Cosmology in Sufism

Cosmology in Sufism

From Cosmology and Architecture in Premodern Islam

An Architectural Reading of Mystical Ideas

By Samer Akkach



  • Introduction

The principles of the universal order are traced through the religiophilosophical reasoning of how Being emerged from non-Being, and how original Unity gave birth to an inexhaustible multiplicity. Here I explore specifically the generative “move” from unity to triplicity and quadrature, seen as a central cosmogonic paradigm of simultaneous proliferation and synthesis.

The move is explored in a variety of contexts and manifestations.

The first trace of this move unfolds the metaphysial order, which is then traced in the cosmic order, which is in turn traced in the architectural order.

Spatially, the move refers to the deployment of space from a central point along the three axes of what the French philosopher and metaphysician René Guénon describes as the “threedimensional cross.” This study shows how this conception formed the cornerstone of spatial sensibility in premodern Islam. It also shows how the manifold manifestations and interrelatedness of this primary spatial order unfold a complex web of meanings and intricate patterns of correspondence that at once govern the world and materialize the order inscribed in the divine exemplar….

These questions lead to a preoccupation with what and how we can learn from the difference that separates us, as modern subjects, from medieval objects. Accordingly, while dealing with the past, the accent is placed on the implications of this dealing for the here and now of our engagements. The choice to focus on the Sufi teachings and ideas is made not because they provide direct answers to our current problems or reveal modes of living capable of restoring or repossessing a lost identity but because they enable us to conceive of a significant possibility of being, one wherein architecture can be seen to interconnect intrinsically with all aspects ofbeing, at once enriching and being enriched by peoples’ modes of living and thinking, yet without constituting an end in itself or being constrained by rigid categories. Thus, this study is concerned, if indirectly, with rethinking the relationship between peoples and their built environments, and in this context, architectural symbolism is used to introduce a broader ontological context for the exploration of this relationship, one that extends far beyond the limited concerns of current (architectural) education and practice.

  • The Necessity of Symbolism

Dealing with the language of the timeless Truth and the immutable principles of tradition requires an approach that is in tune with the traditional views. As the medium of traditional artistic expression and the language of philosophia perennis, symbolism, the perennialists argue, is the most appropriate approach for comprehending the inner meanings of traditional art and architecture and for  penetrating deep into their worlds of spirituality and metaphysics.

Symbolism is presented as the “language” of religion that divinity “speaks,” using allegories and similitude. Being ontological in nature, the language of symbolism communicates the fundamental and universal conditions of existence. It is, as Martin Lings puts it, at once “the most important thing in existence” and “the sole explanation of existence.”

Symbols and signs, be they verbal or visual, are commonly understood as means of communication. The lexical definitions refer to “sign” and “symbol,” in the general sense, as “something used or regarded as standing for or representing something else.”

The perennialists, however, distinguish between signs and symbols in terms of their referents. “The references of symbols,” Coomaraswamy says, “are to ideas and those of signs to things.”

Symbols refer to immaterial concepts—it is “the representation of reality on a certain level of reference by a corresponding reality on another”—whereas signs refer to material objects that stand on the same level of reference. One object can be both a symbol and a sign according to its referent: “[T]he cross, for example, is a symbol when it represents the structure of the universe, but a sign when it stands for crossroads.”

The main premise upon which hinges the notion of symbolism is that material objects, tectonic or otherwise, are capable of embodying abstract concepts that lie beyond the confines of their materiality. This basic understanding assumed in the Western tradition a decisive philosophical formality in the Platonic distinction between the sensible and the intelligible.

Medieval Muslim scholars, who inherited and developed the intellectual tools of Greek philosophy, maintained this through the divide between al-hissi and al-aqli. This was, in a sense, legitimized by the Quranic polarity of the seen and the unseen.

Accordingly,symbolism is understood to be based on the correspondence between these two domains of reality: the inferior reflecting the superior, the visible materializing the invisible, and the physical representing to the spiritual. Predicated on the universal perspective of philosophia perennis, symbolism becomes an ontological inquiry, an inquest into the hierarchy of being, and an intellectual journey to the inner worlds of universal realities. Thus viewed, symbolism often becomes a pursuit of esoteric knowledge, reaching far beyond the mere visual objectification of religious or cultural values.

In the perennialist project, architectural symbolism is developed on these conceptual grounds. Forming an integral part of the sensible world, architectural forms are considered as eminently appropriate to act as symbols.

Symbols, the perennialists explain, are of two fundamentally different kinds: universal or natural and particular or conventional.

Universal symbols are those whose symbolic significance derives from their innate nature, such as geometrical or numerical symbols, whereas particular symbols are those whose symbolic significance relates to a particular tradition. By virtue of their very nature, universal  symbols are regarded as primordial and transcultural, whereas particular symbols, which include particular interpretations of universal symbols, vary in different traditions.

Particular symbols, also described as arbitrary and accidental, may be sanctified by human or divine intervention that make them the loci of transcendental meanings, such as the cross as a symbol of resurrection in Christianity and alphabetical symbolism in Islam. They are empowered by a communal acceptance and participation in their spiritual significance.

Universal symbols are ontologically linked to, and determined by, their referents. Hence, symbols of the infinite and the timeless have the capacity of revealing aspects of the infinite and the timeless itself.

Symbols express the quality of the infinite with respect to their finitude, finding through such expression their transcendental dimensions, their opening beyond the finitude of their own realm. By mediating ultimate reality through things or actions, symbols receive the quality of the higher realities they mediate, enabling us to comprehend them with respect to the finitude of our own existence. In the experience of sacred places, for example, symbols of the sacred reveal something of the “Sacred-itself ” and produce the experience of sacredness in those who are experiencing them. They are thus capable of revealing a modality of the real, the sacred, or the absolute and of unveiling the deep and profound structure of the universe. They form the “alphabet” of the universal language of religion whereby ultimate reality expresses itself, revealing a coherent picture of existence and of the world. In this sense, symbols require no justification; the only measure of their validity is their adequacy to the higher realities they express.

Symbolism adds meanings to objects and practices without affecting their proper and immediate value. Here meanings are not seen as being “‘read into’ symbols or added to them as a conceptual garnish. On the contrary, they are deemed to inhere within the form of the symbol in a manner analogous to that in which natural law inheres within physical phenomena, or as mathematical principles reside in the very nature of numerical or geometrical phenomena.”

In being so, the meanings of symbols are not intentionally constructed but rather discovered or revealed through reflections on transcendental realities, and consequently the efficacy of a symbol does not depend on its being understood.

“A religious symbol,” Eliade writes, “conveys its message even if it is no longer consciously understood in every part. For a symbol speaks to the whole human being and not only to the intelligence.”

Symbols are multivalent. They can simultaneously express a number of meanings “whose continuity is not evident on the plane of immediate experience.”  One symbol may refer to a plurality of contexts, and its significance can be operative at a number of different levels. To fully explain the meanings of a symbol, Eliade argues, is not a simple task, and to exhaust the significations of those concerned with divinity is not possible. Confining a symbol to only one of its significations as the most important is therefore reductive. For the significance of a symbol lies in revealing the unity and continuity between the different levels it reveals. Tracing the various expressions of a symbol reveals the density of meanings and resonance across multiple contexts.

In becoming a symbol, a concrete object is thus enriched with layers upon layers of interrelated meanings, which are not necessarily evident through an immediate experience. “The interdependence of the valences of a symbol and the homology of its different contexts,” Eliade explains, “ought not be understood as a monotonous repetition of the same message on different levels . . .

Each context of a symbol reveals something more which was only unformed and allusive in the neighbouring contexts.” In this sense, symbols imbue human existence with significance by pointing to a more profound, more mysterious side of life, to the miraculous and “sacramental dimensions of human existence.”

For this reason, symbols related to ultimate reality are viewed as a source of inspiration and revelation.

In summary, the perennialists approach the question of artistic production from the viewpoint of creative imagination and religious inspiration. They focus primarily on the ideas, rituals, and cosmology within the matrices of which an artefact is produced, rather than the historico-cultural conditions that facilitate such production. Through symbolism they establish a continuity among the human, cosmic, and divine modes of being, providing a means to interpret the human conditions of existence in cosmological terms.

In their perspective, “symbolic thought makes the immediate reality ‘shine’” by enabling us to see human makings through a cosmological frame, wherein “everything holds together in a closed system of correspondences and assimilations.”

  • The works of Ibn ‘Arabï

While dealing with a range of Sufi texts, the works of Ibn ‘Arabï—by virtue of their richness, comprehensiveness, and coherence—are taken to represent the Sufi worldview in its utmost maturity and complexity. In this I run the risk of obliterating differences and variations in Sufi thoughts and teachings and of overstating Ibn ‘Arabï’s centrality and influence in the Islamic tradition. I acknowledge, however, that Ibn ‘Arabï’s ideas did not emerge in a vacuum and that he absorbed and represented much of what earlier and contemporary Sufis had established.

His pivotal position comes from the inspirational power, comprehensiveness, cogency, and profundity of his syntheses, which, as many studies have shown, were instrumental in perpetuating and universalizing Sufi ideas in a coherent way. Also, Sufi conceptions of the genesis, structure, and layout of the universe reveal a remarkably consistent core, with variations being traceable mainly in modes of expressions. Ibn ‘Arabï’s monumental work, al-Futühât, the main focus of this study, is known to have served as a main reference on Sufi ontology and cosmology for subsequent generations.

