Theophanic Imagination in the Sufism of Muhyiddin Ibn Al-ʿArabi

Theophanic Imagination in the Sufism of Muhyiddin Ibn Al-ʿArabi
To God belong the East and the West; withersoever you turn, there is the Face of God; God is All-embracing, All-knowing.

(The Holy Quran, translated by A.J. Arberry, Surah Al-Baqarah Verse 115)

Beauty is the word that shall be our first. Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as an uncontained splendor around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another.

(Hans Urs Von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics)

…so hide away now in the grass, sink down, fall onto your side, let your eyes slowly close, and die, for there is no point in the sublimity that you bear, die at midnight in the grass, sink down and fall, and let it be like that—breathe your last.

(László Krasznahorkai, Seiobo There Below, Kamo-Hunter)


On February 15, 1979, the Committee for Social and Religious Affairs and Endowments in Egypt launched a campaign to ban the writings of the Muslim visionary theosopher Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi (d.1240), in particular his magnum opus al-Futuhat al-Makkiya. The Committee's proposals were recounted the following day in the newspaper al-Akhbar as follows:

The People's Assembly agreed during yesterday's session to discontinue and prohibit the publication of the remaining sections of the book al-Futuhat al-Makkiya by Ibn Arabi, as well as the rest of his works, and to prohibit the distribution of those sections already published and to collect the published material from the markets. This is due to his extremism (tatarruf), which spreads confusion among Muslims.

It also agreed to form a committee of religious scholars (ulama) from the Academy of Islamic Research to prepare a thorough report concerning the writings of Ibn Arabi and present it to the Assembly. This came after the Assembly's decision that the author was an extremist Sufi relying heavily on specific expressions used by other extremist Sufis, as technical terms whose meanings differed from those well-known among the people of religious knowledge (ahl al-ilm).

Therefore, the distribution of his books causes confusion among the Muslim masses, casting them into bewilderment and doubt, and it beguiles the people concerning their religion.

The Committee said in its decision that silence in battling the likes of such books was a matter which contradicted the obligations of the faith.

The Assembly also decided not to distribute any book involving Islamic religious positions without the consent of the Academy of Islamic Research, in its capacity as the committee specializing in such matters.

Ahmed Faud Abd al-Aziz, the parliamentary secretary, announced that the government of the National Democratic Party believed in the importance of protecting the Islamic religion, and so it had carefully studied the decision of the Committee before presenting it to the assembly. In fact, the day before yesterday (i.e. Feb.13), the resolution of the Ministry of Culture had already been issued, containing all of the Committee's recommendations which the Assembly had affirmed. Dr. al-Sayyid Ali al-Sayyid, president of the session, conveyed his thanks to the government for their prompt response to these recommendations. [1]

We witness here merely one more addition in a long history of dogmatic feeble-mindedness, which usually takes the form of either plain, indignant and frustrated vitriol, or a reverential reticence in the face of mystery (entirely justified if not considered an end in itself, a state of inert, stifling, fideistic stasis, as it frequently is; consider the admonitions against reading Ibn Arabi for the "uninitiated")—a long history only occasionally punctuated by attempts to be truly speculative. It is in the tradition of the latter that I intend to follow. I present Ibn Arabi, then, as a
thinker of the between: between the rapturous univocity of immediate sensuous intuition and the lifeless abstractions of discursive thought; and more primordially, of the analogical interval that spans divine (wujud) and creaturely (mawjud) being. In a word, we shall try to understand Ibn Arabi's phenomenology of spiritual forms.

Laysa Fi’l-Wujud Siwa Allah: The Drama of the Question of Being

In Being there is only God. That is an expression of the transcendental unity of Being, known in the Islamic context as (among other appellations) wahdat al-wujud—a term which, incidentally, Ibn Arabi never used—and upon it rests the entirety of what concerns us here. An expression that is apt to be misunderstood, as even a cursory survey of the history of Ibn Arabi's reception in the Islamic world makes clear.

