Elizabeth Sartell on Ways of Knowing in Ibn al-ʿArabī's Story of Creation

This piece provides a brief preview into my current book project, provisionally titled Cosmic Letters and Spoken Existence: Ibn al-ʿArabī within Islamicate Philosophical Lettrism, which focuses on the lettrism of Ibn al-ʿArabī—his theory about the origins of the universe stemming from the Arabic letters of the alphabet. This book project builds upon my dissertation and utilizes the methodology of dynamic comparison1 to read Ibn al-ʿArabī’s mystical, lettristic cosmogony within its Arabic Aristotelian philosophical contexts as well as within its Jewish and Muslim mystical contexts. How do the letters, in their elemental, written, and verbalized forms, function as building blocks of the world? How does Ibn al-ʿArabī’s theory of creation intersect with philosophical and mystical ways of knowing and understanding the world?

Ibn al-ʿArabī & His Contexts

Ibn al-ʿArabī (1165-1240 CE) was one of the most inventive and prolific writers of the Islamicate medieval world.2 Though born in al-Andalus, Ibn al-ʿArabī studied hadith and other Islamic sciences, literature, philosophy, and Sufism from teachers in al-Andalus and beyond. He travelled extensively across al-Andalus, North Africa, and the eastern Islamicate world. His vast works include books, treatises, poetry, epistles, and letters on a wide variety of topics and addressed to diverse audiences. After settling in Damascus around the age of 58, Ibn al-ʿArabī wrote his magnum opus, al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya (The Meccan Openings), the second chapter of which (on cosmogony and the letters) forms the focal point of my own book project. The composition of the entire work seems to have begun during his earlier travels but was completed around 1231. A revised and expanded version of the text was begun in 1233 and completed in 1238.3

Forays into Ibn al-ʿArabī’s detailed cosmogony and theories of language, as portrayed in chapter 2 of the Futūḥāt, require scholars to not only immerse themselves in Ibn al-ʿArabī’s own works but also to think comprehensively about the fields of knowledge that inform his understanding of the world. As Dunja Rašić suggests in her own IOSOTR blog post (introducing Ibn al-ʿArabī’s mystical thought on the calligraphy of the Arabic isolated letters), the study of language and letters was undertaken by several intellectual fields, including philosophy, grammar, Islamic religious sciences, and Sufi mysticism.4 Despite this breadth, however, the historical context of Ibn al-ʿArabī’s theory of letters is often framed within Islamic and Arabic grammatical and exegetical approaches to the letters—through Arab grammarians, Andalusī mystics such as Ibn Masarra (d. 931) or Ibn Barrajān (d. 1141), and other Sufi exegetical approaches to the qurʾānic isolated letters.5

However, recognition of multiple and intersecting ways of studying language means that a broader look at Ibn al-ʿArabī’s milieu and historical contexts may be warranted. Rather than limiting ourselves to tracing direct lines of influence through Sufi and Andalusī lettrist and grammatical works, might we additionally envision how his theories interacted with the wider philosophical and mystical ways of knowing circulating within the Islamicate world? Even without tracing direct relation, many of these types of knowledge (such as Islamicate philosophy or non-Islamic lettrist works) may hold direct relevance to an understanding of the medieval Islamicate lettrist milieu, allowing us a new way of thinking about the philosophical and mystical threads intertwining within Ibn al-ʿArabī’s theory of creation.

I propose that Ibn al-ʿArabī references this broader milieu himself, albeit indirectly. A brief glimpse into the sheer number and diversity of knowledge traditions that Ibn al-ʿArabī references and weaves into his own theory about the origins of the universe—simply through the title of his chapter on the letters in the Futūḥāt—may illustrate the philosophical and mystical contexts of Ibn al-ʿArabī’s lettrism. Chapter 2 of Ibn al-ʿArabī’s Futūḥāt is titled:

Fī maʿrifa marātib al-ḥurūf wa-l-ḥarakāt min al-ʿālam wa-mā li-hā min al-asmāʾ al-ḥusnā, wa-maʿrifa al-kalimāt, wa-maʿrifa al-ʿilm wa-l-ʿālim wa-l-maʿlūm

