“To God belong the Most Beautiful Names, so call Him by them.”
— The Koran (7:180)
“God has 99 Names [such that] whoever knows them will enter Paradise.”
— The Prophet
(Bukhari, Book 50, No. 894.)
(Caution: Some pretty heavy going ahead. Not the usual fare for this website, and not for the faint of heart.)
Ever since the 19th century, philosophy has been marked by a nontheistic (not to say atheistic) streak. Nonetheless, there still seems to be a pathway from modern philosophy to Sufism. (My earlier treatment of Nietzsche can currently be found online at Nietzsche, God and Doomsday.) I use the word “modern” to denote all of contemporary philosophy (including the postmodern, post-postmodern, transmodern, etc. versions).
Let us begin with Martin Heidegger. The 20th century has been called the century of Heidegger: modern thought has followed in his footsteps. His success is due partly to the fact that the intellectual and social milieu was ripe for him; he ably captured the zeitgeist. Heidegger’s ideas have exerted a seminal influence on the development of contemporary European philosophy. They have also had an impact far beyond philosophy, such as in architectural theory, literary criticism, theology, psychotherapy and cognitive science. His thought cast a long shadow on 20th-century philosophy, and on subsequent philosophers such as Sartre, Lacan, Merleau-Ponty, Deleuze, and Derrida.
Before we proceed, a word of caution: Let me emphasize that Heidegger’s philosophy is abstruse and his terminology, complicated. The same holds for other existentialist and postmodernist philosophers. Hence in what follows, I offer my own reading of modern philosophy. Also, this article is not intended to be exhaustive. Some preliminary acquaintance with Heidegger’s thought may be helpful. Briefly, his main concern was the question of Being—not beings, but the being-ness of things. “Being (das Sein) is not itself a being or something that is (das Seiende), but rather what determines beings as beings, or what it means for a being or an entity to be” (p. 6).
Heidegger started out a Catholic. He studied Duns Scotus and Meister Eckhart. Then he became a Protestant, and was influenced by a handful of famous Protestant theologians. Finally, he ended up as a philosopher, at which time he said that “philosophical research is and remains atheism [by which he appears to mean nontheism]”. But even in his philosophical period, he never forgot his roots.*
Heidegger’s “Being” and God
In the last interview he ever gave (published posthumously in the German magazine Spiegel in 1976), considering the mess that we—as human beings—have made of things, Heidegger threw up his hands in despair: “Only a god can save us now.” (interview of September 23, 1966, published after his death in Der Spiegel, May 31, 1976.)
Heidegger speaks about Being as if it were God, when he is speaking about Being and not God: “As the[ir] ground, Being brings beings to their actual presencing. The ground shows itself as presence.” (p. 56.) Heidegger’s Letter on “Humanism” (1945-46) states:
Being—is not God and not a foundation for or final abyss of the world. Being is at once further from man than all beings, and nearer than all essents [beings], be they a rock, an animal, a work of art, a machine, be they an angel or God. Being is the nearest to man. But this nearness remains furthest from him.
God states in the Koran: “We are nearer to [humans] than their jugular vein” (50:16). Heidegger also says, “The Being of beings is the most apparent; and yet, we normally do not see it—and if we do, only with difficulty.” Here we are reminded of the Sufi poet Niyazi Misri: “Nothing is more apparent than God—He is hidden only to the eyeless.”
Heidegger is determined to think outside theology. Despite all his denials, however, we can substitute “God” for his “Being” (Sein) at almost every turn with no loss of meaning, rendering his thought tantamount to a “post-theology.” Post-Christian theology, that is: Heidegger, following Nietzsche, speaks of the death of the “Christian God” (p. 94).
For Heidegger, Parmenides’ to eon, Being, names the One (hen, das Eine), the Holy, the Source (mentioned in the context of Hölderlin). (The One (al-Ahad) is one of the Names of God in Islam.) He also refers to Being by other names: hearth, the Event (Ereignis), the Overwhelming (das Überwältigende: al-Qahhar), the Light (das Licht: al-Nur), the Originating (Anfängnis: al-Badi, the Originator).
Heidegger never ceased to meditate on his primary concern, which was Being. He used new words to describe Being: the primordial “Event” (Ereignis), “clearing” (Lichtung), the primordial Logos (speech). Of the latter, Heidegger says: “The Logos is accordingly something hearable, a kind of speech and voice; but manifestly not the voice of a human being.”
In this and other terms he uses, Heidegger is trying to approach Being from its different aspects. The later Heidegger speaks of the Fourfold, of which one item is die Göttlichen, the Godlies or Holies. This is usually translated as “gods, divinities”, but he makes it clear that these belong to God, yet are not God: they are “messengers of godhead.” They are close to the emergence of God. They are not angels, but things that bring us close to God, by which God reveals Himself.
