The Greatest Master Muhyiddin Ibn al-Arabi
The Greatest Master Muhyiddin Ibn al-Arabi

Most of these introductory articles are exracted from Volume I of the Single Monad Model of the Cosmos: Ibn al-Arabi's View of Time and Creation... more on this can be found here.

Analogies in the Macrocosms

For Ibn al-Arabi, of course, the mysterious metaphysical relations between the ultimate macrocosmic constituents of creation are repeatedly mirrored in many different 'microcosmic' dimensions of our own life. In each of these different symbolic domains, the initial creation of this higher world and the relation between its elements, such as the First Intellect and the Greatest Element, is subsequently reflected on many different lower planes of existence.

The Black Stone and the Kaaba:

The most visible example of Ibn al-Arabi's development of this cosmological symbolism in the Futuhat involves the Kaaba, the 'house of Allah' to which millions of Muslims now go on pilgrimage every year. For Ibn al-Arabi, those circumambulating the Kaaba are mirroring the circles of higher angels surrounding the divine Throne [I.50.30]. In that symbolic context, the angels also represent the determining forces of the universal Nature (Al-Durratu Al-Bayda’: 138, as we shall come back to this later in section VII.10) and the four Archangels who carry the Throne of Allah are the four main sustaining forces of that Nature.

This centrality of the symbolism of the Kaaba is of course rooted in the fact that Ibn al-Arabi started the first chapter of his Futuhat by mentioning his encounter with the Spirit from whom he took all that he wrote in this book, a Spirit whom he met while circumambulating the Kaaba. There Ibn al-Arabi establishes a symbolic correlation the seven circles of tawaf that the pilgrim is obliged to perform around the Kaaba during the pilgrimage and the seven main divine Names, in the manner already mentioned in Chapter III: i.e., each one of these seven Names is responsible of one specific Day of the divine Week of creation. Then he says that his Lord told him: 'the Kaaba, in relation to the all-encompassing (divine) Throne, is like your heart with relation to your body' [I.50.29]. So in fact the Kaaba on the earth is symbolically like the Single Monad in the cosmos. This analogy also applies to many related details, because the cubic shape of the Kaaba is in fact the simplest structure which constitutes a body that occupies the three spatial dimensions. As Ibn al-Arabi mentioned [III.276.4; see explanations in section V.4 above], the body is composed of at least eight points, corresponding to the corners of the cube.

But more importantly for Ibn al-Arabi, one corner of the Kaaba holds the mysterious 'Black Stone' (al-hajar al-aswad) which, according to tradition, the angel Gabriel brought down from Paradise and gave to Abraham to put it in that corner of the Kaaba. For Ibn al-Arabi, this Black Stone symbolically represents the foundational role in the process of creation/manifestation of the 'Greatest Element'. In other words, circumambulating the Kaaba starts from the south-eastern corner in which this Black Stone resides, and the pilgrim is supposed to make seven rounds (counter-clockwise) around the Kaaba: this corresponds symbolically to the way the Greatest Element first gives rise to or communicates to the Single Monad/First Intellect, after which the Intellect brings forth the world of manifest creation in the seven divine Days. According to tradition, the Prophet Muhammad said that this Black Stone resembles 'Allah's right hand on earth' [Kanz: 34729]. As is well known, Ibn al-Arabi holds that the 'Universal Reality' - which is also another name for the Greatest Element, because it is the origin of the Single Monad [I.119.10] - is identical with the Spirit of Muhammad himself, as that Spirit is also, according to a number of widely known hadith, 'the first thing to be created' [Kanz: 31917].[1]

 Thus, at the very beginning of the opening chapter of the Futuhat, when Ibn al-Arabi begins to speak about the underlying metaphysical reality - i.e., the 'Greatest Element' and first creation - symbolized by the Black Stone that resembles Allah's right hand, he says in poetry:

People are ignorant of its Essence, so some say it is dense, while others say it is subtle.

He (the Spirit) said to me, when I asked why they do not know It:

 'Only the noble may truly know (recognize) the noble!'


Ibn al-Arabi then proceeds in these opening pages to give many mysterious symbolic details about what Allah creates in the Human Being (i.e., the Single Monad/First Intellect) and in the world with each round of the seven circumambulations around the Kaaba, and he relates that metaphysical teaching to the seven main Attributes of Allah which are responsible for the seven Days of the divine creative Week [I.49.32].

