Articles and Translations

Fulfilling our Potential: Ibn ‘Arabi’s Understanding of Man in a Contemporary Context

Jane Clark

Jane Clark is a Senior Research Fellow of the Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society and has worked particularly on the Society’s Archiving Project as well as looking after the library.

She has been studying Ibn Arabi for more than forty years, and is engaged in teaching courses and lecturing on his thought both in the UK (including Oxford University and Temenos Academy) and abroad (including Egypt, Australia and the USA), and in research and translation of the Akbarian heritage. She has a particular interest in the correlation of Ibn Arabi’s thought with contemporary issues. She organises the MIAS Young Writers Award.

Jane Clark was a co-founder of The Journal of Consciousness Studies and is currently editor of the Beshara Magazine [/]. She has presented many courses as part of the program of the University of Oxford Department for Continuing Education. A list of the freely available resources created or selected by her as a tutor can be found here: [/]


Articles by Jane Clark

Establishing Ibn Arabis Heritage: First Findings from the MIAS Archiving Project | with Stephen Hirtenstein (PDF)

Early Best-sellers in the Akbarian Tradition (PDF)

Towards a Biography of Sadruddin al-Qunawi

Fulfilling our Potential: Ibn Arabi’s Understanding of Man in a Contemporary Context

Universal Meanings in Ibn Arabi’s Fusus al-hikam: Some Comments on the Chapter of Moses

Some Notes on the Manuscript Veliyuddin 51 | with Denis McAuley

The Preface to the Tarjuman al-ashwaq (PDF)

Symbol and Creative Imagination | Event Report

Spiritual Realisation: Knowledge and Practice | Event Report


Podcasts and Videos by Jane Clark

Ibn ‘Arabi Counsels His Own Soul: Guidance and Deception in the Ruh al-Quds

Narrative and Mystical Perception: the two prefaces to Ibn Arabi’s Tarjuman al-ashwaq

“He Governs the World through Itself” – Ibn Arabi on Spiritual Causation

Sadr al-din al-Qunawi and His Relationship with Jalal al-din Rumi

“As If You Saw Him”; Vision and Best Action (ihsan) in Ibn Arabi’s Thought

Introduction to the 2018 UK Symposium “The Alchemy of Love”


This talk has specific points of inspiration in two quotations which I heard whilst I was thinking about a title for it. One of them came from a speech by the head of the British Jewish community, Jonathan Sachs, on the occasion of the first Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27th as his ‘wish’ for racial tolerance in the third millennium he said:

“May we come to know that we are all in the image of God, even though we may not be in the image of each other.”

The second quotation I took as the title, and came from an interview with a government spokes-person on the launch of their new educational initiative, but it could just as well have come from the prospectus of any school in the country. For whenever anyone is asked about the purpose of education; the reply is always – that every child should fulfill their full potential. And more; if one were to ask the adult population in general what the aim of their life is, then I suspect that in this era of prosperity and therapy, etc. one would receive an answer very much along these lines. We all want to fulfill our potential.

What struck me about these two quotations whilst I was thinking about having to talk under this title ‘Man in the image of God’, is that they both refer to ideas and concepts which we find in the work of Ibn ‘Arabi, and which in fact have a long history, going back the ancient world of Greek philosophy and the classical age of the first millennium AD. So they are ideas which are common to the three Semitic traditions – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – as well as the Greek pagan tradition from which the modern scientific enterprise developed. This suggested that although one thinks immediately, faced with this title, that we in the modern, scientifically dominated western world no longer have this concept of man being in the image of God – which certainly we don’t as far as our contemporary theories of cosmology, evolution or even psychology are concerned – when we come to express our human aspirations, our hopes for ourselves and the world, then we still think in terms of unreconstituted concepts. After all, no-one would ask for billions of pounds of public money for an educational programme in order that we should know better that we are meaningless epi-phenomena, progressing only by chance and random selection;we are not so foolish, and secretly we know that human life is more than that, and that progress and fulfilment are possible for us. To this extent, we have never ceased to share in the vision of the great philosophers and the ‘knowing’ mystics like Ibn ‘Arabi. Of course there are also great differences in the way we see things now, and this talk is an exploration of the common ground and the difference.

