Stephen Hirtenstein

Presented at ARAM conference on “Iconography and Mythology of Prophet Elijah, St George and al-Khodor in the Syrian Orient”, July 4–6 2006, Oxford

  • Introduction

At first sight there seems to be little connection between Elijah, George and Khidr, apart from the fact that in the Middle East they are frequently associated with the same place by different religious traditions. Is it then a simple case of overlapping traditions, Jewish, Christian and Muslim, all of whom focus on the Holy Land as part of their own heritage and take Abraham as their forefather? Certainly there is a view which suggests that Khidr is to Muslims what Elijah is to Jews, in respect of them both acting as initiator to the true believer, and which in itself is testimony to attempts to find common ground between the three traditions. The sacred sites associated with them over centuries seem to have accumulated worship in various forms, so that one sits quite literally on top of or next to another. The sites often exhibit similar attributes: for instance, the presence of water and greenness, suggesting fertility in a barren land; or perhaps a cave, which represents a meeting-place of two worlds, the manifest and the hidden (and on occasion both elements are present, as at Banyas). Then there is the ancient theme of the spiritual side of man being dominant over the material, as suggested in the stories by the holy rider on a chariot or horse (or in the case of Khidr, a fish2). This is a clear picture of the divinised human, who comes to deliver mankind: Elijah is zealous for God and the destroyer of false prophets, while St George is the conqueror of animality in the form of the dragon; Khidr’s role is rather less vividly martial – he brings real self-knowledge, delivering the individual from the false and base nature of the soul. In all three cases one can remark the polarity of the monotheist or true believer and the pagan or ignorant: Elijah and the prophets of Baal, St George and the emperor Diocletian,

1 His original name seems to have been al-Khadir (“the green one”), which over time in many places became al-Khidr or Khidr or Hizr. In the modern Middle East the spelling is Khodor is often used as a person’s name. For the purposes of this paper I shall use the shortened form, Khidr.

2 This image is well-known in the Indian sub-continent, for example.

and perhaps most strikingly in this respect, Khidr who points out the interior meaning of this opposition and is thus the educator of Moses3.

However, we should note significant differences in their status, which in part reflect the religious context in which they appear: Elijah is a prophet, in a long line of prophecy; St George is a saint, martyred for his faith in the tradition of Christianity; Khidr, however, is almost a nobody – he is neither saint nor prophet, but an ordinary person graced with immortality and initiatic significance. While the first two are usually portrayed as mounted, Khidr has his feet upon the ground (or just above it in some stories) or walks on water; as we shall see, he has a most particular role to play in mystical teaching.

This paper will focus on some of the ways in which the figure of Khidr has been treated by the great master of Islamic spirituality, Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabî (1165-1240). Like his near-contemporary Maimonides, Ibn ‘Arabî was an Andalusian who spent his early years in the Maghrib and then moved to the Mashriq, especially Damascus where he is buried. His life coincided with the flowering of three empires, Almohad, Ayyubid and Rum Seljuk, a time of Arab power and confidence prior to the catastrophe of the Mongol invasion. He has often been bracketed with Meister Eckhart and Shankaracharya as the greatest exponent of non-dualistic unity (The Unity of Being or wahdat al-wujud as his school later became known). His numerous and profound writings have influenced most subsequent spiritual authors in the Islamic world; even the ground-plan of one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, the Taj Mahal, is based upon one of his drawings representing the Resurrection. He acted as a bridge between oral and written esoteric tradition, as well as between Western and Eastern forms of Islamic spirituality, and in our own times he has been seen as one of the founders of what can be called the wider ecumenism, i.e. a universal human spiritual teaching not confined to any one tradition.4 Ibn ‘Arabî provides a spiritual and psycho-cosmological context for viewing each of these three figures, which allows us to see how they may be related to each other as typologies of “men of God”.

3 It might at first sight seem outrageous to suggest that Moses is spiritually pagan or ignorant, but in the context of the Khadir myth this is indeed how he is portrayed.

4 The ‘narrow ecumenism’ refers to the interface between the three monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is not my focus here to look at the ways in which the representation of these figures have influenced each other, but rather to explore Ibn ‘Arabi’s treatment of them as universal meanings.

