Articles and Translations

The Realms of Responsibility in Ibn ‘Arabi’s al-Futuhat al-Makkiya

Alexander Knysh

Alexander Knysh is professor of Islamic Studies and former chair (1998–2004) of the Department of Near Eastern Studies, the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He obtained his doctoral degree from the Institute for Oriental Studies (Leningrad Branch) of the Soviet Academy of Sciences in 1986. Since 1991 he has lived and worked in the United States of America and England. His research interests include Islamic mysticism and Islamic theological thought in historical perspective as well as Islam and Islamic movements in local contexts (especially Yemen and the Northern Caucasus). He has numerous publications on these subjects, including Ibn 'Arabi in the Later Islamic Tradition: The Making of a Polemical Image in Medieval Islam (1998). A large number of papers and valuable book reviews can be found on: [/] [/]


Articles by Alexander Knysh

The Realms of Responsibility in Ibn Arabi’s al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya


Podcasts by Alexander Knysh

The Realms of Responsibility in Ibn Arabi’s Futuhat


Ibn ‘Arabi’s concept of responsibility is elusive to say the least. One thing is obvious to me: he definitely did not expect his readers to treat it in isolation from his other favorite topics, not to mention dedicate a special academic conference to it. In the Futuhat the notion of responsibility appears in a wide variety of guises and contexts, some of which I will examine in this presentation. My examination does not pretend to be exhaustive and should be complemented by the observations made by the participants in this symposium.[*]

The Arabic terms that Ibn ‘Arabi uses to describe responsibility vary. The closest he comes to our modern understanding of the meaning of responsibility is probably the concept of taklif – a term that denotes the sum total of religious obligations that God has imposed on His servants. Throughout the text of the Futuhat, Ibn ‘Arabi often refers to his fellow believers as mukallafun, namely, those burdened with Divine Command[1] or those for whom the Divine Law is prescribed.[2] Throughout the believer’s earthly life this prescription is absolute and irrevocable. It comes to an end only at his death, when all the veils are lifted and the true essences of things are revealed to his bewildered gaze.[3] While the word taklif does highlight some important aspects of our modern idea of responsibility, that is, the ability “to distinguish between right and wrong, to think and act rationally and hence [be] accountable for one’s behavior,”[4] it carries a variety of additional connotations, namely, that of the passive receptivity of divine commands that may appear to be entirely arbitrary, capricious and irrational. Yet, as divine commands, they have to be implemented under any circumstances by the mukallaf, who is, as it were, saddled with responsibility to fulfil God’s requirements.

The other semantic cluster pertaining to responsibility is associated, in the Futuhat, with the Arabic roots talaba (“to demand”, “to demand back”, “to reclaim”, etc.) and sa’ala (“to ask”, “to demand”, “to claim”, etc.). According to Ibn ‘Arabi, the whole universe is held responsible (tuliba) by God for a strict observance of that which is His due (huquq Allah), that is, God’s rights vis-à-vis His creatures.[5] In the same way as the great governor (al-imam al-kabir) is answerable (mas’ul) to his superiors for the proper morals, behavior and well-being of his subjects, any human individual is answerable to God for the actions of his members. In other words, he must keep all his members and faculties from the acts that are contrary to the Divine Law.[6] If the servant of God fails to restrain them from illegal actions, he forfeits his status as a true believer and is abandoned by God in the same way as the ruler is demoted and disgraced if he fails to maintain the proper social and moral order in his domain.[7] To avoid divine punishment, the servant should carefully weigh all his acts and thoughts on the scale of Divine Law in order to achieve a salutary equilibrium between his personal dispositions and the Divine Commands.[8] In this process of the weighing of his behavior the servant can count on divine guidance, for man is incapable of striking the proper balance on his own.[9] This is not to say that man is a helpless puppet in the hands of God. His life is a continual test of his ability to remain faithful to the spirit and letter of the Divine Law and to carry the burden of taklif. This test consists in the believer’s never-ending struggle to bring his actions and passions in line with the Divine Commands, especially when the former are at odds with the latter. In this constant internal struggle against his passions and drives the servant is continually tempted by the blandishments of Shaytan, who seeks to make him put his personal priorities above those of God’s. This ongoing battle determines man’s status in the hereafter. Even when man errs in his interpretation of a certain divine command, he can still be absolved by God who wants to reward him for his refusal to blindly follow his instincts and for his attempts to weigh his actions on the scale of the Divine Law.[10] The servant of God who has successfully renounced all his personal drives and natural appetites will receive the ultimate award. God will grant him the right guidance in perpetuity, overriding all his passions and drives of the moment. Put differently, God will make divine guidance the very essence of the servant’s soul, thereby protecting him from any error.[11]