I should perhaps say at the very beginning that the point is not to consider whether or not Ibn ‘Arabi is correct in what he says; many years of study have brought about the conclusion that Ibn ‘Arabi’s is almost certainly the most complete exposition of human nature which has ever been set out. If it were not, and one could obtain the same degree of understanding elsewhere, for instance from within the western Christian tradition, then those of us who read Ibn ‘Arabi not as medievalists pursuing an academic study, but in search of spiritual help and guidance, would be sensible to avoid the task of struggling with these extremely complex texts, written in a difficult foreign language, and full of cultural references which were probably abstruse even in their own time. But we cannot, for there is nobody else like him. The task of bridging the cultural gap which we therefore undertake, would be not only impossible but also fruitless in any real sense, if it were not for the fact that what Ibn ‘Arabi is saying may be dressed in the clothing of his time and in terms of the issues and controversies which engaged his contemporaries, but its meaning transcends those limits and speaks to the eternal human condition.

In fact, the penetration of the outer forms of things to perceive their reality and inner meaning is precisely what he aims to effect in his work. As Jim Morris has explained in a really excellent recent paper, which I hope will soon gain wide circulation,it can be very hard, in a historical sense, to find and categorise the followers of the Shaykh al-akbar, because the very characteristic of successful followers is that they are able to penetrate to the heart of the matter, and re-express it in the manner and language of their own time – that is, not in the manner and language of Ibn ‘Arabi’s time in an imitative way, but in a creative, contemporary way. I hope this talk will also explore something of this.

These terms ‘potential’ and ‘fulfilment’ – or we could say ‘actualisation’ or ‘completion’ – are of course originally from Aristotle (d. 322BC), formulated nearly three centuries before Christ. He based his physics upon the notion that any movement is a translation of a potentiality into an actuality; so a football lying on the ground has the potential of movement which is only actualised when it is kicked; a block of marble has the potential to be a statue which is actualised by the sculptor. When it is actualised, it reaches a state of entelechy (from the same root as telos, meaning perfection) which has connotations of reaching its intended state, its final condition, a state of completion; in the Arabic, this word entelechy became translated – as a kind of technical term – as kâmil, as in al-insân al-kâmil, the perfect or completed man.

When Aristotle moved from the considerations of physics to psychology in his De Anima, he applied the same model to the soul, saying: ‘the soul is the first entelechy of a living organism with organs’. He saw that each of the faculties of the soul, such as sight, hearing, etc. is in the state of its first entelechy at the moment of creation, but it reaches a further, second state of entelechy when it performs its function. So the faculty of sight is in a certain state of completion when the physical eye comes into being, but it only reaches its final state of completion in the act of seeing, i.e. when the eye actually sees. For Aristotle, the highest of the faculties was the intellect – ‘aql in Arabic -which is present only in man, whereas all the others are shared by animals or plants. This too is in a state of its first entelechy when the man is born, but it reaches its final state of completion when its function is actualised, i.e. when it actually intelligises.

Aristotle extended these ideas in his ethical work The Nicomachean Ethics where he asked the question; what is the final end – or ‘happiness’ – of man? And his answer was, that it must consist of the fulfilment or completion (the final entelechy) of that faculty which distinguishes man from all other creatures, and which therefore embodies his special function. So whilst the other faculties and the fulfilment of physical needs are clearly important, it is only through the completion of the intellectual faculty that man reaches his greatest happiness (sa’ada in Arabic, eudaimonia in Greek). As to how this happens, Aristotle developed the idea of ‘virtue’ – i.e. preferring and cultivating the good and the good qualities – as the means by which man can perfect himself; and philosophy, in the ancient traditions, was precisely the method by which this could come about.

