Muhyî al-Dîn Muhammad Ibn al-`Arabî al-Hâtimî al-Tâ'î
Ibn `Arabî (560-638/1165-1240) has been one of the most influential authors in the second half of Islamic history. In the Arabic texts, he is more commonly called Ibn al-`Arabî (with the definite article). He himself often signs his works in the form Abû `Abd Allâh Muhammad ibn al-`Arabî al-Tâ'î al-Hâtimî. He came to be called Muhyî al-Dîn, “The Revivifier of the Religion,” and al-Shaykh al-Akbar, “The Greatest Master.” He combined the various schools of Islamic thought—jurisprudence, principles of jurisprudence, Kalam, philosophy, and Sufism—into a vast synthesis inspired by the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet.
Ibn `Arabî's inner and outer life has been recounted in detail by the unsurpassed study of Claude Addas, Quest for the Red Sulphur. In brief, his father `Alî was apparently employed by Muhammad ibn Sa`îd ibn Mardanîsh, the ruler of Murcia in Spain. In 567/1172 Murcia was conquered by the Almohad dynasty, and `Alî took his family to Seville, where again he seems to have been taken into government service. Ibn `Arabî himself would have been raised in the environs of the court, and recent research suggests that he underwent military training. He was employed as a secretary by the governor of Seville and married a girl named Maryam from an influential family. When he was thirty he left Spain for the first time, traveling to Tunis. Seven years later, in 597/1200, a vision instructed him to go to the East. In 599/1202 he performed the hajj and met, among others, Majd al-Dîn Ishâq, a scholar from Malatya whose as yet unborn son was to be Sadr al-Dîn al-Qûnawî (606-73/1210-74), Ibn `Arabî’s most influential disciple.
Accompanying Majd al-Dîn on the way back to Malatya, Ibn `Arabî stayed for a time in Mosul, where he was invested with an initiatory cloak (khirqa) by Ibn al-Jâmi`, who himself had received it from the hands of al-Khidr. For some years Ibn `Arabî traveled from city to city in the regions of Turkey, Syria, and Egypt, visiting again the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. In 608/1211-12 he was in Baghdad, perhaps accompanied by Majd al-Dîn, who had been sent there by Sultan Kay Kâ'ûs I (607-16/1210-19) of Konya on a mission to the caliphal court. Ibn `Arabî was on good terms with this sultan and wrote him a letter of practical advice. He was also a companion of the ruler of Aleppo, al-Malik al-Zâhir (582-615/1186-1218), a son of Saladin (Salâh al-Dîn al-Ayyûbî).
In 620/1223 Ibn `Arabî settled down permanently in Damascus, where a circle of disciples, including al-Qûnawî, served him until his death. According to some early sources, he had married Majd al-Dîn's widow, al-Qûnawî's mother. Among those who studied with him during this time was the Ayyubid ruler of Damascus, Muzaffar al-Dîn (d. 635/1238). In a document dated 632/1234, Ibn `Arabî granted him permission to teach his works, of which he lists 290; he also mentions seventy of his own masters in the sciences, noting that the list is incomplete. It is clear from this source that Ibn `Arabî had spent long years studying the religious sciences, including the seven recitations of the Qur’an, Qur’anic commentary, jurisprudence, and especially Hadith.
Ibn `Arabî's outward life demonstrates nothing exceptional for a Muslim man of learning, except perhaps the volume of his writings. His special place in Islamic history was determined more by his life's inward events and his encounters with spiritual men. In this respect, his youthful meeting with the great philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes) is of symbolic importance, since it demonstrates the wide gulf that Ibn `Arabî perceived between the formal knowledge of the “folk of rational consideration” (ahl al-nazar) and the visionary and spiritual knowledge possessed by the “folk of unveiling” (ahl al-kashf). It is significant that Ibn `Arabî says he was a “beardless youth” when the meeting took place. Although certain authorities have inferred from an ambiguous passage in his Futûhât that he did not enter the Sufi path until he was twenty, the meeting with Ibn Rushd certainly took place before he had reached this age, and his account indicates that he had already been taken into the presence of God. Ibn Rushd, he tells us, “had wanted to meet me because. . . of what had reached him concerning the opening [fath] God had given me in retreat [khalwa].” Ibn `Arabî frequently discusses the term “opening,” which he defines as “the unveiling of the uncreated Lights” and describes as a primary goal of the Sufi path. Note also that the title of his magnum opus, al-Futûhât al-makkiyya, means literally “the Meccan Openings,” which is to say that it refers to visions of uncreated lights occasioned by the pilgrimage to Mecca. Ibn `Arabî goes on to describe his meeting with Ibn Rushd as follows:
He said to me, “Yes.” I replied, “Yes,” and his joy in me increased. When I perceived why he had become happy, I said, “No.” He became constricted, his color changed, and he began to doubt himself.
He asked, “How have you found the situation in unveiling and the divine effusion? Is it the same as is given to us by rational consideration?”
I replied, “Yes and no. Between the yes and the no spirits fly from their matter and heads from their bodies.”
The idea put forth by certain Western scholars that Ibn `Arabî was initially guided by al-Khidr is unfounded. In fact, his earliest encounter with the “Men of the Unseen World” (rijâl al-ghayb) was with Jesus, as he states repeatedly, and his first teacher on the path to God, Abu'l-`Abbâs al-`Uryabî, was dominated by Christ's spiritual influence. Ibn `Arabî considered Jesus the “Seal of Universal Sanctity.” He himself, at least in certain passages, claimed to be the “Seal of the Particular, Muhammadan Sanctity,” so his early encounter with Jesus certainly suggests something about how he understood his own calling.
In his comprehensive—but now dated—study of the 850 different works attributed to Ibn `Arabî, Osman Yahya estimated that 700 are authentic and over 400 extant. Even though many of these are only a few pages long, many more are full-sized books, and the Futûhât alone contains more words than most authors write in a lifetime. Among his best known works are the following:
(1) al-Futûhât al-makkiyya. Subjects treated in this vast compendium of the religious and spiritual sciences include the inner meanings of the every detail of the rites of purification, salât, hajj, and alms-giving as legislated by the different schools of the Shariah (the madhhabs); the stations and states that the travelers traverse on their journey to God and in God, the significance and nature of the hierarchical structure of the cosmos, the spiritual and ontological meaning of the letters of the Arabic alphabet, the sciences embraced by each of the ninety-nine names of God, the inner states of travelers on the path to God, and the significance of the differing messages of the various prophets.
