Articles and Translations

The paradox of the duty of perfection in the doctrine of Ibn ‘Arabi


Laqad khalaqnā-l insān fī ahsanī taqwīm (Q. 95:4). This Qur’anic verse which affirms that God created man ‘with the most perfect stature’ is echoed – at least in one of its meanings – in a hadīth according to which ‘God created Adam according to His form (‘alā sūratihi)’.[1] The affixed pronoun which determines the word sūra (his form) remains nevertheless ambiguous: the Arabic language disregards capital letters which western languages can use to signify that the subject concerned is God. Moreover, numerous controversies have arisen between the interpreters of the Qur’an and of the sunna in the many cases where a scriptural text allows an ambiguity to remain over the grammatical antecedent of a pronoun: does the latter refer to God or to man? Ibn ‘Arabi’s position, on this point, could not be clearer: whether it is a question of the Qur’an or of the hadīth – as is the case here – it is necessary to stick to the literality of the wording; if this literality allows several meanings, none of them must be excluded. All, from one point of view or another, are valid and legitimate. In the same way that one must not fill in the ‘silences’ of the Divine Word, so one must not decide on one meaning to the detriment of another when the divine grammar opens up the possibility of various, sometimes contradictory, interpretations. God knows what He wants to say and knows how to say it.[2]

In the way I have transcribed it, conforming to one of the interpretations that the Shaykh al-Akbar [3] gives it, the pronoun affixed to the word sūra refers to God and the hadīth therefore means literally: ‘God created Adam according to the form of the Name Allah.’ Now this Divine Name is the one that Ibn ‘Arabi refers to as the ism jāmi’, the Name which totalises all the other Divine Names.

As a result, in his original form man carries within him all the Divine Names of which he is, potentially, the most perfect receptacle. That is why, of all creatures, man is the only one capable of ‘containing’ God as the famous hadīth qudsī states: ‘My heavens and My earth cannot contain Me but the heart of My believing servant contains Me.[4] ‘The believing servant’, writes Ibn ‘Arabi, ‘only possesses this capacity for containing because he was created according to the Form of [God], in the same way that the mirror only receives the form of the one who looks at himself in it.’[5]

In other words, man is the mirror in which God contemplates His Names and in the absence of which He would remain a ‘hidden treasure’: ‘I was a hidden treasure and I loved to be known. So I created the creatures and made myself known by them and it is through Me that they have known Me.’[6]

This desire of the solitary God to reveal Himself is the irrepressible aspiration of the Divine Names to be granted an epiphanic locus, an object over which each of them will be able to exercise the authority (hukm) which is proper to it and which thus distinguishes it from the others, for without marzūq, there is no Rāziq, without maghfūr, no Ghāfir…, etc.[7]

Admittedly, from the point of view of the ahadiyya, the absolute Oneness, God is autonomous, ‘ghanī ‘an al ‘ālamīn’, for the pure and unconditioned Essence is unaware of the ‘mā siwā Llāh’, ‘that which is other than God’, it is even unaware of His names. But from the point of view of the wāhidiyya, the Unity of thr Multiplicity, His Names demand places of manifestation, they seek our existence in order to be able to display themselves in us.[8]

As a receptacle for the Names, man is also the guardian of them. From the privilege of having been created ‘according to the Form ot God’ ensues his designation as khalīfa, lieutenant in the proper sense of the word – locum tenens – of God. Had he not possessed in a synthetic way the attributes proper to the One whom he replaces, this responsibility would not have been entrusted to him. ‘The khilāfa was assigned to Adam’, Ibn ‘Arabi explains, ‘to the exclusion of the other creatures of the universe, because God created him in His form. The lieutenant must necessarily appear, to those amongst whom he exercises this function, in the image of the one who has appointed him. Otherwise he is not truly his lieutenant amongst them.’[9]

Sūra, khilāfa, these two favours specifically granted to man are those which also doubly expose him to the greatest peril of his existence: the illusion of rubūbiyya, of lordship.

