Of the Tree and its Four Birds

It is He who is revealed in every face, sought in every sign, gazed upon by every eye, worshipped in every object of worship, and pursued in the unseen and the visible. Not a single one of His creatures can fail to find Him in its primordial and original nature.

-Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi

Ibn 'Arabi-or Abu 'Abd Allah Muhammad ibn al-Arabi at-Tâ'i al-Hâtimi, also called Muhyiddin, the Revivifier of the Faith-was born in 1165 C.E. in the city of Murcia in Muslim Andalusia, and died sixty-four years later in Damascus: a narrative traversal of the Islamic world more than mirrored by his encompassment of its internal, esoteric aspect. Called within the Sufi tradition the Shaikh al-Akbar, or Greatest Master, and seen as its ultimate exemplar of esoteric Knowledge, he was, among many other things, the author of approximately three hundred books, some of them no longer than a pamphlet, others comprising several volumes. The best known and doubtless most important of these are the Fusûs al-Hikam, in many ways the crystallization of a lifetime's gnosis, and the enormous Futûhât al-Makkiyah, which combines the functions of a spiritual encyclopedia and intimate autobiography. The work translated here (Risâlat al-Ittihad al-Kawni, likely written before the author's arrival in Mecca circa 1203 C.E.), combining verse, prose, and rhymed prose, is certainly one of Ibn 'Arabi's most beautiful and, while quite unlike any other of his books so far translated into English,1 is wholly characteristic of his genius.

In the history of monotheistic spirituality, in particular its Western, Abrahamic branch incorporating Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, you may find an aspected resemblance here and there, but there is really no one, from taproot to topmost leaftip, like Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi. In Islamic esotericism per se, especially with regard to its metaphysical and exegetical component, everyone before him is an anticipation and everyone after a commentator or interpreter.

In encountering Ibn 'Arabi you come upon the ultimate implications of monotheism whole and unaltered. Since in exoteric Islam the Unity and Absoluteness of God is the primary axiom, it follows that for its definitive esotericist a One and Absolute God implies the nonexistence of anything other than Himself, since that would qualify His Singleness and Absoluteness, and so there is not, in existence or the many shades of relative existence and nonexistence in the eighteen thousand Universes, anything other than He tout court. From this vantage point we pass to a world of apparently infinite paradox, actually a series of antinomic affirmations, logically exclusive of each other but united in the suprarational fact that is the One Existence, Being: the Universes are His appearance, He is the same as the existence of the things, although nothing can be associated with Him and He is transcendent from all qualification, even that of transcendence; everything that exists is the self-manifestation of possibilities latent in His essence, existentiated by His Mercy, yet the possibilities themselves choose their modes of being and demand existentiation from Him, so that their will is free and their own, and the consequences of their actions rebound upon themselves, although there is essentially no will but His, and He is transcendent from the existent things without difference although He is all their being and substance, and He perpetually guides them. The conscious, perfected human being-the normal run of humans are talking animals veiled from the Reality by the illusion of their own self-existence-is the complete reflection of its infinite and eternal Source, and it is precisely for the sake of this mirroring that the Absolute breathed His mercy upon the possibilities and potentials latent in Himself and permitted the Universes to become, although their existence is pure contingency, a veil, an illusion, and also the Truth in Truth, while there is only He, and nothing with or beside Him, ever. And so on, almost ad infinitum, according to each particular face of revelation implicit in the nature of the One Absolute Reality. Ibn 'Arabi's cosmology sometimes seems as detailed as the Universe whose ontology it addresses; at other times he demolishes all secondary consideration in a totalizing affirmation of the indivisible and unconditionable One, and these two halves of his vision do not exclude each other but are essentially the same, and cannot be halved. And as the Shaikh sometimes likes to put it: if you understand it, fine; and if not, then not.

What after Ibn 'Arabi's death came to be called the doctrine of the Unity of Being was not, however, some ultimate ingenuity of exegesis but the result of profound self-experience, and when you read one of his books you encounter in some measure the extraordinary and unaccountable individual who experienced it. His is a flavor one comes to recognize and distinguish from all others, a genius both inclusive of and beyond rational compass, a forthrightness challenging all complacencies, and at times a robustly humorous overturner of all cognitive convention. His complications dazzle and bewilder the intellect and imagination; alternately his bluntness can make even so bold a visionary as William Blake seem almost an equivocator by comparison at times.

