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.

Preliminary Outline of Ibn Arabi's Cosmology

Ibn al-Arabi (560-638AH/1165-1240AD) was a great sufi thinker of the Middle Ages and one of the most influential authors in islamic history, whose writings have deeply influenced Islamic civilisation for centuries, and have more recently attracted wide interest in the West. The full name of Ibn al-‘Arabi (more commonly referred to in English without the definite article) is Abu ‘Abd Allah Muhammad Ibn al-‘Arabi al-Hatimi al-Ta’i. He was born in Murcia (in eastern Andalusia), into a very pious and cultured family. When he was seven they moved to Seville, and at the age of 16 he 'entered on the path' (of sufism). Then he travelled throughout and between Andalusia and Morocco for some years before a vision compelled him to go to the East. In 1201 he travelled to Cairo, al-Quds (Jerusalem), and finally to Mecca for pilgrimage. His many works eventually brought him fame, and sometimes notoriety, so that he was eventually sought out by Seljuq and Ayyubid princes and accompanied by a group of disciples. Later on he came to be popularly called Muhyi al-Din ('The Reviver of Religion') and al-Shaykh al-Akbar ('the Greatest Master'). He continued travelling throughout the Middle East until he settled in Damascus in 1224, where he remained until his death in 1240.[1]

Ibn al-Arabi's two most famous and influential works are al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya ('The Meccan Illuminations'), an encyclopaedic discussion of Islamic wisdom (Nasr 1964: 92-8), and the shorter Fusus al-Hikam ('The Bezels of Wisdom'), which comprises twenty-seven chapters named after prophets who characterize different spiritual types. But Ibn al-Arabi also wrote many other lesser known works, many of them now available in print, such as the Kitab al-Tajalliyyat, Tarjuman al-Ashwaq, Mashahid al-Asrar al-Qudsiyya, Mawaqi‘ al-Nujum, ‘Uqlat al-Mustawfiz, Insha’ al-Dawa’ir and al-Tadbirat al-Ilahiyya, in addition to 29 shorter treatises published in the Hyderabad collection commonly known as the Rasa’il Ibn al-Arabi, and many other shorter books and treatises. In one of his treatises, Ibn al-Arabi himself listed 289 titles, which increase to 317 confirmed works when added to other titles he mentioned throughout his various books. More than 850 books have been attributed to him.[2]

Ibn al-Arabi was not an astronomer, and was never interested in astronomy as a science. But as a sufi and mystical theologian constantly inspired by the cosmological teachings and symbolism developed throughout the Qur’an and in a number of related Hadith (Prophetic sayings), he talks about planets and orbs and their motion as a structure Allah created on His Image (see section III.2) and relates them to the divine Names. He uses cosmology to refer to the ways we acquire more knowledge of Allah. Apart from a few short treatises where he talks about some astronomy subjects mixed with philosophy and theology, Ibn al-Arabi didn't devote any special book to describing the heavens. Nevertheless, in his major book al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya ('The Meccan Illuminations' - henceforth referred to as 'the Futuhat'), for example, we find many paragraphs that can be used to illustrate his profound view of the cosmos.

It can surely be said that Ibn al-Arabi's view of the cosmos is truly challenging, even as compared to the latest modern theories. For example, he clearly declared that the stars are not fixed at all, more than seven centuries before this was scientifically known, and he explained why we don't see their motion. Moreover, he gave numbers to the average velocities of the proper motion of stars as 100 years per arc degree, which is quite consistent with the measurements taken only few decades ago [III.548.28, II.441.33]; indeed he even used exactly the same unit of measurement now being used (Smart 1977: 249) at a time when no such measurements were possible at all. He also explained the observed 'retrograde motion' of some planets and the formation of the planets in the solar system in a similar manner to what is widely accepted today [II.443.24, III.203.21]. But most important in this regard is that his view of the world is heliocentric, similar to what Copernicus suggested many centuries afterwards. He also clearly affirmed that the earth is spherical, moving and rotating, and he also explained why people don't realize the motion of the earth around its centre [I.123.17, II.441.33, III.548.21].

