Articles and Translations

“See Him in a tree, and see Him in a stone”

Ibn ‘Arabī’s ultra-monorhyme in comparative perspective

Denis E. McAuley

Denis McCauley gained his DPhil in Oriental Studies from Oxford University in 2008. His doctoral thesis was published by Oxford University Press as Ibn `Arabī's Mystical Poetics (2012).


Articles by Denis E. McAuley

Some Notes on the Manuscript Veliyuddin 51 | with Jane Clark

“See Him in a tree, and see Him in a stone” – Ibn ‘Arabi’s ultra-monorhyme in comparative perspective


Both in traditional commentaries and in modern scholarship, Ibn ‘Arabī has been better remembered as a prose writer than as a poet. Yet his collected poems (Dīwān) as published by Būlāq contains over 700 pieces, and even these represent only a small part of his vast output.[1] The Dīwān has only recently begun to receive attention.[2] Unlike much Sufi poetry, and unlike Ibn ‘Arabī’s better-known Interpreter of Desires, the Dīwān is mostly not lyrical. Instead, it prefers to tackle metaphysical topics, which many critics have felt were not the stuff of poetry. However, if one is prepared to take on board Ibn ‘Arabī’s highly individual style, the Dīwān is well worth exploring not only as a guide to its author’s thought but as an end in itself. Elsewhere, I have discussed a selection of the poems by focusing on unusual formal qualities, and showing how they relate to the poet’s ideas and to other poems both within and beyond the Sufi tradition.[3] This article looks at one such eccentricity: what I have called ultra-monorhyme.

Most classical Arabic poems follow what is known as monorhyme: the same rhyme occurs at the end of each line throughout the poem. It was traditionally considered bad style to use the same rhyme-word twice in close proximity, a flaw that is known as ītā’.[4] However, Ibn ‘Arabī’s Dīwān contains a few poems in which the same rhyme-word is used not only twice in a row, but throughout the entire poem.[5] These poems belong in a little-known tradition of literary freaks, which can, for want of a better word, be called ultra-monorhymes. They can be found from the early ninth century to the early twentieth, and I am not aware of any attempt to discuss them as a category. By composing ultra-monorhymes, Ibn ‘Arabī broke the conventional rules of poetry, and did so deliberately. In order to find out why, this article examines one such poem and compares it with other examples in Arabic literature and in medieval Europe.

First and foremost, we will take a detailed look at Ibn ‘Arabī’s poem. The piece touches on some familiar metaphysical ideas, but does so in a more succinct and elliptical way than in Ibn ‘Arabī’s prose writings. The mode of exposition is intricately connected with the poem’s literary technique. I have therefore tried to avoid referring too extensively to Ibn ‘Arabī’s other works; it is important to follow Ibn ‘Arabī’s winding arguments instead of trying to superimpose a meaning taken from elsewhere. The poetry is more than a series of hyperlinks to the Fusūs or Futūhāt. When faced with a problem, it is often tempting to assume that if one throws enough passages from the Futūhāt at it, it will go away. Most often, the problem needs to be solved on its own terms.

The second aim of the article is to situate the ultra-monorhyme within a tradition of such oddities. Given its highly individual character, it is often easy to forget that Ibn ‘Arabī’s Dīwān often responds to the work of other poets.[6] What matters is not only how the poem functions on its own, but also how it builds on and modifies a tradition.

Thirdly, the article will make a comparison with a medieval European genre, the sestina, which is also characterised by economy of rhyme. We will look at two of the chief exponents of the sestina, the Provençal poet Arnaut Daniel and Dante. Both the Provençal tradition and Dante are believed by many scholars to have been inspired by Islamic sources.[7] While these are fascinating lines of enquiry, it is not essential for present purposes to assume any contact between the Arabic ultra-monorhymes and Arnaut or Dante. The comparison shows that poets on opposite sides of the Mediterranean wrote with similar formal constraints and in similar social and intellectual environments. That is in itself enough to challenge the myth that medieval Europe and the Islamic World are best understood in isolation from one another.


“So see Him in a tree and see Him in a stone…” [8]

The Ibn ‘Arabī poem that we will look at deals with the universe’s ultimate ontological dependence on God. The first part of the poem introduces the theme of the piece, the idea that all being belongs to God. From the beginning, the tone is both paradoxical and utterly self-assured:

1. Allāhu anzala nūran yustadā’u bihi
‘alā fu’ādi nabiyyin sarrahu llāhu
2. Atā bihi rūhuhu min fawqi arqi’atin
sab’in ilā qalbihi wal-sāmi’u llāhu
3. Minhu ilayhi bihi kāna l-nuzūlu lahu
fa-laysa fī l-kawni illā l-wāhidu llāhu
4. Wal-jismu wal-‘aradu l-mashhūdu fīhi wa-mā
fī l-ghaybi mā lam tarāhu dhālika llāhu
5. Wa-lā tanāquda fī mā qultuhu fa-anā
‘aynu l-kathīri wa-‘aynī l-wāhidu llāhu

1. God sent down a light from which light is sought,
upon the heart of a Prophet whom God made contented.
2. His spirit brought it from above seven heavens
to his heart, and the one who hears is God.
3. From Him, to Him and through Him was the descent to him;
for there is nothing in the created world but the one God.
4. The substance[9] and the accidents that are witnessed are both in Him,
and whatever is in the unseen, what you have never seen,[10] that is God.
5. There is no contradiction in what I have said,
for I am the essence of the many, and my essence is the one God.

Ibn ‘Arabī begins by describing the way in which God makes known the ideas that are imparted in the poem. This knowledge descends on the heart of the Prophet (v.1). The fact that the knowledge descends on the Prophet’s heart is consistent with both Qur’anic usage and Ibn ‘Arabī’s own metaphysics.[11] The Qur’an often refers to the heart as the receptacle into which God sends down the Holy Spirit or of the Angel Gabriel, most often for the Prophet or for other specially chosen people. The next few lines of the present poem also echo the Qur’anic statement that “Surely there is a Reminder in that for whoever has a heart, or listens attentively, while he is witnessing.” (Q. 50:37).

