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Discourse 24.1 (2002) 51-62
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The Disclosure of the Intervening Image:
Ibn 'Arabî on Death
William C. Chittick
Existence is nothing but image
but in truth it is the Real.
Whoever understands this
has grasped the secrets of the path.
—Ibn 'Arabî 1
One of the best known and most controversial of Muslim thinkers, Ibn 'Arabî was born in Islamic Spain in 1165. He eventually settled in Damascus, where he taught and wrote for twenty years until his death in 1240. His intellectual radiance quickly spread throughout the Islamic world, from Black Africa and the Balkans to Indonesia and China. 2 Despite the fact that reformers and modernists have been targeting him since the nineteenth century as an emblem for every shortcoming of traditional Islamic society, in recent years his influence has been making a comeback. Largely dismissed as incoherent by the early Orientalists, he has been regarded with much more respect by recent scholarship.
Underlying Ibn 'Arabî's enormous literary output is the concern to explicate reality in all its dimensions. Although thoroughly rooted in the unifying vision offered by the Koran, he speaks as a universalist and not as a particularist, which helps explain some of the hostility that he stirred up even before our modern age of rampant parochialism and passionate ideology. Far from offering a "system," [End Page 51] as some modern observers have claimed, he displays instead a vast survey of legitimate points of view, symbolized by the "ninety-nine names of God" and the "124,000 prophets" that are said to have been sent from Adam down to Muhammad. Among the many basic topics that he explains with unprecedented detail and extraordinary insight is eschatology, the third of the three principles of Islamic faith after divine unity and prophecy. 3
In the secondary literature, Ibn 'Arabî is most commonly said to be the founder of the school of wahdat al-wujûd, "the unity of existence" or "the oneness of being," but this is an enormous oversimplification. If we must characterize him briefly, it would be better to think in terms of both his methodology and its fruit. The former he commonly calls tahqîq, which means verification, realization, and actualization. It is to utilize every available path to knowledge in order to know and experience the infinity of the self. 4 The "self"—nafs, a word that is also commonly translated as "soul"—is the subject that can take as its object everything in reality. The fruit of self-realization is called al-insân al-kâmil, "the perfect human being." 5
The perfection achieved through tahqîq involves an inner transformation such that the self comes to be identical with the infinity that it knows. The quest for omniscience has of course been present in Western thought at least since Aristotle, and it has obvious parallels in Hinduism and Buddhism. Peculiarly in Ibn 'Arabî's case, his voluminous and extraordinarily sophisticated writings are the clear fruit of achieving the goal—or so it has appeared to much of the later tradition. Ibn 'Arabî refers to the achievement of all-encompassing knowledge as the "Muhammadan station," thereby mythifying it in terms of the well-known Islamic teaching that Muhammad knew everything that had been revealed to all the prophets who had come before him. He also calls it "the station of no station" (maqâm lâ maqâm), meaning thereby that perfection is achieved only by those who know the self as no specific thing—neti neti as the Upanishads would have it. As long as human individuals experience themselves as confined and limited, they deserve to be called this or that. True freedom is achieved only by those who pass beyond every specificity. 6
If the human self is no specific thing, this is because it was created in the "image" (more literally "form," sûra) of God, who cannot be confined to any category. The tradition refers to the original purity of the human self as fitra, "primordial nature." The Prophet said, "Every child is born according to fitra...