Bridges to Human Potential: Ibn ‘Arabi and William James

Peter Coates, Poetics of Science Seminars at the Chisholme Institute 2017

Biographhical Details:

Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240) is one of the world’s great spiritual teachers.
Ibn ‘Arabi was born in Murcia, Al-Andalus in 1165 and his writings had an immense impact throughout the Islamic world and beyond. The universal idea underlying his thought are of immediate relevance today.

William James (1842-1910) was an American psychologist and philosopher who is often regarded as a founder figure of modern psychology. Although ‘psychology in the twentieth century frequently ignored or discounted mystical experience’, James himself was convinced of its importance. In his classic book “The Varieties of Religious Experience” James defends the fundamental value of the experience of the mystical. He is perhaps most famous as the inaugurator of the Science of Psychology in America with his insistence on the importance of brain science. However, he eventually abandoned his interest in Psychology in favour of more philosophical/mystical interests in Pragmatism and Radical Empiricism. He came finally to regard Psychology as that ‘nasty little subject; all one caress to know lies outside it ’. His brother was Henry James the novelist and his sister Alice was a diarist. William James also took ‘a medical degree from Harvard in 1869’, but never practiced.

Preliminary Remarks:
The term ‘mystical’ first came to my attention even before I was an undergraduate when I came across this intriguing line in Ludwig Wittgenstein’ s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus :
There are, indeed, things which cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical. (Wittgenstein 6.522 Tractatus)

I have since always preferred the term ‘mystical’ to the description ‘mysticism’ on the grounds that when we delve deeply into the realm of the mystical it seems we are far from anything we would call an ‘ism’: for we are in the realm of ‘the inexpressible’: which can be talked about but whose reality is infinitely beyond what can be said.
William James himself further suggests that ‘the words “mysticism” or “mystical” are often used as terms of mere reproach, to throw at any opinion which we regard as vague and vast and sentimental, and without base in either fact or logic. So to keep it useful by restricting it, I propose four marks which, when an experience has them, may justify us in calling it mystical... in this way we shall save verbal disputation, and the recriminations that generally go therewith’. These are: Ineffability, Noetic Quality, Transiency, Passivity.

We can note some of these markers of the mystical in English Literature consider the following:

Moreover, something is or seems
That touches me with mystic gleams
Like glimpses of forgotten dreams –
something felt, like something here;
something done, I know not where;
Such as no language may declare.

(Alfred Lord Tennyson)

To see a World in a Grain of Sand,
And heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

(William Blake)

There was a time when meadow, grove and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem,
Apparell’d in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream
It is not now as it has been of yore -
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

(William Wordsworth - Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood)

In Defence of the Mystical

Having set the scene a little I would like to begin by noting that it was some considerable time ago (at least thirty years , I think) that I presented a paper on William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience to the Annual General Meeting of the Ibn ‘Arabi Society held in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. To this day I cannot remember any of the specific details of that paper of which unfortunately I did not keep a copy. But what I do remember clearly is that it drew on important parallels of content and focus which exist between the Twelfth-Century writings of Ibn ‘Arabi and the Twentieth-Century Gifford Lectures of William James. Recently I have had reason to re-visit James’s Gifford Lectures which, of course, themselves constitute the entire content of The Varieties.

In delving into the meaning of the term Unity of Existence - a term traditionally used to describe the mystical philosophy of Ibn ‘Arabi - it will be useful and interesting to re-consider the memorable insights into the foundations of religious and mystical experience elucidated by Willam James. Two of his Gifford Lectures (XV1 and XV11) deal directly with the topic of Mysticism. As far as I can tell James had not come across the work of Ibn ‘Arabi for in 1902, when The Varieties was first published, there was little (if anything) of Ibn ‘Arabi writings available in English. Nevertheless, James does (in a couple of passages) briefly acknowledge the Sufi mystical tradition in Islam. He quotes from Al-Ghazzali (the Eleventh Century Persian philosopher and theologian) and reminds us that ‘We Christians know little of Sufism, for its secrets are disclosed only to those initiated. To give its existence a certain liveliness in your minds, I will quote a Moslem document, and pass away from the subject’.

