The Hidden Sciences in Islam


We propose to bring to light the spiritual significance of the "hidden sciences," but not to delve into these sciences, for that would not be possible in the space allotted. These sciences are represented in most traditions under the names alchemy, astrology, etc., and some authors, such as P. Ruska and J. Kraus, have made known the essentials of the Islamic domain in such a way that it is not at all a terra incognita . The Islamic specificity of these sciences does not differentiate them a great deal from their Occidental or Far Eastern equivalents. The terminology is not an obstacle inasmuch as one makes use of the Greek, which the Arabic copies to a large extent in this domain.

By "hidden sciences" ( al-'ulūm al-khafiyyah ) must be understood diverse traditional sciences that for reasons intrinsic (esoteric sciences taught by means of the oral tradition) or extrinsic (sciences that modernism has relegated to the rank of out-of-date disciplines and has placed in obsolescence, with the result that what one can know of them--especially of the texts that are incomprehensible for want of the necessary deciphering or because of ignorant scribes--is presented as a degraded residue and in many cases as practically unusable) do not figure in the programs of universities and are not made the subjects of official instruction.

That is not to say, however, that these sciences do not make up or no longer make up part of the patrimony of Islam. The magisterial transmission has not entirely ceased, even though today it resembles a clandestine teaching nourishing a subterranean current that is difficult to discern. It must be remembered that Sufism no longer has an official status in a number of Muslim countries; although it is not overtly prohibited, it has only an officious character in those lands. The Sufi milieus have been the conservatories of an authentic tradition of certain of these sciences, and although this tradition is no longer integral, it is not fossilized. This presence and perennity relative to the interiority and to the protective shelter of Sufism are explained by the congruence of finalities, but pertain as well without doubt to the fact that these sciences offer the appropriate means of expressing esoteric truths--and whoever says esoterism says "polysemy"--which modern sciences, with their unequivocal stance, are lacking. Indeed, Sufism has an elaborate terminology that is sufficient in itself, but the act of signifying is a demanding process. One must understand that the Sufi authors--and not the least of them--had utilized the resources of these sciences in order to expose certain views with the desired precision, tonality, or suggestive profundity. We think here most particularly of the science of letters (al-jafr). This sacred science--characteristic of the Semitic world--is considered to be the key to all the other sciences, and for this reason we give it preference.

In Islam as elsewhere, these sciences, inasmuch as they are manifestations of suprarational thought, appear to be experiencing a rebirth of interest in them. It is deplorable that the literature to which they give rise resorts too often to occultism, but what is important, and is to be stressed, is the significance of the "return swing of the pendulum" which this rebirth marks. Taking into account the extreme richness of the Arab and Persian patrimony in these matters, it is not utopian to look for the flourishing of these forms of "analogous thought," which are, in the final analysis, the sciences called "hidden." Every "analogist" will rejoice in this.

The Science of Letters

The science of letters, which rests on a sacred language, has necessarily a metaphysical foundation. This consists in comparing the universe to a book in which the letters are "Immutable Essences." From these Divine Essences or Ideas results the Book of the World, which is compared to the Logos. This Book is still called the "cosmogonic Quran" (al-qur'ān al-takwīnī), as opposed to the Quran composed of a collection of revealed verses (al-qur'ān al-tadwīnī). This "genesis" of the cosmos takes as its basis the celebrated h˛adīth "I was a Hidden Treasure [kanz, a word with the same initial letter as kun, "Be!", the creative command, as Ibn 'Arabī remarked] and I desired to be known; therefore, I created the world." This "Hidden Treasure" corresponds, in the process under consideration and in conformity with scriptural symbolism, to the formless and primordial point prior to the emanation, properly speaking, of the letters of the alphabet. 1 Limiting oneself to the Islamic domain (because one encounters parallel formulations in Philo of Alexandria, the gnostic Marcos, and many others), one finds this doctrine mentioned in the celebrated mystical poem the >Gulshan-i rāz (The Rose Garden of Divine Mysteries) of Shabistarī. "For the one whose soul is the place of theophany, the whole of the universe is the Book of God Most High. The accidents are His vowels and the substance His consonants" (verses 200-209). Paraphrasing the Ikhwān al-Safā', Y. Marquet was able to write in a more elaborate manner:

The Universe is the Book written by the Pen... on the Tablet... or, if one wishes, they are the Forms which by virtue of Divine Will the Universal Intellect furnishes to the Universal Soul. The lines bursting forth from this Book preserve its content: "It is through them that the emanation of their powers will be made" on that which is above (the celestial sphere). In fact, beginning with these lines and emanating from them, the simple and luminous spiritual "things" will be formed which will be found in the echelons subordinate to the Universal Soul. Then each of these lines will be established at a rank from which it will not depart; they will remain ordered in their respective places like those of a real book.... 2

The best summation, however, is given us by Ibn 'Arabī in terms that will allow us to dispense with other quotations:

The Universe is a vast book; the characters of this book are all written, in principle, with the same ink and transcribed on to the eternal Table by the Divine Pen; all are transcribed simultaneously and inseparably; for that reason the essential phenomena hidden in the "Secret of Secrets" were given the name of "transcendent letters." And these transcendent letters, that is to say, all creatures, after having been virtually condensed in the Divine Omniscience, were carried down on the Divine Breath to the lower lines and composed and formed the manifested Universe." 3

The science of letters rests on an esoteric usage and interpretation of letters of the Arabic alphabet considered triply as ideophonic (preponderance of sonoral symbolism), ideographic (preponderance of graphic or "hieroglyphic" symbolism), and arithmologic (each letter having a numerical value in such a way that the science of letters does not go without a science of numbers). 4

Abū Ish˛āq Qūhistānī has characterized the importance of the science of letters by saying that it is the "root of all the other sciences." 5 One could say schematically that the science of letters involves the following: (1) divine and metaphysical or metacosmic symbolism; (2) universal or macrocosmic symbolism by virtue of correspondences between letters and "astrological" givens (celestial spheres, planets, zodiacal signs, lunar mansions, etc.), on the one hand, and "physical" givens (elements, "natures," etc.), on the other; (3) human and individual or microcosmic symbolism by virtue of physiological correspondences (organs of the body, "temperaments," etc.), from which comes its correlation with chirognomy etc.

