Articles and Translations

Opening the Heart: Ibn ʿArabi on Suffering, Compassion and Atonement

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

Introduction to The Meccan Revelations

Ibn ‘Arabi’s “Short Course” on Love

How to Study the Futuhat: Ibn Arabi’s Own Advice

Hur Man Studerar Futuhat: Ibn Arabis Egna Råd (Swedish)

Ibn Arabi: Spiritual Practice and Other Translations – Overview of the ten following articles:

Some Dreams of Ibn Arabi (PDF)

Body of Light (PDF)

Introducing Ibn Arabi’s “Book of Spiritual Advice” (PDF)

“Book of the Quintessence of What is Indispensable for the Spiritual Seeker” (PDF)

Ibn Arabi on the Barzakh – Chapter 63 of the Futuhat (PDF)

The Spiritual Ascension: Ibn Arabi and the miraj – Chapter 367 of the Futuhat (PDF)

The Mahdi and His Helpers – Chapter 366 of the Futuhat (PDF)

Ibn Arabi’s ‘Esotericism’: The Problem of Spiritual Authority (PDF)

Communication and Spiritual Pedagogy: Methods of Investigation (tahqiq) (PDF)

Rhetoric & Realisation in Ibn Arabi: How Can We Communicate Meanings Today? (PDF)

Listening for God: Prayer and the Heart in the Futuhat | Part 1

Listening for God: Prayer and the Heart in the Futuhat | Part 2

Listening for God: Prayer and the Heart in the Futuhat | Part 3

Listening for God: Prayer and the Heart in the Futuhat | Part 4

Divine Calling, Human Response – Scripture and Realization in the Meccan Illuminations | Part 1

Divine Calling, Human Response – Scripture and Realization in the Meccan Illuminations | Part 2

Opening the Heart: Ibn Arabi on Suffering, Compassion and Atonement

Ibn Arabi and his Interpreters – Overview of 28 articles and reviews in this section

Ibn ‘Arabi and his Interpreters I – Four overviews, description of the following:

Ibn Arabi; in the “Far West” (PDF)

Except His Face: The Political and Aesthetic Dimensions of Ibn Arabi’s Legacy (PDF)

Situating Islamic ‘Mysticism’ (PDF)

Ibn Arabi and His Interpreters — Introduction:
Historical Contexts and Contemporary Perspectives (overview of 28 articles and reviews in this collection)

Ibn Arabi and His Interpreters — Grouping I:

Ibn Arabi; in the “Far West” (PDF)

Except His Face: The Political and Aesthetic Dimensions of Ibn Arabi’s Legacy (PDF)

Situating Islamic ‘Mysticism’ (PDF)

“Ibn Arabi and His Interpreters”, JAOS article 1986 (PDF) | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 1 (HTML)

Ibn Arabi and His Interpreters — Grouping II:
Influences in the Pre-Modern Islamic World (all the following 7 articles in one PDF)

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

Ibn Arabi and His Interpreters — Grouping III:
Later Muslim Critics and Polemics (all the following 4 articles in one PDF)

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”

Ibn Arabi and His Interpreters — Grouping IV:
Reviews of More Recent Works by and about Ibn Arabi (1985–2002)

Ibn Masarra: A Reconsideration of the Primary Sources (PDF)


Podcasts and Videos by James W. Morris

Beyond Belief: Ibn ‘Arabi on the Perennial Challenges of Realization

Inspiration and Discernment: Ibn Arabi’s Introduction to the Challenges of Spiritual Sensitivity and Judgement

“As for your Lord’s blessings, recount them!”: Ibn ‘Arabi’s Storytelling and Spiritual Communication

Becoming Real: Realization and Revelation in Rumi and Ibn Arabi

Whose calling, whose response? Ibn 'Arabi on Divine and Human Responsiveness

Opening the heart in the Futuhat

The “Instruments of Divine Mercy”

“Whoever knows himself...” in the Futuhat

In the Name of God, the All-Compassionate, the All-Merciful
Did We not open up for you your chest, [1]
and lift off from you your burden
which weighed down your back,
and raise up for you your Remembrance?
For surely with difficulty is ease;
surely with difficulty is ease.
So when you have finished, exert yourself to the utmost,
and strive (only) to please your Lord.
(Sura 94)


Sometimes Ibn ʿArabi’s Meccan Openings – despite their well-deserved reputation for difficulty – offer amazingly direct and illuminating insights into life’s most basic lessons. Certainly this is the case with his discussions of the central role of earthly suffering in every person’s spiritual growth, and with his clarification of the complex role of suffering in the nexus connecting our (mis)deeds, their painful (but potentially liberating) consequences, and their ultimate fruits of illumination, compassion and spiritual growth and perfection. However, his primary purpose is clearly not to construct or argue for some abstract theodicy or philosophical doctrine. So the following case-study of his progressive treatment of the sadr (literally ‘chest,’ but in almost all contexts more meaningfully translated by the English word ‘heart’) in the long opening section of the Futūhāt [2] beautifully illustrates the way his teaching and language are always carefully designed to evoke above all each reader’s own indispensable personal experience and illuminated understanding (tahqīq) of the realities in question. As we shall see, his own gradual ‘unveiling’ of all the dimensions of this reality closely mirrors the actual existential process of spiritual testing, purification and inspiration which each reader and student can alone bring to their study of this work.

Since this unique rhetorical and pedagogical method of the Futūhāt can only really be understood and appreciated through repeated practice and familiarity – which means it is still very difficult to approach using only translations, without ready access back to the original Arabic – this study also highlights the critical importance, when approaching any topic in Ibn ʿArabi’s writings, of carefully considering all the relevant, intentionally scattered passages both holistically and in their particular context. Even with a reliable translation and contextual presentation, newcomers to his work will inevitably tend to focus on either its scriptural or its other intellectual elements, which are initially always more immediately visible than the essential underlying dimension of individual realization to which they allude. Even his more direct allusions to those key dimensions of spiritual realization – whether experiences of himself and his companions, or expressed through accounts of the Prophet, the ‘Friends of God’ (awliyāʾ) and other spiritual figures – must always be carefully situated in the intended context of their particular stage and active role in the long process of each soul’s purification and perfection, since otherwise the possibilities of misunderstanding and inappropriate application are legion. Finally, the further obstacles posed by inadequate translations and presentations of any of his writings are painfully familiar to anyone who has struggled with such works.


Sadr in the Quran: Divine and Human Roles

The Arabic term sadr, appearing some 44 times in the Quran, refers most literally to the human chest, a meaning closely related to its etymological root of what is first, foremost or uppermost; a beginning; or to proceed or emerge from something. But its figurative and idiomatic meaning in religious contexts, as the seat of a wide range of familiar human feelings, emotions and different kinds of awareness of divine activities and inspirations, is usually very close to that of the English word ‘heart’ and to the even more frequent Quranic expression qalb, [3] as well as several other less frequent Quranic expressions that could all be translated likewise by ‘heart’ in many contexts. [4] The major difference from the qalb (the latter usually referring to the inherent locus of our receptive human awareness of God and the creative Spirit) is that the sadr, much like the bodily chest in relation to the bodily heart, also refers to that which can either ‘cover over,’ hide, obscure and close off – or else open up and reveal – the pure receptivity of the qalb. As such, it has a key role in both expressing and accounting for all the dimensions of our apparent human opposition to God’s will and of our subjective sense of ‘separation’ from the divine, especially those aspects of experience – often rather negative or oppressive – that we would express in everyday English usage by reference to what goes on in our ‘mind,’ ‘self,’ imagination or even more unconscious levels of subjectivity that may only be perceptible through our corresponding actions, tendencies and attitudes.

