The Self-knowledge of Man

In chapter III of Sufism and Taoism, Toshihiko Izutsu discusses the self-knowledge of man. It seems to be that there is a paradox. On the one hand, it is mentioned that God is totally unknowable. From ontological point of view, for instance, it considers God as a Pure Quintessence about which we can know nothing at all nor with which we can come into direct contact. And on another hand, it is asserted that the aim and benefit of hikmah is the cognizance (ma’rifah) of God.

To answer this question Ibn ‘Arabi asserts that the only right way of knowing the Absolute is for us to know ourselves. He bases this view on Imam ‘Ali’s famous dictum, “He who knows himself, knows his lord.”

What is suggested here is that we should throw out the fruitless effort to know the Lord in its absolute non-manifestation, which we must go back into the depth of ourselves, and perceive that Lord as it manifests itself in particular forms. In other words, only who had become conscious of himself as a form of the Lord self-manifestation is in a position to go further into the very secret of the Lord life. However, knowing his Lord in this context does not in any way suggest that the self-knowledge of man will allow man to know the Real (existence) of God. Whatever one may do, and however deep one’s experience of ‘unveiling’ (kashf) may be, one is forced to stop at the stage of the Real Essence. Herein lays the limitation set to human cognition.

At this point, it is important to be noted that Ibn ‘Arabi’s account on the existence is different with Shaikh Ahmad’s. Ibn ‘Arabi only introduces the term “the Absolute”, whereas Shaikh Ahmad introduces the three most fundamental divisions of existence, “the Real,” “the Absolute”, and “Delimited Existence.” For Shaikh Ahmad, one can know his Lord on “the delimited existence” stage and “the Absolute” stage, but one could not go further to “the Real” stage.

According to Ibn ‘Arabi, there are two approaches that we can use in cognizing God, metaphysical (cognizance insofar as thou art thou) approach and phenomenological (cognizance insofar as thou art “He”) approach. Cognizance insofar as thou art thou (ma’rifah bihi min haythu anta) is the way of reasoning by which one infers God from ‘thee’, the creature. And cognizance insofar as thou art “He” is knowledge of ‘Him’ through ‘thee’. But in this case the emphasis is not on ‘thee’ but definitely on ‘Him’. It consists in one’s knowing the Absolute by knowing the self as a form of the direct self-manifestation of the Absolute.

To enrich our understanding of this issue, it is reasonable to adopt Imam ‘Ali’s illustration in response to his disciple’s questions about reality. In a deep sentence, Imam Ali illustrated that reality is “A light that illuminates from the drawn of pre-eternity and whose imprints shine upon the matrices of oneness.”

Practically, this illustration could be analogized with an oil lamp and a mirror. In this analogy, flame of the oil lamp will illuminate to the mirror. It is the manifestation of the flame, but it is not the essence of the flame. Similarly, God illuminates itself to the universe. Creations are the manifestations of God, but it is not the essence of God. To know God, is to know His manifestations. The more we know God’s creations, the more we know His existence.


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