Denis Gril

First published in French as "Le personnage coranique de Pharaon d’après l’interprétation d’Ibn ʿArabi", Annales Islamologiques, Vol. 14 (1978), pp. 37–57. This English translation was published in the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi Society, Vol. 60, 2016.

The Qurʾanic Figure of Pharaoh According to the Interpretation of Ibn ʿArabi

Denis Gril [1]

The study of Qurʾanic commentary and hermeneutics is complicated by the subtle nature of the relationship established between the sacred text and the one who interprets it. This general remark is particularly necessary in the case of Sufi commentators, whose goals and methods go beyond those of exoteric exegesis. For Sufis, the interiorisation of the reading establishes even more intimately the link between the Book and the reader, between the Word and its receptacle; and the quality of this relationship depends upon the depth of interpretation. Therefore, it is the nature of this relationship that must be defined above everything else because the exegetical method of the author and the doctrinal scope of his commentary is dependent upon it.

For an author like Ibn ʿArabi the question of this relationship arises at every instant. In addition to his strictly exegetical or hermeneutical traits, a very important part of his work – such as can be seen in the Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya and the Fuṣūṣ al-ḥikam – is organised around numerous and repeated Qurʾanic themes and references. Among these themes, that of ‘the faith of Pharaoh’ (īmān Firʿawn) seems worthy of study to us. This expression actually refers to Ibn ʿArabi’s interpretation concerning the Qurʾanic information given on the Pharaoh’s spiritual and posthumous destiny of the Exodus. Therefore we should not expect to find all the aspects with which Firʿawn’s character is described in the Qurʾan and in traditional exegesis, even though Ibn ʿArabi does allude to them occasionally. One interesting aspect of this theme is that it occupies a special place in the history of the polemic surrounding his work. Often misunderstood or distorted, his position embarrassed a number of his defenders and attracted violent criticism from his adversaries.[2] The history of this controversy would require an entirely separate study, so we will only mention the criticism touching on specific points of his interpretation. For the purposes of this research our main objective is to put forward a typical case of esotericism, thereby presenting the problems of its author’s hermeneutics very clearly. Before addressing this question, we shall attempt to express his arguments as concisely as possible using passages from the Futūḥāt and the Fuṣūṣ; in this way we should be able to identify some of the characteristics of his exegesis so as to illustrate their doctrinal implications, upon which we will then try to sketch the outline of an answer. Finally, another important aspect of this theme is to show how Ibn ʿArabi, while maintaining a rather unique position, is at the same time part of a specific tradition whose nature remains to be defined.

The importance of the character of Pharaoh in the Qurʾan is a remarkable fact. Most of the time he appears in opposition to Moses, the prophet whose story is most frequently referred to in the Qurʾan.[3] When his name is mentioned either in isolation, or sometimes followed by those of Hāmān,[4] the evil counsellor, and Qārūn, the rich obdurate,[5] above all he embodies the classic examples of indomitable pride (takabbur) and tyrannical rebellion against the divine order (ṭughyān). In his opposition to Moses, other more enigmatic aspects of his character emerge, especially that of ‘exaltation’ (ʿuluww), which the Qurʾan sometimes attributes to him,[6] and that of divinity expressed under two significantly different forms.[7] Sufi exegetes generally put forward two interpretations of this antagonism between Moses and Pharaoh. The first one, based on the obvious sense of the texts, sees it as illustrating the mystery of predestination: despite repeated calls upon him by God, through the intermediary of His messenger, Pharaoh remains unresponsive to divine mercy, and, like Iblīs, he damns himself by his pretentiousness and his pride. The second interpretation, of a more interior and microcosmic order, considers their struggle as symbolising that which takes place between the spirit and the lower soul: only the death of the soul keeps the heart permanently safe from passions.

On the whole, Ibn ʿArabi’s interpretation[8] is quite different. Pharaoh, while remaining a character of human proportions as depicted in the Qurʾan, takes on an initiatory dimension, which only the Shaykh al-Akbar expressed quite as strongly. For him, in fact, Pharaoh is a ‘knower’ (ʿārif), despite the imperfect and incomplete character of his spiritual realisation. He derives his argument, based on the order given to Moses and Aaron, from the following verses: ‘Go to Pharaoh, for he has exceeded the limit, and speak to him gently; perhaps he will remember or might feel fear.’[9] Remembrance for him necessarily implies an initial knowledge, forgotten for one reason or another.[10] One may wonder, then, what was the nature of this ‘authentic science received from God which he held in his heart’.[11] The following passage suggests that this could be the knowledge of the Supreme Identity, conferred upon the servant at a certain point on his spiritual path:

Pharaoh understood that the message brought by Moses and Aaron was the truth (al-ḥaqq), because it was God (al-ḥaqq) who spoke through them; likewise the hearing of Pharaoh, through which he heard the words of Moses, was God’s... Pharaoh knew that God is the hearing, seeing, speaking and all the faculties of His creature. Also he declared, speaking as God: ‘I am your Lord the most high!’[12] He was indeed conscious that it was Allah who pronounced such words through the tongue of His servant.[13]

The fear expressed by the two prophets in the announcement of their mission can thus be explained for Ibn ʿArabi by the high degree of knowledge which they accorded to Pharaoh. The verse, ‘We are afraid that he may prove to be excessive against us, or that he may exceed the bounds’,[14] is interpreted by reference to the etymological meaning of the verbs faraṭa and ṭaghā, as follows, ‘We fear that he may exceed us by his arguments based upon the affirmation of the absolute divine unity, and that his words will gain the upper hand over ours, because he sets his sights on the essential Reality (ʿayn al-ḥaqīqa) and for this reason, it is going to give us trouble.’[15]

As such, these passages seem particularly daring. However, Ibn ʿArabi’s aim is not to sanction or justify Pharaoh’s actions at any cost: what matters to him is to pierce the mystery of this claim to divinity – too remarkable to be just a simple form of impiety. On the contrary, he sees in it the manifestation of an awareness of the essential Unity of Being.