Its particular status has been defined well by Tirmidhī:

All the sciences are contained in the letters of the alphabet, for the beginning of science is indeed the Divine Names from which come forth the creation and governance of the world.... Now the Divine Names themselves precede the letters and return to the letters. This hidden treasure of science is known to the saints alone whose intelligences receive understanding from God and whose hearts are attached to God and are ravished by His Divinity, there where the veil is lifted before the letters and the attributes.... 6

Like "knowledge of the virtues of numbers and names," the science of letters is designated by the term sīmiyā', but the "magical" or divinatory applications by which sīmiyā' is most known have caused them to be discredited--with good reason. We will not treat them here, except by this brief allusion. These applications are for the most part in a degenerate state, as seen in the "art of talismans" (amulets, pentangles, magic squares), geomancy ('ilm al-raml), and the mysterious and scholarly onomatomancy (zā'irajah). Ibn Khaldūn himself speaks of this subject in a fashion so confusing that it is necessary to renounce it despite the efforts of V. Monteil ( Muqaddimah, III) to penetrate its mysteries. In order summarily to situate it, one may say that it probably inspired the Art of Combination of Ramon Lull. 7

The Arabic term sīmiyā' is derived from the Greek sēmeion, "sign." Insofar as it is a "science of signs," the science of letters is capable of intermixing with semiological sciences--although the ends and the means differ radically. It is remarkable in this respect that the science of letters--without awaiting de Saussure and the others--recognized in the alphabet, beyond the linguistic instrument which it obviously is, another system of codes with an incomparable plasticity in the resources of indefinite combinations. One can apply to it in all appropriateness the term "metalanguage," as employed in its discipline by modern authors.

The science of letters intends in effect to go beyond the purely "phenomenal" understanding of things by attaching itself to the "noumenal" content. In other words, it intends to uncover behind the contingent fact, the corresponding archetype, and this is an additional reason for according it a privileged position.

Furthermore, the search for the archetype and symbolic transparency goes through a structural understanding. These relations to certain currents of contemporary thought are mentioned here in order to suggest modern "readings" of this ancient science of letters and to show that those considered it to be out-of-date were anxious gravediggers and for the most part gave proof only of their prejudice and profane spirit--not to mention a lack of culture.

When one speaks of the science of letters in Arabic (and the same is true for Hebrew), one generally has in mind only the consonants, the only letters which these languages include in their alphabets. The vowels are considered to be accessory sonoral modalities, "stamps" that have as their object the "coloring" of the consonants with a fixed sonority. The consequence of this is that in the Arabic context--contrary to that which occurs, for example, in the Greek context, where the seven vowels play a preponderant role--the science of letters has, with rare exceptions, neglected vowels.

In order to understand this attitude, it is helpful to specify that for the Semite in general the consonant-vowel relationship reflects the relationship between the Essence and the attributes (dhāt/Sifāt). The consonant (h˛arf, pl. h˛urūf, from which comes the phrase 'ilm al-h˛urūf to designate this science) is to the vowel (h˛arakah, "motion") what "substance" (jawhar) is to "accident" ('arad˛). In terms of metalinguistics, the sum total of the consonants represents sound as such, taken in its invariable multiplicity in conformity with the diffraction of the Word from which a particular language arose. Vowels represent only accessory "modifications" or "alterations" proper to the syntax (declensions, conjugations, etc.) of this language. Thus considered, the consonant is a pure given ( Niffarī goes so far as to make of it a hypostatic entity); the vowel a practical given.

Far from wishing to take a stance opposed to that of tradition, but because vowels are open to an interesting interpretation, we begin with the vowels. In Arabic there are three "vocalizations": a, u, and i, called respectively fath˛ah, d˛ammah, and kasrah. They are noted (optionally) by conventional signs of very summary orthography: primitively by a dot, like the Hebrew vowel points, placed either above (a), at the same level (u), or below (i) the consonant to be vocalized. Later on, they were denoted with the signs in use today: an oblique stroke above the consonant (a), a comma also above (u), and an oblique stroke below (i).

On the last syllable of words, vocalization has an "inflecting" function, the cases and moods being determined by the "timbre" of this syllable. This has led to the use of the same name for inflection and vowel: the vocalization u (nominative and indicative) is called "raised" or ascendant; the vocalization i (indirect case) is called "lowered" or descendant; and, between the two, the vocalization a (direct and subjunctive cases) is called "planed" or intermediate. The position of the vocalic signs, nouns and qualifiers (to which it would be necessary to add the locations of articulation: a [the throat], i [the palate], and u [the lips]) thus defines three cohesive tendencies which "qualify" the consonantic entity in a manner analogous to the three gun˛as of the Hindu tradition.

This structuring of being (the whole of the alphabetic corpus insofar as it is a symbol of the whole of Reality) is still more evident with alif, wāw, and yā', which, although consonants, act also as matres lectionis--that is, they serve to render the three corresponding long vowels ā, ū, and ī. In this function they have a hybrid status--neither vowel nor consonant, a fact that has brought about the exegesis of grammarians. They say that the a with alif is characterized by "sublimation," the i with yā by "precipitation," and the u with wāw by the intermediary state. Sublimation and precipitation come under the classification of alchemical terminology; as for the intermediate state, i'tirād, 8 it implies a completely different context. I'tirād connotes the word 'ard˛ ("width"), which in its Sufi sense means "amplitude," that is, all amplification in the horizontal dimension of a given "state of being" taken as the point of reference or "horizon." The dimension of "amplitude" induces the complementary dimension of "exaltation," polarized in the vertical according to the two inverse meanings of "height" (for a) and of "depth" (for i). This structural trinity expresses a diversification. Diversification can be of a metaphysical order: it concerns "movements or orientations of the Spirit": descending movement by the (apparent) distance from the Principle, which measures the depth of the possible horizontal movement, of which the amplitude measures the expansion, and, finally, ascending movement of "return" toward the Principle or height. It can be of an ontological order, as in the reference mentioned above. It can also be of a ritual order, and from there derives a Sufi perspective.

