Articles and Translations

The Enigma of the Shajara al-nu’māniyya fī’l-dawla al-‘Uthmāniyya, attributed to Ibn ‘Arabī

Denis Gril

Denis Gril is a scholar, translator, and writer who teaches Arabic and Islamic studies at the Université de Provence in France, where he has been since 1981. He has devoted himself to the study of the work of Ibn Arabi, but also to the study of sainthood within Islam. His other research interests include Islamic spirituality and its scriptural foundations. His published works include translations (along with commentaries) of works by Ibn Arabi: Le Livre de l’Arbre et des quatre oiseaux and Le dévoilement des effets du voyage. Gril has also translated and published La Risala de Safi al-Din Ibn Abi l-Mansur Ibn Zafir: Biographies des maîtres spirituels connus par un cheikh égyptien du viie/xiiie siècle. [/]


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The Kitab al-inbah of Abdallah Badr al-Habashi | Translation

“There Is No Word in the World that Does Not Indicate His Praise”

«Il n’est de mot dans l’univers qui n’indique Sa louange» (French)

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Adab och uppenbarelse – eller en av grundvalarna för hermeneutiken hos Ibn Arabi (Swedish)

Commentaries on the Fatiha and Experience of the Being According to Ibn Arabi

The Enigma of the Shajara al-numaniyya fī al-dawla al-Uthmaniyya, Attributed to Ibn Arabi

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“And He taught Adam all the Names”: the Foundation of the Spiritual Caliphate


The text entitled Shajara al-nu’māniyya fī al-dawla al-‘Uthmāniyya presents us with a twofold enigma: it is written in coded language where the key is often elusive, and its author remains so far unknown. The prevailing view in the Ottoman era, as well as the evidence of often quite recent manuscripts, attributes the authorship to Ibn ‘Arabī but, as we shall see later, this attribution is inadmissible. Even more astonishingly, the two main commentaries on the work are also clearly apocryphal, one of which is attributed to Sadr al-Dīn al-Qūnawī, the son-in-law and disciple of Ibn ‘Arabī, and the other to the fourteenth-century historian al-Safadī.

As the title shows, “The Tree of Nu’mān concerning the Ottoman dynasty” and its commentaries focus on the dynasty, not in terms of its advent as is generally supposed, but with regard to future events, principally in Egypt, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries (sixteenth to seventeenth centuries AD). With its predictions, this curious and spurious work places the Ottomans in the eschatological tradition of Islam, more particularly that of jafr.[2]

After summarising the contents of the Shajara and its two commentaries, we will discuss their probable authors, background and date of composition, and attempt to reach some provisional conclusions as to their historical significance.


Analysis of the Shajara[3]

The author states that he is going to speak of events to come (hawādith al-zamān), under the influence of astrological conjunctions and planetary movements, all the while reminding us that these remain subject to the divine omnipotence. Each region of the world in the cycle of Adamic history is under the influence of a star. He says he has written about each region and makes clear that here he will only deal with Egypt, which is assigned the name of the Quiver (kināna), according to a tradition attributed to the Prophet.[4] He will limit himself, he says, to the principal events (kulliyyāt) and the secondary events (juz’iyyāt) which flow from these, like the branches of a tree from its main limbs, which is one way of explaining the first term of the title.

In these two centuries the most important events occur. The first date is given by the numerical value of the letters B K Z (2 + 20 + 900), i.e. 922/1516, the year that Sultan Selim took Damascus. All the dates are indicated by this same method. Most individuals are indicated by the first or last letter of their name, as in the sentence: “when the Qāf of the Jīm arrives at its end, the sīn of Selim will rise up.” The Qāf of the Jīm refers to the penultimate Mamluk sultan, Qānsūh al-Ghūri al-Jarkas'(the Circassian), who was defeated in Syria by Selim I on 25 Rajab 922/24 August 1516.

Thus, the appearance and triumph of the sīn, the first letter of Selim. His link to Nu’mān, that is to say Abū hanīfa, who founded the school of jurisprudence generally followed by the Turks, explains the second term of the title. This sovereign “will rise up and take the land of the Arabs up to the frontiers of the Maghrib, the Hijaz, the borders of the Yemen, Iraq, the borders of Morocco, Algeria and the largest part of our quarter of the inhabited world.” His dynasty will last until the Mīm, the Seal, who according to the tradition will manifest at the end of time. This initial clearly indicates the Mahdī, who is to be found in Konya. The Ottoman dynasty and the country of Rūm (Rome) are thus joined together in an eschatological narrative, which ends with the conquest of the “Greater Rome” (al-Rūmiyya al-kubrā) and the destruction of its church. In all probability, Rūmiyya here means Rome rather than Constantinople.

And the Holy War continues until the rebuilding of the Temple of Jerusalem, an episode rarely mentioned in Muslim eschatology. After this there is a new meeting in Konya between the Supreme Mīm and the Mīm al-sadr, the lieutenant (qā’im maqām) of the Sīn, “master of the throne of the end of days” (sāhib kursī al-nihāya). No doubt we should view these two mīms as two aspects of the function of the Mahdī, who is succeeded by Jesus (‘Īsā, the sīn who is implicitly connected to Selim).

This brings us back in fact to a much closer history, that of events following the year Ghayn, which equals 1000. After this kind of introduction the author recalls that he will focus on different lands, but primarily Egypt, since that is the seat of the throne of kings (mahall kursī al-mulūk). This Egypt-centredness has to be taken into account in dating the text and identifying the author.

From the very beginning a sibylline phrase, in rhyming prose, taken up by the commentators, sets the tone: “Egypt will remain prosperous (?), being cunning with its governors, avoiding heavy tasks, until Mercury is in opposition to Saturn, in the final degree of Libra. It will then be freed from the control of the family of ‘Uthmān’. However, it is also stated that this will be a discharge of justice (khurūj ‘adl) and not a discharge of disappearance (khurūj zawāl). The Mīm who is to seal the cycle (mīm al-khitām), or the Mahdī, actually has a mission to re-establish justice on earth, which suggests that the Ottoman dynasty will be immediately replaced by those who will fight for truth and justice until the end of time.

