Cosmic Order in Sufism

Cosmic Order in Sufism

  • The Original Idea

In ‘Uqlat al-Mustawfiz Ibn ‘Arabï asks us to consider the situation of a person seeking shade and protection, who thought of the idea of a canopy. To build the canopy, however, he first had to prepare the ground and lay down the foundations. In seeking shade and protection, the foundations are the last thing to be thought of yet first to exist.

The canopy, by contrast, is the first thing to occur in the mind but last to exist. This is the situation of the world, Ibn ‘Arabï says. When God thought of revealing his “hidden treasures,” the first thing that occurred in his mind was the idea of humanity. To fulfill this idea, he first had to bring the entire world into existence to form the foundation for human existence. Although last in existence, humanity was the original idea.

Humanity could not have existed without the world, just as the canopy cannot stand up without the foundations. And just as the foundation alone without the canopy is meaningless, for it provides neither shade nor protection, so likewise the world without humanity is purposeless, for it lacks the core being for whose purpose it was brought into existence.

The celebrated thirteenth-century Sufi Jalâl al-Dïn Rtimï restates Ibn ‘Arabï’s idea in a poetic manner, drawing our attention to the fact that the outward appearance of things often conceals the inner reality. He writes:

Externally, the branch is the origin of the fruit;

intrinsically the branch came into existence for the sake of the fruit.

Had there been no hope of the fruit, would the gardener have planted the tree? Therefore in reality the tree is borne of the fruit,

though it appears to be produced by the tree.

The Sufis along with most premodern Muslim thinkers advocate the view of a purpose-built cosmos designed by God for the accommodation of humankind. Man is at once the center, the model, and the ultimate aim of existence. The ontological correspondence between man and the cosmos was complex and multilayered. It was conceived and presented in a variety of ways in premodern Islamic sources, although the structural core concerning the three-dimensional cross was consistent. Texts such as, for example, the Ikhwân’s Rasâ’il, Ibn Tu-fail’s, Hayy bin Yaqzân, Ibn ‘Arabï’s al-Tadbïrât, and al-Jïlï’s al-Insân al-Kâmil, reveal rich and sophisticated conceptions underpinned by a firm belief in a universal order and structural resonance among the various levels of being. This was not peculiar to the Islamic tradition, of course. In fact the term cosmos, from Greek kósmos, denotes the idea of “order” and “ornament,” meaning the universe as an ordered and ornamented whole. The Arabic equivalent, kawn, as already discussed in the Tree of Being, designates the “cosmos” as an embodiment of the metaphysical order. “Cosmic formation” (takwïn) refers to the materialization of the immutable essences (al-a’yân al-thâbita) in the form of the external essences (al-a’yân al-khârijiyya), revealing the last three states in al-Hindï’s hierarchy: the world of spirits, the world of similitude, and the world of bodies. These worlds correspond to the three modes of cosmic existence: spiritual (jabarüt), angelic (malaküt), and human (nâsüt).

In the metaphysical order, the human presence was presented as mediating between God and the world. This is as far as the designative mode of creation (taqdïr) is concerned. In the cosmic order, it is the cosmos that mediates between God and man, as far as the productive mode of creation (ijad) is concerned. The patterns of universal manifestation project into the realm of existence through the production of cosmic forms (al-suwar al-kawniyya).

Acting as a link between God and man, the cosmos comprises the formal, imaginable, and communicable vocabularies, which constitute the alphabet of the language of symbolism. By means of this alphabet human imagination is able to function, as already discussed, and by means of the governing order one is able to retrace the geometry of existence according to which the world is fashioned.

In this chapter I will trace the order of divine realities discussed in the preceding chapters at the various levels of cosmic manifestation, focusing on the cosmograms presented in Ibn ‘Arabi’s Futuhat.

These cosmograms geometrize the cosmic structure at the spiritual, angelic, and human levels of being, revealing the main elements of cosmic landscape that embody the metaphysical order in many and varied forms.

Thus the analysis of cosmic order deals with these various modes of embodiment, illustrating the way in which the formless, yet intelligible, relationships between the divine realities are translated into imaginable, spatio-temporal expressions.

It demonstrates how all levels of cosmic hierarchy are gathered by the nizam, at once “order” and “thread,” of the divine realities that ties all manifestations together and everything back to their original source.

  • Creative Breathing

The utterance of the creative order, Ibn ‘Arabi says, coincides with both the exhalation of the divine Breath (al-nafas al-ilahi) or the Breath of the Compas-sionate (al-nafas al-rahmani) and the manifestation of the world.

Through the agency of the Breath the manifestation of the world becomes synonymous with the self-disclosure of the Absolute.

Self-disclosure, like creation, has two distinct phases: first, the essential Self-disclosure (al-tajalli al-dhati), wherein the Absolute manifests as immutable essences; and second, the sensuous Self-disclosure (al-tajalli al-asmai), wherein the Absolute manifests as external essences.

As an inward act that occurs within the divine Self or Consciousness, the essential Self-disclosure does not project outwardly in an otherness differ-entiated from the sameness of the Essence. The immutable essences manifested by this determining act are nothing other than the names and attributes of the essence before externalization. Otherness occurs in the sensuous Self-disclosure when these names take on forms, through God’s exhalation of “the first dense, transparent, luminous mass,” the “compassionate vapor” (al-bukhar al-rahmani), that is, the divine Breath.

What is this compassionate vapor? And why did God exhale it? The realities of the world, Ibn ‘Arabi explains, were within the Essence in a state of anxiety and distress (karab), crying out for externalization.

Bâlï Efendï, the sixteenth-century Sufi, compares this to the holding of one’s breath within and the associated “painful sensation of extreme compression” as the breath seeks an outlet. Only when one breathes out does this compression cease. Similarly, Efendï says, “the Absolute would feel the pain of compression if it did not bring into existence the world in response to the demand of the Names.

This state of distress caused “the sadness of the primordial solitude” that made God yearn to reveal himself: “I was a hidden Treasure, I yearned to be known. That is why I produced creatures, in order to be known in them.

To alleviate this distress (karab) God breathed (tanaffas), and by breathing he externalized the inner realities, compassionately responding to their cry. The Breath of the Compassionate, as al-Qâshânï puts it, brought out potential beings (al-mumkinât), which had they remained in nonexistence they would have caused the “distress of the Compassionate” (karab al-rahmân). Thus the attribute of compassion characterizes the act of bringing into existence the forms of the world, and that is why the creative medium is called the “Breath of the Compassionate” (al-nafas al-rahmânï).

Breathing involves a repetitive act of inhalation and exhalation. Sufis use this metaphor in their concept of perpetual ‘renewal of creation’ (tajdïd al-khalq). They say that by the inhalation and exhalation of the divine Breath all cosmic forms contained in the Breath are constantly manifested and reabsorbed, ceaselessly renewing the creation at every moment. The concept of the ‘divine Breath’ also forms the foundation for alphabetical symbolism, already discussed. Al-Qâshânï says that as God attributes to himself the Breath, it is necessary to attribute to him also all of what the Breath involves, like breathing forth (tanfïs) and articulating the forms of the letters and words that, in this case, are the cosmic words (al-kalimât al-kawniyya). Through the Breath meanings and letters, as spirits and forms, become fused together. The forms of the world receive the animating spirit from the Breath of the Compassionate in the same way letters receive meanings the moment they are pronounced.

Ibn ‘Arabï asks those seeking to understand the nature of the divine Breath to consider the world. All is contained in the divine Breath like the day in the morning’s dawn, he says, meaning that the world actualizes the forms potentially disseminated in the Breath, in the same way the day brings about all the events already ordained in its first moment, the dawn.

In philosophical terms, the divine Breath is the original medium through which potential beings were externalized, bursting out from the inwardness of formless potentiality into the outwardness of formal actuality. It is the “substance of the world” (jawhar al-‘âlam), wherein are latent all the possibilities of formal manifestation. The Breath equates the prime matter (al-hayülâ al-‘ülâ), which englobes all the forms of the world, representing, in the Ikhwân’s terms, the transcendent substance of all divine artefacts.

The Breath is to the world what the intelligible point is to geometry and what the “ink” is to al-Ghazâlï’s archetypal exemplar: the source wherein all possibilities are fused together as a nondifferentiated totality. It is to God what the whiteness of a blank sheet is to the architect: the unformed materia that is susceptible of receiving all kinds of forms. The divine Breath is at once the creative medium and the necessary substantial support for all creations.

Breathing as Imagining

In response to the question “Where was our Lord before creating his creatures?” the Prophet is reported to have said: “in a ‘amâ’ with no air either above or below.”

The Arabic term ‘amâ’ literally means “thin and subtle cloud.”

According to Ibn ‘Arabï, it refers here to the divine Breath. The primordial “Cloud” is thus the first form the Breath took on externally and within which God then differentiated the forms of the world.

