Articles and Translations

The Paradox of the Kaʿba

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

Juʿilat lī al-ard masjidan.[2] With these words the Prophet of Islam states one of the five privileges that God granted him: the whole earth has been given to him as a place of worship. This isotropy has a consequence in terms of ritual: ‘In whatever place you find yourself when the hour of prayer comes,’ he said to one of his companions, ‘that is where you must do it.’ No ‘temple’ is therefore apparently necessary, if by that term one understands, in accordance with the classical definition of the dictionary, ‘any public building dedicated to the worship of a divinity’. But paradoxically one nevertheless finds in Islam, since its beginnings, buildings dedicated to performing the prayers for believers, known as ‘mosques’, al-masājid, plural for masjid, which I have translated as ‘place of worship’. The word appears with this meaning around 30 times in the Quran where we also find it as bayt, meaning ‘house’, with the same sense. Such is the case, for example, in the famous verses of the Sura of Light (Q. 24: 36–7) where it is said, ‘In houses (buyūt) God permitted to be built, and where His Name is called out in glorification, morning and evening, by men whom neither trade nor commerce distract from the invocation of God, from prayer and from charity.’[3] On the other hand, we can see that certain places are considered impure where the obligation of prayer cannot be carried out: pens where camels are enclosed, public baths, refuse deposits, etc.

This is not the only paradox. ‘Fa aynamā tuwallū fa thamma wajhu Llāh’, ‘Wheresoever you turn, there is the Face of God.’ This verse (Q. 2: 115), which categorically affirms an absolute spatial indetermination, seems contradictory to other Quranic passages (Q. 2: 142–5), which impose on the worshipper a precise direction towards ‘the Sacred Mosque’ (al-masjid al-harām), which is bayt Allāh, domus Dei. Is this cited verse abrogated by those who establish the qibla? This is the point of view of certain exegetes. Others judge that these scriptural elements, one of which expresses a principle whilst the others formulate practical rules, are not irreconcilable.

For some, the verse ‘Wherever you turn, there is the Face of God’, is applicable to the supererogatory prayers, for which the ritual orientation is not strictly obligatory. For others, this verse has much wider legal consequences. It means that when it is impossible to determine the qibla, the prayer performed in any direction is valid.[4] These legal debates do not take into account an exegetical problem to which I shall return.

The ‘sacred mosque’ and the Kaʿba of which it is the centre have long given birth to exaggerated legends in the Christian world. For readers of Pedro de Alfonso, Jacques de Vitry, Vincent de Beauvais, amongst many other authors, the Kaʿba is the tomb of the Prophet, and thanks to ingenious artifices, his coffin rests suspended in the air without any visible support – an illusion well-fitted to arouse the wonder of superstitious pagans. We should nevertheless acknowledge that Ramon Lull, better informed, is worthy of merit for denying this story. But he too remains persuaded that the Kaʿba is the place ubi jacet corpus Machometi. In general terms, Medina – where the Prophet’s tomb is actually located – and Mecca are more or less confused. After the battle of Hattin in 1187, Saladin had Reynald de Châtillon put to death, who, with the sacrilegious intention of striking at the heart of Islam itself, had ventured into the Hijaz.

Without anticipating the availability of today’s numerous images, which allow one to have an exact view of the holy places, Westerners for a long time had less fanciful descriptions at their disposal, although the more reliable descriptions from the countless Muslim travellers who travelled there were often only accessible to specialists. Whether disguised as explorers or converts, there were many European visitors who were able to report from their often perilous visits, precise information of the sites and monuments, as well as the practices they observed.[5] We thus know that the Kaʿba is an approximately cuboid building (15 metres high, 12 and 10 metres wide), completely empty, and it is situated at 21° 27 latitude north and at 39° 49 longitude east. With some alterations to it, a planisphere, which is quite widely used in Muslim countries, makes this exact point of space appear as the geometrical centre of the planet.[6]

We also know that the Kaʿba has been repaired or rebuilt many times, as a result of man’s violence or of the elements. In 692, when held by the anti-caliph Ibn al-Zubayr, it was bombarded by his opponents and had to be rebuilt in its original form, which had been modified by Ibn al-Zubayr in accordance with an intention, once formulated by the Prophet, that was not carried out. Then in 929, the Qarmatians seized the Black Stone, which they kept for 28 years. Throughout the centuries, fires have occurred on several occasions, and floods have also been frequent and remain so today. The Sacred Mosque was built on the bed of a habitually dry wadi but sudden and violent rains can, in less than an hour, cause water levels to reach the height of the door of the Kaʿba, despite its being located two metres above ground. On occasion dogged pilgrims have been forced to accomplish the seven ritual circuits by means of swimming, as attested by ancient accounts, such as those reported by al-Fākihī [7] (d. 885) as well as more recent authors.


The Navel of the Earth

But when the pilgrim or worshipper turns to the Bayt Allāh, in reality he focuses on a point which eludes the coordinates of the geographer and the reference points of the historian, because, in the Muslim tradition, it is the very same place from which time and space unfold. In the beginning was the Kaʿba: it was from here that the earth was laid out and then consolidated by the mountains.[8] From its clay Adam’s [9] head and forehead were created.

Returning to what tradition refers to as ‘the navel of the earth’, ‘the centre of the world here below’, ‘the mother of the cities’,[10] the hajj is also the return to the moment when Time began: ‘Time has returned to its original state, just as it was on the day God created the heavens and the earth’, proclaimed the Prophet during the Farewell Pilgrimage.[11] By this it should be understood that Islam restores the original order, the religio perennis (al-dīn al-qayyim, Q. 12: 40), of which it is the final form at the dawning of the end of time. This reintegration restores man to his ‘perfect stature’ (fī ahsani taqwīm), which he had before his fall ‘to the lowest of the low’ (Q. 95: 4–5). According to classical exegesis Adam, when exiled from Paradise, was no longer saddened to hear the voices of the angels and their praises to God. He complained to God and God said to him: ‘I have sent down for you a house around which you shall turn just as the angels turn around My throne’ … there Adam made the ritual circumambulation (tawāf) as did all the prophets after him.[12]

Encircling the same site where today the pilgrim contemplates the Bayt Allāh, Noah’s Ark, during the forty days and nights of the flood, also carried out the tawāf. But this site was empty then: the angels had returned the Adamic Kaʿba to its celestial point of departure, which no longer had a place in a world soiled by idolatry. All that remained on this earth was the cornerstone, sheltered from the waters on Mount Abū Qubays, where it stayed, hidden from view, until the time of Abraham.[13]

Concerning this traditional information (of which, of many references, I list a few in the notes), I should point out here that many contemporary Muslim writers choose to remain silent, as is the case with Sayyid Qutb [14] or Ahmad al-Sifāʾī.[15] Others, such as Mahmūd Shaltūt, who was the rector of al-Azhar, choose to leave the field open to rational investigation.[16] Still others, following Muhammad Abduh, vehemently reject these superstitious digressions (khurāfāt).[17] However, these attempts to purge the Muslim memory of everything that cannot be adduced by an indisputable scriptural guarantee have had only limited success.

