Barnaby Rogerson's Nineteen Islamic Numbers
Critical Muslim, April 2015
There is One God, One Prophet and, allegedly, one international Muslim community – the ummah. There are five daily prayers and five pillars of Islam (profession of faith, zakat, prayer, fasting during Ramadan, and pilgrimage to Mecca, the hajj, at least once in a lifetime). There are six, for Sunnis, Articles of Faith (belief in One God; the angels of God; the books of God; the prophets of God; the Day of Judgment ; and the supremacy of God’s will), seven circuits around the Kaaba (when you actually get to Mecca) and seven verses in the Fatiha, ‘the Opening’ chapter of the Qur’an, which has 114 Surahs or chapters. The Prophet had twelve wives; and the Shia have twelve Imams.
Clearly Islam has an affinity for numbers. It is hardly surprising that Muslims of the classical period spent a great deal of time and energy in playing and thinking with numbers, measuring and calibrating things, and classifying and organising lists of branches of knowledge. ‘When I considered what people generally want’ in life, wrote al-Khwarazmi, the ninth-century astronomer and mathematician, ‘I found that it is always a number’. So he invented and wrote Algebra, a ‘work on calculating’ such things ‘as men constantly require in cases of inheritance, legacies, partition, law-suits, and trade, and in all their dealings with one another, or where the measuring of land, digging of canals, geometric computation, or other objects of various sorts and kinds are concerned’. Al-Khwarazmi’s work led Muslims to study perfect numbers and prime numbers, the summation of a finite series of integer numbers and develop the theory of numbers.
The Brethren of Purity, a secret society of philosophers that flourished in the tenth century, considered the science of numbers to be ‘the root of sciences, the foundation of wisdom, the source of knowledge, and the pillar of meaning’. They saw numbers as both symbols and reality. The number, they wrote, ‘is a sample from the superior world’, it expresses meaning; the form of the numbers in the soul corresponds to the form of being in matter. There is the number and then there are the numbered: ‘the difference between the two is that the number is the quantity of the forms of things in the soul of him who numbers, while the numbered are the things themselves’.
Here are a few more numbers associated with Islam that I find fascinating. Their symbolism and meaning is for you to decide. I just think that our supposedly separate cultures are magnificently interlinked and interrelated by a shared belief in the magical significance of numbers.
1. 124,000 Prophets
The traditional number of prophets sent by God to teach the world before the coming of the Prophet Muhammad is 124,000, as recorded in a hadith, though nowadays this hadith is considered to be of doubtful veracity. But, for those who like a definite figure, it is a useful figure to put beside the declaration of the Qur’an, ‘to every community we have sent a Prophet’ (35:24). Other Islamic sources make mention of 77,000 great saints or sheikhs sent since the death of the Prophet to remind mankind of the Truth.
2. 1001 Nights
The Kitab Alf Laylah wa-Laylah – ‘The Book of the Thousand and One Nights’ – has inspired countless films, musicals and novels. The original tales are breathtakingly inventive, vulgar and discursive, full of cliff-hanger action, scented with sex, royalty and magic. Western scholars have been arguing over their origins, composition and textual tradition for some 300 years, a debate animated by the schism between the eighteenth-century French translation of a Syrian manuscript and a later English translation of the Egyptian one.
It seems clear that an ancient Persian, Indian and Mesopotamian collection of stories is at the core of ‘The Nights’, which came together as a coherent whole in Arabic in ninth-century Baghdad, was then embroidered by Iraqi storytellers, and further embellished by tales added from the streets, cafes and imagination of the medieval cities of Egypt, North Africa and Syria. Long known as ‘The Thousand Nights’, the collection did not become ‘A Thousand and One’ until the twelfth century. Curiously, too, many of the most celebrated adventures, such as ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’ and ‘Aladdin and his Lamp’ were added at the very last textual moment by the first French translator (Antoine Galland), sourced from a Maronite story-teller of Aleppo.
3. 99 Most Beautiful Names of God
Ar-Rahman (The Beneficent), Ar-Rahim (The Merciful), Al-Jabbar (The Compeller), Al-Latif (The Subtle), Al-Haq (The Truth), Al-Jame (The Gatherer), Al-Wakil (The Trustee), Al-Ghani (The Self-Sufficient), As-Sabur (The Patient), and 90 more.
