Opening

Ibn ‘Arabi / Heir to the Prophets

~William C. Chittick

Ibn ‘Arabi tells us that effort can take seekers only as far as the door. Having reached the door, they can knock as often as they like. It is God who will decide when and if he will open the door.Only at the opening of the door can complete inheritance occur.This explains the sense of the word “opening” in the title of Ibn ‘Arabi’s al-Futuhat al-makkiyya,“The Meccan Openings.”

The title announces that the knowledge and understanding contained in the book were not gained by study or discursive reasoning. They were simply given to the author when God opened the door to him. The whole Futuhat, in other words, represents a massive series of unveilings and witnessings, or “mystical visions” if you prefer.

It is important to keep in mind that Ibn ‘Arabi does not confuse unveiling, witnessing, and opening with “revelation,” which applies properly to prophetic knowledge. It is precisely the special nature of revelation that makes it necessary for God’s friends to follow the prophets. As Ibn ‘Arabi often tells us, the basic distinction between a prophet and a friend is that the friend is a “follower” (tabi‘ ) and the prophet is the one “followed” (matbu‘).

If one wants to achieve opening, the way to do so is to engage in the practices set down by one’s prophet and to follow the instructions of a shaykh or spiritual master,who,in the ideal case, will be a full heir to that prophet. Among the practices that a shaykh will prescribe are retreat (khalwa), which is seclusion from others in order to devote oneself fully to meditation and prayer, and remembrance (dhikr), which is the constant invocation of a Qur’anic divine name or formula.

When the aspiring traveler clings to retreat and the remembrance of God’s name, when he empties his heart of reflective thoughts, and when he sits in poverty at the door of his Lord with nothing, then God will bestow upon him and give him something of knowledge of Him, the divine mysteries, and the lordly sciences. (F. I 31.4) 

Notice that it is the “heart” (qalb) that needs to be emptied of thought. In the usage of the Qur’an and Islamic sources in general, the heart designates not the emotive and affective side of human nature, but the center of consciousness, awareness, and intelligence.The heart is the human faculty that can embrace God in the fullness of his manifestation. In Ibn ‘Arabi’s terms, the heart alone can know God and the realities in a synthetic manner embracing both rational understanding and suprarational unveiling.


THE MUHAMMADAN SEAL

When God opened the door for him, Ibn ‘Arabi found that he had inherited all the sciences of Muhammad.Among these sciences was the knowledge that no one after him – except Jesus at the end of time – would be Muhammad’s plenary inheritor. It was this unveiling that allowed him to see himself as the Seal of Muhammadan Friendship, that is, the last person to actualize the specific mode of friendship that results from embodying the fullness of the paradigm established by Muhammad.

By no means does Ibn ‘Arabi’s claim to be the Muhammadan Seal imply that he was the last friend of God. Rather, it means that no one after him, with the exception of Jesus, would inherit the totality of prophetic works, states, and knowledge – a totality that had been realized only by Muhammad among all the prophets.

One should not be surprised that Ibn ‘Arabi privileges Muhammad here. This is the Islamic tradition, after all, and every tradition privileges its own founder. For those who prefer a more universal language, we can say that for Muslims, Muhammad is the full embodiment of the Logos, which is the Divine Word that gives rise to all creation and all revelation. Ibn ‘Arabi calls this Logos by several names, including “the Muhammadan Reality.”

Ibn ‘Arabi maintains that there are friends of God in every age and that they will continue to inherit from Muhammad,but they will no longer have access to the entirety of Muhammad’s works, states, and sciences. The modalities of the inheritance will be defined by their connection to specific prophets embraced by Muhammad’s all-comprehensive prophethood. After the Muhammadan Seal, “No friend will be found ‘upon the heart of Muhammad’” (F. II 49.26).

Ibn ‘Arabi’s claim to be the Seal of the Muhammadan Friends has appeared pretentious and even outrageous to many people over the centuries. Hostile and critical scholars have dismissed it out of hand. The fact remains, however, that no author writing after him has come close to matching the profundity, freshness, and detail of his interpretation of the sources of the Islamic tradition. Whether or not one would like to call him the Seal of the Muhammadan Friends, it is difficult to deny him the title “Greatest Master.”

If the Muhammadan friends of God inherit all the sciences of Muhammad, this means that they have been opened up to all the knowledge and understanding given to all the prophets. This is the knowledge that was given scriptural form in the Qur’an.Thus the Seal of the Muhammadan Friends will somehow embody the whole Quranic message. This is why Ibn ‘ Arabi can write concerning the Seal, “There is no one who has more knowledge of God ... He and the Qur’an are siblings” (F. III 329.27).