The Mystic's Kaʿba
The cubic wisdom of the Heart according to Ibn ʿArabī
'When dawn breaks, one no longer needs a lamp'
(Abū al-Ḥusayn al-Nūrī)2
The Kaʿba must surely rank as one of the most iconic places on earth. In this paper I should like to explore less the physical, historical and social dimensions of this remarkable structure, or its continuing presence as a place of pilgrimage, or even the meaning of the Kaʿba and its rituals, but rather what the Kaʿba means for the mystic, for one who has penetrated beyond the surface appearance of things into the unfathomable depth of Being. All too often we tend to relegate religious forms to a particular community: thus the Kaʿba represents something meaningful for a muslim, whereas for others it becomes more like some anthropological curiosity, with practices they do not understand or have access to. Here my focus will be more on the universal meaning of the Kaʿba, and the wisdom of the heart that it can represent to each human being on a symbolic level – this is not the wisdom of the heart considered in some abstract intellectual fashion, devoid of particular forms, but as a mode of contemplation that views the world apparently 'out there' as a mirror that corresponds to and reveals the reality of our own self. In other words, we enter into a direct contemplation of the inner through the outer form.
Describing one of the five special privileges he had been granted, the Prophet of Islam related that 'the earth was made a place of worship for me' (juʿilat lī al-arḍ masjidan).3 That is to say, all places were given to him as places of prayer, such that wherever one is, praying to God is entirely acceptable. At the same time, from the very beginning of Islam, there were designated places of prayer (masājid, pl. of masjid, literally a place of prostration), i.e. mosques, with a particular orientation.
The qibla, the niche in the front wall of every mosque, often ornately decorated, shows the direction to the epicentre of the Islamic world. Mecca, and more particularly the Kaʿba, is the focal point of prayer, no matter where on earth a person may be. This orientation, adhered to every time someone prays, is such an omnipresent fact of physical existence amongst muslims that it has come to dominate the sense of the sacred. There is a story about the Sufi Abū Yazīd al-Bistāmī, who wanted to visit someone reputed to be a great saint. He arrived in the town and saw the man enter the mosque area and then spit in the direction of the qibla. He immediately turned around and refused to meet him, saying 'This is unfaithful to one of the customs of the Messenger of God, so how can he be faithful about what he is claiming with regard to the stations of the saints and God's elite?'4 In what sense, then, does it matter which direction we are facing when praying? Is the Divine not always present in every direction? We may understand the Islamic doctrine as pointing out that amongst all the many directions there is one to remind us of the Real at the heart of all things, hence the notion of the qibla. Nevertheless, at the same time, let us note carefully that it is not really the physical qibla that determines the direction of prayer – it is the singleness of Reality.
In addition to prayer, another of the five great sacred duties of all muslims (the so-called Five Pillars) is to undertake the pilgrimage (ḥajj) to Mecca and perform the ritual circumambulations of the Holy Kaʿba, at least once in a person's lifetime. Approximately the shape of a cube, with its four corners roughly facing the four points of the compass, the Kaʿba is covered in a great black silk and gold curtain (kiswa), which is replaced annually. It is an ancient centre of pilgrimage, designated as a holy sanctuary: no violence is permitted within a twenty-mile radius; it is considered the centre of the world itself, a place where there is a doorway to Heaven, a place where the sacred and the profane meet. According to the Qurʾan (2: 121–127), it was established by the prophet Abraham; or rather, it was rebuilt by him and his son Ishmael over the foundations of the primordial house established by the first man, Adam. The Kaʿba is said to be the earthly image of a heavenly prototype, the Frequented or Visited House (al-bayt al-maʿmūr), where angels constantly circle.
To some this is a matter of religious belief, to be followed by any believing muslim in the quest for achieving salvation. To others in this secular era, it might seem like a remnant of a bygone age, a ritual inherited from the historical recesses of ancient paganism. However, if we delve more deeply into the inner meaning of the Kaʿba, we may discover something truly remarkable about the nature of the self. By way of introduction, a historical story:
When at the beginning of his prophetic mission Muhammad claimed the shrine as the centre of monotheism, wanting the Kaʿba to be dedicated to the One God alone, this posed an enormous challenge to the Quraysh authorities, who stood to lose all the benefits of being custodians of the sanctuary and the associated trade which brought enormous wealth and prestige. As a result Muhammad and his followers were persecuted and harassed to such an extent that they had to flee for Medina in 622 (the Hijra). On his return to Mecca on 20 Ramadan 8 (11 January 630), there occurred what might be termed a civilisational event of extraordinary numinous potency. Muhammad entered the Great Sanctuary on his camel Qaṣwā, fully armed. He rode straight to the south-east corner of the Kaʿba, and touched the Black Stone with his staff, magnifying God. At this, all those near him and within earshot repeated the glorification Allāhu akbar, in a deafening crescendo before the Prophet hushed them with a gesture. With someone holding the bridle of his camel, he then performed the ṭawāf, the seven rounds of the Holy House, before wheeling away to confront the 360 idols of the pagan Arabs that stood on the perimeter, a grand totemic circle of gods and goddesses. Pointing to each idol in turn, he recited the Qurʾanic verse: 'Truth has come and falsehood has passed away, for behold, falsehood is bound to pass away' (wa qul: jāʾa al-ḥaqq wa-zahaqa al-bāṭil inna al-bāṭil kāna zahūqan) (Q. 17: 81). At this each idol is said to have fallen forward on its face (or on its back, according to the earliest biographer, Ibn Isḥāq). Handing the key of the Kaʿba to a member of the family that had traditionally guarded the Holy House, he then entered the Kaʿba building itself and had all the pictures of deities stripped from the walls, leaving only (it is said) an icon of the Virgin Mary and Jesus and a painting of Abraham.
