William C. Chittick

"Commentary on a Hadith by Sadr al-Din Qunawi" was originally published in Alserat 4/1, (1980), pp. 23-30.

Reproduced with the permission of The Muhammadi Trust of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Further reading:

Commentary on a Hadith by Sadr al-Din Qunawi

On the occasion of the fourteenth centenary of the hijrah, it may be interesting to recall that the number "fourteen" often carries a symbolical significance in Islamic sources. In connection with Shi'ism, one need only remember the "Fourteen Pure Ones" (chahârdah ma'sûm). As a contribution to this topic, I offer below a translation of a passage by Sadr al-Dîn Qûnawî (d.643/1274), the foremost disciple of the celebrated Sufi Muhyî al-Dîn ibn al-'Arabî.

Qûnawî is the author of at least twenty works, [1]among the most important of which is his "Commentary upon Forty Hadîths." Although it was one of his most popular works for several centuries, it has not been studied or published in modern times. [2]In discussing one of the forty hadîths, Qûnawî refers to the symbolism of the number fourteen and its relation to the Divine Nature and to man.

This hadîth, the twenty-first which Qûnawî discusses, begins as follows: "It was related from Ibn 'Abbâs that the Prophet said, 'My Lord came to me at night' -- or in another version, 'I saw my Lord in a dream' -- 'in the fairest form. He said, "O Muhammad!" I answered, "Here am I, O Lord!" He said, "Doest thou know about what the Supreme Council (of angels) disputes? " I said, "I do not know." Then He placed His hand between my shoulders, and I felt its coldness between my breasts.... Then I knew all that is in the heavens and the earth', -- or in another version, 'all that is between the east and the west.'...."

Qûnawî discusses this hadîth in great detail in one of the longest sections of his work. In what follows, I have translated the passage which relates directly to the symbolism of the number fourteen. Before offering the translation, however, it will be useful to explain the most important technical terms Qûnawî mentions in the passage.

Qûnawî is discussing the relationship between the "outward" or "manifest" (al-zâhir) and the "inward" or "nonmanifest" (al-bâtin). The "outward" here refers to the "World of the Visible" ('âlam al-shahâdah), i.e., the world which we can observe with our physical eyes. The "inward" refers to the "World of the Unseen" ('âlam al-ghayb), or more specifically, to God's Knowledge of the things of this world. The outward world derives everything it possesses from God, since nothing but God truly exists. "Being" (wujûd) is God's very nature, His Essence (dhât). Other things exist or "have being" only because He bestows existence upon them. The outward world is thus one of the "Divine Presences" (al-hadarât al-ilâhiyyah), one of the loci within which God manifests Himself. It may be that we observe only individual things, but each thing derives its particular attributes and its existence from Him. Nothing belongs ultimately to the thing itself. So in the last analysis, the outward things cannot be other than God. Thus the Koran states that God is the "Outward and the Inward" (LVII,3).

So each outward thing derives from an inward reality, which is to say that each thing is "created by God". In the terminology of Ibn al-'Arabî's school, each thing is a "locus of theophany" (majlâ, mazhar, mahall, al-tajallî) for the Divine Being. God displays Himself outwardly in the form of the existent things. So each thing shows us something about God Himself, about Being as such. In other words every existent or being manifests Being, but not absolute and nondelimited Being, rather Being in accordance with one of its inherent possibilities of outward manifestation. So each thing is the symbol of an ontological reality. "When we summarize these realities which pertain to the Being of God into universal categories, we call them the "Names" (al-asmâ') or the "Attributes" (al-sifât). All things are reflections or theophanies of God's Names and Attributes. The Names are the inward and the things are the outward.

If we look at the "inwards" of the things not as so many universal categories but as so many individual sources of each and every thing, we refer to each of these "inwards" as a "reality" (haqîqah), "meaning" (ma'nâ), or "immutable archetypal-entity" ('ayn thâbitah). These realities are the "objects of God's Knowledge" (al-ma'lûmât), which is to say that He knows each thing in all its details from "Eternity-without-beginning" (azal) to "Eternity-without-end" (abad). Knowing something's reality, meaning, or archetypal entity, God then bestows existence upon it at the proper moment. It becomes manifest outwardly as an "existent" (mawjûd) or "form" (sûrah).

