The Sinaitic Mysteries : Notes on Moses/Sinai Motifs in Abrahamic-Islamic and the Babi and Baha'i Religions. Pt. II. The Qur'an and Sunni, Shi`i-Shaykhi Islamic Literatures.
Stephnen Lambden UCMerced,
In progress October 2016. Last modified 10-05-2020,
Pt. I I
Stephen N. Lambden
Based on and updated from the 1986 printing and the partially corrected Web edition of May 2007.
Moses/Sinai motifs rooted in the Qur'an and its more than 1,500 year expository literatures wil be the subject of investigatio here,
The Islamic Background 25
25 Unless otherwise indicated all translation from the Qur’ān are taken from A. J. Arberry, The Koran Interpreted.
Moses is more frequently mentioned in the Qur’ān (196 times) than any of the other messengers or prophets of God. He is an important figure in this Arabic holy book which was communicated piecemeal to the prophet Muhammad between (roughly) 610 and 632 C.E. A good many of the events recorded in the book of Exodus about the mission of Moses and what took place at Sinai have quranic counterparts. By making frequent reference to the opposition encountered by Moses, the Prophet no doubt intended to set forth object lessons for his own contemporaries. Informed by extra-biblical traditions and communicated creatively, the Moses/Sinai materials in the Qur’ān sometimes go beyond the biblical data, and at certain points reflect the experiences and self-understanding of Muhammad.
The biblical account of Moses' call (Exodus 3:1 ff.) is paralleled or echoed in five Meccan suras of the Qur’ān. Since each of these quranic pericopes contain details that are present in Bābī and Bahā’ī scripture, they will be quoted in full along with occasional notes:
“And mention in the Book, Moses; he was devoted, and he was a Messenger (rasūl) and a Prophet (nabī). We called to him from the right side of the Mount (min jānib al-ṭūr al-ayman), and We brought him near in communion.” (Qur’ān 19:52-53).
God is here said to have called Moses from the righthand side of Mount Sinai and to have communed intimately with him (from the "burning bush"?). As elsewhere in the Qur’ān, Mt. Sinai (or Horeb) is simply called "the mount[ain]" (al-ṭūr, the common Aramaic word for mountain and a loan word in Arabic; cf. Qur’ān 7:142 [cited below], the only occasion where the Arabic al-jabal [the mountain] is used for Mt. Sinai). The expression "Mount Sinai" does, however, occur twice in the Qur’ān at 23:30 and 95:2 (as ṭūr sinā'and ṭūr sinin respectively, Sinai existing in two Arabic forms). 26 The significance of the fact that God called Moses from the "right[hand] side" of Mt. Sinai is not immediately obvious. This detail is probably rooted in Exodus 3:1 where Moses is said to have led Jethro's flock "to the west side" (Revised Standard Version) or simply "[far] side of the wilderness" (Hebrew, achar ha-midbar) in the region around Mt. Horeb/Sinai. It is implied that Moses saw the burning bush and was called by God from the righthand or western side of the holy mountain as he faced it. (Cf., apart from the qur`anic texts cited below, Qur’ān 20:80.) Some Muslim commentators have argued that references in the Qur’ān to the "right side" of Mt. Sinai are figurative or indicative of the "right," or blessed, region around this mountain. Others, as will be seen below, have understood such details mystically in terms of the interior reality and state of Moses.
26 For details see, J. Obermann, "Koran and Agada," p. 30f; A. Jeffery, The Foreign Vocabulary of the Koran, pp. 184-5; 206-7. As Jeffery points out (p. 185) the form sānān at Qur’ān 95:2 is a modification of sinā' "for the sake of rhyme." The word ār occurs ten times in the Qur’ān (2:60, 87: 4:153; 19:53; 20:82; 23:20; 28:29, 46; 52:1, and 95:2).
“Hast thou received the story, of Moses? When he saw a fire (nār), and said to his family, `Tarry you here; I observe a fire. Perhaps I shall bring you a brand from it, or I shall find at the fire guidance.' When he came to it, a voice cried, `Moses, I am thy Lord ('inni anā rabbuka); put off thy shoes (na'layka); thou art in the holy valley, Towa (bi'l-wād al-muqaddas ṭuwā). l Myself have chosen thee; therefore give ear to this revelation. Verily I am God; there is no god but I ('innani anā Allāh lā ilāha illa anā); therefore serve Me, and perform the prayer of My remembrance … ' (Qur’ān 20:9-14).
Details are contained (and a situation is presupposed) in these verses which are not explicit in the Hebrew Bible. Moses' family were with him on a journey when the Israelite prophet observed a fire some distance away. The group was apparently lost and in need of comfort and guidance. Approaching what evidently turned out to be the fire (nār) of the burning bush, Moses heard a voice -- the voice of the Lord (rabb) -- who proclaimed His identity, commanded him to remove his shoes in view of his being in a holy valley named (?) ṭuwā, declared His oneness, and called him to service and prayerful remembrance (cf. Exodus 3:3-6). The expression "Holy Valley" (al-wād al-muqaddas) can be explained in the light of Exodus 3:5b, where Moses is told to take off his shoes because he is standing on "holy ground," but the significance of the explanatory ṭuwā has long been and remains problematic (occurring only at 20:12, above, and 79:16, see below). Taken as a name of the (Sinaitic) "Holy Valley," it may be related to the Aramaic/ Syriac tūrā ("mount"; cf. the quranic use of ṭūr for Mt. Sinai).27 The obscurity of the word has led to its being given a variety of nonliteral interpretations. Al-Ghazālī (d. 1111 CE) understood the phrase "Holy Valley" to be symbolic of the "World of Holy Transcendence" as a mystic stage attained by prophets who have doffed the "[two] sandals" of the "two worlds" (the limitations of this and the other spiritual world). 28 The Shiite Sufi `Abd al-Razzāq al-Kāshānī (d. c. 1330 C.E.), expressing the views of Ibn al-'Arabī, the "Great Shaykh," interpreted Qur’ān 20:12b in the following manner:
27 See H. Gätje, The Qur'ān and its Exegesis, p. 283, note 11.
28 Refer, Al-Ghazālī, Mishkat al-anwār, p. 133.
Take off thy sandals: namely, your soul and your body, or your two (temporal) forms of existence, since when one is free from soul and body, one is free from both (temporal) forms of existence. That is: As soon as one is free, through the spirit (rūḥ) and the inner mystery (sirr), from the properties and characteristics of the soul and the body, so that one is united with the holy spirit, then one is free from the soul and the body (also) through the heart (qalb) and the breast (ṣadr), since the general connection (with them) is severed, their actions are released, and one has escaped their properties and activities. God calls the soul and the body sandals and not garments. If one were not free from intimate contact with both, one could not become united with the sacred sphere. The condition (however, on which it depends) is that of becoming united. God gives to Moses the command that he is to devote himself exclusively to him, in the sense of his words: "And remember the name of thy Lord, and devote thyself completely to Him" (Sura 73:8). It is therefore almost as if the connection of Moses with the sandals (of the soul and the body) still exists. This connection permits his feet, that is, the lower self, just as the breast designates the place of the heart, to sink into the ground. Consequently, they stand back away from the spiritual and inner turning-point to the holy, and for this reason God commands Moses to free himself from them in order to enter the realm of the spirit. Appropriately, God gives a reason for the necessity of removing the sandals, in his words: Thou art in the holy valley, ṭuwā, that is, in the world of the spirit, which is free from the actions of linking (through the soul and the body) the characteristics of transient things and the material bonds. This world is called ṭuwā because the stages of the kingdom of God (malakāt) are concealed (ṭuwā) in it, while the heavenly and earthly bodies stand under it. 29
29 Al-Kāshānī [Ibn al-`Arabī], Tafsīr. . . cited Gätje, The Qur'ān, pp. 234-5. See Ibn al-`Arabī, Tafsīr al-Qur'ān al-Karīm, vol. 2, p. 35. Soul and body in the first line of Gätje's translation render nafs (having also the sense of "personality," conscious- ness," etc.) and badan, respectively.
“When Moses said to his people, `I observe a fire (nār), and will bring you news of it, or I will bring you a flaming brand (shihāb qabas), that haply you shall warm yourselves.' So, when he came to it, he was called: `Blessed is He who is in the fire, and he who is about it (bārika man fí'l-nār wa man ḥawlahā). Glory be to God, the Lord of all Being! Moses, behold, it is I, God ('innahu anā Allāh), the All-Mighty, the All-Wise… ' (Qur’ān 27:7-9).
Here Moses' motive for approaching the "fire" (burning bush) he has observed is to "bring news" of its source or provide his company with a flaming brand with which to light a fire and warm themselves Exodus 3:3, it is worth noting at this point, implies that Moses traveled in the direction of the burning bush in order to satisfy his curiosity; to see a "great sight" or determine why the bush was "not consumed."
The phrase apparently uttered by the Divine Being[s] in the midst of the burning bush, "Blessed is He who is in the fire, and he who is about it," could be translated such that a plurality of divine beings is associated with the Sinaitic fire. Either the initial, or both the initial and second occurrence of "he who" (man), in this phrase, could have a plural meaning. A certain ambiguity, reminiscent of that surrounding the mention of first an "angel/messenger" (mal'akh) and then God (YHWH) as the speaker from the burning bush (at Exodus 3:2ff.) seems to exist. In the light of such rabbinic interpretations of Exodus 3:2 as have been noted above, it is possible that God (the Shekinah presence) is intended by "He who is in the fire" and that angels (or an archangel such as Michael) is alluded to in the words "he/those who are [round] about it [the fire]." God alone might be intended, God and one or more angelic beings, or simply one or more angelic beings. George Sale translated Qur’ān 27:8 in the following way: "And when he [Moses] was come near unto it [the fire], a voice cried to him, saying, Blessed is he who is in the fire, and whoever is about it …” And he commented: "Some [Muslim commentators] suppose GOD to be intended by the former words, and by the latter, the angels who were [allegedly] present; others think Moses and the angels are here meant, or all persons in general in this holy plain, and the country round it." 30
30 George Sale, The Koran, p.283, note 1.
“So when Moses had accomplished the term and departed with his household, he observed on the side of the Mount [Sinai] (min jānib al-ṭūr) a fire (nār). He said to his household, "Tarry you here; I observe a fire. Perhaps I will bring you news of it, or a faggot (jadhwa) from the fire, that haply you shall warm yourselves." When he came to it, a voice cried from the right bank of the watercourse [valley] (min shāā al-wād al-ayman) in the sacred hollow [spot] (fí'l-buq`a al-mubāraka) coming from the Tree (min al-shajara): "Moses, I am God (`inni anā Allāh), the Lord of all Being." (Qur’ān 28:29-30).
Further details of interest are contained in this account of the call of Moses. It is pictured as having taken place after Moses had "accomplished the term" of his marriage agreement with Jethro. (See Qur’ān 28:22-28; cf. Exodus 2:15b22.) The burning bush is referred to as a "tree" (al-shajarat) and located at the "right bank" (shāṭī) of the "watercourse" (or valley, al-wād) in a "sacred hollow" or "holy spot [place, region]." Coming from the "tree" the divine voice announced, "Moses, I am God, the Lord of all Being."
