Inspired Knowledge and Divine Governance:
The Mahdi’s “Helpers”
[© James W. Morris. This is an unrevised, pre-publication version of an article or translation which has subsequently been published, with revisions and corrections as Section II (‘At the End of Time’) in Ibn ‘Arabī: The Meccan Revelations (co-author with W. Chittick), New York, Pir Press, 2002, pp. 65-92 and 251-275. For any form of public distribution or printed and Internet partial citation, please include full reference to the actual corrected publication. Thank you.
The primary focus of Chapter 366 of the Futuhat is the distinctive set of spiritual qualities and capacities marking this particular spiritual stage (manzil)–characteristics which Ibn ‘Arabi finds symbolized in the various hadith concerning the eschatological role of the Mahdi and his “Helpers” or “Ministers,”1 but which he insists are already realized by those saints (awliya’) who have attained this degree of spiritual realization, who have already reached the “end of time.” In a broader metaphysical perspective, as he indicates allusively in the poem introducing this chapter, all those characteristics are in fact essential aspects of the ongoing divine governance of this world in its microcosmic, individual human dimensions, especially in the spiritual judgment or authority (walaya) of the saints as it is realized inwardly or, more rarely, manifested outwardly and officially in the functions of religious judges or in the case of the Prophet (who pre-eminently combined the roles of the Mahdi and his Helpers).
Two principal of this Spiritual Stage (Manzil)
The two principal, complementary aspects of Ibn ‘Arabi’s treatment of this stage and its associated functions are clearly relevant to the spiritual life of every individual. The first is the question of divine “communication” (in all its manifestations, but with special attention to the central role of the Koran and the “heritage” of the Prophet Muhammad) and the decisive role of each person’s unique and radically varying receptivity or sensitivity to that deeper dimension of reality.
The second is the “application” of that communication—which, for Ibn ‘Arabi, obviously includes, but is by no means limited to, the familiar external forms of Islamic law and tradition–in guiding our spiritual and communal life. Especially striking, in regard to this latter point, are the Shaykh’s recurrent, sometimes pointed allusions to the distance separating the historical, limited conception of the Sharia2 shared by many of the ‘ulama’ in the popular sense of
the treatment of these questions in this chapter is often subtle and highly allusive, no doubt partly because of the potentially controversial nature of Ibn ‘Arabi’s broader understanding–largely only implicit in this chapter–of the relations between the inspiration and spiritual authority underlying the “judgments” of the Prophet, saints, and the mass of jurists and theologians “learned in the external forms” (‘ulama’ al-rusum). As a result, it provides a remarkable illustration of his typical methods of esoteric writing, in which each reader’s perceptions of the apparent content, aims and unifying structure of the work will necessarily differ radically according to his own particular intentions and sensitivities. At the same time, it constitutes an excellent introduction to the principles underlying Ibn ‘Arabi’s complex understanding of the practical interrelations between spiritual realization and the historical forms of Islamic tradition–a perspective which clearly transcends the usual stereotyped (and often polemic or apologetic) conceptions of those questions.3
There should be no need to stress the wider significance of each of these issues throughout Ibn ‘Arabi’s writings. But what lends this chapter its special impact and dramatic interest are its primary focus on the experiential sources of Ibn ‘Arabi’s key insights, his frequent autobiographical remarks (including a number of references to his own self-conception of his role as the unique “Seal of Muhammadan Sainthood”) and colorful anecdotes based on his encounters with other Sufis–illustrative materials that provide an essential phenomenological complement to the better-known metaphysical and doctrinal aspects of his teaching, while at the same time pointing to some of its indispensable practical presuppositions.
Chapter 366: Concerning Inner Knowledge of the Stage of the Helpers of the Mahdi (Who is to) Appear at the End of Time….4
[I. THE RELATION BETWEEN THE MAHDI AND HIS HELPERS:] 5
Mahdi (as) Will Fill the World with Justice and Equity
…Know–may God support us!–that God has a viceregent (khalifa) who will come forth when the earth has become filled with injustice and oppression, and will then fill it with justice and equity. Even if there were only one day left for this world, God would lengthen it so that he (i.e., the Mahdi) could rule.6 …He will wipe out injustice and its people and uphold Religion (al-Din), and he will breathe the spirit back into Islam. He will reinvigorate Islam after its degradation and bring it back to life after its death.
He will levy the poll-tax7 and call (mankind) to God with the sword, so that whoever refuses will be killed, and whoever opposes him will be forsaken.
He will manifest Religion as it (really) is in Itself, the Religion by which the Messenger of God would judge and rule if he were there. He will eliminate the different schools (of religious law) so that only the Pure Religion (Kor. 39:3) remains,8 and his enemies will be those who follow blindly the ‘ulama’, the people of ijtihad,9 because they will see the Mahdi judging differently from the way followed by their imams (i.e., the historical founders of the schools of Islamic law). So they will only accept the Mahdi’s authority grudgingly and against their will, because of their fear of his sword and his strength and because they covet (the power and wealth) that he possesses. But the common people of the Muslims and the greater part of the elite among them will rejoice in him, while the true Knowers of God among the People of the (spiritual) Realities will pledge allegiance to him because of God’s directly informing them (of the Mahdi’s true nature and mission), through (inner) unveiling and immediate witnessing.
The Role of Wuzara (Minsters) of Mahdi (as)
He will have divine men upholding his call (to the true Religion) and aiding him in his victory; they are the Helpers (wuzara’). They will bear the burdens of (his) government and help him to carry out all the details of (the duty) God has imposed on him.
