The Universal Tree and the Four Birds (Mystical Treatises)
Category: Islam
3:17 h
Through thestory of the universal tree, representing the complete human being, and the four birds, representing the four essential aspects of existence, Ibn 'Arabi explains his teaching on the nature and meaning of union with God.


The Universal Tree
and the Four Birds

Translated by Angela Jaffray

I am in love with no other than myself,
and my very separation is my union ...

I am my beloved and my lover;
I am my knight and my maiden.

Muḥyiddīn Ibn ʿArabī


I owe special thanks to my friend Rafi Zabor, who suggested several years ago that I translate the Ittiḥād al-kawnī for the Web journal Words without Borders, and supplied the illuminating introductory essay.

Thanks, also, to Words without Borders who published an early version of the translation in their August 2004 issue.

I couldn’t ask for more responsive and meticulous editors than Stephen Hirtenstein and Michael Tiernan at Anqa Publishing. Stephen’s learned comments enriched my commentary immensely, and Michael’s design and careful editing are each, in their own domain, things of beauty.

Without the sublime French translation, sagacious notes, and expert edition of the Ittiḥād by Denis Gril, I would have found myself frequently at a loss. Lovers of Ibn ‘Arabī owe a tremendous debt to him and other pioneers in the enterprise of Ibn ‘Arabī translation for their deep knowledge of the Shaykh’s words and works.

Jim Robinson, eagle-eyed companion in devoir, has accompanied this translation from fledgling stage to final flight. He has given me many helpful suggestions, kept me from colossal mistakes, and offered unflagging encouragement all the way.

tawfīq illā bi-llāh



It is He who is revealed in every face, sought in every
sign, gazed upon by every eye, worshipped in every
object of worship, and pursued in the unseen and
the visible. Not a single one of His creatures can fail
to find Him in its primordial and original nature.

Muḥyiddīn Ibn ʿArabī

Ibn ʿArabī or Abū ‘Abd Allah Muḥammad ibn al-‘Arabī at-Ṭā’ī al-Ḥātimī at-Ta’i al-Hatimī, also called Muḥyiddīn, the Revivifier of the Faith — was born in 1165 CE in the city of Murcia in Muslim Andalusia, and died seventy-five years later in Damascus: a narrative traversal of the Islamic world more than mirrored by his encompassment of its internal, esoteric aspect. Called within the Sufi tradition the Shaykh al-Akbar, or Greatest Master, and seen as its ultimate exemplar of esoteric Knowledge, he was, among many other things, the author of approximately three hundred books, some of them no longer than a pamphlet, others comprising several volumes. The best known and doubtless most important of these are the Fuṣūṣ al-ḥikam, in many ways the crystallization of a lifetime’s gnosis, and the enormous Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya, which combines the functions of a spiritual encyclopedia and intimate autobiography. The work translated here (Risālat al-ittiḥād al-kawnī, likely written before the author’s arrival in Mecca circa 1203 CE), combining verse, prose, and rhymed prose, is certainly one of Ibn ʿArabī's most beautiful and, while quite unlike any other of his books so far translated into English, it is wholly characteristic of his genius.

In it the reader will encounter a work of extraordinary literary and spiritual artistry, followed by a commentary whose lucidity and acuity of articulation will introduce the neophyte — its thoroughness should also please the specialist — to some of the details of the cosmological order to which our author’s imagery, in this work and elsewhere, belongs; but there ought also to be room for a few general words of introduction for the general reader who might happen by.

In the history of monotheistic spirituality, in particular its Western, Abrahamic branch incorporating Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, you may find an aspected resemblance here and there, but there is really no one, from taproot to topmost leaftip, like Muḥyiddīn Ibn ʿArabī. In Islamic esotericism per se, especially with regard to its metaphysical and exegetical component, virtually everyone before him is an anticipation and everyone after a commentator or interpreter.

