The Relevance and the Beauty of the Teaching of Shaykh Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah


This article originally appeared in The Treasure: Australia’s Sufi Magazine, no. 31 (2012), pp. 9 – 16.

Over the past 700 years the teachings of Shaykh Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah have been repeatedly studied, commented on, reiterated, and have spread to the point where they are available across the globe, having been translated into almost every major language. This work is divided into three sections in an attempt to covey something of Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah’s life, works, and teaching. In doing so, it will be seen that despite being written so long ago the teaching of this Shaykh has lost nothing of their beauty or relevance for those seekers who happen to open any of the books of Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah today.

His Life


Taj ad-Din Abu’l-Fadl Ahmad b. Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Karim b. ‘Ata’ Allah al-Iskandari al-Judhami ash-Shadhili, known simply as Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah, was born in Alexandria, Egypt, somewhere around the middle of the 7thAH/13th CE century in Alexandria.[i] He was born into a “distinguished family of Malikite religious scholars”, of whom his grandfather was “either the founder or the reviver of a dynasty of scholars known as the Banu Ibn ‘Ata’illah.”[ii] Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah “received a traditional Islamic education … under some of the best and most illustrious teachers of Alexandria.”[iii] He looked to be following in his grandfather’s footsteps “as an accomplished scholar in Maliki jurisprudence”, gaining “certain renown even though he was quite young.”[iv] Even though his father was a disciple of Abu’l Hassan ash-Shadhili, the founder of the Shadhiliyya, Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah was initially opposed to Sufism because “his fellow students had warned him that anyone who delved into Sufism would never master the Law.”[v] Thus, his early life was dominated by his commitment to becoming, and being recognised by others as, a renowned jurist (faqih).

Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah’s initial opposition to Sufism manifested itself in arguments with the students of Abu’l ‘Abbas al-Mursi[vi], the successor to Abu’l Hasan ash-Shadhili.[vii] This was until 674 AH/1276 CE when Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah attended a public lecture given by Abu’l ‘Abbas al-Mursi. From then on all objections towards Sufism were removed and Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah became one of the most serious and promising students of Abu’l Abbas al-Mursi.[viii] Evidence for this can be seen from his “development into a Sufi master capable of guiding and teaching others took place within the lifetime of his shaykh, i.e., well within the twelve-year period before [Abu’l Abbas’ death in] 686 AH/1288 CE.”[ix] This change of heart came as a result of Abu’l Abbas’ knowledge of fiqh, which forced Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah to reassess the aforementioned judgement of his fellow students. Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah was committed to both Sufism and religious law, becoming a distinguished teacher of both subjects, teaching at “both the Azhar Mosque and the Mansuriyyah Madrasah in Cairo”[x] while simultaneously “devoted to his duties as a shaykh in the Shadhili order … [being] considered the foremost spokesperson for Sufism in the Mamluk capital.”[xi] Thus, during his life, Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah was recognised as both faqih and faqir, being renowned for his knowledge of both the exoteric (ilm az-zahir) and esoteric (ilm al-batin) aspects of Islamic doctrine. Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah became one of the successors of his teacher upon the latter’s death.[xii] Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah died in Cairo “at around sixty years of age in the middle of Jumanda II 709 AH/November 1309 CE.”[xiii]

His Works


Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah’s works are the first compositions on the Shadhili method, without which little would be known of the first three leaders of the Shadhiliyya order, Abu’l Hassan ash-Shadhili, Abu’l Abbas al-Mursi, and Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah himself.[xiv] Moreover, it was the dissemination of his works, especially the Kitab al-Hikam, which helped popularise the Shadhiliyya. Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah’s works also provide insight into the practice of Sufism. Regarding his works, Ibn Abbad of Ronda (d. 792 AH/1390 CE) wrote, in response to an aspirant, “the book which you have by Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah, the Kitab at-Tanwir, comprises all that the books on Sufism, whether detailed or condensed, contain including both detailed explanations and concise expressions.”[xv] While Ahmad Zarruq (d. 899 AH/1494 CE) said that “the Hikam are to Sufism what the eyes are to the body.”[xvi] More recently, Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah’s works have been used to “glimpse the ideas that were preached to the ordinary people”[xvii] in Mamluk Egypt and have been considered sufficient to stand as the sole representative of Sufism.[xviii] From this it is evident that both historically and contemporarily the works of Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah are held in high regard.