(2) Fusûs al-hikam (“The Ringstones of Wisdom”). This book has always been held in the greatest esteem by Ibn `Arabî's followers, and well over one hundred commentaries have been written upon it. One may thus be inclined to accept Henry Corbin's view that it is “no doubt the best compendium of Ibn `Arabî's esoteric doctrine.”  However, Ibn `Arabî’s foremost disciple al-Qûnawî is more circumspect when he writes in al-Fukûk, a short commentary on the text, that it is “one of the most precious shorter writings of our shaykh.” In it Ibn `Arabî discusses the divine wisdom revealed to each of twenty-seven prophets from Adam to Muhammad. Basing himself largely on Qur’anic verses and hadiths, he shows how each of them disclosed in his person and prophetic career the wisdom implied by one of the divine attributes.
(3) Tarjumân al-ashwâq (“The Interpreter of Yearnings”). This short collection of love poetry, the first of his works to be translated into English, was inspired by Ibn `Arabî’s meeting with Nizâm, the beautiful and gifted daughter of a teacher from Isfahan, during his first pilgrimage to Mecca (a somewhat later parallel is found in Dante’s Beatrice). He also wrote a long commentary on the poems to prove to certain of the more narrow-minded ulama that they deal with spiritual truths and not profane love.
Among the many works wrongly attributed to Ibn `Arabî, Risâlat al-ahadiyya (“The Treatise on Unity”) has been translated into English. Michel Chodkiewicz has shown that it is in fact by Awhad al-Dîn Balyânî (d. 686/1288), a Sufi from Shiraz.
In formulating his teachings, Ibn `Arabî made use of the vast range of Islamic learning available to him, beginning with the Qur’an and the Hadith. He borrowed extensively from the written and oral tradition of Sufism that had been developing for several hundred years. He made free use of the terminology of philosophers like the Ikhwân al-Safâ’ and Avicenna. He was thoroughly versed in Kalam, especially Ash’arism. But all these schools of thought were so many building blocks that became parts of his own intellectual edifice. His repeated testimony and the very nature of his writings and influence show that his “unveilings” and “openings” gave new form to the material with which he worked.
Most of Ibn `Arabî's books and treatises remain unedited, unpublished, and/or unstudied. The Futûhât was first printed in the nineteenth century, and before his death, Osman Yahia published fourteen of a projected thirty-seven-volume critical edition (the last of these appeared in 1991). Scholars will need to devote years of effort before a thorough analysis of the contents of the Futûhât can be carried out, and most of his other writings also remain to be studied with care. It is not surprising that many who have attempted to interpret his teachings have pointed out the tentative nature of their endeavors. Nonetheless, certain central themes, highlighted for example in the Fusûs, can be discerned throughout his books and treatises. We can be relatively sure of their primary importance because they were emphasized by his immediate disciples and followers. These same themes have been taken up and elaborated upon by generations of philosophers, Sufis, and theologians. It is to some of these that we turn our attention here.
Before asking what Ibn `Arabî has to say about God, the universe, and human beings, it may be useful to explain some of the most important characteristics of his path to understanding. In his view, no methodology or standpoint allows for transcending its own limitations save that which recognizes the relative validity of every standpoint and which, at the same time, does not become bound and conditioned by a specific standpoint. He sometimes calls this perspective “the standpoint of no standpoint” or “the station of no station” (maqâm lâ maqâm). He also calls it tahqîq, “realization” or “verification.”
The word tahqîq is derived from the root h-q-q, from which we have two terms of extreme importance for the Islamic sciences —haqîqa and haqq. Haqîqa is usually translated as “reality,” and a great deal could be said about what it means in Ibn `Arabî's writings and the Islamic sciences in general. The English translation suggests many of the directions in which a discussion of the word would take us. As soon as we pose questions like “What is reality?” or “What is the reality of a thing?”, we fall into the most difficult and subtle of philosophical and theological issues.
However, I want to focus more on the word haqq, which is a noun and an adjective that means truth and true, reality and real, rightness and right, appropriateness and appropriate. As a Qur’anic divine name, it means the Real, the Truth, the Right. From early times, it has been used as a virtual synonym for the name God (Allah). In one common usage, haqq is juxtaposed with khalq, “creation.” Both haqq and khalq are realities (haqîqa), and taken together the two words designate everything that exists, everything that is real in any respect whatsoever, for all time and all eternity. However, these two realities are by no means equal. The status of al-haqq, the Real or God, is clear, because “There is no god but God,” which is to say that there is nothing truly real, true, right, proper, and appropriate save God alone. In contrast, the status of khalq is by no means clear. If God alone is haqq in a strict sense, where exactly do creation and created things stand? How do they fit into reality as a whole? If they are real, certainly their realness is not of the same order as that of God. And if they are unreal, how does the unreal relate to the Real? Moreover, a second term is also commonly juxtaposed with haqq. This is bâtil, which means unreal, wrong, null, void, absurd. The Qur’an contrasts these two words in a dozen verses, such as, “The haqq has come and the bâtil has vanished” (17:41).
The word haqq, then, is commonly paired with both khalq and bâtil, but the distinction between khalq and bâtil is vitally important. Bâtil is totally other than haqq. It can best be understood as the negation of haqq. In contrast khalq, though not identical with haqq, is also not completely different from haqq, because creation is certainly not unreal, wrong, vain, and null. As the Qur’an puts it, “We have not created the heavens, the earth, and what is between the two as bâtil” (38:27). The ambiguity of all of khalq derives from the fact that it hangs between haqq and bâtil—between being and nothingness, real and unreal, right and wrong, proper and improper, appropriate and inappropriate. Since we cannot avoid asking ourselves what we are and who we are, the exact status of the created world becomes a primary issue discussed in philosophy and much of theology and Sufism.
