Relating Astrology to Mystical Principles
From Mystical Astrology According to Ibn ‘Arabi, by Titus Burckhardt
The written work of the ‘greatest Master’ (ash-sheikh al-akbar) Sufi, Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi, contains certain considerations on astrology which permit one to perceive how this science, which arrived in the modern occident only in a fragmentary form and reduced only to some of its most contingent applications, could be related to metaphysical principles, thereby relating to knowledge self-sufficient in itself. Astrology, as it was spread through the Middle Ages within Christian and Islamic civilizations and which still subsists in certain Arab countries, owes its form to the Alexandrine hermeticism; it is therefore neither Islamic nor Christian in its essence; it could not in any case find a place in the religious perspective of monotheistic traditions, given that this perspective insists on the responsibility of the individual before its Creator and avoids, by this fact, all that could veil this relationship by considerations of intermediary causes. If, all the same, it were possible to integrate astrology into the Christian and Muslim esotericism, it is because it perpetuated, vehicled by hermeticism, certain aspects of a very primordial symbolism: the contemplative penetration of cosmic atmosphere, and the identification of spontaneous appearances – cosmic and rhythmic – of the sensible world with the eternal prototypes corresponding in fact to a mentality as yet primitive, in the proper and positive sense of this term. This implicit primordiality of the astrological symbolism flares up in contact with spirituality, direct and universal, of a living esotericism, just like the scintillation of a precious stone flares up when it is exposed to the rays of light.
Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi encloses the facts of the hermetic astrology in the edifice of his cosmology, which he summarizes by means of a schemata of concentric spheres by taking, as the starting point and as terms of comparison, the geocentric system of the planetary world as the Medieval world conceived it. The ‘subjective’ polarisation of this system – we mean by that the terrestrial position of the human being serving as the fixed point to which will be related all the movements of the stars – here symbolises the central role of man in the cosmic whole, of which man is like the goal and the centre of gravity. This symbolic perspective naturally does not depend upon the purely physical or spatial reality, the only one envisaged by modern astronomy, of the world of the stars; the geocentric system, being in conformity with the reality as it presents itself immediately to the human eyes, contains in itself all the logical coherence requisite to a body of knowledge for constituting an exact science. The discovery of the heliocentric system, which corresponds to a development both possible and homogeneous but very particular to the empirical knowledge of the sensible world, obviously could not prove anything against the central cognition of the human being in the cosmos; only, the possibility of conceiving the planetary world as if one were contemplating it from the non-human position, and even as if one could make abstraction of the existence of the human being – even though its consciousness still remains the ‘container’ of all conceptions – had produced an intellectual dis-equilibrium which shows clearly that the ‘artificial’ extension of the empirical knowledge has in it something of the abnormal, and that it is, intellectually, not only indifferent but even detrimental.
The discovery of heliocentricism has had effects resembling certain vulgarisations of esotericism; we are here thinking above all of those inversions of point of view which are proper to esoteric speculation; the confrontation of respective symbolisms of geocentric and heliocentric systems shows very well what such an inversion is: in fact, the fact that the sun, source of the light of the planets is equally the pole which rules their movements, contains, like all existent things, an evident symbolism and represents in reality, always from a symbolic and spiritual point of view, a complementary point of view to that of the geocentric astronomy.
Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi englobes in a certain fashion the essential reality of heliocenticism in his cosmological edifice: like Ptolemy and like those all through the Middle Ages he assigns to the sun, which he compares to the ‘Pole’ (qutb) and to the ‘heart of the world’ (qalb al-‘alam), a central position in the hierarchy of the celestial spheres, and this by assigning equal numbers of superior skies and inferior skies to the sky of the sun; he amplifies nevertheless the system of Ptolemy by yet again underlining the symmetry of the spheres with respect to the sun: according to his cosmological system, which he probably holds from the Andalusian Sufi Ibn Massarah, the sun is not only in the centre of the six known planets – Mars (al-mirikh), Jupiter (al-mushtari) and Saturn (az-zuhal) being further away from the Earth (al-ardh) than the Sun (ash-shams), and Venus (az-zuhrah), Mercury (al-utarid) and the Moon (al-qamar) being closer – but beyond the sky of Saturn is situated the vault of the sky of the fixed stars (falak al-kawakib), that of the sky without stars (al-falak al-atlas), and the two supreme spheres of the ‘Divine Pedestal’ (al-kursi) and the ‘Divine Throne’ (al-‘arsh), concentric spheres to which symetrically correspond the four sub-lunar spheres of ether (al-athir), of air (al-hawa), of water (al-ma) and of earth (al-ardh). Thus is apportioned seven degrees to either side of the sphere of the sun, the ‘Divine Throne’ symbolising the sythesis of all the cosmos, and the centre of the earth being thereof both the inferior conclusion and the centre of fixation.
It goes without saying, that among all the spheres of this hierarchy, only the planetary spheres and those of the fixed stars correspond as such to the sensible experience, even though they should not be envisaged only within this relationship; as to the sub-lunary spheres of ether – which do not signify here the quintessence, but the cosmic centre in which the fire is re-absorbed – of air and water, one should rather see a theoretical hierarchy according to the degrees of density, rather than spatial spheres. As for the supreme spheres of the ‘Divine Pedestal’ and the ‘Throne’ – the former containing the skies and the earth, and the latter englobing all things – their spherical form is purely symbolic, and they mark the passage from astronomy to metaphysical and integral cosmology: the sky without Stars (al-falak al-atlas), which is a ‘void’, and which because of this fact is no more spatial, but rather marks the ‘end’ of space, also marks by that discontinuity between the formal and informal; in fact this appears like a ‘nothingness’ from the formal point of view, whereas the principial appears like a ‘nothingness’ from the point of view of the manifested. One would have understood that this passing from the astronomic point of view to the cosmological and metaphysical point of view has in it nothing of the arbitrary: the distinction between the visible sky and the sky avoiding our view is real, even if its application is nothing but symbolic, and the ‘invisible’ here spontaneously becomes the ‘transcendent’, in conformity with the Oriental symbolism; the spheres of informal manifestation – the ‘Throne’ and the ‘Pedestal’ – are expressly called the ‘invisible world’ (‘alam al-ghaib), the word ghaib meaning all that is beyond the reach of our vision, which shows this symbolic correspondence between the ‘invisible’ and the ‘transcendent’.