by Jane Clark

Reprinted from the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi Society, Vol. XXXVIII, 2005.

A shorter version of this paper was given at a conference entitled "Symbolism and Hermeneutics in the Thought of Ibn 'Arabi" organised by the Syrian Ministry of Culture, The French Institute (Damascus), and the Cervantes Institute (Damascus), in Damascus, 22–24 June 2005. A version of this longer paper appears in the proceedings of the conference, published by IFPO, Damascus.

Universal Meanings in Ibn 'Arabī's Fusūs al-hikam

Some Comments on the Chapter of Moses

What we comprehend is only what we experience and undergo, what we suffer in our very being. Hermeneutic does not consist in deliberating about concepts, it is essentially the disclosing of what takes place in us, the unveiling of what gives rise to some concept, vision, projection, when our passion becomes action, an active prophetic-poetic undergoing.
Henry Corbin[2]

The stages of the spiritual journey between the unenlightened heart and the divine Throne are between the divine Name "God" (Allāh) and the divine Name "the All-Compassionate" (al-Rahmān)... No-one denies some ultimate reality of God... But the station of immediately witnessing God's "Absolute Compassion" (rahmāniyya) is only known and recognised by those who receive the compassionate blessing of Faith.
Ibn 'Arabī [3]

Western scholarship on Ibn 'Arabī has taken up several different positions on the nature of his hermeneutics. The early pioneers who brought his work into European languages in the early/middle of the twentieth century tended to see him as an antinomic thinker whose very attraction lay in his daring interpretations and use of "non-Islamic" concepts drawn from falsafa and kalām. A.E. Afifi, for instance, who was responsible for one of the earliest studies in English,[4] saw him primarily as a Neo-Platonist who looked to the Qur'ān and the Prophetic traditions "for support on whatever he says, whether they have any bearing on it or not".[5] R.A. Nicholson likewise saw him primarily as a speculative theologian, maintaining that "Ibn 'Arabī takes a text from the Qur'ān and elicits his doctrine from it in a fashion well known to students of Philo and Origen",[6] whilst Henry Corbin did not hesitate to associate him with the Iranian mystics who adopted Shi'ite principles.[7]

In more recent years a different view has come to prevail. Contemporary scholarship now inclines towards the view that the roots of Ibn 'Arabī's insights are deeply embedded in the revelation brought by the Prophet Muhammed and in the Islamic tradition, within which he practised the religious life as an orthodox Sunni as well as a follower of the Sufi Path. Michel Chodkiewicz, in his very important essays on Ibn 'Arabī's hermeneutics published in An Ocean Without Shore,[8] points out that the Shaykh himself maintained that "everything of which we speak in our meetings and in our writings comes from the Qur'ān and its treasures".[9] He goes on to propose that the whole of his opus can be regarded as a kind of Qur'ānic exegesis, in other words, as an extended hermeneutic.

This is not only because Ibn 'Arabī based so much of his exposition upon the texts of the sacred books; Chodkiewicz has shown that the very structure of his writings is based on the Qur'ān in such a way that they could only have been produced by someone profoundly connected to its meaning – i.e. to both the inner meaning and the outer form – through real insight. He demonstrates that several works – the long manāzil section of al-Futūhāt al-Makkiyya, a series of verses in the Dīwān, the Kitāb al-Isrā' – can be correlated with the 114 sūras which constitute the Qur'ān, and proposes that many others (amongst them K. al-'Abādila, K. al-Tajalliyāt, K. Tāj al-Tarājim and K. al-Shāhid) can also be better understood by looking for Qur'ānic concordances in their form and structure.

Chodkiewicz argues further that, far from being an antinomic thinker whose purpose is to challenge the rule of sacred law, Ibn 'Arabī should be regarded as a master of fiqh in his own right, the founder of what he calls a madhhab akbari with its own distinct methodology for interpreting the legal implications of the sacred texts. Eric Winkel takes a similar line in his book Islam and the Living Law,[10] where he gathers together many of the Shaykh's writings on legal matters; he attributes to him "the most literal reading of the Qur'ān" and argues that the proper understanding of his methodology would have radical – and beneficial – implications for the Islamic community even (or perhaps especially) today.

These western debates echo those which have taken place within the Muslim world in the last eight hundred years. His detractors have consistently accused Ibn 'Arabī and his followers of perpetrating non-Islamic ideas and therefore, of heresy: his supporters have retaliated by pointing to the central role of the Qur'ān and hadīth in his writings.[11] One of the most famous of these, 'Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī, the great Damascene scholar and mystic, said that those who sought to burn his books as heretical were in a dilemma. If they left the countless quotes from the Qur'ān and hadīth in the books, they would be burning the word of God, but if they took them out, there would be so little left of the original text that it could no longer be said to be the work of Ibn 'Arabi.[12]

The intensity of the controversy surrounding his work serves to emphasise just how important a figure Ibn 'Arabī has been within the Islamic tradition. Alexander Knysh, who has made a detailed study of the polemics associated with his heritage, indicates that generating debate may actually be one of his principal functions. He says:

Even partial acquaintance with his legacy... requires a considerable spiritual and intellectual effort, essential for the further elaboration and even survival of a religious ideology... The interpretation of Ibn 'Arabī by Muslims of different orientations has [thus] provided an effective antidote against the intellectual stagnation of the Islamic community.[13]

Recent work has also shown us how influential and far-reaching Ibn 'Arabī's ideas have been. Through the study and translation of his own numerous writings, and also through the work of followers who re-expressed them in the language of metaphysics and poetry, they spread to every corner of the Muslim world and entered into common currency.[14] As they began to suffer eclipse within their traditional communities during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they continued to spread, this time going beyond the boundaries of the Islamic world into what we call "western" culture, so that today there are people in the UK and USA, Russia, Japan, Australia, Canada, Finland, Germany, France, Spain, etc. who are eagerly reading such works as they can find in printed editions. Some of these are scholars doing academic work, but there are also many people whose interest is simply in their meaning, who are turning to them for spiritual guidance and nourishment.

