by Pablo Beneito

This article first appeared in Vol. 50 of the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi Society (2011).

The Time of Deeds and the Time of Spiritual Knowledge

The Past and Future of Gnosis and Sainthood in Ibn ʿArabī’s Kitāb al-Isfār[1]

Pablo Beneito

In his Book of the Unveiling of the Effects of Travelling[2](or, alternatively The Revelation of the Fruits of the Holy Books), Ibn ʿArabī refers to those who ‘are guided to travel in God’ (lit.: ‘those who are made to travel in Him’), that is to say, those who do not travel by their own means, efforts and faculties, but by the grace of Divine Providence. The author says that those ‘who are made to travel in Him … are the messengers, the prophets and the chosen among the close friends of God (awliyāʾ), such as the verifiers of Reality (muḥaqqiqūn) among the Sufi Masters (rijāl al-ṣūfiyya), like Sahl b. ʿAbd Allāh [al-Tustarī], Abū Yazīd [al-Bisṭāmī], Farqad al-Sabakhī, al-Junayd b. Muḥammad and al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī, as well as others whose renown has survived up to the present day.’

The predominance in the past of good deeds and the predominance of knowledge for the future

Following on from this mention of his predecessors in the Way, within the historical and eschatological background of spiritual imaginal history, Ibn ʿArabī introduces a reflection on the inversely proportional relationship in the Islamic era between ‘deeds’ and ‘gnosis’, between ‘doing’ and ‘knowing’, which constitutes a point of departure for a possible consideration of the present and future of mysticism and gnosis. He says:

However, the time that we live in today is not the same as that of the past since now is closer to the Abode of the Hereafter. Unveiling (kashf) these days extends and multiplies among those who are gifted with this faculty and the glimmers of light have begun to shine and show themselves [clearly and profusely], so that the people of our times have access to unveiling more rapidly and, likewise, they enjoy a greater capacity for inner contemplation (shuhūd) and more abundant direct knowledge (maʿrifa) as well as a more perfect understanding of the sublime realities (ḥaqāʾiq). In contrast, their deeds (or ritual works) are less numerous than [the deeds of those who lived] in times past (al-zamān al-mutaqaddim).

Although this affirmation could be extended to the whole past, my understanding is that the author is referring here in particular to the Islamic cycle in history and, therefore, to an initial stage of the Islamic era (especially, at its beginning) lasting until his own time, after which it was understood that there would be a subsequent period until the end of the era. He continues by saying, with reference to the spiritual people of the past:

[They are] those who have realized more deeds but received less spiritual openings and unveilings than we have in our era, given that they were further removed [from the arrival of the Other Life in the Hereafter[3]].

One must nevertheless make an exception for the time of the Companions [of the Prophet], because the few among those Companions who had been enlightened, had all of this [that is to say, unveiling, vision and spiritual knowledge] since they were rewarded with the vision of the Prophet, may God bless him, and with the closeness of the angelic spirits who with each new breeze descended on him. Among them were Abū Bakr al-Ṣiddīq, ʿUmar Ibn al-Khaṭṭāb, ʿAlī Ibn Abī Ṭālib – may God be satisfied with them – and their kinsmen.

In the past then, deeds and praxis predominated, just as in the present day science[4] has become predominant, and its predominance will not stop growing incrementally until the [second] coming of Jesus – may peace be upon him – until the point when only one prayer[5] realized by us today will be equivalent to all [the acts of] adoration of a person from the past during the whole of his life (wa-l-rakʿatu l-yawma minnā ka-ʿibādati shakhsin mimman taqaddama ʿumra-hu kulla-h).

In this regard the Prophet, may God bless him, addressing himself to his contemporaries, said: ‘Whoever among them [those who face the eschatological End] acts (doing good works) at that time, will receive a reward equivalent to that of fifty men who accomplish deeds such as yours.’ What an excellent expression with such subtle allusion!

Ibn ʿArabī’s assertion here is emphatic. In the text, of course, the word ‘to act’ refers mainly to acts of adoration, just as ‘to know’ refers to mystical knowledge. Our author could simply have said that as the execution of deeds becomes more difficult, so too does their worth increase. Nevertheless, Ibn ʿArabī prefers to place a single rakʿa on the same level as an entire lifetime of prayer. If he considers that it was already thus in his lifetime, it begs the question as to what the situation might be eight centuries later. Whatever the case, this equivalence should be understood today in the light of the doctrine of ‘cumulative knowledge’, as we shall see below.

