The Divine Roots of Human Love
Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi
All things are rooted in wujûd, which is God, and love is no exception. Hence, if it is universally true that the object of love is nonexistent, the reason for this must be that God’s love, which is the root of all love, takes a nonexistent thing as its object. In fact, the idea that God loves what is nonexistent is a corollary to one of the most basic themes of Ibn al-‘Arabi’s works: God is wujûd and everything other than God is not wujûd. Hence, everything other than God can properly be called ‘adam, that is, nonexistence.
One of the Shaykh’s most famous technical terms is ‘ayn thâbita, ‘immutable entity’. The immutable entities are the things of the universe as known by God for all eternity. God knows all things and God does not change, because God is eternal. It follows that God has always known all things and will always know them. These ‘things’ (shay‘) are the ‘entities’, and they are referred to in the Qur’anic verses that mention that God speaks to a thing in order to create it. Thus the Shaykh writes,
God’s words, ‘I was a Treasure’ affirm the immutable entities… They are mentioned in His words, ‘Our only speech to a thing [when We desire it, is to say to it “Be“, and it is‘] [16:40]. (II 232.12)
The things or entities found in the Hidden Treasure are immutable because God’s knowledge of them never changes. Notice that these things are ‘things’ before God creates them. In other words, before they come to be found as existent entities in the universe, the immutable entities are nonexistent. Then, on the basis of His knowledge of them, God bestows existence upon them and they become manifest as what the Shaykh sometimes calls the ‘existent entities’ (a’yân mawjûda). However, the existence of these entities does not belong to them. Existence belongs to God alone. There is only one wujûd, and that is the wujûd of God, or rather, the wujûd that is identical with God. Hence, the immutable entities, as Ibn al-‘Arabi remarks in a famous phrase, ‘have never smelt a whiff of existence’, and they never will smell it. Moreover, this is also true of the ‘existent entities’, since their existence in no way belongs to themselves, but rather to God.
The hadith of the Hidden Treasure tells us that God created the creatures out of His love to be known. Hence love is the motivating force of creation. The creatures that He creates are the objects of His love. They are, in themselves, nonexistent immutable entities. Hence the objects of God’s love are nonexistent. God’s love is true love, the source of all love. It follows that love, by definition, is directed toward the nonexistent, or, to use the Shaykh’s terminology, ‘attaches itself’ (ta’alluq) to nonexistence, that is, takes nonexistence as its object.
If love is directed toward the nonexistent, and if love is the source of all God’s creative activity, it follows that nonexistence exercises power throughout existence. In other words, the whole universe is rooted in nonexistence and depends upon nonexistence to exist. All activity of all things in the universe stems from God’s love. And all the loves and desires of the creatures follow in the pattern of God’s love, which is to say that they also are directed at nonexistence. Hence, nonexistence itself is the root of all creation. The Shaykh writes,
We maintain that every effect exercised upon an existent thing belongs to the nonexistent thing. The ultimate goal is nonexistent. That is why it is correct for the seeker to seek it. No one desires what is existent. Thus the nonexistent goal exercises effects in bringing things into existence. In other words, the nonexistent thing is the cause of God’s bringing into existence whatever He brings into existence. (IV 431.8)
We can summarize the importance of nonexistence in the Shaykh’s ontology by saying that wujûd and nonexistence, or the Real and everything other than the Real, are the two pillars upon which the whole universe stands. On one side, God alone is wujûd. On the other side, the creatures have no wujûd. Wujûd on its own simply is. Nonexistence on its own simply is not. But love is an inherent attribute of wujûd, and it is the nature of love to express that which is unexpressed, to bring into manifestation that which is hidden, to create that which has not yet been created. Thus love is the inherent tendency of wujûd to become manifest, to assert its own reality by showing itself to everything that is not. 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. Each immutable entity is a specific mode of not existing, because each represents a possible mode in which wujûd can be delimited, defined, specified, and determined. When wujûd delimits itself through the entity, wujûd shows itself as less than its infinite self, and hence it becomes differentiated from wujûd as such. The infinite creatures of the universe are the infinite differentiations and delimitations to which wujûd is susceptible. Each creature is a self-showing or a self-disclosure (tajallî) of wujûd and, at the same time, it does not exist, because wujûd alone is wujûd. It follows that each creature is wujûd/not wujûd or, as Ibn al-‘Arabi commonly expresses it, He/not He (huwa lâ huwa), that is, God/not God.
