Seal of the Saints: Prophethood and Sainthood in the Doctrine of Ibn’ Arabi

Liadain Sherrard


Founded on a careful analysis of the relevant texts, Chodkiewicz’s work examines this essential aspect of Ibn Arabi’s doctrine of sainthood, defining the nature and function of sainthood, while also specifying the criteria for a typology of saints based on the notion of prophetic inheritance.

‘An extraordinarily good book about an extremely difficult thinker…Chodkiewicz not only knows the texts remarkably well, but also avoids and rejects certain errors of perspective common among other scholars.’

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For a saint, to be the heir of one of the prophets is always to be the heir of Muhammad. Indeed, ‘the prophets were his deputies in the created world when he [i.e. Muhammad] was pure spirit, aware of being so, prior to the appearance of his body or flesh. When he was asked, ‘When were you a prophet?’, he replied, ‘I was a prophet when Adam was between water and clay’, meaning: when Adam had not yet come into existence. And this was so until the appearance of his most pure body. At that moment the authority of his deputies came to an end … the authority, that is to say, of the other messengers and prophets.’ As we will see later, other texts by Ibn Arabi define more clearly the nature and function of this primordial Muhammadan Reality (haqiqa muhammadiyya), of which every prophet since Adam, the first prophet, is but a partial refraction at a particular moment of human history.

What is the real meaning of the word haqiqa, which we have translated as ‘Reality’? According to the Lisan al-arab, it signifies the true meaning of a thing as opposed to its metaphorical meaning (majazi); it also signifies the ‘heart’ of a thing or matter, its true nature, its essence, and thus the inviolable inmost self of a being, its hurma. The concept of a Muhammadan reality which is not only fully constituted and active before the appearance in this world of the person named Muhammad, but is also situated prior to history, has been the subject of heated debate in Islam. Ibn Taymiyya and several other writers, in accordance with their usual practice, attempted to prove its innovative and aberrant nature (bid’a) by challenging the main scriptural reference for it, which is the hadith quoted above where Muhammad says, ‘I was a prophet when Adam was between water and clay’. For the Hanbalite polemicist, this hadith is a forgery and the only permissible version of it is the one quoted by Ibn Hanbal and Tirmidhi, where the Prophet apparently says, ‘I was a prophet when Adam was between spirit and flesh’ (bayna’l-ruh wa’l-jasad). Without stressing the fact that the differences in phraseology between these two concurrently existing forms of the same statement seem to us, ultimately, to be minor, we should point out that the criteria by which traditionists judge the authenticity of a hadith are purely external and have reference essentially to the reliability of the chain of transmission. Yet Ibn Arabi, who, even when an old man, never ceased to study the hadith in the usual ways and knew everything there was to know about the traditions, says on several occasions that an ‘unveiling’ (kashf) is the only sure way of judging the validity of a particular remark attributed to the Prophet, and in so saying he challenges the doctrinal authority of the doctors of the Law.

On the other hand, even though the phrase haqiqa muhammadiyya made its appearance late and in this sense is indeed a bid’a or innovation, the concept that it represents in abstract terms is one of the most traditional in Islam, where it is clearly symbolized as the ‘Muhammadan light’ (nur muhammadi, nur Muhammad). Moreover, the association of the Prophet with a symbolism of light is not, in Islamic terms, a human invention, but is based on the actual words of God. In the Qur’an (33:46), Muhammad is called ‘a torch which illumines’ (sirajan muniran); another verse (5:15) says that ‘a light has come to you from God’, which is interpreted by the commentators as a reference to the Prophet. For Muslims, this ‘light’ is not simply a metaphor. Ibn Ishaq, who was born only seventy years after the Prophet’s death, reports that the Prophet’s father Abdallah, just before his marriage with Amina, met a woman who tried in vain to seduce him. When he saw her again on the day after his wedding, and the Prophet had already been conceived, this same woman turned away from him, and on being asked why, said, ‘The light which was upon you yesterday has left you’. Ibn Ishaq explains that his own father told him that this woman had seen between Abdallah’s two eyes a radiant white mark, which disappeared when the Prophet was conceived. According to a slightly different version of this story, as related by Ibn Ishaq, the woman speaking to Abdallah was no other than the sister of Waraqa ibn Nawfal—the Christian from Mecca who, when questioned by the Prophet after the first visit of the angel Gabriel, assured him of the authenticity of the Revelation—and had been warned by her brother of the imminent coming of a prophet. What she had perceived in the face of Abdallah was the ‘light of prophethood’ of which he was the transmitter.

This story was taken up by later historians such as Tabari (died 310/923) and widely diffused by all the writers who wrote ‘histories of the prophets’. The interpretation of it very soon introduced the explicit theme of the verus propheta, based, among other things, on a hadith quoted by Bukhari in which the Prophet, ‘borne’ century after century and generation upon generation (qarnan fa-qarnan), appears to be travelling through time towards the point where his physical nature becomes manifest. Is this journeying of the prophetic Seed to its final birth to be understood as taking place in the ‘loins’ of his ancestors, of his carnal lineage, or as a series of stopping-places in the persons of the successive bearers of the Revelation, the one hundred and twenty-four thousand prophets of whom he is both the forefather and the final Seal? Ibn Abbas (died 68/687), the tarjuman al-qur’an or ‘interpreter par excellence of the Qur’an’, commenting on verse 26:219, seems to favour the second meaning: according to him, Muhammad goes from prophet to prophet (min nabiyyin ila nabiyyin) until the moment when God causes him to ‘emerge’ (akhraja) as a prophet in his turn. Ibn Sa’d, who cites this, also refers to a hadith which Tabari likewise mentions, and in which Muhammad says, ‘I am the first man to have been created and the last to have been sent [i.e. as a prophet].’ The truth is that both these themes are bound up with each other, for the traditional genealogy of Muhammad also includes a series of prophets, among whom are Abraham and Ishmael. However, another hadith, which is absent from the canonical collections, and in which explicit reference is made to Nur muhammadi, was destined to play a major part in the meditation on the Prophet’s primordiality. It is mentioned by one of the Companions, Jabir ibn Abdallah, and runs as follows: ‘O Jabir, God created the light of your Prophet out of His Light before he created things.’