The use of the term "entity" ('ayn) illustrates clearly the essential identity of the form and the meaning, or the outward and the inward. Each "entity" is known by God for all eternity. As such it is "immutable" (thâbit), since God's Knowledge never changes. It is convenient to refer to it as the "archetypal-entity" in English, although no such distinction is made in Arabic. This same entity becomes manifest outwardly when God bestows existence upon it. But it is still referred to by the same term 'ayn, although for convenience's sake we can translate it now as "existent-entity". So every existent entity, every existent thing, is the outward manifestation of a reality known by God. In fact the archetypal-entity is the very same as the existent-entity, which is why a single word is employed for both.

The entity is also referred to as the "possible-existent" (mumkin) or the "quiddity" (mâhiyyah), or simply as the "thing" (shay'). When any of these terms is mentioned, one must study the context carefully to determine whether the archetypal-entity or the existent-entity is meant, or whether the entity itself is being discussed, without reference to its existence or its nonexistence" ('adam), i.e., its state of non-manifestation within God's Knowledge.

A logical conclusion of this discussion is that the entities or things are not "made" (maj'ûl). God did not "make" them the way they are, since they are the objects of His Knowledge for all eternity. As such they have no beginning. In other words, they are the "concomitants" (lawâzim) of the very nature of Being Itself. When a bird, a tree or a man enters into existence, God does not "make" it a bird, a tree or a man. He only bestows existence upon a reality that He has known for all eternity.

With this introduction, we can turn to Qûnawî's discussion.

Translation

As for the mystery of the blow between the shoulders (mentioned in the hâdith, the "back" is the symbol (mazhar) of the World of the Unseen. Here it refers to God's "effectuating power" (ta'thîr) in respect of His Unseen Essence from behind the veil of the symbol, which is the "form" (sûrah). For we have already explained that no outward thing has any effect from it, that is only because of something inward within it or in relation to it. So understand this principle! For within it I have placed a mighty knowledge for him who has eyes.

As for the mystery of the fingers (of the hand which struck the blow), they are symbols for the realities of the principle Names, which are the "Unseen Keys" [3]and the source of the Shari'ite statues upon which the pillars of outward submission (islâm), faith (îmân) and virtue (ihsân) were erected, i.e., "permitted" (halâl), "forbidden" (harâm), "reprehensible" (makrûh), "recommended" (mandâb) and "indifferent" (mubâh), not to mention the five daily prayers. The source and origin of all of these are the Five Divine Presences, which are the "principles" (usûl) and the "mothers" (ummahât) of all the Presences. Beyond these are the Principle Names called by our Shaykh (Ibn al-'Arabî) the "Secondary Keys" (al-mafâtîh al-thânawî). [4]

As for the Five Divine Presences, they are the Presence of the Unseen, which comprises the Names, Attributes, disengaged meanings, and the rest of the objects of God's Knowledge. Facing it in the opposite position is the World of Sensory Perception ('âlam al-hiss), called the "World of the Visible". Situated between these two sides is a central Presence. It is among those things which pertain exclusively to the Perfect Man (al-insân al-kâmil). Between this center and the aforementioned World of the Unseen is a Presence whose relation to the World of the Unseen is stronger and more complete. It is called the "World of the Spirits" ('âlam al-arwâh). And between the Center and the World of the Visible -- which we said is the Presence of Sensory Perception -- is a Presence whose relation with the World of the Visible is stronger. It is the Presence of Delimited Imagination (khayâl muqayyad). So all the Presences and ontological levels attributed exclusively to God, or to the world, or to both together, are subordinated to these five. So understand! As for the "Secondary Keys", I will give news of them shortly -- God willing -- in the midst of what I will mention concerning the mystery of the hand which struck the blow.

To continue: As for the question of which of the Lord's hands struck the blow, know that it is one of the "two hands" through which Adam was created. [5]It is referred to as the "handful" in God's words, "The earth together shall be his handful" (Koran XXXIX, 67). In a hadîth upon whose authenticity all are agreed it is referred to as the "left hand" (al-shimâl). Hence God also mentioned the "right hand" in the above verse: "And the heavens shall be rolled up in His right hand."

As for the prophetic saying that both of God's hands are right hands, this is true both out of courtesy (adab, towards God) and also when we investigate the matter. But it is only true when we consider the attribution of the two hands to Him, not when we study their effect in what they bring into existence. For that which is held in the "handful" referred to as the "left hand" is the world of the elements as well as those things which become compounded and are born from the elements. Among them is the elemental form (al sûrat al-'unsurî, i.e., the physical body) of Adam, for it is the result of this handful and becomes outwardly manifest in keeping with its attributes. Adam's elemental form contrasts with his remaining dimensions, which are outside of his elemental plane, i.e., his spirituality and the loci through which he becomes manifest in the other worlds (or Presences), for these worlds are attributed to God's right hand.