The Arabic word used for the burning "bush," namely shajarat, occurs in various contexts some twenty-five times in the Qur’ān. This word, for example, describes the Edenic "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" (Qur’ān 2:33; 7:18, 21, etc.,). Also, it seems, the "tree of life" as the "tree of eternity" (shajarat al-khuld, Qur’ān 20:118). Mention is made of the infernal "tree of Zaqqūm" (shajarat al-zaqqūm, Qur’ān  37: 62ff; 56:52; 44:43) which has its "roots in hell" and of` Jonah's "tree of gourds" (shajarat min yaqīn) (Qur’ān 37:146; cf., Jonah 4 6ff.). 31
31 See further Qur’ān 17:62; 57:71; 16:10, 70; 55:5; 36:80; 27:61; 31:26; 14:29, 31; 48:10.
Of particular interest are those quranic texts which associate various kinds of trees with Mt. Sinai. The Prophet Muhammad not only swore, "By the Mount [Sinai] (wa'l-ṭūr)" (Qur’ān 52:1), but "By the fig (wa'l-ṭīn) and the olive (wa'l-zaytūn) and Mt. Sinai (wa ṭūr sinīn) and this land secure (al-balad al-amin)" (Qur’ān 95:1-3). Reference is made in Qur’ān 25:20 to a "tree (shajarat) issuing from the Mount of Sinai (ṭūr sīnā') that bears oil and seasoning for all to eat" (olive groves around Mt. Sinai?). The celebrated "Light Verse" reads as follows: "God is the Light (nūr) of the heavens and the earth; the likeness of His Light is as a niche (mishkat) wherein is a lamp (miṣbāḥ), the lamp in a glass (zujāja), the glass as it were a glittering star (kawkab durrī) kindled from a Blessed Tree (shajarat mubāraka), an olive (zaytāna) that is neither of the East nor of the West, whose oil (zayt) well nigh would shine, even if no fire (nār) touched it; Light upon Light (nūr `alā nūr)." (Qur’ān 24:35) Though the evidence is inconclusive these verses have been taken as indicative of the view that the Sinaitic tree--the "burning bush"--was an olive.
In the treatises of Muslim mystics and in Shī`ī traditions attributed to the Imams, the tree from which Moses heard the voice of his Lord has been symbolically interpreted; sometimes in terms of the mystic senses given to the "Light Verse" (cited above) and/or to the various quranic references to such trees as the "Lote Tree" (sidrat) (See Qur’ān 34:16; 56:8ff.; 52:27ff.; 53:1-18; cf. 14:24ff). 32
32 On the Shī`ī interpretation of the "Light Verse," see Gätje, The Qur'ān, pp. 243-245. Cf. al-Ghazālī's Mishkat al-anwār. The English word lotus/lote-tree loosely describes a number of dissimilar plants and shrubs or trees: including the water lily of Egypt and Asia (Nymphaea lotus, Nelumbium speciosum), the Jujube Tree (Zizyphus lotus), and the Wild Jujube (Zizyphus spina Christi) which allegedly supplied the material for Christ's crown of thorns. The Arabic sidra, often translated "Lote-Tree" perhaps indicates the Wild Jujube, or some other wild thorny shrub. The fact that the sidra figures in the mystical visions of the Prophet Muhammad (see Qur’ān 53:1ff.) may well be related to the references in Rabbinic literature to God's having manifested himself in the Burning Bush, understood to have been a lowly thorn-bush. In a plethora of Islamic sources the mundane "Lote-Tree" of the Qur’ān is pictured as a celestial tree of wondrous qualities and proportions. For further details, see Encyclopaedia Judaica articles, Burning Bush (Vol. 4) and Jujube (Vol. 11); Ibn al-`Arabī, Shajarat al-kawn, esp. p. 32ff.
In the writings of Bahā'u'llāh, the Sinaitic tree is often equated with the tree that is "neither of the East nor the West" (of the "Light Verse") and with the "Lote Tree."
It is also worth noting at this point that the twenty-eighth sura of the Qur’ān (cited above) contains passing reference to the call of Moses and its mysterious location: "Thou [Muhammad] wast not upon the western side (jānib al-gharbāl [of Mt.  Sinai] when We decreed to Moses the commandment (qaḍaynā ilā mūsā al-amr, or "We decreed the commission to Moses") nor wast thou of those witnessing …Thou [Muhammad' was not upon the side of the Mount (jānib al-ṭūr) when We called [to Moses]…" (Qur’ān 28:44, 46a). The point is that the Prophet Muhammad knew of sacred events of the past through divine inspiration.
“Hast thou received the story of Moses? When his Lord called to him in the holy valley (bi'l-wād al-muqaddas), Towa (ṭūwa): `Go to Pharoah; he has waxed insolent. And say, "Hast thou the will to purify thyself, and that I should guide thee to thy Lord, then thou shalt fear?'... "(Qur’ān 79:15-19).
Exactly the same Arabic expression is used here to locate the scene of Moses' call as is used in Qur’ān 20:12, "the holy valley, Towa." Moses is commissioned to go to Pharoah and induce him to turn towards God, to the end that the captive Israelites might be liberated. (Cf. also, Qur’ān 26:10ff.)
There are, then, five major and a number of minor references to the first part of the biblical account of the call of Moses (Exodus 3:1ff.) in the Qur’ān. Not all the details present in the Hebrew Bible are registered in the sometimes novel qur`ānic midrash.
Qur’ān 7:143 and the Sinaitic theophany.
It is at Qur’ān 7:143, that the biblical account of Moses' request to see the glory of God (Exodus 33:18-23) is partially paralleled:
And when Moses came to Our appointed time and his Lord spoke with him, he said, `Oh my Lord, show me, that I may behold Thee!' Said He, `Thou shalt not see Me; but behold the mountain (al-jabal) -- if it stays fast in its place, then thou shalt see Me.' And when his Lord revealed Him to the mountain (tajallā rabbuhu li'l-jabal) He made it crumble to dust; and Moses fell down swooning. So when he awoke, he said, `Glory be to Thee! I repent to Thee; I am the first of the believers." (Qur’ān 7:143).