In an illuminating passage, Ibn ‘Arabi traces the origins of taklif to the first human beings, Adam and Eve, as well as Iblis. The former two were commanded not to approach the Tree of Knowledge, whereas the latter was commanded to pay obeisance to the first man. In Ibn ‘Arabi’s interpretation, this original taklif had two different modes: prohibition (nahy) and command (amr). These primeval orders were stronger than all those that were revealed afterwards, because God announced them directly to the individuals concerned. Therefore, God’s punishment for disobedience was swift and permanent: Iblis was cast down from the heavens forever, while Adam and Eve were expelled from paradise never to return. All later prohibitions and commands were less direct and therefore less final. They were dictated by God to His prophets and messengers or communicated to them through angels. The secondary nature of these two later types of divine prohibitions and commands explains why the punishment of mankind for failure to observe them was delayed by God until the Day of Judgement.[12] In certain cases God can arbitrarily suspend them or grant the Prophet’s intercession on behalf of some members of his community contrary to His promise to always punish the disobedient.

Elaborating on the theme of disobedience, Ibn ‘Arabi draws a fascinating distinction between prohibition, which he describes as “the order pertaining to non-existence” (amrun ‘ adamiyyun), and God’s positive command, which he calls “the order pertaining to existence” (amrun wujudiyyun). The former demands that an action not be performed, while the latter, on the contrary, requires that the subject of the command undertake a certain action. Since the human race by their very nature are passive recipients of divine volition and, in the final account, God is their sole mover, inaction is easier for them than action. In fact, Ibn ‘Arabi pronounces action to be out of character with human beings. By embarking on a certain activity, whether commendable or otherwise, the servants of God are overstepping the boundaries circumscribed for them by their primordial nature, which Ibn ‘Arabi sees as innately passive. This difference, according to Ibn ‘Arabi, determines the more severe nature of the punishment for failure to obey God’s positive commands as opposed to the lighter punishment entailed by disobeying God’s prohibitions, which are but “orders pertaining to non-existence”.

Much of Ibn ‘Arabi’s discourse on responsibility revolves around the issue of theodicy in general and the provenance and character of human actions in particular. If God is the omnipotent Creator of human beings, to what extent is He also the maker of their acts? If we grant that He creates all acts, be they good or evil, how can He hold humans responsible for the actions they are not free to choose or perform? If we suggest that humans choose their own actions from a number of possible alternatives, what will happen to divine omnipotence? In other words, we are dealing here with the age-old and inscrutable theological problem of human free will versus divine predestination. By Ibn ‘Arabi’s time, this problem had found two principal solutions that were associated with the two major schools of Islamic theology, Mu’tazilism and Ash’arism. The Mu’tazilites attributed actions to human beings, albeit via a divine intervention of sorts, and held men fully responsible for their deeds and misdeeds. They also argued that divine actions and justice can be justified rationally, in so far as God is a rational entity. The Ash’arites argued that all actions are created directly by God, whereupon humans appropriate and perform them. In so far as they are the appropriators and performers of the divinely created actions, human beings are accountable before God. Unlike the Mu’tazilites, the Ash’arites viewed God’s actions as absolutely arbitrary and not subject to any extraneous rationale or logic, at least as these are usually understood by human thinkers. In the Futuhat, Ibn ‘Arabi repeatedly discusses both theories and brings out their strengths and weaknesses. I will spare you the details of these discussions, especially since they have received an exhaustive treatment in Chittick’s Sufi Path of Knowledge.[13] I would like to limit myself here to a few brief comments. Ibn ‘Arabi duly acknowledges the legitimacy of both theories as human attempts to come to terms with the inscrutable workings of the divine will. In the long run, however, he finds both of them wanting, because they rest on a fallible rational speculation (nazar) rather than a direct supersensory insight (kashf) into the true nature of empirical phenomena. This insight is exclusively characteristic of his fellow Sufi gnostics, whom he also calls God’s folk (ahl al-haqq) and the realizers of the ultimate truth (muhaqqiqun). Ibn ‘Arabi’s elevation of kashf as the privileged cognitive mode is hardly surprising given the fact that his entire life was devoted to the defence and justification of the contemplative Sufism of a gnostic type. The notion of supersensory unveiling known as kashf[14] is absolutely central to Ibn ‘Arabi’s mystical epistemology. He presents it as the principal epistemological tool of Sufi gnosticism as well as its distinctive hallmark. The overriding importance of kashf is thrown into sharp relief in many passages from his Futuhat. Here are some typical examples:

