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Symbol and Creative Imagination

Second International Symposium : Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi Society – Latina : March 8th-9th, 2013

This was the second international symposium devoted to the work of Ibn ʿArabī to take place in the city of his birth, Murcia. The exact location of his family home is not known; as in many Spanish cities, there is little surviving evidence on the streets of the Moorish culture which dominated these southern regions for nearly eight hundred years. But nevertheless there is a sense that the unique civilisation which developed here in the Islamic period – bringing together the wisdom of Christianity, Judaism and Islam as well as the broad heritage of the Roman tradition in a blend which was far more than the sum of its parts – has left its traces in the culture and in the hearts and minds of the people. Certainly, this conference, set in the gracious surroundings of Murcia's Archaeological Museum on two balmy spring days in March, had a distinctive approach to the heritage of Ibn ʿArabī, particularly in drawing out his influence on the creative arts. It was linked, as last year, to IBAFF – the Ibn ʿArabī Film Festival – which, already in its fourth year, has established itself as an exciting showcase for modern filmmakers from all over the world, and also to an exhibition of work by the video artist Bill Viola. This context, as well as the theme of imagination, highlighted the contemporary relevance of Ibn ʿArabī's thought in a world where image is increasingly replacing the word as the means of conveying not only information, but also spiritual truth.

One of the notable features of this symposium, clearly related to this main theme, was the extensive use of visual presentation. Many of the spoken expositions were accompanied by a veritable feast of beautiful imagery, which, cast upon the huge screen behind the speaker's platform, formed a kind of parallel narrative to the intellectual content. The possible effect of this upon the audience was indirectly explored in the first paper, "The Circle and the Square: interpenetration of heaven and earth in the al-Andalus of Ibn ʿArabī", by Jane Carroll, an architect working in California. Her subject was the symbolism embodied in the two extraordinary buildings which have survived from Moorish times; the Great Mosque at Cordoba which Ibn ʿArabī visited often, providing the setting for several seminal spiritual events in his life, and the Alhambra in Granada, which was built after his time but was influenced by his writings. These, she maintained "...were built to give us knowledge of our essential nature, and that knowledge transcends culture, religion and time." Thus hidden within both the harmony of the structural elements and the intricacy of the decoration there is a universal 'language' of geometry which resonates with our inner being, bringing us back to a sense of wholeness. This resonance is mediated by the imaginative faculty, whose knowledge, according to Ibn ʿArabī, is "the centrepiece of the necklace; to it the senses climb and the meanings descend".

The power of imagination was explored from another angle by Anna Crespo in her magnificently illustrated talk on "The revelatory power of Imagination: in search of the 'treasures' of colour". Author of a seminal study of colour symbolism in Islamic mystical exposition and an artist whose internationally acclaimed work is based upon Ibn ʿArabī's vision, Anna began by talking about the work of the creative artist in the context of Ibn ʿArabī's thought:

" Human beings have the potential to reflect the beauty of God ...[Therefore] the artist's role is not just imagining, but wiping the imagination so that it can increasingly access clearer and brighter images".

She went on to remind us that Ibn ʿArabī was called "the red sulphur" because red is the colour which transforms the heart, and that for him the highest spiritual station is that of talwīn, the state in which the heart constantly changes colour to reflect the ever-changing revelation of the One. Answering a question about religious tolerance in the plenary session, she pointed out that unity is not a matter of mixing all the colours together – what results from this is merely a dirty grey – but of understanding the harmony of their combinations; how each colour can reveal different qualities in the others, and how the relationship between them produces light and movement.

Two of the presentations tackled the matter of imagination more obliquely by demonstrating how Ibn ʿArabī's ideas are directly influencing contemporary forms of art. Josè Miguel Puerta Vilchez, from the University of Granada, in "Ibn ʿArabī: Calligraphy of Mystery and Beauty" gave a comprehensive overview, illustrated by some truly beautiful pieces, of the development of Arabic calligraphy in the post-Ottoman period. He showed us how, as people have moved away from the traditional sayings from Qurʿān and ḥadīth, they have found new inspiration in the words of the Sufi masters, and in recent years this has led progressive intellectuals and artists (Hassan Massoudy, Kamal Bullata, Khaled Al-Sāi, Gamal Al-Gitanī, Munīr Al Shāranī, amongst many others) to become interested in Ibn 'Arabi because:

"...his work permanently flows with the universal spirit of communion and harmony, overcoming the differences between creeds generated by conventional theology."

