Articles and Translations

Abu Madyan and Ibn ‘Arabi


During the research I carried out some years ago, in the course of my work on the biography of the Shaykh al-Akbar, I repeatedly came up against questions which, through lack of time and above all through lack of documentation, I was obliged to leave unanswered. I should like, here, to try to provide something of a reply to one of those questions which it seemed most important to throw light on because of its involvement in the destiny of Ibn ‘Arabi, and, more generally, in the development of the tasawwuf from the thirteenth century onwards: Why does Abu Madyan, whom he never met, have so much importance for Ibn ‘Arabi that he constantly refers to him in his work, and continually adds to his declarations of admiration and respect for him, most often giving him the title of shaykh al-mashayikh, the ‘Master of masters’?

It is true that Ibn ‘Arabi did not invent this laqab. By applying it to him, he is simply conforming to a practice which began, it seems, during the actual lifetime of the Saint of Bugia. The Arabs, I well know, have at all times shown an inordinate taste for hyperbole. Chroniclers and hagiographers very liberally give out dithyrambic titles which are not always justified: an annoying habit which Ibn Jubayr, a contemporary of Ibn ‘Arabi, and a merciless observer of the customs of his time, condemns on a memorable page of his Rihla.[1]

But in this case it is not a question of that. The author of the Futûhât never writes anything unthinkingly. For him, eulogy is not mere rhetorical decoration. The superlative which he applies to Abu Madyan must not therefore be interpreted in his writing as the result of a conditioned reflex, or even as a purely formal mark of respect towards an elder. With these words, Ibn ‘Arabi means not so much to pay tribute to the spiritual pre-eminence of the Saint of Bugia as to express the profound and sincere veneration which he has for him.

As a matter of fact, Ibn ‘Arabi shares this veneration with many Muslims both past and present. The processions which cause a large crowd to gather round the mausoleum of Abu Madyan at Tlemcen each year during the religious festivals, bears adequate witness to the vitality and ardour of the cult of which he is the object. Two factors have contributed, it seems to me, to the development of this popular fervour: first of all, one must not disregard the strictly charismatic dimension of Abu Madyan, who drew such a crowd of disciples round him that, according to some chroniclers, the Almohad authorities suspected him of wanting to raise an army by claiming the title of Mahdi; whether it is true or not this assertion in any case exemplifies the measure of popularity which Abu Madyan enjoyed in his lifetime. Moreover, contrary to what has happened to other awliya’, who also knew a certain degree of success during their passage through this world but of whom no memory has conserved reminiscence nor any epitaph the name, the posthumous renown of Abu Madyan has notably resisted the onslaught of time, and even more implacable, the ungrateful memory of men. His reputation was in fact actively maintained and regularly nourished throughout the centuries, both by a strong oral tradition, particularly via some muwashshahat which extol his miracles and praise his virtues – one of them, recently composed by an Algerian singer, has enjoyed a great success with the Maghrebi young people – and by a wealth of more or less erudite literature.

This richness of documentation must not deceive us however. The texts are numerous, it is true; nevertheless, on reading them carefully, one discovers that they are saying the same thing, in a more or less disguised form as the case may be, so that the facts which we currently have on Abu Madyan finally do not add up to much. To the inevitable question ‘who copied whom?’ I shall reply without hesitation: an examination of the sources relating to the biography of Abu Madyan reveals that the Tashawwuf by Tadili, who died in about 627/1230, constitutes the original source from which later writers drew, adding here and there some elements of their own.

Consequently, it would be useful to recall the main points of information written down by Tadili in section 162 of this work dedicated to Abu Madyan.[2] Of the many accounts which it contains, one will remember especially the ones by Muhammad b. Ibrahim al-Ansari and ‘Ali al-Ghafiqi al-Sawwaf who heard from Abu Madyan, of whom they were close disciples, the story of the circumstances which surrounded the beginning of his vocation. Here are the principle points of note in the first account by M. b. Ibrahim al-Ansari: as an orphan, mistreated by his older brothers whom he served as a shepherd, the young Abu Madyan suffered dreadfully from his illiteracy which made him incapable of fulfilling his obligatory acts of devotion. Having resolved to teach himself, he repeatedly tried to escape, but each time his brothers caught him and punished him severely. However, thanks to miraculous intervention which dissuaded them from keeping him any longer, he gained permission to leave.

From the village of his birth, situated near Seville, the youth arrived, after various vicissitudes, at Fez where, first of all, he learned the rudiments of the religion. Then, wanting to know more, he attended the courses of some fuqaha’, only to realize very quickly that he did not remember anything of what they said. Very fortunately, he met Ibn Hirzihim – a famous faqîh-sufi – whose teaching went, he said, ‘straight to his heart’. Having heard people speak about Abu Ya’za, famous during his lifetime for many miracles, Abu Madyan went to visit him with a group of friends. The rest of the story is well known; let’s listen, nevertheless, to the account that Abu Madyan gave of it to his disciple Muhammad al-Ansari:

When we arrived at Mount Ayrujan we went into Abu Ya’za’s house, and he welcomed everyone except me. When the meal was served, he forbade me to eat; so I went and sat down in a corner of the house. It continued like that for three days, each time the meal appeared, and I got up to eat, he sent me away; I was exhausted with hunger, and I felt humiliated. After three days had gone by, Aba Ya’za left his seat: I sat down in the place where he had been, and rubbed my face. Then I raised my head and opened my eyes: I saw nothing, I had become blind. During the whole night I did not stop crying. The next morning Abu Ya’za called for me and said: ‘Come here, Andalusian!’ I went close to him. He put his hand on my face, and immediately I recovered my sight. Then he massaged my chest with his hands, and said to those who were present: ‘This one will have a great destiny!’

