by Denis Gril

First presented at 'In the Presence of Being', the ninth annual symposium of the Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi Society in the USA, University of California, Berkeley, 28-29 October 1995. It was first published in the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi Society, Vol. XX, 1996.

Commentaries on the Fâtiha and Experience of the Being According to Ibn 'Arabi


It is important to go beyond the over-philosophical representations of the doctrine of the Unity of the Being (wahdat al-wujûd) usually attributed to Ibn 'Arabi. It is now known that he himself did not use this term, but simply affirmed that existence or the Being is unique (al-wujûd wâhid). Any understanding of this affirmation obviously depends on the sense given to the term wujûd and, as with all Islamic thinkers, Ibn 'Arabi's use of it was not univocal. In the manner of the philosophers and theologians, he made the distinction between the necessary Being and the being possible, the absolute Being and the being either conditioned or come from another (mustafâd). He sometimes implied by wujûd the plenitude of the Being, sometimes all living beings (mawjûdât), not to mention the experience of the Being - in the manner of ancient masters, al-Junayd for instance. Consequently, to which Being or existence was he referring to when naming it unique?

According to the Prophetic tradition, 'God was and nothing was with Him', to which has been added, as if it were impossible to imagine that any being could possibly come from a divine Being, 'God is as He always was.' What is then the origin of the Other? Ibn 'Arabi showed in various ways that beings are exclusively the revelation of divine sources.

A frequently cited verse states that God is 'The First and the Last, the Exterior and the Interior', His exteriority cancelling beings, His interiority revealing them. At no time does Ibn 'Arabi confuse the One who gives existence and one who receives it, God and Man, the Creator and the created, the Worshipped and the worshipper, the Lord and His servant. It is known that there is no greater perfection for man than servitude ('ubudiyya), a notion that implies a radical difference between one being and another. How to reconcile these two perspectives of the Shaykh al-Akbar, that of manifestation where it is possible to imagine a Being revealing Himself in His essence, and that of divine creation, which establishes a radical difference?

The answer might well lie in the Qur'an, the Word of God, the prototype of the creation of the universe. The Qur'an is none other than God, because it is His Word, but it is also a discourse to the Other and thereby involves all others. More so, the Revelation establishes a relationship of adoration between the speaker and the listener - further confirmed through recitation - according to Ibn 'Arabi this is at the same time an experience of the Being. The first chapter of the Qur'an, 'The opener' of the book (Fâtihat al-kitâb), expounds the aspects of unicity and of differentiation of the Being, in the sense that, according to a tradition, it finds itself divided between the Lord and the servant whilst at the same time uniting them. This same tradition calls the Fâtiha 'prayer' (salât). Prayer is therefore union (sila), but also distinguishes, as with any rite of worship, between the worshipper and the worshipped.

Ibn 'Arabi devoted a number of commentaries to the Fâtiha, either in the form of independent treatises, or as part of other works such as the Futûhât. Three commentaries representative of the orientations of the Akbarian doctrine have been selected here: the metaphysics of Self and of divine names; cosmogony and its microcosmic accordances; and sanctification through the rites. These three aspects are never totally independent, in any case no more separate than are doctrine and experience of the Being. The task shall be to show that, for Ibn 'Arabi, recitation of and meditation on the Fâtiha were both an exercise and a preparation for entering into that state of presence that is the ambivalence of the Being.

The Maqsad al-Asmâ' or Metaphysics Of Self

The Maqsad al-asmâ' fî l-ishârât fî-mâ waqa'a fî l-qur'ân bi-lisân al-haqîqa wa l-sharîa min al-kinâyât wa l-asmâ': 'The highest calling through the allusion of names and pronouns manifested by the Qur'an in the language of the essential Reality and of the law'. This last is an unpublished work of which I have prepared a critical edition. Through it Ibn 'Arabi attempts to show that every name, whatever its origin, designates a divine name and that every divine name implies the Self (al-huwa): He, the great pronoun of the divine Ipseity.

In the Name of God (bi-smi'llâh)

Evoking the debates of grammarians and theologians on the subject of the relation between the name and the named, Ibn 'Arabi simply remarks that, from the point of view of the Law, that is, the exterior status of beings, the name is not the named, whilst, from the point of view of the essential Reality that names, the named and the denomination are identical. The Qur'an does indeed say: 'Glorify the name of your Lord!' In this verse the name can only be the Named, in other words, the Lord. But who is the being thus glorified? It is not the absolute Being nor the absolute Self (al-huwa al-mutlaq), because such a being transcends all glorification. The glorification is thus addressed to the one whom the worshipper can behold: the self contemplated in oneself (al-huwa al-mashhûd fî-ka) who is at the same time the contemplator (shâhid). Thus, 'the name belongs to the self, in other words, the divine reality beheld in each being.

