Articles and Translations

Created for Compassion

Ibn ‘Arabī’s work on Dhū-l-Nūn the Egyptian

Cecilia Twinch

Cecilia Twinch first came across Ibn Arabi and Rumi when she was studying Modern and Medieval Languages (Spanish and French) at Cambridge University. Books donated by the Ibn Arabi and Rumi scholar R.A. Nicholson and his student A.J. Arberry, complete with handwritten annotations in the margins, were then on display on the open shelves in the University Library. At the same time, she also became involved with what became known as Beshara and benefited from the advice and wisdom of Bulent Rauf, who was the co-founder of the Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society.

She now lives in Oxford and is a Senior Research Fellow of the Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society. Besides working as a teacher, translator and editor, she has written numerous articles and has lectured on Ibn Arabi and mysticism worldwide. She is particularly interested in bringing alive the universal relevance of Ibn Arabi’s ideas in the world today.

In addition to Contemplation of the Holy Mysteries, her publications include Know Yourself: An explanation of the oneness of being (translated from Arabic manuscripts attributed to Ibn Arabi and to Awhad al-din Balyani).


Articles by Cecilia Twinch

Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi: The Beauty of Oneness Witnessed in the Emptiness of the Heart

The Circle of Inclusion

Created for Compassion: Ibn Arabi’s Work on Dhu-l-Nun the Egyptian


Podcasts and Videos by Cecilia Twinch

Arriving at the Point of Departure

Refreshing Repose and a Reviving Scent

You Are My Mirror

Bismillāh ir-rahmān ir-rahīm. Wa mā tawfīqī illā bi-llāh.[2]

In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful. My only help is in God.

Ibn ‘Arabī’s book about Dhū-l-Nūn’s life and teachings, al-Kawkab al-durrī: fī manāqib Dhī-l Nūn al-Misrī (The Brilliant Star: On the Spiritual Virtues of Dhu-l-Nūn the Egyptian),[3] not only collects together stories and sayings connected with this great Egyptian master but provides some insightful, if brief, commentary by Ibn ‘Arabī himself. Dhū-l-Nūn’s coming to the spiritual path, his quest for beneficial knowledge in his constant wanderings, the miraculous events he encounters, the rigorous life of the ascetic and the longing of the lover, provide the rich backdrop woven by the mysticism of the time. This is reflected on, several centuries later, by the Andalusian master, Ibn ‘Arabī, whose observations and good counsel on compassion, self-knowledge and human completion still have application in bringing together the East and West of today.

Dhū-l-Nūn travelled extensively during his lifetime, from Egypt to the Maghreb, Antioch, Yemen and Baghdad – not to mention his being transported to Mecca through the rolling up of time and space (tayy al-ard).[4] After his death in 860 CE (AH 245), his fame continued to spread throughout the Islamic world. Ibn ‘Arabī retells stories about him which he had already heard in Andalusia and North Africa long before his own journey to the East, passing through this land where Dhū-l-Nūn was born.

Ibn ‘Arabī carefully collected the stories and sayings of Dhū-l-Nūn and the saintly people he met, and verified them through texts and through the oral tradition, meticulously recording the chains of transmission. The reason why he did this, he tells us, is because “When God’s righteous servants (al-sālihūn) are mentioned, compassion descends.”[5]

Ibn ‘Arabī reminds us of this tradition in his introduction to the Kawkab (The Brilliant Star). The reason why compassion descends is, he says, because the mention of the righteous forms part of the mention of God. The heart is touched by hearing about the lives of such people who have devoted themselves exclusively to God and whose noble souls have detached themselves from this world (al-dunyā). In all the hagiographical works Ibn ‘Arabī possessed for his own use, and in all his other sources whether personal or reported orally by his teachers, no one had accomplished more pious peregrinations (siyāha) and been in the presence of more friends of God, than Dhū-l-Nūn, may God be satisfied with him. Therefore, in speaking of Dhū-l-Nūn, Ibn ‘Arabī says, we are also speaking of a great number of saintly people, both men and women, whose blessing we may hope to receive.[6]

Detachment from this world is frequently emphasized by Dhū-l-Nūn and the saintly people from whom he seeks spiritual advice. Even though Dhū-l-Nūn was described as an ascetic, or someone who has renounced this world, I hope to show how Ibn ‘Arabī’s writings and comments on Dhū-l-Nūn’s life indicate that escaping from the world by turning to God ultimately results in seeing that the world is nothing but the place of God’s self-revelation and that the whole of creation is imbued with compassion.

When asked one day in a gathering how he turned to the spiritual path, Dhū-l-Nūn, whose real name is Abū-l-Fayd, related how Sālim the Maghrebian came to him in one of his sessions and asked,

“O Abū-l-Fayd, what made you turn (to God) (tawba)?”[7] and he said, “It’s so extraordinary you won’t believe it.” Sālim insisted, so Dhū-l-Nūn replied, “I was on my way out of Cairo to visit a village and on the way I slept in an area of desert. When I opened my eyes I saw a lark which was blind and had fallen from its nest onto the ground. Then the earth split open and two bowls emerged from it, one of gold and one of silver. In one there was sesame seed and in the other water. The lark started to eat and drink. Then I cried, ‘That’s enough for me!’ I turned (to God) and I clung to (His) door until He received me.”[8]

In the Kawkab, Ibn ‘Arabī comments on this in the following way:

In this story, Dhū-l-Nūn lets us know that he was given the good news of his acceptance (by God) (qabūl) and, as far as we are concerned, this cannot be withdrawn. Reason admits it and the Revelation mentions it when God the High said “Those who believe and who fear God have good news (bushrā) in this life.”[9]