Abu Ya’za then allowed Abu Madyan to go, but not without warning him first of the dangers that he would meet on the way; of course, things happened just as Abu Ya’za had predicted. ‘After that,’ concludes Abu Madyan, ‘I did not stop travelling until one day I arrived at Bugia where I stayed.’[3]

The account by ‘Ali al-Ghafiqi is noticeably different. The childhood of the saint, which it seems was fairly unhappy, is passed over in silence, as are the precise circumstances of his departure for the Maghreb; Abu Madyan confines himself to telling his disciple that he left his native village to go to the Maghreb. The version he gives to Ghafiqi about his stay in Fez contains more facts than that conveyed by Ansari, particularly concerning his teachers and his initiatory education. Thus he specifies that Ibn Hirzihim taught him the Ri’âya by Muhasibi, and the Ihyâ’ ‘Ulûm al-dîn by Ghazali, and that he studied, besides, the Sunan by Tirmidhi under the direction of Abu-1-Hasan Ibn Ghalib, another faqîh-sûfi, and a disciple of Ibn al-‘Arif.

Abu Madyan also revealed that he was initiated into the Way (akhadhtu tarîqat al-tasawwuf ‘an) by Abu ‘Abd Allah al-Daqqaq – a Sufi whom hagiographical sources [4] present to us as a rather eccentric person, who walked about the streets calling out that he was a saint – and Abu-1-Hasan al-Salawi, whom I have been unable to this day to identify.

Lastly, Ghafiqi’s narration is the first to give an account of the episode of the gazelle, which was to become legendary, and which I summarize as follows:

When he was a student in Fez, every time he had learnt a verse of the Qur’an, or a hadîth, Abu Madyan used to isolate himself in a hermitage, and practise this verse or hadîth until he obtained the fath, the enlightenment proper to the practice of the verse or hadîth in question. The place that Abu Madyan had chosen for his retreat was a ruined site in the mountains, near the coast. A gazelle regularly came to visit him there, and, far from being afraid of him, sniffed him from head to foot then settled down by his side. One day, however, after having smelt him in this way, the gazelle gave him a disapproving look and ran away; Abu Madyan then realized that the presence on his person of a sum of money was the cause of this unusual behaviour, and he got rid of it immediately. The last but not least piece of information to remember from the Tashawwuf concerns the death of Abu Madyan. Curiously, Tadili is extremely concise about this: ‘He was ordered’, he writes, ‘to present himself in Marrakesh. He died on the way at Yassir in 594, or according to some, 588; he was buried at ‘Ubbad, just outside Tlemcen.’[5] A few lines further on he informs us – relying on the testimony of a person who was present at the death agony of Abu Madyan – that the saint’s last words were ‘Allah al-Haqq’ or, according to another account, ‘Allah Allah.’

Tadili’s laconicism about this event, and, more precisely, about the reasons which impelled the sultan to command Abu Madyan to present himself in Marrakesh, is, at the very least, surprising. Would the author of the Tashawwuf, who was close to several of Abu Madyan’s disciples, some of whom accompanied the master on his last earthly journey, have been unaware of the reasons for this sudden and fatal summons to the palace? It is rather unlikely; however, he keeps quiet about it.

This is a silence which is all the more striking since it contrasts with the prolixity Tadili’s successors displayed on this subject which, moreover, has continued to divide them over the centuries. In fact, when one draws up an inventory of their texts, and collates the accounts which they give of this tragic event, one notices that two diametrically opposed theories, each one tirelessly upheld and repeated by an almost equal number of partisans, have prevailed amongst Arab historians.

For reasons which unfortunately they do not specify, Western specialists of Islam have always chosen to uphold the version which interprets the facts in a political way, and which I summarize here, relying on the account written down by Ibn Qunfudh in his Uns al-Faqîr Wa’izz al-Haqîr:

Following a malicious denunciation, the Almohad Sultan, Ya’qub al-Mansur, ordered the governor of Bugia to have Abu Madyan brought to Marrakesh under escort. The announcement of this disquieting royal summons provoked a strong emotional reaction amongst the followers of the master. The latter tried to reassure his disciples: ‘Shu’ayb’, he told them, ‘is a weak old man, incapable of walking; now, it has been decreed that his death will take place in another country.

As it is inescapable that he should get there, God has arranged it in such a way that someone will carry him gently to the place of his burial, and transport him in the best way to his determined end. However, those who are asking for me shall not see me, and I shall not see them.’ Abu Madyan then left accompanied by the royal escort. Having arrived on the outskirts of Tlemcen he asked: ‘What is this place, where we are now, called?’ – ‘Al-‘Ubbad’ (the devout) – ‘How pleasant it would be to rest here!’ The saint passed away shortly afterwards.[6]

Ghubrini is the first, to my knowledge, to put forward this version in the ‘Unwân al-Dirâya,[7] which he wrote down about a century after Abu Madyan’s death; he was to be followed by Ibn Qunfudh (d.809/1406), Ibn Maryam (d.1011/1602),[8] Ahmad Baba al-Tumbukti (d.1036/621),[9] and Maqqari (d.1041/1631).[10] It is interesting to note that the first two, Ghubrini and Ibn Qunfudh, did not deem it necessary to specify the nature of the anonymous accusation made against Abu Madyan, perhaps because it was more obvious in their time, which was relatively close to the time when Abu Madyan lived.

Ibn Maryam, Maqqari and Ahmad Tumbukti, who were much later, felt the need to be more precise; they point out that the anonymous informer convinced Sultan Mansur that the Saint of Bugia constituted a danger to the realm, on account of his resemblance to the Mahdi, and his large number of disciples. These authors also specify that the informer was one of the ‘ulama’ al-zâhir, the doctors of law.