Ibn al-Arabi's unique understanding of the process and reality of ongoing creation has been discussed by many scholars in some details. Ibn al-Arabi himself mentioned in particular a number of key cosmological developments in chapter 371 and in the very detailed chapter 198 of the Futuhat, as well as in other cosmological books such as Insha‘ al-Dawa’ir, al-Tadbirat al-Ilahiyya and ‘Uqlat al-Mustawfiz. William Chittick has devoted an immense volume called "The Self-Disclosure of God: Principles of Ibn al-‘Arabi's Cosmology" (this will be abbreviated as ‘SDG’) specifically to Ibn al-Arabi's cosmology and ontology, in addition to some chapters of other books like "The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn al-‘Arabi's Metaphysics of Imagination" (this will be abbreviated as ‘SPK’), and also Henry Corbin discussed some aspects in his pioneering study, now entitled in English Alone with the Alone, Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn al-Arabi (Crbin 1969: 184). Here we want to give a very short summary of Ibn al-Arabi's cosmology, in a way somewhat different from the approach followed by Chittick and Corbin. We only want to give a general description of his cosmological views, without too much further analysis and explanation, so that we can concentrate on the central subject of time in the rest of the book. Also we will leave the discussion of the ontological aspects of his cosmology to the following chapters (see in particular section II.3). Here in the following we shall use the same figures Ibn al-Arabi drew in chapter 371 of the Futuhat, and the following broad cosmological account is mainly drawn from that chapter [III.416-448], along with a few paragraphs taken from the long chapter 198 [II.390-478] of the same work.

Ibn al-Arabi's universe comprises both the material and the abstract, spiritual or noetic (‘aqli) worlds. He says that the main reason for creating the cosmos is 'Love'. In explaining this underlying principle he often refers to a famous divine saying (the 'Hadith of the Hidden Treasure')[3] which states that Allah 'loved' to be known in order to grant the creatures the privilege of coming to know Him. Thus Allah's love to be known is a Mercy (rahma) from Him that He wanted to grant to all His creatures. This Mercy is the first state of the presence of Allah with regard to the world to be created, and hence it formed the abstract place (or 'space') in which creations would appear. Following indications in another Prophetic Hadith, Ibn al-Arabi calls this abstract place al-‘ama’ ('the Cloud').[4] According to his account, the reality of al-‘ama’ accepted the forms of the 'Roaming Spirits' (al-arwah al-muhayyama) that Allah created directly, without any intermediaries. This direct creation caused these angelic Spirits to roam in the presence of Allah, knowing nothing but Him. They did not even know about themselves (i.e., they had no self-consciousness). Allah appointed one of these spirits and granted him a special epiphany of divine Knowledge (tajalli ‘ilmi) that engraved in him all what Allah wants to create in this entire cosmos until the Last Day. The other primal Spirits could not know about that. This initial epiphany caused this Spirit - that is then called the 'Universal Intellect' (al-‘aql al-kulli) or the 'First Intellect' (al-‘aql al-awwal) or also, using a central Qur’anic symbol, the 'Higher Pen' (al-qalam al-a‘ala) - to become aware both of himself and of the other Spirits, while they didn't know about him.

Through this epiphany, the First Intellect saw himself composed of himself and of his further ability to realize or 'intelligize'. He also saw that he has an ontic 'shadow' caused by the Light of that special epiphany, which was realized through the divine Name 'the Light' (al-nur). This shadow is his 'soul', which is called the 'Universal Soul' (al-nafs al-kulliyya) or the 'First Soul' (al-nafs al-ula), or also the 'Highest/Protected Tablet' (al-lawh al-a‘ala/al-mahfuz), in which he is going to write what he knows is going to happen until the Last Day. The entire universe, then, is - to use a central Qur’anic symbolism - the 'letters' and 'words' of Allah that are produced through 'the Breath of the All-Merciful'. We shall see in section V.8) that the fundamental 'blocks' in the universe are 'strings' or vibrations ('sounds' or 'notes'), which is similar to Ibn al-Arabi's notion of the hierarchy of the 'men of breaths’ (rijal al-anfas). Therefore it is not only a symbolism to say that the entire universe is the 'letters' and 'words' of Allah,[5] and those words are continuously being written by the Highest Pen (the First Intellect) in the Highest Tablet (the Universal Soul). Figure I.1 shows this Cloud and its contents down to the 'establishing Throne' (‘Arsh al-Istiwa’), which is different from the usual cosmological meaning of the divine (normal/usual) 'Throne'. The 'establishing throne' is the throne on which 'Allah established His authority', alluding to the verse: 'ar-Rahman ‘ala al-‘arsh istawa' (20:5).

Figure I.1: 'The Cloud' and what it contains, down to the 'establishing Throne'. This diagram is translated from Ibn al-Arabi's drawing in chapter 371 [III 421].

