Peter Coates: Ibn ‘Arabi and the Ecological Crisis

This talk was originally given to a group of people attending a week-long residential course near Melbourne in Australia and was specially written for this occasion. It was also, by invitation, presented at the AGM of the Ibn ‘Arabi Society in Oxford. It was equally inspired by the reading of the Twenty-Nine Pages and the inbuilt magnificence of Ibn ‘Arabi’s Metaphysics of Unity. And by the recent devastating floods which had swamped parts of South England the previous summer. The title of the talk was partly suggested from consulting the word “hubris” in the Oxford Shorter Dictionary Volume 1 where there is an illustrative quotation from the author Aldous Huxley : “Hubris against the essential divine order of nature would be followed by its appropriate nemesis”.

Perhaps it might also be helpful to say something about the use of the term “modernity” in the present context. The term modern world includes practices and beliefs which may be considered unemancipatory and even Medieval rather than modern and includes many and diverse views about ‘what is true and good’ (both secular and religious, both cognitive and moral) and includes perhaps even postmodern incredulity towards any overarching account of what the world is like or what the world should be. By contrast the term modernity generally refers to the preferred idea of human social and individual progress through the application of rationally based strategies, particularly as exemplified in the science, technology and the calculative rationality of industrial and global capitalism In modernity, as Antony Giddens puts it, “the claims of reason replaced those of tradition”.

This is a paper on modernity and its future, from a more-than-ecological viewpoint. It draws extensively, but not exclusively, on the Akbarian understanding of the perfection of man and the unity of existence. It is essentially an essay on the meaning of our times.

In an earlier work[1] I noted, with some seriousness, that modernity is engendering its own metaphysical crisis and that, in its most abstract form, it is a crisis about the nature of knowledge itself and its inevitable relation to human responsibility and human potential. It was very much a work which pointed to the hubris of much modern knowledge and the necessity for a reorientation of perspective beyond the self-descriptions and divisions of the age. I still hold to this general view.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century our awareness of the emerging ecological crisis and its predicted global consequences has loomed large. This is primarily because global warming affects every living thing on this planet, every human infrastructure and every human soul. It hangs, like Damocles’ sword, over the world itself. More and more it is becoming obvious that something very serious is happening to the world climate and this even when there may be vested interests, by some, in denying its human causes. Optimism and pessimism abound. For what it is worth, I’m a serious optimist. But we must be very careful where we place our optimism for if its causes are what human beings are doing to the planet then the solution requires changing human behaviour in fairly radical ways, in the short term and in the long term. It requires, or so it seems, urgent change at both the personal and political level. In this paper I propose to delve deeper into the nature of this crisis from the perspective of the Unity of Existence and to suggest that there is another universal dimension to its meaning.

Firstly, let us notice that the idea of unity, and if you wish the acknowledgment of our common universal humanity, is increasingly brought to our attention in all kinds of twenty-first century nooks and crannies. Obviously, this idea is not yet formulated in a strictly Akbarian sense, but its contemporary formulations may be a useful and preparatory step in the right direction . There is definitely emerging a sense and recognition of the interconnectedness and unity of life as a whole and of the indissoluble relationship between man and nature. We see images of fundamental unity emerging in the study of the very small and the very great – in cosmology, physics, biology, ecology, economics, in the global inter-dependence of diverse socially, culturally and geographically disparate communities and even in some ecumenical contexts. More generally, we see this in the breaking down of barriers of all kinds, including gender. There is a kind of healthy ‘unity-in–diversity’ and ‘diversity-in-unity’ replacing constricting dualisms. In many ways holistic understandings have become more prevalent. We need to recognise this tendency when considering the all-too-obvious divisions of the age in which we live. We may even suggest that the ecological crisis itself is, in some partial and potential sense, a unifier in so far as it is ultimately larger than the divisions which separate us: we cannot act alone and we are all affected. Some such embryonic degree of unity– a feeling for the oneness of Life in all its diversity and a recognition of our common humanity, is in many people, I suspect, part of a taken-for-granted common sense. Not much talked about perhaps but a powerful subterranean current – a potential antidote to intolerance and division. People can gather in the name of their common humanity in spite of their sometimes intransigent ideological divisions: what has happened very recently in Northern Ireland is a promising example. Sometimes it takes great preparation for something seemingly solid ‘to melt into air’ and sometimes it happens in the twinkling of an eye, ‘or even less’ as it is sometimes tantalizingly expressed. I cannot think of a better description of how great shifts in human consciousness and ideas take place than this. If the argument of this short paper can be summarised it is that the ecological crisis acts itself as a mirror, or even a magnifying glass, for the necessity of a fundamental change in human consciousness and awareness. It is a crisis capable of bringing the human species to its senses: it is more than an ecological crisis – it is a mirror to the tawdry nature of much our stewardship of the world. It is therefore a mirror to ourselves, to our state and to our attitude. We have forgotten, or ignored, (that which Ibn ‘Arabi bids us to constantly remember) that we are al-a’yan (the essences of His most perfect Names) dressed in space and time. We are ‘images of truth’[2] and the differences of cultures and beliefs is an intentional diversity predicated on the mercy of the most Merciful. In another way, each one of us is, in potential, an essential witness in service to the Oneness of Existence, which Oneness most definitely includes the ecology of the planet, in all its fine tuning. There is a phrase in Ibn ‘Arabi’s Fusus al-Hikam which outstandingly summarises what it is I propose to outline in the context of this talk: it is the phrase ‘the clarification of the mirror of the world” and it occurs in the following passage:

“For, the entire reality from its beginning to its end comes from God alone, and it is to Him that it returns. So then, the Divine Order required the clarification of the mirror of the world; Adam became the light itself of this mirror and the spirit of this form.”[3]

Although, for Ibn ‘Arabi this act of Divine Self-Consciouness mirroring has already occurred, in totality, outside the parameters of space and time, its consequences are being played out in the world of manifested images in space and time. That is, in our own times – in the here and now of everyday life and modernity in all its vicissitudes. Its consequences are being played out in the infinity of the world process. So now let us look at some of the historical and cultural detail of which we are well aware and examine it freshly from the perspective of the clarification of the mirror of the world.

It is an extraordinary fact that in Eighteenth Century Europe there began ‘the greatest transformation in human history since remote times.’ There was a massive exponential demogaphic explosion such that between the 1940’s and 1960’s ‘there was an increase, in the space of just over twenty years, of more than the total estimated population of the world in 1800.’[4] And, as we know, this exponential growth continues. All these billions of human beings on the face of the planet earth is unprecendent in its history. This demographic explosion was paralleled with ‘new industrial processes [taking place] on a great scale’: the industrial revolution was born and it was born in the West. Central to its prodigious development was the emergence of a new scientific and technological attitude to nature, towards knowledge, and towards the world in general’. In short, there was a reorientation of ideas….and a climatic change in human consciousness. And, most importantly, it is a fact that the demographic explosion was, and is, the biggest challenge to its resources that the planet has ever known.

The teeming globality of the Twenty-first Century acts as a mirror to our human condition revealing unambiguously the acceptable and unacceptable human consequences of our actions. This kaleidoscopic mirror we call twenty-first century global life is ubiquitious – it is at our every turn, we need just to watch television and there it is right in front of our eyes, in our own living rooms, day after day, evening after evening: a constant stream of images of modernity.

But if we look in this mirror with Akbarian eyes what do we see? Well it is possible to extrapolate certain discernible features. Let us deal with two general points first. Firstly, as Izutsu points out, the meaning that is perceived in the theatre of modernity ‘is inseparably connected with the subjective state of man, so that the self-same reality is said to be perceived differently in accordance with different degrees of consciousness’.[5] For Ibn ‘Arabi, it is the conscious awareness of the Unity of Existence which informs his vision and it is to this which he invites the would-be salik or searcher. From this universal perspective Ibn ‘Arabi informs us –

“(The world) is to itself its own veil and thus cannot see God, due to the fact that it sees itself”.[6]

Because we, as part of that world, are veiled in this way there is a great forgetting about the true reality of man. The human images of the a’yan holistically projected, as it were, (and genetically codified) in space and time image but a fraction of their great primordial nature. But fortunately a veil can both conceal and reveal, be both subtle and coarse. Veils also act as a symbol and a reminder of that which they veil. And it is interesting to remember here that there are two types of veil: humanly constructed veils and those veils which God, in His wisdom, has placed before man. The global mirror of the twenty-first century, through which we see as through a veil, can nevertheless act as a dramatic admonishment or reminder (or both), of which perhaps the ecological crisis stands as a paradigmatic global instance. It is an admonishment of lack of our proper overall stewardship and a reminder of our utter dependence on nature. We know that we must treat nature properly, that we must learn to work with nature and to understand its infinitely complex ecology, at every level. We know too, therefore, that there is a point beyond which it is not always possible to pull ourselves out of every difficulty by our own bootstraps. The ecological crisis also re-certifies the spider-web fragility of the humanly-built environment and its infrastructures. Most important of all is that the ecological crisis is a reminder that we have to change.