Quite unawares, Heidegger is groping towards a rediscovery of the Divine Names and Attributes of God in Islam. One of God’s positive Attributes is kalâm, speech: the corresponding Name is Kalîm. Even when Heidegger can’t find a name, his description tells us a lot. Consider, for instance, the following: Ereignis is “the most gentle of all laws,” gently nurturing and preserving all beings. In this we can perceive an echo of “the All-Compassionate” (al-Rahman) and “the All-Merciful” (al-Rahîm). (As he aged, Heidegger mellowed: concepts like “anxiety” and “strife” were replaced by more pastoral thoughts. Similar to a nature poet like Hölderlin, whom he admired, he seems to have become a nature philosopher.)
In his later years, Heidegger appears to have moved away from his earlier metaphor of light (which is too often associated with Plato and thus with metaphysics) for Being, and adopted a more spatial-temporal approach, with such terms as “the Open” or “clearing” (think of a clearing in a forest)—although the German for clearing, Lichtung, can also be translated as “lighting”, because opening a clearing in a forest also allows light to shine down. Space and time both unfold and enfold the ceaseless Being-process (or Being-way): an infinite procession of beings emerge into and submerge out of the spotlight. This is not much different from Shakespeare’s “all the world’s a stage”:
And all the men and women merely players (As You Like It, Scene 2, Act 7)
However, every play has a playwright, a theater owner, a choreographer—who are all, in the case of the universe, one Person. But Heidegger is interested only in the play.
Heidegger says: “The ultimate destination of the human being is ‘home’, dwelling near the Source, the Origin, Being as such.” (p. 62.) This is no different from the Sufic concept “journey to the Homeland,” for “we have come from God, and we shall return to Him” (2:156).
Ereignis: The Event of Appropriation
Heidegger often states that “Ereignis is Beyng” or that “Beyng is Ereignis”. Experts have debated exactly what Heidegger meant by this. According to one interpretation, Ereignis is the primordial Event—one could call this Heidegger’s version of the Big Bang—out of which Being, Time, beings, and human being all sprang, each unto its “own” (eigen). (p. x.) (When considered over a span of decades, Heidegger is not always consistent in his terminology.) Thus er-eigen-is: en-own-ing. Heidegger conceived of this aboriginal Moment as the coming-to-pass of “Appropriation,” or as some English translators put it, “En-own-ment,” or “make one’s own” (in Sufic terms, delimitation, the differentiation of Unity into Multiplicity).
According to another interpretation, “the Event” is the appropriation of the human (Dasein, “There-being”) by Being. Heidegger says: “Being, relative to the manifestation of Being, needs man” (p. 250); “Being needs man in order to unfold.” The truth (disclosure) of Being occurs only through human being: “Being … requires humans for its revelation, preservation, and formation.” Therefore, he speaks of “man as owned by Being” and of the “appropriation of Dasein by Being.” Compare this now with the Koran: “We offered the Trust to the heavens and the earth and the mountains, but they could not bear this burden and were afraid to accept it. But the human being accepted it” (33:72).
For Heidegger, “There-being,” as the “There” of Being, is the real place of the revelation of Being itself. Being can never reveal itself except in human being: “man is appropriated over to Being, and Being is appropriated to human being.” A key Heidegerrian term, releasement, means to be “loosened from beings” and “open to Being”. Then Dasein and Being mutually appropriate, to the extent that Being can no longer be said to be the “wholly other” of the human, in the way it is to beings in general. Being appropriates Dasein because the “there” is the “right place” of Being itself, and Dasein appropriates Being in that Being is Dasein‘s own Being. (p. 125.)
In the same vein, Heidegger speaks of man as the shepherd, guardian, or steward of Being. And God says in the Koran: “I shall create a vicegerent on Earth” (2:30)—that is, someone who accepts the Trust.
Now according to Sufism, God says to humans: “I created the universe for you, and you I created for Myself.” Similarly, Ibn Arabi says,
In me is His theater of manifestation,
And we are for Him as vessels.
(Bezels of Wisdom, tr. Ralph Austin, chapter on Abraham.)
Human being, and especially the Perfect Human,
is as the pupil is for the eye through which… the Reality looks on His creation and bestows the Mercy [of existence] on them… It is by his existence that the Cosmos subsists…
(Bezels of Wisdom, tr. Ralph Austin, chapter on Adam.)
According to the Sufis, moreover, in order for God to manifest Himself, one must empty oneself of everything-other-than-God, which finds its parallel in Heidegger’s “releasement” or detachment.
Another term used by Heidegger is Enteignis. The opposite of Ereignis, this word is usually translated as “expropriation”, but an equally valid translation would be “disowning”. Heidegger also uses the term “thrownness” in connection with human beings: they are “thrown into” this world, and “the origin of the truth of Being has withdrawn itself into concealedness…” He speaks of fallenness, homelessness, conscience. When you take these together, you realize that Heidegger is actually talking about the Fall of man, a religious concept.
