This paper was originally presented at the Twenty-fourth Annual Symposium of the Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi Society, entitled "Unified Vision – Unified World?", held at Worcester College, Oxford, 28-29 April 2007. Reprinted from the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi Society, Vol. 43, 2008.

"Watered with One Water"
Ibn 'Arabī on the One and the Many

by Angela Jaffray

I must admit that my very first reaction to the title of this symposium was one of measured opposition. Universality of vision in Ibn 'Arabī? Yes, of course. It is essential. But... one cannot ignore the other side of the equation, our expanding universe with its infinite theatres of divine manifestation. This is the course we navigate as we assume and shed diverse sensations, states, and stations. It is this vision that dominates human existence: a world of graded hierarchies, levels, specific faces, veils, and Names. A cosmos of dualities, oppositions, complementarities, contraries, rivals, counter-forces, and tensions. And it is not only on the human level that our vision is marked by multiplicity. Multiplicity is also to be found on the level of the Divine Names!

Ibn 'Arabī is perhaps best known for his radical monotheism. There simply is nothing else but the Real, the One. But in his vision of reality, with its constant reference to Unity, the Shaykh, nevertheless, did not present a blind eye to the world of ever-changing phenomena.[2] In fact, he gives it the technical term: ahadiyyat al-kathra, the Oneness of the Many – as opposed to ahadiyyat al-ahad or ahadiyyat al-'ayn, the Oneness of the One, or the Oneness of the Essence. Diversity within unity is of such importance to Ibn 'Arabī that at one point he offers these shocking words, assigned to God as He speaks to His servant:

Do not say, "There is nothing but God," even if that is the case – and it is the case. Have not the intelligible levels distinguished between "He is like this" and "He is like that"? The Essence is One, as you say; but, in respect of one thing, He is such and such, and in respect of another thing, He is something else.[3]

The range of symbols Ibn 'Arabī musters to deal with this opposition within the all-encompassing unity are many, including (but in no way exhausting the repertoire): root versus branch, Qur'ān versus Furqān, meaning versus utterance, matter versus form, ringstone versus facets, Throne versus Footstool, Allah versus Lord.

In searching for a way to approach the subject, I reviewed them all. It was during a late December deluge that the word came: water. Water? This was something unexpected. But the more I plunged into the vast seas of Ibn 'Arabī's immense corpus, the more convinced I became that this symbol held a powerful clue to explaining Ibn 'Arabī's notions of the one and the many.


The title of this paper, "watered with one water", does not come directly from Ibn 'Arabī: it is a line from the Qur'an, Sura 13, The Thunder, verse 4. The entire verse reads as follows:

And in the Earth are neighboring tracts, vineyards and ploughed lands, and date-palms, like and unlike, which are watered with one water. And We have made some of them to excel others in fruit. Lo! Herein are signs for people who have understanding.[4]

As far as I know, Ibn 'Arabī refers to this expression "watered with one water" only three times in the Futūhāt. In the first instance, Ibn 'Arabī says, speaking of divine intention:

It is like water. Its station is that it descends or flows on the earth. The fact that the dead earth is vivified by it or that the house of a poor old woman is demolished by its descent does not belong to it [essentially]. It causes flowers that are sweet-smelling and loathsome to emerge and [it causes] good fruits and disgusting ones [to emerge] due to the rottenness or goodness of the mixture of the locale or due to the rottenness or goodness of the seed. The Most High said: "Watered with one water. And We have made some of them to excel others in fruit" (Q. 13:4); and He said: "Lo! Herein are signs for people who have understanding" (Q. 13:4).[5]

In Ibn 'Arabī's second use of this verse, the subject is again ranking in excellence, something that would seem to fly in the face of God's unity. The Shaykh explains:

Since the cosmos consists of the words of God, the relation of these words to the All-Merciful Breath in which [these words] become manifest is one relation. This proves that there is no ranking of excellence within the cosmos, nor is anyone chosen because of God's preference of one over others. But we see that the matter is different with respect to all existing things. God says: "We have honored the children of Adam [...] and We have ranked them with a clear ranking in excellence over many of those We created" (Q. 17:70). And God says: "And those messengers, some We have ranked in excellence over others" (Q. 2:253); and He says: "And some [plants] We have ranked in excellence of produce over others," even though they are "watered with one water" (Q. 13:4). There is no verse more appropriate for the ranking in excellence that actually occurs in existence than this last verse, in that He says: "watered with one water". Thus diversity of flavor becomes manifest from the one [water] by way of ranking in excellence. Verses of this sort occur often in the Qur'an, thereby showing the excellence of some of each kind above others. Even the Qur'an itself – which is the speech of God – is more excellent than other revealed books, although they are all the speech of God. Moreover, parts of the Qur'an itself are more excellent than other parts, although all of it is ascribed to God in that it is His speech, without doubt.[6]