  • Khidr and the Quran

There is a rich tradition in Islam surrounding the figure of Khidr. Customarily he is associated with the story in the 18th Sura, the Sura of the Cave (kahf), which relates the mysterious meeting between Moses and “one of Our servants, on whom We have bestowed mercy from Ourselves and whom We have taught knowledge from Our own Presence (ladun)”.5 In this story we find Moses, the great prophet of his time, the one who spoke with God and saw Him face to face, utterly at a loss in the face of the Truth which this “servant” propounds. Despite promising compliance, he cannot bear the apparent contradictions in the actions of this unnamed person: holing a perfectly serviceable boat, killing a young boy, and rebuilding a wall without payment for people who had withheld the customary hospitality. In every other situation, whether dealing with the Pharaoh or the troublesome Israelites, Moses is presented as confident in God, knowledgeable and capable of speech and action. Here he appears as impatient, uncomprehending and incapable of holding his tongue or keeping his promise. Some authorities, perturbed by this account, have even questioned whether the Musa mentioned in this Sura was actually a different Moses6. This story disturbs precisely because Moses, one of the greatest of God’s prophets, should surely not behave like this, and because Sacred Scripture itself is pointing to another kind of teaching than the one brought by a prophet, one which by implication only the Quran as all-embracing revelation can contain.

Now clearly this is intended as a great teaching story, not bald historical fact. This is not to suggest that it is untrue – on the contrary, it is of the nature of myth and shows a truth and reality that may be far more important than our worldly truths. For this reason some have said that this figure who instructs Moses is really a meaning who is not part of this world. The unnamed figure, “one of Our servants”, is traditionally known as Khidr, the mysterious person who is not a prophet and yet is in the position of being instructor to a prophet7.

5 Q.18.65ff

6 They mention Musa b. Misha (= Manasseh) b. Yusuf b. Ya’qub, ie a grandson of the prophet Joseph (for example, see al-Razi, Mafatih al-ghayb iv.333).

7 This is the only case where such an apparent anomaly happens in the Western tradition, as far as I am aware: while angels can readily be accepted as bringers of inspiration, as they are beings made of light, not clay, it is much more problematic to accept a human being who is said to have received special Divine knowledge, as being in a position to teach something to a prophet who brings a new Divine dispensation.

Ibn ‘Arabî discusses the figure of Khidr under four different headings:

a) the figure himself, his post-diluvian origins and the story of his achieving immortality

b) his role as the spiritual teacher of Moses, which provides a textual basis for the doctrine of an esoteric, inner teaching within Islam: this provides many important doctrines, including the creative tension between the outer and the inner or between conformity and realisation, how the knowledge of divine mysteries is unacceptable to the ordinary human mind, and so on 8

c) his spiritual status as one of the four Supports (awtâd) of the world: according to Ibn ‘Arabî, there are four ever-living guides, who have not tasted death (Enoch/Idris; Elijah/Ilyas; Jesus/’Isa; Khidr), of whom two are heavenly, having ascended (Enoch and Jesus), and two are earthly (Elijah and Khidr). Amongst other things, each of these is associated with one of the corners of the Kaʿba, the House of God9

d) his function as initiator of saints, and thus Ibn ‘Arabî’s own personal encounters with him; in Sufism it should be noted that Khidr is not simply associated with miracles (karamât) as in the popular mythologies, but is depicted more as a ‘teacher’, an initiator into the Divine mysteries of the self. This reflects the Quranic passage quoted earlier, “…whom We have taught knowledge from Our own Presence”.

  • The Servant of God: a spiritual typology

The Quranic description of Khidr as “one of Our servants” recalls one of Ibn ‘Arabî’s lesser-known but highly important works, Kitâb al-‘Abâdilah (The Book of ‘Abd Allahs, i.e. God’s servants)10, in which he provides an astonishing overview of spiritual types, which is relevant to our theme. This typology is based upon the notion of the true servant of God, one who has achieved full realisation and can therefore properly be called ‘abd Allâh, servant of the All-inclusive One. The book contains the purported sayings of 117 ‘people’ or spiritual modalities, each one usually called ‘Abd Allah son of X (a prophet) son of Y (a divine name): for example, ‘Abd Allah b. Ilyas b. ‘Abd al-Hayy, or ‘Abd Allah b. Muhammad b. al-Muhsin. The sayings reflect a combination of the prophet’s wisdom and the particular divine name mentioned.