We then pass to quite a different matter: the famous prediction of Ibn ‘Arabī or the pseudo-Ibn ‘Arabī, supposedly in his own words: “And among the allusions (rumūz) which we have given on the matter of the branching of the tree: ‘when the Sīn enters the Shīn,[5] there will appear the tomb of Muhyī al-dīn’. The reason for this is that God unveiled to us directly that our death would take place in Damascus, also called Jilliq.”[6] He states that his tomb will at first be ruined, buried under rubbish and debris, which was the case during the Mamluk epoch. The Sīn is then identified: “until the time when a qā’im[7] arises, coming from Constantinople, the letter Sīn of the family of ‘Uthmān. He will be the cause of our tomb’s reappearance and the construction of our mausoleum.” He adds that this leader will act on the orders of God, and by permission of the Prophet and the agreement of “the men of the time, masters of the hierarchical degrees, men of the Unseen (rijāl al-ghayb)”. The success of Selim, inspired and sustained by the triple authority of God, the Prophet and the hierarchy of saints, is thus closely associated in the mind of the author with his attachment to the memory of Ibn ‘Arabī, which may give some indication as to the milieu which produced this text. Furthermore, as Constantinople is no longer viewed as a city to be conquered, the composition of the text must at least post-date its conquest by the Ottomans (i.e. post-1453).

After this fairly clear passage, there follows a series of predictions introduced with the same formula: “and among the allusions from the tree, our word…”. The first concerns Aswān: “when Aswān is built at the end of that time by the Yā’ and the ‘Ayn (?), women will reign over the threshold[8] of the family of ‘Uthmān, eunuchs will be numerous, crows[9] will appear and the family of the Sultan will be weakened.”

Other indications are rather more obscure and they often announce revolts, dismissals and nominations. Amongst others there is mention of Murād II:[10] “A group of the Banū ‘Abdallāh will revolt and kill their king, and God will aid Murād II.” What is one to make of this mention of the ruler prior to Selim? Whatever the case may be, most of the dates, indicated by letters, are subsequent to this. Certain events are also dated by astrological conjunctions. After Egypt Baghdad is mentioned, under its ancient name of the round town (al-Zawrā’), Mecca and Yemen. People are always designated by letters.

Curiously constructed, the text pauses momentarily. As if making a new start, it alludes to a circular design (dā’ira), which is only to be found in the commentaries. The author also warns his reader of the esoteric character of this science of forthcoming events. Although in literary style, it is primarily founded on intuitive unveiling (kashf) and esoteric disciplines.[11] This explains why the predictions do not always occur in chronological order. There is now a clear reference to the tradition of jafr, knowledge of events which shake the community until the end of the world, which were transmitted by the Prophet to ‘Alī. This gives rise to an explanation of the theory of the Caliphate, its history and its cosmic and astrological implications. Despite the often Shi’ite terminology, the discourse is firmly situated on the right wing of Sunnism, which is hardly surprising.

As mentioned, the author then seems to make a fresh beginning. He states that he has composed a treatise for each century to come, including this one on the eleventh and twelfth centuries, or more precisely the date of Alif Yā’ Qāf Ghayn = AH 1111, which will see the end of the dynasty. A new explanation of the tree is given: shajara in its root contains the idea of reciprocal opposition (tashājur) between opposed and complementary principles, whose action brings about the events of the world.

Then comes the announcement of the twelve Ottoman “kings”, designated by the initial letter of their name: S S S M M A M ‘ M M M S. If we begin with Selim, we can see that this list does indeed correspond to the names of the Ottoman sultans up to Süleyman II (1099-1102/1687-91), only omitting Ibrāhīm (1049-58/1637-48) and Muhammad IV (1058-99/1648-87). Doubtless it was cyclically necessary to conclude with the same letter sīn. This list evidently poses the question of the date of composition: is this prediction or coincidence, given that the text cannot have been written as late as the end of the seventeenth century?

Predictions concerning the second half of the eleventh century move on to a tradition concerning the settling of the armies of the Mahdī on the plain of the Ghūta, near Damascus, after the appearance of the following sign: “when the owl cries against (or amongst) the Romans and the dove laments”. This enigmatic phrase recalls the title of an apocryphal poem, attributed, like the Shajara, to Ibn ‘Arabī (to which we will return later).

Thereafter the text temporarily leaves Egypt and deals with the troubles to come on the banks of the Euphrates, then to Qazwin and Isfahan, where the Kurds are involved. It announces the departure of expeditions from Aleppo and Damascus of the army of Egypt against a certain Sharaf Khān, who is defeated and takes refuge with the Persian king (Shāh al-‘ajam). It also often refers to islands being attacked or defended, and Bedouin uprisings in Egypt.

Almost as a leitmotiv, the treatise ends with a final allusion to the Mahdī who is due to appear in AH 1091 in the mountains of Fārān, then go to Mecca and end up in the Ghūta at Damascus, with the end of the world thus predicted for AH 1111.

This brief analysis of the text’s contents shows how difficult it is to propose an overall or detailed interpretation. The visible lack of structure can be put down to two factors: firstly, either a collective or successive composition, the latter being rather less likely, for even if the composition seems disjointed, the style and vocabulary are quite similar; or secondly, a desire to encode the text to make it accessible only to specialists of this kind of literature. Does it only deal with predictions or are there more esoteric facts hidden therein? What persons are hidden behind these letters? Sultans, emirs and governors, or is it their equivalents in the initiatic plan, the saints who are hidden and come under the jurisdiction of the Pole? One might be tempted to draw this conclusion given the fairly frequent references to the afrād, saints of high rank who, according to Ibn ‘Arabī, do not come under the jurisdiction of the Pole, and from whose ranks the latter is chosen.

The Commentaries Attributed to al-Qūnawī and al-Safadī

Before attempting a response to some of the questions thrown up by this text, we should have a general look at these two commentaries which are undoubtedly the oldest:

Al-Lam’a al-nūrāniyya fī mushkilat al-Shajara al-nu’māniyya

This commentary, attributed to Sadr al-Dīn al-Qūnaw'(d. 673/1274), only partially comments on the Shajara; or rather, it develops it. Its fairly elaborate and well-written introduction shows an author steeped in the work of Ibn ‘Arabī, as is demonstrated by the link that he establishes between the meaning of letters, book and the doctrine of cycles. He considers Ibn ‘Arabī as the heir of the esoteric sciences transmitted by the Prophet to several companions, such as ‘Alī, Hudhayfa and Abū Hurayra: “until this science reached the Pole of the sphere of the knowers of Reality, the heir of the sciences of the prophets and envoys, the greatest master and the Red Sulphur, Muhammad Muhyī al-dīn Ibn al-‘Arabī.” We may note that in general al-Qūnawī refers to his master in a similarly eulogistic manner, but rather more personally.