In this respect times have certainly changed. There has been a considerable resurgence of interest in Ibn ‘Arabi in recent times including major translations of his works, numerous conferences and symposia across the globe, the internationally recognised work of the Ibn ‘Arabi Society in Oxford and the establishment, again in Oxford, of the speecialist Anqa Publishing House. These developments have also coincided with the widespread interest in the mystical writings of Rumi, particularly in America. In the UK there is also the Chisholme Institute (formerly named the Beshara Schoo)l in the Scottish Borders where I myself and many others were introduced to the mystical philosophy of Ibn ‘Arabi.

Of course, all this development came well after the time William James delivered the Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh. But we can surmise, given James’s self-professed openness to the mystical foundations of religious experience, that he would have found the writings of Ibn ‘Arabi an indelible source of information (and possibly inspiration) for his own investigations.

James says unequivocally: ‘ In these lectures the ground I am taking is this : the mother sea and fountain-head of all religions lie in the mystical experiences of the individual, taking the word mystical in a very wide sense. All theologies and all ecclesiasticalisms are secondary growths superimposed....[but the original experiences]…..belong to a deeper region, and more vital and practical than the intellect inhabits’. James further notes ‘that no adequate report’ of the contents of mystical experience ‘can be given in words’ and ‘it follows that its quality must be directly experienced’….one must have musical ears to know the value of a symphony…one must have been in love one’s self to understand a lover’s mind’. Here James picks upon the necessary directness of mystical experience the value of which cannot be communicated to someone who has never had such an experience or some intimation of it. Ibn ‘Arabi says in similar vein : ‘Knowledge of mystical states can only be had by actual experience, nor can the reason of man define it, nor arrive at any cognisance of it by deduction, as is also the case with knowledge of the taste of honey, the bitterness of patience, the bliss of sexual union, love, passion or desire, all of which cannot be known unless one be properly qualified or experience them directly’.

Whilst these two statements have some clear convergence it is important to note that William James and Ibn ‘Arabi stand in very different relationships to the material-content revealed in mystical experience. James emphasises that his own experience is second-hand ; whereas for Ibn ‘Arabi it is decidedly first-hand. Biographically, James recounts that ‘his own constitution’ shuts him out ‘from their enjoyment almost entirely….But though forced to look upon the subject so externally, I will be as objective and receptive as I can; and think I shall at least succeed in convincing you of the reality of the states in question, and the paramount importance of their function’. This ‘externality’ of James’s viewpoint contrasts vividly with Ibn ‘Arabi’s own biographical comment: ‘In what I have written, I have never had a set purpose , as other writers. Flashes of divine inspiration used to come upon me and almost overwhelm me, so that I could only put them from my mind by committing to paper what they revealed to me. If my works evince any form of composition it was unintentional. Some works I wrote at the command of God, sent to me in sleep or through mystical revelation’.

But in spite of James’s admission of an almost entire lack of first-hand experience of mystical states his compelling treatment of mysticism outlined in The Varieties leads him to conclude that the ‘existence of mystical states absolutely overthrows the pretension of non-mystical states to be the sole and ultimate dictators of what we may believe’. In spite of this important difference between the stance of James and Ibn ‘Arabi William James undoubtedly seeks to validate the importance and authenticity of genuine mystical experience because of his personal inclination towards it . And by mystical states here James takes a very broad view which would include not only religious mysticism but secular mysticism, (such as the nature-mysticism of a D.H. Lawrence or a Thomas Hardy or the ‘higher pantheism’ of a Alfred Lord Tennyson) and also a sense of ‘cosmic consciousness’ in general. James is dismissive of what he refers to as a reductionist ‘medical materialism’ which insists that mystical states are no more than merely states-of-the-brain (even regarded as aberrant, neurotic states perhaps!!). If this were true, says James, it would require us to explain away science in the same manner. States- of-the -brain tell us little, if nothing, about the meaning and value of our ideals. William James (as one of the most famous pioneers and advocates of the importance of brain-science) was well aware of this point. The first chapter of The Varieties deals with the question of religion and neurology largely along these lines.

