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
IV. The “Secrets of Purification” (Chapter 68)
The next discussions of the Heart in the Futûhât are in the lengthy chapter 68 on the “Secrets of Purity” (asrâr al-tahâra), where dimensions of spiritual “purification” are raised more than twenty times, usually in implicit or explicit connection with prayer (the subject of the even longer following chapter). Many of Ibn ‘Arabî’s points there about realizing the contemplative potential of the heart are both brief and exceedingly practical even for the uninitiated reader, while others are astonishingly subtle and far-reaching in their implications. Within this article we can highlight or summarize only a few of the most important of those passages. To begin with, Ibn ‘Arabî points out (V, 148-49) that
“the divine knowledge received directly from God’s Presence through revelation (‘ilm ladunnî ilâhî mashrû’) has a single taste – even if the places where it is drunk may differ, they do not differ in being good: and whether it is good or better, it is all pure, without any corruption… For the prophets and saints and everyone who informs us from God all say the same thing of God…not differing among themselves, and confirming one another – just as the pure rain from the sky is not different when it falls.
So let the foundation of your purification of your heart be with water like this – with nothing but knowledge known through divine revelation (shar’), which has been likened to rainwater. … then your own essence and your purification (of it) will be like that spring from which water flows forth. And if you should differentiate sweetness or saltiness (in what is claimed to all be ‘revealed’ rainwater), then know that your perceptions are sound! This is a topic to which I have not found anyone alluding. And yet the person who eats sugar knows its sweetness like that, and knows that there is something wrong with the bitterness of aloes: they don’t need a “rational proof” (dalîl ‘aqlî) (to recognize the difference)! Now I have definitely pointed this out to you, so take my indication to heart – and watch out!
Now that that is established, my friend, start employing the forms of knowledge given by the revelation (shar’) in (purifying) your own essence, and use the knowings of the saints and the true Knowers who took them from God in your own spiritual exercises and spiritual efforts and exertions, refraining from the excesses (i.e., the desires) of the bodily members and the promptings of the egoistic self (the nafs) For if you cannot distinguish between those waters (i.e., which are truly pure and divinely revealed, and which polluted by human interference), then know that something is wrong with your nature, that it has somehow been corrupted. In that case we can do nothing for you, except that God may help you, through His Lovingmercy.”
It should not be necessary to underline the continued practical relevance of his remarks here, or the way they apply equally to every religious tradition. This innate human awareness of the right course of spiritual action, Ibn ‘Arabî continues (V, 165-71), is a “purification” that is religiously obligatory
“…for every responsible-rational person (every ‘âqil, in the legal sense of that term). For that person is the one who understands from God (‘an Allâh) what they are ordered and prohibited, and what God gives to them in their innermost being; they are the person who is able to distinguish, among the inner promptings of their heart, what comes from God and what from their egoistic self (nafs), what from the touch of an angel or the touch of a devil: and that is the fully human being (al-insân)! So if someone reaches that degree in their spiritual awareness (ma’rifa) and their discernment, and understands from God what He wants from them, and truly hears God’s saying that ‘the heart of My servant encompasses Me’: then it is obligatory for that person in this situation to use this (awareness) in purifying their heart and every other member connected with it, in the way God intends…”
Therefore, the Shaykh concludes (V, 166), this inner purification and discernment are an obligation for every single responsible human being, whether or not they’ve even heard of the historical forms of religion:
“Our own way of proceeding (our madhhab) is that all people in general – whether they are among the people of faith, or kufr, or inner hypocrites – are ‘addressed’ (mukhâtabûn: spoken to directly by God in their hearts) regarding the Sources of the divine Way (the sharî’a, in its root sense) and its branches, and that they are all held responsible at the Day of the Rising.”
“For us,” he explains further on (V, 320-22), “purification itself is an independent act of devotion.” Indeed for Ibn ‘Arabî, as we have already seen, it is in a way the ultimate root and aim of every act of worship. From the traditional legal point of view, of course, “it may also be the condition for properly performing another act of worship and devotion, either an essential condition or one necessary for its proper performance, while for another act of devotion it may be only ‘preferable’ or part of the Prophet’s personal example (mustahabb or sunna).”
