Articles and Translations

Unity of Being in Ibn ‘Arabî – A Humanist Perspective

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


1. To Know Being Is a Human Right

For as long as man has been thinking and putting his ideas and visions into writing, a three- dimensional structure of knowledge has been evident. The passing of time has proved that this tripartite knowledge expresses an original and living human need, the need for a healthy and just life. This structure includes individual self-knowledge, knowledge of the surrounding world and knowledge of what is beyond the visible world.

In modern societies, these three dimensions have become a human right, which is claimed and safeguarded. Whoever conceals information about one of these dimensions has some explaining to do to humanity, whether such information is in the field of medicine, social science, politics, economics or scientific discovery.

If we look at the human inheritance of explaining Being in its three aspects, we see two great currents:

A dualist current which professes multiple essences different from each other by their being. This current is represented in Greek thought by Aristotle (384–322 BC), in Islamic thought by Averroes (1126–98) and in Western Christian thought by Descartes (1596–1650) and St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–74).

A monist current, which reduces Being, its aspects and concrete manifestations, to a single principle or essence. It is around this current, which professes the Unity of Being, that we shall locate our search.


2. “Unity of Being” in the Plural: Religious and Philosophical Theories

The monist current mentioned above does not go back to any single school or source, but is manifested in different forms, in many places and across a variety of philosophies and religions. This allows us to say that we have known the Unity of Being in the plural and not in the singular.

The multiple images of the Unity of Being may be classified into two lines, parallel in their principles and instruments, and overlapping in their teachings, partially if not wholly. These two groupings are (a) religion, and (b) philosophy. Contemplative religious thought and positivist philosophical meditation developed in parallel, and sometimes arrived at similar, if not identical, results. We shall briefly mention some headings concerning the Unity of Being, common to the two lines. We hope that these will reflect a global view of the theory, and its flowering in time and space, up to the time of Ibn ‘Arabî.

(a) The first religious formula of the Unity of Being comes to us from the Far East, in the Upanishads, which contain the teachings of the Hindu Brahmins. This pantheistic Monism filtered into the theories of the Unity of Being which came after it, to the point where the Hindu theory was considered as the basis, reference point and criterion, but above all as an instrument from which the reader understands all Unitive theories of Being.

Since many people consider this Unity as foundational and the point of reference, we can see that this is the reason behind the legal and dogmatic polemic around the teachings of Ibn ‘Arabî. Because of this we shall present it here in brief: the Hindu theory of the Unity of Being on the one hand regards the essence of man not as his body or his intellect, nor yet his individuality, but as pure being, which it calls Atman. Atman is not born, does not decline and does not die, for it is a part of Brahman, Divinity. On the other hand, Divinity is the essence of all created things which appear. Thus Atman and Brahman have one and the same nature.

Man, according to this teaching, designs an undertaking and embarks on a path, intending to unify himself with the Divinity in a natural union. In the same way that a drop of water returns to the ocean and unites with it because it is of the same nature as it, so do multiplicity and diversity fall and the repetition of births ceases, so that the part, Atman, may rejoin the whole, Brahman, and unite with it.

In the context of religious formulae of the Unity of Being, there arose a Chinese Taoist Monism which proclaims that all the things in the world were created by the action of a single principle, the Dao, which is the origin of all and which embraces all. In the same context, Japanese Zen Buddhist Unity sees the Buddha Nature as present in all creatures, and states that thought frees itself from the influences of the exterior world by contemplation, allowing the Buddha Nature to manifest in man.

From Brahmin, Taoist and Buddhist theories came romantic and literary formulae of the Unity of Being. We first find them in the literature of the Far East, and their influence has affected the poetic experience of recent times, seducing them with the idea of union with nature, and with the divinisation of all things.

(b) The first philosophical formula of the Unity of Being comes to us from Pre-Socratic Greece. We find it in the first positivist intellectual attempts to explain the universe, especially regarding the constitutive element of all that is created. In answer to the philosophical question, “From what single substance are things made?”, several solutions were given. For Thales it was water, for Anaximander, the Aperion, i.e. the unlimited and infinite, for Anaximenes, air, and for Heraclitus, fire. Then, with the Stoics and especially Zeno, we find the first clear statement that the world is God, the world being like the body, and God the breath which inhabits it. Last came Plotinus, who began his philosophy with a contemplation on Being, The One. And from that One there flows out a series of hierarchised emanations which formed the world.


3. Plan

We shall pass over the perceptions of the Unity of Being which appeared in Islamic thought prior to Ibn ‘Arabî, having already discussed that in an article entitled “Wahdat al-Wujûd” (The Unity of Being). Let us simply mention the role of the polemic concerning the Divine Essence (dhât) and the Attributes in juristical (fiqhî) and theological (kalamî) circles. We find these perceptions again in Sufi circles, with the question of Divine Love and Extinction in Love (fanâ’ fi’l-hubb), in Râbi’a, Dhu’l-Nûn al-Misrî and Hallâj, and with extinction in the witnessing of Unity (fanâ’ fi’l-tawhîd) in Junayd and Ghazzali. We shall therefore limit our account to Ibn ‘Arabî’s Unity of Being, and to our understanding of his monist formulation, with a look at his spiritual heritage, and if possible a reformulation of his theory from the standpoint of our present society. We divide our contribution into three parts: the first presents the Unity of Being according to Ibn ‘Arabî in its totality; the second classifies the inheritance of Ibn ‘Arabî in terms of schools or currents; and the third summarises Ibn ‘Arabî’s teaching and tries to bring it up to date.


