Aspects of Mystical Prayer in Ibn ʿArabi’s thought
Dr. Ralph Austin taught Arabic and Islamic Studies at Durham University and is well-known for his translations of Ibn Arabi, above all Sufis of Andalusia and The Bezels of Wisdom, which have been acknowledged as entry-points to the study of Ibn 'Arabi by many contemporary scholars.
Articles by Ralph Austin
Of all the five pillars of Islamic religious practice, the prayer or salâh is perhaps the most important, apart from the all-necessary first pillar of the shahâdah or pronouncement of the creed without which of course all the others would not be valid. The prayer rite is at one and the same time the most common and yet the most special of rites, everywhere known and public and yet the occasion of and opportunity for the profoundest communication with God. It is also unique in two other ways. Firstly, it is the only rite which God Himself may be said to perform, since He is said to sallâ ʿalâ ‘pray over’ the Prophet and us. Secondly, alone of all the rites it incorporates the essential spirit of the other four. For example, it is the frequent occasion of the pronouncing of the creed; it is a time of reservation and abstention from unnecessary and superfluous talk and activity, like the Fast (Mary in the Quran; it is, or should be, a pure and purified act, an act of innocence or zakâh, and finally it is the inner reflection of the outer pilgrimage of the body to the Kaaba at Mecca, being a journey to the Kaaba of the heart. This profounder view of the prayer already indicates the kind of mystical prayer under consideration which is by way of being an internalisation and individualising of the liturgy of Islam. The range and scope of the prayer rite in Islam, from the commonplace and the everyday to the depths of intimate spiritual discourse, is nicely alluded to in the first two lines of the poem which prefaces the great chapter on prayer in the celebrated Al-Futûhât al-Makkiyya where Ibn ‘Arabi says:
How many a one praying experiences nothing of his prayer save stress, exertion and a view of the mihrâb,
While another is constantly blessed with intimate divine converse, even though he seems to be simply fulfilling his ordinary religious duties.
Of course, in the context of the vision of a man like Ibn ʿArabi in which, ultimately, there is no room for anything other than He, the Unique, the great mystery of prayer, which will be more fully addressed at the end of this paper, is that prayer is, in reality, nothing other than the contemplation by the divine Self of Itself as other than Self, and the contemplation by other than Self of the Self in itself/Itself. But more of that later.
In preparing this paper I have had recourse to two main sources in Ibn ‘Arabi’s writings. Firstly and most importantly, I have used as the framework of my discussion that wonderfully succinct and trenchant piece on prayer which comes towards the end of the last chapter, on Muhammad, in the Fusûs al-Hikam, in which he has also so profoundly expounded the other two elements in the saying of the Prophet concerning women, perfume and prayer. In the piece on the prayer it seems to me that the Shaykh al-Akbar has outlined most of the salient and significant aspects of mystical and contemplative prayer in Islam. Secondly, I have found very illuminating lines in the poem already quoted, as also in the later sections of the chapter on prayer in the Futûhât, In addition I am also indebted to the quotations from the Tanazzulât Mawsiliyyah or Revelations of Mosul, a work not available to me, as selected and translated by Michel Chodkiewicz in the last chapter of his recently published collection of essays entitled Un Océan sans Rivage. His own masterly and erudite discussion of this material on the subject of prayer has also inspired me not a little.
It seems to me that in the section of the Fusûs already alluded to, Ibn ‘Arabi deals with the subject of mystical prayer under eight main headings which are:
The mutuality of prayer as between God and man.
The faculties and senses by which man and God reach out to each other.
The very important function and role of the imâm.
The crucial and very determining element of the takbîr.
The significance of the movements of the prayer rite.
The meaning of non-movement and stability of orientation in prayer.
The subject of the anteriority of the object of prayer by both God and man.
The bewildering mystery of Lordship and servanthood and of Divinity and creation which underlies the whole of Ibn ‘Arabi’s treatment of this spiritually essential subject, deeply rooted as this subject is in the teachings of the Master concerning eternal pre-disposition and pre-existent reality.
