"Unveiling from the Effects of the Voyages".
An Introduction to the Kitâb al-isfâr 'an natâ'ij al-asfâr
When a waystation appears to you, and you say: "This is the goal," another road opens up before you. You supply yourself with provisions for the road and take off. There is no waystation that you survey but that you say: "This is my goal." Then when you reach it, it is not long before you set out once more on the journey.
In the Futûhât's Chapter on the Voyage, Ibn 'Arabî describes a poignant exchange between God and the gnostic voyager who, through repeated unveilings at numerous spiritual and conceptual waystations, has come to see God in everything. The voyager wants nothing more than to throw down his traveler's staff and find rest in his goal. But God informs him that this is impossible: voyaging has no end, either in this life or the hereafter. In a passage echoed in the Isfâr, which we present below, God describes the cosmological, physical, and eschatological voyages the soul, intellect, and body endure as they pass from waystation to waystation, undergoing ceaseless transformations.
How much you have voyaged through the stages of created beings until you were generated as blood in your father and mother! Then they came together for your sake, either with or without the intention of bringing you into manifestation. You passed from being sperm; then you passed from that form to a blood clot, then to a tiny piece of flesh and then to bone. Then the bone was clothed with flesh. Then you were configured in another way and expelled into this world. You passed to infancy, and from infancy to childhood, from childhood to adolescence, from adolescence to adulthood, from adulthood to middle age, and from middle age to old age, which is the most despised age. From here, [you will voyage] to the Barzakh2 and voyage in the Barzakh to the Mustering. Then from the Mustering, you undertake a new voyage to the Bridge,3 either to the Garden or to the Fire, if you are one of its people. If you are not one of its people, you will voyage to the Garden and from the Garden to the Dune of Vision.4 You will continue to go back and forth between the Garden and the Dune always and forever. In the Fire, [its people] will continue to voyage, ascending and descending, descending and ascending, like a piece of meat in the pot [set to boil] upon the fire.5
There can be no doubt that the theme of the voyage was central to Ibn 'Arabî's thought, perhaps not surprising for a man who spent nearly half of his life on the road. Aside from a number of spiritual mi'râj narratives, he devotes six chapters of the Futûhât merely to explaining the difference between words relating to transferral from place to place.6 Voyaging (safar), for example, must be distinguished from wayfaring (sulûk) and wandering (siyâha). The wayfarer wanders freely on the highways and byways of this life, while the voyager has a destination. 7 If we take into account the many discussions in Ibn 'Arabî's works relating to various aspects and categorizations of movement – ascents and descents; vertical, horizontal, and circular movements; voluntary and compelled movements; the "movements" (harakât = vowels) of the Arabic letters; the substantial motion of generation and corruption; the passage from dreams to their interpretation (ta'bîr); the ritual movements accompanying prayer8 and pilgrimage, as well as the constant reference to those temporary halting spots and watering holes we encounter before pressing onwards: stages, stations, waystations, mutual waystations – we find that there is virtually no page in the Shaykh's voluminous oeuvre that does not deal with the voyage.
All of these come together in Ibn 'Arabî's Isfâr 'an natâ'ij al-asfâr – Unveiling from the Effects of the Voyages – which traces the trajectory of a number of voyages: existential, metaphoric, and textual. Like all of Ibn 'Arabî's writings, the Isfâr is sui generis. Part cosmology, part Qur'anic exegesis (tafsîr) and stories of the prophets (qisas al-anbiyâ'), part spiritual vademecum, its seventeen chapters deny categorization. Alongside the major themes of the book, gracefully summarized by the Shaykh in his Prologue, are myriad allusions to grammar, alchemy, astrology, and apocalypse. After an initial chapter discussing "the three voyages" – to God, from God, and with God – subsequent chapters are given titles characterizing the specific voyage dealt with therein: The lordly voyage of the All-Merciful from the Cloud to the Throne; the voyage of creation and command, or the voyage of origination; the voyage of the Qur'an; the voyage of the vision in the signs and the esoteric significations (Muhammad's mir'âj); Adam's voyage of trial; Idris' voyage of might and elevation in place and rank; Noah's voyage of salvation; Abraham's voyage of guidance; Lot's voyage of approach with no return; the voyage of ruse and trial involving Jacob and Joseph; and Moses' voyages of the divine tryst, satisfaction; anger and return; striving for one's family; fear; and a final chapter on precaution.
This excerpt, "The voyage of approach and no return, which is the voyage of Lot toward Abraham the Intimate Friend, Peace be upon him," may provide some sense of the work.