The third passage again draws attention to essential oneness and perceptual diversity:

Pay attention to the Most High's saying: "It is watered with one water" (Q. 13:4). The earth is one, but the tastes, fragrances, and colors differ. You say that honey is sweet and delicious; then you see that some temperaments are harmed by it, do not find it delicious, and find it bitter. Similar is the case with fragrances and colors, for we see that these differences go back to perceptions, not to the things [themselves]; so we see them as relationships that have no reality in themselves except insofar as their substance is concerned.[7]

In these three exegetical passages, we see our theme clearly laid out. At root is an essential and undeniable Unity. Diversity is the result of sheer accident, the effect of God's discrimination, a necessary concomitant of manifestation in form. But not all accidents are equal in quality, which makes for the chiaroscuro in our lives.

In the passages above, Ibn 'Arabī uses the metaphor of water to describe the situation. What is it about water that makes it such an appropriate symbol for universality versus particularity?

Water, we must realize, performs a function in Ibn 'Arabī's writing that is analogous to his treatment of Islam, the Qur'an,[8] and the prophet Muhammad. On the one hand, water is simply one of the four elements, just as Islam is one of the four[9] monotheistic religions, the Qur'an one of the scriptures, and Muhammad one of the messenger-prophets. Yet all of these – unlike the other members of their species – have a universality that transcends specification. Water, as an element among elements, is treated often in Ibn 'Arabī's works in a way that conforms to general scientific notions of the times.[10] But water, as a metaphysical principle, is something else. It is this water that stirs the imagination as a polyvalent symbol expressing many things, some of which we will discuss in this paper.

It is not surprising that water has always played a central role in Islamic culture. For the Arabs of Muhammad's time, just as for the Jews in biblical times, and for all people for whom water is precious and scarce, society revolved around places where water could be found: wells, watering holes, oases. One's very life depended on finding and following the paths to water. Hence some of Islam's primary technical terms are water-based. Sharī'a, commonly translated as Law, originally meant the way to the watering hole. The root of the word sabīl, way, road, or path – in particular God's way – also applies to copious rain. And the many words connected to the root warada, such as wird (the prayer of private worship), wārid (the inspirational thought), and warīd (the jugular vein) are a veritable meditation on water.

The entire cycle of water and its intimate relationship with the receptive earth is given a spiritual coloration by the Shaykh. The quality of the produce depends not on the rainwater, which is entirely good, but on the quality of the land. Rainwater, he says in his chapter on Purification,[11] has a single state: it is "wholesome, pure, fresh, palatable, and drinkable".[12] Spring and river waters, on the other hand, have their source in rocks, and become mingled with the blemishes from which they spring and the terrain over which they flow. The taste of water is different: "some is sweet freshwater, some briny seawater, some foul, bitter, and viscous".[13] Or, to put it in another fashion: "The color of the water is the color of the glass", as Junayd famously pronounced. This is an appealing analogy, for it sums up quite nicely the relationship between the one and the many. Water – whatever it may stand for, and as we shall see below, it may stand for many things: life, knowledge, love, and so forth – water is one, and completely without attributes, in effect, colorless. It is particularized and altered by the vessel or locale where it is found. As Ibn 'Arabī points out in his "Treatise on Majesty and Beauty", the color of water in itself is imperceptible, like vision itself.[14]

In the following part of my paper, I will discuss how Ibn 'Arabī uses the symbol of water in connection with some key concepts: life, knowledge, sharī'a, love, and purification.


Water symbolizes many things for Ibn 'Arabī. Of primary importance, however, are life and knowledge, which are intimately related. It is no coincidence that the Arabic verb most often associated with God's bestowal of both life and knowledge is anzala (or nazzala): to send down, to make descend, to reveal. The Qur'an and rain, which is the purest of all sensibly perceived waters, are the most frequent objects of this "sending down".

Ibn 'Arabī opens his chapter on Job[15] in the Fusūs by saying:

Know that the secret of life permeates water, which itself is the origin of the elements and the four supports. Thus did God make "of water every living thing" (Q. 21:30).... Everything is living and everything has its origin in water.[16]

In the Futūhāt's magnificent Chapter 198, on the Breath of the All-Merciful, is a cosmological section taking the reader from stage to stage in creation, each stage linked with a level, a Divine Name, a celestial constellation, a letter, and as many have pointed out, a prophet and chapter of the Fusūs. Near the end of the levels, we find the four elements. The level corresponding to water is linked, interestingly enough, to the Divine Name al-Muhyī, the Vivifier. We should also point out the obvious fact that it is an element of Ibn 'Arabī's honorific: Muhyiddin, the one who gives life to the religion.