In the context of the geometrical and alphabetical symbolism, the Cloud can be seen as the cosmic equivalent of the circle and the alif, that is, the first affirmatively conceived reality and the first qualified form of unity. It is the governing form within which the realities of the world are delivered from potency into actuality, from formlessness to formal existence.



Ibn ‘Arabï considers the Cloud to be the first existential condition (zarf) that supported God’s external being (kaynünat al-haqq), while at the same time identifying it with absolute imagination (al-khayâl al-mutlaq).

The Cloud is identified with the divine imagination because it is viewed not only as a passive substance capable of receiving all forms but also as active agent that gives beings their forms. It is thus the means whereby God projected forth the essences of potential beings as cosmic, imaginable forms, and the instrument whose function is to actualize the transcendental patterns of divine realities in the harmonized form of the cosmos.

By identifying the Cloud with absolute imagination Ibn ‘Arabï presents divine breathing as an act of imagining.

Unlike human imagining, he argues, divine imagining occurs from without and not from within the Essence. This is to say that God produced the world the moment he imagined it and not according to an eternally imagined model (mithâl). And prior to their existence in the Cloud, the forms of the world did not exist as such in the divine Self, nor has God imagined them in his Mind prior to their production. As immutable essences, they were known as they are and as they would be when formally produced but not imagined.

The divine imagining of the forms of the world coincides with producing them through the Breath, hence the conflating of the divine acts of breathing and imagining. Peculiar though it may sound, this conception is fundamental to Ibn ‘Arabï’s approach to resolve the perennial philosophical problem of the eternity (qidam) and newness (hudüth) of the world. Through breathing-as-imagining Ibn ‘Arabï attempts to reconcile the eternity of the world as immutable essences with the Islamic dogma of creatio ex nihilo.

To resolve this philosophical dilemma, Ibn ‘Arabï begins by making a clear distinction between form (sura) and meaning (ma’na), imagining and knowing, as already discussed in chapter 1. Forms embody formless meanings, and as such they are accessible by human imagination. “The forms, insofar as they are forms,” he says, referring to the cosmic forms, “are the imaginable, and the Cloud, in which they are manifested, is the imagination.”

Thus viewed, Ibn ‘Arabï’s forms are not permanent, Platonic models in whose likeness things are made but are rather the things themselves. There are pure, spiritual forms just as there are sensible, gross forms and intelligible, subtle forms. Together they constitute the cosmic forms that embody the formless immutable essences. In Ibn ‘Arabï’s scheme of the creation, “cosmic” and “formal” are therefore synonymous terms. Meanings, on the other hand, are accessible by the intellect and can be known without necessarily being imagined. The original meanings are none other than the immutable essences.

Accordingly, the imaginable forms that Ibn ‘Arabï speaks of as existing in the Cloud or the detached imagination are different to the knowable immutable essences, which “have not smelt the fragrance of existence,” residing as they are in the divine Self.

The distinction between meaning and form, knowing and imagining, is consistent with Ibn ‘Arabï’s conviction that knowledge is not the knower imagining the form of the known, as already discussed. He finds support for this in the divine name badi’, “originator” or “innovator,” mentioned in a verse that speaks of “the originator (badi’) of the heavens and the earth” (2:117).

This name derives from ibda’, which means “to bring forth something original, novel, unprecedented,” and of which the term bid’a means “originality,” “novelty,” and “heresy.” Commenting on the above verse, Ibn ‘Arabï says that the creation of the heavens and the earth is associated with the name badi’ because they are created according to no preceding “model,” “likeness,” or “form” (mithal). Had the form of the cosmos been identical with the immutable essences in the nonexistence, God would not have been badi’, for he would have been creating according to the form already present in his knowledge, and there would be no creatio ex nihilo.

God says: “The originator of the heavens and the earth” because they were created according to no preceding model. The first thing God created was the Intellect, that is, the Pen (al-qalam): it is the first original creature (maf’ul ibda’i) manifested from God-most transcendent. And every creature created without a preceding model (mithal) is original (mubda’), and its creator is its originator (mubdi’). So if knowledge is conceiving the form of the known, as some people maintain in the definition (hadd) of knowledge, that creature would not be original (mubda’), because it has in the soul of the one who originated it a model, according to which he brought it into existence. To maintain this definition of knowledge would mean that that which is in God’s Self has never ceased to be necessary being (wajib al-wujud) and that God did not originate (ibtada’a) it in himself, as does the innovator (al-muhdith) when he originates, nor has anything been brought into existence but according to the form, which exists in the Self of the form giver (al-musawwir) for [the sake of things to be in] its likeness not for its own sake, for [God’s Self] is not the place of what he creates. It follows that God is not bad i’ (according to those who maintain that knowledge is the form of the known imprinted in the soul of the knower); but he is.

So he has in his Self no form of what he originates, nor has he conceived of its form [before originating it]. This is a problematic matter. Among the knowable matters (ma’lumat) there are things that can be formalized and others that cannot, though they are knowable; hence, the definition of knowledge is not conceiving the form of the known. And so likewise is the one who knows; he could be amongst those who are able to conceive of forms, being endowed with the imagining faculty, and could be amongst those who know without being able to formalize, being incapable of giving form. Thus, [for God] form giving is an act that occurs from without (min kharij), and he does not receive within his Self what he forms (sawwara) from without, but he knows it.

And know first that origination (ibda’) is not possible except with forms (suwar) in particular, because they can be created and can, therefore, be originated. As for meanings (ma’ani), none of them is originated (mubtada’), because they cannot be created nor can they be originated, though they can be intellectualized as being essentially immutable.

  • The “Cloud” and Cosmic Forms

Ibn ‘Arabi’s elaboration on the nature of the forms contained in the Cloud adds further clarity both to the distinction he makes between form and meaning and to the relation he establishes between the primordial Cloud and the world of de-tached imagination. Commenting on the verse “Everything will perish save his Face (wajhihi)” (28:88), Ibn ‘Arabi explains that his in “his face” (the pronominal suffix hi in wajhi-hi) can be understood as referring to the “thing” in “everything.” The verse would then read as “Everything will perish save its face.”

Similarly, in the prophetic tradition “God created man in his Image (suratihi),” the same pronoun may also refer to “man,” meaning God created man in man’s own image. Understood in the alternative sense, Ibn ‘Arabi considers the form of a thing to be its perishable aspect revealed in the Cloud, whereas its “face” to be its imperishable reality. He explains:

Then he caused to exist in the Cloud all the forms of the world, about which he said, “It will perish,” that is, in respect of its forms, “save its face,” that is, in respect of its reality it will not perish. For the ha’ in wajhihi refers to the “thing.”

So in relation to the forms of the world, “everything will perish,” but in relation to its realities, the world will not perish, nor is it possible to perish.

If the form of man perishes, for example, and there remains no trace of it in existence, its reality, which is identified by, and is identical with, man’s definition (hadd), would not perish.

We say that man is a “rational animal” (hayawân nâtiq), and we do not refer to his being existent or nonexistent, be-cause this reality has never ceased to be his even if there were for him no form in existence.

Within the primordial Cloud God unfolded the forms of the entire world, highest and lowest, subtle and dense, spatial and nonspatial. Ibn ‘Arabï illustrates these forms in a series of diagrams, which show in a hierarchical order both the supra-natural and the natural worlds with all the cosmic levels they comprise. In the following I shall examine some of these diagrams in the same sequential manner Ibn ‘Arabï follows, though he indicates that they should be seen as one diagram, in which the simultaneous existence of the elements would enable a better appreciation of their proper relationships.

  • The World of Command

To him belong the creation and the command” (7:54), the Quran says, intro-ducing an important duality that underpinned premodern Islamic cosmology. Muslim theologians interpreted the verse as referring to two distinct worlds: the world of command (‘âlam al-amr) and the world of creation (‘âlam al-khalq).

This duality is consistent with the then prevailing Neoplatonic conception of the sensible and intelligible or physical and metaphysical division of reality.

Ibn ‘Arabï’s first diagram illustrates the metaphysical world of command. Signifying authority and control, ‘âlam al-amr designates the realm where the immutable laws governing all forms of worldly existence are set. In al-Hindï’s hierarchy, it is the fourth state of Being, the world of spirits (‘âlam al-arwâh) that comprises the simple, cosmic models, in the likeness of which things are fashioned. It is the highest level in the hierarchy of cosmic manifestation, the level where God revealed his design of the world through the luminous traces the Pen inscribed upon the Tablet.

Ibn ‘Arabï’s rather curious diagram of the world of command shows the first stage of formal articulation within the primordial Cloud. It shows the Cloud in the form of an encompassing circle, the circumference of which is marked by the thirty stations of the angels ecstatic with love (maqâmât al-malâ’ika al-muhayyama). These encompass the quadrature of the Pen, the Pre-served Tablet, Nature, and Matter, with each assuming distinct geometrical shape.

The Pen is identified as the First Intellect (al-‘aql al-awwal), and the Preserved Tablet as the Universal Soul (al-nafs al-kulliyya).

Fig. 3.2 The form of the “Cloud” revealing the world of command according to Ibn ‘Arabi (Futühât).

