The Poetry of Ibn Arabi

Poetry is an essential dimension of Ibn ‘Arabi’s work. His well-known Tarjuman al-ashwaq is entirely made up of poems, but there is a great deal of verse in his other writings. Roger Deladriere found that there were more than 7000 lines of verse in the Futuhat al-Makkiyya, for example.

The year 2011 was the centenary of the publication of The Tarjuman al-ashwaq by R. A. Nicholson, the Arabic text with a translation into English, the first work by Ibn ‘Arabi to appear in a Western language.

For more in depth about the place of poetry in Ibn ‘Arabi’s writing, see the article by Claude Addas “The Ship of Stone”.

Selected Poems by Ibn ‘Arabi

 

A Garden Among the Flames

O Marvel,
a garden among the flames!

My heart can take on
any form:
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’ān.

I profess the religion of love;
wherever its caravan turns along the way,
that is the belief,
the faith I keep.

From Poem 11 of the Tarjuman al-ashwaq, translation by Michael A. Sells

 

An Ocean without Shore

I marveled at an Ocean without shore,
and at a Shore that did not have an ocean;
And at a Morning Light without darkness,
and at a Night that was without daybreak;
And then a Sphere with no locality
known to either fool or learned scholar;
And at an azure Dome raised over the earth,
circulating ’round its center – Compulsion;
And at a rich Earth without o’er-arching vault
and no specific location, the Secret concealed…

From the Kitāb ‘Anqā’ mughrib, one of the earliest surviving works by Ibn Arabi. Read the whole poem…

 

I Laid My Little Daughter to Rest

With my very own hands I laid my little daughter to rest because she is of my very flesh,
Thus am I constrained to submit to the rule of parting, so that my hand is now empty and contains nothing.

Bound to this moment we are in, caught between the yesterday that has gone and the tomorrow that is yet to come.

This flesh of mine is as pure silver, while my inner reality is as pure gold.
Like a bow have I grown, and my true posture is as my rib.

My Lord it is who says that He has created me in a state of suffering and loss.
How then can I possibly hope for any rest, dwelling as I do in such a place and state?

Read more in the article “Two Poems from the Diwan”

 

The Hand of Trial

I wonder at the house He has built and shaped,
placing therein a noble spirit, putting it to the trial.
He destroyed it utterly, as if He had not built it.
Who can put it together for me, who can make it last?
He knew full well what He had set up –
Would that I knew what He knew!

Why did He not from the first build that house
as a lasting structure whose life does not disappear?
It did nothing to make it deserve ruin,
so why did He raise it up, and why did He lay it waste?
The hand of trial toyed with us and it
and after a time restored it and raised it high.
Returned to the house, the spirit mounted upon its throne
as a king, making its inhabitants immortal,
Blessing it with an Eden and an everlasting Garden,
causing it to dwell in paradise and shelter.

From the translation of Chapter 317 of the Futuhat al-Makkiyya (see PDF)

 

Wild Is She, None Can Make Her His Friend

When she kills with her glances, her speech restores to life, as tho she, in giving life thereby, were Jesus.

The smooth surface of her legs is (like) the Tora in brightness, and I follow it and tread in its footsteps as tho’ I were Moses.
She is a bishopess, one of the daughters of Rome, unadorned: thou seest in her a radiant Goodness.

Wild is she, none can make her his friend; she has gotten in her solitary chamber a mausoleum for remembrance.

She has baffled everyone who is learned in our religion, every student of the Psalms of David, every Jewish doctor, and every Christian priest.

If with a gesture she demands the Gospel, thou wouldst deem us to be priests and patriarchs and deacons.

The day when they departed on the road, I prepared for war the armies of my patience, host after host.

From Poem 2 of the Tarjuman al-ashwaq, translated by R. A. Nicholson

 

Poem 14

He saw the lightning in the east and longed for the east,
but if it had flashed in the west he would have longed for the west.

My desire is for the lightning and its gleam, not for the places and the earth.

The east wind related to me from them a tradition handed down successively,
from distracted thoughts,
from my passion,
from anguish,
from my tribulation,
From rapture,
from my reason,
from yearning,
from ardour,
from tears,
from my eyelid,
from fire,
from my heart,

That “He whom you love is between your ribs; the breaths toss him from side to side.”

I said to the east wind, “Bring a message to him and say that he is the enkindler of the fire within my heart
If it shall be quenched, then everlasting union, and if it shall burn, then no blame to the lover!”

Poem 14 of the Tarjuman al-ashwaq, translated by R. A. Nicholson

 

Approach the Dwellings of the Dear Ones

Approach the dwelling place of the dear ones who have taken covenants – may clouds of incessant rain pour upon it!

And breathe the scent of the wind over against their land,
in desire that the sweet airs may tell thee where they are.

I know that they encamped at the ban tree of Idam,
where the arar plants grow and the shih and the katam.

