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The Secret of Speaking according to Al-Qûnawî and Ibn Al-‘Arabî


This paper was delivered at "The Second Qunawi International Symosium", Konia, Turkey, organized by II. ULUSLARARASI KONEVİ SEMPOZYUMU, 6-9/10/2011.






Like his stepfather, Ibn Al-‘Arabî, and all Sufis in general, Sadr-ud-Din Al-Qûnawî gives great importance to letters and words considering that the cosmos is made up of divine words that are composed of letters both as spoken sounds or inscribed characters, quite similar to human language. In his essential book: "the key for the unseen" (miftâh-ul-ghayb), Al-Qûnawî speaks about the secret of speaking and explains how the human's speech is initiated in the heart and manifested in the outside world, and then he relates all that to divine speaking which is nothing but the creation itself.



This paper analyses Al-Qûnawî's compact key assertions about the significance of speaking and the analogy between human and divine words and letters, together with Ibn Al-‘Arabî's extended discussion of these issues in the futûhât and other books, which can also be applied towards understanding the ontological structure and origin of the cosmos according to modern scientific view.




Al-Qûnawî begins by defining speaking or speech as the image of the speaker's knowledge (of himself or of something else), and therefore, the letters and the words are the bits of information that the speaker brings out from the realm of abstract (mental) existence into physical existence, through some medium that takes a particular form to manifest the speaking; such as normal human voice or writing.


The information or the known realities in their abstract form, as inscribed in the heart, are hidden letters when taken as individual bits or realities, and hidden words when considering and combining the different properties of any known reality. These hidden letters and words become manifest through speaking in order to conduct what is in the heart of the speaker into the hearer. This manifestation goes through three stages: mental characters which are the meanings and information in the mind, imaginational characters which are the image of mental characters as projected in the human imagination, and finally sensual characters that manifest in the visible world in the form of spoken sounds or inscribed characters.


The spoken letters are defined through the breath and the tongue that moves to different states that formulate the sound of each letter by the help of the lips and other oral organs, and the inscribed characters are defined according to the conventional artistic forms depending on language and fonts.


The Analogy between Divine and Human Speaking:


What we have described above applies for our normal human speaking and writing, but Al-Qûnawî then shows that this can also be taken as a comprehensive example of divine Speaking that is nothing but the creation itself, because all existing things that Allah creates in the world are manifestations of His knowledge of Himself, so they are the divine words, and the human words and speaking are good example of how things are brought out from the presence of divine knowledge into actual physical existence.


This important conclusion is a direct result of Ibn Al-‘Arabî's assertion that Allah created (the perfect) Human Being 'according to His Image' [I 163.20],[1] so all divine Attributes (including Speaking and Hearing) are present in every (fully) human person. Also, as Ibn Al-‘Arabî says, Allah created the world and everything in it on the image of (the Perfect) Human Being [II 652.25], and so the world with the Human Being is 'on the Image of the Real' - but without the Human Being it would not have this perfection [III 343.25].


Taking this deep analogy between divine and human speaking, we can say that the world is like a book that has been written, and still being written, by Allah the All-Merciful. Therefore Al-Qûnawî explains that ink and the inkwell are like the state of possibilities that includes possible things that Allah knows and may bring into real existence (otherwise known as Archetypes, Principial Possibilities or Immutable Essences [(al-‘ayânu al-thâbita][2]), and the realities of these possible things are like the potential characters that are hidden in, and can be written by, this ink; thus from here we can see how multiplicity is embodied in unity.[3]


Then also, Al-Qûnawî continues to explain, the medium where the words appear (such as the voice or the paper) is like the spreading of the existential light of the breath of the Merciful through which the forms of existing things were determined, whereas speaking or writing is like creating either by the divine command Be or by the Higher Pen that is the Universal Intellect that writes the words of Allah in the Universal (protected) Tablet.[4]


And just as the human speaker or writer draws what he wants to speak or write from two main sources: his initial intrinsic knowledge and the knowledge he gained through his senses, likewise the Creator creates according to His knowledge of Himself and His eternal knowledge of the realities of things that He witnesses in Himself (i.e. the Immutable Essences).


Thus, Al-Qûnawî concludes, anyone who knows this comprehensive principle and tastes it and witnesses it, he knows the creation and the emanating existence and he knows how knowledge is related to the known, and the secret of the states which are like the outlets of letters, and also the secret of the analogy between human and divine attributes and actions, and the relation between the divine self-knowledge and the human intrinsic knowledge, in addition to the relation between the divine knowledge of things before and after their existence and the human knowledge gained from the senses.


