Ibn al-ʿArabī in Egypt
The speech of things
by Denis Gril
Ibn al-ʿArabī passed through Egypt at least twice. The first time was in 598/1202, right after he left Tunisia and Shaykh ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz al-Mahdawī, to whom he dedicated the Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya (The Meccan Illuminations) and his Rūḥ al-Quds (The Epistle on the Spirit of Holiness). Probably travelling overland, he went to Alexandria where he came across a type of Sufism, there and in Cairo, that he had not encountered in the Maghrib: the Sufism of the khānaqāt (spiritual convents). He was surprised that a certain man was called shaykh al-shuyūkh, 'the master of spiritual masters', when he lacked knowledge of spiritual truths, or said baseless things about the spiritual people of the Maghrib; he discusses this in the prologue to his Rūḥ al-Quds. He also witnessed in Cairo a certain type of Sufism of Iranian origin, one that he instantly took a dislike to: it was official Sufism, concerned more with outward than inward dimensions. This may well be the reason that he preferred to stay in an area, Fusṭāṭ, where a number of Andalusians and North Africans lived, men who had been companions of Shaykh al-Ghazzāl, himself the companion of Ibn al-ʿArīf of Almeria, and companions of Abū ʿAbd Allāh al-Qurashī, originally from Algeciras, in Andalusia. In Egypt, Ibn al-ʿArabī also met the two brothers from Seville, Ibn ʿAbd Allāh al-Khayyāṭ and Abū al-ʿAbbās Aḥmad al-Ḥarīrī, both of whom he had known during his time in Andalusia and had written about in his Rūḥ al-Quds and al-Durrat al-fākhira, and whom he held in very high regard.
Most narratives about the Andalusians of Egypt that have reached us are found in the Risāla of Shaykh Ṣafī al-Dīn Ibn Abī al-Manṣūr, who mentions all the spiritual masters and the spiritual disciples (fuqarāʾ) he met during his lifetime. This Ṣafī al-Dīn, who was the son of the vizier, historian and literary figure, Jamāl al-Dīn Ibn Manṣūr, had left worldly affairs behind in order to join his spiritual master, Aḥmad al-Ḥarrār (or al-Ḥarīrī), who was a companion of Ibn al-ʿArabī's in al-Andalus. Indeed, in his Futūḥāt, Ibn al-ʿArabī narrates a story about Abū al-ʿAbbās Aḥmad al-Ḥarrār, one which confirms the fact that Ibn al-ʿArabī had returned to Egypt in the year 603/1206. In broad terms, the story depicts for us the spiritual atmosphere in which these Andalusians lived in Egypt. The tale appears in Chapter 69 of the Futūḥāt, which deals with the mysteries of ritual prayer (ṣalāt). As is often the case with those sections dealing with formal worship, Ibn al-ʿArabī mentions the views of the jurists on certain issues, and then juxtaposes them with their meaning, by way of symbolic transposition (iʿtibār), that is, by passing from the outward to the inward dimension. He mentions the agreement of the religious scholars on the stipulation to prostrate on the earth (which was the practice of the Prophet), and their disagreement over whether one can pray on a ṭinfisa (a mat or carpet), or other things on which one can sit on the earth. Then Ibn al-ʿArabī mentions the generally accepted view that it is permissible to prostrate on a mat or any similar object, as long as it is a natural product grown from the earth, while prostrating on anything else is reprehensible.
The transposition of this discussion to its symbolic meaning within the soul is that prostration 'is a descent (nuzūl) from yourself to the earth of your servanthood'. Servanthood implies submissiveness and lowliness (dhilla), which is also a description of the earth, as God says: 'It is He who made the earth submissive to you; therefore, walk in its tracts' (Q.67:15). This, Ibn al-ʿArabī tells us, is 'the utmost limit of lowliness, to be trampled upon by the lowly', that is, the human being. For this reason, God commanded His servant to place his face – which is the noblest part of the exterior of the human being – upon the earth and to 'rub it in the dust in compensation for the broken-heartedness (inkisār) of the earth due to the trampling of the lowly upon it. It is in prostration, then, that the face of the servant and the face of the earth come together, and so the broken-heartedness of the latter is appeased, for God is with those whose hearts are broken.' Here, Ibn al-ʿArabī alludes to the Divine saying (ḥadīth qudsī): 'I am with those whose hearts are broken for My sake', and in another version: 'I am with those whose hearts are effaced for My sake'.
