Articles and Translations

The Futūhāt Makkiyya and Its Commentators: Some Unresolved Enigmas

Michel Chodkiewicz

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

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


Articles by Michel Chodkiewicz

The Vision of God

The Endless Voyage

The Banner of Praise

The Diffusion of Ibn Arabi’s Doctrine

The Futuhat al-Makkiyya: Some Unresolved Enigmas

“We Will Show Them Our Signs…”

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

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

The Paradox of the Ka‘ba


Ibn ‘Arabī’s influence on Persian Sufism, and Persian Sufism’s role in transmitting Ibn ‘Arabī’s thought, are already well-studied phenomena. No doubt the dissemination of the Shaykh al-Akbar’s works among authors of Persian culture is even greater than we have so far suspected, and is not confined to the famous writers who for so long have commanded the attention of specialists. My friend William Chittick, during the course of his expedition through Indian libraries, has discovered a considerable number of works which were either completely or virtually unknown: so, for example, the one volume containing a commentary on the Futūhāt which he unearthed in the Andhra Pradesh Library, and for which I hope he will soon publish a detailed analysis of its contents.[1] In a colloquium devoted to Ibn ‘Arabī which was held in Sicily last year Hamid Algar announced the existence of several works by masters of the Naqshbandiyya (a tarīqa that has quite wrongly had a reputation for being hostile to Ibn ‘Arabī) which for the most part remain unpublished and are generally ignored in the bibliographies.[2] I am quite convinced that these recent finds are by no means the last, and that many other texts are still waiting to be disinterred – whether in Iran, India or Central Asia. The major role of Persian Sufism in the diffusion of Ibn ‘Arabī’s teaching is in fact not even confined to the regions I have just mentioned. Paradoxically it is sometimes Persians who have been responsible for introducing him into certain areas of the Arab world: the contemporary Yemenite historian ‘Abdullāh al-Habshī has pointed out in a recent book that this was the case in the Yemen. He notes that at Zabīd under the Rasūlid dynasty the majority of members of the Akbarian circle which formed around Shaykh Al-Jabartī, the teacher of ‘Abd al-Karīm al-Jīlī, had come from Persia.[3] However, my intention is not so much to describe what there is to be found in this abundant literature as to raise a question about what is not to be found in it – and to attempt to explain this silence.

The Fusūs al-Hikam is a comparatively short work and one which, in a very compact form of expression, brings together the great themes of Ibn ‘Arabī’s metaphysics. As a result it has been the favourite target for the polemics that have violently denounced him and his school from the time of Ibn Taymiyya down to the present day. For symmetrical reasons the Fusūs is the work which has most often been commented on by the direct and indirect disciples of the Shaykh al-Akbar. Very naturally it is also the text which has as a rule benefited the most from the attention of Western specialists. However, I for my part wish to address myself chiefly in the following remarks to the Futūhāt Makkiyya.[4] It will be remembered that the second draft of this summa was completed only two years before its author’s death: we can therefore assume that it represents his thought in a complete and comprehensive state. We also happen to possess an autograph manuscript (which is the one Osman Yahia is at present using as the basis for his critical edition), and consequently we have a reliable text at our disposal.[5] The importance of the Futūhāt as well as of the Fusūs has never been overlooked in Persian Sufism – a fact proved by an abundance of references. Even though the sheer size of this opus magnum is itself enough to discourage anyone attempting to produce an exhaustive commentary, nonetheless it has constantly been used – especially because a reading of it is indispensable for a correct interpretation of the Fusūs. Jandī and Haydar Amulī, plus many other writers, refer to it repeatedly.[6]

Jāmī, the famous fifteenth-century Sufi, also cites the authority of the Futūhāt very often in many of his writings, and one particularly interesting piece of evidence demonstrates the meticulous care he would take to grasp all its subtleties. The author of the Rashahāt-i ‘ayn al-hayāt – a famous hagiographical text about the first masters of the Naqshbandiyya – describes an encounter which took place in 874/1469 between Jāmī and Ubaydullāh Ahrār. Jāmī declared to Ahrār that in several passages of the Futūhāt he had come up against problems he was unable to resolve, and he outlined one of the most difficult ones. Ahrār then asked him to close the copy of the Futūhāt he was holding in his hands, and gave him some preliminary explanations; after he had done so he said to him, “Now, let’s turn back to the book.” When Jāmī reread the problematic passage its meaning became perfectly clear to him.[7]

