Stephen Hirtenstein and Hülya Küçük

The paper is reprinted from the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi Society, Vol. 58, 2016.

Physical Sustenance in Sufi Literature

A case-study of a treatise by ʿAbd Allah al-Būsnawī – Lubb al-lubb fī bayān al-akl wa l-shurb

Stephen Hirtenstein and Hülya Küçük


The primary subject connected to sustenance in Sufi literature is self-knowledge. Many Sufi authors stress the importance of knowing the self, referring often to the saying “He who knows his self, knows his Lord”, which they regard as an authentic ḥadīth. They maintain that man is created in God’s form/image, or rather in the form/image of al-Raḥmān (the All-Compassionate).[1] Al-Ghazālī prefers the second version, saying that the human being cannot be created in Allah’s image, since the word Allah refers to His Essence (dhāt); on the other hand, he is created in the image of al-Raḥmān, since al-Raḥmān is only one of His names.[2] Ibn ʿArabī, on the other hand, tends to prefer the first version, even though he accepts that both are valid. For him, although the Name al-Raḥmān is equivalent to the Name Allah in that both indicate God’s quiddity, Allah is the all-inclusive Name that manifests the station of unity (maqām al-jamʿ), whereas al-Raḥmān points to the six qualities or attributes of the Essence (knowledge, will, power, speech, hearing and seeing, all of which are imbued with the seventh quality, life), and manifests the station of differentiation (maqām al-tafriqa). He describes the realised human being as ‘the unifying universal servant’ (al-ʿabd al-jāmiʿ al-kullī), or ‘the perfect servant’ (al-ʿabd al-kāmil) who combines all the realities of possibility and of divinity, who is created in the Form of Allah in terms of unification or in the Form of al-Raḥmān in terms of the essential attributes. “He ascribed to him all His Most Beautiful Names. Through the strength of the Form he was able to carry the offered Trust. The reality of the Form did not allow him to reject the Trust in the way that heavens and the earth refused to carry it.”[3] Hence the human being is considered to be the transcription (nuskha) of the Real, summarising the realities of the entire universe.

The human being consists of two parts: one non-physical, spirit; the other physical, body. The knowledge of the latter is called anatomy, while knowledge of the former is called divine anatomy by Ibn ʿArabī.[4] Physical anatomy is intimately connected to the divine, since the spirit is based in this body, and needs the body to be able to stay in this world.

Given that the body is important, taking care of it is also important. Therefore it is said: “Eating is part of the religion”: that is, there are religious prescriptions concerning eating, and eating, sharing food, etc., is a part of one’s religious duty. Eating is even praised when it is performed in order to attain the satisfaction of God and to be able to perform good deeds. As the Qurʾan says: “Messengers! Eat of that which is wholesome and do good works” (Q.23:51, al-Muʾminūn). Some say that it is important to eat foods that one likes in order to be able to properly thank God.[5] At the same time, one should avoid eating all day long (i.e. too much) like animals do,[6] behaviour which Rūmī refers to as ‘jūʿ al-baqara’ (the hunger of the cow).[7] Overeating makes one sleepy, which is not conducive to performing night vigils during retreat. According to Ibn ʿArabī, who is clearly speaking from his own and others’ experience, the ‘steam’ of the food goes up to the brain, envelops it and causes it to be overcome with sleep.[8] The less we eat, therefore, the less we sleep.

Sufis emphasise that eating large quantities is also condemned by doctors, as eating little is a very important part of being healthy.[9] Al-Ghazālī says that the ḥadīth most extolled by doctors is one ordering the human not to fill his stomach completely, but to leave it one-third empty.[10] This is so important that a person should begin to practise this when still a child. Only then can someone manage on a small amount of food, for both good deeds and bad are the outcome of habituation.[11] The first and foremost passion that man should train is ‘the lust of the stomach’. The body should not be allowed to do what it wants without restraint, so that it may be prevented from going astray.[12] One should eat the amount of food that is sufficient for one’s daily energy needs. The rest, especially when it is not ḥalāl, brings sorrow to the heart.[13] Furthermore, it gives the lower soul a vast space to operate in and causes it to go astray. Many Sufis act on this and recommend it as an ascetic rule as well as a medical one.

In Sufi literature, when the cycle of creation (mabdaʾ wa l-maʿād)[14] is mentioned, inevitably the matter of sustenance is also discussed. What we mean here by the ‘cycle of creation’ is the turning of soil into plant, of plant into animal, and of animal into human (by eating), and last but not least, man’s ascending to the highest degree, the real Being (al-Ḥaqq). According to Sufis, this evolution from the lowest degree of earth to a perfected human being with gnosis of God is a spiritual matter.[15] Like the treatise by al-Būsnawī which is translated here, Sufis belonging to the school of Ibn ʿArabī and Ṣadr al-Dīn al-Qūnawī frequently discuss this subject in their works when speaking of effusion (fayḍ), the perfecting of the soul, etc. For instance, Ibn ʿArabī says that within each class of existence there is one which is perfect: gold amongst minerals, the waqwāq tree (a mythical tree whose fruit was shaped like a man) amongst plants, and the human being amongst animals. In addition, there is a transitional type (mutawassiṭa) between these three classes: between minerals and plants there is the kamʾa (a kind of fungus); between plants and animals the nakhla (date); and between animals and humans the nasnās and qird (a small kind of ape).[16] The way in which human beings interact with other creatures as a means of self-sustenance has profound spiritual implications beyond simple maintenance of the body as a vehicle for the spirit.

