A Lesson from A Poetic Excerpt by Ibn. Arabi.
THE CAPABLE HEART
My heart has become capable of every form:
it is a pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christian monks,
And a temple for idols,
and the pilgrim’s Ka’ba,
and the tables of the Tora and the book of the Koran.
I follow the religion of Love,
whichever way his camels take.
My religion and my faith is the true religion.
It’s such a beautiful poetry from Ibn. Arabi that somehow has shown me the beautiful unity of all religions and that different prophets all came with the same essential truth: The religion of Love.
This reminds me of how true open-mindedness can only be gained by the willingness to understand without even expecting to be understood: unconditional understanding that is. Really, sometimes, inadvertently (or advertently) we try to understand so that others will understand us in return. Well, nothing is wrong with that, it’s human. It’s just we need to also learn beyond that. Wider and deeper understanding requires complete willingness to understand, that is, a process of a lifetime.
Pluralism, unity in diversity have always been the topic of civilization, it’ll always be there as long as civilization exists. Encountering this issue, I have to be blessed and grateful because I had been given chances to be exposed to this issue earlier at younger age and goes on to my adulthood where I had the experience to be outside of my comfort zone, outside of my own country and had sort of ‘naturalized’ experiences related to pluralism: different set of custom, culture, language, views and religion. By ‘naturalized’ means that my open-mindedness has been growing through a different kind of process where I had to undergo confronting my own ego & selfishness as an effort to ‘penetrate’ into levels of my own willingness of understanding. Outside of my own comfort zone, several ‘isms’ I had learned and still love to learn (for what’s worth and for what’s good). Among those are utilitarianism, totemism, theism, spiritualism, socialism, skepticism, romanticism, racism, pragmatism, polytheism, pluralism, phenomenalism, objectivism, monotheism, liberalism, humanism, experientialism, egalitarianism, dualism, cosmotheism, constructivism, conservatism, capitalism, atheism, animism, aestheticism, academicism. Part of it also learning about more religion than just 5 recognized by my own country and that also includes so many denominations and branches of new religion and what so-called outside-mainstream’s beliefs. Those are things I’ve learnt that I couldn’t even possibly learn & experience openly here in my own nest.
One thing I know for sure, being open minded doesn’t always mean that you agree on everything you learn. It means that you can accept that nothing is perfect and that you are willing to embrace the imperfection as it is, as part of the mystery of absolute truth that can never be revealed by anything human:”What we cannot know through human reason, we cannot know” (Kantian view). Sometimes I think that with everything I know it can have the possibility to shake me but it can also have the positive ability to strengthen me, it depends on the way my assumption and logic go along the way, harmoniously, with my feeling and perception. It wasn’t an easy way to confront things that are (in my own feeling and opinion) way too controversial and against mainstream. Yet, it wasn’t difficult as well, if you have been able to go beyond your own centered-ness/ego/selfishness, in other words: to unconditional understanding (as in unconditional love). Yes, it’s still a process of a lifetime for me: I cannot easily accomplish and sometimes have to push through beyond my own strength of logic and feeling but timing and process makes it indescribably amazing journey for the way I understand life, love, and all their related principals. Yes, for me, I still feel the thirst to learn some more because what I’ve known is still the least of it.
Last but not least, I have learnt that doubt is actually the ultimate test to everything I know, everything I believe, everything I comprehend. It brings you to deeper and wider wisdom as long as you take your heart with it. Don’t be afraid to have doubt to what your mind believes in but never doubt what your heart believes. It’s not about whether it was wrong and it’s now right or vice versa. It’s about whether it suits your mind and heart as a whole because the difference border between what’s right and what’s wrong extends far beyond everything written in any moral book or any scripture. Who gets to decide which/who’s the best or the worse? Who gets to decide which/who’s wrong and right? Who gets to decide which/who’s going to heaven or hell? The decision for sure, doesn’t belong to us, human. We all want to achieve the same thing: happiness and peace. If one wants otherwise then we are still obliged to love. If one hates us and wants to destroy us so badly, I believe, in all religion, God never wants us to have revenge. Instead, He wants us to love and to have love in any circumstances because when it comes to karma or harvesting deeds, He wants it to be His decision, His area, His power, His rule. Good Heavens!
