The Islamic Background of Arabic term عَمَاء ,`amā'

From the opening Poem on al-`Ama' in `Abd al-Karim al-Jili Section IX of his al-Insan al-Kamil

PART ONE:

 The Islamic Background of the Arabic term عَمَاء ,  `amā'

Stephen Lambden, UCMerced.

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

IN PROGRESS 2020 - Last updated 21-06-2020.

The Arabic verbal noun عَمَاء  `amā'.

 In the first line of the Rashh-i `ama' the word `ama'   is found as the second word in genitive relationship with the  word rashḥ which has various senses including "sprinkling" (like rain gently falling from a cloud) :

       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.

 

SELECT TRANSLATIONS OF THE ARABIC `AMA'

  • 19XX MacEoin  "Cloud of Unknowing"
  • 198X Stephen Lambden  `The Apophatic Cloud', the "Theophanic Cloud" BSB 
  • 19XX Titus Burckhardt French,        Culme-Seymour Eng. trans 1983 as `The Divine Obscurity'
  •  

 

 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,      

Abū Ja`far Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Ṭabarī (d. 310/923)

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):

Shahrastānī, Muhammad ibn `Abd al-Karīm (d. 548/1153)

  • al-Milal = al-Milal wa’l-niḥal. 2 vols. Ed. Muhammad Sayyid Kīlānī. Beirut: Dār al-ṣa`ib, 1406/1987.
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  • Kitāb al-Milal wa'l-niḥal ed. Ahmad Fahmi Muhammad, 3 vols in 1 Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-`Ilmiyya, n.d. [199?]
  • Kitāb al-Milal wa'l-niḥal trans. A.K.Kazi and J.G. Flynn, `Muslim Sects and Divisions, The Section of Muslim Sects in Kitāb al-Milal wa'l-niḥal by `Abd al-Karim Shahrastani (d. 1153)'. London, Boston, Melbourne and Henley: Kegan Paul International, 1954 Rep. 1984. (195pp.).
  • Mafatih 1989 = Mafatīḥ al-Asrār wa Maṣābīḥ al-Abrār [Persian Facsimile editon in 2 vols. covering Surat al-Fatiha and Baqara Q. Surahs 1-2]. Tehran: Markaz-i Intishār-i Nushakh-i Khaṭṭī (= Centre for the Publication of Manuscripts). Facsimile edition of the Unique Manuscript at the Library of the
    Islamic Consultative Assembly or Bunyād-i Farhang-i Irān. Introduction by `Abd al-Husayn Ha'iri and Indices by Parviz Akhka'i, 1989 CE/1409 AH/1368Sh.
  • Mafatih 1997 = Mafātīḥ al-asrār wa maṣābīḥ al-abrār (Keys of the mysteries and Lamps of the Pious). ed. Muhammad `Alī Adharshab, Tehran: Iḥyā-yi Kitāb, Daftar-i Nashr-i Miras-i Maktub, 1997.

Suhrawardī, Shihāb al-Dīn Yaḥyā ( d. 587/1191)

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  • Hayakil = Hayakil al-Nūr. ed. Muhammad `Alī Abū Rayyān. Cairo: Grande Library Commerciale, 1377/1957.
  • 1999 The Philosophical Allegories and Mystical Treatises, (Persian+ English text) ed. & tr. W.M. Thackston. Costa Mesa, California: Mazda Pub. 1999.
  • Ishq = Fī ḥaqīqat al-`Ishq (On the Reality of Love) text and tr. In Suhrawardi, 1999 (Treatise VI), 58-76.

al-Ṭabarī, Muhammad b. Jarīr (d. 310/922)

  •  Tarikh = Ta'rīkh al-rusul wa’l-mulūk, 15 vols. Dār al-Fikr 1988/1408.
  •  Eng. tr., = The History of al- Ṭabarī, by various translators, general ed., E. Yarshater, 37+1 vols. Albany, N.Y: SUNY, 1985-98.
  • Tarikh (Per. 1987) 1366/1987. Tārīkh-i nāmih-yi Ṭabarī. 3 Vols. Ed. Muḥammad Rawshan. Tehran: Nashr-i Naw.
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  • History tr. Rosenthal. The History of al-Tabarī, vol. 1 (General Introduction and From the Creation to the Flood), Albany. SUNY. 1989.
  • History tr. Brinner, W. vol. 2 (Prophets and Patriarchs), Albany, SUNY, 1987.
  • History tr. Brinner, W. vol. 3 (The Children of Israel), Albany, SUNY, 1991
  • History tr. Perlman. M. vol. 4 (The Ancient Kingdoms), Albany, SUNY. 1987.

al-Būnī, Muḥyī al-Dīn, Aḥmad ibn Alī (d. Cairo 622/1225)

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Ibn al-`Arabī, Muḥyī al-Dīn (c. 638 /1240).

 

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Select Bibliography II

Chittick, William C.

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Ibn Tawūs, Raḍī al-Dīn 'Alī ibn Mūsā ibn Ṭāwūs al-Hasanī al-Ḥillī (d. 664/1226).

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al-Qunawī, Ṣadr al-Dīn ( d. 673/1274)

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Rūzbehān Baqlī Shirazi,

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ʿAbd-al-Razzāq al-Kāshānī (d. 730/1329)

al-Qayṣārī, Muhammad Sharaf al-Dīn Dāwūd ( d. 751/1350)

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al-Bursī, Rajab. al-Ḥāfiẓ (d. c. 814/1411),

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`Abd al Karīm ibn Ibrāhīm al-Jīlī (c. 1365- d. c. 832/1428).

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: (see EI2 art.    al-Jili).

On the book entitled  al-Insan al-Kamil (`The Perfect Human Being),( = Persianized form). al-`Ensān al-kāmel'  ( see  EIr, article Gerhard Böwering Vol. VIII, Fasc. 5, pp. 457-461) in which there is an important section IX on  al-Ama'  (` The Theophanic Cloud).

AL-INSAN AL-KAMIL SECTION IX 

[1] The Theophanic Cloud - al-Ama' is the Primordal Locale; the Firmament [Sphere] (falak) of the Beauteous Suns (al-shamus al-husn)  setting therein  (affal), .   

[2] It is the Person of the Logos-Self of God (nafs nafs Allah) for He was before it and within It;

 A  Cosmic Entity [Being] (kawn)  from which naught emerges and naught is altered! .

[3] Its Symbolic Likeness (mithl) is the elevated Symbolic Likeness of His Prototypical Apophatic Blackness (kammun, lit cumin),

It is even as the Prototypical-Apophatic Blackness of  Fire (kammun nar) which hath ever been encompassed by Cosmic Stone (al-jandal).

[4] Whatever the case, Cosmic Fire (nar) is generated from its Cornerstones (al-ahjar);

By virtue of  its essential nature (hukm)  and its Prototypical-Apophatic Blackness (kammun) it is way beyond penetrability!

[5] That Cosmic Fire (nar) which is generated from its Cornerstones (al-ahjar) is something secreted therein (kamina)

Were it to be made manifest according to its essential nature (hukm)  nothing would be divulged thereby.

[6] He, nonetheless, saw us gazing though He is [abstracted/ Hidden] in al-`Ama' (the Apophatic Cloud)!  

Translated from the Arabic text of al-Insān al-Kāmil, ed, 1375/1956, I: 50f by Stephen Lambden 2018 - last updated 21-06-2020.

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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

 

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