by Denis Gril

First published in the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi Society, special issue "Praise" (Vol 21), 1997, pp. 31-43.

Translated from the French by Lakshmi Pachenick

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"There is no Word in the World that does not Indicate His Praise"

The Cycle of Praise

Praise represents both the beginning and the end of existence and the principal reason for the existence of the universe.

One begins a meal with bismillâh ("In the name of God") and finishes the meal with al-hamdu li-llâh ("Praise be to God"). These two formulas hold, just like the meal, our whole existence. Having said this, how can praise be considered as the beginning? According to Ibn 'Arabî, the universe is like a book and the book begins with the Fâtiha, which in turn is opened by basmala. Yet only some people recite the basmala aloud, evoking in this way the origin of the world (the Divine Names), while others begin with al-hamdu li-llâh, taking praise as the first word uttered by Adam when the divine breath entered his clay body. Seen from this point of view we can say that human praise began with the existence of human beings, in the same way that the Fâtiha, called the chapter of praise, opens the Book.

Adam, voluntarily, and all the beings in the world, essentially, never stop proclaiming the divine praise; so much so, that the Shaykh considers all words as praise. The world, when it comes to its end and prepares to take another form "after having taken its fill of existence", will proclaim the praise of God. Al-hamdu li-llâh fills the Scales (yamla'u l-mîzân) says a hadîth quoted by the Shaykh. At that instant it will be clear that all praise, whatever it may be and to whomsoever it may be addressed, can come only from God and must return to Him alone. That moment will be termed as praise of praise (hamd al-hamd), or the banner of praise (liwâ' al-hamd) as liwâ' in Arabic is the root word for the withdrawal or completion of all praise, returning upon itself, at the same time returning to its origin ('awâqib al-thanâ'). It will be Muhammad, the "Ever-Praised", who will hold this banner; he whose name was predestined to hold it and proclaim the last praises, praises not known to be uttered by any man to God.

Of this praise man is only an instrument, because it is uttered at the beginning and at the end by God, the First and the Last. As Ibn 'Arabî says repeatedly, He is the One who praises, the One who is praised and Praise itself. To whom does praise belong? In the works of Shaykh al-Akbar all questions return to the doctrine of Being, of identity and difference.

Definition of Praise

What does praise signify? In reply to the question of al-Hakîm al-Tirmidhî: "Where does the beginning of praise lie (mâ mubtada' al-hamd)?", Ibn 'Arabî questions the different interpretations of the term.

Firstly, praise represents the servant whose existence is in itself praise addressed to God ('ayn al-thanâ' 'alay-hi bi-wujûd 'ayni-hi). In this sense, the beginning of praise is "He who gave existence acted for that to which He gave existence". Of course by this we allude to the perfect servant who is the origin and the goal of existence and identifies himself with it. Therefore one can say that the beginning of praise can be seen as existence itself.

One finds the interpretation of the Fâtiha,[1] according to which al-hamdu designates the servant "sanctified and transcendent", belonging wholly to God (li-llâh) and at the same time to His Likeness (mithl). This servant is said to be transcendent, because he has gone beyond all vestige of lordliness and, at the same time, beyond all likeness, because he reunites in himself all the Divine Names by which God is praised. This definition is quite similar to the identification of the Fâtiha with praise. Sometimes it begins with bâ', or rather with the bi of bismillâh, the symbol of the perfect servant, and sometimes with the alif of al-hamd, separate in the writing from lâm, as God is independent of the worlds (al-'âlamîn), which are only signs ('alâma) of His existence.

Praise is also, as we have noted, the praise of praise accomplished by the perfect servant in gratitude for the grace and divine gift by God, from Whom everything proceeds and to Whom everything returns.

God addresses His praise to Himself or to His creatures. But in the latter case praise means the return of His Names to Him, because the Names need the beings in order to be manifested. The Shaykh states that "They (the Names) have effect only on the exterior of the places of manifestation and He who manifests himself in this place is no other than Him. Therefore there is of the praise-giver, of praise and praised only Him."[2]

The praise of the creatures is nevertheless taken into account in the classification of the degrees of praise:

In this last case God is praised for either what He is (bi-mâ huwa 'alay-hi), or for the sake of what proceeds from Him (bi-mâ yakûnu min-hu). Giving thanks (shukr), for example, is one of the forms of praise.[3]

