The Tarjuman al-Ashwaq, by Ibn al-Arabi, tr. Reynold A. Nicholson, , at sacred-texts.com
Although Ibn al-‘Arabí (560-638 A.H.) is the most celebrated of all Muḥammadan mystics, the only one of his 150 extant works that has hitherto appeared in a European edition is the brief glossary of Ṣúfí technical terms (###) which was published by Fluegel in 1845, together with the Ta‘rífat of Jurjání, under the title of Definitiones theosophi Mohji-ed-dín Mohammed ben Ali vulgo Ibn Arabi dicti. So far as I am aware, none of his books has been translated into any European language, and no trustworthy account can yet be given of his vast theosophical speculations, which produced an extraordinary impression throughout the Moslem world. By far the larger portion of his writings is in prose, but the poetical remnant includes a Díwán of about 450 pages (published at Búláq in 1271 A.H.) and several smaller collections. One of these is the Tarjumán al-Ashwáq or 'Interpreter of Desires'. The fact that it is accompanied by a commentary, in which the author himself explains the meaning of almost every verse, was the principal motive that induced me to study it; its brevity was a strong recommendation; and something, I suppose, may be attributed to my possessing an excellent MS., which, as is noted on the last page, has twice undergone collation and correction.
A curious problem of literary history is involved in the question of the date at which the poems and the commentary were composed. The MSS. of the Tarjumán al-Ashwáq exhibit three different recensions. The first recension, represented by Leiden 875 (2), Brit. Mus. 15271, and Gotha 2268, contains the poems without the commentary. In his preface Ibn al-‘Arabí refers to his arrival in Mecca in 598 A.H., and Dozy assumed—on insufficient grounds, as I shall presently show—that the poems were composed in that year. They were condemned by some devout Moslems
as 'vain and amatorious', and in order to refute his critics the author issued a second recension, represented by Leiden 641 and Brit. Mus. 7541, containing the same poems with a commentary and a new preface, in which he declares that he composed these poems, while visiting the holy places at Mecca, in the months of Rajab, Sha‘bán, and Ramaḍán, 611 A.H. The third recension is represented by Bodl. (Uri) 1276, Munich 5241, Berlin 7750 and 7751, and the MS. cited by Ḥájjí Khalífa (Fluegel's edition), ii, 276. It agrees with the second in giving the date of composition as 611 A.H., but includes a statement of the circumstances which caused the author to write his commentary.
My MS. seems to be unique 1 in so far as it contains the preface belonging to the first recension and also the additional statement which differentiates the third recension from the second.
Dozy, as I have said, believed that the true date of composition, namely 598 A.H., was given by the author in the preface to the first recension, and that on publishing the second recension he post-dated it by thirteen years. 'To wipe out the memory of his offence the poet not only proved by means of his commentary that Heavenly, not earthly, love was the theme that inspired him, but he also pretended that the poems were composed at a different time; by which artifice, though he could not deceive those who had read them before, he might dupe anyone who had heard people talk of them and the scandal produced by them.' 2
Before considering the justice of Dozy's criticism it will be well to set forth the evidence more fully than he has done. I shall therefore summarize the contents of the prose sections which form an introduction to the text of the poems.
