Articles and Translations

Timelessness and Time

Jane Carroll

Jane Carroll is a Senior Research Fellow of the Ibn Arabi Society and is Secretary of the Society in the US. She first studied the works of Ibn Arabi at the Beshara School in Scotland in the 1970s while concurrently studying at the Architectural Association in London with a specific interest in traditional geometry and Islamic architecture. She currently has a design practice in Ojai, California.


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Timelessness and Time


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Timelessness and Time


The title comes from T. S. Eliot – The Dry Salvages from the Four Quartets.

He writes in this passage of our perennial and foolish need to understand the signs of the times and what they may mean for our future:

To explore the womb, or tomb, or dreams: all these are usual

Pastimes and drugs, and features of the press:

And will always be, some of them especially

When there is distress of nations and perplexity

Whether on the shores of Asia, or in the Edgware Road.

Men’s curiosity searches past and future

and clings to that dimension. But to apprehend

the point of intersection of the timeless

With time, is an occupation for the saint.

Ibn ‘Arabi, whose writings never leave the realm of the timeless, was nevertheless born into a religion which reveals itself according to a linear progression in time. Other religions and orders have emphasized cyclical time or the re-appearance in time of the same eternal realities but the story of the people of the Book, the people of the Torah, the Gospels and the Koran, has a beginning, a middle and an end. The cultures, world-view and imaginative presence of the people born into these religions are imbued with this sense of the linear progression of time. Many of the great masterpieces of western art tell this story: Milton and Dante in verse, Chartres Cathedral in stone and glass, Michaelangelo has laid it out on the walls and the ceiling of the Sistine chapel where the whole event is depicted, from the first moment God divided light from darkness, through the old testament prophets to the life of Christ and the inevitable conclusion with the Last Judgement. Ibn ‘Arabi himself has a specific role in time as the Seal of the Mohammedian saints. His appearance at a point in time relative to what came before and what comes after has significance.

What is it the unfolding of this story tells us of who we are now and to what we are invited at this moment? At the intersection of the timelessness with time the past is not behind and the future not ahead, all exists in the moment. What happened to other people in another time and another place happens to us here and now. “The past is not dead,” says William Faulkner, “it is not even past.” So the study of history can become the study of ourselves.

I would like to begin, (with some presumption), with a speculative glance over several thousand years of history in a place closely connected with Ibn ‘Arabi – Anatolia or modern day Turkey – a place in which the teachings of Ibn ‘Arabi took root and brought forth seed of intersection and also, not coincidentally a place of many civilizations and religions whose traces are still clearly seen there. This speculation is to draw out one of an infinity of ways of seeing the progression of time as a progression of more and more expansive revelations or more and more expansive invitations to completion, to see in some way how this could inform us of the era in which we live.

In the centre of Anatolia is the earliest known settled community yet excavated at Chatal Hüyük. We know almost nothing about the people of this place nor their religion but they left powerful ritual objects, now collected in the museum in Ankara, which indicate that when man first settled he created here a holy place – a temple – an area especially designated as sacred space set apart from ordinary affairs of life.

Successive civilizations moved through this area and left their own traces of sacred spaces until Alexander, tutored by Aristotle, foretold his destiny by the oracle of Ammon, forged the historically important link between the west and the east. Provided the cities he conquered submitted to his rule, he, for the most part, left their temples intact and even offered sacrifices to their Gods. Alexander opened up the way for the Roman Empire which followed in his footsteps, assuming many of the sacred spaces and temples which had gone through successive religious identities. ( Those of you who have seen the film “Turning” will be familiar with the idea that the ancient earth mothers of Chatal Hüyük transformed themselves into the Hittite deities, then into the Artemesia of the Greeks and Diana of the Romans). Into this empire, two thousand years ago, the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth spread rapidly and a profound change was brought about in the place. The era of the temple, the space set aside as holy and administered by priests who mediated between man and the Gods gave way to the Christian Ecclesia, or church -the place of gathering of the community. The locus of revelation of the divine moved from the temple, into the community- or “Whenever two or three are gathered in my name”. It was at this time of course that the second temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and the Jewish people began their worship in the synagogue, also a gathering place of the community, without a priest.

Walking now around the great Temple of Didyme, south of Ephesus, which was the location of the famous oracle of Apollo in Greek and Roman times (built on the site of an even earlier temple) you cannot help but experience the magnitude and significance of that place and, at the same time, the sense that nothing of the spirit which manifested there now remains. When, after the Roman Empire had become Christian, the Emperor, known as Julian the Apostate, tried to revive the ancient Gods of Rome he sent a delegate to consult the oracle at Didyme and was given the message “Apollo no longer inhabits these halls. He has retreated into the bowels of the earth.”

So the locus of the revelation spread into the earth and through the community. It also spread from the chosen people of Israel to all who embraced Christ’s teachings and it spread rapidly through the vast empire which had been made ready to receive it.

