The Shadow of the Absolute


According to Ibn ‘Arabi, “The world is the shadow of the Absolute”. The world, as the shadow of the Absolute, is the latter’s form, but it is a degree lower than the latter.

He said, “Know that what is generally said to be ‘other than the Absolute’ or the so-called ‘world’, is in relation to the Absolute comparable to shadow in relation to the person. The world in this sense is the ‘shadow’ of God.

In Ibn ‘Arabi’s thought, there is nothing other than the Absolute. This statement is not merely a popular expression, because it has some reason as well. Philosophically or theologically, the world is a concrete phenomenal form of the Divine Names, and the Divine Names are in a certain sense opposed to the Divine Essence. The world is surely ‘other than the Absolute’.

The world is the shadow of the Absolute is the same as attributing existence (i.e. concrete, sensible existence) to the world. Because shadow surely exists sensibly, except that it does so only when there is something in which it makes its appearance. If there were nothing in which to appear, the shadow would remain merely intelligible without existing in a sensible form. In such a case, the shadow rather remains in potential in the person to whom it is attributed.

The condition of the ‘shadow’

The structure of this phenomenon is made clearer by al-Qashani, one disciple of Ibn ‘Arabi, as follow:

The shadow must be three things:

1) A tall object which cast the shadow

2) The place where it falls

3) Light by which alone shadow distinctively existent.

The ‘object’ corresponds to the Real Being or the Absolute

The ‘place’ corresponds to the archetypal essences of the possible things. If there were no ‘place’, shadow would never sensible, but would remain something intelligible like a tree in a seed. It would remain in the state of potentiality in the ‘object’ that would cast the shadow.

The ‘light’ corresponds to the Divine Name, the ‘Outward’.

The Locus of the Appearances the Divine Names

If the world had not come into contact with the Being of the Absolute, the ‘shadow’ would have never come to exist. It would have remained forever in the primordial non-existence that is characteristic of the possible things considered themselves without any relation to their Originator (who brings them into the state of real existence).

For ‘shadow’, in order to exist, needs the ‘place’ as well as an actual contact with the thing that projects it. God, however, ‘existed when there was nothing beside Him’, and in that state He was completely self-sufficient having no need of the world.

It means that ‘the shadow is cast on what we call the ‘world’ directly, but on the archetypes of the things. Or, the ‘world’ begins to exist on a higher level than the one on which our common sense usually thinks it to exist. The moment the shadow of the Absolute is cast on the archetypes, the world is born, although the archetypes themselves are not the ‘world’ but rather the ‘locus of the appearance of the world.

Shadow, however, does not appear except the activity of light. This is the reason why we have the Divine Name ‘Light’ (Nûr).

Ibn Arabi says,

The locus of appearance of this Divine ‘shadow’ called the world is the archetypal essences of the possible things (a’yân al-mumkinât al-thâbitah fî al-hadrah al-‘ilmiyah). It is on these archetypes that the shadow (first) spreads. And the shadow becomes perceivable in accordance with the amount actually spread of the Being of the One who projects it upon them. The perception of it, however can take place only in virtue of the Name ‘Light’.

The Distance and Its Effects

Why does the shadow on the earth take on a dark, blackish color? Ibn Arabi has an answer. This dark actually symbolizes, according to him, in the first place, that the source of the ‘shadow’ is a Mystery, an absolutely Unknown-Unknowable. The second place, the blackness of shadow indicates that there is a distance between it and its source.

In his own words, Ibn Arabi says,

…This fact indicates the inherence of obscurity in the shadows due to an intervening distance in the relation between them and the object that project them. Thus, even if the object is white, the shadow it casts takes on blackish color.

There are two effects of the distance, according to Ibn Arabi, towards the shadow:

First, the distance separates the archetypes from the Absolute in producing the darkish color of the shadow

Do you see how the mountains, if they happen to be far away from the sight of the man who looks at them, appear black, when in reality they may be quite different in color from what the sense perceives? And the distance is the only cause for this phenomenon… In fact, anything which is not luminous produces the same kind of the effect on the sense when there is a long distance between the object and sight.