If Ibn ʿArabi does justify Pharaoh’s actions in metaphysical terms, he nevertheless does not take him as such to be a model of spirituality. Despite the intrinsic value of the path he followed, it is exactly the opposite of the one drawn by the Qurʾan and the prophetic example, represented here by Moses and Aaron. The prophetic way – and there is nothing else in it for those who are called – demands the total concealment of the lordly and divine aspect of man. In other words, only the realisation of total servitude (ʿubūda) can free the initiate from his individual limitations. By attaching himself only to the absolute divinity (ulūha) which is in him, he runs a serious risk of imbalance, especially when the individual soul has not been completely mastered. It is because of this rule of the initiatory path that the Shaykh al-Akbar repeatedly condemns the shaṭḥ, the theopathic phrase where the servant unwittingly reveals his divinity. The words of Pharaoh, ‘I am your Lord most high!’, might have seemed of this order, but for Ibn ʿArabi it is actually the usurping of a state which demands a total extinction of individuality. It may thus be considered to be the sign of a serious fault as well as a valid degree of know­ledge, thereby simultaneously announcing his punishment and salvation.

Due to the mysterious infiltration of the ulūhiyya in the human being, he claimed ‘divinity’ by using the term al-ilāh (‘god’), as Pharaoh said: ‘I did not know that there could be a god for you other than me’ (Q.28:38), and this was not fitting because he said such a thing by an act of deliberate will (ʿani-l-mashīʾa). He spoke neither under the sway of an initiatory state (ḥāl), conforming to an order (from above) which would have directed him to say: Anā-llāh, ‘I am Allah!’, nor did he simply use the term ilāh; but he was exclusive, by specifying ‘other than me’. Understand this point well. Pharaoh also clearly claimed rubūbiyya (Lordship), which (moreover) cannot match the power of ulūhiyya, by saying: ‘I am your Lord most high!’ (Q.79:24). Once again, he spoke without having the justification of those who say such words caused by a ḥāl, by way of a (divine) order and with a simple adherence to the appropriate will, in a state of ‘union’ (jamʿan) like Abu Yazid (al-Bistami) who declared (speaking in Qurʾanic terms): ‘Verily I am Allah! There is no god except Me, therefore serve Me’ (cf. Q.21:25), and another time asserted: Anā-llāh, ‘I am Allah!’, because, in the being of the latter there remained no portion that the ulūhiyya, through perfect penetration, did not fill with its total presence![16]

Allah says in the voice of Pharaoh: ‘I am your Lord most high!’ While it is He – glory be to Him – who is truly the most high... This was the attribute of God which appeared in the tongue of Pharaoh. Allah knew that Pharaoh did not pronounce it by being delegated by God (niyābatan ʿani-l-ḥaqq), as the reciter does by saying, ‘Allah hears him who praises Him’.[17] Pharaoh was not aware of the divine delegation needed to pronounce such words. The divine quality to which he pretended sought its real qualification, and thus returned to God – may His Majesty be proclaimed. As for him, it was taken away from him, although it had never truly enveloped him.[18]

In another passage, Ibn ʿArabi seems to equate Pharaoh’s word with a true shaṭḥ. The latter appears then to be the type of knower whose soul has not been brought under control, contrary to a prophet or a saint who is totally submitted to the prophetic Law.

If the soul could free itself from the material, it would reveal the original power conferred on it by the divine breath; nothing would be more proud than it. That is why Allah keeps it forever in the natural form (al-ṣūra al-ṭabʿiyya)[19] in this world, in the intermediate stage of sleep and after death, so that it can never regard itself as detached from the material. Do you not see that when the soul loses consciousness of itself, it launches an assault on the divine station, claiming lordship, as did Pharaoh? Under the sway of this state, it exclaims: ‘I am Allah!’ or ‘Glory be to Me!’, words uttered by a knower[20] dominated by his spiritual state. Such words never emanate from a messenger, a prophet or a saint, whose knowledge, presence of heart, compliance with the initiatory level, respect for spiritual proprieties, and finally, consideration of his material condition, are perfect.[21]

The refusal to openly acknowledge the mission of Moses and Aaron, as well as the departure of the Israelites, is obviously a response from Pharaoh’s self-esteem. If he persists in proclaiming himself god, it is in order not to diminish the office to which the veneration of his people has assigned him.

Know that Pharaoh had received from God a certain science, but love of authority (ḥubb al-riyāsa) prevailed over him in this world. He says: ‘I did not know you could have a god other than me.’[22] He referred only to his people and not to all the beings of the universe. He knew that his people believed he was god; he was therefore only announcing a fact in all truth, since according to their science they had no god other than him.[23]

The Qurʾan refers to some of the controversies where Moses and Pharaoh confront one another through arguments, whose logical sequence is sometimes disconcerting. We have the impression that Moses initiates a dialogue, in veiled terms, with his opponent so as not to clash with him head-on, because the resistance that he opposes him with is not of a rational order.

Moses said: ‘Our Lord is He Who gave to each thing its creation.’[24] He thus showed that the divine knowledge encompasses all things, which was not the case with Pharaoh’s knowledge, despite his pretensions to Lordship. He understood both messengers and kept silent because he was well aware that they had told the truth. However, love of authority prevented him from acknowledging it.[25]

Exactly whose authority is in question? Moses does not contest with Pharaoh concerning his kingdom. He presents himself, however, as a possessor of authority (ḥukm), conferred by God, and distinct from his quality of prophet and messenger. This power is that of the representative of God on earth, the khalīfa. It is precisely this spiritual and temporal function which Pharaoh claimed for himself. Ibn ʿArabi does not deny it to him since he describes him as ‘master of the moment’, one of the qualifications of the pole (quṭb) in taṣawwuf. It is only his function that seems to be uniquely terrestrial, while that of the envoy is universal through his quality of being insān al-kāmil. In short, Pharaoh recognises the spiritual degree of Moses, but refuses to submit himself to his hierarchical authority.

