On the Dignity of Man
Some Aspects of the Unity of Being in Ibn 'Arabi
When Ibn 'Arabi for the second time and now finally left Spain (1202) for Tunis he opened up a new period of his life, a period which through external events and internal experiences was to be decisive to his spiritual development, the culmination of which we can observe in the treatise Fusûs al-hikam "The Bezels of Wisdom" (I quote from Abû l- Alâ 'Afîfî's edition, Cairo, 1946). It is to the first chapter, Adam, of this famous book that I shall confine this lecture; the title of the book is borrowed from al-Farabi's Risâlat Fusûs al-hikam, a work of great importance to the understanding of the philosophy of Ibn 'Arabi. However, in that Spain where he had hitherto lived there was much to learn, there were many things that could attract a sensible and highly receptive young man like Muhyiddin Abu 'Abdallah. In 1064 Ibn Hazm had died, and in 1199 Ibn 'Arabi himself had attended the funeral of Ibn Rushd. Educated in the high culture of Arabic-Jewish Spain he was well prepared, and his external career, from Murcia to Damascus constitutes the frame around one of the most remarkable inner lives of the Middle Ages. It was in the East, in Mecca, Malatya, Konya and Damascus that he was to become one of the greatest thinkers of Islam. He became a thinker who - because of his strange existential metaphysics - is not only of the greatest interest to the general history of ideas, but who also shows us a way into the dark future of a world in deep crisis, a world where man, even as a species, is threatened - through his, I would like to say, bold anthropocentrism. For within the requirements of the strict observancy of Islam as a religion, Ibn 'Arabi has tried to re-define what he - following Porphyry - calls an-naw' al-'insâni "the human kind" (Fusûs 56), by the aid of a philosophy of the true being, al-Haqq, based, in the last resort on a philosophy of the mind. Retaining the absolute supremacy of Allah he tries to tie together man and God, and thus he is able to confer upon man, i.e. the idea of Man, to speak in a Platonic vein, an extraordinary rank, martaba, within the creation. This he does with the help of what 1 call the religion of reason of Late Antiquity, for at this time Greek philosophy was also a religion, with the goal of attaining eudaimonia, sa'âda, and expressed in a language using a wealth of metaphors.
In her booklet "The Sovereignty of Good" Iris Murdoch says: "Metaphors often carry a moral charge, which analysis in simpler and plainer terms is designed to remove. This too", she continues, "seems to me to be misguided. Moral philosophy cannot avoid taking sides, and would-be neutral philosophers merely take sides surreptitiously." (p.77) I would like to add: the cold, morally unengaged attitude which the average scholar or scientist considers a virtue implies in itself a taking of sides, namely the side of "the objectivity of unconcern" as a famous Swedish historian put it. In the case of Ibn 'Arabi we can fully rely on his taking sides as well as on his use of metaphors. He belongs to the race of the great system-builders of which Hegel was the last. But with his Arabic forerunners he belongs, as we shall see, - as Hegel - also to an old tradition as far as the ingredients of his religious philosophy is concerned. His originality is to be found in the system itself, in the ontological position he assigns to the various inherited elements of his own system.
Now as is often the case with Sufis, so too Ibn 'Arabi calls God, together with Allah, also al-Haqq, a concept in which several Greek basic thoughts have coalesced. In Old Arabic, haqq belonged - as it still does - to the language of jurisprudence: haqqun lî "a right owed to me"/ haqqun 'alayya "an obligation incumbent on me". Now, what is "right" tends in a society in which this haqq is valid lo mean also "truth". In this sense the Arabic word could easily participate in the semantic field of the Greek aletheia "truth", in Christian circles the truth par excellence, namely the Gospels. Certainly, the orthodox Christians did not call their God "Truth", but in the Gospel of Saint John 14,6 Jesus says: "I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man cometh unto the Father, but by me"; thus says Christ in his role as a mediator while Adam with Ibn 'Arabi appears as the khalifa of God (cf. below). Now Jesus also says in 14.7 "If ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also: and from henceforth ye know him, and have seen him", whereas an ordinary Sufi simply can assert man 'arafa nafsahu, 'arafa rabbahu "whoever knows himself, knows his Lord".
