hermes trimegistus

Ibn Arabi, Alchemy and Hermeticism

In Islam it is said that Idrīs/Hermes has imparted various philosophical teachings to humankind. These are known as the Hermetic sciences. Here is what the great master Ibn Arabi wrote concerning his tutoring by Hermes:

“I proceed in accordance with how the Idrīsian reality is unveiled. This came about when I examined the states of the philosophers and the traditions they pass on about [Idrīs], and the way they have [formed] different opinions about him. I said to myself: I want to take this matter directly from him and understand what has caused them to go wrong. So I went into a retreat for 36 days, and I came to know the matter from [Idrīs] exactly as it is… I saw how error had affected the ancients because of their own souls: this was because they related what he had said, then they interpreted [it] and held different opinions [about it]. This is just like the way the traditions (ḥadīth) of the Prophet have come to us, and then one person declares permissible what another says is forbidden, based on their capacity to understand what he said.”

Given the ancientness of the Hermes–Idrīs figure as the primordial instructor of humanity, the statement that Ibn ʿArabī received knowledge from him directly through unveiling is quite remarkable.

So, how similar are the insights of Ibn ʿArabī to Hermeticism. Ibn ʿArabī inherited a long tradition of hierarchical correspondence between the macrocosmic universe and the microcosm of the human being, and gave it his own unique twist. Or were his insights not that unique but similar to Hermeticism? Below we post relevant passages from the hermetica besides the insights of Ibn ʿArabī so you, the reader, can decide how similar they are.

Ibn ʿArabī

Ibn ʿArabī (1165–1240), known as Muḥyī al- Dīn (‘The reviver of religion’) and al-Shaykh al-akbar (‘the greatest spiritual master’) needs little introduction. He is one of the most profound mystics and authors in any tradition. His many writings have long been regarded in the Islamic world as essential to the deepest understanding of the nature of Reality
and the possibility of human realisation.

Born in Murcia in south-eastern Spain in 560/1165, Ibn ʿArabī spent the first thirty-five years of his life with various spiritual masters in Seville, Cordoba, Fez and other towns in the Maghrib, before leaving his homeland to go on pilgrimage. He arrived in Mecca in 598/1202 at the age of thirty-seven, and almost immediately began work on what would become his magnum opus, al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya (The Meccan Illuminations), which took several decades to complete.

For this article we look especially to chapter 167, which title is ‘On the inner knowing of the alchemy of human happiness’ (fī maʿrifat kīmiyāʾ al-saʿāda). This chapter of the Futūḥāt Ibn ʿArabī is keen to portray the difference between the mystical and philosophical approaches in stark and dramatic terms: his concern is not with whether this transmutation is possible in physical terms but with the inner transformation that is opened up by the spiritual path.

He seems to have found it particularly important to emphasise that spiritual transformation is real and attainable, but only as a stage beyond what can be reached through the intellect. Ibn ʿArabī uses the principle of transformation or transmutation as the basis for explaining alchemy as a science that is at once physical, spiritual and divine.

He equates the knowledge of alchemy with the return to the original state of what the Quran calls ‘the finest stature’ (aḥsan taqwīm), according to which God created the human being. The juxtaposition of alchemy, ascension and happiness, as well as an almost scientific classification of mystical knowledge, makes this one of the core chapters of the Futūḥāt. It is a tour de force, almost novel-like in its use of characterisation and story-telling.

Earlier mystical writers also viewed alchemy as a means of spiritual transformation: for example, the famous Egyptian Sufi Dhū’l-Nūn al-Miṣrī (d. ca. 245/859), who came from the town of Ikhmīm (Gk. Panopolis), a major centre of Hermetic teaching, is credited with several alchemical treatises drawn from the Graeco-Egyptian Hermes tradition.

Ibn Sab’in

Besides his own writings concerning alchemy and the prophet Idrīs, there is also another link between Ibn ʿArabī en Hermeticism.

In the history of Sufism, there is the very interesting figure of Ibn Sab’in (d. 669 I 1270). This hermetic mystic is often portrayed as ibn al-‘Arabi’s alter ego. Born, like Ibn al-Arabi himself, in the city of Murcia in southeastern Spain. Murcia and the Ricote Valley was at that time a hotbed of Hermeticism.

The heterodox (hermetic) views of Ibn Sab’in were used to criticize the Shaykh al-Akbar’s doctrines, although the latter was born a full generation before lbn Sab’in and apparently had no direct influence on his thought.

