ibn arabi stephen hirtenstein
For many in the West, their first encounter with the 13th-century sufi mystic Ibn Arabi will be in the Turkish drama Resurrection: Ertugrul, available on Netflix and YouTube, where he is portrayed as a wandering spiritual master and adviser, always ready to dispense with the perfect wisdom in any given situation. But who was Ibn Arabi in real life? And why is he called the "Greatest Master"?

Today on MindMatters, we interview Stephen Hirtenstein, editor of the Journal of the Ibn Arabi Society, co-founder of Anqa Publishing, and author of several translations of Ibn Arabi's works as well as the book we discuss today: The Unlimited Mercifier: The Spiritual Life and Thought of Ibn Arabi. We discuss some of Ibn Arabi's major works, the visions that inspired them, his own remarkable spiritual development, and some of the core meanings unveiled in his prolific output.

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Here's the transcript of the show:

Harrison: Welcome back to Mind Matters everyone. I am joined by my co-hosts Elan Martin and Corey Schink. I'm Harrison Koehli. Today we are interviewing Stephen Hirtenstein. Stephen is the editor of the Ibn Arabi Society Journal. He is or was - we'll get clarification from him - the senior researcher Fellow at the Society and is the co-founder of Anqa Publishing which specializes in bringing texts from the great Sufi mystic and writer, Ibn Arabi, into English.

We've been reading his book recently, The Unlimited Mercifier: The Spiritual Life and Thought of Ibn Arabi. We've got a copy of it right there. It is a work for the general public. It's not a tediously academic work that is hard to get through. It is actually very readable. It is divided into opposing chapters of events and periods of Ibn Arabi's life and elucidations of some of his main ideas. It is a very intriguing book. You could almost say it's magical reading the story of the life of this great man. So we're going to be talking a bit about Ibn Arabi and Stephen's work.

To start out, I just want to welcome you to the show Stephen and thank you for being with us.

Stephen: Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be here.

Harrison: It's great to have you. For the last couple of months we've been reading a bunch of works on Sufism and trying to find as much as we can. Of course there's a lot to read, a lot to find and that's how I came across your book. But in the process as I was searching on YouTube I found videos of Ibn Arabi - and I'll clarify - and found out that there was a Turkish show, Resurrection Ertugrul, is how it's called in English. Ibn Arabi plays quite a major role in that show. He is the spiritual advisor that weaves in and out of the narrative. It's historical fiction so a lot of the events that take place are completely fictionalized. I don't know if there's any evidence to indicate that Ibn Arabi had anything to do with Ertugrul.

A bunch of us here started watching the show and we quite enjoy it. The actors who plays Ibn Arabi we think does quite a good job. Are you familiar with the show? Have you seen it Stephen, just out of curiosity?

Stephen: I am. I think I've managed to watch four series out of five.

Harrison: Oh wow! We're just on the first series so we're about two-thirds through the first series. Do you like the representation of Ibn Arabi in the show Stephen? What do you think about that?

Stephen: Well I've started watching it because a friend of mine had told me there was a program on Netflix and they were doing a whole thing with Ibn Arabi as a counsellor and advisor so I thought I'd better watch it just to find out and I got hooked, not particularly on the storyline which is in many ways just fun, but I started to think about how they were representing Ibn Arabi which is of course almost entirely ahistorical. There's very little in the presentation of Ibn Arabi that you'd say, "This is like the man himself." Just as an example, he's portrayed in the Netflix series as a wandering dervish in robes with one other student who looks after him and he pops up in various places, gives a bit of advice and disappears again.

But curiously, Ibn Arabi was a traveller yes, but he wasn't a traveller in that sense and he wouldn't possibly have had time to write all the books that he did if he'd been doing that kind of thing.

Harrison: That's something I wanted to get into because we found out that the show itself of course was hugely popular in Turkey but now that it has been translated into English and being shown on Netflix, also into Urdu, it's being shown in Pakistan and it's wildly popular in Pakistan. The first season or two have been released so far there. So it seems like there's probably a bunch of people, maybe in the English world, who are being exposed to this character, this person for the first time.

So one of the things I wanted to do is to get into a bit about who Ibn Arabi was primarily, because a lot of people still aren't familiar with him. Let's start there. Who was Ibn Arabi and why is he referred to as al-Shaykh al-Akbar, basically the greatest Sheikh? What is it about Ibn Arabi, the reason that he's so remembered today, maybe not in the western world particularly, but in the Muslim world? And what features about him made him so great? Maybe we'll leave it there.

Stephen: Well I suppose the first thing to say is that unlike the portrayal in Resurrection Ertugrul, they mention it obliquely but Ibn Arabi was born in Spain in Andalusia in Arab Spain at a time when Andalusian culture was really very sophisticated, far, far in advance of things happening in Europe, for example. From a very, very early age, he was clearly a different kind of human being. He has various experiences which mark him out as very unusual. We can maybe go into some of those subsequently, but what he really contributed was he brought together various kinds of traditions.

So there is obviously a tradition of Sufism, however one understands that, which fundamentally is to do with understanding the meaning of philosophy, of religion, of the world in which we live but ultimately it's an understanding of the human being spiritually, ethically, philosophically, from every angle. This was a very rich tradition in Andalusia so when he left probably 20 years before the Spanish reconquest of Spain, he was taking with him, as it were, the pinnacle of Andalusian culture and travelling across the Arab world to the centre in Mecca and eventually embracing the eastern part, all the way up to Anatolia which is why Netflix has kind of embraced him and we can say more about the Ottoman influence and so on.

But his main legacy, unlike most masters, was not simply a group of students who he trained but an extraordinary outpouring of writing, both prose and poetry, much of which until the last 20 or 30 years, was really only accessible in proper form in manuscripts. So a lot of work has been done, for example, in the last 10 years to actually create a bank of critical editions in Arabic so that one can say "This is the text that he actually wrote." There are some complications with that story which, again, we can talk about.

But fundamentally, these writings became the basis for a whole training program as it were, of others. So unlike other people's work - and I have to emphasize this right from the beginning - he said of his own work, "I don't write like other people do. I write under the impulse of inspiration." So however one is to understand that, there's no doubt when you read the work, it does not read like a philosophical treatise. It does not read like an intellectual exposition of how reality is. It is full of allusion. It's full of poetry. It's full of image. It is probably the most sophisticated kind of writing that exists in the Sufi world. It's not stories. For example Jalal Al-Din Rumi would be famous for his telling of stories and weaving the meaning out of them. Ibn Arabi probably tells two stories in his whole work in terms of that kind of story. He does, on the other hand, tell a lot of stories about people he met and what they said, what they did, as examples of how to live "the properly human life".

