The Sufi imagination

I was recently part of a group reading the Sufi mystic, Ibn ‘Arabi. I got particularly interested in the role of the imagination in his perception of the Way, the imagination being the place where physical reality meets spiritual reality. Here are a few thoughts on what I gathered about how to discern the imagination.

“There never is any false imagination.” Ibn ‘Arabi

[i] It seems clear to me that imagination is required in reading Ibn ‘Arabi. For example, when he encourages readers to think about the return to God as a kind of voyage, in The Books of Journeying, he is deploying the metaphor of a journey and using that to prompt an imaginative exploration of how we might move “from Him”, “to Him” and “in Him”.

Alternatively, when he encourages us to contemplate the story of Moses in The Ringstones of Wisdom in both its outer and interior forms, he is inviting us to enter into the story more imaginatively, and thereby discover the truth that, allegorically, unfolds through the events of Moses’s life.

However, imagination is a complicated notion. It is valuable to unpick the different nuances that have accrued around it in order to gain a clearer sense of Ibn ‘Arabi’s vision.

Shakespeare provides a neat summary of the issue. “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet,/ Are of imagination all compact,” he writes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They are “compact” because their imaginative activities “apprehend more than cool reason ever comprehends”. And yet, apprehension will play tricks too. Lunatics, lovers and poets may be mistaken in their respective visions of devils, “things unknown” and “airy nothings”. But then again, there seems to be more going on in their imaginations than the mere self-generation of “fancy’s images”.

Consider the origins of the key words. Owen Barfield, in History in English Words, reports that the history of the words “fancy”, “image” and “imagination” reveals a concern with the interface between things and thoughts about things, which is to say between objective reality and subjective interpretations of reality. There can be “fanciful images” that profoundly mistake what is taken to be seen and what actually is the case; and also there is the possibility of a profound exploration from the first distorted apprehension of something and what that apprehension may gradually reveal more truthfully, over time. Barfield also notes that Shakespeare highlights a further capacity of the imagination in the well-known words of Theseus: “And as imagination bodies form/ The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen/ Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothings/ A local habitation and a name.” In other words, imagination can be both the interpreter and part creator of the otherwise unseen world.

[ii] I believe these levels of imagination correspond to Ibn ‘Arabi’s understanding, though the Shaykh also goes further. I am drawing here on the work of Henry Corbin in Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi, and Chapter 63 of The Meccan Illuminations of Ibn ‘Arabi, translated by James W. Morris and published online as Divine “Imagination” and the Intermediate World: Ibn ‘Arabi on the Barzakh.

In The Meccan Illuminations, Ibn ‘Arabi notes that we can perceive things through both our physical senses and our imaginative capacities, and learn to detect the difference between the two: what is called the barzakh. The issue of this interface is, again, key being crucial to appreciating the divine Imagination and the “subtle and delicate” divine Self-manifestations, as well as avoiding fanciful mistakes.

The first thing to grasp is that the imagination routinely bewilders the intellect, Ibn ‘Arabi explains. He draws an analogy with the confusion felt when seeing your form in a mirror and wondering where that form is located and whether it is real. The confusion arises because the image can be both affirmed and denied, said to exist and not exist, felt to be known and unknown.

God in His wisdom has made reality appear similarly to us, Ibn ‘Arabi continues. It is a “fitting image” for all that it bewilders, the word “fitting” carrying a double meaning: it is fitting as the image of reality does indeed reflect the fullness of reality; but it is also fitting in that the confusion the image causes us is also a true reflection of the ignorance we feel regarding the Creator of reality. “So praise to the One Who remains unknowable, so He is not known – and Who is known, so that He is not unknown!” Ibn ‘Arabi exclaims in a typically paradoxical theophany.

Confusions arise in another ways too. The imagination may be taken as purely physical, which is perhaps akin to Shakespeare’s lunatic seeing devils. Ibn ‘Arabi suggests the difference between the physical and imaginative eye may be judged because physical perceptions don’t change, whereas imaginal ones do. Alternatively, the interpretation of what’s imaginatively seen may be erroneous. Or again, the imagination has limits: it cannot perceive without deploying forms, for example. It is a representative faculty. It can see God in all things, material and immaterial, and yet can also prevent God being seen by its love of the forms it sees. This is the risk faced by Shakespeare’s lovers and poets, in an echo of Plato’s wariness of poetry when it falls in love with itself.

And yet, there is also a crucial sense in which all perceptions are of the divine Imagination because the most fundamental truth is that all perceptions are God’s perceptions. “For none other than Him perceives Him, so it is with His eye – may He be praised! – that I see Him.” It’s perhaps what Hippolyta intuits when, in response to Theseus, she remarks that even apparently fanciful imaginings grow “to something of great constancy” that are “strange and admirable”.

Ibn ‘Arabi is, in a way, saying: trust the imagination. It is God’s image. It is to be received as such. It moves beyond what reason can comprehend. The Face of God is to be found everywhere and there is a sense in which “there never is any ‘false imagination’ at all – indeed all of it is correct!” as the Shaykh puts it. So, in today’s language, we need to be wary of ascribing all of “fancy’s images” to the productive capacities of the human psyche, as if the psyche alone were genuinely creative; capable of making reality as opposed to discovering reality. There is nothing in the created order that, ontologically speaking, is solely subjective.