There is some discussion of the dā’ira not being reproduced in the manuscript. There also follows a theoretical introduction on the sciences evoked in this sort of text. We find the same explanation on the choice of Egypt as the “seat of the throne of time”. Could this text be prior to the Ottoman conquest, or is it simply trying to give this impression? The commentary in its turn is shown as an announcement of Ottoman conquests: “he whom God has awakened and whose inner eye is open will see their capacity to exercise this role; this will occur if God wills and we will see it at the time of the appearance (or supremacy) of their dynasty (‘inda zuhūr dawlati-him)”.

A further astonishing fact: the author refers to the second commentary, that of al-Safadī, in the same way that the latter refers to al-Qūnawī, which proves that they were written by contemporaries and cannot have been composed by the two supposed authors.

The events announced here are no easier to decipher than in the Shajara. Allusions to the Safavids are more numerous. It mentions the Khān of Qazwin who tried to attack Baghdad between AH 1060 and 1064.[12] In Europe a revolt of the Bulgars was put down in 1064/1653-54. Whether the host of problems predicted in this text actually correspond to precise historical events would require a more detailed examination. However, there are grounds for thinking that the jafr years do not correspond exactly to those of our chronicles.[13] Should we perhaps see these predictions as a bridge established between historical and eschatological time? The originality of the Shajara and its commentaries is in adapting traditional end-of-time accounts to a spacio-temporal context, making use of astrological and cosmological facts in a way which eludes us.

This is why in these accounts we are always brought back to the central figure of the Mahdī. For example,

the Mahdī makes his way to Constantinople the Great (Qustantiniyya al-‘uzmā), where the Lord of the Door (rabb al-bāb) is being besieged. Arriving in Konya he is rejoined by the Mīm of the Sīn. The latter gives his allegiance to the Mīm (the Mahdī?) in the name of his master the Sīn (Jesus-‘Īsā?). They then go to Greater Rome (Rūmiyya al-kubrā). A general peace reigns, and swords are hung from the olive trees. The Supreme Mīm returns to the land of Rūm, and then to Syria, until the descent of the ‘Ayn (Jesus) from the white minaret (of the Umayyad Mosque) in Damascus on Friday (yawm al-jumu’a).

In another passage we find the following sequence of events: the Mahdī appears near the Ka’ba, between the Yemeni corner and the Maqām. He goes in turn to Medina, the Ghūta of Damascus and the country of Rūm, before returning finally to the Ghūta. He is joined by someone called al-‘Andar or ‘Undur (perhaps we should read al-Ghandūr, “the elegant”?) and qualified as ‘Uthmānī. He goes to Rome and from there to Jerusalem. The Dāl (or Antichrist, Dajjāl) arrives and is killed, according to tradition, at the gates of Ludd. The three Jīm (Gog and Magog) sweep forward as far as Beirut. A wind destroys them and the birds throw their bodies into the sea. In these apocalyptic tales the land of Rūm, especially Konya, occupies a pivotal position. Is this because it was the seat of the first Sultanate on this earth, or because Ibn ‘Arabī himself lived there for a time, his presence perpetuated by his disciple Sadr al-Dīn al-Qūnawī, whose library held several autographed copies of the Shaykh’s work right up to the modern era, a† presence also magnificently magnified by Mevlana?

The commentary of al-Safadī

As we have mentioned, this commentary gives hardly any more information than the first, as to a possible dating of the Shajara. However, it does introduce some information on the Muslim West that is found in neither the Shajara nor the pseudo-Qūnawī. Does the following refer to the fall of Granada (897/1492)?: “We fear for the inhabitants of the peninsula of al-Andalus, a leader who will seize an opportunity…”; and later: “and the action will be Ottoman and Maghribian (takūnu al-haraka ‘Uthmāniyya Maghribiyya), and will end with two victories…”.[14] However, the following passage suggests that Granada had already been taken: “then there will be the retaking of the Andalusian peninsula from the hands of the infidels”, and even Constantinople, since reference is made to “the master of the throne”. In addition, referring to the famous phrase “when the Sīn enters the Shīn“, the author adds “and this is what happened”. The text must therefore be later than 922/1516 at the earliest.

On the other hand, the same author, at least apparently since the narrative is in the first person, says that he met one of the afrād, Muhammad b. ‘Ali b. Muhammad al-Tūnisī, at the maqām of Shaykh Arslān in Damascus in AH 773, and that he questioned him about the Shajara. In reply al-Tūnisī said that the Sīn was of the line of ‘Uthmān and that he would appear if God wills. This passage at least proves that the commentary cannot be attributed to the historian Khalīl b. Aybak al-Safad'(d. 764/1363). Either this meeting is a pure fiction designed to underline the authenticity of the prediction, or it was taken from an older text. The commentary refers to numerous treatises and commentaries on the Shajara or other works on jafr, whose titles and authors are equally problematic.


The other commentaries

There are three other commentaries on the Shajara:

1. al-Namat al-akmal fī dhikr al-mustaqbal by al-Maqqarī, author of the Nafh al-tīb, who came from Tlemcen and died in Cairo (986-1041/1577-1632). This attribution needs verification, even if it seems plausible, even more so as the author concentrates on events of the eleventh century. This commentary is less a commentary on the actual text than a basic schema which is not found in the manuscripts of the Shajara. Overall, the contents are reminiscent of that of al-Safadī. We find the following interesting snippet of information: the existence of a certain ‘Abdallāh al-Tūnisī in Cairo in AH 933, leading a secluded life in the khānqāh of Sa’īd al-Su’adā’, who was the author of a table reproduced by al-Maqqarī, which showed the names of the hierarchy of Saints for the first half of the eleventh century.[15] This detail perhaps shows the fruitlessness of searching for the authors of these texts, obscure dervishes attributing their predictions to others.

