by Stephen Hirtenstein

Reprinted from Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi Society, Vol. 41, 2007.

Other articles

Some Preliminary Notes on al-Dîwân al-kabîr by Stephen Hirtenstein. An examination of four early manuscripts.

Some Notes on the Manuscript Veliyuddin 51 by Jane Clark and Denis McAuley. A collection of 17 complete works by Ibn 'Arabi.

Names and Titles of Ibn [al-]'Arabī

"On the day of Judgment you will be called by your names and by your fathers' names; therefore keep you good names." (hadith)

"Call your children after your Prophet, but the names Allāh likes best are 'Abd Allāh, 'Abd al-Rahmān." (hadith)


In contrast to the modern practice of naming in the Christian West, with its fairly perfunctory and functional system of attribution, in which a simple first (Christian or non-Christian[1]) name and family-name suffices, people in the Islamic and Jewish world have tended to view names and titles as a much more serious business. It is not only a matter of giving an appropriate name to someone but of honouring them with the name. Thus, the Biblical conversion of Abram to Abraham (the "father of many nations", Genesis 17:5) occurs in honour of the circumcision covenant, through which there was a claim to God's special benediction. As can be seen from the two hadiths quoted above, the Prophet Muhammad insisted on good names being used for people, and it became customary to call children after the Prophet himself. In addition, the Arabs gave great importance to a person's ancestry and lineage, revelling in long genealogies that rolled off the tongue like poetry.

In contrast to western systems, there are several different categories of name in classical Arabic:[2] the personal name (ism, given to the individual), the teknonym or honorific name (kunya, father or mother of someone), the parental name or patronymic (nasab, son or daughter of someone), the descriptive or nickname (laqab, referring to a particular quality or epithet), and the familial or toponymic name (nisba, usually tribal or geographical or occupational). In some cases there were also special titular names indicating status or rank, such as Nizām al-Mulk ("Order of the Kingdom") or Muhyī al-dīn ("Reviver of the Religion").

Thus in the case of Ibn 'Arabī,[3] his full name is given in the sources as:

Muhyī al-dīn Abū 'Abd Allāh Muhammad bin 'Alī bin Muhammad bin Ahmad bin 'Abd Allāh bin al-'Arabī al-Tā'ī al-Hātimī al-Andalusī

This can be broken down into the following elements:

Muhyī al-dīn (titular name)

The title Muhyī al-dīn appears in early manuscripts written during the lifetime of Ibn 'Arabī, and would appear to have been not simply an honorific title but a conscious appeal to the common Muslim view that in every century of Islam there would appear someone who would "renew" the religion (mujaddid). AbūHāmid al-Ghazzālī had been generally accepted as the "reviver of religion" in the sixth century of the Hijra, and another great renewer was expected for the seventh. Ibn 'Arabī himself was certainly very aware of al-Ghazzālī's legacy, and named several of his works in imitation of his great predecessor.[4] While there is no evidence that he openly portrayed himself with such a title, he equally did nothing to prevent its ascription to him during his lifetime.[5]

Abū 'Abd Allāh (kunya)

The kunya, which literally means "Father of..." (Abū) or "Mother of..." (Umm) and is the polite form of address, does not necessarily denote a teknonym, i.e. that the person has had a son, and may describe a particular characteristic the person shows. In Ibn 'Arabī's case, the name Abū 'Abd Allāh does not suggest that he ever had a son called 'Abd Allāh, but designates the quality he exemplified, i.e. as "servant of God". It was not uncommon for Arabs to have two kunyas: for example, the Prophet's uncle was known as both Abū Lahab ("father of a flame" because of his flame-like handsomeness) and Abū 'Utba ("father of 'Utba", his eldest son). Some scholars have believed that Ibn 'Arabī's kunya was also Abū Bakr, following a remark made by his first teacher, al-'Uryānī, who addressed him with the words: "O Abū Bakr...".[6] The use of this kunya, which is not repeated anywhere else in the sources, was almost certainly an allusion to the status of Ibn 'Arabī as being like the first caliph, i.e. sincere and veracious (siddīq).

Muhammad (ism)

Not only was this the name of the Prophet himself, but it is interesting to note that Ibn 'Arabī's sons were also both called Muhammad, breaking the sequence of naming after one's father, as was his step-son, [Sadr al-dīn] Muhammad b. Ishāq al-Qūnawī.

bin[7] 'Alī bin Muhammad bin Ahmad bin 'Abd Allāh (nasab)

The mentioning of several generations was quite usual where names such as Muhammad or 'Alī were used.[8] Scribes have occasionally made apparent mistakes over these, and it is not uncommon to find, for example, Muhammad b. 'Alī b. Ahmad.

bin al-'Arabī al-Tā'ī al-Hātimī al-Andalusī (nisba)

The full nisba, giving lineage and geographical origin, is the most common form of referring to Ibn 'Arabī, as this quickly identifies him. His conventional name ('urf) is Ibn [al-]'Arabī, possibly from an area near Murcia,[9] and he himself often only added al-Tā'ī, i.e. of the tribe of Tayy. This tribe was originally from Yemen and emigrated northwards to the Shammār plateau. One of the most famous members of this tribe, who may have been Ibn 'Arabī's own ancestor,[10] was the semi-legendary chief, Hātim al-Tā'ī, a Christian renowned for his generosity and supporting the needy; his son, who succeeded him as head of the tribe, was deeply impressed on meeting the Prophet and embraced Islam. In the early years of Islam many of the tribe participated in the expansion into Syria, supported the Umayyads, and later in the fourth/tenth century played an important role during the Crusades. Like other Arab tribes from Syria, part of the Tayy emigrated to Umayyad al-Andalus.[11]

The order of the names as al-Tā'ī al-Hātimī al-Andalusī is attested in all the early manuscripts of Ibn 'Arabī's work, most notably the earliest of all, the 'Anqā'Mughrib, dated 597/1201 in Fez (Berlin oct 3266, fol. 0a). Some disciples and later scribes would change this to al-Hātimī al-Tā'ī, presumably in recognition of his famous ancestor. Occasionally Ibn 'Arabī is also referred to by later writers as al-Maghribī (from the Maghrib or Western end of the Islamic world), or even al-Ishbīlī (from Seville, where he lived from childhood till the age of thirty).