According to the Quran – because, on this occasion, the reference to the Book is indisputable – it was Abraham, assisted by his son Ismāʿīl, who, by divine order (Q. 2: 125–31) built the first Kaʿba made by the hand of man on the sacred site to which he was led by the sakīna, the Divine Presence, which was manifested in the form of a cloud whose shadow indicated the lines of the building to be constructed. The angel Gabriel brought him the cornerstone, the sins of mankind soon tarnishing its paradisiacal lustre, which became the Black Stone (now protected by a glazed cover from the excesses of pious zeal). More than one pilgrim would, by looking at it, attempt to perceive therein a reflection of its primordial whiteness.[18]

With the House completed, Abraham, climbing onto a stone (where the traces of his feet are still venerated), summoned all men present to come and perform the pilgrimage (Q. 22: 27). However, the worship of idols would, once again, overrun the earth. Muhammad, last in the line of the Envoys, the ‘Seal of the Prophets’ (Q. 33: 40), would in his turn be called to return the Bayt Allāh to the worship of the One God. At the end of his mission and three months before his death, he led the believers from Medina to Mecca – conquered again from the impious – on the Farewell Pilgrimage, thus instituting definitively the fifth and final ‘pillar’ (rukn) of Islam. And it was during the course of this pilgrimage that – on Friday 9 Dhū l-Hijja, in the tenth year of the Hijra, on this plain of Arafat where the last Day of Judgement was foreseen – the verse that marks the absolute restoration of the dīn qayyim would be revealed: ‘Today I have completed for you your religion, I have perfected upon you My grace and I have approved Islam as your religion’ (Q. 5: 3).

‘Wherever you turn, there is the Face of God’ (Q. 2: 115). This verse, whatever certain doctors of Law may say, has never been abrogated by any spiritual master: God is no more here than there. And yet the Kaʿba, this irregular cube which countless times was cast into turmoil or destroyed – this building whose solid stonework appears in all its nakedness on the 7th day of Dhū l-Hijja, when it is cleaned and the black veil which covers it is changed – this empty house is God’s house, the place of the Placeless: a paradoxically divine concession to the weakness of man, who would get lost in a universe whose centre is everywhere, if a direction, a path and a purpose were not assigned to him. That is why the prayer of the believer, ‘the pilgrimage without movement’, necessarily has to turn towards the Bayt Allāh, which distance hides from the sight of the common believer but which certain saints have the privilege of seeing there in front of them when they fulfil this ritual obligation.[19] Such is the case, amongst many others, of the Shaykh Abū Ishāq al-Shirāzī who was contemplating the Kaʿba while he was in Baghdad. That is also why the hajj, the prayer in movement, leads the pilgrim into the sacred territory for it is there and nowhere else that God has made an appointment with him. Labbayk Allahumma, labbayk, ‘Here am I, oh my God, here am I’: this formula – the talbiyya – that pilgrims begin to recite when they set off, and which resounds, carried forward by thousands of voices, till the end of the pilgrimage. However, according to Hakīm Tirmidhī, a great Sufi of the 9th century, the talbiyya heard by the ears is nothing but an echo of the response to Abraham’s call, while they were still ‘in the loins of their fathers’, by all those who were destined to carry out the hajj.[20]


Forbidden boundaries

What then are the limits of this sacred territory to which the hearts of worshippers are orientated and towards which the pilgrim’s steps are directed? Around the Kaʿba several concentric circles can be drawn on a map, the first of which corresponds to the mosque itself (considerably enlarged in successive stages over the last few decades); the second to the city of Mecca; the third to the zone where access is forbidden to non-Muslims (for the traveller arriving from Jedda, he will be reminded of this prohibition at Hudaybiyya). But is it also necessary to draw a fourth circle which would include the entire Arabian Peninsula? It is known that the Saudi authorities are being severely denounced for their laxity – secretly within the Kingdom and openly outside – by radical Islamist movements: not only do they tolerate the presence of kuffār acting on behalf of the petroleum industry, but during the Gulf War they condoned the arrival of a massive foreign army. It should also be remembered that in 1979 they introduced into Mecca – subject to a formal act of converting to Islam, which deceived no one – a French intervention force charged with suppressing an insurrection. For the extremists – and they know sometimes how to make themselves heard even by moderate Muslims – Arabia must be completely purged of the presence of infidels. Consequently, what are the religious aspects of this problem?

In verse Q. 9: 28, which is sometimes dated either in the ninth or the tenth year of the Islamic calendar – or towards the end of the life of the Prophet, it is said that the ‘associators’ (al-mushrikūn) are a ‘defilement’ (najas) and that ‘after this year’ they must no longer approach the Sacred Mosque (al-masjid al-harām). What should be understood then by the words ‘approach’ and ‘associators’? If we examine the classical commentaries from different eras,[21] we can see that, even if stricter positions are taken into account, the majority of the exegetes consider that the word mushrikūn applies to the worshippers of idols and to ‘pagans’, and that the ahl al-jizya, the ‘People of the Book’, and the slaves of Muslims are exempted from the prohibition. The actual demarcation of the sacred territory is in fact rather restrictive: we are told that it begins at three miles from Mecca when one arrives from Medina, at seven miles when one arrives from Iraq, at nine miles when coming from Tāʾif… As Professor Hamidullah notes,[22] the total exclusion of non-Muslim visitors from the zone thus defined appears to be dated from later times, ‘perhaps from the times of the Ottomans’, because we know, for example, that the Caliph ʿUmar would receive non-Muslim complainants on Friday in the Mosque itself and that a little later, at the foot of the minaret, a Christian doctor had a surgery.

There is, however, a text which appears to justify the most inflexible positions, that of the hadīth as quoted by Mālik and Ibn Hanbal.[23] According to this the Prophet, shortly before his death, condemned the practice of Christians and Jews who ‘make the graves of their prophets into masājid’, places of worship; to which he added ‘that two religions’ can not share the ‘ground of Arabs!’ – which clearly means that only Islam has a place there. But even if the first part of the hadīth in question also appears, as transmitted by ʿAʾishā, in two other ‘canonical’ collections (those of Bukhārī and Muslim), the second part is absent from them. Mālik, in his Muwattā, mentions it as coming from the eighth Umayyad Caliph, ʿUmar Ibn Abd al-ʿAzīz, without knowing from whom he took it. In fact, according to the criteria of the traditionists, this second part is a munqatiʿ hadith, in that it has only a truncated chain of transmission. Moreover, the practice of the first generations of Muslims did not allow the claim that it was received as authentic, nor simply even known. Therefore, based on solid doctrine, I think those who clamour for and demand the expulsion of every infidel present in the Jazīrat al-ʿArab are lacking in foundation and it is for political analysts to explore the causes and effects.

The notion that the Kaʿba, the space surrounding it and the practices attached to it should all be considered from a point of view which is not purely spiritual is, in fact, neither new nor surprising. The control of sacred places has always been a political matter and the Pilgrimage has been, and often still is, an occasion for manipulation and violence. As expressed rather naïvely by the late Hamidullah,[24] who was not an extremist, ‘the pilgrimage is a kind of military exercise: they come together at a fixed location, obedient to a mobilisation order; they hurry in from the four corners of the world, and they spend the days and nights camping…’. However, I will not dwell on this somewhat combative interpretation which is also shared by a certain number of Muslims and is rather simplistic and out of place for the aims of our discussion. The Sufi masters whose testimony I am now going to call on are not, I would agree, simply ordinary believers. But it would be presumptuous to claim, without being led there by them, that one could get close to the secret of the Kaʿba.