In encountering him you come upon the ultimate implications of monotheism whole and unaltered. Since in exoteric Islam the Unity and Absoluteness of God is the primary axiom, it follows that for its definitive esotericist a One and Absolute God implies the non-existence of anything other than Himself — since that would qualify His Singleness and Absoluteness — so that there is not, in existence or the many shades of relative existence and non-existence in the eighteen thousand Universes anything other than Him tout court. From this vantage point we pass to a world of apparently infinite paradox, actually a series of antinomic affirmations logically exclusive of each other but united in the suprarational fact that is the One Existence: the Universes are His appearance, He is the same as the existence of the things, although nothing can be associated with Him and He is transcendent from all qualification, even that of transcendence; everything that exists is the self-manifestation of possibilities latent in His essence, existentiated by His Mercy, yet the possibilities themselves choose their modes of being and demand existentiation from Him, so that their will is free and their own, and the consequences of their actions rebound upon themselves, although there is essentially no will but His, and He is transcendent from the existent things without difference although He is their being and substance, and He guides them, perpetually, because He is their inextricable essence. The conscious, perfected human being — the normal run of humans are veiled from the Reality by the illusion of their own self-existence is the complete reflection of its infinite and eternal Source, and it is precisely for the sake of this mirroring that the Absolute breathed His mercy upon the possibilities and potentials latent in Himself and permitted the Universes to become, although their existence is pure contingency, a veil, an illusion, and also the Truth in Truth, while there is only He, and nothing with or beside Him, ever. And so on, almost ad infinitum, according to each particular face of revelation implicit in the nature of the Reality. Ibn ‘Arabī's cosmology sometimes seems as detailed as the Universe whose ontology it addresses; at other times he demolishes all secondary consideration in a totalizing affirmation of the indivisible and unconditionable One: these two components of his vision do not exclude each other but are essentially the same, and cannot be halved. And as the Shaykh sometimes likes to put it: if you understand it that way, fine; and if not, then not.

What after Ibn ‘Arabī's death came to be called the doctrine of the Unity of Being was not, however, some ultimate ingenuity of exegesis but the result of profound self-experience, and when you read one of his books you encounter in some measure the extraordinary individual who experienced it. His is a flavor one comes to recognize and distinguish from all others, a genius both inclusive of and beyond rational compass, a forthrightness challenging all complacencies, and at times a robustly humorous overturner of all cognitive convention. His complications dazzle and bewilder the intellect and imagination; alternately his bluntness can, at times, make even so bold a visionary as William Blake seem almost an equivocator by comparison.

* * *

He is also a poet of extraordinary expressive power, as a reader of the Ittiḥād will quickly discover. The book begins with a preludinal poem which even in translation seems one of the great one-time only coups of the world-long poetic tradition:

From my incompleteness to my completeness , and from my
inclination to my equilibrium

From my grandeur to my beauty, and from my splendour to my

From my scattering to my gathering, and from my exclusion to my

From my baseness to my preciousness , and from my stones to my
pearls …

For thirteen lines Ibn ‘Arabī's contemplation swings like a pendulum between the polarities of a self whose sphere of allusion and reference is the entire subsolar and sublunary world with its risings and settings, breezes, boughs, and shade, its steeds and gazelles — an extraordinary ambit of discourse that shudders to a halt with the abrupt discovery of that self’s isolation and the limits of its enclosured love. The last line of the section reveals the reality behind even so inspired and inevitable a self- absorption and uncovers the crux of its anguish — Do not blame me for my passion. I am inconsolable over the one who has fled me — but if we have left the sphere of the passional self and the romance of its poetics, it is not in obeisance to the dictates of a conventional mysteriosophy; neither will Ibn ‘Arabī, as his accustomed readers know, end his quest with a conventionally diffuse devotional yearning for the Infinite as traditionally conceived: when the Shaykh al-Akbar seeks something he almost invariably finds it, on a large scale and in plenty.

When, after this reflective pause, the tolling of the polarities resumes, a measure of discrimination inserts itself into the cascade of couplets — Continuous is the light of knowledge ; ephemeral the light of intuition even, shortly, a teleology, and a changing a sense of quest:

So that I might bring to light what lies hidden in night’s core …

To explain the mysteries’ roots and express the realities’ enigmas.

The author ends this phase of his invocation by affirming the Spiritual nature of his inspiration and by distinguishing it from that of the willfully ignorant.