On the [mystical] knowledge of the ranks of the letters and the movements6 of the world, and the beautiful names that pertain to them; the [mystical] knowledge of words; and the [mystical] knowledge of [discursive] knowledge, the knower, and the known7

Philosophical, Mystical, and Theological Discourse

The title itself brings together various strands of knowledge: first and foremost, in the linking of mystical knowledge (maʿrifa) with discursive knowledge (ʿilm). It should be noted that although these two words could be considered synonymous in some lexicons, they were distinguished from one another within the Islamic mystical tradition.8 Maʿrifa, deriving from the ʿ-r-f root, is knowledge generally related to recognition or familiarity with the known. In mystical circles, maʿrifa was used to denote knowledge (usually, for Ibn al-ʿArabī, of the divine or the divine nature of realities) gained through intuition, inspiration, or experience of the divine. This root ʿ-r-f is used for familiarity, for knowing or getting to know a person. Using it with the divine, then, signifies a direct relationship with God, a personal experiential knowledge of God, even to the level of friendship with God. On the other hand, ʿilm, deriving from the ʿ-l-m root, is knowledge generally related to cognition. ʿIlm was often used in mystical circles to denote knowledge gained through philosophy, reason, scientific or demonstrative learning, and the like.

These definitions are not rigid, and there is overlap between these realms of knowledge; indeed, the linking of mystical, philosophical, and theological thought is underscored by Ibn al-ʿArabī’s reference to “[discursive] knowledge, the knower, and the known.” These three categories of the knowing subject, the acquired knowledge, and its object were prominent in Aristotelian philosophy, and commonly reinterpreted in mystical treatises which aim towards the paradoxical union of all three.9 Although Ibn al-ʿArabī also references this triad based on the ʿ-q-l root within the discussion of Futūḥāt 2,10 by framing his discussion of knowledge of the cosmos and its beginnings in terms of the root ʿ-l-m in the title of the chapter, Ibn al-ʿArabī seems to be creatively adapting this philosophical concept to his own mystical epistemology.

Both philosophical theories of the cosmos (the composition of the world, its movements, and the movements of the spheres—such as Aristotelian discourse on movement, generation, and corruption) and philosophical theories of language might be relevant to the knowledge of “the movements of the world,” as the term ḥarakāt is the Arabic word for both movement and vowels. Ibn al-ʿArabī seems to be alluding to this linguistic ambiguity, using the same term (al-ḥarakāt) to refer to the vowels right after this title, where he writes that the second section of the Futūḥāt 2 will deal with the [mystical] knowledge (maʿrifa) of the vowels (al-ḥarakāt) by which words (al-kalimāt) are distinguished.11 This interplay between movements and vowels reflects a synthesis of philosophical works on physics and linguistics, Islamic sciences of tajwīd or qurʾānic recitation, and mystical discourse on the letters and the movement of breath through the points of articulation (makhārij al-ḥurūf).

Additionally, “the knowledge of words” evokes philosophical discourse on theories of grammar, rhetoric, language, and articulation, but again links this philosophy to mystical discourse by specifying the esoteric nature of this knowledge through Ibn al-ʿArabī’s use of the term maʿrifa (rather than the more common term ʿilm) to refer to the scientific-philosophical linguistics tradition. Moreover, in referring to al-kalimāt within the context of a chapter (Futūḥāt 2) on the creation of the universe, Ibn al-ʿArabī immediately calls to mind al-kalima as “the” word, kun! (“Be!”)—the creating logos spoken by God at the beginning of creation, which is also heavily featured in this chapter of the Futūḥāt.12 This “knowledge of words” thus repeats Ibn al-ʿArabī’s connection between mysticism and philosophy and additionally brings in exegetical and religious theology, all as interweaving ways of knowing about the cosmos.

