Veils of Light and Darkness: Thinking Through Ibn Arabi’s Bezels of Wisdom

Veils of Light and Darkness

Thinking Through Ibn Arabi’s Bezels of Wisdom

by Evrim Emir-Sayers (Paris, France)

EDITORS’ NOTE: This essay was originally published as “Ibn Arabi’s Ontology,” a chapter in Evrim Emir-Sayers’ 2024 book, The Veil of Depiction: Painting in Sufism and Phenomenology. To work as a stand-alone piece, the original has been slightly modified. For in-depth treatments of all topics sketched out here, we enthusiastically recommend the book itself. The material is reprinted courtesy of PICT Books.

In a story entitled “Chinese Art and Greek Art,” the renowned Sufi Jalaladdin Rumi (1207-1273)[1] forges a connection between Sufism and Ancient Greek philosophy.[2] The setting is a royal court where Chinese and Greek painters are engaged in a contest of skills. At first, the king orders a debate, but when the Chinese painters start to talk, the Greeks remain silent and leave. The Chinese painters then suggest that each party be given a room to demonstrate its skills, whereupon a large room is divided into two by a veil. While the Chinese request hundreds of colors from the king, the Greeks ask for no colors at all. As the Chinese start to paint, the Greeks simply clean and polish the walls on their side of the room. Once the Chinese have finished their painting, the king arrives in order to appraise both sides. The Greeks remove the veil dividing the room, and the Chinese painting reflects on their polished wall, showing itself even more stunningly than on the wall where it has been painted. “The Greek art,” so Rumi, “is the Sufi way”: it is not simply based on the mastery of knowledge and skill, but on the purification of heart and soul.[3]

Rumi’s message is best understood via the writings of another prominent Sufi, Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi (1165-1240).[4] Ibn Arabi was a prolific writer,[5] but his ontology is succinctly expressed in his Fusus-ul-Hikam (The Bezels of Wisdom), composed in 1230. Described as the work in which Ibn Arabi “presents his thought in its maturest form,”[6] The Bezels of Wisdom outlines the philosopher’s ontology in twenty-seven chapters, each named after a prophet in the Abrahamic-Islamic tradition and using that prophet as a starting point to illuminate a particular aspect of Ibn Arabi’s thought.

Far from systematic in the philosophical sense, the work relies on a scattering of interrelated concepts that are repeated on hand of various examples throughout the text. This should not be misconstrued as randomness: the pedagogical goal of Ibn Arabi’s style is to trigger unplanned mnemonic responses and elicit spontaneous flashes of insight from the reader. For the purposes of our present study, however, we will need to “reconstruct” Ibn Arabi’s core concepts in a systematic fashion.

Ibn Arabi views the phenomenal world (the cosmos) as the self-disclosure of the hidden, divine mystery. Chapter 1 of The Bezels of Wisdom begins with the following statement:

The Reality wanted to see the essences of His Most Beautiful Names or, to put it another way, to see His own Essence, in all-inclusive object encompassing the whole [divine] Command, which, qualified by existence, would reveal to Him His own mystery. For the seeing of a thing, itself by itself, is not the same as its seeing itself in another, as it were in a mirror; for it appears to itself in a form that is invested by the location of the vision by that which would only appear to it given the existence of the location and its [the location’s] self-disclosure to it.[7]

The divine as transcendence, to Ibn Arabi, is beyond human cognition: he calls it “the Mystery of Mysteries”[8] or the “Absolute Mystery.”[9] This is the divine aspect of stillness; it involves no self-manifestation (tajalli) of the divine. In fact, the divine cannot manifest itself in its absoluteness; transcending all relations and escaping all definition, it transcends even the concept of God (Allah), which only has meaning in relation to the concept of creation.[10] But since, as Toshihiko Izutsu puts it, “one cannot talk about anything at all without linguistic designation,” Ibn Arabi “uses the word haqq (which literally means Truth or Reality) in referring to the Absolute.”[11]

“Contemplation of the Reality without formal support is not possible,” says Ibn Arabi, “since God, in His Essence, is far beyond all need of the Cosmos. […] Therefore, some form of support is necessary.”[12] In order to become knowable, then, the unknowable needs to manifest itself. This manifestation takes place through the phenomena, which serve to make the hidden mystery visible.[13] At the same time, though, the phenomena function as veils (hijab) that hide the mystery. As Ibn Arabi puts it,

The Reality has described Himself as being hidden in veils of darkness, which are the natural forms, and by veils of light, which are the subtle spirits. The Cosmos consists of that which is gross and that which is subtle and is therefore, in both aspects, the veil [covering] its true self. For the Cosmos does not perceive the Reality as He perceives Himself, nor can it ever not be veiled.[14]

But while the particulars might function as veils, this does not mean they are mere obstacles to the perception of the reality. Rather, they are “veils” insofar as their very particularity makes it impossible for them to manifest the reality in its undifferentiated form. To describe the way in which the reality is perceived by the particulars by way of the particulars, Ibn Arabi turns to the metaphor of the mirror:

A divine Self-revelation […] occurs only in a form conforming to the essential predisposition of the recipient of such a revelation. Thus, the recipient sees nothing other than his own form in the mirror of the Reality. He does not see the Reality Itself, which is not possible, although he knows that he may see only his [true] form in It. As in the case of the mirror and the beholder, he sees the form in it, but does not see the mirror itself, despite his knowledge that he only sees his own and other images by means of it.[15]

The mirror, in making us visible to ourselves, becomes invisible itself. In order to see the image reflected, we need to not see the mirror itself. According to Ibn Arabi, a phenomenon is both a mirror and the image reflected onto it; an unveiling veil.