2. al-Dā’ira al-kubrā al-jafriyya ‘alā al-Shajara al-nu’māniyya by Mustafā Ibn Sahrāb. This extends the Shajara into the twelfth century of the Hijra.[16] The author was an official in the service of the then Governor of Egypt, ‘Umar Pasha.[17]

3. al-Durrat al-fākhira ‘alā rumūz al-Shajara al-nu’māniyya, attributed to al-Būnī. This attribution is manifestly and intentionally false, since the work begins by mentioning the author. It is by far the most fanciful commentary, providing a list of Ottoman sultans up to AH 1696![18]


The Question of Attribution

Who wrote these texts? Or, in the absence of a clear answer, from what milieu or country did these authors come? Is it possible to give some kind of precise or even approximate dating?

One thing is certain: the successive attributions to Ibn ‘Arabī, al-Qūnawī, al-Safadī or even al-Būnī, are neither fortuitous nor the errors of a copyist. Clearly the text of the Shajara has been composed so as to make it credible as one of Ibn ‘Arabī’s texts. It is written in the first person, and certain expressions, typical of his style, are used. The commentaries confirm this attribution, even though they themselves comprise none of the introductory formulae by which the author normally refers to himself. Al-Safadī’s doesn’t even have a title. From the beginning, at the very least, it was intended to authenticate the text, and it has been believed in throughout the Ottoman era up to the present day. It is necessary therefore to prove their apocryphal nature and then question the origin and reason for such an attribution.

According to internal criteria, the style of the Shajara is not really at all like that of the Shaykh al-Akbar. It is generally correct, but lacks originality and is quite repetitive. Ibn ‘Arabī’s works are characterised by a composition both subtle and rigorous, which is completely lacking here. Elsewhere Ibn ‘Arabī never refers to himself by his honorific surname, Muhyī al-Dīn. The numerical value of the letters follows the Eastern alphabet, rather than the Western as ought to have been the case. Furthermore, the text sometimes seems to be, if not a commentary on, at least a reworking of an earlier text, something which is quite common in works on jafr.

As regards external criteria, we can say that this work is never mentioned by Ibn ‘Arabī, either in his works or in any bibliographical list written by him. All the manuscripts are late: the earliest text, as well as those of the two commentaries, goes no further back than the second half of the eleventh century.[19] It is also extremely unclear why Ibn ‘Arabī should have dedicated the work particularly to Egypt, a country that he only ever passed through. And above all, in his Futūhāt, he himself is critical of those who use the science of letters for worldly purposes. When he mentions Ibn Barrajān’s prediction of the reconquest of Jerusalem from the Crusaders, which is drawn from an interpretation of the isolated letters in the Sūrat al-Rūm, it is only to make clear that the author was in fact unveiling a knowledge of a higher order. However, we must also accept that Ibn ‘Arabī himself used the science of letters at least once to announce certain eschatological events.[20]

It is therefore entirely understandable why this text should have perplexed even those familiar with the work of Ibn ‘Arabī, such as the Emir ‘Abd al-Qādir, who writes, in a passage on alchemy and on alchemists who refuse to teach kings and hide their science:

All works on alchemy and command of this world that are attributed to our master, the seal of sainthood, Muhyī al-Dīn Ibn ‘Arabī, and to other saints who call men to God, is but lies and calumny. It is not possible for one of God’s saints to teach God’s servant that which will distance them from God, for this world distances all men from God, except the saints. It is just the same with regard to those works attributed to our master Muhyī al-Dīn that deal with events of the end of the world (malāhim) and predictions (jafr), such as the Shajara and others. I met him in a vision and asked him about the jafr attributed to him. He told me: “lies and calumny”.[21]

This passage does at least prove that in the milieu frequented by the Emir in Turkey and Syria, there was still great interest in the Shajara.


A Series of Apocrypha

Indeed, as the Emir mentions, the attribution of this kind of text to Sufi masters was not new. Ibn Khaldūn throws some light on this point and on apocalyptic literature in general. The third part of the Muqaddima, dedicated to the caliphate, royalty and the organisation of the state, ends significantly with two chapters: one concerning the Mahdī (fī amr al-Fātimī), the other on predictions about the changing of dynasties (hidthān al-duwal) and on jafr. As for the Mahdī being descended from Fātima, he only quotes one tradition in the first version of the Muqaddima, which was composed just after his arrival in Cairo in 784/1382-83. In the second draft, however, under the visible influence of the Egyptian ‘ulamā’, he incorporated numerous variants on the hadith of the Mahdī, even though he remained sceptical of their authenticity. On the other hand, Ibn Khaldūn clearly saw that the theme of the Mahdī in Sufi literature and in a particular conception of prophethood and sainthood owed much to Ibn ‘Arabī as well as others. Not without good reason, he linked this theme to that of the initiatic hierarchy where, following Ibn Taymiyya, he saw only a Shi’ite influence.

What concerns us here is that he quotes the words of Ibn ‘Arabī, taken from the ‘Anqā’ mughrib, where the coming of the Mahdī in AH 683 is announced. This work certainly concerns the coming of the Mahdī and his links with Jesus, but primarily in their spiritual dealings with the interior being of all initiates, and it is in this way that one should interpret the conclusion of the ‘Anqā‘. Ibn Khaldūn also mentions a commentary on Ibn Qasī’s Khal’ al-na’layn by Ibn Sab’īn’s disciple Ibn Abī Wātil, which announces the arrival of the Mahdī in Rome, and then Constantinople. At the end he names the authors of several apocalyptic works, who based their predictions on astrological conjunctions (qirānāt). This type of literature seems to have been popular in the Maghrib.

In the chapter on jafr, he tells us that he has seen an apocalyptic account (malhama), attributed to Ibn ‘Arabī, full of magic squares that he deems apocryphal. In Egypt he knew of a horoscope of the founding of Cairo, giving 460 years as its life span, again attributed to our author. He also speaks of a malhama on the Turkish (Mamluk) dynasty, composed by a certain Bajāriqī. A Hanafi shaykh in Cairo told him that the author was a Qalandar, who died after Ibn Kathīr in AH 724. These examples show that up to the fourteenth century, in Egypt especially, there already circulated a number of these kinds of texts wrongly attributed to Ibn ‘Arabī; the case of the Shajara is thus by no means isolated. Furthermore, the mention of a Qalandar suggests an origin rather on the margins of conventional Sufism.