What we have in Heidegger, then, is a “godless theology” (Karl Löwith) (or perhaps mystical philosophy) of Being, another “ontotheology.” But this is precisely what Heidegger thought Western metaphysics was dominated by, and sought to overcome.
Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling” (anxiety) finds its parallel in Heidegger’s “anxiety”, his “sickness unto death” (despair) in the latter’s “being-unto-death”. Martin Luther’s maxim: “Reason should be destroyed in all Christians”, finds its echo in Heidegger’s: “Thinking begins only when we have come to know that reason, glorified for centuries, is the most stiff-necked adversary of thought.” No wonder his philosophy has been called a crypto-theology, and no wonder many Catholic and Protestant theologians have taken an interest in it.
Nevertheless, some of Heidegger’s insights surpass those of customary theology.
Heidegger on the God of the Philosophers
Heidegger is not happy with God as the self-caused First Cause, namely the God of the philosophers, because Thomas Aquinas had earlier said if a “thing would be its own cause (then) it would bring itself into being, which is impossible.” Heidegger believes that grounding the existence of God in causality is flawed.
(The) ground itself [Being] must in due measure be grounded: that is, must be caused by the most primordially causative thing. This is the cause understood as causa sui [cause of itself]. This is how the name of God appropriate to philosophy is inscribed. To this god man can neither pray nor make offering [sacrifice]. Neither can man fall to his knees in awe before the causa sui, nor can he make music and dance before this god.
Perhaps, then, that god-less [gott-lose] thinking that must abandon the god of philosophy—God, that is, understood as causa sui—is nearer to the divine God. That is to say, it is freer for him than onto-theo-logy would wish to grant. (p.189.)
In other words, the philosophical God, a God constrained by reason (like Gulliver shackled by Lilliputians), is not one that can be worshiped. To reach that, one has to transcend both the philosophical and the theological God.
Heidegger’s Conception of God
If Heidegger treats Being as if it were God, then why does he say emphatically that “Being is not God”? There are two reasons. First, because he thinks that in the conception of Christian metaphysics, God is a being (seiend), in other words a creature, instead of Being (Sein). And second, because he conceives of God as entirely transcendent.
How to reconcile these two views—if this is even possible—is for others to figure out. Meanwhile, let us look at what Heidegger says:
The God of Christian belief, although the creator and preserver of the world, is altogether different and separate from it; but he is being [Seiende] in the highest sense, the summum ens [supreme being]; creatures infinitely different from him are nevertheless also being [Seiend], ens finitum [finite being]. How can ens infinitum [infinite being] and ens finitum [finite being] both be named ens [being], both be thought in the same concept, “being”? (Emphasis added, p. 262/386.)
God and being is not identical. … being and God are not identical, and I would never attempt to think the essence of God through being. … If I were yet to write a theology—to which I sometimes feel inclined—then the word ‘being’ would not occur in it. (p. 259/383.)
According to Heidegger, as L.P. Hemming notes: “Being itself is finite. To think God in terms of being is to impose limit and finitude on God.” (p. 270/394.) (Heidegger fails to observe that while beings are finite, Being need not be, since “Being is not a thing”.) But as Ibn Arabi has pointed out, to say that God cannot manifest in finitude is itself a limitation on the Illimitable and the All-powerful. For “with God all things are possible.” God is within all things (immanence), but also above or beyond all things (transcendence). Neglect either one of these, and you will be faced with problems without end.
Finitude and Infinitude
Heidegger deems finitude and infinity incompatible, yet he lacks the means to consider how infinities and infinitesimals are woven into the fabric of the universe. Finitude and infinitude are inseparably intertwined, both mathematically and physically.
Mathematics. There are many numbers that can be expressed as the sum of an infinite series, for example, However, all numbers can be expressed as an infinite series, because any number multiplied by 1 is that same number, and Another example is a sphere. A circle can be thought of as a polygon with infinitely many sides (an “infinigon”), and a sphere as a polyhedron with infinitely many faces (an “infinihedron”). Examples in nature can start with the sun, the moon, the planets, the stars… The (flat) sides and faces are infinitesimally small; the infinite and the infinitesimal combine to yield the finite.
A third example: fractals. A fractal is a never-ending pattern. It is a self-similar geometric figure resulting from beginning with an initial figure and iterating a process an infinite number of times. The homely romanesco broccoli (see picture) is an example from nature of a fractal.
Physics. Quantum field theory and, more specifically, quantum electro-dynamics (QED), has been called “The Most Precisely Tested Theory in the History of Science,” and its accuracy “almost miraculous.” Physicist Richard Feynman, who discovered QED, once compared its accuracy to measuring the distance between New York and Los Angeles (2451 miles/3944 km) and being off by the width of a human hair.