Ibn Arabi also explores the relationship between the manifest and the unmanifest through the concepts of dream (or imagination, khayal) and reality. The world of phenomena is a dream state, divorced from what he calls reality: “You are an imagination, as is all that you regard as other than yourself an imagination. All existence is an imagination within an imagination, the only Reality being God, as Self and the Essence.”[16] As long as one revels in the world of particulars and severs ties with the hidden reality, the dream is a nightmare that repeats itself over and over again.

As we have seen, however, the phenomena serve to both veil and unveil. To Ibn Arabi, the dream state is full of symbols that point to the origin of the dream, i.e., reality. The phenomenal world must be interpreted, just like a dream, to reveal the truth it conceals: “When Muhammad said, ‘All men are asleep and when they die they will awake,’ he meant that everything a man sees in this life is of the same kind as that which one sleeping sees; in other words an apparition that requires interpretation.”[17] “The interpreter,” Ibn Arabi adds, “proceeds from the form seen by the dreamer to the form of the thing in itself, if he is successful.”[18] In fact, such interpretation (ta’wil) is the only way to reach the hidden truth behind the phenomena.[19]

As an example of failed interpretation, Ibn Arabi offers the vision in which the prophet Abraham was urged by God to sacrifice his son. “Had he been true to the vision,” Ibn Arabi states, “he would have killed his son, for he believed that it was his son he saw although with God it was nothing other than the Great Sacrifice in the form of his son.” This, to the philosopher, was a failure on the prophet’s part: “He did not interpret what he saw, but took it at its face value, although visions require interpretation.”[20]

Ibn Arabi’s view of the phenomenal world as a dream world does not imply a devaluation of the dream world as somehow “unreal” or “less real” than the reality.[21] The difference between the dream world and reality is that the former consists of individuals and particulars, subjects and objects, things that are distinct from each other, whereas in the latter, everything is united and one. However, we are not talking about two different worlds here, but rather two different perspectives on the same world: ultimately, to Ibn Arabi, dream and reality are only two aspects of the same unity. To awaken, then, means to comprehend the reality in its totality, from which perspective particularity and individuality appear like a dream.

In yet another way, the veiling function of phenomena is as important as their function of unveiling or manifestation, since the particulars could not bear experiencing the overwhelming reality of the hidden mystery in the absence of the phenomenal veil. The point is perfectly illustrated by the following hadith: “God hides Himself behind seventy thousand veils of light and darkness. If He took away these veils, the fulgurating lights of His face would at once destroy the sight of any creature who dared to look at it.”[22]

We can conclude that the divine is engaged in a continuous movement of veiling (self-concealment) and unveiling (self-disclosure). As Ibn Arabi puts it,

The Absolute [….] is nothing other than what comes out outwardly, whereas in the very moment of coming out outwardly it is what conceals itself inwardly. There is no one who sees the Absolute except the Absolute itself, and yet there is no one to whom the Absolute remains hidden. It is the Outward (i.e., self-manifesting) to itself, and yet it is the Inward (i.e., self-concealing) to itself.[23]

While the immanent, phenomenal world is the self-manifesting aspect of this strife and the transcendent absolute is its self-concealing aspect, the self-manifesting aspect also contains a strife within itself since it simultaneously unveils and veils the hidden.[24]

“The Reality,” Ibn Arabi says, “gave existence to the whole Cosmos [at first] as an undifferentiated thing without anything of the spirit in it, so that is was like an unpolished mirror.”[25] Spirit enters the cosmos by way of the human being: “Adam was the very principle of reflection for that mirror and the spirit of that form.”[26] But the human being is both spirit and form, inner and outer alike: “his [man’s] outer form He composed of the cosmic realities and forms, while his inner form He composed to match His Own form.”[27] This commingling of the inner and outer makes the human being the “isthmus” (barzakh), the “essential link,” so R.W.J. Austin, “between the Creator and His creation, that all-important medium by which God perceives Himself as manifested in the Cosmos, and by which the Cosmos recognizes its source in God.”[28]

Ibn Arabi also describes the human being as the microcosm of the universe, or of the divine: “God has put into this noble epitome, the Perfect Man, all the Divine Names and the realities of all things existing outside of him in the Macrocosm which (apparently) subsist independently of him.”[29] Just as the divine has two faces, namely the light (immanence) and the darkness (transcendence),[30] the human being also has two faces, one visible and one invisible. The visible body dwells in the realm of perception, while the invisible aspect, the soul or mind, belongs to the realm of reason. It is reason, or consciousness, that enshrines the human being’s perfection as microcosm. In Izutsu’s words,

Man […] not only synthesizes all the forms of the Divine self-manifestation which are scattered over the world of Being, but also is conscious of this whole. This is why a true comprehensive unity is established by Man, corresponding to the Unity of the Absolute. Man is in this sense the Imago Dei.[31]

Because it is the perfect microcosm, the human being can mirror the divine (the universe) as no other phenomenon can.

Ibn Arabi’s division of the cosmos into visible and invisible is actually part of a more detailed scheme in which creation is divided into five planes (hadarat) of being that are based on Plato’s analogy of the divided line. Ibn Arabi’s planes are summarized by his disciple, Al-Qashani,[32] as follows:

  • The Plane of Senses and Sensible Experience, corresponding to Plato’s “objects.” This is the only purely material plane in the scheme.

  • The Plane of Images and Imagination (khayal), roughly corresponding to Plato’s “images.” This plane is an intermediate realm between the sensible and the spiritual worlds.

  • The Plane of Actions or Spirits, roughly corresponding to Plato’s “mathematical truths.”

