Articles and Translations

A Forerunner of Ibn al-‘Arabî: Hakîm Tirmidhî on Sainthood

Bernd Radtke

Bernd Rudolf Radtke is a German orientalist and Islamic scholar. After studying at the University of Hamburg (1964–1966), he moved to the University of Basel (1966–1974), where he did his doctorate on the Islamic theosophist Al-Hakim at-Tirmidhi from the 9th century. Later he was a professor at the University of Bergen and taught at the University Utrecht. One of his main areas of work is Islamic mysticism.

His publications include The Concept of Sainthood in Early Islamic Mysticism: Two Works by Al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi (1996) and Islamic Mysticism Contested: Thirteen Centuries of Controversies and Polemics (1999). New Critical Essays: On the Present State and Future Tasks of the Study of Sufism (2005) includes a translation of Ibn 'Arabî's Risalat al-Anwâr.

An article by Bernd Radkte entitled "The Ascent to God and the Return from Him in Islamic Mysticism", which is an analysis of the Risalat al-Anwâr, can be downloaded here: [/]


Articles by Bernd Radtke

A Forerunner of Ibn Arabi: Hakim Tirmidhi on Sainthood

“The ways to God are as numerous as the stars in the heavens” is a saying encountered frequently in the writings of classical Islamic mysticism, i.e. the tasawwuf of the 9th and 10th centuries, several centuries before Ibn al-‘Arabî. This sentence may well be applied to the personality and the work of Ibn al-‘Arabî. There is more than one path which leads to Ibn al-‘Arabî and the understanding of his work. I say Ibn al-‘Arabî and not Ibn ‘Arabî for the simple reason that that is what he called himself.

A year ago Frithiof Rundgren spoke of the possibility of several ways. Of these ways one is the so-called synchronic approach and the other the diachronic. The first stipulates that the work of Ibn al-‘Arabî is to be understood by studying it, without any further consideration of historical sources, dependencies or parallel developments. It is to be seen as a complete system which contains within it the key to its understanding. By contrast, the diachronic method seeks the key for the understanding in the awareness of historical and contemporary circumstances, as well as in the terminology em­ployed by the thinker. It should be obvious that neither method excludes the other; rather they complement one another and neither alone can satisfactorily evaluate the existential significance and the experience contained in the system. The diachronic approach can lead to an, admittedly relative, understanding of Ibn al-‘Arabî’s system.

Here my concern is not so much with Ibn al-‘Arabî himself, but rather with people who lived before him and especially with the one man whom I consider to be the predecessor as such of Ibn al-‘Arabî, and that is al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi, the sage of Tirmidh.

To give a short biographical sketch (see further my Al-Hakim at-Tirmidhi. Freiburg 1980, p. 1-58): Hakîm Tirmidhî was born around 820 in Tirmidh. This town is situated on the border between what is today the USSR and Afghanistan, next to the city of Balkh. He was descended from a family of theologians. At the age of about thirty he made the pilgrimage to Mecca. Upon his return, he devoted himself to mysticism and became an extremely prolific writer in this field. Thus in this he also resembles Ibn al-‘Arabî. Hakîm Tirmidhî lived to a great age and died somewhere between 905 and 910. His tomb in Tirmidh has been preserved and has recently been restored.

The major part of his writings have been preserved and have had a considerable influence upon the development of Sufism. This applies particularly to his best known, although not his most extensive work, called Sirât al-awliyâ’, which may be translated ‘The Lives (or The Road) of the Friends of God (or the Saints)’. Up to now it has been known under the title, Khatm al-awliya”, which means ‘The Seal of the Friends of God (or the Saints)’. It was first edited by Othman Yahya, who is now preparing a new edition of the Futûhât al-makkiyya of Ibn al-‘Arabî. Since a number of new manuscripts have been discovered, I have undertaken a new edition which will hopefully appear this year.

On this book, or rather on a part of it, Ibn al-‘Arabî wrote two commentaries. One is a short version in a separate treatise; a second, more extensive one, forms part of the second volume of the Futuhdt al-makkiyya. Without attempting a close analysis of these commentaries, I would merely like to point out that Tirmidhi’s text was a source of inspiration for Ibn al-‘Arabî, who took it as a basis for developing his own ideas. But my subject here is not the influence of Tirmidhi upon Ibn al-‘Arabî, but Tirmidhi himself.

I would like to begin with an explanation of the Arabic terms for ‘friend of God’ or ‘saint’ and ‘friendship of God’ or ‘sainthood’. The Arabic words for saint and sainthood are walî (pl. awliyâ’) and wilâya respectively. They are both derived from the root waliya, the meaning of which is ‘to be close to’. To be close to someone means to be his friend, and by being the friend of a powerful person one can acquire a certain power oneself; power may thus be delegated. In Arabic wilâya / walâya is both the act of delegation and that which is delegated. Thus we can say that the word walî or walî Allah descibes a person who has an especially close and privileged relationship with God, and this relationship is called wilâya. How does one achieve this privileged relationship with God, and in what way does it manifest itself, once it has been acquired?

