This article first appeared in the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi Society, Volume 46, 2009.

O Marvel!

A paradigm shift towards integration

by Stephen Hirtenstein
First presented at the Symposium "Ibn 'Arabi and the Modern Era", Istanbul, 23–25 May 2008.


O marvel! a garden amidst the flames.
My heart has become capable of all forms...

Ibn 'Arabi[2]

Given the overarching theme of this conference, I would like to begin less from a scholarly academic point of view, and more as someone taking stock at the beginning of the twenty-first century and considering the usefulness of Ibn 'Arabi's thought and writings in our modern world. When I first started to think about this paper, I came across a curious item of news on the BBC website: on 14 December 2007 at the remarkable age of 116 a humble man in the Ukraine, said to have been the oldest person living in the world, passed away peacefully in his sleep. His life had bridged the whole of the twentieth century. When he was born in March 1891, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was still in power in Europe, the nearest rival to the Ottoman, a far cry from modern democracies. Perhaps more telling than the political structures, average life expectancy in Europe was less than 50 (it is now nearly 80 in modern European countries). When he was born, Europe's population amounted to 25 per cent of the world, 1 in 4. The world population stood at just over 1.5 billion. When he died, estimates of world population were four times as much, 6.6 billion. Two-thirds of the world's current population, 4.4 billion, live in just seventeen countries. According to conservative estimates, one-tenth of the population ever born are alive today.

This expansion of human beings on the planet is not simply utterly unprecedented, but according to all the experts, looks set to continue: every year there are 70–80 million more people. Forecasts for 2050 are for another 35–40 per cent rise, primarily in Africa and Asia, and there will be some 9 billion people living on Earth by then.

I mention these staggering numbers to give us all a sense of perspective on the changes that are taking place all around us and the challenges that lie ahead: but what are we to make of these figures? Do they fill us with a sense of foreboding? Do we focus on the growth of human greed, wastefulness and conflict? Or do we see the ways in which people are increasingly co-operating with each other in terms of trade or medicine, and with the natural world? Do we welcome these aspects of modernity or reject them? Malthus's 1798 prediction that food supply would be unable to keep up with population growth has been shown to be very wide of the mark: in the so-called Green Revolution of the last half of the twentieth century world grain production increased by a remarkable 250 per cent. The scientific and technological changes that have swept the globe in the last twenty years, in the form of electronic communications, internet, medical advances etc., are also testament to the profound capacity of human beings to overcome apparently insurmountable obstacles. The modern development economist Jeffrey Sachs refers to the current time as the Age of Convergence, where it is feasible to extend the high standards of living enjoyed by the few rich countries to every country, where poverty could be eradicated, where economic development and advanced technology are becoming a worldwide phenomenon. Such convergence marks the most recent developments in the emergence of the human species over the last 13,000 years: as population has grown, societies have become increasingly complex and specialised until now we have entered an era of globalisation, in which systems of governance, law, culture and thought are converging, with all the problems that this entails.

There is no doubt that the world we study in history books is no longer the one which surrounds us, and the challenges we face are not the ones our predecessors had to contend with. As Al Gore put it recently in a speech to the Bali conference on climate change, "We, the human species, face a planetary emergency" – planetary not simply national – and he cited the example of the entire polar ice-cap disappearing in as little as five to seven years according to the most recent forecasts (to show how wrong one can be, he mentioned that until recently scientists had thought it would last until at least 2050).

Little wonder, then, that a new term for the era in which we are living was coined in 2000 by the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Paul Crutzen: the Anthropocene or the Age of Mankind. This new epoch signifies that human beings have taken hold not only of the economy and population dynamics but also of the earth's physical systems. We are now living in a time when the human species is the most significant organ of transformation on the planet: human activity has become the greatest single factor affecting natural cycles, and all other creatures are having to adapt to that or perish.

At the same time it is clear that our ability to understand what is involved in this control, our ability to take full and proper responsibility, has lagged far, far behind our capacity to adapt. It is as if we are being seated on Solomon's throne without the benefit of any of his wisdom. Some feel that the imminent environmental catastrophe is a product of human selfishness, perhaps even human nature, and even go so far as to say that if human beings were to be removed from the planet (by some unspecified means), the whole natural world would be better off. Others might refer to what the Qur'an calls the "corruption" (fasād) foreseen by the angels when God announced he would create a khalīfa on the earth: "Wilt Thou place on it one who will do corruption therein, and shed blood?" (Q. 2: 30). Even if Adam was capable of rising above the mire, his children are evidently not. Some are correlating this crisis with the end of the world. To rephrase Al Gore, some might say that "the planet faces a human emergency".