The importance of Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah’s works is not solely historical. They are of historical importance as his works provide the earliest documents on the earliest Shadhiliyya Shaykhs and the teaching methods they employed. Nevertheless, these works are of relevance for contemporary readers as they deal with key aspects of the Sufi teaching such as the primacy of Allah (tawhid), methods of invocation (dhikr), the relinquishing of self choice (tadbir), the necessity of a Shaykh and the importance of their company, amongst others.

Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah’s works include:

Kitab al-Hikam (The Book of Wisdom): This is perhaps the most widely know of his works. It is generally considered his earliest known composition. Consisting primarily of aphorisms, this work has often been the source of much contemplation which have inspired numerous commentaries. The kitab al-hikam is seen as a masterful summary of the lessons necessary for travelling the Sufi path.[xix]

Kitab al-Lata’if fi manaqib Abi l-‘Abbas al-Mursi wa Shaykhihi Abi l Hasan (The Subtle Blessings in the Saintly Lives of Abu l-‘Abbas al-Mursi and His Master Abu l-Hassan): This biographical work records some of the sayings and litanies (ahzab) Shadhiliyya Shaykhs. All subsequent works on Abu l-Hassan al-Shadhili and Abu l-‘Abbas al-Mursi refer, to varying degrees, to the Lata’if and is an essential source for information on this period of development of the Shadhiliyya order. This work is also somewhat autobiographical, without which very little could be said about the life of Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah himself.[xx]

Miftah al-falah wa misbah al-anwah (The Key of Success and the Lamps of Spirits): While not the first to discuss the topic of Sufi invocation (dhikr), this work is the first to deal solely with this topic. Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah draws on the Qur’an and Hadiths, as well as earlier Sufis, to illustrate the necessity of invocation in attaining spiritual felicity. This work deals with both the general and technical aspects of invocation, covering such topics as its salvific necessity, the aliments that can be cured through the use of specific Divine names, as well as some of the etiquette (adab) that one should uphold within Sufi circles.[xxi]

Kitab al-Tanwir fi isqat al-Tadbir (Light on the Elimination of Self-Direction): As the title suggests, this work deals with the elimination of self-direction. Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah details how the elimination of self-direction (isqat al-tadbir) is necessary for the affirmation of Allah’s Unicity (tawhid). In doing so, it is illustrated how this virtue elicits a plethora of virtues associated with the Sufi path, including, though not limited to, patience, sincerity, hope, fear, and love. This work abounds with the sayings of the first two Shadiliyya Shaykhs and as such is another important source for understanding their teaching. As quoted above, it has been considered one of the most important works in traversing the Sufi path.[xxii]

Al-Qasd al-mujarrad fi ma’rifat al-Ism al-Mufrad (The Pure Goal Concerning Knowledge of the Unique Name): This work discusses various aspects of the Supreme Name, Allah. While all of his works are steeped in a metaphysics of Unicity (tawhid), this work draws out the ontological implications of this doctrine. In doing so, the relation of the Supreme Name, Allah, to the other Divine Names is discussed.[xxiii]

Taj al-arus al-hawi li-tahdhib an-nufus (The Bride’s Crown Containing the Discipline of Souls): Previously thought to be a composite work, this work is now considered to contain the sermons (khutbah) delivered by Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah to both students and non-student alike. It is deemed to contain the essential principles of Sufi, though stripped of the technical language and controversial topics found in other Sufi works, presented in a manner palatable for a general audience.[xxiv]

Unwan at-tawfiq fi adab at-tariq (The Sign of Success Concerning the Discipline of the Path): This short work is a commentary on a Qasida of Abu Madyan.[xxv] Through his commentary, Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah highlights the importance of the relationship between a Shaykh and their student (murid). In doing so there is a discussion of a) the importance of keeping company with individuals who are more spiritually advanced than oneself, b) the etiquette (adab) of keeping such company, and c) the importance of such etiquette.[xxvi]

Whilst Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah is known to have written other works, only their titles are available.