Fittingly for Dhū-l-Nūn, this is from the Quranic text from the Sura of Yunus. Yunus or Jonah was, of course, referred to as Dhū-l-Nūn, which means “the man of the fish”.[10] However, the name Dhū-l-Nūn can also refer to “the possessor of the inkwell” which contains all the letters from which the pen draws its ink.[11] In his book on the letters mīm, wāw and nūn, Ibn ‘Arabī writes: “the nūn is an immense secret which is the door of generosity and compassion.”[12]

Ibn ‘Arabī later refers to Dhū-l-Nūn’s acceptance by God again, saying

The most valuable and significant of his spiritual graces is the good news of his acceptance by God … when he said “I clung to His door until He received me”. Is there any greater or more sublime spiritual grace (karāma) than divine acceptance? May God give us the same good news which He has given to His friends.[13]

Ibn ‘Arabī continues commenting on the story of the lark by saying that he had heard this story recounted one day in Tunis in the presence of Muhammad al-Mahdawī and he observed that the lark was Dhū-l-Nūn’s own soul and that it represented the condition he was in: “This lark was himself in the image (sūra) of his state.”[14]

This is a state of complete helplessness where it is known that God is in actuality the true source of all nourishment and sole provider of all refreshment, so that there is complete dependence on Him. When asked later about the predominant state of the heart of the gnostics, Dhū-l-Nūn said that it is “To see that everything comes from [God], to turn to Him in everything and to ask Him everything.”[15] With regard to the beginning of the spiritual path, Dhū-l-Nūn also said, “The beginning of the way to God is love. And the sign of love is to let yourself be led by Him by giving Him the gift of your person, and to savour the joy of losing oneself in what He loves and in conformity to His will.”[16]

The nourishment of sesame and the refreshment of water provided for the lark, also herald the intertwined strands of Dhū-l-Nūn’s life: his constant travelling which was in search of beneficial, life-giving knowledge.

According to Ibn ‘Arabī’s account in the Kawkab, when Dhū-l-Nūn sought out Shuqrān al-‘ābid[17] in the Maghreb, he waited at his door for forty days before he was given the following piece of spiritual advice (maw’iza): “For the one who renounces the world (al-zāhid fi-l-dunyā), his nourishment is what he finds and his home is whatever place he arrives at”.[18] According to another account,[19] Shuqrān al-‘ābid told Dhū-l-Nūn “Íih!”, “Travel!”; and he did indeed become a spiritual traveller (sayyāh)[20] in search of knowledge by asking the wise ones for advice that is beneficial on the spiritual path, and counselling on the best way to live life and to bring out the qualities of the best of creations.

The nourishment of sesame on which the lark fed is reminiscent of the Earth of sesame. Ibn ‘Arabī tells us in the Futūhāt al-makkiyya that when God created Adam, there was a surplus of the leaven of the clay, from which the palm-tree was created. Ibn ‘Arabī writes, “The remainder of the clay left after the creation of the palm-tree was the size of a sesame seed and in this remainder, God laid out an immense Earth (ard wāsi’a).”[21] This Earth contains, like Adam, all the higher and lower realities and it refers to the Vast Earth which is mentioned three times in the Quran.[22] Ibn ‘Arabī then goes on to relate Dhū-l-Nūn’s long description of the wonders of that Earth.[23] It is later explained in the Futūhāt that this Vast Earth is where the essential adoration of God takes place.[24]

The Vast Earth is also mentioned in the Kawkab, when Ibn ‘Arabī recounts the story of one of the many saintly women whom Dhū-l-Nūn encountered,[25] who was wandering alone in the desert of the Israelites. After greeting her, Dhū-l-Nūn asked her what had impelled her to come to such a place and she replied, “There is a verse in the Book of God which says, ‘Is God’s earth not vast, so emigrate!'”[26]

Then she spoke to Dhū-l-Nūn about the love of God, uttering the famous lines:

I love You with two loves: a passionate longing love (hubb al-hawā) and a love which You deserve.

As for the passionate love, it is that I am occupied with remembering You to the exclusion of all else.

As for the love which You deserve, it is that You remove the veils so that I can see You.

No praise is mine in either love, but praise is Yours in both. [27]

Over and over again, Dhū-l-Nūn informs us that he sought out those who have devoted their life to God and who are renowned for their intelligence and wisdom, in order to benefit from their words and spiritual counsel. On other occasions, it is those wandering in the desert who ask advice of Dhū-l-Nūn and he is the one who dispenses it. Often, he is in a city surrounded by aspirants eager to hear the result of the wisdom that has been communicated to him. They are not the only ones who benefit, since he says that he himself benefits from the words he utters in response to a hungry soul. For, as Ibn ‘Arabī points out, all of creation (al-khalq) is the same collectivity and being (‘ayn al-jam’ wa-l-wujūd).[28]

Dhū-l-Nūn emphasizes the need to examine one’s conscience before the soul is called to account and frequently passes on advice about the need to master the self before the questioning on the Day of Judgement about what we have hidden.[29] This counselling of the soul is close to Ibn ‘Arabī himself. Once, despairing of his students and the ability of people in general to follow the spiritual path, Ibn ‘Arabī decided that in future he would devote his efforts to himself alone and abandon people to their fate. That night, in a dream, he found himself facing God on the Day of Judgement and was told by God, in no uncertain terms, to counsel His servants.[30]

In fact, on several occasions, God instructed Ibn ‘Arabī, both through the tongue of the Prophet and directly, to counsel His servants. In this way, the knowledge that has been generously bestowed on him by God is passed on to others who will benefit from it. As Ibn ‘Arabī reports in the introduction to the Fusūs al-hikam: “This is the compassion (rahma) that has been generously extended to you, so extend it.”[31]