So I think what appeals and what always has appealed and particularly appeals today, is this kind of very broad, let's call it 'phenomenology of the spirit' as has been described, of his writing. It could be described as a full explanation, top to bottom. Now what people make of it is quite a different matter. But it's there, as it were, the body of work is there.

Harrison: Before we get into some of the experiences of Ibn Arabi, especially as you mentioned, as a youth, because as you show in your book, he experienced some great visions but also a flowering of his own spirituality and personal development at a very early age whereas for others it would take years, if not a lifetime, to achieve even those first levels that he did. But before we get into that, let's talk a little bit about his output of work because as I've read in numerous places, he was the author of hundreds of works. I've seen various quotes, like 350, 400 different works, and it seems like a lot of them are fairly short texts ranging anywhere from a few pages to a couple of hundred pages. You can correct me if I'm wrong. But there is his magnum opus, the Al-Futuhat Al-Makkiyah, the Meccan Openings or Meccan Revelations which span I believe 10,000 pages. There has yet to be a complete English translation but I believe one is in the works by Dr. Eric Winkle.

Could you talk a bit about the Futuhat and what it is. Maybe you can summarize it in a few short words. {laughter}

Stephen: Oh wow! {laughter} Well let's first of all just say how the book came about because that is necessary. After Ibn Arabi's upbringing and education and training in Andalusia, in his early 30s he travelled to Mecca. Clearly, he was doing the pilgrimage and so on. When he arrived in Mecca, he had probably four major experiences, one of which led to the writing of the Futuhat in which he was circumambulating the Kaaba and he describes a meeting with somebody he calls the youth. He doesn't specify a name or anything but he says this person or youth was beyond space and time and describes himself as knowledge, knower and the known.

So he is some spirit figure that is basically the instruction for the whole of the Futuhat because this being says to him, "Contemplate my structure and write down in your book all that you see." Some people have described the Futuhat as an encyclopedia. It has 560 chapters. It covers absolutely every esoteric subject under the sun at a level of writing which is utterly extraordinary and as you said, Dr. Winkle is now beginning the English translation which is no mean feat at all because to translate this out of Arabic into a language like English is a task in itself.

However, this book should really be conceived of as, if you like, the inner workings of the human being because what was represented in the original vision is a human being, a youth, which actually means not so much just a young man but a human being in the prime of the full flowering of beauty and let's say capacity. So one has to understand that this vision is entirely to do with the inner workings of being human. So when we look at the Futuhat we find all kinds of things in it but these are all explanations of what it means to be fully human.

Harrison: One of the things that I found quite remarkable in your book Unlimited Mercifier, which comes up every now and again, is the experience of the kind of revelation that led to the writing of this book and the way that you describe it and Ibn Arabi describe it is that it has to do with levels of reality and how on the highest level, or on a high level, there is pure meaning. There's a filtering process that goes on. So you have the world of meaning and then that gets filtered and distilled down into an image. Then that image is then perceived by the senses.

I think it's in the context of a description of angels and how Ibn Arabi is describing how this happens, that there is pure meaning that takes the shape, takes the form in the imaginal realm that then becomes sensible to the person, to the human being who experiences it. Coupled with that there is really rich, like you mentioned, illusions and symbolism that is inherent in all of this. The language of the actual vision itself is symbolic. I believe it was if not the youth, then maybe it was one of the figures in some of Ibn Arabi's visions that explicitly say, "I communicate in symbols" or "I communicate in images like this. It isn't a logical, syntactical verbal structure that I'm transmitting to you. It is something that has to be almost experienced and felt on every level and then translated into words." That's almost how I see the process of his writing and why he distinguishes his writing from the way other people write. It is a direct translation of the images from this realm that are themselves filters of this kind of universal meaning. Do I have that right or could you comment on those worlds and how that process works?

Stephen: Well I think you've put it very well. I can give you many examples of this in his own life that he describes. Before I give you one example that illustrates what you meant, just to say the conception of meaning for us is we have to get away from the idea that this is an idea. Meaning is not an idea. What appears at the level of the intellect is an idea but at deeper levels of human experience, meaning can be directly experienced and this is what Ibn Arabi talks about as Kashf, unveiling.

So this is not something that is accessible to us simply by let's say, the exercise of ordinary thinking about and concluding. No, this is only accessible by what he describes as sitting at the door empty. He actually says we empty ourselves of reflective thinking and then we sit with what is actually going on and if the reality which is actually going on reveals itself, that's up to it, not up to us. So this builds a relationship of putting one's own house in order, in order for something to be shown. We have to strive, of course. We have to ask, but there's no guarantee about the result of this striving or the result of this asking. It may come in very different forms.

So let me go back just to give you an example of something that happened to him very early on. In fact it's the first event of his life apart from his birth, that we know about, which illustrates the appearance of something at the level of the imaginal world, which is not imagination but it's a world of images and symbols where meaning appears more directly than it does in the sensible world. Because in one sense, the meaning has to appear clothed in certain form in order to then manifest in the sensible world. This is why, for example, human beings when they dream, are closer to meaning than they are in the world of the senses where physical distance and all that start to enter in. There's no physical distance in the world of imagination, not only physical distance, there's no temporal distance either. You can be in one moment in one place and in another moment in another place.

So let's take the example that he recounts of this very early event. He's a child of perhaps five or six and he is very ill. I'm telling this story in the light of the situation in which we are today. He has probably got some form of plague. Anyway, he goes into a coma. In this coma his parents believe that he's going to die because many people are dying of this illness. So his father does what any pious Muslim would do, he reads the Surah Yasin, which is a special Surah read over the dead or the dying. Ibn Arabi then recounts that while he's in this coma he has a vision, a dream vision if you like, of a person who appears and who starts to defend him against all these horrible looking people who are trying to attack him. This rather extraordinary being who is exuding a perfume defeats them and vanquishes them and they disappear. Then he wakes up and he finds his father at his bedside, having just finished reciting the Surah Yasin. In the dream vision, Ibn Arabi is conscious enough to say to this being, "Who are you?" And the being replies, "I am the Surah Yasin and I am here to protect you."

