Articles and Translations

The Ship of Stone

This article is also available in French: Le vaisseau de pierre (French)


The last few decades have seen a great increase in publications about Ibn ‘Arabī and his school. The Ibn Arabi Society’s inventory is fitting testimony to the considerable progress made in this domain [1]: translations and essays are appearing at an ever increasing rate, and Ibn ‘Arabī’s teachings have been commentated, analysed, and dissected with greater or lesser degrees of success, depending on the case. But for reasons that are yet to be explained, this flurry of scholarly activity stubbornly eschews a huge area of the Shaykh al-Akbar’s corpus. It must be admitted, after all, that no comprehensive study has yet attempted to deal with Ibn ‘Arabī’s poetic work as a whole. Of course, Nicholson edited and published a translation of the Tarjumān al-ashwāq in London in 1911, and, more recently, a few scholars have dared to venture into Ibn ‘Arabī’s Dīwān published in Bulaq.[2] But as far as what remains to be reaped is concerned, these brave forays represent very little indeed. Whatever work has been accomplished has failed to comprehend the eminent place that poetry occupies in Ibn ‘Arabī’s work, and it has been even less successful in understanding the tremendous role that he gives poetry in support of his teachings. It is certainly not my intention to fill this gaping hole here. My purpose is rather, simply and humbly, to present a brief overview of this terra incognita and of the wealth that it contains.

The voyage is a recurrent theme for Muslim mystics, and the great number of terms relating to this theme in the technical vocabulary of taṣawwuf go almost unnoticed: sulūk, tarīq, mi’rāj, mawqif, etc. These words all denote and describe what is fundamentally the search for God: a long, albeit circular, peregrination that involves the sālik, the viator, in the dark and narrow labyrinth of his being, ultimately leading him toward the dazzling light of the peerless One. For Ibn ‘Arabī, this idea of the voyage is ubiquitous,[3] and the 560 chapters of the Futūḥāt are actually nothing more than an invitation, repeated page after page, to wholeheartedly undertake taw’an, which we are already, volens nolens, forced to do: Innā li-Llāh wa innā ilayhi rāji’ūn (We belong to God and it is to Him that we return). Whether they will it or not, all beings are on a path toward their point of origin; but, as Ibn ‘Arabī emphasizes on a number of different occasions, this return has no endpoint, for man is ontologically doomed to travel forever, be it in this world or in the next.[4] It is a voyage of the body that, from change to change, progresses unremittingly from birth to death; a journey of the heart which, from theophany to theophany, wanders incessantly toward new territories. Birth, death, resurrection, Judgement, Paradise, and Hell are never anything more than major steps in a passage that, in the image of Him who is the leader of the voyage, will never know an end. It is a bitter and painful circuit for the many who have forgotten the reason for the voyage, and a breathtaking odyssey for those others who, from one moment of worship to another, let themselves be gently guided by the spiral that carries them away.

Of the many voyages that Ibn ‘Arabī describes, it is on the one to which he invites us in Chapter eight of the Futūḥāt that I would like to focus.[5] Chapter eight is dedicated to the ard al-haqīqa, the “World of Reality” that was created with what remained of Adam’s clay. It belongs, says Ibn ‘Arabī, to the ‘ālam al-khayāl, the Imaginal World, and it is part of the barzakh, the “isthmus” that joins all the orders of reality. It is the theatre where the visions of the gnostics are seen, where dreams take place, where souls reside as they await the Last Judgement. It is a spiritual World where, contrary to what happens in this one, bodies have a subtle consistency and intelligibles take on form. This world is penetrated only by the “spirit”, not to be confused with the imagination, for the imagination is capable of engendering only that which is unreal. This preliminary information just outlined is followed by first-hand accounts of spiritual travellers who, like Dhu-l Nun al-Misri, had the privilege of visiting this marvellous world: cities of gold, silver, saffron and musk, fruit with unparalleled flavour, oceans of precious metals that touch one another without mixing their waters. The “fantastic” character of these descriptions should not be misunderstood; the ard al-haqīqa is not a mythical kingdom. Despite the fact that it is ma‘nawiyya, “spiritual”, it is nonetheless no less real than is the ground upon which we tread. It is first and foremost the World of the purest Adoration offered to God: “It is God’s World”, Ibn ‘Arabī explains elsewhere.

He who inhabits it has realized true servitude before God; God joins him to Himself, for He has said: “O, my servants who believe, My World is vast, so worship Me!” I myself have been worshipping God in that World since the year 590, and we are now in 635. That World is immutable and imperishable; that is why God has made it the abode of His servants, and the place par excellence of His worship. [6]

And it is undoubtedly to remind us of this essential truth that Ibn ‘Arabī then reports that in that world he saw a Ka’ba, from which the veil (kiswa) had been removed, speak to those who were making the ritual circumambulations, and that it granted them spiritual Knowledge.