Within this grouping of 117 there appear to be three kinds of prophetic and saintly figures: Quranic/biblical (eg Idris, Abraham, Lot, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Yas’a/Joshua, David, Solomon, Job, Zakariyya, including Khidr); Jewish/biblical (Seth, Samuel); and Christian (Yuhanna/John the Baptist, Jirjis/George). In itself this combination of sources covering the three religious traditions seems to be quite unique in Ibn ‘Arabî’s writing, which normally utilises the traditional bases of Muslim exegesis, the Quran and the Sunna, and I have not found any similar or comparable treatment in other Sufi authors. It is as if he was experimenting with explaining his teachings in as broad a spiritual and religious tapestry as possible, utilising the innumerable elements found in the Levantine traditions.

8 This is a complex topic which Ibn ‘Arabi treats in some detail in the Chapter on Moses in his Fusûs al-Hikam.

9 There is thus a connection to the square that holds up the circle, as depicted in panels on the floor of various synagogues.

10 This work is currently being critically edited by Prof. Souad al-Hakim and Prof. Pablo Beneito.

When we look at our three figures in the K. al-‘Abâdilah, we find some interesting entries. There are several kinds of ‘Abdallah b. Ilyas: there are those with the Names Bâsit (the Expander) or Hayy (Life), suggesting his well-known association with resuscitation, water, life and death, the Name ‘Alî (The High), suggesting his asceticism and spiritual elevation, the Name Shahîd (the Witness) (perhaps connected to his presence at the table or in the circumcision ceremony?), and the Name Rahmân (the All-Compassionate), showing him as mercy to the believers. Apparently we are dealing here with a kind of summary of Elijah aspects, those qualities which he embodied being given a universal dimension for all to participate in.11 In the case of Khidr there is only one entry, coupled with the Name Wahhâb (the gift-Giver), which recalls the Quranic quotation “one of Our servants to whom We have given knowledge”, and suggests that the overriding quality Khidr depicts is that direct knowledge of God (al-‘ilm al-ladunî) which is freely given without demanding anything in return, except total compliance to its requirements, and which is diametrically opposed to the knowledge of the ordinary human mind – as Khidr says to Moses in the Quranic story, “God has taught me a knowledge which He did not teach you, and He has taught you a knowledge which He did not teach me.” Finally, there is one entry for Jirjis/George12 under the rubric of the Name Shahîd (the martyr/witness): this association is by no means surprising of course, since the Middle Eastern story of St George certainly focuses on his martyrdom (unlike the English version which only considers him as a military success-story and patriotic hero). More intriguingly, he is the only personage who speaks solely in poetry, suggesting a connection between the horse which he rides (khayl) and the realm of imagination (khayâl) which as Ibn ‘Arabî explains elsewhere can only be expressed in poetry, not prose. What appears in this work makes it clear that having lived several years in Damascus, Aleppo and southern Anatolia, Ibn ‘Arabî must have been well-aware of traditions associated with St George.

What is most important to stress here is that all these ‘characters’ are seen as servant of God, whether they be prophet or saint. They are not tied to a particular Divine Name or Quality, except after having been qualified by the Total All-inclusive Divine Name, Allah. This, in Ibn ‘Arabî’s view, is the fundamental premise of the complete human being or Perfect Man (al-insân al-kåmil), who knows his reality as imago dei, created in the image of God: the image is in every respect identical to its origin except that it is totally dependent upon the origin for its being. Since everything comes from the original, the image has nothing of its own apart from its inherent and unlimited capacity to reflect and manifest whatever is put into it.

11 According to Ibn ‘Arabi’s stepson and heir, Sadruddin al-Qunawi, Elijah/Ilyas represents “an isthmus between the angelic and the human”.