Superstrings and the Science of Letters:


As an example of applying these important conclusions explained by Al-Qûnawî in his book miftâh-ul-ghayb summarised above, and the related Ibn Al-‘Arabî's ontological views, we can consider modern atomic models in the theories of physics, cosmology and philosophy. In the standard atomic model, particles are considered to be points (or spheres) moving through the four dimensions of space-time, which eventually led to obvious discrepancies. In 1985, the new String Theory suggested that all elementary particles can be represented by fundamental building blocks called: 'strings' that can be closed, like loops, or open, like a hair. The different vibrational modes (or 'notes') of the string represent the different particle types, since different modes are seen as different masses or spins.


There are deep and exciting similarities between this String Theory and the Sufi mysterious 'science of letters' (‘ilm al-hurûf) and their complex symbolic cosmological analogies that Ibn Al-‘Arabî elaborates, beginning in the long second chapter of the Futûhât where he arranged these letters in specific hierarchies and talked about the cosmological dimensions and significance of the science of letters.[5] In this chapter and other parts of the Futûhât, and many other books, Ibn Al-‘Arabî mentioned many mysterious facts about the letters and their cosmological meanings. For example, he explained the relation between the characters of the word azal, as written in Arabic (أزل), and the meaning of time (zamân زمان) by tracing the mysterious relation between the shape of the characters in both words, as he mentioned in his book: Kitâb al-Azal.


Moreover, in the mentioned chapter 2 of the Futûhât, Ibn Al-‘Arabî gives details about the cosmological significance of each letter, how it is produced, what kind of vibrations it carries, and also the different orbs that contribute to produce it. Then in the long chapter 198 [II.390-478], which is titled 'On Knowing the Breath', Ibn Al-‘Arabî mentioned remarkable facts about these cosmic meanings of the letters and sounds, and he explained the role of each divine Name of Allah in creating the different parts of the world and the different letters of the alphabet.


As one small illustration, we refer here to the letter (and sound) alif (ا), the first letter in the Arabic alphabet (and many other languages), which Ibn Al-‘Arabî treats as symbolically identical to the First Intellect—not only because it is first, but because it represents the closest thing to the pure creative, foundational divine 'Breath' itself. First Ibn Al-‘Arabî asserts that 'alif is not really a letter' [I.65.23], but he stresses that 'all letters may be broken down into it, and also may be built up from it, while it does not break down into them' [I.78.22], so this letter alif is present in every letter or word, just like the Real that manifests in everything in the world. Indeed any sound that we produce inevitably starts by the sound of letter alif because it is simply the beginning of the blowing of the breath through the larynx.


So since the cosmos is the words of the Real and those words are composed of letters or sounds produced through the Breath of the All-Merciful; these letters are the strings that constitute everything in the cosmos, just as the meanings that we create when we speak are also composed of the letters of the alphabet. Even the written shape and curvature of the Arabic characters, for Ibn Al-‘Arabî, have deep hidden meanings that relate to the cosmos in many mysterious ways: in that sense, those shapes, just like the strings in the Strings Theory, are essentially either open like letter alif (ا), or closed like letters mîm (م) and wâw (و).


The science of letters and of their equivalent numbers (‘ilm al-jafr) was not invented by the Sufis, but it was widely known in various 'esoteric sciences', for example those that deal with magic and talismans, where they replace each letter by its equivalent numbers and make certain calculations and tables that are said to have secret magical effects, or may tell hidden facts. In her famous book Mystical Dimensions of Islâm, Annemarie Schimmel devoted some books to speaking about the wider theme of letter symbolism in Sufi and Islamic literature.[6] In fact this kind of mythology dates back to the time of Pythagoras (582-504 BC), who visualized the world as perfect harmony, like musical notes, that depends on the system of numbers (which were written with the same letters of the alphabet in both Greek and later in Arabic).


For Ibn Al-‘Arabî, this cosmological analogy applies both to speaking (sounds) and writing (characters), because the 'Higher Pen' is creating the cosmos by literally writing the words of the Real in the 'Higher Tablet'. This process of writing produces the 'Pen-sounds' (sarîf al-aqlâm), which are the vibrations that are referred to in the hadith recounting the ascension of the Prophet Muhammad [III.61.9].