Contrary to popular misrepresentations, it establishes before anything else an ineradicable chasm between God and his creation. We are faced with an abyss which no “maximally perfect being,” no “necessary existent,” no mere Ens supremum can traverse; an abyss, moreover, only traversable by a love, an impassible pathos, an anthropotropism that transforms “distance into intimacy” (Ferdinand Ulrich). But let us first unpack precisely what is at stake.

The Latin words “ens” and “esse” are both translated by the same English word “being.” Likewise for the Arabic “mawjud” and “wujūd.” This one unfortunate accident of translation has led to a confusion around which entire (particularly modern) traditions of metaphysics have defined themselves. Thus Etienne Gilson claims:

Being, properly so-called, makes its first appearance in the universal hierarchy with the νοῦς, or Intelligence. At the same as it is the first being, this second hypostasis is the first god. In such a sense, this theology was manifestly unusable for a Christian. To identify the God of Exodus with the One is either to reduce the latter to the level of being, which Plotinus regards as inferior to the One: or else it is to raise God above being which, for Christianity, is the least inappropriate of all the divine names. The first of these alternatives betrays Plotinus, the second the Scriptures. [2]

Gilson differentiates the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas, and of Christianity in general, from Neoplatonism on the basis of what he perceives as their contrasting doctrines of the Absolute. A clarification of terms needs to be made before we proceed any further. In what is commonly referred to as “classical theism,” anything that exists, any particular being (ens), is taken to be intrinsically composite, i.e. it can be analyzed into two basic constituents: the sheer act of its existence (esse, wujūd) in and by itself, its 'to be,' that which enables it to be there at all, and the quiddity or essence which delimits that act and allows that being to be what it is. In other words, one can ask of a being (ens) two distinct questions: for one, what is it? And secondly, is it? In the first case, we are asking of it what kind of being it is. For instance, you can investigate an apple with regard to its apple-ness and in so doing you will be asking a categorial question, namely a question that considers a being's genus and differentia, the broader category of reality to which it belongs, the (to use distinctively Platonic patois) ideal Form of which it is a specification and in which it participates along with any number of other apples or fruits (depending on how further back or up you go in the chain of being). Thought is here exercised in its mode of universality, rising beyond the chaos of concrete-empirical change into the realm of eternally stable archetypes. It grasps, in short, what is essential about a being.

In the second case, however, a radically different point of view has to be adopted. We are no longer concerned with what sort of being any given ens is, but rather with the bare fact that it is—and more importantly, with the possibility that it might as well not be. In our questioning, "beings as such waver, insofar as we put them into question. The oscillation of this wavering reaches out into the most extreme and sharpest counterpossibility of beings, into not-Being and Nothing."[3] Beings, then, are habens esse: they possess esse, they are not esse; it is not in their essence simply to exist, what they are is in tension with the fact that they are. It is not essential for a being to be. Erich Przywara speaks of a “unity-in-tension” [Spannungs-Einheit], a “suspended tension” [Spannungs-Schwebe] of essence and existence in beings, an “essence in-and-beyond existence.” [4] Which is an incisive if idiosyncratic way of saying that the being [5] of a being consists in a perpetual ek-stasis, an always already standing-outside-of-itself in a yearning for its essence that is never reducible to any discrete moment of its existence. Nothing is absolutely self-identical; and everything mutable, transient, ephemeral—actualized at all times by a source that cannot be its own self. But what is it then? Whence being? [6] It can only be that which is not itself in being, for it is supposed to explain the fact of being-in-being of any being whatever. This principle is God. [7] Indeed, one may be perfectly justified in saying God does not exist (in the sense of the Latin existere: “to step out from, to stand forth, to come into being”), he is instead the principle of all existing, all "stepping out," all "standing forth"—all “coming into being.” In the words of Mullā Ṣadrā: "Existence, insofar as it is existence, has no agent from which it emanates, no matter into which it transforms, no subject in which it is found, no form by which it is clothed, no goal for which it is [established]. Rather, it itself is the agent of all agents, the form of all forms, and the goal of all goals." [8]

