The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn al-‘Arabi’s Metaphysics of Imagination
By William C. Chittick
Publisher: Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1989;
ISBN 0-88706-884-7; 0-88706-885-5 (pbk)
The eleventh-century Sufi mystic Ibn al-‘Arabi (1165-1240 CE), was called al-Shaikh al-Akbar, “the Greatest Shaikh,” by his followers, a sobriquet by which he is still honoured today. His influence on Sufi thought cannot be overstated. The young Ibn al-‘Arabi was given an education normal for his times, and not particularly religious. But beginning about age 15 he was blessed with “openings” or “unveilings” – revelations – of the non-material world. He began to visit saints and holy men, and in 1202 was inspired to go on pilgrimage to Mecca, where he experienced further “openings.” His most comprehensive work is the encyclopaedic 560-chapter, 37-volume (17,000 page) Al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya (The Meccan Openings or The Meccan Illuminations).
In The Sufi Path of Knowledge, William Chittick presents over 600 passages from this work, many translated for the first time into English. The Futuhat is wide-ranging, covering among many topics Sufi practices, mystic philosophy, and the Shaikh’s own visions and dreams. His thought is both subtle and complex. Because Chittick feels that Ibn al-‘Arabi’s ideas have often been misinterpreted, he presents the Shaikh’s teachings in the Shaikh’s own words. Chittick organized his selections into six main sections: Theology, Ontology, Epistemology, Hermeneutics, Soteriology, and Consummation. Chittick provides his own explanatory introductions to the book and to each section, but these are brief.
Ibn al-‘Arabi claims that knowledge “is the secret of man’s felicity.” He is not referring to intellectual knowledge, but rather knowledge of God from direct perception. This knowledge comes from unveilings or openings of the non-material realms. Chittick translates the term Ibn al-‘Arabi uses for these realms as the “imaginal” worlds, a term that can imply either God’s imagination or man’s imagination. It explains the book’s subtitle: Ibn al-’Arabi’s Metaphysics of Imagination.
Ibn al-‘Arabi says that the prophets and saints “have no knowledge of God derived from reflection. God has purified them from that. Rather, they possess the ‘opening of unveiling’ through the Real.” As Ibn al-‘Arabi expresses it, we come to know “what is in the Self of the Real” through “listening” to God’s “speech”:
The cosmos can have no existence without Speech on God’s part and listening on the part of the cosmos. Hence the existence of the paths of felicity only becomes manifest… through the Divine Speech and the engendered listening. Therefore, all the messengers [prophets] came with speech, such as the Koran, the Torah, the Gospels, the Psalms, and the Scriptures. … Speech and listening are interrelated. Neither can be independent from the other, since they are two terms of a relationship. Through Speech and listening, we come to know what is in the Self of the Real, since we have no knowledge of Him except through the knowledge that He gives to us, and His giving of knowledge takes place through His Speech.
Ibn al-‘Arabi differentiates ordinary knowledge – such as when we know and understand certain teachings – from what he calls knowledge by tasting. He explains this through the example of trusting in God. Every religious person may know that he should trust in God, but the one with “tasting” does trust in God.
The tasting of trust which is added to knowledge of trust is that the person does not become agitated when he lacks that upon which the soul relies. Instead, the soul relies upon God, not upon the specific secondary cause.… For example, someone is hungry, and he does not have the secondary cause – the food – which will eliminate his hunger. Another person is hungry, and he has the means to eliminate his hunger. The person who has the secondary cause is strong through the existence of the food which will eliminate the hunger, but the other person, who does not have it, equals him in calm and lack of agitation, since he knows that his provision – if he is to receive any more provision – must reach him. This lack of agitation in a person who has such an attribute while he does not possess the secondary cause is called “tasting.”
For Ibn al-‘Arabi, knowledge of God cannot be separated from love of God. In fact, he claims that “the lover’s heart, not his reason or his sense perception” is the faculty capable of knowing God. He likens the heart to “the goblet of love.”
For the heart fluctuates from state to state, just as God – who is the Beloved – is “Each day upon some task” (55:29). So the lover undergoes constant variation in the object of his love in keeping with the constant variation of the Beloved in His acts. The lover is like the clear and pure glass goblet which undergoes constant variation according to the variation of the liquid within it. The colour of the lover is the colour of the Beloved. This belongs only to the heart, since reason comes from the world of delimitation; that is why it is called “reason (‘aql),” a word derived from “fetter.” As for sense perception, it obviously and necessarily belongs to the world of delimitation, in contrast to the heart.
This can be explained by the fact that love has many diverse and mutually opposed properties. Hence nothing receives these properties except that which has the capacity(quwwa) to fluctuate along with love in those properties. This belongs only to the heart.
Permeating Ibn al-‘Arabi’s teachings is the Quranic concept of God’s Names, said to be ninety-nine in number. According to the Shaikh, the universe and everything in it is the manifestation of these Names. To the limited human perception the universe appears in ceaseless conflict, but from a higher perspective this apparent conflict fulfils the beautiful purpose of the Names – perhaps not unlike how contrasting sounds are necessary to produce a harmonious symphony. These Names come in opposites, each with its particular attribute, like al-ghafūr, the Forgiver, and al-muntaqim, the Vengeful. The only Name that encompasses all the attributes is Allah. To human beings is given the privilege of manifesting any Name they choose (albeit often unconsciously), for, as Chittick writes, “A human possesses every name of God – every ontological possibility – within himself. But in order to attain to felicity, he must bring these attributes into actuality according to the correct scale.” The “felicitous” are those who discern the divine harmony in the ninety-nine seemingly opposing names of God.
According to Ibn al-‘Arabi, the path toward knowledge of God is a great joy for the felicitous, but not for those who cling to their own fixed ideas:
Knowledge, the greatest good, is also the greatest joy and the greatest pleasure. … For the felicitous, this knowledge is totally congruent and harmonious with their own souls, which have been shaped in this world through faith and practice, and hence every increase in knowledge is an increase in felicity. For the wretched, knowledge of things as they actually are is a searing torture, since it contradicts their beliefs and practices in this world.
According to Ibn al-‘Arabi, knowledge of God can only come through dedicated spiritual practice. “In our view, knowledge requires practice, and necessarily so, or else it is not knowledge, even if it appears in the form of knowledge.” Another vital requirement for attaining knowledge is the guidance of a living Shaikh – one who has “verified” within himself the truths of spirituality.
For Ibn al-‘Arabi, knowledge of God implies such a union between the knower and that which is known that God sees, hears, and acts through the person.
When the soul becomes limpid and wholesome, joins up with the world of purity, looks with the divine eye, hears through Him, and acts through His strength, then it knows the origins of things and their destinations, where they rise up and whence they return. This is called “perspicacity through faith.” It is a gift of God which is attained by those who are sound in nature and those who are not.
The knowledge of God is a gift from God. He can give it to whomsoever he chooses.
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