The Divine Roots of Human Love
Ibn al-‘Arabi begins his long chapter on love (mahabba) in the Futûhât al-Makkiyya – as he begins most of the book’s 560 chapters – by citing relevant Qur’anic verses and prophetic sayings (II 322.16). He points out first that love is a divine attribute, and he lists several of the Qur’anic verses in which God is the subject of the verb ‘to love’. Fourteen of these verses mention those whom God loves and another twenty-three mention those whom God does not love. In every case, the objects of God’s love or lack of love are human beings. Indeed, the Qur’an associates love only with human beings among all creatures. Hence love is a key term if we are to understand what differentiates human beings from other created things. Most other divine attributes – such as life, knowledge, desire, power, speech, generosity, justice, mercy, and wrath – have no necessary connection with the human race.
When Ibn al-‘Arabi turns to prophetic sayings concerning love, he cites first the famous hadith of the Hidden Treasure: ‘I was a treasure that was not known, so I loved to be known. Hence I created the creatures and I made Myself known to them, and thus they came to know Me.’ Second, he cites a prophetic saying that he mentions innumerable times in his works, more often, I am sure, than any other hadith. Again, it is a hadîth qudsî, which is to say that God is speaking:
Those who seek nearness to Me seek nearness through nothing I love more than the performance of what I have made incumbent upon them. My servant never ceases to seek nearness to Me through supererogatory works until I love him. Then, when I love him, I am his hearing through which he hears, his sight through which he sees, his hand through which he grasps, and his foot through which he walks.
The Shaykh cites Qur’an and Hadith at the beginning of this chapter for the same reason that he cites them at the beginning of most chapters. He wants to mention what he calls the ‘divine roots’ (al-usûl al-ilâhiyya) of the discussion. On one level, this means simply that he wants to show that what he has to say is based on the revealed texts. On a deeper level, his reason for mentioning the divine roots has to do with his perspective on reality, a perspective that has come to be called the doctrine of wahdat al-wujûd, the ‘Oneness of Being’ or the ‘Unity of Existence’.
In all his works, Ibn al-‘Arabi focuses upon reality itself, and reality is wujûd, that is, being, existence, or that which is found. Wujûd is the Real (al-haqq), which is another name for God. In itself, wujûd is concealed and nonmanifest. In other words, it is the Hidden Treasure. However, wujûd loved to be known, so it created the universe in order to be known. Those who know wujûd in a full sense are true human beings, or Perfect Man (al-insân al-kâmil). But people cannot know wujûd unless wujûd makes itself known to them. It makes itself known by manifesting itself in three basic ways: through the universe, through the self, and through scripture. Scripture, the Qur’an in particular, is the key that opens the door to the universe and the self. Unless Muslims have recourse to the Qur’an, they cannot know the universe and themselves. And unless they know themselves, they cannot know God. Ibn al-‘Arabi frequently reminds us of the Prophet’s words, ‘He who knows himself knows his Lord.’ It follows that he who does not know himself does not know his Lord.
For Ibn al-‘Arabi, as for other Muslims, the Qur’an is the means whereby one comes to know oneself and one’s God. The Qur’an is God’s self-revelation with the specific goal of guiding human beings to knowledge of reality. Hence the first task of the seeker of God is to search out the meanings of the Qur’an, because the meanings of the Qur’an are the meanings of wujûd itself.
In short, when the Shaykh says that Qur’anic verses are the divine roots of things, he means to say that the verses manifest the very principles of wujûd, the very sources of the existence that we find in our own experience. The Qur’an gives expression to the realities of wujûd in the clearest possible manner, and hence, in our search to understand the realities, we need to look first at the Qur’an. One of the most significant realities for understanding the nature of human beings, and therefore the reality of God Himself, is love.