With this classic scenario of a political conspiracy hatched by the wicked fuqahâ’ is contrasted a more romantic, and in its own way just as classic, version of the repentant sovereign who seeks the baraka of a walî. This version of events appeared, for the first time it seems, in a work which dates from the end of the seventh century, and which is therefore contemporary with the ‘Unwân al-Dirâya: the Risâla by
Safi al-Din Ibn Mansur, edited and translated by Denis Gril.[11]

Ibn Abi Mansur lived in Egypt, where he was in close contact with the community of Maghrebi Sufis and Andalusian emigres to the East. His Risâla, in which he wrote down the biographies of some 155 Sufis -about sixty of whom are natives of the Muslim West – provides precious information on the world of the Sufis in the East in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, particularly on the relationships which they had with the representatives of temporal power.

It is from Shaykh Abu-l-‘Abbas al-Mariyyi, a native of Almeria, that Ibn Abi Mansur obtained his knowledge about the summoning of Abu Madyan to Marrakesh. This Sufi, also known as Abu-l-‘Abbas al-Qanja’iri by the compilers who mention him [12], became – at least so he says – the spiritual guide of Mansur under the following circumstances: the sultan, Abu-l-‘Abbas explains to the author of the Risala, sincerely repentant of having had his brother executed after the latter tried to overthrow him, ardently desired to find a teacher who would pacify his soul, and bring him to eternal salvation. A lady of the Way, in whom he had confided, advised him to see Abu Madyan:

Ya’qub then sent for Shaykh Abu Madyan in such an urgent and supplicating way that the latter, who was then at Bugia, replied to his appeal by declaring: ‘In obeying him, I am obeying God, Glory to Him, but I shall not reach him; I shall die at Tlemcen.’ Having arrived in this town, he said to Ya’qub’s messengers who were escorting him: ‘Greet your master and tell him that he will find healing in the presence of Abu-l-‘Abbas al-Mariyyi.’ It is thus that our master Abu Madyan died in Tlemcen.

Ya’qub searched for Abu-l-‘Abbas al-Mariyyi, and when he was found, followed his teaching in conformity with the will of the deceased Abu Madyan.

There is a hagiographical source slightly anterior to the Tashawwuf, which has bearing on the Sufis who lived in Fez, and therefore especially on Abu Madyan: this is the Mustafâd fi Dhikr al-‘Ubbâd bi Madînat Fâs… by Muhammad b. Qasim al-Tamimi, an important part of which has recently been discovered in Morocco.

The author,[13] who died at the dawn of the seventh century, unceasingly wandered among the Sufi circles of the West – and also those of the East where he stayed for fifteen years – to gather the baraka of the masters and glean their history. Muhaddith when he liked, he was also a spiritual teacher. He was notably a teacher of Ibn ‘Arabi, whom he invested with the khirqa in 594 in Fez. In his youth he was close to Abu Ya’za and Abu Madyan. His account is therefore very precious, and its publication, which Ahmed Toufiq and Muhammad Ben Sharifa have prepared, and who have permitted me to consult it, will no doubt allow the breaches, which fractured our knowledge of the world of Maghrebi religious men in the fifth and sixth centuries of the Hegira, to be partially filled in. It is necessary to recognize, however, that it is quite deceptive as far as Abu Madyan is concerned: apart from some vague details on his early life and on the organisation of his teaching at Fez, it does not add much to the little we know of his personality and his spiritual history.

Although it is cited by Ibn ‘Arabi and some later authors, the Mustafâd has obviously not benefited from as wide a diffusion as the compilation by Tadili, to whom one owes, as we have seen, the first organized account of Abu Madyan’s life. His example, unfortunately, has not inspired anyone to emulate him.

Ibn Qunfudh, who died at the beginning of the ninth century, does indeed present us with a monograph entirely devoted to the illustrious Maghrebi Sufi. However the Uns al-faqîr, of which he is the author, was never, all things considered, any more than a long list of Abu Madyan’s teachers, his numerous companions and his contemporaries. Ibn Qunfudh tells us nothing about the leading actor which Tadili has not already said.

In the work of other compilers such as Marrakushi, Badisi, Shattanawfi, Yafi’i, authors of the eighth century, or even Ibn Maryam, Ibn Qadi, Maqqari, etc. who were much later, the quest turns out to be equally fruitless, although they do provide two pieces of information which do not appear in Tamimi nor in Tadili. But are these not, for this very reason, subject to doubt? One concerns Abu Madyan’s journey to the East during the course of which he would, they say, have met ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani and Ahmad Rifa’i. The other, which I mentioned just now, concerns the reasons why Sultan Al-Mansur summoned Abu Madyan to Marrakesh. Apart from that, they only repeat, more or less slavishly as the case may be, the section from the Tashawwuf, adding here and there some unedited aphorisms of the saint mixed with edifying anecdotes which are sometimes completely improbable; (I am thinking in particular of a story, told by an Egyptian writer who died at the beginning of the ninth century, Al-Hurayfshi, according to which Abu Madyan suddenly and miraculously converted seventy-two Christian monks, and this all happened in Andalusia, even though the facts would indicate that he did not leave the Maghreb again after the day when, as a youth, he fled there from his native Andalusian village).[14]

Ghubrini, and later Munawi, it is true, say more about this. That is because, as readers of Ibn ‘Arabi, they have copied and often truncated whole passages from the Futûhât which they have not always understood.

Ultimately, the long account in the Tashawwuf constitutes, therefore, the original, and, so to speak, embryonic version of Abu Madyan’s biography. Now, from the picture painted by Tadili, what do we know finally about the itinerary of Abu Madyan, about his interior journey, his experience of the one God, about the murîd and then the murshîd that he was? What do we know about his doctrinal teaching, his ahwâl or his maqamât? Absolutely nothing. Only one writer provides answers to these questions: the author of the Futûhât.