Created ‘in the form of God’, man tends to forget, Ibn ‘Arabi stresses, that he was made out of clay, the most lowly of materials, an incomparable symbol of his ‘ubūdiyya, of his ontological servanthood.[10]

Chosen by God to be his representative in the universe, he is inclined to ‘pretend’ he is God, either in a crude way by proclaiming himself divine – and, Ibn ‘Arabi observes, he is the only creature who has ever claimed the divinity for himself [11] – or, in a more subtle way, each time he thinks he is autonomous, he forgets that nothing of what he is or what he has belongs to him exclusively, that the power that he exercises over things and beings which surround him and over himself has been lent to him provisionally and can be withdrawn from him at any moment, that he only has the place that he occupies through God and in the name of God.

The double privilege that confers its nobility on the human condition is formidable: because it assigns authority to him and bestows tasrīf, the exercise of power, on him, the khilāfa submits man to the irresistible temptation of appropriating the sovereignty which only belongs exclusively to God. Because his form is divine, this original theomorphism exposes him to the takabbur, a proud presumption more serious than that of Iblis himself, since, Ibn ‘Arabi remarks, the latter did not become proud in relation to God but only in relation to Adam.[12] All the other creatures, who do not ‘share’ these two privileges with God – His form and His power – are exempt from this illusion of rubūbiyya; they are constantly aware of their faqr, of their ontological indigence.

‘Innī jā’il fī l-ard khalīfatan’ – I appoint a lieutenant on earth (Q. 2:30). In a certain way the destiny of each individual begins and ends with this verse which, with vertiginous concision, expresses the contradiction inherent in the nature of man: in the very affirmation of the function entrusted to man, the affirmation of his servanthood is subtly enclosed, as we shall see. The investiture of Adam has his fall and his exile as a condition; he cannot assume the honour which is bestowed on him unless he also assumes the humility which is inseparable from it.

But let us return to the words of this elliptical verse. God, the Shaykh al-Akbar insists time and time again, does not choose His words at random. Even if imām and khalīfa are often considered as synonyms and used indifferently to express the ruling function of man, be it on a universal scale or on the scale of a specific community, there still remains a major semantic difference which distinguishes them: every khalīfa implies a mustakhlif, a person who appoints him and whom he replaces temporarily; the term imām on the other hand, which etymologically signifies ‘the fact of being in front’, is devoid of this connotation. ‘Thus, God has named him only with a name which bears in itself a reminder, for man is by nature inclined to forgetfulness, negligence and distraction. The very name khalīfa reminds him of the One who appointed him as such.’[13]

It is also in order to convey to him that despite his elevated cosmic function he remains ‘abd, slave of God, that the verse states that this responsibility has been entrusted to him fī l-ard, ‘on earth’. Had he exercised his mandate in heaven he could not have contemplated his ‘ubūdiyya.[14] ‘In this way,’ the author of the Futūhāt points out, ‘God has not removed him from his homeland, the earth, of which he was made and which is the place of his indigence in order that he may contemplate his ‘ubūdiyya; for the earth is humble by essence. Thus the function of khalīfa does not veil him from his ‘ubūdiyya.[15]

Twice then, in the very verse which appoints him as ‘vicar’ of God, man is reminded of his ontological servitude.

However, in the vertiginous fall into which he was hurled when the divine word – ‘innī jā’il fī l-ard khalīfatan’ – was heard, man, blinded by the prestige inherent to his function of khalīfa, forgets his essential dependence on his mustakhlif, his mandator, and denies it. Betraying the oath of allegiance which he made by replying: ‘Indeed!’ (Balā ) to the question ‘Am I not your Lord?’ (alastu bi-rabbikum, Q. 7: 172), he condemns himself to an inexorable exile fī asfala sāfilīn, ‘at the lowest of the low’ in the bottomless abyss of an illusory sovereignty. He no longer assumes the Names of God, he usurps them.

To reconquer the nobility of his origin, he must first of all recognise his vassalage, become aware of his ontological servitude.