This dramatic, irrevocable act of supreme iconoclasm, affirming the meaning of One God (tawḥīd), the ripple-effects of which were to be felt within decades in Constantinople, has determined the history of Islam and Mecca ever since. Our interest in this here is not as an epoch-changing historical event but as a symbolic pointer to a deep reality. The idols are not simply external objects of worship to be overthrown before the One True God, who has no likeness; they are a metaphor for all our human constructs of Reality, mental or otherwise. For Sufis, the overthrow of the 360 man-made idols by the Prophet at the centre of the world was to be re-enacted within each seeker of Truth at the centre of their own being, in their quest for the ever-Living God. The human heart has to be cleansed of all imaginings that defile it. For Ibn ʿArabī, the image of the Kaʿba and the pilgrims constantly circling it expresses fundamental truths about our own inner nature.
Just as every muslim knows about the Kaʿba but only some go on pilgrimage, so everybody has an idea about the mystical heart, but only some visit it and experience it directly. To find this place within us is to embark upon a journey, more or less lengthy in appearance, which if successful will become a ceaseless circumambulation around the mystery of the Heart. It is a journey that must be undertaken alone, in the privacy of one's being, on the solitary road of the uncommon.
First of all, let us remind ourselves of the crucial differences between physical pilgrimage to a stone house in the middle of Saudi Arabia, and spiritual journeying. The great 11th-century mystic of Khurasan, Abū Saʿīd b. Abī al-Khayr (d. 440/1049), was once asked why he refused to perform the ḥajj like all other good muslims. Abū Saʿīd replied: 'It is no great matter that you should tread under your feet a thousand miles of ground in order to visit a stone house. The true man of God sits where he is, and the celestial House (bayt al-maʿmūr) comes several times in a day and night to visit him and perform the circumambulation above his head. Look and see!' All who were present looked and saw it. On another occasion he is reported to have said: 'If God sets the way to Mecca before any one, that person has been cast out of the Way to the Truth.'5
What Abū Saʿīd refers to as 'the Way to the Truth' is thus not a matter of external actions or practices. When one shaykh was asked what had brought him to Mecca for the pilgrimage, he replied weeping: 'Heedlessness'. Physical pilgrimage does not guarantee a real inner movement; even those adhering to a spiritual path or practice may miss the point. This is beautifully illustrated by an anecdote related by both ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Sulamī (d. 412/1022) and Ibn ʿArabī,6 regarding the eminent 10th-century Sufi, al-Shiblī (d. 334/945). One of al-Shiblī's disciples had just returned from the ḥajj:
Al-Shiblī asked me: 'Did you remove your clothes [in order to put on the pilgrim's robe, iḥrām]?' 'Yes,' I replied. He asked me: 'Did you at the same time remove all your own acts?' 'No,' I said. 'Then,' he said, 'you did not divest yourself of your clothing!' Then he asked: 'Did you purify yourself with a full ablution?' 'Yes,' I replied. 'And did you purify yourself from all your faults?' 'No,' I said. 'Then you did not perform the full ablution!'… Then he asked me: 'When you said "Here am I, O God, here am I" (labbayka), did you hear the [divine] call to which you were responding?' 'No.' 'Then you did not utter the labbayka … And when you entered the Mosque, did you enter the Divine Closeness?' 'No.' 'Then you did not enter the Mosque! And when you saw the Kaʿba, did you see the One whose House it is?' 'No.' 'Then you did not see the Kaʿba!...' After a few more questions on each of the pilgrimage rituals, al-Shiblī concludes: 'Well, all in all you have not performed the pilgrimage. So go back and do so!'
These two stories beautifully illustrate some of the paradoxes of all religious ritual. On the one hand, to simply perform a ritual without simultaneously perceiving its full meaning has no real value; it is as if one had done nothing at all. On the other, since in reality no physical place is more 'sacred' than another, one does not have to go to a special place 'out there' in order to come to a place 'within', inside one's own soul and awareness. As the great Shirazi poet Saʿdī (d. 689/1291) put it,
I sit on the throne of the heart;
That is the style of my poverty!
I am dust on my Beloved's path;
That is my elevated state!
No need to visit the mosque for me;
Your eyebrow is a prayer arch for me.
Saʿdī, why this pilgrim's garb?
Why, indeed, this ritual of hajj?
Look at my Beloved's face;
That is the true worshipper's place!
For the mystic, the physical Kaʿba in the world represents the human spiritual heart, the 'place' within the human being where the Divine dwells, where the true human being (insān) meets the Divine face to face. In fact one can say that the Kaʿba and the heart are not really two things: the real Kaʿba is the perfect human heart, the original source of prayer, and whoever brings their heart to that state of perfection and prays from there is praying from the Kaʿba. Then the celestial Temple comes to circumambulate the Human Being.
However, knowing of this place within each of us is one thing. It is quite another to undertake the journey to reach it, and to overcome the obstacles on the road. To set off on the journey towards the inner heart, we each start from where we are, more or less distant from the central pole of the Heart. We have to undertake a particular journey, with its own particular route. We carry our own baggage, light or otherwise. We may stop en route, to rest and pick up provisions, but if our intention is clear enough, these stopping-places are temporary – we shall not mistake them for our destination. It is essential to always bear in mind what that final destination is like – which makes it equally essential to listen to those who have arrived, who bring news of the true nature of Heart.
One of the defining characteristics of true spiritual paths is convergence. All the divisions and antagonisms that appear on the outer level are dissolved and disappear at the level of the singular Heart. As Rūmī puts it,
For some the road is from Rūm [Anatolia], for some from Syria, for some from Persia, for some from China, for some by sea from India and Yemen… once they have arrived at the Kaʿba, it is realised that that warfare (this man saying to that man 'you are false, you are an infidel', and the other replying in kind) was concerning the roads only, and that their goal was one.7
There is one obstacle above all, according to Ibn ʿArabī, which stands in the way of this harmony:
The greatest sin is that which kills the heart, and it is not killed by anything except lack of knowledge of God, which is called ignorance (jahl), because it [the heart] is the 'house' (or temple, bayt) which God has chosen from this human formation for Himself. However, it has been misappropriated by this usurper (ghāṣib), who intervenes between it and its Owner. It is the greatest oppressor of his soul, because it prevents her from [receiving] the goodness which would [otherwise] accrue to her from the Owner of this house, had it but left it [the heart] to Him. Such is the deprivation of ignorance.8
We may note two important points in this uncompromising passage. Firstly, the heart properly belongs to God; He is the Owner of the heart, and it is through this heart that all good comes to the soul. In the Arab mind, and particularly for Ibn ʿArabī, the heart is not the place of emotions or feelings, as we might think of it today. It is primarily the house of real knowledge: it is the place where God Himself is known and the temple in which God already dwells. In reality it is His Heart, not ours. Secondly, the usurper that 'intervenes' between the heart and its Owner, which has misappropriated the Temple that God has chosen for Himself, is not a thing, not an ego, not a self – it is simply ignorance of the true state of affairs, or rather, an absence of knowledge of the Real God. If we do not know God, we can say that we do not have a living heart, or that our heart is dead.
