The Two Waters


"He released the two seas meeting side by side. Between them is a barrier which neither may transgress."

Qur'an 55:19-20

"[Qur'an 37:143-4] "Now had he [Jonah] not been of those that glorify God, he would have tarried in its belly until the day they shall be raised". Thus the Quran confers an eschatological dimension on the belly of the fish in which Jonah is confined and posits an internal parallelism between this belly and the place beyond the barzakh. As such, both spaces are conceived of as sites of temporary confinement until the day of the final resurrection"

Tommaso Tesei The Barzakh and the Intermediate State of the Dead in the Quran

"The Barzakh is nothing but Imagination. If you possess the power of reasoning and you perceive the image you realize that you have perceived an affair of existence, on which your sight has fallen. But you immediately know, with manifest certainty, that originally there was nothing there to be witnessed. Then what is the thing for which you have affirmed entified existence, and that you negated even in the very state of affirming it? Imagination is neither existent nor non existent, neither known or unknown, neither affirmed nor negated. A person who sees his image in the mirror knows decisively that he has perceived his form in some respect and that he has not perceived his form in some other respect. Then if he says: "I saw my form I did not see my form," he will be neither a truth teller nor a liar. What is then the truth of the perceived form? The form is negated and affirmed, existent and nonexistent, known and unknown. God manifested this truth to the servant as a sign so that he realizes that once he has become incapable of recognizing the truth [of the liminal nature of the image], although it is an affair of this world, then he knows that he is even more incapable in relation to the knowledge of its Creator."

Ibn Arabi, from Salman Bashier's Barzakh: The Concept of the Limit and the Relationship Between God and the World


'Eternity' Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis

The Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish tells of an original state of co-mingled waters pre existent to the Gods. In Sumerian and Mesopotamian mythology these two waters were known as Abzu, underground fresh water, and Tiamat, salt water. In their unified existence the Gods were born who would go on to subvert Abzu's lordship and eventually separate the two lovers. In the process of their separation the world as we know it would be formed.

In the two quotes from the Qur'an above we see an explicit connection between the two waters and eschatology, or ideas about the afterlife. In Surah Ar Rahman (55) the word that is used to describe the barrier between these two waters is barzakh, denoting a liminal space, wall, or mirror which cannot be transgressed. The word barzakh has come to be associated with the afterlife or even a kind of waiting place in Islamic theology. Many have put forward their rational, mystical, and literary interpretations for what this term might represent, yet in my estimation, the insights of Ibn Arabi go the furthest in explicating the nature of this most elusive dimension. 

The above quote illustrates a kind of double mirror wherein the barzakh is both beyond trespassing as well as representative of some larger part of God's design. As Ibn Arabi describes it, it is through differentiation that we may come to understand unity. Being reflective on both sides or a two way mirror, the barzakh is by its very nature liminal. In fact, this is the way it is referred to in the Qur'an. Another word that is often used to describe the barzakh is imaginal. Popularized in the West by the works of French scholar Henry Corbin, the concept of the imaginal also connotes a creative in-between realm very much distinct from imaginary or fantastical. Rather, this is a realm of symbol, revelation, and mystical communication. 

It is here that I wish to outline the connections between the imaginal barzakh realm and the mythological notion of co-mingling waters. Returning to the Enuma Elish, the world as we know it came about through the separation of fresh water and salt water. Due to the life sustaining nature of fresh water as well as its underground location, we may liken the Absu to life which is in potential but not yet manifested. Water in its purest state does not contain salt. Once more, this is the element in potential. It is only through the element's lived experience that it begins to accumulate minerals as it flows through the water cycle into the ocean becoming salty. In this respect salt water represents the Dead, or lived experience in time, but also the seemingly infinite nature of the Spirit or Other World in manifestation. Just as Moses parted the Red Sea leading to the freedom and rebirth of a people, so too does the separation of waters represent the locus of manifestation as well as obscuration. Once the Israelites had crossed over, the waters closed once more destroying the army of Pharaoh, signaling the end of that chapter and the beginning of a new one. 

Similar to Adam and Eve's consumption of the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, so does the separation of the Waters inaugurate the world as we know it; that of consciousness. Herein lies a danger. Philosophers, theologians, and the like have consistently found themselves debating the nature of dualism, monism, and the way in which God's unitary nature interacts with the World's multiplicitous and ever changing one. Though many cultures explicitly acknowledge the inextricable connection between these polarities, there has been a consistent trend in so called 'Western' or Abrahamic thought to question this fundamental unity and draw clean lines between them. It is important to point out that the Two Waters are exactly that, two waters, wherein both are fundamentally of the same substance. Somewhere between the abstracted potential and the lived time which leads to death we find the barzakh as an ever shifting space marking what it is to be-betwixt. 

Vesica Pisces by Hildegard von Bingen

As I discussed in my 'Anicon Holy Icon' post (here), the tombs of the dead are associated with the barzakh as a place where the dead are judged, dwell, and wait before resurrection and paradise. Womb imagery is often likened to the Tomb, the similarity of the word and their connotations often not unnoticed. Here we have an opening which is capable of both birthing and occultation. Ibn Arabi's description of the Barzakh is exactly both/and, neither/and, paradoxical and mirroring. In order for manifestation to occur de-manifestation must also occur at some level. This is the intimate connection between life and death, the two waters of the same substance yet somehow divided. 

Interestingly, the story of Jonah is an excellent fit for the watery metaphor as he exists within the belly of a living being while still remaining submerged in the ocean. In this state Jonah is between life and death, not fully manifested and not fully out occulted. This makes sense in regards to the Dead, fundamentally as beings who are still with us yet not, as well as the notion of the imaginal described above. Ibn Arabi asks us to ponder any given form only to remind us that it both exists and does not exist. 

I find the metaphor of water to be quite helpful in describing the barzakh, the imaginal, and eschatology in general for these reasons. Fresh water being distinctly important for life as we know it, yet sharing the same substance with salty water, being representative of accumulated experience in time. Just as skeletons are often used to represent death so are the salts and minerals in ocean water representative of time having passed. Both fresh and salt water may be representative of the past and the future depending on one's vantage point. The distinction can be found in a barzakh which represents the relative moment of 'now.' Imagination as Ibn Arabi understands it parallels this notion of forms coming and going, the imaginal being the locus of these acts. 

Creativity in action is exactly this. The erasure and disclosure of forms all happening at once..