Articles and Translations

The Paths to God

Souad Hakim

Souad Hakim has taught Philosophy at the Lebanese University of Beirut, and Islamic thought and Sufism at Saint Joseph University in Beirut. She is internationally recognised for her many studies and translations of the work of Ibn 'Arabi and she lectures worldwide.

Among her published works is al-Mu'jam al-sufi : al-hikmat fi hudud al-kalimat (Beirut, 1981), a unique concordance of Sufi terminology, illustrated with many passages from Ibn 'Arabi's works.


Articles by Souad Hakim

Ibn Arabi’s Twofold Perception of Woman – Woman as Human Being and Cosmic Principle

The Way of Walaya

Unity of Being in Ibn Arabi – A Humanist Perspective

The Spirit and the Son of the Spirit: A Reading of Jesus (Isa) According to Ibn Arabi

The Paths to God: A Journey through the Spiritual Experience of Ibn Arabi and His Writings

Invocation and Illumination according to Ibn ‘Arabī (pdf)


“The Paths to God” is a phrase which carries within it a paradox because, firstly, it gives the reader the impression that God (praise be to Him) is far away, absent, or even the expectation that the seeker (sālik) travels the path to arrive at the Holy Threshold. However, according to the scriptures, God (praise be to Him) is close to His servants – He is with them wherever they are; [2] He never turns away from them, not even for the blink of an eye. He loves to be known. He created the creatures for this Love, so that they might know Him. [3] In truth, He is the Seeker in the one who reaches out to Him (praise be to Him), and He hastens towards the one who walks towards Him. [4]

This begs the question as to why the Sufi seeks a way to reach God (praise be to Him), all the while being certain that God is with him and close to him. In reply to this question, we can say that the Sufi is completely convinced of the divine proximity which is shared by everyone. Ibn ʿArabī says about this: ‘The Real (God) is in a permanent state of communion (waṣl) with creation, and because of this He is a divinity’; [5] however, the Sufi asks God (praise be to Him) to grant him a personal proximity and to favour him amongst His servants with His love and His attention, so as to join together two proximities: ‘the proximity of God with him’ and ‘his proximity to God’. At the same time, the Sufi knows well that the veil which prevents him from seeing the divine communal proximity is placed over his ‘inner eye’, that is to say, that the veil is tied to human nature; if not, the divine light would dazzle and nothing would be able to conceal It. This is why the Way is a necessary passage for the traveller, so he may sharpen his inner eye and thus witness the reality of the divine proximity just as it is.

The phrase ‘the Paths to God’, the title of this paper, carries within it a second paradox, for it could suggest that there are ready-made paths with known stages, available to travellers; thus each person preparing for this journey would only have to choose but one of them. In reality, the Sufi masters – Ibn ʿArabī amongst them – are almost unanimous in stating that no two people ever follow the same path. Thus, there are indeed as many paths as there are travellers, whether they arrive at their destination or not. The potential paths which have not yet been travelled are as numerous as there are creatures. Each traveller may learn from the experience of others, from the unveiling of their cognitive experiences and their mark on the world, which may inspire him. Furthermore, he may benefit from their stories about the nature of the path, or even use some of the same methods that they have mentioned – for example, retreats, spiritual exercises, spiritual ‘combat’ or struggles and ritual invocation. But in the end, he will find a way which is his own, a path constructed from the dialectic between his journeying and the attraction which draws him on – that is to say, between human effort and divine gift.

After these two preliminary remarks, two facts are confirmed: (1) the Paths to God (praise be to Him) are innumerable, and (2) each of these paths is unique. It is accepted by most people that it would be impossible to repeat the experience of someone who, for example, has amassed a fortune, since time is constantly flowing and circumstances never repeat themselves. The same is the case in the spirit world, where it is impossible to reproduce the experience of such people as Rābiʿa al-ʿAdawiyya or al-Ḥallāj, or to follow the same path as that of someone who has arrived at the destination, because divine manifestations are continuous and they are renewed with every breath, without ever repeating themselves. Ibn ʿArabī reports that Abū Ṭālib al-Makkī, the author of Qūt al-qulūb, and other Sufi masters, have said that: ‘God (praise be to Him) scarcely ever manifests Himself in the same form to two people, or in the same form twice.’ [6]

In the light of these two facts, the texts of Ibn ʿArabī constitute an important and distinguished corpus: for in his works he describes his spiritual experience and recounts his own path, which no one else has ever shared with him. He tells us, referring to his own cognitive experience, that the Paths to God are countless. He speaks of their stages, the clues or methods and actions appropriate to them.

This article is divided into seven parts, and we hope that it will provide a comprehensive, wide-reaching approach to the subject.