And yet, there is the little “problem of the infinities.” For the equations yield, along with the spectacular results, terms that are “divergent” (a polite way of saying “infinite”). Now these terms are dealt with by a process called “renormalization” (or another method named “regularization”), but this has been referred to as “hocus-pocus,” as “brushing infinity under the rug.” Physicist Paul Dirac objected, “Sensible mathematics involves neglecting a quantity when it turns out to be small—not neglecting it just because it is infinitely great and you do not want it!” And the infinities are ineradicable without losing the “jewels,” too. Abdus Salam, another Nobel Prize winner, finally became reconciled to the fact that the infinities “are an inevitable part of nature.”
Both mathematically and physically, then, finitude and infinity are interwoven into the universe.
Though not obvious at first glance, there is a holistic element in Heidegger’s thought: a holism shared by Sufism. Human beings are never alone, but in a situatedness of being-in-the-world and being-with-others. Everything is entangled with everything else in a web of relationships. When Heidegger pulls something out of the world, everything associated with it—and ultimately the whole universe—comes out as well. You are embedded in your world, immersed in your world. Human being and Being have to be considered as unitary. To make this even clearer, you are your world. (“The universe and I came into being together; I and everything therein are One.”—Chuang Tzu.)
1927, the year Being and Time was published, also marked the famous Solvay Conference on quantum physics—where the object-subject distinction is negated, and the experimenter and the experimented are treated as a single system, an indivisible whole. As the famous physicist Niels Bohr said more than once, “We are both spectators and actors in the great drama of existence.” And physicist John Wheeler added that if the observer changes what s/he observes, this “destroys the concept of the world ‘sitting out there’ with the observer safely separated from it… the universe is a participatory universe.” Perhaps Heidegger’s success rests partly on the fact that he gave voice to the (scientific) spirit of his times.
How Does Entification Take Place?
Heidegger does not give us the slightest inkling about how Being “determines” beings as beings. Beyond saying that Being “unconceals”, “presences” or “discloses” beings, such an explanation is nowhere to be found in his philosophy.
Heidegger did his habilitation thesis of 1916 on Duns Scotus (actually on Thomas of Erfurt, as it later turned out). Now it so happens that the Islamic scholar Avicenna (Ibn Sina) was the starting point for Duns Scotus’ thinking, with whom he was largely in agreement. Furthermore, historians and translators in 12th-century Toledo had provided a comprehensive Arabic-Latin philosophical vocabulary, where such words as mâhiya (whatness: quidditas, essentia), wujûd (being: esse, existere), mawjûd (being, entity: ens), and so on, could be found. What Duns Scotus did was to find Latin equivalents for the Arabic terms Avicenna used.
One of the terms used by Scotus was haecceity (“thisness”), the property in each individual thing that makes it unique. And in the 20th century, this is precisely the term that Henry Corbin used to translate a difficult concept of Ibn Arabi’s—“immutable essence” (ayn thâbita, plural âyân thâbita), which Corbin rendered as “(eternal) hexeity”.
Besides hexeities, the âyân have been variously translated as immutable essences, immutable archetypal-entities, permanent archetypes, and fixed entities, none of which seem to make immediate sense. What could they be referring to? Could they, for instance, be the equivalent of Platonic Ideas/Forms?
Ibn Arabi specialist William Chittick has suggested that what (roughly) correspond to Platonic archetypes are, not the âyân, but the Divine Names of God. Rather, the âyân are the blueprints and/or prototypes of actually existing entities. Creatures are the “shadows” (projections) of these prototypes that, in their turn, are the shadows of the Attributes and Names of God. (p. 6.)
The âyân exist only in God’s Knowledge as quiddity (whatness: mâhiyya), in contrast to “concrete existence” (mawjûd), actualized within the four-dimensional spacetime continuum and accessible to our physical senses. Indeed, Ibn Arabi writes, “The entities (âyân thâbita) have never smelt—and will never smell—the fragrance of existence.” (Bezels of Wisdom, chapter on Enoch.)
Here’s how this works: For every entity to be entified, God determines or fixes a model (mithâl) or image in His Knowledge. (One of God’s Beautiful Names is al-Alim: the All-knowing.) This is why they are called “fixed” entities.
Once this has happened, three more of God’s Beautiful Names come into play: the Creator, the Producer, the Fashioner. These are mentioned together in the Koran (al-Khaliq, al-Bârî, al-Musawwir, 59:24), and often work in unison. The famed scholar Ghazzali has outlined how this happens:
- The Creator determines the parameters of a being within certain quantitative measures (miqdar, taqdir) and entifies it.
- The Producer, also translated variously as Inventor, Maker, Modeler, Designer, or Evolver, designs and bestows differences on entities of the same kind (in the way that every human being has a different fingerprint).
- The Fashioner, also called the Shaper and the Bestower of forms and properties, gives beings their shapes and implements finishing touches.