12 As far as I know, this is the only reference in Ibn ‘Arabi’s writings to this Christian figure.

  • Encountering Khidr

Direct encounters with Khidr are part and parcel of the Sufi tradition, beginning with tales of a meeting between Khidr and Muhammad himself. In all cases they are deeply personal events, a transmission of self-knowledge from one apparently ‘other’ to the subject. For this reason it has been said “treat everyone you meet as Khidr“, alluding to the possibility of self-realisation in any of life’s encounters. The Central Asian master ‘Abd al-Khâliq Ghudjawânî, whose father was said to be on intimate terms with Khidr, was brought by Khidr to his earthly master, Yûsuf al-Hamadânî. Farîduddîn ‘Attâr speaks of many masters who had connections to Khidr, such as Ibrâhîm al-Khawâss or Ibn al-Daqqâq.13 Water often features prominently in these stories: Hakîm al-Tirmidhî, who had daily lessons from Khidr, is reputed to have had one of his students throw a book into the River Oxus that Khidr might read it. There is also the famous uwaysî Ottoman Shaykh Yahyâ Efendi (c.1492-1570), who is said to have received the ‘ilm ladunî from Khidr and was adviser to both Suleyman the Magnificent and Selim II: in a boat-crossing of the Bosphorus with the Sultan, the Shaykh’s companion, a young man (subsequently identified as Khidr), suddenly grabs the sultan’s own tesbih and to the sultan’s horror, hurls it into the water, only to miraculously retrieve it later.

Several of Ibn ‘Arabî’s contemporaries were favoured with meetings: Rûzbehân Baqlî, for example, who describes Khidr as “one of those special servants of God who fly in love”, tells of his first meeting at an early age, when he was given an apple by Khidr: he ate it all, as instructed, and “I saw as it were an ocean from the Throne to the earth, and I saw nothing but this: it was like the radiance of the sun. My mouth opened involuntarily and all of it entered into my mouth. I drank until not a single drop of it remained.”14

One of Ibn ‘Arabî’s own masters, Abû’l-’Abbâs Ahmad al-Harrâr, also spoke of several meetings with Khidr. One of them depicts the awesomeness of the presence of Khidr: “We left Seville as a group desiring to journey, one of our company being Muhyîddîn Ibn al-’Arabî. We appointed someone called Ibn ‘Ammâr as amîr al-sunna, to lead our party.

13 This should not simply be conflated, however, with an Uwaysî affiliation, where someone possesses a direct connection to an invisible master, for Khidr is very much a living physical presence.

14 The Unveiling of Secrets, Rûzbehân Baqlî, trans. Carl Ernst, p.14.

While we were walking through a waterless area, we saw the figure of Khidr coming towards us: he was lifting up his clothing above his ankles, and his feet were not touching the ground. As soon as we saw him, we recognised who it was, and the group was plunged into a state of paralysis and preoccupation. He came up to us and greeted us, but no-one except me was able to return his greeting, since they were affected by traces of their individual pretensions.”15

Of all these masters, only Ibn ‘Arabî seems to have discussed in detail Khidr’s place and spiritual significance within the prophetic/saintly hierarchy. His autobiographical accounts are no less particular. In chapter 25 of the Futûhât16, which is dedicated to the spiritual knowledge of the Support who was singled out for long life, Ibn ‘Arabî echoes the Quranic story of three lessons for Moses by speaking of three separate occasions on which he met and benefited from Khidr: the first in Seville, the second in the Bay of Tunis and the third near the coast south of Cadiz.17 In a similar manner to the Moses story, two episodes emphasise a breaking of the rules, in the form of miraculous demonstrations of power, and one depicts an ordinary action that goes against the grain. This is followed by a description of a meeting he had in Mosul, where he was invested with a cap in the manner of Khidr, and then the rest of the chapter seems to be entirely unrelated, devoted to the teaching of one of his masters in Granada and finishing with a short section of metaphysical explanation. It would be tempting to view this chapter as discrete sections which have no bearing on each other, and this would be to miss out on the more comprehensive view which Ibn ‘Arabî is only alluding to, the pearls on the ocean floor which he is encouraging his readers to delve for. This is a specific problem when dealing with Ibn ‘Arabî’s writings, where certain passages can appear quite clear to the reader, but the links to what comes before or after may remain impenetrable.

15 La Risâla de Safî al-dîn Ibn Abî al-Mansûr Ibn Zâfir, translated by Denis Gril, p.10 (Arabic) and p. 93 (French). As Gril points out, this story would appear to be also a way of suggesting al-Harrâr’s superiority to Ibn ‘Arabî, at least in the eyes of his disciple.

