Articles and Translations

Mi’rāj al-kalima

From the Risāla Qushayriyya to the Futūhāt Makkiyya

Michel Chodkiewicz

Michel Chodkiewicz (1929–2020) was a French author and a scholar of Sufism, especially of Akbarian teaching. He was Director General then President and CEO of Editions du Seuil from 1977 to 1989 and director of studies at the École des Haute Études en Sciences Sociales, where he conducted seminars on Ibn 'Arabi.

Among his major books in translation are The Seal of the Saints: Prophethood and Sainthood in the Doctrine of Ibn Arabi (1986), Ibn Arabi: The Meccan Revelations (translation of selected chapters, 1988) and An Ocean Without Shore: Ibn Arabi, the Book, and the Law (1992).


Articles by Michel Chodkiewicz

The Vision of God

The Endless Voyage

The Banner of Praise

The Diffusion of Ibn Arabi’s Doctrine

The Futuhat al-Makkiyya: Some Unresolved Enigmas

“We Will Show Them Our Signs…”

Miraj al-kalima – From the Risala Qushayriyya to the Futuhat al-Makkiyya

On Two Books Attributed to Ibn Arai – Kitab al-mabadi wa l-ghayat li maani l-huruf and Kitab mahiyyat al-qalb | with Claude Addas

The Paradox of the Ka‘ba


In the section of the Rūh al-quds which Ibn ‘Arabī dedicates to one of his earliest masters, Abū Ya’qūb Yūsuf b. Yakhlaf al-Qummī,[1] he states: “I had never at that time seen the Risāla of al-Qushayrī, nor any similar work, and I was unaware of what the word tasawwuf signified.”[2] He then recounts that one day Yūsuf al-Qummī, leaving on horseback in the direction of a mountain situated not far from Seville, arranged to meet him there with one of his companions. The latter carried with him a copy of this Risāla, and Ibn ‘Arabī again states that he was as unaware of its contents as he was of its author. Having met up with their shaykh at the top of the mountain, the two young people performed the mid-day prayer behind him, in a mosque which had been constructed in the place. Then,

turning his back to the qibla, [the shaykh] handed me the Risāla and said to me: “Read!” The reverential fear which I experienced left me incapable of putting two words together, and the book fell from my hand. He then said to my companion: “Read!” The latter began to read and the shaykh set about giving an uninterrupted commentary which lasted until the moment we had carried out the ‘asr (afternoon) prayer.

One date mentioned on two occasions in the Futūhāt in connection with Yūsuf al-Qummī suggests that Ibn ‘Arabī knew this shaykh in 586/1190. He was thus at that time aged twenty-six (lunar years). Less than ten years later, the first works which he writes testify that he has acquired a perfect mastery of the technical vocabulary of tasawwuf and that he has become familiar with the great classical texts. In the Muhādarat al-abrār,[3] admittedly a book written much later, Ibn ‘Arabī gives a list of authors from whom he drew some of the material in this miscellaneous collection: the Risāla occupies a prominent place alongside the works of al-Sulamī, Abū Nu’aym and Ibn al-Jawzī, for example. All the same, it is seldom referred to in the writings of the Shaykh al-Akbar,[4] and generally only when referring to a remark ascribed to one of the rijāl of the Risāla. In spite of the relative infrequency of explicit cross-referencing, it nevertheless remains true that Ibn ‘Arabī viewed the work of al-Qushayrī as a major reference, as is confirmed by an attentive study of the Futūhāt Makkiyya.

The structure of the Futūhāt can be considered from several points of view, which sometimes leads to confusion as to the exact placing of a quotation mentioned by various former commentators who had only manuscripts at their disposal. To begin with, there is a physical division of the work into thirty-seven volumes (sifr/asfār) in the autograph manuscript, on which O. Yahia based his edition of the work. Each of these volumes in turn comprises seven parts, giving a total of 259 juz’/ajzā’. More significant to the structure of this opus magnum is its division into six sections (fasl/fusūl), each of which has a title that describes its content. This produces a further division into 560 chapters (bāb/abwāb),[5] where the number of chapters in each fasl clearly has a symbolic nature.[6]

It is on the second section – the fasl al-mu’āmalāt – that we shall concentrate our attention here. Amounting to 115 chapters, this number is explained in a hadīth, quoted by Hakīm al-Tirmidhī in his famous questionnaire, according to which “Allāh has 117 characteristics”.[7] In his responses to the three questions which relate to this prophetic saying, Ibn ‘Arabī states first of all that only the prophets can experience the fullness of ‘taste’ (dhawq) of these ‘divine characteristics’, but that the awliya’ nevertheless benefit from participating in these spiritual pleasures. Then he points out that whereas other rusul, in varying degrees corresponding to their position within the hierarchy of Envoys, have access in the best of cases only to 115 of the Divine akhlāq, Muhammad possesses all of them. In the context of akbarian prophetology, the most likely explanation of these two parts being reserved exclusively for the Prophet of Islam is that they constitute a privilege linked to the two aspects by which his function is distinguished from that of all other rusul, that is to say, his priority (“I was a prophet before Adam was between water and clay”)[8] and his conclusive finality, since the Revelation is permanently ‘sealed’ by the coming down of the Qur’an (“there is no prophet after me”).[9] The significance of the number of chapters [10] thus becomes clear. In their quality as “heirs to earlier prophets”,[11] the Muhammadian awliyā’ are entitled to hope to taste the flavour of 115 of the Divine akhlāq, while passing through the three stages of ta’alluq (‘adherence’ to the Divine characteristics), takhalluq (appropriation of these characteristics) and tahaqquq (their full realisation).[12]

The initial section of the Futūhāt is the fasl al-ma’ārif, and the purpose of this study of fundamental doctrinal knowledge is indicated by the very long chapter 73 which concludes it: we find therein an extremely detailed analysis of the nature, function, modes and degrees of sainthood.[13] The teaching dispensed in the preceding chapters has the clear objective of preparing the disciple to embark upon the path which will lead him to walāya. Furthermore, he will have to put into practice the knowledge that he has received. It is this moving into the experiential stage that the fasl al-mu’āmalāt will be dedicated to, the latter word having here a very different sense from that which it normally has in works on fiqh.

