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The Unlimited Mercifier
The Spiritual Life and Thought of Ibn 'Arabi
By Stephen Hirtenstein
Anqa Publishing and White Cloud PressCopyright © 1999 Stephen Hirtenstein
All rights reserved.
In search of new perspectives
A good word is as a good tree: its roots are firmly established and its branches are in heaven; it gives its produce every season by permission of its Lord.
The wise man is not he who speaks of wisdom or makes use of it, but he whom wisdom makes act, even if he is not aware of it.
A genuinely new thought is rare - exceedingly rare - and its emergence is the hallmark of genius. It takes a rare and singular person to bring out a thought or vision that has never previously arisen, to open up the possibility of a transformation of human understanding, moving it into undreamt-of dimensions. What is normally taken as new thought is rarely little more than the realisation of a thought which has already appeared. This can be likened to the thrill and excitement we may experience on arriving in a foreign country for the first time: we are awakened to new sensations and perceptions, immediately fresh and stimulating. Yet these experiences mirror similar thoughts and perceptions of countless others before us. We, like them, are responding to the ramifications of what already exists. What is marked out as the exceptional gift of genius is to respond to what is to come, to conceive in thought the apparently inconceivable.
It has often been said that the capacity of the human brain far outweighs the use an average person makes of such potential. To begin to realise one's potential is, as Albert Einstein recognised, a remarkable achievement. At a party in the University of Princeton, he once found himself sitting next to another well-known physicist. Noticing that the man was busy writing in a notebook which he had beside him, Einstein asked him what he was doing. The man replied: "Whenever I have a good idea I make sure I don't forget it. Perhaps you'd like to try it, it's handy." Einstein shook his head sadly and said: "I doubt it. I have had only two or three ideas in my life."
Real genius is a truly creative act of mind, entirely new and unprecedented, the result of which is an abiding universality that remains undimmed by the passage of time. Such universality is apparent in the art of Leonardo da Vinci or the writings of Shakespeare - masterpieces of creative expression that have inspired countless people down the ages, and will no doubt continue to do so. This exposing of the new is indeed revelation: revealing and making known what had been totally hidden and unknown. Until its arrival it is quite literally unthinkable. Once accepted into the mainstream of knowledge, it becomes like a beacon illuminating a vast landscape, enriching and ennobling all of humanity.
The genius of Ibn 'Arabi lies in exposing this revelation of the unknown within the arena of Unity and according to Its dictates. His insight into human experience is vast and encompassing. He describes thoughts as "visitors from heaven that cross the field of the heart", where the heart describes the most fundamental ground of our awareness. In this sense, thought does not refer simply to a process of the brain, or even something we can think about or reflect upon. It indicates that which arises at each instant within us, within our innermost consciousness. He categorises thoughts into those which are positive and beneficial and those which are negative and without benefit. All these visitors require the existence of someone to think them, someone to "carry" them, a "place" where they can manifest.
The places where these thoughts manifest can be either specific or general, depending on the kind of thought it is. For example, if the thought is expressed in the world of painting, it is specific to the eye; if in music, to the ear and so on. Each of these "worlds" is specific or partial by definition, and in that sense exclusive of the others - Leonardo da Vinci's genius operates in quite a different field to that of Einstein, Shakespeare or Bach.
In the world of human spirituality, originality depends on totality and integration, a unified field of being and knowledge which is by definition all-inclusive of the principles of all other fields. This unity represents, as it were, the very ground that the other fields operate on, like the heart from which all the faculties are derived. Occasionally, rare individuals appear in this world, bringing out the genuinely new regarding the whole human condition, and making it accessible for others. The most evident examples of this are the great prophetic figures of the West, who appear to release a new possibility in human history. These people have gone beyond the norms of what has already been revealed, and have reached a level of true humanity that is not bound by time or place. Of thesecomplete embodiments of the unprecedented, the medieval Arab, Muhyïddïn Ibn 'Arabi, known as the Shaykh al-Akbar (the greatest spiritual master), is one of the most profound exponents.
Ibn 'Arabi is a unique genius in the world of mystical teaching. Relatively unknown in the West until the twentieth century, he has been revered by Sufi mystics ever since he first burst upon the Islamic world at the turn of the thirteenth century. He wrote over 350 books and treatises, works of the highest quality that deserve to be recognised as classics of Western spirituality. They deal with every facet of spiritual learning, explaining not only all the traditional Islamic sciences of Quran and Hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) but also the whole prophetic tradition of the West. He portrays this tradition according to its inner significance, and presents it within a completely coherent whole. In addition, he provides a commentary on the spiritual tradition that had developed in Islam over some six centuries, putting all the various doctrines and forms of mystical realisation within the broader context of human spirituality.
