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    Dream Therapy

    The Role of the Heart in Ibn Al-‘Arabi’s Doctrine

      Faruk Arslan    1        0        Report content

    By Ayesha L. Saeed (Ayesha L. Saeed has a PhD in Philosophy of Education from the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies, Melbourne University, Australia. She is a member of the Academic Advisory Committee, at Virsa College of Arts, Islamabad. The author wishes to extend acknowledgement and thanks to Mr. Emran Akhtar for his critical appraisal and guidance.)

    This article will explore the concept of the “heart” in Ibn al-‘Arabi’s doctrine to see what role it plays in the growth and spiritual actualization of the human being. The need for understanding the role of the heart in the process of spiritual growth arises when we become cognizant of the bent of the times. The focus on outward differences between religions and the overbalanced importance given to formal rituals can lead to serious misunderstandings. Ignorance regarding the inner significance of various articles of faith and of the symbolic significance of religious rituals can further cause disharmony and discord, not just among people from different faiths, but also between various sects from the same religion. Ibn al-‘Arabi’s doctrine reveals the importance of the role of the heart in the process of spiritual transformation so that human beings can reach their true stature, that of the “representative of God” on earth. This knowledge can prove invaluable for researchers interested in spiritual elevation of human beings irrespective of their religious background.

    According to Ibn al-‘Arabi, the heart (al-qalb) plays a crucial role in the spiritual actualization of the individual human soul. This is the organ that comprehends true knowledge, receives and accepts the truth of intuition, achieves gnosis (ma‘rifa) of God, and perceives the Divine mysteries.3 Discussing the qualities of people who reject Divine guidance the Qur’an states, “They have hearts with which they understand not... They are like cattle, – nay more misguided: for they are heedless” (Qur’an,
    7:179). The Qur’an, thus, makes it clear that the true organ of comprehension of spiritual truths and understanding of Divine guidance is the heart.
    Sound knowledge is only that which God throws into the heart of the knower. It is a Divine light for which God singles out any of His servants whom He will, whether angel, messenger, prophet, friend, or person of faith. He who has no unveiling has no knowledge (man la kashf lah la ‘ilm lah).4
    It is the gateway, so to speak, of the special knowledge termed in Arabic the ilm al-batin, the “esoteric science”. The Spirit’s connection with the heart is made clear by Ibn al-‘Arabi:
    When the Spirit descends upon the heart of the servant through the sending down of the angel of the casting and revelation of God, the heart of the one to whom it is sent down comes alive.5
    It is essential to realize that “the heart” mentioned here is not the physical organ of flesh found under the ribs, even though there is a certain connection, the reality of which is known only to the adept.6 The belief in a special, to use Corbin’s words, “subtile [sic] physiology” has been given utmost importance by mystics of all times, such as the belief in the Prayer of the Heart, the “charisma of cardiognosis” held by Oriental Christianity.7 According to this “subtile [sic] physiology”, the mystic’s “subtile [sic] body” is composed of psycho-spiritual organs or centres, which need to be distinguished from the concrete physiological organs.8 For Ibn al-‘Arabi, the heart is one of the most important centres of this “subtile physiology”. Corbin explains this concept of the function of the heart as the “eye” with which the mystic has a vision of the Divine form (surat al-haqq).9 The heart is the quality within human nature, which transforms spiritual potentiality into reality. The heart is able to perceive into the depth of sensory perceptions such as sight and sound. When it performs its proper function it is able to distinguish between reality and illusion, right and wrong, and truth and falsehood. If the heart  is not functioning properly, even the sensory organs start to lose their true functions. The heart’s role is an exten
    sion of the functions of the sensory capacities to a higher level of functioning. People whose hearts are locked towards Divine guidance are described in the Qur’an as, “They have hearts with which they understand not, eyes with which they see not, ears with which they do not hear” (Qur’an, 7:179). The Qur’an mentions the perceptions of seeing and hearing most often. It is these perceptions that become dulled because the heart is not alive to their inner meaning. Evidence is given in the Qur’an of how a person in such a condition has mere sensations, devoid of their true and wholesome worth. “As to those who reject faith, it is the same to them whether thou warn them or do not warn them, they will not believe. Allah hath set a seal on their hearts and on their hearing and on their eyes is a veil; great is the penalty they (incur)” (Qur’an, 2: 6-7). The present and future generations who inherit wealth and power are warned that if they reject and rebel against the guidance of Allah then, “We could punish them (too) for their sins, and seal up their hearts so that they could not hear” (Qur’an, 7: 101). This quote makes it clear that using the ears for listening to the ayats (signs) of the scriptures is not enough. The key to true guidance lies in the openness of the heart in allowing for a cognitive comprehension of the outer and inner meanings of the scriptures, which then have the effect of directing human beings to a life of righteousness (Qur’an, 4: 155, 63: 3, and 16: 106-108). This subtle spiritual heart has also been defined as the organ of transcendental intuition, which has a correspondence with the physical heart, just as thought has a correspondence with the brain.10 The spiritual heart transcends the physical heart, just as the mind transcends the grey matter of the brain.11 “It is not the eyes that are blind but the hearts” (Qur’an, 22:46). The heart is where the Divine Presence is felt because this is the limitless organ where the Spirit is known to dwell.