1. Preface to the First Recension 1
On his arrival at Mecca in 598 A.H. Ibn al-‘Arabí found a number of scholars and divines, both male and female, whose ancestors had emigrated from Persia in the early days of Islam. He particularly mentions Makínu’ddín Abú Shujá‘ Záhir b. Rustam b. Abi ’r-Rajá, al-Iṣbahání and his aged sister, Fakhru ’n-Nisá bint Rustam. [With the former he read the book of Abu ‘Ísá, at-Tirmidhí on the Apostolic Traditions. He begged Fakhru ’n-Nisá to let him hear Traditions from her, but she excused herself on the plea of her great age, saying that she wished to spend the last years of her life in devotion. She consented, however, that her brother should write for Ibn al-‘Arabí, on her behalf, a general certificate (###) for all the Traditions which she related; and he received a similar certificate from Makínu ’ddín himself.] 2
Makínu ’ddín had a young daughter, called Niẓám and surnamed ’Aynu ’sh-Shams wa ’l-Bahá, who was exceedingly beautiful and was renowned for her asceticism and eloquent preaching. [The author says that he would have descanted on her physical and moral perfections had he not been deterred by the weakness of human souls, which are easily corrupted, but he eulogizes her learning, literary accomplishments, and spiritual gifts.] Ibn al-‘Arabí observed the nobility of her nature, which was enhanced by the society of her father and aunt. He celebrated her in the poems contained in this volume, using the erotic style and vocabulary, but he could not express even a small part of the feelings roused in him by the recollection of his love for her in past times (###). [Here my MS. adds: 'Nevertheless I have put into verse for her sake some of the longing thoughts suggested by those precious memories,
and I have uttered the sentiments of a yearning soul and have indicated the sincere attachment which I feel, fixing my mind on the bygone days and those scenes which her society has endeared to me' (###).] The author continues: 'Whenever I mention a name in this book I always allude to her, and whenever I mourn over an abode, I mean her abode. In these poems I always signify Divine influences and spiritual revelations and sublime analogies, according to the most excellent way which we (Ṣúfís) follow … God forbid that readers of this book and of my other poems should think of aught unbecoming to souls that scorn evil and to lofty spirits that are attached to the things of Heaven! Amen!'
[These pages include the love-poems which I composed at Mecca, whilst visiting the holy places in the months of Rajab, Sha‘bán, and Ramaḍán. In these poems I point (allegorically) to various sorts of Divine knowledge and spiritual mysteries and intellectual sciences and religious exhortations. I have used the erotic style and form of expression because men's souls are enamoured of it, so that there are many reasons why it should commend itself.]
2. Preface to the Second Recension
After giving a list of Ibn al-‘Arabí's names and titles, the text proceeds as in the last paragraph within square brackets: 'These pages include the love-poems which I composed at Mecca … in the months of Rajab, Sha‘bán, and Ramaḍán in the year 611. In these poems,' etc., without further variation.
3. Preface to the Third Recension
This is identical with the last, but contains in addition the following statement of the motives which induced the author to write his commentary. 1
'I wrote this commentary on the Díwán entitled Tarjumán
al-Ashwáq, which I composed at Mecca, at the request of my friend al-Mas‘úd Abú Muḥammad Badr b. ‘Abdallah al-Ḥabashí al-Khádim and al-Walad al-Bárr Shamsu ’ddin Ismá‘íl b. Súdakín an-Núrí 1 in the city of Aleppo. He (Shamsu ’ddin) had heard some theologian remark that the author's declaration in the preface to the Tarjumán was not true, his declaration, namely, that the love-poems in this collection refer to mystical sciences and realities. "Probably," said the critic, "he adopted this device in order to protect himself from the imputation that he, a man famous for religion and piety, composed poetry in the erotic style." Shamsu ’ddin was offended by his observations and repeated them to me. Accordingly, I began to write the commentary at Aleppo, and a portion of it was read aloud in my lodging in the presence of the above-mentioned theologian and other divines by Kamálu ’ddin Abu ’l-Qásim b. Najmu ’ddin the Cadi Ibn al-‘Adím 2—God bless him! I finished it with difficulty and in an imperfect manner, for I was in haste to continue my journey, on the date already mentioned. 3 When my critic heard it he said to Shamsu ’ddin that he would never in future doubt the good faith of any Ṣúfís who should assert that they attached a mystical signification to the words used in ordinary speech; and he conceived an excellent opinion of me and profited (by my writings). This was the occasion of my explaining the Tarjumán.'
I have now laid before the reader nearly all the available materials for a solution of this problem. How, then, does it stand with the charge of falsification brought by Dozy against Ibn al-‘Arabí?
