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Birds of a Feather: Ibn 'Arabi's Mystical Grounding for Interreligious Dialogue
Nov 1, 2013

Mysticism is at the heart of dialogue among religions. Brother Steindle-Rast states, "Never before in history is it more urgent for all of us to learn the language of the mystics than in our time, when division threatens to destroy us" (Steindle-Rast 1996, x). Ibn `Arabi, a twelfth century Sufi mystic, believes a mystic possesses an expansion of the heart similar to that of God—a heart that is accepting of all who speak of and believe in Him. Ibn `Arabi says, "The God whom you perceive directly through mystical unveiling is not the God that you can comprehend through rational thought.The judgments of mystical unveiling have an immeasurable basis and you will be able to see Him in every article of faith" (Kakaie 2011).

This mystical unveiling, found in Ibn `Arabi's vision of The Universal Tree and Four Birds, appears in his work entitled, Cosmic Unification in the presence of essential witnessing, through the assembling of the Human Tree and the Four Spiritual Birds. Ibn `Arabi's vision offers a mystical grounding for dialogue among religious traditions, echoing the forms of dialogue identified by contemporary scholars and practitioners of interreligious dialogue. Ibn `Arabi's distinctive philosophy of the Oneness of the Many or Diversity within Unity is an insight that will provide the basis for such mystical grounding (Chittick 1998, 169).


If we are to understand Ibn `Arabi's writings, the background for such concepts is important.

Five centuries after the advent of Islam in 1165 CE, Muhyiddin Muhammad Ibn `Arabi was born at Murcia in southern Andalusia in the Golden Age of Islam. During that period, the Iberian Peninsula witnessed an extraordinary cultural interaction between Muslims, Jews, and Christians under Islamic rule,which existed until the Christian domination of Spain became complete under the reign of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in the year 1492, thereby ending this cultural interaction (Hirtenstein 1999, 9).

Diversity within Unity

As a young boy growing up under such extraordinary conditions, Ibn `Arabi displayed visionary

abilities. His greatest vision occurred nearly thirty years later when he experienced a spiritual ascent beyond the seven celestial bodies, arriving at "the Universal Tree surrounded by four mystical birds: the Ringdove, the Royal Eagle, the Strange Anqa and the Jet Black Crow" (Jaffray 2006, 35). From this vision Ibn `Arabi came to develop his philosophy of Diversity within Unity (Jaffray 2011, 1).6 Author Angela Jaffray says, "Ibn `Arabi clearly acknowledges the monotheistic sense of God, but acknowledges Diversity among the different religions, but in Diversity, God wills unity" (Jaffray 2011, 1).

In the Universal Tree is observed a diverse unity based on the multiplicity of beings rooted together in one Divine Being. The tree and four feathered creatures that sit upon its branches bring forth a type of mystical grounding, fostered in unity for dialogue among religious traditions. The types of dialogue revealed within the tree will be the dialogues of life, of study, of prayer, and of spirituality, all of which, if followed in an atmosphere of mutuality, will have the potential to facilitate people toward the dialogue of action—an action bringing forth a vision of justice for all.

Discourse of the Universal Tree

Upon meeting the Universal Tree, Ibn `Arabi greeted it and the tree responded by saying:

Listen, O wayfarer, O king. I am the Universal Tree of synthesis
and likeness. I have deep roots and my branches are lofty…
… I am the synthesis of the divine words… (Jaffray 2006, 35-37)

In her commentary, Jaffrey interprets for us: the Tree consists of unity and multiplicity. The well-rooted trunk represents unity, and multiplicity reflected in the leaves. The leaves represent human beings, and the branches a synthesis of all the Divine's Names and Attributes manifested to the leaves [humankind] (Jaffray 2006, 82, 83).

The Tree demonstrates the universality of God's all-inclusive infinite ways in which He manifests Himself to creation. Ibn `Arabi writes, "People of God say there are as many ways to God as the breaths of the creatures..." (Twinch 2011, 3). In other words, there is one Divine Being, but God manifests Himself in infinite ways to each person.

In today's global village of numerous religious and cultural traditions, we come together on a daily basis as the multiplicity of leaves on the Universal Tree interacting with one another. The daily interaction of people, known as the Dialogue of Life, is what Cardinal Arinze, past President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, describes as the form of dialogue most within the reach of anyone. "It is interreligious relationships ... of daily life … we draw on the values of … different traditions … without discussing religion" (Arinze 1997, 17). This, according to Islamic scholar Mahmoud Ayoub, is the way in which during the course of daily living that "the common Abrahamic prophetic moral and spiritual heritage can help the children of all three families of Abraham come together to face the problems of the modern world, striving together for the common good of society" (Ayoub 2004, 313-319).

