Freedoms and Responsibilities
The Political/Social Dimensions of Spiritual Realisation
You should uphold God’s limits with regard to yourself and whatever you possess, for you are responsible to God for that. So if you are a ruler, you have been designated for upholding God’s limits regarding all He has entrusted to you. For (according to a famous hadith) “each one of you-all is a shepherd, and responsible for his flock”, and that is nothing other than upholding God’s limits regarding them. Therefore the lowest form of “right rulership” (wilāya) is your governance of your soul and your actions. So uphold God’s limits respecting them until (you reach) the” greater Khilāfa” (divine stewardship)– for you are God’s representative (khalīfa) in every situation regarding your own soul and what is above it.(3)
One of the more dubious popular stereotypes about “mystics” and spiritual teachings, whether in Islam or other religious traditions, is the notion that they are somehow peculiarly “other-worldly” and therefore essentially divorced from the inherent political demands and implications of our ordinary earthly existence. But Shaykh Ibn ‘Arabī has a distinctive understanding of the proper relations between religious life and our wider political/social existence and responsibilities.
In this regard this telling quotation from the final chapter of Ibn ‘Arabī’s Futuḥāton “spiritual advice for both the seeker and for the one who has arrived (with God)” deserve special attention– a passage which beautifully summarises the fundamental political and social context of the Shaikh’s teachings.
As this concluding exhortation clearly indicates, perhaps the most distinctive feature of the Shaykh’s political teaching is the way it is essentially grounded inevery human being’s unique experience and inescapable practice of the spiritual life, in those necessarily concrete processes of spiritual tests and realisation that are briefly outlined in the remainder of this study. As such, the specific political implications of that teaching are discovered and slowly built up “one soul at a time”: through their initially individual discovery, followed by the wider creative processes of interpretation, communication and social cooperation that naturally flow from the effective expression of realised spiritual insight. Needless to say, this intrinsic, naturally unfolding political dimension of Ibn ‘Arabī’s spiritual teaching is radically different in almost every respect from those familiar public systems, slogans, organisations and coercive, “top-down” images that are ordinarily associated with the political in today’s popular, journalistic discourse. Instead, the relevant political contexts of actual spiritual responsibility and realisation, as Ibn ‘Arabī pointedly emphasised in the passage just cited, always begin with–and necessarily remain actively rooted in– the most intimate interactive spheres of our family, colleagues, and other personally relevant communities.(4) So a closer examination of the contexts and processes of realisation presupposed in the Shaikh’s teaching should suggest radically new ways of looking at the actual human interplay of religion and political life not just in challenging contemporary situations, but throughout many earlier comparable historical settings.
(3) Chapter 560: IV, 462-63. All references to the Futūḥāt, unless otherwise specified, are to the frequently reprinted four-volume, Beirut, Dar Sadir edition (n.d.). Part of the Futuḥāt is now readily available in English translation The Meccan Revelations, vol. I, ed. M. Chodkiewicz (New York, Pir Press, 2003).
(4) As the preceding quotation makes very clear (and as is dramatically illustrated throughout Ibn ‘Arabī’s own spiritual autobiography), these spiritually relevant contexts and communities should never be confused with such outward factors as either geographical or temporal proximity.