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The Holy Quran and the Metaphysics of Ibn al-Arabi. (Part 4)

Dec 24, 2010, 2:24 PM

This metaphysical-or supra-confessional-perspective of Ibn al-Arabi should be seen as a kind of interpretive prolongation of the spiritual trajectories opened up by the Quran, and not simply as the product of his own speculative genius, however undeniable that genius is. Within this perspective there is a clearly defined relationship between form and essence; as will be demonstrated below, his elaboration on this basic distinction flows from the clear distinction established in the Quran between the essence of religion-which is unique-and its forms-which are diverse. Verse such as the following should be borne in mind:

He hath ordained for you of the religion (min al-din) that which He commended unto Noah, and that which We reveal to thee [Muhammad], and that which We commended unto Abraham and Moses and, Jesus, saying: Establish the religion, and be not divided therein… (42:13).

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

Naught is said unto thee [Muhammad] but what was said unto the Messengers before thee. (41:43)

 It is that essential religion (al-din) which was conveyed to all the Messengers, whence the lack of differentiation between them on the highest level: the Muslim is not permitted to make an essential distinction between any of them: we make no distinction between any of them (3:84; 2:136; 2:285; 4:152).

Understanding this distinction between the essence of religion and its forms is crucial for those engaged in dialogue; a correct understanding of this fundamental distinction enable one to engage in dialogue with wisdom, and on the basis of a principled universality; this, in contrast to an unprincipled or rootless syncretism, and in contrast to a well-meaning but ultimately corrosive relativistic pluralism. Syncretistic universalism stems from a sentimental and superficial assimilation of the sacred; it thus has on intellectual or metaphysical principle which can discern authentic religion form spurious cult, on the one hand, and, on the other, maintain a total commitment to one’s own religion whilst opening  up to the religions of  the Other. In syncretism, indiscriminate openness to all sacred forms in general-or what are deemed to be such-cannot but entail a disintegration of the specific from of one’s own religion. Principle universality, by contrast, leads to an intensification of commitment to one’s own religion; the sense of the sacred and the need to follow the path delineated by one’s own religion not only coexist, but each may be said to be a sine qua non for the transformative power of other. For effective access to the sacred is granted, not by an abstract, purely discursive conception of the sacred in general, but by entering into the concrete, specific forms of the sacred which are bestowed by the grace inherent within one’s own sacred tradition. Form this spiritual process of plumbing the depths of the sacred emerges the comprehension that there is no access to the essence of the sacred, above all religious forms, except by means of those authentic formal manifestations of the Essence: the divinely revealed religions. Such a perspective flows naturally form reflection upon the meaning of the verses from the Quran cited above, and in particular, 5:48: for each of you We have established a Law and a Path. Had God willed, He could have made you one community. But that He might try you by that which He hath given you [He hath made you as you are]. So vie with one another in good works…

This minimal definition of authenticity-‘true’ religion being that which is divinely revealed-derives from Ibn al-Arabi’s criterion, which will be elaborated upon below. We are using this criterion to distinguish true from false religion, in the full knowledge that authenticity or orthodoxy as defined within each true religion will have its own distinctive and irreducible criteria. In this connection it is worth noting that there was never any central ecclesiastical authority in Islamic, comparable to the Church in Christianity, charged with the duty of dogmatically imposing ‘infallible’ doctrine. According to a well-known saying in Islam: ‘the divergences of the learned (al-‘ulama’) are a mercy’. This saying can be seen as manifesting the ecumenical spirit proper to Islam; orthodoxy qua doctrinal form has a wide compass, its essence being the attestation of the oneness of God and of Muhammad as His messenger, these comprising the shahadatayn, or ‘dual testimony’. Accordingly, in Islamic civilization, a wide variety of theological doctrine, philosophical speculation, mystical inspiration and metaphysical exposition was acceptable as long as the Shari ‘a, the Sacred Law, was upheld. We might speculate here that the principle of the saying quoted above can also, by transposition, be applied to the religions themselves: the divergences of the religions constitute a ‘mercy’. This mercy is expressed in the divine will for religion to be characterized by a diversity of path: Had God willed, He could have made you one community.

The capacity or recognize other religions as valid, without detriment to the commitment to one’s own religion, evidently requires a certain spiritual suppleness; minimally, it requires a sense of the sacred and an inkling of the universality of revelation; at its most profound, it is the fruit of spiritual vision. With the help of Ibn al-Arabi’s doctrine, itself evidently the fruit of just such vision, we can arrive at a conception of a principled universality, that is, an awareness of the universality of religion which neither violates the principles of one’s own religion, nor dilutes the content of one’s own religious identity.


The relationship between the perception of religious universality and the imperative of one’s identity is brought into sharp focus by Ibn al-Arabi in his account of his spiritual ascension (mi ‘raj), an account describing one of the spiritual peaks of his inner life. In his spiritual ascent-distinguished from that of the Prophet, which was both bodily and spiritual-he rises up to a spiritual degree which is revealed as his own deepest essence. But one can hardly speak of personal pronouns such as ‘his’ at this level of spiritual experience: whatever belongs to him, whatever pertains to ‘his’ identity is dissolved in the very process of the ascent itself. At the climax of this assent, he exclaims: Enough, enough! My bodily elements are filled up, and my place cannot contain me!’, and then tells us: ’God removed from me my contingent dimension. Thus I attained in this nocturnal journey the inner realities of all the Names and I saw them returning to One Subject and One Entity: that Subject was what I witnessed and that Entity was my Being. For my voyage was only in myself and pointed to myself, and through this I came to know that I was a pure “servant” without a trace of lordship in me at all.

It is of note that immediately following this extraordinary revelation of the deepest reality of ‘his’ selfhood within the divine reality, Ibn al-Arabi should proclaim, not the secret of oneness with God, or his ‘Lordship’ in the manner of a Hallaj who ecstatically declared ana al-haqq (I am he Truth), but the very opposite: he came to know through this journey that he was a pure servant (‘abd), without any trace of lordship (rububiyya). The highest realization is accompanied by the deepest humility. Self-effacement, rather than self-glorification, is the fruit of this degree of spiritual station, the very opposite to what one might have imagined. It is the essence or sirr-‘secret’ or ‘mystery’-of consciousness within the soul of the saint that, alone, can grasp the truth that it is no conditioned by the soul. The consciousness within the soul knows that it is not of the soul- this being one of the reasons why this inmost degree of consciousness is referred to as a ‘secret’: its immanent, divine identity is veiled from the soul of which it is the conscious center. Herein lies one of the meanings of the Sufi saying: the Sufi is in the world but not of it.  To be continue.