The Cloud & The Divine Breath of Ibn 'Arabi

The Cloud and The Divine Breath of Ibn 'Arabi

" The Cloud" from the project:
The Light of Creation
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"The Cloud" & Contemporary Computing
There is an interesting correspondence between The Cloud of Ibn 'Arabi, the great Islamic mystic (see below) and The Computing Cloud of contemporary digital life.  If you are interested in comparing these two concepts of The Cloud . . .  please click here.

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Henry Corbin,  Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi
The Divine Breathing : The Sigh of Compassion 
The Divine Breathing exhales what our shaikh [Ibn 'Arabi] designates as the Sigh of existentiating Compassion; this Sigh gives rise to the entire "subtile" mass of a primordial existentiation termed Cloud (ama).  Which explains the following hadith: 

Someone asked the Prophet: Where was your Lord before creating His visible Creation? -- He was in a Cloud; there was no space either above or below.

This Cloud, which the Divine Being exhaled and in which He originally was, receives all and at the same time gives beings their forms; it is active and passive, receptive and existentiating; through it is effected the differentiation within the primordial reality of the being that is the Divine Being as such.  As such it is the absolute unconditioned Imagination.  The initial theophanic operation by which te Divine Being reveals himself, "shows Himself" to Himself, by differentiating Himself in His hidden being, that is, by manifesting to Himself the virtualities of His Names with their correlata, the eternal hexities of beings, their protogypes latent in His essence -- this operation is conceived as being the creative Active Imagination, the theophanic Imagination.  Primordial Cloud, absolute or theophanic Imagination, existentiating Compassion are equivalent notions, expressing the same original reality: the Divine Being from whom all things are created--which amounts to saying the "Creator-Creature."  For the Cloud is the Creator, since it is the Sigh He exhales and since it is hidden in Him; as such the Cloud is the invisible, the "esoteric".  and it is the manifested creature.  Creator-Creature: this means that the Divine Being is the Hidden and the Revealed, or also that He is the First and the Last.  p.185-6  

Imagination and the Cloud
. . . the Cloud . . . is itself the absolute theophanic Imagination.  The intermediary between the world of Mystery and the world of visibility can only be the Imagination, since the plane of being and the plane of consciousness which it designates is that in which the Incorporeal Beings of the world of Mystery "take body" and in which, reciprocally, natural, sensuous things are spiritualized or "immaterialized."

To perceive all forms as epiphanic forms, that is, to perceive through the figures which they manifest and which are the external hexeities, that they are other than the Creator and nevertheless that they are He, is precisely to effect the encounter, the coincidence, between God's decent toward the creature and the creature's ascent toward the Creator.  The "place" of this encounter is not outside the Creator-Creature totality, but is the area within it which corresponds specifically to the Active Imagination, in the manner of a bridge joining the two banks of a  river.  The crossing itself is essentially a hermeneutics [ta'wil, interpretation] of symbols . . . 

Pre-Eternal Forms of Being
How could the mystic divine the mystery of divine pre-eternity, the divine nostalgia exhaling its creative sigh if he did not discover and experience it in himself?  It is inherent in his creatural condition to "sigh," because this sigh is his release.  The Breath exhaled by the Sadness of the Pathetic god (yearning to be known, that is, to realize His significatio passiva in Him whose God He will become, this Cloud is as we have seen, the creative energy and the "spiritual matter" of the entire universe of beings both spiritual and corporeal, the God through whom and out of whom beings are made.  Since it is this "universal matter," the Cloud is the patiens that receives all the forms of being, which are thus the forms assumed by the divine passion to be known and revealed.  "We became forms in the Cloud, to which we thus gave being in actu; after having been purely ideal existence, it took on concrete existence.  Such is the cause that is at the origin of our love for God."  [footnote 30 for pages 149-151; the quote by Corbin is from Iben 'Arabi's book Futuhat]