Ibn ‘Arabī and Eschatology

As Ibn Khaldūn clearly saw, these attributions have no real basis. If the Shajara can in no way have been written by Ibn ‘Arabī, nor by a direct disciple, for the reasons advanced and many more besides, it has to be admitted that the esoteric knowledge and eschatological facts present in the texts were not unknown to him. The science of letters, astrological conjunctions, the movement of the heavenly spheres, the cycles of humanity, the coming of the Mahdī, and the role of Jesus as Seal of Sainthood are all themes that run through his works.

In two passages from the Muhādarāt al-abrār, he relates a long eschatological tradition which goes back to the Prophet’s companion, Hudhayfa ibn al-Yaman. He follows this with a prediction by a certain Ibn ‘Isma, considered to foretell the retaking of Jerusalem by Saladin. In the first passage, the tradition of Hudhayfa is followed by the announcement of the ruin, one by one, of the countries of the earth, until the arrival of a king from the Orient in AH 561, at the beginning of the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in the third decanate of Capricorn. This king seizes Egypt and Sudan. He prevails three times over the Banū al-Asfar [literally, ‘sons of the red one’ (Esau), which was used in a hadith to mean the Christian princes or Greeks, and later Europeans in† general]. Then comes the master of the West, at which news the people of Rūm send a large fleet. The three armies of the master of the West make their way with great difficulty to Egypt. The Banū al-Asfar seize Alexandria, but are finally expelled from Syria (Bilād al-Shām). Another man comes from the East, this time supported by Turkish armies, and he takes possession of Jerusalem and then all of Syria. Then various struggles, the coming of the Sufyanid, of the Mahdī who takes Constantinople, the arrival of the Antichrist and the descent of Jesus.[22]

Here Ibn ‘Arabī is only reporting on one of these texts where history joins eschatology, and where we note the appearance of the Turks in a positive light, which was not always the case in apocalyptic traditions. The mere fact that he echoes this type of prediction can only have served to encourage some authors to spread, using the authority of his name, other examples which relate to a crucial period in Muslim history: the fall of Granada, the decline of the Mamluk Sultanate, and the rise of the Ottoman Empire after the taking of Constantinople, for it is quite striking that in the Shajara, and a fortiori in its commentaries, there is no mention of this.


The Presumed Authors

Why should the authors have hidden their identity at the same time as revealing the source of their inspiration? The name of Ibn ‘Arabī, given the high esteem in which he was held by many Sufis and knowledgeable people, can only have facilitated the circulation of the text. This would have been of prime importance if the aim of the Shajara was to win people over to the Ottoman cause, particularly in Egypt and Syria. Perhaps it was no longer dangerous to associate his name with a dynastic power, even a current one. Furthermore, even if the sciences on which these predictions were based formed an integral part of Islamic learning, making them public was not necessarily regarded favourably by the majority of Sufis, let alone the ‘ulamā’. Finally, the constant mention of the Mahdī, together with a specific type of terminology, could have aroused suspicions of Shi’ism, just when certain hurūfis were getting into trouble with the Ottoman authorities.

As to the dating of the Shajara, it all depends on whether or not we admit the possibility of prediction. If yes, by how many years does it precede the conquest of Syria and Egypt in 922? If no, its composition must have followed quickly. As already noted, no manuscripts exist from this time, the two oldest mentioned in the catalogues being those of the pseudo-Qūnawī and al-Safadī, dated respectively 1063/1653 and 1060/1650.

In all probability the author is of Arabic origin. Does he have to be Egyptian? He is certainly imbued with the idea that Egypt is “the seat of the throne”. Furthermore, he mentions in passing (fol. 33) a method of predicting secondary events from Coptic months. If we accept that the Shajara may have been composed before the reign of Selim, there is one person to whom we might be able to attribute authorship: ‘Abd al-Rahmān al-Bistāmī.[23] Born in Antioch, he studied in Cairo, stayed in Mecca in 795/1393 and went to live with Sultan Murād II at Bursa, where he died in 858/1454, just a year after the taking of Constantinople. Deeply influenced by the work of Ibn ‘Arabī, he is above all renowned for various esoteric sciences: the science of letters, magic squares, properties of divine names and future events, according to Taşköprüzade. He is the author of a work generally attributed to Ibn ‘Arabī in the catalogue of manuscripts: Sayhat al-būm fī hawādith al-Rūm, or “The Owl’s lament for the events of Rūm”, an expression which is also found in the Shajara.[24] Baǧdatlı Pasha cites this book as written by Ibn ‘Arabī, but adds: “This work is in fact by ‘Abd al-Rahmān al-Bistāmī, since he states in chapter 6 of the Durrat Tāj al-Rasā’il: ‘in AH 810 I completed the composition of my book Sayhat al-būm, in the madrasa of Farkh Shāh in Akşhir’.”[25] The Sayhat al-būm mentions similar apocalyptic traditions, though not identical, to those found in the Shajara, for example: “The Hour will not arise before Great Constantinople and its cities have been conquered.” It is also said that the Mahdī will kill the king of Constantinople, after which the Antichrist will arrive. Armand Abel, who has analysed the text,[26] mentions that Evliya Çelebi (1020-95/1611-84) refers to Sayhat al-būm as being by Ibn ‘Arabī. Thus by the seventeenth century this attribution was already well established.

