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.

Spreading the Shadows

In discussing the divine Name 'the Subtle' (al-latif),[1] Ibn al-Arabi says that there is great subtle knowledge in 'the withdrawing of the shadow and its spreading' (alluding to 25:45-46), and that is why Allah made that symbolic image a guide to Him [IV.238.2]. As we pointed out before, Ibn al-Arabi views the world as a structure made 'according to the image/form' of the Real (see section III.1 above). In the same way, he considers the manifest world as the 'shadow' of the Real, or of the Universal Intellect (and ultimately the 'Greatest Element'). He bases these arguments on the following two verses from Qur’an: hast thou not seen how thy Lord hath spread the shadow - and if He wished, He could have made it still? Then We have made the sun a guide unto it. Then We withdrew it into Us, with a diminutive withdrawal (25:45-46), and we have already drawn attention to this basic relation between the divine Image and its 'shadow' in section III.1 above. In many places [III.12.3, III.106.7, III.281.32] Ibn al-Arabi emphasizes that the shadow of anything is on its own image; therefore:

Know that the Human Being (Insan),[2] since he is the 'likeness' of the divine Form, is like the shadow of a person, which does not ever leave him, although sometimes it appears to the senses and sometimes it is hidden. So when the shadow is hidden, it is still implicit (ma‘qul: 'present-to-the-intellect') in that person; but when it is manifest, then it is visible to the eyesight - (at least) for whoever (actually) sees it. So (likewise) the Perfect Human Being (al-insan al-kamil) is implicit in the Real (al-Haqq), like the shadow when it is hidden by direct sunlight so that it does not appear. For (the Perfect) Human Being always continues to be, eternally and perpetually. That is why (the Perfect Human Being) is always witnessed by the Real, since He is described (in the Qur’an) as having Sight (al-basir: 17:1, 40:20, etc.).

Therefore when He spread His shadow, it appeared according to His Form: Hast thou not seen how thy Lord hath spread the shadow - and if He wished, He could have made it still? (25:45) - - i.e., stably remaining with Whom is His shadow. But if He does not spread His Shadow, no individual reality (‘ayn) of It will be manifest in sensible existence, except to Allah alone (in His Fore-knowledge). So His 'Shadow' (i.e., the Perfect Human Being/Single Monad) has always been with Allah and will always be with Allah, for he continues Allah's continuing, while everything other than the Perfect Human Being (Single Monad) only continues (in existence) through Allah's causing them to continue.

[III.187.15; see also I.458.33 and II.607.14]

Therefore, the Single Monad/Perfect Human Being is the primordial Shadow of the Real, and the manifest world is in turn the shadow(s) of the Single Monad. The world appears in existence, after being hidden in the 'Unseen' (of the divine Foreknowledge), through Allah's 'spreading the shadow' of the Single Monad in the eternally renewed act of Creation. For if God so wished, He could have left His Shadow unmanifest, which means that the created world would have stayed as it was in Allah's eternal Knowledge, instead of coming out into real existence spread over space and time.

However, the 'shadow' of the Single Monad is one like him: that is why Allah withdrew his shadow 'with a diminutive withdrawal' - like the withdrawal of the shadow that normally occurs at sunset (see I.459.5) - so that it disappears in order to appear again in a different outward form, just as the sunlight disappears in order to eventually make another day. So at every 'Day' (instant) the Single Monad makes a new shadow in all creation. So the world is the ongoing collection of those instantaneous shadows, as explained in sections III.6 and IV.3 above.

When the shadow is spread (before and after noon) it is itself a guide to the sun, just as the sun was an actual guide to it by its effect which caused the shadow itself [I.459.9 and also IV 238.29]. Likewise our shadow-like existence (our actual individual entity) should guide us to realize the Real manifested in ourselves - being His shadows - by looking at His shadow (i.e., the Single Monad or Perfect Human Being) who makes manifest the shadow of our creation - and by proceeding then from the Perfect Human Being to the Real Himself, the divine 'Light'/sun Who ultimately caused this shadow (that is our existence). The seeker of the Real (murid), therefore, keeps seeking the Real in these shadows and in the Shadow (of the Perfect Human Being) that is their Source, until he comes to realize that Source more fully and directly. So when he achieves that high state of realisation, he himself - being one of these shadows - will be extinguished or 'drowned' (n. fana’) or united (n. ittihad) with the Real - because the shadow can not see itself and the Real at the same time - except perhaps for an instant of time, comparable to the case of noontime at the equator, where the shadow of the object disappears for a single moment.

But Ibn al-Arabi always clearly points out that after the 'enlightened' shadow-subject witnesses the Real, and continues to watch Him, then he will realize that he is as he was before and after his direct witnessing - except that before that witnessing he did not realize that what he was witnessing was the Real - just as the sun is the sun before and after the noontime disappearance of the shadow.[3] However, in fact the shadow at noon hides in the object and not in the sun, so in fact the realized knower indeed does not witness the Real Himself (the Essence), but only witnesses the 'real-through-whom-creation-takes-place' (al-haqq al-makhluq bihi), which is the Perfect Human Being (the Single Monad, or at most the Greatest Element). So the Knower may at most realize his essential unity with this reality, which is only the higher 'Shadow' of the Real.