As Ghazzali explains in his Ninety-Nine Beautiful Names of God:
Al-Khaliq—the Creator, Al-Bari’—the Producer, Al-Musawwir—the Fashioner. … everything which comes forth from nothing to existence needs first of all to be planned; secondly, to be originated according to the plan; and thirdly, to be formed after being originated. God—may He be praised and exalted—is creator [khaliq] inasmuch as He is the planner [muqaddir], producer [bari’] inasmuch as He initiates existence, and fashioner [musawwir] inasmuch as He arranges the forms of the things invented in the finest way.
This can be likened to building, for example, which requires an appraiser to estimate what he will need by way of wood, bricks, and land area, as well as the number of buildings with their length and their breadth. This latter is the responsibility of an architect, who will sketch and design them. Then it requires a builder responsible for the work which begins with the foundations of the buildings. Then it needs a decorator to chisel its exterior and to enhance its appearance, and someone other than the builder assumes this responsibility. This is what is customary in planning, building, and designing, but it is not like that in the actions of God—great and glorious. For He Himself is planner and originator and decorator—since He is the Creator, the Producer, and the Fashioner. (p. 68.)
A Turkish commentator on Ibn Arabi’s Bezels of Wisdom (Fusus al-Hikam), Ahmet Avni Konuk, has compared this to the process by which an artist produces a painting. (The same would hold for a sculptor with a statue, or an engineer with a product.)
When an artist decides to paint a picture, he first conceives of its idea in his mind. The concept slowly takes form as details are fleshed out. The painting passes through various design stages until it reaches a finished state. In the meantime, the artist may already have begun to apply his paintbrush to the canvas. When the artist is finished, the painting is finally ready to be put on display.
The image or model of the painting in the artist’s mind remains exactly there: in his mind. It never itself becomes existent in the physical world. Once fixed, there is no alteration in the model. There remains only the fashioning in reality. With that image in mind, the artist, if s/he wishes, can produce a hundred copies of the same painting, each slightly different than all the others. As long as the form of that painting is not determined in the knowledge of the artist, the act of painting cannot take place.
A Sufi Story: Where is God?
A Bektashi dervish asked a hodja: “Tell me about God.”
The hodja began:
“God is like nothing else. He is not born, nor does he bear offspring. He is neither on the earth nor in the sky. He does not eat, drink, or sleep. He has no place, no time, no hands, no ears, no tongue. He is not on the left, nor on the right, neither above nor below…”
As the hodja was going on like that, the dervish stopped him: “You’re trying to say God doesn’t exist, but you can’t quite bring yourself to say it!”
This is the danger of accepting transcendence/Incomparability (see below) in the absence of its opposite.
Many philosophers, with their great reliance on their mental acumen, are in the situation of the hodja. Because they can’t prove logically (by reason alone) that God exists, and they think God is wholly transcendent, they conclude that God does not exist.
But the human mind has its limits. As the Ottoman poet Ziya Pasha observed:
The perception of its meaning is beyond the intellect,
For these scales cannot bear that much weight.
Just as the mind can’t substitute for any of the five senses, neither can it substitute for spiritual or mystical experience. For human beings are endowed with a faculty—present in all, but dormant in most people—that allows them to perceive the truth regarding God. Without that perception, nothing else will suffice, just as nothing can replace eyesight. The mystic, said the American philosopher Josiah Royce,
gets his reality not by thinking, but by consulting the data of experience. He is not stupid. And he is trying, very skilfully, to be a pure empiricist. Indeed, … the mystics are the only thoroughgoing empiricists in the history of philosophy. (Emphasis added.)
Although the transcendent aspect of God is beyond the five physical senses, this is not nothingness, but the potentiality to presence/bring into being all physical existence (to “world” or “worlding”: Ger. Welten, Ar. takwin, genesis, to kawn, to generate, to “universe”; Mukawwin: He who produces the universe; from kun, the command to “Be”). This cannot be called nothing(ness). Nor can it be called “a” being (seiend).
Transcendence and Immanence
Heidegger makes room for transcendence in his thought. For him, transcendence is “going beyond”. It is Dasein who transcends, and when this occurs, human being transcends from beings to Being.
As far as immanence is involved, Heidegger is right: “Being is not a thing” (p. 3), it “transcends” things. This is similar to what Sufis mean when they say God is “not a thing” (la shay): not “nothing”, but something unlike all other things (shay bi-khilaf al-ashya, or shay la ka-l-ashya). (A better word might be the “Thing-er”, the Entifier of things.)
Perhaps Being and time are linked through their incomparability to other things. For God’s Being extends not only throughout all space, but also throughout all time (immanence)—and indeed, beyond all space-time entirely (transcendence). Heidegger also says: “Time is not a thing” (p. 3) and is careful to differentiate between Being and time: “true time … gives Being.” And according to the Prophet, “Time (dahr) is God.”
Heidegger believes God is wholly transcendent, not immanent, and he deals only with the immanent. “The god [der Gott] is neither a ‘being’ [seiend] nor a ‘nonbeing’ [unseiend] and is also not to be identified with beyng [Being].”