Dozy's theory seems to me untenable on the following grounds:—
(a) Ibn al-‘Arabí does not imply, in the preface to the first recension, that the poems were composed in 598 A.H. Although he only arrived at Mecca in that year, he speaks of his acquaintance with Niẓám, the daughter of Makínu ’ddín, as something past, and of Makínu ’ddín himself as no longer alive. 1
(b) The hypothesis that 598 A.H. was the date of composition is not required. No arguments have been advanced to show that the date given by the author, 611 A.H., is impossible or unlikely. There is nothing incredible in the statement that, while visiting the holy shrines at Mecca in this year, the author was inspired by those familiar scenes to celebrate in mystical fashion the feelings of love connected with an earlier period of his life.
(c) The poems themselves contain evidence that they were not composed at the date which Dozy attributes to them. The second and third verses of the thirty-second poem run as follows:—
Ibn al-‘Arabí was 50 years old when he wrote these verses. 2 He was born in 560 A.H., so that in 598 A.H. his age was only 38. In 611 A.H. he was 51. To say '50' instead of '51' is a small poetical licence, which needs no apology, whereas on Dozy's supposition the author must have antedated his age and post-dated his poems by considerably more than a decade in each case.
We may therefore conclude that Ibn al-‘Arabí's account of the matter is correct, and that the composition of the Tarjumán al-Ashwáq was finished in Ramaḍán, 611 A.H. (January, 1215 A.D.). A few months afterwards the author began to write his commentary at Aleppo, for Hájjí Khalífa tells us that it was completed in Rabi‘ ath-thání of the following year (August, 1215 A.D.).
The further question, whether Ibn al-‘Arabí was quite sincere when he claimed that his poems were intended to be mystical in spirit, though erotic in form, must, I think, be answered in the affirmative. Students of Oriental poetry have sometimes to ask themselves, 'Is this a love-poem disguised as a mystical ode, or a mystical ode expressed in the language of human love?' and to acknowledge that they cannot tell. Here, however, the balance is not so nicely poised that every reader may be allowed to choose the interpretation which pleases him. Some of the poems, it is true, are not distinguishable from ordinary love-songs, and as regards a great portion of the text, the attitude of the author's contemporaries, who refused to believe that it had any esoteric sense at all, was natural and intelligible; on the other hand, there are many passages which are obviously mystical and give a clue to the rest. If the sceptics lacked discernment, they deserve our gratitude for having provoked Ibn al-‘Arabí to instruct them. Assuredly, without his guidance the most sympathetic readers would seldom have hit upon the hidden meanings which his fantastic ingenuity elicits from the conventional phrases of an Arabic qaṣída. 1 But the fact that his explanations overshoot the mark is no proof of his insincerity: he had to satisfy his critics, and it would have been difficult to convince them that the poems were mystical in spirit and intention unless he had given a precise and definite interpretation of every line and of almost every word. The necessity of entering into trivial details—an Arab is in any case apt to exaggerate details at the expense of the whole—drives the author to take refuge in far-fetched verbal analogies and causes him to descend with startling rapidity from the sublime to the
ridiculous. We have seen that when he published his commentary he omitted from the preface those passages relating to the beautiful and accomplished Nil m which occur in the first recension. No doubt they had been misunderstood; it was inevitable that they should excite suspicion. To cancel them was merely to deprive his critics of a powerful weapon against which he could not defend himself effectively. For, if Niẓám was to him (and manifestly she was nothing else) a Beatrice, a type of heavenly perfection, an embodiment of Divine love and beauty, yet in the world's eyes he ran the risk of appearing as a lover who protests his devotion to an abstract ideal while openly celebrating the charms of his mistress. In the poems she is scarcely ever mentioned by name, but there are one or two particular references which I will quote here:—
'Long have I yearned for a tender maiden, endowed with prose and verse (###), having a pulpit, eloquent,
One of the princesses from the land of Persia, from the most glorious of cities, from Isfahan.