As in a certain kind of Christian teaching, "truth" means with Ibn 'Arabi the true reality, and here Greek philosophy comes in. For when God here is called al-Haqq "the true reality" it is on a very high, abstract level of late Greek philosophical thinking where the "true" and thus also the "real" are understood in terms of various degrees of participation (methexis) in the absolute being, das wahre Sein. Thus we understand the reason why, in these kinds of text, the Platonic idea could be rendered precisely by haqîqa "reality" in the sense of to ontos on, a connection between the Platonic idea and God being preserved through the expression al- Haqq. Confronted with this state of affairs we might also ask how an expression like haqîqat al-haqâ'iq perhaps "the idea of ideas", used in dealing with the angels in Fusûs 49, should be properly translated. 1 shall come back to this point later on, but even here I mention that in Origen, Contra Celsum VI para. 64 we find a linguistically complete parallel in the expression idea ideôn, here used of Christ. Having stated alt this by way of introduction I would like to widen the perspective a little in order to make the rather rigid system of Ibn 'Arabi easier to understand. For from the viewpoint of the history of ideas the background on which this system stands out is rather complicated.
Both Mosaism and Islam were strictly monotheistic religions while the trinitarianism of Christianity that caused so many controversies among the Christians themselves became a target for the polemics of both Jews and Muslims as well as of the already mentioned philosophic religion of reason of Late Antiquity. In the prologue to his Autobiography Lord Russell says: "I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux", and so did the Ancients. For already the Greeks had early, also with (he help of the Pythagorean tradition, criticized the inherited Homeric and Hesiodean religion, a practice resulting, for instance, in Xenophanes' concept hen kai pân "One and All" as well as in his words of God: "All of him sees, all of him thinks, all of him hears." About 1800 years later Ibn 'Arabi can give his adherents the message that God has said to Adam: "I am his hearing and his sight" (Fusûs 55).
Now, while the well-known so-called Ionian philosophers among the Pre- Socratics were mainly concerned with finding out the basic elements constituting the cosmos around them, it is in the nature of its very origin that the philosophy of Plato came to be lifted up into heaven, so to speak. This, its heavenly trait, was to remain, due mainly to Plotinus and his follower Porphyry, the dominant figure of Middle-Platonism, as well as to Proklos. Although Aristotle took philosophy down to earth again starting from the individual things to be observed everywhere, from al-'ashyâ', and going then upwards, thereby constructing a general principle, we do not find very much of this in the kind of Arabic philosophy we are dealing with here and on which the gist of Ibn 'Arabi's religious thinking - at least the later one - is founded. That this is so is due, to a great extent, to one of the most important figures of Arabic philosophy, namely al- Farabi (died 950). For this remarkable man of Turkish origin came to consider the so-called "Theology of Aristotle" to be a genuine, authentic Aristotelian work. However, we know-now that it is a mixtum compositum built on the Enneads of Plotinus. In this connection I consider it a duty of honour to recall the almost forgotten name of Friedrich Heinrich Dieterici (1821-1903), who was from 1850 professor of Semitic languages in the university of Berlin. Without his help later Western scholars of the older generations renowned for their contributions to the study of Ibn 'Arabi, would probably not have understood so much as they might appear to have done of the difficult texts of the great sheikh.
Now, confronted with the manifoldness of the objects of the world, Aristotle advanced his famous ten categories. However, the need of simplifying this system was soon felt, and the Stoics assumed only five categories, thus paving the way for the famous quinque voces established by Porphyry in his "Eisagoge" and based, to a certain extent at least, on Plotinus' discussions in the second Ennead IV, where the relationship obtaining between matter and form is compared with that obtaining between the genus and the species. It would, however, take us too far to go into details here. I wish only to recall a certain kind of analogical thinking developed later by Proklos.
Yet, one had the wish to find a still more appropriate, that is, more abstract term for the absolute unity of being in a world of manifoldness. Here the number-speculations of the so-called Neo-Pythagoreans were of great help. On the pattern of to hen in Plotinus, Porphyry and Proklos the Arabic al-Haqq could now also be defined in terms of an opposition between Al- Wâhid "The One" and al-kathra "manifoldness". Ibn 'Arabi is familiar also with this strange kind of Greek philosophy, a philosophy which in its bloodless abstractness was doomed to lose in the competition with Christianity and Islam.