To emphasize his argument, the Shaykh again quotes two verses which, at first reading, seem to oppose the reality of the name. Joseph said to the Egyptians: 'Besides Him you only venerate the names that you have named' (Q. 12: 40). The named, the gods and idols, have no reality other than that of serving as a 'support' (hâmil) to a name, its Spirit (rûh). It is thus the name - or the self - which in the final analysis is worshipped. It is said of the idols venerated by the Qurayshites: 'They are only names which you have named, you and your fathers; God has not endowed them with any power at all' (Q. 53:23). God has not done so, because such power is already present. Indeed, nothing is without the Self (lam yakun shay' bi-lâ huwa).

Using certain exegetical methods, namely, the breaking down of words into letters, Ibn 'Arabi successfully showed that every divine name is fundamentally identical with the Self. 'To God the most Beautiful Names' (Q. 7:180). By breaking down 'To God' (li-llâhi) the following is obtained: li = to; lâ = negation; li being negated, there remains hi, a form of the pronoun huwa. 'To God the most Beautiful Names' thus signifies: ' "He" (huwa) is the most Beautiful Name.' On this point Ibn 'Arabi remarks that, if mention is made here of the most beautiful, it is because the less beautiful also exists. This distinction shall be dealt with further on.

We return to the basmala or the formula, 'In the Name of God' (bi-smi'llâh). The interpretation partly depends on the signification of the letters. The divine Word should begin with bâ', its numerical value being two, and not with alif, as this corresponds to one and is transcendent. The word infers the manifestation (zuhûr) or secondary existence (al-wujûd al-thânî), as opposed to the non-manifest (ghayb) or primary existence (al-wujûd al-awwal). The non-manifestation of the Principle concealed in the bâ' reappears with the name Allâh which signifies the Essence, so that bismi'llâh articulates the meeting of the manifest and the non-manifest. Ibn 'Arabi highlights the mirror effect, as well as the junction and disjunction (ittisâl-infisâl), which characterize the relation between the Being and the beings. The 'habit knot' (ma'qid al-izâr) symbolizes the extreme proximity and at the same time the point of separation. It can be noted that phonetically 'M' is close to 'B', and 'A' also to 'H'. 'S' and 'L' are both pronounced from the centre part of the tongue.

The bâ', the second letter, takes from the Self the pronoun of the non-manifested or the absent (ghâ'ib), the You (anta); in the context of the Being this establishes a subtle relation between the Principle and its consequence: 'The Self is you; you are you and He is He' (al-huwa anta wa anta anta wa huwa huwa). The advent of the secondary existence is thus brought about by the crossing over of Self to You on two distinct levels: the huwa, from which is derived the two letters of the existentializing kun 'Be!', and the anta from which is derived, in the same sense, the two words bismi'llâh. Al-Hallaj alluded to this last: 'Bismi'llâh is to you what kun is to Him.'

The letter bâ' is then a kinâya, a term which etymologically signifies that one thing hides another - in grammar, the pronoun and, in stylistics, the metaphor. When the bâ' is vocalized bi, it expresses, by the natural extension of the vowel, the divine Me or inniyya, as signifies 'by Me'. By this divine Me, a second division takes place between the real Form of God (al-sûra al-haqîqiyya) and His metaphorical Form (al-sûra al-majâziyya) according to which He created Man. From this point of view, the bi of the basmala designates, 'the total Servant, human, created in the image of God' (al-'abd al-jâmi' al-insâni al-sûrî). By taking him as substitute or deputy, God made of him the perceptible manifestation of His interiority and of His non-manifestation and thereby a veil between Himself and His creatures. According to the tradition, this notion in a certain way accounts for the divine Me: 'Neither My heaven nor My earth contain Me, but in his heart, My believing servant contains Me.'

Just as in the bâ' metaphorical Form is distinguished from real Form, so too in the Name Allâh, the metaphorical Essence, God in the guise of His different aspects, is distinguished from the real Essence, the divine absolute Self. This is evident in two ways in the name Allâh. Firstly, in a negative form due to the graphic resemblance between the isolated hâ' and the lam-alif (lâ) which indicates the negation and consequently transcendence. Secondly, in an affirmative form when the end hâ' is isolated as a result of the second alif of inniyya, unwritten but pronounced. The hâ' or the huwa subsist then in an existential word (kalima wujûdiyya) that refutes the existence of the other.

