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.
The Origin of the World
Many people ask questions like 'what is the age of the universe?' or 'when did the world begin?' And many cosmologists go along with these questions and give estimates for the age of the physical universe (today, usually about 15 billion years). Any answers to such questions will quickly lead to a modern version of the still-ongoing debate between Plato's and Aristotle's schools already mentioned in Chapter I: i.e., whether time was created in/before the world, or vice versa; or whether they are both eternal. Many riddles and paradoxes quickly emerge out of this debate. For example, one may ask: if the world started at a certain point of time, why God chose that time in particular? Could the world have been created ten minutes before or after that designated time? And what was God doing or what was happening before the beginning of the world?
Ibn al-Arabi, however, shows that such questions are meaningless, because the world is created out of time, and time itself is part of that created world. Allah did not create the world in time, because nothing existed 'before' the world apart from Him Who is also out of time, and therefore the creation of the world can not be compared to other events in time. The existence of the Creator precedes the existence of the world logically, and not chronologically, so it is like when we say 'the day starts when the sun rises': there is no duration of time that separates sunrise from the start of the day [I.100.26, Al-Masa’il, #25], but logically the day would not start if the sun did not rise. The existence of Allah, Who is Pre-Existent (Qadim or Azali) and Self-Existent (Qayyum), is a precondition - not a cause - for the existence of the world. Therefore, because the world was created out of time (not 'in' time), the above questions are invalid. All such questions use time phrases that have no meaning outside of that time which appeared in or with the world and not before it.
Ibn al-Arabi showed this clearly by explaining that:
The fact of the matter is that the existence of the Real is not determined (temporally or causally) by the existence of the world: not temporally before, with, or after, because temporal or spatial precedence with relation to Allah is confronted by the realities confronting whoever speaks about it factually - unless he says something by the way of illumination, as had been said by the Messenger, peace be upon him, or it was expressed in the (divine) Book. For not everyone is able to experience the unveiling of these realities. We can only say that the Exalted Real exists by Himself and for Himself; His existence is absolute, is not confined by any other than Him, and is not caused by something nor is He the cause of anything - But He is the Creator of causes and results, the King, the Most-Holy One (59:23), Who always is and has been.
The world exists through Allah, not by itself or for itself. Therefore the existence of the Real Who exists by Himself is a determining condition for the existence of the world, which would not exist at all without the existence of the Real. And since time can not exist without the existence of the Real and the (divine) Source (mabda’) of the world, therefore the world comes to exist 'in other-than-time'. So actually we can not say, in the true reality of things, that Allah existed before the world - because it has been established that 'before' is a time phrase, and there was no 'time' (before the existence of the world). Nor can we say that the world existed after the existence of the Real, since there is nothing (other than the Real) 'after' or 'with' the existence of the Real, because He caused (everything else) to exist and is making it and originating it (in the words of a famous hadith) 'while there was no thing (with Him)'.
So as we said, the Real exists by Himself and the world exists through the Real. But if someone governed by his imagination (wahm) should ask 'When was the world (created) after the Real?' we would say that 'when' is a time-question. But time belongs to the realm of relations (nisab, see: SDK: 35) and (as such) is created by Allah, but not like the creation of existence, because the realm of relations is created by (our human) 'estimation' (or consideration: taqdir), not by the creation of what exists... Therefore this question is not valid. So you should be careful how you ask, and do not be veiled by the tools of (conventional human) expression from actually realizing and fully comprehending these realities in yourself.
So the only thing left is: (1) a pure and absolute Existence - not (one coming into existence) after non-existence - and that is the existence of the Real, may He be exalted! And (2) an existence (that only comes to be) after the non-existence of the essence of that existent thing itself - and that is the existence of the world. So there is not any comparability or (co-extensive) extension between those two existences, apart from that imagined, presumed one that is removed by (true) knowledge. So nothing is left of that (falsely supposed comparability of God and the world) but absolute Existence (of God) and determined existence (of the world), Active Existence (of God) and passive existence (of the world). This is what is given by the realities, and peace (i.e., that's all!).