What if, however, God is not only transcendent but also immanent? Or, to use an oft-mentioned observation of Ibn Arabi, God is both Similar (tashbih) but also Incomparable (tanzih) to all other things? The Koran itself states in the same verse: “There is nothing like Him, He is the All-hearing, the All-seeing” (42:11). The first part of the verse is a statement of Incomparability, the second, of Similarity. Thus, the two are expressed together in a single verse. We will fall into error unless we take both together. As Ibn Arabi points out in The Bezels of Wisdom:
If you insist only on His transcendence, you restrict Him,
And if you insist only on His immanence you limit Him.
If you maintain both aspects you are right,
An Imam [leader in religion] and a master in the spiritual sciences.
Whoso would say He is two things is a polytheist,
While the one who isolates Him tries to regulate Him.
Beware of comparing Him if you profess duality,
And, if [you profess] unity, beware of making Him transcendent.
(Bezels of Wisdom, tr. Ralph Austin, chapter on Noah.)
In both cases, what one does is in effect to limit the Illimitable. To clarify further: if you say God is transcendent only, there will be two existents: God and the world. You will thus be setting up the world as an associate to God, a dualist position and a grave error. And if you say He is only immanent, you will be limiting God to the observable universe, which is pantheism.
Further, there are two dangers in Incomparability and Similarity taken in isolation from each other. Emphasis on Incomparability leads to apophatic (negative) theology, and can result in arguing God out of existence. (This is the calamity that, alas, befell Heidegger, for his is a negative theology.) Emphasis on Similarity can result in the worship of a human being. So God must be both transcendent and immanent, both Incomparable and Similar.
With his trust in the Greek language, in the philosophers who came before him, and in his own mental powers, Heidegger paints himself into a corner from which it is impossible for him to extricate himself. There is nothing within his coordinate system, his life-world or lived experience (lebenswelt), that will serve to liberate him. By the power of his thought, he intuits a partial way forward, but it is not enough.
Heidegger and Mysticism
In his habilitation thesis of 1916, Heidegger had noted that in the Middle Ages, “scholasticism and mysticism belong essentially together.” The late Heidegger returned to this view with a vengeance: in lectures from 1955 to 1956 he claimed that “the most extreme sharpness and depth of thought belongs to genuine and great mysticism.” Most notably, he was influenced by Meister Eckhart, whose cryptic sayings closely approximate the style of the Sufis.
In his later years, he was also interested in Zen Buddhism. According to one anecdote, he remarked about one of D. T. Suzuki’s books: “If I understand this man correctly, this is what I have been trying to say in all my writings.” There are indeed striking similarities between Zen and Heidegger. (For one who subscribes to a naturalist or physicalist worldview, Zen is the furthest point to be reached along the path of mysticism.) He arrives at his conclusions, however, solely by mentation and not via a mystical experience: his thinking is “mystic-like.”
As John Caputo has concluded: “The existence of a mystical element in Heidegger’s thought, the profound analogy of Heidegger with the mystic, can no longer be doubted.” (p. 218.) More recently, Judith Wolfe has spoken of “Heidegger’s a-Christian quasi-mysticism”. (Heidegger and Theology (2014), p. 138.) (Of course, Heidegger was no mystic himself, and took no interest in Islam or Sufism.)
Heidegger and Ibn Arabi
We have been noting various parallels between Heidegger’s and Ibn Arabi’s thoughts. We come now to a more detailed comparison.
Heidegger’s starting point was the difference between Being (Sein), in the universal sense, and beings (Seiende), which are particular instantiations of Being. Ibn Arabi, too, distinguishes between beings (sing. mawjûd, pl. mawjûdât) and Being (wujûd). And of course, Ibn Arabi surpasses Heidegger in his philosophy of the “Unity of Being”. While Heidegger was finally unable to reach a satisfactory solution to the question of Being, Ibn Arabi had already proclaimed its unity centuries before: the “Unity of Being” (wahdat al-wujûd)—a term coined by his adopted son and disciple, Sadruddin Qunawi. As Toshihiko Izutsu has explained, “the revolutionary break with the Aristotelian tradition of ontology which Heidegger regards as something unprecedented was already accomplished [a] long time ago by the philosophers of the wahdat al-wujûd school”. (p. 46-7.)
In a more recent study, Robert Dobie concluded:
… the word, wujud, “being” or “existence,” has precisely many of the phenomenological connotations that Heidegger sees in the originary understanding of Being. And Ibn ‘Arabi is particularly adept at bringing out many of these. Perhaps most pertinently, Ibn ‘Arabi sees wujud or existence as constituted by the play of Manifestation and Nonmanifestation: on the one hand all things manifest Being by virtue of the fact that they are “found” in the world by us; but by the same token, Being itself remains hidden in all of these manifestations, because Being as such does not manifest itself in any particular manifestation. This is because all manifest things are limited, possible beings, whose essence does not imply their existence… Thus, as Ibn ‘Arabi says, “God is identical with the existence of the things, but He is not identical with the things.” (p. 316.)