But this awareness, if it is the condition sine qua non of this quest, is not enough to restore to man his original theomorphism, the outlines of which his ignorance and his pretention have blurred, effacing the signs. He must also restore the amāna, which was entrusted to him by God. This sacred Trust comprises precisely the Divine Names which he inherited by his original form and which he must in some way re-assume in their entirety in order to be strictly speaking the locum tenens of God.

The distance which separates the man fī asfala sāfilīn, from his return to his perfect primordial stature (‘fi ahsani taqwīm’) cannot be traversed except by the takhalluq bi akhlāq Allāh[[16]: the process of metamorphosis by which he is reclothed in the divine ‘characteristics’ and at the end of which he is, in an actual and not merely a virtual way, the mirror in which God contemplates Himself and in which the creatures contemplate Him. It is in this takhalluq, this assumption by man of the ‘characteristics’ or ‘Names’ of God that the accomplishment of a dutyof perfection resides, the counterpart of the birthright of which he has not known how to remain worthy.

Strictu sensu, the Shaykh al-Akbar points out, the term takhalluq is inadequate. Created ‘according to His Form’, man innately conceals in his own nature all the Names of God which are imprinted in the very clay of his being. ‘The characteristics (akhlāq)‘, he writes in Chapter 149 of the Futūhāt, devoted to the maqām al-khulq,

are all divine qualifications (nu’ut), all of them are noble and all of them are inscribed in the nature of man. Those who are ignorant say that in the case of man it is a matter of takhalluq. If one understands by that that the existence of God precedes that of the ‘abd since the former is necessary in Himself whereas man exists by his Lord and derives from Him his existence and, consequently, his khulq (his nature), in this case it is legitimate to speak of takhalluq. But if one wishes to signify by this term that what belongs to God by essence and which qualifies the ‘abd at a given moment, emerges from the takhalluq and not from the khulq – because the khulq is what is in the very nature of the servant originally – then one is totally ignorant about the constitution (nash’a) of man who has been created according to His Form. […] One can only speak of borrowing in so far as these characteristics belonged to God when we were not, but when we were, we were with these characteristics, we did not borrow or acquire them.’[17]

However, a little further on in the same chapter,[18] Ibn ‘Arabi admits to using this term takhalluq himself, following the example of the other masters of the Way, knowing full well that it was a matter of improper usage since, he reasserts, ‘in reality it is a question of khulq and not takhalluq’.

In fact, if, in his primordial form, man possesses all the divine characteristics, the fact remains that in the animal man (al-insān al-hayawānī) they are buried under the mountain of the ego; it is therefore incumbent upon the sālik, he who makes his way towards God, to revive these akhlāq which are sleeping in the deepest part of his being. It is in this sense that, from an initiatory point of view, one is brought round to talking about takhalluq.

In Chapter 68 of the Futūhāt, devoted to the ‘secrets of purification’, the Shaykh al-Akbar maintains on many occasions: ‘Man’s homeland (mawtin) is his ‘ubūdiyya! He who exiles himself from his homeland’, he points out, ‘is barred from assuming the Divine Names.’[19]

Immediately, Ibn ‘Arabi demarcates the territory of the takhalluq: it is only in so far as he effaces his illusory rubūbiyya that the sālik is able to let the Divine Names show through, to be the limpid receptacle in which they display themselves in their resplendent clarity.

The men of God are those who, though they have been created according to His Form, do not allow themselves to be diverted from poverty, humility and servitude. And when they are obliged – and it is unavoidable – to demonstrate the power inherent in their original form, they demonstrate it on the occasions that God has arranged for them. [. . .] Restore His Names to His Form, not to yours![20]

In other words, it is necessary to give back the rubūbiyya to the only true Rabb and limit ourselves to our ontological ‘ubūdiyya.

The exercise of rubūbiyya, which circumstances require of us by virtue of our status as khalīfa, will not sully this ‘ubūdiyya so long as we only consent to it through strict obedience to God.