But the account that follows plunges us into a strangely phantasmagoric universe reminiscent of surrealist paintings. He says,

In that world I saw a sea of sand as fluid as water; I saw stones, both large and small, that attracted one another like iron and a magnet. When they came together, they could not come apart without someone intervening, just as when one takes the iron away from the magnet without the magnet being able to hold on. But if one fails to separate them, these stones continue to stick to one another at a set distance; when they are all joined, they have the form of a ship. I myself saw a small vessel with two hulls. When a boat is thus constructed, its passengers jump into the sea, and then they embark for wherever they wish. The deck of the vessel is made of grains of sand or of dust, soldered together in a special way. I have never seen anything so marvellous as these stone vessels floating on an ocean of sand! All the boats have the same shape; the vessel has two sides, behind which are raised two enormous columns higher than a man’s head. The rear of the ship is at the same level as the sea, and is open to the sea without a single grain of sand coming inside.[7]

At first glance, the reader is tempted to see nothing in this text other than a typical example of ajā’ib, the mirabilia in which Arabic literature abounds. This would be ignoring the fact that, regardless of his form of discourse, the author of the Futūḥāt never aims at “distracting” his reader but, quite on the contrary, at bringing him around to the essential. It is also a fact that a careful reading of the vocabulary used by the author in this passage suggests that this strange story is masking a subtle point in Ibn ‘Arabī’s teaching. This is not to suggest that the account is a simple allegory. In the Mundus Imaginalis, where a square can be round or something small can contain something large, Ibn ‘Arabī has certainly been the astonished witness to this quite distinctive ocean voyage. But his narration of this experience is, for him, less an occasion to astound us than it is a means of subtly teaching us a principle of initiation of which the scene he describes is the concrete expression.[8] It is also true that to structure the story he deliberately borrowed key terms from a specific lexicon in Arabic linguistics: bahr is the word commonly used for the ocean. But it is also the word that, in the language of Arabic poetry, denotes the meter of a poem; likewise, ramal, which ordinarily refers to sand, is the name for one of the sixteen meters in classical Arabic prosody.[9] The use of vocabulary borrowed from the language of Arabic poetry is obviously not coincidental in the least. From this point of view, the story of the stone vessels sailing over a sea of sand has nothing to do with the dream state of a delirious mind. The vessel (safīna) represents the qasīda, the classical Arabic poem; the inseparable stones are kalīmāt, the words that, when joined together, form the verses which, when arranged together make up the poem; the two sides of the boat are the hemistiches of each line of verse, and the two columns refer to the two “pillars”, watid, of Arabic meter. Thus, with slightly encrypted language, Ibn ‘Arabī points out to us that poetry is the privileged way to “travel” in the ‘ālam al-khayāl, whose haqā’iq (spiritual realities) it carries, although spiritual realities, by their very nature, are supraformal.

Some, rightfully, might not be convinced by the interpretation that I suggest for this strange episode from the Futūḥāt. If such is the case, I invite them to discover – or to rediscover, in case they know it already – another of Ibn ‘Arabī’s texts. I refer to the as-yet unedited Dīwān al-ma‘ārif al-ilāhiyya, and, more specifically, to the preface in which Ibn ‘Arabī introduces this “Collection of Divine Knowledge”. I have described this Dīwān elsewhere,[10] using the three manuscripts recorded by Osman Yahia.[11] From the number of conclusions reached by my research, I would like simply to point out the following: when he set out to compose the Dīwān al-ma‘ārif, the Shaykh al-Akbar’s intention was, according to what he said at the beginning of the text, to gather together into a Summa Poetica the totality of the verses that he had composed, and had either written copies of or could remember. However, the completion of this colossal project, one to which he was unable to devote all of his time, took a number of years.[12] Partial copies of this Summa began to circulate while the project was still in progress; some of the partial copies are from the early part of the work, these being what we now know by the title Dīwān al-ma‘ārif; the others are its continuation, and these are what was printed in Bulaq as Dīwān al-Shaykh al-Akbar. The results of my research show these collections, considered to be two distinct works up to now, to be in reality the two main pieces of the Dīwān kabīr, the “Great Dīwān” planned by Ibn ‘Arabī.[13]

Hopefully, the analysis I am going to make of the preface of the Dīwān al-ma‘ārif will clearly show what interest and importance there is, for both researchers and those who are attached to Ibn ‘Arabī’s teachings, in joining their efforts in an attempt to reconstruct this monument of Arabic mystical poetry.

Praise be to Him Who created man in a manifest manner and who sent down the quantities (maqādīr) and the measures (awzān)…

From the very first lines of this preface,[14 ]the lines that make up the doxological prelude, Ibn ‘Arabī sets out to prove that the rules upon which Arabic poetry is based come forth from Divine Wisdom, and that they are ubiquitous in Creation for whoever has eyes to see. God constructed the universe, he emphasizes, according to the same principles as those that form the framework of the bayt al-shi’r, the verses of a poem.[15] A poem, like the universe, rests upon two cords (sabab, the word for one of the principal elements of Arabic meter); one of them is “light”, and it is the spiritual world; the other is “thick”, the corporeal world. Likewise, two “pillars” (watad, the second principal element in meter) preserve it: one is the constitution and the generation of things, while the other is their decomposition and dissolution. In sum, the Shaykh al-Akbar observes, the world is a work endowed with rhyme and rhythm. Moreover, he adds, God placed the jewels of spiritual knowledge, and the secrets of the Lord, in language. He then entrusted this treasure to the ‘ārifūn, the gnostics, who, for fear of it being plundered, hid the secrets under the veil of poetry, disguising them with allusive and symbolic terms. And on top of all that, Ibn ‘Arabī observes at the end of this unusual khutba, is the Prophet not referred to as the Master of language and the holder of the “sum of words” (jawāmial-kalim)? Two main ideas stand out in this passage. First, in words completely devoid of any ambiguity, Ibn ‘Arabī is making a statement about poetry’s relationship to wisdom and divine providence: that its fundamental principles are divinely instituted. And second, that the language of poetry is used as the privileged support of spiritual and divine knowledge, the perpetuity of which it reserves for the exclusive use of gnostics.

