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.

Relative and Curved Time

Relative and Curved Time:

In the literature of Sufism and Islamic spirituality, we read a lot of fantastic stories that apparently look 'imaginary' even to physicists who are familiar with the theory of Relativity and the concepts such as time travel that we have seen in section I.9. Ibn al-Arabi refers to the relativity of time in many direct and indirect ways. He explicitly says: 'minutes are years while sleeping' [IV.337.1]. But 'sleeping' here does not necessarily mean usual sleep, it could be any state of imagination or realization that momentarily isolates the Sufi from witnessing the visible world while his spirit is occupied with other dimensions of being. For example, he speaks in chapter 73 of the Futuhat about the 300 spiritual knowers (s. ‘arif) 'whose hearts are like the heart of Adam'. There he says that:

If a knower (of those 300) is taken (to witness) one scene of the Lord's scenes (al-mashahid al-rububiyya), he receives in one of its 'days' (i.e., 'the Lord's Day', which equals a thousand earthly years, 22:47) at that moment (when he is taken to the Lord's scene) divine knowledge (equivalent to) what others get in the world of (normal) senses in one thousand normal years with hard work and preparation. So this is how the divine knowledge that anyone from among those three hundred achieves when he is taken out of his own (carnal) soul and is confined in one Lord's Day. The person who can appreciate what we have said is only whoever has tasted that, when (normal) time was folded up (tayy) for him in that moment, just as distance and other quantities are folded up for the eyesight whenever someone opens his eye and looks at the orb of fixed stars: at the same time when he opens his eye, the rays (of his eyesight) are connected with the bodies of these stars. So look how big is this distance and this velocity (of our normal eyesight, in that case)!


On the other hand, one of the main consequences of the modern general theory of Relativity is the curvature of space and time, and this conception is explicitly referred to by Ibn al-Arabi when he says in poetry: 'the age has curved on us and bent (hadaba al-dahr ‘alayna wa inhana)' [I.202.7]. It is important to notice here that he used the word 'the age' (or eternal, 'divine time'), instead of time, because in modern cosmology the curvature of time is apparent only at very large scales, and we shall see below (section II.19) that for Ibn al-Arabi 'the age' includes not only time but also space.

Also regarding time-travel, which is widely known in science fiction and theoretically allowable in the theory of Relativity (see section I.9), many Sufis and similar figures across many other religious traditions have of course frequently referred to their experiences of various forms of 'travel' across normal boundaries of time. Ibn al-Arabi, for example, mentions the story of al-Jawhari who went to take a bath in the Nile and when he was in the water he saw, like a vision, that he was in Baghdad and he got married and lived with his wife for six years and had children. And then he was returned to himself (from this momentary vision). … And after few months this women, whom he saw in the vision that he had married, came looking for his house (in Egypt), and when he met her he knew her and knew the children [II.82.22].

So according to this story, al-Jawhari travelled to another far-away place and lived there six years, all in a moment of his actual time at his first location in Egypt. Ibn al-Arabi's original readers would of course immediately connect this experience of the 'folding of time' (as the Sufis called it) with the narratives of the Mi‘raj or ascension of the Prophet through and beyond all the heavens in a single night-journey (isra’).

In addition to this famous Mi‘raj in which Prophet Muhammad travelled vast distances in a very short time,[1] Ibn al-Arabi himself spoke in detail in chapter 367 of the Futuhat about his own numerous ascensions, although he affirms that his experiences were only spiritual, while the Prophet's ascension was both physical and spiritual [III.342.32].[2]

According to his accounts of this type of spiritual ascent in chapter 367, the physical elements of the Sufi's body dissociate and return to their corresponding natural place - earth to earth, water to water, air to air and fire to fire - and after that his spiritual self enters the celestial spheres to meet the spirits of the prophets inhabiting each sphere and to learn from them. Then one may even ascend further to the highest spiritual dimensions, as Ibn al-Arabi also describes in greater detail in his highly autobiographical Kitab al-Isra’ ila al-Maqam al-Asra.[3]

 Just as is specified in the theory of Relativity, a person who undergoes time travel will encounter many more events than those who stay in their place. The big difference, however, is that Relativity anticipates that time travellers will encounter much longer (real) times, and that they will realize after they come back to their starting point that many generations have passed away. This has led to many strange paradoxes like the 'twin paradox' (D'Inverno 1992: 38). For Ibn al-Arabi, however, the issue is far more simple and realistic: the only difference between the spiritual 'time traveller' and others is that the traveller will acquire much more knowledge or spiritual realization, because he encounters more events in a (outwardly) short period of time. For Ibn al-Arabi, time, after all, is imaginary, so more time means more events and more events means more knowledge. The Prophet Muhammad (and others like Ibn al-Arabi in their purely spiritual 'ascensions') encountered in the night of the ascension a multitude of events that normally need many years.[4] Likewise, in the illustrative cases of al-Jawhari and the 300 spiritual knowers mentioned above, other people around them did not feel any noticeable change. This subject is very close to the case of sleep and dreams except that the Sufi in the ascension is the one who is awake because Ibn al-Arabi affirmed that the Prophet Muhammad said: 'people are asleep, and when they die they wake up' (this hadith is not found in standard hadith collections, but is widely quoted by Sufis and especially Ibn al-Arabi [I.313.11, II.379.33, IV.404.16]), which means that our perception of this world is like a dream and those who are 'awake' (the spiritually realized people) will experience time in a different way. So a person in deep sleep will not feel the time as those who are awake next to him experience it. Similarly, the student who pays attention to the teacher will acquire more knowledge than those who are absentminded.[5]