    The potential of the heart is unlimited, therefore, the potential for spiritual growth within human beings is also unlimited. God is Infinite, His Self-disclosures are infinite, therefore the ability of human beings to experience unveilings as a result of the heart’s openness is infinite as well. Vision of the Divine Presence can be attained through the eye of the heart. The heart is the locus of Divine self-disclosures within human existence. In reality, Divine self-disclosures are the manifestation of Divine creativity. It is the heart that is the organ of intuition (al-kashf) and also the point of identification (wajd) with being (wujud). Intuition takes place in the heart when Divine self-disclosures take place in the heart through the creative power (al-himmah) of the heart.

    CREATIVE POWER OF THE HEART: AL-HIMMAH The secret hidden power of the heart is called al-himmah in Arabic. It is a secret force or energy (quwwat khafiya), which comprehends Divine realities and spiritual knowledge. The form of God is reflected, as in a mirror, in the heart of the human being when it undergoes unveiling. The term al-himmah signifies a powerful creative force that includes the intentions and desires of the heart. Al-himmah is a spiritual quality of the heart, an intention of the soul so powerful that it has the ability to engender into existence that which was only a possibility amongst the infinite possibilities of Unmanifest Being.12 Analysis of the concept of al-himmah in Ibn al-‘Arabi’s philosophy reveals that it is the creative ability of the heart to project into an external plane that which was conceived by the heart. It is this ability of the heart that has perception of Divine consciousness. It is this perceptive ability of the heart that enabled the Prophet Muhammad to experience the highest of all spiritual goals, i.e. the vision of the Lord. The Prophet used the following words to describe this experience: “I have seen my Lord in the most beautiful of forms.”13 This vision of the Lord through the power of the al-himmah is known in Ibn al-‘Arabi’s and Sufi terminology as an experiencing of dhawq, meaning an intimate taste or touch. Such an experience is not to be confused with the physical function of sight. Instead, dhawq means the transcendence of consciousness to a height where God intimately pervades the seeker’s consciousness, and he/she experiences a radiant union with the Divine Beloved. Al-himmah is in “its practical aspect, the free disposal of things (tashkir al-ashya), while in its cognitive aspect it is an extraordinary power to penetrate the secret of Being which lies beyond the grasp of reason.”14
    Who is here and what there? Who is here is what is there. He who is universal is particular, And He Who is particular is universal. There is but one Essence, The light of the Essence being also darkness. He who heeds these words will not Fall into confusion. In truth, only he knows what we say Who is possessed of spiritual power [al-himmah].15
    Ibn al-‘Arabi gives an in-depth explanation of a verse in the Qur’an: “Surely in this is a lesson for him who has a heart and who gives ear and is an eye-witness” (shahid) (Qur’an, 50:36). On the grounds of this verse He divides human beings into three categories: (a) “the disciples of the science of the heart,” who are the people who possess “the psycho-spiritual organ” designated as the heart (ashab al-qulub)16; “these are the mystics the more perfect among the Sufis.”17 These are the “perfect human beings” (insan al kamil) and the “representatives of God” on earth
    (khalifatullah); (b) “the disciples of the rational intellect” (ashab al-‘uqul); this group includes the rational theologians who give uncompromising emphasis to understanding religion from a rational standpoint alone; (c) the third group comprises the simple believers (mu’minun). Under a spiritual guide, a simple believer can develop into a mystic of the heart. But between the mystics and the rational theologians18, there is an “unbridgeable gulf”.19

