Encountering Ibn Arabi in the Religion of LoveMy Beloved is my Lord and my Lord is my Beloved. He is the starting point, the Alpha and the Omega. All creatures seek Him and praise Him every day and hundreds of millions praise him every day in thousands of languages. Nobody can monopolize Him to himself and say that He is for me and no one else. God is for everybody and loves everybody, and so He had to be triune in three persons so that I may be privileged to know Him. For if He remains one and only in His heavens and not reaching out to me or running out to meet me in His incarnation, what good does His monotheism do for me? In what way do I really benefit from a theoretically concrete monotheism such as that?
By Timothy Abraham
By Timothy Abraham
Believing in the unity of God is a de-facto matter, acknowledged by all including the demons. James says in his epistle “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” (2:19) However, we need more than belief in one God. We need for this one God to become flesh with us, reach out His hand to us in His Advent. We need more than the doctrine of monotheism as strictly dry as it is. Therefore, our Lord comes, willingly, motivated by intense outpouring love for our sake. He, then, becomes triune without having any qualms about it. At the same time He is the Lord who is One and there is no other. Receiving such a spiritual matter occurs on the level of Faith not the abstraction of ideas, or otherwise we are watching from a distance and remain detached from our God by a big chasm. All that we know then, is that he is just one God. This is like going to the beach, watching the water from a distance and not allowing our feet to get wet. We have to plunge into the water of divine love where there is a deeper level. It is the level of the Trinity.
Within the Muslim world there has been a voice that has proclaimed an intimacy with God that goes far beyond the traditional Islamic understanding of God and the Muslim relationship with Him. Ibn Arabi (1165-1240 AD) was a poet, a sheikh of Islam and a lover of God. He was endowed with spiritual insight as well as beauty of soul in order to see some things, while still remaining in Islam. This Muslim mystic was able to spot such a significant spiritual truth as the Christian doctrine of Trinity in that he ties it in with God’s unconditional love. In a famous poem in his Turjuman, he proceeds to proclaim his love for his God and commune with Him in affectionate, flirting, poetic verses, even though his religion does not allow for such romance with God. Admittedly, the Quran does not state clearly that God is love or that God is our Beloved or the Lover. Never does the Quan state that the Lord will reach out to humanity in his initiative of love, as it is the case with Christianity. Yet Ibn Arabi transcends the obvious cruel, customary rigidity accompanying the Quranic text and proceeds to love with his God. His God is his Beloved; no wonder he is enormously comfortable around Him. No wonder most of the Arab world is universally drawn to Ibn Arabi and chant his romantic poetry and see it as a divine gift and we also see how much his heart was vastly big and tolerant so as to include all people of religions and non-religions, which is in itself incongruent with the spirit of Islam. He showed that he wanted to break free of the restrictions of Islam and love like God loves, loving everyone.
Isn’t every true love emanating directly from the bowels of God?
– Yes, of course!
And do we have any love in us that came from within us ourselves?
– Of course not! For how did we learn to flirt or how did we learn the art of love? And how do our hearts beat with that thrill? Of course this is from our maker, the Lord God Himself! Any love that is not rooted in God or comes from the heart of God is plain deception for its self-seeking nature. True love seeks what is the “other’s”. This means that I get out of myself and pour all my attention on that individual and seek that person’s ultimate good. Often a man loves a young lady because he simply sees his image in her. He sees himself in her, and for the things that she does for him. Such love is narcissism, as when Narcissus saw himself on the face of the water. But when I love someone this should be for her own sake. I should seek with all my energy to make her happy without expecting something in return. Utilitarianism and love do not go hand in hand.
Because we think about love, sex and romance apart from God, we are haunted by the mentality of halal and harram ذهنية الحلال والحرام , which is what is lawful and unlawful in Islam, the do’s and don’ts. With this taboo mentality, everything is liable to become unclean because the mind is measuring things in a utilitarian, objectifying light. For them, lovemaking has become a legal right governed by the marriage contract, hence the phrase “`Uqdad al-nikah” عقدة النكاح (Intercourse contract). This phrase describes marriage, on the one hand, as nothing more than a contract and, on the other hand, it is this contract which modifies the act of Nikah (intercourse in marriage). The focus of Islam, here, would be on the idea to have a contract to have the right to have sex.