“The inner spiritual grounds (hukm al-bâtin) for that,” he continues, “is that the purification of the heart is a precondition for our intimate converse (munâjat) with God or for our contemplating Him – a condition that is at once both obligatory (or ‘essential’) and necessary for the proper realization (of that spiritual intimacy and true contemplation).” “Sometimes,” he adds,
“spiritual knowing may be an essential condition for the soundness of our faith in a matter. And sometimes faith in turn may be an essential condition as well as a necessary condition for assuring the soundness of our knowing through experiential ‘unveiling.’ However in faith there is the purification of the heart from being veiled (from God’s presence), while (spiritual) knowing purifies the heart from ignorance and doubt and pretension. So purify your heart with both of those purifications (of faith and of knowledge): you will rise high, through that, in both the worlds, and through it you will attain the knowledge of the ‘Two Handfuls’ (of human souls destined to suffering or bliss).”
And he concludes: “As for the inner spiritual judgment (hukm al-bâtin) concerning all of this,” the Shaykh concludes, “we say that every prescribed religious action that is not preceded by this purification through faith is unsound because of this lack of faith. Therefore faith is necessary for every religious action.”
In his ensuing discussion (V, 341-44) of the purifications appropriate to the pilgrim visiting the Kaaba – whether that “pilgrimage” be inward or outward – Ibn ‘Arabî makes two points that are very simple, but practically of the utmost importance. The first concerns the proper inner attitude to have in our relations with all the other creatures, which is the full realization of the virtue of ihsân – of “seeing God” and the divine Presence through and with all things:
“Now spiritual purification (tahârat al-bâtin) – which is (purification of) the heart is through liberating ourselves (from all attachments other than God), in order to seek (His) friendship. And there is no (true) friendship and closeness with God except through freeing yourself from the creatures, insofar as you used to consider them (only) in light of their relation to yourself (to your ego or nafs) and not through God (and the realization of His aims in their regard).”
The Shaykh’s second point is made in regard to the spiritual experience of the pilgrim with regard to the “treasure” and blessing and guidance that the Prophet has mentioned as being reserved for those visiting the “House (or Temple: al-bayt) of God”:
“So consider the one who comes to circumambulate (the Kaaba), when he has turned to his heart after going around (the House). If he finds an ‘increase’ in his awareness of his Lord and a ‘clear indication’ (from God) that he did not have before, then he knows from that that he has properly carried out his purification for entering Mecca. But if he finds none of that (in his heart), then he knows that he has failed to purify himself, did not come to his Lord, and so did not (truly) go around His House. For it is impossible that anyone should come to stay with a noble and wealthy host, entering into his house, and yet not experience his hospitality! …If such a person ‘came close’ (to God’s House), they only came close to the rocks, not to the Essence (or the Source: al-‘ayn) – May God place us among the possessors of hearts, the people of God and those close to Him!”
This process of inner purification obligatory for all worship and devotion, Ibn ‘Arabî constantly reiterates, is always changing and always essential (V, 349):
“The purification of the heart (is obligatory) so that it may be joined with its Lord, and so that its spiritual aspiration may be joined in intimate converse (munâjât) with Him through the raising of the veil from (the servant’s heart). …So it is necessary for anyone who is seeking this state (of the heart’s intrinsic intimacy with God) to purify themselves with a special purification. Indeed I say that every state of the servant with God requires its own special purification…”
At this point (V, 346-47) Ibn ‘Arabî adds a special warning, but one which also highlights his typical reliance on the actual consequences of spiritual effort – and the sensitivity of each individual’s heart – in overcoming these recurrent dangers of the Path:
“Now the guardians (the bawwâbs of the heart) may sometimes be sleeping or distracted, so that the secret promptings (khawâtir) of the carnal souls and the devils find nothing to keep them from entering that person’s heart. In that case, when that person says ‘Labbayk!‘ [‘Here I am, Lord!’, the traditional pilgrim’s call] with their tongue, imagining that they are coming in response to the call of their Lord, they are only responding to the prompting of their own nafs or of a devil calling to them in their heart.”
