The Self-Disclosure of God – Sample Book
Introduction – The Self-Disclosure of God
This book continues the investigations I began in The Sufi Path of Knowledge (hereafter SPK). There I promised a volume on Ibn al’Arabi’s “Cosmology,” concerning which I had already prepared a good deal of mate rial.’
In 1993, I applied to the National Endowment for the Humanities for a fellowship to write a book on Ibn al-‘Arabi’s cosmological teachings.
I received the generous support of the Endowment during the academic year 1994-95, and for that I am extremely grateful. Without this support it is doubtful that this book could ever have been written. During that year I was able to put together a series of some twenty chapters dealing with the topic, ten of which are presented here.
I hope to offer the remaining chapters as The Breath of the All-Merciful: Ibn al-‘Arabi’s Articulation of the Cosmos.
In this introduction, after discussing what I have tried to do in: the present volume, I reflect on the distinction between “cosmology” in a modern, scientific sense–the sense that informs contemporary culture-and in the sense in which the idea is understood by Ibn Arab. Then I summarize the contents of SPK, the present book, and The Breath of the A1l-Merciful.
Finally I turn to some of the problems that translators need to face when attempting to render the writings of Ibn al (Arabi into English.
The present book adds few basic terms and ideas to SPK. Practically every important term mentioned here was at least touched upon there. Many of the discussions will be familiar to readers of that book. Nevertheless, none of this book simply repeats what was said in the earlier volume, and, with few exceptions, all texts are translated into English for the first time.
One major difference between this volume and SPK is the manner in which I have at tempted to contextualize the discussions. It is relatively easy to have Ibn Arabi say
what one wants him to say. Critics and devo tees have quoted him selectively for centuries, and modern scholarship has continued in the same path. Given that Ibn Arabi constantly shifts his perspective, it is a simple matter to choose words that pertain to one perspective, or some perspectives, and to claim that this is his view of things. Indeed it is, but he has many other views as well. If we make no attempt to take those views into account, we will misrepresent him.
It was my purpose in SPK to let Ibn alArabi speak for himself, and to this end I relied as much as possible on translating his words. In several essays over the years, some of which were published as Imaginal Worlds,
I tried to speak for him, and in these my voice was no doubt louder than his. The best way to allow him to speak for himself would be, of course, simply to translate his works, but several major problems make this route difficult if not impossible to follow. Foremost among these is that the translator needs to understand what Ibn Arabi is saying, and this is not a qualification as common as one might expect.
Ibn Arabi’s writings are full of obscurities. Some of these go back to the richness of his teachings and the vast possibilities of the Arabic language, and others to the intense brilliance of the inspiration that seized the author in particular passages. In studying his works, the easiest way to deal with these obscurities is to ignore them and to focus on what is clear. In translating-as long as one
is not attempting a complete translation-one can, as I did in SPK, simply drop such pas
sages and all unwelcome digressions and replace them with an ellipsis.
Several of Ibn al-‘Arabi’s short works have been translated, but for a number of reasons few, if any, have been translated as well as one might have hoped. The major problem has not been knowledge of Arabic, but knowledge of Ibn al-Arabi’s teachings and perspectives. The context of his short works, after all, is not only the Islamic intellectual tradition of the thirteenth century–especially in its juridical, theological, philosophical, and Sufi modes-but also Ibn al-‘Arabi’s long works, in which he provides the background for what he says in his short works. Another problem with translating Ibn al-‘Arabi is the profusion of technical terms and constant reference to Koran, Hadith, and other sources with which English readers are not normally conversant. James Morris has suggested eloquently in a number of articles some of the difficulties that these sorts of problems raise for readers and translators.2
Ibn al-‘ArabI’s major surviving work is a1-
Futuhat a1-makkiyya, “The Meccan Openings.” People sometimes ask me why I do not simply translate that, and my first an swer is that I have only one lifetime to de vote to it. The work is enormously long and, in places, extraordinarily difficult. When Ibn al-‘.Arabi’s waxes poetical, as he often does, it is sometimes impossible (for this reader at least) to understand what he is getting at. The richness and profusion of the imagery, the constant allusions to diverse waystations of the spiritual journey, the strange symbol ism mixed with classical literary tropes, make the task of deciphering the passages truly daunting. Even supposing the translator has understood what is being said, the problems
x of rendering the words into comprehensible English, without mountains of commentary, are, at this point, insurmountable.
My first major attempt to solve a few of the problems related to rendering Ibn al ‘Arabi ideas accurately into English is found in SPK. Most of that book is translation, but by selecting certain passages, I was able to define basic concepts in Ibn al-‘Arabi’s own words and then cite other passages to illustrate how he employs the concepts. However, most of those passages are short and incomplete. Ibn al-‘Arabi does not develop his ideas gradually. Wherever one may enter into his writings, the ideas are already full blown. Only by quoting him out of context can one suggest that he is a systematic thinker, who develops his ideas in a way that would allow someone unfamiliar with them to be introduced to them step by step.
Many of the problem’s translators face can be examined closely in the volume Les Illu minations de La Mecque/The Meccan Illu minations, in which four of us translated passages from the Futii};1at into English and French under the general editorship of Michel
Chodkiewicz. Although we made some at tempt to agree on how to render certain basic terms, for the most part we followed our own inclinations, both in translation and presen tation. I, for example, tried to render whole chapters or sections, without interruption, whereas James Morris preferred to summa rize some parts and translate others. Most of us made judicious use of ellipses-three small dots that in every case saved some sort of headache.