16 Fut.I.185-88, Beirut n.d. The full title is “the 25th chapter regarding the knowledge of a Support who has been singled out and had his life prolonged, and the mysteries of the Poles who are distinguished by 4 kinds of knowledge, and the secret of the spiritual abode and abodes (manzil wa-manâzil) and one who enters it from the world”

17 One suspects that there may have been other meetings, but by only mentioning three, the Shaykh does not pretend to a greater station than that of Moses.

  • Chapter 25 of the Futûhât al-Makkiyya

(a) the meetings

There are two accounts of the first meeting, in which the youthful Ibn ‘Arabî is shown the requirement to submit to spiritual masters and not contradict them.

“I met him in Seville, and he taught me to submit to spiritual masters and not to contradict them. I had on that day contradicted the master on a particular topic, and left his presence. I met Khidr in the Qaws al-Haniyya quarter [of Seville], and he told me: ‘Submit to what the shaykh says!’ So I went straight back to the master and when I got to his house, he spoke to me before I could say anything: ‘O Muhammad, does this mean that every time you contradict me on some matter, I have to ask Khidr to tell you to submit to the master?’ I said: ‘Master, are you saying that the person who instructed me was Khidr?’ ‘Yes indeed,’ he replied. Then I said: ‘Praise be to God for this teaching! Even so, the matter is in fact as I have said to you…’”

This is a succinct and delicate example of proper behaviour in an educational setting (whether that be spiritual, religious or academic). Was Ibn ‘Arabî correct in his opinion? Yes: as far as we can tell, the disagreement was over the identity of the Mahdi, and he had a strong intuition which was later proved correct. Was he correct in the way he expressed his opinion? Evidently not: we can imagine the tone of the exchange between a very bright young man in his early twenties and a venerable old shaykh. For teaching to take place, it is essential for the student to respect the teacher and accept their external authority, even when the latter appears to be in the wrong. Without that bowing of the head to the master, how can there be progress on the spiritual Path? In Ibn ‘Arabî’s case the challenge was clearly more subtle. He himself remarks that had it been a matter of religious prescriptions, he would not have been entitled to contradict his master at all. One can see elsewhere how much importance he attached to good behaviour towards superiors: “invoke God in favour of rulers and those in authority, not against them, even when they are oppressive.”18

What is important about this principle of submission to masters as here depicted by Ibn ‘Arabî is how the lesson is taught by the ever-living guide himself, as if to emphasise the strength of inner obedience in Ibn ‘Arabî’s own life. While Ibn ‘Arabî was, in certain respects, “a perfect example of the Uwaysite mysticus autodidactus, with no (visible) master among men”19, we should also stress the apparent paradox that this inner reliance on God alone does not exclude obedience to spiritual masters – on the contrary, it reinforces it. This instruction is identical to St Benedict’s rule that “obedience to superiors is obedience to God”.

18 From “The Descent of the Mantle of Initiation” (Nasab al-khirqa), translated by Gerald Elmore, JMIAS XXVI, 1999, p.18.

19 “The Uwaysi Spirit of Autodidactic Sainthood as the Breath of the Merciful”, Gerald Elmore, JMIAS XXVIII, 2000.

The second meeting took place at night on the sea, under a full moon above the Bay of Tunis in the year 590/1194, when Ibn ‘Arabî was nearly thirty. Ibn ‘Arabî was returning from a visit to one of his shaykhs, al-Kinânî, at La Marsa, a village close to Tunis; as he looked out over the sea from his boat, while everyone else was asleep, he saw a man walking across the water towards him. On reaching the boat, “he stood on one leg and raised the other, so that I could see his foot was not wet. Then he raised the other leg, and I saw the same. After that he conversed with me in a language which is special to him. Then he took his leave and went off in the direction of the lighthouse which stood on top of a hill a good two miles away. It took him just two or three paces to cover the distance. I could hear him on top of the lighthouse, glorifying God. Sometimes he went to visit Shaykh Ibn Khamîs al-Kinânî.”

The next morning Ibn ‘Arabî was asked about his night with Khidr, suggesting either that at the time he did not fully recognise who it was or that one needs external confirmation of his identity. Again we find a Mosaic motif, that of the boat, although this time it is not holed. If the first encounter demonstrated the wrong use of intuitive power in not conforming to external authority, the second shows the real power of inner faith in the form of apparently miraculous events: Khidr’s ability to walk on water and traverse distances in the blinking of an eye, and his special way of communicating.