I. Necessary Knowledge before Embarking upon the ‘Journey’

This knowledge is intended for the one who has chosen, of their own accord, to polish the mirror of his heart and to lift the veil covering his deepest nature so as to prepare to receive the gifts of his Lord. As for the one who is enamoured with love of God, we must point out that he is travelling another path. It is God who rescues him from himself, by means of a sudden and unexpected jadhba (attraction). He has no need of preparatory knowledge, for God (glory be to Him), takes care of his initiation. [7]

What the seeker (murīd) should know can be summarised in several points, of which the five most important are:

(1) The aspirant needs to be assured that in the first place it is God (glory be to Him) who wants him and calls to him; that it is God who caused his determination to search for Him, even if the aspirant does not feel this at the beginning of his journey.

(2) He needs to know that the way is both easy and arduous, and that the difficulties will only be resolved through perseverance, by knocking at the door until it opens and the aspirant gets what he desires, and that it be permitted for him to receive inspiration. The aspirant needs to be warned not to succumb to lethargy or ennui, nor to complain about the deferral of the divine gifts; nor should he doubt himself, nor despair of his ability to accede to the highest station. Sometimes there are those who give up, without realising that they were about to reach their destination.

(3) He needs to have the conviction that the foundation of this Way stems from the power of his own will to demand closeness with God and communion with Him. Indeed, the action of the human being’s will consists in attaching itself to the object of its quest: the stronger the attachment, the more the human being will be capable of obtaining what he seeks (this is true for both material and spiritual attachments). The moment the aspirant’s willpower weakens or becomes attached to another object, his development ceases or he may even deviate from the Way.

(4) He needs to be aware of the necessity to arm himself with knowledge before turning to action; to begin by mastering the sciences of Islam (the Qurʾan, the Prophetic traditions, the sunna and theological doctrine) before carrying out retreats, and to undertake practices and spiritual efforts, and all this in order to be able to distinguish between good inspirations, which come from his Lord, and the false ones. If the aspirant does not start off with these knowledges, he has need of a spiritual teacher to guide him and interpret that which he receives, and to regulate his conduct throughout the course of his journey.

(5) He must also understand that the traveller on the path needs his two feet in order to progress and cover the long distances. These ‘feet’ are the two aspects of the human being – the exoteric and the esoteric. [8]

We find an explanation of these exoteric and esoteric aspects of man in Ibn ʿArabī’s interpretation of the verse: ‘And it is He who placed the stars for you, so that by them you will guide yourself across the darkness of the earth and the sea’ (Q.6:97), whereby the earth symbolises our outer behaviour through physical action, and the sea symbolises our inner behaviour through psychic action. [9] In this, we see the reason why Ibn ʿArabī advises the seeker to persevere in accomplishing nine tasks in his attempt to find a master, four concerning the exoteric and five the esoteric. [10] (We will speak further on this when we discuss the subject of the master.)


II. The Anticipated Goal: the Liberation of the Spirit

Ibn ʿArabī uses different names when he refers to the human spirit, amongst which are: ‘the blown-into spirit’, ‘the governing soul’, ‘the interior of man’, ‘the lordly subtlety’ and ‘the vicegerent’. We use all these words to name a single referent, but starting out from different perspectives. In this way, the reader or listener is warned that when we refer to ‘the spirit’ when quoting Ibn ʿArabī, his text may use the word ‘soul’.

To expand on this subject, we can say that the spirit is that precious part of the human responsible for managing their existence (having the function of the divine vicegerency within human beings). If both the intellectual capacities and psychic tendencies obey the spirit, this latter frees itself and regains its primordial strength, allowing the person to receive the divine sciences, thereby binding itself to God.

As there are numerous questions pertaining to ‘the human spirit’, we will only address those which are useful to the aspirant to traverse the different stages of the Way. For a start, when is the spirit born within the human being? What is its significance? Where is it located in the human being? What role does it play in the connection between the human being and God (glory be to Him)?

We will respond to these questions by referring to the writings of Ibn ʿArabī. The natural forming of the foetus (its body) begins in the mother’s womb, from the first moments of pregnancy. Ibn ʿArabī continues by saying that at the beginning of the fourth month this body is ready to receive the breath of the divine spirit. [11] Therefore, the spirit is born four months after the formation of the foetus in the mother’s womb.

This spirit which has been breathed into the foetus is a being born of a father and a mother. Its father is the divine spirit, [12] the breath of the Merciful, whose nature is light. Its mother is the body, which is formed from the elements and whose nature is darkness. It is in this way that the spirit, which lies within every single being, is open to both light and darkness; it has an aspect which faces towards its father, that is towards the light, and it can connect to this light as long as there is no obstacle; on the other hand, it has an aspect which faces towards its mother, that is towards the darkness, and it is with this face that it will be able to accomplish the mission with which it has been entrusted. This task consists of managing an ‘elemental, natural existence’, [13] namely the human being in its entirety, with all its material and spiritual components.

