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Lawh Mahfuz - Some Introductory and Expository Notes

 لَوْحٍ مَحْفُوظ

The Lawh maḥfūẓ ("The Preserved Tablet"): Some Introductory Notes

Stephen N. Lambden


Now being revised and corrected.

The qur'ānic expression lawḥ maḥfūẓ  loosely translated as "Preserved Tablet" occurs only once at Q. 85: [21-] 2:

بلْ هُوَ قُرْآنٌ مَّجِيد

 Nay! it is a Glorious Qur'ān (Qur'ān majīd)

 فِي لَوْحٍ مَحْفُوظ 

in a Preserved Tablet (lawḥ maḥfūẓ)

The idea of an archetypal, heavenly repository of human destinies and the divine Word, a "Preserved" or "Guarded Tablet" is pre-Islamic. This concept is reflected in various pre-Christian Jewish sources most notably in the Book of Jubilees (2nd cent. BCE., see Jubilees  III:10f;etc). Summing up one dimension of Muslim opinion as to the significance of lawḥ  it has been written,

"The decisions of the divine will are also written on the lawḥ with the pen, qalam.. and the particulars contained as a whole in God's consciousness are transmitted by this last, so that on the lawḥ are inscribed the archetypes of all things, past, present and future. The popular mind represented by al-Bayhaqī, as created from a white pearl, with its upper and lower surfaces of jacynth" ( Wensinck-Bosworth EI2 5:698 [translit. altered]).

In this latter connection we read at the beginning of the Qiṣaṣ al-`anbiyā' (The Stories of the Prophets) of al-Kisā'ī,

"Ibn `Abbas said: The first thing God created was the Preserved Tablet, on which was preserved all that has been and ever shall be until the Day of Resurrection. What is contained thereon no one knows but God. It is made of white Pearl" (al-Kisā'ī,  trans. Thackston 1978:5).

Numerous Shi`i sources expound and draw upon statements of the (Twelver) Imams about the Lawḥ al-Maḥfūẓ ("Preserved Tablet"). In the Tafsīr of Abū al-Ḥasan `Ali ibn Ibrāhīm al-Qumī  (d. c. 307/919 or 329/941), for example, we find the following:

قال علي بن ابراهيم في تفسيره: اللوح المحفوظ له طرفان: طرف على عين العرش، وطرف على جبهة اسرافيل، فاذا تكلم الرب جل ذكره بالوحي ضرب اللوح جبين اسرافيل، فنظر في اللوح فيوحي بما في اللوح الى جبرئيل عليه الشلام

`Ali ibn Ibrāhīm [al-Qumī] stated in his Tafsīr :

"The Lawḥ al-Maḥfūẓ (Preserved Tablet) has two extremities (ṭarfān), the uttermost [extremity] about the pivot of the Divine Throne (ṭarf `ala `ayn al-`arsh) and that uttermost [extremity] at the forehead of [the Archangel] Seraphiel (jabha Isrā'fīl). When the Lord, exalted be His mention,  speaks forth through waḥy (divine inspiration) the forehead (jabīn) of Seraphiel strikes the (Preserved) Tablet (lawḥ) whereupon he gazes into the (Preserved) Tablet (al-lawh) and provides waḥy (divine inspiration), in accordance with what is in the (Preserved) Tablet,  unto Gabriel (jibra'il), upon him be peace."  

قال : بينا رسول الله صلى الله  عليه وا-له جالس وعنده جبرئيل عليه الشلام إذ حانت من جبرئيل نظرة قل السماء إلى ان قال: قال جبر"نبيل: ان هذا اسرافيل صاحب الرب واقرب خلق الله منه، واللوح بين عينيه من ياقوتة حمراء، فاذا تكلم الربت بارلا وتعالى بالوحي ضرب اللوح جبينه فظرفيه، نم القاه الينا نسعى به في السماوات

 ١) تفسير القمن ٢ :ه ٤١. (٢) نورالقلين ه : ٤٨ ه ،٣ عن تفسير القمي .

Qur’an 85:22 or phrases within it have been much commented upon by numerous Islamic writers, especially Sufi and early Shaykhī writers, with the respect to its deep, esoteric meanings, cosmological implications and position as a celestial repository of the sacred books. It is also significant as the celestial locale of the mysteries of fate and human destiny.

Diverse aspects of the inner and outer meaning of lawh maḥfūẓ, the "Preserved Tablet" or "Guarded Tablet", have been much commented upon by Islamic mystics and philosophers. The influential Andalusian born mystic and exegete Ibn al-`Arabī (d. 638/1240) in his massive 560 chapter al-Futuḥāt al-makkiyya (Meccan Illuminations), for example, associated the Lawḥ maḥfūẓ with the al-qalam al-a`lā ("Supreme Pen") and with the al-nafs al-kulliyya ("Universal Soul"), the "The Universal Logos-Soul" as well as with the beginnings of all existence (Futuhat 1:139; 3:399, etc).

