In this post we will discuss theosophy is an esoteric discipline such as alchemy, Ibn Arabi, Alchemy and Hermeticism
Idris/Hermes is said to have taught mankind various philosophical pearls of wisdom in Islam. These are known as the Hermetic Sciences. In this article, we will take a closer look at how Ibn ‘Arabi’s insights correspond to Hermeticism.
Ibn ‘Arabī inherited a long, rich tradition of knowledge about the hierarchical correspondence between the macrocosm of the universe and the microcosm of man. Ibn Arabi gave it his own unique twist. Were his insights perhaps not so unique but comparable to Hermeticism?
Arabic History and Hermetisicm
Below, we place relevant passages from the Hermetic alongside the insights of Ibn Arab so that you, the reader, can determine for yourself to what extent they resemble each other.
This is what the great master Ibn Arabi wrote about his teacher Idris/Hermes:
“My work is in line with how Idrisian reality is revealed. This came about when I examined the levels of the philosophers, how they pass on the traditions [about Idrīs], and how they have formed different opinions about him.I said to myself, “I want to get this knowledge directly from him and understand what caused the philosophers to go wrong.”
So I went on a 36-day retreat, and I learned [from Idrīs] exactly why it is… I saw how the error had influenced the ancient philosophers because of their own souls. This was because they told him what he had said but then began to interpret his knowledge, giving them different opinions.
This is just like how the traditions (ḥadīth) of the Prophet have come down to us. One person declares that what another says is allowed or prohibited based on their ability to understand what he said. “
Considering the antiquity of the Hermes/Idris figure as the original teacher of mankind, the statement that Ibn ‘Arabi received knowledge directly from him through revelation is quite remarkable.
Who was Ibn Arabi?
Ibn Arabi (1165-1240), better known as Muy al-Dn (“The Revival of Religion”) and as Shaykh al-Akbar (“the greatest spiritual teacher”), needs little introduction. He is one of the most profound mystics the world has ever known. His many writings have been regarded in the Islamic world for hundreds of years as essential to the deepest understanding of the nature of reality.
Born in Murcia in southeastern Spain in 1165, Ibn ‘Arabī spent the first 35 years of his life sitting at the feet of various spiritual masters in Seville, Cordoba, Fez, and other cities in the Maghreb, before leaving his homeland to go on a pilgrimage.
He arrived in Mecca in 1202 at the age of 37. He almost immediately began work on what would become his magnum opus, al-Futt al-Makkiyya (The Meccan Revelations), which took decades to complete.
The 167th Chapter
For the purpose of this article, we will focus primarily on chapter 167 of the Meccan Revelation, entitled “On the Inner Knowing of the Alchemy of Human Happiness” (f marifat kmiy al-sada). In this Chapter of the Futt, Ibn Arabi describes the difference between the mystical and philosophical approaches.
He is not concerned with whether alchemical transmutation in physical terms is possible but with the inner transformation that occurs by following the spiritual path. He emphasizes that spiritual transformation is real and achievable. But only as a stage beyond what can be achieved with the intellect.
Ibn ‘Arabi uses the principle of transformation (or transmutation) as the basis for explaining alchemy as a physical, spiritual, and divine science. Ibn Arabi equates the knowledge of alchemy with the return to the primordial state of man, which the Qur’an calls “the finest form” (asan taqwm). This is the state in which God created man.
The juxtaposition of alchemy, ascension, and happiness and almost scientific classification of mystical knowledge makes Chapter 167 one of the most important chapters of the Futt.
Earlier mystical writers also saw alchemy as a means of spiritual transformation. For example, the famous Egyptian Sufi Dh’l-In al-Mir (d. c. 859) came from Ikmm (Gk. Panopolis). Ikhmīm was an important center of Hermetic teaching and is associated with several alchemical treatises drawn from the Greco-Egyptian Hermes tradition.
Besides his own writings on alchemy and the Prophet Idrīs/Hermes, there is another connection between Ibn ‘Arabī and Hermeticism.
In the history of Sufism, there is the very interesting figure of Ibn Sab’in (d. 1270). This Hermetic mystic is often seen as the alter ego of Ibn al-‘Arabi. Born, like Ibn al-Arabi, in the city of Murcia in southeastern Spain. Murcia, and the Ricote Valley, in particular, was a hotbed of Hermeticism at the time.
Ibn Sab’in hermetic views were used to criticize the doctrines of the Shaykh al-Akbar. However, Ibn Arabi was born a whole generation before Ibn Sab’in and had no direct influence on Ibn Sab’in thinking.
