by Stephen Hirtenstein

Dedicated to the memory of our dear friend and companion, Layla Shamash, born in Baghdad into the religion of Abraham, a Jewish girl in a Muslim country, educated at a Catholic convent, desiring to be "a candle in the dark" she was a true follower of the Prophet, with a heart committed to Islam.

This paper was first delivered at a conference at the University of Rabat, Morocco, 24–26 October 2002, entitled "Ibn 'Arabî and the world today".

Top photograph:
Arch vousoir from Ülü Camii, Eski Malatya (Old Malatya) Turkey, built under Sultan Alaeddin Keykubad at the time of Ibn 'Arabi. Ceramic and brick.

The Brotherhood of Milk
Perspectives of Knowledge in the Adamic Clay

By the Fig,
By the Olive,
By the Mount of Sinai,
By this Land secure!
We have indeed created Man in the best of modes...[1]

In his Book of Dream-visions (K. al-Mubashshirât), Ibn 'Arabî records some seventeen dreams which he had during his life, among many others. These, he says, may be of particular bene­fit to others, since they concern the Prophet or one of his companions. One of them depicts a dramatic event beyond the bounds of this world:[2]

I saw in a dream as if the Resurrection had begun, and people were surging in agitation like the ocean. Then I heard the Quran being recited in 'Illiyîn,[3] and I exclaimed: "Who are these people who are reciting the Quran at a time like this, without fear overcoming them?" I was told: "They are the bearers of the Quran".[4] "Then I am one of them!", I averred. A ladder was brought for me and I climbed up into a chamber in 'Illiyîn, in which old and young were reciting the Quran before the messenger of God, Abraham the Intimate Friend (khalîl), peace be upon him. I sat in front of him, and began reciting the Quran in complete security and confidence, feeling no fear, alarm or sense of reckoning (hisâb). Indeed I do not understand what is the distress that so troubles people with regard to the Gathering [on the Day of Judgment]. The Prophet, may the blessing and peace of God be upon him, said: "The people of the Quran are the people of God and His special people." And God says "they shall be in high chambers in security and confidence."[5]

It is typical of Ibn 'Arabî that what he writes down should be so closely tied to the Quran, here a kind of dream-meditation on the meanings hidden within a particular verse. Like all dreams of this kind, it has many aspects. First of all, there is the theme of complete security and confidence in God, which is evidenced (in the Quranic verse mentioned) by those who have faith in their heart and act righteously ("they shall be in high chambers in security and confidence"). In the dream it is seen within the eternal context of its prophetic apogee, Abraham the Khalîl, who had such trust and confidence that he was prepared to obey the Divine Command even in the ultimate act of self-sacrifice, the killing of his own son, a confidence that causes him to be honoured with the name muslim, surrendered to God.

The second aspect of the dream we may note here is the presence of Abraham as a kind of instructor or prayer-leader at this reading of the axial text of Islam within the highest realms of Paradise. It demonstrates one of the fundamental tenets of Muhammad's teaching, that he was restoring the true religion of Abraham, as well as the principle that all previous prophets have brought the same universal message, which is summarised and given its fullest expression in Islam. Of all the three Western religions, it is Islam that is the most insistently monothe­istic, a conception traditionally linked with Abraham. Jews, Christians and Muslims all tend to think of Abraham and the doctrine of God's Unity in the same breath, and describe their religion as Abrahamic. For Jews, Abraham was given an irrevocable compact by God, a covenant whose sign is inscribed into the flesh of his children in the rite of circumcision. He is "the father of all who believe", as St Paul described him. For Muslims, he is the father through whom all are named as muslims. And yet it is precisely this common paternity in faith which gives rise to the most bitter of rivalries between the religions. As a recent article in Time magazine put it, the history of the Abrahamic faiths "constitutes a kind of multi-faith scandal, a case study for monotheism's darker side, the desire of people to define themselves by excluding or demonising the others."[6] At the same time, as is demonstrated by the appearance of a new book entitled Abraham: a journey to the heart of three faiths,[7] the Patriarch is increasingly seen as the great source of reconciliation and a propounder of "ideals that lend life a profound significance", as Anwar Sadat put it. Tri-faith programmes are now on the agenda of many academic institutions in the USA and Europe.

Here it is not my task to go into the details of the religious viewpoints which each side holds, but merely to stress that the arguments that run so deep and affect so much of the rhetoric of our own time are founded on each side's exclusive claim to the paternity of Abraham and to the rightness of their cause. Jews have claimed the Divine Covenant only flows through Isaac and his line, giving them total rights to the land of Israel. Christians have seen the promise to Abraham and his descendants as beyond any tribal inheritance and pointing to the coming of Jesus; they even made circumcision a sign of ignorance rather than an indication of grace. And Muslims have taken Abraham's true followers to be the true believers, i.e. themselves, and even disenfranchised Jews by saying that the sacrifice involved Ishmael rather than Isaac. So often down the ages has the prophet of tolerance been enlisted on the side of intolerance and ignorance. Now it is in the very nature of religions to be mutually exclusive. What the growing movement to adopt the prophetic Patriarch as the champion of inter-faith dialogue sometimes tends to ignore is that faith is not a question of religion: faith is not the religious belief that we are bound to and whose cause we espouse, in the process rejecting whatever does not agree with our position – it is a matter of the heart, a light in the heart, and for that light to shine there must be an emptying, a freedom from preconception and assumption, in order to face the Unlimited God in whom all apparent oppositions are drowned.

