An Introduction to Ibn ‘Arabi’s Mishkat al-Anwar
Martin Notcutt came to the UK from South Africa in the 1970s. He was a student at the Beshara School in Scotland, where he was introduced to the works of Ibn ‘Arabi, and has been a member of the Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi Society since it was founded in 1977.
Articles by Martin Notcutt
The Mishkat al-Anwar consists of 101 hadîth qudsi collected and arranged by Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi. It has few of Ibn ‘Arabi’s own words in it.
In general, the Arabic word hadîth means “news” or “report”. “Tradition” is a common translation, but this does not convey the inherent sense that the Arabic root does of something spoken or narrated. As a technical term within Islam, a hadîth signifies a report of things said by the Prophet Muhammad, or a report of things which he did, or which he saw others do and tacitly accepted.
The record of the Prophet’s example conveyed by hadîth is the foundation of the Sunna, which means “that which is recommended”. It is fundamental to the life of Islam as the natural complement to the Qur’an.
While some hadîth were deliberately memorized and indeed may have been written down during the life of Muhammad, this process was less systematic and organised than in the case of the Quranic revelation. The move to establish definitive records of hadîth did not come to fruition until well over a hundred years after the death of Muhammad.
Hadîth qudsî (translated as Divine or Sacred Sayings) are a special kind of hadîth, reporting a communication spoken by God Himself to the Prophet Muhammad. In fact some hadîth qudsi do not come through Muhammad either. There are twelve in the Mishkat, reported by Kab al-Akhbar, who says he found them in the Torah. Although they convey God’s words, hadîth qudsi are considered to be different in important ways from the Qur’anic revelation, or other sacred books, such as the Torah.
So the Mishkat al-Anwar consists of reports of things said by God, sometimes addressed to Muhammad directly, sometimes to another prophet, such as Moses, sometimes to an angel, sometimes to the “Son of Adam”, sometimes to people on the Day of Judgement, sometimes to the people of Paradise.
This collection is a selection and an arrangement. In some cases only part of a long hadîth is given, and a long hadîth may be broken up into short sections. There is a broad progression from the first hadîth, which expresses God’s complete independence of us, and our complete dependence on Him, to the last hadîth, which reports His welcome to the people of Paradise. These sayings are full of mercy and generosity. However, three hadîth very near the end include stark warnings of the dangers of hypocrisy: they underline the fact that it is our relationship with God which is important, not just external obedience, and certainly not what the world thinks.
The Mishkat is arranged in three parts. The first forty hadîth each have a full, unbroken, chain of transmission which goes back to God through the Prophet Muhammad (SA). The second forty, entitled khabar, go back to God without a complete chain via the Prophet, and are mostly taken from well-known collections, such as those by Muslim or Tirmidhi. Seven of these are drawn from one long tradition on the “Abodes of the Resurrection” by al-Naqqash. The final section of twenty are drawn from similar books, with a twenty-first hadîth given a direct chain of transmission.
It is also noticeable that some hadîth qudsi are not there. In other works Ibn ‘Arabi quotes some hadîth and hadîth qudsî which have been disputed by scholars on the grounds that their historical chains of transmission are inadequate. One example is the saying, “I was like a hidden treasure, and I loved to be known; so I created the world that I might be known.” Ibn ‘Arabî states that he knew this to be sound by spiritual unveiling. However, he did not confuse one kind of knowledge with another, and hadîth qudsî of that kind are not included in this book.
These sayings are an inseparable part of the life of Ibn ‘Arabi’s writings. For example, references to hadîth qudsi in this book occur throughout the Fusus al-Hikam. In the very last chapter of the Futuhat al-Makkiyyah Ibn ‘Arabi included nearly two thirds of the hadîth qudsi found in the Mishkat. They are listed in much the same order as they are in the Mishkat. A few of them are commented on. Although the collection may be made as a work accessible to almost any reader, these words are not just good for “beginners”, there is no limit to them.