The way to understand the divine Imagination is, therefore, as a light that “brings-into-form”. It is procreative. It “bodies form”, to recall Shakespeare’s expression. It is, therefore, akin to the divine. A passage from the Book of Theophanies seems to illuminate this point: “In the year 620 [1223] [Ibn ‘Arabi] gave me the following advice: ‘Beware, and again beware, of being occupied with other than God, so that you may see the face of God in it. It is for you a trick and a lure. Be on your guard against other than God: understand this situation properly and be devoted to Him alone. If He confronts you with a thing, then beyond Him there, receive Him from there – do not stay with the thing and thus exclude Him!'”

[iii] With all this in mind, I wonder whether his metaphor of voyaging may be interpreted as moving across these different meanings of the imagination. Take the first kind of voyage, “from Him”. Stephen Hirtenstein, in The Unlimited Mercifier, explains how Ibn ‘Arabi broke down this category into three types, which I’ll gloss using the language of imagination.

The first type are those who imagine themselves to be separate from God, like Iblis. Their imagination is interpreted in a radically mistaken way, in the case of Iblis by denying the divine unity. It’s an act of pride, because in denying God’s oneness, the jinn is insisting on his own ontological distinctiveness. It thus leads Iblis from God, perhaps permanently.

The second type are those who imagine themselves as distant from God, then recognise that distance, only for it to fill them with shame. That takes possession of them and can keep them from Him because, in their shame, they cannot imagine tolerating the presence of God.

In other words, their imagination rightly illuminates their state, of shame, but fails to illuminate the fuller reality of God’s compassion that would overcome their shame.

The third type are different again. They move beyond their imagined distance from Him, although only after a long voyage. But in time, this imagined distance comes to be interpreted correctly as an illumination. The distance, it turns out, speaks of God’s utter transcendence. It is, in a way, a correct perception of the relationship between reality and Creator. Moving “from Him” can, therefore, still be to move to Him.

Those who voyage directly “to Him” enact different imaginative risks and possibilities. Again, Ibn ‘Arabi divides this category into three types, which again I’ll gloss using the imagination.

The first deploy their imagination in such a way as to mistake things for God. They lack the interpretative capacity to appreciate the difference between things and the divine. Whilst in the grip of this fantasy, they fail to see God, seeing instead what they imagine to be God. Ibn ‘Arabi calls this the error of “immanencing”.

Its opposite error is “transcending”, the second type. These pilgrims voyage towards Him but in such a way that might be said to deny or denigrate the imagination. If no thing is like Him, they insist, then all things are separate from Him, with the upshot that this voyager too remains separate from Him. They cannot imagine what it might be to know God immanently or intimately, which is what the imagination can bring.

The third type who voyage towards Him are different. They appreciate the value of what “arises in their interior”, to quote Ibn ‘Arabi, and can move imaginatively through the physical sense of things: from the outer to the inner form, to recall the story of Moses. This cultivates the imagination in the sense of its receptivity. It is the divine light, bringing-into-form and so enables seeing for oneself, which Ibn ‘Arabi calls “verification”.

In summary, both the voyage from Him and towards Him can come in forms that imaginatively hold the voyager apparently permanently from God, temporarily from God, but also in forms that lead to a recognition of God. However, the voyagers “in Him” are different in kind again.

There are two types of voyagers in Him, Ibn ‘Arabi explains. The first rely too heavily on their own means of “reflection and intellect”, that is, denying the role of the imagination. In so doing, they diverge from the Way because whilst voyaging in Him, and so finding illumination, they take the intellect to be their only guide. No matter how creative that may be, no matter how resonant with divine reality, it fails to make a crucial step, which is characteristic of the second type of voyager in Him: to be moved more directly by divine reality, which is to say, by the divine Imagination itself. This is what it means to voyage in Him most fully.

However, there is a twist. To be led fully by the divine Imagination is to wander amidst perplexity. I think this must point to the necessity of holding lightly to the forms that the imagination loves. Attar captures the experience in a couplet from The Conference of the Birds, translated by Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis. “The lovely forms and colours are undone,/ And what seemed many things is only one.” This is bewildering because when “in Him” what the imagination feels it might have separated out or grasped is ceaselessly undone. But that undoing is the leap to being moved by God. It is as if being carried on the Night Journey, Ibn ‘Arabi explains. Hirtenstein cites The Meccan Illuminations: “The bewilderment of the gnostic in the Divine Side is the most magnificent bewilderment, for he leaves behind him all restricting and limiting… He possesses every form, without any form restricting Him.” It is, in a sense, to transcend even the light of the imagination.

To put it another way, imagination must be understood as God speaking through images but not in images. “Every sensory and spiritual form is a place of His manifestation. He is the One who speaks through every form, not in every form,” The Meccan Illuminations continue.

The imaginative eye may see the One, and the imaginative ear may hear the One. But it is not actually what is seen or heard that is the One, for that would be to confine God in what’s imagined.

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