Hakîm Tirmidhî explains this by way of some definitions at the beginning of Sirât al-awliyâ’. He makes a major distinction between two kinds of friends of God. One kind he calls walî Allâh, and the other walî haqq Allâh. While the term walî Allâh presents no particular difficulty – it means simply friend of God – the translation of walî haqq Allâh is more complicated. The complication arises from the exact definition of the term haqq. Haqq means ‘right’, ‘true’, ‘Truth’. Frequently the term is used of God, who is the Absolute Truth. By the same token, haqq means ‘right’ in two senses. First, it is the right or the due that someone possesses and which he may claim; so God’s claim upon man. Secondly, it is the due that one owes, such as the due that man owes God; this may be called an obligation. Therefore walî haqq Allâh is someone who is close to God on account of the haqq, the oligation, or rather, he is the friend of God because he is willing to fulfil the haqq toward God, namely to live up to his obligation towards God. Yet a better definition is perhaps, a friend of God is he who by fulfilling his obligation achieves a closer relationship with God.

The other, walî Allâh, by definition is not subject to the haqq, the obligation or due, in his relationship to God, which seems more immediate and is not weakened by the interposition of the haqq. In order to understand the meaning of the two terms, walî Allâh and walî haqq Allâh, in their entire scope, one must understand that for Hakîm Tirmidhî haqq is a metaphysical, cosmic principle. As one of the fundamental attributes of God, haqq guides all worldly manifes­tations according to the principles of divine law and divine truth. If possible, man must fulfil the conditions of these principles, he must fulfil the claims of the divine law. A walî haqq Allâh is thus close to God in the measure that he lives in harmony with Law.

In what measure is it possible for man to fulfil these claims upon him, and what obstacles must he surmount? What is the situation of a man in this world who has achieved the rank of a friend of God? In order to answer the latter question, it is necessary to study Hakîm Tirmidhî’s conception of the world and of man; his conception of the world is primarily his theology and his cosmology. As in Islamic theology and mysticism in general, Hakîm Tirmidhî differentiates between the substance and the attributes of God. The substance of God cannot be identified, much less described; it is beyond the ‘names’ and beyond all concepts. It is something which lies beyond all recognition and all perception. In this, it may be noted, Tirmidhi follows, albeit with reservations, the Neoplatonic traditions of late antiquity, which describe the substance of God as being beyond recognition. However, for the Neoplatonists, God is beyond things, i.e. he is a non-thing, not merely a non-describable, non-recognisable thing. In contrast, for Tirmidhi God is not a non-thing; rather He is merely non-describable, non-recognisable. The attributes of God – or rather the names of God as they are called in Islamic theology -originate through a process which is not further defined out of the substance of God. Thus they form the outward aspect of God (in Arabic, zâhir) being conceived of as spheres of light grouped in an hierarchical order around the substance of God. The created world is placed below these spheres of light, reaching from the throne of God at the upper rim through paradise down to the earth. The earth is flat and is borne upon the back of an enormous fish. The manifestations of nature and of the cosmos are directed by the angels in accordance with the commands of God.

The angels have no will of their own or discretion; they can do nothing except execute the will of God. Thus man is in rank above them, for although he does not possess free will in the absolute sense, he has the possibility of discretion, i.e. he can decide between good and evil. Therefore he has an ability which the angels lack. This ability is given to man by way of his nature, which may be described as follows. Hakîm Tirmidhî distinguishes three centres in man; the first is the head, the second the heart or the breast, the third the stomach and below. These three centres possess different spiritual forces. The head is the seat of the intellect (in Arabic, ‘aql); this is the implement which enables man to understand higher things such as the revelation of the divine law, and even God himself insofar as that is possible in accordance with the reservations described before concerning the possibility of gnosis. The antipode of the intellect is the lower instinct (hawâ), which is seated in the stomach and below. It is a particle of hell which was implanted in man by the devil, while the intellect is a particle of the spheres of light belonging to the names of God. The self or the soul (nafs), is an individualisation of the lower instinct, the hawâ Tirmidhi conceives of the nafs as being a thinning out of the hawâ as it rises up to form the soul, since the hawâ, the particle of hell, is a form of fire. The soul is situated in the stomach, but is active throughout the body. Coupled with the soul is the reason (dhihn, not ‘aql), which in contrast to the intellect occu­pies itself with perceptions derived from the senses, which it sorts out for the benefit of the self. From its own centre in the stomach the self acts upon the centre of man which is the heart (qalb), for here in the heart the nucleus of the higher substance of man is situated. This again is a form of light, which Hakîm Tirmidhî calls ma’rifa. It derives from the light spheres belonging to the names of God. It is through this light within him that man knows ‘by nature’ that God exists. But he does not know this automatically. On the one hand, his awareness of God is subconscious and needs to be activated through his own efforts. On the other hand, his efforts alone are not the decisive factor in his gaining knowledge of God. Thus this potential knowledge is fore-ordained by an act of pre-eternal divine grace which apportions to each man his individual measure of potential ma’rifa, of knowledge of God. Thus the potential knowledge varies from man to man.