Exactly the same situation is found with regard to the archetypal essences of the possible things, for they, too, are not luminous by them. (They are not luminous) because they are non-existent (ma’dum). True, they do possess an ontological status intermediary between sheer non-existence and pure existence but they do not possess Being by themselves, Being is Light.

Second, the distance makes every object look far smaller than it really is. It is also has a deep symbolic meaning for Ibn Arabi.

Even the luminous objects, however, appear small to the sense by dint of distance. And this is another effect of distance on sense perception. Thus the sense does not perceive (distant luminous objects) except as very small things, while in reality they are far bigger and of greater quantities than they look. For example, it is a scientifically demonstrated fact that the sun is one hundreds and sixty times bigger than the earth. Actually, however, it appears to the sense as small as a shield, for instance. This, again, is the effect produced by distance.

The world is known just to the same degree as shadow is perceived, and the Absolute remains unknown to the same degree as the object that casts the shadow remains unknown.

Thus, as long as the ‘shadow’ (which can be perceived and known) is the ‘shadow’ (of the Absolute), the Absolute also is known. But as long as we do not know the essential form the object contained within the ‘shadow’, the Absolute remains unknown.

This is why we assert that the Absolute is known to us in one sense, but is unknown to us in another.

The Absolute in this comparison is the source of the ‘shadow’. And the former is known to us to the very extent that ‘shadow’, i.e., the world, is known. This amounts to say, if we continue to use the same metaphor, that the Absolute is known to us only as something ‘small and black’. And this ‘something small and black’ is what is generally understood as our God or our Lord. The real something which projects this ‘shadow’ is never to be known.

Ibn Arabi bases his argument on a few Quranic verses which he interprets as he always does, in his own way.

‘Hast thou not seen how thy Lord spread shadow? But if He so desired He could make them stand still’ (XXV, 45). The phrase ‘stand still’ means ‘remain within God in the state of potentiality’. God means to say (in this verse): it is not in the nature of the Absolute to manifest itself to the possible things (i.e., the archetypes) unless there appears first (upon them) its ‘shadow’. Yet the ‘shadow’ (in this state and in itself) is no different from those of the possible things which have not yet been (actualized) by the appearance of the corresponding concrete things in the (phenomenal) world.

When the Absolute ‘desires’ to manifest itself in the archetypes (and through them in the concrete things), there appears first a dark ‘shadow’ upon them. The Divine self-manifestation never occurs unless preceded by the appearance of the ‘shadow’. But if God so wishes at this stage, the ‘shadow’ would be made to ‘stand still’, i.e., it would remain forever in that state of potentiality and would not proceed further toward the level of concrete things. In such a case, the ‘shadow’ would simply be another possible thing just as the archetypes themselves which have no corresponding realities in the outer world.

Ibn Arabi says,

Then We have made the sun its indicator’ (XXV, 45). The sun (which is thus made to be the indicator of the ‘shadow’) is the Divine Name ‘Light’ to which reference has already been made. And the sense bears witness to it (i.e., to the fact that the indicator of the ‘shadow’ in no other than the Light) because shadows have no real existence where there is no light.

Then We withdraw it toward Us with an easy withdrawal (XXV, 46). God withdraws to Himself the ‘shadow’, because it is His ‘shadow’ which He Himself has projected. Thus everything appears from Him and goes back to Him, for it is He, no one else.

Everything you perceive is the Being of the Absolute as it appears through the archetypal essences of the possible things. The same thing, as the He-ness of the Absolute, is its Being, and as the divergence of forms, is the archetypal essence of the possible things.

Just as the name ‘shadow’ does not cease to subsist in it with the divergence of forms. Likewise, the name ‘other than the Absolute’.

In regard to its essential unity in being ‘shadow’, it is the Absolute, for the latter is the Unique, the One. But in regard to the multiplicity of forms, it is the world.

Two opposed aspects of ‘shadow’

This means that the ‘shadow’, as it spreads over the archetypes, can be observed in two opposed aspects: the aspect of fundamental unity and the aspect of diversity. In fact, the ‘shadow’ as any physical shadow in this world is one; and in this aspect it turns toward its source.