Obviously, then, God, as the perfect identity of essence and existence, free of the diremption of being and being this, beyond the system of causes in fieri, cannot possibly be a mere supreme, "infinitely" powerful item within the universal inventory of reality. He is transcendent vis-à-vis creation in a much more radical way: as Being [9] itself, as the necessary Act-of-Being (ipsum esse subsistens, wājib al-wujūd) that puts beings into the imperative. God says be and it is (kun fa-yakūnu). Yet, as participated by creatures, as created wujūd, God is still more identical—more intimate—with his creation than dualistic theologies allow. Recall the ḥādīth qudsī: "I was a hidden treasure and I yearned to be known. Then I created creatures in order to be known by them." [10] Being as it were extends itself into its opposite, non-Being or the nothingness of pure indeterminacy, and in this “projection,” this creative act born out of love, a love to be known by himself in and by the other, stages the theater of the between (metaxu, barzakh), in which plays the cosmogonic drama of its continuous self-manifestation. Pace Corbin (and with him many others), creation ex nihilo simply is creation ex deo. [11] To create out of nothing and to create out of himself is for God one and the same.

But for this other to be truly other, creation must remain on the ontic side of the ontological difference. Every similarity between Being and beings must be qualified by an ever-greater transcendence of the former over the latter. This is no crude dualism—Ibn Arabi is anything but a dualist—but the raison d'être of an authentic non-dualism. Intimacy presupposes distance, and vice-versa. To go back to Ferdinand Ulrich, “the more we conceive of being as fullness given away, the more its non-subsistence comes to light. The absolute intimacy of being in the creature as God's highest “gift” precisely excludes its clinging-to-itself in an ideal ontological vacillation.” [12] In other words, if the being (created esse/wujūd) of a being (mawjud/ens) were identical with it, hypostasized into an object, there would be no act to bring the mawjud/ens into existence, and likewise if that originary gift of being were an abstract intermediary monad between God and creatures, “clinging-to-itself in an ideal ontological vacillation.” In both cases, in the absolutization of either transcendence or immanence, the fundamental error is the same: the inability of thought to go beyond its ontic categories, the temptation to domesticate the intractability of wujūd's overdeterminate no-thing-ness. Esse proceeds from ipsum esse subsistens as the breath of God.

This takes us right into the heart of Akbarian metaphysics. According to Ibn Arabi, the event of creation is preceded by a divine Sadness. It is the Sadness of the divine Names seeking their manifestations in concrete reality, which is relieved by the Compassion of the Real (Al-Ḥaqq) sympathizing with their pathos; a divine Breathing, a primordial Sigh (Nafas al-Raḥmān or Nafas Raḥmāni) exhales and thus existentiates these hidden and abstract, formerly “non-existent” potentialities. One can already see how the ontological structure of creation is intrinsically theophanic: it is a revelation, a self-disclosure necessarily constituted through successive acts of affirmation and negation. There proceeds a space suspended between Being and nothingness, and this between Ibn Arabi calls the “non-delimited imagination” (al-khayāl al-mut̥laq). Ibn Arabi identifies three different but interrelated instances of imagination: creation itself—which is what we are primarily concerned with—the faculty of imagination within man, or “contiguous imagination” (al-khayāl al-muttas̥il), and finally the intermediate region of being that corresponds to that faculty, the ālam al-mithāl, or “discontiguous imagination” (al-khayāl al-munfas̥il). Imagination (khayâl) for Ibn Arabi has a very specific meaning, it refers to anything that mediates between two opposites: Being and non-Being, rationality and sensibility, the realm of ideas (âlam aqlî) and the realm of sensible forms (âlam hissî), etc. Thus Ibn Arabi:

God created another creature. If you say concerning it that it is existent, you will have spoken the truth, and if you say it is non-existent, you will have spoken the truth. It is imagination, and it has two states: a state of contiguity, which it possesses through man and certain animals, and a state of discontiguity. To the latter outward perception becomes connected while remaining separate from it in actual fact, as in the case of Gabriel's appearance in the form of Dihya, or a jinn or an angel which becomes manifest from the world of curtaining. [13]

This doubleness of the between implies that creation is neither God nor not-God and consequently both God (huwa) and not-God (la huwa), for it is the median between the infinite prodigality of Being and the utter indigence of non-Being. It puts us in mind of the fragility of creation, as prevented from dissolving into complete nothingness by divine fiat, and yet even so—or rather, because of it—inherently sacred, abolished in its opaque corporeality by the light of the supernatural:

The cosmos is His work, so it became manifest in the attributes of the Real. If you say concerning it, “it is God,” you have spoken the truth. For God says, “But God threw.” If you say concerning it, “it is creation”, you have spoken the truth, for He says, “when you threw.” So He clothed and bared, affirmed and negated: He/not-He, unknown/known. “To God belong the most beautiful names” (7:180), and to the cosmos belongs becoming manifest through them by assuming their traits (takhalluq). [14]

Ibn Arabi is citing the Quranic verse, “And you did not kill them, but it was Allah who killed them. And you threw not, [O Muhammad], when you threw, but it was Allah who threw that He might test the believers with a good test. Indeed, Allah is Hearing and Knowing” (8:17). At the battle of Badr, the Prophet ( صلى الله عليه وسلم) picked up a bit of sand and threw it in the eyes of the Quraysh. This one incident for the Shaykh al-Akbar provides a perfect symbol of the nature of imagination or the barzakh. The Prophet's agency in the act is simultaneously affirmed and negated: "He negated the engendered existence (kawn) of Muhammad and affirmed Himself as identical (ayn) with Muhammad, since he appointed for him the name 'God.'" [15] Creation, then, as imagined, or imaginalized (tamaththul: “to appear in the image of”), is indelibly marked by ambiguity. Much to the chagrin of the rationalist, the rigid determinations of the understanding, in terms of a straightforward either/or, can only get one so far; they lose their efficacy once one decides no longer to rest servilely within the confines of determinable certainty; once there is an encounter with a transcendence that throws one into perplexity (hayrah), and thus forces one to consider that there might be a form of mindfulness whose adequation to reality does not solely depend upon the imprimatur of univocal or (exclusively and so just as one-sidedly) equivocal reason. One attains to the faculty of imagination, the imaginatio vera lying dormant in every man, which carries out the transmutation of all physical realities into various symbols (symbola) and tokens (synthemata) of divinity.

We are now in a position to finally continue from where we left off. Gilson's error was the same as that of Ibn Arabi's many critics i.e., a confounding of wahdat al-wujud and wahdat al-mawjud, of esse and ens. Plotinus' One is beyond being not because it is somehow entirely beyond wujud/esse, as if such a statement could be anything but nonsense, but because being for Plotinus (as Gilson rightly points out) begins with νοῦς or the intelligible realm of forms. Forms are essences, they do not contain within themselves the reason for their existence, but are wholly dependent upon existence as always in some way external to (even if inseparable from) them. Plotinus puts this in terms of the need for unity. For Neoplatonists, inheriting a maxim that goes back to Parmenides, to be is to be intelligible. And in order to be intelligible, beings must not be a random conglomeration of entirely disparate forms, but must have unity, an integral wholeness that makes them identifiable as distinctively this: “Thus it understands itself by being a variegated eye or something of variegated colors … So it is necessary that that which thinks grasp one thing different from another [ἕτερον καὶ ἕτερον] and that that which is thought, in being thought, be something variegated” (Plotinus, Enneads, V.3.10.30–32, 40–42).16 Or again: "This is why they are realities (οὐσἰαι); for they are already defined and each has a kind of shape. That which is (τὸ …ὄν) must not fluctuate, so to speak, in the indefinite, but must be fixed by limit and stability; and stability among intelligibles is definition and shape, and by these it receives existence" (Ibid., V.1.7.23–27).

Moreover, the source of this stability, and so the origin of the intelligible itself by itself cannot in turn be just another instance of intelligibility (for reasons we have already rehearsed, albeit in different terms), but must be that which originally confers intelligibility on everything that is intelligible. This first principle Plotinus identifies as the One, the Absolute beyond being, understood as οὐσία or τὸ είναι: [17]

A reality (οὐσἰαν) must be some this (τόδε…τι), something defined; but that [i.e. the One] is not to be taken as a 'this'; for then it would not be the principle, but only that 'this' which you said it was. But if all things are in that which is generated, which of the things in it are you going to say it [the One] is? Since it is none of these, it can only be said to be beyond them. But these things are the beings, and being (τὰ ὄντα καὶ τὸ ὄν): beyond, then, being (τόδε…ὄντος). This 'beyond being' does not mean a 'this'—for it does not affirm—and it does not say its name, but it conveys only 'not this' (οὐ τοῦτο) (Ibid., V.5.6.6–14).