James sees mysticism, in all its varieties, as the most personal and direct aspect of religious consciousness and adds that the founders of religion ’owed their power originally to the fact of their direct personal communion with the divine’. He additionally says of this personal aspect of religion that ‘the individual transacts the business by himself alone: the ecclesiastical organization, with its priest and sacraments and other go-betweens, sinks to an altogether secondary place. The relation goes direct from heart to heart, from soul to soul, between man and his maker’. At the heart of religious mysticism is an unmediated communication between God and Man. This is reminiscent of Ibn ‘Arabi’s advice to the would- be searcher: ‘If you will shut out the world from you, sever all ties and take the Bounteous alone as you companion, He will speak with you without the need of any intermediary’.

It is abundantly clear that Ibn ‘Arabi’s whole corpus is premised on a universal message of hope to human kind. Or, at least, to those who would benefit from it. It is a recommendation to self-knowledge: that kind of knowledge which requires us to delve deeply into the experience of our interior lives. This intrinsic process of self-knowledge is potentially transformative: it opens up like a discovery new vistas of ourselves and ‘unto the horizons’. For James, such new vistas can only be authoritative for the person who has them. While this may be true for some , nevertheless for Ibn ‘Arabi the situation is not a closed-book: such a possibility of transformation is at the very core of what it is to be human and embraces man’s totality and not just a part of man. Of course, there may be ‘different views’ from ‘different mystical windows’. On consideration of this point I quote William James in full:

[This] wider world….would have its celestial and infernal regions, its tempting and its saving moments, it valid experiences and its counterfeit ones, just as our world has them; but it would be a wider world all the same…..we should be liable to error just as we are now; yet the counting in of that wider world of meanings, and the serious dealing with it, might, in spite of all the perplexity, be indispensable stages in our approach to the final fullness of truth’.

The final fullness of truth would be another way of describing of what Ibn ‘Arabi’s invitation to self-knowledge is centrally about. If one wants an account of the extraordinary vicissitudes of the mystical journey you could read nothing better than the poetry of Ibn ‘Arabi’s Tarjuman Ashwaq : Interpreter of Ardent Desires. But all these journeyings of the mystic constantly circle around the centre point of the circle from which they issue. They are all Self-disclosures of God in His love to be known and although unique to each they are, in principle, realisable by others ‘who would look further into the depths of [their]own interior’.

James himself was very much influenced by the concept of the ‘Subconscious’ which he saw as the repository from which all religious phenomena sprang . He asserts that ‘In persons deep in the religious life..the door into this region is unusually wide open’ and he further remarks ‘That the further limits of our being plunge into an altogether other dimension of existence from the sensible and merely “understandable” world’. In this subconscious dimension we have the source of religious visions, dreams and feelings as well as the source of pathological states like delusional insanity, paranoia and the like. His philosophical pragmaticism leads him to conclude that the difference between the ‘real’ and the ‘unreal’ - between ‘the pathological and the truly divine states of mystical consciousness’ is to be assessed by its consequences or ‘fruits’ - “by their fruits ye shall know them”.

For Ibn ‘Arabi, by contrast, the only fundamental and axiomatic safeguard against all forms of falseness, self-deception and the fruits of egoism is that, as we read in his Bequest, “I entrust to you a bequest, and I wish [with all my heart] that you may safeguard it. It is my way with God the Most High, and it is that you should never ever ever abandon your servanthood……’ And this applies to whatever state we are in or whatever ever circumstance, be it regarded as mystical or non-mystical. In fact, because Ibn ‘Arabi regards the whole of reality as being revelatory or theophanic the difference between mystical and non-mystical awareness takes on a more subtle, even ambiguous, meaning than suspected by William James. But James does recognise that generally mystical states have a ‘pretty distinct theoretic drift’: towards optimism and monism and ‘they appeal to the yes-function more that the no-function in us’.