[…10] God will appoint as his ministers a group (of spiritual men) whom He has kept hidden for him in the secret recesses of His Unseen (i.e., the spiritual world). God has acquainted (these Helpers), through unveiling and immediate witnessing, with the (divine) realities and the contents of God’s Command concerning His servants. So the Mahdi makes his decisions and judgments on the basis of consultation with them, since they are the true Knowers who really know what is There (in the divine Reality). As for the Mahdi himself, he has a sword (in the service of the) Truth and a (divinely inspired) political policy (siyasa), (since) he knows from God the exact extent of what is required by his rank and station; for he is a rightly guided Viceregent (of God), one who understands the language of animals, whose justice extends to both men and jinn. 11
Among the secrets of the knowledge of the Mahdi’s Helpers whom God has appointed as ministers for him is His saying: “The victorious support of the men of faith is obligatory for Us” (Kor. 30:47), 12 for they follow in the footsteps of those men among
the Companions (of the Prophet) who sincerely fulfilled what they had pledged to God. These Helpers are from the non-Arab peoples; none of them is Arab, although they speak only Arabic. And they have a guardian, not of their kind, who never disobeys God at all;13 he is the most elect of the Helpers and the most excellent of (the Mahdi’s) Trusted Ones.
Now in this verse (30:47)–which the Helpers take as their constant prayer 14 (by day) and their inseparable companion at night--God has given them the most excellent knowledge of true sincerity (sidq), as their inner state and direct experience. So they know that true sincerity is God’s sword on earth: God always gives His victorious support (nasr) to whoever stands up for someone (in the divine cause) while being distinguished by this true sincerity….
The long following passage (III, 328.18-329.25) is devoted to a detailed analysis, at once psychological and metaphysical, of this inner condition of sidq or pure spiritual intention (himma), which Ibn ‘Arabi sees as one of the distinguishing signs of the highest forms of true faith in God, and to its natural effect of divine “victorious support” (nasr). Thus “the truly faithful person whose faith is perfect is forever divinely supported (mansur), which is why no prophet or saint is ever defeated” (III, 329.9). To be sure, for Ibn ‘Arabi this divine support and triumph flows from the saint’s inner realization of pure and unquestioning identification with what is required by the divine Will and purpose, not necessarily with what might be considered a worldly “victory” from external, less enlightened points of view:
…Now since the rightly-guided Imam (Mahdi)15 knows this (i.e., the victorious divine support flowing from the sincerity of perfect faith), he acts accordingly and is the most
truly sincere of the people of his time. So his Helpers are the guides (al-hudat), while he is the rightly-guided one (al-mahdi). And this is the extent of what the Mahdi attains of the knowledge of God, with the aid of his Helpers. But as for the Seal of Muhammadan Sainthood, of all the creatures he is the one who knows God best: there is no one in his own time nor after his time who better knows God and the details of His Judgment (mawaqi’ al-hukm minhu)16. For he and the Qur’an are brothers,17 just as the Mahdi and the sword are brothers.
[…18] You should know that I am uncertain about the length of this Mahdi’s rule, because as far as this world is concerned I have not sought God’s verification of that, nor have I asked Him to specify that or any other temporal happening among the engendered
realities (of this world)–except for whatever God happens to teach me spontaneously, without my seeking it. For I am afraid that during the time when I am asking God to inform me about some engendered or temporal thing I will miss out on some portion of my awareness of Him. So instead I have surrendered my affair to God in His kingdom (mulk, i.e., in this world), letting Him do with me as He pleases. And indeed I have seen a number of the people of God (i.e., the Sufis) seeking to obtain from Him the knowledge of temporal, engendered happenings, and especially trying to become acquainted with the Imam of (this) time.19 But I was ashamed to do that, and afraid that (my lower, bodily) nature would rob me (of my knowledge of God) if I were to associate with them while they were in that state.
So I asked God only that He grant me stability in a single sort20 of knowledge of Him, even though I be constantly transformed in my (inner) states. And He did not refuse me….
Ibn ‘Arabi concludes this section by recapitulating, in a beautiful poetic “dialogue with God” too long to translate in its entirety here, his discovery of one of the central spiritual insights of his work: the paradoxical fact that this continual transformation of the Heart (fully perceived only by the true Knowers) is itself the perpetually renewed theophany of the noetic “Realities,” in no way contradicting the transcendent Unity of the divine Essence:
So when I asked (God) that question (about the apparent conflict between the divine Unity and the multiplicity of theophanies in our experience), He showed me my ignorance and said to me: “Are you not content that you are like Me?!”
[II. THE CHARACTERISTICS OF THE SPIRITUAL STATION OF THE “HELPERS”:] 21
Now I do know what (spiritual qualities) are needed by the Mahdi’s Helper. So if there is only one Helper, then everything he needs is united in that one person, and if they are more than one, then there are not more than nine of them, since that was the limit of the uncertainty the Messenger of God expressed in his saying concerning the rule of the Mahdi, that it was “for five, seven or nine years.”22 And the totality of what he needs to have performed for him by his Helpers are nine things; there is not a tenth, nor can they be any fewer….
Ibn ‘Arabi then briefly enumerates the nine characteristics described in detail in the rest of this chapter (using the phrases given in quotation marks at the beginning of each section), and again insists that all nine of these qualities are required by the Helpers, no matter what their exact number may be. However, the Helpers themselves are not mentioned in the rest of the chapter, where these spiritual attributes are instead attributed directly to the “Imam,” “Imam of the Age,” “Rightly-guided Imam,” etc.–or else to the saints or accomplished Sufis more generally.