This ‘human spirit’ has a specific location in the human body, namely the physical heart (the castle of the spirit). Thus, when layers of rust accumulate on the surface of the heart, this rust hides the world of light from the spirit which resides there. Similarly, under the influence of passion (hawā) the soul is enthralled and rendered powerless by its desires, and no longer obeys the spirit. Thus an internal conflict arises, affecting the purity of the spirit and depriving it of the possibility of binding itself to God (glory be to Him).

For this reason, freeing the soul from the grip of passion and polishing the layers of rust from the heart are the means whereby the Sufi follows the path in order to set free the spirit (as expressed by the second birth of the spirit). All this so that he may receive the divine knowledge and connect with the supra-sensible world. This may be achieved through a variety of means, of which retreat, ritual invocation, spiritual exercises and spiritual struggle are the most important.


III. Four Actions to Free the Spirit and Lead to Cognitive Emanations

Cognitive emanations (fuyūḍāt ʿilmiyya) do not take only one form but can appear as: a divine discourse (khiṭāb ilāhī); a revelation (waḥy) without new laws; a conversation (muḥādatha); a discussion (mukālama); a divine dictation (imlāʾ); a sincere inspiration (khāṭir ṣādiq); a vision during sleep (ruʾya manāmiyya); a breath blown into the heart (nafth al-rawʿ); an unveiling (kashf); a testimony (ishhād); a visible sign (irāʾa); a night journey (isrāʾ); an established ascension (naṣb miʿrāj)…

In addition, not everyone perceives these emanations through the same senses; some may perceive them through their hearing, others through sight or smell. Similarly, human beings can receive these cognitive emanations without having to move from where they are, or by being carried to other places and worlds in order to see the signs of their Lord, witness the next world and increase their knowledge.

My purpose in presenting these varied means of perception is to warn aspirants, so that the traveller might not be veiled by one particular form which he may have come across in a book or have heard about through someone quoting a saint, and which he would then seek to acquire. On the contrary, he must strive – by means of retreats, spiritual exercises and spiritual struggles – to arrive at a state of pure acceptance (the heart has become a blank sheet, tabula rasa) ready to receive the appropriate image, which will be imprinted upon his heart. The person will then be capable of receiving the divine gift destined for him in the most suitable way, and through one of his senses in particular.

Within dozens of texts in Ibn ʿArabī’s various works, four actions are described which lead to inspired knowledge: retreats, spiritual exercises, spiritual efforts and ritual invocation (adhkār). We would add that three of these – retreat, spiritual exercise and spiritual effort – are concerned with freeing the spirit from the grip of nature, while the fourth – the repetition of ritual invocations – is the food of the spirit, which further nourishes itself by means of praise and other forms of invocation.

Sufi masters such as al-Kalābādhī, in his book K. al-Taʿarruf lī madhhab ahl al-taṣawwuf; Ibn ʿAlī al-Sarrāj al-Ṭūsī in his K. al-Lumaʿ; al-Qushayrī, the author of al-Risāla; Abu Ṭālib al-Makkī, author of Qūt al-qulūb; and al-Ghazālī in his Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn, agree almost unanimously that spiritual exercises and spiritual efforts are necessary to acquire the sciences of the heart, which is why these actions precede spiritual knowledge and are the cause of it – and Ibn ʿArabī approves of their claims in numerous passages.

Despite this near unanimous agreement, Ibn ʿArabī’s personal experience was different. In fact, he underwent his first retreat when he was but a teenager – between the ages of fifteen and sixteen – and he came out of it gifted with inspired knowledge even before undertaking any spiritual exercises and efforts. Without doubt, this represents one of a few rare cases in Sufi history. In spite of this, Ibn ʿArabī did not abandon these exercises and spiritual efforts because he was well aware of their cognitive importance. He busied himself with the work and began travelling in search of guides and spiritual masters. In this context, he said: ‘My spiritual opening preceded my ritual exercises, and that is a dangerous station.’ [14]

Below, we give a brief overview of the four actions, combining ritual invocation with that of retreat, and spiritual efforts with spiritual exercises, in this way following their order of appearance in the works of Ibn ʿArabī.


1. Retreat and Ritual Invocation

It is impossible to grasp Ibn ʿArabī’s concept of retreat in one paragraph, with all its conditions, its principles, its times and its variety of types. It would need a whole article dedicated simply to this subject, therefore I will only mention four points which would be useful to the traveller, showing the importance of retreat not only for seekers of divine science and knowledge but, indeed, for all human beings:

(a) Following the prophetic model in retreat

The essence of retreat is to rid the heart of everything except God, [15] in order to stay in His presence (glory be to Him) without any other presence, be it angelic or human. [16] Retreat will only be realised effectively when all the voices, coming from no matter which universe, are silenced, just as all inner voices emanating from an idea or thought are also reduced to silence, so that the servant serenely addresses his Lord through the secret deposited in his heart, this as a means to open a conversation.

