December 1, 2015 By William Chittick

Anthropology of Compassion


Ibn Arabi, as most of us know, has commonly been called  Shaikhul Akbar, the greatest teacher. The main reason for this is that he explained in unprecedented detail and at the highest level of discourse all implications of the Islamic world view. The result was the vast synthesis of learning covering all basic fields of investigation including the Quran, Hadith, language, law, psychology, cosmology, theology, philosophy, and metaphysics. In delving into these fields, he wanted to show how each is built on the governing axiom of our all true knowledge, and how each can act as an aid in the actualization of true human nature. But what exactly is true human nature? This is what I am calling anthropology; the explication of the nature of the anthropos. It is this  explication that lies at the heart of Ibn Arabi’s writings. To get his vision of the real nature of the human self, however, we need to begin where he begins. And that is the governing axiom of the Islamic world view. It is Tawhid in one word, the assertion of unity. So, we need to begin with this foundational principle. What exactly does Tawhid mean literally? Its first meaning is to utter the formula there is no God but God. Discussions of Tawhid focus on how to turn this verbal statement into true understanding and eventually into the absolute bedrock of all knowledge. Parenthetically, I should remark that those who translate the formula of Tawhid as there is no God but Allah, are demonstrating theological obtuseness at its worst. Such a translation reduces a profoundly metaphysical statement into an exclusivist claim to superiority.

In Arabic, the formula of Tawhid is composed of four words; no God but God. One way to bring out the implications of Tawhid is to place any Quranic name of God into the formula. For example, God is creator, and it follows that there is no creator but God. God is knowing. It follows that there is none knowing but God. God is compassionate. It follows that there is none compassionate but God. In short,  Tawhid is the assertion that all real qualities belong exclusively to the Ultimate Reality, and that simultaneously all qualities of created things are essentially unreal. When we talk about ourselves or others using words like creativity, knowledge and compassion, our words are more like metaphors than actual statement of the real situation. In our case, these divine attributes do not designate what they seem to designate, rather our own qualities are pale reflections or invitations of the true reality.This is something that Ibn Arabi constantly reinstates: There is no reality but the absolute reality of the real. This is the fundamental insight of Tawhid. Working out the implications of this  has been the preoccupation of all schools of Islamic thought, not least theology, philosophy and Sufism. No one has been as thorough in accomplishing this task as Ibn Arabi.

I chose “Anthropology of compassion” as the title of my talk, because I wanted to think about how Ibn Arabi himself might have approached the theme of the conference. Given his constant stress on Tawhid, his first area of concern would be to show why God is essentially compassionate. Perhaps even more so than he is anything else. And why  should compassion be our own concern perhaps even more so than anything else? We need to begin by saying something about the words that Ibn Arabi uses to talk about compassion, first as a divine attribute, second as a human attribute. It is not necessarily clear how we should translate the English word back into Arabic. Anyone familiar  with Islamic theological thinking knows that something like this is central to the Muslim understanding of God. Among the divine names in the Quran and through the divine names that Muslims meditate upon the nature of God, several   meaning. Ibn Arabi often takes pains to distinguish among the meanings of God’s most beautiful names. And among other things, he devotes one of the longest chapters of his monumental ‘ Meccan Openings’ ( Futuhat al Makkiyya) to this task.

It’s fairly clear that the best choice among the the Arabic words to render the compassion is rahma. I usually translate this word as mercy rather than compassion. Because mercy seems to have a broader range of appropriate connotations. So, compassion and mercy are near synonyms in English. But mercy has a clear connotation of implying a choice of kindness rather than severity, a choice of clemency rather than strictness. The word works nicely to render what i consider the most important theological principle in Ibn Arabi’s writing after Tawhid itself. This principle is expressed by the prophet in his famous saying, “God’s mercy takes precedence over his wrath”. Any careful reading of the Quran will show that the theme of  mercy’s precedence and  priority absolutely suffuses the text. Once we take Tawhid  into account, we can see that this precedence of rahma, mercy and compassion, is more than a mere choice on God’s part. We have to choose, but God doesn’t choose. In human terms, we can choose to be kind rather than severe. We can try to be clement rather than strict. In a very profound sense, however, God has no choice because mercy pertains the very stuff of reality. God cannot give priority to wrath over mercy, to severity over gentleness. Because that would be to give priority to unreality over reality, to non-existence over existence.  It would contradict the foundational truth upon which the universe is built. The fact is that there is no reality but God and that there is no existence but God’s existence. Wrath, severity , strictness have feeble support in the nature of things even though these supports are real and nothing in relation to us. Because we ourselves are rather feeble. In the grand picture, wrath and severity are unreal and have no sway with God.  This is recurrent theme in Ibn Arabi’s writings. He reminds us that the Quran never says anything remotely similar of a wrath or severity or vengeance.

