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Souls recognize each other by sniffing

· ​In Islam ·

“It is recounted that Harim ibn Hayyan met Uways al-Qarani and said to him ‘Peace be with you, Uways ibn Amir’, and that the latter answered him ‘And peace be upon you, Harim ibn Hayyan’. Harim was astonished: ‘I recognized you because I have heard you described, but how did you recognize me?’. Uways answered ‘My spirit recognized yours, because the spirits of believers sniff one another like horses; those who recognize each other affectionately get to know each other, and those who do not know each other argue’. ‘I love you in God!’ Harim exclaimed. ‘I don’t believe it’s possible to love anyone other than God’, said Uways. ‘I want to be your close friend’, Harim said. ‘I don’t think it’s possible to have any close friend except God’, Uways answered” (Daylami, Treatise on Mystical Love, 153).

“The Light of Muhammad”, a manuscript of the book on healing by Qadi Iyad (c. 1900)

The protagonists of this story are two ascetics of the early Islamic period. It is thought that their meeting took place on the banks of the Euphrates shortly after the Prophet Muhammad’s death. Many people used to talk about Uways al-Qarani, a hermit of Yemeni origin, without ever having seen him. Some say that, despite never having met him, the Prophet himself heard him described by the Angel Gabriel and recommended his companions to seek him in order to obtain his intercession. It is also said that Uways converted to Islam through a direct divine inspiration. This elusive figure therefore became the symbol of those who enter mystical life without having been initiated by a living teacher. In this story the “fragrant” meeting between the two ascetics ends with a separation: Uways is prepared to recognize his visitor but does not renounce for him either his solitude or his seeking.

Uways al-Qarani’s saying about souls who recognize each other by sniffing is a rare variant of a hadith attributed to the Prophet, where instead of the resemblance to horses a martial image is found: “Souls are like conscripted soldiers; those whom they recognize they get along with, and those whom they do not recognize they will not get along with”; This hadith is often found in treatises on mystical and profane love, in support of the thesis that freely given friendship between believers, like pure love between a man and a woman, originates in a primordial union of souls. The variant in which recognition is determined by the sense of smell refers to the etymological kinship between the “spirit or soul” (ruh) and “smell”, one of whose names in Arabic is ra’iha and also rih, a synonym of wind. It is said of Uways al-Qarani that he exuded an intense aroma (rih) of musk, a sign of his holiness, otherwise hidden by his humble aspect; indeed, some of the few who saw him with their own eyes assert that he was a black slave, wearing patched wool like monks and, later, Sufis (cf. Abu Nu‘aym, The adornment of saints, ii, 81). Moreover the perfume refers to the intensity of the desire for an absent loved woman or for paradise. The sixth-century poet Jamil associates both these things in speaking of his beloved Buthayna: “Just as the Prophet Idris burned with longing for the garden of eternity, so I burn with desire for the scent? (rih) of her bosom”.

Smell makes perceptible what the eyes cannot see. According to a mysterious hadith attributed to the Prophet, he is supposed to have said: “I smell the breath of the All-Merciful (nafas al-rahmān) coming from the direction of Yemen”. Some commentators see here an allusion to Uways al-Qarani, who was living in Yemen in the Prophet’s time. By suggesting that the Prophet had news of Uways from the south wind, the wind of the ancient Arabia felix, the country of spices and of the Queen of Sheba which at the time of Islam’s origins was still the seat of important Christian communities, the commentators make a poetic allusion to the influence of Christian models of holiness on the formation of Muslim piety. This influence assumed in the Muslim imagination an aerial consistence, at the same time both concrete and elusive, like the pollen carried by the wind.