Know, oh my brother, that the knowledge of God’s folk (ahl Allah) is derived from kashf. Its shape is that of faith itself. Anything that faith accepts [as being true] is precisely what the kashf of God’s folk rests upon. All of it is nothing but truth. For it was communicated [to us] by none other than the Prophet himself – may God bless and greet him! – and he derived it from a veridical kashf.[15]

In another passage Ibn ‘Arabi says:

I have alerted you to this important affair so that you understand where the ideas of rationalist scholars (al-‘uqala’) come from.[16] It has now become clear to you that sound knowledge cannot be derived from any [human] idea or from the conclusions reached by speculative scholars on the basis of their ideas. For the only true knowledge is infused by God into the heart of the seeker. It is but a divine light that God bestows upon whoever He wishes, be it an angel, messenger, prophet, saint, or [ordinary] believer. He who has no kashf, has no knowledge![17]

It is only natural that Ibn ‘Arabi has recourse to this critical notion in his attempt to resolve the problem of human free will versus divine predestination. Since his kashf shows him all acts and phenomena to be ultimately from and by God, he considers their conventional marking as “evil” or “good” to be contingent and accidental. However, he acknowledges that, for the overwhelming majority of the ordinary believers, the division of actions into “good” or “evil” is absolute, because they believe that it will determine their status in the hereafter. Ibn ‘Arabi sees things in a totally different light, because he considers himself to have gone beyond the imperatives and conventionalities of human existence and the external dispensation associated with it. Moreover, he explicitly claims to have crossed the all-important line that separates temporary existence from the eternal life to come. Here is how Chittick describes Ibn ‘Arabi’s argument:

In the next world, once a person has left the arena of the Law, he will see that all his evil acts were in fact – in relation to God though not in relation to himself – good acts. This, in Ibn al-‘Arabi’s view, is one of the meanings of the Koranic statement, God will change their evil deeds into good deeds (Q. 25:70).[18]

Chittick’s paraphrase of Ibn ‘Arabi’s position is corroborated by the Shaykh’s own words: “What in fact takes place is that one divine name prescribes the Law for another divine name within the locus of a created human being.”[19] In this scheme of things, the servant’s own will to act is absolutely irrelevant. In fact, it simply does not exist, since all actions spring from the internal interplay of God’s names and commands within a contingent locus called human being. Elsewhere, Ibn ‘Arabi drives this message home saying: “There is nothing here for us, except our readiness to accept the actions that are attributed [to us by God] in the empirical world.”[20] “My kashf therefore says: ‘You have nothing to do with this.'”[21] In short, the only true and real actor is none other than God Himself.

This is a very controversial statement in so far as it can be interpreted by some immature minds as license to do as they please without paying any attention to the Revealed Law. In my study of the fate of Ibn ‘Arabi’s intellectual legacy I have shown that this indeed was occasionally the case. No wonder that in several passages Ibn ‘Arabi tries to counterbalance his strictly predestinarian stance by allowing at least a modicum of responsibility on the part of human beings before their Lord. In an illuminating passage from Volume 3 of the Futuhat (Bulaq edition) he shows how a potential adulterer is irresistibly drawn to the object of his desire by God, Who creates in him simultaneously the desire to perform the act of adultery and the physical ability to do it. Yet, in the final moment the would-be adulterer abstains from plunging headlong into a grave sin as he remembers the capital punishment that awaits him, which, in Islam, is death by stoning. Paradoxically, this remembrance is also created in him by God, who thereby puts the adulterer in an impossible position of simultaneously desiring to commit adultery and abhorring his desire to perform it. Thus, on the face of it, the would-be sinner is saved by his own dread of the consequences of his act, although, in the final account, his actions were still predetermined by God from all eternity.

