropriate to religious feelings, being, they said, too erotic for pious sensibilities. In defense, Ibn al-`Arabi wrote that all Sufi poems relate to Divine Truths in various forms, such as love, woman and nature (Austin 10).
It is important to note that Ibn al-`Arabi was well learned, which meant that he was acquainted with Neoplatonic, Jewish, Christian Gnostic, Hindu and Buddhist writings. But Ibn al-`Arabi does not consider himself to be writing about anything other than God's Word and Truth. He may use some concepts drawn from other traditions and philosophers, but he is not a just a philosopher or synthesizer of ideas, though he certainly freely uses what is at hand and he often relates his thought to other sources.
Ibn al-`Arabi says that his works are not the result of long intellectual deliberations, but rather that of inspiration and mystical experiences. He says, "I have never set out a purpose as other writers. Flashes of divine inspiration used to come upon me and almost overwhelm me.. Some works I wrote at the command of God, sent to me in sleep or through mystical revelation" (Austin 19). So, Ibn al-`Arabi does not claim to be a philosopher, but a mystic and messenger of God. As he states in his preface to The Bezels of Wisdom, "I saw the Apostle of God in a visitation granted me... He had in his hand a book and he said to me `This is the book of the Bezels of Wisdom; take it and bring it to men that they might benefit from it.'
Ibn al-`Arabi's two main sources for his writings are the Koran and the Traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. And of course he freely interprets these according to his own mystical understanding. This seems to be in line with many Sufis, who find more hidden meanings in the Koran and Hadith, and who do not feel compelled to follow any orthodox interpretations, unless backed by their own experience or that of their teachers. He also quotes from Andalusian Sufis, such as Ibn Barrajan and Ibn Arif, and eastern Sufis, such as al-Tirmidhi, al-Hallaj, and al-Bistami.
Ibn al-`Arabi, like many of the Sufis, often interprets the Koran in a more mystical way than orthodox Muslims. The idea that the Koran should have deeper levels of meaning, unseen at the level of mere literal interpretation, is something that the Sufis regard as obvious. As any intelligent Arab or man of letters would know, all great stories and classical literature have multiple levels of meaning, which are discovered through deeper study and intuition. Since the Koran is the Word of God given to man, and the greatest book ever revealed, it would surely have deeper levels of meanings, rather than just be one-dimensional. This multi-dimensional structure of the Koran is what makes it the classic of all classics.
The problem with having different levels of meaning, instead of one, makes the exposition of an orthodox interpretation very difficult, if not impossible. The very problem of interpretation itself, let alone that there may be different interpretations depending upon the level one reads it, is a pandora's box that the orthodox would rather ignore. Most Sufis would admit that some verses are fairly literal, but the most interesting verses are those needing a more profound interpretation.
Just in terms of what we know about language and other literature, it is hard to hide the fact that interpretation of any script is crucial, and that there is always the possibility of at least some hidden, implicit meaning behind what appears to be explicit and literal. The Koran itself even states, "He it is who has sent down the Book, where in are verses that are explicit. These constitute the matter of the Book. There are other verses which are implicit" (3:7). The words explicit and implicit in this translation could also be translated as literal and analogical, or definitive and figurative.
Ibn al-`Arabi looks deep into the implicit, into the analogical and figurative. He says there are many levels of interpretation to the Koran and the Tradition. In fact, according to Ibn al-`Arabi, there is an internal hermeneutics (Ta'wil) to all things, meaning that whatever exists explicitly also conceals in its ontological depths an inner, implicit reality (Izutsu 6:554). For Ibn al-`Arabi, interpretation is necessary. The world should not be taken as a literal thing, but one needs to look behind the world into its symbolic nature, or look through the world to find the inner divine truth behind the veils of literal perception. Likewise, the Koran and Hadith have a literal form and meaning, but they also imply deeper meanings, which only the prepared (the initiates) can know, because they have the inner capacity to perceive or intuit those deeper truths. This even represents the ascent of the mystic, for the mystic travels from the world of external phenomena (or linguistic expression) to an interior phenomena (or depth structure) (Izutsu 6:555).
In his chapter in Bezels of Wisdom titled, "The Wisdom of Spirit in the Word of Jacob", Ibn al-`Arabi divides religion into outer and inner religion. The outer is concerned primarily with maintaining a distinction between the Divine and the world of form and action, between the Name of God, such as the Creator, and the servants who relate to this divinity. In contrast, the inner religion is concerned with the inner experience of the identity of the Divine and the oneness between God and the world. "Both, however, are in a state of tension and conflict with each other at the verbal and formal levels, since the one would seem to threaten and contradict the other, which is exactly the tension between orthodoxy and Ibn al-`Arabi (or most Sufis for that matter). (Austin 112)
The tension between the orthodox Muslim and the Sufi has been a subject of debate for many years. One of the reasons for the orthodox Muslim to denounce the Sufi teachings is that they often seem opposite to the teachings in the Koran. As previously discussed, the Sufi might counter this by explaining that the Sufi sees a deeper meaning in the Koran. At the same time, "Sufism does not exclude the outward form, and the Outward is equally one of God's Names as is the Inward" (Lings 93). Sufism recognizes the need for outward religious and social order, but since they have often already mastered this, their emphasis is more toward the inward. Mohammad even said that the greater Holy War was the one within the heart of man.