The third and final episode took place in a ruined mosque somewhere on the Atlantic coast near present-day Cape Trafalgar at the end of the same year. Travelling in the company of a young man who denied the possibility of miracles, Ibn ‘Arabî arrives at the mosque in time to perform the prayer:

“A group of wandering pilgrims who seclude themselves arrived, also intending to perform the prayer. Among them was the one who had talked to me on the sea, who I had been told was Khidr. Among them also was a man of great worth, who was greater than him in rank. I had met him before and was friends with him. I rose and greeted him; he greeted me and was pleased to see me. Then he went forward to do the prayer. At the end of the prayer… I stood talking to him at the door to the mosque, when the man who I had been told was Khidr took a prayer-rug from the mihrab of the mosque, stretched it out in the air seven cubits above the ground, and got onto it to perform the supererogatory prayers. I asked my friend: “Have you seen this man and what he is doing?” and he told me to go over and ask him about it… When Khidr had finished praying, I greeted him and recited some verses to him… He told me: “I only did what you saw for the sake of that denier over there”, pointing to my travelling-companion who had denied miracles and who was sitting in the courtyard of the mosque, watching him, “in order that he might know that God does what He wishes with whomsoever He wishes.” I went back over to the denier and asked him what he had to say, and he replied: “What is there to say after seeing that?!”

This story demonstrates very clearly the power of Khidr, not simply as someone who can perform miracles but also as one who communicates directly and irresistibly, rendering others speechless. Even the one who denies the possibility of miracles is stopped in his tracks. Khidr demands non-objection, as Ibn ‘Arabî says, but he may equally be said to render objection useless through the power of incontrovertible knowledge.

There are two evident motifs in these meetings: first of all, the presence of one of Ibn ‘Arabî’s spiritual masters: al-‘Uryânî, al-Kinânî and the unnamed man whose rank exceeded that of Khidr. This suggests that for Ibn ‘Arabî the appearance of Khidr is directly linked to spiritual companionship with masters and not simply, as some suppose, to spiritual practice in solitary retreat or to his being, as Corbin phrased it, ‘master of the masterless’. His appearance coincides with the person needing to hear something regarding their inner condition in a totally direct and unequivocal manner. And secondly, on each occasion it is someone else who confirms that this person was in fact Khidr, suggests that one must be very careful in assuming anything about this figure on one’s own. In all these accounts, it should be stressed, Khidr is presented not as an imaginary/imaginal character who appears only in dreams or visions, but as an actual physical human being visible to others.

(b) the fourth episode, investment with the khirqa

The fourth episode briefly describes an investiture that Ibn ‘Arabî received just outside Mosul in 601/1204, where he was formally clothed in the “mantle of Khidr”, in the form of a cap.

“The shaykh [‘Alî b. ‘Abdallâh b. Jâmi’] invested me with the khirqa in the very same place in his garden that Khidr had invested him and in the same form of spiritual state that had come to him in it…”

The investiture with an article of clothing, transposing the inner state of the shaykh in order to perfect a companion, was well-known among spiritual masters, but the importance given to it by Khidr persuaded Ibn ‘Arabî to openly advocate it as well as confer it upon others, including many women disciples. Like a judge who dons the robes of his office in the court in order to represent justice in action, this ceremony identifies the recipient with the spiritual state of Khidr, so that he not only meets Khidr in person but in some sense actually becomes or represents him. The transmission of spiritual grace is guaranteed when transposed to other people, so long as it is done in exactly the same manner, in full consciousness and receptivity. Such transmission immediately recalls the story of Elisha’s remarkable transformation through the mantle of Elijah, left behind in the prophet’s ascension on the chariot, whereby he became his full spiritual heir. In turn, Khidr is reported to have invested many in this manner, and it has been practised in Sufi circles over centuries, as a means of spiritual transmission and transformation. For this reason Ibn ‘Arabî adds: “This is the investiture as it is known amongst us and transmitted by the fully-realized (al-muhaqqiqûn) of our masters.” It may be noted that this episode reveals that the ‘mantle’ does not have to happen only in the form of a cloak but can be other kinds of clothing representing ‘covering’, here a simple cap.

