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Becoming Real: Realization and Revelation in Rumi and Ibn

Arabi

James Winston Morris
The aim of this essay is simply to point to certain guiding concerns and perspectives that are
shared by both these artists, perspectives which are happily subsumed in the multifaceted Arabic
technical term tahqq or realization that was particularly favored by Ibn Arabi and the long
line of his later interpreters, or muhaqqiqn. And in examining this subject, we can hopefully
suggest something of the unique comprehensiveness and proven effectiveness of Rumis and Ibn
Arabis writings in supporting that wider human task of realization.
Let me start with a story. A year ago, at the Ibn Arabi Societys symposium in Berkeley, I was
speaking of Ibn Arabis far-reaching understanding of the implications of the central Quranic
theme of divine and human calling and response, which is briefly summarized in the following
brief excerpts from the Futht (ch. 519):
For all of Existence is Gods Words, and the (divine) promptings that reach (our soul)
(wridt) are all of them messengers from Gods Presence. That is how they are experienced by
the Knowers of and through God, since for them every speaker is nothing but God, and every
saying is a (new) knowing of God
Therefore everything that is changing and shifting in the world is a divine messenger, whatever
that motion/change may be
So the Knower looks for what is brought about through its motion/change, and from that he
seeks to draw the benefit of a knowing that he did not have (before). So the whole world, for
the Knower, is a messenger from God to him (or her). And that messenger and his messageI
mean the whole worldwith respect to that Knower, is a lovingmercy (rahma), because the
messengers are only sent as a Lovingmercy.
Most of our discussion there, of course, involved the essential element of all tahqq: eliciting and
examining more closely the actual life-situations and experiences that alone make such grand
metaphysical lessonsand their underlying complex of related Quranic verses, hadith and
traditionsomething real and actively transforming in each persons life. One of the most
revealing moments in that discussion was when an attentive listener objected: I think I
understand what hes talking about, on the level of my daily life and experiencebut what does
the Shaykh mean by this insn kmil (complete Human Being) or Muhammadan Reality that
he was talking about?: the latter being a familiar technical term and symbol referring to the
cosmic reality he calls the Messenger or Message in the short passage I just quoted.
So I was wrestling in my mind with how to answer this question about the haqqa
muhammadiyyaa subject which would minimally require a whole lecture-hour of its own
when I suddenly realized that there was no real need to take this up at all. I realized that what
really concerns Ibn Arabi is our realization of the interplay of ethical and spiritual Signs and
the challenges of our response in the course of everyday lifenot the complex, now unfamiliar
symbolic and scriptural terminology that was meant to help point his initial audiences back in
that direction. For in its most basic terms, the process of tahqq/tahaqquq, as it underlies the
writings of both Rumi and Ibn Arabi, can be described very simply. If we shift our focus from
the realized state of the rare Knowers mentioned in the short passage quoted above to a more
inclusive description, we can say that everyones life in this school of earthly existence is a
dynamic cycle of lessons beginning with each days Signs and learning situations, moving on
to our initial attentive reflections (tafakkur, in Quranic language), leading eventually either to
illuminated insight (taaqqul, basra) and awareness (marifa) or to more problematic outcomes,
all requiring active responses that themselves lead directly to new Signs and unfamiliar,
challenging new learning situations.
As scholars, teachers, interpreters or performers of Rumi and Ibn Arabi (or their peers), it is
very easy to ignore, or to take for granted, the fundamental role in this process of realization of
elements and actors that are simply given in the human situation, and which provide both the
context and the motor for that entire process of realization. These elements of the human
situation are all prior to the intervention of guides, writings, arts, rituals, religions, or any of the
other limited cultural instruments that we tend to focus on as supposedly critical elements in this
process of realization. Since the extraordinary trans-cultural and near-millenial influence and
effectiveness of our two writers is surely connected to their remarkable artistic and rhetorical
ability to engage the enormous spectrum of each of these given human elements of the process
of tahqq, it may help to start by listing some of the most important of those basic predestined
elements (of taqdr or qadar) in each persons unique personal equation of realization:
(1) The diversity of character, personality types, etc. and their individual karmic antecedents
(2) The spectrum of relevant individual capacities and obstacles or veils, with regard to
intellect, will, understanding, heart, motivation and so on.
