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The Discrete Nature of Time:
The most important and distinctive of Ibn ‘Arabî's ideas about time is that he considers it to be quantized. Thus Ibn ‘Arabî declared in the Futûhât and other books that 'the smallest time is the single time that does not accept division' [II.384.31].
There has been a great deal of debate in the history of philosophy and science as to whether time (and space) is discrete or continuous, though most philosophers and scientists deal with time as an infinitely divisible quantity. However, the Ash‘arite theologians' distinctive physical theory (of the jawhar, or 'indivisible atom') is entirely built on the discreteness of space and time, and Ibn ‘Arabî himself acknowledges his debt to them for this understanding. For example, al-Bâqillânî, one of the famous Ash‘arite theologians, suggested an atomic nature of time, according to which in each 'atom' of time the entire world annihilates and is re-created in a slightly different form (MacDonald 1927: 326-44). This perspective is at least verbally and conceptually very much in accord with Ibn ‘Arabî's fundamental principle of the ongoing re-creation of all things (see section V.6)—although the Ash‘arite theologians did not make any reference to the key experiential basis of this spiritual insight which is so central to Ibn ‘Arabî's discussion of the 'ever-renewed creation'. What is also new and distinctive here about Ibn ‘Arabî's understanding of this conception of time is that he argues that the actual 'quantum' of time equals our normal earthly day itself [Ayyâm Al-Sha’n: 6]. It is not easy to bridge the gap between this metaphysical hypothesis and our everyday familiar experience of indefinitely divisible time: of the year into months, the month into weeks, the week into days, the day into hours, hour into minutes, minutes into seconds, and so on apparently infinitely. Ibn ‘Arabî, however, explains plainly why time has to be discrete according to his understanding (or “according to his Day”), and we shall devote Chapter IV below to discussing this difficult issue in more detail. Here we can only give a general preview.
For Ibn ‘Arabî, time itself does not have a separate existence, but is reduced to motion or, more precisely, to the ongoing creative acts of God, or cosmic 'events' (each discrete divine 'Task' or sha’n) of each 'Day'. And according to the Qur’anic description of God, each Day He is upon some (one single) task (sha’n) (55:29). And since, as Ibn ‘Arabî explains [Ayyâm Al-Sha’n: 10], Allah specified in this verse that He is every Day in 'one' task, and not many as we perceive in our illusion, which witnesses a multitude of events everyday because of the intertwining between these Divine Days and our normal days. This means that this 'Day' has to be indivisible, because only one divine action or event should be happening in it [Ayyâm Al-Sha’n: 6]. As we have seen, Ibn ‘Arabî uses the same Qur’anic term and therefore calls this fundamental quantum of time 'the Day of Task' or divine event (yawm al-sha’n), or—using an expression taken from the physical theory of Ash‘arite theology—'the singular (unique) time' (al-zaman al-fard) [I.292.16, II.82.6]. Therefore the single 'Day of task' in reality equals our normal day; or more precisely, a full revolution of the celestial sphere as viewed from the earth. Ibn ‘Arabî helps to clarify this counter-intuitive understanding of the foundational divine 'Event' by introducing some related new concepts that are also based on certain Qur’anic verses.
The first related concept is that the world is surely re-created every singular day over and over again [II.208.26, II.385.4]. So we (our souls), as part of this world, live or ordinarily experience only our very limited portion from this singular day; a single instantaneous 'moment' of time that equals the global '24 hours' taking place within the entire world at that particular instant, but as divided up (in actual perception) by the total number of perceiving entities and their perceptions in the world. During this divine creative 'glance' (lamha), we perceive a still picture of our limited perception of the world, after which we intrinsically cease to exist. Then in the second 'Day' (actually in the second 'Week'!), we live another moment to perceive a different still picture, due to the ever-new creation created by Allah in this singular day. Thus, through a succession of these instantaneously re-created new 'pictures' of the whole, we observe what appears to be motion, just as with the illusion of cinematic projection. We said 'in the second Week' because Ibn ‘Arabî showed that we are indeed only living in 'Saturday', since the other 'Days' (of Creation) of the Divine Week, from Sunday to Friday of the Days of tasks, are for space not for time, because at every moment in our life the world is re-created in six Days (for space), and it is then displayed on Saturday, but we do not witness the process of creating the world: we only witness it as created. So our life as a time is a collection of Saturdays, and each moment that we live is indeed a Week; six Days for creating the world in space, and Saturday for displaying it in time. We shall come to this important and novel concept in section III.5.
The other related concept is that the moments that we feel flowing as daytimes and nighttimes are actually a collection (of discrete time-space quanta), and not a straightforward combination of the actual flow of the single divine 'Days'. The normal days that we encounter are 'intertwined' (mutawâlija, v. yûliju)—another key Qur’anic expression—with the actually existing cosmic 'Days of tasks' in a special way that we shall explore in Chapter IV. As a result of this intertwining, we see the appearance of a multitude number of events in our normal days.
In addition to that, Ibn ‘Arabî also reminds us that at every moment there is a full day around the globe: evening somewhere, morning somewhere else, and noon in other places [Ayyâm Al-Sha’n: 6]. Therefore, at every moment for us, which is a full day when viewed globally, Allah creates a single event in the world; and then He re-creates the world in ever-new events at each succeeding moment. The day that we perceive and experience is therefore a collection of successive 'snapshots' of the actual 'Days of events' which are the actual existing basis for our experience of the flow of time.
As we said above, the idea of discrete time (and space) is not new in the history of philosophy and physics, though it had been completely discarded after the advent of classical Newtonian mechanics. However, many philosophers (such as Kant, Russell and Leibniz) have opposed Newton's hypothesis that space and time have a separate linear and continuous entity as we showed in section I.8. With the advent of Quantum Mechanics, Field Theory, the Theory of Quantum Gravity and the Superstrings Theory, the idea of a quantized time (and space) was revived again, and much work has recently been done in this respect as we mentioned in section I.9.
The human mind naturally thinks of quantities as either discrete or continuous; there is no other way. A closer examination of Ibn ‘Arabî's view of time, however, shows that it is indeed neither discrete nor continuous. We must remember that he considers time as imaginary after all, as well as most other quantities such as space and even mass (see section VII.9). As we indicated previously, such seemingly strange conclusions result directly from Ibn ‘Arabî's fundamental theory of the oneness of being: i.e., that the apparent 'parts' of existence are merely manifestations of a single real existence that is One and Unique, neither multiple nor divisible. The notion of either discreteness or continuousness is indispensable when we imagine multitudes, but with absolute Unity there would be no meaning to such conceptions. Therefore, Ibn ‘Arabî's concept of time is that it would be discrete if we approach it on the (ultimately imaginary) plane of apparent multiplicity, but in reality there is no such reality as 'time' at all. The same perspective can be applied to space.
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