However, this is not sufficient evidence for attributing the authorship of the Shajara to al-Bistāmī. He himself was well enough known not to need to fabricate an apocrypha. What one would need to know is whether he was surrounded by disciples to whom the work could be ascribed. The fact remains that a circle of dervishes sufficiently well acquainted with the work of Ibn ‘Arabī and with the political evolution of the Near East, did produce this text, and probably its first commentaries. Attribution to al-Qūnawī was an effective means of authenticating the Shajara, this at the same time enhanced by a reference to the Shaykh al-Akbar’s work in the Bilād al-Rūm being transmitted by such well-known people as Dā’ūd al-Qaysarī and Shams al-Dīn Fanārī. The attribution to al-Safadī is less obvious, even though this historian of Palestinian origin did, like many others, live in Cairo. But does this mean it must be Khalīl b. Aybak? The Princeton manuscript used in this study bears on its title page the name of Ibn habīb al-Safadī. Is he the same as ‘Abd al-Qādir b. Muhammad b. ‘Umar Ibn habīb al-Safadī, a poet who died in Safad in 915/1509, thus just before the Ottoman conquest? Certainly there is nothing to rule out the possibility that the attribution is either apocryphal or due to a copying error. Whatever the truth of the matter, this does lead us to Syria. In this regard it is not inconceivable that the famous prediction: “when the Sīn…” was current before Selim’s arrival. It could have been inserted later in the Shajara. Selim’s eagerness for the construction of a mausoleum for Ibn ‘Arabī, with its attendant mosque, may be explained by the attachment of many Turkish ‘ulamā’ to the Shaykh’s work; but perhaps the sultan himself also felt tied to him by a particular debt.[27]


The Historical Import of the Text

Though admitting for the moment our inability to identify the author or even to make a satisfactory dating, let us return to the text. As we have already noted, it predicts two series of events: one near at hand in the tenth and eleventh centuries of the Hijra; the other eschatological, towards the end of time, but not without frequent references linking the one to the other. This constant breaking out of “meta-history” into history has its origin in the Qur’ān, where the Hour is announced as “imminent”, and in the Sunna where the Prophet never ceases to forewarn his companions of the troubles to come (fitan) and the Antichrist (al-Masīh al-Dajjāl), and announces to them the coming of a man, and his lineage, who will fill the earth with justice just as it had been filled with injustice, as well as the second coming of Jesus. Each moment of crisis in the history of Islam is an opportunity to recall these traditions where each person may find an explanation of current events (an example of which we shall see below). The proliferation of predictions generally coincides with periods of trouble and thus eschatological expectations. To this is added the belief, precise among the Sufis and vague among ordinary people, that the world is governed by the saints. The historian will thus tend to read this sort of text as a means of legitimising a recently acquired power by utilising certain groups, particularly dervishes, even though we may question the number of people capable of reading such texts and understanding much in them. However, it is possible to propose a slightly different interpretation, that these same groups, or others, wanted to prepare the ground by spreading the idea of the election of the family of ‘Uthmān. One should certainly qualify this statement by recognising that the series of wars and of various disturbances announced in these texts is hardly a eulogy of the dynasty; but in this conception of history are important dates anything other than a succession of wars?

Be that as it may, the actual historical context leaves little doubt: we are at the moment when supremacy is swinging, or has swung, from the Mamluks to the Ottomans. The action of Selim in Damascus is exemplified by the construction of the tomb of Ibn ‘Arabī. Apart from the defeat of Qānsūh al-Ghūrī, the Ottoman conquest of Egypt is not mentioned: the predictions concern Egypt under Ottoman domination and the surrounding countries. At the risk of contradicting the attempts at identification made above, one must clearly recognise that the Shajara gives the impression of a well-established Ottoman authority, if not in deed, at least in principle. The importance accorded to Egypt confirms the inheritance of this ancient centre of power and authority by the Ottomans. For that, however, there had to be an exceptional intervention by the spiritual forces that direct the world behind the veil of events. Hence the amplification of the role and the eschatological dimension of the Sīn, an eschatological letter, already present in the previous, particularly Shi’ite, jafr tradition, here being applied to Selim. The eclipse of Constantinople in the face of Rome, as the first phase of the final eschatological process, equally characterises an epoch. The place taken by Konya, at the centre of the Bilād al-Rūm, equally merits attention. What is the significance of this oscillation between Egypt and its neighbours, places of historical events, and Anatolia the place of a trans-historic future? Certainly the Shajara does not allow its mystery to be easily penetrated.

As we have suggested above, the eschatological import of these types of text comes from the meaning they give to immediate history. The Shajara and its commentaries regained favour in the nineteenth century, when the Ottomans could feel the end of their empire approaching, as is evinced by the number of manuscript copies from this period. Because his works expound on the spiritual bases of the organisation of the universes and the duties of mankind, the name of Ibn ‘Arabī has been continuously used by unknown authors keen on applying these principles to events in the phenomenal world. During the Gulf War, among certain tariqas the following poem was circulating, attributed to Ibn ‘Arabī, and taken from a book that is unknown to any reader of his works:

“An extract from Manājim al-qurūn” (“The mines of the centuries”) by Muhyī al-Dīn Ibn ‘Arabī, p. 260:

When the Jews join forces with the Christians and rain fire on the towers (or on the signs of the Zodiac, burūj)

When the Further Mosque (Jerusalem) is orphaned and when power is in the hands of the Prostitute,

When a fire in the Gulf blazes and the power in the Hijaz makes cause with the chiefs of the Infidels,

When in the war of the stars their capitals perish in the oil of the Gulf,

When Gog and Magog plunge forth headlong and cry: O rivers of blood, seethe!

Then you can say to the Blind One, to the Antichrist: arise, the time to appear has come!”

The poem certainly lacks any of the esoteric devices normally used in jafr: astrology and the science of letters which are the hidden language of the universe and of the Book of Destiny which, while veiled to the common man, reveals to initiates the heavenly origin of the troubles which afflict the world here below. However, in its own way it is no less expressive of the anxiety and the eschatological expectation of destruction and the return of a saviour who will alleviate the trials of the flesh which is the lot of humanity. Etymologically, jafr means nothing else.[28]


Notes on Manuscripts of the Shajara al-Nu’māniyya and its Commentaries

Brockelmann,[29] having checked the catalogues of european and oriental libraries, indicates among the works of Ibn ‘Arabī 4 copies of the Shajara, 8 of al-Qūnawī’s commentary, 8 of al-Safadī, 1 of al-Maqqarī and of Mustafā b. Sahrāb, and 2 of al-Shahrāfī.