A century later Ahmad Sirhindī – who is far too often and, as Friedmann has shown, quite unjustly presented as an opponent of Ibn ‘Arabī – also refers frequently to the Futūhāt in his Maktūbāt.[8] As is well known, the same applies to his contemporary Mullā Sadrā: even though in some of his writings prudence induced him to conceal his borrowings (which are easily identifiable nonetheless), there is no shortage in his works of openly acknowledged references to the Futūhāt, which are sometimes very extensive.[9] And as I have already gone far beyond the medieval context of this volume, I may as well mention one final example which is altogether contemporary. I am referring to the Ayatollah Khomeyni, whose works (particularly those written in his youth) testify to the fact that he was an assiduous and penetrating reader of Ibn ‘Arabī – and particularly of his Futūhāt.[10]

But all these examples will no doubt already be familiar to you, and I am sure each of you would be able to add considerably to this highly arbitrary selection. I will therefore not extend this very brief list any further. The point I wish to make is the following. The innumerable Persian writers (and I hasten to add that the same applies to Arab writers) whose works testify to the fact that they have read and reread the Futūhāt, and who often provide us with extremely perceptive comments on various complex doctrinal themes expounded in the text or on the meaning of passages which require delicate interpretation, never seem to consider the work as a whole. The structure of this fundamental book – the number and sequence of its sections (fusūl) and chapters (abwāb) the subtle and extremely rigorous interrelationships between its different parts – appear to be ignored and at the very least are, as far as I know, never explained. Naturally I make no claim to have read all the glosses, paraphrases and commentaries that have been produced by readers of the Futūhāt in over seven centuries; but so far none of the specialists whom I have questioned seems to have discovered a text which invalidates my own observations. Everything suggests that the Futūhāt has always been viewed as an extraordinary cornucopia from which everyone according to his individual inclination draws symbols, technical terms, ideas and expressions without suspecting (or without making us suspect) the coherence of the whole: without looking for the secret of its architecture. Similarly, many of the highly enigmatic pieces of information given by Ibn ‘Arabī himself – for example the very surprising lists of spiritual sciences corresponding to each manzil, or the precise number of degrees corresponding to each maqām – remain unexplained. It must be pointed out that this silence on the part of Islamic writers is repeated by Western scholars in spite of the fact that their studies of Ibn ‘Arabī continue to multiply. In both cases, it would seem that the forest is hidden by the trees.

The fact that we find no answer to these questions in poets whose work is strongly influenced by Ibn ‘Arabī is not surprising: the literary form they have chosen and the particular nature of their inspiration are not conducive to this kind of analysis. For example, there is the case of Fakhr al-Dīn ‘Irāqī. Even though he studied the Fusūs and the Futūhāt with Qūnawī, and admirably crystallizes the ‘Divine Flashes’ in his verses, he plainly felt no call to translate what he knew and what he felt into painstaking discursive expositions. The same applies to everyone after him who translated Ibn ‘Arabī’s dazzling message into lyrics – whether in Iran, India or elsewhere.

But, just to confine ourselves to the first generations of disciples, what are we to make of the silence of someone such as Sadr al-Dīn Qūnawī – an exceptionally talented disciple of the Shaykh al-Akbar, to whom he in fact bequeathed the manuscript of the final draft of the Futūhāt? How can we avoid being disappointed at finding nothing more than very partial observations in the writings of Jīlī – even though he wrote a Sharh mushkilāt al-Futūhāt? In actual fact, in spite of its promising title this short treatise does no more than explain the statements made at the start of chapter 559 of the Futūhāt: the bāb al-asrār or ‘Chapter of Mysteries.’ According to Ibn ‘Arabī this chapter contains the quintessence of the Futūhāt. One could therefore expect that in the commentary Jīlī devotes to it he would give some prominence to the secret logic in the composition of a book which he tells us with admiration is “the greatest of books written about this science… and the most distinguished in terms of scope and breadth” (a’zam al-kutub al-musannafa fī hādhā l-‘ilm… wa ajalluhā ihātatan wa was’an) while elsewhere he specifies that its author “sometimes speaks in clear language and sometimes expresses himself symbolically.”[11] But one finds nothing of the kind; the symbols retain their mystery. Obviously it is impossible here to review in turn all the authors from whom one might have hoped for some clarification, or at the very least some enquiries, testifying to a comprehensive approach to Ibn ‘Arabī’s summa mystica. But I believe I am not mistaken in repeating that they avoid the issue I am raising – and indeed that they also refrain from proposing any interpretation at all for a large number of highly abstruse utterances of which I will soon give a few examples. As I mentioned earlier, in this respect the Arab commentators are no more satisfactory than their Persian counterparts: the works of Sha’rānī, of Nābulusī, of ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jazā’irī remain equally silent.

