Listening For God: Prayer And The Heart

07 May 2012

Extract From The Book Of "Meccan Openings"
(al-Futûhât al-Makkîya) by Ibn 'Arabî

One of the Shaykh's most powerfully moving evocations of the soul's state of true prayer and awareness of God is in chapter 41, on the "People of the Night" - the "Night" in question (based on complex allusions to a number of hadith and Qur'anic verses, as well as classical Arabic love-poetry) being conceived here as the inner state of mutual intimacy and awareness between the human lover and the divine Beloved, however and whenever that contemplative state might occur. In this intimate, speechless dialogue within the heart, it is the divine "Voice" that is speaking at first here (IV, 41-43), describing the inner reality of these "nocturnal" prayers, the fully realized state of "remembrance" (dhikr):

    "Verily, I am the One reciting My Book to the person praying, through his tongue - and he is the one who is listening, for that is My 'nighttime conversation' (musâmiratî). And that servant is the one who is taking pleasure in My Speaking - such that if he stopped (to ponder) the meanings (of what I am saying) he would be taken away from Me by his thinking and reflection.

    For what is essential for the servant here is to listen attentively to Me, to devote his hearing entirely to what I am saying, until the point where I am actually the One in that reciting - as though I were reciting it to him and making him listen to it - until I am the One explaining My words to him, translating its inner meaning to him. That is My nocturnal conversing with the servant, so that he takes his knowing directly from Me, not from his own thinking or considerations.

    For (the true Knower) is not distracted (from total attention to Me) by the mention (in those Qur'anic words) of the Garden or the Fire, of the Accounting and Reviewing (of our works at the Judgment), or of this world or the next. For that (accomplished divine Knower) does not reflect on each verse with their intellect or investigate it with his own thinking. Instead he only 'listens attentively' (alluding to the key verse at 50:37 with which we began) to what I am saying to him, 'while he is witnessing' (Me), present with Me, while I take upon Myself the responsibility for teaching him… In that way the Knower realizes with complete certainty knowings which did not come from within himself, since It was from Me that he heard the Qur'an, from Me that he heard Its explanation and the commentary on Its meanings, what I meant by this or that particular verse or chapter.

    That is the Knower's proper adab with me, his carefully listening and paying heed to Me. So if I seek them out for a nocturnal conversation concerning something, they answer Me immediately with their presence and readiness, and their immediate witnessing…

    Indeed if the Dawn comes along and I have ascended upon the Throne …, My servant goes off to his livelihood and the company of his fellows. But I have already opened up a 'Door' for him among My creatures, a Door between Myself and him through which My servant sees Me and through which I see him - although the others don't notice that. So I converse with My servant through his tongue, without his being aware of that. And My servant receives (that spiritual instruction) from me 'with clear Insight' (12:108), although those people don't know that and think that they are the ones who are talking to him, even though (in reality) no one is speaking other than Me! They imagine that My servant is answering them, when they are actually replying to no one but Me!"

The final paragraph here of course recalls some of the metaphysical teachings most commonly associated with Ibn 'Arabî and his later interpreters, ideas which he most often develops in connection with the hadith of the divine "transformation through the forms (of the creatures)" and the celebrated hadith in which the spiritual virtue of ihsân ("right-and-beautiful-action") and the ultimate goal of Religion is defined as "serving God as though you see Him." But this divine speech from chapter 41, with its open identification of the heart as the open "Door" linking God and the soul - and of the most "mundane" incidents of each person's everyday life as priceless, entirely individual "private lessons" from God - throws a very different, less "mystical" and much more practical and instructive light on that same teaching.

Since the external, visible path of these true "people of the heart," for Ibn 'Arabî, ordinarily comprises above all the "outward aspect of Religion" (zâhir al-Dîn), it is not surprising if much of the rest of this opening section of the Futûhât is devoted to the inner secrets or mysteries (asrâr), the "heart-dimension," of the "Five Pillars," and especially of the ritual prayer (salât). As the Shaykh points out in his next discussion of the heart, in chapter 47 (IV, 134-37):

    "Now there is no act of worship or devotion ('ibâda) that God has prescribed for His servants that does not have a special connection with a divine Name, or a divine Reality implicit in that Name, which gives to (the person carrying out) that devotion what it gives to the heart in this world…and in the other world. …(In this world, those corresponding 'gifts' of each Name to the heart include its specific) stations and forms of knowing and awareness, and the divine Signs and manifestations of Grace (karamât) included in its specific spiritual states…

    Now God says that He converses intimately with the person praying [alluding to ch. 41 above], and He is Light (24:35), so He confides (in His servant in prayer) through His Name 'The Light' (al-Nûr) and no other. And just as Light drives away all darkness, so the ritual prayer cuts off every other preoccupation, unlike the other acts (of devotion), which do not involve letting go of everything other than God, as the ritual prayer does. This is why prayer is called 'a light' [in the hadith 'Prayer is a light'], because in that way God gives (the servant) the Good News that if he confides in God and entrusts himself to Him through His Name 'The Light,' then He is alone with the servant and removes every transient thing (kawn) in the servant's act of witnessing Him during their intimate conversation…

    Therefore every servant who is (outwardly) praying, but whose act of prayer does not remove them from everything (other than God), is not truly praying, and that act of prayer is not a Light for them. And anyone who is reciting (the verses of the Qur'an) inwardly, within their soul, but who does not directly witness God's remembering them within Himself, has not…really remembered God within their soul, because of the lack of the right inner correspondence (between God and the receptive soul), due to what is present there of things of this world, such as family and children and friends, or of the other world, such as the presence of the angels in his thoughts… The inward state (of presence and receptivity) of the servant praying must be such that none but their Lord is intimately addressing them in their prayer and recitation, in their praises and petitions (to God)."

And Ibn 'Arabî goes on here to multiply at length the inner conditions for experiencing the true reality of salât. For as he points out, "Among the acts of devotion and worship ('ibâdat) there is none that brings the servant closer to the angelic spiritual stations of 'those drawn near to God' (the muqarrabûn), which is the highest station of the Friends of God - whether of angel or Messenger or prophet or saint or person of faith - than the act of prayer." Lest one despair of ever realizing - at least as something more than a memorable hâl - such a true inner state of prayer, the Shaykh immediately follows this description with another imagined speech of God to his angels, a speech which underlines the extraordinary dignity and rarity of any human achievement in this realm of prayer:

    "…For I have placed between this servant of Mine and the 'station of Proximity (to Me)' (maqâm al-qurba) many veils and immense obstacles, including the goals of the carnal soul; sensual desires and passions; taking care of other people, property, family, servants and friends; and terrible fears. Yet (My servant) has cut through all that and continued to strive until he prostrated himself [clearly more than bodily motions are involved in this sense of sujûd] and drew near (to Me) and became one of the muqarrabûn. So look, O My angels, at how specially favored you are and at the superiority of your rank, although I did not test you with these obstacles nor obligate you to undergo their pains. And realize the rank of this servant, and give him all that he is due for everything that he has undergone and suffered on his path (toward Me), for My sake!"

Prof. James W. Morris is the Chair of Islamic Studies and Director of Graduate Studies at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter, UK.

- Translated by James Morris

Source : For further information contact the

Australian Centre for Sufism and Irfanic Studies (ACSIS)