Life – An Exalted Destiny – Aga Khan III
The Mystical Visions of Ibn Arabi – Diana Steigerwald
The Mystical Visions of Ibn al-‘Arabî (d. 1240)
– Dr. Diana Steigerwald
California State University (Long Beach)
“Whatever may be the philosophical doctrine to which we adhere, we observe, as soon as we speculate on the origin and the cause, the anteriority and the presence of the Feminine.”
– Excerpt from the Fusûs al-hikam of Ibn al-‘Arabî
The 13th century, even though politically overshadowed by the invasion of the Mongols and the end of the ‘Abbâsid caliphate, was also the golden age of Sufism. Known as Shaykh al-Akbar (the Greatest Shaykh), Muhyî al-Dîn Ibn al-‘Arabî was one of the most famous representatives of esoteric mysticism at the beginning of the 13th century. He was born in Murcia (city in Spain) in 1165 and at the age of eight he began his formal education and his parents moved to Seville. His work is complex, but it has an important philosophical aspect. He was one of the most prolific Sûfîs; 239 works are attributed to him. His most influential work, entitled Fusûs al-hikam (The Gems of the Wisdom of the Prophets), was inspired by a vision. In 1230, Prophet Muhammad appeared to Ibn al-‘Arabî in a dream, holding a book, and bade him to write down his teaching. This book relates the wisdom of twenty-seven Prophets. Many ideas inspired from Shî‘ism and Ismâ‘îlism are discernible in his works. Ibn al-‘Arabî was also inspired by al-Suhrawardî (d. 1191) who developed the Theosophy of Light establishing the Oriental Wisdom (Hikmat al-Ishrâq). One of its essential characteristics is that it makes philosophy and mystical experience inseparable. The disciples of al-Suhrawardî are designated as “Platonists” (Ashâb Aflatûn); Ibn al-‘Arabî was similarly surnamed “Son of Plato” (Ibn Aflatûn).
Sophia aeterna: Feminine figure
In one of his works, the Futûhât al-Makkiyya, which is about the divine revelations received in Mekka, he relates that he had a vision which transformed the course of his life. Although Ibn al-‘Arabî claimed to derive his knowledge from no physical intermediary, he traveled extensively during his life in North Africa, Syria, Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, and met many influential shaykhs. In Andalusia, he saw in a vision a marvelous celestial bird who ordered him to set out for the Orient.
At the age of thirty-six, Ibn al-‘Arabî went to Mekka and was greatly impressed by the Ka‘ba, a holy place, where the invisible (ghayb) world meets the visible (shuhûd) one. A noble Iranian shaykh gave him hospitality and, on the same occasion, Ibn al-‘Arabî met his daughter, who was gifted with the Eternal Wisdom (Sophia aeterna). In his Dîwân, he wrote: “Never have I seen a woman more beautiful of face, softer of speech, more tender of heart, more spiritual in her ideas, more subtle in her symbolic allusions. […] She surpasses all the people of her time in refinement of mind and cultivation, in beauty and in knowledge.” (Corbin 140) As the visible manifestation of Sophia aeterna, she is at the same spiritual level as Christ. She possesses the “Christic Wisdom” (Hikmat ‘îsawiyya).
The Feminine figure symbolizes the secret of the compassionate God who gives birth to all beings. Woman represents the inner and hidden self of man who he must discover in order to know his Lord. Eve leads Adam back to himself, to his Lord whom she reveals. The theophany par excellence is manifested in the form of Beauty which is Feminine. The Feminine being is the Creator of the most perfect thing; she invests the newborn with a divine Name through which the goal of creation is completed. Thus Beauty is by no means an instrument of “temptation;” it is a manifestation of the Creative Feminine who is the source of transfiguration of all beings, for Beauty is the Redeemer. Ibn al-‘Arabî noticed that in Arabic all terms indicating origin and cause are feminine. The origin or source of anything is designated by the word umm, “mother.” Indeed the term Haqîqa is feminine and means the mystical Truth, the Essential Reality, the Origin of origins beyond which nothing is thinkable. In the Fusûs, Ibn al-‘Arabî confirmed: “Whatever may be the philosophical doctrine to which we adhere, we observe, as soon as we speculate on the origin and the cause, the anteriority and the presence of the Feminine.” (Corbin 167)
Khidr: Source of Divine authority
Ibn al-‘Arabî was the disciple of Khidr, a mysterious Prophet who is sometimes identified with Elijah. Khidr is represented in the Qur’ân as Moses’s Guide, who initiated Moses into the science of predestination. He reveals to Moses the mystical Truth (Haqîqa) which is the source of religious law (sharî‘a). Khidr’s role is to initiate Moses into the esoteric meanings of the Torah. His mission is parallel to the spiritual mission of the first Shî‘ite Imâm, ‘Alî, who reveals the esoteric meanings of the Qur’ân. Khidr is the “Eternal Youth” who has drunk from the water of immortality. In Arabic, his name Khâdir means “The Verdant One” which is associated with the greenness of nature. Green is also the Shî‘ite preferred color.
In 1204, in a garden of Mosul, Ibn al-‘Arabî was vested with the mantle of Khidr by an intermediary. This signifies that he is identified with Khidr’s spiritual state. Ibn al-‘Arabî has thus reached a high spiritual state of perfection and is able to transmit it to his disciples.