Master Ahmet Kayhan put it this way: “God exists in every particle, but every particle is not God.” As Dobie further observes, there is “a real convergence between Ibn ‘Arabi and a phenomenological understanding of being like one that we find in Heidegger.” (p. 321.) But because Ibn Arabi’s thinking is based on the Koran, the convergence does not result in a real meeting.
The Unity of Being
Souad Hakim introduces the Unity of Being in the following way:
Ibn ‘Arabî considers that only He who possesses Being in Himself (wujûd dhâtî) and whose Being is His very essence (wujûduhu ‘ayn dhâtihi), merits the name of Being. Now only God can be like that. For the creatures, Being is a loan, which is not part of their essence. This means that a creature does not own its being, that it can never be independent in itself, and that it cannot for the blinking of an eye do without Him who lends it Being. Thus for Ibn ‘Arabî, the created does not deserve the attribution of Being. Only God is Being, and all the rest is in reality a possibility (imkân), a relative, possible non-existence.
Thus Being is Divine Essence. Indeed, if the Being of God were an adjunct to His Essence, then Absolute Unity (wahdâniyya) would be done away with. Besides, for Ibn ‘Arabî, since Being is the Divine Essence, if a creature claimed to possess Being, it would be claiming to share with God in His Divinity.
In his Meccan Revelations, Ibn Arabi writes: “God, exalted is He, […] is described as Absolute Being […] and to know Him means knowing His Being. And His Being is not other than His Essence. But His Essence cannot be known. Only His Attributes are knowable” (Futûhât, I.118).
Even the term Appropriation [Ereignis] has its correlate in Ibn Arabi’s philosophy:
The Divine Names turned towards the all-comprehensive (al-jâmi’) Name “Allâh”, asking of Him to see their effects in a created world. Their request was granted, creation began and the entities of the possibilities (al-a’yân al-mumkinât) left the immutable non-existence to become a place (locus) receiving the effects of the Names. (Ibid.)
It is thus that their Appropriating [Ereignen] comes about. This is the ‘letting be’ (lassen) quality of Being itself as a letting-come-to-presence: “letting” is “giving.” Ibn Arabi called this the “breath of the All-Compassionate” (“All-Merciful” in some translations). In a 1945 lecture on Heraclitus, Heidegger himself speaks of the “breathing in and out” of all beings (where they take their share from and give back to Being) and that of Being itself. As Heidegger put it: “Now Beyng is that which lets each and every being be what it is and how it is, precisely because Beyng is the freeing that lets every single thing rest in its abiding fullness; that is, Beyng safeguards each and every thing.” (p. 4.)
The Five Presences
Ibn Arabi’s vision, however, goes far beyond Heidegger’s. This is because Heidegger is only trying to think truth, whereas Ibn Arabi has seen the Truth (the Real) itself: he is speaking from actual, lived experience.
Ibn Arabi’s concept of the Five Presences (hazarât al-khamsa), called “the Five Planes of Being” by Toshihiko Izutsu and also referred to as “levels” (marâtib) or “worlds” (awâlim), used the term “presence” hundreds of years before Heidegger. The difference is that Heidegger confined his discourse only to the lowest level of these Divine Presences—the physical world. As Izutsu explains:
What is of primary importance is to know that the world of Being is structured in terms of levels or planes and that these planes are related to each other in an organic way. This means that anything that exists in the plane of sensible experience, for instance, has a corresponding existence also in the higher planes in a particular form peculiar to each plane, so that ultimately it goes back to the very Essence of the Absolute as its ontological ground. (p. 277.)
Nobody is going to surpass the empirical findings of the Sufis on the basis of cogitation alone, and especially not if that thinking is restricted solely to the level of physical existence. As a couplet from Niyazi Misri proclaims,
If the emperor of the whole world heard of this
He would give his life for just a drop of it.
Heidegger’s philosophy has no room for ethics. And herein lies its great failure. This is a confirmation of Nietzsche’s belief that with the “death” of the Christian God, the Western world’s foundation for morality has been destroyed.
The main deficiency of Heidegger’s philosophy is that it is amoral: it opens no space for morality—which, in Heidegger’s view, belongs in the realm of ideas and ideals. The problem, of course, is that on the road to immorality, amorality is already halfway there. One step gets you to amorality: take another step, and you land right in the middle of it.
This is a point to be considered in assessing Heidegger’s political missteps. In his effort to overcome “metaphysics,” as he calls it, Heidegger states the following:
“When one proclaims ‘God’ the altogether ‘highest value’ this is a degradation of God’s essence. Here as elsewhere, thinking in values is the greatest blasphemy imaginable against Being.”** (Letter on Humanism.)