It is very tempting to view this as a series of doom-and-gloom negatives, but that has always seemed to me to be just another excuse for bad behaviour. It assumes that we are judging the situation correctly; it assumes that humans are doomed to "do corruption". However, as the Qur'an states immediately after this questioning by the angels, "God said: I know that which you do not", and Adam demonstrated to the angels the true human rank, by showing them their Names. Thus that which is revealed from the supra-human is entirely clear: no-one comprehends the real dignity of Man except God, or as Ibn 'Arabi puts it, those who know how to contemplate God perfectly.

No-one can deny that human activities leave a great deal to be desired. However, that view alone would ignore the essential capacity we have for self-transcendence, for going beyond apparent limitations, for working in harmony with others and not against them, for assuming the dignity of the complete human being which lies in the potential of each and every one of us. As William Chittick puts it, "It is precisely this possibility of transcendence that marks the highest human calling."[3]

At this point let me refer to the work of Ibn 'Arabi, who can be said, without exaggeration, to have promoted one of the most intensely positive and harmonious visions of human potential and realisation. The complete universality and inclusivity found in the thought and writings of Ibn 'Arabi offers an endlessly fertile field of study. This is not only true for the specialist scholar and academic, but equally promises a rich cultural and civil reward for societies and individuals anywhere in the world. His words are capable of bringing a deeper appreciation, not simply of our own spiritual heritage but of the whole meaning of being human. Beyond even the vast scope of the Western Abrahamic tradition, there is no culture or form of belief to which he does not speak, since he stresses four fundamental principles: (1) the essential unity of all life and all living things (and for him everything is living); (2) the high rank of the true Human Being, irrespective of gender, class or nation; (3) the primacy and ultimate supremacy of Divine Mercy and Compassion at every level; and (4) the infinite number of different viewpoints, each of which has a validity and place within the Divine order.

The following is a cautionary tale from Ibn 'Arabi's Futūhāt:

I once met one of the wandering pilgrims on the sea-coast between Marsa Laqit and the light-house. He told me that on the same spot he had come across one of the saints (abdāl) walking upon the waves of the sea. [He said] "I greeted him and he returned my greeting. This was a time of great injustice and oppression in the country, so I asked him what he thought of all the injustices that were happening in the land. He glared at me angrily and said: 'What is that to you or God's servants? Don't speak of anything but that which is good! May God grant you help and accept your apology for this.'"[4]

At first sight this is a typical quietist saintly viewpoint, a disengagement from worldly political realities: do not look at the injustices wrought by mankind, concentrate on the reality behind all phenomena. However, there is far more to it than that: as Ibn 'Arabi observes, lacks, defects and impurities are matters of accident, whereas what is essential and real is pure. Therefore in every situation, according to Ibn 'Arabi, we should engage with what is essential; we should protect what is real from what appears as an accidental defect. This forms part of the primary pieces of advice that Ibn 'Arabi gives in the final chapter of his Futūhāt:

Think only good of God in every state, and never think ill of Him. You do not know whether the breath that is leaving you now is going to be your last and you die, and whether you will meet God with a good opinion of Him, not a bad one. You do not know. Perhaps God will take you in this breath that is leaving you now. So leave what is said by those who think ill while you are still alive, and think only good of God at the time of your death – for according to the knowers of God that [time] is not known, and they are with God in their breaths.[5]

If this is true of thought, it is equally true of speech. Our mentioning of the negative goes against our real nature and the fundamental nature of things, as the famous story of Jesus and the dog's carcass exemplifies.[6] To mention (dhakara) or speak of the good is of course to remember the good; to mention God is to remember that He is the One Existent Reality apart from which there is no other. This tawhīd, we are told, has a direct consequence: as is related in the well-known hadīth qudsī, "If he mentions/remembers Me in himself, I mention/remember him in My Self; and if he mentions Me in an assembly, I mention him in a better assembly than that."[7]

Therefore it is imperative for any serious student of Truth to concentrate solely on the essential, that which is good, and plead with God's intercession in everything other than that. The implications of such behaviour are dramatic: nothing less than a complete shift of perspective, which makes surface judgements not simply redundant but actively harmful. To mention anything other than the good in respect of God is to give that thing a reality that it does not have and to imprison ourselves against Truth. To the spiritually realised, each moment of this relative world, the present where past touches future in a dimensionless isthmus, is entirely theophanic: it displays the Divine Face, and it is completely under His jurisdiction – and the true human being is witness to this Reality, the "place of God's gaze".[8] Even if we do not see that, God knows that which we do not.

