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IV | The Word and the Script


And of His signs: He shows you the lightning, for fear and hope, and that He sends down from the sky water and revives by it the earth after it was dead.

Sūra 30:24


The Primordial Covenant shows very clearly that the Divine word precedes the human word: after hearing the Divine address ‘Am I not your Lord?’, the future human beings answered with ‘Yes, we give witness to it’ (Sūra 7:172).1

The word, as it comes from God and reveals Him and His will, is central in Islam. But generally speaking, the sacred word is taken out of ordinary daily life and its confused noise by means of a special kind of recitation which underlines its sacred character.

There are primordial sounds, Numinous ‘Urlaute’ like the Indian om, and nobody who has heard the long-drawn-out call Huuu (literally ‘He’) at the end of a dervish ceremony such as the Mevlevi samā‘ can forget this sound, whose vibrations move body and mind equally. Listening to such sounds, one understands why ‘sound’ could be regarded as Creative Power, and it becomes perfectly clear why musical therapy with sacred, baraka-loaded sounds was well known in Islamic culture and is still practised among certain Sufi groups.

Given this importance of the proper sound patterns, and as their corollary, proper recitation, it would be astonishing if special reciting styles were not applied to the Koran, which should be ‘embellished’ by human voices.2 For sound patterns and meaning in the Koran are closely intertwined, one of the reasons that account for the prohibition of a ‘translation’ of the Koran into other languages, as then the inimitable sounds and the true spirit would be lost. The arts of Koranic recitation, tilāwat, tajwīd or tarāl, that is, deliberate cadences, and tardīd, rhythmical repetitions, are highly developed, and nowadays competitions of Koran reciters from all over the world are convened every year. But even in the normal recitation without the psalmodizing technique, a number of rules have to be observed in order to display the Divine word's full beauty.

By applying certain musical and rhetorical rules to religious texts, a very special atmosphere is created. This can be observed in popular religious songs all over the Islamic world: the Turkish ilaâhi or nefes are characterized by repetitive formulas such as the form of four-lined stanzas, the fourth line of which is repeated either in full or at least in its rhyme-scheme. In Indo-Pakistani qawwali sessions, the alternating voices of the leader and the small choir slowly submerge the listener in an undulating sea of sound until he or she is transported to another sphere far away from daily life. As repetition serves to give form to the intangible, in languages such as Sindhi and Panjabi the theme is given by an initial line which is then repeated after every one or two lines by the chorus. This includes the repetition of the congregation's Amīn after the master, or leader, has uttered a lengthy chain of small prayers.

Parallelisms membrorum is a literary form well known in the ancient Oriental and then Christian tradition, and is found in a style reminiscent of that of the Psalms in the great prayers transmitted from religious leaders of early and medieval Islam. In Jazūlī's (d. 1495) Dalā'il al-khayrāt, a very widely-used religious text in which blessings are called down upon the Prophet, who is described in ever-changing and yet similar, often rhyming, invocations, the blessing ṣallā 'llāh ‘alāyhi wa sallam, ‘God bless him and give him peace’, is repeated hundreds of times, very much like the hundredfold ‘Be greeted’ in Christian litanies. Furthermore, the constant repetition of this sacred formula is thought to bring the Prophet close to the reciting believers: ‘the Prophet is with his community when they recite the blessings over him many times’, says a prominent mystical leader of the early nineteenth century. Thus, such a session in which the ṣalāwāt sharīfa are recited hundreds of times can lead to what can be called a ‘sacramental’ experience.

Melodious songs in honour of saints follow a similar pattern, thus the invocation of the Chishti saint Gēsūdarāz with its constantly repeated salām:

As-salāmu ‘alayka yā Gēsūdarāz,

as-salāmu ‘alayka mērē Bandanawāz

Whole litanies exist in which the names of mystics are enumerated, as the powerful invocations in Rūzbihān Baqlī's Sharḥ-i shaṭḥiāt show;3 the same is true for the invocations of Shia imams.

The tendency to highlight the core idea by repetition can be observed in high poetry as well. There, the radīf, the repeated rhyme word or phrase, seems as it were to circumambulate the Lord, whom the author uses all rhetorical devices to praise, in particular the juxtaposition of two contrasting aspects of God, such as His mercy and His wrath, His guidance and His ‘ruse’, or His capacity to grant life and to take life. Eulogies of the Prophet, or, in Shia poetry, of ‘Alī, are structured according to the same principle. A fine example is the great hymn in honour of the Prophet by Nāṣir-i Khusraw, in which the name Muḥammad forms the recurrent rhyme no less than forty-three times. Constant repetitions of exclamations like ‘My soul!’ or of questions like kū kū?, ‘Where, O where?’, of invocations that are almost an epiclesis—‘Come, Come!’ or ‘Hither, Hither!’—especially in the emotionally highly-charged verse of Rūmī, are excellent examples of repetitive structures in the rhyme.4 Long chains of anaphors can serve the same purpose; suffice it to read the chain of exclamations Zahī zahī ‘How beautiful! How beautiful!’ in the introductory praise of God in ‘Aṭṭaür's Ilāhīnāma. By the use of both anaphors and repeated rhymes, the poet tries to approach the Divine from all possible new angles to give at least a faint idea of His greatness.

Such poems should be recited with high voice to enjoy them fully; but besides the loud recitation and even shouting aloud, one may also find a recitation of sacred words with low voice, or in silence. That can be done lest the outsider understand the secrets expressed by the reciter, or to give the listener an opportunity to pray in the spirit, as in the silent recitation of the Fātiḥa at the end of prayers, or in meetings. The murmuring of the Zoroastrian priests, zamzama, was well known among the Persians, and sometimes poets compare the twittering and chirping of the birds to this practice (for they praise the Lord in their secret language, which only Solomon could properly understand). The question of whether the dhikr, the recollection of God, should be performed with loud voice (and even in a kind of screaming, as in the so-called dhikr-i arra, ‘sawing dhikr’, of some Central Asian Sufis) or should rather be done quietly caused major discussions and tensions in medieval Sufi circles.

The word—the language in itself, as Muslims felt—was something special: the word is a messenger from God, as Nāṣir-i Khusraw stated.5 From early times, people have known sacred and secret languages. Hunters and fishermen had their own idioms, as have some merchants, or thieves still today, and each group jealously concealed its intentions under the cover of metaphors lest the power of the ‘real’ word be broken.6 The same is true in higher religions whose scriptures are revealed in a specific language which then tended to become sacralized. Prime examples of sacred languages are Sanskrit and Arabic, as much as Arabic was the common language at the time the Koran was revealed and is still one of the most widespread languages in the world. Yet, the language of the Koran is something different; its proper and religiously valid recitation is possible only in Arabic because that is how God revealed His will; therefore ritual prayer must be performed only in the language of the Koran. The attempts of Ataturk in Turkey to have the call to prayer recited in Turkish caused much grievance in the Muslim community, and most traditionally-minded Turks rejoiced when the Arabic call to prayer was reintroduced after the elections of 1950. Arabic is filled with baraka, and there is even a ḥadīth that ‘Knowledge of Arabic is part of one's religion’.7 The i‘jāz al-qur'ān, the inimitability of the sacred Book, was the incontrovertible proof of its Divine character as well as the proof of Muhammad's prophethood. For as the Arabs were so fond of their powerful language, Muhammad's miracle had to be connected with language, as Jāḥiẓ argued, while Moses performed ‘magic’ miracles in consonance with the Egyptians’ trust in magic, and Jesus was the healer in a culture where healing was highly appreciated.8

The feeling of Arabic being ‘the language’ par excellence could lead to certain problems, for the question arose as to whether or not a non-Muslim Arab should be permitted to teach Arabic, or whether a non-Muslim should learn and teach it at all. A shade of this feeling that the non-Muslim cannot teach Arabic properly as he or she is excluded, as it were, from fully appreciating its sacred mysteries can be observed even today despite the great number of Arabic-speaking Copts and Syrian and Lebanese Christians, many of whom are first-class scholars of Arabic.

But when the language of the Koran could and should not be translated owing to its sanctity, how was one to inform people about its contents as Islam continued to spread into areas outside Arabia? Commentaries and interlinear translations, however insufficient, were one means, and the role of Muslims of non-Arab background in the development of Koranic sciences, not to mention philology, history and natural sciences, is immense.

Another way, which is important when one has to deal not with the elite but with the masses, was to develop the different languages which the Muslims encountered during the expansion of their rule. As in Europe St Francis and Jacopone da Todi stand at the beginning of Italian, and German nuns and mystics, in particular Meister Eckhart (d. 1328) and Mechthild of Magdeburg (d. 1283), used their mother tongue to speak of religious subjects to the general public instead of using the church's Latin, so mystical preachers in the medieval and post-medieval Islamic world contributed largely to the development of various tongues.9 When early Sufis in Baghdad and Egypt filled Arabic with emotion and transformed it into a language of loving experience, the same happened later on a much larger scale in the areas beyond the Arab world. Aḥmad Yesewī in Turkestan (d. 1166) composed sayings about religious wisdom in his Turkish mother tongue, while 150 years later the Anatolian bard Yunus Emre was—as far as can be ascertained—one of the first poets (and certainly the most successful) to sing moving religious songs in Anatolian Turkish, thus opening a whole literary tradition which has remained alive to this day. From this vantage point, Bosnian and Albanian versions of religious Muslim literature also developed.

Even stronger is the Sufi influence on languages in the Indo-Pakistani subcontinent, where mystical leaders like Mollā Da'ūd, the writer of Lōr Chanda in Awadh (d. 1370), and Muḥammad Ṣaghīr (author of an early version of Yūsuf Jalīkhā) in Bengal, utilized their humble mother tongues to sing of Divine Love in images which even the simplest villager or the housewife could understand, while others at least praised the sweetness of the indigenous idiom without using it for their own poetry. The short verses which often induced mystics into ecstasy were uttered neither in the Persian of the intellectuals nor in the Arabic of theologians and jurists but mainly in the regional languages such as Hindwi or Sindhi. In Pashto, Pīr-i Rawshan (d. 1575) expressed the conviction that God understands every language, provided it is the language of the heart; and his own work is the first classic in his mother tongue. For, as Rūmī had told much earlier, God prefers the seemingly stupid babbling of the loving shepherd to theological high-falutin… (M II 1, 720ff.).

The activities of wandering preachers and Sufis probably also account for the spread of Islamic themes not only into Muslim majority areas such as Kashmir and Gujarat and their respective languages but also into Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam, not forgetting (somewhat later) Malay and Indonesian. C. H. Becker once stated that the use of Swahili and Hausa as lingua francas for large parts of Africa amounted to an Islamization owing to the great amount of Arabic phrases contained in these languages, through which, then, the knowledge of Islamic culture reached African peoples.10 One may assume that a similar development took place in India and in Central Asia.

The goal of the Muslim preachers, Sufis and religious bards was to familiarize people with the central concepts of Islam by translating them into the different languages—except, of course, for the basic formulas of the creed and the Sūras required for the correct performance of prayer, which had to be in Arabic.

If it is the ‘language of the heart’ that matters, then another way of transmitting the content of the revelation, though much rarer, is glossolalia, or speaking in tongues. For when the heart truly speaks, the words that gush forth can often be understood even by those who are not acquainted with the actual language of the speaker. Thus, Mawlānā Rūmī relates that he talked to a group of Greeks who, without understanding his Persian sermon, were nevertheless deeply moved by it. More cases of such heart-to-heart speaking can probably be found in Islamic hagiography.

The mystics were often blessed with what one might call automatic speaking or singing: an inspiration, derived from ‘ibm ladunī (Sūra 18:65), the wisdom that is ‘with God’, overcame them and made them speak or sing, often without their being aware of the content. Ibn al-Fāriḍ's Arabic poems are a case of such an inspiration, although they look like the result of extremely sophisticated rhetorical polishing. Rūmī's lyrical and didactic work is the best example of such an experience: when he frequently compares himself to a reed flute which sings only when the lips of his beloved touch it, he has expressed well the secret of inspiration.

The genre of wāridāt, ‘arriving things’, appears still in literature, and some of the wāridāt that have come to Turkish mystics in our time are good examples of what must have happened during the Middle Ages. Ismail Emre, called Yeni Yunus Emre because he wrote in a style similar to that of the historical Yunus Emre, was an illiterate blacksmith from Adana, and I myself observed several times the ‘birth’, doğuş, of some of his simple mystical poems which one of his companions noted down while he was singing.11

But how can humans understand the Divine words at all? How does one draw nearer to the meaning of revelation? The Prophet, as Muslims felt, is a word from God, who had placed His word into the souls of all prophets, incarnated it in Jesus12 and finally inlibrated it in the Koran, whose promulgation he entrusted to Muhammad.

The Divine revelation, which radiates through the prophets, is called wahy, while the inspiration which poets, thinkers and human beings in general experience is ilhām—a distinction that must always be kept in mind.

Muslims knew that true revelation is always fraught with mystery: one can never fully understand and comprehend it; and, clear as its wording and sense may appear, they always need new interpretations, for when the Word is indeed of Divine origin, humankind can never completely discover all the possible meanings which it contains. A revelation that is fully understood would not be a true revelation of the unfathomable Divine being.13 That is another reason why a ‘translation’ of the Koran is regarded as impossible: neither its miraculous linguistic beauty nor all the shades of its meaning can be reproduced in a version in another language.

One approach to drawing closer to the mystery of revelation is the attempt to give God, who is its originator, a name. As God calls Himself Allāh in the Koran, His ‘personal’ name is known; and, in precious copies of the Koran, one may find this name written in gold, or heightened by some other calligraphic means.

It is the so-called ‘prophetic’ religion that tends to address God with a name, for He has to be ‘nameable’ (as Kenneth Cragg puts it) so that He can be known and obeyed.14 This name can be a sacred cipher, like the Hebrew YHVH, but even then it helps to constitute an I-Thou relation, enabling the creature to call upon the Creator. Mystical religion, on the other hand, tends to hide the Divine name, as Prince Dārā Shikōh (probably based on, or at least inspired by, an identical saying in the Upanishads) sings at the beginning of his poetry:

Be-nām-i ānki ū nāmi nadārad

In the name of Him who has no name,

Who lifts His head at whichever name you call…

Besides, mystics, like all lovers, were very well aware that one condition of love is not to reveal the beloved's name:15

Sometimes I call you ‘Cypress’, sometimes ‘Moon’

And sometimes ‘Musk-deer fallen in the snare’…

Now, tell me, friend, which one do you prefer?

For out of jealousy, I'll hide your name!

(‘Aynul Quḍāt Hamadhānī)

Even though the Muslims knew the Ninety-nine most beautiful Names of God, the asmā'al-ḥusnā (Sūra 7:180), they also knew that the greatest Name of God must never be revealed to the uninitiated, as someone who knows it would be able to perform heavy incantations and magic, for the name has a strong power:

Someone who pronounces His name,

his bones don't decay in the grave,

as Mawlānā Rūmī sings (D no. 3,107).

While the demented person in ‘Aṭṭār's Muṣībatnāma claims that His Greatest Name must be ‘bread’, since everyone cries out this word during a famine, for some people the Greatest Name consists of ‘the perfection of humanity’, kamāl-i insāniyya.16

In many respects, the name resembles the garment: it is identical with the named one and yet distinct from him. That is why God revealed the names of all things to Adam so that he might have power over them (Sūra 2:31), just as someone who owns a piece of someone's garment can perform magic with it.

But according to another interpretation of the Koranic verse about ‘teaching the names’, God revealed to Adam His own names; for, as Rūmī explains:

He taught Adam the names out of jealousy;

He wove the veils of the particulars around the all-embracing entity.

(D l. 2,423)

That is, the beautiful Names of God faintly point to Him and His ninety-nine (i.e. innumerable) qualities, while they do not reveal His Essence.

The role of the asmā’ al-ḥusnā in Muslim piety was and still is very important. The thousandfold repetition of one or several names in the dhikr is one of the central duties of the Sufi, for whom—as for the loving Zulaykhā in Rūmī's Mathnawī—the Beloved's name becomes food and clothing. It shows the master's wisdom in choosing for his disciple the right name to repeat (similar to the Hazir Imam, i.e. the Aga Khan, who gives the Ismaili a secret ‘word’, shabad). For the selection of the Name depends upon the station in which the wayfarer finds himself; names which may be wholesome and strengthening for one person may be dangerous for another. The properties of the Divine Names as they are used in many-thousandfold repetition have been pointed to in important works from the later Middle Ages onwards, one of the finest being Ibn ‘Aṭā Allāh's Miftāḥ al-falāḥ, ‘The Key to Well-being’. There is no lack of poetical versions of the Names and their special powers, and recently Sufi masters have published several collections with explanations as well as fine calligraphies of the Names.

The Divine Names were also important because they contained and pointed to ethical qualities. Ghazzālī urged his readers to dwell upon the ethical aspects of the Names: when reciting al-Baṣīr, ‘The Seeing’, one should become aware that God sees everything that one does; the name al-Ḥakīm speaks of His all-embracing wisdom, and so on. Mawlānā Rūmī follows his argumentation in this respect, and (contrary to many of his contemporaries) does not dwell upon the dhikr of the Names as, for himself, the constant repetition of the name of his mystical friend Shamsuddīn was enough to induce ecstasy.17

In the theosophy of Ibn ‘Arabī and his followers, creation is seen as a result of the ‘primordial sadness of the Names’ which wanted to be manifested; and everything and everybody is ruled, marbūb, by a certain Divine Name, acts according to it and reaches his goal by means of it, for Divine activity is, as it were, channelled through the Names to the things named.18

The active role of the Divine Names can be discovered in another, less mystical aspect of life; that is, calling children ‘abd, ‘slave of’, followed by any of the ninety-nine Names.19 The name ‘Abdur Raḥmān, so Muslims feel, connects the boy with the quality of ar-raḥmān, the ‘All-Merciful’, and believers hope that an amat al-karīm, ‘handmaiden of the Generous’, might display the characteristics of generosity in her life. Many proper names have therefore as their second part one of the ‘Names of Kindness’ and when an American baseball player, at his conversion to Islam, took the name ‘Abdul Jabbār, ‘Slave of the Overpowering’, the intention was clear: he hoped to overcome his opponents. Similarly, when a family whose children have died in infancy names the new-born boy ‘Abdul Bāqī or ‘Abdud Dā'im, ‘Slave of the Everlasting’ or ‘Slave of the Ever-Remaining’, they certainly hope that the Divine Name may keep the child alive, for a strong bond exists between the Name and the named one.

That is also true when it comes to the Prophet's name.

Adĭn güzel güzel Muhammad

Your name is beautiful, you are beautiful, Muhammad,20

sings the medieval Turkish bard; and, six centuries later, Iqbāl in Lahore calls out:

Light the world, so long in darkness,

with Muhammad's radiant name!21

The Prophet's name has been used for boys from the earliest times of Islamic history, for the ḥadīth promises that everyone who bears this blessed name would enter Paradise. Yet, Muslims were also afraid lest this name be polluted by frequent use or in inappropriate connections; hence, they tended to pronounce it with different vocalization. Best-known is Mehmet in Turkish, but one also finds Muh, Mihammad, Mahmadou etc. in the western Islamic lands. Often, Muhammad's other names such as Muṣṭafā, ‘The Chosen’, Aḥmad, ‘Most Praised’ (which is his heavenly name), or his Koranic names Ṭāhā (Sūra 20), Yāsīn (Sūra 36), Muzzammil (Sūra 73) etc. are used for the sake of blessing.22

The names of the prophets mentioned in the Koran, and of the Prophet's companions, especially the ten ‘who were promised Paradise’ and the fighters in the battle of Badr (624), are frequently used; especially in amulets, the names of his cousin and son-in-law ‘Alī and his two grandsons Ḥasan and Ḥusayn occur innumerable times in both Sunni and Shia families. The same is true for the Prophet's first wife, Khadīja, his daughter Fāṭima and, less prominently, his daughters Umm Kulthūm, Ruqaiya and Zaynab. Shiites will never use the names of the first three caliphs, considered usurpers, nor that of Muhammad's youngest wife, ‘A'isha.

Names that show a relation with the Prophet or a saint—perhaps the one thanks to whose prayer the child is born—are frequent, especially in the eastern part of the Muslim world, such as Nabī bakhsh, ‘Gift of the Prophet’, or Ghauth bakhsh, ‘Gift of the Help’ (i.e. ‘Abdul Qādir Gīlānī), while opprobrious names are used—mostly in the lower classes—to avert the Evil Eye or djinns whom the parents hope might not care to hurt an Egyptian boy called Zibālah ‘garbage’ or else would take a Panjabi boy by the name of Bulākī as a girl, for bulākī is a woman's nose-ring.