The particular association of this term in the Quran with themes of suffering, testing, compassion and the wider dynamics of spiritual growth – which are most familiar and boldly highlighted in the famous verses of Sura 94 alluding to Muhammad (in our epigraph above) – comes from the fact that it is almost always used in ways that refer to one of two contrasting perspectives: either to our individual human responsibility for the painful, constrictive, secretive, beclouded, oppositional and generally unpleasant aspects of the heart’s experience. Or else the same term is employed in references to God’s corresponding responsibility for knowing, inspiring, purifying, releasing, healing, illuminating and opening up these same hearts. Even at a purely textual level, of course, that initial dichotomy of reference is immediately complicated by the many other Quranic passages strongly insisting on the divine role in determining all our human actions and attitudes, including the negative and non-responsive ones.

Since this broad underlying problematic is immediately echoed, for those familiar with the Quran (including most of Ibn ʿArabi’s original readers), at each use of the term sadr, it will be helpful to recall briefly a few of the different interrelated dimensions of this ‘heart’ that are repeatedly highlighted in the Quran. To begin with the more familiar human aspects of the sadr developed in the Quran:

· The most frequent mention of these ‘hearts’ (sudūr) on the human side refers to what we seek to hide within them – a familiar activity of constant, almost unconscious lying (particularly to ourselves) that involves the lower aspects of the self (nafs), imagination and selective memory. Thus people are said to ‘fold up’ and ‘hide’ what is in their sudūr, with their hatred and malice being mentioned in particular: Yes, surely they fold up their hearts so that they may try to hide (themselves) from Him… (11:5). But the hatred has appeared from their mouths, and what is in their hearts is even greater… (3:118). Whether you hide what is in your hearts or reveal it, God Knows it… (3:29).

· The Quran frequently speaks of the resulting constriction or ‘tightness’ (dayyiq) and ‘oppressive burden’ (haraj) or ‘blindness’ (22:46) of our sudūr, even (as in Sura 94) in reference to Muhammad and other prophets: Perhaps you are setting aside what was revealed to you, and your heart is oppressed because of [what your enemies say]… (11:12). See similar references to Muhammad at 15:9, and to Moses (asking God for the assistance of Aaron) at 36:13. Indeed some other people may even have their hearts subjectively lightened by their opposition to God (kufr) (16:106).

· People imagine all sorts of things in their sudūr: for example, …be you stones or iron or some creation even greater in your hearts (4:90); and you are more fearful in their hearts than God… (59:13). Other recurrent imaginings obscuring the heart include ‘dire need‘ (59:9); and ‘fear‘ (59:13).

· Finally, one of the famous concluding protective verses of the Quran mentions the sadr as the locus of all the insinuations and hidden promptings of Satan, who whispers secretly in the hearts of the people (114:5).

While most of the Quranic references to God’s activities in relation to the sudūr are quite positive, still verse 6:125 openly states in this regard what is often reiterated throughout the Quran in emphasizing the divine responsibility, at some level, for all human actions whatsoever, a perspective that is eventually at the heart of Ibn ʿArabi’s metaphysical perspectives here – and most famously, throughout his later Fusūs al-hikam. [5] So whoever God wishes to guide rightly, he opens his heart to surrender-to-Peace (al-islām); and whoever He wishes to lead astray, He constricts his heart…’ (6:125).

· By far the most frequent citation in this respect is the repeated Quranic emphasis on God’s direct knowing of all that is hidden in human hearts: So be aware of God: surely God is all-Knowing of what is in the hearts (5:7). [6] Particularly important, given Ibn ʿArabi’s characteristic emphasis on the Quran’s recurrent eschatological passages and imagery as symbolizing the enlightened understanding of the true Knowers (ʿurafāʾ), is the insistence on the unavoidable revelation to each soul itself (as to God) of what was once ‘hidden’ in our hearts, in the eschatological context of those hoping to hide their wrongdoing (at the Last Day): Doesn’t he know that when what is in the graves is brought out, and what is in the hearts is (manifestly) realized, surely on that Day their Lord will be most aware of them? (100:9–11).

· Verses describing God’s (this-worldly) opening and ‘release’ of the sudūr, [7] whether in the famous Sura 94 of our epigraph above or in Moses’ requesting: O my Lord, open up for me my heart! (20:25).

· Two key verses emphasize God’s salvific role in the spiritual healing (shifāʾ) of our sudūr: God heals the hearts of a people who have faith (9:14); and O you people, there has already come to you a lesson from your Lord, a healing for that which is in the hearts (10:57).

· As a particular example of such divine healing – particularly telling in light of what the Quran and hadith alike have to say about hateful anger (ghadab) as ‘the touch of Satan’ – two other verses emphasize how God can remove even deeply rooted rancor and malice (ghill) from the sudūr. Both verses refer specifically to the high spiritual state of the blessed in the divine ‘Gardens’: And We have removed from their hearts whatever hatred was there (7:43); and we have removed from their hearts whatever hatred was in them (15:47).

· Another verse often alluded to by Ibn ʿArabi speaks of God’s ‘Clear Signs’ (āyāt) as directly inspired in the sudūr: It (the revelation) is clear Signs in the hearts of those who have been given (divine) knowing… (29:49).

· Many verses of the Quran specifically focus on the perverse human propensity to many different forms of resistance and disobedience toward what we in some deeper way already ‘know’ to be right. [8] The opposite of that inveterate, sometimes puzzling opposition of our hearts is ‘surrender to (divine) Peace’ (islām), and several verses specifically emphasize the divine role in that decisive spiritual transformation: God opens up hearts to surrender-to-Peace (6:125); and So whoever God wishes to guide rightly, He opens his heart to surrender-to-Peace (39:22). In particular, the same verse emphasizes that this process involves the divine illumination of the ‘opened’ hearts: So is the one whose heart God has opened to surrender-to-Peace, such that he is upon a Light from his Lord (like the state of the unenlightened)? (39:22).

· Finally, we come to the very heart of Ibn ʿArabi’s own reflections on these many dimensions of the heart, throughout these foundational chapters (1–73) of his Meccan Openings: …so that God may test what is in the hearts of you all (3:154). [9]


The Heart’s Knowing (vs. discursive thinking) [10]

The first place we encounter a mention of the heart (i.e. the sadr) in the Futūhāt is in Ibn ʿArabi’s fundamental discussion – which we have translated more fully in an earlier study [11] – of the varied types and ways of human ‘knowing’ that underpin the different levels of discourse interwoven throughout the rest of this immense work. Here he introduces the fundamental distinction between the abstract, highly fallible and unreliable ‘knowing’ of the discursive intellect, and the inspired inner awareness of the ‘knowledge of states’ (‘ilm al-ahwāl, or maʿrifa), which is acquired through a divine inspiration (ilhām) that is immediately recognized as such by the receptive heart (sadr):

Then you must know that if this (inspired ‘unveiling’ or ‘knowing of states’) seems good and beautiful to you and you accept and have faith in it – then rejoice in that good news! For you are necessarily experiencing an ‘unveiling’ of that, even if you aren’t aware of that, because there is no other way to that, since the heart (sadr) is only delighted and pleased by that whose (spiritual) soundness it is absolutely sure of. While discursive thinking has no footing here, because this is not in its domain of perception.