According to this account in chapter 371, the universe appeared in the Universal Soul through the Universal Intellect as the result of what Ibn al-Arabi calls an 'abstract (or 'spiritual') marriage' (nikah ma‘nawi). This is because everything that happens due to a particular cause is like a 'son' of this cause who is considered its 'father', and its 'mother' is the object where this 'son' appears or happens. Just as we are all (in our outer bodily dimension) the 'children' of Adam and Eve, all other things in the universe can be considered the 'children' of the Universal Intellect and the Universal Soul.

The Universal Soul has two forces mentioned in the Figure I.1: the 'intellective force' (quwwa ‘ilmiyya) by which it perceives knowledge, and the 'active force' (quwwa ‘amaliyya) by which it preserves its existence through motion. The first thing the Universal Soul gives rise to, as indicated in the same figure, is twofold: 'the level of Nature'[6] and the 'Chaos' (al-haba’: literally 'the Dust') or 'the Prime Matter' (al-hayula al-ula) [I.140.14]. From here on, Ibn al-Arabi uses the symbolic conjugal imagery of the 'wedding' of generative elements and of 'birth' at each successive level of creation or manifestation. Thus the Universal Soul first begets Nature and then Prime Matter or Dust. Then Nature and Dust in turn beget their first 'son', which is called the 'Universal Body' (al-jism al-kull). This symbolic process of cosmic 'births' continues in a long and defined series of causes and results until it reaches the 'soil' (turab) [I.140.17] which refers to physical matter in general. So the physical world appeared 'after' this Universal Body, while before that all was only spiritual.

As in Figure I.3, the Universal Body seems to contain everything beneath it including the zodiac (with all the stars and galaxies). Alternatively, we can consider that the physical world is formed by (not 'in') the Universal Body because, like the Universal Intellect and Soul, this Body can be called the First Body because it was the first body to be created. In addition to that, the world both as material and spiritual is formed by the Single Monad through the continuous manifestations of this Monad. If we then consider that the First Body was the first 'elementary particle' to be formed by the Single Monad then the physical world is formed 'by' this First Body. The other possibility is that the Universal Body is some sort of a huge cloud of matter in primary form, which then developed into stars and galaxies, in which case we could say that the physical world is formed 'in' the Universal Body. The first thing which was formed in (or by) the Universal Body was the 'Throne' (al-‘Arsh) on which Allah established his authority (istiwa’)[7] from His Name 'the All-Merciful' (al-Rahman), which means that all creatures beneath the Throne are to be granted the creative Mercy of their existence from Him. Therefore the first thing that the Highest Pen or First Intellect wrote in the Higher Tablet (the Universal Soul) was this 'Throne' in which the entire creation (the cosmos) is to appear. All this is shown in Figure I.2.

Inside (or 'beneath') the divine Throne there appeared the 'Pedestal' (al-Kursi), whose relative dimensions and plenitude, in comparison to the infinitely vast noetic or spiritual dimension of the 'Throne', Ibn al-Arabi compares here to 'a tiny ring in a vast desert'. And within this 'Pedestal' is the 'Isotropic Orb' (al-falak al-atlas), which is shown to contain the sphere of the divisions of the zodiac (falak al-buruj) and the sphere of the stars (al-falak al-mukawkab), including beneath them the separate orbs of the five planets, sun, moon, and the earth. All this is shown in Figure I.3 and Figure I.4.

Figure I.2: The establishing Throne and what it contains down to the Pedestal. This diagram is translated from Ibn al-Arabi's drawing in chapter 371 [III 422]. We put the title as it is in the original text, though we notice that the diagram shows the Prime Matter and the Universal Body, in addition to the Throne down to the Pedestal.

The Isotropic Orb or sphere is so called because it contains no stars yet nor any distinguishing feature; it is homogenous in all directions. The sphere of the zodiac was the first orb to be created inside the Isotropic Orb, and its surface was divided by human convention into the twelve equal parts that are traditionally assigned to the various zodiacal signs. According to the diagram in Figure I.3 and Ibn al-Arabi comments on it in chater 371 of the Futuhat, it is evident that he was ware of the large distances between the galaxies because the fixed stars are in our galaxy while the zodiac signs are other galaxies placed very far away. In this fast space Allah created the seven paradisiacal 'Gardens' (al-jinan, s. janna) named in the Qur’an, with their different states and levels marking the symbolic 'meeting-place' between the purely spiritual realities of the divine Throne and the 'sensible' realities in the realm of the Pedestal.

Figure I.3: The (divine) Pedestal and what it contains down to the constellations. This diagram is translated from Ibn al-Arabi's drawing in chapter 371 [III 423].