Naturally, Ibn ‘Arabi and his fellow gnostics among God’s folk (ahl Allah) are not subject to such difficult choices and tests. They have renounced all their instinctive drives and desires for the sake of God. As a result, His worship has become part and parcel of their very nature and everyday existence. Although they continue to live in this world, they no longer belong to it. Their true abode is what Ibn ‘Arabi calls “God’s wide earth”.[22] They reside in this supernatural land because they have already died to this world in an effort to expedite the face-to-face encounter with God that is promised to them in many passages of the Qur’an. “We know,” says Ibn ‘Arabi, “that the meeting with God can happen only after death. We have realized the meaning of death and striven to achieve it already in this present life of ours. So we have died while at the same time remaining alive in regard to our actions, our movements and our desires. And when death appears to us in this life of ours, while we shall remain alive… [We] have met God and He has met us.”[23] As a reward for this death before death, Ibn ‘Arabi and his fellow gnostics have been granted a vision of the true realities of all things and phenomena which are concealed from the ordinary mortals by the deceptive outward appearances of all things. This vision can only take place in “God’s wide land”, where the true realities of things are revealed without their empirical bodies which, in the world of sense perceptions, obscure their genuine essences. Roaming the vast expanses of this land, which has neither a beginning nor an end, are “the people of Divine Providence”. Each of them has his own domain over which he has full control, without however infringing those of his neighbors. As one of this land’s inhabitants, Ibn ‘Arabi is no longer deceived by the external appearances of things and phenomena. In particular, he knows beyond any doubt that all actions, be they good or evil, are predetermined and created by God and within God without any intermediaries. As God’s creations they are all essentially good. However, this realization cannot mislead the gnostic into wrongdoing, because the pure and absolute worship of God (‘ubudiyya mahda) has become his true nature. In other words, as God’s intimate friend, the gnostic has become incapable of committing any sinful action.

Obviously, this exalted epistemological and moral stance eludes the overwhelming majority of human beings, who are subject to the contingencies of the Revealed Law. They are unaware of their status as helpless puppets in the hands of God, who has long predetermined their destinies and charted the courses of their lives. Protected by their ignorance from flouting God’s commands, they strive the best they can to please Him in the hopes of securing their salvation in the hereafter.

To such men and women Ibn ‘Arabi addresses his lengthy admonitions at the end of the Futuhat. Unlike many chapters of his magnum opus that are expressly directed at his peers and soul-mates, this section is addressed to the average Muslim with little or no propensity to mystical insights or flights of fantasy. In the course of more than one hundred pages typeset in a very fine print, Ibn ‘Arabi seeks to inculcate in his readers the rules of proper behavior toward God and their fellow Muslims: be virtuous, do good works, observe strictly the rules imposed upon you by God, perform supererogatory acts of piety, mind your speech (in particular avoid slander and backbiting, even if your words are true), dispense pious advice to your neighbors, feed the hungry and poor, clothe the naked, forgive people their misdeeds, be patient in the face of afflictions, practice humility, maintain ritual purity, be considerate of your fellow Muslims, remember God often, hold God’s friends (awliya’) in high esteem, etc.[24] The overwhelming majority of these admonitions are the staple fare of mainstream Sunnism and can be found in practically every didactic manual of the age. One wonders what all these recommendations mean from the vantage point of the “final curtain” and why the Shaykh spilt so much ink detailing them?