One of these masters, Sulamī (d. early 11th century), brings us a dialogue between Shiblī (another eminent Sufi, fl. 9th century) and one of his disciples who had just returned from the hajj and who himself recounted this conversation.[25] Shiblī’s questions relate to all the prescribed rites, enumerated in the order that they should be carried out by the pilgrim. I summarise here only some of these exchanges:

Shiblī said to me: ‘Did you divest yourself of your clothes [so as to put on the attire of ihrām]?’ I responded: ‘Yes.’ He said to me: ‘Did you divest yourself at the same time of all your acts?’ I responded: ‘No.’ ‘Then’, he said, ‘you did not get rid of your clothes…’. He said: ‘Did you purify yourself with the ablution?’ I answered: ‘Yes.’ He said: ‘With this did you purify yourself from all your infirmities?’ I responded: ‘No.’ ‘Then’, he said, ‘you did not complete the ablution …’.

A little further on, Shiblī interrogates his companion on the talbiyya, the ritual formula: ‘Here I am, my God, here I am!’

‘When you pronounced the talbiyya, did you hear the call to which you were responding?’ ‘No.’ ‘Then you did not pronounce the talbiyya.’ ‘When you entered the Mosque, did you enter the Divine Proximity?’ ‘No.’ ‘Then you did not enter the Mosque.’ ‘When you saw the Kaʿba, did you see the reason we take it as a goal?’ ‘No.’ ‘Then you did not see the Kaʿba.’

After a series of other questions, Shiblī concludes: ‘Thus you have not made the pilgrimage. Repeat it!’

Shiblī’s comments here are deliberately provocative because they appear to deny any merit in the observance of the legal requirements which the disciple has scrupulously fulfilled. But what he denounces with irony is the risk, inherent in any formal practice – and all rites are forms – of it being that alone, thereby invalidating the purpose of the prescribed acts. Having the finesse of hearing to receive the divine call to which the talbiyya responds, and the sight keen enough to perceive, upon entering the masjid al-harām, that one is entering into the presence of God, are, as Shiblī knew well, privileges to which the turba magna of pilgrims do not have access, who each year in the month of Dhū l-Hijja flock to Mecca. At least they should have the desire and should not separate their actions from an intention (niyya) which will be, at each stage, in symbolic relation to the obligatory forms of the ritual.

More provocative still is a sentence attributed to Rābiʿa al-ʿAdawiyya, the famous saint of Basra who lived in the 8th century. She reportedly said of the Kaʿba: ‘It is only an idol we worship on earth’ (al-sanam al-maʿbūd fī l-ʿard). Ibn Taymiyya protested against this attribution to Rābiʿa with his usual vehemence: ‘It is a lie,’ he writes, ‘and whoever holds to a similar statement is a kāfir.[26] Rābiʿa also reportedly said: ‘It is not the Kaʿba I desire; it is the Lord of the Kaʿba. The Kaʿba, what have I to do with that!’[27] Whether Ibn Taymiyya liked it or not, words of this sort, which he judged blasphemous, may have permitted a precedent which is acknowledged as having an impressive authority. Calling out to the Black Stone, the Caliph ʿUmar unashamedly declared to it: ‘I know that you are only a stone that can neither harm nor do good. Had I not seen the Messenger of God kiss you, I would not have kissed you!’[28]

Whether implicitly or explicitly, the meditations of the spiritual masters on the mysteries of the Kaʿba always return to this statement of the second caliph, where two opposing certainties conflict with each other. There are many Sufi texts that would merit analysis, presented either in brief sentences or long discourses, as poems or prose. But because, for half a century, I have read and re-read his writings, it is to Ibn ʿArabī (d. 1240), and to him alone, that I shall resort in order to cast light on our reflections. With regard to the one whom posterity has named al-Shaykh al-Akbar, ‘the greatest of the masters’, this assuredly arbitrary choice does not, however, lack solid historical justifications. One of the most celebrated works of Ibn ʿArabī, an enormous summation of several thousand pages, is entitled al-Futūhāt al-Makkiyya, which can be translated as ‘The Meccan Illuminations’. But, the question is: why are these Futūhāt (literally, ‘openings’) Meccan?

From his native country of Andalusia, Ibn ʿArabī arrived in Mecca in 1202 and stayed there for two years. He returned there in 1207–08, and then again, apparently for the last time, in 1214–15.[29] But these occasional visits to the Holy City represent, in total, only a rather brief period during the long life of the Shaykh al-Akbar. The title of the Futūhāt al-Makkiyya does not therefore mean that this book was composed in Mecca. Certainly, this is indeed where it was begun by Ibn ʿArabī, and we know that by the end of 599h (September 1203), he had finished writing the first of thirty-seven volumes.[30] But the entire writing process, which continued during his itinerant years and in parallel with the composition of other books, would only be completed in Damascus in December 1231. Furthermore, from the following year and until 1238, Ibn ʿArabī undertook a second draft, an autographed manuscript of which has been preserved, unlike the first,[31] specifying that he made additions and modifications to the original text. The date of completion of this definitive version allows us now to consider this as the will and testament of the Shaykh al-Akbar. On the basis of erroneous information supplied by another researcher, O. Yahia believed he could attribute several short treatises to Ibn ʿArabī, supposedly written at the end of his life; however, an examination of these recently published treatises allows us to affirm without the slightest doubt that they are apocryphal.[32]

The very precise chronological information available to us demonstrates that in spite of its title, the Futūhāt – contrary to the claims of some Muslim historians such as Safadī (d. 1362)[33] – was not entirely written in Mecca. Equally fanciful is the story transmitted by numerous authors – and still in circulation in some Sufi circles today – that, after completing the Futūhāt, Ibn Arabī left the manuscript on the rooftop of the Kaʿba: one year later, according to this persistent legend, it was noted that this precious oeuvre had been miraculously spared from the wind and rain.[34]


The Genesis of the Futūhāt

By the time Ibn ʿArabī arrived in Mecca, he was already the author of several works in which doctrinal themes and formulations appeared very clearly; these are repeated in the Futūhāt, where he inserted them into new versions of various passages from his earlier writings. As to the question I asked earlier – why are the Futūhāt called Makkiyya? – we can see now that the answer is not an obvious one. Written largely after his first stay in Mecca, the work, in many respects, seems to be the fruit of ‘illuminations’ which took place in Andalusia or the Maghrib – therefore before his arrival in the east. Concluding from these remarks that the qualifier Makkiyya is but a literary ornament, however, would be a serious misinterpretation: it is indeed at the Kaʿba that we must situate the genesis of the 560 chapters of the book, and it is the ‘secret’ of the Kaʿba which generates its substance and structure. Deciphering the enigmatic narrative that constitutes the first chapter helps to clarify this and verifies that the ‘House of God’ is at the same time both the place of departure and the place of arrival.