She is the daughter of ‘Iráq, the daughter of my Imám, and I am her opposite, a child of Yemen.'
'O my two comrades, may my life-blood be the ransom of a slender girl who bestowed on me favours and bounties!
She established the harmony of union, for she is our principle of harmony (###): she is both Arab and foreign: she makes the gnostic forget.
Whenever she gazes, she draws against thee trenchant swords, and her front teeth show to thee a dazzling levin.'
Verily, she is an Arab girl belonging by origin to the daughters of Persia, yea, verily.
Beauty strung for her a row of fine pearly teeth, white and pure as crystal.'
Since I do not propose either to discuss the poems from a literary and artistic standpoint or to give an account of the mystical doctrines which the author has occasion to
touch upon in the course of his commentary, it only remains to describe the MSS. which I have used in preparing this edition.
1. A MS. in my collection, dated 1029 A.H. It contains both the text of the poems (written with red ink) and the commentary. Inscriptions on the last page certify that it has been twice diligently collated and corrected. In referring to it I shall use the designation N.
2. A MS. in the Leiden University Library, Cod. 875 (2) Warn. (see Dozy's Catalogue, ii, 74). It contains only the text of the poems, with a preface, and is dated 992 A.H. In referring to it I shall use the designation L.
3. A MS. in the Leiden University Library, Cod. 641 Warn. (see Dozy's Catalogue, ii, 75-7). It is dated 984 A.H., and contains both text and commentary. In referring to it I shall use the designation M.
The Arabic text printed below is based on N., and the variants in LM. are noted at the foot of the page. The text, which exhibits many grammatical and metrical irregularities, is not vocalized in any of these MSS.
The commentary in N., from which my translation is made, is sometimes not so full as that in M. The latter includes a few excerpts from the Futúḥát al-Makkiyya. The English version of the commentary is usually very much abridged, but I have rendered the interesting and important passages nearly word for word. 1
I shall now transcribe the text of the preface and the poems according to N. The Arabic text will be followed by an English version of the poems, with annotations based on the author's commentary.
p. 10 p. 11 p. 12 p. 13 p. 14 p. 15
2:1 Perhaps I should say 'almost unique', since Pertsch's description of Gotha 2269, which is defective at the beginning, leads me to suppose that it resembles my MS. in this particular. The Gotha MS., however, has the date 611 A.H., which is wanting in mine.
2:2 Leiden Cat., ii, 77. The last clause, as printed, runs: 'qui de iis deque magnâ offensione cuius causa exstiterant, fando audiverant,' i.e. 'the scandal which had produced them'. Dozy cannot have meant to write this.
3:1 I follow the text of my MS. The passages which occur in it, but not in the Leiden MS. 875 (2), are enclosed in square brackets. The Arabic text will be found below.
3:2 Instead of the foregoing passage the Leiden MS. 875 (2) has: 'And I received a certificate from both of them.'
4:1 In some MSS. this statement does not form part of the preface, but is placed after the text and commentary. It occurs in my MS. on fol. 140a.
5:1 He wrote commentaries on two treatises by Ibn al-‘Arabí (see Brockelmann, i, 443).
5:2 This is the well-known historian of Aleppo.
5:3 No date is mentioned in my MS. According to Ḥájjí Khalífa, (ii, 277), the author finished his commentary in the second Rabi 612 A.H. (July-August, 1215 A.D.), at Áqsaray (in Lycaonia).
6:1 This is indicated by the words ### which follow his name.
6:2 Another reference to the poet's age occurs in xxxvi, 2.
7:1 The author admits that in some passages of his poems the mystical import was not clear to himself, and that various explanations were suggested to him in moments of ecstasy: ### (N. 55a, at foot).
9:1 The correct title of the commentary seems to be ###; it is derived from the phrase ###, which occurs in the preface (p. 12, l. 7 infra). The erroneous reading ### is found in most MSS., and Hájjí Khalífa gives the title of the commentary as ###.