The prophet of the Fusūs associated with the level of water is John the Baptist. In Arabic, his name is Yahyā, meaning "he lives". As Stephen Hirtenstein mentioned in a previous talk,[17] John baptizes with the water of life.

The mysterious "green man", Khidr, who will be discussed later in connection with knowledge, is also associated with water in its life-bestowing capacity. Ibn 'Arabī recounts in the Futūhāt the history of this most unhistorical man. According to the Shaykh, Khidr was in the army and was sent to find water for his squadron. What he found was the Fountain/Source/Spring/Essence ('ayn) of Life. He drank from it and became immortal. Although he told his companions of the Source, and they ran off to seek it for themselves – and "for themselves" seems to be the operative word here – they were unable to find it, for God diverted their sight from it.[18] Henceforth, Khidr was connected with everything green, spring-like, life-giving. As the French phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard says: "The spring is an irresistible birth, a continuous birth."[19] It is this spring that Khidr found, such that wherever he sets foot, vegetation grows.

In Paradise flows the Universal River of Life, into which Gabriel dips his wings daily and in which the People of the Fire bathe after intercession has been made on their behalf.[20] These latter "spring back to life just like the seedling carried along in the silt by the flood."[21] Even if these people had not done a single good deed in their lives, when they are washed by the River of Life, they are transformed into "pearls".[22]

Waters of Trial and Death

We cannot pass on without noting the obvious fact that water is also associated with death. Recall the quintessential stories recounted in both the Bible and Qur'an of Noah's generation, drowned in the Flood, and Pharaoh and his people, engulfed by the unparting of the Red Sea.

Ibn 'Arabī explicitly associates water with trial and God's creation of life and death as trial:

Since water is the root of life and of every living thing, while the relationships are subordinate to water, [God] makes a connection between the Throne placed on the water and His creation of death and life in trial. He says, "His Throne is upon the water, that He might try you" (Q. 11:9), that is, test you. The Throne... consists of existent entities and nonexistent relationships. [God] also says, "[Blessed be He...], who created death and life, that He might try you" (Q. 67:1ñ2). So life belongs to the entities, and death to the relationships.[23]

Here it is clear that water itself is life and only life. It can be nothing else. Death is something entirely accidental, a sea-change in relationships.

Again Ibn 'Arabī clarifies the nature of water in the following passage:

Since water is the root of every living thing whose life is accidental, God gives to drink the one who goes straight to the water of life.

If it is the giving to drink of solicitude, such as for the prophets and messengers, God gives life through it to whom He wishes; and if it is the giving to drink of trial, it is because of the remedy that is in it.... The Most High said: "If they tread the straight path, We shall give them to drink of water in abundance that We may test them thereby" (Q. 72:16ñ17) – so this is the giving of water as trial.[24]

I think we can see here once more that water itself is good: for the righteous it only adds to their goodness; but for those who stand in need of a cure, the medicinal waters may not have the same sweet taste. The end result, however, is mercy and divine solicitude. Although Pharaoh physically perished, it was not before he bore witness to the existence of God in the salvific waters that ensured his eternal spiritual life. I quote from the Fusūs:

Pharaoh's consolation was in the faith God endowed him with when he was [later] drowned. God took him to Himself spotless, pure and untainted by any taint, because He took him in the act of commitment, before he could commit any sin, since submission [to God] erases all that has gone before it. Thus, He made of him a symbol of the loving care He may bestow on whomsoever He wills, lest anyone should despair of the mercy of God.[25]

The case of the drowning of Noah's people, a people tried by water, is also treated symbolically. We will deal with this in our next section, water as knowledge.


Using "water" to signify knowledge is a time-honored and perhaps universal practice. The ancient rabbis and medieval Jewish philosophers interpreted verses such as: "Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye for water" (Isaiah 55:1) and: "My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God" (Psalms 42:3) as referring to knowledge.

In Ibn 'Arabī's writings this analogy is ubiquitous. In the Fusūs, for example, he interprets the waters Moses is cast upon in his ark[26] as "the learning he acquired through the medium of his body, such as is obtained through the faculty of speculative thought, of sensation and imagination, all of which accrue to the human soul only through the existence of the elemental body."[27] "[He] was cast on the waters that he might acquire by these faculties all kinds of learning."[28] Water, the universal solvent, dissolves. The ark, symbol of the body, resists this dissolving through its pursuit of the distinct forms of knowledge.†