The existence of this interest, and the corresponding demand for translations and studies of Ibn 'Arabī's works in European languages, presents an interesting dilemma. On the one hand, scholars working in these countries now recognise, as we have said above, that good translation demands a deep understanding of the way in which the Shaykh's work is tied to the sacred texts and practices of Islam. On the other, the potential audience is one which does not have the same set of cultural references as his traditional readership. It is not only that they do not possess the range of knowledge that would have been expected from the intellectual élite in the thirteenth century, combining familiarity with Qur'ān and hadīth with competence in medieval philosophy and cosmology, kalām, poetry and Sufi exposition: few (if any) of his contemporaries or successors possessed the great intellectual range of Ibn 'Arabi, so this is a long-standing problem. But modern western audiences often lack even rudimentary knowledge of the cultural context. They will most likely only be able to read the Qur'ān in translation, not in Arabic, and may not be familiar with it at all. They will almost certainly have little understanding of the geo-centric cosmology underlying his vision, but will have been educated in western scientific theories of a self-created universe beginning with a "big bang". And so on.

Such problems may appear to be insuperable barriers, but experience over the past thirty years of studying Ibn 'Arabī's works in such a context, indicates that they are not.[15] It seems that the Shaykh's work has the ability to transcend its own cultural context and to inspire, guide and educate people from all kinds of backgrounds and traditions. This is because there is a level to his exposition for which the nexus of comprehension is not the intellect, nor the intellectual context of a particular culture, but rather, it is human nature itself – the real ("Divine") nature which is the heritage of every human being. This is what he himself regards as the most important aspect of his work: as he says in one of his earliest books, 'Anqā' Mughrib:

My purpose in everything I write is never the gnosis which appears in phenomenal existence, but rather the purpose is ever the gnosis which is found in this human essence and Adamite substance.[16]

So his own aim in writing was not to inform about cosmology, philosophy or even to elucidate the details of the religion; it was to bring each person to self-knowledge, in conformity with the prophetic hadīth which he himself often quotes: "He who knows himself knows his Lord". William Chittick, in a recent paper on Ibn 'Arabī's first generation follower Sadr al-din al-Qūnawi, and the tricky matter of wahdat al-wujūd, points out further that:

... the central point of Ibn 'Arabī's teachings is the achievement of human perfection. If we were to ask Qūnawi what Ibn 'Arabī is talking about, he would most likely say that he wants to explain how it is possible to be truly human. Thus it would be much more appropriate to refer to his school of thought as that of human perfection, or as the path to becoming "the perfect human being", al-insān al-kāmil... [Or] to call the school that of "realization" as Qūnawi does.[17]

It is the ability of the Shaykh to directly address this potential for human perfection in each person, which makes him relevant to everyone, regardless of their race, gender, education, religious belief or historical era. It is in this sense that the term "universal meanings" is used in this paper. It refers to the fact that the Shaykh's work, whilst expressed in the language of his time and culture, ultimately points to meanings which are ageless and culturally independent because they concern the real nature and constitution of human beings – the "Adamite" heritage which is shared by every member of the race homo sapiens sapiens.

Thus, in his interpretation of the story of Moses and Pharaoh, Ibn 'Arabī deals with the great universal themes of human life – birth and death; love and fear; judgement and forgiveness; the love between parents and children; tyranny and how it can be overthrown. And he gives insight into fundamental existential questions, such as: What is the real nature of man? What is the purpose of human life? What is the highest level of development possible for people and how can it be achieved? On all these matters, Ibn 'Arabī speaks in a uniquely comprehensive way, and as such his work acts in a very particular manner as a catalyst for the spiritual development of those who read him, acting as a mirror in which they can see and therefore come to know themselves.

This "universal" approach becomes a necessity when working with people who are not embedded within the Islamic tradition, or who do not have an educated understanding of it. But this does not mean that it is an alternative to, or contradicts, an approach which understands Ibn 'Arabī's work as an extended interpretation of the Qur'ān. On the contrary, it serves to emphasise that the Qur'ān, also, is intended for all people, and as such is a universal revelation which addresses issues that are relevant to everyone. One could, therefore, conclude that it is one of Ibn 'Arabī's functions, as an interpreter whose role is to draw out the full esoteric (hidden, interior) meaning of the Islamic revelation as it developed in both theory and practice, to make this universal aspect evident. And indeed, this is one of the reasons why he is so very important in the contemporary world.

Fusūs al-hikam

Whilst the thrust of Ibn 'Arabī's writings are always towards the widest possible perspective, some works have proved more accessible than others to Western readers. The first works translated into English were the Tarjumān al-Ashwāq,[18] whose descriptions of longing and desire may be couched in the special language of pre-Islamic poetry but nevertheless have the power to reach the heart of any spiritual seeker, and Rūh al-Quds,[19] whose expositions on self-analysis and saintly behaviour have great appeal to Western audiences. The most widely translated and studied book, however, is the Fusus al-hikam, which is now available in at least four English translations, with versions in many other European languages such as French, German, Spanish, Serbo-Croat, and modern Turkish.[20]

Whilst the Fusūs is often considered to be a very difficult and abstruse work, it is also one of the most accessible because it is based upon stories – the stories in the Qur'ān. Therefore the esoteric wisdom which the Shaykh is given to convey is presented through vivid concrete examples to which everyone can relate at some level, even those who find the accompanying metaphysics demanding. It is short, about eighty pages, as opposed to the very much larger al-Futūhāt al-Makkiyya which runs to some 9000 pages in the original Arabic. Further, much of the metaphysical discussion in the book is expressed in the terminology of falsafa, which in medieval Islam was based very much upon Aristotelian principles. These were common to the Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions, and so are still, to some extent, fluent – or at least retrievable – in modern Western consciousness.[21] Most important, however, is the fact that the wisdom in the Fusūs is strongly accented towards the esoteric aspect, i.e. to the aspects of self-knowledge, interior understanding and saintliness, rather than the exoteric aspect, i.e. conformity to particular religious laws and practices.