  • The Plane of Attributes and Names, or of Intellects, roughly corresponding to Plato’s “ideas” or “forms.” The “Names” refer to Ibn Arabi’s concept of “Permanent Archetypes,” according to which all phenomenal existence is prefigured in archetypal form.

  • The Plane of the Essence, of absolute non-manifestation, roughly corresponding to Plato’s “Good.” This is the only plane that stands outside manifestation.[33]

Plato and Ibn Arabi share the conviction that the lower planes are symbols of the higher ones,[34] and while the human being’s body is related to the two lowest planes of existence, its invisible component is related to the remaining, higher planes.[35]

Still, Sufism does not advocate a renouncement of the body in favor of the mind/soul, but rather a unification of the two. This comes through in the favorable way Ibn Arabi compares humans to animals, who stand for the body without intellect,[36] and angels, who stand for the disembodied intellect.[37] Humans are superior to animals thanks to their minds and superior to the angels thanks to their bodies. When humans perceive, they do not perceive like a body without mind or a mind without body, but as a unity of body and mind. This unified view of body and mind also explains Sufism’s philosophical emphasis on the phenomenal world as well as its practical emphasis on physical rituals such as music and dance.[38]

Such unity, however, cannot be taken for granted; it must first be achieved. If not, the body will remain a “particularizer” in the phenomenal world—as will the intellect, which creates dichotomies in its effort to know the unknowable, to understand the hidden reality. In Ibn Arabi’s words, “The intellect restricts and seeks to define the truth within a particular qualification, while in fact the Reality does not admit of such a limitation.”[39] Al-Qashani elaborates as follows:

The “self-manifester,” the locus of self-manifestation, the act of self-manifestation, the being of the self-manifester a self-manifester and the being of the locus a locus, etc. [….] are all notions conceived by our discriminating Reason, the distinctions existing only in our Reason. [….] There is nothing in Being except God![40]

The only way for a human being to catch a direct glimpse of reality is through the mystical experience of “self-annihilation” (fana), in which the dichotomy of body and mind is transcended. This experience is followed by the state of “subsistence” (baqa), in which one’s self and appreciation of particulars are reinstated, but with the individual ego replaced by divine consciousness.[41] Only after such an experience and transformation do human beings achieve their full potential and deserve the title “Perfect Man” (al-insan al-kamil).[42]

Returning to the metaphor of the mirror, we could say that even though the divine discloses itself most fully via the human being, if the human being is not willing or able to reflect a perfect image of the divine, the disclosure cannot take place. The mirror of the human being must be polished to perfection before it can reflect the divine.[43]

The mystical experience of self-annihilation can be described as a metaphorical death, but Sufism maintains that a permanent unity between the soul and the divine, the perceiver and the perceived, or, one might say, the subject and the object, is only attainable in actual, physical death.[44] The allegorical story of Layla and Majnun is a good example. Majnun, the symbol of the soul, is searching for his beloved Layla, the symbol of the Divine, in order to reunite with her. The unity is only achieved at the very end of the story, with the death of Majnun.[45]

This unity in death is described in one of Sufism’s most famous metaphors, that of the ocean and the drop of water, which explores the relationship between the divine and the soul, or the absolute and the particulars. Being is considered to be like an ocean, while its particular manifestations resemble drops of water. The moment one particular comes into existence, it is like a drop of water splitting off from the ocean, and the moment it loses its particularity and dies, it merges again with the ocean from which it originates.[46] When you look at their “essence,” a drop of water and the ocean are the same. One cannot claim that a drop of water carries less “truth” or “essence” than the ocean.[47]

Those who take the path of transcendence, to Ibn Arabi, are the prophet and the mystic, mirroring Plato’s idea of the philosopher-king.[48] They undertake the “Gnostic ascent”[49] through the planes of being until the final mystical experience occurs in what Al-Qashani describes as an “unveiling” (kashf).[50] This “unveiling” of reality is illustrated by Rumi through the metaphor of a wedding night. In traditional Islam, a man sees his bride, his beloved, for the first time on their wedding night. Similarly, the mystical experience takes place when the divine (the bride) is unveiled to the soul:

The state is the unveiling of the bride,

The station’s being alone with her inside,

For her unveiling’s seen by every guest

But with the groom alone the bride will rest—

The bride unveils for every onlooker

But afterwards he lies alone with her!

So many Sufis have enjoyed a state

But few know of the stations that await.[51]

To Ibn Arabi, the Gnostic ascent from the lower planes to the highest is the journey of the soul yearning for its beloved, the divine, from which it was separated by birth.[52]

Sufism holds that anyone with the right training can take this journey, attaining mystical knowledge of the primordial existence by “meeting the divine.” Such knowledge goes beyond the descriptive capacity of human language, limited, as it is, by reason and the phenomenal world. Therefore, it reduces the mystic to a state of speechlessness. As Ibn Arabi puts it, “When God established me in this station, I realized my animality to the full. I saw things and I wanted to express what I saw, but could not do so, being no different from those who cannot speak.”[53] The prophet, however, completes the mystical circle and returns with a message, making the invisible visible to the rest of humankind.[54] Prophets differ from regular mystics in that through their “messages,” they teach us new ways of perception or thinking. They teach us how to see, that is, how to think.[55]

One Sufi story describes the mystical journey by way of a Sufi’s physical journey from the East to the West, from home to the foreign, from the higher world in which the sun rises to the lower world in which it sets. The story, told in the Canticle of the Birds by Fariduddin Attar (ca. 1110-1221), introduces a well-respected sheikh, named San’an, who has many disciples.[56] Whenever a disciple asks him to give an example of the divine, a glimpse of it at least, San’an says that the divine is “not this” or “not that.” Instead of giving an affirmative description, he resorts to negations. One day, the sheikh dreams that he should take a journey to the West, to the Rome of the East, Constantinople. Following this command, he sets out on the road, accompanied by some of his disciples.