Within the Preserved Tablet two smaller circles are shown, representing the Soul’s intellectual and practical faculties.

Next to the Preserved Tablet, the state of Nature (martabat al-tabï’a) is shown as a rectangle divided diametrically into four parts. In these divisions the four principles of Nature are arranged in two anti-nomical pairs: heat/cold and dryness/moistness.

Next to the state of Nature, the Universal Matter (al-hayülâ al-kull) appears in the form of a circle analogous to the encompassing circle of the Cloud.

Ibn ‘Arabi’s diagram represents the already-discussed quadrature of the Intellect, Soul, Nature, and Matter in a new way. Comparing this with the dia-gram discussed in the chapter on the divine presence helps understand the dif-ference between the two modalities. At the divine level these elements were formless. The divine geometry emphasizes a particular configuration of relationships and an inherent propagative order. It reveals the symmetrical re-lationships the first created quadrature bear to the original divine attributes and the governing patterns they inscribe.

The cosmic geometry, by contrast, emphasizes their distinct forms, functions, and existential context.

The Intellect, a formless reality at the divine level, assumes the form of an angel ecstatic with love at the cosmic level and becomes distinguished, unlike the rest of the angels in its class, by the unique capacity of intellectualizing both itself and its creator.

The Soul also takes on the form of an angel ecstatic with love and becomes equipped with the theoretical and practical capacities.

Nature, as a state, appears through its four generative forces.

While Matter, the substance of the physical world, assumes a circular form specifically conditioned for spatial determinations.

Ibn ‘Arabï’s visualization of the world of command has its roots in the prevailing mythology and reported prophetic traditions.

One tradition says: “God has a white earth in which the sun takes thirty days to cross the sky, and each of these days is thirty times longer than the days of the lower world. That earth is filled with creatures who do not know that God has been disobeyed in the earth or that He has created Adam and Iblis.” This is the prophetic reference to the angel ecstatic with love, who, according to Ibn ‘Arabï, are the first luminous bodies God created. Apart from the Soul, which was created through the agency of the Intellect, these luminous bodies were created without the agency of other beings. They are nonspatial bodies lying above the ruling of Nature. Being the most rarefied form of bodies, they define the universal boundary, the transitional zone, between the formal and the formless. They form the circumference of the Cloud, the outer limit of the universe. Created from the light of the divine Majesty these principial spirits are enraptured with God’s beauty for they are exposed to nothing else. Among them only the Intellect and the Soul are charged with responsibilities toward the created world.

The metaphysical order underpins the various embodiments that take place at this cosmic level as revealed in the triangle of the Intellect, the rectangle of the Soul, the divided square of Nature, and the circle of Matter.

Ibn ‘Arabï does not explain the logic of this diagram’s asymmetrical composition. Despite the overall circular form, there seems to be a sense of vertical hierarchy in the composition, suggesting a vertical reading of the diagram.

The pointedness of the Pen above the Tablet establishes their ranking, while their connection with the physical world, that is to unfold with the Universal Matter, is mediated by the state of Nature. Circularity, as an expression of unity, totality, and firstness, appears in the form of both the Cloud and Universal Matter. The form of the Cloud, as the cosmic expression of the first qualified form of unity, is mirrored in the form of Universal Matter. But whereas the circle of the Cloud encompasses both the metaphysical and the physical, the Universal Matter is specially conditioned for physical manifestations.

Ibn ‘Arabï differentiates two levels of Nature: grand and limited. “Nature,” he says, “is the most deserving relation to be identified with the Real because everything else was manifested by it.”

It is the Breath that pervades the world, ruling over all forms including the Intellect. Here Ibn ‘Arabï is referring to the grand Nature (al-tabï’a al-‘uzmâ) that is inherent within God’s creative medium, the Breath.

The two levels of Nature are similar, however, in the way that a mother and a daughter are capable of maternity and progenitive production.

The state of Nature shown in the above diagram is the “daughter” of the grand Nature. As Nature has no essence, however, it is traced through the substance within which it reveals its effects.

The grand Nature is, therefore, identified with the Cloud, and the “daughter” with the Universal Matter.

The Cloud, the first luminous mass, is the primal foundation of all, whereas Universal Matter, also al-habâ’, is the substance of the spatio-temporal world.

Al-habâ’, the Jurjânï’s Ta’rïfât says, is “the very substance in which God unfolded the bodies of the world.” Thus understood, al-habâ’ is not a prime substance in the sense of pure potency, but rather a relative or secondary substance that is determined in accordance with the special demands of the spatio-temporal conditions of existence. In this sense, Universal Matter corresponds to materia secunda in the scholastic philosophy, whereas materia prima equates Ibn ‘Arabï’s ‘amâ’ and the Ikhwân’s Original Matter.

Structured upon quadrature, the state of Nature mediates between the exemplar set in the Tablet and its embodiment in the Universal Matter.

Yet Nature, as Ibn ‘Arabï explains, has no inherent knowledge of its own, nor has the instrument of acquiring knowledge. As an active force, it acts under the directives of the Soul, and quadrature is the underlying structure of its modus operandi. Although it functions by means of the four generative prin-ciples, only two of these are active. This is because it is subject to the Soul’s determination, Ibn ‘Arabï explains, and the Soul has only two faculties: the theoretical and the practical. So Nature’s two active instruments come from the Soul’s inherent dual structure. They work together: the Soul provides knowledge, and Nature acts.

This reflects the understanding that the natural laws governing worldly existence alone cannot explain the reality of things. The laws of nature constitute the object of the science of causes (‘ilm al-asbâb), whereas the inner meanings can only be accessed through the science of realities (‘ilm al-haqâ’iq).

Nature’s two active principles are heat and cold. Heat causes dryness, and cold causes moistness. Dryness and moistness are thus passive outcomes in relation to heat and cold. They are also in opposition just as are heat and cold. Heat negates cold, and dryness negates moistness; hence they cannot naturally mix. Their contrasting qualities, however, enable a particular pattern of productive synthesis, wherein quadrature remains the underlying order. Active and passive forces of Nature join in four possible combinations only, producing the four natural elements: fire, air, earth, and water.

The active-passive interaction applies to the Pen and the Tablet as well, as both are subject to the ruling of the grand Nature.

The Pen represents the essential, active pole of manifestation, and the Tablet represents the substantial, passive pole.

The Pen, as the “cosmic refraction” of the primordial word, embodies the triplicity of the creative command “Be!”; whereas the Tablet, as the cosmic book, actualizes the command, materializing the quadrature of the arkân—fire, air, water, and earth.

The Pen corresponds to the productive triplicity of formation, whereas the Tablet corresponds to the designative quadrature of proliferation.

A reported prophetic tradition says that the first thing God created was the Pen, whose length equaled the distance between heaven and the earth.

He then created the Tablet, whose length extended between heaven and earth, and its width stretched from east to west.

The Pen, thus viewed, signifies axiality, corresponding to human spirituality and unique upwardness, to the verticality of the alif, to the trunk of the Tree of Being, and to the vertical axis of the three-dimensional cross.



The Tablet signifies the principle of horizontality, corresponding to the human corporeality, to the letter bâ’, to the branches of the Tree of Being, and to the two horizontal axes of the cross.



The Tablet also corresponds to the circle, reflecting the divine presence, and the Pen corresponds to the point, reflecting the Essence.




Just as the Essence, under the “pressure” of the realities, exhaled the Breath, manifesting the forms of the world, the mother point, wanting to reveal its hidden treasures, gave birth to the multitude of potential beings, and the seed of “Be!” after fecundation generated the cosmic tree, so likewise the Pen, after looking toward God with “a look of reverential fear (hayba),” burst open, the ink (midâd) of existence flowed, and the exemplar of the world was transcribed.

  • The World of Creation

Zooming in on the circle of Universal Matter, we cross the threshold from the world of command (‘âlam al-amr) into the world of creation (‘âlam al-khalq), from the metaphysical to the physical. As an imaginary substance specially conditioned for physical manifestations, Universal Matter is an intelligible reality, or an agency, with no essence (ma’qül ghayr mawjüd al-wujüd al-‘ayni). It is recognizable through the forms that unfold within it.

These are the world of creation represented by the main cosmic features: the divine Throne, the Footstool, the celestial Gardens, the heavens and the earths. These cosmic forms are subject to the governing effects of Nature and are therefore distinguished from the supra-natural world that lies above them.

The Throne and the Footstool

The natural world in Ibn ‘Arabi’s scheme is the world of synthesis, and the Throne is the first composite form that marks the threshold into the domain of complex cosmic entities. But composition is not in the material sense yet, for the Throne and the Footstool are not literally spatial entities. Synthesis refers here to the mediating realities involved in their production.

The Throne is considered to be a composite form because its production involves four realities: Nature, Universal Matter, Universal Body, and Circularity. God first brought Universal Matter into being, which was then transformed into the Universal Body upon receiving the spatial qualities of length, breadth, and depth. Nature then conditioned this Body by governing its possibilities.

