Articles and Translations

The People of the Night

Layla Shamash

Layla ShamashLayla Shamash (1943-2002) was born and grew up in a Jewish family, of ancient Babylonian lineage, in Baghdad. She was a native Arabic speaker; her father taught her the Qu’ran and she went to a Roman Catholic school for girls – so her education was truly ‘Abrahamic’. She left Iraq in order to pursue architectural studies in England. With growing political tensions at home, she secured the safe escape of her family from Iraq. After studying at the Architectural Association School in London, she worked for the GLC (Greater London Council) designing Social Housing, and at the same time she set out on the spiritual journey which would transform her life. She married, and with her husband Khalil Norland and their two children, moved to Oxford in 1981 to take up a teaching post in the Department of Architecture at Oxford Brookes University. She also practiced architecture in Oxford and beyond. She inspired generations of architectural students and was much beloved by all who studied under her until her early death. Layla was also inspirational in helping with translations of Ibn Arabi’s work, being the only native Arabic speaker in the burgeoning Society Research group in Oxford – though she often said she understood Ibn Arabi better in English than in Arabic!


Articles by Layla Shamash

The aim of this paper is to describe the meaning of prayer and the intimate conversation between God and His servants according to Ibn ‘Arabi. The focus is God’s words in the revealed speech, the setting is the night as time for prayer. In fact we can say that all of Ibn ‘Arabi’s work is the interpretation of God’s revealed words in the Qur’an and the Hadith. While Ibn ‘Arabi always acknowledges the literal sense, he also offers us further gifts of layers of meaning which God has bestowed on him. The text in the Futuhåt which combines the intimacy of conversation and the place and manner of prayer which is the subject of this paper, is entitled The People of the Night.[1] In it he describes the dialogue between God and His servants, using the revealed Qur’anic words.

The Night and the Unseen

Know, may God support you with a spirit from Him, that God made the night for His people just as He made the Unseen (ghayb) for Himself. As no one witnesses the action of God in His creation due to the veil of the Unseen which He has let down before them, likewise no one witnesses the action of the People of the Night with God, during their worship, due to the veil of the night’s darkness which He has let down before them.

At first glance we can interpret this as a simple analogy between two situations. However, on closer consideration of the meaning of this and the following text, the image of God extending His veil to cover His servants and Himself emerges, a beautiful image for the intimacy of love. Elsewhere in the Futûhât Ibn ‘Arabi comments on the Qur’anic text:

‘With Him are the keys to the Unseen; none knows them but He’ (Q.6:59). He who is with the He (al-Hu) is the same as the He, and the He is unseen. So he/He who is with the unseen is unseen. Since he/He is unseen with the unseen, the visible does not know him/Him; only the unseen knows him/Him, hence no one knows what is in the unseen except he/He who is unseen.[2]

The He in the above text is the Identity referred to in God’s saying to the Prophet Muhammad (S.A.): ‘I was a hidden treasure and I loved to be known, so I created the world that I might be known.’ The truth of this statement was revealed to Ibn ‘Arabi by Divine illumination, while scholars argue about its authenticity.[3] He goes on to describe these servants as:

The best group in what is due to God and the worst of juveniles in what is due to themselves. They are not prophets of revelation, as cited in ‘the closing of the door of Prophecy’. And it cannot be said of any of them that he is a friend of God (waliyy), as this implies partnership with God’s name al-Waliyy.[4] So it is said of them that they are ‘friends of God’ (awliyâ’) but they do not say that of themselves, even when they are pressed.

Ibn ‘Arabi continues to emphasise the manner of hidden servant- hood by describing how:

God made the night a garment for his people to wear, which conceals (sitr) them from the eyes of strangers. They delight in their nightly seclusion with their beloved. They intimately converse with Him without any observer because He has put sleep into the eyes of the observers as ‘slumber’ which is divine rest for the People of the Night, as it is nature’s rest for others.

He relates that when the People of the Night are at rest with their Lord, they are ‘in seclusion with Him in sense and thought. They may ask Him for an acceptance of repentance, an answer to supplication, or forgiveness of misdeed and so on, and the sleep of ordinary people is indeed rest for them’. This rest (råha) is the rest of the true friends of God, who do not seek publicity in the light of day, but long for the ease and comfort of privacy with their Beloved.