To cite but one example: it seems to have been lbn Sab’in, and not lbn al-Arabi, who first coined the term ‘oneness of existence’ (wahdat al-wujud). However, it is lbn al-‘Arabi, and not lbn Sab’in, who is made to take the blame for this concept by orthodox Muslims.

An ordered Cosmos

Alchemy relies on the idea that the universe is a beautifully ordered place, where the original infinite and indeterminate state of Being has been differentiated into an order of knowable patterns, revealing truths about the world and about human beings. The essential Unity of all things is one substance, and all the varied physical bodies and forms are manifestations of that substance.

Hermes: “If you show yourself able to understand it your whole mind will be completely filled with all that is good, that is if there are many good things and not one only in which all are held. Indeed, one can see that these alternatives are consistent with each other; either all things are of one, or they are one. The two propositions are so linked that it is impossible to separate one from the other.

Asclepius 1

This cosmic order is observable in the interactions of the four elements (earth, water, air and ether/fire). These arise out of the same substance (materia prima).

Hermes: “The elements, then, by which the whole cosmos has been formed are four: fire, water, earth, air. The cosmos is one, the soul is one, God is one.

Asclepius 3

Each element is regarded as having two qualities or humours: earth is cold and dry; water is cold and wet; air is hot and wet; ether/fire is hot and dry. The four elements are considered to be different forms or appearances of prime matter, so that all visible, material things are a specific combination of hotness, dryness, coldness and wetness. A thing’s appearance in one form does not preclude its transmutation into another.

Hermes: “The cosmos has been prepared by God as a receptacle for forms of all kinds. Nature, then, impresses forms on matter by means of the four elements, and leads all things to heaven so that they will be pleasing in the sight of God.

Asclepius 3

Hermes: “God is the Father of the cosmos, the cosmos is the father of those within the cosmos, the cosmos is the son of God, and those within the cosmos have been created by the cosmos. The cosmos has been aptly-named ‘order’; for it gives order to all things through the diversity of their origin and the continuity of life, through untiring activity and the speed of desire, through the shadow of the elements and the giving of order to what comes into being. That it should be called ‘order’ is both necessary and fitting.

Corpus Hermeticum IX.8

Macrocosm and microcosm

According to Ibn Arabi there is in alchemy a close and important correspondence between macrocosm and microcosm. Both the universe (‘the great world’, al-ʿālam al-kabīr) and the human being (‘the small world’, al-ʿālam al-ṣaghīr) are expressions of the same reality.

Indeed these correspondences link what might otherwise appear as disparate worlds (the world of heaven/planets and the world of earth/elements, the universe ‘out there ’ and the human individual consciousness), and thus the science of astrology developed as the key to understanding the formation and transmutation of elements and metals.

Hermes: “Thus the spiritual world depends upon God and the physical world on the spiritual, and through the spiritual and physical world the Sun receives from God a flow of consciousness, that is of creative power [tau agathou). Around the Sun are the eIght spheres, who depend on it; first is the sphere of the fixed stars, then the six of the planets and the one that encircles the earth. The spiritual powers depend on the spheres, and men upon the spIritual powers. Thus all things and all men are dependent upon God.

Corpus Hermeticum XVI.17

In alchemy there is also the idea that there is a single substance which splits into two progenitors. This directly parallels the human creation which is spoken of in the Quran as deriving from Adam:

‘O humankind, fear your Lord, who created you [all] from a single soul, and who created from it its fellow, and who spread many men and women from the two of them.’

Poimandres: “On completion of the cycle, the bond of all was loosed according to the will of God, for all living beings, which were of both genders, were parted asunder at the same time as Man and became in tum male and female.

Hermes: “Every separate soul goes through transformations, my son.
Tat: “What do you mean by ‘separate’?
Hermes: “Have you not heard in the general teaching that all the souls which wander around the whole cosmos, as if separate, are from a single soul, the soul of all?”Corpus Hermeticum X.7

Corpus Hermeticum I.18

In both the human and the universe itself, the crucial factor was to understand how a multitude of different forms could have come about from one Origin. In numerical terms, this is identical to the Pythagorean understanding of the way in which the number 1 is doubled to become 2, and how from that principal division all number proceeds.

Hermes: “Therefore the One is the origin and comprehends all’ by number, without being
comprehended by any number, and being the producer of all things by number, is not itself produced by any other number.

