by Denis Gril

This article first appeared in the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi Society, Vol. 57, 2015.

Jesus, Mary and the Book, according to Ibn al-ʿArabi

by Denis Gril

What place do Jesus and Mary occupy in the Quranic revelation, or more precisely, how does the relationship between these two prophetic figures shed light on the very reality of universal revelation that the Quran calls the Book or the Scripture (al-kitāb)? To what extent does our Shaykh allow us to penetrate the meaning of this relationship? In trying to respond to these questions we will begin by citing a passage from Chapter 5 of the Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya, a commentary on the basmala then on the whole of the Fātiḥa. The rather enigmatic character of the established parallel between the Fātiḥa and the Book on the one hand and between Mary and Jesus on the other, can only encourage us to search for a deeper significance within it. Let us begin therefore by quoting the opening lines of Chapter 5, which bring out the principle of the correspondence between the Book and the World:

We now wish to bring out the knowledge of existence and the beginnings of the universe which is for us the Great Exemplar (al-muṣḥaf al-kabīr). God has enabled us to read the universe as a state (tilāwat ḥāl), just as the Quran is for us a reading by word (tilāwat qawl). The universe is composed of written letters, inscribed on the unfurled parchment of existence. What is written thereon endures forever, without end. God having brought out His mighty Book by that which opens the Book (fātiḥat al-kitāb) – for the universe of which we speak is a book – we wish to open our remarks with the secrets of the Fātiḥa and the basmala, which is the opening (fātiḥa) of the Fātiḥa.[1]

The commentary on the Fātiḥa begins, then, after that of the basmala:

The Fātiḥa is that which opens the Book, for the Book itself alludes to the first being produced (al-mubdaʿ al-awwal). Thus the Book contains the Fātiḥa and other than it because it proceeds from it. It is thus rightfully named, for it is that through which the Book of existence was initially opened. It is the likeness without likeness (al-mithl al-munazzah) as in the verse ‘And there is nothing like His Likeness’ (Q. 42: 11), where the ‘like’ is the qualifier itself.[2] Having brought into existence the Likeness which is the Fātiḥa, God then brought into existence the Book and made the Fātiḥa its key.[3] Meditate upon that.

The Fātiḥa is also the ‘Mother’ of the Quran, for the mother is the place of the bringing into existence (maḥall al-ījād). The being which is found in her is the Quran, and the bringer into existence is that which has exercised its action on the mother (al-fāʿil fī l-umm). The mother is the universal collector (al-jāmiʿa al-kulliyya), and she is the Mother of the Book who is with Him in the verse: ‘And with Him is the Mother of the Book’ (Q. 13: 39). Consider Jesus and Mary – on them be peace – and the agent of the bringing into existence, and [there will emerge] the opposite of that which appears to your senses will emerge: the Mother is Jesus and the Son who is the Book that is with Him (al-kitāb al-ʿindī) or the Quran, is Mary – on her be peace. So understand!

Thus it is that the Spirit doubles itself with the Soul through the intermediary of the Intellect. The Soul becomes the place of the bringing into existence from a sensory point of view. Now the Spirit only came to her from the Soul itself. The latter is thus the Father. This Soul is the inscribed Book (al-kitāb al-marqūm)[4] due to the action of writing. There appeared in the Son that which the Pen traced as writing on the Mother, and that is the Quran as it appeared in the sensible world.

The Mother is equally an expression of the existence of the Likeness, the place of secrets. It is the ‘unfurled Parchment’ on which was set down ‘the inscribed Book’,[5] wherein these divine secrets are deposited. Here the Book is superior to the Fātiḥa, for the latter is the signifier, the Book is what is signified, and the dignity of the signifier is in proportion to that which it signifies.[6]

First of all, we shall attempt to get a sense of the consequences of this particularly allusive passage, and then secondly, to see to what extent it is possible to relate it to other passages concerning Jesus and Mary in the Futūḥāt and the Fuṣūṣ. Finally, we shall examine to what extent this text on the Fātiḥa helps us to better understand Jesus and Mary as figures of Quranic revelation, as well as their association, in this respect, with the Prophet and his heirs.

Creation and Revelation being the two aspects of the same theophanic process, the world as the Book, comes into existence through the intermediary of a being which initiates its manifestation. Thus the Fātiḥa analogically represents that being which Ibn al-ʿArabi refers to here as the ‘Likeness’, and elsewhere as the Muhammadian Reality, the first being to receive the Light which enables manifestation. Why was this term chosen which, in various different commentaries on the verse 41: 11, refers to the Universal Man?[7] Perhaps because of the comparison which follows with Mary and Jesus. The relationship between the Fātiḥa and the rest of the Book, or what they represent in the manifest and even the non-manifest order, assumes two aspects. On the one hand, the Fātiḥa opens the Book but is only one part of it; therefore it is only a part of a whole, which is superior to it. On the other hand, also referred to as ‘the Mother of the Quran’ or ‘the Mother of the Book’, it contains the Quran, just as a mother bears her child. Under this aspect it represents the total and universal Reality. The term ‘mother’ (umm) signifies at the same time both the principle of all things and that which reunites them. It can thus symbolize, on a metaphysical level, universal Possibility, on which the Principle acts in order to give birth to existence, through the first dividing of absolute Being.