He tells us over and over that all things will find their final resting places with rahma , because mercy and compassion are real and all else are unreal. In a typical passage, for example, he writes as follows. “The final issue will be mercy. For, the actual situation inscribes a circle. The end of the circle curves back to its beginning and joins with it. The end has the property of the beginning. And that is nothing but being. Mercy takes precedence over wrath. Because the beginning was through mercy. Wrath is an accident and accidents disappear”.  Notice that in this passage, Ibn Arabi uses the word being, a translation of Arabic wujood, as a synonym for mercy. From the time of avecenna, who died 150 years before Ibn Arabi’s birth, the standard way to designate the stuff of reality was to use the word wujood which is normally translated as existence or being. By Ibn Arabi’s time, the word was used not only by philosophers but also by many theologians and Sufis. often it can be adequately translated as being or existence.

As soon as we think about the notion of wujood in terms of Tawhid we see that there is no wujood but God’s wujood, no true being but the being of the Real. Al-Gazzali, the famous theologian and Sufi, who flourished in the period between Avecenna and Ibn Arabi, often speaks of wujood in terms of tauheed. He commonly uses the formula ‘laisa fil wujood illallah’ ( there is nothing in existence but God). He means to say that God alone truly exists and everything else is like a passing cloud.

In Ibn arabi’s works however, it is not enough to think of wujood as signifying existence or being. In everyday Arabic and in the Quran itself, the word means ‘to find’. The philosophers took the passive sense to be found as a designation for the Greek notion of existence. The logic of this choice is very clear. What exists is either that which is found or that which might be found if we had the right perceptual faculties.   In that sense wujood means either existence or consciousness . what exists is found and it also finds even though we don’t understand how to find. As for what does not exist, it is not found nor does it find. In other words, the one word wujood designates both being and consciousness. If we ourselves differentiate between existence and consciousness, this is because of our lack of insight, not because of the actual situation.

By Ibn arabi’s times, the philosophers and theologians often discussed God as the necessary wujood. The being that must be and cannot not be. Avicenna spent great amount of time proving this. Ibn Arabi sometimes uses the same terminology but he stresses the side of the discussion that earlier thinkers often forgot. God, he says, is the real wujood and everything other than God has an ambiguous status. To say this is to say that there is no true being but God and also there is no  true consciousness but God. Any other being, any other consciousness, is neither real being nor real consciousness. Rather it is the shadow of wujood or its reflection like an image in a mirror. In other words, God is centrally real. He is real by his very essence such that he cannot be unreal in any respect in contrast to things and people. Everything other than God are essentially unreal. Because they have no being or consciousness in our own essences.  Any being and consciousness that things seem to have is in fact the un-going  bestowal  of real wujood.

Let us make a slight detour here. For the past three or four centuries, both Muslim and western scholars who have talked about Ibn Arabi have usually claimed that his main teaching is wahdathul wujood, the oneness of being or the unity of existence. Typically, those who have said this have misrepresented what he was actually saying. The fact that he himself never used the expression and the first person who claimed that Ibn Arabi himself believed in the oneness of being was the polemicist Ibn Taymiyya, who lived the 100 years after him. Ibn Taymiyya said this in order to accuse Ibn Arabi of being a heretic and an unbeliever or what we might call a pantheist.