Corpus Hermeticum IV.10

The Elixir

According to Ibn Arabi the prime agent employed by the alchemist in the transmutation process was known as the elixir (from the Arabic al-iksīr). This was referred to by various pseudonyms including the philosophers’ stone (ḥajar al-falāsifa or ḥajar al-ḥukamāʾ). There were two versions: a white elixir (al-iksīr al-abyaḍ), equivalent to the moon, which transmuted copper into silver, and a red elixir (al-iksīr al-aḥmar), equivalent to the sun, which converted silver into gold.

Hermes: “‘Now heaven, the manifest god, directs all bodies, whose increase and decrease the sun and moon determine. But heaven and the soul itself, along with all that is in the cosmos are in turn governed by Him who has created them: this is God.

Asclepius 3

The red elixir was also known as the red sulphur (al-kibrīt al-aḥmar), and became a technical term for designating the transformational action of a true spiritual master. Ibn ʿArabī uses the term in the Tadbīrāt in the context of what he calls ‘the revered stone’ (al-ḥajar al-mukarram), which ‘is found in every existent and in every thing’ and is identical to the elixir. He himself was later referred to as ‘the red sulphur’ in recognition of his mastery of spiritual alchemy.

Therefore don’t be carried down by the great flood, but make use of the tide. Let those of you who can find the safe harbour bring your ship in, and seek one who will lead you by the hand to the gates of the knowledge in your heart. There is the bright light, clear of darkness, where no one gets drunk, but all are sober, looking with the heart to Him who wills to be seen.

Corpus Hermeticum VII.2

The healing of a sick person was understood to be the transmutation of a sick body into a healthy one; the transmutation of copper into gold was understood to be the healing of a sick metal and imparting health to it; the healing of a sick mind or spirit was understood to be the completing of human purpose here in this life, so that the human being can really become God’s vicegerent or representative (khalīfa) on earth.

Hermes: “The will of God is the greatest perfection since willing and accomplishing are complete in the same instant of time. Thus He made human beings of His own essence.He perceived that they would not be able to love and care for all things unless He protected them with a material covering. So God sheltered them with a corporeal dwelling place and ordained the same for all human beings, and in just proportion He mixed and blended two natures into one. Thus God formed human beings of both spirit and body, that is, of both eternal and mortal nature, so that being thus formed they could do justice to their twofold origin: they could wonder at and adore the celestial, while they could also care for and
manage the things on earth.

Asclepius 8

This correspondence is the basis of Ibn ʿArabī’s exposition linking the process and goal of alchemy to the aim of the spiritual path, true human happiness and perfection.


The purpose of alchemy (kīmiyāʾ) is happiness (saʿāda). The English word ‘happiness’ does not really convey the depth of the Arabic, which draws both on the Quranic usage (those who are ‘happy’ as opposed to those who are ‘unhappy’, terms linked directly to the afterlife) and a long tradition stretching back to the Greek idea of eudaimonia (usually translated as ‘happiness’ but also as ‘human flourishing’ or fulfilment).

Happiness in this context is something to be striven for in this world, not simply as an ethical excellence that is part of a good life but as the fulfilling of one’s potential as a human being capable of knowing God.

Hermes: “I engraved in myself the beneficent kindness of Poimandres and having been filled with what I desired, I was delighted. For the sleep of the body became the sobriety of the soul, the closing of the eyes became true vision, my silence became pregnant with the Supreme Good, and the utterance of the Word became the generation of riches.

Corpus Hermeticum I.30

In stating that ‘all happiness lies in knowing God’, Ibn ʿArabī emphasises the crucial importance of knowledge and of recognising God in every divine manifestation, in other words in whatever form or Name that He reveals Himself through. It is the attainment of perfection that is the central issue of the alchemy of happiness:

Ibn Arabi: “…. not everyone who has found happiness is accorded perfection, for while all who are perfect are happy, not every happy one is perfect. Perfection means reaching and joining with the highest degree, and that is assuming the likeness of the Source.

Hermes: “Thus, O Asclepius, Man is a great miracle, a being to be adored and honoured. He passes into the nature of God as though he were God.He understands the race of daemons as he knows that he originates from the same source. He views with contempt that part of nature in himself which is human since he has put his entire trust in the divinity of the other part. How much happier is the nature of a man when it is tempered by self-control! He is united to the gods through a common divinity. He inwardly despises that part of himself by which he is earthbound. All other beings, to whom he knows he is necessary through divine dispensation, he binds to himself in a knot of love. He raises his sight to heaven while he takes care of the earth. Thus he is in the fortunate middle position: he loves those things that are below him and is beloved by the beings above.