The Merciful, the Compassionate (al-Rahmdni l-Rahim)

These two names successively determine the Essence: the first confirming by the universality of the mercy the continuing existence of beings (ijâd al-a'yân); the second by initiating, due to its elective character, the hierarchy of the degrees of the Being (ta'yîn al-marâtib). In order to be divine names, these two names must be defined by the article. From this point of view, they are not the Self, a state to which nothing can be superinduced. They are, however, delegated (nâ'ib) by the Self to exercise in its place their function in existence. The same goes for 'the Lord of the worlds' or the 'King' who only identifies fully with Self when used absolutely and without annexation. With the King, one of the guardians of the Lord (sadana), the ultimate level of the descent (tanazzul) of the divine Presence is attained. To a certain extent, man participates in the royalty of the name Malik - or in the possession of the name Malik. A restricted participation, however, because all of that which belongs to God does not belong to man. Unicity (wahdâniyya) thus remains forever linked to royalty and to possession.

It is You (iyyâ-ka) whom we worship and You whom we ask for help

The bâ' with a numerical value of two, introduces the secondary existence; the kâf of the ka 'You', numeric value twenty, and second in order of tens. This correspondence between the ba' and the kâf leads to the manifestation of the metaphorical Essence which becomes discernible to man, and henceforth accompanies him towards the divine names. The pronoun 'You' leads indirectly (kinâya) to the name 'the All-Powerful' (al-Qadir), He whom the universe asks for help. However, what to make of the pronoun 'we', which leads to the 'Worshipper' (al-'âbid)? A kinâya is hidden behind this seemingly human name, a divine name that supports all the blame and weakness of the world. Granted, this name hides behind human semblances and sometimes shows itself - as in the prophetic tradition where, on Resurrection Day, God reproaches man for not having visited Him when He was ill: 'I was ill and you never visited Me...' It is according to the form of this name that the universe was produced ('alâ sûrat hadhâ l-ism sadara l-'âlam). Indeed, the creation of Adam can generally be understood according to the divine form as the reflection in man of divine qualities. The notion of praise can be explained, but what about that of blame? Ibn 'Arabi here puts forward a deep-founded metaphysical explanation of evil. To a certain extent God needs the universe, as is shown by the name hidden in 'and You whom we ask for help', 'the seeker of help' (al-musta'in) that man can only ensure through divine authority. Behind the petition by the beings of the world for help, lies the call emanating from the divine name al-'âbid to the name al-musta'in, so that He might help the beings (al-kawn) retire from their potential existence in the divine science and arrive at a state of being simply as beings (wujûd al-'ayn).

Guide us ...

In the same way, when the servant implores: 'Guide us upon the straight path', God is in fact the seeker of guidance (al-mustahdî) and the universe 'he from whom guidance and the guide are sought' (al-mustahdî wa l-hâdî). As concerns the name al-Mun'im, 'He who bestows the grace', Ibn 'Arabi remarked that, on the one hand, the name comes from divine grace and, on the other, it is divine grace that comes from the name. In this circular movement, the universe appears as the theatre of the manifestation of the divine names. Those names apparently negative, such as 'he who is the object of anger' (al-maghdûb 'alayhi), can still be interpreted as divine names in the sense that, when a name carries out its action, its opposite is rejected: this is true when it is a question of opposite names, for instance al-mun'im and al-mublî - 'He who bestows his grace' and 'He who afflicts'. Furthermore, as these names are attributed to creatures, they exercise by delegation a protective function of the divine, sacrosanct and transcendent Presence.

The Book

This interpretation cannot be dissociated from a certain conception of the Revelation. Ibn 'Arabi follows his commentary on the Fâtiha by some reflections on the Book, mentioned at the beginning of the next Sûrah, al-Baqara. In the same way as seen previously, the Book is a metaphor (kinâya) in which is hidden the divine name al-kâtib. God is the absolute writer (al-kâtib al-mutlaq). 'He', he writes, 'of whom the Essence is identical to Calame, the Calame identical to His finger, and His finger likewise to His own essence; He is then Himself and nothing else.' However, the Book is also, according to a Qur'anic image, the 'parchment unfolded' of existence, that on which the world is 'an inscribed book' and the heart of man 'a house inhabited' by the divine Presence (Q. 52: 24). According to this representation, existence (al-wujûd) embraces and manifests all the planes of reality included therein. However, the word which designates the Book (kitâb) etymologically signifies the fact of reuniting. The Book assembles ideas, just as it reunites the letters and words, whether it be of the Revelation or of the Book of Existence. It also reunites the divine Essence and that of the servant who fall foul of each other and then reconcile 'provided that I am the exterior here and He the interior, and that over there He is the exterior and me the interior'.