(c) the four types of spiritual men

After these four encounters, Ibn ‘Arabî abruptly changes tack and goes on to discuss, in an apparently unconnected way, four degrees under which the people of God can be classified. Tying this structure to the prophetic tradition regarding the verses of the Quran, that “there is no verse/sign (âya) that does not have an exterior (exoteric meaning), an interior (esoteric meaning), a limiting (scope, hadd) and a rising (place of complete knowledge, muttala’)”, he says:

“… the men of God are according to 4 degrees: men that possess the exterior, men that possess the interior, men that possess the limiting and men that possess the rising… For each of these degrees there are people, and for each of these groups of people there is a Pole, around whom the sphere of this unveiling turns.”

He then describes how one of his Andalusian masters, Abû Muhammad ‘Abdallâh al-Shakkâz, who lived in Granada, taught him about these four kinds of men and how they are alluded to in particular Quranic verses which mention “men” (rijâl):

“Now I visited our Shaykh in the province of Granada in the year 595, and he was one of the greatest of those whom I have met in this spiritual Way… He said to me: There are 4 kinds of spiritual human being (rijâl)20:

  1. “(among the believers are) men who have been true to the compact they made with God” (Q.33.23) and they are the people of the exterior;
  2. “men whom neither trade nor business distract from the remembrance of God” (Q.24.37) and they are the people of the interior, who sit with God the High and confer with Him;
  3. men of the Battlements (A’râf) and these are the men of the limiting. God has said “upon the battlements there are men [knowing each by their mark]” (Q.7.46), people of elevated sensibility (lit: smelling, shamm) and discernment, who are released from attributes for they possess no attribute, and Abû Yazîd al-Bistâmî was one of them;
  4. men who, when God calls them to Him, come to Him on foot (rijlan)21, hastening to answer, without a mount: “Proclaim among mankind the pilgrimage, they will come to you on foot” (Q.22.27), and these are the men of the rising.”

20 Ibn ‘Arabî points out that in spiritual terms there is no distinction to be made on the basis of gender, and therefore takes the term rajul (man) to mean someone, male or female, who has achieved spiritual manhood. The term rijâl (men) is used in the Quran in two meanings: sometimes as apparently gender-specific in opposition to women (nisâ’), sometimes as inclusive of both sexes. For Ibn ‘Arabî the rajul, the spiritually virile person, is equivalent to the term ‘ârif, the one who knows their reality.

These four degrees conjure up the image of a medieval fort, such as those which can still be found in Andalusian towns like Almeria or Granada: a tall protective stone wall that separates the town into those outside the medina and those inside, the battlements on the top of the wall that allow soldiers to look down over both sides, and the great watch-towers (called in Arabic muttalaʿ, meaning a high vantage-point from which one looks down) that rise up at intervals along the wall. When outside the wall, one cannot see into the town inside, and vice versa, one cannot see the outside world from inside the medina. Only by standing on the wall can one look onto both outer and inner. The wall itself is “released from attributes”, i.e. it belongs to neither one side nor the other, but it is that which defines the two sides and is “elevated” above them – without the wall there is no distinction between inside and outside. The watch-towers that occur at intervals along the battlements are no longer on the surface of the land, but rise up in a different, vertical dimension. This image depicts most vividly the four degrees of outer, inner, the line that joins and yet separates them, and the elevated position that oversees all.22

Ibn ‘Arabî then amplifies what he means by these four degrees: the people of the exterior are those who manifest their spiritual action and power (tasarruf) in the outer visible world, while those of the interior do the same in the world of the inner, the Unseen (ghayb). The men of the limiting have the spiritual power to dispense in the world of the Isthmus (barzakh), and experience the greatest happiness as they “witness the lines imagined between every pair of opposites… men of the Compassion that includes everything. They can enter into every presence and see with complete vision (istishraf)23”. The final group, those of the rising, have power over all the Divine Names, and embrace the three other categories: “the greatest of men, the people of blame (malâmîya)… who appear to be the same as ordinary people.”

21 There is an untranslatable play on words here, as the Arabic root r-j-l means both to go on foot and to behave as a man. To be “man” signifies total response to the Divine call.