‘This is by far the best available explanation of the central importance of sanctity for understanding both the practical and the theoretical teachings of Sufism.’
- William Chittick
This book was originally written in French by Michel Chodkiewicz under the title Le Sceau des Saints and was published in 1986. It is the most important book on the concept of sainthood in the writings of Ibn al-‘Arabi. Chodkiewicz begins the book with a brief survey of the history of Ibn al-‘Arabi studies in Western scholarship and then devotes a good deal of time to discussing the idea of sainthood in Islam before Ibn al-‘Arabi. Here he shows how devotion to the saints in classical Islam was not simply a manifestation of popular piety. On the contrary, it seems to have been a natural consequence of Islamic practice. Michel Chodkiewicz’s depth of knowledge on the subject matter is particularly noteworthy. Bringing over forty years of knowledge of the works of Ibn al-‘Arabi to this study, he draws on the many texts written by the Shaykh and presents his ideas in as coherent a fashion as possible. But he also takes into account what members of the school of Ibn al-‘Arabi had to say about their masters’ ideas, how thinkers in the later Islamic tradition responded to his notion of the Seal of Muhammadan Saints, as well as the severe criticisms leveled against Ibn al-‘Arabi and members of his school by, for example, Ibn al-Taymiyyah. Chodkiewicz does an especially good job in this book of showing how the Haqiqah Muhammadiyyah (The Muhammadan Reality) is at once the beginning of all sainthood in Islam and the end, as it were, and how this reality is percolated throughout the generation of Prophets and Messengers sent by God. His discussion of how the cosmic hierarchy, with the Qutb, Awtad, Imams, Hawariyun etc. (who are all Afrad at the same time) are a physical “Refraction” of the Muhammadan light (Nur Muhammadi) was particularly appreciated; and especially how he was able to tie this in with the fact that the many generations of saints who belong to similar cosmic hierarchies are themselves in turn reflections of the refractions of Muhammadan light. The vast spiritual anthropology of the Sufi cosmic landscape is often overwhelming and this book certainly makes it much easier to understand the basic ideas upon which these complex hierarchies are based. At the same time, although it does seem like not enough was said about the connection between the Insan al-Kamil (the Perfect Man) and the role of the Qutb and the Seal of Muhammadan Sainthood, Chodkiewicz did successfully manage to explain how it is that there could be other people after Ibn al-‘Arabi who also claimed to be Seals of Sainthood without fundamentally challenging the Shaykh’s exclusive claim to being the Seal of Muhammadan Sainthood. Furthermore, something must be said about the replies Michel Chodkiewicz offers to several of the interpretations of Ibn al-‘Arabi by the great Iranologist, Henry Corbin. Chodkiewicz seems to fundamentally disagree with any Shi‘i interpretation of Ibn al-‘Arabi insofar as such interpretations would make Ibn al-‘Arabi out to be a Shi‘i. The cause for alarm is justifiable, since it would be, in Chodkiewicz’s own words, difficult to “uncover a clandestine Shi‘ite in the writings of a self-confessed Sunni” (p. 5). At the same time, Corbin’s work on Ibn al-‘Arabi cannot be dismissed in just a few footnotes, not that this is what Chodkiewicz was trying to do. But it appears as though he could have referred to some of the instances where he does agree with Corbin, or offered some explanations as to why it is that he and Corbin are coming up with such different readings of the Shaykh al-Akbar’s work. Seal of the Saints appears to be a rather un-intimidating book. But it is certainly a very “heavy” read: each of its almost two hundred pages requires the utmost attention. This is undoubtedly due to the complexity of Ibn al-‘Arabi’s ideas on Sainthood, but part of it also has to do with the fact that Chodkiewicz does not “waste” any of his words. Because of his range of scholarship and his gifted ability to synthesize and explain the Shaykh’s ideas, one must read each page several times in order to follow his arguments. A missed point on one page may cost the reader two chapters later. Thus, while the book is a very enjoyable read, it is also quite tedious work getting through a single chapter, especially since the discussions in the footnotes for each chapter are often just as dense as the text itself. Some may feel that the absence of diagrams in the book make understanding Ibn al-‘Arabi’s doctrine of sainthood an even harder task. But it can be argued that this also forces readers to think about Ibn al-‘Arabi’s doctrine of Sainthood in non-pictorial and thus relatively unsystematic terms. And this is precisely where the “unity” in Ibn al-‘Arabi’s doctrine of Sainthood paradoxically lies: it is, like Wujud (Being) itself, formless and traceless, placeless and nameless.
-Mohammed Rustom,