To conclude for the moment: Unicity of the Being - every being is linked to a name which leads it to the Essence. However, this, just like the Book, carries in itself and from itself a principle of differentiation. It is not a question here, at least not explicitly, of practice and preparation, but this reading of the Qur'an gives the reader a unifying vision of the Being, without ever confounding that which is transcendent and that which is not.

The unfolding of the parchment of existence

Chapter 5 of the Futûhât on the basmala and the Fâtiha begins there where the Maqsad al-asmâ' finishes: the correspondence between the Book and the universe, called 'the great copy' (al-mushaf al-kabîr). In order to understand the general orientation of this chapter, the sequence of the first chapters of the Futûhât must be taken into account.

The first chapter speaks of the Spirit (al-Rûh), the first manifest principle of the universe and the Revelation, and themselves the inspirer of the Futûhât. The second chapter deals with the Letters, superior principles from which the world and the Book are composed. The third chapter deals with the question of anthropomorphic expressions in the Qur'an and the Sunna, the frontier between the divine and the human. The fourth chapter explains the cause of the beginning of the universe through the manifestation of the divine names. The fifth chapter deals with this beginning and with the beginning of the beginning, because the Fâtiha is the opening of the Book and of the 'Great Copy', the basmala, the opening of the opening of the Book (fâtiha Fâtihat al-kitâb) and the letter bâ' the principle of this opening.

The second and fifth chapters are closely linked and overlapping; the interpretation of the basmala rests entirely on the symbolism of the Letters. Chapter 2 comments on the beginning of the second Sûrah, ALM, and the first verses, whilst Chapter 5 continues with the commentary.

The interpretation of the basmala is centred around three main axes:

These three questions merge constantly in the commentary, just as do the metaphysical and spiritual perspectives, as the experience of the Being they mirror is one and whole.

The beginning of the basmala, like that of the Fâtiha, is perceived simultaneously in the manner of union and separation. Bi signifies that it is by Me (bî) that all things exist. The ba' thus accompanies all beings (al-mawjûdât) from the unitive stage of the Being (fî maqâm al-jam' wa l-wujûd). But the point of bâ' simultaneously distinguishes the worshipper from the worshipped. In the Qur'an, the Fâtiha is called 'the seven redoubled' (al-sab' al-mathânî), because its seven verses are divided between the Lord and the servant 'and the magnificent Qur'an', as qur'ân etymologically signifies reunion and alludes to the unitive experience of the Being (al-jam' wa l-wujûd).

The letters of the name Allâh illustrate the succession of phases of union and separation, or of junction and disjunction (ittisâl-infisâl), through which he who articulates these letters and realizes their signification must pass. The interpretation is incontestably founded on the practice of recitation and invocation (dhikr).

After having pronounced bismi and realized, as shall be seen, the state of servitude, the reciter is bound to the name Allâh. The first alif and the lâm make the link with the unicity and the separation from the Other. The second alif, pronounced although unwritten, thus cleanses away all trace of the Other. Consequently, all that remains is the hâ' of the Self which is the beginning and the end and the totality of existence.

From another point of view, the succession of the three worlds can be made out in each of the words of the basmala. The initial bi thus breaks down into the form of the bâ': the malakût or higher world; the point jabarût, the intermediary world; and the vowel i, the sentient kingdom. This order is found again in bismi, where the non-pronounced 5 represents the intermediary world of the archetypes. The name of each of the letters of this word have themselves three letters, thus 3 or 3x3 = 9 according to the hierarchy of the worlds ('alâ tabaqât al-'awâlim). The letters of the name Allâh are themselves interpreted in the sense of a spiritual progress from the sentient kingdom (the first lâm) by passing through the intermediary world (between the two lâm) until the higher world (the second lâm); at this point the alif of the divine science, unwritten but pronounced, fixes on to the part which links the lâm to the hâ' Here resides the secret which permits the servant to contemplate his Lord and then pass into the stage of the disappearance (maqâm al-idmihlâl). Now for the hâ' of the Self. Just as with the letters, the worlds appear to be linked between themselves. But between these, one must imagine the 'empty lines' (khutût fârigha) which represent 'the stages of the disappearance of the traces of those who make their way towards God, from one presence to another'.