(b) Combining ritual invocation and retreat

During a retreat at a distance from the world, the person in retreat could well be left to his own devices and exposed to all sorts of ideas which could obstruct his mind. For this reason, the retreat would not offer ‘the secrets of the universe, which emanate from the Lord’s Bounty’ unless the heart of the one in retreat is occupied by ritual invocation, in such a way that the invocation goes beyond the simple pronunciation of formulae and penetrates the servant’s body. If the person in retreat sits in utter destitution on the threshold of his Lord, He will grant him knowledge and divine secrets, thereby through this process eclipsing any theologian on earth and any philosopher endowed with intellect or proof. [17]

(c) The absolute retreat

It is surprising that a great Muslim scholar such as Ibn ʿArabī would address himself to a category of people who do not believe in God, and another group who deny all religion, so as to ask them to practise retreat (by following the conditions he gives directions for) simply because it is cognitively very beneficial. Such a reason could well be what would prompt the person who undertakes it to believe in God and in the truth of religions. Ibn ʿArabī mentions that, to his knowledge, no one before him had ever spoken of this kind of retreat. [18]

(d) The retreat for intellectuals

In spite of Ibn ʿArabī’s insistence on the fact that the person in retreat, according to the prophetic model, has to divest himself of ‘the interferences of the intellect’, [19] he is addressing himself here to those for whom knowledge stems from their thoughts (for example, the sages and philosophers). The advice he gives is for them to do a retreat, which will purify their intellects, in order to clarify their judgement in the quest for knowledge. [20]

In conclusion, we can round off Ibn ʿArabī’s explanation of retreat by saying that it is beneficial for everyone, even if it is only for one hour a day or one day a month that a person can withdraw from the world and isolate himself, getting away from the noises and images produced incessantly by the world. In this way, he can contemplate the depth of his heart, connect with his innate nature, reassess his priorities, resolve outstanding issues and face up to his wounds and fears. Emerging from his retreat, he becomes stronger day by day. And there is another retreat which consists of isolating oneself with one’s Lord while practising ritual invocations and begging for the mercy of his Lord. By doing this day after day this action will afford him a deep and peaceful serenity and he will be filled with love for every human being and every creature.


2. Exercises and Spiritual Efforts

Exercises and spiritual efforts represent the most effective means for the Sufi, the traveller on the Way. Indeed, they are the most sure path to free his or her spirit from the grip of its physical nature and the moods, the ‘humours’ of the body. This is why Ibn ʿArabī advises the traveller to start practising these exercises and spiritual struggles before embarking on a retreat, to ensure that there may be no interferences during the retreat, nor that it be affected by any weakness of character or body.

(a) Spiritual exercises that help to discipline the characteristic of the soul’s nature

Ibn ʿArabī differs from other Sufi masters who characterise the aim of the spiritual exercises imposed on the soul as distancing it (the soul) from its physical nature, for he considers that to be impossible. He affirms that ‘…spiritual exercises are discipline for the character, for it is not possible for the soul to distance itself from its physical nature. Since this is not realisable, God has revealed [lawful] channels suitable for the soul’s nature. Restricting the soul to the channels which have been designated for it by its Creator constitutes the very essence of its spiritual education.’ [21]

Since the human soul is difficult to control, it must be educated by spiritual exercises so that it may be at the service of its Lord. The educated soul as defined by Ibn ʿArabī is that which has become like a plot of land, supporting both the pious and the sinner. [22] He considers that spiritual exercises can strip the soul of its blameworthy attributes, because predisposition or habit is a fifth nature which affects the original nature. All this is based upon his own experience. [23]

(b) The body’s struggle through strenuous acts of worship

These are the struggles encountered by the physical body, whether they are to do with hunger, or concern acts of worship such as deferring prayer, or fasting, or performing pilgrimage, or journeying with a view to ridding oneself of the grip of the elemental nature. [24] In all acts of worship, whatever they may be, if the servant does not experience difficulties it is not considered a spiritual struggle, for the attribute of struggle is pain and hardship.

Ibn ʿArabī warns us against error in the spiritual struggle, for the objective is not to get rid of the body but of its darkness, insisting that the body is a partner in the Sufi experience. This is why he blamed al-Ḥallāj who, in his opinion, renounced his body, relinquishing it to those who wanted his death.