Pharaoh had the governing authority (taḥakkum); he was the master of the moment (ṣāḥib al-waqt) and the temporal khalīfa (bi-l-sayf), although he deviated from the norm (al-ʿurf al-nāmūsī). This led him to declare: ‘I am your Lord the most high!’ – that is to say, if all beings are lords in one respect or another, I am the highest of them because external authority over them was conferred on me. Knowing he was speaking the truth, the magicians did not contradict him, they even confirmed the same by saying: ‘Thou only judgeth the life of this world, so execute what you have decreed.’[26]

The word of Moses: ‘He gifted me with power’[27] indicates the vicegerency (khilāfa), and ‘He numbered me among His messengers’ signifies the prophetic mission (risāla). Not every messenger (rasūl) is necessarily a khalīfa. This latter holds temporal power, in terms of dismissal and appointment (al-ʿazl wa-l-wilāya). The messenger has no such prerogatives, because his function is limited to the transmission (balāgh) of the message which was entrusted to him. If he receives the order to spread and defend it by the sword, he is a ‘vicegerent–messenger’. Just as not every prophet is a messenger, not every messenger is a khalīfa, and in such a case, neither the kingdom (mulk), nor the power to govern it has ‘been entrusted to him’. The question posed by Pharaoh on the divine quiddity[28] was not due to his ignorance but to his desire to test Moses to see if his response would confirm his prophetic mission. Indeed Pharaoh knew the degree of knowledge of the messengers.[29]

The dialogue in the Sura Ṭā Hā[30] is, for Ibn ʿArabi, precisely the evidence that Pharaoh wanted to gradually bring his people so as to recognise the veracity of the two envoys, without for all that losing prestige. The result, however, was quite different: his subjects remained in blindness, while their ruler, increasingly struck by the arguments of Moses, came to recognise his own weakness.

To draw them even further into their argument, Pharaoh asked them this question: ‘What became of the first generations?’ and they responded: ‘The knowledge of them is with my Lord in a book, my Lord does not err, and neither does He forget’[31] – as you yourself have forgotten, until, thanks to our reminder, you remembered – if you had been a god, you would not have forgotten. Has not Allah said: ‘Perhaps he will remember…?’ Moses and Aaron pursued their demonstration, but the effect of these words remained latent within Pharaoh’s soul, because the love of authority prohibited him from contradicting himself before his own people. ‘He had little regard for them and they obeyed him, they were a corrupt people.’[32]

To prove that the words of the two prophets have actually reached their goal, Ibn ʿArabi uses a rather unexpected argument which provides a good example of an exegesis conforming to the letter of the text, but leading to a completely different result from an ordinary reading.

Allah has affixed a seal on every heart, so that the Lordship of God (rubūbiyyat al-haqq) does not interfere there and does not become an attribute of theirs. For this reason nobody in the depths of his heart can take himself to be a lord and god. On the contrary, everyone really knows how poor, indigent and lowly he is. Allah, exalted is He, said: ‘Thus does Allah affix His seal on every proud and tyrannical heart.’[33] The divine grandeur (al-kibriyāʾ al-ilāhī) may not enter there in any way. The interior being of each individual is sealed so that no claim to divinity (taʾalluh) may infiltrate. However, Allah did not immunise the tongues against the formulation of the claim to divinity, or the souls against the belief in the divinity of others. The soul is therefore protected from believing in its own divinity, but not from believing in that of others.[34]

This last passage alludes to the distinction which must be established between the outward manifestation of the individual and his innermost being. This distinction is reflected in the ‘gentle words’ that the envoys must address to Pharaoh. Were his exterior to be hard and full of arrogance, the interior – incorruptible – is soft and humble. By their gentleness, their words pass through the outer, coarse envelope of their antagonist and have their effect in the innermost depths of his soul. Moreover, this gentleness is the revelatory sign of the function of Moses and his helper, and of their spiritual degree, compared to the claims of Pharaoh. To accomplish his mission the khalīfa must be a perfect servant and therefore embody the submissive attributes of poverty and weakness, so that through him the lordly attributes manifest themselves in all their power. Having renounced all individual pretension, he becomes the place of manifestation of the divine majesty and will. This is how we must explain the fear which seizes Moses, so as to remind him of the necessity of divine succour.

Aaron said to him:[35] ‘Here is the heaven of the vicegerency of man. The power of its imām is weak, although its foundation could not be more solidly built. This is why we received the order to treat the excessive tyrants (al-jabābira al-ṭughāt) with gentleness. We were told: Speak to him with gentleness.’ Now, such an order is not given except to one whose power and strength are greater than those to whom he is sent. A seal being placed on the heart that manifests absolute power and greatness, and this latter being actually the most humbled of all beings, God ordered the envoys to treat him with mercy and gentleness. Their words thus corresponded to his interior state and led his exterior being to give up its haughtiness and pride.[36]

The correspondence between Moses’s and Aaron’s natures and Pharaoh’s state of interior weakness constitutes a first argument. The second argument is of a philologico-theological nature, in that a wish expressed by God is inescapable: the verse, ‘Perhaps he will remember or experience fear’ is no exception to the rule. In point of fact, the divine wish was even doubly realised because, otherwise, how could it be explained that Pharaoh would allow the envoys to leave in peace, after having threatened them with prison or death, and he was later brought to the point of death, as the drowning drew closer?