This text also raises another question: what has been established as the critical point between the predominance of deeds and the predominance of knowledge? Perhaps the answer could be that it is Ibn ʿArabī himself who, as the full moon of Muhammadian sainthood, if one may use such an image, brings to a close a pre-akbarian Islamic cycle and inaugurates a second post-akbarian one, corresponding symbolically to the waning moon which will eventually conclude with the arrival of the Hour.

The imminence of the Hour and the appearance of the properties of the Intermediate World of Imagination

Returning to the text of the K. al-Isfār, Ibn ʿArabī continues by saying:

As we have explained, this is due to the fact that the [end of] Time (al-zamān) approaches [that is to say, its consummation, the Hour which closes this cycle] as well as the manifestation of the laws which rule the Intermediate World (ḥukm al-barzakh).

The Shaykh then cites parts of two prophetic traditions (ḥadīth) mentioned by the Prophet which relate to some of the signs of the advent of the Hour. One of these refers, for example, to a tree endowed with speech. The author asks himself: ‘This will occur in this world. Will it not be produced perhaps because of the effect of the manifestation of the Dwelling of the Hereafter, which is the Abode of Animation (al-Dār al-ḥayawān)?’[6]

The matter under consideration here is the Imaginal World, the domain of active, autonomous Imagination and subsistent, enduring images. In this intermediate dimension, analogous to the experience of dreams, the intelligible unites with the sensible and the spiritual with the corporeal. This is the dimension in which such things as visions and phenomena from beyond the tomb, which eschatology describes, take place. The manifestation in the secular world of the properties of this spiritual plane of subtle bodies (where all beings are enlivened, animated, and spatial and temporal dimensions are not lineal) will increase in line with the imminence of the arrival of the Hour. This realm of the Land of Reality, the Imaginal World, constitutes the key for understanding the sense of time among the Sufis, and in particular among those connected to the Akbarian heritage.

The distribution of cumulative knowledge and the overflowing radiation of the later saints

We now turn our attention to a final paragraph relating to the distribution of knowledge among the gnostics of the same period. In times of greater general dispersion more knowledge accumulates, and sustains the gnostic. Ibn ʿArabī says:

Knowledge (ʿilm), being both unique and diffused, requires carriers [depositories of knowledge who actualize it, preserve it and transmit it]. When the number of its carriers grows, due to the proliferation of the just and virtuous fulfilment of duties (ṣalāḥ)[7] [among people of a specific era] – since we are dealing here specifically with knowledge particular to the just (ʿilm al-ṣāliḥīn) – knowledge is distributed amongst them (qusima ʿalay-him). This is the reason why it didn’t abound among those who came before us. Furthermore, those who had some knowledge did not let it manifest openly, since they had complete dominion over it.[8] On the other hand, when the bearers [or depositories of knowledge, those who are able to take responsibility for it] are few in number because of widespread corruption amongst the common people, the just man by contrast, receives it in greater abundance, since he gains the portion [of knowledge] that would correspond to each inattentive man, since he (the just man) is the heir of it. And it is for this reason that knowledge, spiritual openings and unveilings are more plentiful among those who belong to later times (al-mutaʾakhkhirūn). When some [among them] possess a portion of this [knowledge], it becomes manifest in them[9] due to its profusion. Glory be to Him who gives to all!

Contained within this theory of the distribution of knowledge in each different era is the implicit idea that the ‘quantity’ of this unique knowledge – the integrity of this divine deposit or gift (amāna) entrusted to mankind – remains constant, and only its diffusion varies. As regards the number of gnostics with spiritual knowledge at any one time, if their number is small there is a correspondingly greater degree of actualization of knowledge, the profusion of which results in a greater external manifestation, as is exemplified in the case of Ibn ʿArabī himself with relation to this overflowing of knowledge. My understanding from this is that the outpouring which forces the mystic to manifest and spread his knowledge[10] would not be considered an unwise, reprehensible or inadvisable lack of control in an era in which, precisely because of the obscurity of ignorance and general distraction of people, the mystic retains and disseminates more knowledge, and its diffusion becomes more necessary. The overflowing characteristic of the knowledge itself would not then imply a weakness on the part of the mystic, but rather it would attune itself to the needs of the time.

Assuming we are historically and spiritually in the same cycle as Ibn ʿArabī is discussing, we can deduce that these days there would be, according to the Master, fewer just people than in the past, but nevertheless with a greater proportion of ‘accumulated’ knowledge, and therefore with a greater responsibility with respect to the amāna, or divine trust.