The exegesis of the three basic postures of prayer assumes a truly initiative coloring. In the Fuṣūṣ al-h˛ikam (Bezels of Wisdom), Ibn 'Arabī explains them from two points of view. Existentially, prayer includes three movements: an ascending movement, corresponding to the standing position of the supplicant; a horizontal movement, corresponding to the inclined position; and a descending movement, corresponding to the prostrate position. Principially (in this case, Ibn 'Arabī says, it concerns the prayer that God "prays upon us"), the three movements concern the "creative movements (Ibn 'Arabī employs the expression "existentiating theophanies") of God to know: the "intentional" (descending) movement toward the world here below in order to manifest it, the (ascending) movement toward the upper world, and the horizontal movement. Thus the master of Islamic theosophy presents the gripping idea of a symmetry between divine service ('ibādah) and the creation of the world (ibdā'), the attitudes of the supplicant imitating in an individual mode the "gestures" which God the Creator accomplished in a universal mode.

More simply, Ismā'īl H˛aqqī, Ibn 'Arabī's Ottoman commentator, breaks down the prayers by considering the orthographic symbolism not only of the three matres lectionis but of the ternary alif, lām, mīm, one of the set of initial letters figuring at the head of several sūrahs of the Quran of which we will speak later. Such a view ended by becoming in some way a common ground, since it was equally enunciated with regard to the three letters comprising the Name Allah: alif, lām, hā, upon which Ismā'īlī gnosis did not hesitate to graft an exegesis for which the key is given by the structure of the cross. We will content ourselves by mentioning the existence of such an exceptional--indeed, even paradoxical--correspondence in Islam by reason of the proscription of this symbol by Muslim exoterism. We cannot treat here the facts contained in a highly questionable work in which R. von Sebottendorf has exposed a so-called method of spiritual realization which he supposedly learned of in Turkey at the beginning of this century. It concerns pseudo-alchemical lucubrations, which we mention here only in view of a possible correspondence between the ternary a-i-u and the ternary Mercury-Sulfur-Salt.

In conclusion we note the eminent structural properties of vowels. We have presented Arabic vocalization as a trinity, and in doing so we have passed over in silence a fourth modality: the absence of "motion." This state is marked by the sukūn, the sign of "rest" or of "quiescence" of the consonant. This fourth modality--which is phonetically conceivable only in relation to the three others for which it is, so to speak, the "empty" counterpart--is systematically neglected by the symbolic. But it does have a place in a quadripartite vision of things. To keep to the symbolism of the prayers, we emphasize that the sukūn takes into account an attitude that was not considered: the seated position, at once a time of "pause" or of immobility between two movements and a synthesis of the three other attitudes of the supplicant. Furthermore, the coming to the fore of a vocalic "fourth term" orients the exegesis toward quaternary correspondences (elements, "natures," directions, etc.). An example of this is the application presented by the appendix of the Kitāb al-tadhkirah (The Book of Memorial) of Dā'ūd al-Ant˛ākī, in which the twenty-eight letters of the Arabic alphabet are differentiated into four series of seven letters according to the double criterion of "timbre" and "nature": a=warm, sukūn=cold, u=dry, and i=humid. Being aware of the esoteric preoccupations of AnH˛ākī and of the disciple who was the author of the appendix, one is able to foresee the speculations, particularly alchemical ones, of which such a cleavage is capable.

The Letters of the Alphabet

The letters of the alphabet, the essential signs and providential instruments of the Sacred Science, are twenty-eight in number. The number twenty- eight, congruent with four and seven (28=4 x 7, and 28 is the "Pythagorean sum" of 7), immediately suggests a relation with the lunar mansions. There result from it diverse cross-references of a cosmological order, to which we will make allusion later on. The connection between the number of letters and the lunar mansions is sufficiently remarkable that it is emphasized and exploited. Thus Tirmidhī ( Khatm al-awliyā', question 142) states that the number of letters was primordially set at twenty-eight owing to the number of lunar mansions. Ibn 'Arabī was to make this point more explicitly by "localizing" in the moon--the intermediary between heaven and earth--the "prophetic" residence of Adam and by specifying that the manifestation par excellence of the mediating function of the heavenly body is the differentiation of the unique primordial sun (in the manner of Adam as the "unique man") in articulated language.

As can be foreseen from its reference to the duration of a lunar cycle, the number twenty-eight, the total of the letters, was considered to be composed of two equal halves of fourteen letters each, based on the model of the waxing and waning phases of the moon, estimated at fourteen days each. There are numerous other divisions made by grammarians as well as by exegetes, but it is not a question of expanding the above. The most remarkable among them is that which divides the alphabet into "luminous" letters and "obscure" letters. In the correspondence to the lunar cycle, it is the invisible mansions of the southern hemisphere that are identified with the fourteen "luminous" letters (namely: a, h˛, r, l, q, y, s, ṣ, t˛, k, m, n, and h) "since their spiritual light corresponds to the hidden light of these mansions." As for the visible mansions of the northern hemisphere, they correspond to the fourteen "obscure" letters, namely, the remaining letters of the alphabet. A long tradition, from Ibn Sīnā to the Ikhwān al- +1E62afā', from Jābir to the Pseudo-Majrīt˛ī, has echoed this point of view. This is shown by a characteristic passage of the Ghayāt al-h˛akīm (The Goal of the Sage, known in the Middle Ages under the Latinized title of Picatrix):