So now we have a situation where something is happening at multiple levels simultaneously where in the outer world of the senses somebody is reciting this work but the Surah is appearing in the inner world to Ibn Arabi as a defender, as a protector and also as an eternally living being. So it is not simply words on a page. This is an active presence which is being seen. Of course the father is in one sense invoking it, but in Ibn Arabi's universe, let's say, this is taking shape and is actively protecting him. This is important because the Quran itself is understood as the word of god and many things have been written about what that means. But for Ibn Arabi it actually means that these words and Surahs and verses are living presences and they have the power to act through and on human beings if the person is receptive to them.

Now in Ibn Arabi's case you could say that this Surah effectively revived him from the dead because he was effectively dead and it was being recited over him. So it is like what we would call a near-death experience. In other words, meaning - going back to your original question - can descend in different modalities. It can descend at the level of image where it is seen and perceived as active and it's in a very, very different arena then from meaning at the level of the intellect where it's actually, according to certain Sufis, a dead thing. There's a very famous saying of Abu Yasin Vistani who said to the scholars of his time, "You take your knowledge like a dead thing from a dead person. We take our knowledge from the living one who never dies."

So this is a reference actually to this kind of experience I've just given you an example of. It occurs many, many times throughout Ibn Arabi's life. This let's say, revelation of meaning in a form and it can be a form in a vision but it can also be a sensory form like the vision of the youth and it's a direct witnessing or contemplation that then takes place and in that sense, all his writing is flowing from those visions, those contemplations.

Corey: Now that space that exists that Ibn Arabi was able to experience, this unity of god and all the names and all these different levels of reality, in your book you discuss it as an inner experience called the inner face, I believe. Could you describe, if I'm correct, the role that the inner face plays for Ibn Arabi in his religious life?

Stephen: Okay, let me give you an image. Actually it's called the private face or special face but private face is the usual translation I would use. So each of us has a face towards the world, towards the outer which we could call in that sense a public face. We also have a private face towards our own reality which is only known to us, can only be known to us. To give you an image of what that might be like, if you had a circle, any point on the circumference of the circle can relate to any other point on the circumference and in many multiple ways. But each point on the circumference has a direct relationship to the center which only that particular point has. No other point has this. Each point has, in that sense, a totally individual collection to the center of the circle. And the reason I'm representing it like that is not only is that an image that Ibn Arabi uses but we can see that we live in a world which apparently has many things in it.

It's an outer world and at the same time we're aware that there is an inner world that each of us inhabits which is actually unique to us and we share only intimations of it with others because we can't actually externalize this inner world. This inner world is inner, by definition. So if you were to think of the whole of the outer world as a semi-circle that is manifest, then by definition, if you think of it as a circle, there must be a hidden semi-circle. But both sides of it - and I emphasize both sides of it - form a unity which is dependent on a central point.

So those who are aware that all that is has sprung from this central point are what we might call mystics, saints, people of the spirit, etc. or people of the heart. There are many descriptions and there are obviously many variations in how people are going to express this, that the fundamentals don't change from one generation to another. This is, if you like, an eternally human capacity that everybody has.

Elan: Stephen, one of the most surprising and compelling parts to his story is the dreams that he had of Christ, Jesus, Moses and Mohammed. I found it very surprising that he would be so inspired by these three different voices or beings that would be the cause of so much inspiration for him and move him from within to follow his path and course. It reminded me of a guest we had a few months ago by the name of Joseph Azize who is a Gurdjieffian scholar who spoke of these exercises called the four ideals where in meditation an individual would actually in some way try to reach out to Moses, Jesus, Buddha, what have you. It seemed to me that for Ibn Arabi, these dreams that he had, the inspiration that these communications were the cause of in him, had some kind of objective existing in a sense. I was just wondering if you might speak to the idea that these voices, these spirits or beings, may or may not have an objective existence outside of Ibn Arabi's dreams.

In other words, what do you suspect or believe is the reality to the Jesus, Mohammed and Moses that so inspired Ibn Arabi?

Stephen: Well I suppose the first thing to say is that these are three figures who represent the three major religions in the Abrahamic tradition. Their life and teachings and actions in the world expressed some aspect or face of wisdom for particular peoples at the time. However, from an interior point of view, their spiritual reality is not confined to their appearance in the world. It is, let's say, an active force in the way that I was talking about the Surah of the Quran manifesting as a human being rather than as words. We can say also that human beings who have the task of educating others have to manifest in the world, but their reality is a constant expression of, let's say, guidance.

The reason I'm putting it that way is because the question about objective/subjective is not really relevant because it's predicated on some sort of understanding of a difference between a subject and an object. Now if you start from the point of view that what actually exists in reality is one reality and one being, then what has appeared as these two aspects is actually the same thing. So from that point of view, the whole of reality is actually entirely, 100% subjective. But it's not according to the individual subject. It's according to the universal subject. So people think that they are human beings striving to understand something. It may be that what they actually are is reality striving to express itself in that particular mode, in which case what we actually share is something at the level of reality, not at the level of appearance.

At the level of appearance we are different and we have to be different. But at the level of reality, we may actually realize that we are identical. In that sense we can say, for example if you take the case of Ibn Arabi's teachings, all the prophets that have been sent have been sent from Adam onwards all the way to Mohammed, to express truths and wisdom to human beings in different communities at different times and to orientate them to the same fundamental reality. At different times a certain expression was needed. Let's say at the time of Noah it might have been needed to have emphasized the transcendent nature of god as opposed to the worship of idols. At another time something else might be needed. Let's say at the time of Jesus, what is brought is something much more manifest in terms of the realization of the human being as the image of god.

So if you take all of these together as one continuum, they begin to point to a very different level of seeing these, let's call them spiritual realities. They are teaching, educating. That's their nature. So in the case of Ibn Arabi for example, he talks about meeting several prophets. First was Jesus. Second was Moses. Third was Mohammed. But then he goes on to others until he's brought to the full realization of what the reality of the human being actually is, which embraces all those images.

Going back to our discussion about image, you can say meaning can appear in this image, but it can also appear in that image. So in this image it looks this way. In another image it could almost look like the opposite, but it's still the same reality manifesting. Does that make sense to you?

Elan: It does. Thank you.

Corey: I think that's a fantastic explanation. Thank you very much.