In the Istanbul manuscript of the Kawkab, copied in Cairo in 1312 (AH 712), Ibn ‘Arabī already refers to a reading in Baghdad of his book “known as the Munāsahat al-nafs (Counselling the soul)”,[32] also known as the Rūh al-quds (The Holy Spirit). This was read here in Cairo just over 800 years ago in 1207 (AH 603).[33] In this book, Ibn ‘Arabī had already related some of Dhū-l-Nūn’s descriptions of the people of God. In particular, he emphasizes their attentiveness to those who come to them in any kind of need, giving good news to those who hope for God’s compassion.[34]

So there is already a conversation taking place between these great figures in terms of intention and themes, which is continued in another story related and commented on by Ibn ‘Arabī in the Kawkab. He reports, in the chapter on the knowledge of God and the knowers, that Dhū-l-Nūn said: “If people knew how low the people of knowledge are in their own opinion, they would throw dirt on their heads and in their faces.” A disciple who was present at the gathering told this to Tāhir al-Maqdisī who said,

May God give drink to Abū-l-Fayd (Dhū-l-Nūn). What he says is true, but I say: “If God revealed the light of the people of knowledge to the ascetics and the worshippers and the ones veiled from Him by states, they would be consumed by fire, vanish and be annihilated as though they had never been.” The disciple continued, “I then told this to Ahmad ibn Abī-l-Hawārī and he said, ‘May God save Abū-l-Fayd. He said that in a moment (waqt) when he was thinking of himself whereas Tāhir spoke in a moment when he was thinking of his Lord. Each of them is right and God knows best.'”

Ibn ‘Arabī comments: “How beautiful is what Ibn al-Hawārī makes clear! Something similar to this story, I mean the state (hāl) it describes, happened to me at the beginning of the way.” Ibn ‘Arabī then goes on to tell another version of a story which he has already told in the Rūh al-quds fī munāsahat al-nafs:

In Seville, I went to see my shaykh Abū-l-‘Abbās al-‘Uryānī, may God have mercy on him, and he said to me, “O my son, concern yourself with your Lord”. I went out of his house as though drunk, reeling from his good advice. Then I went to see my shaykh Abū ‘Imrān al-Martulī at his mosque, the mosque of al-Ridā. I greeted him and and he welcomed me warmly and said, “O my son, concern yourself with yourself”. I said to him, “O master, you direct me to myself and my shaykh Ahmad (al-‘Uryānī) says concern yourself with your lord. What should I do?” The Shaykh said, “O my son, each one of us guides you according to what his state requires at that moment (waqt). What Shaykh Abū-l-‘Abbās (al-‘Uryānī) indicates is more suitable. May God bestow that on me!” So I returned to al-‘Uryānī and told him and he said to me, “O my beloved, both points of view are correct. Abū ‘Imrān spoke to you about the beginning and the path (sulūk); and I made you consider the desired destination, so that on your path your aspiration (himma) is raised above that which is other than God.”[35]

Ibn ‘Arabī relates this story again in the Futūhāt, adding even more detail: al-‘Uryānī says that Abū ‘Imrān had guided to the way (tarīq) whereas he himself indicated the companion (rafīq). “So,” al-‘Uryānī says, “Work with what he told you and what I told you, then you will combine between the companion and the way. Whoever does not keep company with the Real on his journey is not, as has been established, in security on it.”[36]

This additional information not only reaffirms the value of accommodating apparently opposing viewpoints, but indicates the necessity of keeping in mind the end of the way from the beginning of the way. The goal is God, yet “He is with you wherever you are”.[37] Then there is no separation, since keeping company on the way with the friend affirms that there is no way to Him but through Him. For, as Dhū-l-Nūn also says, “I knew my Lord by My Lord”.[38]

If you seek God from yourself and through yourself then you are far from Him and searching for him is difficult for you; but if you look for Him through Him, your arrival (wusūl) and finding (wujūd) is in your seeking and your seeking is your aspiration (himma). Anyone who approaches God through something other than God, is cut off from God by that very thing.[39]

Ibn ‘Arabī says that his own turning to God (tawba) or coming to the Way, took place through the help of Jesus.[40] In his vision of the three prophets of the Abrahamic religion, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad (may God bless them all and give them peace), Jesus told him to practise renunciation or asceticism (zuhd) and detachment (tajrīd).[41] Besides these two qualities, Ibn ‘Arabī also attributes to Jesus movement, journeying and bringing to life by breath.[42]

Dhū-l-Nūn’s connection to Jesus is brought out in one of the many miraculous stories associated with him: his saving a child from the belly of a crocodile. Ibn ‘Arabī gives two accounts of this story and the second is as follows:

Dhū-l-Nūn said, “A woman came to me and cried, ‘A crocodile has carried away my son.’ I saw her agony so I went into the Nile and I prayed, ‘O God, make the crocodile appear.’ Then it came out towards me and I ripped open its belly and took out her son alive and well.” Ibn ‘Arabī then comments, “This is an inheritance from Jesus (wirātha ‘īsawiyya) in bringing the dead to life.”[43]

When Dhū-l-Nūn himself died, Ibn ‘Arabī tells us that green birds followed his coffin. According to one account: “When Dhū-l-Nūn died, I saw green birds of a kind unknown to me above the bier bearing his corpse.”[44] After the accounts of the saving of the child from the crocodile Ibn ‘Arabī continues his commentary by saying that “It is by virtue of this relationship and inheritance [from Jesus] that the bats which alighted on Dhū-l-Nūn’s funerary bier [described elsewhere as green birds of an unknown kind] were the birds which Jesus created with his hand and he blew the spirit into them, all by the permission of his Lord.”[45] As for the bringing to life through knowledge, Ibn ‘Arabī remarks in the Chapter on Jesus in his Fusūs al-hikam, “Anyone who revives a dead soul through the life of knowledge, with regard to a particular question relating to the knowledge of God, has brought him to life by it and he has a light with which he walks among the people.”[46]

The story which Ibn ‘Arabī then recounts immediately after this again has a connection to Jesus. Bakr ibn ‘Abd al-Rahmān recounted:

We were with Dhū-l-Nūn al-Misrī in a desert region and we stopped under a thorn tree. I said, “How much more pleasant this place would be if there were dates in it.” Dhū-l-Nūn smiled and said “Do you long for dates?” and he shook the tree and said, “I swear to you, by the One who manifested you and made you a tree, won’t you produce ripe dates for us?” Then he shook it again and it showered us with dates of which we ate our fill. We went to sleep and when we woke up, we shook the tree and it showered us with thorns.

