Install XMonad

On many systems xmonad is available as a binary package in your distribution (Debian, Ubuntu, Fedora, Arch, Gentoo, …). It’s by far the easiest way to get xmonad, although you’ll miss out on the latest features and fixes that may not have been released yet.

If you do want the latest and greatest, continue reading. Those who install from distro can skip this and go straight to the XMonad Configuration Tutorial.

Dependencies

Debian, Ubuntu

$ sudo apt install \
> git \
> libx11-dev libxft-dev libxinerama-dev libxrandr-dev libxss-dev

Fedora

$ sudo dnf install \
> git \
> libX11-devel libXft-devel libXinerama-devel libXrandr-devel libXScrnSaver-devel

Arch

$ sudo pacman -S \
> git \
> xorg-server xorg-apps xorg-xinit xorg-xmessage \
> libx11 libxft libxinerama libxrandr libxss \
> pkgconf

Void

$ sudo xbps-install \
> git \
> ncurses-libtinfo-libs ncurses-libtinfo-devel \
> libX11-devel libXft-devel libXinerama-devel libXrandr-devel libXScrnSaver-devel \
> pkg-config

Preparation

We’ll use the XDG directory specifications here, meaning our configuration will reside within $XDG_CONFIG_HOME, which is ~/.config on most systems. Let’s create this directory and move to it:

$ mkdir -p ~/.config/xmonad && cd ~/.config/xmonad

If you already have an xmonad.hs configuration, you can copy it over now. If not, you can use the defaults: create a file called xmonad.hs with the following content:

import XMonad

main :: IO ()
main = xmonad def

Older versions of xmonad used ~/.xmonad instead. This is still supported, but XDG is preferred.

Download XMonad sources

Still in ~/.config/xmonad, clone xmonad and xmonad-contrib repositories using git:

$ git clone https://github.com/xmonad/xmonad
$ git clone https://github.com/xmonad/xmonad-contrib

This will give you the latest HEAD; if you want you can also check out a tagged release, e.g.:

$ git clone --branch v0.17.1 https://github.com/xmonad/xmonad
$ git clone --branch v0.17.1 https://github.com/xmonad/xmonad-contrib

(Sources and binaries don’t usually go into ~/.config. In our case, however, it avoids complexities related to Haskell build tools and lets us focus on the important bits of XMonad installation.)

Build XMonad

There are two widely used Haskell build tools:

We include instructions for both. Unless you already know which one you prefer, use Stack, which is easier.

Build using Stack

Install Stack

The easiest way to get stack is probably via your system’s package manager:

$ sudo apt install haskell-stack    # Debian, Ubuntu
$ sudo dnf install stack            # Fedora
$ sudo pacman -S stack              # Arch

If you install stack via this method, it is advisable that you run stack upgrade after installation. This will make sure that you are on the most recent version of the program, regardless of which version your distribution actually packages.

If your distribution does not package stack, you can also easily install it via the following command (this is the recommended way to install stack via its documentation):

$ curl -sSL https://get.haskellstack.org/ | sh

Yet another way would be via ghcup; this is similar to installers like rustup, in case you prefer that.

Create a New Project

Let’s create a stack project. Since we’re already in the correct directory (~/.config/xmonad) with xmonad and xmonad-contrib subdirectories, starting a new stack project is as simple as running stack init.

Stack should now inform you that it will use the relevant stack and cabal files from xmonad and xmonad-contrib to generate its stack.yaml file. At the time of writing, this looks a little bit like this:

$ stack init
Looking for .cabal or package.yaml files to use to init the project.
Using cabal packages:
- xmonad-contrib/
- xmonad/

Selecting the best among 19 snapshots...

* Matches https://raw.githubusercontent.com/commercialhaskell/stackage-snapshots/master/lts/17/9.yaml

Selected resolver: https://raw.githubusercontent.com/commercialhaskell/stackage-snapshots/master/lts/17/9.yaml
Initialising configuration using resolver: https://raw.githubusercontent.com/commercialhaskell/stackage-snapshots/master/lts/17/9.yaml
Total number of user packages considered: 2
Writing configuration to file: stack.yaml
All done.

If you look into your current directory now, you should see a freshly generated stack.yaml file:

$ ls
xmonad  xmonad-contrib  stack.yaml  xmonad.hs

The meat of that file (comments start with #, we’ve omitted them here) will look a little bit like

resolver:
  url: https://raw.githubusercontent.com/commercialhaskell/stackage-snapshots/master/lts/17/9.yaml

packages:
- xmonad
- xmonad-contrib

With stack.yaml alongside xmonad.hs, xmonad now knows that it needs to use stack ghc instead of just ghc when (re)compiling its configuration. If you want to keep xmonad sources and the stack project elsewhere, but still use xmonad --recompile, symlink your real stack.yaml into the xmonad configuration directory, or use a custom build script.

Install Everything

Installing things is as easy as typing stack install. This will install the correct version of GHC, as well as build all of the required packages (stack build) and then copy the relevant executables (xmonad, in our case) to ~/.local/bin. Make sure to add that directory to your $PATH! The command which xmonad should now return that executable. In case it does not, check if you still have xmonad installed via your package manager and uninstall it.