  •  Symbolism: A Sufi Perspective

A marginal commentary, attributed to Sa’d al-Dïn al-Hamawï (d. 1252/3), on a manuscript copy of Ibn ‘Arabï’s Inshâ’ al-Dawâ’ir compares the entire world to the eye of God that never sleeps.

The upper eyelid is compared to the upper world, the lower eyelid to the lower world, the eyelashes of the upper eyelid to the angels that dwell in the upper world, the eyelashes of the lower eyelid to the humans that dwell in the lower world, the iris to the Universal Soul, the white to the Universal Spirit, and the light whereby the eye sees to God.

This poetic imagery depicts eloquently the hierarchical structure of the world as conceived in premodern Islam. The notion of symbolism hinges on this hierarchical conception in constructing its ontological links between the lower and the higher, the sensible and the intelligible.

Premodern Islamic cosmology depicts a multilayered picture of the universe with each layer having its own inhabitants and objects. The earth as a central layer is covered by seven hemispherical heavens resting on seven infraterrestrial earths. This conception might have derived from a pre-Islamic mythology, yet it owes its continuity within the Islamic tradition to the Quranic references and prophetic traditions. There are numerous descriptions reported in various forms after the Prophet or his immediate companions that elaborate this conception to considerable detail. Some will be discussed later.

The multilayered world depicted in premodern Islamic cosmology is inhabited not only by humans but also by other intelligent creatures: the angels and the jinn. Several traditions describe each layer in the celestial and infraterrestrial world to be an exact replica of the earth with all its existents.

In a tradition describing the heavenly prototypes of the Ka’ba, the celebrated Prophet’s companion Ibn ‘Abbas is reported to have described the existence of fourteen Ka’bas, in addition to the known one, seven above and seven below, located exactly one above the other so that if they collapse they will fall one on the top of the other. He is also reported to have said that in each layer there are also creatures just as those on earth and that there are even other Ibn ‘Abbas just like him.

Alongside this one finds numerous narratives and traditions that describe the various ways of communication between the inhabitants of these worlds, revealing a preoccupation with the nature of the other “inhabitants” and their relationships to corporeal beings. In their treatise on the formation of animals and their kinds, Ikhwan al-Safa’ writes:

Then know, O just king, that these forms, shapes, structures, and attributes, which you see in the world of bodies and material substances, are symbols, similitudes, and colors of those forms that are in the world of spirits, save that the latter are luminous and subtle, while the former are dark and dense. The relationship of the former to the latter is as the relationship between the paintings on the surfaces of boards and walls to the actual forms and shapes of the animals with flesh, blood, bones, and skin. Those forms in the spiritual world are the movers while these are the moved. As for the ones below, they are motionless, speechless, sensible, decayable, corruptible, and perishable, while those [above] are rational, intelligible, spiritual, invisible, and durable.

 This reminds us of Plato’s cave parable wherein humans in their corporeal experience are portrayed as being twice removed from the real forms. In their daily experiences, Plato tells us, people deal only with the sensible shadows of the figures, which represent the real, the intelligible forms that reside outside the restraining boundaries of the cave of physical existence. The Platonic-Aristotelian ontology, which Muslim philosophers inherited, distinguishes between the sensible and the intelligible. This philosophic distinction was legitimized by the Quranic distinction between the seen and the unseen, within the framework of which symbolism became a necessary means of communication between two distant, yet ontologically related, domains of being.

  • Definitions

It may be easy to recognize in contemporary Arabic architectural discourse the equivalents of the terms symbol and symbolismramz and ramziyya—but once we shift our focus to premodern literature the task becomes much harder. This is because neither term was used consistently in the same modern sense, nor was either specifically associated with architecture.

In fact many terms were used to denote the meanings of sign and symbol, without a sharp semantic distinction between the two. The Arabic terms aya, ramz, ishara, ‘ibara, mithal, and dalil are all used to denote various shades of both ‘sign’ and ‘symbol.’All are used in the Quran; however, the term aya is the most nuanced and frequently used.

Aya literally means “mark” or “sign” but is most commonly used to refer to a Quranic “verse.”

Every Quranic verse is called “aya,” Ibn Manzur explains, because “it is like a sign by which one is led to another as the road’s flags that are erected for guidance”; also because “it is a group of letters of the Quran”; and because “it is a sign of discontinuity between two successive speeches.”

These definitions suggest that aya, as a “verse,” refers to a distinct group of letters and words that convey a particular meaning that is conducive to a following one and so on in a sequential manner, leading to the final meaning, in the same way road’s flags guide people to their destination.

The most potent meaning of the term, however, is “symbol” as in the widely quoted verse: “We shall show them our symbols (ayat) on the horizons and within themselves until it will be manifest unto them that it is the Truth” (41:53). In presenting all created things as symbols, this verse can be seen as the cornerstone of the Islamic notion of symbolism.

Aya also means “wonder,” hence God’s wonders are his ayat. Aya is also used in the sense of ‘ibra, meaning “example,” “warning,” “lesson,” and “reminder”: “Verily in Joseph and his brethren are examples (ayat) for the inquiring” (12:7).

The terms ramz and ishara denote other shades of the meaning. Literally, both words mean “a gesture made by the hands, eyes, eyebrows, lips or mouth with the intention of conveying something that could otherwise be expressed verbally.”

 Ishara, a frequently used term for ‘symbol,’ has in addition two interesting derivatives, shara and shawra, connoting the idea of beauty. Speaking of the prophet Zakariyya, the Quran says: “you shall not speak unto mankind … except by signs (ramzan)” (3:41).

Symbols, Ibn ‘Arabi explains, are “dwellings” that enable us to reflect upon such things as divine unity, first Intellect, divine Throne, the science of representation (‘ilm al-tamaththul), God’s wonders (ayat), and so on.

Through these “dwellings,” he says, the reflective minds find references or proofs (dala’il, sing. dalil) for a multitude of interpretations.

In this sense, ramz stands for “symbol” in that it points to another context that is not apparent at the level of immediate experience. Ibn ‘Arabi elaborates further, drawing our attention to the parallel between ramz, “symbol,” and lughz, “riddle,” in order to show the double function of symbols: guiding and misguiding, revealing and concealing.

This is especially the case with lughz, which is a form of speech the outward meaning of which conveys a sense not intended by the speaker, making it prone to misunderstanding. This is the condi-tion of the world, Ibn ‘Arabi says. God founded the world for people to seek him, but they instead became preoccupied with the world itself, so they misunderstood the lughz of the creation and defied the intention of the founder.

Following the etymological meaning of symbol,’ from Greek sym+ballo “to throw together,” “suggesting the way in which the symbol carries the mind to its referent,” the term ‘ibâra conveys a closer meaning.

‘Ibâra, “expression,” comes from the verb ‘abara,to cross” and “to interpret,” from which comes the word ‘ibra, “lesson” or “wonder”: “God causes the revolution of the day and the night. Herein indeed is a lesson (‘ibra) for those who see” (24:44).

The trilateral root ‘.b.r. means literally “to cross from one side of a river, valley, or road to another.” A common meaning of ‘abara is “to interpret,” “to expound,” particularly dreams and visions, as in “expound for me my vision, if you can interpret dreams” (12:43). The expounder is ‘âbir,one who crosses,” since in expounding one crosses from the outward to the inward side of the subject in order to reveal its hidden meaning.

Ibn ‘Arabi says that to every sensible form God has attached a spiritual meaning toward which one should cross by interpretation. The semantic connection between “crossing” and “interpreting” is clearly expressed in a tradition that says: “O God, render us amongst those who interpret and understand (ya’bar) the world and not amongst those who merely cross it (ya’bur).”

Plato features prominently in Islamic philosophy, and his doctrine of forms was the subject of thorough discussion by various philosophers.

The terms that were appropriated for the word “form” were süra and mithâl or mathal, with the latter being more frequently used. The word mathal means “likeness” and “similitude,” from mithl, “look alike.” It is extensively used in the Quran in the sense of symbol: “Such similitudes (amthâl) we coin for mankind haply they may reflect” (59:21).

‘Alam al-mithâl, the “world of similitudes” or the “realm of images,” is a product of medieval Muslim mysticism similar, in many respects, to Plato’s intermediary world. Mithâl also means “matrix” or “mould,” according to which a design is made, and the derivative timthâl means a “statue” or an “image” made to resemble a creature. The timthâl of a thing also means its “shadow.”

Mithâl equates ‘symbol’ in the sense of being a shadow of a higher reality revealed in a sensible form. Yet mithl, “likeness,” is also used in a different sense. In a tradition the Prophet is reported to have said: “Surely, I have been given the book and its likeness (mithl) with it.” This is interpreted as being given the Quran along with the power to expound its inward meanings.

Finally, the concealed meaning or significance of a symbol is often referred to as sirr, “secret” and “mystery,” thus pointing to the intellectual effort required for the discovery of what is not immediately available. This brief survey of Arabic terms shows the range of meanings and concepts one encounters in premodern Islamic literature when dealing with the notion of symbolism. In the following I will locate these terms in a wider conceptual context.