So we say that the First Intellect that is the first-created (or first-originated: awwal mubda‘), and he is the Higher Pen. There was nothing else originated before (muhdath) him, but he was influenced by what Allah newly originated in him by raising up through him the 'Protected Tablet' (of the World-Soul), like the raising up of Eve from Adam in the world of material-bodies, so that this Tablet is going to be the substrate and place for what this divine Higher Pen writes (through the 'words' of creation). Now the delineation of the letters is designed to indicate what the Real made as signs pointing to Him.


So the Protected Tablet was the first existent raised up (from another: mawjûd inbi‘âthî). And it is reported in the revelation (of the Prophet) that 'the first of what Allah created was the Pen; then He created the Tablet and said unto the Pen: "write!", so the Pen said: "what to write?" Then Allah said unto him: "you write and I shall dictate you" [Kanz: 15116]. So the Pen writes in the Tablet what Allah dictates to him, which is His Knowledge regarding His creation that He shall create till the resurrection Day. [I.139.23]


In addition to that, Ibn Al-‘Arabî also divides the letters of the alphabet between four existents: the real (through whom creation takes place), the angels, the jinn and the Humans [I.53.1], which we may render into vibrations in 0-D, 1-D, 2-D and 3-D as explained in other publications.[7] This, he explains, is because the hearing (sam‘) is based on four realities [II.367.24], and that is why in the science of music and notes there are four main notes: the Bum (the thick string), the Zîr (the highest string), Muthannâ (duo), and Muthallath (trio): each moves the soul in a special way, causing the emotions of happiness and sadness [II.367.26].








[1] This phrase, which underlines the entire famous opening chapter on Adam of Ibn Al-‘Arabî's Fusûs al-Hikam, occurs in many hadith [Kanz: 1141-1150, and 15129], though some scholars interpret 'on his image (‘alâ sûratihî)' as: 'on the image of the human being/Adam himself'. Ibn Al-‘Arabî, however, affirms that the pronoun 'His' refers to Allah [I 106.9, I 200.8, I 216.14] because in some narrations the hadith says 'on the Image of the All-Merciful' [Kanz: 1146, 1148 and 1149]. Ibn Al-‘Arabî affirms this meaning hundreds of times in the Futûhât and other books. The same meaning also occurred in the Bible (Genesis 1:27). The 'Image (sûra)' here, however, shouldn't be understood as a picture or physical form. Ibn Al-‘Arabî stresses that the meaning of this is that the divine Names of Allah are comprehensively manifested in the human being and in the world [I 124.13], but not that the human being or the world are therefore identical to Allah [I 97.26]. See also Al-Hakîm, Su‘âd, al-Mu‘jam al-Sûfî (Beirut: Dandarah, 1981), pp. 702-9.


[2] See: Chittick, William C., The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn al-‘Arabi's Metaphysics of Imagination (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1989), p. 83, and also: Burckhardt, T., Introduction to Sufi Doctrine (Indiana: World Wisdom, 2008), p 53 [chapter 9: The Archetypes].


[3] For more about Unity and Multiplicity according to In Ibn Al-‘Arabî, see: Yousef, M. H., Ibn Arabi – Time and Cosmology, pp. 117-139.


[4] In Ibn Al-‘Arabî's terminology, the Higher Pen or the Universal Intellect has many different names or descriptions as Ibn Al-‘Arabî summarized in his book: al-Durrat al-Baydâ (The White Pearl) in which he discussed many names and descriptions of the First Intellect and the title of the book itself is one interesting variant. Also Ibn Al-‘Arabî spent much of the first chapter in his book al-Tadbîrât al-Ilâhiyya on explaining the different names and properties of this Universal Intellect that is the true Caliph (Khalîfa). For more details see: Yousef, M. H., Ibn Arabi – Time and Cosmology, pp. 143-145.


[5] For more details about the hierarchy of letters according to Ibn Al-‘Arabî, see the related English translations by Denis Gril (2004) in The Meccan Revelations, vol. II, NY: Pir Press: 107-220.


[6] Schimmel, A., The Mystery of Numbers (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1993), and: Schimmel, A., Mystical Dimensions of Islam (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina, 1975), pp. 411-25)


[7] Yousef, M. H., Ibn Arabi – Time and Cosmology, pp. 184-192.


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