For me these eight headings seem to coalesce nicely into three main aspects of mystical prayer and contemplation, namely the aspect of mutuality and relationship, the aspect of divine uniqueness and essentiality, and the aspect of the mystery of both the compatibility and incompatibility of those two aspects with each other. In this section of the Fusûs on prayer, as in much of his writing, Ibn ʿArabi evinces a wonderful symmetry of ideas and concepts underlying an apparently haphazard presentation of his teachings. Prayer is concerned with both principal modes of the Divine, that of Essence and that of Creation, with the uniqueness and exclusiveness of the former and the multiplicity and inclusiveness of the latter. Equally, it is concerned with both the great cosmic currents of creation and re-creation, with the compelling force which releases us into the cosmic continuum and the persistent force which presses us to seek to return to our source. Similarly, prayer reveals much of the meaning of time and space as also of the suspension of time and space.
Of course, before the prayer can be performed in a valid way, the one praying must do two things, the one deeply primordial and terrestrial, the other profoundly characteristic of our human state. The first is the ritual ablution or wudû’ in which the one praying must make fresh contact with water or earth to cleanse himself of false being and false knowing, a renewal of contact with the fundamentals of becoming. Of course, as Ibn ‘Arabi points out in that same chapter of the Fusûs, a total immersion-ablution or ghusl is required of the one who has, for example, as he puts it, immersed himself in the object of his desire in sexual union, thus showing beautifully clearly how both spiritual and terrestrial the substance and image of water and earth are. It is interesting in this connection that Ibn ‘Arabi describes the ritual ablution in the Futûhât as an independent act of worship (ʿibâdah mustaqillah) and not one simply attached to the prayer rite. The second is the conscious formulating of the intention (or niyah) to perform the sacred rite, the aim of which is to ensure as far as is possible that the performance of the rite is not merely habitual, like some animal instinct, but fully conscious and deliberate, as befits the human state.
In coming now to discuss the various aspects of mystical prayer as set out in the last chapter of the Fusûs, it seems to me that we can consider the sections relating to relationship, the faculties, the movement of the prayer and that of the posteriority of the one praying, under the general heading of creative relationship, while we might think about the function of the imâm, the utterance of the takbîr and the deeper meanings of the word qurrah or soothing under the heading of principial or essential being.
The key word in the opening section of the passage on prayer in the Fusûs is, I believe, baina, meaning ‘between’, by which Ibn ʿArabi seeks to demonstrate that prayer, at least in this aspect, is essentially a doing or an experience which is shared between God and man, especially since God describes Himself as praying over or upon us. Thus prayer is typically for him an act of relationship which indicates the closeness of man and God. Baina, however, not as a preposition, but in its noun form means distance or separation, the distance and separation which is perennially bemoaned by the pre-Islamic poets in their beautiful Qasidahs. In other words, as I am sure the Master was aware, this key word is a vital clue to that primordial divine mystery of own and other, creation and recreation, which the rite of prayer and the practice of contemplation re-enacts and symbolically unfolds. Thus, in a very interesting way the prayer rite is for Ibn ‘Arabi not only a rite showing the sharing and nearness of God and man, but also, rather like that other liturgical drama of the Christian Mass, a re-experiencing of the primordial separation and sense of distance which is also essential to our experience of the divine. Thus, in a quite wonderful way the prayer rite may be said to enact the double mystery of the aboriginal Self-othering and re-Selfing by which the Godhead is able both to come to know His hidden treasures and yet be Himself unaltered. Thus, for us as creatures, the divine creative prayer or desire to be known is an emergence out of non-existence (‘adam) or, as the Qur’an puts it, lam yakun shay’an madhkûran, ‘(man) was nothing mentionable’, into the infinite multiplicity of the Cosmos. The re-creative prayer or pronouncement of Being, on the other hand, is the now more conscious return to and choice of non-existence as self-annihilation (fanâ’), so that in no longer existing we might see Him again or, as the Prophet said, ‘if you are not, you will see him’, usually read as ‘if you do not see him’. In both cases the non-existing being is in that latent state of predisposition. The prayer rite is then a rehearsal of the two great divine-cosmic currents of creation and re-creation, the coming forth from and the holy return to God, the current of kâna or becoming into existence and the current of sâra or re-being in God, as in the Qur an, wa ilayhi’l-masîr: ‘and to Him is the inexorable becoming’.