This story, of course, has attracted the attention of researchers and has been commented on, in particular, by Fritz Meier and Henry Corbin.[35] The interpretation I propose differs quite widely from theirs (where references to the Vedanta, to the ancient Iranian tradition or to Ismailism arise, all completely foreign to the Akbarian perspective).[36] No details are given by Ibn ʿArabī with respect to the exact date of the event related in this chapter, but it seems obvious to me that it took place, if not at the moment Ibn ʿArabī found himself in front of the Kaʿba for the first time, then in any case close to the beginning of his stay – and I am surprised by F. Meier’s doubts on this subject. At the beginning of the text, in fact, there is an unambiguous statement: ‘When I arrived at Mecca’ (Lammā wasaltu ilā Makka). As for the event itself, the title of the chapter summarises its nature and emphasises its importance: ‘Of the knowledge of the spirit from whose detailed nature I drew what I recorded in this book and the secrets that were exchanged between me and him’.[37] From the poem that follows this statement, I shall mention only two verses which provide the key to what follows. To the pilgrim who marvels at the ritual circuits imposed on man around what is, after all, a pile of stones, a voice answers:

Contemplate the house: for sanctified hearts,
its lights shine openly
They look at it through God, without a veil,
and its august and sublime secret appears to them.

The narrative itself opens with the meeting of the hermeneutist whose task it is to lead the pilgrim to the discovery of this secret:

And now I met while enraptured and standing in front of the Black Stone the evanescent Young Hero, who speaks and remains silent, who is neither living nor dead, who is simple and composite, who is enveloped and enveloping. When I saw him turning around the House, in the same way a living person goes around a dead person, I knew what he was and what he symbolised.

The word fatā, plural fityān, which I translated as ‘Young Hero’, has a long history. Initially, it described a young man (shābb) who works until he reaches maturity, traditionally fixed at forty years,[38] but from the pre-Islamic era, a heroic connotation was associated with this meaning. Hātim al-Tāʾī, an ancestor of Ibn ʿArabī, is represented in the poetry of the jāhiliyya as an exemplary fatā. The term futuwwa, derived from fatā, appeared later and acquired the sense of ‘heroic generosity’ and of abnegation in Sufism. It also became the name of certain forms of social organisations, some traditional and others aristocratic, concerning which Hammer-Purgstall and Corbin spoke of as ‘chivalry’. But the term was also claimed by groups of ‘righters-of-wrongs’, who were rather fierce and disreputable.[39] Ibn ʿArabī has devoted many pages to futuwwa in its spiritual sense.[40] A verse in his Dīwān defines the fatā as ‘one who defends above all else the right of God and that of the Prophet’,[41] but for our purposes, it is especially important to consider the Quranic uses of the word fatā. It applies to Abraham (Q. 21: 60), to Joseph (Q. 12: 30–1), to the servant of Moses, traditionally identified with Joshua (Q. 18: 60–2) and to the ‘Companions of the Cave’ (the ‘Seven Sleepers’, Q. 18: 10–13). Now, we clearly see that the fatā Ibn ʿArabī describes has traits which are associated with all these characters. He stands near the Kaʿba, like Abraham who built it with his own hands. When Ibn ʿArabī questions him, he makes it clear that ‘he does not speak to anyone except by signs’ (ramzan), which therefore require an interpretation, a taʾwīl. This science of the interpretation of symbols is a characteristic of Joseph (Q. 12: 100), in both the Quran and the Bible. The servant of Moses led him to the ‘confluence of the two seas’ (majmaʿ al-bahrayn), in which spiritual exegesis sees an image of the coincidence of opposites: ‘simple and composite’, ‘enveloped and enveloping’, ‘speaking and mute’, the fatā is himself in his own person the majmaʿ al-bahrayn. Like the Companions of the Cave, after all, who sleep for 309 years, the fatā is ‘neither living nor dead’.

I shall return to the problem of the identity of the fatā who, all in all, if he appears as a personified oxymoron, should not however be considered as a rhetorical figure. In the unusual dialogue which ensues between Ibn ʿArabī and this partner who does not express himself in words, the ‘secret of the House’ (sirr al-bayt) is obviously the key issue. The opening poem echoes the one that Ibn ʿArabī recites when he sees this interlocutor ‘who transcends the where and the when’, performing, he also, the tawāf around ‘this pile of rocks which does not feel nor see, endowed neither with intellect, nor the faculty of understanding’.[42] The fatā warns him against this attitude and invites him to contemplate ‘the secret of the house before it vanishes’.[43] To the pilgrim who asks that the fatā instruct him, he responds in terms that explain the title of this first chapter:

Look at the details of my constitution and the ordering of my form. You will find inscribed in me what you are asking for… .[44] Perform the ritual circuits following after me and look upon me in the light of my moon, in order to draw from my constitution that which you will transcribe in your book.

It cannot be said more clearly that the messenger is himself the message.

From this initial phase of relations established between Ibn ʿArabī and the fatā, a lengthy sequence follows which may be considered as a test: is the pilgrim worthy of receiving the knowledges he is yearning for? But this sequence consists of two episodes, the second of which – apparently unnoticed by the commentators – refers to an event chronologically prior to the one preceding it in the narrative. Invited to say what he perceives over the course of the ritual turnings performed with the fatā (‘Let me know that which God gives you to contemplate in the tawāf’), Ibn ʿArabī takes up the dialogue, and, in a language that seems to challenge both the traditional norms of Sufism and the common understanding of the experience lived by the Prophet, he asserts that the ‘spiritual voyage’ – of which the hajj is a symbol – is another illusion. ‘The wise one,’ he says, ‘knows that the journey brings him only to himself and, consequently, remains there where he is.’ During his night journey (isrāʾ), the Prophet set out only to obey a divine summons. He should neither ascend to the heavens nor return, in order to obtain the secrets which were revealed to him during this ascent.

I should mention here another of Ibn ʿArabī’s works, earlier than the Futūhāt since it was written in Fez in 595h – the Kitāb al-Isrāʾ, the ‘Book of the Night Journey’, in which we see prefigured the principal act which was to take place in Mecca several years later, since the fatā already makes a first appearance there. It takes place ‘at the source of Arīn’, which, according to the Muslim geographers, is a point equidistant from the four cardinal points[45] and is by the same token a symbol of the spiritual centre. Leaving min bilād al-Andalus, his native country, Ibn ʿArabī announces that he wants to go ‘to the city of the Messenger, to the radiant station and the Red Sulphur’. The fatā then admonishes him with a couplet that heralds the theme of the illusion of travelling which I have just mentioned from the Futūhāt.

O you who are searching for the path that leads to the secret,
Turn back on your steps, for it is in you that the path and secret are found [46]

Let us return to the first chapter of the Futūhāt. The fatā, having questioned Ibn ʿArabī on that which God gave him to contemplate whilst they were performing the tawāf together, poses another question: ‘What did He make you contemplate when you arrived in His haram?’ The episode which follows is therefore a flashback. It takes place at the moment when Ibn ʿArabī has penetrated into the sacred precincts of the Kaʿba and where, alone, before his meeting with the fatā, he performed the tawāf of arrival obligatory for every pilgrim. Once again I summarise a passage in which each word is vital and would merit a commentary. Ibn ʿArabī here is no longer in the presence of the fatā but in the Presence of God who, without showing Himself at first, speaks to him. Of this divine speech, one sentence distils the meaning: ‘The one who encloses Me in one form to the exclusion of another, it is the representation which he has made of Me that he worships.’[47]

Ibn ʿArabī then writes, ‘He seized me with a jealous seizing [jadhba, an ecstatic rapture] and placed me before Him. He reached out His Right Hand and I kissed It.’ The Black Stone, which every pilgrim must kiss before the seven circumambulations of the Kaʿba, is yamīn Allāh fī l-ard, the ‘Right Hand of God on earth’.[48] But for the majority of believers it does not appear as such, except from the point of view of faith; the gnostic, on the other hand, actually perceives its true nature: in his eyes, it really is the Divine Right Hand. It should be understood from this that Ibn ʿArabī, fulfilling the prescribed rites in a state of ecstasy, is – at this starting point of the tawāf, just as he will be at the completion of the ritual – freed from the veil of appearances: that for him the symbol and what it symbolises become one. But the witnesses of this scene, and of those that follow (if there are, as is likely) will have seen nothing other than a pious Muslim observing the usual practices, without suspecting the mystical experience that was unfolding simultaneously.