If the letters are 28 in number, the reason for this is that this number is a perfect individual made up of a spirit and a body. There are 14 (luminous) letters which are found at the beginning of the sūrahs of the Quran. They represent the spirit and just as the spirit is hidden, so the secret of these letters is hidden as well. It is at the same time the number of the invisible stations of the moon. On the other hand, the other letters (called obscure) which never figure at the beginning of the sūrahs represent the body and correspond to the visible stations of the moon.... There is the mystery of the Quran. 9

The luminous letters are found at the beginning of twenty-nine sūrahs of the Quran, isolated or in a group as initial letters (their number varying from one to five). Scholars of Arabic and orientalists have been wondering for centuries about the presence and role of these initial letters without reaching the least consensus concerning them. By all appearances verse III,7, dealing with passages of the Quran having more than one meaning (mutashābihāt), applies to these letters: "And no one knows the interpretation [of these passages] except God and those rooted in Science." Such is the "reading" made by the Sufis of this verse by extending to "those rooted in Science" the capacity of understanding and interpretation of the stated passages. As Tirmidhī wrote: "In the Fawātih˛ of the suras, there is an allusion to the meaning of the sura, known only to the Sages of God on His earth... men whose hearts have reached His essential solitude from which they have received this knowledge, that of the consonants of the alphabet." 10 Although dealing with such a subject is a delicate matter, we risk doing so with the hope not of giving an exhaustive explanation of it--such a thing is humanly impossible--but of suggesting an appropriate approach to the subject.

The initial letters are a theophany of the Uncreated in the created. The Quran, the scriptural manifestation of the uncreated Divine Word, belongs as the Book to the created order. The uncreated Word is not able to be expressed without recourse to the created letter. The letter is not the Word but its reflection. The Revelation is a superhuman effort at the transmutation of the Uncreated into the created. In the course of this process, the coagulation of the Word into a spoken and written sacred language--here Arabic--was left in suspense at certain points in the Quran where the divine impact is conserved, so to speak, in a state of the least crystallization, of the least literary hardening.

The initial letters take into account this state of "undifferentiation." They are not vocalized and, since they cannot be articulated, are not given to "recitation." With regard to manifestation, the initial letters are therefore imperfect or incomplete (=non finis). They have an apophatic dimension that distinguishes them from the rest of the Book. The Quran can be recited in all the verses wherein the Muhammadan receptacle contained integrally the Divine Message; it can, on the contrary, be only spelled--as by someone who does not understand what he is reading--there where the earthly and human receptacle was in some way less sealed off. The Prophet gave a sonoral vestment, clear and comprehensible, to the inaudible Word of God except in the initial letters where the Word remained relatively "naked" and was received as so many broken peals of the primordial Sound.

The initial letters are the part of the Book that has kept something of the celestial state in which was found the Revelation before its descent into Muhammad. It is that to which the tradition refers when it emphasizes that the initial letters concern the Divine Science transmitted directly to Muh˛ammad in a time span (so brief) during which no archangel was able to serve as intermediary or interpreter between God and the Prophet. On this subject it is reported that when Gabriel descended with khy'h (the initial letters of the nineteenth sūrah), to each letter that he enumerated, the Prophet added, "I know." Finally Gabriel exclaimed, saying, "How dost thou know something which I myself do not know?"

If one considers them more specifically in the framework of the mystery of the Revelation, the initial letters are the mediating boundary between the Divine Word and the Quran as the Book for the believers. They are an intermediary stage accidentally or providentially (according to the appreciation of the above-mentioned mystery) interposed between the Principle (God, the Divine Name, etc.) and the manifestation: that is, this same Divine Name developed, differentiated in conformity with the economy of the Message revealed to men and in the form of the Book--from whence comes the name sūrah (literally, "order," "ordered"), therefore, a group of ordered "sayings."

Letters of the Alphabet and Human Hands

Considered as the filigree of the alphabet, the numbers 28 and 14 are the symbolic values of the whole and of the half. We have just seen how the Quranic initial letters concern one half--implicitly preeminent--of the alphabet. From these speculations one can extract a highly affirmed dichotomy between the two halves (of the letters) concerned. This tendency is particularly aided and shaped by chirognomy. It can be observed that each hand, made up of five fingers, includes fourteen phalanxes (the name of the hand, yad, equals 14); the two hands therefore total twenty eight phalanxes, being as letters of the alphabet in such a manner that one can imagine them to be distributed as if they were in the "crucible" of the printer.

The distribution between the two hands would consequently have to divide the alphabet into letters of the right hand and letters of the left hand. Where this distribution would lead can easily be conceived from the fact that there is a difference of value attached from time immemorial to the right (of good augur) and to the left (of bad augur). 11 Without going so far as do some rather Manichaean interpretations, let us note that the preceding distinction between luminous and obscure letters is congruent with that of the letters of the right hand and the left hand. The right and the left correspond respectively to the south and the north and are applied consequently to the southern and northern hemispheres of the lunar mansions.

From the point of view of chirognomy, the left hand points to "nature," the sum total of the traits that define what is innate. It is related to the passive aspect as well as to the past. It is the part of predestination. The right hand points to what is acquired, the total of the modifications brought to heredity. What is acquired, in permanent becoming, comes to complete and correct the givens of the left hand, relatively immutable. The right hand is related to the active aspect; it is the hand of the future.

The remarkable numerical coincidence between the phalanxes and the letters potentializes the presence of Divine Names in the articulations of the two hands. The initiatic symbolism of the "union of the hands," at the time of the linking of the disciple to the spiritual master, confirms this idea of the theophoric hand. In brief, all this occurs as if the "union of the hands" had as its aim to awaken the sacred letters of the Name from sleep in the articulations and to articulate them (we stress the coincidence which the vocabulary notes between the act of elocution and the movement of the fingers) in the hand, albeit in a nonsonoral manner--therefore in a solely potential fashion, which then remains for the disciple to actualize. Since the hands make up the sum total of the letters, the composition of all of the Names is found therein in full force.