Dhū-l-Nūn’s shaking of a date-palm to produce fresh dates is again reminscent of Mary shaking the tree and being provided with fresh, ripe dates prior to giving birth to Jesus.[47]

Following the advice from Jesus, Ibn ‘Arabī affirms the importance of renunciation or asceticism (zuhd) at the beginning of the way. Self-denial and renunciation keep in check the lower desires of the self: the craving for and attachment to the transitory things of this lower world. He himself practised many of its outward forms, giving away his possessions,[48] fasting, praying at night when others were sleeping and spending periods of time in silence and seclusion.[49] However, ultimately he makes it clear that renunciation is an inner attitude in terms of correct attribution and realizing that in fact we possess nothing. Then there is space for awareness of the One who is eternally present, both in this world and the next.

Even in his own lifetime, Dhū-l-Nūn was known as the greatest ascetic (zāhid) of his time. Dhū-l-Nūn told how he was travelling in a desert region near Ikhmīm, when he heard a voice calling him which he followed. He was asked,

“Are you Dhū-l-Nūn?” to which he replied “Yes.” Then he was asked, “Are you the greatest ascetic of your time?” and Dhū-l-Nūn said, “O servant of God, that is what they say.” Then he was told, “O Abū-l-Fayd, don’t they say that this lower world is not equal to a gnat’s wing as far as God is concerned, so renouncing the next world is better for you.” I replied, “How would we renounce the next world?” He said, “By renouncing its heaven and its hell, and seeking the vision of God, whose glory is exalted.”[50]

Dhū-l-Nūn, like many of the saintly people he speaks about, led a life of self-deprivation, austerity and rigour, enduring poverty, hunger and hardship in the pursuit of knowledge of God, and as a way of coming close to Him. Yet although he reminded the aspirants who surrounded him of the joy of heaven and the pain of hell, his focus was on being accepted by God and on the vision of Him as He is.

It must always be borne in mind that Dhū-l-Nūn’s sayings are usually in response to his particular audience. As with any spiritual teacher, what he says may be appropriate for one person at their level of understanding but not for another. In addition, his words may be according to his own state at that particular time and Ibn ‘Arabī points out the danger that some of his sayings could be misunderstood by those who have not reached his degree of knowledge.[51]

This is perhaps why he was declared a heretic by many scholars of his time. When he was nearly ninety years old, he was brought in chains to Baghdad to appear before the Prince of Believers, al-Mutawakkil.[52] However, at their meeting, the Caliph was brought to tears by his spiritual counsel and declared Dhū-l-Nūn innocent. Subsequently, on account of Dhū-l-Nūn, he would weep each time people of exemplary piety were mentioned.[53]

It was reported that when al-Mutawakkil met Dhū-l-Nūn he asked, “Are you an ascetic from Egypt?” Dhū-l-Nūn replied, “That is what they say.” Then Dhū-l-Nūn was asked to speak to the Prince of Believers about the ascetics. In Dhū-l-Nūn’s reply, the ascetics are addressed by God as His friends or saints (awliyā’) and those He loves. In addition, although according to this account Dhū-l-Nūn was asked to speak about the ascetics,[54] what he says about them is similar to other texts where Dhū-l-Nūn is referring either to the substitutes (abdāl)[55] or to the friends of the Compassionate (awliyā’ al-rahmān).[56]

So it would seem that Dhū-l-Nūn’s view of asceticism is not a narrow one. Although Dhū-l-Nūn constantly advocates renouncing the lower world in favour of the hereafter, it is clear that “abandoning the lower world” refers to breaking the attachment to the material world so that the person no longer clings to things that are transient and corruptible, but rather focuses on what is permanent and of lasting value.[57] In the chapter on asceticism in the Kawkab, when asked about the true search for renunciation, Dhū-l-Nūn said that it is “When you renounce yourself and flee from everything that distracts you from God, for everything that distracts you from God belongs to this lower world.”[58]

Ibn ‘Arabī’s writings also make it clear that we need to beware of what distracts us from God. However, what distracts from God is not the world itself but our own incorrect perception of it as existing independently and the distortion of our vision that occurs when clouded by base desires, self-interest and ignorance. It is therefore important not to confuse the outward appearance of this lower world (dunyā)[59] with the underlying reality of the world (kawn or ‘ālam) when it is perceived with clear vision. Withdrawing from the world is impossible; what people generally mean by this is avoiding the company and speech of other people.[60] However, were we to see the face of God in them,[61] we would learn from that and show compassion.