The heart's pilgrimage
There are two distinct complementary and apparently opposed (in intellectual terms) aspects regarding the Way to Truth. On the one hand, it is a journey to the Heart-Kaʿba, a journey that can only be achieved through purification and polishing. As Ibn ʿArabī writes, 'the Real seeks from you your heart and gives to you all that you are. So purify and cleanse it [the heart] through presence (ḥuḍūr), watchfulness (murāqaba) and reverential fear (khashya).'9 Sometimes he uses the traditional metaphor of the heart as a reflective mirror which needs polishing – the mirror emphasising the ultimate nature of the heart as completely and infinitely receptive to the Divine revelation.
At the same time, it is a journey of the heart (safar al-qalb) to the Heart, of the mystic's heart to the reality of Heart.10 It is a movement, therefore, away from considerations of 'I', 'me', 'my heart' to concentration on God alone, His Heart, away from the usurper to the true Owner, from ignorance to witnessing and Knowledge. It can also be described as a journey from being a limited vessel to becoming what is depicted in the Christian tradition on the walls of the Chora Church in Istanbul as 'the container of the Uncontainable'. For Ibn ʿArabī the 'journey' is really the heart facing towards God in remembrance.11
As Ibn ʿArabī succinctly puts it,
when God created your body, He placed within it a Kaʿba, which is your heart. He made this temple of the heart the noblest of houses in the person of faith (muʾmin). He informed us that the heavens, in which there is the Frequented House (al-bayt al-maʿmūr), and the earth, in which there is the [physical] Kaʿba, do not encompass Him and are too confined for Him, but He is encompassed by this heart in the constitution of the believing human. What is meant here by 'encompassing' is knowledge of God.12
Here Ibn ʿArabī is of course referring to the famous ḥadīth qudsī, the words of God upon the tongue of the Prophet Muhammad, which he quotes often: 'Neither My heavens nor My earth encompasses Me – but the heart of My believing servant does encompass Me.'13
This reveals some of the most essential teaching on the nature of the heart: that nothing in the external world, high or low, can contain the True Divinity – that is to say, nothing which we can experience through our senses, which is earth, and nothing which we can imagine in our minds, however lofty, elevated and glorious, which is heaven, can begin to measure up to that which is unlimited Reality, Being Itself. God is only known (and loved) within, in the heart of the one who has faith (īmān). And this faith is not belief in the ordinary sense of the word – it is the actual realisation, intimation or appreciation that Reality is One and Indivisible, that Reality lies present as the ground beyond (or within) all form, that Reality cannot be defined or known except by apophasis, not-knowing – no wonder Ibn ʿArabī stresses the qualities of presence, watchfulness and reverence as cleansers for the heart. It is the heart of this person of faith that God seeks and where He Himself already dwells.
Accordingly, this human heart is far more important than any external edifice built to celebrate the Divine. That edifice is only a mirror to and reminder of our own interior. What is portrayed in the outer rituals of the physical Kaʿba are seen as pointing to their complements within us. This awareness should be at the basis of our understanding of the sacred. In a lengthy chapter (72) of his Futūḥāt devoted to a detailed explanation of the mysteries of the pilgrimage, Ibn ʿArabī draws a striking parallel between pilgrims at the Kaʿba and thoughts crossing the arena of the heart. Just as pilgrims circle the Kaʿba, some in awareness and some heedless, so do our pilgrim thoughts enter our consciousness at each moment, some thoughts aware of the sacredness of this heart-centre within, others oblivious.
We can also express the journey of the individual heart to the reality of Heart in terms of capacity and expansiveness. According to some Sufis, Ibn ʿArabī says, the Infinite Reality reveals Itself according to the aptitude/receptivity of the individual, i.e. according to the limited nature of the particular. As it has been expressed by a modern Lebanese writer, 'We are all vessels for Truth; but we can contain no more of it than we make room for in our souls.'14 Thus the only way the Infinite can appear is as limited and determined by the particularised form of Its appearance. However, Ibn ʿArabī is keen to stress that this is not the real potential of the human being, who has given up all sense of their own soul: 'Since the Real (al-ḥaqq) varies His revelation in forms, then the heart (of the complete human being) has to expand and contract according to the form in which the divine revelation occurs in it, for it cannot exceed the form in which the revelation occurs.' Here Ibn ʿArabī alludes to one of his favourite linguistic word-plays, that the heart (qalb) is an organ that is capable of infinite variability (taqlīb). It can expand and contract according to whatever is portrayed to it. The complete human, who has a fully developed heart, does not limit the divine through his own limitation, but reaches the stage of being the complete mirror, where whatever is displayed in it is shown exactly as it is.