The “seven heavens” are consistent with Ibn ‘Arabī’s cosmology, according to which there are seven celestial spheres above which are the footstool (kursī) and the throne (‘arsh).[12] The twist is that the faculties which according to the Qur’an are used to receive the divine message – the heart, and hearing and witnessing – are here stated to be God’s: “the one who hears is God” (v.2), and the revelation is from, through and for God (v.3). Ibn ‘Arabī may have in mind a well-known hadith, which was very often quoted by Sufis, in which God says:

My servant continues to draw close to me through supererogatory acts until I love him. And when I love him, I am his hearing through which he hears, his sight through which he sees, his hand through which he grasps and the leg with which he walks.[13]

In this poem, Ibn ‘Arabī takes the idea one step further: not only does God become the attributes of the perfect Sufi, but He fulfils this role for the whole of creation whether the created beings know it or not: “there is nothing in the created world but the one God” (v.4). It would be easy to see this as an example of straightforward monism. In point of fact, although Ibn ‘Arabī never uses the term wahdat al-wujūd himself, this poem is one of the places where he comes closest, with the phrase al-wujūd al-wāhid in v.15 below. However, what drives Ibn ‘Arabī’s work is less an all-pervasive monism than a sort of creative tension between this idea and a more conventional dualism between God and His creation.[14] Verse 5 is characteristic of Ibn ‘Arabī’s tactic of surprising or confusing the reader, combining as it does a paradoxical statement with the assertion that “there is no contradiction in what I have just said.”

The tension between these two poles – God and His creation – comes out in the next part of the poem:

6. Min a’jabi l-amri anna l-hukma min ‘adamin
fī ‘ayni kawnin fa-ayna l-‘abdu wallāhu
7. Fal-‘aynu tashhadu khalqan jā’a min ‘adamin
wal-amra haqqan wa-‘aynu l-mubsiri llāhu
8. Lahu l-yamīnu lahu l-‘aynāni fī khabarin
atā bihi minhu wal-ātī huwa llāhu
9. Fal-hukmu lī wa-lahu ‘aynu l-wujūdi wa-mā
lil-‘ayni minnī wujūdun bal huwa llāhu
10. Fa-nzurhu fī shajarin wa-nzurhu fī hajarin
wa-nzurhu fī kulli shay’in dhālika llāhu
11. Kullu l-asāmī lahu in kunta ta’qiluhu
huwa l-musammā bihā fa-kulluhā llāhu


6. One of the most amazing things is that (God’s) action
(hukm) comes from non-existence,
and affects the essence of a created being – so where are
the servant and God?
7. For the eye sees a creation (khalq) that comes from non-existence,
and sees the command as the Real (al-Haqq) – and the
eye of the one who looks is God.
8. He has a right hand, and He has two eyes according to a report
which he brought from Himself, and the one who brought
it was God.
9. God’s ruling is for me, and the essence of being is His.
My own essence has no being, but rather that being is God.
10. So see Him in a tree and see Him in a stone,
and see Him in everything, that is God.
11. All of the names are His, if you understand Him;
He is the one named by them, so all of them are God.

God’s creative command appears to come from nothing, but it impacts the essence of something that is in some sense already there (‘ayn kawn); where does this leave the relation between the servant and God (v.6)? Ibn ‘Arabī appears to be referring elliptically to a notion that is developed elsewhere in his writings, that of “permanent essences” (a’yān thābita).[15] The permanent essences are the non-existent (ma’dūm) prototypes of all that exists in the world. They already exist in the mind of God before He gives them existence. To the beholder, the creative act brings something out of nothing, while the command is God’s; yet the beholder’s eye is itself God (v.7). The terms khalq and haqq are usually contrasted, the latter in this context meaning God.

All of this is consistent with Ibn ‘Arabī’s metaphysics as expressed elsewhere. But it is expressed in a slippery form, with many of the terminological ambiguities that can be found in the rest of the Dīwān. The word ‘ayn, for instance, can refer to the eye or to an essence. So when Ibn ‘Arabī writes that the eye sees God’s action coming from nothing, he could just as well mean that the essence – the permanent essence of God’s creation – does the seeing. In the same way, “the eye of the beholder” could also mean that the beholder’s essence is God.[16] The way in which the poem slides between these definitions suggests the similarly paradoxical nature of reality as Ibn ‘Arabī sees it. So far, the poet presents us with a created world that extends from God and appears to be reducible to God, yet can also be seen as something else.

Verse 8 brings in a reference to God’s right hand and eyes, the nature of which had already given rise to theological debates well before Ibn ‘Arabī’s time.[17] Here, the poet stresses that these attributes are attested in a report (khabar). The term is probably used generically to indicate something that is stated in the Qur’an or hadith. The implication is that these scriptural attributes must be taken seriously. But how do they relate to the ideas Ibn ‘Arabī has developed up to this point? It seems to me that Ibn ‘Arabī suggests a more daring understanding of God’s eyes and hands than is usual. Earlier in the poem, he implied that the recipient of God’s message is himself God, calling to mind the idea that God becomes the sight and hearing of His servant. Could Ibn ‘Arabī be hinting that when the Qur’an speaks of God’s eyes and hands, it refers to His perfect servants? If so, then this interpretation is not necessarily intended by Ibn ‘Arabī to be the only possible understanding of the Qur’an. And again, it must be stressed that such a view is at most suggested: the poem’s manner of expression is anything but clear and explicit.

In any case, the poet continues with a sharp example of God’s immanence: wherever you look, in a tree or a stone, there is God (v.10), and all names point back to Him (v.11). This last verse could also be taken to mean that all of the beautiful names belong to God. Such a reading would be congruent with the topic: God’s names mediate His oneness to the world as we know it.