And this is precisely the point where his philosophy runs off the cliff. First, he himself is engaging in metaphysics of his own. And second, what he says is the exact opposite of the truth. In the first sentence above, “degradation” should be replaced by “exaltation,” and in the next, “blasphemy against” should be replaced by “reverence for.” (I leave aside the lesser matter of talking about God’s essence, which Heidegger rightly considers “dangerous” elsewhere.) Further:
“… what we have called releasement [detachment from things, appropriation by Being] evidently does not mean the casting off of sinful selfishness and the letting go of self-will in favor of the divine will.” (p. 126.)
Yet “sinful selfishness” is the first thing that needs to be cast off for Appropriation to occur. Otherwise one cannot progress through the Sufis’ Seven Stations of Selfhood (which, of course, Heidegger is unaware of).
Thus does Heidegger shoot himself in the foot. Drew Hyland has said it better than I can:
… the problem with Heidegger’s position is not that it is inherently wicked but that it is ethically and politically vacuous. That is, the fault of his position is not that it led him to Nazism, or that it is implicitly or explicitly a defense of Nazism, but rather that there was nothing there to prevent it, to say no to it. Heidegger’s situation teaches us that the space opened up by a philosophy beyond good and evil, a philosophy which claims to excuse itself from questions of political and ethical commitment, is all too likely to be filled by [immorality, for nature abhors a vacuum].
… Nevertheless, having criticized Heidegger for this predicament, I hasten to add that he is just one particularly painful and troubling instantiation of a problem of twentieth-century philosophy itself. (After Heidegger? (2017), p. 8.)
This last points to a major weakness of modern philosophy as a whole: it is not immune to the dangers of delusion or misguidance. Throw away your moral compass, and you are as lost as Heidegger was, or even worse. If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there—“there” being, in this case, the hot place. The example of Heidegger provides a cautionary tale for those who would navigate this world shorn of morality.
A sizable secondary literature has built up around Heidegger in order to make him more comprehensible, and I have made extensive use of it. I am indebted to too many sources to be listed here. So I must content myself with a few pointers, in no particular order.
Martin Heidegger, Contributions to Philosophy (of the Event) (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2012).
George Steiner, Martin Heidegger (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991 ).
Laurence Paul Hemming, “Heidegger’s God,” in Heidegger Reexamined, Vol. 3: Art, Poetry, and Technology (New York: Routledge, 2002), pp. 249-294. For a longer treatment, see the same author’s Heidegger’s Atheism (2002). (That article is the basis for the chapter “Heidegger’s Critique of Theology” in the book.)
Richard Capobianco, Engaging Heidegger (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011).
David Law, “Negative Theology in Heidegger‘s Beiträge zur Philosophie,” Int. Jour. for Philosophy of Religion, Vol. 48, No. 3 (Dec., 2000), pp. 139-156.
Sonya Sikka, Forms of Transcendence: Heidegger and Medieval Mystical Theology (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1997).
William J. Richardson, “Heidegger’s Way Through Phenomenology to the Thinking of Being,” in Thomas Sheehan (ed.), Heidegger: The Man and the Thinker (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2010 ), pp. 79-93. This is the summary, approved by Heidegger himself, of Richardson’s subsequent mammoth study, Heidegger: Through Phenomenology to Thought (1963). See also Sheehan’s introduction to the edited volume (pp. vii-xx).
Frank Darwiche, “… Vers le dieu: le soufisme d’Ibn ‘Arabi et la pensée de Heidegger,” in Hawliyat, issue 15, 2014, pp. 85-116. (“… Towards “God”: the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi and the Thought of Heidegger.” Also here.)
Robert J. Dobie, “The Phenomenology of Wujud in the Thought of Ibn Al-‘Arabi,” in Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka (ed.), Timing and Temporality in Islamic Philosophy and Phenomenology of Life (Dordrecht, Holland: Springer, 2007), pp. 313-327.
Souad Hakim, “Unity of Being in Ibn ‘Arabî – A Humanist Perspective.”
* “As do many other interpreters of Heidegger’s work, Derrida thinks that Heidegger has only repeated on the philosophical level Christian schemes of thinking in trying to eliminate their original theological contents. Heidegger could be therefore considered a crypto-Christian….” (p. 294.) “Heidegger was a Judeo-Christian thinker”—Derrida (p. 172).
** Why does Heidegger think so? Because in his view, “[Christian believers and theologians talk about] the being that is of all beings most in being [vom Seiendsten alles Seienden], without ever letting it occur to them to think on being [Sein] itself…” “God, the first of beings [das Seiende des Seienden], is [thus] degraded to the highest value.” (p. 244n18.)
In other words, even if God is assigned the highest value, He is still a being, albeit the greatest one, and thus subordinate to Being, which is prior to God. This makes God a creature of Being, a highest thing among things. God ceases to be Necessary Being and becomes a contingent being like all other beings. But according to Ibn Arabi, God is Being (Sein) itself, not another being among beings.