As we shall see, Ibn ʿArabi returns to develop and amplify this practically crucial opening distinction in several passages below.


The Journeying that Opens the Heart [12]

Early in the first chapter of the Futūhāt, at the beginning of Ibn ʿArabi’s famous account of his encounter at the Kaaba with the mysterious young spiritual ‘alter ego’ (fatā) or angelic messenger who revealed to him everything in that immense work, that fatā again invokes – in contrast with the divinely inspired knowing of the heart – the profound illusions of those ‘poor souls’ (miskīn) who rely solely on the conclusions of their discursive thinking, imagining that it is leading them somewhere:

The poor fellow imagines he is knocking and opening (the ‘door’ of spiritual illumination), saying: ‘Can there be, in face of this constriction and heavy burden (that I still feel now) anything but expansion and opening (of my heart)? But compare that to the Quran on those who are disputing (without real knowing or faith): So whosoever God wills to Guide, He opens up their heart to the surrender-to-Peace. But whosoever He wills to lead astray, He makes their heart constricted and weighted down, as if they were climbing up into the sky! (6:125).

For just as the ‘opening’ (of the heart) only comes after the constriction, so likewise That which is sought is not attained until after traveling the (spiritual) path. And that poor fellow was heedless of his own acquiring of what he had attained through inspiration (ilhām), among those things that the people of mind and intellect (falsely assume) is only acquired by means of thinking and proofs.

Ibn ʿArabi’s reply to his divine guide here, rather than simply echoing that figure’s criticisms of the limitations of our discursive intellect, provides another fascinating – and as we shall see, highly significant – acknowledgement of the essential interplay of all our human capacities, including extensive learning experiences, deep reflection (tafakkur), and inspiration, in the larger course of each person’s gradual spiritual growth and their uniquely individual path of perfection. He begins by acknowledging this mysterious youth’s observation that those who rely exclusively on their intellect:

will be grieved and saddened, when they arrive back at the point from which they departed. But – [Ibn ʿArabi adds] – they will rejoice in what they have acquired of the secret mysteries in the course of their path, and to which they have returned! For if the Messenger had not been called to the Ascension, he would not have climbed up to the heavens, nor would he have come back down – and this journeying brought to him the presence of the Angelic Host and the Signs of His Lord.

These few carefully chosen words at the very beginning and first ‘doorway’ (bāb) of these immense Openings pointedly highlight one of the most distinctive features and orienting aims of all of Ibn ʿArabi’s work: that is, his preoccupation with making clear the full universality and inclusiveness of the complex processes of spiritual development, learning and illumination that unfold with miraculous detail and exactitude in every domain and level of creation. That essential quality of the Shaykh’s speech is aptly acknowledged in this divine youth’s own immediate reaction:

So when I brought up this knowing, which cannot be reached by the intellect alone or fully actualized and perfected by understanding (alone), (this ‘young man’) replied: ‘You have made me hear an extraordinary secret, and you have unveiled for me a fascinating reality, which I did not hear from any Walī [Friend, one close to God] before you! Nor have I ever seen anyone for whom these realities were perfected and completed as they have been for you. Even though they are known to Me and inscribed in My Essence, as I shall make clear to you through the raising of My veils and inform you about through My spiritual indications (ishārātī).’

The Opened Heart and the Letter Sād [13]

The next mention of the opening of the heart comes in chapter 2 (Ibn ʿArabi’s elaborate introduction to the spiritual significance of the Arabic letters of the Quran and their cosmogonic roles), in the course of a long poem whose Speaker is at once God [14] and the Arabic letter Sād – the letter whose graphic written form [ص] significantly combines twinned visible representations of both the ‘whole’ (closed, on the right side) and the ‘half-opened’ fully receptive human heart (on the left side of the letter). The immediate visual symbolism of this letter also foreshadows Ibn ʿArabi’s later discussion of the ‘eternal prostration’ (sujūd) of the heart, [15] as this letter’s written image also suggests that of a person viewed from the side, facing to the left, bowing down in the prostration stage of the ritual prayer. The poetic speech of this divine letter could readily serve as the epigraph foreshadowing the rest of this long investigation:

Whatever depth there may be in the sea,
the shore of the Heart is deeper!

And if your Heart should be constricted from (knowing) Me,
then the Heart of someone other than you is even tighter.

Forget the ego-self (nafs) and accept
from a truthful One who speaks truthfully.

And don’t oppose/diverge (from Me), lest you be pained:
for the Heart is suspended from Me.

Open It, and I will release it [iftahu, ashrahu], and do
that activity you’ve already realized!

Until when, O you of the hardened heart,
(will you keep) that heart of yours locked up?!

The Divine ‘Breaths’ and the Receptive Heart [16]

The opening poem that begins the particularly rich and rewarding chapter 35 of the Futūhāt, ‘On the true inner knowing of that person who has actually realized [tahaqqaqa: i.e. experienced and fully understood] the waystation of the divine Breaths and its secret meanings after death,’ [17] is the first of a number of short scattered passages where Ibn ʿArabi begins to evoke more explicitly the distinctive experiential qualities of the opened or liberated heart (sadr mashrūh). It is no coincidence that this first stage in that depiction again focuses on the opened heart’s essential receptivity to whatever is brought at each instant by the ever-renewed divine ‘Breaths’:

The (true) servant is whoever in the state of life was with Him

like his state after the death of the body and the (animal) spirit.

And the servant is whoever, (even) in the state of being veiled from Him,

was a light, like the illumination of the earth by the sun.

For the state of death has no pretense [18] accompanying it

like life has such explicit and visible pretensions

with regard to certain people – while for other people

its pretensions are (known) by hints and intimations.

So if you’ve understood what we were telling you, you’ll uphold in life

a Balance that is above both excess and deficiency,

and you’ll be among those who are purified by His realities,

leaving no way for censure or reproach.

But if you pay no attention to what we’ve said, you’ll come

to the realm of (God’s) Questioning with a heart still unopened!

It is surely worth noting that Ibn ʿArabi actually opens this key chapter devoted to all those forms of divine inspiration (ilhām) and guidance that are the subject of virtually all of the remaining Futūhāt – evoking here all that is brought to the opened heart by the ever-renewed divine Breaths – by insisting on the absolute consonance between those endlessly varied illuminations and the original scriptural formulae of innocent, unreflective ‘faith’ (īmān) in the prophetic revelations: that is to say, of pure faith uncontaminated by the distortions of subsequent reflection and borrowed or interpolated interpretations and explanations:

You must know! – o my brother – that the knowing of the people of God [i.e. the people of ‘opened hearts’], taken from spiritual experience/unveiling (kashf) completely corresponds to the form of innocent faith (īmān). For everything which faith accepts corresponds to the unveiling of the people of God, since it is all reality/Truth (haqq), since the one who reports (the divine revelation), who is the Prophet, is reporting (what he knows directly) on the basis of a sound unveiling. And the essences of those who know God through God [19] have the attributes of every thing whose knowing they also take from God, whatever that may be.