How Do Awliya (saints) Pray, Make Dua
[1.] As for “penetrating vision,” that is so that his praying23 to God may be with (clear) inward vision (Kor. 12:108) concerning what he requests in his prayer, not Him to whom the prayer is addressed. So he regards the inner essence (‘ayn) of each (divine Reality or Name) 24 to Whom he is praying and sees what is possible for Him to do in response to his prayer, and then he prays to Him for that, even if it be by way of special pleading. 25
As for those things where he sees that (God) will not (ordinarily) respond to his prayer, he prays to Him, without any special pleading, to carry out (for him) the divine Argument (hujja) in this special case,26. since the Mahdi is God’s Argument for the people of his time, and that (i.e., his function as hujja) is part of the rank of the prophets and participates in that rank. God said: “[Say: ‘This is my path:] I pray to God with inward vision, I and whoever follows me’” (Kor. 12:108). (God) reported that (to us) through His Prophet, and the Mahdi is among “those who follow him,” because the Prophet does not err in his praying to God, nor does the person who follows him,27. since he follows the trace of (the Prophet’s) footsteps. And that is what appears in the (hadith) report describing the Mahdi, that the prophet said: “He follows in the trace of my footsteps, and he does not err.”28 This is the (inner state of) immunity from error (‘isma) in praying to God, and it is attained by many of the saints, or indeed by all of them.29
Among the attributes of this “penetrating vision” are that the person possessing it sees the luminous and fiery spirits (i.e., the angels and the jinn) without those spirits themselves wanting to appear or take on a form (for that person)….
Ibn ‘Arabi illustrates this ability with a story about Ibn ‘Abbas and Aisha, who both saw a stranger conversing with the Prophet and subsequently learned that they had actually seen the angel Gabriel:
Likewise (as a result of this special vision) they perceive the men of the Unseen30 even when they want to be veiled and not to appear to (ordinary human) vision. And it is also (characteristic) of this penetrating vision that if the spiritual meanings (ma’ani) take on bodily form, then they recognize (the underlying realities) in those very forms, and they know without any hesitation which spiritual meaning it is that became embodied (in that particular form).31
[2.] Now as for “understanding the divine address when it is delivered,”32 this is (summarized) in His saying: “And it was not for any mortal man that God should speak
to him except through inspiration or from behind a veil or He sends a messenger” (Kor. 42:51).
So as for the divine address “through inspiration” (wahy),33 that is what He delivers to their hearts as something newly reported (to them), 34 so that through this they gain knowledge of some particular matter, i.e., of what is contained in that new report. But if it does not happen in that way (i.e., as something received from outside oneself), then it is not a (divine) inspiration or address. For instance, some people (may) find in their hearts the knowledge of something of the necessary forms of knowledge35 among people in general. That is genuine knowledge, but it is not obtained from a (particular divine)
address (khitab), and our discussion is only concerned with that form of divine address which is called “inspiration” (wahy)….36.
And as for His saying “or from behind a veil,” that is a divine address delivered to the (person’s) hearing and not to the heart, so that the person to whom it is delivered perceives it and then understands from that what was intended by the One Who caused him to hear it. Sometimes that happens through the forms of theophany, in which case that (particular) divine form addresses the person, and that form itself is the veil. Then (the person having this condition of spiritual insight) understands from that divine address the knowledge of what it indicates, and he knows that (this theophanic form) is a veil and that the Speaker (i.e., God) is behind that veil.
Of course not everyone who perceives a form of the divine theophany realizes that that form is God. For the person possessing this state (of spiritual insight) is only distinguished from other men by the fact that he recognizes that that form, although it is a “veil,” is itself precisely God’s theophany for him.37
And as for His saying “or He sends a messenger,” that is (the divine address) He sends down with an angel or that is brought to us by the mortal human messenger when either sort of messenger conveys “God’s Speech” in this particular way (i.e., perceived as an individual “address” coming directly from God)…. 38 But if either sort of messenger
(simply) conveys or gives expression to knowledge that he found (already) in his soul (and not as a distinct message given him by God), then that is not divine Speech (in this particular sense).
Now it may happen that the messenger and the form (of the message) occur together, as in the very act of writing (the revealed Book). For the Book is a messenger, and it is also the veil over the Speaker (i.e., God), so that it causes you to understand what It brought. But that (i.e., the divinely revealed nature of the Book) would not be so if the messenger wrote on the basis of his own knowledge: it is only the case if the messenger wrote on the basis of a (divine) report (hadith) addressed to him in those very words he writes down, and when it is not like that then it is not (divine) speech. This is the general rule….
So all of this (i.e., all three forms of theophanic perception) is part of the divine address directed to the person who possesses this (spiritual) station.39
[3.] As for “the knowledge of how to translate from God,” that belongs to every person to whom God speaks through inspiration (wahy) or the delivery (of a particular divine address, ilqa’), since (in such cases) the translator is the one who creates the forms of the spoken or written letters he brings into existence, while the spirit of those forms is God’s Speech and nothing else.40 But if someone “translates” (into words) from (their
own, non-inspired) knowledge, then they are inevitably not a “translator” (in this inspired sense)….
People of Ahl al Kashf (Inner Unveiling) Vs. Ulama al Rusum (Outward appearances)
Ibn ‘Arabi goes on (333.1-10) to distinguish carefully between this state of inspired vision which is typical of the perception of the saints and “people of inner unveiling” (ahl al-kashf), on the one hand, and the purely theoretical references by “those who are learned in the outward appearances” (‘ulama al-rusum) to the “language of states” (lisan al-hal) in their interpretations of Koranic references to the “speech” of what we ordinarily call inanimate objects, such as minerals. The former group, who directly experience the living, theophanic nature of all beings, are able to see for themselves that “everything other than God really is alive and speaking, in the very nature of things,” while the latter group “are veiled by the thickest of veils”:
…Thus there is nothing in the world but translator,41. if it is translated from divine Speaking. So understand that.
[4.] As for “appointing the (various) ranks of the holders of authority,”42. that is the knowledge of what each rank (of judge or administrator of the religious Law) rightfully requires (in order to assure the) kinds of welfare for which it was created. The person possessing this knowledge looks at the soul of the person whom he wants to place in a position of authority and weighs the appropriateness of that person for that rank. If he sees that there is the right equilibrium between the person and the post, without any excess or deficiency, then he gives him that authority, and if the person is over-qualified there is no harm in that. But if the person is inadequate to the position he does not entrust him with that authority, because he lacks the knowledge that would qualify him for that rank, so that he would inevitably commit injustice.