At first glance, starting with an examination of the table of contents, one might conclude that the section on the mu’āmalāt (from chapters 74 to 188 inclusive) deals with the exercise of virtues. Even if the ‘heroic’ practice of these is not a strict criterion of sainthood in akbarian teaching, as it is in the canonisation procedure of the Roman church,[14] it goes without saying that it is a necessary condition. However, as we shall see, such an evaluation of the chapters’ contents, without being wrong as such, remains wholly inadequate. A deeper inspection is required as soon as we consider the order of the contents, that is to say, the actual structure of the fasl: it very quickly becomes clear that this structure is rigorously based on the Risāla Qushayriyya.[15] After an introduction, which is basically a brief memorial to the mashāyikh al-tarīq, and a series of explanations on the meaning of some forty technical terms used in Sufism,[16] the Risāla is essentially composed of chapters which are dedicated, as the author says, to an exposition (sharh) of the ‘stations’ and then the ‘states’ of the Way.

Let us return now to the list of themes dealt with successively in the first thirteen chapters of this central part of the Risāla as summarised in the titles of these chapters: (1) tawba, (2) mujāhada, (3), khalwa, (4) ‘uzla, (5) taqwā, (6) wara’, (7) zuhd, (8) samt, (9) khawf, (10) rajā’, (11) huzn, (12) jū’, (13) mukhālafat al-nafs. It is obvious from the titles chosen by Ibn ‘Arabī that the order of the subjects at the beginning of the second section of the Futūhāt is exactly the same. However, while al-Qushayrī deals with this material in thirteen chapters, in the corresponding part of Ibn ‘Arabī’s fasl al-mu’āmalāt there are no less than thirty-nine, due to a reduction in the treatment of each of the subjects handled. Thus, for example, on the subject of khalwa (retreat), which al-Qushayrī makes the subject of a single chapter along with the related theme of ‘uzla (seclusion), Ibn ‘Arabī devotes six separate chapters: two on khalwa, two on ‘uzla and two on firār, the ‘flight’ towards God, corollary of the ‘retreat’ from the world. We note a similar enrichment of description on the theme of taqwā, which is considered from various different aspects in four separate chapters, which are completed by a series of three further chapters devoted to the principles (usūl) from which the legal statutes derive, the farā’id (obligatory acts), and lastly the nawāfil (supererogatory acts). Ibn ‘Arabī points out[17] that it would have been more logical to speak of the usūl al-shar’ before the series of chapters in the first fasl relating to‘ibādāt, but that in his work the order of the material does not result from a personal choice. He compares this apparent incoherence to the disconcerting sequence of verses in the Qur’an, which would appear to have no connection with each other.[18] This explanation is not an isolated case: time and time again, Ibn ‘Arabī states that his writings have been composed whilst in the grip of an inspiration that dictates to him not only the contents but also the ordering.[19] However, one may observe that the transition from the idea of taqwā to that of sacred Law can be explained quite well, given that the sharī’a defines the rules of this ‘reverential piety’, which is one of the meanings of the word taqwā. As al-Qushayrī puts it, it consists “of protecting oneself from God’s punishment through obedience to Him [i.e. His Law].”[20]

The parallel between the structure of the Risāla and the section on the mu’āmalāt continues without the slightest divergence from beginning to end. This can be illustrated by means of a second example, concerning this time the final themes discussed in this part of the Risāla. The last eight chapters cover the following subjects: (1) al-khurūj min al-dunyā, (2) al-ma’rifa, (3) al-mahabba, (4) al-shawq, (5) hifz qulūb al-mashāyikh, (6) al-samā‘, (7) al-karāmāt, (8) al-ru’yā. These themes are taken up again in the same order in the Futūhāt, but spread over thirteen chapters. In total, the number of chapters is more than doubled in the work of Ibn ‘Arabī, since the fifty-one chapters of the Risāla correspond to 115 chapters in the Futūhāt.

However, this is not just a matter of a simple quantitative development – of an extensive gloss on a concise text – which in itself would be hardly distinguishable from the usual practice of commentators. Although the Risāla is cited briefly only once and in a critical manner in the fasl al-mu’āmalāt,[21] it is quite likely that it was from al-Qushayrī that Ibn ‘Arabī borrowed a certain number of the verba seniorum that he uses.[22] In certain cases there is no room for doubt: for example, in the chapter on ‘certainty’ (al-yaqīn), he mentions, declaring it to be erroneous, the interpretation of a hadīth by Abū ‘Alī al-Daqqāq, al-Qushayrī’s shaykh and father-in-law. This interpretation appears in exactly the same form in the bāb al-yaqīn in the Risāla.[23] The Risāla, or more specifically, the sayings of the shaykhs which it gathers together on each theme, are a point of departure for Ibn ‘Arabī. But the fasl al-mu’āmalāt is totally different to a commentary on al-Qushayrī’s work.