When the body is purified of its darkness, it is radiant and follows the spirit; the mirror of the heart is polished and is ready to receive the divine knowledges. Ibn ʿArabī says: ‘When you clean the mirror of your heart through exercises and spiritual endeavours until it is polished, clearing out the build-up of rust, so that, by means of this mirror, you turn towards the world and its images, all the images of the world will be imprinted therein.’ [25]


3. The Benefits of Practising Spiritual Exercises and Spiritual Struggle for all Human Beings

Ibn ʿArabī surprises us in several texts, not only because of the extent of his knowledge, but also because of his balanced approach towards those whose cognitive tendencies (that is, the philosophers) diverge from his own, by recognising the extent of their knowledge. Passages which describe how the faithful Muhammadian – symbolised by Ibn ʿArabī – and the Muslim philosopher ascend together through the seven heavens, are to be found within the pages of the Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya. Both of them are thus well aware of that which is given by the higher spirits and the praises proclaimed by the angels, due to the purity of their spirit and their having freed it from the grip of its physical nature. [26]

Ibn ʿArabī elaborates on the subject of communication between people. He affirms that spiritual exercises and efforts purify the spirit, even the spirits of the people who do not believe in a revealed religion. Indeed, God (glory be to Him) created the means so that these people would use them in their quest for knowledge and their means of livelihood. Ibn ʿArabī says, ‘When someone who does not believe in the revealed religions shares with us in the exercises and spiritual efforts and works to clear his soul from the grip of its physical nature, he thereby establishes a connection with the pure spirits.’ [27] However, the products of their efforts are only spiritual, while those of the believers are spiritual and divine.


IV. When God Loves one of His Servants

Ibn ʿArabī uses a single Hadith Qudsi as a basis to bring out the fact that the man who approaches God (glory be to Him) by carrying out the religious obligations will attain to the love of God, for he is performing the actions which God loves most of all from amongst those actions which help the servant draw closer in their approach to God (praise be to Him). Furthermore, having accomplished his religious obligations, the man then begins to practise supererogatory worship, seeking to achieve divine proximity through this worship, and to receive the divine love and the fruits of this love that God bestows on the one He loves.

The Prophet (peace be upon him) said:

God (praise be to Him) said: ‘He who shows hostility to one of My Saints, on him I declare war. My servant does not cease to approach Me with anything more agreeable than the accomplishment of what I have prescribed for him; and My servant does not cease to approach Me by supererogatory works until I love him. And when I love him, I become his hearing by which he hears, his vision by which he sees, his hand with which he grasps, and his foot with which he walks…’. [28]

Ibn ʿArabī states that the one who approaches God (glory be to Him) by means of religious obligations attains ‘the station of closeness of obligations’, and God (to Him be praise) loves him. When He loves him, the servant thus becomes the hearing, the sight and the hand of the Real through which He hears and sees and manifests His strength. God (to Him be glory) said: ‘In truth, those who take an oath of allegiance to you are but making an allegiance to God; the hand of God is over their hands’ (Q.48:10). According to Ibn ʿArabī, this Qurʾanic verse shows that God (praise be to Him) gives His oath of allegiance by means of their hands and it is they who are the ones who give. [29]

As for the one who approaches God (glory be to Him) by supererogatory works, after having completed his obligations, he attains the ‘station of the closeness of supererogatory works’; he is loved by God (to Him be praise), and when God loves him, God becomes the hearing, the sight and the hand of the servant (this is the opposite of obligatory closeness).

The first closeness or proximity is superior to the second, for it is God (to Him be glory) who wills through the will of the beloved, and eases for him his hold on the world. [30]

As for the second closeness, it is the servant who wills, through the will of God. [31] By divine will, the range of all his senses increases, and he will see from a very great distance, his vision being unobstructed by obscurity: he will be able to hear and see a black ant walking on a black rock on a dark night. We can find in Ibn ʿArabī’s writings numerous references to men having undergone spiritual experiences, all of which represent examples of the beloved ones in the above-mentioned Hadith Qudsi. Such examples include a man from Seville (Abū ʿAbd Allāh al-Sharafī) who transported himself/teleported (ṣāḥib khaṭwa), [32] crossing great distances in a single step; another man from the east of Seville (Abū al-Ḥajjāj al-Shubarbulī) walked on water. [33] There are also men endowed with a supernatural sense of smell, so much so that they can recognise those capable of travelling on the path by their specific smell, ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Jīlānī being one of them. [34]


V. Seeking a Spiritual Master

Concerning the subject of spiritual masters, Ibn ʿArabī’s texts are divided into two categories. The first one relates to Ibn ʿArabī’s personal experience, and the second one to his teachings and his recommendations to those aspirants who have chosen the spiritual path. We will therefore divide our remarks into two parts, thus helping us to present a clear image of the role of the master in Ibn ʿArabī’s life – a role, we must state, which is altogether different from that of the one who acts as the master in the life of aspirants.


1. Ibn ʿArabī and His Masters

The path that Ibn ʿArabī followed is personal, unique and quite exceptional. He entered into spiritual retreat when he was quite young, and in the course of this retreat he experienced a spiritual opening. Ibn ʿArabī says nothing about the nature or extent of this opening, but we deduce from certain scattered phrases that during this retreat the signs of the world and the signs of his being were probably revealed to him. In other words, he saw, in the blinking of an eye, the truths of the universe and the truths of his being. And, in support of this, I refer to the explanation that Ibn ʿArabī gave to the traveller that, in the first place, ‘To the one who is in retreat, the signs of the world are revealed before those of his being, because the world comes first (before the souls); as God said, “We will show them Our signs in the universe”. Then, in the second place, the signs – those seen in the world – are revealed to him in his being.’