Furthermore, the true human Heart is considered 'the Throne upon which the All-Compassionate is seated' and the 'House of His Names'.15 In his discussion of the heart as the throne, Ibn ʿArabī draws our attention to three of its defining characteristics in his view. Firstly, just as Compassion has no limitation whatsoever and covers all things, the Heart supports or reflects the unlimited nature of Compassion and is not limited to any particular attribute or quality. As James Morris has put it, 'The Heart of the theomorphic, fully realized human being (qalb al-insān) is understood as the locus of every conceivable form and dimension of human experience, of all the infinite, ever-renewed divine Signs or theophanies that constitute the ever-renewed creation.'16 Secondly, the heart is entirely responsive and receptive by nature: it takes the impress of the Compassionate One who is seated upon it, without constraining or limiting in any way. Thirdly, it is at the very centre of experience, more than any external edifice could ever be. In his Tarjumān poems Ibn ʿArabī draws a parallel between the spirits that encompass his heart 'hour after hour, out of love and passionate anguish, kissing my pillars' and the 'best of envoys' (i.e. Muhammad) circumambulating the Kaʿba and kissing the Stone. Equating his heart to the Kaʿba as a place of pilgrimage, he points to the true human dignity by forcefully posing a question: 'Where is the station of the Temple in comparison to the Human Being (insān)?'17
Confronting the physical Kaʿba
However, this perception of the supreme elevation of the human heart, placing it above all else in the world, got Ibn ʿArabī himself into terrible trouble when he went to the Kaʿba itself. He describes how 'she' (a feminine being, both grammatically and conceptually, like the Divine Essence) asked him to circumambulate 'her', and the Zamzam well asked him to drink its waters: 'out of a desire for friendship with the person of faith... I addressed this poem to them':
O Kaʿba of God, O Zamzam! How strongly you desire my friendship, but no, no!
If I must get involved in a friendship with you, it is through compassion and not desire towards you.
The Kaʿba is nothing other than our essence, the essence of curtains of reverential fear.
The True God is not contained by heaven or earth or any word...
He then switches to the divine speaking:
The House is greater than anything else apart from you, O My servant, when you adhere to it. [He goes on to say]... I considered my constitution (nashʾa) to be more excellent than that of the Kaʿba and her rank, and that as a place of theophany of divine realities she was inferior to me. I spoke of her as of a mineral constitution, on the first level of engendered beings.18
This spiritual perception, which he describes as 'inebriated', was so potent that one night at the full moon he was awoken and went to the Kaʿba to perform the circumambulation. In a dramatic vision he saw her rise up in anger and threaten to prevent him completing his circumambulation. She spoke directly to him:
'Keep coming on and you shall see what I will do with you! How you underestimate my worth and overestimate that of the Sons of Adam, giving preference to gnostics over me! By the Almighty Power of Him alone, I shall not allow you to circle around me!' I came back to my senses and realized that God wished to correct me. I thanked Him for this, and the affliction which I had felt vanished.19
He then composed eight soothing love-letters, explaining the Kaʿba's high rank, to calm her down! As Denis Gril observes, this alternately amusing and terrifying theophanic episode reveals a crucial point: the Kaʿba is above all a majlā, a place where theophanies (tajalliyāt) take place, and as the outer representation of the Heart, i.e. the heart of Being, it demands complete respect precisely because it reveals the meaning of the true divine heart.
We may note here, also, that Ibn ʿArabī's physical arrival at the Kaʿba and Mecca produces the most amazing flowering in his spiritual experience: in addition to this episode with the Kaʿba itself, there was the meeting with his Beatrice, Niẓām, who inspired the outpouring of poetry of his Tarjumān al-ashwāq, and the encounter with the Youth who provoked the writing of the great Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya. Three numinous beings whose presence evoked an overflowing creativity. The Meccan Illuminations, whose 560 chapters systematically plumb the depths of every mode of human spiritual experience, are termed Meccan not simply because they began to gush forth from Ibn ʿArabī in Mecca, but primarily because they spring from the very centre of being. They are revealed from the Heart, and demonstrate how the Heart is the true locus for every possible experience.
Heart: terminology and degrees
At this point it is important to remind ourselves that there are at least four major words in Arabic which can all be translated as 'heart' in English. Each has their own shade of meaning, and each suggests, in the eyes of Sufi authors, successive layers or degrees of the heart. They were given their first clear definition by Ibn ʿArabī's predecessor, Abū al-Ḥusayn al-Nūrī, in his classic text 'The Stations of the Heart' (Maqāmāt al-qulūb), using the Qurʾanic text as his basis:20 firstly, ṣadr (literally, 'chest', which is expanded from the pain of constriction and becomes joyful,21 the first part of something); qalb (that which is turned according to the revelation);22 fuʾād (from a root meaning 'to hit or strike in the heart' or 'to be ardently excited');23 and finally, lubb (kernel, heart or pith, the best part of something and hence in relation to the human, the deepest understanding or consciousness, free from any negative characteristics).24 Each of these 'hearts' acts as a 'mine' or container for its principle: the ṣadr for submission (islām), the qalb for faith (īmān), the fuʾād for direct knowledge (maʿrifa) and the lubb for affirming or realising unity (tawḥīd). In this manner, al-Nūrī delineates four successive stages of realisation, as a person moves from outer submission, to inner faith, to inner knowledge and finally full realisation. He also speaks of the heart, that is the qalb al-muʾmin, the heart of the person of faith, as a 'house' (recalling the prophetic hadith 'The heart of the person of faith is the house of the Lord (or the All-Compassionate)'). The root meaning of qalb, q-l-b, is 'to alter, convert one thing into another, or turn over', hence the idea of responsiveness since the heart is turned or can alter according to what it is presented with. We can also see here the seeds of the idea that the heart is the place where the influx of the spirit is 'converted' into the mind and other parts of the being.
Ibn ʿArabī follows al-Nūrī in distinguishing these words on the basis of how they are used in the Qurʾan (though he tends to use the term sirr instead of lubb). In an illuminating passage of his K. al-Isfār, where he is discussing the Qurʾanic verse about the Prophet's ascension, which al-Nūrī also quotes: 'He revealed to His servant that which He revealed, and the heart (fuʾād) did not lie about what it saw' (Q. 53: 10–11), Ibn ʿArabī makes an important distinction regarding two aspects of the heart:
The fuʾād is the heart of the heart (qalb al-qalb): just as the heart (qalb) has vision, so the heart of the heart has vision. The heart's vision can be affected by blindness, when it departs from the Real by preferring other than Him after He has made it close – '[It is not the eyes that are blind] but the hearts which are in their chests' (Q. 22: 46). But the heart of the heart does not suffer blindness because it does not know the created world: it has no attachment except to its Master …25
This idea of two levels or degrees of the heart is a way of explaining the distinction between the temporal and the permanent, the apparent and the real. Just as the Kaʿba is covered with a curtain (kiswa) which is changed from time to time and yet itself is a permanent structure, so the heart has a face towards the relative world (He/not-He), where variability and change occurs, and a face entirely and permanently turned to Him alone.