It is here, Ibn al-Arabi implies, that many of the Sufis' ecstatic expressions (or poetic metaphors) have sometimes been misunderstood. For example, Ibn al-Farid in his famous poem, the Ta’iyya, speaks about 'unification' (ittihad) in various forms (Mahmud 1995: 241, 248, 252 and 276). Of course Ibn al-Arabi himself has sometimes been accused of believing in ittihad and hulul, but he was always very careful not to mention these words and directly denied such doctrines [III.298.30, IV.81.23].[4] That is why in his prayers Ibn al-Arabi asks to unite with Prophet Muhammad's spiritual essence (dhat), who is the Perfect Human Being. For example he says in his book of prayers, Al-Salawat Al-Faydiyya:

O God, pray for him (Prophet Muhammad) a prayer by which my branch may connect with my root, and my part with my whole, until my essence is unified with his essence and my attributes with his attributes, and the eye is satisfied with the eye, and disunity flees away from disunity.[5]

In yet another of his prayers, he very clearly expresses what we have just observed in his remarks about the divine 'shadow':

Oh God, no god but You, it is You Whom we worship and You Whom we witness; ever returning to You, nothing but You. I ask of You, by You, You Yourself, Yourself, Yourself, You Who (have) no 'he' other than 'Hu' (the divine Essence), (I ask of you) to withdraw from me the shadow of (my natural bodily) formation, so that I may witness my (true) self bare from any description that is a veil which prevents me from witnessing You as 'I'[6], and purify me from any attribute or influence that makes me see any (purely personal) share (in existence): for everything is perishable but its [or 'His'] face[7] (28:88), but to Allah all things are returned (42:53). Oh my God, pray for Your messenger, our master Muhammed, who is apportioned with this perfect abolishment (mahw), and complete integration (jam‘) that is beyond perfect wisdom.[8]

For Ibn al-Arabi, these symbolic analogies between the shadows and creation are indeed very important existentially because Allah made them as guides for us, in all the ways we have just reviewed. But what is particularly important here, in terms of Ibn al-Arabi's actual cosmology and understanding of time, is that the created entities of the world that are the evanescent 'shadows' of the Single Monad are continuously re-created, by one instantaneous act of creation after another, in a process similar to the spreading of the shadows by the sun in the course of the day. In the following section, we turn to some further illustrations and implications of that cosmic process of creation.


[1] This divine Name is usually taken in the meaning of 'the Most-Kind', which is a possible meaning in relation to His Creation: 'He is the Most-Kind with His servants' (42:19). Ibn al-Arabi here, however, emphasizes the general meaning of latafa which means fineness.

[2] Insan: i.e., here and throughout this book, the immortal spiritual reality and dimension of people - which is the reflection of the cosmic First Intellect, or 'Perfect Human Being'; and not their passing material, mortal-animal 'nature' (bashar).

[3] Ibn al-Arabi spends a good deal of the first chapter of the Futuhat trying to explain this mysterious point regarding the subjective experience and the actual reality of fana’. He explains that, in making the circle, the compass returns to the starting point [I.48.33], until he concludes: 'if they (the seekers of the Real) knew (the goal of their search) they would not have moved from their place' [I.49.1], and 'so he (the seeker) would be sad on arriving at what he has (earlier) left behind - but he would be happy for the secrets that he gained on the way!' [I.49.14]

[4] See also Yousef, M. H. (2006) Shams Al-Magrib ('Biography of Ibn 'Arabi') Aleppo: Fussilat: 422.

[5] See: Al-Salawat Al-Faydiyya, published together with some other short treatises and prayers, for example in: Tawajjuhat Al-Huruf (Maktabat al-Qahira: Cairo, n.d.).

[6] I.e., as my ultimate identity which is as the Perfect Human Being, not as You (the transcendent Real), because this is impossible as we said above. This is the state of spiritual 'abolishment' (mahw) of the ego, like the momentary disappearance of the shadow at noontime, as we have seen above.

[7] The pronoun here (translated as 'its') is usually interpreted by many scholars so that it refers to Allah. Ibn al-Arabi, however, affirms that it indeed refers to the thing in 'everything' [II.110.25, II.313.16, III.255.22]. However, both cases are plausible [IV 417.18], if we take into account what we have mentioned in Chapter V that the things are not other than Him, and that the 'face' of a thing is its essential reality [as Ibn al-Arabi argues at I.181.19, I.306.12, I.433.36, II.182.17, II.632.34, IV.417.18]. So the things are in reality are not other than Allah, but the forms that we see are all perishable, and at the end there remains only His Face in everything. So this verse is indeed another clear expression of the oneness of being.

[8] See: Tawajjuhat al-Huruf, ob. cit.: 26.

Please note that some contents are translated Semi-Automatically!