Circularity was the first form this Body received, so there was the sphere (falak). God called this sphere the “Throne” and as the all-Compassionate he rested upon it.

The Quran describes the Throne as the divine seat, “The all-Compassionate sat himself upon the Throne” (20:5), and his Footstool (kursi) as “encompassing the heavens and the earth” (2:255). It also refers to the bearers carrying the Throne and the angels surrounding it.

‘Arsh,throne,” has two related meanings: the “kingdom” over which a king reigns and the “seat” (sarir) upon which he sits. The Throne was accordingly seen as the whole physical world as well as the cosmic seat upon which God rests. Citing Ibn Masarra, Ibn ‘Arabï says that the lifted Throne (al-‘arsh al-mahmul) is none other than the divine kingdom (al-mulk).

The bearers can thus be interpreted as the basic structure and governing laws of the kingdom as well as the pillars that support the Throne.

As for the angels, Ibn ‘Arabï explains that God created them from the lights of the Throne, which is described in a tradition as being created from divine Light. From these angels God selected four bearers to carry the pillars of the Throne.

As the threshold into the physical world, the Throne and the Footstool define a transitory domain that is neither spatial nor nonspatial.

Ibn ‘Arabï attributes to the Throne sensible, spatial characteristics, describing it as “a seat with four corners and four faces.” Although the four corners are the “original pillars,” they are not the sole supports of the Throne. “In each of the Throne’s four faces,” Ibn ‘Arabï adds, “there are many pillars equally distributed.”

The Throne is also made hollow to contain the physical world. With reference to the verse, “The angels and the spirit ascend unto him in a day whereof the span is fifty thousand years” (70:4), Ibn Kathïr says, “The distance between the Throne and the seventh earth is fifty thousand years of travel, and its breadth is fifty thousand years.”

But despite these spatial characteristics, Ibn ‘Arabï warns, the Throne is not spatial in the literal sense. To take the spatial characteristic literally, he says, one would face the difficult task of explaining in spatial terms the modes of divine “sitting” upon it and the angels “encircling” it. “If you say that there is, for the angels who are encircling the Throne, no space to move within, since the Throne has occupied the entire vacuum,” Ibn ‘Arabï explains, “we say, there is no difference between them encircling the Throne and God resting upon it. For that which does not admit spatiality does not admit conjunction and separation.”

The same applies to the Footstool, which shares with the Throne its subtle modality, for just “as the Compassionate rests upon the Throne, the Feet rest upon the Footstool.” By virtue of its subtle, intermediary nature, the domain of the Throne and the Footstool combines the spiritual and physical characteristics of its neighboring domains.

The forms of the Throne and the Footstool crystallize the pattern of quadrature. The four bearers of the Throne correspond to the four creative attributes— Life, Knowledge, Will, and Power—that support the divine presence. Many traditions say that God created the Throne from green emerald and its four pillars from red ruby. The bearers of the Throne are also depicted as four angels whose feet are in the nethermost earth and whose heads are in the Throne.

These four bearers have the forms of a man, a bull, an eagle, and a lion. Four celestial rivers are also described as being laid out about the Throne: a river of sparkling light, a river of blazing fire, a river of shining white snow, and a river of water.

The bearers of the Throne, Ibn ‘Arabï explains, are the governors responsible for the management of the natural world.

They are four pairs of archangels and companion prophets.

The angels are Seraphiel (Isrâphïl), Gabriel (Jibrâ’ïl), Michael (Mïkhâ’ïl), and Rudwân, and the prophets are Adam, Muhammad, Abraham, and Mâlik.

Each of the four pairs is responsible for one core matter: form (süra), spirit (rüh), nourishment (ghidhâ’), and status (martaba).

Seraphiel and Adam are responsible for forms,

Gabriel and Muhammad for spirits,

Michael and Abraham for nourishment (arzâq), and

Mâlik and Rudwân for status.

Each pair of the Throne’s supporters constitutes as it were two complementary aspects: hidden and manifest, spiritual and sensible.

This is reflected in the elements they support. Ibn ‘Arabï explains that forms are of two kinds: luminous like those of the “angels ecstatic with love,” and sensible like those in the natural world (including imaginary forms); spirits are divided into those associated with luminous forms and those with sensible forms; nourishment is also divided into sensible, such as food, and spiritual, such as sciences and knowledge; and the status of every being is polarized into happiness and suffering, which have many sensible and spiritual forms in this world and in the hereafter.

Fig. 3.4 The bearers of the divine Throne according to Ibn ‘Arabï.

Although quadrangular in form, Ibn ‘Arabï says, the Throne has eight pillars. The other four pillars, for which there are no bearers in this world, mark the middle of each of the Throne’s four faces.

On the day of the resurrection God will appoint those who shall bear the throne from these pillars, as alluded to in the following verse: “And eight will uphold the Throne of their Lord that day” (69:17).

Accordingly, the quadrangular structure of the Throne is tied to the structure of the “first formation” (al-nash’a al-‘ula), supporting existence in the present world. In the “other formation” (al-nash’a al-‘ukhra), when the world will be recreated afresh, the Throne will become octagonal as the new four supporters will assume their responsibilities.

In this formal transformation the very structure of the Throne will not change, only four new bearers will join the original four. Ibn ‘Arabï illustrates geometrically the structure of the divine Throne in the other formation by way of two superimposed squares, a form that reveals at once the original quadrature of the first formation as well as the octagonal structure of the other formation.

Fig. 3.5 The form of the Throne in the hereafter according to Ibn ‘Arabï

Inside the Throne,” Ibn ‘Arabï says, “God created the Footstool (al-kursi), square in form, and let his Feet to hang down onto it.

Al-kursi, the cosmic container of the heavens and the earth, is seen as the support of the divine Feet. It is quadrangular in form, sharing with the Throne similar features. A tradition says: “Those who bear the Footstool are four angels, each of whom has four faces; their feet are in the Rock below the seventh, nethermost earth.

Ibn ‘Arabi confirms that the Footstool resembles the Throne, but only with regard to its quadrature, not its pillars. The main difference lies in that the Footstool identifies the level at which the first bifurcation of unity occurs symbolized by the Feet (al-qadamayn).

As the Feet hang down onto the Footstool, Ibn ‘Arabi explains, “the divine word, which was one on the Throne, is divided.”

The divine compassion, one at the Throne of the all-Compassionate, splits at the Footstool into compassion (rahma), symbolized by one foot, and wrath mixed with compassion (ghadab mashub bi-rahma), symbolized by the other.

At the level of the Footstool, the absolute compassion of the Throne becomes relative by associating it with wrath, its opposite.

Thus the divine Feet signify the first polarization of unity, the model for all binary oppositions, which fall under either commandment (amr) and prohibition (nahi) or affirmation (ithbat) and negation (nafi).

These binaries govern the physical world. They are the cosmic referents of God’s antinomical names and attributes, which are in turn the referents for all opposites in the world, whose spatial expression par excellence are the six arms of the three-dimensional cross projecting from a common center into opposite directions.

The Throne is associated with two ideas: the idea of light (nur) and the idea of spirit (ruh). The spirit, “most often figured as a ‘center’, a ‘ray’, a ‘de-scent’, a ‘presence’ or ‘immanence’,” is thought of as residing at the center of the Throne. As the sphere of spheres, the outermost, all-encompassing limit of our world, the Throne forms the “circumference” (muhit) of the body of the world. Signifying totality and integration, the Throne identifies a unive-sal domain of which spirit is the center and light is the matter.

Thus viewed, the Throne embodies the principle of circularity, reflecting the pattern of the divine presence, wherein the Essence corresponds to the central spirit, and the names correspond to the encompassing circumference.

The process through which the undifferentiated divine Light becomes differentiated by taking on the form of the Throne simulates the process through which the undetermined Essence becomes determined by descending into the state of the first determination.

And just as the process of the essential determination continues to distinctively reveal the divine names and to designate the creative quadrature of Life, Knowledge, Will, and Power, so likewise the process of differentiation of the divine Light continues to manifest the angels, who encircle the Throne, from the lights of the Throne (anwar al-‘arsh), and to designate the supportive quadrature, who are entrusted with the task of carrying the Throne.

Combined with the vertical ray of the spirit, which stands at its center, the quadrature of the Throne constitutes the three-dimensional cross, the pattern of the human presence.

The spirit is represented by a vertical ray since it is “the affirmation of Unity in all the degrees of universal Existence,” the vertical link that ties all beings to their originator.

Numerically, the octagonal order of the Throne corresponds to the number 8, the order of the divine presence: the Essence and the seven principal names—Living, Knowing, Willing, Powerful, Speaking, Hearing, and Seeing.

Eight is seen as the first cubical number, which, as previously discussed, corresponds to the three dimensions of length, breadth, and depth. Hence the octad of the Throne also corresponds to the triplicity of the human presence. The triplicity of the three dimensions is the pattern by means of which Universal Matter becomes the Absolute Body, which then receives the forms of the Throne and the Footstool.