Following the Qur'an ("To Him belongs the creation and the command", 7: 54), Ibn 'Arabi speaks of two kinds of world: the world of creation (khalq), which he also calls the world of composites (tarkīb), and the world of command (amr), which is the angelic or spiritual world. The first is a relative world of "accidents", with more and less, good and evil, in it (it includes the whole of the material universe); while the second is an essential world of pure good, in which there is no lack. When explaining the angels' initial rejection of Adam, Ibn 'Arabi refers to these two worlds as being in some sense totally opposed: for the angelic, good is what exists, hence their eternal and unwavering praise of the Divine.[9] From this point of view, the polarities inherent in relativity are not real: "All good which becomes manifest within the world of creation derives from its Divine Spirit, which is procreative light."[10] Thus any fall from constant praise is necessarily a falling away and a rejection of the Real. This explains why the angels should have entered into a dispute with God: from their standpoint, constant praise is always superior to a praise that is subject to relativity. This, Ibn 'Arabi explains, is as far as their knowledge reached:

Had they truly known themselves, they would have known, and had they known, they would have been safeguarded. Their disparagement of Adam carried on with their claim that they give great sanctification and glorification [to God]. But Adam possessed certain Divine Names which the angels were not in possession of, so they did not glorify or sanctify their Lord with them in the way that Adam did. [11]

Although the story appears to censure the angels for lack of self-knowledge, the real meaning which Ibn 'Arabi draws from this is the Divine education for human beings: unless we know ourselves in our real Adamic nature, as the Divine Image, i.e. as God knows us, our knowledge is provisional and subject to error; we may think that we are right, because we remain veiled by our own selfhood and cannot imagine something superior. We may fall into the angels' predicament, and be right (in our own eyes) and yet utterly wrong. What the angels could not imagine is how the low world of material relativity produces circumstances which are intrinsically more elevated than the spiritual world.[12] This points to what is required here as our primary attitude towards Reality: awe and prostration before the One who is Eminently Mighty and All-Knowing – this prostration is exactly what the angels displayed after their dispute,[13] and is the corrective to any self-vaunting.

But there is so much more in Ibn 'Arabi's depiction: the overarching capacity of the true human, the Image infinitely capable of reflecting all the Divine Names and Qualities, receptive of all forms. There is not only awe (hayba), which establishes separation due to the Names of Majesty (jalāl), but also intimacy (uns, from the same root as insān, human), which establishes closeness and identity with the Divine due to the Names of Beauty (jamāl). The human, moulded with the Two Hands of God, who receives the Divine Spirit, the human as complete mirror to God, the human as Image of the All-Compassionate, the human as the supreme barzakh between God and His creation, between the Infinite Unknown and the worlds of manifestation. This is not simply a theoretical schema that involves only our mind: it is the actuality behind our experience, if we only knew and saw. It is quite simply what makes us human.

If the waters of our individual nature were stilled, the Total Divine Image would manifest on its surface as It really is. The full human potential that exists within is awaiting our consent to manifest; yet we imprison Reality within a constriction we call "ourselves" and "others". As the hadīth qudsī puts it, "I was sick and You did not visit Me...",[14] indicating that the reality of the "other" is actually "one of My servants", and "(Had you visited him) you would have found Me with him", since the Divine responds to all who express compassion. If we were to understand the true import of this saying, we would see that the sickness lies not in others outside us, but in our own self. The Divine "sickness" describes those parts of our own self which we keep far from the Light of Truth, and if we were to visit them, we would find Him hidden within them. In this manner we could begin the real visiting and finding.

As Ibn 'Arabi's famous poem puts it, "O marvel! a garden amidst the flames. My heart has become capable of all forms...". This is not the creed of a theoretical unity, where all religions are somehow melded into one. This is the direct perception of one who has realised his true humanity and articulates the joy of his discovery to awaken this potential in others. This is a marvellous integration that gives full value to differentiation. As Ibn 'Arabi thunderously proclaims in his 'Anqā' Mughrib,

So recognise your God before death comes, lest you die
and you are still held captive by convention! [15]

If one thing has impressed me about Al Gore (and other prominent men and women at the forefront of new thinking), it is the way he is able to articulate the real benefit of a positive outlook: "Instead of shaking our heads at the difficulty of this task and saying 'Woe is us, this is impossible, how can we do this?', we ought to feel a sense of joy that we have work that is worth doing that is so important to the future of all mankind. We ought to feel a sense of exhilaration that we are the people alive at a moment in history when we can make all the difference."[16] Such a sense of joy in vocation used to be restricted to the religiously-minded; now the actions of everyone, great and small, affect the restoration of balance on the planet, both exteriorly and interiorly. We are living in a remarkable era, when the dignity and responsibility of the individual human being is coming to the fore in all aspects: "Everyman", or rather the singular Complete Man who is the reality of every man, is beginning to come of age. In short, the challenge is to see ourselves in the light of the human divine image, to know that we have been blessed with existence and dressed in the Divine Names and Qualities, and to act according to what is best in us.[17] Change lies in our own hands, and God knows that which we do not.


