O Marvel! a garden amidst the flames.
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 Kaa’ba,
and the tables of the Torah and the book of the Quran.
I follow the religion of Love: whatever way Love’s camels take,
that is my religion and my faith.
Ibn Arabi, the great Sufi philosopher and poet, wrote this poem in the 12th Century CE. He lived through turbulent times. Born in Al Andalus, Moorish Spain, a land reputed for its openness of spirit, in his lifetime fundamentalism spread over North Africa and Spain. The intertwining of faiths and cultures that had flourished in the Arabic-speaking part of Spain was stifled as non-Muslims were exiled and Muslims were forced into ever-restricting bonds; while in the Christian part of Spain, the Dominican “black friars” were beginning to lend their fervour and scholarship to support the nascent Inquisition. In that climate – so close to the one prevailing in the world today! – Ibn Arabi’s poem winds its way into the mind like a tune that won’t leave us alone.
Many years ago, I had a dream about Al Andalus. I was going along a dusty road. In the distance behind me walked two black friars, Dominicans, whom I knew represented forces of intolerance and separation. I came upon a beautiful, intrically carved stone fountain in the moorish style, a rare treasure hidden from the world. The fountain was silent and dry, no water gushed from it. I felt around it, looking for a way to turn it on – it had to be done before the black friars caught up with me. Suddenly, I was surrounded by spirits – shades of the great men and women that had made Moorish Spain a place of beauty, openness and intellectual vigour. I recognisedthe scienties Ibn Rushd (Averroes), the theologian Maimonaides and the poetess Walladah, and many more, in their flowing robes, scarves, veils and turbans. As they approached me, they became more visible. They seemed to be greeting me as one of their own.
From their midst, Averroes stepped forward and, bending over, pulled a hidden lever on the side of the fountain. It sprang to life! He cupped his hands and filled them with water. “Drink”, he said – and I drank from his hands. It was the most delicious and refreshing water I had ever tasted, more heady and delicious than any wine. I drank more, straight from the fountain, and all around me smiled, becoming more and more substantial as they did. Averroes spoke again: “you may drink from this fountain whenever you need it, and share it with others. It is the fountain of Love and Brotherhood, of Tolerance and Intimacy, the fountain from which we all drink here. But beware of the two friars hovering nearby. They will destroy it if they know its real purpose – hide it and do not show them the lever.”
Averroes switched off the fountain and stepped back into the group. As the shades of Al Andalus faded, I stood alone by the silent fountain, brimming with joy and wonder. I had been initiated into a large, welcoming but secret company, of men and women who live beyond appearance and dogma, in a garden of flames and drinking of the fountain of life. The two black friars had made up the distance between us. They greeted me and looked curiously at the fountain. “What is this old thing?” they asked. I saw then the fountain through their eyes. Mean, crudely built, old but without patina or charm and shaped like a baptismal font. It had shrunk. I felt great sorrow for them and understanding, yet I knew I couldn’t show them what I saw – they would not see it. “Nothing, I answered. Just an old baptismal font.” They shrugged then, gave it and me one last suspicious look, nodded politely and walked on.
When I awoke, I wrote down the dream, though I didn’t understand its full sense. I came back to it many times over the years, in prose and poetry. But still, its inner meaning eluded me. At the time I had the dream, I didn’t know Ibn Arabi or his works. It was some years and many changes in my life before I discovered his poem. Then at last, I understood my dream.
Read the poem a few times and you realise just how shocking and revolutionary it is. What is it saying? Not – “I will tolerate other religions than mine.” Not – “I’ll learn about the others and accept them as equals.” Not – “all faiths are equal”. No. He is saying that his heart has become the receptacle for them all – not even limiting itself to monotheism, as you might expect of a Muslim: it has taken on the forms of all deities, their holiest symbols and places; it expresses Nature’s own spirits, her wildlife and growing bounty. It has no creed and no rule but Love, it follows no path set by others, but that inspired by Love – and so can give space for all paths to run, since all, in their essence, are Love. His heart is a cauldron which has distilled the dogmatic differences into a single unifying principle, the golden essence of spiritual initiation. What Ibn Arabi is demonstrating is spiritual alchemy. His heart has fulfilled the Great Work.
In the Crowley-Harris Thoth Tarot, there is a card called Art, which in other decks is usually called Temperance. The card refers to an alchemical process called the Chemical Wedding; that is, the marriage of opposites, the successful mixing of fire and water. The rainbow is one of its symbols, in which we can distinguish all colours of the spectrum, blending harmoniously one into the other and forming an overarching whole. Aleister Crowley mentions that the rainbow symbolises another stage of the alchemical Great Work, putrefaction: “At a certain period, as a result of putrefaction, there is observed a phenomenon of many- coloured lights…”
Transformation as radical as proposed by Ibn Arabi can’t happen without a cherished part of us dying and putrefying, to allow Love to grow on its compost. Especially if we have invested years in what is disappearing, it can be a painful moment of loss and disorientation, when what was certain and alive in us disintegrates. And make no mistake – it is no easier for those of us who have chosen to follow an “open” and “tolerant” spiritual path than it is for those who belong to a more authoritarian religious tradition. It can even be harder. For what we put in the cauldron may be the desire for an all-directing Will, the fixed nature of our deities, as well as the illusion that somehow, we are better than “the others” because we tolerate their difference.
Yet that very moment of loss and disorientation opens onto the ultimate stage of the Great Work, after which the heart becomes “capable of all forms”.
And in that final process, as the heart becomes the vessel of all forms transmuted into one essence, as it no longer “tolerates differences” but integrates and embodies all differences, our fellow travellers are those who have sat in the garden amidst the flames, drank the fountain’s water from each other’s hands and clothed themselves in its rainbow. Initiation is open to all but, captivated as they are by the single form they desire, not all will seek it, not all will hoist themselves on Love’s camels. And yet the caravan of Love keeps moving and anyone may join it who is willing to let die what separates them from their fellows.
I’ve come to understand that as long as I cannot say with Ibn Arabi – “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 Kaa’ba, and the tables of the Torah and the book of the Quran”, then for all my spiritual passion and commitment, for all the refinement of my will and the sacrifices I might endure, for all the knowledge and wisdom of my mind – I will not be following the only path that encompasses and enriches all others – the religion of Love.