Articles and Translations

“We will show them Our signs…”

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


For A. Tanquerey, whose Précis de théologie ascétique et mystique used to be found in all seminary libraries, the stigmata are ‘a kind of impression of the sacred wounds of the Saviour’.[1] K. Rahner adds the important detail that stigmatisation is ‘the appearance of wounds on the body of the mystic which correspond in their own way to the wounds of Christ’.[2] In the Dictionnaire de spiritualité, P. Adn`s speaks of ‘cutaneous changes’, the manifestation of which ‘are in keeping with the context of a movement of special religious fervour, the object of which relates to Christ’s passion’.[3] Similar quotations could be found in numerous treatises or manuals: even if their authors were to quickly point out other meanings borrowed from either biblical or patristic vocabulary or pre-Christian literature, in practice they all identify the stigmata with the stigmata Christi.

If this meaning is generally accepted, it goes without saying that it would be pointless to search within the Islamic tradition for instances of stigmatisation. Such an enquiry is only justified if it is acknowledged that stigmatisation is, broadly speaking, the imposition of a mark, sign or imprint inscribed upon the body of certain servants of God, as evidence of a particular relationship with their Lord. In this scenario, hagiography can offer some significant material in order to broaden the field of investigation, even if one excludes from the outset a considerable number of unusual occurrences (karāmāt) such as complete abstinence from food or drink, levitation or bilocation – which, although of a physical nature, do not strictly speaking constitute ‘imprints’. It is not by chance that the most significant ‘stigmata’ are, furthermore, tightly bound within scriptural texts (the Qurʾan or hadīth), from which, as it were, the symbols take form among certain elect individuals.

An example of this is the Quranic verse (48:29), which describes the believers in these terms: ‘You will see them bow and prostrate themselves, seeking grace from Allah, and His good pleasure. On their faces are their marks, (being) the traces of their prostration (athar al-sujūd)’. Classic exegesis[4] envisages two degrees of interpretation in connection with this sign: for the ordinary believers in this world, this mark or trace is caused by contact with the ground or it is the dust which marks the forehead of the faithful as they prostrate themselves; for those who practise assiduously the supererogatory prayers, the ‘trace’ of sujūd is also understood as describing something resembling a callus which ends up forming between the eyebrows at the place where contact is made with the ground. The presence of this callus thus distinguishes the most zealous worshippers, and in Muslim society it earns them the veneration of their less devout fellow worshippers. But this athar al-sujūd also has a second meaning, this time eschatological. The Prophet stated that on the day of resurrection, ‘it will shine like the full moon’. Before acceding to the realms of bliss, sinners will have to atone for all their wrongdoings in the flames of hell, but this part of their bodies will be spared; it is because of this sign that the angels will recognise those who should be extracted from Gehenna and they will be led towards Paradise.

Now, among certain saints, this brilliant light – which, for the majority of humans, will only appear in the next world – manifests right here and now: their bodies are already glorified. The ‘illumination’ of their faces (istinār wujūhihim) is not a simple metaphor: every day it lights up their retreat cells or the deserted mosques where they take refuge to spend their nights in prayer. This light ‘which appears on the faces of the pure worshippers proceeds from their interior towards their exterior – and this, even if those concerned are Negroes or Ethiopians’.[5] The brilliance of the faces of the friends of God (awliyāʾ) could also be as a result of a meticulous practice of ritual purification, for according to a saying of the Prophet,[6] ‘ablution is light’. The history of Shams al-dīn Rawjī (d.1499) appears in a Persian hagiographic work dedicated to masters of the Naqshbandiyya brotherhood,[7] in which it states that at the time of his initiation into the Way, he discovered during the course of his nocturnal devotions that he had become a living light, and became proud of this, which resulted in him being chased away by his shaykh until such times as his attitude demonstrated a sincere repentance.

