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The Endless Voyage

Michel Chodkiewic
Even a brief semantic analysis is sufficient to show how Islam's religious vocabulary constantly
reminds man of his condition as viator, pilgrimage being the ritual expression of this condition.
A number of times in each of the five daily prayers a total of seventeen times per day the
Muslim asks !od to lead him along the straight path "sir#t musta$%m&' in the (#tiha, the first
sura of the )ur'an, the recitation of which is mandatory, it is as a matter of fact the only re$uest
that is made. *he word sirat occurs over +, times in the )ur'an- sab%l, its synonym, appears ./0
times. *he first meaning of the very word to denote 1ivine 2aw 3 shar%'a is the road that leads
to the watering place- in Arabian cities, the word for 'street' comes from the same root. *he
term that normally is translated by 'brotherhood' or 'mystical order' tar%$a belongs to the
same semantic domain' a tar%$a is a road and, more specifically, a road to perfection, an
itinerarium in 1eum. 4e who sets out on the road, the s#lik the 'walker' does so under the
direction of a murshid, a 'guide'.
*he Muslims were travellers, in the literal sense of the word, from very early on. 5iety, military
expeditions, business, in addition to the search for knowledge "'6eek it, even as far as China',
said the 5rophet&, led them to the far corners of the 7arth. 7ven Ibn 'Arabi as was the case for
countless spiritual masters before and after him tirelessly travelled through the Islamic world
for nearly forty years, first in his native Andalusia, then in the Maghreb, and finally in the Middle
7ast before settling down in 1amascus, where he died in .8+,.
6iy#ha the life of the wandering ascetics can sometimes be one phase of initiatory training.
(or some individuals, siy#ha can eventually represent a permanent form of sainthood. 9ut it is
generally not considered to be the most perfect one, and caveats against the dangers it
presents are fre$uent in the teachings of the sufis. Among the rules that 'Abd al:hali$
!hi;duvani "d. .88,&, one of Ibn 'Arabi's contemporaries, left to the tar%$a na$shbandiyya was
his sixth, which states' safar dar watan, 'travel in your own country'. <f course this rule has a
symbolic meaning, but it must also be taken literally. =a;m aldin :ubra "d. .8,,&, who was
living in the same period, is the author of a short work in which he outlines the principles that
the traveller must observe. 9ut if he speaks of the safar >#hir, the 'exterior' voyage whose
spiritual dangers he emphasi>es, he first describes the aspects of the safar $alb%, the 'voyage of
the heart', the ten conditions of which he defines.?.@ Ibn 'Arabi, like :ubra, looks at both the
interior and the exterior. *he reader nevertheless has the idea that he is more interested in the
safar $alb%, particularly in a number of chapters from the (utAhat al Makkiyya.?8@ A thorough
analysis of Ibn 'Arabi's numerous writings about the voyage would re$uire considerable time.
(or this reason I will limit my remarks to a treatise dedicated exclusively to this theme, the :it#b
alisf#r 'an nat#'i; alasf#r- the '9ook of the Bnveiling of the 7ffects of the Coyage'. Bp until now
there has been but one, less than satisfactory, edition of this work, published in 4yderabad in
.D+E. (ortunately, my colleague and friend 1enis !ril has ;ust carefully completed a critical
edition and (rench translation of the work, and we now have a reliable text with which to work.
?F@ Although I make no claims to dealing with the totality of the richness that the :it#b alisf#r
offers, I will attempt an analysis of the work's ma;or themes.
If man is indeed tied to what in the writings of the (rench 6chool of 6pirituality in the
seventeenth century was called 'la vie voyagGre', the travelling life, it is first of all because he
belongs to a universe that is itself a perpetuum mobile. '7xistence begins with movement',
writes Ibn 'Arabi. '*hus, there can be no immobility in it, for, if it remained immobile, it would
return to its original state, that of nothingness.' It follows that 'the voyage never ends, neither
in the world above nor in the world below.' "HF& *he course of the heavenly bodies, the rotation
of the celestial spheres, the tra;ectory that, from the time of the sowing of his father's seed,
leads man through the four seasons of life followed by the stages of his fate after death are,
among others, examples of this perpetual movement of the cosmic bodies. =or is this all' !od
4imself 'is travelling' from the 'Cloud' "al'am#&, that is, from what the 2atin translations of
pseudo1ionysius call the divina calligo. If 4e is immutable in 4is 7ssence, 4e propagates
4imself through 4is =ames in an inexhaustible procession of theophanies, as seen in the )ur'an
and the hadith'4e 'sits' on the *hrone, 4e 'goes down' to that 4eaven that is closest to the
7arth, 4e extends his creative activities in all directions of the universe. 4is Iord Itself is
directed from on high to down below and, from the lowest of the heavens it rains stars
"nu;Aman& into the heart of man "H.E&. 7ach verse of revelation, from the last to the first, in
turn becomes one of the successive abodes "mana>il& that the son of Adam will inhabit in his
ascension toward !od.?+@
*hus, willingly or not, knowingly or not, each creature is travelling on a path. 9ut, as an
untranslatable play on words in the Arabic title suggests, this path cannot properly be called a
'voyage' "safar& unless it is also a disclosure or an unveiling "isfar&' in Arabic, the verb safara is
used to denote the action of a woman uncovering her face "H./&. Ie will presently see the
ultimate conse$uence of this taking off of the veil, without which the voyage cannot bear fruits
of spiritual knowledge. 4owever, it is first of all important to know that there are three kinds of
voyage "H8&. *he first is that which leads toward !od 'by land or by sea' ")..,' 88&- the route 'by
land', which has its origin in faith in revelation, is the surer of the two, while the route by sea,
that of speculative thought, is uncertain and even dangerous. *he second is the voyage in !od-
there the traveller is plunged into interminable bewilderment "hayra&.?J@ 4e is no longer in via-
he is in patria, but the voyage continues endlessly because !od is always new. *he word hayra
is usually translated by 'perplexity'. In Ibn 'Arabi's work, however, it is closer to the epektasis
that !regory of =yssa describes in his sixth homily on the 6ong of 6ongs' that infinite
progression that leads the soul 'from beginning to beginning through beginnings that never
end'. '!od's gifts are never ending', says Ibn 'Arabi "HJJ&, 'and there is no last gift to end them
all.' *he third kind of voyage "H/& takes place from !od. *his return to the creatures might be
considered as a re;ection- on the other hand, it can also be taken as a sign of divine election, as
in the case of the prophets and the saints, where there is no separation implied. Actually, for
Ibn 'Arabi, perfect sainthood wal#ya ;ust as its etymology suggests, is 'proximity', but this
proximity is twofold' close to men, the wal% never ceases being close to !od, and it is for this
reason that he ';oins together heaven and earth'.?0@
In a number of places the )ur'an recalls the wanderings of the prophets "a word which, in
Islam, is of course also used for what the 9iblical tradition refers to as 'patriarchs'&. It is with
these prophetic models as a starting point that the 6haykh alAkbar attempts to describe the
rules and modalities of the voyage. <ne comment should be made at this point. (or his
adversaries and there are still a number of those today who regularly attempt to put a stop to
the diffusion of his books Ibn 'Arabi is nothing more than a philosopher in disguise, and his
teachings are no more than neo5latonic prattle vainly camouflaged by twisted $uotations from
scripture. In an inane work, but one $uite representative of this kind of polemical
interpretation, an Indian author, a few decades ago, spent his final lines inviting Muslims to get
hold of themselves again, with his anguished call' Away from 5lotinus and his host and 9AC: *<
MB4AMMA1, these last three words being in capital letters.?/@ It is not difficult to see in the
:it#b alisf#r, as is the case with all of Ibn 'Arabi's writings, that the contrary is true' his teaching
is drawn entirely from the substance of the )ur'an, and his entire work can actually be read as
an immense, penetrating exegesis whose boldest interpretations always remain scrupulously
attentive to the letter of the revealed 9ook. 9y the word 'exegesis' in this particular case, I am
not referring, however, to tafsir in the usual sense of the word, that of commentary'.?E@ Ibn
'Arabi is $uite clear about this' 'Ihen I speak about a voyage, I am speaking only as my own
essence is concerned- I make no attempt here to comment on any events that happened to the
prophets.' "H+J&I shall return to this point in a moment.
