In the time of Ibn Arabi it was generally believed that the science of alchemy had been founded by Hermes Trismegistos, the ‘thrice-greatest Hermes’. This epithet originated from an old Egyptian title of Thoth, found in Greek as ‘the greatest and greatest great god’ (megistos kai megistos theos megas), and thereby distinguished him from being confused with the Greek Hermes, messenger of the gods.
In the Hellenistic tradition Hermes Trismegistos was identified with the Egyptian god Thoth (‘He who is like the ibis’), the God of knowledge and wisdom, scribe of the gods/underworld, inventor of writing, the author of all works of science, religion, philosophy and magic – i.e. the priestly arts and sciences.
The Arabs, on the other hand, portrayed Hermes as a primordial Egyptian sage, who founded human religion before the Flood, ascended to the heavenly spheres of the planets and then returned to instruct his people in the sacred arts and sciences, especially astrology, alchemy and medicine.
He was identified with the Quranic figure of Idrīs (considered identical to the biblical figure of Enoch, the great teacher of humankind), a major prophet in the Islamic tradition like Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, and he was said to have been the first to teach writing and the study of books (dars al-kutub).
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. He reviewed it in the light of the Prophet Muhammad’s ascension (miʿrāj). In contrast to those in the philosophical tradition, he followed the Prophet’s example by situating the human prophetic realities rather than the planets at the very centre of the spheres.
Two types of people
Like in the Corpus Hermeticum, Ibn ʿArabī 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’. 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). Both of them seek the knowledge they have heard about, and undertake 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.
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.’
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 Private Face
One of the key distinguishing characteristics of the ‘follower’, which enables him to learn from the prophets directly, is knowledge of what Ibn ʿArabī calls ‘the private divine face’.
The rational thinker, he says, ‘has no knowledge of this face at all’. To know this private face is to possess the elixir of the mystics, because it transforms what appears as outer ‘objective’ experience into inner ‘subjective’ experience.
Everyone has two faces or ways of looking: one towards the single centre of being, which is ‘private’ or special to the individual concerned and constitutes their direct relationship with reality, and one towards the circumference of manifestations, which is shared with others.
The “private face” is something different from the “eye of Nous” or “eyes of the Mind” Hermes mentions in the Corpus Hermeticum. According to Hermes only (some) humans have Nous and therefore can see with the “eye of Nous”.
But Ibn ʿArabī describes how everything that exists in the world has a “private face” to its Creator, and all are given knowledge and are educated through this private face, whether they are aware of it or not. In the hermetica this could be the link that everything has with the “Father” or Demiurg. Through the Father/Demiurg the Logos “flows” through everything and thus links everything in existence with the Father.
Representatives and Messengers
Ibn ʿArabī describes how there is a difference between a Representative and a Messenger:
“Know that the perfection for which the human being is created, which is the [ultimate] object of desire, is really the rank of [divine] representation. It was obtained by Adam through divine providential Grace. It is a more specialised station than [the degree of] messengerhood in the messengers, since not every messenger is a [divine] representative. The only specification for the rank of messenger is announcement, as He says: There is no obligation upon the messenger except to announce. It is not his task to exercise command over one who opposes [him]. Rather, his role is to simply promulgate the ruling that is enacted by God or according to what God causes him to see.”
This is also how the messengerhood of Hermes in CHI: Poimandres is described:
Poimandres: “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?’
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”
The 7 Planets and their Representatives
1st Heaven: Adam – Moon
- The Divine Names.
- Divine Knowledge that relates to the Being of the Real, what forms It takes in them, and in what sense [divine] representation really belongs to this human emergence.
2nd Heaven: Jesus & John – Mercury
- Public speaking
- Word forms and metrical measure
- The beauty that lies in the placement of words and the combining of subjects, and the appearance of one meaning in multiple forms
- The ability to discriminate in the degree of miraculous happenings.
- The science of letter magic, which is based on acting through the letters and names, not on incense, blood-offerings and other things.
- The high rank of words and how there are many meanings contained within a few words.
- The reality of [the word] ‘Be’, how it is a specific word of [divine] Command, not a word of past, present or future.
- The mystery of bringing into being. the knowledge of measure and balance, both natural and spiritual.
- The knowledge through which hearts are revived.
- The theurgical properties of Names that manifest in the elemental world.
- The knowledge of how things are transmuted, and how spiritual states are bestowed upon those who possess them.
3rd Heaven: Joseph – Venus
- The forms of imagery and imagination.
- The science of dream interpretation.
- Knowledge concerning weights and measures, their relationships and origin.
- How meanings and relations are embodied in the form of sense-perception and what is perceived.
- The arts of composition and construction, as well as geometrical forms within material bodies and the way they are imaged in the soul
- The meaning of strong construction and sound execution
- The beauty that contains wisdom by its very existence
- The beauty which is desired by and suitable to a particular temperament.
4th Heaven: Idris – Sun
- The constant transformation of the divine realities
- How night envelops day and day envelops night, and how each of them is masculine towards its companion at one moment andfeminine at another
- The mystery of their marriage and their union
- The science of the unseen and the seen
- The science of the veil and revelation
- The science of life and death, intimacy and ease, friendship and compassion
- What appears of the Name Manifest in the interior places of manifestation by virtue of the private face
- What appears of the Name Hidden in the exterior, due to the aptitudes of the places of manifestation.
5th Heaven: Aaron – Mars
Learning being a representative for humankind. He is ordered to be gentle towards tyrants and oppressors.
6th Heaven: Moses – Jupiter
- Instruction in 12,000 divine sciences
- The sciences of rotation and periodicity.
- That the divine self-disclosure only occurs in the forms of beliefs and needs
- How [apparent] forms can be removed from the substance and other forms can clothe it
- The individual essences, which are the essences of forms, are unalterable
- The science that few people are privy to. It is the inner meaning of what He asked Moses
7th Heaven: Abraham – Saturn
- ‘O you who follow [the prophet], distinguish the levels and recognise the various creeds. Stand upon clear proof from your Lord in your affairs, and do not neglect your tradition, for you are not neglected nor is a legacy bequeathed in vain. Make your heart like this Visited House, by being present with God in every state. Know that of all that you see, nothing is large enough for the Real God except the heart of the believer and that is you!’
- Knowing that everything else apart from humans and jinn is blessed, and does not enter into the misery of the other world.
- Knowing the high esteem accorded to the creation of the human being and the special employment of the two divine Hands in creating Adam, unlike any other creature.
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