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Samer Akkach, Cosmology and Architecture in Premodern Islam  pgs 117-120
Breathing and Imaging
In response to the question “Where was our Lord before creating his creatures?” the Prophet is reported to have said: “in a 􏰀ama􏰁 with no air either above or below.”19 The Arabic term 􏰀ama􏰁 literally means “thin and subtle cloud.” Accord- ing to Ibn 􏰀Arabi, it refers here to the divine Breath. The primordial “Cloud” is thus the first form the Breath took on externally and within which God then differenti- ated the forms of the world.20 In the context of the geometrical and alphabetical symbolism, the Cloud can be seen as the cosmic equivalent of the circle and the alif, that is, the first affirmatively conceived reality and the first qualified form of unity. It is the governing form within which the realities of the world are delivered from potency into actuality, from formlessness to formal existence. Ibn 􏰀Arabi considers the Cloud to be the first existential condition (zarf) that supported God’s external being (kaynunat al-haqq), while at the same time identifying it with ab- solute imagination (al-khayal al-mutlaq).21 The Cloud is identified with the divine imagination because it is viewed not only as a passive substance capable of re- ceiving all forms but also as active agent that gives beings their forms.22 It is thus the means whereby God projected forth the essences of potential beings as cosmic, imaginable forms, and the instrument whose function is to actualize the transcen- dental patterns of divine realities in the harmonized form of the cosmos.

By identifying the Cloud with absolute imagination Ibn 􏰀Arabi presents divine breathing as an act of imagining. Unlike human imagining, he argues, divine imagining occurs from without and not from within the Essence. This is to say that God produced the world the moment he imagined it and not accord- ing to an eternally imagined model (mithal). And prior to their existence in the Cloud, the forms of the world did not exist as such in the divine Self, nor has God imagined them in his Mind prior to their production. As immutable essences, they were known as they are and as they would be when formally pro- duced but not imagined.23 The divine imagining of the forms of the world co- incides with producing them through the Breath, hence the conflating of the divine acts of breathing and imagining.24 Peculiar though it may sound, this conception is fundamental to Ibn 􏰀Arabi’s approach to resolve the perennial philosophical problem of the eternity (qidam) and newness (huduth) of the world. Through breathing-as-imagining Ibn 􏰀Arabi attempts to reconcile the eternity of the world as immutable essences with the Islamic dogma of creatio ex nihilo.25   

To resolve this philosophical dilemma, Ibn 􏰀Arabi begins by making a clear distinction between form (sura) and meaning (ma􏰀na), imagining and knowing, as already discussed in chapter 1. Forms embody formless meanings, and as such they are accessible by human imagination. “The forms, insofar as they are forms,” he says, referring to the cosmic forms, “are the imaginable, and the Cloud, in which they are manifested, is the imagination.”26 Thus viewed, Ibn 􏰀Arabi’s forms are not permanent, Platonic models in whose likeness things are made but are rather the things themselves. There are pure, spiritual forms just as there are sensible, gross forms and intelligible, subtle forms. Together they con- stitute the cosmic forms that embody the formless immutable essences. In Ibn 􏰀Arabi’s scheme of the creation, “cosmic” and “formal” are therefore synony- mous terms. Meanings, on the other hand, are accessible by the intellect and can be known without necessarily being imagined. The original meanings are none other than the immutable essences.27 Accordingly, the imaginable forms that Ibn 􏰀Arabi speaks of as existing in the Cloud or the detached imagination are differ- ent to the knowable immutable essences, which “have not smelt the fragrance of existence,” residing as they are in the divine Self.

The distinction between meaning and form, knowing and imagining, is consistent with Ibn 􏰀Arabi’s conviction that knowledge is not the knower imag- ining the form of the known, as already discussed. He finds support for this in the divine name badi􏰀, “originator” or “innovator,” mentioned in a verse that speaks of “the originator (badi􏰀) of the heavens and the earth” (2:117).28 This name derives from ibda􏰀, which means “to bring forth something original, novel, unprecedented,” and of which the term bid􏰀a means “originality,” “nov- elty,” and “heresy.” Commenting on the above verse, Ibn 􏰀Arabi says that the creation of the heavens and the earth is associated with the name badi􏰀 because they are created according to no preceding “model,” “likeness,” or “form” (mithal). Had the form of the cosmos been identical with the immutable essences in the nonexistence, God would not have been badi􏰀, for he would have been creating according to the form already present in his knowledge, and there would be no creatio ex nihilo.