  • The Seen and the Unseen

Religious worldviews hinge on an axiomatic premise that the world is made up of physical and spiritual realities, of visible and invisible entities. This premise underlies the fundamental beliefs in God, prophets, and holy scriptures that presuppose a kind of unseen, supranatural presence.

 In proclaiming itself to be the primordial as well as the last religion (al-dïn al-hanïf), Islam shares with other religions this view of the world. Both the Quran and the prophetic traditions speak of the “unseen” and “seen” worlds (al-ghayb wa al-shahâda). The Quran stresses this polarity, describing God as “the Knower of the unseen and the seen” (13:9) and to him “belongs the unseen of the heavens and the earth” (16:77).

The Quran repeatedly reminds the Muslims that no one knows the unseen except God: “And with him are the keys of the unseen. None but He knows them” (6:59). Yet aspects of the unseen can be revealed: “This is of the tidings of the unseen (ghayb). We reveal it unto you” (3:44). The Quran demands that Muslims believe in the unseen and strive to gain knowledge of it by means of the seen: “This is the Scripture whereof there is no doubt, a guidance unto those who ward off evil. Who believe in the unseen” (2:2–3).

The Quran presents the seen as the world of the outward (zâhir) that is readily accessible to everyone. Therefore, no privilege or reward is promised in believing and participating in it. The unseen, by contrast, is the realm of faith that endows the believers with privileges and renders them worthy of reward: “Gardens of Eden, which the Beneficent has promised to his worshipers in the unseen. His promise is ever sure of fulfillment” (19:61).

 Ephemeral, transient, and perishable, the seen derives meaning and subsistence from the unseen, and its real value lies in being the necessary pathway to the unseen. The Quran likens this dependency to a plant flourishing in the rain but dying as soon as its source of life ceases to fall (10:25).

The seen is the world of natural realities that can be known directly through sense perception, whereas the unseen is the world of spiritual realities that can only be grasped by imagination. To help human imagination gain insight into the unseen, religious teachings have resorted to analogy and metaphor. The efficacy of analogy, as an illustrative and cognitive tool, hinges on the ontological link between the embodied and the abstract. By means of analogies human imagination is given access to the abstract through the mediation of the embodied. Analogy is thus the cornerstone of religious expressions that are concerned with spiritual phenomena. The Quran uses many tangible examples from the seen to explain or describe matters of the unseen:

If all trees in the earth were pens, and if the sea eked out by seven seas more were ink, the words of God could not be written out to the end. (31:27) Do you not see how God cites a symbol: a good word as a good tree, its root set firm and its branches in heaven. (14:24)

In the first example the incomprehensible infinity of God’s words is brought closer to human understanding by using the analogy of trees and seas as pens and ink. In the second, the verse relates “a good word” to “a good tree,” so that we may understand the nature of the divine word by means of the given description of the tree. To say “a good word as a good tree” is to transfer the known information associated with the tree to the unknown concept of the ‘word.’ It is to try to understand the concept of the word by means of the concept of the tree. This mental activity involves identifying some underlying structural similarities between the concept of the word and the concept of the tree, and of transferring them from one onto the other.

 Religious understanding of spiritual realities hinges on the efficacy of such analogies, and symbolic reasoning relies on and promotes similar modes of thinking. In constructing ties between the divine and human modes of existence, analogical reasoning operates in the paradoxical space that lies in between the contrasting dimensions of analogy: tashbih and tanzih, “likeness” and “transcendence.”

In the often quoted Quranic verse: “We shall show them our symbols on the horizons and within themselves until it will be manifest unto them that it is the Truth” (41: 53), Ibn ‘Arabi says, God alludes to his symbolic presences in all created things.

These symbols are available to humans in their daily experience of sensible things, be they “within themselves” or “on the horizons,” that is, in the outside world. Their function is to give clues to direct the mind toward that which lies beyond the immediate attractions of the sensible and the visible, for “God coins the similitudes for mankind in order that they may reflect” (14:25). The Quran speaks of different kinds of analogies and symbols for different kinds of people: the contemplative, the faithful, the intellectual, and so on.

And of his symbols is this: he created you of dust, and behold you human beings, ranging widely!

And of his symbols is this: he created for you helpmeets from yourselves that you might find rest in them, and he ordained between you love and mercy. Herein indeed are symbols for folk who reflect.

And of his symbols is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the difference of your languages and colors. Herein indeed are symbols for men of knowledge.

 And of his symbols is your slumber by night and by day, and your seeking of his bounty. Herein indeed are symbols for folk who heed.

And of his symbols is this: he shows you the lightning for a fear and for a hope, and sends down water from the sky, and thereby quickens the earth after her death. Herein indeed are symbols for folk who understand. And of his symbols is this: the heavens and the earth stand fast by his command, and afterward, when he calls you, surely, from the earth you will emerge. (30:20–25)

And of his symbols are the night and the day and the sun and the moon. Adore not the sun nor the moon; but adore God who created them, if it is in truth him whom you worship . . .

And of his symbols that you see the earth lowly, but when we send down water thereon it thrills and grows. (41:37/39)

And of his symbols is the creation of the heaven and the earth, and of whatever beasts he has dispersed therein . . .

And of his symbols are the ships, like banners on the sea; if he wills he calms the wind so that they keep still upon its surface. Herein indeed are symbols for every steadfast grateful (heart). (42:29/32–33)

These Quranic references identify the “alphabet” of a special language whose existence is indispensable for conveying the divine message to humans. The necessity of this special “language” emerges from the incompatibility in nature between the communicants as well as the richness and intensity of the divine revelations, which cannot be adequately expressed in an ordinary language.

  • Distance and Deficiency

In Mahâsin al-Majâlis Ibn al-‘Arif (d. 1141), the celebrated Andalusian Sufi master, cites an intriguing aphorism on symbolism. Using the term ishâra, he writes that “a symbol is a call from a distance and a disclosure of an essential deficiency.” This seemingly obscure statement sums up eloquently the Sufi view of symbolism: at once an intimate call and a disclosure of one’s limitations.

In the Futühât Ibn ‘Arabi clarifies this statement, explaining that as a means of communication the language of symbolism becomes a necessity under two conditions.

One is when the communicants are so far apart that the voice of the speaker cannot reach the ears of the listener, although they can still see each other. In this case the only way for the speaker to convey their message is through displaying signs and symbols that the listener can understand. This is, he says, what the Sufis refer to by “a call from a distance.

The other condition is when the communicants are close to each other but because of a deficiency in the listener, such as deafness, for example, they cannot hear the speaker’s voice. Here again the language of symbolism becomes the only way to convey the speaker’s message. It is with reference to this condition that the Sufis define symbols as “a disclosure of an essential deficiency.”

An example of this situation, Ibn ‘Arabi explains, can be seen in the Islamic prayer, a condition wherein Muslims attempt to draw near to, and converse with, God, since Islamic prayer has been described in a prophetic tradition as a dialogue with God. Here human “deafness,” as an inherent deficiency, is exposed when God replies to the praise addressed to him in their own tongue, saying: “God hears him who praises him” (sami’a -llahu liman hamadah).

Distance and deficiency are intrinsic to human nature when compared with that of the divine. The ontological difference between the creator and the creature is what manifests the polarizing distance that separates God and humans. God transcends human deficiencies and limitations, and it is this transcendence that makes the language of symbolism a necessity, not in respect of God being self-sufficient, of course, but in respect of him being the creator. In these ontological conditions human expression (‘ibara) can only accommodate a limited spectrum of the divine truths, leaving much of the revealed knowledge beyond the linguistic grasp and hence uncommunicable directly through language.

The ontological distance and deficiency disable humans from direct communication, calling for other, more effective means. The language of symbolism, by contrast, is less constrained than an ordinary language, and its vocabulary is more apt for communicating transcendental truths.

 The efficacy of symbolism derives from the symbol’s capacity to translate divine situations into human terms and vice versa, thereby bridging the gap created by distance and deficiency. Participating in both the divine and the human realms, symbols establish the necessary continuity be-tween the order of the divine presence and that of human existence.

By means of symbols, communication with the divine can be ensured despite man’s impeding ontological conditions, but so long as the communicants are in each other’s range of “sight.” Distanced and deficient, humans still have to “see” in order to understand. The act of “seeing” alludes here to the in-sight required to understand the meanings of signs and symbols. Distant from the symbol maker though they may be, those with in-sight are able to consume the distance, to draw near, to see and comprehend the intentions. Through symbols they comprehend what words cannot express or voice convey. In this sense, the significance of symbolism lies not in the symbol itself but in the meanings it communicates, the reality it unveils. Symbols are, therefore, not sought for themselves but for what they symbolize, for the insights they instil, the possibilities they disclose, and the meanings they deliver. In a hierarchically ordered universe, the unseen, while setting itself apart from the seen by ontological distance and deficiency, projects a universal medium with an immense revelatory power, the medium of symbolism.

  • Shadows of the Immutable

In the Futuhat Ibn ‘Arabï draws our attention to an intriguing phenomenon. As we all know, an object standing before a source of light projects a shadow that maps the object and remains attached to it. With the inclination of the light source, however, the shadow may extend well beyond the height of the object.

