“The Symbolism of Arabic Letters”

“The Symbolism of Arabic Letters” by Nadjm oud-Dine Bammate

Translator’s Introduction: It is said in the below biography that Bammate wrote beautifully.  This particular text came off a little clunky and disjointed to me at times.  There were also small typos here and there which may have been from whoever uploaded it originally.  All footnotes, pictures and Arabic writing were added by me for clarity.  The original version posted at soufisme.org can be found here.

Biography: Nadjm oud-Dine Bammate comes from a long line of central Asian Sufis.  A doctor of Roman Law, he devoted himself to Islamic Studies at a very young age at Lausanne, Cambridge, Al Azhar in Cairo and then at L’Ecole des Hautes Etudes de Paris with Louis Massignon.

After working as a delegate of Afghanistan in the United Nations in 1948, he began a thirty-year career at UNESCO.  There, he was coordinator of the Orient-Occident project, director of the philosophy and human sciences division, then of the cultural department and finally, special advisor to the General Director for culture and communication.  A skilled, good-natured educator, he also worked as a professor at the Sorbonne and L’Université de Paris VII, teaching Islamic Studies.  A relentless witness to the spiritual and pluricultural reality of Islam, he was also Ambassador of L’Organisation de la Conférence Islamique and President of L’Association Educative et Culturelle des Musulmans de France.

Speaking 12 languages, Nadjm oud-Dine Bammate embodied the “resplendent adventure of the dialogues of cultures.”  He died suddenly on January 15, 1985.  He had published many articles, but there were many others (as well as books) that were left unfinished.  A man of the word first, but also of literature (i.e. writing in the noble sense), he has left behind texts of great beauty and unfailing rigor.

More info here in French

Soufisme d’Orient et d’Occident wishes to allow you to sample the joy of reading one of these texts.

Allah calligraphy in Koran,

  • All of Creation can be summed up in the writing that makes up the name of Allah.

Excerpt from a text by Nadjm oud-Dine Bammate.

The Alphabetical Order

The Muslim Tradition recognizes the science of letters (‘ilm al-hurouf – علم الحروف), which is linked with the science of numbers (‘ilm al-arqaam – علم الأرقام) as well as the knowledge of the divine names (asma al-housna – أسماء الحسنى).  This science goes right up to the Quran.  The sacred book is not just a guide for the believers: each verse, each letter is a divine revelation; moreover, the Quran is the literal word of God.  Against all heterodox temptations, the Muslim theology has rigorously maintained that the book is like the Verb: eternal and uncreated.  The assertions of the doctors of this law are taken up and amplified in the mystic symbolism.  Thus, the pages that the believers chant are nothing other than the signs engraved for all of eternity in “The Guarded Table[1]” beside the Divine Throne.

The first word revealed to Muhammad was the imperative “Read” (iqra – اقرَ), followed by the phrase “Read (recite) in the name of your Lord Who created man and taught him by the pen.”  Thus the pact between God and man, writing, is made at the exact moment of the creation of Adam.  The entire universe can be considered, for that matter, as a writing of God.  The creation of the world obeys the same rhythm and traces the same arabesque of the divine spirit as the Quran.  Likewise, in return, the symbolism of writing carries the praise that the created give to their Lord.  It is said that if the ocean were a prodigious inkwell and all the trees of the world were pens, this cosmic calligraphy would not exhaust the praise of His splendor.

The root of the word “iqra’,” which is the verb “qara’a – قرأ,” to read, is also found in the name of the Quran (القرآن.  Quran therefore means reading.  The Bible, The Scriptures, the Quran: by these words, the three religions place themselves under the sign of the book.  The Muslim Tradition groups them under the expression “ahl al-kitaab – أهل الكتاب,” the People of the Book.  Christianity, however, is before all else the religion of the Incarnation; whereas Islam, like Judaism, affirms Transcendence without condition – thus, the higher prestige of writing: it takes the place of Incarnation.  Hence, it is the Quran, a book, and not Muhammad (as is often believed), that occupies the place of Christ in Islam.  The believer of the desert shudders at the metaphysical scandal that is the idea that one could attribute a carnal form to God.  Only writing is sufficiently abstract to manifest the Verb.  Calligraphy is the art of iconoclasts.  It has been said of cathedrals that they were Evangels of stone.  For Islam, it is necessary to reverse the terms and say that it’s true monument, its temple, its icons, its Pietàs, are the letters of the sacred Book.  Writing and drawing at the same time, the arabesque is the Muslim art par excellence.   Drawing, like writing, comes down to the essential, the most stripped-down form, the most intellectual, a pure game of linear rhythms closer to mathematics than art.  “The arabesque drawing is the most ideal of all,” Baudelaire has said in one of his Fusées[2].  The arabesque is a text that would be its own illustration, an image that would be its own commentary – impossible to go further in the economy of means.

The shahada in calligraphy taking the shape of a praying Muslim.

May no one touch here if he be not purified.”  This phrase is inscribed on the cover of certain copies of the Quran.  As with prayer, one must perform ablution before approaching the sacred Book.  To copy the Quran in its hand is one of the most meritorious acts.  Even today, in the time of printers, it is preferable to create a Quran based on a manuscript upon which a plume has shaken, rather that creating the characters directly with lead, i.e. inert objects.