For this (inner ignorance of the true reality of the Sharia) is the root of all injustice in the holders of authority, since we hold it to be impossible that someone could (truly) know (a particular divine command) and then deviate from the judgment (required by) his knowledge all at once. This is something that is considered possible by those learned in the external forms (of the Law),43. although we ourselves consider that this “possible” thing never actually occurs in reality; it is indeed a difficult question.
Now it is because of this (inner knowledge of men’s souls and the true divine commands) that the Mahdi “fills the world with justice and equity,” just as “it was filled with injustice and oppression.”44. Because in our view (true spiritual) knowledge necessarily and inevitably implies action (in accordance with it), and if it does not do so, then it is not really knowledge, even if it appears in the (outward) form of knowledge.…45
Mercy in Anger
Ibn ‘Arabi goes on to discuss at some length the importance for the Mahdi–as for any wise ruler–to appoint judges and authorities who not only have the right (formal) knowledge of the appropriate provisions of the religious Law, but in whom that knowledge also fully controls their own personal prejudices,46. so that they will always act according to their knowledge.
[5.] As for “mercy in anger,” that is only in the divinely prescribed penalties (al-hudud al-mashru’a) and punishment, since in everything else (i.e., in merely human affairs) there is anger without any mercy at all…. For if a human being gets angry of his own accord, his anger does not contain mercy in any respect; but if he becomes angry for God’s sake (i.e., in fulfilling the divine commandments), then his anger is God’s Anger–and God’s Anger is never free from being mixed with divine Mercy. …Because (God’s) Mercy, since it preceded (His) Anger, entirely covers all engendered being and extends to every thing (Kor. 7:156)….47
Therefore this Mahdi does not become angry except for God’s sake, so that his anger does not go beyond (what is required in) upholding God’s limits 48 that He has prescribed; this is just the opposite of the (ordinary) person who becomes angry because of his own desires or (something happening) contrary to his own personal aims. And likewise the person who becomes angry (only) for God’s sake can only be just and equitable, not tyrannical and unjust.
Now a sign of whoever (rightfully) lays claim to this spiritual station is that if he becomes angry for God’s sake while acting in judgment and upholding the (divinely prescribed) penalty against the person with whom he is angry, then his anger disappears once he has finished fulfilling (that religious duty)--(to the extent that) sometimes he may even go up to the (condemned) person and embrace him and be friendly with him, saying to him “Praise be to God Who has purified you!” and openly showing his happiness and pleasure with him. And sometimes (the condemned man) also becomes friendly with (his judge) after that, for this (inner fulfillment and realization of the divine commands) is God’s Scale (of Justice), and all of (God’s) Mercy comes back to that condemned man…49….
Ibn ‘Arabi proceeds to illustrate this phenomenon with the story (III, 334.2-8) of a personal acquaintance who frequented the same masters of hadith in the city of Ceuta, a highly respected and unusually modest religious judge (qadi) who was famous for his rare charismatic ability (baraka) to establish peace among feuding parties or tribes–an ability Ibn ‘Arabi attributes to his extreme conscientiousness and concern for maintaining only a disinterested, “divine point of view” in his inner relation to his legal duties. This leads him to take up the broader divine standards of judgment (ahkam) regarding all of our actions, especially their inner spiritual aspect:
This (necessary attention to the spiritual sources and repercussions of all our actions) is also (expressed) in God’s saying: .”..and then We test your records (of your actions)” (Kor. 47:31). For first of all He tests (mankind) with regard to the obligations He has imposed on them (i.e., according to the first half of the same verse: “And surely we test you until we know those of you who make every effort and are patient….“); and if they have acted (in accordance with the divine commands), then their actions are tested as to whether they have acted for the sake of the Truth (al-Haqq) or instead for some other end. Likewise it is this (inner spiritual judgment that is expressed) in God’s saying: On the Day when the innermost selves are tested” (Kor. 86:9). For the people of inner unveiling hold this (i.e., the judgment of each soul’s innermost being, the sarira) to be God’s Scale (of Justice). Therefore the judge,50 whenever he is carrying out the
(divine) penalties, must not forget to examine his own soul in order to guard against the feelings of vengeance and aggression that happen to souls (in such situations)….
Responsibility of a judge is Great
Here Ibn ‘Arabi continues to explain how the above-mentioned qadi in Ceuta was always careful to examine his conscience in this way, even when his emotions of anger or vengeance did not derive directly from the case actually before him. In fact, he concludes, the moral and spiritual factors involved in each case are so complex that the responsibility of judgment–in the ultimate, all-inclusive sense of that term–can only belong to God or those rare individuals divinely “appointed” for this role:51
So you must know that God has not appointed anyone but the judge to carry out the penalty against (the guilty person). Therefore no one (else) should be angry with the person who transgresses God’s limits, since that (i.e., the responsibility of anger in imposing the divine penalties) only belongs to the judges in particular, and to God’s Messenger insofar as he is a judge. For if (the Messenger) were only communicating (the divine Message)52 and not judging, then he would not carry out the (divine) Anger against those who reject his call. That matter (i.e., their response, insofar as he is simply a Messenger) does not involve him at all, and he is not responsible for their being rightly guided (Kor. 2:272).
Thus God says to the Messenger concerning this matter: “You are only responsible for communicating (the divine Message)” (Kor. 42:48; etc.). So (the Prophet) communicated, and God caused whomever He wished to listen (cf. Kor. 8:23; etc.) and caused whomever He wished to be deaf (cf. Kor. 47:23), and they–that is, the prophets–are the most self-restrained of men.53 For (even) if the (prophetic) caller were (fully) revealed to the person whom God has made deaf to his call, that person would still not hear the call and would not be changed because of that. And if the (prophet who is) calling out brought together those thus deafened, so that they knew that they did not hear his cry, that would still not help him (to convince them), and he would acknowledge their excuse.