Allah uttered the wish (tarajjā) that Pharaoh should remember, and feel fear. So, it must necessarily come to that. However, he did not let anything appear, although inwardly the remembering and fear were imposed upon him. He did not do violence towards Moses and his brother in that assembly, even though he held power and strength. It was the memory and fear of God that alone restrained him... Allah rescued Moses through this same gentleness that He had enjoined upon him. His speech was as if it was a divine army: it encountered Pharaoh’s interior army and, with Allah’s permission, vanquished it. Seeing the defeat of the army, which was his strength, Pharaoh remembered God, he felt fear and knew humility. This humiliation and recognition occupied him so much that he was unable to exercise his external power, and was not violent towards the messengers during this assembly.[37]

This unacknowledged humiliation only proves that the admonition was fulfilled. Ibn ʿArabi compares it to the leaven that causes the dough to rise,[38] or the seed that will produce a fruit.[39] The imbalance between the interior and exterior is so great in Pharaoh that his recovery demands a long period of fermentation. Being a believer and knower within himself, his rebellion stems from a fundamental error: so as to manifest the divine and lordly attributes of his royal function, he believed that he must attribute them to himself, and above all externalise them in his own person. To restore the balance there needed to be an exceptional circumstance which would bring his physical being into the same state of destitution as his inner being. It was the imminence of drowning which left him without any recourse other than to abandon himself to the divine mercy. His repentance had to be equally unequivocal, so he included within his recognition of the divine unity the Israelites who had been reduced by him to slavery, and to whose divine mission he had not wished to admit.

This ferment did not cease acting on his interior being, since the divine Will also had to be realised. The effect of this ferment continued increasing, until the moment when he gave up and accepted Moses, when drowning put paid to his ambition. He then had recourse to the humility and indigence that he hid within the depths of himself, so that the believers might see that the divine wish must necessarily be realised. Pharaoh said: ‘I believe in the One whom the Children of Israel believe in, and I am of those who submit themselves to God (mina-l muslimīn).’[40] He externalised the inner and authentic knowledge of God that was concealed in his heart. By specifying: ‘the One whom the Children of Israel believe in’, he removed any possible ambiguity. The magicians (al-saḥara) did likewise; having believed in God, they said: ‘We believe in the Lord of the Worlds, the Lord of Moses and Aaron’[41] – that is to say: Him to whom the messengers call. They thus dispelled any doubt whatsoever. ‘I am among those who have submitted to God’ is a word addressed to Him, as He hears and sees. God responded to him in a tone of reproach: ‘Is it now?’ that you externalise what you already knew ‘whereas you disobeyed before and were among the corrupters’[42] for those who followed you. Allah did not say to him ‘you are among the corrupt’; this reproach is thus in reality the good news which God announces to Pharaoh, to encourage us to have hope in His mercy despite our excesses and crimes. God then said to him: ‘Today We save you…’ – He announced the good news to him before seizing his spirit – ‘…in your body, that you might be a sign for posterity’,[43] so that your salvation, and for those who come after you and pronounce the same words, may be the sign that they will find the same redemption as you. Nothing in this verse indicates that the punishment was not set aside or that his faith was not approved. The verse proves only that the punishment in this world is not removed from one who professes faith in seeing his time of reckoning arrive, except for the people of Jonah.[44]

‘Today We save you in your body’: God announced this good news to Pharaoh before seizing his spirit; the punishment only concerns his external being, so that men can see how he was saved from punishment. This was at the beginning of the drowning; as for his death, it was a martyrdom pure and innocent (shahāda khāliṣa barīʾa), unsullied by disobedience. His spirit was seized while he was accomplishing the best of works – the profession of faith (al-talaffuẓ bi-l-īmān) – so that no one should despair of the mercy of Allah; and it is known that actions are judged by their conclusions (al-ʿamāl bi-l-khawātim)... The soul of Pharaoh was removed, in its state of belief, at that moment so that it did not return to its former pretension. God, exalted is He, concludes the story by saying: ‘And most men are ignorant of Our signs’.[45] In fact the majority paid no attention and thereby condemned a believer to damnation. The word of Allah states, ‘And he (Pharaoh) led them to the Fire’,[46] which makes it impossible to affirm that he entered therein with them. Allah also says: ‘Let the people of Pharaoh (āl Firʿawn) enter’ and not: Pharaoh and his people. The mercy of God is too vast not to accept the faith of the man reduced to extreme necessity (al-muḍṭarr). And what need of divine mercy is greater than Pharaoh’s, who was on the verge of drowning? Does not Allah Himself say: ‘It is He who responds to the man in need when he calls on Him and removes the evil’?[47] Since Allah has promised this man a response and the removal of evil, what is there to be said about Pharaoh, who believed in Him with a pure faith? He did not ask to survive here on earth, for fear of shortcomings and of losing the purity of intention conferred by this moment. In stating his faith, he preferred the meeting with Allah to his own survival on earth. Drowning was for him ‘the torment of the Hereafter and of the Here and now’;[48] his punishment was only the trial of salt water, and his spirit was seized under the best conditions, as indicated by the obvious meaning of the text. ‘Surely in this there is a lesson for the God-fearing’,[49] in the fact that there was inflicted on him the torment of the Hereafter and of this world. The Hereafter is mentioned before this world, so that we know that drowning was the sole torment inflicted on him from the Hereafter, which constitutes an immense grace. ‘So see, my friend, what the effect was of words addressed with gentleness, and what fruit they bore.’[50]

Again let us mention another text in which the arguments are presented in a slightly different way:

Until, at the brink of drowning, he says: ‘I believe that there is no god except the One in whom the Children of Israel believe.’ This proclamation of unity is the call for help (tawḥīd al-istigātha). Pharaoh employed a relative clause (ṣila) to remove any ambiguity. The magicians also did the same; after proclaiming their faith in the Lord of the Worlds, they added, ‘The Lord of Moses and Aaron’, so that there should be no ambiguity in the minds of listeners, and it was for this reason that Pharaoh had threatened them with torture. This latter thus completed his testimony, ‘and I am of those who submit themselves to God’. For God is the One to whom all are guided and Who is guided by no one... With these words Pharaoh told his people that he went back on his claim to be their Lord most high. His fate was in the hands of Allah (fa-amruhu ilā-llāh), since he believed when seeing the imminence of his death. A faith of this kind cannot set aside the punishment of this world, except for the people of Jonah, but it is not a question here of the punishment of the Hereafter. Allah then confirmed him in his faith: ‘Is it now, whereas you disobeyed before?’ This verse proves the sincerity of his faith, otherwise Allah would have answered him, as with the desert Arabs who said: ‘We have believed!’ Say: ‘You have not yet believed, rather say: “we have submitted ourselves [to Allah]”, for faith has not yet entered your hearts.’[51] Allah has testified to the faith of Pharaoh, and He cannot now witness someone sincerely declaring His Unity without rewarding him. He did not disobey again after having believed, and Allah accepted him near to Him – if it is thus – with all the purity of his faith. Just as the unbeliever entering into Islam must make a total ablution (ghusl), drowning for Pharaoh constituted an ablution and a purification. Allah took him in this state and ‘inflicted upon him the torment of the Hereafter and this world’ to make of him ‘a subject of reflection for those who fear God’. One cannot liken his faith with that of the dying person (al-mugharghir). The latter is absolutely certain to leave this life, whereas Pharaoh’s drowning has the appearance of being different. He saw that the sea parted and dried up for the believers and understood that they owed this to their faith. Relying on his own faith, he was not certain of dying and even thought of living. His situation is consequently different to the one who is faced with death and then says, ‘I repent now’, or is one of ‘those who die an unbeliever’.[52] His fate is thus in the hands of Allah.[53]

These two passages[54] show with what strength the author has supported Pharaoh’s faith. It is necessary to add, however, that in the last text Ibn ʿArabi twice refers his fate to God, who alone knows the posthumous fate of beings. Elsewhere, he puts forward a slight reservation over the strength of his argument based on ‘Is it now?’[55] Overall his position is consistent and clear, were not the following passage in apparent contradiction to the texts we have cited. Some authors, anxious to defend the orthodoxy of the Shaykh al-Akbar, even found evidence there that he had never supported such an opinion.[56]

These criminals (mujrimūn) are divided into four groups, all doomed to the Fire, from which they will not leave. They are the ones who were proud towards God (al-mutakabbirūn ʿalā-llāh), such as Pharaoh and his ilk, who claimed Lordship while denying that of Allah. Thus he said: ‘O assembly, I do not know you have any god other than me!’, and also ‘I am your Lord most high!’. By that he meant that in the heavens there was no other god but him, as Nimrod and others had also claimed.[57]

How can this text be placed in relation to the previous one? Whatever might be found in the first volume of the Futūḥāt, and in those passages in the following volumes which are explicit concerning Pharaoh’s faith, the idea of an evolution in the thinking of Ibn ʿArabi seems unlikely. It would not be in keeping with the nature of his work and the fact that the Futūḥāt was redacted a second time. Another more plausible explanation would be to consider Pharaoh here as a form of human pride and hard-heartedness, independent of the context of prophetic history. Finally, and perhaps this is the best explanation: why not simultaneously admit the existence of two interpretations? – one exoteric and intended for ordinary believers, the other destined for the spiritual elite, who alone are capable of grasping the subtlety of the Qurʾanic Word, and consequently the initiatory dimension of the individual?[58]

Without being comprehensive, we have tried to reproduce as faithfully as possible the interpretation given by Ibn ʿArabi. One remains struck by the processes followed by the author in these texts; their apparent and exegetical aspect is one of their most remarkable features, and in this respect they appear quite different from other examples of esoteric interpretation based more naturally on allusions (ishāra). A question therefore arises: are we in the presence of an interpretation guided by a certain form of reading, or does the author try to find, by means of exegesis, the confirmation of an initial intuition? An analysis of his exegetical method may allow us to glimpse an answer, and above all to raise more clearly the question of the relationship between doctrine and exegesis.

The attachment of Sufi commentators to the literal meaning of the Qurʾan has frequently been noted. It does not signify a literal exegesis, but an exploitation of its wealth of symbolic possibilities in order to encourage the reader to discover the spiritual and metaphysical range of the text. One form that this can take is by referring to the original, concrete meaning of a root, or a word allied to it, so as to discover the deeper meaning of another word, abstracted through usage. Ibn ʿArabi proceeds in this way with the word nakāl, torture or punishment, in the verse, ‘And Allah inflicted upon him the punishment of the Hereafter and of this world.’ He connects its meaning to the idea of ‘link’ (qayd), and consequently to that of ‘conditioning’ (taqyīd), by joining it to the word of the same root: nikl, link, garrot. In terms of commentary, this results in the following: after claiming the unconditioned state of divinity, Pharaoh is providentially brought back to the conditioned state of servanthood, without which there is neither true deliverance nor bliss. The verse, ‘Verily in this there is an object of meditation (ʿibra)’, invites the reader literally to go beyond the meaning (tajāwuz al-maʿnā) of the previous verse by the word ʿibra, from the verb ʿabara, to cross, to pass. Sometimes the mere suggestion of a root is enough for a new idea to emerge. When said to Pharaoh, ‘perhaps he will remember’ (yatadhakkar), the multiple meanings of the root dh-k-r present themselves between the reader and the text, and the very notion of remembrance necessitates a prior, more essential knowledge. The tense of a verb can itself also be loaded with meaning. The perfect form of the verb āmantu, ‘I have believed’, with which Pharaoh begins his testimony of the divine unity, demonstrates that deep in his heart he was a believer of long-standing.

Ibn ʿArabi’s argument in these last three examples is based on the value of the words themselves, due to their root or their grammatical form. Another way of interpreting this is that it is no longer the linguistic content itself which constitutes the argument but, rather, the logical link suggested in the reader’s mind by such a word or expression, or even a particular order of words in a sentence. The ‘maybe’ (laʿalla) by which God wishes Pharaoh’s repentance to be insignificant is if it were to be pronounced by someone other than Him. But in this case God’s Omnipotence demands that His wish be realised. The word itself possesses a certain effective strength, as evidenced by these words spoken by Pharaoh’s wife, ‘(he will be) a freshness of the eye for me and for you!’[59] For Ibn ʿArabi, these words presage her husband’s happy ending since, thanks to Moses, Pharaoh realises his true spiritual destiny. The connection a word has with a traditional concept can intensify the scope of the word; after his testimony of the divine unity Pharaoh submits to God, but according to the ḥadīth such an act of submission (islām) erases all former faults, and therefore Pharaoh is necessarily pardoned. Finally, the unusual position of a word does not escape Ibn ʿArabi’s attention. Why is the Hereafter mentioned before this world in the verse, ‘And Allah inflicted on him the punishment of the Hereafter and of this world’? This permutation of the usual order requires an explanation: the merging of the two punishments into only one – that of drowning in this world.

