by James Morris
Pages in this article
Further reading:

Listening for God: Prayer and the Heart in the Futûhât

Part 3

III. Unveiling the Heart (Chapters 3-54)

In chapter 3 (II, 105-107), in his first discussion of the famous hadith of "God's Two Fingers" and the related prayer of the Prophet for the "Transformer of hearts" to "fix my heart in Your Religion," Ibn 'Arabî takes up a kind of "inspiration" and awareness of the heart that, if much less spectacular, is also much closer to the actual reality of our moment-by-moment experience: namely, the universal human awareness of moral realities, and the resulting conflicts, judgments, and "tests" (to use the recurrent Qur'anic expression) that continually occupy the theater of the Heart.

...God's 'turning over' (taqlîb) of the hearts (6:110) is His creating in them our concern with good and our concern with evil. So whenever the human being perceives the conflict of these opposing inclinations (khawâtir) in the heart, that is an expression of God's 'turning over' the heart - and this is a kind of knowing that the human being cannot keep from having...

Ibn 'Arabî goes on to explain that the allusion to God's "Two Fingers" holding the heart, in the well known hadith, refers "to the speed of its turning over between faith and ingratitude (to God), with all that implies," and that the "duality" of the two Fingers likewise refers to the opposing "inclinations toward good and evil" - although he hastens to add that an "unveiling" reveals (in ways he explains considerably later ) that these "Two Fingers" are related to the famous hadith concerning "both of God's Hands being 'Right' Hands", both instruments of the all-encompassing divine Lovingmercy (Rahma).

In chapter 4, in the context of praising the special spiritual blessings and influences of Mecca, Ibn 'Arabî goes on to mention (at II, 120-24) a kind of "contemplation" and inspired knowledge of the heart that is a bit less mundane, but still a remarkably powerful and widespread experience for many individuals who today are often unaware of its deeper religious roots and significance: the question of our sensitivity to the spiritual power of sacred places:

One of the conditions for the person who knows through direct vision, who is master of the stages and modes of witnessing the Unseen spiritual realities (mashâhid al-ghayb), is that they are aware that places have an influence on sensitive hearts... (Only the individual entirely under the influence of their own perturbed inner state, the sâhib al-hâl, could fail to perceive this powerful difference in the spiritual intensity of being, the wujûd, of different places.) But as for the perfected person, the master of this spiritual stage (sâhib al-maqâm), they are able to discern this difference in the power of places, just as God differentiates between them... What a difference there is between a city most of whose buildings are the carnal passions (shahawât) and a city most of whose buildings are (divine) Signs and Miracles! [Here Ibn 'Arabî is probably alluding more specifically to "cities" or spiritual communities of human hearts. He then goes on to address directly his friend in Tunis, the Shaykh Mahdawî (for whom the entire Futûhât was originally composed), and to remind him of his inexplicable preference for spiritual retreat at a particular place in a cemetery of Tunis, where he felt closer to the presence of al-Khâdir ('Khezr') - and eventually encountered that ageless initiatic figure.]

...Now my friend knows that this (power of spiritual places) is due to those who inhabit that place, either in the present, such as some of the noble angels or the pious spirits (jinn), or else through the spiritual intentions (himma) of those who used to inhabit them and have passed on, such as (...the house of Abû Yazîd al-Bastâmî, the prayer-room of al-Junayd ...) and the places of the Righteous (the Sâlihîn) who have left behind this abode, but whose influences have remained behind them, so that sensitive hearts are influenced by them. This is also the cause for the influences that different places of prayer have on the intensity of presence (wujûd) of the heart - not the number of their bricks! ...And whoever doesn't notice this difference in the spiritual presence of their heart between the marketplace and the place of prayer is under the influence of their passing hâl, not the master of this spiritual station. ...Indeed your intensity of presence (wujûd) is according to your companions (julasâ'), for the spiritual aspirations (himam) of one's companions have a tremendous influence on the heart of the one who is there with them - and their intentions are according to their spiritual ranks...

