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The Holy Quran and the Metaphysics of Ibn al-Arabi (Part 7 and the last)

Jan 28, 2011, 10:39 AM | Article By: Alhaji Ousman M. Jah

In other words, in this process of spiritual ascent there is both tahlil and tarkib, dissolution and reconstitution, dissolution of all elements pertaining to the ego, and then reconstitution of this same ego, but on a higher plane: that of a conscious realization of one's actual nothingness. The higher the plane reached by essentialized consciousness, the deeper one’s awareness of one's slavehood. In contrast to deconstruction, this dismantling of specificity and identity in the movement towards universality and transcendent Selfhood is accompanied by a return to specific identity, which is now vibrant with the spirit of the ultimate Self: the individual sees the Face of God everywhere, because of the very completeness of his self-effacement; and, on the plane of religion, the specific form of his religion resonates with the universality proper to its essence. One grasps religion as such within such as such a religion; the absolute, non-delimited essence of religion is related by and within the relative, delimited religion, just as the Self of the Real (nafs al-Haqq) subsists as the ultimate reality within the soul of the individual, who now comes to understand that he is both 'He' and 'not He'. Each religion is both a form, outwardly, and the Essence, inwardly; just as man is 'the transient, the eternal'.

The religion of love, or the religion of the 'heart', thus re-affirms and does not undermine one's particular religion, or any other revealed religion; rather, this conception of 'the religion' or religion as such presupposes formal religious diversity, regarding it not as a regrettable differentiation but a divinely willed necessity. The infinite forms of existence are integrated, 'made one', according to the unity principle of tawhid, in the very bosom, and not despite, this infinite unfolding of Being; we observe an analogous synthesis between multiplicity and unity on the level of religious phenomena: the dazzling diversity of religious forms manifest the principle of inexhaustible infinitude, just as the degree proper to 'the religion', or religion as such, is the expression, in religious mode, of the principle of absolute oneness. This synthesis between infinity and oneness on the religious plane implies, then, both diversity of revealed forms, and the uniqueness of each specific revealed form. Each revealed religion is totally unique-totally 'itself' - while at the same time being as expression of a single, all-encompassing principle, that of Revelation, a principle within physical sense of tawhid.

To conclude: it is clear that for Ibn al-Arabi the unity of religions lies in the unity of Revelation and that this position is rooted in the message of the Quran:

Say: We believe in God, and that which was revealed unto Abraham, and Ishmael, and Isaac, and Jacob, and the tribes, and that which was given unto Moses and Jesus and the prophets from heir Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and unto Him we have submitted. (2:136)

The following verse might well read as an allusion to the mystery of this unity of the celestial cause and the diversity of terrestrial effects:

And in the earth are neighbouring tracts, and gardens of vines, and fields sown, and palms in pairs, and palms single, watered with one water. And we have made some of them to excel others in fruit. Surely herein are signs for people who understand. (13:4)

The 'water' of Revelation is simultaneously one in its substance and multiple in its forms. In terms of the image of the water and the cup, briefly alluded to above: the cup might be seen to symbolize the form taken by Revelation, while water stands for the Essence of Revelation. Water, in itself, is undifferentiated and unique, whilst undergoing an apparent change of form and colour by virtue of the accidental shape and colour of the receptacles into which it is poured. The receptacles, the forms of Revelation, are fashioned according to the specificities of the human communities to which the specific revealed message is addressed: And We never sent a messenger save with the language of his folk, that he might make the message clear for them (14:4). Just as human communities differ, so much the 'language' of the 'message' send to them: the cups cannot but differ. However, the one who knows 'water' as it is in itself, that is, essence of that which is revealed, and not just its forms, will recognize this 'water' in receptacles other than his own, and will than be misled into judging the content according to the accidental properties of the container.

To accept God fully, therefore, means to accept His presence and reality in all forms of His Self-disclosure, all forms of revelation, all beliefs stemming from those revelations; while to limit Him to one’s own particular form of belief is tantamount to denying Him: 'He who delimits Him denies Him in other than his own delimitation... But he who frees Him from every delimitation never denies Him. On the contrary, he acknowledges Him in every form within which He undergoes self- transmutation...'

Nonetheless, the ordinary believer who may thus 'deny' God by adhering exclusively to his own belief is not punished because of this implicit denial: since God is Himself 'the root of every diversity in beliefs', it follows that 'everyone will end up with mercy'. Also, in terms of the water/cup image: the water in the cup, however delimited it may be by the container, remains water nonetheless, hence the ordinary believer benefits from his possession of the truth; even if this truth be limited by the particularities of his own conception, it adequately conveys the nature of That which is conceived, but which cannot be attained by concepts alones. Thus one returns to the principle that all ‘religions’ are true by virtue of the absoluteness of their content, while each is relative due to the particular nature of its form.

Each particular religion vehicles Absolute, even while being distinct from it: the absoluteness of a religion resides in its supra-formal, transcendent essences, while, in its formal aspect, the same religion is necessarily relative; and this amounts to saying, on the one hand, that no one religion can lay claim, on the level of form, to absolute truth, to the exclusion of other religions, and on the other hand, that each religion is true by virtue of the absoluteness of its origin and of its essence. One continues to conform to the dictates of one’s own religion, and does so, moreover, with a totality that is commensurate with the absoluteness inherent in the religion; and at the time one is aware of the presence of the Absolute in all those religions that have issued form a Divine Revelation, this awareness being the concomitant of one’s recognition of the formal and thus relative aspect of one’s own religion; and this recognition, in turn, arises in proportion to one’s ability to plumb the metaphysical implications of the first testimony of Islam, ‘There is no god but God’: only the Absolute is absolute.

This kind of approach to the question of religious diversity and interfaith dialogue ensures that the formal integrity and distinctness of each faith will be respected, and at the same time establishes the proper level at which we can say that all religions are one. Its not on the level of forms that they are one; rather, they are one in God as their source, and they are as one in respect of the substance of their imperative to man: namely to submit to the Divinely Revealed Law and Way. Principles such as these, expounded with subtlety and depth in the metaphysical perspective of Ibn al-Arabi, can help greatly in avoiding both the pitfalls of bridge-building between faiths and cultures, on one hand, and the dangers of religious nationalism, on the other: that is, it can help to prevent a fragmentary sense of the sacred from arbitrarily or indiscriminately assimilating ‘religious’ forms out of sentimental desire; and, inversely, it can help prevent an overzealous sense of orthodoxy form summarily anathematizing alien religious forms out of dogmatic rigidity. Such a perspective shows that there is no incompatibility between fidelity to one’s particular faith and a universal sense of the sacred.

The End.