The fact that the heart's receptivity and responsiveness is not governed by any particular state leads Ibn ʿArabī to say: 'Hearts are the fields of mysteries. Cultivate them with spiritual practice and refinement of character, and do not leave them as mere grazing for flocks and herds.'26 This wonderful analogy, which emphasises the importance of spiritual education and training in order to lead a fulfilled life, evokes images of his time in the peaceful countryside of Malatya, overlooking a rich agricultural landscape full of fruit trees shaped over centuries by farmers – a great contrast to the barren steppes where flocks of sheep and goats roam.
The centrality of the heart is coupled with its being a place of light: in the macrocosm, the Sun is not only the centre of our galaxy (in modern parlance), but also in Ibn ʿArabī's cosmology it occupies the heart-centre of all the degrees of existence. Its lunar complement, the full moon, represents the gnostic's heart within the whole cycle of human states represented by the phases of the moon: just as the moon in its fullness perfectly reflects the light of the Sun, so the heart of the gnostic reflects the Divine Light and shines upon the world of plurality. In the cycle of the week, the fourth and middle day (Wednesday) is described as the day of Light.
Equally, the heart is the centre not only of external existence but of our human existence as well: it is considered to be in an intermediate position between the spirit (rūḥ) and soul (nafs). As his predecessor al-Qushayrī puts it, for example, 'The heart and the spirit are the repositories of praiseworthy characteristics, whereas the soul (nafs) is the repository of blameworthy ones.' In Sufi writing generally the heart is often placed in the middle of a five-fold layering of human existence: body (jism), soul (nafs), heart, spirit (rūḥ), innermost heart or secret (sirr).27 The Quran speaks of muslims as the Middle Community (wasaṭ),28 and Islam in its true sense is portrayed as the Middle Way (between extremes of transcendence and immanence, exterior and interior, etc.); thus we may accurately describe Islam as the 'religion of the heart'.
The centrality of the human heart as the field of mysteries leads to some interesting avenues of investigation: one of these mysteries is the secret of destiny/predestination (sirr al-qadar), the mystery which determines the real difference between people, our real individuality. The knowledge of this mystery, he says, is possessed by the Pole (quṭb) and by the highest group of the people of God.29 Interestingly, the 'heart' of his Fuṣūṣ al-ḥikam, in the sense of the central chapter of the 27-chapter book, is not, as might be expected, the chapter on the wisdom of the heart (which is Chapter 12). The middle chapter, the 14th (occupying the place of the full moon in the 28 lunar phases), is devoted to the wisdom of destiny (qadariyya) in the word of ʿUzayr (Ezra), in which Ibn ʿArabī says: '[God] does not pass judgement over things except through them – this is the essence of the mystery of qadar "for the one who has a heart"…'.30 Here then is the most direct link between the heart and the knowledge of the mystery of destiny, which is nothing other than the highest degree of self-knowledge. In addition, in relation to the Fuṣūṣ, we may note that the sixth word of the first sentence is 'hearts' (qulūb) as in: 'Praise be to God who brings down the wisdoms to the hearts of the Words',31 showing that the heart of Perfect Man (in the forms of the prophets) is the very first 'place' to receive the Divine wisdom (later we shall see the significance of the number six). In the introduction, he speaks of how the whole book was presented to him as the book of the Prophet himself for the realisation of 'the people of God who are people of the heart' (ahl Allāh aṣḥāb al-qulūb), i.e. it is brought out into book form so as to be read and understood at the level of the heart.
If we look at his other great work, the Futūḥāt, the notion of centrality and mystery in the book is vastly more complicated. For example, we can take the centre of the book to be the middle 19th volume of the 37 volumes (sifr): in this case, we find Chapter 270, on the inner knowledge of the spiritual abode of the Pole and the Two Imams – the Pole (quṭb) being at the spiritual centre of the whole world. We also find a more explicit thread in the fourth section of the book, the section on the spiritual abodes, the faṣl al-manāzil: as these chapters correspond directly to the Qurʾanic suras, the 'heart' of this section is Chapter 348, corresponding to what is commonly termed the 'heart' of the Qurʾan, the Sura Yā Sīn. We will not be surprised to find that the title of Chapter 348 is 'the knowledge of two of the heart's mysteries, synthesis (jamʿ) and existence (wujūd)'.32 In this chapter Ibn ʿArabi gives fascinating insights into the nature of the heart: for example, he depicts the correspondence between the four vertical edges or vertices (arkān) of the Kaʿba and the four Divine Names that govern existence (First, Last, Manifest and Hidden), and the four elements of the Qurʾanic Light verse (niche, lamp, glass, and olive oil), all in relation to the meanings of the heart.
Ibn ʿArabī often speaks of the heart in contrast to the mind or intellect (ʿaql). In this same Chapter 348, Ibn ʿArabī explains the relation between heart and mind:
The heart possesses alteration ('turning', taqlīb) from state to state, because of which it is named 'heart' (qalb). Someone who interprets heart as 'mind' (ʿaql), has no knowledge of realities, for the mind is bound by shackles (ʿuqūl). But if he means by 'mind', which is binding, what we mean by it, which is that it is bound by alteration, so that it is constantly turning, then he is correct – this is the same as our saying 'being established in variegation' (tamkīn fī talwīn), for there is always diversity, but not everyone is aware of that.33
This alludes to his teaching that 'variegation (colouring, diversification) is the actual truth in the world and indicates the divine vastness… There is no quality or state which remains for two times, no form that manifests twice… He who is One in Himself is variable in manyness.'34
This understanding of the mind as sharing the same essential characteristic as the heart, 'bound by alteration', is something that shines through all of Ibn ʿArabī's writings. His teaching, which appears as expressed in detailed intellectual terms, is far from some systematic mental edifice that he is trying to superimpose on Reality. The intellect is not relegated to a negative feature that 'shackles' a person to a particular belief-structure in contrast to the flowing passion of the heart: when married and in service to the heart, it is capable of infinite change and adaptability. The mind is free-flowing, and can act as a transmuter of spiritual light into knowledge. Such infinite responsiveness to revelation or being assimilated to the throne of the All-Compassionate also implies an inexhaustible capacity to teach others.35 One of the many lessons Ibn ʿArabī draws from this Divine vastness is that in reality we are constantly being turned from one form of mercy to another, even when it appears as some kind of suffering: 'when you truly know this', he says, 'you know what the heart of existence is'.