What can we say of praise addressed to someone other than God? The qualities for which we praise someone are bestowed on him by God, be they innate (fî jibillati-hi) or acquired like character traits (takhalluq).[4] Through the divine qualities that a person reflects, "all beings in this world praise and are praised", and in the same way there is no praiser and praised other than God, for all qualities fuse into His quality, which cannot be multiple.[5] Indeed, according to the Shaykh any apparently blameable quality such as jealousy, anger or greed, which is rendered positive and conforms to the divine and prophetic law, conveys an aspect of praise by which it returns to God.[6] This is what he considers to be one of the meanings of the prophetic expression: "I was sent to perfect the noble characters."[7] He emphasizes again "All words in existence are glorification, even if they are considered to be blameworthy, and through the knowledge we have of that, we are superior to others. God be praised (wa bi-'ilm hâdhâ fadalnâ ghayra-nâ)."[8]

In the last two phrases praise and glorification seem to be equivalent. Here it must be specified that the Shaykh considers all forms of dhikr as praise, whether it is glorification (tasbih), affirmation of the divine unity (tahlîl), magnification (takbîr), etc.... All the words used to call or invoke God include an aspect of praise.[9] It is a whole whose individual parts can be compared to the limbs of a person, who himself, as a whole, is comparable to praise.[10] Here again we find the identification of praise with the perfect servant.

The Praise of the Universe

Glorification is fundamental to Ibn 'Arabî's teachings on praise. It is true that in the Qur'ân praise and glorification are closely linked, as in expressions like "Glorify through the praise of your Lord" (110: 3). In a number of passages in the Futûhât the Shaykh quotes and comments upon the following verse, especially its second part: "The seven heavens, and the earth and what they contain glorify Him. There is nothing that does not glorify Him by His praise, but you do not understand their glorification. He is truly forebearing and all-forgiving" (17:44). Another verse, addressed to the Prophet, confirms the praise of God by all the beings of the universe: "Have you not seen all those who are in heaven and earth, and the birds in their flight glorifying God? Each one knows his prayer and his glorification and God knows what they do" (24: 41).

These verses explicitly state that all beings in this world are living, animals, plants, and minerals, everything without exception. Life implies consciousness, and therefore intelligence. "A living being can only glorify Him knowing that by which it glorifies Him." This is confirmed by the hadîth, according to which all things that have heard the voice of mu'adhdhin will witness for him on the day of Resurrection. Ibn 'Arabî speaks from experience, since he tells us that he himself heard stones invoking God.[11] That is why, according to him, the ban on the representation of living beings is not confined only to animals. Certainly this is a radical position seen from the legal point of view but highly justified by an acute conscience and knowledge of the universality of life. This life will fully manifest itself in the other world, which is why the Qur'ân (29: 64) calls it "the abode of true life" (dâr al-hayawân)".[12]

During this life only the chosen, the prophets and men capable of unveiling (kashf), are aware, because they have crossed the limits that separate this world from the other.[13] For jinn and men praise is a voluntary act, willed by God, to which they are free to submit themselves or not, but for all other beings of the universe praise or glorification is fundamental, essential to their being ('ibâda dhâtiyya), not willed by an order and therefore not sanctioned, unlike the praise of jinn and men.[14] The latter, however, through all the parts of their bodies, also participate in the universal praise, for their limbs have life and consciousness that will manifest itself at the time of Resurrection when they will be witness to all their acts. For man, the miracle is not that stones glorify God, but that he is able to hear them, as happened for the Prophet's Companions who heard the stone in his hand glorifying God.[15] Hence, Ibn 'Arabî is opposed to the interpretation of certain commentators who attribute the glorification of inanimate objects simply to the fact of their existence (tasbîh hâl), rather than to their speech.[16] In the hereafter, for all beings without exception, praise and glorification will be "like the breaths of those who breathe".[17]

God is "forebearing and all-forgiving" because He knows that men do not have the ability to understand this praise. He does not punish those who, denying the life and speech of all beings, affirm that they glorify God by the simple fact of their existence. He pardons them, for to pardon (ghafara) etymologically in Arabic means to cover. He hides, thus, man's faults, as He has hidden from him the perception of that reality.[18]

For Ibn 'Arabî this universal praise, which even the non-believer proclaims with all the parts of his being, is one aspect of the way God takes upon Himself the care (tawallî) of this world, which is the basis of all saintliness (walâya).[19] He thus comments on the formula of the tashahhud, recited in a seated position, in the prayer: "Peace be upon us and upon the saintly servants of God ('ibâd Allâh al-sâlihîn)":

