Ibn ‘Arabi’s “Gentle Now, Doves of the Thornberry and Moringa Thicket”
(ālā yā hamāmāti l-arākati wa l-bāni)
Michael Sells is a professor of Islamic Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Chicago. He is an authority on Ibn al-'Arabi as well as one of the most distinguished contemporary translators of classical Arabic poetry. His books include: Desert Tracings: Six Classic Arabian Odes (Wesleyan); Mystical Languages of Unsaying (Chicago); Early Islamic Mysticism (Paulist Press); The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia (California); Approaching the Quran (White Cloud); and The Cambridge History of Arabic Literature: Andalus (Cambridge) as two full translations of Ibn 'Arabi’s Tarjuman al-ashwaq, Stations of Desire (2000) and Bewildered (2018).
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doves of the thornberry and moringa thicket,
don’t add to my heart-ache
or your sad cooing
will reveal the love I hide
the sorrow I hide away.
I echo back, in the evening,
in the morning, echo,
the longing of a love-sick lover,
the moaning of the lost.
In a grove of tamarisks
bending the limbs down over me,
passing me away.
They brought yearning,
breaking of the heart,
and other new twists of pain,
putting me through it.
Who is there for me in Jám’,
and the Stoning-Place at Miná,
who for me at Tamarisk Grove,
or at the way-station of Na’mān?
Hour by hour
they circle my heart
in rapture, in love-ache,
and touch my pillars with a kiss.
As the best of creation
circled the Ka’ba,
which reason with its proofs
And kissed the stones there –
and he was the Natiq!
And what is the house of stone
compared to a man or a woman?
They swore, and how often!
they’d never change – piling up vows.
She who dyes herself red with henna
A white-blazed gazelle
is an amazing sight,
Pasture between breastbones
a garden among the flames!
My heart can take on
a meadow for gazelles,
a cloister for monks,
For the idols, sacred ground,
Ka’ba for the circling pilgrim,
the tables of the Torah,
the scrolls of the Qur’án.
I profess the religion of love;
wherever its caravan turns along the way,
that is the belief,
the faith I keep.
Hind and her sister,
love-mad Qays and his lost Láyla,
Máyya and her lover Ghaylán.
Ibn ‘Arabi’s poem, “Gentle Now, Doves of the Thornberry and Moringa Thicket”, is the eleventh poem in his volume The Interpreter of Desires (tarjumān al-ashwāq). After composing the Interpreter of Desires, Ibn ‘Arabi went on to write a commentary to the poems, tying them explicitly to his mystical philosophy. The poems were edited and translated by Reynold Nicholson, who included with them a translation of parts of the commentary, and it is largely through Nicholson that the English speaking world has come to know this remarkable work. The last verses of “Gentle Now,” in which Ibn ‘Arabi speaks of the “Garden among the Flames”, are among the most famous verses in Sufi literature and have been quoted in a wide variety of discussions of Sufism and of the Shaykh al-Akbar. But the poem as a whole has not received as much attention.
The poem is composed around four complex and intertwined thematic movements: 1) The remembrance of the beloved (nasīb) motifs of the classical Arabic Qasida, especially the theme of the Za’n, the journey of the beloved and her female companions away from the poet; 2) The Sufi state of fana’ the passing away or annihilation of the self of the Sufi in union with the divine beloved; 3) The pilgrimage of the hajj, the stations of the pilgrimage, and the circurnambulation of the Ka’ba; and 4) The Sufi claim that the greatest Ka’ba is the heart of the divine lover at the moment of fana’.