The chapter on Moses (fass hikma 'ulūwiyya fī kalima Mūsawiyya) is a particularly good chapter on which to base a discussion of Ibn 'Arabī's symbolism and hermeneutics, for within it, and the previous chapter on Aaron (fass hikma imāmiyya fī kalima Hārūniyya), Ibn 'Arabī gives what is almost a line-by-line commentary upon the story of Moses as it appears in the Qur'ān, starting with his birth and abandonment on the Nile, and ending with the incident of the golden calf as he leads his people across the desert to the Promised Land. The story of Moses in the Qur'ān is broadly similar to the story in the Old Testament, which is not always the case; the Qur'ānic account of Jesus for instance does not include the crucifixion, and there are several prophets – such as Hūd, Sālih, Shu'ayb and Khālid – who are not known in the other Abrahamic traditions.

The completeness of the commentary is unusual – in some chapters Ibn 'Arabī bases his exegesis upon only one or two lines from the Qur'ānic account – and this is perhaps a reflection of the fact that within the Qur'ān itself, the story of Moses has an unusual narrative coherence, taking up long sections in Sūras 7, 18 and 20,[22] as well as being scattered in numerous references throughout. Nevertheless, as in the Qur'ān, Ibn 'Arabī does not present his commentary sequentially, but jumps about from one section of the story to another: the story of Moses' birth and the conquest of the Pharaoh in the chapter on Moses come after the story of the golden calf in the chapter on Aaron, for example.

The overall theme of the chapter of Moses is the complex interplay between the outer apparent meaning of things and the inner, hidden meaning which is known only to people who have spiritual insight. This is so much the case that you could say that the process of interpretation is the subject as well as the content of this chapter. In the middle of it, we find one of the Shaykh's clearest statements regarding hermeneutics:

The prophets use the language of the exterior world (lisān al-zāhir) to speak to the generality of the people they address, and they trust to the understanding of any knowledgeable person who may be listening...

Thus the knowledge [they bring] comes clothed in forms which are accessible to the lowest level of understanding. Those who have no depth [of comprehension] stop at the outer clothing and say: "How beautiful this robe is!", and they see that as its highest degree. Whereas the one who has a refined understanding, the diver after the pearls of wisdom, in estimating its worth says: "This is the robe of a king". So he examines the value of the robe and the artistry with which the cloth was made, and so learns of the value of the One whom it robes. Thus he uncovers knowledge which the other... does not realize.[23]

Here, Ibn 'Arabī is not stating anything radical, but he speaks from within a well-established tradition of esoteric exegesis which had been established over the centuries from the time of Sulamī (d.412/1022).[24] The idea that there was an élite of knowers who could discern meanings which were opaque to the ordinary person was broadly tolerated within the Islamic community, even when the ideas they expressed tended towards the unorthodox. The tolerance was not universal, however, and had its limits; as we have already mentioned, some people in later generations felt that Ibn 'Arabī went too far in pushing the meaning of the text, to the extent that he was accused of tahrīf ma'ānī al-qur'ān, or "twisting the meaning of the Qur'ān"[25] – an accusation in which some passages from fass kalima Mūsawiyya were particularly singled out. In view of all this, it is worthwhile to consider some of the special features of Ibn 'Arabī's hermeneutics, as they are exhibited in this chapter, with the aim of understanding the basis upon which he reaches his (sometimes) singular conclusions.

Paradoxical Meanings

Firstly, it is a particular feature of Ibn 'Arabī's vision that it points towards a degree of understanding which is extremely subtle and complex. He does not settle for simple either/or answers to questions, or definitive solutions either in the interpretation of sacred texts or in life. In the passage quoted above, he argues basically that there are many different possible interpretations of a given text, each one corresponding to a different degree of subtlety and understanding. He believed, as we shall see, in adhering exactly to the literal Word of God as it was written down, to the extent of giving weight to the very forms of the words and letters in which the revelation was given. But as Arabic is such a fluid language, this does not lead to a single interpretation but, on the contrary, to many. He says in the Futūhāt:

As far as the Word of God is concerned, when it is revealed in the language of certain people, and when those who speak this language differ as to what God meant by a certain word or group of words due to the variety of possible meanings of the words, each of them – however differing their interpretations may be – effectively comprises what God meant, providing that the interpretation does not deviate from the accepted meanings of the language in question. God knows all these meanings, and there is none that is not the expression of what he meant to say to this specific person...[26]

So all meanings which make sense are valid and, what is more, they all have to be considered. Thus the most obvious outward interpretation is true, and at the same time the most inward, esoteric understanding is true, and the one does not obviate the other.

This possibility of multiple interpretations is one of the great themes of the chapter on Moses, and Ibn 'Arabī draws the matter out by considering cases where the different levels of meaning are, seemingly, in complete opposition; i.e. the inner meaning is the opposite of the outward appearance. Thus the chapter explores, one after another, events in which fear and love, abandonment and rescue, damnation and salvation appear as paired interpretations of the same happenings.