It was fascinating to learn that these ideas have also been influential upon the emergence of the 'Arab Spring" because they give support to the ideals of individual and social liberty, and to be shown how new forms of art – such as calligraphies of the word ḥurriya (freedom)ñ have sprung up as new aspirations take root in the Arab world.

Then there was the presentation by the video artist Bill Viola, who rather than giving a lengthy spoken exposition, elected to show five extracts from his work, starting with an early composition (1977), the deeply contemplative and thought provoking "Reflecting Pool", and ending with the powerful "Fire woman" (2008). It has been Bill's lifetime's work to find new ways of representing spiritual truth through moving images, and it was fascinating to hear how this has involved the development of very specific skills and techniques. It is the task of the artist, he explained, to translate their thoughts and experiences, even those of the invisible world or of the body, into tangible forms which are then released – set free – into the world. Inspiration is a living force, a gift from the stars, a force of nature which is present not only in human beings, but in all created things, in animals. The most important thing is to let the expression happen, to let it go free; if we keep it inside us, it will kill us.

To complete this section on talks which combined speech and image, mention must be made of two shorter presentation, one by Angel Almazan de Gracia in a paper entitled "The Imaginal Palm Tree: its evocation in San Baudelio of Soria" and the other by myself on the MIAS Archiving Project. The first concerned a small oratory in northern Andalusia which has been considered to have been both a Christian place of worship, famous for its Romanesque murals, and a Muslim marabout. Angel argued that it contains many features which can be interpreted according to the symbolism of Islamic esotericism, the most important of which is the great central column which, merging into the eight ribs of the vault, simulates a palm tree – an important symbol of nurturing in the Qur'ān because of its connection with Mary, who gave birth to Jesus beneath the fronds of a date palm. More immediately, there are associations with Ibn ʿArabi, who relates the story of the miraculous palm tree of Seville in his Ikhtiṣar sirāt rasūl Allah. The second gave a brief overview of a project to create a digital archive of the earliest and most accurate manuscripts of Ibn ʿArabī's works as a resource for scholars. This has involved visiting libraries throughout the world over a period of more than ten years, and the result is a collection of nearly 900 Ibn ʿArabī works, many dating from his own life-time and even written in his own hand. This transference to digital media means that this entire collection, amounting to over 42,000 folios, can fit onto an ordinary laptop computer, and copies can be shared virtually instantaneously over the internet. From this aspect, the emergence of image in our times appears as a kind of miracle, and a mercy.

The remainder of the presentations were more metaphysical in their form, turning their attention towards the role of the imagination in spiritual life and practice. On Friday afternoon, we were treated to a masterly exposition on Ibn ʿArabī's understanding of the imaginal world ('Real Meetings in the Imaginal World') by Souad Hakim, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Lebanon, the term 'imaginal' being used to distinguish it from the connotations of 'imagination' which in the contemporary world is often synonymous with 'unreal'. She explained that for Ibn ʿArabī, the imaginal realm is:

"...a different world, a world of visible images but not tangible, that is between the two worlds that constitute the universal existence; the invisible world and the visible world".

He describes how he himself entered it in 1192 whilst in Tunis, and never left it, encountering there many forms of guidance and wisdom, including other Sufi masters from the past. Souad believes that the imaginal world has a crucial place in spiritual development for many reasons: one of them is that it provides a 'virtual' space which enables us to ascend from theoretical knowledge to a lived experiential knowledge that is "active, fresh, unique (to each person) and close to the source". Another is that it "opens the door" to accepting the limitations of formal logic, which is only sufficient for understanding the physical and material world and "insufficient to know the ethereal worlds and God".

