The Creative Feminine Principle in

Ibn al-‘Arabi’s School of Thought




Ayesha L. Saeed

 (Continued from the previous issue of Iqbal Review, Vol. 47:4)

The Creative Feminine Principle and the Breath of the All-Merciful

God’s name Allah is considered as the supreme and all comprehensive name in Islam.  All names refer back to it.  But the Qur’an also says, “Call upon Allah, or call upon the All-Merciful whichever you call, to Him belong the names most beautiful” (Qur’an 17:110).  This verse mentions the all-comprehensive name of Allah and by placing the name All-Merciful alongside the name of Allah it alludes to the fact that the name All-Merciful is all-comprehensive as well.  Another verse in the Qur’an verifies this reality: “My mercy embraces all things” (Qur’an 7:156).

For Ibn al-‘Arabi and his school the Breath of the All-Merciful is the substance of creation, the pure mercy out of which all creatures are constituted.  He quotes two hadiths to verify this concept: “Do not curse the wind for it derives from the Breath of the All-Merciful!” and “I find the Breath of the All-Merciful coming to me from the direction of Yemen.”[1] 

Ibn al-‘Arabi points out that in both instances the world nafs points to a kind of tanfis (a word which comes from the same root) which means to air, to comfort, to cheer up, to relieve and to remove sorrow.[2]

All existent things in the creation are the words of God emerging from the Breath of the All-Merciful.  Ibn al-‘Arabi illustrates this point:

God says, “Our only speech to a thing when we desire it” – here “Our speech” refers to the fact that He is a speaker (mutakallim) – “is to say to it ‘Be!’” (16:40). “Be!” is exactly what He speaks.  Through it that to which He says “Be!” becomes manifest. Thereby the entities become manifest within the Breath of the All-Merciful, just as letters become manifest within the human breath.  The thing that comes to be is a specific form, like a form painted upon wood.[3]

Therefore all of existence can be perceived as the articulation of the words of the Breath of the All-Merciful. With respect to the Breath, which precedes creation, the Breath is the active, masculine creative principle, which brings things into existence. But with respect to the fact that the thing comes into existence and is differentiated by manifesting the Breath as an articulated reality i.e., a word and a specific form, the Breath displays the feminine characteristic of receptivity.  Without this feminine aspect of the Breath of the All-Merciful, no creation would take place. 

All things in the cosmos are the words of God that receive their being from God’s own Breath.  All of creation displays its feminine aspect by its receptivity and utter dependence upon God’s mercy.  “Existence itself is a mercy for every existent thing”.[4]

The Creative Feminine Principle and the Supreme Barzakh/ Universal Nature:

The articulated words of God result in the creation of all that is, including the Supreme Barzakh/ Universal Nature.  Ibn al-‘Arabi discusses Universal Nature as a reality that is primarily receptive.  He places Nature in a polarity with the Spirit, which is primarily active and masculine in essence.  He makes it clear that this active dimension of the Spirit is inseparable from the receptive dimension of Nature.  The activity of the Spirit finds a means of expression in the receptivity of Nature.  Just as the relationship between the Creator and creation is reciprocal for without creation there would be no Creator, similarly Nature has an effect on the Spirit.  The realm of the Spirit is also known as the world of Command (‘alam al-amr).  Ibn al-‘Arabi says:

A woman in relation to a man is like Nature in relation to the Divine Command, since the woman is the locus for the existence of the children, just as Nature in relation to the Divine Command (al-amr al-ilahi), is the locus of manifestation for the entities of the corporeal bodies. Through Nature they are engendered and from it they become manifest.  So there can be no command without Nature and no Nature without command.  Hence engendered existence depends upon both…  He who knows the level of Nature knows the level of the woman, and he who knows the Divine Command knows the level of the man and the fact that the existence of all existent things other than God depends upon these two realities.[5]

Nature, compared to the woman is contrasted with the Spirit, compared to the man, provides the Macrocosmic Womb within which all corporeal bodies originate, are brought into existence and nurtured.

Ibn al-‘Arabi employs the terms wife and husband to explain the underlying relationship between Nature and the World of the Command.