The ideas of the ancient Greeks – Aristotle and Plato – expressed something so obviously true, that they were hugely influential on later generations, and they provided terminologies and conceptual tools by which the monotheistic traditions, even hundreds of years later, refined and articulated their understanding of man as it was given in the revealed books of the Torah, the Bible and the Qur’ân. Thus we find in every one of the semitic traditions people who attempted an integration between Greek ideas and their religion – between faith and reason; such as, in Christian tradition, the early fathers like Gregory of Nyssa (d.395) and later, contemporaneous with Ibn ‘Arabi, Albertus Magnus (d.1280) and Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274); in the Jewish tradition Maimonides (d.1204) also a contemporary, and also from Andalusia; these latter both drew from the ground-work done by Arab translators and thinkers such as Ibn Sîna (d.1037) and Ibn Rushd (d.1198) in the 10th-12th centuries which were rendered into Latin primarily by Jewish translators in the school at Toledo – also in Andalusia. But they did not draw from the work of Ibn ‘Arabi who was just a little later, and it is perhaps only today that we have the opportunity to learn from the further insights that he brought to bear.

Thus there is a great hinterland of history and experience in common between all these traditions, and even today, as I have mentioned, we continue to share, albeit unconsciously, many of these ideas. But there are also great differences in the way the concepts have been interpreted. In the Christian west, there was a further influx of Greek ideas during the Renaissance when translators went back to pre-Arab sources, and this resulted in a crisis between faith and reason that has resolved itself largely in terms of reason; so today, we have a generally rationalist society in which the findings of speculative intellect in the particular form of modern science are considered to be more ‘true’ – much more true – than accounts of, say, events in the Bible, or, to come even closer to our subject, than the realities of our subjective experience such as the fact that the sun rotates around the earth and therefore ‘rises’ on the horizon each morning. Reason for us, as for Aristotle, is the highest faculty, and we continue to believe that in order to bring it to its highest level of fulfilment, we have to undergo development in the form of education – education being a Latin word meaning literally ‘leading forth’- e-ducere -whose use makes a clear reference to these Aristotelian origins. In Arabic, they used the verb kharaja meaning ‘to go out’, or ‘to emerge from’, in the same sense for the transformation from potentiality to actuality.

In the Islamic world, by contrast, the theologians and the mystics largely triumphed over the rationalists, and the place of reason at the top of the faculty hierarchy was challenged. For the theologians, reason had to conform to the requirements of the religion and the religious law. For the Sufis, the Islamic mystics – amongst them Ibn ‘Arabi – it came to be understood that the highest knowledge is attained not by reason and effort, but by revelation from God. Man therefore has a faculty which is superior to reason, which they referred to as the ‘heart’ (qalb); this is a receptive ‘place’ – in inverted commas because this is not really a physical place – in which God reveals Himself to man – which ‘turns’ (taqallaba) or changes in response to the Divine revelation (tajalli). In contrast to the philosophical conception of effort and virtue, this knowledge can only be attained through submission and purification, through Divine guidance, and ultimately through man coming to know that he is ‘no other’ than God. It is referred to as dhawq (taste or intuition) and kashf (unveiling), and is what might be called now ‘mystical intuition’.

The distinction between the knowledge of the intellect and knowledge of the heart, however, is not completely clear-cut; as is well illustrated by Ibn ‘Arabi in his description in the Futûhât of the encounters he had with the Andalusian philosopher Ibn Rushd. Ibn Rushd was not just any old philosopher, but one of the great interpreters of Aristotle whose life-work – and that of his protégé Ibn Tufayl who wrote the famous Hayy Ibn Yaqzan – was to demonstrate that what the philosophers discover by use of their reason is the same truth as is given to the prophets in revelation. It should perhaps be said here, that the Islamic rationalists never had a secular understanding of the intellect such as we have today; for them, the final entelechy was always contemplation of God and union – ittisâl, or ittihâd – with the Divine Intellect. Thus, in their first encounter, Ibn Rushd asks Ibn ‘Arabi, as I am sure you all remember: “What kind of solution have you found through divine unveiling and illumination? Is it identical with what you have found through speculative thought? ” and Ibn ‘Arabi replies: “Yes – No. Between the yes and the no, spirits take wing from their matter and necks are separated from their bodies’.