[I.90.9, see also: Al-Masa’il, #90]
'The world' for Ibn al-Arabi is both spiritual and material, and as we have seen above there are two corresponding kinds of time, spiritual and physical. The spiritual world preceded the creation of the material universe (nature) as we know it (stars and planets), so there was spiritual time before the creation of the physical world. He indicates that spiritual time is necessary to describe the relation between spirits and the divine Names before the creating of the physical world. So in this respect Ibn al-Arabi does respond to the above-mentioned questioning about what was 'before' the creation of the physical world, but he still considers such questioning invalid beyond these two created realms of the world. In fact Ibn al-Arabi explains that the world has three distinctive ontological ‘levels’: ‘alam al-mulk or ‘alam al-shahada, which is the visible world; ‘alam al-malakut, which is the realm of meanings; and ‘alam al-jabarut, which is the all-encompassing realm of the divine 'Imagination' (barzakh) [I.54.15, II.129.16]. But here and elsewhere he sometimes adapts the simplified reference (drawn from the Qur’an) to the two domains as the 'visible' and 'invisible' (see: SPK: 14, 93, 129, 218, 223, 342, 360-1, 376, and also Al-Masa’il, #150).
Actually, Ibn al-Arabi considers the age of the world (as spiritual and material together) to be infinite from both directions: i.e., it has always been and it will always be; it is eternal without beginning and eternal without end. However, this is not saying that the material (and even the spiritual) world is eternal, but the world has some sort of pre-existence in the foreknowledge of Allah, and Allah's knowledge is eternal in both directions. In addition, Ibn al-Arabi also considers those two ends to coincide with each other, so time as a whole is like a circle that can not be described to have a beginning or an end, but when we set a point (the present) and a direction (to the past or future) on this circle we define a beginning and an end [I.387.32, III.546.30]. We shall discuss the concept of circular and cyclical time in section 10 below.
Ibn al-Arabi - following Ibn Sina's familiar theological categories (Nasr 1964: 173-274) - divides all things, in terms of their type of existence, into three inclusive categories: necessary, possible (or 'contingent': mumkin), and impossible [II.293.1, II.575-576]. Only Allah's existence is described as 'Necessary' or Self-Existent, while absolute non-existence is impossible. The world, on the other hand, is called 'possible' because it is possible to exist, but in order to actually come into existence it needs a determining cause (murajjih) who has to be pre-existent and self-existent, or none other than Allah. Therefore, the world (the possible) is originally non-existence (but not absolute non-existence, only a non-existence that is possible to exist) and it is always in need of Allah in order to bring it into existence. Thus it can be said - as in the long quote above - that it exists by or through Allah, and not through itself. The difference between absolute non-existence and possible non-existence is that the latter exists (even before it comes into real existence) in Allah's Knowledge, and this foreknowledge is eternal because His knowledge is not other than Himself [I.300.32, II.114.15] (see also section 7 below).
So the world, spatial and temporal, eternally existed or was determined in Allah's knowledge, but it is continuously brought into real existence ad infinitum:
So when Allah brought the entities (into existence), He brought them for them not for Him. But (for Him) they are still as they were on their spatial and temporal states, with their different time and space (coordinates). So He reveals to them their entities and states little by little infinitely and successively. So the issue for Allah is one, as He said: and Our Command is but one, as the twinkling of an eye (54:50), and multiplicity is (only) for the countables themselves.