When a natural form that has the receptivity to be governed becomes manifest and when a particular soul becomes manifest governing it, the form is like the female, while the governing spirit is like the male.  Hence the form is the wife while the spirit is the husband.[6]

Human beings are permeated by the qualities of both the masculine principle i.e., the world of the command or spirit and the feminine principle i.e., the world of the soul or Nature.  Ibn al-‘Arabi explains how these two principles interact in the context of the male principle being represented by the father and the female principle being represented by the mother. “The spirits are all fathers, while Nature is the Mother, since it is the locus of transmutations”[7] Ibn al-‘Arabi believes that Nature is the “highest and greatest mother, (al-umm al-‘aliyat al-kubra)”[8] through whom the birth of everything in the cosmos takes place, whereas she herself remains unseen.  The Supreme Barzakh is also called by various other significant names or synonyms, such as the Reality of the Perfect Man and Muhammadan Reality.  Both these synonyms point to the predominantly receptive feminine attribute of submitting to the active masculine World of Command or World of Spirit.  The Reality of the Perfect Man and the Muhammadan Reality are realities that are completely submissive (muslim) to the Will and Command of Alalh. But within the attributes of Universal Nature/ the Universal Soul/ the Reality of the Perfect man and Muhammadan Reality is also the attribute of being active and therefore masculine with respect to everything else in creation because everything else in creation is submissive towards it

The Creative Feminine Principle and the Macrocosmic Womb

According to a certain perspective, the father who is the symbol of the spirit has a greater claim upon the child (human being), than the mother, due to the spirit’s ontological preeminence.[9]  But the Islamic perspective emphasizes loving kindness, honour and respect for the mother to the extent that the mother is given a higher place of reverence in human relations even than the one given to the father.[10] 

The mother epitomizes the nurturing, loving, caring, affectionate, merciful, forgiving, gentle, beautiful and creative qualities of God, on earth.  In fact, the mother represents Universal Nature, the earth, and the Macrocosmic Womb, which was created by God for the creation of everything in existence.

This aspect of giving the mother or the Macrocosmic Womb/Nature a higher status in Islam is a point of great significance for it is here that Islam parts company with those religious belief systems, which condemn this world and Nature as inherently bad and evil.   From the Islamic perspective Nature with all its bounties, is inherently good.  This earth and this body is the locus of manifestation of God’s own names and qualities, therefore it is a divine gift.  Marriage is also inherently good for it allows the masculine and feminine principles inherent in both the man and the woman to interact harmoniously with each other.  The marriage relationship is meant to be creative not only at the level of procreation but also at the psychological and spiritual level. 

The mother has a claim over human loving kindness and regard, in some respects, greater than the claim of the father as expressed in the following famous hadith:

Someone once asked the Prophet, “Among people, who is most deserving of loving kindness (birr)?”  He answered, “Your mother”.  The questioner asked, “After her, who?” He replied, “Your mother”.  He asked “After her, who?” He said, “Your mother.  Then your father.”[11]

The rights of the mother have been given their due significance by the Prophet’s great-grandson, ‘Ali ibn al-Husayn:  

The right of your mother is that you know that she carried you where none carries anyone, she gave to you that fruit of her heart that which no one gives to anyone, and she protected you with all her organs.  She did not care if she went hungry as long as you ate, if she was thirsty as  long as you drank, if she was naked as long as you were clothed, if she was in the sun as long as you were in the shade.  She gave up sleep for your sake, she  protected you from the heat and cold, in order that you might belong to her.  You will not be able to show her gratitude, unless through God’s  help and giving success.[12]

Ibn al-‘Arabi believed that women could attain the highest of spiritual stations even to the extent of becoming the pole (qutb).  The pole (qutb) in Islamic spirituality is the supreme spiritual governor of the age, around whose axis the universe rotates and upon whom the actual existence of the cosmos depends.  The pole is the perfected human being who reflects God’s attributes and names so perfectly that he or she is given the vicegerency of the universe.  Ibn al-‘Arabi states:

Women share with men in all levels, even in being pole… If the only thing that had reached us concerning this matter were the words of the Prophet, “Women are the likes of men,” that would be enough, since it means that everything to which man can attain – stations, levels or attributes – can also belong to any woman whom God wills just as it can belong to any man whom God wills.

