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Divine Will vs. Divine Wish: An Islamic Take on Free Will (Ibn 'Arabi)


Ibn 'Arabi was reportedly one of history's greatest spiritual teachers. Known as "The Greatest Master," this 12th century Islamic spiritual master authored over 350 books and was known as a visionary and extraordinary spiritual teacher in his day. And, as testament to the power of his insights, his ideas continue to be discussed and taught through to this day, including, among other places, via the Ibn 'Arabi Society.

I mention him because he has a fascinating and illuminating way of approaching this whole question of free will. He writes that there are two forces at work in the world. One he calls Divine Will and the other he names Divine Wish.

Ibn 'Arabi might express it by saying that the truth of reality is that everything that happens, the world as it is and as it becomes each moment, is an expression of God's Will. I find it distracting and misleading to use the words God and Divine so I would prefer to express this by saying this the way a physicist might: everything that happens can be explained by the interaction of the various laws of nature. In my way of thinking, Gravity, Electromagnetism, the Nuclear Forces and whatever other laws we don't know or can't comprehend in a way is just a modern way of saying "God." So when Ibn 'Arabi describes that which happens in human experience, the events that unfold through time as God's or the Divine Will, let's just say that all this happens due to the laws of nature. Not the same but close enough for our purposes.

Another way to express this concept of Divine Will is to say that our sense that we are a separate self is an illusion. That is to say we might think we are a self, alone in our mind and bodies, and that this self of ours has control over our actions and the outcomes they produce in our life and in the world around us; but actually it is really God doing all that. You hear mystics and philosophers talk about the illusion of subject and object. Same thing. They might phrase it as "God is the only do-er, the only subject. We are the object and can only bear witness to His doing." Ibn 'Arabi would subscribe to this notion as part of his articulation of what the Divine Will is. The Ibn 'Arabi translator R.W.J. Austin describes the Divine Will, which is also dubbed the "Creative Command" by Ibn 'Arabi, as "the infinitely creative power that effects the endless becoming of the primordial other in all the complexity of its aspects and derivations." It is the power that gives rise to the universe, the dimension of form that we perceive with our senses and scientific instruments, everything in this universe and everything that happens in it, for all time.

So, using the phrasing from children's grammar books, in the sentence "Mary throws the ball," "Mary" is the subject of the sentence and "ball" is the object. Except in Ibn 'Arabi's formulation both Mary and the ball are objects being commanded by God. So even though you feel like you are a rational, self-contained and volitional actor with free will, i.e. a subject, actually you are just an object unconsciously performing God's command (or as a physicist or neuroscientist might say, let's say mindlessly following the dictates laid out by the chain of causation leading to your thoughts and movements. In my framing, the difference isn't important.)

In contrast, the so-called Obligating Command or Divine Wish, according to Ibn 'Arabi, "is concerned not so much with creation as with reintegration and concentration. This Obligating Command has everything to do with obedience and disobedience, since conformity with the Divine Wish is the sina qua non of salvation, which is to say the salvation of man..." The Divine Wish is concerned with how each one of us individually as a human can reach "heaven" or "Nirvana" or discover within ourselves the underlying perfection that union with the all (what Ibn 'Arabi would call "Oneness of Being") allows to become manifest.

In other words, we can think of all these holy books and prophetic pronouncements from the saints and sages over the millennia as being attempts to articulate what was revealed to these men and women as God's Wish. Again, using that word "God" confuses and distracts too many people so let me rephrase that. These people (the saints and sages and great masters) are saying that they have worked out that there is a recipe or a rule book that if we can just follow these recommendations, we can live a happy, peaceful, fulfilling and meaningful life. The words they use and the framework they put it in is inevitably going to be colored by the culture and mores of their time so sometimes it can be distracting and misleading to see super sexist or homophobic or narrow minded elements in their expressions of these recipes for happiness. Perhaps the science of the mind that today's Buddhist psychologists use will sound (and be) similarly dated and ridiculous in a thousand years?

So "obedience" or "conformity" to the "Wish of God" will determine ones "salvation." Translation: "Follow these rules, and you'll live the good life! Take my advice, and you'll be healthy, happy and fulfilled!" What those rules are (i.e. what "God's Wish" is) are well known in various versions. You have Buddha's Four Noble Truths/Eightfold Path and of course the ultimate old school version in Moses' 10 Commandments from the Old Testament. The most succinct and precise version can be found in Jesus' exhortation in Matthew 22: " Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." Or the modern, non-religious version can be found expressed through Buddhist Psychology or the many guided meditations available on the Serena website.

Everything that happens is an expression of the Divine Will, or as might be expressed today, what we could call the Physical Laws of Nature. We can't argue with what is. What has happened or is happening just is. You can stick a supernatural being in there as the prime mover or just call it physics or whatever but there is little basis to argue that any one of us individually as a human or even all of us collectively as a species can actually control what happens in every detail. I tell my arm to move, yes, and it moves, but the chain of causation that led to me having that thought and that ability I had nothing to do with and it is infinitely complex and goes back in time indefinitely. And modern neuroscience is producing more and more evidence supporting the claim that our actions emerge prior to us even being conscious of our intentions (Sam Harris does a much more thorough job of demolishing Free Will than I plan on doing here).

So we don't control it. Our freedom of choice in the actions of bodies in the world of form is an illusion. A useful illusion for maximizing the propagation of our genes. Fine. But wait, there's more! Back to Ibn 'Arabi's notion of Divine Wish. There is this recipe for navigating through this life of ours, of adapting the electrical and chemical activity of the brain to create a sense of happiness and abundance and peace. We can short-circuit the more typical pattern of endless dissatisfaction. THAT is where we DO have control, where we CAN exercise our free will. We can choose to follow this recipe or we can choose to ignore it.

It is a sad that most of humanity seems to fall into one of two camps. On the one hand you have the atheists and the agnostics or don't care/don't think about it camp. They ignore all the amazing insights from these great spiritual teachers. Because the recipe includes a God or is associated with an institution that has committed or supported or included people who have perpetrated great evil in the institution's name, they write the whole thing off. On the other hand you have the believers, many of whom take the words written by their prophets and saints and translated through several languages (often by people with a political axe to grind in their translations) and in some cases hundreds of years later, as God's word and are intolerant of variations to whatever the translation they happen to have inherited. (Great book on the subject, by the way, is The Invention of Jesus: How the Church Rewrote the New Testament.)

It is sad because these wise old masters were on to something. We can choose to ignore it and live a life of ongoing suffering and dissatisfaction. Or we can investigate it and embrace the extraordinary possibilities that emerge when we start to follow the Divine Wish. Once we begin to do that, the Divine Will begins to express itself in a profoundly different way. Why not give it a try?

#sufi #islam #enlightenment #buddha #christ #freewill

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