Here Ibn al-ʿArabī adds another aspect, in a manner that shows his comprehensive understanding of the acts of worship and their mysteries: 'the servant, then, is in that station, in that particular condition [of prostration], closer to God than at any other time in his prayer. This is because it is done for the sake of another, not for the sake of oneself. In other words, it is done to mend the broken-heartedness of the earth at being so lowly as to be trampled upon by the lowly.'
He says, on this occasion, that these mysteries – the mysteries of the formal acts of worship and other such matters – are unknown except to the people of unveiling and finding (ahl al-kashf wa al-wujūd); in other words, those for whom the veil of the senses has been removed and who have thus found within themselves the realities of existence. Then 'all beings speak to and make their realities known to them'. To state this in another way, they are spoken to in the language of all existents (kāʾināt), and hence they understand not only the languages of the higher and lower worlds, animals, plants and minerals, but also ordinary objects, including the most insignificant ones.
Ibn al-ʿArabī then gives an example of this, the meaning of which he apprehended while he was in Egypt. He tells us a story, and its inner meanings, both of which were the fruits of his stay in Fusṭāṭ:
While [I was] in Egypt in the year 603/1206–07, Abū al-ʿAbbās al-Ḥarīrī told me a [story] about Abū ʿAbd Allāh al-Qarabāqī: one day he was walking with him in the market of Wardan, and he [al-Qarabāqī] had purchased a small chamber-pot for [his] little son to urinate in. Along the way, they went into a house, with Abū ʿAbd Allāh still carrying the new pot, where they met a group of righteous men. They wanted something to eat, and so they looked around for something they could have with bread. They agreed to buy 'some quṭārat al-sukkar' [liquid sugar with honey]. Then they said 'this pot has never been used and is completely new', so they filled it with sugar. Then they sat down to eat until they had finished, after which everyone left, and the owner [of the pot] walked off with his pot, beside Abū al-ʿAbbās.
Abū al-ʿAbbās told me: 'By God! I heard this with my own ears, and so did Abū ʿAbd Allāh al-Qarabāqī – we both heard the pot saying: "After the Friends of God have eaten from me, shall I then become a vessel for filth? By God, this shall not happen!" Whereupon it leapt out of his hands, fell to the ground and broke.' Abū al-ʿAbbās said: 'We were both overcome by a spiritual state because of what had been said [by the pot].' When he [Abū al-ʿAbbās] told me this, I said: 'You have overlooked the real aspect of the pot's exhortation to you. The matter is not as you thought – for how many a pot has been eaten from by people better than you and then used for filth afterwards! What [the pot] told you was this: "My brothers, after God has made your hearts [a receptacle] for His Knowledge and Self-revelation, you must not make them vessels for others. God does not prevent you from being His vessel." Then it broke apart, and that is how you are with God.' He [Abū al-ʿAbbās] then told me that they had not taken into account what I had alerted them to.
Like the stories of many saints, there is in this story a miracle – that is 'a breaking of the habitual' (kharq al-ʿāda) – although the miracle here is not the speech of the pot, because every single thing in existence speaks with its own tongue, as Ibn al-ʿArabī affirms in his interpretation of God's saying: 'There is nothing that does not glorify (through) His/its praise, but you do not understand their glorification' (Q.17:44). Ibn al-ʿArabī understands the glorification in this verse as a glorification of the tongue, not a glorification of a state (ḥāl), as many exegetes usually understand it.
As such, the miracle is not in the speech of the pot per se; it is rather the fact that the two Andalusian men heard it addressing them in a market in Fusṭāṭ. As Ibn al-ʿArabī observes in a different section of his work, the breaking of the habitual, which occurred when the Companions of the Prophet heard the rock glorifying God in the Prophet's hands, was not the glorification of the rock, but rather the fact that the Companions could hear its glorification. This is the case because it is not usual for human beings to hear the speech of objects, because hearing and understanding this kind of speech belongs to the conditions of the hereafter, not to the conditions of this world. Indeed, the limbs of a human being have a tongue that cannot be heard except in the hereafter, as is related in the Sūra of Yā Sīn (Q.36:65). A human being may fabricate lies and deny things about God and about himself, but the tongue of things is always truthful, it neither lies nor errs. In this sense, it is closer in degree to its Lord than the speech of most human beings, for proximity to the Word of the Real is expressed in the fact that it has multiple facets. It has an outward and an inward sense. Abū ʿAbd Allāh and Abū al-ʿAbbās heard the pot telling them something that they understood outwardly by virtue of their purity, while Ibn al-ʿArabī, to whom the speech of the pot was transmitted, interpreted it in such a way as to bring together the understanding of the speech and the consideration of the particular context in question, which is the breaking of the pot. For, here, the suggestive act [of the pot] is more telling than its speech.