Therefore if the Messenger acted as judge (hakim), that was (only because) he was made specifically responsible for the judgment that God had specified for him in that case. And this is a sublime knowledge required by everyone on earth who has authority over (this) world54.
[6-a.] As for “the forms of (spiritual] sustenance (arzaq) needed by the ruler,”55. this (requires) that he know the kinds of worlds, which are only two–i.e., by “world” I mean
the worlds in which this Imam’s influence (hukm) is effective, which are the world of (physical) forms and the world of the souls 56 governing those forms with regard to their physical movements and activities. As for what is beyond those two kinds (i.e., the worlds of the angelic spirits and the jinn), he has no influence over them except for those, such as (individuals in) the world of the jinn, who wish for him to have influence over their souls.57
But as for the luminous world (of the angelic spirits),58 they are beyond this mortal human world’s having any authority over them, for each individual among them has a known station (Kor. 37:163) determined for him by his Lord, so that he does not descend (to this earth) except with the permission of his Lord (cf. Kor. 97:4). Thus whoever wants one of them to be sent down to him must turn to his Lord (in praying) for that, and his Lord (may) order (that angel) and give him permission to do that, in compliance with that person’s request–or He may send down an angel of His own accord.
Angels Seek Circles of Zikr, Who are People of Quran
As for the “travelers” among the angels, their station is known (Kor. 37:163), since they are constantly traveling around seeking the sessions of dhikr.59 So “when they find the people of dhikr”–who are the people of the Qur’an, those who are (truly) recalling the
Qur’an 60–they do not give precedence to anyone from the sessions of dhikr of those who are recalling (something) other than the Qur’an. But if they do not find people recalling the Qur’an and they do find people recalling God–not just reciting–then they come to sit with them and “they call out to each other: ‘Come quickly to what you all desire!’,” because that (remembrance of God) is their sustenance; through it they flourish and in it they have their life.
Now since the Imam knows that, he always keeps a group of people reciting the Signs.61 of God throughout the night (Kor. 3:113) and the day. And we ourselves, when we were in Fez in the lands of the Maghreb, used to follow this practice, thanks to the agreement of companions favored by God, who listened to us and readily followed our counsel.62 But when we no longer had them (with us) we thereby lost this pure (spiritual) work, which is the noblest and most sublime of the forms of (spiritual) sustenance.
So when we no longer had (companions) like those men, we began to take up the diffusion of knowledge,63 because of those (angelic) spirits whose food is (spiritual) knowledge. And we saw that there was not a single thing we set forth that did not spring from this Source that is sought by this spiritual kind (of angels), which is the Qur’an. Hence everything about which we speak, both in my (teaching) sessions and in my writings, comes only from the presence of the Qur’an and Its treasures.64 I was given the
keys of Its understanding and divine support (imdad) from It–all of this so that we might not swerve from It. 65
For this is the loftiest (spiritual knowledge) that can be bestowed on one, and no one can know its full worth except for the person who has actually tasted it in experience and directly witnessed its rank as a (spiritual) state within himself, the person to whom the True One (al-Haqq) has spoken it in his innermost being (sirr). For when it is the True One Who speaks to His servant in his innermost being–after all the intermediaries have been lifted away66—then the understanding is immediate and inseparable from His speaking to you, so that the (divine) speaking itself is identical with your understanding of it. The understanding does not follow after it–and if it does come after it, then that is not God’s speaking.
Thus whoever does not find this (immediate spiritual understanding within himself) does not have (true) knowledge of God’s speaking to His servants. And if God should speak to him through the veil of a form–whether with the tongue of a prophet or whoever else in the world He may wish–then the understanding of that (divine) speech may accompany it
or it may come later.67 So this is the difference between the two (i.e., between direct divine inspiration and its mediated transmission).
[6-b] The role of the Mahdi–or rather of the “Imam of the Time”68–with regard to “the sensible forms of divine sustenance” concerns his unique, divinely inspired ability (resembling that of the Prophet) to decide what material goods of this world should rightfully “belong” to each believer, since individuals can only be at best the temporary “owners” (or more properly speaking, “custodians”) of those earthly goods:
Since everything in the world is divine sustenance and part of ‘What God has left,’69 the Imam judges with regard to (allocating) it in accordance with the judgment (hukm) God sends down to him concerning it.
In the meanwhile, Ibn ‘Arabi advises, we should act “according to the divine commandment which the divinely prescribed law (shar’) has conveyed to us,” while abstaining from judgment in all other cases.
[7.] As for the “knowledge of the interpenetration of things“70..., that (reality) inwardly penetrates and informs all the practical and intellectual crafts.71 Therefore if the
Imam knows this, he will not be bothered by doubt and uncertainty in his judgments. For this (precise inner awareness of the interpenetration of spiritual and manifest reality) is the Scale (of divine justice) in the world, both in sensible things and in the inner spiritual meanings (ma’ani). So the rational, responsible person 72 behaves according to that Scale in both worlds–and indeed in every matter where he has control over his actions.
But as for those who judge in accordance with the divine inspiration (wahy) that (God) has sent down, those to whom (that inspiration) has been delivered (ahl al-ilqa’)73 among the (prophetic) Messengers and those like them (i.e., the saints), they did not depart from (their inner awareness of) this interpenetration (of spiritual and material being). Thus God made them the receptacle (of revelation) for that part of His judgment concerning His servants which he delivered to them, (as) He said: “The Faithful Spirit brought down (the revelation) upon your heart” (Kor. 26:193-194), and “He sends down the angels with the Spirit from His Command upon whomever He wishes among His servants” (Kor. 16:2).