Ibn ‘Arabī then calls his book to order, announces its title, and dedicates it to Abū al-Fawāris Ṣakhr b. Sinān, a “master of the triads and dyads” in whose nature, manner, or teaching must surely lie the root of the introduction’s uniquely “dyadic words of praise." Ibn ‘Arabī then praises God, with reference to a particularly important Qur’anic passage — “Surely We created man with the most beautiful of constitutions”, that is, in the essential image of God, “then We reduced him to the lowest of the low” (Q. 95: 4-5), which in part is to say the mortality and limits of this world but especially the blinkered consciousness we typically have in it before — resuming a rapturous poetics one might have thought eliminated by so firm a theological intrusion. In the following strophes, self and Self, essence and Essence, humanity and the properly Divine are both distinguished from each other — with particular reference to some occulted aspects of the individuated subjectivity — and revealed as inextricable.

In the last moment of this introductory section the author delineates still more precisely the book’s locus of revelation: situated “on the equator,” that is to say at the meeting-point, of “the most beautiful of constitutions” and the “lowest of degrees” that encompass between them the essential human state — the comprehensive conjunction of the Transcendent and the Manifest, in other texts the place where “the two seas meet,” and where the Arc of Necessarily-so-ness and the Arc of Possibilities converge — metaphorically rendered here as the City of human habitation and the Sinai that is the archetypal site of human receptivity to the continuous Divine self-revelation.

Having articulated the book’s metaphysical context, Ibn ʿArabī plunges us into the heart of a drama drawn on a consciously cosmic scale — there is tremendous urgency behind the narrative from the first — evincing an impetuosity and directness, a singleness of feeling whose impassioned expressiveness is quite distinct from the Persian genius for decoration and ameliorative address to a normative audience, most familiar in the West in the work of Ibn ʿArabī's great near-contemporary Jālaluddīn Rūmī. In fact Rūmī, recognized within the Sufi tradition as its ultimate exemplar of divine and spiritual Love, is not Ibn ‘Arabī's opposite but his complement. Ibn ‘Arabī is alleged to have seen the child Rūmī and to have remarked upon his future greatness, but the two are more substantially and convincingly linked through Ibn ‘Arabī's adopted son and great disciple Ṣadr al-Dīn Qūnawī, who later was a friend and collaborator of Rūmī's in Konya, the capital of thirteenth-century Seljuk Turkey; and it may be that Ibn ʿArabī and Jālaluddīn Rūmī are ideally understood in terms of each other, one expressing explicitly what is implicit in his counterpart.

Unlike the Turkish-Persian master, who usually took care to veil his jalāl, or fierce majestic aspect, Ibn ʿArabī not only rushes straight at the Truth but trusts It to let the chips fall where they may: subjective after-effects and secondary concatenations are not his responsibility. Our author exemplifies not only the Arabic genius but the compressive power of the Arabic language, which like its cousin Hebrew and perhaps metaphorically the cosmos those languages characteristically describe, parlays a finite number of consonantal roots into an improbably multiform eloquence of expression.

Ibn ʿArabī shouts, “Alas, my burning heart. I fled from the universe and here I am in it. Where is what I seek?,” and is answered by a voice remarkably like the one that addressed Job from the whirlwind — the author scruples to note that it comes from neither inside nor outside him — demanding where he was at the setting up of the Throne and the placement of the celestial couches, not to mention before the establishment of the supreme horizon, and so on for a staggering paragraph delineating the utter incommensurability of the human and the Divine.

The Voice from the Whirlwind quite silenced Job’s inquiries, but the ever-impetuous Ibn ʿArabī, registering that voice and its implications completely within himself, goes onward and inward through aspect after aspect in his quest for the entire unedited human reality’s reflection of the Divine Itselfness. Through an audacity of question and answer, in a sort of active submission to the Reality’s fullness of will, in a dialogue of extreme spiritual subtlety dense with Qur’anic allusion and references to the Shaykh’s own extensive terminology much of which will be lost upon the neophyte reader but which registers as strong gnostic drama regardless; also see the Commentary Ibn ʿArabī finally arrives at the book’s central image of revelation: a Tree with four birds in its branches. Our author will converse with each of them.