Discourse of the Ringdove (al-mutawwaqa al-warqa)

The Ringdove states,

I am the Dove of oft-repeated praises. Beautiful realities descend upon threads toward the hearts… in search of the One [Divine Being]. (Jaffray 2006, 41, 21)

The Ringdove receives melodious sounds offered by the tree's branches so that She may carry the tree's rhythmic song of unity and love (Jaffray 2006, 36) encapsulating God's offer of grace to all. Jaffray notes that in another of Ibn `Arabi's writings, entitled The Tarjuman Al-Ashwaq, Poem XIII, the ringdove, with her dark neck ring, represents the covenant entrusted to her by the Real(representing God or Allah). In this covenant, she is given the special job of bringing forth the inspiration of the Divine (Jaffray 2006, 84).

According to Ibn `Arabi, the Divine's inspiration "is all the words of the Great Koran, the Gospel, the Psalms, and the Scriptures…and it is through speech, listening, and hearing, wecome to know what is in the Self of the Real, since we have no knowledge of Him except through the knowledge given to His messengers on earth by the Divine Spirit" (Almirzanah 2011, 88-89).

Discourse of the Royal Eagle (`uqab)

The Royal Eagle states,

I am the Intellect … I am the bearer of everything known, high and low
… I am His … the light of His existence. (Jaffray 2006, 43, 46)

Jaffray says that Ibn `Arabi calls the Eagle `uqab, which is associated with the ProphetMuhammad, and in philosophical terms is known as the First Intellect. The Royal Eagle is illumined with knowledge from God, the same spiritual knowledge that was given to Muhammad. Ibn `Arabi states, "the intellect [is] the bearer of everything that is known high and low … which takes from God … and is set forth … in the Qur'an" (Jaffray 2006, 46).

The grace-filled words of Allah given to Muhammad—words that verify the Torah and Gospels are, according to Muslim scholar and spiritual leader M. Fethullah Gulen, " words that descended to the Earth [issuing in] a deep understanding of balance … heralding to its followers a path that leads to universal harmony" (Gulen 2010, 145). Such inspired wisdom given to the Messenger on earth and recorded in the scriptures according to Ibn `Arabi, "is that which God has made clear that He is in every direction turned to, each of which represents a particular doctrinal perspective regarding Him, and confirmed in the Qur'an 2:115, wheresoever you turn, there is the face of God" (Almirzanah 2011, 116).

Understanding the Divine knowledge imparted in each other's scriptures is important for interreligious dialogue and is supported through the hard but necessary work of study, which is referred to as the Dialogue of Study (Knitter 2002, 204), or as Ayoub describes it, the Dialogue of Belief, which "engages the minds and hearts of people [together]…in their search for truth" (Ayoub 2004, 318). Discovering the truth of every faith through study, remarks Cardinal Arinze, is a way "to appreciate objectively the religion of the other and not run the risk of misrepresenting it" (Arinze 1997, 96).

Discourse of the Strange Anqa (`anqa mughrib)

The Strange Anqa states:

I am the one who has no existent entity. I am Dust in which God reveals the bodies of the world … Nothing can be manifested that I am not in … I wander through the gathering of those with bowed heads. (Jaffray 2006, 46, 47, 91)

Commentary notes from one of Ibn `Arabi's earlier works entitled "Anqa mughrib," according to Jaffray, identifies Jesus as the Anqa (Jaffray 2006, 93). Philosophically speaking, the Strange Anqa is also a metonym for the Greek notion of hyle (Arabic: hayula), or prime matter, which according to Ibn `Arabi, citing from Qur'an 56: 6, ". . .was scattered dust" (Jaffray 2006, 94). Dust, according to Ibn `Arabi, "is God's desire to bring the cosmos into existence and His Theophany" (Jaffray 2006, 95). The Anqa [Dust] Ibn `Arabi says, "comprises every form…[but] human minds cannot know it by … their thinking … It is concealed, but without being absent … [and] in any form it wills, it manifests itself" (Jaffray 2006, 96).

The Anqa further explains its reality: "Although the door of my existence is sealed nothing can be manifested that I am not in… I wander through the gathering of those with bowed heads" (Jaffray 2006, 47). Ibn `Arabi claims, "Allah is revealed in every face, sought in every sign … and pursued in the unseen and the visible. Not a single one of His creatures can fail to find Him in its primordial and original nature" (Jaffray 2006, 1). In other words, bowed heads (prayer), "is the means of seeing God … [where] the form of God becomes visible to the heart" (Corbin 1969, 248).

Approaching God through prayer is essential to interreligious dialogue. Prayer, according to Gulen, "is a mysterious key to His everlasting treasures…[to] a most secure shelter… Those who step into this shelter are considered to have obtained [the] key…" (Gulen 2003, 4). Together in prayer we have the ability to obtain the key of God's treasures, which may offer a solution to suffering stemming from the disease of prejudice and collectively help bring forth a "breeze of hope for those who are suffering…" (Gulen 2003, 4). Asking for the Divine's guidance through prayer must always be preliminary to meeting on the level of words. Calling on the Divine, known as the Dialogue of Prayer, brings an openness to the conversation says Cardinal Arinze, "an openness to the action of God's Grace in the person through the dialogue" (Arinze 1997, 95).

