The al-ism al-a`zam in Early Shaykhism

 

 

The al-ism al-a`zam in Early Shaykhism, the writings of Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa'i (d. 1141/1826) and Sayyid Kazim Rashti (d.1259/1843).

Stephen Lambden UCMerced.
In progress  and under revision 1980s-2017.

 

Treatises and statements on the significance of the al-ism al-a`zam, the "Mightiest Name of God" are found in the writings of Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsā'i (d.1826 CE) and his successor  Sayyid Kāẓim Rashtī (d.1843/4 CE),  two of the most innovative and important Muslim thinkers of the Qajar period.

The writings of Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsā'i (d. 1241/1826).

 

The writings of Sayyid Kāẓim al-Ḥusaynī al-Rashtī (d.1259/1843)

The charismatic and mystically inclined Persian Shī`ī thinker Sayyid Kāẓim Rashtī  (c. 1212/1798--1259/1843) was the second head of al-Shaykhiyya, the so-called Shaykhī school of Shī`ī Islam which emerged during the early Qājār period. He succeeded the sage, philosopher and mystical thinker, the foundational figure for Shaykhism, Shaykh Aḥmad b. Zayn al-Din al-Ahsā'ī (1166-1241 =  1753-1826 CE) who was  born in the eastern Arabian province of al-Aḥsā (= Ḥasā ) though he lived most of his life in the Shī`īte shrine cites of Iraq (1790s – early 1800s) and in Iran (1806-1826). He passed away in 1826 in the Mecca-Medina region whilst travelling to perform the Islamic pilgrimage. Like Shaykh Aḥmad, Sayyid Kāẓim was a prolific and wide-ranging writer in both Persian and Arabic. The bibliographical Fihrist  (“Index”) of `Abu’l-Qasim Khan Ibrahīmī,  lists around 166 of his writings which have been much less studied and published that his master Shaykh Aḥmad al-Aḥsā’ī.

The Commentary of Sayyid Kāẓim al-Ḥusaynī al-Rashtī.

  • شرح دعاى السمات وحديث القدر  
  • The  Commentary upon the Prayer of the Signs and the Ḥadīth regarding Destiny)

Sayyid Kāẓim al-Ḥusaynī al-Rashtī (d.1259/1843) wrote the recently (re-) printed medium length (1350 verse and over 300 page) commentary on the Du`a al-simāt (Prayer of the Signs) in Ottoman Kufa (now Iraq) on the 15th Sha`ban 1238 (27th April 1823). This for a certain Mullā `Alī Asghar Nīshāpūrī in response to his enquiry about a portion of this then well-known supplication, the Du`a al-simāt -- the recent reprint includes a commentary of Sayyid Kazim upon a Shi`i hadith about al-qadr (destiny, fate). The Shaykhi leader Āqā Ḥajjī `Abu'l-Qāsim Khān al-Ibrahīmī / Kirmānī (d.1969), the well-known as the author of the Fīhrist kutub mashāyikh `izam (Catalogue of the books of the mighty Shaykhs) a Shaykhī `Bibliographical Index'), had it that the Arabic Commentary on the Du`a al-simāt of Sayyid Kāẓim was replete with "weighty mysteries and philosophical wisdom" (Fihrist, No. 144 p. 292). It contains important musings and commentary upon the al-ism al-a`zam concept.

On the Du`a al-Simat see  this Hurqalya website :

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The Sharh al-ism al-a`zam (Commentary upon the [Graphical Form] of the Mightiest Name [of God]).

Know then that [this] the [Greatest] Name is the theophany (zuhur)  expressive of His glorious effulgences (tajalliyat).  Wherefore did He [gloriously] transfigure Himself (al‑mutajalla) before  Him [Moses] (cf. Q. 7:143) was [as]  a locus (mahall)   of the [efflugent] belovedness of the [Greatest]  Name (wudud al‑ism) and His [Sinaitic] Parousia [Encounter.. wuq¬`) through which they [`Ali+ Moses...?] do make summons, through the [Greatest] Name (al‑ism) and the [Glorious] Transfiguration (al‑mutajalla) which is [implicit] therein. It is assuredly  the [Greatest, Divine] Name since dependenence  (al‑ta`alluq), affinity  (al‑irtibat) and the glorious transfiguration (al‑mutajalla)  are the  designated  realities (al‑musamma).  And when the vision is sharp (M‑C‑N IV) and the thought penetrative respecting the utterance of `Ali ‑‑ upon whom be peace ‑‑"Nay rather! He was disclosed [transfigured] before him, in him (li‑hi bi‑‑hi) and through  Him was he restrained from Him, and even unto Him in terms of His judgement [wisdom]  (wa bi‑ha imtina`a man‑ha wa ila‑ ha hakim an).  And [Imam Ja`far] al‑Sadiq ‑‑ upon him be peace saith ‑‑ "He created the Mashiyya  (Divine Will) through His Own Self  (bi‑nafsihi) and caused (all) things (al‑ashya')  to be established in its (His) shade  through their incineration before the Mystery. And it is not made clear through explication, through the clarity of the allusion. And the name of the    ...