Given that the bestowing of laudatory titles is nowadays non-existent, and even in earlier times primarily used for rulers,[12] it can come as some surprise to find the proliferation of such epithets at the beginning of manuscripts, in praise of an author. Most readers will have come across references to Ibn 'Arabī as simply al-shaykh al-akbar or al-kibrīt al-ahmar. However, there are many other titles given to him in the early manuscripts which are equally laudatory. Indeed one of the most distinctive features of manuscripts of Ibn 'Arabī's works is the large number of titles that are given to him at the beginning of a particular work. Odd as they may seem to a non-Arab ear, these epithets laud the author in the most extravagant terms, sometimes extending over two or more lines with as many as twelve or more separate qualities. At first sight they seem simply praises of the author, written in a kind of student one-upmanship that suggests that "our" teacher is better than "yours". After all, being taught by "the greatest master" reflects well on the student as much as on the teacher himself. However, there are several features of these titles that deserve closer examination and consideration.

Historically, the earliest manuscripts where Ibn 'Arabī describes himself in his own handwriting give his name simply as:

al-faqīr ilā Allāh ta'ālā Muhammad b. 'Alī b. Muhammad b. al-'Arabī al-Tā'ī[13]

al-'abd al-faqīr ilā Allāh ta'ālā Muhammad b. 'Alī b. Muhammad b. al-'Arabī al-Tā'ī al-Hātimī al-Andalusī[14]

One can see that Ibn 'Arabī did not refer to himself with any other title than "the servant, the poor towards God the Exalted". He did not call himself Muhyī al-dīn or anything else that might interfere with the most rigorous servanthood. Such laudatory titles are found in the hands of his close disciples, and it was evidently normal for this to be done, as there are no cases of early copies where this kind of laudation does not occur. Whenever Ibn 'Arabī's name is mentioned, a large number of titles accompany it. The following examples all come from works written during the author's lifetime, arranged in order of dating:

[in an unknown Maghribi hand]

sayyidunā wa imāmunā al-shaykh al-imām al-'ārif al-awhad al-muhaqqiq baqiyyat al-salaf wa 'umdat al-khalaf Muhyī al-dīn Abū 'Abd Allāh Muhammad b. 'Alī b. Muhammad b. al-'Arabī al-Tā'ī al-Hātimī al-Andalusī [radhiya Allāhu 'anhu] (Yusuf Aga 4868, fol. 74b, Hilyat al-abdāl, dated AH 602)

[in the hand of Ibn Sawdakīn]

al-imām al-'ālim al-rāsikh al-wārith al-muhaqqiq Abū 'Abd Allāh Muhammad b. 'Alī b. Muhammad b. al-'Arabī al-Tā'ī al-Hātimī [radhiya Allāhu 'anhu] (Veliyuddin 1759, fol. 1a, K. al-Sab'a, dated AH 603)

[in the hand of Ayyūb b. Badr al-Muqrī]

sayyidunā wa-imāmunā al-shaykh al-imām al-faqīh al-'ālim al-muhaddith nasīj 'asrihi wa-farīd dahrihi shaykh al-tarīq wa-imām al-tahqīq Muhyīddīn Abū 'Abdullāh Muhammad b. 'Alī b. Muhammad b. al-'Arabī al-Tā'ī al-Hātimī [ghafara Allāh lanā wa lahu] (Shehit Ali 2813, fol. 42b, K. al-Haqq, dated AH 621)

[in the hand of Sadr al-dīn al-Qūnawī]

sayyidunā wa shaykhunā al-imām al-'ālim al-rāsikh al-fard al-muhaqqiq Muhyī al-milla wa al-dīn Abū 'Abd Allāh Muhammad b. 'Alī b. al-'Arabī al-Tā'ī al-Hātimī al-Andalusī [radhiya Allāhu 'anhu wa ardhāhu] (Evkaf 1933, fol. 1a, Fusūs, dated AH 630)

mawlānā wa sayyidunā shaykh al-islām safwat al-anām sultān al-muhaqqiqīn wārith al-anbiyā' wa al-mursalīn Muhyī al-milla wa al-dīn Abū 'Abd Allāh Muhammad b. 'Alī b. al-'Arabī al-Tā'ī al-Hātimī [radhiya Allāhu 'anhu wa ardhāhu bihi minhu] (Evkaf 1845, fol. 2a, Futūhāt, dated AH 633?)

As can be seen, each of these disciples used the formula "may God be well-pleased with him [and make him well-pleased]" (radhiya Allāhu 'anhu wa ardhāhu) while the author was still very much alive, although such an expression would normally indicate that a person is deceased.

While the laudatory formulae that each disciple used seem to have been quite specific to each of them, there are also certain similarities which are noticeable. Other than the common ordering of the proper names, all apart from Ibn Sawdakīn used the title Muhyī al-dīn, the earliest examples of such a practice (see also n. 5). The apparent disparity cannot simply be explained on the basis of dates, and is more likely to be a matter of discipleship and acceptance of Ibn 'Arabī's significance: the first case, which certainly predates the Ibn Sawdakīn entry and uses the epithet, was probably written by someone who had been close to Ibn 'Arabī for some time,[15] in contrast to Ibn Sawdakīn who had only just met his master in AH 603.