Harrison: That's also reflected in the wider cosmology, I guess you could put it, of the divine essence and then the divine names. So there's the indescribable, unfathomable whole of the essence and then it is expressed through these names in all of reality on all levels which can be, like you said, opposites of each other, whether mercy and compassion or wrath.

So it seems almost like what you provided with this image of the prophets is almost like a hologram or a fractal of the wider image, which is a reflection of the whole of reality as well where every facet of reality, no matter how at odds or seemingly opposite of the other is an expression of that unity at that total level. Could you comment on Ibn Arabi's explanation of the names of god and how he understood that?

Stephen: Well I just gave a 10-week course {laughter} at the university on this subject.

Corey: Sign up below everyone.

Stephen: I'll give you a five minute summary. {laughter} Well I think the first thing to say is that like everybody approaching this subject, we should tread warily because first of all, a name is a pointer to the person. So in the case of what we call the names of god, they are pointers to the one named and that's what they all share in common. On the other side, each name has its own individuality that differentiates it from another name. But there is one name which designates the person in their entirety.

For me, you could say, "Well my name is Stephen" but actually I might have other names that you don't know about. But for the purposes of this, this is my personal name. So, you relate to me through that name which means that you're not interested in the qualities that Stephen possesses or shows, you are simply interested in the personal name so that you can address me and I will answer. In the Islamic tradition, this name is of course Allah which Ibn Arabi says is a personal name of god. It's what god names himself as.

This is the reasoning behind, for example, certain practices in Sufi Tariqas where this name is repeated and reiterated, similar to a mantra, as a way of invoking the presence of the one named. But this one named comes with all the qualities that they possess. So if you call me, Stephen, I respond to you but I may respond with kindness. I might respond with generosity. I might respond in many different ways. So these are the qualities that I possess which are manifested at any particular moment in accordance with how you are asking me.

So for Ibn Arabi, this means that when, for example, a person invokes reality, they invoke the same reality, Allah let us say, but their state requires something specific. So if you are in the middle of the sea and you are drowning and you say, "Save me!", you are appealing to god on one side but also to a particular name, the rescuer. This is where the doctrine of the names comes in. For each moment you are actually invoking a particular name. Now you may be aware of the particular name that you're invoking. I've given you a very obvious example. But you may be unaware so you think it is god who is responding to you, you think it is Allah who is responding to you. In one respect you're right. In another respect, Allah does not respond to you. It is his names that respond.

So this is why I said right at the beginning, a note of caution, because you cannot know the full weight and meaning of this name, Allah, unless you become like the earth and you are ready to receive whatever comes from heaven, good, bad or indifferent. And then you will become, in the terminology that Ibn Arabi uses, then you can understand what is meant by Abdullah - servant of Allah. Otherwise you are servant of particular names.

Harrison: I want to take that example you used with the rescuer and the man at sea and go a bit further with it. Let's say that there is a drowning man who cries out to be rescued and then a boat appears with another man in it who rescues him. Might Ibn Arabi say that the manifestation of that man in our reality was in a sense, acting as or channeling or being that name of god in that moment for the drowning man?

Stephen: Yes. The name has to manifest. How does the name manifest? It manifests through the agency in this world or the particular cause and effect. So in that sense that's actually what this world is but we don't realize. We don't see it like that. We don't see that actually all it is, is names demanding to be manifest.

For example, you pass a man begging on the street and it's your impulse to give them money. So you are acting generously. What is actually happening? The beggar is in need, is in the state of servanthood, has nothing of their own. You are becoming the place of manifestation of the name the generous or the giver because there are many forms of giving that could happen. So from that point of view, you are not you at all. You are simply the place of manifestation of a particular name. If you are aware of this, apart from anything else, life is a lot easier.

Corey: Is there room in that world for the personal name, Stephen or Corey? What does that name mean or is that just a subset of a larger name, dependent on our choices and our character?

Stephen: Well people get given names for all sorts of reasons. Actually I don't know why that particular name was given to me. I never managed to find out from my parents. But let's just say there's a common practice that the person is 'renamed' as a spiritual aspect of their development. So at a certain stage they may be given another name and this is quite a common practice within the Islamic tradition but also in Hindu tradition and so on.

So this is to show that what happened to you at birth where somebody had to write on a birth certificate a particular name, it doesn't determine you. It doesn't limit you. It may or may not feel like your name. So if you came to know the particular aspects of your own self, then maybe you will suddenly find that a new name appears but it's not really very important because it's a designation for the outer world. What's important to realize is that what we understand as names of god are in Ibn Arabi's terms, names of names.

We say that god is merciful. We say that god is generous. But the meaning of that name is the real name. What we know is the name of that name. So each person will have a different take on what god's generosity is or what god's mercy is. But we may only have a very limited view of it because we are not at the level of its meaning. We are at the level of the name of the name.

Harrison: For an individual like Ibn Arabi I would suppose he has a much more direct understanding of all of this, a direct experience of all of this and a direct connection, almost * merging with the meaning that for us ordinary folks is just the name of a name. This reminds me of the thing we discussed earlier about the levels and the meaning that take the form of an image that is then experienced in the sensory world. That reminded me of a story, I think it was one of Ibn Arabi's encounters with Khiḍr (and I probably butcher that pronunciation) but he's one of the figures that Ibn Arabi encountered three times. I believe this was the one where he was in a mosque with someone - I'll leave out some important details - but he saw a being, a man, lift his rug up into the air and climb onto this floating rug and do his prayers in the mosque on this floating rug.

Then several pages later in the book you comment that at some place Ibn Arabi says the true meaning of walking in the air or on the air is not just an external miracle, it was something like being above your own earthly, material emotions and the stuff going on at lowly level. Rising above is to exist in a higher state or something like that. Correct me if I'm wrong. But the way in which all of those things coalesce together for me is to give a picture of an entirely new way of looking at and experiencing the world where primarily the things that we experience in the material world, all of our interactions, are actually themselves a symbolic representation of some higher meaning, some aspect of that intangible, invisible world that is being expressed in this earthly form. As we go about our lives ordinarily and in this sleepwalking state we don't see that. We take it for what it seems to be.

Corey: But we can't really experience it inwardly. We don't see the meaning.