Here Moses requests a direct vision of his Lord. It is not directly stated, as in Exodus 33:18a, that Moses asked to see God's "glory," though this may be implied. Exodus 33:19 (see above) is not paralleled, but the first part of the quranic version of God's response to Moses' request is in line with Exodus 33:20; direct vision of God is not possible. The biblical reference to Moses' standing "upon a rock," and being placed in "a cleft of the rock," when the divine "glory" passed by (Exodus 33:21-2) probably lies behind the mention of God's theophany before or "to the mountain" (ilā al-jabal; Sinai or a nearby peak?). The impossibility of Moses having direct experience of God is underlined by the fact that the mountain before which God was revealed was reduced to dust. Having witnessed this event Moses fell down in a swoon. On recovering his senses, he glorified his transcendent Lord, confessed his folly, and declared his long-standing faith.
In Qur’ān 7:143, the mode of the Divine theophany before the mountain is expressed by means of the Arabic verbal form tajallā (derived from jalā, to make clear), which Arberrv (cited above) translates "revealed Him." Particularly in view of the mention of the divine "glory" (Hebrew: kabôd) in Exodus 33:18ff., the use of this verb might imply the radiant glory of the divine disclosure.33 The verse in which tajallī (`self-manifestation’, divine “Theophany”) occurs has been variously understood by Muslim commentators and Western translators of the Qur’ān. It is not entirely clear whether God's direct or indirect manifestation is intended; tajallā could imply God's personal appearance, the manifestation of His radiant "glory," or the theophany of an angelic being representative of Him. George Sale translated the line under discussion as follows: "But when his LORD appeared with glory in the mount, he reduced it to dust."
33 The verbal form tajallā indicates the brightness of oncoming day at Qur’ān 92:2. Cf. also, Qur’ān 7:186, 59:3, and 91:3. Generally speaking tajallī signifies God's revealing himself or manifesting his glory.
In an important Shī`ī tradition attributed to Imām Ja'far al-Ṣādiq (d. c. 705 C.E.), the theophany before the mountain is explained in terms of the appearance of an allegedly proto-Shiite cherub (or angelic being):
"The Cherubim (al-karūbiyyūn) are a [celestial] people of our party created in primordial times (min al-khalq al-awwal). God established them behind the [divine] Throne (al-`arsh). If the light (nār) of but one of them should be distributed among the people of the earth, it would assuredly suffice them… When Moses asked his Lord what he asked [i.e., to see Him], He [God] commanded one of the Cherubim and it manifested itself unto the mountain (fa-tajallā li'l-jabal) and reduced it to dust." 34
34 Translated from Majlisī, Biḥār al-anwār, Vol. 13, pp. 223-4. See also, Bahā'u'llāh, Kitab-i Iqān, p. 61; trans., pp. 50-51. The כרובים Hebrew plural Kerūbīm = cherubim (sing. כרוב , Kerūb = cherub), in Arabic is Karūbiyyūn (pl. sing = Kar[r]ūb). The Cherubim are mentioned over twenty times in the Hebrew Bible (e.g. Gen 3:24; Exod. 25:18; Psalm 18:10; Exekiel Chs. 1 & 10, etc) and once in the New Testament (Hebrews 9:5). Qur’anic references would seem to be related to the muqarrabūn or “those brought nigh” unto God/ the Divine Throne (see 4:172; 7:114; 26:42;56:11, 88; 83:21, 28 cf. 3:45).
On similar lines is the exposition of Qur’ān 7:143 in an Arabic recension of Muhammad b. `Abd-Allāh al-Kisā'ī's Qiṣaṣ al-anbiyā' ("Tales of the Prophets," c. 1200 C.E.?):
"God commanded the angels of heaven to present themselves to Moses, and they passed before him in ranks. As he witnessed their different forms and the magnificence of their shapes, fear and trembling overcame him; and Gabriel passed his wing over Moses' heart to quieten his fear. Then Gabriel stood on the summit of the mountain and ascended to heaven." 35 Moses, we are led to believe, witnessed the Sinaitic manifestation of a whole heavenly host, including Gabriel whose calming act should be viewed as an anti-anthropomorphic paraphrase of the biblical mention of God's shielding Moses from His "glory" with His own "hand." (Exodus 33:22b),
35 al-Kisā'ī, The Tales of the Prophets of al-Kisa'i, p. 237.
In literatures representative of Islamic mysticism, the Sinai theophany outlined in Qur’ān 7:143 has been given a variety of psychological, spiritual, or symbolic interpretations. Various Sufi exegetes have, from medieval times, understood this verse in the light of sometimes complex theories about the modes of the divine theophany (tajallī) and of mystical states experienced by wayfarers on the spiritual path. In, for example, the `Awārif al-ma'ārif of Shihāb ad-Dīn Abū Ḥafṣ `Umar al-Suhrawardī (1145-1234 C.E.), tajallī (theophany) is defined as "the manifestation of the sun of the reality (ḥaqīqa) of God  out from the clouds of humanity" and, as in many other Sufi writings, regarded as of three kinds: 1) the tajallā of the [divine] Essence (tajallī dhāt), 2) the tajallī of the [divine] attributes (tajallī ṣifāt), and 3) the tajallī of the [divine] actions (tajallī af`āl). In reverse order, the mystic wayfarer may have interior experience of these modes of the divine theophany. Suhrawardī comments on the tajallī of the divine Essence (tajallī dhāt) in terms of Moses' Sinaitic experience of God's self-revelation (tajallī; in Qur’ān 7:143), the Israelite prophet being archetypal of the advanced mystic. That Moses fell into a swoon as a result of the divine theophany is related to the complete nullification or annihilation (fanā') of the qualities of existence, and the attaining of that abiding permanency (baqā') at which the spiritual being beholds the essence (dhāt) of the Eternal God through His Light. Having attained the state of mystical nullification (fanā'), Moses' request to see God signalized his attaining permanency in God (baqā') as a result of the tajallā of the light of the Divine Essence (dhāt) on the "Mount" (ṭūr) of the human aspect (nafs) of his existence.36
36 See as-Suhrawardī, `Awārif al-ma'ārif, pp. 79, 80. Sufi speculations about the modes of the divine theophany (tajallā) are commented upon or reflected at many points in Bābī and Bahā’ī scripture. See for example Bahā'u'llāh, Lawḥ-i Salmān in Majmū'a yī alwāḥ-i mubāraka, p. 124ff. (esp. p. 140).