The convert is given a new name, often corresponding to his or her previous name. When a Wilfred embraces Islam, the syllable will can be connected with Murād, ‘will, wish’, and many a Frieda or Friedrich is now called Farīda or Farīduddīn. When someone embarks on the Sufi path, the master may select a fitting name.

The custom of assuming religious throne-names as a sign of a politico-religious programme begins with the Abbasids, who chose names like ar-Rashīd, ‘The rightly-guided one’, or al-Mutawakkil, ‘the one who trusts in God’. The Fatimids boasted names like al-Mustanṣir, ‘the one supported with victory by God’, etc.

Names combined with ad-dīn, ‘religion’, appear first in official surnames in the tenth century in the central and eastern Islamic areas; from the eleventh century onwards, they percolated down into general nomenclature, and the numerous Shamsuddīn, ‘Sun of religion’ (as well as other luminaries such as qamar, ‘moon’, badr, ‘full moon’, najm ‘star’ and so on), and ‘aḍud, ‘support’, continued down through the centuries. The further a country is from the Arab heartlands, the more fanciful religious names appear, and thus one finds Mehraj (= mi‘rāj) addīn, ‘Ascension of Religion’, or Mustafīz urraḥmān, ‘favoured by God's effusion’, in the Indian subcontinent.

There are also astrological names which depend upon the zodiacal sign, the day and the hour of the child's birth, and a given name can later be changed into an astrological one if the first one is thought unfitting, even ‘too heavy’, and dangerous for the person.

Often, names were selected by opening the Koran at random and taking the first word on which one's eye fell, even though it might not make any sense. The figure of Mirza A-lam nashiaḥ, ‘Did We not open…?’ (beginning of Sūra 94) is a famous example from India, and Uzlifat, ‘[when Paradise] is brought near’ (Sūra 81:13), is found in Turkey. One could also extend the first letter of the Koranic page into a new name, or combine the first word with ad-dīn.

This custom of opening the sacred Book leads to the central problem faced by a pious person: how to find God's will and understand His working? How to learn something about one's own future in the vast plan of God's order?

To resort to oracles, usually with arrows, was common practice in ancient Arabia and therefore ruled out by Islam. But the wise word attributed to ‘Alī, tafa’ ‘al bi ‘l-khayr tanalhu, ‘find something good in the oracle and you will get it’—that is, one should interpret oracles and signs in a positive sense—shows an important attitude to life.

The Koran offered itself as the infallible source for divination. Just as one could find proper names by merely opening the Book, thus religious and political events could be discovered in its words, and the cabalistic arts of jafr and wifq, counting and changing letters, was a widely-used means of finding out the future. The numerical value of the letters and the possibility of changing the sequence of the letters in a three-radical root offered specialists infinite ways of finding what they were looking for.

Secondary sources for prognostication in the Persianate world included Rūmī's Mathnawī and the Dīvān of Ḥāfiẓ. This latter oracle is still widely used among Persians. Muslims also tried to discover remarks about the future in the mysterious words of earlier sages such as the seven martyrs of Sind who, while dying in the fourteenth century, allegedly uttered some verses which were interpreted for centuries afterwards in the hope of understanding or foretelling events in the country.

A special way of learning about the future, and in particular of finding a Divinely-inspired answer to a question that bothers one, is istikhāra, that is, performing two units of prayer and then going to sleep, if possible in a mosque; the dreams of that night should be interpreted as pointing to the solution of one's problems.

For dreams are an important part of Muslim life.23 A dream, it is said, consists of one forty-sixth of prophethood; a woman's dream, however, is supposedly only half as true as a man's. The idea underlying this important role of dreams relies upon the Koran (Sūra 39:42 and 6:60), where it is said that the spirits in their sleep are taken back by God into His presence. Thus they have been in immediate contact with the source of all wisdom. The fact that Yūsuf appears as the interpreter of dreams in Sūra 12 has certainly enhanced the high regard for dreams.

What one sees in one's dream—so Muslims believe—is real; it has only to be interpreted properly. The dream-book of Ibn Sīrīn (d. 728) has formed a guideline for interpretations for many centuries. Mystical leaders, then, would interpret their disciples’ dreams according to their deep psychological insight.

It is often told how friends appear in dreams after their death to inform the sleeper about their post-mortem state and to give the reasons why God has forgiven them. A dead calligrapher may verify the saying that ‘he who writes the basmala beautifully will enter Paradise’, and the eccentric Sufi Shiblī (d. 945) told his friend that it was not all his meritorious acts, his fasting and prayer that saved him but the fact that he cared for a kitten that was shivering on an icy winter day. The same Shibli is credited with a vision of God in his dream: he asked Him why He had allowed His devotee, al-Ḥallāj, to be executed so cruelly, and God's answer was: ‘Whom My love kills, I'll be his blood money’ (AM no. 407).

Of greatest importance is the Prophet's appearance in dreams.24 Such a dream is always true, as Satan cannot assume the Prophet's form. The Prophet may appear to remind a celibate Sufi that marriage is his sunna; or he approves of mystical works written by the dreamer; he may show the dreamer his future grave or boast of the presence of a certain scholar, for example Ghazzālī, among his community.25

Political ideas could also be promulgated where a reformer (or a rebel) claimed to have received dream instructions from the Prophet.26

I have seen many examples of the great role which dreams play in Muslim life: what appears in a dream must come true in one way or another, and when my faithful help Fāṭima in Ankara told me that she had seen me in her dream, presenting her with a dress, there was no way out; I had to give it to her.

A ḥadīth states that ‘people are asleep and when they die they awake’ (AM no. 22a). This saying, along with its parallel that ‘the world is like the dream of a sleeper’, was loved by the Sufis, who eagerly awaited the true interpretation of their dreams, that is, of their life in the world, in the morning light of eternity where the truth will become manifested.

In the hope of reading the future as it is foreseen in God's universal plan, some Muslims turned to astrology because the script of the stars might tell of positive and negative currents in personal and communal life. In some areas, an astrological reckoning of names and elements was therefore performed before arranging a marriage. But, all the different human attempts to predict the future notwithstanding, the central source of knowledge is the word through which God reveals His holy will in the Koran.

The prophet is forced to speak; he cannot resist the Divine power that makes him feel like an instrument without a will of his own. The first revelation that came over Muhammad is typical of the prophet's initial experience: he was ordered: iqra’, ‘Read!’ or ‘Recite!’ (Sūra 96:1), to which he answered: ‘I cannot read’ or ‘I do not know how to recite’. The deep shock after this experience, which his faithful wife Khadīja understood well enough to console him, as well as several other instances, prove that his case fits exactly in the general pattern of a prophet's initiation.

This is also true for the contents of his preaching: the revelations spoke of God's absoluteness—there is no deity save Him—and ordered repentance and pure worship, and gave ethical maxims about the treatment of the poor, the widows and orphans—again typical of the ‘prophetic’ pattern of experience. The prophet always comes as a warner (nadhīr, Sūra 33:45 et al.) to his people; he is at the same time the one who announces glad tidings (bashīr, Sūra 2:119), that is, the promise of salvation for those who accept the Divine word and follow the now revealed order of life; finally, me prophet brings with him a message about the future (often a terrible future if people do not repent), which culminates in me description of retribution for human actions in either Paradise or Hell. All these themes are fully developed in Muhammad's preaching (see also below, p. 237). Yet, some of these points needed a wider elaboration.

Human beings have always tried to understand the world, its creation and its why and how, and an expression of this search for more than sheer historical knowledge is the myth, which contains—or rather is thought to contain—answers to such questions. Myth speaks of typical events, something mat happened at a certain time; of an event that can be recalled to memory, often by ritual acts; vice versa, ritual acts are explained by aetiological myths.

Islam is in its essence a religion with but little mythological material; but the interpreters of the Koran and the tradition could not help enlarging the mythological germs found in the revelation, while mystical thinkers and poets often delved deep into the ocean of ancient mythological traditions to reinterpret them for themselves.

There are, of course, no theogonic myths in Islam, for mere was no need to explain how a deity, or deities, came into existence: ‘God was, and He still is as He was’, as the famous tradition says.

Much more common are cosmogonic myths that tell how and why creation came into existence. The clear and simple statement that God needs only say kun, ‘Be!’ to something, and it becomes (Sūra 2:117 et al.), as well as the remarks that He created the world in six days (Sūra 25:60), were elaborated in various and often fanciful ways. Perhaps the most fascinating one is Ibn ‘Arabī's grand vision of creation by means of the Divine Names that longed for manifestation. Widespread stories such as the creation of the Muhammadan Light, the primordial luminous substance of the Prophet out of which everything appeared, belong here. And did not God address him: lawlāka ma khalaqtu ‘l-aflāka, ‘But for your sake I would not have created the spheres!’ (AM no. 546)? Orthodox Islam would barely agree with such mythological embellishments of the Prophet's creation, yet they occupy an important place in literature and Sufi poetry.

Anthropological myths are not lacking either: the creation of Adam and Eve, the details of Adam's first transgression and his Fall were repeated with various details in the Qiṣaṣ al-anbiyā and alluded to in literature up to Iqbāl's daring interpretation of the ‘Fall’ as a necessary precondition for man's development into a true human being.

Cultic myths are frequent: for example, how the Kaaba was built and what place it occupied in the oldest history of mankind. Shiite tradition imagined that the site of Ḥusayn's martyrdom, Kerbela, was predestined for this event millennia before the actual tragedy, so that prophets and sages of yore were already aware of its central role in the sacred history of mankind.

Islam knows no saviour figures, yet the ideas that grew around Muhammad as the intercessor on Doomsday and around ‘Alī and Ḥusayn in Shia piety, furthermore the role of Fāṭima as a kind of mater dolorosa whose intercession will save those who weep for Ḥusayn—all these are formally quite close to soteriological myths.

Aetiological myths have been created to explain the origins of the prescribed rites, and as the pilgrimage to Mecca is projected back to the time when Adam and Eve, after being expelled from Paradise, found each other again on Arafat near Mecca, thus forms of prayer and fasting are likewise traced back to earlier strata of human history; for as all the prophets before Muhammad brought essentially the same message, it was natural that they too had performed similar rites.

Particularly rich is the genre of eschatological myths, for the Koran dwells intensely and extensively upon the Last Judgment and the fate in the Hereafter. Thus, commentators and fanciful poets alike found a fertile ground from which they could elaborate the details of the eschatological instrumentarium (the Books, the Scales, the Bridge) and spin out delightful stories of paradisiacal bliss or horrifying descriptions of the tortures of the damned. A special addition was the introduction of the Mahdi, the rightly-guided leader from the Prophet's family, who will arrive before the end of the world; he, or Jesus, whose second coming is also connected with the last decades of the world, will finally overcome the dajjāl to reign for a short while to bring peace before Resurrection is announced. As long as such myths were not supported by exact data in the Koranic revelation, they were usually spiritualized by the philosophers and the mystics.

Mythological motifs connected with the Prophet, such as his heavenly journey (isrā‘, mi‘rāj), which was developed out of Sūra 17:1, were understood by mystics as prefiguring the soul's flight into the Divine Presence. Did not the Prophet himself compare his feeling during ritual prayer to his experience during the mi‘rāj, when he was standing in God's immediate presence? The colourful descriptions of the mi‘rāj have inspired poets to see their own way as a kind of replica of his lofty experience with the difference, however, that the Prophet's mi‘rāj took place in the body while the mystic's or poet's heavenly journey can be only made in the spirit. Artists never tired of creating pictures of the mi‘rāj some of which are of truly dazzling beauty (see above, p. 85 note 62).

While many pious souls and imaginative people extended and expanded the realms of mythological tales over the centuries, there is also a tendency to demythologize the Koranic data and even more the popular stories connected with the Prophet. This tendency is not new, but has increased lately. Modernists would criticise the mawlūd poetry which told how all of Nature welcomed the new-born prophet who had been sent ‘as a mercy for the worlds’ (Sūra 21:107), with birds and beasts participating in the praise. Was it not nonsensical, even dangerous, to teach children such stories instead of emphasizing the rational character of the Prophet's message, and his ethical qualities as he, a veritable human being, came to lead the community to better social and cultural standards? During the relevant discussions in Egypt in the early 1930s, it was, typically, the well-known author Ṭāhā Ḥusayn who defended the ‘mythological’ elements in these songs, for as an artist he was able to grasp their deeper meaning. For rationalists do not understand the symbolic character of myth and strive to explain away whatever seems to be contrary to ‘normal’ common sense, trying, at best, to purify the kerygma from the mythological accretions, while dogmatists, on the other hand, require absolute faith in the external words or statements by which layers of deeper meaning are covered.

While myths dwell upon an event in a certain time, in illud tempore, saga, legend and fairytales handle temporal relationships very freely and, to produce the hoped-for effect, often connect historical persons who have no relations with each other but are woven ingeniously, or carelessly, together.

The saga is part of Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Indo-Muslim literature, but rarely has a truly religious content. Beginning with the ayyām al-‘arab, the Arabs liked to tell of the heroic feats of people, and the names of ‘Antara, Shanfara and Ta'abbaṭa Sharran, the pre-Islamic warrior poets (and often outcast-heroes), are known to this day. The saga assumes a more Islamic character in the tales concerning Ḥamza, the Prophet's uncle, whose adventures were told and retold especially in Persian, and were illustrated in grand style under the Mughal emperor Akbar. The adventures of Tamīm ad-Dārī, another historical figure from the Prophet's environment in Medina, were likewise spun out with highly picturesque details, and this traveller's return forms a dramatic story of a type well known in folklore. Such stories were apparently quite attractive for new converts to Islam, for the Ḥamza-nāma and even more the story of Tamīm ad-Dārī became integrated in Southern Indian literature and were retold even in Tamil. A comparable saga deals with Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥanafiyya (d. 700), a son of ‘Alī from a wife other than Fāṭima, which has long been famous even in the Malayan archipelago.27

The comparatively scant saga material from Arabia was supplemented by sagas from Iran, and Firdawsi's (d. 1020) Shāhnāma, the ‘Book of the Kings’ in which the ancient history of Persian kings and heroes is told, offered Muslim authors of the Persianate world much narrative material and remained an inexhaustible source for new elaborations of certain themes. The Iskandarnāma, based on the Pseudo-Kallisthenes, was successfully integrated into the narrative tradition of the Muslim peoples, while sagas alive among the Turks, as well as Indian themes, influenced the general Muslim literature only to a small degree.

The word ‘Orient’ will make most people think of the Arabian Nights, the ‘Tales of the 1,001 Nights’, which appeared to the Europeans as the most typical expression of the Oriental world and have inspired, since their first translation into French by A. Galland (d. 1715), numerous poets, musicians and painters, while in the Islamic world these popular fairytales were never considered to be real ‘literature’ their glittering charm was not attractive to educated Muslims (in part owing to their non-classical language).

On the other hand, animal fables of Indian origin, from the Pançatantra and Hitopadeşa, were regarded as useful models of human behaviour. After these stories had been translated under the title Kalīla wa Dimna into Arabic by Ibn al-Muqaffa’ (d. 756), they were illustrated; several Persian translations were made later. They became known in Europe at a rather early point in history, and form a source for many later fables up to Lafontaine. Similarly, the Indian Ṭuṭināma, ‘The Book of the Parrot’, was widely read in the Indian, Persian and Turkish areas after its first Persian version by Nakhshabī (d. 1350), and it reached Europe by different routes. The growth of tales among people who can skilfully weave religious and political criticism into their narratives can still be observed in some areas and sheds light on classical narrative techniques.28

However, one would hesitate to call most of the works just enumerated ‘Islamic’ in the strictly religious sense of the word. The situation is quite different when one comes to another widespread literary genre, that is, legends.29

Legends were told about the early wars and fights of the Prophet and his companions, but even more about the pious, saintly people in the Muslim world. Richard Gramlich's comprehensive work about Die Wunder der Freunde Gottes (‘The Miracles of God's Friends’) is the best study of the phenomenon. Legends tell of the karāmāt, the charismata, of saints, from food miracles (important in a culture where hospitality is so highly valued) to thought-reading, from helping an aged couple to get a child to healing all kinds of ailments. They make the listener or reader aware that the entire cosmos participates in the saints’ lives because they, being absolutely obedient to God, are obeyed, in turn, by everything.

Legends of Muslim saints generally resemble legends in other religious traditions, but it is important to remember that many of them deal with dogmatic miracles by which infidels or hypocrites are drawn into the true faith: when ‘Abdul Qādir Gīlānī as a baby refused to drink his mother's milk during daytime in Ramaḍān, or when a saintly person could walk unhurt through a pyre to prove to his Zoroastrian counterpart that fire can burn only with God's permission; or when a Sufi's cat discovers a ‘materialist’ posing as a pious Muslim, the success of such miracles is clear. And those who do not fulfil their vows, desecrate sacred places or incur the saint's wrath by some flippant remark will certainly be exposed to terrible punishments.

The same legend is often told about different people, whether in Morocco, Turkey or Sind. A good example is the story of the saint who wanted to settle in a certain place but was refused by the scholars. When they showed him a bowl brim-full with milk to point out that there was no room, he silently replied by placing a rose petal on top of the milk—and was, of course, gladly admitted. Another common theme is the saint's illiteracy: many of those who are known as prolific writers appear in legends as illiterate (following the example of the ummī, ‘unlettered’ Prophet) and acquainted only with the letter alif, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet and cipher for the One God.

The Shia developed a specific religious literature such as the Maqātil Ḥusayn, stories about the martyrdom of Ḥusayn and his family; the Dehnāma, or Deh Majlis, ‘Books of Ten’, are recited during the first ten days of Muḥarram. Rawẓakhwānī, the recitation of the martyrologia in highly-charged style, is likewise part of the Muḥarram celebrations. Works like Rawz at ash-shuhadā, ‘The Garden of the Martyrs’, enjoyed great popularity, and in later times the literary genre of the marthiya, lengthy Urdu poems about the tragedy of Kerbela, became increasingly important and described the martyrs’ suffering with ever more heart-rending details. In Bengal, this kind of literature, which may be called a subspecies of legend, is called jārīnāme, from zār, ‘lament’.

Ages-old wisdom is condensed in proverbs, which play (or rather played) an important role; in former times, with a greater number of illiterate people (especially women) around, one could listen to an amazing variety of words of wisdom or inherited proverbs from simple villagers in Turkey, Sind and other areas.30

The same can be said for the treasure of poetical quotations with which even the least ‘educated’ people were acquainted. Anyone who has heard how Persian villagers quote verses of Ḥāfiẓ, or how Turkish or Pakistani officials have hundreds of fitting poetical quotations ready, will agree that love of poetry is (and now one probably has to say was) a hallmark of traditional Muslim culture, as much as the Prophet warned of poetry which was often understood as dealing primarily with the frivolous aspects of life such as free love and drinking (cf. Sūra 26:226ff.).

Sagas, fairytales, legends and poetry are part of the tradition in which educated and less educated people participate; but veritable religious instruction is of a different kind. Ad-dīn naṣīḥa (AM no. 282), ‘religion consists of good advice’. The noblest science after the study of the Koran, namely the study of ḥadīth, offers a good example of the technique of teaching; for, in all branches of science, art and religion, the maintenance of the isnād is central. That is the spiritual chain from the present teacher or student back to the founder of the specific science or art (who is, ideally, the Prophet himself, or ‘Alī); and, just as scholars of ḥadīth had to know the isnād of a, tradition to lead it step-by-step back to its origin, thus musicians, calligraphers and in particular Sufis would always place themselves in the chain of transmission that guarantees the correctness of their own performance, as it is blessed by the spiritual current that flows from generation to generation. The reliability, ‘soundness’ as the technical term is, of a ḥadīth is warranted by the uninterrupted chain of transmitters (men and women) whose biographies and personal circumstances have been rigorously examined so that the chain is unbroken and flawless. The oral transmission of ḥadīth, and other sciences, is important even though notes may have been used and even though the ‘sound’, ṣaḥīḥ (that is, doubtlessly authentic) ḥadīth were later collected in books. The most famous among these are the Ṣaḥīḥayn, the ‘two sound ones’, by Bukhārī (d. 870) and Muslim (d. 875). Yet, the ‘hearing’ of ḥadīth was considered essential, and scholars would wander through the world of Islam in quest off ḥadīth not only to find, perhaps, new material or an isnād unknown to them, but also to meet a famous scholar whose presence was a blessing in itself. Many manuscripts of Islamic sciences bear notes in the margin or at the end which show which scholar ‘heard’, samā‘, this text from the author and the author's disciples and successors.