The dîn Ibrâhîm

The debate over religious belief and true faith was apparent on the eve of Islam, amongst those in Mecca who claimed to be following the religion of Abraham (dîn Ibrâhîm). Modern scholars usually treat Muslim reports of pre-Islamic monotheists with some degree of scepticism, claiming they are an apologetic projection, and some suggest that the term hanîf, which is applied in the Quran to the religion of Abraham, was never actually used before in this monotheistic sense. However, as many of these people who are named as monotheists (hunafâ', plural of hanîf), were opposed to the Prophet's message, it can be argued that this sceptical approach is not borne out by the facts, as "no Muslim could have had any interest in characterising these opponents of the prophet as hunafâ'."[8] A close study of these people shows that like the Prophet himself, these adherents of the religion of Abraham had close contacts with Mecca and Quraysh, and were devoted to the sanctity of the Ka'ba. They were convinced that Mecca was an Abrahamic sanctuary and that the Ka'ba was indeed the House of Abraham. Some later decided to abandon the idolatry of Quraysh and embraced Islam. Others differed from the Prophet in their refusal to give up their close blood-ties to the tribe of Quraysh, who viewed themselves as the noblest descendants of Ishmael and custodians of the House of God.

One of the most interesting cases is Zayd b. 'Amr, an older contemporary of Muhammad, whose search for the true religion led him to reject conversion to Judaism or Christianity and to embrace devotion to God in the way of Abraham. He is reported to have leant his back against the Ka'ba and said: "O Quraysh, by Him in whose Hand is the soul of Zayd, not one of you follows the religion of Abraham but I." Other reports include a meeting with the young Muhammad, prior to the latter's first revelation, in which Zayd refuses a bag of meat which Muham­mad had sacrificed to the idols, saying that he would not eat anything that had been offered to idols and that he was a follower of the religion of Abraham – in other words, Zayd is portrayed as a hanîf who introduced Muhammad to the fundamental precepts of monotheism in the way of Abraham.[9]

However, the revelations to Muhammad portrayed the Abrahamic tradition in a new light, and brought about a new dispensation, within which submission and service were given prominence. The coming of the Prophet thus forced the people of his time into re-evaluating what constituted religious belief and faith in the light of this revelation.

The two travellers

It is this distinction between self-identifying religious doctrine and self-surrendering true faith which is so graphically expressed in one of Ibn 'Arabî's accounts of his meeting with Abraham in the seventh heaven during his ascension (mi'râj). In Chapter 167 of the Futûhât al-Makkiyya dedicated to the spiritual knowledge of the alchemy of true happiness,[10] Ibn 'Arabî describes the ascension in terms which are at once wryly amusing and deadly serious. We are presented with two kinds of traveller, both of whom are searching for knowledge of their Creator: the one is a follower of a prophet or messenger, whose response to revelation is one of acceptance and surrender and who copies what he is told to do by the prophet – this presupposes that the prophet is seen as one who truly knows and can act as infallible guide;[11] the other is a speculative thinker, who takes reason as his yardstick and arbiter and wants "to discover the path to knowledge of God by [him]self". While the speculative thinker thinks he needs to seek knowledge, using all the powers at his disposal, the follower strives only to make himself nothing before the Unity of Truth, like an empty vessel, empty of selfish individuality, ready to receive whatever is deposited in him, without laying claim to owning it.

Not only are their methods different, says Ibn 'Arabî, but the fruits of their investigations are also different: "Everything that the speculative thinker acquires, the follower also acquires, but not everything that the follower obtains is obtained by the speculative thinker." This is due to that special and intimate relationship to God which each of the creatures possesses, and which the follower is cognisant of, the private face (al-wajh al-khâss). It is through this private face that he receives knowledge which the speculative thinker cannot understand.[12]

As they progress together on their journey, "the Muham­madian (follower) carried upon the litter of Divine Solicitude (rafraf al-'inâya) and the speculative thinker riding upon the steed of reflective thinking (burâq al-fikr)", in each heaven the follower is treated with great honour by the prophet of that heaven and is initiated into secrets and mysteries, while the poor speculative thinker is left to his own devices and can only converse with the planet. In many cases even the planet abandons him, saying it is in the service of the prophet and has to attend to his guest. No wonder the speculative thinker gets more and more depressed as the journey goes on.

By the time they reach the seventh heaven, where Abraham resides, the situation has become critical: the speculative thinker is installed "in a dark, deserted and desolate house", that grimly Saturnine mirror which is none other than the house of his own soul (nafs). That it appears dark and empty shows the ultimate fruitlessness of unaided reason, echoed in the Biblical cry of "vanity of vanities; all is vanity".[13] Here at the end of it all, there is no joy, no life.

