The Greatest Master Muhyiddin Ibn al-Arabi
The Greatest Master Muhyiddin Ibn al-Arabi

Most of these introductory articles are exracted from Volume I of the Single Monad Model of the Cosmos: Ibn al-Arabi's View of Time and Creation... more on this can be found here.

Unicity versus Multiplicity


Ibn al-Arabi cited the story of his meeting with Ibn Rushd in the context of explaining the words of the central spiritual Pole Idris (mudawi al-kulum) who - as Ibn al-Arabi said - knows very well about the natural world and the effects of the higher world on it. Thus this Pole explained that: 'the world exists between the circumference and the point' [I.154.22]. The 'point' here refers to the Real (the 'Necessary Being') whose existence is self-existence, while the 'circumference' is the circle of creations (the 'possible' or contingent entities) whose existence depends on the Real. Beyond this circumference is the 'sea' of non-existence (the impossible of existence). This relationship is illustrated in Figure V.1.

Figure V.1: The Real, the 'Possible' existents, and the 'Impossible'. This figure is taken from chapter 360 of the Futuhat [III 275].




With regard to this image, Ibn al-Arabi explained in chapter 47 of the Futuhat [I.260.1], that the (divine creative Source-) point in the centre of a circle meets any point in its circumference with its whole entity, without division or multiplicity. Similarly, multiplicity (i.e. all of creation) appears or emerges out of the Unicity of the Real; the manyness of the world appears out of the One Creator, without affecting His unique Oneness or Unicity. Ibn al-Arabi was well aware that this paradoxical relation between the Creator and all manifestation is in clear apparent contradiction with the widely accepted philosophical maxim - a central assumption in the prevailing contemporary philosophical cosmology of Ibn Sina and his followers - that 'from the One only one may emerge (or proceed)' (la yasdur ‘an al-wahid illa wahid).[1]

Given the assumption of this maxim, an obvious problem encountered by philosophers and theologians when they want to explain how Allah created the world is that Allah is One while the world is many. So logically it is not possible to imagine a relation between the One and the many without affecting the unique Oneness (ahadiyya) of the One.

However, Ibn al-Arabi's analogy between the pure mathematical symbol of the circle and its centre and the cosmological process of creation by the One Creator is not fully justifiable without further explanations. Among other problems, mathematics and geometry work with infinitely small (or dimensionless) points, while our contemporary science of physics and cosmology deals with corporeal worlds that have dimensions. But we shall see below that Ibn al-Arabi's unique understanding of time provides here the essential link between physics and mathematics, or between reality and imagination, in the same way as it does provide the necessary link between unicity and multiplicity.

Ibn al-Arabi quotes the above-mentioned emanationist philosophical maxim quite often [I.42.14, I.260.5, II.31.14]. Although he disagrees with this general proposition [I.260.5, I.715.12, II.434.20, and see also Al-Durratu Al-Bayda’: 140], he sometimes explains further that this notion can be held true for physical beings but not for Allah Himself, because Allah, the unique One, can obviously create multiple creations as we can clearly see:

So without their dependence (for actual existence) on the existing-entity (‘ayn) of the servant, there would be no rulership for those two Names ('the First' and 'the Last'). Because there (in eternity), the (divine) Essential-entity (al-‘ayn) is (uniquely) One, not united (from different parts: muttahida). But in the servant, (the existing-entity) is united (of different parts) and not (uniquely) one, because Oneness (al-ahadiyya) is for Allah (alone), and unification (ittihad, the unification of the servant's parts, senses, faculties etc, and not the unification of the servant with his Lord because this is not possible in Ibn al-Arabi's doctrine) - and not the (divine) Oneness - is for the servant. This is because the servant can only be understood in relation to another (Who is his 'Lord' or his Creator), and not by himself: so he has no trace of (the absolute divine) Oneness at all. But as for the Real, Oneness may be understood (as applying) to Him (taken by Himself), or it may be understood (as applying to Him) with relation (to others), since everything belongs to Him, and indeed He is actually the Essence of everything. (This unique divine Oneness refers) not to the wholeness uniting a collection (of different entities: kulliyyat jam‘), but rather to the (unique) Reality of Unicity (haqiqat ahadiyya) on which (all) multiplicity depends - and this (unique Oneness) can only apply specifically to the (divine) Real.

So according to the determination of the (human) intellect, only one thing can ever emerge from the One. But the Unicity of the Real does not fall under that rule. How could He, Who created that rule, fall under it?! And the (true) Ruler - there is no god but Him, the Almighty, the All-Wise (3:6, 3:18).