Ibn Taimiyya’s attack on the notion of wahdathul wujjod termed an inconspicuous expression hardly used by any previous thinkers as well as a controversial term that is still argued about today. Both sides of the argument have accepted unthinkingly and without examining Ibn Arabi’s writings that he did believe in the oneness of being, in wahdathul wujood. Each side, however, defines the expression in its own way. In fact, the deaf have been talking to the deaf. So, please do not repeat the statement that Ibn Arabi believed in the oneness of being or the unity of existence unless you are able to define the expression in a way that is keeping with Ibn Arabi’s actual teaching. The fact is that not many people can do that. Because not many people are familiar with his writings. Nonetheless, you are completely safeground if you say that Ibn Arabi based his teachings on Tawhid and that he also talked a great deal about the fact that real beings belong to God alone. In other words, there is no true being but God’s being just as there is no true life but God’s life, no true knowledge but God’s knowledge, no God’s compassion but God’s compassion.

This brings us back to rahma, mercy or compassion. The Quran uses the word frequently. And it derives four divine names from the same root. The most prominent of these names are rahman and reheem. Grammatically, these two names mean exactly the same thing. But theologians differentiated among the two on the basis of the usage of the two names in the Quran. We can translate the two as the all merciful and the all compassionate and thereby suggest something of their differing connotation. The names are part of the formula of consecration that begins almost every chapter of the Quran: In the name of God, the all merciful, the all compassionate. Theologians wrote books explaining the meanings of god’s most beautiful names. They would atypically explain the all merciful and the all compassionate immediately after the name ‘God’ itself.

The Quran provides good evidence for suggesting that rahma is in fact synonymous with divinity itself. If the distinction can be drawn between the name God and the name rahman, the all merciful, it is that all merciful demands attention to others. This is not the case with the name ‘God’, that is not until we specify exactly what we mean by the word by siding other divine names that are included in the meaning of the word ‘God’ such as creator. One way to get a sense of the meaning of the Arabic word rahma is to look at the derivation as Ibn Arabi and others often do. Rahma ( mercy, compassion) is an abstract noun, designating the qualities and characteristics of a concrete noun. The concrete noun is raheem which means womb. Rahma signifies all the traits associated with the womb and the mother. The mother never ceases to have her children’s womb. The specific sort of love that she has for the fruit of her womb is analogous to the mercy that the all merciful has for his creation. The prophet himself makes the point. According to him, this is famous saying, “ God divided mercy into one hundred parts and in creating the universe he kept 99 parts for himself and he gave one part to the universe. Through that one part, mothers take care of their children and wild animals guard their young. After the Resurrection God will reunite that one part with the 99 parts. Ibn Arabi often talkes about this hadith. Let me just quote you one passage in which he explains something of its implication:“ once the Day of Resurrection has come, and once God’s judgment, decree and determination, by means of this one mercy, have penetrated the whole universe, and once the calling to account has been completed and the people have taken up their dwelling places in paradise and hell, then God will add this one mercy to the 99 mercies so there will be one hundred. He will send down mercy unconditionally upon his creatures in paradise and hell. Then it will pervade and embrace everything.”

One may conclude from the various discussions of rahma in Islamic text that it designates God’s love for creation. And this is true enough. However,  we need to keep in mind that the Quran and most other thinkers draw a clear distinction teaching rahma and muhabba, that is between mercy and love. This is because mercy is unidirectional. Mercy comes from God to human being, not the other way around. People can be merciful and compassionate to each other but they cannot be merciful to God. As for love, it is bidirectional. The Quran says: “ he loves them ( God loves people) and they love him”. This verse, which affirms the mutual love of God and man lies at the heart of the tremendous stress that is found in Sufism generally, as for example, in Rumi. The goal of lovers is to become one. God loves man and man loves God, God created the universe out of love for human beings; God is man’s lover and as man’s lover, he wanted man to love him in return. Hence, God sends messages of love through the prophet. Shams Tabrizi, Rumi’s teacher, said that the Quran is a love letter from God. On the human side, we can only achieve fulfillment in our lives when we recognize that the only thing that we truly love is God. Because God alone is truly real. Muslim philosophers insisted that all creatures are in fact in love with God whether they know it or not. Because he alone designates what they truly desire. Tawhid expresses the point succinctly with the formula ‘ there is no beloved but God’. Moreover God loves human beings. So he is the lover, which means that there is no lover but God. In the last analyses human love for God is God’s love for himself. We will never reach union with our true beloved until we wake up to our true nature.