This situation is paradoxical and perplexing, and Ibn 'Arabī brings in the technical word, hayra, for the state of perplexity which occurs when different aspects of reality appear to us as simultaneously true. And this, he says, is the gateway to real knowledge, for:

It is the purpose of Divine Guidance to lead humankind to hayra, so that they learn that the Divine Order Itself is entirely perplexity.[27]

Drawing upon the larger context of Ibn 'Arabī's metaphysics, we can understand that this is because, for Ibn 'Arabi, everything that happens is the manifestation of One Reality. But the appearance at the physical level of existence is of a multiplicity of things and happenings. Or to put it another way, the Divine Names have two aspects. On the one hand, they are the manifestation of the One Reality and face towards the Essence; on the other, they each have their own individual specific character and, as such, come into opposition with each other. It is only by witnessing this opposition, in perplexity, that we can come to know the real interior unity, which is the Essence of God, and know it as a living reality:

Perplexity is instability (qalaq) and movement (haraka), and movement is life. Thus there is no rest (sukūn) and no death (mawt); there is [only] Being without non-being.[28]

Of course, this kind of realisation requires that we move beyond the level of intellectual understanding, because it eludes rational explanation; it has to be resolved in experience and in the heart, through taste (dhawq).

By the same token, Ibn 'Arabī understands the process of interpretation to be endless, for in his view the Qur'ān is not just an historical book, but a living reality which never ceases to generate new insights. It is "an ocean without a shore" which is "perpetually new for any of those who recite it".[29] Thus one cannot reach a final point, or come to an interpretation beyond which nothing more needs to be said. For Ibn 'Arabi, knowledge of God is infinite because God Himself is infinite, and His Word is equally infinite in its meaning. Thus he does not see the knowledge which he himself expounds in the Fusūs as being final; but rather he says:

The wisdoms of Moses are many, and I will relate some of them one after another in this chapter according to the portion which the Divine order lets fall in my thoughts.[30]

This question of "portion" is significant, for Ibn 'Arabī always states that what he writes is according to what God has shown him to be appropriate for the situation; it does not represent the limit of possible knowledge. This passage is reminiscent of what he says about the way he received the Fusūs itself. He describes how, in a dream (mubashshira), he took it from the hand of the Prophet himself, who said to him: "This is the book of Fusūs al-hikam; take it and bring it out to people, who will benefit from it." He goes on:

So I verified the intention ('aniyya), purified the desire (niyya) and abstracted the aspiration (qasd) and the resolution (himma) in order to bring this book out according to the limits which the Prophet had set for me, without increase or decrease. And I asked God that He should make me in this, and in all circumstances, one of His servants over whom the Satan has no authority. And that He should endow me with support and protection in all that my fingers write, and all that my tongue speaks, and all that is enfolded in my heart through the irradiation of praise, and the blowing of my spirit into the chest of my soul (nafsī), so that I become an interpreter and not one who acts according to their own judgment.[31]

The characteristic of an interpreter is that he suspends his own point of view – puts aside his ego – in order to carry out the wishes of God, i.e. he acts as a servant, not as a master. Thus Ibn 'Arabī maintains that the real hermeneutics does not depend upon the knowledge or intellectual power of the interpreter, but upon his "unletteredness" (ummiyya) and receptivity to Divine instruction: he says of the man who truly recites the Qur'ān,

It is I, He says, who recite my Book for him with his tongue whilst he listens to Me... He takes knowledge from me, not from his reason and his reflection; he no longer cares to think of paradise, of hell, of accounting for his actions, of the Last Judgment, of this world or that which is to come, for he no longer considers these things with his intellect, he no longer scrutinizes each verse with his reflection; he is content to lend an ear to that which I tell him. And he is at that moment a witness, present with me; and it is I who take charge of his instruction.[32]

Thus, whilst the possible interpretations of the sacred texts are innumerable, it is the task of the one who would serve God to be receptive to the particular meaning which God intends to reveal at any given moment – which is not to say that at another moment He will not reveal Himself in a different way.

The Hermeneutics of Love

It follows from all this that in his interpretations Ibn 'Arabī is never merely academic or frivolous, but rather he acts as a servant in accordance with his function within the Islamic tradition. His concern is always to draw out the deepest possible meaning in a text or event – to dive for the pearls which are found only at the very bottom of the ocean, and which are therefore known only to those in the very highest degrees of knowledge. And this is the same, for him, as drawing out the aspect which demonstrates the love and compassion of God in the most complete and total manner. For we have many references within his work to indicate that this is what he understood his spiritual role to be. He says in the Futūhāt, for example:

God was shown to me in my inner being (fī sirrī) during a vision, and He said to me: "Make My servants know what you have perceived of My generosity... Why do My servants despair of My mercy when My mercy embraces everything?"[33]

As for the matter of love, the chapter on Moses contains one of Ibn 'Arabī's most famous passages on the subject, in which he clearly articulates his vision that it is the very meaning and motivation of the universe. In his commentary upon the Qur'ānic line: "[Moses] left the town, fleeing through fear"[34] (which incident happens after he has killed an Egyptian who was attacking an Israelite), he says:

[Moses was] frightened on the outside, but at the level of meaning [he fled] through love (hubb) of salvation. For movement is always out of love, even though the observer is veiled by other causes... This is because the origin (or root) of the movement of the cosmos is from non-existence ('adam), in which it is at rest (sākin), to existence (wujūd). Therefore, it is said that [the whole matter of] the Divine order is movement out of repose. The movement which is the existence of the cosmos is the movement of love. The Prophet (SA) indicated that when he said: "I was a treasure that was not known, and I loved to be known." So if it were not for this love, the cosmos itself would not have been manifested... and there is no movement in the immanent world which is not that of love. Some people of knowledge understand this, and some of them are veiled by causes which are closer to the immediate circumstances, and which exert an influence over their souls.[35]