Poem 60 of the Tarjuman al-ashwaq, translated by R. A. Nicholson; see the article “The Ransom and the Ruin”

 

Listen, O Dearly Beloved

Listen, O dearly beloved!
I am the reality of the world, the centre of the circumference,
I am the parts and the whole.
I am the will established between Heaven and Earth,
I have created perception in you only in order to be the
object of my perception.
If then you perceive me, you perceive yourself.
But you cannot perceive me through yourself,
It is through my eyes that you see me and see yourself,
Through your eyes you cannot see me.

Dearly beloved!
I have called you so often and you have not heard me
I have shown myself to you so often and you have not
seen me.
I have made myself fragrance so often, and you have
not smelled me.
Savorous food, and you have not tasted me.
Why can you not reach me through the object you touch
Or breathe me through sweet perfumes?
Why do you not see me? Why do you not hear me?
Why? Why? Why?

This is not a poem in the Arabic, but part of a chapter from the Kitab al-Tajalliyat. However, since it was translated in the form of a poem by Henry Corbin in Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi, it has become deservedly famous.

Poetry in Life

Ibn Arabi did provide some vital insights into the place of poetry in his life and his writing. The three short passages below give examples of this.

 

The Hunter’s Net

In a passage of the Durrat  al-fakhira (translated by Ralph Austin in Sufis of Andalusia) Ibn Arabi relates that one night in Seville he was sitting in silent contemplation with a group of spiritual men. Suddenly a sort of sleep overcame him, and he had a vision of himself and his companions, in which a person spoke to him, telling Ibn Arabi he was the messenger of Truth to him. After this, he applied himself to solving the meaning of what he had seen, and composed some verses on the subject, all of which he did silently within himself. One of his companions called to him, but he did not reply. His friend spoke again, saying, “Answer me, for you are awake and are working out some verses on the Unity of God Most High.” Ibn Arabi writes,

At this I raised my head and said to him, “How did you know this?”  He answered, “Your eye is open and you are making fast the hunter’s net.” I said, “The setting in order of strewn beats is the same as the setting in order of scattered words, which is poetry; its coming into being is the net of the hunter. Only that which has life (spirit) is caught in the net, and speech and poetry have no life except they are of God.” 

 

A spiritual marriage

Not long after Ibn Arabi left Andalusia in 1200, never to return, his journey to the east took him to Bugia in modern Algeria. Here he had a vision in which he was married to “all the stars in heaven, being united to each one with a great spiritual joy. After I had become joined with the stars,” he writes, “I was given the letters [of the alphabet] in spiritual marriage.”  During the ceremony, Ibn Arabi asked God about a particular sound he heard (the sound of the styluses that record human actions), and was told “What you are hearing is poetry.” He asked, “And what has poetry to do with me?” and was told, “It is the origin (asl) of all the following; poetic language is the permanent principle (al-jawhar al-thabit), while prose is the immutable consequence (al-far’ al-thabit).” See the article by Claude Addas “The Ship of Stone”.

 

What I desire

Ibn Arabi reports,

One night I was performing the ritual circumambulations of the Ka’ba […] suddenly a few lines of verse came to my mind. I recited them loudly enough to be heard. […] No sooner had I recited these verses than I felt on my shoulder the touch of a hand softer than silk. I turned around and found myself in the presence of a young girl, a princess from among the daughters of the Greeks. Never had I seen a woman more beautiful of face, softer of speech, more tender of heart, more spiritual in her ideas, more subtle in her symbollic allusions.

Quoting to him one of the verses he had just uttered, she said,

“I am amazed to hear such a thing from you, you who are the gnostic of your time! […] What I desire is real awareness made known by non-existence, and the Path which consists of speaking truthfully”.

And she proceeded to reprimand him on the other two verses he had spoken.

This is mentioned in the introduction to Tarjuman al-ashwaq (The Interpreter of Ardent Desires) and in Henry Corbin’s work Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi.

Poetry in Life

Ibn Arabi did provide some vital insights into the place of poetry in his life and his writing. The three short passages below give examples of this.

 

The Hunter’s Net

In a passage of the Durrat  al-fakhira (translated by Ralph Austin in Sufis of Andalusia) Ibn Arabi relates that one night in Seville he was sitting in silent contemplation with a group of spiritual men. Suddenly a sort of sleep overcame him, and he had a vision of himself and his companions, in which a person spoke to him, telling Ibn Arabi he was the messenger of Truth to him. After this, he applied himself to solving the meaning of what he had seen, and composed some verses on the subject, all of which he did silently within himself. One of his companions called to him, but he did not reply. His friend spoke again, saying, “Answer me, for you are awake and are working out some verses on the Unity of God Most High.” Ibn Arabi writes,

At this I raised my head and said to him, “How did you know this?”  He answered, “Your eye is open and you are making fast the hunter’s net.” I said, “The setting in order of strewn beats is the same as the setting in order of scattered words, which is poetry; its coming into being is the net of the hunter. Only that which has life (spirit) is caught in the net, and speech and poetry have no life except they are of God.” 