Kalim : “He who conversed with God”.
At the beginning of Qur’ān 7:143, it is said that God conversed with Moses: "and his Lord spoke with him" (wa kallamahu rabbahu), and at Qur’ān 4:162 that: "unto Moses God spoke directly" (kallama Allāhu Mūsā taklīman). (Cf. also Qur’ān 2:254; Exodus 33:11 and Deuteronomy 34:10.) It was in view of these references that in Islamic literatures Moses came to be entitled "He who conversed with God" (kalīm Allāh). This epithet is frequently accorded Moses in Bābī and Bahā’ī scripture--apart from its being given to Bahā'-Allāh's brother Mīrzā Mūsā, Aqā-yi Kalīm (doubtless because he was on intimate terms with Bahā'u'llāh and a staunch Bahā’ī, as well as on account of his name).
The khuṭba al-Ṭutunjiyya (“Sermon of the Gulf”).
In the light of the above, it will be convenient to note at this point that there exists a sermon attributed to Imām `Alī b. Abī Ṭālib (d. 40/661 CE), the "Sermon of the [River] Gulf" (al-khuṭba al-Ṭutunjiyya), which (in certain recensions) contains reference to the eschatological manifestation of God as the One Who conversed with Moses 37
"Anticipate ye the revelation (ẓuhūr) of Him Who conversed with Moses (mukallim mūsā) from the Tree [Burning Bush] upon the Mount [Sinai] (min al-shajarat `alā al-ṭūr)." 38
38 Text, al-Bursī, Mashāriq, p. 168. I use here Shoghi Effendi's translation as cited in Bahā'u'llāh, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 42.
37 Not recorded in the Nahj al-balāgha, this sermon is found in a variety of Shī`ī sources including Rajab al-Bursī, Mashāriq anwār al-yaqīn fī asrār amīr al-mu'minīn, pp. 166-170. Certain Shī`ī and modern Western scholars have doubted its authenticity, though it was very highly regarded and esoterically interpreted by various Shī`ī theologians, mystics and philosophers.
Regarded as authentic by Shaykh Aḥmad al-Ahsā'ī, 39 and commented upon at length by Siyyid Kāẓim Rashtī, 40 as well at times as the Bāb, 41 this apparently "extremist" (ghuluww), cosmologically-oriented sermon has contributed to the Bābī-Bahā’ī theology of the Sinai theophany. In one of his epistles of the Acre (`Akkā’) or West Galilean period (1868-1892), Bahā'-Allāh quotes from it one sentence of particular interest and asserts that it was divinely inspired:
"Say: `O people! Hast thou forgotten that which was uttered by one of the chosen ones of old [Imām `Alīl when he said, `Anticipate ye the revelation of the One Who conversed with Moses from the Tree upon the Mount.' This is an utterance taught him [Imām `Alīl by the Messenger of God [Muhammad] on the part of He Who sent him and aided him through the Faithful Spirit." 42
39 See Shaykh Aḥmad, Epistle to Mamād Mīrzā, in Majmū'at al-rasā'il, Vol. 30, pp. 260-270.
40 Sayyid Kāẓim's Sharḥ al-khuṭba al-ṭutunjiyya (“Commentary on the Sermon of the Gulf”) is a lengthy and detailed commentary on `Alī's sermon. A lithographed edition was produced in Iran in 1270/1853-4. However, the text and commentary in the published version ceases at a point prior to the line about the manifestation of the One Who conversed with Moses. It is not clear whether the text of the published work is incomplete or whether the commentary itself was incomplete.
41 The Bāb did not comment on the whole of the Sermon of the Gulf but quoted from it a number of times in his writings. His commentary on a statement of Sayyid Kāẓim in his "Commentary on the Sermon of the Gulf" (See fn. 40, above. Cf. Fāḍil-i Māzandarānī Tārīkh-i ẓuhūr al-ḥaqq, vol. 3, p. 288) is not available to me.
42 From an epistle of Bahā'u'llāh to a certain Ṣādiq, cited in Fāḍil-i Māzandārānī, Asrār al-athār, Vol. 5, pp. 153-4. The "Faithful Spirit" (rūḥ al-amin) mentioned here signifies Gabriel or the "Holy Spirit" (cf. Qur’ān 26:193).
The following lines from a Prayer of the Signs (Du'ā al-simāt) also attributed to Imām `Alī and partly rooted in Deuteronomy 33:2 are likewise of importance to the student of the background of the Bābī-Bahā’ī Sinaitic theology: 43
“And by Thy glory (majd) which appeared on Mount Sinai (sinā') and through which Thou conversed with Thy servant and Thy messenger, Moses son of `Imrān (Amram)! And by Thy rising up in [Mount] Seir (sā'ir) and Thy manifestation in Mount Paran (jabal fārān)! And by the myriads of holy ones (ribwāt al-muqaddasān) and the hosts of the sanctified angels!“ 44
43 Cf., S. Lambden, "The Islāmo-Bahā’ī Interpretation of Deuteronomy 33:2," p. 24ff.
44 Translated from the text cited in Mīrzā Na'īm Iṣfahānī, Istidlāliyya, p. 65.
In this prayer, any hint of God's direct manifestation or communion with Moses is ruled out. It was through His "glory" that God appeared on Sinai and communicated with Moses. Mentioned in the Bible though not the Qur’ān, Mt. Seir and Mt. Paran are spoken about in various Shī`ī sources usually connection with the missions of Jesus and Muhammad (cf. Deut. 33:2; Habb. 3:3; Jud. 5:4-5). 45
45 For some details see my article referred to in fn. 43 above and cf., H. Corbin, "The Configuration of the Temple of the Ka'bah," p. 223. Mt. Paran is quite frequently mentioned in the writings of the Bāb and Bahā'u'llāh (especially in the poetry of the latter).
