The works of shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi [part 5]

Now let us turn to another book written by shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi. What can be more interesting than to see a Sufi of the level of shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi describe the life and teachings of another formidable Sufi shaykh? This has happened because shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi has written  Al-Kawkab al-durri fi manaqib Dhu’n-Nun al-Misri  dealing with the inspiring life of shaykh Dhu’n-Nun, the Egyptian.

Shaykh Dhu’n-Nun was born in the North of Egypt and died at Gizeh in the year 860. Shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi reports that when the Egyptian Sufi died “green birds of an unknown species flew above the body of Dhu’n-Nun during his burial”. This has been explained that the angels honoured shaykh Dhu’n-Nun.

Shaykh Dhu’n-Nun was the first to describe the Sufi doctrine of states (ahwal) and stations (maqamat). He was also the first among the Sufis to speak about gnosis (ma’rifa). Next to this, he was also the first to describe the friends of God (awliya) he has met during his travels. He described them by using several categories, like men of God or people of the path or those who have fear or those who are exalted or those who are sincere or the bearers of the Qur’an, etc. 

Shaykh Dhu’n-Nun was conducive to spreading the practice of sama’ (the Sufi practice of audition). He was an important Sufi master with massive knowledge, a sparkling spirit, a great talent to express himself in words, and he was a good and modest man. When we add that he may have belonged to a succession of Islamic alchemists we have already more than enough items to see that he has had a fascinating personality.

The shaykh has been described in three words: Hakim (the sage), fasih (the eloquent one) and ‘alim (scholar). Some call him zahid (the ascetic one) and wa’iz (preacher), while for shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi he was a salih (a perfect and righteous servant) and an ‘arif (a gnostic, i.e. one with knowledge/recognition of God).

Shaykh Dhu’n-Nun (the Lord of the Fish) has been accused of heresy (zandaqa) by the ‘ulama’ of Egypt. He was taken in front of the caliph, who, however, was impressed by his eloquence, his adab (good manners), his dignified behaviour; in short by the light which emanated from this friend of God. After his immediate release, the Sufis of Baghdad invited him and he attended a sama’ session. The shaykh experienced a deep spiritual state when listening to a qawwal. After giving a farewell sermon to the people of Baghdad he returned to Egypt.

The life and teachings of this Egyptian Sufi becomes all the more fascinating because of being presented by shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi. An example hereof is the story of the turning to the Sufi path (tawba) of Dhu’n-Nun, who sees a helpless bird surviving in the desert. It was a young bird, still unable to fly and it had fallen out of its nest. Suddenly the earth opens and a golden plate and a silver plate appear, containing sesame seeds and water for the helpless bird.

Shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi comments that Dhu’n-Nun makes it clear by means of this story that he has received the good news that he has been accepted by God. He also tells that one day he heard the story being told in Tunis by shaykh ‘Abd al-Aziz al-Mahdawi who gave this explanation: “This bird was his own soul and it showed what state he was in”.

Shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi reports the following words of shaykh Dhu’n-Nun of Egypt: “When the lover of God has attained a high degree, things become unbearable for him. He cannot associate with coarse people or accept gross food, but only good food and he can only wear soft fabrics”.
You may remember that there was a time in the life of shaykh Abu Sa’id bin Abi’l Khair that he lived in luxury, had rich clothes and partook of excellent food.

Shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi comments on this privileged station (maqam alikhtisas), which is inherited from Solomon, by adding:

“The spiritual station of the wise (hakim) is higher than this and that is the station of Muhammad (s.a.w.), the most perfect of humankind and the most subtle meaning, the most pure in his inmost consciousness (sirr), endowed with the finest heart, the most perfect in state and the highest in station. He could tolerate unrefined food and endure course people due to the aptitude of his spiritual state, the fineness of his benevolence (latafa) and his amplitude (ittisa’). The person who inherits from Solomon has a known station and allotted nourishment, and this is an approved state, may God be satisfied with those who possess it, but the noble Muhammadan inheritance leads us from this to the most subtle spiritual station.”

Shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi mentions only one teacher of the Egyptian Sufi. She is a woman from Nishapur with the name Fatima. She taught him to pay attention to two main concepts of futuwwa (spiritual chivalry):

1. ithar: preferring others over your self.