Apart from these phenomena, we also encounter other events which may have certain similarities to those recorded by Catholic theologians under the heading of ‘figurative stigmata’. For example, the impression of a divine Name in the heart of the devout worshipper is the traditional explanation for the epithet of Naqshband (meaning ‘painter’ or ‘engraver’), which was given to Shaykh Bahāʾ al-dīn, eponymous founder of the Naqshbandiyya. Also included within this category might be such instances as the miraculous tracing of some divine names or Quranic quotations on a saint’s body. Yāfiʿī (d.1367) records that the ninth-century Khurasani Sufi Mansūr b. ʿAmmār was reciting several eschatological verses to a young man in whom he had noticed a reverent devotion to God. At the sound of the first few verses the anonymous listener fainted and then suddenly, on hearing the final one, he died. When he came to be undressed in preparation for the ritual cleansing, a verse which had not been recited by Mansūr was discovered inscribed upon his breast, ‘by the pen of the Almighty’ (bi-qalam al-qudra), which is a promise of eternal bliss: ‘And he will be in a life of bliss / In a garden on high / The fruits whereof (will hang in bunches) low and near’ (Q. 69:23).[8]

On the other hand, we should note that if there is a hierarchy of ‘the saints of the All-Merciful’ (awliyāʾ al-Rahmān), there is also an inverse hierarchy of ‘the saints of Satan’ (awliyāʾ al-shaytān), and that certain stigmata could be signs of damnation. The most characteristic example in this respect is that of the Antichrist, the ‘false messiah’ (al-dajjāl): ‘The word kāfir (infidel) will be written between his two eyes and all believers, whether or not they are literate, will be able to read it’.[9] Just as the servants of God are ‘marked by his seal on their foreheads’ (Revelation, 7, v.3), the servants of the Devil carry what the Apocalypse names ‘the mark of the Beast’ (Revelation, 13, vs.16-17), a mark which is invisible to the majority of mortals but which does not escape the all-seeing vision of the saints. On returning to the world of men at the end of a seven-year-long solitary retreat, the Egyptian Muhammad al-Hanafī (d.1443) was able to discern those who are held under the gaze of God; some of them had radiant faces but others appeared to him in the form of monkeys or pigs. The vision was unbearable, and returning to his cell, Hanafī begged God to spare him from it by taking this unveiling (kashf) away from him.[10] Ibn ʿArabī (d.1240) attributes a comparable charisma to the rajabiyyūn saints (thus named because it is particularly in the month of Rajab that this power is given to them), who see right through the heretics in spite of the care with which these latter take pains to mask their heterodox beliefs.[11]

The brief information given above is only intended to suggest certain criteria, the use of which within the vitae sanctorum allows us to detect in Islam facts which can be considered as relevant to this category of ‘stigmata’, thus allowing the word to retain its etymological sense in Greek or Latin. In Christian literature, long before St Francis of Assisi (cf. Galatians, 6, v.17 ego enim stigmata Domini Jesu in corpore meo porto), stigmata are in fact associated with suffering. But Muslim Christology, oriented towards Parousia, or the Second Coming, is unaware of the Passion and because of that the com-passion which forms the basis of stigmatisation within catholic theology. This is why it would be wrong – as the Christian model might suggest – to give priority to directing research on Muslim cases of stigmatisation towards such figures of ‘victim saintliness’ as Hallāj, ʿAyn al-Qudāt al-Hamadānī or Badr al-dīn al-Simawī.[12] The awliyāʾ that one might regard as ‘stigmatised’ are not doomed to suffering but are such by virtue of a sign of election, the anticipation of which allows them to participate in the glory of the resurrected. Present in via they are already, simultaneously, in patria and their mortal body carries the imprint of eternity.[13]