The specific names of each of the seven Gardens are taken from related verses in the Qur’an and Hadith, and they are different from the Seven Heavens or Skies (samawat) which are, for Ibn al-Arabi, the same seven celestial spheres where the five known planets plus the moon and the sun are, as shown in Figure I.4 and Figure I.3. The word 'al-Wasila' that twice crosses all the seven Gardens (in Figure I.3) corresponds to 'the highest level in (the highest Garden of) Eden, and it belongs (specifically) to the Messenger (Muhammed) of Allah' [I.319.14, also see I.658.30]. It is also known as 'al-maqam al-mahmud' ('the commendable station'), and it was called 'al-Wasila' ('the Intermediary', or 'the Way (of Approach to Allah)') because 'through It Allah may be approached' [II.87.9].

Figure I.4: The orb of the constellations and what it contains down to the earth. This diagram is translated from Ibn al-Arabi's drawing in chapter 371 [III 424].

Then beneath the seven Gardens comes the orb of the (apparently) fixed stars, the constellations, and the 'houses' or 'mansions' (manazil) of the moon. However, Ibn al-Arabi maintained that those stars are not fixed at all, but that our human time-scale is too short to notice their motion [II.441.33].

The orb of the fixed stars is (also conventionally) divided into twenty eight constellations or 'houses' through which the moon appears to pass. Then inside this sphere of the stars, Allah created the 'seven (visible) heavens' (al-samawat) and the earth. And here Ibn al-Arabi again points out that in relation to the divine 'Pedestal' (Kursi), the dimensions of our earth together with the seven visible heavens are like a ring in a vast desert - just as the Pedestal stands in that same relation to the immensity of the divine Throne.

Then Ibn al-Arabi speaks at length (chapter 371 of the Futuhat) on the states and levels of the Gardens and Gehenna and other descriptions of the other world (al-akhira). Here, however, we shall restrict ourselves to this very short summary of a few general relevant cosmological points, because of our focus on the concept of time.

First, we should note that Ibn al-Arabi, following normal Arabic usage, also calls the sun and the moon 'planets'. But at the same time he clearly distinguishes between the nature of the planets (including the moon) and the sun itself, observing that the sun alone 'is responsible for illuminating all other planets above and below' [II.170.22]. As is normal in Arabic writings (including astronomical ones), he also calls the stars by the same term as 'planets' (s. kawkab), yet he also knows that those stars are like the sun in that they emit their own light [I.217.18].

A first quick reading of Ibn al-Arabi's texts about the world might reveal the same traditional Aristotelian (geocentric) cosmological worldview because, like most other ancient cosmologies (and apparently the Qur’an and Hadith), he talks about 'seven (celestial) heavens' around or above the earth, each inhabited by a planet (including the sun and the moon, as shown in his Figure I.4). But Ibn al-Arabi stresses in many places [III.548.21, I.123.17, II.441.33] that this is only the apparent view for a person who is sitting on the earth, thus distinguishing between this apparent earthly view and the actual motion of the planets and stars themselves. So, for Ibn al-Arabi, Aristotle's view is a view of the world 'as we see it … while in itself it cannot be described like that' [III.548.31]. He stresses the central position of the sun which he considers to be in the 'heart' (centre) of the seven heavens, and he emphasizes the superiority of the sun over other planets that are even above it with relation to the earth: 'So the elevation of this place (the sun's orb) comes from its being the heart of orbs, so it is a high place for its status and the orbs that are above it in distance with relation to our heads, are still below it in status' [III.441.33]. His actual view of the (local) world is therefore in some sense 'heliocentric', at least in relation to the unique central status or 'rank' (makana) of the sun.

As for those areas of the sphere of the fixed stars and the visible constellations normally specified by the twelve signs of the zodiac or the twenty eight houses of the Moon, Ibn al-Arabi considers them as a mere convention, which do not necessarily relate to the actual positions of those particular stars. He says: 'The zodiac (constellations) are approximate positions, and they are houses for the moving planets' [III.37.27]. And for the moon he says that 'those stars are called "houses" because planets move through them, but otherwise there is no difference between them and other stars that are not houses.… They are only assumptions and proportions in this body (of the sky)' [III.436.30].

