At the heart of symbolism

The Universal Tree of the Islamic World


Universal Tree. Source: Les Deux Océans

The World made in the image of a Tree

The symbolic tree of Islam notably appears in the vision of a Sufi Master of the XIIIth century of our era, Muhyiddin ibn Arabi also known as Sheik Al akbar (the Greatest of the Sheiks). He gives a description of it in two concise treaties which quite often leave the readers of the XXIth century somewhat perplexed. Indeed, the narration of Ibn Arabi does nothing but render his inner experience: “I speak only of what I taste” (Futuhat).

Ibn Arabi undertook his quest on his native land of Andalusia and the whole Arabic world. The heart of his spirituality lies in the doctrine of the Uniqueness of the Being in line with the Greek-Arabic neo Platonism. According to Ibn Arabi, the whole life comes down to a double movement of descent from Unity towards the world diversity and ascent from the multiplicity of beings towards the original Unity. As underlined by the Koran: “Indeed we belong to Allah, and indeed to Him we will return” (Surat II 156). Transposed at the human being level, the realization consists first to become aware of Unity into duality and conversely before returning towards Unity.

Ibn Arabi addresses his epistle to himself as “Universal Man” (El-Insanul-kamil) 1. Now, the notion of universality is transcendental and covers all possibilities of manifestation. It can even surpass the manifested and be extended to the non-manifested, to the Principle at the source of the totality of the being's states. The Universal Man is a symbol of the Principle and the individual man a result of the Principle. Throughout his narrative, Ibn Arabi intends to lead the reader on the way of awareness of the divine presence in his heart of hearts.

The comprehension of the Universal Man rests on the representation of the World. “Then, it happened that I saw the universe as a tree”. It is of course a matter of the Universal Tree. Its hidden roots (root) represent(s) the non-manifested Principle, its trunk the World Axis and its branches the manifested world.

The Universal Man identifies himself with the roots of the Tree, the Principle as the source of everything. The individual man recognizes himself within the visible part of the Tree, its foliage, manifestation of the invisible Principle. For him the Tree is inverted. Its terrestrial foliage rises up to its celestial roots which are representative of the divine Principle. To rediscover his essential nature, his original identity, the individual man will have to undertake the ascension of the inverted Tree.

1 back The Universal Man corresponds to the Adam Kadmon of the Hebraic Kabbalah. If we remind ourselves of the importance of water in Arabic gardens, the parallel is even more striking. Does the fountain below not evoke the image of the sefirot ? Water flows from bowl to bowl before ending in a single one. According to the oral tradition, this fountain was constructed by the Dancing dervishes of Konya in Turkey to illustrate the doctrine of the Uniqueness of the Being of Ibn Arabi.

Fountain of Konya (Turkey)

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