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He is also a poet of extraordinary expressive power, as a reader of the Ittihad will quickly discover. The book begins with a preludinal poem which even in translation seems one of the great one-time-only coups of the worldlong poetic tradition:

From my insufficiency to my perfection, and from my deviation to my equilibrium

From my sublimity to my beauty, and from my splendor to my majesty

From my scattering to my gathering, and from my rejection to my communion

From my baseness to my preciousness, and from my stones to my pearls...

For thirteen lines Ibn 'Arabi's contemplation swings like a pendulum between the polarities of a self whose sphere of allusion and reference is the entire subsolar and sublunary world, with its risings and settings, breezes, boughs, and shade, its steeds and gazelles-an extraordinary ambit of discourse that shudders to a halt with the abrupt discovery of that self's isolation and the limits of its enclosured love. The last line of the section reveals the reality behind even so inspired and inevitable a self-absorption and uncovers the crux of its anguish-Do not blame me for my passion. I am inconsolable over Him who has fled me-but if we have left the sphere of the passional self and the romance of its poetics, it is not in obeisance to the dictates of a conventional mysteriosophy; neither will Ibn 'Arabi, as his accustomed readers know, end his quest with a conventionally diffuse devotional yearning for the Infinite as traditionally conceived: when the Shaikh al-Akbar seeks something he almost invariably finds it, on a large scale and in plenty.

When, after this reflective pause, the tolling of the polarities resumes, a measure of discrimination inserts itself into the cascade of couplets-Continuous is the light of knowledge; ephemeral the light of intuition -even, shortly, a teleology, and a changing a sense of quest:

So that I might bring to light what lies hidden in night's core...

To explain the mysteries' roots and express the realities' enigmas.

The author ends this phase of his invocation by affirming the Spiritual nature of his inspiration and by distinguishing it from that of the willfully ignorant.

Ibn 'Arabi then calls his book to order, announces its title, and dedicates it to Abu al-Fawâris Sakhr b. Sinân, a "master of the triads and dyads" in whose nature, manner, or teaching must surely lie the root of the introduction's uniquely "dyadic words of praise." Ibn 'Arabi then praises God, with reference to a particularly important Quranic passage-"Surely We created man with the most beautiful of constitutions," i.e., in the essential image of God, "then We reduced him to the lowest of the low," which in part is to say the mortality and limits of this world and especially the blinkered consciousnes we typically have in it-before resuming a rapturous poetics one might have thought eliminated by so firm a theological intrusion. In the following strophes, self and Self, essence and Essence, humanity and the properly Divine are both distinguished from each other-with particular reference to some occulted aspects of the individuated subjectivity-and revealed as inextricable. It might well take a lifetime's work to completely and correctly understand this short passage and all its implications.

In the last moment of this introductory section the author delineates still more precisely the book's locus of revelation: situated "on the equator," that is to say at the meeting-point, of "the most beautiful of constitutions" and the "lowest of degrees" that encompass between them the essential human state-the comprehensive conjunction of the Transcendent and the Manifest, in other texts the place where "the two seas meet," and where the Arc of Necessarily-so-ness and the Arc of Possibilities converge-metaphorically rendered here as the City of human habitation and the Sinai that is the archetypal site of human receptivity to the continous Divine self-revelation.

Having articulated the book's metaphysical context, Ibn 'Arabi plunges us into the heart of a drama drawn on a consciously cosmic scale-there is tremendous urgency behind the narrative from the first-evincing an impetuosity and directness, a singleness of feeling whose impassioned expressiveness is quite distinct from the Persian genius for decoration and ameliorative address to a normative audience, most familiar in the West in the work of Ibn 'Arabi's great near-contemporary Jelaluddin Rumi. In fact Rumi, recognized within the Sufi tradition as its ultimate exemplar of divine and spiritual Love, is not Ibn 'Arabi's opposite but his complement. Ibn 'Arabi is alleged to have seen the child Rumi and to have remarked upon his future greatness, but the two are more substantially and convincingly linked through Ibn 'Arabi's adopted son and great disciple Sadruddin i-Konevi, who was a friend and collaborator of Rumi's in Konya, the capital of thirteenth-century Seljuk Turkey; and it may be that Ibn 'Arabi and Jelaluddin Rumi are ideally understood in terms of each other, one expressing explicitly what is implicit in his counterpart.

Unlike the Turkish-Persian master, who usually took care to veil his Jelal, or fierce majestic aspect, Ibn 'Arabi not only rushes straight at the Truth but trusts It to let the chips fall where they may: subjective aftereffects and secondary concatenations are not his responsibility. Our author exemplifies not only the Arabic genius but the compressive power of the Arabic language, which like its cousin Hebrew and perhaps metaphorically the cosmos those languages characteristically describe, parlays a finite number of consonantal roots into an improbably multiform eloquence of expression.

