Articles and Translations

Theophanies and Lights in the Thought of Ibn ‘Arabi

Osman Yahya

Osman Yahya (1919-1997) was born in Syria. His university education was at al-Azhar University in Cairo, and the Sorbonne and le Centre national de la recherche scientifique in Paris. He was in contact with and studied under such luminary figures as Georges Anawati, Louis Massignon and Henry Corbin. He stayed for many years in Cairo at the Institut Dominicain d' Études Orientales, while he worked on the first critical edition of the Futūḥāt. He died on 4th November 1997 in Aleppo, where he spent the last years of his life. More detailed information is provided in this article by Bakri Aladdin on "In memoriam: Osman Yahia (1919/1997)".

Osman Yahya made two major contributions to modern studies of Ibn 'Arabi:

  • Histoire et classification de l'œuvre d'Ibn Arabi, Institut Français de Damas, Damascus, 1964: A two-volume catalogue of works, manuscripts and printed works relating to Ibn ‘Arabi. Although there had been previous bibliographies, the scale and detail of this study made it the foundation for any future bibliographic work, and for 50 years to only reference work.
  • al-Futūḥāt al-makkīya, al-Hai'a al-Miṣrīya, Cairo (14 volumes, 1972-1992). A critical edition of the Futūḥāt planned as thirty-seven volumes. The first fourteen volumes were prepared and published in Cairo until the Egyptian Government withdrew its support for the project.

Alongside his research for the Histoire et classification, Osman Yahya established the first edition of Hakim Tirmidhi's Khatm al-awliya (with a French translation), as well as a critical edition of Ibn 'Arabi' s Kitab al-tajaliyat (Book of Theophanies). A passage from the Kitab al-tajaliyat has become very well known beyond the realm of scholarly texts after it was quoted by Henry Corbin in Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi - “Listen, O dearly beloved!”. In a note at the end that passage, Corbin says, “The French translation was established by Mr. ‘Osman Yahya, my pupil and now my co-worker at the École des Haute Études... I have changed only a few words, and to simplify the typography, modified his disposition of the lines.”


Articles by Osman Yahya

Theophanies and Lights in the Thought of Ibn Arabi

The Theory of Akbarian Theophanies

Ibn ‘Arabi’s idea of theophanies is closely tied in with his theories on being, knowledge and spiritual experience. More precisely, this idea forms the basis of his description of existence, knowledge and liberating experience. For the Master, existence, like knowledge and liberating experience, is only a reflection of theophanic effects and particular aspects of their universal manifestation. From this we already have an intimation of the importance of theophany and its major role in the thought of Ibn ‘Arabi on three levels: existence, knowledge and the liberating experience of the human being.


Theophanies, Sources of Existence

Theophanies in the realm of being are manifestations of the divine Truth with regard to infinite perfection and eternal glory. God-Truth in Himself is an inexhaustible source of riches and splendors: He is the “Hidden Treasure” which longs to express itself and be known. God-Truth is Beauty and the property of beauty is to shine forth. He is Love whose nature is to give of itself. The divine theophanies are essentially the outpouring of His Beauty, His Perfection and His Love which are expressed in the immense theatre of the universe. The Existential Theophanies taken as a whole comprise three levels which the Master calls hadarât (Presences or Dignities).

First level: Pure Essence. These are called existential theophanies of the Essence.

Second level: the Attributes. These are the existential theophanies of divine qualities.

Third level: Acts. These are the active existential theophanies since the nature of God or the divinity as such is Essence, Attributes and Action, personified by His Divine Names.

The existential theophanies of the divine Essence are the determinations of God in Himself, for Himself in His Essence transcending all manifestation and form. The world from which these theophanies and their radiance spring is that of Unity (‘alam al-ahadiyya). In this universe, the divine Essence appears as beyond all description, name or qualification. It is the world of pure Essence considered as Mystery of Mysteries and Secret of Secrets from which the theophanies of the Essence originate, the mirror in which the absolute existential Reality is reflected.

The existential theophanies of divine Attributes are the determinations of God in Himself for Himself under the aspect of His intrinsic Names and Attributes. The world specified for this type of theophany is the Unicity (‘alam al-wahda) of the Essence with Its Attributes. God-Truth manifests both in His Essence and in His intrinsic Perfection after his concealment as “Hidden Treasure

This appearance arises by the mediation of what Ibn ‘Arabi calls the most holy emanation (al-fayd al-aqdas). In this particular world of theophanies the beings destined to incarnate appear in the form of immutable realities.