Ibn ‘Arabi and hadîth
Ibn ‘Arabî was born in Murcia in southern Spain (al-Andalus) in 1165 (AH 560). He began his study of hadîth in Seville at about the age of fifteen as the result of a remarkable spiritual experience. It was also as a result of this vision that he began his spiritual quest in earnest. During a period of retreat he had a vision of Jesus, Moses and Muhammad, each of whom gave him particular instruction. In the vision, he was rescued from danger by the Prophet Muhammad, who said to him: “My beloved, hold fast to me and you will be safe.” Ibn ‘Arabî says, “It was from that time on that I occupied myself with the study of hadîth.”
There are indications in the Mishkat itself of the extent to which learning a hadîth could be a personal act of reception. Even if they were recorded in the great collections, they could be learned primarily from people. Ibn ‘Arabi says of the first collection of forty hadîth qudsi that they were mostly collected from his companions. For these, he gives the full chain of transmission, and this ends with the person from whom he learned it, for example, his companion and student, Badr al-Habashi.
For the last hadîth in the Mishkat, Ibn ‘Arabi describes the way in which he learned it, in the enclosure of the Ka’ba. Sometimes he listened while it was read to him by the person from whom he received it, sometimes he read it aloud to that person. Not only is there the chain of transmission of the hadîth, but he gives the line of descent of the man from whom he learned it, at the head of which stands Abdallah ibn al-‘Abbas, the uncle of the Prophet. The sense of continuity is tangible. What had been faithfully transmitted and received is like a light passed from one lamp to another across six hundred years.
A stark example of the effect of learning a new hadîth comes from the period of Ibn ‘Arabi’s stay in Mecca. It relates to the time when we can establish that Ibn ‘Arabi married for the first time, since he says:
Of all God’s creation I was one of the most averse to women and to sexual intercourse when I first entered this path, and I remained in this condition for approximately eighteen years…. This aversion left me when I came to know the prophetic tradition that God made women worthy of love for His prophet.
This hadîth later provides the framework for the Chapter of Muhammad in the Fusus al-Hikam.
Ibn ‘Arabi was known during his lifetime as a reliable transmitter of hadîth, and he never ceased to be open to learning them. In a list 248 of his works written up to 1229, Ibn ‘Arabî mentions half a dozen other books dedicated to hadîth. Most of these appear to be lost, or exist in only single manuscripts, but the Mishkat was a work which was read aloud and copied often.
Why hadîth qudsi in Particular?
In the first of his short introductions to the sections of the Mishkat, Ibn ‘Arabi quotes two hadîth which suggest the basic motivation for the collection.
According to Ibn ‘Abbas, the Messenger of God, may God give him blessings and peace, said, “Whoever preserves for my community forty hadîth of the Sunna, I shall be his intercessor on the Day of Resurrection.” According to Anas ibn Malik, the Messenger of God, may God give him blessings and peace, also said, “Whoever preserves for my community forty hadîth of which they stand in need, God shall put him down as learned and knowing.”
Having come to know these words of the Prophet, and taking into account that man stands more in need of the other world, which is his place of return, than this world, I collected these forty hadîth at Mecca, may God protect it, during the months of the year 599. I took as criterion that they be hadîth with a chain of transmission going directly back to God, ever exalted is He.
He does not spell out any more than that why he chose to collect hadîth qudsi in particular, but one way in which Ibn ‘Arabi saw these hadîth is shown when they are quoted in the last chapter of the Futuhat. This chapter is a collection of pieces of
“practical advice” (wasiyya), taken from the hadîth, the Qur’an, stories about saints, and so on. Ibn ‘Arabi comments here on a few of the hadîth qudsi, taking them as advice from God. But in other places Ibn ‘Arabi presents the hadîth qudsi from the Mishkat in quite different contexts. They are never pinned down to one understanding.
The title of the book, Mishkat al-anwar, “The Niche of Lights”, is of course a reference to the Ayat al-Nur in the Qur’an, the famous Light Verse.
God is the Light of the heavens and the earth; the likeness of His Light is as a niche wherein is a lamp… (Q. 24:35)
From early times there have been interpretations of this ayat in which the niche (mishkat) is understood as Muhammad, be it his body, or his heart, reflecting the rays of God’s Light (nur, plural anwar). Perhaps we can relate to this the following passage from the Futuhat:
The most excellent, balanced and correct of mirrors is Muhammad’s mirror, so God’s self-disclosure within it is more perfect than any other self-disclosure there may be. You should struggle to gaze on the Self-disclosing Real in the mirror of Muhammad so that he may be imprinted in your mirror.
