How does Being give rise to Becoming? How does the infinite, changeless, timeless nature of the Godhead engender an infinitude of finite, ever-changing, fleeting entities? In short, how does Unity give rise to Multiplicity?

This used to be a serious concern for philosophers of old. The problem was finally solved by the Sufis—and expounded most notably by Ibn Arabi—who relied on direct spiritual experience and knowledge rooted in that experience, rather than on pure reasoning and abstract thinking. They did, however, at times attempt to use terms and concepts borrowed from philosophy, in order to convey their experiences intelligibly.

The solution they suggested was as follows: pure Being does not, all of a sudden, create Becoming, just like that. This is not a matter of white versus black. Rather, just as there is a whole spectrum of colors between ultraviolet and infrared, Being creates Becoming gradually, through a series of levels of existence. There are ontological stages through which Being gradually passes into Becoming.

Professor William Chittick has been studying this matter for half a century, and has painstakingly developed a terminology in English closely corresponding to Ibn Arabi’s constellation of concepts in Arabic. He has succeeded in finding a different English term for each concept or word used by Ibn Arabi. Here, I shall be concerned more with ease of understanding than with precision. Hence, those seeking the latter are referred to Chittick’s voluminous works. I shall resort to short-cuts and simplifications which may not be entirely rigorous, but which will, hopefully, make the subject at hand more readily comprehensible.



The Koran states: God “created the seven heavens in layers” (67:3).

At first, one may suppose that what is meant here is the Seven Paradises of the Afterlife. However, this is not the case. The literal meaning is that God “created seven skies/space(s) (in) stages/layers.” This has to do with our present world.

Does it, then, mean the seven planetary spheres of Antiquity? Again, this is not the case—though people used to believe in it. Premodern thinkers loved to systematize their thoughts around simple numbers: the four elements, the five Platonic solids, the seven planets corresponding to seven metals, the twelve signs of the Zodiac… We find the same tendency even in alchemy, which has survived until comparatively recent times.

The ancients believed in a geocentric universe. Modern science does not substantiate this view.

Modern science has shown that such pat schemas do not hold up to scrutiny. There are more than a hundred elements, there are literally hundreds of elementary particles, there are billions of galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars, separated from each other by billions of light years. The universe is much more vast and complicated than our forefathers could have imagined. The picture modern science draws for us defies neat categorization.

Yet human beings have a need both for simplicity and systematization. Despite these findings, science is organized knowledge, and the search to explain the universe by a final, elegant “theory of everything” goes on.

So let us return to the Koranic verse above. We can understand it as follows: every space has a boundary, a “sky” which limits it, succeeded by the next “layer.” Astronomers of the past conceived of the world in terms of a series of concentric, nested spheres: the sphere of the sun, the sphere of the moon, the sublunary sphere, the sphere of Mercury, and so on, all centered around the earth. Modern science has shown such spheres to be nonexistent. Yet there is a sense in which science has not invalidated the essential point of this. In geometry, we can conceive of a one-dimensional line, extending from minus infinity to plus infinity. The line is bounded, yet infinite. It can be conceived of as lying in a two dimensional plane. The plane, too, is bounded, yet infinite. It, in turn, lies within three-dimensional space. And while it is difficult—perhaps impossible—for us to visualize higher mathematical dimensions, it is possible to think, conceptually and abstractly, of higher-dimensional spaces in which a three-dimensional space is itself nested. Another—this time numerical—example of an infinite sequence tending to a finite limit is the progression 1 + ½ + ¼ + 1/8 + 1/16 +1/32…, which has a limit of 2. Although the number of terms is infinite, their sum is not. By analogy, then, the “seven spaces” each can be conceived of as having limits—their “skies”—within which they are confined, even if they happen to be infinite in some respect(s).

The Five Divine Presences

We can now look at a fundamental conception of Ibn Arabi, the ontological layers of the “Five Divine Presences.” Although Ibn Arabi did not develop this classification explicitly, it is inherent in his work. In an article that is still timely, Professor Chittick has compared the ways Ibn Arabi’s closest followers and commentators have understood his “Five Presences” (hadarat al-hams).