...So for us, the awareness of this matter, I mean the knowledge of the spiritual influence of places and the sensitivity to its greater or lesser presence, is part of the completion of the mastery of the Knower and the high dignity of that station, of the Knower's responsibility for things and their faculty of spiritual discernment...

Of course this particular case is only one small part of the larger question of the spiritual presence or awareness of the heart, and in chapter 12 (II, 346) Ibn 'Arabî alludes to the example and exemplar which underlies so much of his work:

Now (Muhammad) alluded to something which the people of God have put into practice and found to be sound, and that is his saying: 'If it were not for your speaking too much and the turmoil in your hearts, then you would have seen what I see and would have heard what I hear!' For he was singled out for the rank of perfection (kamâl) in all things, including perfection in servanthood, so that he was the absolute servant (of God).

...And Aisha said: 'the Messenger of God used to remember God in all of his states,' and we have had an abundant inheritance from that. Now this (constant presence with God) is a matter that specifically involves the inner dimension of the human being and our 'speech' (qawl), although things (apparently) contradicting that may appear in our actions, as we have realized and verified with regard to this spiritual station - even if that appears puzzling to someone who has no knowledge of the spiritual states.

Fortunately, although many of the forms or degrees of prayer and contemplation evoked by Ibn 'Arabî might appear at first glance to lie beyond the usual range of our experience or, in some cases, even our most ambitious aspirations, he is also a master in evoking and suggesting the fundamental role of the divine activity and the providential divine "Caring" ('inâya) that constantly underlies every stage of this individual process of realization - not just in an abstract, metaphysical terms, but often, especially in the Futûhât, in subtly practical ways whose relevance and meaning only become clear to readers who are willing to approach the work slowly and attentively in terms of its echoes and implications in their own experience. His language for describing the phenomena of "grace" and the human-divine interactions, in all their richness, are surely most fully developed in the hundreds of later chapters of the Futûhât on the various spiritual stations, but chapter 24 (III, 178-79) marks one of his first allusions to this practically central dimension of the problem that concerns us here:

"As for those hearts who are passionately in love (muta'ashshiqa) with the (divine) 'Breaths', since the treasuries of the animating spirits (of human souls) are in love with the Breaths of the All-Merciful - because of this inner connection and correspondence (between the divine Spirit and our souls) - the Messenger of God said: 'The Breath of the All-Merciful is coming to me from the Yemen.' Because the animating spirit (that gives life to our soul) is a (divine) "breath," and the Source of those breaths, for the hearts that are in love with them, is the Breath of the All-Merciful which is from the 'Yemen,' for whoever has been taken from their true Homeland, separated from their home and resting place: therefore (that Breath) contains release from (the hearts') oppression and the removal of misfortunes. Which is why he also said: 'Surely God has fragrant breaths (or 'breezes', nafahat), so go toward the fragrant breaths of your Lord!'

One of the Shaykh's most powerfully moving evocations of the soul's state of true prayer and awareness of God is in his chapter 41, on the "People of the Night" - the "Night" in question (based on complex allusions to a number of hadith and Qur'anic verses, as well as classical Arabic love-poetry) being conceived here as the inner state of mutual intimacy and awareness between the human lover and the divine Beloved, however and whenever that contemplative state might occur. In this intimate, speechless dialogue within the heart, it is the divine "Voice" that is speaking at first here (IV, 41-43), describing the inner reality of these "nocturnal" prayers, the fully realized state of "recollection" (dhikr):

So I am the One reciting My Book to the person praying, through his tongue - and he is the one who is listening, for that is My 'nighttime conversation' (musâmiratî). And that servant is the one who is taking pleasure in My Speaking - such that if he stopped (to ponder) the meanings (of what I am saying) he would be taken away from Me by his thinking and reflection.

For what is essential for the servant here is to listen attentively to Me, to devote his hearing entirely to what I am saying, until the point where I am actually the One in that reciting - as though I were reciting it to him and making him listen to it - until I am the One explaining My words to him, translating its inner meaning to him. That is My nocturnal conversing with the servant, so that he takes his knowing directly from Me, not from his own thinking or considerations.