One still has to find them; scattered, at the mercy of the inspiration which guided the pen of the Doctor Maximus, over thousands of pages, hidden between the lines, they do not present themselves to the glance of the hurried reader. Only a careful and searching examination of the akbarian text can unmask them. Having accomplished this tracking-down exercise, the hardest work remains to be done. For it is still necessary to decipher the often obscure formulations, where Abu Madyan’s name fleetingly appears, to journey through the akbarian corpus to piece them together, then finally patiently recreate the mosaic. A labour of love, it is true, but one at the end of which one has the satisfaction of seeing the most subtle and astonishing aspects of Abu Madyan’s spirituality appear.

One would search in vain elsewhere for such an insight into his interior experience, since his biographers, despite a zeal not held in doubt, did not know how to capture anything but the external face of his sainthood. As recorders, faithful if possible, of his words and deeds, their task was necessarily limited to that; it fell to the Shaykh al-Akbar to be his tar-jumdn, his interpreter.

The author of the Futûhât has not, moreover, neglected to study the famous sayings of the Saint of Bugia. He refers to them in his writings when the occasion arises, and the commentary which he gives on them – be it explicitly or implicitly – sheds, each time, a new light on the often sibylline words of Abu Madyan.

It sometimes happens – but it happens too often in the Shaykh al-Akbar’s work for one to be surpised – that his interpretation differs from one chapter to the next, from one context to another, but without his contradicting himself nevertheless. Such is the case, for example, with this well-known saying of Abu Madyan’s: ‘We don’t want tainted meat, give us fresh meat.’ In chapter 54 of the Futûhât (I, 280) Ibn ‘Arabi sees in it an illustration of the opposition between the perfidious nature of knowledge such as it is conceived by the fuqahâ’, who extract it from books and from the dead, and that of the saints, who gain it from its very source, the Living God. Whilst elsewhere, in chapter 216 {Fut II, 505) he explains that, by these words, Abu Madyan requested his disciples only to elicit the futûh, the interior illuminations which they themselves experienced, and to refrain from commenting on those of others.

Too loyal to be servile, the Shaykh al-Akbar does not hesitate when the occasion arises to criticize such and such an aphorism of the master whom he reveres; thus, on quoting in the Futûhât (IV, 264) a saying of Abu Madyan’s – which he describes straight away as a simple and general saying (qawl ummî ‘âmmî) – on the secret of the life which flows in everything, he pronounces it inaccurate without being, he specifies, completely wrong, and he asserts with regard to this that the Saint of Bugia had not received the futûh al-‘ibâra, the charisma of expression which, he points out elsewhere (Fut II, 506), is only given to the perfect Muhammadian, even if he is in other respects the heir of another prophet.

The Shaykh al-Akbar is not unaware either of the extraordinary events which marked Abu Madyan’s vocation; however, as he narrates them, he simultaneously gives us an explanation of their prodigious nature. Such is the case with that strange and famous episode – which the hagiographers have all carefully recorded, but the enigma of which none of them elucidates – during which Abu Madyan suddenly lost his sight on account of Abu Ya’za, and recovered it a little later, thanks to him; it was, Ibn ‘Arabi points out (Fut II, 51), because he was of the mûsâwî spiritual type, like Moses, and it was because his face emitted an absolutely dazzling light, in the manner of the prophet Moses, that Abu Ya’za sometimes struck down his visitors as by lightning.

What fundamentally distinguishes Ibn ‘Arabi’s approach from that of others is that he has penetrated the nature of the spiritual graces with which Abu Madyan was endowed, the states, ahwâl, that he travelled through, the stations, maqâmât, that he conquered, the secrets and the knowledges that he received. At no time, however, does Ibn ‘Arabi give us a complete, finished portrait of Abu Madyan’s walâya. More often, they are only brief but incisive and penetrating comments, a little like a stippled design which it will be for us to recreate.

He notes, for example, in a passage of the Futûhât (IV, 141) that Abu Madyan’s hâl corresponded to the first two words of the verse ‘qul Allâh thumma dharhum fî khawdihim yal’abûn’; the second part of this verse implies in fact an affirmation of the multiplicity which is incompatible with the state of fanâ’, extinction in the divine Uniqueness, in which, he states elsewhere (Fut II, 201) Abu Madyan dwelt. Another time he points out in passing (Fut II, 252) that the rujû’ of Abu Madyan, his return to the creatures, was ikhtiyârî, freely desired by him, which as Michel Valsan emphasized,[15] is, from a certain point of view, more exceptional than the rujû’ idtirâran, which is accomplished under constraint, owing to the sacrificial nature of this voluntary ‘descent’.

With a little persistence one can thus extract from the akbarian corpus, and above all from the Futûhât, some pieces of information, as brief as they are precious, on the realization in Abu Madyan, of moral exactitude (wara’), abandonment to God (tawakkul), heroic generosity (futuwwa), etc. Formulated with an assurance and a precision which do not cease to surprise, these observations are remarkable in that, as succinct as they are, they throw into relief the fundamental and often unsuspected characteristics of Abu Madyan’s spirituality.

I should like to cite two more very revealing examples of the prodigiously keen perception which Ibn ‘Arabi had of Abu Madyan’s spiritual state. The first relates to the unusual bond which existed between Abu Madyan and one of his children, which is referred to in section 164 of the Tashawwuf dedicated to ‘Abd al-Razzaq Jazuli. Abu Madyan, Tadili recounts, had, in accordance with a prediction by Abu Ya’za, a son by a black slave from whom he later wished to part. Fearing for the future of the child and his mother, he hesitated to do this, when, to help him out of difficulty, ‘Abd al-Razzaq Jazuli volunteered to marry the mother and bring up the child. The latter, adds the author of the Tashawwuf, displayed gifts of firâsa, supernatural perception, from the earliest age. Unfortunately he did not live long. Neither Tadili nor any of his successors give any more information on the exact nature of the exceptional and precocious power of this child.