‘Raise My Veils…’

By kissing the ‘Right Hand of God’ Ibn ʿArabī has made a pact with the Divine Essence. He is then going to be confronted by the seven attributes of the Essence (sifāt al-kamāl), which the seven circuits symbolise.[49] This is a dramatic confrontation: before each of them, he confesses his ontological indigence (his ʿubūda) by presenting himself as ‘blind’ in front of the name al-basīr, ‘He who sees’; as ‘ignorant’ in front of the name al-ʿalīm, ‘the Omniscient’; as ‘deaf’ in front of the name al-samīʿ, ‘He who hears’, etc.; although he is not allowed, with the divine attributes, to renew the pact originally concluded with the Essence. God dismisses him: ‘Leave My Presence. A being such as you is not worthy to serve Me.’ The motive for this rejection is clearly stated: certainly, although ‘this Kaʿba is the heart of existence’, the voice of God affirms, ‘the temple which contains Me is your heart’.[50] And from this point of view man may consider himself justified in denying the Kaʿba the eminent status which the law attributes to it. But obedience must prevail and that is why God then says: wa lākin taʾaddab fī talabika, ‘Be mindful of the proprieties in your quest.’ To the one who has just been expelled so severely, the All-Merciful finally grants him His pardon. ‘Bring him back’, He says. ‘I was immediately brought back before Him’, writes Ibn ʿArabī, ‘and it was as if I had not left the carpet of His contemplation and had not removed myself from His presence.’

‘You have not brought me anything which I did not know’, declares the fatā at the end of this narrative. He then invites Ibn ʿArabī to make his way with him into the hijr, that is to say, into the semi-circular space, defined by a low stone wall, which faces the north-west wall of the Kaʿba.[51] Placing his hand on Ibn ʿArabī’s chest – a gesture that belongs to a well-known ritual of initiatic transmission – the fatā identifies himself as ‘the seventh in the order of that which encircles the universe’. Thence began, at this moment, an effusion of grace: ‘Here the Supreme Calamus [lit. ‘the calamic instructor’, that is to say the First Intellect] descended upon me from its august abodes… . It breathed into my spirit the science of everything that is … and made known to me all my names.’ Then the angelic figure of the Calamus moved away, and the fatā spoke again with a short phrase which is truly the act that gave birth to the Futūhāt: ‘I am the ripe orchard and the full harvest. Raise my veils and read what my inscriptions contain.’ ‘I lifted his veils and examined his inscriptions. His light made clear to my eye all that was contained within him of the hidden sciences. The first line I read, the first secret which I learnt there, is what I will now mention in the second chapter.’
Although I have confined myself to a very brief analysis of its contents, this inaugural story doubtless seems obscure and disconcerting. I shall now attempt to clarify any obscurity and to demonstrate its coherence. The identity of the fatā is evidently the first problem to be resolved. Corbin refers to him as ‘the Angel’ and speaks of him as ‘the divine Alter Ego’ of Ibn ʿArabī. For F. Meier, the encounter at the Kaʿba is, for the Shaykh al-Akbar, an encounter with his self.[52] That it is not to do with an angel is nevertheless affirmed without ambiguity in the penultimate verse of the poem which follows the appearance of the fatā: ‘laysa min al-amlāk bal huwa insī’, ‘he is not one of the angels but he is a human being’. On the other hand, the same verse uses the verb tajallā with regard to the manifestation of the fatā in front of the Kaʿba: consequently this concerns a theophany (tajallī). Moreover, the fatā declares that he is ‘the seventh in the order of that which encircles the universe’, which allows a more precise identification as this declaration takes place after the enumeration of the seven names under which God had successively manifested himself to the pilgrim. The order of these names in the traditional lists, and for Ibn ʿArabī himself, varies greatly, depending on the point of view from which they are considered. But the reference to the universe (al-kawn) clearly indicates that the ‘seventh’ here designates the one who is the last in the process of existentiation – that is, the name al-mutakallim or al-qāʾil, ‘He who speaks’ – the one who utters the kun! (fiat, Be!) by which God brought the creatures out of non-existence (Q. 2: 117, 3: 47, etc.). The function of this verbum Dei is not limited, however, to this cosmogonical role: it is also from the name al-mutakallim that Revelation proceeds, which is the kalimat Allāh, the ‘Word of God’. We can therefore conclude that the fatā in the being from whom Ibn ʿArabī draws the knowledges that he is going to record in his book is an epiphany of the Divine Speaker.[53] That this epiphany takes on the form of a man may surprise and even scandalise those for whom the transcendence of God (tanzīh) is only a notion produced by speculation, rather than a matter of direct vision. But Ibn ʿArabī, in several passages of his writings, categorically confirms this anthropomorphic character – for example in a poem in Chapter 372, the first verse of which begins: ‘Having seen God in the form of man…’, an affirmation taken up again in the third verse: ‘When He revealed Himself to me in a form similar to mine…’.[54] Based on his experience, such assertions, consistent with his doctrine of theophanies as set out in the Futūhāt, the Fusūs al-hikam or the Kitāb al-Tajalliyāt, have a scriptural justification which he often refers to: in this case the hadīth in which the Prophet says: ‘I saw my Lord in the form of a beardless youth…’.[55]

The second problem that requires our attention concerns the relationship which Ibn ʿArabī explicitly establishes between the content of his work and the spiritual sciences which he ‘reads’ in the person of the fatā. I have already mentioned that one could argue that many of the themes in the Futūhāt have been discussed in previous works. The encounter at the Kaʿba, moreover, is not the first, as evidenced in the Kitāb al-Isrāʾ.[56] Finally, Ibn ʿArabī, addressing himself to his friend ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz al-Mahdawī, tells him that: ‘The greatest part of that which I have put in writing is what was “opened” to me by God while I was performing the tawāf around His noble house or while I was sitting contemplating it.’[57] It is acknowledged therefore that what the Futūhāt contains is not entirely the fruit of what he experienced in those moments. That being so, what precisely is the role of the fatā? He is most certainly the source of knowledges that Ibn ʿArabī did not possess beforehand, or of which he still only had a theoretical grasp. But above all, ‘read’ by Ibn ʿArabī line by line, he reveals to him what should be the structure of his magnum opus. It is from this ‘reading’ that there ensued the remarkable distinctiveness of a work whose compilation was to extend over more than thirty years: when Ibn ʿArabī started on it in Mecca he included therein from the first pages a complete table of contents describing the definitive structure in six sections (fusūl), giving the titles of the 560 chapters yet to come.[58] The order of the subjects covered is, for that matter, moreover imposed on him, rather than proposed, and this is why – regarding, for example, Chapter 88 on the ‘Foundations of the Law’, which, logically, should have been placed in the preceding section – he reminds us that the distribution of the chapters was not freely decided upon by him.