    CREATIVE POWER OF LOVE THROUGH SPIRITUAL POWER (AL-HIMMAH) The gnostic’s20 heart is the “eye” through which God reveals Himself to Himself. God’s self-disclosures in as much as He wills them, take place within the heart of the mystic through the unveiling that has been arduously desired with this powerful quality of al-himmah. Ibn al-‘Arabi proclaims that each self-disclosure of the Lord is absolutely unique, as He never reveals Himself twice in exactly the same manner. This power of al-himmah has an integral role in the whole creative process, and revels to the gnostic that God is constantly manifesting Himself in new theophanies (tajalli). Therefore, the folk of God know God in whatever form of belief He discloses Himself. They do not deny His divinity as it is manifested in other creeds, religions and traditions.
    For the gnostic, the Reality is [always] known and not [ever] denied. Those who know in this world will know in the Hereafter. For this reason He says, for one who is possessed of a heart (Qur’an, 50:37) namely, one who understands the formal transformations of the Reality by adapting himself formally, so that from [or by] himself he knows the Self.21
    own like, and it can itself be truly seen and known by its like.22 Ibn al-‘Arabi says, concerning the gnostic, “[In truth], his self is not other than the Divine Identity Itself, as also no [determined] being, now or in the future, is other than His Identity; He is the Identity Itself.”23 This is the principle that sets in creative movement the relationship between the human lover and the Divine Beloved, and the Divine Lover and the human beloved.24 Once the creative power of the heart becomes an intense yearning and thirst for the Divine Beloved, there is a corresponding desire of the Divine Beloved towards His lover. This process is creative in nature because it is brought about by a totally unique phenomenon, a lover’s secret and intensely individual desire for his Lord and the Lord’s totally unique response that results in God’s creative self-disclosures. These creative self-disclosures of God (tajalli) take place because of the Lord’s intense and totally specific yearning for His beloved (‘abd) and the beloved’s totally unique, creative response of the heart. This is verified by the principle of the “renewing of creation at each moment.” Ibn al‘Arabi keeps reiterating that the Lord never manifests Himself twice in the same manner. What is sought in this great creative endeavour is the Divine Being. The seeker is himself / herself a spark lit by the light of the Divine Being. Human beings, by transcending the limitations imposed by their material nature, can become fully aware, and taste (dhawaq) being a particle of this Divine light through the creative power of love in their hearts.25
    In order to understand Ibn al‘Arabi’s views regarding the importance of the heart there is a need to grasp a
    basic principle of Sufism: like seeks to unite with like. According to this belief, a substance can truly see and know its
    The seeker is himself / herself a spark lit by the light of the Divine Being.

    The heart is the organ of perception, whose goal is to strive towards infinity and not to accept any limitations on the way. God’s infinity and vastness do not allow for limitations of any kind. Although Ibn al-‘Arabi usually discusses the doctrine of “perpetual creation” from the metaphysical standpoint of God’s creativity, he does give some very interesting points to show how human beings can seek to come closer to God through the use of their own aspirations (al-himmah).
    God is much vaster than that a person should be satisfied with a little of what comes from Him. Rather, one should be satisfied with Him, but not with what comes from Him, since satisfaction with what comes from Him cuts of the Men [human beings] from their aspirations (himmah)... So there is nothing too great to be sought from God, since that which is sought from Him is infinite and hence has no end where we should come to a halt. So make your seeking of increase vast, if you are among those who know God! And since the vastness of the possible things accepts no finitude, what do you suppose of the Divine Vastness?”26

    Ibn al-‘Arabi believes in the power of human aspirations (al-himmah) and it is through this power that human beings can strive towards infinity. To seek love from the Lord is to seek from an infinitely vast and creative Being, who accepts no limitations.