Now let us look at some dimensions of this story as they pertain to the doctrine of Ibn al-ʿArabī, that is, the doctrine of unveiling and finding. He says:
As for the people of unveiling (ahl al-kashf), they can hear the utterances of all existent things, be they inanimate objects, plants or animals. The contingent [that is, the human being] hears it with his own ears in the world of sense perception, not in the imaginal world, just as he hears the utterance of someone speaking amongst humans and the sound of that which makes sounds. For according to us, there is nothing in existence that is silent at all. Everything is speaking in praise of God.
This particular kind of hearing which distinguishes the people of unveiling from others, though it is originally a free bestowal from God, is nonetheless the product of a practice, as Ibn al-ʿArabī often reiterates in his interpretation of His saying: 'Be godfearing, and God will teach you' (Q.2:282). God-fearingness (taqwā) is a practice, and knowledge is its result, and beyond knowledge there is sheer bestowal. This will be unveiled to the one who seeks God, as Ibn al-ʿArabī explains in his Risālat al-anwār. In this treatise, he mentions the conditions of the spiritual seeker for entering retreat, and how he should not stop at anything that might be unveiled to him in the world of sense perception, and then secondly in the imaginal world. He tells the seeker that he will afterwards apprehend the mysteries of the minerals, plants and animals. He also informs him that he will see all the worlds which are occupied with the remembrance that he is engaged in, which proves that it is an imaginal unveiling, not a real unveiling as such. The seeker's unveiling will not be real until he hears the remembrance of the worlds in all their variety.
For the spiritual seeker, this is one of the first steps in his progress through the practice of remembrance while in his spiritual retreat. He must not stop before anything from these stages until he reaches the Lord of Might. Some spiritual seekers are returned to their sense-perception, while others are taken hold of in a state of absence, until he says:
Among them there are those who speak in their language, while others speak in a language which is not theirs; anyone who speaks in any given language, is an heir to the prophet of that particular tongue. This is what the people of this Way refer to when they say so-and-so is Moses-like (Mūsawī), Abraham-like (Ibrāhīmī), Enoch-like (Idrīsī), etc. Furthermore, there are those who speak in two, three, four or more languages, but the most perfect [among them] is he who speaks with all languages – such is the Muhammadian (Muḥammadī) specifically.
I have mentioned but a small portion of this treatise, which is the realisation of His saying: 'We shall show them Our signs in the horizons and in themselves, till it is clear to them that it is the Truth' (Q.41:53), in order to show how the people of God reach this form of audition (samāʿ), which is the breaking of habit.
The truth is that none can speak except the one who can hear, and so the human being and the cosmos share in audition, because the root of their existence derives from hearing the word 'Be!' (kun), through which they were brought into existence.
As he says in his elucidation of the station of audition at the beginning of Chapter 182, 'The first thing we came to know from the Real and which connected us to Him was speech (qawl) from His side and listening (samāʿ) from ours.' This is the root of samāʿ that we find with the Sufis, except that Ibn al-ʿArabī distinguishes between 'unqualified audition' (al-samāʿ al-muṭlaq) and the 'qualified audition' (al-samāʿ al-muqayyad), which comes from hearing beautiful melodies. The 'unqualified audition', or Divine audition, on the other hand, is:
a listening to all things, in all things and about all things, and for them [the people of God] the whole of existence is the Words of God (kalimāt Allāh), and the Words of God are never spent. As a counterpart to those Words these people have an audition that is never spent. These auditions occur to them in their innermost hearts through the occurrence of the Words.
Let us now return to Ibn al-ʿArabī's statement upon hearing what was related to him by Abū al-ʿAbbās al-Ḥarīrī regarding the words of the pot: 'You have overlooked the real aspect of the pot's exhortation to you.' Now, Ibn al-ʿArabī entitled one of his 'mutual encounters' (munāzalāt): 'All My Words are exhortations to My servants, if they but heeded them.' It is thus that the Words of the cosmos are exhortations in the same way that the Quran is an exhortation. The doctrine of Ibn al-ʿArabī in understanding the Quran within existence and the connectedness of the human being to them is founded upon the relation between the cosmos, the Quran and the human being.
Elsewhere he says: 'the whole of existence (wujūd) is letters and words, chapters and verses, for it is the Great Quran, "falsehood comes not to it from before it nor from behind it"' (Q.41:42).
