by Michael Sells

Reprinted from the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi Society, Vol. XVIII, 1995.

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 11th annual symposium of the Muhyiddin lbn 'Arabi Society in the UK, 'The Perfectibility of Man', Oxford, 8-10 April 1994. 1

See also:

Ibn 'Arabi – poems in translation

Poetry in Ibn 'Arabi's writings – The Ship of Stone, by Claude Addas

Ibn Arabi and poetry – he describes some of his experiences

Ibn Arabi and poems – he describes some of his experiences

Ibn 'Arabi's Poem 18 (Qif bi l-Manâzil)
From the Translation of Desires

Translation and Commentary by Michael A. Sells

At the way stations
   stay. Grieve over the ruins.
Ask the meadow grounds,
   now desolate, this question.

   Where are those we loved,
where have their dark-white camels gone?
   Over there,
cutting through the desert haze.

Gardens in a mirage,
   you see them,
enlarged to your eye
   in the vaporous haze.

   They have gone off seeking
   to drink its water
as cool as life.

I tracked after them.
   I asked the East Wind.
Have they set up tents
   or sheltered within the Lote Tree's shade?

   She said: I left their encampment
on the sand-tossed plain of Zarud,
   the camels, weary
from the long night's journey, complaining.

They have set up
   high-covered pavilions
to shelter beauty
   from the mid-day heat.

   Get up your camels
and set off seeking
   their traces, amber camels
pacing toward them.

When you stop
   before the way-marks of Hajir
and cut across its ridges
   and hollows,

   Their stations will be near.
Their fire will loom before you,
   kindling desire
into a raging blaze.

Kneel your camels there.
   Don't fear their lions.
Yearning will reveal them to you
   as whelps.[2]

This is the second in a series of translations and comments on. individual poems from the Tarjumân. I have presented the translation, first, before the commentary, to allow the reader to engage the poem directly. Although some of the place names will be obscure to those not familiar with the particular traditions that Ibn 'Arabi is drawing upon, the essential lyricism of the poem should come through without commentary. The discussion that follows is meant to place the poem briefly within the overall poetics of the Tarjumân and within the rich literary tradition in which it is embedded.

The poem begins with the verse:

At the way stations
   stay. Grieve over the ruins.
Ask the meadow grounds,
   now desolate, this question.

From the onset, the poem announces itself as grounded in the classical Arabic tradition of the nasîb (remembrance of the beloved) and atlâl (the meditation over the ruins of the beloved's abandoned campsite). The Arabic begins with the most classicist of all opening phrases: the imperative qif (stay, stop). The phrase is traditionally interpreted as the words of the poet/lover to his companions as they come across the abandoned campsite of the beloved. The words recall the most famous pre-Islamic nasîb, that of the Mu'allaqa of Imru' al-Qays which begins with the poet speaking to his two traveling companions: qifâ nabkî ('stop, less us weep').

It was by no means a given that Ibn 'Arabi would compose this and other poems in the Tarjumân in such a classicist mode. Many Andalusian poets before him had completely reinterpreted the classical nasîb within the framework of Andalusian civilization and urban life. Ibn Zaydun, for example, made his abandoned ruins the caliphal palace at Zahra', near Cordova, which was destroyed at the end of the caliphate and served as a symbol for the splendor of Andalusian Arabic civilization.

Ibn 'Arabi, on the other hand, not only begins his poems with the pre-Islamic Arabian motifs of the nasîb, he constructs the entire poem around them. What is happening here, however, is far from simple repetition or nostalgic recalling of the ancient bedouin tradition. Throughout the Tarjumân, Ibn 'Arabi constructs two parallel worlds of stations: the stations of the classical Arabic poetic tradition and the stations of the Islamic hajj. Although not mentioned specifically in this particular poem, the language of the hajj is a major motif throughout the Tarjumân, with continual references to the Ka'ba, the circumambulation (tawâf) of the Ka'ba, and stations along the hajj route, such as the station of Mina. Indeed, when the Tarjumân's sensual love-lyricism in the pre-Islamic style of the remembrance of the beloved raised suspicions that Ibn 'Arabi was writing profane verse, Ibn 'Arabi defended it with the justification that it was simply an account of his own hajj.