His Teachings


An entry point into the teachings of Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah is to consider how he encourages his readers to understand the world around them. For Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah one of the reasons for reconsidering the events in the natural world is the means through which an individual has the potential for spiritual development. Perception is an important tool as it is not the natural world, in and of itself, that changes rather it is the individual’s response to and understanding of these stimuli that alters. The basis for such reconfiguring one’s perception can be found in the Qur’an, which states “in time We shall make them fully understand Our messages [through what they perceive] in the utmost horizons [of the universe] and within themselves” (41: 53). Through his works, Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah’s readers are encouraged to develop a hermeneutic method which involves identifying and deciphering the signs. The imperative for developing such a method comes directly from the Qur’an in verses such as “We have indeed made the signs clear unto you, if you would only use your reason” (3: 118) and that “on the earth there are signs [of God’s existence, visible] to all who are endowed with inner certainty, just as [there are signs thereof] within your own selves” (51: 20 – 21).[xxvii] These signs (ayat), for Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah, are existent so that the Oneness of Allah (tawhid) can be understood and affirmed through multiplicity. While they are evident upon the earth and within the individual, and concentrated within the Qur’an, they are difficult to decipher for those who do not a) use reason and b) have inner certainty (yakin).

Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah’s works attempt to aid the reader in developing their perception such that they can decipher these signs. The importance of this is that such signs are the communication between Creator and creation and it is through an understanding of them that an individual can gain insight into how they can affirm Allah’s unicity (tawhid), what could be said to be the central purpose of Islam and Islamic practice. Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah can be seen to deploy a method that will here be called spiritual semiotics. It is an understanding of the signs within creation so that the individual can further understand their relationship with Allah. Due to Allah’s all-inclusive Oneness, His communication to creation through creation exists irrespective of an individual’s awareness of it. As a result spiritual development is linked not to a change in the quantity of an individual’s perception but to the quality of their perception. This is an aspect of what is meant when Sufi texts encourage the reader to focus on the meaning and not the form. An example of this can be seen in the following statement of Abu’l Abbas who stated,

There are four times in which the servant will find himself, of which there is no fifth: blessing, affliction, obedience, and disobedience. In each of these times, there is an aspect of servanthood which the Truth requires of you by virtue of His lordship. If it is a time of obedience, your path is to bear witness to God’s grace, since it is He who has guided you into this obedience and has made it possible for you. If it is a time of disobedience, your path is to seek God’s forgiveness and repent. If it is a time of blessing, your path is to give thanks, which means for your heart to rejoice in God. If it is a time of affliction, you path is to be content with God’s decree and to endure patiently.[xxviii]

These four epistemic states delimit the possible states of the contingently existent with regard to Allah. It is important to note that these four states are not necessarily connected to the individual’s soteriological development, in as far as the transition through them does not necessitate progress nor does their occurrence indicate any particular development within the individual. Rather these can be considered as four doors at the centre of Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah’s spiritual semiotics which demarcate the possible conditions confronting the individual and their four keys, for once a condition has been correctly diagnosed the appropriate key can be utilised, thus opening the way to pass onto another epistemic state. The importance of self-knowledge for the individual’s soteriological development is here evident in that it allows for a) a correct diagnosis and b) the knowledge of which key to utilise. Thus it is evident that once the sign is deciphered the possibility for further spiritual development arises. Yet, while Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah’s spiritual semiotics involves the development of the ability to correctly decipher the signs, he also places great emphasis on keeping company with those “endowed with inner certainty” (yakin) so that the novice can be certain about their deciphering of the signs (ayat).

Within Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah’s works reason and certainty, while having a complimentary function, differ by degrees. While, he commends the use of reason,[xxix] it is seen as a stepping stone to the development of certainty (yakin). While the use of reason can produce sound proofs, and for this reason are a useful aid in establishing certainty, they are completely noetic, and thus of limited use. Whereas, certainty (yakin) arises as a result of enacting a deep seated conviction and it is this embodiment of a proof that highlights their qualitative difference. Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah touches on this difference by explaining that “all certainty entails faith, though not all faith entails certainty” as “the difference between them is that while faith might be attended by heedlessness, such is not the case with certainty.”[xxx] Certainty is epistemologically greater than proofs because it carries an unshakable and unrefusable resolve unlike evidence or proofs. He writes that “Shaykh Abu al-Hasan (may God be pleased with him) said, ‘we view God with the perceptive powers of faith and certainty, which has freed us from the need for evidence and proof.’”[xxxi] While this in no way discards the use of reason, this quote contains is important because it highlights that reason is seen to be only a preliminary stage, the proofs from which the individual is later free to hold or discard upon the advent of certainty (yakin).