One of the most interesting parts to me of his whole book is when he quotes Dionysius the Areopagite:
‘The cause of all things is neither soul nor intellect; nor has it imagination, opinion or reason, or intelligence; not is it reason or intelligence, nor is it spoken or thought. It is neither number nor order, nor magnitude, no littleness, nor equality, nor inequality, not similarity, not dissimilarity. It neither stands, nor moves nor rests…It is neither essence, nor eternity, nor time. Even intellectual contact does not belong to it. It is neither science nor truth. It is not even royalty or wisdom; not one, not unity; not divinity or goodness; nor even spirit as we know it,’ etc., ad libitum’

The ultimate ‘cause of all things’ does not exclude any of the above but, as James puts it, it ‘infinitely excels them’ : it is no-thing. These series of negations point to a ‘higher affirmation’ - a higher “Yes”. We have similar allusions in the mystical writings of Meister Eckhart where he refers to (again cited by James) ‘the still desert of the Godhead’ where there is ‘neither Father, Son, nor Holy ghost’. We see this again in Ibn ‘Arabi’s constant assumption, as Ralph Austin puts it, of ‘the undifferentiated and inalienable reality of the Oneness of Being, in which the whole dialectic of self-other is fused into the unimaginable and inexpressible experience of Reality.’ There is a very strong statement of this matter in the synopsis of Affifi’s delineation of Ibn ‘Arabi’s Metaphysics of Unity known as The Twenty-Nine Pages where we read: ‘There is but One Reality, which however you multiply it (in thought) or try to conceive it, now as a multiplicity of existents, now as one Essence characterised by innumerable attributes and names remains in itself ultimately inconceivable and unalterable. All our knowledge of it is subject and vain. There is no multiplicity, not even of Attributes or Names –no passivity or activity. These are terms which we ourselves have coined and found convenient to use for expressing what we choose to understand by Reality.’

In Fusus al-Hikam of Ibn ‘Arabi this inconceivability and unkowability is referred to as Uniqueness of Essence: ahadiyyat al ‘ayn. This, however, must never be taken to imply that for the would-be ‘mystic’ there is no ‘path’ or no ‘way’ to be followed. Ibn ‘Arabi himself was one of those rare individuals whose revelations came upon him without any formal training or study or even teacher. This is very rare but always a possibility. He himself became known as the Greatest Sheik (or teacher ) and in fact helped innumerable people on this path: past, present and future, through his writings if nothing else. In fact, for this modern era Ibn ‘Arabi’s writings (for us, translated writings) take on a special status and role - a situation which was directly acknowledged and perhaps anticipated by Nabulusi, a 17th/18th century follower of Ibn ‘Arabi’s. Nabulusi was writing at the time of the embryonic emergence of the European Enlightenment and its radical challenge to the established ideas of religion.

It was Nabulusi who significantly discerned that it was time to go public with the essential spiritual truths of Ibn ‘Arabi’s writings. His gatherings ‘were very popular, attracting an unusually mixed social group that included notables, religious clerics, scholars, judges and governors as well as mystics and lay people’. Nabulusi was ,in fact, a ‘mystical moderniser.’ He acknowledged the discriminatory nature and diversity of all historical religions. But he distinguished between the ‘realm of law’ and the ‘realm of truth’ (or between the ‘exoteric’ and ‘esoteric’ dimensions of historical religion) and in the ‘realm of truth’ there was sufficient spiritual landscape to go beyond the often disabling exclusivist dualism of belief and unbelief and open up a universal landscape of incredible beauty, love and compassion beyond dogma: alluding to an all-inclusive ecumenical Unity of all Existence in line with the needs of the times and perhaps the needs of our own times. To voyage towards, what Ibn ‘Arabi’s famously describes as, ‘An Ocean Without Shore’.

We are informed in Haqqi Bursevi’s Kernel of the Kernel (which is a translation of and commentary on passages in Ibn ‘Arabi’s Futuhat al-Makkiyah) that for any aspirant wishing to follow the ‘path’ of self-discovery there is ‘an absolute necessity’ for such a person , if they are to reach their aim, to know the general spiritual landscape which is their ‘place of beginning’ and their ‘place of return…and this knowledge is tied to three journeys’ and, further, from Ibn ‘Arabi’s Unveiling from the Effects of the Voyages, we are informed that when you come to know yourself ‘you will know that you are everything, in everything, and from everything’. So although there may be as many potential windows onto the mystical as there are people there is a general spiritual landscape and there is a requirement to know certain ‘things’ as a prelude to their full realisation. We are not left bereft – we are given a compass of spiritual orientation so that the would-be voyager can begin to discern important features of the spiritual terrain in search of union with God (as conveyed in the radical monotheism of Ibn ‘Arabi) and ultimately known as ‘the private face’. This spiritual journey originates before our temporal worldly-appearance ‘wrapped in flesh and bone’. But prior to elucidating further the meaning of the term ‘Unity of Existence’ and its spiritual landscape we are not yet quite done with William James’s phenomenology of religion.