In contrast, the follower is warmly welcomed by Abraham, who is resting his back against the Visited House (al-bayt al-ma'mûr). Just as the earthly Ka'ba is surrounded by pilgrims in prayer, so this heavenly prototype is frequented by angelic presences, constantly coming and going. The Abrahamic injunction to the follower is:

Make your heart like this Visited House, by your being present with God in every state. Know that of all that you see, nothing contains the Real God except the heart of the believer,[14] and that is you!

Being present with God in every state means having a totally open heart, open to and cognisant of the constant Self-Revelation of the One in myriad forms.

The implications of this viewpoint are profound in Ibn 'Arabî's teaching: everything in the universe being imprinted within the essence of our soul, we can only ever really know what we have witnessed of ourselves (nafs) in the mirror of our essence (dhât). Just as God creates His own Self in the mirror of His manifestation, so we create our own selves in the mirror of His Being. And therein lies the danger of making Reality conform to our own belief. Only by self-purification and purity of heart can the mirror of our soul become clear enough to reflect what the world really is without distortion.

Brotherhood

At this point in the story, Ibn 'Arabî says, the speculative thinker – realising that he is missing out and that his self-reality is a place of restriction precisely because his viewpoint is narrow – desires to get closer to Abraham. Here an intriguing conversation takes place:

Abraham then asks the follower: "Who is this stranger with you?", and the follower replies: "He is my brother."

"Your milk-brother or your blood-brother?" Abraham asks.
"My water-brother," the follower replies.

"You are right," Abraham says, "that is why I do not recognise him. Do not keep company with anyone except your milk-brother, just I am your milk-father. The Presence of Supreme Bliss (al-hadrat al-sa'âdîya) only admits milk-brothers, milk-fathers and milk-mothers, for they are suitable in the sight of God. Do you not see that knowledge manifests as milk in the Presence of Imagination, and this is because of the suckling relationship?"[15]

After this the follower is invited into the Visited House, while the poor speculative thinker is left to go back to the beginning on his own and is cut off from the fatherhood of Abraham. Ibn 'Arabî portrays this thinker as wanting to become a muslim at this point on the spiritual journey, but he is barred from joining Islam and told to return to the world, to follow "the way of the one who constantly turns to God, being converted by the messengers who bring news from God – only then can you receive in the way that your companion has received." It is interesting to contrast this with the case of the Pharaoh who believed in the God of Moses and Aaron in this world, just before the point of death.

In summary, we see that Ibn 'Arabî delineates three kinds of brotherhood (which, let me hasten to add, includes both human genders):

a) blood-brothers (akh min al-nasab), the family of consanguinity, our fleshly inheritance with all its ties of close kinship; it is an exclusive brotherhood, restricted to family at the bodily level;

b) water-brothers (akh min al-mâ'), which may refer here to the wider community of humankind, who share the water of life in this world, just as all things, including Adam and his children, are born of water;[16] apparently unlimited, this form of fraternité is also divided, since the Children of Adam are either happy/blessed or unhappy/damned. This second identity takes place at the level of the soul; and

c) milk-brothers (akh min al-radâ'a), suckled in infancy from the same source, so close in kinship that marriage between milk-relatives is expressly forbidden in the Quran,[17] lovingly nourished by the image of knowledge; there is no limit imposed here, except in terms of the quantity of milk drunk. At the level of the spirit, the most appropriate prayer becomes the one enjoined by Muhammad: "Lord, increase me in knowledge".

For Ibn 'Arabî, Abraham is our milk-father, "the clear light (al-nûr al-mubîn)... the second father who named us muslims."[18] His fatherhood is discriminative (unlike the fatherhood of Adam who includes all human beings), making plain the distinction between truth and falsehood. It does not reside simply in being the model of fidelity for all who believe, but rather in the knowledge bestowed through faith, a knowledge by virtue of which he is known as khalîl, since that which knows and that which is known interpenetrate each other.[19] It is this knowledge which makes us suitable or serviceable (nâfi') in the sight of God.[20]

In our present world where conflicts arise on the basis of ethnicity, where the politics of identity makes people increasingly strident in their self-definition in terms of consanguinity, the idea of a milk-brotherhood, a brotherhood based on knowledge of the Unity of Being, becomes highly topical. This "Milky Way" excludes no-one: it is open to all. It is self-selecting, in the sense that you can opt in or out. But knowledge here should not be restricted to a simple attestation of God's Unity and Ineffability. This is not mere intellectual knowledge but a realisation of the heart, a gnosis (ma'rifa) passed on through suckling at the breast of Love.