Ihat Ibn 'Arabi means in this passage should not be taken as opening the door to free
interpretations, using the )ur'an as a pretext. )uite the contrary. It can be seen that in each
case it is in analysing the vocabulary of the verses in $uestion, in sticking to their grammatical
peculiarities "and, for example, even to the literal meanings of the technical terms that denote
desinential inflections& that he manages to bring out the meaning of the voyages undertaken by
the prophets.
7ven though Ibn 'Arabi mentions the voyages of Konas, 6aul, and Kesus in his prologue, he never
returns to them in the book itself. *he )ur'anic episodes that he does deal with are those that
concern Muhammad and then, successively, Adam, 7noch, =oah, Abraham, 2ot, Koseph, and
Moses. 9efore looking in depth at the section where the 6haykh alAkbar deals with the celestial
ascension of the 5rophet of Islam, I would first like to make a few observations regarding
passages about the individuals ;ust mentioned.
Adam's 'voyage' "H80F.& is a fall, and therefore appears to be "fi m# ya>har& a distancing. *his
is only in appearance, for this fall, far from being a 'downfall', ends up being an ennoblement
"hubAt tashr%f& like that spoken of in a number of Ibn 'Arabi's other texts.?D@ According to the
)ur'an "F'.D.- FE'8/&, !od did not create the world in vain "b#tilan&. Bnder the 2aw,
knowledge of the world is part and parcel to knowledge of !od. *his is likewise a theme
characteristic of Ibn 'Arabi's teaching.?.,@ *hus, although it differs markedly from the way it is
seen in the patristic tradition, Adam's 'mistake' is a felix culpa, and it is one that is essential in
order that the divine promise "). 8'F,& be carried out for man to be !od's '2ieutenant', his
representative "khalifa& on earth. <ne important point to be mentioned about this passage "H
8/& is that the idea of what might be called 'original sin' appears there, although for lack of a
clearly defined doctrine the concept of original sin is considered to be absent in Islam. (or Ibn
'Arabi, Adam's 'disobedience' is $uite real' but it is actually the disobedience of the progeny that
he was carrying in his loins at the time. *hus, we were all a party to it' original sin is not some
fatality that we un;ustly inherited. 6ub specie aeternitatis, the transgressions in which I am
involved today had already been committed when the history of mankind began.
Idris "HF80&, the 9iblical 7noch, he who 'disappeared because !od had taken him' "!en. J'8+&,
is mentioned only twice in the )ur'an, and $uite briefly. In contrast to that of Adam, his voyage
is upward' 'Ie have raised him up to a high place', says the verse which is the starting point of
this section of the :it#b alisf#r "). .D'J/&. Ibn 'Arabi, who dedicates Chapter + of the (usAs to
Idris, also speaks of him at some length in Chapters .+ and .J of the (utAh#t, although in this
case instead of being named, he is referred to emblematically as mud#w% lkulAm 'he who heals
wounds'. *his reference to a therapeutic role is connected to a long tradition, to be found for
example in *ha'labi's )is#s alanbiy#', or in the Las#'il Ikhw#n alsaf#, which identifies Idris
7noch with 4ermes "or rather, with the first 4ermes, 4irmis alawwal& and ascribes to him all
cosmological knowledge.?..@ Carried off into the celestial spheres, he is taught the mystery of
their revolutions, of the links between what is above and what is below, and of how, step by
step, divine commandments come down through the great chain of beings. 4e resides in the
middle heaven, where the sun also is, the 'heart' of the Cosmos, and he possesses the
knowledge of time and of its rhythms that order the cadenced flow of history.
=oah "HF/+,& begets postdiluvian humanity, and thus preserves the future of Adam's
progeny. 4e is, for us, as Ibn 'Arabi says in the (utAh#t, al#b alth#n%, the second father.?.8@ 4is
voyage in the Ark hori>ontal this time, as opposed to the vertical plane of the preceding
voyages is the voyage of salvation "safar alna;#t&. *he appropriate )ur'anic 'sign' for =oah, the
miracle that establishes him as a prophet, is the athanor "altannAr, ). ..'+,- 8F'8/&, the huge
alchemical furnace wherein the great waters of the deluge churn. *he athanor associates water
with fire. In these two opposing elements =oah knows how to see what the infidels were not
able to see' accidental forms of the uni$ue substance of the universe in perpetual
metamorphosis. 4e thus discovers the laws of transmutation and the mysteries of the '!reat
Iork', what Ibn 'Arabi elsewhere refers to as 'the alchemy of happiness'.
'I go toward my 2ord, 4e leads me' "). F/'DD&' this )ur'anic verse is, in a sense, the reply made
by Abraham "H+.F& to the 9iblical command '2eave your country and go toward the land that I
shall show to you.' "!en. .8'.& Abraham's peaceful confidence in divine guidance appears to be
unfounded, since it ends up exposing him to the sacrifice of his son.?.F@ *his trial is nevertheless
;ustified' one should ask nothing of !od but !od 4imself. Abraham, however, had asked !od to
send him a son "). F/'.,,&- it is, conse$uently, in the very ob;ect of his re$uest that he is
smitten. =evertheless, the trial consists not in the fulfilment of the sacrifice, but rather in the
order to perform it- after all, a ram is substituted for the presumed victim. *his substitution is in
appearance only' from all eternity, only the ram was destined to be sacrificed and, in Abraham's
vision, it is the ram that appeared in the form of his son.?.+@ In this sense, Abraham's voyage is
a failed voyage' he did not know how to interpret the vision- that is, he did not know how to
take the path that led from the perceived image in the world of images to the reality that this
image represented. *he Arabic verb that I am here translating by 'interpret' is extremely
expressive, since it is used to describe the action of fording a river or crossing a bridge- we will
see it again shortly.
7tymologically, 2ot's name "H++J& calls to mind the idea of 'adherence', and this is why, in
Chapter .+ of the (utAh#t where, like Idris, the prophets before Muhammad are referred to in
emblematic terms, 2ot appears under the pseudonym of almulsi$, 'he who sticks'' he is totally
tied to !od and, when faced with idol worshippers, he seeks refuge only in !od. (leeing 6odom
with his ga>e fixed ahead, he walks toward a place that bears the name alya$%n, 'certitude', and
where there still stands today a mos$ue "visited by Ibn 'Arabi& erected in his memory. 2ot's wife
does turn around to look. (or Ibn 'Arabi, she is a figure of the impassioned soul who, even in the
highest contemplation, still attempts, through a reflex movement, to reach out and grasp
spiritual ;oys and hold on tightly.
*he long section "HJ,/,& regarding Moses, and which ends the work, entails six episodes from
the )ur'an. *he first concerns Moses' encounter with !od on Mount 6inai "). /' .+F&?.J@ at the
end of a waiting period of forty nights. *his number is related to the $uaternary structure of the
macrocosm and the microcosm, and particularly to the human body, whose four humours bile,
choler, phlegm, and blood& are the products of combinations of the four simple principles' cold,
heat, dryness, and humidity.?.0@ 9ut this voyage, where Ibn 'Arabi defines Moses' attitude
through his rigorous observance of appropriate behaviour "adab& and service owed to !od, is
first and foremost a prototype of spiritual retreat "khalwa&, especially the one called arba'iniyya,
the fortyday retreat regarding which the 5rophet said' '4e who devotes himself exclusively to
!od for a period of forty mornings, the fountains of wisdom will spring forth from his heart and
upon his tongue.'?./@ 9ut, as Ibn 'Arabi warns, ;ust as Moses, before departing, had left Aaron in
charge of looking over his community, 'the man who undertakes this ;ourney must leave his
substitute with his people.' (or, like Moses on Mount 6inai, he will collapse, struck down
"sa'i$#n& by the power of the theophany' his 'people' his own human nature who have
remained at the foot of the mountain, must remain under the guard of 1ivine 2aw.
*he following two episodes relate directly to the preceding one, and are tied together by a
common theme, that of haste "'a;al&. 'Ihy did you hasten to leave your peopleM ', !od asks
Moses when he arrives at 6inai. 'I hurried toward Nou, 2ord, so that Nou might be satisfied', he
replies "). 8,'EF+&. Moses' haste is ruled by the sole consideration of !od's pleasure. In no way
did it conflict with his obedience' Moses goes before his 2ord only after a certain, set amount of
time' the elapse of the forty nights of waiting and preparation that had been re$uired of him.