Fleeing to God, therefore, does not necessarily mean withdrawing from the world itself, since the world is nothing but the divine Self-revelation, the place where God’s most beautiful names find expression. Everything in the world is permeated by knowledge and the mystery of life, and each thing is glorifying and praising its Creator. Moreover, “The movement which is the existence of the world is the movement of love and the Prophet pointed this out in his words: ‘I was a treasure that was not known and I loved to be known’.”[62] For Ibn ‘Arabī, fleeing to God[63] does not mean fleeing from some imaginary existent that is other than God; it refers to the flight from ignorance to knowledge until it becomes clear that He is the one who appears in everything, providing a means for an increase in the knowledge of Him.[64] For as Dhū-l-Nūn said: “Whoever looks at this world without seeing it as a place of education (‘ibra)[65] deadens their heart due to the cutting-off effect of this negligence.”[66]

Ibn ‘Arabī also relates how Dhū-l-Nūn arrived after nightfall beside the sea, at the place said to be the Rock of Moses – at the meeting-place of the two seas of inner and outer knowledge, according to other biographers.[67] Dhū-l-Nūn gazed at the sky and the water saying, “Glory to God! How great is your rank and how much greater than your rank is the rank of your creator.” The night passed and until the breaking of dawn, he continued to repeat these lines:

Ask for yourselves what I have found!

I have found a place where passion for Him no longer knows pain

If I am distant, He brings me close, if I am close to Him, He comes even closer. [68]

Ibn ‘Arabī then comments that Dhū-l-Nūn was one of those rare beings who knows the dignity of the heavens and the earth. He rejoices in the natural world, and sees in it a testimony to the Unity of God.[69]

It is in this sense of true knowledge and clear vision that Ibn ‘Arabī himself talks of cultivating his other world.[70] He does not put forward a purely transcendent point of view. He says of God that we should not confine Him to transcendence when He is also immanent in the creation. Ibn ‘Arabī’s insistence on maintaining a balance between transcendence (tanzīh) and immanence (tashbīh), between God’s being far beyond the world and yet manifest in the whole of creation, is made evident in his meeting with Dhū-l-Nūn in a vision. Ibn ‘Arabī describes this in his Kitāb al-tajalliyāt (Book of Revelations):

I saw Dhū-l-Nūn al-Misrī in this Revelation (tajallī). He was the most refined person, and I said to him, “Dhū-l-Nūn, I am surprised by what you say and what those who repeat your words say, that God (al-haqq) is different from what you might think or fancy or imagine.” Then I swooned. When I came to, I was trembling. Then I sighed deeply and said, “How can the world (al-kawn) be empty of Him when the world only subsists through Him. How can He be the same as the world (‘ayn al-kawn) when ‘He is and the world is not’ (wa qad kāna wa lā kawn).”[71] “My beloved Dhū-l-Nūn … say what [God] says, both deny and affirm: ‘Nothing is like Him, and He is the One who hears and sees’.[72] He is not the same as you imagine and He is not devoid of what you imagine … Knowledge is not limited by time (waqt) or place (makān) or culture (nash’a) or condition (hāl) or spiritual station (maqām)”.[73]

Ibn ‘Arabī’s deep affection for Dhū-l-Nūn is clear in this interchange as is Dhū-l-Nūn’s receptivity to continuing spiritual advice. Ibn ‘Arabī holds Dhū-l-Nūn in high esteem, stating how he surpassed the people of his time in adoration and knowledge.[74] Even though Dhū-l-Nūn was an ascetic (zāhid), his saintly qualities, his wise instruction, his eloquence and his evident knowledge of God, all of which are emphasized by Ibn ‘Arabī among others, mean that he cannot be confined to that simple categorization. Some called him a Sufi, others a knower of God or a lover. ‘Attar and others considered he was one of the people of blame (ahl al-malāmī) and Roger Deladrière discusses his malāmī tendencies at length in the introduction to his translation of the Kawkab: La vie merveilleuse de Dhū-l-Nūn l’Egyptien.[75]

Ibn ‘Arabī states in his Futūhāt that the Men of God (rijāl allāh) are of three kinds, and he points out that women as well as men can be described by this active quality of rajūliyya.[76]The first kind are dominated by asceticism (zuhd), retreat from the world (tabattul) and pure acts, all of which are praiseworthy, and they are called the worshippers (al-‘ubbād). The second kind see that all acts belong to God; they possess all the qualities of the first group but they also have knowledge of the states, stations, sciences, mysteries, unveilings and miraculous gifts (karamāt); they are people of good character (khuluq) and chivalry (futuwwa), and they are called the Sufis. The third group cannot be distinguished by outward appearances from the believers who perform God’s obligatory works; “they walk in the markets, talk with people and none of God’s creatures see any of them being different in any way from the general public”; yet, “they are free and devoted servants (khālisūn mukhlisūn) of their Lord, seeing Him always in their eating and drinking, their waking and sleeping, and their speaking with Him among the people”. These are the people of blame, al-Malāmiyya, the highest of men “who have achieved the station of chivalry and good character with God, and not with any other”.[77]

Ibn ‘Arabī’s emphasis here is not on the separation of God and the world but on the Muhammadian integration of talking to everyone, completing all the qualities of God, realizing them and incorporating them all. This is the amplitude (ittisā’) of Muhammad, even in his prophetic function, since he was sent to the whole of humanity. His tremendous character (khuluq ‘azīm),[78] harmoniously arranged according to the best of forms[79] is evoked by Ibn ‘Arabī in the opening poem eulogizing Dhū-l-Nūn.[80]

Ibn ‘Arabī reports the following words of Dhū-l-Nūn’s: “When the lover (of God) has attained a high degree, things become unbearable for him. He cannot associate with coarse people, or accept gross food but only good food and he can only wear soft fabrics”. Ibn ‘Arabī comments on this privileged station (maqām al-ikhtisās) which is inherited from Solomon, by adding,

the spiritual station of the wise (hakīm) is higher than this and that is the station of Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him, the most perfect of humankind and the most subtle meaning, the most pure in his inmost consciousness (sirr), endowed with the finest heart, the most perfect in state and the highest in station. He could tolerate unrefined food and endure coarse people due to the aptitude of his spiritual state, the fineness of his benevolence (latāfa) and his amplitude (ittisā’). The person who inherits from Solomon has a known station and allotted nourishment, and this is an approved state, may God be satisfied with those who possess it; but the noble Muhammadan inheritance leads us from this to the most subtle spiritual station.[81]

It is the largeness and inclusiveness of Muhammad which is emphasized since he is the place of revelation of all the divine names, including those that the angels, in their transcendence, did not recognize, and he brings together all qualities in perfect balance.