Up to this point the protagonist’s struggle has been to detach himself from the last traces of contingent creation and so address himself appropriately to the unqualified Reality. (Along the way, the reader will have noted Ibn ‘Arabī's characteristic combination of the evocative and the categorical: “If you extract me from the crashing waves and deliver me from the horror of this gloomy night I will never more pronounce the adverb or the preposition of place.” Later on, the Crow will tell him: “I am the lamp and the winds. I am the chain against the rock and the wing. I am the sea whose waves constantly strike one another. I am, of the countable, the singular and the paired.”) Beginning with his converse with the Tree, our author has reached his goal, and everything that follows is fruition and harvest.

At the very end of the text, Ibn ‘Arabī tells us what the Tree and the birds represent, so it is probably best for the reader first to submit to their unassisted poetic authority. Still, for a reader unacquainted with the tradition and its symbology a few words of explication will probably not go amiss. Much of Ibn ‘‘Arabī's personal terminology is a more abstract rendering of the language of the Qur’an, hence the Pen appears as the First Intellect, the Tablet as Soul, and so forth. Of the birds in the Tree, the third, or “strange ‘Anqā’, could certainly use a small interpretative assist and a bit of speciation. Sometimes translated as Phoenix, the strange ‘Anqā’ in any case is proverbially a bird that has a Name but no manifest Being — Ismi var, varlik yok, as almost any Turk can tell you — and hence is associated with the Reality of Realities, a mercurial entity which is the foundation of the world. The Reality of Realities is, as Ibn ‘Arabī writes in The Book of the Description of the Encompassing Circles: the All embracing Universal which includes the temporal and the eternal, increasing by the multiplicity of existents without however subdividing by their fractioning … It is neither existent nor non-existent; it is not the world, and yet it also is; it is other without being other, given that otherness implies [at least] two existents, whereas sameness implies matching … resulting in a third notion qualified as form.

It is co-eternal with the eternal and co-temporal with the temporal. The Reality of Realities is the core of Ibn ‘Arabī's logos doctrine, and ultimately it is perfectly manifested in the heart of the Perfected Human Being. (Further ambiguities of its indeterminacy are treated within the translator’s Commentary.)

Amid all the beauty and allusiveness of Ibn ‘Arabī's dialogue with the Tree and its birds, I would especially point out the peroration of the Crow, which is in part a reproach to spiritual types who disdain the created world of bodies and limitation and night. The Shaykh says elsewhere that there are People of the Right Hand, who care only for spiritual things, and People of the Left Hand, who care only for the things of this world; then there are the people who make no distinction between the spiritual and the mundane, and they are Those Who Have Been Brought Near — yet another piece of a rich, meticulously and majestically developed perspective that this short, lyrical and evocative book, youthful but already magisterial, with a conceptual spine strong as tensile steel, makes palpably real to the reader through the eloquence of its imagery and the uniqueness of its author’s unforgettable voice.


Muḥyiddīn Muḥammad Ibn ‘Arabī, known as “al-Shaykh al-Akbar”, or Greatest Shaykh, was born in 1165 in Murcia, Spain. His father held an important post in the government, first of Ibn Mardanīsh and later of his rival Abū Ya’qūb Yūsuf, the Almohad ruler. When he was seven, his family moved to Seville where, despite an initial attraction to youthful diversions, an even stronger inclination toward the devotional life began to emerge. Even as a very young man he began to undertake retreats, spent considerable time in cemeteries communing with spirits, and realized astounding mystical insights.

Ibn ‘Arabī tells us little about his first formative retreat, other than to say that, unlike most other mystical wayfarers, he was seized by a kind of divine attraction or ecstasy (jadhba), instead of proceeding slowly and laboriously by disciplined stages. This illuminative event, if the later report of al-Qāri’ al-Baghdādī (d.1418) is to be believed, had its inception in the midst of a typical Andalusian fête attended by the teenaged Ibn ‘Arabī. About to raise a cup of wine to his lips, the young man heard a voice proclaim: “O Muḥammad, it was not for this that you were created!” He left the party abruptly and fled to a cemetery, where he engaged in solitary invocation of God.