St. Paul, in his Epistle to the Galatians, the people of present day Ankara, wrote that the covenant which God had made with Abraham and his descendants 1000 years earlier was extended by the prophethood of Jesus to all who followed him:

For as many of you as have been baptised into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew, nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ’s then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

More than a millennium later, after a series of invasions, the new religion of Islam came to this land to whose prophet Mohammed God said “I have made the whole earth a mosque for you.” The physical location for worship became the correctly oriented prostrated form of the believer.

It was to Konya in central Turkey, of course, that the two great poles of Islamic sainthood, Ibn ‘Arabi and Rumi, came in the 13th century, not quite meeting in time, establishing an education in the Unity of Existence which was to be followed by other great Anatolian saints throughout the centuries and which is finding so many students today. Both these men were travelers of course, Ibn ‘Arabi from the far west of the then Muslim world, Rumi from the east. Part of what moved them across the globe were the conditions of the time, warfare, invasions, political intrigue, etc. Their interior knowledge expressed itself through a large range of culture, sensibility and taste which was their experience. A very large place had been made ready for them, prepared to receive what it was they brought. “God knows best where to place his message,” it says in the Koran, and “He who manifests Himself in a form does so only according to the degree of receptivity of that form,” from the chapter of Elias.

The subsequent reception, during the Ottoman Empire, of the teaching of Ibn ‘Arabi by those called the Melâmi is discussed by Victoria Rowe Holbrook in Journal IX of the Society. She describes the intellectual climate of the time as representing a tension between the near eastern learned traditions of Arabic and Greek philosophy and the more eclectic, free wheeling, Turkmen Sufism. Again, this was a large place for a large teaching.

So now we find ourselves at the beginning of the 21st century emerging from one of the most destructive and disturbing periods in human history where old orders were overturned and new ideologies where found to be deadly. What is being prepared? What does this era manifest of the single unique reality?

The rapid span through a particular aspect of human history shows that the clashing of armies and destruction of civilizations are intertwined with what prepares the place for successively expansive revelations. We cannot say they cause the preparation but we cannot say they are separate for it either. The Roman empire must have seemed over-powering and indestructible to most of those living in the first century AD and yet the message of the poor carpenter from Nazareth, so apparently antithetical to the aims of the Empire, found its place there and spread through it rapidly like water in a dry sponge.

At the start of the 21st century a new empire is gaining dominance – not this time created by armies or of a single nationality but the empire of international global capitalism and popular Western culture. This seemingly oppressive and banal force is rapidly destroying traditional cultures and unique sensibilities throughout the world, colonising the appetites and imaginations of most of what it touches. But it does not seem far fetched to suggest that this empire, whatever its own intentions, is laying the ground on which certain ideas are rapidly communicating themselves just as the roads of the Roman Empire allowed the spread of the ideas of Christ at the beginning of the first Christian millennium.

Amongst the chaos, clamour and disorder of the last 100 years certain ideas have emerged, it is not quite clear from where, and become established, seldom in the actions of those in power but in the convictions of an increasingly large range of people. The century which witnessed two world wars also witnessed, in the United Nations declaration of Human Rights, in the work of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and others, in the social movements of the sixties, the establishment of the idea that the individual human being has a value based purely and essentially on their humanity, not their status amongst others, and that this essential humanity is worthy of profound respect. That the conditions of birth, of nationality, religion, race, class, gender etc. should not be allowed to impede a human being reaching their potential has become a common belief. This idea, of course, is not new to the world, but it has penetrated through societies to an extent possibly not seen before and is held by many people now as a core spiritual value, somethingwhich transcends politics andreligion. For instance, many of those who participated in the civil rights movement of the sixties in America describe the experience as a spiritual awakening rather than political or social action and that it was something which seemed to be happening to them, not something which they brought about.

“Know this to be definitely like this” opens the commentary on the Chapter of Jonah in the Fusûs, “that God created this emergence of humankind according to completion in his image… so that the qualities of completion of this totality be manifest in him.” If this emergence of humankind has been created for completion and if there is to come about a universal perspective then it is required, as the first step, that at least in thought it is recognised that the value of another human being and oneself is that which is essential, without condition: that our value does not lie in our attributes because the attributes do not belong to us, they are lent, or assumed. The deep common bond we may be graced to experience is a single reality in multiple manifestations. This is a simple but profound revelation which has the power to change everything.