As you may have already gleaned James was a wonderful writer with many memorable turns of phrase like ‘stream of consciousness ,‘healthy-mindedness’, ‘the sick soul’, ‘the divided self’, ‘first born and second born’ and the fascinating concept of ‘mind cure’ . It is useful to say a little more about James’s discussion of the ‘mind-cure philosophy’ in its religious context as it reflects certain aspects of Ibn ‘Arabi’s own recommendations. Consider the following:

“The great central fact of the universe is that spirit of infinite life and power that is back of all, that manifest itself in and through all… what I call God. I care not what term you may use, be it Kindly Light, Providence, the Over Soul, Omnipotence…so far as we are agreed to the great central fact itself. God then fills the universe alone, so that all is from Him to Him, and there is nothing that is outside Him…… He is the Infinite Spirit, including us ….and though we differ from Him in that we are individualised spirits……..yet in essence the life of God and the life of man are identically the same, and so are one. They differ not in essence or quality; they differ in degree”.

And James goes on to cite a statement of a personal friend as a kind of implicit or (even overt) conclusion of ‘mind-cure philosophy’: “The first underlying cause of all sickness, weakness, or depression is the human sense of separateness from the Divine Energy which we call God”. The mind-cure movement does not deny the existence of evil, suffering or selfishness. In relation to this there have been those like Alexander Pope who did deny the existence of evil and argued that there is only the appearance of evil, an appearance resulting from ‘ our imperfect and partial knowledge of creation’. But not so for ‘mind-cure philosophy’ which insists that we ‘don’t spend time in worrying over evil as a ‘mystery’ or ‘problem’ rather, as Dante says , (cited by James) ‘give a glance and pass beyond’. Neither is the mind-cure movement a ‘mere silly appeal to the imagination to cure disease’. It is perhaps a practical (rather than simply theoretical) way of concentration on the whole-hearted attention vital to ‘spiritual’ development. There is a story recounted by Ibn ‘Arabi which well illustrates the vital practical importance of the direction of concentration in this matter of spiritual attitude and growth:

“After the prayer the Shaikh said that we all return to town. He mounted his horse and set off. Along the way he talked to me of the virtues and miracles of Abu Madyan. As for myself, I was so absorbed by what he was telling me, looking up at him all the time, that I was completely oblivious to my surroundings. Suddenly he looked to me and smiled and, spurring his horse, made me run more quickly to keep up with him. Then he stopped and said to me, ‘Look and see what you have left behind you!’ When I looked back I saw that all the way was waist-high with thorn bushes and the whole ground was covered with thorns. Then he told me to look at my feet and clothes, and I looked and found not a single trace of the thorns. Then he said, ‘This is the result of the spiritual grace engendered by our talking of Abu Madyan; so persevere on the Way, my boy, and you will surely find salvation.’ Then he spurred his horse and left me behind.....”.

We have mentioned here the human sense of separateness from God which is, for the religiously inclined and maybe many others , often accompanied by a personal sense of unworthiness. This whole issue is given an extraordinary reconfiguration in the mystical philosophy of Ibn ‘Arabi. Let us firstly set the scene by considering how William James delineates this issue from his psychological point of view. For his purposes James utilises F. W. Newman’s distinction between ‘the once born and twice born’. The once born see God “not as a strict Judge, not as a Glorious Potentate. But as the animating Spirit of a beautiful and harmonious world, Beneficent and Kind, Merciful as well as Pure....[such a group] not look back into themselves....they are not distressed by their own imperfections; yet it would be absurd to call them self-righteous; for they hardly think of themselves at all.....of human sin they know perhaps little in their own hearts and not very much in the world; and human suffering does but melt them to tenderness.”

