Listening for God: Prayer and the Heart in the Futûhât
James Winston Morris
James W. Morris (Boston College) has taught and published widely on Islamic and religious studies over the past 40 years at the Universities of Exeter, Princeton, Oberlin, and the Institute of Ismaili Studies in Paris and London, serving recently as visiting professor in Istanbul, Paris, and Jogjakarta. He has lived and studied in regions from Morocco to Indonesia, and he lectures and leads workshops in many countries on Islamic philosophy and theology, Sufism, the Islamic humanities (poetry, music, and visual arts), the Quran and hadith, and esoteric Shiism. Recently he has led interfaith study-abroad programs centering on sacred sites, pilgrimage, sainthood, and related arts and architecture in Turkey and France.
His publications include: Openings:From the Qur’an to the Islamic Humanities (forthcoming); Approaching Ibn ‘Arabi : Foundations, Contexts, Interpretations (forthcoming); Ma‘rifat ar-Rūh in Nur Ali Elahi's Knowing the Spirit (2007), and The Reflective Heart: Discovering Spiritual Intelligence in Ibn ‘Arabī’s "Meccan Illuminations"(2005).
Articles by James W. Morris
Ibn ‘Arabi and his Interpreters I – Four overviews, description of the following:
Ibn Arabi and His Interpreters — Grouping I:
Theophany or “Pantheism” – The Importance of Balyani’s Risalat al-Ahadiya
The Continuing Relevance of Qaysari’s Thought: Divine Imagination and the Foundation of Natural Spirituality
Review: La destinée de l’homme selon Avicenne: Le retour à Dieu (maad) et l’imagination by Jean Michot
Review: Kitab al-inbah ‘ala Tariq Allah de ‘Abdallah Badr al-Habashi
Review: La Risala de Safi al-Din ibn Abi l-Mansur ibn Zafir
Review: Manjhan, Madhumalati: An Indian Sufi Romance
Review: Mirror of the Intellect: Essays on Traditional Science and Sacred Art
An Arab “Machiavelli”? – Rhetoric, Philosophy and Politics in Ibn Khaldun’s Critique of “Sufism”
Review: Islamic Mysticism Contested: Thirteen Centuries of Controversies and Polemics
Review: Ibn Arabi and the Later Islamic Tradition: The Making of a Polemical Image in Medieval Islam
Review: Theodicy in Islamic Thought: The Dispute over al-Ghazali’s “Best of All Possible Worlds”
Podcasts and Videos by James W. Morris
II. The “Opening” of the Heart in the Meccan Illuminations
Ibn ‘Arabî’s gradual unveiling of his own realization and understanding of the heart in the opening sections of the Futûhât is a beautiful illustration of his unique methods of spiritual pedagogy in that work – methods that are consciously based on his own understanding of the nature and divine underpinnings of that reality of the heart which literally makes us what we are, which, as he simply puts it, “is insân,” is the very inner reality of human being. His method of teaching there is not the elaboration of a single “theory” or system that could somehow be adequately summarized, but rather the intentionally poignant and revelatory “scattering” of allusions to that one Reality in a way that closely mirrors the actual process of spiritual experience and growth in each of our lives. The key to that process of discovery, in each succeeding chapter, is not so much the development of new “concepts” (since his underlying metaphysical perspectives are always present and constantly repeated), but rather the new meanings that each attentive reader constantly discovers through our mysteriously activated awareness of the ever-renewed reflections of what Ibn ‘Arabî (and the Qur’an and hadith) are talking about in the changing forms of our own experience, moment by moment.
For that reason we shall follow the unfolding of that teaching very much in the order that references to the heart actually appear in the Futûhât, beginning – as Ibn ‘Arabî himself does – with his evocation of his own revelatory experiences of this reality that underlie this and all his writings, and with some of his more abstract references to that contemplative and divinely inspired dimension of spiritual experience. The language of those opening discussions may at first seem impossibly far removed from anything we could possibly encounter ourselves, but the Shaykh gradually moves on to deeper and deeper phenomenological “allusions” (ishârât) that begin to awaken our awareness of a kind of knowledge and understanding that in fact is constitutive of all that gives meaning to our lives in this world. As we shall see, those more phenomenological, even anecdotal, passages are often remarkably reminiscent of classical discussions of spiritual experience – whether in poetry, prose or scripture – from mystics and artists who were working within other religious traditions.
The first mention of the heart in the Futûhât is in a key autobiographical poem at the very beginning of the book, part of Ibn ‘Arabî’s famous opening letter to his Tunisian Sufi friend, the shaykh ‘Azîz al-Mahdawî, explaining the spiritual circumstances and motives for composing this work. As this passage (at I, 71) makes clear, when the Shaykh speaks of the heart in this work, he is speaking from his own direct experience: everything in this immense book, he insists, comes from a single revelatory experience, when after
“continually knocking at God’s gate (of the heart), closely attentive (murâqib: a key term throughout all his discussions of the heart), not being distracted…, there appeared to my eye (and ‘my essence’ or ‘self’: ‘aynî) the splendors of His Face, until nothing was there but that Essence, so that I encompassed a knowing of Being in which there was no knowing in our heart of anything but God.”
