The Self-Disclosure of God

Principles of Ibn al'Arabi's Cosmology
By William C. Chittick

[Whole book online]

From chapter 1: Wujud and the Entities

The Arabic word for cosmos, 'alam, derives from the same root as 'alama (mark), 'alam (signpost), and 'ilm (knowledge). The derivation suggests that the cosmos is both a source of knowledge and a mark or a signpost 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." (II 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 'alam means "world." It can refer to the whole universe, in which case I translate it as "cosmos," 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 'alma as "everything other than God" (ma siwa Allah) or "everything other than the Real" (ma 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" (III 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 al-'Arabi situates the cosmos in relation to God.

The most important synonym for "cosmos" 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 Creator. 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 "creatures." Then it is equivalent to makhluqat, "the created things."

Signs, Marks, and Proofs
More commonly than either sign or mark, Ibn al-'Arabi employs the term dali1 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 sometimes as "signifier" and sometimes as "proof." In the first and more general sense, the term means practically the same as "sign," but in the context of the rational sciences, it usually takes on the technical sense of a formal proof. In Ibn al-'Arabi's view, these rational arguments and formal proofs are inferior to unveiling and tasting as sources of knowledge. In one passage, he contrasts the terms sign and proof, identifying the former with the direct cognition achieved by the folk of unveiling and the latter with the indirect understanding acquired by the rational thinkers. Here he has in view specifically the philosophers, who are commonly called the "sages" (hukama), while philosophy (falsafa) is also called "wisdom"(hikma).

One of the knowledges comprised by this waystation is the difference between the proof and the sign. The companion of the sign is more worthy of having "wisdom" ascribed to him and of being called a "sage" than the companion of the proof, for the sign accepts no obfuscation, and it belongs only to the folk of unveiling and finding, but the proof is not like that. (1II 240.31)

The superiority of signs over proofs is connected with the superiority of faith over rational understanding. Faith perceives with an interior light that accepts no darkening, while reason perceives with proofs that are not immune from counterproofs and obfuscations (shubha).

Part of the reality of the [revealed) report is the possibility of the property of the two attributes, truthfulness and falsehood-in respect of its being a report, not in respect of considering who gave the report. Hence we distinguish between those who maintain the truthfulness of the report-giver on the basis of proofs and those who maintain it through faith. After all, faith is a luminous unveiling that does not accept obfuscations, but the companion of the
proof is not able to preserve himself from misgivings that detract from his proof, and these send him back to his rational consideration.

This is why we consider the companion of the proof devoid of faith. After all, faith does not accept disappearance, for it is a watchful, divine light that stands over every soul for what it earns [13:33). It is not a solar or stellar light that rises and sets and is then followed by the darknesses of doubt or something else.

Those who know what we have just said know the level of knowledge in respect of faith and the level of knowledge that is gained from proofs. After all, the root, who is the Real, does not know things through proofs. He knows them only through Himself.

The perfect human being is created in His form. His knowledge of God is a faith through light and unveiling, he describes God with attributes that are not accepted by proofs. People who have faith in Him in respect of their proofs interpret these descriptions, so their faith is diminished to the degree that their proofs negate them from Him. (Ill 218.23)

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