Ibn ‘Arabi is not the only one, far from it, to put the emphasis on the cardinal role of ‘ubūdiyya in the undertaking of spiritual rehabilitation which the sulūk constitutes; this idea is found again, expressed in various ways, in the majority of the writers of the tasawwuf, such as Ibn ‘Ata Allah, when he declares in his Hikam: ‘In order to respond to the call of God and be close to His Presence, banish from your humanity all attributes contrary to your state of servitude.’[21] But it is necessary to note that for Ibn ‘Arabi, this precept, according to which it is only in servanthood and by servanthood that man can reintegrate his primordial position and thus reach the pinnacle of sainthood, predominates over all his pedagogical and initiatory learning and constitutes, as it were, its cornerstone.

A passage from the second part of Chapter 73 of the Futūhāt – which consists of the Shaykh al-Akbar’s reply to Tirmidhi’s questionnaire – allows us to understand how and why takhalluq is, in his eyes, indissociable from ‘ubūdiyya. To question 86: ‘How many parts does the ‘ubūdiyya have?’ Ibn ‘Arabi replies: ‘Ninety-nine, the number of the divine Names! In fact,’ he then explains, ‘each divine Name demands an ‘ubūdiyya which is specific to it…’[22] Takhalluq consists precisely in realising the ‘ubūdiyya appropriate to each one of them, so that the walī adores God at each instant according to what the ‘ubūdiyya of the Name in which He manifests Himself requires. If the Pole – one of the malāmiyya who, in the initiatic hierarchy, occupies the highest function – bears the emblematic name of ‘Abd Allah it is because he is the ‘abd, the servant, of all the divine Names – which the name Allah contains in a synthetic way – which he manifests equally without any one of them prevailing over any other.[23]

Takhalluq is, in the last analysis, only another name for the most blind obedience to God. The one who practises it behaves at each moment in rigorous conformity with what the hukm, the authority of the divine Name which governs the present instant, demands. He manifests generosity, when God prescribes it for him, just as easily as anger or any other divine attribute, Takhalluq is neither more nor less than the observance of adab towards God, taking this word in its proper sense of ‘appropriateness’, that is to say of perfect conformity to the status of the present instant. In a passage in the Futūhāt, Ibn ‘Arabi rightly refers to those who practise takhalluq by the term udabā’, ‘those who observe adab towards God’.[24] He particularly demonstrates thereby that anger or any other analogous ‘character trait’ – however negative it may seem – has its place in the economy of the takhalluq in the same way that its opposite the taslīm, resignation, does; every quality, whatever it may he. is essentially noble – for each one has its origin in divinis – it only acquires its blameworthy status in so far as it is used outside of the limits that the Law fixes: there are moments when the Law prescribes anger and others when it prescribes resignation. In suspending his personal judgement and leaving the matter to divine judgement, the adīb adopts in every situation that attitude which the Law prescribes for him.


It is from this unconditional and absolute adherence with all his being to the sharī’a that the transparency of the saint springs ‘so much so that he is a servant in the form of a lord or a lord in the form of a servant’.[25] At this stage, his degree of walāya, of proximity to God, corresponds to the qurb al-nawāfil, the proximity ensuing from supererogatory acts, about which God has said: ‘I am his hearing by which he hears, his sight by which he sees, his hand with which he takes hold. . .’[26]

An eminent degree indeed, but one in which a residue of rubūbiyya nonetheless subsists, since in this maqām, as the adorer of God chooses to accomplish such and such a supererogatory act, he still attributes a portion of autonomy to himself.