Do you not notice God’s wisdom in the extra which He has given to the woman over the man in the name? Concerning the male human being, He says mar’, and concerning the female He says, mar’a, so He added an a or an at in contradistinction– to the name mar’ given to man.  Hence she has a degree over the man in this station, degree not possessed by him, in contradistinction to the degree given to men in the verse, “Men have a degree above them” (2:228).  Hence God blocked that gap [alluded to in the verse] with this extra in mar’a. [13]

In Islam there is an emphasis laid on observing the rights of “womb relatives”.  Even the word womb (rahim) has been derived from the same linguistic root as the word rahma which means mercy and which is God’s intrinsic quality.  “My Mercy encompassed all things” (7:156), are the words of the Qur’an.  The womb is the receptacle where the young originate and are nurtured until they are mature enough for birth.  In Arabic, this word also means kinship, a blood tie or a close family relationship. Rahma signifies mercy, compassion, pity, tenderness and attentiveness towards someone whom one favours. It is the natural inclination of loving tenderness, which a mother displays towards her child.[14]

The relationship between mercy and womb is obvious from the linguistic and symbolic connection between rahma and rahim.  There are four different hadiths of the Prophet Muhammad that uphold the connection between God’s Mercy and the womb.  For our purpose we look at the womb as the macrocosmic receptacle where all creativity takes place. It is the aspect of God’s creativity that highlights the feminine principle inherent within the creative process.  For without God’s all-embracing mercy nothing would be created. 

The womb present within the woman is a perfect microcosmic reflection of the Macrocosmic Womb of Nature that encompasses all of existence.  Every single entity from the depths of which another entity originates and emerges is a womb.  From this perspective it becomes obvious that everything in the universe is present within a womb, before its birth or creation.  The Macrocosmic Womb symbolizes the all-embracing dome of God’s mercy and is synonymous with the barzakh reality.  Just like the dome of the mosque symbolically nurtures and envelopes the spiritual aspirations of Muslim worshipers, the dome of God’s macrocosmic Mercy i.e., Nature, becomes the receptacle for the manifestations of God’s names and attributes.

The relationship between God’s Mercy, the Macrocosmic Womb, Nature and the creative feminine principle, becomes apparent through the following four hadiths regarding the “womb”:

1.     God said, “I am God and I am the All-Merciful. I created the womb and I gave it a name derived from My own name.  Hence if someone cuts off the womb, I will cut him off, but if someone joins the womb, I will join him to myself.”[15]

2.     God created the creatures.  When He finished with them, the womb stood up and seized the All-Merciful by the belt.  The All-Merciful said, “What is this?”  It replied, “This is the station of whoever seeks refuge from being cut off.”  God said, “Indeed it is.  Will you not be satisfied that I join him who joins you and cut him off who cuts you off?”  The womb replied, “Yes, I will.”  God said, “Then that is yours.”[16]

3.     The womb is attached to the Throne and says, “If someone joins me let God join him, but if someone cuts me off, let God cut him off.” [17]

4.     The womb is a branch of the All-Merciful. God said to it, “When a person joins you, I will join him, but when a person cuts you off, I will cut him off.”[18]

Sadr al-Din Qunawi gives a detailed commentary on the hadiths of the womb given above.  He does not believe that these hadiths emphasize only the importance of family relationships.  The significance of family ties is definitely implied, yet the hadiths have symbolic meanings pointing to certain cosmological realities.  Three of these four hadiths are hadith-i-qudsi, i.e., the Prophet is quoting the words of God Himself.

