[Ink and Letters]

“Suppose we are reading a book. Our attention naturally is drawn toward the written letters. What strikes our eyes are primarily letters. We take notice only of the letters. We do not see the ink with which they are written. We are not even aware of the ink, while in reality we are seeing nothing other than various forms assumed by the ink. A slight shift of viewpoint will immediately make us realize that the letters are but of a ‘fictitious’ (i’tibari) nature. What really exists before our eyes is ink, nothing else. The seeming reality of letters is after all due to social convention. They are not realities (haqa’iq) in the most fundamental sense. Yet, on the other hand, it is equally undeniable that the letters do exist and are real in so far as they are various forms assumed by the ink which is the sole reality in this case.

Everything in this world is comparable to a letter in its double nature that has just been explained. Those who perceive only letters without taking notice of the underlying reality of ink are those whose eyes are ‘veiled’ by the letters. To this fact refers the famous Hadith which says: ‘God is concealed behind seventy thousand veils of light and darkness.’ Those of the people of this kind who recognize only the veils and do not recognize the hidden God behind them are, theologically, outspoken and straightforward infidels. Those who know at least vaguely the existence of the invisible God behind and beyond the visible veils are believers and monotheists in an ordinary sense. But they are imperfect monotheists or imperfect ‘men of unification’ (muwahhidun) because what they actually perceive is nothing but letters, while in reality the ink is so clearly and nakedly visible in the letters. Letters are not even veils, for they are the ink. It is in reference to this point that Ibn Arabi says: ‘It is the empirical world that is a mystery, something eternally hidden and concealed, while the Absolute is the eternally Apparent that has never concealed itself. The ordinary people are in this respect completely mistaken. They think that the world is the apparent and the Absolute is a hidden mystery.’

But, Haydar Amuli continues to say, those who see only and exclusively the ink without taking notice of the letters are also imperfect monotheists, for their eyes are veiled by the ink from the vision of the concrete forms assumed by the ink itself. A real ‘man of unification’ must be a ‘man of two eyes’ (dhu ‘aynayn) whose vision is veiled by nothing—neither by ink nor by letters—a man, in other words, who sees Unity in Multiplicity and Multiplicity in Unity.”

Source: Toshihiko Izutsu, The Concept and Reality of Existence, pp.73-74

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