Oral instruction was the rule not only in the teaching of ḥadīth but also in other sciences and arts, and this applies even more to the esoteric teaching in mystical circles or the interpretation of philosophy. This could take the form of person-to-person teaching, and not in vain is ṣuḥbat, the ‘being together’ between master and disciple, required; for only by proximity to the guiding master could one hope to understand the true secret, and only through intense concentration upon the master, tawajjuh, could one expect to receive a share of his spiritual power and knowledge. For this reason, the Sufis and the sages in general insisted upon oral transmission of classical texts, for ‘reading the white between the lines of the written text’31 was as important as reading the actual letters; a true introduction into deeper and deeper levels of a seemingly simple text could only be achieved by listening to the master's words, by observing his speech and his silent actions.

When one keeps in mind this viewpoint, one understands why Shāh Walīullāh of Delhi remarked that ‘the books of Sufism are elixir for the elite but poison for the normal believer’. That is, the uninitiated reader will most probably be caught in the external sense of the words and the symbols (such as wine, love, union), which he will take at face value and then go astray, while the initiated understand at least some of the meaning hidden beneath the letters. Iqbāl's aversion to Sufi poetry stems from the same experience, and when one looks at the history of translations of sacred texts in the West, from the Koran to mystical Persian verse, one understands easily that a good knowledge of the ‘white between the lines’ is necessary lest one distort the meaning. Therefore it is not easy for a late-born reader to relish the collections of malfūẓāt, ‘sayings’, of medieval masters,32 or to understand the full meaning of their letters to their disciples.33

The teacher taught not only the seeking individual but also whole groups of students in the general tradition. This happened in the madrasa, the theological college where sciences such as ḥadīth, exegesis and law, as well as the auxiliary fields like Arabic grammar and literature, were taught. The madrasas served in the Middle Ages to counteract Shiite influences and were often supported by the government as institutions to maintain mainstream Sunni orthodoxy. The fact that the students very often used classical works on the central subjects in abbreviated form, mukhtaṣar, and depended on scholia more than on original texts, led to a deterioration of scholarship in the course of time.

The mystical master generally gathered his disciples at certain hours of the day to teach them. A widespread legendary aspect of the instruction of a group of disciples is that, in the end, each of those present claims that the master talked exclusively to him and solved exactly his problems.

The mystical teacher's method consists, among other ways, of the use of paradoxes—he tries ‘to catch an elephant by a hair’, for the mystical experience, being beyond time and space, can be expressed only in words that defy the limits of timebound logic. That is true for a good number of apophthegmata of early Sufis, as they are handed down in the classical handbooks of Sufism such as Sarrāj's Kitāb al-luma‘, Kalābādhī's Kitāb at-ta‘arruf and numerous others.

Many of these sayings may yield more meaning when they are taken as expressions of a supra-intellectual experience and not analyzed according to our normal grammatical and logical understanding. The whole problem of the shaṭḥtyāt, the theophatic locutions or, as Henry Corbin calls them in the sense in which the Protestant spirituals had used the term, ‘paradoxa’, belongs here.34 The mystic, whose mind resembles a canal into which suddenly an overwhelming amount of water is poured, says things that are not licit in a normal state of mind. Yet, similar to the Zen ko'an, some such wilful paradoxes can also lead the disciple to a loftier level of understanding.

The famous tekerleme of the Turkish medieval poet Yunus Emre is a good example of mystical instruction by means of paradoxes:

Çĭktim erik dalĭna…

I climbed upon the plum tree

to pluck grapes there—

The master of the garden screamed:

‘Why do you take my walnut?’

This is interpreted by a later Turkish master, Niyazi Misri, as pertaining to the sharī‘a (plum), ṭarīqa (grape) and ḥaqīqa (nut): the attempt to attain reality or truth is often likened to the hard work that is needed to break a nut before one can enjoy me sweet, wholesome kernel. The poet himself closes his poem with the lines:

Yunus said a word which does

not resemble other words:

For he hides the face of Truth

from the eyes of hypocrites.

One sometimes wonders whether the oxymorons and paradoxical images used by the Sufis derive from a common root that lies beneath all mystical experience. The line in Yunus's tekerleme:

The fish climbed on the poplar tree

has its exact parallel in Indo-Muslim poetry; and as the Moroccan story tells that a cow had eaten a presumptuous Sufi's lion, an Egyptian poet of the nineteenth century claims, inter alia, that ‘the lion is devoured by a jenny ass’.35

The world of timelessness, where all contrasts are obliterated and the weakest creature equals the strongest one, inspires many a mystical teacher. For this reason, riddles and conundrums were also part of teaching. It seems not unlikely that the Hindi riddles, pahēliyāñ, ascribed to Amīr Khusraw (d. 1325) may have been a genuine contribution of his to mystical teaching, as he was a disciple of the Chishti master Niẓāmuddīn Awliyā.

While the mystical teacher tried to introduce his disciples to ever-deeper new layers of reality by means of unusual literary forms, the ta‘līm, the theoretical dictation of religious texts by the Shia imam, is of a different character; it is a highly sophisticated introduction into the mysteries of the faith, and has an absolute validity for those who are exposed to it.

Besides the various types of teaching, scholarly or mystical, the sermon occupies an important place in Muslim religious life.36 The sermon, khuṭba, during the noon prayer on Friday in the great mosque was established in early times, and so were the khuṭbas at the two feasts. The Prophet himself used to preach; rulers or governors followed his example and the khuṭba became a literary genre in itself, sometimes of extreme brevity, sometimes delivered in a brilliant style in which the strength and density of the Arabic phrases is admirable; sometimes it became highly elaborate. The Abbasid caliphs did not preach themselves, while the Fatimids did at times. The khuṭba was never a lengthy homily but was to concentrate on eschatological themes; but in more recent times it can go on for a long time, depending on the talents of the preacher (khatịb), who might comment intelligently upon current issues. In its second half, the prayer for the ruler was said so that it was also a highly political affair: to be mentioned in the Friday sermon meant being acknowledged as the true ruler of the country.

The official khuṭba is interrupted by a very brief pause between its first and second part during which the preacher sits down (so that ‘shorter than the preacher's sitting’ came to mean ‘just a moment’). To attend the Friday prayers (which consist of only two rak‘a instead of the normal four at noon) and the khuṭba is a duty for the community.

There were also other preachers, the quṣṣāṣ, popular speakers who attracted the masses by their fanciful interpretations of Koranic data and surpassed all limits in their detailed descriptions of future life. Although—or perhaps because—their fantastic stories coloured popular piety to a considerable extent, they were sharply criticized and rejected by sober theologians. Ibn al-Jawzī (d. 1200), certainly a spokesman of many other serious believers, does not hesitate to call them liars; he even goes so far as to call a well-known mystical preacher ‘one of God's marvels in lying…’.37

In times of crisis, speakers delivered sermons that reminded Muslims of their duty to repent; these are called maw‘iẓa, a term often used for the Koran itself, which warns and educates people (cf. Sūra 2:66 et al.). One of the early Sufis, Yaḥya ibn Mu‘ādh (d. 871), is known by the nickname al-‘iẓ, the ‘preacher calling to repentance’. As all his biographers emphasize that he mainly preached about hope, one can suppose that on the whole the theme of fear was prevalent in such sermons. Even women could act as preachers, for example one Maymūna al-‘iẓa (d. 1002) in Baghdad.38

Teachers as well as preachers availed themselves of all kinds of literary forms, in particular of parables to make their speeches more impressive; suffice it to mention Rūmī's use of the parable of the moon that is reflected in every kind of water, be it the ocean or a small pond.

Allegorical stories offered vast possibilities for preachers and teachers to bring the central truth closer to their listeners under the guise of memorable tales: one glance at the poetical works of Sanā'ī ‘Aṭṭār and Rūmī shows their talent of catching the attention of their audiences by a seemingly inexhaustible treasure of allegories. ‘Aṭṭār is certainly the greatest master of this art, while Rūmī is often carried away by the flow of inspiration and returns to the original story only after long digressions.39 The delightful allegories of Suhrawardī the Master of Illumination are jewels of medieval Persian prose.

Beside, and correctly speaking above, all these literary forms through which the Muslims tried to approach the Divine mystery and the world in one way or another stands the clear-cut dogma, first of all the profession of faith, the shahāda, lā ilāha illā ‘Llāh Muḥammad rasūl Allah. To pronounce it means to make a decision, and that is shown by lifting the right index finger. The shahāda is the verbal heart of Islam. The graphic form of its first part with its ten vertical strokes offers infinite possibilities for the calligrapher; the twenty-four letters of the full profession of faith—‘There is no deity save God, Muhammad is God's messenger’—seem to point, for the believers, to the twenty-four hours of the day, while the fact that none of the letters bears any diacritical marks proves its luminous character, and its seven words atone for the transgressions of the seven limbs and close the seven gates of Hell. The shahāda, the fortress into which the believer enters to be protected from every evil, formed a convenient topic for never-ending meditations.40

A longer form of the profession, a true creed, was developed out of Koranic statements, especially Sūra 4:136. Thus the believer says: amantu bi ‘llāhi…, ‘I believe in God and His books and His angels and His messengers and the last Day, and that what happened to you could never have failed you’. There is a typical placement of the books, as the true words of God, before the prophets, who are only the instruments through whom the revelation is brought to the world.41

This creed, which was formulated in the eighth century, aptly sums up the basic facts in which it is the Muslim's duty to believe. Calligraphers, especially in Turkey, liked to write these words in the form of a boat, the connecting particles wa, ‘and’, forming the rows. This is called amantu getnisi, ‘the boat of amantu, “I believe’”, and is supposed to be filled with baraka, carrying as it were the believer and the artist to the shores of Paradise.

In order to instruct the community in the contents of the revelation, one needed ‘ilm, ‘knowledge’, which was administered by the ‘ulamā, the caretakers of religious instruction and learning. The Prophetic saying, that ‘seeking ‘ilm is a religious duty’ (AM no. 676), and its more famous form, ‘Seek knowledge even in China’, triggered off much investigation into various aspects of knowledge, but one should not forget that the real meaning of ‘ilm was religious knowledge, a knowledge meant not for ‘practical life’ but for the world to come. A ḥadīth has the Prophet say: ‘I ask refuge by God from an ‘ilm that has no use’, that is, a knowledge which may enable its owner to find a good job in modern society but does not help him to fulfil his religious duties which, as the believer hopes, will lead him to a peaceful and happy death and a blessed life in Paradise, The content of ‘ilm is to know how to utilize each moment of life in the service of God, and how to do everything, even though it may look a profane action, in conformance with the Divine law. This interpretation of ‘ilm has cut off some of the most pious segments of the Muslim community from contact with the developing world, and one reads with sadness that in the 1850s a southern Indian Muslim benefactor of his co-religionists, who had founded a college in Madras in which not only traditional sciences were taught but also English and other ‘modern sciences’, was forced by the ‘ulamā to close down this ‘worldly’ institution.42 This may be an exceptional case, but it shows the difficulties which many Muslims from traditional families have to overcome when trying to live in modern Western societies.

Besides ‘ilm, the great power that serves to prepare the believer for a happy life in the Hereafter, Muslims also know ‘irfān, a term often translated as ‘gnosis’. But one has to beware not to understand ‘gnosis’ in the sense of the historical gnostic trends in the Hellenistic-Christian tradition. Rather, ‘irfān is the inspired, mystico-philosophical wisdom which permeates later Sufi and ‘theosophical’ writing, especially in Iran.

But everything is dominated by the moral law which is expressed, for the Muslim, in the sharī‘a. To obey the law means to obey God, who, as some scholars say, has revealed not Himself but rather His law, which is then interpreted by the ‘ulamā or, in the Shia tradition, by the imams and their representatives, the mujtahids. That is why the ‘ulamā, who are able to interpret God's will, are so important for the maintenance of the House of Islam: they stand for the right approach to everything in life, even though progressive Muslims attribute the decline of Islam to ‘self-styled ulamā’, as for example the Malaysian Prime Minister said at the inauguration of the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization in Kuala Lumpur on 4 October 1991.


I have prayed so much that I myself turned into prayer—

everyone who sees me requests a prayer from me.

(D no. 903)

Thus says Mawlāna Rūmī in a verse which is perhaps his most beautiful self-portrait and, at the same time, the ideal portrait of a God-loving human soul.

The word has the power of realization: coming from God in its beginning (as does everything), it is the source of all activity, but the human answer to it has strong power as well. Ancient peoples (and to a certain extent modern man as well) knew the magic power of the word, which can be realized in the effects of blessing and curse, of greeting and command: to speak the word can heal or hurt.

That is why the formula of greeting is so important. The Koran orders the believers to greet each other with the formula of peace, and the Prophet urged them to answer with an even more beautiful formula. Therefore the Muslim greets you with as-salāmu ‘alaykum, ‘peace be upon you’, to which you should answer: as-salāmu ‘alaykum wa raḥmatu ‘Llāhi wa barakātuhu, ‘And upon you be peace and God's blessings and mercy’.

The Arabic language uses the same word for blessing and cursing: da‘ā, ‘to call’, is done li ‘for’ someone, that is, to bless the other person, or ‘alaà ‘against’, which means to call down a curse. Blessing means to turn over good fortune by means of the word, and the blessings upon the Prophet, the taṣliya or ṣatawāi sharifa (or in the Persian-Indian areas durūd sharīf), ‘sets in motion heavenly forces’, as Constance Padwick writes. The religious singer in Egypt even knows a ta‘ṭīra, ‘perfumed’ blessing for the Prophet: he asks the Lord to send down ‘perfumed blessings and peace’ on his tomb. The taṣliya was thought to strengthen a petition's value or to lead to forgiveness of sins; it could be used in oaths, and also to silence people: in every case, its power becomes evident.44

To appreciate the efficacy of formulas like raḥimahu Attāh, ‘may God have mercy upon him’, or ghafara ‘Llāh ‘alayhā, ‘May God forgive her’, one has to keep in mind that in Arabic the past tense does not only express a completed action but can also be used as an optative. That is, when one pronounces the words of blessing or curse, me intention is, as it were, already fulfilled. The same holds true for the participial form: al-marḥūm is the ‘one upon mercy is shown’ but at the same time, and perhaps in a more realistic sense, the one for whom one hopes and prays that God will show him mercy.

Islamic languages are replete with formulas for wishing well or averting evil: bāraka Allāhu fik, ‘may God bless you’, is as general a wish as Allah razī olsun, ‘may God be satisfied with you’, as the pious Turk says to thank someone, upon which one is supposed to say hepimizden, ‘with all of us’. The Muslim blesses the hands that have prepared a delicious meal or produced a fine piece of embroidery: elinize sağlik, ‘health to your hands’ in Turkish, dast-i shumā dard nakunad in Persian, ‘May your hands not see pain…’. Among traditional Turks, one could conduct an entire conversation with these blessing formulas until the honoured visitor leaves and one thanks him for his coming by saying Ayağĭnĭza sağlĭk, ‘May your feet (which have brought you to us) be healthy!’

Important as these beautiful wishes are, the curse, on the other hand, can be as efficacious as (and perhaps even more so than) the blessing, especially when uttered by a powerful person.45 It is contagious, and Muslims avoid contact with an accursed or afflicted person. To avoid its evil influences, Muslims again use numerous formulas such as, in Turkish, Allah göstermesin, ‘May God not show it’ (i.e. the illness or disaster with which someone else has been smitten), or, in Persian, khudā na-khwāsta, ‘God not willing’. When mentioning some mishap or disaster, Persians used to say haft kūh or haft qur'ān dar miyān—‘may seven mountains’ or ‘seven Korans be between it (and us)’.

As Muslims are careful not to mention evil or opprobrious tilings, they also try to circumvent the taboo connected with death. Where the Arab says or writes, for example, tuwuffiya, ‘he was consumed’ (in the mercy of God), the Persian writer may say intiqāl kard, ‘He was moved’ (to another place). It would be a fascinating study to collect the different expressions in Islamic languages that are used to speak of a person's death. In classical literatures, such expressions are often worded according to the deceased person's rank, character and interests. One of the most interesting and moving forms, which I encountered in Turkey, was sizlere ömür, ‘may you live!’ instead of saying ‘he passed away’ (which of course is also an ellipsis). Thus one says: ‘Osman Bey sizlere ömür oldu, has become—may you live on’, that is ‘he died’.

Blessings and curses work on others, while the oath is a kind of curse mat has repercussions on the speaker: when one breaks the oath or solemn promise, one will be punished.46 Therefore, one takes an oath by the object or person dearest to one's heart: ‘By me head of my father!’ ‘By the Prophet!’ ‘By the beard of me Prophet!’ ‘By the Koran!’ In Sufi circles, one may find formulas like ‘By the cloak of my shaykh’, and a member of the former futuwwa sodalities might swear ‘By the futuwwa trousers!’47 The most frequently-used—and therefore somewhat worn-out—formula is Wallāhi, ‘By God’, which is often strengthened in threefold repetition: Wallāhi, ballāhi, tallāhi. Superficial and irresponsible swearing was, it seems, common among the Arabs, for one finds a ḥadīth which looks at first sight somewhat mysterious: ittaqū ‘l-wāwāt, ‘beware of the W's’, that is, the swearing particle wa used in such formulas. It would then mean: ‘Do not take an oath easily’. Another ḥadīth states: ‘He who swears a lot goes to Hell’ (AM no. 669).

Part of the oath is the vow.48 One can vow anything—‘a candle my body's length’ or the recitation of forty times Sūra Yāsin—for the vow is a kind of contract with the one in whose power one trusts. It is therefore often done in the presence of an important person endowed with baraka, or preferably before a saint's shrine, or else at a sacred time, for instance in Muḥarram. One can vow, for example, that a child born by the blessings of the saint will be called after him—hence the numerous names like Ghauth bakhsh, ‘Gift of the Help’, namely ‘Abdul Qādir Gīlānī. The most prominent example is Akbar's son, later the emperor Jahāngīr, whose proper name was Salīm after the pious Salīm of Sikri, whose prayer had worked to give the emperor an heir. One can also vow to ‘sell’ the child to the saint's shrine: in Turkey, such children bear the name Satĭmĭş, ‘sold’. It is possible to vow me celebration of a mawlid or to feed so-and-so many people, or to prepare a special meal, as in the Turkish Zakarya sofrasĭ to which forty people are invited and where forty kinds of food are prepared. From me vow to sweep the saint's shrine (or at least to bring a new broom) to the offering of a new cover for the sarcophagus, everything can be turned into a votive gift (although I have never seen counterparts of the silver hands and feet which one may find in Catholic churches). The numerous places such as trees or window grills, on which little rags are hanging to remind the saint of the ‘contract’ established by the vow, prove how common these customs are, as much as orthodox circles may object to such superstitions which betray people's craving for some power mediating between man and God, and thus, as it were, contradict Islam's pure monotheism.

The belief in demonic powers led to conjurations and exorcism, which are particularly elaborate in the Zār ritual practised mainly among Egyptian women.49 Similar practices are also found in parts of Muslim India, and probably elsewhere. It is the magic word that serves along with complicated actions to drive out the spirit that has taken possession of the woman.

Before beginning the ‘verbal sacrifice’, i.e. the prayer, it is necessary to invite God by means of an epiclesis. Islamic prayer has no actual epiclesis unless one were to call the beginning of the prayer rite, the attestation Allāhu akbar, ‘God is greater (than everything)’ such, for it brings once more to mind the overarching power of God in whose presence the praying person now stands.

It is a somewhat different case in mystical writing. Rūmī's verses, with their repeated invocations such as:

biyā biyā dildār-i man dildār-i man

Come, oh come, my Beloved, my Beloved!

serve as an invocation and invitation to the mystical Beloved. In connection with Rūmī, in whose poetry and the later Mevlevi ritual the reed flute plays a central role, one may remember that in ancient Anatolia the flute-player had a sacred function: his tunes accompanied the spoken epiclesis, and thus the person who plays the flute is indeed the one ‘who calls the deity’.50 Rūmī use of the symbol of the reed flute at the very beginning of the Mathnawī may have been born from a subconscious memory of these traditions, for he, too, wanted to call—call back, that is—the mystical Beloved.

Prayer is the heart of religion: lex orandi lex credendi, as the saying goes. Prayer is, as mentioned, a sacrifice, the sacrifice of the word, as Rūmī says:

When they pronounced takbīr, they went away

from our world, just like a sacrifice:

the meaning of takbīr, my friend, is this:

‘O God, we have become Thy sacrifice!’

(M III 2,140ff.)

As a sacrifice, a sacred action, it has to begin with purification, whether with water, as in the ritual ablution, or purification by repentance. The human being who calls to the Powerful, Rich Lord sees himself or herself in the invocations as a poor, lowly sinner, and such epithets—al-faqīr al-ḥaqīr al-mudhnib—are frequent in religious poetry; the Sindhi bard ‘Abdur Ra'ūf Bhattī in the eighteenth century assumed the pen name al-‘āṣī, ‘the rebel’, for his prayer poems.