Now, in chapter 35 of the Futûhât, which deals with ‘the knowledge of he who has realized the dwelling-place of the Breath and its secrets after his death’, a chapter which is indissociable from the one which precedes it and which also deals with this matter, Ibn ‘Arabi is quite loquacious on this subject. Every spiritual man, he explains at some length, inevitably receives from God the faculty of perceiving through a single one of his five senses the totality of what the ordinary man can only apprehend by using the specialized sense which corresponds to the nature of the apprehended object. So that one would say of such and such a walî that he is, for example, sâhib nazar, gifted with looking, or else sâhib sam’, gifted with hearing: which means that, by looking alone in the first case, by hearing alone in the second, he apprehends what, in the individual not endowed with this charisma, is perceived by means of taste, touch, smell: he ‘sees’ the scent of the flowers, he ‘hears’ the taste of a fruit. What is more, such a being, adds the author of the Futûhât, can, if the occasion arises, become in his turn an instrument of perception for others. That is exactly what, according to him, happened between Abu Madyan and his young son. He writes (Fut II, 221):

Abu Madyan, who was sâhib nazar, had a son by a black woman who at the age of seven, was able to say on looking at the sea: ‘At such and such a spot is such and such a boat carrying such and such goods.’ Several days later, when the boat berthed at Bugia – where the child lived – one could ascertain that he had seen correctly. When he was asked how he saw that, he replied at first: ‘Through my eyes.’ Then: ‘No, through my heart.’ And finally he declared: ‘No, I only see that through my father; when he is present, and I am looking at him, I can see these things which I tell you about; but when he is absent, I cannot see anything.’ Thus, he saw ‘through his father’ like the ordinary man sees ‘through his eyes’ in a mirror.

Let us note in passing that Ibn ‘Arabi also quotes with regard to this the famous hadîth qudsî, so often commented on by him: ‘When I love him, I am his hearing by which he hears, his sight by which he sees, his hand by which he takes hold, his foot with which he walks . . .’ which gives an indication of the relationship between this charisma, and the degree of spiritual realization of which he is the symbol and the result.

The second text which I have chosen comes from chapter 24 of the Futûhât (I, 284): Abu Madyan, writes the Shaykh al-Akbar, who was known in the higher world under the name of Abu-1-Naja, was one of those who have attained the maqâm called malik al-mulk. He loved to say ‘my sûrah is Tabâraka alladhî biyadihi-l
mulk. . .
That is why I have affirmed with regard to him that he was one of the two imams, for that is the maqâm of the imâmat.’

What Ibn ‘Arabi does not make clear here is that it is a question, in this case, of the imâmat of the Left; a function which, he points out in another work, the Manzil al-Qutb,[16] Abu Madyan assumed for an exceptionally long time, and which he gave up one or two hours before his death in order to receive the qutbiyya, the function of Pole. This last piece of information was communicated to him, he states in the Mawâqi’ al-Nujûm, by Abu Yazid al-Bistami during a vision. I think moreover that this passage from the Mawâqi’ (Cairo ed., 1965, p.139), the interpretation of which was distorted in the course of time by less scrupulous writers, is the origin of a legend, which certain later compilers such as Ibn Maryam repeated, according to which Abu Yazid al-Bistami expressly announced the coming of Abu Madyan.

That Abu Madyan acceded to the dignity of Pole on the threshold of death seems at first sight to contradict another passage of the Manzil al-Qutb (p. 4) in which, after having explained that with the exception of men and the jinn all the creatures know the identity of the Pole, and make a pact with him, Ibn ‘Arabi recounts a strange story which happened to one of Abu Madyan’s disciples, Musa al-Sadrani:

Having arrived at Mount Qâf, which according to tradition surrounds our universe, he met the serpent who himself encircled the mountain. After the customary greetings, an astonishing dialogue started up between them: ‘How is Shaykh Abu Madyan?’ asks the serpent of the traveller. ‘I left him in good health, but how do you know him?’ – ‘Is there a single being, on the face of the earth’, replies the astonished serpent, ‘who does not know him or love him? Since God put his name on earth, there is not one amongst us who does not know him.’

One would be tempted to deduce from what the serpent said that at the time that this meeting took place, which would be in 586/1190 at the latest when Ibn ‘Arabi heard it told by one of his teachers, Abu Madyan was the Pole, although his death came several years later, in about 589 at the earliest or 594 at the latest. However, the last line of this passage dispels all ambiguity in my opinion: ‘Such is the maqâm of the well-beloved (mahbûb)! What would one say, then, of that of the Pole!’ exclaims Ibn ‘Arabi. I should point out in passing that Munawi (Kawâkib, undated, Cairo, II, p. 83) and Sha’rani (Tabaqât, Cairo, 1954, I, p. 154) have recorded this story – which also appears in the Futûhât (II, 682-3) – but have shortened it in such a way that in their version of the facts it is Ibn ‘Arabi who has the conversation with the serpent of Qaf. Moreover, in the text of the Futûhât which relates to this meeting, the Shaykh al-Akbar quotes a response by Musa al-Sadrani to the serpent’s speech which is worth thinking about: ‘By God’, he said of Abu Madyan, ‘I know people who would like to kill him because they are ignorant about him and hate him.’ A remark which would tend to give justification to those writers who maintain that Abu Madyan was summoned to the royal palace following a denunciation.

The singularly penetrating vision that Ibn ‘Arabi has of Abu Madyan’s spirituality, and the precision of his observations, do not surprise one inordinately when one knows that he only expresses himself with the authority and unshakeable certitude which dhawq, spiritual experience, confers on him, because, as he himself declares, he never describes anything which he himself has not ‘tasted’. But if that explains and justifies the peremptory tone which he has when he describes the interior experience of Abu Madyan, that does not tell us the reason for his marked preference for a teacher whom he has never met except, I must remind you, in the barzakh, the imaginal world. Which of Ibn ‘Arabi’s readers has not in fact been struck by the frequent repetition of Abu Madyan’s name in the akbarian writings, and most particularly in the Futûhât. As a matter of fact, a quick check which I indulged in revealed that of all the masters of the Way, Abu Madyan is the one to whom Ibn ‘Arabi most often refers in this work.