This answer embodies the great mercy that Ibn ‘Arabi is to us. On the one hand, he indicates that reason alone cannot encompass the highest truth; on the other, he does not entirely exclude it. No-one who has tried to read Ibn ‘Arabi could ever think that he wishes to exclude intellect from the process of realisation; he was an intellectual genius, and, as Souad Hakim has said:

…it is the heart which is the place and instrument of knowledge…[yet Ibn ‘Arabi] makes no separation between the heart and the intellect… [For] if the Sufi does not state his knowledge in intelligible form then the intellect will not accept it, and no-one will pay any attention to what he says… He will be unable to state his knowledge in intelligible form insofar as he has not brought his knowledge across from the heart to the intellect, or else receives an understanding developed in the image of reasoned theory, as did Ibn ‘Arabi… The heart is drunkenness (sukr), the intellect is lucidity (sahw) [and]… the ‘knowing’ Sufi, although he has tasted all states of knowledge, does not omit to return to the sensory in order to give a line of conduct to disciples.

In fact, when the heart is orientated invariably towards God, and its potential fully realised, then, for Ibn ‘Arabi, every one of man’s faculties can become a means and a channel for the knowledge of God – so it flows through the imagination and the senses as well as through intellect and intuition, because all the faculties are, in reality, instruments of the heart. Therefore it has been said, that Ibn ‘Arabi has ‘an all-inclusive point of view’,i.e. his exposition includes all kinds of perception and knowledge, all points of view, and he avoids the dichotomies which have bedevilled so many western attempts to discuss knowledge and perfectibility – reason versus revelation, reason versus empiricism, imagination versus science, etc. The heart is a supra-rational rather than an anti-rational faculty, and in his work, Ibn ‘Arabi gives a comprehensive account of the way in which all the different faculties – dhawq, imagination, reason and sensory perception – operate and inter-relate. This is perhaps especially valuable to us in the present day, when secular rationalism has become so prevalent that it sometimes seems as if our capacity for mystical insight and creative imagination has been forgotten, or if remembered, not afforded validity. He gives us a map to a lost land, which is the complete human potential.

What then does Ibn ‘Arabi mean by this potential? For him, as for all the Semitic traditions, man’s potential is the greatest conceivable, i.e. that he is made in the image of God. This is the real, intrinsic nature of every human being, but it also has to be actualised, and this actualisation, as we have said, takes place primarily through the establishment of the heart, which is the locus of Divine knowledge and remembrance in man. Ibn ‘Arabi of course discusses the perfectibility of man within the overall context of the unity of being; for him, there is only One Reality, which is God, and there is nothing in existence but Him. The world, then, and everything in it, including ourselves, is not a separate thing from God, but His Self-revelation, an imaging. This is set out perfectly in the first sentence of the Fusûs al-Hikam where Ibn ‘Arabi describes the creation of the primordial man, in the form of Adam.

God (al-haqq) wanted to see the essences of His most perfect Names whose number is infinite – and if you like, you can equally well say, God wanted to see His own Essence in one global object which having been blessed with existence, summarised the Divine order so that there he could manifest His mystery to Himself. For the vision that a being has of himself and in himself is not the same as another reality procures for him, and which he uses for himself as a mirror; (in this, he manifests himself to his self in the form which results from the ‘place’ of the vision…) So the Divine order required the clarification of the mirror of the world, and Adam became the light itself of this mirror and the spirit of this form.

Amongst the very many things that can be drawn from this passage, is a further difference between Ibn ‘Arabi’s understanding of man and that of the philosophers. For Ibn ‘Arabi, the ultimate aim is not for man to attain union with God; it is that he becomes the place of God’s self-revelation to Himself, according to another closely related tradition, in which God says “I was a hidden treasure and I loved to be known, so I created the world that I might be known”. It is in the human being – and specifically in the human heart – that this complete ‘imagining’ and knowing can take place, and when this is fully realised, then not only is man in his final state of entelechy – al-insân al-kâmil – but also, the whole purpose of creation is fulfilled.