So now we can see how multiplicity may come out of the Oneness of the Real. Yet we need to explain how this multiplicity of the creation appears from the One Creator. We need to explain how the pure geometrical analogy of the circle and its centre could be applied to the creation of the worlds by Allah.

Ibn al-Arabi solves this riddle in part by inserting 'time', a true understanding of time. Hence he says:

… and He (the Real) has a special face (wajh khass) towards everything that exists, because He is the cause of everything. Now every (single) thing is one, it cannot be two; and He is One. So from Him there appeared only one, because He is in the one-ness (ahadiyya) of every one (existing thing).

So if multiplicity exists, it would (only) be with regard to the oneness of time that is the container (of that apparent multiplicity). For the existence of the Real in this multiplicity is in the oneness of every one (existent). So there appeared from Him only one. Therefore this is the real meaning of 'from the One only one may emerge': even if the entirety of the world appeared from Him, there would only appear from Him one (created reality), because He is 'with'[2] every one (of the creatures) with respect to its oneness.

Now this is something that can only be perceived by the (truly enlightened) 'people of Allah',[3] whereas the philosophers mean this [i.e., that from one (cause) only one (effect) can emerge] in an entirely different sense, and this is something about which they were mistaken.


Because of the rarity of the underlying spiritual perception of this reality restricted, as Ibn al-Arabi stresses, to the fully enlightened 'people of Allah', this passage just quoted above is not readily understood. Perhaps it is because of its great importance and central role in Ibn al-Arabi's cosmology that the famous ‘Abd-al-Qadir al-Jaza’iri,[4] the editor of the original Bulaq edition of the Futuhat that is the basis for all modern versions, added a rare long footnote comment at this point in the Futuhat [II.434-435] to explain it in terms of the oneness of being. Because his comments here are very helpful in this regard, we shall analyse them at length in what follows.

Here he explains that this passage refers to two related issues: 'the one-ness of every being' (wahdat kull mawjud) and 'the unicity of Being (ahadiyyat al-wujud)'. He begins by pointing out that everyone and every thing has a unique 'face' or individual reality that makes it distinctive; thus there are no two persons or entities with the same reality, since otherwise they would be one (the same), and not two. So this means that there appears from the One Creator only one (reality) because this unique 'special face' is never repeated (see also section II.8 above).

This explanation, however, is not entirely satisfactory (for our purposes, at least), because the negation of repetition does not imply the negation of multiplicity, which is clearly witnessed in the world.

‘Abd al-Qadir then goes on to explain that we can reconcile the apparent multiplicity with the actual oneness of creation by correcting our view of time and space. He says that our imagination pictures time as a container which contains the things in the existence (as Newton later imagined time, but the theory of Relativity surpassed his view, as we mentioned in section I.3) so we see things arranged in time (and space), and then we imagine multiplicity. But if we imagine ourselves 'out of time', and look at the whole existence in time and space, we shall see a single existence without a beginning and without an end, and without any relation to a self-subsistent distinct time and space as we usually imagine them. For example, every person is one despite his having arms and legs and many visible and invisible parts.

But again this explanation is not entirely satisfactory, since it shows the unity of all being (wahidiyya), but not its unique metaphysical 'unicity' (ahadiyya). It shows that the whole of existence is 'one' when we look at it as a single whole, or from outside space and time. But still, since we actually perceive (or imagine) ourselves as existing inside this space-time whole as partial entities, we also see many other entities - or in other words, manifest multiplicity. So we still need to explain how this multiplicity appears from the unique Oneness of the Real.

‘Abd al-Qadir then goes on to explain that if the philosophers meant by saying: 'from the one there only emerges one' that Allah created only the First Intellect (which is the way this maxim was understood by Ibn Sina and most Islamic philosophers), then this Intellect (alone) gave rise to the world. In one sense this may be true for Ibn al-Arabi, but he adds - as we have just seen at the beginning of this section - that Allah has a unique Face specifically turned to every single entity in the world, through Which its existence is preserved [II.434.18]. But in that case the philosphers are contradicting - or at least failing to illustrate the relevance of - their own proposition (as Ibn al-Arabi also discussed these views in al-Durrat Al-Bayda: 142-3), because again the world is many and the First Intellect is one; so we still need then to explain how this multiplicity of the world appeared out of the First Intellect.