The official confession of sins, central in Christianity, has no room in Islam as a preparation for prayer. It is practised, however, in some Sufi orders among the brethren and in the presence of the master, who gives the penitent a special formula and may or may not impose a punishment upon the sinner. But the contritional outcry of the penitent, mentioned in the Koran (e.g. Sūra 27:44; 28:16) is repeated time and again: Yā rabbī ẓalamtu nafsī, ‘O Lord, I have wronged myself!’ Even more important, if one may say so, is the formula of istighfār, ‘I ask God for forgiveness’, which can be given to a person as a dhikr at the first stages of the mystical path. One of my Pakistani friends, a major in the army, constantly murmured the istighfār while walking, driving or riding in order to clean his soul, for if repeated 3,000 or 5,000 times a day, it is supposed to purify the heart.

Some of the most moving Islamic prayers are inspired by the hope of forgiveness. The seeker's heart is hovering between fear and hope—fear of God's justice but hope for His mercy, fear of the One who is not hurt by human sins and hope for Him who can easily forgive the miserable creature's mistake. The short dialectic prayers of Yaḥyā ibn Mu‘ādh (d. 871) are the most beautiful and tender examples of mis feeling, which finds its perfect expression in his prayer; ‘Forgive me, for I belong to Thee’.

Ritual prayer is announced by the call to prayer, adhān, which serves to remind the Muslim mat he or she is now entering the realm of sacred time; it leads him or her into a sacred presence, similar to the enclosure that protects the spatial sanctuary from defilement. Proper attire is required: for men, the area between navel and knee, for women me whole body except face and feet has to be covered, as has the head; the dress should be beautiful (Sūra 7:31).

After the purification with water, the actual prayer rite begins with the words Allāhu akbar, the so-called takbīrat al-iḥrām which seals off the sacred time (just as the donning of the iḥrām seals up the sacred space). For now one finds oneself in the presence of the All-Holy King and is even more overawed man one would be in the presence of a worldly ruler. There are very many descriptions of what a Muslim experiences when entering the prayer rite: it could be seen as sacrificing one's whole being to the Lord, or it could inspire me feeling of already participating in me Resurrection, standing between Paradise and Hell; and those whose thoughts perhaps wander to worldly tilings instead of completely concentrating upon the prayer are severely admonished, for ‘there is no ritual prayer without the presence of the heart’ (AM no. 109).

One can perform the ritual prayer (ṣalāt, Persian/Turkish namāz) on any clean spot, but it is preferable to use the prayer rug (and pious travellers would have a small rug with them; even wooden slates of the size of 60 to 120 cm are used in some places).

The five daily prayers are not mentioned in the Koran, but must have been practised in the Prophet's day. Their number is connected in legend with Muhammad's heavenly journey: God imposed a heavy duty of prayers upon the Muslims, which was reduced after much pleading to five. The Koran speaks of the prayers at the ends of the day and in the afternoons (Sūra 11:114) and recommends nightly prayer, tahajjud, which is still performed by pious people but which never became a duty.

When someone's ṣalāt is finished, one wishes him or her taqabbala Allāh, ‘may God accept it’, because it does not consist of a petition which should be answered but is rather a sacrifice which has to be accepted. Each ṣalāt consists of two, three or four unities or cycles, rak‘a, which comprise bodily movements such as standing, genuflexion and prostration, as well as the recitations of several Sūras of the Koran. The five daily prayers together comprise seventeen rak‘a. The recitations of the Sūras and formula—always in Arabic—have to be absolutely correct, yet Muslim hagiography knows of saints who, being foreign or illiterate, could not articulate the Arabic prayers correctly and were therefore despised by people, although their proximity to God was greater than anyone could perceive.51

It is left to the individual to recite longer or shorter pieces from the Koran during the ṣalāt, and most people will prefer the short Sūras which are the first that one learns by heart, but once in a while one hears of people, especially among the Sufis, who recite the whole Koran in one or two rak‘a. This, of course, requires an extension of the prayer which is not recommended for the rank and file, for ‘The best prayer is the briefest one’, as the Prophet said.

One can perform one's prayer in the quiet atmosphere of one's home, in the middle of maddening traffic noise or in the loneliness of the desert or the forest; yet the community prayer is even more esteemed, because Islam is a religion in which the individual is generally conceived of as an integral part of the community, the umma.52 The equality of the believers in the mosque, where there is no ranking of rich and poor (some pious people would even avoid praying in the first rows in order not to look ostentatious), induced Iqbāl to make an important remark about the social function of the congregational prayer:

The spirit of all true prayer is social. Even the hermit abandons the society of men in the hope of finding, in a solitary abode, the fellowship of God… It is a psychological truth that association multiplies the normal man's power of perception, deepens his emotion, and dynamizes his will to a degree unknown to him in the privacy of his individuality…

… Yet we cannot ignore the important consideration that the posture of the body is a real factor in determining the attitude of the mind. The choice of one particular direction in Islamic worship is meant to secure the unity of feeling in the congregation, and its form in general creates and fosters the sense of social equality, as it tends to destroy the feeling of rank or race superiority in the worshippers. What a tremendous spiritual revolution will take place, practically in no time, if the proud aristocratic Brahmin of South India is daily made to stand shoulder to shoulder with the untouchable!…53

Ritual prayer is an important pillar of the House of Islam, and tradition says: ‘Between faith and unbelief lies the giving up of the ritual prayer’. A person about whom one says lā ṣalāt lah, ‘He has no ritual prayer’, or in Persian and Turkish, he is bē namāz, ‘prayerless’, is someone who does not really belong to the community.

The ṣalāt has been compared to a stream of water that purifies the believer five times a day, but even without this poetical interpretation one can see that it (ideally) educates people to cleanliness and punctuality.

As Iqbāl briefly mentioned, the body's position in prayer is important, for, as Abū Ḥafṣ ‘Omar as-Suhrawardī says, ‘One has to pray with all limbs’.54 The prostration means to give away everything, to empty oneself completely from worldly concerns; genuflexion means to turn away from oneself, and standing is the honoured position of the human being. That is, one expresses one's humility and one's feeling of being one of the people who are ‘honoured by God’ (Sūra 17:70) by being human. One can interpret the upright position as expression of the spiritual aspects of the human being and the prostration as expression of the earthly part in us, while genuflexion is a bridge between the two. Others have seen in the movements of ritual prayer the human being's participation in the vegetal, the animal and the human spheres. One can also understand prostration as the attitude of the person who, wonder-struck, bends his or her back before God—just as the sky is bent in worship. It is the attitude of closest proximity, as the Koran ordered the Prophet: usjud wa ‘qtarab, ‘Fall down and draw near!’ (Sūra 96:19). Therefore, the dark mark on one's forehead, caused by regular prayer, came to be regarded as the sign of the true believer.

The variety of positions is important, as it means that humans can participate in the different levels of creation while the angels, it is said, occupy only one position of the prayer rite throughout eternity. And when the praying person lifts his or her hands, the spiritual current flows into them to fill body and soul.

Some pious souls found that the movement of the ṣalāt are performed in the names of Adam or Muhammad when written in Arabic characters—an interpretation that shows that prayer is the central function of humans. Muslims have also explained its three movements as pertaining to youth, maturity and old age.

The word ṣalāt was connected, though grammatically incorrectly, with waṣala, ‘to reach, to attain’, as the praying person hopes to reach God's presence or, in the case of ecstatic Sufis, to be united with Him. Abū Ḥafṣ ‘Omar as-Suhrawardī, on the other hand, combines the word with ṣalā, to be burnt: he who prays is corrected and purified by the fire of contemplation, so that Hellfire cannot touch him.

The number of rak‘a for each prayer is prescribed, but one can add certain extra rak‘as or extend one's prayer by additional recitation: the farā'iḍ, the absolutely binding duties, can be followed by the nawāfil, supererogatory prayers. An effective prayer must have at least two rak‘a. That is the kind of prayer which should be offered, ideally, on every occasion: before leaving the house; when entering the mosque; when going to bed; during an eclipse; or when putting on a new dress. On such an occasion, one may pray:

Oh God, to Thee be praise who hast clothed me with this. I ask Thee for the good of it and for the good for which it was created, and I take refuge with Thee from the evil of it and the evil for which it was created.55

The wording of this prayer is typical of many others: one always asks for God's protection from any evil mat may be connected with that object which one deals with. Special rites are practised in the communal prayer for rain.

For the Prophet, ritual prayer was a repetition of his experience during the mi‘rāj which brought him into God's immediate presence. And when he craved this experience, he would call Bilāl, his Ethiopian muezzin: ‘Oh Bilāl, quicken us with the call to prayer!’ (AM no. 48). The time of timelessness in prayer made him say tī ma‘a Allāh waqt, ‘I have a time with God in which neither a God-sent prophet nor an angel brought near has room…’ (AM no. 100). It is this ecstatic experience which some souls were granted while bowing down in their ritual prayer.

Once more, the most eloquent spokesman of this experience is Rūmī, who sings in a poem with breathless rhythms, quick as a heartbeat:

At the time of evening prayer

ev'ryone spreads cloth and candles

But I dream of my beloved,

see, lamenting, grieved, his phantom.

My ablution is with tears, see,

Thus my prayer will be fiery,

And I burn the mosque's doorway

when my call to prayer hits it…

Is the prayer of the drunken,

tell me! is this prayer valid?

For he does not know the timing

and is not aware of places.

Did I pray perhaps two cycles?

Or is this perhaps the eighth one?

And which Sūra did I utter?

For I have no tongue to speak it.

At God's door—how could I knock now

For I have no hand nor heart now?

You have carried heart and hand, God!

Grant me safety, God, forgive me…

(D no. 2,831)

Prayer, properly speaking, begins with praise. For in praise one turns away from oneself and directs one's heart towards Him to whom all praise belongs. Will not the Muslim exclaim, even when admiring a man-made object, Subḥān Allāh, ‘Praise be God’, instead of admiring the artist first? For he knows that God is the real source of human art, and that one has to praise Him first and only in the second place the instrument through which He works. Out of praise of God, then, grows ethical behaviour because one attempts to reach a place among those who approach Him as it behoves.

The Fātiḥa is used among Muslims as much as, if not more than, the Lord's Prayer in Christianity, and for this reason ‘Fātiḥa often becomes a general term for a religious rite, a celebration and a meeting in which numerous prayers can be recited; but the Fātiḥa, often repeated silently by those present, is the true centre.56

It is for this reason that the Fātiḥa, the first Sūra of the Koran, begins with the words, al-ḥamdu lillāh, ‘Praise be to God’, and by praying so, humankind joins the ranks of those whose proper destination is praise of God. Minerals, plants and animals praise Him with the lisān ul-ḥāl, ‘the tongue of their state’, that is, by their very existence. To be sure, not many have described this praise in such amazing detail as did Bahā-i Walad, who tells how he heard all the food in his stomach praise the Creator:

I had eaten much. I saw in my stomach all water and bread. God inspired me: ‘All this water and bread and fruits have tongues and praise Me with voices and supplications. That means human beings and animals and fairies are all nourishments which have turned into voices of supplication and praise for Me…’.57

His son, Jalāluddīn Rūmī, then translated into human language the prayer of the fruit trees in the orchard which utter, as it were, by means of their naked branches and later by dint of the plentiful fruits the same petition as do humans when they speak the words of the Fātiḥa:

‘We worship Thee!’—that is the garden's prayer

in winter time.

‘We ask for help!’—that's what it utters

in time of spring.

‘We worship Thee’, that means: I come imploring,

imploring Thee:

Don't leave me in this sadness, Lord, and open

the door of joy!

‘We ask Thee, Lord, for help’—that is, the fullness

of ripe, sweet fruits

Breaks now my branches and my twigs—protect me!

My Lord, My God!

(D no. 2,046)

The hymnic prayers of the Egyptian Sufi Dhū'n-Nūn in the ninth century are among the first attempts of Muslim thinkers to make the material reality transparent for the laud that is on everything's tongue, even in ‘tonguelessness’.

The laud expressed at the very beginning of the Fātiḥa was translated into poetry by the great masters of Islamic literature mainly in the genre of poems usually called tawḥīd, ‘acknowledgement of God's Unity’. This laud was expressed in the choicest words that they could think of: they praise God's unfathomable wisdom and tell of the wonders which He created in the universe; they also ponder the reasons why God has created things so differently: why is the Negro black and the Turk white? Why are humans to bear heavy burdens of obedience while the ferocious wolf is not asked to account for his bloodshed? Why is there suffering, and why does the Earth now appear in lovely green and now in wintry white? But the poets always end with the praise as they began with it—the wisdom of the Creator is too great to be doubted. In everything, there is a ḥikma, a wisdom; and therefore when the Muslim is afflicted with a disaster or faces some sad events, loss of friends or illness, and is asked how he fares, he or she will most probably answer, al-ḥamdu li ‘llāhi ‘ala kulli ḥāl, ‘Praised be God in every state [or: for everything]’.

The great hymnic poems, be they qaṣīdas with monorhyme or double-rhymed poems at the beginning of major Persian, Turkish or Urdu epics, have a psalmlike quality in their majestic sounds: suffice it to think of the poems of the Pathan poet Rahman Baba (d. after 1707), of the loving songs of Indian qawwāls, or of Turkish ilāhis with their repeated lines al-ḥamdu llilāh or the like.

Such poems often begin with the description of God's greatness in the third person and then turn to the personal address ‘Thou’, again in consonance with the pattern of the Fātiḥa, which starts with praise and then turns to the personal God: ‘Thee we worship, and Thee we ask for help’, as though one were drawing closer and closer to the goal of worship. The poet will be careful to address God with appropriate Divine names: when he writes the introduction to a love epic, he will choose names that reveal His attributes of beauty, while in a heroic story the attributes of majesty are to be used. Large sections of religious poetry can indeed be seen, so to speak, as elaborations of the Prophet's saying lā uḥṣī ‘alayka thanā'an, ‘I cannot count the praise due to Thee!’

Ritual prayer has a preferred place in Muslim piety not only because it is one of the five pillars of religion but also because the praying person uses the verses of the Koran, which means that he or she addresses God with His own words: this close relationship between the reciting person and the Divine recipient of the prayer creates a very special bond.

At the end of the ritual prayer, after pronouncing the greetings to angels and humans, one can utter personal prayers, petitionary prayers, du‘ā or munājāt, intimate conversations. Such prayers can be spoken, of course, at any time, but they are considered more effective after the ritual prayer when one is still in the state of bodily and spiritual purity.

The content of these petitionary prayers is as variegated as are the needs of human beings. One can pray for any worldly good, for health, for relief from worries, for success, for children, or when seeing the new moon, and so on and so forth. But besides these practical human wishes, there are prayers for ethical values, like the prayer ‘Dress me in the garment of piety!’ The Prophet's prayer ya rabbī zidnī ‘ilman, ‘O Lord, increase me in knowledge’, inspired people as well, and the sinner's hope for forgiveness, the longing for Paradise, is expressed as much as the fear of Hell, although ideally both should be transcended by the loving trust in God's eternal will and wisdom.

And yet, one finds rebellious outcries against God: Hellmut Ritter gives excellent examples from ‘Aṭṭār's epics, outcries which the poet puts often in the mouth of mentally deranged people, but which one can also observe, at times, when listening to a ‘village saint’ in Anatolia.58 In addition, some of Iqbāl's poetical prayers express a strong resentment to God's actions and underline man's will to organize life on Earth according to his own will.

One prayer that is always answered is that for others, and not only the family and the friends are included but also all those whom God has created, even one's enemies, for they may have served to divert the praying person from his or her previous evil ways, thus leading him or her back to God and helping to acquire a happier and more blessed state, as Rūmī tells in one of the stories in the Maiknawī (M IV 56f.). Many manuscripts from Islamic lands have a short prayer formula at the end or ask the reader to include the author and/or the copyist in his prayers. Likewise, tombstones often bear the words al-fātiḥa, or, in Turkey, ruhuna fatiha, that is, one should recite a Fātiḥa for the deceased person's spiritual welfare because prayers as well as the recitation of the Koran can help to improve dead people's state in their lonely grave.

According to tradition, free prayer should be spoken in plain words and without rhetorical embellishment; but in later times, the Arabs’ love of high-flowing, rhyming sentences is evident. Thus, many such prayers are masterpieces of Arabic and—at a later stage—Persian or Turkish high-soaring prose.59 Suffice it to mention the prayers ascribed to Imam Zayn al-‘Ābidīn in as-Ṣaḥīfa as-Sajjādiyya, which is available now in an excellent English version. Ghazzālī's Ihyā ‘ulūm ad-dīn contains a vast treasure of prayers which are inherited from the Prophet, his companions and his family, and from certain pious and saintly members of the community in the early centuries of Islam; such a prayer, du‘ā ma'thūr, is thought to be particularly effective (similar to classical prayer formulas in Christian prayer books). In the Persianate world, ‘Abdullāh-i Ansārī's (d. 1089) Munājāt are the first example of short, rhyming Persian prayers, interspersed by prayer poems, and in the course of the centuries the mystical prayers of Sufi masters like Mīr Dard of Delhi (d. 1785), or the long chains of invocations used in the tradition of some Sufi orders, are beautiful examples of the never-resting longing of the human heart.60

One of the forms found in such traditions is the prayer with the letters of the alphabet which, being a vessel into which the revelation was poured, have a sanctity of their own (see below, p. 152). Thus, one finds chains of ‘alphabetical’ prayers which implore God, for example bi-dhāl dhātika ‘by the letter dh of Thy essence, dhāt’, or ‘By the letter ṣād of Thy reliability, ṣidq’, and so on.61

Again, in somewhat later times, one finds the closing formula bi-ḥaqq Muḥammadin or bi-sharaf Muḥammadin, ‘For Muhammad's sake’ or ‘For the sake of Muhammad's honour…’. The name of the Prophet becomes, as it were, a warrant for the acceptance of prayer. Ibn Taymiyya objected to this formula; one should rather begin and close the du‘ā with the formula of blessings for the Prophet. One can also find prayers in connection with the Koran: ‘For the sake of the Koran… I beg Thee that…’.

During the petitionary prayer, one opens the hands, with the palms showing heavenward as though to attract the effusion of grace (or, in a more primitive interpretation, one thinks that God would be ashamed not to put something into the open hands of a begging creature). Therefore the poets see the plane tree's leaves lifted like hands to ask for God's grace.

But, like all people in the world, the Muslims too were plagued by the problem: can prayer really be heard and answered, and why does God not answer all our petitions? Some radical mystics, overstressing the concept of surrender and absolute trust in God, voiced the opinion that prayer is of no use as everything has been pre-ordained since pre-eternity. Only ritual prayer as an act of obedience is permissible.62 However, most Muslims reminded such sceptics of the Koranic promise: ‘Call upon Me, and I will answer!’ (Sūra 40:62), or God's statement: ‘Verily I am near, I answer the prayer of the worshipper when he prays’ (Sūra 2:186).

The concept of God as a personal God, a caring and wise Lord, necessitated the dialogue between Him and His creatures—a dialogue which, naturally, was initiated by Him. When a ḥadīth claims that ‘God does not open anyone's mouth to ask for forgiveness unless He has decreed to forgive him’, then prayer is not only permitted but also required. Prayer and affliction work against each other like shield and arrow, and it is not a condition in war that one should not carry a shield, says the traditional adage.

Yet, there remains the problem that many a prayer is not answered. In this respect, Qushayri and others quote a ḥadīth that states that God likes to listen to the voices of those who implore Him, just as we enjoy listening to the voices of caged birds; that is why he does not fulfil their wishes immediately but keeps them at bay to enjoy their sweet voices somewhat longer… (AM no. 730). This is certainly a very anthropomorphic explanation, not compatible with high theological reasoning. But since prayer often evades theological definitions and has apparently its own law of gravity, one need not be surprised that despite many rules and regulations developed even for the so-called ‘free’ prayer, believers concede that God accepts every sincere call—even, as Rūmī says, the prayer of the menstruating woman (who, due to her impurity, must not touch or recite the Koran). He makes this remark in the context of the story of Moses and the shepherd, when the stem, proud prophet chastised the simple lover of God who, as becomes clear, was about to reach a much higher spiritual rank than Moses himself. The true aim of prayer is, as Iqbāl says in a fine Urdu poem, not that one's wish be granted but rather that the human will be changed to become unified with the Divine will; the Divine will can then flow through the human soul, filling and transforming it, until one reaches conformity with one's destined fate.63

Just as free prayer can be uttered at the end of the ritual prayer, one can also often see pious people sitting after finishing the ṣalāt, counting their prayer beads while they repeat either a Divine name or a formula given to them by their spiritual guide. The so-called tasbīḥ (literally, the pronouncing of praise formulas such as subḥān Allāh) or subḥa, a thread with thirty-three or ninety-nine beads made of ritually clean material, was probably introduced from India into the central Islamic lands in the ninth century,64 but the custom of dhikr, ‘mentioning’ or ‘recollecting’, goes back to the time of the Prophet. Does not the Koran—where the root dhakara, ‘remember’, occurs dozens of time—speak of ‘remembering God after finishing the ritual prayer…’ (Sūra 4:103) and promise: ‘Verily by remembering the Lord, hearts become quiet’ (Sūra 13:28)?