Chittick states: “These then are the Five Divine Presences as explained by Ibn al‘Arabi’s foremost disciple [Qunawi]: the (1) Divine, (2) spiritual, (3) imaginal, (4) sensory and (5) all-comprehensive, human levels.” Note that the Perfect Human (the insan al-kâmil) merits a Presence all by itself (level 5), and encompasses all preceding stages.

Let us now skip to the end of Chittick’s article:

By now it has become clear that there is no set description of the Five Divine Presences that all Sufis have followed. On the contrary, even in the works of these five figures, who wrote within 100 years of one another and were closely bound together by master-disciple relationships, there are several different interpretations. ... By Its very Unknowability God’s inmost nature seems to preclude any sharp and fast definitions. But the overall scheme remains the same: The whole of Reality is divided into the Uncreated and the created; the latter in turn is divided into three primary levels (Spirits, Corporeal-Bodies and an Isthmus lying between the two); and a fifth reality [the Perfect Human]—whether specifically mentioned or only implied—comprehends all the levels.1


Some Basic Concepts

To delve a little deeper into the conceptual world of the Sufis, and to familiarize ourselves with the Five Divine Presences, we need to understand how they use certain terms.

Ta'ayyun is determination (the created realm), Lâ Ta'ayyun is nondetermination (the Uncreated realm). The latter corresponds to “unconditioned Brahman” (nirguna Brahman) in Hinduism, whereas Ta'ayyun corresponds to “conditioned Brahman” (saguna Brahman). Chittick’s preferred translation for this term is “entification” (that is, to become an entity). An entity is finite, that is, bound or determined in many respects, whereas the Essence or Person (dhat/zat) of God is beyond all limitations. This is closely related to delimitation (taqyid), with the Absolute being the Nondelimited (mutlaq). In this connection, Sufis also use the terms Lâ makân, Nonspace (or placelessness), and Lâ zaman, Nontime (or timelessness), for space and time have not yet been created. Rather, as God tells the Grand Saint Abdul Qader Geylani in an inspiration, “I am the space for space”—that is, God encompasses all spaces.

To elaborate, the Prophet was asked: “Where was God before He created the universe?” He answered: “In a cloud (amâ), with no air above or below it”—that is, in an infinite cloud. (Ibn Arabi explains that amâ is normally a thin cloud surrounded by air.) The word has also been associated with darkness and unseenness, but these are secondary meanings. As Chittick explains, “Within the Cloud the cosmos in its entirety takes shape.”2

Next we come to Ibn Arabi’s concept of ayan al-thabita, a concept notoriously difficult to translate. Among other renditions, we find “permanent archetypes,”3 “immutable essences,” “fixed entities,” or even “immutable identities.” Apparently, a perfectly fitting term is yet to be found.

Perhaps we can begin to approach an understanding of the ayan al-thabita by recourse to Plato’s Ideas:

Plato defends a clear ontological dualism in which there are two types of realities or worlds: the sensible world and the intelligible world or, as he calls it, the world of the Ideas. The Sensible World is the world of individual realities, and so is multiple and constantly changing, is the world of generation and destruction; is the realm of the sensible, material, temporal and spa[tial] things. On the contrary, the Intelligible World is the world of the universal, eternal and invisible realities called Ideas (or "Forms"), which are immutable and do not change because they are not material, temporal or [spatial]. Ideas can be understood and known; they are the authentic reality. The Ideas or Forms are not just concepts or psychic events of our minds; they do exist as objective and independent beings out[side] our [consciousness]. They are also the origin of sensible things, but although they are the authentic beings, Plato, unlike Parmenides of Elea, do[es] not completely deny the reality of the sensible things...4

This is rather similar to the distinction Ibn Arabi draws:

Possible things are things which become 'existent entities' (a'yan mawjuda) when God chooses to give them existence; their existence or non-existence at any given time depends on his will. They have, however, been known to him eternally as 'immutable entities' (a'yan thabita).5

The prime, and perhaps the crucial, difference seems to be that the ayan al-thabita are objects of God’s knowledge. And they are nothing like the “universals” of philosophy, such as “table,” “tree,” or “cat,” though a parallel cannot be gainsaid. Nor do they have anything to do with Jungian archetypes.6

Let’s start simple

In the simplest scheme pertaining to the ontological stages of creation, Nondetermination gives rise to three levels of determination. This is somewhat similar to the “three hypostases” of Plotinus. This does not imply that Sufis were “influenced” by Plotinus, but that as a mystic, he shared a similar experience with them. To recall Josiah Royce’s words, “The mystics are the most thorough-going empiricists in the history of philosophy.”