This creative and re-creative nature of prayer is, I think, confirmed by the way in which Ibn ʿArabi interprets two other expressions from the Qur’an. The first is, ‘Remember Me, and I will remember you’ (udhkurûnî adhkurkum) and, ‘The mentioning of God is greater,’ (wa ladhikru’llâhi akbar), the latter usually read as meaning our mentioning of God in remembrance. As well as this meaning, however, he also interprets it as meaning God’s mentioning of us, as in the first quotation. The dhikr or the mentioning we are concerned with here is pre-eminently to do with speech which, like hearing and sight, God shares with us, according to the Quran. Thus we might say that in mentioning us God releases us from our state of ‘unmentionableness’ and thus creates us by His creative speech or Word, a creative image common to the Abrahamic religions. Similarly, when man mentions God as a deliberate act of re-discovery of his divine source he may be said to be ready to surrender his right to be mentioned in favour of re-asserting the Divine superiority, since God’s mentioning is greater, as the Quran says. Furthermore since we, as creatures, are nothing other than He, God’s mentioning of us, like our mentioning of Him, is ultimately His mentioning of Himself. ‘There is no refuge from God except in Him’, as the Quran says.
In his discussion of the prayer Ibn ʿArabi states that, in praying, both God and man may be said to be under the regime of the divine Name, the Last (al-Âkhir) in that one who prays must always have that upon which or to which he prays. Thus as praying, God assumes the existence of us, His creatures, upon or over whom He may pray, while when we pray we assume by our action the reality of the Being to whom we pray. Thus, by His posteriority in His praying He creates us by the implication of our existence, while we re-join the current of re-creation by the implication of His supreme Being.
This great ritual of nearing and distancing in the context of creative relationship also reveals to us another mystery which is dear to the heart of the Shaykh al-Akbar, namely the mystery of man as worshipper and God as worshipped in which the worshipper, by his act of worship which affirms the divinity of God, mysteriously ‘creates’ the ‘Godness’ of God, just as God makes of us the object of His divinity to worship Him. Thus God may only be God if He has worshippers to call Him God, and we can only be creatures if we have Him as Creator to create us. This profound interdependence, at a certain level, between the Supreme Reality as God and and His ‘other’ as creature, is graphically expressed by Ibn ‘Arabi in the Fusûs in the famous lines:
He praises me and I praise Him,
He worships me and I worship Him.
Behind this, from a more exoteric point of view, apparently blasphemous and facile mystical tour de force lies, of course, what is perhaps the greatest mystery expounded by Ibn ʿArabi, which is that of the eternally predisposed latent essences of which we are but existentiated manifestations. But more of that later.