God the most High descends unto them in the night to the lowest heaven, where there is no celestial veil between Him and them. His descent is a mercy for them, and He then manifests from this heaven, according to what has been related. He, God, says: ‘He who claims that he loves Me and sleeps when the night descends, is a liar. Does not every lover seek seclusion with his beloved? Here am I, manifest to My servants! Is there a supplicant that I may come to him with My response? Is there a penitent that I may restore him to My grace? Is there a seeker of forgiveness that I may cover him with My forgiveness?’ This is the concern of God until the breaking of the dawn!

This powerful Divine Address sets the stage.

The night-time conversation of the People of the Night

The People of the Night are the gainers of this favour in this seclusion and in this intimate conversation, in their prayer-niches. They perform the recitation of His speech and open their hearing to what He says to them, in His speech.

When He says: ‘Oh people!’, they listen and say: ‘We are the people! What do you want of us, oh Our Lord, in this calling of Yours?’ He says to them through their tongue reciting His speech which He has sent down: ‘Fear Your Lord. Verily the shock of the last hour will be a terrible thing.’ (Q.22:l)

Again He calls them: ‘Oh people!’; they say: ‘Here we are, Our Lord! (labbayka)’. He says to them: ‘Fear Your Lord who hath spread the earth as a bed for you, and the heaven as a covering, and hath caused water to descend from heaven, and thereby produced fruits for your sustenance. Set not up therefore any equals unto God, against your own knowledge.’ (Q.2:21-2) They say: ‘Oh Lord, You called us, and we heard You. You instructed us and we understood. So, Our Lord, grant us good fortune, and employ us in what You ask of us in Your worship and piety. We have no power or strength save in You. Who are we that You should descend to us from the height of Your majesty and call us and ask us and want of us?’. . .

… The Most High calls again: ‘Oh true believers!’ They say: ‘Here we are, Our Lord.’ He answers: ‘Fear your Lord according to what is due to Him (Q.3:102). Fear God, and speak words well directed.’ (Q.33:70) They say: ‘And what speech do we possess but of what You speak to us? Does a creature have any power or strength save in You? Make our utterance Your remembrance, and our speech the recitation of Your book!’

He calls them again, saying: ‘Oh true believers!’ They answer: ‘Here we are, Our Lord.’ The Most High says: ‘Take care of your souls. He who erreth shall not hurt you, while ye are rightly directed.’ (Q.5:105) They say: ‘Our Lord, You have tempted us in our souls when You have made them the place of Your faith as You have said: “And in your souls do you not see?” (Q.51:21) And You have said: “We shall show them Our signs upon the horizons and in themselves, until it is clear to them that He is the Real!” (Q.41:53) The signs are not required except for their meaning and You are their meaning! It is as if You have said, with Your words

“Take care of your souls. ..”, to “hold onto Us, persevere with Us and be inseparable from Us”. Furthermore You have said “he who erreth shall not hurt you”, meaning that he who sought Us with his opinion was confused and wasted, “while ye are rightly directed”, that is through what I made known to you from Me in My book and as expressed by My messenger. Thus you shall know Me according to the way I describe Myself. So you know Me through Me. Therefore do not be led astray. For you, My guidance and nearness become a light by which you proceed along Our straight path.’

And so continue the People of the Night with God diligently, in every verse they read in their prayers and in every dhikr they remember him in until the breaking of the dawn.

Elsewhere in the Futûhât Ibn ‘Arabi explains the verse ‘And in your souls, do you not see’ by saying:

There is nothing but a rational soul. It is intelligent, thinking, imagining. remembering, giving form, nutritive, producing growth, attractive, expulsive, digestive, retentive, hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling, feeling and perceiving. Moreover, the soul perceives all these affairs, the diversity of these faculties and the diversity of these names without it being extraneous to any of them. On the contrary, it is the identity of each form. In a similar way, inanimate things, plants, animals, angels and so on are all identical to the One Entity…

My eyes have never seen other than His face,
My ears have never heard other than His words![5]

The night is for God and the day is for man

Quoting Niffari,[6] whom he describes as of the People of the Night, he says:

‘The Real stayed me in Gnosis .’ And of what was said in this staying is: ‘O My servant! The night belongs to Me, not to the scriptures that are recited: Yea, the night belongs to Me, not to the lauds and praises.’

Ibn ‘Arabi comments on this verse, recalling God’s words:

‘In the daytime thou hast long glorification’ (Q.73:7). Make the night for Me as it belongs to Me. In the night is My descent. In the daytime I continue to watch you in your work, and when the night arrives and I seek you and descend to you, I find you asleep at ease in the world of your own life. There is only night and day, and during the day I do not find you. I made it for you, innit do not descend to you, I saved it for you. I made the night for Me, so I descend to you to converse with you secretly and intimately and to fulfil your needs. Yet I find you asleep and discourteous with Me, even though you claim to love Me and prefer My proximity! Rise in My presence and ask Me so that I can grant you what you seek.