So what do we make of all these contradictions? I would like to suggest that in the Futuhat we are dealing with several different levels and realms of responsibility that pertain to different categories of people. Let us outline at least some of them. The first and most simple type of responsibility is confined to the ignorant populace (al-‘amma) who are incapable of reflection over the true meaning of their faith and their destiny in the hereafter. Blind to their real existential situation and the deeper structures of the cosmos, they are destined to follow slavishly the recommendations of exoteric scholars (‘ulama’ al-rusum) as long as the latter derive them from a correct, if temporarily and circumstantially contingent, understanding of the Muslim scriptures and the exemplary behavior of the greatest Muslim scholars and pious individuals of the past. The responsibility of the masses is to stay within the limits defined to them by their learned pastors. Any intellectual inquiry that may take them beyond these narrow confines should be strongly discouraged.

Slightly above the exoteric scholars and their flock stand speculative theologians (al-‘uqala; ahl al-nazar). In their quest for truth they have hit upon some sound and valuable ideas, but are still incapable to place them into a larger picture and to see their true implications for this world and the next. Nor are they able to understand the constant fluctuations of the modes of God’s will in regard to His creation. The notion of responsibility upheld by such scholars rests on their often conflicting understanding of the provenance of human actions and of their relationship with the workings of the ever changing divine will. While one theological faction sees human actions as basically products of their human actors, their opponents trace them back to God, leaving almost no room for human discretion. In the end, Ibn ‘Arabi dismisses both doctrines as falling short of the goal and confined to this world only. They will be invalidated in the veridical vision that awaits mankind at the end of time.

To the third group of thinkers belong those whom Ibn ‘Arabi identifies as the ones whom God has granted a true insight into the cosmic situation and the role of man in it. This group includes both “the knowers of God” or “gnostics” (al-‘arifun bi ‘llah) and “the ones who have attained the truth” (al-muhaqqiqun). While the former, although being head and shoulders above the esoteric scholars and the speculative theologians are yet to achieve perfection, the latter have already attained it and entered “God’s vast land”, where things and phenomena of the empirical world reveal to them their genuine essences.[25] Seen from the vantage point of God’s folk, the responsibility of the overwhelming majority of the faithful is limited to this world only. When the final curtain will be lifted before the human eyes at the end of time, this responsibility will be invalidated and supplanted by new existential arrangements and dispensations. However, these new realities are already familiar to the perfected gnostics, who inhabit “God’s vast land”, since that land prefigures the shape of things to come. To this category Ibn ‘Arabi claims to belong along with a small group of the elect “truth-realizers”.

It is against this background that one should see what I consider to be Ibn ‘Arabi’s personal realm of responsibility, that is, one that flows from his objective status as a member of his society. Throughout his entire life, Ibn ‘Arabi acted as a staunch advocate of and spokesman for an extremely esoteric version of Sufism that I, for lack of a better term, have defined as “Sufi gnosticism”. His entire intellectual legacy is explicitly and implicitly dedicated to the defence of its epistemological and ontological premises, which he considered to be the ultimate and incontrovertible truths inspired in him directly by God. In view of the ultimate and overriding nature of these truths, all the other religious doctrines circulating in his religious and cultural milieu were but pale and inadequate reflections of the sublime divine mysteries that he claimed to have direct access to. In the short term, these interim doctrines may be of some value in as much as they restrain the ignorant populace from engaging in reprehensible excesses and immorality; however, in and of themselves they are flawed and imperfect. Moreover, they will prove false at the end of time, when the true realities of things will be unveiled by God for the benefit of his servants. At that point, God’s mercy will encompass all of His creatures, the sinners and righteous alike, as promised by the famous hadith that Ibn ‘Arabi was so fond of citing in his works. Ibn ‘Arabi considered this sublime picture to be too overwhelming and potentially detrimental to the generality of ordinary believers. Therefore he took care to protect it from the profane eyes by couching it in long-winded technical discourses, dark allusions and puzzling allegorical exegeses that permeate his magnum opus. Yet, as an advocate of Sufi gnosticism, he was compelled to disclose these socially dangerous truths obtained through kashf in order to demonstrate their superiority to the other cognitive modes and theological trends of his age. Simultaneously, he debunked and spurned the rival visions of God and the world as one-sided and misleading. At the same time, on the social level Ibn ‘Arabi remained a member of the learned class, the ‘ulama’. As such he was under obligation to conceal his daring insights from the uninitiated in an effort to preserve the fragile moral and social fabric of his community that could unravel, if his daring teachings were to be misinterpreted and appropriated by some irresponsible individuals. The tantalizing tension between concealment and disclosure that shapes Ibn ‘Arabi’s discussions of responsibility in the Futuhat is a direct result of his dual identity as both scholar and mystic and his loyalties to the disparate, if not entirely incompatible, strains of Islamic tradition.