Figure VI.3: Photograph of the Kaaba, with people on the Hajj circumambulating it. The Black Stone appears in the front corner, near the door.





As shown in Figure VI.4, just the Greatest Element makes the Single Monad which scans the states of the world in seven Days, the pilgrim in Hajj has to make seven rounds around the Kaaba anti-clockwise. This circumambulation starts from the Eastern corner where the Black Stone resides and moves towards the Shami corner. This clearly supports the analogy between the Greatest Element and the mysterious Black Stone especially that we have said in the narration above that the Black Stone resembles 'Allah's right Hand on earth' [Kanz: 34729].

Figure VI.4: How circumambulating the Kaaba is similar to the Greatest Element's creation of the Single Monad. Circumambulation starts - anti-clockwise - from the eastern corner where the Black Stone is, and that corner is for the Pole.


The Spiritual Hierarchy:

Another important example of the symbolic analogy between the metaphysical process and figures of the 'macrocosm' and more human realities is the hierarchy of the spirits of the prophets and saints (awliya) - a central theme that runs throughout the Futuhat. To summarize the cosmological aspect of that theme, Ibn al-Arabi presents the lower realms of the cosmos as being ruled by a complex spiritual hierarchy - largely 'invisible' to most human beings, though not to the spiritual 'knowers' - consisting, among others, of the spiritual 'Pole' (al-qutb), the two Imams, the four Pillars (awtad), the seven Substitutes (abdal), the eight Nobles (nujaba’), the twelve Chiefs (nuqaba’), and in addition to other lesser known groups.[2] Each of these groups and figures has a special corresponding spiritual responsibility, some of which are have to do with maintaining the wider cosmic order. Those pure spirits have also have an ongoing series of living human 'representatives' or 'agents' (s. na’ib) amongst us [II.6.6].

Some of these members of the celestial spiritual hierarchy, as Ibn al-Arabi presents them in scattered passages of the Futuhat, are assigned cosmological functions symbolically related, for example, to the twelve zodiacal signs, the seven heavens, and the seven 'climes' or geographical regions, the four cardinal points, or even the four corners of the Kaaba [II.13]. In particular, the highest level of the 'Pole', in this hierarchy, is the figure who apparently corresponds to the lofty metaphysical position of the Single Monad - which Ibn al-Arabi often pointedly refers to simply as 'the Reality of Muhammad' (Al-Mu‘jam Al-Sufi: 158).

The World of Letters:

Also yet another important symbolic analogy between the metaphysical macrocosm and more familiar human realities, which again runs throughout the Futuhat, is the 'world of letters'. Ibn al-Arabi considers the letters of the Arabic alphabet - given their central place in the culminating divine revelation of the Qur’an - to constitute in themselves 'a real world like us', since they are servants of Allah just like ourselves [I.58.13]. He begins his detailed explanation of their symbolic metaphysical and cosmological functions in a long section in the opening chapter of the Futuhat. As he explains there, the Arabic letters also have symbolic hierarchy similar to the spiritual hierarchy of the prophets and the saints. Thus they also have Pole, which is the letter alif (?), the first letter of Arabic alphabet; two imams (Leaders), which are the two other vowel letters waw (?) and ya’; four awtad (Pillars), which are the letters alif (?), waw (?), ya’ (?) and nun (?), that together provide the essential Arabic grammatical indications (‘alamat al-i‘rab); and seven abdal (Substitutes), which are the letters alif (?), waw (?), ya’ (?), nun (?), and the three key pronoun markers ta’ (?), kaf (?) and ha’ (??)] [I.78.18]. But the important facts about the metaphysical relations between the world, the Single Monad and the Greatest Element are particularly clearly developed in Ibn al-Arabi's teaching here regarding the metaphysical dimension of this world of letters. Thus he clearly states that:

For the totality of the letters (like the world) may be deconstructed into the alif (corresponding to the Pole and the Single Monad) and put together from it (the letter or sound) alif, but it can not be deconstructed into (any of) them. However it too can be deconstructed - in our symbolic estimation - into its spiritual principle (ruhaniyya), which is the (primordial) 'Point' (of Greatest Element) - although (in fact) the one can not be (further) deconstructed.[3]


Here again the 'Greatest Element' is assumed to be the underlying principle or substrate of all creation and manifestation.