Below is deeper review and analysis taken from Reverend Jennifer Brooks’ sermon in Nantucket from the denomination of Unitarian Universalist, who is also in the same rhythm of understanding with Ibn. Arabi. With her sermon, she tries to express what she comprehends and feels about Ibn. Arabi’s masterpiece: The Capable Heart. May the wisdom of this piece reaches out to those whose hearts are willing to open.
(Wini, Jakarta, December 20, 2010)
Nantucket, July 13, 2008
“My heart has become capable of every form.” —Ibn Arabi
Ibn Arabi was a Sunni Muslim born in 1165, just a few years after England’s King Richard the Lion Heart. He lived the first half of his life in Spain. When he was 35 he went on pilgrimage to Mecca and stayed for a few years. Most of the second half of his life he lived in “Anatolia,” a multi‐cultural, multi‐ethnic region that today is Turkey. His last years were in Damascus, then an independent city in the area that now is part of Syria. He was a poet and philosopher; a Sufi mystic and a careful, logical thinker. He wrote thousands of pages of closely reasoned analysis of the nature of the cosmos, asking and answering questions about the nature of reality and the existence of God. When he wrote the few lines of poetry beginning with “My heart has become capable of every form,” he had already achieved greatness as a thinker and teacher. During his lifetime—a lifetime marked by six crusades—he was so well‐regarded in the West that he was called “Doctor Maximus.”
Today he is considered the pre‐eminent Muslim philosopher of all time, and his works continue to have relevance for post‐modern thinkers. “My heart…is a pasture for gazelles.” This line is a tribute to naturalism, a world‐view that finds connection and meaning in the natural world. It’s a view familiar to many people today, especially in American Unitarian Universalism, because our 19th century forebears were the transcendentalists—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau. These American Unitarian thinkers were naturalists and they laid the groundwork for the spirituality that today we call naturalism.
“My heart [is]…a cloister for Christian monks.” This line expresses acceptance of Christian traditions—not surprising, really. The Islamic tradition accepts and incorporates many aspects of Christianity and Judaism. There are Sufi Muslim poems and prayers to Jesus and to Mary his mother. Islam, Christianity, and Judaism all trace their origins to Abraham, father of Isaac and Ishmael. They are the three great “Abrahamic” religions, the three traditions that assert belief in “one God” rather than many. All the same: the heart as “cloister” for monks of a non‐Islamic religion? This line is, perhaps, a bit edgy.
But Ibn Arabi’s poem goes from edgy to challenging in the next line: “My heart is … a temple for idols and a Ka’aba of the pilgrims.” These two ideas side‐by‐side are an amazing statement for a devout Muslim. Ka’aba means “cube” in Arabic. The word refers to a black granite cube, 15 meters high, at the center of Mecca. In pre‐Islamic times, the Ka’aba was the center of a 20‐mile zone of non‐violence, allowing tribes in Mecca and the surrounding areas to trade peacefully.
Muhammad lived from 570‐632 CE. His tribe was keeper of the Ka’aba, which had become the center of a sacred area and was surrounded by 360 idols to Arabian tribal gods. Central to Muhammad’s religious philosophy was that there is no God but Allah—the “one God.” When Muhammad said that the Ka’aba should be a shrine only for the “one God” alone, his views irritated the other tribes and as a consequence the leaders of Muhammad’s tribe became angry with him. In 622 he escaped to Medina; he returned 8 years later and conquered Mecca. When he had established control, Muhammad destroyed the 360 tribal idols surrounding the Ka’aba.
It’s almost anti‐climatic when Arabi goes on, in the next lines, to call his heart “the tablets of the Torah, and the book of the Koran.” In the space of a few lines he tells the Muslim world that his heart is a temple for idols, the holiest structure of Islam, the central sacred writings of Judaism, and the words of Muhammad, Islam’s sacred book the Koran.
It’s easy to understand that in his time Ibn Arabi was somewhat…controversial. Why would this philosopher, who toiled over thousands of pages of closely reasoned analysis, encapsulate in just a few lines the idea of multivalence? Of pluralism, multiculturalism? Of religious tolerance? What was he saying? And—why does it matter to us?
In Ibn Arabi’s philosophy, God is infinite and everything else is limited. He said, “The movement which is the existence of the universe is the movement of love.” The debate of the time, a debate that continues today, was whether a human being could possibly understand the nature of reality, the nature of the cosmos.