4is haste is an expression of the >eal with which he submits to the 2ord's call.
9ut all haste is not necessarily good. Ihen he comes down from the mountain and returns to
the creatures, Moses discovers the idol worship of the 9ani Isra'il, and it is for their
impetuousness that he rebukes them. '1id you wish to hurry the commandment of your 2ordM '
"). /'.J,&, he asks them. Another verse from the )ur'an is helpful in understanding why haste,
so praiseworthy in one case, is ;ust the opposite in the other. It states that 'Man is made of
haste', to which !od immediately adds' 'I will show you My signs. 1o not rush Me'. Moses, the
kal%m All#h, he who speaks with !od, was late in coming back. 4is community became
impatient, ;ust as each of us does when !od is silent, when we are forced to wait for a sign of
4is 5resence. Ie do not desire !od, we desire to en;oy !od, to receive his sensible graces
without delay- we wish to set the time and the place of the meeting ourselves. Ie refuse the
fortyday trial period which, in our case, might end up being forty years or longer. Ie are not in
a hurry so that !od, and !od alone, might be satisfied. Man creates a substitute !od because
this impatient greed is disappointed. 2et it be noted that the very name of the !olden Calf
reveals the cause of this false worship' the calf, 'i;l in Arabic, is actually related to the same root
as 'a;al, haste, and the spelling of these two words is rigorously identical.
*his $uite significant linguistic relationship between the first mistake, impatience, and its
conse$uent crime of idol worship, is not sufficient to explain the !olden Calf. According to the
)ur'an "8,'EJ, E/, DJ&, it was an individual named al6amiri who first took the initiative of
carving the idol. *his 6amiri, for Ibn 'Arabi, is not a common, runofthemill idol worshipper. In
a development that he will later continue in the (utAh#t,?.E@ the 6haykh alAkbar states that
this man had been blessed with a vision in the course of which he saw one of the angels that
carry the *hrone of !od. *here are four of these angels. According to a very old Muslim
tradition one that goes back probably as far as Iahb b. Munabbih,?.D@ and where there is
obviously some similarity with the 9iblical accounts of both 7>echiel's vision "7>. .'.,& and the
9ook of Levelations "+'0& they take the forms of a man, a lion, an eagle, and a bull. *he 6amiri,
seeing the bull, thought he could recogni>e in it Moses' !od. *hus, it was a small bull that he
sculpted with the 7gyptians' gold. Cia a premature interpretation of an incomplete spiritual
experience he, too, attempted to anticipate divine acts' an inexcusable haste which, here again,
is cause for ma;or sin.
I think the commentaries that these few examples from the :it#b alisf#r have inspired me to
make are sufficiently illustrative of the pedagogical character of Ibn 'Arabi's spiritual
interpretations. 4is intention is emphasi>ed in a number of sentences' '4e who, like Idris,
travels toward the world of his heart...' "HF0&- '6et out on your ark...' "HFD&- or, even more
patently, 'these ?prophetic@ voyages are bridges and passageways constructed so that we might
cross over them toward our own essences and our own beings' "H+J&. *he lesson is clear' each
of us should construct an ark, like =oah- each of us, like Moses, is called to the 6inai of vision
and each of us must come back down to our 'people', toward our own corruptible nature
always tempted by infidelity, and which can only be saved by observance of the 6acred 2aw.
<f all these 'bridges' that lead us to our essential reality, the story of the celestial ascension of
Muhammad is the most important. It is in the pages where Ibn 'Arabi invites his reader to
meditate upon this story "H88J& that the central theme of his work can be seen.?8,@ Iord by
word, the first verse of sura ./ "Alisr#& is meticulously analysed. *his voyage, which is to lead
the 5rophet to the threshold of the 1ivine 5resence, is a nocturnal one' thus, it takes place 'in
that moment that is the dearest to lovers'.?8.@ *he 5rophet is not named, rather he is referred
to in the verse as a 'servant' 'the noblest of names', Ibn 'Arabi notes and, more precisely, as
'4is servant' "'abduhu&, that is to say, the servant of the transcendent 6elf, and not of any
particular aspect of !od. *his absolute servitude "'ubAda& does not only represent the purest
state of abandonment that man is capable of. *he extinction of all individual will in that of !od
completely lays bare the real status of the creature, that is, its radical ontological poverty "and it
is thus that the voyage, safar, is isf#r, unveiling&. *his status is of course recogni>ed by each and
every Muslim when the (atiha is recited. 6aying y#ka na'budu wa y#ka nasta'%n is admitting that
we possess neither being nor the power to act. 9ut this admission can be only verbal. (or the
5rophet, on the other hand, it involves the totality of the human constitution. *his is why, when
the saints know only 'voyages of the spirit' "isr#'at rAh#niyya&,?88@ that of Muhammad is in
body. 4is body has already, in this world, ac$uired the privileges of the glorious body of the
resurrected. Moreover, it is by reason of this perfect servitude that the )ur'an does not say that
'he travelled', but rather that '4e' !od 'had him travel'. *here is no movement on his part. 4e
is moved by !od' the 'endless voyage' is a motionless voyage.?8F@
Are the admirable teachings of the :it#b alisf#r nothing more than a sub;ect for learned
papers, a pretext for scholarly discussionM *his is the $uestion that needs to be raised after this
brief look at the work. In this iron age, are the spiritual sciences of which Ibn 'Arabi gives us a
glimpse still accessibleM *he 6haykh alAkbar's work is entirely oriented toward the hori>on of
the eschata' revelation is sealed by the )ur'an, prophecy is finished, the 2ast Kudgement is
imminent. 'Ie are presently', he says in the (utAh#t, 'in the third third of the night of the
universe's sleep' a sleep that began 'with the death of !od's Messenger'.?8+@ In this universe,
corrupt and on the road to dissolution, soon to be inhabited solely by men 'like unto animals',
?8J@ is sainthood not any more than a golden legend, and the knowledge of !od a mirage
forever in retreat before him who pursues itM
<ne superb page of the :it#b alisf#r "HE& offers a paradoxical reply to these $uestions. If, for
!od's servants, the human condition is harder today, the reward is also greater' ';ust one rak'a
performed by us "in the ritual prayer& is worth what in earlier times a whole life of worship was
worth.' In the last third of the night, the dawn approaches' the future world is but an
infinitesimal distance from the one in which we are presently spending our mortal existence.
*he attraction that it has is conse$uently stronger than it has ever been. As a result, 'these
unveiling breakthroughs are prompter, visions are more fre$uent, gnosis is more abundant.'
And, since there are presently few human beings prepared to receive them, all the greater is
the portion for those who are worthy. *he spiritual sciences also, Ibn 'Arabi avers, will continue
to grow, to the benefit of these men. *hey will continue to grow until the return of Kesus, the
6eal of Bniversal 6ainthood, whose parousia will announce the end of time. (or whoever is
ready to observe the rules of the voyage and face the risks, the way is still open.
.. :. ad#b alsulAk, ed. M. MolO, Annales Islamologi$ues, IC, .D0F, 0./E.
8. <n the theme of the voyage in the (ut., see especially Chs ./+, ./J, .D,, .D..
F. Ibn 'Arabi, 2e 1Ovoilement des 7ffets du Coyage. Arabic text ed., trans., and presented by 1.
!ril, Combas, .DD+. 6ubse$uent references to the :. alisf#r are from the paragraph numbers of
this critical edition.
+. <n Ibn 'Arabi's establishment of a correspondence between )ur'anic verses, taken in inverse
order from where they appear in the )ur'an, and the man#>il that span the path of man's
ascent toward !od, see M. Chodkiewic>, Bn <cOan sans Livage, 5aris, .DD8 "An <cean without
6hore, Albany, .DDF&, Ch. F.
J. <n the idea of hayra in Ibn 'Arabi's works, see, e.g., (ut., I, 8/,, +8,- II, .F/, 0,/, 00.- III, +D,-
IC, +F, .D0/, 8+J, 8E,- :. alta;alliy#t, *a;. nums. 8. and D+ "ed. <. Nahia, *ehran, .DEE&.