It was there in the cemetery that Ibn ‘Arabī experienced a triple vision of the Prophets Jesus, Moses, and Muḥammad. Each of these three masters illuminated certain aspects of the Path: from Jesus he learned the necessity of asceticism; from Moses, he learned that he would attain ‘ilm ladunī, the kind of knowledge bestowed by God as a gift rather than the result of striving followed by acquisition. Finally, in the midst of a vision in which he was threatened by assailants, the young man saw the Prophet Muhammad, standing on a hill. The Prophet urged him to “hold fast to me and you will be safe.” From that point on, Ibn ‘Arabī became an ardent student of hadith, those traditions that recount the Prophet’s words and actions, taking them as a model for his own behaviour.

This extraordinary retreat, however, was followed by a period of “abandonment” fatra which is not at all uncommon in either prophets or friends of God (awliyā’). The Prophet Muḥammad himself experienced it. It is a period of silence from the divine side. The mystic finds himself, as it were, in a desert, completely without sustenance, tormented by doubts and unsure of how, or even whether, to proceed. It is a state in which one may wander compassless forever; or one can emerge safely, as Ibn ‘Arabī did, hearing the divine voice recite to him the Qur’anic verses:

And He it is who sendeth the winds as tidings heralding His mercy, till, when they bear a cloud heavy [with rain], We lead it to a dead land, and then cause water to descend thereon and thereby bring forth fruits of every kind. Thus we bring forth the dead. Haply you will remember. As for the good land, its vegetation cometh forth by permission of its Lord. (Q. 7: 57-58)

Hearkening to the advice of Jesus, his “first master,” whom the Shaykh was to meet numerous times in visions, the young man pledged himself to an ascetic life and gave away all his possessions to his father. From then on, as he recounts in the Futūḥāt, he lived on gifts and alms, trusting in God for his needs. Henceforth, the young Ibn ʿArabī became a bona fide man of the Sufi Way. He studied the traditional Islamic sciences with some of the foremost scholars of Andalusia, and concurrently realized, in a very short time, the panoply of mystical stations he describes in his various writings.

By around the age of twenty, Ibn ʿArabī had acquired his first Sufi teacher, Abū al-‘Abbās al-‘Uryabī, an illiterate peasant whom he met in Seville. Among this shaykh’s many virtues was that he had realized the station of perfect servitude, the highest of all stations. al-‘Uryabī was not the only shaykh that the young Muhyiddīn frequented during the thirty years he spent in Andalusia prior to his departure to the east. In his two compendia devoted to Andalusian saints, he lists and describes some seventy-one Sufi shaykhs, four of them women, from whom he received important spiritual direction.

Ibn ‘Arabī's own spiritual state was made clear to him in three successive visions between 1190 and 1202. In them, he saw all of the messengers and prophets as well as “all the believers — those who have been and those who will be — until the Day of Resurrection.” He learned that the major reason why the prophets and messengers had assembled in the spiritual world was to congratulate him at being designated the Seal of the Muḥammadan Sainthood — the heir to the Seal of the Prophets, Muḥammad. As he explains in his Futūḥāt, the Seal of the Muḥammadan Sainthood combines all the qualities of all the saints; and since prophets are also saints, it includes all the qualities of all the prophets, excluding those pertaining to their legislative roles.

In 1193, Ibn ‘Arabī made his first journey beyond the Iberian Peninsula, to North Africa. He stayed in Tunis for a year, studying with Shaykh al-Mahdawī, a disciple of the famous Algerian saint Abū Madyan, whose tomb is a site of pilgrimage to this day. When Ibn ‘Arabī returned to al-Andalus, he began to compose the first of his more than 300 works. His primary activity, however, seems to have been spiritual wayfaring in order to learn from Sufi masters and study Prophetic Traditions. Between the years 1195 and 1200, he was engaged in constant travel between Spain and North Africa, while concurrently traversing another landscape, not visible to the physical eye. To many of these purely spiritual locales he gave evocative names, such as “God’s Vast Earth” where “the spiritual takes body and the body becomes spiritual,” and the “Abode of Light,” where all destinies are known from beginning to end.