Finally, in the writings of Ibn ʿArabi one frequently finds a series of exegetical arguments that the science of tafsīr refers to, under the generic term, as ‘commentary on the Qurʾan through itself’ (tafsīr al-qurʾān bi-l-qurʾān). The bringing together of two verses, each with a term in common, can shed light on one when compared with the other. Thus the verse, ‘Only they fear Allah, among His servants, who have knowledge…’, placed next to the verse ‘perhaps he will remember or will feel fear’,[60] signifies that when Pharaoh has experienced such fear he will remember the knowledge he had forgotten. The similar form used by Pharaoh and by the magicians in the testimony of the divine unity is, for Ibn ʿArabi, due to their common desire to remove any possible ambiguity in their formulation. Consequently, that of the first is just as valid as that of the second. Conversely, another argument for God’s acceptance of his faith comes from the comparison of two verses, each leading to an opposing meaning. If God criticises Pharaoh for taking so long to affirm his faith, He does not deny him its value either, as was the case for those desert Arabs who heard themselves reproached: ‘You have not believed!’ This proves that Pharaoh’s faith was sincere and was accepted. On the other hand, Ibn ʿArabi notes that there is nowhere in the Qurʾan that it explicitly mentions that Pharaoh is damned, except for the phrase ‘the people of Pharaoh’. But for him the expression does not concern Pharaoh himself.

All these methods remain more or less within the framework of traditional exegesis. Let us mention again another mode of interpretation, more suggestive than strictly logical, which attempts to highlight previously unsuspected relationships between words. For example, the testimony (shahāda) of the divine unity proclaimed by Pharaoh also evokes the idea of martyrdom (shahāda) because, according to the ḥadīth, the drowned man dies a martyr (shahīd). On the other hand, for whoever acknowledges Islam, drowning here evokes total ablution (ghusl) – itself a symbol – of the purification of past sins, which is also a promise made to the martyrs.

Are Ibn ʿArabi’s arguments convincing? This question is interesting, since all the controversy raised by the position he takes revolves around their value. However, it provides little benefit for the goal we have set ourselves. Above all, what concerns us here is to understand Ibn ʿArabi’s approach, and for that we must ask ourselves not about the value of his argument but his deeper motivations. As has already been emphasised, the challenge of it is essentially doctrinal and takes on religious, metaphysical and initiatory shades of meaning at the same time. Undoubtedly the point that he defends with the greatest strength and belief is the incommensurability of divine mercy. The work of the Shaykh al-Akbar is studded with constant reminders of it, supported by the words of the verse, ‘My mercy embraces everything’,[61] and of the ḥadīth qudsī, ‘My mercy precedes My anger’. On the religious level, only despair or refusal of grace are – along with associating (shirk) – sins that cannot possibly be forgiven. Now Pharaoh renounces both at the same time; do we have the right, under these conditions, to deny him being received into the divine mercy? On the metaphysical level, to condemn Pharaoh is therefore to limit this aspect of the Infinite, which is mercy. In this respect Ibn ʿArabi’s position is to be seen in the general context of his criticism of the theologians, who, through the limitation of their thinking, he accuses of wanting to condition the Absolute.

From an initiatory point of view, the import of the texts cited is many and varied. We shall briefly mention again the few points of doctrine which constitute the essentials of Ibn ʿArabi’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s character, and which are primarily based on a certain conception of knowledge and the knower. To know a thing or a being is to be identified with it, him or her. The more complete the identification is, the more perfect is the knowledge. Now, for this to happen, the knower must renounce all forms of individual pretensions, which constitute so many obstacles interposed between him and his goal. There is no other way than that of servitude and poverty to arrive at the goal: only this can protect the knower against the terrible ordeal, which is the discovery of his own ‘divinity’ and ‘lordship’ – which do not belong to him as his own but are only divine manifestations in him. The danger, therefore, is the illegitimate appropriation of qualities that belong only to God. Nonetheless, and this is another important aspect of Pharaoh’s character: knowledge is gained once and for all; if it can increase, it cannot decrease, and thus remains a source of salvation. The latter is nothing other than being freed from all limitations by the realisation of the essential Unity of Being, or rather its non-duality. What is acknowledged here is that which is recognised as waḥdat al-wujūd, although it seems that Ibn ʿArabi does not use this term himself.

We now have enough elements to outline a definition of Ibn ʿArabi’s hermeneutics. This seems to us to be at once singular in terms of inspiration, and twofold in terms of approach. A being whose entire aspiration is turned towards the One cannot help but find the signs of His Unity within the multiple manifestations of His Word: we could say that Ibn ʿArabi’s interpretation is constantly guided by this metaphysical dimension. We speak of the dual sense of his approach because the interpreter has a double role vis-à-vis the Word: passive and active. As receptacle, he receives according to his spiritual and intellectual predisposition; without being able to confirm it completely, it would appear to us that capturing the symbolic meaning of roots and words is of this order, which would sometimes explain its unusual character. Moreover, the commentator pours his meditation on the divine Book into the mould of exegesis. Schematically differentiated, these two aspects are in fact combined in the reading. For the Sufi, this is equally dhikr as well as fikr – that is to say, intuitive and direct remembering – and a reflection on the symbolic and doctrinal content of the Qurʾan. It would therefore be inaccurate to say that Ibn ʿArabi, or any other author of taṣawwuf, uses the Qurʾan to justify his, or their, arguments. On the contrary, it is by virtue of an interior necessity that any point of doctrine is placed by them in its Qurʾanic context.