0. 6ee M. Chodkiewic>, 2e 6ceau des 6aints, 5aris, .DE0 "6eal of the 6aints, Cambridge, .DDF&,
Ch. .,.
/. 9urhan Ahmad (aru$i, *he Mu;addid's Conception of *awhid, 2ahore, .D+,, p..8/. As the
title suggests, both this work and a number of other Indian publications see Ahmad 6irhindi as a
spokesman for an orthodox sufism incompatible with Ibn 'Arabi's doctrine. I. (riedmann put an
end to these outrageously simplistic views in his 6haykh Ahmad 6irhindi, MontrealP2ondon,
E. Ibn 'Arabi sometimes sticks to tafs%r stricto sensu as, for example, in his I;#> albay#n, ed. M.
al!hurab, 1amascus, .DED. 9ut, as he points out, for example, in Ch. J+ of his (ut. "9ula$,
.F8D, I, 8/D&, his attention is most often drawn to the ish#r#t "'allusions'&, i.e. to what the
)ur'an allows to be unveiled for him who recites it 'within himself' "and not 'in the hori>ons'&.
6ee also :. alisf#r "H+,& where Ibn 'Arab stresses that what he is doing is not tafs%r.
D. 7.g., (ut., II, .+.- III, J,, .+F.
.,. 6ee Ch. 88 of the (usAs al4ikam, ed. A.'Affifi, 9eirut, .D+0, p..E., and (ut., Ill, F+D.
... Islamic tradition ascribes the construction of the pyramids to IdrisP4ermes. (oretold of the
imminence of the great flood, he is to have represented there the arts and the sciences, as well
as the instruments of both. 6ee *he *ravels of Ibn 9attuta, trans. 4. A. L. !ibb, Cambridge,
.DJE, I, pp. J,8.
.8. (ut., II, .,.
.F. *his son is here identified by Ibn 'Arabi as IsmaQl. Current Islamic interpretation of verse
F/'.,8 is that the son is IsmaQl, even though his name is not specified. Ibn 'Abbas and Ibn
Mas'ud, on the other hand, believe that the son in $uestion is Isaac. In the (usAs, it is
nevertheless in Ch. 0, dedicated to Isaac, that Ibn 'Arabi brings up Abraham's sacrifice, and not
in Ch. /, the ch. on IsmaQl.
.+. Cf. (usAs, I, EJ0.
.J. *his important episode was dealt with in my presentation to the tenth annual symposium
of the Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arab 6ociety in the B: at 1urham in March, .DDF "'*he vision of !od
according to Ibn 'Arabi', published in 5rayer and Contemplation, ed. 6. 4irtenstein, <xford,
.DDF, pp. JF0/&.
.0. In Islam, the number +,, which is the value of the letter m%m, is endowed with substantial
symbolic importance- it deserves a much more thorough study than it has been given in this
cursory presentation. As the example from the arba'iniyya cited below suggests, it is fre$uently
associated with the period that precedes the infusion of the spirit into the body, or, on the
other hand, with the length of time after which the spirit is separated from the body.
./. <n khalwa, see (ut., Chs /E, /D "II, .J,8&. Ibn 'Arab composed an independent treatise on
the sub;ect, the Lis#la alkhalwa almutla$a "for the manuscripts identified, see <. Nahia,
4istoire et Classification de l'<euvre d'Ibn 'Arabi, 1amascus, .D0+, L. !. num. 8JJ&, of which
one edition is extant, Cairo, n.d., Maktaba '#lam alfikr. <n the practical rules of the fortyday
retreat, there is a detailed description in 6uhrawardi's 'Aw#rif alma' #rif, Chs 80E.
.E. (ut., I, .+D "Ch. . F on the hamalat al'arsh&. Ibn 'Arab explains in this ch. ;ust why there will
no longer be four, but rather eight angels that carry the *hrone on the Kudgement 1ay "). 0D'.
/&. Ie might point out that the 6amiri can appear to be a positive symbolic figure. In the
*ar;um#n alashw#$ "poem num. F,, line .8, 9eirut, .D0., pp. .F0/& Ibn 'Arabi exclaims' 'My
heart is the 6amiri of the moment...'
.D. 6uyuti, Aldurr almanthAr, 9eirut, n.d., CI, p.80. "on v.0D'./&.
8,. *he )uranic verses that refer to the mi'ra; "./'., JF'..E& were inspirational for a number
of pages in Ibn 'Arabi's works "Chs .0/ and F0/ of the (ut., :. alisr#, Lis#lat alanw#r, :.
mash#hid alasr#r al$udsiyya&. 6ee 6eal, Ch. .,, and <cean, Ch. +.
8.. *his nocturnal characteristic is emphasi>ed in the verse, as Ibn 'Arabi notes, through the
redundant use of the word laylan with the word isr#- which itself already denotes a night
88. (ut., III, F+8.
8F. Cf. (ut., II, FE8, where Ibn 'Arabi speaks of s#lik l# s#lik, voyaging without voyaging.
8+. (ut., Ill, .EE.
8J. (usAs, I, 0/.
*his article first appeared in Colume RIR the Kournal of the Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi 6ociety ".DD0&,
a special issue entitled *he Kourney of the 4eart.
The Vision of God
Michel Chodkiewic
'Nou shall not see MeS' "lan tar#n%&. *he divine reply to Moses' re$uest "arin% un>ur ilayka& '2et
me see, so that I can behold Nou', ). /'.+F&, seems final. It is no less categorical in its
formulation than the one that 7xodus gives in a parallel account "7x. FF'.E8F&'?.@ '*hou canst
not see my face' for there shall no man see me, and live.' Another verse seems, moreover, to
extend to all creatures the impossibility of seeing the (ace of !od, as the 5rophet of the 9anu
Isra'il was informed' l# tudrikuhu 'labs#r wa huwa yudriku 'labs#r, '*he looks do not reach 4im
but it is 4e who reaches the looks' "). 0'.,F&.
1espite their evident meaning, these two verses are interpreted in many ways within the
Islamic tradition and, more often than one would expect, in a way which safeguards the
possibility of vision. *he lan tar#n% addressed to Moses, in particular, provokes numerous
commentaries. *he verse continues' '9ut look at the mountain- if it remains firm in its place,
then you shall see Me. And when his 2ord manifested 4imself to the mountain, 4e reduced it to
dust and Moses fell down, thunderstruck. Ihen he came to himself he said, !lory be to NouS I
turn to Nou with repentance and I am the first of the believers. (or *abari, the theophany at
6inaT which reduces the mountain to dust and which even so, he says, 'had only the strength of
a little finger', demonstrates the fundamental inability of creatures to bear the vision of !od,
and the repentance of Moses testifies that his re$uest was presumptuous and unacceptable.?8@
9ut another classic commentary, by )urtubi, whilst avoiding taking sides too explicitly, favours
a very different opinion. (or some people, he says, lan tar#n% means' 'you shall not see Me in
this world'. 9ut, he adds, according to others, whose views )adi Iyad has recorded, 'Moses sees
!od and that is why he falls down in a swoon.' 6imilarly, commenting on the verse which states
that 'the looks do not reach 4im', )urtubi, who obviouslytends towards an admission of the
possibility of vision, sets out the arguments of those who defend this point of view' the ordinary
look cannot reach !od but !od creates in certain beings and such is certainly the case of the
5rophet Muhammad a look by which 4e can be seen. 9esides, if the impossibility were
definitive, would Moses, who is an 7nvoy, have had the audacity to ask !od for an absurd
favourM Concerning Muhammad, )urtubi relates the contradictory assertions of Aysha, on the
one hand, and of Abu 4urayra and Ibn Abbas on the other, and favours the latter. *he $uestion,
for him, is not to know if the 5rophet saw !od but to know how he saw 4im' bi'lbasarM aw bi
ayni $albihiM Iith his physical eyes or with the eye of the heartM ?F@ 4owever, the great
theologian (akhr aldin La>i, Ibn Arabi's contemporary and correspondent, dismisses the
possibility that Moses saw !od, but affirms that vision is possible in principle.?+@
*he position of the mutakallimAn the theologians on this $uestion is generally left fairly
open, at least if one discounts the case of the Mu'ta>ilites.?J@ (or the Ash'arites, it is rationally
conceivable and scripturally established that 'the looks' "abs#r& will see !od in the future life.
