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Complex-Time Geometry and Perpetual Creation of Space

by Mohamed Haj Yousef

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4.1  The Oneness of Being

The “oneness of being” is one of Ibn al-Arabi’s most controversial doctrines which many later Muslim scholars attributed to him, usually with very different and often more polemic than philosophical meanings and interpretations. Although he himself had never mentioned the precise term in his writings, it is quite evident that his books are full of statements that develop notions related to the oneness of being in one way or another, in many places quite explicitly and rigorously. This is especially the case in his most controversial book, the Bezels of Wisdom, for which he was widely criticized, but related discussions are also to be found throughout the Meccan Revelations and his other shorter works. Indeed the possible misunderstandings of this conception clearly underpin Ibn al-Arabi’s distinctive multi-layered, intentionally “scattered” rhetoric and writing style, as he explained quite clearly in the key Introduction to the Meccan Revelations itself.

The basic ontological issue for Ibn al-Arabi is very clear and simple: in many places throughout his writings, such as the long chapter 198 of the Meccan Revelations [II.390-478] he follows the established Avicennan distinction, familiar to all students of Islamic theology and philosophy by his time, in dividing all conceivable things, in terms of existence, into three basic categories already demonstrated in Figure 4.1. He elaborate on that by saying: ‘You should know that the matter (of the nature of the reality) is between the Real and the creation: that is the absolute Existence that has always been and always is (existing); and the absolute (contingent) possibility that has always been and always is (possible to exist); and the absolute non-existence that has always been and always is (non-existing). Now the absolute Existence doesn’t accept non-existence, (and that applies) eternally and perpetually. The absolute non-existence doesn’t accept existence, (and likewise that applies) eternally and perpetually. But the absolutely possible does accept existence through an (ontologically determining) cause, as it also accepts non-existence through a cause, and (that contingent ontological status also applies) eternally and perpetually.

The absolute Existence is Allah, nothing other than Him. The absolute non-existence is the impossible-to-exist, nothing other than it. And the absolutely possible (of contingent existence) is the world, nothing other than it: its (ontological) level is between the absolute Existence and absolute non-existence. Insofar as some of it faces non-existence, it accepts non-existence; and insofar as some of it faces Existence, it accepts existence. So some of it is darkness, and that is the Nature, and some of it is light, and that is the “Breath of the All-Merciful” which bestows existence upon this possible (realm of created beings).’ [II.426.26] Ibn al-Arabi then goes on to give the crucial analysis which clearly explains his profound view of the oneness of being in the most explicit and direct way, based on evident verses in Quran. He says: ‘The possible (contingent) existence became manifest between light and darkness, nature and spirit, the unseen and the visible, and the “veiled” and unveiled. Therefore that which is close to absolute Existence, from among all that (contingent realm) we have mentioned, is light and spirit, and all of what we have mentioned which is close to absolute non-existence is “shadow” and body, and from the totality (of those different kinds of contingent existent) form (of the whole of creation) comes to be. So when you consider the world from the side of the Breath of the All-Merciful, you say: “It is nothing but Allah”. But when you consider it with regard to its being equally balanced and well-proportioned (between existence and non-existence), then you say these are creations. So [in the famous Quranic expression of this fundamental ontological reality, addressed to the Prophet]: you (Muhammad) did not throw”, inasmuch as you are a creation [but it is God who was really acting], “when you did throw”, inasmuch as you are real, “but Allah threw” (8:17), because He is the Real.

For it is through the (divine creative) Breath that the whole world is “breathing” (animated with life), and the Breath made it appear. So (this creative divine Breath) is the inner dimension for the Real, and the manifest dimension for creation: thus the inner dimension of the Real is the manifest dimension for creation, and the inner dimension of creation is the manifest aspect of the Real, and through their combination the generated existence is actualized, since without that combination it would would (only) be said to be Real and creation. Thus the Real is for the absolute Existence, and creation is for the absolutely possible, and what becomes non-existent of the world and its form that disappears is through what is close to the side of non-existence; and what remains of it and doesn’t allow for non-existence is through what is close to the side of Existence. Hence these two things (Existence and non-existence) are continually ruling over the world, so the creation is always new with every Breath, both in this world and in the hereafter.

Therefore, the Breath of the All-Merciful is continually directed (toward the Act of creation), and (the dark) Nature is continually taking on existence as the forms for this Breath, so that the divine Command does not become inactive, because inactivity is not appropriate (for It). Constantly, forms are newly appearing and becoming manifest, according to their states of readiness to accept the (divine creative) Breath.

This is the clearest possible (concise description) of the (divine) origination of the world. And Allah says the truth and He shows the way (33:4).’ [II.427.17]

To summarize, therefore, this expression implies that the world can be conceived symbolically as a mixture of light and darkness. For Ibn al-Arabi, this darkness is quite literally nothing: it is simply the absence of light. Light, on the other hand, is ultimately the Real (via the divine Name “the Light”), and the Real is One. So all existence is in essence one. Multiplicity appears through creation as a result of mixing the oneness of light with the darkness of non-existence. In other words, we can say, since darkness is nothing, that the creation is the constantly repeating relative appearance (manifestation) of the Real. The Real manifests most perfectly in the Perfect Human Being, and relatively in other creatures, and these manifestations happen through the Universal Intellect. So in real existence there is only the Real Who is Allah and this Universal Intellect who is the Messenger of Allah. There is in fact no ontologically self-subsistent “evil”, since the creation is all good, an aspect of this cosmological conception which, taken out of context, could easily give rise to obvious religious and ethical objections. Hence what we perceive as evil is in reality the relative absence of good, just as darkness is the absence of light.