In fact, it can extend indefinitely despite being a projection of a definite height. Ibn ‘Arabï prompts us to ask how the definite, the measurable, can project the indefinite, the immeasurable, and what does this allude to in the language of symbolism? These questions lead to interesting interpretations. The phenomenon of shadow has always intrigued the human mind. The shadow’s curious relationship to the object it maps has often formed the object of philosophical reflections. In the famous cave narrative, Plato constructs his hierarchical structure of the universe using the shadow metaphor. The Quran also presents some thought-provoking statements on shadow: “Have you not seen how your Lord has spread the shadow (zill)? And had he willed, he could have made it still” (25:45).

‘Abd al-Razzâq al-Qâshânï (d. 1330), a celebrated commentator on Ibn ‘Arabï’s works, reflects on the shadow phenomenon from the standpoint of universal manifestation.

For a shadow to appear, he says, three things must necessarily exist:

 an object to cast a shadow, a ground whereupon the shadow to fall, and a light source to project the shadow. If we are to think of the creative process in terms of shadow projection, then the “object” can be taken to represent absolute Being, the “ground” on which the shadow falls to represent the archetypal essences of all possible beings, and the “light” that projects the shadow to represent the divine outward presence.

In the same vein of thinking, Ibn ‘Arabï views the world as the exact shadow (zill) of the Absolute, manifesting at three different levels. Before the transcendental “light” of the Absolute extends the highest level of shadow, the archetypal forms, a’yan thabita, “immutable essences” or “immutable entities.”

From these essences extends the second level of shadow, the natural beings that project the immutable essences in embodied forms.

From these embodied forms extends the third level of shadow, the sensible shadows that project the silhouette of natural bodies on sensible surfaces.

Theoretically coherent, this structure of reality raises some philosophical questions. First, one would want to know where the “ground” upon which the shadow falls has come from, and what is its ontological reality? Without a “ground,” as al-Qâshânï observes, the shadow would remain potentially contained in the object; it would remain an intelligible occurrence as a tree within a seed. At the first and second levels, the Sufis argue, there is no distinction between the shadow and the ground. Both the immutable essences and the concrete beings are at once the ground and the shadow. Only at the third level the distinction occurs.

Insofar that the second phase of shadows is actualized in the tangible forms of all existents, Ibn ‘Arabi argues, sensible existents can be regarded as the real shadows. The immutable essences, by contrast, are nonexistent sensibly: “they have not even smelt the fragrance of existence.”

If we are to imagine the process of shadow projection as being instantaneous, then sensible beings can be seen as the ground on which the shadow of immutable essences falls. Twice removed from the source of light, they project the embodiment of the immutable essences into the physical world.

This relationship is compared to that between, for example, the idea of woodness and its embodiment in every piece of wood, and in every chair, table or box made out of wood; or to the idea of quadrature and its embodiment in every square and in every paper, book, or house made in a square form. It is also like the quality of whiteness in every white color and of humanity in every human being; they are always the same, neither changing nor multiplying with the indefinite variety of white colors and humans that can possibly exist.

In all these cases none of the intelligible realities can be said to have formed part of the things in which they are manifested, nor, of course, can it be said that any of them has been multiplied by the multiplicity of forms in which it has appeared. The reality  (haqiqa) of woodness, quadrature, whiteness, and humanity is revealed equally in each embodied manifestation.

Another set of philosophical questions can be raised from the Quranic perspective.

 If all existents in the heavens and the earth are no more than shadows, then how can one make sense of the Quranic verse that says: “And unto God prostrates whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is in the earth of living creatures and the angels” (16:49); “and the stars and the trees prostrate (in worship)” (55:6). What is the ontological mode of “prostration” in this context?

Ibn ‘Arabi’s answer is passivity. He interprets the act of prostration as the passive nature of shadow, always dependent on and determined by the reality it projects. This applies to all degrees of shadows.

God refers to all existents as prostrating themselves before Him because, as shadows, they project the original passivity of the immutable essences. When the shadows of the immutable essences come into existence in the form of heaven, earth, sun, moon, stars, mountains, trees, beasts, and every other being, he says, they naturally reflect the tendency of their archetypes.

Through this ontological nexus between the lower and higher degrees of shadow Ibn ‘Arabi explains how the sensible shadow of definite objects can be indefinite. In this he reveals how symbolism works by tracing back the process of universal manifestation. The shadow of natural bodies, in being an integral part of this universal hierarchy, acquires symbolic power. Although the last and farthest in the chain of differentiation, it nonetheless carries within it qualities that point toward its transcendental reality. Symbolism derives its effectiveness from this unbroken nexus of projections, and the symbol’s efficacy lies in its capacity to bring into the phenomenal world a quality of the Absolute. The indefinite extension of shadow, Ibn ‘Arabi explains, is a reminder of the infinite reality whence a being proceeded. Between two immeasurable shadows (that is, the immutable essence and the sensible shadow), we appear in measurable bodies, yet we remain bounded by two immeasurable presences. The extension of sensible shadow seeks that intermediary presence of the immutable essences, which in turn seeks the presence of absolute Being (al-wujud al-mutlaq), which reveals itself through the attribute of “Light.”

The power of symbolism hinges on such ontological conception, wherein existential differentiations are projected as degrees of manifestation sequentially crystallized. Sensible beings, as symbols, are determined and conditioned by the intelligible realities they embody, revealing an ontological dependency on the higher degree of existence they reflect, just as the shadow is inherently dependent on the object it projects. This ontological link that ties all levels of existence together into a continuous chain is reflected in the premodern Islamic view of making, wherein sensible objects take their final shape through an ontological sequence of differentiation, making it possible to trace a sensible form back to its original source.

  • Making and the Chain of Differentiation

Ibn ‘Arabï’s ontology of shadow, expressive though it may be, remains a broad-brush sketch of universal manifestation with only three ontological “rings” in the chain of differentiation. Around three centuries earlier, Ikhwân al-Safâ’ provided a more detailed picture of the process of differentiation, which they discussed with reference to the notion of making at the human, natural, and divine levels.

Relying on the premodern philosophical notions of form (süra) and matter (hayülâ), the Ikhwân established a nuanced chain of differentiation that ties human and natural artefacts up to the original source. Following the theoretical models inherited from the Greeks, most medieval Muslim philosophers worked with the notions of form and matter; however, the Ikhwân were probably among the earliest to articulate their pertinence to the arts (sanâ’i’) in a systematic manner.

Their Pythagorean, Neoplatonist perspective is particularly instructive with regard to showing how the hierarchical conception of the universe influences the way in which the notion of making (san’a) is understood and theorized. They also show how the sensible-intelligible polarity plays out in the context of designing and how all fit in structured hierarchies of form, matter, and designed objects.

In their Rasâ’il the Ikhwân teach that every manifested object, whether artificial (man-made) or natural, necessarily comprises two fundamental components: form and matter.

By “matter,” the Ikhwân explain, philosophers mean generally “every substance (jawhar) that admits form”; and by “form” they mean “every shape and motif a substance is able to admit.”

Since different things can be made from the same matter, they add, it is form that is considered responsible for the differences between things.

Know that existents differ by form not matter. For we find many things that have one substance while their forms are different, such as a knife, a sword, an axe, a saw, and all that is made from iron, be it a machine, an instrument, or a container. The difference in the names of these things derives from their different forms and not from their different substances. With respect to their substance, the iron, they are all one. Likewise is a door, a chair, a bed, a ship, and all that is made from timber, the difference in their names derives from their different forms. As for their matter, the timber, they are all one. This is the way in which matter and form are considered to be in all artefacts (masnü’ât), since it is necessary for any artefact to have a matter and a form in its composition.

The Ikhwan further explain that the process of making (san’a) involves necessarily two kinds of art: practical art (san’a ‘amaliyya) and theoretical art (san’a ‘ilmiyya).

The former refers to the sensible production of an artefact, whereas the latter refers to the knowledge that leads to such production, with both being subject to external forces that initiate and propel the operation of making. They make no distinction between making and designing for utilitarian and artistic purposes. In the epistle on practical arts the Ikhwan write: “Practical art is the artificer, the knower, externalizing the form that is in his mind and placing it in matter. The artefact is a whole made up of matter and form together. This begins by the influence of the Universal Soul on the process forced by the impetus of the Universal Intellect with the order of God—exalted be his praise.

In this theoretical articulation the act of designing acquires cosmological dimensions, and the designed object acquires symbolic significance through the sequential process of differentiation that causes it to exist. Such conception renders all human or natural makings as stages of differentiation in a universal, existential process. In the original source everything is conceived as a non-differentiated totality, and the further bodies are from this source the more intricate and complex they become. The Ikhwan write:

The shirt is a form with regard to the cloth, and the cloth is matter for the shirt; the cloth is a form with regard to the yarn, and the yarn is matter for the cloth; the yarn is a form with regard to the cotton, and the cotton is matter for the yarn; the cotton is a form with regard to the plant, and the plant is matter for the cotton; the plant is a form with regard to the arkan (elements), and the arkan are matter for the plant; the arkan are a form with regard to the [Ab¬solute] Body, and the Body is matter for the arkan; the Body is a form with re-gard to the [Prime] Substance, and the Substance is matter for the Body. Likewise, the bread is a form with regard to the dough, and the dough is mat¬ter for the bread; the dough is a form with regard to the flour, and the flour is matter for the dough; the flour is a form with regard to the grain, and the grain is matter for the flour; the grain is a form with regard to the plant, and the plant is matter for the grain . . . This is the way in which form relates to matter and matter to form [in a sequential manner] until they terminate with the Prime Matter (al-hayula al-‘ula), which is nothing but the form of existence that in-cludes neither quality nor quantity. It is a simple Substance—without any kind of synthesis whatsoever—that is susceptible of all forms in a sequential order, as we showed, and not randomly. For instance, the cotton does not take on the form of the cloth until it has received the form of the yarn; and the yarn does not take on the form of the shirt until it has received the form of the cloth; like-wise, the grain does not take on the form of the dough until it has received the form of the flour; and the flour does not take on the form of the bread until it has received the form of the dough. In this order matter takes on forms one after the other.