1oes the )ur'an not assert' '<n that day, there will be radiant faces which shall see their 2ord'
"/J'88F&M 1id the 5rophet not say' 'you shall see your 2ord ;ust as you see the moon on the
night of the full moon'M ?0@ Cerse 0'.,F, according to which 'the looks do not reach 4im', cannot
;ustify any conclusive ob;ection. (or some theologians, it is exclusively a $uestion of this lower
world and does not apply to the heavenly status of the chosen ones. (or others, it is necessary
to distinguish between idr#k, 'allembracing perception' "ih#ta&, effectively forever forbidden to
the creatures, and ru'ya, vision itself, to which they have access but which will never exhaust
the divine infinity. As for the vision of !od here below, whilst it is ruled out by some, others
reserve it for exceptional individuals' again, a saying of Aysha's, according to which the 5rophet
did not see !od at the time of his mir'#; comes up in the debate and also an e$ually categorical
assertion of Ibn Abbas's to the contrary, which relies in particular on two verses of the sAra Al
na;m "). JF'..,.F&. Moreover, a du'#' is attributed to the 5rophet in which he addresses !od in
the following terms which are very similar to those of Moses' as'aluka ladhdhat alna>ar il#
wa;hika, 'I beg of Nou the ;oy of seeing Nour face'.?/@
If one now turns towards the spiritual masters who preceded Ibn 'Arabi, one finds there, too,
many differences of interpretation, but this time they rely on spiritual experience rather than
knowledge from books. A comparative clarification is taking place which is conveyed by the
increased precision of the vocabulary. (or 6ahl al *ustari, in the Dth century, vision stricto sensu
is the privilege of the elect in the heavenly abode' kushAf al'iy#n f%lakhira. 9ut the men of !od
benefit in advance from the kushAf al$alb f%'lduny#, from the 'lifting of the veil of the heart
here below'.?E@ In his :ashf alMah;Ab, 4u;wiri relies on the words of 1hu'l=un, Kunayd and Abu
Na>id al9istami among others, to assert that !od can be contemplated in this world and that
this contemplation resembles vision in the future life.?D@ *o the notion of 'unveiling' "root k sh f&
that we have ;ust come across, that of 'contemplation' "root sh h d& is therefore added. I shall
come back, with regard to Ibn 'Arabi, to the problems posed by the vocabulary of these authors
who are careful to distinguish precisely between all modes of mystical knowledge.
In his famous Lis#la, )ushayri envisages three degrees in the progression towards knowledge
of !od' muh#dara, 'presence', muk#shafa, 'unveiling', and mush#hada, 'contemplation'.?.,@
*hese stages correspond to a standard model and, with the same or other names, one finds
them almost everywhere in the literature of the tasawwuf. 4owever, if one consults the great
commentary of the )ur'an of which )ushayri is also the author, it confirms what the Lis#la
hinted at' that vision as such remains forbidden in this life. It is worth $uoting what he writes
about the incident at 6inai' 'Moses came like one of those who are consumed by desire and lost
in love. Moses came without Moses. 4e came when nothing of Moses remained in Moses.' 9ut,
)ushayri adds, it is under the sway of this amorous drunkenness that he had the audacity to ask
for vision. It was refused him but, because of this state where he no longer had control over
what he was saying, he was not punished for his boldness. Muhammad himself hoped for this
supreme favour, without expressing his wish, however. 9ut he was not granted his wish either,
)ushayri maintains.?..@
If we next examine the words of two other great 6ufi contemporaries of the 6haykh alAkbar,
we notice that for them a direct perception of 1ivine Leality is definitely possible. 9ut is it a
$uestion of anything other than what spiritual Christians called 'an advance payment of
beatitude', that is, of a still confused and imperfect visionM =a;m aldin :ubra describes the
stages of contemplation, the last of which is the contemplation of the Bni$ue 7ssence.?.8@
Lu>behan 9a$li, in his *afs%r,?.F@ concludes from the )ur'anic text that Moses did not obtain
vision. In another of his works, however, he too maintains that the viator can arrive at the point
where his sirr, the secret centre of his being, 'is immersed in the ocean of the 1ivine 7ssence'.
*here are, therefore, considerable differences amongst the authors whom I have cited. *he
very meaning of the word 'vision' "ru'ya not to be confused with ru'y#, vision in a dream&
remains, nevertheless, rather vague. 6hould one understand it literally as designating a
perception identical to the apprehension of material ob;ects by the organ of sightM <r is it on
the contrary only necessary to retain the suggestion of an analogy, the relation between its two
terms then remaining to be clarifiedM In the latter case, is there a radical difference in nature
between 'unveiling', 'contemplation' and 'vision'M A contrario, if these terms only express
differences of degree and since the highest contemplation seems accessible to some people
who are neither 7nvoys nor 5rophets what does the lan tar#n% addressed to Moses meanM *he
abrupt )ur'anic phrase is variously understood but it evidently inspires a great deal of
*he picture I have ;ust drawn from a few examples is extremely scanty, leaving out many
subtleties. I think, nevertheless, that it faithfully draws the outlines of the landscape which
opens out around this 6inai where Moses, called by his 2ord, is not satisfied with hearing 4im
and demands to see 4im. Ibn 'Arabi is the heir of this long and complex tradition. 4e is, in
particular, going to take up the rich vocabulary of spiritual phenomenology such as the men of
the Iay have gradually built up, without stinting nevertheless on inflecting the meaning or
drawing out the significance. 9ut above all, one is going to discover, disseminated in the
immense body of his works, a teaching which, nourished by his intimate experience, illuminates
the whole field of the knowledge of !od, in all its forms and in all its degrees.
9efore attempting to discern the essential points of his doctrine, it would be worthwhile going
over the account of his own meeting with Moses, in the sixth heaven, as he relates it in Chapter
F0/ of the (utAh#t. 'Nou asked to see 4im', he says to Moses. '=ow, the 5rophet of !od has
said' noone will see !od before he dies.'?.J@ '*hat is so', replies Moses. 'Ihen I asked to see
4im, 4e granted my wish and I fell down thunderstruck. And it was whilst I was struck down
that I saw 4im.' 'Iere you dead, thenM ' 'I was, in fact, dead.'?.0@<ne already notices here that,
for the 6haykh alAkbar, the lan tar#n%is not, under certain conditions, an insurmountable
9ut the issue of the vision of !od and what it means for Ibn 'Arabi is not separable from an
axiom which, in Akbarian doctrine, governs all methods of spiritual realisation. In accordance
with the had%th $uds% often $uoted by the 6haykh alAkbar' 'I was a hidden treasure and I loved
to be known...,?./@ !od is known because 4e wants to be known. 4e is only known because 4e
wants to be known and 4e alone determines the form and the extent of this knowledge. <ne
must never lose sight of this point if one is concerned with correctly interpreting everything that
Ibn 'Arabi writes on the steps of the Iay and on the charismas that correspond to them. In fact
his teaching, like that of all the great masters of the Islamic tradition, presents two
complementary aspects and this polarity can be a source of confusion' in so far as it is
metaphysical, it explains the principles and aims- in so far as it is initiatory teaching, it explains
the means and therefore takes as point of departure the awareness that the ordinary man has
of himself. =ow, whatever his theoretical knowledge, the disciple, when he undertakes the
sulAk, does not escape from the voluntarist illusion. 4e considers himself to be autonomous. 4e
is mur%d willing, desiring. 4e still does not know that he is mur%d because he is murad willed,
desired by 4im whom he claims to reach by his own powers. *he initiatory teaching, therefore,
in order to be realistic, displays an apparent aspect that one could call 5elagian. Lead without
discernment, it risks giving the impression that by putting certain precise techni$ues into
practice such and such a form of invocation or type of retreat "khalwa& specific results will
definitely be obtained. *he literature of the turu$, in later times, unfortunately also contributes
to reinforcing this impression, despite some rhetorical precautions. *he 6haykh alAkbar's work,
so long as one does not make selective use of it, constantly warns against this naTve and
dangerous interpretation. *he had%th $uds%, the beginning of which I have already $uoted, is
perfectly clear about this' 'I therefore created the creatures and I made Myself known by them
and it is through Me that they have known Me "fab% 'arafAn%&.'
