The Wisdom of the Prophets, by Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi

From the chapter ‘Of the Divine Wisdom (al-hikmat al-‘ilahiyah) in the Word of Adam’

GOD (al-haqq) wanted to see the essences (al-a’yan) [1] of His most perfect Names (al-asmâ al-husnâ) whose number is infinite – and if you like you can equally well say: God wanted to see His own Essence (‘ayn) [2] in one global object (kawn) which having been blessed with existence (al-wujûd) [3] summarized the Divine Order (al-amr) [4] so that there He could manifest His mystery (sirr) to Himself. [5]

For the vision (ru’ya’) [6] that a being [7] has of himself in himself is not the same as that which another reality procures for him, and which he uses for himself as a mirror: in this he manifests himself to his self in the form which results from the ‘place’ of the vision; this would not exist without the ‘plane of reflection’ and the ray which is reflected therein.

God first created the entire world as something amorphous [8] and without grace, [9] comparable to a mirror not yet polished [10] but it is a rule in the Divine activity to prepare no ‘place’ without it receiving a Divine spirit as is explained (in the Koran) by the blowing of the Divine spirit into Adam [11] and this is none other (from a complementary point of view to the former), than the actualization of the aptitude (al-isti’dâd) which such a form possesses, having already the predisposition for it, to receive the inexhaustible effusion (al-fayd) [12] of the essential revelation (at-tajallî). [13]

There is not then (apart from the Divine Reality) other than one pure receptacle (qâbil) [14] but this receptacle itself comes from the Holy Effusion (al-fayd al-aqdas) (that is to say from the principial manifestation, meta-cosmic, where the ‘immutable Essences’ are Divinely ‘conceived’ before their apparent projection in the relative existence). [15] For, the entire reality (al-amr) [16] from its beginning to its end comes from God alone, and it is to Him that it returns. [17] So, then, the Divine Order required the clarification of the nrirror of the world; and Adam became the light itself of this mirror and the spirit of this form. [18]

As for the Angels (of whom there is some mention in the Koran’s account of Adam’s creation), [19] they represent certain faculties of this ‘form’ [20] of the world which the Sufis call the Great Man (al-insân al-kabir) so that the angels are to it just as the spiritual and physical faculties are to the human organism. [21] Each of these (cosmic) faculties finds itself as if veiled by its own nature; it conceives nothing which is superior to its own (relative) essence; for there is in it something which considers itself to be worthy of high rank and in the state nearest to God. It is thus because it participates (in a certain manner) in the Divine Synthesis (al-jam’iyat al-ilâhiyah) [22] which governs that which appertains, be it to the Divine side (al-janâb al-ilâhî), [23] be it to the side of the Reality of Realities (haqîqat al-haqâiq), [24] be it again – and by this organism, support of all the faculties, — to the Universal Nature (tabî’at al-kull) [25] ; this encompasses all the receptacles (qawabil) of the world, from its peak to its foundation. [26] But this, logical reasoning will not understand, for this sort of knowledge is solely dependent on Divine intuition (al-kashf al-ilâhi); it is by that alone that one will know the roots of the forms of the world, in so far as they are receptive towards their ruling spirit. [27]

Thus, this being (Adamic) was called Man (insân) and God’s Representative (khalifah). As for his quality as a man it designates his synthesised nature (containing virtually all other natures created) and his aptitude to embrace the essential Truths. Man is to God (al-haqq) that which the pupil is to the eye (the pupil in Arabic is called ‘man within the eye’), the pupil being that by which seeing is effected; for through him (that is to say the Universal Man) God contemplates His creation and dispenses His mercy. Thus is man at once ephemeral and eternal, a being created perpetual and immortal, a Verb discriminating (by his distinctive knowledge) and unifying (by his divine essence). [28] By his existence the world was completed. He is to the world that which the setting is to the ring; the setting carries the seal which the King applies to his treasure chests; and it is for this that (Universal) Man is called the Representative of God, Whose creation he safeguards, as one safeguards the treasures by a seal; as long as the King’s seal is to be found on the treasure chests, nobody dares open them without his permission; thus man finds himself entrusted with the Divine safe-keeping of the world, and the world will not cease to be safeguarded as long as this Universal Man (al-insân al-kâmil) lives in it. Dost thou not see, then, that when he disappears and is taken away from the treasure chests of this lower world, nothing of which God kept in them will remain and all that they contained will go, each part joining its own (corresponding) part; everything will be transported into the other world, and (Universal Man) will be the seal on the coffers in the other world perpetually.


[1] A’yân is translated here as ‘essences’, since it concerns the essences of the Names as opposed to their verbal or thought forms. The object of the divine ‘vision’ resides in the essential possibilities which correspond to the ‘Most Perfect Names’, meaning the universal and permanent ‘aspects’ of the Being. When one speaks of the one and single Essence of all the Divine Names and Qualities, one employs the term adh-dhât.