While in a certain sense standard titles, each term used in these laudations seems to have had a specific resonance and acquired a depth of meaning that was significant. In his commentary on two of Ibn 'Arabī's works, K. al-Isrā'and K. Mashāhid al-asrār, Ibn Sawdakīn refers to his master in almost identical terms to the ones quoted above: al-imām al-'ālim al-rāsikh al-fard al-muhaqqiq:

imām ("leader")

The imām is not only the one who leads the ritual prayer, but one who has religious and spiritual authority in all matters[16] – although historically it is a term with powerful resonance in both the Sunni and Shi'i communities,[17] the primary meaning for Ibn 'Arabī and his followers is leadership in respect of knowledge of God. He specifically designates God Himself as the imām and all creatures as His followers,[18] and as a term applicable to men applies it firstly to a position in the saintly hierarchy below the Pole, and then to a realisation of closeness: "He made me an earth and He became an adornment for me. He appointed me to the office of imām, but there was no-one for whom I could be an imām except Him."[19]

'ālim ("knower")

The 'ālim (pl. 'ulamā') denotes a scholar in all kinds of disciplines, especially the religious sciences. They were not only students of jurisprudence (fiqh) and theology but also of Hadith; in other words, for many the primary focus was on sciences transmitted from the Prophet. There is equally an implied reference here to the tension between the 'ilm al-bātin, knowledge of the self or inner knowledge, and the 'ilm al-zāhir, outer knowledge or tradition. Some disciples also specifically named Ibn 'Arabī as al-'ārif, denoting his immersion in knowledge of God (i.e. 'ārif billāh), and as al-muhaddith, denoting his expertise in the field of Hadith.[20]

The classical characterisation of 'ālim as learned in outer knowledge and 'ārif as gnostic, knowing through God, is sometimes inverted by Ibn 'Arabī in his own writings. For example, in the Hilyat al-abdāl, he describes 'ilm (knowledge) as being the fruit of ma'rifa (gnosis): the 'ālim is one who is fully cognisant by God and belongs utterly to God, "firmly existent", while the 'ārif represents a lower stage as one who knows through God, "momentarily arrested".[21]

rāsikh ("firmly rooted in knowledge")

Quranic in origin, appearing twice in the plural as "those who are firmly rooted in knowledge" (al-rāsikhūn fī al-'ilm),[22] this term was widely discussed and claimed by learned people in the Islamic world. For Ibn 'Arabī, it designates knowing oneself and one's Master, a characteristic of the "divine sages" (al-hukamā'al-ilāhiyyūn).[23] It is also combined with the previous term al-'ālim in the work of Ghazzālī, for example, to describe someone who is so well-grounded in knowledge that they know that "the sun, moon and stars are compelled entities (musakhkharāt) by the command of Him, praised be He."[24] Ghazzālī often makes use of these two terms together, which leads one to suppose that Ibn Sawdakīn (who tends to use them more than others) was quite familiar with his writing and consciously applying the same terms to his own master. According to another contemporary Sufi master, Shihāb al-dīn al-Suhrawardī (d.624/1226), the knowledge described by the term rāsikh is one where someone understands the divine principle underlying all things: it is that which is bestowed as a legacy from the prophets and saints ('ilm al-wirātha), as opposed to knowledge gained through formal education ('ilm al-dirāsa), and is characterised by the three degrees of certainty ('ilm al-yaqīn, 'ayn al-yaqīn and haqq al-yaqīn).[25]

fard ("singularised")

The fard (pl. afrād) is a term with various meanings depending on the context: when applied to an individual, it suggests someone who is solitary, singular, peerless, unique, incomparable; when applied to God (although it is not used as such in the Quran), it denotes Allāh alone, the One who has no parallel, and is thus the equivalent of ahad;[26] in the realm of numbers, it denotes an odd number (from 3 upwards); in poetry, a line of verse taken in isolation, and so on. In Ibn 'Arabī's thought, it assumed prominence in describing the highest spiritual rank, and is specifically associated with the Prophet Muhammad in the Fusūs al-hikam.[27]

wārith ("heir")

Sometimes given as the more explicit wārith al-anbiyā'wa al-mursalīn ("heir to the prophets and messengers"), this obliquely refers to the specific function of Ibn 'Arabī as seal of Muhammadian sainthood. Interestingly, it was also later applied to Sadr al-dīn al-Qūnawī, who had himself referred to his master in this way.[28]

muhaqqiq ("verifier" or "fully realised")

For Ibn 'Arabī this represents the highest category of the people of God (rijāl Allāh), the primary characteristic of all saints and prophets. The muhaqqiq is one who realises the true nature of all things and acts in accordance with that vision. As the Prophet said, "give to everything that has a haqq its haqq": thus the realiser discerns the nature of each thing's truth or reality or rightful place (its haqq), and behaves towards it in the best and most appropriate manner. Some disciples, such as al-Qūnawī, called their master "sultan of the realisers/verifiers" (sultān al-muhaqqiqīn).