On the other hand, we cannot strictly separate the material world from the abstract or spiritual world, as they are really overlapped - or rather, all of the material worlds (of the 'Pedestal' and the visible heavens and earth below) are effectively contained within the immaterial divine 'Throne'. This is why Ibn al-Arabi sometimes mixes the two views: for example he drew a pillar to refer to the Perfect Human Being, whom he considers to be the 'image of the Real' (i.e., of God) in the cosmos, so that without him the cosmos would collapse. He also speaks, following scriptural symbolism, about the seven heavens as being 'supported' on the seven (levels/regions of the) earths. But Ibn al-Arabi does not consider that to be the actual physical picture of things, because he clearly states that the earth is spherical and that it rotates around its centre: 'but the motion of the earth is not apparent for us, and its motion is around the middle (centre) because it is a sphere' [I.123.17]. He even nicely explains why we don't feel the motion of the Earth and the cosmos in general (stars). For example he says that people and most other creatures don't feel the motion of the cosmos because it is all moving so the witnessed dimensions don't change, and that is why they imagine that the earth is stationary around the centre [II.677.21].


[1] For more information about Ibn al-Arabi's life and intellectual background, see: Addas, C. (1993) Quest for Red Sulphur: The Life of Ibn al-Arabi, Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society. See also: The Unlimited Mercifier - The spiritual life and thought of Ibn al-Arabi, by Hirtenstein, S. (1999) Oxford: Anqa Publishing/Oregon: White Cloud Press.

[2] For a full list of books and manuscripts attributed to Ibn al-Arabi', see: O. Yahya, Histoire et Classification de l'oeuvre d'Ibn ‘Arabi (Damascus, 1964). In this book Othman Yahya mentions over 900 books (with about 1395 titles) attributed to Ibn al-Arabi. Most of them however, as Yahya shows, are not really by him, and also many of his genuine books are lost or not available. For a list of Ibn al-Arabi's printed works, see appendix 1 in: The Unlimited Mercifier, by Stephen Hirtenstein, (Oxford: Anqa Publishing/Oregon: White Cloud Press, 1999). See also the list of his Arabic and translated works in the Bibliography at the end of this book.

[3] In this hadith Allah says: 'I was a hidden Treasure, so I loved to be known; so I created the creatures/creation so that I might be known.' This famous hadith qudsi ('divine saying') is not found in standard hadith collections, but is widely quoted by Sufis and especially Ibn al-Arabi [II.112.20, II.232.11, II.310.20, II.322.29, II.330.21, II.339.30, III.267.10, IV.428.7]. Some scholars of hadith therefore consider it a fabrication, but as William Chittick pointed out, Ibn al-Arabi believes that this hadith 'is sound on the basis of unveiling, but not established by way of transmission (naql)' [II.399.28]. See also: SPK: 391: 250-2, and SDG: 21, 22, 70, 211, 329.

[4] In this hadith Prophet Muhammad was asked: 'Where was our Lord before He created the creatures?' He answered: 'He was in a Cloud (‘ama’)' [Kanz: 1185, 29851]. See also: SPK: 125, and SDG: 118, 153, 360. Ibn al-Arabi discusses this hadith very often in the Futuhat: [I.148.17, I.215.33, II.62.36, II.150.21, II.310.3, II.391.28, III.304.5, III.506.5].

[5] See: 'The Language of the angels', by Pierre Lory, from 'The Breath of the All-Merciful' symposium held at Berkeley, 1998 (available as audio tape from the Muhyiddin Ibn al-Arabi Society, Oxford).

[6] Nature here actually means 'the level of Nature' (martabat al-tabi‘a) (i.e., the four foundational elements) and not nature in the physical sense, which is the material world. Ibn al-Arabi explains that the level of Nature does not have a separate physical existence:

So (God) the Exalted estimated the level of nature that if it has (real) existence it would be below the Soul, so even though it does not really exist, it is witnessed by the Real there. That is why He distinguished it and determined its level. It is with regard to natural beings just like in regard to the divine Names: they can be known and imagined, and their effects can appear and cannot be ignored, while in general they don't have any (separate) essence. Likewise, (the level of) Nature gives what is in its potential of sensible forms that are assigned to it and that have real existence, while it doesn't have real separate existence. So how strange is its state and how high its effect!


[7] From the Qur’anic verse the All-Merciful mounted (established His authority) on the Throne (20:5) and other similar verses such as He created the Heavens and the earth in six days and then He mounted on the Throne (7:54, and the same meaning in other verses: 2:29, 10:3, 25:59, 32:4, 57:4). We shall see in Chapter III that, according to Ibn al-Arabi the six directions of space were created by the process of God's 'mounting' (istiwa’) on the Throne in six days from Sunday to Friday.

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