Upon arriving in Constantinople, he catches a glimpse of a Christian princess, immediately falling in love with her. His disciples are in shock on account of seeing their old, wise master in love with such a seemingly unsuitable object of desire. At first, the Christian princess rejects the love of the sheikh. After he stages many attempts to gain her affections, she decides to test his love and has him carry out a variety of tasks, such as drinking wine, herding swine, and even burning a copy of the Quran. Scandalizing his disciples, he performs all these demeaning tasks forbidden in Islam.

In the end, the Christian princess is so impressed by the sheikh that she converts to his religion. She ends up dying in his arms, and the sheikh finally returns home to the East. The story teaches us that unless the Sufi makes the journey from home to the foreign, thereby becoming homeless, it is impossible to perform the homecoming through which the mystical circle is completed.

Michael Barry interprets Sheikh San’an as a mystic who starts out by approaching the divine as unmanifest (transcendence) and later complements this understanding through an experience of the Divine as manifest (immanence):

Attar’s parable implies that his Arabian cleric—a walking caricature of the smug orthodox ordinary Muslim—remained far too content in his spiritual arrogance to worship only the invisible or Transcendental God in Mecca. This is why a divine voice urged this very cleric to travel humbly to Christian Byzantium, in order to learn there the secret of the Immanent God made visible through Creation’s lovely forms or manifest “icons.” [….] Attar’s cleric finally attains complete wisdom by perceiving God as both Transcendent and as Immanent, and the Greek princess falls at his feet in turn.[57]

Also contained in the tale is Sufism’s take on the three Abrahamic religions. At first, the sheikh only knows one aspect of the divine: the hidden, the dark, the absolute Other, a God who can only be described via negativa, exemplified by the Judaic God in the writings of Moses Maimonides.[58] Christianity differentiates itself from this approach with its strong emphasis on God as manifested, exemplified by Christ as divinity incarnate.[59] This emphasis also accounts for the significant role that paintings of the divine have played in Christianity (and, specifically, Christian churches) in contrast to the other Abrahamic religions. Via his journey, the sheikh learns from Christianity that the divine is not only darkness but also light, manifesting itself through creation.[60]

Sufism, I would argue, aims at a synthesis of the Judaic and Christian approaches. Muhammad, described by Sufis as the “Seal of the Prophets,”[61] combines the two worldviews of the divine as manifest and unmanifest, thereby “sealing” the philosophical route opened up by the Abrahamic tradition. As Izutsu puts it, “According to Ibn ‘Arabi, the ideal combination of tanzih [transcendence] and tashbih [immanence] was achieved only in Islam.”[62]

The highest aim of Ibn Arabi’s ontology is to attain the ultimate truth, which is the unity of the divine and the soul, darkness and light, or, one might say, noumena and phenomena. The concept of unity helps Ibn Arabi overcome a dichotomy between the Judaic and Christian traditions, takes him beyond Platonic dualism into the realm of Neoplatonism, and, as we will see further below, renders his thought incompatible with the dualistic Cartesian worldview.

Throughout The Bezels of Wisdom, Ibn Arabi explicitly recoils from the temptation of dualism in whatever guise it may appear—and the guises are many. About the dichotomy between creator and created, he has the following to say:

When you consider His saying, “I am his foot with which he walks, his hand with which he strikes, and his tongue with which he speaks,” and all the other faculties and members in which they are situated, why do you make the distinction by saying it is all the Reality, or it is all created? It is all created in a certain sense, but it is also the Reality in another sense.[63]

The dichotomy between transcendence and immanence is equally rejected:

The intellect, by itself, absorbing knowledge in its own way, knows only according to the transcendental and nothing of the immanental. It is only when God acquaints it with His Self-manifestation that its knowledge of God becomes complete, seeing Him as transcendent when appropriate, and as immanent when appropriate.[64]

Ibn Arabi also has no patience for the dichotomy between the observer and the observed:

Positing something other than what is looked on, thus establishing a relation between two things, the observer and the thing observed, nulli[fies] the Unity, although [in reality] only He sees Himself alone through Himself. Here also there would appear to be observer and observed [but both are He].[65]

Along with the idea of duality, that of multiplicity is abandoned as well:

The perfect gnostic is one who regards every object of worship as a manifestation of God in which He is worshiped. They call it a god, although its proper name might be stone, wood, animal, man, star, or angel. Although that might be its particular name, Divinity presents a level that causes the worshiper to imagine that it is his object of worship. In reality, this level is the Self-manifestation of God to the consciousness of the worshiper in this particular mode of manifestation.[66]

One of the most challenging dichotomies tackled by Ibn Arabi is that between male and female. At first glance, it would appear that a clear hierarchy is involved: woman is created from man just as the cosmos is created from the absolute, with activity assigned to the male and passivity to the female.[67] In Ibn Arabi’s words:

God drew forth from him a being in his own image, called woman, and because she appears in his own image, the man feels a deep longing for her, as something yearns for itself, while she feels longing for him as one who longs for that place to which one belongs.[68]

Ultimately, however, Ibn Arabi turns this dichotomy on its head as well, giving us an image of the feminine divine by describing the creation of the cosmos as an act of giving birth. Creation, to the philosopher, may be likened to a divine exhalation, described as the “Breath of the Merciful” (nafas al-rahman), whereby the word for “mercy” (rahmah) derives from that for “womb” (rahim).[69]