Knowledge acquired through reflective thought and reason varies according to the individual temperament in question. This is why people disagree about a matter; or a single individual may say different things about the same thing at different times. On the other hand, divine knowledge "received directly from God's Presence through revelation ('ilm ladunī ilāhī mashrū') has a single taste" even if the places and palates differ. Even if graded in quality, it is all good, pure, and free from admixture. This is why the prophets and saints all say the same thing about God, since the source is God's Own Presence. This knowledge is like pure rain, which is of one substance when it falls.[29]

In the Isfār the story of the destruction of Noah's people is specifically linked to the intertwining notions of water and knowledge. The event takes place in the sign of Cancer, a watery "unstable" sign, "the sign in which God created the world". Noah's concern here is the forging of a spiritual body, described in this chapter as the ark of salvation that will carry Noah and his companions to the next cycle of existence, or world, represented by the astrological sign of Leo, "a stable sign". Unable to fathom the alchemical conjunction required for this transformation, Noah's people perish. As the Shaykh says: "Water is like knowledge in that life comes from both with respect to the sensible and the supra-sensible. Therefore [Noah's people] perished because of their rejection of knowledge."[30]

In the Fusūs, on the other hand, Noah's people perish in the very seas of knowledge of God. They become, in fact, perfect gnostics who resist Noah's assertion of God's uncompromising transcendence that excludes any mention of God's attributes, such as seeing and hearing. In reality, as Noah's folk know, God is both manifest and unmanifest, witnessed in the forms of the cosmos and hidden as the Spirit determining and animating these forms. When Noah's call comes, they stick their fingers in their ears, refusing to hear it, because it does not combine the two aspects of transcendence (tanzīh) and immanence (tashbīh). Noah's unbalanced call is a test, a trial, as well as a courteous gesture towards Muhammad, whose call will be the perfect mixture of tanzīh and tashbīh. Noah, being a divinely inspired prophet, is aware of his imperfect call, as are the people themselves. Noah knows that there is a perfection hidden in imperfection, in that Nature cannot be in perfect equilibrium or the cosmos would cease to exist. As the Shaykh says in the Fusūs (Chapter on Job): "The act of creation, which occurs with the breaths eternally, constitutes an imbalance in Nature that might be called a deviation or alteration."[31] Nature must be in constant movement; God must be "every day upon some task". By refusing to hearken to Noah's message, his people behave in a perfectly appropriate way and are rewarded by annihilation (fanā') in the watery furnace (tannūr) of complete knowledge.

Two other notable figures are closely associated with forms of knowledge, namely Moses and Khidr. The Qur'anic[32] story of Moses' encounter with the figure taken to be Khidr, although he remains unnamed in the story, is probably well known to you all, but here I will be emphasizing the element of water in the story. The two, as you recall, meet at the juncture of the two seas (bahrayn).

First of all, what are these two seas? The expression "two seas" is mentioned five times in the Qur'an. In Chapter 2 of the Futūhāt,[33] Ibn 'Arabī quotes the Qur'anic verse: "He hath loosed the two seas. They meet. There is a barrier (barzakh) between them. They encroach not [upon one another]. Which is it, of the favors of your Lord, that you deny?" (Q. 55:19ñ21). He asks: "Is it the sea that He joined to Himself and concealed from the entities? Or is it the sea that He separated from Himself and called 'creation'? Or is it the barzakh (between the two seas) upon which 'the Merciful is established (istawā)'"? (Q. 20:5).

In another Qur'anic verse (Q. 35:12), the two seas are described as follows: "And two seas are not alike: this one is fresh, sweet, good to drink, this [other] salty and bitter. And from them both ye eat fresh meat and derive the ornament that ye wear." Benefit, therefore, is derived from both. Water, as we have seen, is pure essentially. Any change it undergoes is not substantial but accidental. It is always beneficial, no matter what the taste.

Khidr and Moses, saint and messenger, meet at the juncture of two seas. They have already long experience with water. Khidr's discovery of the Source of Life has already been mentioned. He is also associated with the symbolic Green Sea, a vast sea of life and knowledge. Since Khidr is always associated with the color green, the Green Sea – the original source of which may be a prophetic hadith[34] – mentioned in several of the Shaykh's writings – immediately brings Khidr to mind.

Let us turn now to Moses. Moses, as we see him in the Fusūs, can certainly be classified among his fellow prophets Noah, Jonah, and Job, who are "tried by water". Set in an ark by his mother,[35] he is cast into the waters of the Nile to avoid Pharaoh's wrath. The child is thus saved from the death the other male infants of Israel suffered,[36] and is named "Moses" (Mūsā), by Pharaoh, "meaning water and meaning a tree, in Coptic",[37] or so goes Ibn 'Arabī's creative etymology. It is later Pharaoh who is drowned in the waters of the Red Sea while Moses and the Children of Israel walk across on dry land – Moses' staff,[38] instrument of mastery over the element of water, having parted the sea for their passing.