There are many other titles which occur in the early manuscripts, especially where the copyist came from the Persian literary tradition: for example, al-'āmil ("the doer of good"), al-fādhil ("the person of excellence"), al-kāmil al-mukammil ("the complete and the bringer to completion"), al-wāsil ("the one who has arrived at the goal"), qutb al-aqtāb ("pole of poles") and so on.[29]

In addition, this liking for lengthy laudatory titles, in rhyme where possible, may have been a custom that was prevalent in seventh/thirteenth-century Seljuk Konya: for example, in (a) one of the earliest copies of the Futūhāt, taken from the original in al-Qūnawī's possession, the scribe refers to the author at the beginning of the preface (muqaddima) as sayyidunā wa sanadunā wa qudātunā ilā Allāh tabāraka wa ta'ālā, al-shaykh al-akmal, akmal al-wurathā'al-muhammadīn, qutb al-aqtāb al-kāmilīn al-mukammilīn, khatm al-awliyā'al-ilāhiyyīn, qudāt al-muhaqqiqīn, 'alam al-'ulamā'al-rāsikhīn, sultān al-'ālimīn billāh fī al-'ālamīn, Muhyī al-haqq wa al-dīn Abū 'Abd Allāh Muhammad b. 'Alī b. Muhammad b. Muhammad b. Muhammad b. al-'Arabī al-Hātimī al-Tā'ī al-Andalusī; and (b) an early copy of al-Qūnawī's Miftāh ghayb al-jam' wa al-jūd gives the author as mawlānā wa sayyidunā al-imām al-akmal, khātim al-hutūm al-kummal, jāmi' al-jawāmi' wa barzakh al-barāzikh, imām al-aīimma, al-'ālim billāh fī al-'ālamīn, akmal wirātha al-anbiyā'wa mursalīn, Sadr al-haqq wa al-dīn Abū Ma'ālī Muhammad b. Ishāq b. Muhammad b. Yūsuf b. 'Alī.[30] This is echoed in a ninth/fifteenth-century copy of Adab al-murīdīn by Abū Najīb al-Suhrawardī (d.563/1168), where the author is lauded in equally lengthy and poetical terms: al-shaykh al-imām al-'ālim al-kāmil al-'ārif dhiyā'al-dīn shaykh al-islām lisān al-haqq murshid al-khalq 'ilm al-hudā muhyī al-sunna qudāt al-gharq muftī al-'irāq imām al-āfāq 'adhd al-sharī'a sultān al-tarīqa khālis al-khilāfa.[31]

Variant titles

Some copyists, especially those who made copies of several works, seem to have developed a special title system, providing each work with a slightly different set. This can be seen in the copies made by Ayyūb b. Badr, some of which have fortunately survived in the unique manuscript, Shehit Ali 2813: originally a set of nineteen rasā'il according to the contents list (fihris), this now only consists of nine shorter works written in AH 621 in Damascus, either at the Great Mosque or in Ibn 'Arabī's house, and verified in front of the author and other companions. Most works begin with qāla ("…said") and then continue with a string of titles and names. As example we give the first four below, with key variant terms highlighted in bold:

(1) fol. 1b: Nuskhat al-haqq

[qāla] sayyidunā wa shaykhunā wa imāmunā al-shaykh al-imām al-'ālim al-muhaddith shaykh al-tarīq wa imām al-tahqīq shaykh wahdihi wa farīd dahrihi Muhyīddīn Abū Fadhā'il Abū 'Abdullāh Muhammad b. 'Alī b. Muhammad Ibn al-'Arabī al-Hātimī al-Tā'ī

(2) fol. 7b: Mafātih al-ghayb

[qāla] sayyidunā wa shaykhunā wa imāmunā al-shaykh al-faqīh al-imām al-'ālim al-muhaddith shaykh dahrihi wa farīd 'asrihi shaykh al-tarīq Muhyīddīn Abū 'Abdullāh Muhammad b. 'Alī b. Muhammad Ibn al-'Arabī al-Hātimī al-Tā'ī

(3) fol. 12b: al-Madkhal ilā ma'rifat al-asmā'al-ilāhiyya

[qāla] sayyidunā wa shaykhunā wa imāmunā al-shaykh al-imām al-'ālim al-muhaddith shaykh dahrihi wa farīd 'asrihi shaykh al-tarīq wa imām al-tahqīq Muhyīddīn Abū 'Abdullāh Muhammad b. Abū al-Hasan 'Alī b. Muhammad Ibn al-'Arabī al-Hātimī al-Tā'ī

(4) fol. 18b: K. al-Mīm wa al-wāw wa al-nūn

[qāla] shaykhunā wa imāmunā wa sayyidunā al-shaykh al-imām al-'ālim al-muhaddith shaykh dahrihi wa farīd 'asrihi shaykh al-tarīq wa imām al-tahqīq Muhyīddīn Abū 'Abdullāh Muhammad b. 'Alī b. Muhammad Ibn al-'Arabī al-Hātimī al-Tā'ī

These lengthy titles are characteristic of Ayyūb b. Badr's style of honouring his master, with attention being paid as much to the poetry of the names as to their content. He always refers to him at the beginning as "our master, teacher and leader" (although the order of the terms may vary, as in 4). This initial mode of address was naturally used by most of the students who were directly taught by Ibn 'Arabī,[32] and then makes its way into later manuscripts which took from their copies.

Two of the titles are given more clarification when Ayyūb b. Badr specifies Ibn 'Arabī as the "teacher of his time" (shaykh dahrihi) and the "teacher of the Way" (shaykh al-tarīq),[33] and as the "leader of realisation" (imām al-tahqīq). He is the only direct disciple, as far as is known, to consistently describe Ibn 'Arabī not simply as an 'ālim but as a traditionist (muhaddith), in recognition of his broad knowledge of Hadith and ability to pass them on with proper chains of transmission (isnād).[34] He also tends to refer to Ibn 'Arabī as al-Hātimī al-Tā'ī, rather than the reverse which was the author's preferred style and that of other students.