While distinctive within the tradition of Andalusian love-poetry, Ibn 'Arabi's aligning of the ancient stations of the love-mad poet with the stations of the hajj is not original to him; indeed, he draws upon the patterns found in the poetry of his Egyptian contemporary, Ibn al-Farid (d. 632/1235), even as he transforms those patterns.[3] Guiding the relationship of the poetic stations to the religious, ritual stations is a hermeneutic. The relationship of the hajj stations to the poetic stations is not merely a creation of medieval Arab poets; it is a drawing out and rediscovery – both interpretive and creative – of implications that already existed in the ancient poetry.

Both Ibn al-Farid and Ibn 'Arabi mediated their references to the ancient, pre-Islamic poetry through the poems attributed to Majnun Layla. These poems are said by tradition to have been composed by a poet named Qays ibn Mulawwih (a contemporary of the Prophet) on his thwarted love for his beloved, Layla. Qays has been known forever after as Majnun Layla (mad for Layla or 'jinned' for Layla). While most of the place-names found in the Tarjumân, for example, can be found in pre-Islamic poetry, they are particularly prominent in the poems attributed to Majnun Layla.[4]

Ritual implication is particularly strong in the part of the classical poem known as the za'n motif. The za'n motif is composed of the remembrance of the beloved's departure, with the other women of her tribe, and a recital of the various stages and stations of their journey away from the poet. The ancient poems themselves presented this za'n journey with ritual solemnity and an implied analogy to pre-Islamic pilgrimages, including the pre-Islamic hajj and 'umra. This ritual element is frequently neglected in generalizations about the allegedly purely descriptive and purely sensual nature of classical Arabic poetry; but the ritual sacrality of the za'n journey was not forgotten by Ibn al-Farid or Ibn 'Arabi, both of whom rediscovered, each in his own way, the ancient pilgrimage patterns and aligned them with the Islamic hajj. Finally, both Ibn al-Farid and Ibn 'Arabi embedded this poesis of pilgrimage within Sufi understandings of intention, desire, and deity. The hermeneutic movement of the poetry is thus simultaneously a movement back into the deeper, partially buried meanings of the traditions, and forward into new contexts and new discoveries.[5]

In 'At the Way Stations, Stay!', a command is given to ask the ruins of the beloved's campsite for the location of the beloved and her companions.[6] A voice (unidentified) responds: you see them cutting through the vaporous haze 'like gardens in a mirage'. They are said to have gone off seeking the waters of 'Udhayb 'as cool as life'. In the classical poetic tradition, the remembrance of the beloved almost always leads, through dissembling similes that feign description of the beloved or, as in this case, a reply to a question about the location of the beloved, to images of the lost garden, the symbolic analog of the lost beloved.[7] The waters of life at 'Udhayb serve also as a poetic counterpart to the spring Zamzam which is said by tradition to have been opened up for Ishmael and his mother Hagar as they were about to perish of thirst, and which plays a central role in the iconography and ritual of the Islamic pilgrimage of the hajj.

The references to the East Wind (as-sabâ) and the lote tree (ad-dâl) make the poetic topography unmistakable. The East Wind is the major symbol of the classical bedouin ethos of the idyll. The East Wind announces the whereabouts of the beloved, revives the desolation caused by her absence, recalls the happiness of the lost times spent with her. The dâl (lote) tree is the classical, poetic analog to that other famous lote tree within the Islamic tradition, the sidr, over which Muhammad saw his famous vision (Q. 53:1-18). The poetic lote tree is the abode of love-union (wasl) and the locus of remembrance of that union. The Islamic hajj is not clearly specified in this particular poem. Other poems throughout the Tarjumân, however, make it clear that stations (manâzil) of the hajj (such as Mina) and stations of the pre-lslamic poets are being placed within a common poetic topography.