So, if – after this spiritual opening – Ibn ʿArabī seeks a master, he does not do so in order to be enlightened about the defects in his soul, for he would have already witnessed its truths. So why did he go in search of masters and travel in order to meet them?

From studying the relationships Ibn ʿArabī had with his masters, and the conversations he had with them that he then recorded in his writings, we can see that he did not ask any initiatory master to take responsibility for his spiritual path, but sought the personal experiences of these masters, knowing full well that each master had his own specialisation, and that it was possible for this to be transmitted.

For example, one such master was a specialist in the way of receiving divine inspiration (wāridāt); another one, in the examination of conscience. Thus the relationship of Ibn ʿArabī with these masters was of the order of an exchange of experience, since each found in the other something which enriched his own experience, nourishing it and allowing it to progress. For this reason, when Ibn ʿArabī mentioned one of his masters he emphasised that, on the one hand, he was his student in a particular and practical domain (exercises and spiritual efforts), and on the other he was his teacher in the domain of ‘visionary’ knowledge. It is from this that we can understand why Ibn ʿArabī frequented several masters, each for a limited time.


2. Ibn ʿArabī Recommends that Seekers Find a Spiritual Master

There are many recommendations from Ibn ʿArabī addressed to the seeker, advising him of the need to find a spiritual master and to entrust him with his spiritual development so that he may reveal the defects of his soul and free him from his subjugation.

The question of the search for a spiritual master has occupied many aspirants and seekers. This is because the number of competent masters is minimal, not only on a regional level but also world-wide. This fact alone makes it necessary for those who wish to set out on a spiritual path to travel in order to find their master. Nevertheless, even once they are united, it may well be that the aspirant cannot live near his master throughout the whole of his initiatory process.

Due to the rarity of such masters and their lack of availability, Ibn ʿArabī insists that the seeker should make the search for a master his priority. That said, since any such quest could be more or less protracted, Ibn ʿArabī advises the seeker not to waste his time, and to therefore work on himself while waiting until he finds a spiritual master. As previously stated, according to some of Ibn ʿArabī’s texts in which he addresses himself to the aspirant, there are nine tasks: four concerning the exoteric aspects and five the esoteric. The four exoteric tasks are hunger, wakefulness, silence and solitude, while the five which concern the esoteric are veracity, abandonment to God, patience, determination and certainty. These nine tasks are the principle virtues of goodness. Ibn ʿArabī says, ‘Follow them until you find a master’. This brings to mind the earlier image of the two feet used by the aspirant to walk on the Way as being both the exoteric and esoteric aspects of the human being.

Ibn ʿArabī warns the aspirant that even if he were to find several masters, he should only give control of his spiritual destiny to a single one, for he cannot submit to two masters at the same time. However, the accompaniment of grace (baraka), without initiation, is available from all masters, but he will not become a great Sufi.


VI. The Divine Attraction (jadhb)

The human being knows by intuition, and by his own experience and his general culture, that there are attractions based on physical laws, such as the pull of gravity towards the earth, and black holes in space. In the same way, there are psychological attractions that encompass every thing which exerts an attraction on human beings, such as money, sex and all kinds of pleasures. Man also knows from his own experience that attraction can be caused by a liking or a tendency – an ardent desire or a love that is born deep down inside. On the other hand, the attraction can come about by an external force towards which he has no resistance; this pushes him from one station to another, or from one state to another.

Let us now consider which path the spiritual traveller has chosen to undertake through his own free will, covering all the stations (maqām) providing the opportunity for spiritual effort so as to attain the divine proximity. Sufis agree that the stages of this path will differ from one traveller to another, depending on the purity of soul of each one, and the disposition of his nature. A priori and in theory, the traveller has decided from the outset to embark on the path by deploying his own efforts until ‘the arrival’. But in reality, when the traveller begins his journey towards God (glory be to Him), God looks upon him with the ‘eye of generosity’ [35] and helps him to pass through the stations by drawing him on with the divine attraction (jadhba), whether this be strong or slight. This quality derives from the divine Compassion. [36]

Most of the time, the divine attraction instils in the heart of the traveller a sweetness, a submission, a tendency to acquire the best character traits and a tendency to go into retreat in order to taste the company of the Real. [37] Thus, he performs these exercises and spiritual exertions without having to experience difficulty.

So the Way then is traced out between, on the one hand, the footsteps of the traveller, providing the human effort and the proof of his will, and on the other hand, the attraction of the divine generosity, which binds the traveller to the object of this search – communion with God. This is accomplished by clearing him of all that goes counter to his search, and in this fashion he rapidly makes his way, without effort, through several stages.