Then, in a talk which brought together the explicit theme of the symposium with an informal sub-theme which developed over the two days – viz: the bringing together of different faiths and points of view in harmony and tolerance – Jaume Flaquer, a Jesuit priest who teaches at the Faculty of Theology in Barcelona, explored the image of Jesus in Ibn ʿArabi's thought. As his title "Jesus' Spiritual Qualities According to Ibn ʿArabī: His Double Angelic and Marian Inheritance" suggests, the uniqueness of Jesus is that his birth arose from the confluence of the concrete waters of Mary and the imaginary waters of Gabriel. As such that he combined spiritual qualities such as "goodness, humility, poverty, self-emptying and resignation" with those derived from the spiritual realm such as "a state of permanent presence with God, constant invocation and persistent memory of death" and others related to loyalty, purity, integrity, freedom from passions and compassion. Exploring these in turn, Jaume concluded that the import of all this is that we, too, "are called to let ourselves be flooded by this revitalising Breath, following his example."

Finally, my own talk "The Image of the Beloved: Vision and Imagination in Ibn ʿArabī's Interpreter of Desires" explored the role of image and the imaginal world in love, and in particular in the love affair between the mystical seeker and God. Unlike our ordinary conception of love, where the aim is a state of permanent union with our beloved, love in the mystical love affair is a propelling force which moves us from "the kind of love which requires an object to the love of that which is beyond form, ineffable – that is, to the essential reality which is the reality of all forms". Thus, for Ibn ʿArabī, the highest state of spiritual attainment is the degree in which the mystic can see and acknowledge the Beloved in every form – love Her in everything in the universe – whilst at the same time not limiting Her to any one image or belief. This is the state he expresses so beautifully in Tarjumān in the most famous of all his sayings, much beloved of the calligraphers mentioned by Jose Vilchez

Oh marvel! A garden amidst the flames.
My heart has become capable of all forms...

where the Arabic word for form, ṣura, also has the meaning of 'image'.

This symposium was a rich and rewarding experience for everyone – both the speakers, who were the recipients of generous hospitality from the Government of Murcia who sponsored this event, and the 100-150 members of the audience, who consisted not only of students from the University of Murcia and members of the newly formed MIAS Latina, but also of people who had travelled from as far away as Canada, California, Turkey and UK. They were treated to an excellent set of talks – all available in Spanish and English transcriptions – and impeccable organisation which made every aspect of the two days a delight. The link to the film festival, and the focus on the creative arts in general, gave it all a very particular flavour, and the whole event ended with a bang with the award ceremony on Saturday night. There, in the beautiful Murcian Theatre of Arts, the Ibn ʿArabī Symposium and the Ibn ʿArabī Film Festival came together, and the two new awards for Ibn ʿArabī studies were bestowed upon this year's recipients – the Barzakh Award for achievement in the arts upon Bill Viola, and the Tarjuman Award for achievement in translation upon Souad Hakim. It was equally exciting to see so many talented and innovative filmmakers who had come to IBAFF from all over the world receiving awards under the name of Ibn ʿArabī. It was a fitting finale to this symposium, whose aim, as Pablo Beneito wrote in the programme, was to:

"...emphasize the universal relevance, the deep significance and the evident current importance of the enlivening thought of one of the major authors in history."

Jane Clark

Spiritual Realisation: Knowledge and Practice

A Personal Response to the Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabī Symposium, May 5-6th 2012 at Worcester College, Oxford.

The word which comes to mind for this event is 'burgeoning', which I thought when it first came up expressed the idea of being full to bursting point, but the dictionary tells me is actually associated with swelling buds – i.e. buds which are about to put out shoots and grow. The prevalence of this quality was confirmed by a delegate  – the same person who last year came up with the lovely image of the pearl as a synthesising image for that event – who said that she felt that the symposium was like a heavily pregnant woman about to give birth. Exactly what is about to be born we do not know, but amongst the capacity audience (the first time there has been a sell-out for both days, meaning about 100 people in the room) were two delegations which may give us a clue to at least some directions of possible expansion. The first of these was from Turkey, accompanying Cemalnur Sargut, who is president of Turkkad  (Turkish Cultural Association), an organisation which has already proved fecund in endowing chairs of Sufi Studies in the USA and China, and in supporting academic work in the important field of Ottoman Akbarian studies. The second was from Murcia in Spain, where MIAS Latina is now being established as a forum for discussion and translation in Spanish, Portuguese and Italian, and which is already cultivating a new off-shoot in the form of an annual Ibn 'Arabi conference (the first in March this year) annexed to the Ibn 'Arabi Film Festival in Murcia.