Having thus established not only the legitimacy, but also the necessity, of mystics having recourse to poetic language, Ibn ‘Arabī undertakes the presentation of his own Dīwān. He does so globally at first, affirming that this collection of poems comes entirely out of divine inspiration, and that speculation has played no role whatsoever; then, in more detail, he lists a long series of technical terms that relate to different categories of spiritual men, their different kinds of knowledge, their states, their degrees, and so forth, a list that in a way serves as the Dīwān’s table of contents. The Shaykh al-Akbar acknowledges that these terms are recondite; they constitute a kind of code – each discipline has its own, he reminds us – that the awliyā use deliberately when they wish to deny the uninitiated access to the kind of knowledge that the code is transmitting.

After these preliminary remarks, Ibn ‘Arabī outlines his personal reasons, first for composing the poetry, and then for gathering together all his murtajalāt (his improvised lines of verse), into a single collection. In reality, this introspection gives us the key – providing we can decipher all the underlying doctrinal and autobiographical allusions – to how to read the “Collection of Divine Knowledge”.

According to what he says, three visions, each separated from the others by a number of years, are at the base of the Shaykh al-Akbar’s poetic vocation. The first of these three initiatory dreams[16] deals with a crucial step in the Andalusian mystic’s conversion, in the strict sense of the word. After a period of “ignorance” – the Futūḥāt’s author most often uses the expression fī jāhiliyyatī for this – in which, he admits, he did not distinguish between what was true knowledge and what was not, God granted him assistance:

The Most Merciful looked down upon me with a look of Benevolence and sent Muḥammad, Jesus, and Moses to me while I slept. Jesus encouraged me toward asceticism and ridding myself of unnecessary belongings; Moses gave me the “disk of the sun” and predicted that I would obtain “ilm ladunnī[17] from among the sciences of the tawhīd; and Muḥammad commanded: “Hang on to me, you will be safe!”

If, of the dozens of visions that marked his spiritual path, the Shaykh al-Akbar chooses to mention this triple intervention by prophets here, it is not only because it delineated his first steps on the Path;[18] other visionary encounters were at least as decisive in his spiritual life, most notably the one that, in 586 in Cordoba, placed him in the presence of all the Prophets that have arisen since Adam. It would appear to me that it is because this incident sheds light on a fundamental aspect of the mission assigned to the Seal of Muhammadan Sainthood that Ibn ‘Arabī chose to insert it in the preface to the Dīwān al-ma‘ārif. Let it be noted that the three prophets that come before Ibn ‘Arabī – and who give him assistance – are the representatives of the three main religions that stem from the Abrahamic tradition. Moreover, we know that, from the perspective of Ibn ‘Arabī’s hagiology,[19] the Muhammadan Seal is the inheritor par excellence of all the prophets and, therefore, of these three Messengers. It would appear to me that there is no doubt that this vision refers to the status of the Muhammadan Seal as wārith, the inheritor of the prophets, and particularly of Muḥammad, Jesus, and Moses. But it also suggests, albeit discreetly, that the three communities – Muslim, Christian, and Jewish – represented by these three prophets are more particularly concerned with his ministry. Everything takes place as if, in Ibn ‘Arabī’s eyes, the Muhammadan Seal’s vocation – the counterpart to the support that these messengers gave to him – was to help their respective communities, most notably by preserving, through his teaching, the essential and immutable truths that were the basis of the traditions to which they were connected.

This triple prophetic intervention occurs, according to what I have shown elsewhere, before 580, and it leads Ibn ‘Arabī, according to what he explains in the following lines, to become involved in suhba, the companionship of spiritual teachers.

Mentioned quite succinctly here,[20] the second incident takes place nearly twenty years later. In it, Ibn ‘Arabī sees the celebration of his nuptial union with each of the stars in the sky and each of the letters of the alphabet. In the Kitāb al-bā, where he deals at greater length with this strange ceremony,[21] Ibn ‘Arabī states that it took place in Bougie, in the month of Ramadan, in 597, and that a dream interpreter to whom he had his dream described said the following: “That is the bottomless ocean; he who had this dream will receive a greater portion of the heavenly sciences, of hidden knowledge, and of the mysteries of heavenly bodies than anyone else in his time has ever received.’