The main aspects of the unity of being with which Ibn 'Arabi was confronted when he set out to conceive his impressive system might be fairly well represented by the following concepts: "the being", "the number", "the motion", "the cause", and "the good", or, in Arabic, wujûd, 'adad, haraka, 'ilia and khayr. An Arabic system of this kind of religious philosophy generally cultivates one or more of these aspects, the others then occupying additional, complementary or subordinate functions within the system in question; some of them may also be missing. From a general point of view the prefaces of such treatises are not uncommonly indicators of their key in this respect, to use a musical term. In the present preface Ibn 'Arabi does not, it is true, introduce the concept of al-khayr al-mahd "summum bonum", but he uses here the metaphor khazâ'in al-jûd "treasures of generosity", generosity being one of the cardinal virtues of old Arabic times; by the way, Ibn 'Arabi's family claimed descent from Hatim at-Ta'i who was famous for his generosity.
Now, with a definitely syncretistic thinker like lbn 'Arabi, we may expect to find ideological units taken from various religions or philosophical systems these units being then integrated in his system at various times in various ways. The semantic value of such units depends on how they have been integrated in the system. More specifically it depends on the ontologica! relation of such a unit to the main aspect prevailing in the treatise in question, e.g. wujud and the relationship obtaining between certain degrees of this main aspect, the hierarchical character of such relation being a typical Neo-Platonic feature of this kind of Arabic philosophy.
As regards the expression of the notion of "relation" I shall seize the opportunity to make some more general remarks. Besides idâfa corresponding to the fourth Aristotelian category prós-li, Ibn 'Arabi uses, of course, also nisba, plur. nisab. As we know, nasab means "lineage, pedigree" and nasabahu, inf. nisbat- "to trace up his lineage to his greatest ancestor". It might then, on the face of things, seem quite natural that precisely the Arabs who were so deeply interested in 'ansâb "genealogy" should use nisba for various kinds of relationship, the lineage being thus to them the nisba par excellence. However, it is not without interest to observe that Porphyry in his "Eisagoge", fundamental to the later development of Greek philosophy, begins his exposition of what should be meant by genos precisely with a genealogical example, namely the pedigree of the Heraclides, illustrating thus the skhésis "relationship" of a number of persons with Herakles as well as their relation to each other and in relation to the common progenitor. In the 6th century this text was translated into Syriac by the famous Sergius from Resh 'Ayna and he rendered skhésis by kheyânûta "kinship" and "relationship". In Abu 'Uthman ad-Dimashqi's translation the Syriac word is rendered correctly by nisba, the Syriac gensâ being here simply borrowed as jins. The fame of the "Eisagoge" may definitely have favoured the later use of nisba in philosophical texts at the cost of idâfa. Moreover we have already come across the expression an- naw' al-'insâni "the human kind", and let me now add, that when the Arabs translated the eidos of Porphyry by the rather remarkable naw' they were, it appears, thinking of their naw'a "fresh fruit of all kinds dangling from the limbs of the trees" (nâ'a, yanû'u "dangle"), this because the Syriac 'âdshâ (eidos) also designated the various kinds of fruit, an acceptation linking up with the eidê (plur.) of late Greek.meaning "wares of different kinds, spices, groceries". I have dwelt upon these more technical things longer than you probably think necessary. I did so because I wanted, once and for all, to call the attention to the fact that the Isâjûji of Furfuryûs is of fundamental importance if we want to understand the very soul of Ibn 'Arabi's thinking as well as of that of his immediate forerunners.