This brings us to the need to pose a fundamental question. If these people – whose perceptiveness as well as their veneration for Ibn ‘Arabī are beyond any doubt – offer no explanation whatever, is this not very simply because there is nothing at all to explain? If the structure of the Futūhāt elicits no comment from them, is this not because it is totally arbitrary and so resists any attempt to justify it? At first sight a glance through the list of contents suggests that the answer is yes: it is extremely difficult to make out any orderly progression or any intelligible connection between the themes that are dealt with one after the other. The same subject is often discussed on several separate occasions in different chapters which are frequently at a considerable distance from each other and each of which seems to ignore the existence of the others. Long passages turn out to consist of the total or partial re-use of material from earlier treatises, which means that their content is necessarily heterogeneous in nature. And furthermore, what we are told by Ibn ‘Arabī himself appears to sanction this point of view: “neither this particular book nor any of my other works has been composed in the way that ordinary books are composed, and I do not write them according to the habitual method of authors,” he declares.[12] Again, later on he emphasizes that “I have not written one single letter of this book other than under the effect of divine dictation.”[13] This frequently repeated assertion as to the inspired nature of his writings tends to suggest that it would be pointless to attempt to discover in them a precise pattern. Ibn ‘Arabī lends an additional argument to this hypothesis in the form of a comment on the presentation – which indeed is extremely disconcerting for the reader – of particulars regarding the ‘legal statutes’ (ahkām). He admits that chapter 88, which expounds the principles (usūl) from which these statutes derive, should logically have preceded rather than followed chapters 68 to 72, which expound their consequences. However, he states, “it was not from my personal choice that I retained this order.”[14] And to illustrate this remark he compares the plentiful examples of non sequitur in the Futūhāt with the examples to be found in the Surahs of the Koran, where the mutual proximity of successive verses appears to be purely accidental. The statement I have just quoted (and there are many other similar ones in the Futūhāt) encourage one to conclude that a work which has been composed in obedience to such unpredictable inspirations – whether supernatural or not – is bound to be devoid of internal coherence, and that the enigmas it contains are necessarily indecipherable.

I believe it is correct to say that this conclusion is radically false. Paradoxically, the first indication that this must be so is provided by Ibn ‘ Arabi’s analogy between the abrupt breaks in meaning in the text of the Koran and in his own book. In fact, as he explains in another passage, the lack of order in the Holy Book is only apparent: “Here [that is, between consecutive verses which seem unrelated to each other] a relationship of affinity exists, but it is extremely secret.”[15] Again: “If you connect each verse with the one preceding it and the one following it, the power of the Divine Word will make you see that the verse in question requires what accompanies it in this way, and only attains its perfection by means of what surrounds it. This is the perspective which belongs to the perfect among spiritual men.”[16] In other words this profound unity of the Koran remains unnoticed by the commonality of believers, and even the writers of tafsīr are incapable of revealing it to us, but it is perceived by the divinely inspired gnostic, the ‘ārif bi-llāh. This gives us reason to suspect that for Ibn ‘Arabī the same essential unity also exists, and somehow or other is detectable, in the Futūhāt, where nothing is to be found “which does not proceed from an in-breathing of the Divine Spirit.”[17] The conclusion is all the more unavoidable because he also states that “Everything which we talk about in our gatherings and in our writings proceeds from the Koran and its treasures.” [18]

Personally I am convinced that in fact the Futūhāt is neither a disorderly encyclopedia of bookish knowledge nor a heterogeneous collection of passages juxtaposed simply as a result of the caprices of inspiration. Limitations of space in this brief article make it impossible to provide all the necessary answers; but I would like instead to offer a demonstration of this claim insofar as it bears on several important points.[19]

In his critical edition of the Futūhāt which is at present in process of being published, Osman Yahia makes an attempt to find an explanation for the number of chapters contained in its six sections (fusūl).[20] His comments on the matter probably leave anyone who examines them unsatisfied: according to what he says it would seem that the different numbers were chosen by Ibn ‘Arabī because in Islamic tradition they possessed a symbolic value, but without this value having any necessary or intelligible relationship to the nature of the corresponding fusūl. For example, he observes – as anyone can easily do – that the number of chapters in the fasl al-manāzil (the section on the ‘spiritual abodes’) is identical to the number of Surahs in the Koran: 114. However, he does not draw any particular conclusion from this observation; the number 114 could somehow or other have been chosen by Ibn ‘Arabī for purely aesthetic reasons. As we will see, the truth of the matter is very different. In fact, in this instance as in the case of so many other enigmas, Ibn ‘Arabī provides the reader with all the keys he needs. But these keys are deliberately scattered throughout the work, and most often placed in such a way that they remain unnoticed.