If you’re getting build failures while building the X11 package it may be that you don’t have the required C libraries installed. See above.

Build using cabal-install

Install cabal-install

The easiest way to get cabal-install is probably via your system’s package manager:

$ sudo apt install cabal-install    # Debian, Ubuntu
$ sudo dnf install cabal-install    # Fedora
$ sudo pacman -S cabal-install      # Arch

If your distribution does not package cabal-install, ghcup is another option. See also https://www.haskell.org/cabal/#install-upgrade.

Create a New Project

Let’s create a cabal project. Since we’re already in the correct directory (~/.config/xmonad) with xmonad and xmonad-contrib subdirectories, we’ll instruct cabal to use them. Create a file named cabal.project containing:

packages: */*.cabal

(If you skip this step, cabal will use the latest releases from Hackage instead.)

Install Everything

You’ll need to update the cabal package index, build xmonad and xmonad-contrib libraries and then build the xmonad binary:

$ cabal update
$ cabal install --package-env=$HOME/.config/xmonad --lib xmonad xmonad-contrib
$ cabal install --package-env=$HOME/.config/xmonad xmonad

This will create a GHC environment in ~/.config/xmonad so that the libraries are available for recompilation of the config file, and also install the xmonad binary to ~/.cabal/bin/xmonad. Make sure you have that directory in your $PATH!

If you’re getting build failures while building the X11 package it may be that you don’t have the required C libraries installed. See above.

Make XMonad your window manager

This step varies depending on your distribution and X display manager (if any).

Debian, Ubuntu

/etc/X11/xinit/xinitrc runs /etc/X11/Xsession which runs ~/.xsession, so you probably want to put exec xmonad there (don’t forget the shebang and chmod).

(Tested with startx, xdm, lightdm.)

By using ~/.xsession, the distro takes care of stuff like dbus, ssh-agent, X resources, etc. If you want a completely manual X session, use ~/.xinitrc instead. Or invoke startx/xinit with an explicit path.

Some newer display managers require an entry in /usr/share/xsessions. To use your custom ~/.xsession, put these lines to /usr/share/xsessions/default.desktop:

[Desktop Entry]
Name=Default X session
Type=Application
Exec=default

(Tested with sddm.)

Fedora

/etc/X11/xinit/xinitrc runs ~/.Xclients, so you probably want to put exec xmonad there (don’t forget the shebang and chmod). Like in Debian, this can be overridden by having a completely custom ~/.xinitrc or passing arguments to startx/xinit.

X display managers (e.g. lightdm) usually invoke /etc/X11/xinit/Xsession instead, which additionally redirects output to ~/.xsession-errors and also tries ~/.xsession before ~/.Xclients.

Newer display managers require an entry in /usr/share/xsessions, which is available in the xorg-x11-xinit-session package.

Arch

/etc/X11/xinit/xinitrc runs twm, xclock and 3 xterms; users are meant to just copy that to ~/.xinitrc and customize it: replace the last few lines with exec xmonad.

Display managers like lightdm have their own Xsession script which invokes ~/.xsession. Other display managers need an entry in /usr/share/xsessions, https://aur.archlinux.org/packages/xinit-xsession/ provides one.

See also

Custom Build Script

If you need to customize what happens during xmonad --recompile (bound to M-q by default), perhaps because your xmonad configuration is a whole separate Haskell package, you need to create a so-called build file. This is quite literally just a shell script called build in your xmonad directory (which is ~/.config/xmonad for us) that tells xmonad how it should build its executable.

A good starting point (this is essentially what xmonad would do without a build file, with the exception that we are invoking stack ghc instead of plain ghc) would be

#!/bin/sh

exec stack ghc --  \
  --make xmonad.hs \
  -i               \
  -ilib            \
  -fforce-recomp   \
  -main-is main    \
  -v0              \
  -o "$1"

Don’t forget to mark the file as +x: chmod +x build!

Some example build scripts for stack and cabal are provided in the xmonad-contrib distribution. You can see those online in the scripts/build directory. You might wish to use these if you have special dependencies for your xmonad.hs, especially with cabal as you must use a cabal file and often a cabal.project to specify them; cabal install --lib above generally isn’t enough, and when it is it can be difficult to keep track of when you want to replicate your configuration on another system.

Don’t Recompile on Every Startup

By default, xmonad always recompiles itself when a build script is used (because the build script could contain arbitrary code, so a simple check whether the xmonad.hs file changed is not enough). If you find that too annoying, then you can use the xmonad-ARCH executable that xmonad --recompile generates instead of xmonad in your startup. For example, instead of writing

exec xmonad

in your ~/.xinitrc, you would write

exec $HOME/.cache/xmonad/xmonad-x86_64-linux

The ~/.cache prefix is the $XDG_CACHE_HOME directory. Note that if your xmonad configuration resides within ~/.xmonad, then the executable will also be within that directory and not in $XDG_CACHE_HOME.