As an individual increases in certainty (yakin) their self-direction (tadbir) decreases. The increase on certainty (yakin) allows the individual to understand what Allah requires of them and why Allah has placed them in that particular state in any given moment. Rather than choosing a course of action that will seemingly benefit them, the individual begins to be certain of the course of action that will affirms Allah’s Unicity (tawhid). In deferring to Allah the individual begins to abide in the station of servanthood (‘ubudiyyah). Regarding this, Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah states that “the most sublime abiding station in which the servant could be established [in] is the station of servitude.”[xxxii] The exulted position within which this station is held can be seen in Qur’anic verses such as “Limitless in His glory is He who transported His servant by night…” (17: 1), “and in what We bestowed from on high upon Our servant” (8: 41), and “whenever a servant of God stands up in prayer to Him” (72: 19). It is the intimacy and connection between Allah and His servant that is the focus for Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah, whether the servant stands to commune with, receives bestowal from, or is moved by Allah rather than choosing their own direction (tadbir). For an individual to develop this intimate connection with Allah, according to Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah, it is imperative to “understand that the spirit of servitude and its secret is to abandon self-choice (ikhtiyar), and not contest the Divine Decrees.”[xxxiii] The reason for this is that “self-choice” and “self-direction” treats the individual as an independent, rather than contingent, entity, thus contradicting Allah’s Unicity (tawhid). In order to “abandon self-choice” Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah divides this task into two distinct aspects, writing “its outer is compliance with Allah, and its inner is the lack of contention with Him.”[xxxiv] Outer compliance, which includes religious rites, involves the abandoning of self-choice in preference for deferring to the Prophetic example, whereas inner compliance, involving “the lack of contention with Him,” is abandoning self-choice in preference for Allah’s choice. In both cases servanthood can be seen to detach the individual from preoccupation with worldly concerns so that they are free to devote their attention to Allah.

Self-direction and self-reliance are intimately connected, and for this reason are equally contrary to Allah’s Unicity (tawhid). Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah quotes Abu’l Hassan as having said “make no choice upon your own authority in anything,”[xxxv] which, in light of Allah’s Unicity (tawhid), is understandable considering that taking oneself as an authority effaces the authority of Allah. Abu’l Hassan is advocating for Allah’s Unicity (tawhid) in two ways. Firstly, by abrogating self-choice the individual is effaced through a denial of self-reliance and, in turn, the alternative is trust and reliance on Allah. On this point Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah writes that “if you wish to enter into the presence of God … then that will not be possible for you so long as other than God lords it over your heart, for verily, you belong to whosoever has authority over you.”[xxxvi] Secondly, the possibility of choice presupposes multiplicity which is reaffirmed through self-choice. The Qur’an states “thy Sustainer creates whatever He wills; and He chooses [for mankind] whatever is best for them” (28:68). Regarding this Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah writes that “if He creates and chooses what He wills, then He plans and manages as He wills,”[xxxvii] indicating that knowledge of creation’s ontological inefficiency, as he takes this Qur’anic passage to specify, should be sufficient to abrogate self-direction and self-reliance. For Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah[xxxviii] the verse “is, then, He who creates comparable to any [being] that cannot create” (16: 17) closes the possibility of further disputing this point.

However, it is not always clear, especially for the novice, what course of action affirms Allah’s Unicity (tawhid). For this Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah prescribes keeping company with those who have reached the goal of the Sufi path, as well as those who are striving towards it. One reason for this is that to act in accordance with Allah’s Will requires good etiquette (adab), which can only be gained progressively, starting with those who show good etiquette (adab) towards Allah and those who are striving to. Regarding the company one keeps, Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah writes that “the self is naturally inclined to imitation and resemblance, and to adorning itself with the characteristics of those it associates with, thereby becoming like them” such that “your companionship with the heedless causes heedlessness.”[xxxix] Thus, through good company an individual is able to develop their etiquette (adab) through imitation and correction of spiritually detrimental actions. However, he is quick to point out that merely attaining the company of others is not enough for “company is a form, and adab [etiquette] is its ruh [spirit],” indicating that etiquette (adab) is the internal compliment of company, such that “if you join the form and the ruh [spirit], you will benefit of their company” yet without its internal compliment “your company is a corpse.”[xl] This indicates that company is only spiritually beneficial if their example is used to help establish and maintain etiquette (adab) within oneself.

Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah is insistent on being scrupulous in choosing the right company. He states “do not keep company with anyone whose state does not inspire you and whose speech does not lead you to God.”[xli] He further demarcates the minimum criteria for those whose company is to be kept, stating,

Shaykh Abu’l Hassan said: “If the faqir who is occupied with his means of livelihood does not observe the following four properties (adab), attach no importance to him, even if he be the most knowledgeable of men. They are: avoiding oppressors – preferring the people of the other world – relieving the poor – and constancy in the five prayers with the congregation.”[xlii]

While each of these, to varying degrees, are obvious signs of piety, their combination marks the minimum etiquette (adab) for inspiring others and leading them to realise their inherent contingency and ontological poverty. While Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah draws on the Qur’an and the Hadith in justifying each of the four properties as virtues, consistent across each justification is the idea that these properties maintain and strengthen, for the individual who observes them, the means of realising and embodying creations inherent ontological poverty. By avoiding oppressors the practice of religion is secure, the people of the other world, here meaning “the friends of Allah (awliya),”[xliii] aid in the implementation of etiquette (adab), the poor are a symbolic reminder of each creation’s own ontological poverty and their aid helps in detaching from contingent things, while maintaining the congregational prayers both strengthens the resolve of the attendees and removes each individual from their worldly pursuits to refocus and reorient themselves towards Allah.[xliv] These four properties ensure for those who observe them the minimum for constancy in etiquette (adab) such that, without even one of these, their spiritual development would stagnate and could not be considered as fitting company for those who desire further spiritual development.

In implementing etiquette (adab) the company of others is informative. For spiritual development Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah recommends that an individual keep company with an individual “who casts off secondary causes and turns away from hindrances” and has “realised the reality of la ilaha ill’Allah Muhammadan Rasulu’llah [there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah].”[xlv] Their “casting off secondary causes” is a direct indication of their company with, and good etiquette (adab) towards, Allah and their realisation of the kalimah is indicative of their embodiment of Allah’s Unicity (tawhid). The reasoning behind keeping such company is that an individual with this degree of spiritual development is able to “make you recognise the Path and he will surmount the steep roads for you and remove impediments from your heart.”[xlvi] Those individuals who have undergone this sort of spiritual development know the road and are able to steer the aspirant around various stumbling blocks which can cause impediment, such that “when the seeker finds a guide, then let him obey what he orders him to do, and let him abstain from what he prohibits or restrains him from doing.”[xlvii] In doing so, the aspirant is able shorten the ‘journey’ due to their avoiding impediments. For these reasons, amongst others, Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah advises “get his company and have adab [etiquette] in his assembly.”[xlviii]

Yet Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah is clear that such company is not the goal. Keeping good company is meant to be a means to having company with Allah. Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah writes “prepare for this behaviour with your brothers … so that it will become a stairway for you by which you obtain access to behaving with the Lord of heaven.”[xlix] The reason why good company is a preliminary measure is because such individuals “take on the character of their Master, as it is related, ‘take on the good character of Allah’.”[l] The importance of this passage is threefold in that a) it shows that the ultimate example for etiquette (adab) is Allah, b) by taking on “the character of their Master” those travelling the Sufi path strive for harmony between the contingent and the absolute, and c) following on from the previous point, it is through etiquette (adab) that Allah’s Unicity (tawhid) is affirmed and, in a sense, experienced within multiplicity. Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah can be read as commenting on this last point when he states that “when you see Allah as the Doer in all you see all beings as agreeable,”[li] for in knowing that creation acts in accordance with (tawhid), as Allah is the Doer, nothing can be considered disagreeable for this would be contending with Allah.

