by Peter Young
Delivered at the MIAS Symposium Oxford, 1999
Since this symposium is concerned with the legacy of Ibn 'Arabi, I would like to speak this afternoon about his place and value, both at this time and for the future.
Speaking of one of the Beatitudes "Blessed are the poor" Meister Eckhart begins his sermon on poverty with the words "Blessedness opened its mouth to wisdom and said..." I would like to begin by saying something similar about Ibn 'Arabi, with this observation. While there are many men who are wise and merciful, those who actually are a mercy or a wisdom are few. Those who are pure mercy to the universe, and whose books and works come in a similarly unqualified way, from the same source and are equally mercy and wisdom itself, these are the rarest of the rare. Since they have reached the pinnacle of human potential and they have united in their being the infinite with the relative, they can henceforth be what God is. They can be Mercy and Wisdom, since He is these. Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi is a pure mercy to the universe and his books, and in particular the Fusus al-Hikam, nothing other than Wisdom itself.
This is neither hyperbole or flattery, but the literal truth. We know the usual situation of mankind; that whoever turns towards anything becomes qualified by that thing. Thus whoever studies knowledge becomes knowledgeable, and whoever turns to the light becomes enlightened. But those like Ibn 'Arabi have gone further. Nothing remains of themselves which might then receive a quality. No container or receiver remains. On the contrary their essence is replaced by the Essence, their qualities by Its qualities etc. and their re-emergence as a man, cloaked in servanthood is God's own re-emergence. And when the human being dies, as it must, Man, the reality does not die.
This is why the effect of Ibn 'Arabi and of his work will never be consigned to history; rather it will continue to unfold, because it is alive, eternal and permanently active, and because it has an aim which will not end as long as humanity lasts. God alone knows the future, but perhaps the greater part of the legacy of Ibn 'Arabi is yet to come. By this I do not mean the discovery of new and important manuscripts, or the translation of what there is into other languages, or commentators and commentaries or things of this sort. I mean rather the unfolding of the simple kernel of his legacy, which is what might be called in shorthand here the knowledge of the unity of existence and the possibility of attaining to a universal perspective. These knowledges of the real possibility for mankind are true, that is they are from the Truth, and they can be verified by those who single-heartedly pursue them. Which is indeed the invitation to us all, to uncover our true identity by knowing ourselves and consequently knowing God.
But, and this is going to sound strange, that which is truth is not only the truth as it is in itself; it is also an idea. For us this is very good news. Had there been no idea of the possibility of man's perfectibility we would have been cut off from realising this possibility. But we study the truth and we come to understand the fundamental idea; and because the idea is true it becomes effective in us. Effect belongs to Truth itself.
The question addressed in this paper is something like this; can it be that this knowledge which was brought down through Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi has a purpose and future beyond guiding to completion those who have such an aptitude to receive, and to pursue their spiritual destiny? As was said before, an idea that is true is of great effect. How much more so this idea of ideas, that existence is an absolute unity and totally present everywhere without division. Could this idea not become the real distinction of this age in which we live, its guiding principle and light with which it moves? If so it will be the greatest revolution in the general human consciousness that has yet taken place in mankind's short history. What I am suggesting is that this knowledge need not be confined to the few, but that it may become so widely known and accepted, albeit as an idea, that it becomes the distinctive hallmark of this time. Were this knowledge to come out, all will become clear for those who have the capacity and inclination to see it.
The particular gift that comes from Ibn 'Arabi, or possibly even is Ibn 'Arabi, is the all-inclusive point of view. If it is situated anywhere it is at the point of coming into manifestation of everything. As such it is not only a spiritual point of view, unless what is meant by that is the existence of one absolute and all- encompassing reality, which is the only real existence of everyone and everything. This is a perspective that leaves nothing out. It is not a Judeo-Christian or Islamic perspective, but it is this which has informed and given rise to the Abrahamic line and to all spirituality everywhere.
Those who possess this all-inclusive point of view are very few; but all who can accept that there is such a possibility will be able to appreciate that this view will not be limited by any particular form or partial identity. They will perceive that this point of view is completely distinguished from all partiality, and all qualifying adjectives, and that it is free from the qualifications of all religions, and is thereby completely Muslim to the Truth.
Those who can perceive that this perspective exists and is to be found will see that all partiality and adjectives must be thrown away in order to attain to it. This is true, as we have learned, in the journey of the spirit towards union, and it is also true at every other level of human interaction, from buying and selling to peace-brokering, for instance. If one wants peace with one's neighbor one must work towards a point of vision which is higher than both sides and looks over both sides. This is not to be attained without giving up the self-defined limits. Good minded people everywhere know these things instinctively, but what is generally lacking in efforts such as these is precisely that which Ibn 'Arabi brings - the knowledge of the unity of existence. As mentioned before, this knowledge is not limited only to the saint, the perfect man, because the one who receives even the idea of one existence and reality is affected by it and becomes qualified by it. Truth is immanent in all forms of beliefs. How much more so in that idea that Truth has of Itself, of one absolute and all-encompassing reality.
