Listening for God: Prayer and the Heart in the Futûhât

James Morris
"Surely there is a Reminder in that for whoever has a heart, or listens attentively, while he is witnessing..." (Qur'ân 50:37)
This Qur'anic verse beautifully summarizes a sort of recurrent paradox that has surely puzzled every student of Ibn 'Arabî from time to time. One need only recall, for example, his classic discussion of the "Wisdom of the Heart" of the true spiritual Knowers (the 'urafâ') in the central chapter on Shu'ayb in his Fusûs al-Hikam, where this same verse figures so prominently. If, from the wider metaphysical point of view so well illustrated in that famous chapter, it may be true that all human perception, all experience is ultimately "theophany," it is even more indisputably true - as his distinction in that chapter between those rare enlightened "Knowers" and the rest of humanity pointedly acknowledges - that we don't usually experience things that way, that for many of us there is a noticeable gulf in our lives between rare moments of true contemplative prayer and our ordinary states of perception. And that gulf often seems too much to bridge by our own efforts, whether of prayer or other forms of spiritual practice: if we have some intuition of what the inner life of the Shaykh's "Knowers" might be like, it is probably based on a few special moments of grace, on a memorable but ephemeral "state" (hâl), not a lasting, fully realized spiritual "station" (maqâm).

Put simply, then, what is it about the "heart" - or rather, how is it? - that can so miraculously transform perception into contemplation, everyday experience into theophany, the words and movements of ritual into the ineffable reality of prayer? As the Qur'an repeatedly insists, each of us surely has "had a heart" - but what is it that so rarely and unforgettably makes that heart "shahîd," actively and consciously contemplating the Truly Real, so that our transient awareness is transformed into true prayer and remembrance of God? That transformation of everyday experience into realized theophany, whenever and however it occurs, is always a mysterious divine "opening" (fath) or illumination, so it is not surprising that Ibn 'Arabî's most detailed and effective discussions of that central question of spiritual practice are scattered throughout the record of his own "Meccan Openings" (al-Futûhât al-Makkîya). Before beginning to explore his unfolding discussion of the secrets of prayer and the heart in the opening chapters of the Futûhât, however, it is necessary to summarize a few essential features of the broader development of this problem in the Qur'an and the hadith, since that basic scriptural background, as always, is presumed throughout the Shaykh's own teachings.