The actual phrase – man in the image of God – does not occur in the Qur’ân. It is a hadîth of the Prophet: “God created man in His own image”,or ‘form’ because the word used here, sura, can mean both image and form. This was a controversial hadîth, some people arguing that it means that God created man is his (man’s) form; but there is no doubt that Ibn ‘Arabi reads the ‘his’ as referring to God. One way of understanding what is meant by ‘God’s form’, as is clear from the quote from Adam, is the universe or cosmos, which is the place in which God reveals Himself first. Ibn ‘Arabi says in the Futûhât:

…the Prophet reported that God created Adam in His form, and the human being is the place where the whole cosmos is brought together. God’s knowledge of the cosmos is none other than the knowledge of Himself, since there is nothing in existence but Him. So inevitably, the cosmos is in His Form.

In this sense, ‘in the image of God’ is a reference to the ancient idea that man and the universe are reflections of each other; man is microcosm and the universe macrocosm, and the same reality is manifest in each. This again, is common to both the pagan and monotheistic traditions, as can be seen by just a quick quote from a 4th century text written by Nemesius of Emesa, a Greek thinker who turned Christian in later life and whose work was one of the earliest, and therefore most influential, treatise on man to be translated into Arabic; Nemesius says:

“When we consider [the] facts about man, how can we exaggerate the dignity of his place in creation? In his own person, man joins mortal creatures with the immortals, and brings the rational beings into contact with the [those that are not] rational. He bears about in his proper nature a reflex [a reflection] of the whole creation, and is therefore rightly called ‘the world in little’ (mikros kosmos in the Greek). He is the creature whom God thought worthy of such special providence that, for his sake, all creatures have their being … he converses with the angels and with God Himself… He explores the nature of every kind of being. He busies himself with the knowing of God and is God’s house and temple.

We should remember that cosmos or universe here did not mean merely the physical world; the spheres of the planets were also spirits, or angels, and aspects of the Divine intellect; so cosmos includes the world of imagination and the world of thought; in the Islamic tradition, it came to explicitly include the Divine degrees of the First Intellect (the Pen), the Guarded Tablet, the Throne, etc. It meant ‘everything that there is’. And the use of the term cosmos was a reference, from the time of Plato, to the fact that it was a single, ordered entity, with one soul.

For Ibn ‘Arabi, writing in the context of the unity of being, the principle of the macrocosm/microcosm means, that there is complete correspondence between knowledge of the cosmos and knowledge of God, because there is nothing but God. And also, as both man and the cosmos are both in the image of God, then in knowing the cosmos, man is coming to know himself. Thus, there is no such thing as knowledge of ‘external’ things; there is only knowledge of the self. Hence our own self is the most direct means by which we can come to know God, as in the tradition – again a prophetic hadîth – “He who knows himself knows his Lord”. This is so closely linked in Ibn ‘Arabi’s work that it is virtually identical in meaning to the Qur’ânic verse: “We shall show them our signs (ayât) to the horizons and in themselves, until it is clear to them that it is God, the Real”. (Q 41:53) Ibn ‘Arabi says, in the K. ‘Anqa Mughrib, one of his earliest works which is a detailed and complex exposition on cosmology and the degrees and historic development of sainthood:

…whenever I discourse on such recondite matters as [the mahdî and the Seal], I speak in terms of the two worlds [that is the microcosm and the macrocosm] in order to clarify the issue for the listener by referring to the greater [i.e. external] world which he knows and comprehends, after which I draw comparisons between that outer world and its secret deposited in man – who yet denies it and does not comprehend it. For my purpose in everything I write is never the gnosis which appears in phenomenal existence, but rather the purpose is ever the gnosis which is found in this human essence and Adamite substance.

As to this matter of man ‘denying and not knowing’ what is deposited in himself, this is precisely the matter of actualising the already-existing potential, which Ibn ‘Arabi likens to coming to read a book which is written within ourselves but which we cannot yet decipher, or to polishing a tarnished mirror so that the image can be seen clearly. To do this, we need instruction, as Ibn ‘Arabi indicates a little further on:

Were [man’s] understanding capable of arriving at this secret without my having to make mention of it, I would not have regarded its external aspect at all, nor ever paused for a moment over its inner meaning.