In the chapter dedicated to the Word of Abraham in his Fusûs al-hikam,[21] Ibn 'Arabî describes three degrees of knowledge of God:

a) firstly, realising that it is our indigence and dependence that demonstrate His Lordship and Divinity – without our self-subjection, He is not known as the Self-Exalted Transcendent God;

b) secondly, seeing through illumination (kashf) that He is Immanent in all the realities of the world, appearing in multiple forms without Himself becoming multiple; and

c) finally, there opens another degree of kashf in which "He manifests to you our forms in Him, so that some of us are manifest to others in God, some of us recognise others, and some of us are distinguished from others. There are those of us who know that this knowledge came to us in God from us, and there are those of us who are ignorant of the presence in which this knowledge comes through us."[22]

This is the only exclusivity that Ibn 'Arabî finds in the tolerant religion of Abraham, a hierarchy of knowledge – and as he immediately requests, "I seek refuge in God from being one of the ignorant".

In conclusion, we may remember that the two travellers are simply a device which Ibn 'Arabî is using to clarify his teaching: they are two aspects of each and every one of us. If we hold fast to the free-thinking spirit of intellectual speculation, our own way of doing things, he says, debars us from our true happiness; whereas if we allow our heart to be laid bare before the Unlimited Truth and to be inclined to the religion of Love,[23] we may join that creed of Abraham (millat Ibrâhîm)[24] so often lauded in the Quran:

And who shrinks from the religion of Abraham except one who makes a fool of himself?[25]

In the Seventh Heaven

The following extract from Chapter 167 of the Futûhât al-Makkiyya covers the whole section on the seventh heaven, whose ruling prophet is Abraham and whose planet is Saturn.[1]

The two travellers then depart [from the sixth heaven of Moses and Jupiter], the Muhammadian upon the litter of Divine Solicitude (rafraf al-'inâya)[2] and the speculative thinker upon the steed of reflective thinking (burâq al-fikr). Then the seventh heaven is opened up to them, which from there is the first [of the heavens] in reality.[3] Here Abraham, the Intimate Friend, peace be upon him, comes to meet him, while the speculative thinker is met by the planet Saturn.[4] Saturn installs him in a dark, deserted and desolate house, and says to him: "This is the house of your brother," meaning his own soul (nafs),[5] "stay in it until I come to you, for I am in the service of this Muhammadian follower because of the one with whom he is staying, who is the Intimate Friend of God."

Then Saturn goes off to Abraham, and finds him resting his back against the Visited House (al-bayt al-ma'mûr),[6] with the follower seated before him as a son sitting in front of his father, and Abraham is saying to him: "What an excellent and devoted child". The follower asks him about the three lights,[7] to which Abraham replies: "They were my proof against my people: God gave them to me out of sheer kindness ('inâya) from Him to me. I did not speak of them as being associations [with God], but I placed them as a hunter's snare with which to catch the wandering thoughts[8] of my people."

Then Abraham says to him: "O you who follow [the prophet], distinguish the degrees[9] and recognise the various creeds.[10] Stand upon clear proof from your Lord[11] in your affair, and do not neglect your tradition, for you are not neglected nor is a legacy bequeathed in vain. Make your heart like this Visited House, by being present with God in every state. Know that of all that you see, nothing is large enough for the Real God except the heart of the believer,[12] and that is you!"

When the speculative thinker hears this address, he says: "Alas for me for what I have squandered of the Divine Side,[13] and I was one of those who mock".[14] He realises how he has failed to have faith in that messenger and follow his teaching (sunna), and he says: "If only I had not taken my intellect as a guide, and if only I had not followed the way of thought with it!"[15] Each of these two people perceives what the high spiritual realities bestow and what the Highest Assembly glorifies and praises, each according to the purity and freeing of their soul from the captivity of the natural constitution[16] – everything that is in the universe is imprinted within the essence of the soul of each of them, so that they can only really know what they have witnessed of their own soul (nafs) in the mirror of their essence (dhât).

Now there is a story[17] about a wise man who wanted to demonstrate this spiritual station to the king: while a master painter occupied himself with painting a picture of the most exceptional composition and the most perfect workmanship, the sage devoted himself to burnishing the wall [opposite] which faced the paintings. Between the two of them there was a curtain hanging down. When they had both finished their work, and done their very best as far as they were each concerned, the king came and stood in front of what the artist had painted: he saw marvellous pictures, with such beauty of composition and excellence of painting as would dazzle the senses. He looked at the colours in this beautiful composition, and it was just like looking at a wonderful view.[18]

Then he looked at what the other [the sage] had done in burnishing that surface, but he saw nothing. Then the sage said to him: "O king, my work is more full of grace and loveliness than his, and my wisdom more recondite and difficult to comprehend than his. Raise now the curtain between me and him, so that you may see at one glance my work and his."

So the king lifted the curtain, and upon that burnished surface was displayed all that the other man had painted, in an even more beautiful form than it was in itself. And the king was astonished. Then the king also saw his own form and the form of the sage-polisher in that surface, at which he was [even more] bewildered and astounded.

"How can this be?" he asked, to which the sage replied: "O king, I did this for you as an example of your own self in relation to the forms of the world: if you were to polish the mirror of your soul with spiritual practices and exercises, until you were pure of heart and you had removed the rust of nature from your soul, then you would receive the forms of the world in the mirror of your essence (dhât), wherein everything that is in the whole world is portrayed."