Therefore every judgment (or command: hukm) concerning the world that is made manifest through a (divine) Messenger is the outcome of a “spiritual marriage”;74 this (essential spiritual inspiration underlying the judgment) is not in the textual indications
and not in those who judge on the basis of analogy (qiyas).75 Hence it is incumbent on the Imam that he know what is (learned) through being sent down by God (through divine inspiration) and what is (ordinarily supposed) through analogy. However the Mahdi does not know this–I mean the knowledge acquired by analogy–in order to pass judgment according to it, but only so that he can avoid it! For the Mahdi only judges according to what the angel delivers to him from what is with God (Kor. 2:89; etc.), (the inspiration) God has sent him in order to guide him rightly.
So that is the true Muhammadan Shar’76–the one such that Muhammad, if he were alive (on earth) and that particular case were presented to him, would pass judgment on it in exactly the same way as this Imam. For God will teach him (by inspiration) that this is the Muhammadan Shar’ and will therefore forbid him (to follow judgments arrived at by) analogical reasoning, despite the existence of the textual indications 77 God has bestowed on him. And this is why God’s Messenger said, in describing the Mahdi, that “He follows in the trace of my footsteps, and he makes no mistake.” Through this he informed us that (the Mahdi) is a follower (of the Prophet), not one who is followed (i.e., not a Messenger
with a new revealed Law), and that he is (divinely) protected from error (ma’sum)78–since the only (possible) meaning of someone’s being protected from error is that they do not make mistakes. Thus if the Messenger (i.e., Muhammad) pronounced a judgment (in some matter), no mistake is ascribed to him, since “he does not speak from passion, but it is only an inspiration (wahy) inspired in him” (Kor. 53:3-4); and likewise analogical reasoning is not permissible in a place where the Messenger is to be found.
Now the Prophet does exist and is to be found (here and now) with the People of Unveiling, and therefore they only take their (inspired understanding of the appropriate divine) judgment from him. This is the reason why the truthful and sincere faqir.79 doesn’t depend on any (legal) school: he is with the Messenger (i.e., Muhammad) alone, whom he directly witnesses, just as the Messenger is with the divine inspiration (wahy) that is sent down to him. Thus the notification of the (appropriate divine) judgment concerning the particular events and cases is sent down from God to the hearts of the truthful and sincere true knowers, (informing them) that this is the judgment of the Shar’ that was sent with the Messenger of God.
But those adhering to knowledge of the external forms (of religious tradition)80. do not have this (spiritual) rank, because of their having devoted themselves to their love for (prominent social) position, the domination of others, (furthering) their precedence over
God’s servants 81 and (insuring that) the common people need them. Hence they do not prosper (Kor. 16:116) with regard to their souls 82 , nor shall one prosper through (following) them. This is the (inner) condition of the jurists (fuqaha’) of (our) time, those who desire to be appointed to posts as judges, notaries, inspectors or professors.
As for those of them who cunningly hide themselves in (the guise of) Religion (al-din)–those who hunch their shoulders and look at people furtively, with a pretense of humility; who move their lips as though in dhikr 83 , so that the person looking at them will know they are performing dhikr; who speak obscurely and in an affected manner—they are dominated by the weaknesses of the carnal soul and “their hearts are the hearts of wolves,” (so that) God does not [speak to them nor] look at them (Kor. 3:77-78). 84 This
is the condition of those among them who make a show of religion–not those who are the companions of Satan (cf. Kor. 4:38; 43:36). These (outwardly pious hypocrites) “dressed up for the people in the skins of gentle sheep”:85 (they are) brothers outwardly and enemies inwardly and secretly. But God will examine them and take them by their forelocks (cf. Kor. 55:41; 96:15-16) to that (level of Hell) which contains their happiness.86
Thus when the Mahdi comes forth (to establish justice in the world) he has no open enemy (Kor. 2:188; etc.) except for the jurists in particular. For then they will no longer have any power of domination and will not be distinguished from the mass of common people, and they will only keep a slight knowledge of (the divine) commandment, since the differences concerning the commandments will be eliminated in this world because of the existence of this Imam.
However, if the Mahdi did not have the sword (of worldly authority) in his hand, then the jurists would all deliver legal opinions (demanding) that he be killed. But instead (as stated in the hadith) “God will bring him forth with the sword and noble character,” and they will be greedy (for his support) and fearful, so that they will (outwardly) accept his judgment without having any faith in it; indeed they will grudgingly conceal their disagreement, just as do (the two legal schools of) the Hanafites and Shafiites concerning those matters where they disagree. For in fact it has been reported to us that the followers of these two schools in the lands of the non-Arabs (i.e., Iran and Transoxiana) are
constantly fighting one another and that a great many people of both groups have died–that (they go to such extremes that) they even break the fast during the month of Ramadan in order to be stronger for their battles.87
So people like this, if the Imam-Mahdi did not conquer with the sword, would not pay any attention to him and would not obey him (even) in their outward actions, just as they do not obey him in their hearts. In fact what they (really) believe about him if he makes a judgment involving them that is contrary to their school is that he has gone astray with regard to that judgment, because they believe that the period of the people of ijtihad88 has ended (long ago), that there remains no mujtahid in the world and that after the death of their (founding) imams God has not brought anyone into existence in the world with the rank of ijtihad.
And as for the person who claims to be divinely informed about the judgments prescribed by the Shar’, for (these jurists) such a person is a madman whose imagination has gone wild, and they would pay no attention to him. But if such a person happens to possess wealth and worldly power (sultan), then they will submit to him outwardly because of their coveting his wealth and their fear of his power, although inwardly they have no faith in him at all.
[8.] Now as for “striving to one’s utmost and going to any length to satisfy the needs of mankind,” that is especially incumbent upon the Imam in particular, even more than (it is) for the rest of the people. For God only gave him precedence over His (other) creatures and appointed him as their Imam so that he could strive to achieve what is beneficial for them. This striving and what results from it are both prodigious….