In the final chapter of The Bezels of Wisdom, Ibn Arabi goes to some length in emphasizing the feminine nature of the divine creative act. Starting from a hadith that quotes the prophet Muhammad as saying, “Of all the things of your world, three things have been made particularly dear to me, women, perfumes, and the ritual prayer,”[70] the philosopher stages a linguistic analysis, maintaining that the words for “woman” and “prayer” are feminine in Arabic, and that the common plural for the set of three, which should be masculine according to Arabic grammar, was also rendered feminine by the prophet.[71] Proceeding from this linguistic assessment to an ontological assertion, Ibn Arabi goes on to state that:

The man finds himself situated between an essence [i.e., the Divine Essence] which is his [ontological] source and a woman [i.e., his own mother] who is his [physical] source. Thus he is placed between two feminine nouns, that is to say, between the femininity of essence and the real [i.e., physical] femininity.[72]

Women, to Ibn Arabi, are the perfect manifestation of the feminine creative principle of the divine. When a man contemplates the beauty of a woman, the philosopher states, “It is none other than He whom he sees in her.”[73] “The Apostle [Muhammad],” he goes on, “loved woman by reason of perfect contemplation of the Reality in them.”[74] Ultimately, the divine is both male and female, and both male and female are active and passive alike.

Ibn Arabi resolves all dichotomies, such as those listed above, in a coincidentia oppositorum[75] that is only accessible through the experience of “unveiling” but that, on the level of rational thought and language, only leaves the speaker with a set of contradictory and paradoxical statements:

You may say of Being what you will; either that it is the creation or that it is the Reality, or that it is at once the creation and the Reality. It might also be said that there is neither creation nor the Reality, as one might admit to perplexity in the matter, since by assigning degrees the difficulties appear.[76]

The oneness of being (wahdah al-wujud) is often explained by Sufis with reference to the Muslim confession of faith, “No God, But God” (la ilaha illa-llah). In Sufism, “No God” refers to the darkness or hidden divine, while “But God” refers to the light or unconcealed divine. The divine is neither just the unconcealed nor just the concealed—it is both at the same time, and Ibn Arabi does not grant superiority to either aspect:

The transcendent Reality is the relative creature, even though the creature be distinct from the Creator. The Reality is at once the created Creator and the creating creature. All this is One Essence, at once Unique and Many.[77]

To Ibn Arabi, the “image,” the reflection in the mirror, is not merely a reflection of a thing in itself, but the unmanifest in manifested form—it is the visibility of the invisible. Ultimately, Sufism rejects the distinction between the thing in itself (the essence) and the phenomena. Phenomena already carry the very same odor (essence) as noumena.

A Sufi metaphor illustrating this point is that of the candle and the mirror. Picture a candle holder with a mirror attached to augment the light of the candle. The candle, here, stands for the divine, and the mirror for the manifestation (specifically, the human soul).[78] Qualitatively, there is no difference between the light produced by the candle and that emanating from the mirror. As Rumi’s Greek painters were well aware, a perfect reflection and the object reflected are the same.

Proceeding from the oneness of being, Ibn Arabi rejects any hierarchy in the relationship between the reality and the cosmos, the transcendent and the immanent, or the concealed and the unconcealed. Rather, he sees the relationship as one of interdependence. The creator needs the creation, and human beings in particular, since divine self-knowledge remains incomplete without knowledge of the divine as manifested. In Ibn Arabi’s words, “The image of perfection is complete only with knowledge of both the ephemeral and the eternal, the rank of knowledge being perfected only by both aspects.”[79]

Regarding human beings in particular, Ibn Arabi maintains that “It is we who make Him a divinity by being that through which He knows Himself as Divine. Thus, He is not known until we are known.”[80] Human consciousness acts as the intermediary through which the divine perceives the cosmos: “For the Reality, he is as the pupil is for the eye through which the act of seeing takes place. Thus he is called insan [meaning both man and pupil], for it is by him that the Reality looks on His creation.”[81] Hence, the creator and human beings act as mirrors and even as nourishment for each other: “You are His nourishment as bestowing the contents of His Self-Knowledge, while He is yours as bestowing existence, which is assigned to you being assigned also to Him.”[82] The issue is perfectly summarized by Ibn Arabi in the following poem:

He praises me and I praise Him,

He worships me and I worship Him.


Where then is His Self-sufficiency,

Since I help Him and grant Him Bliss?

It is for this that the Reality created me,

For I give content to His Knowledge and manifest Him.[83]

Ibn Arabi maintains that the very concept of a god or lord is meaningless without the complementary concept of a servant, rendering the former dependent on the latter. “Divinity,” he says, “implies and requires that which depends on it, just as Lordship requires servanthood, since neither would have any existence or meaning otherwise.”[84] The servants, through their actions, condition the reactions of the lord as much as vice versa: “The whole Cosmos subjects, by circumstance, One Who cannot properly be called subjected, as He has said, ‘Every day He is busy with some matter.’”[85] This subjection of the lord by the servant, or the creator by the creation, is likened by Ibn Arabi to the responsibilities that conscientious rulers assume vis-à-vis their subjects: “Some kings strive for their own ends, while others realize the truth of the matter and know that by rank they are in subjection to their own subjects.”[86]

The interdependence of essence and existence is also expressed in Ibn Arabi’s concept of “bipolar triplicity.”[87] As R.W.J. Austin puts it, creation occurs in a triplicity consisting of “Essential Oneness, the urge to polarity, and the actual experience of bipolarity, which itself is eternally being resolved back into the Essence.”[88] This triplicity is bipolar in that it cannot simply exist on the part of the creator but must be mirrored in the creation as well. According to Ibn Arabi, the creation participates in the bipolar triplicity as follows: “Its latent essence in its state of nonexistence corresponds to the Essence of its Creator, its ‘hearing’ [receptivity] to the Will of its Creator, and its compliance with the Creative Command to His saying [Word] Be.”[89] Rather than being a passive outcome, the created is actively involved in its own creation: “In truth, it was none other than the thing itself that brought itself into being from nonexistence when the Command was given.”[90]