A man of profound faith would not sell a copy of the Quran.  The word of God literally has no price.  A Quran is not sold, it is given (because what is given is inestimable).  Many Muslims wear around their neck, much like a holy image or a crucifix, an assemblage of Quranic verses.  Some keep a miniature edition of the Quran with them.  The prestige of the Quran extends to all writing.  Any paper, no matter what, marked with alphabetical signs must be respected, because it can offer the divine word.  Actually, every book published in a Muslim country – and even a mere letter between friends – begins with the formula “In the name of God, the Beneficent and the Merciful” (bismillah ar-raHmaan ar-raHeem – بسم الله الرحمان الرحيم).  They must be in dedication to the name of the Lord.  In a sense, each written text presents itself as a seedling of the Quran.  Thus, the common action that consists of gathering a piece of paper that has touched the ground and protecting it on oneself, between the stones of a wall or anywhere that salvages it.  The signs of the alphabet, as such, thus share the dignity of bread.  As one does not have the right to throw away a piece of bread, in the same way, one cannot abandon a written page: both actions would be a desecration.

The components of the name of Allah.

The symbolism of the Arabic letters reaches its culmination in the theory of the divine names.  All of Creation can be summed up in the writing of the name of Allah.

The first letter, alif ( ا ) – number 1 in the diagram, which sounds like “a,” presents itself as a vertical line.  But on top of this line is a little sign (hamza’ waSl – number 2 in the diagram), a point which represents the glottal stop, the call of air before the word – just as silence precedes the verb, and the secret, beyond all manifestation, precedes the unity of being.  However, the two signs are but one realityThe vertical feature is interpreted as a projection of the point: the point is merely the line seen from the “bottom,” as it were.  The two together symbolize that God is both “beyond the stars” and “closer to us that our jugular artery.”

Next comes the sign “ ا ” of the name of Allah.  This letter is called “barzakh – برزخ” (I believe this refers to number 6 in the diagram.  This can also be much longer and go through the name itself.  This is called a dagger alif.), the letter of the mediator, the intermediary, the go-between.  Through this letter, God manifests himself in the world, develops Creation and takes possession of things.  The symbols are visual, sonorous and numeric all at the same time.

Large dagger alif

The letter lam ( ل ) – numbers 3 and 4 in the diagram – extends itself like a hook; what’s more, it’s doubled.  The voice causes this letter of manifestation to vibrate in giving as much resonance to it as possible.  The number of lam (30) also signifies infinite expansion.

Finally the letter ha( ه ) – number 7 in the diagram – the final expired breath, returns to the alif like a buckle that returns on itself: the circle is complete.

The correspondences are not limited to the name of Allah, for God has 99 names – the hundredth being secret, and not belonging to the series of idea, form, sound or number.  Innumerable analogies can be applied here.  For example, the gestures of Muslim prayer can be interpreted as a transcription: in the movements of the body are the letters that form the names of Allah.  The mystics of Islam were able to draw out from letters the most dazzling variations.

The point below the letter ba’ ascending above the letter nun.

Mansour al Hallaj compares the state of the spiritual union with God to the location of a punctuation sign on a letter.  He says that the goal of life is to make the point that is located below the letter ba’ ( ب ) rise up above the letter nun (  ن ).  Both letters are composed of an arc.  The only difference is, in effect, the location of the point.  The letter ba ب – the beginning of the word baab – باب  (door) – is the letter of creation.[3]  The letter nun ن – the beginning of the word nunنون (fish, or large fish like the fish in the story of Jonah) – symbolizes resurrection.

The prayers for the dead often rhyme in ن.

Let’s note in passing the signification of the fish in the early symbolism of Christianity.  To cause the point to rise from below the arc to the top of it is to pass from the world of Creation to that of Resurrection: an operation equivalent to spiritual rebirth, illumination.

References (listed in the original article)

Pierre Lory, “La science des lettres en Islam”, Devry (2005)

Ibn Khaldun, “Al-Muqaddima”, Chap. “Al-Simiya”

Amadou Hampaté Bâ, “Jésus vu par un musulman”

Pierre Lory, “Magie et religion dans l’oeuvre de Muhyi al-Din al-Buni”, Horizons Maghrébins, (1986) pp. 4-15

[1] According to ibn ‘Abbas: “Allah created a Table guarded by a great, large pearl.  Its two planks are of red ruby.  Its quill is a light and its writing is a light.  It is as large as the space between the heavens and the earth.  Each day, He looks at it 360 times.  With each one of His looks, He creates, gives life, gives death, raises or lowers His creatures, and He does that which He wills.  This is exactly what the verse ‘Each day, he is at his work (55, 29)’ relates to us.” The Quran verse reads كل يوم هو في شأنٍ – kullu yawmin huwa fii sha’nin, which can be translated as “Every day he is tending to an affair, state of affairs, business, work” or maybe even “that which concerns him.” Source: http://mizab.over-blog.com/2016/10/la-description-de-la-table-gardee.html 

[2] The quote I find from Baudelaire’s Journaux intimes (1887), Fusées reads “The arabesque drawing is the most spiritual of all drawings.” (Le dessin arabesque est le plus spiritualiste des dessins.)  Source: http://dicocitations.lemonde.fr/citations/citation-64804.php

[3] I note that a door is also an opening.  The first surah of the Quran is الفاتحة (The Opening).