In the same way, the 'Unique (spiritual) Pole' (al-qutb al-fard) is called sahib al-waqt ('the master of time', see chapter 336 of the Futuhat [III.135], and also: Al-Mu‘jam Al-Sufi: 678-83), because he is always in full attention to what Allah wants of him every single moment. The true master of time witnesses everything in the world (since all that is a kind of reflection of his own spirit, or even part of it) all the time: that is to say, he witnesses the created world throughout space and time. This high state of attention, however, is only attainable by Al-Qutb ('the Pole' or 'Axis' of the spiritual universe) who is at the top of the hierarchy of the saints [II.6.28]. This Qutb, like Ibn al-Arabi himself, is a man whose heart is like the heart of the Prophet Muhammad [I.151.6], 'and the one who is on the heart of Muhammad, peace and prayers be upon him, has the corner of the Black Stone (in the Kaaba), and that is for us thanks to Allah' [I.160.24, see also section VI.2].

The spiritual 'Pole' therefore is witnessing 'out of time' - which again means that he is witnessing everything in the world, spatially and temporally. Other Friends of God (the awliya’) may attain this high state of awareness to a relative extent, 'though this is very rare amongst the (special) people of Allah, and it is (only) for a few of them, the people of attention, those who never overlook Allah's rule in things' [II.539.27]. This also explains how some divinely illuminated people, like the prophets, encountered with Allah things that would not normally occur to normal people. For example, Allah's direct speech to Moses can only be explained, according to Ibn al-Arabi, when we consider that Moses was out of time when Allah spoke to him - since otherwise Allah would be confined to time, and this is not possible. Ibn al-Arabi explained this in some details in his short 'Book of Eternity' that is one of 29 short treatises published together in the famous book known as Rasa’il Ibn al-Arabi.

We actually always live in a relative time, but although we encounter a relative number of events, time itself has no reality. Because we measure time by other standard events, like the clock's ticks or the sun's motion, we do not feel the relativity of time. But if we measure it by our own internal activities (or what is known as psychological time), we shall always be travelling through time.

However, real travelling to the past is not possible at all, since time itself does not go back: once a form is created and goes into the past it never comes back again, although it is possible to remember past events: 'The past that has gone never comes back, but the similar (form) may come back; so when it comes back it causes (someone) through itself to remember that which was like it and has gone and is past.' [II.186.27].

However, Ibn al-Arabi is well aware that it is quite possible to interact with the spirits of the dead (who are only 'dead' to this world, not in their vast spiritual realm of the barzakh) because they may become visibly embodied in a spiritual form in this world [I.755.10], as frequently happens in various spiritual experiences. For example, Ibn al-Arabi mentions his personal encounter with Ahmad al-Sabti, the son of the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid, whom he met while circumambulating the Kaaba. When Ibn al-Arabi first saw him he doubted his case, because he saw him not pushing nor being pushed, and going through between the two men without separating any space between them. So he realized he must be a visibly embodied spirit, and he went to him and spoke with him and asked him why he was called al-Sabti (see his answer in section III.6 below) [I.638.32].

Travelling to the future and meeting people who are not born yet is also possible, though it may also be a kind of simulation or personification of their spirits, and Ibn al-Arabi also mentioned similar things:

And I have seen all the messengers and the prophets, witnessing them all by direct vision. And I talked to Hud, brother of ‘ad, in particular from their group (Hirtenstein 1999: 84-6). And I have seen all the people of faith, also by direct eye-witnessing, all those who have been among them and those who will come to be, until the Day of the Rising: the Real showed them to me on a single plane on two different occasions. And I accompanied (for spiritual learning) a group from among the Messengers, in addition to Muhammad - may God bless him. (For example), I recited the Qur’an to Abraham al-Khalil; and I returned (to God) by the hands of Jesus; and Moses bestowed on me the (inspired) knowing of (spiritual) unveiling and clarification, and the knowing of (the spiritual meaning of) the alternation of the daytime and the night (2:164, 3:190, etc.). So when I had assimilated that knowing, the night-time disappeared and the daytime (nahar) remained all the day long, so the sun never (again) set for me nor did it rise - and this unveiling was a notification from Allah that I would have no part of suffering in the hereafter.



[1] See: Muhyi ad-Din al-Tu‘aymi (ed.) (1994) Mawsu‘at al-Isra’ wa’l-Mi‘raj, Beirut: Dar al-Hilal. This book contains six important treatises written by prominent early and classical Muslim scholars, such as Ibn ‘Abbas, al-Qushayri and al-Suyuti, about the occasion of the Prophet's Isra’ and Mi‘raj.

[2] For a full translation and study of related passages, see: 'Ibn al-Arabi's Spiritual Ascension' by James W. Morris (2002) in The Meccan Revelations, Volume I, M. Chodkiewicz (ed.), W. Chittick (trans.), W. Morris (trans.) New York: Pir Press: 201-30.

[3] This book was published many times but the most remarkable critical edition is published by Su‘ad al-Hakim in 1988 (Beirut: Dandarah).

[4] Abu Ishaq al-Nu‘mani al-Shafi‘i, al-Siraj al-Wahhaj fi Haqa’iq al-Isra’ wa’l-Mi‘raj', in Mawsu‘at al-Isra’ wa’l-Mi‘raj, op.cit.: 53-114 [p. 58].

[5] See the short chapters 244 and 245 of the Futuhat [II.543-4], where Ibn al-Arabi explains these notions of spiritual 'absence' (ghayba) and 'presence' (hudur).

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