I am indebted to my friend and colleague Su’ād al-Hakīm, whose work is a remarkable analysis of the vocabulary of Ibn ‘Arabī, for the expression mi’rāj al-kalima (‘the ascension of the word’) which I have used in the title for this article.[24] This powerful image seems to me to be most appropriate for describing the way the Shaykh al-Akbar proceeds in the second section of the Futūhāt, and more generally, for clarifying in all his works the nature of the relationship which he has with the technical vocabulary of tasawwuf. Heir to an already well-established tradition, Ibn ‘Arabī was not unaware of his debt towards it. He speaks not only of his own masters with reverence and gratitude (in the Rūh al-quds and the Durra fākhira, in particular) but also of illustrious deceased Sufis, whose hagiographer he himself sometimes is, as in the case of Dhū’l-Nūn al-Misrī.[25] On some occasions he pays favourable and just tributes to such men as al-Tustarī, al-Tirmidhī, al-Niffarī and Ibn Barrajān. That he should sometimes voice reservations over someone’s behaviour or words is not surprising: in the third century Hegira the great shuyūkh of Baghdad or Khurasān used to make critical remarks about each other, which expressed legitimate differences in points of view and were not simply to be taken literally. We know that Ibn ‘Arabī voices some criticisms regarding al-Hallāj on various occasions (in the Futūhāt, in the Tajalliyāt and in the Risālat al-intisār) – something that Massignon never forgave him for. But the severity of these judgements does not stop him from frequently quoting his verses,[26] nor from stressing that we are indebted to him for two technical terms (tūl and ‘ard) which belong to the “science of letters”, i.e. to the “christic science” (al-‘ilm al-‘īsawī), the role of which is fundamental in his eyes.[27]

From this rich language of spiritual experience handed down to him by earlier generations, Ibn ‘Arabī validates the accepted meanings that are a matter of Sufi discourse, clarifying them on a good many points. He does not leave it there, however. As one can see, especially in the fasl al-mu’āmalāt, his constant concern is, as it were, to add to the “words of the tribe” and, through this mi’rāj al-kalima, to elicit ever higher meanings from them. From the domain of virtuous practices and ascetic–mystical disciplines, to which he applied himself from the very beginning, the traditional vocabulary is thus driven by degrees so as to bring out the metaphysical truths of which he is implicitly the bearer, and which establishes his work in the practice of Sufism. This ‘semantic ascension’ often takes on a very paradoxical form and helps to explain the many warnings in the literature of the brother­hood against the unwise circulation of Ibn ‘Arabī’s works – not to mention the sweeping condemnations emanating from certain fuqahā’.[28] A rapid analysis of certain chapters from the second fasl of the Futūhāt, which as we have seen bears a strict structural relationship to the Risāla Qushayriyya, allows us to see the akbarian method in operation and to evaluate its effects on the understanding of the technical language of the men of the Way.

The contents page of the fasl provides evidence of an important aspect of this method: in thirty-four cases, the chapter dealing with one of the ‘stations’ (maqāmāt) in al-Qushayrī’s work is followed by another chapter dealing with the ‘abandonment’ (tark) of this station.[29] Far from representing a blameworthy attitude, we shall see that this abandonment must be interpreted each time as a moving beyond the preceding maqām, a purification aimed at liberating the sālik from what remains of duality in the station which he has attained. It is thus that the wahdat al-wujūd, which constitutes the keystone of this complex architecture, is envisaged in itself or in its doctrinal consequences.

With regard to khalwa, Ibn ‘Arabī briefly mentions the common meaning of this term, ‘solitary retreat in a cell’;[30] it is its foundation in divinis which he wishes to teach to his disciple. Quoting the hadīth “God was and there was no thing with Him”, he sees the principle of khalwa in this primordial emptiness (al-khalā’): whether he be physically secluded in a cell or not, the person ‘in retreat’ is truly only someone whose heart is empty of everything which is other than God. But this maqām remains imperfect since it still assumes the illusion of separation (God/other than God). It must therefore be ‘abandoned’: “When man sees only God in everything, khalwa is impossible.” The two chapters on ‘flight’ (al-firār),[31] which as we have said are without equivalent in the Risāla, are completely consistent with what went before. In the first place Ibn ‘Arabī makes a scripturally justified distinction between al-firār min – flight defined by that from which one flees, as in the case of Moses (Q. 26:21), and al-firār ilā – flight defined by that towards which one flees, as in the case of Muhammad (Q. 51:50). If the former has the intention of self-preservation, the latter has the goal of losing oneself in God. But “where to flee, when there is nothing but God? … All that you see is God!” The Shaykh al-Akbar concludes that if God ordains all believers to flee to Him (in verse 51:50 – fa firrū ilā Llāh), it is only because they have not yet reached this contemplation of His universal presence. For the one who achieves it, flight – whether ‘from’ or ‘towards’ – is in fact a station that is gone beyond.