Ibn al-`Arabi, and most Sufis, fully embraced Islam and fulfilled all the obligations as any Muslim is asked to do. Throughout his writings, Ibn al-`Arabi is most cautious to not offend Islam, but inevitably he does offend the orthodoxy, because he writes of deeper, mystical truths, which can only be understood by those prepared and capable of seeing into the deeper meanings of Mohammad's message. In fact, Ibn al-`Arabi would maintain that Islam is both an esoteric and exoteric religion, and the wise man allows for both to exist in their own ways.
Mohammad himself was considered the great mystic, who was close to God in heart and received visions and revelations of God's Command. For Mohammad, this mystical knowledge was the inner essence of the religion, and those who were raised to higher stations of knowledge by God were the true spiritual leaders of men, as in the Koran, "The earth shall never be lacking of forty men of the like of the Friend, of the All-Merciful. Through them shall you be given to drink, and through them shall you be given to eat." It is also clear that the Word from Mohammad was not to be the last revelation from God. It is absurd to believe that after Mohammad God would never again reveal His Truth to man. Revelations of God will never cease, since this is the very purpose of creation. "Though all the trees of the earth were pens and the seas were ink; yet would the words of God not be spent" (31:27). Mohammad is the last Prophet, because all that Mankind needs for guidance culminates in the Koran, and there is no need for any more religions. He may be the last prophet, but he does not have the last word.
During the initial beginnings of Islam there was not the distinction in Mohammad's camp between the mystic and other Muslims. Still, after his death the mystical aspect of Islam remained inherent and inseparable from all other aspects of religious life. As the religion began to codify and establish itself as a social and political phenomenon, especially after Ali, the mystical element began to go underground. This in fact makes sense, because, as it expands and more people come to hear the message, the message becomes more dogmatic and there needs to be greater care as to how followers interpret the teachings. Thus, a secret tradition slowly develops, only known by initiates, by word of mouth and by direct transmission from teacher to student. From writings of Al-Basri (d.728) it is clear that the mystical tradition is recognized by the Caliph, but after him it becomes a distinct class (Lings 104).
The mystical tradition was indeed alive with Mohammad, and the Sufis believe that Mohammad transmitted the mystical path to his inner circle of initiates, a knowledge that went underground, but none the less remained alive. The following tradition which is accepted by Bukhari, one of the most reliable traditionalists, refers to not merely one teaching of Mohammad, but a category of secret teachings not intended to become common knowledge. In this tradition, the companion Abu Hurayrah writes, "I have treasured in my memory two stores of knowledge, which I have from the Messenger of God. One of them I have made known, but if I divulge the other you would cut my throat" (Lings 103).
It makes perfect sense that there were explicit teachings for the masses, and then more secret teachings for those who were prepared and capable of understanding the deeper, inner truths. We see this fact in most every religious tradition, because there are stages to deeper understanding, and what can be said at one level would be mis-understood at another. How knowledge is given depends upon the receiver, his background and capacity to understand. This psychological insight is basic to the Sufi teachings. But whether or not Ibn al-`Arabi or other Sufis have, in fact, knowledge of the secret, inner teachings, is something that readers can only guess at. Sufi writings must stand on their own, though they do, for the most part, rely on Koranic sources, and the reader can only really understand what they are ready to understand.
The path of the Sufi is to know God. It is essentially the path for all human beings, because it is in our potential and is the purpose of our creation that we come to know God and His Ways. We are here to know the Truth and the way of manifesting the Truth. It is coming into a right relationship with God (Truth), which is to come closer to knowing God and His Will. Ibn al-`Arabi, like many Sufis, was a Muslim and followed the necessary obligations of Islam, as set forth by God through the Prophet (Peace and Blessings Be upon Him); but for Ibn al-`Arabi and the Sufis, these obligations and the laws in the Koran were not enough. The Sufi wants to know God and His Ways in the most personal and intimate manner, and he wants to be God's perfect instrument in each and every moment.
Obviously, the Koran can lead one to an intimacy with God, but it in itself is not that intimacy. And, the Koran defines moral guidelines for many circumstances, but it cannot tell us how to divinely act at every possible occasion or in every moment. The Sufi seeks a direct communion with God, without any intermediary, whether it be a Priest, a Prophet or a Book of God. And, he seeks to be one with God's Will at every single moment of time, which means he must be able to spontaneously reveal God's Will, without taking a moment away to find that Authority in the Book. Complete Unity in God, as experienced and in action, is the only acceptable goal for the Sufi.
The goal of the Sufi is to find God. It is to realize God in oneself and in the world. The finding of God for Ibn al-`Arabi is the realization of the `Oneness of Being' or the `Unity of Existence' (wahad al-wujud), which is, "simply stated, there is only one Being, and all existence is nothing but the manifestation or outward radiance of that one Being" (Chittick 79). Contrary to his many critics, who branded him as a pantheist, he provides the most thorough explanations of God's Unity (tawhid) ever written. Yet, despite hundreds of volumes on ontology inspired by Ibn al-`Arabi's works, his main concern was to experience, or taste (dhwawq) God's Being. The realization or the perception of the Oneness of Being is the divine knowledge. Knowledge, in this greater sense, is one of the main purposes of creation in Ibn al-`Arabi's doctrine. And the human being, having the possibility of self-reflection and consciousness of being, is here to know himself and creation.