Harrison: Right. But there is the possibility of seeing the meaning in all of that and this is exemplified or brought to its pinnacle in individuals like the prophets or Ibn Arabi himself who was, on the one hand, very clear and let's say explicitly honest about his own achievements, but on the other hand extremely humble at the same time. There's a dichotomy between the two. He'll say things that coming from anyone else's mouth would seem like the height of arrogance but were for him just statements of fact. And at the same time, like I said, there is humility to him.

So Stephen, if you have any comments on anything I said, but in addition to that, could you speak of Ibn Arabi and the experiences that he had and his own development. Could you speak about how he was a model for experiencing directly those names and how that contributed to his stature as the greatest Sheikh?

Stephen: It's a good question. Let's just try and unpick some of the bits of it. We mentioned this dream vision of Jesus, Moses and Mohammed, which happened very early in his life really, at the age of 15, as a result of which in fact he's sent off to Córdoba by his father to go and talk to Ibn Rushd Averroës who expressed a wish to meet him because Averroës who was probably in his '70s at the time was probably the premier philosopher of the day, a great man, not a philosopher in the sense that we might think of it because this is somebody who is steeped in the Islamic tradition and therefore a believer philosopher, let's say. But he had only reached a certain level in terms of rationality and he expressed a wish to meet this character who had had such an extraordinary vision.

So in relation to your question of Ibn Arabi's training, in one respect Ibn Arabi is trained not by the normal processes. It's clear that he has visions like this and it puts him into a situation where at a certain point he needs to have masters and benefit from other people. That happened probably at the age of 17 or 18 when he was in Seville and he underwent a training program with various masters, the first of whom was a very interesting character. It's worth looking at the interaction that happened between them because it tells us a lot about what spiritual teaching actually is about.

So this is a man called Abu Ja'far al-'Uryabi who was again, an old man and blind when Ibn Arabi met him in Seville. Ibn Arabi tells the story of their first meeting several times. Now usually when he does that, that means it's a very significant story and something that we should pay deep attention to in all its detail. In one of the accounts he says that before he entered the room where this potential master was going to be, he said to him, "I don't want you to look on my face until I have carried out some piece of advice which you give me. So can you please give me some advice." And Ibn Arabi says, "I want this because then you will only look at me when you see what he calls 'your robe of honour' upon me. In other words, you'll see the benefit of the advice actually manifested.

I guess the master was pretty impressed. This was a pretty unusual student to have said such a thing. So he says, "This is a very high and noble aspiration." Then he gives him the advice which is repeated in several places, it's mentioned in my book, but he says literally, "Close the door, sever the connections and sit with the one who gives freely and he will speak to you without a veil." And then Ibn Arabi writes, "I acted on this advice until I saw its blessing and then I went back to my master and he saw its robe on me."

So in other words, he's saying, "I'd got to a point where the divine could speak to me directly without a veil." Then the master says, "Exactly. This is it. Like this, if not, then not." It's a very kind of elliptical phrase. Then he says to Ibn Arabi the following: "Erase what you write. Forget what you memorized. Be ignorant of what you know. And be like that with the divine in every state. Do not speak with the divine with what you know already because that would mean that you are neglecting the moment." This is a powerful, powerful piece of advice, apart from anything, but it's clearly coming from somebody who knows what it means not to neglect the moment, this present moment which is actually all we have.

So one can see in this advice there is something coming from the outside, from a master, but it's something that actually is about the living quality of education. It's not a thing at all. It's an experience. It has to be practiced. It has to be worked for and so on and so on. This is just an example of the kind of advice that Ibn Arabi was given which he then transmits to others and says, "This is the way you should behave. This is the way you should look at things." So he doesn't tell us everything. In regard to the stories about Al-Khiḍr, the Green Man, apparently he only meets him three times. Khiḍr is a mysterious, immortal figure who is there to educate those who have no earthly teacher.

So in one respect these are autodidacts, people who know their own direct connection to the divine but they still need to be educated because we are all in education. But what Khiḍr brings is a kind of strange education to do with actions and things that appear in the outer world. For example, the first time he meets him, Khiḍr actually tells him to go back to his master - the same master, because they'd had an argument - go back to him and listen to him, pay attention to him. He doesn't know who this guy is in the streets in Seville, but he goes back and the master says, "Do you really have to have Khiḍr come to you and tell you what to do?" So it's a little bit of chastisement showing if you have a relationship with a master or a spiritual teacher, you are putting yourself in their hands and you have to have trust in the situation, even if you know they're wrong, you still have to keep the format. In this case Ibn Arabi says, "I was right and he was wrong but that's another matter." {laughter}

The second time he meets Khiḍr is when Khiḍr is actually walking on water. So in the first case he was walking on the land. Now he's walking on water and praising god, he says. He walks across the Bay of Tunis to a lighthouse. The third time is the one you mentioned where he's on a prayer rug in a mosque doing his prayers, doing it incidentally because there was a guy there who said, "I don't believe in miracles" and Khiḍr explains to Ibn Arabi afterwards, "I only did it because of this guy so that he'd see something that is from that kind of level of things."

So we have earth, we have water, we have air, all of which the human being is acting in. So in one respect these are outer events but from a spiritual point of view as you were alluding to, whatever is happening in the outer world, it also has an inner resonance, let's say, with meaning. It has an inner meaning to it which is of a different level entirely. In the case of flying through the air, if you don't take it literally, then you can understand that what it means is something more akin to the way that thought can fly. It's more akin to the way that your imagination works, instantly travelling without any barrier. You can also understand it as referring in another sense to the spiritual ascension in the imitation of Mohammed because the prophet Mohammed was taken up through the levels of the heavens in a spiritual journey and that takes place, as it were, in the air. So it's an allusion to ascension primarily and to the fact that this is possible for human beings if they understand what it refers to.

That's a fairly long answer to your comment.

Harrison: Thank you.

Elan: Well I wanted to follow up on that great answer Stephen because something you write about in your book is the state of sleep that humankind is in and perhaps the intention the prophet had in helping to wake people up, not through an intellectual exercise or learning in a scholastic sense but through metaphor, through symbol. I guess what I'm asking is, in addition to the wakefulness, to god and the faces of god and to the higher reality, if you had to encapsulate his intentions in being a prophet, what might they have been or what else can we say about his mission, or his aim, or his charge in what he was doing?

Stephen: Well in the words of the Quran addressed to Mohammed in this particular case, "We have only sent you as mercy to the universes." So the function of the prophet is to act as the vehicle of supreme mercy to all the levels of existence, all beings at those levels and also to intercede for them in their having been manifested.