The existential theophanies of divine Action are the extrinsic effects of divine Power in the manifest world. The world where these theophanies are exercised and revealed is called by the Master ‘alam al-Wahdâniyya, the Unity in its three aspects: Essence-Attribute-Action. It appears by the way of the holy emanation (al-fayd al-Muqaddas): a universe where God manifests Himself in the form of eternal realities encompassing species and individuals, sensible forms and abstractions.

God-Truth alone is, then, the principle and source of existential theophanies. He contains the theophanies in their many dimensions. As we have just seen, the theophanies revolve around the Essence, Attributes and Actions. They do not come from nothing nor do they return to nothing. From the fact that God is at the centre of the existential theophanies, the source of their manifestations and many dimensions, they are nothing but the manifestation of the Absolute and cannot be dissociated from Him. They come from God-Truth and return to Him.

Thus the existential theophanies are manifested in the three levels of Being: ahadiyya (Unity) – wahda (Unicity) – wahdâniyya (Unification), according to the modes of Essence, Attributes and intrinsic and extrinsic Action. That, in substance, is Ibn ‘Arabi’s theory of theophanies. It is different on the one hand from the idea of emanation (al-fayd) cherished by the philosophers, and on the other hand from the idea of creation advocated by the Moslem theologians (mutakalimun), even if certain aspects and conclusions coincide.

The fundamental difference which distinguishes Ibn ‘Arabi from the philosophers is the Master’s notion of the Unity of Being in its creative act, which is at the base of all existential manifestations, whilst the philosophers favour the notion of the multiplicity of Being. Ibn ‘Arabi considers Being as an unconditional absolute (mawjûd-la-bi-shart) beyond all duality or multiplicity. According to him, the multiplicity which we observe at the sensible or spiritual levels does not affect the Unity of Being in its creative act. It simply represents its various degrees and many states. The existential theophanies, therefore, only constitute a facet of the Absolute-God who is One in His existence and many in His manifestations. One sees how the philosophical theory of emanation goes against that of Ibn ‘Arabi. For the philosophers, Absolute Being is subject to a negative condition (mawjûd-bi-shart-la) from which the possibility of the multiplicity of being within the manifest follows, at every level, spiritual or material.

The major difference which divides the Akbarian idea of theophany and the theologians’ notion of creation, hangs on the understanding of the existential multiplicity as a divine action outside of Being in its Essence and its Attributes on the part of the theologians, who do not distinguish between Essence, Attributes or Action within the divinity. Ibn ‘Arabi, on the contrary, conceives of the many aspects of creation as an effect of the existential theophany itself in act in the manifold modes of manifest existence. The theophanies of Act, like those of Attributes and Essence, revolve in the divine sphere: they are the expressions of Its absolute Perfection. For the Master, nothing is external to the divinity and nothing can exist outside of the Absolute.


Theophanies, Sources of Knowledge and Spiritual Realisation

As we have seen, the Akbarian theory of theophanies is not limited to the sphere of existence, it is related to knowledge and spiritual realisation. The divine theophanies are the origin of sensible and spiritual knowledge, the mainspring of its evolution and the domain of its diffusion. They are the eternal archetypes which, by lighting up the mirror of the heart and the intellect, give rise to experiential knowledge and Certainty. In reality, the links between being and knowledge are sufficiently strong to provoke the expansion and evolution of consciousness because the most subtle part of the human being is his intelligence and his heart: they are the quintessence of man himself, the heart is the receptacle of gnosis and the intellect is the centre of knowledge. This is how Ibn ‘Arabi defines theophany as the basis of knowledge: “It is what reveals itself to the heart in the lights of the Invisible.” This definition enlightens us on the nature of knowledge, its source, its means, and its object. Knowledge is the unveiling of the deep reality of things, its essence, before the gnostic. This unveiling works symbolically by the opening of the heart under the influence of the divine theophanies which project their lights into the heart.

This allows us to grasp the nature of knowledge and the relationship established between being and knowledge, principally at the level of the human condition. It thus renders credible the thorny questions which one asks oneself, such as:

– What is the intermediary between being and knowledge?