In the desert, Moses again uses his staff – symbol of the letter alif, the unifier of the letters – to strike the rock in order to provide water for his people. Twelve rivers were said to spring from that rock, each stream providing a watering place for one of the tribes.

And so they meet, these Men of the Water, at the juncture of the two seas. They themselves are two seas, one a sea of knowledge pertaining to messengers, a sharī'a knowledge, and one a sea of knowledge pertaining to saints, a ladunī knowledge; one the deliverer of a specific dispensation, the other harbinger of the Unseen. In the Fusūs, Ibn 'Arabī makes it clear that neither one of them alone could claim universal knowledge. The Qur'anic story is chiefly concerned with pointing out Moses' insufficient knowledge of what Khidr is up to with his inexplicable and, to Moses, inexcusable behavior: the murder of a young man, the sinking of a ship with all its cargo, and the repair of a wall without compensation. So... whose water is fresh and sweet? Whose is salty and bitter? It is quite obvious that the knowledge that Khidr possesses from his Lord is a bitter knowledge for Moses, one he is unable to swallow. On the other hand, the scores of prescriptive laws Moses brings to his people have a medicinal taste to those who are soul-sick. But the Shaykh reiterates in his Chapter on Purification that both sharī'a knowledge and ladunī knowledge are "rain water" – "a fluid made fine and filtrated to an utmost clarity and refinement" through "ascetic discipline, spiritual struggle" and spiritual alchemy.

Water, though one in an elemental sense, can seem like many waters to the taster. Knowledge, though one essentially, can be individualized in infinite ways. As Ibn 'Arabī says in the Fusūs:

For each limb or organ there is a particular kind of spiritual knowledge stemming from the one source, which is manifold in respect of the many limbs and organs, even as water, although a single reality, varies in taste according to its location, some being sweet and pleasant, some being salty and brackish. In spite of this it remains unalterably water in all conditions, with all the varieties of taste.[39]


Often Ibn 'Arabī takes words back to their original root meaning. This is the case of the root shīn-rā'-'ayn whose earliest meaning was "a path to water". The Sharī'a, in addition to being the revealed Law, is, as many have pointed out,[40] the path to the water of divine Life. Water in Ibn 'Arabī is most often seen as flowing, as is God's ever-renewed manifestation in forms. As we find in Heracleitus: "One can never step in the same river twice", which, of course, is echoed in the Islamic theological principle of God's new creation (khalq jadīd) in every moment. Water does not stay still; it is always in flux. Movement, after all, is life. Without movement, imbalance, there is no bringing to life – water is movement. And movement is part of the Sufi path, movement toward knowledge, movement toward the sources of water. The path to water, the sharī'a, is a path of action – practice based on a revealed knowledge that descends like rain from a pure source and is received in purified receptacles: the Messengers, Prophets, and Friends of God. The Sufi is ever-thirsty for this knowledge, ever seeking to be quenched with the waters of divine life. It is a thirst to be cultivated rather than satisfied. As Rumi says:

Where there are questions, answers will be given;
Where there are ships, water will flow.
Spend less time seeking water and acquire thirst!
Then water will gush from above and below. [41]

Or as Ibn 'Arabī himself proclaims: "Love is a drink with no quenching! One of the veiled ones said: 'I drank a drink and have never again been thirsty.'" Abū Yazīd al-Bistāmī replied: "The Man (rajul) [of God] is he who has drunk the seas, and his tongue still thirsts for more!"[42]

Images of the straight path and movement along it toward eternal life are constellated in the Shaykh's various treatments of the Qur'anic Sura of Hūd and its eponymous Arab prophet. Most of the passages having to do with Hūd in Ibn 'Arabī's writings combine the elements of water and straightness, as in sirāt al-mustaqīm, the Straight Path of the Fātiha, the path of practice that leads to eternal life.[43] As Ibn 'Arabī says in the Futūhāt's chapter on Straightness (istiqāma), which is replete with references to Hūd: "Since water has become a root of every living thing whose life is accidental, God gives to drink the one who goes straight to the water of life."[44]

There is more than one path to the water. There is more than one way of approaching the watering hole. The "watering hole" – mashrab – is where the gnostic goes to drink knowledge. Each tribe knows its mashrab: "All peoples know their drinking place, and realize their own method and their manner" (Q. 7:160).[45] The original reference is to the twelve tribes of Israel in the desert. The watering holes are presumably twelve, but ultimately may have their source in the four rivers of Paradise, sometimes named as: Nile, Euphrates, Sayhān, and Jayhān. Ibn 'Arabī assigns each of the four rivers to each of the three Gardens of Paradise: the Garden of the Elites, the Garden of Inheritance, and the Garden of Deeds, giving the twelve watering holes, or (here) streams, appearing from the rock of Moses for the twelve tribes, each one knowing their drinking place. "One is the river of unbrackish water," or "unchanging water; it is the science of life." The second is "the river of wine, which is the science of states." The third is "the river of honey, which is the science of various kinds of revelation. From this one the angels become thunderstruck when they hear the revelation, just as a drinker of wine becomes intoxicated." The fourth is the river of milk, which is the science of the secrets and results from spiritual exercises and godfearingness [cf. Q. 47:15].[46] Two of these drinks – wine and milk – were offered to Muhammad when he was on his Night Journey.[47] He chose milk, drinking it beyond quenching, until it came out of his fingernails!