The graphical form of the al-ism al-a`ẓam  (Mightiest Name) is specifically said to have the following ṣūrat  (form) towards the beginning of the Risālah fī sharḥ wa tafsīr ism al-a`ẓam:

Though an extra initial as well as the final pentalpha () (as above) is not always represented in the  ten or more variant forms of the graphical representation of the Mightiest or Greatest Name of God, the seven (or more) sigla / components comprising it are collectively representative of the all-Powerful  divine “Name”. They are largely if not wholly derived from their graphical depiction ascribed to the first Shī`ī Imam, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, Imam Alī b. Abī  Ṭālib (d. 40 / 661) to whom a good deal of esoteric knowledge and sometimes Isrā’īliyyāt (loosely, “Israelitica”), Islamo-biblical and associated traditions are ascribed. Note for example, the al-Khuṭbah al-ṭutunjiyya  [or taṭanjiyya] (loosely, “Sermon of the Gulf”) contained in the  Mashāriq  anwār al‑yaqīn fī asrār Amīr al‑Mu'minīn (Beirut: Dār al‑Andalus, 1978, pp. 166-170) of  al‑Ḥāfiẓ Rajab, al-Bursī  (d. c. 814/1411) and the unpublished marginally written Persian treatise on (3 X 3 type) `Magic squares and talismanic devices’ attributed to this first Imam 'Alī which is held in the national Library of Medicine (mss. `On Magic Squares and Talismans’ MS P 29, marginal - item 15 ;   refer  http://www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/arabic/astrology3.html ).

Sayyid Kāẓim cites the following sevenfold Arabic description of the al-ism al-a`ẓam: it is,  

  • [1] Three rods (`uṣiyy) in a row [ | | | ] after
  • [2] a seal [khātam = ☆ ]; above them the likeness of a straightened lance [‑‑].
  • [3] A blind [Arabic letter] M [mīm  ]  without a tail;
  • [4] then a ladder unto all that is hoped for, but which is not a ladder [].
  • [5] Four things like fingers in a row, pointing to good deeds, but without a wrist [ IIII ]
  • [6] And a [letter] "H" (hā' ) which is  cleft (shaqīq) [  ھ  ]    
  • [7] then an inverted [letter] wāw    و  like the syphon of a phlebotomist  (ka‑anbūb ḥajjām, "tube of  the cupper") though not a cupping glass (miḥjam) :               

This is [representative] of the Mighty Name (al‑ism al‑ mu`aẓẓim); If you knew it not aforetime, then know it now!

O bearer of the Mighty Name (ṣāḥib al‑ism al‑`aẓīm), take sufficiency in it, for you shall be preserved from misfortunes and kept safe thereby. It is the Name of God (ism Allāh) ‑‑ exalted be His glory ‑‑ unto all humankind whether pure Arab (faṣīḥ)  or non-Arab (a`jam)."   

Sayyid Kāzim’s imamologically oriented  commentary on the poetical and graphic Islamo-biblica or  Isrā’īliyyāt (Israelitica) related tradition regarding the symbol of the Mightiest Name, cannot be discussed in detail here. For details see this website at :

It must suffice here, to note that Sayyid Kazim draws upon allegedly pre‑Islamic dimensions of traditions about the Mightiest Name of God. Rashtī commences his commentary by acknowledging his indebtedness to the upright, pious and sagacious master, named Shaykh Muhammad Aḥmad (=  Shaykh Aḥmad).  Through him he was informed that "certain of the religious communities (al‑millī) are aware of portions of the words (al‑kalimāt) constituting the Mightiest Name (al‑ism al‑a`ẓam)".  It is stated that they are evident in "fourteen temples" (hayākil), apparently indicating the Shī `īte pleroma (“fullness”) of Muhammad, Fāṭima and the 12 Imams. Differentiated or subdivided into thirteen "letters" after the thirteen individual elements constituting the seven graphic sigla which make up the mightiest Name of God (counting from the initial pentacle () to the inverted wāw    eight portions out of the 13 were known to the pre‑Islamic communities. Four elements ("letters") derive from the Tawrat, (the Torah, Hebrew Bible) and four from the Injīl  ("Gospel"), the other  five derive from the Qur'an (4+4+5 =13).  Sayyid Kāẓim’s explanations of these components of the al‑ism al‑a`ẓam are distinctly imamological  (Rashtī, Sh‑Ism, 271aff). .