The most evident feature of these writings is their universality and breadth, coupled with an astonishing penetration into the central issues of human experience. Few people can claim to have read more than a portion of these works, and even fewer would be bold enough to claim to have understood them. They represent an unparalleled resource for all genuine seekers of Truth, and often openly state, or prefigure, insights more commonly attributed to later figures. For example, the concept of human evolutionary development appears in one of his poems, several centuries before it was taken up in the West.
It is equally clear that his works have a remarkable power to transform the state and mentality of his readers. Ibn 'Arabi has always aroused fierce passions, and his writings have never been considered "easy". The model of sainthood and true spiritual realisation to some, he has also been seen by others as a controversial figure bordering on heresy. All this seems more to reflect or give expression to the prejudices and beliefs in the minds and hearts of his readers, rather than giving a clear picture of his teaching. Like all great geniuses, the real man's identity and principles have often been obscured by ideological controversies or popular misconceptions.
In historical terms, Ibn 'Arabi is a watershed: unifying the previously oral traditions into a written synthesis, he represents the culmination of five and a half centuries of Islamic spirituality. Eighteen years after his death, the Mongol invasions of the Fertile Crescent shattered much of Islamic civilisation in the East, changing the face of the Middle East for good. When Islamic culture rebuilt itself in the aftermath of this apparent disaster, it was Ibn 'Arabi's teachings that permeated the Islamic world, especially Turkey and Iran. His terminology became the basis of later Sufi teaching, and his works have been the underlying reference point for all the major orders (for example Qädiriyya, Mevlevi and Naqshabandiyya) ever since. Nobody else can claim to have had such influence as a spiritual teacher throughout the Islamic world. Inscribed over the doorway to his tomb in Damascus is a famous couplet which he himself penned. Although some might think it a vain boast, it shows a remarkable awareness of his own stature as a spiritual master:
In every age there is one after whom it is named; for the remaining ages I am that one!
Fundamental to Islamic teaching is the doctrine of tawhïd (affirming the Unity of God), and it is the realisation of tawhïd that lies at the heart of Ibn 'Arabi's person and teaching. While to later generations he has appeared as a great author, he was also recognised during his own lifetime as an extraordinary mystic, as someone with the most profound insight into and understanding of human nature, who was able to teach by deed and word. He was one of those who realise their true nature through experience and state rather than through intellectual thinking, and yet at the same time he was able to express his vision in words, in the most comprehensive manner. His own life must rank as one of the most remarkable lived by any human being. All those who come after can only be grateful for the profusion of insights which he wrote down, concerning his own experience and that of his contemporaries. The fact that we know so much about both his own inner and outer life is almost entirely due to what he himself described. As one of his contemporaries, who met him in the last period of his life in Damascus, wrote:
He is one of the greatest of those who are knowledgeable of the Way [of God], uniting all the sciences bestowed by God. His reputation is enormous and his writings are many. The realisation of the unity of God (tawhïd) has completely predominated over him in terms of knowledge, behaviour and state, and he pays no heed to the ups and downs of existence. As disciples he has men of knowledge, who are masters of spiritual perception and authors in their own right.
It is essential to realise that spirituality does not simply denote a part of the human reality, but rather the whole of what is meant by human being. This integral wholeness is the foundation-stone of self-consciousness, and cannot but include all the particular aspects. It becomes visible in what we know and understand, in how we behave and in how we think and feel. In short, we are spiritual beings, and the whole of what is called the material world is spiritualised. We should beware of thinking of spirituality as being concerned with only one faculty or as being purely beyond this world, with no application in the day-to-day. We should also beware of falling into the all-too-easy intellectual trap of separating reason from intuition, head from heart. This is far from the reality that Ibn 'Arabi explains. For him, any reality that the world, or an aspect of it, has can only be properly understood through its spiritual origin. He connects every worldly reality to its divine principle, thereby giving every thing its rightful place. A simple story in his own words demonstrates how a unified vision may have very practical effect.
It is from the Divine Name the Creator (al-Bârï) ... that there derives the inspiration to painters in bringing beauty and proper harmony to their pictures. In this connection I witnessed an amazing thing in Konya in the land of the Greeks [modern Turkey]. There was a certain painter whom we proved and assisted in his art in respect of a proper artistic imagination, which he lacked. One day he painted a picture of a partridge and concealed in it an almost imperceptible fault. He then brought it to me to test my artistic acumen regarding its harmony. He had painted it on a large plate, so that its size was true to life. There was in the house a falcon which, when it saw the painting, attacked it, thinking it to be a real partridge with its plumage in full colour. Indeed all present were amazed at the beauty of the picture. The painter, having taken the others into his confidence, asked for my opinion on his work. I told him I thought the picture was perfect, but for one small defect. When he asked what it was, I told him that the length of its legs was out of proportion very slightly. Then he came and kissed my head.