After getting no answer from the ruins of the campsite, the poet asks the more communicative East Wind (as-sabâ). 'She' replies. The antecedent of the 'she' is the East Wind who responds to the inquiry by saying that the beloved and her companions have encamped on the plain of Zarud, and offers a graphic and specific glimpse of them: the riding-camels are complaining from the rigors of the night-journey. The East Wind here is partially personified. Although it is possible to explain the female gender as reflecting merely the grammatical gender of the Arabic (which divides most words into masculine or feminine genders), the personification of the wind as a speaker cannot help but lead the reader of the Tarjumân to think of another major speaker for the beloved within other poems in the collection: the phantom of the lost-beloved, the tayf al-khayâl. The East Wind is not the phantom exactly (she tells about the beloved rather than speaking as the beloved), but, as a feminine, personified speaker, she brings across some of the haunting quality of the tayf. In some sense the East Wind is the messenger of the beloved, her voice in a less immediate sense, and speaks for her or as her (just as in other contexts the East Wind can be the messenger voice of the poet speaking to her).[8]

The poem continues, still with the East Wind's voice, although the poem is deepened by the growing ambiguity as to the speaker as the statements distance themselves from the named antecedent. The voice states that the beloved and her companions are now covered and sheltered from the heat of mid-day with their tents or pavilions (qibâb). In his commentary on this verse, Ibn 'Arabi engages in a stunning reversal. By the conventions of the bedouin lyric the women of the tribe are sheltered (in their howdahs and their tents) to protect them from the heat, dust, and eyes of strangers. Yet in his commentary, Ibn 'Arabi cites the famous hadith that, if the veil over Allah were removed, the brilliance of the splendor would incinerate everything around it.[9] The notion. that the unveiled site of reality (al-haqq) would destroy the viewer as a candle-flame destroys the moth was common to medieval Sufi literature. But, by placing this meaning in his commentary to this particular verse, Ibn 'Arabi, on the one hand, reverses conventional expectations, and, on the other, brings out a deeper correlation between the subjective (the viewer would be destroyed by the fire of the unveiled beloved) and the objective (the beloved is sheltered from the heat of mid-day). This correlation is at the heart of the classical nasîb, but in the ancient poems remains implicit, unstated, and itself veiled. The reference to the blaze of noon-day heat also serves as a key foreshadowing of the poem's penultimate image of blazing fire.

The poetic voice then turns to another imperative, again, presumably, a continuation of the voice of the East Wind. The poet and his companions are ordered to follow the trail of the beloved to the fortress of Hajir. Hajir was the ancient Arabic name for the ruins of the pre-Islamic Arab civilization of Mada'in Salih, ruins that served for centuries to instill in the bedouin meditation the transitory nature of all human edifice, a meditation that was then taken up in Qur'anic references to other abandoned cities in the desert. Until this point I have deliberately refrained from commenting on mystical interpretations of this poem. Whatever mystical meanings it expresses are expressed without direct statement, and without clear announcement. The poem can and should be read as a love poem within the Arabic tradition of nasîb lyricism. Yet the particular way in which the poem recreates an analog to the hajj, meditates on the transitory nature of human construction, and brings the reader to the final culmination where desire is kindled 'into a raging blaze' cannot help but lead the reader to ask: what is the nature of this journey? In other poems and in commentaries on them, Ibn 'Arabi gives more specific hints to the meaning of such a journey within his mystical philosophy: the journey is the constant movement and transformation (taqallub) of the heart, which in each moment must give up a manifestation of ultimate reality (a manifestation symbolized by the beloved) in order to receive a new manifestation. This journey is at once a pilgrimage toward the beloved as well as a journey away from the lost beloved; it is a movement of anticipation of a future meeting, and a recollection of a lost union. In combining the movements toward and away in a constant balance, a circular motion – analogous to the circumambulation of the Ka'ba – is attained.

Intimations of this philosophy of constant transformation (taqallub) are scattered throughout the Tarjumân and Ibn 'Arabi's commentary on it. These implications are more fully developed in detail in Ibn 'Arabi's expository writings. This particular poem ends with desire 'kindled to a raging fire'. The notion of a raging fire evokes Ibn 'Arabi's famous verses about 'the garden among the flames' in which the simultaneous loss of an old manifestation and reception of a new manifestation of the deity are viewed as the coincidence of opposites. The raging fire also appears at the end of key Qur'anic passages on desire and the final day of judgment. In the Qur'anic Sûrat al-Qâri'a, we also have key, partial personifications in the feminine voice and a final reference to raging fire. The poem ends with a reference to the mysterious term hâwiya (a term that has resonances of desire, air, emptiness, plunging headlong, and a woman who has lost her child).