This event coincides with a pivotal moment in Ibn ‘Arabī’s destiny: he said goodbye to Andalusia, traveled toward Tunis, and from there to the Orient, where he would spend the rest of his life. A number of important spiritual events marked this “western period” that is just about over for him: in 586 in Cordoba, Ibn ‘Arabī is present at a general convocation of prophets who come to congratulate him – according to Jandi[22] – for having been designated to play the role of Seal of Muhammadan Sainthood. In 594, in Fez, Ibn ‘Arabī has his election confirmed during a vision that he describes in a long and remarkable poem[23] retracing the important stages in his spiritual life. And then, a few months before his stopping in Bougie, in the month of Muharram 597, he reaches the maqām al-qurba, the Station of Proximity, that which, according to him, comes just before the Station of Lawgiving Prophecy.[24]

Placed in this context, Ibn ‘Arabī’s celestial marriage in Bougie takes on the clearest of meanings. The heavenly bodies and the letters around which this account takes place refer expressly to the esoteric sciences and sacred knowledge that, in Islamic tradition, are referred to as “ilm al-hurūf, the science of letters, and “ilm al-nujūm, astrology. Let it be remembered that, for Ibn ‘Arabī as well as a number of other sufis, the science of letters is properly speaking the science of the āwliyā”, and it is one of the surest signs of the authenticity of their spiritual realization.[25] Moreover, Ibn ‘Arabī reports in one of his poems that a “messenger” (rasūl) came to see him in Seville to tell him about his quality of “heir” (wirātha), stating that “The science of letters is for us the proof that you are the Imam”.[26] All of this relevant information is evidence that the vision in Bougie again confirms the divine origin of Ibn ‘Arabī’s election. It also shows us another facet of the charge that he is called to assume: the Seal of Muhammadan Sainthood is the repository and the guardian of the sacred sciences, whose full and complete transmission he can assure for the awliyā” who will succeed him up until the Last Day.

The following information, which is not present in the other texts relating to the vision in Bougie, unexpectedly brings us back to the heart of the problem debated in the khutba of the Dīwān al-ma‘ārif: During the marriage ceremony, says Ibn ‘Arabī,

God had me hear the screeching of the styluses [that record human actions]; it was a melody in double or triple time, depending on whether they were adding or taking away. “What is that refrain? ”, I asked. “What you are hearing (al-samā‘) is poetry” was the reply. “And what has poetry to do with me? “ “It is the origin (asl) of all the following: poetic language is the permanent principle (al-jawhar al-thābit), while prose is the immutable consequence (al-faral-thābit)!

This fiery dialogue is used by Ibn ‘Arabī to return to a discussion of the universal and providential character of the poetic art, which is always and everywhere present; he remarks that there is no sound in nature that does not have a regular beat, there is no architecture that is not ingeniously ordered. Certainly. But what does the one have to do with the other: the intrinsic nature of poetic language and the function of the Muhammadan Seal as it appears, as I see it, in Ibn ‘Arabī’s union with the stars and the letters of the alphabet?

The account of the third and last vision mentioned in the preface to the Dīwān al-ma‘ārif[27] is aimed entirely at clarifying this disconcerting digression. Ibn ‘Arabī explains:

The reason which has led me to utter (talaffuz) poetry[28] is that I saw in a dream an angel who was bringing me a piece of white light; as if it were a piece of the sun’s light. “What is that? ”, I asked. “It is sura al-shu’arā‘” (the sura of the Poets) was the reply. I swallowed it, and felt a hair (sha’ra) stretching from my chest up to my throat, and then into my mouth. It was an animal with a head, a tongue, eyes, and lips. It stretched forth until its head reached the two horizons, that of the East and that of the West. After that, it shrank back and returned to my chest; at that moment I realized that my words would reach the East and the West. When I came back to myself, I uttered verses that came forth from no reflection and no intellectual process whatsoever. Since that time, this inspiration has never ceased; and it is because of this sublime contemplation that I have collected all the poetry that I can remember. But there is much more that I have forgotten! Everything that this collection contains is thus, thanks be to God, nothing other than [the fruit of] divine projection, a holy and spiritual inspiration, a splendid, celestial heritage.

For a diligent reader of Ibn ‘Arabī, there is a word in this text that immediately catches one’s eye, that of sha’ra. It is found in one of his most famous passages of the Futūḥāt, in the prologue (khutba) to this capital work, and it is where Ibn ‘Arabī describes the vision in which, in 598 in Mecca, the Prophet Muḥammad in person ordains him Seal of Muhammadan Sainthood. In the process of the ceremony, the Prophet states: “there is within you one of my hairs (sha’ra) that can no longer bear to be far from me; it rules your most inner reality.’[29] Coincidence? One would happily accept this explanation if this same word did not also appear in another text from the Futūḥāt, this one also relating to the Muhammadan Seal: “His status in relation to God’s Messenger”, states Ibn ‘Arabī in Chapter 382, “is that of a hair (sha’ra) of his body in relation to the whole body.[30] We should parenthetically add to these two texts mention of Chapter 11 of the Futūḥāt, where Ibn ‘Arabī uses the word sha’ra again to illustrate the subtle relationship that he enjoys with the Prophet.[31]

