The Circle of Inclusion
Each person who has stood in an open space, or sailed on the sea, or stood on a high mountain has experienced the circularity of the horizons, seen the direction of the sun rising in the east, reaching its zenith and then setting in the west, or felt the overarching night-sky studded with stars, and found themselves at the centre looking from a face they cannot see. This experience applies equally to everybody who stands in such a space and it is a wonderful example of how each person is right at the centre of what is happening. Similarly each of us has a direct connection to what is real, like the path of the sun that reaches us from across the waters. If the attention is then turned inwards towards the invisible centre of one's being – the heart – and what is happening there is observed, it is possible to establish a connection with the source of one's being, which is equally the ever-present dimensionless point of return.
In his Theophany on Perfection Ibn 'Arabī writes:
Listen, O my beloved!
I am the essence ('ayn) that is sought in creation,
The centre of the circle and its circumference,
Its complexity and simplicity.
I am the order revealed between heaven and earth…
In Cordoba, 814 years ago in 1190, Ibn 'Arabī had a vision where he met all the prophets from Adam to Muhammad. It was only the prophet Hūd, whose wisdom in the Fusūs al-Hikam, is that of uniqueness (ahadiyya), who spoke to him on that occasion. Ibn Arabī tells us,
Know that when the Real revealed to me and made me witness the essential realities of all His messengers and prophets, who are human beings, from Adam to Muhammad (may God bless them all and give them peace) in a vision in which I was made present in Cordoba in the year [AH] 586, the only one who spoke to me from that group was Hūd (SA) who told me the reason for their gathering. I saw him as a large man, a handsome figure, pleasant and subtle in conversation, knowledgeable about things and having insight into them. The proof I had of this insight were his words, “There is no moving creature whom He [God] does not take hold of by the forelock. Indeed, my Lord is on the straight path.” And what greater good news (bishāra) to creation is there than this?
Ibn 'Arabī's universality is immediately evident in the fact that all the prophets from Adam to Muhammad appeared to him, here in Cordoba. “The reason why it was that Hūd spoke”, the Ottoman commentator on the Fusūs al-Hikam informs us, “was because the ways and tastes of Hūd were most suitable in the ways of tawhīd, Unity in plurality”; and the great good news referred to is that “Truth, God, is the Ipseity of all things.” God takes charge of all creatures, and whatever path they are moving along is in fact the straight path of their Lord. Ultimately, God is the only one who moves in anything that moves; since He is the only one in existence, He is the only actor and all actions are His. In this sense, nobody has gone astray, since everything is included in the boundless Mercy of God which overrides the divine anger.
In the poem at the beginning of the chapter on Hūd in the Fusūs al-Hikam Ibn 'Arabī writes:
The Straight Path belongs to God (Allāh).
It is manifest in all, not hidden.
He is present in the small and the great,
In those who are ignorant of how things are and those who know.
Because of this His mercy encompasses everything,
No matter how base or magnificent.”
These lines emphasize the universality of the straight path of God upon which all things walk and which leads them all back to God. In this chapter, Ibn 'Arabī emphasizes God's closeness to us, closer than life itself, closer than the jugular vein. No particular kind of person is specified for this closeness, the knowing or ignorant, the blessed or damned, except that the very blessing is in being aware of this closeness which is sensed, and the sadness of distance is in being unaware of it. Everything is included in the divine grace and favour, but it is a question of whether we choose to be aware of this or not.
The path upon which all things walk is called “straight” even if it deviates for, as Ibn 'Arabī says in the Futūhāt al-Makkiyya,
… curvature is straight in reality, like the curvature of a bow since the straightness which is desired from it is curvature … and all movement and rest in existence is divine because it is in the hand of the Real.
Everything emerges from God and everything is returned to Him but things do not go back by the path on which they emerged; rather, they return in a circular motion, for Ibn 'Arabī maintains that “Every affair and every existent thing is a circle that returns to that through which it had its beginning.”
If, therefore, every existent is on the straight path in any case, what was the point of sending prophets and messengers to call people to God? The Ottoman commentator on the Fusūs who posits this question, then answers it by adding,
This one cannot say, because this invitation is the invitation from the Name Misleader (mudill) to the Name Guide (hādī) to Truth, and the invitation from the Name Compeller (jabbār) to the Name Just ('adl).