For (the true Knower) is not distracted (from total attention to Me) by the mention (in those Qur'anic words) of the Garden or the Fire, of the Accounting and Reviewing (of our works at the Judgment), or of this world or the next. For that (accomplished divine Knower) does not reflect on each verse with their intellect or investigate it with his own thinking. Instead he only 'listens attentively' (alluding to the key verse at 50:37 with which we began) to what I am saying to him, 'while he is witnessing' (Me), present with Me, while I take upon Myself the responsibility for teaching him... In that way the Knower realizes with complete certainty knowings which did not come from within himself, since It was from Me that he heard the Qur'an, from Me that he heard Its explanation and the commentary on Its meanings, what I meant by this or that particular verse or chapter.

That is the Knower's proper adab with me, his carefully listening and paying heed to Me. So if I seek them out for a nocturnal conversation concerning something, they answer Me immediately with their presence and readiness, and their immediate witnessing...

Indeed if the Dawn comes along and I have ascended upon the Throne ..., My servant goes off to his livelihood and the company of his fellows. But I have already opened up a 'Door' for him among My creatures, a Door between Myself and him through which My servant sees Me and through which I see him - although the others don't notice that. So I converse with My servant through his tongue, without his being aware of that. And My servant receives (that spiritual instruction) from me 'with clear Insight' (12:108), although those people don't know that and think that they are the ones who are talking to him, even though (in reality) no one is speaking other than Me! They imagine that My servant is answering them, when they are actually replying to no one but Me!

The final paragraph here of course recalls some of the metaphysical teachings most commonly associated with Ibn 'Arabî and his later interpreters, ideas which he most often develops in connection with the hadith of the divine "transformation through the forms (of the creatures)" and the celebrated hadith in which the spiritual virtue of ihsân ("right-and-beautiful-action") and the ultimate goal of Religion is defined as "serving God as though you see Him." But this divine speech from chapter 41, with its open identification of the heart as the open "Door" linking God and the soul - and of the most "mundane" incidents of each person's everyday life as priceless, entirely individual "private lessons" from God - throws a very different, less "mystical" and much more practical and instructive light on that same teaching.

Ibn 'Arabî's next discussion of the enlightened "heart," in chapter 43 (IV, 78-82) on the "people of inner spiritual 'scrupulousness'," emphasizes even more strongly the importance of carrying out this spiritual practice of realizing the divine Presence within all the testing demands of social life in this world, but in complete secrecy, without leaving any opening for the multiple forms of inner hypocrisy and potential corruption that are usually tied up, in any culture, with any overt or distinctive personal focus on "spiritual" activities. And in fact the Prophetic advice regarding this state that Ibn 'Arabî quotes here, if one puts it into practice, is likely to lead in directions somewhat different from any society's public expectations of "religiosity":

Now since this was the inner state of the people of wara', they followed in their (daily) matters and activities the ways of the common people, not letting them know that this (inner scrupulousness and attentiveness) distinguished them from them, concealing themselves behind the conventional arrangements in the world so that no special praise is accorded the person who takes on those ways...;

Here the Shaykh goes on to explain that 'the people of God carefully avoid anything like' what would cause them to be singled out for their piety or asceticism or good nature and the like. He then asks his reader to

Ponder what (the Prophet) said about this spiritual station, teaching his intimates how they should act in regard to it: 'Stop doing whatever disturbs you, and turn to what does not disturb you!' And his saying: "Seek the guidance of your heart (istaftî qalbaka), even if it guides you toward what fascinates or tempts you (al-maftûn).

These two hadith, which could certainly be interpreted (if taken in isolation) in order to justify some of the notorious ways of the malâmîya or the nonconformist attitudes associated with the ideal of the "rend" in Hafez's poetry, in fact offer some of the most useful and straightforward - if also incredibly demanding and challenging - practical spiritual guidance one could find anywhere in the Futûhât:

Thus (the Prophet) pointed them in the direction of their own hearts, because of what he knew their hearts contained of the secret/mystery of God (sirr Allâh), what their hearts included (of that Secret) that is essential to realizing this spiritual station. For in the hearts there is a special divine Care and Protection that is not perceived by any but the people of attentive awareness (ahl al-murâqaba), concealed for them there (in the heart).