The Kabbala has made clear the appropriateness of this by distributing the Name YHVH expanded into twenty-eight letters upon the phalanxes of the two hands. If such a disposition is not possible without distortions or expedients with regard to the Name Allāh, it is so with the Name Huwa expanded into fourteen letters on one hand, and this would be done in order to relate it to the mystery according to which, in the union of the hands at the time of the initiatic pact, the two hands which the master places above the hand of the disciple are like "two right hands" (and not one left hand and one right hand in conformity with physiology). The anatomical bipolarization inherent in the profane human state is thus symbolically annulled and transcended. Because of the "union of the hands" (this expression is synonymous with "invocation"), the distribution and therefore the division of the letters between those of the right (hand) and those of the left (hand) become meaningless when the Sacred Name is recomposed. 12

To this incursion into chirognomy from the angle of the science of letters one could add another facet. It is said that the principal lines of the hand sketch a figure that has the form of the number 18 (| ^) on the right hand and 81 (^ |), the inverse, on the left hand. The total, 99, is the number of the Divine Names--we mean the innumerable essential Divine Qualities leading back to a canonically determined series of soteriological and criteriological Names mentioned in the Quran. To these ninety-nine traditional Names must be added Allāh, which makes them one hundred.

This fact brings about the appearance of a new relation between the science of the hand ('ilm al-kaff, kaff, another name for hand=100) and the science of letters and names, a relation made particularly evident by the fact that the Muslim rosary is made up of 99+1 elements concretely: ninety-nine beads plus the hundredth one, which is of a larger size; it is a structure remarkably congruent with that of the Names.

Conjointly with this projection of the twenty-eight letters in terms of the microcosm of the structural properties of the two hands, there exists a representation comparatively macrocosmic--indeed, metacosmic--of these letters on a celestial "sphere" or rather on a group of concentric "spheres" whose hierarchy and arrangement were expounded by Ibn 'Arabī--in the order of his "theory" of the "Divine Breath" (nafas al-Rah˛mān). This cannot be explained in detail here, but it involves different levels of reality woven upon the twenty-eight letters of the alphabet.

Schematically one can distinguish a divine level, a suprahuman or universal level, and a human level, represented respectively by the Divine Names, the cosmic degrees, and the twenty-eight letters of the alphabet. The letters are arranged following the order of phonetic emanation such as was established by the grammarian Sībawayh. Ibn 'Arabī contented himself with combining alif and hamzah to obtain the number 28, necessary to the "economy" of the exposition. The sequence that develops, beginning with the most internalized phonemes, the gutturals, through the most externalized, the labials--that is, from hā' to mīm--is framed by alif as the first degree (corresponding to the breaking of silence, to the sonoral eruption of hamzah) and by wāw as the final degree.

The Breath of the Compassionate and the Letters of the Alphabet

The theory starts with the idea of an expansion (what Ibn 'Arabī calls breadth) from a unique and primordial Reality. In conformity with the sonoral symbolism, from the Divine Breath proceed first of all the Names or Qualities, before even the creation of the world. At their "request," the Breath intervenes determining all of the "cosmic degrees," as a kind of easing or "relaxation" forming emanation into a hierarchy from the manifestation of the First Intellect to the creation of man.

These twenty-eight cosmic degrees are distributed into four quarters of seven. The first quarter, which is principial, extends according to an ascending progression from the vernal equinox to the summer solstice marked by the Throne and the polar letter qāf. The two succeeding, or intermediary quarters, extend from the summer solstice to the winter solstice, thus following a descending progression. They symbolize the whole of the formal world, which ends with the degree of the earth; they have for a center the sun and the letter nūn (the fourteenth letter linking the two halves of the phoneme series) situated at the autumnal equinox. The fourth quarter, once again ascending, ends with man (the letter mīm). The final degree (the letter wāw) accounts for the possibility of reintegration of all emanation in the initial degree (the letter alif).

Reintegration does not mean reunion. The cycle is not closed again exactly upon itself; the end is not rejoined by the beginning. Emanation proceeds in open spirals and not in closed circles. If it did not, parallel cyclical processes such as those of the sun and the moon would come to an end at the same time, with the result that their evolutionary relationship would cease and they would no longer have a raison d'ŕtre--or, to paraphrase the sūrah Yā' Sīn, "nor doth the night outstrip the day" (Quran XXXVI, 39). 13 This unequal superposition of sequences (which makes, for example, each of the "signs" of the Zodiac [burūj] to cover seven thirds of the lunar mansion) explains the nonrepetition of the cycles and rhythms, and it is upon this law that astrology is founded and, by extension, all the secondary divinatory sciences. Other examples could be given of this nonrepetition, the sine qua non of the continuum and of the diversity of the manifested. Let us cite, for the astronomical domain, the precession of the equinoxes, from which results the current time lag between the signs of the zodiac and the twelve corresponding constellations, the reestablishment taking place at the end of each major revolution.

For a good representation of the theory of the Divine Breath we will refer to the accompanying synoptic diagram (Illustration A), which is borrowed from T. Burckhardt. 14 In the absence of longer development, it will allow a view of the whole of the different "spheres" and degrees in question.