Al-Qūnawī also touches on the topic of sustenance in works like Iʿjāz al-bayān and Miftāḥ al-ghayb al-jamʿ wa l-wujūd in the context of the cycle of creation, especially in his discussion of the Divine Name al-Rabb. Here he frequently mentions food and the nourishment of the body and the soul. In his view, in its various kinds and forms, food is a manifestation of God’s attribute of baqāʾ (remaining), and the point of having food is to sustain the manifestation of the Divine Name al-Ẓāhir (the Manifest), and to request the manifestation of the Name al-Nūr (Light), which is no other than Being Itself. In addition to these metaphysical explanations, al-Qūnawī provides practical information on the nutritional value of certain foods: a person’s temperament may predominate over a food’s beneficial effect, which explains why foods that are generally considered healthy, may not be healthy in certain cases. For example, honey is not efficacious for people whose temperament is dominated by cold (presumably he means those with low blood pressure).[17]

Al-Būsnawī’s Lubb al-lubb fī bayān al-akl wa l-shurb

This treatise is an esoteric theosophical commentary in Arabic on the verse “Eat and drink, but do not waste [by excess]” (Q.7:31, al-Aʿrāf). There are two primary copies, both authorial holographs (in the author’s hand) that are part of a collection of shorter treatises, held in Istanbul: Carullah MS 2129 (fols. 80a–83b, Süleymaniye Library, dated 1033 h[18]) and University A3164 (fols. 19a–21a, Istanbul University Library, undated).

The author was one of the great Ottoman followers of Ibn ʿArabī, originally from Bosnia. After moving to Istanbul, he studied under the head of the Bayrāmī-Malāmī order, Hasan Kabadöz (Qābādūz, d.1010/1601), in Bursa. Al-Būsnawī became known simply as ‘the Fuṣūṣ commentator’ (Shāriḥ al-Fuṣūṣ) for his masterly commentary on Ibn ʿArabī’s Fuṣūṣ al-ḥikam, entitled Tajalliyāt ʿarāʾis al-nuṣūṣ fī manaṣṣāt ḥikam al-Fuṣūṣ. Here it may be noted that while al-Būsnawī wrote this commentary in Ottoman Turkish initially (and only subsequently in Arabic), he wrote his treatise on food and drink and many other similar exegetical works in Arabic only, apparently as a mark of respect for the language of revelation and to reflect the fact that God revealed divine books in the language of the people to whom they were given.

Al-Būsnawī’s writing style in this treatise is quite reminiscent of that of Sadr al-Dīn al-Qūnawī, whom he particularly admired, especially in terms of emphasising certain key ideas in a systematic fashion and then concluding with the words ‘fa-fham’ (‘So understand!’). There are also resemblances in terms of content: in his Miftāḥ ghayb al-jamʿ wa l-wujūd, for instance, al-Qūnawī states that every earthly human being has a connection with a plant, and that every human being comes into existence via the direct or indirect eating of plant forms. By ‘indirect eating’ he means eating an animal that has eaten a plant. He states further that were this plant to undergo some kind of calamity and be unable to be eaten by a human being, the plant and the human would become separated from each other, and would have to wait to be united at another time.[19]

At the end of the treatise, the completion date is given as Muḥarram 1033 [October 1623]. Given that al-Būsnawī died in 1054/1644, he completed this epistle some 21 years before his death, probably when he was in his early or mid-fifties.[20]

Al-Būsnawī analyses the Qurʾanic verse according to four different perspectives, which may be summarised as follows:

1. From the perspective of ascetism (zuhd): God enjoins food upon those who go into ascetic excess by abstaining from eating and drinking, so that their proper humanity can be realised.

2. From the perspective of servanthood (ʿubūdiyya): God enjoins food upon His servants so that they realise their indigence as servant in the face of the station of Lordship (rubūbiyya) and only participate in this world as is necessary.

3. From the perspective of contemplation (mushāhada): God enjoins food upon those who have transcended their ordinary humanness (bashariyya) and are annihilated in the Oneness of the Essence and in the Divine Light, so that the Divine revelation within Himself (jalāʾ) and His self-disclosure within individuated existences (istijlāʾ) is allowed to be expressed – this is so that respect may be given to the proper balance between the spiritual and sensory worlds.[21]

4. From the perspective of the cycle of creation (dawr wa sayr) and human perfection: God enjoins people to eat and drink, so that other creatures, whether animal or plant, may reach their fulfilment in the human, and so that the human being may proliferate. While the quantity eaten varies according to individual need, that need is determined by the requirement to fulfil one’s religious obligations and no more.

According to al-Būsnawī, first and foremost the human being is created for the worship and knowledge of God. The four aspects of the Divine Command to “eat and drink” which he delineates, may be understood as different degrees of realisation of what this worship and knowledge involves. In the first case, he implicitly criticises those in the ascetic mode of existence, whose abstinence from food and drink breaks the equilibrium between the body and the soul. We can find in the history of Sufism many, especially in the early period, who gradually reduced their intake until they only ate once every 7 days, or 10 days, or 15, 20, 40 and even 80 days. This extreme kind of self-denial, known as fāqa (poverty, neediness) in Sufism, is not a state approved of in the Qurʾan or the Sunna. For instance, famous Sufis such as Ibrāhīm Ibn Adham (, Sahl al-Tustarī (d.283/896) and Abū Nasr al-Sarrāj (d.378/988), used to abstain from eating for the whole of Ramaḍān. ʿAbd Allāh Ibn Bāsaghrī is reported to have not eaten for 80 successive days prior to his death, and yet was still able to perform his prayers with others in the mosque.[22] Muhammad Daghistānī, who stated that “not eating is a divine attribute and it manifested in me”, is said to have not eaten for six years, and did so only after his shaykh implored him to eat “if he is a member of the Prophet’s nation”. Abū ʿIqāl al-Maghribī (3rd–4th/9th–10th century) is reported to have stayed at the Kaʿba for four years without eating or drinking anything at all.[23]

It must be borne in mind here that such hardline ascetics were a tiny minority and these extreme examples should not be taken as a reference-point for the great majority of the Sufis, who used to have food once a day. Ibn ʿArabī viewed the need for food as a sign of the need for God, that is, servanthood, while not being in need of food indicates the effect of the Name al-Ṣamad (the Everlasting Being upon which all depend), since taking no nourishment is a quality that can only truly apply to the Divine.[24] On the other hand, overeating was and is forbidden in Sufism, since the lower self is said to get its power from overindulgence.[25] In particular, eating all day long is regarded as being like an animal, and is known as ‘cow-hunger’ (jūʿ al-baqara). Thus extremes of abstinence and indulgence are to be avoided as they compromise servanthood.