I. The Unity of Being

Ibn ‘Arabî’s vision of the Unity of Being revolves around a single idea, from which all others flow and diverge. We shall first speak about that principal, unique idea, and then we shall speak of the other ideas which are necessary in consequence of that one, or which derive from it.


1. Being (al-wujûd) is the Divine Essence Itself (‘ayn al-dhât al-ilâhiyya)

Ibn ‘Arabî considers that only He who possesses Being in Himself (wujûd dhâtî) and whose Being is His very essence (wujûduhu ‘ayn dhâtihi), merits the name of Being. Now only God can be like that. For the creatures, Being is a loan, which is not part of their essence. This means that a creature does not own its being, that it can never be independent in itself, and that it cannot for the blinking of an eye do without Him who lends it Being. Thus for Ibn ‘Arabî, the created does not deserve the attribution of Being. Only God is Being, and all the rest is in reality a possibility (imkân), a relative, possible non-existence.

Thus Being is Divine Essence. Indeed, if the Being of God were an adjunct to His Essence, then Absolute Unity (wahdâniyya) would be done away with. Besides, for Ibn ‘Arabî, since Being is the Divine Essence, if a creature claimed to possess Being, it would be claiming to share with God in His Divinity.

And if we ask ourselves about the nature of Being and Its meaning, we find that Ibn ‘Arabî forbids us to think about it, for we are creatures who “have not smelled the perfume of Being”. How then can we know His meaning? He writes: “God, exalted is He, […] is described as Absolute Being […] and to know Him means knowing His Being. And His Being is not other than His Essence. But His Essence cannot be known. Only His Attributes are knowable […] Knowledge of the Truth of His Essence is forbidden. It is known neither by proof nor by intellectual argument, and cannot be defined […] The Revealed Law (shar’) forbids thinking about the Divine Essence.”[2]

Therefore, creatures cannot know the meaning of Being because, on the one hand, Being is the Divine Essence, and on the other hand, the creatures have not tasted the flavour of Being and “have not smelled its perfume”, as Ibn ‘Arabî puts it.


2. Creation

The Divine Names turned towards the all-comprehensive (al-jâmi’) Name “Allâh”, asking of Him to see their effects in a created world. Their request was granted, creation began and the entities of the possibilities (al-a’yân al-mumkinât) left the immutable non-existence to become a place (locus) receiving the effects of the Names.

According to Ibn ‘Arabî, the process of creation does not occur only once, in time or before time. For him, creation is always constantly unfurling – otherwise creatures would return to the non-existence in which they were immutable.

For Ibn ‘Arabî, to create means to make appear (izhâr). God creates the creatures, i.e. He makes their entities apparent, bringing them out of their state of immutability into existence in the apparent world. And this act belongs to God alone, since no creature is capable by his own will of making immutable entities appear in the exterior world.

Ibn ‘Arabî used the term “effusion” (fayd) to denote the act of creation. His writings contain expressions which show different stages of creation, a distinction merely logical and not actual. The following gives details about his vision of creation in three stages: the Most Holy Effusion (al-fayd al-aqdas), the Holy Effusion (al-fayd al-muqaddas) and the Perpetual Effusion (al-fayd al-mustamirr).


(a) The Most Holy Effusion (al-fayd al-aqdas) and the immutable entities (al-a’yân al-thâbita)

The Most Holy Effusion is the theophany of the Divine Essence for Itself, in the images of all the immutable possibilities in the Divine Knowledge. It represents the first degree of manifestation of Absolute Being. These effusions are, however, of the domain of the intelligible, not existent in the exterior world. They are exclusively “receptacles of Being” (qawâbil lil-wujûd). These “receptacles” or possibilities of Being are what Ibn ‘Arabî calls the “immutable entities” of the creatures.

Ibn ‘Arabî was the first to use the expression “immutable entity” to mean the possible (al-mumkin), which exists only in the Divine Knowledge as quiddity (mâhiyya), in contrast to “concrete existence” (mawjûd), realised in time and space.

These eternal entities represent a stage between God in His absolute “unknowableness” (ghayb) and the concrete world. We may conceive of them as immutable “models” (muthûl) in the Divine Knowledge, being the origin of created things, albeit non-existent in the external world.

God created us in the world according to our eternal entity, immutable in His Knowledge. Ibn ‘Arabî says: “It is certain that He fashioned us in actuality, not that He fashioned our models (mithâl) in Himself.”[3] Thus God created us according to the immutable image that He has of us in His Knowledge. There is then no invention in the “models”. There remains only fashioning in reality.

In the Futûhât (III.92), Ibn ‘Arabî describes how God brings forth the things from – to us – an unknowable existence to a knowable existence. What the things have gained from accepting existence in the exterior world, is to be distinguished for themselves and for others. For God knows the things after existence, just as He knew them when they were in the state of non-being and immutability, differentiating them by their entities and distinguishing them one from the other. In this way, the departure of the things from immutability to the concrete changes our knowledge, but does not change anything of Divine Knowledge.