The reason I'm saying it like that is to give you an example, is not only in reference to Mohammed's own words, but let's conceive of this from the top downwards, let's say, as if you were looking from the top of the pyramid of existence at the whole of it. There is a famous divine saying, "I was a hidden treasure and I loved to be known so I created the world that I might be known."

So that initial I, that "I was a hidden treasure? is the first expression of the inexpressible absolute, let's say. How does that which is absolute and inexpressible, how is it going to come into expression? How is it possible? There has to be something arising, as it were, within it to produce creation. So in the case of this saying and the way they interpret it, "I was a hidden treasure", so as soon as the I has been said, there is an I and there is that from which the I has come. But this I knows itself as a treasure with all the implications of the distinctions and varieties and possibilities and differentiations that are hidden within this treasure. And then he says "I loved to be known" so that love is a motive force for the expression of this treasure.

But it's not just "Well, here I am in this lockdown, on my own and suddenly I realize I've got all these possibilities that I need a venue in which to express myself because I'm generous but there's nobody to be generous too. Now Ibn Arabi in a very daring place actually personifies the names and says, "You know the generous says", not "the I", "the generous" says "Well I'm generous but there's nobody to be generous too." And the powerful says, "I'm powerful but there's nobody for me to be powerful over." So on and so on. All the names have this problem in other words. They've got nowhere to manifest. So they're all talking to each other and saying, "Well what are we going to do?"

So they go to the Knower and they say, "Look, we're in this situation. Tell us what to do. You know." And the Knower says, "Well sort of. But we should really go to the name Allah because the name Allah knows, really." So they all go to the name Allah and say "Look, we're in this situation. We can't manifest anything. We don't even know what it means to be what we are. I'm generous but I don't know what it means even because I can't express myself." So Allah says, "Fine." And then there's a very nice line in one of the expositions of this kind of drama. Allah goes and has a secret conversation with the Essence, with the inexpressible before the I Essence and comes back and says, "Right, it's time to begin" and designates who starts it and all the rest of it.

So out of all this is coming a reason for creation, which is all these names wish to be known. All of them. They need to manifest. They want to express their effects. They have to have a place of manifestation. So that whole thing produces the whole of manifestation. But there is also a process of return and especially important for human beings because of their capacity and rationale. So the human being is, in these accounts, the very reason why all of these names are doing it because, in fact, all these names are names of the true human being.

In one of his accounts Ibn Arabi says, "The Knower told them, 'You know what? You're all names who designate this person called the reality of Mohammed.'" They said, "Well we've never heard of him. We don't know who he is. What are you talking about?" And he says, "You'll find out." Anyway, what it means is that this is a way of explaining how the human being is not at all the kind of little human being that we think. It is what's expressed in the western tradition as the image of god, that this I, this original I has to have a full image. If you look in a mirror you see all of yourself. So that all of yourself is you entirely. In fact you have to have this situation in order for you to do anything.

So what is going on at the level of the names is actually the playing out of this total universal human being and this is Ibn Arabi's perhaps greatest contribution of all; he talks about an Al-Insān al-kāmil, the perfect human being. Some people translate as perfect man but in these days of gender equality I prefer the perfect human being or the complete human being because from the point of view of where we are as human beings, we are not complete or perfect human beings at all. We only have that in potential. We have to realize the meaning of what it is to be human. If we were to realize the meaning of being human we would realize that everything that is out there in the universe is actually in us and that we are also in the universe in every particle. Therefore, how we treat others, how we behave towards the animals, towards the environment is an intrinsic part of how we are behaving towards ourselves.

Harrison: I want to ask a question about this return path, the reverse of the process from above to below, now this process of realization of the perfect human being or the complete human being. I was wondering if you could tell me if there's any relation to or what the relation is to the actual practices of Sufis. I know today there are a ton of Sufi orders and they have specific practices, whether it is types of prayer - I don't even know. I'm not familiar with a lot of the Sufi practices, maybe some breathing exercises. Of course there are the whirling dervishes, the spinning dancing. I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about either some modern Sufi practices or what we might know about the practices that Ibn Arabi recommended or that we know that he engaged in? How much information is there about the daily grind of spiritual living in Ibn Arabi's actual works?

Stephen: Well in a way his works are all about the grind of spiritual living. {laughs} I just remembered as you were speaking that he says somewhere, talking about people praying in the mosque and he says some people, when they pray, they're praying to a brick wall. Some people when they pray, are in contemplation of their beloved. So the real question is to do with what degree of presence and of awareness exists for each individual. If you do a practice, let's say the five ritual prayers a day are a practice, the going on Haj, the pilgrimage, is a practice. These are actions.

There might be many motivations involved such as "I want to look good among my peers. I want to do what I've been told to do." And so on and so on. They always have the possibility because of their intention, of full realization. But if it was so easy for full realization to happen then there would be many realized people in the world. The fact is, it's not easy because of the attractions there are to levels below full realization and those are like colours which each person has taken on in their descent which have to be met with on their re-ascent journey.

So one aspect of that is having to deal with, as it were, all the psychological elements of being embodied. On the other side is what Ibn Arabi provides is a kind of road map for how this return can take place. It's not so much a question of practices. In one of his examples to a student, he actually said, "I bequeath to you one thing. This is your bequest. Never, ever forget your servanthood. Never, ever forget your servanthood." So that is the most fundamental thing. We are servants. We are, as I was expressing before, places of manifestation. Nothing belongs to a place of manifestation. Nothing belongs to a servant. What does a servant have? A servant is there to serve. They have no will of their own. It's their master's will that they are carrying out.

There's a very nice example which is a funny story which might be a way of kind of expression it. This is a historical story which Ibn Arabi tells in one of his more literature books. He's talking about a delegation of Franks, what he calls Franks, Christians, probably from the north of Spain who came to Córdoba to visit the Sultan of Al-Andaluce who at that time was the most powerful man around. So they were coming to pay their respects. So the Sultan had a summer palace just outside Córdoba called Medina Azahara which is today a ruin. Anyway, he gave orders that this delegation of Franks, these foreigners, should walk from Córdoba to Medina Azahara, probably about 2-3 miles, something like this. But along the way he put soldiers and each of them had a scimitar, a curved blade, and they formed a kind of canopy of swords, all lining the route on both sides.