Or rather, it is nothing else than the Absolute itself, because it is a direct projection of the Divine Unity (ahadiyyah). But in its second aspect, the same ‘shadow’ is already diversified, and is faced toward the world concrete things; or rather, it is the world itself.

The world in the sense, in which we usually understand it, has no reality; it is but a product of imagination. In this way, Ibn Arabi says,

If the truth is what I have just pointed out to you, the world is an illusion having no real existence in itself. And this is the meaning of imagination. The world, in other word, looks as if it were nothing independent and subsisting by itself outside the Absolute.

So, since the world is, in this way, the ‘shadow’ of the Absolute, it is connected with the latter [the Absolute] with an immediate tie which is never to be loosened. Every single part of the whole world is a particular aspect of the Absolute, and is the Absolute in a state of determination.

Man, being himself a part of the world, and a very special part at that, because of his consciousness, in a position to know intimately, within himself, the relation of the ‘shadow’ to the Absolute. The extent to which a man becomes conscious of this ontological relation determines his degree of ‘knowing’. There naturally result from this several degrees of ‘knowing’.

The Degrees of the ‘Knower’

Ibn Arabi says,

Know your own essence (‘ayn, i.e., your archetypal essence). Know who you are (in your concrete existence) and what your He-ness is. Know how you are related with the Absolute; know in what respect you are the Absolute and in what respect you are the ‘world’, ‘other’ and something ‘different form the Absolute.

This gives rise to a number of degrees among the ‘knower’. Thus some are simply ‘knower’, and some others are ‘knower’ in a higher degree.

Through al-Qashani’s explanation,

The lowest [‘knower’] is represented by those who witness only the aspect of determination and diversification. They see the created world, and nothing beyond.

The second rank is that of those who witness the Unity of Being which is manifested in these forms. They witness the Absolute (but forget about the created world.

The third rank witness both aspects. They witness both the creatures and the Absolute as two aspect of one Reality.

The fourth in degree are those who witness the whole as one Reality diversifying itself according to various aspects and relations, ‘one’ in Essence, ‘all’ with the Names. Those are the people of God [ahlullah] who have the real knowledge of God.

Regarding ‘self-annihilation’ (fanâ’) and ‘self-subsistent’ (baqâ’), al-Qashani says that,

those who witness only the Absolute, losing sight of the creatures, are people who are dominated by ‘self-annihilation’ and ‘unification’, while those who witness the Absolute in the creatures and the creatures in the Absolute are described as people who have obtained a perfect vision in the state of ‘self-subsistence’-after-‘self-annihilation’ and the view of ‘dispersion’-after-unification.

The spiritual degrees

Ibn Arabi compares these spiritual degrees to a naturally colorless light being tinged with various colors as it passes through colored pieces of glass.

The relation of the Absolute to a particular ‘shadow’, small, large, or pure in different degrees, may be compared to the relation of light to a piece of glass intervening between it [light] and the eye of a man who looks at it. The light in such a case assumes the color of the glass, while itself it is colorless. (The colorless light) appears to the sense of sight as colored—a correct comparison for the relation of your own reality with your Lord.

If you say that the light has become green because of the green color of the glass, you are right. This is evidenced by your sense perception. But if you say that the light is not green nor, indeed, of any color at all, you are also right. You are, in this case, following what is given by your logical reasoning. And your judgment is based on the right activity of Reason…

In just the same way, when one of us has realized in himself the Absolute, the Form of the latter appears in him more than it does in others. (He who has realized in himself the Absolute is of two different degrees): the first …a man whose hearing, sight, and other all faculties and bodily members are the Absolute itself in accordance with the teaching of the Revelation concerning the Absolute. …the second is close to the Being of the Absolute than all others.

In this way, al-Qashani makes this point more explicit and precise:

The first is he who has ‘annihilated himself’ from his own attributes in the Attributes of the Absolute so that the Absolute has taken the place of His attributes.

The second is he (who has ‘annihilated himself’) from his own essence in the Essence of the Absolute so that the Absolute has taken the place of his essence… .[] (Extracted from Sufism and Taoism by Toshihiko Izutsu, Chapter VI)

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