Here again, as we find again and again throughout the Futūhāt, Ibn ʿArabi quickly returns to amplify and develop these initial remarks in ways which make it much clearer that every human being – including those who may think they are relying only on their intellects – in fact is experiencing and then following instants of spiritual ‘unveiling’ in certain moments and situations of their lives:

Now we have just indicated for you a matter of immense significance, so that you might know what the knowledge of those relying on their intellects goes back to, and where their thoughts come from. [I.e. that their sound ideas, thoughts, and intuitions are also in reality the heart’s divine inspirations.] This is so that it might become clear to you that sound knowledge is not (ultimately) given by thinking, nor by those thoughts that the intellectuals have affirmed – and that (in the words of a famous hadith): sound knowing is only ‘(a light) that God casts in the heart’ of the knower. And it is a divine light by which God specially distinguishes whoever He wishes among His servants – (whether they be) angel, messenger, prophet, friend (of God: walī) or the person of faith.

So whoever has no unveiling (through what the divine ‘Breaths’ bring to fill the opened heart) has no real knowing!


The Healer of Hearts [20]

One of the most characteristic unifying dimensions of the Futūhāt is the way that Ibn ʿArabi constantly moves back and forth, within every chapter, between a focus on the particular perspectives and concerns of ordinary spiritual seekers, and scattered corresponding reminders of the salvific perspective and roles of the awliyāʾ Allāh, of the immense pleroma of spiritual instruments and personalities who, both from this world [21] and from beyond, play their indispensable roles at every stage of each individual’s ongoing drama of spiritual growth, development and gradual transformation. Thus it should come as no surprise that the Shaykh’s first explicit allusion to God’s activity as the ‘Healer of hearts‘ (9:14; 10:57), in the opening poem of chapter 36, pointedly directs our attention toward all those who fulfill and manifest this divine Intention:

Everyone who brings life to his reality

and heals (the heart) from the sickness of the veils:

That one is Jesus – for us,

there cannot be any doubt about that!

… So His spiritual intention (himma) flows secretly throughout the world,

among the Arabs and everyone else:

Through it their souls are brought to life,

and through it the misfortunes are taken away.

As we shall see, perhaps the most significant phrase here, in terms of Ibn ʿArabi’s later development of the theme of the ‘opening heart,’ is his prefiguration of the ultimate divine mystery: that secret, ‘hidden flowing’ (sarā, from the same root as isrāʾ) of God’s transforming Lovingmercy and Compassion – the cosmic creative Breath of the All-Compassionate – that can only be grasped through the necessarily painful human dramas that eventually make possible the ‘opening’ of each constricted and overburdened heart.


‘Compulsion’ Necessarily Preceding the Heart’s Opening [22]

The following discussion comes from Ibn ʿArabi’s chapter built around the Prophet’s famous intimation – at what was certainly outwardly the most devastating and hopeless moment of his entire calling, when he had lost his wife and the uncle who was his strongest political support in Mecca – that ‘I am surely finding/experiencing the Breath of the All-Merciful….’: a decisive subtle experience of illuminating grace that closely preceded the providential arrival of his first tiny band of future supporters (ansār) from the distant oasis settlement of Yathrib. What Ibn ʿArabi says in this short section, for each reader, necessarily requires a lifetime’s experience of ‘translation’ into those particular corresponding realities and transforming moments of Grace that are needed to bring this intensely compressed metaphysical summary to life:

Now you must know that the people embodying this spiritual station are all those, among the people of God, whose state was that of those who were (first) engulfed and surrounded by the Names of divine Domination and Compulsion, [23] throughout the entirety of His world, from its loftiest to its lowest (realms). So that they are turning to (the most intense and sincere) beseeching and yearning for the Names of divine Lovingmercy and Compassion. Then the Name ‘The All-Compassionate’ (al-rahmān)… reveals itself to them and the divine Determination freely bestows the gift of that (divine Lovingmercy) upon them.

In this way, the effects of all the Names of (divine) Compulsion are erased from them, so that the place (of their heart) is expanded to (receive the breaths of the All-Compassionate). Thus their heart is opened up, the divine Breath circulates (through it), and the Spirit of Life travels secretly through it.

It is typical of Ibn ʿArabi’s approach that he immediately follows his intensely compressed evocation of this culminating spiritual illumination with an equally vivid warning about the all-too-familiar practical dangers of ‘pretense’ and self-delusion in this spiritual domain:

So whoever has this spiritual state and really knows it by direct experience (‘tasting’) within their self is among the adepts of this spiritual station.

But don’t delude yourself! For every human being knows his or her own inner state, and it is of no use to you at all to present yourself to the people as having a spiritual level that you don’t actually possess. So now I have given you this cautionary advice and explained this to you according to the path of the ‘Folk (of God)’. [24] So don’t be among the ignorant ones (15:99) regarding what we have informed you about regarding this! And worship-and-serve your Lord until there comes to you the Certainty (of this opening of the Heart) (3:5).


‘Karmic’ Dimensions of the Heart’s Suffering and Atonement

Significantly enough, Ibn ʿArabi’s first discussion of the opening of the heart in his immense chapter 69 (‘on our inner knowing of the secret mysteries of the ritual prayer’) comes up in connection with the repeated invocation of the divine Names ‘The All-Compassionate, the All-Merciful‘ (ar-Rahmān ar-Rahīm), during the recitation of the Fātiha (the opening Sura that recurs throughout each cycle of the daily ritual prayers). [25] What is striking here is the Shaykh’s first pointed reminder that most of the people reciting these formulae have only an illusory and dangerously deficient notion of the actual divine realities (and their manifestations) underlying those central divine Names – a point that he develops at much greater length only a few lines later in this same chapter (in the following long citation here). Ibn ʿArabi is elaborating here a well-known ‘divine saying’ in which God replies to the servant’s recitation of these particular Names in prayer with the phrase: ‘My servant was praising Me!

But, the Shaykh immediately adds:

He didn’t say just what it was that the servant was praising Him for! And this is because the ordinary person only recognizes as divine ‘Compassion’ for him whatever happens to match up to his (immediate egoistic) aims (of his carnal nafs) – even if that (supposed act of Mercy) actually harms him, or doesn’t correspond to his (true) nature, or even if it contains (the seeds of) his tormenting punishment! [26]

But the true spiritual Knower (ʿārif) is not like that. For surely the divine Compassion and Lovingmercy may come to the servant in an abhorrent form, such as the (necessity) for the sick person of drinking or eating disgusting or foul-smelling medicine. But the healing in that is hidden.