The Sayyid further explains how it is that the Torah has four "letters"  of the Mightiest Name. He explains that this is so in the light of the following well‑known prophetic ḥadīth , "O `Alī you are to me after the manner of Aaron to Moses". A typological relationship is thus set up between Moses and Muhammad. Moses [= Muhammad], it is explained, is foundational (aṣlan), the Reality (al‑ḥaqīqa),  while the Torah (al‑tawrat)  before him is his essential  persona (aṣāla dhāt an). Moses the prophet (al‑nabī)  is essentially the Moses of  the gate of reality upon reality (ḥaqīqa). In a metaphorical sense the reality of the Torah which was revealed before him  consists of  four letters which are the four lettered  personal name Muhammad (= M‑Ḥ‑M‑D). The manifestation of the name Muhammad before Moses took place at the Sinaitic theophany (tajallī)  of the Lord (=  Q. 7:143). The agent of this theophany is again said to have been  an individual from among the cherubim (rajal min al‑karubiyyīn) evidently one associated with the name Muhammad (Rashtī, Sh.Ism, 273b). 

That four letters of the al‑ism al‑a`ẓam  are found in "the  Injīl  of Jesus son of Mary" is also commented upon by Sayyid Kāẓim. He states, "And he [Jesus] is the likeness (mithāl) of [Imam] `Alī." This typological equation also has to do with the letters of the mightiest Name being imamologically realized. That Imam `Alī is equated with Jesus finds echoes in the writings of the Bāb ( see Persian Bayan VIII:2). Five "letter" components of Mightiest Name are also allotted to the Qur'an. They are imamologically understood as representing the pentad of the four twelver Imams, [1] Ḥasan, [2] Ḥusayn, [3] Ja`far al-Ṣādiq,  [4] Mūsā and the prophet’s daughter [5] Fāṭima.  At one point in his commentary  on the Khuṭba al‑ṭutunjiyya  Sayyid Kāẓim also interprets the seven graphic sigla of the Mightiest Name imamologically, as [1] Muhammad, and six of the Imams, [2] `Alī, [3] Fāṭima [4] Ḥasan, [5] Ḥusayn, [6] Ja`far  and [7] Mūsā. These seven are  indicative of the fullness, the pleroma  of the fourteen (= 2x7) immaculate ones (Sh.Ttnj : 53). 

It is also interesting to note that Sayyid Kāẓim gives the seventh item, the inverted letter   wāw   و  a messianic significance stating that it  "alludes to the [messianic] Proof (al‑ḥujjat),  the son of Ḥasan [al‑Askarī, the 11th Imam, d. c. 260/874]". The central (hidden) letter "A" (alif)  of the three letters of wāw  when spelled out in full (= و و  ا  ) represents the Qā’im [messianic Ariser]) as one "stationed between the two gulfs (ṭutunjayn), the isthmus (barzakh) between the two worlds". This mode of exegesis is also taken up in Bābī‑Bahā’ī scripture, most notably in the Qayyūm al‑asmā’  of the Bāb and, for example,  the  al‑Kitāb al‑aqdas  ( "Most Holy Book" c. 1873) and Lawḥ‑i Hirtik  of Bahā’-Allāh. 

Sharh al‑Qasda al-lamiyya ( Commentary upon the Ode rhyming in the Letter Lam="L")

Sayyid Kÿzim Rashti (d. 1260/ 1843/4) likewise utilized the rich imagery of the Light verse and commented thereon. In his 1258/1842 Qasida al‑lamiyya ("Ode rhyming in the letter "L" ‑‑ original ode by `Abd al‑Baqi Afandi al‑Mawsuli, d. 1204/1789), for example, in the course of commenting upon the exalted status of the seventh Imam, Imam Musa al‑Kazim (d. 799 CE), the Sayyid several times quotes and comments upon Q. 24:35a. Imam Musa is referred to as a "Dawning‑Point for the Light of wilaya ("Guardianship") (nur walaya), one stationed [representative] before the theophany of the Sun of Prophethood [=Muhammad] (waqif li‑zuhur shams al‑nubuwwa). A quotation [from al‑Kazim] is then cited to the effect that the Light (al‑nur) is [both] the Radiance (al‑diya') and the Splendour [Beauty] (al‑baha'). Sayyid Kazim then cites the first clause of the "Light verse" -  "God is the Light of the heavens and of the earth" (Q. 24:35a) ‑‑ and comments that the "Light" (al‑nur) which is associated with "the Name"  (al‑ism) which is, in fact, the Causitive Reality (al‑`ilya [`ulliya]) for, he continues :