All servants are saints before God (sâlih li-llâh) in heaven and on earth. The word "saint" includes not only those whom we consider to be saints, for every being is a "saint". God said "there is nothing that does not glorify Him through His praise". Everything proclaims the transcendence of His Lord and is therefore "saintly". This is one of the sciences of faith and of unveiling. The word "saints" indicates those who are engaged in that which constitutes their sainthood (that is, their function in creation: alladhîna ustu'milû li-mâ saluhû la-hu) and for whom there is nothing other than glorification.[20]

All beings, therefore, receive their part of the salutation of peace in a measure equal to their nature; those that are chosen, that is the prophets and the saints, receive a part of the universal praise that God reflects on them through the intermediary of those who dwell in heaven and earth. These beings see, in the movements of man, that which is true to the divine order and that which is vain ('abath), and praise (thanâ') all those who have freed themselves from all forms of vanity.[21] Through praise the world speaks to God and God speaks to the world, and among men those who praise Him receive their share of praise through the world.

How do beings receive this praise? Each one of them, or more precisely each particle (juz') of the universe, adores God according to its predisposition (isti'dâd), and God manifests Himself to each of these particles according to its predisposition to receive the divine theophany. "There is nothing that does not glorify Him" is a response to this theophany.[22]

In the second verse (24: 41), God addresses the Prophet thus: "Have you not seen glorifying God all those who are in heaven and earth... ? " The Shaykh comments: "He says: "have you (sing.) not seen" and not "have you (pl.) not seen". As for us, we have not seen; for us it is a question of faith and for Muhammad - grace and peace be upon him - it is a matter of vision". But about this other verse: "Have you not seen how to God bow all who are in the heavens and all who are in the earth, the sun and the moon, the stars and the mountains, the trees and the beasts, and many of mankind? ," (22:18), he states that:

those to whom it has been given by God to contemplate this prostration, and have been affected by it, see this discourse and prostration as an innate form of glorification, essential, brought about by the same theophany through which God has manifested Himself in all beings. They have loved Him and have begun to proclaim His praise, not by enforcement of the Law, but by essential necessity; for the purpose of this essential adoration, God has established them and the right belongs to Him alone.[23]

According to this passage praise can be considered as the first form of adoration and the first manifestation of love of the creatures of God. Among the saints, some, whom the Qur'ân calls "those who praise" (al-hâmidûn), participate more strongly in the prophetic vision of the universal praise and:

see that the praise which is proclaimed upon the tongues of the whole universe - whether those who praise be the people of God or not, whether the praised be God or whether it is men who address praise to each other - all finally returns to God, and to none other than Him. Praise belongs only to God, in whatever manner it may be. "Those who praise", who God has eulogized in the Qur'ân, are aware of the end of things at their beginning. They act in advance and begin from the beginning to praise God through the praise of their creaturely existence, praise which must, in the end, return to Him, be He glorified and exalted. Such are "those who praise"; through contemplation they praise God with His own voice (al-hâmidûn 'alâ l-shuhûd bi-lisân al-haqq).[24]

This praise is indeed of God. In the expression "each one knows His prayer and his glorification" the prayer can be taken as coming from God, a gift of existence and mercy that He gives, whereas glorification belongs to beings.[25] In another passage prayer is interpreted as being a specific and private discourse (munâjât khassa), through which all creatures, who like man are organized in societies, address God, proclaiming His transcendence through glorification.[26]

Glorification, with which these two verses are especially concerned, affirms transcendence; that is to say, the negation of a quality, whereas praise affirms a quality. What, then, does the relation between glorification and praise signify in the expression "and there is nothing that does not glorify Him through His praise"? The Shaykh al-Akbar is undoubtedly the one commentator of the Qur'ân to have explained this relation with such precision.

Through His Praise

How can men glorify God, that is, affirm His transcendence? "To glorify God", states the Shaykh in a terse expression, "is to criticize Him (al-tasbîh tajrîh)" for "we cannot affirm the transcendence of the Transcending Being; to do so would be to divest Him of Transcendence." [27] We can glorify God only through His own words or by affirming, just as Abû Yazîd al-Bistâmî has done, his own transcendence as regards divine transcendence (subhânî). Likewise, "to praise God is to condition Him (al-tahmîd taqyîd)". By praising God man may limit Him. Therefore it is necessary to free the praise of God of that limitation whilst accomplishing it, since that is the nature and duty of man. Because of that, one must follow the example of the Prophet who exclaims: "I do not count the praises that I address to You; You are as You have praised Yourself." [28]

In uttering this last proposition the Prophet was but conforming to the divine order: "Glorify through the praise of your Lord". Ibn 'Arabî, in more than one passage, insists on the necessity of praising God, respecting the ritual ordained by the Law: "Praise", he says, "is founded on divine ordinances (tawqîf)".[29] Certainly man can praise God for His acts in order to thank Him for them; it is, therefore, a question of praise not specified by sacred Law ('urfi), which he is allowed to give so long as no legal prohibition prevents him, as with every act of ordinary life. But though the servant may accomplish an act of adoration in order to get closer to God ('alâ jihat al-qurba), he has no right to institute a ritual.