The “breath of the All-Merciful” becomes a technical term in the lexicon of Ibn Arabi who makes use of this expression to indicate the intermediate reality between God and the world. As Ibn Arabi explains in his chapter on love in The Meccan Revelations, “the origin from which the sigh of the All-Merciful flows is love for his creatures, to whom he wishes to make himself known”. Just as a lover sighs, producing the subtle substance in which the image of the loved person appears, so God exhales a cloud which externalizes his unfathomable mystery. This primordial substance is the receptacle of all possible things to which God transmits life in action, animating them with the creating word in which breath is structured. All possible things are manifestations of the divine mystery, but the most complete reflection of the divine essence is the human form.

the calligraphy of the name of Muhammad in whose letters is inscribed the Surah of the Qur’an entitled “Muhammad” (an Indian poster)

The origin of the universe, “the breath of the All-Merciful”, is also the object of nostalgia of all creatures: “it is neither spirit nor body: no limit defines it, but it is the eternal object of desire; all creatures seek it and none is in possession of it” (Revelations, 49).

Ibn Arabi meditates on the connection between the “breath of the All-Merciful” and another hadith of the Prophet: “Three things of this world of yours have been made dear to me, women, perfume (tib) and prayer”. In this saying the word indicating perfume is etymologically connected with tayyib, “good”, which is also one of God’s names.Ibn Arabi explains that the Prophet loves perfume because through its sweet smell is perceived the breath of the All-Merciful which is at the root of all things and penetrates the entire universe. Whereas other Muslim commentators reduce the significance of these sayings of Muhammad, linking them with external circumstances of his life, Ibn Arabi brings them back to their symbolic gestation, letting surface the affinities of these images with the Song of Solomon: “Your Name is oil poured out” (1:3); and “Come, O south wind! Blow upon my garden, let its fragrance be wafted abroad” (4:16).

Ibn Arabi comments at length on the saying on women, perfume and prayer in the last chapter of The Bezels of Wisdom, where he explains the “wisdom” hidden in the figure of Muhammad. The formal structure of this saying, according to Ibn Arabi, refers to nature, mediatrix of perfume, an element which is neither entirely physical nor entirely spiritual and which is linked at the same time with the corporeal world and the divine world. Perfume, in fact, occupies the central place between women and prayer, because it is linked with both the former and the latter and reveals the connection between both: the embrace of the beloved woman is “the most exquisite of perfumes”, and the woman, as creative mercy, has the power to transmit the “perfume of existence”; prayer is the “good” or “fragrant” word through which the believer meets God face to face. The breath which is the matrix of life and the breath exhaled in the form of words are a single substance exhaled by God, in itself good and scented.

So where does the distinction between a good smell and a bad smell come from? In a dense page Ibn Arabi tackles the question of the unde malum, one of the great knots in his monistic philosophy, from an olfactory perspective. This is not unusual, given that in Arabic, as in other Semitic languages, good and evil are etymologically and semantically connected with good and bad smells. Ibn Arabi considers the question from the physical and moral viewpoints. In the physical world, the differentiation between pleasant and unpleasant odours depends on the different temperaments of those beings endowed with a sense of smell (angels, humans and animals), and is therefore relative. No substance is absolutely evil or foul-smelling. Evil belongs entirely to the moral sphere, that is, it comes from the voluntary actions and words of men and women. Actions and words have an immaterial odour which coincides with their meaning, namely with the intention with which they are carried out or spoken. To perceive the odour of this intention a divine nose is required.

The connection between Muhammad and perfume is an important aspect of the popular devotion to him. A legend has it that during Muhammad’s Ascension into heaven a few drops of his sweat fell to the earth and that the first rose was born from them. In popular iconography Muhammad is often represented as a rose, or as a figure of light from which flowers radiate. Rumi, the great Persian poet, interprets the meaning of these symbols by counterposing the perfume of the Prophet with his miracles, that is to say with the visible manifestations of divine power which force unbelievers to submit: “Miracles serve to conquer enemies, aromas to attract hearts. Faith is not based on miracles. A sweet scent attracts bees who give us honey”.

Samuela Pagani




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 17, 2020