Perhaps the most subtle way in which Ibn ʿArabi illustrates this relationship and liturgical-drama-of-creation aspect of the prayer is in that part of the section on the subject in which he touches on the meanings and significance of the movements of the rite itself. Islam is the religious tradition in which, perhaps, the body of man is most involved on a regular basis in the fabric of religion and piety, in so far as at least three of the five rites of the faith engage the psycho-physical makeup of the human being. Annually, many Muslims participate in what is probably one of the most, if not the most, rigorous collective acts of asceticism in world religion in the Fast of Ramadan. Once or perhaps more times in a Muslim life there is the very body-involved activity of the Pilgrimage or Hajj, while the prayer rite, with which we are concerned here, involves a five times daily regime of physical movements which engage the whole bodily frame, thus expressing one of the most important truths of all the major religious traditions, often forgotten or overlooked, namely that the body, no matter how dangerous in other ways, must needs be integrated into and, if possible, transformed by the Spirit, just as the Spirit must needs be implicit in and translated into body, which interaction is very much the subject of the Master’s teachings on the Imagination and the world of similitudes (ʿâlam al-mithâl). Ibn ‘Arabi addresses himself to four basic postures of the prayer, the standing position or qiyâm, the bowing position or rukû’ the prostration or sujûd, and the sitting position or julûs. In the context of our present discussion these positions must be understood as part of a flow or rhythm of movement, each new point of which is heralded by the uttering of the takbîr or Allâhu akbar, ‘God is Greater’, as if to say that all initiative is God’s. But more about the takbîr anon. So, we have a progression in these movements of the prayer from a vertical or high position to a halfway, horizontal position, to a low or deep one, culminating in the stable or balanced position of sitting, which also comes at the end of the rite with the greeting to right and left. As images of spiritual realities these positions or movements are polyvalent, each one suggesting different, if related ideas depending on the level being considered. Thus, as Ibn ‘Arabi says in the Fusûs, the standing position is an image of the human state, the bowing of the animal state, the prostration of the plant state, and the sitting of the mineral state in its immobility. Alternatively, the standing or vertical position might be seen as an image of dominion and divinity, the bowing as the intermediary position of the human state, the prostration of the terrestrial and cosmic state, while the sitting position may be seen as an image of the overall stability of God in creation. The prostration, as that posture most indicative of profound and abject slavehood, might thus be seen as an image of the self-annihilation of fanâ’ while the re-emergence into the light in the sitting position might be seen as a symbol of settling in God or baqâ’. In the Futûhât Ibn ʿArabi suggests that the standing indicates a state that is of God, the bowing a state that is turning towards God, the prostration a state that is experienced in God, while the sitting is a state that is for God. It is interesting to note that interpretations of the posture of prostration alternate between the poles of being in that it may be seen either as an image of utter slavehood and fanâ’ or annihilation, or of its obverse which is deep immersion in and permeation by God. Also, in a very interesting way, the four postures of the prayer rite are a sort of ‘calligraphy in motion’ in so far as each posture in sequence has something of the letters which make up the Name of Allâh: the alif being the standing; the connecting lâms the bowing; the curling circle of the hâ’ the prostration; and the sitting position representing the pause or stabilised breathing of the hâ’. Finally, one might see in the standing or the alif the aloneness of the Unique Being, in the bowing His creative inclination towards His creation, in the prostration His deep involvement in His Cosmos and in the sitting His balancing and establishing of Himself as the the Real in all His modes.
Of course, the prayer rite is not all movement in time and space, it is also in a very important sense a profound stillness, a cessation or suspension of time and space, and it is here that we switch from relationship in space and time into a mode which has as much to do with the unknowable Essence as with the worshipped God, as much to do with Being as with becoming. This brings us then to talk about takbîr and qurrah, about the being ‘greater’ of God and the need for fixity and stillness; ‘Be still and know that I am God’ as it says in the Bible. We are concerned here not only with the takbîr which marks each stillness between the movements of prayer, but especially the first takbîr or saying of ‘God is greater’ of the prayer which is called the takbîr al-tahrîm, or that uttering of the words which makes a haram or reserved sanctuary of both the time and the place of the prayer, and which establishes an indissoluble bond between the one praying, or the one setting up the prayer, and the direction of the qiblah, so that anyone else should avoid any passing in front of the one praying on pain of dire sanctions. This word tahrîm is a very difficult word to translate into English, even in several words. It means to make some thing, place or time sacred, reserved, forbidden, inviolate, invulnerable. Its opposite is tahlîl or making open or licit. In his introductory poem to the chapter on prayer in the Futûhât quoted earlier, Ibn ‘Arabi has the following lines:
The uttering of ‘God is greater’ is that which makes the prayer sacrosanct,
if you are one who has stature (kâbiran),
If you are not, then it matters not whether you sanctify or not.