    GREATEST CREATIVE FORCE It is worth mentioning Ibn al-‘Arabi’s standpoint with regard to Divine self-disclosures and their relationship to the level of aspirations within human being. For him, all things existent are different because each can only receive the Divine self-disclosure only to the extent of its own level of realization. Whoever holds a belief regarding God (i‘tiqad) holds it in accordance with his own preparedness, and so the belief is absolutely unique. In reality, “the object of our belief is only ourselves, since God stands far beyond our capacity to conceptualize or understand.”27 In the same manner, even if human beings should attain the state of presence (hudur) with God, “the God with whom we are present is determined by our ability to encompass Him: we can never encompass God, so we are only present with ourselves.”28 Ibn al-‘Arabi explains this concept in the following words: “The Real does not return to you except through you, not through Himself. For it is not in the capacity of the creature to endure Him.”29 The power of love for the Divine Beloved, which is actualized through al-himmah, is the greatest creative force within human beings. This creative power of the heart exercises its influence on the imaginal (al-khayal) realm of the soul in human beings. The imagination (al-khayal) is common to all human beings in its passive mode, but when it is aroused by the spiritual will and aspirations (al-himmah), it creates lasting forms. This quality of al-himmah encompasses the ideas of the power of spiritual decision, of concentration, and of aspiration towards God. It is the opposite of wahm, illusion, conjecture or opinion. Ibn al-‘Arabi makes a clear distinction between the imagination that is accompanied by spiritual will and imagination without spiritual will. The latter is nothing but fancy and fantasy. It is important to note here that many a seeker on the spiritual path has been led astray for want of proper guidance in distinguishing between the two kinds of imaginable realities. To differentiate between these two imaginable realms it is essential to find the right spiritual guide; one who has been through the various spiritual trials and stages to reach the level where he/she can save the seekers from the many pitfalls of the imaginable realm. Such guides have themselves tasted of the Divine realities through their own himmah and therefore they have an insight into the states of the seeker’s heart and are able to direct the course of their spiritual journey.

    It is through the power of the heart, the intense longing of love for the Divine Beloved, that Divine realities are manifested in the heart. According to Ibn al-‘Arabi the spiritually mature person seeks God through the creative power of the heart known as al-himmah. Such a person realizes that Divine self-disclosures are limitless. No limitations can be set regarding how God chooses to disclose Himself in the heart of His true believer. To the one who attains a vision of God through the “eye of the heart” all religions and all creeds have their own beauty, their own uniqueness and importance, as God reveals Himself in myriad of ways.
    My heart has become capable of every form; It is a pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christian monks, And a temple for idols and the pilgrim’s Ka‘ba And the tables of the Torah and the book of the Qur’an. I follow the religion of Love: whatever way Love’s camels take, that is my religion and my faith.30


    1A. ATES, “IN AL’ARABI” IN Encyclopaedia of Islam, CD-ROM, Edition v. 1.0. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 1999.

    2May the peace and blessings of God be upon all the prophets.

    3Corbin, Henry. Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn al-‘Arabi. Translated by Ralph
    Manheim. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969, 221.

    4Ibn al-‘Arabi, Futuhat, I 218.19, quoted in Chittick, Sufi Path of Knowledge, 170.

    5Ibn al-‘Arabi, Futuhat, III 356.2, quoted in Corbin, Creative Imagination, 277.

    6Corbin, Creative Imagination, 221.




    10Martin Lings, What is Sufism? (Lahore: Suhail Academy, 1999), 48.