[2] The word al-‘ayn (singular of a’yân) contains the meanings of ‘essential determination’, ‘personal essence’, ‘archetype’, ‘eye’, ‘source’. This sentence signi­fies then, that God wanted to see Himself, with the restriction that His vision does not refer to His Absolute Essence (adh-dhât), which transcends all deter­mination, even principial, but to His immediate determination (‘aynah), His ‘personal aspect’, which is precisely characterized by the Perfect Qualities of which the Names are the expression.

[3] Or of the Being, the term a1-wujûd having the two meanings. Some manu­scripts give the variant: ‘. . . being endowed with faces (aI-wujûh) …’ that is to say with multiple ‘planes of reflection’ differentiating the Divine irradiation (at-tajallî).

[4] The Divine Order is symbolized by the word ‘be!’ (kun); it identifies itself then, to the principle of existence.

[5] The allusion to the Divine Word (hadîth qudsî) revealed by the mouth of the Prophet: ‘I was a hidden treasure; I loved to be known (or: know) and I created the world’.

[6] The visual act is here taken as the symbol of Knowledge in its universal nature.

[7] Literally: ‘the thing’ (ash-shay). Ibn Arabi sometimes employs the term ‘thing’ to designate a reality which he does not want to define in any way; he does not say ‘the Essence’ (adh-dhat), so as not to affirm to the transcendence and the non-manifestation of that which is in question, and neither does he say the ‘Being’ or ‘the Existence’ (al-wujûd), so as not to emphasize thereby the immanence and the manifestation.

[8] Or ‘homogeneous’ (musawwî), that is to say not yet including the qualitative and differentiated imprint of the spirit.

[9] Rawh: ‘grace’, liberty; some read rûh, ‘spirit’.

[10] It is the primordial chaos, where the possibilities of manifestation, still virtual, are lost in the indifferentiation of their materia.

[11] ‘When I shall have formed him, and I shall have breathed my spirit into him’ (Koran XV, 29).

[12] The image of an ‘effusion’, of an ‘overflowing’ or of an ’emanation’ of the Being (al-wujûd) or of the divine Light (an-nûr) in the receptive ‘forms’ of the world must not be understood as a substantial emanation, for the Being – or the increated divine Light – does not proceed outside of Himself. This image expresses on the contrary the sovereign superabundance of the divine Reality, which deploys and illuminates the relative possibilities of the world, although It be ‘rich in Itself’ (ghanî binafsih) and the existence of the world adds nothing to His infinity. – The symbolism of the divine ‘effusion’ (al-fayd) refers to this word of the Prophet: ‘God has created the world in darkness, and then He poured (afâda) on it of His light’.

[13] At-tajallî signifies ‘revelation’ in a general sense) ‘unveiling’ and ‘irradiation’: when the sun, covered by clouds is ‘unveiled’, its light ‘irradiates’ over the earth.

[14] From the cosmological point of view, this receptacle corresponds to the passive substance, the ‘materia prima’ or the plastic principle of a world or of a being. From a purely metaphysical point of view, the receptacle which opposes – in a manner entirely principial and logical – the incessant ‘effusion’ of the Being, is reduced to the principial possibility, the archetype or the ‘immutable essence’ (al-ayn ath-thâbitah) of a world or a being.

[15] This passage is explained as follows by the Persian Sufi Nur ad-din ‘Abd Rahmân Jâmî: ‘The Majesty of God (aI-haqq) reveals itself in two ways; one of them, which corresponds to the interior revelation, purely intelligible, which the Sufis call the most-saintly Effusion (al-fayd al-aqdas), consists in the self-revelation of God manifesting Himself from all eternity to Himself in the form of archetypes and that which they imply of characters and capacities; the second revelation, is the exterior manifestation, objective, which is called saintly Effusion (al-fayd al-muqaddas); it consists in the manifestation of God by means of the imprint of the same archetypes. This second revelation is consecutive to the first; it is the theatre where the perfections appear, which, according to the first revelation, are virtually contained in the characters and the capacities of the archetypes’. (Lawaih, ch. XXX; Persian text edition and English translation by E. H. Whinfield and Mirza Muhammed Kazvini: Oriental translation Fund, New series, Vol XVI Royal Asiatic Society). In this text the expressions ‘forms’ or ‘characters’, which refer to the archetypes, should be understood as simple ‘allusions’, for the archetypes or ‘immutable essences’ are evidently beyond all individualization or formal distinction.

[16] The word amr signifies primarily ‘order’, ‘commandment’, but contains also the sense of ‘reality’ and of ‘act’. The Divine Order ‘be!’ corresponds to the pure Act.