Finally, Ibn Arabi views the process of creation as perpetual, recurring, and fundamentally unstable.[91] “Every Self-manifestation,” he maintains, “at once provides a creation and annihilates another. Its annihilation is extinction at the [new] Self-manifestation, subsistence being what is given by the following Self-manifestation.”[92] This perpetual process of creation and annihilation is tied to the “Breath of the Merciful”: “God is manifest in every Breath and […] no Self-manifestation is repeated.”[93] Ibn Arabi even rejects the idea that the creator comes first in time: “Although He is the First, no temporal priority may be attributed of Him. Thus He is called also the Last. [….] He is called the Last only in the sense that all reality, though reality be attributed to us, is His.”[94]

If the light (the unconcealed) and the darkness (the concealed) are neither dichotomous and separate nor one and the same, how are we to understand the relationship between them? I propose the following approach: In talking about the inscrutable darkness of the divine, Ibn Arabi can be taken to view the divine as potentiality, an infinite potentiality that can give birth to infinite numbers of self-manifestations or particulars. If so, what grounds these manifestations is not some kind of independently existing, ultimate reality, but rather the potentiality of creation. Therefore, I would argue, Sufism allows for the interpretation that there is no existence beyond existence. Beyond actuality, there is only potentiality.

[1] Mawlana Jalaladdin Muhammad Balkhi (or Rumi) was a Sufi mystic, poet, theologian, and jurist.

[2] Jalaladdin Rumi, The Masnawi: Book One, trans. Jawid Mojaddedi, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, 212-214.

[3] Previous Sufi philosophers and poets render the competitors’ approaches in reverse: both Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1059-1111) and Nizami Ganjavi (1141-1209) have the Greeks paint and the Chinese polish (see al-Ghazali, Wonders of the Heart, trans. Walter James Skellie, Petaling Jaya: Islamic Book Trust, 2007, 71-72; and Nizami, The Sikandar Nama e Bara, or Book of Alexander the Great, trans. Henry Wilberforce Clarke, London: W.H. Allen, 1881, 638-642, respectively). Ibn Arabi, the protagonist of this chapter, also tells a version of the story, omitting the qualifiers “Chinese” and “Greek” altogether (see Ibn Arabi, The Alchemy of Human Happiness, trans. Stephen Hirtenstein, Oxford: Anqa Publishing, 2017, 89-90).

[4] Ibn Arabi and Rumi are widely regarded as the two pinnacles of Sufi thought, representing its philosophical and poetical expression, respectively. As Henry Corbin puts it, the Sufi tradition “is dominated by two great figures: Ibn ‘Arabi, the incomparable master of mystic theosophy, and Jalaluddin Rūmī, the […] troubadour of that religion of love whose flame feeds on the theophanic feeling for sensuous beauty” (Corbin, Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ʿArabī, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969, 110).

Apart from its towering influence on Sufism, Ibn Arabi’s thought has also been linked by R.W.J. Austin to preceding, non-Islamic mystical traditions such as Kabbalah, Gnostic Christianity, and Yoga Philosophy. Austin even mentions that “an Arabic version of a Persian translation of a Sanskrit work on Tantric Yoga has been attributed to Ibn al-‘Arabi.” In its own turn, Ibn Arabi’s work has been posited by Austin as an influence (even if indirect) on later strands of Western religious thought and literature, such as Dante’s Divine Comedy (see R.W.J. Austin, “Introduction,” in Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, trans. R.W.J. Austin, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1980, 23, 15).

While the definite establishment of such connections awaits further scholarship, it is clear that Ibn Arabi, along with many other Sufi thinkers, was deeply influenced by the Platonic and Neoplatonic traditions. The connection between Ibn Arabi and Platonic thought has been pointed out by Titus Burckhardt, who informs us that the philosopher was also referred to as “Ibn Aflātūn” (Son of Plato) (Burckhardt, “Preface,” in Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, xiii). Various other scholars, such as R.W.J. Austin, Toshihiko Izutsu, and Michael Barry, note Ibn Arabi’s proximity to the Neoplatonic tradition (see Austin, “Introduction,” 22-23; Toshihiko Izutsu, Sufism and Taoism: A Comparative Study of Key Philosophical Concepts, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004, 154; Michael Barry, Figurative Art in Medieval Islam and the Riddle of Bihzad of Herat (1465-1535), Paris: Flammarion, 2004, 299).

[5] He is said to have composed up to 400 works (Izutsu, Sufism and Taoism, 3).

[6] Izutsu, Sufism and Taoism, 4.

[7] Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 50.

[8] Izutsu, Sufism and Taoism, 11.

[9] Izutsu, Sufism and Taoism, 31.

[10] Austin, “Introduction,” 30.

[11] Izutsu, Sufism and Taoism, 23. Unfortunately, the subtle distinction between Haqq and Allah is often lost in translation. Thus, Haqq is sometimes inconsistently rendered by Izutsu and Austin as “Reality” and “God” when translating the same passage (see Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 52 [translation by Austin as “Reality”] and Izutsu, Sufism and Taoism, 32 [translation by Izutsu as “God”]). Since I am drawing on both Izutsu and Austin as commentators and translators, my usage of the two words will be somewhat interchangeable. Whether I am referring to the “Absolute Mystery” or the “Creator” should, however, be clear from the context.

[12] Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 275.