– How is knowledge transformed into being in the heart of the gnostic?

– How does being in turn become knowledge in the heart of the gnostic?

Light is the link which binds being to knowledge. It is the crucible of the final transmutation. It is through It and in It that the nature of knowledge is transformed into being in the heart of the gnostic. Just as the nature of being in turn is transformed into knowledge, and it is then that the most subtle mysteries are revealed in the inmost depths of his heart and the reality of things appears to him in their archetypal form.

When Light shines on the mirror of the heart it is gradually diffused in the same manner as the irradiation of the existential theophanies. Each particle of Light projects spiritual knowledge according to distinctive nuances of colour. One may thus differentiate between what the Master calls:

(a) nûr al-anwâr (The Light of lights). This comes from the essential theophanies of absolute Truth. Ibn ‘Arabi sometimes calls it “the dazzling irradiations” which provoke the annihilation of the being and cannot be perceived by him except in the most intimate secret of his heart (as-sirr). This secret of the heart is an uncreated substance, of celestial origin, by which man gains access to the superior angelic and divine world. It is the theophany of the Light of lights which reveals the absolute reality in its most transcendent aspect, and causes certainty at its highest degree to be born in the heart. Ibn ‘Arabi calls this form of knowledge haqq-al-yaqîn (absolute Certainty), and it is the fruit of direct experience.

(b) anwâr al-ma’âni (The Light of the intellect). By this term, Ibn ‘Arabi refers to the intellectual knowledge transmitted by these theophanies at the moment of their irradiation in the heart. This light is the way of access to the meaning of Truth as it is grasped by human intelligence. Thanks to it man sees the reality of existence in the world of Unicity with the eye of the heart. He also perceives the link which unites all things to God. Thanks to the irradiation of the theophany of the Light of the intellect in the heart, Certainty is established (‘ayn al-yaqîn) – the Certainty which comes from direct vision.

(c) anwâr al-tabi’â (The Light of nature). This refers to the learning and knowledge which human reason acquires under the influence of the existential theophanies in Act. It is here that the gnostic and the philosopher concur in the acquisition of learning. At this level, they join together in studying the exterior phenomena of existence: their appearance, their evolution and their disappearance. But the gnostic perceives them as an effect of the celestial lights propelled on to the stage of outward existence whilst at the same time detecting beneath the surface the shadow of the superior Being. Thus, in the world of multiplicity the sublime signs of the world of Unification appear to him. Philosophers and learned men only see isolated earthly phenomena. The influence of the theophanies of the lights of nature produces in the heart a form of knowledge called ilm al-yaqîn (Certainty arising from knowledge).

The world of Unity is the domain where the existential theophanies of the divine Essence are manifested; the world of Unicity is the domain of theophanies of divine Attributes; the world of Unification is the domain where the divine theophanies occur, extrinsically and intrinsically, in Act. Knowledge and illumination at the level of being follow the same process.

The theophanies of the Essence at the level of being are comparable to the theophanies of the Light of lights at the level of knowledge. The theophanies of Attributes at the level of being are comparable to the theophanies of the Light of the intellect at the level of learning. The theophanies of Acts at the level of the being relate to the theophanies of nature at the level of knowledge of matter. There is therefore a perfect concordance between the three forms of unity of the theophanies of Being and those of knowledge.


Theophanies and Liberating Experience

For Ibn ‘Arabi, the theophanies of lights are the sources of gnosis and knowledge, and transmit learning and knowledge through the organs of man’s senses in the form of waves of light. As we have already said, lights are the principles of existence in Ibn ‘Arabi’s perception and it is due to the effect of their emanation and diffusion that things move and come to life. Knowledge and existence are joined together in human consciousness at the level of the spiritual plane and man’s ultimate destiny. For man light is, therefore, principle, means and end. It is at the origin of his condition of being for it is an integral part of his constitution and of all elements of life -simple or complex. It is also the channel through which man subsists on the material and spiritual planes. It is both food and drink and the essence of sensible, rational and spiritual knowledge. Lastly, it is the final destiny of man for it is through it that immortality is achieved.