The second aspect that al-Būsnawī sees this command addressing is in respect of servanthood. Those who regard themselves as being servants of God and who desire to fulfil the Divine commands as He wishes, will only incline to physical food and drink if they are ordered to do so. Thus the Divine command to “eat and drink” implies that those addressed know themselves as His servants. They are still at the rank of visibility, and they are still human beings composed of four elements (earth, air, fire and water).

The third aspect comes at the level of the servant’s annihilation in the Essence, where there is no desire for physical sustenance. As pure angelic beings who are absorbed in divine light, they have lost their sense of self. Hence at this level human beings need to be reminded by God that they are still human, that it is necessary for them to eat and drink in order to participate in the sensory world, which is the support of all worship and contemplation. As to how much food is allowable, it will vary from person to person according to their constitution and requirements; but we can say that it is the amount that provides the energy necessary for our daily needs, whatever they may be.

The fourth aspect relates to the notion of the cycle of creation (dawr wa sayr), and attaining the utmost level of direct knowledge of God (maʿrifa) in this way. Dawr literally means ‘turning’ or ‘circling’, and is used to describe the conception of life as a cycle, originating in God and returning to Him. According to the theory of dawr, at the physical level the human being comes into being from the mother’s egg and the father’s sperm, which in turn come from the ingesting and digesting of minerals, plants and animals as food. These latter are called the ‘three children’, in that they derive from the four elements (air, water, fire and earth) and the four natures or humours (dryness, wetness, cold and heat). The four elements are known as ‘the low mothers’ (al-ummuhāt al-sufliyya), while the heavens are like their father. Prior to coming into being, all things are hidden within the knowledge of God; when God wishes their existence, they are brought into being in the visible world. In accordance with their actions in this world, their eternal homeland in the hereafter is determined as paradise or hell.[26]

This means that the knowledge and essential necessities within God’s Essence brought about the heavens and the stars, and their turning causes the four elements to come into being. From the union of the heavens and the four elements, other non-living and living beings, plants and animals come into existence. They are kneaded together into the ‘mixed drop’,[27] out of which the human being is created. Before coming into this world in sensible form, the human was alive in the world of potentiality in the form of simple singletons (mufradāt), and there was a spirit waiting for him/her among these singulars. Thus, before coming into this world in sensible form, the human being existed in God’s knowledge, in the heavens and in the four elements. He/she was turning in the world of potentiality and in the world of concrete beings, from the time of being in God’s knowledge until the time of coming into existence as a human being. The time in-between is called dawr, said to consist of approximately 50,000 years. When the Qurʾan states, “Did there not pass over a man a span of time when he was not a thing mentioned?”,[28] the space of time referred to in this verse is often interpreted as the equivalent of 50,000 years, since it is stated in another verse: “[from God] the Lord of the [many] ascents; the angels and the Spirit will ascend to Him in a day whose length is fifty thousand years”.[29] Sufis emphasise this cyclical view when they say: “I was in the heavens and earth before I came down to this world. I blew like the wind, and flowed like water.”[30] Poems containing these kinds of sentiments are called dawriyya in Sufi literature.

For any human, it is necessary to follow a path of spiritual training in order to regain one’s former union with God. In his Mathnawī Rūmī says: “I died to the inorganic state and became endowed with growth, and (then) I died to (vegetable) growth and attained to the animal. I died from animality and became Adam (human); why then should I fear? When have I become less by dying?”[31] This couplet implies that as the human being leaves behind human attributes to become annihilated in God, or become a perfect servant, they reach the utmost degree of gnosis or direct knowing of God (maʿrifa). This is the end of the human dawr, a journey from the degrees of singularisation (mufradāt), passing through the human being manifested in the sensory realm, and ending in God, the human’s country of origin. When the human being descends to this world of passions in a journey which is called ghawṣ-i nuzūlī, the mind became occupied with profane things, the heart becomes ill, and the person forgets their true place in God’s knowledge. Equally, they do not remember their stage as a mineral, plant or animal. When they begin to awaken from the sleep of heedlessness, the return to God begins. To help people in this, God sends prophets to treat their illness. Those who believe in these prophets and follow their path are redeemed from this world and become real ‘unifiers’ (muwaḥḥidūn), that is, establishers of the Unity of God. This means that the return journey of ascent, called ghawṣ-i ʿurūjī, begins.[32] The complete journey from beginning (mabdaʾ) to the final return (maʿād) is also referred to as dawr-i farshiyya and dawr-i ʿarshiyya,[33] in brief, dawriyya. The term alludes to the desire for union with God or one’s state in front of God, that is, the meeting of Alast (God’s question to all souls: “Am I not your Lord?”, alastu bi rabbikum?), and is in complete concord with Qurʾanic verses such as “And to Him you shall return” (wa ilayhi turjaʿūn).[34] This is why when someone dies, the Bektashis and Alawis say: “May the Real make his return easy.”

Al-Būsnawī concludes his treatise with a long paragraph which he describes as an ‘explanation and clarification’: here he examines the connection between the Prophet’s love of women and the purpose behind his and God’s praise of marriage. While it appears to be at odds with the main discussion of sustenance, it is clear that al-Būsnawī is alluding to another degree of realisation, where the human being is with God in the world or with the world in God, that is, in full gnosis of the Real in manifestation. According to him, the reason why the Prophet loved women[35] is that they are partners in marriage. As God says: “Take in marriage those among you who are single and those of your male and female slaves who are honest (or if they are in good state for marrying)”,[36] and “…then you may marry other women who seem good to you, two, three or four of them”.[37] In turn, marriage is important since it is the legitimate way to have children, that is, new souls or human forms, in al-Būsnawī’s wording, who will be places for the direct knowing of God, which is the reason why the universe has been created. Here let us note that while eating little is enjoined, marrying many times is recommended in the Qurʾan.