The broader cosmic and human significance of this observation for the opening of the heart is soon carefully outlined, a short while later, [27] in the course of Ibn ʿArabi’s explanation of the deeper experiential meanings, for the true Knower, of the same long divine Saying (hadīth qudsī) describing how God participates in and responds secretly to each stage of the servant’s recitation of the Fātiha. Here he begins by asking ‘What is really intended’ by the verse (1:4) Ruler of the Day of Judgment (mālik yawm al-dīn)? And why is that verse of Judgment immediately preceded by the repeated evocation (1:1 and 1:3) of God as ‘the All-Compassionate, the All-Merciful (al-rahmān ar-rahīm)’? Ordinarily, of course, most people tend to project this reality of God’s ultimate Right Judgment (dīn) and infinite Compassion into an imagined, distant eschatological future. The heart of Ibn ʿArabi’s teaching on this question is condensed in the following passages, which deserve the closest possible attention and reflection on their manifestations in every area of our daily life:

But whenever the Knower says ‘Ruler of the Day of Right-Judgment,’ he does not restrict that ‘Day of Right-Judgment’ to the other life (al-ākhira). For he sees that the All-Merciful and the All-Compassionate are not separated from the Ruler of the Day of Judgment, since that ‘Day’ (of each soul’s eschatological Return) is only an attribute of both of those (intrinsically divine Realities). For the Recompense [28] (of divine Judgment) is in both this lower life (dunyā) and the other.

And that is why He manifested what He prescribed regarding the upholding of the divine sanctions (against wrongdoing): to make manifest the corruption on the dry land and the sea, through what the hands (= actions) of people acquire (i.e. bring upon themselves) – so that He might cause them to taste some of what they have done, in order that they might return! (30:41). For this (wider karmic process flowing from the proportionate consequences of all our deeds) is itself the essential reality (ʿayn) of the Recompense! So the Day of this lower life is also a Day of Recompense, and (for the Knower) God is (truly and visibly) the Ruler of the Day of Right-Judgment.

Hence the true Knower sees that the atonements/reparations/expiations [29] are secretly flowing [30] throughout this lower world. So the fully human being (insān), in the abode of this lower life, is not exempt from that which [31] constricts his heart (sadr) and causes him pain, [32] both of the senses and of the intelligence/spirit (ʿaql) – not even (from such apparently trivial things as) the bite of a flea or stumbling and tripping.

But those pains are bounded and limited in time, while God’s Lovingmercy – may He be exalted! – is not limited in time. For His Lovingmercy encompasses every thing (58:26). So some of That (divine Love and Compassion) is attained and manifested by way of His freely bestowed Grace (imtinān), in which the source of (our) partaking in that (infinite Lovingmercy) is His pure Grace (not anything ‘merited’ or deserved). While some of that (manifest Lovingmercy) occurs by way of divine Self-obligation, (as) in His saying: ‘Your Lordly Sustainer (rabb) has written (ordained) upon Himself Lovingmercy‘ (6:54); and in His saying (to Moses and his seventy companions): ‘Then I shall write/ordain It…‘ (7:156).

So the (ordinary) people are taking (all their experiences they attribute to that divine rahma) as a strict recompense, while (in fact) it comes upon some of the responsible (mukallaf) creatures (simply) through (God’s) freely bestowed Grace, however (undeserving) they may be. So understand this!

Therefore every pain in this life and the other life is an expiation/atonement for certain restricted, time-limited things (inner or outer ‘actions’) that have already happened. And that (resulting pain) is a recompense for whoever is pained by it, whether they are young or old – on the condition that they strive to understand [33] (the expiating meaning/purpose/context of) that pain, not by means of simply feeling that pain without actually understanding it! For no one really grasps/perceives this particular perception except for the person to whom that (inner purpose) is unveiled.

In the remainder of this fundamental passage, it rapidly becomes clear that Ibn ʿArabi is actually referring more pointedly to the successive stages and unfolding of every individual human being’s relative spiritual ‘infancy’ and gradual spiritual maturation.

Hence the (sick) infant doesn’t really understand (the deeper meaning) of its pain, although it does feel it. Except that the infant’s father and mother, and others like them, whether they love the infant or not, are themselves pained and seek to understand that pain, because of the ills [34] which they see besetting that infant. So that pain itself becomes an expiation/atonement, for those who do understand that pain.

Therefore when the person who does understand (the meaning and purpose of) that (suffering) increases their loving-compassion (tarahhum) for the person who is in pain, then the one who (understands and empathizes) becomes rewarded [35] through their own expiation/atonement. This is because (as the Arabic proverb puts it): ‘Every moist heart [36] is a (divine) reward.’ Indeed every heart is moist, because it is the home of our blood; and blood is warm and moist, the natural principle of Life.

Now as for the (spiritual) ‘youth’: if they seek to understand (the spiritual cause of) their being pained, and seek to turn away from and strictly avoid the immediate causes that necessitated that pain, then that person will have an atonement/expiation, through that act (of transforming understanding and repentance), for their own previous actions which gave rise to pain in others – whether that other be an animal or another individual of their own species. And whether that (pain) be (caused by) their refusing something their mother or father had asked them to do; or whether it be due to their refusing to do something someone else asked of them, [37] so that the person who asked them is pained because that young person failed to fulfill their request. [38]

So (in that latter case), if that young person is feeling pain, that pain appears in them as an atonement corresponding to the pain which they caused to that person who had once requested (something from them), by refusing to fulfill what that person had implored of them. Or that young person (being pained) may have harmed another animal, such as throwing rocks at a dog, or killing a flea or a louse, or stepping on an ant and killing it, or whatever else they may have done, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

For the secret/mystery (sirr) of this matter is strange and marvelous (ʿajīb), flowing secretly through (all) the existent things – so much so that the human being may be pained and their heart (sadr) constricted by the very existence of clouds! [39]

So (that pain of every state of the heart’s constriction is) an atonement for things one has done, whether one has forgotten them or actually knows what they are.

All of this is directly seen by the people of unveiling, as the (ongoing, universally present) verification/realization (tahqīq) of His saying (1:4): Ruler of the Day of Right-Judgment.


The Perpetual ‘Prostration of the Heart’ of the Perfected awliyāʾ

The final discussion of the opening of the heart in the long chapter on our inner knowing of the spiritual mysteries of the ritual prayer [40] refers specifically to the heart’s extraordinary opening in the very highest of the Friends of God (the awliyāʾ Allāh), a state which might seem impossibly distant from our own daily struggles and moments of realization. But Ibn ʿArabi’s careful discussion in this section of the different interactions between the heart, the ego-self (nafs), and the satanic promptings of the carnal nafs [41] helps us to recognize and discover as well those actions and inner tendencies – most often deeply unconscious – that can contribute to the closing and constriction of the heart.

The standard legal topic that serves as the initial occasion for this spiritual lesson is the question whether one is obligated to perform an act of ritual prayer and prostration (and in what direction) every time one might hear the Quran being recited. Ibn ʿArabi’s tentative practical response to that purely external legal question is ‘no.’ But with characteristic directness, he immediately and sharply contrasts that external judgment to the fully obligatory and ongoing ‘prostration of the heart’ – and especially to the station of the most open-hearted of the divine Friends, whose hearts are perpetually in prostration, [42] since they are always fully aware of, and necessarily responding to, the divine Presence (‘Book’, Quran, etc.) as encountered in every aspect of life and creation:

Now the deeper spiritual lesson (iʿtibār) contained in this topic is that prostration is obligatory for the heart. For once the heart has prostrated itself (i.e. fully opened to God), it will never ever rise up (in pride and self-obsession), unlike the prostration of our face (in the ritual prayer).