The intrinsic optimism of the ‘once-born’ is given a further impetus, according to James, by the mind-cure movement which developed a system of mental hygiene based on the regenerative power of optimism: this is the doctrine of surrendering to a higher power, of ‘letting go’ and giving up the ‘feeling of responsibility’ and personal will. On this view, all the intense conscious effort of any previous moralistic and judgemental understandings of religion leads to nothing but failure. Rather, the mind-cure movement insists one dies in order to be truly born. The recommendation, therefore, is not an intense inner struggle with sin and evil: ‘evil is a disease; and worry over disease is itself an additional form of disease’.

Its methods are meditative and recollective and can be practised in the market-place or even the busy office – it is a return, in silence , to the ‘still center of the turning world’, as T. S. Eliot so famously expressed it. It bears several similarities to ‘Salvation by Relaxation’ and the view that we are already whole if we did but know it. It seeks a return to ‘the springs of a higher life’ often, if perhaps not always, independently of dogma and institution. It need not necessarily accrue any particular religious colour and yet it is fundamental to the general archaeology of all human experience. If we follow James in this matter its practice can be extremely efficacious in the search for human happiness and completeness. It addresses a widespread feeling (which many moderns have) that their lives are not satisfactory and that there is something amiss with them.

In some sense it can also be described as a ‘process’ of liquefaction –a softening of the heart. As an essentially practical and optimistic philosophy it is well-suited to dealing with the personal mental consequences generated by the vicissitudes of modernity. Applied in a spiritual context its optimism counters and addresses directly ‘the human sense of separateness from the Divine’. All in all and in practice this religious optimism and freeing-up has much in common with the universal appeal of the writings of Ibn ‘Arabi. But for many people such hope and optimism seems to run counter to many of their pivotal human experiences and insights and is of little consolation, to quote James: “All natural goods perish. Riches take wings; fame is a breath; love is a cheat; youth and health and pleasure vanish”. And also for many James further suggests “a little cooling down of animal excitability and instinct, a little loss of animal toughness, a little irritable weakness and the descent of the pain threshold will bring the worm at the core of all our usual springs of delight into full view, and turn us into melancholy metaphysicians. The pride of life and glory of the world will shrivel”. Life is no longer working as it used to for such people: despair and sadness and flatness prevail. A state perhaps nowhere more vividly presented than in Hamlet’s declaration ‘I have of late (but wherefore I know not) lost all my mirth, lost all custom of exercise: and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition , that his goodly frame, the earth , seems to me a sterile promontory.....and to... me what is this quintessence of dust? delights me not nor woman neither....’

For them there is no mind-cure or, at least, its optimism seems superficial and to be no cure at all. In the context of European existentialism, for example, Soren Kierkegaard delineates the positive significance of such despair and suffering and optimistically affirms its ultimate spiritual transformation. But even when such transformation works James interestingly concludes “healthy-mindedness is inadequate as a philosophical doctrine, because the evil facts which it refuses positively to account for are a genuine portion of reality; and they may after all be the best key to life’s significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deepest level of truths”.

For the ‘first-born’ life (and peace in particular) is keeping on the plus side of things and minimising or eliminating the minuses: it is almost an arithmetic view of happiness. For the ‘twice-born’ there can be no final arithmetic balance: life simply isn’t like that and it is that very conception that ‘keeps us from our real good’.