Furthermore, al-Būsnawī uses a very precise phrase when he says ‘mortal (sensible) human forms’ (al-ṣuwar al-bashariyya) which are ‘lowly’ and ‘dark’, indicating those who have the form of a human being and the potential of reaching perfection.[38] Hence, on the one hand, the purpose of eating is to have enough energy to firm up the backbone and perform one’s sacred obligations. On the other, food becomes a means of service to human beings and to other life-forms: as the modern interpreter of Ibn ʿArabī’s thought Bulent Rauf expressed it, “[cooking] is an integral part of esoteric training because it is a twofold means of service: service to humanity and service to the food prepared. There is no higher state than that which a man can reach; all other forms of life in this world find their possibility of reaching a higher state through their conjunction with man.”[39] Al-Būsnawī emphasises the special nature of being human, a state of unobstructed spaciousness and infinite capacity for which all other life-forms yearn in order to find their true completion: thus eating and drinking are both “indispensable for attaining to the knowing of the divine in this human emergence”[40] and a means of celebrating the most perfect closeness to God.


The kernel of the kernel regarding the explanation of eating and drinking

All praise belongs to God, who brought us out from the presence of the cloud and the unseen (ghayb), from the straits of non-existence and the pangs of privation (karb), to the wide plains of being and the waterless deserts of aspiring and acquiring (kasb), for the realisation of true servanthood, which is the very centre of the circle of the pole (quṭb); [to Him] who endowed us with forms of heavenly sublimity and of earthly lowliness, as treasuries of Divine gift and bestowal (wahb), and as degrees of the realisation of nourishment in accordance with our constitution, state of progress and capacity for drinking (shurb); [to Him] who then ordered us to “eat and drink”, to allow our heart to worship and to reach the presence of the Lord (rabb); and who forbade us from waste in these and excess (saḥb), that it might bring us the most honourable portion and the most perfect nearness to God (qurb).

May God give blessings and salutations of peace to the possessor of nearness, the one who was given the drink of sweetness (ʿadhb), who was helped by God to victory in war against all divisions and parties (ḥizb), [by casting] fear and terror (ruʿb) [upon his enemies], Muhammad, through whom the dawn of pre-eternity breaks and the bright morning of beginningless eternity arrives, shining over being and non-being, over East and West (gharb);[41] and through whom the gentle breeze of the sanctuary of Uniqueness (aḥadiyya) comes, and the east wind of the garden of Self-subsistent Eternity (ṣamadiyya) diffuses, so that all trouble and sorrow are banished from those who desire to reach the Presence of affirmation and negation (al-thubūt wa l-salb) in purity of spirit and fineness of heart (qalb). And may these prayers and blessings also be upon all his family and companions, and upon his heirs amongst the non-Arabs (ʿujm) and Arabs (ʿurb).[42]

God the Exalted says: “Eat and drink”. By the grace of God the veil of inaccessibility (qināʿ al-ʿizza) was drawn back from the face of this Qurʾanic verse,[43] according to four points of view:

First perspective: this perfect community, in the first century individually, and in all the succeeding centuries collectively, were aware that this worldly existence is the place for the formation of the perfect human constitution, and the abode for the realisation of the divine Form and for attaining the level of perfection – for it is [the world’s] essential character that it should be solely oriented towards the manifesting of the human constitution, educating it and bringing it to fulfilment (iṣlāḥ) – and that the human being is created for worship and direct knowing (maʿrifa), for facing the door of Lordship and holding fast to the presence of Divinity. As a result, they preferred the side of the Real to lowly things of this world and natural attachments in the sensory realm, and turned away from the requirements of this elemental appearance and bodily concerns. They turned towards the Divine side, with total dedication and resolve, detached from the requirements of this [worldly] appearance and all its affairs, ascetically dissociating themselves from its characteristics, until in them spirituality almost completely dominated over physical existence by their abstaining from eating and drinking, and being free from the necessities of this constitution. Hence there came about an obstruction to the [divine] command, which was designed to ensure a balance between the spiritual and physical being, without one side predominating over the other. For this elemental human configuration, which is composed of both spiritual and material aspects, in the attainment of the level of perfection seeks all the treasures and qualities that are deposited within the spiritual and the physical, and requires equilibrium between these two sides.

When God knew the immoderateness of His ascetics,[44] He enjoined them to eat and drink in order that they might perform what they were created for. That is, He said to them: “eat and drink of what God has bestowed upon you as lawful, in order that you may attain the rank of perfection”, and for the realisation of the special servanthood which enables the servant to reach the Presence of pure Generosity and Majesty (al-jūd wa l-jalāl). For excessive abstinence in avoiding food and drink, being too detached from things which are necessary [for everyday life], inevitably leads to a breakdown in the physical constitution and in the religion. It will also block the human ability to have a child – a human being that is created to attain the perfection of inner witnessing and gnosis.

Second perspective: this perfect community and outstanding nation, who are characterised by exclusive servanthood,[45] have made use of everything that was given to them to utilise only insofar as God orders them to, since they are realised in servanthood: they stand in the presence of Lordship in submission and obedience as perfect servanthood requires, and in the presence of witnessing and being made to witness. In manifesting what this worldly appearance necessitates, they only manifest what God commands them to, for they are servants. When God knows that of them, and knows that their natural elemental constitution, which is composed of the four elements, by means of which they may attain direct knowledge of the Lord and worship of the Divine, requires nourishment and cannot survive without it, He enjoins them to “eat and drink”, as an allusion to their realisation of servanthood in respect of not manifesting anything of worldly matters and what this worldly appearance necessitates except as a result of the order given in divine Revelation, which has been revealed on the tongues of the messengers. Thus they only turn to eating and drinking, which are of the necessities of this world and of religion, by virtue of the divine command, and they do not give weight to them over and above the taste of servanthood. In this [command to “eat and drink”] is an allusion to the fact that the true servant cannot be like that[46] and has to proceed in this manner [in complete obedience].