The hadîth qudsi collected in the Mishkat are examples of God’s self-disclosure in that clear mirror. Though its language is simple, what is in the Mishkat is essentially unlimited.
Some of the hadîth in the Mishkat
First hadîth (1)
According to Abû Dharr, the Prophet, may God give him blessings and peace, said, reporting the words of God, ever praised and exalted is He:
O My servants, I have forbidden injustice to Myself and I have
made it forbidden amongst you. So be not unjust to one another.
O My servants, all of you go astray except the one whom I guide.
Ask guidance of Me, and I shall guide you.
O My servants, all of you go hungry except the one whom I feed.
Ask Me for food, and I shall feed you.
O My servants, all of you go naked except the one whom I clothe.
Ask Me for clothing, and I shall clothe you.
O My servants, you transgress by day and night, but I forgive all
misdeeds. Ask forgiveness of Me, and I shall forgive you.
O My servants, harming Me is beyond you, so you cannot harm
Me; and benefiting Me is beyond you, so you cannot benefit Me.
O My servants, if all of you – first and last, man and jinn – were
like the one among you with the most devout heart, that would add nothing to My kingdom.
O My servants, if all of you – first and last, man and jinn – were like the one among you with the most ungodly heart, that would
take nothing away from My kingdom.
O My servants, if all of you – first and last, man and jinn – were
to stand on the same level and address Me with your requests, and
if I were to give each one what he had requested, that would not
diminish what is with Me, any more than a needle diminishes the
sea when it enters it.
O My servants, it is solely your deeds that I take account of, and it
is by virtue of them that I will repay you. So let him who finds good,
praise God, and let him who finds other than that, hold none but
himself to blame.
Fourth hadîth (4)
Anas [ibn Mâlik] said:
One day when the Messenger of God, may God bless him and give him peace, was seated [amongst us], we saw him laugh and laugh until his teeth were showing. ‘Umar asked: “What makes you laugh, O Messenger of God, you for whom I would give my own father and mother?” He replied:
Two men of my community were kneeling before the Lord of
Might, ever exalted is He, and one of them said: “O my Lord,
retrieve for me what my brother has wrongfully taken from me!”
He said [to the accused]: “Give back to your brother what you
have wrongfully taken from him.”
But my Lord,” he replied, “nothing of merit has been left to me.”
“Then my Lord,” said [the first], “let him carry some of my
The eyes of the Messenger of God, may God give him blessings and peace, filled with tears, and he said: “Indeed that is a fearful day, when people will need someone to carry part of their burden.” Then he continued:
And God, ever mighty and majestic is He, said to the plaintiff:
“Raise your head and look towards the Gardens of Paradise.”
He raised his eyes and exclaimed: “My Lord, I see cities of silver
and palaces of gold, crowned with pearls. To which prophet or
martyr does it belong?”
God replied: “It belongs to whoever pays Me the price.”
He asked: “And who, my Lord, will own it?”
God replied: “You will.”
He asked: “But how shall I do that, my Lord?
God replied: “By pardoning your brother.”
He said: “My Lord, I have already pardoned him!”
God, ever exalted is He, said: “Now take your brother by the
hand, and lead him into Paradise.”
Then the Messenger of God added:
“Fear God, and promote peace and reconciliation amongst yourselves,
for surely God shall establish peace among the faithful on
the Day of Resurrection.”
Eighteenth Khabar (58)
God, ever mighty and majestic is He, says: “O child of Adam, I have created you for My sake, and I have created things for your sake. So do not disgrace that which I have created for Myself with that which I have created for you.”
This Introduction is based on the longer Introduction to Divine Sayings – The Mishkat al-Anwar of Ibn ‘Arabi.
Divine Sayings is a translation into English of Ibn ‘Arabi’s collection of 101 hadîth qudsi, together with the Arabic text, established from early manuscripts. Arabic text and English translation by Stephen Hirtenstein and Martin Notcutt. Published by Anqa Publishing. The translations are © Anqa Publishing.
The hard-back edition of Diving Sayings also has a translation of the full chains of transmission where they are given, and an Appendix on the manuscript sources for the Mishkat al-anwar.