And Ibn ‘Arabî goes on to describe the glee of that ever-present impostor in thus fooling the deluded seeker… “So ‘If it were not for the Generosity of God and His Lovingmercy‘ – through the tongue of our inner spiritual state (lisân al-bâtin wa-l-hâl) and the spiritual intention (nîya) preceding that event,” such a person who was imperfectly purified would surely encounter the ‘dire suffering‘ mentioned in that same verse (24:14). But in reality, as he insists in another extraordinary passage of this same chapter, it is necessary to take a much more comprehensive view of the providential divine “Caring” (‘inâya) and “Outwitting” (makar) with regard to Iblis and the devils, a proof of God’s Mercy and Grace that is ultimately manifested precisely through the multitude of such memorable spiritual “mishaps” and delusions that each person inevitably experiences over time.
This is why, Ibn ‘Arabî explains (V, 354-56), “it is necessary to purify the heart from the ‘touch of Satan'” – which he has elsewhere identified with the passion of blind anger, sakht – “when it descends on the heart and touches the inner being of a person.” And that purification of the heart is through the ‘touch of the angel,'” which is the manifestation of God’s providential Caring for the heart at that point.
“And if the hadith of God’s ‘Two Fingers’ alluded to that (mysterious working of Grace and divine Providence),” Ibn ‘Arabî continues, then “both of those Fingers are Lovingmercy (rahma)…since if it were not for God’s Lovingmercy for His servant through that touch of the devil, the servant would never receive their reward for countering that prompting (of the devil) and turning away from it to the work of the angel’s touch (i.e., the experience of repentance and divine Grace), so that the servant acquires two rewards (for the inner struggle, and for the eventual repentance and right action). And that is why we say that God attributed both (of those ‘Two Fingers’) to the Divine Name ‘the All-Merciful’ (al-Rahmân).”
This point, which has so often been treated as paradoxical or even heretical by later Islamic critics of the Shaykh, in fact could not be more central to Ibn ‘Arabî’s comprehensive awareness of the processes of spiritual growth and transformation, on both the individual and larger cosmic levels. For in a passage so long that it can only be summarized here, Ibn ‘Arabî carefully points out how the devil always ends up accomplishing the exact opposite of what he intended, as the results of his deception eventually push the servant to regret – “the greatest of the pillars of repentance and return to God,” as the Shaykh calls it – and then to true re-turning to God (tawba). Thus the “victim” of Satan
“has the reward of the shahîd [here not only ‘martyr,’ but also the literal ‘witness’ of God’s Love and Mercy] because of the occurrence of that act (of turning to God) in him. And the shahîd (as confirmed by Qur’an and hadith alike) is alive, not dead – for what life could be greater than the Life of hearts together with God, in whatever activity that may be?! For the presence (of the heart) with faith, in the face of the opposition (of Satan), renders that action alive with the Life of the (divine) Presence.”
So this, Ibn ‘Arabî concludes (V, 356) , is again why both divine “Fingers” – although they appear to us, in terms of our own dualistic feelings and judgments of our experience, as diametrically opposed – are in fact equally instruments of God’s Love and Mercy:
“If (the devil) knew that God was blessing the servant, through the devil’s touch, with a special sort of happiness, then he wouldn’t have done any of that. But this is the divine Cunning (makar Allâh) through which He fools Iblis, and I have not seen anyone else allude to that. And indeed were it not for my knowing Iblis and being aware of his ignorance and his compulsion that drives him to counter (God), I too would not have alluded to this… But this is what encouraged me to mention this, because the devil can never stop at those occasions (for temptation) because of his veil, through his compulsion to make the servant suffer and his ignorance that God is (always) turning (to forgive) the servant. For God always cunningly deceives someone in such a way that they themselves fail to notice it, even if others are able to see what is really happening!”