His disciple, the Shi’ite Sufi `Abd al-Karim al-Jili (d. 832/1428) has a complex section 42 on al-lawḥ al-maḥfūẓ ("Presreved Tablet") in  his seminal al-Insān al-kāmil... (The Perfect Man...). There "Preserved Tablet" is seen to be indicative of the celestial nūr ilāhī  ("Divine Light") which is in some sense the  personalized divine Reality, ḥaqqī,   transfigured within the domain of human witness [testimony] (mashad)"apparent, that is, before God’s "creation" or "creatures" (al-Insan, 146).    

The two earliest Shaykhī leaders, Shaykh Aḥmad al-Ahsā'ī (d. 12XX/1826)  and Sayyid Kāẓim Rashtī (d. 1259/1843), like many other Shi`i Muslim writers, wrote about the qur'anic motif of the Lawḥ Maḥfūẓ,  the Preserved or Guarded Tablet. A short 120  verse  treatise was written by Shaykh Aḥmad  on this subject in Yazd, for example, his Risāla fī jawab su'al Sayyid Abu'l-Hasan al-Jilani   which dates to the 8th  Jamadi II 1223/ XXXX [2]

"If Belief and Unbelief are written upon the Guarded Tablet (lawh mahfuz), then why did the Prophet call the unbeliever to faith and impose obligations upon him when he knew that he would not believe for his name was written as an unbeliever on the Guarded Tablet on which there can be no additions or erasures? Shaykh Aḥmad states that it is the very appearance of the Prophet and his imposing religious obligations that is the cause of the iman (belief) of the believer and the kufr (unbelief) of the unbeliever" (Momen, BSBM1:XX)

 In his Tafsīr Sura wa’l-`aṣr (" Commentary on the Surah of `By the Afternoon [Declining Day]', Q. 103) the Bab makes an interesting and instructive interpretation of the Lawḥ al-Ḥafīz (The Tablet of the Preservation") or Lawḥ al-Mahfuz (The Preserved Tablet") :

"[I swear] by the `Aṣr. Indeed mankind is in a state of loss Except those who believe and do good works, and exhort one another to truth and exhort one another to endurance" (Q. 103).

"Then regarding the 23rd letter which is [the letter] "L" (al-lām). It signifieth on this level al-lawḥ al-a`ẓam (the Most Great Tablet) in which exist all modalities (al-shu’ūn).

[2] Then [additionally it] signifieth the lawḥ al-amr (Tablet of the Command) for God did not send down [reveal] a single thing except He had it penned therein.

[3] Then [additionally it]  signifies the Lawḥ al-Ḥafīz ("Preserved Tablet") which indicates the actions [deeds] of the totality of all the creatures such as have been encompassed in the knowledge of God.

[4] Then [additionally it] signifieth the Lawḥ which God hath assuredly created through the knowledge of `Azrā’īl through the constriction of all who are possessed of a spirit [soul] (bi-qaby rūḥ kull dhiya rūḥ). For he gazeth upon it [Lawḥ] at every moment. And he followeth the amr (Cause-command) of His Lord in accordance with what hath been stipulated, with the permissionof God -- exalted and glorified be He -- in the dictates (aḥkam) of that Lawḥ".

 At the very outset of the Bab’s commentary,  the  lawh mahfuz (Preserved Tablet) is presented as the "Greatest Tablet" (al-lawḥ al-akbar). This work of the Bab reflects Islamic esoteric traditions; as well, most notably, as the sometimes arcane Khuṭba al-ṭutunjiyya (The Sermon of the Gulf) ascribed to Imam `Ali (d.40/661), an oration which both the Bab and Bahā’-Allāh, like Shaykh Aḥmad al-Ahsā`ī and Sayyid Kāẓim Rashtī, regarded very highly.

        The influence of the qur’anic expression lawḥ maḥfūẓ  (Preserved Tablet) is evident throughout the Bābī-Bahā'ī revelations. In, for example, Baha’-Allah’s Sūrat al-qadīr (The Surah of the the Omnipotent) addressed to "the Sun of My Name al-Qadīr" around 1866, we read after its prescript and basmala,

"Then Praised be unto He Who decreed the destined measures (muqadir) of all things in Mighty, Preserved Tablets (alwāḥ `izz maḥfūẓ)" (AQA 4:317-320).