    12According to Henry Corbin himmah is an “extremely complicated notion which cannot be translated by any one word. Many equivalents have been suggested: meditation, projection, intention, desire, force of will; here we will concentrate on the aspect that encompasses all the others, the “creative power of the heart”. Corbin, Creative Imagination, 220.

    13This hadith has been transmitted from Ikrima. Its authority has been disputed by the ulama. The complete hadith is: "I saw my Lord in the form of a beardless youth, wearing a cloak of gold, upon his head a crown of gold, and upon his feet sandals of gold" (Dhakha’ir, 17). Although Ibn al‘Arabi is aware of the controversy surrounding the hadith, he alludes to it in his commentary of the Tarjuman al-ashwaq. See Muhy’iddin Ibn al-‘Arabi, The Tarjuman Al-Ashwaq: A Collection of Mystical Odes, trans. and ed. Reynold A. Nicholson (London: Theosophical Publishing House, 1978), 55-56.

    14Toshihiko Izutsu, “Permanent Archetypes.” In Sufism and Taoism: A Comparative Study of Key Philosophical Concepts. Revised edition of A Comparative Study of the Key Philosophical Concepts in Sufism and Taoism, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984, 279. Here, the use of the word “reason” is to denote the concept of the kind of common, limited, blind reason used by people who have not been able to raise their mental abilities from a state of concrete level of consciousness. Knowledge of the unseen world of Spirit is rejected outright as it cannot be grasped through their physical organs of sight, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching. In contrast, for those who have had a vision of their Lord, their intellect and reason are raised to an infinitely higher state of consciousness. Such people use their reason and intellect as a tool to gain further understanding of the Divine realities. But, the most powerful organ for spiritual insight is the heart and the creative power of the heart to apprehend spiritual realities and to take part in creativity is called al-himmah in Arabic.

    15Muhyi-d-Din Ibn ‘Arabi,. The Wisdom of the Prophets: (Fusus al-Hikam). Partial French translation by Titus Burckhardt, rendered into English by Angela Culme-Seymour. Lahore: Suhail Academy, 1999, 150.

    16It is my understanding that the term “disciples of the rational intellect” used here denotes dogmatic, literalists whose minds and hearts are closed to higher spiritual truths. Such knowledge is based on given dogmatic doctrines and second-hand learning, not direct research and experiencing of the spiritual realities. 17Corbin, Creative Imagination, 230.

    18The term “rational theologians,” in my opinion, refers to dogmatic literalists whose qualities are discussed in note 16.


    20The term “gnostic” is here used for those adepts who have achieved a certain level of spiritual actualization and have gained insight into esoteric spiritual sciences.

    21Ibn ‘Arabi, Fusus,151.

    22Henry Corbin, The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism, trans. Nancy Pearson (London: Shambala, 1978), 68.

    23Ibn ‘Arabi, Fusus, 151.

    24For a comprehensive understanding of Ibn al-‘Arabi’s concept and experience of love see Claude Addas, “The Experience and Doctrine of Love in Ibn al-‘Arabi,” translated from the French by Cecilia Twinch on behalf of the Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi Society for the Symposium at Worchester College Oxford May 4-6th 2002; available from http:// www.ibnarabisociety.org/; accessed 4 August 2002.


    26Ibn al-‘Arabi, Futuhat, II 213.23, quoted in Chittick, Sufi Path of Knowledge, 104.

    27Ibid. 28Ibid.,105. 29Ibn al-‘Arabi, Futuhat, II589.28, quoted in Chittick, Sufi Path of Knowledge, 105. 30Ibn al-‘Arabi, The Seals of Wisdom from the Fusus al Hikam, ed. Raghvan Iyer (New York: Concord Grove Press, 1983), 25. For further understanding of Ibn al-‘Arabi’s concept of love see William C. Chittick, “The Divine Roots of Human Love”. Journal of the Muhyiddin ibn ‘Arabi Society 17 (1995): 55-78.



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