Our happiness lies in the path of guidance to blessing and grace, not in the path which leads to misery, constriction and anger. Yet just as all actions belong to God, so do all names and qualities. To recognize the Guide we need to see how guidance is manifested in us and ask who it is that is guided? The same is true of the Name Just, and all other names and qualities. This involves knowledge of the self in discovering who we are. In one sense we are all under the divine impulsion. Yet God is not unjust to his servants by compelling them to behave in a certain way – He simply allows them to be what they are. Ibn 'Arabī writes, “'God does not treat his servants unjustly', for He only knows what the objects of knowledge give to Him, since knowledge follows the object of knowledge.”
There was an apparent conflict for the prophets between calling the people to God according to the prescriptive command and the fact that everyone is in any case on the straight path of God. Ibn 'Arabī writes,
The Messenger of God said, “Hūd and its sisters have made my hair go white,” that is (the Quranic sura of) Hūd and all the (Quranic) verses which mention going straight.
However, God's eternal knowledge of us does not determine what we will do because knowledge is dependent on the known and His knowledge of us is in accordance with what we show Him of ourselves, since knower, knowledge and the known are ultimately one.
The invitation is therefore to knowledge and to removing the constriction which our limited beliefs impose on us and on Truth. It is an invitation to discriminate between a lesser vision of reality and a greater one, to abandon a partial view for a more comprehensive and complete one, to progress through our own personal Lord to the Lord of Lords, the all-inclusive God who encompasses all names and qualities and where all opposites are united.
The whole of humanity is being invited to this universal perspective. If, from among the infinite possibilities, we have selected a limited belief structure and decided to serve that, then we are in a prison of our own making and have excluded ourselves from the boundless generosity of existence. Ibn 'Arabī writes,
The people of God say “There are as many ways to God as the breaths of the creatures” and every breath emanates from the heart according to the belief the heart has of God.
However a person believes God to be, that is how God will appear to him. By limiting God in a particular way, the holder of a particular belief limits himself. In the chapter on the prophet Hūd, in the Fusūs al-Hikam, Ibn 'Arabī writes,
Take care not to be tied by any particular belief ('aqd) while denying all others, for much good would escape you – in fact, knowledge of how things are would evade you. So be in yourself the “substance” of all forms of belief, for God the High is too vast and great to be confined to one belief rather than another. He [God] has said, “Wherever you turn, there is the face of God”, without mentioning any particular orientation.
The complete Quranic verse referred to is as follows, “To God belong the east and the west. Wherever you turn, there is the face of God. God is all-encompassing, all-knowing.” Whether east and west are understood as different parts of the globe, representing different cultural values, or whether they are understood as the place of the rising sun and the place of the setting sun and therefore as the visible and invisible worlds, God is in every direction that is turned to in both the exterior world and the interior. While acknowledging that God is the one who is worshipped in everything that is worshipped and that He cannot be limited to any particular manifestation, we are exhorted to know that it is the “face” of God which is in every direction and orientation, that is to say, His Essence. This is the central point which we need to be constantly aware of in our heart, the sacred aspect to which we adhere and before which we bow in prayer.
Ibn 'Arabī's emphasis on the inclusion of all beliefs is of particular relevance to us today. Since it is God who appears in every form, without being limited to any particular form, He can be seen in all ways of worship and all forms of belief. However, the ability to accept all beliefs without being tied to any one in particular requires giving up all of one's preconceived notions about reality. When Ibn 'Arabī exhorts us to be the “substance” of all beliefs, this is not so that we just take on another belief which is more inclusive. It is a matter of vision, of seeing that He, God, is the Essence of everything including ourselves, and that He is the One who appears in everything and takes on the forms of all beliefs, and can be recognized there.
On the matter of inner vision, Ibn 'Arabī follows the Prophet Muhammad, since he has inherited Muhammad's all-inclusiveness and brings out the interior meaning of Muhammad's prophecy. Muhammad called to God according to inner vision by which Reality is witnessed not merely conjectured, when he said,
This is my Way. I invite to God according to clear insight (basīra), I and whoever follows me, and praise and glory to God, I am not of those who associate (anything else with God).
It is an appeal to those with a receptive heart, because truth which is directly perceived by inner vision constitutes direct knowledge which cannot be grasped by thought.