Once it happened that (the famous early Sufi teacher) Sahl al-Tustari, at the very beginning of his entrance into this Path, saw that his heart had prostrated itself. He expected it to rise up again, but it didn’t rise, so he began to be confused and concerned. Then he continued to ask all the masters of the Path about his spiritual experience, but he didn’t find anyone who really understood his experience.

… Then someone told him that there was a respected shaykh in Abadan, and that he might find what he was looking for by asking him about this. So he traveled to Abadan because of this experience, and when he entered and greeted that shaykh, he said to him: ‘O dear master, does the heart prostrate itself?’ And the shaykh said to him: ‘Until eternity!’ Thus he found the cure (for his question), and he remained there serving that teacher.

Now the very axis and center-point of this Path turns on this prostration of the heart. So whenever a realized human being attains to the direct eyewitnessing of this, that person has reached (spiritual) perfection – and likewise with their spiritual understanding/awareness (maʿrifa) and protection (from sinning), so that the devil no longer has any way to (influence) them.

To summarize, Ibn ʿArabi continues by distinguishing the partially ‘protected’ state of these fully realized saints – who still continue to perceive the temptations and inclinations of their carnal nafs/shaytān – from the specially complete spiritual ‘immunity’ unique to the prophets and rare divine messengers, whose ‘satan’ (in the words of the famous Prophetic hadith that Ibn ʿArabi quotes here) [43] has become so fully surrendered to God that they do not even perceive its distracting promptings.

For the walī is protected from whatever that satan desires of him, when he casts into the heart of the walī whatever (prompting) God may wish of him. [44] So the walī turns around away from it/him, by turning toward that aspect that pleases God. Thus he attains through that (regular overcoming of temptation) a spiritual station with God that is absolutely prodigious! Indeed were Iblis (the archetypal tempter) not so enthusiastic and determined to bring about disobedience (to God) – [hence immediately rushing off to work on another victim] – that he doesn’t return to that walī a second time, then he would notice that what he was bringing the walī, in order to distance him from God, was actually increasing him in blessedness and proximity to God.

Ibn ʿArabi goes on to explain that a few of the trickiest and slyest devils do manage to influence some of the saints – though not those of the highest order, to whom he turns in just a moment – by ‘encouraging them to do acts of obedience that keep them from performing even higher acts of obedience.’

But if the walī is upon clear guidance from his Lord [45] regarding that, then he (knows and) does what is preferable. However, the devil is unable to penetrate/deflect the walī‘s knowing of the divine Self-manifestation in any way at all….

This situation is contrary (Ibn ʿArabi continues) to the case of those whose (supposed) knowledge of God comes from intellectual thought and reasoning. Because the satan casts into such a person’s heart doubts regarding his arguments, in order to confuse him and send him back to the first instance of his thinking, so that he will die in ignorance of his Lord….

All of this does not apply to any one of God’s Friends (awliyāʾ) except for those whose heart prostrates itself before God. For the satan only withdraws from the human being who is in a state of prostration both outwardly and inwardly. So if the heart of the walī isn’t bowing down, then he isn’t divinely protected.

Now this is an extremely subtle topic in the Path of the people of God, and it only happens to rare individuals (afrād) whose being He specially strengthens. They are the ones who are (truly) upon a clear guidance from their Lord [and a witness from Him follows it] (11:17), (following) His Self-manifestation (tajalli) to them. So what follows that clear guidance for the justly balanced servant, is a (divine) witness (shāhid) – which is precisely the prostration of their heart…


Finding the ‘Key’ to the Heart: the universality of Lovingmercy [46]

Ibn ʿArabi begins this section in his lengthy chapter 72, ‘on true understanding of the inner mysteries of the Hajj,’ by contrasting the famous hadith (or Sufi saying) that ‘God’s House/Temple (bayt Allāh) is the heart of His servant, the person of faith’ with the many Quranic verses describing the divine Throne as ‘the standing-place of the All-Compassionate‘ (mustawā al-Rahmān). [47] The poignant contrast of our very different degrees of realized awareness of these two supposedly equivalent all-encompassing divine Names (Allāh and al-Rahmān) provides another occasion for highlighting the centrality of suffering and the soul’s ineluctable search for understanding of its causes as the transformational ‘key’ to lastingly opening the divine House of the illumined heart:

For the difference in level between the heart and the (divine) Throne is like that between the Name ‘God’ (Allāh) and the Name ‘the All-Compassionate.’ For although (the Quran says): [Say: ‘Call upon God or call upon the All-Compassionate.] Whichever (Name) you all call upon, His are the Most-Beautiful Names‘ (17:110), still no one denies (the reality of) God – although they do deny (the reality of) the All-Compassionate. Hence [whenever it is said to them ‘bow down to worship the All-Compassionate,‘] they object: ‘What is ‘the All-Compassionate?‘ (25:60).

So the (manifest universe as the) place of witnessing ‘God-hood’ (ulūha) is (apparently at first) more encompassing, because of everyone’s affirming/observing that, since that place includes both (painful) testing/hardship (balāʾ) and well-being (ʿāfiyya): both of them are found/existing in the world, so that no one denies either of them.

But the place of witnessing (all-encompassing divine) ‘Compassion and Lovingmercy‘ (rahmāniyya) is only known by those who are the objects of that Lovingmercy (marhūm) through faith. And no one denies that but those who are excluded (mahrūmūn: from faith) – only without their being aware that they are excluded. This is because the quality of Lovingmercy only contains well-being and absolute Good. But God is truly/personally known through (directly experienced) ‘states’ (Allāh maʿrūf bi-l-hāl). So the All-Compassionate is (likewise) denied because of a state (i.e. our lack of realized awareness of the full extent of God’s Compassion and Lovingmercy).

Therefore when it is said to them: ‘…whichever (Name) you all call upon, His are the Most-Beautiful Names‘ (17:110), the people of testing/hardship [48] acknowledge that claim (only) out of outward social conformity (taqlīd) to what God has described, from ‘behind the veil‘ (42:51) of their testing and hardship. [49]

So understand this! For I have pointed you toward matters which, if you practice and follow them, then a divine knowing will become manifest to you which none but God can measure. For surely the Knower (ʿārif) who knows God to the extent that we have mentioned, knowing Him through direct experience (dhawq), is rare and precious today!