The Celestial Gardens

Within the realm of the Throne and Footstool, Ibn ‘Arabï locates the celestial Gardens (al-jinan, singularjanna), the faithfuls’ promised abode of eternal happiness.

Premodern Islamic sources reveal an interesting debate concerning whether the Gardens are already created or are part of God’s scheme of the second creation. The point of the debate is why God would create something useless that he will have to destroy and recreate again at the time of resurrection. Ibn ‘Arabï articulates a sophisticated view with regard to this debate, arguing for the existence of hierarchically structured Gardens located in a cosmic domain that will not be subject to destruction and recreation. This domain is bounded by two spheres that God created within the Footstool: the sphere without stars (atlas), its upper limit, and the sphere with fixed stars (falak al-kawakib al-thabita), its lower limit. The convex surface of the latter sphere forms at once the ground of the Gardens and the upper limit of the planetary skies, the domain that will be consumed by the fire of Hell in the hereafter.

The atlas sphere is a “circular, transparent body” that God divided into twelve sections, buruj, as alluded to in the following verse: “By the heaven, holding mansions of the stars (buruj)” (85:1).

It is the sphere of the constellations. The Arabic term atlas means “effaced” or “obliterated,” denoting the idea of perfect homogeneity without any distinguishable features. The atlas sphere thus forms the homogeneous background onto which the configurations and movements of the planets and the stars are projected.

In “The Anatomy of Spheres,” the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century astronomer Bahâ’ al-Dïn al-‘Amilï considers the atlas sphere and the sphere of the fixed stars to be the scientific terms for the Throne and the Footstool respectively. This might have been so, but as we will see, this does not work with Ibn ‘Arabï’s cosmological structure, wherein the Throne and the Footstool are necessarily motionless instruments for the determination of different modalities and durations of time.

Fig. 3.6 The celestial Gardens according to Ibn ‘Arabï (Futuhat).

Ibn ‘Arabï’s paradisaical domain consists of eight Gardens, seven of which are hierarchically ordered in seven levels, and an eighth superior one, al-Wasïla, cutting across all the levels assigned to the Prophet Muhammad.

The seven Gardens, in a descending order, are ‘Adan, al-Firdaws, al-Na’ïm, al-Ma’wâ, al-Khuld, Dâr al-Salâm, and Dâr al-Maqâma. The names derive from various Quranic verses, and the structure reflects the order of the divine pres-ence: the seven Gardens correspond to the seven principal names, and al-Wasïla represents the Essence.

As the Essence supports all the names, al-Wasïla prevails in all the Gardens. The Quran makes numerous references to the Gardens, which Ibn ‘Arabï interprets in a layered way.

In addition to the eight-level order, Ibn ‘Arabï distinguishes three types of Gardens: Gardens of the Elites (jannat al-ikhtisas), Gardens of Inheritance (jan-nat al-mirath), and Gardens of Deeds (jannat al-a’mal).

The first and highest in order refers to the verse: “But God chooses (yakhtass) for his mercy whom he will” (2:105).

The second refers to “Such is the Garden which we cause the devout among our bondmen to inherit” (19:63).

The third refers to “Give good tidings unto those who believe and do good deeds, that theirs are Gardens un-derneath which rivers flow” (2:25).

In this hierarchy Ibn ‘Arabï focuses on what makes people worthy of being chosen, of inheriting and of inhabiting the Gardens. With reference to the repeated imagery of the “Gardens underneath which rivers flow” (85:11), he further elaborates his layout, saying that in every type of Garden God laid out four rivers, so there are twelve rivers in accordance with the order of the astrological signs.

The four rivers represent the main sources of esoteric knowledge.

They include a river of unchanging Water (ma’ ghayr asin) representing the science of life (‘ilm al-hayat); a river of Wine (khamr) representing the science of the spiritual states (‘ilm al-ahwal); a river of Honey (‘asal) representing the science of the divine revelation (‘ilm al-wahi) with its many kinds; and a river of Milk (laban) representing the science of secrets (‘ilm al-asrar), the kernel of all sciences that God directly reveals to those who devote themselves utterly to him.

Tied directly to the tripartite structure of the human formation (al-nash’a al-insaniyya)—sensible, spiritual, and imaginary—the fourfold pattern of sciences generates twelve different types of knowledge in accordance with the duodenary structure of the zodiac. Ibn ‘Arabï explains:

These are four sciences, while man’s formation is threefold: an inward, ideal, spiritual formation; an outward, sensible, natural formation; and an intermediary, isth-mian-bodily, imaginal formation.

Through each formation man has a distinct share in each of the four rivers, with each share having an independent river, the taste of which differs according to the formation. What man perceives of a river by the senses is other than what he conceives of it by imagination, and what he conceives by imagination is other than the meaning he intellectualizes. This is the order of every formation. So for man there are twelve rivers: four in the Garden of the Elites, four in the Garden of Inheritance, and four in the Garden of Deeds.

Three, 4, and 12 are the numbers that underlie the order of the paradisaical domain. They derive from the duodenary structure of the atlas sphere, the ruling element. Although the divisions of the atlas sphere are twelve, Ibn ‘Arabï ex-plains, they are of four different natures: aqueous, terrestrial, aerial, and igneous.

The quadrature derives from the four pillars of the Throne. Nature rules over all modalities of being in the world of creation, including that of the Gardens, through the agency of the atlas sphere.

Ibn ‘Arabï identifies three modalities of being, manazil (dwellings)—the present world (dunya), the intermediary world (barzakh, of the dead awaiting the second creation), and the future world (akhira)—with each having distinct existential conditions. Different though they may be, these three worlds are nevertheless subject to the ruling of Nature, witheach requiring four distinct signs to mediate the natural processes in ways unique to its modality of being; hence, the twelve signs of the constellation (buruj).

Fig. 3.7 The duodenary structure of the atlas sphere according to Ibn ‘Arabi.

The triple repetition of the quadrature results in the signs that are related by the triangle being of the same nature and tendency, whereas the signs that are related by the square being of different nature and tendency.

Since the atlas sphere is a composed cosmic entity, Ibn ‘Arabi says, Nature rules over it through the elements, fire, air, water, and earth, and not through the simple tendencies of heat, cold, dryness, and moistness.

Thus Nature differentiates the signs into Igneous (hot and dry), Aerial (hot and wet), Aqueous (dry and wet), and Terrestrial (cold and dry).

In their turn, the signs generate in the corporeal domain the spheres of the natural elements (fire, air, water, and earth) whereby generation and corruption occur. Their generative pattern is structured in the following order:

  1. Igneous: Aries, Leo, and Sagittarius are the generators of the sphere of fire.
  2. Aerial: Gemini, Libra, and Aquarius are the generators of the sphere of air.
  3. Aqueous: Cancer, Scorpio, and Pisces are the generators of the sphere of water.
  4. Terrestrial: Taurus, Virgo, and Capricorn are the generators of the sphere of earth.

The structure of the atlas sphere corresponds to the higher cosmic forms within which it is contained, while determining the structure of the Gardens which itself contains.

The divine order of universal manifestation projects once more into the domain of the celestial Gardens, manifesting itself in a new cosmic modality.

Quadrature is revealed in the fourfold division of the atlas sphere, in the four natural elements generated by the zodiac, and in the four rivers of esoteric knowledge.

Triplicity is revealed in the threefold division of the atlas sphere, in the three modalities of being, and in the three levels of Gardens.

The duodenary pattern of the sphere of the constellations is yet another cosmic manifestation of the original productive marriage of triplicity and quad-rature.

Centrality and axiality, however, are revealed in the tree of tuba, which stands at the center of the Gardens. The tree represents Universal Man, designating, as it were, his place in the Gardens.

It relates to the rest of the trees in the Gardens as Adam relates to humankind. God planted it with his own hand in the same way he created Adam. He also breathed the spirit into it, rendering it the most splendid of all trees. It rises above the fence of the Garden of Eden, where God planted it, and its branches spread over other Gardens. Its roots are in the soil of our world and its fruits in paradise.

Heaven and Earth

Within the sphere of the fixed stars, the ground of the Gardens, God unfolded the heavens and the earths, the world of space and time as we know it.

Ibn ‘Arabi’s diagram of this world shows the sphere of the fixed stars with the twenty-eight mansions of the moon (manazil al-qamar (36:38)), the seven domes of the heavens resting upon their respective layers of the earths (al-ardun), the four kingdoms, and the Universal Man.

At the center of the diagram a vertical line, identified as ‘amad (pillars), is shown, representing the invisible cosmic pillars that hold up the vaults of heaven.

Heaven and earth is the last and innermost world in the hierarchy of cosmic manifestation. It is the sensible world of corporeal bodies. The size of this world in relation to the Footstool, a reported tradition says, is as a ring thrown in a desert. Another describes the suspension of heaven and earth in the middle of the Footstool as the suspension of Footstool is in the middle of the Throne, like a lamp hanging down from the sky. In al-Hindi’s hierarchy, heaven and earth is the World of Bodies (‘alam al-ajsam), the sixth state of dense, composed, cosmic entities that is susceptible of division, portioning, separation, and conjunction. It is the necessary foundation for man to whom al-Hindi designates the seventh and final state of Being.