However, what is of more immediate interest here is the way in which each of the four works has been prefaced by a series of titles, each of which is subtly different to the others. The elements highlighted in bold give the main variations in the four works above, including the kunya of Ibn 'Arabī's father (Abū al-Hasan), which is otherwise not known. It is as if there is a kind of personalised trademark on the copy of each work. The reason for this remains somewhat of a mystery: certainly if anyone else copied the works, these prefatory titles would be immediately recognisable as a kind of signature, both of the disciple who made the original copy (here Ayyūb b. Badr) and of the work being copied. There is no evidence that this was specifically intended, although it is hard to imagine another plausible explanation: if it were the case, it would suggest that the copyist was conscious of making a record for posterity and might even have been commissioned to do so.[35]

There is no doubt that this kind of tagging has proved useful. There are examples where modern scholars have been able to trace a whole family of manuscripts by virtue of these title clues: for example, the Murad Bukhari 207 copy of Nuskhat al-haqq (fol. 15b), which was done 160 years later in AH 782, has identical titles to the Shehit Ali 2813 copy quoted above and was clearly copied from it. Close examination shows that the whole Murad collection must have been based on Ayyūb b. Badr's copies, even where these are no longer extant. In addition, Ayyūb's use of a second kunya, Abū Fadhā'il (literally, "father of virtues") in (1) above, is also to be seen in another manuscript of a different work, Risālat al-anwār,[36] which is dated AH 823, i.e. 200 years later, and by virtue of the titles given (including the telltale al-muhaddith) there is no doubt that it was copied from Ayyūb b. Badr's copy (which has not survived). This makes such a copy valuable despite the elapse of two centuries. Likewise, a copy of Dhakhā'ir al-a'lāq (the commentary on the Tarjumān al-ashwāq) dated AH 873 specifies it was taken from Ayyūb b. Badr's copy of AH 626 (otherwise lost).[37]

Little attention seems to have been paid to these details in modern scholarship, and such titles are usually omitted from library catalogues for practical reasons. To include them would double the catalogue entries in some cases. As just one example of many, a manuscript of Dhakhā'ir dated AH 969 gives the following resonantly rhythmical laudation: al-shaykh al-imām al-'ālim al-'āmil al-kāmil al-awhad al-rāsikh, 'ilm al-murīdīn, sultān al-'ulamā'wa al-muhaqqiqīn, wārith al-anbiyā'wa al-mursalīn, Muhyī al-milla wa al-dīn, al-muhaqqiq al-rabbānī, farīd dahrihi wa wahīd 'asrihi, Muhyī al-dīn Abū 'Abd Allāh Muhammad b. 'Alī b. Muhammad b. al-'Arabī al-Tā'ī al-Hātimī al-Andalusī.[38]

Osman Yahya, whose work on Ibn 'Arabī's bibliography remains the standard work for scholars, certainly seems to have had this system in mind when he describes a manuscript as établi d'après l'original ("copied from the original").[39] However, the problem with such a description is that there is no way of telling if this is actually a copy of an original or was simply copied from a copy of a copy of a copy etc. The only conclusion that can be drawn is the kind of generalisation common in the art world, that the manuscript in question appears to have a "good provenance".

The greatest teacher?

It is well known that Ibn 'Arabī became famous as al-shaykh al-akbar ("the greatest spiritual teacher") and al-kibrīt al-ahmar ("the red sulphur"), but when was this rhyming pair first used? What do the early manuscripts tell us about these titles? First of all, no references have so far been found in any of the well-known works that date from Ibn 'Arabī's lifetime, including al-Futūhāt al-makkiyya, Fusūs al-hikam or Rūh al-quds. There the tendency was to simply refer to Ibn 'Arabī as "the spiritual teacher" (al-shaykh) or "the author" (al-musannif or al-munshiī), and if there was direct contact, to add the sort of titles mentioned above.

Later disciples such as al-Kāshānī and al-Qaysarī also do not mention this title: al-Qaysarī's introduction to his Sharh Fusūs al-hikam,[40] for example, speaks of his own master al-Kāshānī in expansive terms such as al-shaykh al-kāmil al-mukammil, wahīd dahrihi wa farīd 'asrihi, fakhr al-'ārifīn, qurrat 'ayn dhāt al-muwahhidīn wa nūr basar al-muhaqqiqīn etc. He also refers to Ibn 'Arabī in rather similar terms as al-shaykh al-kāmil al-mukammil qutb al-'ārifīn wa imām al-muwahhidīn wa qurrat 'ayn al-muhaqqiqīn wārith al-anbiyā'wa al-mursalīn khatm al-wilāya al-muhammadiyya etc. But there is no mention of al-shaykh al-akbar.

According to Omar Benaissa, "the earliest mention of the title of Shaykh al-Akbar to refer to Ibn 'Arabī appears in the Manāqib-e Awhad al-Dīn-e Kirmānī, which was written in Persian, during the years following the death of the latter (632/1235) and which is a biography of the famous companion of Ibn 'Arabī and the second master of Qūnawī."[41] However, the title was also used in the same work for two other figures, and therefore seems to have been a more general form of praise, not specific to Ibn 'Arabī.

What do the manuscripts tell us? It is extremely difficult to date the use of the term al-shaykh al-akbar in the extant texts with any degree of accuracy. In many manuscripts, especially those where the title of the work might be missing in the original copy, a later scribe has added both the title and the attribution to Ibn 'Arabī at the top of the page, and often called the latter "the greatest shaykh" for good measure, but without giving any indication of when this was done. For example, the Veliyuddin 1686 collection, which is written in the same hand throughout and dated AH 667, gives almost no titles to the works, and a later undated hand has added the name of a work with the author as al-shaykh al-akbar.[42] At one point the original scribe adds a note from Sadr al-dīn al-Qūnawī, with the addition that this was from something in the handwriting of al-shaykh al-kabīr ("the great shaykh"), i.e. al-Qūnawī himself.[43] This might well suggest that al-Qūnawī's students were referring to him in this way in order to differentiate him from his master, who was already known as "al-shaykh al-akbar", or perhaps it was done to distinguish him from others in Konya at the time, and as a result people started referring to Ibn 'Arabī as al-shaykh al-akbar. If al-Qūnawī was known as al-shaykh al-kabīr, it would have been only natural for his master to be given a greater title. The manuscript base gives us no clues as to what happened, and no official mention of the term occurs until much later. It is plausible that the epithet "the greatest master" arose out of this milieu in Konya, where so much was done to preserve the heritage of Ibn 'Arabī, but there is nothing to suggest that al-Qūnawī or anyone in his circle used the term in writing.

