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.

Superstrings and the Science of Letters

Superstrings and the Science of Letters:

In the standard model of elementary particles physics, particles are considered to be points (or spheres) moving through the four dimensions of space-time. Extra abstract dimensions are needed to take into account the different properties such as mass, charge and spin.[1] This standard model eventually led to obvious discrepancies between Einstein's theory of General Relativity and the Quantum Field Theory that is essentially based on the wave properties of matter (see section I.3, and also section 6 immediately above).

Around 1985, the new String Theory suggested that all elementary particles can be represented by fundamental building blocks called: 'strings' that can be closed, like loops, or open, like a hair. The different vibrational modes (or 'notes') of the string represent the different particle types, since different modes are seen as different masses or spins. One mode of vibration makes the string appear as an electron, another as a photon. But one of the most remarkable predictions of String Theory is that space-time has ten dimensions rather than four. However, six of these dimensions are curled up very tightly, which is why we may never be normally aware of their existence. Other subsequent extensions of the String Theory anticipate even higher dimensions.

There are deep and exciting similarities between the principles of the String Theory and Ibn al-Arabi's views. We have already mentioned in section II.1 that he says that there are four 'fundamental principles of existence' that are - in addition to 'another six derived from them' - enough to describe the state of everything in the world [III.404.22]. But what is most exciting in this regard is Ibn al-Arabi's concept of the mysterious 'science of letters' (‘ilm al-huruf) or what he calls the 'world of Breaths' (‘alam al-anfas).

We've already mentioned above (section VI.6) the complex symbolic cosmological analogies that Ibn ‘Arabi elaborates, beginning in the long second chapter of the Futuhat, between the cosmos, the Single Monad and the Greatest Element on the one hand, and the world of letters on the other hand. Ibn al-Arabi adds that: 'the world of letters is a nation like other nations… and those who know that are only the people of unveiling in our path, …and they (the nation of letters) are grouped into groups like the normal world that we know.' [I.58.12]

These 'groups' refer to the groups of the spiritual hierarchy that we've mentioned above, which Ibn al-Arabi explained in detail in chapter 73 of the Futuhat.

Ibn al-Arabi also mentioned at the end of chapter 1 of the Futuhat that 'the first line that I read (from the hidden knowledge of the Spirit from whom he took everything that he wrote in the Futuhat), and the first secret of this line that I knew, is what I am going to mention in this second chapter' [I.51.30]. Then he wrote about forty extremely dense pages on the cosmological dimensions and significance of the science of letters in chapter 2.[2] In this chapter and other parts of the Futuhat, Ibn al-Arabi mentioned many mysterious facts about the letters and their world and cosmological meaning. For example, Ibn al-Arabi explained there the relation between the characters of the word azal, as written in Arabic, and the meaning of time (zaman) by tracing the mysterious relation between the letters in both words, as he mentioned in his Kitab al-Azal.

This is in fact a very broad and complicated subject, and we cannot go into details here. What we do want to summarize is that Ibn al-Arabi considers the entire cosmos as the words of the Real spoken through the 'Breath of the All-Merciful' [I.366.1, II.403.21, 459.6; see also al-Masa’il, 105], just like the meanings that we create through the words that we speak which are also composed of letters (or sounds) that are essentially the vibrations of our vocal strings under the influence of our breath. In chapter 2 of the Futuhat, Ibn al-Arabi gives details about the cosmological significance of each letter, how it is produced, what kind of vibrations it carries, and also the different orbs that contribute to produce it. Then in the long chapter 198 [II.390-478], which is titled 'On Knowing the Breath', Ibn al-Arabi mentioned remarkable facts about these cosmic meanings of the letters and sounds, and he explained the role of each divine Name of Allah in creating the different parts of the world and the different letters of the alphabet.

As one small illustration, we refer here to the letter (and sound) alif (?), the first letter in the Arabic alphabet (and many other languages), which Ibn al-Arabi treats as symbolically identical to the Single Monad we've mentioned above (section VI.6) - not only because it is first, but because it represents the closest thing to the pure creative, foundational divine 'Breath' itself. First Ibn al-Arabi asserts that 'alif is not from (other) letters' [I.65.23], but he stresses that 'all letters (like the world) may be broken down into and built up from it, while it does not break down into them' [I.78.22], so this letter alif is present in every letter or word, just like the Single Monad that is also present in everything in the world. Indeed any sound that we produce starts by the sound of letter alif because it is simply the beginning of the blowing of the breath through the larynx.

So since the cosmos is the words of the Real and those words are composed of letters or sounds produced through the Breath of the All-Merciful; these letters are the strings that constitute everything in the cosmos, just as the meanings that we create when we speak are also composed of the letters of the alphabet. Even the written shape and curvature of the Arabic characters, for Ibn al-Arabi, have deep hidden meanings that relate to the cosmos in many mysterious ways: in that sense, those shapes, just like the strings in the Strings Theory, are essentially either open like letter alif (?), or closed like letters mim (?) and waw (?).