Fig. 3.8 The heavens, the earths, the kingdoms, and Universal Man as invisi-ble support according to Ibn ‘Arabi (Futühât).

The form and the structure of the corporeal world are elaborated in many Quranic references, prophetic sayings, and rich folkloric tradition.

According to the Quran, “God it is who has created seven heavens, and of the earth the like thereof” (65:12). Upon the flat expanse of the earths, the Prophet is reported to have said, the skies are constructed “like a dome,” an image that seems to derive from the immediate spatial experience.

The Quranic descriptions of heaven and earth tend to support such interpretation: “Who has appointed the earth a resting-place (firâsh) for you, and the sky a canopy (binâ’)” (2:22).

Firâsh, from farasha, literally “to extend,” “to spread out,” and “to furnish,” gives the meaning of furnishing the earth by spreading it out in order to accommo-date human existence.

Binâ’, from banâ, “to build,” “to construct,” is often interpreted as “a roof upon the earth in the form of a dome.

The Prophet, fu-ther elaborating this image, is reported to have said that God created the earths (al-ardün) flat, seven in number, laid successively one below the other, and each being smaller than the one below it.

The seven skies (al-samâwât), similarly laid one above the other, are domical in shape, and each is smaller than the one above it.

Each sky rests on the extremities of its respective layer of earth, thus forming a series of domes placed within each other and separated by a distance of five hundred years of travel.

Ibn ‘Arabï reproduces these descriptions in a graphic form, illustrating the way in which medieval Muslims conceived of the cosmic structure of heavens and earths. Commenting on his diagram, Ibn ‘Arabï reiterates the Prophet’s descriptions: “God made the seven skies resting upon earth like domes. Upon each earth, which is spread out like a carpet, a sky like a hemisphere rests on its ends. God spread out the earth so that the sky could stand upon it.

Early Islamic narratives describe the earth as being spread out on the back of a fish, a whale (hüt) called “nün” (literally “N”), whose ends touch the extremities of the sky.

The meaning of this description may be understood with reference to the symbolism of the Arabic letter nün.

Geometrically, the letter nün is written as half a circle with a diacritical point representing its center.

Originally, Ibn ‘Arabï says, the nün was a complete circle, representing the spherical form of the world.

But since the world is divided into two equivalent halves—the sensible and the intelligible—the letter nün is likewise divided into two corresponding halves—inscribed and implied or visible and invisible.

The analogy is inverted as a mirror image, however.

The inscribed lower half of the nün represents the visible upper part of the world, whereas the implied upper half of the nün represents the invisible lower part of the world.

Fig. 3.9 The formal correspondence between the letter nün (N) and the world according to Ibn ‘Arabï.

The directional differentiation of lower and upper has an experiential as well as a symbolic reference.

Experientially, standing on the flat expanse of the earth under the hemispherical dome of the sky the invisible half of the sphere is always below us. Symbolically, however, we normally refer to the invisible world of higher realities, the world of the unseen, in contrast to the lower visible world of shadows, the world of the seen.

The inversion here reminds us of the way in which the manifest triplicity and hidden quadrature projects through syllogistical reasoning into the sensible world in an inverse manner—hidden triplicity and manifest quadrature.

Acting as a mirror, the letter nun depicts the form of heaven and earth in an inverse manner.

The spreading out of the earth on the back of nun, the fish, whose ends touch the ends of the sky, may then be seen as an extension of the flat layers of earth between the two ends of the letter nun. The earth thus becomes the diameter of the circle of nun, the center of which is the original rock.

Note : see also, The Mysteries of the Letter Nūn by René Guénon

Early cosmological narratives describe a central rock (sakhra), upon which the fish rests, as standing below the lowest earth.

This rock is thought of as the foundation upon which the bearers of the Throne stand. A tradition says: “The rock which is beneath the earth is the end of the created world; upon its borders there are four angels, whose heads are below the Throne.

At one time, the narrative says, the fish moved so the earth swayed and became unstable and uninhabitable.

In order to stabilize it, God “cast into the earth firm mountains (rawetsi)” (31:10), the largest of which is mount qaf (literally, “Q”), which is described as encompassing the earth, as the perimeter to which the sky adheres, and as the source from which the vault of heaven derives its green color.


It is also described as being connected to the rock by means of veins or roots that hold the whole earth firm. When God wants to quake a spot on earth he simply moves the root to which this spot is attached.

In `Uqlat al-Mustawfiz, Ibn `Arabi’ describes the process of creating the lower world (al-dunyet, from danet, to “draw nearer,” as opposed to al-etkhiret, the “future world,” from akhkhara, “to delay”).

After creating the Intellect, the Soul, the Throne, the Footstool, the atlas sphere, and the sphere of the fixed stars, he says, the divine gaze (al-nazar) and willed orientation (al-tawajjuh al-iretdi) were directed toward the creation of the sensible world.

First, God ordered an angel to descend in the depth of the space to its innermost point to form the center. This center was to the world what the sacrum (`ajb al-dhanab) was to the animal body: the birthplace and the foundation of its formation.

It is the part that does not decompose (let yablet),” Ibn `Arab’ adds, “the place of attention of the supreme element (al-`unsur al-a`zam), from whose brief attention (iltifetta) the Intellect is created.

As directed, the angel descended to the center of the world and positioned the rock, reaffirming the divine order of things wherein the center is always the source from which things proceed forth and to which they will eventually return.

The angel rotated the earth’s sphere, making “that which surrounds the center an immense spherical rock, and in the center of that rock the angel placed an animal with a green leaf in its mouth.

This view introduces an interesting shift in the creative process.

Up to this stage, God followed a linear descending order. After creating the sphere of the fixed stars, however, God changed procedure by first founding the central rock and then unfolding the heavens and earths in an ascending order.

Contrary to what many ancient philosophers had believed, Ibn ‘Arabï argues, the first thing laid in the corporeal world was the center, around which the skies were then constructed.

The earth, as a center, was first laid out and then the skies were formed following the three-dimensional structure of the human formation. The rock formed the “sacrum” of the world’s structure, the focal point whence the body of the world unfolded in the six directions—front and back, left and right, up and down—materializing the spatial structure of the human presence.

Ibn ‘Arabï’s view of the creation and structure of the corporeal world can be traced in the writings of various scholars. For example, al-Zamakhsharï (d. 1144) writes: “The creation of the substance of the earth is anterior to the creation of heaven; but the spreading out of the earth is posterior to it.

Al-Diyârbakrï (d. 1582) presents a similar view: “When God began to create things, He created the turbah before heaven; when He had created the heavens and divided them into seven stages, He spread out the earth.”

A popular tradition also relates that “Allah created a jawharah, a substance; thereupon he contemplated it with a majestic gaze, so that it melted; then a vapour rose from it, which gave origin to the sky; thereupon the earth was created from the remainder of the jawharah.”

The “green leaf” in the mouth of the mythical animal that dwells at the rock signifies the source of life, immortality, and divine knowledge.

In his Tafsir, Ibn Kathïr says that “in the center of this rock there is a spring called “Life” (hayat) whose water renders alive whatever it reaches.”

The rock is also associated with the legendary Quranic figure al-Khidr, unto whom God says: “We had given mercy from us, and had taught him knowledge from our presence” (18:66). Al-Khidr, whose name connotes the idea of “green,” is he “who attained the source of life, has drunk of the water of immortality, and consequently knows neither old age nor death. He is the ‘Eternal Youth.’”



These metaphorical expressions show the significance of centrality in the cosmological scheme. Axiality is equally significant.

A tradition says that God has a pillar of light (‘amud al-nur), whose base is below the seventh earth and whose top is below the Throne. The pillar vibrates whenever one testifies to God’s unity.

This pillar of light connects heaven and earth, acting as a channel of communication that is exteriorized through the pillar’s vibration.

This pillar echoes the concept of Muhammad as a column of light, already discussed. Penetrating the seven layers of the earth and the seven vaults of heaven, this pillar acts as axis mundi, around which existence revolves. It is a direct spatial expression of the axiality of the human presence.

When Adam was brought down from paradise, a tradition tells, he was so tall that his head was in heaven, and his feet were on the earth. He could even hear the angels glorifying God.

In his diagram of the corporeal world, Ibn ‘Arabi depicts the form of the Universal Man by the form of the axis mundi—al-‘amad that “you cannot see” (13:2)—without which the vault of heaven would collapse.

Al-insan al-kamil, the cosmic pillar, is also referred to as “al-qutb,” the pole around which the world revolves. The Arabic term qutb derives from the trilateral root q.t.b.,to bring together.”

As the epitome of all manifested realities, Universal Man brings together in his being all possibilities and all modes of existence.

He expands both horizontally and vertically: his horizontal expansion is his realization of all cosmic realities, while his vertical expansion is his realization of divine realities.