Now as regards the striking syncretism of the great sheikh this kind of syncretism should not be understood as mere eclecticism. For Ibn 'Arabi stands here in an old tradition, according to which syncretism as such and in itself guarantees a higher degree of veracity. Truth has been revealed since time immemorial and in different places. This the prophet had already known standing as he was in the same tradition, and this has also determined the disposition of the Fusûs into 27 sections, from Adam to Muhammad. Truth is old, and what is old is true. It is, as it were, nearer to God, the Creator. This attitude has been strikingly expressed in a word of Goethe's: "Das Wahre war schon langst gefunden, hat edle Geisterschaft verbunden. Das alte Wahre fass' es an!" For the dissemination of such views the Neo- Pythagoreans were especially responsible. They hold the view that the sages of ancient times were in closer contact with the Divine than was possible for later generations, a doctrine to which the famous Stoic Poseidonios had given a new life. The fact that Plato's dialogue "Timaios" assumes the character of a sort of symbolic book in such circles is connected with these circumstances. For here Plato had put into the mouth of Pythagoras his doctrine of the world and the soul, and, in the legend, that can be traced also in Porphyry, Pythagoras himself appears as the disciple and protagonist of all philosophies known at the time, Orphic, Chaldean, Hermetic and Mosaic. In addition to this idea of the old as being the truth there was also another view which favoured syncretism in the aforementioned sense, namely the view that truth is not revealed in its entirety at once and for all time but only successively, also other peoples than one's own having their share in the truth. It is, I think, also in the light of what has been said now that we have to understand the introductory words of the Fusûs: "Praise to God, who brings down words of wisdom to the hearts of the prophets by the uniqueness of the straight way from the most ancient place, even if the creeds and religions differ according to the difference between the peoples" (p.47).
From all [his it follows likewise that the concept of tradition is very important because tradition is in itself a source of truth, although in various ways. In the Kitab al-Khazari by Yehuda Hallewi (died after 1140), for instance, the tradition ever since Adam and Noah is played off against Greek philosophy and here there is no question of a syncretistic attitude. On the contrary, in Ibn 'Arabi revelation continues, and the prophet dictates to him certain portions of the truth. He is anxious to point out, both in the beginning and at the end (p.47 and p.56) that he only communicates kamâ hadda lahu rasûlu llâhi. This too is an old idea. Only the initiated can be allowed to know the truth, and thus Ibn 'Arabi asks God to make him one of his 'ibâd (p.47). However, not even the initiated can get to know more than a part (méros) of the truth. In our treatise such parts of the truth are called fusûs, from fassa "extract, separate something from another thing". As regards the significance of this metaphor I would like to recall the Greek kainotomein belonging to the language of mining: "open up a new vein". In Plotinus it is used of what he calls idia philosophia in the sense of a philosophy exo tes aletheias "outside the truth". Thus the result of the kainotomia of lbn 'Arabi, i.e. the bezels, was, from an orthodox point of view, also problematic. For if the old was, as we have heard, regarded as the truth, the new was always in itself suspect. The sheikh offers new jewels of truth, similar to Porphyry's aithygmata, the "sparks of truth". However, such new truths must be carefully examined. They must, in some way, be rooted in tradition, and he therefore stresses the importance of the right interpretation. Thus he asks God to make him a mutarjim lâ mutahakkim (p.47), an interpreter who does not act arbitrarily when handling the transmitted truth. Concerning one of his deepest anthropocentric thoughts he says: "and with this came the divine information (ikhbârât) to us on the tongues of the interpreters" (p.53). His bezels do not, he means, constitute a break in the tradition; truth cannot deviate from tradition, nor can tradition deviate from truth. This attitude might be said to be a late reminiscence of the spiritual situation reigning at the time of the transition from Middle- Platonism to Neo-Platonism.
Now already Plato had pointed out that at the level of the highest knowledge scientific proofs are no longer valid. The highest truths must be "beheld" in an internal experience, and Plotinus considered this "beholding" to be the foremost source of knowledge. To begin with, our sheikh distinguishes between nazar and ibsâr. Even the purely theoretical expositions can be so difficult to understand that he denies to the human reason the possibility of comprehending them. A case in point is the passage where the already mentioned haqîqat al-haqâ'iq occurs. Here he says: "And this, no reason can understand it by way of theoretical thinking (nazar), no, this is the kind of comprehension (idrâk) which only comes from divine insight (kashf)" (p.49). In this connection I would like to call attention to the Stoic katalepsis "direct apprehension of an object by the mind", the intellectual use of adraka being, on the whole, via Syriac influenced by the Greek katalambano "grasp". Thus our sheikh "grasps" the highest truth in a vision. In view of the various expressions for obtaining of knowledge, such as ihsâs, takhayyul, tawahhum and ta'aqqul one might find a passage on p. 55 remarkable. Here we read: "For al-Haqq will from this point of view never cease to be unknown to the knowledge founded on taste (dhawq) and sight (shuhûd) since what has emerged in time has no part in that." The use of dhawq "taste" together with shuhûd "sight" recalls an interesting reflection made by Plotinus on geusis "taste" as well as the use of the etymologically corresponding word in Syriac, namely dâq and 'adîq in the sense of "see".
