Ibn Arabi on the Relationship Between God and Creation

Ibn Arabi takes us on a journey to explore the mysterious relationship between existence, non-existence, God, creation, and much more, in his fascinating and controversial theory of reality, known as the ‘Unity of Being’.

Jul 12, 2022By Maysara Kamal, BA Philosophy & Film
ibn arabi god and creation


In the first part of this article, we explored 13th century Andalusian spiritual scholar Ibn Arabi’s experience of what it means to say ‘God is one’. Through the Unity of Being theory, Ibn Arabi presents us with a complete reformation of our ordinary perception of reality, knowledge, ontology, and much more. The heart of Ibn Arabi’s worldview lies in the aforementioned theory, which consists in a very profound answer to our first question regarding what it means to say that God is one. This article will continue to investigate Ibn Arabi’s thoughts on the mysterious metaphysical relation between God’s knowledge of Himself and creation.


As outlined in the first article, Ibn Arabi does not consider God as an entity or a thing that exists, but as existence itself – pure Wujud. Wujud in Arabic does not only mean existence as such, but also consciousness, awareness, knowledge, love and ecstasy. He distinguishes between the Divine Essence and the Divine Names or Attributes in so far as the former is the whole wherein the latter are undifferentiated like colors latent in physical invisible light. Most importantly, Ibn Arabi notes that both the Essence and the Names are ontologically identical.


The attributes of Wujud are infinite, and due to their unlimitedness they cannot be distinguished from one another when considered as the Divine Essence. They are hidden, non-manifest, just like different colors cannot be distinguished from one another when they are all united as pure light. For this reason, no positive knowledge can be discerned concerning God.


Ibn Arabi thus remarks that only God knows God. At the end of the previous article, we explored the objects of God’s knowledge and their perplexing connection to ‘non-existence’ as they differentiate and distinguish the Attributes latent within the Divine Essence.


God, the One and the Many, According to Ibn Arabi

Vortex Geoffrey Chandler
Vortex, by Geoffrey Chandler, via Iasos


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As mentioned in the first part of this article, the differentiated plurality of the Divine attributes are the objects of God’s knowledge of His Essence. Since God is infinite, His objects of knowledge are infinite, for they are “every possibility of self-expression” that is determined by the inherent reality of Wujud itself (Chittick, 1994). We see then a subtle contrast between the unity of the Divine Essence and the plurality of the objects of God’s knowledge, which are nothing but His Names. For this reason, we find Ibn Arabi saying, to our great perplexity, that God is the One and the Many (al-wahid, al-kathir). Doesn’t this compromise Ibn Arabi’s monotheism? Not at all, because there is no ontological plurality. God’s self-knowledge is ontologically identical to His Essence. 


As we have mentioned, Wujud in Arabic is not only existence as such, but is also translatable as consciousness, awareness, and knowledge. God’s self-awareness or self-knowledge is by definition identical to Wujud. Furthermore, when considering the important translation of Wujud as finding and what is found in relation to the previous translations, we see that Wujud’s self-knowledge is Wujud’s finding of itself. The finder (i.e. the knower) is Wujud, and what is found (i.e. what is known) is also Wujud. The Arabic word literally denotes all these subtleties of meaning.


The Jewels of the Hidden Treasure

Infinity Series Geoffrey Chandler
Infinity Series 13, by Geoffrey Chandler, via Iasos.


The objects of God’s knowledge of Himself are the infinite potential relations that Wujud can assume with non-existence in order to manifest the attributes inherent within the Divine Essence. Creation happens when Wujud actualizes the potentiality of its relation to non-existence.  


In a Hadith Qudsi that Ibn Arabi frequently quotes in his writings, God replies to David’s pondering about the purpose of creation, and says: “I was a Hidden Treasure, and I loved to be known, so I created creation to be known”. One interpretation of this Hadith understands that the Hidden Treasure is God’s non-manifest Essence where all attributes or names are undifferentiated. God knows the infinite possibilities of manifesting the jewels (i.e. the attributes) hidden in His Essence, but such possibilities are only actualized when God actually assumes a relation to non-existence. Creation can be understood in Ibn Arabi’s framework as the actualization of the objects of God’s knowledge of Himself.