As the binary principles of human making, form and matter are only a reflection at the human level of existence of a complex ontological structure and universal hierarchy. Making is viewed not to be an exclusively human activity: God and nature also make. Accordingly, the Ikhwán distinguish four kinds of making and four types of artefacts: human (bashariyya), natural (tabi`iyya), psychic (nafsaniyya, referring to the Universal Soul), and divine (ilahiyya). This differentiation relates to the four different types of matter: matter of artificial work (hayula al-sina`a), matter of natural work (hayula al-tabi`a), Universal Matter (hayula al-kull), and Prime Matter (al-hayula al-‘ula).115 The Ikhwán explain:

The matter of artificial work is every body (jism) out of and in which an artificer works his art, such as the timber for carpenters, the iron for ironsmiths, earth and water for builders, the yarn for weavers, and the flour for bakers. Accordingly, it is necessary for every artificer to have a body to work his art from and in it. This body is the matter of artificial work . . . Natural matter is the four elements (arkan). All that is found in the sublunary sphere, the animals, plants, and minerals, come from the elements and by corruption return to them. The active nature responsible for this process is one of the forces of the celestial Universal Soul . . . Universal Matter is the Absolute Body, from which is drawn the entire world, that is, the celestial spheres, the stars, the elements, and all beings. These are all bodies whose diversity derives from their diverse forms. As for Prime Matter, it is a simple, intelligible substance that cannot be sensed, for it is the form of being proper. It is the Original Identity (al-huwiyya).

Made objects or artefacts correspond directly to this ontological structure, with each type of artefact corresponding to its respective level of matter. Human artefacts correspond to the matter of artificial work; natural artefacts to the matter of natural work; psychic artefacts to Universal Matter; and divine artefacts to Prime Matter. The Ikhwán further illustrate the four types of artefacts in the following examples:

The human artefacts are those shapes, motifs, and paints, which craftsmen work in natural objects . . . The natural artefacts are the sensible forms of the animals, the diverse shapes of the plants, and the colors of the mineral’s sub¬stances. The psychic artefacts are those such as the pattern (nizam) of the four elements: fire, air, water, and earth, which are in the sublunary sphere, the composition of the [celestial] spheres, and the formal pattern of the entire world. The divine artefacts are the abstract forms without matters: the inventions by the inventor of all invented things . . . an existence from non-existence . . . a thing from no-thing; one impulse without time, nor place, nor matter, nor form, nor movement.

Logically, the ontological differentiation of matter demands a corresponding differentiation of form. Such differentiation coincides with the process of, as it were, the “coagulation” or “condensation” of matter, that is, with the procession from Prime Matter, the simple spiritual form that possesses no qualifications, to the qualified and perceptible matter of particular objects.

The coagulation of matter is effected by the successive manifestation of three forms or ideas: Original Identity (huwiyya), Quantity (kammiyya), and Quality (kay-fiyya). The Ikhwân explain:

When the Original Identity admits Quantity it becomes the Absolute Body that is referred to as having three dimensions—length, breadth, and depth. And when this Body admits Quality, that is, the shape, like circularity, triangularity, quadrature, and others, it becomes a special body referred to by the name of whatever shape it takes. Thus Quality is as number 3, Quantity as 2, and the Original Identity as 1. Just as 3 comes after 2, so does Quality come after Quantity; and just as 2 comes after 1, so does Quantity come after the Original Identity, which precedes Quantity and Quality as 1 precedes 2 and 3 and all the numbers.

Al-huwiyya, interpreted here as “Original Identity,” refers to the primordial substance that precedes all substantial differentiation. It identifies the intimate state of divine Being designated by Sufis as huwa (he), hence the name huwiyya. The Ikhwân explain: “Identity, Quantity, and Quality are simple, intelligible forms that cannot be sensed. When related to one another, some act as matter while others as form. Quality is a form in Quantity, while Quantity is matter for Quality. Quantity is a form in Identity, and Identity is matter for Quantity.” This is the archetypal model of the chain of differentiation that establishes an unbroken chain, linking human, natural, and divine acts of making.

Along their chain of differentiation, the Ikhwân further articulate the onto-logical nature of objects with regards to their forms. They distinguish two kinds of forms: necessary and complementary. The formation of any sensible object, they posit, necessarily comprises sura muqawwima, “necessary” or “fundamental form,” and sura mutammima, “complementary” or “perfective form.” These can also be referred to respectively as “sura jawhariyya,” “essential form,” and “sura ‘aradiyya,” “accidental form.”

Both the necessary and complementary forms can be understood in a universal as well as particular sense. In the universal sense, the necessary form is the foundational quality of all bodies in space, that is, of having the three dimensions of length, breadth, and depth.

The complementary form is what complements the necessary form, giving the object its sensible characteristics and bringing it to its most perfect state. It includes such things as configuration, movement, light, purity, and so on. Thus viewed, an object has one necessary form but many complementary ones. The Ikhwân explain:

The necessary form of a thing is that which brings with its parting the thing’s matter the termination of its existence. Whereas the complementary form is that which brings the thing to the noblest states it is capable of reaching, and whose parting the matter of the thing brings no termination to its existence. For example, when the forms of stillness and movement part a body, its existence is not terminated; but when the form of the three dimensions of length, breadth, and depth parts the matter of a body, the body ceases to exist.”

In its particular sense, the Ikhwan’s concept of ‘necessary and complementary form’ finds applications at the level of human making or art. One form can at the same time be necessary and complementary with regard to different aspects of the same artefact. For example, the form of a shirt, which manifests by the act of sewing, is a necessary form with regard to the essence of the shirt but complementary with regard to its material. For as long as the shirt remains in the form of unsewn pieces of material, the shirt as such does not exist, but the material itself does. And insofar as the action of sewing brings the material to a better state as a shirt (since any wrought object is viewed to be better than its raw material base), the form of the shirt is complementary with regard to its material. The same can be said about the form of the material that manifests by the act of weaving: it is a necessary form with regard to the essence of the material but a complementary form with regard to the yarn. For once the form of weaving parts the yarn there would be no material as such, but the yarn would remain.

  •  The Agency of Imagination

The Islamic concepts of ‘form’ and ‘matter’ directly relate to the concept of ‘imagination’ (khayal), which is often described as a rarefied substance capable of admitting and manipulating sensory forms once abstracted from their material entrapment.

Imagination is generally thought of as having mnemonic, representational, and creative functions; however, it is its ontological status that provides indispensable insights into its agency in the Sufi view of symbolism. Within the sensible-intelligible polarity Muslim philosophers and mystics artic-ulated a concept of imagination with two distinct functions: dreaming and imagining.

Dreaming is an involuntary act that formed the focus of mystical and rational sciences concerned with visionary experiences, dream interpretation, and divine inspiration.

Imagining is, by contrast, a voluntary, multifaceted function that formed the focus of a range of sciences concerned with the nature of the soul and its intellectual faculties. With regard to creativity, the act of imagining was viewed as involving the retaining of images perceived through the senses by memory (al-quwwa al-hafiza), the recalling of images when they are no longer in contact with the senses, and the composing of new images by the form-giving faculty (al-quwwa al-musawwira). Imagination was also seen to mediate both analogical reasoning and symbolic representation by bringing abstract concepts and sensory forms together in meaningful relationships.

In addition to being an essential cognitive instrument, Sufi viewed imagination as the creative cause of our existence and the powerful agency that enables us to remain in contact with the infinite and the Absolute. “He who does not know the status of imagination,” Ibn ‘Arabi asserts, “is completely devoid of knowledge.”

Imagination was viewed to operate within the ontology and hierarchies of form and matter. In the subtle matter of imagination, forms become free from the restraining forces of their sensible matter, and as such they can be easily merged and fused into one another. In this sense, the creative nature of human imagination becomes its capacity to deal with and manipulate the abstracted forms in whatever way it wishes. According to the Ikhwân, this is how, for example, “one can imagine a camel standing on the top of a palm tree or a palm tree on the back of a camel, a bird with four legs, a horse with two wings, a donkey with a human head.”

 In this sense, the creative power of human imagination can be explained with reference to its ability to deconstruct available forms and reconstruct new familiar and unfamiliar forms that embody new meanings.

Ibn ‘Arabï further explains that although the senses might not have perceived the new images composed by the human imagination in their composed form, their elementary components must have been sensibly perceived. Human imagination, he stresses, cannot deal with anything that does not have, in part or in whole, sensible form.

This means that our individual imagination is inextricably bound to the sensory world. All the elementary data that fill our imaginary reservoir are extracted by our senses through contact with the phenomenal world so that our imagination has no power of creatio ex nihilo. We are, nevertheless, able to synthesize things creatively in our imagination according to new, unfamiliar patterns, as when, for example, we form an image of a creature half man and half horse even though there is no sensory model for such an image. Neither the image of man nor that of the horse, how-ever, is a pure product of our imagination, but are both no more than imaginary reflections of sensory prototypes. Al-Ghazâlï maintains a similar argument, showing the dominant role of vision over other senses in the process of imaginary constructions and interpretations.