[17] ‘His is the kingdom of heaven and earth; and unto God shall all realities return’ (al umûr, that is to say increated realities of creatures) (Koran LVII, 5).

[18] In the original text, all the first part of the chapter, until the above words, form one sentence, with several incidental propositions; it is a logical whole describing all the essential aspects of the Divine Manifestation.

[19] ‘When thy Lord said unto the angels: Verily, I am going to place a repre­sentative on earth, they said: Wilt thou place there one who will sow corruption therein, and shed blood?, whereas we celebrate Thy praise, and sanctify Thee. He answered: Verily I know that which ye know not; and he taught Adam the Names of all things, and then showed them to the angels, and said: Declare unto Me the Names of these things if you say the truth. They answered, Praise unto Thee, we have no knowledge, but what Thou teachest us, for Thou art Knowing and Wise! He said: O Adam, let them know their names! And when he had let them know their names, He said: Did I not tell you that I know the secrets of heaven and earth, and I know that which you discover and that which you conceal? And when We said unto the Angels prostrate yourselves before Adam, they all prostrated themselves except Iblis (the devil) who refused, and was puffed up with pride, and became of the number of unbelievers’. (Koran II, 28).

[20] The expression ‘form’ (sûrah) is one of those which the Sufi authors use in a very free way, for it is susceptible of various transpositions beyond the closest significance, that of ‘delimitation’; the form of a thing contains a purely qualita­tive aspect, the quality being of essential nature; on the other hand, in so far as the form of a being is opposed to its spirit, it symbolically returns to the receptive function of the materia.

[21] According to the Sufi adage: ‘Man is a little cosmos, and the cosmos is like a big man’.

[22] Divine Uniqueness by virtue of which every being is unique.

[23] The ‘Divine Side’ is the sum of the Divine Qualities, the Divinity in so far as It produces and dominates the world, (the ‘creature side’).

[24] The ‘Reality of Realities’ or ‘Truth of Truths’ corresponds to the Word (Logos) as ‘place’ of all the possibilities of manifestation. It is the eternal medi­ator, the ‘Reality of Muhammed’ (al-haqîqat al-muhammadiyah), the ‘Isthmus’ (barzakh) between the pure Being and relative existence, the same as between the non-manifestation and the manifestation. It is the prototype of everything; there is nothing which does not bear its imprint.

[25] Universal Nature is the universal receptive power, the ‘matrix’ of the cosmos. According to the Hellenistic cosmologists, Nature is reduced to the plastic principle of the formal world, to the root of the four elements and of the four sensible qualities which rule all the changes of the physical order. Ibn Arabi, transposing the elements in the total cosmic order, attributes to Nature a far vaster function, co-extensive with all manifestation, including the angelic states. It is thus analogous to that which the Hindus designate as Mâyâ or as the universal Shakti, maternal and dynamic aspect of Prakpiti, the Substance or ‘Materia Prima’. Let us add nevertheless that this principle does not play, in the teaching of Ibn ‘Arabi, the same fundamental role that it assumes in the Advaitic doctrine, since Islam considers the productive functions of the universe in an eminently ‘theocentric’ manner.

[26] The creature ‘claims’ then, to the totality by virtue at once of his Divine origin, of his universal prototype, and of his natural root.

[27] ‘Abd ar-Razzaq al Qashani specifies that reason, which is itself engendered by the polarity of the active and passive, of the Divine Order (al-amr) and of Nature (at-tabî’ah) cannot exceed this polarity and comprehend it ‘from above.

[28] These are the two aspects of all revealed words, to which refer the two designations of the Koran as ‘Recitation’ (al-qur’ân) and as ‘Discrimination’ (al-­furqân) .

This is the opening passage of the Fusus al-Hikam, one of the truly great books of the world. If we try to measure it by ordinary standards, we will most likely miss out. Cultural gaps can be filled-in with footnotes, but to be big enough for such a meaning, we must hope to rise to its level. This is not a feat of intellect, but a gift of receptivity. In this writing, every word counts.

Some themes in the passage

‘I was a hidden treasure; I loved to be known (or: know) and I created the world’. (See Note 5)

The creation, universe, as a mirror to immeasurable reality, and the human being at the heart of it.

“Man (the human being) is to God (al-haqq) that which the pupil is to the eye (the pupil in Arabic is called ‘man within the eye’), the pupil being that by which seeing is effected; for through him (that is to say the Universal Man) God contemplates His creation and dispenses His mercy. Thus is man at once ephemeral and eternal, a being created perpetual and immortal, a Verb discriminating (by his distinctive knowledge) and unifying (by his divine essence). By his existence the world was completed.”

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