How are we to understand the parallel between these principial realities and Jesus and Mary, as established by Ibn al-ʿArabi? Mary, as human being, is the mother of Jesus. She gives birth to him just as the Quran proceeds from the Fātiḥa. But if we consider Jesus as the Word of God and therefore the principle of Revelation and of manifestation or the Book, it is he who gives birth to his mother, who is comparable not only to the Fātiḥa but also to the Quran itself and even to its celestial prototype, the Book according to God (al-kitāb al-ʿindī). Everything is thus a matter of relationship and perspective. Indeed the action of the Spirit on the Soul through the intervention of the Intellect is situated as much on the level of the non-manifested principles of manifestation as on the level of their corresponding appearance in the microcosm. If the Spirit represents the active principle acting on the Soul as receptacle for generation, this point of view is inverted when the place of bringing into existence is considered as prior. When Ibn al-ʿArabi affirms: ‘It is in this way that the Spirit doubles itself with the Soul through the intermediary of the Intellect’, we must distinguish between the Spirit as the principle of Revelation and the Spirit which forms a pair with the Soul, as represented by Gabriel announcing to Mary the birth of a son. This interchanging of perspective is explained by the fact that each being has an active dimension with regard to that over which it exercises its action, and a passive dimension due to its receptivity and dependence. From this point of view, the Soul or the Mother becomes the Father, because it makes possible the action of the Pen or the Intellect in order to give birth to the son, which is the Quran.

Here we once again find the Likeness, that by which manifestation is possible, the first ‘invented’ being (al-mubdaʿ al-awwal) and the Mother in its most metaphysical sense. This allows us to sense the light that these parallels shed on several Quranic passages concerning Mary and Jesus.

How are we to connect this relatively unique passage in Ibn al-ʿArabi’s work to other considerations about Jesus and his mother?

The relationship between the Fātiḥa and the Book, with its inversion of perspective which makes Jesus the mother giving birth to Mary as the form of the Quran, must first of all be put into context, as indicated in the introduction to Chapter 5, in the general framework of the correspondence between Revelation and creation which permeates all Ibn al-ʿArabi’s writings. Both have a common origin: the Verb or the Word of God. All things are created by the word kun, ‘be!’ The production of the world and its hierarchical phases is compared to the passage of the breath from the chest to the exterior of the mouth in order to produce at its point of emission (makhārij al-ḥurūf) the ‘letters’ or phonemes of language.[8] As everything is the effect of the word of God, all beings are the words of God (kalimāt Allāh). As scriptural proof, Ibn al-ʿArabi generally quotes this expression which concerns Jesus but which may be applied to all beings: ‘…and His Word which He cast into Mary’ (Q. 4: 171).[9] As argument he also draws upon this verse concerning Mary: ‘She believed in the words and the books of her Lord’ (Q. 66: 12). The ‘words’ here designate the prophets.[10] These two verses are accurately quoted but not commented on, in order to prove the identity of man, not only of Jesus, and of the word. A simple quote can sometimes say far more than a long explanation.

The kun, ‘the word of the divine presence’ (kalimat al-ḥaḍra), is always the same for the Shaykh. It is the multiplicity of its effects which generates that of beings. Its reality is unique and it multiplies that of beings which it causes to appear in existence. Concerning the verse: ‘When We wish a thing to be, We have only to say to it “Be”, and it is’ (Q. 16: 4). The kun is composed not of two letters but of three: two outer letters, the kāf and the nūn, and one interior, the wāw, the second radical of the verb kāna. The concealment of the wāw is caused by the non-vocalization of the nūn. This eclipse of the wāw symbolizes the hidden presence of the Universal Man,[11] which reunites and separates the two letters of the kun. The reference to Jesus and Mary in order to affirm that all beings are the words of God suggests that, in each being, Jesus represents the reality of the kun and Mary, who ‘believed in the words and books of her Lord’, the receptivity to this word and to all divine word. We can then understand why the Shaykh qualifies the science of letters as the ‘science of Jesus’ (al-ʿilm al-ʿīsawī).[12]

The expressions ‘Speech of God’ (kalām Allāh) and ‘His Word’ (kalimatuhu) to designate the Quran and Jesus assume an anthropomorphic character. Indeed, when someone speaks, he has previously conceived in his innermost being certain ideas which take form thanks to the breath which produces the distinct letters, being composed of and transforming themselves into sound due to vocalization or being written on a material support. In the same way, the world pre-exists in the knowledge of God prior to receiving the forms of creation through the effect of the divine will. The intermediary position of Jesus between the divine and the human is taken up in Chapter 20, concerning ‘the knowledge particular to Jesus’, in relation to the episode of the creation of the birds mentioned in Q. 3: 49 and 5: 110. The power that Jesus has of giving life to birds of clay, to resuscitate the dead and to heal the blind and deaf, insofar as he is spirit coming from God, explains the divinity which has been attributed to him, as well as the fact that he may represent in the Quran the interior identity of man with the Revelation. The latter revivifies the hearts, just as the breath of Jesus gives life to the birds and the breath of God to the clay of Adam.