Ibn ‘Arabī, following Muhammad, embraces the way of perfection which unites all opposition. It is the way of love combined with knowledge. It is the way of all-comprehensiveness (jam’iyya) and finding (wujūd), and not the way of separation and yearning at the level where the lover does not know and is infatuated with a form he himself has created.[82]

He writes, commenting on a kind of love that is in reality not separation (fasl) but union (wasl):

Separation is not according to our way of thinking (madhhab); rather our way (tarīq) is the way of all-comprehensiveness (jam’iyya) and finding [God] (wujūd). That is the way of lordly compassion (al-rahmat al-rabbāniyya) belonging to the people of vision (shuhūd). The High God said, “[If your lord had wanted, He could have made people into a single community;] but they continue to differ, except those towards whom your Lord is compassionate.”[83] So there is no opposition (khilāf)[84] for them “and that is why he created them”, which means that He created them for Compassion.[85] Divine favour (‘ināya) preceded them, before their existence, just as for the group who are in opposition (al-tā’ifa al-mukhālifa) there is drinking in His words “and that is why He created them”, because of what compassion has withheld from them. May God make us of the praiseworthy group (al-tā’ifa al-mahmūda) and the happy band through His grace and generosity.[86]

Ibn ‘Arabī specifically says: “‘And that is why He created them’, means ‘He created them for compassion’.” This applies to everyone, both those towards whom He has shown compassion and those who are in opposition and consequently deprived of compassion. In one respect, this reminder of the divine compassion makes it present, since the hadith, “God’s mercy precedes His anger”[87] is universally true. At the level of the precedent compassion, there is no opposition. It is only at the level of the relative inability to receive compassion that anger manifests. Ultimately, the whole of creation comes from compassion and returns to compassion.

The creative breath of compassion is necessary for bringing out the beautiful diversity of each particular expression. Ibn ‘Arabī writes in the Futūhāt:

Since the Real is the cause of difference (khilāf) in belief in the world and is also the cause of the existence of everything in the world according to a constitution which belongs to no other thing, all people end up in compassion, because He created them and made them appear in the Cloud (‘amā’), which is the breath of compassion. So they are like the letters in the breath of the speaker in the places of articulation (makhrūj) which are different just as the world is different in constitution and belief, despite its unity (ahadiyya): it is a freshly occurring world (‘ālam muhdath).[88]

Even though people may differ in ways of drinking, the source is all from the Compassionate and for the sake of compassion. “When God’s righteous servants (al-sālihūn) are mentioned, compassion descends.”[89] And it is for the sake of compassion that the stories and sayings collected by Ibn ‘Arabī and commented on for our benefit are recalled to mind, that our hearts might be touched.

Let me end by repeating a line from Ibn ‘Arabī’s poem in honour of Dhū-l-Nūn:

“May God water the tomb in which you rest (Dhū-l-Nūn), with clouds which dispense showers of beneficial spirits”. [90]


First presented at the international congress “Ibn ‘Arabi in Egypt: Crossroads of East and West”, held in Cairo, 13–16 December 2008. Reproduced from the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society, Volume 47, 2010.


[1] "Created for Compassion" Cf. Quran 11:119, "wa li-dhālika khalaqahum".

[2] This is how Ibn ‘Arabī starts his Kawkab; see following note.

[3] Ibn ‘Arabī, Kawkab al-durrī: fī manāqib Dhī-l Nūn al-Misrī, Istanbul ms. Topkapi Ahmet III A1378, fols. 1b–196b, copied in Cairo in AH 712 (1312) by hasan ibn al-Qasim al-Ja’farī al-‘Irāqī. [Note that the 24th folio has not been numbered but the following folio is numbered 24. Therefore, all subsequent folio nos. will be one less than the JPEG nos. on any digital copy.] See also the French translation: Ibn ‘Arabī, La vie merveilleuse de Dhū-l-Nūn l’Egyptien, translated from the Arabic and presented by Roger Deladrière (Paris, 1988). I have recently been informed that Ibn ‘Arabī’s Kawkab al-durrī has now been published in Arabic by Dar al-Kutub al ‘Ilmiyah (Beirut, 2005).

[4] Kawkab, fol. 129b; Vie merveilleuse, p. 247.

[5] Kawkab, fol. 1b; Vie merveilleuse, p. 50. On the sālihūn, the ‘righteous’, ‘pure’ or ‘wholesome’, see William C. Chittick, The Self-Disclosure of God (Albany, NY, 1998), pp. 122–3.

[6] Kawkab, fol. 3a; Vie merveilleuse, p. 52.

[7] Literally: "What was the cause (sabab) of your repentance (tawba)?"; tawba means returning to God, conversion or repentance.

[8] Kawkab, fols. 8b–9a; Vie merveilleuse, p. 63–4.

[9] "[and the next (wa fī-l-ākhira)]" Q. 10:63–4.

[10] Q. 21:87; see also Q. 68:48–50.

[11] Cf. Michel Chodkiewicz, Seal of the Saints (Cambridge, 1993), p. 181, n.79.

[12] Ibn Arabī, "Le livre du Mīm, du Wāw et du Nūn", trans. Charles-André Gilis (Paris, 2002), p. 78.

