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The Eternal First Spring: Births, Re-Births and the Cycle of Time in Sufism

And such days We hand out in turns to mankind!

Qurʾan (3:140)

Indeed, time has circled in its original form on the day God created the heavens and earth!

Prophet Muhammad ﷺ

Peace be upon me the day I was born, the day I die and the day I’m raised alive!

On the tongue of Jesus Christ, may God’s benedictions be upon him, Qurʾan (19:33)

The Muslim lunar calendar will soon enter its third month, Rabiʿ al-Awwal (First Spring). As the processional days of this period unfold, millions of Muslims around the world, especially those adhering to the mystical strand of Islam (Sufism), will be celebrating the auspicious event of the Prophet Muhammad’s mawlid (birth), may God’s benedictions be upon him; an event that is believed to have occurred on the 12th of this month.

The spiritual significance of the Prophet’s birth for these Muslims is not merely the commemoration of a historical event in the past, but rather a re-invigoration and re-ignition of the divine spark of realization that, as God had and still reveals in scripture, “And know that among you/within you is the Messenger of God” (49:7) In other words, this is a reminder that the Prophet Muhammad, as a Walking Qurʾan - as he was described by his wife ʿAʾisha - and an embodiment of God’s Word, is always being reborn in the hearts and souls of his devotees.

In La Maison Muhammadienne (The Muhammadan House), Claude Addas states that the Prophet Muhammad is not merely the historical founder of Islam or its chief legislator, but rather the very eternally living soul and spirit of the faith. This is perhaps why the prominent Sufi master Hisham Kabbani stated, when asked about the permissibility of celebrating the Prophet Muhammad’s birth, that: “Without the Prophet’s birth, there is no Islam!”

A few years ago, the season of celebrating the Prophet’s birth coincided precisely with Christmas, Christ mass, the sending forth of Jesus Christ. Although 12th of Rabiʿ al-Awwal was around the 22nd or 23rd of December; that was the closest coincidence between these two holy occasions, until the Muslim lunar calendar repeats itself in 33 years.

The significance of the overlap of the births of the Prophet Muhammad and Jesus Christ pertains to the fact that the birth of Jesus, his mother the virgin Mary and Yahya (John the Baptist) are the only three prominent births mentioned in the Qurʾan. In mainly two chapters, Al-ʿImran (the family of Imran) and Maryam (Mary), the Muslim scripture recounts in exquisite detail the birth of Mary, John the Baptist and Jesus.

The glorious finale to this sacred narrative, specifically as it unfolds in Chapter 19 (Maryam), provides us with an enlightening gate through which to approach the significance of these holy births from the perspective of Sufism. These are two very similar verses, the first on the tongue of John the Baptist, about whom God says: “Peace be upon him the day he was born, the day he dies and the day he is raised alive!” (19:15). Jesus, speaking in the first person, says: “Peace be upon me the day I was born, the day I die, and the day I’m raised alive!” (19:33).

In order to fully explore the mystical significance of these traces, we return to our interlocutor, the 13th century Andalusian Sufi polymath Muhyi al-Din Ibn al-ʿArabi (d. 1240), who allocates an entire chapter in his second most important work, Bezels of Wisdom, to Jesus Christ. As a barzakh (isthmus) between the worlds of arwah (spirits) and ajsam (bodies), the Messiah is a nexus of hayra (perplexity) for Ibn al-ʿArabi. He remarks that resurrecting the dead, curing the lepers and molding birds from clay that become alive through his breath was an unprecedented feat for the Israelites. Although they were familiar with such miracles occurring on the hands of angels, the outward human appearance of Jesus caused much perplexity in those around him.

However, according to Ibn al-ʿArabi, this is a fact that is not unique to Jesus, but rather the Prophet of Islam Muhammad, may God’s benedictions be upon him, also embodies this perplexity. The Andalusian mystic refers specifically to the Qurʾanic verse: “And you did not throw, when you threw, but God threw!” (9:17). Ibn al-ʿArabi asks rhetorically: “So who threw? God or Muhammad? If you say that God threw, you are correct ... If you say Muhammad threw, you are correct”.

So what exactly is the connection between Muhammad’s and Jesus’s perplexing embodiment of God’s Word and their births? It is precisely the divine imperative of God’s casting forth the Word upon the cosmos, which, as Ibn al-ʿArabi informs us, is naught but nafas al-rahman (the Breath of the Merciful), that most transcendent feminine rahim (womb) that envelops the cosmos with compassion.

For mystics like Ibn al-ʿArabi, the physical manifestation of Muhammad and Jesus in the world is the penultimate and grand finale to the symphony of creation, the completion of humanity’s journey to manifest al-insan al-kamil al-tamm (perfect and complete man). That last cadence in this eternal spring of the cosmos was the embodiment of the Word, manifest augustly in the person of Jesus Christ. For Ibn al-ʿArabi, the Prophet Muhammad is then the al-kalima wa-l-hadra al-jamiʿa (encompassing Word and Presence), the synthesis and perfection of humanity’s journey.

“I was a Hidden Treasure and loved to be known, so I created the creation so that I may be known by them”, so goes perhaps the most well known prophetic statement among Sufis, where God explains the purpose of creation. And we may say here that the eternal spring of the Jesus-principle of creation is the Divine breath and creative Word imprinting itself upon the empty canvas of the cosmos, the human heart. Meanwhile, the eternal spring of the Muhammadan-principle is the spiritual fermentation of that Word as it transforms the bodily vessel into a perplexing nexus of flesh and spirit.

Reality is perplexity, perplexity is anxiety and movement and movement is life

Ibn al-ʿArabi

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