It is in Ibn ‘Arabi’s history, in the story of his quest and his spiritual destiny, that it is necessary, I think, to look for the origin of this profound reverence which Ibn ‘Arabi has for the Saint of Bugia. When Ibn ‘Arabi began, at about the age of fifteen, on the long path which would lead him to the pinnacle of sainthood, he began the journey alone, with the blessing, it is true, that certain prophets gave him, but without any terrestrial guide giving him assistance; besides, he did not know any at that time, he states in the Futûhât (II, 548). Later however, about five years after his conversion stricto sensu, he would be helped in his enterprise by a large number of spiritual masters. He met the first ones naturally in the place where he lived, that is in Seville. These were Abu-1 ‘Abbas al-‘Uryabi, an illiterate peasant who was, he says in the Ruh (section 1), the first to give him any doctrinal teaching; Musa al-Mirtuli (section 8), an occasional poet, who urged him towards asceticism; Muhammad b. Qassum (section 7), a faqîh-Sufî who taught him the muhâsabat al-nafs, and all the rules relative to the observance of religious worship.

Through their advice and their baraka, these men, and others whom I will not mention here, enabled the young Ibn ‘Arabi to avoid the dangerous reefs on which very often the himma of the murids founders, and by that, they have contributed to the success of his enterprise. None of them, nevertheless, inculcated in him the rules of the riyâda, the initiatory discipline; it was to a disciple of Abu Madyan, Shaykh Yusuf al-Kumi, that this responsibility and privilege fell. It is interesting to note that he met him in 586, a decisive year in his destiny, during the course of which notably the, Great Vision of Cordova happened, by which, according to his disciples, he learnt from the prophets who came to meet him that he had been chosen to be the Seal of the Saints.

Was it by chance that that same year saw a considerable change take place in his spiritual direction? Until then, those who took him on were all attached by their origins and education to the more specifically Andalusian stream of the tasawwuf of the Muslim West – of which the school of Almeria shows the most representative, but not unique, trend. Now, after 586, Ibn ‘Arabi came under, as it were, a Maghrebi spiritual jurisdiction, and more precisely, under that of Abu Madyan through the intermediary of several of his Andalusian and Maghrebi disciples. However, if one considers that from the outset Ibn ‘Arabi’s vocation had been placed under the supervision of the afrâd, a spiritual category of saints to which, we shall soon see, Abu Madyan belonged, the intervention of the latter in the destiny of the Shaykh al-Akbar seems like a continuation rather than a breaking off.

However that may be, it was from 586 onwards that Ibn ‘Arabi associated with several teachers of the spiritual line of Abu Madyan, amongst whom was Shaykh Yusuf al-Kumi who played a double role in his journey: he was, on the one hand, the only one, Ibn ‘Arabi points out (Fut I, 616), who inculcated in him the initiatory discipline, riyâda; he was also the first to initiate him into the works of the tasawwuf, in particular making him discover the Risâla by Qushayri. With regard to this, Ibn ‘Arabi acknowledges in the Rûh (section 2) that at that time – I would remind you that this happened more than ten years after his ‘conversion’, and that he was then twenty-six years old – he had still not read any treatises of the tasawwuf, not even knowing that there were any. And in addition, and this is at least as important, Shaykh al-Kumi was to share with his young pupil his intense devotion for Abu Madyan whose virtues and karamât he never tired of recounting. Ibn ‘Arabi would soon have only one desire: to meet the Saint of Bugia. One evening when he was absorbed by this thought, Musa al-Sadrani, who spoke with the serpent of Qaf, arrived at his house in Seville carrying a message from Abu Madyan, which told him that his wish would not be granted in this world, but that they would however meet in spirit (Rûh, section 19).

Three years later, in 589/1193, Ibn ‘Arabi embarked for the Maghreb with the specific intention of going to Tunis to meet one of Abu Madyan’s most famous disciples, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Mahdawi. The text in the Rûh tells us of the sudden nature of this decision;[17] it also raises a problem to which I should now like to draw attention: a dispute divides historians of the Arabic-speaking world over the date of Abu Madyan’s death. Many situate it in 594, and this is the date which Arabists have generally upheld although many chroniclers, particularly Ghubrini and Yafi’i, situate it in about 590. I would remind you that Ibn ‘Arabi himself gives the date of 589 in his Futûhât (IV, 195). Now, from Ceuta where Ibn ‘Arabi disembarked in 589, to Tunis where he arrived in 590, the road passes through Bugia which Abu Madyan did not leave for the last years of his life. If one allows that the latter lived until 594, it seems to me hardly conceivable that Ibn ‘Arabi, whose dearest wish, as we have seen, was to meet Abu Madyan, would not have visited him at that time, or even in the following years during which he continued to wander through the Maghreb. However, we know that this meeting did not take place. The only explanation, to my mind, is that Abu Madyan had passed away before Ibn ‘Arabi’s arrival in Bugia in 589-90; I am even inclined to think that Abu Madyan’s death, whatever the circumstances may have been, was not extraneous to Ibn ‘Arabi’s sudden decision to embark for the Maghreb. It is again interesting to note on this subject, that at the time of this journey to Tunisia in 590, Ibn ‘Arabi stopped – either on the way or on the way back – at Tlemcen (Futûhât I, 379 and IV, 498); might it not have been on this occasion that he made the pilgrimage to Abu Madyan’s tomb, situated not far from the town, that he briefly makes mention of in the Muhâdarât? [18]

Be that as it may, an event took place during the course of his stay at Tlemcen which completely sums up the very strong attachment which he felt for Abu Madyan: having observed a certain reticence towards Abu Madyan in one of the people he had discourse with, Ibn ‘Arabi began to detest this man. It required the intervention of the Prophet, who reminded him in a vision that it was necessary to judge this individual less on his feelings towards Abu Madyan, than on the love which he bore the Envoy, for Ibn ‘Arabi to become aware of the deviation into which his excessive veneration had led him (Fut IV, 498).