Both Aquinas and Plotinus are then in complete agreement on this point. To say that God is Being itself (ipsum esse subsistens) is simply to say that God is beyond being (ἐπέκεινα τῆς οὐσίας). Similarly, when critics accuse Ibn Arabi of “pantheism”, of a reduction of God to creation, an identification that leaves no room for transcendence—in a word, of a flattening of the Absolute, then they are confusing wujud for mawjud—misunderstanding the fact that the unity of Being (wahdat al-wujud) refers exclusively to the unitude of the first principle; that God is Unity itself, and in his nature is no compositeness; and that any further unity among beings (wahdat al-mawjud), or discrete 'ones,' the countless theophanies of God’s primal Unity, must be grounded in that prior reality. Wujud creates mawjud, and in so doing ineluctably identifies with it (as we saw earlier), but in such a way that both the primacy of God and the individual integrity of creation remain inviolate, and indeed, serve as preconditions for all possible instances of theophanic imagination. As Schelling puts it:

It is an undeniably excellent invention that with such labels [as 'pantheism'] entire viewpoints are described all at once. If one has found the right label for a system, the rest falls into place of itself, and one is spared the effort of examining what is characteristic about it more meticulously. As soon as such labels are given, with their help even one who is ignorant can pass judgment on the most thought-through matters. [18]


[1] Th. Emil Homerin. "Ibn Arabi in the People's Assembly: Religion, Press, and Politics in Sadat's Egypt." Middle East Journal 40, no. 3 (1986): 462–77.

[2] Etienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas (New York: Random House, 1956).

[3] Martin Heidegger, "The Fundamental Question of Metaphysics," essay, in Introduction to Metaphysics (Yale University Press, 2014), 30.

[4] Erich Przywara, John R. Betz, and David Bentley Hart, Analogia Entis: Metaphysics: Original Structure and Universal Rhythm (Eerdmans, 2014).

[5] Here I am referring to a being’s act of being/existence. Or “created esse”.

[6] I'm still using the word in its ontic sense, except here it refers to being in general, the totality of all beings, not just any one of them.

[7] This conclusion requires a more elaborate deduction that would take us too far away from our present concerns.

[8] İbrahim Kalın, Knowledge in Later Islamic Philosophy: Mullā Ṣadrā on Existence, Intellect, and Intuition (Oxford University Press, 2010).

[9] Using the word in the uppercase partly ameliorates the confusion I referred to earlier.

[10] Ibn Arabi cites it throughout his work. Regarding the question of its chain of transmission, which has no bearing whatsoever on the veracity of its content, see al-Ḥakīm al-Tirmidhī, & Muḥammad, Abū ʻAbdallāh, Bernd Radtke, and John OʼKane, The Concept of Sainthood in Early Islamic Mysticism (London: Curzon, 1996).

[11] "The Creation as Theophany," essay, in Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sūfism of Ibn ʻArabī (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 185–86.

[12] D. C. Schindler and Martin Bieler, essay, in Homo Abyssus: The Drama of the Question of Being (Washington, D.C.: Humanum Academic Press, 2018), 30.

[13] William C. Chittick, essay, in The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn al-ʻArabi’s Metaphysics of Imagination (Gulshan Books, 2009), 117. I rely on Chittick's translations throughout this article.

[14] Ibid., p. 114.

[15] Ibid.

[16] For a succinct introduction to Neoplatonist metaphysics, see Eric David Perl, Thinking Being: Introduction to Metaphysics in the Classical Tradition (Leiden The Netherlands: Brill, 2014).

[17] See Eric D. Perl (2011). "Esse Tantum and the One." Quaestiones Disputatae 2 (1-2):185-200.

[18] F.W.J Schelling, essay, in Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom (Albany: State Univ Of New York Pr, 2007), 11.