Muslim & Jewish Lettrist Contexts

Various knowledge traditions are evoked in the other categories highlighted in the title as well: most obviously, “the ranks of the letters” immediately brings to mind lettrist treatises such as the Kitāb Khawaṣṣ al-Ḥurūf of Ibn Masarra (883–931 CE), which details these ranks and meanings of the isolated or disconnected letters (muqaṭṭaʿāt) found at the beginnings of a number of qurʾānic sūras.13 Ibn Masarra is cited by Ibn al-ʿArabī, and thus we know that Ibn Masarra’s treatise on the letters was part of the lettrist conversation that Ibn al-ʿArabī evokes when speaking about the “ranks of the letters.”14 Unlike Ibn Masarra, however, Ibn al-ʿArabī chooses to discuss the cosmogonic role of all the letters of the Arabic alphabet (not only the fourteen qurʾānic isolated letters).

Additionally, however, I argue that this focus on the letters of a sacred language evokes lettrist discourse from both Islamic/Arabic and Jewish/Judeo-Arabic traditions. The point of departure for my own book project stems from a core recognition that the medieval Islamicate world includes and was influenced by multiple religious communities. A common language of these religious communities—generally Arabic—and a common philosophical Aristotelian and Neoplatonic tradition contributed to the creation of a “single philosophical culture.” While this culture and its particular philosophical texts and concepts were interpreted and created in diverse ways within different religious communities, these various interpretations were encompassed together as part of a “common philosophical legacy.”15 This philosophical culture, I suggest, holds for philosophical lettrism as well. Although the link from Ibn al-ʿArabī to the 10th-11th-century lettrist milieu is usually established through Ibn Masarra (as noted above), with the dynamic and integrative philosophical milieu in mind, I suggest that this context also include the lettrist works of Jewish thinkers within the Islamicate world. Thus, for example, the commentary on the Sefer Yetsirah by Saʿadia Gaon (882–942 CE) may also serve as a relevant text illuminating the broader landscape to which Ibn al-ʿArabī’s lettrism responds. In thinking about the science of letters in the Islamicate world, we should not forget that Islamic lettrist treatises were often written and transmitted at the same times and in the same environments as their Jewish lettrist counterparts in the Islamicate medieval world. This integrative approach offers larger traditions within which we can contextualize and comprehend Ibn al-ʿArabī’s works.16

And finally, Ibn al-ʿArabī’s reference to “the beautiful names which belong to [the letters]” also evokes religious and exegetical discourse on the qurʾānic tradition of enumerating the names of God; traditionally, there are 99 beautiful names (al-asmāʾ al-ḥusnā) describing God, to which is added the highest name of God, Allāh, which subsumes all the other 99 epithets.17 These 99 names are taken from qurʾānic discourse and are understood as God’s attributes in theological discussions.18 Ibn al-ʿArabī then links this exegetical and theological discussion to lettrism by assigning the divine names to the letters. The divine names were often linked to lettrism, through philosophical discussion (as seen in Ibn al-ʿArabī’s writings here) but especially through practical applications of the letters, numbers, and divine names; ʿilm al-ḥurūf wa-l-asmāʾ, or the “science of letters and names” was a common designation for lettrism in Sufi treatises.19

Ways of Knowing: An Integrative Approach to Ibn al-ʿArabī’s Cosmos

Ibn al-ʿArabī envisioned a cosmos wherein everything is connected, together reflecting the infinite aspects of the divine. One cosmogonic understanding of that universe is approached through language and letters—so there, too, we might understand his particular creation theory as integrative. Even a short examination of the title of Futūḥāt Chapter 2 brings together various ways of knowing: intuitive and discursive, mystical and philosophical, lettrist and exegetical, Jewish and Islamic. In attempting a study of Ibn al-ʿArabī’s discourse on the Arabic letters of creation, this larger contextualization may help us to understand the systematization of his thought and the ways through which he weaves these various forms of knowledge to fashion a new tapestry of creation.