In the intervening passage (III, 336.16-25) Ibn ‘Arabi illustrates the essential theme of this section–that it is above all by striving for the welfare of others, in the midst of the responsibilities of “ordinary” life, and not in seeking to obtain what one imagines to be special powers or experiences for oneself, that the individual is most likely to reach the highest spiritual stages 89–with the Koranic account (28:29 ff.) of Moses’ having unintentionally discovered God, without consciously looking for Him, precisely in the theophanic form of the burning bush he was seeking in order to warm his family. For Ibn ‘Arabi, who repeatedly insists on the fact that Moses was only seeking to fulfill the needs of his family, “this verse constitutes an admonition from God (tanbih min al-Haqq) concerning the value of this (spiritual virtue) for God.”90
Now the activities of all of the just Imams are only for the sake of others, not for their own sake. Hence if you see a ruler busying himself with something other than his subjects and their needs, then you should know that his (high) rank has cut him off from this activity (of true leadership), so that there is no (real) difference between him and the mass of common people (al-‘amma)…. 91
And Khadir 92…was also like this. He was in an army, and the commander of the army sent him to explore for water for them, since they were in need of water. That was how he fell into the Fountain of Life and drank from it, so that he has remained living up until now, for he was not aware (before setting out on his search) of that Life through which God distinguishes the person who drinks of that Water…, 93 since this Fountain of Life (is) Water through which God distinguishes with (spiritual) Life the person who drinks that Water. Then he returned to his companions and told them about the water, and all the people rushed off toward that place in order to drink from it. But God turned their sight away from it so that they were not capable of (attaining) it. And this is what resulted for him from his striving for the sake of others.
…Thus no one knows what is their rank 94 with God, because absolutely all of their actions are for the sake of God, not for their own sake, since they prefer God to what their (bodily and psychic) nature demands.
[9.] As for “possessing the knowledge of the Unseen (‘ilm al-ghayb) that he requires for (rightly governing) this engendered world in particular during a particular period of time,” this is the ninth matter which the Imam requires for his leadership, and there are no (others) besides these.
This is because God informed (us) concerning Himself that “every Day He is in an affair” (Kor. 55:29), and that “affair” 95 is whatever the state of the world is that day.
Now obviously when that “affair” becomes manifest in (external) existence (everyone) recognizes that it is known by whoever witnesses it. But this Imam, because of this matter (i.e., his inspired foreknowledge of events), is well-informed by God (al-Haqq) concerning those affairs which He wishes to bring into temporal being before they actually occur in (external) existence. For he is informed about that affair on the “day” before it occurs. So if that affair contains something beneficial for his subjects he thanks God and remains silent about it. But if it contains a punishment (in the form of) the sending down of some widespread affliction or one aimed at certain specific persons, then he implores God on their behalf, intercedes (with Him) and begs (Him). So God, in His Mercy and Bounty, averts that affliction from them (before it actually happens) and answers (the Mahdi’s) prayer and petition. 96
This is why God (first of all) informs him about (each event) before it occurs to his fellows in actual existence. Then after that God informs him, with regard to those “affairs,” about the (particular) events that will occur to (specific) individuals and specifies for him those individuals with all their outward particularities, so that if he should see those individuals (in the material world) he would not doubt that they were exactly the ones he saw (in this inspired vision). And finally God informs him about the divinely-prescribed judgment appropriate for that event, the (same standard of) judgment which God prescribed for His Prophet Muhammad to apply in judging that event. 97
Hence he only judges according to that (divinely inspired) judgment, o that (in the words of the hadith) “he never makes a mistake.”
Thus if God does not show (the Mahdi) the judgment regarding certain vents and he does not experience any inner unveiling (of that divine judgment), then God’s aim was to include those events (or “cases”) in the judgment of what is (religiously) permissible,98 so that he knows from the absence of any (divine) specification (of a particular judgment) that this is the judgment of the divinely prescribed Law (shar’) concerning that event. Thus he is divinely protected (ma’sum) from personal opinion (ra’y) and analogy (qiyas) in Religion.
For (the use of) analogy (to extend the Law beyond God’s explicit commandments) by whoever is not a prophet amounts to passing judgment on God concerning the Religion of God (Kor. 3:83; etc.)99 on the basis of something that person does not (really) know. This
is because analogy (involves) extending a (hypothetical) “reason” (underlying a particular judgment to all other “analogous” cases).100 But what makes you know?–perhaps (Kor. 80:3)101 God does not want to extend that reason; for if He had wanted to do that He would have clearly stated it through the voice of His Messenger and would have ordered this extension, if indeed the (underlying) “reason” were among what was specifically ordained by the divinely prescribed Law (Shar’) in a particular (legal) case. So what do you suppose (is the validity) of the “reason” that the jurist extracts (from an action or saying of the Prophet) all by himself and through his own reasoning, without its having been mention by the prescribed Law in any specific textual stipulation concerning that? (Or about the jurist who) then, having deduced this “reason,” extends it generally (to what he arbitrarily assumes to be the “analogous” cases)? Indeed this is one arbitrary judgment
on top of another judgment concerning a “divine law” (shar’) of which God is unaware 102 (Kor. 52:21)!
So this is what prevents the Mahdi from speaking on the basis of (this sort of factitious) analogy 103 concerning the Religion of God–all the more so because he also knows that the intention of the Prophet was to lighten the burden of (religious) obligation (taklif) on this community. 104 That was why the Prophet used to say “Leave me alone (i.e., without requesting any further religious precepts) so long as I leave you alone,” 105 and why he used to be dislike being questioned about religion, out of fear of (unnecessarily) increasing the (divine) commandments (ahkam).
Therefore in everything about which nothing is said to him (by God) and concerning which he is not informed (by God) about a specific, definite judgment, he establishes the (divine) judgment concerning it, in natural consequence, (to be) the primordial judgment. 106 And every (judgment) of which God informs him through inner unveiling and (an inspired) “notification” (ta’rif) is the judgment of the (eternal) Muhammadan Shar’107 concerning that matter.