Now as regards the role of reason in this kind of Arabic writing, I have not compared the philosophy of Late Antiquity as a religion in the sense of the French revolution although God in certain texts can appear as "the first intellect". The philosophy in question was however a religion of the reason in so far as one used the human reason as far as possible in the search for the highest truth, the real, the true being. By the aid of the nous ('aql) the Greeks tried to ascend from the primeval elements, the Arabic basâ'it, up to God, thus using the cerebral ladder, so to speak. Jews, Christians and Muslims, on the other hand, started from a revelation given by God to a certain historic person, bequeathing to coming generations to make out the place of reason within the world of their respective religions. As we know the struggle between the ratio and the revelatio has never ceased since.
Starting from the bottom or from the top, so to speak, the problem was always the same. How to establish an unbroken connection between Man and God as well as between God and Man? This problem remains, in one sense or another, still unsolved today among believers and unbelievers. In this state of affairs, the strong anthropocentric trait of Ibn 'Arabi's thinking assumes a renewed interest to us. Without giving up the sublimity of Allah he tries not only to rescue man, but he also gives him a strong position within the creation. There was, however, always the problem of how man should behave in order to please his god. On the one hand, the sheikh says: "And He has qualified Himself with 'favour/grace' and 'wrath', and He has created the world full of fear and hope, so that it fears His anger and hopes for His favour" (p.54), and, on the other, he adds: "And He has qualified Himself by His being 'beautiful' and possessor of majesty, and thus He has created us awestruck and feeling intimacy (with Him)." Here we can discern traces of the Platonic to kalón, corresponding to 'uns just as hayba corresponds to dhu jalâl. According to at-Tuhanawi the word 'uns means here the effect of mushâhadatu jamâli l- hadrati l-'ilâhîyati fi qalbin, wa-huwa jamâlu l- jalâli. In the last resort we are dealing here with the idea of a homilia with God including the munâjât, the secret conversations.
Now, even if Ibn 'Arabi was obliged to start from the top he has, with the help of the Neo-Platonic philosophy, established an unbroken way from man up to God and from God down to man. Through a specific interpretation of the Surah 2, 28 ff. Adam becomes, in his capacity as primeval Man, the very idea of Man and the khalîfa of God. Adam knows of names that not even the angels know, and it is the knowledge of names that constitutes an important trait here. In the Tahdhîb al-'akhlâq by Miskawayh (died 1030) the individual can, if he wants to, attain the rank of the angels through a certain ethical type of behaviour. With Ibn 'Arabi the relationship obtaining between Man and angel is placed on quite another, highly abstract level, where the individuals, regarded as a manifoldness (kathra) are represented by their idea, Adam, while the angels are only "certain powers" as the text runs. It should be said that already in Philo (died about 40 AD) the angels are said to be powers coming from God and acting as creative factors.
As was mentioned, Adam knows certain important names. Thus we must consider a little also the curious "name-philosophy", the origin of which has not yet been sufficiently investigated. According to H. S. Nyberg our sheikh started as a marked realist in the scholastic sense of the word and ended as a pronounced nominalist. Let us first state that the God of the Neo-Platonists was a theos arretos, ineffable. Moreover, it should also be observed that in the Rasâ'il ikhwân as-safâ' (about 950) known early also in Spain and completely fundamental to the understanding of the kind of texts we are dealing with here, we come across expressions like al- bâri - jallat 'asmâ'uhu. This whole name-theology constitutes a specific form of "nominalism" having probably more than one root. One of them is, however, most likely to be found in the theology developed by Dionysius Areopagita, especially in the treatise De divinis nominibus. Into this world we are introduced already from the beginning where the great sheikh says: "When al-Haqq - He is praised - regarded from the point of view of His most beautiful names, which no counting attains, wanted etc." Thus God is also from this point of view "ineffable".