The seven letters of the name al-Rahmân correspond to the seven principal divine attributes, the influence of which is felt in the world. Considered apart, the three elements of the name, the mîm, the nûn, and its point, reproduce the three worlds - or, once again, the mîm, the heavens, the nûn, the earth, and between them the unwritten but pronounced alif, God or the Spirit.

Al-Rahîm represents the conclusion of the universe with the coming of Muhammad, for such is his qualification in the Qur'an. The six letters of his name take in the totality of manifested existence: the divine establishment on the Throne, the ink-well, the Calame, the Pedestal, the heavens, and the earth (the descending tail of mîm) and their correspondents in man: the spirit, the intellect, the heart, the secret of the soul, the rational soul, and the body. On the human level, the cycle of existence originates with bismi, that is, Adam, who received all the names and who in turn came to an end with al-Rahîm, that is, Muhammad, who received the signification of the names. In the primordial existence, however, Muhammad preceded Adam; the end comes back to the beginning then.

It remains to explain the origin or rather the passage of primary existence to secondary existence, according to the terms of the Maqsad al-asmâ'. The bâ' of bismi is a substitute for the alif of the transcendent Essence and for hamza (the letter necessary for the pronunciation of the i of ism), the symbol of the divine existentializing power, 'the greatest Name'. The concealing of the alif and hamza makes bi the place and instrument of the existentialization. One of its faces is turned towards the divine, the other towards its creatures. For this reason it is called, on the one hand, the 'Likeness', and on the other, the total and universal servant, the existence of which is differentiated by the point under the bâ'. The bâ' in itself contains all creatures and exercises its influence on them through the sîn of bismi, marked by the final i. Bismi thereby represents the totality of manifested existence. It is linked to Allâh because it has to reabsorb itself in the divine Self and this absorption is carried out through the intermediary of Allâh who, considered as the Word (kalima), is identified with the universal servant. The final return, however, is accomplished by al-Rahîm because, with this name, Muhammad reunites that which was separated in bismi, that is to say, Adam who received all the names. 'The end is more noble than the beginning': on this level the dynamic of the Being closely parallels that of knowledge: 'He who knows his soul knows the Lord.'

The Fâtiha is known under various surnames. Amongst these, that of 'Mother of the Qur'an' had particular importance for Ibn 'Arabi. The Fâtiha is so named because it is the place of the existentialization of the Book (mahall al-îjâd). It is then only a part of the Book and, in reality, originates from it. But, in this case, it is a question of a higher Book, 'the Mother of the Book' (Umm al-kitâb - Q. 13:39), the real origin of the manifestation, the 'place of secrets' (mahall al-asrâr), because the passage from divine to human can only remain but a mystery. In order to better understand the importance of these observations, Ibn 'Arabi established a parallel between, on the one hand, the Mother of the Book and the Mother of the Qur'an, and, on the other hand, Jesus and Mary. Going by this comparison, Jesus is the mother and Mary the son. In the normal order of things, it was Mary who gave birth to Jesus, but, in the principial order, it is the contrary that is true, and it is in this manner that the original manifestation came into being.

Thus the Spirit became one with the Soul through the intermediary of the Intellect. The Soul became the place of existentialization in the order of the senses, and the Spirit only came to it through it, and from this point of view the Soul is the father. This Soul is 'the inscribed book' because it received the traces of the writing. In the son appeared that which the Calame wrote in the Mother, and this son is the Qur'an which came into the sentient world.[2]

After this introduction, the commentary on the Fâtiha proceeds in two ways which correspond to the two parts of the first verse after the basmala: 'Praise be to God, the Lord of the Worlds.' 'Praise be to God' illustrates the union and the separation of the two presences, those of God and Man. 'The Lord of the Universe' heralds the macro- and microcosmic drama.