God has intended man to know himself and creation. For Ibn al-`Arabi the highest form of knowledge is the knowledge of oneself, which is really God knowing Himself through the human consciousness. "He who knows himself knows his Lord." Knowledge is not just a bunch of information as we tend to think of it, but it is a knowing of oneself and life, which is to know the unity in oneself and with life. In other words, it is a knowing of God, within oneself and within the world. Ibn al-`Arabi says, "All the infinite objects of knowledge that God knows are within man and within the cosmos through this type of nearness. No one knows what is within himself until it is unveiled to him instant by instant" (Chittick 154).
Our purpose is to know God, but Ibn al-`Arabi reminds us that it is God who wishes to be known. The very longing itself to see the Beloved is the Beloved longing to see us. God reveals Himself through us. Our knowing is God's Knowing through us. The whole purpose of creation and the explanation of who we are is summed up for Ibn al-`Arabi in one of his most often quoted Hadith, "I was a hidden treasure and I loved to be known, so I created the world that I might be known."
At this point it may be useful to quote Ibn al-`Arabi from the first chapter, "The Wisdom of Divinity in the Word of Adam" in Bezels of Wisdom:
Most Beautiful Names or, to put
it another way,
to see His own Essence, in an all-inclusive
object encompassing the whole [divine] Command,
which qualified by existence, would reveal to Him
His own mystery. For the seeing of a thing,
itself by itself, is not the same as its seeing
itself in another, as it were in a mirror; for it
appears to itself in a form invested by the
location of the vision.. the [divine] Command
required [by its very nature] the reflective
characteristic of the mirror of the Cosmos, and
Adam was the very principle of reflection for
that mirror and the spirit of that form, while
the angels were only certain faculties [also
related to the attributes of God] of that form
which was the form of the Cosmos... For the
Reality, he [Perfect Man or Adam] is as the pupil
is for the eye through which the act of seeing
takes place... for it is by him that the Reality
looks on His creation and bestows the Mercy [of
existence] on them. He is Man, the transient [in
his form], the eternal [in his essence]; he is
the perpetual, the everlasting, the [at once]
discriminating and unifying Word. It is by his
existence that the Cosmos exists" (Bezels 50-51).
And so it is God who creates the world so that He can be known, for it is only in the world that God can be known. There is no other place of God's manifestation, and this is why the world, and those capable of knowing it, are necessary for God's Purpose (that He be known) to work out. The Cosmos is the body of God. It reveals the multiplicity of God. In Essence God cannot be other than One in Himself, but since God is also infinite in possibility, the universe represents God's multiplicity. It is man who can recognize the unity within the multiplicity, the Essence within the forms, because it is the Essence Itself which recognizes Itself in the various forms. Man is the pupil by which God sees Himself immanent in the world. This revelation of God's Immanence is the very purpose of life. Ibn al-`Arabi says, "The Universe was made for Man". Here, he refers to man and woman, but not in the ordinary way, for this Man is the Perfect Man, the one who does realize God in His Immanence.
The Path is to find God, to know God and dwell in His Presence. One who has attained such is the Perfect Man. He is one who knows God in his heart, as in the Koran, "The heart of my faithful servant can contain me", and knows God in the world, as in, "Withersoever you turn, there is the Face of God"(2:115). The finding of God "is never just epistemological. It is fundamentally ontological" (Chittick 4). One can only find God, or know God, when one is truly that. It is not just a knowledge looking at the subject from the outside. The true nature of God can only really be known from the inside. So, the finding of God requires the lifting of the veils that prevent us from perceiving the Truth. It is the lifting of the veils of our own being, not just in order to see, but to truly be who we really are. It is to know our true being. One of Ibn al-`Arabi's favorite Hadith quotes is, "He who knows himself, knows his Lord."
Only when the veils are lifted can we taste of this Reality. The veils are infinite, so one can never fully experience the completeness of God's Reality, but we can always go further beyond the veils. The experience is a state of bewilderment (hayra), which Ibn al-`Arabi describes as knowing and not-knowing all at once. At every instant the veils are covering the infinitude of God; yet in every instant we can wake up beyond the veils. Life is a continual discovery, and at every moment we can be waking up in the Reality, while having ever more to wake up to. It is like opening the stage curtains to reveal the play, which is about opening the stage curtain. There are always curtains to open, in the sense that we do not know what we do not know, and yet we are experiencing something of the play itself, which is something of the Knowledge of God being revealed. This is the state of bewilderment, of knowing and not-knowing. The understanding of this inevitable situation, of knowing and not-knowing, of unveiling but being none the less veiled, is a great unveiling itself, and it distinguishes a man of wisdom.