Asclepius 6


In the hermetica the divine primal man is called Anthropos. It is the entity that has the closest relationship to the Divine. The Divine loves primal man (Anthropos), most of all creatures. Primal man is created according to his father’s image. Androgynous and divine, he descends through the levels of reality:

Mind (Nous), the father of all, who is life and light, gave birth to a man (Anthropos) like himselfwhom he lovedas his own child. The man was most fair: he had the father’s image; and god, who was really in love with his own form, bestawed on him all his craftworks.

Corpus Hermeticum I:9

Ibn Arabi also uses different names for humans. A basic or debased person is called “bashar’, whose humanity is only skin-deep. A fully developed human is called “insān”, who is familiar with every aspect of reality and has assumed the divine likeness.

In the hermetica we also read that every Man (Anthropos) has something divine in him The word here implies “true” humans who are able to attain gnosis. Humans who cannot attain gnosis are called ‘people’, which entails the use of other words to describe the larger “ignorant” mass of humans.

The (also from Andalusia!) Jewish author Yahu-dā ha-Levi (d. 1141) characterized in his Arabic dialogue Kitāb ar-Radd wa-d-dalīl, the “nameless philosopher” as holding that those who obtain union with the angelic Active Intellect (Gr. Nous), after reaching the rank of “the perfect human” (al-insān al-kāmil), will become one with that angel and join the company of the other philosophers who previously obtained the same intellectual union, including Hermes, Asclepius, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

Ibn ʿArabī introduces his theme by outlining two distinct kinds of alchemy, which he calls ‘origination’ and ‘elimination of defect and ailment’. The first is a creative process whereby things come into being according to their inherent nature; the second implies that the natural process of development has been hampered in some way by an accidental sickness or ill-health, and requires a therapeutic intervention.

Tat: “Do I have tormentors within me, O father?
Hermes: “More than a few, O son. In fact there are many and they are fearsome.
Tat: “I am not aware of them, O father.
Hermes: “This ignorance, O son, is the first of these tormentors.

Corpus Hermeticum XIII:7

To eliminate the defect requires the special art of the alchemist, who understands the cosmic order and works with it to bring things back into balance.

Hermes: “Rejoice now, O son, being thoroughly cleansed by the powers of God, you are thus united with the Word. Knowledge of God has come to us, and therefore ignorance has been banished. Experience of joy has come to us, and therefore, O son, sorrow will flee to those who give place to it.

Corpus Hermeticum XIII.8

Hermes: “You know now, O son, the manner of rebirth. And with the arrival of these ten, spiritual birth is complete and it drives out the twelve, and by this birth we have become divine.

Corpus Hermeticum XIII.10

One of the major features of Ibn ʿArabī’s approach is that he starts with wholeness and integration. The development or evolution of the human being towards perfection is seen not simply as a process that involves going from ignorance to knowledge, or clearing obstacles on the way to a future happiness, but as beginning and being rooted in an already existing perfection or wholeness.

Tat: “O father, I see the All and I see myself in Nous.
Hermes: “This is rebirth, O son, no longer to picture oneself with regard to the three dimensional body. This is the gift of the teaching on rebirth, which I have expounded, so that we do not mIsrepresent the All to the many, but give it to those whom God
himself wills.

Corpus Hermeticum XIII:13

In alchemical terms, the original metallic ore precedes all the possible forms of its existence, and its journey in time and space is a process of realising its full potential, which is gold. He finds corroboration for this standpoint in the Quranic saying ‘He gave to everything its nature and then He guided it’, where a thing is created whole and perfect and then begins its development and completion in time, under the aegis of divine guidance.

“I will offer up the praise in my heart, as I pray to the end of the universe and the beginning of the beginning, to the object of man’s quest, the immortal discovery, the begetter of light and truth, the sower of reason, the love of immortal life.”

The Discourse on the Eight and Ninth

In human terms, this development culminates in the degree of completion (kamāl), which is being God’s representative (khalīfa) on earth, or acting in the full likeness of the divine image, according to which the human is created. This completion is explained by one who has already attained, and who has returned to act as instructor for those in a lower state of development, who are starting to undertake such an inner journey.