The commentary on 'Praise be to God' comes across solemnly like a sermon (khutba) given in a dream by the Shaykh, after having been invited by 'Uthman, the third caliph, who definitively united the text of the Qur'an. Here once again the interpretation is based on the letters, or more precisely on the vowels. The 'Praise' is identified with he who proclaims it: 'the sanctified and transcendent servant' (al-'abd al-muqaddas al-munazzah), because he has renounced his claim to any lordly qualification; 'to God' designates the Essence, in 'the stage of the separation of the existence of the servant and that of God'. The particle li, 'to', illustrates the dependence of the servant, or, according to the Arab grammatical terminology, 'the lowering' (khafd), because, as Ibn 'Arabi always pointed out, self-knowledge precedes that of the Lord. The common Qur'anic reading of this verse is al-hamdu li-llâhi. Two other readings confirm the identification of the praise as being that of the servant: in al-hamdi li-llâhi, al-hamd receives the vowel i of li, which in itself underlies the humility of servitude; on the contrary, in al-hamdu lu-llâhi the change of li to lu indicates the elevation of the servant who has totally lost himself in his God, because the vowel u denotes the nominative case or 'elevation' (raf'). The servant thereby envelops the divine transcendence in his cloak (ridâ') or in his gown (thawb), two symbolic designations of the Universal Man (al-insân al-kâmil), who, besides, is never named in this way in the commentaries. The servant cannot go beyond this limit, as 'God is above all, or again, He contains all'. Nevertheless, nothing limits the experience of the Being: in all these readings the name Allâh always keeps the vowel i which distinguishes its dependence as regards li. However, if li does exercise a function, it cannot be toward God, because God is the only Agent and nothing can exercise its function toward God. In reality, the servant (or the praise) only acts on itself. Nothing differentiates al-hamdu from li-llâhi: all that the servant can do is praise himself after having seen his reflection in the mirror of his Creator.

When the form of the Likeness shows itself (tajallat) in the mirror of the Essence, it glimpses it, then sneezes, and declares itself. It gives praise by saying al-hamdu li-llâh. God replies: your Lord is merciful to you, Adam; it is for this that you were created. In this manner His mercy preceded His anger.

Ibn 'Arabi alludes here to the story of the creation of Adam: when the divine breath gave life to his body of clay, it came out of his nose and made Adam sneeze; Adam praised God and, in return, received his wish of mercy. Here begins the mythical telling of the origins, which opens with the mention of mercy following on the praise, whereas at the end of the Fâtiha the divine anger is cast aside.

'The Lord of the Universe' proclaims the vertical and transcendent transmission of a divine function through all the degrees of the Being and explains the presence of a noticeable opposition to divine will in the cosmic order. The Lord is a divine degree of excellence, a quality, but He is also an educative and sustaining function. God exercises this directly on the Verb (kalima) or the universal Spirit (al-rûh al-kullî), and, indirectly, by the intermediary of the Spirit on the Soul. In this manner the hierarchical succession of 'lords and vassals' (al-arbâb wa l-marbubûn) is established. This function becomes ambivalent from the moment where it is the responsibility of the soul in its relation with the sentient world, because the soul is the place of that which is either praiseworthy or blameworthy, the purification or the deterioration, according to whatever it is that inspires it.

God gave life to the Verb, then made Himself known to it in these terms: 'Your knowledge shall only be that of yourself, you shall know none other but yourself, and the Being is all the science that you shall make of Myself.' He added also: 'All those below your station are held in subjection to you, just as you are in subjection to Me; you are My clothing, you are My cloak, you are My covering!'[3]

The Verb asks for the advent of the kingdom promised to him. God then takes the Soul away from it. The relation of seigniory between God and the Spirit and that between the Spirit and the Soul are identical, in the sense that the Spirit is unaware of the secret of the support and education (sirr al-imdâd wa l-tarbiya) that comes to it from God, just as is the Soul as regards the Spirit. In addition, the Spirit has the help of the Intellect, come as a 'vizier' to assist it. But, forgetful of its own subjection, the Spirit tends to take itself for the Lord.

God consequently sends it an adversary: passion (hawâ) assisted by concupiscence (shahwa). The Soul subsequently becomes the stakes of power in a merciless war between the Spirit and the passion. The Spirit, after having been put to penance and having killed the passion with the sword of Nothingness, ends up by repossessing the Soul and they finally become one.

After this struggle and the recovery of its kingdom, the Spirit fully deserves to be called 'the King of the Day of Judgement'. God restores it to its original status and transports it from 'the division of the Law to the reunion of the affirmation of the Unity' (min iftirâq al-shar' ilâ jam' al-tawhîd). God reserves for Himself, however, the right of retribution or the final intercession, as according to the tradition: 'The angels, the prophets, and the believers have interceded, and all that remains is the Most Merciful of the merciful.' Only the science that men have of this intercession distinguishes them in the hierarchy of the Being: 'He who knows the worth of this intercession shall be privileged in the intercession of the "Most Merciful"; he who knows it not in this existence shall discover the great intercession at the moment of the supreme Reunion, when God shall manifest His presence to all in "the merciful" stage.'