One year after his long stay in Tunis in the company of Mahdawi, who in particular introduced him to Ibn Barrajan’s Hikam, Ibn ‘Arabi again went to the Maghreb. But this time he went to Fez. There he formed a friendship with another intimate of Abu Madyan, Muhammad b. Qasim Tamimi, the author, as we have seen, of the Mustafâd. From him Ibn ‘Arabi obtained information – about Abu Madyan, certainly, but also about a whole generation of Sufis whom he did not know, and who appear here and there in his work.

Other teachers whom Ibn ‘Arabi met later on also played an intermediary role between Abu Madyan and him: in particular Ibn Saydabun with whom he kept company in Murcia, and Ayyub al-Fihri of Ceuta, and also ‘Abd Allah al-Mawruri, for whom he wrote the Tadbîrât Ilâhiyya. This disciple of Abu Madyan, of whom I have not yet found a trace in any compilation – (except perhaps a mention in the Dhayl’[19] by Marrakushi, but this is too brief and imprecise to allow me to ascertain categorically whether it relates to the same person) – appears several times, especially in the Muhâdarât al-Abrâr, always in relation to Abu Madyan. He is the one, in fact, who told Ibn ‘Arabi the story of these numerous visions which one of Abu Madyan’s companions – whose name has never been revealed to us – is supposed to have had, in which his master would appear to him sitting in the midst of a gathering of illustrious Sufis, replying each time to a subtle question which these colleagues would humbly ask him about tawhîd, for example, or about ma’rifa. I have counted fifteen narratives of this type in the Muhâdarât that correspond to fifteen visions which only differ from one another in the question raised. One of these narratives, relating to the question ma sirru hayâtika, is to be found in the section of the Tashawwuf dedicated to Abu Madyan; Tadili recounts it following Ansari, a long-time companion of Abu Madyan who told him this story which happened to a man whose name he does not mention. Moreover, the same tale appears in the Bahjat al-Asrâr[20] with the difference that Shattanawfi identifies the visionary as a certain Abu ‘Abd Allah Muhammad al-Ghazzali al-Maghribi.

What is interesting is that Shattanawfi also attributes other visions of a radically different nature to this person. One of them, however, has its equivalent in the Futûhât (I, 666), where Ibn ‘Arabi recounts, according to Mawruri again, that a man – Ibn ‘Arabi states that he remembers who he is, but curiously does not name him – saw Iblis in a dream, and asked him how his relationship with Abu Madyan was; ‘Nothing resembles me more’, he replied, ‘when I throw something into the heart of Abu Madyan, than a man who urinates in the ocean.’

For my part, I cannot help wondering about the authenticity of these fifteen visions recorded by Ibn ‘Arabi. Did they all happen to this anonymous companion of Abu Madyan? I doubt it. Of the extensive akbarian corpus, the Kitâb Muhâdarât al-Abrâr is without doubt the least esoteric of Ibn ‘Arabi’s writings, and for good reason: according to the author himself, it was conceived as a book of adab, instructive, erudite and pleasing, and consequently destined for a relatively wide readership of educated people. At no time does Ibn ‘Arabi involve himself with explicit and searching doctrinal concerns; he prefers, for obvious pedagogical reasons, to refer matters to the akhbâr of distin­guished people of the Islamic and even anti-Islamic tradition, which allows him to convey a message of wisdom to the reader without discouraging him. The only passages where subtle metaphysical questions are developed are precisely in those discourses attributed to Abu Madyan. I also have the feeling that Ibn ‘Arabi, having heard about one or several of these visions, used the scenario again to put forward some doctrinal ideas which, even if they were in conformity with the spirit of Abu Madyan’s teaching, were not necessarily a literal transcription of these visionary dialogues.

When I was working on the Shaykh al-Akbar’s biography, I was not so much struck as intrigued by the discreet but persistent presence of Abu Madyan in Ibn ‘Arabi’s life and work. Certainly, Ibn ‘Arabi’s association with a number of his disciples indisputably contributed to bringing him close to Abu Madyan. These human factors, however, cannot alone explain the kind of spiritual intimacy which bound the two masters together, and without which Ibn ‘Arabi would not have been able to be what he was for Abu Madyan – his tarjumân, his interpreter. I think I have found the explanation for this subtle companionship in chapter 270 of the Futûhât, dedicated to the Pole and the two Imams, where Ibn ‘Arabi recounts the conversation he had in the barzakh with the Imam of the Left:

This Imam has overwhelmed me by telling me some good news about my state which I was unaware of, even though it was my own state that was in question, and he informed me about it. He forbade me besides to affiliate myself to those masters I kept company with, and told me: ‘Affiliate yourself only to God, for none of those whom you have met have authority over you. But it is God Himself who in His bounty has taken you into His care; mention if you like the virtues of those whom you meet, but do not affiliate yourself to them, affiliate yourself to God.’ The state of this Imam was equivalent to mine, for none of those whom he had met had authority over him. That is what some trustworthy people have told me and he himself informed me of it at the time of our meeting in the barzakh.

There is no doubt, as far as I am concerned, that the person who had the function of the Imam of the Left at the time of this event was none other than Abu Madyan. The nature of the advice given to Ibn ‘Arabi allows one, in fact, to situate this encounter at the beginning of his vocation, at the time when he kept company with many teachers. Moreover, as I have already pointed out, Ibn ‘Arabi states on several occasions that Abu Madyan was the Imam of the Left, and occupied this position during a long period of his life. Finally, it is made obvious in this text that Ibn ‘Arabi never met this Imam except in a subtle form, which is precisely the case in his relations with Abu Madyan.