The preceding discussion highlights one of the active principles of spiritual life underlying one of Ibn ‘Arabî’s most straightforward and illuminating pieces of practical advice (V, 359-60) regarding this ongoing purification of the heart and the way it transforms every single event of our life, inner or outer, into a further occasion for discovering the secrets of our relationship with God:
“Now the Knower finds in one of his spiritual states a contraction or expansion (qabd aw bast) whose immediate cause (sabab) he does not know. And for the people of the Path this is (always) a significant matter. For he knows that this (uncertainty as to the meaning of this experience) is due to his unconsciousness or heedlessness (ghafla) with regard to carefully observing his heart and his spiritual intention – and to his lack of spiritual insight (basîra) in grasping the inner correspondence of that state with the (spiritual) matter which that (divine) Attribute caused him to experience. In that case what is incumbent on (the Knower) is to surrender (taslîm) to the eventual effects of the (divine) Decree, until he sees what that gives rise to in the future.
But if the Knower recognizes (the inner reason for that particular experience), then he should purify himself through being completely present with God in his knowledge of those correspondences, so that he does not become unaware of what has come to him from God through these ‘sanctifying spiritual experiences’ (wâridât al-taqdîs) – so that he is not unaware of which (divine) Name became (real) to him through that experience, and which Name came to be through him, and which Name is actually influencing him at that instant, causing him to call out for that experience. So these (spiritually “educational” dimensions of our experience realized by the Knower, sooner or later) are three: the name that is calling (to the Knower), the name that is called (into being) through him, and the name that is (at this instant) coming over him. Of course there is no possible correspondence (of this sort) through which God, in His Essence, might be (ultimately) circumscribed to us or through us…, But through His Names we are connected (with Him), through those Names we take on His qualities, and through them we become realized (or ‘become transformed toward what is Real’: natahaqqaq) – and God makes this possible!”
The next set of allusions to the heart’s “purification” in this chapter (V, 363-366) stands out in every possible way from the discussions that surround it. The passage itself is almost certainly an illustration of that quintessential spiritual teaching destined for the “elite of the elite” which Ibn ‘Arabî, in a key passage of his Introduction, claims to have intentionally “scattered” throughout the Futûhât. An adequate translation and commentary would require a separate article, but the real difficulty, as one might expect of such a lesson, has nothing at all to do with its language. The essential point clearly has something to do with overcoming spiritual “dualism” – but at a fundamental level of depth and subtlety, and of necessarily personal and nearly ineffable intensity, considerably more profound than in the passages we have just discussed. The section begins with a discussion of distinctly spiritual qualities that, according to Ibn ‘Arabî, require a complete bodily ablution (ghusl) – an act of purification that Islamic law typically requires for very different types and circumstances of “impurity.” Ibn ‘Arabî’s movement here beyond the received forms of Islamic law, which serve as at least the ostensible point of departure for all of his other discussions of spiritual purification in the rest of chapter 68, is already a dramatic sign of the unique character of this section. The largest part of the passage, however, is a strange and in some ways metaphysically “comprehensive” catalogue of spiritual or ontological states and qualities.
The chapter (or “Door”: bâb has both meanings) opens as follows:
“Now we have already established that janâba (the technical legal term for a major ritual impurity requiring the total bodily ablution) is ghurba (a state of ‘exile,’ ‘estrangement,’ or ‘removal’ from one’s rightful place). And here that is the exile of the servant from his rightful homeland which he deserves – and that is nothing but the state of pure servanthood (‘ubûdîya). Or that (impurity) is the estrangement of an attribute of ‘Lordship’ from its rightful homeland (in God), so that someone (wrongfully) ascribes it to themselves or uses it to describe some contingent creature or another. Now there is no disputing that one must be purified from this question.
So you must know that this single total ablution mentioned here in this chapter branches into 150 spiritual states, and that the servant, in his heart, must be completely purified from every single one of those states. So we will mention to you the essence (‘ayn) of each one of them, if God wills, in ten sections, each section containing fifteen states, so that you will recognize how you (should?) meet them when they occur to the heart of the servant. Because they must inevitably occur to every heart, both of ordinary people and of the (spiritual) elite – and God gives support and inspiration, there is no power but through Him!