It is at this limit that the speculative thinker and followers of the messengers come to a stop. For this comprehensive presence belongs to both of them. Yet the follower goes beyond the speculative thinker in [knowing about] certain matters which have not been wholly portrayed in the world – this is by virtue of that private face which belongs to God within every created possibility,[19] which[20] derives from that which cannot be limited, grasped or depicted. It is by that [knowledge of the private face] that this follower is distinguished from the speculative thinker.

And from this [seventh] heaven may come the enticement (istidrâj), which one does not know about,[21] the hidden trickery (makr) which one is not aware of,[22] the "secure guile"[23] and the veil,[24] and being steadfast amidst one's affairs and proceeding in an unhurried fashion in them.[25]

From here he will also know the meaning of His saying: "The creation of the heavens and the earth is greater than the creation of mankind".[26] For both of them occupy the rank of parenthood[27] in relation to mankind, who never attain to them. He, may He be exalted, says: "Be grateful to Me, and to your parents".[28]

From this heaven he also comes to know that everything else apart from humans and jinn is blessed (sa'îd),[29] and does not enter into the misery of the other world. He knows that among men and jinn there are those who are wretched and those who are blessed. The miserable one (shaqî) only remains among the wretched for a determined period, since Mercy and Compassion is precedent to Anger, whereas the blessed are such indefinitely, without time restriction.[30]

It is here that he also comes to know the high esteem accorded to the creation of Man (insân) and the special employment of the two Divine Hands in creating Adam, to the exclusion of all other creatures.[31] He knows, moreover, that there is not a single category of creature that does not possess a way which is unique in creation – the species of the world do not become diverse on account of this. Their variety is by virtue of Man, and it is due to him that creation itself becomes multiform. For the creation of Adam differs from the creation of Eve, and the creation of Eve differs from the creation of Jesus, and the creation of Jesus is not the same as the creation of the rest of the children of Adam, and yet all of them are human beings. It is for this reason that for human beings the badness of an action may be presented in a favourable light, so that one takes it to be good. Following the revelation (tajallî) of [the reality of] this delusory embellishment, the follower gives thanks to God, may He be exalted, for delivering him from such a thing.

As for the speculative thinker, he only experiences joy in this revelation, which bestows good upon him in that which is [actually] bad, and this comes from the Divine trickery.[32] Thus are the potential realities (a'yân) of forms, which lie below this sphere extending as far as the earth exclusively, established within the essential substance (jawhar).[33] And thus is also known the creed[34] of Abraham, which is a tolerant creed, with no sense of restriction in it.[35]

When he knows of these spiritual realities, and becomes acquainted with the fatherhood of Islam, the speculative thinker wants to be close to Abraham. Abraham then asks the follower: "Who is this stranger with you?" and the follower replies: "He is my brother."

"Your milk-brother or your blood-brother?" Abraham asks. "My water-brother", the follower replies.

"You are right, that is why I do not recognise him. Do not keep company with anyone except your milk-brother, just I am your milk-father. The Presence of Supreme Bliss (al-hadrat al-sa'âdîyya) only admits milk-brothers, milk-fathers and milk-mothers, for they are suitable in the sight of God. Do you not see that knowledge manifests as milk in the Presence of Imagination, and this is because of the suckling relationship?"

The speculative thinker's means of support is removed,[36] when the relationship with the fatherhood of Abraham, peace be upon him, is cut off from him. Abraham then bids the follower enter the Visited House, and he goes into it without his companion. His companion [the thinker] hangs his head low, and then leaves through the door by which he came in. He cannot leave through the door of the angels, which is the second door, due to a special quality in it – which is that the one who leaves by it will never return.

Then the follower departs from the presence of Abraham, seeking to rise again, and he embraces his companion, the speculative thinker, there. To the latter it is said: "Wait here until your companion returns – you cannot go on, as this is the end of the [realm of] smoke (dukhân)."[37] Then the thinker says: "I will submit and embrace Islam, and put myself under the authority of that which my companion has entered."[38] But he is told: "This is not the right place to receive Islam. When you return to your own home, from which you and your companion [first] came, that is [the proper place]: once you have submitted [there] and believed [in your heart] and followed the way of the one who constantly turns to God, being converted by the messengers who bring news from God,[39] only then can you receive in the way that your companion has received."

Notes to Part 1

[1]  Q.95:1–4.

[2]  This passage is the eighth dream in K. al-Mubashshirât (for details see S. Hirtenstein, The Unlimited Mercifier (Oxford, 1999), pp.84–5).

[3]  One of the high places of Paradise – see Q.83:18–21. In his R. al-Anwâr, Ibn 'Arabî describes 'Illiyîn as "the world of bewilderment, deficiency and incapacity, and the treasuries of actions (khazâ'in al-a'mâl)" (Rasâ'il, p.166).