(b) The Holy Effusion (al-fayd al-muqaddas)

The Holy Effusion is the second degree of manifestation of Absolute Being (al-wujûd al-mutlaq). It consists in the divine act of making the creatures appear in the external world, according to the model of their eternal entities, by the manifestation of His Divine Names in them. Ibn ‘Arabî describes this, saying: “God, exalted is He, creates the creature according to that which the creature is in itself and in its entity. He only invests with existence by an act called ‘bringing into existence'(îjâd).”[4]

The movement of creatures from immutability to existence is done according to a pre-established order, in accordance with the Will of God to be known and to see Himself in an entity which encompasses the realities (kawm jâmi’). Since the only reality which accepts the effects of all the Divine Names and which encompasses the realities of all the creatures is the entity (‘ayn) of the perfect man, he was the first existent (mawjûd). Ibn ‘Arabî says: “He (al-Huwa) wanted to see Himself with perfect vision (ru’ya kamâliyya) […] He looked at the eternal entities, but saw no entity capable of reflecting the I (al-anâna) except the entity of the perfect man. He compared it to Himself and placed it facing Him. Then it accepted [the image of the Huwa], with the exception of one reality, that of self-existence. He then gave it existence. The two images [the image of the Divine Names and the image of the entity of the perfect man] coincided on all sides […] He called it man (insân) because it accepted and familiarised itself (anisa) with the degree of perfection.”[5]

This reality, which encompasses all the realities, those of the Divine Names and those of the cosmic Names, through its appearance in the universe became an isthmus (barzakh) between God and the world. With one of the two faces this isthmus turns towards the Divine Names, and with the other towards the cosmic realities.


(c) The Perpetual Effusion: Continuous Creation, Renewed at Each Moment

The creatures, in leaving the world of immutability for the world of existence, do not really leave their immutability, i.e. their possibility, because possibility is the reality of every creature. Thus the creatures have manifested themselves in the world, without by that possessing Being, remaining at every instant in need of Being (îjâd) in order to be able to continue to exist and not return to non-being. Being is thus, for the creatures, a state and not a constant attribute.

God is permanently creating all the creatures, making them appear continually. And the creatures are permanently returning to the state of non-being which is their essence. Their images disappear, and God replaces them continually with similar images, without a temporal caesura between the moment of the annihilation of the image and the moment of appearance of its new, similar one. God, then, continues to be Creator and the possibilities in their state of non-being remain fitted to accept existence.[6]

There is no Being other than God’s, and the whole universe is the effect of the manifestation of His Names. If the perpetual theophany were to stop for the blinking of an eye, the whole universe would fall into non-being. Ibn ‘Arabî, speaking of that non-existent existent (mawjûd ma’dûm), says, “God made me contemplate the light of existence, as the star of direct vision rose, and He asked me, ‘Who are you?’ I replied, ‘Apparent non-existence.'”[7]


3. Perplexity (al-hayra)

Ibn ‘Arabî finds that the intellect is perplexed by the reality of creation and asks itself: “Have the eternal entities passed from the state of non-being to the state of Being, or are they still in the state of non-being, knowing each other in the mirror of the Being of God? At the time of the divine theophany in the entities which allowed them to know each other, did these entities really acquire existence, or was it only the divine theophany which allowed them to see themselves, they being still in immutability?”[8]

Elsewhere in the Futûhât (III.193), Ibn ‘Arabî states that things do not leave the treasuries of their possibilities. Indeed, God has opened the doors of these treasuries. So we gaze upon them and they gaze upon us, and we are in them [the treasuries] and out of them.


4. “He Within Himself” (Huwa fî Huwa) and not “He is He” (Huwa Huwa)

The expression “He is He” (Huwa Huwa) is widely used to denote the Unity of Being. It means that God and the creatures have a single essence, and such an expression is not in agreement with the Unity of Being in Ibn ‘Arabî. It is for that reason that we have coined a new expression “He Within Himself” (Huwa fî Huwa). This expression respects the Lord-Servant duality, and translates the manifestation of God in every instant (mawjûd), not in Himself but through His Most Beautiful Names. We may here quote a text of Ibn ‘Arabî which describes the manifestation of God in created things, in accordance with the expression “He Within Himself” (Huwa fî Huwa), “God is too Exalted and High to be known as He is In Himself (fî nafsihi). Yet He is known in created things […] Some see God in things while others see things and God in them.”[9]


5. Man

Ibn ‘Arabî gives man a pivotal position. The following principles show how man is perceived in the work of the Shaykh al-Akbar.

(i) Man is the goal (maqsûd) of the creation of the world. God, exalted is He, created the world only that He might be known and served. And man alone accomplishes the task, for he is capable of possessing perfect knowledge and accomplishing complete servanthood. He is the unique one who can receive the reality of the revelations of all the Divine Names. Man is the heart of the world and its spirit, because if man dies and passes to the world beyond, this world is extinguished and life is no longer renewed.[10]

(ii) Man is the isthmus (barzakh) between God and the creatures. The reality of man holds the created things so that they do not fall into non-being. He receives from God and gives to the creatures. He alone is creator and creature (haqq wa khalq), and all others are only creatures.[11]

“When his humanity vanishes in his Lord, the things are created from him, and the things are only created by God. And when Lordship vanishes in his humanity, he takes pleasure in the things, and lives in ease and eats […] he is creature-creator (khalq haqq).”[12]

(iii) Man is the representative (khalîfa) of God on earth, occupying the post of divine deputy (niyâba ilâhiyya) in the universe … He is king of the universe and he appears in the world glorified by all the Divine Names.