Questions about the status of creation bring us to a second question: Is there anything we can do to improve our status? To answer this question, we need to know the divine purpose in giving us existence. Thus we have two basic questions: “What [mâ]?” and “Why [limâ]?” What are we, and why are we here? What is our actual situation, and what should we be doing to fulfill our purpose? Ibn `Arabî and many others call the process of asking these questions, answering them, and then putting the answers into practice tahqîq, or “giving things their haqqs.” To give something its haqq is to “verify” and “realize” the thing, that is, to understand the thing as it actually is, and then to establish a relationship to it that is exactly what God, al-Haqq, wants from us. Thereby we fulfill our purpose in being here.
In most of Ibn `Arabî's technical terminology, the meanings that he gives to words are rooted in the Qur’an and the Hadith. For the meaning that he accords to tahqîq, one Qur’anic verse and one hadith play especially important roles. The Qur’anic verse is 20:50: “He has given each thing its creation, then guided.” Here we have the beginnings of an answer to the two questions. “What are we?” Are we haqq or bâtil, real or unreal, appropriate or inappropriate? The basic answer is given by the first clause of the verse, “He has given each thing its creation,” which is to say that God, the Absolute Haqq, has determined and bestowed the khalq. In respect of the fact that al-Haqq has given khalq, He takes away the bâtil, which is the negation of haqq. Hence, khalq is an expression of haqq.
It follows that if we consider God's creative command to His creatures—what Ibn `Arabî and others call His “engendering command” (al-amr al-takwînî), whereby He says to a thing “Be!” (kun) and it comes to be—then we must conclude that each creature is haqq, which is to say that it real, right, true, and appropriate. Inasmuch as we are able to see the Real's activity and signs (âyât) in the creature, we have found the haqq expressed in the khalq.
As for the second clause of verse 20:50, “Then guided,” it addresses the question of purpose. First God creates the creatures, then He provides them with guidance, and it is His guidance that gives them a proper goal to pursue in life. In the human case, the Qur’an epitomizes guidance in the verse, “I created jinn and mankind only to worship Me” (51:56). The Qur’an is God’s explanation of “the straight path” whereby worship should be performed. “Worship” is the means whereby human beings achieve their purpose in creation. The divine guidance that sets down the proper way of achieving human purpose is often called God's “prescriptive” or “emburdening command” (al-amr al-taklîfî). It is the divine commandments, prohibitions, and instructions that pave the way to right knowledge, right speech, and right activity.
The exact nature of God's guidance and its relation with haqq is suggested by the hadith to which I referred earlier as playing a basic role in Ibn `Arabî's understanding of tahqîq. This hadith has several versions, presumably because the Prophet repeated it in slightly different forms on a variety of occasions. That it should be an everyday guiding principle for people concerned with the truth and the right should be obvious. The text says, in one typical version, “Your soul has a haqq against you, your Lord has a haqq against you, your guest has a haqq against you, and your spouse has a haqq against you; so give to each that has a haqq its haqq.”
From the standpoint of the first question, “What are we?,” this hadith of the haqqs explains that we and everything that we encounter have haqqs, which is to say that everything without exception has a proper situation, a correct mode of being, an appropriate manner of displaying the Real to us. It does so because “God has given each thing its creation,” and thereby He has established not only its khalq, but also its haqq. As the Qur’an says in several verses, God created everything with the haqq and through the haqq. “We created the heavens and the earth and what is between them only through the haqq” (15:85). In this respect the khalq or “creation” of each thing is identical with its haqq, because the Absolute Haqq has given the thing its khalq from Itself.
In answer to the second question, “What should we be?,” the hadith tells us, “Give to each that has a haqq its haqq.” We should be a khalq that realizes haqq. That is, our every word, deed, thought, and intention should be right, true, appropriate, worthy, and real in keeping with our haqqs and the haqqs of others. Our own selves, God, people, and things have haqqs “against” (`alâ) us, so we will be asked about these haqqs and we will have to “respond.” Each haqq represents our “responsibility.” Given that only human beings were taught all the names by God, we alone are able to recognize and realize the haqq of everything in existence. God and all of khalq make demands on us. When we encounter something, we must recognize its haqq and act accordingly. It is this haqq of things that we must address, because this haqq is identical with the khalq that God has established, and God is Himself the Haqq, the Right, the True, the Proper, the Appropriate. The Reality of God, which makes Itself known through all that exists, is not simply “that which truly is,” but also that which is truly right and worthy. It makes moral and ethical demands on human beings by the fact that “He has given each thing its creation.”
Given that all things manifest the Absolute Haqq and that each creature possesses a relative haqq; and given that we will be held responsible for the haqqs that pertain specifically to us, we need a scale (mîzân) by which to measure the extent of our own responsibility and to learn how to deal with the haqqs. We cannot possibly know the haqqs of things by our own lights or by our own rational investigation of the world and the soul, because the relative haqq of creation is determined and defined by the Absolute Haqq, and the Absolute Haqq is unknowable except in the measure in which It chooses to reveal Itself. Hence the scale can only come through the prophets, who are precisely the means by which the Haqq has chosen to reveal Its guidance. The Qur’an is the means that clarifies the haqqs for Muslims: “With the haqq We have sent [the Qur’an] down, and with the haqq it has come down” (17:105).
One can conclude that for Ibn `Arabî, God’s most important commandment—a commandment whereby the question, “What should we do?” is answered most directly—is expressed in the hadith of the haqqs: “Give to each that has a haqq its haqq.” This giving things their haqqs is the very definition of the human task in the cosmos, and it is the meaning of tahqîq or “realization”—”to recognize every haqq and to act appropriately.”
Once one understands that the Absolute Haqq is God and that the haqqs of all things depend utterly upon God, one has to employ the divine scale to recognize the realities and the haqqs of both God and creation. The first thing in the domain of khalq whose reality and haqq must be understood is the human self or soul (nafs). Notice that the hadith begins, “Your soul has a haqq against you, your Lord has a haqq against you,” then it mentions guest, spouse, etc. The primacy of soul is not accidental. Without knowing oneself, one cannot know one's Lord. God and everything in the universe have haqqs against us, but in order to give everything that has a haqq its haqq, we first have to know who we are. Otherwise, we will not be able to discern which of the haqqs pertain to us. This helps explain why Ibn `Arabî frequently quotes the saying “He who has known himself has known his Lord,” or “Those who have recognized themselves have recognized their Lord.” In other words, he who has recognized himself as God’s creature has come to recognize the Absolute Haqq and understood the demands that God makes upon his soul.