Given the title of the collection, The Interpreter of Desires, it is not surprising to find that it is the erotic themes from the nasīb that begin and end the poem and serve as its primary motif. The relationship of Sufism to the nasīb is at the heart of this poem, and my introduction here will focus upon that important and often neglected relationship. The poem immediately evokes the classical poetic tradition through its mention of the doves, the thornberry (arāk) and the moringa (bān). In the classical Qasida, the dove, and particularly the cooing of the dove, is the sad sign of parting, rather than a sign of the joy of lovers united. The cooing of the dove either heralds the imminent separation of lover and beloved, or recalls that separation. The arāk (what I have translated as “thornberry”) plant is a thorny, aromatic shrub with light purplish berries, a shrub that furnished the bedouin with their tooth pick. The arāk tooth twig is most often associated with the beloved; mention of it in a poem often leads to an extended simile in which the arāk twig leads to a recollection of the beloved’s wet mouth and white teeth. The bān (Moringa peregrinis) is a truly magnificent large shrub or small tree. Its leaves form elegant clusters in which are to be found clusters of delicate white and soft-purple flowers, In order to convey a sense of the specific allusions from the classical tradition that Ibn ‘Arabi’s language is meant to convey here, I cite the following passage from the poet Dhu al-Rumma (Ghaylan ibn ‘Uqba) in honor of his beloved Mayya, the poet and beloved mentioned at the very end of Ibn ‘Arabi’s poem. In the first verse of this selection, the moringa is evoked in a simile involving the fall of the beloved’s hair along her back. Later the thornberry tooth twig is depicted as “fragrant as musk and Indian ambergris, brought in in the morning”, a depiction that then yields to a metaphor in which the beloved’s teeth are referred to as “the petals of a camomile / cooled by the night / to which the dew has risen / from Ráma oasis”.
After sleep, she is languor.
The house exudes her fragrance.
She adorns it
when she appears in the morning,
As if her anklets and ivory
were entwined around a calotrope
stopping the water’s flow
in the bed of a wadi,
Her buttocks like a dune
over which a rain shower falls
matting the sand
as it sprinkles down
over the lower curve of her back,
soft as the moringa’s gossamer flowers,
curled with pins and combed,
With long cheek hollows
where tears flow,
and a lengthened curve at the breast sash
where it crosses and falls.
You see her ear pendant
along the exposed ridge of her neck,
dangling over the abyss.
With a red thornberry tooth-twig,
fragrant as musk and Indian ambergris
brought in in the morning,
Petals of a camomile
cooled by the night
to which the dew has risen at evening
from Ráma oasis,
Wafting in on all sides
with the earth scent of the garden,
redolent as a musk pod
The white gleam of her teeth,
her immoderate laugh,
almost to the unhearing
She is the cure, she the disease… 
This brief section from a nasīb of Dhu al-Rumma’s should shed light on the tradition and symbolism evoked by Ibn ‘Arabi’s mention of the thornberry and the moringa. Two aspects of that tradition arc especially important. The first is the “dissembling” nature of the simile in the so-called “description of the beloved” passage within the classical Qasida. In passages like that cited above, the beloved is evoked so powerfully that the reader or hearer is convinced she has been described. But in fact the similes, so vivid in their imagery, tell us very little about the actual appearance of the beloved. They seem to be depicting the beloved, but in fact what they actually show (camomile blossoms, moringa trees, lush vegetation, flowing water, and in other examples, wild animals giving birth or nursing in tranquillity) is the symbolic analogue of the beloved: the lost garden. What occurs here is less a description of Mayya than it is a metamorphosis. The second aspect of such passages is the tension between a language of sensuality and a language of purification. In the above example, the evocation of Mayya brings about a culmination of sensual experiences (scent, touch, taste, sight, and sound). Yet the same images connote purification. Water imagery is especially notable in its ability to tie the two themes together at moments of highest poetic tension, the gushing water is both the water of sexuality and the water of purification.
The themes from the classical Arabic nasīb continue on into verse 3 of “Gentle Now, Doves”, with the evocation of the love-sick lover. In verse 4, these themes are combined with the Sufi concept of fanā’ in the kind of homonymic pun common in the later, badi’ style of poetry. While I could not replicate the pun in English, I tried to bring across its sense of surprise by using the expression “passing me away”, in which the normally intransitive term “pass away” is used in the active, transitive sense. This passing away occurs in the grove of tamarisks in which spirits were wrestling, bending down the limbs over the poet. The word here for spirits (arwāh) is a central term in Ibn ‘Arabi’s writings, commonly referring to those bewildered spirits that encircle the divine throne (itself envisaged as a kind of celestial Ka’ba). The word for winds or breezes (riyāh) is closely related to arwāh, and the poem is playing upon both meanings. This moment of passing away in the tamarisk grove becomes a central moment of transformation for the poetic voice, which shifts from the voice of poet and lover, to the voice of the mystical Ka’ba.
In verse 6, there is presentes a list of pilgrimage stations. The stations also have another meaning as well. In the context of the nasīb, which has been strongly established in the poem, the listing of stations refers to the stopping places (maqamāt, manāzil, mahallāt) of the beloved and her female companions, za’n, in their journey away from the poet. Ibn ‘Arabi makes this theme more explicit in his commentary, but for those steeped in the poetics of the nasīb (a large part of Ibn ‘Arabi’s audience), it would have been apparent even without the commentary.