Therefore, for Ibn 'Arabī the most refined realisation – the most universal understanding – one can come to, is that the meaning of everything that happens is love. This is the great theme of the Fusūs itself, from the first sentence of fass kalima Ādamiyya, and it is especially the great theme of fass kalima Mūsawiyya in which Ibn 'Arabī discusses, one after another, events which seem outwardly to be tragic and shows them to be, in reality, demonstrations of Divine love and mercy. The male children, who are killed because they might have been Moses, find continuing life in the collectivity of Moses' spirit. The mother who is forced to abandon her newborn child to the river finds that not only is he rescued by the Pharaoh's wife; she is brought in as his wet nurse so that she sees him grow up. Moses flees from the city out of fear for his life, but through this he finds the path which leads him to the realisation of his destiny as the Prophet of his people. The outward destruction of the Pharaoh and his kingdom is at the same time his salvation through his submission to God. And so on.

But for the people concerned to really understand that Divine mercy is constantly raining down upon them, the veils caused by their immediate, natural reaction to events – "the causes which are closer to the immediate circumstances" – have to be lifted. Ibn 'Arabī begins the chapter with a discussion of the meaning of Moses being cast onto the river. The baby, he says, is a symbol for the spirit, and the basket – or ark, the Arabic word is tābūt – into which it is placed is a symbol of human nature, nāsūt, into which the spirit is placed, as its ruler, when we enter this physical world. The river is a symbol for the knowledge which a person acquires through means of the body – the powers of the senses and the imagination, and of speculative thought. These are on the one hand relative, and on the other necessary, because it is only by means of these faculties that Divine knowledge is brought to completion; for the One Reality is both immanent and transcendent and there is only perfection, kamāl, when both sides are fully expressed.

So Ibn 'Arabī does not by any means deny the value of the concrete level of existence and the meanings which appear here. On the other hand, if we forget our spiritual side, then it is as if we become trapped in the darkness of the ark, cut off from the light. So this image of the baby, the ark and the river, becomes a very clear symbol for the process of spiritual realisation. The journey is from a state where we know ourselves in the ark, floating down the river apparently abandoned, to a state where we understand – or remember – that we are also spirit, forever connected to The Spirit, and that we were never abandoned but always under the care and protection of God.

And we come to this realisation not merely through intellectual understanding, but through a process of trial, or testing. And this of course is said of Moses in the Qur'ān; "that We subjected him to many trials".[36] Sometimes the process of realisation takes place simply through the unfolding of events in time. This is the case of Moses' mother, who always knew in her interior that she was acting under Divine guidance, and that her apparent abandonment would result in the child's salvation. However, Ibn 'Arabī describes how, at the point when she had to part with him, she suffered, being in turmoil between these two sides of her nature, one of which knew the real situation and one of which did not. And this continued until events verified her interior intuition.

In the case of Moses, it takes the intervention of the eternal guide, al-Khidr, to bring him to realisation. Khidr is a mysterious figure whom Sufi thinkers believe is mentioned in the Qur'ān, as "one of our servants on whom We have bestowed Mercy from Ourselves and whom We have taught knowledge from Our Own Presence".[37] He is not named in the text, but the oral tradition associates him with the ancient figure of al-Khidr, the Green Man, whose function is to guide people directly to God, without the intermediary of a master or a formal spiritual path; Ibn 'Arabī describes several meetings with him in his writings.[38] He is the one who brings 'ilm ladūnī – the private knowledge of God – which is contrasted with human knowledge ('ilm nāsūtī), represented by the ark and the river. In the Qur'ānic account, Khidr and Moses meet and travel together, and during the course of their companionship Khidr commits three acts which cause Moses to question him. When they eventually part, Khidr explains the reasons for his actions to Moses and, once again, it turns out that actions which seemed blameworthy are, in reality, the movement of compassion. To mention just one: as they are travelling in a boat, Khidr scuttles it without apparent reason. Later, in the face of Moses' objection, he explains that it belonged to a poor man who used it for his trade, and Khidr had rendered it unserviceable because there was a tyrant King following after them who was seizing every boat by force. Thus, he had preserved it for the poor man.

Khidr does not bring his information in the form of intellectual exposition; rather, he demonstrates by action and, when he comes to explain himself, he connects his actions with things which Moses himself has experienced. In the case of the boat, the comparison is with the way that Moses was cast away on the river, apparently abandoned, in order to be preserved. In this way Khidr reveals to Moses the meaning of events in his own life – in other words, he brings him to self-knowledge. So Ibn 'Arabī points out that the deepest understanding is not just to know intellectually that Divine Love is the beginning, the motive power and the end of everything in creation: it is to discover through our own lives and experiences – through our own "taste" – that everything that happens to us is, essentially, a manifestation of God's love for us, and that our return to Him is equally motivated by love – not by fear.

The Meaning of the Pharaoh

All that we have said so far has bearing upon Ibn 'Arabī's treatment of the Pharaoh. The confrontation between Moses and Aaron, as messengers of God, and the Pharaoh, as the supreme earthly ruler, is the central motif of the story, and it has very many levels of meaning. At an exoteric level, it could be seen as a symbol for the overthrow of the ancient ways of worship by monotheism, or for the conflict between the ways of God and the ways of the world, or between tyranny and right rulership. At an esoteric level, the Pharaoh can be seen as representing the ego, or relative nafs (self), which assumes power over the other faculties in the human being and believes that it is the ruler and controller. Moses and Aaron, by contrast, come as the agents of "the Lord of the universes", and as such represent the self which acknowledges, and submits to, the real ruler, which is the One Reality. Thus they bring the person and the other faculties into conformity with their true situation, i.e. they come to know that they are servants, not rulers, and this is the state of the perfected human being (insān kāmil).