This ‘remembering’ meant in the beginning simply thinking of God (dhikr) and His grace and blessings, (something a believer should constantly do), but it developed rather early into a whole system of meditation in which certain formulas were repeated thousands of times.65 The very name of Allāh was probably the first formula to be used for such purposes, for after all, the Koran reminded the believers ‘to remember Allah’. Furthermore, the formulas of asking forgiveness, istighfār, or subḥān Allah, or al-ḥamdu lillāh, were repeated many times, and the profession of faith, or at least its first part with its swinging from the negation to the affirmation illā, was an ideal vehicle for long meditations, all the more as it can be easily combined with breathing: lā ilāha, ‘there is no deity’, is said while exhaling, to point to ‘what is not God’, while the illā Allāh during the inhaling shows that everything returns into the all-embracing Divine Being.

The Sufis developed psychological systems to understand the working of each of the ninety-nine Divine Names lest the meditating person be afflicted by the use of a wrong name. The dhikr could be loud or silent; the loud one is generally used in the meetings of Sufi brotherhoods and ends in the repetition of the last h of Allāh after every other sound has slowly disappeared; this last stage resembles a deep sigh. The silent dhikr too has been described as a journey through the letters of the word Allāh until the meditating person is, so to speak, surrounded by the luminous circle of this final h, the greatest proximity that one could hope to reach.66

The dhikr should permeate the entire body and soul,67 and the mystics knew of refined methods of slowly opening the centres of spiritual power in the body—the five or seven luminous points, laṭā'if. These techniques, along with the proper movements or attitude in sitting and the correct breathing, have to be learned from a master who knows best how the hearts of the disciples can be polished. For the dhikr has always been regarded as a means of polishing the mirror of the heart—this heart which can so easily be covered with the rust of worldly occupations and thoughts; constant dhikr, however, can remove the rust and make the heart clear so that it can receive the radiant Divine light and reflect the Divine beauty. How much even a simple dhikr permeates the whole being became clear to me in a Pakistani home: after a stroke, the old mother was unable to speak but repeated—one may say breathed—the word Allāh hour after hour.

During the dhikr, special positions of the body are required. One often places one's head upon one's knees—the knees are, as Abū Ḥalṣ ‘Omar as-Suhrawardī writes, ‘the meditating person's Mt Sinai’ where one receives the manifestation of Divine light as did Moses.68 How widespread this thought was is understood from Shāh ‘Abdul Laṭīf s great Sindhi Risālō, in which this eighteenth-century Sufi poet in the lower Indus Valley compares the knees of the true Yogis, and that means, for him, the true lovers of God, to Mt Sinai where the epiphany takes place.

Prayer, as the Muslims knew, is an answer to God's call. Western readers are best acquainted with Rūmī's story of the man who gave up prayer because he never received an answer but then was taught by God that in every ‘O Lord!’ of his, there are 100 ‘Here I am at your service!’ from God's side (M III 189ff.). This story, translated for the first time in 1821 into Latin by the German theologian F. D. A. Tholuck,69 helped Nathan Söderblom and those who studied his works to understand that Islam too knows the concept of the oratio infusa, the prayer of grace; but few if any authors were aware that this idea had occurred in Muslim literature long before Rūmī. There are a number of ḥadīth dealing with prayer as initiated by God, and mystics such as al-Ḥallāj (who sang: ‘I call Thee, nay, Thou callest me’) and shortly after him Niffarī (d. 965) used this concept frequently. In Rūmī's Mathnawī, not only does this famous story point to the secret of prayer as a Divine gift, but also the poet repeats time and again:

Thou madest prayer grow from me, for otherwise,

how could a rose grow out of an ash pit?

(M II 2,443)

Rūmī, like other mystics within and outside Islam, knew that prayer is not fettered in words. In his elaboration of the above-mentioned ḥadīth, ‘I have a time with God’, he points to the fact that ritual prayer (and, one may add, free prayer and dhikr as well) is an outward form, but the soul of ritual prayer ‘is rather absorption and loss of consciousness, in which all these outward forms remain outside and have no room any more. Even Gabriel, who is pure spirit, does not fit into it.’

There is only silence—sacred silence is the veritable end of prayer, as Rūmī says:

Become silent and go by way of silence toward non-existence,

and when you become non-existent you'll be all praise and laud.

For silence is very much part of the religious experience,70 and, like the word, has different shades and forms. There is the ‘sacred silence’, which means that names and formulas must not be mentioned: neither will the person involved in true dhikr reveal the name which he or she invokes, nor will the non-initiated be admitted into the Ismaili Jamaatkhana where silent meditation takes place. Even the use of a sacred or foreign language in the cult is, in a certain way, silence: one feels that something else, the Numinous, speaks in words and sounds which the normal observer does not understand.

Often, silence grows out of awe: in the presence of the mighty king, the humble servant would not dare to speak. In the silent dhikr, the repetition of me names or formulas is completely interiorized and has no signs or words; in fact, as especially the Naqshbandis have emphasized, true worship is khalwat dar anjuman, ‘solitude in the crowd’ that is, the continued recollection of God in one's heart while doing one's duty in the world—dast bi-kār dil bi-yār, ‘The hand at work, the heart near the friend’, as the Persian saying goes. The Koran had praised those whom neither business nor work keeps away from remembering their Lord (Sūra 24:37), who are fi ṣalātin dā'imūn, ‘persevering in prayer’ (Sūra70:22–3).

One may think in this connection also of ascetic silence, alluded to in the last phrase of the old tripartite rule of ‘little eating, little sleep, little talking’ (qillat al-ta‘ām, qillat al-manām, qillat al-kalām)—a rule that could lead to near-complete silence in the case of some Sufis. In Turkey, silence is part of the fulfilment of certain vows, such as in the Zakarya sofrasĭ.

But when one speaks of silent prayer, as Rūmī does in the verse quoted earlier, his remark emerges from the feeling that the ineffable cannot be fettered in words. Many of his poems therefore end in the call khāmūsh, ‘Quiet! Silent!’ because he could not express the secret of the loving interior dialogue with the Divine Beloved. To do that, one has to learn the ‘tongue of tonguelessness’.

However, it is a paradox found in many religious traditions, and certainly in Islam, that the mystics, who were so well aware of the necessity and central role of silence, wrote the most verbose books and prayers to explain that they could not possibly express their thoughts. They knew that to speak of one's experience is basically a treason to the experience; for, as Dhū'n-Nūn said, the hearts of the free (that is, the real men of God) are the tombs of the secrets, qulūb al-aḥrār qubūr al-aṣrār. Those who have reached the highest ranges of intimacy with the Lord keep closed the doors of expression. Was not al-Ḥallaj executed because he committed the major sin of ifshā as-sirr, ‘divulging the secret’ of loving union? That is at least how later generations interpreted his death on the gallows, pointing by this interpretation to the importance of silence.

They are here in unison with the representatives of theological silence, of the apophatic theology whose roots go back, in the Western tradition, to Dionysius Pseudo-Areopagita, whose theology has influenced Christian and Islamic mysticism over the centuries.

The mystic—verbose as he may be, with however many paradoxes he may try to pour out his experience—has yet to be silent, for he is trying to fathom the unfathomable depth of the Divine Ocean, the deus abscoditus, and cannot speak, resembling a dumb person who is unable to tell of his dreams. The prophet, however, has to speak, must speak, must preach the deus revelatus. And the revelation happens in Islam through the sacred book, the Divine Word inlibrated.71


The centre of Islam is the Koran. Its sound, as has been said, defines the space in which the Muslim lives, and its written copies are highly venerated. In no other religion has the book/Book acquired a greater importance than in Islam, which is, most importantly, the first religion to distinguish between the ahl al-kitāb, those who possess a revealed scripture, and the people without such a Book. The Koran is, for the Muslim, the verbum visibile, the Word Inlibrate, to use Harry Wolfson's apt expression, which corresponds to the Word Incarnate of me Christian faith.

However, it is not only the Koran, written down and recited innumerable times over the centuries; since time immemorial, the very act of writing has been considered sacred. The letters, so it was felt, had a special power, and in ancient civilizations the scribes, those who could and were allowed to handle the art of writing, formed a class in themselves: they were the guardians of sacred and secret wisdom.

The mystery of letters has inspired many Muslim thinkers, and most of them would agree with Ja‘far aṣ-Ṣādiq (d. 765), the sixth Shia imam, who said:

In the first place a thought surged in God, an intention, a will. The object of this thought, this intention, and this will were the letters from which God made the principal of all things, the indices of everything perceptible, the criteria of everything difficult. It is from these letters that everything is known.73

Even Avicenna is credited with a risāla nayrūzijya that deals with the letters, and mystical philosophers and poets never ceased using allusions to the letters or invented fascinating relations between letters and events, between the shape of the letters and the shape of humans, and might even see human beings as ‘lofty letters’ which were waiting to appear, as Ibn ‘Arabī says in a well-known verse.

A ḥadīth according to which man's heart is between two of God's fingers was poetically interpreted as meaning that the human heart resembles a pen in God's hand with which the Creator writes whatever is necessary on me vast tablet of creation. This imagery of the human being as a pen, or else as letters, written by the master calligrapher, is commonplace in Islamic poetry, as Rūmī sings:

My heart became like a pen

that's in the Beloved's fingers:

Tonight he may write a Z,

perhaps, tomorrow, a B.

He cuts and prepares his pen well

to write in riqa‘ and naskh;

The pen says: ‘Yes, I'll obey,

for you know best what to do’.

Sometimes he blackens its face,

he wipes it then in his hair.

He keeps it now upside down,

sometimes he works with it too…

(D no. 2,530)

Seven centuries later, Ghālib in Delhi (d. 1869) translated into Urdu poetry the outcry of the letters which rebel against God who wrote them in such strange forms: the paper shirt they are wearing (i.e. the fact that they are penned on paper) shows that they are plaintiffs, unhappy with the Divine Pen's activities. But the same poet also sighed at the thought of death—after all, he is not a letter that can be easily repeated on the tablet of time.74

The Arabic alphabet, in which the Koran is written, followed first the ancient Semitic sequence, that is, a, b, j, d, h, w, z etc., and is still used in this so-called abjad sequence when dealing with the numerical value of a letter. Beginning with alif = 1, it counts the single digits up to y = 10, the tens up to q = 100 and the hundreds up to gh = 1000, so that the complete decimal system is contained in the twenty-eight letters of the alphabet and can then be used for prognostication or for chronograms to give the dates of important events, from the birth of a prince to the deaths of pious scholars (for which Koranic quotations often offered fitting dates by their numerical value) or of politicians, chronograms for whose death were often made up from less flattering sentences.

The Tales of the Prophets gives various stories about the inner meaning of the abjad letters, which are traced back to previous prophets; the most spiritual explanation is ascribed to Jesus, according to whom each letter points to one of God's qualities: a = Allāh; b = bahā Allāh, ‘God's glory’; j = jalāl Allāh, ‘God's majesty and strength’; d = dīn Allāh, ‘God's religion’; h = huwa Allāh, ‘He is God’; and so on,75 while in Ismaili cosmology alif stands for the nātiq, b for the wāṣī, and t for the Imām.

A very special role was attributed to the groups of unconnected letters which precede a considerable number of Koranic Sūras and whose meaning is not completely clear. Thus, many mysterious qualities were ascribed to them; they could also be seen as pointing to the special names of the Prophet such as ṬH, Ṭāhā (Sūra 20:1), or YS, Yāsīn (Sūra 36:1), or other secret abbreviations; thus the sevenfold ḤM, ḥā-mīm, was sometimes read as ḥabībī Muḥammad, ‘My beloved Muhammad’.

These isolated letters were often used in religio-magical contexts, and along with the sawāqiṭ al-fātiḥa, the seven letters which do not occur in the first Sūra of the Koran, they can be found in talismans engraved in agate or carnelian.76 Inscribed in metal bowls for healing water, they are mixed with a number of Koranic verses and/or numbers. The ailing person could thus ‘drink the power’ of the letters, just as in the Deccan the basmala kā dulhāñ, ‘the bridegroom of the basmala’, was supposed to lick off the letters of the formula bismillāh (see above, p. 107). Frequently used in amulets and talismans are the last two Sūras of the Koran, the mu‘awwidhatān, ‘by which one seeks refuge’ (with God) from assorted evils. Another protecting word is the seemingly meaningless budūḥ which one sees on walls, at entrance gates and in many talismanic objects; even Ghazzālī emphasized the importance of budūḥ in certain cases such as childbirth.77 Budūḥ corresponds to the four numbers (b = 2, d = 4, ū = 6, ḥ = 8) which form the corners of the most frequently-used magic square (the one built upon the central five and resulting in every direction in the number fifteen).

The shahāda, the profession of faith, likewise contains sacred power. For this reason, its words are often woven or embroidered into covers for sarcophagi or tombs, for then, it is hoped, the deceased will have no difficulties in answering the questions of the interrogating angels Munkar and Nakīr in the grave. When Koranic verses and sacred letters are used to decorate a entire shirt, it is hoped that the hero who wears it will return safely and victorious from the battlefield. In our time, one finds stickers for cars and windows with the most efficacious blessing formulas such as the basmala, the Throne Verse (Sūra 2:255), or the mā shā' Allāh, ‘What God willeth’, which is recited against the Evil Eye. They are also used in pendants, preferably of carnelian, embroidered on various material, repeated on tiles and printed on thousands of postcards in ever-changing calligraphic designs. This can result in strange surprises, as when an American firm offers T-shirts with a decorative design which the Muslim immediately understands as the word Allāh or part of the shahāda. (One is reminded of the medieval use in Europe of Arabic religious formulas in Kufic lettering to decorate woven fabrics or even the halo of the Virgin Mary.)78

In houses and sometimes in mosques, one can find the ḥilya sharīfa, that is, the description of the Prophet's noble bodily and spiritual qualities as recorded in the oldest sources; this Arabic text is written in fine calligraphy, usually after a famous Turkish model from the seventeenth century, and serves the Muslim as a true picture of the Prophet, whose pictorial representation is prohibited.

To Muslims who use a script different from the Arabic alphabet, such as Bengali, the very sight of Arabic letters seemed to convey the feeling of sanctity, and when Josef Horovitz observed, at the beginning of the twentieth century, how Bengali villagers would piously anoint stones with Arabic inscriptions, one could see later that people carefully picked up matchboxes with Arabic words on them lest perchance a sacred name or word be desecrated.79 During the time that Bengal was still part of Pakistan, a movement called ḥurūf al-qur'ān, ‘the letters of the Koran’, gained momentum: Muslims wanted to write Bengali in Arabic letters to show their loyalty to the Islamic heritage, and the difference of script doubtless contributed to the break-up of Pakistan in 1971.

For wherever Islam spread to become the ruling religion, the Arabic letters formed a strong bond. To reject the Arabic alphabet means a complete break with one's religious and cultural past; Ataturk's Turkey is a telling example. Even though Arabic writing is not ideally suited to the Turkish grammar and sound systems, the large number of Arabic and Persian words and grammatical elements in the classical Ottoman Turkish language made it a natural choice to use this script from the time of the Turks’ conversion to Islam. A return to Arabic letters can be observed in modern times in the former Central Asian Soviet republics, where Muslims are trying to shake off the disliked Cyrillic alphabet and reintegrate their culture into the glorious Islamic past. Tajikistan is a typical case. Attempts by individuals to write Arabic itself in Roman letters caused a wild outcry among Arabs, and a timid attempt to do the same for Urdu in Pakistan was likewise doomed to failure.

The Arabic letters in which the first copies of the Koran were noted down were rather ungainly, but in a short time the script was arranged in fine, well-measured forms, and various styles emerged in centres of Muslim government both for preserving the Koranic revelation and for practical purposes such as chancellery use, copying of books, etc.80

We are used to calling the majority of the heavy, angular styles of early Arabic as they were used for copies of the Koran and for epigraphical purposes ‘Kufic’ after the city of Kufa in Iraq, a stronghold of ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib and his partisans—and ‘Alī is usually regarded as a kind of patron saint of calligraphy, so that the silsilas, the chains of initiation, generally go back to him. The early Korans, written on vellum, have, as Martin Lings states correctly, an ‘iconic quality’ to them.81 One looks at them and seems to discover through them the living element of revelation, awe-inspiring and close to one's heart. The veneration shown to the copies which, as Muslims believe, are the originals collected and edited by the third caliph, ‘Othmān, is remarkable.

The art of calligraphy developed largely owing to the wish to write the Divine word as beautifully as possible, and the majestic large Korans in cursive writing (which was shaped artistically in the tenth century) from Mamluk and Timurid times are as impressive as the small, elegant copies of the Book made in Turkey or Iran. In Turkey, the Koran copies written by Hafiz Osman (d. 1689), the leading master in the tradition of Shaykh Hamdullah (d. 1519), were taken by pious people as equal to the original and were therefore used for prognostication. Most printed editions of the Koran in Turkey are based on Hafiz Osman's work.

The belief in the baraka of the Koranic letters is attested first during the battle of Siffin (657), when Mu‘āwiya, fighting ‘Alī, feared defeat and asked his soldiers to place pages of the Koran on their lances—the Divine word should decide between the two Muslim leaders. One may see here an attempt to utilize the baraka of the Koranic letters, if not to guarantee victory then at least to avert defeat. A century later, a Sufi history about Ibrāhīm ibn Adham (d. around 777) tells that a boat was saved during a storm thanks to the pages of the Koran that were on it,82 and stories of this kind are frequent in Muslim legend, as are similar legends about an icon or a crucifix in the Christian tradition.

In thinking of the Koranic letters and words’ baraka, one should be careful not to spoil any page of the Koran or folios on which a part of it is written; the Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society 39, 1 (1991) contains, after the Table of Contents, the warning:

The sacred aayat from the Holy Qur'an and ahadith have been printed for Tabligh and for increase of your religious knowledge. It is your duty to ensure their sanctity. Therefore, the pages on which these are printed should be disposed of in proper Islamic manner.83

The careful preservation of pages and fragments of old Korans has led to the discovery, in 1971, of a considerable number of bags in the Great Mosque of Sanaa, Yemen, which contained thousands of fragments of early Koran copies mainly on vellum.

People have pondered the origin of scriptures that contain such power, and while in India the Vedas are regarded as having emanated, and, in other traditions, the authors are, according to legend, supernaturally begotten, a widespread belief is that of the pre-existence of the Scripture.

The Koran is pre-existent; the umm al-kitāb (Sūra 43:4) is preserved in the heavenly original on the lawḥ mahfūz, the Well-preserved Tablet, and thus the Koran, once it appeared in this world, makes the Divine power present among humans. It is, as G. E. von Grunebaum says with a fine comparison, ‘an anchor of timelessness in a changing world’.84 Its message has no end, for, as Sūra 18:109 says: ‘If the sea were ink for my Lord's words, verily the sea would be exhausted before the words of my Lord even though we would bring the like of it’. And again, each word of the Koran has an endless meaning, and the world will forever understand it anew.

For decades in the early ninth century, the struggle between the Mu‘tazila and the traditionalists raged, for the Mu‘tazilites, jealously insisting upon God's absolute Unity, would not allow anything to be pre-eternally coexistent with Him. The Koran, they held, was the primordial Divine message, but it was created and not, as Ibn Ḥanbal (d. 855) and the majority of the believers claimed, uncreated. The dogma of the Koran's being uncreated is maintained to this day; thus, one can correctly say that every Muslim is a fundamentalist, as this term was first used to designate those American evangelical groups who firmly believed in the divine origin of the Bible.

Whether one took the side of the Mu‘tazilites or the orthodox, it was accepted that the Koran is the Divine word which was ‘inlibrated’ through the medium of Muhammad; and, just as Mary had to be a virgin to give birth to the Word Incarnate, thus Muhammad, it was felt, had to be ummī, ‘illiterate’, to be the pure vessel for the ‘inlibration’ of the Word. That was why Muslims interpreted the term ummī as illiterate while its original meaning was probably ‘the Prophet sent to the umma, i.e. the gentiles’.85 And, as he was a vessel for the revelation, ‘his character, khuluq, was the Koran’, as his wife ‘A'isha said.

The Koran is certainly not the first book ever given by God to humankind. The Torah, Psalms and Gospel are believed to have been divinely sent, and the ‘four books’ are the proud property of the ahl al-kitāb although, as the Koran holds, previous peoples have altered their revelations (Sūra 2:75 et al.). Some even know of other books, and when the Koran mentioned ‘the book’ which was given to Moses, i.e. the Torah (Sūra 11:110, 41:45), the so-called ṣuḥuf, ‘pages’, are also given to Abraham (Sūra 87:19). To this day, some Sufi leaders claim to have seen these pages and to be aware of their contents.