Creatures are the various modes of non-existence by which Wujud delimits itself. They are the loci of God’s manifestation in so far as they define, and thus manifest, the hidden and undifferentiated attributes inherent in the treasure of Wujud. Similarly, different degrees of darkness are the loci of the manifestation of different shades of colors latent in invisible light. These confinements are the quiddities, or the ‘whatness’, of what we perceive in the cosmos. They are why we see a rose as a rose and not as a butterfly. They allow us to define certain modes of existence and distinguish them from others. The objects of God’s knowledge are essentially the ontological roots of the cosmos.


roses van gogh
Roses by Vincent van Gogh, 1890, via the National Gallery of Art.


Ibn Arabi remarks that “the Real’s knowledge of Himself is identical with His knowledge of the cosmos” (Ibn Arabi, 1203). It is in this sense that he interprets the Quranic verse (65:12) “Allah encompasses all things in His knowledge”.  Unlike theologians, Ibn Arabi does not consider creation as something that happened ex nihilo, for God eternally knows the cosmos because He eternally knows Himself (i.e., every possibility of the manifestation of existence or Wujud). Hence, the statement “I was a Hidden Treasure” cannot mean a temporal precedence in relation to creation, but rather an ontological precedence.


The metaphysical framework Ibn Arabi illustrates is essentially an ontological hierarchy where there is a movement from Absolute Reality, the Divine Essence, or Pure Wujud, to increasing degrees of relative reality. To simplify, we can visualize a pyramid. On the top of the pyramid is sheer existence, Absolute Reality, and the further we move down the pyramid the further the manifestation of existence is delimited by increasing degrees of non-existence.


The Divine Essence, pure Wujud, is the ontological source of all realities in that hierarchy.  Everything other than pure Wujud, all seen and unseen realities, including everything in the world as we know it, is in-between Wujud (existence) and non-existence, God’s immanence and transcendence, reality and unreality, or, as Ibn Arabi famously remarks, creation is simultaneously God and not God (Huwa, la-Huwa). Similarly, everything other than invisible light (i.e. colors) are simultaneously light and darkness.


Transcendence and Immanence 

smoothing waves spiritual
Smoothing the Waves, by De Es Schwerberger, via VAgallery.


The objects of God’s knowledge, the ontological roots of every quiddity or thing in existence, are infinite because the attributes inherent in Wujud are infinite. Ibn Arabi believes that creation is a continuous process of Divine manifestation that occurs every moment. Every moment God recreates the cosmos. The infinite potentials of manifestation inherent in the reality of Wujud necessitate that there is no repeating Self-manifestation.


Such, however, does not mean that Ibn Arabi is a pantheist, or even a panentheist, for he does not believe that the universe is identical to God. His belief is that the cosmos is simultaneously God and not God. In as much as the universe is a locus of manifestation that defines, limits, and differentiates Wujud, it is not God. In as much the Attributes of Wujud are manifest in the universe, it is God. God and creation are not identical, yet, they are not separate.


For this reason, Islamic philosophy in general equally stresses the importance of simultaneously considering God’s transcendence (tanzih) and God’s immanence (tashbih), a point which would be further elaborated below. The limitations of the loci of manifestations are not Wujud, they are a property of non-existence. In our analogy of physical light, that which absorbs light in order to make its colors visible is darkness not light itself. However, the manifestations themselves, the colors, are the properties of Wujud, of light. Such is how Ibn Arabi interprets the Quranic verse (2:115): “Wheresoever you turn, there is the Face of God”. Everything manifest in the cosmos is God, everything that differentiates, limits, and defines the manifestation of Wujud is not God.


arcane sanctuary Gautam Nair
Arcane Sanctuary, by Gautam Nair, via VAgallery.


The complementary significance of rationality and mystical experience according to Ibn Arabi springs from the apparent duality of God’s transcendence and immanence. Rationality (and language) divides, defines, and separates. On the other hand, mystical experience, in Sufism called ‘unveiling’, unites.  Consequently, Ibn Arabi urges us to see from what he calls the two eyes of the heart. Through one eye, we see God’s utter incomparability to the cosmos, and from the other, we see God’s extreme similarity and presence in it. The former is the eye of reason, while the latter is the eye of unveiling, or in Ibn Arabi’s words, the eye of ‘imagination’, which has a very peculiar meaning that is crucial to understanding his thoughts.


If one eye is more dominant than the other, we will fail to perceive things as they are. Ibn Arabi attributes this vision to the heart because the root of the word ‘heart’ (qalb) in Arabic means fluctuation (taqalob). The beating of the heart “…symbolizes the constant shift from one eye to the other, made necessary by the divine unity, which precludes a simultaneous dual vision” (Chittick, 2005). If we see from both eyes, we will effectively experience ourselves, and the world, as both God and not God.