Why is love an inherent attribute of wujûd? One answer is simply that reality is the way it is, and it is not our task to understand why. The Shaykh, however, prefers to provide answers. In one passage, he explains the genesis of love by referring to two divine names, Beautiful (jamîl) and Light (nûr). The Qur’an calls God the Light of heaven and earth, while the Prophet employs the name Beautiful in the famous hadith, ‘God is beautiful, and He loves beauty.’ This hadith is especially important because it makes explicit the principle that every beautiful thing is inherently lovable, and this principle has repercussions throughout Islamic thought. Beauty, in short, is that which attracts love, just as love is attracted by everything beautiful.
The Shaykh associates love both with the divine beauty and the divine light. Light is that which is manifest in itself and makes other things manifest. Thus wujûd is light, because it is the Manifest (zâhir) and it makes other things manifest by creating them. In contrast, the immutable entities are nonexistent, which is to say that they dwell in darkness and nonmanifestation, because they have no wujûd and no manifestation in themselves. Hence, when God brings the entities into existence, He showers light upon darkness. In themselves, the entities are simply possibilities of existence known to God. They do not pertain to any mode of actualized existence until God’s light shines upon them. The Shaykh writes,
The divine love derives from God’s names Beautiful and Light. Light goes forward to the entities of the possible things and dispels from them the darkness of their gaze upon themselves and upon their own possibility. It occasions for them a seeing that is Light’s own seeing, because light alone allows anything to be seen. Then God discloses Himself to the entity through the name Beautiful, and it falls in love with Him. (II 112.33)
The Shaykh is saying that the Hidden Treasure is both beautiful and luminous, because it is wujûd. The nonexistent things have nothing of their own with which to perceive the divine beauty. In order for God to be able to say to the things ‘Be!’, they must be able to perceive His words, and all perception, as the Shaykh tells us, depends upon light, that is, manifestation. Light makes itself and others known by its very nature. God’s light, shining upon the nonexistent entities, bestows upon them the ability to see, and they see that which is found, which is God. ‘God is beautiful’, and beauty occasions love by its very nature. Hence the entities fall in love with God, but they can only see God with God’s own light. They have no light of their own. In other words, they come into existence only through God’s wujûd, because there is no other wujûd. Thus God’s love for the immutable entities gives rise to their love for Him, and His wujûd gives rise to their existence. This explains one of the meanings of the Qur’anic verse, ‘He loves them and they love Him’ (5:54).
God loves the nonexistent immutable entities, and the goal of His love is to give existence to the entities. But the entities themselves never change, since they are immutable. They do not in fact come to exist. To call them ‘existent entities’ is simply a convention, not an expression of the actual situation.
God’s love attaches to the created thing because the created thing is nonexistent. Thus the created thing is the object of God’s love constantly and forever. As long as there is love, the existence of the created thing cannot be supposed along with it. Hence the created thing never comes to exist. (II 113.29)
If the created thing never gains true existence, then the existence that we perceive can belong only to God, the Manifest, who is wujûd. God makes Himself manifest in a form that is named the ‘existent entity’. This entity is what the Shaykh often calls a ‘locus of manifestation’ (mazhar). It is the manifestation of wujûd within specific and delimited confines. But wujûd alone is manifest, since manifestation belongs to light, not to darkness; to existence, not to nonexistence; to God, not to the creature.
Once the Light of God becomes manifest in the entity and the entity comes to exist in a certain manner, it sees the Beautiful. Then it becomes a true lover of God. Hence it is utterly engrossed in the object of its love. It forgets itself and sees nothing but the Beloved. Having forgotten its own self, the entity knows nothing of itself, so it knows nothing of its own love. In fact, what occurs is that God loves Himself through the locus of manifestation that is the existent entity. Just as ‘There is no god but God’, so also ‘There is no lover but God.’ And the object of God’s love is God Himself, since ‘God is beautiful, and He loves beauty.’