Of course, these radical extremes ‘first-born’ and ‘twice-born’ are idealisations, but, they do suggest a recognisable and often mixed-feature of many ordinary peoples’ religious musings. And for James, the first-born (‘sky-blue-healthy-minded’) type look with disdain and aversion on what they regard as the ‘diseased subjectivism’ of the ‘twice-born’. They reject the view that the paradox of dying-to-live represents ‘the essence of God’s truth’ and regard it as being an unacceptable inversion of the natural state of affairs. Alternatively, for the ‘twice-born’ the ‘natural’ has to be ‘lost’ before we can be reborn into the truly ‘spiritual’. Consequently, the character of the ‘twice-born’ tends to be ‘discordant’ and ‘incompletely unified’ and has to undergo a process of unification: the divided self has to become undivided. It is a journey to unity of a kind and often involves a great personal struggle: ‘the one way gradual, the other sudden in which inner unification may occur’. The source of this desire for unification and the source of the conflicting forces at work reside, for James, in the archaeology of the Subconscious which Itself seeks wholeness and balance. But the necessity of this personal process of unification is summarised in the remark of Saint Paul “What I would, that I do not; but what I hate, that I do”. James overall view is that human life has ‘its more’ and ‘its less’: its joys and its sufferings and moments in which ‘radical evil gets its innings’. The pivotal importance and role of evil in the human scheme of things is, of course, well documented by Ibn ‘Arabi who presents us with a very broad canvass of what constitutes evil, for example, ‘physical pain, failing health, animal cruelty......ignorance, falsehood, disharmony, sin, infidelity, incompatibility of temper’ and so on.

One meaning of Evil, for Ibn ‘Arabi, is ‘absence of good’ and this absence constitutes a kind of non-existence. Evil, from this point of view, is certainly confined and relative to ‘creation’ and to the human sphere and has no existence in Being itself or in God as the absolute Good. If the description ‘pure evil’ is be intellectually posited as the opposite to ‘pure Good’ this is simply and entirely a speculative notion: it is not the opposition of two principles. Evil has no ultimate ontological existence in Reality: it does not go back to Him. That which suffers evil is to that extent deficient in Being and it may be that what is judged evil is because we are blind to the good in it (like unpleasant tasting medicine) or ignorant of its true purpose. But equally declares Ibn ‘Arabi ‘....It is part of the perfection of Being that there is imperfection in it’. The existence of evil in the world, for Ibn ‘Arabi, allows the full extent of God’s positive qualities to be exercised out of love and mercy for His creatures in accordance with their individual natures, sometimes according to personal need, request and circumstance and at other times freely given without any limit or request. It is useful to recall in this connection, Gurdjeiff’s aphorism: ‘Two things are without limit the Mercy of God and the stupidity of Man’. As Ibn’Arabi informs us ‘Good belongs to the Cosmos in its essence’ but the cosmos also contains human possibility and that includes the possibility to err from what is good: that is the possibility to choose evil, to turn from good and in so doing often suffer pain. In this respect people bring both good and evil down upon themselves but not by the Self-Gift of His existence to us, but, by disobedience, forgetfulness and self-will. And no doubt sometimes God extracts from us a deeply felt cry for help.

But this is how it may appear from man’s point of view but from God’s point of view ‘everything is on the straight path’. This is the path of Self-Realisation and God only decrees what He knows will take place in relation to what God knows of our original individual natures which natures critically determine what God decrees. Hence, it is possible in one way to say that God is responsible and in another way to say we are responsible. And this is the actual situation of ‘vision and trial’, even of those who have been brought close – consider the following from Niffari:

When thou seest Me, nothing will concentrate thee upon Me but vision and trial. If thou abidest in my vision, I try thee in every way, and I support thee with resolve. And thou slippest not: but if thou abidest not, I try thee with part of a trial, and disable thee for resolve and thou taste of the food of farness. Then I extract from thee in thy weakness, because of My mercy towards thee, a cry for help: and I bear thee because of that cry for help, to My vision.

We are faced here with a profound and great mystery: the mystery of individual human destiny. And following on from Niffari’s mention ‘of the food of farness’ it is clear that for Ibn ‘Arabi ‘Hell means distance or farness, and the real hell lies in imagining that there is a real chasm between you and God and not realising your essential oneness with Him’. And this conclusion is not a million miles away from the statement by a ‘mind-cure’ advocate and personal friend of William James: ‘The first underlying cause of all sickness, weakness, or depression is the human sense of separateness .....from God’.

The major difference between the two seems to be that the elucidation of evil given by Ibn ‘Arabi follows from a unitive viewpoint which renders its own metaphysical insight into the meaning and significance of what William James calls ‘those evil facts [which form] a genuine portion of reality, and may after all be the best key to life’s significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth’ whereas the mind-cure view, according to James, seeks to avoid this challenge.