In traditional religions, the believers knew that seers and prophets either see or hear the Word. In Muhammad's case, both experiences interpenetrate: he saw Gabriel and he heard the word iqra’, ‘Read! Recite!’, although later, auditions were more frequent and also stronger than his comparatively rare visionary experiences.86 Abū Ḥafs ‘Omar as-Suhrawardī has beautifully described the experience of those who hear the Koran as the Divine word as it behoves:

To listen to the Koran means to listen to God; hearing becomes seeing, seeing becomes hearing, knowing turns into action, action turns into knowing—that is the ‘fine hearing’.87

The fact that the Koran is, for the Muslim, God's word resulted in a major controversy when the phonograph was first introduced: can one recite the Koran by means of the phonograph or not? How should one in such a case perform the prescribed prostrations at the required places?88 This controversy, which happened around the turn of the twentieth century, is today absolutely obsolete, and the adversaries of mechanical recitation would be horrified to learn that the Koran is available through radio, over loudspeaker and on tapes which can be played everywhere and at any time—which entails also that non-Muslims will listen to it. Tapes and records made at the annual competitions in Koran recitation, in which men and women participate, are now coveted items.

The Koran was revealed in clear Arabic language (Sūra 16:103, 41:44, 26:192ff.), and it is its literary superiority which is several times emphasized. The i‘jāz, its unsurpassable style, is its true miracle (cf. Sūra 17:88). Each of its so-called ‘verses’, the smaller units of which a Sūra, or chapter, consists, is an āya, a ‘sign’, a Divine miracle to prove the Prophet's veracity; the ‘signs’ of the Koran are his Beglaubigungsiwunder. The i‘jāz ‘which incapacitates men and djinn’ to create anything comparable to it (Sūra 17:88) also makes a translation impossible: nobody could bring into another idiom its linguistic beauty, the numerous cross-relations and the layers of meaning. The text ‘was verbally revealed and not merely in its meanings and ideas’. Thus states one of the leading Muslim modernists, the late Fazlur Rahman, whose words emphasize the mysterious relations between words, sound and contents of the Book.89

The text, so Muslims believe, contains the solution of all problems which have arisen and still will arise. Sanā'ī, taking the first and the last letter of the Koran, namely b and s, understood from them that the Koran is bas, ‘enough’ (in Persian).90 Unknown mysteries are hidden in the sequence of its letters. To come close to it, whether to touch it and read from it or to recite it by heart, means to enter the Divine presence, as the ḥadīth qudsī says: ‘Someone who reads the Koran is as if he were talking to Me and I were talking with him’ (AM no. 39).

When quoting from the Koran, one begins with the phrase qāla ta‘ālā or qāla ‘azza wa jalla, ‘He, Most High’, or ‘He, Mighty and Majestic, said…’. When reciting the Koran or referring to it by quoting a Sūra or an āya, one should begin with the basmala after pronouncing the formula of refuge, a‘ūdhu bi ‘Llāh min ash-shayṭān as-rajīm, ‘I seek refuge with God from the accursed Satan’. Each Sūra, except for Sūra 9, begins with the basmala, a formula which should also be uttered at the beginning of each and every work. Thus bismillāh karnā simply means, in Urdu, ‘to begin’, and when the Turk says Hadi bismallah he means: ‘Let's start!’

The single letters or clusters of letters in the Koran have a sanctity of their own; but, even more, certain Sūras or verses carry special baraka with them, primarily the Fātiḥa, whose use in all kinds of rites was mentioned above (p. 143). Sūra 36, Yāsīn, is recited for the deceased or the dying and their benefit in the world to come; it is called the ‘heart of the Koran’. And the Throne Verse (Sūra 2:255) is frequently used for protective purposes. The thousandfold repetition of Sūra 112, the attestation that ‘God is One, neither begotten nor begetting’, is another way of protecting oneself from all kinds of evil.91

The pious may begin the day with briefly listening to the Koran before or after the morning prayer, for the Koran was, as it were, ‘personified’, and appeared in some prayers as the true intercessor for the believer:

O Lord, adorn us with the ornament of the Koran,

and favour us through the grace of the Koran,

and honour us through the honour of the Koran,

and invest us with the robe of honour of the Koran

and make us enter Paradise through the intercession

of the Koran

and rescue us from all evil in the world

and the pain of the Otherworld for the sake of the

honour of the Koran…

O Lord, make the Koran for us a companion in this world

and an intimate friend in the tomb,

and a friend at the Day of Resurrection,

and a light on the Bridge,

and a companion in Paradise,

and a veil and protection from the fire,

and a guide to all good deeds

by Thy grace and kindness and favour!

This prayer was especially recited when one had performed a khatma, a complete recitation of the Koran, which is considered to carry with it many blessings. One can do that in one sitting or by reciting each day of the month a juz’, that is, one thirtieth of the whole book. Often, the reward of such khatma is offered to a deceased person. Thus, one may also hire professional ḥuffaẓ (plural of ḥāfiẓ) to repeat so-and-so many khatmas for someone's soul, or one can vow to recite or have recited a khatma. When a child has gone through the whole Koran, or even more when he or she (usually at a tender age) has committed the Holy Book to memory and become a ḥāfiẓ, a feast is given.

One has always to keep in mind that the Muslim not only sees the Divine Presence when contemplating the Koran but also feels honoured to be able to talk to God with the Lord's own words when reciting the Koran: it is the closest approximation that a pious person can hope for, indeed a ‘sacramental’ act.92

As God has revealed His will in the Koran, it is also the source of law. The problems of the abrogating and abrogated verses (nāsikh, mansūkh) have occupied theologians and jurists down through the centuries, but there is no doubt that, as Bernhard Weiß writes correctly: ‘Islamic law is based on texts which are considered to be sacred and therefore as absolutely final and not subject to change’.93 The language in which the verbum Dei is expressed is ‘determined for all times’, and it is the duty of the jurists to find out the exact meaning of the grammatical forms: when the Koran uses an imperative, does that mean that the act referred to is an obligation or is only recommended, or is the form meant merely for guidance? These are problems which have been discussed down through the centuries because their understanding is central for legal praxis.

But abrogated and abrogating sentences aside, the Koran wields absolute authority, for the heavenly Book, al-kitāb, is faithfully reproduced in the muṣḥaf, the copy, which human hands can touch and which yet contains the uncreated word. Should a scribe make a mistake in copying the Koran, the page has to be taken out and replaced. (Such so-called muhrac pages by major calhgraphers could become collector's items in Turkey.) And just as the scholars were of divided opinion about the mechanical reproduction of the Koran's sound, the question was raised much earlier as to whether or not printing or (nowadays) photocopying was permissible. This is particularly important when it comes to muṣḥafs printed in non-Muslim countries, where the printing facilities and techniques were, in most cases, superior—but who would know what might happen to the text in the hand of the infidels? An article issued in South Africa last year states very clearly:

Those responsible for sending the Arabic text of the Qur'aan to impure kuffaar are guilty of a major sin. They are guilty of sacrilege of the Qur'aan. They are guilty of defiling and dishonouring the Qur'aan and Islam by their dastardly act of handing copies of the Qur'aan to kuffaar who are perpetually in the state of hadth and janaabat [minor and major impurity].94

The conviction that whatever is between the two covers is God's word led, understandably, to a strong bibliolatry. It is said that the vizier Ibn al-Furāt (d. 924) did not sleep in a house where a Koran was kept, out of respect for the sacred word95, and even though not too many people would go so far, the muṣḥar should still be nicely wrapped and kept in a high place, higher than any other book. Sometimes it is hung from the ceiling or from the door frame (which secures its blessing for anyone who enters), and it can also be kept above the marital bed. The muṣḥaf is kissed (that accounts for the comparison of the beloved's flawless face with a beautiful muṣḥaf), and in Persian poetry the black tress that hangs over the radiant cheek of the beloved could be compared to an impudent Hindu who stretches his foot over the muṣḥaf—a double sacrilege, as the Hindu has no right to touch the Book, and as the muṣḥaf must never be touched with the foot.96

The reverence for the muṣḥaf led to the high rank of the calligrapher who specialized in writing the Koran: he is the quintessential Muslim artist, for everything else, including architecture, could be done by a non-Muslim, while God's word had to be written by a pious believer who was constantly in the state of ritual purity.

The high veneration of the Koran could lead to exaggerations, and as early as the tenth century, Niffarī, the Iraqi mystic, heard in his auditions that God is far beyond the fetters of words and letters, and that the Muslims of his time were caught in, as Père Nwyia puts it, ‘the idolatry of letters’, that is, they seemed to worship the letters of the Book while missing its spirit.97 Did not the Koran become, as Clifford Geertz says with a daring formulation, ‘a fetish radiating baraka’ instead of being a living power, rather the heartbeat in the community's life?98 But in all scriptures, the reification began as soon as the revelation was written down; as Schleiermacher says in the second of his Reden über die Religion, ‘scripture is a mausoleum’. The free-floating revelation was cut off with the Prophet's death, and what he had brought was encased in the words on vellum or later on paper—and yet, to recur to these written and recited words was the only way to understand God's eternal will, and therefore scripturalism was deemed necessary for the preservation of Muslim identity.

When the scattered pieces of the revelation which had been noted down on every kind of material available to the believers were collected and organized by the caliph ‘Othmān (reigned 644–56), the exegesis began, for the very compilation of the text and its arrangement can be seen as a kind of first exegesis. The arrangement of the Sūras was done according to the length; they were preceded by the short Fātiḥa and closed, after Sūra 112 which contains the quintessential statement about God's Unity, with the two prayers for Divine succour against evil powers. This arrangement makes it difficult for non-Muslims to find their way through the Scripture, because it is not arranged according to the historical sequence in which the revelations appeared; to begin from the last, short Sūras which contain some of the earliest revelations is easier for the untutored reader than to start with the very long Sūra 2 with its numerous legal instructions. ‘Othmān's text is as close to the original wording as can be, even though seven minor reading variants are canonically accepted. But despite the great care that ‘Othmān took in arranging the sacred words, the Shia later accused him of having excluded numerous revelations in which ‘Alī's and his family's role was positively mentioned; and the Shia theologian Kulaynī in the tenth century even claimed that the muṣḥaf Fāṭima, the copy in the hands of the Prophet's daughter, was three times larger than the ‘Othmanic recension. On the other hand, the Kharijites, ethical maximalists that they were, found ‘the most beautiful story’ that is Sūra 12, which deals with Yūsuf's life, too worldly for a sacred book.

The history of Muslim exegesis has been studied by a number of important European scholars,99 beginning with Theodor Nöldeke (d. 1930), who for the first time in the West attempted to write a history of the Koran, which was enlarged many times afterwards. Ignaz Goldziher's (d. 1921) Richtungen der islamischen Koranauslegung is still a classic when it comes to the different strands of exegesis as they developed down through the centuries among traditionalists, mystics, rationalists, Shia commentators and modernists. Helmut Gätje composed a useful reading book in which the different exegetical methods are offered to Western readers, and J. M. S. Baljon has devoted studies to modern exegesis, in particular in the Indo-Pakistani subcontinent, not to mention the great number of scholars who approached the Book from different vantage points, whether by trying to retrieve the Christian and Jewish influences or by mercilessly doubting the inherited traditions concerning the revelation; valuable studies about the formal aspects of the Koran stand beside statistics of certain terms as a basis for reaching a better understanding of the key concepts of Islam.

But, as Nāṣir-i Khusraw writes:

A difficult task is to seek the ta‘wīl [esoteric interpretation] of the Book—

It is a very easy thing to read down this Book!100

That is in particular true for the ‘unclear’, mutashābihāt verses which are open to different interpretations, contrary to those with clear and fixed meaning (Sūra 3:7).

There were several ways to overcome dogmatic or other difficulties when interpreting the Koran, for the Arabic script in its earliest forms did not distinguish between a number of consonants by using diacritical marks, nor were signs for vocalization used. One has, in this respect, to remember that the early Kufic Korans probably mainly served as visual help for the many who knew the sacred text by heart and perhaps only every now and then needed a look at the consonantal skeleton; they would easily know whether a sequence of consonants that looked like ynzl had to be read as yanzilu, ‘he comes down’, or yanazzilu or yunzilu, ‘he sends down’, or yunzalu (passive).

Scholars distinguish, in the field of dogmatic exegesis, the tafsīr, explanation, and the esoteric ta‘wīl, literally ‘bringing back to the root’, which was predominantly practised in Shia and Sufi circles. The first comprehensive tafsīr was compiled by the great historian Ṭabarī (d. 923), and among leading exegetes of the Middle Ages one has to mention az-Zamakhsharī (d. 1144), who, though an excellent philologist, was sometimes criticized for his tendency to use Mu‘tazili argumentations.

Without going into details, one can say that Koranic exegesis provided the basis for almost all scholarly undertaking in the medieval world. The philologists had to explain the words and grammatical structures, all the more as the number of Neo-Muslims whose mother tongue was not Arabic increased constantly to surpass the number of Arabic speakers by far. Historians studied the historical setting of the Koranic stories and the history of me prophets. Allusions to natural sciences entailed me necessity of discovering their exact meaning (recently, a book about the plants of the Koran was published in Delhi). To find the direction of the correct qibla, to ponder the way of the stars which are placed for guidance into the firmament (Sūra 6:97) or the animals whose characteristics have to be understood, and, much more than all the sciences connected with ‘the world’, me eternal questions of free will and predestination, of the rights and duties of human beings, of the relationship between God and His creation could and should all be derived from the Koran. Thus, we would agree with Louis Massignon's statement that the Koran is indeed the key to the Muslims’ Weltanschauung.

While the theologians, the mutakallimūn, tried to use rational discourse, through which they attempted to solve the major problems of the Koran's interpretation, the esoteric scholars, though not denying the importance of reason, found infinite possibilities for interpreting the Divine word by turning, so to speak, into another channel of revelation. It is probably an exaggerated statement that one of the early Sufis could find 7,000 meanings in a single verse of the Koran (for, as God is infinite, His words must also have infinite meanings), but the deep love of the Sufis for the revelation is an attested fact. The long-expected edition of Sulamī's Tafsīr will shed light on much of early Sufi exegesis. They knew that it needed patience to understand the true meaning, for the Koran is, as Rūmī once said, like a bride who hides herself when one wants to unveil her in a hurry.101 Rūmī has also pointed out how the exoteric and esoteric meaning of the Koran go together:

The Koran is a double-sided brocade. Some enjoy the one side, some the other one. Both are true and correct, as God Most High wishes that both groups might have use from it. In the same way, a woman has a husband and a baby; each of them enjoys her in a different way. The child's pleasure comes from her bosom and her milk, that of the husband from kisses and sleeping and embrace. Some people are children on the path and drink milk—these enjoy the external meaning of the Koran. But those who are true men know of another enjoyment and have a different understanding of the inner meanings of the Koran…102

In Shia circles, a tendency to interpret certain verses as pointing to the Prophet's family is natural, and verses like Sūra 48:10, which deals with the treaty of Hudaybiya (629), were given special weight, as one can see from Nāṣir-i Khusraw's autobiographical poem, in which he describes his true conversion when he understood the meaning of the contract ‘when God's hand was above their hands’.103

Mystics often explained specific verses or shorter Sūra as pertaining to the Prophet, whether by understanding the unconnected letters at the beginning as sacred names of his (see above, p. 157) or in the interpretation of the oath formulas of Sūra 92 and 93, which were seen as references to his black hair (‘By the night!) and his radiant face (‘By the morning light!’). As early as in the days of the commentator Muqātil (d. 765), the ‘lamp’ mentioned in the Light Verse (Sūra 24:35) was seen as a symbol for the Prophet through whom the Divine Light radiates into the world.

A good example of the different explanations of a single Sūra is Sūra 91: ‘By the sun when it shines, and the moon that follows, and the day when it opens, and the night when it darkens…!’ A Shia tafsīr sees in the sun and its radiance the symbol of Muhammad, the moon that follows is ‘Alī, the day when it opens is ‘Alī's sons Ḥasan and Ḥusayn, and the darkening night is the Omayyads who deprived ‘Alī and his family of the caliphate. The Sufi ‘Aynul Quḍāt (d. 1131), however, saw in the sun the Muhammadan light that comes out of the beginningless East while the moon is the ‘black light’ of Satan mat comes out of the endless West.104

True ta‘wī, the esoteric interpretation, was and is, by necessity, connected with me spiritual master who alone has full insight into the mysteries of faith.105 For the Shia, it is the imams and their representatives on earth; in Ismaili Shia, it is the infallible Hazir Imam. But the entire Koran was in fact only seldom subjected to ta‘wīl; one rather selected verses in which one tried to follow the meaning of the revelation into its ultimate depths and to take care of the different aspects, wujūh, of the words. In most cases—and certainly in that of the Sufis—one tried to strike a balance between exoteric and esoteric sense, while in certain Shiite groups the exoteric sense was barely considered important, and layer after layer of ‘inner sense’ was discovered.

The early Muslims, and among them in particular the ascetics out of whom the Sufi movement grew, lived constantly in the Koranic text, which led to what Père Nwyia has called ‘the Koranization of the memory’,106 that is, they saw everything in the light of the Koran. This permanent awareness of the Koranic revelation was a reason for the fact that, to this day, even everyday language not only in Arabic but also in the other Islamic idioms is permeated by allusions to or short quotations from the Koran. It is next to impossible to grasp fully the whole range of allusions and meanings in a classical poem or piece of high prose without understanding the numerous allusions to Koranic figures, sentences or prescriptions. This is true even for fully secular themes or pieces: a single word can, as it were, conjure up a whole plethora of related terms and create a very special atmosphere, which the uninitiated reader, whether Western or secularized Muslim, often misses.

But while pious souls and mystically-minded scholars tried to delve into the depth of the revelation, attempts at a ‘rational’ interpretation were always being made. The Mu‘tazilite al-Jubbā‘ī is mentioned as one of the first to try a kind of demythologization.107 However, rationalizing attempts at explaining the Koran became more important towards the end of the nineteenth century, doubtless under the increasing influence of modern Western scholarship. That is in particular true for Muslim India. Sir Sayyid Aḥmad Khan, the reformer of Indian Islam (d. 1898), was sure that ‘the work of God cannot contradict the Word of God’ (he wrote ‘work of God’ and ‘Word of God’ in English in the Urdu text of his treatise), and although this was a statement voiced as early as the eleventh century by al-Bīrūnī (see above, p. 16), Sir Sayyid went far beyond the limits of what had hitherto been done in ‘interpreting’ the Koran.108 He tried to do away with all non-scientific concepts in the Book, such as djinns (which were turned into microbes) or angels, which are spiritual powers in man and not external winged beings. His traditional colleagues branded him therefore a nēcharī, ‘naturalist’.

Some decades later, the former rector of the al-Azhar University in Cairo, Muṣṭafā al-Marāghī, wrote:

True religion cannot conflict with truth, and when we are positively convinced of the truth of any scientific remark which seems to be incompatible with Islam, this is only because we do not understand correctly the Koran and the traditions. In our religion, we possess a universal teaching which declares that, when an apodictic truth contradicts a revealed text, we have to interpret the text allegorically.

The problem for modern Muslim exegetes is the constant change in the development of natural sciences, and while exegetes at the turn of the twentieth century and later tried hard to accommodate Darwinism to Koranic revelation, now some people try to find the H-bomb or the most recent discoveries of chemistry or biology in the Koran.109 This process of ‘demythologization’ is very visible, for example in a translation-cum-commentary of the Koran issued by the Aḥmadiyya (at a time when this movement was still considered to be part of the Islamic community). In the exegesis of the powerful eschatological description in Sūra 81, ‘And when the wild animals are gathered’, the commentator saw a mention of the zoos in which animals would live peacefully together in later ages.

But one should be aware that the Koran is not a textbook of physics or biology but that its basic élan is moral, as Fazlur Rahman rightly states,110 and it is the moral law that is immutable while the discoveries of science change at an ever-increasing speed.

Besides the dogmatic exegesis which by necessity follows the changes of times, one finds the historical-critical exegesis. That means, for the Muslim, studying the asbāb an-nuzūl, the reasons why and when a certain revelation was given. Thus, a remark at the beginning of the Sūra (makkī or madanī) indicates the place where the piece was revealed. The sequence of the revelations was thereby established to a large degree of correctness, and Western scholars have sometimes even arranged their translations of the Koran in this sequence (thus Bell's translation). A historical-critical exegesis of the type to which the Old and New Testaments have been subjected during the last 150 years means, for the Muslim, that the Koranic words concerning the falsification by Jews and Christians of their respective Scriptures (Sūra 2:75 et al.) is now proven by scientific method; however, in the case of the Koran, such criticism is considered impossible because the Koran is preserved as it was when its text was sent down upon the Prophet: the Divine word cannot be subjected to critical approach as it has never changed.