The theme of the UK symposium was 'realisation' which in Arabic is taḥqīq or taḥaqquq, from the root  ḥ-q-q, which has multifarious levels of meaning: to be true, to be real, to be right, to be incumbent upon, to be suitable, to be entitled to or deserve. As was pointed out at the very beginning of our exploration, it was the preferred description of its unique perspective by the Akbarian school itself. Although often referred to as the way of waḥdat al-wujūd  by outsiders and in the later Ottoman tradition, the early followers such as Ṣadr al-dīn al-Qūnawī preferred to emphasise this matter of 'realisation' or 'verification', implying, seeing the Real directly for oneself, through the faculty of the heart, through intuition and taste (dhawq). This was in contrast to the way of the philosophers of their time, who saw the pursuit of truth as a matter of developing the intellect, of seeing universal truths and establishing proofs. This issue was beautifully expressed by two of the weekend's speakers: Mohammed Rustom brought a new translation of Ibn ʿArabī's short but important letter on this difference to the greatest philosopher of his generation, Fakhr al-dīn al-Rāzī, and Wahid Amin gave a clear exposition on Ṣadr al-dīn's much longer correspondence with the greatest philosopher of his day, Nasīr al-dīn al-Ṭūsī. Jim Morris, in his seminar on Saturday afternoon, pointed out how hard Ibn ʿArabī fought in his later years against the tendency to generalise the development of the human being – not only in spiritual matters, but also in areas such as healing – maintaining that everything depends on and develops from the individual ʿayn, or essence of the person. Thus realisation is always individual and specific – a unique encounter between God and His own image as human being – and the guidance and 'path' which leads us to that point is equally specific and various from person to person. It seemed no coincidence therefore that the weekend included the day on which, in the Islamic calendar, the hidden guide and teacher of Moses, Khidr, is celebrated; Khidr is the carrier of the secret knowledge which God has of each person – al-ʿilm al-ladunī – and as such represents the guidance which comes directly from the source without any intermediary. Those familiar with Ibn ʿArabī's work will not need reminding of how important a figure he was in Ibn 'Arabī's own spiritual development.

This variety of paths was well illustrated over the weekend. Alison Yiangou and Dot Clark gave presentations on the modern movements of Mindfulness Meditation and Person-centred Psychology, opening up discussion on the compatibility of Ibn ʿArabī's ideas to practices undertaken outside of the context of a religious or spiritual tradition, whilst Samīr Mahmoud gave an erudite exposition on Ibn 'Arabi's understanding of the meaning of the ritual prayer in Islam. Cemalnur Sargut, in her talk entitled  Living through the Spectacles of Tasavvuf, gave us a wonderful taste of a life of praise,  devotion and active service experienced within the ṭarīqa  tradition which still survives in Turkey. The intensely personal nature of realisation was also brought out by Jim Morris in his talk entitled “As for your Lord's blessings, recount them!; Ibn ʿArabī's Storytelling and Spiritual Communication”, in which he pointed to the great importance of story and biography in communicating spiritual experience, and brought a fresh perspective to Ibn ʿArabī's own writings by pointing to the autobiographical nature of even such seemingly metaphysical works such as al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya. His talk highlighted the importance of this 'recounting' for the education and guidance of others, and thus another essential aspect of realisation – i.e. that although it takes place in the secret recesses of our hearts, there is nevertheless great effect upon the world by way of contagion and example.

This aspect was also mentioned by Eric Geoffroy in his very complete and profound exposition of al-Taḥqīq through Daily Awakening, where he brought in another meaning of the Arabic root, which is “to give everything its right or due”.  Thus realisation means to see the true nature and reality of everything in oneself and in the world, as in the request of the Prophet Muhammed, which was perhaps the most frequently quoted saying of the weekend: “Oh Lord, show me things as they really are”.  Thus for Ibn ʿArabī and his school, spiritual realisation does not mean isolation or rejection of the 'world', but to live a full life as a human being in the knowledge that the world is the place of the self-manifestation of the Real (al-ḥaqq, from the same root as taḥqīq). One of the images to emerge from the discussions was that of a cross, in which the vertical line indicates the connection with the divine and the descent of 'grace' or 'blessings' into the heart, and the horizontal line represents the playing out of this most profound experience in space and time. Thus in our own lives, the impact of realisation unfolds gradually, expressing itself in our daily activities as practice and action, and in the decisions we may make about careers, relationships, etc. This interplay between the vertical and horizontal forms the unique story – indeed, it was said, drama – which each individual has to 'recount'.