 

A spiritual marriage

Not long after Ibn Arabi left Andalusia in 1200, never to return, his journey to the east took him to Bugia in modern Algeria. Here he had a vision in which he was married to “all the stars in heaven, being united to each one with a great spiritual joy. After I had become joined with the stars,” he writes, “I was given the letters [of the alphabet] in spiritual marriage.”  During the ceremony, Ibn Arabi asked God about a particular sound he heard (the sound of the styluses that record human actions), and was told “What you are hearing is poetry.” He asked, “And what has poetry to do with me?” and was told, “It is the origin (asl) of all the following; poetic language is the permanent principle (al-jawhar al-thabit), while prose is the immutable consequence (al-far’ al-thabit).” See the article by Claude Addas “The Ship of Stone”.

 

What I desire

Ibn Arabi reports,

One night I was performing the ritual circumambulations of the Ka’ba […] suddenly a few lines of verse came to my mind. I recited them loudly enough to be heard. […] No sooner had I recited these verses than I felt on my shoulder the touch of a hand softer than silk. I turned around and found myself in the presence of a young girl, a princess from among the daughters of the Greeks. Never had I seen a woman more beautiful of face, softer of speech, more tender of heart, more spiritual in her ideas, more subtle in her symbollic allusions.

Quoting to him one of the verses he had just uttered, she said,

“I am amazed to hear such a thing from you, you who are the gnostic of your time! […] What I desire is real awareness made known by non-existence, and the Path which consists of speaking truthfully”.

And she proceeded to reprimand him on the other two verses he had spoken.

This is mentioned in the introduction to Tarjuman al-ashwaq (The Interpreter of Ardent Desires) and in Henry Corbin’s work Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi.

Poems in Context

Since the majority of Ibn Arabi’s poetry occurs side by side with prose, we have picked out some articles on this site which feature substantial passages of translation, where the poems can be seen in context.

 

Between this world and the Resurrection, for whoever reflects,
there are intermediate (barzakhiya) levels, each with their limits:

What they hold is according to the influence of how their possessor is
right now, before dying – so consider deeply [O people of vision].

From chapter 63 of the Futuhat al-Makkiyya, translated by James Morris in “Ibn Arabi on the Barzakh” (PDF)

 

Prohibition arises from the stain of temporal origination –
Say not, “My vicegerency releases me.”

Beware! Your vicegerency limits you!
Where is release when the door of your engendered existence is open?

From chapter 339 of the Futuhat al-Makkiyya, translated by William Chittick in “Concerning the True Knowledge of a Waystation in which the Shari’a Kneels before the Reality, Seeking Replenishment” (PDF)

 

You are the guide who, over the mistaken one,
lays the veil of his intercession.

You are the secret in the idols,
and if not for You,

[the idolaters] would neither adore the tree nor the star
nor would they do as many good works as they do.

From the Futuhat al-Makkiyya, translated by Pablo Beneito in “On the Divine Love of Beauty” (PDF)

 

Such is the situation if you understand it well:
If you are in Him, then you are you.

In truth you are the bridal chamber
where the Truth (manassât al-Haqq) reveals Himself,

but you are not you when you are.

From the chapter of the Kashf al-ma’na, translated by Pablo Beneito in “The Servant of the Loving One – On the Adoption of the Character Traits of al-Wadud

 

Put on the Mantle [of God-fearing], for Man’s Best Vestment is God-fearing,
which is the truest Religion and the strongest World.

None fear God except every discerning one,
chosen and guided, whom God has distinguished.

Translated by Gerald Elmore in “Ibn al-Arabi’s Testament on the Mantle of Initiation (al-Khirqah)” (PDF)

 

Look to the Kingdom closest to you: You will find
in each person a Regent over all his parts.

Translated by Gerald Elmore in an introduction to “Ibn al-Arabi’s Book of the Fabulous Gryphon (‘Anqa’ Mughrib)”

 

I marveled at an Ocean without shore,
and at a Shore that did not have an ocean;

And at a Morning Light without darkness,
and at a Night that was without daybreak;

Translated by Gerald Elmore in “The Alchemical Marriage of Intellect and Soul”

 

From the water of Mary or from the breath of Gabriel,
In the form of a mortal fashioned of clay,

The Spirit came to be in an essence
Purified of nature, which you call Sijjin (prison) […]

A Spirit from God, not from anything else.
Thus he raised up the dead and made birds from clay […]

God purified him in body and exalted him in spirit,
And made of him a symbol of engendering.

See Reza Shah-Kazemi: “Jesus in the Quran: an Akbari Perspective”

 

The Straight Path belongs to God (Allāh).
It is manifest in all, not hidden.

He is present in the small and the great,
In those who are ignorant of how things are and those who know.

Because of this His mercy encompasses everything,
No matter how base or magnificent.

See Cecilia Twinch: “The Circle of Inclusion”

 

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