If what we have just explained comes from the truth, it is easy for us to grasp the close links which exist between the notions of theophany and liberating experience. That leads us to examine this particular aspect of Ibn ‘Arabi’s thought, viz. liberating experience which is the pivot of his general theory of divine existential theophany. It is thanks to the divine theophanies that the man on the Way is guided in his quest for perfection through the stages and abodes up to the highest station. The spiritual knowledges which irradiate his being are intangible realities which spring from the source of absolute Truth. They fill his heart with joy and happiness; they arouse in him the taste for perfection and the desire to attain saintliness. They penetrate the whole of his being, his thought, his will, his sensibility, his consciousness, his feelings and his aspirations, transformed into energies of light and fire. Then the man becomes a living witness to purity, saintliness and redemption.

The Stages, Abodes and Stations are the components of the Temple of walâya: human-divine friendship in Islam. They are its composition and meaning. For Ibn ‘Arabi this building material comes from the divine theophanies, whether they manifest on the plane of being or knowledge.

The Stages (al-ahwâl) result from psychological or spiritual influences which affect the man of the Way during his progress towards the God-King. We might mention Ecstasy (wajd), Annihilation (‘istilâm), Happiness (bast), Despondency (qabd), Awakening (sahû) Drunkenness (sukr), etc… They arise like flashes on the horizon, blinding flashes of lightning which straight away disappear. However, these stages are necessary for the liberating experience of man; thanks to them he may distinguish the contingent from the permanent, the ephemeral from the eternal, until there no longer remains in his consciousness anything except that which is destined to endure.

The Abodes (manâzil) are the spiritual places of the divine Sphere. They are the luminous oases of eternal paradise, the palace of Truth. The man of the Way takes refuge there, and rests after the vicissitudes of his quest and his struggle. There he finds the shadow of light, rays of knowledge and the joy of saintliness.

Finally, the Stations (maqâmât) are the topmost foundations of walaya: the moral distinctions and spiritual degrees accorded to the men of the Way. They constitute the stabilising element of liberating experience.

According to Ibn ‘Arabi, al-fanâ’ (extinction) is the apex of the Stages; al-baqâ’ (permanency) the apex of the Abodes; al-yaqîn (certainty) the apex of the Stations. Each one of these manifestations assumes three distinct forms and at the same time is in close and constant relationship with the divine theophanies in their existential and gnostic manifestations.

Al-fanâ’ (extinction) is a sort of mental, yet real, death. The man of the Way experiences it freely; it is the final passage which leads to the summit of the Stages. It liberates man from all contingency outside of his spiritual quest; his ultimate aim is the Truth. Three degrees may be distinguished here: fanâ’ of acts, attributes and essence.

The Sufi fanâ’ in its triple manifestation does not have an exclusively negative effect or action; it is the annihilation of everything contingent, whether this be in the form of action, attribute or essence; more precisely, it is the annihilation of everything that is not God, and God – may His Name be praised – is the supreme object of all good, all beauty. Fanâ’ thus conceived is an internal state which requires from the Sufi a sustained and permanent effort of concentration to break his fetters and take on the demands and calls of truth, by his acts, his moral virtues, his whole being. That implies perfect control of himself: in words, deeds and thoughts. It is at this price that he attains an interior spiritual state where he becomes the pure and clear mirror in which the lights of Truth are reflected in all their splendour.

The state of baqâ’, permanency, is life with God, through God, in God, for God. It is the summit of the mystical Abodes in the waiting for the Beloved. Here there are also three degrees, each one referring to a particular aspect of the divine theophanies as principle of existence and its qualitative evolution: faith – knowledge – grace.

The first aspect of the Sufi permanency is situated at the level of acts. The action of the Sufi is here united with the divine action acquiring its order, harmony and durability. This specific degree of Sufi baqâ’ is the result of the shooting forth of the divine theophany as existential principle and the lights of nature as source of knowledge.

The second aspect of permanency is situated at the level of qualities and attributes. Here human virtues are raised to the level of the divine Attributes, acquiring their perfection, dignity and durability: such that the man’s heart attains to a spiritual abode where it is the pure and clear mirror on which the characteristics of the supreme Creator are engraved. In its turn, the power of acts in the abode of permanence becomes a docile instrument by which the divine plans in the world and within the living person, are realised. This particular form of baqâ’ is a reflection of the divine existential theophanies at the level of the Attributes and Qualities, and the effect of the lights of the intellect as principle of knowledge.