Knowledge is gained in every Garden commensurate with the reality of that Garden and commensurate with the source (ma'khadh) of the configurations in it, for their sources differ, the knowledges differ, the Gardens differ, and the tastes differ.


Existence is movement, existence is water, existence is knowledge. But existence is also love. We are reminded of the lines of the hadith that Ibn 'Arabī is so fond of citing; in God's words: "I was a Hidden Treasure and I loved to be known; I created the world so I could be known." Love on the part of the Creator precedes creation's love of the Real. "All movement is through love," says the Shaykh in the Chapter on Moses in the Fusūs. Life, love and knowledge are intertwined: God knows Himself in form as He lovingly pours life on His infinitely successive places of manifestation (mazāhir).

The connection between water and love could not be made clearer than in Ibn 'Arabī's answer to his predecessor al-Tirmidhī's question: what is the chalice of love? The answer should now come as no surprise: the chalice of love is the heart of the lover that "fluctuates from state to state, just as God – the [Lover and]† Beloved – is 'each day upon some task'" (Q. 55:29). In a variation of Junayd's famous statement, "The color of the water is the color of the glass", the Shaykh tells us: "The lover is like the clear and pure glass goblet which undergoes constant variation according to the variation of the liquid within it. The color of the lover is the color of the Beloved."[48]

In the Futūhāt al-Makkiyya, Chapter 178, the lengthy chapter on Love, Ibn 'Arabī recounts a delightful story about a lover who visited his shaykh one day. His shaykh spoke to the man about love, and the lover proceeded to melt until he was completely dissolved in a pool of water before him. Ibn 'Arabī cites one of his favorite prooftexts: "We made from water every living thing" (Q. 21:30), adding that the man's original life was through water and he was returning to his source. The story, says Ibn 'Arabī, shows that the lover is the one through whom every thing is given life.[49]


Perhaps no other ritual than ablution has the possibility of bringing these metaphoric and rather abstract notions of water into actual concrete realization. Ablution, as we know, is a precondition for a number of Islamic ritual practices, chief of which is prayer. Ibn 'Arabī considers purification by water one of the fundamental pillars of Islam, hence it is the first of a series of chapters in the Futūhāt that deal with the legal determinations and their esoteric aspects.

Ibn 'Arabī calls ablution with water, whether partial or general, purification with the "secret of life".[50] Its purpose is to witness "the Living, the Sustaining" (Q. 2:155) Reality. Water, he says, in itself is spirit and it "bestows life through its very essence."[51]

In contrast to wudū', which is a partial ablution of hands and arms, head, and feet – each member discussed in turn by Ibn 'Arabī and related to specific qualities, such as power and modesty – ghusl is a complete ablution of the entire body. It is necessary following a number of acts or conditions,[52] including after sexual intercourse. Why is this the case? To begin with, although semen is a water, it is a product of the blood, hence it is not simple water. Semen and the water for ablution confront each other, and the addition of a spiritual agent, in the form of intention (niyya), is required for purification to be effective. The two properties – sensible and supra-sensible – combine to combat the impurity acquired through physical union.

Going beyond the physical aspects of purity and impurity, Ibn 'Arabī has written extensively about love in all its dimensions. Physical love at its purest is a reflection of love for God. Nonetheless, union with another human being places one in a state of possible exile from two things: exile from God, and exile from one's essential station of servanthood, in that one takes on 150 attributes of God in the act, each one of which demands purification.[53] Physical union is complete absorption. As the Shaykh says: "The passion of love spreads through the whole body like water permeating wool, or rather, like the permeation of color in the colored."[54] The emission of seminal waters envelops the person in such pleasure that he becomes annihilated from his Lord.[55] This satisfaction, this saturation and quenching, carries with it the risk of awakening divine jealousy if the true object of love is misunderstood. Hence complete ablution is required to restore the proper relationship of God and human being.[56]