Love has many similarities with wujûd. For example, like wujûd, it cannot be defined. At the beginning of his chapter on love, the Shaykh reminds his readers of this fact:
You should know that known things can be divided into two sorts. One sort can be defined, and the other sort cannot be defined. Those who know and speak about love agree that it is one of the things that cannot be defined. A person recognizes it when it abides within himself and when it is his own attribute. He does not know what it is, but he does not deny its existence. (II 325.13)
The Shaykh calls love ‘a knowledge of tasting’ (IV 7.2), which is to say that people cannot know love until they have tasted it and experienced it in themselves. But, even then, they cannot explain it to others. As the Shaykh says, ‘He who defines love has not known it, and he who has not tasted it by drinking it down has not known it’ (II 111.12).
Although God or wujûd cannot be known in Himself, He can be known inasmuch as He chooses to show Himself. Once He shows Himself, we can summarize what we know about Him by mentioning His attributes, or, as He Himself does in the Qur’an, by mentioning His ‘most beautiful names’. In the same way, love cannot be known in itself, but its attributes and names can be known and described.
The Nonexistence Of The Beloved
Perhaps the first and most important attribute of love in Ibn al-‘Arabi’s view is that love’s object does not exist. This flies in the face of common sense, because we like to think that we love someone or something, not nothing. The Shaykh writes,
Many mistakes may occur in love. The first of them is that people imagine that the object of love is an existent thing… In fact, love’s object remains forever nonexistent, but most lovers are not aware of this, unless they should be knowers of the realities. (II 337.17)
Ibn al-‘Arabi’s basic point is not difficult to understand. When people love something, they desire to achieve a nearness or a union with the object of their love. As long as they have not achieved the object of their desire, it does not exist in relation to them.
It is characteristic of the beloved to be nonexistent, and necessarily so. The lover loves to bring the nonexistent thing into existence, or for it to occur within an existent thing. (II 332.10)
In his chapter on love, the Shaykh explains why love’s object cannot exist. It should be clear from his discussion that by ‘nonexistent’ he means nonexistent in a relative sense. In other words, the object is nonexistent in relation to the lover. Thus, the lover loves to have something that he does not have, or he loves to achieve something that he has not achieved.
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. I say, ‘or occurrence’, because love can become attached to making an existent thing nonexistent…
We said that love desires the existence of the object of love and that, in reality, the object of love is nonexistent. This is because for the lover, the object of love is the desire to achieve union with a specific individual, whoever it may be. If it is someone whom it is appropriate to embrace, then he loves the embracing. If it is someone with whom sexual intercourse can be had, then he loves the sexual intercourse. If it is someone to be sat with, then he loves the sitting.
Hence the love of the lover becomes attached only to that of the individual which is nonexistent at the moment. He imagines that his love is attached to the person, but this is not so. It is this that incites him to meet and see his beloved. He does not love the beloved’s person or the beloved’s existence in entity, because the beloved already possesses personhood or existence, so there would be no profit in love being attached to the beloved’s personhood. (II 327.2)
The Shaykh continues this passage by answering certain objections. Some people may say that they loved companionship, or kissing, or intimacy with a person. Then, when they achieved their goal, they found that their love persisted. Hence, love can exist along with its object. The Shaykh replies that, in fact, the object still does not exist, because love’s object has changed. Now the object is the continuity of what was achieved, not the achievement itself. Continuity is not an existing thing. On the contrary, it is the arrival, moment by moment, of the nonexistent object of love. He writes,
When you embrace the person, and when the object of your love had been embracing, or companionship, or intimacy, 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. They have not entered into existence and their period has no end. Hence, in the time of union, love attaches itself only to a nonexistent thing, and that is the continuity of the union. (II 327.11) 
 References throughout are to al-Futûhât al-Makkiyya, Cairo, 1911. For a French translation of the chapter on love, see Traité de l’Amour by M. Gloton (Paris: Albin Michel, 1986).
 Compare the following: ‘Love attaches itself only to a non�existent thing. It desires to see that thing as existent within an existent entity. Then, when love sees the thing, love is transferred to the continuity of that state whose existence it loves in that existent entity’ (II 337.18).