We should however point out that the signs that God prepares for men ‘unto the horizons and in themselves‘ (Q. 41:53) are observed in the first place in the person of the Prophet, who is the paradigm and source of all saintliness.[14] Now, in this respect two aspects of the life of the Envoy merit particular attention. Muhammad, as we know, is qualified in the Qurʾan as the ‘Seal of the Prophets’ (khātam al-nabiyyīn, Q. 33:40). According to Muslim tradition, this seal-like function (khatmiyya) belongs to him because it is with him that the Revelation, of which all the earlier prophets were messengers, reached its definitive fullness: nothing further can henceforth be added, nor can anything further be taken away from him, for the seal preserves that which it seals.[15] Numerous hadiths establish that the ‘seal of the prophethood’ was physically represented by a special mark:[16] ‘The seal of the Envoy was a red excrescence situated between his shoulders and equal in size to the egg of a turtledove’ (baydat al-hamāma), Tirmidhī stated, following Jābir b. Samura. Another description, which we owe to Sāʾib b. Yazīd, compares this seal to a button which closes a buttonhole (zirr al-hajala).[17] It was because of this mark that the monk Bahīrā, who was accompanying Muhammad’s uncle Abū Tālib to Syria, recognised the infant as being the Envoy of God, knowing that his arrival was imminent.[18] It is interesting to note that, according to Ibn Saʿd,[19] this seal would have disappeared from the body of the Prophet at the time of his death, as was also recorded in the cases of certain stigmatised Christians.[20]

The scriptural notion of ‘seal of the prophets’ corresponds to that of ‘seal of the saints’ which first appeared in a book by Hakīm Tirmidhī (who died at the beginning of the 9th century)[21] and was further developed in the work of Ibn ʿArabī. He claimed for himself the function of ‘seal of Muhammadian sainthood’, distinguishing this from the function of ‘seal of universal sainthood’ which will belong to Jesus when he returns at the end of time. We will not mention here the doctrinal range of the many writings of Ibn ʿArabī on this subject, nor the often violent debates that they aroused, since these problems have been dealt with elsewhere.[22] Nevertheless, it is important to note that the function of Ibn ʿArabī, like that of the Prophet, is attested to by the presence of a physical sign. Ibn ʿArabī made an allusion to this in a poem in his Dīwān[23] where God, having confirmed to him his khatmiyya, addresses Himself to the Highest Assembly (al-malaʾ al-aʿlā), saying:

Look well upon him: for My sign of his function as Seal
is to be found on his back.

This verse would remain enigmatic if we did not have at our disposal a fundamental piece of information from the pen of Jandī (d.c.1301), student of Sadr al-dīn Qūnawī (d.1274) who was a privileged witness since he was both the son-in-law and disciple of Ibn ʿArabī. Where the Prophet bore in relief between his two shoulders a sign of his function as seal of the prophets, Jandī affirms that Ibn ʿArabī bore, in the same position, in the form of a hollow a sign of the same dimension and appearance – this inverted symmetry, he emphasised, expressing the fact that unlike prophethood which is by definition manifest, sainthood is interior and hidden.[24]

Cor mundum crea in me, Deus, implores the Psalmist (Ps. 51, v.10). According to Christian hagiography, this prayer is literally granted, for example, to Dorothée de Montau or a Catherine de Ricci:[25] for Dorothée, her ‘old heart’ was removed and a new heart was substituted. This type of purification, as a preliminary to other mystical graces, does not constitute a stigmatisation in the strict meaning of the term, but is known to be frequently associated with it and could nevertheless leave a somatic trace in the form of an external or internal wound. St John of the Cross describes a similar supernatural process in connection with the burning spear of the seraphim, when he speaks of ‘another way of cauterising the soul’.[26] Several centuries before the first Christian accounts there was a well-known episode in the life of the Prophet of Islam describing a divine intervention, which was also intended to purify the heart. The exegetic tradition considers that it was to this event that the first verse of the surat Al-Sharh, or Al-Inshirāh (‘The Expansion’) refers: ‘Did We not expand your breast for you?’ This event took place during the time when the young orphan Muhammad was being raised by his wet nurse Halīma: two angels, carrying a golden vessel full of snow, opened up his chest and on taking out his heart extracted from it a black clot; they then washed it in the snow until it became perfectly pure.[27]