On the level of the Shariah, discerning the haqqs is relatively straightforward, because it entails only the recognition that the revealed law is incumbent upon us. But the Shariah does not address the whole realm of reality, and Muslims have always acknowledged that only a small percentage of the Qur’an’s verses refers to its rulings and prescriptions. What about the rest of human existence? When God said, “I am placing in the earth a vicegerent” (2:30), did He mean that the only thing He asks from His chosen vicegerents is to obey a few commands and prohibitions? Is there is no need to know Him, or the universe, or themselves? When He said, “God emburdens a soul only to its capacity” (2:286), did He mean that one is free to define one's own capacity by one's own understanding of biology, psychology, history, and politicized religion? How can one decide what this “emburdening” entails unless one knows both the command of God and the capacity of one's own soul? If Ibn `Arabî and many other Muslim sages are correct—and if we simply grasp the implications of everlasting life—then the human self is “an ocean without shore,” an endless unfolding. Surely, dealing with the haqq of such a reality demands more than what is given in your philosophies.
To put this discussion in a slightly different way, the issue of who we are pertains not only to anthropology, psychology, and ethics, but also to ontology and cosmology. To give ourselves our haqq, we must know who it is of whom we are the khalq. Here Ibn `Arabî begins to show his real gifts as a muhaqqiq (a master of tahqîq), because he plumbs the depths of the subtle mysteries of Absolute Reality and Its relations with the human soul. It is from these contexts that his followers derived teachings that came to be called wahdat al-wujûd (“the oneness of being” or “the unity of existence”), and it is here that he speaks in great detail about “the perfect human being” (al-insân al-kâmil), who is the fully realized form (sûra) of God.
Although Ibn `Arabî has become famous as the founder of wahdat al-wujûd, he does not himself employ the expression, though he often approximates it. In attributing wahdat al-wujûd to him, we need to keep in mind what exactly the expression might mean in the context in which we are using it. In the later literature, different authors understand this single expression in a variety of ways, some of them mutually contradictory. The heated debates that have occurred over this idea—debates that still go on today—are rooted in different understandings of the term’s meaning. Few if any of these understandings have reflected accurately the subtle manner in which Ibn `Arabî himself deals with the ambiguity of the status of khalq, between haqq and bâtil.
In sum, for Ibn `Arabî tahqîq is a term that designates the station of those who have achieved, by divine grace and solicitude (`inâya), the full possibilities of human knowledge and existence. By following the Sunnah of the Prophet on the three levels of activity, knowledge, and inner transformation, they have achieved the station to which he referred when he said, “Our Lord, show us things as they are!” Hence Ibn `Arabî calls tahqîq “the Muhammadan station,” because it is the full realization of the model provided the Prophet. The muhaqqiqs have recognized the haqqs in exactly the manner in which God has established them and the Prophet enacted them. Through giving each thing that has a haqq its haqq, the muhaqqiqs also give God, who has given each thing its creation, His haqq, and thus realize, to the extent humanly possible, the fullness of God-given knowledge and God-given reality.
Since God bestows on the muhaqqiqs the knowledge of how to give things their haqqs, they alone are able to recognize the haqq of everything in existence. Hence they do not take sides, except inasmuch as the haqq of certain things in certain contexts demands that they take sides. Ibn `Arabî writes that when he takes the standpoint of the Shariah, he judges on its basis, and when he takes the standpoint of reason (`aql), he discerns and distinguishes by its scale. Both reason and the Shariah accept some things and reject others, because each has a specific, limited, and constraining station. However, when he takes the standpoint of the divine unveiling, through which the muhaqqiq is given to see things as they are, he recognizes the legitimacy and haqq of everything that exists, even if both reason and the Shariah lead him to act against it, given that the haqq of a thing may be not only to exist, but also to be acted against.
This is precisely tahqîq, “realization,” or “the standpoint of no standpoint,” that is, of no specific standpoint, given that every defined standpoint will reject the legitimacy of other standpoints. Only God stands beyond every standpoint, giving to each thing its creation, and then guiding it in terms of that specific creation. The role of the muhaqqiqs is to be God's vicegerents by recognizing the rightful place of everything He has created and then examining His guidance in each thing, so that they may also give each thing that has a haqq its haqq. When the Shariah commands an act, they perform it, because that is the haqq. When reason sees a distinction to be drawn between truth and falsehood, they draw it, because that is the haqq. But all the while, they see with a divine light that everything is as it must be, because khalq is none other than a relative haqq given by the Absolute Haqq. They understand that all will be well in the end, because God’s mercy is infinite and all-encompassing.
As early as 1914, Miguel Asìn Palacios wrote that “the whole of the Futûhât is based on belief in the esoteric virtue of the divine names.” Other scholars, such as Titus Burckhardt, Henry Corbin, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, have also called attention to the primary importance of the names in Ibn `Arabî's writings. A brief review of their significance can help us understand how Ibn `Arabî goes about determining the haqq of things on the basis of the Qur’anic revelation.
According to the Qur’an and the Hadith, God is the Merciful, the Wise, the Generous, the Forgiving, the Living, the Hearing, the Avenger, and so on. In Islamic theology in general, God’s “ninety-nine names” epitomize the knowledge of Him that has been revealed to mankind; through them we can grasp something of the divine reality, though we must remember the Prophet's saying: “Meditate upon God's blessings, but not upon His Essence [dhât].” God in His very Essence, as Ibn `Arabî often remarks, remains unknowable to us. No created thing can know God as God knows God. What we can know is simply what He chooses to disclose to us. “They encompass nothing of His knowledge save as He wills” (Qur’an 2:255).