To fully appreciate the analogy of the veils one must see it in terms of knowing oneself. We are veiled from knowing ourselves because of our ignorance and because of our self-concepts that we hold on to. The concepts, which we think is the knowledge of ourselves, is that which veils us from knowing our primal, essential nature. So, we must die to our concepts and allow our ego self images to dissolve, in order to discover what is underneath it. This is described in Sufi teachings as a death of self, or a dissolving of illusion (fana); and what remains (baqa) is the essential truth of our spiritual nature. So, the veil is lifted when we let it go, when we die and re-awaken. Still, there are veils remaining, since the Essence, which is our true nature, cannot be fully revealed. We are always veiled by our own knowing.
Ibn al-`Arabi denies that we can know God in His Essence, and many Sufis caution the aspirant to not presume to know God's Essence, which only God can know. Yet, the mystic does experience God, but never in His full Omniscience. Any experience, however mystical or spiritually sublime, is an experience of `something' or some presence. At the same time, we are that Essence, for the Essence is in no other place but everywhere, through and through. We are `That I Am"; yet the experience of this Self qualifies it to some degree. To experience the Essence is to limit it in some way, but without this qualifying of the Incomprehensible Reality It cannot be known or comprehended.
Ibn al-`Arabi sometimes uses the analogy of light to describe how God manifests and is known. We do not see light as such, although it certainly is needed for us to see anything at all. What we see is the reflection of light, the reflection off of the trees, the waters, the air, etc. So, light is the necessary substance pervading and illuminating all things, but we see only the reflections of it or how it manifests for us. So, God is only known by reflection, but subsists in everything, and "None knows God but God." We must realize that we cannot know God in His Essence as He knows Himself, just as we cannot see the light in its purity; but we can recognize the various expressions or reflections of this essential Reality.
The statement, "There is no God but God," which is at the heart of Sufi theory and prayer, can be understood in two basic and contradictory ways. On the one hand, it negates everything, all concepts, all the world, and all the self, in favor of affirming God as the incomparable, or that which is beyond anything and everything. Only toward Him do we return. Yet, on the other hand, the statement can be understood to mean that there is nothing true or real but God. Nothing actually exists but God; therefore, everything is God, since nothing is not God. If something were to not be God, then God would not be alone, and there would be at least two realities in the universe - God and what is not-God. But there is no God but God, so nothing else could exist but God.
Thus, God is known by a paradox of negation and affirmation. It is an ongoing self-annihilation and self-affirmation. The Sufis employ the terms fana, meaning the ever-fading, and baqa, the ever-enduring. One first loses oneself in order to find oneself. To know who we really are we have to first give up all the notions of who we are. What remains after this surrender of one's identity is the truth of one's being. The Sufis use the analogy of the mirror to describe how one must first clean it thoroughly before seeing the truth in it. The general idea here is that if one can give up the concepts about the truth, which are most likely conditioned by the society or people of ignorance, then what remains will be the essential truth, or primordial truth before any concepts or descriptions. One surrenders the ego, which is that sense of being a separate "I" from God and all others, and what endures through this ego-death is the Reality behind the illusion, which is God.
For Ibn al-`Arabi, this fana and baqa, this death and resurrection, is endless. It never ends, because the Sufi must give himself up every single moment, which is the true meaning of Islam, surrender to God. It is state of perpetual bewilderment or perplexity, because the Sufi surrenders everything known about himself and the world, so to awaken to the reality as it reveals itself in this unique moment. It is a continual loss and re-discovery of identity. This parallels Ibn al-`Arabi's view that the universe is annihilated and re-created every moment in time. Man does not become God, nor does God come into man, but man realizes God immanent, or God reveals His Immanence through man. There is no coming or going to, because there has never been a separation. This is why Ibn al-`Arabi speaks of the unveiling of God and the awakening of man.
The path is a continual negation and affirmation. One must negate everything, since God cannot be anything we know. This negation opens the veil. But then, at the same time, we must affirm everything, because God cannot not be here. Thus, God is both veiled and revealed, in the world and through us. On the one hand, God is the negation of everything in this world and everything we might experience Him to be; but on the other hand, God can only be known in this world through some kind of experience, whether rational or ecstatic. This is the paradox of God, The Reality. Ibn al-`Arabi likes to use the mirror to describe the subtle reality of being and not-being: "A person perceives his form in a mirror. He knows for certain that he has perceived his form in one respect and he knows for certain that he has not perceived his form in another respect... He cannot deny that he has seen his form, and he knows that his form is not in the mirror, nor is it between himself and the mirror" (Chittick 118). If he says that he saw his form, or if he says that he did not; he could be called a liar or he could be merely honest.
Whatever we can know about God must come from direct experience, which is the knowledge that Ibn al-`Arabi speaks about. Our knowledge of God is but a small reflection of the Infinite Reality, but none the less, it is an expression of God. God affirms and reveals His Essence through the various qualities and reflections of His expression. Whatever we can know and experience reveals the Presence of God in some way. Ibn al-`Arabi uses the term presence to refer to how God makes Himself known in this world, such as the Presence of Power, the Presence of Knowledge, the Presence of Love and the Presence of Beauty. For we cannot really know God in any other way. It is the One God Who reveals Himself in the world, but this One Being does not manifest in the same way. God the Abaser (al-Mudhill) is not the same as God the Exalter (al-Mu`izz). What we experience of the One Being, which is Absolutely Real in Itself, are the various modalities of It's expression. In other words, there is only One Presence throughout the Cosmos and that is God, The Absolute, but this Presence makes Itself known to us in different ways, which are called the Names of God.