At first the ma’rifa is a light which stands unknown and unconscious in the heart. How does Tirmidhi visualise the revealing of this inner light? How does it rise to consciousness? The process is as follows: the light of the heart which has its home in the heart goes into the sadr or the breast by which it is surrounded. It is thereby, so to speak, entering into the world. Inasmuch as the heart belongs to God alone, nothing can affect the light therein, neither the devil, nor the angels, nor the lower instinct of man. The moment, however, the divine light enters the breast from the heart, it becomes subject to the influences of the world, i.e. the lower instincts. This must be understood thus; in the breast the divine light changes from the latent to the manifest state. In the breast it becomes conscious. This happens as reason which is located in the head enters the breast and recognises the divine light, while simultaneously it is perceived by the inner eye (fu’âd), which Tirmidhi places on the edge of the heart. If this process of recognition and becoming conscious were permitted to proceed without interference, man would possess a knowledge of God whose intensity was proportionate to the amount of the pre-eternally ordained divine light apportioned to him.

However, the nature of man is twofold, with the result that the soul, the lower self, which is dominated by the lower instinct, interferes with the manifestation of the divine light. For Hakîm Tirmidhî the soul is a material substance, it is of the earth, like a hot wind, flowing through the veins and breathing smoke and fire. In the form of smoke and fire, the soul invades the breast and attempts to smother the manifestation of the divine light and prevents the intellect and the inner eye from the process of recognition.

If, nevertheless, man persists in ‘approaching God’ and in recognising the divine light in its complete luminousness, he must suppress his self, which is the world’s agent. This he achieves by embracing the mystical path. This is a path which man travels upon within himself away from his soul, his self, towards God. It is an undertaking which demands the utmost effort of his will. This supreme effort Hakîm Tirmidhî calls sidq, which may be translated by ‘sincerity’. On the first stages of the path, the sidq stresses the minute completion of the religious obligations. The mystic then proceeds with the education and observation of his soul, i.e. he endeavours to transform his bad qualities into good ones. Although these earnest and strenuous efforts may lead to considerable success, the final dilemma remains: he can re-educate his soul, his self, but he cannot rid himself of it completely.

On the contrary, as a consequence of his sincere endeavour, or – to refer back to what was mentioned before – through his efforts to comply with the demands of the haqq, the forces of his self become stronger. His training of his self thus becomes counter-productive. It appears that man, on his journey, on his path to God, can reach the limits of the cosmos and the throne of God, but to God himself there is no entrance. Out of this impasse – how to surmount the self through the self? – the mystic can be rescued only by the grace of God. The grace of God alone can suspend the effects of the self in order to bring the mystic to God. To reach God in the macrocosmic sense means that the mystic passes through the spheres of light recognizing the Divine names and attributes, finally to be annihilated in the nameless substance of God. Once annihilated in God, the mystic lives in God, acts in God, and creation dominated by the haqq no longer stands between him and God.

At this stage I would like to go back to the two terms mentioned at the beginning of this paper: walî haqq Allâh and walî Allâh. The path described is the path of the walî haqq Allâh. The walî Allâh is exempt from all the tribulations of the path. He does not have to grapple with the self because his self is, by Divine Grace, from birth unsoiled by worldly traces. God draws the walî Allâh to Himself in one blow. Thus the walî haqq Allâh stands in rank below the walî Allâh. In spite of his high rank, however, the walî Allâh stands below the Prophet.

At this point we must consider the relationship between prophethood and sainthood as seen by Hakîm Tirmidhî. For Tirmidhi the Prophet Mohammed has the highest rank in creation and at the same time he is the final messenger of the divine law. His true successors are neither the Caliphs nor the members of his family, but forty chosen men, the awliyâ’ Allâh, through whom God communicates with men after the death of the Prophet. These forty saints are the guarantors of the proper application of the Divine law; they thus guarantee the existence of the world as such. God has conferred upon them inspiration, clairvoyance, the performance of wonders and freedom from sin.

So much about Hakîm Tirmidhî, about the friends of God and friendship with God. In conclusion, a brief summary. For Hakîm Tirmidhî the friendship of God has two components: on the one hand, the act of being chosen by the grace of God, on the other, human effort. The friend of God who has been chosen through the love of God alone is higher in rank. Only he can overcome his self, i.e. the world, and become selfless in God. He alone can act in the full sense in God. He can go out into the world and lead men as a successor of the Prophet.

It would be interesting to pursue this subject and compare the friendship of God as Hakîm Tirmidhî conceives it with that in Ibn al-‘Arabî in detail. However it is already easy to see that Ibn al-‘Arabî has taken over a considerable number of ideas from Hakîm Tirmidhî, even part of his terminology. Just as Hakîm Tirmidhî does, so Ibn al-‘Arabî places the friendship of God within a cosmological context, and he too, to point to a very decisive similarity, acknowledges divine inspiration even after the death of the Prophet Mohammed. This is one source of the controversy which rages around Ibn al-‘Arabî to the present day. Ibn al-‘Arabî too speaks of ‘the seal of sainthood’, a term which Hakîm Tirmidhî first introduced into Islamic mysticism. With this brief outline I hope I have been able to make a small contribution to a better understanding of the Shaykh al-Akbar.


This article was first published in the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society, Vol. VIII, 1989.