What is being proposed here is the necessity for a new paradigm for the generality of mankind. This paradigm does not need to be invented and is already with us, and no doubt already emerging. It is certainly most completely expressed in the teachings of Ibn 'Arabi, in his grand exposition of unity and the height and reality of man. The new paradigm, or idea that informs our understanding and relationships and attitudes and so on, is of one absolute and all-inclusive reality in which we mankind have a definite and unique role to play, and that this role is to be found in the context of the total. This is service to Life and to Existence, both as the absolute reality and as all the living things that are its relative expression. The acceptance of this idea requires the abandonment of the previous paradigm, since the two are mutually exclusive. The former paradigm is the idea that the limited self is the real existence and that this limited existence must be served and maintained. The model for this idea is of course the individual human organism, which eats, drinks, breathes, experiences, reproduces and dies. This organism, the human animal, is a limited form among other limited forms, and so an idea which is based upon this limit will itself be limited. But it is here that the idea is faulty, because what is known through the being of the animal is not the same as what the idea understands from it. Even though the animal is a limited form, it knows through its being its connection with the absolute; precisely through its relativity and creaturiality it knows its origin. There can be no limited form without it being the manifestation of that which is itself unlimited, and it is the awareness of this truth within the animal self that is its particular praise of its origin. On the other hand, the idea which derives from the appearance of this organism and is the limited "I"-ness knows nothing about praise of the origin, since it is not in accord with the reality as it is. As Ibn 'Arabi says; "There is not in existence one creature that the eye sees who is not in his 'ayn and essence the haqq, which has appeared manifested in that image. But the imaginations of the veiled ones call them creatures, because they are covered in creaturial form and are veiled by it. But to the ones who know, haqq is manifested through that image." What has happened is that the limited creaturial form has been mistaken for the reality, but the resultant idea of the actual existence of the separate self exists in thought or conjecture only. Whatever the widescale effects of the illusion it obviously could not alter the truth.
So we are making a distinction between the human organism which has a limited appearance, or exterior, but with an infinite interior to which it is inseparably attached, and the idea of this exterior which is that it exists in separation. Ordinary human thought uses this limited and illusory self as a model, mistaking it for the truth. From the Fusus; "Your being is one of the images from among the images which are individuated and manifested in the Breath of Rahman by the Breath of Rahman, and that thing which you request other than the haqq is just like your being existent through conjectural existence, like the existence of a mirage, as a mirage is a plot of land different from the land which surrounds it because you are thirsty for water, until it becomes a thing that does not exist, that God exists in its place."
This conjecture then is the only basis for the separate self, and the limit which is conjectured is illusory. We and all other things and people are inseparably attached by an essential attachment to our manifesting principle, and consequently we are related through this same principle to every other manifested thing. This is the truth, and, but, the effects of the illusion remain. The one who runs towards the mirage dominated by the thought that this is water will perish, unless he comes across a real oasis.
While we understand that these matters are true at an individual level, the point here is that this conjectural separation has developed many forms in the general consciousness that cover up the reality of our human situation. Separate existence is the enemy that dwells between the two sides of the forehead, and it is a killer that has killed tens of millions even since fifty years ago. Is it not time as we approach the end of the millenium that the lie of nationalism be called, be it benign in appearance or maleficent. We need to understand that nationality is nothing but a conjectural extension of a purely conjectural existence, and that it is bound by this fact to be self-serving. However much a european economic community maintains a face of brotherhood and understanding within its limits, it can only do so by maintaining those limits. Consequently it is in implicit opposition to the interests of all the rest of the world. The examples that could be given here are endless. What together they indicate is the unavoidable necessity for the cultivation of a different view, a greater possibility within reach of the generality of mankind. Man, Ibn 'Arabi says in the chapter of Adam, was created between hope and fear, to the end that we hope for God's mercy and fear His wrath.
It is becoming increasingly apparent that where historically we have been at war or in an uneasy peace with our neighbouring country, it is this enemy within that prevents real peace and understanding from happening between countries. It is more than ever clear that so called and entirely mis-named fundamentalists everywhere, be they nominally muslims, jews or southern baptists, belong to the same religion, and we must perceive that this religion is the binding of oneself to a self-invented conjectural limit. It is this that killed Itzak Rabin, and so shocked the nation of Israel, which believed that no Jew would kill another. It is more than ever clear that national boundaries are only being maintained by the same limited and limiting tendency on both sides of the divide. The greatest enemy is within. As the Prophet Mohammed said, on their return from war, "We are returning from the lesser jihad to the greater."
But,-- the sticks, serpents and ropes of Pharoah's magicians were swallowed by the staff of Moses when it transformed into 'an evident dragon'. Truth can take on any form it wishes since a single essence gives rise to all the multiplicity of forms. Therefore false conjecture can be swallowed by true conjecture, in this case that reality is one and all-encompassing, and all service is to it. Our happiness and completion lies in facing unity with the totality of ourselves, in standing for the truth of humanity, its singularity and largeness, and by denying any limited or diseased identity. While disease of the soul will perhaps never be eradicated from the relative world, we need to know and understand its source, and to call the bluff of that source.