Ibn al-`Arabi describes the Presence as existing in three aspects: the Essence (dhat) of Allah, which is God as One in Himself; the Attributes (sifat) of Allah, which are the knowable relationships (Names) between the Essence and creation; and, the Acts of Allah, which are all creatures and all actions of creation. Thus, God's Presence is transcendent, immanent and something in between, which could be called the world of archetypes. These Archetypes are the Names of God, and many Sufi writers have referred to the 99 Most Beautiful Names of God found mentioned in the Koran. Ibn al-`Arabi makes reference to many of these Names in the course of his writings, but he also has said that there can be no real limit to the number of Names, since God is infinite.
The Names are Permanent Qualities and yet impermanent, absolute and yet relative. This paradox exists because in one sense they are consequences of the Essence and thus independent of the creation; and yet, they are defined, or named, according to how the Essence is experienced in this creation. We, in fact, name God, or Reality, in various ways, and this is what makes the Names. They are dependent upon our perspective and without the creation, or man who names, the Names would not really exist, since by definition they are how we experience the Essence in this world.
Ibn al-`Arabi writes, "Once God has created the cosmos, we see that it possesses diverse levels and realities. Each of these demand a specific relationship with the real. When He sent His messengers, one of the things He sent with them because of those relationships were the names by which He is named for the sake of His creatures... The divine names allow us to understand many realities of obvious diversity... we know the names through the diversity of their effects within us... the effects are multiple within us; hence the names are multiple... but He does not become multiple in Himself through them" (Chittick 35-6).
So, the Names, or Divine Qualities, or descriptions of Divinity, such as The Powerful, The Compassionate, The Forgiving, The Knowledge, The Guide, etc., only exist in relationship with creation. Here is where Ibn al-`Arabi's brilliant sense of interrelationship and Unity comes through. Because, although Ibn al-`Arabi admits that God in the Absolute, or in Essence, is sufficient unto Himself and independent of existence; God needs the creation in order to have any Names whatsoever. To be known in any way, God needs a creation to reflect back upon Himself. The many Qualities of God cannot even exist without a creation, and specifically without the human being to reflect upon or realize those Qualities, such as Compassion, existing in the phenomena of life.
The Names of God are how God assumes a relationship in the world, such as Creator, Guide, Forgiver, Compassionate, Exalter, and Slayer. It is through these relationships that God is here and makes Himself known in the world. The Essence of God in Himself is without reference to anything. It is un-named and unknown; though existing everywhere. It is transcendent, meaning it is free and independent of the world or relationships. But the Names are this One Essence in relationship, that is manifesting in the world through the Acts of Allah. The Names can be likened to the different roles a man might have in life. One man might be a father, a husband, a brother, a carpenter, a singer, a student, depending on the time and the person(s) relating to. Yet, that person is one man, not many different people. In this sense, God relates Himself to us in many different ways, but it always one Being who lives through these various modalities.
According to Ibn al-`Arabi, God never manifests the same way twice. The whole of creation manifests the Infinite, though partially. Out of the Oneness comes the multiplicity of creation. Multiplicity is a necessary fact of the Ontological Reality, since the purpose of creation is the revelation of God in His Infinite Fullness. Since everything is derived from the Divine Qualities, which derive from the One Essence, then the differences in things are because of the differences of those Qualities. It is like having a great number of basic ingredients, which can be mixed, or not mixed, in any number of combinations and in any amount of intensities. The possibilities are great, if not infinite. If two things were to have exactly the same Qualities, in exactly the same proportions, then they would be the same. But this cannot happen, because the Divine Qualities do not manifest in the same degrees and in the same proportions with each other. Thus, nothing is ever the same. This is Ibn al-`Arabi's explanation of plurality, due to the Divine Qualities.
Some Sufi teachers, such as Ahmad Sirhindi (d.1624) of the Naqshbandi Order, regarded this world as fundamentally evil, or in opposition to light (probably influenced by Zorastrian concepts), and the Divine Attributes were to redeem the world through the prophets and saints (or Perfect Man). This might be a possible interpretation of Ibn al-`Arabi, because he does speak of this world as non-existent from the perspective of the Absolute (God), but at the same time he does declare this world to be the Divine location of His Manifestation, that there can be nothing that is not God, and that all form whatsoever is derived from some combination of the Divine Attributes. From Ibn al-`Arabi, "It is impossible for things other than God to come out of the grasp of the Real, for He brings them into existence, or rather He is their existence and from Him they acquire existence" (Chittick 94).