Ibn `Arabî tells us repeatedly that in trying to understand God, we need to keep in view both His transcendence and His immanence—or, more precisely, we need to “declare His incomparability” (tanzîh) and “assert His similarity” (tashbîh). On the one hand, God is unknowable in His Essence; on the other, we can understand Him through His names. True knowledge of Him must combine the two points of view. Ultimately, this coincidence of opposites can be grasped only in the heart (qalb), which sees with the two eyes of reason and unveiling. The apparent incompatibility of the two standpoints helps explain why Ibn `Arabî sometimes calls the highest stage of realization “bewilderment” (hayra).
Everything we can know about God, and ultimately everything we can know about “everything other than God” (mâ siwa'llâh)—which is the world or the cosmos (al-`âlam)—is prefigured by the divine names, which designate God's perfections inasmuch as He is the Haqq that bestows upon things their khalq. Some of the names are broader in scope than others. For example, God as “Creator” relates to everything in the universe, but, as “Knower,” He knows many things that He does not create. One of Ibn `Arabî’s disciples tells us that the “universal names” number ninety-nine, and the “particular names” are infinite, because they are ultimately the names of everything in existence, each of which “names” God in respect of its own specific haqq. This is why Ibn `Arabî can say in one passage that the divine names are infinite in keeping with the infinity of the creatures (Fusûs, chapter 2).
The formula “In the name of God, the All-Merciful, the All-Compassionate” mentions three names: Allah, al-Rahmân, and al-Rahîm. The latter two both derive from the word rahma, “mercy” (which in turn derives from the same root as rahim, “womb”). For Ibn `Arabî, mercy is Being or Existence (wujûd). When God says, “My mercy embraces all things” (Qur’an 7:156), He means, “I bestow existence on all things,” for existence is the only quality in which all things share. In a hadith the Prophet refers to the “Breath of the All-Merciful” (nafas al-Rahmân). According to Ibn `Arabî, the All-Merciful's exhalation of His Breath is equivalent to the bestowal of existence (îjâd) on creation. In the same context he and his followers often quote the hadith in which God says, “I was a Hidden Treasure and I loved to be known, so I created the creatures that I might be known.” This Hidden Treasure is the “storehouses” in which God keeps His creatures before He creates them. “There is nothing whose storehouses are not with Us, but We send it down only in a known measure” (15:21). These storehouses are all the possibilities of existence that are prefigured by the divine names.
In one explanation of the symbolism of “breath,” Ibn `Arabî tells us that the All-Merciful—whose very reality is to have mercy on all things and thereby bring them into existence—feels “distress” (kurba) within Himself at the nonexistence of things. After all, it is their haqq to have their khalq. The “possibility” (imkân) of the things—in Qur’anic terms, their “poverty” (faqr)—begs the All-Merciful to give them existence so that they can display their own specific properties and their own specific haqqs. The All-Merciful can do nothing but show mercy, so He “exhales,” thereby answering their prayer and relieving His own distress. However, this is not a simple exhalation. On the contrary, it is articulated speech. “Our only word to a thing, when We desire it, is to say to it ‘Be!’, and it is” (Qur’an 16:40). The myriad individual things with all their classes, types, and grades can be understood as the letters, words, phrases, sentences, and books that God articulates in His All-Merciful Breath.
If God “encompasses all things in knowledge,” and if He says to these things, “Be!” and they come to be, what exactly are these “things”? They are the possibilities of existence latent in the divine reality, the jewels concealed in the Hidden Treasure, the relative haqqs demanded by the Absolute Haqq. Ibn `Arabî also calls them “creatures” (makhlûqât), “objects of [God’s] knowledge” (ma`lûmât), “possible things” (mumkinât), “nonexistent things” (ma`dûmât), and, most famously, “fixed entities” (a`yân thâbita). The creatures are “nonexistent” because, as objects of God’s knowledge, they have no existence of their own. They are “fixed” because He knows them for all eternity. They are “possible” because He may or may not bestow existence upon them in any given circumstances.
Whether considered as nonexistent and fixed in the knowledge of God, or existent and changing in the world, all creatures are “realities” (haqîqa). Realities, however, need to be understood as having two basic sorts—”divine” (ilâhî) or pertaining to God, and “engendered” (kawnî) or pertaining to the engendering command “Be!” (kun). The eternal and unchanging divine realities include the divine attributes and the fixed entities. The engendered and created realities are the entities once they have been articulated in the All-Merciful Breath and have come to exist in the cosmos.
The divine names or attributes can be classified from a number of standpoints. According to one such classification, four are the “pillars” (arkân) of Divinity—knowledge, desire, power, and speech. Another formulation adds three more attributes—life, generosity, and equity—to yield the “seven Leaders” (al-a’immat al-sab`a). The remaining names can be thought of as derivative of these four or seven. The leaders or pillars are then embraced by the name Allah, called “the all-comprehensive name” (al-ism al-jâmi`), because it designates the totality of God’s reality, including every one of His attributes.
The hierarchical relationship among the names is reflected in the structure of the cosmos, which, in respect of its origin, is composed of descending levels (marâtib) and, in respect of its return to God, of ascending levels. Thus we have the “arc of descent” (qaws al-nuzûl) and the “arc of ascent” (qaws al-su`ûd), which together make up the “circle of existence” (dâ'irat al-wujûd). At each level of the arc of descent, different realities interrelate or “marry” (nikâh) to bring about the production of the lower levels. Ibn `Arabî envisages this hierarchical structure of the cosmos from several different standpoints, so a number of interrelated cosmological schemes can be derived from his works.
Like the nonexistent, fixed entities, the divine names are no different in their existence from God Himself; there is only one true wujûd, which is God. His many names denote the modes in which the One God makes Himself manifest in the universe. But God in His very Essence, which is beyond the limitation implied by any of the names, is One in a different sense from God considered as the Possessor of the Names (dhât al-asmâ’). Here lies a distinction fundamental to Ibn `Arabî's teachings. At the beginning of Chapter 7 of the Fusûs, he writes, “Know that He who is called ‘God’ is one in His Essence and all through His names.” He often refers to the Oneness of the Essence as ahadiyya (“Exclusive” or “Absolute Unity”) and the Oneness of the names, through which God is all, as wahdâniyya (“Inclusive” or “Infinite Unity”), although for the second kind his followers usually prefer the term wâhidiyya.