The next lines look almost like a dialectical scholastic argument. Ibn ‘Arabī considers a potential objection:

12. Fa-law yaqūlu jahūlun qad jahiltu wa-mā
billāhi jahlun fa-mā kawnī huwa llāhu
13. Fa-qul lahu dhāka hukmu llāhi fīhi wa-man
yadrī lladhī qultuhu bi-annahu llāhu

12. So if an ignorant person were to say, “I am ignorant,
but there is no ignorance in God; so my being is not God,”
13. Then answer him that that is how the action of the essence affects him.
And who knows what I have said, that he is God?

The objection is hardly unexpected: if everything we see is a reflection of God’s attributes, then what about ignorance? Ibn ‘Arabī’s answer is given in the same tone, which is cryptic yet proclamatory. It can be taken in one of (at least) two contradictory ways. The “essence” in the first hemistich of v.13 could refer to the permanent essence. In that case, it would mean that the ignorance is not a function of God’s action, but of the thing’s intrinsic nature in the mind of God. One can see how the line of reasoning might go: the permanent essence reflects God’s names, but the way in which it does this is limited by its own nature.[18] But the “essence” could equally stand for God’s essence. In that case, God Himself has ordained that His creation should be unaware of its own significance. Either explanation makes sense. Perhaps this very ambiguity reflects the ambivalent nature of the permanent essences. In the sense that they are emanations of the divine names, the essences are passive; in the sense that they contain within themselves the potentiality of what they become in the actual world, they are active.[19] Once again, Ibn ‘Arabī’s words sound self-confident, but they also manage to imply contrasting ideas. Despite the constant third-person mode, this is not a straightforward exposition of doctrine.

The last four verses round up the argument:

14. Mā thamma wallāhi illā hayratun zaharat
wa-bī haliftu wa-inna l-muqsima llāhu
15. Law kāna thamma wujūdun mā huwa llāhu
lam yanfarid bil-wujūdi l-wāhidi llāhu
16. Bali l-hudūthu lanā wa-mā yutābi’uhu
wa-hādhihi nisabun wal-thābitu llāhu
17. Yanūbu ‘annā wa-innā minhu fī ‘adamin
wa-nahnu nashhaduhu wal-shāhidu llāhu

14. By God, there is nothing but a bewilderment that appeared –
I swear by myself, and the one who swears is God –
15. If there was any being that is not God,
then God would not be unique in having the one being.
16. Instead, the creation (hudūth) is ours, as is all that follows from it.
All of these are relations (nisab), and the permanent (thābit) one is God.
17. He acts for us[20] and we are from Him in non-existence.
We witness Him, and the one who witnesses is God.

If there was something whose existence is completely separate from God, that thing would detract from His uniqueness (v.15). But Ibn ‘Arabī reasserts a position that seems to both affirm and negate the rest of creation. What is truly ours is the being that God has given us (hudūth); but all of this is contingent and exists only in relation to something else, and God alone is permanent (v.16).[21] In this sense, we come from Him; and when we witness Him, He thereby witnesses Himself. In this conclusion, Ibn ‘Arabī brings us back to a common theme in his writings: the idea that through the created world, God beholds Himself.

The theme running through the poem is that everything comes back to God. Ultra-monorhyme is a useful device to drive this point home: every verse similarly comes back to God. At each turn, Ibn ‘Arabī seems to embark on a new line of thought, only for the second hemistich to pull him back to God.

The poem appears at first sight to be a scholastic argument, yet it is more than pieces of prose that happens to have a metre and a rhyme. The argument follows a sort of progression; but it also jumps from one theme to another, alluding to different topics and picking and dropping them at will. It toys with chains of reasoning, not to resolve paradoxes but to revel in them. It is concerned with imparting information, but it is not a teaching text. The metre requires arguments to be formulated tersely, and the link between one verse and the next can be left implicit. This means that readers must use their own imagination to make sense of the poem. The use of ultra-monorhyme is what allows the argument to follow its winding paths while always returning to God.


Ultra-monorhyme in Arabic Literature

Ibn ‘Arabī was not the first person to attempt an ultra-monorhyme poem. However, ultra-monorhyme exists very much on the fringes of the tradition, in anonymous poems and isolated fragments of a few lines, with some more ambitious examples, often written by Sufis and often rhyming in one form or other of the word Allāh. The earliest are simple poems about asceticism, which appear from around the eighth century but can also be found much later. Here, the function of ultra-monorhyme is that each line makes more or less the same point in a different way; the rhyme word brings the reader back to the main focus. These poems are often anonymous, and are often quoted as curiosities rather than as examples of outstanding literature.

One example is the following piece. It is attributed to the ninth-century poet Abū l-‘Atāhiya, but does not appear in the standard editions of his Dīwān:

1. You who are troubled, the troubles will come to an end.
Be glad of that, for God provides!
2. Despair often hampers the person it affects,
so do not despair, as though God had brought relief.
3. God is your protector when you seek refuge with Him.
Where is there someone better guarded than the one whose protector is God?
4. There are trials, but God is our protector,
and God is your protector: for everything, you have God.
5. Go easy on yourself, for God is the maker.
All goodness is gathered in what God makes.
6. O soul, be patient with what God has determined.
Submit and you will find safety, and the ruler is God.
7. How many things that looked difficult has God made easy!
And how many evil things has God given protection from!
8. When you cry, trust God and be pleased with Him –
the one who removes hardship is God.
9. Praise be to God in thankfulness, for He has no partners;
how quickly good things come if God wants!

Al-Tanūkhī (d.994) cites this piece in his literary collection al-Faraj ba’d al-shidda,[22] adding that: “There is a single rhyme throughout, and Abū l-‘Atāhiya should be above this. So either the poem is by someone else who does not know that this is a flaw, or there is an aspect to it that I am unaware of.”