Ibn al-`Arabi sees everything in terms of a relativity between two opposite cosmic poles, which he usually defines as the spiritual and the corporeal, but he also refers to other possible polarities, such as luminous and dark, subtle and dense, unseen and visible, high and low. All things, whether existent in form or in the mind, can be placed on a scale between these two fundamental poles, but nothing can purely represent one of the poles. In other words, nothing is purely light nor purely dark; but all are somewhere between. Everything is relative to these poles. The angels are luminous in relation to what is dark in this world, but the angels are dark in relation to the Light of God. Nothing is purely light or dark, except in relationship to something else. Everything exists in a hierarchy between light and darkness. Hence, the world and all existence is relatively good and relatively bad, if we want to look at it morally. Likewise, everything is relatively existent and relatively not.
The two poles of spiritual and corporeal are like a duality between heaven and earth, where the spiritual heaven consists of all that is eternal and luminous, while the corporeal earth is this veil of form hiding the spiritual. In themselves these two poles cannot mix. They must be independent of each other. For example, if light were to mix with darkness, then darkness would cease to be and light would go dim. So, by necessity light and dark, spiritual and corporeal must maintain their own purity. Yet, if they remained separate there would be no world as we know it, because the world is a mixture of light and dark, spiritual and corporeal. The world needs both to exist, and in a sense both poles need each other. The spiritual needs the form to reveal itself and the form needs the spiritual to have any meaning or qualities of existence, such as intelligence. Form without spirit is just dumb matter, and spirit without form is just an unmanifested abstraction. There needs to be a reconciling or intermediate reality.
In between the spiritual world and the corporeal world is the imaginal world, according to Ibn al-`Arabi's cosmology. The imaginal world is the link between the two independent poles. The spiritual world comes into corporeal being through the creative imagination. One way to look at this is in the example of making a chair. First, there is the Archetype (the platonic notion of Idea) of chairness, a reality which has a certain structure and meaning, then there is a creative vision of how this chair can be, and from this imagination of the chair (from chairness) comes the building into form. Thus, the imaginal world is the intermediary between the spiritual descent into the corporeal.
In the other direction, that of ascent, the imagination is used to understand the meaning of this world. We can see the world literally, but we can also see some symbolic meaning behind this world. It is through the imagination that we intuit symbolic meaning. Or, another way to consider this, is that in order for one to see into and describe the spiritual meaning behind the world of form, one has to give some imaginal form to that meaning. This is the nature of symbols, allegories, myths, and even conceptual philosophy. However we describe the spiritual truths we are always using the creative imagination to form those concepts and analogies. It is through the imagination that one can understand spiritual truths that may at first seem contradictory or illogical. Only in the imagination can one hold the possibility of two apparently contradictory logics, such as man is God, but not God. "Understanding imagination is the key to various kinds of knowledge that are normally hidden from our rational minds, since imagination is able to combine opposites and contradictions" (Chittick 121).
There is still another aspect to Ibn al-`Arabi's world of imagination, which is even more fundamental to human experience. The world that we know, or the reality that we know, is subjective, in the sense that it is only known through experience. To put it another way, we are always interpreting the world (or it is being interpreted for us by religion or science). We can never purely experience the corporeal world, nor the spiritual world. We cannot know what pure form is, nor can we know what pure spirit is; because, everything known is known in the mind. It is known through a subjective experience or interpretation, and this can never be the True Essence (God or Reality). This is why Ibn al-`Arabi says this world is imagination.
Everything other than God is imagination. It is non-existent relative to the Absolute Existence. And since the Absolute cannot be known by anything other than Itself, everything else known is relative knowing. Everything is, relatively speaking, an illusion in respect to the Absolute Truth. From this Absolute perspective all is illusion. But, Ibn al-`Arabi also stresses that this `illusion' is real for those experiencing it and it is also an ontological derivative of the Real. So, the reality we experience is real and not-real, depending upon the perspective that one takes (Absolute or relative). Once we understand that the Absolute is beyond definition, then we can see that all definitions are relative to their own perspective and thus, relatively true. What is accepted from one point of view may have to be denied from another point of view. It's in how one looks at things (or self) that they are seen.
This sense of having certain points of view is explored in Ibn al-`Arabi's great work, the Fusus, The Bezels of Wisdom, in which twenty-seven of the prophets, who each represent a certain Divine Quality, speak from their own perspective, each revealing a unique revelation about God and the Cosmos. Each of these unique perceptions are defined by certain relationships and constraints, but none are absolute and sometimes one can be contradicted by another point of view. The book is not only a spiritual masterpiece, but also simply reveals the human and social condition of each man's relative perspective upon `the Truth'.
Thus for Ibn al-`Arabi, everything is interpretation. That is, everything known is by way of the one's unique point of perception. What we experience is not the ultimate reality, whether spiritual or existential. It is a veil, but a meaningful veil. Our experience is in the world of imagination, but this imagination is necessarily meaningful and is the way by which God knows Himself. All things come from the creative imagination. The world unfolds through this and the world returns to Him through this.
This reveals the unique role of human beings in the Cosmos, because the imagination plays a fundamental role in the nature of being human. We are self-reflective creatures, and the world in which we do this is the world of imagination. In Ibn al-`Arabi's terms this is related to the soul of man. "The three worlds of the macrocosm -- the spiritual, imaginal, and corporeal -- are represented in man by the spirit (ruh), soul (nafs), and body (jism)" (Chittick 17). The spirit is God's spirit, or "His Breath" (K 32:9), which possess all of the spiritual attributes or Qualities of God. On the other end of the spectrum, man is the dense and dark clay of earth, unaware of the spirit.