Most of the remarks cited by al-Qushayrī[32] on ‘humility’ (al-khushū’), as is generally the case in his work, have a descriptive or prescriptive character in keeping with the practical purpose of the Risāla: Abū Yazīd says a man is humble “when he sees neither a state nor a station for himself, and when he cannot find among mankind anyone who is worse than himself.” Also quoted by al-Qushayrī, for Junayd humility is “the abasement of your heart before the One who knows the mysteries”. As for Ibn ‘Arabī, he shows that real humility always comes about through a theophany (tajallī). However, “when the servant is veiled from himself by his Lord” (mahjūb ‘an dhātihi bi-rabbihi), he necessarily ‘abandons’ the maqām al-khushū’, for he is absent from himself and the tajallī only meets with a mirror which reflects it back to its source. So, “for one who is revealed to Himself, how could he experience humility?” Since he is not unaware that what has just been explained only concerns exceptional beings, the author of the Futūhāt quickly adds, “To abandon humility is blameworthy for the one who does not possess this spiritual state; and if he abandons it, he will be expelled (matrūd).”

If tawakkul, the “confident handing over to God” or “trust in God”, is unanimously recognised as one of the fundamental rules of the Way, debates on this frequently focus on a practical problem: should the Sufi earn his living by practising a trade or profession, thus remaining prisoner to secondary causes (al-wuqūf ma’a al-asbāb), or should he abstain from this, waiting for God alone to provide his subsistence?[33] There are numerous examples in hagiographical literature of saintly people who set out across deserts without supplying themselves with provisions. But tawakkul can also serve as a pious pretext for abusive begging. The most commonly accepted position is the one expressed by Sahl al-Tustarī, as quoted by al-Qushayrī: “Tawakkul was the state (hāl) of the Prophet, but kasb (acquisition by recourse to secondary causes) was his sunna.” Ibn ‘Arabī is not unaware of these debates, and the point of view which he expresses on various occasions in his writings, corresponds to that of al-Tustarī.[34] The tawakkul as prescribed by Revelation consists of not seeking support other than in God in all circumstances without being affected by any turmoil if one notices the absence of the secondary causes on which the soul has a habit of relying. This is a matter of interior disposition, not of an impossible “departure from secondary causes”, for God acts in them (and not by them: fī’l-asbāb lā bi’l-asbāb): they are the veils behind which He is concealed.[35] But the lawful tawakkul (mashrū’) is not the tawakkul haqīqī, which only really belongs to one who is devoid of being (al-ma’dūm fī hāl ‘adamihi). The “confident handing over to God” by the ‘abd means that he entrusts God with looking after his affairs. It is therefore once again the expression of one’s own will. Since God has arranged everything according to His Wisdom, there is nothing further that the creature should need to seek as support, given that he has received from God everything that comes to him.[36]

On the subject of ‘gratitude’ (al-shukr), al-Qushayrī relates a remark by al-Shīblī that it consists of “seeing the Benefactor, not His beneficence”.[37] This definition coincides with that given by Ibn ‘Arabī on shukr ‘ilmī, ‘knowing gratitude’, which he distinguishes from that which is manifested in words or deeds (the French word ‘reconnaissance’ [i.e. gratefulness by recognition] would undoubtedly be the most appropriate translation of the Arabic expression). Clearly, this has nothing to do with a theoretical knowledge, but is a knowledge based on evidence: whatever might be the apparent agent, the benefit must be seen as coming from God. Here again, however, a duality remains which betrays the imperfection of this maqām, however elevated it might be. It must, then, be given up in order to attain to tark al-shukr, which consists in seeing God as being at the same time both al-shākir and al-mashkūr, the ‘grateful’ and the one to whom all gratitude is addressed.

“Nothing is repeated within existence because of the Divine infinity”, Ibn ‘Arabī states at the beginning of the chapter on the “Abandonment of Certainty” (tark al-yaqīn).[38] This is why what the theologians say on the subject of accidents, that they only last for one instant at a time, is also true of substances. If that is the case, then in the absence of stable objects to which it can be applied, on what can certainty be based? As a consequence, the men of God renounce all efforts to acquire it, and only accept it when it is bestowed on them. Total submission to the Divine will excludes rest and stability. Seeking certainty is a presumptuous attempt to limit the inexhaustible new creation of God. The word hayra – the ‘stupefaction’ or wonderment, the dizziness which is produced by the dazzling procession of theophanies, where no two are the same, is not mentioned here. But certainty is best epitomised by one who has gone beyond it. As the author writes several pages further on, “the perfect one (al-kāmil) is he in whom hayra is the greatest”.[39]

Many Quranic verses advise believers to have patience (al-sabr) and give as models the examples of Abraham and his son, of Jacob, of Job, or of the Prophet of Islam. Al-Qushayrī records one definition among others, given by Ruwaym: “Patience is giving up complaint”.[40] Ibn ‘Arabī does not quote this remark, but without saying so, it is obviously this that he is correcting and completing when he declares: “Patience does not consist of abstaining from complaining to God so that He may ease the affliction or distance; it consists of abstaining from complaining to other than God.” Complaining to God is not a transgression of the obligation of patience, for if God afflicts His servants it is precisely so that they may address their complaints to Him. The Quranic example mentioned in support of this view is that of Job who, in his unhappiness, calls to God (Q. 21:83), and of whom God nonetheless says: Innā wajadnāhu sābiran (“Indeed We found him patient”, Q. 38:44). This theme is developed more fully in chapter 19 of the Fusūs al-hikam. In complete contrast to the tone of most classical texts on sabr, having made this point, the Shaykh al-Akbar celebrates with jubilation the Divine rahma:

Rejoice, oh servants of God, in the universality and the immensity of the Mercy which extends over all creatures, albeit after a delay! For when this low world disappears, the affliction of whoever is afflicted will disappear with it, and through that even patience itself will disappear.