I. The Heart in the Qur'an and Hadith:
  • The Qur'an repeatedly emphasizes God's extraordinary closeness and proximity to the human heart (e.g., at 8:24, "He passes between the man and his heart"), as well as the uniquely all-encompassing divine knowledge of "what is in their hearts" (4:66, 33:51, etc.).
  • That divine awareness of what is in the heart extends in particular to people's innermost intentions (especially in contrast to their words and ostensible actions). That is one important indicator, along with each of the following points, that considerably more than abstract "epistemology" is involved here: from the Qur'anic perspective a spiritually crucial dimension of the human heart is the integral involvement - together with God - of our own "will" and intimate intentions, which are portrayed as somehow inseparable from the degree and nature of our awareness of the divine. In consequence, the Qur'an can even speak of the heart (as more commonly of the soul, al-nafs) as the enduring "self" or ongoing seat of our moral and spiritual responsibility, as at 2:225: "...He will call you to account for what your hearts have earned...."
  • Perhaps most obvious of all in the Qur'an is the consistent stress on the divine "responsibility", indeed the ongoing divine Activity, expressed in all the different states of our hearts, including especially our recurrent failures to "remember" God. In this respect, as those familiar with the Qur'an will recognize, the larger metaphysical "paradox" with which we began this discussion is certainly not, to begin with, Ibn 'Arabî's own invention: almost half of the Qur'anic references to the heart directly mention God's responsibility for its states, often without any explicit reference to the shared role of the human "actor."
  • In several famous Qur'anic passages, repeated throughout Sufi literature and in popular piety, the enlightened or divinely supported heart (whether in this world or the next) is said to be the locus of true Remembrance of God (dhikr Allâh, at 13:28) and the grace of divinely bestowed Peace and Tranquillity, as well as the receptacle for the sending down of the Spirit and Gabriel and other special acts of divine support. But the Qur'anic references to these special states of enlightened hearts are limited to what in context usually seems like a very small and elect group: Muhammad and other divine prophets, certain of their disciples or saints, or some of the blessed in the Gardens of Paradise...
  • With far greater frequency, the Qur'an refers instead to God's sealing, veiling, hardening, locking, binding, closing, or frightening hearts - to hearts that as a result (of their own misdeeds or the divine reaction) are "sick" or "blind" and "suffering." Typical of this disproportionate emphasis are the many references to hearts that "fail to understand" (lâ yafqahûn), far more frequently than those who do perceive the divine "Signs," whose hearts are 'âqilûn. In the Qur'an, therefore, the starkly contrasting dimensions and potentialities of the human heart with which we began are, if anything, even more predominant and vividly drawn. The Qur'anic account of the heart and its situation is repeatedly cast in an intensely dramatic and unavoidably existential form. That intrinsic inner drama is certainly presupposed in each of Ibn 'Arabî's own discussions of the heart, whatever the particular language or context of each discussion.
  • Against that sharply drawn dramatic backdrop, the Qu'ranic verses that indicate the actual ways or conditions for us to move from these "negative" or perverse states of the human heart to full awareness of God and the corresponding divine Peace and understanding are relatively few, but certainly all the more worth noting: these practically decisive verses include references to the "softening" and "humbling" or "purification" and "strengthening" of hearts, to the necessity of a "sound" or "repentant" or "mindful" heart (qalb salîm or munîb), and so on.
Unlike the case with many topics in the Futûhât, the Prophetic sayings or hadith favored by Ibn 'Arabî in his discussions of the heart are short and to the point. (This is partly because, as we shall see, the Shaykh's allusions to the "purification" of the heart frequently occur in connection with more concrete, practical aspects of Islamic law and ritual.) As readers of any of the Shaykh's works are well aware, each of these hadith typically serves as a highly condensed, pedagogically pointed summary of many related verses and concepts in the Qur'an. Almost all of these particular hadith were already widely used within earlier Sufi tradition, and several of them should already be familiar to readers of the Fusûs and other English translations of Ibn 'Arabî's writings. However, reflecting on the inner connections of those sayings when they are viewed together, in the following summary, helps to highlight not only their thematic density and mnemonic effectiveness, but also their relatively greater emphasis (compared with the above-mentioned Qur'anic verses about the heart) on the crucial dimensions of spiritual practice and realization.

  • "The heart of the person of faith is between two of God's Fingers." This canonical hadith is depicted as the response to Aisha's asking the Prophet whether he was ever afraid. This beautifully succinct image concretely pulls together dozens of the Qur'anic verses we have just mentioned, powerfully representing the constant ups-and-downs of our inner experience, the roles of the different divine Names of Majesty and Beauty (Jalâl and Jamâl) expressed and realized through that experience, the "ever-renewed theophanies" of those Names, and the reality of God's ultimate control of that panoply of ever-changing inner states.
  • Perhaps the most frequently cited saying about the heart in all of the Shaykh's works is the famous canonical hadîth qudsî (one in which the divine Voice speaks in the first person, as in the Qur'an): "My earth and My heaven do not encompass Me, but the heart of My servant who has faith does encompass Me..." (Often this was summarized by Sufis in the briefer formula "The heart of the person of faith is the Throne of the All-Merciful":Qalb al-mu'min 'arsh al-Rahmân.) Ibn 'Arabî's own understanding of either of these sayings is of course inseparably related to the famous hadith that figures so prominently in the opening chapter of the Fusûs and throughout the Shaykh's writings, describing Adam's being created "according to the form of the All-Merciful" ('alâ sûrat al-Rahmân).

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