Reaching union, reestablishing the primordial unity (that was the situation before God created the universe) is the ultimate goal of true lovers. On the human side, union is achieved by the actualization of Tawhid despite the fact that most Muslim theologians, in contrast to the Sufis, had an abhorrence of the notion of the union. It is strongly supported by the Quran and the Prophet. The Quran’s constant mention of God’s mercy and compassion makes it clear that rahma designates the very reality of God as it relates to us. Ibn Arabi develops theological implications of this Quranic language. God’s mercy, the Quran tells us, embraces everything. Ibn Arabi said that this universe is identical with mercy, nothing else. Mercy is the name in the Quran for what the philosophers decided to call wujood. The abode of mercy is the abode of wujood. If mercy embraces everything, it is because all things, whether or not they have existed in a given time, are known to the divine consciousness, the divine finding, the divine wujood, which is the abode of mercy. If things are found in the world, when they do exist, it is because the divine mercy has bestowed existence upon them and is nurturing and sustaining them. Without the motherly attributes of mercy, creation would be destroyed by wrath and severity. Ibn Arabi has referred to the reccuring theme in the Quran that God created the universe by saying ‘kun’, be. The Quran also says that if all the oceans were ink, and all the trees were pens, the words of God would not be exhausted. In referring to this verse Ibn Arabi says: “ All the entities of the existent things are the words of the real and they do not become exhausted”. Again: “ God’s words are nothing other than the forms of the possible things, that is the things that exist. And these are infinite.” The relationship between the divine words and God himself can be understood on the analogy of the relationship of our words to our breath. Ibn arabi says that God’s creation can be rightly called the breath of the all merciful because the all merciful designates the Godhead as overflowing goodness, manifestation and creativity.

Breath is the stuff of speech.  So, God’s spoken words take form in his breath just as we articulate our words in our breath. My words in this talk are nothing but my breath. And my breath is nothing but me. Without breath, I am not me. Ibn Arabi says: “without the all merciful breath, there would be no divine words, no creatures. The universe is simply the divine breath or rather the sum total of the words articulated by the all merciful”. According to Ibn Arabi, mercy is the Quranic designation for wujood, which means being and consciousness.  When we speak, our words immediately disappear. They never achieve independent reality. In contrast with the word of the divine presence, the individual words, that is everything, constantly perish just as our spoken words perish. Each moment of our existence is a new utterance. From God’s point of view, there is only the word ‘Be’. This of course is Ibn Arabi’s famous doctrine of the renewal of creation at each instant. In this grand picture, the divine mercy infuses everything that exists. Is there anything that makes human being special? The answer is yes, everything. For us, whose picture is it? The picture is offered by a human being in human language for the benefit of human understanding. The Quran itself was revealed in human language for human beings and provides numerous verses highlighting the unique status of human beings.

The Islamic anthropology that Ibn Arabi unpacks with unprecedented detail and profundity can be summed up in these words: “ The All Merciful created man so that the man might participate to the fullest possible measure in mercy, compassion, love, blessing, benefit and everything good and beautiful. The All Merciful could not simply create man as full participants in mercy. Because all participation means consciousness, an awareness not only of the good but also of the evil of not having the good. This consciousness and awareness is wujood. It is not simply book learning but actualization of the full implications of the divine names that were infused into Adam when God created him and taught him all the names. In order for this to come about, we had to forget, we had to leave the immediate divine presence and come to recognize the disclosure of God’s being and consciousness through the articulation of all merciful throughout the entire cosmos. Angels, in contrast to man, were created as conscious participants in the divine mercy. But precisely because they cannot forget God, they can neither depart from him nor approach anywhere near to him. They can neither expand nor contract. They are, as the Quran puts it and Ibn Arabi explains in detail, fixed in their stations. In contrast, human beings were not created in fixed stations. God created them in his own form, which embraces all the divine names, every possible designation of wujood in itself, every possible articulation of the all merciful birth. God is free from all outside constraints. When he created man in his own form, he created him with the freedom to deny him. In other words, people are free to choose between the beautiful and the ugly,  the merciful and the wrathful, the right and the wrong, the true beloved and the illusions of love. If they make the right choices,they can rise up in station. If they make the wrong choices, they will become more constricted and confined in their stations. And they will descend by virtue of their own freedom to act away from mercy and compassion. In brief, Ibn Arabi’s anthropology teaches us that human beings were created with the potential to know the All Merciful and the totality of its manifestation and that they are called upon to actualize this potential in order to achieve their true humanity.