This legal restriction is explained by the necessity of limiting the power of intellect, which frequently favours transcendence excessively. The Shaykh warns the reader: "Beware of glorifying Him with your intellect... for rational proofs often do not accord with the proofs of sacred Law." Glorification consists in declaring God to be free of all the attributes of contingent beings. Now this amounts to asserting the existence of the latter in the face of the divine Being. Yet they have no existence of themselves and have been given existence only to proclaim the praise of God. Affirming the absolute transcendence of God leads to the denial of that by which God must be glorified.

He says, in the chapter on the divine breath:

Know then by what you declare Him transcendent, for there is nothing but Him and the breath of the All-Merciful and the substance of beings (jawhar al-kâ'inât). That is why God qualified Himself with some of the qualities of contingent beings in such a way that they cannot be accepted by any speculative or rational proof. Beware then of glorifying through your intellect. Let the glorification that you utter be the Qur'ân, which is His word, thus you will recite His words without invention or innovation.[30]

"Through His praise" thus signifies: through His own word. That is the only means by which man can escape from the subtle trickery (makr khafi) that the affirmation of transcendence constitutes, and by which God puts His servants to the test.

Glorification through praise is thus one of the possible expressions of the Doctrine of Being. On the one hand, God cannot be praised by anything in the universe, for no being on this earth has anything in common with Him; on the other hand, God can be praised only by His names. Now there is not one of these names by which man cannot be characterized. Everything in the world glorifies God simultaneously in a negative and in an affirmative voice; but in the latter case, affirmation can proceed only from Him. Muhammad, at the end of his mission, which was above all a mission of praise, is given to say: "glorify your Lord through praise and ask Him pardon. It is truly He who accepts repentance (tawwâb)" (Q. 110: 34). As we have seen, to ask for forgiveness implies asking for effacement, the passing away of contingent being in the presence of God, after having gone forth to transmit the message. This return to God is announced by the Divine Name al-tawwâb, which means etymologically "the one who returns unceasingly" to His servants by this act of praise.[31]

Some contradictions can be seen between, on the one hand, the insistence of the Shaykh on the necessity of praising God only by His own Word, and, on the other hand, the affirmation that all praise, indeed all blame, is essentially divine praise. Besides, does he not affirm that "the speech of the whole universe is none other than His word? "[32] The universe is like a perfect Great Man (insân kabîr kâmil). It is therefore analogous to the man whose interior being is the Ipseity of God as well as His faculties (huwiyyat al-haqq wa quwâ-hu),[33] faculties by which man is also an adoring servant of his Lord. It is the same for the interior reality of the world. The closer the servant comes to perfection, and the more he purifies the adoration he consecrates to God (ikhlâs al-'ibâda li-llâh), the more he recognizes in himself the divine Ipseity. He then affirms "It is You who are Him through Your Me and it is You who are Him through my me. Therefore there is only You and it is only You who is called the Lord and servant." This "supreme identity" was realized by Ibn 'Arabî through the reading of the Qur'ân, and it in no way contradicts the radical difference between the Lord and the servant. When the servant recites in the Fâtiha "praise be to God the Lord of the worlds", God responds according to the hadîth: "My servant has uttered My praise", which signifies: I have pronounced My own praise through the form of My servant.[34]

Praise is, then, that form, the form of the perfect servant, as the Shaykh declared in a sermon in the course of a dream. To encourage him to speak, the Prophet sent him 'Uthmân, who collected together the Qur'ân.[35] That form is perfect because it unites, like the Qur'ân, whose name signifies "union". The Prophet merits the banner of praise because he praises God through the Qur'ân. This is at the same time the word of God and the intimate reality of the Prophet, his character "immense" as is the Qur'ân itself. His name, Muhammad, he who gives incessant praise, expresses the perfection of servanthood. He does not praise himself, but contents himself with receiving endless praise only so that it can be returned to God. He asks for nothing in the accomplishment of his existence as a servant, except the "station of praise". The Seal of Muhammadan sainthood explained endlessly to his disciples, who are also his books, the way to that Muhammadan perfection which is also conformity to the Law.