The Ontological Roots of Creation

Calling Tuco Amalfi
The Calling, by Tuco Amalfi, via VAgallery.


When considering the infinite objects of God’s knowledge in their totality, we see that they collectively perfectly reflect Wujud as a whole. Hence, the Divine Essence and God’s knowledge of His Essence are identical, for both are Wujud.  The plurality of the objects of knowledge and their manifestations (creation) do not entail an ontological plurality any more than the objects of your own knowledge entail that there are several human beings.


Likewise, the infinite possibilities of colors inherent in pure light does not entail the ontological plurality of light. Rather, we can consider pure light a unity that embraces the plurality of colors. Similarly, God is a unity that embraces by its very nature the plurality of His attributes and, thus, the plurality of their manifestation in the cosmos. Hence, we can say that He is an undifferentiation that embraces all differentiation, a non-entification that embraces all entification, or a non-delimitation that encompasses all delimitations within itself.


According to Ibn Arabi, there are no several ‘existences’ in the universe. You are not something with a separate existence than me, your friend, or God. There is only one existence, and it is existence itself, Wujud, alternatively called Allah or God. In a short book called Know Yourself, Ibn Arabi writes the following: “you are not you but you are Him and there is no you… it is not that He enters into you or that you enter into Him, or that He comes out of you or that you come out of Him, or that you have being and you are qualified by this or that attribute” (Ibn Arabi, 2011).


Let us reflect on this statement with the aid of Ibn Arabi’s interpretation of the Divine Names ‘the Non-Manifest’ (al-Batin) and ‘the Manifest’ (al-Zahir). As we said, God is non-manifest (hidden) in His Essence, and manifest in relation to his loci of manifestation, which are the created entities. Even though the entities are multiple, as they are individual and diverse delimitations and confinements, the manifestation is one. Regarding creatures, Ibn Arabi writes that “unity lies in their manifestation, while plurality lies in their entities” (Ibn Arabi, 1203). Their entities are non-existent, they are the different modes of non-existence by which Wujud delimits and differentiates its attributes, but they appear to exist when the ray of Wujud shines to manifest through their specific confinements and delimitations.


Movement by Tuco Amalfi
Movement, by Tuco Amalfi, via VAgallery.


When we consider ourselves as individuals qualified by this and that characteristic and not another, we fall into the illusion of being a separate existence than God or than our neighbor or than a tree. When we do not constrain ourselves by definition or characteristic, in other words, a self-image, we are somehow more connected to the unlimited and formless Wujud manifest within us.


According to Ibn Arabi, the ultimate goal of mysticism is not unity with God, for that would mean that there is something separate and different from God and would mean duality. According to Ibn Arabi the goal of mysticism is to realize that there was never a ‘you’ to begin with that is separate from Wujud. Such is the idea of self-nullification, fanaa, in Sufism and many other mystical traditions. It is a process of breaking the incredibly strong identification we develop with our egos, with the specific self-image based on which we either demean or praise ourselves, compare ourselves to other ‘images’, and suffer a lot as a result. It is a realization that this small self is in fact an illusion, that there has never in fact been separation between ‘you’, anyone else, or God.


The Unity of Being theory is essentially the belief in the oneness, non-duality, and indivisibility of existence itself, Wujud. It is Ibn Arabi’s experience of the Islamic declaration of faith, “There is no God but God” (la ilaha ila Allah), which can be otherwise reformulated as “there is no Wujud but Wujud”. On a corollary note, the Arabic word of happiness (enbisat) literally means expansion, from the root word bast (expand), which is perhaps tied to the transcendence of suffering that happens once we expand beyond our identification to the ego or the ‘small self’. We can here see a very strong connection between this analysis, and the reason behind Ibn Arabi’s constant repetition of the Hadith: “He who knows himself, knows his Lord”.


Absolute Reality and Relative Reality

Sacred tree Gautam Nair
Sacred Tree, by Gautam Nair, via VAgallery.


Let us meditate a little on all that has been said. God is not delimited by His non-delimitation, which means that by the very nature of His absolute non-delimitation, He must be inclusive to all forms of self-delimitations without being constrained by any. These self-delimitations, as we said, are relations that pure Wujud assumes with infinitely diverse modes of non-existence that differentiate the attributes inherent in His essence, and they are the objects of God’s knowledge of Himself. They are the potential manifestations of the qualities hidden and undifferentiated in the Divine Essence. When Wujud actualizes a relation to non-existence, Wujud manifests to His loci of manifestation, which are every mode of non-existence that differentiate His Names or Attributes, every quiddity, and every creature.