It is in the next verse that transformation that occurred with the passing away in the grove of tamarisks becomes apparent. The verse comes as a shock: “Hour by hour / they circle my heart.” The poetic voice is now the centre of the circumambulation, speaking from out of the divine abode or house (bayt), the Ka’ba, reinterpreted in Sufism as the heart of the mystic lover who is annihilated in love for the divine beloved. The next two verses, depicting Muhammad (khayr al-bariyya, “the best of creation”) circumambulating the Ka’ba are meant to offer an argument on behalf of this mystical understanding of the Ka’ba.
The poem then shifts back to the images of the Qasida: the henna-dyed lover (the henna commonly symbolic of the lover’s blood), the gazelle, and the meadow, elements of the traditional nasīb, with its evocation of the beloved, its dissembling similes, and its depiction of her symbolic analogue, the lost garden. The poetic motif of the fickleness of the beloved is closely tied to the perishing of the lover, a perishing which by this point in the poem is intricately tied into the perishing of the self in fans’. There follow the famous verses concerning the heart that can take on every form (qabil li kulli sura). Here the forms are listed in a manner reminiscent of the listing of the pilgrimage stops earlier: the meadow for the gazelles, the sacred home of the idols, the Ka’ba, the Torah, the Qur’an, followed with the famous profession of the creed of love: “I profess the religion of love” (adīnu hi dīni l-hubb). At this point, the rhythm of the poem has changed, becoming as measured as that of the pilgrim moving through the stations of the pilgrimage. The rhythm contains a tension, a paradoxical combination of calm measure and increasingly fevered intensity. The poem ends with a tribute to the great lovers and beloveds. The last lover mentioned, Ghaylan, was the great poet of the Umayyad period, Dhû al-Rumma (d. circa 735 GE), who was also known as the “seal of the [classical] poets” (khatam al-shu‘arā’), whose verses I cited above.
A final question remains. In this celebration of mystical union, why would Ibn ‘Arabi evoke the mournful cooing of the doves, and the za’n, the movement of the beloved and her companions away from the poet? Herein lies the elegiac lyricism of Ibn ‘Arabi’s understanding of mystical union. The heart that is receptive of every form must be willing to give up each image, each form, each beloved, in order to be receptive for the next form. This mysticism of perpetual transformation, taqallub (a play on the word heart, qalb) is tied in to a complex and sophisticated mystical dialectic that can be found in the commentary to the poem, and throughout Ibn ‘Arabi’s other works. I have discussed this theme in detail elsewhere. Here it suffices to point out that the perpetually changing manifestations of the real are figured as the changing moods and states of the beloved (her ahwal), and as the continual moving around and past the poet of the beloveds, figured as the pre-Islamic za’n. In the pre-Islamic Qasida, no matter how much the poet may castigate the beloved for her fickleness or treachery, he remains faithful to her remembrance. The more he protests how much he has forgotten her, the more he protests too much and slips into remembering her all the more strongly.
The goal of this brief introduction and translation is an appreciation of this poem simply as a poem, on its own, without at this point drawing out into discursive and philosophical detail the themes that are contained here in lyrical form. In the past it has been common to relegate Ibn ‘Arabi’s poetry to the status of mere allegorical formulations of his ideas, and to turn to other mystical poets, such as Ibn al-Farid, as exemplars of the greatest Arabic mystical poetry. Although Ibn ‘Arabi may not have been primarily a poet, his poetic achievements may be greater than has been recognized. In view of the complexity of its motifs, the delicacy with which they are handled, and the power of its poetic conceptions, I would consider this poem to be an outstanding mystical love poem within an extraordinarily rich Arabic tradition. It amply demonstrates how very deeply the mysticism of the Sufis and the poetics of the classical Qasida were intertwined.
Reprinted from the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society, Vol. X, 1991.
 For the Arabic text see Ibn ‘Arabi, Tarjumān al-Ashwāq (Beirut: Dar Sadir, 1966), pp. 43-4 and for the commentary, see Ibn ‘Arabi, Dhakha’ir al-A’lāq: Sharh Tarjumān al-Ashwāq, ed. M. al-Kurdi (Cairo, 1968), pp. 43-51. For Nicholson’s version see Ibn ‘Arabi, The Tarjumān al-Ashwāq, A Collection of Mystical Odes, trans, and ed. Reynold Nicholson (London: Royal Asiatic Society, 1911), pp. 19, 66-70.