THE SHAYKHĪ BACKGROUND.
Bābī-Bahā’ī doctrine and scriptural exegesis has its most immediate and central roots in early Shaykhism, a school of Shī`ī theosophy deriving from the above-mentioned Shaykh Aḥmad al-Ahsā'ī (d. 1826) and Sayyid Kāẓim Rashtī (d. 1259/1843). In certain of the books and treatises of these two learned Muslims Moses/Sinai motifs in quranic texts and traditions ascribed to the Imāms are variously interpreted. Often utilizing an allegorical or mystical hermeneutic their frequently imamologically-informed comments form an important background aspect to the Bābī-Bahā'ī materials. The following few notes must suffice to give an indication of the richness of early Shaykhī exegesis.
In an epistle to a certain Mullā `Alī Tawbalī (written in 1211 A.H., 1796/7 C.E.) Shaykh Aḥmad responded to a number of questions which required that he explain Moses/Sinai motifs. 46 Asked about the significance of various trees mentioned in the Qur’ān he wrote: 47
And the Tree (shajarat) which is in the "Holy Vale" (al-wād al-muqaddas) and the "Tree issuing from the Mount of Sinai (ṭūr sīnā')" [Qur’ān 25:20] is the Primordial Reality (al-awwalī) through which the [divine] Word (al-kalām, or Speech) had precedence. The "Holy Vale" is the "Tranquil Soul" (al-nafs al-muṭa'inna) and the "Mount" (a-ṭūr) is the obedient, patient body (al-jasad al-muṭī' al-sābir). And the "Holy Vale" is [also] the secure [or perfect] heart (al-qalb al-salīm) and the "Mount" the upright intellect (al-`aql al-mustaqīm). 48
46 This epistle is contained in al-Aḥsā'ī, Jawāmi` al-kalim, Vol. I, part two, pp. 1-68.
47 Refer, epistle to Mullā 'Alī in Jawāmi` al-kalim (henceforth JK), Vol. 1, p. 24ff.
48 Epistle to Mullā `Alī in JK, Vol. 1, p. 25.
Having thus indicated the mystical import of the Sinaitic "Tree," "Holy Vale," and "Mount," the Shaykh quotes a saying to the effect that the "Tree" planted on Mount Sinai is possessed of the essential human quality of reason (or animal rationality, al-hayawānī al-nāṭiq). It is, he states, a "Tree" symbolic of the "substance (or essence) of Noble Man" (hayūlā al-insān al-karīm). Drawing on some rather arcane traditions, the Shaykh also comments on the "Tree" of Qur’ān 25:20, in the light of its having been set in the zodiac by Balṣiyāl [?] ibn Ḥūr, the bearer of the "Dome of Time." An herbal substance (al-ḥashīsha) associated with this cosmic "Tree" (shajarat) -- represented by the obscure cryptogram produces pure gold when treated alchemically: 49 = See ibid.
After making detailed comments on the "trees" mentioned in Qur’ān 14:24ff, Shaykh Aḥmad explains the significance of the "Holy Vale" and the "Holy Land." Partly reiterating earlier remarks he writes:
… the "Holy Vale" (al-wād al-muqaddas) is the "Secure Heart" (al-qalb al-salām) which is filled with contentment (al-riḍā') and submission (al-taslīm). The "Holy Land" (al-arḍ al-muqaddas) is the "tranquil, satisfied, contented soul." The "Holy Vale" is the "House of procreation and marriage" (bayt al-tawlūd wa'l-tanākuḥ) and the "Purple Lights" (al-anwār al-firfīriyya). The "Holy Land" is the "New Body" (al-jasad al-jadīd). 50 = Ibid., p. 26.
Reference is then made to a tradition in which mention is made of there being nine "evils" on earth; ten mountains; the mountain (al-jabal) on which God spoke directly with Moses (see Qur’ān 4:164), sanctified Jesus, took Abraham for a friend (khalāl), and reckoned Muhammad as one beloved (aBāb); four birds (cf. Qur’ān 2:262); the thirty days completed with ten (see Qur’ān 7:142); the shoes which Moses doffed (see Qur’ān 20:12); twelve as the number of new moons; and the four sacrosanct months.
A great many symbolic senses are given by Shaykh Aḥmad to the "ten mountains." They form an interrelated hierarchy of "realities" rooted in this world but so spanning celestial realms as to express a mystical cosmology.
- First and foremost among these "ten mountains" stands the "mountain" of the "heart of the believer," the "Boundary of the cardinal points" (muḥaddad al-jihāt), the "Supreme Heaven" (al-sāqūra al-`ulyā), the "Vehicle of Causes" (markab al-`ilal;), the "Sciences of How? and Why?" (`ulūm al-kayf wa'l-limā), the "Elevated, All-Merciful Throne" (`arsh al-istiwā al-raḥmānī), and the "Supreme Panorama" (al-manẓar al-a`lā);
- Second: the "Bosom of Knowledge" (ṣadr al-`ilm), the "Chair extended before the heavens and the earth" (al-kūrsī al-wāsi` li'l-samāwāt wa'l-arḍ), and the "Book Inscribed" (al-kitāb al-masṭūr);
- Third: the "Heaven of Security" (samā' al-amān), the "Peace of Faith" (salīm al-imān), the "Star of Saturn" (burj al-kaywān), the "Mountain of the theophany of the Light and the Proclamation" (jabal ẓuhūr al-nār wa'l-isti'lān), the "Compliance of the Merciful" (muṭā' al-raḥmān), the "Path of the Heart" (tarīq al-janān);
- Fourth: he "Treasury of Knowledge" (khizānat al-`ilm), the "Repositorv of the Decree" (wi'ā` al-ḥukm), the "Locus of knowledge" (maẓhar al-`ilm), the "Veil of Chrysolite" (or Emerald) (ḥijāb al-zabarjad), and the "Firmament of the Assisting Star" (falak al-kawkab al-is`ād);
- Fifth : the "Mountain of Power" (jabal al-sawa), the "Scene of the wrath of the Angel of Death" (maẓhar al-qahr al-`azrā'īlī), and the "Crimson Veil" (ḥijāb al-ḥamrā’);
- Sixth: the "Mountain of the Second Principle (or: Essence) (jabal al-hayūlā al-thāniyya), and the "Pulpit of Bountiful Existence" (minba' al-wujūd al-fayyḍā);
- Seventh: the "Mountain of Spiritual Existence" preserved in the Divine Treasuries" (jabal al-akwān al-malakātiyya al-mafūẓ fā'l-khazā'in al-ilāhiyya);
- Eighth: the "Mountain of Ciphered Tabernacles sent down according to a known decree" (jabal al-hayākil al-raḥamiyya al-manzila bi'l-qadr al-ma'lūm);
- Ninth: the "Mountain of Life (jabal al-ḥayāt) in whose shade living beings (al-ḥayawānāt) are enlivened"; and tenth, "Mount Sinai" (jabal al-ṭūr) and "[Mount] Qāf" (al-qāf).