It is the soul which becomes aware of the spirit, while in the body. "The soul, which develops gradually as a human being grows and matures, becomes aware of the world with which it is put in touch in a never-ending process of self-discovery and self-finding. Ultimately it may attain to complete harmony with the spirit... The soul -- that is to say our own self-awareness -- represents an unlimited possibility for development... the process whereby it moves from darkness to light is also a growth from death to life, ignorance to knowledge, weakness to power..." (Chittick 17).
The growth of the soul is an actualization of the divine attributes in man, inherent in his spirit. All attributes are in man, in potential. It is important to remember that "these divine attributes are not superhuman qualities or super-added to the human condition. On the contrary, they define the human condition in an ontological sense. Only by actualizing such qualities does one participate in the fullness of existence and show forth the qualities of Being" (Chittick 21).
God's attributes are all through the Cosmos, but they are scattered and dispersed among the various forms and creatures, while in man they are concentrated, though undifferentiated as yet. In essence all people have all of the divine attributes in potential, but in actuality each soul is different in terms of which attributes have actualized and to what degree they have become luminous. Thus, there are a vast hierarchy of souls from the most intense light to the darker unawares. This is why Ibn al-`Arabi employs the concept of "ranking by degrees" or "stations" of being (stations being different than `states' (hal), which are temporary experiences along the Path). He explains how the Light is brighter in some places and the reflection purer, which is part of the meaning of what is called the Perfect Man and the ranking of degrees or the gradation of intensities in existence.
Ibn al-`Arabi sees knowledge as varying in degrees or intensities, "some surpassing others." This is the "ranking in degrees of excellence", called Tafadul (Chittick 8). Knowledge is a possibility provided to us by God, but not all people have the same degree of knowledge. This idea comes from the Koranic verses, "God has caused some of you to surpass others in provision" (16:71) and "We raise in degrees whomsoever We will, and above each one who possesses knowledge is someone who knows more" (12:76), and it asks, "Are they equal - those who know and those who know not?" (39:9). Thus, there is a hierarchical gradation in the intensity of God's Light and Knowledge, which does not mean that God is less in those lesser places, but existence is less knowing of God.
The highest possibility of man and woman is called, "The Perfect Man" (insani kamil). He is the archetype of Self-actualization and the goal of the Sufi path. "The longing for the Perfect Man, theoretically explained in Ibn `Ibn al-`Arabi's work, is much older than these theories - the veneration offered to the Prophet shows this" (Schimmel 282). "He realized in himself and his experience the Oneness of Being that underlies all the apparent multiplicity of existence" (Austin 37). Throughout the Cosmos, Being displays the infinite possibilities within Itself, but "It only manifests Itself in Its fullness through perfect man, since he alone actualizes every divine character trait, or every quality of Being. " "Just as Allah is the `all-comprehensive name', so perfect man is the `all-comprehensive engendered thing' in which the divine names receive their full manifestation" (Chittick 30).
The Perfect Man is both a slave of God, meaning that he is dependent upon God as a creature is to his Creator, and he is the necessary agent of God, meaning that he is the mind and the body needed to manifest God's Creativity. This is the receptive and the active aspect of the Perfect Man. He is receptive and submissive to God's Command and accepts God's Will on earth. He is also actively enacting God's Will, through his own creativity, which is none other than God's. Both of these aspects become one in the heart of the Perfect Man. He is both being the receiver of Divine Creativity and being the creator of Divine Creativity. In other words, he has taken on the cloak of God, The Creator, The Compassionate, The Guide, The Healer, etc.
Through him the Divine Qualities express themselves. Through him the Divine Qualities are revealed. He has the spiritual power (himma) to manifest what is as yet in latency. He sees into the world of Divine Possibilities, and by his concentration and contemplation these possibilities come into being in this world. Thus, he is the perfect agent of God's becoming, or the agent of God's Wish. The Perfect Man is "that individual human being who realizes in himself the reality of the saying that man is created in God's image, who combines in his microcosmic selfhood both the macrocosmic object and divine consciousness, being that heart which, microcosmically, contains all things essentially, and in which the Reality eternally rediscovers Its wholeness. He is also, at once, the original and ultimate man whose archetype and potential for realization is innate in every human being" (Austin 35).
Yet, the Perfect Man is more to do with a realization than something to develop. In his short book, He Who Knows Himself Knows His Lord, Ibn al-`Arabi suggests that God is already manifesting Himself through us, so it is a matter of realizing oneself and realizing that God is the One Who lives through me. He even suggests that the very idea that one must `travel a Sufi path' to become one with God is an illusion, because we are never separate from Him. No matter what we do we are never separate; and yet, it is the pain of separation that draws the Sufi closer to the Beloved. The separation has a purpose, which is to bring us closer, until we realize that it has always been close, that we are one with God. "He is saying, therefore, that it is not a case of the Sufi striving to reach a goal from which he is, in reality, distant, but only that he is trying to realize and become aware of a oneness and identity that is inexorably and eternally real" (Austin 40).