The very interesting word kâbiran, which I have translated here as ‘to have stature’, I understand as meaning one who has true humanity, one who perhaps aspires to that station of relative significance which God asserts that He is greater than, otherwise we are talking of nothingness pure and simple. Thus the notion of haram or sanctuary denotes also perhaps that sacred area or delimited space in which the sacred liturgical drama discussed above may be enacted, not only in time but in aeternis, in illo tempore as they used to intone before reading the Gospel, the sanctification eternalising not only the sacred area or temple of contemplation as Corbin pointed out, but also the time itself. In this connection Ibn ‘Arabi also writes in the same poem:
For the one who is (truly) oblivious to the (particular) time of the prayer, is the near one, unique of his time, the pole.
The takbîr al-tahrîm is also that utterance of ‘God is the greater’, which forbids to the one praying any diversion or turning aside from his purpose or orientation whether outer or inner, so that the great Abu Hamid al-Ghazali pronounced a liar anyone who, having uttered the words ‘God is greater’, thinks of anything other than God. The hadith of the Prophet which is the subject of the final chapter of the Fusûs ends with the words, ‘and my solace or soothing of my eyes was made to be in prayer’. The Arabic word for solace here is qurrat al-ʿayn, the root of which is qarra which denotes settling fixing, stabilising. That is to say, the attraction of the divine object of prayer should be so compelling that the attention is totally fixed upon Him to the exclusion (tahrîm) of all else. Thus this notion of soothing is rather more one of compelling attention and thus strongly related to the defining and delineating sense of tahrîm. Ibn ‘Arabi clearly links this necessity to be wholehearted in one’s orientation towards the divine Beloved with the need also to be self-conscious and self-disciplining, keeping careful watch over one’s mind and soul lest they wander off after false gods while the body is ritually pure and sanctified.
The one whose function it is to pronounce the ‘God is greater’ and to effect the state of things described above is none other than the imâm or the praying one himself, as being, as Ibn ‘Arabi says, the imâm of his own microcosm. The imâm is the alif of the standing position, that piece of a rosary which holds all the beads together, the coordinator, the spokesman. Above all the imâm is, as Ibn ‘Arabi says, the representative of God performing the function of the Messenger of God. As he goes on to show, this means that the imâm is functionally and spiritually like the Messenger of God in two important ways. Firstly, he must be purified and innocent in that he should share in the ‘illiteracy’ or ummiyyah of the Prophet, a concept which is paralleled in Christianity by the notion of the immaculateness of Mary as the bearer of the Word made flesh, as Muhammad was to be of the Word made sound. That is to say that the imâm should be open and receptive to the presence and activity of God. Thus also he must become in his function the medium, like the Prophet himself, for the speech and utterance of God, as Ibn ʿArabi says, ‘For it is God who is Himself saying on the tongue of His servant, “God hears him who praises Him.”’
This, of course, means that the imâm is therefore symbolically performing the function of the true human person, the normative human being the Khalifah of God on earth. He is indeed, or should be, kâbiran, as in the verse of the Futûhât poem quoted earlier, that is to say a creature of some significance greater than whom God is. It is interesting that in the same poem we have the very pertinent line in this connection:
How then, since it is the mystery of the Real One which is his imâm, even if he is being formally led, for he has reached his goal.
Is not Man, the Perfect Man, at the very heart of the divine mystery, so that the true, the perfect imâm is precisely that being who is the very eye by which God may see and know Himself as His creation? Indeed, when any Muslim is praying the salâh, it may be said, in the light of this teaching, that his or her imâm is none other than their true humanity, their eternal and aboriginal nature in God. To the extent that the one praying realises that true human nature, he may be said to become, in reality, his own imâm, behind whom, as the Master says, the angels pray in serried ranks.