[4]  Traditionally, the "bearers of the Quran" (hamalat al-qur'ân) refers to the first transmitters of the recitation, who were taught the Divine Word by the Prophet, and who were responsible for the assembly and arrangement of the first written corpus during the reign of the third Caliph, 'Uthmân (23/644–35/656). For Ibn 'Arabî, the meaning is more universally applicable: "The lovers of God are called the ‘Bearers of the Quran'. Their Beloved unites all attributes, so they are identical with the Quran" (Fut.II.346).

[5]  Q.34:37: "It is not your wealth nor your children that bring you close in nearness to Us, except for one who has faith and acts righteously – these shall have double reward for what they have done, and they shall be in high chambers in security and confidence." Here we can see the Quranic basis for the connection between good actions and high chambers.

[6]  Time magazine, 30 Sept 2002.

[7]  By Bruce Feiler (William Morrow, 2002).

[8]  Uri Rubin, "Hanîfiyya and Ka'ba: an inquiry into the Arabian pre-Islamic background of dîn Ibrâhîm", in The Arabs and Arabia on the eve of Islam, ed. F. E. Peters (Ashgate Publishing, 1999), p.86.

[9]  Zayd and others like him used to pray towards the Ka'ba because they believed that Abraham himself used to pray that way. There is some evidence that Muhammad himself used the Ka'ba as a qibla during his first years in Mecca, before taking, for a limited time, the qibla of Jerusalem. See Rubin, p.102.

[10]  Fut.II.270ff: all the following quotations come from this chapter and can be found in the accompanying translation (see pp.13–21).

[11]  The follower here does not simply mean an adherent of the external law, but one who commits their heart and soul to God and "follows" what He reveals. As Ibn 'Arabî describes later, he is in fact Muhammadian and therefore a "saint".

[12]  For a fuller discussion of the wajh al-khass, see our article, "Between the secret chamber and the well-trodden Path", JMIAS, XVIII, 1995.

[13]  Ecclesiastes 1:2.

[14]  Allusion to the hadîth qudsî: "Neither My heavens nor My earth contain Me, but only the heart of my faithful servant contains Me."

[15]  Fut.II.279. This principle of milk manifesting as knowledge in dreams is graphically expressed in the story of Taqî ibn Mukhallad, who was given a bowl of milk to drink by the Prophet in a dream. On waking up, he made himself sick in order to verify if it had really happened, and he vomited up a large quantity of milk – prompting Ibn 'Arabî to comment that "he frustrated himself of an immense knowledge equal to what he drank" (Wisdom of the Prophets, Chapter in the Word of Isaac (Beshara Publications, p.50), Fusûs (Beirut, 1946, p.86)).

[16]  However, it might also describe the life of good works, which both the follower and the speculative thinker perform.

[17]  Q.4:24.

[18]  Fut.I.5 – this is an interesting reading of Q.22:78: "...the creed of your father Abraham; he/He named you muslims". The light here is that which separates truth from falsehood, the root of the word mubîn having the meanings of clarity (bayân) and division (bayn).

[19]  See Fusûs, Chapter in the Word of Abraham (Beirut edn), p.80, Wisdom of the Prophets, p.40: "Do you not see that God (al-haqq) manifests with the qualities of recent things? ...Do you not see that the creature manifests with the qualities of God, from their beginning to their end?"

[20]  For Ibn 'Arabî the sacrifice of his son was precisely a test of knowledge, regarding the transposition of the dream-image to its image in the sensory realm, rather than of faith.

[21]  We may note that the Wisdom of this chapter is called the Wisdom of Being lost in love (muhayyamîya), emphasising the interpenetration of lover and beloved, knower and known. Abraham is of course the model of the wanderer who gives up all he has, to serve and honour the love of God.

[22]  Fusûs (Beirut edn), p.82.

[23]  "...O marvel, a garden amidst the flames! My heart has become capable of all forms. It is a pasture for gazelles, a convent for Christian monks, a temple for idols and the pilgrim's Ka'ba, the tablets of the Torah and the book of the Quran. I follow the religion of Love: whatever way Love's camels take, that is my religion and my faith." These famous lines from the Tarjumân are quintessentially Abrahamic: each of these images can be found in the town of Urfa in southern Turkey, where Abraham is reported to have lived and which has been a place of pilgrimage for many hundreds of years. The "garden amidst the flames" recalls the story of Abraham being cast into a fire ("O fire, be coolness and safety for Abraham", Q.21:69).

[24]  The word milla is also used in Hebrew where it refers to the pact of circumcision. So we may understand this creed as a circumcision of the heart, laid bare before the Singularity of God. This is the true inclination of man (hanîf), the root of this term meaning "to incline or lean". See Fut.IV.57, where Ibn 'Arabî describes the hunafâ' as "those who incline to the side of God".

[25]  Q.2:130.

Notes to Part 2

[1]  I am deeply indebted to my friends and fellow-translators, Rosemary Brass, Jane Clark, Cecilia Twinch and the late Layla Shamash, with whom I have been working on a translation of Chapter 167 of the Futûhât and from whose comprehension I have benefited immensely. Any lingering errors remain mine alone.