In conclusion, all that remains is to situate the Shaykh al-Akbar’s interpretation within the history of the Islamic esoteric literature. An initial remark is, however, necessary: if it is not an isolated example, it is at least unique in its scope. To the best of our knowledge, we find the first trace of it given by Sahl al-Tustarī (d.283/896). Sarrāj reports on him as saying: ‘The soul has a secret that God has only disclosed through the mouth of Pharaoh, when he proclaimed: “I am your Lord most high!”’[62] Immediately after Sahl, al-Ḥallāj to a certain extent takes up Pharaoh’s defence in a far more allusive manner than Ibn ʿArabi. We read in Akhbar al-Ḥallāj: ‘And one of them asked him (Ḥallāj): O Shaykh! What do you think of the word of Firʿawn?’ – ‘It is a true word (kalimat ḥaqq)’ – ‘And what do you say of Moses’s word?’ – ‘It is a true word: both are words whose pre-eternal course is consistent with their post-eternal course.’[63] This text in itself remains ambiguous; there is only one sentence of the Ṭawāsīn which can be linked with a commentary by Ibn ʿArabi: ‘Pharaoh said: “I do not know you have any other god but me!”, knowing that no one among his people was capable of distinguishing between truth and falsehood.’[64] But what is rather striking about al-Ḥallāj is the sort of affinity that he himself asserts, and which exists between Pharaoh and him.[65] One naturally thinks of passages where Ibn ʿArabi likens the word of Pharaoh to a shaṭḥ. It is interesting to note that, concerning Pharaoh, a number of authors have supported two opinions at the same time. For example, in the Mathnawī, Jalāl al-dīn Rūmī condemns Pharaoh, or interprets him as the microcosmic symbol of the imagination struggling against the intellect.[66] But in Fīhi mā fīhi he indicates the possibility of an esoteric interpretation, while regarding the exoteric point of view as necessary: ‘The spiritual ones do not disclaim God’s favour towards Pharaoh completely, but those who see only the appearance consider him totally abandoned by God – and for the maintenance of appearances, this belief is appropriate.’[67] Another example of a double interpretation is also found among the respective commentators of Ḥallāj and Ibn ʿArabi – Rūzbehān Baqlī and Qāshānī; in his commentary on the Ṭawāsīn,[68] al-Baqlī justifies the remarks of al-Ḥallāj, or his disciple, on Pharaoh, but he does not breathe a word about it in his commentary on the Qurʾan, ʿArāʾis al-bayān. Similarly, Qāshānī makes no allusion to Ibn ʿArabi’s position in his own commentary, Taʾwīlāt al-Qurʾān, while he comments on the Fuṣūṣ al-ḥikam and perfectly accepts the author’s interpretation. More recently, the Emir ʿAbd al-Qādir, a devout disciple of Ibn ʿArabi, condensed the latter’s argument in an initial passage of the Mawāqif,[69] as did Dawwānī, another advocate of Ibn ʿArabi’s position.[70] But in another Mawqif, the question of the posthumous bliss of Pharaoh appeared to the Emir one day in a much more personal way, since his own happiness was announced to him in the form of a verse concerning Pharaoh. In wonderment, God reveals to him that Pharaoh has devoted his life to divine worship and died ‘pure, purified and a martyr’.[71]

In this last testimony, the interest in Pharaoh’s ‘sanctity’ is in partial response to the question we posed on the nature of the esoteric tradition concerning Pharaoh, of which Ibn ʿArabi was the most brilliant representative. Do we see here a commonality of hermeneutical approach, or even a literary or oral transmission? The Emir ʿAbd al-Qādir’s example shows that it is perfectly possible to accept both simultaneously.

We would like to be able to place this interpretation in a ‘gnostic’ tradition of the ‘People of the Book’: could we hope for a more beautiful illustration of salvific gnosis than the story of Pharaoh, as it is presented to us by Ibn ʿArabi? The few texts that we have consulted have only brought us partially satisfactory responses. The Midrash[72] nevertheless refers to the repentance of Pharaoh.[73] The Christian exegetical tradition has also concerned itself with Pharaoh, but generally views him as illustrating the mystery of predestination, or as the symbol of the dark forces that pull man towards materialism.[74] However, as our possibilities in this field were very limited, we mention these two examples to elicit a response. As for Pharaonic Egypt, although this Qurʾanic Firʿawn is hardly concerned with it, it is interesting to find a quasi-justification for the divinity of Pharaoh from the pen of a Sufi author.

Translated by Alan Boorman

This English translation was published in the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi Society, Vol. 60, 2016.


1. First published in French as ‘Le personnage coranique de Pharaon d’après l’interprétation d’Ibn ʿArabi’, Annales Islamologiques, vol.14 (1978), pp. 37–57.

2. In particular Ibn Taymiyya; see Majmūʿa al-rasāʾil wa-l-masāʾil, vol. IV, pp. 98–101. It seems that he knew the text of the Fuṣūṣ. See also the refutation by Molla Qari in the epistle of Dawwānī (see below): Farr al-ʿawn min muddaʾī īmān Firʿawn (Cairo, 1964). For the polemics surrounding Ibn ʿArabi’s work, see the list of works in O. Yahya’s introduction to Naṣṣ al-nuṣūṣ by Ḥaydar Āmoli (Paris & Tehran, 1975).

3. Moses is mentioned 135 times in the Qurʾan, Pharaoh 74 times, Abraham 69 times, and so on.

4. Cf. Q.28:6 and 8; Q.29:39 and 40:24.

5. Cf. Q.29:39 and 40:24.

6. Cf. Q.10:83; 23:46; 28:4.

7. See Q.20:71; 26:44; 28:38; 43:51; 79:24.

8. The passages of the Futūḥāt where Ibn ʿArabi treats the question are as follows: vol. I:194, 235, 301, 436; II:276–7, 410, 411; III:90, 163–4, 178, 264, 355, 514, 533; IV:20, 60, 291 (Cairo edn, 1329). See Fuṣūṣ al-ḥikam, Afifi edn. (Cairo, 1946,), pp. 197–213.