A short account cannot of course do justice to the richness of such an event. This is especially true given that the format is now such that each person's trajectory through the weekend is individual, with the talks in the morning being followed in the afternoon by seminars with the speakers which run concurrently. This brings an aspect of audience participation to the event as well allowing a more in-depth exploration of issues than a forty-five minute talk allows.  This was the 29th UK symposium, and as such, it was suggested at the beginning, it came under the symbolism of the 29th letter of the Arabic alphabet, the lām-ālif .

The meaning of this symbol was variously expressed throughout the weekend; it is two lovers intertwined with the heart in the middle; it is the heart with a cup on top, which symbolizes the reception of grace which then gradually filters into the heart. It forms the word meaning 'no', and is thus the first word of the shahāda  or 'witnessing' which is the foundational statement of belief for a muslim: lā ilāha illā allāh; there is no god but God.  It is the interface between the night, which is the time of intimate converse with the Beloved, and the dawn, which is the time when movement into light and expression begins. In this latter is a clear connection with the role of Khidr, who as the exposer of divine mysteries is associated with spring and greenness, with fresh new growth sprouting from the earth.

This brings one back to the sense of burgeoning, and the thought that whether one sees 29 as the final completion of the first cycle of symposia – 28 being the traditional number of a complete cycle both in the Arabic alphabet and cosmologically in the phases of the moon – or the beginning of the next, the hope is that this event was indeed the start of something new and fresh, straight from God. As for our part in all this: asked about the difference in meaning between the two Arabic words for realisation, taḥqīq  and taḥaqquq, Eric Geoffroy suggested that taḥqīq is more active in its meaning – indicating that realisation is not just a matter of reception of grace  but to do with active engagement and constant seeking for the truth. This, at least, gives us some clue to what our response should be to the great blessing brought to us during the course of an extraordinary and nourishing weekend.

Jane Clark  12/5/12 

Some of the attedees at the Oxford Symposium 2012 Speaker James Morris being introduced by Stephen Hirtenstein Most of the speakers Cemalnur at the Plenary Session Longer view of the Plenary Session

Above: listeners and speakers at the Symposium entitled Spiritual Realisation: Knowledge and Practice held at Worcester College, Oxford, May 5-6th 2012.

Ibn 'Arabi International Film Festival
IBAFF 5-10 March 2012 : Travel and Creation

IBAFF (Ibn Arabi Film Festival in Murcia) was a great success and resulted in much interest in the Shaykh. Papers were presented at the inaugural symposium of MIAS Espana under the title 'Travel and Creation'. We hope these will appear in due course in Spanish and English. In the meantime Cecilia Twinch has written a response capturing some of the flavour of the event.

As part of a Film Festival prizes were awarded. Maurice Gloton and Stephen Hirtenstein jointly received the 'Tarjuman' prize for services to the translation of Ibn 'Arabi and Beyhan Murphy was awarded the 'Barzakh' prize for creative work inspired by Ibn 'Arabi - her ballet performed on the gala evening was spectacular in every sense.

In the nearby town of Molina de Segura a road was renamed 'Calle Ibn Arabi' - Ibn 'Arabi Street - as 12th century ruins had been discovered beneath what had been a disused factory.

Photographs and translation of the report broadcast on the local radio station.

Ibn 'Arabi: Imagination, creation and creativity

Cecilia Twinch reports on the film festival in Murcia, 2012.

"The world is imagination
Yet in reality, it is real.
Whoever understands this
Holds the secrets of the way."

Abbas Kiarostami, the highly acclaimed Iranian filmmaker, spent a week in March 2012 giving workshops at IBAFF, the International Ibn 'Arabi Film Festival held in Murcia, Spain. One of his comments was: "Beauty accompanies you until eternity".