Once the reunion is finished, whether it be on the macro-cosmic or microcosmic level, what remains? Man continues to address God, saying, 'It is You (iyyd-ka) who we worship and You who we ask for help.' In iyyâ-ka, the yâ, surrounded by two alif, represents the total servant completely surrounded by the divine Essence without, however, actually becoming part of It. The worship and the demand for help only appear to belong to the servant, because there is no agent other than God. Nevertheless, through these two verbs, the universal servant exists in his original state, alone and before the divine Presence or turned toward the beings in his function as deputy of God (khalîfa). For him 'the upright way' signifies 'the confirmation of the accomplishment of the divine unity in the union and the separation'. The Soul has no choice but to choose between following the way of the Spirit, its immediate master, or letting itself be led astray by illusory pretensions (da'wâ).

In this reading of the Fâtiha, the Being is perceived in its double dimension of absolute, transcendent, and unknowable Being (wujûd) and of Being-existence which presupposes the One who gives existence and the one who receives it (îjâd). Between the two Likenesses, the Verb or the Spirit assure a mediation, though still preserving the divine transcendence. At first sight this chapter deals mainly with the cosmogony, because it explains how the hierarchy of the degrees of the Being, and the beginning and end of the cycle of existence, came about. Nevertheless, the reader of this commentary is led into the presence of the Being in various ways: the praise leads him to self-knowledge; the relation between the Lord and the universe reveals the secret of the relation between master and the disciple; the King of the Day of Judgement reveals to the reader the struggle which he must undertake if he is to establish in himself the reign of the Spirit.

Before the Lord

It is in the passage of the Futûhât concerning the recitation of the Fâtiha in prayer that Ibn 'Arabi particularly leads the reader to that question which is the theme of this symposium: how to enter into the presence of the Being. On a number of occasions, he reminds us that one must 'make present' (yuhdiru) to one's soul or heart the sense of this or that verse. Prayer is in effect an intimate colloquy (muhâjât) and, for the worshipper facing the ritual direction of prayer (qibla), God can be found. Prayer institutes an apparent and necessary duality in order that the heart of the worshipper be filled with divine presence. A well-known prophetic tradition where God speaks of Himself (hadîth qudsî) reproduces the dialogue between God and the servant in the recitation of the Fâtiha. In the following passage, Ibn 'Arabi gives the most complete version of the dialogue, including that of the basmala.

Abu Hurayra told that the Prophet said: he who says a prayer without reciting the Mother of the Qur'an, his prayer is misbegotten - that is to say, unaccomplished. Abu Hurayra was asked: but what if we are behind the imam? Abu Hurayra replied: Recite it in yourself, for I have heard the Messenger of God - grace and peace be to him - say: God says: I have shared equally the prayer between Me and My servant; one half is for Me the other for My servant and My servant shall have what he has asked for. When he begins the prayer My servant says: 'In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate'; My servant mentions Me. The servant recites: 'Praise be to God, the Lord of the Universe' and God Replies: 'My servant has praised me.' The servant recites: 'The Merciful, the Compassionate', and God replies; 'My servant has sung My praises.' The servant recites: 'The King of the Day of Judgement', and God replies: 'My servant has glorified Me (or: has committed himself to Me).' The servant recites: 'It is You whom we worship and You whom we ask for help', and God replies: 'this verse belongs to Me and to My servant and My servant shall have that which he has asked for.' The servant recites: 'Guide us upon the straight path, the path of those on whom Thy grace is, not those on whom Thine anger is, nor those who are astray', and God replies: 'this belongs to My servant and My servant shall have that which he has asked for.'[4]

In this commentary, as with the previous one, the double perspective - the unicity and the duality of the Being - is always present. According to the first, the servant is not actually associated with this dialogue. The servant addressed God in His own Word; it is then God who is replying to God by the intermediary of the servant. Furthermore, when the servant comes closer to God, to the point - according to the Tradition - where God is the audition by which he hears, the sight by which he sees, what is left to the servant? What fashion is this, asks the Shaykh, that brings God to say: 'the servant recites...'? It is in fact the upright posture in the prayer (qiyâm) that gives him this status and invests him with the qayyûmiyya, the divine attribute of self-subsistence.

Even should he who prays be called musallî - a term which designates the horse which comes in second in a race - this term hardly gives an idea of the secondary nature of the servant, as his relation to God is not specifically an anterior and posterior one. God is the First and the Last and the servant simply finds himself included between the two ya of 'Me divine', when God says: 'I have shared the prayer between Me and My servant' (bayn-î wa bayna 'abd-î). Bayn 'between' signifies both separation and relation. The first bayn separates the servant; the second reunites him.

Nevertheless, prayer is above all an act of worship which requires a worshipper and the worshipped and that the human being face the divine Being. There is a term which characterizes the manners of the servant: adab, which signifies the conduct and discipline of the servant in relation to God, the right attitude in everything, that which is evident in the prayer and recitation by the presence of heart. Seeing that God replies to the servant, politeness obliges that one should face him who is addressing you and to whom one is listening.