Sainthood in the Islamic tradition is imitatio Prophetae, by which is understood not only a conformity to the standards of behaviour instituted by the Envoy, but also an adherence to his interior states.[28] It follows that, mutatis mutandis, the divine favours which the Prophet has been granted are replicated in the awliyāʾ: it is thus that the greatest among the saints have also experienced the miʿrāj, the ‘ascension’ (which, for them, is accomplished only in spirit, and not in body as was the experience of the Prophet). The same applies to the purification of the heart, a well-documented example of which is given in the biography of a 12th-century Sufi, Abū l-Rabīʿ Sulaymān b. ʿUmar al-Mayūrqī al-Mālaqī. Originating from Malaga (as is indicated by the adjective al-Mālaqī appended to his name), al-Mayūrqī died in Cairo, where he was interred. His virtues, his exceptional charisma, the spiritual authority which he exercised over his most distinguished disciples – all of these earned him the honour of being frequently mentioned in mystical literature, in particular in the works of Ibn ʿArabī.[29] The hagiographer Yāfiʿī brings us the following story from him:[30]

On a certain night, I saw a hoopoe[31] who placed himself in front of me and held forth in a form of language that I did not understand. Then with a flick of the wing it hopped to my left and spoke to me again, without my understanding more. With another flick of the wing it then hopped to my right, and placing its beak in my mouth, it gave me the beakful. My lungs expanded. I heard a crack in my breast and I was overjoyed for I knew that this was what was expected of me. Then two beings appeared. One of them came forward, split open my breast, removed my heart from within and placed it in a bowl. I heard the other one say to him: ‘Protect the tree of knowledge!’ He washed my heart, replaced it in the right side of my breast and closed up the wound. As of that day, the Qurʾan and the vision of the heart were opened for me. Now, I see by the eye of the heart and I hear the Qurʾan recited in my right side.[32]

In the end, by means of this supernatural surgery, it is the Word of God which inscribes itself in the body of the saint.[33]

A systematic enquiry could easily gather, together with the evidence collected here, many more facts to which the terms ‘stigmata’ and ‘stigmatisation’ could be applied, for the purposes of a comparative study. The distinctions of these terms which we have emphasised here nevertheless remind us that it is always risky to uproot a vocabulary from the particular circumstances of the natural environment in which it has grown and flourished. Furthermore, the Quranic revelation warns against a perilous confusion of idioms: ‘If God had so willed, He would have made them a single people’ (Q. 42:8), but ‘To each among you We have prescribed a Law and a Way’ (Q. 5:48). It is for this reason that ‘among His signs [“unto the horizons”] is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and [“in yourselves”] the variations in your languages and your colours’ (Q. 30:22).


Translated by Judy Kearns.

Reproduced from the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society, Volume 50, 2011.


[1] A. Tanquerey, Précis de théologie ascétique et mystique, 7th edn (Paris, 1928), sections 1522-1524.

[2] K. Rahner and H. Vorgrimmler, Petit dictionnaire de théologie catholique (Paris, 1970), p. 455.

[3]Dictionnaire de spiritualité, XLV, col. 1211.

[4] See, for example, Qurtubī, Al-Jāmiʿ li-ahkām al-Qurʾān (Cairo, 1946), XVI.

[5] Ismāʿīl Haqqī, Rūh al-bayān (Istanbul, 1926), IX, p. 58.

[6] Dārimī, salāt, 2; see also a variant of this hadīth in Bukhārī, wudūʾ, 3.

[7] Fakhr al-dīn ʿAlī Safī, Rashahāt ʿayn al-hayāt, Arabic trans. by Muhammad Murād (Diyarbakir, n.d.), p. 147.

[8] Yāfiʿī, Rawd al-rayāhīn, 2nd edn (Cairo, 1955), p. 200.