Heart structure: cube and sphere
Ibn ʿArabī delves further into the notion of the heart when discussing its cubist nature. In Chapter 362 of the Futūḥāt, he explores the 'prostration of the heart', which unlike prostration of the body in prayer, is constant (another way of describing the inner heart or fuʾād). Discussing how God created the world with an exterior and an interior, making one visible and the other invisible, he distinguishes between two aspects of the human viewer, the heart and the 'face':
He made the heart from the world of the Invisible (ghayb) and the 'face' [of the heart] from the world of the Visible (shahāda). For the face He specified a direction in which to prostrate, naming that His 'House'. She [the House] receives him whenever the heart turns its face in that direction in prayer… For the heart He specified His own Self, glory to Him, so that it shouldn't seek other than Him: He orders it to prostrate to Him, and if it prostrates due to an unveiling, then it will never lift its head again from its prostration in this world or the next. One who prostrates without unveiling lifts his head [again], and the lifting means heedlessness of God and forgetting God in the midst of 'things'. He who does not raise his head when his heart prostrates is one who constantly witnesses the Real in everything, so that he does not see a thing without seeing God before that thing. This is the condition of Abū Bakr al-Ṣiddīq. Do not suppose that [there was a time when] he used not to prostrate and then he prostrated – rather, he was always in prostration, for prostration for him was an essential matter. Now some of the world has had its prostration unveiled to it and knows Him, while others do not possess the unveiling of its prostration, so they are ignorant of Him, imagining that they rise and prostrate and can do as they wish.36
Contemplating the nature of the Kaʿba as a cube, Ibn ʿArabī (the original cubist?) takes the opportunity to integrate his meditations on the Heart. Explaining that there are six spatial directions and how the number 6 is the first number indicating perfection,37 he writes:
The heart has six faces: for each spatial direction there is a face of the heart which is the eye that looks in that direction. With that eye the heart sees the Real when He manifests to it in His Name Manifest. If the revelation encompasses all directions, since He 'encompasses all things' [Q. 41: 54], then the heart through its faces encompasses God's manifestation to it in each face, and becomes wholly light.38
This six-fold character of the heart being transformed into light might seem a somewhat schematic notion, until one remembers that a cube has six faces, and that a sphere has only one face, one unbounded circumference. We may then conceive of our inner human consciousness as a cube, which faces outward into the six directions of the outer world. The heart in the passage above is described as being transformed from an organ capable of receiving revelation from each of the different directions or dimensions into a holistic seeing sphere of Light. This clearly echoes the famous illumination experienced by Ibn ʿArabī in Fez in 593/1197, of which he says 'I had no sense of direction, as if I had become completely spherical'.39 In other words, when the singleness of the six-faced cube is revealed, it becomes unified and spherical – in mathematical terms, 1 x 1 x 1 = 1.
This cubic nature is also to be found in at least two of his works: first of all, as we have seen, the Tāj al-rasāʾil, directly addressed to the Kaʿba, is composed of eight love-letters, which corresponds to the cube of 2 (2 x 2 x 2 = 8). This is an appropriate number, given that the letters are addressed from one being to another, from one 'cube' to another. We can also see a 'cubic' form in the book of the Fuṣūṣ, which contains 27 chapters, i.e. the cube of 3 (3 x 3 x 3 = 27): although apparently unconnected to the Kaʿba, the Fuṣūṣ in fact relates to the 'wall' of prophethood, which was shown to the Prophet Muhammad. While we tend to think of the prophetic wall as stretching from one point to another, i.e. with a beginning and an end in time, in Ibn ʿArabī's conception the spiritual structure of sainthood, prophethood and envoyship appears as cubic. This is to be seen in his own vision of himself as the Seal of Muhammadian Sainthood, as two bricks completing one of the walls of the Kaʿba – that is to say, he envisioned the structure of sainthood (of which he himself was a part) as cubic in totality. Given that the number 3 is specific to Muhammad, and that the Fuṣūṣ presents the prophetic tradition from the standpoint of its interior Muhammadian reality, it is clear why 33 defines the structure of the book. Prophethood is being depicted in the Fuṣūṣ as a self-standing, permanent and harmoniously integrated meaning, rather than as a temporal process of linear history. Each prophet is envisioned as a singular cube (1 x 1 x 1) in their own right and part of the cubic structure of Man (al-insān al-kāmil), which can be viewed as the 28th degree.40 We may equally bear in mind that all higher cubes (23, 33, 43 etc.) always remain at the same time a single 6-faced cube of 1.41
Ibn ʿArabī sometimes uses the same cubic imagery in terms of a polished mirror. He describes the heart as 'a round (or spherical) mirror with six faces, though according to some it has eight faces. Opposite each face of the heart God has placed one of the fundamental Divine Presences, so that when one of the heart's faces is polished, it reflects the Presence that corresponds to it.'42 These six faces again represent the six faces or facets of the Cube, the Heart-Kaʿba (the eight 'faces' that some describe may be connected to the eight points on a cube).
One could hardly discuss the heart according to Ibn ʿArabī without mentioning the famous lines from his Tarjumān al-ashwāq:
My heart has become receptive of all forms: it is a pasture for gazelles, and a monastery for Christian monks,
And a temple for idols and the pilgrim's Kaʿba and the tables of the Torah and the book of the Qurʾan.