The creative action of kun, of which Jesus is the effect, like Adam (see Q. 3: 59), but of which he is equally the theurgic instrument, corresponds on the initiatic level to the science of Letters based on the analogy between the Revelation and the creation. This is why the science particular to Jesus is also, according to Chapter 20, that of Ḥallaj in whom the Christic aspect is obvious. The penultimate chapter of the Futūḥāt, in connection with Chapter 5 on the basmala and the Fātiḥa, attributes this sentence to the latter: ‘The “In the name of God” pronounced by you is like the “Be” pronounced by Him’ (bismi llāhi minka bi-manzilati kun minhu).[13] The power that Jesus has of giving life or bringing back to life ‘with the permission of God’ stems from his creation by the kun and from the breath of the Spirit blown into Mary by Gabriel (see Q. 21: 91; 66: 12). This is a matter that Ibn al-ʿArabi returns to often in the Futūḥāt[14] and in the Fuṣūṣ al-ḥikam (faṣṣ 15 on Jesus). Let us keep in mind here the parallel between the Fātiḥa and the Book and the fact that the Spirit ‘unfolded with the Soul through the intermediary of the Intellect’. Gabriel acts as intermediary, as in the descent of the Quran upon the heart of the Prophet (see Q. 26: 192–5). As we have seen, in the relationship between Spirit and Soul, the active, masculine principle and the passive or receptive feminine principle may be inversed, and this complexity is found in the Son who comprises the two principles together with the angelic nature of Gabriel and the corporeal nature of his mother. As we have seen, a similar duality is found in the ‘Mother of the Book’, Umm al-kitāb, the active principle of the Revelation: it is feminine or maternal by being the receptacle for the divine knowledge. The interaction of these two complementary principles comes under the authority of what Ibn al-ʿArabi calls the ‘non-manifested marriage’ (al-nikāḥ al-ghaybī). The intervention of spiritual realities in bodies, comparable to the union of forms and matter (hayūlā), creates beings whose existential status comes from the two parents, and casts ‘a veil over the divine non-manifested hand’ (al-yad al-ilāhiyya al-ghaybiyya), which is the real agent in this marriage. In the manifest order, what follows is obvious: the child shares in the nature of its two parents, but this also explains the change of perspectives which rules the complex relationship between Jesus, Mary and the Spirit, and their correspondence on the level of Revelation and the human microcosm. Once again we return to Ḥallaj, who interprets the Christic science thus:

It is one of the most marvellous secrets that the son should be at the same time both the father and mother of those whose son he is, and that the mother and father should be the child of whom they are the parents. It is to this that Ḥallaj alluded when he said: ‘My mother gave birth to her father’. Now the father is not the son of whom he is the father, and the second one is certainly his son, except in this marriage. His, God’s word ‘Be!’ (kun) turns up again in this chapter, the commanding word of being (kalimat amr al-takwīn). God said of Jesus that he is the Word of God, and of the existents that they are the words of God. Now God has no other word among the existents than kun, which is identical to the existent itself (ʿayn al-mawjūd), since it is the word and its orientation towards the immutable entities. These entities are for the kun like the mother. The words are manifested and it is the very being of these entities because of this non-manifested marriage. The child as outcome of these two (the kun and the entities) is identical to both of them. This is more subtle than that which came before, for the child here is identical to the Word of the divine Presence. Here the ‘Be!’ is identical to that which has come into being (al-mukawwan), since it comes from God, whereas in the first instance it is at the second degree, for it is attached to matter and to form, and this marriage is implicit in it.[15]

The analogy between the creation of Adam and that of Jesus by the kun on the one hand, and by the conception of Jesus as evoked in the sura Maryam on the other, provides an excellent illustration of the hermeneutic approach of the Shaykh, based on all the possibilities within the Arabic language. The demonstration which follows succeeds once more in underlining the twofold creative and revelatory function of the Word, personified by the Quranic Jesus. In many verses the Quran reminds us that the divine envoys are and remain human beings, fully human (bashar). Furthermore, when Gabriel appears to Mary to make the gift of the child that is to be conceived in her womb, he takes on the appearance of a well-formed human being (basharan sawiyyan) (see Q. 19: 17). In response to the question of Tirmidhī, ‘Why was he [Adam] called “man” (bashar) when God said to Iblis: “What is it that has prevented you from prostrating before that which I have created with My two hands?”’ (Q. 38: 75), Ibn al-ʿArabi gives his own particular dimension to this designation.[16]

The two hands represent the world of composition (ʿālam al-tarkīb), in which Adam is for the world of human bodies what the intellect is for the rest of manifestation. He was named bashar because after him the sons of Adam were to be conceived by physical contact (mubāshara). Bashar also means the exterior of a thing, in particular human skin. The good news (bushrā) is so called because its effects are visible in the human physical appearance and above all in the face. The sense of ‘contact’ contained in the root of bashar allows it to be transposed to another level.