The entity of the possible thing becomes a locus of manifestation for God, so it becomes nonmanifest within Him and is annihilated [fanâ‘] from itself. Hence it does not know that it loves Him. Or, it is annihilated from itself in Him while in this state, so it does not know that it is a locus of manifestation for Him. It finds from itself that it loves itself, for everything is innately disposed to love itself. Nothing is manifest in the entity of the possible thing but God, so none loves God but God. The servant is not qualified by this love, since love has no property within him. After all, nothing of the servant loves God save God, who is manifest within him. God alone is the Manifest. (II 112.34)
If the servant loves nothing but himself, this is because he loves his own nonexistent entity, which is to say that he desires to keep it coming into existence. But the servant’s love is simply the reflection of God’s love. If the servant loves none but himself, this is because God loves none but Himself. He loves that of Himself which is not yet manifest, and that is the Hidden Treasure. Hence He brings it into manifestation by disclosing it. The immutable entities that He loves are the possibilities of existence found in the infinite, nondelimited reality known as wujûd or the Hidden Treasure. They do not exist in themselves, but they do exist as objects of wujûd‘s self-knowledge. God loves these objects when they are nonexistent, and the goal of His love is to give them existence. At the moment He gives them existence, He ceases loving them, because love is directed only at nonexistence. Hence He loves the next moment of the thing’s existence, which is to say that He loves the continuity of the thing’s existence. This is one of several ways in which the Shaykh explains his famous doctrine of the ‘renewal of creation at each instant’. God continues to renew the existence of things ad infinitum. God never ceases to love the existence of the immutable entities for all eternity, because they remain forever nonexistent. Thus, at each moment His love for the existence of the nonexistent things produces a new creation. The Shaykh writes,
No lover loves anything but himself. This is why God described Himself by saying that He loves the loci of manifestation. These loci are a nonexistence in an entity. Love attaches itself to what becomes manifest, and He is the Manifest within it. The relationship between the Manifest and the loci of manifestation is love. But love attaches itself only to nonexistence. Thus, in this case, the object to which it attaches itself is continuity, and continuity has not been made present, for it extends to infinity, so it can never be made present. (II 113.7)
By loving the nonexistent things, or by loving the manifestation of the nonmanifest, God loves the Hidden Treasure and gives it existence. For the Shaykh, this explains the meaning of the divine name Loving (al-wadûd), which the Qur’an attributes to God in two verses. In one of these verses, the Qur’an says that God is ‘the Forgiving, the Loving, the Lord of the Throne’ (85:14-15). In his chapter on the divine names, the Shaykh writes that the meaning of the name Loving is that God constantly and without cease brings the universe into existence for our sake. We are immutable entities. But through the tongue of our own situation, which is nonexistence, we constantly beg God to bestow existence upon us.
We, with the tongue of our states and our words, never cease saying to Him, ‘Do this, do that’, and He never ceases doing it. Moreover, we say to Him, ‘Do!’ only as a result of His activity within us. Do you think His doing things is forced upon Him, when none can force Him? High indeed is He exalted above that! On the contrary, this is the property of the name Loving, for He is the Forgiving, the Loving, the Lord of the Throne [85:14-15]. (IV 260.6)
It is highly significant that this verse mentions that God is ‘the Lord of the Throne’. The Qur’an associates the Throne with the name All-merciful. The All-merciful sits upon the Throne, and His Throne embraces the heavens and the earth. Hence God has mercy upon all things. In this case, God has mercy on all those who love, since all things are lovers. He is generous and bountiful by nature, because wujûd is infinitely full and infinitely effusive. He gives the best that He has with Himself, and that is wujûd itself, which is His own reality. Thus He constantly brings the creatures into existence, for they love what they do not have, which is wujûd.
He has mercy only upon the ardor of the lover, which is a delicate yearning for the encounter with the Beloved. No one encounters the Beloved save with His attribute, and His attribute is wujûd. Hence He bestows wujûd upon the lover. If there was anything more perfect than that with Him, He would not have been stingy with it… If there had been something else and He had kept it to Himself, this would have been a stinginess that is incompatible with generosity and an incapacity that contradicts power. Thus God reported that He is the Forgiving, the Loving, that is, fixed in love in His unseen reality. After all, He sees us, so He sees His beloved. Hence He delights in His beloved. (IV 260.6)
 On this phrase as the most succinct expression of the Shaykh’s ontology, see W. C. Chittick, The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn al-”Arabî’s Metaphysics of Imagination (Albany: SUNY Press, 1989), passim.
 On light as the source of perception, see Chittick, Sufi Path, p. 214.
 In the dropped sentence, the Shaykh supports his argument by referring to the famous statement of al-Ghazali that this world is the best of all possible worlds. See Chittick, Sufi Path, p. 409n6.