At the core of the vocabulary of spiritual experience, there is, therefore, in the 6haykh al
Akbar's doctrine, a term which is its key' ta;all% "a word that, for the Arab Christians, designates
the *ransfiguration of Christ on Mount *abor&, which can be translated, according to the
context,as 'epiphany' or 'theophany'. It was already used in the works of the 6ufi authors whom
I have mentioned but one finds it constantly in Ibn 'Arabi's writings. Moreover, it is directly
linked to the verse with which this paper begins' the 1ivine Manifestation which reduces the
mountain to dust and strikes Moses down is expressed in the )ur'an by the verb ta;all#. *a;all% is
a divine act and it is by virtue of this divine act that man can attain a direct perception of !od,
whatever degree or form that may take.
*he Akbarian doctrine of theophanies is complex.?.E@ I would merely like to recall here the
essential features, commencing by $uoting some lines which appear at the beginning of a
chapter of the (utAh#t which is precisely devoted to the 5ole "$utb& whose 'initiatory dwelling
place' is the phrase of verse /'.+F 'and when his 2ord manifests on the mountain'
God - there is nothing Apparent but He in every similar and every contrary
In every kind and every species, in all union and all separation
In everything that the senses or the intellect perceive
In every body and every form.[1!
*hese lines express synthetically what many others explain in detail' that is, that theophanies
which proceed from the divine name alU#hir, the Apparent?8,@ never cease, even if men do not
know it,?8.@ since the universe is onlythe theatre where they are shown and our look, wherever
it may turn, only meets with them. If this world is varied, if it is perpetually changing, it is
because !od does not appear twice in the same form, nor in the same form to two beings.?88@
9ut the perfect gnostic "al'#r%f alk#mil& recognises !od in all these forms, unlike other men
who only recognise 4im when 4e presents 4imself to them in the form of their the mental
image that they make of 4im.?8F@ *his '#r%f alk#mil himself, however, even if he perceives the
perpetual succession of theophanies, even if he distinguishes one from the other and knows
why they are produced, does not know how they are produced for that is a secret which
belongs only to the 7ssence.?8+@ *his has already been pointed out by 4enri Corbin and
*oshihiko I>utsu?8J@ and I shall not dwell on it, my intention being limited to determining the
effects of the doctrine of the ta;ally#t on the faculty given to man to 'grasp' !od and on this
point I think it moreover necessary to correct Corbin's interpretation somewhat.
(irst of all, a double distinction between theophanies is essential, according to their origin on
one hand and according to their form on the other. *he first is standard' it is the one which
establishes a hierarchy between the theophanies of the divine acts, those of the attributes and
those of the 7ssence.?80@ <ne already finds it in the works of authors whom I have cited, for
example =a;m aldin :ubra and Lu>behan 9a$li. *he second, although it did not escape the
masters of the past, finds its most precise and complete formulation in Ibn 'Arabi. *a;all% can
appear in a sensible form or in an imaginal form. It can also be a manifestation transcending all
form. Ihen the 5rophet declares, 'I have seen my 2ord in the most beautiful of forms'?8/@ it is
evidently a $uestion of a ta;all% f% '#lam alkhay#l, in the imaginal world where 'spirits take
bodies and bodies become spirits'. Ihen Ibn 'Arabi describes his own vision of 1ivine Ipseity
and even adds in the margin a diagram showing the figure in which the 4uwiyya appeared to
him,?8E@ there too it is a $uestion of a theophany taking place in this intermediary world
"bar>akh%&, which' he also calls '2and of *ruth' "ard alha$%$a&.?8D@
9ut nothing would be more contrary to the 6haykh alAkbar's thought than to believe that this
imaginal world constitutes the nec plus ultra. 9y insisting on the importance for Ibn 'Arabi of the
notion of the '#lam alkhay#l, Corbin filled a serious gap in previous studies. 9y paying too much
attention to this discovery, he was led to overestimate its importance and reduced the field of
perceptions of the divine to the domain of formal theophanies. Many of Ibn 'Arabi's works
overrule this limitation which would prohibit all access to the absolute nakedness of the 1ivine
7ssence' forms, be they tangible or imaginal, are created and cannot confine the uncreated. *he
highest knowledge is beyond every image- it re$uires what Meister 7ckhart calls entbildung. If
the perception of the ta;all% suwwar% or bar>akh% represents, relative to the blindness of the
ma;ority of human beings in their earthly condition, a considerable privilege, it remains very
imperfect. If, under different names most often mush#hada it occupies an important place in
the account of the spiritual experience of Ibn 'Arabi himself or other awliy#', it is because
theophany, when it is formal, can, up to a point, be described. 6peaking of a famous
contemporary 6ufi, 'Bmar 6uhrawardi, Ibn 'Arabi emphasises several times that his ta;all% was
only bar>akh% for otherwise he would not have maintained that it was possible to look at !od
and hear 4im at the same time.?F,@ 'Ihen 4e "!od& allows 4imself to be ga>ed upon, 4e does
not speak to you', he wrote in another passage, 'and when 4e speaks to you, 4e does not allow
4imself to be seen unless it is a $uestion of a theophany in a form''?F.@ this wording obviously
implies the possibility of a supraformal theophany.
6ome important information about this can be found in the '9ook of *heophanies', of which
<sman Nahya has compiled an excellent critical edition accompanied by a commentary by Ibn
6awdakin, which transcribes the explanations which he received from Ibn 'Arabi's own mouth,
and by an anonymous commentary, the :ashf al!hay#t, sometimes attributed to 'Abd al:arim
alKili but which is probably not his work.?F8@ Chapters 2RR, 2RRI and 2RRII describe successively
the theophanies of 'red light', 'white light' and 'green light' and the meetings that the 6haykh al
Akbar had at each of these stages' with 'Ali b. Abi *alib in the first, then with Abu 9akr and
finally with 'Bmar. 4ere we are at the closest to the mystery of the 7ssence which is symbolised
by the 'radiant light "alnAr alsha'sha'#n%& by which one apprehends but which cannot itself be
apprehended' because of its blinding brilliance.?FF@ *he red light, the :ashf al!hay#t tells us, is
only a reflection of this light of the 7ssence in the immensity of the khay#l mutla$, and it is still
only a $uestion here of a ru'ya mith#liyya, of a vision in imaginal form. *he white light
represents a more elevated degree than the red and green for, Ibn 'Arabi tells Ibn 6awdakin,
'the colour white is the only one which includes all the others.. Its rank is that of the =ame of
Ma;esty ?All#h@ amongst the other =ames and that of the 7ssence amongst the attributes.'?F+@
9ut Abu 9akr, however, who is standing in this white light, has his face turned towards the west
the place of occultation of light for the west is 'the mine of secrets'' thus it is clearly pointed
out to us that it is beyond the highest formal theophanies, beyond created lights, that the
uncreated light of the 1ivine 7ssence is revealed to him who turns towards the 'occidental'
All vision assumes a commensurateness "mun#saba& between that which sees and that which is
seen. 9etween the divine infinity and the limitedness of the creature, this mun#saba is evidently
lacking and all possibility of 'seeing !od' other than in an indirect way, in the forms in which 4e
manifests 4is names, seems then to be excluded.?F0@ If mush#hada is like that, the
contemplation accessible to mortals is not even an 'advance payment' of the beatific vision
promised to the elect who will see !od 'like the moon on the night of the full moon'' it is only a
very imperfect prefiguration of it. *hat is what the definition that Ibn 'Arabi gives of it seems to
confirm' contemplation, he says, is indeed vision "ru'ya&, but a vision which is preceded, on the
part of he who sees, by a knowledge of what he is going to see. It is then strictly limited since
the contemplator refuses to recognise the theophany as such if it presents itself other than in
conformity to his previous conception, with his %'ti$#d. Cision stricto sensu, on the contrary,
presupposes the absence of this preliminary conditioning of which the contemplator is the
prisoner. It receives all theophanies without sub;ecting them to the test of recognition, without
referring them to a previous model.?F/@ <ne may note, however, that Ibn 'Arabi, despite these
very rigorous technical definitions, does not feel obliged to respect the distinction thus
established between mush#hada and ru'ya and, on many occasions, employs one or the other
word indifferently. =evertheless, the context allows one, as we shall see, to clear away the
apparent ambiguities and contradictions.