Yet despite his perplexity, al-Tanūkhī clearly felt these lines worth including in his collection, if only for their eccentricity. He adds three lines which he attributes to one Muhammad ibn Hāzim al-Bāhilī, which are in the same metre and rhyme and read as if they could just as easily have come from the poem above:

1. Blessed is the one who puts himself in the care of God,
his creator.
Whoever seeks refuge with God, God will protect him.
2. Many a person who is wary of something and is humble before Him
reaches safety, when his choice is what God determined.
3. Whoever calls out to God in hardship, God delivers him;
and God can bring protection from any dire calamity.[23]

It is significant that the two poems seem to run on one from another. While this form of ultra-monorhyme was not a “noble” genre, it was something that other authors felt they could add to. The situation might be similar to that of rubā’iyyāt: each copyist could feel free to add a few of his own, so that the end-product is a collection of pieces expressing a roughly similar mood but not attributable to any one author.

Both of these pieces have the same simple diction as many of Abū l-‘Atāhiya’s poems, although the upbeat “Don’t worry, be happy” message clashes with the sombre tone that one often finds in that author. Both poems have an identifiable message, namely that God gives protection from hardship, and each verse repeats that same message in a different way. Ultra-monorhyme helps to bring each line back to the central point.

Clearly, there is some overlap here with early Sufism. The following snippet is quoted in the Luma’ of al-Sarrāj[24] and attributed to the early Sufi Dhū l-Nūn al-Misrī (d.860)

1. Whoever seeks refuge with God is saved through God,
and rejoices at the bitter things that God decrees.
2. If my soul were not in the hand of God,
how would I be led to God’s ruling?
3. Oh for these sighs for God[25]
I have no power over them except through God.

In this case, al-Sarrāj gives us some clues as to the poem’s function. Most of the poems he collects are fragments attributed to the early Sufis, some of which may be part of longer poems. They are described as being recited at gatherings and are intended to move the listeners. By and large, they are rhetorically simple. Notably absent, especially in comparison with Ibn ‘Arabī’s ultra-monorhymes, is the metaphysical dimension. God’s hukm in this context means quite simply what God wants, and not an all-encompassing ontological ruling. Once again, the aim of the poem is to move the listeners and to focus their attention on God, and ultra-monorhyme is used to bring each line back to the subject.

The same characteristics hold good for a 24-verse ultra-monorhyme poem that appears to go back to the mid-eleventh century at least. It is given in the Tārīkh Jurjān of al-Sahmī al-Jurjānī (d.427/1035–6), with a chain of transmission going back to one Abū l-Hasan Muhriz ibn Ja’far, who is stated to have recited the poem in 384/945–6.[26] Each verse ends in utlub tajidnī, “Seek and you will find me”.

1. I am the one who exists,[27] so seek me and you will find me –
if you seek another than me, you will not find me –
2. That you may find me wherever you seek, close by,[28]
near to you, seek me and you will find me;
3. That you may find me in the dark night, my servant,
near to you, seek and you will find me;
4. That you may find me nearby in your prostration,
near to you, seek and you will find me.
5. That you may find me having mercy, Generous, Compassionate,
for I am the Merciful, so seek and you will find me. …
24. Who is like me? You have never seen one like me.
And you never will see him, so seek me and you will find me.

Like the poem attributed to Abū l-‘Atāhiya, this piece is presented as a curiosity, something on the fringes. It is given an exotic, even fantastic introduction, on the authority of the first link in the chain, Muhriz: “I found (the poem) in the land of India a stone carved in Hebrew, in the land of Sarandīb [Sri Lanka].”[29]

The poem also shares with those attributed to Abū l-‘Atāhiya and Dhū l-Nūn the same central message, that God gives help to those who ask for it. In addition, it lists several of God’s names: glorious (mājid), the refuge (samad), generous (karīm) in v.3; all-powerful (jabbār) in v.4, and so on. The register of the poem is exhortative, and Ibn ‘Arabī’s metaphysical speculation is lacking. Once again, ultra-monorhyme is the means to bring each verse back to the point.

Later, one finds Sufi ultra-monorhyme poems that seem to have been written for dhikr, the ritual repetition of God’s name. One example is the fifteenth-century Sufi poet Muhammad Ibn al-Wafā’ī, who was born in Tunis but was involved in Sufi life in Cairo.[30] Ibn al-Wafā’ī’s Dīwān consists largely of strophic pieces, often containing an element of dialect. The preface to the Dīwān makes it clear that he sees poetry as going hand in hand with music, the aim being to move the listeners to ecstasy:

Through [the poems] nostalgia makes the camel-driver long for the holy abodes, to ascend to the elevated centres. Samā’ is sweet for him, and the drunkenness of listening comes over him. Its intoxication goes to his head … He is between drunkenness and ecstasy, with damsels in tents and domes. The voices come back to him with the tunes of the lutes, and full moons and gazelles revel with him. The brides of eternity are unveiled to him, with every sort of lyric as adornment.[31]

Ibn al-Wafā’ī’s Dīwān also contains a great many poems in which every line ends in Allāh, often with a refrain.[32] This short example is typical:

1. Unify the one God / and remember the servants of God /
there is no god but God / there is no god but God.
2. Fear the majesty of God / to witness the beauty of God (refrain).
3. If you want to please God / follow the Messenger of God (refrain).
4. God’s Prophet has left advice / so be guided to go straight,
by God! (refrain).
5. The Sunni is the companion of God / the innovator, the enemy of God (refrain).
6. Brother, there is no knower, by God, except for the one who fears God (refrain).[33]

Poems like this one are intended to be sung, and not to explore metaphysics. Something similar can be found in the poems of Ahmad ibn ‘Alawī, a renowned early twentieth-century Sufi master from Mustaghānim in Algeria:

1. Disciple, hurry with a present heart
and a remembering tongue, as you say, “O God,”
2. Strive, and you will witness every benefit,
and the secret of the most glorious ones, as you remember God.
3. Love for the friends (mawālī) troubled my mind,
and the people of perfection let me know God.
4. Refresh me, caravan leader, by mentioning my masters,
who attract my heart to the presence of God. …[34]

Another example is a very long poem by the Omani Ibādī poet Abū Muslim al-Bahlānī (d.1920).[35] Al-Bahlānī was an exponent of sulūk, the Ibādī equivalent of Sufism. This poem is part of a series of lengthy poems each of which is termed a dhikr and intended for use on a given day.[36] The poems would not have been part of a collective ceremony, but would have been used for private meditations.[37] Again, there is a strong element of repetition, at the beginning of each verse as well as in the rhyme, and the aim must be to focus the reciter’s mind on God:

1. Glory be to the Owner of Grace, in the name of God,
through God;
how many trials have been solved by grace from God!
2. Glory be to the Owner of Giving – I have never raised
a hand to Him
in poverty without being made wealthy by a gift from God.
3. Glory be to the Owner of Opening – in every tight spot,
I am reached by an opening from God.
4. Glory be to the Owner of Victory – how many injustices
I have tested with,
only for justice to be done to me with victory from God…[38]

These poems show a particular kind of ultra-monorhyme persisting over several centuries. It is likely that something like them was common in Ibn ‘Arabī’s day. This in turn makes it probable that in writing his ultra-monorhymes, Ibn ‘Arabī had other examples in mind. But it is equally striking how different his efforts are from these. The poems quoted above are not aimed at imparting information: they are devotional pieces geared at focusing the mind. Just as his thought adds theorisation to Sufi experience, so Ibn ‘Arabī’s poem seems to take an existing format and apply it directly to metaphysical questions.

In this sense too, Ibn ‘Arabī’s poem is not unprecedented. Other Sufi ultra-monorhymes, usually short ones, explore a paradox. Instead of using each verse to drive home the same point, they develop a short chain of reasoning. Take for instance this piece by al-Hallāj:

1. I saw my Lord with the eye of my heart.
I said, “Who are you?” He said, “You are.”
2. For your where has no where,
and there is no where where you are.
3. When you are imagined, there is no image,
so that the imagination can know where you are.
4. You are the one who conquered every where

with your nowhere – so tell me where you are.[39]

The action of the poem is focused on one point instead of developing into an extended meditation as Ibn ‘Arabī’s poems do. The subject of the poem is God’s transcendence. The first verse can be read in two ways. Either God answers the speaker that he is in fact God, or the question comes back as an echo: qultu “man anta?” qāla “anta.” Ibn ‘Arabī’s poems both find ways in which God can be known. In Ibn ‘Arabī’s poem, God is the only agent (and rhyme-word); so whatever you look at is in fact God. With al-Hallāj, on the other hand, the first verse emphasises both immanence and transcendence depending on how it is read, and the poem ends on an open question. This tightly constructed poem revolves around the interplay between the word ayna (where) and anta (you). Ultra-monorhyme is used here not only to tie the poem together, but also to give it its obsessive, searching quality. And whereas one could add extra lines to the poem attributed to Abū l-‘Atāhiya, this one feels as if it has been drawn to a close.[40]

Here, al-Hallāj is closer to the spirit of Ibn ‘Arabī’s poetry. Ibn ‘Arabī was certainly aware of his poem. In the Futūhāt, he reworks the first verse:

“I saw my Lord through the eye of my Lord
I said, “My Lord;” He said, “You.”[41]

The poem by al-Hallāj resembles Ibn ‘Arabī’s in its paradoxical quality and its use of repeated rhymes to suggest an insistent question. However, Ibn ‘Arabī’s ultra-monorhyme takes the idea to a greater length, and spins out a more developed chain of reasoning.

To summarise: a foray through Arabic literature does bring out some of the other, very infrequent, ultra-monorhyme poems. In ascetic poems, the purpose is devotional, to exhort the listener to piety. Each verse repeats the same idea, and the single rhyme-word ties the poem together and focuses attention on that idea. In some of the Sufi ones, it is to aid the remembrance of God, again for devotional purposes. In some other Sufi pieces, however, the device is put to a different use, developing a paradox.

Ibn ‘Arabī’s poem owes something to all of these strands, but it is not quite like any of them: it explores different, winding lines of thought. The argument of the poem appears to spiral outward, at the same time that the recurring single rhyme word holds it in. In this sense, it has more in common with the medieval Provençal and Italian sestina.


A Medieval Parallel: the Sestina

The sestina is made up of six stanzas of six lines each, sometimes concluded with a three-line cap. The same six rhyme-words recur throughout the poem.[42] The effect is similar to that of Ibn ‘Arabī’s ultra-monorhymes in that a line of thought is developed at length. The lines are made to say a number of different things, while at the same time being fettered by a very limited number of rhyme words.

The inventor of the genre appears to be the Provençal troubadour Arnaut Daniel (fl. c.1180–1200).[43] One poem by Arnaut[44] uses the six rhyme words intra (“enters”), ongla (“nail”), arma (“arm” [verb] / “soul”), vergua (“rod”), oncle (“uncle”) and cambra (“chamber”). The theme of the poem, which Arnaut perhaps ironically describes as his “singing of nail and uncle” (v.37), is his desire for physical union with his beloved, which is contrasted with the vigilance of relatives:

When I recall the bedroom where, to my ruin, I know that no man enters, but where, on the contrary, they are all the more on guard against me than brother or uncle, I have no organ or nail that does not tremble more than the child does before the rod. I am afraid that I am too much hers in my soul.[45]

Just as the poet’s desire for his beloved is restrained by the situation, his varied images are restrained by the rhyme words. Love bends his heart like a flimsy rod (v.24). Such a love has not been known since before Adam had nephew or uncle (v.26). It makes the poet’s heart cling by the nail to his beloved as the bark does to the rod (v.31–2), and so on.