The Qur’an makes a reference to this list: ‘The Most Excellent Names belong to God: use them to call on Him’ (7:180). But it does not give a number. The 99 comes from a hadith: ‘To God belong ninety-nine names’.
The ninety-nine names are a rosary of Muslim identity. Most Muslim names are formed from them, with the addition of the vital prefix of ‘Abd’ – that is to say, servant or slave of one of the names of God. For example, Abdul Rahim. The ‘ninety-nine most beautiful names’ are found inscribed in plaques around mosques, painted on plates hung on bedroom walls, listed in ornamental scripts and carved on marble, wood and plaster. Picked out in blue and gold, they are painted on calendars given out by Muslim businessmen and in the old days they were written on slips of papers that could be dissolved in water and fed as medicine or tied in a silver locket as a perpetual charm. They can also be prescribed as spiritual and psychological cures. For instance, Al-Ghani ‘The Self Sufficient’ can be recited so that you will become contented and not covetous; Al-Jamie ‘The Gatherer’ is often used in a Saint Jude-like manner for finding things that have been lost; and Al-Wakil ‘The Trustee’ used to be chanted by sailors when in danger on sea.
It is laughingly said that the camel with his inscrutable smile alone knows the 100th name, the hidden name, the Greatest Name, the name of power. It is said to occur somewhere in the Qur’an, though savants have searched through the Holy Text for centuries in vain. The surahs al-Baqara, al-Imran and Taha are considered the most likely sources.
4. 70 Holy Idiots of Sufism
We are not permitted to know the names of the Holy Idiots, for, according to Sufi tradition, ‘My saints are all under the vaults of Heaven, nobody knows them but I’. But the story is that it is the Holy Idiots (only seventy of whom are alive at any one time) who spread divine love amongst humanity. Some are noble, some imbeciles, some holy, some coarse and some pious. The Sufi also like to remember that even the Prophet felt the need to pray for forgiveness seventy times a day; that the Prophet recited the Qur’an seventy times during Isra and Miraj, the mystical journey through the heavens; and that 70,000 veils of perception stand between God and the believer.
The historian John Freely, resident in Istanbul in the 1950s, believed that he knew the identity of one of these seventy fools, who had his station on the bridge over the Golden Horn, where he would greet all and sundry. He was known as the lunatic with horns, for he was decorated with the horns of billy-goats, gazelles and rams, and he never forgot a name, even recognising people twenty years after he had last seen them. He was last seen setting off to fetch some new horns, taking the road to Abyssinia.
5. 66: The Number of Allah
Sixty-six is the number derived from ‘Allah’ through cryptic numerology (giving certain letters certain numerical values). This value may be referred to in Islamic architecture when a dome or an arch is encircled in sixty-six floral rosettes. The science of cryptic numerology is believed to have been perfected by Imam Ali, the Prophet’s cousin, first disciple and son-in-law. Sixty-six can also be separated out by a Shi’a-inclined mystic to 6 and 6, which becomes 12, the number of the true Imams of Shi’ism. 786 is another key number that stands for Bismillah, ‘In the Name of Allah’, and is widely used in the Indian Subcontinent.
6. The Arabain – The 40
In Islamic tradition, references to arabain abound and come with a wealth of potent associations. It is an act of piety to collect together the forty most personally relevant hadith from the thousands that have been assembled. It can be the number of Ali’s disciples (from which all Sufi brotherhoods trace their spiritual descent) and it can be a reference to forty living Sufi saints who are felt to be present on earth in any one age to help keep humans on the right path. A fortieth of your wealth is also the customary assessment of the zakat, the obligatory charity given by each believer to care for the sick, the poor and the elderly. The number forty is also embedded in one of the most influential books of classical Islam: Al-Ghazzali’s Revival of Religious Sciences, which is composed of forty chapters, covering all aspects of Islam from belief to rituals, ethics to contemplation – all designed as ‘prescriptions for purifying the self and reforming the heart’.
7. 25 Prophets within the Qur’an
Although the Qur’an acknowledges many thousands of Prophets, only twenty-five are specifically mentioned: Adam, Idris (Enoch), Nuh (Noah), Hud, Saleh, Ibrahim (Abraham), Ismail (Ishmael), Ishaq (Isaac), Lut (Lot), Yaqub (Jacob), Yousef (Joseph), Shuaib, Ayyub (Job), Musa (Moses), Harun (Aaron), Dhulkifl (Ezekiel), Dawud (David), Sulaiman (Solomon), Illias (Elias), Al-Yasa (Elisha), Yunus (Jonah), Zakariyya (Zachariah), Yahya (John), Isa (Jesus) and Muhammad. These prophets also provide a list of popular given names within the Muslim world.