The people of this "Pure Religion" (39:3), Ibn 'Arabî admits, almost inevitably become recognized eventually as somehow peculiar - although most people do not at all suspect just why they are so mysteriously "special." The particular example he chooses to give here, of the conscientiousness of an anonymous sister of the famous early Baghdadi Sufi Bishr al-Hâfî, revealed in a question she brought to the learned jurist Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, is a telling illustration of the outwardly modest way of life the Shaykh has in mind. The key to this highest level of conscientious spiritual practice, he again insists, is simply to begin applying these two utterly straightforward sayings of the Prophet:

For he gave us the True Balance (al-mîzân) in our hearts, so that our station might be concealed from others, wholly devoted to God, in complete purity and sincerity, not known by any but God and then His trusted companion: 'Is not the Pure Religion (wholly) God's?!' (39:3) - since any other form of religion is inevitably corrupted either by the promptings of the egoistic self (the nafs) or its concern with social proprieties.

...So when the people of this spiritual station saw the Prophet's careful attention to what is realized within the heart of the servant, what he said about it and what he pointed out that the human being should do and should avoid by seeking to remain concealed: (when they saw all that,) they put it into practice in order to realize that (station), they followed that path, and they knew that the salvation we seek from the Lawgiver is only possible through concealing our spiritual state. So he bestowed upon them (the duty) to act according to that and to actively realize it.

Therefore the people of this station realized that this (earthly) abode is an abode of concealment (for us as it is for God), and why God was not content in describing (His) religion until He had qualified it as the "Pure and Sincere (Religion)" (al-dîn al-khâlis). So they sought a way in which they would not be corrupted by any form of associating (any worldly motives with the pure service of God), so that they might apply themselves to this place (i.e., life in this world) with just what it deserves, from the point of view of proper adab, wisdom, and observing and following the law (shar'). Hence they veiled themselves from the ordinary people through the veils of scrupulous piety (wara'), which the people don't even notice, since (for them) that is the outward aspect of religion (zâhir al-dîn) and the received forms of knowledge. For if the people of this spiritual station followed outwardly anything other than the commonly received forms of religion they would stand out - and thereby end up accomplishing the opposite of what they were seeking...

Yet if "the common people only notice these (anonymous saints) according to the usual motives they have concerning them," he concludes, those who have realized this spiritual station are already "being praised by God, by the holy divine Names, by the angels, by the prophets and messengers, and by the animals and plants and minerals and everything that sings God's praises. It is only the jinn and human beings (al-thaqalayn) who are entirely unaware of them, except for those individuals to whom God may reveal their identity..." This emphatic allusion to the necessary anonymity of the "Friends of God" (the awliyâ') is of course a central theme in Ibn 'Arabî's spiritual teaching, and one that is marvelously illustrated by his anecdotes about his own personal encounters with such hidden saints throughout the Islamic world, whether scattered in the Futûhât or, more accessibly in English, in the stories translated in Sufis of Andalusia. However, from practical point of view, it might be even more revealing to connect what Ibn 'Arabî has said about such hidden saints, whether in those collected stories or here in chapter 43, with his lesson on God's instruction of the heart (and His mundane instruments of that teaching) in the immediately preceding excerpts from chapter 41. The special effectiveness, and the deeper fascination, of this strange book - mirroring life itself - lies in just such juxtapositions and hidden connections.

Since the external, visible path of these true "people of the heart," for Ibn 'Arabî, ordinarily comprises above all the "outward aspect of Religion" (zâhir al-Dîn), it is not surprising if much of the rest of this opening section of the Futûhât is devoted to the inner secrets or mysteries (asrâr), the "heart-dimension," of the "Five Pillars," and especially of the ritual prayer (salât). As the Shaykh points out in his next discussion of the heart, in chapter 47 (IV, 134-37):

Now there is no act of worship or devotion ('ibâda) that God has prescribed for His servants that does not have a special connection with a divine Name, or a divine Reality implicit in that Name, which gives to (the person carrying out) that devotion what it gives to the heart in this world...and in the other world. ...(In this world, those corresponding 'gifts' of each Name to the heart include its specific) stations and forms of knowing and awareness, and the divine Signs and manifestations of Grace (karamât) included in its specific spiritual states...