At first sight this poem is the very opposite of iconoclasm – it affirms the divinity in all kinds of external images. On closer inspection, while Ibn ʿArabī may not be an iconoclast, as his commentary explains, he situates the forms of worship in quite a different dimension: they are forms of divine knowledge in the heart, forms of the Living One's revelation which the heart readily accepts. So they remain not as graven man-made images, but as imaginal forms revealed to the heart. In his commentary on these lines Ibn ʿArabī emphasises the heart as a place of variability (taqallub), capable of receiving the different kinds of inspiration which come upon it through the variety of one's states, and the states vary because of the Divine theophanies that are suitable to his inmost heart (sirr) – an incessant circle between the human and the Divine. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we find six 'forms' mentioned in the poem: pasture, monastery, temple, Kaʿba, the Torah and the Qurʾan – surely a deliberate reminder of the six faces of the heart.
The faces of Oneness
While Ibn ʿArabī is so often associated with the Oneness of Being, it should never be forgotten or ignored that he stresses just as much the other face of Oneness, the non-stop, never-repeating revelatory effusion of that same One, expressing Itself in infinitely diverse images and forms. It is this magnificent oneness and diversity that the heart is capable of receiving. 'Truth has come' in the heart of Man, not as a monolithic ideal of a better 'idol' than all others, but in all Its intrinsic singular diversity and variegation of image. As Ibn ʿArabī points out, 'falsehood (al-bāṭil) is the same as non-being' and 'all of being is Real, nothing in it is unreal'.43 Perhaps this is how we are to understand the Prophet's action in Mecca when he caused the idols to prostrate, rather than destroying them. This is not the drama of Moses destroying the Israelites' golden calf as an example of the annihilating fire of Divine Majesty, but the returning of an image to its rightful place in relation to the Origin, which is re-enacted in every circumambulation of the Kaʿba. It is a simultaneous bowing-down in the face of Reality and the passing-away of self-illusion and unreality in vision of the omni-directional (and ultimately spherical) Face of the Real.44
Reproduced from the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi Society, Volume 48, 2010.
1. A version of this paper was originally presented at MIAS Symposia in Oxford and New York in 2009.
2. Al-Nūrī (226–295/840–907), one of the great early Sufis in Baghdad, and a companion of Junayd, was known as the amir al-qulūb (prince of hearts), who defined Sufism as 'the abandonment of everything that pleases the soul'. Quoted in al-Qushayrī's Risāla (Epistle on Sufism), trans. Alexander Knysh (Reading, 2007), p. 98.
3. Muslim, masājid 3.
4. R.A. Nicholson (ed.), K. al-Lumaʿ fi'l-taṣawwuf of Abū Naṣr ʿAbdallāh ibn ʿAlī al-Sarrāj al-Ṭūsī (London/Leiden, 1914), Arabic text, p. 103.
5. Muhammad b. Munawwar, Asrār al-tawḥīd fī maqāmat al-shaykh Abū Saʿīd, ed V. Zhukovski (St Petersburg, 1899), pp. 347 and 374, trans. Nicholson in Studies in Islamic Mysticism (London, 1998), p. 62. Abū Saʿīd himself did try once to go on pilgrimage but was dissuaded by another great master, Abū al-Ḥasan Kharaqānī. Disciples who pledged themselves to go on ḥajj were told instead to make a pilgrimage to the tomb of Abū Saʿīd's teacher, Abū al-Faḍl al-Sarakhsī, and circumambulate it seven times instead.
6. Abū ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Sulamī, Ḥaqāʾiq al-tafsīr (Cairo, 2001), I.110–111; Ibn ʿArabī, al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya (Beirut, n.d.), I.677–678.
7. A.J. Arberry (trans.), Discourses of Rūmī (London, 1975), p. 109.
8. Fut. III.179 (chapter 344).
9. From the Theophany of Acknowledging the Truth (tajallī al-taqrīr), K. al-Tajalliyāt (Beirut, 2002), CV, p. 229.
10. Long before his physical journey to the East and to Mecca, he speaks of the journey of the heart (safar al-qalb) in terms of travelling from al-Andalus, 'taking surrender as my steed, striving as my bed and trust as my provision', to the House of Holiness (bayt al-qudus), i.e. Jerusalem, the original centre of pilgrimage, which was the destination of Muhammad's night-journey (isrāʾ). When Mecca was instituted as the centre of pilgrimage, the 'Holy House' became identified as the Kaʿba. See K. al-Isrāʾ ilā al-Maqām al-Asrā, ed. S. Hakīm (Beirut, 1988), p. 57.
11. See Iṣṭilāḥāt al-ṣūfiyya, in Rasāʾil (Beirut, 1997), p. 530, no. 67 (safar).
12. Fut. III.250 (chapter 355).
13. This can also be translated as 'the heart of My believing servant does contain Me', although this should not be understood in the sense of one thing containing another thing. Rather, the heart is large enough for the Reality. As this hadith is not considered authentic by many exoteric scholars, though frequently cited in Sufi texts, it does not appear in the Mishkāt al-anwār, the collection of 101 ḥadīth qudsī which Ibn ʿArabī compiled, where authenticity was to be without question.
14. Mikhail Naimy, 'In Memory of Kahlil Gibran', in Khalil Gibran: essays and introductions (Rihani House, 1970), pp. 5–6: 'We are all vessels for Truth; but we can contain no more of it than we make room for in our souls. You cannot fill with wine a jar you have already filled with vinegar. Likewise, the heart stocked with earthly passions, unless emptied first, cannot be stocked with heavenly desires.'
15. Fut. I.667. Cf. the hadith 'The heart of the person of faith is the Throne of the All-Compassionate'.
16. James W. Morris, The Reflective Heart (Louisville, KY, 2005), p. 2.
17. See R.A. Nicholson (trans.), Tarjumān al-ashwāq XI.7–9 (London, 1978), p. 66. See also his commentary on these verses, where the author specifies that he uses the word 'heart' (qalb) rather than soul (nafs) or spirit (rūḥ) precisely because of its associations with variability (taqallub).
