`Ilm al-Jafr, “the science of Jafr" (Alphabetical Divination).
Some Notes on Islamic Divinatory and Numerological gnosis: Jafr, ramz and `ilm al‑ḥurūf and the chronological schemata of Sayyid `Alī Muhammad the Bab.
Stephen Lambden. UC Merced.
The notes below were written in the early 1980s and are currently under revision and supplementation.
Last uploaded -09-03-2016
Divinatory, Gematric and Numerological gnosis: Jafr, ramz and `ilm al‑ḥurūf .
علم الَجفر, الَجفر
Jafr (lit. “Cow-hide”) and `Ilm al-Jafr (“the science of Jafr - "divination").
The various of branches of Islamic esoterica or gnosis (`irfān) often utilize a symbolic hermeneutic and incorparate, various modes of ramūz ("code-names, symbols, and allegories, `secret characters and alphabets’ (see esp. Heinrichs + Knysh, `Ramz', EI2 VII : 426‑430)1 as well as aspects of jafr (divination, number mysticism, occult prognostication). They often reflect numerological‑qabbalistic and esoteric or magical texts important within Abrahamic and related religious traditions. The following are the opening words of a recently printed edition of the Kitāb al‑jafr al‑jāmi` wa'l‑nūr al‑lāmi` (Book of the Universal Jafr and the resplendent Light) attributed to Imam `Alī:
Praised be unto God who taught humanity that which they knew not.. Know thou.. that the science of Jafr (al‑`ilm al‑jafr ) is [regulated] by alphabetical rules (bi‑qawānīn ḥarfiyya) through which comes about the divination of hidden things (istinbā al‑majhūlāt) relating to conrete [cosmic] events (ḥawādīth al‑kawniyya) the locale of the letters, gathered up in the scrolls of universal jafr (al‑mutajami`ah fī ṣaḥā'if al‑jafr al‑jām`a) and the resplendent Light (al‑nūr al‑lāma`a) by the Prince of the Believers ... `Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib... (Jafr, XX ).
In his Persian dictionary Steingass’ defines jafr reads as follows:
A lamb or calf four months old..; doe‑skin parchment for writing; the art of divining from certain characters written by `Alī upon a camel's skin, which contains all events, past present and future; according to others the art of making amulets or charms, said to originate from Ja`far al Ṣādiq.. (Steingass, 365‑6).
Jafr or Jafr al‑jāmi` (Universal Jafr) and associated terminology are often generic indications of transmitted supernatural knowledge encapsulting a totally of past and/ or future secrets sometimes as apocalyptic events. It later came to incorporate divinatory techniques. As Fahd puts it, "Deviating from its original form of esoteric knowledge of an apocalyptic nature reserved to the imams… It became assimilated to a divinatory technique accessible to the wise whatever their origin, particularly to the mystics" (EI2 2:376). The medium of the writing down such esoteric knowledge might be parchement or some other kind of animal skin. The esoteric dimensions of Jafr were sometimes expressed in serect alphabets or scripts incorporating arcane glyphs and talismanic and other alphabets and sigla or signs.
In 1226/ 1811 Shaykh Aḥmad al‑Ahsā’ī was asked about Jafr by a certain Mullā `Alī ibn Mīrzā Jān Rashtī. The Shaykh registered an Imamī tradition to the effect the secret gnosis of Jafr would only be known in eschatological times as entrusted to the messianic twelfth Imām, Muhammad al‑Maḥdī. Tradition also has it that "`Alī inherited the `ilm al‑ḥurūf (science of letters) from Muhammad.. which is the al‑jafr al‑ma`rūf (exoteric jafr)." Muhammad and `Alī were both upon the supra-terrestrial Mount Paran (jabal fārān) when Gabriel approached the Prophet with a Jafr defined as "a wild, female, virgin, mature cow (baqarah) which `Alī slaughtered, skinned and tanned". At the dictation of Muhammad `Alī registered thereon "what has been revealed to him by Gabriel..." ( Jawāmi` al‑kalim 1/2 [68‑114] 87‑8).
The Bab and the science of Jafr.
The Bāb had little interest in pre-Islamic prophets such as Adam and Moses as historical prophet figures. He generally treats qur'ānic texts which mention them in an imamological, typological and allegorical manner. In certain of his writings, however, he gives exact figures for the dates of the assumption of prophethood and the length of the religious eras or cycles (adwār) of prophets as theophanic مَظَهرالَهٍى maẓhar-i ilāhī (“Manifestations of God”). This in the light of the Islamic esoteric science of علم الَجفر, `ilm al-jafr (loosely) the knowledge or “science” of number-letter progognistication; sometimes gematric or “qabbalistic” rooted divinatory or prophetic speculations. Initiation into this branch of the `ulūm al-ghayb (esoteric sciences) was attained by Muhammad and Imam `Alī according to various Shī`ī traditions. Eschatological traditions also have it that the messianic Qā’im would be especially adept in this hidden knowledge as a legacy of the Imams. There are fascinating Shaykhī materials expository of these matters as the following notes must suffice to illustrate.
Various Shī`ī traditions have it that the promised Qā’im would be in possession of forms of the jafr which is his heritage in eschatological times. The Qā’im himself was expected to be a master of the secrets of jafr (`unwritten sacred writ’ ). He was to appear in possession of the white and/or the red jafr which include pure recensions of the bible as the tawrat and / or injīl. In this light it is important to note that the Bāb claimed to the aware of the secrets of the jafr (K. Panj XXX ) though, as far as I am aware, he made no reference to his rehabilitating lost biblical or pre‑Islamic scripture in any concrete sense pertinent to extant Jewish and Christian Bible versions. Passages in his Qayyum al-asma' and other writings are, however, said to express his supernatural knowledge of Islamic and pre‑Islamic scripture. A true understanding of the Bayān and Qur’ān is tantamount to being fully aware of pre‑Islamic scripture.
1 "The double function of these symbols becomes clear: they are said to encode (a) occult (alchemical, magical, astrological) knowledge, and (b) information about hidden treasures. In his book on the pyramids, Abu Dja`far al-Idrisī (d. 649/1251) reports about people who claim to be able to decode all al-rumūz the hieroglyphs (al-k[q]alam al-birbáwí) and thus to find the hidden treasures (Ahrām, 36, 61, 141). As a result of this idea all (or Fakk) al-rumūz fī kashf al-kunūz becomes a very popular book-title, not only in the field of the occult sciences (cf. Brockelmann, I2, 139-40, SI, 144, 430, 531, 712,783, S II, 768, etc., and the indices of GAS)."