To cite just one example, it seems to have been Ibn Sab’in, and not Ibn al-Arabi, who first coined the term “Unity of Existence” (wahdat al-wujud). However, Ibn Arabi, not Ibn Sab’in, is blamed by orthodox Muslims for this “heretical” concept.
Alchemy is based on the idea that the universe is ordered. A place where the primordial, infinite, and indeterminate state of being is differentiated into an order of knowable patterns. These patterns can reveal truths about the world as well as about people.
The essential unity of all things is one substance, and all the various physical bodies and forms are manifestations of that substance.
This cosmic order is observable in the interactions of the four elements (earth, water, air and fire). These arise from the same primordial substance (materia prima).
Each element is considered to have two properties:
- earth is cold and dry;
- water is cold and wet;
- air is hot and wet;
- fire is hot and dry.
The four elements are regarded as different manifestations of primordial matter so that all visible material things are a specific combination of heat, dryness, cold, and wetness. The appearance of a thing in one form does not preclude its transmutation into another form.
Macrocosm and microcosm
In alchemy, there is a close and important similarity between the macrocosm and the microcosm. The universe (‘the great world,’ al-lam al-kabr) and man (‘the small world’, al-lam al-aghr) are expressions of the same reality.
These similarities connect worlds that seem different. They connect the world of heaven/planets, the world of the elements, the universe, and the individual human consciousness. The science of astrology has become the key to understanding the formation and transmutation of elements and metals.
In alchemy, there is also the idea that a single substance splits into two sexes. This is equivalent to the human creation as described in the Qur’an and where it is said to come from Adam:
” O mankind, fear your Lord, who created you [all] from one soul, and from it created his fellowmen, and who scattered many men. and wives of both of them. “
The question is how a multitude of different forms could arise from a single primordial source. In numerical terms, this is identical to how Pythagoras describes how the number 1 is doubled to 2 and how all numbers arise from that main division.
The main agent used by the alchemists for the transmutation process was known as the elixir (from the Arabic al-iksr). This was referred to by various pseudonyms, including the philosopher‘s stone (ajar al-falsifa or ajar al-ukam).
There were two versions:
- a white elixir (al-iksr al-abya), similar to the moon, which converts copper into silver, and a
- red elixir (al-iksr al-amar), similar to the sun, which converts silver into gold.
The 8th-century father of Arab alchemy, Jbir b. ayyn (known in the Latin world as Geber), had set forth the theory that since each metal was a specific combination of the four elements, the metal could be transmuted by rearranging the proportions of these basic qualities.
The agent for this change was the elixir, which was thought to be capable of producing the transmutation into gold or silver and curing diseases and prolonging life. The red elixir was also known as red sulfur (al-kibrt al-amar), and it became a technical term for the transformative power of a true spiritual teacher.
In the Tadbrt, Ibn ‘Arab uses the term in the context of what he refers to as “the adored stone” (al-ajar al-mukarram), which is “found in all that exists” and is identical with the elixir.Ibn Arabi himself was later called “the red brimstone” to recognize his mastery of spiritual alchemy.
Disease healing was thought to be the transformation of a sick body into a healthy body. The transmutation of copper into gold was conceived as healing a diseased metal and restoring it to health.
The healing of a sick spirit was seen as the completion of the human purpose here in this life, so that man can truly become
God’s substitute or representative (khalīfa) on earth.
This correspondence is the basis of Ibn ‘Arabī’s discourse in which he links the process and goal of alchemy with the goal of the spiritual path, namely, human happiness.
The Alchemy of Happiness
The goal of alchemy (kmiy) is happiness (sada). The Dutch word ‘luck’ doesn’t really convey the depth of the Arabic term. The term saʿāda is based both on how the word is used in the Qur’an and a long tradition dating back to the Greek idea of eudaimonia (usually translated as ‘happiness’ but also as ‘harmonious life’ or ‘spiritual fulfillment).
Happiness is something to be strived for in this world. Not only is it a high ethical attitude that is part of a good life, but happiness is also the fulfillment of one’s potential as a human being who knows the Divine.