The film festival is named after the great Andalusian philosopher, poet and mystic, Ibn 'Arabi who was born in Murcia in 1165. Among the many parallel activities at the festival, such as flamenco performances and poetry readings, this year saw a two day symposium on Ibn 'Arabi, followed by a multi-media dance performance of Travelogue by members of the Istanbul State Opera and Ballet, directed by Beyhan Murphy whose choreographic work has been influenced by the writings of Ibn 'Arabi. In the awards ceremony that followed, Murphy was presented with the IBAFF Barzakh Prize for a creative career or artistic work inspired by the thought of Ibn 'Arabi. [1]

She is just one of the many creative artists, writers, filmmakers, architects, choreographers and so on who have been inspired explicitly or implicitly by Ibn 'Arabi’s work, which is devoted to beauty, love, knowledge and all the spiritual values which are conveyed in a meaningful way in creative expression.

As S. H. Nasr of George Washington University has commented: "It would not be an exaggeration to say that Ibn 'Arabi is the most influential intellectual figure in the Islamic world during the past seven centuries, if the whole world is considered."

Ibn 'Arabi is best known for his writings on the oneness of being. He is also renowned for his explanation of the potential for human perfection and the value of the role of the human being in a way which is particularly relevant to our times. In addition, he wrote love poetry and expounded on the sciences of his time. Yet, perhaps the most distinctive feature of his work is his extensive development of the idea of the world of images and imagination. For him the world of imagination forms a bridge between the spiritual / intellectual world and the physical world.

The internationally acclaimed American artist, Bill Viola, explored this threshold between worlds in a video installation which I saw in the Church of San Gallo at the Venice Biennale (2007) and which is now permanently installed at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. The installation, exhibited on 3 plasma screens (originally above the 3 altars of the chapel), is entitled Ocean without a shore after a line by Ibn 'Arabi :

"The self is an ocean without a shore. Gazing upon it has no beginning or end, in this world and the next."

Bill Viola explains the meeting-place of the essential and the material in his installation Ocean without a shore in the following way:

"The video sequence describes the human form as it gradually coalesces from within a dark field and slowly comes into view, moving from obscurity into the light. As the figure approaches, it becomes more solid and tangible until it breaks through an invisible threshold and passes into the physical world. The crossing of the threshold is an intense moment of infinite feeling and acute physical awareness. Poised at that juncture, for a brief instant all beings can touch their true nature, equal parts material and essence. However, once incarnate, these beings must eventually turn away from mortal existence and return to the emptiness from where they came."[2]

This threshold where 'beings touch their true nature’, and which Ibn 'Arabi describes as the world of the imagination, solves the problem, which is particularly prevalent in Western thought, of a duality between the world of spirit and the world of flesh, the inner world and the outer world, the invisible and the visible, the rational and the physical, the transcendent reality and the creative reality. It links subject to object in the movement of beauty which affirms that the act of creation is motivated by love as expressed in the divine saying:

"I was a hidden treasure and I loved to be known, so I created the world…"

Ibn 'Arabi emphasizes the importance of imagination by saying that: "It is impossible for sense perception or the rational faculty to bring together opposites, but it is not impossible for the imagination". Something appearing in the world of imagination is both the same as, and different to, the two sides that define it. Something appearing in the world of imagination is both the same as, and different to, the two sides that define it. It is both sensible and intelligible, and yet neither sensible nor intelligible – just as a mirror image is both the same as the object reflected and yet different from it.

Everyone has some knowledge of this world because they enter it in their sleep. If I dream about my father, I see my father and nobody else, yet it is not really my father, but only an image of him. Most people are only aware of this world when they are asleep and dreaming, but Ibn 'Arabi said that once he entered this realm, he never again left it. This does not mean that he inhabited a world of sleep – on the contrary, he had woken up into "the earth of reality".

Ibn 'Arabi says a great deal about this extraordinary "earth of reality", and says that when a person "contemplates that universe, it is their self, their own soul, that they contemplate in it."

Abbas Kiarostami, the award-winning film director and photographer who was leading the film workshops at the IBAFF film festival last week, has a particular connection with trees, and he quotes Ibn 'Arabi as an inspiration when he says that "the tree is the sister of man". He confirmed to me that he is referring to the story that Ibn 'Arabi recounts:

"After God had created Adam [from clay], some clay was left over and it was from this clay that God created the palm-tree, so that this plant is Adam’s sister.