To try to comprehend a writer and thinker such as Ibn 'Arabi is to confront two immediate conundrums: firstly, inhabiting a seemingly very different world, we may find our assumptions and world-view challenged by someone who expressed himself within a medieval context. It requires, then, a suspension of certain modern preconceptions, or at least a willingness to go beyond immediately "modern" concerns. Much of what passes for Islam in our times is but a pale reflection of the great spiritual tradition that lies at its heart. In reading Ibn 'Arabi and drawing on such an invaluable source of inspiration, it may be that we are able to see more clearly what is meant by Islam and spirituality. This applies to muslims and non-muslims alike.
Secondly, we need to understand Ibn 'Arabi on a more intimate and personal level, since his writings concern the deepest meaning of our existence. To understand or love another human being inevitably involves self-understanding and love. The "other" is as a mirror in which we can see ourselves. Much modern psychological practice is founded on this principle, the articulation of which dates back at least to the Delphic oracle's inscription, "Know Thyself". When the mirror into which we are looking is a man who can speak to us on all levels of our being, both those which are known to us and those that remain unknown, it is inevitable that we will be confronting our hidden, more personal preconceptions as well. It has been remarked that reading Ibn 'Arabi is far more difficult than reading the Quran, and that only the saint and mystic can truly understand the meaning of his writings. While it may indeed be true, ultimately that is precisely what makes the reading of his work so rewarding.
How can we surmount these apparent obstacles? One way to begin is with a general overview of medieval Islamic Spain and how Western history has emphasised and developed a single strand of that culture. This background may allow us both to understand some of our own modern perspectives and prejudices better, and to appreciate the world in which Ibn 'Arabi appeared and wrote. However, I shall not attempt a detailed description of the historical events leading up to the twelfth century, or even of the times of Ibn 'Arabi. For one thing, this has been done in other books. For another, it is enough here simply to situate him within the conditions of his time, whose prevailing attitudes were so different from our own, in order to get closer to the context of the historical person and the meaning of his writing. Here we are tracing a very broad picture of medieval Spain and its development through the time of Empire, as a portrait of the genesis of many of our modern attitudes. At the same time, we must remember that a genius of the stature of Ibn 'Arabi is a genius precisely because he transcends the conditions of his time and place, and that his constant preoccupation is with the essential unity of all conditions.
The Spain into which Ibn 'Arabi was born in 1165(AH560) was a culture somewhat limited in physical terms, but undoubtedly one of the most advanced of its day. It was known as al-Andalus to the Arabs, referring to that area of the Iberian Peninsula which was under their dominion for almost eight centuries (AD 711-1492). Its frontiers shifted back and forth over this time, and at its height the Arabs held control over most of what is modern Spain and Portugal, ignoring only the northwestern corner of Spain by the Bay of Biscay. During Ibn 'Arabi's day, the border stretched across the centre of Spain and Portugal, roughly bisecting the peninsula, with its centre in the geographical area we know today as Andalusia.
The Arabs had inherited an ancient kingdom, established by the Romans and continued by the Visigoths. The period of Arab rule is often called Moorish culture, though strictly speaking the term Moorish derives from the Spanish moros, meaning "Mauritanian" or North African. The whole area that extends from Spain to Tunisia was seen as one homogeneous cultural entity, the Maghrib or western part of the Islamic world. Of those who settled in Spain, the ruling élite was drawn from Arab peoples who had emigrated during the early years of Muslim rule from the heartlands of Arab culture, such as Syria, Arabia and Yemen. The later settlers tended to be mainly Berber, from North Africa, and were often illiterate. As a whole, Islamic Spain might be described as a Muslim enclave on European soil, except for the fact that this would be a view that benefits from hindsight - Europe was not a concept then as it is now. Neither Spain nor France were political or social entities, nor were the boundaries and shape of Islamic culture by any means fixed. Indeed no-one at that time could be certain that Islam would not become the dominant religion in the whole of Europe.
Excerpted from The Unlimited Mercifier by Stephen Hirtenstein. Copyright © 1999 Stephen Hirtenstein. Excerpted by permission of Anqa Publishing and White Cloud Press.
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Table of Contents
1 In search of new perspectives,
2 Of Oneness and Singleness,
Life in the West,
3 Early life (1165-1181),
4 Of Adam and Eve,
5 Return to God (1182-1184),
6 Of Prophethood and Sainthood,
7 Under instruction (1184-1194),
8 Of Intermediaries and their removal,
The road to the centre,
9 Light beyond the shore (1194-1200),
10 Of the Heirs and the Seals,
11 Pilgrim at Mecca (1201-1204),
12 Of Descent and Return,
From the centre to the circumference,
13 Travelling and advising (1202-1222),
14 Of Love and Beauty,
Established at the crossroads,
15 In Damascus (1223-1240),
16 Of Book and Speech,
17 Of East and West,
Appendix 1: Selected major works oflbn 'Arabï,
Appendix 2: Some of lbn 'Arabï's contemporaries,