[13] At this juncture, Izutsu notes both a similarity and a difference between Ibn Arabi and Plotinus: “Ibn ‘Arabi uses the Plotinian term ‘emanation’ (fayd) as a synonym of tajalli. But ‘emanation’ here does not mean, as it does in the world-view of Plotinus, one thing overflowing from the absolute One, then another from that first thing, etc., in the form of a chain. ‘Emanation’, for Ibn ‘Arabi, simply means that the Absolute itself appears in different, more or less concrete forms, with a different self-determination in each case” (Izutsu, Sufism and Taoism, 154).

[14] Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 56.

[15] Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 65.

[16] Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 125. According to Austin, the reference to an “imagination within an imagination” should be taken to mean that Ibn Arabi regards the cosmos as a kind of “divine dream,” and human perception as a smaller dream within it (Austin, “Introductory Note,” in Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 119).

[17] Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 196-197.

[18] Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 121.

[19] Michael Barry links Ibn Arabi’s concept of the dream to the Neoplatonic influence on Sufi thought: “Sufism’s well-known Neoplatonic strain, here as elsewhere, dwells on the visionary experience as a mystical rapture that yields, through night and its attendant sleep and dreams, true perception of the realities that lie beyond daylight’s veil of the waking senses” (Barry, Figurative Art, 299).

[20] Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 99.

[21] As Izutsu puts it, “In Ibn ‘Arabi’s view, if ‘reality’ is an illusion, it is not a subjective illusion, but an ‘objective’ illusion; that is, an unreality standing on a firm ontological basis. And this is tantamount to saying that it is not an illusion at all, at least in the sense in which the word is commonly taken” (Izutsu, Sufism and Taoism, 11).

[22] Izutsu, Sufism and Taoism, 32. The hadith is highly reminiscent of Friedrich Nietzsche’s remarks in The Birth of Tragedy: “The Greeks knew the terrors and horrors of existence, but they covered them with a veil in order to be able to live” (Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, trans. Ronald Speirs, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014, 124).

[23] Translation by Izutsu, Sufism and Taoism, 75-76.

[24] As we shall see further below, a similar thought is expressed by Martin Heidegger in “The Origin of the Work of Art”: “Truth is present only as the strife between clearing and concealing in the opposition between world and earth” (Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” in Off the Beaten Track, trans. and ed. Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002, 1-56, here 37).

[25] Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 50.

[26] Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 51.

[27] Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 56.

[28] Austin, “Introductory Note,” 206.

[29] Translation by Izutsu, Sufism and Taoism, 226.

[30] Austin, “Introductory Note,” 120; Izutsu, Sufism and Taoism, 62.

[31] Izutsu, Sufism and Taoism, 222.

[32] Abd al-Razzaq Qashani (d. 1330).

[33] Izutsu, Sufism and Taoism, 11-12.

[34] Izutsu, Sufism and Taoism, 11-12.

[35] Plato’s thoughts on the divided line are expressed in the Republic. “Do you understand these two kinds, visible and intelligible?” Socrates asks here. “Represent them, then, by a line divided into two unequal sections. Then divide each section—that of the visible kind and that of the intelligible—in the same proportion as the line”. The philosopher then goes on to describe the sections of the line, as outlined in the text above (Plato, Republic, trans. C. D. C. Reeve, Indianapolis: Hackett, 2004, 205-206).

[36] Ibn Arabi talks of the prophet Elias as having to “descend from the realm of his intellect to that of his lust until he becomes pure animal” in order to grasp the divine not only in its transcendence, but also in its immanence (The Bezels of Wisdom, 235).

[37] “The angels were only certain faculties of that form which was the form of the Cosmos,” Ibn Arabi states. They “do not enjoy the comprehensiveness of Adam and comprehend only those Divine Names peculiar to them” (The Bezels of Wisdom, 51-52).

[38] As an example of a Sufi prayer ritual (dhikr, literally “remembrance” of God) that emphasizes the body, we could list the whirling of the Mawlawi dervish order, established by Rumi’s followers, a ritual still practiced today. Through their bodies, the dervishes free their minds; through the union of mind and body, they aim at achieving mystical union with the universe. Once again, one is reminded of Nietzsche and The Birth of Tragedy: “In the Dionysiac dithyramb man is stimulated to the highest intensification of his symbolic powers; something that he has never felt before urgently demands to be expressed: the destruction of the veil of maya, one-ness as the genius of humankind, indeed of nature itself” (Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, 21).

[39] Ibn Arabi, 150.

[40] Translation by Izutsu, Sufism and Taoism, 258.

[41] Izutsu, Sufism and Taoism, 44, 251, 266.

[42] Izutsu, Sufism and Taoism, 247.

[43] Austin reminds us that “Ibn al-ʿArabī was not thinking of the specially coated glass mirrors of our day, but rather of the highly polished metal mirror of his own time. [….] To begin with, such mirrors had to be kept polished in order to preserve their reflective qualities and, furthermore, it required great skill by the craftsman to make a perfectly flat surface” (“Introductory Note,” 48).

[44] In this context, Ibn Arabi quotes a hadith recorded by Bukhari (LXXXI:38): “I do not hesitate in what I do as much as in taking the soul of My faithful servant. He hates death as much as I hate to hurt him; but he must meet Me” (The Bezels of Wisdom, 273).

[45] Jamaladdin Nizami, The Story of Layla and Majnun, trans. Rudolph Gelpke, London: Bruno Cassirer, 1977.

[46] As Rumi puts it, “The drop of knowledge which You gave before / Unite now with your ocean, please, once more!” (The Masnavi: Book One, 117).

[47] In Izutsu’s words, “Each single thing is in itself a unique existent, and yet it is immersed in the limitless ocean of Life together with all the other existents. In the first aspect, everything is unique and single, but in the second aspect, everything loses its identity in the midst of the ‘water’ that flows through all” (Sufism and Taoism, 149).