To grasp exactly what the Imam of the Left’s advice is suggesting, it is necessary to be aware of certain facts which relate to the initiatory hierarchy as Ibn ‘Arabi defines it at the beginning of the second volume of the Futûhât.

At the top of the scale are the four Pillars, awtâd, with the Pole first of all, followed by the Imam of the Left, then the Imam of the Right, and finally the fourth Pillar. The real holders of these functions are the four prophets that Islamic tradition deems forever living: Idris, Jesus, Elijah and Khidr. However, each of these bearers has a substitute amongst men who fulfils his function by proxy. The awtâd, whether it is a question of the bearers stricto sensu, or of their substitutes, belong to the spiritual category of the afrâd, the ‘Singular Men’, who, Ibn ‘Arabi writes, ‘have for homologues amongst the angels the muhayyamûn, the spirits lost in love in the Divine Majesty . . . Their station is between that of the siddîqiyya and that of the legislating prophecy … It is the station of free prophecy.’

Also, when Ibn ‘Arabi declares that the state of this Imam of the Left was identical with his own ‘because none of those whom he had met had authority over him,’ he is making an allusion, evidently, to their common belonging to the category of the afrâd; it is even probable that the good news which the Imam – that is, Abu Madyan, it seems to me – tells him, is about this matter, which explains the insistent injunction not to pledge obedience to any human master.

What Abu Madyan and Ibn ‘Arabi have in common, therefore, if my interpretation of the texts is correct, is that they both belong to the category of the afrâd, and are consequently not attached to any shaykh in an exclusive manner. A status which they share with many other awliyâ’, it is true. But what is more extraordinary, on the other hand, is that both played a posthumous role which is similar in many respects.

When one examines the silsilas, one may indeed ascertain that Abu Madyan appears in a number of them (as also does Ibn ‘Arabi), particularly in those of the many branches of the Shadhiliyya and the Qadiriyya. But, like the Shaykh al-Akbar, he is not the originator of any autonomous tarîqa. For reasons of spiritual expediency, linked no doubt with the necessity of restoring and preserving the Islamic inheritance in all its diverse forms at the approach of the end of time, their rûhâniya was dedicated to penetrating many spiritual lines, and implanting their seed, but not generating any of their own.

Finally, Ibn ‘Arabi and Abu Madyan have in common the fact that their teaching enjoyed an extremely wide diffusion, both in the West and in the East. In Ibn ‘Arabi’s case, it was his writing which was to transport his doctrine and carry the torch through time and space. In Abu Madyan’s case, it was his numerous disciples some of whom emigrated to the East – to Egypt mainly, but also to Syria and as far as the Yemen – who would propagate his teaching, and make him play a decisive r61e in the evolution of Sufism from the seventh century of the Hegira onwards. Lastly, and this is not the least important point, Abu Madyan’s teaching, like that of Ibn ‘Arabi, was not only to reach a caste of scholarly Sufi, it would also spread to the general public of the Muslim world. What distinguishes them, is that Ibn ‘Arabi’s doctrine has been the object of enough studies for it to be divulged, and consequently for his place and his role in the development of the tasawwuf to be roughly evaluated. Abu Madyan’s teaching on the other hand, which the few writings which he has left will allow us to broach, at least in part, has not to this day prompted any study or any analysis rigorous enough to do justice to this elevated and enigmatic figure of Western Sufism.


This article first appeared in Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi – A Commemorative Volume, 1993.


[1] Ibn Jubayr, Rihla, trans. Gaudeffroy-Demonbynes, Voyages, Paris, 1953-6.

[2] Tadili,Tashawwuf, ed. A. Tawfiq, Rabat, 1984, pp. 319-26.

[3] Tashawwuf, pp. 320-1.

[4] On Daqqaq see for example section 41 of the Tashawwuf.

[5] Tashawwuf,p. 319.

[6] Ibn Qunfudh,Uns al-Faqîr, Rabat, 1965, p. 16.

[7] Ghubrini,‘Unwân al-Dirâya, Algiers, 1970, p. 56 sq.

[8] Ibn Maryam,Bustan al-‘Ârifin, ed. Ben Cheneb, Algiers, 1908, pp. 108-15.

[9] A. Baba, Naylal-Ibtihâj, in the margin of the Dîbâj, Beirut, undated,p. 127.

[10] Maqqari, Nafh al-Tîb, ed. Beirut, 1986, IX, pp. 369-75.

[11] Ibn AbiMansur, Risâla, ed. D. Gril, IFAO, 1986, pp. 151-2.

[12] See Marrakushi, al-Dhayl wa-l-Takmila, Beirut, undated, vol. 1,pp. 46-58.

[13] On Tamimi seeIbn ‘Arabi, Futûhât, I, 244, IV, 503 and 549, as well as Mar­rakushi, Dhayl, 1984 edn, Rabat, vol. 8,section 136, pp. 352-6.

[14] Ahmad al Sawma’i, Kitab al-Ma’zâ, edition established by ‘Ali al-Jawi in the framework of his Higher History Diploma granted at Rabat,1989 p. 136.

[15] See his translation of Ch.45 in Etudes trad., April-May 1953, p. 134.

[16] Manzil al-Qutb, in Rasâ’il, Hyderabad, 1948, pp. 11-12.

[17] On thisquestion see our Ibn ‘Arabi ou la quête du Soufre Rouge, Ch.V.

[18] Muhâdarât al-Abrâr, Cairo, 1906, II, p. 68.

[19] Dhayl, vol.8, ref 200, p. 414.

[20] Bahjat al-Asrâr, Cairo edition, 1330AH, p. 189.