In parallel to these spiritual ways, divided into stations, we also understand from dozens of texts by many Sufi masters the picture of a different Way, consisting to all intents and purposes of a single stage, which is the result of a ‘divine uprooting’ specific to a particular state. The travellers on this Way – who are few – as soon as their hearts are turned towards God (glory be to Him), He snatches them towards Him, without there being either stages or distance: one route of the human spirit towards God (glory be to Him).

If someone protests, not understanding why those who have arrived by means of ‘divine uprooting’ continue to develop their spiritual practices, their retreats, experiences, exercises, struggles, inspirations and revelations, just like all the other travellers, we would answer him thus: This ‘divine uprooting’ was of the utmost importance in their spiritual life: in a single stage they arrived and it is at the very moment when the Sufi was chosen by God to receive a particular state with Him (ḥāl maʿ Allāh). This particular state passed through his body and he was caught and held intimately there. [38] This ‘existential state’ resembles that of a colour which permeates his entire being and confers on him its hue – if it is red, his being would become all red.

From this we can deduce that, to some extent, the whole life of the Sufi after this snatching of his spirit towards his Lord (praise be to Him) changes ‘colour’ according to his state with God. Then all his exercises, inspirations and revelations remain in the same mode of being as his ‘state with God’.

After this, for every person chosen by God (praise be to Him) to receive a particular state that would affect his existence, God reserves for him an exceptional destiny which will never be repeated. It is useful here to compare, based on personal readings, three Sufi ‘poles’ (quṭb) whose texts show clearly that God has given to each one a particular existential state. These three poles are al-Ḥallāj, Junayd and Ibn ʿArabī – and looking at their experiences clarifies the term ‘state with God’ (ḥāl maʿ Allāh) mentioned above.

For example, al-Ḥallāj, as can be seen from his writings, was attracted by God (praise be to Him) through a state of love. As for Junayd, he was pulled by God (praise be to Him) through a state of unification, also described in his texts. And with Ibn ʿArabī we see that God (glory be to Him) extracted him through a state of divine knowledge. For this reason, we note that Ibn ʿArabī mentions in the Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya many hundreds of specific sciences, and confesses to know – almost – everything: from the secrets of numbers and the characters of the letters to the properties of plants and stones. And even more importantly, if he wanted to know something he did not know and which was to happen in the future, he would address himself with total presence of heart to God (praise be to Him), and ask Him to show him this particular knowledge. This is how it unfolded, according to what he told his pupil al-Qūnawī, when he stood in the Green island al-Jazīrat al-khaḍrāʾ (Algeciras) and addressed himself, from the depths of his heart, to God for Him to show him his destiny and the events which he would face until the end of his life. Then God (glory be to Him) showed him all his esoteric and exoteric states. [39]


VII. The ‘Inflowings’ from God (wāridāt)

The divine ‘inflowings’, appropriate to the Sufi are those which happen from God, to Him be praise, upon the heart of His servant, whether this be a knowledge, an action or even a state, which lasts for but a moment before going away, for disappear it must. [40] Each divine inflowing carries within it a usefulness. [41] Hence, the ‘wise men following the Way of the prophets’ prepare their hearts by purifying them, so as to receive the inspirations coming from the highest heavens.

From the very beginning of his spiritual life, Ibn ʿArabī sensed the importance of the divine inspirations, and understood that it is these which form the identity of the Sufi and thus distinguish one saint from another. For this reason, he concerned himself with acquiring, with the help of a master, the basis for being able to best deal with divine inspirations.

It is beneficial here to draw attention to a rather important question within Sufism. With the introduction of a new element, described by Ibn ʿArabī as the ‘divine inflowings’, the spiritual life of the Sufi changes. The path itself acquires a presence, a separate entity, an existence of its own, opening itself up in front of the traveller, and he simply has to advance upon it. The exercises, the spiritual struggles and the retreats, in spite of their importance for sound judgement and devotion, are not ends in themselves: the purpose behind these exercises and struggles is to receive the divine inflowings so as to bind himself to God.



Finally, we can ask ourselves: where will the people of the Way arrive, and what is there at the arrival? And we reply as follows: the travellers are many but those who arrive are few. But even so, we shall follow closely those rare ones who arrive, we shall analyse their texts and become familiar with their specific experiences in terms of the Way.

The beginnings of the journey on the Way demands a willingness, a determination and spiritual vigour (himma). Patience, perseverance and resistance to frustration are necessary when traversing the stages encountered on the Way. When the man has freed his spirit (rūḥ), we tend to think that the earthly journey is over; in fact, this only means that he has safely arrived at the place where he will begin his ascent (through the spirit) towards the Sacred Presence.

