Knowing God through the Willful Suspension of Disbelief:
“Beware of being bound up by a particular creed and rejecting others as unbelief! Try to make yourself a prime matter for all forms of religious belief. God is greater and wider than to be confined to one particular creed to the exclusion of others. For He says, ‘To whichever direction you turn there is the Face of God [2:115] ”
~Ibn Arabi, Fusus al-Hikam
Even within the context of Ibn Arabi’s multi-layered perspective on the supersession and superiority of “Islam” and the Prophet (saw) over other revealed religions and prophets, he reminds us to not allow our received or acquired religious belief to restrict our awareness of God’s Infinite Presence and Pure Being: which is none other than Mercy. For God transcends our own delimited belief systems, whose Presence and Being–in nuanced, subtle, and often mysterious ways–includes other belief systems foreign to our own. He reminds us that we unconsciously as well as consciously “restrict” God in our minds and thereby in our hearts through “binding” Him to our own limited form of belief: whether those beliefs are derived from revealed sources, or are personal.
What Ibn Arabi challenges us with in this formulation is to willfully suspend our theological judgment of the duality of belief/disbelief towards other belief systems–and even our “own”. He inspires us to realize within us an intellectually intuitive and spiritually reflective opening towards a mode of awareness which transcends (without rejecting) the level of religious discourse where the authority of the exclusive theologies of our faith-based traditions reside. It is an epistemological passage from the level of religious discourse which validates creeds through rationality rooted in revelation, to the level of non-dual awareness of pure Unity: where the only “direction” is God!
To be sure, theology has a positive role to play in revealed religious teachings and in preserving faith in the heart through fortifying the mind for the religiously devout. Yet Ibn Arabi reminds us that God is not only found within beliefs which derive from His Self-Revelation, but He is also found above and beyond them. In this light, Ibn Arabi asks the spiritual seeker to move beyond mental conceptions and willingly suspend their “theological disbelief” of the Other’s doctrines and spiritual teachings, so as not to pass negative judgment upon the Other in the context of striving to know God as He is–in the vastness of His Transcendence and Immanence in all forms of religious belief. Such judgment only serves to restrict or “bind” one’s ability to “recognize God” fully in one’s Self, as self and as other. For, “which ever direction you turn [that is, towards your self or towards the other] there is the face of God”. By binding God to our own belief we end up being bound to the more subtle belief that we are limited, separate selves, distinct from the pure divine Self. Through this denial, we implicitly or explicitly deny that existence and truth to others and reject their sacred beliefs and rights to be, “in God” or in an awareness of “the transcendent unity of Being”. It is the difference between trying to know God through “binding” or “pinning” God to a particular belief, and realizing God as He truly is through the “prime matter” of the Spirit upon which all belief resides in pure consciousness and as pure witness. Such is boundless Truth or ineffable Reality. It can only be “found” in the purified Heart that has become “capable of every form”. It is through such divine love inherent in Being, that one has universal compassion for all forms of religion, humanity and created order, as well as discriminating knowledge of the grades, intensities, and levels of Being.
This acceptance of one’s own belief whilst simultaneously suspending a sense of disbelief in the other allows the seeker of God who yearns to know and love Him more fully, to be more receptive to a higher mode of religious and spiritual awareness regarding Divine Truth and Presence. Such awareness validates the Other “in God” without resorting to accepting the faith of the other as ours to follow, and thereby rejecting one’s own particular faith and practice. In this process, one can begin to appreciate how foreign religious teachings (both intra-faith and inter-faith) have elements of religious truth and spiritual presence in them, even if we do not fully understand them, or even if we perceive to find error in them. One can also appreciate how this process of spiritual openness and “theological suppleness” may prevent an immediate “knee-jerk” reaction towards the intra and inter religious Other, or a wholesale rejection of their teachings which they consider Sacred.
In any case, this spiritual advice (nasiha) by Ibn Arabi is given in the context of one’s path towards “knowing God” (ma’rifa) as He is, and as found uniquely in our hearts: not just what we “ascribe to Him” or as we perceive Him in our minds, or only through our extrinsically received religious (naqli) teachings. For it is through “knowing God” as utter Unity or non-dual awareness, that all personal knots of ignorance are untied, and all extrinsic religious contradictions, resolved.
And God Knows Best.