After the creation of this palm-tree, there still remained some clay, the size of a sesame seed and it was in this remainder of clay that God laid out an immense earth..."

Adam represents humanity. Within the clay, the size of a tiny sesame seed, a vast treasure-house of images is contained – "the earth of reality", which provides all that the imagination sees with the inward eye.

This world of imagination is referred to by various names by earlier writers and is also found in Pre-Islamic traditions, as in the Zoroastrian tradition. In the Persian Sufi tradition, this world which is beyond ordinary space and time, yet nevertheless still has dimension and extension, is called Na-koja-abad: the city, or land, of No-where. It is to be found beyond the cosmic Mountain of Kaf, of which Ibn 'Arabi also writes, saying that it surrounds our universe and he relates a conversation with the serpent that encircles that mountain.

The Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author, Orhan Pamuk, who frequently quotes Ibn 'Arabi, begins his novel The Black Book with a quotation concerning the mystic and this mysterious realm, that is hidden from those who are confined to a world of what they believe to be scientific fact. The epigraph to The Black Book is as follows:

"Ibn 'Arabi writes of a friend and dervish saint who, after his soul was elevated to the heavens, arrived on Mount Kaf, the magic mountain that encircles the world; gazing around him, he saw that the mountain itself was encircled by a serpent. Now, it is a well-known fact that no such mountain encircles the world, nor is there a serpent."

Later in the novel, one of Orhan Pamuk’s characters points out that, despite the differences between East and West, in both traditions there exists the idea of "a centre hidden from the world".  There is a continuing fascination in the novel with the idea of whether the universe is full of meaning or devoid of it, or whether this simply depends on the mind-set of the observer.

As many people have pointed out, the idea of intermediate worlds between the absolute and the universe have almost disappeared from Western thought, so that the West lacks any notion of a bridging world between the spiritual/ intellectual world, and the physical world, since there is an overemphasis on rational explanation. However, to do justice to Western thought, although it may certainly be true that there is an imbalance, the imagination has never been lost sight of altogether, certainly not by poets, artists and visionaries.

Ibn 'Arabi says:

"Know that you are imagination, and all that you perceive and about which you say "that’s not me", is imagination. So the whole of existence is imagination within imagination."

Similarly, Edgar Allan Poe said:

'All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.’

However, the point is to wake up from this dream and perceive the reality – the images and signs can help us to do this if we are able to pass beyond them and cross over into the world of the real. Ibn 'Arabi frequently quotes a verse from the Quran: "We shall show them our signs on the horizons and in themselves, until they see that it is the Real."  This is an invitation to pierce the veiling screen by means of symbols which transport us to deeper meanings, and explore the depths of the self until we reach the reality behind the veil.

While the kind of imagination that depends on the human subject is generally transitory, the advent of motion pictures has created yet another level of reality which has a more lasting effect and which may emphasize light or darkness. The ability of filmmakers to manipulate images which can be projected into a kind of collective dream has a great effect. In representing the dream-like quality of the physical world, we see a world that is full of signs and symbols in the same way that dreams are, yet it is up to us to make sense of them and interpret them.

The human faculty of the imagination internalizes objects and events that are perceived in the external world, and stores them as memories. It also gives form, both verbal and visual ‒ that is in the form of words and images ‒ to things that arise in the interior. We each have our own storehouse of the imagination containing images from the inner and outer worlds. Of course, how veridical or true our imagination is depends on the purity of our heart and the clarity of vision of the inner eye – as the poet William Blake said of humankind’s search for meaning and purpose:

"If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite."

Finally, I’d like to mention a tribute to Ibn 'Arabi’s work from another creative artist who has been inspired by him, the actress Juliette Binoche, who starred in Abbas Kiarostami’s film Certified Copy, for which she won best actress award at Cannes in 2010. In 2008, she co-created the experimental dance production 'in-i' with the renowned choreographer Akhram Khan. This theatrical dance performance, with stage design by Anish Kapoor and music by Philip Sheppard, toured the world, including New York, after premiering at London’s National Theatre where I saw it. It explored the different forms of love, and, quoted Ibn 'Arabi’s poem The Self-Revelation of Perfection from The Book of Self-Revelations (Kitab al-tajalliyat), as a major source.

