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Islam: quintessential and universal submission Part (9)

May 28, 2010, 2:46 PM | Article By: Dr Ousman Jah

One of the uses to which Ibn 'Arabi puts this story reinforces it already esoteric nature. Al-Khidr becomes the personification of the station of nearness (maqam al-qurba), a station which is identified with plenary sanctity (walaya), while Moses personifies the law-giving prophet, or prophecy as such (nubuwwa). In Ibn 'Arabi's perspective, sanctity as such is superior to prophecy as such, because as the explains in the chapter of the Fusus under the heading of Seth, "The message (al-risala) and prophecy (al-nubuwwa)- that is, law-giving prophecy and its message-come to an end, but sanctity (al-walaya) never comes to an end. Sanctity is higher because the knowledge proper to it is universal, and prophecy is lower insofar as the knowledge comprised within it is delimited by a particular message: "Know that walaya is the all-encompassing sphere, thus it never comes to an end, and to it belong [the assimilation and communication of] universal tidings; but as for law-giving prophecy and the message, they terminate." But it is a question of principal priority and not personal superiority: sanctity is more universal than prophecy, but the prophet is always superior to the saint. For, on the one hand, the prophet's sanctity is the source of the sanctity of the saint; and on the other, every prophet is a saint, but not every saint is a prophet:

When you observe the prophet saying things which relate to what is outside the law-giving function, then he does so as a saint (wali) and a gnostic ('arif). Thus his station as a knower and saint is more complete and more prefect than [his station] as a messenger or as a legislative prophet... So if one says that the saint is above the prophet and the messenger, he means that this is the case within a single person, that is: the messenger, in respect of his being a saint, is more complete than he is in respect of his being a prophet messenger.

According to lbn 'Arabi, then the encounter between Moses and al-Khidr is understood microcosmically: al-Khidr represents a mode of universal consciousness within the very soul of Moses, one which surpasses his consciousness qua prophet, whence the disapproval by the prophet of the antinomian acts of the saint: "He [al-Khidr] showed him [Moses] nothing but his [Moses] own form: it was his own state that Moses saw, and himself that he censured. Ibn 'Arabi's conception of walaya is a complex and controversial one, but it does cohere with the esoteric implications of the Qur'anic narrative of the encounter between Moses and the mysterious person who was given "knowledge from us". This narrative, together with its amplification in Ibn 'Arabi's conception of sanctity, clearly alludes to the relativity of the outward law  in the face of its inner spirit, and the limitations proper to the law-giving function as opposed to the universal dimension of sanctity. There is a clear and important relationship between this universal function of sanctity and the "absolute" or "unconditional" religion referred to above, that religion which is above, and beyond all the particular forms- legal, confessional, social, cultural, and psychological- that it may assume.   

Now, to consider more explicit Qur'anic verses describing or alluding to this quintessential religion:

Say: we believe in God and that which is revealed unto us, and that which is revealed upon Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and tribes, and that which was given unto Moses and Jesus and the prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and unto Him we have submitted (3:84).

Then comes this verse:

And who so seeketh a religion other than Islam, it will not be accepted from him, and he will be a loser in the Hereafter (3:85).

Now whereas this last verse is understood, form a theological point of view, as upholding the exclusive validity of "Islam", defined as the religion revealed to God?s last Prophet, and, as will be discussed below, as abrogating other verse which point to a different conclusion, it can also be seen as confirming the intrinsic validity of all the revelations brought by all the prophets mentioned in the previous verse. "Islam" thus encompasses all revelations, which can be seen as so many different facets so essentially one and the same self-disclosure of the Divine reality. Both senses can in fact be maintained as "valid" interpretations, according to a key hermeneutical principle of Ibn 'Arabi: namely, that it is not tenable to exclude the validity of an interpretation of a verse which is clearly upheld by the literal meaning of the words. It is one of an indefinite number of meaning that is all "intended" by God to be derived from the words of the verse. No one interpretation is right and true to the exclusion of all others. Furthermore, applying a distinctively Akbarian metaphysical principle, we could say that to exclude the exclusivist reading is in turn to fall into a mode of exclusivism. Thus a truly exclusivist metaphysical perspective must recognize the validity of the exclusivist, theological perspective, even if it must also-on pain of  disingenuousness-uphold as more compelling, more convincing, and more "true", the universalism understanding of Islam.

This universalism conception of religion is linked to the innate knowledge of God within all human souls, or within the soul as such, and to the universal function of revelatory "remembrance" - that innate knowledge which is re-awaked within the forgetful soul by Divine revelation. The following verse establishes with the utmost clarity the fact that knowledge of the Divine is inscribed in the very substance of the human soul at its inception, and is thus an integral dimension of the fitrah:

And when thy Lord brought forth from the Children of Adam, from their reins, their seed, and made them testify of themselves [saying], am I not your Lord? They said: Yes, verily. We testify. [That was] lest ye say on the Day of Resurrection: truly, of this we were unaware (7:172).

At the dawn of creation, then, knowledge of the Divine lordship, the reality of the Absolute, and all essential truths deriving therefore is infused into the human soul-into all human soul, all Children of Adam, without exception. Another way of presenting this universal fact, with the stress on the spiritual substance of these principal truths, is given in these verses:

And when thy Lord said unto the angels: Verily I am creating a mortal from clay of black mud, altered. So when I have made him and have breathed into him of My Spirit, fall ye down, prostrating yourselves before him (15:28-29).

Thus, it is this spirit of God, breathed into man that constitutes, according to the Quran, the fundamental, irreducible substance of the human soul. It is for this reason that the angels are commanded to prostrate to him. The fact not only proceeds from obedience to the command of God, but also is an acknowledgement of the breath of God that articulates the Adamic substance- the reason for the command, one might say.