Thus, for Ibn ‘Arabi the important thing about our knowledge of the external world – the only important thing – is that it is an indicator of something in ourselves. He says:

He made you a sign (or a demonstration) (dalîl) [of your Lord]. That is, he made your knowledge of your self a ‘sign’ (dalîl) to your knowledge of Him. This is either by way of the fact that He describes you with the same essence and attributes with which he describes Himself, and He made you His vice-regent and deputy upon the earth. Or it is that you have poverty and need for Him in your existence, or it is the two affairs together…

…He mentioned the horizons… lest you imagine that something remains in the horizons giving a knowledge of God that is not given by yourself. Hence he turned you over to the horizons…[Then he] turned you over to yourself alone, because he knew that the Real would be your faculties and that you would know Him through Him, not through other than Him… When you know Him and you attain to Him no-one will have known and attained to Him save Himself… for the door to knowledge of Him is shut, unless it comes from Him.

This ‘turning us over to ourselves’ is a reference to the practice of retreat, khalwa, which,whether understood literally as a practice or metaphorically as an interior state, was, and is, an intrinsic part of all esoteric training; we know that Ibn ‘Arabi himself underwent periods of seclusion throughout his life. In his understanding, the point is not to exclude the world because it is ‘other than God’ – there is nothing other than God – but simply to concentrate for a time upon the interior aspect – to the signs ‘within themselves’; in the same passage, he tells us:

The Real turned us over to the horizons which is everything outside of us, and to ourselves which is everything that we are upon and in. When we come to understand these two affairs together, we come to know Him, and that ‘it is God, the Real’. Thus the signifying of God is more complete.

This principle of ‘self-knowledge’ embodies an epistemology – a way of knowing – that would seem to be completely opposite to the way that we understand ‘knowledge’ in the contemporary context. Scientific methodology gives real existence to the external world and seeks ‘objective’ knowledge of it by attempting to eliminate from the investigator all subjective input and experience; and the resulting knowledge is understood to be the knowledge of the ‘external’ things, not of ourselves. As already mentioned, such an approach comes up with a view of the universe which, hardly surprisingly considering its initial premises, designates no function or coherent meaning at all to man in the universe. Hence the subtle difference between answering ‘yes’ rather than ‘yes-no’ to Averroes’ question, results in a gross difference in our understanding of ourselves, and the meaning of our lives.

Ibn ‘Arabi of course wrote within an intellectual context in which this correspondence between the macrocosm and the microcosm was at the heart of both physics, metaphysics and religious expression. The sun and the planets rotating around the earth were easily seen to be symbolic of man the microcosm at the centre of the universe; the spheres of the physical bodies were enclosed by those of the spirits, and at the outer edge, was the First Cause, Aquinas’ ‘Prime Mover’ – God as the creator and maintainer of the universe. The universe we inhabit now is a much more mysterious and perplexing place – a much less personal place.

But this difference in cultural context cannot be a barrier, ultimately, to realising the truth to which Ibn ‘Arabi refers in ourselves. For the principle of the unity of existence, and the consequent principle of self-knowledge, is an essential one, to do with the eternal reality of man, and is not dependent upon any particular cultural environment. The difference in context may make it hard sometimes to understand the real meaning to which Ibn ‘Arabi is pointing, but this is not insuperable. For one thing, the difference between our worlds is only a cultural one. Whilst Ibn ‘Arabi would agree, I think, with those more aware philosophers and psychologists of our own time who have noticed that what we see – even in the case of physical vision – is often deeply influenced by what we believe, it is still the case that we live in the same universe as Ibn ‘Arabi; the earth has not actually moved in relation to the planets; we still see the sun rise on the horizon, the night still falls. For Ibn ‘Arabi, such every-day experiences are the very nitty-gritty of God’s constant revelation to us; as he says in the Futûhât:

God has placed His ‘signs’ (ayât) in the cosmos as ‘habitual’ and ‘non-habitual’. Only the people who have understanding from God in a special way take the habitual [signs] into account, and the rest of the people do not know what God intends by them.