Qunawi, in his commentary on these hadiths, identifies the womb with Nature and with the verse of the Qur’an: “The All-Merciful sat upon the Throne. (20:5). This verse is interpreted by Ibn al-‘Arabi and his followers (including Qunawi) to mean that God, who is Being (wujud) envelops the universe through His All-Merciful Breath.[19]  Qunawi interprets the hadith of the womb in the following manner:

“Womb” is a name for the reality of Nature… The womb in “attached to the Throne” in the respect that in the view of those who verifying the truth, all existent corporeal bodies art natural, while the throne is the first of these corporeal bodies.  Reports of the shari‘a have come concerning this fact, and the unveilings of the perfect human beings all give witness to its correctness.

The womb is a “branch of the All-Merciful” because mercy is identical with existence, since it is mercy that “embraces all things”.  Nothing embraces all things except existence, since it embraces everything, even that which is called “non– existence.”[20]

The word “withness” (ma‘iyya) has been taken from the Qur’an where God says about Himself, “He [God] is with you wherever you are (57:4) whether in the spirit or in the body.  God’s Presence covers all levels of reality, even the level of the Macrocosmic Womb.  Qunawi uses the hadith of the womb to give evidence for the Islamic belief of holding this corporeal world, marriage, the marriage act and reproduction, in high esteem.[21] 

Before the birth into this world, the human spirit is undifferentiated from its one source.  When the spirit enters the body, only then, it becomes distinct, differentiated, separate and individualized.  The body or the corporeal realm is feminine in its characteristic of receptivity towards the spirit.

Only after this separation and individualization, can the spirit have knowledge and awareness of itself and others, since things become known through their opposites.  It is through the opposition between heaven and earth, light and darkness, existence and non-existence that each of these opposite entities is recognized and identified. 

The whole body of Nature, the Macrocosmic Womb manifests God’s Hidden Treasure.  Rumi mentions this same concept when he says: “The body did not exist and I was a spirit with thee in heaven; between us was none of my speaking and listening”.[22] Speaking and listing takes place between entities that are separate and are aware of each other.  Without being born into the natural sphere, which is the sphere of the feminine “womb”, the spirits remain in a state of non-awareness.  It is only when they are sent to this world that “The birds of consciousness… realize the worth of union with God and to see the pain of separation from Him”.[23]

Human beings are capable of becoming God’s vicegerents on earth due to their two fold nature, one of which is immersed in the spiritual world and the other is immersed in the corporeal world.  Human beings have greater knowledge and awareness due to the fact that they replicate, in microscopic form, the macroscopic nature of the ultimate reality, in both its spiritual, active, invisible masculine aspect as well as its corporeal, receptive visible and feminine aspect.  Qunawi writes that the perfect human beings actualize their barzakhi realities by honouring the “womb” which represents the feminine principle of imagination.

To “join the womb” is to recognize its position and to honour its measure… Through the natural configuration and the characteristics, faculties and instruments that God placed within it, the human being brings together both spiritual and natural characteristics, properties and perfections.  Through this bringing together, he is able to seek access to the realization of the barzakh­ reality that encompasses the properties of necessity and possibility.  Thereby his conformity [with the Real] is perfected and his parallelism [with Him] is established.  He becomes manifest of the Divine Presence and the form of the whole cosmos, both outwardly and inwardly.  So understand!  These are some of the properties of its joining that can be mentioned.[24] 

From the above passage it becomes clear that the human reality reflects the barzakh reality.  The barzakh, as has been discussed before, is the creative realm which brings all opposites together and which is the source of all creativity and creation.  It is only when male and female, light and darkness, existence and non-existence join in the barzakh reality that something new comes into being.  The active, masculine spirit is as essential as the receptive feminine body for the creation of anything to take place.  The body is as essential, holy and good as the spirit, for without it the spirit finds no existence, no manifestation. Qunawi explains the significance and meaning of “cutting off” the Womb:

The cutting off, concerning which God says that, “He will cut off him who cuts it off”, takes place through belittling the womb, ignoring its position, and disregarding its rights.  The person who disregards its rights and belittles it has disregarded God and ignored the specific characteristics of the names that God has deposited within it, names in respect to which it is supported and related to God.[25] 

Qunawi makes it clear that to consider the Womb, which represents the creative feminine principle of life and Nature, “dark” and “opaque” is to belittle it.[26]  He believed that this attitude of irreverence towards Nature springs from an ignorance of the true significance of this highly important aspect of life.  Nothing can emerge into existence without the Womb.  The spirit can find no expression unless it manifests itself through a receptive body.  All entities in their receptivity exhibit the feminine principle of the Womb or Nature. 