Now, the ‘abd mahd, the pure servant, is not one, until he is no longer aware of his ‘ubūdiyya; as long as he knows himself to be an ‘abd, he perceives himself as distinct from God and consequently has not attained the complete Proximity, which ensues from the farā’id, the obligatory acts, in which the will of the ‘abd no longer plays the least part since he is unaware of himself.[27] Takhulluq bi-akhlāq allah, which is only theomimesia, ‘imitation of God’, must therefore be succeeded by tahaqquq bi-l-asmā’, the ‘realisation’ of the Names, in order that the actual theosis may be accomplished. But, because ‘true Proximity is only consummated in the total un-creation of the created, when only the Divine Oneness subsists’,[28] this realisation of the Names requires the sālik to ‘leave’ (Ibn ‘Arabi uses in this regard the verb kharaja ‘an, literally: ‘to go out of) all his names, those which confer on him his ‘ubūdiyya, his ontological servitude and those which bestow on him his original theomorphism; ‘It is when there remains only his essence, without quality and without name. that he is with God, amongst Those Who are Brought Close.’[29] And, following the example of Abu Yazid who was asked: ‘How are you this morning?’ he will then reply: ‘How is it that I should be asked about what I have become, when I am without quality and have neither morning nor evening!’[30]

However, this ‘stripping’ of the being must not be understood as a renunciation, for we can only renounce what belongs to us by right. Ibn ‘Arabi maintains,

Now we have no right either to His Names or to those which we believe to be specifically ours. […] The servant himself has no right to anything for he is lacking in all reality (laysa bi-haqq aslan). God alone has a right to what He has a right over. All the names which are in the universe and which one imagines return by right to the servant really belong to God. However, if one attributes these names to Him or if one uses them about Him in an illegitimate way, one makes oneself guilty of kufr, infidelity.[31]

Such is for example the case of ‘those who say: God is poor and we are rich’ (Q. 3: 181). Nevertheless, if, in its immediate sense, this verse is aimed at the Promethean arrogance of man, it also implies, Ibn ‘Arabi points out, an allusion to the Umanā’, the ‘faithful Guardians’ – that is to say the highest category of the malāmiyya – ‘who know that God alone merits all the names which are in the universe and which demonstrate their status, whilst the ‘abd only dresses himself in them’.[32] For them – even if adab prevents them from saying it – it would be equally true to say of God that He is poor or that He is rich.

Two fundamental ideas should be retained from this passage, firstly, for the one who has reached the degree of the ‘ubūdiyya mahda, the difference of usage between names appropriate to God and names specific to the creation is abolished.[33] That does not mean, far from it, that all may be applied to God. One cannot and must not say that God is miserly, lying… etc. But it means that the ma’ānī, that is, the essential realities which these names embrace, have their origin in divinis.

The second major idea that recurs forcefully in this text and in others,[34] is the idea that we do not exclusively possess any name or any quality. The very name ‘abd, lbn ‘Arabi declares elsewhere., does not belong to us.[35] This is an assertion diametrically opposed to the one in Chapter 149 where the Shaykh al-Akbar announces that all the divine Names are inscribed in the nature of man (without saying moreover that they belong to him) and which seems to ruin in one blow both the right and the duty of perfection.

In actual fact, Ibn Arabi is expressing, as he often does, one and the same truth apprehended from two points of view: in so far as the universe is the majlā, the theatre where the perpetual divine theophanies are displayed, each ‘being’, mawjūd, possesses a mustanād ilāhī, a resting place in divinis, which is the Name of which he is the mazhar, the place of manifestation, and from which he draws his reality: Man, who is the most perfect or the ‘epiphanic places’, therefore joins together the divine characteristics in their entirety in his person. But, for that precise reason, the receptacle only has the reality which is conferred on him by the mutajallī, He who is epiphanised in him; nothing of what he reflects belongs to him alone, any more than the forms which a mirror reflects belong to the mirror; if the one who contemplates himself in it moves away, immediately they cease to be visible, leaving behind them only an inert empty space, without a shadow of life. Creatures truly possess neither name, nor quality, nor existence. There is eternally only the Being of God who manifests Himself to Himself by Himself. A universal truth which applies to all beings but which only the ‘abd mahd, the pure servant, realises fully. For this reason, he alone legitimately bears the name of Insān kāmil or of khalīfatu Llāh. Definitively extinguished to self in the dazzling Divine Presence, lost in the contemplation of His Names, he no longer knows who he is: ‘Then that which never was disappears and that which has never ceased to be remains.[36]


Translated from the French by Cecilia Twinch. Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society, Vol. XV, 1994.