This idea of one absolute and all-encompassing existence clearly extends beyond humanity to all of nature and the universe. Possibly for some of us it first made an impact when we saw those pictures from the moon of Planet Earth, a living whole of azure blue suspended tenderly in the infinite black expanse. Now we are beginning to perceive the details of the world of nature in terms of a unified whole, in which each part is inter-related with every other part, bio-systems of extreme complexity and ingenuity, each of which inter-relate on a larger scale. Recently we have been made aware of the world-wide phenomenon of El Nino. The young and receptive of all ages respond to the unity of nature and become eco-warriors, following their innate instinct to serve that which they love and find to be beautiful.
Now, what is required beyond this is an education which leads to an all-inclusive point of view, which is not limited to the world of nature, or to humanity, to science, economics or religion, but which sees all of these as faces of a single reality. In this there is no better teacher than the Shaykh al-Akbar, Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi, whose task this was to bring out the esoteric aspects of the religion into a doctrine of the unity of existence. It would appear to be no accident that the work of Ibn 'Arabi has appeared for the first time in English all within the last thirty years, and that this language has become the global lingua franca. Information technology will allow these works to be available soon anywhere in the world.
However this by itself is not sufficient. I have been fortunate enough to be involved with a school of esoteric education, the Beshara School, which began its first course in 1975. I was a student on this course. It was for this course that Angela Culme Seymour made the first translation of the Fusus into English, so that we could study it together over the six months. Other courses followed for which new material was translated by Bulent Rauf from the Ottoman together with the commentary. There followed Angela's translation of Jili's Universal Man, Bulent's translation of Burckhart's Mystical Astrology according to Ibn 'Arabi and more, all initially as study material for the courses. Students come to these courses from very varied backgrounds and from all over the world. The courses begin invariably with a very deep study of Ibn 'Arabi and continue into the Fusus al-Hikam. Such a course would not be possible for such a heterogeneous congregation to undergo without the facing of one existence and one reality, and it is this that provides the only focus of the course. It requires total involvement. This naturally has effect, since the students are constantly turned towards the real, and a clarity and certainty emerges which will, God willing, continue throughout their lives. But from the outset it is made clear that the purpose of these courses is for the emergence of an esoteric vision that is genuinely in accordance with the Will of the era. This work that they do does not end with themselves. To the extent that their limits are removed certainly it becomes easier for others who follow on, and this irrespective of considerations of space and distance. They do not bring this about themselves, since real effect is from the Real, but their participation in the movement towards the global vision of the unity and beauty of the being is nothing but the action of the Real in them.
From this privileged position of an involvement with this school over the last twenty four years it is obvious that there has been a great movement of change in the speed of assimilation of the idea of the unity of existence together with a deeper personal involvement with the essential. A change is happening without a doubt.
It is difficult to escape the conclusion that if this trend were to continue to accelerate at the same rate, its culmination would be nothing other than immediate cognition of the essential fact of the unity of being for a great many people. What serious student of hadith, and of the Shaykh al-Akbar, could doubt that this movement and acceleration is nothing but the love of the Real to be known, as in the hadith qudsi "I was a hidden treasure and I loved to be known...." While students of esoteric education want to come to know the unity and to be one with the One, their wanting to know already is the love of the Real, loving to be known in them.
So now we have come to the fact that what appeared at first to be an idea in the form of the idea of unity, actually has an interior kernel which is love, and the love of that love, which is movement and life, and the perfection of completion.
When we look towards the future, without the dread that things are only going to get worse, but with the confidence that the entire movement of the world is a movement of love, unfolding from the unseen, then what can lie ahead for us is all the fullness of human potential, on a global scale. The door swings open. "Man, says Ibn 'Arabi "has no essential characteristic other than totality and absoluteness." (Fusus)
In this facing of the future we are rooted firmly in the present; we stand rather like the mother of Moses as she conjectured that if she were to put the infant Moses in the ark, thereby he would be saved. "This conjecture and this imagination is, in the order itself, knowledge, as it is a reality with God, though it was a supposition with consideration of the mother of Moses." (Fusus)
So, with this conjecture of the unity of existence, informed by knowledge, we live and it is like our prayer, and in the order itself it is knowledge, the knowledge of certainty (ilm ul-yaqin). Its kernel is real, and the Reality of it will overcome the whisperings of the false conjecture and of the conjectural limits, which are ever trying for our attention and agreement, but which are at most no more than accidental matters, and as nothing in the general overview that is held out to us.
Thus of the heritage of Ibn 'Arabi perhaps we have only seen so far the growth of the stem of "a fair tree whose root is firm and whose branch is in the sky." It is now for the branches to spread and in the decades to come to bring forth its fruit.
Ibn 'Arabi was instructed to bring out the Fusus to people who will benefit by it. Perhaps there are and will be many millions who need to know, and who will benefit by the bringing out of the simple, positive, joyful news of their intrinsic and inseparable unity with their origin, offering freedom from the tyranny of the thought of otherness, in exchange for the certainty in one, absolute and all-embracing Reality, to Which, to Whom all service is due.