Corbin on Ibn ‘Arabī’s Theophanic Imagination

[The following is an excerpt from Henry Corbin’s amazing book Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sūfism of Ibn ‘Arabī, Princeton: Princeton UP, 1969.]

1 . The Creative Imagination as Theophany or the “God from Whom All Being Is Created”

aloneIt will first be necessary to recall the acts of the eternal cosmogony as conceived by the genius of Ibn ‘Arabī. To begin with: a Divine Being alone in His unconditioned essence, of which we know only one thing: precisely the sadness of the primordial solitude that makes Him yea to be revealed in beings who manifest Him to Himself insofar as He manifests Himself to them. That is the Revelation we apprehend. We must meditate upon it in order to know who we are. The leitmotiv is not the bursting into being of an autarchic Omnipotence, but a fundamental sadness: “I was a hidden Treasure, I yearned to be known. That is why I produced creatures, in order to be known in them.” This phase is represented as the sadness of the divine Names suffering anguish in nonknowledge because no one names them, and it is this sadness that descended in the divine Breath (tanaffus) which is Compassion (Raḥma) and existentiation (ījād), and which in the world of the Mystery is the Compassion of the Divine Being with and for Himself, that is, for His own Names. Or, in other terms, the origin, the beginning is determined by love, which implies a movement of ardent desire (ḥarakat shawqīya) on the part of him who is in love. This ardent desire is appeased by the divine Sigh.

By an analysis in which he discovers the mystery of being in [184] the experience of his own being, the theosophist avoids from the outset the theological opposition between Ens increatum and an ens creatum drawn from nothingness, an opposition which makes it doubtful whether the relationship between the Summum Ens and the nothingness from which He causes creatures to arise has ever been truly defined. Sadness is not the “privilege” of the creature; it is in the Creator Himself, it is indeed the motif which, anticipating all our deductions, makes the primordial Being a creative Being; it is the secret of His creativity. And His creation springs, not from nothingness, from something other than Himself, from a not-Him, but from His fundamental being, from the potencies and virtualities latent in His own unrevealed being. Accordingly, the word tan u s also connotes “to shine,” “to appear” after the manner of the dawn. The Creation is essentially the revelation of the Divine Being, first to himself, a luminescence occurring within Him; it is a theophany (tajallī ilāhī). Here there is no notion of a creatio ex nihilo opening up a gulf which no rational thought will ever be able to bridge because it is this profoundly divisive idea itself which creates opposition and distance; here there is not so much as a fissure capable of growing into an area of uncertainty that no arguments or proofs can ever traverse. The Divine Breathing exhales what our shaikh designates as Nafas al-Raḥmān or Nafas Raḥmanī, the Sigh of existentiating Compassion; this Sigh gives rise to the entire “subtile” mass of a primordial existentiation termed Cloud (‘amā). Which explains the following ḥadīth: “Someone asked the Prophet: Where was your Lord before creating His (visible) Creation?—He was in a Cloud; there was no space either above or below.”

angelThis Cloud, which the Divine Being exhaled and in which He originally was, receives all forms and at the same time gives beings their forms; it is active and passive, receptive and existentiating (muḥaqqiq); through it is effected the differentiation within the primordial reality of the being (ḥaqīqat al-wujūd) that is the Divine Being as such (Ḥaqq fī dhātihi). As such, it [186] is the absolute unconditioned Imagination (kayāl muṭlaq) . The initial theophanic operation by which the Divine Being reveals Himself, “shows Himself” to Himself, by differentiating Himself in his hidden being, that is, by manifesting to Himself the virtualities of His Names with their correlata, the eternal hexeities of beings, their prototypes latent in His essence (a ‘yān thābita) this operation is conceived as being the creative Active Imagination, the theophanic Imagination. Primordial Cloud, absolute or theophanic Imagination, existentiating Compassion are equivalent notions, expressing the same original reality: the Divine Being from whom all things are created (al-Ḥaqq al-makhlūq bihi kull shay’)—which amounts to saying the “Creator-Creature.” For the Cloud is the Creator, since it is the Sigh He exhales and since it is hidden in Him; as such the Cloud is the invisible, the “esoteric” (bāṭin). And it is the manifested creature (āhir). Creator-Creature (khāliq-makh­lūq): this means that the Divine Being is the Hidden and the Revealed, or also that He is the First (al-Awwal) and the Last (al- Akhir).

Thus in this Cloud are manifested all the forms of being from the highest Archangels, the “Spirits ecstatic with love” (al­muhayyamūn), to the minerals of inorganic nature; everything that is differentiated from the pure essence of the Divine Being as such (dhāt al-Ḥaqq), genera, species and individuals, all this is created in the Cloud. “Created,” but not produced ex nihilo, since the only conceivable nonbeing is the latent state of beings, and since even in their state of pure potentiality, hidden within the unrevealed essence, beings have had a positive status (thubūt) from pre-eternity. And indeed, “creation” has a negative aspect, since it puts an end to the privation of being which holds things in their occultation; this double negativity, the nonbeing of a nonbeing, constitutes the positive act. In this sense it is permissible to say that the universe originates at once in being and in nonbeing.1