Just as the divine mercy encompasses everything, so does the divine knowledge. For Ibn 'Arabī, the seat of this kind of direct knowledge is the heart, which alone is able to perceive that the Divine Self is the identity both of everything that is revealed and of everyone who receives the revelation. In the chapter on Shu'ayb in the Fusūs al-Hikam, Ibn 'Arabī writes,
“In that there is a reminder for the one who has a heart”, due to (the heart's) ability to vary according to different kinds of images and qualities. He (God) does not say for the one who has an intellect because the intellect conditions and fixes the order to one particular qualification and the Reality refuses such limitation. It is not a reminder to those of the intellect who are people of formal beliefs, who accuse each other of unbelief and condemn one another.
Here, Ibn 'Arabī is referring to those who interpret the news given of Reality according to their own limited understanding rather than perceiving it directly and accepting it in their heart.
Since God appears differently at each moment, the human being needs to be able to adapt and respond appropriately, according to wisdom. This only comes about by serving as a mirror to the Real. Such service cannot be conditioned by any personal goal, not even the pursuit of happiness, even though our true happiness may be consequent to such service.
Ibn 'Arabī calls those who mirror the Real most perfectly the Muhammadians. They have nothing of their own and are not defined by any particular divine Name or attribute. They bring together all the different standpoints or stations on the spiritual path and go beyond them to “no station”.
Ibn 'Arabī writes,
The divine properties differ all the time and (the Muhammadian) varies with their variation, for God is “Every day busy with some affair” and so is the Muhammadian. God said, “In this there is a reminder for the one who has a heart” and He did not say “intellect” because that would limit him. The heart (qalb – which literally means turning or changing) is only called that due to its variation in states and affairs continually with each breath.
The person whose heart is pure does not oblige Reality to conform to his own image of it, but his heart is able to receive and conform to Reality as it truly appears at that moment. Ibn 'Arabī writes,
“The one who has a heart” knows the variation of the Real in images, by virtue of (the heart's) variability in modes. For he knows the (Real) Self from himself and his heart is no other than the Itselfness (huwiyya) of the Real. There is nothing existent in the world which is other than the Identity (huwiyya) of the Real – indeed it is the Identity itself.
This is the greatest perplexity in the mystery of God, seeing that He possesses all forms yet is confined to none. Ibn 'Arabī writes,
The affair is a circle. It has no limit which can be seen and therefore stopped at. This is why the Muhammadians, who have an insight like this, are told “You have no station”, since the affair is circular, “so return!”
Because this changeability pervades the whole world, every person undergoes variation in their state with every breath. What distinguishes the knower of God is their knowledge of this variation.
As we have seen, everyone is already, by their very existence, complete, encompassed by divine mercy and therefore on the straight path of their Lord, yet at the same time called to a perfection which defies limitation. Ibn 'Arabī writes,
God “gives everything its creation”, thereby completing it, “then He guides” to the acquisition of perfection. So whoever is rightly guided becomes perfect but whoever has stopped with his completion has been deprived.
This call to perfection is a call to wholeness and peace where all qualities are integrated in total equilibrium.
All human beings are born with an unlimited potential for perfection where the entire spiritual and cosmic realities may be clearly reflected in them so that they become the place of manifestation for the totality of divine attributes. This possibility of further perfection for the sake of beauty heightens the value and meaning of human life. In closely adhering to God, there is guidance in the right way. God responds to request and what more beautiful request is there than that He may bring about for us the aptitude for perfection.
Once it is known that we have no existence of our own, that only the Real exists, the intended revelation of beauty can take place. Ibn 'Arabī writes,
“God is beautiful and loves beauty.” Certainly, God dresses the interior of (the) servant with beauty insofar as He only reveals Himself to him out of love when He manifests in him the special beauty which is bound to him and which can only appear in this particular place. Every place (of manifestation) has a beauty which is special to it which belongs to nothing else. God does not look at the world until after He has made it beautiful and arranged it harmoniously so that it receives what He brings to it in His revelation according to the beauty of its aptitude. He dresses that revelation with beauty upon beauty so it is always in a new beauty in every revelation, just as it is always in a new creation in itself. (The revelation) undergoes perpetual transformation in the interior and exterior for the person from whom God has removed the covering of his blindness from his inner vision (basīra).
For most people intense glimpses of beauty are rare, but we have numerous examples of the ability of the human spirit to transcend the most abominable suffering and hardship to keep faith with the witnessed reality of this vision. It is a vision based on an inner certainty of the essential oneness and generosity of being.