The complexity of the Shaykh's interpretations of Mount Sinai and motifs associated with it may be gathered from the fact that he understood this "mountain" to have varied and diverse senses in terms of its multifarious terrestrial and celestial poles of being. 51 Refer ibid., pp. 26-7.
In his Sharḥ al-ziyāra al-jāmi`a al-kabīra and in other treatises, Shaykh Aḥmad comments on Qur’ān 7:143, in the light of the tradition that it was a proto-Shī`ī Cherub that was manifested before Moses and shattered the mountain. It was an infinitesimal portion of the "light of the [divine] Veil" (nār al-sitr) or the "light of [God's] Grandeur" (nūr al-`aẓimat) related to God's seventy thousand "veils of Light" and to the light of the Imams that beamed forth before Moses from the mysterious cherubic "Speaker." It was in view of Imām Ja'far a-ādiq's having stated that "God manifested himself (tajallī) unto his servants through his Speech [or Word] (al-kalām) but they did not see Him [God]" that the Shaykh also taught that God's theophany before the "mountain" was the theophany of "the Speaker" (al-mutakallim) through His "Speech" (al kalām) and not God's personal manifestation. In the form of "light," the divine "Speech" was revealed upon the "mountain" which is, on one level, symbolic of the "heart" of Moses. While, furthermore, Moses' Sinaitic experience of God was a mystical experience of a mere glimmer of the Divine Light, Imām Ja'far had an experience of its fullness whilst wrapt in prayer. Both literalistic and mystical interpretations of Qur’ān 7:143 are present in the vastly erudite writings of Shaykh Aḥmad. 52
52 See Shaykh Aḥmad, Sharḥ al-ziyāra, Vol. IV, p. 195ff; idem., Risāla in JK, Vol. 1, pp. 139-41, and in Majmū'at al-rasā'il, Vol. 30, pp. 60-66. Cf. Sharḥ al-ziyāra, Vol. III, pp. 361-2.
At various points in his lengthy and frequently abstruse Commentary on the Sermon of the Gulf (Sharḥ al-khuṭba al-Ṭutunjiyya), Sayyid Kāẓim Rashtī touches upon Moses/Sinai motifs. Commenting on Imām `Alā's words, "He [God] created the oceans (al-biḥār) and the mountains (al-jibāl)," he has much to say about the "mountains." He not only adds further details about the "ten mountains" listed above but, for example, refers to: the "mountain of iron" (jabal al-ḥadād); a "mountain under which the mine of mercury (or quicksilver, ma'dan al-zaybaq) flows" ; the "mountain of yellow cornelian" (jabal al-`aqīq al-aṣfar); the "mountain of red ruby" (jabal al-yāqāt al-aḥmar); the "mountain of the mine of gold" (jabal ma'dan al-dhahab) which is the "seat of the beams of the sun" (mara ashi``at al-shams) related to the "Mount of Moses" (ṭūr mūsā), the "Locale of Jesus" (manzil `īsā), the "Ark of Aaron" (tābāt ḥarūn), the "Well of Daniel" (bi'r danyāl) and the "Station of Assent" (maqām al-iqbāl); the "mountain of lead" (jabal al-usrub) with an exterior of iron and an interior of gold; Mount Qāf; the "Mountain of Light" (jabal al-nār); the "Mountain of the One [God]" (jabal al-aḥad; the "Mountain of Najāf" (jabal an-Najāf, in Iraq); Mt. Sinai; Mt. Seir; and Mt. Paran. 53
53 Refer Rashtī, Sharḥ al-khuṭba al-ṭutunjiyya, p.66ff.
What Sayyid Kāẓim has to say about "Mount Sinai" (jabal ṭūr sīnā') is expressive of the importance of Najaf as the place where the shrine of Imām `Alī is located: "As regards Mount Sinai, outwardly and inwardly it is the `hill of Najāf' (rubwa al-Najāf)." Though he acknowledged that this mountain was traditionally located in Syria or the "Holy Land" he explained this in terms of a part of the "mountain of Najāf" (jabal al-Najāf) having become detached and reconstituted piecemeal in the "land of Syria" (arḍ al-Shām). The "mountain of Najāf" is a part of the "mountain" on which God held converse with Moses, sanctified Jesus, took Abraham for a "Friend" and reckoned Muhammad one "Beloved." It is the "greatest of the mountains of the world" closely related to Mt. Sinai, Mt. Seir, and Mt. Paran. 54 = ibid. Following Shaykh Aḥmad, the Sayyid considered "Mount Seir" (jabal sā`īr) to be the scene of Jesus' "sanctification" and intimate converse with God--he located it in the Hedjaz (Western Arabia)--and an "edifice" (or dome, qubba) which was "with Moses and like a throne." The mountain on which God took Abraham for a Friend was either a hill on the slope of Mt. Mina (near Mecca) where a mosque is built or another mountain in Jerusalem, (Ilya) the Holy City, in Palestine. Allegedly a mountain near Mecca, Mount Paran (jabal al-fārān) was the place where "sanctified myriads" (ribwāt al-muqaddasān) of angels beyond the ken of the Cherubim appeared to Muhammad. 55. see ibid.