The Threefold universe of Ibn al-‘Arabî:
For Ibn al-‘Arabî, the world is actually threefold: i) at the highest level, there is the universe of Cherubic Intellects which can be apprehended by pure intellectual perception, ii) at an intermediary level is the universe of Angel-Souls who move the celestial spheres and govern the world of active Imagination (khayâl) or Idea-Images, the place of theophanic visions which can be perceived by active Imagination, and iii) at the lowest level is the physical universe perceptible to the senses. Ibn al-‘Arabî created a comprehensive theosophical system that explains the relation of God and the world, in which the notion of “Unity of Being” (Wahdat al-Wujûd) becomes a central theme of his theosophy. According to him, all existence is one, a manifestation of the underlying divine reality. God is both transcendent and immanent. The Divine Essence is unknowable, whereas His Unity manifests itself in plurality. In his Unity resides the qualities of all potential beings. For Ibn al-‘Arabî, the only true existence belongs to the One, and it is that One which is visible in all manifestations. “Things” have no existence in themselves except as places of manifestation (mazhar) or reflections of primordial Unity.
Ibn al-‘Arabî explains the creation of the world by the fact that God wanted to escape from isolation. This idea is inspired from the famous hadîth: “I was a hidden treasure and I desired to be known, so I created the creation in order that I might be known.” Creation is thus the manifestation of the One in the plurality of all creatures. As an entity, God is absolutely undifferentiated and unknowable. He is in a ‘ama’ mutlaq (cloud, absolute fog), the invisible one of invisibilities (ghayb al-ghuyub). God initially dyes the cloud with an essential light and engages the “forms of the angels rendered distraught by love”. To create the world, God chooses one of the group of cherubim called the first Intellect and illuminates him with a science of the divine Names to which all that will be must conform. The Intellect transmits this science to the universal Soul who receives the science of nature. All that is in the world of pure Light. Then God gives existence to pure Darkness (al-zulma al-mahda), in which He wants to appear through the negation of each negation of His Being. Simultaneously, a multiplicity of creatures emerges, each one being a particular witness to God, and attesting to the positive status of a divine Name. Man is composed of matter and form. God, by means of an epiphanic radiation (tajallî) illuminates man and the light which is reflected off of him becomes his angel. The reflected light reveals the meaning of man’s being, his value as an “Image of God”. The journey (safar) towards God starts when man discovers the angel who illuminates his path.
Imaginative Contemplation and the Quest for Wisdom:
For Ibn al-‘Arabî, the goal of life is to acquire the wisdom through which the Sûfî discovers the One hidden in the plurality of all beings. The intensity of the spiritual experience depends on the degree of reality invested in the Image. Through this Image, the Sûfî contemplates the entire perfection of the Lord and experiences His presence within himself. This Image is within his being; even more precisely it is his very being, the form of the divine Name which he represents. Since it is impossible to love or worship a God whom “one does not see,” it is only by the “imaginative contemplation” (mushâhadat khayâliyya) that one can “see God.” This is the only way to accomplish the saying of the Prophet: “Love God as you see Him.” Our capacity to know God is in proportion to the Names or Attributes which are epiphanized in us. God manifests Himself to each of us in the form of what we love; the form of our love is the form of the faith we profess. Only the Prophet, who is at the spiritual level of the first Intellect, deserves the name ‘Abd Allâh (Servant of God) because he encompasses all Names.
The Prophet Muhammad plays a major role in the divine quest; he is the Universal Man, the Perfect Human Being, the total theophany of Divine Names, the prototype of creation. Muhammad is the Logos “Divine Word,” whose light was manifested in a particular aspect in each of preceding Prophets (Abraham, Moses, Jesus). Muhammad is the best example of the perfect spiritual realization. The Sûfî has to pass through different stages until he becomes united with the Muhammadan Reality (Haqîqa Muhammadiyya). The notion of union does not mean becoming one with God, but the mystic must realize the already existing fact that he is one with God since God is Immanent. “Although identity is desirable, it is, in a real sense, impossible, because wujûd [being] belongs to God alone” (Chittick, 57). The One manifests most perfectly in Al-Insân al-Kâmil, the Perfect Human Being. He appears in every generation and becomes the mediator through whom the process of emanation and return occurs. The Perfect Human Being is the Qutb (Pole), the axis around which the universe revolves.
Ibn al-‘Arabî had a very complex and interweaving theosophy which cannot be summarized in a few lines. But his philosophical and mystical ideas are rooted in the Qur’ânic wisdom. The “Unity of Being” is the absolute all-inclusive principle, encompassing everything. The Arabic word wujûd also means experience or finding. It is the quest of life, to be found and realized. The Oneness of Being lies at the heart of the real nature of things. God is perceptible and visible for the people of faith, true insight, and experience. In Islam, the period of Ibn al-‘Arabî coincides with the beginning of the golden age of Sufism. Ibn al-‘Arabî’s genius must be examined in the light of these prevailing conditions. No doubt, his works were deeply influenced by the esoteric branch of Islam to which Shî‘ism, Ismâ‘îlism, and Sufism belong.
Ates, A. “Ibn al-‘Arabî.” The Encyclopaedia of Islam. Vol. 3 (1971): 707-711.
Corbin, Henry. Alone with the Alone. Creative Imagination in the Sûfism of Ibn ‘Arabî. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.
Chittick, William C. Imaginal Worlds: Ibn al-‘Arabî and the Problem of Religious Diversity. Albany: State University of America, 1994.
Ibn al-‘Arabî, Muhyî al-dîn. Sufis of Andalusia. The Rûh al-quds and al-Durrat al-fâkhirah of Ibn ‘Arabî. Translated with Introduction and Notes by R. W. J. Austin. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971.
Ibn al-‘Arabî, Muhyî al-dîn. The Tarjûmân al-ashwâq. A collection of Mystical Odes. Edited and translated by Reynod A. Nicholson. London: Theosophical Publishing House Lt d, 1978.
Husaini, S.A.Q. The Pantheistic Monism of Ibn ‘Arabî. Lahore: Sr. Muhammad Ashraf, 1970.
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