[13] Kawkab, fol. 37b; Vie merveilleuse, p. 106.

[14] Kawkab, fol. 9a; Vie merveilleuse, p. 64.

[15] Kawkab, fol. 167b; Vie merveilleuse, p. 300.

[16] Kawkab, fol. 190b; Vie merveilleuse, p. 339.

[17] Kawkab, fols. 125b–126a; Vie merveilleuse, pp. 241–2.

[18] Kawkab, fol. 126a; Vie merveilleuse, p. 242.

[19] That of Ibn Nasrūn; see Roger Deladrière’s Introduction to Vie merveilleuse, p. 23.

[20] On spiritual wandering (siyāha) see Futūhāt al-makkiyya, vol. II, pp. 293–4 >(Beirut edn, 4 vols., n.d.) and the English translation of this chapter (Chapter 73) by James Winston Morris, The Reflective Heart (Louisville, KY, 2005), pp. 38–44.

[21] Fut. I.126.32; see also Henry Corbin, Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth (Princeton, 1977), pp. 135–8, and ‘Abd al-Karīm Jīlī’s reference to this Earth of sesame, ibid., pp. 154–5.

[22] Cf. Ibn ‘Arabi, Les Illuminations de La Mecque, ed. Michel Chodkiewicz (Paris, 1988), p. 58.

[23] Fut. I.128–9; see Corbin’s partial translation in Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth, pp. 140–1.

[24] See Fut. III.223.7; this Earth embraces both the contingent and the eternal (al-hudūth wa-l qidam.)

[25] See, among others, the references to Fātima of Nīshāpūr who was his teacher and the gnostic of her time; Kawkab, fol. 122a; Vie Merveilleuse, p. 21 and pp. 236–7.

[26] Kawkab, fol. 138a; Q. 4:97; see also Q. 29:56, "O My servants who believe, My earth is vast, so worship Me"; and Q. 39:10, "For those who do good in this world there is benefaction and God’s earth is vast".

[27] Kawkab, fol. 138b; Vie merveilleuse, p. 257 and p. 370, n.81. The poem is repeated on fol. 146a; p. 266. In the Kawkab, the saintly woman is not named in either account but when this poem is repeated in the Futūhāt, Ibn ‘Arabī attributes these lines to the famous Rābi’at >al-Adawiyya (Fut. II.359.10). Ibn ‘Arabī says that Rābi’a is one of those favoured servants who worships God with essential adoration, and on whom God has bestowed in this world (al-dunyā) the state of the next (al-ākhira). See Fut. IV.432.21; see also Self-Disclosure, p. 374.

[28] See, for example, Kawkab, fol. 181a; Vie merveilleuse, pp. 322–3.

[29] See, for example, Vie merveilleuse, pp. 193, 242, 320, 342.

[30] Kitāb al-mubashshirāt; see Claude Addas, Quest for the Red Sulphur (Cambridge, 1993), p. 218; see also Ibn ‘Arabī, Rūh al-quds in Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi: A Commemorative Volume, S. Hirtenstein and M. Tiernan, eds. (Dorset, 1993), pp. 54–5 and 45–6.

[31] Ibn ‘Arabī, Fusūs al-hikam, ed. ‘Afīfī (Cairo, 1946), p. 48.

[32] An abbreviation of his title Rūh al-quds fī munāsahat al-nafs; Kawkab, fol. 23a; Vie merveilleuse, p. 87. It was read in Baghdad in 601/1204–5; see Red Sulphur, p. 304.

[33] See Red Sulphur, p. 305.

[34] Commemorative Volume, pp. 49–51; cf. Kawkab, fols. 104a–105b; Vie merveilleuse, pp. 209–11.

[35] Kawkab, fols. 72b–73b; Vie merveilleuse, pp. 160–1.

[36] Fut. II.177.19.

[37] Q. 57:4, "Huwa ma’akum aynamā kuntum".

[38] Kawkab, fol. 77a (‘araftu rabbī bi-rabbī); Vie merveilleuse, p. 166.

[39] Kawkab, fols. 191a–b; Vie merveilleuse, p. 341; see also Kawkab, fol. 90b; Vie merveilleuse, p. 186.

[40] Fut. II.49.30.

[41] Fut. IV.172.13; see Red Sulphur, pp. 39–43 and Stephen Hirtenstein, The Unlimited Mercifier (Oxford, 1999), p. 54. Moses told him that he would be given the hidden knowledge that is with God (‘ilm ladunī). This is the knowledge which was imparted to Moses by Khidr, the mysterious ever-living teacher, referred to in the Quran as "one of our servants" (Q. 18:65). Muhammad told Ibn ‘Arabī, who was being threatened in a dream, "My beloved, hold onto me and you will be safe." This seminal vision hints at the breadth of Ibn ‘Arabī’s thought, which extends to the meanings brought by all the prophets of these traditions and brings them into a unified perspective. See Ibn ‘Arabī, Contemplation of the Holy Mysteries, trans. Cecilia Twinch and Pablo Beneito (Oxford, 2001), p. 7.

[42] Fut. II.49.30.

[43] Kawkab, fol. 38a; Vie merveilleuse, pp. 109–10.

[44] Here Ibn ‘Arabī is quoting >Muhammad ibn Zabbān; Kawkab, fol. 36a; Vie merveilleuse, pp. 106–7.

[45] See Q. 3:49 and Q. 5:110; see also the Ottoman commentary, Ismail Hakki Bursevi’s Translation of and Commentary on Fusus al-Hikam by Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi, rendered into English by Bulent Rauf, Vol. III, p. 677: "Spirit from God and no other … this is why he brought to life the dead and he built a bird out of mud, and the bird he built was a kind of bat."