In a similar way, the earliest reference to al-kibrīt al-ahmar as a title seems to be AH 649, just over ten years after the death of Ibn 'Arabī. The copyist, one of al-Qūnawī's students in Konya, who may also have studied directly with Ibn 'Arabī himself, refers to al-iksīr al-akbar wa al-kibrīt al-ahmar ("the greatest elixir and the red sulphur").[44] Although the use of the rhyming pair of akbar and ahmar is significant, the reference is not to Ibn 'Arabī but to the Prophet, an association which is already present in Ibn 'Arabī's writings, as Claude Addas has pointed out. "I desire to go to the city of the Messenger, in search of the most radiant Station (al-maqām al-azhar) and the Red Sulphur."[45] In alchemy red sulphur is said to be the elixir that transforms silver into gold, and became a metaphor for the realisation of sainthood. Ibn 'Arabī himself used it to describe one of his contemporaries.[46] Al-Jīlī (d.832/1428) uses the term, but only in its alchemical sense, not as a title for Ibn 'Arabī.[47] The first to do this seems to have been the Egyptian Al-Sha'rānī (d.973/1565), who used both expressions in the title of one of his books.[48]

Initial research suggests that in the manuscripts themselves there is no written mention of these phrases prior to AH 700 and probably not before AH 900 or even later. There is one curious anomaly, where a manuscript of K. al-Tajalliyāt dated AH 748 begins: qāla al-shaykh al-akbar wa al-kibrīt al-ahmar wa al-'itr al-atyab al-ansar Muhyī al-dunyā wa al-dīn b. 'Alī b. Ahmad b. al-'Arabī al-Hātimī al-Tā'ī al-Andalusī…[49] However, as this first page is actually a later copy in a different hand (the original presumably having disintegrated or been lost), and there are mistakes in the names given to the author's genealogy, it hardly inspires confidence in the accuracy of the scribe, and therefore this may probably be discounted as a later addition. Surprisingly, the earliest definite example we have been able to find so far is dated AH 937.[50] By the end of the tenth-century Hijra it was made quite explicit by a member of a family that looked after the tomb of Ibn 'Arabī in Damascus, who seems to have had a poetic bent and enjoyed rhyming prose (saj') titles: al-shaykh al-akbar wa'l-'unsur al-athar wa'l-kibrīt al-ahmar ("the greatest master, the purest in origin, the red sulphur").[51] These manuscript examples occur after the Ottoman conquest of Syria (922/1516), and probably after the publication of Sha'rānī's book.[52] They also occur at the time of the fatwa of Ibn Kamāl Pasha (d.940/1534), which instituted the study of Ibn 'Arabī's works, although it is noteworthy that the fatwa itself does not mention Ibn 'Arabī as al-shaykh al-akbar.[53] Was there perhaps some link between the use of these phrases and Ibn 'Arabī's adoption within the Ottoman intellectual milieu? Was the title al-shaykh al-akbar in fact a political statement, claiming his teachings as a prerequisite for a proper education, as much as a mystical rank? Did Sha'rānī use this title to make a public statement in the aftermath of Ottoman conquest? It is worth noting that the use or non-use of these titles in manuscripts does not necessarily mean that the same was occurring in the spoken milieu or even in literature, as is clear from the example in the Manāqib of Kirmānī.[54] It is quite possible that Ibn 'Arabī was referred to, in Sufi circles, as al-shaykh al-akbar long before he became a kind of imperial brand-name under the Ottomans. However, the manuscripts consulted so far lead one to the conclusion that the main use of the term only occurred with the imperial "institutionalisation" of Ibn 'Arabī in the tenth/sixteenth century. The brand-name al-shaykh al-akbar then became universally used throughout the Muslim world as a way of referring to Ibn 'Arabī, even causing his seventeenth-century fundamentalist detractors to coin a rival epithet, al-shaykh al-akfar ("the most disbelieving shaykh", wrongly attributed in modern times to the fourteenth-century polemicist, Ibn Taymiyya).


There is no doubt that Ibn 'Arabī was a literary phenomenon, not only as a voluminous author but as one of the very few capable of giving expression to mystical states and stations in a majestically coherent manner. Writing can be considered one of the hallmarks of his teaching, and he and his circle were extraordinarily meticulous in recording the readings of his works. These reading certificates (samā') record in minute detail the names of who read the work aloud, who verified the reading as accurate (usually Ibn 'Arabī himself), who was present as audience, when it took place and where. On some manuscripts there are several certificates recorded at different dates with different people present, occasionally over a thirty-year period, making them immensely valuable historical documents in addition to the content. In a similar manner, the author's names and titles, which also appear in these certificates, were carefully documented from the very beginning and provide yet another articulation of Ibn 'Arabī's expressive genius, telling us as much about the people he interacted with and impacted on as about the author himself.


1. Strictly speaking, a Christian name was also viewed as an honour: it was given at a person's christening, i.e. baptism, to denote a change in spiritual status, as from Saul to Paul (see Acts 9:18). Such names were not only imitative of saints or apostles or angels, as various Church Fathers had often urged, but included Christian virtues (Fides, Irene), dogmas (Christophorus, Redemptus) or pious sentiment (Benedictus). Non-Christian names include a wide variety of sources such as numbers (Quintus), colours (Rufus), animals (Leo) or places (Galla), or these days whichever celebrity is most fashionable.

2. In the modern Arab world there has been a tendency to rationalise these lengthy genealogies and switch to a family-name system (e.g. Saddam Hussein instead of Saddam ibn Hussein).