[1] Cf. Muslim, Birr, 115; Janna, 28; Bukhari, Isti’dhān, 1.

[2] On the literal interpretation of the Qur’an in Ibn ‘Arabi, see M. Chodkiewicz, Un Océan sans rivage: Ibn ‘Arabi, le Livre et la Loi, Paris, 1992, Ch. 2.

[3] For the other possible interpretations of this hadīth by Ibn ‘Arabi, cf. ibid, pp. 58-60.

[4] On the interpretation of this hadīth in Akbarian doctrine, see for example Fusūs, ed. ‘Afifi, Beirut, 1980, Ch. 12, p. 119 and Emir ‘Abd el-Kader’s commentary on it in the Mawāqif, Damascus, 1966, III, pp. 1197-1274.

[5] Futūhāt al-makkiyya, Cairo edn, 1329H., I, p. 216.

[6] On the use of this hadīth by Ibn ‘Arabi see for example Fut., II, p. 327, III, p. 267 and H. Corbin, L’imagination créatrice dans le soufisme d’Ibn ‘Arabi, Paris, 1976, pp. 143-166.

[7] On this idea cf. Fut., I, p. 323, and Fusūs, Ch. 12.

[8] Ibid., and William C. Chittick, The Sufi Path of Knowledge, SUNY Press, Albany, New York, USA, 1989, pp. 52-4, 64-6.

[9] Fut., I, p. 263.

[10] Ibid., I, p. 370.

[11] Ibid., II, pp. 602-3.

[12] Ibid., I, p. 642.

[13] Ibid., III, p. 410.

[14] Ibid., II, p. 642.

[15] Ibid., II, p. 202.

[16] On this idea of takhalluq, see; Chittick, The Sufi Path, pp. 21-2, 283-8, 369-72.

[17] Fut., II, pp 241-2.

[18] Ibid., II, p. 243.

[19] Ibid., pp. 362, 367.

[20] Ibid., IV, p. 13.

[21] Hikam, ed. and transl. by P. Nwyia, Beirut, 1986, no. 31; see also no. 117.

[22] Fut., II, p. 615.

[23] Ibid., II, p. 61S.

[24] Ibid., I, p. 350; on the notion of adab in lbn ‘Arabi see D. Gril: ‘Adab and Revelation or One of the Foundations of the Hermeneutics of Ibn ‘Arabi’, in Muhyiddin lbn ‘Arabi: a commemorative volume (ed. S. Hirtenstein and M. Tiernan), Element Books, Shaftesbury, for the Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi Society, 1993.

[25] Fut., IV, p. 13.

[26] On the idea of qurb al-nawāfil and its corollary qurb al-farā’id see M. Chodkiewicz’s notes in his translation of Ecrits spirituels by Emir ‘Abd el-Kader, Paris, 1981, note 84, pp. 202-4 and his translation of the Epītre de I’Unicité Absolue by Balyani, Paris, 1982, note 26, p. 61.

[27] On the notion of ‘ubūdiyya mahda see Chodkiewicz, Un Océan sans rivage, Ch. 5, in particular pp. 152-61.

[28] M. Chodkicwicz, Le sceau des saints, Paris, 1986, p. 214.

[29] Fut., IV, p. 13.

[30] On the interpretation of this anecdote by Ibn ‘Arabi see for example ibid., II, p. 133; IV, p. 13.

[31] Ibid., II, pp. 53-4.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Remember that in Muslim theology – and in Ibn Arabi’s doctrine – one must only apply to God those Names which lie applies to Himself in the revelation; on this subject see D. Gimaret, Les Noms divins en Islam, Paris, 1988, pp. 43-50.

[34] Fut., IV, p. 13; II, p. 350; II, pp. 53-4.

[35] Ibid., II, p. 350.

[36] On this saying attributed to Ibn al-‘Arif, see Un Océan sans rivage, note 90, p. 200.