2. sidq: sincerity.

NB: More about futuwwa in part 6.

Shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi quotes shaykh as-Sulami who said:

“Abu Yazid al-Bastami, who had reached an eminent spiritual rank, visited her [i.e. shaykha Fatima]. He remarked this about her afterwards: ‘I have only met one man and one woman in all my life [who were spiritually perfect]. This woman was Fatima of Nishapur. I talked to her about many spiritual stations, but she was always able to respond to me from an inward vision she had regarding these stations’.”

Shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi continues thus: “Ibn Khalaf has said this: ‘I have heard the great master Ibn Muluk tell that he has met Dhu’n-Nun. He asked the Egyptian shaykh who was the most spiritually accomplished person he had met”. 

“Dhu’n Nun responded thus to him: ‘The most eminent person I’ve known was a woman. She was called Fatima from Nishapur. I met her in Mecca. She talked about understanding the Qur’an and I was full of admiration for her. She is one of the awliya. She is my master. Here are some of her teachings which I have collected as coming directly from her:

“[…] When you are not constant in the dhikr-Allah [you will experience that] God, the Elevated One, will render you speechless regarding all things that are not True […].”

The teaching has to do with the emphasis on sincerity of shaykha Fatima. Only those who have been enabled to reach the high state of sincerity are able to be the voice of Truth (al-Haqq). They don’t speak of their own account, so that which they appear to say, is in reality God Who is speaking. When Mansur al-Hallaj said: “Ana’lHaqq” – “I am the Truth, this ‘I’ was in reality the I of alHaqq (God; Reality, Truth).

Shaykha Fatima implies that there are people unaware of God. They talk eloquently about all kinds of fascinating subjects, while the one who has been enabled to realize the high level of sincerity remains silent about such things, except… Except when the Divine uses her/him to be the one who proclaims the Truth by means of the words coming from the Truth. God maintains such a person as His lowly servant and in absolute sincerity.

The shaykha teaches us to persevere in the dhikr. This practice is more comprehensive than the recitation of sacred words alone. It also implies for instance our unobserved acts of kindness to others. When we like to speak, we should try to do so with that kind of sincerity fitting our own level. Then step by step we’ll notice that trees move to and fro in their performance of the dhikr, that the voice of the wind is the voice of Huuuuuuu, and that the birds recite His name.

Let’s continue with the teachings of shaykha Fatima according to shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi:

“The one who is loyal and who gets nearer to God, is immersed in an ocean whose waves move him up and down. He implores his Lord as if he is drowning and asks God to deliver him from this danger and save him.”

“When you act for the sake of God, while desiring to witness Him you are a gnostic (‘arif) and when you act hoping that God’s vision is directed towards you, then you are a sincere person (mukhlis).”

Shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi has given this commentary:

“These words concern the spiritual station of ‘doing the beautiful’ (or doing what is perfect: ihsan) about which Gabriel has asked Muhammad (s.a.w.). When he was asked about doing the beautiful, the Prophet answered: ‘It implies that you worship God as if you see Him, and even when you don’t see Him, He sees you’.

“The first part of this answer refers to the contemplation [of God: mushahada] in an absolute way, because the one who finds himself here isn’t conditioned by his own act, because he sees that all acts come from Him when He actualizes their existence. The second part of this answer refers to the spiritual station of the pure persons [see the earlier difference of ‘arif and mukhlis] who are those who dedicate all their doings to God with complete sincerity.”

“Dhu’n-Nun asked her (shaikha Fatima of Nishapur) questions about all kinds of subjects. When the two of them met each other in Jerusalem, he asked for a final teaching. She told him:

“Continue to be sincere,” she told him, “and struggle with your lower soul in your actions.” 

Shaykh as-Sulami is one of the sources for shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi. Shaykh as-Sulami writes about Fatima of Nishapur in chapter 30 of Early Sufi Women, ending thus:

“Fatima (may God have mercy on her) died in Mecca in the year 223/838 while on her way to perform the lesser pilgrimage (‘umra).”

Shaykha Fatima asked shaykh Dhu’n-Nun to pay special attention to spiritual chivalry. This subject will be discussed in part 6.