(3) The range of available social and cultural supportive resources (spiritual pathways, guides,
methods, etc.).
(4) The corresponding diversity of lifes lessons, challenges, difficulties and tests.
(5) The (initially mysterious or even arbitrary) interventions of Grace, of unexpected
illumination and motivationincluding above all the radically transforming power of Love,
familiar to all of Rumis and Ibn Arabis students.
Against that backdrop, it should be easier to recognize and acknowledge the very limited
effectiveness of writings and other artistic tools and spiritual methodsor indeed even of
experienced guides and devoted companions. Since our ego (or basharic intellect, in the
language of these two authors) avidly recognizes for the most part, only what it already knows,
and is only too readily sidetracked by imagination and other distractions, how can writings help
us to go beyond that, to open up to and discover what our minds ordinarily refuse to even
acknowledge?
If spiritual writings are often insufficient to get past the egoic mind, we can gratefully note the
fundamental transformational role of music, or better yet, of dhikr in all its forms, in
accomplishing what mere words cannot. And we might add to this how the contemporary multi-
dimensional art of cinema often comes closest to recreating and serving the methods and
intentions of both these artists.
But keeping our focus for now on the writings of these two authors, it is helpfulin order to
appreciate the unique comprehensiveness of both Rumi and Ibn Arabisimply to identify the
specific effective roles, in the vast process of realization, of some of the very different forms of
earlier spiritual literature which are so constantly integrated in their works:
(1) Inspiring and motivating listeners in very different personal, dramatic testing situations (e.g.,
the role of stories, especially hagiographies and the like).
(2) Awakening the awareness ofand helping to avoidhidden spiritual pitfalls and dangers.
(3) Contextualizing or situating where we are momentarily in the much larger path of realization
(books on spiritual stages, stations, eschatology, and the like).
(4) Sensitizing and expanding our awareness of the inner and outward divine Signs and their
implications, possible responses, and the engagements flowing from them.
(5) Reminding us of forgotten or neglected elements and factors in our own situation and
challenges.
(6) Learning to effectively communicate and share the fruits of our own lessons and drama of
realization.
(7) Guiding reflection and the search for understanding, and suggesting possible or unsuspected
meanings.
(8) Helping to recognize and heal all the different wounds and misapprehensions arising
throughout this process, where our failures are often the most memorable teacher.
(9) Acting as a spiritual catalyst in revealing (and supporting our ongoing engagement with)
the inherent mystery of our actual realization of the meanings of our particular Signs.
For those unfamiliar with the historical background of our two authors and the literatures that
had emerged by their time intended to fulfill these different roles, we might start by noting how
nearly contemporary (and often geographically close) both men were, and as a result, how much
they shared in terms of their wider educational background and profound familiarity with all the
schools of Islamic thought and disciplines of spiritual guidance that had developed by their
timedespite the obvious difference in their eventual languages of artistic expression, which in
turn can make them seem so dramatically different in their effects and demands on readers
approaching them today in English or other Western translations. The fact that one was a
(uniquely hermetic) poet turned religious teacher, and the other a religious scholar turned poet
should not obscure the deep common ground of reading, learning, and practical spiritual
formation they both largely shared.
In any event, a comparison with the preceding Islamic literatures related to each of these above-
mentioned spiritual functionsapart from the Quran itselfimmediately highlights the very
different ways that both these authors uniquely managed to maintain an inclusiveness and
comprehensive presence of all these functions at the same time. (In that context, we cannot
avoid at least mentioning here the equally impressive spiritual artistry of Hafiz of Shiraz, who
was in so many ways the perfect synthesis of both Rumi and Ibn Arabi.)
The result of that compression of all these spiritual functions is that their writing in many ways
mirrors the actual presence of a living spiritual master. The comprehensiveness of their writings
touches the existential dimension of the process of realization in each of their readers or
listenersand in ways that can make these texts often seem entirely new at each re-reading,
because we ourselves are tuned in to different forms and issues of realization at each point in
our lives. Without that point of direct engagement with the dramatic process of realization in
each reader, writings with any of the above-mentioned spiritual purposes (whether drawn from
Islamic or any other historical context) can understandably seem remote, theoretical, abstract,
artificially systematic, idiosyncratic, or simply boringly pedagogical. But these writings
engage the sirr al-qadar, the unsolved mystery-novel of each souls ultimate destiny.