God has filled the Qur’ân with [mention of these] habitual signs – such as the alternation of day and night, rain falling, plants emerging from the ground, ships running at sea, the diversity of tongues and colours, there being sleep at night and the seeking of bounty during the day … the non-habitual signs are [things]… such as earthquakes and tremblers, eclipses, the rational speech of animals, walking on water, passing through the sky, {announcing events in the future that happen exactly as announced}, … etc. Such things are taken into account only by the common people.


Nothing walks in the cosmos without walking as a messenger (rasûl) with a message. This is a high knowledge. Even the worms, in their movements, are rushing with a message to those who can understand it.

Such passages make it clear that the problem is not to do with culture, but with moving the organ of our perception from the intellect to the heart, so that we actually witness the revelation that is constantly given to us, and understand what it is ‘indicating’, what ‘sign’ it is making, about our own reality. Ibn ‘Arabi gives us many examples from his own life of such things; for example, the experience he had on his journey East (1201AD), when he saw himself as united in marriage to all the stars and the letters of the alphabet and understood all their meanings. Most spectacularly, we have his own accounts, in the K. al-Isra and the Futûhât, of his spiritual ascension or mirâj, in which, mirroring the night-journey of the prophet Muhammed, he was taken horizontally across the earth from Mecca to Jerusalem, then vertically through all the degrees of existence, from the realm of the minerals to the highest heaven – a journey in which as Stephen Hirtenstein has remarked: “physical geography metamorphoses into spiritual topography”. Ibn ‘Arabi remarks; “My journey took place only in me, and my pointing was only to me”.

If this can happen with the physical world, then it is possible that we can come to understand that the same principle occurs also at a cultural level. So, for example, at the level of the imagination, it is clear that the images of our contemporary world can become the raw material by which meaning is conveyed to us in dreams; so that we now find ourselves flying in airplanes or microlights rather than on wingéd steeds, but the meaning of flying, or elevation, is still the same as it was at the time of Muhammed. By the same token, it is possible that at the level of reason, the discoveries of modern science can also provide us with images and concepts that reveal meanings to us. A famous example is the findings of quantum mechanics which, as Frithjof Capra, amongst others, has pointed out in his famous Tao of Physics, bear a marked resemblance to mystical expositions of reality. I came across an example myself whilst thinking about this talk, and Jonathan Sachs’ statements about us all ‘ being in the image of God’. Just a few weeks later, the findings of the human genome project were published, revealing that the genetic differences between people are so small that we are to all intents and purposes the same; so Craig Venter who was one of the chief scientists on the American project was moved to say; ‘Really, we are just identical twins’. And of course, it is hard to ignore the wonderful symbolism that DNA research reveals, i.e. that at the core of our make-up is the principle of self-replication, which is just another way of saying ‘imaging’.

That science can come up with these images, although it starts from such different premises, is in itself a sign to the unity of existence – to the fact that there is really no-where else to go but the One Reality – and is a pointer to the great mystery to which Ibn ‘Arabi alludes in his Yes-no, and what liesbetween them.

We can find ourselves especially at one with the scientists when it comes to appreciating the wonder and beauty of the universe, for there is no doubt that modern technology such as the Hubble telescope which turns our sights towards the outer reaches of time and space, or time-lapse photography which shows us the intricacies of the micro-world of nature, is now revealing to us new aspects of what Ibn ‘Arabi calls in the Wednesday morning prayer of his Wird: “raqâ’iq al- daqâ’iq” – “the subtle threads of the intricacies, which are spread through existence”. Ibn ‘Arabi sees beauty as a fundamental attribute of the universe; saying in the Futûhât:

“Since God made the cosmos manifest as the same as Himself, it was His own self-revelation, so He saw nothing within it but His own beauty, and He loved [its] beauty. Thus the cosmos is God’s beauty, and He is [both] the beautiful and the lover of beauty. Anyone who loves the cosmos with this contemplation has loved it with God’s love, and has loved nothing but God’s beauty, for the beauty of [excellent] craftsmanship is not ascribed to itself; it is rather ascribed to the craftsman who made it. Hence the beauty of the cosmos is God’s beauty.”

