by Gamal al-Ghitani

This article was first published in the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi Society, Vol. XXIII, 1998. It is the text of a paper delivered at a Society symposium in Oxford.

Gamal al-Ghitani in Cairo, 2008

This is an account by the Egyptian journalist and novelist Gamal al-Ghitani (1945-2015) of the profound place in his life and writings of Ibn 'Arabi. One of his novels (published between 1983 and 1986) takes its title from Ibn 'Arabi's Kitāb al-Tajalliyāt. For this novel he won the "Laure Bataillon" in 2005, a French award for translated literature, and one of the highest French awards to be bestowed on non-French writers. His last novel, Ren, was published in 2008, and also received international recognition, the Sheikh Zayed Book Award. From 1993 to 2011, he was the editor-in-chief of Akhbar Al-Adab, one of Egypt's primary literary magazines.

Gamal al-Ghitani passed away on 18 October 2015.

Originality Under the Guardianship of Ibn 'Arabi

by Gamal al-Ghitani

"Whomever I approach from without is never happy, and whomever I approach from within is never wretched."

Ibn 'Arabi, al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya

I have known this state twice in my life, and during my journey to the joys of writing. What I mean is the rediscovery of the link which actually exists between a great shaykh and myself. He is separated from me by many centuries.

The first time I knew this state was with my venerable master, Muhammad Ahmad ibn Iyas al-Hanafi al-Masri, the well-known historian, who wrote about the events of the Ottoman invasion in the 16th century AD (10th century AH). I was attached to his book, The Marvels of the Flowers in the Events of the Ages, which was edited by the late Dr Muhammad Mustafa. I did not read it, but I was living with it and memorising pages of it which I recited to my friends during my youth. My enthusiasm for the book was thus fired up. Nevertheless, I did not read it until the great disaster occurred, the effects of which we are still living with even now: I mean the defeat of the Egyptian army by Israel in the Sinai thirty years ago. However, it feels as though it took place just yesterday, because we are still living with the burden of its very real effects. During this period I have been shaken and have suffered pain. One of the ways for treating this pain has been to return to the companionship of the Cairene historian in order to know about, and to draw conclusions concerning, those days and what they brought. Equally, this was also a means of learning how people had faced hardship and how they had overcome it. I engrossed myself again in his book. It was as though I was recognising what it contained for the first time. There were detailed matters in this book, a thorough treatment of which would take much time and space. However, I shall be brief and say that one of the results of the rediscovery was the composition of my novel, Zayni Barakat.

I was to repeat this again but in a different way and under different circumstances. In 1980 I travelled to Europe. During that time, my dear father passed away. When I returned to Cairo on the 15th of November, my father had been dead to this world for seventeen days. That was the beginning of hardship and the most difficult sadness and grief that I have known. The hardship and sadness is that we hear about death and experience it through others. I knew it close up through the passing away of friends, particularly contemporaries of mine who had passed away prematurely. I knew it in peace, and I knew it in war through my knowledge as a war correspondent at the battlefront. However, when death invades our heart, the matter is different. With the passing away of my dear father, the biggest threshold leading to the heart, to my heart, collapsed. The fact that his passing away occurred during my absence greatly increased my sadness. There was no prior indication, no sickness, no weakness. Furthermore, I still, even now, can see his last expressions when I visited him to say farewell, as was my custom, a day before travelling. All this is described in detail in Kitāb al-Tajalliyāt (The Book of Manifestations), so I shall not dwell at length on this. However, I shall say briefly that with the occurrence of the hardship and my acquaintance with what had happened after my return, a great pain afflicted me. The most difficult thing that one can possibly know is missing someone and the complete loss of hope of seeing loved ones. Let me say briefly that the person who helped me overcome this hardship, and who took me under his shady and merciful wing, was our friend and our beloved Shaykh al-Akbar, Muhyiddln Ibn 'Arabi. This was through his Sufi encyclopaedia or universe which we know under the name of al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya. I rediscovered this work after the passing away of my dear father, because I had been acquainted with the Sufi heritage before, just as I had been acquainted with the book, The Marvels of the Flowers in the Events of the Ages, before the defeat of June 1967 and then rediscovered it afterwards. Exactly the same thing happened with the Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya and its author.

My passion for the Sufis and my connection to them goes back to my childhood, while the origin of this connection began with the tomb and place of rest of our master and our beloved al-Hussein, peace be upon him, which is in Cairo. This is because I grew up within sight of this tomb and used to walk around it. I used to pray there and became attached to it. My paths [in life] were opened at the sources of its most brilliant light, and the greenness which covered his tomb, and the fragrances of the rose water, and the incense, and the breaths of those perfect ones who have passed away and who have walked there before me and who have left their live coal [burning incense] in some of the high empty spaces. How much did the rhythms of the dhikr prayers affect my spirit! And the personal languishing voices which emitted a distinct yearning and desire for the attainment of the ultimate, the absolute. How much did the features of people which turned into echoes draw me! These echoes were so quick to depart from those who were walking about, and who were languishing with desire, or who were prostrate in prayer!