But the greatest vision he experienced at this time was no doubt the spiritual ascent (mi‘rāj) he made in imitation of the Prophet’s corporeal ascent to the seven heavens and to the Divine Presence Itself. Mounted on the “Buraq” of his spiritual aspiration, he travelled through the seven celestial spheres, each one presided over by a prophet. Beyond the seventh heaven lies the goal of every mi‘rāj: the “Lote Tree of the Limit,” alluded to in the Qur’an. It was here that he became, as he puts it, “nothing but light.” He realized that, despite the multiplicity of God’s names, attributes, and acts, there is but a single Being to which they refer, and that “the journey that [he] made was inside [him] self, and it was toward [him] self he had been guided.”

The year 1200 marks the beginning of Ibn ʿArabī's journey to the east. He was never again to return to Spain. From North Africa he went first to Cairo, then to Hebron — where he visited the tomb of Abraham — then Jerusalem, where he prayed at the al-Aqsa Mosque. His final goal was Mecca, where he intended to perform the pilgrimage. Among his many visions and meetings with remarkable men and women, two merit special mention. The first was his astonishing encounter with the strange personage he calls the Fatā, or youth, evocatively described in the first chapter of the Futūḥāt. One evening, when he was performing the ritual circumambulations of the Ka‘ba, a mysterious youth accosted him. Was he an angel or a human being? The embodiment of the Black Stone, or the personification of the Holy Spirit? Ibn ʿArabī's celestial twin or an epitome of the Futūḥāt itself? Perhaps he was all of these and more. After describing their conversation, recounted in poetry and rhymed prose, a pact between the young man and the Shaykh was concluded. The result of this epiphany is the some 2000 tightly-packed folio pages of the Futūḥāt, a masterpiece of mystical literature.

It was also in Mecca that he made the acquaintance of the young woman Niẓām, who would become the inspiration for his love poems, written approximately fifteen years later (1215) and collected in the Tarjumān al-ashwāq (The Interpreter of Desires). Niẓām was a young Iranian lady of considerable beauty, piety, and intelligence “the ornament of our gatherings,” as Ibn ʿArabī says in his Preface to the Tarjumān. Commentators have seen in Niẓām the archetypal Eternal Feminine, the embodiment of Sophia, the equivalent of Dante’s Beatrice, and the coincidentia oppositorum. She is not only the muse of the Interpreter of Desires but also may have inspired the paean to Woman found in the final chapter of the Fuṣūs, on the Wisdom of Singularity in the Word of Muhammad. “Contemplation of the Reality without formal support is not possible,” he says. “The best and most perfect kind [of contemplation] is the contemplation of God in women.”

Ibn ʿArabī was to spend roughly two years in Mecca. It was at Mecca, during a brief period of dissatisfaction with the aptitude of his students that, in a dream vision, the Shaykh was given the divine advice to “counsel God’s servants.” Whether addressing jurists or Sufis, rulers or simple folk, for the remainder of his life the Shaykh made it a point to convey his message, orally and in his many writings, to all the believers he encountered and at the level of their varied understandings. Some of the texts he wrote were short, composed at a single sitting; some ran to hundreds, even thousands, of pages, as in the case of the Futūḥāt, and were the products of years of labour and revision.

Just as his early years were devoted to constant wayfaring throughout Andalusia and the Maghreb, Ibn ʿArabī spent the years spanning 1204 to 1220 travelling back and forth across Syria, Palestine, Anatolia, Egypt, Iraq, and the Hijaz. During this time he acquired many disciples, continued his literary output, and even became an advisor to the Seljuk sultan Kaykā’ūs. It was not until the final twenty years of his life that he ceased his peregrinations and in 1221 settled permanently in Damascus.

At the end of 1229, an event occurred that resulted in the writing of the Shaykh’s best known book, the Fuṣūṣ al-ḥikam, or “Bezels of Wisdom.” In a dream, he saw the Prophet Muhammad, holding a book. The Prophet told him: “This is the book of the Fuṣūṣ al-ḥikam. Take and give it to humanity so that they may find benefit from it.” The twenty-seven chapters contained therein — each one devoted to a different prophet and elucidating a particular facet of wisdom — were, according to Ibn ʿArabī, inspired by the Prophet with no personal input on his part whatsoever. The Fuṣūṣ has remained to this day his most provocative and most frequently commented — upon work.

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