God says: “The originator of the heavens and the earth” because they were created according to no preceding model. The first thing God created was the In- tellect, that is, the Pen (al-qalam): it is the first original creature (maf􏰀ul ibda􏰀i) manifested from God-most transcendent. And every creature created without a preceding model (mithal) is original (mubda􏰀), and its creator is its originator (mubdi􏰀). So if knowledge is conceiving the form of the known, as some people maintain in the definition (hadd) of knowledge, that creature would not be orig- inal (mubda􏰀), because it has in the soul of the one who originated it a model, according to which he brought it into existence. To maintain this definition of knowledge would mean that that which is in God’s Self has never ceased to be necessary being (wajib al-wujud) and that God did not originate (ibtada􏰀a) it in himself, as does the innovator (al-muhdith) when he originates, nor has anything been brought into existence but according to the form, which exists in the Self of the form giver (al-musawwir) for [the sake of things to be in] its likeness not for its own sake, for [God’s Self] is not the place of what he creates. It follows that God is not bad i􏰀 (according to those who maintain that knowledge is the form of the known imprinted in the soul of the knower); but he is. So he has in his Self no form of what he originates, nor has he conceived of its form [before originat- ing it]. This is a problematic matter. Among the knowable matters (ma􏰀 lumat) there are things that can be formalized and others that cannot, though they are knowable; hence, the definition of knowledge is not conceiving the form of the known. And so likewise is the one who knows; he could be amongst those who are able to conceive of forms, being endowed with the imagining faculty, and could be amongst those who know without being able to formalize, being inca- pable of giving form. Thus, [for God] form giving is an act that occurs from without (min kharij), and he does not receive within his Self what he forms (sawwara) from without, but he knows it. And know first that origination (ibda􏰀) is not possible except with forms (suwar) in particular, because they can be cre- ated and can, therefore, be originated. As for meanings (ma􏰀ani), none of them is originated (mubtada􏰀), because they cannot be created nor can they be origi- nated, though they can be intellectualized as being essentially immutable.29

The “Cloud” and Cosmic Forms
Ibn 􏰀Arabi’s elaboration on the nature of the forms contained in the Cloud adds further clarity both to the distinction he makes between form and meaning and to the relation he establishes between the primordial Cloud and the world of de- tached imagination. Commenting on the verse “Everything will perish save his Face (wajhihi)” (28:88), Ibn 􏰀Arabi explains that his in “his face” (the pronom- inal suffix hi in wajhi-hi) can be understood as referring to the “thing” in “everything.” The verse would then read as “Everything will perish save its face.” Similarly, in the prophetic tradition “God created man in his Image (suratihi),” the same pronoun may also refer to “man,” meaning God created man in man’s own image. Understood in the alternative sense, Ibn 􏰀Arabi con- siders the form of a thing to be its perishable aspect revealed in the Cloud, whereas its “face” to be its imperishable reality. He explains:

Then he caused to exist in the Cloud all the forms of the world, about which he said, “It will perish,” that is, in respect of its forms, “save its face,” that is, in respect of its reality it will not perish. For the ha􏰁 in wajhihi refers to the “thing.” So in relation to the forms of the world, “everything will perish,” but in relation to its realities, the world will not perish, nor is it possible to per- ish. If the form of man perishes, for example, and there remains no trace of it in existence, its reality, which is identified by, and is identical with, man’s definition (hadd), would not perish. We say that man is a “rational animal” (hayawan natiq), and we do not refer to his being existent or nonexistent, be- cause this reality has never ceased to be his even if there were for him no form in existence.30

Within the primordial Cloud God unfolded the forms of the entire world, high- est and lowest, subtle and dense, spatial and nonspatial. Ibn 􏰀Arabi illustrates these forms in a series of diagrams, which show in a hierarchical order both the supra-natural and the natural worlds with all the cosmic levels they comprise. In the following I shall examine some of these diagrams in the same sequential manner Ibn 􏰀Arabi follows, though he indicates that they should be seen as one diagram, in which the simultaneous existence of the elements would enable a better appreciation of their proper relationships.31

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