The division into sections is, on the other hand, related to the series of asmāʾ al-dhāt symbolised by the seven ritual circuits. As in the case of the Fusūs al-hikam, whose true structure only reveals itself if we add the introductory doxology to the 27 apparent chapters, thus totalling 28,[59] with the Futūhāt al-Makkiyya it is appropriate to consider the first chapter as constituting, by itself, a first section, in order to complete the septenary. It corresponds to the name al-hayy, ‘the Living’ which is ‘the imām of the names’, the divine attribute that supports and contains all the other names, in the same way that the first chapter of the Futūhāt is the foundation on which the structure of the entire book is built.[60]

The number and order of succession of the following six sections are homologous to the series of attributes (sifāt) or relational modes (nisab), all of which depend on the attribute of Life and on which, in their turn, the creatures depend.[61] The section on ‘knowledges’ (maʿārif) relates to the name al-ʿalīm (the Knowing, the Omniscient). It is followed by the ‘comportments’ (muʿāmalāt) which the murīd, the novice, must observe in order to implement these still theoretical knowledges: it is, evidently, linked to the name al-murīd, that is, to the attribute of Will. The third section is that of the ‘spiritual states’ (ahwāl) which are granted (mawhūba) by the Divine omnipotence, that is, by the name al-qādir, the All-Powerful. Each of the 114 chapters of the fourth section defines a ‘spiritual abode’ (manzil) identified with one of the 114 suras of the Quran, that is to say, the Word of God. It is thus governed by the name al-mutakallim, ‘He who speaks’, which further suggests that it has a privileged relationship with the fatā. The fifth section, that of the munāzalāt, the meetings midway between God and man and their face-to-face dialogue, corresponds to the name al-samīʿ, ‘He who hears’. The sixth section, finally, is that of the maqāmāt, the contemplative stations, which means that it is governed by the name al-basīr, ‘He who sees’.


‘The Secret of the Kaʿba’

The seven theophanies which were granted to Ibn ʿArabī while fulfilling the legal obligation of the circumambulation, thus determine at the same time the ordinance and the substance of the mystical summation which he was to compose under the dictation of the fatā. Now, the connection thus established between the observance of a ritual prescription and the ‘illuminations’ that the Futūhāt transcribes, leads us to the solution of the third problem, the ‘secret of the Kaʿba’ – a secret that is not veiled except by its obviousness, as recalled by the fatā stating that for sanctified hearts the light of the Kaʿba ‘shines openly’. For this secret is the yoke of the revealed Law: it is obedience to the sharīʿa, even when it seems to contradict the unshakeable certainties that the ʿārif bi-Llāh draws from the savour of the highest contemplation.

‘The temple which contains Me is your heart’: it is God who pronounces this speech. How could one who has heard it doubt that it is the Word of Truth? And how is it surprising that the circuits around the Kaʿba appear to him from that moment on as ‘the prayer over a corpse’? But this God whom ‘neither heaven nor earth can contain’ has nevertheless chosen a terrestrial house. This God who transcends all forms designates a stone as ‘His Right Hand’ and institutes for the believers the duty of rendering homage to it. This God who, in His Book, teaches His servants that He is always with them wherever they are (Q. 2: 115), and that piety does not consist of ‘turning towards the east or the west’ (Q. 2: 177), and still commands them to pray in a precise direction and, for at least one time in their lives, to leave their homes to enter into ‘a barren valley’ (Q. 14: 37).

‘A paradoxical concession’, as I said at the beginning of this study, a term I have used throughout to repeatedly allude to the secret. But that which is indeed, for ordinary believers, a merciful concession is at first experienced by the mystic as a painful paradox: because he can neither deny its inner truth, its haqīqa, which he draws from God Himself, nor the inalienable character of the sharīʿa to which his state as creature subjects him, just in the same way as any other believer. That Ibn ʿArabī has experienced this tension between two absolute certainties and two loyalties, is made evident by many passages from the first chapter of the Futūhāt, as we have seen.[62] This is also attested to by the Tāj al-rasāʾil, an astonishing series of ‘love letters’ which, before leaving Mecca in August 1204 (Dhū l-Qaʿda 600h), he addressed to this ‘Kaʿba of beauty’ (kaʿbat al-husn) whom he had offended with his impertinence.[63] But obedience has the last word, for it is only by perfect conformity to his ʿubūda, to his original status of servitude, that man attains to the depths of the divine mystery. Such is the secret of the science of the saints – and such is the secret of the Kaʿba.[64]


Translated by Faris Abdel Hadi and Alan Boorman.

This article first appeared in the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society, Volume 57, 2015.


[1] First published as ‘Le paradoxe de la Kaʿba’, Revue de l’histoire des religions 4 (2005), 435–61.

[2] Muslim, masājid, 3.

[3] The interpretation of buyūt as ‘mosques’ is not the only possible designation (in particular it may also apply literally to the houses of the believers), but it is preferred by commentators.

[4] This latter interpretation is adopted by Ibn ʿArabī who comments on this verse on many occasions (Futūhāt al-Makkiyya, Bulaq, 1329h, I:104; III:161, IV:106…). It also applies to the one who prays inside the Kaʿba (Bukhārī, hajj, 52; Fut.I:406): the space where he recovers his isotropy.

[5] Among recent works related to such travel stories, that of Abdel Magid Turki is noteworthy: Récits de pèlerinage à la Mekke (Paris, 1979). Clearly there is ample documentation and plenty of references that can be drawn from articles in the Encyclopaedia of Islam (2nd edn) on ‘Mecca’, ‘Kaʿba’ and ‘Hajj’. Having said that, and in spite of the wealth of available information, I have found amusing errors from the pens of some authors who pass as good connoisseurs of the Arab world but who confuse, for example, the Kaʿba, which is dressed in black tapestry, and the Black Rock which is inserted into one of its angles.

[6] This planisphere is reproduced by Muhammad Hamidullah, ‘Le pèlerinage à La Mecque’, Les Pèlerinages, ‘Sources Orientales’ Collection (Paris, 1960), pp. 104–5.

[7] Muhammad al-Fākihī, Akhbar Mekka, 2nd edn (Beirut, 1994), I, p. 250; on the floods, II, p. 104.

[8] Tabarī, Taʾrīkh (Cairo, n.d.), p. 49. This traditional theme is taken up by Ibn ʿArabī, citing Abū l-Walīd Muhammad al-Azraqī (Fākihī’s primary source), in Muhādarat al-abrār (Beirut, 1968), I, p. 395.

[9] Thaʿlabī, Qisās al-anbiyāʾ (Cairo, 1371h), p. 17.

[10] Yāqūt, Muʿjam al-buldān (Beirut, 1986), IV, p. 463. The expression ‘Mother of the Cities’ (umm al-qurā) is Quranic (6: 92).

[11] Bukhārī, Tafsīr, IX, 8.

[12] Tabarī, Tafsīr, ed. Shākir (Cairo, n.d.), III, pp. 59–60.

[13] Thaʿlabī, Qisās al-anbiyāʾ, p. 27.

[14] Sayyid Qutb, Fī zilāl al-Qurʾān (Beirut, 1977), I, pp. 114, 434.