In Himself God knows the nonexistent, fixed entities in all their differentiated details. This divine omniscience is sometimes called the “Most Holy Effusion” (al-fayd al-aqdas) or the “Absent Self-Disclosure” (al-tajallî al-ghaybî). It is the level of the Hidden Treasure and the “distress” of the All-Merciful. When the jewels of the Hidden Treasure become manifest, or when the All-Merciful exhales His Breath, this is called the “Holy Effusion” (al-fayd al-muqaddas) or the “Witnessed Self-Disclosure” (al-tajallî al-shahâdî). Through it the entities, still nonexistent and fixed in God's knowledge, come to be manifest outwardly in the various levels of existence.
In making the entities manifest, Real Being does not of course become many, because the God’s reality is one. God’s wujûd retains Its original property of nondelimitation (itlâq) and transcendence. The divine light remains eternally unaffected by Its shining. What exactly, however, is the status of the things that have been articulated within the Breath? Given that they are commonly called “existents” (mawjûdât) or “engendered things” (kâ'inât), does this mean that the nonexistent, fixed entities have now come into existence and possess wujûd in the same way that God possesses wujûd?
Ibn `Arabî constantly returns to this issue of the status of created things, because it is the crux of our own existential situation. He offers an astonishing range of explanations, each from a different standpoint. None of these standpoints can be taken as his “final word” on the subject, because each is legitimate on its own level, even if illegitimate from certain other standpoints. Only the “standpoint of no standpoint” is able to grasp that every standpoint has its own legitimacy and that no single standpoint can embrace the reality of the Real and His relation to the creatures. Each standpoint has its haqq, and each must be given its haqq in the process of “realization.”
In one of his more famous explanations of the status of created things, Ibn `Arabî writes, “The entities have never smelt —and will never smell— the fragrance of existence.” Here he is saying that created things can never possess the true wujûd that is possessed exclusively by God, because God is the only reality that deserves the name “real” and “being.” Despite the appearance of having come to exist in the world, in actual fact—that is, judged against the Reality of God—the possible existents remain nonexistent, as they have always been. True and absolute existence can be nothing but the existence of God (cf. Fusûs, chapter 8). However, this standpoint does not negate the relatively unreal existence that comes to appear in the things.
One mark of the essential nonexistence of all “existent” things is that they must be recreated at each instant. “If the world were to remain in a single state for two units of time, it would possess the attribute of independence from God” (Futûhât, III 199). In order to teach us about the evanescence and impermanence of all things, God placed dreams in our psychic world. The constantly shifting pictures that we see in our dreams demonstrate to us the constantly shifting nature of the world itself.
Dreams pertain to the realm of “imagination” (khayâl), a word that plays a major role in Ibn `Arabî’s teachings. From his time onward, imagination becomes a central issue not only in psychology, but also in metaphysics and cosmology. In applying the term to the nature of the cosmos, he uses it in two basic senses. In one sense, the word designates “everything other than God,” because God alone is truly real, so the whole cosmos is constantly changing, as if it were the shifting images of God’s dream. Ibn `Arabî refers to the cosmos in this respect as “nondelimited imagination” (al-khayâl al-mutlaq), which is to say that it is infinitely vast, embracing all things in time and space, and ever-changing.
The reality of imagination is change in every state and manifestation in every form. There is no true wujûd that does not accept change except God. So there is nothing in realized existence except God. As for everything else, it is in imaginal existence.... Everything other than the Essence of God is intervening imagination and vanishing shadow. (Futûhât, II 313)
In a second sense, Ibn `Arabî uses the word “imagination” to designate a realm of the cosmos that brings together the spiritual and corporeal worlds, a realm that is also called the “isthmus” (barzakh). In this realm, spiritual realities become manifest as sensory forms, and, after death, human attributes and character traits become personified in forms appropriate to paradise or hell. Just as the soul acts as the means by which the spirit maintains its connection with the body, so the world of imagination acts as an intermediary between the world of angelic and disembodied spirits and the physical world. This intermediate, imaginal world is in turn divided into two sorts, one of which is “contiguous” (muttasil) to our psyches, and the other “discontiguous” (munfasil). Ibn `Arabî writes,
The difference between contiguous and discontiguous imagination is that the former disappears with the disappearance of the imaginer, but the latter is an essential presence [hadra] that constantly acts as a receptacle for meanings and spirits, embodying them in keeping with its own specific characteristics. Contiguous imagination derives from the discontiguous kind. (Futûhât, II 311)
The nature of the realities that become manifest in the cosmos is largely determined by their preparedness (isti`dâd), that is, the extent to which they are able to act as receptacles (qâbil) for the names and attributes God. Preparedness in turn is determined by the “Lord” (rabb) of each creature, the specific divine name that governs it, also known as its fixed entity. “[God as] All becomes entified [ta`ayyun] in keeping with each existent,” which is to say that Being determines and displays itself in keeping with the fixed entity of each creature, much as light appears in different colors when it shines through a stained-glass windoww. “Then, that entification is that thing's Lord. But no one takes from Him in respect of His Nondelimited Unity” (Fusûs, chap. 7). That is, nothing in the universe manifests the Essence of God as such, but rather, specific attributes and names of God.
The “receptivity” of the different entities helps us understand the distinction between God’s prophets and friends (awliyâ’) on the one hand and ordinary people on the other. The former have the receptivity and capacity to be “loci of manifestation” (mazhar, majlâ) for universal divine names, but other people are more limited in their receptivity and can only make the particular names manifest. The former display the myriad perfections of Being, while the latter display only a few.
Closely connected to the entity's preparedness is the question of “measuring out” or “destiny” (qadar). Each existent thing is determined by its own Lord. Before it comes into existence, God knows its qualities and characteristics, because its “treasuries are with Him.” Then, in the process of creation, God measures out these qualities and characteristics according to the thing’s capacity to receive. What Ibn `Arabî and others call the “mystery of the measuring out” (sirr al-qadar) is that God does not determine which qualities and characteristics reach the entity. As Ibn `Arabî puts it, “No one possesses in himself anything from God, nor does he have anything from anyone other than himself” (Fusûs, chapter 2). What this means is that the entity, fixed forever in God’s knowledge, can never receive anything but what it demands in itself and according to its own haqq. God did not “make” (ja`l) it the way it is, because it is nonexistent and uncreated.