William Chittick has pointed out the unspoken assumption that lies at the very root of the word "tawhīd".[57] It is that, contrary to its occasional translation as "unity" or "one-ness", the word demands by its form (second form) a positing, an asserting, a declaring of God's oneness. This is not the initial stance of the spectator. It is not a given. It comes in the face of everything that we sense, feel, and think. As Chittick says:

Tawhīd does not begin with unity, since that needs to be established. Rather, it begins with the recognition of diversity and difference. The integrated vision that tawhīd implies must be achieved on the basis of a recognized multiplicity. 58

As Ibn 'Arabī says in his chapter on Hūd in the Fusūs:

For the believers and men of spiritual vision it is the creation that is surmised and the Reality that is seen and perceived, while in the case of those not in these two categories, it is the Reality who is surmised and the creation that is seen and perceived by the senses. The latter are as the salty, bitter water, while the former are as the sweet, pleasant water, fit to drink.[59]

Thus for people of spiritual tasting, the "normal" perception of the relation of God to the world is reversed. To our everyday senses the world appears "real", and God an object of faith, at best. But for the elite spiritual masters, God is the reality, and the creation can only be surmised. For these adepts, the water can only be sweet, since it comes entirely from one source: the Real. For others, the waters are muddied, adulterated, salty, bitter, anything but good to drink, mixed as they are with the impurities of our illusions and attachments.

It is vital to preserve the "vision with two eyes" or the taste with many tongues. Unified vision, yes. Single origin water, yes. But we must also revel in and give thanks for the sights, sounds, and tastes of God's infinite manifestation in forms. Unity and diversity, though undeniably contradictory, must be asserted simultaneously. The same breath passes through the trumpet of Wynton Marsalis and my tone-deaf downstairs neighbor. The same wind crosses the swamp and the rose garden.[60] The same light shines through the windows of Chartres Cathedral and the cells of Guantanamo Bay prison. It is the famous statement of al-Kharrāz: "I only came to know God through the bringing together of opposites." The intellect cannot deal with this paradox. But symbols, such as the water we have been discussing, can speak to the imagination and give form to something the heart understands and acknowledges. Through reference to such symbols as water which, though one, is many, we can come to see this unfathomable mystery in a way we never could through mere assertion of coincidentia oppositorum.

It has been said that the twentieth century began with wars for oil but that the twenty-first century will see wars for water.[61] Perhaps in a symbolic sense this has already begun as rival tribes stake claim to their water-source and vehemently defend it as the only one. It behooves us, then, to keep in mind that we are all watered from one pure water – indeed seventy percent of our universal human configuration is water – and that it is only the additional thirty percent that may pollute this pure source.


1. This paper was first presented at the Twenty-fourth Annual Symposium of the Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi Society in the US, entitled "Unified Vision – Unified World?", held at the Faculty Club, University of California, Berkeley, 27ñ28 October 2007.

2. The notion of the "blind eye" brings to mind the Dajjāl, the Antichrist, who has but one eye. Ibn 'Arabī often stresses the importance of being able to see with two eyes, the eye of immanence and the eye of transcendence. Seeing with a single eye places one in the company of the Dajjāl. See al-Futūhāt al-Makkiyya [henceforth Fut.] (Beirut, n.d.), III.116; IV.2, 110.

3. Fut. III.231.

4. The Glorious Qur'an, trans. M. Pickthall.

5. Fut. I.209, Chapter 33.

6. Fut. II.416, Chapter 198, tawhīd 23. Trans. Chittick, The Self-Disclosure of God (Albany, NY: SUNY, 1998), p. 192, with some modification.

7. Fut. III.231, Chapter 351.

8. "The Qur'an is a Book among all the other Books; however, unlike all the other books, it possesses all-comprehensiveness (jam'iyya)." Fut. III.160.

9. According to the Qur'an, the People of the Book include the Jews, Christians, and Sabians (see Q. 2:62, 5:69, 22:17). The centrality of the rite of baptism in this latter – and very much endangered – Gnostic group, also called Mandeans, who live primarily in the marshlands of southern Iraq, makes it especially worthy of note in connection with our subject.

10. See, for example, Fut. I.55, Chapter 2.

11. This chapter has been translated by Eric Winkel as Mysteries of Purity (Notre Dame, IN: Cross Roads Books, 1995).

12. Fut. I.333, Chapter 168, trans. Winkel.

13. Ibid., trans. Winkel.

14. "Majesty and Beauty", in Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi: What the Seeker Needs, trans. T. Bayrak and T. Harris (Putney, VT: Threshold, 1992), p. 61.

15. Job, for his part, is given water by God to alleviate the pain of distance from God.

16. R.W.J. Austin (trans.), The Bezels of Wisdom [henceforth Bezels] (Ramsey, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980), p. 213.