Ihen Ibn 'Arabi writes that 'theophany only occurs in the forms of beliefs "i'ti$#d#t& or needs
"h#;#t&',FE or again that 'the *heophany of the 7ssence can only take place in the form of
mental images and conceptual categories "ma'$Al#t&,?FD@ these remarks only apply to
contemplation taken in its limited sense. 9ut he also says, '!od has servants whom he has
allowed to see 4im in this life without waiting for the future life'-?+,@ now, to describe what,
this time, is indeed vision, he often uses the terms shuhAd and mush#hada. *his is the case in a
passage of the (utAh#t where, speaking of the mu$arrabAn "those who are brought close&, a
term which for him designates the highest degree of sainthood, he states that they are in
perpetual contemplation and never come out of it although 'the tastes of it are varied'.?+.@
4ow can such people overcome the obstacle which the total absence of proportion between
!od and man presentsM '*he looks do not reach 4im' states the )ur'an. Although he often has
recourse to the traditional distinction between 'interior sight' "bas%ra& and 'exterior sight'
"basar&, Ibn 'Arabi overlooks it here- what he retains is the fact that the )ur'an uses the plural
abs#r and not the singular basar.?+8@ *he multiplicity inherent to the creature cannot in fact
grasp the <ne. It follows that 'it is !od's look which reaches !od and sees 4im and not yours'.
?+F@ '4e is the <ne who sees, 4e who is seen and that by which 4e is seen.'?++@
*herein resides the paradox of vision. <nly he who has lost everything, he whose
contemplation is free from all form, attains to the 9eing in 4is absoluteness. =othing remains of
'he who has lost everything' "almuflis&' in contradistinction to formal theophanies, which are
compatible with the subsistence "ba$#'& of the creature, this ta;all% which is beyond forms
implies the annihilation "fan#'& of the one to whom it is granted.?+J@ It prevents by that very fact
all appropriation of vision and that is the true sense of the lan tar#n% the grammatical 'second
person' has no place besides the divine 'I'. '*he 7ssential 1ivine Leality is too elevated to be
contemplated... whilst there remains a trace of the creaturial condition in the eye of the
contemplator.'?+0@ *his extinction of the contemplator in the most perfect contemplation has a
logical conse$uence which may, however, seem strange' in this mush#hada or to give it its real
name, this ru'ya there is neither ;oy, nor knowledge.?+/@ A logical conse$uence in fact since
';oy' and 'knowledge' would imply a reflexive action, a turning back on oneself which is
incompatible with the sine $ua non of vision of !od. 9ut would it not then be a $uestion of a
sort of coma of which one would ill understand that it constituted a privilegeM
Ibn 'Arabi gives a reply to this in several of his works'?+E@ ;oy and knowledge are the fruits of
mush#hada but these fruits cannot be garnered except on coming out of the contemplative
state. (or, corresponding to every true mush#hada "otherwise it would only be 'a drowsiness of
the heart', nawmat al$alb& there is necessarily a 'witness' "sh#hid&. *his witness, who takes
over the evidence of the vision and authenticates it "allusion to ). ..'./, wa yatlAhu sh#hidun
minhu&, is 'the trace left in the heart of the contemplator by the contemplation'.?+D@ 4aving
regained consciousness, like Moses after the ta;all% which struck him down, the individual then
delights in this supreme knowledge whose price is precisely the unconditional submission to the
mortal splendour of theophany. '=o one will see his 2ord before he dies', the 5rophet said.?J,@
9ut he also said' '1ie before you die.'?J.@ And that is why Ibn 'Arabi, echoing this had%th,
unhesitatingly wrote in the :it#b al*a;alliy#t ?J8@' '1emand vision and do not be afraid of being
struck downS'
Are there any favoured places or times for this visionM !od is free to manifest 4imself when 4e
wishes, to whom 4e wishes, how 4e wishes. 9ut 4e has let 4is servants know the 6urest of
ways that lead to 4im. It is only given to the creature to see !od through !od's eye. =ow a well
known had%th $udsi teaches us, with reference to the servant whom !od loves' 'Ihen I love
him, I am his hearing by which he hears, his look by which he sees...
Ie are told that this servant approaches !od by supererogatory acts. 9ut, the had%th specifies'
'4e does not approach Me through something which I love more than with the acts that I have
prescribed for him.' *hese prescribed acts, the far#'id, are therefore above all those which may
lead to vision, and the reason for this is that they already represent a form of death since the
will of the servant plays no part in them' it is !od alone who determines their moments and
their forms.?J+@ 9ut, among these obligatory acts, there is one which holds a particular
importance' the ritual prayer "alsal#t& which is, as the 5rophet said, mi'r#; almu'min, the
'spiritual ascension of the believer'. (or Ibn 'Arabi, this ritual prayer is the favoured place for the
highest theophanies. *hese theophanies, always new, appear hierarchically in a harmonic
relation to the different positions prescribed for the believer. I have shown elsewhere?JJ@ that
some replies formulated in enigmatic terms to *irmidhi's wellknown $uestionnaire would be
elucidated once one understood that they refer to the sal#t. *he mysterious sessions "ma;#lis&
during which !od speaks correspond to the ;ulAs, the sitting position, which symbolises
stability, vigilance and permanence "ba$#'&' conditions which are all necessary to hear the
divine discourse but which exclude vision. 9ut those to whom !od thus speaks "the
muhaddathAn& and who, in this respect, are 'behind a veil' are also in another respect ahl al
shuhAd, people of contemplation.
*hey are so when the conditions re$uired to hear !od disappear and are replaced by their
opposite' annihilation, which tears the veil and of which the symbol is su;Ad, prostration. 1o not
let the word 'symbol' mislead us. (or most people prostration is most certainly nothing more
than a gestural representation of this annihilation which must leave all the space to the <ne
without second. (or some, this symbol is operative and for them what Ibn 'Arabi writes in the
*ana>>ul#t Mawsiliyya ?J0@ is verified' 'your rising up is in your abasement'. Ihen their body
crashes against the earth, they arrive at the summit of the '6inaT of their being'. And, there, the
lan tar#n% resounds in the void- there is no longer anyone to hear it.
.. (or the biblical facts relating to the vision of !od, see also Kudges' 0, 88F and .F, 88. Cf. also
the article by Colette 6irat, 'Bn midrasch ;uif en habit musulman' la vision de MoTse sur le Mont
6inai', Levue de l'4istoire des Leligions, Col. C2RCIII, no.., .D0J, pp. .Jff.
8. *abari, K#mi al9ay#n, ed. 6hakir, RIII, pp. D,l,J.
F. )urtubi, AlKami liAhk#m al)ur'#n, Cairo, .DFE, CII, pp. 8/EE, "on /'.+F& and CII, p.J+ "on
+. (akhr aldin La>i, *afs%r *eheran, undated, RIC, pp. 88/F+.
J. Ie are summing up very briefly here a set of attitudes that, of course, present divergencies
which it is not appropriate to list here. <n the doctrine of the Ash'arite kal#m concerning this
sub;ect see 1aniel !imaret, 2a 1octrine d'AlAsh'ar%, 5aris, .DD,, second part, Ch. R, p.F8D+J.
0. 9ukhari, tawh%d, 8+, pp..6.
/. 1arimi, 'a$#'id, F,F, pp....8.
E. <n *ustari, refer to the work by !erhard 9Vwering, *he Mystical Cision of 7xistence in
Classical Islam, 9erlin=ew Nork, .DE,, pp. .0J/J. =iffari's position regarding the possibility of
vision here below seems to be more positive. 6ee his Maw#$if, ed. A. K. Arberry, 2ondon, .DFJ
"see index for ru'yat All#h&.
D. 4u;wiri, :ashf alMah;Ab, trans. L. A. =icholson, 0th edn, 2ondon, .D/0, pp. F8DFF.
.,. )ushayri, Lis#la, Cairo, .DJ/, p.+,.
... )ushayri, 2ata'%f alIshar#t, ed. Ibrahim al9asyuni, Cairo, undated, II, pp. 8JD08.