 Here the reference to the doves is accompanied by the untranslatable interjection ālā which is used for the most tragic moments involving the loss of the beloved.
 For superb color photos of these and other flora of Arabia, see Sheila Collenette, An Illustrated Guide to the Flowers of Saudi Arabia (Scorpion Publishing Ltd, London, 1985), p. 437 for the arak (Salvadora persica), and p. 371 for the bān (Moringa peregrina). For a botanical study, the Arabic names, and their Latin equivalents, see Ahmand Mohammad Migahid, Migahid and Hammouda’s Flora of Saudi Arabia, 2nd edition (Riyadh: Riyadh University, 1978).
 This translation is taken from M. Sells, Desert Tracings: Six Classic Arabian Odes by ‘Alqama, Shánfara, Labíd, ‘Antara, Al-A’sha, and Dhu al-Rúmma (Middletown, Ct: Wesleyan University Press, 1989), pp. 71-2. For the text of the poem, see Dhu al-Rúmma, The Diwān of Ghaylān ibn ‘Uqba, ed. Carlile Henry Hayes Macartnesy (Cambridge, 1919).
 I can only mention these two central aspects here. Elsewhere I offer a detailed demonstration of how they work in several major nasīb‘s from classical Qasidas: M. Sells, “Guises of the Ghûl: Dissembling Simile and Semantic Overflow in the Classical Arabic Nasīb,” forthcoming in Reorientations: Studies in Classical Arabic and Persian Poetry, ed. Suzanne Stetkevych.
 The pun is only one example of the extensive use of the play upon homonyms and verbal metathesis (jinās) to be found in The Interpreter of Desires. Here the word play is based upon two meanings of afnānī: “various kinds” (i.e. of branches bent down by the winds, allegorically perhaps, of trials along the mystical path of love); and “causing me to pass away” (the causative, fourth form of faniya, to fade or pass away, and the first person object pronoun suffix).
 Labid’s famous Mu’allaqa begins ‘afat-ad-diyāru mahalluhā fa muqāmuhā bi minan // ta’bbada ghawluha fa rijāmuhā: “The tent marks in Mínan are worn away, / where she encamped, / and where she alighted. / Ghawl and Rijám are left to the wild.” Later there appears one of the fullest and most beautiful za’n movements in classical Arabic poetry, which culminates with a listing of stations:
“But why recall Nawár? / She’s gone.
/ Her ties and bonds to you / are broken.
That Múrrite lady / has lodged in Fayd, /
/ then joined up with the Hijāzi clans. / Who are you to aspire to reach her?
On the Eastern slopes / of Twin Mountains or Muhájjar
Lonebutte has taken her in / then Marblehead
Then Tinderlands if she heads toward Yemen –
I imagine her there – or at Thrall Mountain / or in the valley of Tilkhám.
An example of how supple the stations of the za’n motif can be will be found in the storm scene of Al-A’sha’s famous poem, waddi’ hurayra (Bid Hurayra farewell), where the storm clouds, symbolic of the beloved in their giving of rain and life, and in their ability to destroy life, are depicted as passing through various stations in the precise manner of the listing of the za’n stations. See Sells, Desert Tracings, pp. 35-8 for Labīd, and pp. 60-3 for Al-A’shā. For a discussion of the ancient, pre-Islamic pilgrimage stops, see Patricia Crone, Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), pp. 174—6.
 For a recent treatment of the multivalent symbolism of the term bayt in Arabic culture, see the first part of Juan Campo’s The Other Sides of Paradise: Explorations into the Religious Meanings of Domestic Space in Islam (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1991).
 See M. Sells, “Ibn ‘Arabī’s Garden among the Flames: A Re-evaluation”, History of Religions 23.4 (1984):287:315; and Sells, “Bewildered Tongue: The Semantics of Mystical Union in Islam”, in Mystical Union and Monotheistic Faith, ed. M. Idel and B. McGinn (New York: Macmillan, 1989), pp. 87-124.
 A work that has been even more neglected than the Tarjumān is Ibn ‘Arabī’s Diwan. Recently, however, that gap is being bridged. See Ralph Austin, “Two Poems from the Diwan of Ibn ‘Arabi”, Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi Society, vol. VII (1988): 1-16.