Of the six rhyme words, two have to do with intimacy with the beloved (“room” and “enter”), whereas the “uncle” is always a force that keeps the poet away. Arma, meaning both a soul and to arm oneself, can do duty for either love or the forces that prevent it, and “nail” and “rod” take on different meanings according to context. The result is that intimacy and the obstacles are constantly intertwined. The poem builds up tension in an obsessive, even claustrophobic way, a fitting testament to a poet whose legendary madness in love earned him a place in Dante’s purgatory, in the circle of the repentant lustful.[46]

Arnaut’s place in purgatory does not in any way dent Dante’s high opinion of him, and Dante was to copy the sestina model in several poems of his own. One such poem is the sestina beginning Al poco giorno e al gran cerchio d’ombra.[47] The poem is part of a series of four poems known as the petrose, or rocky poems, because each of them compares the beloved to stone.[48] The rhyme words are ombra (“shadow”), colli (“hills”), erba (“grass”), verde (“green”), petra (“stone”) and donna (“woman”):

To the short day and to the large ring of shadow I have arrived, alas!, and to the whitening of the hills where the colour is lost by the grass. And still my desire does not change its greenness, so well-rooted is it in the hard rock that speaks and feels as if it were a woman (vv.1–6).

As in the poem by Arnaut, a variety of poetic images are expressed with a stark economy of rhyme words:

But certainly the rivers will go back to the hills before this damp and green wood catches fire, as beautiful woman is wont to do, for me. I would bring myself to sleep on the rock all my life, and go around feeding on grass, just to see where her clothes make a shadow (vv.30–36).

Again, as with Arnaut, the rhyme words help to juxtapose a series of contrasts: between the poet’s inner heat and the outer cold, between the whiteness of the hills and his green desire, and so on.[49] The woman is unmoved as rock despite the spring season that warms the hills and makes them green with grass (vv.9–12).

The effect is again one of claustrophobia: Dante speaks of Love as having “imprisoned me among small hills much more securely than its mortar binds the rock” (vv.16–18). According to Picone,

“The sestina can be seen as a metrical form whose semantic space is narrowly indicated and fixed by the six short rhyme words which, like the “small hills”, represent both the formal restraint imposed on the poet and the impulse for his inventive freedom.” [50]

Ibn ‘Arabī on the one hand and Arnaut and Dante on the other all worked within traditions that saw language as a sign of God’s creation, and accordingly valued the formal aspect of composition. Moreover, Ibn ‘Arabī is very much a poet of thought, one whose aim is to explore metaphysical concepts. Arnaut was an exponent of trobar clus, the obscure style of lyric.[51] Dante is often linked to a group of poets known as the Stilnovisti,[52] whose approach to the love lyric was more intellectualised and philosophical than had thus far been the case. The petrose poems in particular are usually held to mark an experimental phase in Dante’s development, one in which he deliberately cultivated a “bitter” and technically contorted style.[53] The major difference between these poems and Ibn ‘Arabī’s is that the latter do not draw on a lyrical tradition. Nonetheless, both use restrictive rhymes to the same effect: the argument becomes more complex while the rhyme holds it in.



This article has sought to do three things. First of all, it has sought to look in detail at how Ibn ‘Arabī’s poetry works. In his poem, Ibn ‘Arabī explores the relation between God and His creation, a theme that runs through much of the Dīwān. The unusual form of the poem is not incidental: each verse returns unfailingly to God.

Secondly, I have tried to see Ibn ‘Arabī in a wider literary context. There is indeed an “ultra-monorhyme” genre, albeit an elusive one. The example from al-Hallāj and those attributed to Abū l-‘Atāhiya and Dhū l-Nūn pre-date Ibn ‘Arabī. Our author was certainly aware of the poem by al-Hallāj, and it seems quite likely that he also knew the snippet by Dhū l-Nūn, since it is quoted in a famous Sufi manual. In that sense, the meaning of Ibn ‘Arabī’s poem is to be found not only by reading the poem itself, but also by considering how it builds on and modifies the work of earlier poets.

Thirdly, I have attempted to extend the comparative perspective to another literary tradition, that of medieval Europe. Given the intricate nature of Ibn ‘Arabī’s work, it is often easy to lose sight of the broader picture. Ibn ‘Arabī’s poetry is of course very distinctive, but it also belongs within a way of thinking and writing that extended to both sides of the Mediterranean.


Reproduced from the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society, Vol. 47, 2010.


[1] Ibn ‘Arabī, al-Dīwān al-akbar, ed. Shihāb al-Dīn Muhammad ibn Ismā’īl (Cairo: Būlāq, 1271/1855). More recent editions all seem to take their cue from the Būlāq version, with no fresh critical work. In this article, references have been given to the Būlāq edition and to the Dār al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyya edition by Ahmad Hasan Basaj (Beirut, 2002).

[2] Claude Addas, “L’oeuvre poétique d’Ibn ‘Arabī et sa réception”, Studia Islamica 91, 2000, pp. 23–38; Ralph Austin, “Ibn al-‘Arabī – Poet of Divine Realities,” in Stephen Hirtenstein and Michael Tiernan (eds), Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi: A Commemorative Volume (Shaftesbury, 1993), pp. 180–89; Peter Bachmann, a series of articles including most recently “Un commentaire mystique du Coran”, Arabica 47, 2000, pp. 503–9; Roger Deladrière, “The Dīwān of Ibn ‘Arabī,” JMIAS 15 (1994), pp. 50–56; Gerald Elmore, “The Būlāq Dīwān of Ibn al-‘Arabī: Addenda to a Tentative Description”, Journal of Arabic Literature 29/3–4 (1998), pp. 136–66.

[3] Denis McAuley, An Analysis of Selected Poems from Ibn ‘Arabī’s Dīwān (D.Phil. thesis, University of Oxford, 2007). I am grateful to Mr Ronald Nettler and Professor Geert Jan van Gelder for their help in researching this work. The present article is based on a chapter of the thesis.