The Shaykh's treatment of the conflict is in some senses straightforward, as the Qur'ānic account is: the usurper defies the messengers, which is tantamount to defying the real ruler, but events prove that his strength is insufficient to defeat them. Moses leads his people out of captivity, and the Pharaoh perishes, his kingdom overthrown. But there are subtleties to Ibn 'Arabī's understanding which make his account uniquely complex. For instance, whilst it is made clear that the Pharaoh must, as absolute necessity, be overthrown if the soul is to reach perfection, he also acknowledges the right of Pharaoh to rulership. This has a parallel, at the beginning of the chapter, in his acknowledgement of the real rulership of the relative faculties over the human being as he/she grows up from childhood to maturity, saying:

When the human soul comes into this body, and is ordered to act freely in it (tasarruf) and govern it (tadbīr), God created [the relative] faculties as a means by which it can care for and govern, as God wills, the ark in which resides the peace and tranquillity of the Lord. So he was thrown on the waters in order to acquire... all the different kinds of knowledge, and so that he could learn that, although the spirit is the governor (mudīr) of the ark, he is the ruler (malik). The spirit only rules through him.[39]

Thus, the magicians, when they submit to "the Lord of Aaron and Moses" in defiance of Pharaoh, acknowledge without complaint his power to execute them. But the story emphasises that this power is limited to the relative sphere, and does not extend to the spiritual realms. So whilst the magicians perish physically, they are saved spiritually and become amongst the believers in "exalted ranks" in the after-life.[40] This demonstrates that the meaning of love and compassion does not necessarily become apparent during our earthly life; it may only become known when we enter into the next life, after death. Thus, Ibn 'Arabī takes a very long view of human destiny, and his guidance takes into account the whole of human life, from our pre-existence in the knowledge of God, through our birth and earthly life to death and the next life, and ultimately, the final resurrection. In fact, he devotes much discussion to the fate of those in the next world, maintaining that those who have any kind of real belief continue to progress towards perfection, whilst those who do not believe and so are condemned to punishment nevertheless come under the principle of "His mercy encompasses all things".[41]

This principle is exemplified par excellence in Ibn 'Arabī's insistence that the Pharaoh was saved in the next world because of his last-minute submission to God. He and his followers are distinguished in the Islamic tradition in interpreting the Qur'ānic account in this way, and therefore this is an excellent example by which to examine his hermeneutics in more detail.

In the Qur'ān, Moses and his people eventually escape from Egypt by night, pursued by Pharaoh and his men. When they come to the Red Sea, God parts the waters so that the Israelites can travel across safely, at which point the Pharaoh makes the profession of faith, saying:

"I believe that there is no God but the God in whom the people of Israel believe. I am one of those who submit (anā min al-muslimin)." But God says to him: "Ah, now! But before you were disobedient and were one of those who spread corruption. Today we shall save you in your body (bi-badanika), so that you may be a sign (āya) to those who come after you."[42]

These two verses, Qur'ān 10:91-92, form the basis for Ibn 'Arabī's commentary. Pharaoh takes the promise to "save his body" to mean that his life will be saved. But in fact the waves engulf him and he drowns. Later it becomes clear that the promise meant that it would be washed up on the shore to be found by his people. In most interpretations, God does not accept the submission of Pharaoh because it comes too late, when he is already facing the punishment consequent to his previous actions. Thus the "sign" indicates the vengeance which God will mete out to those who disobey him. In Ibn 'Arabī's interpretation, however, the submission is considered genuine, and the "sign" of the body points not to punishment, but mercy:

As for the Qur'ānic saying: "But their profession of Faith when they actually see our punishment will not be any use to them"[43]... this does not indicate that it will not benefit them in the next life but what is intended is that it will not save them from blame in this world.

For this reason, Pharaoh was taken (i.e. died) despite his profession of faith. This would have been the situation if he had been certain of imminent destruction, but the circumstantial evidence points to the fact that he was not certain of destruction because he saw with his own eyes the believers walking on the dry path... So Pharaoh was not certain of annihilation when he professed faith, unlike a man on the verge of death who believes only to avoid it. He believed in the One in whom the Israelites believed in such a way that he felt certain of salvation. Therefore, that of which he was certain happened, but not in the form he wanted, for God saved his soul from the punishment of the next world, and saved his body, as "a sign"... because if his body had disappeared his people might have said that he had gone into hiding (ihtijāb). So his dead body was made visible so that it was known that it was him. Thus his salvation encompassed both the bodily and spiritual levels.

The one who deserves the sentence of punishment in the other world does not believe, however many signs he is given... until he actually experiences punishment in the next world. Pharaoh is not included in this category, and this is evident from the Qur'ānic text. We say further than this – and the matter here is referred back to God – since it is well established for the generality of people that he was damned, that they do not have a text on which to rest their case. As for his people, that is another matter for which this is not the place.[44]

Thus Ibn 'Arabī points out that the text quoted above does not specify the world to which it is referring, and therefore it is possible to make a distinction between the realm of the physical body and that of the spirit. He does not say more about this in the Fusūs, but he does in the Futūhāt. One place where he discusses it at some length is in Chapter 167, "On the knowledge of the alchemy of true happiness", in which is described the ascension of the true "follower" of God through all the spheres of spiritual existence, from the moon to the cloud ('amā'). In the sphere of Mars he meets Moses' brother and fellow prophet, Aaron, who tells him more about the meaning of events surrounding Pharaoh. First, there is a passage which says more about the verses we have already mentioned (Qur'ān 10:91–92), and it is interesting to see that his treatment of the matter is consistent with the Fusūs:

As for Pharaoh's saying "I am one of those who surrender"; this is an address from him to God, because he knew that God heard him and saw him. Then God addressed him with the tongue of blame and made him hear; "Now", i.e. now you show what you know, "whereas before you were disobedient and were (kunta) one of the ones who spread corruption", i.e. in [following] your [own] way. God did not say to him "You are one of the ones who spread corruption", so this remark is joyful for him, by which God teaches us that we may hope for mercy despite our squandering and our wrong-doing. Then He said: "Today we will save you" so He brings him good news before He seizes his spirit; "in your body so that you will be a sign to those who come after you", that is, so that you will be the means of salvation for those who come after you as a sign which will guide them.[45]

Here, Ibn 'Arabī takes into account the detail of the tense of the verb "to be" – kunta being the second person singular of kāna, which is the past form of the verb "to be" – to arrive at his interpretation. He goes on in the same vein of noting what is not said:

It is not stated in the verse that the punishment of the other world will never be removed, nor that his faith was not genuine acquiescence; it only says in the verse that the punishment of the body is not removed... and this is because the punishment only pertains to the exterior...[46]

He then goes on to discuss some other verses on which others have based their belief that Pharaoh was damned:

As for His saying: "He [(Pharaoh) shall go before them on the Day of Judgement and] shall lead them [his people] into fire",[47] there is no text which says that Pharaoh enters with them, but rather God says: "Cast the people of Pharaoh [into the most severe punishment]".[48] He did not say "Cast Pharaoh and his people". God's mercy (rahma) is too great to reject the faith of a person in distress, and what distress is greater than that of Pharaoh when he was on the brink of being drowned?... When a person in distress invokes Him, the reply and the removal of his affliction are bound together, and this is the security which belongs purely to God. Pharaoh did not invoke Him in the continuance of his worldly life fearing the particular conditions, or [to ask that] he intervene between him and that purification which comes from those conditions, but he gave preponderance to the aspect by which he would meet God in eternity (baqā') in declaring his faith. So [God made] that drowning "an exemplary punishment in the next life as in this life",[49] and He seized him in the very best state.[50]

Here again, his interpretation does not override the revelation as given in the Qur'ān, but rests upon a minute examination of the actual words spoken by God. It is perhaps necessary to bear in mind here the hermeneutical principle mentioned first of all in this paper; that all possible meanings of a verse – even those which contradict each other – have to be considered. Thus Ibn 'Arabī's treatment of the subject in the Fusūs does not mean that he did not also consider the common interpretation to be valid, merely that he felt that this was a possible interpretation which needed to be brought out; it is perhaps for this reason that he leaves the final judgement of the matter to God.

Furthermore, it is evident from all that we have said that Ibn 'Arabī's intention in bringing a radical interpretation is not to be mischievous or merely clever, as many adversaries have maintained, nor is it at all to justify the behaviour of Pharaoh. It is to bring news of the all-encompassing mercy of God, in line with the instruction he was given, to "Make My servants know what you have perceived of My generosity...".[51]

Thus he emphasises that Pharaoh's submission did not come from fear, such that he asked to be spared his fate, but from the real love of God and desire to encounter Him. And he maintains that God's mercy is such that He will respond to anyone, no matter how mired in sin and disobedience, who sincerely approaches Him in this way. Ibn 'Arabī is quite explicit about this at the beginning of the chapter on Moses when commenting upon the words of Pharaoh's saintly wife Asya as she first lifts Moses out of his basket and proposes to adopt him; she says to Pharaoh, "He will be consolation to me and to you, perhaps he will benefit both of us".[52]

He was a consolation to the Pharaoh [despite the fact that he was the means of his overthrow] because of the faith which God bestowed upon him at the time when he drowned. God seized him in a state of cleanliness (tāhir) and purity without any stain in it, because He seized him in a state of belief before he could acquire any further sins, for submission erases all that went before. So He, may He be praised, made him a sign of His loving care for whom He wishes, so that no-one may despair of the mercy of God.[53]

This ability to find mercy where everyone else has found only punishment and blame makes Ibn 'Arabī's compassionate insight almost Christic in its scope. And the great universal import of his work – and his function in the continuous bringing out of the Islamic revelation – is surely the news that Divine love is the motive and cause of the universe, and that God is loving and compassionate, such that there is nothing that He cannot forgive the person who truly submits to Him.


1 A shorter version of this paper was given at a conference entitled "Symbolism and Hermeneutics in the Thought of Ibn 'Arabi" organised by the Syrian Ministry of Culture, The French Institute (Damascus), and the Cervantes Institute (Damascus), in Damascus, 22–24 June 2005. A version of this longer paper will also appear in the proceedings of the conference, which are forthcoming from IFPO, Damascus.

2 Henry Corbin, "From Heidegger to Suhrawardi: An interview with Philippe Nemo" in Temenos Academy Review, London, 2003, p. 123.

3 From al-Futūhāt al-Makkiyya, quoted in James Winston Morris, The Reflective Heart (Louisville, 2005), p. 27.

4 A.E. Afifi, The Mystical Philosophy of Muhyi Din Ibnul 'Arabī (Lahore, 1964).

5 Ibid., p. 191.

6 R.A. Nicholson, Studies in Islamic Mysticism (Cambridge, 1921/78), p. 149.

7 Henry Corbin, Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabī (Princeton, 1969).

8 Michel Chodkiewicz, Ocean Without Shore (Albany, NY, 1993).

9 Ibid., p. 20.

10 Eric Winkel, Islam and the Living Law (Karachi, 1997).

11 This ongoing controversy has been the subject of several recent studies. See in particular Alexander Knysh, Ibn 'Arabī in the Later Islamic Tradition (New York, 1999), and Michel Chodkiewicz, "Le procés posthume d'Ibn 'Arabi", Islamic Mysticism Contested, ed. Jong and Radtke (Leiden, 1999), pp. 93–123.

