Know. (5) God in Ibn Arabi’s Thinking (1)
Ibn Arabi’s thinking abounds with beauty. And one of his most beautiful expressions are those concerning the Creator.
Ibn Arabi often invokes the Koranic phrase “Nothing there is, is similar to Him”. Irrespective of the beauty and the fluidity of Koranic Arabic which renders any translation severely lacking, this phrase, of the One about Himself, could close the thinking about the One, or open it up. And for Ibn Arabi, it does both.
It closes the thinking by leading Ibn Arabi to the conclusion that the human mind is unable to understand the essence of the One – a conclusion many philosophers had arrived at before Ibn Arabi. This conclusion could lead some to believe thinking about that Divine essence is futile, since all that can be said about it won’t penetrate to its core and won’t guide the human mind to any serious cognition of it.
And yet, for Ibn Arabi that phrase does open up the thinking – because for him this phrase about the Divine’s essence being dissimilar to anything that is, is a gateway in his path (and that of other seekers) – paths that, though will not lead to the essence of the Divine, would certainly lead to deep meanings about the seekers’ connections with the Divine, and through these connections, would lead the seekers to understand their own essence.
The first Koranic verse Ibn Arabi cites in his most important book “The Meccan Revelations”, is indeed “nothing there is, is similar to Him, for He is the hearer, the beholder”. Perhaps Ibn Arabi wanted to particularly stress the hearing and the seeing, as he sees them as gifts for seekers on paths towards the Divine – gifts that when meditated upon or thought about, enrich the human hearers and beholders with different layers of understanding, about what they hear and see in nature around them, and in themselves. And these two – what is in nature and in the human - are routes for the human to hear and see the Creator.
It was not a coincidence that the first verse Ibn Arabi composes and recites in the “Revelations” ends with Ibn Arabi’s asking the Creator for “allowing the descent of the characteristics of the Names”. Ibn Arabi will return later with elaborate explanations of what he meant with the characteristics of the Divine Names (tens of which have, for centuries, been at the core of strands of Sufi traditions). But now, at the beginning of his major work, he emphasises the centrality of the characteristics, and what they lead and refer to, in his path - to the extent that he makes that ask, that prayer, the first he composes verses about in a book that includes thousands of verses (which are poetic expressions of the author’s wonderful thinking).
But Ibn Arabi, like others who walked similar paths, is polite. He immediately informs his readers that behind the literal hearing and seeing that he invokes for the One, there’s a deeper layer. That layer when attributed to the One, Ibn Arabi knows, denotes what’s beyond human cognition. This is why here Ibn Arabi recites the Koranic verse “Glorified be your Lord, the Lord of expiation, of that they describe Him to be”. The meaning is that the Creator intends deeper layers of hearing and seeing when He attributes those to Himself, vastly beyond those that ordinary humans attribute to God.
But there is more than politeness here. Ibn Arabi is emphasising the message he rendered earlier: that indeed, mere physical hearing and seeing will open up further layers of understanding. That is, meditation on and serious thinking about the physical world (nature and the human being) are gateways to a fuller human cognition, that will transcend the mere physicality of nature and human beings.
Ibn Arabi does not leave his readers with a divide between his (and others’) unequivocal conviction about the impossibility of the human mind (in its current form) to understand the Divine, and the humans’ ability – and mission – to delve deeper into and find fuller cognitions of nature and the human consciousness. Here at the beginning of our journey with him, he attempts a subtle reconciliation between these two points. He tells us of two descriptions of the Creator – as the sharer and the intimate with human beings.
For Ibn Arabi, this sharing goes to the core of reality, including potentially the essence. Intimacy, by default, signifies closeness, potentially to the point of no separation. And so, given this sameness and closeness, he thinks of our inability to understand the One as a form of “absence”. But whereas most people will see that absence as an expression of the Divine separation from humans, Ibn Arabi invites us to contemplate that this “absence” is a form of human lacking – that we are so absent in our lives that we lose our cognition and feeling of our sameness and closeness to the One. And so, the One is not absent; we are.
Not surprisingly, Ibn Arabi addresses his reader here with a word best translated as “you in wisdom”, for Ibn Arabi is in effect asking his readers to open their minds and go beyond what they have been accustomed to.
As Ibn Arabi opens the gates to step into his journey, he tells us, in flowing Arabic verse, in his imagination of the Koran’s expression of itself: “Dive into the sea of the essence of the essence to see what will seem strange, not revealed to beholders .. And with it, secrets hazily seen, veiled by the spirits of the characteristics (of the Names)”.