He also says at the beginning of Chapter 5, which deals with the mysteries of the Basmala and the Fātiḥa:
We desired to open [our discussion on] the knowledge of wujūd and the origination of the cosmos, which for us is the Great Scripture (al-muṣḥaf al-kabīr), which God recited for us as a recitation of state (ḥāl), just as the Quran is, for us, a recitation of speech (qawl). As such, the cosmos is letters inscribed and vowelled upon the outspread parchment of existence (wujūd), and this writing continues on it everlastingly, indefinitely.
And just as creation is perpetually renewed (mujaddad), so also is the Creator, who never reveals Himself in one form (ṣūra) twice, nor to two individuals in the same form twice. Likewise, 'the Quran is in a constantly renewed descent upon the hearts of those who recite it, always and ceaselessly. Whosoever recites it, does so only through a renewed revelation from God, the Wise, the Praiseworthy.'
According to Ibn al-ʿArabī, although the descent of the Quran is from the highest to the lowest, from that Book which is referred to as 'the most complete (atamm)', to this recited and read Book, also 'the most complete', it is, first and foremost, the descent of God's Word. God fashioned it 'in a clear Arabic language' (Q.26:195), which is to say that He rendered it into the language of mortals. Thus, all that we have mentioned about the relation, or correspondence (munāsaba), between the cosmos, the Quran and human beings, which is meant by this descent (nuzūl) and by the fact that all existents are God's 'Words which are never spent' (Q.18:109), goes back to one of the issues of the Unity of God (tawḥīd), which has so occupied and bewildered rationalist theologians. In fact, the resolution of this question goes back to the knowledge of mysteries (ʿilm al-asrār), which is sometimes alluded to in intellectual discourse, despite the fact that it lies beyond the scope of the intellect: that is, how the Quran can be simultaneously the Word of God and recited by a human tongue and written by pens in the form of scripture.
Ibn al-ʿArabī discusses this issue quite often in his interpretation of God's saying: 'There comes not to them a new (muḥdath) reminder from their Lord but they listen to it playing' (Q.21:2); and His saying: 'No new reminder comes to them from the All-Compassionate but they turn away from it' (Q.26:5). Ibn al-ʿArabī's interpretation revolves around the Quranic term employed in these two verses, as a remembrance or reminder from their Lord: newly arrived or temporally originated (muḥdath). Here the newly arrived is opposed to the eternal (qadīm). Now the Quran is God's Speech, and His Speech is eternal. In the same way, existence (wujūd), although it might be one in essence, is not applied univocally: if it is attributed to God, we say that He is Eternal, while if we attribute it to the creature, we say that it is temporally originated. The Quran, or the 'Reminder' (dhikr) as it is also called, is described as being temporally originated (muḥdath) in the above-mentioned verses:
He describes His Speech as temporally originated, since it descended upon a temporally originated person, in respect to whom there came about in time something which he did not know. So it is temporally originated in relation to him, without doubt. As for this temporally originated thing, is it originated in itself or not? If we say that it is the attribute of the Real which His Majesty merits, we will undoubtedly affirm its eternity. For He is too exalted for temporally originated attributes to subsist in Him. So the Speech of the Real is eternal in itself and eternal in relationship to Him, but also temporally originated, and its relation to origination comes about by virtue of the one to whom He gives revelation.
Ibn al-ʿArabī then adds that if the temporal origination of Speech had no relation to created things, then the relationship of eternity could not be ascribed to it: 'The reason for this is that relationships which have opposites can only be comprehended through their opposites.'
In a similar manner, God spoke to Moses from the tree:
The people of unveiling (ahl al-kashf), who see that existence belongs to God in every form, take the tree as the form of the Speaker, just as God becomes [as is related in the ḥadīth qudsī] the servant's tongue, hearing and sight, through the latter's ipseity not his attribute. Likewise [on the Day of Resurrection] He appears in a form which they deny and then He changes into a form which they accept – and yet He remains Himself, no one else, since there is nothing other than Him.
Thus the One who spoke through the tree is none other than the Real, since the Real is the form of the tree, just as the One who hears through Moses is none other than the Real, for the Real is the form of Moses in so far as He is the Hearer. So He is the tree in so far as He is the Speaker, and the tree is still a tree, and Moses is still Moses. He is He, there is no indwelling (ḥulūl) because the thing has an appointed term in itself, while indwelling implies two essences. What we have here are two properties.