18. Fut. I.700. See D. Gril, 'Love-letters to the Kaʿba', JMIAS 17 (1995), pp. 40–54, for a translation (with slight modifications) of the full passage and an analysis of the Tāj al-rasāʾil.
19. Ibid. Note that the writing of eight love-letters refers to the eight points on the cube.
20. Textes Mystiques Inédits d'Abū'l-Ḥasan al-Nūrī, edited by Paul Nwyia, Mélanges de l'Université Saint-Joseph 44 (Beirut, 1968), pp. 130 ff.
21. Al-Nūrī quotes Q. 39: 22: 'And what of one whose chest (ṣadr) God has expanded with submission (islām), so that he is upon a light from his Lord? [Woe to those whose hearts (qulūb) are hardened against the remembrance of God, for they are in manifest error!]'. This expansion suggests that in the Islamic tradition it is the ṣadr where feelings of joy are felt.
22. He quotes Q. 49: 7: 'But God has caused you to love faith and has beautified it in your hearts (qulūb)'.
23. He quotes Q. 53: 11: 'The heart (fuʾād) did not lie about what it saw.'
24. He quotes Q. 3: 190: '[in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the succession of night and day] there are signs for those endowed with true understanding (ulū al-albāb)'. Some later writers also speak of lubb al-lubb, the kernel of the kernel.
25. K. al-Isfār: Le Dévoilement des effets du voyage (Combas, 1994), French trans. Denis Gril, p. 28 and The Book of Journeying (Oxford, forthcoming), English trans. Angela Jaffray. The same distinction is made in K. al-Fanāʾ, where he speaks of the heart (qalb) as having an interior which is pure establishment (or affirmation) and an exterior where things can be established and erased (Rasāʾil, pp. 20–21).
26. K. al-Inbāh, para. 47 (see D. Gril's translation of K. al-Inbāh ʿalā tarīq Allāh by ʿAbdallah Badr al-Habashi, JMIAS 15, 1994, p. 26). Compare also with al-Nūrī's imagery of the heart as a garden which is fertilised or destroyed by rain and contains the perfumed herbs of praise and gratitude (see EI2, vol. 8, p. 139, Schimmel's article on al-Nūrī). Cf. Galatians 6.8: 'He who sows in the field of the spirit will get from it a harvest of eternal life, but he who sows in the field of self-indulgence will get a harvest of corruption out of it.'
27. According to al-Qāshānī, the heart is 'a luminous denuded (mujarrad) substance, occupying an intermediate position between the spirit and the soul. It is that by which true humanity (insāniyya) is realised. The philosophers call it "the rational soul" (al-nafs al-nāṭiqa). Its inner aspect is the spirit, while its vehicle and exterior is the animal soul, which mediates between it [the heart] and the physical body' (Iṣṭilāḥāt).
28. See Q. 2: 134: 'Thus We have made you a middle community, that you might be witnesses/examples to people and that the Envoy be a witness/example to you.' 'Middle' here suggests the just mean, equitable and good. The association of the Middle with Muhammad is well-attested in Ibn ʿArabī's writings (see, for example, his K. ʿAnqāʾ Mughrib, trans. as Islamic Sainthood in the Fullness of Time (Leiden, 1999), p. 378, where G. Elmore translates wasaṭ as Heart).
29. See Fuṣūṣ al-ḥikam, chapter on Seth, Arabic text, ed. A. ʿAfīfī (Beirut, 1946), p. 60; and Fut. II.583.
30. Fuṣūṣ, Arabic text, p. 131. Note that the hearts of prophets are 'simple', discussion of the all-embracingness and centrality of walī/walāya.
31. Fuṣūṣ, Arabic text, p. 47.
32. Fut. III.197–206. The side of synthesis implies the human heart, which integrates all the realities, and the side of existence implies the Kaʿba.
33. Fut. III.198–199.
34. Fut. II.500.
35. Cf. I Ching in the 19th Hexagram (Lin, the receptive earth over the joyous lake), 'The superior man is inexhaustible in his will to teach, and without limits in his tolerance and protection of the people.'
36. Fut. III.303.
37. The number 6 is the first perfect number in the classical sense, i.e. it is the sum of its divisors, 1 + 2 + 3 = 6.
38. Fut. III.305. This implicitly refers to the famous prayer of the Prophet which specifies the six directions: 'O God, place light in my heart, light in my seeing, light in my hearing; place light at my right, light at my left, light above me and light beneath me, light behind me and light before me. Make me light!' See also variant in Padwick, Muslim Devotions (London, 1960), p. 212.
39. See Fut. II.486, translated in The Unlimited Mercifier, S. Hirtenstein (Oxford, 1999), pp. 114–115.
40. Other ways of viewing the structure of the Fuṣūṣ include the fact that 27 prophets are mentioned in the Qurʾan, and the way that the chapters can be correlated with the 28 letters of the Arabic alphabet, as explained in Chapter 198 of the Futūḥāt (see Mafātiḥ Fuṣūṣ al-ḥikam by ʿAbd al-Bāqi Miftāḥ, Dar al-Qubba al-Zarqa, 1997).
41. This mathematical 'cubism' might also partially explain the division of the Futūḥāt into 37 volumes: 27 (33) + 37 = 64 (43). Could this be pointing symbolically to that which lies between the earthly (4) and the heavenly (3), i.e. the intermediate realm of the isthmus (barzakh)?
42. In the epilogue to Mashāhid al-asrār, which was dictated to his student Ibn Sawdakīn. The same text can be found copied as a separate treatise, entitled R. fī awjūh al-qalb (RG 62). He states also that he wrote a whole work entitled Jalāʾ al-qulūb ('The Polishing of the Hearts', RG 166), which seems now lost. I hope to provide a translation of this text in a future issue of JMIAS.
43. Fut. II.129 and Fut. III.68.
44. This is why Ibn ʿArabī specifies the importance of annihilation (of illusion) and remaining (of the Real) in the Theophany of the Heart (tajallī al-qalb, K. al-Tajalliyāt XCVII, p. 221).