[46] Fusūs al-hikam, ‘Afīfī, pp. 142–3. "As for the spiritual (ma’nawī) bringing to life through knowledge, this is luminous, sublime, eternal, divine life about which God said, ‘Or whoever was dead and we brought him to life and we made for him a light with which he walks among the people’" (Q. 6:122).

[47] Kawkab, fol. 38a–b; Vie merveilleuse, p. 110. See Q. 19:25. The term ‘rutabān janiyyān‘ is used for ‘fresh dates’ in both cases.

[48] See Red Sulphur, pp. 39–42; Unlimited Mercifier, p. 60.

[49] That is, abstaining from food, sleep, speech and people; see Ibn ‘Arabī, Futūhāt, Chapter 53 >and hilyat al-abdāl, newly published and translated with Arabic text, English translation, introduction and notes by Stephen Hirtenstein as The Four Pillars of Spiritual Transformation (Oxford, 2008). See also my paper on retreat: Cecilia Twinch, "Witnessing the Beauty of Oneness", JMIAS, Vol. XXV, 1999, pp. 34–50; also >available at

[50] Kawkab, fol. 170a; Vie merveilleuse, p. 304.

[51] Kawkab, fols. 187a–b; Vie merveilleuse, p. 333.

[52] He ruled in Baghdad as Caliph from 847 to 861 CE

[53] Kawkab, fol. 12b–13b; Vie merveilleuse, pp. 69–71.

[54] Kawkab, fols. 14a–b; Vie merveilleuse, p. 72; see also Kawkab, fol. 193b; Vie merveilleuse, pp. 345–6. A different version of this encounter is repeated as the last story in the Kawkab where al-Mutawakkil says to Dhū-l-Nūn "You are the most agreeable of worshippers (malīh al-‘ubbād) and the most elegant of ascetics (zarīf al-zuhhād)". As Ibn ‘Arabī points out, he has already told the story which follows elsewhere. It can be found in the last chapter of the Futūhāt: Fut. IV.522.18.

[55] See Kawkab, fols. 104a–105b; Vie merveilleuse, pp. 209–11; see also the Introduction to Vie merveilleuse, p. 30.

[56] Kawkab, fols. 175b–176, 184b–185a; Vie merveilleuse, pp. 313–14, 328–9.

[57] See, for example, Kawkab, fol. 171a; Vie merveilleuse, p. 305.

[58] Kawkab, fol. 43a; Vie merveilleuse, p. 118.

[59] Ibn ‘Arabī points out a more immediate aspect of the etymology of the term dunyā (whose root contains the meanings of both nearness and lowness) when he says that "it is called dunyā because it is closer to us than the next world"; Fut. II.641.16; see Sufi Path, p. 345.

[60] See also Illuminations de la Mecque, pp. 277–8; Fut. Chapter 205 (Fut. II.484.33).

[61] See, for example, Sufi Path, p. 158. According to Ibn ‘Arabī, things do not acquire existence, but only the property of being a place of manifestation; see Sufi Path, p. 90; Fut. II.484.23.

[62] Fusūs, ‘Afīfī, p. 203.

[63] Al-firār; cf. Q. 51:50.

[64] See Sufi Path, pp. 157–8.

[65] Literally, "with the eye of ‘ibra (a lesson; crossing over to the other side)".

[66] Kawkab, fol. 191a; Vie merveilleuse, p. 340.

[67] See Kawkab, fols. 17a–b; Vie merveilleuse, pp. 77–8.

[68] Kawkab, fol. 18b; Vie merveilleuse, p. 78.

[69] See for example, Kawkab, fol. 34a; Vie merveilleuse, pp. 103–4.

[70] See, for example, Ibn ‘Arabī’s own introduction to the Fusūs, ‘Afīfī, p. 48, line 4.

[71] On the translation of this hadith in the present tense, see Sufi Path, p. 88 and p. 393, n. 13.

[72] Q. 42:11.

[73] Kitāb al-tajalliyāt: Tajallī sarayān al-tawhīd 59, Rasā’il (Beirut, 1997), p. 438 and Ibn al-‘Arabī’s Al-Tajalliyāt al-Ilāhiyya, ed. Osman Yahia (Tehran, 1988), Theophany LIX, pp. 391–3.

[74] Kawkab, fol. 13a; Vie merveilleuse, p. 69.

[75] Vie merveilleuse, pp. 25–9, 36.

[76] "At this point the person is called a rajul … So the perfection of manliness (rajūliyya) lies in what we have mentioned, whether the person is male or female." See Sufi Path, p. 395 n. 16 and Fut. II.588.6.

[77] Fut. III.34.28; see Sufi Path, pp. 373–5.

[78] Sura of Nūn: "You are according to a magnificent character (khuluq ‘azīm)" Q. 68:4.

[79] Sura of the Fig: "We created the human being in the best of forms (ahsan taqwīm)" Q. 95:4.

[80] Kawkab, fol. 7b; Vie merveilleuse, p. 62. On completing the noble character traits, see Sufi Path, pp. 306–8.

[81] Kawkab, fol. 186b–187a; Vie merveilleuse, p. 332.

[82] Sufi Path, pp. 380–1; Fut. II.661.

[83] Q. 11:118–19; cf. Q. 5:48.

[84] See Sufi Path, p. 338.

[85] Li-l-rahma: meaning out of, due to, or for the purpose of, Compassion.

[86] Kawkab, fol. 189b; Vie merveilleuse, pp. 337–8.

[87] "Rahmat allāh sabaqat ghadabahu"; see, for example, Fut. II.157.17.

[88] See Sufi Path, p. 338; Fut. III.465.25.

[89] Kawkab, fol. 1b; Vie merveilleuse, p. 50.

[90] Kawkab, fol. 6a; Vie merveilleuse, p. 60.