[4] According to van Gelder, the word ītā’ became a technical term during the middle or second half of the eighth century: Beyond the Line: classical Arabic literary critics on the coherence and unity of the poem (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1982), p. 28. It was mentioned as a flaw by the grammarian Tha’lab (d.904; ibid, p. 47). According to Ibn Rashīq, the acceptable interval after which a word could be repeated was seven lines (ibid., p. 113). According to most critics, a rhyme-word can be repeated if it is used with a different meaning. For example, Ibn ‘Arabī’s spiritual heir Amīr ‘Abd al-Qādir (1807–1883) wrote a poem in which the word khālī is used at the end of each line in 18 different senses; see ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jazā’irī, Dīwān (ed. Mamdūh Haqqī; Beirut: Dār al-Yaqza al-‘Arabiyya, 1968), pp. 69–72. Ibn ‘Arabī’s ultra-monorhymes do not fall under that exception.

For an overview of contrasting critical assessments of ītā’ see Amidu Sanni, “Interpretations in a theoretical tradition: on ītā’ in Arabic poetics,” Journal of Arabic Literature 21/2 (1990), pp. 155–62.

[5] Here are some examples:

  • 22vv, rhyming in lillāhi (Būlāq pp. 132–3 / Basaj pp. 127–8);
  • Mnemonic poem on God’s names, 86vv, all but the last four rhyming in Allāhu (Būlāq pp. 205–10 / Basaj pp. 194–7);
  • Five-liner, all but last line rhyming in l-nazar (Būlāq p. 254 / Basaj p. 240);
  • Poem with many rhyme-words repeated in clusters of 2, 3 or 4 (Būlāq pp. 257–8 / Basaj pp. 242–3);
  • Four-liner, every line rhyming in l-shabahi (Būlāq pp. 261–2 / Basaj p. 246);
  • Four-liner, every line rhyming in siwāka (Būlāq p. 301 / Basaj p. 283);
  • Poem with four opening verses rhyming in l-hawā (Būlāq p. 464 / Basaj p. 432).

[6] Peter Bachmann has studied several examples of poems modelled on those of non-Sufi predecessors; see for instance “Al-Mutanabbī im Dīwān von Muhyī d-dīn Ibn al-‘Arabī”, in Martin Forstner (ed.), Festgabe für Hans-Rudolf Singer (Bern, New York and Paris: Peter Lang, 1991), pp. 773–88.

[7] Maria Rosa Menocal, The Arabic role in the medieval literary history: a forgotten heritage (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987), chapters 3 and 6.

[8] Allāhu anzala… Allāhu, Būlāq pp. 216–17 / Basaj pp. 203–4.

[9] Jism would usually be translated as “body”. I have rendered it as “substance” because it is contrasted here with ‘arad, which means “accidents” and is usually the opposite of jawhar, substance.

[10] Reading mā lam tarāhu, with ms. Yusuf Aga 5463, fol. 399r. One would usually expect a jussive verb, but stranger things have been seen in the Dīwān. Būlāq has mā in tarāhu, which is grammatically difficult to explain, and cannot mean “whatever you see” given that the ghayb is by definition not visible. It is tempting to think that the original version might have been mā lan tarāhu, “what you will never see”. This would mean much the same as the Yusuf Aga 5463 version, and would also sound similar. At the same time, a typographic shift from in to lan could happen very easily, accounting for the Būlāq version. Further manuscript research would be needed to verify this guess. (I am grateful to the Ibn ‘Arabi Society for access to a digital copy of the manuscript.)

[11] James Morris, “Listening for God: Prayer and the Heart in the Futūhāt“, JMIAS 13 (1993), pp. 19–53, esp. pp. 23–34. The choice of the word fu’ād in v.1, as opposed to qalb in v.2 and in the relevant Qur’anic quotations, can probably be attributed to metrical considerations and seems not to have any ulterior significance. Cf. vv.8–9 of the poem beginning hādhā l-maqāmu… anwāruhu (Būlāq pp. 15–17 / Basaj pp. 19–20), in which the two also appear to be interchangeable.

[12] See for instance the relevant entries in Su’ād Hakīm, al-Mu’jam al-sūfī: al-hikma fī hudūd al-kalima (Beirut: Dandara, 1981). Although in many respects dated, Miguel Asín Palacios, El Místico murciano Abenarabi IV: Su teologia y sistema del cosmos (Madrid: Tipografía de la “Revista de Archivos”, 1926), pp. 63–98, remains a good introduction to Ibn ‘Arabī’s cosmology.

[13] This frequently quoted hadith is no. 35 in al-Nawawī’s Forty Hadith. The text I have used is from the bilingual Arabic French edition by Mohammed Tahar (trans. and ed.), Les quarante hadiths: traditions du Prophète (Paris: Les Deux Océans, 1992), p. 95.

[14] Cf. Ronald Nettler, Sufi Metaphysics and Qur’anic Prophets (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 2003), pp. 7–11.

[15] See among others Toshihiko Izutsu, Sufism and Taoism: A Comparative Study of Key Philosophical Concepts (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1983), pp. 159–68.

[16] The same could be said for the word amr, which could mean “matter” or “divine command”. In v.6, it seems to mean the former (“One of the most amazing things…”); in v.7, the latter.

[17] For a concise statement of the issue see W. Montgomery Watt, The Formative Period of Islamic Thought (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Press, 1973), pp. 246–9.

[18] This is a common theme elsewhere in Ibn ‘Arabī’s writings. See for instance Abū al-‘Alā ‘Affīfī, The Mystical Philosophy of Muhyid Din Ibnul Arabi (Cambridge: CUP, 1939), pp. 47–53.

[19] ‘Affīfī, Mystical Philosophy, p. 53.