... hâwiya (desire, air, a woman bereft of her child)
And what can tell you what she is
Raging fire

In the poetic tradition, particularly as it was transmitted through the Majnun Layla legends, the fire is the fire in which the beloved 'perishes'. In Sufism, the fire of desire can be viewed as the fire that annihilates the ego-self and allows for the union with the divine beloved. At the end of the poem, the voice proclaims that this raging fire should not be feared. The yearning (which is the motivating force of the journey) reveals that the lions (guarding the sanctuary of the beloved, perhaps) are only whelps.


1. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 11th annual symposium of the Muhyiddin lbn 'Arabi Society in the UK, 'The Perfectibility of Man', Oxford, 8-10 April 1994.

2. Ibn 'Arabi, Tarjumân al-Ashwâq (Beirut: Dar Sadir, 1966), pp. 71-4, and Dhakhâ'ir al-A'lâq, ed. M. al-Kurdi (Cairo, 1968), pp. 88-94; and The Tarjumân al-Ashwâq, ed. Reynold Nicholson (1911), pp. 23, 82-4.

3. See Emil Homerin, From Arabic Poet to Muslim Saint: Ibn al-Farid, His Verse, and His Shrine (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1994).

4. For an important treatment of this tradition, see Jaroslav Stetkevych, The Zephyrs of Najd (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), Chapters 2-5. It should be pointed out that Stetkevych does not find Ibn 'Arabi's poetry to be to his liking. De gustibus non disputandum! Despite this question of taste, Stetkevych's discussion is the key treatment in English of the poetic vocabulary found throughout the Tarjumân. Thus it is the discussion of the places and terminology of the ancient nasîb love-lyric tradition throughout Chapters 2-5 that is of most value for students of Ibn 'Arabi, not the few pages dedicated to Ibn 'Arabi's poetry. (Chapter 1 is meant for specialists and is not necessary for an appreciation of the larger points made in the body of the book.)

5. For an account of an analogue hermeneutic in Biblical literature, see Paul Ricouer, The Symbolism of Evil (New York: Harper & Row, 1967).

6. For the most famous example, from the Mu'allaqa of Labid, see M. Sells, Desert Tracings: Six Classic Arabian Odes (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1989), pp. 35-7. For an extended discussion of the significance of this question within Arabic and Near Eastern literature generally, see J. Stetkevych, 'Toward an Arabic Elegiac Lexicon: The Seven Words of the Nasîb', in Reorientations, ed. Suzanne Stetkevych (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), pp. 58-129, especially pp. 105-29.

7. For a demonstration of this point, see M. Sells, 'Guises of the Ghul: Dissembling Simile and Semantic Overflow in the Classical Arabic Nasîb', in Reorientations, ed. S. Stetkevych, pp. 130-65.

8. I have argued elsewhere that the partial or ambiguous personification is also a key feature of Qur'anic discourse: See M. Sells, 'Sound, Spirit, and Gender in Sûrat al-Qadr', Journal of the American Oriental Society, 111 (2), (April-May 1991), 239-59; and 'Sound and Meaning in Sûrat al-Qâri'a', Arabica, 40 (3), (1993), 403-30. The effect of such personifications is dependent upon the fact that they are not complete. A complete personification reverts to a simple figure of speech. The ambiguous or incomplete personification exploits the grammatical gender of the Arabic language by suggesting a personified speaker without making such a personification explicit; the ambiguity between the neuter and feminine readings makes the feminine figure an ambiguous presence, or a presence-absence that mirrors, on the semiotic level, the mytho-poetic figure of the khayâl or shade of the beloved.

9. Ibn 'Arabi, Tarjumân al-Ashwâq (Beirut: Dar Sadir, 1966), p. 73; and Dhakhâ'ir al-A'lâq, ed. M. al-Kurdi (Cairo, 1968), pp. 91-2. Nicholson, p. 84, does not translate the full commentary on this verse, but offers an abridged paraphrase. For the hadith, see the hadith collections of Muslim, Sahîh Muslim, Imân, 343-4 and Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, 4, 401, 410.