The voyage of approach and no return, which is the voyage of Lot toward Abraham the Intimate Friend, Peace be upon him.
His meeting with him is in "Certainty."9
The tradition reported concerning this is well known and preserved by the religious scholars, but its spirit with us is something we should seek to interpret esoterically.
Know that the name "Lot" is a noble name of majestic value for it means attachment10 to the Divine Presence. For that reason, He said: "...or that I could betake myself to some powerful support" (Q. 11:80) – he meant the tribe – "because I cannot pass from the divine support to the creaturely support." The Messenger of God – God's blessing and peace be upon him – bore witness to him regarding that by saying: "God have mercy on my brother Lot, who sought refuge in a strong support." How excellent are the witness and the one for whom he bore witness, for he sought to rely upon Him and to cling to Him with respect to knowledge of God. He was called "Lot," and [this name] was not attributed to any but him. [God] made him travel by night because he voyaged in the Unseen, since the expression isrâ' is only applied to night travel, by way of esoteric interpretation, not [exoteric] explication. It was said to him: "Travel by night with your family" (Q. 11:81), i.e., with everything of your essence, "and witness all of the realities, 'except thy wife' (Q. 11:81)." We interpret this esoterically as the command to leave his soul that commands to evil, which has no portion in the supernal ascents of the heart. He betook himself to al-Yaqîn [=Certainty], which is a place well known, called by that name, and in it he awaited Abraham the Intimate Friend – peace be upon him – who was staying there. For this reason, [the Prophet] – God's blessing and peace be upon him – said: "We have more reason to doubt than Abraham,"11 because of his knowledge that Abraham the Intimate Friend was in "Certainty." The prophet Lot – peace be upon him – obtained this station. In the morning, certainty came to him, because when the sun rose and unveiled things to his eye after they were hidden, it provided certainty without doubt or equivocation.
This is an example of our share in Lot's voyage and in every voyage that I have spoken about as well. I speak about it only as far as my own self is concerned. It is not my intention to explicate the actual story in [the case of the prophets]. These voyages are only bridges and pontoons that are placed for us to cross over upon to our essences and the states that are specific to us. There is utility in them for us, since God has set them up as passageways for us. "And all that We relate unto thee of the story of the messengers is in order that thereby We may make firm thy heart. And herein hath come unto thee the Truth and an exhortation and a reminder for the believers" (Q. 11:120). How eloquent is the Most High's saying: "And herein hath come unto thee the Truth," and His saying: "as a reminder" of that which is in you and with you of that which you have forgotten. What I have narrated to you is to remind you of what is in you and what I have called to your attention, so you will know that you are everything, in everything, and from everything.
I am from everything,
And I am with the Real in everything.
I am a shadow that becomes manifest through Him.
And if I am a shadow, I am an afternoon shadow.12
My very fall is my ascent to Him,
With the most auspicious of stars13
For every living being.
My right conduct has gone
Beyond every right conduct
And my straying has gone beyond every straying,
Just as He is with every one, dead or living,
So is He in every unfolding and folding.
"And God speaks the truth and He guides on the Path" (Q. 33:14)
1. Isfâr, par. 3.
2. The intermediate world.
3. This Bridge passes through the Fire and leads to the Garden.
4. Arabic: kathîb al-ru'yâ. The Dune is mentioned in Q. 73:14. According to tradition, the Dune of Vision, made of white musk, is situated in the Garden of Eden, the most elevated of the Gardens. It is here that the inhabitants of the Garden will meet to contemplate God. See Fut. I.320; III.442.
5. Isfâr, par. 4.
6. See James W. Morris' article in Journey of the Heart (Vol. XIX of the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi Society, 1996); revised in The Reflective Heart, Fons Vitae, 2005.
7. Fut. II.382. This difference is reflected in Islamic Law: The wayfarer must complete the full ritual prayer while the voyager curtails it; the wayfarer fasts during Ramadan; the voyager is exempt.
8. See Fut. I, Chapter 27.
9. Arabic: yaqîn. This is also the name of the town to which Lot was reported to have fled.
10. Ibn 'Arabî connects the name "Lût" to the word lâta, to cling or adhere to.
11. See Q. 2:260.
12. Arabic: fay'. As Denis Gril (Dévoilement des effets du voyage, p. 50, n. 113), explains, zill is shadow in general, fay' is the specific kind of shadow that extends with the sun's declination.
13. Arabic: sa'd al-su'ûd. The twenty-fourth lunar mansion, considered the most favorable of the cluster of stars known as su'ûd.