Ibn Arabi saw that Christ was the seal of the Saints while Muhammad was the seal of the prophets. He doesn’t place Christ on the same level as ordinary prophets, who according to Islamic theology merely convey the message of God passively. He sees Christ as an intimate saint of God, about whom the Hadith qudsi says, “Whoever becomes an enemy to a wali (saint) I have launched war on him.” Ibn Arabi brings to mind the people who came to Jesus under the cover of darkness as they felt and knew deep within themselves who Christ really was. One such person was Nicodemus. It is no surprise that Christ speaks to him from the heart with impatience, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know this?” (John 3:10) Likewise, Ibn Arabi has his own high esteem as an Imam in Islam, in the same fashion that Nicodemus held a place of reverence as Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin.
Our honored sheikh, Ibn Arabi, a Nicodemus in his own Islamic way, has his masterpiece of poetry, Turjuman Al-Ashwaq.1 In poem 12 he says communing with his Beloved:
“My beloved has become triune while He is still One,
In Him the Persons of Trinity have become a Being.”
The Beloved is one, indeed, in his personhood, and so, we might wonder, how does trinity get to him, our sheikh Ibn Arabi? Ibn Arabi would tell us: It is Love! It is by love and for the sake of love that He becomes triune, otherwise he is closed in upon himself in dire detachment. He is not arrogantly peeking from his heaven on his slaves, as Islam would inform us. The Trinity is contrary to being closed off. For if God becomes veiled from us, this would be, indeed, hell in itself. May He never hide His face from us! Love was, and still is, His initiative, not ours. We might ask Ramon Llull, who was one of the earliest Christians to take the Gospel message to the Muslim world in the 13th century, about paradise and hell. In his book he states:
They asked the Lover: “What is the greatest darkness?” He replied: “The absence of my Beloved.” “And what is the greatest light?” “The presence of my Beloved.”2
Closeness of the Beloved is paradise, and the absence of the Beloved is hell. True divine enlightenment comes with the closeness of the Beloved.
As long as we talk about the Trinity or Christianity at large, it cannot be done apart from the encounter of the loving God that we experience. For He is the Beloved who cannot be absent, or else life would be miserable hell as a result of His absence. The Gospel always presents the doctrine of the Trinity in light of the God who is love. Without talking about the Beloved, and here I mean my Own Beloved, I have no way of talking about the Trinity at all. In the Gospel according to Matthew, there is an elucidation of this concept in the baptism of Christ.
When all the people were baptized Jesus was also baptized and while praying the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit came in the form in dove and said, "This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!" (Matthew 17:5)
In this incident the Father who sends His Beloved Son for the salvation of the world is present. So is the Son of God, and the Holy Spirit also. He announces as the Spirit comes upon Christ that Christ is, indeed, God’s Beloved Son. In this verse, there is the beautiful presence of the three persons of the Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This Bible passage powerfully and clearly explains the doctrine of the Trinity for our Christian witness. We cannot talk about what is between the Father and Christ the Son without addressing the relationship of love that they have between the two of them. This is the only way to present the doctrine of the Trinity. In talking about the Beloved who has captivated us by His love, what further proof for Christianity do we need more than His own love? They ask for a sign, and yet the sign of love is the only thing offered to them. According to the Bible this doctrine of the Trinity has been present from the beginning, and it isn’t an invention of a church council, as some claim in order to justify their rejection of the triune God of Love. Whenever God the Father and Christ are present in some place, with the Holy Spirit operating in the hearts of people, then you are, indeed, addressing the Trinity. Call it whatever term you wish, for it isn’t about the terminology but the profound theological content that it denotes. It is all about the relationship between God the Father and Christ working together in our hearts and renewing them by the Holy Spirit of God. That is why they call Christianity the religion of Love.