But none of this need remain mysterious or academic: it suffices to sit down regularly and begin
to read and discuss either author, together with a small interested and committed group of
seekers, over the years: there all these varied effects and influences will quickly become clear in
their visible and lasting impact on other participants, which is often easier to perceive than in
ones own life.
* * *
So where do we find ourselves, in the midst of this? And where do we turn? As each of these
authors constantly reminds us, there are three inseparable dimensions of each souls spiraling
mirj of realization: knowledge (ilm), action (amal), and the mysterious power of love, that
inner seeking and determination that makes both possible and keeps them alive in midst of even
the most painfully evident futility and incompletion.
The long concluding section of Rumis Masnavitwo contrasting accounts of three highly
symbolic brothers (which we must conflate here)provides a richly memorable version of
Platos unforgettable image in the Phaedrus of the spirits heavenly ascension drawn by the two
winged steeds of the soul and intellect (nafs and aql). As in the Masnavis opening tale of the
King and his earthly beloved, Rumi concludes here with another dramatization of three different
human approaches to lifes intrinsic suffering, and to the tragic futility and incompletion of
earthly love. Together, all the preceding books of this Masnavi demonstrate how these three
perspectives should rightfully work together. His unifying theme here is the contrast of divine
and human cunning (makar) in responding to all the challenges and insecurities of lifes
challenges of realization. The first two princes here are emblematic of two inescapablebut
one-sided and profoundly short-sightedtricks we all use, at various times, to try to avoid or
short-circuit the inherent sufferings, transformations, and uncertainties of love: two attempts to
penetrate the mystery of destiny (sirr al-qadr), to solve the apparent injustice of suffering
without the time, endurance, and inner attentiveness, quickness and active searching that are
bound together in the untranslatable Quranic expression of sabr.
Thus the oldest prince boldly chooses a voluntary death, a passionate sacrifice to Lovein
which he is momentarily redeemed by the King, but without any recourse to the human intellect
(aql and ilm), or to the souls transforming work of creating and discovering beauty and good
(ihsn), which always depends on sabr. In Rumis final summation or testament (wasiya) at the
end of the Masnav (Book 6), this prince is the unreflective, simple brother who simply relies on
what is properly said and believed. But Rumis own response to his choice is two long
illustrations of divine cunning indicating that there is no substitute, in the path of realization,
for all the painful tests and revelations of desire and its concomitant suffering.
In contrast, the middle brothersomewhat like the younger, pre-Shams Rumiis a devoted
master of our (necessarily very partial) intellect and its accumulated worldly knowledge,
happily finding refuge in the royal company and patronage. But without the humbling role of
love and the sabr it requires of us, he is inevitably the victim of pride, pretension and self-
delusion, so that he must die and start all over. In the Masnavis final conclusion, he is the
second brother who takes his time and cautiously digs deeply, but in the end still relies on what
is said (in this case, by his mother!).
The third, almost invisible and (ironically) lazy brotherthe embodiment of the goal of
humble ego-surrender to Gods Will (nst)is the one who lets the Real act and teach (the
interrelated ultimate human perfections of taslm, tawakkul, rid, and sabr), who allows both
steeds, both love and the purified intellect (ishq and aql), to be guided by the Spirits
charioteer, leading through the purification and illumination of suffering to divine Guidance and
Wisdom. Paradoxically, through sabr rather than sacrifice, he is also the brother whose
realization is complete, who wins the ultimate Prize of both the form and the spiritual
meaning of life (srat and man).
These are Rumis last words and testament, at the very end of the Masnavi, asking paradoxically:
How do we ever know Gods Side?when all sides of love (as he began in the opening story)
necessarily lead to Him. They are really the same as Ibn Arabis dense words about the true
Knowers with which we began, keeping in mind that the Beloved before whom we sit is in
reality every facet we daily encounter of the ever-renewed Gift of creation:

I sit before Him in silence.
I make sabr a ladder toward the ascending stairs of heaven
so that sabr brings the key to bliss.
So if, in His Presence, there should burst forth from my heart
a communion (mantiq: the souls shared silent Word), beyond this joy and sadness
I KNOW that He has sent that to me
from the innermost self (damr), like Suheyl illuminating Yemen.
In my heart, that Word is from that auspicious Side
because there is a window between Heart and Heart!