Ibn al-Fāriḍ

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IBN AL-FĀRI (ah 576632/11811235 ce), more fully Abū af or Abū al-Qāsim ʿUmar ibn Abī al-asan ʿAlī ibn al-Murshid ibn ʿAlī; often called the greatest mystical poet in the history of Arabic literature. His father, known as al-Fāri because his profession was the allocation of shares (furū) in cases of inheritance, migrated from his native Hama in Syria to Cairo, where Ibn al-Fāri was born and where he lived and died.

Though little is known about his life, there is evidence that he married and had at least two sons and a daughter. He studied adīth and Shāfiʿī law in his youth, but his spiritual bent was such that he preferred solitary devotion in the desert or on Mount al-Muqaam, east of Cairo, and he finally became a ūfī. After a long sojourn in Mecca, he returned to Cairo and was venerated by the populace as a saint.

He is said to have been handsome, righteous, and awe-inspiring yet pleasant and sociable. Later generations ascribed supernatural powers to him, following the example of his own grandson, ʿAlī, who wrote an introduction to Ibn al-Fāri's Dīwān (Collected works) and filled it with several fantastic tales. This may have been a defensive effort to exonerate the poet from accusations of heresy such as those made by Ibn Taymīyah (d. 1328) and others regarding the practices and pantheistic tendencies of certain ūfīs.

The Dīwān of Ibn al-Fāri is slim, and the poems in it are of varying lengths. Dominated by the theme of love, they are couched in a beautiful style of great tenderness and sensitivity in which the sounds, patterns, and rhetorical conceits of the language are natural elements of the moods and ideas they convey. Capable of being read as love lyrics, they are intended to be expressions of mystical yearning for God. This is true even of the only wine poem in the Dīwān, in which intoxication with wine is but a symbol of union with the divine beloved.

Almost half of the Dīwān is occupied by a single poem of 761 verses entitled Nam al-sulūk (Poem of the way), often referred to as "The Greater Ode Rhyming in T" to distinguish it from a shorter poem of 103 verses also rhyming in the letter t. Considered Ibn al-Fāri's masterpiece, this ode is unique in its description of the mystic's experience of God and of the harmony achieved through realizing the union of phenomenal existence and pure Being. It has so intrigued subsequent generations of ūfīs by its exquisite beauty and mystical truths that many have written large volumes commenting on it, including al-Farghānī (d. 1300), al-Qāshānī (d. 1334), al-Qaysarī (d. 1350), Jāmī (d. 1492), al-Būrīnī (d. 1615), and al-Nābulusī (d. 1730). The commentaries of the last two were combined by Rushayd ibn Ghālib al-Dadā (d. 1889). Commentaries have also been written on the Khamrīyah (Wine poem) illuminating its mystical symbolism and explaining its religious and literary allusions.

A ūfī order named al-Fāriīyah was known to exist in Egypt during the sixteenth century and claimed to originate from Ibn al-Fāri, but it does not seem to be in existence today. The poet's tomb, however, still stands in a well-known shrine at the foot of Mount al-Muqaam in Cairo.


The poetry of Ibn al-Fāri is available in English in A. J. Arberry's The Poem of the Way (London, 1952) and The Mystical Poems of Ibn al-Fāri (Dublin, 1956) with good, short introductions and notes. For more recent translations, see Umar Ibn al-Fāri; ūfī Verse, Saintly Life, translated by Th. Emil Homerlin, preface by Michael A. Sells (New York, 2001). An excellent study is found in chapter 3 of Reynold A. Nicholson's Studies in Islamic Mysticism (1921; Cambridge, 1967). An excellent later study is From Arab Poet to Muslim Saint: Ibn al-Fāri, His Verse, and His Shrine by Th. Emil Homerlin (Columbia, S.C., 1994). For an assessment of the sources for Ibn al-Fāri's biography, especially impugning certain contributions by the poet's grandson ʿAlī, see my article "Toward a Biography of Ibn al-Fāri," Arabica 28 (1981): 3856. For an evaluation of Ibn al-Fāri's rhetorical devices as inalienable elements of his style, correlative to his mystical vision of harmony in union with God, see my article "Verbal Arabesque and Mystical Union: A Study of Ibn al-Fāri's 'al-Tāʾiyya al-Kubrā,'" Arab Studies Quarterly 3 (1981): 152169.

Issa J. Boullata (1987 and 2005)