Osman Yahya,[30] who seems not to question the attribution of these texts to their authors, adds to this first list 5 copies of the Shajara, 3 of which are in Istanbul; 9 of al-Qūnawī’s commentary, 7 of which are in Istanbul; 11 of al-Safadī, 8 of which are in Istanbul; 2 of al-Maqqarī in Istanbul; 1 of M. b. Sahrāb in Turkey; and 9 of Shahrāfī, 4 of which are in Istanbul.

Tawfīq Fahd[31] indicates another example of Shahrāfī and 3 manuscripts of the Durrat al-Lāmi’a, the commentary of Pseudo-Būnī, in Turkey.

Muhammad Riyād al-Mālih, a well-known Damascus specialist on Ibn ‘Arabī and tasawwuf literature, told me several years ago that the €āhiriyya library holds 2 copies of the Shajara, 7 of al-Qūnawī, 5 of al-Safadī and al-Būnī (and another in Baghdad, Awqāf 10147).

We have found at Dār al-kutub in Cairo the following manuscripts:

  • Hurūf wa awfāq 17, film 45269, 6 fols.: commentary by M. b. Sahrāb.
  • Hurūf wa awfāq 26, film 45717, 18 fols., anonymous: the author seems to show he lived in the 10th century, but quotes the commentary of Shahrāfī.
  • Hurūf wa awfāq 145, film 45675, 18 fols., entitled Risāla fī l-jafr. This text is a commentary on the Shajara.

The majāmī’ collection 62, film 52874, 81 fols., copied in 1278/1861-62, already noted by Brockelmann in the catalogue of the Khedival Library,[32] comprises several treatises:

  • commentary by al-Qūnawī.
  • commentary by al-Safadī.
  • commentary by Ibn Sahrāb.
  • treatise on jafr = Hurūf wa awfāq 145.
  • Kitāb jafr al-Shaykh al-Akbar, which cites the Futūhāt, Ibn Sab’īn, the commentaries of al-Maqqarī, etc. …

There follow 4 other treatises on the science of letters and predictions.

We can add the 2 Princeton collections[33] that we have used in our study:

  • no. 4497 containing the commentaries of al-Qūnawī, al-Safadī and al-Shahrāfī.
  • no. 4535 containing those of al-Qūnawī and al-Safadī.

Thus we know of at least 13 manuscripts of the Shajara, 26 of the commentary of al-Qūnawī, 25 of al-Safadī, 3 of al-Maqqarī, 4 of M. b. Sahrāb, 12 of Shahrāfī, 5 of al-Būnī and 2 unidentified.

These texts have thus had a wide circulation, and doubtless further research would reveal other examples. It is curious to note that the first two commentaries had a wider circulation than the text itself, even though overall they are scarcely any clearer than the text that they sought to explain. Another observation: the majority of manuscripts give neither the name of the copyist nor the date of the copy. Among the dated copies, the oldest go back no further than the second half of the 11th/17th century, and those without a date that we have consulted in Istanbul go back no further than the 18th and 19th centuries.

The libraries in Berlin and Paris hold the oldest dated copies, not of the Shajara but of al-Safadī’s commentary, both dated 1060/1650: Berlin 4218 Lbg. 711[34] and Paris 2679.[35] A commentary by al-Qūnawī closely follows this date: Berlin 4215 I Lbg. 711, 2, dated 1063/1653,[36] as well as a commentary by al-Safad'(BN 2678), dated 1071/1661.[37] There also exists at Bursa (Ulu Cami 35) a copy of the Durrat al-Lāmi’a dated 1096/1685.[38] The Istanbul copies are of later date: commentary by al-Maqqarī: Veliyuddin 2294/7, dated 1107/1696; commentary by al-Qūnawī: Shehit Ali 181, dated 1108/1697; Shajara: Beyazit 4609, waqf of Sultan ‘Abdülmecid’s mother, dated 1266/1850.

The study of the manuscripts provides no help at all in dating the text and its several continuations. The authors of these Apocrypha, and often the copyists, have covered their tracks. We should not necessarily view the Shajara as a late invention, since the commentaries of the pseudo-Qūnawī and al-Safadī refer to it explicitly. We would a priori be tempted to see in it a justification for the conquest of Egypt by Selim, but we must not exclude a more ancient origin, in particular from the various schemata, rectangular, square or circular, which accompany most of the manuscripts. Unquestionably the theme of the Shajara corresponds to a certain eschatological tradition as shown by al-Durr al-Munazzam of Kamāl al-Dīn M. b. Talha al-Qurashī al-Nisībī al-Halabī.[39] This work contains a number of elements found also in the Shajara. It is sometimes followed by a commentary or a sort of continuation by ‘Abd al-Rahmān al-Bistāmī in which he relates a vision of AH 822,[40] thus confirming the idea that this person could well be, indirectly, the origin of this enigmatic literature. Will we ever know who the authors are? The study of the manuscripts show that it may be more important for historians of the end of the Ottoman Empire to study the impact such texts had on the ruling or intellectual milieu towards the end of the 19th century. Indeed the late nature of the manuscripts shows that the eschatological significance of this literature responded to the anxieties and perhaps also the hopes of those who were concerned about the future of the Ottoman dynasty.


Translated by Alan Boorman.

Reproduced from the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society, Volume 43, 2008. This article was first published in Les traditions apocalyptiques au tournant de la chute de Constantinople, Varia Turcica, XXXIII (Paris, Montréal, 1999), pp. 133-52.


[1] This article was first published in Les traditions apocalyptiques au tournant de la chute de Constantinople, Varia Turcica, XXXIII (Paris, Montréal, 1999), pp. 133-52.

[2] See Tawfīq Fahd’s article on "Djafr" in EI2, II, 386-8, and La divination arabe (Paris, 1987), pp. 219-24 and 224-34 on the malāhim. See also the two articles by A. Abel quoted below, note 26.

[3] For our analysis of the Shajara and the commentaries of al-Qūnawī and Õafadī, we have used the manuscripts from the Princeton Garrett collection No. 4497 and 4535, copies of which were kindly sent to me by Michel Chodkiewicz.

[4] "Egypt is God’s quiver on the earth. No enemy attacks her but God causes them to perish." This tradition is found in one of the first historians of Muslim Egypt, Ibn Zūlāq; see al-Sakhāwī, al-Maqāsid al-hasana (Beirut, 1985), p. 609, no. 1029.