I would argue, however, that, in the end, Ibn ‘Arabi the gnostic prevails over Ibn ‘Arabi the canon. For better or worse, he dares to raise the curtain protecting God’s ultimate mystery and to reveal to his readers that all human actions and natural phenomena take place by and in the all-encompassing divine Reality (al-haqq). God’s creatures are but the passive and contingent arenas of dialogues between God’s own names and attributes. Seen from this perspective, the creatures have no role at all in the acts that they ostensibly create and perform.

My narrative has come full circle. What began as a discussion of Ibn ‘Arabi’s concept of human responsibility has led me to the paradoxical realization that, in the final analysis, there is none, at least in the conventional meaning of this word. What we see is Ibn ‘Arabi’s self-imposed responsibility to communicate his daring insights into the structure of the universe and the designs of its divine Creator to his fellow Sufi gnostics. That these insights often contradict our empirical experiences, the received wisdom of the traditionalist scholars and the theodicies of the speculative theologians did not divert him from his objective.


Reproduced from the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society, Vol. XXXI, 2002.

An earlier version of this paper was delivered at the annual symposium of the Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi Society in the U.S.: “Responsibility”, Santa Barbara, Ca., 20-21 October 2001.


[*] An earlier version of this paper was delivered at the annual symposium of the Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi Society in the U.S.: "Responsibility", Santa Barbara, Ca., 20-21 October 2001.

[1] See William Chittick, The Self-Disclosure of God: Principles of Ibn al- ‘Arabi’s Cosmology, State University of New York Press, Albany, NY, 1998, pp. 43 and 391-2, note 44.

[2] Idem., The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn al-‘Arabi’s Metaphysics of Imagination, State University of New York Press, 1989, Albany, NY, pp. 63, 110, 114, 174, 208, 210, 274 etc.

[3] Ibid., p 402, note 20.

[4] Webster’s New World Dictionary of American English, Third College Edition, Webster’s New World, Cleveland and New York, 1991, p.1144.

[5] Ibn ‘Arabi, Al-Futuhat al-makkiya (henceforth Futuhat), Bulaq, Cairo: 1911; reprinted by Dar Sadir, Beirut, no date, vol.3, p.220.

[6] Ibid., vol.4, p.5.

[7] Ibid., p.6.

[8] Ibid., vol.3, pp.6-8.

[9] Chittick, Sufi Path, pp.26-7.

[10] Futuhat, vol.1, pp.71-2; cf. vol.3, pp.281-2.

[11] Ibid., vol.3, p.70.

[12] Ibn ‘Arabi, Al-Futuhat al-makkiya. Ed. ‘Uthman Yahya and Ibrahim Madkur (henceforth Futuhat(Yahya)), al-Hay’a al-misriyya al-‘amma li ‘l-kitab, Cairo, 1984, vol.3, pp.402-3.

[13] Chittick, Sufi Path, pp.205-11.

[14] In addition to kashf, which literally means "unveiling", Ibn ‘Arabi uses a number of other terms to describe this superior cognitive mode, e.g., "direct tasting" (dhawq) and "insight" (basira), "divine [self-]revelation" (tajalli).

[15] Futuhat (Yahya), vol.3, p.334.

[16] Earlier on Ibn ‘Arabi argued that their ideas were dictated by their souls and therefore had nothing to do with the real state of affairs in either this world or the next.

[17] Futuhat (Yahya), vol.3, p.335.

[18]  Chittick, Sufi Path, p.208; cf. Futuhat, vol.4, pp.4-5.

[19]  Ibid., p.208; Futuhat, vol.3, p.403.

[20]  Ibid., vol.4, p.34.

[21]  Ibid., vol.3, p.226.

[22] See Qur’an 4:99.

[23] Futuhat, vol.3, p.223.

[24] Ibid., vol.4, pp.444-554.

[25] Futuhat (Yahya), vol.3, p.310.