3. He has become known as Ibn 'Arabī rather than the more exact Ibn al-'Arabī for various reasons: firstly, his teaching was taken up in the Turkish and Persian worlds where definite articles were often dropped, and secondly, the shorter form quickly distinguishes him from another well-known Andalusian with a similar name, who was his near-contemporary, the muhaddith Abū Bakr Muhammad Ibn al-'Arabī al-Ma'āfirī (d.543/1148).

4. For example, Mishkāt al-anwār and Chapter 167 in the Futūhāt on Kimiyā'al-sa'āda.

5. In his poetry, as Gerald Elmore has pointed out (Islamic Sainthood in the Fullness of Time, Brill 1999, p. 14), he often allowed himself a more direct statement: "I am the Reviver – I speak not allusively nor foolishly – I am the Hātimite Arab, Muhammad!" (Dīwān, Bulaq 1855, p. 44).

6. See Sufis of Andalusia (Sherborne 1971), p. 66.

7. It is a convention of classical Arabic spelling that ibn (= son of) is written without the initial alif when it follows the ism: hence, Muhammad bin 'Alī bin al-'Arabī, but Ibn al-'Arabī.

8. Although often Arabs only use one generation, e.g. 'Ôsā b. Maryām, there have been cases where people give their full genealogy stretching back to the time of the Prophet (for example, Ibn 'Arabī's teacher and companion in Mecca, Yūnus b. Yahyā, whose line is given in the Mishkāt al-anwār through sixteen generations back to al-'Abbās, Muhammad's uncle; see Divine Sayings (Oxford 2004, p. 99).

9. See Elmore, p. 39, who suggests the derivation from a village northwest of Yecla, near the border between Murcia and Albacete provinces.

10. See Elmore, pp. 15–16. It can be argued that Ibn 'Arabī deliberately underplayed any direct connection by simply calling himself al-Tā'ī.

11. See Encyclopaedia of Islam 2, "Tayyi".

12. Other well-known Sufi figures who are lauded in this fashion include 'Abd al-Qādir al-Jīlānī (often called al-qutb al-rabbānī wa al-ghawth al-samadānī), Ibn Barrajān (al-imām al-zāhid al-mukhbit al-'ārif al-rabbānī) and Abū Madyan (called shaykh al-shuyūkh by Ibn 'Arabī and others). Regarding the Ottoman sultans' practice of self-designation with flowery titles, it is worth mentioning the scandalous and hilarious pastiche, full of insults and profanities, that the Zaporozhian Cossacks sent as a letter to the Ottoman sultan Mehmet IV in 1676, which was commemorated in Ilya Repin's famous painting. See D. Yavornytsky, History of the Zaporogian Cossacks, Vol. 2, pp. 517–18 (St Petersburg 1895).

13. In Ibn 'Arabī's hand, Murad Bukhari 162, fol. 1a, Tanazzulāt; Evkaf 1846, fol. 2a, Futūhāt.

14. In Ibn 'Arabī's hand, University A79, fol. 1a, Rūh al-quds; Yusuf Aga 4986, fol. 1a, Mahajjat al-baydhā'; and copied from the original, Veliyuddin 51, fol. 48b, Ittihād al-kawnī; Veliyuddin 1686, fol. 11b, Mishkāt al-anwār.

15. According to initial research, this unnamed Maghribi scribe was also the writer of the 'Anqā'Mughrib text in Fez in AH 597. Scholars, including Osman Yahya, have often mistaken his handwriting for Ibn 'Arabī's himself, assuming that this copy of the Hilyat is actually an autograph.

16. It echoes the title commonly given to [Imām] al-Ghazzālī (who was also calledHujjat al-islām).

17. While Sunnis apply the term imām specifically to the role of prayer-leader, Shi'is also give it the meaning of direct descent from the Prophet through 'Alī b. Abī Tālib, both physically and spiritually. The doctrine of the imām as expounder of esoteric truths became well developed in later Shi'i circles, especially Ismaili, where the imām is viewed as the mediator between the ordinary believer and the spiritual world. See EI2, "Imāma".

18. See Futūhāt I.450 (Beirut n.d.).

19. See Fut. III.567, where Ibn 'Arabī continues: "My imamate is the same as that with which He adorned me, and He adorned me with nothing but His Ipseity, for He is my hearing, my seeing, my tongue, my hand, my foot and my support, and He made me into light, all of me."

20. It might also be possible to read this as al-muhaddath, "the one spoken to", denoting a high degree of inspired knowledge (ilhām).

21. See Hilyat al-abdāl, Rasā'il (Beirut 1997), p. 507.

22. Q. 3:7 and 4:162.

23. Fut. III.64.

24. See Ihyā''ulūm al-dīn (Cairo 1377/1957), 1:30.

25. See 'Awārif al-Ma'ārif, Chapter 3 (ed. 'Abd al-Halīm Mahmūd and Mahmūd b. al-Sharīf, Cairo n.d.), pp. 183–6.

26. It is worth noting its use in prayers attributed to Ibn 'Arabī: for example, lā ilāha illā anta, al-wāhid al-ahad, al-fard al-samad... in the Saturday Eve prayer of the Awrād (see Seven Days of the Heart, Oxford 2000, p. 132).

27. See Chodkiewicz, Seal of the Saints (Cambridge 1993), pp. 106 ff.

28. See University 4408, fol. 88a, K. al-Nusūs, dated AH 749.

29. All of these can be found in Shehit Ali 1351, fol. 1a, Mawāqi' al-nujūm, dated AH 691 and written in Shiraz. The seventh-century female commentator on Ibn 'Arabī's Mashāhid al-asrār, Sitt al-'Ajam, refers to him as al-shaykh al-imām al-'ārif al-rāsikh al-muhaqqiq Muhammad b. 'Arabī al-Maghribī (Ayasofya 2019, fol. 391b, dated AH 686).