8. 19 – The Key to the Qur’an
During the 1970s, the Egyptian biochemist Rashad Khalifa ‘proved’ the divine nature of the Qur’an by showing its remarkable mathematical structure. The jacket of one of his books, Miracle of the Qur’an, proclaimed, ‘using the ultimate in scientific proof, namely, mathematics, this book puts in your hands physical, examinable evidence that the Qur’an is the word of God’. Using cryptic numerology, Khalifa discovered that all verses in the Qur’an added up to the magical number 19, or were multiples of 19, which he declared as the basic element, the building block of the Qur’an. What made his calculation ‘scientific’ and fool-proof was the fact that he used a computer for his statistical analysis. A cult emerged around Khalifa; and communities embracing the number 19 theology proliferated from Morocco to Malaysia, while Muslim preachers everywhere used Khalifa’s analysis to prove the superiority of Islam. Khalifa himself thought his discovery was nothing short of a revelation from God and began to describe himself as ‘Rashad Khalifa PhD, Messenger of Allah’. And, as Messenger of Allah, Khalifa announced that he had discovered the exact date of the Day of Judgement!
It did not take long for Khalifa’s work to be exposed as fraud. Not only did he manipulate the verses of the Qur’an to fit his calculations, he also spelled the Qur’anic words in an innovative manner, added words where there were none, and distorted verses at will. There were serious inconsistencies in the way the words were counted as well as numerous errors of arithmetic, half-truths and downright fabrications. Still that did not dent the beliefs of the faithful. The cult continues to this day, albeit in a much diminished form.
The number 19 is really sacred to the Bahais, who are not a Muslim sect, but did emerge from within a Muslim community in nineteenth-century Persia. The Bahai community revere Siyyid Ali Muhammad (1819–1850), a merchant from Shiraz who claimed to be the Mehdi, and who in 1844 foretold the appearance of a great prophet. He duly appeared in 1860 in the shape of Mirza Husayn`Alí Núrí, more widely known as Bahaullah (1817–1892).
The Bahai community have a nineteen-day month, a nineteen-month year, an annual nineteen-day fast, and a communal festival every nineteen days with prayers and contemplations. This is seemly based on the numerical vale of ‘Wahid’ – the One – though older associations exist, for 19 is the sum of the twelve signs of zodiac together with the seven planets, reinforced by the nineteen-year-long Metonic cycle before the solar and lunar calendars exactly repeat themselves.
9. Sacred 18 of the Whirling Dervish
The thirteenth century Sufi mystic Rumi composed eighteen verses for the introduction of his iconic teaching verse, the Mathnavi, which like all his work must be referenced back to the Qur’an. Every chapter of the Qur’an, except Chapter Nine begins with the invocation Bismillahi’r-rahmanii r-rahim – ‘In the Name of God, Ever Merciful and All-Foriving’ – which has eighteen consonants in it. A spiritual apprentice who wished to join the Mevlevi Sufi brotherhood (the Whirling Dervishes) was expected to first learn to achieve eighteen kinds of services in the kitchen, each occupation requiring at least eighteen days of study.
Similarly, the last ladder in the apprenticeship of learning was to meditate alone for eighteen days, having been escorted into one’s cell by eighteen-armed candelabrum. Gifts and courses of food were customarily served within the tekke (Dervish monastery) in sets of nine or eighteen.
10. 9 Clarities of Islam
No mystery, no sacraments, no intermediaries, no altars, no images, no ornaments, no statues, no depictions of God for whom every believer is his own high priest.
The multilingual spy and cosmopolitan traveller, Domingo Badia y Leblich, alias Ali Bey al-Abbasi, explored much of the Islamic world on behalf of Napoleon, the Spanish government, and to settle his own inner sense of inquiry. Whatever the faith he possessed on his way to Mecca as a pilgrim, there is no doubt about the sincerity of his response once confronted with the Kaaba. Where he wrote, ‘The Muslim religion is extremely simple: it has no mysteries, no sacraments, no intermediate person between God and man, known by the name of priests or ministers; no altars, no images or ornaments. God is invisible, the heart of man is his altar and every Muslim is his own high priest’.