Does God exist? If so, what is God? Is God co‐extensive with the universe, or outside the universe, shaping it? Can limited human beings grasp what God is, what God requires? Ibn Arabi did believe in the possibility of actual knowledge of the existence as a whole, not by use reason and logic, but by the heart. This idea allowed him to escape the problem of pluralism, the problem of wide acceptance and tolerance of all perspectives and beliefs. The era of “modernism,” in which all of us were immersed at birth, taught us that reason is foundational. For the past 500 years modern thinkers have used reason to examine religious beliefs and cultural practices.
In the Unitarian Universalist tradition, our religious forebears brought reason to the interpretation of scripture. Our denomination’s acceptance of diversity in theology is in part a response to the differences that result when people reason from different perspectives. It’s like the old story about people wearing blindfolds who touch different parts of an elephant. The one who touches the tail says, “The object before me is a rope.” The one who touches the trunk says, “The object before me is a snake.” The one who touches the leg says, “The object before me is a tree.” No one can see the whole elephant and recognize it as an elephant. Each has a limited perspective.
Pluralism accepts that a human’s limited perspective, combined with differences in culture and experience, cause people to understand the universe differently. Reason, however exact, cannot enable the blindfolded observer to deduce the elephant by touching its tail. Post‐modernism is the era we live in now, the era of reaction to modernism. In postmodernism, acceptance of pluralism results from an understanding that differences in belief and outlook are inevitable, and that reason isn’t enough to identify the whole truth about existence. Post‐modernists say that it’s not possible to know the “ultimate ground of existence”- just as it is not possible for the blindfolded observers to know the whole elephant.
For Ibn Arabi, pluralism and the acceptance of all beliefs as valid does not arise from the idea that we lack an “ultimate ground”; Arabi’s idea is that the nature of reality itself creates a multitude of perspectives, and yet we can know the ultimate ground. This is a paradox. If the nature of reality creates multiple perspectives, how can we know the ultimate truth about reality?
One of the great rational thinkers of the modern age was Kant, who thought that through reason it would be possible to arrive at all the fundamental principles of religion. Ibn Ara would agree with Kant about the power of reason to give us information about the universe. But Kant also believed that “what we cannot know through human reason, we cannot know,” and here Ibn Arabi would disagree. He thought there was another way of knowing—the way of the heart—in Sufi Muslim terms, the way of love.
In my own thinking about pluralism, I’ve been frustrated by the fact that acceptance of differences appears to have no limits. Reason does not give us a way to set limits for pluralism, to identify what beliefs we should not tolerate, because reason cannot reach the ultimate ground”; but post‐modernism does not offer guidance either. Post‐modernism simply says we have to accept every point of view. But Ibn Arabi, writing centuries ago, offers our post‐modern era a way to resolve the paradox of pluralism. His view of the cosmos means tolerance of differing perpectives. It means striving to understand others. It means radical acceptance of other people and other ways. But it also sets a limit. That limit is bounded by love.
When we ask ourselves what beliefs and behaviors we must tolerate because we accept the idea of pluralism, we can use love to identify beliefs and behaviors we need not tolerate. Love does not torture. Love does not oppress. Love does not make distinctions among human beings because of the color of their skin. Love answers the question of boundaries to tolerance, to the acceptance of pluralism.
In many ways Ibn Arabi’s spiritual philosophy is like that of contemporary Unitarian Universalism. The seven principles, those values that we share—that draw us together—they join us in a unity of love, not a unity of theology. Our denomination has chosen to welcome the diversity in theology that results from different cultural perspectives and experiences. But our principles serve as a boundary of love: if we respect the inherent worth of every person, if we commit ourselves to justice, to compassion, to protection of the planet, to democracy—then we are not a denomination that “accepts anything”—it’s not true, as people sometimes say, that “if you are a Unitarian it doesn’t matter what you believe.”
It does matter. Tolerance is essential; but the boundary of tolerance is love. It’s not easy to explain or codify, but it’s something we nonetheless can understand. Ours is a tradition that respects the power of the mind but also celebrates the truth of the heart.
In Emerson’s words,“the heart knoweth.”
So I say with Ibn Arabi:“I follow the religion of Love:
Whatever path Love’s camel takes,
That is my religion and my faith.”
(Rev. Jennifer Brooks)
God bless us all!