Third perspective: when this community are transcendent of ordinary human attributes and things of the physical nature, and are annihilated in the Unity of the Essence (al-waḥda al-dhātiyya) and in the lights of the glories of the Divine Face, no worldly quality or contingent attribute remains in them. In fact, they no longer have any feeling or knowledge in themselves of the divine command to eat and drink: there is nothing of the order of Divine Self-revelation (jalāʾ) or His Self-disclosure within individuated existences (istijlāʾ) for them. It is as if God is saying to them: “You are in a seat of truth[47] and the presence of divine unification (jamʿ) and enclosure (ratq)[48]. You are far from the human attributes and creaturial affairs which the elemental appearance needs. However, you have to descend from this place of unitive contemplation and exalted observation [and come back down] to this human form[49]. Only by being manifest therein can you realise the sensory conditions, without which direct experience, worship and contemplation cannot exist.” Therefore God enjoins them to eat and drink, saying: “Eat and drink”, in other words, “seek a proper equilibrium between the spiritual and the sensory”.

Fourth perspective: human spirits descend from the highest presences of spirit through the chain of being to the forms of plants and animals – between these and the human forms there is no intermediary. The human spirits are carried through the plant and animal forms and they arrive at the human forms, as the human originates from those plant and animal forms, and is constructed according to gradual evolution and divinely appointed balance – they [the spirits] cannot find any other way of reaching the human form than this. Now, since God wishes for the expansion of Lordly gnosis within the perfect human forms, He enjoins us to “eat and drink” of some of the plant and animal forms, from which this human constitution may derive nourishment in accordance with revealed law and custom. This is so that the spirits that had been overseeing the bodies of these plant and animal forms, may reach the human bodies and human forms, which have been created for the purpose of knowing the Lord. For the Exalted God saw that these plant bodies and animal forms reached the ultimate fulfilment of their capacity (istiʿdād) by becoming food for the human being and being united with him, for if they had not been ingested by the human being, they would have gone to waste. And He saw that the spirits looking after them were in a state of distress and privation[50] and the darkness of being limited to these bodies, and were yearning for [inclusion in] the perfect human form, which is in the place of unobstructed dilation[51] (infisāḥ) and unlimitedness. Hence He said: “eat and drink”. So our eating and drinking became the same as the rank of these bodies and their becoming fulfilled, the same as them being completed and made equal to the blowing of the spirit into humans and their manifestation therein, the same as their being extracted from the darknesses and brought into the light. [All this occurs] by virtue of these forms and bodies being transferred in the form of nourishment into the human form, their dissolving within the human receptacle, their transmutation into the human form, the realisation of the human spirits within them, and their manifesting in the human forms and the rank that belongs to it, just as they had been when overseeing the plant bodies and animal forms and their own rank from their interior.

[God says:] “Do not waste!” to explain the proper measure that the command to eat and drink contains. This is the amount that is sufficient to keep the backbone of the servant straight[52] and enable him to perform the precepts of religion, and no more. For more would be excessive. The clarification came after the general order since God the Exalted never enjoins waste. He only enjoins the amount that is needed. Or [it may mean that He says this] to dispel the idea that the command might give one license to go beyond the amount of food and drink that one needs, since the order came [simply] as “eat and drink”.

As for the aspect of waste through excess, if the human being eats only as much as their body needs and gives away the rest to the needy, then that needy one can [also] partake of it and it becomes food for them, allowing them [in turn] to firm up their backbone and fulfil their religious obligations. So, when their quintessential cream leaves them in the form of sperm, and God makes this sperm like prime matter (hayūlā) for the opening-up of the human form [contained] within it, it results in a human form like them. If [the person] partakes of more than the amount he or she needs, then there is excess, waste and exhaustion.

Know that the forms of this universe are made up of sublime spiritual images and lowly earthly forms as well as the governing spirits which are specific to each of these forms. In one respect, they are God’s treasures; in another respect, places of manifestation for the human constitution; in another, human appearances; in another, degrees of the spirits which descend into mortal human forms and become their abodes; in another, activating causes and completing links between human spirits and bodies; from another perspective, bearers of the divine trust that belongs to this human constitution; and from yet another, places of manifestation for the revelation of universal being and mercy. For the form of the human being which was “created according to a magnificent nature” is nobler and more perfect than all the high and low forms. It is also more comprehensive, since it embraces all these forms and their specific manifestations. When God the Exalted saw that some of these storehouse forms had been left out of being food and of becoming human forms, He caused them to descend by way of the chain of causation into mineral, plant and animal forms, these latter being the closest forms to the human. When these three forms became like a product of the remaining high and low forms, due to the fact there was no connection between them and the human form, God made them connecting links for the human forms, deposited in the high heavenly realities and stored in the lowly earthly configurations, so that they could be manifest in the sensory human forms.