[48] “As for the philosopher,” Plato maintains, “what do you suppose he thinks of the other pleasures in comparison to that of knowing where the truth lies?” (Republic, 282).

[49] Ibn Arabi also depicts the Gnostic ascent by referring to the heavenly spheres, a scheme developed by Gnostic thinkers and co-opted by Sufism: “The most elevated [cosmic] position is that point round which the spheres revolve, which is the Sphere of the Sun where the spiritual form of Enoch resides. There revolve round it seven higher Spheres and Seven lower Spheres, being fifteen in all” (The Bezels of Wisdom, 84).

[50] Izutsu, Sufism and Taoism, 44.

[51] Rumi, The Masnavi: Book One, 90.

[52] “He said, ‘and my solace was made to be in prayer’, which means seeing the Beloved, which brings solace to the eye of the lover” (Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 282).

[53] Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 235.

[54] “By prophet I mean the bringer of Sacred Law” (Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 66).

[55] Still, as Izutsu puts it, “Even God cannot describe himself in words without delimiting himself” (Sufism and Taoism, 56).

[56] Fariduddin Attar, The Canticle of the Birds, Illustrated Through Eastern Islamic Paintings, trans. Dick Davis and Afkham Darbandi, paintings selected and annotated by Michael Barry, ed. Diane de Selliers, Paris: Editions Diane de Selliers, 2014, 138-165.

[57] Barry, Figurative Art, 127-128.

[58] In Maimonides’ words, “As everyone is aware that it is not possible, except through negation, to achieve an apprehension of that which is in our power to apprehend and that, on the other hand, negation does not give knowledge in any respect to the true reality of the thing with regard to which the particular matter in question has been negated—all men, those of the past and those of the future, affirm clearly that God, may He be exalted, cannot be apprehended by the intellects, and that none but He Himself can apprehend what he is, and that apprehension of Him consists in the inability to attain the ultimate term in apprehending Him” (Moses Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, vol. 1, trans. Shlomo Pines, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963, 139).

[59] To qualify this generalization, an important proponent of via negativa within Christianity is Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite.

[60] Ibn Arabi takes the “blasphemy” promoted in this story even further. To him, if the divine is truly to be found in every cosmic phenomenon, all ways of worshiping the divine must be equally legitimate. Anyone who sees the world like this, the philosopher states, “would allow to every believer his belief and would recognize God in every form and in every belief” (The Bezels of Wisdom, 283).

[61] Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 272. According to Izutsu, Ibn Arabi also sees Muhammad as the “Seal of the Prophets” in a more ontological sense that goes back to the thought of Plotinus: “Muhammad, as the Perfect Man on the cosmic level, is the first of all self-determinations (ta‘ayyunat) of the Absolute. Theologically, it is the first ‘creature’ of God.” In this sense, Muhammad “corresponds almost exactly to the Plotinian First Intellect” (Sufism and Taoism, 236-237).

[62] Izutsu, Sufism and Taoism, 62.

[63] Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 150. The quoted hadith is Bukhari LXXXI:38.

[64] Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 230.

[65] Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 107.

[66] Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 247. The idea of oneness in multiplicity finds its classic exploration in Plotinus: “So then, being together with all things, we are those: so then, we are all and one. So therefore when we look outside that on which we depend we do not know that we are one, like faces which are many on the outside but have one head inside. But if someone is able to turn around, either by himself or having his hair pulled by Athene herself, he will see God and himself and the All; at first he will not see as the All but then, when he has nowhere to set himself and limit himself and determine how far himself goes, he will stop marking himself off from all being and will come to all the All without going out anywhere, but remaining there where the All is set firm” (Plotinus, Enneads VI. 1-5, Trans. A. H. Armstrong, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988, 339-341).

[67] Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 275.

[68] Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 274.

[69] Austin, “Introduction,” 28-29.

[70] Translation by Izutsu, Sufism and Taoism, 202.

[71] Austin, “Introductory Note,” 271.

[72] Translation by Izutsu, Sufism and Taoism, 203.

[73] Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 274.

[74] Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 275. As Corbin puts it, “A mystic obtains the highest theophanic vision in contemplating the Image of feminine being, because it is in the Image of the Creative Feminine that contemplation can apprehend the highest manifestation of God, namely, creative divinity” (Corbin, Alone with the Alone, 159).

[75] A term also employed by Izutsu (Sufism and Taoism, 153-154).

[76] Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 136.

[77] Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 87.

[78] Rumi, The Masnavi: Book One, 196; The Masnavi: Book Two, trans. Jawid Mojaddedi, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, 105.

[79] Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 257.

[80] Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 92.

[81] Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 51.

[82] Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 94.

[83] Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 95.

[84] Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 148.

[85] Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 246. Ibn Arabi is quoting Quran LV:29 here.

[86] Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 246.

[87] Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 142.

[88] Austin, “Introductory Note,” 140.

[89] Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 141.

[90] Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 141.

[91] “Evidence of the realities indicates that the act of creation, which occurs with the breaths eternally, constitutes an imbalance in Nature that might be called a deviation or alteration. [….] Harmony and equilibrium are everywhere sought, but never achieved. We are thus denied the rule of equilibrium” (Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 214).

[92] Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 155.

[93] Austin elaborates that “each inhalation represents the resolution of the Cosmos into the Essence, while each exhalation represents the creation of the Cosmos” (Austin, “Introductory Note,” 146).

[94] Ibn Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, 55. In Austin’s words, Ibn Arabi’s cosmos “is and is not, is manifest and latent, created and uncreated, is other and non-other in a timeless divine pulse, at once creative and noncreating” (Austin, “Introductory Note,” 146).