This ascension is a different Way altogether: it is that of resistance to temptations. It seems that the traveller undergoes a trial here, made up of all sorts of divine gifts, so that the true goal of his journey is revealed: is he in search of gifts from God or indeed is he seeking God Himself (glory be to Him)?

If he stops at one of the gifts presented to him in the heavens and is satisfied with that, he stays there and his path comes to an end. If, on the contrary, he crosses the seven heavens (through his spirit), and nothing distracts him from his goal, he accedes to the Sacred Presence through the divine secret placed within Him.

In this ‘non-place’, he will receive a divine address, his legacy and the mantle of sainthood (walāya), and he then knows that he has found his place in the sphere of sainthood. He will understand that the path was put in place to conceal the origin of his soul.

Let us continue our journey with those perfect ones amongst human beings, so as to find out if there is a Way after arriving in the Sacred Presence.

Ibn ʿArabī is clear when he informs us that the Way leading to the Real is not straight but circular. Indeed, the circle is the most perfect form. For this reason, the one who arrives (wāṣil), after having known himself and having known his Lord, undergoes a new birth (a second birth). In the same way that he ascended, he will descend, through his spirit, from the Sacred Presence and will head towards the Assembly of Saints. There he will present himself before the Muhammadian Presence in order to receive his role and the tasks related to it. After that he leaves so as to transmit his new experience to all human beings, and to preach the knowledges received by inspiration. He places his spiritual energy – that which affects the universe – at the service of humanity. The traveller embarks upon his ascension by being the ‘son’ of his time, of his place and of his generation. When he comes back, he returns radiant with the lights of sainthood. He will flow just as a river of mercy flows, available at every instant to all human beings, and rise up like a guiding star which shows the way to all those who travel through the universes.


Assistance with the translation by Alan Boorman.

This article first appeared in Volume 59 of the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society (2016).


[1] Presented at the Symposium of the Muhyiddin Ibn ʿArabī Society, St Anne’s College, Oxford, 23–24 May 2015.

[2] God said: ‘And He is with them wherever they are’ (94:4).

[3] According to the Hadith Qudsi: ‘I was a hidden treasure; I wasn’t known. But/Now I loved to be known; so I made a creation to whose beings I made Myself known, so that by Me they knew Me.’ In his work al-Maqāṣid al-ḥasana, al-Sakhāwī says that this is not a hadith attributed to the Prophet, peace be upon him, and no reference, authentic or even weak, is known of it. In Kashf al-khafāʾ, 2/132, al-ʿAjlūnī states that al-Qārī said that the meaning of the hadith is authentic, basing this on the word of God, praise be to Him, who said, ‘I only created the djinns and men that they should adore Me’ (Q.51:56), that is to say so that they know Me, such as explained by Ibn Abbas, may God be pleased with them, and that this Hadith Qudsi occurs often in the words of the Sufis; they have adopted it and base themselves on it.

[4] The Prophet (peace be on him) said: ‘I am according to the opinion that My servant has of Me and I am with him when he invokes Me. If he invokes Me in himself, I invoke him in Myself, and if he invokes Me in an assembly, I mention him in an assembly better than his. And if he approaches Me by a span, I approach him by a cubit; if he approaches Me by a cubit, I approach him by a fathom. And if he comes towards Me walking, I come to him running…’; verified hadith, Sunan al-Tirmidhī 5/581.

[5] Al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya, vol. 2, p. 480 (Beirut: Dar Sader) (hereafter e.g. Fut.II:480).

[6] Fut.I:266.

[7] See Ibn ʿArabī, al-Iṣṭilāḥāt, p. 284, on the difference between the aspirant who gives up his will and the desired one who is drawn in and deprived of his will.

[8] Fut.I:193.

[9] Fut.I:277.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Fut.I:732.

[12] See (…and when I have formed him and blown into him My breath of life, throw yourselves prostrate before him) (Q.15:29).

[13] See al-Tadbīrāt al-ilāhiyya fī iṣlāḥ al-mamlaka al-insāniyya, p. 168.

[14] Fut.I:616.

[15] Fut.I:132.

[16] Fut.I:130.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Fut.I:391.

[19] Fut.I:271.

[20] Fut.I:152.

[21] Fut.II:482.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Fut.II:239.

[24] Fut.II:273.

[25] Fut.II:279.

[26] Fut.II:278.

[27] Fut.I:162.

[28] Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī.

[29] Fut.IV:449.

[30] Fut.II:341.

[31] Fut.IV:24.

[32] Fut.I:206.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Fut.II:392.

[35] Fut.II:12.

[36] Fut.I:511.

[37] Ibid .

[38] Fut.II:507.

[39] Al-Jandī, Sharḥ Fuṣūṣ al-ḥikam, p. 215.

[40] Fut.II:567, and Souad Hakim, al-Muʿjam al-Ṣūfī (al-wārid), Beirut 1981, pp. 1202–3.

[41] Fut.II:566.