Now God says that He converses intimately with the person praying [alluding to ch. 41 above], and He is Light (24:35), so He confides (in His servant in prayer) through His Name 'The Light' (al-Nûr) and no other. And just as Light drives away all darkness, so the ritual prayer cuts off every other preoccupation, unlike the other acts (of devotion), which do not involve letting go of everything other than God, as the ritual prayer does. This is why prayer is called 'a light' [in the hadith 'Prayer is a light'], because in that way God gives (the servant) the Good News that if he confides in God and entrusts himself to Him through His Name 'The Light,' then He is alone with the servant and removes every transient thing (kawn) in the servant's act of witnessing Him during their intimate conversation...

Therefore every servant who is (outwardly) praying, but whose act of prayer does not remove them from everything (other than God), is not truly praying, and that act of prayer is not a Light for them. And anyone who is reciting (the verses of the Qur'an) inwardly, within their soul, but who does not directly witness God's remembering them within Himself, has not...really remembered God within their soul, because of the lack of the right inner correspondence (between God and the receptive soul), due to what is present there of things of this world, such as family and children and friends, or of the other world, such as the presence of the angels in his thoughts... The inward state (of presence and receptivity) of the servant praying must be such that none but their Lord is intimately addressing them in their prayer and recitation, in their praises and petitions (to God).

And Ibn 'Arabî goes on here to multiply at length the inner conditions for experiencing the true reality of salât. For as he points out, "Among the acts of devotion and worship ('ibâdat) there is none that brings the servant closer to the angelic spiritual stations of 'those drawn near to God' (the muqarrabûn), which is the highest station of the Friends of God - whether of angel or Messenger or prophet or saint or person of faith - than the act of prayer." Lest one despair of ever realizing - at least as something more than a memorable hâl - such a true inner state of prayer, the Shaykh immediately follows this description with another imagined speech of God to his angels, a speech which underlines the extraordinary dignity and rarity of any human achievement in this realm of prayer:

...For I have placed between this servant of Mine and the 'station of Proximity (to Me)' (maqâm al-qurba) many veils and immense obstacles, including the goals of the carnal soul; sensual desires and passions; taking care of other people, property, family, servants and friends; and terrible fears. Yet (My servant) has cut through all that and continued to strive until he prostrated himself [clearly more than bodily motions are involved in this sense of sujûd] and drew near (to Me) and became one of the muqarrabûn. So look, O My angels, at how specially favored you are and at the superiority of your rank, although I did not test you with these obstacles nor obligate you to undergo their pains. And realize the rank of this servant, and give him all that he is due for everything that he has undergone and suffered on his path (toward Me), for My sake!

In chapter 50, on the "people of Hayra (spiritual 'bewilderment')" - one of the highest spiritual stations for Ibn 'Arabî, as we know - he returns to an even closer phenomenological description of this state of the truly open and purified heart, in an account whose conclusion recalls certain celebrated poems of John of the Cross. The first part of that description (IV, 218-25), though, simply summarizes the process by which any of the "people of spiritual unveiling" - as opposed to the followers of intellectual reflection or of mere formal obedience (taqlîd) - set out to discover the right divine answer to their religious questions, arising from the recurrent fundamental problem of applying or interpreting scriptural tradition:

So this group apply themselves vigorously to acquiring (the reality concerning) something that has come down in the divine reports from the side of God (al-Haqq), and they begin by 'polishing their hearts through acts of dhikr and the recitation of the Qur'an' (as specified in the famous hadith), by emptying the receptacle (of their hearts) from all inquiry about contingent things, and through the presence of careful attentiveness (to the inner state of their hearts, murâqaba) - along with observing the purity of their outward action through following the limits set by revelation... (Such a person seeking inspiration) turns their thoughts completely from their self (nafs), since that (turning away) disperses their worries, and remains alone carefully attending to their heart, at the Door of their Lord. Then when God opens up this Door for the possessor of such a heart, they realize a divine Self-manifestation (or 'theophany': tajalli) that is in accordance with their inner condition. And through that (inspiration they realize) the relation of something to God that they would never have dared to risk relating to God before and would never have even attributed to God...[unless that were already reported by the divine prophets, in which case they still could only have accepted it on faith]. But now that person applies that (newly revealed aspect of the divine) to God as verified and realized knowing, because of what was revealed to them through that divine Self-manifestation.