Hermes: “I have come out of my former self into an immortal body. I am not now what I
was before. For I have been born in Nous. Such a thing is not taught, nor can it be seen by the physical body. So I have no interest in my former physical form, for I am without colour and cannot be touched or measured; I am a stranger to these. Now you see me with your eyes, as something which you understand through body and sight, but I am not now beheld with these eyes, O son.

Corpus Hermeticum XIII.3

Another theme is how the human being should travel to reach completion. It can only be achieved through a process of spiritual ascension (miʿrāj), returning from the lowest of the low to the full height ‘for which the human being is created’.

In Ibn ʿArabī’s depiction, the ascent passes through all the degrees of existence in a re-enactment of the Prophet Muhammad’s ascension through the seven heavens and beyond. As the Quran puts it, ‘Glory be to Him Who made His servant journey by night from the Sacred Mosque to the Furthest Mosque, whose neighbourhood We have blessed, to show him some of Our Signs.

Hermes: “You have taught me these things well, as I wished, O Nous. Now tell me how the way back is found?
To this Poimandres replied: “First, in the dissolution of the material body, one gives the body itself up to change. The form you had becomes unseen, and you surrender to the divine power your habitual character, now inactive. The bodily senses return to their own sources. Then they become parts again and rise for action, while the seat of emotions and desire go to mechanical nature. Thus a man starts to rise up through the harmony of the cosmos.

Corpus Hermeticum I.24-25

Unlike previous mystics such as Abū Yazīd al-Bisṭāmī, Ibn ʿArabī is particularly faithful to the Prophet’s example. For him, this was not simply a metaphorical journey, which each replicates in their own unique fashion, but one that follows the prophetic model most precisely.

The heavenly journey experienced by the mystic in the course of following in the Prophet’s footsteps is a graphic depiction of a central principle: the process of return to and union with Reality, whilst still living in this world. It is a voyage of vision, and of realising the truth of one’s being in a way utterly different to any other kind of knowledge.

“Then in due order, they ascend to the Father and they surrender themselves to the
powers, and becoming the powers they are merged in God. This is the end, the Supreme Good, for those who have had the higher knowledge: to become God.
Well then, why do you delay? Should you not, having received all, become the guide to those who are worthy, so that the human race may be saved by God through you?”

Corpus Hermeticum I.26

The ascension takes place where the level of earth ends, beyond the four elements of this world. It begins with the first heaven or sphere of the moon, which is under the spiritual rulership of the prophet Adam, and continues through the various heavens up to the seventh, where Abraham resides.

These heavenly spheres were regarded as one nested with another, and as spherical in shape. Then the traveller passes beyond into realms that are unlimited in scope and portray successive universal principles.

Elsewhere Ibn ʿArabī reminds his readers that all vision and ascension is actually a two-sided affair:

‘vision of the True God only occurs in a mutual encounter comprising an ascent and a descent. The ascending is from our side, the descending is from Him.’

Mutual ‘confronting’ (munāzala), the face-to-face encounter between the divine and the human, is a movement that involves both parties. It occurs within the realm of Imagination, where meaning and form interpenetrate each other.

“But it brings all images to the mind in imagination. Things that are begotten belong only to imagination. For imagination is nothing but begetting.”Corpus Hermeticum V.1

All the 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’ which He reveals.

Hermes: “It is plain that the One is unborn and not imagined and it is unmanifest, but it appears as all kinds of images, through all and in all and chiefly to those to whom it wishes to appear.

Corpus Hermeticum V.2

Hermes : “If you are strong enough, He will appear to the eye of Nous, O Tat. For the Lord appears in His bounty throughout the whole universe.

Corpus Hermeticum V.2

On the one hand, this entails an endless journey of revelation, in which there is no repetition. On the other, specific degrees or levels of existence need to be delineated, so that the journey can be characterised as having a beginning, middle and end.

The Two Travellers

While the ascension motif appears in various forms in Ibn ʿArabī’s different writings, and we find mystical transmutation as a central theme throughout Ibn ʿArabī’s life, Ibn ʿArabī depicts the ascent in chapter 167 in a most unusual way. The emphasis is on two specific modes of spiritual travelling and learning, the mode of intellectual endeavour and the mode of spiritual insight.

Hermes: “O Asclepius, these things will seem true to you if you understand them, but if you remain ignorant they are beyond belief. To understand them is to take them as true, and not to understand them is to take them as untrue. My discourse leads to the truth; the mind is great, and guided by this teaching may arrive at the truth. When the mind has comprehended all things and found them to be in harmony with what has been expounded by the teaching, it takes them to be true and comes to rest in that beautiful truth. Those who understand through God hold what has just been spoken to be true, but those who do not understand do not believe it.