Later on he introduces a kawn muttasif bi l-wujûd, i.e. Adam, and it is in this connection that the Platonic and Neo-Platonic metaphor of "the mirror", katoptron, mir'ât occurs. In Man God looks at Himself, Man being the very polish of the mirror of the world as well as the soul of the image reflected in the mirror. And it is this image of the world that is, "in the language of the people" - as the text runs - called "The Great Man", while al-'insân as-saghîr, the necessary prerequisite of the system, is not mentioned at all in this connection. The perspective has become completely metaphysical. Man as microcosm is here to be deduced from Man as macrocosm, but the road to this deductive system had been a long one. In quite another context we recall the words of Jean-Paul Sartre: "l'existence précède l'essence". In our case it is the other way round: "l'essence précède l'existence". The One precedes manifoldness. However, this was not the original way of Greek philosophy (cf. above).
In his well-known essay "The Counter-Enlightenment" Sir Isaiah Berlin speaks of the naive belief that methods successfully applied to the field of the natural sciences could be applied with equal success to the fields of ethics, politics and human relationships in general, in which little progress had been made. As regards the development of the old Greek philosophy it is just the other way round. For Socrates awoke the ethical passion in Plato, and out of the dialectic discussions around the cardinal virtues, a certain kind of definition, including the doctrine of ideas, was born. In fact, without these ethical discussions Western science of today is, mirabile diclu, hardly thinkable. For the idealisation of the so-called empirical data with which a modern scientist is used to working, was born in Athens. On the one hand, from ethics to physics, and, on the other, from physics to ethics. As is to be expected Arabic philosophy took the first way.
Now, as far as the position of Man in the world is concerned, it is to be observed that Porphyry wrote a treatise with the title Pen ton gnothi seauton "On knowing oneself", preserved only in fragments. However, we can see how, through a specific interpretation, he finds in this old dictum a point of departure for an exposition of the soul's ascension up to the noetic world and thereby to salvation, soteria, through philosophy. The assumption is reasonable that the Sufic interpretation of the man 'arafa nafsahu, 'arafa rabbahu mentioned above is, to a certain extent, based on such Neo-Platonic expositions. Ibn 'Arabi now transfers this man 'arafa nafsahu also to God.
How is this cosmos kept together? From above, through the continuously flowing effusion, fayd, for God is "rich" ghanî, i.e. without needs and wants, while his subject, the Muslim, is faqîr "poor", ie. in great need. More than anyone else the true mystic feels this deep poverty: he is per definitionem, so to speak, faqir 'ila rahmat Allah. One feels, in fact, tempted to interpret the much debated words of the Sermon on the Mount in a similar way: "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5,3). However that may be, within Neo-Platonism this poverty is experienced as a specific kind of "want", the Arabic equivalence of which is the iftiqar "need, want, lack", and this brings us on to one of the greatest and richest themes of Platonism and of world literature. All forms of existence beneath God have this iftiqar of some sort, and it is the power of this iftiqar that drags Man in the direction of al-Haqq. The whole story begins with the speech which Diotima, the seeress from Mantinea, delivers in the Symposium. Here she says inter alia that Eros is a great spirit, and like all spirits he is intermediate between the divine and the mortal. He interprets between gods and men. In his capacity as an interpreter Eros recalls - mutatis mutandis - Adam as a khalifa - from having been in the history of ideas earlier perhaps a shâfi', a mediator. Moreover, as the son of Penia "poverty" Eros feels also aporia "need" of his father Poros "richness". This myth of Poros and Penia was later further developed by Plotinus, and in the Plotinian form it was in various ways taken over by the Arabs. Thus iftiqâr is the driving force, compelling man to do his utmost (qusayrâ) in going higher and higher in this his yearning for the beautiful, for the good, for the true being, for the One - for God! Thus the cosmos is kept together from above through the effusion, from beneath through the mystic feeling of poverty, a poverty resulting in ta'ashshuq, the falling in love and in 'ishq, the true love (cf. Kitâb Inshâ' ad-dawâ'ir, pp. 4, 16-5, 1 ed. Nyberg).
I have given, from the viewpoint of the history of ideas, a survey of old, mainly Greek elements occurring already in the first Chapter of the Fusûs. The elements are not only to be found also elsewhere in the writings of the great sheikh but also in those of many of his forerunners. However, the basic elements Greek or Arabic, are one thing, their combination into constituents of a system is another. It is in the way he combines the elements into constituents of a system that we find the truly impressive originality of Ibn 'Arabi.