Ibn ‘Arabï’s teachings have given the concept of imagination ontological dimensions. Ibn ‘Arabï differentiates three entities at the highest universal level: al-wujud al-mutlaq, “absolute Being,” al-‘adam al-mutlaq,absolute non-Being,” and a barzakh, “mediator,” that delimits the two. The first is the unrestricted existence of God, the necessary Self-existent; the second is the non-Self-existent; and the third is the intermediary domain of archetypes of all possible existents (al-mumkinat).

Note:  Existence = non being : The word “existence” comes from the Latin word exsistere meaning “to appear”, “to arise”, “to become”, or “to be”, but literally, it means “to stand out” (ex- being the Latin prefix for “out” added to the causative of the verb stare, meaning “to stand”). In a technical sense, this refers to standing out of both being and becoming, thus having the qualities of both.

The intermediary world, or the “isthmus,” as Ibn ‘Arabï calls it, derives from the Quran, which makes more than one allusion to its nature: “He has loosed the two seas to meet, yet between them stands an isthmus (barzakh), which they cannot overrun” (55:19–20); “It was he who brought forth the two seas; the one sweet and fresh, the other salt and bitter, and set between them an isthmus (barzakh) and an insurmountable barrier” (25:53). These verses portray an image of two integral domains, the “two seas,” that are at once related and separated by an intermediary “barrier.”

Note; Khidr at the meeting of the 2 seas

Where the Two Seas Meet: —The Quranic Story of al-Khidr and Moses Quran 18 Sufi teachers often refer to al-Khidr, the immortal Green Man, the guide of Moses in the Qur’an (18:60-82), to whom Sufi saints or spiritual masters are connected, to validate spiritual authority, teaching or practice. Read more


Just as the borderline between light and shadow, the barrier through its unitive-separative nature brings together the two neighboring domains into a productive relationship. Acting as a common horizon that reflects the realities of both bordering worlds, the barzakh is the medium through which the delivery of the world from potentiality to act is effected.

The world becomes, as it were, the “child” born from the fruitful marriage of absolute Being and absolute non-Being.

Note: see Blessed Virgin Mary – Mystical Commentary

Carrying the “genetic structure,” so to speak, of its “parents,” the created world is likewise tripartite. It is made of higher, lower, and intermediary realms. The higher world is the realm of the unseen, of spiritual being, of angelic forms, and of abstract meanings; whereas the lower world is the realm of the seen, of corporeal being, of the senses and sensible forms, and of natural bodies. In between there lies the third realm, which Ibn ‘Arabi calls “‘alam al-khayal,” the “world of imagination.” It is the realm that combines the characteristics of its two bordering worlds; it is the place where the spirituality of the unseen is integrated into the corporeality of the seen to create the subtlety of the imaginary.

It is the ontological level at which spirits manifest in sensible matrices and abstract meanings take on bodily forms.

As the dream world, the world of imagination is at once real and unreal, wherein things feel touch-able yet remain unreachable. Imaginable forms, like dreams, have an apparitional or phantasmal quality: they are perceivable, meaningful forms yet without physical presence. They are neither purely sensible nor purely abstract. Like an image in a mirror, it is visible, yet not there; it is visible but without a body; and like an illusive mirage, it is there yet it can never be reached.

These are the qualities of the isthmian world of imagination. The elusive nature of imaginary forms derives from its intermediary function between the pure and the gross, the spiritual and the physical, the meaningful and the sensible. The world of imagination is the level of existence where this duality is resolved: where the pure is embodied and the body is purified. Imagination is the world where meaning and form marry, generating a new world that is at once uniting and separating its parental domains, just like the twilight zone, which unites and separates light and darkness.

“Know that you are an imagination,” Ibn ‘Arabï says, “and everything that you perceive, and of which you would say ‘this is not me,’ is also an imagination. So the whole being is an imagination within an imagination.

Here Ibn ‘Arabï alludes to more than one level of imagination. In keeping with his universal hierarchy and concept of ‘shadow,’ Ibn ‘Arabï distinguishes three ontologically different levels of imagination: a transcendental, unrestricted imagination, khayal mutlaq, “absolute imagination”; an all-encompassing imagination, khayal mun-fasil, “detached imagination”; and an encompassed imagination, khayal muttasil, “attached imagination.”

The notion of imagination, however, still designates two different, yet related, things: a state of being and a creative capacity. As a creative capacity, the “detached” and “attached” polarity differentiates between the divine and human modes of creativity.

 Attached imagination, Ibn ‘Arabï explains, designates our ability to abstract, conceive of, and manipulate forms. It is our imagining faculty operating within the human psychological framework. It is called “attached” because it is, as Corbin explains, “an imagination conjoined to the imagining subject and inseparable from him.” Corbin refers to it as “dependent imagination” because it depends in its existence on “detached imagination” which he translates as “autonomous.”

“Detached” or “autonomous imagination,” by contrast, refers to a higher creative capacity that causes all imaginable forms to exist. The forms conceived by “attached imagination” are extracted by the senses from natural forms, which are a part of the cosmic forms that belong to a self-subsisting presence independent of the imagining subject. Detached imagination is divine imagination, God imagining the world; it is the presence of the world in the divine mind.

Attached imagination is human imagination, man imagining the forms of existents brought into existence by the creative power of divine imagination; it is the presence of things in the human mind.

 Attached imagination depends upon detached imagination, and the human act of imagining is no more than a participation in the latter. Ibn ‘Arabi says: “from this detached imagination the attached imagination derives.”

While both have creative power, detached and attached imaginations are fundamentally different: one is permanent and the other transitory. The permanence of the detached derives from divine eternity, whereas the transience of the attached is a reflection of the humans’ ephemerality.“The distinction between attached and detached imagination is that the attached vanishes when the one who is imagining vanishes; the de-tached is an essential presence (hadra dhâtiyya) permanently receiving meanings and spirits so that it embodies them by its special capacity.”

In that human imagination has the power of participating in the world of detached imagination, it is capable of composing an infinite number of different kinds of images; but in that it is confined to the sensible domain, its elementary data are limited. It follows that out of the limited data that human imagination has at its disposal humans have the capacity to synthesize as many forms as there are possibilities latent in the world of detached imagination.

Here one observes that compared with the divine imaginative power human capacity fades into insignificance; and despite the infinite possibilities available to God the forms composed in the divine imagination and revealed to us through the process of manifestation follow certain, specific, and well-defined patterns (the natural patterns that govern the created world).

The questions may then be asked: If the human imagination is capable of composing an indefinite variety of forms, which includes, as the Ikhwan put it, “images that have corresponding realities and others that do not,” what is the value of the composed forms that have no corresponding realities or archetypal patterns? What is the value of the imaginary form composed of, say, half man and half horse, if it is a mere possibility?

There are no simple answers to such questions, of course, for aesthetic as well as religious values play a role. Although Ibn ‘Arabi does not address this question, some cues can be found in his teachings. Imagination, he teaches, is corrupt when it does not conform to the realities.

An imagined form has to correspond to its reality to be regarded as falling in the category of “mental existence” (al-wujüd al-dhihni). “Mental existence,” he writes, “is the known (al-ma’lüm) being imagined in the soul according to what it is in reality; but if the conceived image does not conform to reality, that would not be an existence of the known in the mind.”

As an all-encompassing, permanent presence, the world of detached imagination can then be seen as governing the human attached imagination by setting an immutable code for it. Such a code, whose content is made up of the cosmic realities, is considered necessary to prevent the human imagination from degenerating into a kind of fantasy. Participating in this realm of realities, human imagination can become either a valuable source of knowledge when it complies with the realities of that code or can become corrupt fantasy when it does not.

Furthermore, an ignorant person, Ibn ‘Arabï teaches, is one who speaks of, or believes in, what he forms in his soul while that which he has formed has no corresponding form other than itself.

Any imaginary form that has no “existential presence” (hadra wujudiyya) governing its existence is produced by ignorance, and the producer is ignorant. “And anything that has no form except in the soul of its speaker,” he adds, “vanishes from existence with the vanishing of his saying or the vanishing of his memorizing what he may have fancied from his speech, for there is no existential presence that governs its existence.”

With regard to its elementary components, however, whatever is composed in man’s imagination necessarily has corresponding archetypes, for human imagination cannot escape the world of archetypes, which Ibn ‘Arabï says contains the essences of all possible things. But with regard to a composed form, if it has no existing archetype, it would be in-significant, for it would point to nonexistence (al-‘adam). The sensible form produced according to an insignificant imaginary form has, according to Ibn ‘Arabï, no “fatherly” principle determining its existence but only a “motherly” principle, the producer himself.

  • Imagining, Knowing, and Making

In their definition of practical art, quoted above, the Ikhwân referred to the one who brings out the form from his mind and places it in matter as “al-sani’ al-‘alim,” “the artificer, the knower.” They associate art (san’a) with knowledge (‘ilm),” assigning to knowledge as essential a role in the artistic operation as the skills of the artificer. Yet it is only natural for the Ikhwân to attribute knowledge to the artificer since in their view the forms retained in the artificer’s mind are received through the act of knowing. Knowing, they say, is nothing but “the soul imagining the form of the known”; and “knowledge is nothing but the form of the known [retained] in the soul of the knower”; whereas “art (san’a) is nothing but the bringing out of this form, which is in the soul of the artificer, the knower, and placing it in matter.