Notes

1. This paper was first presented at the Symposium "Ibn 'Arabi and the Modern Era", Istanbul, 23–25 May 2008.

2. Ibn 'Arabi describes gnosis of God as "a garden amidst the flames" because it is produced (but not consumed) by the fires of seeking and longing; see also the Tarjumān al-ashwāq, trans. R. Nicholson, poem XI, p. 67.

3. William Chittick, Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul (Oxford, 2007), p. 146.

4. Fut. I. 707 (Beirut edn). Marsa Laqit is a coastal village to the north-west of Tunis, home of Ibn 'Arabi's teacher, al-Kinani. The light-house was where his friend and teacher, 'Abd al-'Aziz al-Mahdawi, lived and had a group of students. Ibn 'Arabi spent time with both these masters when he stayed in Tunis – see my Unlimited Mercifier (Oxford, 1999), pp. 87–9 and 144–6. For a discussion of the abdāl, see my translation of Ibn 'Arabi's hilyat al-abdāl, The Four Pillars of Spiritual Transformation (Oxford, 2008), especially pp. 1–18.

5. See Fut. IV. 446. He adds the merciful reminder that one should think of God [as], or rather, know Him to be the One who will pardon, forgive and overlook faults.

6. This story can be found in Tarif Khalidi's excellent The Muslim Jesus (Cambridge, MA, 2001), no. 127, quoted inter alia by Ghazali: "Jesus and his disciples passed by a dog's carcass. The disciples said 'How foul is his stench!' Jesus said 'How white are his teeth!'"

7. See Ibn 'Arabi's Mishkāt al-anwār (Arabic edn and English trans. by S. Hirtenstein and M. Notcutt as Divine Sayings, Oxford, 2004), no. 27. This hadīth qudsī is also part of the earliest pieces of counsel in chapter 560 of the Futūhāt (see Fut. IV. 446).

8. This phrase is often used in Ibn 'Arabi's writings: e.g. Mashāhid al-asrār (Murcia, 1994, Arabic p. 60) or K. al-Inbāh (JMIAS 15, 1994, p. 11).

9. Ibn 'Arabi recounts a vision in Cairo in which an angelic presence tells him: "Know that good is in existence and evil in non-existence. God in His Generosity has created man and made him unique in His creation, created according to His Names and Attributes – but man has lost sight of this by regarding his own essence, seeing himself by himself." (Muhādarāt al-abrār, II: 54)

10. "The world of creation and composition requires evil by its very nature, whereas the world of command is a good in which there is nothing evil. When [the angels] saw the creation of man and his composition from incompatible natures – incompatibility (tanāfir) being the same as dissension and conflict (tanāzu'), which leads to corruption (fasād) – they said: 'Wilt Thou place on it one who will do corruption therein, and shed blood?'... Then there happened what the angels had spoken of; they saw that God says 'God loves not those who do corruption' (5: 64) and 'God loves not corruption' (2: 205), so they abhorred what God abhors and loved what God loves, but God's decree followed the course determined by the Eminently Mighty, the All-Knowing (al-'azīz al-'alīm). The evils which became manifest in the world of composition derive from its nature, as mentioned by the angels. The good which becomes manifest within it derives from its Divine Spirit, which is the procreative light, so the angels spoke the truth. Thus God says 'Whatever ill befalls you is from yourself' (4: 79). Since the world of creation is like this, it is incumbent upon every intelligent person to cling to (seek refuge in) this light." (Fut. II. 575)

11. Fusūs, Chapter of Divine Wisdom in the Word of Adam (Arabic edn by A. Afifi, Beirut, 1946), p. 51.

12. One example which the commentators on this Fusūs passage give is the manifestation of certain Divine Names, such as Forgiveness (Ghafūr), which require the existence of lack in order to manifest their effects. If there is nothing to forgive, God cannot be known as forgiving.

13. Q. 2: 32: "Glory to Thee, we have no knowledge except what Thou teachest us."

14. Mishkāt al-anwār no. 98 – "God will say on the Day of Resurrection: 'O child of Adam, I was sick and you did not visit Me.' [The man] asks: 'My Lord, how could I visit You, when You are the Lord of the universes?' He will reply: 'Did you not know that one of My servants was sick, and you did not visit him? Did you not know that if you had visited him, you would have found Me with him?'". See Divine Sayings, pp. 93–94.

15. Translated by Gerald Elmore as Islamic Sainthood in the Fullness of Time (Leiden, 1999), p. 273.

16. Extract from Gore's speech given at the Bali conference on climate change, 14 December 2007.

17. As St Augustine once put it, "We should pray as if everything depends on God and act as if everything depends on us."