According to Ibn ʿArabī’s doctrine of sainthood, the number of representatives of the invisible hierarchy – composed of the Axis of Time, the four Poles (aqṭāb) and the seven Substitutes (abdāl), and so on – necessarily remains constant in a continuing succession, since, for example, if the Axis were to disappear, the known world would not be able to sustain itself, since the trust (amāna) has to be preserved until the end of chronological time. Thus it is that, in principle, any reduction could only be in the number of holy men who do not, as such, perform functions in the cosmic order within the ambit of the invisible hierarchy.[11]

At the end of the cycle, when God openly shows Himself on the Day of Judgement in the Hereafter, all chronological restrictions as well as the cycle of existence disappear, and the epiphany reveals itself. Only then does qualitative spiritual time fully manifest in its stead.

Having commented on Ibn ʿArabī’s text on the predominance of ‘deeds’ or of ‘knowledge’ in the hemicycles of the Islamic era, I shall continue here by referring briefly to some of the author’s notions of Muhammadian sainthood.

The cycle of Muhammadian sainthood

In his dignity as Seal of the prophets, Muhammad closes the historic cycle of prophecy. Nevertheless, by crowning the unfolding of the prophetic message, he does not bring it to a final conclusion, but on the contrary, inaugurates the Muhammadian cycle, in which the fullness of the walāya muḥammadiyya, the realization of sainthood specific to the spiritual heirs of the Envoy, has to be manifested.

Whether it be in its primordial reality prior to Adam – as the Muhammadian Light – or whether it be in the temporal manifestation of his historic actualization, Muhammad is the Envoy on whom the Creator has bestowed the Comprehensive Words (jawāmiʿ al-kalim), that is to say, the synthesis which integrates, verifies and actualizes the totality of the successive prophetic messages which, in the historical cycle, preceded it. Thus, if one may use a graphic image, the Prophet Muhammad closes the ‘solar’ cycle of legislative prophetic revelation and opens a new ‘lunar’ cycle. In this latter cycle Muhammadian inclusive spirituality has to manifest itself among God’s friends, the awliyāʾ. This does not imply that other forms of spiritual inheritance – such as Davidic, Mosaic, Christian, Marian, etc. – do not continue to manifest in that same cycle. According to the testimony of the Master himself and his followers, Muḥammad Ibn ʿArabī – known as Muḥyī al-dīn or ‘the Enlivener of Faith’ – occupies in the realm of sainthood (walāya) (which is subject to the prophetic revelation), and with relation to its diverse typologies, an axial position analogous to that which Muhammad occupies among the Envoys in the realm of prophecy. As is now well known, Ibn ʿArabī proclaims himself – although he does it with a certain discretion – to be the Seal of Muhammadian sainthood.

This condition constitutes the singularity of the function of the Andalusi Master, principal heir and interpreter par excellence of Muhammadian spirituality. There would therefore be a ‘pre-Ibn ʿArabī’ and a ‘post-Ibn ʿArabī’ part of the Muhammadian cycle: the Shaykh al-Akbar, Supreme Master of the Two Horizons, culminating as the full moon of Muhammadian sainthood, will not close the cycle, but rather will inaugurate the phase of the effects and repercussions of his teaching.

Returning to the image of the moon, it seems fitting then to speak of, firstly, a growing phase and, secondly, a waning phase in Muhammadian sainthood. The growth phase would correspond to the perfecting of gnosis, which culminates in the perfect harmony of knowledge and its accomplishment (ʿilm / ʿamal) actualized by Ibn ʿArabī himself; and the waning phase would correspond to a progressive reduction in the capacity for ‘deeds’, which reduces – in the majority of people – the possibility of actualizing the potentiality of spiritual knowledge, reserved for the select few. Are we to deduce from the text that the period of Ibn ʿArabī’s teaching, by analogy to that of the Prophet, was itself an exceptional time, which allowed a perfect or at least privileged conjunction of deeds and knowledge in his spiritual environment?

Final considerations on the future of mysticism

If we think of the awliyāʾ, the close friends of God, and of a future time (perhaps in the second hemicycle of the Christian or the Muhammadian era), we can see that, according to the spiritual and eschatological foresight of Ibn ʿArabī for foreseeable time, be it linear or circular, the future of mysticism will be a period with a dearth of gnostics (a fact which would not affect the necessary permanence of those who hold cosmic functions in the invisible hierarchy) but with a great accumulation of knowledge which, because of its overflowing profusion, tends to reveal itself, to manifest itself openly. Could it be proposed in this respect that at the present time there are few visible masters or saints who possess a great mystical knowledge which manifests itself and diffuses itself in a more ostensible manner than the knowledge of the mystics of the past?