 ... outwardly it is the Cause which is effective through the Divinity (bi'l‑uluhiyya)  It is the Greatest, Greatest Name" (al‑ism al‑a`zam al‑a`zam). He saith ‑‑ glorified be He ‑‑ "God is the Light of the heavens and of the earth" (Q. 24:35a)  and the Light relateth to the Name which is the Cause [Causitive Reality]; outwardly it is the Cause through the wilaya ("Custodianship‑Guardianship"). It is the Greatest, Greatest Name. It is the Name  through which God created the heavens and the earth. By means of it He created the originated mountains (jabalut al‑khala'iq) [within creation] and through it He created the jinn, and human beings.. [cf. Shaykh Amad] ... And it is the First Light (al‑nÿr al‑awwal) which hath the First Name and the Elevated [Primordial] Reality (al‑ism al‑awwal wa'l‑aqiqah al‑`aliya). And He said, glorified be He, "Praise be unto God Who created the heavens and appointed the darknesses [shadows] and the light" (Q. 6:1a). And this "Light" (al ‑nur) is constitutive of (ma`jÿl)  of that "Light" (al‑nur) and its effect [trace] atharihi) and its created expression (makhluq). It [Q,6:1a] hath the Name of "the Light (al‑nur) [being the] and the Secondary Reality (al‑aqÿqaal‑thÿniyya) on the level of all enduringness (fÿ al‑rutba[t] al‑baqiyya); the Radiant Splendour in terms of Luminosity (al‑diya'  a`la al‑munir) and the Foundation and Cause (al wa'l‑`illah). Such is expressed in His saying, ‑‑exalted be He ‑‑ "He made the Sun [to be] al‑diya' ("a Radiance") and the moon a light (nur).." (= Q.10:5a). So the Radiance (al‑diya') is the luminosity (al‑munir) for this is an attribute of the luminous Sun (al‑shams al‑munir). The "Light" (al‑nur) is a derivitive aspect (?) just as is the state of the [radiance of the] Moon [?check]. Now as for the Splendour (al‑sana') it is synonymous with [named] the Radiance (al‑diya') and the  Beauteous‑Glory (al‑baha')  and the Light (al‑nur)... Our Lord and Master Abÿ `Abd Allah, Ja`far ibn Muammad al‑Sadiq said... in the Tafsir on the basmala  the "B" (al‑bÿ') is Baha'‑Allah and the "S" (al‑sin) is Sana'‑Allah ("The Splendour of God"). Thus doth the baha' have precedence [preceed] the sana' ("The Splendour") we are taught that the sana' ("The Splendour") is an [subsiduary] aspect (al‑sanÿ' furu`) the baha' is foundational (al‑bahÿ' al). It is thus the case that the al‑bahÿ' has the sense of the al‑iyÿ' (" the Radiance") and the  sana' ("The Splendour") has the sense of the Light (al‑nur)... and it [baha'!] is His Messenger (rasul) and Musa son of Ja`far, Mighty Trees (dawat) of the divine, primordial Olive Tree (al‑shajarat al‑awwaliyya al‑ilahhiyya al‑zaytuniyya) which is neither of the East nor Western (laysat l‑sharq an wa la gharbiyya)... and that Tree (al‑shajara)  is the Tree of Exterior Prophethood (sharajah al‑nubuwwah al‑zahira) expressive of wilaya ("Custodianship") (fi'l‑wilaya) and it is the Muhammadan Reality (al‑haqiqat al‑Muhammadiyya)... He said, the Great Shaykh [= Shaykh Muhyi al‑Din ibn al‑`Arabi] in the Futuhat [al‑Makkiyya]  that the Muhammedian Presence (al‑hadarat al‑muhammadaniyya) is the most proximate [to God] of the presences approaching God (aqrab al‑hadrat ila Allah)...  (Sayyid Kazim Rashti, Sharh al‑Qasda, 000 [unpaginated])