One might find Ibn ‘Arabi’s quote of Niffari’s verse puzzling, in view of his own description of God’s descent to converse with His servant and wanting to grant him what he asks. In fact Ibn ‘Arabi describes an (opposite, or rather a mirror) situation not of the servant’s seeking nearness to God but God seeking nearness to His servant. The beauty of Ibn ‘Arabi’s wisdom in explaining Niffari’s verse unfolds for us gradually in the way he describes how God educates His servant:

I have not asked you to recite the Qur’an and stop with its meanings. For its meanings separate you from Me. One verse takes you through My paradise and what I have prepared for My friends in it. So where am I, if you are in My paradise, with ‘blackeyed damsels, guarded in pavilions from public view, as if they were rubies and pearls?’ (Q.55:72 + 59), ‘reclining upon couches, whose linings shall be of silk brocade, and the fruit of the two gardens shall be near at hand to gather?’ (Q.55:54.)

Ibn ‘Arabi explains how different verses detain the servant with the mention of angels, hell, fire and so on. God asks:

Where am I, oh My servant, as you recite this verse, when in your thoughts and your spiritual aspiration (himma)[7] you are at one time in paradise and at another in hell? And you recite another verse and it takes you to ‘the calamity’: ‘and what shall convey unto thee what the calamity is? On that day mankind shall be like scattered moths, and the mountains shall become like carded wool.’ (Q.101:2-5.) Another time you see ‘the Throne carried by eight angels’ (Q.69:17) . . . Where am I? Is the night not for Me?

Ibn ‘Arabi describes God’s admonishment and warning against being in this world or the next or in the isthmus (barzakh) or with states or stations of the believers, the patient ones, the pious ones, the prophets and all who are praised in His book. The divine question repeats: ‘Where AM I and where is your seclusion with Me?’

What this text so forcibly portrays is the yearning that God has for His servants and the lack of courtesy displayed by sleeping through the night or reciting the Qur5an in a manner where the Divine Presence is not witnessed.

The recitation of the verified gnostic

No one knows Me or the measure of My saying that the night belongs to Me. And no one knows why I descend to you at night except the verified gnostic who was met by his brethren who asked him ‘Oh brother, remember us in your seclusion!’ My servant answered: ‘Were I to remember you, I would not be in seclusion with Him.’ Such a gnostic knows the measure of My descent at night to the lowest heaven, why I descend, and whom I seek. I recite My book to him through his own tongue and he hears. This is My intimate night-time conversation. This is the servant who takes pleasure in My speech. If he stays with its meanings, he departs from Me with his thought and reflection…

What is required of him is to listen to Me and clear his hearing for My speech, so that I explain to him My speech in the same way I recited it to him and made him hear it,… so that he takes the knowledge (directly) from Me and not through his mind and consideration …

The verified gnostic is not concerned with the mention of paradise or fire or reckoning or contingency or this world or the next. He does not reflect with his intellect, or study the verse with his reason. He listens to what I say, and he is ‘a witness’ (Q.50:37), present with Me, and I take charge of his instruction Myself… He hears the Qur’an from Me, and from Me he hears the explanation and the interpretation of its meanings and what I want with this speech, this verse and this sura. He, the gnostic, conducts himself with Me in the best possible way in his hearing and listening …

When I ask of him intimate conversation, he (my servant) answers Me with presence and witnessing, disclosing to Me all that I have spoken to him of and taught him. If his receiving is not fully complete, We restore to him what he lacks. He belongs to Me, not to himself or any creature.

Such a servant belongs to Me, and the Night is between Me and him. When the dawn breaks, I ascend My throne, directing the order and arranging the signs. My servant proceeds to his subsistence and to conversation with his brothers, while I have opened a door between Me and him in My creation. He contemplates Me through it and I contemplate him through it. And the creatures do not notice. I speak to him through their tongues and they do not know. And he takes from Me by means of inner vision, and they do not understand. They think he is speaking to them, but he is speaking to none other than Me. They think he is answering them, but he is answering none other than Me.

The levels of the People of the Night with God

Ibn ‘Arabi also describes how the People of the Night adopt special manners of behaviour with God, how their lives differ, and how each adopts the state belonging to his station (maqåm). For example, the ascetic’s state at night is according to the station of his asceticism, while the state of he who trusts in God is according to the station of his trust.