In another part of the ḥadīth which has already been cited in the Book of Unveiling, the Prophet says:

Command one another to do good and forbid the bad, until such times as you will see that greed is encouraged, that people follow their passions, that this world is preferred [to the Beyond] and that everyone is complacent in their own opinions. Then take care of your own soul, and don’t concern yourselves with other people, because the day will arrive when to resist the trials will be like grabbing a hot ember.[12]

His counsel is, then, that the aspirant to the realization of knowledge should respond with an internal withdrawal from the enormous distraction and secularization of the times that are to come, in which the spiritual community will break down. The counter to the progressive externalization of the overflowing knowledge of the Gnostics is, then, this movement of internalization and concentration within one’s own soul. To perfect their condition as servant, and to reinstate the original theomorphism of their Adamic nature, the aspirant requires, in the face of a growing dispersive tendency, a much greater uniting concentration.

This is not the place to draw a comparison between the phenomena of our times and the indications of the End of Time which eschatology describes, as did those who promoted messianic and millennia movements from the various religions, century after century. Past examples demonstrate that apocalyptic interpreters have often considered that such signs were already manifesting in their time, and that the End was nigh. Rather, I shall focus in a future article on the symbolic character and the spiritual meaning of the cycles in relation to the microcosmic order, that is to say, in the interior of the soul.

Were we to think of the future of mysticism in Akbarian terms of qualitative ‘interwoven time’, we might consider that each instant will be that which corresponds to it according to the divine order and will be in consonance with the framework of the era, in which past, present and future appear as a unique present of divine knowledge and love.

According to the Sunni doctrine of Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī or Ibn ʿArabī, this present world is necessarily the best of all possible worlds, since God, in His infinite generosity, would not have deprived His creation of another better[13] possibility. God gives to each thing that which corresponds to it. Each being occupies the place appropriate to it in the universal order. Each thing is in its precise place, at the right instant and in the appropriate mode. Not to be considered as reductive fatalism, this existential optimism implies that in the final analysis, whatever may be the future of mysticism in the modern megalopolis, it will, from the point of view of Sufi metaphysics, be exactly that which has to be for all eternity or, if you like, for the entire present. As the evangelical image suggests, ‘the wind blows where it will’.

Wherever there may be a gnostic, there is the present, the mystical ‘instant’, which from a secular perspective has never had a future.


1. First presented at the Symposium ‘Ibn ʿArabī and the Modern Era’, Istanbul, 23–25 May 2008.

2. See Ibn ʿArabī, Le Dévoilement des effets du voyage (K. al-Isfār ʿan natāʾij al-asfār), edition and French translation by D. Gril (Combas, Éditions Éclat, 1994), pp. 9–11.

3. An implicit reference to the End of Time and to the advent of the Hour that closes the cycle of chronological historical time and inaugurates the full manifestation of the imaginal time in the barzakh.

4. That is to say, ‘the predominance of knowledge’ characteristic of the Akbarian era ‘has started’.

5. Lit. ‘a single rakʿa’, one of the complete sequences of movement and prayer during the ṣalāt.

6. Lit. ‘the Animated Abode’ in which everything, including minerals or anything without the appearance of life, is animated, endowed with manifest life.

7. Manifest conformity to the revealed Truth and divine providence.

8. That is to say, he had such a control over his spiritual state that interior drunkenness did not overflow, nor overcome him, and he could maintain spiritual sobriety.

9. That is to say, ‘it dominates them’.

10. As for example in the case of theopatic sayings, such as those pronounced by Ḥallāj or al-Bisṭāmī.

11. On this doctrine of the spiritual hierarchy, see M. Chodkiewicz, Le Sceau des saints: Prophétie et sainteté dans la doctrine d’Ibn ʿArabī (Paris, Editions Gallimard, 1986).

12. See Tirmidhī, Jāmiʿ, Tafsīr 5: 11.

13. On God’s all-embracing grace, His love towards all created beings and the beauty of all manifestation, see my articles ‘The Presence of Superlative Compassion (Raḥamūt): On the Names al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm and other terms with the lexical root r-ḥ-m in the work of Ibn ʿArabī’, JMIAS 24 (1998), pp. 53–86, and ‘On the Divine Love of Beauty’, JMIAS 18 (1995), pp. 1–22.