In an earlier time, I read al-Qushairi, al-Junayd, and al-Sha'rani; however, I did not know Sufism through reading. Rather, I knew it through growing up, through feeling, and through striving. Despite this, I was completely aware of the importance of the linguistic experience among the greatest of the Sufis. The language of Sufism is the result of deep spiritual states. It is not the result of a semantic artifice or rhetorical construct. Al-Niffari stated this concisely when he uttered his wonderful saying, "The more that vision expands, the narrower expression becomes." Every great master and every sincere disciple has their own particular language which attempts to comprehend the particularity of his experience. This language hopes to convey the visions experienced by him which prevailing linguistic means are incapable of expressing. I have always been amazed that this abundance of richness has not been incorporated into the midst of written Arabic literature.

With regard to language, there is an exterior and an interior. The exterior is what we know from rhetorical addresses, poetic texts, pieces of rhythmic prose, and literary epistles. All of these contain well-crafted rhetorical and verbal artifices. The interior is those languages to which the Sufis resort in order to express themselves. These languages transcend customary languages and means of expression which are made certain through study and artifice. For Sufis, language is a state – a means of expression – and what people experience cannot be comprehended by words. Thus, words appear like indications of the extremity of distance [between experience and expres­sion] on most occasions. The problem with which the Sufi wayfarer concerns himself resembles what the literary innovator faces. Both of them see the essence of the problem as being the meanings and spiritual experiences that they desire to express in words – in the customary framework of language – as a means of connection. How can these meanings and experiences be expressed? How can new words possibly be created? How can the distance between rapturous meanings, ebullient feelings, and visions blazing away in the spirit or mind and what emerges from the fingertips, written in ink, be narrowed? What an enormous difference there is between meanings and forms and inanimate matter with which human discourse takes place. By human discourse I mean speech and writing. In proportion to the narrowing of that dividing distance is the closeness and strength of expression. The experience of Sufis is considered the summit of both the modern and classical Arabic heritage, particularly among the great saints. At the forefront of these saints is Ibn 'Arabi, were it not for whom I would have died in 1980.

The pain was immense. The loss was dreadful. I was absorbed in the past, preoccupied with how to attain what was missing, what was distant. I know that everything is alive until death and that annihilation is necessary for what survives or lives. I also know that eternity is the fate of every living thing. However... the one who passed away was my father – and he was no ordinary father – he was as I knew him: steadfast in facing adversity and life, which is not easy. He was a simple man whom no one knew. The question which is central to my sadness and pain is: "Who shall remember him?" It is true that I am certain of the annihilation of every living thing in eternity. However, despite death, the ancient Egyptians undertook the impossible so that their names might be frequently spoken after their passing away. The Pharaonic, Coptic and Islamic tombs are teeming with phrases urging and pleading the living to repeat the name of the dead occupant. I was not writing the testimony of a tomb, rather I was in a vivid moment, in which I was facing forgetfulness, privation, concealment, and obliteration. Right up until now, I remem­ber this, and I am gripped by fear, when I spend long hours alone among my books, hoping to find succour, listening to Shaykh Muhammad Siddiq al-Minshawi al-Shaji's recitation of the Quran. The books I study are:

Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya
Rasā'il Ibn 'Arabī
Kitāb al-'Abādila

The works of the Shaykh al-Akbar are standing in a row above an entire corner of my library. Like the work of Ibn Iyas, I had studied some of these works before; however, that isolation which occurred in the wake of my discovery of Ibn Iyas after the June Defeat did not occur again. I began with the Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya. From the first lines, I drew close to his Sufi universe quickly and firmly. At the same time I was reading some works which helped me draw close to his world, to his terminology, and to his person. The most important of these at that time was the commemorative book that was published in Cairo in 1969 on the occasion of the 800th anniversary of his birth. There were also the works of Palacios, Corbin, and Dr Su'ad al-Hakim. Dr al-Hakim's amazing dictionary is a work that is a pearl of which I boast, and also a work that I shall never tire of consulting and attempting to comprehend.

I am saying that from the very first few lines I found what made me look at my painful state at that time. Let us look together at this passage which follows his poetic epistle to Shaykh 'Abd al-'Aziz al-Mahdawi. I was to visit his blessed tomb in Tunis in 1994.