22 This fourness is also manifest in geometric forms such as a simple circle: the centre, the domain included, the boundary and the domain excluded.

23 The word implies that they are able to look at something even when it is in the brightest sunlight, by shading their eyes.

This latter group for Ibn ‘Arabî represents the pinnacle of sainthood, those who have truly realised the meaning of servanthood.24

24 For further details, see my The Unlimited Mercifier (Oxford 1999), pp. 135–36.

In the way that this chapter is constructed, Ibn ‘Arabî has demonstrated one of the peculiar characteristics of his writing: that the text is not simply what it appears but presents a series of layered riddles. When deciphered, these provide a key to the reader’s own inner experience. Instead of explaining Reality, Ibn ‘Arabî encourages us to venture deeper and explore the allusions he lays before us. As we read the chapter as a whole, we are presented with a feeling of disjunction between different parts and a resulting question: what is the connection between his personal meetings with Khidr and types of spirituality? Ibn ‘Arabî does not explain who Khidr is. Instead, he makes a subtle link between four dramatic episodes from his own life and four categories of spiritual men. This is the key to a much deeper understanding of Khidr himself:

  • his daytime instruction in a Sevillean backstreet when he was told to submit to masters demonstrates the power of the people of the exterior, ie shaykhs;
  • his solo night with Khidr in the Bay of Tunis demonstrates the power of the people of the interior;
  • his watching the flying carpet episode in the mosque, the miracle within the ritual prayer, demonstrates the power of the people of the limiting, the vision from the battlements;
  • and finally, the investiture with the cap in Mosul shows how an apparently ordinary action can be of paramount spiritual significance, since it demonstrates the power of the people of blame. This is a full participation in the state of Khidr which goes beyond the level of seeing him act – in fact here the very form of Khidr entirely disappears.

What is the role of Khidr in these four episodes and degrees? As an individual human figure in the world, he interacts with the seeker and guides him into these levels, closer and closer to the full annihilation. Those who attain to their reality in this manner, such that they may be considered men of God, have been “Khidratised”, brought into the immediate, inner life of the spirit. Each one of these men of God participates in the state of Khidr as immortal guide. As Henri Corbin once expressed it, “to become Khidr is to have attained an aptitude for theophanic vision, for the encounter with the Divine Alter Ego, for the ineffable dialogue which the genius of Ibn ‘Arabî will nonetheless succeed in recounting.”25 Khidr is a living symbol of this perpetual newness of spirit that permeates all levels, active in the four degrees.

The chapter ends with a short summary of the reality of this world, as “the manifestation of God by being revealed in the forms of everything other than Him… Through His manifestation and revelation the world is in a state of remaining (i.e. not in annhilation). Our companions are according to this Path, and it is the Path of the prophets.”

So the real mystery or “secret” is the essential paradox that it is God who manifests in what appears as other, without Him becoming other than Himself or other becoming Him. It is the One who appears in number, without Him becoming multiple or multiplicity becoming One. This is not the Hallajian cry of “I am the Truth” (anâ’l-haqq), which destroys the apparent existence, but the immeasurable profundity of the transfiguring and transfigured Truth of Man, which lies at the heart of all prophetic tradition. The Divine Manifestation in “other” is also described by Ibn ‘Arabî in a more interior sense as “God’s own putting on the Heart of His Servant”26: not only does “the heart of My faithful servant contain Me”, in the words of the hadîth qudsî27, but God may be said to ‘wear’ the mantle of the servant’s heart.

By implication this is also the path of Khidr himself. Thus Khidr is not only a man of mystery and myth – he is a mantled meaning that signifies the living Divine revelation in form, the unveiling of the whole world as theophanic, the inner truth which is directly manifest. What seems to be an outer universe becomes an inner experience. Khidr’s peerless singularity is mirror to our own peerless true reality. If he seems hidden from view, that only serves to underline that we have not yet understood what his presence means for us. His form and mantle remain in existence solely as an everlasting demonstration of the Divine Love and Desire to reveal the Face of the Real to and in each human heart.

25 Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi, London 1970, p.62.

26 Nasab al-khirqa, translated by Elmore, JMIAS XXVI, p.10.

27 “Neither My heavens nor My earth can contain, but the heart of My believing servatn contains Me.”