 Gabriel appeared to Mary in human form in order to provide a mediation between God and Mary in the bringing into existence of Jesus. Now, this latter is created by the kun, composed of the two letters kāf and nūn which correspond to the two hands of God, which explains the similarity between the creation of Adam and that of Jesus. The concealment of the wāw between the kāf and the nūn can be likened to that which unites the two hands of God, or with respect to the reality of man, the state preceding his appearance in the world of form in which the body is animated by spirit. Analogously, when the absolute Being (al-wujūd al-muṭlaq) comes into contact with the immutable entities (al-aʿyān al-thābita), the pre-existence of beings in the divine knowledge produces the appearance of conditioned being (al-wujūd al-muqayyad).

As we have seen, the wāw between the kāf and the nūn symbolizes the Universal Man, whose function as the supreme veil, is to join together and separate the two presences, divine and creaturial. This is also the function of Revelation (reveal = re-veil). This is why those who receive and transmit it are called bashar in the verse: ‘It is not fitting for a man (bashar) that God should speak to him unless it be by inspiration or from behind a veil (waḥyan aw min warāʾi ḥijāb) or by sending a messenger who inspires with His permission that which God desires; He is All-knowing, All-wise’ (Q. 42: 51). For Ibn al-ʿArabi such contact with the Revelation preserves the prophet from all distraction with respect to the world of the divine and of Spirit. Thus the envoys are bashar not only because they, like all men, are affected by the human condition, but also because they are in contact with the divine. The preceding verse evokes the three modalities of the Revelation; ‘by inspiration’ means that he is accompanied by a divine sign, in accordance with the etymology of waḥy.[17] The veil here refers to the sounds and the letters, the senses and therefore human nature. The two latter possibilities, the veil and the coming of an angelic messenger, concern Mary as much as the Prophet himself.

The bashariyya which characterizes the envoys thus has two dimensions, like the two hands which modelled Adam’s clay: just as this nature of clay and the breath of the Spirit which animated it, and just as Jesus was a being endowed with an angelic nature by the breath of Gabriel and a corporeal nature through his mother. But this is also the distinguishing feature of every human being, torn between his divine or spiritual (lāhūt) nature and his physical nature (nāsūt), between his ‘height’ and his ‘breadth’, in the terminology of Ḥallaj, as the Shaykh reminds us in Chapter 20 of the Futūḥāt concerning the science of the Letters, the science attributed to Jesus. As suggested by the text quoted at the beginning of this article, the son resulting from this union is its principle, whether this be in the Mother of the Book, the matrix of creation and of Revelation, or in each human being. For the Shaykh the heart of the human which contains all of reality is like an exemplar of the Quran.[18]

It is obvious that Jesus and Mary are considered here as Quranic figures. Ibn al-ʿArabi helps us to understand their place in the arrangement of the Quranic revelation and thus in Muslim spirituality. Above all, Mary, in the Quran, represents the feminine dimension of spirituality as the ṣiddīqa, who confirms the veracity of the Prophet,[19] the one who ‘has received and accepted the words and the books of her Lord’ (Q. 66: 12). By her virginity she represents the purified heart, ready to be visited by the Spirit and to receive the word of God. In this way she is identified with the Book itself, or more precisely with the possibility of an interior identification with the Quran itself as the totality of all virtues – just as the Prophet’s wife Aʾisha, in response to someone questioning her on the character of the Prophet, said: ‘His character was the Quran’.[20]

As we have already pointed out, the Quranic Maryam as a prophetic figure, reveals an aspect of Muhammad himself, in her receptivity to the Word of God brought by Gabriel. Furthermore, Mary and the Prophet share the privilege of embodying the mercy of God, which emphasizes, from another aspect, the relationship between Mary and the Quran, and qualified in several verses as mercy. Ibn al-ʿArabi maintains that the Book comprises two fundamental aspects: the explicit explanation (bayān) of divine knowledge and mercy (raḥma). The Book is essentially mercy, for according to the Shaykh, God is too generous to inflict eternal punishment on His creation. All forms of punishment mentioned in the Quran are merely passing in relation to the anteriority and posteriority of mercy.[21] The mercy of the Prophet is notably expressed by his extreme solicitude for his community, be that during his life or as his eschatological function as the intercessor, not only for his community but also for all humankind. This mercy is itself the expression on a human and sensible level of a metaphysical reality: in the Quran knowledge and mercy are the two divine aspects which embrace everything, therefore the Reality and the Universal possibilities, but equally it follows from a function of transmission this time with an active, masculine aspect. Concerning the breathing of the spirit into Mary, Ibn al-ʿArabi says: ‘Gabriel transmitted the Word (kalima) of God to Maryam, just as the envoy transmitted the Word (kalām) of God to his community’.[22] We should note in passing the difference in terms between the particular word received by Mary, because it concerns Jesus, and the Word, in an absolute total sense, revealed to the Prophet. The Prophet, as law-giving envoy (rasūl), receives and transmits, as do his heirs after him. But it is also interesting to note here the parallel between Mary and the community (umma), whose Arabic name is from the same root as mother (umm), a parallel which may be compared to the Mother of the Book and mercy, whose name is derived from ‘womb’ (raḥm or raḥim).