Our Shaykh al-Akbar says, in his Futūḥāt (I, 9):

The praise of Allah is through the praise of praise and not through what is other than Him. Genuine blessings upon he who has been made to travel at night to His place of sitting down. Know oh you who are beloved, a friend [of Allah], educated and intelligent, that the wise person – if this world puts him at a distance from his partner and if the vicissitudes of time come between him and his close friend, then he will certainly know him through all he has done in his absence and through all the aphoristic pleasures he has acquired in his absence.

He also says:

Let the friend [of Allah] be congratulated – may Allah allow him to remain or live. The heart is sound and love – as is known – is abiding in the bosom.

Our Shaykh al-Akbar proceeds to elaborate what his book contains, what his structure is founded upon, and what revolves in his cosmos, until he reaches the first testimony, which he wanted to announce clearly. This is because of his utterly complete awareness of the preoccupation of some intellects and their inability to comprehend what he would go into. He says:

My brothers and beloved friends – may Allah be content with you – You have been called upon as a witness by a servant, weak, poor, and in need of Allah at every moment. He is the author of this book. He has called upon you to witness his soul, but after he has called upon Allah, His angels, and those of the believers who are present with him and listen to him that he has witnessed in speech and writing that:

Allah is a single god,
He has no second in his divinity,
He is free of wife and child,
He is an artificer, with whom there is no controller,
He is existent through His essence without any need for an existentiator to bring Him into existence; rather, every existent thing other than Him is in utter need of Him in its existence; all of the world is existent through Him, yet He alone is characterised by existence for Himself.

The text of this testimony is one of the precious pearls in Arabic prose. The truth is that it is not prose. It is not a propagated writing; rather, it is the visions of a solitary spirit in the form of words – those words before which our Shaykh al-Akbar was to stand, just as no-one had done before him and no-one after him.

I do not need to quote the whole testimony. If I had been able, and if space and time permitted, I would have mentioned the entire Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya. Equally, I am neither mentioning the structure of the Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya nor going into the depths of its contents. Rather, I am only stating that I found in its vastness that which calmed my state and which held back my emptying tears. I was facing an experience in language the like of which I had not known before. I was in need of comprehending its secrets and penetrating its facts and its essence. This was in the same way that the spontaneity of Ibn Iyas and al-Maqrizi had helped me to bring into existence a specific language which brought out the contents of my novel Zayni Barakat. The linguistic state of Ibn 'Arabi was a foundation – it was his narrator in the beginning and then proceeded from him to attempt to express my deep pain at the loss of my country, my old sadness for what happened to our master al-Hussein – may Allah be content with him, and for the passing away of Gamal 'Abd al-Nasir, and for the momentous changes to our country and our nation that followed his death, and for the family. This spiritual pain for the sake of everyone – high and low – found its potentiality in that sensitive language which is awash with lightning. This occurs whenever the inner passions are ablaze.

I am alluding here to the extension of the similarity of the Sufi linguistic experience in modern Arabic literature. I am saying that the reading of Opinions and Addresses by al-Niffari, or The Subtleties of Allusions by al-Qushairi, or the Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya by our master is not enough. Whoever prefers this without a deep spiritual experience will only prefer an outward appearance. However, vision produces the content and the outward appearance together. Vision creates the new state. I have relied upon the language of Ibn 'Arabi. I have made pains to penetrate into its secrets, into the essence of this essential writing which is rare in the entire corpus of Arabic prose, into that amazing imagination which runs free with its particular visions and its ability to manifest itself.

In this respect, the book Kitāb al-Tajalliyāt is thick with the presence of Ibn 'Arabi. He is a leading personality, and, as such, has guided me and solved problems that I have faced. He has made me see the truths of being and the details of humanity. Just as he ventures the propagation of an epistle in his amazing general introduction to the Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya, I have ventured the propagation of my view. What I want is to announce it to my people and to the children of mankind. Six-and-a-half years were spent in the writing of the Kitāb al-Tajalliyāt. Time shaped its production since my dear mother passed away three years into the writing of this book. It seems that the Kitāb al-Tajalliyāt is externally an expression of pain brought about by loss and death. However, essentially, it is an expression of life and the rare struggle on the part of those who are simple for the sake of the continuation of the dearest thing the Creator has given us. I did not witness the passing away of my father, but I was present when my mother passed away. When I entered to kiss her, she was both present to me and absent from me. Her features were exhausted from the violence of the final struggle. I appreciated her features. From the continuation of her struggle for our sake, I realised that life is never a jest. This is also what I learned and that to which I gave a firm foundation through our Shaykh al-Akbar who realised the secret.

Translated from the Arabic by Andrew Lane
First published in the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi Society, Vol. XXIII, 1998.