Let us look a little more closely at this fasl al-manāzil: the fourth section in the work and one of the most mysterious. It extends from chapter 270 to chapter 383. It is obviously related at least by its title to one of the first chapters of the Futūhāt: chapter 22, which itself is entitled fī ma’rifat ‘ilm manzil al-manāzil. But a priori this chapter 22 – which Osman Yahia, plainly disconcerted, calls a bāb gharīb, a ‘strange chapter’ – poses more problems than it solves. In it we find a list assembling under nineteen principal ‘spiritual abodes’ (ummahāt al-manāzil) a series of secondary manāzil which in turn contain a whole series of others. The names given to all these manāzil (they are names which we will find reappearing here and there in the fasl al-manāzil) are a puzzle: manzil al-istikhbār, manzil al-halāk, manzil al-du’ā, manzil al-rumūz and so on. None of these designations corresponds to the taxonomy used in Sufi literature for distinguishing the different stages of spiritual life (or, for example, to the manāzil as listed by Ansārī in his well-known Manāzil al-sā’irīn).

However, when we juxtapose the cryptic remarks scattered throughout chapter 22 on the one hand and throughout the chapters in the fourth fasl on the other, these names suddenly become completely meaningful: each of them corresponds either to a Surah or to a group of surahs. The manzil al-istikhbār (‘Abode of Interrogation’) is the one which groups together the Surahs that begin with an interrogative formula – for example Surah 88 (Hal atāka hadīth al-ghāshiya…). The manzil al-hamd (‘Abode of Praise’), which is subdivided into five manāzil, is made up of the five Suras (1, 2, 18, 34, 35) that begin with the formula Al-hamdu li-Llāh. The manzil al-rumūz (‘Abode of Symbols’) contains all the surahs which start with the hurūf muqatta’a – the mysterious individual letters that are also called nūrāniyya, ‘luminous’. The manzil al-du’ā (‘Abode of Appeal’) is the name applied to all the Surahs starting with the vocative formula Yā ayyuha…; the manzil al-amr (‘Abode of Commandment’) brings together the Surahs which begin with a verb in the imperative, such as qul (‘Speak!’).

I will not go on enumerating the rest of these correspondences here, and will leave for a subsequent occasion the task of drawing up an exhaustive list identifying the Koranic references for all these technical terms in chapter 22. But these initial observations are enough to allow us to anticipate the conclusion that each of the 114 chapters in the fasl al-manāzil in fact corresponds to a Surah and – more or less allusively – conveys its esoteric significance. However, it is in vain that one looks for what would seem to be the obvious correspondence between the first of these chapters and the first Surah of the Holy Scripture, between the second chapter and the second Surah, and so on. The relationship one would have expected proves difficult to confirm.

The key to this mystery is actually put in our hands on a number of occasions – and particularly at the beginning of the fasl, in the second verse of the introductory poem which contains the word urūj: ‘ascent’ or ‘ascension.’ The journey through the spiritual abodes is a journey of ascent which – directly counter to the normal ordering of the Koranic vulgate – leads the murīd from the last Surah of the Koran, Al-nās, through to the first, Al-fātiha: ‘that which opens,’ the Surah in which he receives the ultimate fath, the definitive illumination. In other words, it is a question of re-ascending from the furthest point of universal Manifestation (as symbolized by the last word of the Koran: al-nās, ‘men’) back to the divine Principle (as symbolized by the first Surah, Umm al-kitāb, ‘Mother of the Book,’ and more specifically by the point of the Bā’ in the basmala). The apparently inexplicable sequence of the chapters now becomes perfectly coherent, and the correspondence which I have pointed out is demonstrable without any exception whatever in the actual text of each chapter and also often even in their titles. The following few examples will make the matter clear for anyone familiar with the Koran.

The third manzil (chapter 272), manzil tanzīl al-tawhīd, very obviously corresponds to the third surah from last: the surah Al-ikhlās, the theme of which is divine unity. The fourth (chapter 273), manzil al-halak, ‘Abode of Perdition,’ corresponds to the surah Al-masad, which describes the punishment of Abū Lahab. The sixth manzil (chapter 275), ‘Abode of the Repudiation of Idols,’ answers to the sixth surah su’ūdan (still working backwards from the end to the beginning) and therefore to the Surah Al-kāfirūn. Following the same rule, the nineteenth manzil (chapter 288), ‘Abode of Recitation,’ corresponds to the Surah Al-alaq, in which the Prophet is commanded to recite the Revelation transmitted to him by the angel. The forty-ninth (chapter 316), ‘Abode of the Divine Pen,’ corresponds to the Surah Al-qalam – and so on right through to the hundred and fortieth and final manzil, the manzil al-azama al-jāmi’a (‘Abode of Cumulative Immensity’) which is the one in which, after arriving at the goal of the initiatic journey, the spiritual wayfarer or sālik realizes the secrets of the ‘Mother of the Book.’ Here again I will refrain from listing every single correspondence. To do so would anyway be superfluous, because anyone in possession of this key will easily be able to complete the brief list I have given.