Etiquette (adab) culminates in developing a good etiquette towards Allah. Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah quotes a Hadith that states “God Most High says, ‘I am of the same thinking as my servant is towards Me,’”[lii] which can be seen as a key to Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah’s ethics. This Hadith gives impetus to develop and implement etiquette (adab), for the way the servant thinks of Allah will be returned to them. To think good of Allah involves knowledge of Allah and, as “whoever knows himself knows his Lord,” this involves both knowledge of Allah’s Unicity (tawhid) and knowledge of creation’s inherent ontological poverty. To ensure that such knowledge improves each individual’s thinking of Allah, Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah writes “if you have not improved your thinking of Him because of His nature, improve it because of His treatment of you.”[liii] As “the reward of deeds depends upon the intentions,”[liv] by improving one’s thinking of Allah, as a result of knowledge, the intentions are correspondingly raised and, in turn, better etiquette is developed.

Whilst etiquette (adab) with Allah can be seen as a particular tier of etiquette, above other such tiers, it is also to be understood as the zenith in the hierarchy of tiers for it encompasses all subsequent tiers. There is a Hadith Qudsi within which Allah states

O son of Adam, I asked you for food and you fed Me not. He will say: O Lord, and how should I feed You when You are the Lord of the worlds? He will say: Did you not know that My servant So-and-so asked you for food and you fed him not? Did you not know that had you fed him you would surely have found that with Me?[lv]

This can be read as a clear indication that maintaining good manners with creation is, in accordance with Allah’s Oneness (tawhid), maintaining them with Allah. However, Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah shows an awareness of the difficulty of a) maintaining an awareness of this implication and b) maintaining a corresponding degree of etiquette. He writes that “outwardly, creatures (al-akwan) are an illusion (ghirra), but, inwardly, they are an admonition (‘ibra)”[lvi] indicating that a) abiding with creatures, rather than Allah, is an admonition from Allah for it indicates a weakness of the awareness of His Unicity (tawhid) and b) when abiding with Allah, it is through creatures that Allah’s admonition comes, hence the necessity of a spiritual semiotics. Furthermore, Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah states that “if you want to know your standing with Him, look at where He has made you abide now,”[lvii] indicating that one’s position within creation is indicative of one’s relation with Allah. The development of etiquette (adab) with Allah does not result in an ontological effacement of creatures. Rather, the realisation that “creatures (al-akwan) are an illusion (ghirra)” is an epistemological reorientation which leaves creation’s contingent ‘reality’ intact while realising that they are a pedagogical trope that enacts a spiritual semiotics. Thus, the primacy and unity of Allah is affirmed through engagement with the multiplicity of ontologically contingent creatures.

While much more could be written on the teaching of Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah, two things become apparent from this brief overview. These are the relevance and the beauty of the teaching of Shaykh Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah. By capturing the heart of the Sufi path within his works, and by providing a practical approach, Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah’s lucid prose transcends historical and geographical locality. By outlining a method of spiritual semiotics, while emphasising the importance of keeping company with those who can read the signs, Shaykh Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah’s teaching will remain relevant for every seeker who desires to read the book of nature and see their Lord’s communication therein. That his relevance is escalating in the modern world can be seen through the ever-increasing diversity of languages that his works are being translated into and studied. The succinctness with which Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah captures his teaching and conveys that of his predecessors ensures for works that encapsulate the Sufi path in a beautiful and readable manner. While, at the same time, the teaching espoused therein encourages and aids his readers to pierce the forms that surround them to perceive the beauty of the Divine unfolding through creation. These alone ensure the perennial flourishing of the teaching of Shaykh Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah.


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[i] Danner (1973: 1) and (1978: 13), Danner (1996: 2).

[ii] Danner (1978: 19).

[iii] Danner (1996: 2).

[iv] Danner (1973: 9).

[v] Danner (1973: 9). Danner (1996: 3 – 4) writes that Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah was “rather hostile to Sufism much like his grandfather … but not for any definite reason”.

[vi] On this figure see Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah’s Lata’if al-Minan, Dunlop (1945), and Botros (1976).