(iv) Man is a copy (nuskha) of both the realities of the Divine Names and the cosmic realities. He is made according to two images: his exterior image, his body, is a copy of the cosmic realities, while his interior image, his powers, is the image of the Divine Names.

(v) Man is the most perfect place of contemplation (akmal mashhad). From the fact that God is perceived only in an image, in a thing [Huwa fî Huwa], man is the most perfect revelation of God and the most complete place.

Thus the status of man in the Unity of Being is defined in Ibn ‘Arabî. He is the axis of existence, its meaning and the isthmus between it and God.


6. Double Mirror and Two Mirrors

Ibn ‘Arabî uses a number of comparisons to show the relation between God, the world and man, within the theory of the Single Being.

The first and best-known of these metaphors is that of the sun and its light. He says: “Things in being (mawjûdât) are all a light from the lights of the sun of Power (qudra). The light of the sun does not share with the sun the status of concomitance (ma’iyya), but the status of the candle (sham’iyya).”[13]

Secondly, he compares the Creator and the creatures to light and shadows. Light, Being, is one, and its shadows multiply according to the number of the things it illuminates.[14]

He also uses the image of the rainbow, when sight deceives us and we see colours which in reality are only refractions of the colour white.[15] In the same way he compares the human spirit to the mirage in the desert, an image of water without there being any water, just as the human spirit is perceived (mashhûd) without being existent (mawjûd). He says: “If the covering is removed from [the spirit] and it looks, it realises that it is a mirage in the form of water. It [the spirit] sees in fact no existing thing capable of serving God as it owes it to itself to do, with the exception of the One who created the acts, that is to say, God. It [the human spirit] then finds that God is the same as what it imagined its own essence to be.”[16]

Finally, the most important metaphor used by Ibn ‘Arabî to depict the relation between God, the world and man in particular, remains that of the mirror. Ibn ‘Arabî did not invent the symbol of the mirror, but he resorted to it to clarify the nature of the relation between God and His creatures. A real mirror reflects the image of the person looking at it. In the same way, symbolically, a mirror reflects ideas. When we say, figuratively, that a poet is the mirror of his age, or that one person is the mirror of another, we mean by that, that the poet or the person has been able to capture the characteristic image of his age or of the other person, and show it to people. Perhaps if Ibn ‘Arabî had lived in our time, he would have made use of the screen, and used it as a symbol. For the screen has an amazing ability to receive and transmit images. Within this framework, we may say [that]:

(i) Man is a double mirror, being the isthmus between God and the world. One face is the mirror of the Divine Names, while the other is the mirror of the cosmic names.

(ii) Man is the mirror of God, and God is the mirror of man. They are two mirrors, each reflecting the other. God is the mirror of man, with man seeing himself in the Divine mirror. And man is the mirror of God because he reflects His Names back to Him.[17]

The following are some of Ibn ‘Arabî’s texts which describe these two mirrors.


(a) Man as Mirror of God

The texts of Ibn ‘Arabî successively describe the world as a mirror, and the mirror means the place which accepts the image of a thing and not the thing itself. Thus, the mirror is at the same time a deception, for the image of a person in a mirror is the person himself, while being quite other. In the same way, there is in the mirror nothing of the reflected person. He says: “The world […] is the mirror of God. The people of Knowledge (‘ârifûn) see there only the image of God.”[18] He also says: “The Pole […] is the mirror of God and the place of manifestation of the sacred Attributes…”[19] The whole world is, however, an unpolished mirror, and the appearance of Adam polished the mirror of the world.[20] Finally, the best mirror, which reflects the most complete and exact image, is the image of the Prophet Muhammad.[21]


(b) God as Mirror of the World

The traveller exerts himself that his Lord may be unveiled to him, but at the end of his spiritual retreat, what is unveiled to him is his own truth, and he sees his own image in the mirror of God. This is reminiscent of the final arrival of Farîduddîn ‘Attâr’s birds and their vision of the Simurgh. Regarding the fact that God is the mirror of the world, Ibn ‘Arabî says: “God is the mirror of the world. They [the creatures] see in this mirror only their own images.”


II. The School of Ibn ‘ArabÎ and Its Diffusion

1. Polemical Approach

Ibn ‘Arabî faced some very difficult situations in his life vis-à-vis other people, and he was attacked by the authorities under the influence of certain jurists and theologians. His texts were also subjected to horizontal readings without depth, incapable of unlocking their allusions and symbols. However, his presence in time, both material and spiritual, was very dominant, as if he were a mountain which by its very height reduces to silence the boiling up of a volcano, forbidding it to erupt…

At the Shaykh’s death, the volcano erupted and its lava spread out over the circles of jurists, Sufis and theologians. It became a public issue, everyone feeling free to give his opinion. Works were written attacking Ibn ‘Arabî’s books and putting readers on guard lest they became ensnared by his ideas. On the other hand, works tending to exculpate him were written, defending his theories and rehabilitating him.