Thus, on three different occasions, the Shaykh al-Akbar returns to the image of the “hair” to symbolize his relationship – or that of the Muhammadan Seal, which amounts to the same thing – to the Prophet. I would not be the least surprised if a detailed examination of Ibn ‘Arabī’s poetic language revealed further occurrences of the same word. In any case, it can be legitimately deduced that the “hair” from the vision described that emerges from his chest and becomes a living being, growing large enough to embrace “the two horizons’[32] before it returns to his body, unquestionably represents the bond between the Muhammadan Seal and the Haqīqa Muḥammadiya that is the source of all walāya. Furthermore, the animal’s expansion presages, according to Ibn ‘Arabī’s own remarks, the future of the Shaykh al-Akbar’s teachings.[33] This vision that announces the diffusion of Ibn ‘Arabī’s work from all appearances falls within the scope of the strictly universal dimension of Ibn ‘Arabī’s ministry, that is, of the Seal of Muhammadan Sainthood. In the eyes of Muslims, and especially in Ibn ‘Arabī’s eyes, this characteristic of universality is a privilege (scripturally based on Qur’ān 34:28) of the risāla Muḥammadiyya, of the mission of the Prophet.

Nor is this all. It must be clearly stated that there exists a strict relationship between the words shu’arā”, the title of the sura that Ibn ‘Arabī “absorbs”, sha’ra, the hair that comes out of this communion, and shi’r, the poetry that this vision engenders. All these words come from the root sh’r, which expresses the idea of “knowing”, “perceiving”, in an immediate and global manner. The very title of the Dīwān al-ma‘ārif is clearly related to this primary meaning.

And even more so, cross-checks of Ibn ‘Arabī’s different texts show that this morphologic relationship takes place semantically at the same time, although quite subtly, and is likewise related to the idea of khatm Muḥammadī.

The commentary that follows the assertion in Chapter 382 of the Futūḥāt cited above adds further information. He says, as he continues to speak about the Seal:

That is why it is perceived (yush’aru) in a global manner without its being known (this time, yu’lamu) distinctively, with the exception of those to whom God has made it known or those to whom he discloses his identity, and who believe Him. Subtle perception has also been defined as “hair”, related to shu’ūr. This perception is analogous to that which allows us, when standing before a closed door [. ..] to detect a movement that indicates the presence of an animal in the house, even though we are not able to know exactly what kind of animal it is, or to tell (‘perceive’: again, yush’aru) that it is a person, even though we are not in a position to be able to know his or her identity […] It is because of this occult characteristic (khafā‘), referred to as shu’ūr), subtle perception (and not as “ilm).[34]

In other words, the presence in this world of the Muhammadan Seal necessarily remains discreet, as imperceptible as is a “hair” between one’s fingers.

This veiled, subtle character is equally intrinsic in poetry (shi’r), a claim made by Ibn ‘Arabī in the lines that immediately precede the account of the vision of the sura al-shu’arā‘: “The Prophet was not forbidden from using poetry because of its being contemptible, degrading or in any way inferior, but rather because of its basis in allusions (ishārāt) and symbols (rumūz), since poetry springs forth from subtle knowledge (shu’ūr). It is incumbent upon the Prophet to be clear for everyone and to use expressions as straightforward as possible.’[35] It must be emphasized here that in his endeavour to demonstrate the secret nobility of poetry – something that he really does continually, beginning with the first line of the preface – Ibn ‘Arabī once again runs counter to the current of common theological opinion, where verse 224 of sura al-shu’arā” – the very verse that in a sense gives birth to Ibn ‘Arabī’s poetic work – would imply that, by nature, poetry is an impure and deviant art. For the Shaykh al-Akbar, on the other hand, it is what poets do with it that determines whether poetry is commendable or reprehensible.[36] And is the vision that, immediately after this point, describes his “encounter” with the sura al-shu’arā” not obvious proof that there is no absolute incompatibility between divine inspiration and poetic inspiration? The hair that symbolizes the status of the Muhammadan Seal as the manifestation of the “hidden” face of the Prophet, that of his absolute walāya (sainthood), comes out of a Quranic sura that Ibn ‘Arabī has previously swallowed up and, consequently, completely integrated into his being. If we accept the conclusion that Ibn ‘Arabī draws from this vision, it follows that his word, that is, his teaching, which is destined to be showered over the universe, is literally nourished by the Qur’ān, wherein it draws its entire source. Of the 114 suras of the Qur’ān, that it happens to be specifically the twenty-sixth, the sura called al-shu’arā” (the poets), that is offered to him leaves no doubt that poetry represents an essential part of this teaching. That alone implies that the poetry in question is in no way “profane” poetry.

Another of Ibn ‘Arabī’s texts allows us to see the tremendous importance that this vision had in his future, at the same time that it underscores the critical role of sura 26 in the development of his poetic vocation. I am referring to the title of Chapter 358 of the fasl al-manāzil – the chapter that corresponds to sura 26[37] – as Ibn ‘Arabī refers to it in the table of contents at the beginning of the Futūḥāt: “On the knowledge of three secret lights� It is beginning in this Abode [= sura] that I began to utter poetry, during a retreat that I made, in which I reached this Abode.[38] We happen to know, from one of the three manuscripts of the Dīwān al-ma‘ārif[39], that the vision of sura al-shu’arā” took place while Ibn ‘Arabī was making a retreat. There appears to be not a shadow of a doubt that we are here dealing with the same retreat in which he reached the Abode of the twenty-sixth sura.[40] Furthermore, it is interesting to note that in this text Ibn ‘Arabī emphasizes the three first verses of the sura that the angel brings him; the implication is that these three verses synthesize the essence of the Abode that corresponds to the twenty-sixth sura that Ibn ‘Arabī obtains in the vision. And, based on this, can a relationship not be seen between the “three secrets” of the chapter of the Futūḥāt that corresponds to sura 26, the “three verses” of this sura being at the heart of this event, and the three visions that mark the preface of the Dīwān al-ma‘ārif? Moreover, the first of the three verses of sura al-shu’arā” is composed of three “luminous” letters (” – SīnMīm) and the first of the three visions mentioned in the preface is subdivided into three visions, those of Muḥammad, Jesus, and Moses….