The Poles of the Night are those to whom belong the transcendent meanings, transcendent of sensible and imaginary substances. They stay with the Real God (haqq), through the Real, at the Real, without limit or end or the existence of opposition.

So far the emphasis has been on God’s descent to the servant. But Ibn ‘Arabi also describes the ascension of the People of the Night:

Among the People of the Night there is the one who is concerned with ascension, elevation and nearness. God meets him on the way as He descends to the lowest heaven. God hangs on to him and places His protection over him. God meets the aspiration (himma) of each one in ascension, in His descent wherever He finds it. Some He meets in the lowest heaven, some He meets in the second heaven, and some in between the two, or in the third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh heavens. He also meets them in the Footstool, in between, and in the Throne which is the beginning of descent, and in between. This is the level of the All- Compassionate. God gives this one meanings, gnosis and secrets according to the waystation in which He met the aspiration, which then descends with Him to the heaven of the world.

Those whom He meets on the way benefit from the answers which He gives to those who stayed in their prayer-niches and did not ascend to any heaven. They benefit despite being incapable of asking for such knowledge.

There are also others who ascend above the Throne to the level of the Breath.[8] They find God there as a transcendent existence. This finding is unlike finding Him in the world of space and measure. They witness a more transcendent station, a more sacred waystation, an explication of unlimited value and ungraspable by the imagination. It is an explication of the discernment of knowledge and levels of understanding.

Some God meets in t he First Intellect; some He meets in the realm of those who are brought nigh, the guardian spirits; some He meets in the Blindness; some He meets in the ‘earth created from the remainder of Adam’s clay’.[9] When the spiritual aspirations meet Him in these levels, He gives them according to the measure of their thirst generated from the station which sent them to rise to these levels. They descend with Him to the lowest heaven, but in reality it is He who brings them down to the lowest heaven and descends with them. They benefit from the knowledge which He has given to the aspirations that did not go beyond the Throne. This is the case every night.

These spiritual aspirations descend, knowing what God has bestowed upon them. They gather with the aspirations who have not left their place and who are of differing categories. There are those with whom knowledge is not limited by elevation and where God is ‘nearer to them than their jugular vein’ (Q.50:16), when He was with the others in the cloud and in the lowest heaven and what is between them. The Most High said ‘and He is with you wherever you are’ (Q.57:4), that is, He i s with every aspiration (himma) wherever it is. They (the descending aspirations) find earthly ones who are sanctified beyond place and levels of rational faculties, and who are not limited by a presence (hadra). They gain knowledge suitable to this quality (of being beyond place and rational faculties) which God has bestowed on them as gnosis, rendering them perplexed. It is the knowledge of the unlimited, beyond the limit of celestial place and the limit of spiritual mind. Even though they are in nature’s darkness, they are with a light (nur), illuminating the darkness, due to the existence of contemplation.

The above text concerning the ascents and non-ascents of the People of the Night makes it clear that the essential revelation of the Real takes place wherever the servant is, as in ‘He is with you wherever you are’. Ibn ‘Arabi elsewhere describes the relationship between the essential Self-revelation and the visible or sensible revelation:

God has two Self-revelations; an unseen Self-revelation and a seen Self-revelation. It is through the unseen Self-revelation that He bestows the predisposition of the heart. This is the Self-revelation of the Essence whose reality is the Unseen. This is the Divine Identity (huwiyya), which belongs to Him alone, and in accordance with which He calls Himself ‘He’ in the Qur’an. This ‘He’ belongs to Him perpetually and forever. When the heart receives this predisposition, He reveals Himself to it in the seen Self-revelation in the sensible world. Hence it sees Him revealed in the form in which He reveals Himself to it, as we have said.[10]

Within the darkness of the night there is the light of revelation. Ibn ‘Arabi brings together the direct experience of the mystic and the metaphysics of light, sight and insight. He says:

There are those who know that the perception (idråk) of seen things is due to the combination of the light of sight with the light of the luminous body, be it sun or lamp or other object. This is how observable objects appear to us. If the luminous body is lost, nothing appears, and if the sight is lost, nothing of what can be perceived by the combination of sight and external light is illuminated.

The word idråk (perception) in Arabic can also mean to attain, reach, comprehend, understand, become conscious and aware. Even though Ibn ‘Arabi refers to the light of sight and perception, it is not the ordinary sight or the ordinary visual perception he is alluding to. It is an awareness of a different order, where all the organs of perception become one unified organ of the heart of the servant.