Corpus Hermeticum X.10

Hermes gained a special appeal for the twelfth- and thirteenth-century philosophers who blended spiritual exercises and elements of Sufism – including an exaltation of transcendent, direct experience of the truth (Dawq) over the truth obtained through the application of reason — with the Aristotelian philosophy systematized by Ibn Sīnā.

Hermes: “Now I will speak to you as a prophet: after us there will be no one who has that simple love, which is the nature of philosophy. This consists in frequent contemplation and reverent worship by which alone the divinity may be known. Many destroy philosophy by their multifarious reasoning.

Asclepius 12

First of all, Ibn ʿArabī describes how people question their existence and seek the meaning of being in charge of a body. Who or what has created them in this way? What kind of Being is He or She? Then he portrays the coming of a prophetic figure whose role is to instruct people in ‘sound knowledge’, and ‘to clarify for them the way of knowledge that leads to Him’.

Hermes: “Having said that to me, Poimandres mingled with the powers. When I had thanked and praised the Father of the All, I was freed by him, having been strengthened and instructed in the nature of all and in the most high vision, and I began to proclaim to men the beauty of piety and knowledge: ‘O people, men born of the earth, who have given yourselves over to drink and sleep, and to ignorance of God, be sober, cease being intoxicated, cease being beguiled by dull sleep.‘”

Corpus Hermeticum I.27

This instructor is met with two reactions: one of acceptance and a desire to learn from the instructor, and one of scepticism and a desire to learn for oneself, without reference to anything but reason. Ibn ʿArabī characterises the first as an ‘imitator’ (muqallid) or ‘follower’ (tābiʿ), and the second as a ‘rational thinker’ or ‘speculative theoretician’ (ṣāḥib al-naẓar).

Hermes: “Those who heard came to my side with one accord. I said: ‘Why, O men born of earth, have you given yourselves over to death while having the power to partake of immortality? Repent. You who have kept company with those who have wandered and have shared in ignorance, be released from the dark light, take part in immortality. Put an end to destruction.’
Some of them kept on chattering and stood aloof, giving themselves over to the path of death; others begged to be instructed, having thrown themselves at my feet. Lifting them up, I became the guide of the race, teaching the words of God, how they could be saved. I sowed in them the words of wisdom and they were nourished by the water of immortality.

Corpus Hermeticum I.28-29

Both the ‘imitator’ and the ‘rational thinker’ seek the knowledge they have heard about, and undertake in Chapter 167 a journey of ascent together. The follower, who is shown reality through the ‘private face’, is given preferential treatment by the prophet who rules over each heaven, whereas the rational thinker is left increasingly out in the cold as he rises through the heavens and finds only the planets and what they can teach him.

This has very strong echoes of the famous story of his own meeting with the great philosopher Ibn Rushd (d. 595/1198) in Cordoba, especially the question that Ibn Rushd posed to the young Ibn ʿArabī:

“What kind of solution have you found through divine unveiling and illumination? Is it identical with what we have reached through speculative thought?”

His question is entirely reasonable, whether the intellect is equal in scope to mystical illumination and can afford the same results, and within the terms of the human mind, the answer to be expected should be either a simple Yes or a clear No.

The reply given by the young Ibn ʿArabī indicates unequivocally that revelation is simultaneously reasonable and beyond reason:

“Yes and No.”

The doubts implicit in the theoretical view, which is of necessity limited, are annihilated in the shift to seeing or being informed with the certainty of direct experience.

As these two figures are central to the story that Ibn ʿArabī tells in chapter 167, it is worth examining more deeply what he might mean by them. At first sight the ‘follower’ and the ‘rational thinker’ appear to be personifying a simple conflict between belief and reason.

Hermes: “O Asclepius, these things will seem true to you if you understand them, but if you remain ignorant they are beyond belief. To understand them is to take them as true, and not to understand them is to take them as untrue. My discourse leads to the truth; the mind is great, and guided by this teaching may arrive at the truth. When the mind has comprehended all things and found them to be in harmony with what has been expounded by the teaching, it takes them to be true and comes to rest in that beautiful truth. Those who understand through God hold what has just been spoken to be true, but those who do not understand do not believe it.