As we've mentioned on several earlier occasions, Ibn al-Arabi often attributes his source for some of the most important metaphysical knowledge about the world to the spiritual Pole Idris ('mudawi al-kulum'). In describing the relation between the originary 'Point' of the 'Greatest Element' and all the manifest cosmos, in chapter 15 of the Futuhat, this Pole tells him:

The world (physical cosmos) exists between the circumference and the point (of the earth at its centre), arranged according to the levels (of its orbs) and the smallness and greatness of the orbs. And (he said) that the sphere that is closer to the circumference is wider than that which is inside, so its day is longer, its space is larger, its tongue is more fluent and it is closer to realizing strength and purity. And what goes down to the (material, earthly) elements is less than this (high) level, on down to the sphere of the earth. But each part in every circumference matches what is below it and what is above it with its (whole) entity: no one is greater than the other, despite the fact that one is larger and one is smaller! … And all match the point with their entities - and that Point, despite its smallness, matches the parts of the circumference with its (whole) essential reality (‘ayn).


It is worth mentioning here, as a modern analogy to this earlier symbolism, that one of the most compelling consequences of Quantum Mechanics is that everything in the physical world of 'particles' can also be expressed as waves that have different wavelengths. Electrons for example - though they are particles - have a wavelength. Even the earth has a distinctive wavelength. When the mass of the body/particle becomes larger its wavelength becomes smaller. So the wavelength becomes even larger for massless particles such as photons (light).

The Hierarchy of Divine Names:

We have already discussed the unique Unity of Allah and the diversity of His divine Names in section V.3. In Ibn al-Arabi's wider metaphysical perspective, the divine Names - just like the spiritual world of the angels, prophets and saints - are also arranged in a corresponding specific metaphysical hierarchy. In section III.1, we have already encountered the four and seven fundamental divine Names - which correspond to the four awtad and the seven abdal respectively. But Ibn al-Arabi talks about this hierarchy of the divine Names in more detail early on in chapter four of the Futuhat. Here we only want to draw the attention to his explanation there of the difference between the two key divine Names 'Allah' and 'the All-Merciful' (al-Rahman).

Already in his al-Tadbirat al-Ilahiyya, Ibn al-Arabi compares the relation between those two Names with the cosmological/metaphysical relation between the Throne and the Single Monad, as we explained in section 6 above (see also: Tadbirat: 89). Because the Single Monad is itself also called 'the Throne', Ibn al-Arabi says that - in cosmological language - Allah mounted on the Throne of the Single Monad, while the All-Merciful mounted on the Throne (following the literal Qur’anic verses that we discussed earlier in section I.4. So the relation between these two Names is like the relation between the two divine 'Thrones'. It is to be noted here that the Name 'the All-Merciful' is more specifically described by all the multiplicity of the divine Names, just like the Name Allah. For as Allah said in Qur’an: Call upon Allah or call upon the All-Merciful, Whoever you call upon, to Him belong the most beautiful Names (17:110). So the Name Allah is also described by all the divine Names, but the Name 'the All-Merciful' is closer to the multiplicity of the world through those diverse divine Names. Likewise, the Throne that encompasses the heavens and earth is a place of manifest multiplicity, whereas the Single Monad, in its mysterious intrinsic 'hiddenness', is more described by the transcendent divine qualities of unity and oneness.


[1] See also Chittick, SDK: 134 [The Universal Reality]. In other related hadith some other realities are said to be the 'first-created' such as the Intellect [Kanz: 7057], the Pen [Kanz: 597, 15116], or 'the Muhammadan Light', etc. There is no contradiction in these hadith because those are just different names of the same reality as we shall discussed in section 3 above.

[2] See chapter 73 of the Futuhat [II.2-39] where Ibn al-Arabi explains and lists the different groups of saints, and especially the extensive summary and analysis of that long chapter and related materials found in 'The Seal of the Saints: Prophethood and Sainthood in the Doctrine of Ibn Arabi' by M. Chodkiewicz (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 1993).

[3] As we have seen in section V.3, Ibn al-Arabi argues that number one is the primordial basis of all other numbers, just as alif is the foundation of all the letters. See also [II.122.19, and al-Masa’il: 109].

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