However, Sufis would not agree with the way Plotinus is said to assign the three hypostases:

1. The One (ineffable, transcendent)

2. Intellect (The Realm of Being—contains the Platonic Forms)

3. Soul (contains the seminal reasons)

The Physical World of Becoming7

Rather, assuming they agreed with these categories, they would perhaps order them as follows:

The One (Ar. al-Ahad, one of God’s Names)

1. Intellect

2. Soul (spirit)

3. The Physical World of Becoming

We would then have the levels of Nondetermination and three determinations. (Indications are that Plotinus himself was of the same mind.)

The Grand Saint Abdul Qader Geylani has declared:

Creation is like the snow. In other words, all creatures are representatives in the bodies in which they appear. But they are like snow; they have no independent existence of their own. For the existence of snow is the existence of water.8

This gives us the opportunity to better understand Nondetermination and the three determinations. At this moment, in the air, we know that water vapor is present, but we cannot see it. It is invisible to us. This is like the state of Nondetermination. When water vapor cools and condenses, however, we can see it as fogging on a window pane, or as mist, or as clouds in the sky. This is water in the state of a gas, as visible steam. This corresponds to the first determination. As the cooling continues, we will see water in its liquid form: as rain, rivers, seas, or a glass of water. This corresponds to the second determination. Further cooling results in the solid state: water as snow or ice. And this corresponds to the third determination. But whatever state it is in, it is all the same H2O.  

  More Detailed Versions

As can be seen from the following table,9 different Sufis have given the details of the further subdivision of these stages in different ways. And this is where the gradations begin to get more complex.

1 This is a modified version of Ibn Arabi’s thinking. He leaves out Hahut and appends Insan al-Kâmil at the end.

Hahut is from Huwiyya, “identity”or “Ipseity.” Similarly, Lahut comes from Uluhiyya, “Divinity.”
The color background reminds us that transitions between worlds are not abrupt but gradual.

Why this diversity of opinion? Three reasons come to mind:
  1. The number of levels of existence are actually infinite. Classifying them on five or six levels is to a certain extent arbitrary, so people have exercised independent judgment in this respect.

  2. Some have not bothered to make the distinctions that others have made, while some have dwelled on distinctions that others have passed over.

  3. Sometimes different people refer to the same level by different names.


Can we reconcile Ibn Arabi’s Five Divine Presences with the Seven Heavens mentioned in the Koran? I believe we can. For what it’s worth, my own, admittedly tentative, take on the Seven Heavens follows.

In various Sayings, the Prophet stated: “The first thing God created was my spirit/my light/the Pen/the Intellect. He created everything else from that.”

Since we have this as a given, it seems only appropriate to begin any account of existence with the First Light or the Universal Intellect (aql al-kull; also known as the First Intellect, aql al-awwal).

The Pen (kalam) is actually a shaft of white light; in Europe they called it Calamus, in a quaint latinization. It is represented by the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, the Alif, which is a vertical straight line.

The goal of existence is the Perfect Human. The purpose of Becoming is to return to Being. All things tend towards that end. So we are all on a journey to our homeland. As Edward Fitzgerald translates two of the last couplets of Attar’s Conference of the Birds,

Come, you lost Atoms, to your Centre draw,
And be the Eternal Mirror that you saw:
Rays that have wander'd into Darkness wide
Return, and back into your Sun subside.

Once this goal was set, you could say that God “reverse-engineered” the rest of the universe from that, working backwards in the design conceptualization. So not only is the strong Anthropic Principle true—not only were the parameters of the universe adjusted to make room for human existence—but an even stronger Anthropic Principle holds, in that those parameters were set to allow for the existence of the Perfect Human. Rarity of rarities, the Perfect Human represents the full blossoming of the universe’s potential.

So there must be six stages (corresponding roughly to six “days”—7:54, 10:3, 11:7, etc.) after the Pen. Each stage is a “shadow”10 (as Qunawi calls it) or projection of the one preceding it. We may imagine the following sequence (and remember, this is ontological, not temporal, for space and time do not yet exist):
  1. God decides to create the universe. That is, the Essence of God, as Absolute Unity or Unmanifest Absolute, decides to manifest Itself/Himself, passing to the phase of the Manifest Absolute or Unicity. For the process to begin, the first thing to be created is the Pen: namely, the First Light or First Intellect.