In the Quran, the Son, the Quranic Jesus, speaks from the cradle to defend the honour of his mother (Q. 19: 30–33). This passage allows the Shaykh to progressively bring out who Jesus is, not only in himself but in his relationship to the Prophet, first of all in the chapter on the shaṭḥ,[23] a theopathic mode of speech in which man either speaks in the place of God or expresses the height of his spiritual rank by diverging a little from the strict observance of servanthood to God. This is the case of the prophets who only pronounce such words under a divine order and with a specific aim. Ibn al-ʿArabi thus compares the speech of Jesus in the cradle to the words of the Prophet: ‘I am the lord of the sons of Adam, without boasting’[24] or ‘I was a prophet while Adam was still between water and clay’.[25] The words ‘without boasting’ (wa lā fakhr) clearly indicate that such an affirmation in no way proceeds from an individual initiative. The commentary on the words of Jesus in this chapter emphasizes above all their obvious sense. By affirming ‘I am the servant of God’, he warns of what his followers will later say of him. By adding ‘He gave me the Book and made of me a prophet’, he is simply announcing his mission. ‘He made me blessed’ (mubārakan), in accordance with a traditional interpretation of blessing (baraka), indicates that he is ‘the place or the sign of the increase in good’, ‘wherever I may be’ (aynamā kuntu): the perfect form of the verb ‘to be’ (kāna) signifies here the present as well as the future, that is to say for all time, as in the word of the Prophet: ‘I was a prophet…’ (kuntu nabiyyan). When Jesus specifies ‘as long as I will be alive’ concerning the commandment to prayer and alms, this means in an exterior sense, ‘as long as during this life I am subject to the Law’. But in reality this refers to his quality as word and spirit of God: as spirit, life could never leave him; as word, he identifies himself to the Book he has received and which is the ‘station of his being’ (maqām wujūdihi). The book, in the literal sense of kitāb, is the act of assembling written letters to produce a spoken or written word (kalima) and to give form to meaning – something which is dealt with, Ibn al-ʿArabi states, in Chapter 198 on the breath. ‘Reverential towards my mother’, starting by proclaiming her innocence, ‘and He did not make me tyrannical and rebellious’, since his quality as prophet makes him a transmitter who would not force his people to follow him, since any constraining force would contradict his quality of servanthood to God, as is the case in the verses concerning the Prophet. The greeting pronounced by Jesus over himself is primarily interpreted as a safeguard (salāma) for the different phases of his life. Nevertheless, in the context of this chapter we are reminded that if it had not been expressed under a divine order, it could have been taken for a shaṭḥ. Indeed it is necessary to know who is the real speaker.

In another passage[26] the commentary goes even further. The affirmation ‘I am the servant of God’ is more than just the affirmation of his servanthood. Jesus did not say: ‘I am the son of so-and-so’, for he has no father but is ‘a truth appearing theophanically in the form of the spirit of Gabriel’ (ḥaqq tajallā fī ṣūrat rūḥ Jibrīl). ‘He gave me the Book’: Jesus received the Gospel before being sent, and affirms that he possesses his divine Book. This brings to mind the foreknowledge that the Prophet had of the Quran, which according to Ibn al-ʿArabi explains the interdiction placed on him to hasten its coming.[27] The rest of the commentary somewhat distances us from our subject. In the penultimate chapter of the Futūḥāt, concerning Chapter 422 which deals with the attribution of acts to their invisible Author,[28] Ibn al-ʿArabi, in an elusive and analogical manner, poses the question that has always been asked: who is Jesus? From the perspective of the Quran this question conceals another: in what way does the personage of Jesus shed light on a hidden face of Muhammad, as we have already seen with Mary?