To summarize, the Muhammadian vision provided by Ibn 'Arabī gives an overview which is not tied to any particular belief, or property, or attribute. Essentially the self is unbounded. If we impose our own limitations and constraints on it, we are prevented from fully receiving each new revelation. We need to empty ourselves of our own limitation so we are ready to respond in accordance with the needs of the moment, freed from the burden of fixed beliefs. For, as Ibn 'Arabī says, “The Essence is unknown and not bound by any fixed qualification.”
The importance of Ibn 'Arabī in our time is what is timeless in his writings. For the current moment, “now”, is the gateway to what lies beyond temporal and spatial considerations. It includes that which is timeless and universal as well as all the particular ramifications which are configured according to time and place. In our present age, spiritual knowledge is becoming more accessible as there is a greater urgency to recognize the true value and potential of human beings. However many human beings are born, humanity is never divided but remains a single reality, expressing itself in numberless different ways, each as an individuation of the One Real Self. No one is excluded from the possibility of coming to know themselves and therefore to know God the Real.
Ibn 'Arabī's writings illuminate the various aspects of reconciling the inner reality and the outer reality, God and creation, the invisible and visible worlds. He constantly refers back to the source of the revealed words of the Quran rather than relying on subsequent interpretations of Islam. In this way he brings out the true meaning of the religion, emphasizing the universality of the Muhammadian Way which shows the uniqueness of the single reality of Being and its infinite possibilities expressed in endlessly changing forms and images. The all-inclusive, absolute God appears in all things yet remains unconfined by the limitations of anything. Ibn 'Arabī frequently quotes the Quranic verse, “We shall show them Our signs on the horizons and in themselves until it is clear to them that it is the Real.”
Throughout his work, Ibn 'Arabī emphasizes the need to be aware of those aspects of reality which transcend particular circumstances, as well as paying attention to how that reality manifests in the world, for he maintains that the movement of the world from non-existence into existence is a movement of love. The world is itself nothing other than the One and Only Reality manifesting itself in infinitely varied forms and states, which are already present within it in potential. From this point of view, the signs manifested in the world should not be dismissed or ignored, especially for those who are embarked on a spiritual journey whose aim is union, integration and completeness.
What is it, then, that speaks in Ibn 'Arabī's words with a voice that goes beyond the confines of his particular context, evoking a response that can be universally recognized? Whilst respecting the diversity of viewpoints, the purpose of our coming together for this conference is not to dwell on the determining factors which set people apart, but to focus on their underlying unity; not to dwell on what makes Ibn 'Arabī's teachings distant from us and inaccessible, but to focus on what makes them close to us in opening a door to an all-inclusive spiritual perspective. Such a universal perspective necessarily includes the totality of perspectives, not by focusing on the detail of each, but by concentrating on the point from which all perspectives arise and consequently encompasses them all. This is the still point at the centre of the circle, the point about which the universes turn.
1. This paper was originally presented at the conference entitled “Between East and West, the spiritual journey: the significance and implications of Ibn 'Arabī's teaching in today's world”, held in Cordoba at the Biblioteca Viva Al-Andalus, Roger Garaudy Foundation, 24–26 September 2004.
2. Ibn 'Arabī, al-Tajalliyāt al-ilāhiyya, ed. O. Yahya (Tehran, 1988), Theophany 81, p. 460.
3. In his Rūh al-quds, Ibn 'Arabī gives one reason for the assembly: Hūd informed him that all the messengers and prophets had come to visit Abu Muhammad Makhlūf al-Qabā'ilī in his sickness before he died. See Ibn 'Arabī, Sufis of Andalusia, trans. R.W.J. Austin (London, 1971), p. 124. However, another reason for the assembly is given by Jandī, a disciple of Ibn 'Arabī's spiritual heir, Sadr al-Dīn Qūnawī: it was to congratulate Ibn 'Arabī on becoming the Seal of Saints, and heir to the Seal of the Prophets. On the Great Vision at Cordoba and the Seal of Muhammadian Sainthood, see C. Addas, Quest for the Red Sulphur (Cambridge, 1993), pp. 74–81; S. Hirtenstein, The Unlimited Mercifier (Oxford, 1999), pp. 85–6; C. Gilis, Le livre des chatons des sagesses (Beirut, 1997), vol. I, pp. 282–3.