The discussions turn around the problem of whether the Koran rules the times as ‘an anchor of timelessness’, to take up G. E. von Grunebaum's formulation once more, or whether it should rather be interpreted according to the exigencies of time. Iqbāl speaks in his Jāvīdnāma of the ‘ālam al-qur‘ān, the ‘world of the Koran’ which reveals more and more possibilities every time one opens the Book; and, as reading and reciting the Koran is a dialogue with God, the true speaker of the Word, the possibilities of understanding are as infinite as is God Himself, and He and His word may appear to the reader in a new way, as though the meditating person's eyes and ears were opened for a new understanding every time. The Moroccan scholar ‘Aziz Lahbabi has expressed it thus: ‘Not the text in itself is the revelation but that which the believer discovers every time afresh while reading it’.

It is possible to change the exegetical methods or to change the emphasis in order to convey the message of the Koran to modern people, but a change of the God-given text is impossible. To recite the Koran, the Word Inlibrate, is, so to speak, a sacramental act because it is in the Word that God reveals Himself—or His will—to humanity.

This ‘sacramental’ quality of the Koran also accounts for the rule that basically no translation of the Koran is permissible or possible, not only because of the linguistic superiority, i‘jāz, (see above, p. 156) of the Koran, but also because the meaning may be coloured by the personal approach or predilection of the translator even if he gives only, as Muslims say carefully, ‘the meaning of the glorious Koran’. Not only does a comparison of English, French and German translations leave the Western reader confused and bewildered, but even when reading translations into Islamic languages such as Persian, Turkish, Urdu, Sindhi or Pashto, one becomes aware of these problems.111 It is the inadequacy of translations which has caused and still causes so many misunderstandings about the Koran and its message, especially when sentences are taken out of context and set absolute; for, according to the Muslims’ understanding, not only the words and āyāt but also the entire fabric of the Koran, the interweaving of words, sound and meaning, are part and parcel of the Koran. Furthermore, for the great esoteric interpreters of the Koran such as Ibn ‘Arabī, the apparent ‘unconnectedness’ of words and āyāt reveals in reality a higher order which only those understand who have eyes to see—that is, who read the Koran through taḥqīq, direct experience, not through taqlīd, dogmatic imitation.112

One ‘external’ remark remains: as a sacred text must never be sold (as little as the teacher who instructs children in the Koran should be ‘officially’ paid), one calls the price of a Koran in Turkey hediye, ‘gift’, and thus one finds the beautifully printed copies with the remark: ‘Its gift is [so-and-so many] lira’.

The Koran's role as the centre of Muslim life is uncontested, important as the veneration of the Prophet may have become in Muslim piety. Nevertheless, besides the canonical, unerring Scripture, one also finds a considerable number of secondary literary works in the Islamic world. A special group is the so-called ḥadīth qudsī, Divine words revealed outside the Koran.113 This genre became rather widespread among the Sufis, although the earliest sources are not specifically related to mystical circles. Yet, some of the most important sentences of mystical Islam appear first as ḥadīth qudsī, such as the famous Divine saying: kuntu kanzan makhfiyyan, ‘I was hidden treasure and wanted to be known, therefore I created the world’ (AM no. 70). The growth of such ‘private revelations’, as one may call them, seems to continue up to the twelfth century, for there were many mystics who experienced what they understood as direct Divine revelation. The works of Niffarī, with their long chains of Divine addresses, are a case in point, but the inspirational process is repeated time and again in Sufi poetry and prose. Nevertheless, after 1200, one looks in vain—as it seems to me—for new examples of ḥadīth qudsī.

More important for the general history of Islam, however, is the ḥadīth in itself. In order to explain the Koran and elaborate the statements given in its text, one needed a solid set of interpretations, of examples from the Prophet, the unerring leader of his community. How did he understand this or that āya of the Koran? How did he act in a certain case? His sayings and those of his companions about his actions and his behaviour were collected and retold from early days onwards so as to help the community to learn how he had acted under this or that circumstance.

What did he like to eat? How did he clean himself? What did he do if a servant was disobedient? These and thousands of other problems arose before the believers because, as the Prophet was the uswa ḥasana, the ‘beautiful model’ (Sūra 33:21), Muslims wanted to emulate his example and to follow him in every respect. The further the community was in space and time from the Prophet's time, the more weight was given to the ḥadīth, and it is small wonder that the number of ḥadīth grew steadily. The proper chain of isnād is central for the verification of a ḥadīth, as the isnād is important in all Islamic sciences. The isnād in ḥadīth had to look like this: ‘I heard A say: I heard B say: I heard from my father that C said: I heard from ‘A'isha that the Prophet used to recite this or that prayer before going to bed’. The veracity of the transmitters had to be investigated: could B indeed have met C, or was he too young to have been in contact with him, or did he perhaps never visit C's dwelling-place? The ‘ilm ar-rijāl, the ‘Science of the Men’ (although there are quite a few women among the transmitters), developed into an important branch of scholarship; but in the mid-ninth century the most trustworthy, often-sifted ḥadīth were collected, and among the six canonical collections that of Bukhārī and, following him, Muslim occupy the place of honour.114 To complete the recitation of the Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī (khatm al-Bukhārī) was considered nearly as important as the completion of the recitation of the Koran although, of course, not as blessed as the khatm al-qur'ān. In Mamluk Egypt, to give only one example, the khatm al-Bukhārī during the month of Ramaḍān was celebrated sumptuously in the citadel of Cairo.115

In the later Middle Ages, numerous selections from the classical collections of ḥadīth were prepared. To make them less cumbersome, the isnād were generally left out. Collections like Ṣaghānī's (d. 1252) Mashāriq al-anwār and Baghawī's (d. around 1222) Maṣābīḥ as-sunna were copied all over the Muslim world and were taught not only in theological colleges but also in the homes of the pious.116

Yet, the collections of ḥadīth were sometimes met with criticism: was it necessary to waste so much ink on writing down traditions instead of establishing a living connection with the Prophet? Thus asked some medieval Sufis, and while certain currents among the Sufis—especially the Suhrawardiyya—gave ḥadīth studies a very eminent place in their teaching, others, like the Chishtiyya in India, were less interested in this field. At the beginning of modern Islamology in Europe, the works by Ignaz Goldziher created an awareness of the development of ḥadīth: what he highlighted was that the collections, instead of reflecting Muhammad's own sayings, rather reflected the different trends in the expanding Muslim world, and this fact accounts for the difference among the traditions, some of which advocated, for example, predestination while others dwelt upon free will. Political movements—which always means ‘politico-religious’ in early Islam—used ḥadīth to defend or underline their own position. Thus, harmonization of conflicting ḥadīth was an important duty of the scholars.117

Many Muslims objected sharply to this dismantling of the sacred Prophetic traditions, and yet, before Goldziher and probably unknown to him, the Indian Muslim Chirāgh ‘Alī of Hyderabad had refused ḥadīth almost wholesale and criticized it even more acerbically than did Goldziher. Only some ḥadīth connected with strictly religious topics were binding for the community, but there was no need to follow all the external rules that had become hallowed in the course of thirteen centuries. Chirāgh ‘Alī was one of the followers of Sir Sayyid, the ‘nēcharī’ reformer, and tins may be one of the reasons why the traditionalist ahl al-ḥadīth reacted so sharply against Sir Sayyid's reformist attempts. The maintenance of ḥadīth in toto seemed to guarantee, for the ahl al-ḥadīth, the integrity and validity of me Islamic tradition. Later, it was Ghulām Parwēz in Pakistan who, with an almost Barthian formulation, declared that ‘the Koran is the end of religion’ and rejected all of ḥadīth, an act that led him, to be sure, to a very idiosyncratic interpretation of the Scripture. Parwēz's compatriot Fazlur Rahman tried another way: his concept of the living sunna taught me Muslim not to imitate mechanically the words of the tradition but rather to keep to the spirit of the sunna; the knowledge of how the first generations of Muslims understood and interpreted the way in which the Prophet acted should enable modern Muslims to interpret the sunna according to the exigencies of their own time.

Thus the problem of the validity of ḥadīth continues to be one of the central problems that beset modern Muslims, and it seems that especially in minority areas ḥadīth is still one of the strongholds of Muslim identity. Collections of Forty Ḥadīth—sometimes with poetical translation—were often arranged and frequently calligraphed ‘for the sake of blessing’, tabarrukan.118

The first generations of Muslims were afraid of writing down sayings of the Prophet lest their text be confused with that of the Koran. In later times, a ḥadīth—which is called, like everything connected with the Prophet, sharīf, ‘noble’—was introduced with the formula qāla ṣallā Allāh ‘alayhi wa sallama, ‘He—may God bless him and give him peace—said’. This eulogy for the Prophet, which should actually be uttered after each mentioning of his name and is often printed either in full or in abbreviation over his name, distinguishes the ḥadīth also visibly from the words of the Koran.

Less ‘orthodox’ and generally accepted than these collections in Arabic is another group of secondary scriptures, which belongs to the mystical tradition. Jāmī (d. 1492) called Mawlānā Rūmī's Mathnawī ‘the Koran in the Persian tongue’, a remark perhaps inspired by the remark of Rūmī's son, Sultān Walad, that ‘the poetry of God's friends is all explanation of the mysteries of the Koran’.119 Much of Rūmī's lyrical and didactic poetry indeed betrays its inspirational character. In a much more outspoken way, Ibn ‘Arabī saw his own Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya as an inspired book: ‘I have not written one single letter of this book other than under the effect of Divine dictation… It was not from my personal choice that I retained that order…’, In fact, Ibn ‘Arabī felt a genuine relationship between his Futūḥāt and the Koran, and the amazing cross-relations between the chapters of the Futūḥāt and Koranic Sūras have been lucidly explained by M. Chodkiewicz (1992).120 More than five centuries after Ibn ‘Arabī, the mystical poet of Delhi, Mīr Dard, made similar claims concerning his Persian prose works and his poetry, and stated repeatedly that he had nothing to do with the arrangement of the verses nor with the exact number of paragraphs in his risālas.121

In the Arab world, Būṣīrī's Burda in honour of the Prophet and the healing properties of his cloak was surrounded by a special sanctity and was repeated, written and enlarged innumerable times everywhere between North Africa and southern India (see above, p. 36). Perhaps even greater is the veneration of Jazūlī's Dalā'il al-Khayrāt, the collection of blessings over the Prophet, to which miraculous powers were ascribed.

In Sindhi, the Risālō of Shah ‘Abdul Laṭīf (d. 1752) is probably the most sacred book in the entire literary tradition, and its stories and verses have influenced Sindhi literature both in its Muslim and its Hindu branches for more than two centuries.

Among the ‘secondary sacred books’, one should not forget that in the Ismaili tradition the ginān, poems in different idioms of the western subcontinent (Sindhi, Gujarati, Kuchhi, Panjabi) and written in a special secret alphabet, Khojki, are regarded as the inspired work of the Ismaili pirs of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and have been recited for centuries in the Ismaili community of the subcontinent. A historical analysis of these poems, which reflect the deep mystical tradition of Indian Sufism, is still viewed with mistrust by the traditionalist Ismailis even in Canada and the USA.122

Texts of mawlids, poems recited during the Prophet's birthday and interspersed with Koranic quotations, have assumed a sacred quality in many countries, and whether a Turk listens to the recitation of Süleyman Çelebi's mevluÖd-i sharif or a singer in Kenya recites a mawlūd in Swahili, the feeling of being close to the heavenly abodes prevails everywhere.

Books that deal with the Prophet's qualities, such as Qāḍī ‘Iyāḍ's (d. 1149) Kitāb ash-shifā, were regarded as a talisman to protect a house from evil, and even texts of the catechisms could inspire such feeling. A certain person, so it is told, was seen being punished in his grave by Munkar and Nakīr because he had not read the ‘aqīda sanūsiyya,123 the central dogmatic formulary of the later Middle Ages. Even shajaras, spiritual lineages of Sufis, could serve as amulets owing to their inherent power.

Finally, one can also mention the rare phenomenon of ‘heavenly letters’ which, as their recipients claimed, had been sent from the Unseen to admonish the Muslim community to persevere and fight in the way of God, as happened during the Mahdist movement in East Africa and the Sudan.

The importance of the written word was, however, often de-emphasized—what is the use of studying Kanz Qudūrī Kāfiya, the traditional works on ḥadīth, religious law and Arabic grammar as taught in the madrasas? Should one not rather wash off all books or cast them in a river, as some Sufis indeed did? What matters is the vision of the Divine Beloved, and not only the Indo-Pakistani critics of these scholarly works but also the Turkish minstrel Yunus Emre knew that dört kilabin manasĭ bir aliftedir, ‘The meaning of the four sacred books lies in one alif’, that is, the first letter of the alphabet, which points with its numerical value of 1 to the One and Unique God. And the legends telling that many of the great Sufi poets were illiterate, as was the Prophet, are taken as a proof that they derived their knowledge not from books but from the fountainhead of all knowledge, from God. Thus, Qāḍī Qādan could sing:

Lōkānñ ṣarf u naḥw, munñ muṭāli‘a suprinñ

Leave grammar and syntax to the people—

I contemplate the Beloved!124

  • 1.

    For the different interpretations of the Day of the Covenant, see R. Gramlich (1983a), ‘Der Urvertrag in der Koranauslegung’; he shows that the formulation to which most Muslims (and certainly the poets and mystics) are used occurs in its classical form first in Junayd's Kitāb al-mīthāq.

  • 2.

    Lamia al-Faruqi (1979), ‘Tartīl’.

  • 3.

    Baqlī (1966), Sharḥ-i shatḥiyāt, pp. 377–8.

  • 4.

    J. C. Bürgel (1992), ‘Ecstasy and order: two structural principles in the ghazal-poetry of Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī.

  • 5.

    Nāṣir-i Khusraw (1929), Dīvān, p. 672.

  • 6.

    G. van der Leeuw (1956), Phänomemlogie der Religion, § 58, deals with secret languages; one could add that in some communities women have developed a special language. That is particularly important for women living in seclusion; a typical example is rēkhtī, the women's dialect of Urdu.

  • 7.

    S. D. Goitein (1966), Studies, p. 7.

  • 8.

    The same argumentation is still used by Shāh Walīullāh; see J. M. S. Baljon (1986), Religion and Thought of Shāh Walī Allāh, p. 109.

  • 9.

    See A. Schimmel (1982a), As through a Veil, ch. 4. The classic study for Urdu is Maulvi ‘Abdul Ḥaqq (1953), Urdu kī nashw u namā meñ ṣūfiyā-i kirām kā kām; see also the examples in R. Eaton (1978), Sufis of Bijapur, 1300–1700.

  • 10.

    C. H. Becker (1932), Islamstuadien, vol. 2, p. 199.

  • 11.

    Yeni Yunus Emre ve dogüuşlariü (1951), and Dogüuşlar 2 (1965). Turgut Akkaş's Özkaynak was a short-lived journal in the 1950s in which the author—incidentally a banker—published his inspired mystical verses. Slightly earlier, a high-ranking Turkish official had published his inspirational poems, which were commented upon by Ömer Fevzi Mardin (1951), Varidat-i Süleyman şerhi. The genre of varidāt was common in Indo-Muslim literature, thus in Mīr Dard's poetry; see A. Schimmel (1976a), Pain and Grace, part 1.

  • 12.

    Nāṣir-i Khusraw (1929), Dīvān, p. 245.

  • 13.

    G. van der Leeuw (1956), Phänomenologie der Religion, § 85, referring in this context to Paul Tillich's remark that ‘Only what essentially is concealed, and accessible by no mode of knowledge whatsoever, is imparted by revelation’.

  • 14.

    K. Cragg (1984), ‘Tadabbur al-Qur‘an: reading and meaning’, p. 189f.

  • 15.

    I. Goldziher (1928), ‘Verheimlichung des Namens’.

  • 16.

    R. Gramlich (1976), Die schiitischen Derwischorden, vol. 2, p. 30f.

  • 17.

    The literature about the Divine Names is very large: see Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazzālī (1971), Al-maqṣad al-asmā fi sharḥ ma‘ānī asmā Allāh al-ḥusnā (transl. in R. McCarthy (1980), Freedom and Fulfillment, appendix III); Ibn ‘Aṭā' Allāh (1961), Miftāh al-falāḥ wa miṣbāḥ al-arwāḥ; idem (1981), Traité sur le nom ‘Allāh' (Introduction… par M. Gloton); al-Qushayrī (1969), Sharḥ asmā' Allāh al-ḥusnā; G. C. Anawati (1965), ‘Un traité des Noms divins: Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī's Lawāmi‘ al-batyināt fi'l asmā' wa'l-sifāt. See also Daniel Gimaret (1988), Les Noms Divins en Islam, Exégèse lexicographique et théologique. The Most Beautiful Names could be elaborated in poetry, as C. H. Becker (1932) has shown for the Arab world (Islamstudien, vol. 2, p. 106f.). A superbly and beautifully produced book, The Attributes of Divine Perfection, by the Egyptian calligrapher Ahmad Moustafa (1989), is in particular worthy of mention. Many of the modern leaders of Sufi fraternities have published their own books or booklets on the Divine Names and their use and power.

  • 18.

    For the role of the Divine Names in creation, see H. S. Nyberg (1919), Kleinere Schriften des Ibn al-‘Arabī, p. 92ff; W. C. Chittick (1989), The Sufi Path of Knowledge, H. Corbin (1958), L'imagination créatrice dans le Soufisme d'Ibn Arabi. See also the important ch. 22 in F. Meier (1990a), Bahā-i Walad.

  • 19.

    A. Schimmel (1989), Islamic Names. Jafar Sharif (1921), Islam in India, p. 255, deals with the numerical values and the astrological connections of proper names.

  • 20.

    Yunus Emre Divanĭ (1943), p. 562, no. CCXXXIII.

  • 21.

    Iqbal (1924), ‘Jawāb-i shikavah’, in Bāng-i Dorā, p. 231.

  • 22.

    A. Fischer (1944), ‘Vergöttlichung und Tabuisierung der Namen Muhammads’. See also R. Y. Edier and M. J. L. Young (1976), ‘A list of appellations of the Prophet Muhammad’.

  • 23.

    G. E. von Grunebaum and Roger Caillois (eds) (1966), The Dream and Human Society, contains a number of highly interesting contributions by Islamicists such as F. Meier, H. Corbin and Fazlur Rahman. See also H. Gätje (1959), ‘Philosophische Traumlehren im Islam’. Devin DeWeese (1992), ‘Sayyid ‘Alī Hamadhānī and Kubrawī hagiographical tradition’, gives a number of accounts about the dreams of the Sufi master Hamadhānī (d. 1385), especially on pp. 143—7. Ibn Sīrīn's book on the interpretation of dreams was translated into German by Helmut Klopfer (1989), Das arabische Traumbuch des Ibn Sirīn.

  • 24.

    I. Goldziher (1921), “The appearance of the Prophet in dreams’. Aṣ-Ṣafadī (1979), Al-Wāft bi‘l-wafayāt, part 12, mentions under no. 47 that a Christian saw the Prophet in his dream, ‘and he became a Muslim and learned the Koran by heart’ to become a leading Islamic scholar.

  • 25.

    Thus Shādhili's dream as told by Jāmī (1957), Nafaḥāt al-uns, p. 373.

  • 26.

    C. Snouck Hurgronje (1923), ‘De laatste vermaning van Mohammad aan zijne gemeende’, about an appearance in Rabī; al-awwal 1297/1880.

  • 27.

    A few examples from different geographical areas are: John Renard (1993), Islam and the Heroic Image. Themes in literature and the Visual Arts, L. Brakel (1977), The story of Muhammad Hanafiyya. A medieval Muslim Romance, transl. from the Malay; D. Shulman (1982), ‘Muslim popular literature in Tamil: The tamimcari malai’ and E. S. Krauss (1913), ‘Vom Derwisch-Recken Gazi-Seidi. Ein Guslarenlied bosnischer Muslime aufgezeichnet, verdeutscht und erläutert’.

  • 28.

    Margaret A. Mills (1991), Rhetoric and Politics in Afghan Traditional Story-telling.

  • 29.

    The oldest legends are connected with the Prophet and his companions; see R. Paret (1930), Die legendäre Maghazi-Literatur, Jan Knappert (1985), Islamic legends. Histories of the heroes, saints, and prophets of Islam. The genre of Heiligenlieder, songs in honour of Muslim saints, is widespread. For some Arabic examples, see Enno Littmann (1951), Islamisch-arabische Heiligenlieder, and idem (1950), Ahmed il-Badawi: Ein Lied auf den ägyptischen Nationalheiligen.