Nature is predominantly feminine and receptive in character and therefore it is “attached to the Throne” in the hadith of the Womb.  Qunawi explains that the “Throne” mentioned in the verse “The All-Merciful sat upon the Throne” (Qur’an 20:5) represents Universal Nature, the first of the world of material bodies and it envelops and governs everything.[27] 

If anyone “cuts himself” off from the Womb, the world of nature and his own natural configuration, he is cutting himself off from God’s Mercy.  But, if anyone joins the Womb, has an attitude of respect and reverence for Nature and learns to live harmoniously with his/her own natural configuration, he/she will join God.  Joining God means to become proximate to God and to become a witness of God by being able to discern God through God’s constant and creative self-disclosures.  By having a true understanding of how the active, masculine spirit manifests itself in the Womb of nature in a constant process of creativity and new creation, the human being starts to witness God.[28] 

The feminine macrocosmic principle that emerges out of God’s “rahma” (Mercy) is called the “rahim” or Womb.[29]  This Macrocosmic Womb is the macrocosmic world of Nature, which is the reality upon which the witnessing of God depends not only on this earth but also in the next world.  God is the Ruler over all levels of reality.  He rules the reality of this world of corporeal bodies and forms through His Throne.  Therefore, it is impossible to witness Him in this world unless we witness Him within the locus He chooses to manifest Himself.

This locus is the Macrocosmic Womb, the world of Nature within which He chooses to manifest Himself.  Therefore, all witnessing of God depends upon a true understanding and due respect accorded to the “Womb”.  God is a ruler, even over the level of reality of the next world.  Witnessing of God in the next world will also be possible only through remaining joined to the “womb” and witnessing Him through whatever locus He discloses Himself in.[30] 

The correct attitude towards God is to be always a Muslim. A Muslim is one who submits to God and who is ever receptive towards God.  Therefore, with respect to God Muslims are taught to inculcate their feminine, submissive, receptive characteristic but with respect to becoming the vicegerent of God on earth, they are encouraged to inculcate the masculine active characteristics. Thereby they can become conscious participants of the multidimensional creative process of life. 

The true aim of life for human beings according to Islamic spirituality is to become the perfect human being/ insan al-kamil. The full range of wujud’s potential is manifested through the reflection of the divine attributes in the perfect human being. This means that human beings have a function in the cosmos that is far greater than is ordinarily thought.  It is a transcendental function, and the actual reason for their creation.  The cosmos depends upon the perfect human beings for the actualization of wujud’s myriad attributes in the realm of manifestation.  The cosmos was brought into existence so that the full manifestation of God’s attributes takes place through the perfect human beings.

As God’s representative or deputy, the perfect human being is the substitute for God in creation.  The perfect human being displays the characteristic of being a perfect intermediate reality within the greater intermediate reality (barzakh al-barzakh) of divine Imagination.  Ibn al-‘Arabi writes about this quality of the perfect human being in the following way:

Hence everyone in the cosmos is ignorant of the whole and knows the part, except only the perfect human being.  For God taught him the names, all of them [Qur’an 2:31] and gave him the all-comprehensive words, so his form becomes perfect.  The perfect human being brings together the form of the Real and the form of the cosmos.  He is a barzakh between the Real and the cosmos, a raised up mirror.  The Real sees His form in the mirror of the human being and the creation also sees its form in him.  He who has gained this level has gained a level of perfection more perfect than which nothing is found in possibility.[31] 