God in His omniscience knows everything for all eternity. Through creating creatures, He does “make” them what they are. Rather, He brings them from nonexistence into existence, or He shows mercy on their nonexistent entities by articulating them within His Breath. He is simply pronouncing the words that He knows, words that are the possibilities of outward manifestation latent in the very reality of Nondelimited Being. It is the word itself—its own fixed reality as this word rather than that word—that determines how it will be pronounced, so the entity itself determines its own activity and its own destiny. This is how Ibn `Arabî interprets the Qur’anic passage in which Satan tells the denizens of hell not to blame him, for he had no authority over them (14:22). “So,” says Ibn `Arabî, “let them blame none but themselves, and let them praise none but themselves: ‘God's is the conclusive argument’ [Qur’an 6:149] through His knowledge of them” (Fusûs, chapter 8).
In discussing the manner in which God brings things into existence, Ibn `Arabî distinguishes between the two commands of God that have already been mentioned—the engendering command (al-amr al-takwînî), through which He gives existence to all creatures, and the emburdening or prescriptive command (al-amr al-taklîfî), through which He requires people to follow the revealed law. In the practical terms of human experience, we freely choose whether or not to follow God’s law. We cannot know what has been measured out for us until it has overcome us, so we must strive to follow God’s commandments and trust in Him. Nonetheless, in the final analysis, our end is determined by our beginning. Every creature comes from God and returns to Him. Each of us begins as a fixed entity in God’s knowledge, and, after a sojourn in the world during which we display the qualities and characteristics of our own specific entities, we return to our Lord, who is God inasmuch as He knows us for all eternity.
Ibn `Arabî calls the specific knowledge that God has of each creature the “specific face” (wajh khâss) of God. The Qur’an tells us that God’s face is everywhere. “Wherever you turn, there is the face of God” (Qur’an 2:115). The “specific face” of God that is found in each thing is the fact that God has turned His attention toward it in order to bring it rather than something else into existence. Each created thing has its own specific face, which is its own specific Lord. It comes into existence from it and returns to it. This is one way in which Ibn `Arabî reads a Qur’anic verse such as “To your Lord you shall return” (6:164)
In the same context, Ibn `Arabî tells that each person worships none but “the God created by belief,” which is God inasmuch as a person is able to understand Him. We cannot understand or conceive of God in His very Essence except to the extent allowed by our own preparedness, which is determined by our fixed entity, which is our Lord, the specific face of God. The prophets and friends of God are disclosures of God's universal names, and through these names they understand and realize God. In the same way, the sciences and laws that they bring for mankind are manifestations of these universal names —this is a basic theme of the Fusûs. Other human beings are disclosures of particular names, which do not manifest the same range of perfections. Everyone’s “beliefs” concerning God will be determined by his or her own preparedness. One may claim that one’s beliefs are determined by the Qur’an, but one can only understand the Qur’an in one’s own measure, not in the Qur’an’s measure, because it is God’s eternal Word. In effect, the God that each of us worships will be defined, determined, and “created” by our own limitations. Only the greatest prophets and friends—those whom Ibn `Arabî calls “perfect human beings” (al-insân al-kâmil)—worship God as such, since through them the properties of the all-comprehensive name Allah become manifest. The rest of us worship God in respect of more limited names—even though each of these names in truth designates God, no one else.
Although all things other than God are essentially “nonexistent,” God is pure mercy, which is sheer Being. By bestowing existence upon things, He shows mercy to them. Their own reality is nonexistence, which is simply not to be there. His reality is mercy, which is pure good, and His reality is the only true reality. His creatures dwell in a domain that is both existence (from Him) and nonexistence (in respect to themselves), both mercy (from Him) and wrath (in respect to themselves). In other words, each creature is a mixture of existence and nonexistence, of light and darkness, of haqq and bâtil. To the extent that it exists, it is discloses Being, so it is haqq; but to the extent that it does not exist, it veils Reality, so it is bâtil. “So you are situated between existence and nonexistence, or between good [khayr] and evil [sharr]” (Futûhât, II 304).
However, evil is not real; it is bâtil, not haqq. It is simply the nonexistence of the good and the real, or the darkness that sometimes obscures the light. “Existence is light, and nonexistence is darkness. We are in existence, so we are encompassed by good” (Futûhât, III 486). As for God, He is Sheer Good (al-khayr al-mahd). The Prophet used to pray, “All good is in Thy hands, and no evil goes back to Thee.” Ibn `Arabî concludes that evil has no fundamental reality, even though it is totally relevant to our everyday lives. If it were not relevant, the prophets would have no role to play and God's prescriptive command would be meaningless.
To whom can evils be ascribed? For the cosmos is in the grasp of Sheer Good, which is complete Being. However, nonexistence gazes upon the possible thing; in this measure evil is ascribed to it. In its essence the possible thing does not possess the property of the Being that is Necessary thought Itself, so evil befalls it. (Futûhât, III 315)
As the disclosure of Sheer Good, the cosmos is the locus of beauty and the object of God’s love (hubb). The root of all love, whether for God or the creatures, is God's Love through which the world was created. In the hadith of the Hidden Treasure, God says that He “loved” (ahbabtu) to be known. “Through this love God turned His desire toward the things in the state of their nonexistence. . . and He said to them 'Be!'“ (Futûhât, II 167). In God Himself, love, lover, and beloved are one, since the fixed and nonexistent entities that He loves are nothing but the possible manifestations of His own names and attributes. In giving existence to the nonexistent entities, God’s love appears in all things, so everything is both lover and beloved.
