The Islamic Background of Arabic term عَمَاء ,`amā'




 The Islamic Background of Arabic termعَمَاء,  `amā'


Stephen Lambden, UCMerced.

First written early 1980s. Now being revised and completed.

 The Arabic verbal noun عَمَاء     `amā'.

 In the first line of the Rashh-i `ama' the word `ama'   is the second word in genitive relationship with the pre-genitive word rashḥ

رشح عما از جذبه ما ميريزد 

The  governed noun `amā'  is derived from the Arabic root   amiya  the basic sense of which is `to become blind, to be obscure'. `Amā' could thus be translated "blindness", "secrecy", "obscurity" (etc.) though it also has the sense of `cloud', possibly  `heavy and thick clouds (which hide and obscure) or (the opposite!) light diaphanous clouds.

 Tradition has it that the Prophet Muhammad was asked, `Where was our Lord before He created the creation?'  He is said to have replied:

قال : كان في عماء ما تحته هواء وما فوقه هواء وخلق عرشه على الماء

He [God] was in عَمَاء   ('amā' , a "Cloud")  above it [or Him] Air (hawā') and below it [or Him] Air (hawā'),  then He created His Throne upon the Waters".

This reply probably originally expressed the conviction that God was hidden and self-subsisting in His own Being. It perhaps indicated that before His work of creation God was in obscurity, enshrouded in the `cloud' of His own Being, wrapped in a dark mist. Versions of the above hadith are found in a wide range of  Sunni and Shi`i literatures. It was reported by Ahmad ibn Hanbal in his Musnad  (vol. 4: 11):

عن أبي رزين قال قلت يا رسول الله أين كان ربنا عز وجل قبل أن يخلق خلقه ؟

 قال : كان في عماء . ما تحته هواء وما فوقه هواء . ثم خلق عرشه على الماء

[Reported] From Abī Razīn, `I enquired, `O Messenger of God [=Muhammad], where was our Lord (exalted and glorified) before He created His creation?'. He [Muhammad] replied, `He was in  the Cloud (al-`amā'), no Air beneath Him and no Air above Him. Then He created His Throne upon the [primordial] Water(s) (trans. Lambden).

This tradition is also found in the following canonical Sunni hadith compilations:

  • (1)  The Sunan of  Muhammad ibn `Isā' Tirmidhi,

"Abu Razin told that he asked God's messenger, `Where was our Lord before He created the creation?" to which he replied, " He was in obscurity (`ama') with no air below Him and no air above Him, and He created His Throne on the Water'"  (Sunan 4:351) (trans., J. Robson in Mishkat al-Masabih.. Vol. II (Lahore, 1975), pp. 1227 8

 It is here noted that Tirmidhi transmitted this tradition and that Yazid ibn Hārūn al Wāsitiī(d. 206) said that "`amā' means that there was nothing with Him [God]"). 

See also E. W. Lane, Arabic-English Lexicon.. (London, 1874 ), Bk.I. Pt.5., pp. 2161 2 where the following translation is given,

 "[God].. was in clouds, or lofty clouds &c., beneath which was a vacuity and above which was a vacuity" (p. 2161).

  • (2) The Sunan of Ibn Majah vol. 1:64.
  • (3) al-Dur al-Manthur vol. 3:322  of al-Bayhaqi,                

The ḥadith of `ama' was cited by and regarded as "sound" by the great Persian born Sunnī Qur'ān commentator Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Ṭabarī (d. 3XX/923) who cited it, for example, in his Tarikh al-rusul wa'l-muluk (History of Messengers and Kings, ).

`Abd al Karīm al Jili (1365 1420).

For the Shī`īte Sufi `Abd al Karīm al Jili (1365 1420) `amā' was believed to be indicative of of the absolute hiddenness of the transcendent Godhead, "the highest level of the divine essence which is beyond both absolute reality (al-ḥaqq) and createdness (al-khalq )". It signfies "Being sunk in itself, bare potentiality" , "the eternal and unchangeable ground of Being", the "absolute inwardness (buṭūn) and occultation (istitar)" of the transcendent Divine Essence.  ADD 1.


Shāh Wali-Allāh Dehlavi ( d. 1762)

The important Muslim theologian Shah Wali-Allah of Delhi ( d. 1762) defined `amā' as the " world of primal matter" capable of assuming all incorporeal forms.

`Amā' in early Shaykhism