At the end of the section of prayer in the Fusûs Ibn ‘Arabi comes to what is perhaps one of the greatest and most bewildering mysteries of prayer, namely the mystery of who and to whom, by whom and for whom is the meaning of the prayer, since, as we have observed earlier in this paper, for Ibn ‘Arabi all is ultimately nothing other than the Real, al-haqq. Each of us, as a locus of the divine Self-manifestation (tajalli), is no more nor less, in nature, word, thought or deed, than our eternally latent essence, preexisting in the deepest being of God, gives us to be, nor are we, whether here in existence or deep within the divine Being, other than the Real Who is constantly relating to Himself as ‘other’, as cosmos, in order to know Himself and enjoy His infinite possibilities. Thus, in praying each of us prays to the Lord who is the very mystery of our own eternal being and with Whom we have an indissoluble mutually dependent relationship of Lord and ‘lorded’, rabb and marbûb, a relationship so very interestingly explored and discussed by Henri Corbin in his complex study of Ibn ‘Arabi’s thought. Thus, it is said, ‘Who knows himself knows his Lord.’ The same mystery, but on a macrocosmic level, is that of the relationship, already touched upon earlier, of God and creation in its mutually dependent symbiosis of God and ‘godded’, Allâh and ma’lûh. The primordial prayer of the One, the Unique, is to know Himself from which issues forth the whole mystery of otherness at once so alien to His ahadiyyah and yet so necessary to His being able to know Himself as object. Thus our distance and separateness from Him may, in a paradoxical sense, be said to be the answer to that prayer, so that by our multiple, cosmic existence we are available to Him as other to be known. Our primordial prayer is to return home from our terrestrial exile, to take ourselves as others, in our otherness, back to the paradise of rediscovered Selfhood. Thus, in a way, His unrelenting and inalienable Self-hood and Essentiality is also paradoxically the answer to that prayer of ours. In the process He loses Himself, so to speak, in us, while we lose ourselves in Him. All of these things are, of course, not really the subject of words and thoughts, since they have to do with matters which defy, by their very nature, the limited efforts of language and thought to fathom them. It has never ceased to puzzle me how the great mystics, especially the more prolific of them, can justify their many volumes, when they are constantly telling us how impossible it is to express what they have experienced in words.
Ultimately then, the mystery of the prayer is a matter for spiritual perplexity or bewilderment, hayrah.
In view of this perplexity, I feel that I can do no better, by way of concluding this paper, than to offer you a translation of a poem which is indeed a metaphysical tour de force. It comes from the chapter on prayer in the Futûhât,
I am not really this I, nor yet am I He.
So who then am I and who is it that is He?
O He, say that you are He; O I, He is only you as being He.
I am not what He is as I, nor is He what is said to be He.
If He were that, our eyes would not see in existence, by Him, as His
other than ourselves.
(Thus there is) I and He, and He and He.
Who is ours, through us and for us is
As what is His, through Him, for Him.
Reprinted from the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society, Volume XIV, 1993.
 Ibn al-‘Arabi, Bezels of’Wisdom, trans. R.W.J. Austin, London, 1980, p. 282.
 Ibn al-‘Arabi, Al-Futûhât al-Makkiyya, Cairo, 1329 ah., I, p. 386.
 Bezels, pp. 279-84.
 Futûhât pp. 386ff.
 Editions du Seuil, Paris, 5992, pp. 529-65.
 Bezels, p. 274.
 Futûhât IV, p. 486.
 Bezels, p. 279.
 Qur’an 76:5.
 Cf. Bezels, p. 280.
 Qur’an, 2:285.
 Ibid., 2:552 and 29:45.
 Cf. Qur’an, 58:26.
 Cf. Gospel of St. John, 5:5.
 Qur’an, 9:558.
 Cf. Bezels, pp. 282-3.
 Ibid., p. 95.
 Ibid., pp. 285-2.
 Ibid., Ch. IX.
 Ibid., p. 282.
 Futûhât II, p. 48.
 Ibid., I, p. 386.
 Cf. Bezels, p. 279.
 Ibid., p. 280.
 Ibid., p. 285.
 Futûhât I, p. 386.
 Bezels, p. 55.
 Ibid., p. 285.
 Ibid., pp. 283-4.
 Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi, London, 1970.
 Futûhât I, pp. 496-7.