Therefore, I am inclined to go with Ibn Arabi when he says in his Turjuman, “The religion of love shall be my religion and my faith, wherever God’s caravans turn”. Today, still, Ibn Arabi comes again in the person of an enlightened, open-minded Muslim scholar such as Dr. Muhammad Kamel Hussayn in his literary masterpiece. He is appalled by the hardness of hearts that handed Jesus over to the cross. One of his characters in the novel is mouth pieced as saying, “Would you ever kill a man that says that God is love? No criminal would utter such a thing! God is love.”3 This kind of love was, indeed, the message of Christ who went about proclaiming it, leaving no room for divisive arguments. With love, you simply can’t argue. Love always wins. It is such love that is the most prominent dogma of Christianity, and it is for its sake that Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc., leave everything behind in order to walk with Christ hand in hand.
There was a Sikh by the name Sadhu Sundar Singh who had decided to follow Jesus. He was asked once by a Hindu professor what it was that he had found in Christianity that he had not found in his old religion. “I have found Christ,” said Sadhu Sundar Singh. “Oh yes, I know,” said the professor rather impatiently. “But what particular doctrine have you found or principle that you did not have before?” “The particular thing I have found,” replied Sadhu Sundar Singh, “is Christ!” It is this Jesus Christ that Ibn Arabi found as precisely characterizing the “religion of love” in his poem, and yet he could not give up all and follow Him. Sundar Singh, on the other hand, made a different choice and decided to be cleansed in His heart by His redemptive love. We may wash the outside as much as we want in ablutions, and all that we are doing is washing the “outside” of the pot. Sadly, the inside of the pot is still dirty (Luke 11:39). This is where Love Divine comes in and purifies us, not a long list of do’s and don’ts, that strict Islamic mentality of the ‘taboo’. That Trinity of Love is what it takes to purge our souls of its ills. What people need primarily is not rigid, dogmatic beliefs, but a Person, the Liberator of the souls, Jesus Christ. On his account, things are done out of deep, compelling love of Christ, not out of fear.
When the Holocaust occurred, people were still dressed in civilized clothes and acted refined. The heart, sadly, still had it own disease, the disease of sin. Western secularism in all of its glory didn't prevent people from committing the barbarism of the Holocaust. What was and is still needed is not an “ideology” but definitely a change of heart, a heart made once again in the image of God in the religion of love, of which Ibn Arabi speaks. Love alone can eradicate evil from man’s heart, and man is no longer, as Hobbes once claimed, a wolf hunting his own brother. Love, beauty of God, will redeem our souls; no more hunters, but instead achieving the highest potential of the humanity of God in Christ and appropriating it to our beings. We have seen and heard terror of Islam on every side. Its peace is nothing more than a lip service as it is more of an ideology than a spirituality of sorts.
For this reason, my God who is omnipotent chose also to be all-humble, all-love in the Trinity. Without the Trinity, he is just a generic deity, direly detached and remote, peeking down from heaven and weighing on people with his severe edicts. In the Trinity, he reaches out with both hand and heart to embrace me. He is no longer an idea to be proven or disproven, but a person to choose or to reject; a God to experience personally as Lord and Savior, but not a ‘concept’ that inferentially prevails upon our minds. His is the ‘love story’ which Fanny Crosby beautifully chants,
Tell me the story of Jesus,
Write on my heart every word.
Tell me the story most precious,
Sweetest that ever was heard.
Tell how the angels in chorus,
Sang as they welcomed His birth.
“Glory to God in the highest!
Peace and good tidings to earth.”
My friends, please, I would be delighted to hear from you.
1 Edited by Reynold Alleyne Nicholson and published by The Royal Asiatic Society, London, 1912.
2 Ramón Llull, The Book of the Lover and the Beloved, translated from Catalan by E. Allison, with an introductory essay, 1923; p. 31, stanza 119, online source.
3 قرية ظالمة , Dar Al Shuruq, Cairo, Egypt, p. 19; English translation by Kenneth Craig, City of Wrong: A Friday in Jerusalem.