In this diagram, the alif must be considered separately from the other letters. We have said that, like hamzah, it marks the irruption of sound. It is the principle of sonoral manifestation of which all the other letters are differentiated symbols. It is necessary, therefore, to consider that the sequence of letters begins with hā' and ends with wāw, bringing out the two letters of the Divine Name Huwa. In the Sufi milieu, this Name has as much prestige as the Name Allāh, if not more. It is not possible to deal with the science of letters without speaking of the Science of Names. This can be treated only briefly in the present chapter; we will leave aside the esoteric expansions upon the "Supreme Name," al-ism al-a'z˛am, to which it ordinarily leads. 15

The Science of Names

In order to bear in mind certain subtle interferences and structural considerations, we will take as our point of departure the Name Allāh. In brief, it can be said that the expanded form of this Name is the (first) shahādah-lā ilāha illa'Llāh (there is no divinity but God)--and that the shortened form is Huwa--He. The Name Allāh is represented in traditional calligraphy in the accompanying illustration. It is a tetragram composed of alif, lām, lām, and hā'. As a tetragram, it would necessarily be written Allh. This could be grating; therefore, the form is Allāh. Three letters alone compose it: alif, lām, and hā'. Alif is a vertical line and represents the masculine, active principle (or injunctive, from the point of view of the symbolism of Sonoral energy); this meaning is reinforced by the dot above it, of which it is a sort of vertical projection. 16 Its numerical value, 1, is in fact the symbol of Unity. The last letter, hā', which is approximately a circle, represents the feminine, passive principle, and this meaning is reinforced by the crown (in the geometric sense of the term) above it. Between the initial rectitude of alif and the final, completely encircled form of hā', the two lāms constitute an intermediary stage assuring a sort of written transition.

We have just made allusion to the two signs, the dot and the crown which come above the alif and the hā'. The most plausible explanation is that the dot recalls a potential hamzah systematically left in an unmanifested state from a sonoral as well as a graphic point of view, and that the crown is the stylization of a miniature hā' added to indicate that the final hā' of the Name is a radical letter forming part of the tetragram and not an accessory letter (such as the indication of the feminine, for example). The dot and the crown are proportioned in such a way that they can interlock one into another and be fitted so precisely that they blend together in forming a single circle. Their coincidence makes clear the coincidence of the extremes, alif and hā'. This means that the Name Allāh cannot but join the essential aspect--the dot--and the substantial aspect--the crown; the two determinations of Being naturally supported by the polar letters alif and hā'. This coincidence can be considered the result of two inverse processes: the involutive or centripetal process in the case of the conjunction of the dot in the crown converging toward the unique Point (stricto sensu a circle, an "aggrandized dot"--if one can be allowed this geometric heresy), which is none other than the Name; and the evolutive or centrifugal process in the case of the separation of the dot from the crown diverging from the primordial Point, which is none other than the Name. They proceed from the Name and end there; the Name is at once their beginning and their end. They develop outside of it and are resolved in it, reciprocally annulling each other in the immutable heart of the Name, the place of the intersection of all the processes located not only outside of time and space but still more outside of all contingency.

The specificity of the shahādah appears in the turn of the phrase which Arabic syntax calls istithnā ("exception"), denoted by the particle illā (=in lā, "if it is not") the transcendent content of which is hidden in the internal structure of the formula. In brief, several connections based on reflection (in the optic sense) and symmetry (the "balance," Jābir would say) articulate the shahādah and reveal in it the complex interior equilibrium which the traditional distinction takes into account only imperfectly, in an unequivocal manner, in the "negative" clause: lā ilāha (the initial lā, the particle of negation) and the "positive" clause: Allāh (the initial lā, the definite article and beginning of Allāh al-ilāh). 17 The shahādah makes it evident that the Name Allāh, the symbol of the Universal Being as much as it is an affirmation, contains in an implicit or subjacent manner the symbol of the absolute indetermination of Non-Being (the negative particle buried within the word al-ilah decomposed and recomposed in lā and ilāh:

Drawing of lailah

As the Name Allāh includes four letters, the shahādah includes four words, and these words are composed exclusively of the same letters as the Name: alif, lām, hā'. We will note only the connection of the last letter of the Name and the last word of the formula: Hā' and Allāh. Just as the formula concludes with the Name Allāh, the Name concludes in its turn with the letter hā' by a kind of common convergence of the formula and the Name toward the same letter. Hā' marks a kind of ending; it is identified with exhalation (the most profound sound), with the last breath of the dying. Hā' thus makes a counterpart to the initial alif of Allāh (comparable to the first cry). An expression of Ipseity, hā' prolongs indefinitely sound and breath in the self. It can be said that hā' is, in a concentrated form, the Name Huwa inserted into Allāh, as Allāh is itself inserted into the shahādah. Inversely, it can be said that the Name Huwa is expanded in the Name of four letters, Allāh, itself expanded in a formula of four words, the shahādah. One finds oneself in the presence of a series of successive interconnections which Arabic orthography makes particularly clear:


The inherent nature of Huwa (we propose this form by analogy with that of Allāh) in Allāh explains the rather enigmatic presence of the crown above its final letter. It can be added here that it is a question of a "signature" (in the Boehmian sense of the word) of Self, precisely of the "huwa-ness" of Allāh, that is to say, of its connection with the absolute and universal Ipseity. It is this which several Sufis have recalled by showing the inherent nature and the permanence--or perennity--of Huwa in Allāh. In effect, by successive amputations of the Name one obtains LLH (lillāh, "to Allāh"), LH (lahu, "to Him") and finally H (hū, "He"), these being so many states of the Divinity whose enumeration expresses a progressive "reduction" to Ipseity: the Huwiyyah, an abstract term beginning with Huwa and equivalent to the scholastic term "aseity."

Ritually, one observes this "reduction" in the h˛ad˛rah or danced dhikr. The Name Allāh, at first clearly articulated, loses the first syllable and then is progressively reduced to a strongly exhaled breath like a death rattle. At this stage there is no longer conscious articulation; the final phoneme hā' itself disappears, diluted and mixed with the vital breath which escapes every act of will. The dancer no longer articulates; it cannot even be said that he "breathes" the Name. Rather, he is "breathed" by It: the Self has then absorbed the self.