Thus the artificer has necessarily to be a knower if he is to claim possession of any form in his mind. Such view makes art and knowledge an indissoluble whole. It also assigns to imagination an essential role in the human act of knowing, whereby the known becomes identical with the imagined forms of information imprinted in the knower’s soul. In al-Risala al-Laduniyya, a treatise that deals with the nature of esoteric knowledge, al-Ghazâlï gives similar definitions. “Know that knowledge is the imagining (tasawwur) by the rational, tranquil soul of the realities of things and their abstract forms in themselves and in their qualities, quantities, substances and essences if they are simple. And the knower is the one who encompasses, conceives and imagines, and that which is known is the essence of the thing, the knowledge of which is engraved upon the soul.”

Note: see Ananda Coomaraswamy:Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art  and What is Civilisation

Both definitions conflate the acts of knowing and of imagining. Ibn ‘Arabï, however, has a somewhat different view. For him, the act of knowing is clearly distinguishable from the act of imagining. Knowledge, he says, is not imagining the form or the meaning of the known because not every known can be imagined or every knower have the ability to imagine. If a knower can imagine the form of the known, this would point to his imaginative capacity, for there are things that can only be known without being imagined. The best example is God. Ibn ‘Arabï writes:

The conceiver and that which can be conceived—each is of two kinds. There is a conceiver that knows and has imaginative power and a conceiver that knows but has no imaginative power. There is also a conceived thing that has a form, according to which it can be known but not imagined by the one who has no imaginative power, and known and imagined by the one who has imaginative power, and a conceived thing that has no form and can be known only . . . Knowledge is not conceiving the form of the known, nor is it the mean-ing of the known being formalized. Because not every known admits form nor every knower is able to conceive of form. Form-conception is related to the knower through the latter’s ability to imagine, and form is related to the known through the state in which it is accessible to imagination. And since there are knowable matters that are originally inaccessible to imagination, it is certain that they have no form.

Thus, form, in relation to the known, is the state of the known that can be grasped and retained by human imagination. And since Ibn ‘Arabï considers the data of our imaginary repertoire to be restricted to the confines of our sensory perception, human imagination is incapable of grasping anything that has no likeness, in whole or in parts, in the sensible world. It follows that the Quranic description of God as “Naught is as his likeness” (42:11) designates a reality to which human imagination cannot ascribe a form, for it has no likeness in comparison to which it may be grasped. This reality, however, can be known as it is in itself, that is, being without likeness. Accordingly, knowledge for Ibn ‘Arabï is “the acquisition, by the heart, of a particular matter according to what it is in itself, whether existent or nonexistent. Knowledge is the attribute that necessitates the act of acquisition from the heart, the knower is the heart, and that which is known is that acquired matter.

Apart from the polemics on the nature and knowing and imagining, both views share some discursive grounds with regard to the notion of making. In Arabic “form(sura), “imagining” (tasawwur), and the act of “drawing,” “painting” and “forming” (taswir), all derive from the verbal root sawwara which means “to form,” “to configure,” “to fashion,” “to draw,” and “to paint.

In the Rasa’il, the Ikhwân deal with the notion of art, using the term san’a (plural, sana’i’), “craft” and “craftsmanship.” The term derives from the verbal root sana’a, which has several related meanings: “to do,” “to make,” “to manufacture,” hence, sina’a is “industry,” “to fabricate,” and “to create”; hence, God is sani’, the “artificer” of the world.

In articulating their notion of art, they make no distinction between different kinds of making: everything that people make seems to have been viewed as a work of art. In their view there is no such thing as “fine arts” and “applied arts,” nor is there any distinction between “artist” and “craftsman” or “art” and “craftsmanship.

Certain crafts, however, are considered to be nobler than others according to their subject matter. The craft of calligraphy, for example, deals with the sacred letters of the Quran and is, therefore, considered to be nobler than carpentry, which deals with timber.

The Ikhwân polarize art into practical and intellectual in accordance with the philosophical distinction between the practical and intellectual faculties of the soul. Ibn ‘Arabï further articulates this view by polarizing forms into outward and inward. The outward forms are the tangible bodies together with all their sensible qualities, whereas the inward forms are the intelligible sciences, insights, and intentions that reside within the sensible forms.

Production occurs by the “marriage” of the practical and intellectual skills of the maker, whereby forms come into existence. Ibn ‘Arabï views the intellectual skill as representing the active, determining, fatherly principle, whereas the practical skill as representing the passive, determined, motherly principle. An artefact then becomes as it were the “child” born from this fruitful relationship. This productive process applies at different levels in the artistic operation and could even be performed by two different people, if one person does not possess both the practical and intellectual skills, as, for example, is the case with a knowledgeable geometer and a skillful carpenter. Ibn ‘Arabï explains:

If a geometer (muhandis), who is also a carpenter, is not skillful in practice, he may reveal the knowledge he has in the form of words to the hearing of one who is skillful in carpentry. This revelation causes a marriage relationship. The speech of the geometer is a father and the receptivity of the listener is a mother. The knowledge of the listener then becomes a father, and the organs of his body become a mother. And if you wish you may say that the geometer is a father, and the craftsman, who is the carpenter, in that he listens to what the geometer tells him, is a mother. Now if the geometer’s speech causes an effect in the carpenter, then the geometer has imprinted that which he has within him in the carpenter’s soul. And the form, which is revealed to the carpenter and occurred clearly in his imagination by what the geometer has told him, is as the child to whom his understanding has given birth. Then the carpenter’s work is a father with regard to timber, which is the mother of carpentry; and by means of the instrument the marriage and ejaculation of sperms occur, which is the effect of every hit by the hammer or cut by the saw, and every cut, separation, and union of the articulated pieces in order to compose forms.

Since knowledge has such a determining role in the making of things, it is important to ask what principles direct knowledge itself. “The nobility of knowledge,” says al-Ghazâlï, “is in accordance with the nobility of the thing known, and the rank of the knower corresponds to the rank of the knowledge.”

In a theocentric society like that of premodern Islam, religious principles naturally occupy the highest rank. The Sufis by the very nature of their devotional stance were, of course, at the forefront in calling for the upholding of the religious principles. For them all knowledge stems from God and should therefore be directed toward him. The ultimate aim of knowledge is God, and human sciences were viewed as so many paths leading to that. Al-Ghazâlï explains:

There is no doubt that the most excellent of things known, and the most glorious, and the highest of them, and the most honored, is God the maker (sani’), the creator, the truth, the one. For knowledge of him, which is knowledge of divine unity, is the most excellent branch of knowledge, the most glorious and most perfect. This knowledge is necessary and must be acquired by all rational beings . . . But this science, though it is excellent in essence and perfect in itself, does not do away with other sciences; indeed, it is not attained except by means of many antecedents, and those antecedents cannot be ordered aright except through various sciences, such as the science of the heavenly bodies and the spheres and the science of all made things. And from the science of divine unity derives other branches of science.

In that manifestation is viewed to have occurred in stages of progressional differentiation, knowledge is also conceived as having degrees that correspond with the universal order of things. The Ikhwân extend the hierarchy of knowledge up to its source, the Universal Soul. They posit that the souls of those who know (‘ulama) know in actuality, while the souls of those who are seeking knowledge (muta’allimun) know in potentiality.

The act of teaching, then, becomes the bringing out what is in potency into act. This relationship between the souls of the teachers and the pupils reflects that which exists between the Universal Soul and individual souls: the Universal Soul knows in actuality, and individual souls know in potentiality. “Thus, the more knowledge an individual soul has, and the more perfect its products are, the closer it is to the Universal Soul. For thus an individual soul becomes comparable to, and almost identical with, the Universal Soul.”

This understanding directs our attention to the criteria of perfection. From the Ikhwân’s perspective, perfection can be determined by measuring up the qualities of an artefact produced by an individual soul against the qualities of natural artefacts produced by the Universal Soul. The Ikhwân provide a means to achieve this perfection through the concept of necessary and complementary forms, already discussed. They say that among the innumerable complementary forms, which are responsible for bringing an artefact into its most perfect and noble state, are configuration, movement, light, and purity.

Configuration is triangularity, rectangularity, circularity, and similar geometrical forms; movement is any of its six kinds, one of which is translocation (al-naqla), which is of two kinds, circular and rectilinear; and light is of two kinds, essential (dhâtï) and accidental (‘aradï). Of these complementary forms, the Ikhwân explain, “The noblest of all configurations is the spherical … the most perfect of all movements is the circular . . . the most splendid of all lights is the essential, and the purest of all attributes is the transparent.

Clearly, the Ikhwân’s criteria derive from the world as the noblest and most perfect natural artefact. They say that the body of the world is spherical; the movement of its planets is circular, the light of its stars, except for the moon, is essential; and the quality of its spheres, apart from earth, is transparency.

Moving beyond nature up in the universal hierarchy, we find that nature was viewed to operate according to the divine knowledge, and its artefacts reflect the pattern of the higher divine realities. When a human artefact reflects or corresponds to the qualities of natural artefact not only would it resonate with the universal order, but also the maker would be measuring up his work against the work of divinity.