17. Entitled "Spiritual Life, Living Spirit: Ibn 'Arabi's meeting with Jesus and John in the Second Heaven"; now a podcast. (This paper was originally presented at the Society's US symposium, "The Spirit of the Millennium", held in Berkeley in 2000.)

18. Fut. III.336, Chapter 366.

19. Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter, trans. E.R. Farrell (Dallas, TX: The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, 1983), p. 14 (author's italics).

20. See Fut. III.32, Chapter 308.

21. James W. Morris, The Reflective Heart (Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 2005), p. 170 (Hadith of the Transformation through the Forms).

22. Ibid., p. 177 (Hadith of the Intercession).

23. Fut. III.66, Chapter 317. Trans. W. Chittick in Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabī: A Commemorative Volume, ed. S. Hirtenstein and M. Tiernan (Shaftesbury, Dorset: Element, 1993), p. 96, with some modifications.

24. Fut. II.218, Chapter 132.

25. Bezels, p. 255.

26. For a fascinating discussion on the ark in Ibn 'Arabī's works, see P. Beneito, "The Ark of Creation", JMIAS XL (2006), pp. 21ñ57.

27. Bezels, p. 252.

28. Ibid., p. 253.

29. Fut. I.333.

30. K. al-Isfār 'an natā'ij al-asfār, trans. A. Jaffray (forthcoming), par. 40.

31. Bezels, p. 214.

32. Q. 18:60ñ82.

33. Fut. I.60.

34. See Bukhārī, Õahīh, IV. 53, Number 56: Narrated by Anas bin Malik: "Um Haram said, 'Once the Prophet slept in my house near to me and got up smiling.' I said, 'What makes you smile?' He replied, 'Some of my followers who (i.e., in a dream) were presented to me sailing on this green sea like kings on thrones.'"

35. Entrusting an infant to the waters goes contrary to all reason; Ibn 'Arabī makes it clear that Moses' mother was given a supra-rational inspiration by God.

36. According to Ibn 'Arabī, the separate souls of the slain infants are added to Moses' soul to make it of such power Pharaoh cannot withstand it. See Bezels, p. 251.

37. Ibid., p. 254.

38. Moses' staff is symbolized by the alif, the unifier of the letters. See Seven Days of the Heart, trans. P. Beneito and S. Hirtenstein (Oxford: Anqa Publishing, 2000), Wednesday Eve Prayer, p. 86 n. and p. 164 (Appendix D).

39. Bezels, p. 131.

40. J. Morris, The Reflective Heart, p. 363, n. 72.

41. Rumi, Mathnawi III, 3211ñ3212, quoted in W.C. Chittick, The Sufi Path of Love (Albany: SUNY, 1983), p. 207.

42. Fut. II.111.

43. See e.g. Fut. IV.182, Chapter 538.

44. Fut. II.218, Chapter 132.

45. Trans. Gerald T. Elmore, Islamic Sainthood in the Fullness of Time: Ibn 'Arabī's Book of the Fabulous Gryphon ('Anqā' Mughrib) (Leiden: Brill, 1998), p. 308.

46. Fut. II.441; see also Fut. III.342.

47. See Õahīh Muslim, Iman, #309, etc. Despite the fact that only two kinds of drink are mentioned in Muslim, Ibn 'Arabī frequently – if not always – mentions four drinks, associated with the Qur'anic quote (47:15), in spiritual ascensions. See K. al-Isrā', in Rasā'il Ibn al-'Arabī, I (Damascus: Dār al-Madā li-l-Thaqāfa wa-l Nashr, 1998), p. 206. There is a hadith on the authority of Anas b. Malik, in which the Prophet was offered water, wine (nabīdh), honey, and milk (Õahīh Muslim, Drinks #4982).

48. Fut. II.113, Chapter 73, Question 117.

49. Fut. II.346.

50. Fut. I.331, Chapter 68.

51. Fut. I.332, Chapter 68.

52. For an enumeration of other acts requiring ghusl, see Fut. I.359, Chapter 68.

53. See Fut. I.363, Chapter 68.

54. Fut. II.111, Chapter 73, Question 116. Trans. Stephen Hirtenstein in The Unlimited Mercifier (Oxford: Anqa Publishing, 1999), p. 194.

55. Fut. I.362, Chapter 68.

56. See Bezels, p. 274.

57. "Spectrums of Islamic Thought: Sa'īd al-Farghān'on the Implications of Oneness and Manyness," in The Heritage of Sufism, Vol. II, ed. L. Lewisohn (Oxford: Oneworld, 1999), p. 203.

58. Ibid.

59. Bezels, p. 132.

60. See also the chapter on Muhammad in the Fusūs on the breath of sweet-smelling women versus evil women, etc.

61. Or as Mark Twain quipped: "Whisky is for drinking; water is for fighting over."