When her family were deeply shocked at seeing her arrive with a newborn baby in her arms, Mary, having made a vow on God’s order not to say a word to any human being, ‘made a sign towards him’ (fa-ashārat ilayhi), to which her people replied: ‘How should we speak to one who is but a child in the cradle?’ (Q. 19: 29). According to Ibn al-ʿArabi, Mary, in the allusive language of signs, meant, ‘towards Him’, that is to say the One who knows what he is (al-khabīr) – one of the names of God. The question from her family was evidently justified, at the level where they were, for, as he explains, the word of God ‘accords him protection in order that he may hear the word of God’ (Q. 9: 6), and had not reached their hearing. This verse just cited concerns the case of the polytheist who asked the Prophet for protection when, at the end of his prophetic mission, he had just been ordered to fight all polytheists. This exception is justified by the possibility of hearing the Quran, called here ‘the word of God’. Now the Shaykh states: ‘the one who made hearing possible was Muhammad – on him grace and peace – the truth (ḥaqq) in a Muhammadian form’. Ḥaqq, here as in the preceding passage a polysemic term, is not without reference to the ana’l-ḥaqq of Ḥallaj. In any case, the allusion becomes even clearer when, concerning the first words of Jesus whilst still in his cradle, Ibn al-ʿArabi adds: ‘See how powerful is Mary’s allusion to the divine Truth (ḥaqq), as in the words of those who say: “God is the Messiah, son of Mary”’ (Q. 5: 72),[29] which is the equivalent of ‘Did you say to the people “take me and my mother as two gods [besides God]?”’ (5: 116). Jesus added: ‘He gave me the Book’, not only in the sense of joining one letter to another, but also relating God to the creature (ḍamm ḥaqq ilā khalq), a simple and allusive expression of all the meanings that the term kitāb carries. Ibn al-ʿArabi does not stop there. He links this expression with Sībawayh’s definition of a particle: ‘a letter which brings about a meaning’ (ḥarf jāʾa li-maʿnan). Indeed a particle or a preposition is neither a noun signifying a being nor a verb expressing an action: it assigns to the word that it precedes a certain place in the language and therefore in existence, and this too is the function of the Revelation. ‘And He made me a prophet’ signifies that ‘the One who announces is God’.[30] ‘He made me blessed’: here again Ibn al-ʿArabi plays on the sense of increase attached to the notion of baraka: ‘increase of a form characteristic to Jesus in God’. On the one hand, the commandment to pray and give alms corresponds to the fact that it is God himself ‘who prays over you’ (see Q. 33: 43), and on the other, to the divine name the Most Holy (al-quddūs). Jesus is doubly qualified by this attribute because he was conceived by the breath of Gabriel, the Spirit of sanctity (rūḥ al-quds), and he is himself ‘a spirit proceeding from Him’ in the virginal matrix of his mother, she and her offspring protected at birth from the attack of Satan (see Q. 3: 36). ‘As long as I would be living’, signifying ‘with an eternal life’, a most concise expression on the metaphysical import of the two fundamental rites: prayer and alms-giving. ‘And reverential towards my mother’: the commentary of the Shaykh finishes with an allusion to the relationship between the Fātiḥa and the Book and the meaning of Mary and Jesus in each human being. He then simply quotes the tradition: ‘Whoever knows his own soul, knows his Lord’. Who is the Mother, what is the soul, what is the Lord? In this penultimate chapter of the Futūḥāt, Ibn al-ʿArabi invites us to read again everything that has escaped us in what has preceded, that is to say all his works and much more besides. Is he alluding to Mary in the conclusion to this passage: ‘Meditate upon these allusions and turn your gaze to what lies behind these veils (sitārāt)’?

Even if it is relatively easy to understand from the Quranic perspective how divinity could have been attributed to Jesus because of his partly non-human origin and his theurgical actions, it is more difficult to work out the reason why Jesus would have been able to attribute divinity not only to himself but also to his mother (see Q. 5: 16). The ever-present possibility of confusion between supra-human principles and their incarnation in human beings is at once emphasized by the term ‘Likeness’, identified with the Fātiḥa as the principle of the Universe and of the Revelation, and the designation, in this connection, of the Universal Man and the Muhammadian Reality. In the Quran Jesus represents the incarnation of the Word of God and Mary its receptacle, corporeal as well as interior. Furthermore, she is identified on a metaphysical level with universal Possibility, of which man is the most perfect manifestation. From the perspective of the Quran, all the prophetic figures, including Mary, reflect aspects of prophecy and Revelation initiated and perfected by the Seal of the prophets. Thus Jesus and Mary reveal what the ordinary humanity, the bashariyya of the Prophet, kept hidden, while still allowing it to shine through in the perfection of his character.

It goes without saying that Ibn al-ʿArabi has revealed many other aspects of the initiatic and eschatological function of Jesus, in particular his function as Seal of the saints. Here we have limited ourselves to the relationship of Jesus and his mother with the Word and the Book as manifestation of the divine, to the inexpressible boundary between the absolute Principle and manifestation, the interface of the ḥaqq. This is why one of the characteristics of the Christic saints is the knowledge they have of the insuperability and inimitability of the Quran (iʿjāz al-qurʾān). This notion, the origin of which resides in the denial by the Quran itself that it can be imitated either wholly or in part, and which has occupied theologians and rhetoricians of classical Islam, is reduced by Ibn al-ʿArabi to its most simple expression: ‘giving news of a truth. Hold to the truth, and your word will be inimitable’ (ikhbār ʿan ḥaqq. Iltazim al-ḥaqq yakun kalāmuka muʿjizan).[31]