The differentiation, entification, and delimitation of God’s objects of knowledge, and hence creatures, are in themselves only a relativity to the absolute undifferentiation, non-entification, and non-delimitation of Wujud.  As we said, the objects of God’s knowledge and their manifestation (creatures) are differentiated when Wujud delimits itself by non-existence. They are in themselves relations of Wujud with modes of non-existence. Hence, we speak of absolute unity and relative plurality. We designate the Divine Essence as the Absolute Real and the objects of God’s knowledge of His Essence and their manifestations as the Relatively Real. They are relative because they are not absolute Wujud, but Wujud in relation to non-existence. Likewise, colors are not light in itself, but they are relatively light insofar as they are light absorbed by certain degrees of darkness.


Inner Temple Tuco Amalfi
The Inner Temple, by Tuco Amalfi, via VAgallery.


When we consider Wujud as undelimited, we see that Wujud infinitely transcends these creatures just like invisible light transcends its limitations as distinct colors. However, when we consider that by the nature of Wujud’s absolute non-delimitation He necessarily transcends His own transcendence, we see that Wujud is likewise infinitely immanent in creatures just like invisible light is immanent in colors. This dichotomy is what we have explained as tashbih (immanence or similarity), and tanzih (transcendence or difference). God is thus viewed as infinitely similar, intimate, and close to His creatures, yet simultaneously infinitely different and transcendent.


Considered in their totality, creatures can be compared to infinite mirror reflections through which God sees Himself. The totality of the infinite reflected images is Him, yet in the same time it is not Him. When you see your reflection in the mirror for example, you recognize yourself but you know that you are different from this reflection.  The reflected image is you on one level, and on another level, it is definitely not you. Of course, the analogy fails to fully illustrate the matter at hand, but I employ it here just to explain that the reflection simultaneously combines a level of similarity and difference to that which it reflects.


Creatures lie between difference and similarity, and in-between Wujud and non-existence (not-Wujud). The cosmos considered as a whole fully reflects God, and in Islamic philosophy it is called the macrocosm. The macrocosm is alternatively called the ‘big human’ (al-insan al-kabir) because human beings are considered the microcosm, alternatively called the ‘small human’ (al-insan al-sagheer).


Human beings have the potentiality of fully reflecting God, which is why Sufi praxis is symbolically referred to as the ‘polishing of the mirror of the heart’.


Grace Asokan Nanniyode
Grace, by Asokan Nanniyode, via VAgallery.


The reflection is relatively real to that which it reflects. Connecting that to our analogies, your mirror reflection only exists in relation to your own existence, but cannot exist independently from you. Colors exist in relation to invisible light, and not independently. Likewise, the objects of God’s knowledge of Himself, the ontological roots of creation, and creation, are relatively real. We can then see that within the unity of Wujud, there is an ontological ‘movement’ from the Absolutely Real to the Relatively Real. This ‘movement’ is not temporal, meaning that we cannot consider that pure Wujud assumed no relation to non-existence at one point in time and was Absolutely Real, and that in another point in time Wujud decided to assume such relation and became Relatively Real.


Wujud is infinite and eternal, meaning that we cannot conceive of Wujud in relation to time. God is eternal and He knows Himself for eternity. Hence, both the Absolutely Real and the Relatively Real are eternal. The ‘movement’ I mentioned from Absolute Reality to Relative Reality must be understood in terms of ontological precedence, not in terms of temporal precedence. Likewise, without considering time in our analogies, you are ontologically precedent in relation to your mirror reflection. Invisible light is ontologically precedent in relation to the reflection of its colors.  In this way, we better understand our previous analogy of the ontological pyramid as a movement from Absolute Reality to descending layers of relative reality, and from absolute unity, to increasing relative plurality.


Ibn Arabi: Between Existence and Non-Existence Lies Love

Rassouli Revealing Self
Revealing the Self, by Freydoon Rassouli, via Rassouli.com.