So, the goal of finding God is finally realized in man himself. Our search for Reality has lead us through many realizations. God, The Absolute is beyond any conception, but the different ways that we do conceive of God, through our various kinds of relationships to that Divinity, are how God reveals Himself in the world. God is imminently here, because it is God Who is manifesting as the multiplicity, revealing the many Names or Qualities of His Essence. Our relationship with God and His with us is inseparable, and God needs man as much as man needs God, because we are the perception by which He sees Himself in the multitude and relativity of perspectives. In each perspective and in each existence is God seeing Himself and being Himself, though not in His Absoluteness. Thus, God is both the cause and the effect of existence. And we know God through being in the world and seeing beyond the veils of perception into the deeper, archetypal, divine structure of things.
We ultimately know God intimately by unveiling the truth of ourself to find God, the Subject of all self-knowledge. It is the Perfect Man (man or woman) who knows and experiences the Unity of all life, who can unveil the underlying structure to its very Core. He knows himself and his necessary relationship with the Divine. He knows God is the hidden treasure who longs to be known, and that this treasure is himself longing to know and express itself to the fullest degree. And, he is able to express that divine potential in any of its various modalities according to the need of the moment.
One may ask if Ibn al-`Arabi is confusing a necessary distinction between man and God. He is certainly alluding to the necessary relationship between the Macrocosm and the microcosm, and he is implying that God is in fact immanent in man and the world. God exists in man in potential, but not in full actuality. The Perfect Man is one who realizes his unity with God, that God is manifesting through him, but he also recognizes that he is not, and cannot be, the same as God. The Perfect Man has the knowledge of his potential and recognizes it as divine, and from here he works to actualize that potential when the need arises. Obviously, he cannot be all things at once, nor can he know all things at once. So, the Perfect Man is not God, The Omniscient, but is a perfect servant and lover of God, which he realizes can only be known through his own being and that of others. The goal is not to become God, but is to realize that all of oneself is God and to allow His Potentiality to be manifest. Thus, the microcosm is able to reflect the Names and Qualities of the Macrocosm.
The relationship between man and God is as a drop of ocean is to the ocean itself. The drop IS ocean, but is not THE ocean. Likewise, what we see is a reflection of light, but not THE light; yet it IS light. There is discourse between man and God, but it is not between two independently separate entities, because there IS only God; yet, God exists in this world through the microcosms of man and woman and nature. It is God Who makes discourse with Himself in and through these various modalities. The true discourse between man and God is in man's unveiling of God (or actually God's unveiling of Himself). The purpose of life is in this unveiling, or in the knowledge of His Hidden Treasure, which lies in man and in the world. A real discourse between man and God leaves the man transformed. It's not like you talk to God (or pray) and the relationship remains the same, because any real discourse with God creates transformation and a new awakening. This new awakening is the unveiling of the Truth (al-Haqq).
It is this radical `Unity of Being' that gets Ibn al-`Arabi in trouble with orthodoxy. The contemporary Islamic scholar, Fazlur Rahman describes Ibn al-`Arabi's doctrine as monistic and pantheistic, "representing a radical humanism", especially in the doctrine of the `Perfect Man', in whose mirror God sees Himself, where "this immanent God and Human Being are not only interdependent, but are the obverse and converse of the same coin" (Rahman 315). Ibn al-`Arabi's relativity of good and evil, and his suggestion that man is the relative incarnation of God was severely attacked by Ibn Taymiyah in the 14th century, who maintained the necessity for an absolute distinction between evil and good, as well as man and God.
But according to Austin, "To say that he was a pantheist is to ignore his often strongly transcendental view of divinity. What he says of the relationship between the Cosmos and God is that the Cosmos is not and cannot be other than God, not that it is God or that God is the Cosmos. His doctrine of the Oneness of Being/Perception means that the sole, whole Reality is far more than the sum of its parts or aspects" (Austin 27). Still, Ibn al-`Arabi's doctrine of Unity seems too radical for the orthodox. He is continually revealing the relative inter-relationships of God and man, spiritual and corporeal, reality and appearance, perfection and imperfection. He works with the paradoxical relationship of reality and illusion, between the Truth and the apparency of Truth, between God and what we know of Him. The solution to all the seeming dualities is not as simple as to merely deny one as illusion and affirm the other as Reality, because, in Ibn al-`Arabi's thought, the illusion is an allusion to the Truth and the appearance is how the Reality perceives Itself.
Still, Ibn al-`Arabi's works do not have the unqualified approval of all Sufis. Even still, many Sufi Masters veer their students away from the works for fear of mis-understanding and mis-use. Titus Burchardt, in a forward to the Fusus, tells a story of when he had bought the seven volumes of the Futuhat, and he was walking with the books, when a dervish friend of his questioned, "What are you going to do with that? It is much too advanced for you." Burchardt replied that when we was wise enough he would read it. The dervish said, "When you are wise you will no longer need the book." Burchardt then asked the dervish, "Then for whom was it written?" And the dervish replied, "For men who can see through walls but do not do so, nor even wish to."