.8. =a;m aldin :ubra, (aw#'ih alKam#l, ed. (. Meier, Iiesbaden, .DJ/, paras. +8, DJ, D/.
.F. Lu>behan 9a$li, Ar#'is al9ay#n, Indian lithographed edn, .F.J 4., I, pp. 8/./.
.+. Lu>behan 9a$li, Mashrab alArwah, Istanbul, .D/F, p.8.J.
.J. Ibn Ma;a, fitan, p.FF.
.0. Al(utAh#t alMakkiyya, 9ula$, .F8D 4., III, p.F+D.
./. *his had%th does not appear in the canonic collections. (or its use by Ibn 'Arabi, see for
example, (utAh#t, II, pp. 8F8, F8/, FDD- III, p.80/.
.E. *here are many references to texts of Ibn 'Arabi's relating to the idea of ta;all% in the work
of 6ouad 4akim, AlMu';am al6Af%, 9eirut, .DE., pp. 8J/0/.
.D. (utAh#t, IC, p.JD..
8,. Ibid., I. p..00.
8.. Ibid., I. p.+DE.
88. An oftrepeated statement. 6ee, for example, Ibid., IC, p..D.
8F. Ibid., III, pp..F8F.
8+. Ibid., II. p.JD/. Ibn 'Arabi points out that the secret of kayfiyya is unknown even to the
prophets and the angels.
8J. Cf. 4enry Corbin, 2'imagination CrOatrice dans le 6oufisme d'Ibn 'Arabi, 5aris, .DJE, 5art
*wo- *oshihiko I>utsu, 6ufism and *aoism, *okyo, .DEF, Ch. ...
80. (utAh#t, I, p.D..
8/. <n this had%th of disputed authenticity, cf. 4. Litter, 1as Meer der 6eele, 2eiden, .DJ0, pp.
++J ff. Cf. also Kili, Ins#n :#mil, Cairo, .D0F, Ch. +8.
8E. *his vision, which occurred on the night of Iednesday +th of the month of rab% alth#n% in
the year 08/, is described in (utAh#t, II, p. ++D "8/th fasl of Ch. .DE& but the diagram which
accompanies the account has not been reproduced by the editor. It appears in the .8DF 4
edition, II, p.JD., and is reproduced by Asin 5alacios, 7l Islam Cristiani>ado, Madrid, .DF., p..,J,
by Corbin, 2'imagination, p../J, and by A. A. Affifi, *he Mystical 5hilosophy of Ibnu'l'Arab%,
Cambridge, .DFD, p...+.
8D. *his is specifically the title of Chapter E of the (utAh#t which is a description of this
'imaginal world'.
F,. Ibid., I, p.0,D- III. p.8.F.
F.. Ibid., I, p. FD/. Corbin's position, which excludes all informal contemplation, is defined in
particular, in 2'imagination, 5art *wo, Ch. + "'2a (orme de 1ieu'&. It is based on a very selective
reading of Ibn 'Arabi and of Kili "see, on the latter, Ch. +. and Ch. 08 of Ins#n :#mil where he
refers to verse /'.+F&.
F8. :it#b al*a;alliy#t, *eheran, .DEE. *he vocabulary of the :ashf al!hay#t presents significant
differences from that of Kili. *he text makes no reference, besides, to other works by Kili,
contrary to the latter's custom.
FF. Ibid., pp.+8,i. *he 5rophet said of this light' =Arun ann# ar#hu, 'It is a light, how should I
see itM ' "Muslim, %m#n, p.8D.- *irmidhi, tafs%r 6. JF'/&. <n this had%th see (utAh#t, IC, pp. FED.
F+. Ibid., p.+8J. Cf. also the :ashf al!hay#t, p.+8D. =ote that, in the vision mentioned in =ote
8E, the 1ivine Ipseity appears to Ibn 'Arabi as a figure of white light on a background of red
FJ. <n the symbolism of the west in Ibn 'Arabi, see (utAh#t, I, pp. 0/, 0E,/.- II, p..8.- III, p.8E/-
:it#b alIntis#r, printed in Las#'il Ibn al'Arabi, 4yderabad, India, .D+E, 8 vols, p.+.
F0. (utAh#t, IC, p.FE.
F/ Ibid., II, p.J0/.
FE. Ibid., II, pp.8//E and III, p...D. *he episode of the 9urning 9ush illustrates, for Ibn 'Arabi,
the theophany 'in the form of one's needs'' because Moses is seeking fire, it is in the form of
fire that !od manifests 4imself to him "cf. (usAs al4ikam, ed. A. A. Affifi, 9eirut, .D+0, pp. 8.8
FD. (utAh#t, II, p.0,0.
+,. Ibid., IC, p.FE.
+.. Ibid., III, p. .,+. *his Chapter F8E forms part of the series of ..+ man#>il "'spiritual abodes'&
which, as I have shown in a recent book "Bn <cOan sans Livage, 5aris, .DD8, Ch. III- an 7nglish
translation of this work has been published by 6B=N 5ress in .DDF&, correspond to the sAras of
the )ur'an in reverse order. Chapter F8E corresponds to sum J0 and the terms which are used
there "s#bi$An, mu$arrabAn, etc.& are taken from this sAra.
+8. (utAh#t, IC, pp.F/E.
+F. Ibid., IC, p.8.
++. Ibid., IC, p.FE.
+J. Ibid., III, p..,J and KC, p..D.. 6uch is also the position of )ashani in a short unedited letter
"Lis#la ft )awlihi ta'#l#' Arin% Bn>ur Ilayka& M6 Nahya 7f. 8+.J, folios .+.J.
+0. :it#b al(an#' f%'lMush#hada "Las#'il&, p.8. =ote that this treatise is a complement to
Chapter 8E0 of the (utAh#t which corresponds, in the order of the man#>il, to sum DE and
whose theme is taken from the first two words "lan yakun& of this sum "Bn <cOan sans Livage,
Ch. C&.
+/. :it#b al*ar#;im "Las#'il&, p.+8. 6ee also (utAh#t, IC, p.JJ.
+E. 6ee (utAh#t, Ch. 800- :it#b al*ar#;im, p..0- :it#b Ias#'il al6#'%l, ed. M. 5rofitlich, (ribourg,
.D/F, pp. +F6- see also 9adr al4abashi's :it#b alInb#h, ed. 1enis !ril, in Annales
Islamologi$ues, RC, .D/D, p..,0, para. E.
+D. Istil#h#t al6Afiyya "Las#'il&, no.0,. *his definition is taken up by )ashani, amongst others, in
a work of the same title "Cairo, .DE., pp..JF+& and by Kur;ani in his *a'rif#t, Cairo, .FJ/ 4,
J,. Cf. note .J.
J.. *irmidhi, $iy#ma, 8J. <n this theme of 'initiatory death', see (utAh#t, II, p..E/- III, pp. 88F,
J8. Chapter .,,, p.J./.
JF. 9ukhari, taw#du. Ibn 'Arabi has included this had%th in his Mishk#t alAnw#r and $uotes it
and comments on it many times. "(utAh#t, I, p.+,0- III, p. 0E- IC, pp. 8,, 8+,F,, 0J, F.8, F8.,
J+. *hat is why, for Ibn 'Arabi "cf. in particular (utAh#t, IC, pp. 8+. ++D&, the closeness ac$uired
by the accomplishment of obligator& acts "$urb alfar#'id& is more perfect than that obtained by
the accomplishment of supererogatory acts "$urb alnaw#fil&. It is to the former that the case of
the mu$arrabAn corresponds "ibid., II, p..,+& for whom 'contemplation is perpetual' and who
see 'the multiplicity in the <ne and separation in union'. <n this sub;ect, see Bn <cOan sans
Livage, pp. .++ff. and my translation of the 7crits 6pirituels by 7mir 'Abd al:ader, 5aris, .DE8,
note E+, pp. 8,8+.
JJ. Bn <cOan sans Livage, pp. .F0ff.
J0. *ana>>ul#t Mawsiliyya, Cairo, .D0. "under the title 2at#'if alAsr#r&, p..,F.
*ranslated from (rench by Cecilia *winch
*his article appeared first in volume RIC of the Kournal of the Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi 6ociety
".DDF&, published as a special issue under the title W5rayer and ContemplationW.