These cursory remarks are by themselves quite sufficient to confirm that there is nothing at all fortuitous in the arrangement of this fasl and that – however peculiar the sequence of the subjects which it deals with may appear – this sequence obeys a very precise law. We can, for example, no longer be surprised to see chapter 366, on the wuzarā al-mahdī (The Mahdi’s Helpers), followed without any apparent justification by the chapter in which Ibn ‘Arabī describes his ascension from heaven to heaven until he reaches the threshold of the Divine Presence. In fact according to the schema I outlined above, chapter 366 corresponds to the Surah Al-kahf, which is well known for its eschatological nature, while chapter 367 corresponds to the Surah Al-isrā which alludes to the celestial Ascension of the Prophet. And one will now understand that the reason why chapter 336 deals with the mubāya’at al-qutb, the ‘Pact with the Pole’, is because according to the same logic it is echoing the surah Al-fath, which refers to the pact between the Companions and the Prophet at Hudaybiyya (Koran XLVIII: 10,18).

We find the solution to other enigmas provided in the same way. I will illustrate this point by referring to chapter 273,[21] which contains some passages that could give the reader the impression either of being the products of a disordered imagination or – on the more favourable hypothesis – of referring to an incommunicable visionary experience. Ibn ‘Arabī explains how, guided by the First Intellect, he visited this manzil which contains five chambers (buyūt). In each of these chambers chests (khazā’in) are shut away. Each chest has locks (aqfāl) each lock has keys (mafātih) and each key has to be turned a specific number of times (harakāt). Then the Shaykh al Akbar describes these chambers together with their contents, one by one: the first chest in the first chamber has three locks, the first of these locks has three keys, the first of these keys has to be turned four hundred times, and so on. I am sure that more often than not these strange details disarm the reader’s curiosity. However, they are easy to interpret once one knows that this manzil is the one corresponding to the surah Al-masad. The five chambers are this Surah’s five verses. The chests are the words in each verse, the number of locks is the number of letters in each of the words, the keys are the graphic signs of which the letters are composed (diacritical points and consonantal ductus), and the turnings of the key represent the numerical values of these letters according to the abjād. The first chest is therefore the word tabbat: it consists of three letters – or three locks. The first of these locks is the T-ā’. This is composed of three graphic signs – and therefore three keys – and has a numerical value of 400. Comparable explanations, in which the science of letters (‘ilm al-hurūf) plays a major role that is specifically announced in chapter 2 of the Futūhāt, can be given every time one encounters expositions of this type – and regardless of where in the text they occur.[22] Whatever one’s views about something which for many people is no more than a gratuitous intellectual game, one is bound to admit that this is a game which is subject to rules.

While still confining ourselves to the fasl al-manāzil in particular, we find the solution to one other riddle at the same time. This is the enigma posed by the tabulations of the spiritual sciences corresponding to every manzil which are placed at the end of each of the 114 chapters. These listings group together ideas which are of such a kind that any attempt to discover a rational link between them would be in vain; one’s first impression on reading them is of being confronted with a catalogue composed by a writer who has been guided entirely by his own fantasy. Without being in a position here to go into details – that would require juxtaposing a large number of quotations from the Koran against entire pages of the Futūhāt – I will simply point out that each of the sciences referred to is related to the content of either one or several verses in the Surah corresponding to the manzil in question. So, once again, we find ourselves faced with statements which in spite of their chaotic appearance derive from the application of a method based on principles that, once explained, prove to be extremely simple.

I will reserve a detailed examination of the structure of the other five sections for another occasion. However, I would like here to raise very briefly the question of the overall architecture of the Futūhāt. The division into six fusūl is easily explained as due to the special significance of the number six in Ibn ‘Arabī’s teaching. This significance is not simply a result of the fact that six is the number of the days of Creation, as Osman Yahia notes (and also the number of spatial dimensions). For Ibn ‘Arabī 6, which is the first perfect number (because 6 = 1/6 + 1/3 + 1/2),[23] is above all else the symbolic number of the Perfect Man (insān kāmil) – that is, of the focal point of his entire teaching.[24] This number actually expresses the value according to abjād of the letter waw: a letter which, although not written, manifests itself in the vocal enunciation of the existentiating Kun (‘Be!’) between the Kāf and the Nūn, and for this reason is identified by the Shaykh al-Akbar with the ‘Reality of Muhammad’ (haqīqa muhammadiyya) which is the ‘isthmus’ (barzākh) between the Haqq and the khalq, between the Divine Principle and Its Manifestation.[25] This identification is also based on the grammatical function of the waw, which in Arabic performs the role of copula and consequently unites what is separated.