The Divine Name Huwa is formed of the two letters hā' and wāw whose respective numerical values, 5 and 6, are traditionally those of the Earth and Heaven or, on the human plane, of the feminine and the masculine. Their total, 11, is the number of hierogamy, the number of the androgyne. The "Pythagorean sum" of 11, 66, is at once the number of the Name Allāh (1+30+30+5) and of the original couple, Adam and Eve (Ādam wa H˛awā: 45+6+15). This situates Huwa at the intersection of two axes, that of sacred onomastics and that of primordial androgyny. The Earth and Heaven can still be symbolized by two so-called "magic" circles having respectively as center hā' or the number 5 and wāw or the number 6. These expanded circles have respectively as their total value the numbers 45 and 54, the sum of which, 99, is related, as we have already seen, to the totality of the Divine Names--another testimony, from the angle of arithmology, of the synthetic quality of Huwa.

Remarks concerning Alchemy

Throughout these pages we have had the occasion to evoke diverse aspects relating to astrology, alchemy, etc. We have taken the side of approaching these sciences through the specifically Semitic perspective of the science of letters considered, let us remember, from an epistemological point of view, as the key science. By comparison, the other sciences result from borrowings from and adaptations of foreign currents and particularly from Alexandrian Hermeticism. 18 They would imply, therefore, from the point of view of methodology, a completely different approach. It is not possible to treat each of these sciences in depth; however, some complementary considerations on alchemy can find a place here.

The alchemy of which we speak here is not reducible to a sort of craftsmanship of metals and to laboratory work centered on the art of fire. (Mutatis mutandis, the activities of the blacksmith, potter, glassblower, etc. are not without connection to those of the alchemist.) Rather, it concerns a "mysticism" that utilizes the metallurgical process (physical and chemical) as symbolic support and interprets it, systematically, through analogy, in a spiritual perspective. For a Westerner the image that is most suggestive of this "way" is without doubt that of the alchemist in prayer (oraison) in his "lab-oratory," as the Latin adage laborare orare states. In the Islamic context an equivalent connotation is expressed in the declaration of 'Alī that alchemy is the sister of prophecy.

In such a perspective alchemical transmutation concerns not metals but the soul. The quest and the long "operative" process--common ground of the treatises on alchemy--are nothing other than the struggle to realize the Self, the Eternal Being, through the self. It is to this difficult "work" (in the full alchemical sense of the word) upon oneself that the "transmutation" of lead into gold applies, symbol of the primordial state (Arabic fit˛rah). Such a "transmutation" cannot occur spiritually without the direction of a master--the veritable human catalyst equivalent to what alchemy has designated as the "Philosopher's Stone."

There would be nothing in particular therein, and the "alchemical way" would not be distinguishable from other "mysticisms," if its means for attaining the goal common to all the ways were not completely original. Alchemy has recourse to no metaphysical, theological--indeed ethical-argument. Its method is essentially cosmological: the human soul in order to bear perfection is treated as a "substance" which supposes a profound knowledge of the analogies between "metallic" (exterior) and psychic (interior) domains. Furthermore, its objective character identifies alchemy as a path of gnosis rather than as a path of love. The formulation of alchemical treatises--the written part being the tip of the iceberg; the oral part, fundamentally, being invisible and, so to say, lost--rather insists on the Zen koan, logically incomprehensible (that is not to say, as do the profane, an unreadable and literally contraditory lucubration). The alchemist expresses himself through symbols. All of his language is in code. This coding has not failed to utilize the science of letters, and only a few rare initiates of the Great Art are capable of "reading" without misinterpretation; the majority form part of what has been called the "glassblowers."

We have evoked speculations concerning the four elements: earth, water, air, fire. It must be understood that this does not concern, for the alchemist, what scientists designate by these names but rather "qualities" or modalities through which the materia prima is capable of manifesting and differentiating itself. The process that alchemy "performs" for the Earth, astrology performs similarly for Heaven--starting from the astral givens. The two sciences stem from the same perspective, and their paths, which are complementary, closely interfere. The four elements--without forgetting the four "natures," hot, cold, dry, humid, from which they emanate--correspond to the states of the soul. Let us imagine them placed on a wheel or a "sphere." All "art" (Arabic sinā'ah) is to escape from the permanent process of transformations (coagulation, dissolution, etc.) and to reach the hub, the point where all movement ceases and wherein it is said that water becomes fire, fire water, earth air, and air solid. In this immobile center, this mysterious quintessence is comprehensible and a fortiori realizable only from a metaphysical point of view: this is an alchemy that is pure spirituality.

In order to arrive at this end--or "completion"--alchemy proceeds through the "bodies," and among them the couple Mercury--Sulfur is the object of very special consideration. They can best be compared to the couple Yin/Yang, the Taoist symbol of the two complementary principles. Mercury is the feminine principle; Sulfur the masculine principle. Islamic esoterism has identified Sulfur with the "Divine Command" or "Order," to the original kun through which the world, by means of the Divine Will, was brought forth from chaos and formed an "ordered" whole. (This is the meaning of the Greek kosmos, generally translated by the Arabic kawn, "that which exists.") Mercury represents the "Universal Nature," t˛abī'at

al-kull, the passive and plastic counterpart of the preceding. From the hierogamy of Sulfur and Mercury--corresponding in the microcosmic realm to the couple spirit/soul--Salt naturally issues, corresponding to the body. This hierogamy is sometimes imagined in the form of the two protagonists: Man and Woman (the King and the Queen, the Father and the Mother, etc. of which the treatises speak), sometimes also in the form of an androgynous entity (the "Rebis of alchemy"). All these aspects are found structured in the preceding diagram.