The proto-Shī`ī Cherub and the Sinaitic theophany.
In the course of expounding various lines of the Sermon of the Gulf, Sayyid Kāẓim also makes occasional reference to Qur’ān 7:143 and to the tradition about the proto-Shī'ī Cherub. Commenting on God's having singled out the Prophet Muhammad from the "Supreme Center" (al-buḥbūḥat al-`ulyā) in the light of Qur’ān 3:33 and other traditions, he speaks of the "heart" (al-qalb) and the "Logos-Self" (al-nafs) as pivotal realities. The core of the being of the Prophet Muhammad is his transcendent "Logos-Self" (al-nafs) which is the locus of the divine Theophany (al-mutajallā bi'l-aḥadiyya) as the "Self of God" (nafs Allāh). When God created Imām `Alī this elevated "Self" was manifested in him for both he and the Prophet are associated with the same created, though divine, "Self" (nafs) and "Essence" (dhāt). It was Imam `Alī who conversed with Moses from the Sinaitic Tree (al-shajarat) and uttered the words "I, verily am God." He was the one who appeared "before and to Moses through his Light" as one of the "men of the Cherubim." The theophany (tajallā) of Imam `Alī unto Moses from the "Tree" was "the essence of the theophany of God" (`ayn tajallā Allāh) within the Israelite Prophet. 56= ibid. 92.
In further explaining the significance of the theophany unto Moses, Sayyid Kāim states that the proto-Shī`ī Cherub mentioned by Imām Ja`far (see above) is symbolic of the "Self of Moses" (nafs māsā). He has disclosed this "mystery" in view of the fact that an theophany (al-tajallā) unto something is only possible through the "self" (nafs) of that thing. 57 = ibid.,94 On similar lines is the Sayyid's teaching that the number and names of the angelic host of the Cherubim are the same as those of the prophets (al-anbiyā): "That man [Cherub] who revealed himself unto Moses (tajallā li-mūsā) such that Moses fell down in a swoon [see Qur’ān 7:143] was named Moses." On another level however, the Cherubic being who appeared to Moses was the reality of such Prophets as the "First and Last Adam" (adam al-awwal wa'l-ākhir). 58
58 Refer ibid., p. 94. The Sayyid follows what Shaykh Aḥmad has to say in Sharḥ al-ziyāra, Vol. III, p. 361, namely that God created His Prophets in the image of a specific Cherub and gave them corresponding names. The Shaykh wrote: "Thus Noah... bore the image and name of one of them [the Cherubim], that is to say, Noah was named with his name; and Abraham bore the image and name of one of them. Moses also bore the image and name of one of them, and that was the one which "revealed its glory before the mountain" (tajallā li'l-jabal [Qur’ān 7:143] at the time when Moses asked his Lord that which he asked [to see Him] and reduced it to dust. Jesus likewise bore the image and name of one of them [the Cherubim]. It was by virtue of that Cherub that Jesus was able to cure the blind and the leprous and revive the dead."
The Cherubim are the archetypal realities of the prophets possessed of an essential oneness. Moses thus experienced the theophany (tajallā) of his celestial "Self" (nafs) as a Cherub who may be thought of as Imam `Alī or one of the prophets who partake of the same pleroma of reality. The theophany (tajallī) was the disclosure of an infinitesimal glimmer of the radiance that emanated from the angelic body of a Cherub numbered among the messengers "possessed of Divine Authority" (ulū al-`amr). 59 Alternatively, the theophanic radiance which shone forth before Moses on Sinai may be thought of as the "Light" (nūr) of Muhammad and his family. 60
59 See Ibid p.264.
60 Refer ibid., p. 316. For further details see Rashtī, Sharḥ al-khuṭba al-Ṭutunjiyya pp. 102, 105, 116, 143, 161, 68, 186-7, 252, 263, 273, 285, 293, 299, 324, 337-8, 348.
In the light of the above, it will be evident that both Shaykh Aḥmad and Sayyid Kāẓim often gave symbolic or mystical interpretations to Moses/Sinai motifs -- sometimes in line with those set forth by such Sufi mystagogues as Ibn al-`Arabī, and frequently inforrned by Shī`ī imamological speculations. On one level Mount Sinai all but becomes the interior reality of Moses or the inmost heart of the believer, and the theophany on the Mount the shining forth of the Divine Light upon it.
The founding fathers of the Shaykhī movement were criticized by their more rigidly orthodox Shī'ī contemporaries for their allegedly unwarranted allegorism. In, for example, the Tiryāq-i fīrāq (Discriminating antidote [for poisons]) of `Abd al-Ṣamad ibn `Abd-Allāh al-Ḥusaynī al-Māzandarānī written in 1301 A.H./1883 CE., the mystically-oriented Shaykhī interpretation of Qur’ān 7:143 is singled out for critical comment. 61 The Bāb and Bahā'-Allāh, however, both drew on and creatively expounded early Shaykhī nonliteral interpretations of this and other texts and traditions relating to Moses' Sinaitic experiences.
61 Cf., V. Rafati, "The Relationship of Shaykhī Doctrines to the Religious Thought of the Bāb," unpublished paper, p. 6.
In the preceeding pages only a fraction of Sunnī and Shī`ī sources covering issues of central interest have been referred to. For some important further details and observations see, for example, Ibn al-`Arabī, Tafsīr al-Qur'ān al-karām, Vol. 1, pp. 447-9 (on Qur’ān 7:143, etc.) Vol. 2 pp.33-36 (on Qur'ān 20:12, etc.) Nwyia P., Le tafsir mystique attribué à Ga`fār Sādiq (esp., pp. 196-7); Sirat C., Un midras juif . . . and Vajda, G., Le Probleme …