The Openings Project: The First Complete Translation of the Futūḥāt al-Makkīyah of Ibn al-ʿArabī


When I first read Sufis of Andalusia as a teenager, I knew that I had met a visionary far beyond the limits of anyone I had read or heard about.  Ibn al-ʿArabī, I know now, was in the ocean without shore, but he was there as someone who, like the prophets and messengers and friends (awliyāʾ), stayed near the shore: the ones who go deep and drown, he says, benefit neither themselves or others.

Addressing the Bay Area fellow journeyers at an Ibn al-ʿArabī workshop last Fall, I met with students and lovers who had studied him four decades ago.  They recalled that in the 70’s they had always heard that the Futūāt al-Makkīyah will not be translated in their lifetimes.  The obstacles were and are the sheer size, at 10,000 pages, the language (purely classical, with semantic fields far from modern Arabic convention), and the context, with highly intricate and interlaced references to Qurʾān and adīth.

This translator has passed the 5,000 page mark, with preprints of the first 18 books available online.  A material but nevertheless crucial element has been financial support allowing the translator to work independently all day, every day on the work. Today’s university environment is not conducive to translations of massive classical Arabic works!  Second, the translator has read the 10,000 page work from beginning to end many times.  Ibn al-ʿArabī writes in media res, and it’s no coincidence that the dream and the Futūāt share the same format.  The Futūāt may only be understood by understanding the whole – and then only after “waking up.”   Third, the language he uses is completely Qurʾānic and ʿarabī, not Arabic. That is why it is essential to study in parallel the Lisān al-ʿarab, the Tāj, the ʿAyn.  Lane’s work in the late 19th century is an inspirational opus translating the classical lexigraphic sources into English.

The work I am doing has evolved over the last five years of intense translation into a translation-commentary, somewhat like the classical shar.  I have completely abandoned end- and footnotes in favor of side notes for Qurʾānic references and manuscript page numbers, with every word, phrase, or sentence that aids the reader coming into the text in another font (with 60% transparency).  This allows the reader to read the text and then skim or omit, or stop and study, the commentary.  Classical works would often have shar notes surrounding the text.  With the ease of typesetting now, these notes can be integrated into the text.

Ibn al-ʿArabī rewrote and expanded the Futūāt over three years at the end of his life.  He would visit a house and have a small entourage, and he would dictate to them the text, often writing it with his own hand.  We have in the manuscripts extensive end notes telling us who was present, whose house it was, and intriguing glimpses into the process – in one note he writes, I give ijāzah to the daughter of the house for the text and the teaching of this.

By abandoning academic conventions, I have been able to make the text speak more directly.  I’m not telling you “what he’s saying” and I’m not “situating” the work next to philosophical texts or ideas.  Instead I am letting Ibn al-ʿArabī explain himself. The vindication for this approach comes from letters from Australia, Italy, Spain, Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Canada, the U.S., Morocco, and Jordan, and elsewhere, in which readers tell me what they have heard and learned.  Each reader is dramatically different in what she or he finds, and each one has a personal journey.   If I were to contextualize the work, the reader would be limited to my highly limited understandings.

Classical religious discourses are colored by the authors’ language and concepts and customs, and these colors support an appreciation of what is the same and what is different.  Academic and other approaches try to strip these authors of their pre-modern world, a world where prophets are mentioned along with their honorifics, where God is cited (and not “the Qurʾān says”), and where the stories and parables and sayings that richly color the tradition are interwoven in the text.  As anyone who knows multiple languages can tell you, each language feels different, each language gives a special flavor.  To reduce it to some mechanical “bottom-line” idiom is a disservice.

Part of this translator’s effort to aid the reader is to fill out the imagery of the Futūāt which would have been largely implicit with his first audiences. The ʿarabī language has semantic fields, and each word is examined in a lexicon by looking at its grammatical modulations, its usage in different forms (verb, adjective, noun), and its concept, often a short-hand: that is, if you see “yawm” or “qiyāmah,” you should know that it is the Day of Arising for Judgment that is being referenced.  This is quite different from a dictionary which seeks to go from one word into another.  Classical Arabic has a limited vocabulary when compared to English, for example, which is actually five or six languages (e.g, French, German, Latin, Greek).  What this means is that the English speaker uses a highly nuanced language – a man sweats and a woman perspires.  To write “She started sweating” puts a huge amount of imagery into the English reader’s imagination.  Classical Arabic has the same situation, but using a much smaller number of words.  The English translator doesn’t go “word to word” – that is a gross misunderstanding of the Arabic writer.  Ibn al-ʿArabī uses the word ukm, for example, and sometimes it is property, sometimes law, sometimes command, sometimes determinative ruling.  It may also go back to the imagery of the akamah, which is the curb for a horse, reins that prevent – and therefore wisely (as in ikmah) guides the soul.  Ibn al-ʿArabī’s audience is hearing all of this: the translator must hear it too and find a way to say all that in English.

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Eric Winkel
By Eric Winkel

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