The last degree of baqâ’ is permanency of the essence. In this domain the essence of the servant is raised to the height of the divine Essence in its Unity, Sublimity and Universality. He is totally absorbed by the divine Life. It is through God that he sees, through Him that he hears, through Him that he expresses his will, through Him that he contemplates. This is the most perfect form of Sufi baqâ’, the final stage of the hero’s quest. This particular abode is in its turn acquired by the effect of the theophanies of the Essence on the existential plane and by the effect of the theophanies of Light at the gnostic level.

But in what form does man receive these three degrees of fanâ’? How can he realise his quest for permanency which is the pinnacle of the abodes of heroes? In short, what is the mount which allows the Sufi to realise the state of fanâ’ and baqâ’? By means of divine Love is the Master’s reply. Only Love is capable of guaranteeing us access to the degrees of fanâ’ and baqâ’. Let us hear Ibn ‘Arabi, in his symbolic and poetic language, describe to us the experience of fanâ’ in its various modes and the degrees of baqâ’ in the shadow of Love and the presence of the Beloved, God-Truth:

My Beloved, joy of my eyes
You are me as Myself, there where I am My companion at every moment
– May God be glorified! –
You are my essence
Hand in hand let us enter together into the presence of the only Beloved
Let there be no more distinction between us Becoming One in Reality
Oh, how wonderful a thought
and what subtle blending:
“The transparency of the glass, the purity of its contents become identical causing confusion:
Is it the glass or is it the wine that we see? “
All life in the universe vanishes
Moons are eclipsed, the sun disintegrates, the stars explode.
We are thus thrice annihilated.
Similar to annihilation itself
And we attain to the three degrees of Permanency
Following the example of Permanency itself.

Certainty (al-yaqîn) is the summit of the Stations, as we have already seen. By it the Temple of walâya is fully completed. This is the repository of liberating experience in Islam. In relation to the exoteric religious life Certainty is the sister of religious life in its perfection (ihsân), that is to say the adoration of God – may He be exalted – according to the visionary way; through this channel it is the pillar of Islam in the accomplishment of its external practices, as it is the foundation of faith (imân) in its internal dogma. It is in fact ihsân which gives the external religion its true meaning and the domain of faith its real values.

Certainty (al-yaqîn), like Permanency and Extinction, comprises three degrees. The first degree is referred to by the Master and by current Sufis by the name ‘ilm al-yaqîn (the knowledge of Certainty), which means that Certainty is the result of knowledge. At this degree the object of Certainty is knowledge just as the aim of knowledge is Certainty. Both together are in the soul uniquely, such that Certainty is the first degree of spiritual life and the last of speculative experience. This particular degree of mystical yaqîn is the result of divine theophanies in Act at the level of existence and also the result of theophanies of lights of nature at the gnostic level.

The second degree of yaqîn is what one calls in Sufi terms ‘ayn al-yaqîn (the Eye of Certainty), that is, Certainty as a consequence of contemplation and vision. At this level, the object of Certainty is present in front of the gnostic and is not only a speculative concept. Here knowledge becomes what one calls ‘ilm-hudûrî (Presence of knowledge), and that is the second aspect of Certainty in the spiritual way and in liberating experience. By this kind of knowledge, the man of the Way is distinguished from philosophers and learned men. This particular degree of spiritual Certainty is the result of divine theophanies of Attributes at the level of existence, just as it is the result of theophanies of lights of the intellect at the level of gnosis.

Finally, the last degree of yaqîn is called haqq al-yaqîn (the total reality of Certainty), that is, Certainty as supreme truth. Here, Certainty has a particular colouring: it is the fruit of an all-embracing experience because the object of Certainty is identical to the one who is experiencing it, knowledge being transformed into actual experience and actual experience into knowledge. At this stage, in fact, knowledge is not limited to the intellect, nor to the vision of the one who is contemplating it, it becomes one with the human being. This is the final phase of yaqîn, the apotheosis of the spiritual and intellectual journey. This high degree of Sufi Certainty is the effect of the Emanation of the divine Theophanies in Essence at its existential level and that of the diffusion of the Light of lights (Dazzling Irradiations) at the level of the theophanies of the gnostic.

Translated from the French by Cecilia Twinch.

This article first appeared in Vol. 10 of the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society, 1991, pp. 35–44.