[9] Qurtubī, Al-Tadhkira (Beirut, n.d.), pp. 658-64. On the hadiths concerning descriptions of the Dajjāl, see Wensinck, Handbook of Early Muhammadan Traditions (Leiden, 1971), p. 50, under dajjāl (according to a variant, it is the letters k-f-r, the consonants of kufr, ‘infidelity/non-believing’, which appear on the forehead). According to Bukhārī (anbiyāʾ, 8; hājj, 30), Ibn ʿAbbās contested the attribution to the Prophet of the phrase concerning this inscription on the forehead of the Antichrist.

[10] Batanūnī, Al-Sirr al-safī fi manāqib al-sultān al-Hanafī (Cairo, ah 1306), 1, p. 10.

[11] Ibn ʿArabī, al-Futūhāt al-Makkiyya (Būlāq, ah 1329), I, 1, p. 8; Muhādarat al-abrār (Damascus, 1968), 1, p. 418.

[12] It is significant that, according to Ibn ʿArabī’s doctrine on hagiology (in which the various forms of sainthood each relate to one of the prophets recognised in the Islamic tradition), these three figures be classed among the ‘Christ-like’ saints. On this point, see M. Chodkiewicz, The Seal of the Saints (Cambridge, 1993), Chapter 5.

[13] The correspondence between the ‘stigmata’ of the living saints, and the characteristics which describe the heavenly status of the elect in Muslim eschatology, calls for an explanation. Let us simply note here that, in line with, among others, ʿAbd al-Karīm al-Jīlī (Al-insān al-kāmil, Chapter 61), the scriptural facts related to the ‘signs of the Hour’ in the cosmos, and duly transposed to the scale of the human microcosm, correspond precisely to the successive stages of the initiatic process.

[14] See M. Chodkiewicz, Seal of the Saints, Chapter 4 and idem. ‘Le mod`le prophétique de la sainteté en Islam’ in Al-Masāq (Leeds, 1994), vol. 7, pp. 201-26.

[15] The work of Y. Friedmann, Prophecy Continuous (Univ. of California Press, 1989), pp. 49-82, can usefully be consulted for an interpretation of the khatmiyya of the Prophet.

[16] Hadiths related to this ‘seal of prophethood’ appear in the so-called ‘canonical’ collections (Bukhārī, Muslim, Abū Dāwūd, Ibn Hanbal, Tirmidhī, etc.). For these references, see Wensinck, Handbook, p. 160.

[17] For these two descriptions see Ibn Manzūr, Lisān al-ʿarab (Beirut, n.d.), IV, p. 321 (under z-r-r).

[18] Ibn Hishām, Sīra nabawiyya (Cairo, 1955), I, pp. 180-83.

[19] Ibn Saʿd, Tabaqāt (Leiden, 1904-08), 11/2, p. 57.

[20] A recent example of this is given in the case of Padre Pio.

[21] The work by Hakīm Tirmidhī (not to be confused with the traditionist mentioned above) was edited by O. Yahya in Beirut in 1965 under the title K. Khatm al-awliyāʾ; then by B. Radtke, also in Beirut, in 1992 (Drei Schriften der theosophen von Tirmidh) under the title K. Sirāt al-awliyāʾ; translated into English by B. Radtke and J. O’Kane as The Concept of Sainthood in Early Islamic Mysticism (Richmond, Surrey, 1996).

[22] See Claude Addas, Quest for the Red Sulphur: the Life of Ibn ʿArabī (Cambridge, 1993), Chapters 3 and 8; and M. Chodkiewicz, Seal of the Saints, Chapter 9.

[23] Ibn ʿArabī, Dīwān (Būlāq, 1855), p. 332 (7th verse of this poem, which is the longest in the Dīwān).