Then follows a remarkable, almost outrageously boastful invitation for each reader to plunge into the rest of this book: “If those people, who are so strange (al-khalq al-gharîb), would follow my Way, the angels would not ask you about the Realities (of the divine Names), what they are!”
In the opening poetic lines of the very first chapter (I, 215), Ibn ‘Arabî calls on his reader to “Look at that House (the Kaaba of the divine Presence, the ‘Heart of Being,’ qalb al-wujûd), whose unveiled Light is resplendent to purified hearts, to those who see It/Him through/with God (billâh), without any veil….” Returning to the openly autobiographical plane, that opening poem introduces Ibn ‘Arabî’s celebrated conversation at this inner “House” or Temple of the Heart between his earthly self and the image of his true Self, a mysterious divine “youth” (fatâ) who reveals to him all the spiritual secrets to be recorded in these very special “Openings.” Having “turned the face of his heart toward his Lord,” Ibn ‘Arabî is told by this divine Person (at I, 226-27):
“This Kaaba of Mine is the Heart of being, and My Throne (the whole universe) is a limited body for this Heart. Neither of them encompasses Me… but My House which does encompass Me is your heart, which is the sought-for Goal (al-maqsûd), deposited in your visible body. So those circling around your heart are the mysteries/secrets (of the divine Names), who resemble your (human) bodies circumambulating these rocks (of the earthly Kaaba)….
So just as one who knows the Secrets – who are circling about the Heart which encompasses Me – is in the loftiest and most resplendent of stations, so you (human beings) have precedence over those (angels) circling the all-encompassing Throne. For you-all are circling the Heart of the Being of the world: you are in the station of the secrets of those who know…. For none but you (human beings) encompass Me, and I have not revealed Myself in the Form of Perfection to any but your inner Realities. So realize the full extent of what I have freely bestowed on you from the supernal Dignity….
You are the receptacle (anta al-inâ’) and I am I (wa anâ anâ). So do not seek Me in yourself, lest you suffer and toil; and do not seek Me outside yourself, or you will have no pleasure. Never stop seeking Me, or you will suffer torment. So do seek Me until you find Me, and then ascend! But follow the right adab in your seeking, and be ever-present (with Me) as you set out on your way of going….”
In the following chapter 2, which concerns the mysterious “science of letters,” Ibn ‘Arabî’s references to the “heart” almost always occur in the course of epistemological discussions where he is trying to explain the special nature of the divinely inspired knowing that is the source of this esoteric science. Here we can only quote a few key passages from those discussions (at I, 250-51), which necessarily appear somewhat abstract or mysterious at this early point and in this explicitly autobiographical context:
“Now it is God (al-Haqq), from Whom we take this knowledge, by emptying our hearts of thinking and preparing them to receive the divine inspirations (wâridât). It is He who gives us this matter from its very Source, without any summarizing or confusion (as in poetic or intellectual inspiration), so that we know the Realities as they really are, whether they be individual Realities (of the divine Names), or ones that come into existence in combinations, or the divine Realities: and we do not have any doubt about anything concerning them. Our knowledge comes from There, and God (al-Haqq) is our teacher – through inheritance from the prophets, preserved and protected from error or generality or (confusion with) external form…. And our share of that is in proportion to the purity of the place (of our heart) and our receptivity and awareness of God.”
A little later in the same chapter (I, 255-58), however, the Shaykh explains the relevance of this inspiration to all his readers:
“Our aim in this book is to reveal the glimmers and allusions and intimations from the secrets of Being. For if we were to speak fully and openly about the inner secrets of these letters and what is demanded by their realities…” (our work would never come to an end), “Since they are among those ‘Words of God’ of which He has said: ‘If the sea were ink for the Words of My Lord, the sea would be dried up before the words of My Lord would be exhausted….‘ (18:109).”
This kind of inspired knowing, he points out,
“contains a secret mystery and a remarkable allusion for whoever reflects deeply on it and comes across these divine ‘Words.’ Because if these kinds of knowing were the result of thinking and reflection, human-being (insân) could be circumscribed in a short period. But instead these acts of knowing arrive from God (al-Haqq), continually flowing into the heart of the (true) servant: they are His devoted spirits descending upon the servant from the world of His Unseen, through His Mercy…and ‘from His Presence‘ (18:65). For God is perpetually bestowing them and continually flowing forth with them, and the ‘place’ (of the heart) is likewise continually receiving – either knowing or ignorance. So if the servant (of God) is prepared and receptive, and has polished and purified the mirror of their heart, then they realize that divine Giving continually and receive in a single instant what could never be bounded within time….”