Cross-checks of these texts better illustrate the parallel that Ibn ‘Arabī establishes between the function of the Muhammadan Seal and the function of poetic language. Messengers, whose mission is essentially to “call” men to worship the one God and to observe His laws, are obliged to use clear language that is accessible to everyone. The use of poetry, which is by nature allusive language containing symbolic, and thus ambivalent, expressions, is formally incompatible with such a mission. The role of the Muhammadan Seal, on the other hand, is more recondite.[41] “The Guardian of the Treasure”, to use Qashani’s expression, he keeps watch so that the wisdom-truths that underlie prophetic revelation – and which the corruption of hearts and morals keeps from being disclosed publicly – remain alive and intact until the End of Time. Silent without being mute, transparent without being absent, the Muhammadan Seal assures in the shadows the integral transmission of the “Sacred Repository” for the use of those who have been able to remain worthy. Just as his interventions in the sphere of walāya take subterranean routes that no spatio-temporal barriers can obstruct, he expresses himself by allusions and symbols, such that no impious look can profane the secret message that he has aimed at the awliyā” of the “two horizons”. Fundamentally ambivalent, poetic discourse offers, more than any other form of language, the indispensable guarantees of inviolability: only pure souls know how to decipher successfully the enigmas and symbols that nourish it. But it is because of this same equivocal characteristic that poetry is open to erroneous, even slanderous interpretations. Ibn ‘Arabī is quite conscious of this, through his own unpleasant experience, and warns his reader not to be deceived by appearances. At the conclusion of his preface, he writes:

Everything in this Dīwān that refers to love poetry, to praise of women […], to their names (when I name them), has nothing to do with what poets ordinarily mean to express in their love poetry. Nothing I say relates to anything other than the divine sciences and the secrets of magistracy, just as I have already explained in the Dhakhā’ir al-a’lāq.[42]

We thus see clearly the subtle logic that connects Ibn ‘Arabī’s marriage in Bougie, which establishes him as “guardian of the secret sciences” with the mystery of poetic language to which he was initiated on the same occasion. There is a strict complicity between the Seal of the Saints and Poetry: both possessed of the same subtle status; both share the same function, since both are called to preserve the “Sacred Repository”.

There are two essential points to bear in mind in the reading that I am proposing for these three accounts that appear in the beginning of the Dīwān al-ma‘ārif’s poetry. The first is that each of the visionary experiences that they recount sheds light on some particular aspect of the function of the Muhammadan Seal, at the same time that it corresponds to a precise stage in the odyssey that, from its first fath in Seville, leads Ibn ‘Arabī to the heights of sainthood in Mecca in 598. As M. Chodkiewicz has pointed out,[43] a distinction must be made between the announcement made to Ibn ‘Arabī regarding his imminent accession to the rank of Muhammadan Seal, his reaching the spiritual degree that this charge implies, acquisition of knowledge of the spiritual sciences that it entails, and its actual investiture. It is worth pointing out that a number of Ibn ‘Arabī’s autobiographical texts suggest that, even after this “investiture in the Supreme Centre” – to borrow a term from M. Vālsan – in 598, Ibn ‘Arabī experienced other visions regarding his selection.[44] There is complementary information on this subject in the Dīwān al-ma‘ārif. On folio 141b, which comments on the poem that he just cited, Ibn ‘Arabī gives the following details:

Know that the reason for this verse is that when God informed me that I was the Muhammadan Seal in the city of Fez – I think it was in 594[45 ]- He showed me the mark [of this Seal] between my shoulders;[46] I could see both it and the angels that came to bring me the news. However, He gave me no knowledge of the Firman by which He invested me with spiritual power over the world. Nevertheless, Thursday night in the middle of the month of Rabīawwal, 630 in Damascus, He acquainted me with this Firman, which He had composed for me to that end.

Thus, for thirty years after his “investiture”, Ibn ‘Arabī is still the object of “revelations” regarding his role and the mission that has been accorded him.[47] If the 598 vision clearly marks the culminating point in Ibn ‘Arabī’s spiritual ascension, it is still far from being the final point in his vocation.

