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The `Ilm al-Ḥurūf (Science of the Letters) among the `ulūm al-ghayb ("Esoteric Sciences")

The `Ilm al-Ḥurūf (Science of the Letters) among the `ulūm al-ghayb ("Esoteric Sciences") in the writings of the Bāb with special reference to the Qayyūm al-asmā' and the Khuṭba `Ilm al-Ḥurūf  (Sermon on the Science of the Letters).

Stephen Lambden (UC-Merced).

Abstract ... 199X/200X.


"Our [deep Shi`i] tradition (ḥadith) is arcane (ṣa`b), bewilderingly arcane (mustas`ab), impenetrable (khashin), imponderable (makhshush). None then among the people should disdainfully abandon it..." They [the Imams] furthermore do say: "Our Cause (amr) is the Truth (al-ḥaqq), the reality of the Truth (ḥaqq al-ḥaqq). It is exterior Reality and interior Reality (ẓāhir wa bāṭin) as well as the interior Reality of the exterior Reality (bāṭin al-ẓāhir) and the interior Reality of the interior Reality (bāṭin al-bāṭin). It is the mystery (al-sirr) and the mystery of the mystery (sirr al-sirr), the very mystery of the secreted mystery (al-sirr al-mustansirr) and a mystery veiled up in mystery (sirr muqanna` bi'l-sirr)" (Extracts from two Hadith of the Imams often mirrored in the Qayyūm al-asmā')

"Has not the Dawn time (al-subḥ) broken through the Light of Glory (nūr al-jalāl) therein? Say: Yea! By my Lord! that We might indeed deliver unto thee the universe of the science of the letters (`alam `ilm al-ḥurūf) and their [eschatological] culmination (akhirati-hā). There is nothing that lieth outside of His knowledge. And We have indeed distinguished all things (kulli shay') in a Book Preserved (kitāb ḥafīẓ)" (Extract from the  Khuṭba  of the Bab on the `Science of the Letters').

It is widely acknowledged that many of the writings of the Sayyid `Ali Muhammad Shirazi, the Bāb (d. 1850 CE) are grammatically and conceptually obscure, complex or abstruse. One of the reasons for this was the Bāb's frequent utilization and reinterpretation of difficult, philosophical and esoteric Shi`i-Shaykhi Islamic concepts. His teachings drew upon and reinterpreted, for example,  novel aspects of  the `ilm al-huruf ("the science of letters") and jafr (gematria related divination). He gave deep mature meanings to aspects of the Qajar Shi`i and earlier religio-intellectual  `universe of discourse' consonant with the inbreaking of the new era or the Day of God (yawm Allah), the Day of Resurrection (yawm al-qiyama). Among the influential figures in the history of the `ulum al-ghayb (esoteric sciences) which the writings of the Bab sometimes echo are those Jabir ibn Hayyan (fl. 8th-9th cent. CE), Ahmad ibn `Ali al-Buni (d. 622/1225), Muhyi al-Din Ibn `Arabi (d. 638/1240)  and Sayyid Ja`far al-Kashfi (d. 1267/1851).

Deep allegorical, non-literal interpretations of the Qur'an and traditions are frequently encountered in the writings of the Bab. His early Qayyūm al-asmā' or Tafsir Surat Yūsuf (`Commentary on the Surah of Joseph', mid. 1844), Kitāb al-Rūḥ (Book of the Spirit, c.1844-5) and other writings and letters, claim to express aspects of the ta'wīl (inner exegesis) or bāṭin (deeper) senses of the Qur'an or indeed, of "everything" (kull shay'.  In the former 400 page Arabic work the figure of Joseph and his 11 brothers -- making up the twelve `tribes of Israel' -- are interpreted in imamological and numerological terms when linked to the twelve letter kalimat al-tawḥīd (la ilaha illa Allah = "There is no God but God"). One of the chapters of this same work is entitled  Surat al-Yusuf (QA. 5 `Joseph'). Others bear such elusive names as  the Sūrat al-Iksīr (`The Surah of the Elixir' = QA. 58), the Surat al-Tarbī`  (QA 64 + 94, `The Fourfold'; `Quadrilateral [Word]'), the Sūrat al-Bā' (QA 83: `The Surah of the [Letter] "B" (al-bā')' and Sūrat al-Tathlīth (QA 95; `The Surah of the Threefold'). Alchemical, talismanic and other esoteric terminology is fairly common in the writings of the Bab. While Shaykh Ahmad (d. 124X/ 1826) was widely regarded as a master of the esoteric sciences by his awestruck successor Sayyid Kazim Rashti (d. 1259/1843) and others, the Bab claimed to communicate their deepest latter-day secrets.  For him the `ulum al-ghayb (`esoteric sciences')  often pointed to his messianic purpose and mission.

While the Bab always upheld an apophatic or `negative' theology of the Divine transcendence and unknowability along with a high imamology, his bāṭini (`deep inner level') disclosures of new levels of Qur'anic interpretation enabled him to  underline an imminent then `realized' eschatology and messianism. His bāṭini (`deep inner level') depth of communication led to widespread conversions among his learned and non-clerical contemporaries. In this paper an attempt will be made to examine some basic aspects of the esoteric teachings of the Bab without being too confusing or `bewilderingly abstruse'. Some new aspects of the Bab's writings will be presented including a full translation  of his Khuṭba `Ilm al-Ḥurūf  (Sermon on the Science of the Letters).