  • 30.

    Words of wisdom are often attributed to Luqmān (based on Sūra 31); in the Persianate tradition, the wise vizier Buzurjmihr appears as a model of wisdom in many stories and poems.

  • 31.

    S. H. Nasr (1992), ‘Oral transmission and the Book in Islamic education: the spoken and the written word’.

  • 32.

    For the importance of the malfūẓāt, ‘utterances’ of Indian Sufi masters for the knowledge of medieval Muslim life, see K. A. Niẓāmī (1961), ‘Malfūẓāt kā tārīkhī ahammtyat’.

  • 33.

    Typical examples are the cryptic letters by the Sufi master Junayd, as well as the few fragments preserved from al-Ḥallāj's letters. Aḥmad Sirhindi (d. 1624) tried to revive normative Islam in India through hundreds of letters which he sent to the grandees of the Mughal empire as well as to members of his own family. See Ahmad Sirhindi (1968), Selected letters, ed.… by Dr Fazlur Rahman. Several collections of letters have been made available in translation, such as Sharafuddin Maneri (1980), The Hundred Letters, transl. Paul Jackson SJ; Ibn ‘Abbād ar-Rondī (1986), Letters on the Sufi Path, transl. by J. Renard; and ad-Darqāwī (1961), Letters of a Sufi Master, transl. by Titus Burckhardt. An interesting collection of modern letters is Mohammad Fadhel Jamali (1965), Letters on Islam, written by a father in prison to his son.

  • 34.

    Rūzbihān Baqlī (1966), Sharḥ-i shaṭḥiyāt, is the classic work in this field. See also Carl W. Ernst (1985), Words of Ecstasy in Sufism.

  • 35.

    A. Schimmel (1982a), As through a Veil, ch. 4. See also idem (1971), ‘Mir Dard's Gedanken über das Verhältnis von Mystik und Wort’.

  • 36.

    J. Pedersen (1947), ‘The Islamic preacher: wā‘iẓ, mudhakkir, qāṣṣ’; Angelika Hartmann (1987), ‘Islamisches Predigtwesen im Mittelalter Ibn al-Gèauzī und sein “Buch der Schlußreden” 1186 AD’; Patrick D. Gaffney (1988), ‘Magic, miracle and the politics of narration in the contemporary Islamic sermon’.

  • 37.

    Ibn al-Jawzī (1971), Kitāb al-quṣṣāṣ wa‘l-mudhakkirīn, ed. and transl. by Merlin L. Swartz; the preacher about whom he remarks is the famous mystic Aḥmad Ghazzālī (d. 1126).

  • 38.

    A. Mez (1922), Die Renaissance des Islam, p. 319.

  • 39.

    Iqbāl makes an interesting remark (1961) in the Stray Reflections, no. 37: ‘To explain the deepest truths of life in the form of homely parables requires extraordinary genius. Shakespeare, Maulana Rum (Jalaluddin) and Jesus are probably the only illustrations of this rare type of genius.’

  • 40.

    C. E. Padwick (1960), Muslim Devotions, p. 131; A. Schimmel (1983), ‘The Sufis and the shahāda’.

  • 41.

    A. J. Wensinck (1932), The Muslim Creed, deals with the development of the credal formulas.

  • 42.

    Muhammad Yusuf Kokan (1974), Arabic and Persian in Camatic (1700–1950), pp. 25, 360ff. The founder of the madrasa was the Nawwab of Arcot, Ghulam Ghaus Khan Bahadur. The Muslim theologians, however, claimed that one ‘could not support a cause advocating earning a livelihood rather than supporting religion’.

  • 43.

    The basic work on prayer is still Friedrich Heiler (1923), Das Gebet. For the spiritual aspects of Muslim prayer, see Constance E. Padwick (1960), Muslim Devotions. See also E. E. Calverley (1925), Worship in Islam. The short (unattributed) article ‘The significance of Moslem prayer’ in MW 14 gives a good insight into the feelings of Muslims. See also S. D. Goitein, ‘Prayer in Islam’, in Studies, pp. 79_89; A. Schimmel (1958), ‘The idea of prayer in the thought of Iqbāl’ and idem (1967), ‘Maulānā Rūmī's story on prayer’.

  • 44.

    F. Meier (1986), ‘Die Segenssprechung über Mohammed im Bittgebet und in der Bitte’; J, Robson (1936), ‘Blessings on the Prophet’; Mohammed Ilyas Burney (1983), Mishkaal us-salawaal: A Bouquet of Blessings on Muhammad the Prophet.

  • 45.

    T. Canaan (1935), ‘The curse in Palestinian folklore’.

  • 46.

    J. Pedersen (1914), Der Eid bei den Semiten in seinem Verhältnis zu verwandten Erscheinungen, sowie die Stellung des Eides im Islam. One of the most famous oath formulas of the Prophet was: ‘By Him in Whose hand Muhammad's soul is!’

  • 47.

    A Sufi might even tell his disciples: ‘Swear an oath by me’, as did Sayyid ‘Ali Hamadhānī. See Devin DeWeese (1992), p. 248.

  • 48.

    A. Schimmel (1959), ‘Das Gelübde im türkischen Volksglauben’ (based on Hikmet Tanyu's dissertation, Ankara ve üevresindeki adak yerleri).

  • 49.

    Kriss and Kriss-Heinrich (1962), Volksglaube in Islam, vol. 2, ch. 3.

  • 50.

    G. van der Leeuw (1957), Vom Heiligen in der Kunst, p. 23.

  • 51.

    Compare the story told in Hujwīrī (1911), Kashf al-mahjūb, pp. 233–4.

  • 52.

    ‘The prayer in the community is twenty-seven degrees more valuable than the prayer of a solitary person’, says a ḥadīth. Twenty-seven, the third power of the sacred Three, has a special importance.

  • 53.

    Iqbāl (1930), The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, ch. 5, especially p. 93.

  • 54.

    Suhrawardī (1978), ‘Awārif (transl. R. Gramlich), p. 266.

  • 55.

    C. E. Padwick (1960), Muslim Devotions, p. 89.

  • 56.

    For special uses of the Fātiḥa, see W. A. Cuperus (1973), Al-Fātiḥa dans la pratique rehgieuse du Maroc.

  • 57.

    F. Meier (1990a), Bahā-i Walad, p. 250.

  • 58.

    H. Ritter (1952), ‘Muslim mystics’ strife with God’.

  • 59.

    Some collections of Muslim prayers are available in translation, among them Abdul Hamid Farid (1959), Prayers of Muhammad; Zayn al-‘Abidin ‘Ali ibn al-Ḥusayn (1988), Al-ṣaḥīfat al-kāmilat as-sağğādiyya. The Psalms of Islam, transl.… by William C. Chittick; Kenneth Cragg (1972), Alive to God, idem (1955), ‘Pilgrimage prayers’ idem (1957), ‘Ramadan prayers’; A. Schimmel (1978b), Denn Dein ist das Reich, enlarged edition as Dein Wille geschehe (1992); Al-Ghazali (1992), Invocations and Supplications: Kitāb al-adhkār wa'l-da‘wāt…, transl.… by Kojiro Nakamura; Al-Gazzali (1990), Temps et prières. Priètes et invocations. Extraits de l'Ihyā' ‘ulūm al-Din, trad.… par P. Cuperly; ‘Abdullāh Anṣārī (1978), Munājāt: Intimate Conversations, transl. by Wheeler M. Thackston Jr.

  • 60.

    A, Schimmel (1976b), ‘Dard and the problem of prayer’.

  • 61.

    Kriss and Kriss-Heinrich (1962), Volksglaube im Islam, vol. 2, p. 92.

  • 62.

    Christian W. Troll (1978), Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, a re-interpretation of Islamic theology. According to Sir Sayyid, God is pleased with personal prayer as with other forms of service, but He does not necessarily grant the servant's petition. Sir Sayyid is here close to the Mu‘tazilite viewpoint that God tells His servants to invoke Him because He demands the attitude of adoration from them.

  • 63.

    Iqbāl (1937), ̇arb-i Kalīm, p. 267.

  • 64.

    For the history of prayer beads, see W. Kirfel (1949), Der Rosenkranz, Helga Venzlaff (1975), Der islamische Rosenkranz. M. S. Belguedj (1969), ‘Le chapelet Islamique et ses aspects nord-africains’, mentions, as do Kriss and Kriss-Heinrich (1960, 1962), that the tasbīḥ is, in a certain way, sanctified by the constant recitation of Divine Names or religious formulas and is thus considered to possess healing power and special baraka.

  • 65.

    For the dhikr, see L. Gardet (1972–3), ‘La mention du Nom divin, dhikr, dans la mystique musulmane’. Most works on Sufism contain descriptions of various kinds of dhikr, see A, Schimmel (1975a), Mystical Dimensions of Islam, pp. 167–78 for references.

  • 66.

    The description of the heart's journey through the letters of Allāh is given in ‘Andalīb (1891), Nāla-i ‘Andalīb, vol. 1, p. 270.

  • 67.

    F. Meier (1963), ‘Qus̆airīs Tarāb as-sulūk’, is an impressive description of how the dhikr permeates the whole being. A contemporary description of the experience of dhikr in the forty days’ seclusion is by Michaela Özelsel (1993), Vterzig Tage. Erfahrungen aus einer Sufi-Klausur.

  • 68.

    Suhrawardī (1978), ‘Awānif (transl. R. Gramlich), p. 125; Shah ‘Abdul Laṭīf (1958), Risālō, ‘Sur Ramakali’ V, verse 1, 2.

  • 69.

    F. D. A. Tholuck (1821), Ssufismus sive theosophia persarum pantheistica, p. 12.

  • 70.

    For the problem, see G. Mensching (1926), Das heilige Schweigen.

  • 71.
    An excellent definition of the difference between the ‘prophetic’ and the ‘mystic’ approaches to God is in Iqbāl (1930), The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, beginning of ch. 5. In the Payām-i mashriq (1923), p. 186, Iqbāl sings in a ghazal written in imitation of Rūmī's poem D no. 441:

    They said: ‘Close your lips and do not tell our mysteries!’

    I said: ‘No! To shout Allāhu Akbar—that is my wish!’

  • 72.

    For the importance of script and writing, see A. Bertholet (1949), Die Macht der Schrift in Glauben and Aberglauben; F. Dornseiff (1922), Das Alphabet in Mystik und Magic, Jean Canteins (1981), La vote des Lettres. For the Koran, see Thomas O'Shaughnessy (1948), ‘The Koranic concept of the Word of God’; Ary A. Roest Crollius (1974), The Word in the Experience of Revelation in the Qur'an and Hindu Scriptures.

  • 73.

    G. Vajda (1961), ‘Les lettres et les sons de la langue arabe d'après Abū Ḥātim Rāzī’.

  • 74.

    Ghālib (1969b), Urdu Dīvān, no. 1, See also A. Schimmel (1978a), A Dance of Sparks, ch. 4, and, in general, Schimmel (1984a), Calligraphy and Islamic Culture.

  • 75.

    Kisā'ī (1977), The Tales of the Prophets, p. 60ff.

  • 76.

    A. Jeffery (1924), ‘The mystic letters of the Koran’. According to E. W. Lane (1978 ed.), Manners and Customs, p. 256f., the Koranic verses most frequently used for healing and helping purposes are Sūra 8:14; 10:80; 16:70; 17:82; 26:79–81; and 41:45. For Shia uses of the Koran (many of which are the same as among Sunnites), see B. A. Donaldson (1937), ‘The Koran as magic’.

  • 77.

    R. McCarthy (1980), Freedom and Fulfillment, p. no.

  • 78.

    R. Sellheim (1968), ‘Die Madonna mit der s̆ahāda’.

  • 79.

    J. Horovitz (1907), ‘A list of published Mohammedan inscriptions of India’, vol. 2, p. 35.

  • 80.

    For a discussion, see G. Schoeler (1992), ‘Schreiben und Veröffentlichen. Zur Verwendung und Funktion der Schrift in den ersten islamischen Jahrhunderten’.

  • 81.

    M. Lings (1976), Quranic Calligraphy and Illumination. See also A. Schimmel (1984a), Calligraphy and Islamic Culture, passim.

  • 82.

    ‘Aṭṭār (1905), Tadhkirat al-awliyā, vol. 1, p. 105.

  • 83.
    This notice is apparently based on the recent Shariat Act in Pakistan, where § 295B reads:

    Whoever wilfully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Qur'an or of an extract therefrom or uses it in any derogatory manner or for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment for life.

  • 84.

    G. E. von Grunebaum (1969), Studien, p. 32, For the ‘world of the Koran’, see Iqbāl (1932), Jāvīdnāma, line 570ff.

  • 85.

    Samuel M. Zwemer (1921), ‘The illiterate Prophet’; I. Goldfeld (1980), ‘The illiterate Prophet (nabī ummī). An inquiry into the development of a dogma in Islamic tradition’, emphasizes the rather slow development of the interpretation of ummī in the ‘mystical’ sense. As in the case of the ‘mystical’ interpretation of Sūra 7:172 concerning the ‘Primordial Covenant’, the crystallization of such deeper ‘mystical’ interpretations seems to be achieved around the beginning of the tenth century AD/fourth century AH—similar to the dogmatization of Christological formulas at the start of the fourth century AD in Christianity.

  • 86.

    William A. Graham (1987), Beyond the Written Word. Oral Aspects of Scripture in the History of Religion, shows very clearly the twofold character of revelation and the important role of oral transmission in the case of the Koran.

  • 87.

    Suhrawardī (1978), ‘Awārif (transl. R. Gramlich), p. 41.

  • 88.

    C. Snouck Hurgronje (1923), Verspreide Geschrifien, vol. 2, p. 438 (year of reference:1899); ‘A fatwa on broadcasting the Koran:5.10.1933’, in MW 24 (1934), p. 180. For the role of proper recitation, see Lamia al-Faruqi (1979), ‘Tartīl’ also Labib as-Said (1975), The Recited Koran. Transl. and adapted by Bernhard Weiss, M. A. Rauf, and Morroe Berger.

  • 89.

    Fazlur Rahman (1966), ch. 2.

  • 90.

    Sanā'ī (1962), Dīvān, p. 309.

  • 91.

    Sūra Luqmān is good for pregnant women; Sūrat al-Fatḥ (48) and Sūra Muzzammil (73) avert illness and calamities.

  • 92.

    W. C. Smith (1960), ‘Some similarities and differences between Christianity and Islam’, p. 57.

  • 93.

    Bernhard Weiss (1984), ‘Language and law. The linguistic premises of Islamic legal thought’.

  • 94.

    The Muslim Digest, Durban, South Africa, May-June 1991, p, 29, repr. from The Majlis, Port Elizabeth, South Africa, no. 8.

  • 95.

    A. Mez (1922), Die Renaissance des Islam, p. 328.

  • 96.

    For this imagery, see A. Schimmel (1992b), A Two-colored Brocade, pp. 309, 373–4, note 11.

  • 97.

    For the problem, see Schimmel (1975a), Mystical Dimensions of Islam, Appendix 1. The term is taken from P. Nwyia's penetrating analysis (1970) of Niffarī's experiences which he wrote down in his Mawāqif wa Mukhāṭabāt (1935), in Exégèse coranique, ‘Des images aux symboles d'expérience’, part II, ‘Niffarī’, especially p. 370. Nwyia shows the repercussions of the problem of the doctrine that the Koran is God's uncreated word in the debate between the Mu‘tazila and the traditionalists.

  • 98.

    C. Geertz (1971), Islam Observed, p. 73.

  • 99.

    For the history of the Koran and Koranic exegesis, see the Bibliography under Ayoub, Baljon, Gütje, Goldziher, Nagel, Nöldeke, Rippin and Watt. The best survey is Angelika Neuwirth (1987), ‘Koran’, in Gätje (ed.), Grundriss der arabischen Philologie. See also T. Nagel (1983), ‘Vom Qur'an zur Schrift. Bells Hypothese aus religionsgeschichtlicher Sicht’. For an approach from the vantage point of literary criticism, see A. Neuwirth (1981), Studien zur Komposition der mekkanischen Suren; and idem (1991), ‘Der Horizont der Offenbarung. Zur Relevanz der einleitenden Schwurserien für die Suren der frühmekkanischen Zeit’.

  • 100.

    Nāṣir-i Khusraw (1929), Dīvān, p. 446.

  • 101.

    Fihi mā fihi, ch. 35.

  • 102.

    Ibid., ch. 43.

  • 103.

    Nāṣir-i Khusraw (1929), Dīvān, in (1993) tr. A. Schimmel, Make a Shield from Wisdom, pp. 44, 46.

  • 104.

    Sachiko Murata (1992b), The Too of Islam, p. 262.

  • 105.

    For the problem of mystical interpretation, see P. Nwyia (1970), Exégèse coranique, G. Böwering (1979), The Mystical Vision of Existence in Classical Islam; A. Habil (1987), ‘Traditional esoteric commentaries’. For a special topic, see P. Bachmann (1988), ‘Ein tafsīr in Versen. Zu einer Gruppe von Gedichten im Dīwān Ibn al-‘Arabīs’.

  • 106.

    P. Nwyia (1972), Ibn ‘Aṭa' Allāh et la naissance de la confrérie süādilite, p. 46,

  • 107.

    C. Huart (1904), ‘Le rationalisme musulman au IVe siècle’. A. Mez (1922), Die Renaissance des Islam, p. 188ff. gives a survey of the different currents among the interpreters of the Koran and the scholars during the ninth and tenth centuries, mainly in Baghdad.

  • 108.

    Aziz Ahmad and G. E. von Grunebaum (eds) (1970), Muslim Self-Statement, p. 34;

  • 109.

    Ibid., p. 171, where the position of Ghulām Aḥmad Parvēz and his Koranic Lexique Technique are discussed.

  • 110.

    Fazlur Rahman (1966), Islam, p. 32.

  • 111.

    For some examples of interpretation in a rather little-known language, see A. Schimmel (1963b), ‘Translations and commentaries of the Qur'ān in the Sindhi language’.

  • 112.

    M. Chodkiewicz (1992), ‘The Futūḥāt Makkiyya and its commentators: some unresolved enigmas’, p. 225.

  • 113.

    William A. Graham (1977), Divine Word and Prophetic Word in Early Islam.

  • 114.

    Abū ‘Abdullāh Muḥammad al-Bukhārī (1863–1902), Kitāb jāmi‘aṣ-ṣaḥīḥ, 4 vols, ed L. Krehl and W. Juynboll, transl. M. M. Khan (1978–80), Sahih al-Bukhari, 6 vols. Another useful work is Tabrīzī (1964–6), Mishkāt al-maṣābīḥ, 4 vols, transl. James Robson.

  • 115.

    I. Goldziher (1915a), ‘Chatm al-Buchārī’. Ibn Iyās (1933), Badā'i‘az-zuhūr, mentions this custom in vol. 4 at almost every Ramaḍān; robes of honour were distributed to the readers who had completed this task.

  • 116.

    A. J. Wensinck (1936–71), Concordances et indices de la tradition musulmane, enables the scholar to orient himself in the vast ‘ocean’ of ḥadīth.

  • 117.

    I. Goldziher (1888–90), Muhammedanische Studien, was the ground-breaking Western study in ḥadīth criticism. For Chirāgh Ali, see Aziz Ahmad and G. E. von Grunebaum (1970), Muslim Self-Statement, pp. 49–59. A survey of modern approaches can be found in G. A. H. Juynboll (1969), The Authenticity of Tradition Literature. Discussions in Modern Egypt.

  • 118.

    Such collections can consist of forty ḥadīth about the usefulness of writing, about piety or about the pilgrimage, or forty ḥadīth transmitted by forty men by the name of Muḥammad, or by forty people from the same town, etc. Learning such a collection by heart was considered to entail many blessings. See A. Karahan (1954), Türk Islam edebiyatiünda Kiürk Hadis.

  • 119.

    Sultān Walad (1936), Valadnāma, p. 53ff. Rūmī's biographer, Sipahsālār, also quotes this statement.

  • 120.

    M. Chodkiewicz (1992), ‘The Futūḥāt Makkiyya and its commentators: some unresolved enigmas’.

  • 121.

    For Mīr Dard's claims in this field, see A. Schimmel (1976a), Pain and Grace, p. 117ff.

  • 122.

    Ali S. Asani (1991), The Bhuj Niranjan. An Ismaili Mystical Poem; idem (1992), Ismaili Manuscripts in the Collection of Harvard College Library.

  • 123.

    M. Horten (1917a), Die religiöse Gedankenwelt der gebildeten Muslime im heutigen Islam, p. xxiii.

  • 124.

    Qādī Qādan jō kalām (1978), no. 1.