Discourse of the Jet Black Crow (al-ghurab)

The Jet Black Crow states:

I am of numbers, the singular among counted numbers. The Real summoned me into His presence and I came … His knowledge flows in me… (Jaffray 2006, 48, 50)

Although many equate the Crow with evil, Jaffray says from a philosophical and cosmological point of view, Ibn `Arabi saw that the crow represents the Universal Body—the Perfect Human Being. The Crow in Ibn `Arabi's vision is Abraham, the intimate friend of God (Jaffray 2006, 101). In the reading of scripture and according to the commentary by Jaffray, Abraham demonstrates the true qualities of the perfect human, in trust completely abandoning the self, and filling the self with God, for he was called and he "readily responded" (Jaffray 2006, 101).

Abraham's attribute of abandoning and filling the self with the Divine is needed in interreligious dialogue. This is a deep spirituality according to Gulen, that is very important in devotion and servitude to God, for the person who has reached complete spiritual knowledge of Godis the one according to Quran 66:6, who "do not disobey God in whatever He commands them, and carries out what they are commanded" (Gulen 2011, 149). Such souls experience the pleasure of intimacy with Him at every moment so long as they keep their "eyes fixed on the door of the Ultimate Truth" (Gulen 2011, 150). According to Cardinal Arinze, this is the Dialogue of Spirituality—"a dialogue that calls on a person to go to the higher self and indeed to go beyond self and aspire to some form of relationship with a Divine Being, or God" (Arinze 1997, 101).

This deep spirituality, according to Gulen, "should turn and direct others to God from the bottom of [our] hearts, thereby leading us to work toward improving and reforming the world…" (Gulen 2012, 219). Such spirituality allows one to be more aware of what "the faith Spirit [brings] down upon [the] heart" (Ali 2010, 219)—bridging an awareness of what the Divine commands for the world. This is an awareness that can bring about the Dialogue of Action—an action, according to Cardinal Arinze, "referring to Christians and other believers cooperating for the promotion of human development and liberation in all its forms," (Arinze 1997, 18) demonstrating to the world how we are to dwell within God's creation with the attributes given to us by God to promote mutuality and unity.

A Good Word Produces Action

Produced within the tree is:

A good word is as a good tree; its roots are firmly established and its branches are in heaven; it gives its produce every season by permission of its Lord. (Qur'an 14:25)

The good fruits of dialogue require us to "invite (all) to the way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious..." (Ali 2010, 156).

In interreligious dialogue, we come to see the universality of God's love and concern for everyone. According to Cardinal Arinze, "When deeply committed spiritual leaders of different religions meet … something wonderful happens … because they are sincerely looking for God, they are better able to understand each other" (Arinze 1997, 110). Interfaith dialogue seeks to bring about a cooperative, constructive, and positive interaction between people of different religious traditions with the ultimate goal, according to Ayoub, of making possible "the ability of all women and men of faith to listen to and obey the voice of God as it speaks to all faith communities…," (Ayoub 2004, 319) thereby bridging a path to forming new relationships and unity among believers. In creating new relationships, Cardinal Arinze considers it important that "every believer…should strive to be more open to the action of God … and be willing to go where the divine light leads" (Arinze 1997, 70, 71).

Following the divine light in spirit and in an atmosphere of common mutuality, interreligious dialogue has the potential to bridge the path toward a global ethic of love and tolerance seeking solutions to the immense social, economic, and ecological crises facing the world today. The Universal Tree demonstrates to us a well-rooted trunk from whose branches bring forth the multiplicities of God's Names and Attributes manifested to all people in diverse ways. From Ibn `Arabi's point of view, only through "the acquiring of gnosis (spiritual knowledge) can the Heart be receptive…to the universality of God" (Austin 1980, 146) and find "that despite the multiplicity of God's names, attributes, and acts, there is but a single Being…" (Jaffray 2006, 12).

In an unconventional way, The Tree raises a type of cosmic conversation weaving together the dialogues of Life, Study, Prayer, and Spirituality, directing us toward the dialogue of Action—an action working for peace and justice. In the spirit of love, may we all come together like Birds of a Feather in the hands of the Divine. As Mr. Gulen notes, may we come together "as limbs of the same body … ceasing the duality that violates our very union. We should clear the way to unite people; this is one of the greatest ways in which God grants people success in the world, and how He transforms this world into a Paradise. It is in this way that the door of Heaven will be opened wide in order to give us a warm welcome. Hence, we should remove all ideas and feelings that pull us apart, and run to embrace one another." (Gulen 2010, 7)

Brenda Pletcher is a student of religious studies at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, who has a special interest in Interfaith Dialogue.


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