The greatest opponents of Ibn ‘Arabî are:

  • Ibn Taymiyya al-Harrânî [661–729H/1262–1327] in his book Majmû’ fatâwa Ibn Taymiyya

  • Ibn al-Ahdal, one of the ‘ulamâ’ of Yemen [d.855H/1450] in his work Kashf al-ghitâ’ ‘an haqâ’iq al-tawhîd

  • Muhammad ibn Nûr al-Dîn [d.825H/1421], who wrote a book in response to the Fusûs al-Hikam, showing the paradoxes of Ibn ‘Arabî
  • Ibrâhîm al-Biqâîî [d.885H/1479], who belonged to the line of Ibn Taymiyya, and who wrote two works in which he attacked Ibn ‘Arabî, called Tanbîh al-ghabî ‘alâ takfîr Ibn ‘Arabî and Tahdhîr al-‘ibâd min ahl al-‘inâd bi-bid’at al-ittihâd

  • Radî al-Dîn Ibn al-Khayyât [d.811H/1407], mentioned by Ibn al-Ahdal in his Kashf al-Ghitâî, whose words were preserved by Fayrûzâbâdî in a letter entitled Fatwa Ibn al-Khayyât

  • Sharaf al-Dîn Ibn al-Muqri'[d.837H/1434], author of poems which condemn Ibn ‘Arabî’s ideas, mentioned by Ibn al-Ahdal in the Kashf al Ghitâî

  • Ibrâhîm al-Halabî [d.956H/1549] who replied to Suyûtî in a work entitled Tafsîh al-ghabî fî tanzîh Ibn ‘Arabî[22]

  • Al-Dhahabî [d.748H/1346] and Ibn Khaldûn [d.808H/1404], whose pupil al-Fâsî mentioned his teacher’s fatwas in his book, Al-‘Iqd al-thamîn. One of these calls for Ibn ‘Arabî’s books to be burned and washed in water to remove all trace of writing
  • Taqî al-Dîn al-Fâsî [d.832H/1428] and his book Tahdhîr al-nabîh wa-l-ghabî min al-iftitân bi-Ibn ‘Arabî

  • Imâd al-Dîn al-Wâsitî [d.711H/1311], who wrote three booklets denigrating Ibn ‘Arabî and his school, Al-Bayân al-mufîd fî’l-farq bayn al-ilhâd wa-l-tawhîd, Lawâmi’ al-istirshâd fî’l-farq bayn al-tawhîd wa-l-ilhâd, Ash’iat al-nusûs fî hatk astâr al-Fusûs

  • Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalânî [d.852H/1447]
  • Ibn al-Jazri [d.711H/1311]
  • Badr al-Dîn Ibn Jamâ’a [d.733H/1332]
  • ‘Alâ’al-Dîn al-Bukhârî [d.841H/1436], pupil of Taftazânî, who wrote a letter entitled “Fâdihat al-mulhidîn wa nâsihat al-muwahhidîn” (Bakri Aladdin studied this letter in the introduction to his re-edited version of Nâbulusî’s book “Al-Wujûd al-haqq wa-l-khitâb al-sidq” (Damascus, IFEAD, 1995)
  • Athîr al-Dîn Abû Hayyân [d.729H/1329], Bukhârî’s master
  • Shams al-Dîn Ibn al-Naqqâsh [d.736H/1336]
  • Lisân al-Dîn Ibn al-Khatîb [d.766H/1364]
  • Zayn al-Dîn al-‘Irâqî [d.806H/1403]
  • Shams al-Dîn al-‘Ayzarî [d.808H/1404] who wrote a book entitled Al-Fatâwa al-muntashira

Ibn ‘Arabî’s best-known supporters are:

  • Muhammad ibn Ya’qûb al Fayrûzâbâdî [d.811H/1407] who wrote a letter by way of a reply to the opponents (unpublished manuscript)
  • Sirâj al-Dîn al-Makhzûmî [d.885H/1479] in his book Kashf al- Ghitâ’ ‘an asrâr kalâm al-Shaykh Muhyîddîn
  • ‘Abdu-l-Wahhâb Al-Shaîrânî [d.973H/1564] in his books Al-Yawâqît wa-l-jawâhir fî bayân ‘aqâîid al-akâbir, Lawâqih al-anwâr al-qudsiyya and Al-Kibrît al-ahmar fî bayân kalâm al-Shaykh al-Akbar
  • Al-Qârî’ al-Baghdâdî [8th century H] in a letter which he entitled Al-Durr al-thamîn fî manâqib al-Shaykh Muhyîddîn
  • Salâh al-Dîn al-Safadî [d.764H/1362]
  • Jalâl al-Dîn al-Suyûtî [d.911H/1504] in his book Tanbîh al-ghabî bi-tabirîat Ibn ‘Arabî
  • Sirâj al-Dîn Hindî, a great Hanafi judge in Egypt [d.764H/1363] who wrote Lawâîih al-anwâr fî-l-radd ‘alâ man ankara ‘alâ al-‘ârifîn latâîif al-asrâr
  • Abû Dharr al-‘Ajamî [d.780H/1378]
  • Badruddin Ibn al-Sâhib [d.788H/1386] who was an unflinching admirer of Ibn ‘Arabî
  • Shams al-Dîn, known by the name of Shaykh al-Wudû’ [d.790H/1388]
  • Abû ‘Abdallâh al-Tawzarî al-Maghribî [d.800H/1396] who fought for Ibn ‘Arabî’s doctrine
  • Shams al-Dîn Ibn Najm [d.801H/1397]
  • Najm al-Dîn al-Bâhilî al-Hanbalî [d.802H/1398]
  • Ismâîîl ibn Ibrâhîm al-Jabartî, master of ‘Abd al-Karîm al-Jîlî. He taught his students the books of Ibn ‘Arabî and helped in the development of Ibn ‘Arabî’s school in the Yemen
  • Abû’l-Hasan Ibn Salâm al-Dimashqî al-Shâfi’î
  • ‘Alî ibn Maymûn ibn Abî Bakr al-Qurashî al-Maghribî [d.917H/1510] who wrote Tanzîh al-siddîq ‘an wasf al-zindîq[23]
  • Abû Kamâl Bâshâ al-Hanafî [d.940H/1532], grandson of one of the Ottoman princes, he pronounced a fatwa about Ibn ‘Arabî, which said that the governor ought to oblige people to profess the Unity of Being[24]

We have quoted all these names to show that Ibn ‘Arabî really did become a public issue, occupying every circle of knowledge in all Islamic regions. Indeed, those who took part in the polemic, belonged to different juridical schools and schools of knowledge, Shafi’is, Hanafis, linguists, philologists, theologians etc., and came from the four corners of the (Islamic) world, Damascus, the Maghreb, Mecca, Egypt etc.

In the list presented above, we have seen, on the one hand, the books and people who had a direct relationship with the polemic, replying and promulgating fatwas. On the other hand, we have reduced the list to the three centuries which followed Ibn ‘Arabî, because it is during these centuries that the polemic was at its hottest and most prolonged at the level of the ‘ulamâ’and the community in general. After these three centuries, Ibn ‘Arabî and his ideas became confined to being a matter of Sufi theology, and were no longer a hot subject and a public issue debated in every language. It is, however, surprising that one person should have remained so contentious for a whole community for three hundred years.


2. The Schools of Ibn ‘Arabî – Not Just a Single School

The intellectual and spiritual heritage of Ibn ‘Arabî has permeated several groups with different aspirations, which allows us to say that we may distinguish schools founded on the texts of Ibn ‘Arabî, and not just one single school. A look at the centuries which separate us from Ibn ‘Arabî allows us to see four lines emerging out of his work and person, each line continuing on along its own route and carrying this immense heritage, using it and enlarging it, each one in the framework of its own interests and aspirations to knowledge. We shall briefly sketch the skeleton of these four great lines, without going into detail, for each representative of these lines has been the centre of interest of one or more researchers.


(a) A School which was Interested in Ibn ‘Arabî’s Ideas

We may count Sadr al-Dîn al-Qûnawî, son-in-law and disciple of Ibn ‘Arabî, as founder of this school. Indeed, he worked to propagate the ideas of his master, writing several works in which he explains the ideas of the Great Shaykh, the most important being Marâtib al-Wujûd. It is likely that Qûnawî was the first to use the expression Unity of Being (Wahdat al-Wujûd) to mean the concept of Being in Ibn ‘Arabî.[25] Qûnawî had a widespread network of relationships in the Persian world, the most important being his relationship with Jalâluddîn Rûmî. Through Rûmî, the influence or heritage which Qûnawî carried spread to a whole generation of Persian poets, such as Shabistarî [d.791] and Jâmî [d.899]. In the same way, the relationship and correspondence between Qûnawî and Nâsir al-Dîn at-Tûsî helped the propagation of Ibn ‘Arabî’s ideas in the Persian world. Also, the circles in which Qûnawî explained the ideas of Ibn ‘Arabî to the great intellectuals and Sufis, played a large part. Indeed, Fakhruddîn ‘Irâqî wrote his Lama’ât after one of these meetings.

In our view, the most important characteristic of this school is presentation, explanation and interpretation. It brings together the greatest commentators on Ibn ‘Arabî, such as Qâshânî, Qaysarî, Bâlî Efendi and many others.


(b) A School which was Interested in Ibn ‘Arabî’s Theology

This school was born out of a full-scale war which was declared against Ibn ‘Arabî. Due to this war focusing above all on the theology of Ibn ‘Arabî, accusing him of infidelity and atheism, this school put all its effort into defending the theological doctrine of the Shaykh al-Akbar. In our view, its most important characteristic is its attempt to demonstrate that the theory of the Unity of Being is based on the Attestation of Unity (shahâdat al-tawhîd), taking in Extinction in the Unity (fanâ’fî’l-tawhîd) among the Sufis. The most important representatives of this school are ‘Abd al-Wahhâb al-Sha’rânî and after him, ‘Abd al-Ghanî al-Nâbulusî. Numerous researchers have worked on these two authors, and for that reason we shall confine ourselves to simply naming them.


