HOME BLOG QURANIC HADITH FIQH tGFH English CONTACT hamburger menubar icon

Understanding God

Ibn ’Arabi, Heir to the Prophets1

By W. C. Chittick

Edit OmarKN

Tweet #omarkn


"When reason grasps God’s inaccessibility, it 'asserts his incomparability'. When imagination finds Him present, it 'asserts His similarity'."


There is this timehonored principle from the Islamic tradition, regarding the sound prophetic tradition which reads,
“God created Adam in His own form.” 2
A version3 of this saying is this:
khalaqa Adam ’ala sūrati r -Rahman

The word sūra will be better translated as “form” rather than “image” to retain its technical meaning. It is used in Islamic philosophy in the Aristotelian sense, in contradistinction to matter. In the Islamic tradition, the same word is used to designate the appearance of things, in contrast to their “meaning” (ma’na ), which is their invisible reality, the spiritual substance that gives rise to their appearance in the outer world.

As for the word “image,” it can serve well as a second translation for the word khayal, which we usually translate as “imagination.” Khayal denotes not only our subjective power of imagining things, but also the objective reality of images in the world, such as reflections in a mirror.4

In one respect, God - Allah is infinitely beyond understanding, and the only proper response to him is silence. In another respect, he discloses himself to his human forms, and he does so in two basic ways:


First, HE discloses his undisclosability, and thereby we come to know that we cannot know Him. This is the route of negative theology, and Shaykh Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi frequently takes it.


Second, God - Allah discloses himself to human beings through scripture, the universe, and their own souls. To the degree that He does so, people can and do come to know Him. 5

Reason - Imagination

Shaykh Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi calls the modality of awareness that discerns God’s undisclosability “reason,” and he calls the modality of understanding that grasps His Self-Disclosure “imagination.” “Unveiling” is then fully actualized and realized imagination, which recognizes the divine reality in its images. Rational thought pushes God far away, but imaginal thought brings Him close. Reason discerns God as absent, but unveiling sees Him present.

tanzīh - tashbīh

When reason6 grasps God’s inaccessibility, it “asserts his incomparability” (tanzīh ). When imagination finds Him present, it “asserts His similarity” (tashbīh ). Long before Shaykh Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi, asserting God’s incomparability (or transcendence) had been normative for most versions of Islamic theology, and asserting His similarity (or immanence) was often found in Sufi expressions of Islamic teachings, especially poetry. Shaykh Muhyiddīn Ibn ‘Arabi’s contribution was to stress the need to maintain a proper balance between the two ways of understanding God.

People are able to maintain the balance between incomparability and similarity by seeing with “both eyes,” that is, both reason and imagination. If we do not see God, the world, and ourselves with the full vision of both eyes, we will not be able to see things as they are. The locus of such a vision is the heart, whose beating symbolizes the constant shift from one eye to the other, made necessary by the divine unity, which precludes a simultaneously dual vision.

To be human, then, is to be a divine self-expression within which every name of God – every real quality found in the cosmos, every attribute of the absolutely Real (al-haqq ) – can become manifest and known. The human form is both different from God (incomparable) and identical with him (similar). Correct understanding of the situation demands seeing with both eyes.

The Muhammadan inheritors and the great friends of God (awliyā ) differ from ordinary human beings in the clarity of their vision and the appropriateness of their activity. They have realized the form in which they were created, so they grasp the realities in proper proportion and respond to every situation as God - the All-Merciful would respond7, according to the knowledge of His servant based on the example of our Master, the Prophet Muhammad ( sallAllahu `aleihi wa sallam ).

Oriental Pattern


Related texts

  1. Ibn ’Arabi, Heir to the Prophets; W. C. Chittick; Series: Makers of the Muslim World; Oxford, England 2005. ; Text was shortened and edited. PDF here: http://sufibooks.info/IbnArabi/Ibn-Arabi-Heir-to-the-Prophets.pdf

  2. Abu Huraira reported Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) said: Allah, the Exalted and Glorious, created Adam in His own image. Sahih Muslim Book 40, number 6809.

  3. “Allah created Adam in His own image” [link].

  4. More on khayyal is due soon at this [link], inshah Allah.

  5. Allah says: {I created the Jinns and humankind only that they may worship Me.} Surah 51-56, meaning “that they may know Me” as Ibn ’Abbās (rdya) explained it.

  6. “Inasmuch as God’s Essence is Independent of the words, the cosmos is not He, but inasmuch as God freely assumes relationships with the words through attributes such as creativity and generosity the cosmos manifests the He. If we examine anything in the universe, God is independent of that thing and infinitely exalted beyond it. He is “incomparable” (tanzīh ) with each thing and all things. But at the same time each thing displays one or more of God’s attributes, and in this respect the thing must be said to be “similar” (tashbīh ) in someway to God.” Sufi Path of Knowledge, Ibn al-‘Arabi’s Metaphysics of Imagination; W. C. Chittick; New York 1989

  7. “That is you can see the Divine Attributes in yourself: His power, His creation, knowledge, wisdom, because the fingerprints of His Attributes are in His creation,” [link] as explained by one of the recent shuyūkh.


* Living Islam – Islamic Tradition *