The Heart of the Matter: ‘Repentance’ and Spiritual Discernment [50]

Tawba – ‘repentance’ or literally ‘turning around’ (either toward God, or by God, in the Quran) – is the opening stage of the spiritual Path of realization in virtually every classical Sufi work. This includes the widely read spiritual handbook of the Risāla of al-Qushayri that Ibn ʿArabi took as the starting point and overall framework for his metaphysical discussion of all the spiritual virtues of the Path in the long second section of the Futūhāt (chapters 74–189): the fasl al-muʿāmalāt. The title of this section is a technical term traditionally dealing primarily, in the books of hadith and fiqh, with the proper ‘social interrelations’ between the human servant and other creatures, a social perspective that is still fairly prominent even in Qushayri’s classic Sufi discussion of the succession of spiritual stations. But Ibn ʿArabi’s constant subject here is instead a very special sort of muʿāmalāt: it is entirely devoted – like much of the remainder of the Futūhāt, in fact – to the heart’s interrelations with God, and particularly highlights the ways those interactions, no matter where and how they outwardly begin, always end up in a heightened realization and appreciation of the divine ‘Presence’ and Reality (al-Haqq) revealed in each of those forms of encounter. It should be no surprise, then, that the first words of this opening chapter and the fascinating section it inaugurates turn our attention immediately to the fundamental practical underpinnings of every lasting opening of the heart:

Iʿtirāf, for every realized seeker (muhaqqiq), is the (true) place of turning:

and through it the true God (al-ilāh al-Haqq) opens up his heart.

God is pleased with the one who disagrees (with His command), just as

God is pleased with the one who agrees with His command.

How great it/He is, that His Aim is (always) attained –

especially if you truly know His secret!

Through the reality of His Grace, the one who disagrees attains

what he attains: the one of whose rank you’ve been ignorant!

One could devote a long essay to exploring the meanings and contexts assumed in the first line of this opening poem. Its key opening term, iʿtirāf, immediately recalls Ibn ʿArabi’s pointed emphasis, earlier in chapter 69, that the actual effective transformation of the heart’s struggling pain and suffering into wisdom and compassion depends essentially on seeking – and eventually finding – inspired understanding (taʿaqqul) of the underlying opportunities and the divine aims embodied in that particular transforming experience. Accordingly, iʿtirāf – ordinarily translated as acknowledgement, recognition or even confession – is an intensive and reflexive Arabic form of the same recurrent Arabic root (ʿ-r-f) that one constantly encounters in almost every chapter title of the Futūhāt, since each chapter is devoted to a distinctive form of maʿrifa, of immediate, personal knowing [51] and recognition. As such, it might be more literally translated as ‘intensive, unavoidable self-knowing’ – a qualification that immediately distinguishes this profound spiritual state and transformed perspective from a great deal of what is ordinarily imagined to be ‘conversion’ or ‘repentance.’ The deeper, metaphysical and divine grounds of that S/self-knowing, which are already familiar to every serious student of the Shaykh’s thought, are carefully summarized in the next three paradoxical verses of this opening poem. However, given the length of this chapter 74, which is entirely devoted to unfolding the meanings of those poetic lines, the continuation of that discussion must await another occasion.


Reproduced from the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society, Volume 51, 2012.


[1] Or ‘heart,’ as we have usually translated the Arabic sadr, for reasons explained in the opening sections below. The Arabic idiom ‘opening up the chest,’ as an expression for experiencing great relief and solace, corresponds in part to such familiar English idioms as ‘getting a weight off one’s chest,’ ‘light-heartedness,’ and the like.

[2] The Fasl al-Maʿārif (on ‘Forms of Spiritual Knowing/Awareness’) include the first 73 chapters of the Futūhāt. Like several earlier published essays, our study here carefully follows Ibn ʿArabi’s own development of a key theme throughout this long opening section (roughly one-quarter of the entire book). All page and volume references below are to Osman Yahya’s critical edition (which includes the entire Fasl al-Maʿārif), unless otherwise indicated. This is the first of six expanded Ibn ʿArabi Society annual symposium lectures (Oxford, 2009) to be included in the book Elevations: Insight and Realization in Ibn ʿArabi’s ‘Meccan Illuminations’ (forthcoming).

[3] For the qalb (used some 139 times in the Quran, see The Reflective Heart (Fons Vitae, 2005), especially chapters 2 and 3. In many passages of the Quran, sadr is used side-by-side and virtually synonymously with qalb within the same verse.

[4] These related terms – often hierarchically differentiated in later Sufi commentaries on these different aspects of the deepest human ‘self’ – would include sirr (3 times in the Quran), fuʾād (16 times), the Biblical cognate lubb (16 times) and dozens of occurrences of the word nafs (‘self’ or ‘soul’).

[5] On a more practical spiritual level, his discussions of this topic in this study of the Futūhāt below are closely tied to verse 3:154, mentioning God’s ‘testing’ of human hearts.

[6] See the same formulaic words at 3:119, 154; 11:5; 31:23; 35:38; 39:7; 42:24; 57:6; 64:4; 67:13; and closely similar expressions at 40:19; 3:29; 27:74; 28:69; 29:20.

[7] Although the usual meaning of this sharh/inshirāh (‘opening up’) of the chest refers idiomatically to the resulting ‘lightening’ and relief of the heart, the actual Arabic words here cannot help but evoke at the same time – in a society daily familiar with the butchering of animals – the vividly bloody violence and inherent painfulness of the underlying physical or surgical image.

[8] Some of the most frequent Quranic terms expressing this distinctively human opposition to the divine Will and Peace (salām) involve forms of the Arabic roots for ‘denying’ (ankara), ‘ungratefully rejecting’ or ‘covering over’ (kafara), ‘scornfully refusing’ (ʿabā) or ‘defiantly disobeying’ (ʿasā).

[9] This notion of divine ‘testing’ or ‘trial’ (ibtilāʾ) is richly developed in multiple verses (38 times) which emphasize that this process extends to all of our experience, including particularly life’s many ‘good/beautiful tests’ (e.g., balāʾ hasan, at Q.8:17) that seem outwardly or initially painless and even pleasant.

[10] From Ibn ʿArabi’s long opening ‘Introduction’ (Muqaddima) to the Futūhāt, O. Yahya edition (hereafter cited as OY), vol. I, p. 147.

[11] ‘How to Study the Futūhāt: Ibn ʿArabī’s Own Advice,’ pp. 73–89 in Muhyiddin Ibn ʿArabī: A Commemorative Volume, ed. S. Hirtenstein and M. Tiernan (Shaftesbury/ Rockport, 1993).

[12] Translated sections below are from chapter 1 (OY I, 221–2).

[13] From chapter 2 (OY I, 315).

[14] Among other things, the Arabic letters of revelation also correspond, in their cosmological symbolic dimension, to the creative, theophanic role of the infinite divine ‘Names’ or Attributes. Thus a few lines later (OY I, 315, lines 14–15) the same speaking letter confirms that:

‘I am Being in My Essence, and that being which is fully realized is Mine –
without any restriction, since My Knowledge is, in reality, absolute!’

[15] See the translated selections below from chapter 69 on the ritual prayer: OY VII, 439–44.

[16] Translated selections from chapter 35 (OY III, 333).

[17] ‘Death’ here refers of course to the key stages of each person’s spiritual rebirth and illumination, as in the many famous hadith (‘Die before you die’; ‘people are asleep, but when they die they awaken’; and so on) which are understood in that sense throughout the Futūhāt.

[18] Daʿwā (and related forms of the same Arabic root), in the sense often criticized by Ibn ʿArabi and throughout various writings of the entire Sufi tradition (e.g., in the ghazals of Hafiz), has the particular meaning of our inwardly and automatically, most often unconsciously ‘complaining,’ criticizing and vehemently arguing (as a kind of ‘litigant’ in court) against God’s Will, together with the underlying psychological reality of pretentious ‘self-divinization’ (iddiʿāʾ) that this deeply rooted perspective presupposes.