Secondly, this preface, where the Shaykh al-Akbar openly says what he insinuates in veiled words in Chapter 8 of the Futūḥāt, offers us an explanation, at the same time both dense and remarkable, regarding the specifically initiatory function that he assigns to poetry. Throughout the entirety of this text, sometimes with dogmatic arguments, sometimes via his own spiritual experience, Ibn ‘Arabī persists in showing poetry as the privileged vector of spiritual knowledge, of which it is both a means of access and a means of expression. Just as the Imaginal World provides the pure intelligibles with a formal consistency, poetry – whose source is in that same World – manages to capture dazzling haqā’iq, to instantaneously inscribe them in both written and audible form. Of course, Ibn ‘Arabī is not the only Muslim mystic to consider poetic language to be the means of discourse best suited for suggesting that which, by nature, is ineffable, and which, by virtue of its ineffability, escapes intellectual representation. Other spiritual Muslims, like Ibn al-Farid or Rūmī, have understood that the incantatory power of poetic rhythm and the trance produced by the resounding echo of rhyme were effective in erasing the empirical limits of space and time beyond which the haqā’iq reside. But it was up to Ibn ‘Arabī to emphatically proclaim that poetry is, par excellence, the “vessel” that contains the treasure of the bayt al-walāya, and which assures its journey over the tumultuous waters of the centuries.

This translation first appeared in Volume XIX of the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi Society (1996), in the special issue entitled, “The Journey of The Heart”.


[1] See the articles by M. Notcutt, JMIAS, III , 1984, 55-64, and IV , 1986, 65-74, as well as his paper presented at the first international conference on Ibn ‘Arabi, Murcia, 1990: ‘Ibn ‘Arabi in Print’, published in Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi.Ed. S. Hirstenstein and M. Tiernan, Shaftesbury, Dorset, 1993, pp.328-39.

[2] See R. Austin, ‘Ibn al-‘Arabi, Poet of Divine Realities’, in Hirtenstein and Tiernan, Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi, pp.181-90; R. Deladrière, ‘Le Dîwân d’Ibn Arabi’, in JMIAS, XV , 1994, 50-6; and Sami-Ali,Le Chant de l’Ardent Désir, intro. and trans. of selections from the Turjumân al-ashwâq, Paris, 1989.

[3] On the concept of the voyage in Ibn ‘Arabi, see, for example: Fut., II, Chs 189, 190, 191, 380-4, and the K. al-isfâr ‘annatâ’ij al-asfâr, critical edn. by D. Gril, Combas, 1994.

[4] Gril, K. al-isfâr, pp.5-6; Fut., II, 383.

[5] Fut., I, 126-31.

[6] Ibid., III, Ch. 351, 224.

[7] Ibid., I, 129.

[8] It might be noted in passing that a similar expression to the oneused by Ibn ‘Arabi in this passage, that of the ‘sea of sand’ or the ‘sea of gravel’, is found in medieval Christian descriptions of the ‘kingdom of The Priest John’, who of course belonged to the ‘âlam al-khayâl. Cf. J. Delemeau, Une Histoire du Paradis, Paris, 1992, pp.103, 109.

[9] Cf. Encyclopedia of Islam, new edn, Leiden, 1960-, s.v. ‘arûd.

[10] C. Addas, ‘A propos du Dîwân al-ma’arif d’Ibn ‘Arabi’, in Studia Islamica, 81 , 1995, 187-95.

[11] Histoire et Classification de l’Oeuvre d’Ibn ‘Arabi, Damascus, 1964, R. G. 101; of these three manuscripts, that of Paris, BN 2348, which is composed of 239 folios (ff. 35-273), is the most complete; the Turkish manuscript, Fatih 5322, ff.213-214b, reproduces only the preface of the Dîwân al-ma’ârif, while the Berlin manuscript, 7746, spr. 1108, is in reality only a kind of anthology of Ibn ‘Arabi’s poems, and was probably composed at a later time.

[12] The mention of the Dîwân al-ma’ârif in the Fihrist, written in
AH627, proves that Ibn ‘Arabi had already begun his composition by this time; on the other hand, the references to the second version of the Fut., completed in 636 (f.200), and the dates AH629 and 630 that Ibn ‘Arabi notes regarding certain poems (ff.43, 141b) show that several years passed between Ibn ‘Arabi’s beginning of the ‘Great Dîwân‘ and its completion.

[13] Let us bear in mind that the Dîwân al-ma’ârif is mentioned in the two autobiographical works composed by Ibn ‘Arabi: the Fihrist (Ms. Yusuf Aga, 5623, f.383) and the Ijâza ilâ l-Malik al-Muzaffar (ed. A. Badawi, in Al-Andalus, 1955, XX , fasc.1, 184) where Ibn ‘Arabi presents it as follows:
Dîwân al-ma’ârif al ilâhiyya wa huwa al-Dîwân al-kabîr‘! Moreover, there are manuscripts of the Dîwân printed in Bulaq with the title Dîwân kabîr; cf. Yahia, Histoire, R. G. 102.

[14] .. Ms. BN.2348, f.35b.

[15] In Arabic prosody ‘bayt al-shi’r‘ refers to the verse, properly speaking, analogous to the
bayt al-sha’r‘, which literally refers to the ‘house of hair’, that is, the tent; similarly, the binary names of the fundamental elements of Arabic meter are taken from the materials that supply the structure for a tent: the two ‘cords’ (sabab), the two pillars (watad), the two partitions (fâsila); on this subject, see Bresnier, Cour de Langue Arabe, Paris, 1855, pp.507-10.

[16] Ms. BN, f.36b.