While the adequate translation of this strange catalogue of spiritual states would be very long, we can at least note that it includes a number of what would ordinarily be viewed as “opposite” or contrary states (at least partially reminiscent of the lists of divine Names in the hadith and elsewhere): e.g., this world and the other world, life and death, mercy and anger, and so on, although the vast majority are of what would ordinarily be taken as positive and even rarely achieved spiritual virtues. The catalogue, with no other explanation or amplification, is followed by the following remarks:
“You must know – may God support us and You with a Spirit from Him! – that according to the school (madhhab) of the people of God and His elite among the people of spiritual unveiling, it is obligatory for every human being to completely purify their heart and their inner being from everything that we have mentioned in these (ten) sections, as well as everything else each of these spiritual states includes which we did not mention, for fear of being too long, There is no dispute among the people of immediate spiritual experience (‘tastings’) concerning that. But those who seek to purify themselves from most of them will need an abundance of difficult knowledge concerning the proper ways to become purified from what we have mentioned; and some of these states may serve as purifications from others!”
Later in the same chapter, Ibn ‘Arabî’s explanation of the proper “times” for purification also begins to move more openly beyond the ritual or legal contexts that are the usual occasion for such discussions in this chapter, as in the following passage (V, 374):
“Now the purification of all things is with and through God (bi-l-Haqq). So if someone becomes heedless of the (heart’s primordial) witnessing (of God) and instead sees their self (or ‘ego,’ the nafs) taking the different kinds of knowing that God is (always) causing to descend on the heart, they must be purified because of their seeing their own ego-self (rather than God).
In the same way, if we should happen to encounter another person in a matter in such a way that we teach them, either through our state or our words, and if that teaching flows from our presence (with God), then no purification is necessary, for we have not left our state of purity (with God). But if we should notice our own self (our nafs) in the process of teaching another person through our words or our state, then purification is absolutely obligatory for us, because of our noticing our self. For the people of God in this Path do everything that they do with and through God, out of their witnessing and unveiling of and from Him…”
Of course the very awareness of this hidden “corruption” or unconscious hypocrisy, and our corresponding need for purification, is itself a kind of gift of divine Grace, as Ibn ‘Arabî recalls in this phenomenologically precise summary (V, 435):
“Therefore the ‘time’ or ‘moment’ of purification in the spiritual sense (fi-l-bâtin), for us, is whenever one has specifically realized the (eternally unfolding) connection between the divine ‘Address’ to the person obligated by it (the mukallaf) regarding what is incumbent on them both inwardly and outwardly. In spiritual terms, that is a divine Self-manifestation that suddenly comes over their heart, which is called in the Path a ‘surprise attack’ (hujûm).”
And finally, near the very end of this chapter (at V, 499), Ibn ‘Arabî restates everything as simply as possible:
“For God sees nothing of the human being (al-insân) but the heart. So it is incumbent on the servant that their heart should always and continually be pure, because it is the place God sees in them.”
At this point we have followed Ibn ‘Arabî’s lessons on the heart and contemplation as far as his long chapter on the secrets of prayer (ch. 69), which would require several lengthy volumes to translate into English. So it is fitting to conclude with what he says there (VI, 217-219) about the puzzling Qur’anic verse (50:37) with which we began, in his discussion of the moments of silence during the ritual prayer:
“…So it is obligatory for the servant, when he has finished reciting the verse (in prayer), to “listen attentively, while he is witnessing” (50:37). Therefore (the person praying) becomes silent, so that he can see what God is saying to him concerning that, as is only appropriate behavior (adab) with God. For we must not interrupt someone who is speaking to us, since that is only proper etiquette even in ordinary conversations – and God is far more deserving that we should be that way with Him! …That is how this matter remains between the listener and the One speaking to him, so that the listener might gain benefit (from that silent pure receiving in prayer). Know that kings do not take a person without proper adab to sit with them, nor to converse with them at night, nor to be their intimate companion.”
Pages in this article
Reproduced from the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society, Volume XIII, 1993 .