By bringing together “the form of the Real and the form of the cosmos” the perfect human being becomes the perfect “isthmus” linking the feminine realm of the Macrocosmic Womb with the realm of the Universal Spirit.  The creativity inherent in the Divine realm is fully actualized in the human form of the perfect human being and the creativity inherent in the human form is fully actualized by a union and subsistence in the Divine realm by the perfect human being. To reach the status of perfect human being/insan al-kamil the creative transformation of the feminine principle of the soul through “joining the Womb” is necessary so that illumination and subsistence in the Spirit can take place. In other words no human being can become perfect unless he/she allows for the creative interaction of both the feminine and masculine principles of existence within their human configuration so that the human soul finds illumination and subsistence in the everlasting spiritual realm.  Only and only due to the fact that the perfect human beings are able to reflect these two realities in a perfect manner both at the microcosmic level of existence and at the macrocosmic level of existence, that everything in creation finds existence.


* * * * *





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Notes and References



[1] First hadith: Ibn Maja, Adab 29, Ahmad II 268, 409, 518; V 123; Cf. Tirmidhi, Fitan 65, Abu Dawud, Adab 104; Ahmad, 11 437.  Second hadith: Ahmad, II 541.

[2] Lane gives nafas as a synonym for tanfis, citing the above hadiths as examples (Arabic-English Lexicon, s.v. nafas).  Chittick, SPK, p. 127.

[3] Ibn al-‘Arabi, Futuhat al makkiyya, II 401.29.  Cf, Chittick, SPK, p.128.

[4]Ibn al-‘Arabi, Futuhat, II 281.27.  Cf, Chittick, SPK, p. 130.

[5] Ibn al-‘Arabi, Futhuhat, III 90.18,28.  Cf. Chittick, SPK, p. 141.

[6] Ibn al-‘Arabi, Futhuhat, III 99.7.  Cf. Murata, Tao,  p.211.

[7] Ibn al-‘Arabi, Futhuhat, I 138.29.  Cf. Chittick, SPK, p. 142.

[8] Ibn al-‘Arabi, Futhuhat, IV 150.15. Cf. Chittick, SPK, p. 140.

[9] Murata, Tao,  p.213. 

[10] Murata, Tao,  p.213.

[11] Muslim, Birr I, Bukahri, Adab 2; Tirmidhi Birr I, Abu Dawud, Adab 120; Ibn Maja, Adab I, Ahmad V 3,5.

[12] ‘Ali ibn al-Husayn, The Psalms of Islam: al-Sahifa al-sajjadiyya.  Translated by Chittick.  p. 287.

[13] Ibn al-’Arabi, Futuhat, III 89.22.  Cf.  Murata, Tao.  p.183.

[14] Murata, Tao, 215.

[15] Ahmad ibn Hanbal, I 191, 194.

[16] Muslim, Birr 16; Bukhari Tafsir sura 47, Tawhid 35; Ahmad II 330, 383, 406.

[17] Muslim, Birr 17; Ahmad II 163, 190, 193, 209]

[18] Bukhari, Adab 13, Tirmidhi, Birr 16; Ahmad I 190, 321; II 295, 382, 406, 455, 498.

[19] Qunawi, Sadr al-Din al-. Sharh al-hadith, no. 20.  Cf. Murata, Tao p.221

[20] Qunawi, Sharh al-hadith, no. 20.  Cf. Murata, Tao.  p. 221.

[21] Murata, Tao.  p. 221.

[22] Rumi, Diwan, 19132.  Cf. Chittick, SPL.  p.70. 

[23] Rumi,  Diwan, 7192-94. Cf. Chittick, SPL.  p.70. 

[24] Qunawi,Sadr al-Din al-.  Sharh al-hadith, no. 20.  Cf. Murata, Tao, p. 221.

[25] Qunawi, Sharh al-hadith, no. 20.  Cf. Murata, Tao, p. 221-222.

[26] Qunawi, Sharh al-hadith, no. 20.  Cf. Murata, Tao, p. 221-222.

[27] Murata, Tao, p. 219.

[28] Murata, Tao, p. 220.

[29] Murata, Tao, p. 215.

[30] Qunawi, Sharh al-hadith, no. 20.  Cf. Murata, Tao, p. 222.

[31]Futuhat, III 397.3.  Cf. Chittick, Self-Disclosure,  p.249.