In the recitation, special attention must first of all be given to the divine names. The basmala precedes the praise so as to indicate that it is by way of the divine names, and by no other way, that the praise is being proclaimed. In the basmala it is only a question of God, the mercy, and its qualification, without any reference to the beings. As concerns the succession of divine names in the Fâtiha, Ibn 'Arabi sets forth a general hermeneutical rule that the knowledgeable should apply to the reading of the two books, the Qur'an and the book of the whole universe: every divine name is conditioned by the one which precedes it and the one which follows it, and, in the same sense, every creature who proceeds from a divine name invokes its influence, the same being true between creatures. For example, 'the Lord' invokes 'the worlds' and these 'the Merciful, the Compassionate', which in turn invoke the justice of the 'king' and so on. This reading thus encourages one to understand existence as an incessant interaction of divine and human names. By praising God the reciter fully conceives the unicity of the Being. In fact, God is praised by His own names; even more so, every praise necessarily comes back to God, because it is divine qualities which are praised. As the existence of beings proceeds from that of God, it is therefore to Him that the praise is due and the worlds (al-'âlamîn) have no function other than being an indication of His subject (dalâla -'alâma).

To come back to the interpretation of 'It is You whom we worship and You whom we ask for help.' This verse is the meeting of the Lord in an 'intermediary' (barzakhî) and 'imaginal' (khayâlî) place of contemplation, because the servant endeavours to worship God 'as though you saw Him'; he does so by concentrating on the unicity of 'You' and strives to reunite all the dispersed parts of 'We': God is singular and the servant plural.

The following anecdote was related by the Shaykh and aptly illustrates what he considers as a real reading of the Qur'an in the presence of the Being. A Qur'anic reading master one day remarked the pallor of one of his young students. The young man admitted that it was because he read the whole Qur'an every night. The master advised him to read the Qur'an as if it were before him. The following morning he conceded to having only been able to read half the Qur'an. Thereupon the master advised him to read it as though he were in the presence of one of the Companions of the Prophet. However, he only managed to read a quarter of the Qur'an. Then, in the presence of the Prophet himself, he only managed to read a thirtieth. Finally, before Gabriel, he only managed to read a few verses. The master said to him then: 'My child, repent and prepare yourself tonight; know that he who prays converses with his Lord and that you stand before Him reciting His Word. Think about that which belongs to the Qur'an and that which belongs to Him and meditate on that which you recite, for it is not simply a matter of assembling letters and recounting the words of others. Recitation entails meditating on the signification of that which you read. Do not be ignorant!' The following day there was no sign of the young man. The master visited him and found him gravely ill. He confessed to the master that when he came to reading 'It is You who we worship', he could go no further than this verse, having realized just how insincere was his reading of it. The young man died not long after, followed by his master. Ibn 'Arabi concludes: 'He who has read "It is You whom we worship" just as the young man did, then he really has read it.'

By way of a conclusion which would otherwise be too long and difficult, it is sufficient instead to translate the last part of the invocation that is pronounced at the beginning of the prayer before the recitation of the Qur'an, and which leads one into the presence of God: 'I exist by You and towards You. You are blessed and exalted. I ask of You forgiveness and I repent towards You.' Here is the commentary of the Shaykh.

'I exist by You and towards You': You are the Being in self and in me, I remain in my original state of inexistence. 'You are the blessed': the blessing and the bounty belong to You, not to me. The Being is Yours; You have adorned me, although I did not exist as yet. This being has manifested itself through me, even though it is Yours, and attributed to You, and is Yourself. 'And You are exalted': You are too mighty to be revealed by any other but Yourself, so much so that the being who is attributed to You is none other than Your Self. 'I ask of You forgiveness': I ask to be protected from You by a veil when I am ready to be a being, so that I shall never be absent from my essential reality and pretend not to be so. 'And I repent towards You': I return to You by the being I was qualified to be, for it is You who is the Being itself.

Translated from French by Josip Rainer


[1]. First presented at 'In the Presence of Being', the ninth annual symposium of the Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi Society in the USA, University of California, Berkeley, 28-29 October 1995.

[2]. Futûhât al-makkiyya, critical edn by O. Yahya, Cairo 1972-, II, 185.

[3]. Ibid., 195.

[4]. Ibid., VI, 275ff.; for the different versions of the hadith, cf. Al-ahadfth al-qudsiyya, I, 143-8, Cairo, ND.