This Mercy, which he affirms here just as he affirms it throughout his work, will be extended even to those who are condemned to dwell in Gehenna. However guilty people may be, the Divine patience is without limit, for God is al-sabūr, the Supremely Patient.[41] The ‘abandonment’ of patience – which should be understood as the most perfect degree of patience – is thus in opposition to the common notion of sabr. To be stoical in the face of ordeal is to pretend to stand up to the power of God (al-qahr al-ilāhī). On the contrary, perfection for the servant is to acknowledge his utter impotence and poverty (‘ajzuhu wa-faqruhu).

Two of the most significant chapters in the section on mu’āmalāt are those which correspond to the one that al-Qushayrī dedicates to ‘ubūdiyya.[42] The titles which Ibn ‘Arabī gives to these chapters deserve attention: the first is “On the maqām of ‘ubūda“, and the second “On the maqām of the Abandonment of ‘ubūdiyya“. Although the Shaykh al-Akbar sometimes uses these words interchangeably,[43] in his doctrine – and especially here – they have very distinct meanings, and it is this which allows us to understand the unusual modification of vocabulary in these successive titles. In fact, in order to shed light on this problem three terms from the same root should be considered: ‘ibāda, ‘ubūdiyya, and ‘ubūda. Citing al-Daqqāq, al-Qushayrī mentions them at the beginning of his explanation, but confines himself to putting them respectively in connection with, on the one hand, the ternary of “the common believers” (‘āmma), “the elite”, and “the elite of the elite”; and on the other, with the degrees of certainty (‘ilm, ‘ayn, haqq). In order to render these three terms equally by words of the same family, I have suggested translating them as ‘service’, ‘servanthood’ and ‘servitude’.[44] According to Ibn ‘Arabī, servitude (‘ubūda) is the ontological status of the creature. The servant, ‘abd, possesses nothing, not even himself. He has no being which can be his own. Even the name ‘abd does not belong to him.[45] This status is thus irrevocable, which is why it cannot be ‘abandoned’. Ibn ‘Arabī says that servanthood, ‘ubūdiyya, is the “relationship to ‘ubūda“, it derives from it: it is actually the condition to which the ‘abd is dedicated because of his status; and service, ‘ibāda, represents the totality of duties which are implied in this servile condition. “The station of ‘ubūdiyya is the station of abasement and indigence”, a definition which stems from that given in a famous dialogue during which Abū Yazīd al-Bistāmī asks of God: “With what can I approach You?”, “With that which does not belong to Me”; “But, Lord, what does not belong to You?”, “Abasement and indigence.”[46] No one but the Prophet has realised more perfectly this condition of servanthood, and it is this to which the creature must submit so as to be in conformity with his original status in this world. And that is why the Prophet is not designated by any other word than ‘abd in the verse (Q. 17:1) that relates to the glorious episode of the “night journey”.[47]

The end of chapter 130 announces the principal idea of the following chapter; the maqām of ‘ubūda, servitude, in contrast to the maqām of ‘ubūdiyya, excludes all relationship with God or with anything else: it is absolute poverty, complete nakedness. By virtue of his dependence, the creature cannot subsist in the absence of all relationship, and so disappears, so that there is nothing other than God manifesting in the ‘abd. “Fa huwa ‘abdun lā ‘abdun.” The one in whom individuality is completely extinguished in ‘ubūda ‘abandons’ ‘ubūdiyya, for he realises that the possibilities (al-mumkināt) have never left their nothingness, that they have “never smelt the perfume of existence”,[48] that they are nothing but the places of manifestation of the only Manifest One, for “God alone possesses Being”. In other words, ‘ubūdiyya vanishes for the one who ‘returns’ (for his leaving was only illusory) to the state which he was in in the thubūt: present to God but unknowing of himself.[49] The ‘ubūda is re-absorption into the principial Unity: ‘ubūdiyya loses all raison d’être when this re-absorption takes place or, rather, when the ‘abd discovers that he has never left the Unity. The theme of wahdat al-wujūd is mainly developed in the next part of this chapter, where Ibn ‘Arabī resorts to a symbolism which is dear to him, the procession of numbers starting from one,[50] and relies on scriptural references (Q. 15:85; 8:17) which he frequently uses when he treats this subject. As with everything which we have mentioned during the course of this brief study, these pages merit a detailed analysis. But it is not our intention here to understand the depth and breadth of the doctrinal teaching that the Shaykh al-Akbar set down in this section of the Futūhāt: he himself restricted himself to indicating how this change of register operates, giving these classical terms significations which can sometimes appear as a paradoxical reversal of traditional meanings.

From this point of view, the systematic coupling of maqām/abandonment of maqām is especially worthy of attention. Let us cite one final example: that of ‘uprightness’ (istiqāma). According to the masters’ explanations as transmitted by al-Qushayrī,[51] this consists of training the passionate soul, of pruning the heart, of giving up attachment to habits, of acting as if each moment was that of the Resurrection. In short, this involves applying oneself to straightening out all that is twisted. For Ibn ‘Arabī each thing possesses the rectitude that is appropriate to its nature: “the uprightness of a bow consists of its curvature”. Consequently, he is not afraid to say that Adam’s disobedience to the Divine order was part of his uprightness, that is, he was in conformity with the purpose of his creation: felix culpa since without the fall to which this led, he would not have been able to exercise here on earth the khilāfa, for the sake of which he came into existence. To abandon all effort which strives to establish rectitude is, for the ‘ārif, the very sign of uprightness, and is evidence that he is “with God in every state”.[52] For him, there is no deviation (i’wijāj) in the universe: everything is straight.