[2]  The Divine Solicitude or providential care ('inâya) which God lavishes on certain of His creatures is a central notion in Ibn 'Arabî's teaching. It conveys the sense of a special Divine favour, given directly to a servant without any intermediary, and ultimately is what determines whether a person becomes a Gnostic – see, for example, Fut.II.289: "The light of faith bestows felicity, and in no way can it be gained through proofs. It derives only from a divine solicitude towards the one in whom it is found" (my italics, quoted in Chittick, Self-Disclosure of God, p.169). Later in Chapter 167, Ibn 'Arabî describes how the giving (or withholding) of this Favour is the real cause of superiority appearing among human beings in this world. The distinction is here emphasised by the contrast between the effortlessness of being carried upon a litter or carriage and the active attention demanded by riding a steed.

[3]  That is to say, this heaven is seventh in ascending order from earth, and first in descending order. The others in order of ascent from the earth are as follows: the first heaven – Adam/Moon; the second heaven – Jesus and John/Mercury; the third heaven – Joseph (Yûsuf)/Venus; the fourth heaven – Enoch (Idrîs)/Sun; the fifth heaven – Aaron/Mars; the sixth heaven – Moses/Jupiter.

[4]  This pattern of meetings is established from the very beginning: the follower meets the prophet of each heaven, while the speculative thinker meets only the planet belonging to that sphere.

[5]  The soul or self here denotes the lower soul unrefined by the light of faith and gnosis. Ibn 'Arabî also uses it in other contexts to describe more refined dimensions of the self, leading to its fullest receptivity as the perfected or complete soul (nafs kâmila).

[6]  This celestial site and its identification with Abraham is attested in various hadith (see Wensinck, Concordance, IV, pp.353–4). According to Anas b. Mâlik, "70,000 angels enter it each day, and they do not return there" (Muslim, Imân, 259). The root of ma'mûr ('-m-r) has meanings of "to cultivate (the earth), make sure that the house is not deserted, frequent, visit, inhabit, be inhabited and live long". Ma'mûr could be translated as both inhabited/peopled or oft-visited/frequented. As the House of the Heart it is viewed as being visited or peopled by the angels who are constantly coming and going, and stands in stark contrast to the deserted and lonely house of the soul.

[7]  Referring to the star, moon and sun mentioned in Q.6:76–9: "When night outspread over Abraham, he saw a star and said: ‘This is my Lord'. But when it set, he said: ‘I love not those who set'. When he saw the moon rising, he said: ‘This is my Lord'. But when it set, he said: ‘If my Lord does not guide me, I shall surely be of those who go astray'. When he saw the sun rising, he said: ‘This is my Lord. This is the greatest!'. But when it set, he said: ‘O my people, surely I am quit of what you associate. I have turned my face to Him who originated the heavens and the earth, a man of pure faith (hanîf). I am not one of those who cover up'."

[8]  Or: "errant intelligences".

[9]  The levels (marâtib) of existence are an integral part of the cosmos, and therefore must be distinguished. "The levels make known that which is ranked higher and that over which it is ranked. The levels distinguish between God and the world, and they manifest the realities of the Divine Names in terms of their more inclusive or less inclusive connections [with the creatures]" (Fut.II.469, my trans., see Chittick, Sufi Path of Knowledge, p.48). "He who knows that excellence pertains to the levels (rutab), not to his own entity ('ayn), will never deceive himself into thinking that he is more excellent than anyone else, although he may say that one level is more excellent than another level" (Fut.III.225, my trans., see SPK p.48).

[10]  The creeds (madhâhib, pl. of madhhab), would usually be taken to refer to the four schools of Islamic law, Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki and Shafi'i. But it is more common for Ibn 'Arabî, as here, to take it in its most universal and literal sense as "the ways of going" to God, or individual forms of religious belief and practice.

[11]  Alluding to Q.11:17: "And what of him who stands upon clear proof from his Lord, and a witness from Him recites it, and before him is the Book of Moses as guide and mercy?"

[12]  Alluding to the hadîth qudsî: "Neither My heavens nor My earth can contain Me, but only the heart of my faithful servant contains Me." This hadîth is frequently cited in Sufi texts.

[13]  Or: "for I have been remiss with regard to God".

[14]  Q.39:56. Ibn 'Arabî is here making a sharp distinction between the heart of the servant, which is faithful and in a state of rapture with God, and the soul, which is full of regret and self-absorption.

[15]  This phrase echoes Q.25:28–9: "If only I had taken a way along with the messenger! Alas for me, if only I had not taken so-and-so as a friend (khalîl)!" The use of the term khalîl, which is associated particularly with Abraham, is a telling example of Ibn 'Arabî's fidelity to the meaning of each word of this Quranic text.

[16]  This could be read as "from the strength of natural disposition".

[17]  Compare this with the story in Rumi's Mathnawi about the Greeks (who are called Sufis) and the Chinese, Book I, p.189 (trans. Nicholson). The source for the story appears to be Ghazâlî.