In Ibn al-Arabi's view, however, every individual entity in the world always has a direct creative relation with Allah, and that is how its existence exists and is maintained. If Allah did not maintain this creative 'special face' between Himself and each entity, it would cease to exist instantly (Al-Durrat Al-Bayda’: 133). In order to solve the problem of unicity-multiplicity relation, Ibn al-Arabi actually asserts that this interface between the One and all the many existent things does not happen all at once. Rather, at any instant, as we have just seen, there is in reality a single relation or interface - a unique divine 'with-ness', as he calls it (following the Qur’an) - between the One and each 'one' of the entities of the world. But what happens at this particular instant with the other entities in the world, since their existence is also preserved only through this unique creative relation between them and their Creator, the unique One? The answer is: they do cease to exist, and then they are (immediately) re-created again and again [II.385.4]. We shall discuss this central metaphysical principle of the 'ever-renewed creation' in section 6 below.

Therefore, in order to understand the relation between the unique Oneness of the Real and the multiplicity of the creatures, Ibn al-Arabi adds time to the previous philosophical statement, which can be then reformulated as: 'from the One there can emerge only one at a time'. This re-statement is indeed the key to understanding Ibn al-Arabi's unique views of time and the oneness of being and to solving the mystery of the relation between the Real and His creation. In this way the world is created by Allah 'in series' (Al-Durrat Al-Bayda’: 139), and not just one single time, just as the repeated images of a movie are displayed on the TV or computer screen.

Ibn al-Arabi, moreover, affirms that this particular mode of creation was chosen by Allah to be like that, although in fact He might have done it in any other way, so it is not an (external) restriction over Him:

So this is not necessarily implied by the Existence of the Real: i.e. that for example only one can emerge out from Him, and that this is impossible (otherwise). But He willed that and He wished it, and if He had wished that the world should exist all at once, and that nothing were dependent on anything (else), it would not be difficult for Allah [to make it like that, and in this case - if Allah had wished that the world should exist all at once - then we would be living in a different logic, but because Allah created it in this way as it is now (ruled by the laws of causality: see also section VII.7), we observe that from the one nothing might emerge except one at a time, since otherwise this would violate the oneness of the Real according to our current logic.].

(Al-Durrat Al-Bayda’: 139)

The meaning of this principle is in fact derived directly from the well-known verse in the Qur’an that we have already discussed in many earlier contexts: each Day He is upon some (one, single) task (55:29). Ibn al-Arabi quotes this verse most frequently in his discussion on time, and it is the basis of his unique 'quantisation' of time. So since Allah is One, He does only one single creative task each 'Day' - of course not this normal observable day that we encounter, in which an almost infinite number of tasks or events are happening.



[1] Ibn al-Arabi quotes this expression and comments on it very often in his books, and he ascribes it to al-hakim ('the philosopher-sage') [II.458.20]. Though it is not very clear who he exactly means by al-hakim, it is possible that he refers to Plotinus, who was known in several Arabic translations of his writings as 'the Greek sage' (al-hakim al-yunani). Based on Davidson (H.A. Davidson, Alfarabi, Avicenna and Averroes: Their Cosmology, Theories of the Active Intellect, and Theories of the Human Intellect. New York, Oxford University Press, 1992.), William Chittick asserts that this maxim was apparently first used by Avicenna (SDG: 17). This maxim is certainly the basis of Avicenna's cosmological schema of emanationism (fayd) [see: EP, 'Emanationism', I: 473-4, and also The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (Cambridge University Press, 1995, ed. Robert Audi,): 258, 604-6, 714.], and it was possibly used by early Christians as the basis of the concept of the holy Trinity. Ibn al-Arabi generally disagrees with this proposition especially when speaking about Allah as the One Who created the manyness of the world.

[2] Ibn al-Arabi uses two distinct term with regards to the existence of creatures with relation to God; 'withness' (ma‘aiyya) and 'at-ness' (‘idiyya). The first refers to the presence of God with all things after they are created (57:4, 58:7), while the first indicates all things were ('determined') with God even before they come into real existence. See also: SDG: 35, 37, 45, 88, 137, 170, 171, 179, 180, 297, SPK: 72, 76, 125, 181, 183, 216, 249, 302, 313, 327, 364-6, 380.

[3] Ibn al-Arabi often elaborates on the lofty rank of the 'people of God' (ahl Allah) who are the 'true knowers' (al-muhaqqiqun), also sometimes referred to as the 'the people of Qur’an' alluding to a famous hadith [Kanz: 2277, 2278, 2279, 2342, 4038, etc] which Ibn al-Arabi often quotes paraphrases: [II.299.18, I.352.27, I.372.14, I.510.12, III.103.34, III.121.35].

[4] In the original printed text (followed in the standard later Cairo and Beirut reprintings used here), this rare long comment is described as 'a note by Sidi ‘Abd al-Qadir [al-Jaza’iri], transcribed from his own handwriting'.

Please note that some contents are translated Semi-Automatically!