In this work I have attempted, as much as possible, to put discussions into the context not only of Ibn al-‘ArabI’s grand project, but also of the specific topic that he is presenting. In contrast to SPK, I have seriously tried to avoid quoting snippets of text and brief pas
sages. Moreover, in contrast to that work, I have tried not to drop anything in the midst of. a passage. This has made my task much more difficult, and it will not make things easier for the reader. Nevertheless, I think the
struggle is worth the effort on both sides-if our goal is truly to understand what Ibn alArabi is getting at. In an attempt to avoid offering passages out of context, I have quoted many full chap..
Wujud and the Entities – The Self-Disclosure of God
The Arabic word for cosmos, calam, derives from the same root as (alama (mark), calam (signpost), and ‘ilrn (knowledge). The deri vation suggests that the cosmos is both a source of knowledge and a mark or a sign post pointing to something other than itself.
We mention the “cosmos” with this word to give knowledge that by it we mean He has made it a “mark.” (IT 473.33)1
The Koran refers to all things as “signs” (ayat) of God, which is to say that Koranically, the meaning of things is determined by the mode in which they signify God, the Real. Hence the term cosmology might be defined as knowledge of the marks and signs and the understanding of what they signify. Ibn al (Arabi’s cosmology is then a science of signs, an account and a narration of the significance of marks.
In the most general sense, the word [“lam means “world. I It can refer to the whole universe, in which case I translate it as “cos mos,” or to any coherent whole within the universe, in which case I render it as “world.”
In the first sense of the term, Ibn al-‘ArabI commonly defines (§lam as “everything other
than God” (rna siwa Allah) or “everything other than the Real” (rna siwa al-Haqq). Thus, the cosmos is “everything other than God, whether high or low, spirit or body, meaning or sensory thing, manifest or nonmanifest” (llI 197.31). Within the cosmos, there are many
worlds, but before looking at the worlds and entities within the cosmos and the internal structures that shape the cosmos, we can usefully look at how Ibn aVArabI situates the cosmos in relation to God.
The most important synonym for “cos mos” is probably creation (khalq). Like its English equivalent, the Arabic term has two basic senses. It can refer to the act of creating, or to the result of the creative act. In the second sense, the word may be employed as a synonym for cosmos. It is everything other than God, or everything created by the Cre ator. The term is often juxtaposed with al Haqq, “the Real.” Sometimes the word is used with a plural verb, and in such contexts I translate it as ifcreatures.” Then it is equiva lent to makhlliqat, “the created things.”
Signs, Marks, and Profs
More commonly than either sign or mark, Ibn al-‘ArahI employs the term dalfl to refer to the fact that the cosmos points to God. The term means guide, directive, pointer, indication, signifier, evidence, proof, denotation. Although found only once in the Koran, it becomes an important term in the Islamic sciences, where it is used to refer to the proofs and demonstrations that scholars marshal to argue their cases. I translate the term….
The Face of God
Viewed in terms of tashbih, the cosmos is the locus of God’s self-disclosure. In other words, God is present in the world such that, in the last analysis, the world is God’s presence. Among the many Koranic proof texts that the Shaykh cites to support this idea is the verse, He is with you wherever you are 57:4.
More important are the several Koranic mentions of God’s face (wajh), in particular Wherever you turn, there is the face of God 2:115 and Each thing is perishing except His face 28:88. Closely connected to the face is the veil (Hijab), which keeps the face hidden.
The Face – The Self-Disclosure of God
The Arabic-English dictionaries provide several meanings for the word wajh. Besides face, it can mean, among others, front, facade, surface, exterior, look(s), guise, side, direction, intention, purpose, goal, objective, course, method, means, sense, significance, purport, outset, aspect, viewpoint. The basic meaning-face-is relatively concrete, while the other meanings indicate the various rela
tively abstract senses in which the term may be used. Ibn aPArabi prefers the literal sense, but when he does explain the term’s figurative meaning, he understands it as a synonym for dhiit (essence) and !I_qIqa (reality), both of which can be equivalents for the word nafs or self. On the human level, identifying a person’s “face” with the person’s self, essence, or reality follows upon the fact that for the observer, human identity lies primarily in the face. A headless body has no immediately recognizable identity, in contrast to a bodiless head. The face is the physical side of the person that the observer identifies most intimately with the person. Hence the face of a person, on the concrete level, expresses most clearly the person’s self and reality.
A thing is known only through its face, that is, its reality. Everything without which a thing cannot be known is its face. (I 83.29)
The face is the most eminent thing in the manifest domain of the human being, because it is the Presence of all the nonmanifest and manifest faculties. The “face” of anything is its essence.
The Messenger of God passed by a man who was beating the face of his slave boy. The Messenger of God said, “Beware of the face, for God created Adam in His form.” The face is the locus of turning toward God, apart from the other directions. It is the most magnificent direction. (II 684.2)
God says concerning the folk of felicity, Faces on that day shall be radiant, gazing upon their Lord [75:22-23]. Then He says concerning the folk of wretchedness, by way of parallelism, and faces on that day shall be scowling, thinking that a calamity will be worked upon them (75:24-25]. Here the “faces” are the human
selves, because the face of a thing is its reality, its essence, and its entity. The faces bolUld by eyesight are not meant, because they are not qualified by thoughts, and the general tenor of the verse tells us that here the faces are the essences of those who are mentioned. (II 266.27)
God says, They encompass nothing of His knowledge save such as He wills [2:255]. God
has made clear to you in this verse that He gives the knowledge to reason and others only such as He wills and that this is why He says, And faces are humbled [20:111], right after His words, They encompass Him not in knowledge [20:110]. In other words, when they recognize that they encompass Him not in knowledge, they become meek and abased,
and from Him they seek increase in knowledge of that about which they have no knowledge. The “faces” here are the entities of the essences, or the realities of the existent things, since the face of anything is its essence.
God created everything of the cosmos that He created only in its perfection in itself. This perfection is its face. God says, He gave each thing its creation, so He has perfected it, then guided
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