9. Q.20:43–4.

10. Fut.III:264 and 533.

11. Fut.III:276.

12. Q.79:24.

13. Fut.III:533. The text is clearly an allusion to the ḥadīth qudsī: ‘My servant does not draw close to Me with a work which is more pleasing to Me than what I have imposed upon him, and he does not cease drawing closer to Me until I am the hearing with which he hears, the sight with which he sees, the hand with which he grasps, the foot with which he walks.’ Cited by Bukhārī, Ṣaḥīḥ, riqāq 38, vol. 7 (Cairo, 1351h), p. 190.

14. Q.20:45.

15. Fut.III:533.

16. Kitāb al-Jalāla in Rasāʾil Ibn ʿArabī (Hyderabad, 1948), p. 5.

17. A formula that is pronounced in the canonical prayer, when rising up from the inclination. In this standing position, the reciter potentially assumes the function of khalīfa; so it is God who speaks in reality.

18. Fut.I:436.

19. The ‘nature’ (ṭabīʿa) referred to by Ibn ʿArabi is the formal manifestation in the broadest sense.

20. This is about Abu Yazid al-Bistami; see above.

21. Fut.I:275–6.

22. Q.28:38.

23. Fut.III:178.

24. Q.20:50.

25. Fut.IV:291.

26. Q.20:72: words pronounced by the magicians condemned by Pharaoh to torture. Cf. Fuṣūṣ, p. 210.

27. Q.26:21.

28. Cf. Q.26:23.

29. Fuṣūṣ, p. 207.

30. Q.20:49–52.

31. Q.20:51–2.

32. Q.43:54; Fut.III:533.

33. Q.11:35. This verse is referring to Pharaoh.

34. Fut.III:514.

35. The pronoun refers to Ibn ʿArabi himself.

36. Fut.II:276; this passage and the following one below are extracts of Chap. 167 entitled Kimiyāʾ al-saʿāda (The Alchemy of Happiness).

37. Fut.III:36; see also Fut.II:410–11.

38. Fut.III:90 and below.

39. Ibid. II:277.

40. Q.10:90.

41. Q.7:121–2 and 20:70.

42. Q.10:91.

43. Q.10:92.

44. Cf. Q.10:98, Fut.III:90.

45. Q.10:92.

46. Q.11:98.

47. Q.27:62.

48. Q.79:25.

49. Q.79:26.

50. Fut.II:276–7.

51. Q.49:14.

52. Q.4:18.

53. Fut.II:410.

54. See also Fut.III:533 and Fuṣūṣ, p. 212.

55. Fut.II:410.

56. Such as al-Shaʿrānī in his Yawāqīt wa-l-jawāhir (Cairo, 1307h), p. 13.

57. Fut.I:301.

58. We should note another passage discovered after writing this article: Ibn ʿArabi contrasted this state of misery (shaqāʾ) of Pharaoh with his wife’s state of bliss (saʿāda). Although both terms refer generally to the hereafter, the author does not specify, so it is difficult to determine. On the other hand, as in the texts cited above, the fall of Pharaoh is explained by the height of the maqām he attained (see Fut.III:11).

59. Q.28:9; Fuṣūṣ, p. 201.

60. Q.35:28, Q.20:44.

61. Q.7:156.

62. Al-Lumaʿ, ed. R.A. Nicholson (Leiden, 1914), p. 354; see also p. 227. Cf. L. Massignon, Passion of Ḥallāj (Gallimard, 1975), vol. I, p. 111.

63. Cited in Passion III, p. 122.

64. Al-Hallāj, K. al-Ṭawāsīn, p. 50. Even if the passage is, according to Massignon, added by Wāsiṭī, it nonetheless reflects the point of view of his master al-Ḥallāj.

65. See Ṭawāsīn, p. 50 and Passion I, p. 58. Ibn Fātik’s vision can just as well apply to al-Ḥallāj; but numerous authors, in order to defend the legitimacy of the shaṭḥ of the latter, oppose Pharaoh’s pretension (daʿwa). Cf. Passion, II, p. 281.

66. On this latter interpretation, see Mathnawi of Jalaluddin Rumi, trans. R.A. Nicholson (Cambridge, reprint 1982), 6 vols., vol. 4, verses 399–403.

67. Risālāt Fīhi mā fīhi, translated in the edition of Vitray-Meyerovitch (Tehran, 1975), pp. 224–5; English trans., Discourses of Rumi by A.J. Arberry (London & New York, 1955).

68. Ṭawāsīn, p. 93; Commentary by Rūzbehān Baqlī (1128–1209) (Paris, P. Geuthner, 1913).

69. ʿAbd al-Qādir’s major work K. al-Mawāqif (‘Book of Stages’), an extended discourse on the doctrines of Ibn ʿArabi. Mawāqif (Cairo, 1911), I, 53–5, mawqif 21.

70. Risālāt fi īmān Firʿawn, Ibn al-Khaṭīb edn. (Cairo, 1964), followed by the refutation of Molla Qari.

71. Mawāqif, II, 236–7, mawqif 265.

72. The Midrash is an ancient commentary on part of the Hebrew scriptures, attached to the biblical text. The earliest Midrashim come from the 2nd century ad, although much of their content is older.

73. Cf. Sidersky, Les origines des legendes musulmanes (Paris, 1933), p. 85: ‘Take the example of Pharaoh, king of Egypt; by the same language with which he sinned, he subsequently repented saying (Exodus XIV, 11) “Who is like you among the gods, O Eternal?”.’

74. See Origen, Homilies on the Exodus, and Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, Christian Sources, vols. XVI and I; see internet for various sources in English.