[5] The sīn designates Selim, and the shīn Damascus (al-Shām).

[6] One of the old names for Damascus; see Mu’jam al-buldān, II. 154-5. Archaic place names are often found in this sort of text.

[7] Literally, "one who arises", i.e. an inspiring leader whose mission presages the advent of the end of time and the Resurrection.

[8] Sudda and not the door, doubtless so as not to appear too explicit.

[9] Ghirbān, in other words the Bedouins (‘urbān).

[10] Ruled 824-48/1421-44 and 850-55/1446-51.

[11] Hence the use of several verbs that express the meaning of allusion: ramaza, ashāra, lawwaha, awhā, laghaza.

[12] As historical background, in 914/1507-08 Shah Ismā’il conquered Baghdad; and Suleyman retook it in 941/1534; Shah ‘Abbās reconquered it in 1032/1623, and Murād IV took it again in 1048/1640. It then remained under Ottoman rule until 1917. See EI2, I, 931, "Baghdad".

[13] The author of the Shajara explains that ten years have to be added to get the jafr year.

[14] An Ottoman attack against Spain did take place in 891/1486: see M. Mukhtār Bāsā, al-Tawfīqāt al-ilhāmiyya (Beirut, 1980), II. 927.

[15] See Veliyuddin 2294 (fols. 68a-86b), fol. 75b; also Veliyuddin 2292 (fols.1a-39a).

[16] See Dār al-kutub, Hurūf wa awfāq, 17.

[17] Cf. Ahmad Çelebi ‘Abd al-Ghanī, Awdāh al-ishārāt fī man waliya Misr al-Qāhira min al-wuzarā’ wa al-bāshāt, ed. Fu’ād M. al-Māwī (Cairo, 1977), p. 191. Ibn Sahrāb was summoned by Sultan Mehmed IV, apparently to check the Governor’s accounts. The author emphasises his divinatory and alchemical knowledge.

[18] See Dār al-kutub, Ghaybiyyāt Taymur 124.

[19] For the manuscripts of the Shajara, and its commentaries, see the note at the end of the article.

[20] See the conclusion to the ‘Anqā’ mughrib (Cairo, 1954), pp. 76-7.

[21] Mawāqif, II. 709.

[22] See Muhādarāt al-abrār wa musāmarāt al-akhyār (Beirut, 1968), I. 340 and II. 32. This passage has been studied by R. Hartmann, Eine Arabische Apokalypse aus der Kreuzzugszeit: Ein Beitrag zur Gafr Literatur, in Schriften der Kˆnigsberger Gelehrten Gesellschaft (Berlin, 1924), pp. 89-116.

[23] On him, see EI2, I, 1286; Geschichte der arabischen Literatur (GAL) Supplements II. 231 and S.II. 324; Mu’jam al-mu’allifīn, V 184; Shaqā’iq al-nu’māniyya, p. 31, and T. Fahd, La divination arabe, pp. 228-30.

[24] It should be noted that this expression is already to be found in al-Durr al-Munazzam fī l-sirr al-a’zam by Kamāl al-Dīn Muhammad b. Talha b. M. b. al-Hasan al-Qurashī (582-652/1186-1254), a work which inspired al-Bistāmī (see La divination arabe, p. 228). We also find here, among other predictions, the following sentence, attributed to the Mahdī Ibn Tūmart: "a man of Salīm, of the family of ‘Uthmān, will reign over the Arabic peninsula at the end of time". He is also insistent on the central position of Egypt (fol.134b). On Ibn Talha, see GAL, I. 464, S.I. 838. He lived in northern Syria.

[25] Dhayl kashf al-zunūn, II. 72-3.

[26] "Un hadith sur la prise de Rome dans la tradition eschatologique de l’islam", Arabica, V (1958), pp. 1-14, and "Changements politiques et littérature eschatologique dans le monde musulman", Studia Islamica, II (1954), pp. 23-43.

[27] While writing this we became aware of the article by Ryad Atlagh, "Paradoxes of a Mausoleum" (first appeared in number 91-2 of the review Autrement "Lieux d’islam", ed. Mohammed Ali Amir-Moezzi (Paris, 1966), pp. 132-53; English version in JMIAS XXII, 1997). Regarding the construction of the tomb of Ibn ‘Arabī by Selim, the author poses the same questions on the Shajara. He mentions a Persian, Rūh Allāh al-Qazwīnī (d. in Aleppo in 1541), mentioned by Ibn al-Hanbalī (d. 1564) in his book on the learned men of Aleppo), who had composed a work of jafr, showing after the event, from the numerical value of letters in the Qur’an, that the arrival of Selim had been predicted. He composed also in the same genre a work on Suleyman the Magnificent, inspired by a vision of Ibn ‘Arabī who indicated to him the prediction of this sultan’s reign in a passage of the ‘Anqā’ mughrib. Atlagh also notes that Ibn Zunbul, in his book on the conquest of Egypt, states that Selim built the mausoleum for Ibn ‘Arabī because he had foretold it in his ‘Anqā’ mughrib. So many trails, all converging, but increasing the complexity of the puzzle.

[28] jafr means a large kid or lamb, whose skin is then used as parchment.

[29] GAL I. 447/580 and S.I. 779, n. 126.

[30] Histoire et classification de l’oeuvre d’Ibn ‘Arabī (Damascus, 1964), pp. 456-67, no. 665.

[31] La divination arabe (Paris, 1987), p. 226.

[32] Fihris al-kutubkhāna al-khidiwiyya, VII. 552.

[33] See R. Mach, Catalogue of Arabic Manuscripts (Yahuda Section) in the Garrett Collection, Princeton University Library.

[34] See Ahlwardt, Verzeichnis der arabischen Handschriften der Königlichen Bibliothek zu Berlin (Berlin, 1887-99), III. 553.

[35] De Slane, Catalogue des manuscripts arabes de la Bibliothèque Nationale (Paris, 1883-95), pp. 482-3.

[36] Ahlwardt, p. 553.

[37] De Slane, p. 484.

[38] T. Fahd, La divination arabe, p. 226.

[39] On him see note 24 above.

[40] BN 2666, 2668 and 2669; see de Slane, Catalogue, p. 481.

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