Ibn al-ʿArabī's discussion of this is lengthy, and I only mention it in order to allude to this dimension of the pot's tale. This is because when the pot spoke and broke apart, it elucidated two truths, which are in reality one truth: the necessity of cleansing the heart from blemish, and then from any remains of self. The pot's act was indeed clearer than its speech, since it was through the former that it made reference to the speech of exhortation, which is the report relating to God's saying: 'I am with those whose hearts break for My sake.' Ibn al-ʿArabī explains this statement when he discusses some of the meanings of this ḥadīth qudsī:
My servant draws near to Me by nothing that is more beloved to Me than that which I have established as a duty for him. My servant does not cease to approach Me through supererogatory acts until I love him. And when I love him, I am his hearing with which he hears, his sight with which he sees, his hand with which he grasps, and his foot with which he walks...
The servant is thus between two loves and two worships (ʿibāda): the compulsory worship, which is what He has prescribed for him, and the freely chosen worship, which is the supererogatory act. In reality, God does not even leave a choice to the servant in the supererogatory works, because they are according to the form of the obligatory acts (farāʾiḍ). If there is something lacking in the latter, it is completed through the former. In this way God breaks the heart of His servants until they give up any claim at all to Lordship. Then God mends the servant's brokenness through what He has ordained upon Himself in His Saying: 'the Word is not changed with Me' (Q.50:29). The servant then becomes pleased with his constraint (iḍṭirār), for it is through the breaking of the heart for the sake of God that the servant attains perfection in servanthood and happiness, so as to become a perfect servant without a trace of Lordship in him at all.
He hears the Speech of God from the Prophet of God, which is God's Speech, just as he hears the speech of the cosmos, which is none other than His Speech. For the human being is a small cosmos, just as the cosmos is a great human being. Both of them are complete, for the property of the cosmos is the property of the human being. The Ipseity of God is the inner dimension of the human being and the faculties by means of which he is a servant; and the Ipseity of God is the faculties of the cosmos by means of which it is a great human being and a glorifying servant – conforming to His saying: 'There is nothing that does not glorify (through) His/its praise, but you do not understand their glorification' (Q.17:44).
So finally we return to where we started: in all created things, including the most insignificant objects, lies a speech directed towards us, to which we should pay attention since all of it is the Words of our Lord, and the Words of our Lord are never spent. So let us read in the Book of Existence, a book that is written upon an outspread parchment, which is forever open and cannot be rolled up except by the One who spread it out.
Translated from the Arabic by Ramzi Taleb
. This paper was first presented at the conference held in Cairo entitled 'Ibn ʿArabi in Egypt: Confluence of East and West', on 12–16 December 2008.
. D. Gril (ed. and trans.), La Risâla de Safî al-Dîn Ibn Abî'l-Mansûr, (Cairo: Institut Français d'archéologie orientale du Caire, 1986).
. al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya (Cairo, 1329; reprod. Beirut, Dār Sādir, 1409), vol. 1, p. 409.
. Cf. Sakhāwī, Al-Maqāṣid al-ḥasana (Beirut, 1985), p. 169, no. 188; and ʿAjlūnī, Kashf al-khafāʾ, line 103, no. 614. The origin of this hadith is unknown; it seems to be reminiscent of Psalm 34, v.18 (King James Version), 'The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart...'.
. Qarabāqa (modern-day Caravaca de la Cruz) was a small town in al-Andalus west of Murcia.
. Most probably an offshoot market within the confines of Fusṭāṭ, north of the mosque of ʿAmr; the remains of this area have completely vanished today.
. Fut.I:59, III:74.
. See Fut.II:77, question 54.
. See the text of Risālat al-Anwār, attributed to ʿAbd al-Karīm al-Jīlī, ed. ʿAsim Ibrahim (Beirut, 2004), p. 121.
. Ibid., p. 190.
. Fut.II:366. For a translation of the whole passage, see W. Chittick, The Sufi Path of Knowledge (Albany, NY, 1989, henceforth SPK), p. 213.
. Fut.IV:66–7, Chap. 452.
. Fut.IV:167, Chap. 524.
. Fut.II.63; see also translation by Chittick, SPK, p. 138.
. See the 26th ḥadīth qudsī in Ibn al-ʿArabī's Mishkāt al-anwār, translated by Stephen Hirtenstein and Martin Notcutt in Divine Sayings (Oxford, 2010), p. 45.
. Fut.IV:71, Chap. 456.
. See the 91st ḥadīth qudsī in Ibn al-ʿArabī's Mishkāt al-anwār (Divine Sayings p. 88).
. See Fut.IV:102–3, Chap. 471.