Ibn 'Arabi shouts, "Alas, my burning heart. I fled from the universe and here I am in it. Where is what I seek?" and is answered by a voice remarkably like the one that addressed Job from the whirlwind-the author scruples to note that it comes from neither inside nor outside him-demanding where he was at the setting up of the Throne and the placement of the celestial couches, not to mention before the establishment of the supreme horizon, and so on for a staggering paragraph delineating the utter incommensurability of the human and the Divine.

The Voice from the Whirlwind quite silenced Job's inquiries, but the ever impetuous Ibn 'Arabi, registering that voice and its implications completely within himself, goes onward and inward through aspect after aspect in his quest for the entire unedited human reality's reflection of the Divine Itselfness. Through an audacity of question and answer, in a sort of active submission to the Reality's fullness of will, in a dialogue of extreme spiritual subtlety dense with Quranic allusion and references to the Shaikh's own extensive terminology-much of which must be lost upon the neophyte reader but which registers as strong gnostic drama regardless2 -Ibn 'Arabi finally arrives at the book's central image of revelation: a Tree with four Birds in its branches. Our author will converse with each of them.

Up to this point the protagonist's struggle has been to detach himself from the last traces of contingent creation and so address himself appropriately to the unqualified Reality. (Along the way, the reader will have noted Ibn 'Arabi's characteristic combination of the evocative and the categorical: "If you extract me from the crashing waves and deliver me from the horror of this gloomy night I will never more pronounce the adverb or the preposition of place." Later on, the Crow will tell him: "I am the lamp and the winds. I am the chain against the rock and the wing. I am the sea whose waves constantly strike one another. I am, of the countable, the singular and the paired.") Beginning with his converse with the Tree, our author has reached his goal, and everything that follows is fruition and abundant harvest.

At the very end of the text, Ibn 'Arabi tells us exactly what the Tree and the Birds represent, so it is probably best for the reader first to submit to their unassisted poetic authority. Still, for a reader unacquainted with the tradition and its symbology a few words of explication will probably not go amiss. Much of Ibn 'Arabi's personal terminology is a more abstract rendering of the language of the Quran, hence the Pen appears as the First Intellect, the Tablet as Universal Nature or Soul, and so forth. Of the Birds in the Tree, the third, or "strange Anqa," could certainly use a small interpretative assist, and a bit of speciation. Sometimes translated as Phoenix, the strange Anqa in any case is proverbially a bird that has a Name but no manifest Being-Ismi var, varlik yok, as almost any Turk will tell you-and hence is associated with the Reality of Realities, a mercurial entity which is the foundation of the world. The Reality of Realities is, as Ibn 'Arabi writes in The Book of the Description of the Encompassing Circles, "the all-embracing Universal which includes the temporal and the eternal, increasing by the multiplicity of existents without however subdividing by their fractioning... It is neither existent nor non-existent; it is not the world, yet it also is; it is other without being other, since otherness implies two existents, whereas sameness implies matching... resulting in a third notion qualified as form." It is also co-eternal with the eternal and co-temporal with the temporal. The Reality of Realities is the core of Ibn 'Arabi's logos doctrine, and ultimately it is perfectly manifested in the heart of the Perfected Human Being.

Amid all the beauty and allusiveness of Ibn 'Arabi's dialogue with the Tree and its Birds, I would especially point out the extraordinary peroration of the Crow, which is in part a reproach to spiritual types who in their height and fullness disdain the created world of bodies and limitation and night. Ibn 'Arabi says elsewhere that there are People of the Right Hand, who care only for spiritual things, and People of the Left Hand, who care only for the things of this world, and then there are the people who make no distinction between the spiritual and the mundane, and they are Those Who Have Been Brought Near-yet another piece of a rich, meticulously and majestically developed perspective that this short, lyrical and evocative book, youthful but already magisterial, with a conceptual spine strong as tensile steel, makes palpably real to the reader through the eloquence of its imagery and the uniqueness of its author's unforgettable voice.

1It has been translated into splendidly lyrical French by Denis Gril as Le Livre de l'Arbre es des Quatre Oiseaux (Paris: Les Deux Océans, 1984).

2The indispensable glossary of his terminology and précis of his metaphysics is The Twenty-Nine Pages (Roberton, Scotland: Beshara Publications, 1998).

Copyright 2004 by Rafi Zabor