  • Divine Paradigms

Religious piety advocated by Sufis as well as other religious authorities encourages individuals to become God-like, to acquire the divine character according to human capacity.

An often quoted hadïth says to “acquire in yourselves the character of God.”The parameters within which this may be achieved are the divine names, of which the Quran lists the ninety-nine “most beautiful” ones (al-asmâ’ al-husnâ) and on which there exists a rich medieval genre. The Quran says: “To God belongs the names most beautiful; so call him by them” (7:180). The Prophet is reported to have said: “God has ninety-nine names, whoever recounts them enters paradise.

These divine names act as ideals for individuals, for, as Shehadi explains, “If God can be called by such and such names, and man can be called by the same names, and if names are attributive, then one can depict for man the ideal character of God in terms familiar to him. Then man can be enjoined to emulate that character.”

In this context, human achievements are at their best when they are in the likeness of the divine’s.

Note: see: An Analysis of Ibn al-‘Arabi’s al-Insan al-Kamil, the Perfect Individual,

The divine names were differentiated in premodern Islamic theology into three types: names of essence (asma’ al-dhat), names of actions (asma’ al-afal), and names of attributes (asma’ al-sifat).

Names of essence, such as the One (ahad), the Truth (haqq), concern God alone without regard to the created world. Names of actions, such as Form Giver (musawwir) and Creator (khaliq), concern God’s relations to the created word. Names of attributes, such as the Generous (karim), the Living (hayy), and the Powerful (qadir) concern the qualities of the essence that mediates between the other two.

In al-Maqsad al-Asna al-Ghazáli defines the meaning of each name, explaining to what extent an individual can participate in, or has the capacity to practice, the activities involved. He regards the names as constituting a norm that, on the one hand, defines the nature and the qualitative standard of all human activities and, on the other hand, establishes parameters for human morality and aspirations.

The perfection and happiness of humans, he says, lay in their adopting God’s characteristics and in embellishing their souls with the meanings of God’s names and attributes. A parallel to this view can be found in the Ikhwán’s articulation of the notion of art. They say that it is commonly recognized that God loves the skillful, diligent ar-tisan, as described in the hadith that says: “God loves the artisan who seeks perfection in his art.

Perfection, skill, and diligence in any kind of art, be it intellectual or practical, is to be “in the likeness of the wise artificer, who is God.

It is with reference to this, the Ikhwán say, that philosophy is defined as “the similitude of man with God according to human capacity.”

To emulate God’s work in the practice of art is to imitate the patterns and qualities of the di-vine artefacts, for he is the best artificer, the one who knows best, the wisest, and the noblest. By imitating God’s work, the Ikhwán add, one would be attempting to draw nearer to him, referring to the Quranic description of the attitude of the closest angels: “Those unto whom they cry, seeking the way of approach (al-wasila) to their Lord, which of them shall be the nearest” (17:57).

To “seek the way of approach” is interpreted as attempting to be as similar to God as human capacity permits through participation in his attributes, according to the Quranic view that one “has only that for which he makes an effort, and that his effort will be seen” (53:39–40).

Although it is not difficult, thanks to al-Ghazáli’s examples, to know which of the divine names are directly relevant to the making of architecture, it is not so easy to determine whether these examples relate to actual practices. Yet, even if al-Ghazáli was only using architectural examples in order to illustrate theological concepts, this can still be instructive with regard to the religious framework within which the making of architecture was perceived in premodern Islam. Had the analogy been invalid it would not have been so frequently used.

In the analogy quoted at the opening, al-Ghazali focuses on the nature of the creative act. The human act of bringing a building into existence, he observes, involves activities similar to those involved in the divine act of creating the world. Both involve the production of an exemplar first according to which the object is then made. In drawing the form of a house in whiteness an architect imitates the divine process of manifesting the forms of the world in the materia prima. The whiteness of a sheet of paper, in so far as it is capable of receiving an indefinitude of images, is analogous to the materia prima wherein, prior to the admission of formal differentiation, all possibilities were fused as a nondifferentiated totality. Ibn ‘Arabi also compares this process to “the casting of plaster by a builder in order to manifest in it whatever shapes and forms he wants.”

Shifting the focus to the process of production, al-Ghazali identifies three necessary actions for bringing an object from nonexistence to existence. These are: “designing” (taqdir), “bringing into existence” (ijad), and “form giving” (taswir). Designing involves both determination and measure; bringing into existence involves production; and form giving involves forming the produced object in accordance with its design. These three activities relate to three consecutive divine names, the Creator (al-khaliq), the Producer (al-bari),172 and the Form Giver (al-musawwir). Al-Ghazali writes:

Al-khaliq, al-bari, al-musawwir: it might be thought that these are synonymous names and that they all refer back to creation and innovation, but this is not so. Whatever is brought out from nonexistence to existence requires, first, design (taqdir), second, bringing into existence (ijad) in accordance with the design, and third, form giving (taswir) after being brought into existence. God, praised and exalted be he, is a creator (khaliq) in that he is a designer (muqad-dir); a producer (bari) in that he is an inventor (mukhtari’), able to bring things into existence (mujid); and a form giver (musawwir) in that he arranges the forms of his inventions in the best (ahsan) order.

This is like a building, which requires a designer (muqaddir) to determine what is needed in the way of timber, mud-bricks, area of land, the number of stories and their length and breadth. This is normally undertaken by an architect (muhandis), who forms and draws the building. Then a builder (banna) is needed to undertake the works whereby the building fundamentals occur. Then an adorner (muzayyin) is needed to chisel the surfaces and adorn its form. This is normally undertaken by a person other than the builder. This is the custom in designing, building and form giving.

Designing, producing, and form giving can thus be seen as forming the core activities of the creative process, be it divine or human. The analogy is not perfect, however. Human limitations introduce two main differences.

First, the completion of this creative process requires three different people, whereas God is at once “the designer, the one who brings into existence and the adorner, for he is the creator, the producer and the form giver.

Second, unlike the world the finished building can exist independently of its makers. The world, by contrast, is forever dependent on its creator in the manner of speech, which ceases to exist when speaking stops.

Al-Ghazâlï’s analogy provides insights into the nature of ornamentation in Islamic architecture. From al-Ghazâlï’s perspective, ornamentation forms an integral part of buildings and not merely superficial decoration. Identifying the name Form Giver with both the order of the universe and the ornamentation of buildings implies that an unornamented building could have been perceived as unordered or unfinished. In this sense, ornamentation is something that is normally thought of in the first stage of the building process, the stage of taqdir, since form giving is only meant to bring out what has already been predetermined in the design.

Al-Ghazâlï’s analogy also sheds some light on the general absence of human representations in Islamic art and architecture. Viewing the act of form giving (taswir), which includes drawing, painting, and modeling, as a participation in the divine name Form Giver leads naturally to considering other aspects of the creative act, like life giving. To depict the form of a living creature, such as humans and animals, is to make it incumbent upon the depicter to reproduce the living qualities of the creatures they depict. Being incapable of doing so, they would fall short of completing and perfecting their work. This is the line of reasoning presented by many Muslim scholars. Ibn ‘Arabï explains why the representation of animated creatures is not desirable while alluding at same time to other preferences.

The form giver (al-musawwir) is a man who goes on creating creatures that look like God’s creatures, while he is not a creator. Yet, he is a creator, because God said: “create from clay the likeness of a bird” (5:110). He has called him “creator” even though his creature has only the outward figure of a bird. The outward figure of the bird is its form (sura), and every form is capable of manifesting sensible life. God condemned and threatened the form giver because he has not completed the formation of his created form. For it is part of the completeness of its formation that its living nature should be manifest to the senses, and he has no power to do so. By contrast, the depiction of things whose living nature is not manifest to the sense, such as the plant, the mineral, the form of a celestial sphere, and various other configurations, is not like this.

Preoccupation with the precise definition of the human shares in the divine attributes, particularly those concerned with the creative act, must have influenced the ways in which premodern Muslims viewed and rationalized their own actions. As far as the names khâliq (Creator) and bâri’ (Animator) are concerned, al-Ghazâlï explains, the human share is simply nil. Humans have no access to these names except in a metaphorical sense. But so far as al-musawwir (Form Giver) is concerned, humans can claim a considerable share: “The servant’s share of this name is to acquire in his soul the image of being (sürat al-wujüd) in its entirety according to its form and order, until he grasps the form and order of the whole world as though he is gazing at it. From the whole he then descends to the details.”

The details include knowing the order of the sensible worlds—man, animal, plant, and mineral—as well as the order of the intelligible worlds—the spiritual and the angelic. Participation in the divine name Form Giver, as al-Ghazâlï puts it, points to the ultimate aim of the human creative endeavor:

This is the servant’s share of this name: the acquisition of the intellectual form (al-süra al-ilmiyya) that conforms with the existential form (al-süra al-wu-jüdiyya). For knowledge is a form in the soul congruent with the known. God’s knowledge of forms is the cause of their existence as external essences, and the forms that manifest these essences are the cause of the existence of the intel-lectual forms in man’s heart. Through this the servant benefits by acquiring knowledge through the meaning of the name Form Giver . . . thereby becoming, by virtue of acquiring this form in his soul, as though he is a form giver.