But to be more precise, the explanation of the number and sequence of fusūl lies in the number and nature of the divine attributes (sifāt) and modes of relation (nisab) upon which the created being depends.[26] Each fasl corresponds to one of these six Names of God. The first (fasl al-ma’ārif, the ‘section of knowledges’) is plainly related to the first Name, Al-Alīm, The Knower. The second (fasl al-mu’āmalāt) dealing with the manners of behaviour by means of which the postulant (al-murīd, literally ‘he who desires’) progresses upon the Path, corresponds to the second of these Divine Names which is, precisely, Al-Murīd. Corresponding to the third Divine Name in the series – Al-Qadīr, The Omnipotent – is the fasl al-ahwāl, the section on the spiritual states produced in man by the divine omnipotence without his being able to acquire them through his own strength. The fourth Name is Al-Qā’il or Al-Mutakallim, ‘He who speaks’: its relation to the fourth fasl, in which each stage of spiritual realization is identified with one of the Surahs in the Koran, or Divine Word, is equally clear. The next fasl deals with the munāzalāt, or ‘meetings halfway’ between God and creature: meetings in which man converses with God face to face. It corresponds to the fifth Name: Al-Samī’, ‘He who hears.’ Finally, the sixth fasl is the section on the maqāmāt or ‘stations,’ each of which represents a specific mode of contemplation (mushāhada). This in turn is related to the sixth Divine Name: Al-Basīr, ‘He who sees.’

It remains to suggest the reason why the Futūhāt consists of five hundred and sixty chapters in all. Here we must bear in mind that this number had been decided on in advance at the very first stages of composition: the summary of the work which is printed between pages 11 and 30 of the Egyptian edition had in fact already been written by the end of the year 599/1203, which is when Ibn ‘Arabī started composing the book. Although it is not possible to be absolutely certain, I believe that there are two facts worth noting which are hardly mere coincidences. The first is the fact that the number five hundred and sixty is also the number of words in the surah Al-Fath: it is especially difficult to suppose this is just an accident when on the one hand we remember that before assuming its plural form the title of the work seems to have been Al-Fath al-Makkī, and on the other hand we bear in mind the esoteric commentaries on this Surah.[27] The second fact is very simply that the Shaykh al-Akbar was born in the year 560 of the Hegira. This date is therefore the point of departure for that extraordinary spiritual ‘conquest’ from which the Futūhāt would harvest the fruits.

Is it reasonable to believe that none of the individuals whom I mentioned to start with was in a position to provide answers to the various questions I have raised? Or, as an alternative hypothesis, are we to suppose that these questions never occurred to them? Regardless of whether they were Sunnis or Shi’ites, and even if they did happen to dispute his position on specific issues, they all shared a manifest veneration for the Shaykh al-Akbar. Nothing that he wrote was a matter of indifference to them. Each of his works was scrutinized by them with vigilant attention, as we can see from the subtle exegeses of his thought of which their own books provide so many examples. Like Jāmī in the story narrated earlier, they never resigned themselves to not understanding even the most obscure or most ambiguous aspects of Ibn ‘Arabī’s writings, and they sought a resolution to these enigmas or mushkilāt with tireless zeal. To me it is consequently self-evident that the majority, if not all, of them will not have been able either to ignore the problems about which I have spoken or to resign themselves to leaving them unsolved. These possibilities are all the more unlikely because – as I believe I have demonstrated – the solutions are pointed to by a considerable number of clues which they could not have missed.

I am therefore convinced that in this particular case it is a matter of deliberate silence. Very significantly, at the start of his Nass al-nusūs Haydar Āmulī elaborates in ten pages of preliminaries on the need for secrecy – kitmān al-asrār al-ilāhiyya an ghayri ahlihā, ‘concealment of the Divine Mysteries from those unworthy of them’ – and in justification of this rule he cites verses from the Koran, various hadīth and a lengthy passage from chapter 31 of the Futūhāt. He also underlines the necessity, for a genuine understanding of Ibn ‘Arabī’s writings, of a relationship of spiritual affinity (munāsaba) with their author, and he points out that such a relationship is exceptional “even among the Poles and their like.”