However, despite this pre-existence, we can not say that the world is eternal and only developed from one state to another. It is not exactly clear how Henry Corbin concluded that 'there is no place in Ibn al-Arabi's thinking for creation ex nihilo, an absolute beginning preceded by nothing' (Corbin 1969: 200), when Ibn al-Arabi started the Futuhat by saying: 'Praise be to Allah Who created things after (its being) non-existence' [I.2.3]. In al-Durrat al-Bayda he also declares that 'the dependent existence (the possible) may only be after non-existence, otherwise it would not be a 'possible' whereas it is possible, and it would not be an existence by the Self-Existent, while it is in fact an existence by the Self-Existent Who caused it to exist.' (Al-Durrat Al-Bayda’: 133)
If Corbin means what we explained in the previous paragraph - i.e., that everything existed in the foreknowledge of Allah even before it really existed in the world - then we have to stress the difference between the essence or entity (‘ayn) of a thing in God's Knowledge and its actual existence. William Chittick devoted a full chapter in his book The Sufi Path of Knowledge to explaining this important concept in Ibn al-Arabi's ontology (SPK: 77-143). The entities of the world are in Allah's foreknowledge eternally, but they are brought into existence - after they were not existing - one after the other. This is a very important distinction. Ibn al-Arabi continues by explaining that:
Everything is in need of Allah, the Exalted, for the existence of its essence (or entity: ‘ayn), not for its essence, because its immutable essence (‘aynuhu al-thabita, most widely translated as 'permanent archetype', see: SPK: 83) is not determined in its immutability; it is not determined by a determiner, for there is no determination in eternity… so the existence of the possible may only be after non-existence, which means it was not, and then it is.
(Al-Durrat Al-Bayda’: 133, see also Al-masa’il, #143)
Actually we shall see later in section V.6 that this intrinsic need by the 'possible' - i.e., of all the realms of creation - for Allah to bring it into existence continues to be necessary at every single moment, because the world is continuously brought into existence in ever-renewed forms (i.e., it is constantly 're-created').
However, it is still not easy for the human mind to imagine the existence of the created world (al-muhdath) and the eternal existence of Allah, the Eternal or Pre-existent (al-qadim) without a reflection of some time separation. And even for Ibn al-Arabi the issue is not yet closed. As he suggested in the long passage quoted above, somehow understanding this mysterious point seems to be beyond normal human perception and requires a divinely inspired knowledge accessible only to rare individuals with the very highest spiritual attainments. This same difficulty caused many Muslim philosophers and other theologians to continue to speculate on many theories that Ibn al-Arabi disagrees with (Kitab al-Azal: 8).
Ibn al-Arabi explains further the relation between the existence of God and the existence of the world in chapter 59 of the Futuhat, which is the same chapter in which he talks specifically about the topic of time. Ibn al-Arabi's argument presented at the beginning of this chapter is extremely complicated and very difficult to understand, even in its original language. However, because of its importance, we are obliged to translate it here, with some necessary explanations in parentheses.
At the beginning of chapter 59, after the opening poem quoted at the very beginning of this Chapter, Ibn al-Arabi says:
You should know first that Allah, the Exalted, is the First (al-awwal), and there is no firstness (awwaliyya) to anything before Him nor to anything else - whether that exists through Him or independent of Him - with Him: but He is the One (i.e., the Unique; al-wahid), Glory be to Him, in His Firstness. So there is nothing that is self-existent apart from Him, because He is the All-Sufficient (al-ghani) in Himself, absolutely, and Independent of all other beings. He said: and Allah is Self-Sufficient with respect to all the worlds (3:97), and this is true according to both the intellect and revelation.
Therefore, the existence of the world came about by Allah either for Himself or for 'other' than Himself. Because if this 'other' was Himself it would not be 'other', and also if this 'other' was Himself He would be necessarily composed in Himself and the firstness would be to this 'other'; therefore this would violate our previous statement that there is no firstness to anything with or before Allah.
So if this 'other' is not Himself, then it would be either existence or non-existence. But it is impossible to be non-existence, because non-existence can not bring the world (from its non-existence) into existence because there is no any priority to any one of them (i.e., the world and this 'other' that is non-existence) to come into existence, since both of them are non-existence, and non-existence has no effect because it is null.