The Exalted God says: “Remember when Loqman said to his son: ‘O my son! Even if it be something as small as a mustard-seed, and though it were hidden in a rock or in the heavens or in the earth, God will bring it to light’…”.[53] When God made some spirits descend into plant or animal forms which were to be eaten by humans, He enjoined the human being to partake of these according to the prescribed measure and appropriate balance – which is as much as is sufficient to keep his backbone upright, although that may vary from one person to another. There are some people who can do this with only a little food and drink, while others need more. This nourishment is transmuted from the level of plant and animal into the level of the human being and becomes food for the human. God turns this food first into blood, seminal liquid and sperm, and then He opens up the form of another human within the sperm. Since the human being can manifest in a sensory form with only a small amount of food, something sufficient to keep his backbone upright, then any more would be wasteful, since nothing more is needed. Hence it is prohibited to partake of this extra amount over and above manifesting the human form which is directly linked to the stage of human perfection. This is why in the eyes of the people of scrupulous devotion (ahl al-waraʿ) it is forbidden to take something which has not been given in accordance with the prescribed measure determined by God, that is, the amount sufficient to maintain one’s backbone erect, because of the prohibition in His words “but do not exceed”.[54] This means that keeping one’s backbone upright with food is the divine measure for it. The nourishment that enables one to keep the backbone upright and to carry it is affected by the backbone, for [the latter] changes it into its own quality and it becomes particularised within the backbone as a state of being which is prescribed for it. Hence [the food] becomes carried within [the backbone] after having been a carrier [of nutrition] for it. In fact, it is both carrying and carried at the same time. This is why the Exalted God says: “[Let the human being observe] out of what he is created: he is created out of a seminal fluid issuing from between the backbone and the pelvic arch”.[55] Observe, then, the subtle prophetic allusion regarding the incorporation of food into the human loins!

Indeed the food goes directly to the backbone which is for it like a bridge: it makes the backbone upright and preserves it, while the backbone raises it and brings it to fruition by virtue of it being transferred from plant and animal forms and turned into human spermal forms, which are particularised within the loins. Thus the amount that gives subsistence to the human backbone enables it to become like prime matter for the human forms as they separate from the one form. They [the plant and animal forms] are annihilated in the human attribute and they become particularised as the form of his or her collectivity. More than this is waste and injurious. So understand!

Explanation and clarification

Know that all forms of being, whether they be sublime and heavenly or lowly and earthly, are forms of spirits, and spirits are places of manifestation for [divine] names. Every plant and animal form is a treasury of sustenance and a place of manifestation for one of the spirits that face from the unseen to the world of witnessing and manifestation, from the darkness to the light. God has made the existential degrees and sensible forms for the spirits as ‘abodes’ (manāzil) in one respect, as ‘mounts’ or ‘vessels’ (marākib) in another respect, and as ‘means’ (wasāʾiṭ) in another. By them, the spirits traverse the abodes and take the trusts deposited therein, until they are ready to be manifest in the human form. When there arises within them the divine perfection and aptitude, and they reach complete ripeness (istiwāʾ), and the time comes for the spirits that oversee these plant and animal forms to manifest in human form as the Wise and Knowing God ordains, then the Exalted Real enjoins us to eat and drink of them in the measure specific to us, that which is sufficient to keep our backbone upright. Thus, our eating and drinking according to the divine balance is the same as causing these food forms to reach completion, due to the opening-up of the form of human sperm within them, which is like prime matter for the human form. The human stomach has governance and rank over the food which arrives within it, just as the food also has governance over the human stomach. Both food and stomach are governing and governed at the same time, exactly like what we have related concerning the divine order to eat and drink an amount sufficient to firm up one’s backbone.

On the other hand, religious scripture enjoins one to keep the back upright, and this is not something that was addressed to us regarding the other organs or the heart, since when the back is upright, all the organs and limbs are raised. The backbone is the main aim and purpose of this food and the spirit overseeing it, for it is like a bridge for it, unlike the other organs. So the amount [of food] that keeps the back upright is the amount [of nutrition] which issues from it alongside the greater nourishment of the backbone. Anything that exceeds the amount needed is waste and void (itlāf) in that food. In fact, it is waste for the spirit overseeing it and removes the path [of completion] for it.

What is intended by the injunction to eat and drink in relation to the person who eats and drinks is to maintain the backbone erect in the fulfilment of his individual religious obligations. In relation to the spirits overseeing this food, [the command] is assistance for them, so that they can look to the human form and to being manifest therein through the divine blowing and their giving of nourishment.

For when food arrives in the human stomach, it comes under the authority of the stomach. It is transformed from one [kind of] composition to another, according to the ‘place’, which is the constitution that is being nourished. The whole body takes it in as food, and is permeated by it. Its cream ascends to the backbone, where it becomes particularised in the form of water called semen.[56] Afterwards it comes out in the form of spermatozoa during sexual intercourse, and descends into the woman’s womb (raḥm). The womb then causes it to undergo a different development in accordance with the phases of mercification (al-aṭwār al-raḥmatiyya), until its body is completed. This is called in the Qurʾan ‘another emergence’,[57] which is the human appearance in sensory visible form.

We see that the Exalted God enjoins us to eat and drink as well as to get married when He says the following: “Take in marriage those among you who are single”[58] and “marry other women who seem good to you, two, three or four of them.”[59] We also see that the Prophet desired for us only a small amount of food for he said: “For the child of Adam two or three morsels which help to firm up the backbone are enough”, and yet at the same time he also wished for us to have much sexual intercourse, for he said: “Three things of this low world are made beloved to me (ḥubbiba ilayya min al-dunyā thalāth)”.[60] As transmitted by Aḥmad Ibn Ḥanbal via Anas, the Prophet also stated: “Women (nisāʾ) are made beloved to me: I abstain from food and drink, but I do not keep myself from them”. Then [from all this] we know that what is desired by the amount of food is the quantity that keeps the backbone upright in relation to the person who eats, and that enables the particularisation [of semen] and ejaculation in relation to the child that is to be brought out from within it and manifested.[61]

The purpose of being made to desire the love of women and plentiful intercourse is that there should occur the love of having children and multiplying. For this love is intimately linked to divine love, which is connected to the knowing (maʿrifa) that results for the human being by virtue of the ḥadīth: “I was a hidden treasure and loved to be known...”. When it is established that the desire for sexual intercourse is for the process of human procreation and multiplication, it is clear that enjoining eating and drinking is also for this same purpose, since having children cannot happen without coitus and coitus cannot occur without eating and drinking. Hence both these are indispensable for attaining to the knowing of the divine in this human emergence. However, it should be according to the amount of food prescribed in revelation, that is, the amount that suffices one to keep the backbone erect and perform the obligatory prayers, and with which there is particularisation [of semen] for others. So understand [this]!