[15] Ahmad al-Sifāʾī, Taʾrīkh Makka (Mecca, 1380h), Chap. 1.

[16] Mahmūd Shaltūt, Fatāwā, (Cairo, 1975), p. 426.

[17]Tafsīr al-manār, I, p. 466; IV, p. 6.

[18] Muhammad al-Makhzūmī, Al-Jāmiʿ al-latīf fī fadl Makka (Cairo, 1357h), p. 34.

[19] Tāj al-Dīn al-Subkī, Tabaqāt kubrā, cited by Nabhānī, Jāmiʿ karāmāt al-awliyāʾ (Beirut, n.d.), p. 29. This is a question of those divinely inspired visions that Ibn ʿArabī describes in Mawāqiʿ al-nujūm (Cairo, 1907), p. 63. Muslim hagiography gives many examples of these miraculous perceptions. See, amongst others, the description by his grandson of the vision of Mecca that ʿUmar Ibn al-Fārid had when he was in Cairo, thanks to the intercession of an anonymous saint (translated text in Th. Emil Homerin, From Arab Poet to Muslim Saint (Columbia, SC, 1994), pp. 35–6).

[20] Hakīm Tirmidhī, Kitāb al-hajj wa asrārihi (Cairo, 1969), p. 102. (The attribution of this work to Tirmidhī, at least in this form, is contested by Bernd Radtke). A similar interpretation is given by Ibn ʿArabī, Fut.I:747.

[21] Tabarī, Tafsīr, ed. Shākir, XIV, pp. 190ff.; Qurtubī, Tafsīr (Cairo, 1933–50), VIII, pp. 103ff.; Fakhr al-dīn Rāzī, Tafsīr (Tehran, n.d.), XVI, pp. 23ff.; Ismāʿīl Haqqī, Rūh al-bayān (Istanbul, 1928), III, pp. 410ff. Ibn ʿArabī, as usual, shows that all interpretations – the more rigorous, the more open – can be justified from one point of view or another (Ijāz al-bayān, ed. Mahmūd Ghurāb, pp. 177–9, on the subject of verse Q. 2: 115). He specifies elsewhere (Fut.I:382) that all ‘sullying’ (najāsa) is an accident and does not affect the original purity of the essences.

[22] See Hamidullah, Les Pèlerinages, pp. 119–20.

[23] See A.J. Wensinck et al., Concordance et indices de la tradition musulman (Leiden, 1936–69), II, p. 168. Mālik quotes this sentence in the form Lā yabqayanna dīnānī ardi l-ʿArab; the variant Lā yajtamiʿ can also be found (which Rāzī quotes, for example Tafsīr, p. 26).

[24] ‘Le pèlerinage à La Mecque’, p. 117.

[25] Sulamī, Haqāʾiq al-tafsīr (Cairo, 2001), I, pp. 110–11. The same story is recounted by Ibn ʿArabī, Fut.I:677–8.

[26] Ibn Taymiyya, Majmūʿat al-rasāʾil wa l-masāʾil, ed. Rashīd Ridā, I, p. 80.

[27] A.R. Badawī, Shahīdat al-ʿishq al-ilāhī (Cairo, 1962), p. 39, citing Farīd al-dīn ʿAttār (according to whom this exclamation by Rābiʿa occurs as the Kaʿba comes to meet her).

[28] Numerous references appear in Wensinck, Concordance, I, p. 425. Tirmidhī, who cites this famous phrase (Kitāb al-hajj, p. 50) followed by the retort of ʿAlī b. Abī Tālib. For him, the Black Stone can ‘do good or bad’ because it received in trust the testimony of the angels attesting that man, during the primordial covenant (mīthāq, Q. 7: 172), recognised the divine sovereignty, and that this testimony, on the Day of Judgement, will be produced for them in their favour if they observed the Covenant, and against them if not. Ibn ʿArabī states (Fut.I:701) that he was granted a vision of this testimony which appeared to him in the form of a thread rolled up in the Black Stone.

[29] For the precise details of these journeys by Ibn ʿArabī and, more generally, his biography, I refer to the books of Claude Addas, Ibn ʿArabī et la quête du Soufre rouge (Paris, 1989; translated as Quest for the Red Sulphur, Cambridge, 1993), and Ibn ʿArabī et le voyage sans retour (Paris, 1996).

[30] On this point, see Vol. 1 of the critical edition prepared by Osman Yahia (Cairo, 1972), p. 28.

[31] The manuscript of the first draft, established through a waqf (literary inheritance) in favour of Muhammad, the son of Ibn ʿArabī, was lost. The text is only known from copies made after the author’s death.

[32] These apocryphal works, published in Abu Dhabi in 1998 under the title Rasāʾil Ibn ʿArabī, correspond to the following numbers of O. Yahia’s Repertoire général (History and classification of the works of Ibn ʿArabī, Damascus, 1964): 18, 80, 256, 262, 288, 342, 472, 539, 555, 587, and 685. See our report in Bulletin critique des Annales Islamologiques, no. 17, 50–2. Their true author is probably Saʿd al-dīn Hamūya.

[33] Al-Qārī al-Baghdādī, Manāqib Ibn ʿArabī (Beirut, 1959), p. 72, n. 2. This assertion is still repeated nowadays by Nabhānī, Jāmiʿ karāmāt al-awliyāʾ, I, p. 119.

[34] This story appears notably in the fatwā of Fīrūzābādī (d. 1415), is included in the Manāqib Ibn ʿArabī, p. 76; in the Fatāwā hadīthiyya by Ibn Hajar al-Haythamī (d. 1567), (Cairo, 1970), p. 295; and in the Yawāqīt wa jawāhir by Shaʿrānī (Cairo, 1369h), p. 10.

[35] Fritz Meier, ‘The Mystery of the Kaʿba’, Eranos Yearbooks, Bollingen Series, XXX, vol. 2, pp. 149–68; Henry Corbin, L’imagination créatrice dans le soufisme d’Ibn ʿArabī (Paris, 1958), pp. 207–11.

[36] O. Yahia, in his critical edition (I, p. 229, in a note) shows himself to be very influenced by the Ismaili interpretation suggested by Corbin, with whom it is a recurring and quasi-obsessive feature.

[37] The text of the first chapter that we examine below corresponds in the Būlāq edition to pp. 47–51 of the first volume and in the O. Yahia edition to pp. 215–30. A French translation, remaining unpublished, was made of it a half century ago by Michel Vâlsan; and a Spanish translation has recently been made by Victor Pallejà de Bustinza, Las iluminaciones de la Meca (Madrid, 1996), pp. 85–101. We are reminded that this initial chapter is preceded by a long doxology, which takes the unusual form of a visionary narrative (see Michel Chodkiewicz, Le Sceau des saints (Paris, 1986), Chap. 9, and an introduction including, in the final text, three ‘professions of faith’. Ibn ʿArabī specifies, however, in fine that it was added to the work but is not strictly speaking a part of it, and that copyists may choose not to transcribe it.

[38]Lisān al-ʿArab (Beirut, n.d.), XV, pp. 145ff.; Fut.I:241.