So they walked two miles through this. Ibn Arabi remarks, "You can only imagine how terrified they must have been." When they get to the gates of Medina Azahara there is a carpet laid out and there are various places where there's a grand official and they go to the first one, because they think it's the first one and they start bowing and they realize this is just one of his servants. And they go on a little bit further and there's another guy, even more beautifully dressed and they start bowing again. "No, no, no. This is just one of his servants, Gheta." And they carry on, carry on, carry on. This happens several times.

Eventually they get to a square where there is a man sitting on the ground in clothes that are worth half a dollar and he's got a fire in front of him, a brazier and a book. They're told, "This is the Sultan. Now you prostrate." So they prostrate and they're so overcome. Anyway, the Sultan says, "We have been ordered to invite you to this" and he points to the book, which is the Quran. He says, "If you don't obey that, we will come after you with this" and next to him they see a sword.

As a result of this pointing of the sword he says, "You will be cast into this - the fire." And he wouldn't allow them to speak, he just sends them away and the coda at the end says after this they agreed to the Sultan's terms unquestioningly. {laughter} Now we don't know if this is a historical event. We have absolutely no idea. But it's interesting that Ibn Arabi tells it because in one respect we can say that we are all Franks. We are all this delegation and we are in our approach to the divine person. First of all we have to endure fear because of what we've become, what we've done. So forgiveness enter into it, let's say.

We then get to a stage where we may think that it's all about spiritual riches, spiritual wealth, having spiritual power and all these fantastic things and all the rest of it. No! Nothing to do with it. The end of it all is a servant sitting there, one who knows that they are a servant. So you can see that this story works at multiple levels. It's very curious actually because it's in a book of ordinary stories, about sultans and all sorts of things. So I'm telling it really as a way of explaining that it's not about the practices, it's not about the different roads you can take to get to this point. They all exist. If it helps you move in the right direction, fine. But it can become an obstacle in itself. Rumi gives a very nice example where he says when people come on pilgrimage they come from Afghanistan, they come from Anatolia, they come from Tunisia, but they all end up in the same place. So where you've come from, the particular road that you've taken is irrelevant when you've arrived.

One has to bear that in mind in terms of the practices and so on. They are all designed to bring people to the same realization.

Harrison: Great.

Corey: That was a fantastic explanation. Thank you for that.

Harrison: Good story too.

Corey: Very good story. It reminds me of where you write in your book The Unlimited Mercifier, in a roundabout way, of Ibn Arabi and his time as a soldier and when he saw his general, a very powerful man, prostrate before god and when he saw that he thought to himself, 'If this powerful man is going to bow down before god, then I might as well just get on god's side and get this done with' and then went on the way himself. He had a very unique and beautiful mind, definitely a purity of heart that you don't see and it sometimes makes it a little difficult to understand him because it seems like he comes from such another world and all the visions are so other-worldly that it's very difficult I think, as a westerner or just as a normal person, to really appreciate what it is that he's saying because it's so deep and so symbolic. The story that you related is so deep and symbolic in so many ways and you can unpack it. If you just put your mind and some time into it, you can explore the meaning behind all of this and it speaks to you in such an interesting way on so many different levels. So we appreciate you being able to be here and to do that for us because it's a very, very, very complicated subject and I think our audience is going to be very happy to have you.

Stephen: Well that's very kind of you. I think there's absolutely no doubt that sometimes a story or a piece of writing that he lets drop or a poem can have the most dramatic impact. I can tell a story from my own experience. When I first came across the name Ibn Arabi, years and years and years ago at university, I was reading a book by Reynold Nicholson called The Mystics of Islam and at that time I didn't even really know the name Sufism or what it meant. There were no books around, apart from anything else, and certainly nobody in the history department where I was studying would have even encouraged me in that direction at all.

So anyway, I picked up this book. I started reading and I remember to this day the impact that something had. I can even remember the page that it was written on. It was the most famous poem, I discovered later - it's famous, the most well known - of Ibn Arabi's poems where he talks about "My heart has become capable of all forms. It's a temple for idols, a cloister for Christian monks." I'm not going to remember all of them but there are six elements, the tables of the Torah, the book of the Quran and so on. "Wherever love's camels go, that is my religion and my faith. I follow the religion of love."

So it had a dramatic impact when I read this because I understood it at a deep level, let's say at a heart level, but intellectually I didn't understand it at all. It was not exactly gobbledegook. I understood the words of course, but I couldn't get my head around it. It was just as if somebody had talked to me from a different planet and yet I could understand what had been said. Now being, I suppose intellectually curious, that's how I was trained, I thought "Well there's something here I really need to get to grips with because this is extraordinary writing." It didn't have the impact that a beautiful poem would have, a poem by Shakespeare or Wordsworth or something. That appeals less directly, let's say, to the heart. And I found that with Ibn Arabi's writing - and this has been a journey I've been on for decades - I find it speak very directly to the heart and gradually your mind starts to catch up.

So stick at it, would be the answer. {laughter} Find other people who are interested in reading his work and discussing it and you'll find it's a journey of exploration. It's a journey where fresh meaning comes, or meaning comes fresh. That's what's important. It's not a packaged thing. It's not something you can go out and buy in the supermarket. It'll be freshly cooked for you, not for anybody else. {laughter}

Corey: Prepare your own dish. Are you working on anything? You said you just got done with a 10-week course, you were teaching that. Are you working on anything else right now? Translations? Writing?

Stephen: {laughing} Yes. I'm laughing because of the sort of number of projects I have at the moment. One is I'm working on a book that Ibn Arabi wrote on the divine names which a friend of mine translated into Spanish and we're working on the English translation at the moment. It's actually been a very difficult book to work on because it's very condensed, a wonderful book but extremely illuminating and important today, but difficult at the same time because in one sentence there are so many possible readings and possible meanings and you have to unpack it and in the end the only way to do that is to kind of ask yourself, well what does it mean? What is the meaning here?" It's not obvious. You can read the Arabic and then you think, well what does that mean? And if you don't know what it means, you can't translate. So that's a kind of journey in itself.