This is the basic principle, but in order to understand it we need to explain how the mixing between light and darkness is done, which is again to say: “how is the world created?”, which raises the question of time yet again. Ibn al-Arabi’s understanding of this dynamic process of creation or cosmogony will be developed further below and in “The Creation Scenario” explained in sections 2.7.

Given the possible confusions and misunderstandings surrounding this understanding of creation, it is clear why Ibn al-Arabi never declared these ideas in overly simplistic terms in his books, but rather scattered them throughout his writings, as he explains quite explicitly at the very beginning of his Meccan Revelations [I.38.25], so that the common people wouldn’t misunderstand them (as indeed slightly happened in later times) and so that only those properly “prepared” would be able to discover their profound intended meanings.

Moreover, we have to admit that Ibn al-Arabi takes it a courageous step further: although the Universal Intellect, and hence the entire manifest world, is created by Allah, Ibn al-Arabi emphasizes that it also isn’t “other than Allah”, because ultimately only Allah has real absolute and necessary (independent) existence [I.194.8], and the world exists by and through Him and not by itself. If Ibn al-Arabi was asked the question: “Are the things the same as God?”, he would give the same answer he gave to Averroes, as we mentioned in section 1.1: “Yes and No”. That is to say, they are, in his own words, “He/not He” ; or equally, one could say: “they are not Him, and they are not other than Him”. For if we say “Yes” (alone), then this would require us confining Allah, the most Exalted, in objects, which is an obvious misconception. And if we say “No” (alone), then this would require the assertion of other separate (and self-subsistent) existents, and this, for Ibn al-Arabi is also wrong. So the ultimate truth requires combining both ontological views and saying that the things are in essence “not other than Allah” although in the forms that we see, they also aren’t (identical with) Allah. These forms don’t have real independent existence, since otherwise Allah wouldn’t be “the One (alone)”, but He is the One (alone), and the created things exist by and through Him, not by themselves. For Ibn al-Arabi, this is in fact “the secret of sincerity”, which is also “the secret of destiny” that makes clear the fundamental distinction between the Creator and the creation, the Eternal and the created, and this secret, as he explains, has been hidden from most people [III.182.11].

In a similar manner, Ibn al-Arabi often describes the world of all creation as a kind of “mirror” on which Allah’s Image is reflected [IV.430.1]. If someone looks at the world from the real side of actual existence, then he will see the Image of the Real, Allah the most Glorious; but if he considers the world only from the side of its non-existence (if we suppose this is possible), then he will see an image of the unreal, or absolute darkness: ‘Therefore the reason why this (ontological) “isthmus” which is the possible (realm of contingent existence ) between (pure) non-existence and Existence, is the occasion for its being attributed both permanence and non-existence, is because it corresponds to both of these things by its essence. That is because the absolute non-existence stood up like a mirror for the Absolute Existence, so the (divine) Existence saw His Image in it, so that this (temporal) Image is the essential reality of the possible. That is why this “possible” (as the Perfect Human Being/First Intellect) had a permanent individual-essence (or immutable essence, described further in section 8.5 of chapter VI) and state of (definable) “thing-ness” already in the state of its non-existence. And that is why it emerged (in its contingent, created existence) according to the Image of the Absolute Existence. This is also why it was describable as non-finite, or referred to as infinite.

Likewise, the Absolute Existence is also like a mirror for the absolute non-existence. So the absolute non-existence saw itself in the mirror of the Real, but the image that it saw was itself the essential reality of non-existence by which this possible (existence) is described. Therefore it is also described as infinite, just as the absolute non-existence is infinite, hence the possible is described as (inherently) non-existing. Like the image that appears between the mirror and the person looking in the mirror: that image is not that very person himself, but it is not other than him. Likewise the possible, with respect to as its (very limited kind of) permanence, is not the very essence of the Real Himself; yet it is not other than Him. Similarly, with respect to its (only relative) non-existence, it is not the same thing as of the (absolutely) impossible, yet it is not entirely other than it. So it is as though it is something relative (depending on how it is viewed).’ [III.47.32]

He also says: ‘If the unreal (non-existence) had a tongue (to speak), it would tell you: “you are according to my image”, because it sees in you nothing but its own shadow, just as the Existence has told you: “you are (created) according to My Image”, because He saw in you His own Image.’ [IV.154.23]

The world may not have a constant real (self-subsistent) existence, because only Allah may be described by that; and at the same time the world is not in constant non-existence, or it wouldn’t be there at all. Instead it is perpetually fluctuating, at every instant of creation, between existence and non-existence. And in fact, Ibn al-Arabi points out [II.303-4], that this is the real meaning of the Quranic symbols of the “day-time” and the “night’: when the Universal Intellect (Allah’s Messenger) faces the Real, this would be a kind of “night” for us, but when the Intellect/Messenger faces us, in each divine Act of creation, this is our manifest day. What makes sense of this distinction, of course, is Ibn al-Arabi’s assertion of the central cosmogonic principle of perpetual re-creation, that we shall discuss in section 2.1. From that perspective, the world is actually continually created “in series” or in “one linear chronological order”, bit by bit, one entity at a time, of the real flow of time; so no two entities may gain real existence at the same time, because they gain their existence only through their constant re-creation by the Real who is One, as we discussed in section 1.2.

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