[20] Yanūbu ‘annā: this is not a term I have otherwise seen in this context.

[21] Ibn ‘Arabī also speaks of God’s names as relations: they are not entities in themselves, but aspects of God’s nature as it relates to His creation.

[22] Al-Tanūkhī, Abū ‘Alī, al-Faraj ba’d al-shidda, ed. ‘Abbūd al-Shādhilī (Beirut: Dār al-Sādir, 1978), vol. 5, p. 20.

[23] Ibid., p. 21.

[24] Abū Nasr al-Sarrāj, Kitāb al-luma’ fī l-tasawwuf, ed. Reynold A. Nicholson (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1914), p. 247. The metre is rajaz, and each line rhymes in -llāhi.

[25] Lillāhi, literally “for God” – an exhortation.

[26] Abū l-Qāsim al-Sahmī, Tārīkh Jurjān, ed. Muhammad ‘Abd al-Mu’īn Khān (Beirut: ‘Ålam al-Kutub, 1981), pp. 562–3. However, the poem’s position in the published edition suggests it may be a later addition to the manuscript. An unusual phrase in v.16 suggests to my mind that the author may have been thinking in Persian, or for that matter in Turkish: anā l-rabbu lladhī yakhshawna minnī / jamī’u l-khalqi (“I am the Lord whom all of the people fear”). The verb yakhshawna is usually given a direct object in Arabic, whereas Persian would use the preposition meaning “from” and Turkish would use an ablative. The phrase in Persian would be something like man ān khudā hastam ki az man mītarsand; in Turkish, ben o tanrıyım ki herkes ondan korkar. (I am grateful to Dr Hakan Özkan for suggesting the Turkish version.)

 A slightly shorter version of the poem is quoted by the Ottoman theologian and biographer ‘Isām al-Dīn Ahmad ibn Mustafā Œāshköprüzāda (d.1561), in his encyclopaedic Miftāh al-Sa’āda, ed. and comm. K.K. Bakrī and ‘Abd al-Wahhāb Abū l-Nūr (Cairo: Dār al-Kutub al-Hadītha, 1968, 4 vols), vol. 3, p. 142.

[27] There is a pun on al-mawjūd, which can mean “the one who exists” or “the one who is found”.

[28] ‘Atīd: cf. Q. 50:18.

[29] Al-Sahmī, Tārīkh, p. 562.

[30] Brockelmann gives his dates as 1414–1477; Geschichte der arabischen Litteratur, Supplementband II (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1938), p. 152.

[31] Ms. Bod. Hunt Donat 8, fols. 3v–5r.

[32] Ibid., fols. 166r–184v.

[33] Ibid., fol. 176r.

[34] Ahmad ibn Mustafā al-‘Alawī, Dīwān (Damascus: Dār al-Taraqqī, 1931), p. 44. Other examples can be found on pp. 13–15, 36, 63.

[35] Al-Bahlānī, Dīwān, ed. ‘Alī al-Najdī Nāsif (Muscat: Wizārat al-Turāth al-Qawmī wal-Thaqāfa, 1980) pp. 237–66. I would like to thank Jokha Alharthi for drawing my attention to this poet and for information on his life and on sulūk generally.

[36] A preface details the conditions under which the recitation should take place (al-Bahlānī, Dīwān, pp. 7–9).

[37] Jokha Alharthi, personal communication.

[38] Al-Bahlānī, Dīwān, p. 237.

[39] The text of the poem, with French translation, is given in Louis Massignon, Le Dîwân d’al-Hallâj (Paris: Librairie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1955), pp. 45–6.

[40] Additional lines can be found, but they feel extraneous and add nothing to the poem as it stands (Massignon, Dîwân, p. 46).

[41] Al-Futūhāt al-Makkiyya, ed. Osman Yahia (Cairo: al-Hay’a al-Misriyya al-‘Åmma lil-Kitāb, 1972, 13 vols), vol. 8, p. 392.

[42] The exact ordering of the rhymes can follow one of several complex schemes; see Kenelm Foster and Patrick Boyde, Dante’s Lyric Poetry (Oxford: OUP, 1967), vol. 2, pp. 265–66.

[43] Bernard O’Donoghue, The Courtly Love Tradition (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1982), p. 160, n.47.

[44] Poem beginning Lo ferm voler qu’el cor m’intra. Text and trans. in O’Donoghue, Courtly Love, pp. 142–45; all translations are O’Donoghue’s.

[45] I have added italics to draw attention to the rhyme words.

[46] “I am Arnaut who weeps and goes along singing. In reflection I see my past madness, and rejoicing I see in front of me the day that I hope for.” Dante, Purgatorio, XXVI, 142–4, quoted in O’Donoghue, Courtly Love, pp. 284–5.

[47] “To the short day and to the large ring of shadow.” Poem and translation (which I quote here) in Foster and Boyde, Dante, vol. 1, pp. 162–5.

[48] Foster and Boyde, Dante, vol. 2, p. 258.

[49] Michelangelo Picone, “All’ombra della fanciulla in fiore: lettura semantica della sestina dantesca”, Letture classensi 24 (1994), pp. 92–108, on p. 94.

[50] Picone, “Ombra”, p. 99.

[51] O’Donoghue, Courtly Love, p. 314.

[52] O’Donoghue, Courtly Love, pp. 258–61. The name apparently derives from a reference in Dante’s Purgatorio (XXIV, vv.49–63); quoted in O’Donoghue, Courtly Love, pp. 280–81.

[53] Foster and Boyde write about another poem in the same set that “the asperitas [bitterness] of the form is felt to be not an irrelevant ornament but a necessary expression of the theme – the exasperated expression of frustrated passion” (Dante, vol. 2, p. 273), and add that, “
The poem is experimental, and it is not evidence of a break with traditional poetics: rather, it is the exception which proves the rule. But later poems certainly gain considerably in lexical and therefore expressive range from this experience…” (ibid., p. 275).