The other thing that I'm working on at the moment is also a new edition and translation of Ibn Arabi's prayers for the days of the week and I originally did a translation of this called The Seven Days Of the Heart which is are extraordinary prayers which are recited in morning and evening. It had always been in the back of my mind a need to go back to the original manuscripts of which there are hundreds, and try to see whether we could make a good edition of these prayers because it's a bit like a river that has flowed into a delta. It has gone into many different streams, slight variations and so on and I was conscious that there needed to be a stable, basic text. So that's what we've been trying to unpack. So that's another project.

Corey: I can't wait.

Stephen: Well hopefully that will be out - well with Covid-19 I'm not sure - maybe this year, maybe beginning of next year. The third one is what I've been working on in this extraordinary time in which we're living. A Turkish friend of mine had alerted me to a particular prayer on the prophet, a Salawat which he said is attributed to Ibn Arabi by Ibn Arabi in his opinion and he wanted us to put it in the same book with the book of daily prayers. So a colleague of mine and I started to look at the prayer and we've been working on it for the last two or three months in this lockdown, almost daily.

The prayer itself is very short but it has suddenly unlocked a completely different dimension to Ibn Arabi's writing which was very, very unexpected as often happens. The unexpected happens. So this is your first preview of the possibility that this will appear as a book which we're working on at the moment.

Harrison: And would that be its own book? Not included with the daily prayers?

Stephen: No, it has become its own book. {laughter}

Harrison: Oh, okay.

Stephen: It's become and even has a follow-up book on the poems, of the letters of the Arabic alphabet which Ibn Arabi puts in a particular chapter early on in the Futuhat. So it's got a lot of added dimensions. We've been introduced to a different way of looking at Ibn Arabi's writing which I think is maybe important to share. So far today, most people would approach these texts, let's say trying to understand them intellectually as best they can and feel the quality of them and understand as much meaning as one can from them. But there are other dimensions to these texts which is especially the case when you get into the poetry. So letters become important. The meaning of letters becomes important. The number symbology become important. The cosmology becomes important.

For example, each letter in the Arabic alphabet corresponds to a number, corresponds to a cosmological degree, corresponds in fact, from another point of view, to one of the spiritual realities of the prophets. So all of this is like a kaleidoscopic structure where you can look at the world or the particular image of contemplation from many different angles, each of which informs the other and each of which has resonance in its own universe as well. So each of these are universes, just like we think of the universe in physical terms, that's one element. If we were to think of letters we would see another universe also with all the things that are in this universe are in the universe of letters. All that's in the universe of letters and in the universe of manifestation is in the universe of numbers.

So each of these becomes a universe of contemplation because you can see the same thing appearing in the different realms. That's why we've begun to describe it a kaleidoscopic. It's a very important dimension of Arabi's writing. I gave you an example right at the beginning of this Surah that appears in a human form. This breaks all the rules of what we think things are. After all, we think that a Surah is a chapter in the Quran, it is words on a page, or it is words recited, but actually it may appear in this reality quite differently. This corresponds to Ibn Arabi's teaching that meaning descends first to the heart and then to the other faculties.

So the meaning that descends to the heart is one thing. It's whole, entire. When it appears through the other faculties, let's say the sense of sight or the sense of hearing, it is now beginning to differentiate. So what we see in the world through the senses is differentiated and we have to return through the practice of the heart to the contemplation of meaning as it descends to the heart directly because then everything is clear, everything is simple because it's the same truth and reality which is being reflected here this way and here that way, at this moment this time, in another form at another moment and so on. That's the kind of universe that Ibn Arabi is inviting us all to start to inhabit.

Elan: I was just thinking in your description that what he wrote was meant to be understood on other levels, if not consciously, precisely because what he was writing had multiple meanings and correspondences to things that he knew he was transmitting, but that we don't necessarily consciously realize when we're taking it in, but may nonetheless be received through the heart, as you say, or through the unconscious to be mediated and parsed out later on and realized on these other levels, be they sight, imagination, intellect. So I'm just working through that idea because it's a fascinating one.

Stephen: Well I think it's very important to try to grapple with because this is one of the meanings, for example, that Ibn Arabi derives from a well known tradition that the Quran descended entirely to Mohammed in one night and then was parceled up in chapters at different times. So it had already been revealed, if you like, at a certain level and yet in life these chapters and Surahs and verses and so on, had to reveal themselves piece-by-piece. But it's a bit of the reverse of writing a book. When you write a book you have to write a sentence and then you have to write another one and a chapter and a series of chapters and you complete the book. This is the other way round. The book is complete already. It appears. It descends to the heart and then you have to work through all the process of the manifesting of it at this level.

Harrison: Well, I think we're going to end it there Stephen. I just want to say that this book, Unlimited Mercifier, which we've been discussing, among other things, was published in 1999. So it's 21 years old. You have a more recent book, in addition to some of the ones you mentioned, like the Seven Days of the Heart - was that the name of the book of prayers? There are a few translations of these smaller works that are published by Anqa Publishing and you have one that just came out - was it last year? - a translation of one chapter in the Futuhat. Is the title of that one The Alchemy of Human Happiness?

Stephen: That's correct.

Harrison: I haven't gotten that one yet. It's in the mail. But maybe we'll get a chance to talk about that one at some point. That one is available on Amazon too. All of these are. I'll include links to Anqa Publishing, to the Ibn Arabi Society website. Any other resources that we can direct people to or are those the best two Stephen?

Stephen: Yeah, I think those are the two main ones, the Ibn Arabi Society site has a huge amount of material and there are podcasts on there. There are articles from previous journals by different people. You'll also find some links to things like a series of online talks which are being done at the moment every two weeks, organized by the Society. So plenty of material for people to get themselves into.

On the Anqa website by the way, I would just say, as a small publisher, if you buy from Amazon, it doesn't do the publisher a great deal of good, so if you buy from the small publisher's website, it brings in money which means that we can actually produce further books.

Corey: We'll definitely get a link up there.

Stephen: Support your small publisher, I think would be message. {laughter}

Harrison: Alright, no problems there. Thank you again Stephen for speaking with us today.

Stephen: A pleasure.

Harrison: It was great. We really enjoyed having this talk with you and we look forward to speaking again in the future some time.

Corey: We can't wait to hear about your projects and them being completed and as soon as possible hopefully.

Harrison: So they can come out. And in the meantime, we'll be catching up on Resurrection Ertugrul...{laughter}

Corey: Oh yeah. So much.

Harrison: Thank you and take care Stephen.

Elan: Thank you Stephen.

Stephen: Thank you very much. Thank you.