If Jesus as Verb is greater than his earthly mother, and is identified as the Mother of the Book, with the principle of Revelation, then Mary in the primordiality of her maternal function assumes a role which has its principle in the metaphysical order. If she is ‘virgin mother, daughter of your son’ in the prayer of St Bernard, which opens the last song of the Divine Comedy,[32] her primordiality makes of her the human representation of a superior principle in the process of creation and Revelation.[33] The specific contribution of Ibn al-ʿArabi in explaining the Quranic discourse on Jesus and Mary applies particularly to their relationship with the Book and to what one may infer of their relationship with the interior reality of the Prophet.[34] This refers as much to the place of Jesus in the life of the Shaykh as to the centrality of the Quran in his works, to his spiritual realization and to his function as the Seal of Muhammadian sainthood, following in the footsteps of the Seal of the prophets and of the Seal of the saints.

Translated from the French by Alan Boorman
This article first appeared in the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi Society, Vol. 57, 2015.


[1]. Futūḥāt, reprod. edn. 1329h, Chap. 5, I.101.

[2]. Laysa ka-mithlihi shayʾun. Ibn al-ʿArabi here takes the verse in its literal sense as ‘[there is nothing] like His likeness’, where the particle ‘like’ (ka) which is normally regarded as simply expressing emphasis (hence in translation ‘[there is nothing] like Him’) is understood as a qualifier in its own right.

[3]. Miftāḥ, lit. ‘that with which one opens’.

[4]. The expression kitāb marqūm describes the place, lower and higher, where the book of the damned and of the chosen is found, being the two tendencies of the soul; see Q. 83: 9 and 20.

[5]. See Q. 52: 2–3: ‘By a Book written on unfurled parchment’.

[6]. Fut.I.111, Chap. 5; an extract from this passage has been translated by Ch.-A. Gilis in Marie en islam (Paris, 1990), p. 45.

[7]. See for example Fut.III.109, Chap. 329; III.282, Chap. 360. This verse is one of the most commented on by Ibn al-ʿArabi, as much in the sense of likeness, as non-likeness; see notably Kitāb al-Jalāl wa’l-jamāl, pp. 5–7, in Rasāʾil (Hyderabad, 1948), Vol. 1.

[8]. On the breath of the Compassionate (nafas al-raḥmān), see the long Chap. 198 of the Futūḥāt. See also W. Chittick, The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn al-ʿArabi’s Metaphysics of Imagination  (Albany, NY, 1989), pp. 127–30; S. Hirtenstein, The Unlimited Mercifier: The spiritual life and thought of Ibn ʿArabī (Oxford, 1999), pp. 225–31.

[9]. Cf. Fut.I.366, Chap. 62; II.390, Chap. 198; II.458; IV.116, Chap. 480.

[10]. For Ibn al-ʿArabi, the ‘words’ in the plural designate Jesus in particular; see Fut.III.283, Chap. 369.

[11]. On the wāw, symbol of the Universal Man, see especially Fut.II.468–9, Chap. 198, § 38, and the note of M. Vâlsan in ‘Le Livre du Nom de majesté Allâh’, Études Traditionnelles 268–9 (1948), 147, n.1. On the concealment of the wāw, see also Fut.I.136–7, Chap. 10 and the thesis of J. Flaquer Garcia, Jésus dans la prophétologie d’Ibn ʿArabî (Paris, 2010), pp. 341–4.

[12]. Cf. Fut.I.167–9, Chap. 20, trans. M. Vâlsan ‘Sur la science propre à Aïssâ (Jésus)’, Études Traditionnelles 424–5 (1971), 62–72.

[13]. Fut.IV.328, beginning Chap. 559; see also Fut.II.401, Chap. 198 §4 on the basmala where this is set in relation to the kun and the breath of Jesus giving life to the birds.

[14]. See, among other passages, Fut.I.575, Chap. 70; III.11, Chap. 302, 181–2, Chap. 345; IV.84, Chap. 463. See also J. Flaquer and M. Gloton’s thesis, Jésus le fils de Marie dans le Coran et selon l’enseignement d’Ibn ʿArabî (Paris, 2006).

[15]. Fut.II.656, Chap. 292.

[16]. See Fut.II.70–1, question 44, for the discussion which follows.

[17]. The verb awḥā, to inspire or to reveal, clearly has a sense of making a sign in the verse in which Zachariah, unable to speak after the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist, made a sign to his people to glorify God; see Q. 19: 11.

[18]. See Fut.I.365–7, Chap. 68 on the mysteries of purity, bāb mass al-junub al-muṣḥaf.

[19]. See Q. 5: 75.

[20]. The ‘character’ (khuluq) signifies the interior face of the being in opposition to its exterior appearance (khalq). On the numerous versions of this tradition, see Ibn Ḥanbal, Musnad VI.54, 91, 111, 163, 188, 216; Muslim, Ṣaḥīḥ, musāfirīn 139 (Istanbul, 1332h, II.169; Abū Dāwūd, Sunan, taṭawwuʿ 26, ed. Muhammad M. ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd II.40 no. 1341; Tirmidhī, Jāmiʿ, birr 69; Nasāʾī, Sunan, qiyām al-layl 2; Ibn Māja, Sunan, aḥkām 14, ed. F. ʿAbd al-Bāqī (1972), p. 782.