(c) A School which was Interested in Ibn ‘Arabî’s Sufism

The Sufi experience of Ibn ‘Arabî, extremely rich in visions and unveilings, greatly interested later Sufis. This school may be divided into two currents.

The first current is represented by the entry of Ibn ‘Arabî, as a Sufi who had attained the most elevated stations of perfection, into the world of the Sufi paths. His inner experience filtered into the Naqshbandîs on the one hand, and to the Shâdhilîs on the other, to the extent that in our time we find no-one who belongs to one or other of these great Sufi ways who does not profess interiorly a doctrine usually reserved for the great (‘aqîdat al-akâbir), while being in agreement with the theological doctrine of the masses. And there are many who understand the doctrine of Ibn ‘Arabî on the basis that there are several levels of attestation of the Unity.

The second current is restricted in its representatives. We shall, however, reserve for it its own space, in the hope that the future will add supporters to it. Perhaps also, it is made up of people still unknown to us. This current is distinguished by the fact that its representatives fill themselves with the texts of Ibn ‘Arabî, carry them around within themselves and continue the journey, pushing the experience of the Shaykh al-Akbar forwards. In our view, this current is represented by the great Sufi, ‘Abd al-Karîm al-Jîlî. Jîlî had as his master al-Jabartî, who was in love with Ibn ‘Arabî and propagated his teachings in Yemeni Sufi circles. The visions and unveilings of Ibn ‘Arabî quickly shook Jîlî’s conscience and experience, and opened to him the way to personal visions and unveilings which he set down in writing. We may thus conceive of his books as a link added to the chain of Ibn ‘Arabî. In our view, Jîlî’s unveilings are a continuation and extension of the experience and ideas of the Shaykh al-Akbar. We should like to draw attention to the fact that Ibn ‘Arabî’s last book, Fusûs al-Hikam, addresses the Perfect Man who sums up in himself all religious history. And as if Jîlî had taken over from there, the latter’s experience and writings take the Perfect Man as their axis, addressing the subject in a different way.[26]


(d) A School which was Interested in Adapting Ibn ‘Arabî’s Ideas to the Persian World

Following the penetration of Ibn ‘Arabî’s works into Persia through the efforts of Qûnawî and other commentators, some great gnostic personalities appeared. In our view, the principal characteristic of that school is its attempt to bring together Ibn ‘Arabî’s Sufism and Shi’ite doctrine. From this arose the formation of a Shi’ite Sufi school (‘irfâniyya) familiar with the thought of Ibn ‘Arabî and his teaching. Among the greatest figures in that school, we find Sadr al-Dîn al-Shîrâzî.[27]

To conclude this glimpse of the schools which flowed from the work of Ibn ‘Arabî, we should mention that there exists no separation among the schools, but each profits from the writings of the others. The schools do not oppose but complement each other, each one interested in an aspect of Ibn ‘Arabî’s work.


III. A New Link in the Chain of Ibn ‘ArabÎ – A Humanist Reading of the Unity of Being

It is possible that the most important of the four schools founded on the work of Ibn ‘Arabî is the one which interests itself in his Sufism, whether at the level of ways (turuq), or at the level of people, because that school has put into action the teachings of the Shaykh al-Akbar. From this initiative have emerged new links in Ibn ‘Arabî’s chain which merit our attention.

We too would like to contribute by adding a new link to the chain left open by Ibn ‘Arabî for the generations who were to follow him. We shall limit our contribution to some points of intersection between the Unity of Being of Ibn ‘Arabî and our current contemporary life, noting that these points of intersection have as their axis man, his reality, and his knowledge of himself, the other and God.


1. Man is an Isthmic Creature (barzakhiyya)

Many people are not aware of this Akbarian teaching, and consequently do not profit by their ‘isthmuseity’. The fact that our reality is ‘isthmic’ means that we have the power to connect to two different worlds at the same time, from two sides.

In practical terms, man today could realise a temporal isthmuseity, by having one face turned to the present and another turned towards eternal time. He could gain greatly by this temporal isthmuseity, reconciling the past, present and future, but also in taking up the past again, not as the past, but in its present. We could also gain by the isthmuseity of our intellect between reason and inspiration, receiving from one side the data of sense and reason, and from the other receiving the inspiration of the heart.

Thus we can open the possibilities of our existence and gain from our isthmuseity to realise our spiritual fullness on earth.


2. Hayy and Asal – the Philosopher and the Sufi

Whoever contemplates the history of humanity notices two tracks: a theoretical, philosophical track and a contemplative, religious track. These two courses intersect in their results and objectives in most cases (as we have mentioned in our introduction). Ibn Tufayl, in his philosophical account Hayy ibn Yazqan, expressed this intersecting of the two courses. When Hayy met Asal and they compared their respective knowledge, they discovered a great similarity. And when they decided to leave the island and convince others of the ability of faith to convey truth, they were disappointed and decided to return to their island. We believe that this story has been repeated in the course of time. Religious and philosophical thought do indeed agree about man, his elevated status, respect for his rights, his designation as the centre of the world, and his responsibility towards the other creatures. This similarity could, however, not be extended further than appearance. Ibn ‘Arabî drew attention to that at the time of his meeting with Ibn Rushd/Averroës. Averroës asked him, “Is what you have found [by the heart] the same as that which we have found [by reason]?” Ibn ‘Arabî answered, “Yes and no”.