Know that the divine knowing for which God has created the universes only comes about when the sublime spirits of light are united with the lowly human forms of darkness, and through their ascending in that form to the Presence of Oneness (wāḥidiyya) and Absolute Uniqueness (aḥadiyya), which is their original starting point. With His words “Eat and drink”, God the Exalted indicated the reason why the spirits are united to human bodies and their self-realisation there, while with His words “but do not waste” He pointed to the transcendence of these bodies from the requirements of this elemental appearance and ordinary human attributes, and their orientation towards the Presence of Uniqueness through being detached from and forsaking all but the food necessary for maintaining the existence of the place of manifestation. There is no avoiding the all-inclusiveness of this human form, and equally there is no avoiding [the fact] that it transcends the properties of [low] nature and is attached by an essential bond to the Presences of Holiness (al-ḥaḍarāt al-qudsiyya) and the Canopies of Intimacy (al-surādiqāt al-unsiyya).[62]

God the Exalted says: “To Him ascend the good words, and He exalts the righteous deed.”[63] Through Him is all success and help.

This was written on the first of Muḥarram 1033
[25 October 1623].

The paper is reprinted from the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi Society, Vol. 58, 2016.


1. In some versions of the ḥadīth it is: “God created Adam in His own Form”, while others give it as: “He created him in the Form of al-Raḥmān”. See, for instance, al-Tabarānī, Muʿjam al-kabīr, ed. H.I.A. al-Salafī (Mosul, 1404/1983), Vol. 22, p. 107.

2. See al-Ghazālī, Majmūʿāt Rasāʾil al-Imām al-Ghazālī, 7 vols. (Beirut, 1414/1994), Vol. 4, pp. 20–1.

3. Al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya (Beirut, n.d.), II:170 (Chap. 90), trans. W. Chittick, Sufi Path of Knowledge (SPK), p. 276. See also Fut.I:106–7 (Chap. 5).

4. See Fut.II:649 (Chap. 290), where Ibn ʿArabī describes two sciences of anatomy as far as Sufis are concerned, reflecting the fact that the human being is created according to the form of the universe and according to the form of the Real: the first belongs to the Path and concerns the universe, since it consists of “knowing how all the realities of created things, high and low, pleasant and disgusting, light and dark, are within one, in detail”; the second concerns divine realisation and adoption, since it involves “knowing the divine names and lordly relationships that are contained within this human form”. See also Chittick, SPK, p.  284.

5. Al-Ghazālī, al-Iḥyāʾ, Vol. 2, p. 32.

6. Ibid. Vol. 2, p. 3.

7. See Konuk, A.A., Mesnev-i Şerîf Şerhi, Vol. 10, eds. M. Demirci et al. (Istanbul, 2008), pp. 106–7.

8. Fut.II:339 (Chap. 178).

9. Al-Ghazālī, al-Iḥyāʾ, Vol. 3, pp. 139–40.

10. For the ḥadīth and details concerning the subject, see al-Ghazālī, al-Iḥyāʾ, Vol. 3, p. 140.

11. Ibid. Vol. 3, pp. 116–20.

12. Ibid. Vol. 3, pp. 129–58.

13. Ibid. Vol. 2, p. 6.

14. Literally, ‘origin and return’, this was the title of an early work by Ibn Sīnā on the origin and destiny of the human soul. Various other authors (e.g. the Ismaili al-Ḥusayn Ibn al-Walīd, Aḥmad Sirhindī, Mulla Ṣadrā) used it in their discussions of the place of the human being in the universe and spiritual journeying.

15. See for instance al-Ghazālī, Majmūʿāt, Vol.1, pp. 102, 107.

16. Fut.III:347.

17. Sadr al-Dīn al-Qūnawī, Iʿjāz al-bayān fī taʾwīl Umm al-Qurʾān, ed. A.A. ʿAtā (Cairo, 1389/1979), pp. 294, 305.

18. References in the text are to this manuscript.

19. See Ṣadr al-Dīn al-Qūnawī, Miftāḥ ghayb al-jamʿ wa tafṣīlih, ed. M. Khajawī (Tehran, 1374/1416), pp. 107–8.

20. Although al-Būsnawī’s precise date of birth is not known, he is likely to have been born in the late 970s/1560s. Some authors such as al-Baghdādī have claimed that he was born in 992/1584, but this is a confusion with another Malāmī-Bayrāmī, the Ottoman statesman and author Sarı Abdullah (who was also named ʿAbd Allāh Afandī and took the pen-name ʿAbdī).

21. For the terms jalāʾ and istijlāʾ, see ʿAbd al-Razzāq al-Kāshānī (attrib.), Laṭāʾif al-iʿlām fī ishārāt ahl al-ilhām, ed. A.I. Kayyālī (Beirut, 1425/2004), pp. 65, 172.

22. For details, see Hujwīrī, Kashf al-maḥjūb, ed. V. Jukovski (Tehran, 1374/1954), pp. 413–22; Sh. Suhrawardī, ʿAwārif al-maʿārif (Beirut, 1426/2005), p. 133.

23. See ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Jāmī, Nafaḥāt al-uns. Evliyā Menkibeleri, trans. and commentary: Lamī Çelebi, eds. S. Uludağ and M. Kara (Istanbul, 1995), pp. 619, 206 (n.68). Abū ʿIqāl al-Maghribī is mentioned in al-Qushayrī’s Risāla (Epistle on Sufism, trans. A. Knysh, Reading, 2007, p. 86), and is described by Ibn ʿArabī as ‘mad’ (majnūn) and totally taken out of himself (Fut.I:248; see Chittick, SPK, pp. 266, 407 n.16). For a traditional Sufi view of hunger and abstention from food as a spiritual exercise and blessing, see al-Qushayrī, Epistle, pp. 157–60.