And it is to the necessity of real change that global events in the twenty-first century are focussing our attention, like a gigantic magnifying glass. A little more deeply, in the context of the Unity of Existence, we are being shown, in no uncertain terms, that we are indissolubly tied to a global movement of epic proportions (beyond politics, financial corporations and world-ideologies and power struggles) which has to do with a universal transformation in human awareness. Many of the dramatic events of the twenty-first century are a wake-up call to all of its six billion human inhabitants. If this call to change takes the form of an ecological nemesis (with which we will, willy nilly, have to deal) it also heralds a ‘universal message of hope.’

The magnifying glass of modernity can act as an indelible reminder of what, according to Ibn ‘Arabi, applies to each one of us: a Reminder from the source of life itself of “what is within you and in your possession that you have forgotten”.[7] And that is, Ibn’Arabi continues, “that you are every thing, in every thing, and from every thing.” This knowledge of the spiritual meaning of the indissoluble unity of all life, at all levels, material and spiritual, constitutes a reviving scent and mercy. It is a single movement of love, which in spite of some its inverse appearances, ensures that ‘the inner realities of the spiritual world will become more and more manifest and accessible’. This is not meant to imply that the world population as a whole will comply with this accessibility for it is essentially a private and individual matter which depends on the predisposition of its individual human receptors. But the invitation is there for those who will accept it. Consider the following comments of Ibn ‘Arabi:

The time today isn’t like times in the past, because it’s closer to the realm of the Next World, so that its people experience more spiritual unveiling….so the people of this time, today, are quicker to experience unveiling, more likely to witness spiritual things, more spiritually aware, and more complete in their realisation – but also deficient in their (right) actions than in earlier times, because they are farther form the Companions in their witnessing the Prophet……For (right) actions were more predominant in the past, wile spiritual knowing is more predominant in this time of ours, and that (expansion of spiritual awareness) will continue on increasing until the descent of Jesus – Peace be upon him (at the end of time)! [8]

This expansion of spiritual awareness is sometimes taken to refer to “the special rewards of those who will continue to strive for God in the corrupted circumstances of the ‘latter days’”. But one can also see the expansion of awareness of the unity of existence foreshadowed in all those images of wholeness emerging in twenty-first century cosmology, physics and the life sciences, including ecology. So far as Ibn ‘Arabi is concerned the fundamental principle is that the spiritual governs the material everywhere. Consequently, the expansion of spiritual awareness must involve, at the personal level, an ongoing recognition and personal instantiation of this principle. In fact, what we call ‘material’, on this view, would be nothing other than a descriptor which fails to recognise the theophanic secret of the atom. And as is unequivovcally stated by Ibn ‘Arabi the global movement of our times prefigures the manifestation of the messianic age or the Second Coming of Jesus, known also as the parousia. We may surmise that all kinds of spiritual opportunities are being opened up and ‘exteriorised’, until the descent of Jesus. And this is always in accordance with the inner structure of our own archetypal predispositions as essences in the Divine Ipseity and ideas in God’s Vision of Himself. It is interesting to note also that Ibn ‘Arabi hints that there are exceptions to this rule which allow man an absolutely unconditional insight into the mystery of being beyond his own archetypal predisposition.

It was the Prophet Mohammed who said:

“O my God, show me things clearly,” meaning by ‘things’ whatever is beside God (whose name be exalted), that is, “Make me to know what is beside thee in order that I may understand, which they are – whether they be Thou or other than Thou, and whether they are old abiding, or recent and perishing.” Then God showed him what was beside Himself, without the existence of what is beside Himself . So he saw things as they are….