[39] On ‘futuwwa’ see the articles by Claude Cahen and Fr. Taeschner in Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd edn. Henry Corbin published an analysis of seven treatises of futuwwa, under the title Treatises of Companion-Knights (Paris & Tehran, 1973). Many bibliographical references may be found in the recent book by Alexander Khatchāturiān, Ahl al-futuwwa wa l-fityān fī l-mujtamaʿ al-Islāmī (Beirut, 1998). Concerning particularly the concept of futuwwa in Sufism, see the chapter which Qushayrī dedicates to it in his Risāla (Cairo, 1957), pp. 103–4, and the work of Abū l-Alā ʿAfīfī, Al-Malāmiyya wa l-Sūfiyya wa ahl al-futuwwa (Cairo, 1945).

[40]Fut.I:241–4; II:231–5.

[41]Dīwān (Beirut, 1996), p. 135.

[42] The last verse of this poem makes an allusion to the dialogue between the caliph ʿUmar and ʿAlī b. Abī Tālib (cf. n. 28).

[43] Here we find an allusion to the exceptional nature of the event described in the chapter – that the grace offered to the pilgrim will not be offered twice – but also without doubt to the hadīth (Suyūtī, Fath kabīr, Cairo, 1351h, I, 223), according to which the Black Stone will withdraw from this lower world as the Day of Resurrection approaches, its disappearance definitively invalidating the pilgrimage.

[44] As M. Vâlsan points out in a note to the unpublished translation mentioned above, the word ‘inscribed’ (marqūm) evokes the raqīm (borrowed from Q. 18: 9) which appears in the title of the first of 109 theophanies described by Ibn ʿArabī in the Kitāb al-Tajalliyāt.

[45] See article by André Miquel on ‘istiwāʾ’, EI2.

[46]Kitāb al-Isrāʾ, ed. Souad al-Hakīm (Beirut, 1988), p. 59. (The ‘red sulphur’ is a symbol for absolute perfection borrowed from the vocabulary of alchemy). The Dīwān contains several allusions to the fatā, one of which (p. 357) explicitly relates to this first encounter; see also pp. 84 and 192.

[47] This divine discourse opens with a very enlightening allusion to the theophanies which will succeed one another on the Day of Resurrection, the majority of creatures indeed refusing to recognise God in a form other than the one which was their object of worship in this world (Bukhārī, Riqāq, 52; Muslim, imām, 299, 302). Ibn ʿArabī often comments on this hadīth (Fut.I:266, 305, 314; III:11, 132, 465; Fusūs al-hikam (Beirut, 1946), I, p. 113, etc.).

[48] See the references given at n. 28.

[49] On these ‘entitative attributes’ see Daniel Gimaret, La doctrine d’al-Ashʿārī (Paris, 1990), Chap. 5. Ibn ʿArabī frequently refers to this classical doctrine specifying that the name al-hayy (‘the Living’) is the ‘imām of the names’ (Inshāʾ al-dawāʾir, ed. Nyberg, Leiden, 1919, p. 33) because it is the attribute of Life by which the other six subsist, and upon which universal existence rests (Fut.II:493).

[50] We recognise here an echo of the hadīth qudsī often cited by Sufi authors and especially by Ibn ʿArabī (but absent from the ‘canonical’ collections): ‘My heavens and My earth cannot contain Me but the heart of My believing servant contains Me.’

[51] The hijr was originally part of the Kaʿba. Concerning the form of the primordial Kaʿba and its symbolic significance, see Fut.I:666. In the continuation of this passage Ibn ʿArabī relates that at Tunis, in 598h, a tablet of gold from the treasure of the Kaʿba engraved with characters from an unknown language was supernaturally provided to him. He refused to take possession of it in deference to the Mahdī, to whom this treasure was destined.

[52] Henry Corbin, L’imagination créatrice, pp. 208, 279–81; F. Meier, ‘The Mystery of the Kaʿba’, p. 162.

[53] The role of the Divine Names in the process of existentiation is presented several times by Ibn ʿArabī (Fut.I:323; Inshāʾ al-dawāʾir, pp. 36–8; ʿAnqāʾ mughrib, Cairo, n.d., p. 33) in the form of an ‘Assembly of the Names’, on which see William Chittick, The Sufi Path of Knowledge (Albany, NY, 1989), p. 54. It should also be noted that, in the title of Chap. 1 of the Futūhāt, the fatā is designated as rūh, ‘spirit’. Now Ibn ʿArabī emphasises in the Inshāʾ al-dawāʾir, pp. 33–4, the particular relationship that exists between the Holy Spirit (al-rūh al-qudusī) and the name al-qāʾil.


[55]Fut.I:97; II:399; Dhakhāʾir al-aʿlāq in Turjumān al-ashwāq (Beirut, 1961), p. 58. See also Chaps. 42 and 43 of Jīlī’s Al-Insān al-kāmil. Note that the terms employed in this hadīth (shābb amrad) constitute an exact equivalent of the word fatā in its primary sense.

[56] The poem of the K. al-Isrāʾ (p. 58), which Ibn ʿArabī takes up again in Fut.I:9, in which the fatā reveals his identity (Anā l-qurʾān wal-sabʿ al-mathānī) merits a study beyond the limits of this article, because it would require a thorough analysis of Chaps. 369 and 383 of the Futūhāt, corresponding respectively to Sura al-Fātiha and Sura al-Hijr (in which the expression al-sabʿ al-mathānī appears). We should point out that in addition to their traditional meaning, which is equivalent to the seven verses of the Fātiha, the ‘seven redoubled’ are also the seven Divine Names (The Seven Oft-repeated, because they are shared by God and man, who is also living, hearing, desiring, etc.) and the seven ritual turns (which are obligatorily performed twice, when the pilgrim arrives and again when he prepares to leave Mecca). Cf. the recitation of this poem before the Shaykh al-Mahdawī at Tunis, Claude Addas, Quest for the Red Sulphur, p. 119.


[58] This table of contents appears in pp. 11–30 in the first volume of the Futūhāt. The titles given to the chapters are effectively, with some minor variations, those which are found at the head of each chapter, and which were mainly composed many years later.

[59] As shown by Abdelbaki Meftah (Mafātih Fusūs al-hikam, Marrakesh, 1997), these 27 + 1 chapters correspond to the 28 degrees of universal existence described in Chap. 198 of the Futūhāt, without implying that it is a question there of a cosmological interpretation of the Fusūs.

[60] See the references given in n. 47.

[61] I repeat here the information given before in An Ocean without Shore (Albany, NY, 1993), pp. 96–9.

[62] The dialogue between ʿUmar and ʿAlī b. Abī Tālib which evokes a verse of the first chapter (cf. n. 28) is the prototype of this tension between two certainties.

[63]Tāj al-rasāʾil, MS. Velyuddin 1759, fols. 103–144b, authenticated by three reading certificates. Contrary to what O. Yahia points out (under R.G. 736), this collection consists of eight epistles, not seven. The first corresponds to the Divine Essence, and the rest to the seven attributes. On the circumstances of the composition of this work, see Fut.I:700–1, and C. Addas, Ibn ʿArabī et la quête du Soufre rouge, pp. 253–4. The Tāj al-rasāʾil has been analysed by Denis Gril, ‘Love Letters to the Kaʿba’, Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn ʿArabi Society, 17 (1995), 40–54.

[64] On the notion of ʿubūda and its importance in the doctrine of Ibn ʿArabī, see An Ocean without Shore, Chap. 5.