His horizontal expansion is fourfold in that it comprises the realities of the four kingdoms—the mineral, plant, animal, and human—each of which represents certain modes of existence and actualizes a particular ensemble of possibilities.

His vertical expansion traces a return passage from quadrature to unity. The idea of Universal Man recapitulates both cosmic and divine realities, and the notion of axiality ensures continuous communication between the higher and the lower worlds and harmony between Man’s parental domains: his celestial fathers and terrestrial mothers.

The term qutb is the name for the central piece around which a millstone rotates.

Acting as a motionless hub for the rotating upper part, the qutb is firmly fixed in the still lower part of the millstone, hence the imagery of axis mundi.

This is taken to represent the firm earthly rootedness of Universal Man, while his verticality acts as the unchanging pole around which the wheel of change revolves. “A millstone rotates only about its pole (qutb) when this pole is in the millstone,” Ibn ‘Arabi writes, “for the pole is its firm essence, which is not susceptible of movement nor transposition during the state of rotation.”

The revolution of the stars and heavenly bodies in the corporeal domain is also seen as following the metaphysical order of things in many and different ways.

The spatial journey of the sun around the stationary earth, for example, engenders space and time, revealing the intertwined relationship between triplicity and quadrature.

The annual journey of the sun is punctuated by four nodal pointstwo solstices and two equinoxesdividing the ecliptic into four qualitatively distinct intervals and marking out the cardinal directions of space.

The cyclical rotation of the moon around the earth, which regulates time in the Islamic calendar, also has quadrature as its basic pattern.

The twenty-eight phases of the lunar cycle involve four recurrent intervals, each with seven phases (4 X 7).

No moon (al-mahaq) and full moon (al-badr) mark the beginning and the middle of the cycle, the two extremes analogous to the solstices, whereas the half moons (al-tarbi’) mark two intermediate points similar to the equinoxes. The seven phases of every interval, which determine the week, are in themselves generated numerically by three and four (3+4=7), unfolding yet another cosmic modality of the primordial bond between triplicity and quadrature.

Fig. 3.10 The four nodal points of the moon’s monthly cycle according to al-‘AmilT (“TashrTh,” MS. 3103).

Within the domain of heaven and earth the metaphysical order of things is revealed in many forms.

Centrality is revealed in the rock, the sacrum (‘ajb al-dhanab) of the world’s body, and the primordial mountain.

Circularity is revealed in the form of heavenly bodies and their orbits; in the domical form of the skies; in the form of nun, the fish; and in mount Qâf that encompasses the earth.

The pattern of proliferation into a multitude of secondary centers is revealed in the ubiquitous presence of mount Qâf, symbolized by the links it has to all mountains and every place on earth.

“There is no one country amongst all countries, nor a city amongst all cities, nor a town amongst all towns but has a root of its roots,” a tradition affirms.

Another adds, “nor is there any mountain of all mountains but has a root in Qâf.”

Axiality is revealed in the pillar of light, in the primordial mountain, and in Universal Man, the cosmic pillar. Quadrature is revealed in the four angels standing on the rock, the four king-doms, the four nodal points of the sun, the four directions of space, and the four intervals of the moon. Triplicity and quadrature are also embodied in the corporeal conditions of space and time.

Space and Time

Perhaps nowhere the presence of the metaphysical order of triplicity and quadrature is more immediate and tangible to us than in our existential condi-tions of space and time.

The three dimensions of space—length, breadth, and depth—spatialize triplicity, whereas the four divisions of time—day, week, month, and year—temporalize quadrature.

Immanent yet elusive, tangible yet hard to define, space and time have their roots deep in the infinity and eternity of divinity. Throughout history and across all traditions, the human mind has marveled at the nature of these bounding conditions while constantly searching for ways to understand them. Today, science has taken the lead, but in premodern times it was the religio-philosophical imagination that provided the answers.

Following Judaism and Christianity, Islam reaffirmed the narrative of the creation: “Your lord is God who created the heavens and the earth in six days” (7:54).

The six days of the creation presents a complex paradox and raises some interesting questions. If the existence of space and time is evidently tied to the existence of heaven and earth and the movement of the heavenly bodies, how could heaven and earth be created in six days?

If the “day” mentioned in this verse refers to the temporal duration that we experience between two successive risings of the sun, no days should have existed before the existence of the stars and planets, and the six days of the creation remain inexplicable in terms of our time.

This has often been resolved either by maintaining that the six days of the creation are presumed durations or by differentiating between two spatio-tem-poral modalities: divine and human.

In Islamic cosmology, this was achieved by distinguishing the spatio-temporal modality of the Throne and Footstool from that of heaven and earth. Through his intricate structure and a double movement scheme, Ibn ‘Arabi was able to maintain that space and time already existed before the creation of heaven and earth, and that a day as a measuring unit was also differentiated in time by reference to the position of the divine Feet on the Footstool. This is a divine day, of course, as in “a day with God is as a thousand years of what you reckon” (22:47).

Unlike our time, however, the divine time has neither daytimes (nahar), nor nighttimes (layl), nor weeks, nor months, nor years, nor seasons, for all of these relate to the sun and the moon.

There is, instead, pure duration of only one ever-recurring day.

As already discussed, the manifestation of space and time in their pure form first occurred in the Universal Matter, which was specially conditioned for this purpose. Their presence in the world of creation coincided with the production of the Absolute Body (al-jism al-kull), whose existence was mediated by three cosmic agents: the Intellect, the Soul, and the vacuum (al-khala).

God first brought Universal Matter into existence, Ibn ‘Arabï says, within which he then unfolded the form of the three dimensions.

The length, he says, was from the Intellect, the breadth from the Soul, and the depth was the vacuum, extending from the outermost perimeter to the innermost center.

God made the Universal Body circular in form, Ibn ‘Arabï adds, filling up with it the entire vacuum—the imaginary extension without a body—and leaving outside it neither vacuum nor plenum.

In this sense, the Universal Body stands for the first spatalization of both the divine and the human presences and the materialization of the geometry of being.

Nature rules over the Universal Body, conditioning its possibilities, Ibn ‘Arabï explains, while being is the principal generator of time.

In our spatio-temporal modality, nature first unfolded the annual measure, the year, and differentiated the four seasons—spring, summer, autumn, and winter—whose quadrature was then reflected in the four divisions of time—year, month, week, and day.

The quadrature of the seasons was manifested by the sun traversing the signs of the constellations, which were also divided by nature into Igneous, Aerial, Aqueous, and Terrestrial, according to the division of the arkan into fire, air, water, and earth, which in turn reflected the divine creative quadrature.

Movement (haraka) was the main principle of generation brought about by the concurrence of space and time.

Thought of as a form imposed on the Body by the Universal Soul, motion directly linked space and time to the gen-eration of life.

Time is associated with the motion of the Body,” the Ikhwân explain, “and the Body is passively generated by the Soul. As the Soul made the Universal Body spherical in shape, which is the noblest of all shapes, it also made its motion circular, which is the noblest of all motions.”

Ibn ‘Arabï reflects on the reasons behind the original motion and its circular form. The initial movement, he says, was caused by disequilibrium in the contrasting natural forces (heat-cold, moistness-dryness).

In their original state of equilibrium nothing occurs: there can be neither bringing-into-existence nor production. The equilibrium was broken when heat dominated other forces, and as the amount of heat in the body of the sphere increased, the sphere moved. But there was nowhere to move to, for it had already filled up the entire vacuum.

Under the force of disequilibrium, it moved in its place about its center, a movement of the middle. This is best represented by the motion of a mill-stone: while every part is moving from one place to another by the movement of the whole, the whole itself does not change its location by the movement of the parts. This is the case with every circular motion, Ibn ‘Arabï says, “it is moving–still.” With regard to the whole, it does not evacuate its space by translocation, yet its parts remain in motion.

The Universal Body is an imaginary entity, a necessary conceptual foundation for all three-dimensional bodies in the world of creation.

Its first materialization is the Throne. As mentioned earlier, some astronomers identify the Throne with the atlas sphere or the sphere of the constellations, the motion of which then becomes the first generator of time. Ibn ‘Arabi, however, places the atlas within the Throne in order to differentiate three modalities of time: divine, paradisaical, and human.

As the cosmic progenitor of space and time, the atlas sphere plays a mediatory role, whose motion can be determined both from within and from without. Being without stars, the motion of the atlas engenders a pure, undifferentiated duration.

On its own it lacks any distinguishable reference point that may differentiate its incessant movement into recurrent cycles. Viewed from within, with reference to the sphere with fixed stars and the movement of planets and the stars, its pure motion becomes differentiate into the human temporal durations (day, week, month, year).

Seen from within but without reference to the sphere with fixed stars and planetary skies, we have one pure paradisaical duration.

Seen from without, however, with references to the position of the divine Feet on the Footstool we have the divine durations, to which God refers in the six days of the creation.