The Alchemy of Happiness

We do not wish to conclude this chapter without taking into account the text of Ibn 'Arabī which comprises chapter 167 of the Futūh˛āt al-makkiyyah ( The Meccan Revelations). The title of this chapter, "Of the Knowledge of the Alchemy of Happiness" (kīmiyā' al-sa'ādah) and Its Secrets,' is by itself strongly evocative of spiritual alchemy. The hermeneutics of the Existentiating Divine Command, kun, to which Ibn 'Arabī surrendered himself, "sets off the demiurgic properties of the letters which make up [this imperative]" and attest to "the truly divine nature of spiritual alchemy which the 'Science of Letters' uses. It is precisely this miraculous science which Jesus owns.... Like the demiurge which animates and organizes a preexistent matter, Jesus the Alchemist borrows a lump of clay with which to fashion the bird into which he then breathes the Spirit of Life 19 because Jesus is the Spirit of God." 20 It is with this remarkable parable concerning Jesus in whose person and function Ibn 'Arabī brings together the science of letters and "demiurgy" (to be understood as "the alchemical science of the production of beings," in brief, spiritual alchemy), that we will conclude this all too brief outline, hoping that we have given to the reader the desire to delve deeper into this spiritual Reality. This is achieved especially through a "transparent" vision of things, that is, by a personal meditation on what is beyond the senses, whether it be a question of letters or of the world of appearances.

Translated by Katherine O'Brien



Here is, for example, the way in which Ibn 'At˛ā' Allāh describes the formation of alif, the first letter, by means of emanation from the Point: "When the Point willed to be named alif... it extended itself... and descended... and became this alif...." And in a still more suggestive fashion: "It is said that the first thing that Allah created was a Point which He looked at... the Point melted [for fear under the Divine Gaze] and flowed downward in the form of alif' ( TraitÚ sur le nom Allāh, trans. M. Gloton [ Paris: Les Deux OcÚans, 1981] 137-38).


Y. Marquet, "ImÔmat, RÚsurrection et HiÚrarchie selon les IkliwÔn al-S˛afÔ'" Revue des Útudes islamiques 30 ( 1962) 49ff.


Quoted by R. GuÚnon in his Symbolism of the Cross, trans. A. Macnab ( London: Luzac, 1975) 68.


Being unable to deal with this science, let us cite on this subject this formula from al-Būnī: "Numbers symbolize the spiritual world and letters symbolize the corporeal world." He develops this some pages further along as follows: "Know that the secrets of God and the objects of His Science, the subtle and the gross realities, the reality of on-high and of the here-below, and those of the angelic world are of two kinds, numbers and letters. The secrets of the letters are in the numbers and the theophanies of the numbers are in the letters. Numbers are the realities of on-high due to spiritual entities and letters belong to the circles of the material and angelic realities. Numbers are the secret of words and letters the secret of actions. Numbers are the World of the Pedestal" ( Shams al-ma 'ārif al kubrā [ Cairo, n.d.] 1:78). Because they are quantitative and qualitative symbols, numbers are the keys to the comprehension of the intelligible world; like letters, they have as their end an arrangement that considers reality essentially in its connections with harmony (proportions and music). In this regard this "science" is a direct descendant of the Pythagorean tradition.


Abū Ish˛āq Quhistānī, Haft bāb-i pīr, trans. V. Ivanow ( Bombay: Ismaili Society, 1959) 60.


From al-Tirmidhī Nawādir al-usūl (MS).


See Ibn Khaldūn, Discours sur l'histoire universelle (al-Muqaddima), trans. V. Monteil ( Paris: Sindbad, 1967); and D. Urvoy, Penser l'Islam ( Paris: J. Vrin, 1980) 9, 111, 162-64.


The current meaning of the verbal noun i'tirād˛ is opposition, incidence, insertion. In his quotation, M. M. Bravman ( Materialien und untersuchungen zu den phonetischen Lehren der Araber [Dissertation, G÷ttingen, 1934]) translates this word by mittenhindurchgehen, "that which comes in the middle"; the adverb hindurch, giving the idea of "something which is crosswise," is expressed in the root 'arad˛a.


See al-Majrīt˛ī, Ghāyat al-h˛akīm, quoted in H. Corbin, L'Alchimie comme art hiÚratique, ed. P. Lory ( Paris: Edition de l'Herne, 1986) 175.


From the Nawādir al-uṣūl, quoted by L. Massignon in The Passion of al-Hallāj, Mystic and Martyr Islam, trans. H. Mason ( 4 vols.; Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982) 3:95-96.


See Quran LVI, 7-14, on the "Companions of the Right" and of "the Left."


In this idea of "recomposition" of a lost, unknown, and secret Name is implied the tradition of the Supreme Name of which the reality and the pronunciation would be known to only a few initiates. It concerns a persistent esoteric tradition found throughout the whole Semitic world.


One can see in the passage from the Quran referred to here a synthesis of what came before. The complete verse is as follows: "It is not for the sun to overtake the moon, nor doth the night outstrip the day. They float each in an orbit."


T. Burckhardt, Mystical Astrology according to Ibn 'Arabī, trans. B. Rauf (Gloucestershire: Beshara Publications, 1977) 32-33.


See n. 12.


See n. 1.


I am following here the economy of diverse graphic equations found in my essay "Lo specchio della ShahÔda", Conoscenza Religiosa 4 ( October-December 1980) 317-56.


One of the oldest mentions of the Emerald Table, the epitome of the Hermetic Revelation, is found in Jābir ibn H˛ayyān, at the end of the Kitāb sirr al-khalīqah (The Book of the Secret of Creation).


Cf. Quran III, 49: "I have come to you with a sign from my Lord [It is Jesus who is speaking]. I am going, for you, to create from clay a type of bird; I breathe into it and it becomes a bird with the permission of God...." This passage refers to a miracle related particularly in the Gospel of Childhood.


S. Ruspoli, L'Alchimie du bonheur parfait ( Paris: L'Ile Verte, 1981) 65-68.

Book Title: Islamic Spirituality: Manifestations. Contributors: Seyyed Hossein Nasr - editor. Publisher: Crossroad Herder. Place of Publication: New York. Publication Year: 1997.