[24] Jandī, Sharh Fusūs al-hikam, ed. Ashtiyānī (Mashhad, 1982), pp. 236-37. The comparable relationship between the ‘Seal of the Prophets’ and the ‘Seal of the Muhammadian Sainthood’ is illustrated by many other facts. According to several versions of the Hadīth al-miʿrāj attributed to Ibn ʿAbbās, which is an account of the ascension of the Prophet, the latter declares: ‘My Lord placed His noble hand between my two shouldersÖI felt the freshness of it in my interior. This made me heir to the sciences of the first and the last, the science of that which was and that which will be’ (Nazeer El-Azma, The Miʿrāj and Sufi Symbolism (Beirut, 1982), p. 156 of the Arabic text). Ibn ʿArabī, who quotes this hadith on many occasions (e.g. Futūhāt, I, pp. 137, 143), describing a vision of the last judgement with which he was favoured (K. al-Mubashshirāt, ms. Fatih 5322, fol. 93a), writes: ‘Then God put His palm upon me so that I might have the knowledge of my state’ (that is to say, of his status of ‘Muhammadian inheritance’).

[25] See Dictionnaire de spiritualité, 11/1, 1046-1051, and Imbert-Gourbeyre, La Stigmatisation, ed. J. Bouflet (Grenoble, 1996), pp. 121-22 and pp. 199-204.

[26]Vive flamme, version B, c.2.

[27] For an account of ‘the opening up of the breast’, see Ibn Hishām, Sīra, I, pp. 166ff; and Ibn Saʿd, Tabaqāt, 1/1, p. 96. For an esoteric commentary of this event, see Ibn ʿArabī, Futūhāt, II, pp. 649-52 (Chapter 290), and Qāshānī, Taʾwīlāt, published under the name of Ibn ʿArabī, and entitled Tafsīr (Beirut, 1968), II, p. 823. According to certain accounts of this episode it was at this moment that the ‘seal of the prophethood’ was put in place by the angels between the shoulders of the Prophet.

[28] It is certainly Bérulle’s usage of this term ‘adherence’ that we suggest should be understood here as expressing as closely as possible this configuration to the prophetic nature (uswa hasana, ‘excellent model’ according to Q. 33:21), which, in Sufism, defines the ways of sainthood. This point is expanded upon in Chodkiewicz, Seal of the Saints.

[29] Ibn ʿArabī, Rūh al-quds (Damascus, 1964), pp. 64-6, 79; Tajalliyāt (Tehran, 1988), p. 344 (Chapter 46); Futūhāt, I, p. 577; III, p. 508 (where he tells us that ‘his eyes sleep but his heart remains awake’); IV, p. 474 (where, on reciting 70,000 shahāda, he freed the deceased mother of a young boy from the fires of hell), and p. 491. Ibn ʿArabī indicates that this shaykh was blind. See also Safī al-dīn, Risāla, ed. D. Gril (IFAO, Cairo, 1986, fols. 35b, 44a and 103b, as well as Shattanawfī, Bahjāt al-asrār (Cairo, ah 1330), p. 207. Nabhānī’s account in Jāmiʿ karāmāt al-awliyāʾ (Beirut, 1991), II, p. 103, is taken from Yāfiʿī (see next note).

[30] Yāfiʿī, Rawd, p.460; anecdotes relating to Sulaymān al-Mālaqī also appear on pp. 96, 333. See also, from the same author, Nashr al-mahāsin al-ghāliyya (Cairo, 1961), p. 28.

[31] The hoopoe (hudhud) in the Qurʾan (27:20-28) is the messenger that Solomon sends to the queen of Sheba (Sabā).

[32] The transferral of the heart to the right corresponds to the awakening of the subtle centres (latāʾif) of the human being, which the anthropology of Sufism identifies with the rūh (‘the spirit’).

[33] For Ibn ʿArabī, the laylat al-qadr (Q. 97:1-5), or the night when the Qurʾan was revealed, refers symbolically to the body of the Prophet (Futūhāt, IV, p. 44); Qāshānī (op.cit. II, p. 83.1) also identifies this blessed night with the ‘Muhammadian constitution’ (al-bunya al-muhammadiyya).

WP Feedback

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