The science of letters and of their equivalent numbers (‘ilm al-jafr) was not Ibn al-Arabi's own invention, but was widely known in various 'esoteric sciences', for example those that deal with magic and talismans, where they replace each letter by its equivalent numbers and make certain calculations and tables that are said to have secret magical effects, or may tell hidden facts. In her famous book Mystical Dimensions of Islam, Annemarie Schimmel devoted a separate appendix to speaking about the wider theme of letter symbolism in Sufi literature (Schimmel 1975: 411-25). In fact this kind of mythology dates back to the time of Pythagoras of Samos (582-504 BC), who visualized the world as perfect harmony, like musical notes, that depends on the system of numbers (which were written with the same letters of the alphabet in both Greek and later in Arabic).

As we said, these letters are arranged in a symbolic cosmological hierarchy parallel to the spiritual hierarchy of the saints that Ibn al-Arabi explained in chapter 73 of the Futuhat. In fact it is noteworthy that Ibn al-Arabi calls the members (awliya) of the spiritual hierarchy 'the world of Breaths' [II.6.21], or 'the Men of the world of Breaths' [II.11.9]. Also that is why sometimes Ibn al-Arabi calls the single Days of each singular instant 'the Days of Breaths' [III.127.34], because in this Day the creative divine Breath is taken which is the string or the vibration that appears in existence. Hence in each single Day the string (or the Single Monad, or the 'real-through-whom-creation-takes-place') is vibrating to produce the letter (or sound) alif; and the world therefore is the words that are composed of these alifs that are produced in the succeeding Days. The Single Monad is the ultimate elementary String, but there are also other elementary strings: just as letter alif forms other letters (both in writing and speaking) the Single Monad also forms other monads that are the entities of everything in the world.

For Ibn al-Arabi, this cosmological analogy applies both to speaking (sounds) and writing (characters), because the 'Higher Pen' (that is the Single Monad) is creating the cosmos by literally writing the words of the Real in the 'Higher Tablet' of the Universal Soul. This process of writing produces the 'Pen-sounds' (sarif al-aqlam), which are the vibrations that are referred to in the hadith recounting the ascension of the Prophet Muhammad [III.61.9].

So we say that the First Intellect that is the first-created (or first-originated: awwal mubda‘), and he is the Higher Pen. There was nothing else originated before (muhdath) him, but he was influenced by what Allah newly originated in him by raising up through him the 'Protected Tablet' (of the World-Soul), like the raising up of Eve from Adam in the world of material-bodies, so that this Tablet is going to be the substrate and place for what this divine Higher Pen writes (through the 'words' of creation). Now the delineation of the letters is designed to indicate what the Real made as signs pointing to Him.

So the Protected Tablet was the first existent raised up (from another: mawjud inbi‘athi). And it is reported in the revelation (of the Prophet) that 'the first of what Allah created was the Pen; then He created the Tablet and said unto the Pen: "write!", so the Pen said: "what to write?" Then Allah said unto him: "you write and I shall dictate you" [Kanz: 15116]. So the Pen writes in the Tablet what Allah dictates to him, which is His Knowledge regarding His creation that He shall create till the resurrection Day.


Ibn al-Arabi also divides the letters of the alphabet between four existents: the real (through whom creation takes place), the angels, the jinn and the Humans [I.53.1], which we may render into vibrations in 0-D, 1-D, 2-D and 3-D as we shall explain in the following section. This, he explains, is because the hearing (sam‘) is based on four realities [II.367.24], and that is why in the science of music and notes there are four main notes: the Bum (the thick string), the Zir (the highest string), Muthanna (duo), and Muthallath (trio): each moves the soul in a special way, causing the emotions of happiness and sadness [II.367.26].

But as Ibn al-Arabi explains in a chapter (182) entirely devoted to 'hearing' - i.e., metaphysical 'receptivity' in all its forms:

So 'Hearing', in this sense, is divided into three kinds: divine hearing, spiritual hearing, and natural hearing. The divine hearing is that of the (divine) secrets (asrar) and it is hearing from everything, in everything and through everything, because all of the world, for them (the true divine 'knowers'), is the words of Allah, and His words are never exhausted (18:109, 31:27). Therefore they have, corresponding to those (divine creative) words, 'hearings' that never end…

And the spiritual hearing is connected to the sounds (sarif) of the divine pens on the Tablet of what exists, (which is) 'Protected' from changes and substitutions because the whole of existence is 'a spread parchment' (riqq manshur, 52:3) and the world in relation to it is an 'inscribed book' (kitab mastur, 52:2): so the Pens speak out, and the ears of the minds hear, and the words are engraved (in manifest existence) so they are witnessed.

[II.367.7-9, 18-19]

So these words are the spiritual and material world that we live in, which is therefore the succession of the vibrations (letters) produced by the divine creative Breath through the Single Monad that is the Universal Intellect, and displayed in the Universal Tablet. This subject is indeed very diverse and important, and it is worth a separate study. Ibn al-Arabi himself spent a good part of the Futuhat on this subject, as illustrated in the long chapters 2 [I.51-91] and 198 [II.390-478].


[1] The spin is the motion of the particle around its axis just like the daily motion of the earth.

[2] For more details about the hierarchy of letters according to Ibn al-Arabi, see the related English translations by Denis Gril (2004) in The Meccan Revelations, vol. II, NY: Pir Press: 107-220.

Please note that some contents are translated Semi-Automatically!