I think that the possibility of a unitive view of reality was not one which James considered could deal with (or accommodate) the facts of evil in the world. As far as I can see he was simply theoretically mistaken in this and also because its accommodation is experiential not theoretical: what is sometimes pronounced theoretically impossible is, in fact, according to Ibn ‘Arabi, the way things actually are. Bycontrast and essentially James was an irremediable pluralist and could not accept what he called the ‘block universe’ of Monism: a view of the universe which implied for James ‘ the through and through unity of all things at once’and thereby disallowing the incomplete and open nature and individual freedom to which the pluralist concatenated universe ( in which humanity inhabits) so abundantly testifies.

Of course, as many Orientalists have pointed out, this Occidental concept of monism ‘impedes rather than assists in understanding ….[Ibn ‘Arabi’s] vision of Reality’. In one very important sense Ibn ‘Arabi insists on the fact that the universe is open and forever-in-making at every breath: it certainly bears no relation to the closedness and fixity and static nature of the ‘block universe ‘ where everything is already known and determined - as understood by the transcendental monists whom James is attacking. Far from it, Ibn ‘Arabi insists that the ‘Transcendence asserted by the intellect must always be coupled with Immanence’ - Absoluteness and Relativity or the One and the Many being two aspects of a Single Reality. It is the opening of the Chapter on Adam in Ibn’ Arabi’s Fusus al-Hikam which makes the fundamental more- than- intimate relationship between The One and the Many very clear:

“God wanted to see the essences of His most perfect Names whose number is infinite - and if you like you can equally well say: God wanted to see His own Essence in one global object which having been blessed with existence summarise the Divine Order so that there He could manifest His mystery to Himself”.

This most elevated situation and movement of God’s Love to be Known informs every aspect of Ibn Arabi’s unitive metaphysical vision: the whole essential matter is about Beauty and and its movement the Beautifier - no possible hint of a ‘block universe’ here anywhere to be had. William James’ virulent criticism of his Monistic contemporaries would find no logical foothold in the spiritual terrain of Ibn ‘Arabi. My own view is that William James’ pluralism takes him so far and no further. James attacks ‘philosophers of the Absolute ‘ and ‘ dualistic theism’ for postulating a higher mind in the cosmos….which is discontinuous with our own’ this is the abstract intellectually-constructed Deity of the human intellect. James also attacks the opposing dogmatism ‘naturalism’ which postulates ‘….that human consciousness is the highest consciousness there is’. James’ own radical empiricism allows him to take seriously the authenticity of mystical experience in all its variety but his fundamental exclusive commitment to an all-embracing pluralistic universe does not, unlike that of Ibn ‘Arabi, seem capable of endorsing the possibility or reality of a Single Source (or Divine Essence) which equally embraces both its own non-phenomenal , non-pluralistic aspect and its phenomenal , pluralistic and ever-new creative activity. And this limitation on James’ part I suspect largely results partly from his self-confessed ‘externality’ when dealing with the perennial value of ‘the mystical ‘. For example, it is difficult to see how James pluralist preferences could deal with the situation alluded to in the Chapter on Loqman, in the Fusus al Hikam that ‘despite His [Absolute] Knowledge of things as they are’ He, God, speaks of Himself as ‘gaining knowledge’ by immediate experience.: ‘We will surely test them until we know’.

Nevertheless, in spite of these concluding problematics, Wiiliam James’ tour- de- force The Varieties of Religious Experience manifests a remarkably refreshing humility and honesty and insight from which many will benefit of those who take the domain of ‘the mystical’ seriously. And finally maybe William James, having found his ’own voice’ and having broken way from what he saw as the limitations his own father’s largely Swedenborgian mystical Christianity was, even so, not too far from his own father’s advice when his father was asked about ‘his religious activity, disassociated from any established church; ‘Say, I’m a philosopher, say I’m a seeker for the truth, say I’m a lover, say I’m an author of books if you like, or best of all, l say I’m a student’.

Banner image: Living root bridge, Cherapunji