In any case, our isthmic reality can help us to write a new ending to Ibn Tufayl’s account, because our isthmic reality is capable of seeing both the past and present and comparing them. If we compare the men of today to those of the Middle Ages, we notice the qualitative change which has taken place in man in general, his awakening, the way he relates to his presence in the world… This is caused by the change in the conditions of life. This new world – with its mass communications, opening up, globalisation – has created a new man at the level of the masses, everywhere in the world. Now, the ending we are hoping for, according to Ibn Tufayl’s account, bets on the masses, i.e. on the people of the whole world, for security and love to reign for every-one everywhere. From the fact of all these changes, we believe that in the twenty-first century, Hayy and Asal would not have returned to their island, but would have stayed among men.


3. Man, Divine Manifestation and the Secret of Predestination

The Unity of Being restores man to his rightful position, through an open, living and renewed relationship between God and him. God manifests by one of His names in each man, and this divine manifestation is permanent and continuous.

Why do we not benefit from this knowledge of manifestation and from the continuous creation, in our public and civic lives, and only make use of it in our spiritual lives? We should be able to look within and around us, and unlock the effects of the Divine Names which manifest and act. If we find gifts and successes, for example, we should see that God has manifested by His Name The Generous (al-Karîm), The Enricher (al-Mughnî) and The Provider (al-Razzâq) and other Names which mean gift and generosity, and vice versa.

The question then arises: can man change his life and destiny with this knowledge? Can he leave the effect of one Divine Name to enter into the effect of another Name? Does this knowledge pierce the secret of destiny?

We can unlock one answer in the tradition (Hadîth) of the Prophet and the texts of Ibn ‘Arabî. The Shaykh al-Akbar describes the Pole as the secret of predestination (sirr al-qadar).[28] Elsewhere, he says: “God responds only to the one who invokes Him, and He is invoked only by His Names.”[29] We may deduce that he is alluding to the possibility of leaving the effect of one Name for the effect of another. The Prophet at a difficult time, fearing that the difficulties were a sign of Divine Anger against him, invoked God, saying, “Whether there is no Anger in You towards me, that is of no concern to me, for Your Pardon is more encompassing for me.” Thus he invoked the Names of Beauty (asmâ’al-jamâl) to be relieved of the effect of the Names of Majesty (asmâ’al-jalâl). From this comes the importance of invocation, generally consisting of Divine Names which a man repeats in a continuous fashion until there is a rapport between the man and the Name repeated. He hopes by that, that the Name invoked will respond and manifest its effects in him.


4. The Creatures Are the Mirrors of God… Universal Brotherhood

If we look at our world through Ibn ‘Arabî’s theory of the Unity of Being, we find that life flows into every corner, in men, animals, trees and stones – life renewed with every breath – and we see the Divine Names manifested in every thing.

And if we make that vision real, then how could we stretch out our hand to do harm to a creature?

For even if we cannot see God in it, at least we know that He is in it.


Translated from the French by James Lees.

First published in the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society, Volume 36, 2004.


[1] This paper was originally presented at the twentieth annual symposium of the Society entitled "The Unity of Existence" held in Oxford on 3 and 4 May 2003.

[2] Futûhât I.118.

[3] Fut. I.91.

[4] Fut. IV.86.

[5] Fut. II.642–643. Here there is a play on words in the Arabic between man (insan) and familiarity (uns).

[6] See Fut. III.452.

[7] See Mashâhid al-Asrâr, First Contemplation (trans. C. Twinch and P. Beneito as Contemplation of the Holy Mysteries, Oxford, 2001, p. 23).

[8] Fut. IV.211.

[9] Fut. II.507–8.

[10] See Fusûs al-Hikam, chapter on Adam.

[11] Fut. II.397.

[12] Fut. II.441.

[13] al-Ajwîba al-lâîiqa, fo. 6b.

[14] Fut. IV.279.

[15] See S. Hakim, Al-Mu’ jam al-Sûfî, Beirut, 1981, "Wahdat al-wujûd".

[16] Fut. II.339.

[17] Fusûs, p. 62 (ed. A. ‘Afîfî, Cairo, 1946).

[18] Fut. IV.449.

[19] Fut. III.573.

[20] Bulghat al-Ghawwâs, fo. 12; Fusûs, ch.1.

[21] Fut. IV.203 and 433; Bulghat, fo. 21.

[22] The manuscript is in the Zâhiriyya library, No. 4394 Tasawwuf, fo. 3a.

[23] There is a manuscript copy in the Zâhiriyya library, No. 5916 Tawassuf.

[24] The entire text can be found in Bakri Aladdin’ s introduction to his re-edited edition of the book Al-Wujûd al-haqq by Nâbulusî, p. 81.

[25] Chodkiewicz, Épitre sur l’ unicité absolue, Paris, 1982, pp. 26–36.

[26] See his book The Perfect Man (Al-Insân al-Kâmil) and his poem Al-Qasîda ‘Ayniyya.

[27] See the work of Henry Corbin in Iranian Islam.

[28] Fut. II.573.

[29] 29. Fut. IV.393.

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