Another idea running rapidly through this new world, which can appear to be in complete contradiction to the sense of unity between peoples, is that the differences in human beings deserve recognition and respect. Groups not formerly represented in the prevailing culture, government, or education – ethnic minorities, women, gays, native peoples, the disabled, the list goes on – have demanded to be recognised. In its lowest form this descends to the tyranny of political correctness which so infuriates right wing columnists and broadcasters. But it seems something very important is being expressed here which is at the heart of a nascent universal perspective. On the one hand, if the real value of a human being rests only in their essential humanity, not their birth, nationality, race, creed, class, talents or achievements then how they appear is, in essence, always suitable. That is, there is no requirement to become something other than what one is, nothing to transform oneself into, no attributes to acquire. The only requirement is to become properly and completely who it is one is meant to be.

On the other hand, these differences in humans which come about through their unique experiences, cultures, religions, histories, talents, dispositions are intelligences. They are aptitudes for the perception of the One Reality. When they are allowed to be free from relative values and conditioned response and are seen to be unique tastes of the One Reality they become themselves an education and an invitation to a more universal truth.

From the chapter of Jonah in the Fusûs: “One and the same thing may appear differently to the various observers of it. Such is the Self-manifestation of God. Either one may say that God manifests Himself like that or that the Cosmos, being looked at and into, is like God in His Self-manifestation. It is various in the eye of the beholder according to the makeup of that beholder, or it is that the makeup of the beholder is various because of the variety of manifestation.”

Human beings all over the world are resisting the orders which have been imposed on them and demanding the right to express who it is they are. The tension caused between the desire to recognise the essential humanity common to all and the desire to respect and give value to difference can only be resolved from the point of view of Unity. So long as the different attributes are seen to belong to different entities, conflict and ranking one above the other will be inevitable. When they can be perceived as attributes of a single entity to which there are no exclusive rights except Its own right to Itself, then all the tension and conflict falls away.

There is a profound education for all of us in this. This place, this planet at the beginning of the new millennium is providing the conditions for a vastly expanded perception. Our common history, the progression of revelations appearing over time witnessed in our communities lives on in us and gives us our sensibilities. It becomes our means of understanding or it becomes what conditions us to a limited perception. This era is requiring of us that we move beyond the limitations simply in order to survive with one another.

It is not only in the interaction of people that our perceptions are expanded. Much of the art of the 20th century in the West has been dedicated to cutting ties to the past so that we are forced to use our senses in new, fresh ways without the interference of the previously applied intellect. The cubist paintings of Picasso, the abstract expressionism of Rothko demanded a new way of perceiving of form and color unattached to what it is these symbolise. The high mode of the music of Charlie Parker or John Coltrane which demands to be heard fresh in this moment, the language of Samuel Beckett, the architecture of Le Corbusier – in every major art form, literature, dance, drama, a new education has been offered to expand the possibilities of perception. This is not even to mention the field of science where the previously understood laws of physics have been turned inside out.

(James Morris told us two years ago in Berkeley of Ibn ‘Arabi’s description in the Futûhât of the people of fragrances, special saints in Andalusia to whom all divine knowledge was conveyed through the sense of smell. This is such an evocative image of the pure receptacle where the senses are free of conditioned response and intellectual interference and through which real knowledge can be received)

The bewildering changes, the speed with which old orders are overturned, the suddeness of the necessity to accommodate the new can either be welcomed and embraced or resisted and resented but nothing will halt the requirement to respond. If we can look back over several millennia of the history which informed us and see the expansion of the platform of the revelation, we can see ourselves now at a time and in a place where the platform has expanded exponentially. The invitation to completeness can no longer be contained in the order laid out by the temple, the tribe, the community, the followers of the law of a prophet. As always what is needed to understand the world around us is what is needed to understand ourselves or vice versa. The era is His name. This time and this place is demanding in even the most overt ways that in order to understand what is going on we must remove from ourselves limited belief and conditioned response. This is not easy. An education is needed in this to perceive what is essential and what is peripheral, what is “ancient and abiding and what is recent and perishing”. An education from one order to another order will not be sufficient. This is the beginning of the education which is offered by such as Ibn ‘Arabi, who starts from the point of unity and never leaves it. He gives help from what is real to what is known to be real in oneself – the education from the interior reality of man to the interior reality of man, without intermediary.

We have no way of knowing what the future will bring. Whether the new world order at the dawn of the 21st century will bring harmony, destruction, apathy or combinations of all three. We may see that the invitation to completeness is being made to a much broader platform but we cannot know how it will be responded to – except in ourselves.

Ibn ‘Arabi delivers an invitation to direct knowledge from the most ancient place. In this way there are no real states or stations to be brought through. There is no platform of understanding to be brought about. There are no conditions to be changed or attributes to be attained. All that is required is the proper response, the request to be informed directly from the most interior place.”Rabb hibli istidad’i kamilan” says the prayer of Ibn ‘Arabi. “Lord grant me as a gift the perfect aptitude to receive from the most holy effusion.”


Paper delivered for the Symposium of the Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society “The Spirit of the Millennium” at Chisholme House, Scottish Borders (August 2000), and Berkeley, California (October 2000).