This request for clarity is also a request for ablution so that all else is abluted, except God’s Face. This is the zenith of spiritual awareness, which has neither end nor beginning: ‘where’ there is neither subject nor object. All the extraordinary stories and descriptions in the Fusus al-Hikam, the Tarjuman and the Sufis of Andalusia (and much more) are, Ibn ‘Arabi himself tells us, “only bridges and passage ways set up so that we can cross over them…. into our own essence/selves and our own particular states”.[9]

Often when we take stock of our own lives and try to make some intelligible sense of it we realise that we have received much more than we have ever imagined and that the unfolding story of our lives is quite remarkable and unique and has that ‘who would have thought’ quality about it -there is a memorable line in Pirandello in which he says ‘There is someone living my life and I know nothing about about him’. And as we have seen, if we take Ibn ‘Arabi seriously, there is ‘someone’ living the Era and we don’t know who it is’ . But we are told “Do not revile the Era for He God is the Era”. The inner core of our era is the movement of love itself which is His Beauty and His love to be known. As Eckhardt says:

‘…God lies in wait for us with nothing so much as with love.  For love resembles the fisherman’s hook.  The fisherman cannot get the fish till it is caught on the hook.  Once it takes the hook, he is sure of the fish; twist and turn as it may, this way or that, he is assured of his catch.  And so I say of love: he who is caught by it has the strongest of bonds, and yet a pleasant burden.  He who has taken up this sweet burden fares further and makes more progress than by all the harsh practices any men use.  And, too, he can cheerfully bear and endure all that befalls him, whatever God inflicts on him, and can also cheerfully forgive whatever evil is done to him.  Nothing brings you closer to God or makes God so much your own as the sweet bond of love.  A man who has found this way need seek no other.  He who hangs on this hook is caught so fast that foot and hand, mouth, eyes and heart, and all that is man’s, belongs only to God.’ [10]

Our era is imbued with a particular quality of the Real but it is we who must exercise discernment and ‘read between the lines’ so that we grasp securely the meaning of our times. We are not left alone in this matter –how could we be? Even the slightest glimmer into the Unity of Existence contains a message of hope. The Fusus al-Hikam of Ibn ‘Arabi is an essential gift given to us all to strengthen and revivify our hearts. People of the Fusus are under the order of the essential requirement of the time in which we live and , God Willing, shall come to see clearly what is to be done and what the signs of the times truly indicate. In this context, the clarification of the mirror of the world in the era of the twenty-first century is the preparation of a universal platform of esoteric education so that we may see clearly what is ahead. The Beshara School is itself an evolving protoype of esoteric education for the future. Wherever people gather in His Name, as One, for His Vision Beshara is present, in total. It is not necessary to be elsewhere, in fact it is necessary that we are not elsewhere but undividedly present where we are. When we place ourselves under the order of His Meaning it is possible to become aware of His presence, according to Itself, wherever we are. This is His Self-Gift to Us. I shall finish this talk with a line from one of Uftade’s poems entitled Shall I ever find the One?:

The day will come when touching the earth I see the world of the Real[11]

Peter Coates

1 Peter Coates, Ibn ‘Arabi and Modern Thought, (Anqa Publishing, Oxford, 2002).

2 M. Mesbahi, Inaugural SPeech, given at the University of Mohammed V, Rabat, 26 October, 2002.

3 Ibn ‘Arabi, The Wisdom of the Prophets, trans. from Arabic to French by T. Burkhardt and French to English by A. Culme-Seymour (Swyre Farm, Glos.,1975) p.10.

4 K. Kumar, Prophecy and Progress, (Harmondsworth, 1983) p.75.

5 T. Izutsu, Creation and the Timeless Order of Things, (White Cloud Press, 1994) p.7.

6 Ibn ‘Arabi, The Wisdom of the Prophets, p. 17.

7 Cited in MIAS Journa,l Book Reviews, (Volume 27, 1995) p. 104.

8 J.W. Morris, Orientations, (Archetype, 2004) p. 115.

9 MIAS Journal, p. 104.

10 Beshara Web site. http://www.beshara.org/essentials/text_eckhardt.html

11 P. Ballanfat, The Nightingale in the Garden of Love, (Anqa Publishing, Oxford, 2005) p. 122.

Listen to the talk:

Ibn 'Arabi and the Ecological Crisis: a Merciful Nemesis?

by Peter Coates