[21]. See Fut.III.238, Chap. 353.

[22]. Fuṣūṣ al-ḥikam, ed. Abū l-ʿAlāʾ ʿAfīfī (Cairo, 1946), p. 138, faṣṣ 15.

[23]. Cf. Fut.II.387–8, Chap. 195. This chapter has been translated by W. Chittick in Les Illuminations de la Mecque, ed. M. Chodkiewicz (Paris, 1988), pp. 265–72; trans. as The Meccan Illuminations by W. Chittick and James W. Morris (New York, 2002), Vol. I, pp. 150–6.

[24]. This phrase makes up part of several affirmations of the Prophet on his privileges, integral or not, in the hadith on the intercession (ḥadīth al-shafāʿa); cf. Aḥmad Ibn Ḥanbal, Musnad I.5, 281 etc.; Ibn Māja, Sunan, zuhd 37; Tirmidhī, Jāmiʿ, tafsīr 17, 18.

[25]. Ibn al-ʿArabi apparently prefers this version to the one accepted by traditionists: ‘when Adam was between the spirit and the body’, Ibn Saʿd, Tabaqāt (Cairo, 1358h), I.138; Tirmidhī, manāqib 1; Ibn Ḥanbal, Musnad IV.66, V.59, 379); or: ‘when Adam still stretched out in his clay” (Musnad IV.127–8). Claude Addas notes that the version ‘between water and clay’ is quoted by other Sufi authors before Ibn al-ʿArabi: cf. La Maison muhammadienne. Aperçus de la dévotion au Prophète en mystique musulmane (Paris, 2015), p. 28, n.6. Elsewhere, Suyūṭī considers it authentic and cites two references: the Muʿjam al-kabīr of Ṭabarānī and the Ḥilyat al-awliyāʾ of Abū Nuʿaym al-Iṣfahānī, two works studied by Ibn al-ʿArabi; see Suyūṭī, al-Jāmiʿ al-ṣaghīr, with commentary by Munāwī (Cairo, 1954), II.162. For these different versions, see al-ʿAjlūnī, Kashf al-khafāʾ, reprod. edn. n.d., II.129, no. 2007.

[26]. Fut.IV.116–7, Chap. 480: ‘on the condition of the pole whose dwelling place is “We gave him authority, even as a child”’ (Q. 19: 12, concerning John the Baptist).

[27]. Cf. Q. 20: 114 and 75: 16–19. On this question, see D. Gril, ‘Adab and Revelation or one of the Foundations of the Hermeneutics of Ibn ʿArabi’, in Muhyiddin Ibn ʿArabi: A Commemorative Volume, ed. S. Hirtenstein and M. Tiernan (Shaftesbury, 1993), pp. 249–51.

[28]. Fut.IV.411–22, Chap. 559.

[29]. On the interpretation of this verse and its beginning, ‘unbelievers are those who said…’, see especially Fuṣūṣ, p. 141.

[30]. Fa-inna l-mukhbira al-ḥaqqu, polysemy of ḥaqq: God, Truth, Revelation, the Real by which the world was created. Mukhbir is from the same root as the noun al-khabīr used above.

[31]. Fut.I.227, Chap. 37; see also Fut.II.274, Chap. 167 on the Alchemy of happiness, on the miʿrāj of the Shaykh, during which Jesus and John the Baptist teach him, among other sciences, the proof of the authenticity of the mission of Muhammad through iʿjāz, the science of letters and of the kun.

[32]. Dante, La divine comédie, French trans. Jacqueline Risset (Paris, 1990), vol. III: Le Paradis, pp. 306–7.

[33]. On her anteriority, see François Chenique, Le culte de la Vierge ou la métaphysique au féminin (Paris, 2000), pp. 94–100, which discusses her identification with wisdom, notably in two Biblical passages: ‘The Lord possessed me at the start of his way before his works, from the beginning. From eternity I have been established, in ancient times, before the origin of the earth’ (Proverbs 8:22–3); and ‘he who created me rested under my tent’ (Book of Ecclesiasticus (aka the Wisdom of Sirach) 24:12). On the relationship between Mary and Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet, Louis Massignon brings out the relationship established in esoteric Shiʿism between Fatima and the divine name Fāṭir, the primordial Creator, which makes her the mother of her father, just as Mary is the daughter of her son. He links this to the feminine form of the kun which appears in the tradition in which, seizing the first handful of light, God says to it kūnī Muḥammadan (‘Let it be Muhammad’). Cf. ‘La mubāhala de Médine et l’hyperdulie de Fatima’, in Opera Minora (Paris, 1969), vol. I, pp. 567–70.

[34]. See Frithjof Schuon, De l’unité transcendante des religions (Paris, 1948), pp. 126–32.