24. Fut.I.602 (chap. 71), when discussing the ḥadīth qudsī transmitted by Abū Hurayra: “Every deed of the child of Adam belongs to them except for fasting. That belongs to Me, and I shall give the reward for it.”

25. For details, see Hujwīrī, p. 421.

26. This has no connection to ideas of reincarnation (tanāsukh). See Abdulbaki Gölpınarlı, Mesnevī Tercemesi ve Şerhi, 6 vols. (Istanbul, 1990), Vol. 3, p. 310.

27. See Q.76:2 (al-Insān), “We created the human being out of a mixed drop” (nuṭfatin amshājin), which is often interpreted as a drop of male sperm mixed with female blood.

28. Q.76:1.

29. Q.70:4 (al-Maʿārij).

30. Gölpınarlı, Tasavvuftann Dilimize Geçen Deyimler ve Atasözleri (Istanbul, 1977), p. 94.

31. Mawlānā Jalāl al-dīn al-Rūmī, Mathnawī, ed. R. Nicholson (Leiden, 1925–33), 3/576: 3902–7.

32. See Gölpınarlı, Mesnevī Tercemesi, 4/636. See also Ethem Cebecioğlu, Tasavvuf Terimleri ve Deyimleri Sözlüğü (Ankara, 1997), p. 222.

33. Echoing the phrase ‘from the highest degree of the Divine Throne to the outspread earth’ (min al-ʿarsh ilā al-farsh).

34. Cebecioğlu, p. 222.

35. As mentioned in the ḥadīth: “Three things from your world are made beloved to me: women, perfume, and the light of my eyes in prayer.” See al-Nasāʾī, Sunan, ed. Çağrı, (Istanbul, 1401/1981), ʿIshrat al-nisāʾ, II.1.

36. Q.24:32 (al-Nūr).

37. Q.4:3 (al-Nisāʾ).

38. Lubb al-lubb, fols. 82a and 83b.

39. Bulent Rauf, Addresses II (Roberton, 2001), p. 65.

40. Lubb al-lubb, fol. 83b.

41. Here, the Muhammadian Reality is meant: it is noteworthy that following Ibn ʿArabī, al-Būsnawī makes an implicit association of East with manifestation and West with the unmanifest (ghayb).

42. This preface is in rhyming prose (sajʿ), with each phrase ending in –b.

43. The full verse (Q.7:31, al-Aʿrāf) reads: “O children of Adam, take your adornment at every place of worship (prostration); eat and drink, and do not waste, for indeed He loves not those who waste [or, are prodigal].”

44. Literally, “knew that of them”.

45. That is, knowing oneself as servant of God alone. We may understand this as an allusion to the characterisation of the Prophet Muhammad specifically as ‘the servant of God’, whom Muslims take as their model and exemplar.

46. That is, a true servant cannot act from his own desire in terms of eating and drinking, but sees everything as coming from God.

47. Ar. maʿqad ṣidqin. See Q.54:54–5 (al-Qamar): “And the God-aware will be in a paradise garden and running waters, in a seat of truth, in the presence of a Sovereign who determines all things.”

48. Referring to Q.21:30 (al-Anbiyāʾ): “[The heavens] were closed up and then We rent them asunder…”.

49. Ar. ṣūra, alluding to the fact that the human being is created in the Divine Form.

50. This privation is part of the constriction experienced by all possible things: “when the possible thing knows its possibility [of existence] while in the state of non-existence, it is distressed, since it yearns for the existence allowed by its reality in order to take its share of good... every existent except God is a possible thing and therefore possesses this property” (Fut.II:459, trans. Chittick in SPK, p. 131).

51. Ar. infisāḥ, a term that suggests unrestricted spaciousness, alluding to the ḥadīth qudsī: “Neither My heavens nor My earth can contain Me, but the heart of My faithful servant is large enough to contain Me”.

52. Referring to the ḥadīth: “A few mouthfuls to keep his backbone straight are enough for the child of Adam.”

53. Q.31:16 (Luqmān).

54. This last phrase is omitted in University MS 3164 (fol. 20b).

55. Q.86:5–7 (al-Ṭāriq). Some translators and commentators take this to mean the loins of the man and the pelvis of the woman. Alternatively, it may be understood as the upright backbone and the curved bone of the pelvis, which occurs in both sexes.

56. Ar. maniyy. See Q.75:38 (al-Qiyāma): “a drop of seminal fluid emitted” (maniyyin yumnā). The complex root m-n-y carries meanings of to try/put to the test, to wish/desire, to eject sperm/shed blood, as well as the decreed term of a human being, one’s lot and death (maniyya).

57. See Q.53:45–7 (al-Najm): “It is He who creates the pair, male and female, out of a sperm-drop when it is emitted, and on Him rests another emergence (nashʾa)”. This other ‘emergence’ or ‘appearance’ is usually understood by commentators to mean the resurrection, rather than the birth of a human child, as al-Būsnawī here interprets it.

58. Q.24:32 (al-Nūr): “Take in marriage those among you who are single and those of your male and female slaves as are fit (for marrying)”.

59. Q.4:3 (al-Nisāʾ).

60. The ḥadīth continues: “woman, perfume, and the light of my eyes in prayer.” See n.32.

61. That is, the amount varies according to the specific needs of the individual both for him or herself and for the purpose of procreation.

62. These terms allude to several classic elements of Divine Majesty and Beauty: the Presence of God, whose holiness is sanctified from any form of lack, and which constitutes a protective and protected place within which the lover and beloved enjoy unrestricted intimacy. The Presences are plural, since all the Divine Names are present therein.

63. Q.35:10 (al-Fātir).

64. A Turkish translation of the text is available in Hülya Küçük and Zeynep Arzu Yegin’s Selim Kalbin Fizyolojisi. Tasavvuf İlmi ve Tıb [Physiology of the sound heart: Sufism and Medicine] (forthcoming).