Looking forward, this creates an exciting opportunity to apply dynamic comparison to an understanding of Ibn al-ʿArabī. By elucidating the contexts of Ibn al-ʿArabī’s complex cosmogony, I seek to reveal the integrative philosophical-mystical framework of Ibn al-ʿArabī’s theory of creation. Cosmic Letters and Spoken Existence will unpack how Ibn al-ʿArabī pulls upon and re-constitutes various strands of wisdom into a new form of knowledge—one that is claimed as mystical and divinely-inspired while still engaging with and (mystically re-)interpreting various strands of medieval Arabic philosophical knowledge. My research thus aims to offer an illustration of a particular confluence between multiple ways of knowing, shedding light not only on Ibn al-ʿArabī’s thought but also on the ways in which Islamicate lettrist theories more broadly re-code and re-shape philosophical contexts and concepts.

Author Bio:

Elizabeth Sartell is Assistant Professor in the Department of Theology at Lewis University. She holds a PhD in Islamic Studies from the University of Chicago Divinity School. Her current research centers on medieval Islamic and Jewish theories on the origins of the universe and on the crossovers of philosophy and mysticism within these varied approaches. Elizabeth’s current book project analyzes Ibn al-ʿArabī’s cosmogonic lettrism through the tripartite lens of the elemental, verbal, and calligraphic properties of the letters. In addition to highlighting moments of confluence and re-interpretation between mysticism and philosophy, her project seeks to place Ibn al-ʿArabī’s thought within the larger mystical discourse between medieval Muslim and Jewish texts. In so doing, she aims to highlight the relevance of minority texts and voices to studies of dominant cultures. Elizabeth’s other projects focus on inclusive pedagogy and culturally responsive teaching practices.

Image: First page of the al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya “Konya” manuscript (Evkaf Muzesi MS 1845-1881), which is the second recension of the Futūḥāt, completed 636 AH and written in Ibn al-ʿArabī’s own hand. From Wikimedia Commons

  1. Sarah Stroumsa, “Comparison as Multifocal Approach: The Case of Arabic Philosophical Thought,” in Comparative Studies in the Humanities, ed. Guy Stroumsa (Jerusalem: The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 2018). 

  2. Ibn al-ʿArabī’s biography has been detailed extensively elsewhere and will not be repeated in full here. See, among others: Stephen Hirtenstein, The Unlimited Mercifier: The Spiritual Life and Thought of Ibn ʻArabi (Oxford: Anqa Publishing, 1999); Claude Addas, Quest for the Red Sulphur: The Life of Ibn ‘Arabī, trans. Peter Kingsley (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1993); and Claude Addas, Ibn ‘Arabi: The Voyage of No Return (Cambidge: Islamic Texts Society, 2000). 

  3. James Winson Morris, “Introduction,” in The Meccan Revelations, ed. Michel Chodkiewicz, vol. 1 (New York: Pir Press, 2004), 8. 

  4. Rašić, Dunja, “The Science of the Letters and the Art of Ibn ʿArabī,” Islamic Occult Studies on the Rise contribution, https://www.islamicoccult.org/dunja_rasic, August 2021. See also Dunja Rašić, The Written World of God: The Cosmic Script and the Art of Ibn ‘Arabi (Oxford: Anqa Publishing, 2021), which provides a commendable overview of Ibn al-ʿArabī’s approach to the written, isolated letters within the contexts of his own work as well as the contexts of the subsequent Akbarian school. 

  5. See, for example, Denis Gril, “The Science of Letters,” in The Meccan Revelations, ed. Michel Chodkiewicz, vol. 2 (New York: Pir Press, 2004), 105–219; Michael Ebstein, Mysticism and Philosophy in Al-Andalus: Ibn Masarra, Ibn al-ʿArabi and the Ismāʿīlī Tradition (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2014). 

  6. Ḥarakāt means both “vowels” and “movements.” 

  7. Muḥyī al-Dīn Ibn al-ʿArabī, al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya, ed. ʻAbd al-ʻAzīz Sulṭān Ṭāhir Manṣūb, vol. 1 (al-Jumhūrīyah al-Yamanīyah: Wizārat al-Thaqāfah, 2010), 176. Translations from Futūḥāt 2 throughout this piece are mine. 