[17] The ‘Science to be found with Me’ is the knowledge possessed by Khadir, Moses’ interlocutor in the Qur’anic episode of the sura of the Cave (Q. 18:65), and the exemplar of the afrâd. On this subject, see M. Chodkiewicz, Le Sceau des Saints, Paris, 1986, Ch. 7 (Seal of the Saints, Cambridge, 1993).

[18] On the circumstances and immediate consequences of this vision for Ibn ‘Arabi’s later life, see C. Addas, Ibn ‘Arabî ou la Quête du Soufre Rouge, Paris, 1989, pp.61-3 (Quest for the Red Sulphur, Cambridge, 1993, pp.41-2).

[19] This subject is discussed in depth in Chodkiewicz, Le Sceau, a work to which the present study is greatly indebted; see especially Ch. 9.

[20] Ms. BN, f.36b.

[21] K. al-bâ, Cairo, 1954, pp.10-11. See also the K. al-kutub in Rasâ’il Ibn al-‘Arabî, Hyderabad, 1948, p.49.

[22] Sharh fusûs al-hikam, Mashhad, 1982, p.431.

[23] Dîwân Ibn ‘Arabi, Bulaq, 1855, pp.332-7.

[24] Fut., II, 261.

[25] On this question, see D. Gril, ‘La Science des lettres’, in Les Illuminations de la Mecque, ed. M. Chodkiewicz, Paris, 1989, Ch.8, pp.385-487.

[26] Dîwân Ibn ‘Arabi, p.348.

[27] Ms. BN, f.37a.

[28] It can be seen from this passage, as well as from one other (f.35b) – in which Ibn ‘Arabi explicitly states that prior to this vision he was never devoted to composing poetry – that the event took place in AH594, at the very latest, for this is the date of the composition of the K. al-isrâ, which included a number of poems. Of course, this does not rule out the possibility that Ibn ‘Arabi’s first poems – and, consequently, the vision that marks the beginning of his poetic vocation – preceded this date.

[29] Fut., I, 3.

[30] Fut., III, 514.

[31] Fut., I, 106.

[32] Note the analogy to the
‘Blessed Tree’ in the Verse of the Light
(Q. 24:35), which ‘is neither East nor West’.

[33] It is even probable that it is in reference to this vision – which, as we have seen, took place in AH594 at the latest – that Ibn ‘Arabi subsequently uses the term. This all shows to what extent ‘the selection of a word is never fortuitous for Ibn ‘Arabi, and less so is its repetition’, as M. Chodkiewicz has remarked: cf. Un Océan sans Rivage, Paris, 1992,
p.105 (An Ocean without Shore, Albany, 1993, p.79).

[34] Fut., III, 514; on the distinction that Ibn ‘Arabi makes between ‘ilm and shu’ûr, see also III, 458.

[35] Ms. BN, f.37a.

[36] On this subject, see the poem that heads Ch.358, Fut., III, 262.

[37] On the correspondence between the 114 chapters of this Fasl and the 114 suras of the Qur’an; cf. Chodkiewicz, Océan, Ch.3.

[38] Fut., I, 22.

[39] The manuscript in question is the Berlin Ms., the second folio of which reproduces, with supplementary information not found in the other two manuscripts, the account of this vision. It is notable that this passage is the only one in the preface that the editor of the anthology retained.

[40] Let it be remembered that for Ibn ‘Arabi the 114 suras of the Qur’an are the same number of spiritual
‘abodes’; cf. Un Océan, Ch.3.

[41] On this subject, see Chodkiewicz, Le Sceau, Ch.9.

[42] The Dhakhâ’ir al-a’lâq is the commentary on the Tarjumân that Ibn ‘Arabi wrote in reply to the criticism that his collection of poems stirred up; the Tarjumân is the closing part of the Dîwân al-ma’ârif, in which it is accompanied by part of the Dhakhâ’ir (Ms. BN, ff.250-73b).

[43] .. Chodkiewicz, Le Sceau, p.169 (Seal, p.134).

[44] This is notably the case for the vision ‘of the two bricks’ that he had in 599, in Mecca; on this, see Chodkiewicz, Le Sceau, pp.159-61 (Seal, pp.128-9).

[45] The restrictive phrase (azunnu) that precedes the mention of 594 confirms Chodkiewicz’s hypothesis (Le Sceau, p.158 (Seal, p.126)) according to which the date 595, which appears in the Fut. (II, 49), is a lapsus calami.

[46] The ‘sign’ in question, mentioned also in a poem from the Dîwân Ibn ‘Arabi (p.332), is, according to Jandi (Sharh, p.236), a cavity corresponding to an analogous sign that the Prophet had ‘in relief’ in the same spot on his back.

[47] In this regard, it is interesting to note that Ibn ‘Arabi died at the age of 78; this is the same number as the number of times the ‘luminous letters’ appear at the beginnings of 29 suras of the Qur’an, about which Ibn ‘Arabi states in the Fut. (I, 59): ‘A servant will not perfectly penetrate the secrets of the faith as long as he does not know the essential realities of each of the letters in their respective suras.’ See Gril, Les Illuminations, pp.458-60.

WP Feedback

Dive straight into the feedback!
Login below and you can start commenting using your own user instantly