11. 8 Contradictions of Believers
One who knows the world to be transient, yet loves it; One who knows death to be certain, but does not look beyond the grave; One who believes in Hell but commits a sin; One who believes in the existence of God but seeks assistance from others; One who is aware of paradise but is distracted by the pleasures of the flesh; One who knows Satan to be his enemy, yet follows his suggestions; One who believes in predestination, yet feels aggrieved with what happens; One who knows that an account is to be rendered on the day of resurrection yet who hoards wealth – as taught by Uthman ibn Affan, the third Caliph of Islam.
12. 7 Destructive Sins of Islam
The Seven Destructive Sins of Islam are: associating others with Allah, practicing sorcery, killing the life which Allah has forbidden except for a just cause, usury, appropriating the wealth of an orphan, treason and flight from the battlefield, and false accusation against a chaste woman. This list is part of collective Islamic tradition, often created as a negative notice-board in response to the Five Pillars of Islam and Seven Deadly Sins so beloved by Christian medieval scholarship. There are many variants but all include usury (riba), murder and the sin of shirk (associating others with Allah).
13. 6 Fundamental Crimes
As remembered by Othman, the third Caliph, the Prophet said that six types of individuals will be especially sought out for particular crimes on the day of judgement: Rulers for injustice; Scholars for envy; Arabs for fanaticism; The Wealthy for ignorance; Landowners for possessiveness; and Merchants for cheating.
14. 5 Sufi Powers
When a mystical master experiences enlightenment, Sufi teachings suggest that he will also attain five spiritual powers: clairvoyance, remembering past incarnations, levitation, transmutation of elements and omniscience. There are numerous popular stories about how Sufi, as well as Buddhist and Zen masters, can be at different places at the same time.
15. 4 Sufi Questions
How do you spend your time on earth? How did you earn your living? How did you spend your youth? What did you do with the knowledge I gave you?
This is a traditional Sufi teaching about the passage of soul after death, which is ushered before the Throne of God and asked just these four questions. I first saw it on a poster in the office of a Moroccan travel agent in Tangiers, but having failed to remember it properly was delighted to stumble across it thirty years later in Elif Shafak’s novel Honour.
16. 4 Women of the First Rank in Islam
Khadijah, first wife of the Prophet, very first believer and mother of his four daughters. Fatimah, the pious fourth daughter of Khadijah and the Prophet, who was married to her cousin Ali who would become the Fourth Caliph. The Virgin Mary. And Asiya (Moses’ Egyptian step-mother married to the Pharaoh).
17. 3 Prohibitions of Christian Worship under the Umayyad Caliphate
No public processions, No bells, No blasphemy against the Prophet or the Qur’an. As negotiated by the Caliph Omar after his Muslim armies conquered the Christian-populated provinces of Syria and Palestine and such teeming cities as Damascus and Jerusalem. The pact of the Umayyad Caliph Umar bin Abdul Aziz, with its insulting multiple clauses (defining styles of dress and haircut), replaced the enlightened tolerance of Umar bin al-Khattab, the second Caliph, who guaranteed the Christians their homes and their places of worship in exchange for paying a poll tax and exercising complete political neutrality on the understanding that they would be physically protected by the Muslim army. The three prohibitions were designed to remove the root causes of any future antagonism while allowing Adhan, the call to prayer, an oral dominance over the rooftops.
18. 3 Things Worth Saving
When a man dies, his achievement is destroyed save three things: a work from which others may draw profit, a pious son who prays for him and a charitable foundation that endures.
19. 3 Gifts of Monotheistic Faiths
The Jews have given the world scepticism. The Christians offer compassion. The Muslims equality.
One cannot leave this excursion into Islamic numbers without mentioning the eleventh-century poet and polymath Omar Khayyam. He was introduced to the West by a Victorian poet called Edward Fitzgerald, who produced a very loose translation of his Rubaiyat, or ‘quatrains’. His book enjoyed huge popularity in the mid-nineteenth century and even led to Khayyam’s rediscovery in Iran. Fitzgerald took what he wanted from the original verse, lending it a romantic humanism, beneath which glow the truths of the Sufis. Here, then, are the four pleasures of Omar Khayyam:
Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse – and Thou
Besides Me singing in the Wilderness
And Wilderness is a Paradise now
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by Barnaby Rogerson