Ibn Arabi and others tell us that the goal of all Prophetic teachers’ teachings is to guide human beings in the path of becoming characterized by the characteristics of God. Ibn Arabi says that it is precisely this focus on achieving transformation that differentiates the path of the sufis from that of other Muslim teachers. In Ibn Arabi’s words: “ Becoming characterized by the characteristics of God is Sufism”. He also has a great deal to say about the example set by the Prophet Muhammed in actualizing the divine characteristics. It is not accident that he frequently tells us what God says to Muhammed in the Quran: “we send you, Muhammed as a rahma, a mercy and compassion to all the worlds”. Rahma, mercy, compassion is precisely the designation for the global human perfection that is actualized when man becomes characterized by the divine characteristics.

Ibn Arabi spends a good deal of his writing to explain the manner in which human beings should go actualizing the divine characteristics. It does so in terms of the priorities demanded by wujood itself. This is why he typically unpacks the implications of the foundational principle, Tawhid by working out its meaning of the first corollary of prophesy. Most of his books are structured around the notion of the multiplicity of the prophets who made manifest each in his own specific way the unity of mercy. Naturally he pays special attention to the final prophet. One of the many ways Ibn arabi brings out the importance of the prophet’s example is by paying close attention to the ritual instruction provided by the Quran. For example, in the longest chapter in ‘the Meccan Openings’, Ibn Arabi explains the meaning of the daily prayer. One section of this chapter is devoted to a prayer that the prophet used to recite after the fomal beginning of the prayer and before the recitation of the first chapter of the Quran. The supplication includes two senses; Guide me to the most beautiful characteristics, no one guides to the most beautiful ones but you. Divert me from the ugly characteristics, no one diverts from the ugly characteristics but you. Notice that this includes the typical stress onTawhid. The Quran calls God the guide and Tawhid teaches that there is no guide but God, so the supplication is saying that beautiful characteristics, merciful and compassionate characteristics cannot be achieved without divine guidance because there is no guide but God.

The first corollary, prophesy, however, reminds us that the prophets are precisely guides whom God had appointed for the human race. This little supplication, which Ibn Arabi says he recited in every prayer summarizes the notion of the tazkkiyyathunnafs, the purification of the soul, which is often taken as a synonym for Sufi practice. The reason people have called upon to purify their souls is so that they can get rid of their ugly characteristics and become characterized by the characteristics of God. I have a quotation from the futhuhath. This is from the chapter ‘ The breath of the all merciful’, which is one of the longest chapters again, in which Ibn Arabi unpacks the symbol of the breath specifically in terms of the letters. Each letter of the alphabet designates one descending level and then ascending level of the all merciful in his manifestation. The last of the letters, the 28th letters, is the perfect human being, not ordinary human being but perfect human being. Let me just read this from that chapter: “ Man is the final goal of the breath and of the divine words. For within man is the capacity of every existent things in the cosmos. He posseses all levels. This alone was singled out to be created in the divine form. Thereby, through his creation he brings together the divine realities which are the divine names and the realities of the entire cosmos. For he is the last existent thing. The breath of All Merciful did not bring man into existence without placing within him the capacity of all the levels of the cosmos. Through him becomes manifest that which does not become manifest in any of parts of the cosmos nor in any of the divine names.  Hence, man is the most perfect existent thing. Everything other than man is a creation. But man is both a creation and the real. In reality, perfect man is the real through whom creation takes place.

This talk is delivered for Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society


Transcribed by: Saad Salmi



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