  2. The Pen generates the World of Power (Jabarut), which has also been called the Realm of Invincibility. This is the real crucible of creation. Unicity gives rise to a myriad Divine Attributes at the initial stages (the “top”) of the Pen, and for each Attribute there is a corresponding Name. For instance, one Attribute of God is Life, so the corresponding Name is “the Living.” All living things are informed (“in-formed”) by this Attribute. Another Attribute of God is Knowledge, and the corresponding Name is “Omniscient” or “All-knowing.” This is also the stage at which the ayan al-thabita are engendered, for they are objects of God’s Knowledge.

  3. Each Attribute gives rise to a myriad Actions of God, which will be “inherited” by creatures at the succeeding levels. For instance, the Attribute of Life gives rise to the actions, in living organisms, of motion, self-preservation, and reproduction. In higher organisms, it gives rise to such actions as breathing, running and eating.

  4. The next Presence is the Angelic World. This is the level of spirits, and can be subdivided into three. First, the World of Angelic beings, that is, of higher spirits.

  5. Then the World of Spirits, that is, the spirits of human beings.

  6. And the Imaginal World, also called an Isthmus (Barzakh), because it is an intermediate world interfacing between the world of spirit and the world of matter.

  7. Finally, the sensible, sensory, material, or phenomenal world. This is the physical universe, or the everyday world we live in.

So, to summarize:

Note in the above diagram that we are counting boundaries. The bottom line represents the Earth, and each line above it represents the limiting “sky” that separates two successive levels. Here, the physical world corresponds to:

(Click here for larger view. Click here to view the scales separately,
here for horizontal version. Originals here.)

But of course, God and His Prophet know best.

UPDATE Nov. 6, 2015:

Verse 65:12 of the Koran states: “It is God who created seven heavens, and of the earth their like.” This means that the physical world is subdivided into seven heavens and the Earth. This, again, is what Master Kayhan means when he says: “Seven [heavens], and then seven more” (The Teachings of a Perfect Master (2012), p. 311). Although some have considered this to mean seven earths, others the strata of the earth’s interior, and still others the levels of the atmosphere, these would appear to be incorrect.

Ibn Arabi followed the convention of his day by assigning the seven material heavens to the sun, moon, and five planets. (See the left panel of the geocentric universe triptych above.) Note, however, that the Koran does not specify such an assignment, and in our own day we can perhaps present a different ranking, as detailed for instance in this figure. The seven physical heavens can then be listed, in descending order, as follows:
  1. Observable universe
  2. Local superclusters
  3. Virgo supercluster
  4. Local galactic group
  5. Milky Way galaxy
  6. Solar interstellar neighborhood
  7. Solar system
And finally, of course, Earth.


1. William Chittick, “The Five Divine Presences: From al-Qunawi to al-Qaysari,” Muslim World, 72 (1982) 107-28.

2. William C. Chittick, The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn al-Arabi's Metaphysics of Imagination, p. 125.

3. Toshihiko Izutsu, Sufism and Taoism: A Comparative Study of Key Philosophical Concepts [1967], Chapter 12: “Permanent Archetypes,” pp. 159-191.

4. Plato's Philosophy - Summary.

5.Ibn al-'Arabi…

6. Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila, “The Immutable Entities and Time.”

7.Plotinus' metaphysics.”

8. Geylani, “The Mysteries Of Unification,” in The Meaning of the Four Books.

9. Column information:
Ibn Arabi: “Sufi Cosmology.”
Kâshâni 1: Yasushi Tonaga, “The School of Ibn Arabi in Mashriq and Turkey With Special Reference to Abd Al-Karim Al-Jili.”
Ibrahim Hakki: Ibrahim Hakki of Erzurum, Marifetname [1757], Section 19.17.
Other (Izutsu) (Kâshâni 2): Toshihiko Izutsu, Sufism and Taoism..., p. 11.

10. Sadreddin Konevi, Kırk Hadis Şerhi ve Tercümesi (“Forty Traditions: Commentary and Translation,” Turkish tr. By H. Kâmil Yilmaz), pp. 23, 78, 137. (Note that despite its title, this comprises only 29 Traditions.)