Last spring (7 March 2011), she opened the Printemps des poètes poetry festival in Paris with a performance of this poem in the Metro, accompanied by the composer and cellist Mathieu Saglio [3]:

Listen, O dearly beloved!
I am the reality of the world, the centre and the circumference,
I am the parts and the whole.
I am the will established between Heaven and Earth,
I have created perception in you only in order to be the object of my perception.

If you perceive me, you perceive yourself.
But you cannot perceive me through yourself.
It is through my eyes that you see me and see yourself,
Through your eyes you cannot see me...


IBAFF logo

At the third Ibn 'Arabi Film Festival (IBAFF), the career of the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami was recognized by the presentation of the IBAFF Honorary Award. Kiarostami spent a week in March 2012 giving workshops at IBAFF.

Image from Bill Viola's production Ocean without a shore

[2] Ignacio Villarreal, 'Bill Viola Creates Work for Venice Biennale’, 2 May 2007

See video clip at: 

Juliettee Binoche

[3] In spring 2011 Juliette Binoche opened the Printemps des poètes poetry festival in Paris with a performance of a poem by Ibn 'Arabi in the Metro, accompanied by the composer and cellist Mathieu Saglio.

Awards related to Ibn 'Arabi studies

Maurice Gloton and Stephen Hirtenstein jointly received the 'Tarjuman' prize for services to the translation of Ibn 'Arabi and Beyhan Murphy was awarded the 'Barzakh' prize for creative work inspired by Ibn 'Arabi.

"Ibn 'Arabi Street", Molina de Segura

[1] Representatives of the Ibn Arabi Society Oxford participate in the opening of Ibn Arabi Street, named in honour of the universal philosopher and mystic from Murcia, Spain. http://www.radiomolina.com

What was formerly Ebro Street in the town of Molina de Segura in the region of Murcia, Spain has been renamed "Ibn Arabi Street", in recognition of the philosopher and mystic from Murcia who lived during the 12th and 13th centuries,

The plaque bearing the name of the street was unveiled by the mayor of Molina de Segura, Eduardo Contreras, and the researcher from the Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society, Oxford, Cecilia Twinch, who emphasized the continuing importance of this great thinker from Murcia, whose work focuses on unity, the value of the human being, perfection, imagination and love.

Ibn Arabi Street will connect the urban centre of Molina de Segura to the Santa Rita district while archeological excavations of the medieval Arab wall and buildings discovered to one side of the street continues.

The event relied on the presence of several experts, including Stephen Hirtenstein and Richard Twinch of the Oxford Society, who have been participating in the International Symposium on "Ibn Arabi of Murcia: Travel and Creation" which is part of the International Ibn 'Arabi Film Festival: IBAFF .

The eponymous capital city of the region of Murcia already has an Ibn Arabi Street and the idea of dedicating this street in the nearby town of Molina de Segura to Ibn Arabi was proposed in 2001 by David Hernández Castro, who was then a councillor of the IU (united left-wing party), as a tribute to the person who could be considered "the most universal Murcian".

In a radio interview Hernández said:

I'm very proud that the local government has finally been able to recognize a figure of such global influence as Ibn Arabi, who is probably the most universal Murcian that we have in our land and who expresses a very important message for our times. Cecilia Twinch has understood this very well when she says that he practised the religion of love. In our time, we need to encourage the values of different cultures living together and tolerance of religious diversity which Ibn Arabi shows in the trajectory of his life, and human and intellectual development, and which can be found in all his works. In this sense, in a street where there are archaeological excavations of the medieval Arab town and a planned museum, it is a privilege for the people of Molina to have the street dedicated to Ibn Arabi, and it has also been a privilege to have representatives of the Ibn Arabi Society of Oxford here in order to inaugurate this street which will be one of the cultural lungs of Molina of Segura.

Cecilia Twinch said in a radio interview :

Ibn 'Arabi talks about the unity of existence and the value of the human being and how he or she can come to perfection. He also writes a great deal about the place of the imagination. Therefore he is a very important figure who has much to say to people of today. He talks of universal themes and he proclaims, "My religion is the religion of love."

The Mayor said that he was very pleased that the street has been named after Ibn Arabi who represents unity and love.