The Universal Tree of the Islamic World
The Universal Man symbol
In “The Universal Tree and the Four Birds” Ibn Arabi describes the Tree as a symbol of the Universal Man, of the being in his totality and develops four basic principles of its manifestation. The Tree and the principles of its manifestation deal with the universal Manifestation (macrocosm) as well as its individual mode (microcosm) as the full title underlines it: “Epistle where it is shown how the creature rediscovers its unity, of which its essential being is the witness and how it is brought face to face with the human Tree and the four spiritual Birds”. The work is presented as a speech where the Tree and the four Birds expose their respective symbols. It is essential to consider these symbols as a whole for they represent inter linked aspects of the manifestation of the Divine.
The Universal Tree of Identity
Representative of the Man in his totality, the Tree expresses itself as follows:
“I am the Universal Tree of the totality and identity. I have deep roots and my branches are lofty. The hand of the One planted me in the garden of eternity, protected from the vicissitudes of Time.”
Universality is transcendental, beyond any category. The realization of the (Supreme) Identity consists in unifying the diverse elements of the individual being with the help of the power of the divine Principle that each of us bears within oneself. Indeed, the realization does nothing but reveal a union pre-existing at the potential state. What the individual being has to do is to become aware of the eternal reality which is protected from the vicissitudes of Time.
“My fruit are not out of reach nor yet forbidden.”
The fruit is a basic element of the symbolism of the tree. The seed that it contains evokes the origin of the tree, the Principle of the universal Manifestation. The fruit, at the root of the Knowledge of the divine Principle, is not gathered, but collected in the being's heart and it is not forbidden for all beings carry it within themselves.
“My branches perpetually draw nigh and come down.”
The constant descent and ascent of the branches expresses the alternated movement of the descent of the divine Principle, of Unity towards its manifestation and the return of the manifested towards Unity.
“My constitution is like the celestial sphere.”
The roots represent the non manifested aspect of the Principle, the trunk the unified aspect of the manifestation and the foliage its diversified aspect. After having reached its term, the manifestation is depicted by a foliage that completely covers the trunk and branches. It is while leaving the outer foliage to penetrate it that reality is revealed to the being.
“In my centre are located the balance and the divine establishment.”
If we proceed to a projection of the vertical tree on the horizontal plan, we observe that all its branches radiate equally in all directions from the centre, image of the Principle in the plan. There is no privileged direction outside verticality.
The centre, equidistant from diametrically opposed points, symbolizes the balance between antagonisms. Their union corresponds to the points of the vertical axis representing the World Axis.
“My time is the instant and my abode, the axis of the divine establishment on the Throne.”
The vertical axis symbolized by the trunk represents the body of the centres of the multitude of being's states, the place where antagonisms disappear and all states coexist in the perfect simultaneity of the eternal present. It symbolizes the progression of divine influences down to the Throne, siege of the universal Manifestation.
The fundamental polarization
The divine Principle is firstly manifested as a couple of complements: the primeval Intellect represented by an Eagle and the universal Soul depicted as a Dove.
The Dove occupies the first place among the four Birds even if she comes from the Eagle, which represents the primeval Androgyne. The Dove in fact comes from half of the Eagle that gave birth to the first masculine/feminine couple made in the image of Adam and Eve. In reality, the Eagle lost the unified state of being to simply become the masculine partner of the feminine Dove.
The Eagle is the dynamic source of the alternated movements between roots and foliage, between Principle and manifestation:
“If I approach, the beauty of His being dazzles me; if I move away, the magnificence of His splendour calls me.”
These movements from the Principle towards the manifestation of beings and of their return towards the Principle in the contemplation of their origin become effective thanks to the Dove:
“I move away the distant and bring closer the near.”
The roles of both birds are described in an even more explicit manner through another image of the fundamental couple. The polished surface of the Guarded Tablet (Soul) is illuminated by the reflection of the light received by the Reed pen (Intellect). Their joining produces the divine Writing which is inscribed in the constitution of the Universal Tree.
The Eagle (Intellect) transmits the Light of Knowledge to the Dove (Soul), support of the universal Manifestation. If the Eagle is first from the Principle point of view, the Dove is first from the manifestation one.
The aspects of Rigour of the Eagle linked to “expansion” and “contraction” and Mercy of the Dove in charge of their effective manifestation divide the beings in two groups: those on the left side of the Dove and those on the right side of the Eagle. This duality can just as well be found in the Universal Tree as in the Sefirotic Tree.
Nevertheless, the duality is surpassed thanks to the inclination of the Eagle for the Dove. Their union gives birth to the Phoenix, reflection of the primeval Androgyne in the substantial world.
The Phoenix represents the primeval substance, the prima Materia, the universal Principle and the passive support of manifestation.
The universal substance is pure power that is not only located under our world (
sub stare meaning what is in under), but of all worlds and all states of the universal Manifestation. This complete indistinct character makes any meaning for this substance impossible:
“I am the one that does not exist as defined being.”
Son of the Phoenix and last of the four Birds, the Crow symbolizes the universal Body, the culmination of manifestation under its physical and material form.
The Crow is the inverted reflection of the primeval Eagle in the manifested world:
“I am the second to race and never caught, just like the Eagle is first and never passed: He is the first and I am the last; the inner belongs to him and the outer to me.”
The universal Body is represented by the external foliage:
“I am the form of the celestial sphere.”
Three categories of beings correspond to the three dimensions of the sphere:
“My width is the abode where the Saints of God are honoured; my depth is the one where Its enemies are demeaned; on the essential axis of my height, the eternity without beginning and the eternity without end are facing each other since I exist.”
The first mentioned beings have rejoined the primeval Androgyne state, i.e. centred within himself. The second ones have on the contrary moved away from their proper centre and live at the periphery of themselves and the World. The third ones have not only reintegrated their proper centre, but also the World Centre; they represent the Universal Man and stand on the World Axis, symbol of the eternal Present.
- René Guénon:
- “The symbolism of the Cross”. Sophia Perennis Publisher, 2002;
- In particular, chapter II on “The Universal Man”.
- Muhyiddin ibn Arabi:
- “The Tree of Being”. Archetype Publisher, 2004;
- Translated by Bayrak Tosun
- “The Universal Tree and the Four Birds”. Anqa Publishing, 2006;
- Introduction, translation and commentary by Angela Jaffray.