But this sort of "extra-ordinary" experience of divine illumination is only the first step toward the spiritual state of "Bewilderment":

For after the first such Self-manifestation (the person experiencing such an unexpected revelation of God's nature or activity in the world) imagines that they have reached their goal and accomplished the matter, and that there is nothing to be sought beyond that except for that (revelatory state) to continue. But then another Self-manifestion occurs to them, with still another quality and implication (hukm) unlike that of the first - even though the (divine Reality) manifesting Itself is undoubtedly the same, in the same position as in the first case. After that still other Self-manifestations follow one another for that person, with their different implications, so that through this (ongoing revelation) the person comes to know that this matter has no end at which it might stop. Only then do they realize that they have not perceived (or 'attained') the divine Ipseity (innîya), and that the divine Essence (huwîya) cannot be made manifest to them, in that it is the Spirit (the rûh) of every theophany. So that person's 'bewilderment' increases, but there is great pleasure in it...[which, Ibn 'Arabî hastens to add, is totally unlike the different and quite frustrating "perplexity" of our intellect that is called by the same name]. People like this have been raised above the contingent things (akwân), so that they witness nothing but (God), and He is the object of their witnessing... Their state of 'bewilderment' only grows more intense, and (because of the intensity of the satisfaction associated with it) they only seek to continue experiencing those successive Self-manifestations...

Perhaps such a description, as is not infrequently the case with Ibn 'Arabî, may seem to apply to a state of the contemplating heart almost unimaginably beyond anything we might consider possible in our own experience. But as always, the Shaykh returns to this subject from another perspective which may suggest that the fruits of such inspiration are in fact not so far removed from things we have already realized, if we can only make the essential connection (the mysterious "correspondence") between his concepts here and the corresponding spiritual phenomena. His next extended discussion of the heart, in chapter 54 (IV, 268-77) on the "Allusions" (ishârât) and technical vocabulary of the Sufis, is a striking illustration of that kind of unexpected connection - and of the fundamental role of individual "preparedness" and (humanly) inexplicable spiritual "aptitudes" in the realization of everything discussed in the Futûhât:

One of the most astonishing things about this Path (of the people of God), and something that is only found here, is the fact that there is no other group bearing a kind of knowledge - whether the logicians, grammarians, mathematicians, geometricians, theologians or philosophers - who do not also have a technical vocabulary that the novice among them does not know except by frequenting a master or another one of them: that is necessarily the case. Except for the unique case of the people of this Path, when a sincere seeker (murîd) enters among them who does not know anything at all about their technical terminology: indeed this phenomenon is precisely what allows them to know that person's spiritual sincerity (sidq). For if God has already opened the eye of that seeker's understanding and that person has (truly) taken the beginning of their spiritual 'tasting' from God, then that person will sit down among them and speak with them using their terminology in the special way that no one else knows but them - even though that person knew nothing before about the special expressions of the people of God! For that sincere spiritual seeker understands everything that they are talking about, just as though that person were actually the one who had decided upon those technical expressions; and that seeker (immediately) joins them in using that language, without feeling any strangeness about doing so - indeed that person feels that the knowledge of these expressions is immediately self-evident and unavoidable. It is as though they had always known that language, without knowing how they ever came to acquire it.

Ibn 'Arabî's allusion here to the vast extent of the "unconscious" or ordinarily unarticulated spiritual knowing and awareness of the heart that is often taken for granted precisely by those who most obviously possess it is a phenomenon that everyone has probably encountered at one time or another, and not only in the history of religions.

Pages in this article