[vii] Cornell (1998: 147) challenges the sucessorship of Abu’l Abbas al-Mursi writing that the primary purpose of Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah’s lata’if al-Minan, against the commonly held view that it captures the teachings of the founder and first successor of the Shadhiliyya, was “to legitimize the leadership of Abu’l-‘Abbas al-Mursi … and, by extension, his successor, Ibn ‘Ata’illah”. While this comment is not upheld within other sources, it is understandable given comments that it was “through the circulation of Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah’s works the Shadhili Way began to spread in the Maghrib, which had rejected the master [i.e. Abu’l Hassan ash-Shadhili]” (Trimingham 1998: 50) and that Cornell’s work examines a branch of the Shadhiliyya derived from the Tunisian, not Egyptian, linage. While this may make his comments understandable, this does not make either Trimingham or Cornell correct. Furthermore, Cornell’s argument ignores the fact that Abu’l Abbas al-Mursi “upon his death bequeathed the order to two men” (Durkee 2005: 57).

[viii] Danner (1973: 9) and (1978: 24), and Danner (1996: 4).

[ix] Danner (1996: 7).

[x] Danner (1996: 6).

[xi] Danner (1973: 10).

[xii] Durkee (2005: 57).

[xiii] Danner (1996: 9).

[xiv] This is not to deny the value of al-Sabbagh’s (1993) Durrat al-asrar as a source of information on Abu’l Hassan, despite the fact that it was composed some time after the biographical Lata’if al-minan. However, Cornell’s (1998: 147) pejorative view that the Lata’if al-minan “is mitigated by the fact that it was written as an apologia for the Egyptian branch of the Shadhiliyya” cannot be accepted for, among other reasons, no such apologia would be necessary (See note 7). For another early biography of Abu’l Hassan see Honerkamp (2005).

[xv] In Danner (1996: 16).

[xvi] In Renard (1986: 44).

[xvii] Shoshan (1993: 14).

[xviii] Jackson (2005: 194 – 197).

[xix] For a translation of this work see Danner (1973) and (1978).

[xx] For a translation of this work see Roberts (2005).

[xxi] For a translation of this work see Danner (1996).

[xxii] For a translation of this work see al-Shaghouri (2007).

[xxiii] For a translation of this work see Gloton (1981).

[xxiv] For a translation of this work see Jackson (2012).

[xxv] The Arabic and a translation of this Qasida can be found in Cornell (1996: 162 – 165).

[xxvi] For a translation of this work see al-Tarjumana (2005).

[xxvii] Just as the Qur’an is made up of verses or signs (ayat), these verses indicate that so too is creation. This is one reason for it being called the “Book of Nature” in various traditions.

[xxviii] Lata’if al-Minan, p. 251.

[xxix] For an example of this see his analysis the logical necessity of the existence of one, and only one, God in the Miftah al-falah.

[xxx] Lata’if al-Minan, p. 47.

[xxxi] Lata’if al-Minan, p. 53.

[xxxii] Kitab at-Tanwir, p. 36.

[xxxiii] Kitab at-Tanwir, p. 37.

[xxxiv] Kitab at-Tanwir, p. 57.

[xxxv] Kitab at-Tanwir, p. 1.

[xxxvi] Miftah al-Falah, p. 103 – 04.

[xxxvii] Kitab at-Tanwir, p. 12.

[xxxviii] Kitab at-Tanwir, p. 12.

[xxxix] Kitab al-Tanwir, p. 78.

[xl] Unwan al-Tawfiq, p. 8.

[xli] Kitab al-Hikam, 31.

[xlii] Kitab al-Tanwir, p. 81 – 82.

[xliii] Kitab al-Tanwir, p. 82.

[xliv] Kitab al-Tanwir, p. 82 – 83.

[xlv] Unwan al-Tawfiq, p. 7

[xlvi] Unwan al-Tawfiq, p. 7.

[xlvii] Miftah al-Falah, p. 94.

[xlviii] Unwan al-Tawfiq, p. 7.

[xlix] Unwan al-Tawfiq, p. 10.

[l] Unwan al-Tawfiq, p .11.

[li] Unwan al-Tawfiq, p. 11.

[lii] Miftah al-Falah, p. 59 – 60.

[liii] Kitab al-Hikam, p. 31.

[liv] Sahih al-Bukhari (Hadith # 1).

[lv] Hadith Qudsi (Hadith # 18).

[lvi] Kitab al-Hikam, p. 36.

[lvii] Kitab al Hikam, p. 35.

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