Thus Creation is Epiphany (tajallī), that is, a passage from [187] the state of occultation or potency to the luminous, manifest, revealed state; as such, it is an act of the divine, primordial Imagination. Correlatively, if there were not within us that same power of Imagination, which is not imagination in the profane sense of “fantasy, “ but the Active Imagination (quwwat al-khayāl) or Imaginatrix, none of what we show ourselves would be manifest. Here we encounter the link between a recurrent creation, renewed from instant to instant, and an unceasing theophanic Imagination, in other words, the idea of a succession of theophanies (tajalliyāt) which brings about the continuous succession of beings. This Imagination is subject to two possibilities, since it can reveal the Hidden only by continuing to veil it. It is a veil; this veil can become so opaque as to imprison us and catch us in the trap of idolatry. But it can also become increasingly transparent, for its sole purpose is to enable the mystic to gain knowledge of being as it is, that is to say, the knowledge that delivers, because it is the gnosis of salvation. This occurs when the gnostic understands that the plemulti successive forms, their movements and their actions, appear to be separate from the One only when they are veiled by a veil without transparency. Once transparency is achieved, he knows what they are and why they are; why there is union and discrimination between the Hidden and the Manifest; why there is the Lord and his vassal, the Worshiper and the Worshiped, the Beloved and the Lover; why any unilateral affirmation of a unity that confounds them, or of a discrimination that opposes their two existences as though they were not of the same essence, is a betrayal of the divine intention and hence of the Sadness which in each being yearns for appeasement in the manifestation of His secret.
The Creature-Creator, the Creator who does not produce His creation outside Him, but in a manner of speaking clothes Himself in it as the Appearance (and transparency) beneath which He manifests and reveals Himself first of all to Himself, is referred to by several other names, such as the “imagined [188] God,” that is, the God “manifested” by the theophanic Imagination (al-Ḥaqq al-mutakhayyal), the “God created in the faiths” (al-Ḥaqq al-makhluq fi’l-i‘tiqādāt). To the initial act of the Creator imagining the world corresponds the creature imagining his world, imagining the worlds, his God, his symbols. Or rather, these are the phases, the recurrences of one and the same eternal process: Imagination effected in an Imagination (takhayyul fī takhayyul), an Imagination which is recurrent just as—and because—the Creation itself is recurrent. The same theophanic Imagination of the Creator who has revealed the worlds, renews the Creation from moment to moment in the human being whom He has revealed as His perfect image and who, in the mirror that this Image is, shows himself Him whose image he is. That is why man’s Active Imagination cannot be a vain fiction, since it is this same theophanic Imagination which, in and by the human being, continues to reveal what it showed itself by first imagining it.

This imagination can be termed “illusory” only when it becomes opaque and loses its transparency. But when it is true to the divine reality it reveals, it liberates, provided that we recognize the function with which Ibn ‘Arabī  endowed it and which it alone can perform; namely, the function of effecting a coincidentia oppositorum (jam‘ bayna’ l-naqīḍayn) . This term is an allusion to the words of Abū Sa‘īd al-Kharrāz, a celebrated Ṣūfī master. “Whereby do you know God?” he was asked. And he replied: “By the fact that He is the coincidentia oppositorum.” For the entire universe of worlds is at once He and not-He (huwa lā huwa). The God manifested in forms is at once Himself and other than Himself, for since He is manifested, He is the limited which has no limit, the visible which cannot be seen. This manifestation is neither perceptible nor verifiable by the sensory faculties; discursive reason rejects it. It is perceptible only by the Active Imagination (Ḥaḍrat al-Khayāl, the imaginative “Presence” or “Dignity,” the Imaginatrix) at times when it dominates man’s sense perceptions, in dreams or better still [189] in the waking state (in the state characteristic of the gnostic when he departs from the consciousness of sensuous things). In short, a mystic perception (dhawq) is required. To perceive all forms as epiphanic forms (maẓāhir), that is, to perceive through the figures which they manifest and which are the eternal hexeities, that they are other than the Creator and never­ theless that they are He, is precisely to effect the encounter, the coincidence, between God’s descent toward the creature and the creature’s ascent toward the Creator. The “place” of this encounter is not outside the Creator-Creature totality, but is the area within it which corresponds specifically to the Active Imagination, in the manner of a bridge joining the two banks of a river. The crossing itself is essentially a hermeneutics of symbols (ta’wīl, ta‘bīr), a method of understanding which transmutes sensory data and rational concepts into symbols (maẓāhir) by making them effect this crossing.

An intermediary, a mediatrix: such is the essential function of the Active Imagination. We shall have more to say of it further on. The intellect (‘aql) cannot replace it. The First Intelligence (‘Aql awwal) is the first determination (ta‘ayyun awwal) that opens within the Cloud, which is itself the absolute theophanic Imagination. The intermedia between the world of Mystery (ālam al-ghayb) and the world of visibility (ālam al­shahādat) can only be the Imagination, since the plane of being and the plane of consciousness which it designates is that in which the Incorporeal Beings of the world of Mystery “take body” (which does not yet signify a material, physical body), and in which, reciprocally, natural, sensuous things are spiritualized or “immaterialized.” We shall cite examples to illustrate this doctrine. The Imagination is the “place of apparition” of spiritual beings, Angels and Spirits, who in it assume the figures and forms of their “apparitional forms” ; and because in it the pure concepts (ma‘ānī) and sensory data (maḥsūsāt) meet and flower into personal figures prepared for the events of spiritual dramas, it is also the place where all “divine history” is accomplished, the stories of the prophets, for example, which have meaning because they are theophanies; whereas on the plane of sensory evidence on which is enacted what we call History, the meaning, that is, the true nature of those stories, which are essentially “symbolic stories,” cannot be apprehended.

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