However, nothing would be more contrary to the teaching of Ibn ‘Arabī than to think that, on the basis of these provocative assertions, he judges the via purgativa, which is so much emphasised by the Sufis quoted in the Risāla, to be somehow superfluous. As he writes in the Futūhāt and elsewhere, the rigorous disciplines that he insists on from the murīd are exactly the same as those prescribed by the saints to whom al-Qushayrī refers as authorities. But the Shaykh al-Akbar detects an implicit Pelagianism which threatens to generate an awareness of efforts being accomplished. Asceticism, which is intended to get rid of the ego, can end up strengthening it. All stations are a trap, and risk becoming a prison.

A station is nothing other than the habitus of a virtue. But, as all traditional definitions – including those of Ibn ‘Arabī – state, it is an acquired (muktasab) habitus.[53] To abandon a maqām is not to abandon the exercise of the virtue with which it is associated. The ‘abandonment’ refers to that which is produced when the Divine Grace substitutes for the acquired habitus an innate habitus, which escorts the being home to its primordial ‘ubūda. Thus “God is the hearing with which he hears, the sight with which he sees, the hand with which he takes, the foot with which he walks.”[54] “Indeed Truth has come and falsehood has passed away” (Wa-qad jā’a ’l-haqqu wa-zahaqa ’l-bātil, Q. 17:81): the tark al-maqām is therefore, when all is said and done, nothing other than the abandonment of an illusion.[55]


Translated by Judy Kearns.

This paper was first published in French in Reason and Inspiration in Islam, ed. Todd Lawson (London and New York, I.B. Taurus/Ismaili Institute, 2005), pp. 248–261.


[1] Rūh al-quds fī muhāsabat al-nafs (Damascus, 1964), pp. 49–50. Regarding this shaykh, who is mentioned several times in other parts of the Rūh al-quds (pp. 55, 61, 75, 78, 84), see also Futūhāt (Būlāq, 1329/1911), I. 616 and II. 683.

[2] On the first stages of the spiritual life of Ibn ‘Arabī, see the article by G. Elmore, "New Evidence on the Conversion of Ibn ‘Arabī to Sufism", Arabica 45 (1988), pp. 50–72, and the clarification by C. Addas, "La conversion d’Ibn ‘Arabī: certitudes et conjectures", ‘Ayn al-hayat 4 (1998), pp. 33–64.

[3] Muhādarat al-abrār wa-musāmarāt al-akhyār (Beirut, 1968), p. 11. According to information that we received in 1987, an autograph manuscript of this work, from Malatya and dated AH 612, was currently in the possession of a Tunisian university. We would also point out that in spite of interpolations into the text by later copyists, there is absolutely no doubt, contrary to Brockelmann’s thesis, about the attribution of this book to Ibn ‘Arabī.

[4] See, for example, Fut. I. 221, 527, 605; II. 117, 245; Kitāb nasab al-khirqa, ms. Esad Ef. 1507, fol. 98a.

[5] To these 560 chapters must be added the long initial khutba, the fihris (in which the chapter titles do not always coincide with those which appear at the head of the abwāb) and the muqaddima, all together representing 47 pages of the AH 1329 edition (corresponding to pp. 41–214 of O. Yahia’s edition).

[6] This symbolic nature is evident in the case of the 4th fasl, that of the manāzil, where the number (114) is that of the suras of the Qur’an, the first manzil corresponding to Sura 114, the second to Sura 113, and so on until the manzil of the Fātiha (for further details, see our An Ocean without shore, Albany, 1993, chap. 3). It is also evident in the 5th fasl (al-munāzalāt), where the number of chapters (78) is the same as that of the occurrences of the hurūf nūrāniyya in the Qur’an, taking into account the repetitions, as well as in the 6th (al-maqāmāt) which adds up to 99 chapters, being the number of the traditional list of the Divine Names. Chapters 2 to 73 of the first fasl (al-ma’ārif) correspond to the 72 darajāt al-basmala according to the jazm saghīr, while chapter 1, in which is described the visionary meeting which engenders the whole of the work, should really be considered as a prologue, and not part of the fasl. We will return to the significance of the 115 chapters of the 2nd fasl (al-mu’āmalāt). As for the 3rd (al-ahwāl), which is made up of 81 chapters, it appears to be related to the 78 shu’ab al-īmān, although we cannot explain for certain the addition of three supplementary chapters. As regards the number of fusūl, we may recall that the number six (like the letter wāw whose numerical value it represents) is a symbol of the insān kāmil (see for example, Fut. III. 142). Furthermore, a correspondence seems likely between these six sections and six of the asmā’ al-dhāt, the seventh of these Names corresponding to the first chapter, which constitutes in a way the matrix of the Futūhāt. The mention of the Ka’ba in this first chapter (I.50), of the seven ritual circumambulations and the seven sifāt, would merit from this point of view a long commentary which would then allow us to better understand why the Futūhāt are ‘Makkiyya’. See Ocean without shore, pp. 28–29 and 96–99. Finally, we may point out that 560 – the year of Ibn ‘Arabī’s birth – is also the number of words in the Sura al-fath, whose relationship with the notion of Futūhāt seems to us self-evident.