There is not time in this short talk to go into the further levels of symbolism through which Ibn ‘Arabi discusses this matter of human potential. But given that this is really the first symposium of the new millennium, and a time when so many questions about the nature of our time and era have been raised, then I feel that something of it should at least be mentioned. For Ibn ‘Arabi, the knowledge which is revealed both in the totality of the cosmos and in the interior of man, is brought together in ‘summary’ form in the figures of the prophets and saints, so that, he says for instance, of the station of Muhammed, that“in this is found the knowledge of the messages scattered throughout the [entire] cosmos.”These gatherings and summaries of the ‘signs’ of the universe provide a quicker and easier way for us to come to knowledge, and therefore, in his Fusûs al-Hikam, as we all know,he represents the matter of the realised man, al-insân al-kâmil, in the form of the wisdom of 27 prophets, beginning with Adam and ending with Muhammed. In making this representation, he introduces into the matter the further dimension of the unfolding of man’s potential in time; and elsewhere, as we have already mentioned briefly, in works like K. ‘Anqa Mughrib and in the Futûhât, he discusses in detail the evolution of human history, and the meanings of figures like the Seal of the Saints, the Mahdi, and the Seal of the Children who will end this emergence of man. What this would add to the discussion of this paper, would be that for Ibn ‘Arabi God’s revelation appears also in the form of the ‘time’, of the ‘era’. For those who would know God in the way we have discussed, then this also is a ‘sign’ to their own reality and potential.

But as there is no time to go into this in the detail it would demand, I would like to finish by exploring the related question of whether man’s potential is fixed, with some kind of definite limit or expected end, or whether it is open-ended. And I think that one has to say that the tendency of Ibn ‘Arabi’s thought is towards open-endedness, and constant expansion into new forms of expression. Man is in the image of God, and God is Infinite, Single, beyond being expressed in form; He is ultimately unknowable. So although He reveals Himself constantly, this does not exhaust His possibilities such that the revelation will ever come to an end. Therefore, for Ibn ‘Arabi, as for the Sufi tradition in general, the characteristic of the heart which is the locus of the Divine Revelation, is that it is not fixed in one form, but changes, or turns – the root of the Arabic word for heart, qalb, means ‘to turn’ – with the revelation of God. It is an important principle for Ibn ‘Arabi, that in fact, the revelation is never repeated, and he quotes from his predecessor, Abû Tâlib al-Makki:

He never reveals Himself in the same form twice to a single individual, nor to two individuals in one form

Whereas the one who relies on intellectual knowledge tries to confine the revelation to one form or other, and to make generalisations, the one who has a heart acknowledges Him in all forms; Ibn ‘Arabi says in the chapter on Shu’ayb in the Fusûs al- Hikam:

The forms of revelation do not have a point of termination where they could stop. In the same way, knowledge of God has no limit in the one who knows Him where it could stop. Rather, the one who knows Him is the one who at every moment seeks to increase knowledge of Him, asking: Lord increase me in knowledge, Lord increase me in knowledge, Lord increase me in knowledge. The matter has no end from both sides [i.e., either from the side of God or the side of man].

From this point of view, the challenge for each new generation is to come to know God, by knowing themselves, in the new form of revelation that each era and indeed, each moment, brings. I have mentioned science because this is what I know best, but, as Jim Morris has pointed out,this also applies to music, poetry, film and new forms of social structure; new forms of spirituality, all of which can be ways in which God is known and praised. To end with a quote from the Futûhât which seems to me to sum up the matter of human potential very well:

The self is an ocean which has no shore. There is no end to the contemplation of it in this world or the next, for it is the closest sign (or demonstration) (dalîl) [of your Lord]. The more [you] contemplate [it], the more [your] knowledge of it increases, and the more [your] knowledge of it increases, the more [your] knowledge of your Lord increases.

Jane Clark, 29 March 2001