By stating that “all happiness lies in knowing God,” Ibn ‘Arabi emphasizes the crucial importance of knowledge and recognizing God in every divine manifestation. To know the Divine in any form or holy name through which He manifests Himself, in other words. Achieving perfection is the central goal of the alchemy of happiness:
Ibn Arabi:”… not everyone who has found happiness is granted perfection. Because while everyone who is perfect is happy, not every happy person is perfect. Perfection means reaching – and connecting with – the highest degree, and that is assuming the likeness of the Source. ”
In the Hermetica, the divine primeval man is called Anthropos. It is the entity that has the closest relationship with the Divine. The Divine adores Anthropos (primal man) more than any other creature. The primeval man was created in the image of his father. Androgynous and divine, he descends through the planes of reality:
Ibn Arabi uses different names for people. A superficial person is called a “Bashar“. His humanity is “skin-deep”; it doesn’t extend beyond his body. A fully developed human being is called an “insane” being. This person is acquainted with every aspect of reality, and he has assumed divine likeness.
In Hermetics, we also read that every human being (Anthropos) has something divine in him. The Hermetica refers to “Anthropos” as “real” people who can achieve gnosis.” People who cannot achieve gnosis are called “people.” Thus, other words are used in Hermetics to describe “ignorant” people.
Ibn ‘Arabī introduces this theme of real people and superficial people by outlining two different kinds of alchemy. He calls this ‘origin’ and ‘the removal of defects and ills.’
The first kind of alchemy is a creative process that comes about according to its inherent nature. The second kind of alchemy implies that the natural process of development has been hindered in some way by an accidental illness or ill health and requires therapeutic intervention.
To eliminate inner defects and ills, the special art of the alchemist is needed. Alchemy understands the Kabbalistic mysticism and the cosmic order and works with this order to bring things back into balance.
One of the main features of Ibn ʿArabī’s approach is that it begins with wholeness and integration. Man’s development or evolution towards perfection is seen not only as a process of moving from ignorance to knowledge or clearing obstacles on the way to future happiness but as the beginning of a pre-existing perfection or wholeness.
In alchemy, the original archetype of metal ore precedes all possible forms of its existence. His journey through time and space aims to realize his true potential, which is to become gold.
Ibn Arabi finds confirmation of this method in the saying of the Qur’an: “He gave to everything its nature, and then He guided it.” Something is created whole and perfect, and then the development and completion in time begin, under the supervision and guidance of the Divine.
For humans, this development culminates in the degree of completion (kamal), by which one has become God’s representative (khalīfa) on earth. This man acts in line with the Divine because he has become like the divine image.
This completion leads one who has attained the state of “gold” to return to the “metal mine” (society) and act as a guide for those who are still in a lower state of development but with the alchemical desire to start work.
The Journey to Completion
Another theme with Ibn Arabi is how man must travel to reach his completion. Human potential can only be attained through a process of spiritual ascension (mirj). The man travels from the lowest to the highest for which man was created.
In Ibn ‘Arabī’s description, the journey goes through all planes of existence in an imitation of the Prophet Muhammad’s ascension through the seven heavens and beyond. As the Qur’an says: “Glory be to Him Who caused His servant to travel at night from the Holy Mosque to the Farthest Mosque, whose neighborhood we have blessed, to show him some of Our signs.”
Unlike previous mystics such as Abū Yazīd al-Bisṭāmī, Ibn ‘Arabī is very faithful to the example of the Prophet. For him, this was not only a metaphorical journey, which each mystic goes through in his own unique way, but also a journey that most closely follows the prophetic example.
The celestial journey that the mystic experiences by following in the footsteps of the Prophet is a representation of the process of returning to – and reuniting with – reality while the mystic is still living in this world.
It is a visionary journey that realizes the truth of one’s being in a way that is completely unlike any other form of knowledge acquisition.
The ascension (miraj) takes place where the earthly plane ends, beyond the four elements of this world. It begins with the celestial sphere of the moon, which is under the spiritual dominion of the Prophet Adam and continues through the various spheres of the heavens to the seventh, where Abraham resides.
These heavenly realms were considered to be nested within one another and spherical. Also, a Russian matryoshka doll. Ibn Arabi reminds his readers that all divine vision and ascension are actually two-sided affairs:
“The Vision of the True God happens only in a mutual encounter that includes a rise and a fall. The ascent is ours, the descent is his. ”
This mutual ‘confrontation’ (munzala) is the personal encounter between the Divine and the human. It is a movement involving both parties. It takes place within the domain of the imagination, where meaning and form interpenetrate.
All descriptions of spiritual ascension are best understood as a series of encounters in which the mystic comes into direct contemplation of the divine Presence through the ‘Signs’ He reveals.
It is about an endless journey of discovery, in which there is no repetition. But the specific degrees or levels of existence are delineated so that the journey can be characterized as having a beginning, a middle and an end.