This mandate for discretion – which I have considered it appropriate to infringe here to a small degree – is vigorously stated by Ibn ‘Arabī on a number of occasions and also observed by him as well: either because it is a question of knowledge that is dangerous (muhlika) and the use of which could lead the imprudent to their perdition,[28] or because the disclosure of certain secrets would enable imposters to claim for themselves improperly a degree of sainthood that is beyond their reach. So – to come back to one of the enigmas which we solved earlier by way of example – after speaking of the ‘chambers’, ‘chests’, ‘locks’ and ‘keys’ of the fifth manzil (the one corresponding to the Surah Al-nasr), he points out that if he keeps silent as to the meaning of these symbolic terms this is to prevent the liar (al-kādhib) from laying claim to have come into possession of this science through a personal spiritual realization.[29]

I see no room for doubt that through the course of the ages this same discipline was put into practice by the most eminent of Ibn ‘Arabī’s interpreters, and that at least in the majority of cases this accounts for the strange lacunas in their commentaries which we noted earlier. Very simply, the silence of the ahl al-tasawwuf in this matter bears out the truth of the law succinctly enunciated almost four centuries earlier than the Shaykh al-Akbar by Dhu’l Nūn al-Misrī: qulūb al-ahrār, qubūr al-asrār, “The hearts of free men are the tombs of secrets.”


Translated by Peter Kingsley.

© Oneworld Publications. Reproduced with the permission of the author, the editor and the publishers.

Themes in this seminal paper were developed by Michel Chodkiewicz in An Ocean Without Shore – Ibn Arabi, The Book, and the Law, New York 1993.

First delivered as a paper to the conference on “The Legacy of Medieval Persian Sufism” held at SOAS, London 1990. Published in The Legacy of Mediaeval Persian Sufism, ed. Leonard Lewisohn, Khaniqahi Nimatullahi Publications, London 1992. Republished by Oneworld Publications, Oxford 1999.


[1] According to W. Chittick the author of this Sharh-i Futūhāt, of which he has only found the second volume, is probably Muhibbullāh Ilāhābādī (d. 1058/1648).

[2] In addition to the Naqshbandī texts, Algar also draws attention to other works such as the Rasā’il Hadrat-i Sayyid Nūr al-Dīn Shāh Ni’matullāh Walī (d. 834/1431), which have recently been edited and published by Dr. J. Nurbakhsh (Tehran: Intishārāt-i Khāniqāh-i Ni’matullāhī 1979; 4 vols.) and contain commentaries on some passages from the Futūhāt. See Algar’s forthcoming article, ‘Reflections of Ibn ‘Arabī in Early Naqshbandī Tradition.’

[3] ‘Abdullāh al-Habshī, Al-sūfiyya wa l-fuqahā fi-l Yaman (Sana’a 1976), p. 131.

[4] All subsequent references to the Futūhāt (= Fut.) are to the Egyptian edition of 1329 A.H., in 4 volumes, or to the reprint, Beirut, Dar Sadir, no date (circ. 1970).

[5] That is not the case with the Fusūs. This explains – but does not justify – the hazardous hypotheses entertained by some defenders of Ibn ‘Arabī’s orthodoxy who are prompted by their ill-inspired zeal to denounce interpolations, which according to them distort its meaning, in the text as it has come down to us. See for example my review of Mahmūd Ghurab’s book, Sharh Fusūs al-hikam (Damascus 1985), in Studia Islamica LXIII, pp. 179-182. Needless to say, a new critical edition of the Fusūs based on the manuscripts not taken into amount by Afiffi would be extremely desirable.

[6] Cf. Jandi, Sharh Fusūs al-hikam, (Mashad 1982); Haydar Āmulī, Nass al-nusūs, ed. H.Corbin and O.Yahia (Tehran-Paris 1975), and Jāmī’ al-asrār (in H. Corbin and O.Yahya’s La philosophie shi’ite, Tehran-Paris 1969). In this last work see for example the long quotation from chapter 366 of the Futūhāt on pp. 440f.

[7] Fakhr al-Dīn ‘Alī ibn Husayn Wā’iz al-Kāshifī, Rashahāt-i ‘ayn al-hayāt, ed. ‘Alī Asghār Mu’niyān (2 vols., Tehran 1970), I, pp. 249-50.

[8] Maktubāt-i Imām-i Rabbānī (Lucknow 1889). Sirhindī’s attention was drawn not only by the doctrinal ideas expounded in the Futūhāt but also by the anecdotes it contains. See for example Letter 58 (in which he criticizes the doctrine of reincarnation, tanāsukh) where he mentions the story of Ibn ‘Arabī’s visionary encounter at the Ka’ba with a man belonging to a humanity prior to our own (cf. Fut., III, pp. 348 and 549). As Y. Friedmann observes (Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindī, Montreal-London 1971, p. 64), the Mujaddid "recommends the study of Ibn al-Arabi’s works and considers them indispensable for the proper appreciation of his own spiritual insights."