Do you not see with regard to the possessor of unveiling (kashf) that when the night is- dark and the door of his house is closed and he has with him another person in the darkness, they are equal in relation to the nonexistence of kashf of perceived things? One of them, at times, may receive an unveiling, and a light manifests to him. This light combines with sight and the possessor of unveiling perceives what there is in the darkened house of what God wanted to reveal to him from Himself; all or some of what is revealed he sees as he would see it by day or with a lamp. His friend who is with him sees only the darkness, nothing else, because that light did not manifest itself to him, to combine with the light of his sight and to disperse the veil of darkness… I have not seen anyone who has mentioned this matter unless it has happened without my hearing of it. The world in its origin is darkness and it cannot be seen without the two lights … The non-existent potentialities do not appear in existence except insofar as they are receptive to the all-powerful God, just as the light of sight is receptive to the light of the luminous body.

One understanding of this matter might be that there is the One Light which can be known subjectively as the light of sight and objectively as the light of illumination, and it is only through the bringing together of these modes in the conscious human being that the things can appear to us and can be distinguished, one from the other.

Even physicists who understand light only as an objective phenomenon would admit that if we all were to ride on a beam of light and thus effectively become light itself, the universe would be swallowed up into a single Reality. Light (nur) as the basis of perception and the obliterator of all sensible things can be shown in the following encounter, where Ibn ‘Arabi is told:

‘Can you see how dark this Light is? Spread out your hands in front of you, and you will not see them.’ So I spread out my hands, and I did not see them. Then He said to me: ‘This is My Light; you do not see in It anything other than Itself.’[11]

This is similar to the description, referred to earlier, of the He (Hu) and the one who is with the He being the same as the He.

Ibn ‘Arabi ends this 41st chapter of the Futûhât with a brief description of the Poles of the People of the Night, and how night and day are equal for those who are of the Company of Light {sâhibu’n-nur).

I would like to end this paper by returning to the beginning, concerning God’s words in the revealed speech of the Qur’an. It is light which gathers everything to itself and distinguishes things in their separate entities.

The Qur’an is light because of its verses which dispel misleading doubts. Every verse it brings acts as evidence because of the fact that it is light. For light dispels darkness.[12]

Reproduced from the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Aeabi Society, Vol. XIV, “Prayer and Contemplation”, 1993.


[1] Al-Futûhât al-Makkiyya, I, pp. 237ff., Beirut edition. This is the 41st chapter of the book, entitled: ‘Of the knowledge of the People of the Night, the differences in their levels and degrees, and the secrets of their poles (aqtab)’. The bulk of the chapter is here translated.

[2] Futûhât, II, p. 638.

[3] This Divine saying is quoted in ibid., II, p. 399.

[4] Al-Waliyy (The Friend) is one of God’s 99 Names mentioned in the Qur’an, and as such is not attributable to the servant.

[5] Futûhât, II, p. 459.

[6] Muhammad Ibn ‘Abdu-1 Jabbar Al-Niffari, author of the Mawaqif and Mukhâtabât, edited by A.J. Arberry, Cambridge, 1934. The quotation appears in the Arberry edition on page 71 under ‘The Staying of the Compact Covenant of Thy Friendship’. In his introduction, Arberry lists the instances where Niffari is mentioned by Ibn ‘Arabi, but does not mention this one. The full quote is as follows:

The night belongs to Me, not to the scriptures that are recited; yea, the night belongs to Me, not to the lauds and praises.
The night belongs to Me, not to prayer (du’a’). The secret of prayer is need, and the secret of need is self, and the secret of self is its desire.

[7] Himma can be translated as spiritual aspiration or power of concentration or will. For a full explanation, see Al-Mu’jam al-Sufi, Souad Hakim, pp. 1108-19, Beirut, 1981.

[8] The reference here is to the Breath (naf as) of the All-Compassionate. See Fusus al-Hikam, ed. A.A. Affifi, p. 143, Beirut, 1946, and Al Mu’jam al-Sufi.

[9] This is not the corporeal earth, but the earth which forms the basis of the world of imagination (khayal). It is the place where the opposites are integrated, where what is intellectually unimaginable actually occurs, and where, above all, the greatness and power of God become manifest.

[10] Fusus, Ch. 12, pp. 120-1.

[11] Mashdhid al-Asrar, p. 39.

[12] Futûhât, III, pp. 96-7.