4. Q. 11: 56.
5. Ibn 'Arabī, Fusūs al-Hikam, ed. A. 'Afīfī (Beirut, 1946), p. 110. See also Ibn al-'Arabī, The Bezels of Wisdom, trans. R.W.J. Austin (New York, 1980), pp. 133–4.
6. Ismail Hakki Bursevi's translation of and commentary on Fusūs al-Hikam by Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabī, rendered into English by B. Rauf, 4 vols. (Oxford, 1986–91), p. 570. This Ottoman commentary on the Fusūs al-Hikam is usually attributed to Abdullah Bosnevi. To avoid confusion, I refer to the “Ottoman commentator”.
7. Identity, itselfness – huwiyya.
8. Ibid., p. 564.
9. Cf. Q. 7: 156, frequently quoted by Ibn 'Arabī.
10. Fusūs, 'Afīfī, p. 106. See Bezels, pp. 129–30.
11. See al-Futūhāt al-makkiyya (Cairo, 1911; reprinted Beirut, n.d.), vol. III, p. 410, beginning line 24 (III.410.24). See also W. Chittick, The Sufi Path of Knowledge (Albany, NY, 1989), pp. 301–3.
12. Cf. Fusūs, 'Afīfī, p. 108; see Bezels, p. 132.
13. See Thursday Morning Prayer: “In Your hand is the compulsive power holding sway over hearts and forelocks. 'To You the whole affair is returned', irrespective of obedience or disobedience.” Ibn 'Arabī, Wird (London, 1979), p. 39. See also, The Seven Days of the Heart, trans. P. Beneito and S. Hirtenstein (Oxford, 2000), p. 104.
14. Fut. II.563.23.
15. Fut. I.255.18. See also W. Chittick, The Self-Disclosure of God (Albany, NY, 1998), p. 224.
16. Bursevi Fusūs, p. 564. See also Sufi Path, pp. 297, 300.
17. See Fusūs, 'Afīfī, p. 109; Bezels, p. 132.
18. Q.3: 182.
19. Fut. IV.182.12.
20. Fut. IV.182.11. Hūd is the sura within which “Go straight as you have been commanded” (Q. 11: 112) is revealed. See also Sufi Path, p. 300 and the end of the chapter on Jacob, Fusūs, 'Afīfī, pp. 98–9; Bezels, pp. 117–18. In the epilogue to his Mashāhid al-asrār, Ibn 'Arabī affirms that “The straight path is finer than a hair and sharper than a sword; no one can adhere to it except the people under God's special care.” See Ibn 'Arabī, Contemplation of the Holy Mysteries, trans. C. Twinch and P. Beneito (Oxford, 2001), p. 120.
21. Fut. III.411.22.
22. “Whoever believes that (God) is like such and such, He appears to him in the form of his belief.” Fut. III.411.26. Cf. also Fusūs, 'Afīfī, p. 124; Bezels, p. 152; Sufi Path pp. 302–3.
23. Q. 2: 115.
24. Fusūs, 'Afīfī, p. 113.
25. Q. 2: 115.
26. Fusūs, 'Afīfī, p. 72. See Bezels, p. 78.
27. See Fusūs, 'Afīfī, p. 114; Bezels, p. 138.
28. Q. 12: 108.
29. Cf.Q. 40: 7 often quoted by Ibn 'Arabī. See, for example, Self-Disclosure, p. 329.
30. Q. 50: 37.
31. Fusūs, 'Afīfī, p. 122. See Bezels, p. 150; Bursevi Fusūs, p. 607.
32. Cf. Fut. III.506.30. See Sufi Path, pp. 375–81.
33. Fut. IV.76.35.
34. Fusūs, 'Afīfī, p. 122. See Bezels, p. 151.
35. Fut. IV.14.13. See also Self-Disclosure, p. 226.
36. Cf. Fut. IV.77.3.
37. Fut. III. 405.4. Cf. Q. 20: 50 and Sufi Path, p. 297.
38. Cf. Q. 3: 101; Saturday Morning Prayer, Wird, p. 52; Seven Days, p. 135.
39. Fut. IV.146.5. With reference to “the ruling (hukm) which makes the hair of a youth go white”, in this context see also Self-Disclosure, p. 80.
40. Fut. IV.40.1.
41. Q. 41: 53.
42. Fusūs, 'Afīfī, p. 203. See also the Wisdom of Moses in Bezels, p. 257.