Aside from the linguistic connection between the word Wujud and love mentioned in the first part of the article, Ibn Arabi draws much deeper insights on the subject. In an entire chapter on love in his magnum opus, The Meccan Revelations, he writes that love is “a knowledge of taste”, meaning that it is an experiential knowledge (Ibn Arabi, 1203). According to him, “he who defines love has not known it” (Ibn Arabi, 1203). Like Wujud, love cannot be known or defined. It is not an intellectual knowledge divisible into the logical categories of our minds, but an experience. The significance of love in the thoughts of Ibn Arabi cannot be dismissed. Love is the essence of the Unity of Being theory, for it is the purpose of divine manifestation, meaning that it is the purpose of creation. This is evident from the aforementioned Hadith Qudsi of the Hidden Treasure where God says that He created creation due to His “love to be known”.


Ibn Arabi writes that “love never becomes attached to anything but the nonexistent thing, that is, the thing that does not exist at the moment the attachment is made. Love desires either the existence or the occurrence of its object” (Ibn Arabi, 1203). Ibn Arabi replies to a potential counter-argument about love stating that when you attain the object of your love, and unite with it, you find yourself still loving it.


Let’s say for example that you love a person, “when you embrace the person, and when the object of your love had been embracing, or companionship, or intimacy”, Ibn Arabi argues that “you have not achieved the object of your love through this situation. For your object is now the continuity and permanence of what you have achieved. Continuity and permanence are nonexistent” (Ibn Arabi, 1203). Ibn Arabi concludes that even “in the time of union, love attaches itself only to a nonexistent thing, and that is the continuity of the union” (Ibn Arabi, 1203).


Rassouli Divine Grace
Divine Grace, by Freydoon Rassouli, via Rassouli.com.


Wujud’s love for the specific non-existent entities or quiddities that delimit, confine, and thus, manifest Him, is the purpose of ‘bringing them into existence’ by manifesting Himself through them. Love could be then considered a synonym to manifestation, as every moment God loves, and thus manifests (creates), his loci of manifestation (the non-existent entities). “The lover loves to bring the nonexistent thing into existence, or for it to occur within an existent thing” (Ibn Arabi, 1203). Love is essentially a creative force that is directed at, or in Ibn Arabi’s words “attached” to, non-existence. As William Chittick writes, “love is the overflow of infinite Wujûd into every possibility of existing, and the possibilities of existing are defined by entities that do not in themselves exist, though they are known to God” (Chittick, 2009).


God’s love for the non-existent entities gives rise to their love for Him. Ibn Arabi writes that Wujud is the only object of human love, the only difference is that some people are aware of it and others are not. In light of all that has been said in this article, we can see how this is a necessary byproduct of Ibn Arabi’s thoughts. Wujud is all that is manifest in the cosmos, so when we love something in the world, be it a person, ourselves, a job, an idea, we are loving a Self-manifestation of Wujud. There are only lovers of God in the world, only some who know that what they love is God, and others who do not. So is the case with knowledge, there are only knowers of God, for God is what is manifest in our cosmos and in ourselves.


Rassouli Joy Riders
Joy Riders, by Freydoon Rassouli, via Rassouli.com.


Love and knowledge are intimately connected. Ibn Arabi argues that beauty and love are inseparable. We feel love when we witness beauty. Commenting on the Divine Name ‘the Beautiful’, Ibn Arabi writes that all of Wujud’s manifestations are essentially beautiful. When we don’t see beauty, it is simply that we are veiled from witnessing the underlying beauty of something. Knowing God, His manifestations in the cosmos, is hence, a witnessing of beauty. In this sense, to love is to know, and to know is to love. Such explains another Hadith that Ibn Arabi mentioned in his works: “God is beauty, and He loves Beauty”. Wujud (existence) is essentially beautiful, and Wujud loves beauty. Since humans are a manifestation of Wujud, humans love beauty, which is nothing but Wujud itself.


As I hope became clear through this discussion, the relationship between Wujud and creation, God and humans, existence and non-existence, is essentially a relation between lover and beloved. The longing for the lover to unite with their beloved is illusory, brought about by the hidden unity that underlies apparent duality. In the words of Fakhruddin ‘Iraqi, a poet and metaphysician of Ibn Arabi’s school of thought, the goal of mystical union is achieved when the lovers realize that the difference and separation between lover and beloved was illusionary, and “the only thing that existed was the reality of Love itself, which is identical to God’s Essence” (Chittick, 2007).

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By Maysara KamalBA Philosophy & Film Maysara is a graduate of Philosophy and Film from the American University in Cairo (AUC). She covered both the BA and MA curriculums in the Philosophy Department and published an academic article in AUC’s Undergraduate Research Journal. Her passion for philosophy fuels her independent research and permeates her poems, short stories, and film projects.