As is the order of being, the divine modality of time forms the model for the human temporality. In articulating the relationship between the divine and human temporality, Ibn ‘Arabi first distinguishes the movements of the stars from the motion of the atlas sphere itself. The revolution of the stars within the atlas sphere, he posits, is subject to two types of movements: natural (tabi’iyya) and forcible (qasriyya).

Fig. 3.11 Differentiating the motion of the atlas sphere by reference to divine Feet according to Ibn ‘Arabi.

The natural movement is that whereby the stars traverse the atlas sphere from west to east, as seen by the eye, whereas the forcible movement is the reverse one whereby the stars move with the movement of the atlas sphere from east to west.

The situation is like an ant on a piece of material that is being pulled westward while the ant is moving eastward: the ant is simultaneously moving to the east and to the west.

This is the situation of the stars, he says: at the same instant in which they are naturally moving from west to east, they are also forcibly moving from east to west.

Humans works with the natural motion, while God works with the forcible. By means of the position of his Feet on the Footstool, God differentiates the primordial motion of the atlas sphere into seven recurrent cycles, or days, in accordance with the seven principal attributes of the divine presence. Ibn ‘Arabi explains:

By the existence of the atlas sphere there occurred the seven days, the months, and the years. But these times were not determined until after God created inside this sphere the signs whereby these times were distinguished. The only duration this sphere determines is the day, which is one cycle determined by the position of the Foot on the Footstool. So it is determined from above, and the measure of one complete cycle is called “day” (yawm).

Because of the homogeneity of this sphere, this day is known only to God most high. The starting point of its movement coincides with the first degree of Gemini, which is among the Aerial signs, facing the Foot.

The first day manifested in the world was in the first degree of Gemini, and that day was called “al-Ahad” (Sunday) . . . Upon the end of the first cycle the sphere started another movement . . . This second movement was called “al-Ithnayn” (Monday), and so on until the seven cyclical movements were completed, one divine attribute determining each movement.

As the [principal] attributes are no more than seven, the days of the aeon (al-dahr) cannot be more than seven, not even by a day, for there is nothing that may necessitate it.

Thus, the ruling returned to the first attribute that rotated the sphere [again] and the name Ahad became associated with it . . . [For the new cycle,] however, it was more appropriate to be the eighth with regard to the cycles, but since its existence was caused by the same first attribute its name did not change. Similarly, the cycle that followed, and so was the following one until the seven cycles [were once again completed].

Accordingly, each divine attribute is seen to engender one entire cycle or day, during which period this attribute dominates over other attributes, causing its characteristic to inhere in all creatures. During the cycle which is engendered and dominated by the divine attribute of Hearing, for example, all creatures re-ceive the characteristic of hearing by virtue of which they become able to hear. The same goes for the rest of the principal attributes.

Since the creative process begins with the utterance of the primordial word, hearing was the first characteristic the creatures received so that they became able to respond to the divine creative command “Be!” According to Ibn ‘Arabï, the creative process took place in the following order:

Hearing Sunday            al-Ahad

Living     Monday           al-Ithnayn

Seeing   Tuesday          al-Thulathâ’

Will        Wednesday       al-Arbi’â’

Power     Thursday         al-Khamïs

Knowledge      Friday     al-Jumu’a

Speech     Saturday          al-Sabt

Representing the governing principles of universal manifestation, the seven divine attributes at once determine the cyclical revolution of the atlas sphere and necessitate the creation of seven planets.

This ensured the harmony and continuity between the divine and human modalities of time.

In an interesting treatise on time and eternity, al-Qâshânï says that the seven principal divine names required intermediaries to ensure the continuity of their domination over all things in the corporeal world. So these names caused the existence of the seven revolving planets together with their spheres and made them the presidents and chieftains for directing the affairs of the present world.

Thus the seven planets embody the dominating power of the seven divine names, representing the cosmic intermediaries between the immutable world of archetypes and the earthly creatures. The movements of the seven planets differentiate the pure temporal duration of the first motion into recurrent cycles of measured du-ration in accordance with the divine model. Al-Qâshânï explains:

If you consider the first motion and the extension of its duration, which is un-differentiated time (al-zaman al-mutlaq), disregarding what is below it, it has neither beginning nor end nor division. But if you relate the sun to a particular point, any point whatsoever, the year, whose every cycle is the return of the sun to that point, begins by the movement of the sun whereby it traverses the parts of the sphere of the constellations. By this movement the [pure] duration is ar-ticulated into years; the year, in regard to the sun’s traversing of the constella-tions, into months; the months into weeks; the weeks, in regard to the sun’s return to the first point in its diurnal movement, into days; the days into hours; the hours into minutes; the minutes into seconds; then into thirds until now, which is to time as the geometrical point is to a line.

The movements of the seven planets also qualify the pure extension of space. The diurnal and annual journeys of the sun, while differentiating time, simultaneously qualify space by measuring out its extremities and marking out the cardinal directions—east, west, south, north, zenith, and nadir.

Through the combined rhythm of their revolutions, the seven planets construct various geometric relationships based on their reciprocal positions against the twelve signs of the zodiac, unfolding as it were the spatial cosmic qualities that are virtually contained in the pure, unqualified space of the atlas sphere.

In Ibn ‘Arabi’s cosmological scheme, the atlas sphere with the rock as its center, imagined independently of the planetary skies, gives the image of an all-encompassing sphere that represents space as an undifferentiated totality.

Thus imagined, the atlas provides the cosmic model for the geometric sphere, the spatial expression par excellence of the divine presence. Its empty vastness signifies the divine’s all possibility and immutability, while the inexhaustible multitude of its directions signifies the multiplicity of the divine names and attributes.

As the inexhaustible multitude of the names is exemplified by seven only, six of which are related to the created world and one, the Living, acting as their principle, so likewise the multiplicity of the directions in space, determined by the lines connecting the point of the center and the points of the sphere’s surface, are exemplified by seven only, six of which are on the sphere’s surface, determining the six main directions—front and back, left and right, and up and down—and the seventh point, acting as their common principle, the directionless source.

Fig. 3.12 The multilayered world according to Ibn ‘Arabi (Futuhat).

The primordial motion of the atlas sphere generates a pure duration of time that is, as is the pure extension of space, indefinite, unqualified, and undifferentiated.

This mode of time mirrors divine eternity, as time is to us what eternity is to God. Al-Qâshânï even compares the undetermined temporal duration generated by the primordial motion to the inconceivable duration (imtidad) of the subsistence of the divine Essence. As the undetermined Essence becomes de-termined when the seven principal names are related to it, so likewise the undif-ferentiated motion of the atlas sphere becomes differentiated when the movements of the seven planets are contrasted with its motion.

In that cosmic manifestation coincides with the utterance of the primordial word, the differentiation of the pure spatio-temporal modality of the atlas sphere corresponds to the articulation of the primordial sound, the medium through which the primordial word was externalized.

The Sufis correlate the twenty-eight letters of the Arabic alphabet, which represent as many articulations of an unobstructed breath emanating from the heart, with the twenty-eight mansions of the moon.

The articulated sounds of the letters are “the microcosmic and human expression of the essential determinations of the divine Breath, which is itself the prime motivation of the cosmic cycles.”

Ibn ‘Arabï says that contrary to what people think that “the mansions of the moon represent the models of the letters; it is the twenty-eight sounds which determine the lunar mansions.

The twenty-eight mansions of the moon also correspond to twenty-eight divine names. The process of the sonorous differentiation proceeds in a successive order from the letter alif (A) to the letter waw (W).

As the alif does not admit any of the vocalizing motions (harakat), it is unpronounceable. It is therefore represented by the hamza (hiatus), which “is not properly speaking a sound, but only a transitory instance between silence and locution.”

 The hamza, the threshold between the silence of nonexistence and the sound of existence, corresponds to the Universal Intellect and coincides with the spring equinox. The hamza represents the unpronounceable alif, which is to the letters what the one is to the numbers. In the same way that one is not a number but the principle of numbers, the alifis not a sound but the principle of sounds.

The first articulated sound is ha’ (H). Proceeding from the innermost source, the heart, ha’ is the least differentiated and articulated consonant; it is the audible reflection of the inaudible alif.

The articulation of sounds proceeds from ha’, passing through the guttural, palatal, and dental consonants, to the last and outermost labial consonant waw.


The first and the last consonants in this process form the Arabic word huwa, “he,” which sums up the whole order of being: “He is the first and the last, and the outward and the inward; and he is knower of all things” (57:3).


Note: Ibn al-’Arabi’s Cosmology of the Letters. A comological chart created by Titus Burckhardt to describe Ibn al-’Arabi’s mystical interpretation of the Arabic letters as corresponding to Quranic names of the Divine. Each letter represents a particular attribute and cosmic reality. From Laleh Bakhtiar’s Sufi: Expressions of the Mystic Quest (New York: Thames & Hudson, 1976), 62. Image used with permission.

Note: here the book of Titus Burckhardt about Ibn al-’Arabi’s mystical interpretation of the Arabic letters