He says of this praise through the Qur'ân: "That is why God - glory be to Him - must only be praised by the praise that He has ordained for Himself, insofar as this praise has been ordained by Law, and not by what the attribute of praise demands, for this is the praise of God (al-thanâ' al-ilâhî). When God is praised by this attribute, the praise from men is simply conventional and intellectual ('urfî 'aqlî) and therefore not suitable to His divine majesty." [36]

Conclusions

One cannot treat one particular aspect of Ibn 'Arabî's work without also affirming its unity and complexity. God is the intimate being of the servant, but the servant is not God and the divine reality always transcends that which man has to say about it, whether it concerns transcendence or immanence. Man, therefore, cannot adore God nor can he talk about God - praise means both - without conforming himself to the Revelation, whether it takes the form of Man or the Book.

The intimate experience of the identity of Being has allowed him to grasp the strict correspondence that unites Man, the Book and the World and, as such, the life and speech of all beings. One can say no better in describing praise than "there is no word in the universe that does not indicate His praise".[37]

Notes

[1] Cf. 'Commentaries on the Fathia and Experience of the Being According to Ibn 'Arabi', JMIAS, XX, 33-52.

[2] Fut., II, 100, quest. 99.

[3] Ibid., II, 403, Ch. 198, para. 6 (al-dhikr bi l-tahmid).

[4] Ibid., IV, 286, Ch. 558 (hadrat al-hamd).

[5] Ibid., II, 403.

[6] Ibid., IV, 286. On the conversion (tasrif) of blameable into praise-worthy qualities, cd. also ibid., II, 195-8, Ch. 114, 115, 117; and II, 241-2, Ch. 149 (i): 'All qualities are divine qualities, all are noble and innate in man.' Avarice, for example, is a sort of refusal and can be related to the Divine Name al-mâni', the One who refuses.' See also ibid., II, 362-3 (maqâm al-khulla).

[7] Ibid., II, 616, Ch. 281; IV, 178, Ch. 534.

[8] Ibid., IV, 404.

[9] Ibid., II, 403, Ch. 198; IV, 95, Ch. 446.

[10] Ibid., IV, 287.

[11] Ibid., I, 147.

[12] Ibid., IV, 451 and I, 147.

[13] Ibid., II, 682-3, Ch. 297 and III, 257-8, Ch. 357.

[14] Ibid., III, 99, Ch. 326.

[15] Ibid., I, 381-2.

[16] Ibid., I, 59; III, 65, Ch. 317. This initerpretation, by Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, can be found in his al-Tafsir al-kabir ed. Tehran, n.d., XX, 218-19.

[17] Fut. II, 688, Ch. 298.

[18] Ibid., I, 398; III, 393, 16th section of the khazâ'in al-jûd.

[19] Ibid., II, 247, Ch. 152 (maqâm al-walâya).

[20] Ibid., I, 249. Ibn 'Arabi also remarks that there is a distinction between 'us' and the other servants.

[21] Ibid., I, 247, Ch. 43. For Abû Madyan, this praise is similar to love of all beings; cf. ibid., III, 130, Ch. 334 and Claude Addas, 'Abu Madyan and Ibn 'Arabi', in Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi: A Commemorative Volume., ed. S. Hirtenstein and M. Tiernan, Shaftsbury, Dorset, 1993, p. 173.

[22] Fut., II, 509, Ch. 218.

[23] Ibid., II, 328, Ch. 378.

[24] Ibid., II, 33, Ch. 73.

[25] Ibid., I, 540.

[26] Ibid., III, 488.

[27] Cf. Fusûs, p. 68 (fass hikma subbûhiyya fi kalima nûniyya): 'Know - may God assist you by a spirit coming from Him - that to affirm His transcendence is nothing else for those who have knowledge of the Reality than limitation (tahdid) and conditioning (taqyid). Whoever affirms the transcendence in such a way is either ignorant or impudent (sahib sû'adab).

[28] Fut., IV, 414, on Ch. 437 and 438.

[29] Ibid., IV, 96, Ch. 467.

[30] Ibid., II, 404, Ch. 198.

[31] Ibid., III, 148, Ch. 338; I, 181, Ch. 23.

[32] Ibid., IV, 141, Ch. 503.

[33] Allusion to the hadith qudsi: '... My servant approaches nearer and nearer to Me, until I become the hearing by which he hears, the sight by which he sees...'.

[34] Fut., IV, 140, Ch. 338; I, 181, Ch. 23.

[35] Ibid., I, 111, Ch. 5, on the basmala and Fâtiha.

[36] Ibid., II, 88, quest. 77.

[37] Ibid., IV. 286.