[19] Literally, ‘those who know God or the Truly Real (al-Haqq) – in their perception of all of creation – with and through God’: this is a common expression of Ibn ʿArabi for referring to the highest level of the ‘true Knowers’ (ʿurafāʾ).

[20] Chapter 36 (OY III, 356).

[21] As in the poem opening the previous chapter, where the evocation of the personal state of the true servant with an opened heart is immediately followed by their description as:

‘…whoever, (even) in the state of being veiled from Him,
was a light, like the illumination of the earth by the sun!’

[22] Chapter 49 (OY IV, 213–14).

[23] Jabarūt: while this Arabic root is usually understood (as translated here) in reference to the dimensions of divine necessity, compulsion and domination, and even more generally to what are normally identified as the Names of divine ‘Majesty’ (jalāl), contrasted with the Names of Beauty (jamāl), it is worth noting – especially in the context of Ibn ʿArabi’s particularly comprehensive and wholistic perspective at this point – that the same Arabic root (j-b-r) has the meaning of healing, restoring to health, curing and setting a broken bone.

[24] Al-qawm: this is the mysterious, specially missioned group of the ‘Friends of God’ (awliyāʾ), described at 5:54: those accomplished, divinely sent spiritual guides in every age ‘whom (God) will bring’ in these later times, of whom it is said ‘He loves them, and they love Him…’

[25] Chapter 69 (OY VI, 284) for the following discussion.

[26] Shiqāʾ: an intentionally eschatological Quranic term, whose depths already in our this-worldly experience will become much clearer in the following translated section from the same chapter.

[27] Chapter 69 (OY VI, 287–9).

[28] In the Quran, this same eschatological term (jazāʾ) is carefully applied to all forms of the divine Recompense, for both good and bad human actions.

[29] Kaffārāt: the root meaning of this term (cognate with the Hebrew) refers to what is paid for the redemption and freeing of slaves or captives. From that it was then extended to the legal notion (shared in other regional cultures) of paying for or otherwise ‘redeeming’ other religious obligations one is unable to fulfill, such as freeing a slave if one is unable to complete the required fast of Ramadan. Or in the elaborate Quranic discussion (at 5:90), fulfilling one of a variety of options (feeding the poor, clothing them, fasting, or freeing a slave) when one is unable to carry out an oath.

[30] Here Ibn ʿArabi applies to this cosmic karmic process of ‘spiritual causality’ and balance the same root of ‘journeying by night’ or invisibly (sarā) that is traditionally applied (17:1) to the Prophet’s ‘Night-Journey’ (isrāʾ). (We have added the emphases in bold type here and in the following section.)

[31] Or: ‘that divine Command (ʿamr) which…’

[32] ʿAlam here is a specifically eschatological term from the Quran, referring to the ‘Fires’ experienced by souls dwelling in jahannam.

[33] Ibn ʿArabi here employs the intensive self-reflexive form (taʿaqqala) of the verb for the quintessentially human activity of profoundly reflecting on the actual meaning and intent of the divine ‘signs’ (āyāt) constituting our inner and outward experience – a spiritual activity and virtue which is passionately commanded (and whose frequent lack is even more vociferously criticized) in almost fifty memorable Quranic verses.

[34] Literally, ‘diseases’ (amrād), a term that Ibn ʿArabi commonly uses to refer to our spiritual illnesses: the context of this passage strongly suggests that in reality the role of the divine Friends (awliyāʾ Allāh) is comparable to that of each person’s true spiritual ‘parents.’

[35] Here Ibn ʿArabi uses the Quranic word for the expanding consequences of a good deed (ajr), not the earlier, more automatic (and equally positive or negative) ‘recompense’ (jazāʾ).

[36] Or ‘feeling of compassion and sympathy’: literally, ‘every moist liver,’ since the liver was usually understood as the seat of human emotions in the traditional Galenic physiology of Ibn ʿArabi’s time.

[37] Islamic ethics normally distinguishes between our duties toward God (haqq Allāh, literally ‘rights of God’) and our duties toward all other creatures, including but not limited to human beings (haqq al-nās). Although this passage ostensibly refers to the latter category, the implicit symbolism (here of the soul’s ‘mother and father’) can easily extend these illustrations to apply to our duties toward God.

[38] The particular language used here suggests that the ‘requesting’ person is a poor and needy beggar. Much more importantly, the language and universal situation described here is strongly reminiscent of the famous ‘divine saying’ (echoing Matthew 24) that Ibn ʿArabi elsewhere calls the ‘hadith of Gehenna’: where God confronts a confidently self-righteous soul at the Last Day and reproachfully reminds him that ‘I was sick and you didn’t visit Me; hungry and you didn’t feed Me; thirsty, and you did not give Me to drink…’ and so on.

[39] Note the richness of this symbolic illustration, since ‘clouds’ in Ibn ʿArabi’s own hot, largely desertic context would suggest two immense goods: both much-needed shade and all the symbolism of the ‘Water’ of divine Compassion and Grace. In a number of other famous hadith (see the translated selection of hadith on the ‘vision of God’ at the center of The Reflective Heart), such ‘clouds’ actually symbolize all the distractions and attachments standing between the divine ‘sun’ and its moon-like theophanies reflected in the unclouded human heart.

[40] Chapter 69 on the inner meanings/mysteries of ritual prayer (OY VII, 439–44).

[41] Symbolized in the figure of each soul’s personal ‘shaytān,’ a familiar Quranic expression, since shaytān (like ‘devil’ in English) is used there in the plural: as in ‘…satans among the people and the jinn,‘ at 6:122.

[42] See Ibn ʿArabi’s corresponding intimation of the symbolic image of this ‘prostration of the heart’ in the visual form of the Arabic letter sād, in our earlier short selection from chapter 2 above.

[43] Aslama shaytānī: ‘My satan has surrendered (to God).’

[44] The unambiguous assertion here of the strict subordination of such satanic (or ‘nafsic’) promptings to God’s Will strongly underlines their necessary and multiple roles in human beings’ spiritual education and growth.

[45] Q.6:57; 11:17, 28, 63; 35:40; 47:14; this expression is one of Ibn ʿArabi’s favorite symbols for the special state of illumination and divine proximity characterizing the Friends of God and the highest stations of spiritual inspiration and guidance.

[46] Chapter 72 (OY X, 63).

[47] See, for example, verses 7:54; 10:3; 13:2; 20:5; 25:59; 32:4; 57:4.

[48] Balāʾ: as already noted, the Quran stresses that many of the situational ‘tests’ or spiritual learning opportunities that together constitute our earthly life frequently seem to us – at least initially and superficially – beautiful and good (balāʾ hasan, at Q.8:17).

[49] For a fuller discussion of the different types of theophany and degrees of spiritual perception and understanding conveyed by this complex verse, see Ibn ʿArabi’s explanation of its meanings in The Reflective Heart, chapter 4.

[50] Chapter 74 (OY XIII, 269–99).

[51] In the sense of the famous corresponding hadith: ‘Whoever truly knows (ʿarafa) their self, knows their Lord.’