12 From Radd al-matīn, quoted by Chodkiewicz in Ocean, p. 20.

13 Alexander Knysh, "Ibn 'Arabī in the Later Islamic Tradition", in Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi: a Commemorative Volume, ed. S. Hirtenstein and M. Tiernan (Shaftesbury, 1993), p. 314.

14 See Jane Clark, "Early Best-sellers in the Islamic Tradition", JMIAS, Vol. XXXIII, 2003, pp. 22–53.

15 Thus this paper is very much the fruit of studying Ibn 'Arabī's works in small groups at the Beshara School of Intensive Esoteric Education at Chisholme House in Scotland. It is also indebted to a recent series of seminars on Fusūs al-hikam at the Temenos Academy in London, again with a small group of about 12 people.

16 From K. 'Anqā' Mughrib, translation from Gerald Elmore, Islamic Sainthood in the Fullness of Time (Leiden, 1999), p. 241.

17 William Chittick, "The Central Point", in JMIAS, Vol. XXXV, 2004, p. 32.

18 R.A. Nicholson, Tarjumān al-Ashwāq (London, 1911/78).

19 R.W.J. Austin, Sufis of Andalusia (London 1971, reprinted Roxburgh, 2002).

20 The English translations are The Wisdom of the Prophets, translated into French by Titus Burckhardt, and from French to English by Angela Culme-Seymour (Gloucestershire, 1975); The Bezels of Wisdom, translated by R.W.J. Austin (New York, 1980); The Seals of Wisdom, translated by Aisha al-Tarjumana (Norwich, 1980); The Ringstones of Wisdom, translated by Caner K. Dagli (New York, 2004). There is also a full translation embedded in commentary in Ismail Hakki Bursevi's translation of and commentary on Fusūs al-hikam by Ibn 'Arabi, 4 vols, rendered into English by Bulent Rauf (Oxford, 1986–91). Of translations in other languages, the most notable is perhaps Le Livre des Chatons des Sagesses, Vols. 1 and 2, translated by Charles-André Gilis (Beirut, 1997). The number of others is too great to be separately listed; the library of the Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabī Society lists 28 in all.

21 The most difficult parts for modern scholars translating the Fusūs are those where Ibn 'Arabī uses the terminology of kalām, the knowledge of which has largely been lost.

22 Qur'ān 7: 103–162; Qur'ān 18: 60–82; Qur'ān 20: 9–98.

23 Fusūs al-hikam, edited by 'Abū al-'Alā 'Afifi (Beirut, n.d.), pp. 204–5; my translation and emphasis throughout.

24 See Michael Sells, Early Islamic Mysticism (New York, 1996), pp. 75–89, for some translation of the Sulami-Ja'far tafsir, which is thought to be the earliest example.

25 Chodkiewicz, Ocean, pp. 19–20.

26 Al-Futūhāt al-Makkiyya (Beirut, n.d.), Vol. 4, p. 25, quoted in Chodkiewicz, Ocean, p. 30.

27 Fusūs, pp. 199–200.

28 Ibid., p. 200.

29 Futūhāt, Vol. 3, p. 93; quoted in Chodkiewicz, Ocean, p. 25 and p. 140, n.33. Chodkiewicz also quotes from Futūhāt, Vol. 3, p. 108: "It [the Qur'ān] came down upon the heart of Muhammed, and it does not cease to come down upon the hearts of the faithful of his community up to the Day of Resurrection. Its descent upon hearts is always new, for it is perpetual Revelation."

30 Fusūs, p. 197.

31 Fusūs, p. 47.

32 Futūhāt, Vol. 1, p. 239, quoted in Chodkiewicz, Ocean, p. 27.

33 Futūhāt, Vol. 1, p. 708, quoted in Claude Addas, Quest for the Red Sulphur (Cambridge, 1993), p. 293. There are many other references to this; see for instance Stephen Hirtenstein, The Unlimited Mercifier (Oxford, 1999), whose title was inspired by Ibn 'Arabī's frequent references to his function as "mercifier".

34 Qur'ān 28: 21.

35 Fusūs, pp. 203–4.

36 Qur'ān 20: 40.

37 Qur'ān 18: 65.

38 See Stephen Hirtenstein, "The Mantle of Khidr: Symbol, Myth and Meaning", presented at the conference in Damascus (see note 1). See also his The Unlimited Mercifier, pp. 54-5, 79, 89-91, 102, 128, 135, 167, 177-8, 220.

39 Fusūs, p. 198.

40 Qur'ān 20: 75.

41 Qur'ān 7: 156. This is discussed in many places in Ibn 'Arabī's work; for one good treatment, see Pablo Beneito, "The Presence of Superlative Compassion (Rahamūt)", JMIAS, Vol. XXIV, 1998, pp. 53–87.

42 Qur'ān 10: 91–92.

43 Qur'ān 11: 85: "… except the people of Jonah. When they believed, we removed from them the penalty of ignominy in the present life and permitted them to enjoy their life for a while."

44 Fusūs, p. 212.

45 Futūhāt, pp. 276–77.

46 Ibid.

47 Qur'ān 11: 98.

48 Qur'ān 40: 46.

49 Qur'ān 79: 25.

50 Futūhāt, pp. 276–77.

51 See note 33.

52 Qur'ān 28: 9.

53 Fusūs, p. 198.