Nothing is loved in the existent things except God, for He is manifest within every beloved to the eye of every lover. And nothing exists but lovers. So, all the cosmos is lover and beloved, and all is reducible to Him. . . . No one loves any but his own Creator, but he is veiled from Him by the love of Zaynab, Su`âd, Hind, Laylâ, the world, dirhams, position, and all other objects of love. (Futûhât, II 326)
Historically, there is no doubt that Ibn `Arabî has been one of the most influential Muslim authors of the past seven hundred years. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, however, he has been severely criticized by many Muslim reformers and modernists, even though he continues to have defenders. In light of the current situation of the modern world, his significance can perhaps be explained somewhat along these lines:
Ibn `Arabî constantly highlights a question that tends to be forgotten nowadays —especially by those who have made up their minds and are locked into a specific standpoint, whether this be defined by a scientific discipline, a critical methodology, an ideology, a religious belief system, or simply indoctrination by the media. The question is this: How should one judge which sorts of knowledge can legitimately be pursued? This takes on special importance for modern-day Muslims, who presumably define “legitimacy” in terms of standards established by the Qur’an and the Sunnah. Are scholars and scientists who happen to be Muslims correct if they think that, because they are Muslims, by that very fact they are pursuing Islamically legitimate goals? Or, as Ibn `Arabî would most likely maintain, are they in fact keeping themselves diverted from everything worthy of true human concern?
Taking the Qur’an and the Sunnah as the scale, one can surely conclude that people who pursue knowledge called “Islamic” must be ranked somewhere between those who follow the “light” (nûr) on the one side and those who, completely ignorant of the haqq of knowledge, have immersed themselves in “darknesses” (zulumât) on the other. Most sincere Muslims presumably stand between these two extremes. But this sort of grading can be maintained only relative to knowledges that have a claim on Islamicity. There are also diverse forms of knowledge that have no such claim—such as, for example, practically all fields of research in a modern university. By the standard of tahqîq, which is to give everything its haqq, these “knowledges” and “sciences” are darkness rather than light. Called “disciplines,” they are in fact diversions and pastimes for the heedless, because they result only in forgetfulness of the Absolute Haqq, who determines the nature and reality of all things in existence. Naturally, many Muslims who occupy themselves with such fields would like to think that they are indeed involved in an Islamic task. No doubt there is plenty of room for discussion, but without seeking help from the great masters who have devoted their minds and hearts to meditation on these issues—not only Ibn `Arabî, but also many others, such as al-Ghazâlî and Mullâ Sadrâ—Muslims will go on deceiving themselves. One should not forget the words of the Qur’an: “Shall We tell you who will be the greatest losers in their works? Those whose striving goes astray in this life, while they think they are doing good deeds” (18:104). “No one feels secure from God’s deception save the losers” (7:99).
Ibn `Arabî's methodology of tahqîq focuses on clarifying every possible mode of understanding and then delineating the duties and responsibilities that these modes establish. From the point of view of this tahqîq, any knowledge that does not focus on the manner in which God knows, creates, and guides things is not in fact knowledge, but rather ignorance masquerading as knowledge. Yes, such knowledge entails the cognitive activity called “knowing,” but it is not true knowledge, because it does not situate the known objects within their actual situation—which is defined and determined by the Real, the Actual, the Haqq. Such knowledge sets up artificial and illusory boundaries that allow people to feel happy that they are occupied with tasks that have no benefit—understanding the word “benefit” in terms of the standards that the Prophet had in mind when he said, “I seek refuge from a knowledge that has no benefit.” This is benefit in terms of the ultimate destiny of the soul, not simply one’s physical well-being.
Nothing can be known in its actual and real situation unless it is known through God’s bestowal of knowledge, because the true essences of things are known only to Him. If a thing is not known in God and through God, it can be known only in respect of specific, defined, and limiting standpoints. These standpoints may be established on the basis of divine guidance (e.g., revealed religions, the Shariah), or they may be established by human efforts that take no heed of such guidance. In the latter case, they do not deserve the name `ilm (“knowledge”), which, like everything else, has a haqq. Nonetheless, knowledge defined by human efforts and heedless of divine guidance is the warp and weft of the modern world, the backbone of science, technology, politics, business, finance, government, the military, and the “information age” in general. The consequences of following systematic ignorance dressed up as knowledge can only be what the Qur’an calls “misguidance” (ighwâ’, dalâl). It is people who follow such falsified knowledge “whose scales are light—they have lost their own souls” (Qur’an 7:9).
In no way am I suggesting that the great Muslims of the past would have denied the limited and relative legitimacy of modern forms of knowledge. Light is always light. However, light can be so diffuse that we need to draw a line and say jâ’a al-bâtil wa zahaqa’l-haqq, “The bâtil has come, and the haqq has vanished away.” Once knowledge is cut off from its roots in God, it quickly turns into its opposite. The modern sciences and disciplines are of such diminished luminosity and limited benefit that, Islamically speaking, encouraging people to study them is hardly distinguishable from encouraging shirk and kufr. No doubt the argument will be made that such sciences, in today's world, fit into the category of fard al-kifâya (incumbent upon the community), but this would be a very difficult argument to sustain once one has gained even a superficial awareness of the full scope of the divine haqq against human beings. Unfortunately, anyone who thinks that modern biology, psychology, anthropology, sociology, political science, or medicine have anything of any real significance to say about human beings will be unable to grasp this divine haqq.
The benefit of studying Ibn `Arabî and considering his methodology of realization lies precisely in coming to understand something of the full scope of human possibility, which is explicated by the prophetic messages and demanded by our own God-given nature. Today Muslims and others have been cut off from the deeper teachings of their own traditions. Human possibility is now defined by modern fields of learning, political ideology, and the most superficial readings of sacred texts. Even most religious people have no criteria by which to judge the impoverishment of the human situation and the dead-ends that are held up today as worthy of aspiration. The primary goals of human society now pertain strictly to the domain of “knowledge of other than God.” As Ibn `Arabî writes, explaining what kind of knowledge the Prophet sought refuge from,
No benefit accrues save in knowledge of God. . . . As for their knowledge of other than God, it is a diversion through which veiled human beings divert themselves. Those who have achieved the equitable balance have no aspiration save toward knowledge of Him.
It is only through coming to see the Qur’an and the Hadith through the eyes of the great Muslim intellectuals of the past that the true depths of modern losses can be judged. Then there will be hope that the search for knowledge can once again become the primary goal of human aspiration, and seeking knowledge's haqq—in the full sense demanded by a divinely orientated tahqîq— will be seen to be incumbent on every Muslim and every human being.
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