[7] Khatm al-awliyā’, ed. O. Yahia (Beirut, 1960), p. 210; B. Radtke, Drei Schriften des Theosophen von Tirmīd (Beirut, 1992), pp. 22–23. This hadīth is quoted again by al-Tirmidhī, p. 411 (O. Yahia edn), p. 99 (Radtke edn). For Ibn ‘Arabī’s responses, see Fut. II. 72–74 (questions 48, 49 and 50).

[8] This hadīth, of highly disputed authenticity, especially by Ibn Taymiyya, is frequently quoted by Ibn ‘Arabī: see, inter alia, Fut. I. 134, 143, 243; III. 22, 141, 456.

[9] Bukhārī, Fadā’il ashāb al-nabī, p. 9; Ibn Māja, Muqaddima, p. 11, etc. For an exhaustive analysis of the scriptural gifts related to this final character, see Y. Friedmann, Prophecy Continuous (Berkeley, CA, 1989), chap. 2.

[10] The autograph manuscript of the second redaction of the Futūhāt allows us to verify that this second section only contains 115 chapters and not 116 as indicated in the table of contents at the beginning of the work (I. 17), and also confirmed by O. Yahia in his edition (vol. 1, p. 30; vol. 13, p. 53).

[11] On the notion of wirātha and its importance in the hagiology of Ibn ‘Arabī, see our Seal of Saints (Paris, 1986), chap. 5.

[12] On these three aspects, to which Ibn ‘Arabī often refers, see especially Fut. I. 363, 373; II. 39; III. 126.

[13] On chapter 73 of the Futūhāt see our remarks in Ocean without shore (p. 46 ff.) and our article "Les Malāmiyya dans la doctrine d’Ibn ‘Arabī", in N. Clayer, A. Popovic and Th. Zarcone (eds.), Melāmis-Bayrāmis (Istanbul, 1998).

[14] Since Pope Urban VIII (1642), it is indeed this "heroism of the [theological and cardinal] virtues" (and not mystical graces) which are taken into account in the process of canonisation, the 1983 code of canonical right restricting the introduction of certain new methodologies in the super vita et virtutibus positions (with recourse to human sciences).

[15] We refer here to the edition of the Risāla published in Cairo in 1957. Up until now there are no other translations into French of this fundamental work. The German translation by R. Gramlich, Das Sendschreiben al-Qusayrīs über das Sufitum was published in Wiesbaden in 1989. In English there is a partial translation by B.R. von Schlegell entitled Principles of Sufism (Berkeley, CA, 1992), and a full translation by A.D. Knysh entitled al-Qushayri’s Epistle on Sufism (Reading, 2007).

[16] The Risāla concludes with a chapter of ‘advice’ intended for the murīd. The outline of this chapter is clearly the inspiration on which a short treatise by Ibn ‘Arabī is constructed, entitled the Kitāb al-amr al-muhkam al-marbūt, written in Konya in 602/1205–1206.

[17] Fut. II. 163.

[18] The example given in this passage is that of verses Q. 2:235–241 where the injunction to perform the prayer conflicts/intercedes with the instructions related to marriage, divorce, and the reading of provisions within a will.

[19] See Fut. I. 59, 152; III. 101, 334, 456; IV. 62, 74.

[20] Risāla, p. 52; see also Knysh, p. 125.

[21] In chapter 150, on ghayra (II. 245).

[22] This is likely since these sayings of the shaykhs are also found in other works that Ibn ‘Arabī is said to have read, such as the Hilya of Abū Nu’aym, on which he wrote a summary, as he indicates in the Fihris and the Ijāza.

[23] Risāla, p. 84 (Knysh, p. 195); Fut. II. 204.

[24] In a brief but evocative essay published in Beirut in 1991 under the title Ibn ‘Arabī wa-mawlid lugha jadīda, S. al-Hakīm describes concisely the parallel between the structure of the Fasl al-mu’āmalāt and that of the Risāla (see p. 53), but without making a detailed comparison between the two texts. As the title of her book suggests, her primary intention was to examine the considerable developments given by Ibn ‘Arabī to the traditional vocabulary of Sufism by creating terms or expressions, a list of which is given at the end (numbering some one hundred pages). Dr ‘Abd al-Wahhāb Amīn Ahmad’s work, al-Mughāmarat al-lughawiyya fi’l-Futūhāt al-Makkiyya (Cairo, 1995) – seemingly unaware of the most recent works, especially those of S. al-Hakīm – is quite disappointing.

[25] We are indebted to Roger Deladrière for an elegant and erudite translation of this work (al-Kawākib al-durriyya), for which there is no critical edition as yet: La Vie merveilleuse de Dhū’l-Nūn l’Egyptien (Paris, 1988). But Ibn ‘Arabī is equally the author of a work on Abū Yazīd and another on Hallāj (nos. 461 and 651 respectively in O. Yahia’s classification), manuscript copies of which have not yet been found.

[26] See for example, Fut. I. 364; II. 337, 361; III. 104, 117; IV. 194.

[27] Fut. I. 169, 176; IV. 332, etc. See also Diwan (Beirut, 1996), p. 299 where Ibn ‘Arabī speaks of Hallāj as his ‘brother’ in the knowledge of the secrets of the letters.

[28] For the real meaning of these condemnations, see our "Le Procès posthume d’al-‘Arabī", in Islamic Mysticism Contested (Leiden, 1999), based on a paper given at a symposium on Sufism and Its Opponents, held in Utrecht in 1995.