“I have recorded these inspirations in accordance with the command of my Lord that I received,” Ibn ‘Arabî continues (I, 264-65). “I do not speak about anything except by way of (reporting) what I have heard (from God) – just as I will stop (writing) whenever I am directed to do so. For our compositions – this book and all the others – are not like other books; we do not follow the procedure of (ordinary) writers… (who follow their own aims and desires, or what is required by a knowledge they want to communicate, at their own discretion). No, we are not like that in our writings. They are only hearts intent upon the Door of the divine Presence , carefully attending to what is opened up to them through that Door, needy (faqîra) and empty of all knowledge (of their own)…. So sometimes there appears to them from behind that Curtain a particular matter that they hasten to obey in the way that was defined for them in that Command. And sometimes they receive things that are unlike anything ordinarily found by custom or thinking or reflection in outward knowledge… because of a hidden correspondence that is only perceived by the people of spiritual unveiling. Indeed sometimes it is even stranger than that: for things are given to this heart that it is ordered to communicate, although the person doesn’t understand them at this time, because of a divine Wisdom which is hidden from the people. Therefore every person who composes according to this ‘receiving’ from God is not restricted to understanding that about which they are speaking….”
Not surprisingly, for Ibn ‘Arabî the process of true spiritual understanding and interpretation of Scripture or other forms of revelation requires a very similar kind of preparedness and receptivity of the heart, even if that process is far more common and familiar. Thus somewhat later in the same chapter 2 (II, 73-75), in a discussion of how one should properly go about discovering the intended meanings of apparently “obscure” or anthropomorphic expressions in revealed Scripture, Ibn ‘Arabî again stresses the indispensable role of the heart in the practical methods adopted by the “people of unveiling and realization” for understanding such problematic or mysterious divine sayings:
We empty our hearts of reflective thinking, and we sit together with God (al-Haqq) on the carpet of adab and spiritual attentiveness (murâqaba) and presence and readiness to receive whatever comes to us from Him – so that it is God who takes care of teaching us by means of unveiling and spiritual realization. So when they have focused their hearts and their spiritual aspirations (himam) on God and have truly taken refuge with Him – giving up any reliance on the claims of reflection and investigation and intellectual results – then their hearts are purified and open. Once they have this inner receptivity, God manifests Himself to them, teaching them and informing them through the direct vision of the inner meanings of those (obscure scriptural) words and reports, in a single instant. This is one of the kinds of spiritual “unveiling….
(Through it) they limit (the meanings of these scriptural or prophetic expressions) to what (God) actually intended by them – even if that very same expression occurs in another report (with an entirely different intended meaning). For there (these identical words) have another meaning, among those sacred dimensions of meaning, which is specified in that specific act of witnessing.
You should know that the heart is a polished mirror, that all of it is a face, and that it never rusts. For if it has been said to ‘rust’ (as in the famous hadith that ‘hearts rust like iron…’)…, that expression only refers to when the heart becomes connected and preoccupied with (seeking) knowledge of worldly matters (asbâb), and thereby distracted from its knowing of and through God. In that case its connection with what is other than God does obscure the face of the heart, because it prevents God’s Self-manifestations (or ‘theophanies’: tajalliyât) from reaching the heart. Because the divine Presence is continually manifesting Itself, and one could not imagine any ‘veil’ for that Self-manifestation. But when this heart fails to receive that Manifestation in the prescribed and praiseworthy way, because it has received something other than God instead, then that receiving of something else is what is referred to as the ‘rust’ and ‘veils’ and ‘lock’ and ‘blindness’ and the like (mentioned in the Qur’anic verses on the heart).
“For the hearts are eternally and unceasingly, by their very primordial nature, polished and pure and resplendent (mirrors of God). Therefore every heart in which the Presence of God is manifest insofar as the Theophany of the divine Essence (al-tajalli al-dhâtî), or (what the mystics call) ‘the Red Ruby’: that is the heart of the perfected human being, the (true) Knower (of and with God), the (pure) contemplator (of God) – and there is no other theophany higher than that. Beneath that is the theophany of the divine Attributes (in which the heart immediately grasps and comes to know the various divine “Names” manifest in its experience). And beneath both of those (higher levels of theophany) is the theophany of the divine Activities – but (in which those actions are) still perceived as being the Presence of God. As for anyone who does not (perceive all the happenings of their experience) as Self-manifestations flowing from the Presence of God, that is the heart of a person who is heedless of God, banished from the proximity of God.”
The unfolding discussions of the heart scattered throughout the rest of the Futûhât are essentially a vast phenomenological amplification of what Ibn ‘Arabî has summarized here, designed to bring out the essential connections or “correspondences” (munâsabât) between the underlying Realities of these divine “Names” and “Activities” and their actual exemplifications in each reader’s own experience – and thereby to initiate the transforming movement from “heedlessness” to the heart’s innate “knowing” and spiritual perfection. While those more phenomenological sections are usually easier reading, the individual experiences they point to and presuppose are another matter.