[18]  Reading fa-râ'a amran hâlahu manzarah, as the autograph appears to read. The printed editions are at variance here.

[19]  Literally, "every possible thing which is newly arrived" (mumkin muhdath). The possible is the complement of the Real Being, and having no being of its own, can only be in a state of becoming. Its "arrival" is an ever-new becoming, without time-dimension, in contrast to the ancientness or priority (qidam) of Being. The connection between these two aspects is what Ibn 'Arabî calls "the private face" (al-wajh al-khâss).

[20]  The Arabic is ambiguous: this could mean that it is the private face which derives from the Unlimited, or that each possibility has been created (muhdath) from the Unlimited.

[21]  See Q.7:182: "We will draw them on/entice them whence they know not...".

[22]  See Q.27:50: "And they devised a trick; and We devised a trick while they were not aware".

[23]  See Q.7:182–3: "We will draw them on, whence they know not; and I respite them – assuredly My guile is secure". Also Q.68:45. It could also be translated as "powerful stratagem".

[24]  See for example Q.41:5: "They say: ‘Our hearts are veiled from what thou callest us to, and in our ears is a heaviness, and between us and you is a veil; so act; we are acting!'."

[25]  This passage seems to refer not only to the earthy gravitas associated with the Saturnine disposition, the "lead" of human dignity, but more particularly to the example of Abraham when commanded to sacrifice his son, and how he remained true to what he was told to do.

[26]  Q.40:57 "...but most of mankind do not know."

[27]  Literally, "fatherhood", which echoes the Quranic description of Abraham as "the father of you all" (Q.22:78). Ibn 'Arabî calls Abraham "our second father" (Fut.I.5), since Adam is our first father in bodily terms.

[28]  Q.31:14.

[29]  The terms sa'îd (happy, blessed, felicitous) and shaqî (unhappy, miserable, wretched) are Quranic expressions applied to the people who inhabit the Gardens of Paradise and the Fire of Hell, respectively.

[30]  In many passages Ibn 'Arabî emphasises the absolute supremacy of Divine Mercy over Wrath, using several verses from the Quran and Hadith as proof-texts. Later in Chapter 167, for example, he explains Q.11:106–8 as follows: "God says regarding the people of Paradise: ‘a gift uninterrupted', and He does not ascribe to it an end. And He says regarding the people of Hell, who are wretched because the Foot of All-Compelling Power (jabarût) has dominion: ‘indeed your Lord does as He wishes'. He does not say that the condition they are in will not cease, like He does for the blessed ones. What prevents that is His saying: ‘And My Mercy embraces everything' and His saying: ‘Indeed My Mercy precedes My Wrath'...".

[31]  Alluding to Q.38:75, where God says to Iblis: "What prevented you from prostrating yourself to him [Adam] whom I created with My two Hands?" Ibn 'Arabî explains the meaning of the Two Hands not in terms of blessing and power, since that is true of every existent, but rather in terms of incomparability (tanzîh) and similarity (tashbîh). Only in Adamic Man can God manifest all His attributes, both transcendent and immanent. "His words [in the above Quranic verse] point out Adam's eminence" (Fut.II.4).

[32]  Ibn 'Arabî has devoted a whole chapter, 231, of the Futûhât to the various forms of Divine trickery or deception (makr). "In our own view, God's deceiving the servant is that He should provide him with knowledge that demands practice, and then deprive him of the practice; or that He should provide him with practice, and then deprive him of sincerity in the practice" (Fut.II.529, trans. SPK p.267). Ultimately, "trickery" is a mercy that is educational, and brings the servant to the realisation of true indigence.

[33]  The word jawhar (which in philosophy is used in contrast to "accidents") has alchemical associations: it designates the substance which undergoes transformations.

[34]  Milla may mean either religion/creed or the community which follows that creed.

[35]  See Q.22:78: "Struggle for God as is His due, for He has chosen you and has laid upon you no restriction in religion, being the creed of your father Abraham – he/He named you muslims before and in this that the Messenger might be a witness over you and you be witnesses over mankind."

[36]  That is to say, it is the last straw for him.

[37]  "Smoke" here seems to allude to the arena of nature, in particular the heavens, as well as the aspiration to rise by one's own efforts. As the following passage explains, smoke is a quality of nature, which rises by itself. "The angels belong to the world of nature: they are the inhabitants of the spheres and the heavens. God has instructed you that He went straight to the heaven when it was smoke (Q.41:11) and then He proportioned them as seven heavens (Q.2:29), making its folk [angels] from them, which is what is meant by His words and He revealed in each heaven its command/order (Q.41:12). No-one denies that smoke is from nature, even if the angels are luminous bodies, just as the jinn are fiery bodies" Fut.II.650 (trans. SDG p.306).

[38]  This is reminiscent of the profession of faith of the Pharaoh, which Ibn 'Arabî discusses earlier in the chapter, except that the Pharaoh's attestation took place on the earthly level and was accepted.

[39]  As the Prophet says, "Follow me that God may love you".