[29] Here we only consider the cases where the term ‘abandonment’ is used in the title. But the same procedure is obvious in the cases where this word does not appear: the station of ‘silence’ (al-samt) is thus followed by that of ‘speech’, that of ‘poverty’ (faqr) is followed by that of ‘wealth’, that of wakefulness (sahar) by that of ‘sleep’, etc.

[30] Fut., chaps. 78–79; al Qushayrī, Risāla, pp. 50–52 (Knysh, pp. 122–125).

[31] Fut., chaps. 82–83. On the theme of firār see also Fut. IV. 156, 183.

[32] Fut., chaps. 110–111; Risāla, pp. 68–71 (Knysh, pp. 161–167).

[33] See for example the ‘Awārif al-ma’ārif d’al-Suhrawardī, chaps. 19–20.

[34] Tustarī is cited several times in the long chapter of the Risāla dedicated to tawakkul (pp. 75–80; Knysh, pp. 178–188). For Ibn ‘Arabī’s position, see Fut. IV. 153–4, as well as chaps. 118–119 of the Fasl al-mu’āmalāt.

[35] On the impossibility of khurūj ‘an al-asbāb, Fut. III. 72, 249.

[36] Undoubtedly it is in this way that a phrase cited by Kalābādhī from Hallāj must be interpreted – but attributed in vague terms to "one of the great masters" – according to which haqīqat al-tawakkul tark al-tawakkul (Kitāb al-ta’arruf, Cairo, 1960, p. 101).

[37] Risāla, pp. 80–82 (Knysh, p. 190); Fut., chaps. 120–121.

[38] Risāla, pp. 82–84 (Knysh, pp. 193–196); Fut., chaps. 122–123. The affirmation of the unrepeatable nature of things, linked to the notion of ‘perpetual creation’ and therefore always new (khalq jadīd) is frequent in Ibn ‘Arabī’s work. See for example Fut. I. 735; III. 127, 159; Fusūs al-hikam (Beirut, 1946), p. 202.

[39] Fut. II. 212. On hayra, also a recurrent theme, see for example chap. 50 (I. 270 ff.); Fusūs, pp. 72–73. The notion of "epectasy" in Christian mystical theology corresponds quite well to that of hayra, where it is very controversial. See the article s.v. in Dictionnaire de Spiritualité, vol. 4, col. 785–88.

[40] Risāla, pp. 84–88 (Knysh, pp. 196–202); Fut., chaps. 124–125. In chap. 124, Ibn ‘Arabī quotes on the subject of Shīblī, an anecdote recorded by al-Qushayrī, p. 85 (Knysh, p. 200).

[41] On the name al-sabūr see Fut. IV. 317. Various explanations, which we cannot go into here, would be necessary to account for the final inclusion of ahl al-nār in rahma. See on this subject Fut. III. 164, 207, 550; Fut. I. 93–94, among other passages where Ibn ‘Arabī deals with the universality of Mercy.

[42] Risāla, pp. 90–92 (Knysh, 210–213); Fut., chaps. 130–131.

[43] The distinction between ‘ubūda and ‘ubūdiyya, although perceptible, is rarely taken into account in a rigorous way with Arabic authors (see Lisān al-arāb, vol. 3, p. 271). We may note that in the ms. of the first redaction of the Futūhāt (subsequent to Ibn ‘Arabī, the first one having been lost) we find ‘ubūdiyya rather than ‘ubūda in the title of chap. 130.

[44] Ocean without shore, p. 122 ff.

[45] Fut. II. 350.

[46] With reference to this dialogue Ibn ‘Arabī explains that there is a secret which he cannot disclose. We assume that this is an allusion to the fact that, speaking metaphysically, there is nothing which does not belong to God, including therein whatever the Divine Perfection appears to exclude – an idea expressed particularly in the introductory poem of chap. 127 which relies on scriptural facts (e.g. Q. 73:23) or on the hadīth qudsī, parallel to Matt. 25, 41–45, where God says: "I was sick and you did not visit Me" (on this hadīth, see Fut. II. 407; III. 304; IV. 451).

[47] This reference to the verse of the Sura al-isrā is also made by Abū ‘Alī al-Daqqāq in a remark quoted by al-Qushayrī.

[48] This image is not used here but it is frequently found in the writings of the Shaykh al-Akbar and his disciples. See for example Fusūs, p. 76 (where wujūd should be read for mawjūd, unlike Afīfī’s reading).

[49] On this ‘return’, see Fut. II. 672 ("The nobility of man is to return in his existence to his state of non-existence") and III. 539.

[50] Fut. III. 494; Kitāb al-alif (Hyderabad, 1948); Fusūs, pp. 77–78.

51. Risāla, pp. 94–95 (Knysh, pp. 217–220); Fut.

[52] The same ideas are developed in Chap. 10 of the Fusūs, with the same Quranic references (especially Q. 11:56).

[53] Fut. II. 385.

[54] These words are borrowed from a hadīth qudsī which Ibn ‘Arabī has included in his Mishkāt al-anwār and which he mentions on many occasions in most of his works. In consistency with the akbarian doctrine, we are very conscious of giving the innate habitus a much stronger meaning here than that which is usually employed in the language of Christian mystical theology.

[55] The interpretation by Ibn ‘Arabī of the aforementioned hadīth emphasises that when "God is the hearing, the sight, the hand, the foot" of the servant, nothing has happened in fact except for an unveiling (kashf) to this latter of what always was and always will be (Fut. I. 406).

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