30. (a) MS. 1074, fol. 24b, dated AH 641, a copy of the first volume of al-Futūhāt al-Makkiyya in the Nasser D. Khalili collection of Islamic Art (London) – the three repetitions of the name Muhammad in Ibn 'Arabī's name seems to be unique, presumably not a simple error of the copyist but pointing to the perceived closeness of the author to the Prophet. This is also the first direct mention of the author with the title of "seal of the saints" (khatm al-awliyā'), and may well indicate that the ambience of the Seljuk kingdom was much more liberal than Ayyubid Damascus towards such daring explicitness. (b) Yusuf Aga 4865, fol. 1a, dated AH 672. Kirmānī is referred to as shaykh al-mashāyikh qutb al-awliyā' in Yusuf Aga 4866, fol. 1a.

31. Ayasofya 1644, fol. 1a, dated AH 825. The copyist also gives Abū Najīb's full genealogy back to Abū Bakr al-Siddīq.

32. For example, in addition to those already mentioned, Muhammad b. 'Abd al-Qādir al-Ansāri, who copied three works in the last year of Ibn 'Arabī's life, and Ahmad al-'Alawī, who was present at the reading of the Dīwān in AH 634.

33. This particular epithet also appears in a samā' in the hand of a different disciple, on K. al-Hurūf al-thalātha, dated AH 633 (Veliyuddin 1759, fol. 13a).

34. For example, see Mishkāt al-anwār.

35. The same variant titling system was used by Yūsuf b. Abū Bakr b. 'Uthmān al-Harrānī, the scribe who made copies of nine Ibn 'Arabī works at the behest of al-Qūnawī in AH 651 in Konya (Yusuf Aga 7838). It is worth noting that this collection includes the earliest known copy of Ibn al-Fāridh's Dīwān and the author is given similar titles: al-shaykh al-imām al-'ālim al-fādhil wahīd 'asrihi wa farīd dahrihi Sharaf al-dīn Abū Hafs 'Umar b. 'Alī al-Sa'dī ma'rūf bi-Ibn al-Fāridh. The variant system is also used in two later long Damascene collections, dated AH 703 (Ayasofya 2063), and AH 916 (Carullah 2111).

36. Veliyuddin 1826, fol. 5b.

37. Evkaf 1713, fol. 252a.

38. Ayasofya 1877, fol. 1a.

39. This description appears throughout the Répertoire Général of his Histoire et Classification de l'Oeuvre d'Ibn 'Arabi (Damascus 1964), but normally there is nothing explicit in the manuscript which would justify such a bold claim except these initial titles.

40. Dā'ūd al-Qaysarī, Rasā'il (Kayseri 1997), pp. 25–6.

41. JMIAS XXVI, 1999, p. 103, from Forunzafar's edition (Tehran 1969). The title al-shaykh al-akbar is used for Abū Hafs Suhrawardī (p. 153) and Shamsuddīn al-Tiflīsī (p. 267).

42. This addition occurs frequently – e.g. Beyazit 3785, fol. 94a, title-page of K. al-Isfār, dated AH 716, but the attribution to "al-shaykh al-akbar" is a later clarification. It is very unclear when this was done.

43. This was by no means his only title as we have already noted above: the excellent copy of al-Qūnawī's Fukūk (Yusuf Aga 4858), late seventh-century Hijra, refers to the author as "our most perfect master" (shaykhunā al-akmal).

44. Ayasofya 4817, fol. 61b. The copyist was Muhammad al-Shirwānī.

45. K. al-Isrā', Rasā'il, p. 173 (Beirut 1997), quoted as frontispiece to Addas, Quest for the Red Sulphur (Cambridge 1993), and mentioned in Chapter 167 of the Futūhāt and the Tadbīrāt.

46. Abū al-Husayn Yahyā Ibn al-Sā'igh – see Addas, p. 112.

47. See Universal Man (al-Insān al-kāmil) (Beshara Publications 1995), p. 6: "there was written on the wing of the green bird, with the pen of ink of the red sulphur…".

48. The book is entitled al-Kibrīt al-ahmar fī bayān 'ulūm al-shaykh al-akbar (printed Cairo AH 1369).

49. University A4408, fol. 1b.

50. Fatih 5322, a collection of 30 works, dated as AH 937–50: the titles given to several works mention al-shaykh al-akbar, and appear to have been done by the main scribe. Since two of the works were copied from Ayyūb b. Badr's copy and some from Ibn Sawdakīn's copies, it is probable that the copies were made in Syria, possibly Damascus. Esad Ef 1655 (dated AH 953–5), fol. 43a, also gives the title at the head of a few poems. The MIAS archive has checked just over 2,000 separate manuscripts to date.

51. Esad Ef 1507 and 1777, both copied by 'Abd al-Karīm al-'Uraybī between AH 999 and AH 1006.

52. The copies of this work appear to be undated, but it was probably written sometime after the Ottoman conquest of Egypt.

53. His name is given as al-shaykh al-a'zam al-muqtadī al-akram, qutb al-'ārifīn wa imām al-muwahhidīn, al-'ārif Muhammad b. 'Alī b. al-'Arabī al-Tā'ī al-Andalusī.

54. Hasan b.Hamza b. Muhammad al-Shīrāzī, a contemporary of al-Qūnawī, mentioned by 'Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī, refers to Ibn 'Arabī as al-shaykh al-akmal al-akbar (Rasā'il, ed. 'Odhayma, p. 55, drawing on an undated manuscript in the Zahiriyya library and one dated AH 986 in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris). I am indebted to Omar Benaissa for this information. This attribution requires further detailed research in the future if a more accurate dating is to be established.