…Therefore the Mahdi is a mercy, just as God’s Messenger was a mercy, (as) God said:
“And We only sent you as a mercy to the worlds” (Kor. 21:107).
…Now these nine things are not combined all together for any Imam among the leaders of Religion and the viceregents of God and His Prophet until the Day of the Rising, except for this Rightly-guided Imam (al-Imam al-Mahdi)…. 108
[III. THE FORMS OF KNOWLEDGE TYPIFYING THIS SPIRITUAL STAGE]109
Each of the chapters concerning the spiritual “stages” (fasl al-manazil, ch. 270-383) concludes with a long list of the forms of spiritual knowledge or awareness “belonging” to that stage, usually described in only a few cryptic expressions. Although in most cases the exact inner connection between those descriptions and the rest of the chapter is not readily apparent (at
least to the uninitiated), a few of the longer descriptions in this chapter clearly do illuminate some of the preceding discussions. And quite apart from those internal connections, the immediacy of the first three descriptions in particular–whose poignant contrast between our ordinary ways of perceiving the world and the touchstone of certain rarer moments of epiphany may find an echo in each reader’s experience–should suggest something of the eeper practical relevance of Ibn ‘Arabi’s spiritual insights here:
…In this (spiritual stage) there is a knowledge which removes the burden of anguish from the soul of the person who knows it.110 For when one looks at what is ordinarily the case with (men’s) souls, the way that all the things happening to them cause them such anguish and distress, (it is enough) to make a person want to kill himself 111 because of what he he sees. This knowledge is called the “knowledge of blissful repose” (‘ilm al-raha), because it is the knowledge of the People of the Garden (of Paradise) in particular. So whenever God reveals this knowledge to one of the people of this world (already) in this world, 112 that person has received in advance the blissful repose of eternity–although the person with this quality (in this world) still continues to respect the appropriate courtesy 113 (towards God) concerning the commandment of what is right and the prohibition of what is wrong, according to his rank.
And in this stage is the knowledge that what God made manifest to (men’s) vision in the bodies (of all things in this world) is an adornment for those bodies; (the knowledge) of why it is that some of what is manifest seems ugly to a particular person when he regards
it as ugly; and (the knowledge) of which eye it is that a person sees with when he sees the whole world as beautiful,114 when he does see it, so that he responds to it spontaneously with beautiful actions. 115 Now this knowledge is one of the most beautiful (or “best”) and most beneficial forms of knowledge about the world, and it (corresponds to) what some of the theologians say about this, that “there is no Actor but God, and all of His Acts are beautiful.” 116 Therefore these people (i.e., those who “see things as they really are”) do not consider ugly any of God’s Acts except for what God (calls or makes) ugly–and that is up to Him (to decide), not to them, since if they did not consider ugly what God has called so they would be disputing with God. 117
This stage also includes knowledge of what God has placed in the world as (an object for) marvel–and the “marvelous” (as men usually understand it) is only what breaks with the habitual (course of things).118 But for those who comprehend things from the divine
perspective, every thing in this “habitual” course is itself an object of marvel, whereas the “people of habits” only wonder at what departs from that habitual course.
…And in this stage there is a kind of knowledge among the things known (only) by inner unveiling. This is that the person experiencing this “unveiling” knows that every person or group, however large or small, inevitably has with them one of the men of the Unseen 119 whenever they are speaking. Then that individual (among the men of the Unseen) spreads reports about those persons in the rest of the world so that people discover those things in their own souls, (for example) when a group is gathered together in (spiritual) retreat or when a man says something to himself that (presumably) only God knows. Then that man or that group (who have discovered these reports in this mysterious fashion) go out and tell people about it so that (soon) people are all talking about it.
Ibn ‘Arabi goes on, in a long excursus (338.35-339.19) to cite two personal experiences illustrating this phenomenon. The first (in the year 590) 120 was when he ran into a man in Seville who recited to him several verses that Ibn ‘Arabī himself had composed, but never committed to writing, at a particular place in Tunis one night several months before. Not knowing Ibn ‘Arabi’s identity, the man went on to explain that he had learned the poem in a Sufi gathering outside Seville, on the very night Ibn ‘Arabi had composed them, from a mysterious stranger “whom we did not know, as though he were one of the ‘Travelers’.”121 After teaching his companions those verses, the mysterious stranger went on to tell them the full name of the author and even to give them the name and exact location of the particular quarter in Tunis where he had heard them–which was precisely where Ibn ‘Arabi had been staying that same night.
On the second occasion, also in Seville, Ibn ‘Arabi was listening to a Sufi friend praising “one of the greatest of the people of the (Sufi) Path, whom he had met in Khorasan” (in Persia), when he noticed a stranger nearby who remained invisible to the rest of the group and who said to him: “I am that very person whom this man who met with us in Khorasan is describing to you.” Then Ibn ‘Arabi began describing this otherwise invisible stranger–who continued to sit there beside them–to his friend, who confirmed the exactitude of his description of the Persian master.
And this stage includes the knowledge of what sort of arguing (concerning the practice and principles of religion) is praiseworthy and what sort is to be condemned.122 Someone who has (truly) surrendered (to God) among those who depend on God 123 should not argue except concerning what he has had confirmed and realized (through God) by way of inner unveiling (kashf), not on the basis of (his own) thinking and inquiry. So if he has actually witnessed (as an direct inspiration from God) that about which they are arguing, then in that event it is incumbent on him to argue about it using that which is better (Kor. 29:46)124–provided that he has been specifically ordered to do so by a divine command. But if he does not have a divine command to do so, then the choice is up to him.
Thus if the task of helping the other person (by convincing him of) that (revealed insight) has been assigned to him (by God), then he has been entrusted with that mission for him. But if he despairs of his listeners’ ever accepting what he has to say, then he should
shut up and not argue. For if he should argue (with no real hope of affecting his listeners), then he is (really) striving to bring about their perdition with God. 125
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