[9] As is the case in Al-Hikmat al-muta’āliyya fī l-asfār al-‘aqliyyat al-arba’a. For further comments on this matter see James W. Morris’ introduction to his translation of Al-hikma al-‘arshiyya (The Wisdom of the Throne, Princeton 1981), which is a work in which explicit allusions to the Futūhāt – although less frequent – are far from exceptional. Cf. ibid., pp. 178, 234-5, 239-40, etc.

[10] This is especially true of the following works by the Ayatollah Khomeynī: Sharh du’ā al-sahar (Beirut 1982); Misbāh al-hidāya (Beirut 1983); Ta’līqāt alā sharh Fusūs al-hikam (Qum 1986).

[11] This comment occurs on the third line of the manuscript of the Sharh mushkilāt al-Futūhāt belonging to my private collection. Although the explicit specifies that the manuscript contains a commentary on those sections of the bāb al-asrār which correspond to the first eleven chapters of the Futūhāt, in actual fact it only comments on ten of these sections (the last sentence commented on is the one on line 14 of Fut., IV, p. 329). In passing it is worth noting that the Cairo edition of the Futūhāt is clearly faulty where chapter 559 is concerned; in particular, there are a considerable number of anomalies in the numbering of the sections.

[12] Fut., I, p. 59.

[13] Fut., II, p. 456.

[14] Fut., II, p. 163.

[15] Fut., III, p. 200.

[16] Fut., IV, p. 137. Cf. also II, p. 548.

[17] Fut., III, p. 101.

[18] Fut., III, p. 334.

[19] I would like to make it clear that the following clarifications, as well as the solutions to this problem which I will eventually provide elsewhere, are very far from being attributable to me alone. In the first instance I must reiterate my debt to Michel Valsan, who over a period of many years guided me in my discovery of Ibn’ Arabi. My thanks are also due to my learned friend Abdelbaki Meftah: our exchanges of correspondence have on numerous occasions allowed me to clarify and correct my own interpretations. Finally, I am indebted to some among those who today ensure the transmission of the khirqa akbariyya for support without which my efforts would have been in vain.

[20] See volume III (Cairo 1974), pp. 37-8.

[21] Fut., pp. 582-6,

[22] The fatā (the ‘mystical youth’, according to Corbin’s translation) who appears to Ibn ‘Arabī in chapter 1 reveals to him the secret of the imām mubīn (cf. Fut., IV, p. 367) – In other words the secret of the ‘Book that contains all things’ (cf. Fut., I, p. 180) – by inviting him to decipher what is inscribed on his own person: as he says at the end of the chapter, "Examine the details of my constitution and the disposition of my form" (Fut., I, p. 48). According to the logic of this graphic symbolism the science of letters (the principles of which are the subject of chapter 2) is the science that makes the ‘deciphering’ possible and simultaneously explains both the length of the exposition devoted to it and the position it occupies at the start of the Futūhāt. For example, by referring to the science of letters, the ‘ilm al-hurūf (the significance of which is conveyed in this way), we can interpret the number of degrees darajāt) corresponding to each of the spiritual categories (ārifūn, malāmiyya) and to their subdivisions (ahl al-uns, ahl al-adāb) in the series of chapters from 74 to 185 (fasl al-mu’āmalāt). All these numbers – and more generally speaking, all the numbers that appear in the Futūhāt – are obtained by a method of calculation which is perfectly intelligible.

[23] Fut., II, p. 469.

[24] Fut., ibid.

[25] Fut., III, p. 283.

[26] Fut., II, p. 493. Normally this series of traditional Divine Names – the asmā al-dhāt – includes a seventh (Al-Hayy, ‘The Living’). However, Ibn ‘Arabī explains that if he speaks of six Names rather than seven this is because Al-Hayy is the Name which enables the other six to subsist and is therefore in a sense their common principle.

[27] Cf. e.g. Fut., II, p. 60; III, p. 153; IV, p. 50; and Qāshānī, Ta’wīlāt, (published under the name of Ibn ‘Arabī) (Beirut 1968), II, pp. 505-510.

[28] Cf. Fut., II, p. 584. Compare also Fut., I, p.190, where Ibn ‘Arabī declares that he is deliberately abstaining from communicating certain secrets of the ‘ilm al-hurūf, and mentions a little further on that he has taken an oath never to use the powers granted by this science.

[29] Fut., II, p. 590.

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