  8. See, for example, Yousef Casewit, “Shushtarī’s Treatise on the Limits of Theology and Sufism: Discursive Knowledge (ʿilm), Direct Recognition (Maʿrifa), and Mystical Realization (Taḥqīq) in al-Risāla al-Quṣāriyya,” Religions 11, no. 5 (May 2020); ʻAbd al-Karīm ibn Hawāzin Qushayrī, Al-Qushayri’s Epistle on Sufism, trans. Alexander Knysh (Reading, UK: Garnet Publishing, 2007), 319-25. 

  9. See Aristotle, Metaphysics 12:7. For some Islamicate philosophical examples, see: Herbert A. Davidson, Alfarabi, Avicenna, and Averroes on Intellect : Their Cosmologies, Theories of the Active Intellect, and Theories of Human Intellect (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992). 

  10. See Ibn al-ʿArabī, al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya [Manṣūb], 1:301. 

  11. Ibn al-ʿArabī, al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya [Manṣūb], 2010, 1:176. 

  12. See, for example, Q 2:117, Q 16:40, and Q 40:68, among others. 

  13. The muqaṭṭaʿāt are the opening letters or groups of letters that appear at the beginning of 29 sūras of the Qurʾān. See: A. T. Welch, R. Paret, and J. D. Pearson, “Al-Ḳurʾān,” in Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, ed. P Bearman et al. (Brill, 2012). 

  14. Ibn Masarra is cited in Muḥyī al-Dīn Ibn al-ʿArabī, “Kitāb al-Mīm wa-al-Wāw wa-al-Nūn,” in Rasāʾil Ibn ʿArabī (Ḥaydarābād: Maṭbaʻat Dāʼirat al-Maʻārif al-ʻUthmānīyah, 1948).; see Denis Gril, “The Science of Letters,” in The Meccan Revelations, ed. Michel Chodkiewicz, vol. 2 (New York: Pir Press, 2004), 195 fn. 116. 

  15. Sarah Stroumsa, “Comparison as Multifocal Approach: The Case of Arabic Philosophical Thought,” in Comparative Studies in the Humanities, ed. Guy Stroumsa (Jerusalem: The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 2018), 133. 

  16. Thus, in my book project, I offer comparative readings of several key passages from the lettrist texts of Ibn Masarra and Saʿadia Gaon, in order to provide an understanding of the kinds of lettrist discourse with which Ibn al-ʿArabī’s texts enter into conversation. 

  17. The identification of the highest name with the name “Allāh” was not universal, however. For Ibn Masarra, the highest name is ineffable; see Sarah Stroumsa and Sara Sviri, “The Beginnings of Mystical Philosophy in Al-Andalus: Ibn Masarra and His Epistle on Contemplation,” Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 36 (2009): 201–53. See also Daniel Gimaret, Les noms divins en islam: exégèse lexicographique et théologique (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1988). 

  18. See Q 17:110: “Call upon God, or call upon the Merciful; whichsoever you call upon, to Him belong the most beautiful names”; see also Q 7:180, 20:8, and 59:24. For examples, see Q 59:22–24 for a list of more than a dozen of these divine attributes or epithets. See also: Gerhard Böwering, “God and His Attributes,” in Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān, ed. Jane Dammen McAuliffe (Leiden: Brill, 2001–2006); Gimaret, Les noms divins en islam

  19. Though commonly known as ʿilm al-ḥurūf, the science of letters could also be termed ʿilm al-ḥurūf wa-l-asmāʾ, “the science of letters and names,” due to the role of the divine names as a primary focus of practical lettrism (such as in the construction of talismans), through the practice of theomimesis (takhalluq bi-akhlāq allāh, “assuming the attributes of God”). See Matthew Melvin-Koushki, “Afterword: Conjuncting Astrology and Lettrism, Islam, and Judaism,” Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft 12, no. 1 (2017): 89–97., especially p. 91, fn. 6.