Corpus Hermeticum X.10

In modern times, especially in Western societies where church and state have long been separated, and where scientific endeavour and reason are normally regarded as paramount in underpinning civilisation and culture, religious belief has less hold on society and tends to be treated more as an individual matter of conscience.

When the simplistic polarity of religion versus rationality or fundamentalism versus science appears, most educated people today naturally opt for the latter. It was not always so: in Ibn ʿArabī’s day there was no sense of science divorced from religion, and it was unthinkable for any medieval society to have functioned fully without reference to the civilising effects of religion.

What Ibn ʿArabī is really pointing to with these two figures is less an external dichotomy of religious belief versus rational thought (mental structures which are subject to change over time), and more a fundamental internal framework for understanding the reality of the self and the world, and how learning takes place.

Hermes: “….upon us you have bestowed these powers: perception, reason and intelligence; perception, that we may recognise you; reason, that we may follow up our intuition, and knowledge, that in knowing you we may find joy.

Ascelpius Prayer of Thanksgiving

In other words, this dichotomy is very much part of everybody’s experience. For example, when we are presented with some new understanding, there are two possible approaches: either to accept it as coming from beyond our current perspective and seek to know it on its own terms, or to try to shape it into the knowledge that we already have.

The ‘imitator’ pursues the first course, something that everyone does when learning their first language as a baby, absorbing by copying their mother and father and other adults – this direct imitation is sometimes called ‘mimesis’ and relies on accepting things as they arise. It is a fundamental ingredient in successful learning. However, mimesis is not the only factor in learning, and the learning process does not stop with simple imitation.

Hermes: “Therefore He made humankind to be an imitator of His reason and loving care.

Asclepius 8

The kind of ‘imitation’ or ‘following’ that Ibn ʿArabī intends here is not slavish copying without any understanding, nor simply believing something to be so, but a constant exercise of open receptivity and imaginative identification.

In Ibn ʿArabī’s account of the two travellers, the rationalist only succeeds in knowing and understanding the universe of planets or planetary bodies, i.e. how the planets affect the material realm (as in astrology), while the mimetic follower is educated by the prophets into various truths about the nature of Reality, and is allowed to travel into regions closed off to the rational mind, such as being ‘plunged into the supreme light, where love-ecstasy overcomes him.

Hermes: “Those men who come after us will be deceived by cunning sophists and turned aside from true, pure and holy philosophy. To worship the Supreme Being with single mind and heart and to reverence what has been made of his substance, to render thanks to the divine will, which alone is infinitely full of the Good: this is a philosophy that has not been dishonoured by the perverse curiosity of the mind.

Asclepius 14

As a result the mystic encounters God in everything, and in a shining rejoicing realises the real meaning of Unity: in Ibn ʿArabī’s words, the soul realises that:

‘she has seen Him only through Himself, not through herself, and that she loves Him only through Him, not through herself, since in reality He is the One who loves Himself.’

The follower’s journey ends with a return to the world, but along a path that has never been travelled before, while the rational thinker returns in the same way that he ascended. In other words, the follower has been transformed alchemically the first time round, while the rational thinker remains the same and simply gains some additional knowledge – the thinker doesn’t move beyond his condition of Sisyphean labour until he takes the path of following and direct self-knowledge.

What Ibn ʿArabī also alludes to, by speaking of the two figures undertaking their journey together and the rational thinker returning to the beginning and re-ascending in the manner of a follower, is what we in the modern world might refer to as a rebalancing of the brain in a new vision of reality.

“You have observed correctly,’ he said. ‘But why does he who has remembered himself go to the Father, as the Word of God says?’
I replied, ‘Because the Father of all is constituted out of light and life, whence Man has been begotten.’
Poimandres then said, ‘The truth isn: light and life is God and Father, whence Man is begotten. If, therefore, you realise yourself as being from life and light and that you have been made out of them, you will return to life.’
‘But tell me further, how I shall return to life, my Nous? For God declares: Let the man endowed with Nous remember himself.’”

Corpus Hermeticum I.20-21
THE WAY OF HERMES New Translations of The Copus Henneticum and The Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius, CLEMENT SALAMAN, DORINE VAN OVEN, WILLIAM D. WHARTON, JEAN-PIERRE MAHE, Inner Traditions
The Alchemy of Human Happiness (Mystical Treatises of Muhyiddin Ibn Ara) by Stephen Hirtenstein, Anqa Publishing

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