On the other hand, this 'other' can not be existence, because then it either exists by itself or not (i.e., through something else). And it is impossible that this 'other' exists by itself, since it has already been proved that there can not be two self-existent beings.
So it remains that this 'other' exists by something else, and the meaning of the possibility of the world is nothing but that it exists by something else. Therefore this 'other' is the world or (some part) of the world.
Also, if the existence of the world by Allah is due to 'something' without which the world would not exist - whether this 'something' is called 'will' (irada), 'wish' (mashi’a)', 'knowledge' (‘ilm) or anything you want which is required by the 'possible' in order to exist - then the Real would not (be able to) do anything without this 'something'. But that implies nothing but needfulness, which is impossible for Allah, because Allah is absolutely Self-Sufficient, since He is, as He said: Self-sufficient (Independent) with respect to all the worlds (3:97). And if it is claimed that this 'something' is the Essence Himself, then we say that it is impossible for anything to be 'in need of' itself, and since He is Self-sufficient in Himself, then this (false supposition) would lead to the same contradiction - i.e., being Self-sufficient and yet needful in Himself at the same time - and all this is impossible.
Therefore, since we have already disproved the existence of any 'other' (determining cause of the existence of the world), we conclude that the existence of the world, inasmuch as it exists through something else, is (causally) related to the Necessarily Self-Existent (wajib al-wujud li-nafsihi: i.e., Allah or the Real), and that the essence (‘ayn) of the 'possible' itself is the locus for the effect of the Necessarily Self-Existent's bringing the possible into existence. It can only be properly comprehended like this.
Hence (such intrinsic distinctions as God's) 'Wish' (mashi’a), 'Will' (irada), 'Knowledge' (‘ilm) and 'Ability' (qudra) are (all) Himself - may He be exalted far above any multiplicity within Himself! Indeed His is absolute Unicity, and [in the words of the famous Sura 112, al-Ikhlas] He is the One (al-Wahid), the Unique (al-Ahad), Allah the one on Whom all depend (al-Samad); He did not give birth - for then He would be a preceding (cause); nor is He born - since He would then be a result; nor is there any 'other' equivalent (kuf’) to Him - for in that case the existence of the world would be the result of two preceding causes, the Real and Its 'equivalent' - may Allah be exalted (above that)! So this is how He described Himself in His Book when the Prophet, peace be upon him, was asked to describe his Lord: then He sent down the Sura al-Ikhlas (just quoted here) (according to the circumstances described in a hadith: Kanz, 4734) to get rid of all (supposed) sharing (shirk) with other than Allah, by those high qualities and descriptions. So there is nothing Allah negates in this Sura or approves, but those negations or approbations are some people's opinions about Allah.
The importance of the above long paragraph comes from the fact that it shows the basis of Ibn al-Arabi's distinctive view of creation, the distinctive - and extremely controversial - view that many scholars have traditionally called 'the oneness of being (wahdat al-wujud)', but which has been widely misunderstood. Ibn al-Arabi himself could not describe it plainly, simply because it is a reality whose direct perception depends not on logic, but - as Ibn al-Arabi stressed in the passage quoted at the end of section 1 above - on a rare inspired experiential 'tasting' restricted to the spiritual elite of the 'Solitary Ones'. As soon as it is spoken, it is likely to be misunderstood. What Ibn al-Arabi tries to prove in the passages just quoted, as in many chapters of the Futuhat and other books, is that the existence of the world is solely dependent on the existence of the Real, Who is One and Unique - and that this ultimate dependence of the world on the Real is an essential property that accompanies everything in the world at all times. On the other hand, nothing was added to Allah through His creating the world, as for Him (in His Knowledge) the world is as if it is always there. We shall come back to this important issue of the oneness of being (especially in Chapter V) as we continue our exploration of Ibn al-Arabi's view of time, because it is truly the key to understanding his cosmology and theology.