The Prophet gaves news of this situation when he reported that God let Adam choose one of His two hands, when both were closed. God said to him, "Choose whichever you like." Adam answered, "I choose the right hand of my Lord, although both of my Lord's hands are right, blessed." SoGod opened His right hand, and within it were Adam and his descendants. So Adam was outside of this one hand. He was given a choice and he chose. When the hand was opened, he was inside it along with his descendants. So in respect of his being outside of the hand. Adam possesses one property. And in respect of his choice and his being within the right hand which he chose he possesses another property. So attend carefully what I have brought to your ears in keeping with what is hidden in these allusion! You will see wonders.

To continue: Since the World of the Elements and of those things dominated by opacity, darkness and grossness (kathâfah) dominated what was held in the aforementioned handful -- as we have said -- God attributed the wretched (al-ashqiyâ') to these things. For the wretched are dominated by the characteristics of composition and grossness, a fact to which the Prophet alluded in his words, "Verily the thickness of the unbeliever's skin on the Day of Resurrection will be equal to three days' journey." God called attention to this with His words, "No indeed, the book of the licentious is in Sijjin' (Koran LXXXIII, 7). Now Sijjin is the lower world, which is attributed to the hand referred to by the terms "handful" and "left hand." Concerning the Companions of the Right Hand (ashâb al-yamîn) God said, "No indeed, the book of the pious is in Illiyun" (Koran LXXXIII, 18). This is like saying, "And the heavens shall be rolled up in His right hand" (Koran XXXIX, 67).

The secret of the fact that the pious and their book are in Illyun is that the parts of their gross plane and their constitutional and natural faculties have become "transubtantiated" (tajawhar), purified and transformed. Through the sanctification and purification which are actualized by knowledge, works and becoming adorned with praiseworthy attributes and elevated moral-qualities, the parts of their gross plane and their faculties have been transmuted into pure, immutable, angelic attributes and faculties inherent within their "souls possessing peace" (cf. Koran LXXXIX, 27). God gave news of this in the following words which explain the states of the souls: "Saved id he who purifies it" (Koran LXLI, 9). In the same way the Prophet alluded to this in the words of his supplication: "O God, give my soul its godfearingness and purify it! Thou art the best of those who purify it!"

The state of the wretched is the opposite, for their spiritual faculties and attributes have become effaced by their natural faculties. So their spiritual substance turns to nothing. It is as if it is transformed and becomes gross. The necessary result is that when God gathers together the parts of their bodies and natural planes, which had become decomposed and are coloured by the properties of the corrupt beliefs and opinions, the base acts and the blameworthy moral-qualities which were theirs during the time they remained for long years in this (lower) plane and abode, and when He compounds these things (once again) in the plane of the Resurrection, what becomes actualized from all this requires that for each one of them the thickness of his body's skin will be equivalent to three days' journey -- in contrast to what I said concerning the state of the pious. Hence it has been related in prophetic sayings concerning the paradisial state that the people of Paradise appear as a single moment in numerous palaces. They take their pleasure in each one of their families, and they undergo transformations in all the forms they desire. This is only because of what we said: the gross parts of their plane have been effaced by the subtle essences (latâ'if) of their substances and coloured by their attributes. The characteristics of their souls and spiritual faculties have dominated over the faculties of their natural constitutions. Thus they have become like the angels. They appear in whatever forms they desire....

To continue: I have just called attention to the fact that forms and loci of manifestation are veils over the realities to which they are ascribed, and that effects being to the realities hidden behind the loci of manifestation. So the form of the hand and the fingers are veils upon the realities of the Divine Names which cause effects.

Now this sacred hand (which struck the blow) - as well as the other - possesses "partitions" (fusûl) and "principles" (usûl). Its partitions are fourteen, while five principles are outward and five inward.

The partitions (of the hands also) possess an inward sense, i.e., the realities of the 28 letters (of the Arabic alphabet). These letters are divided into two equal kinds, for fourteen of them are dotted, and fourteen are undotted. Their loci of manifestation within the universal forms (literally, the "mothers") of the world pertaining to God's right hand (i.e., the celestial world) are the 28 stations of the moon. Now those stations which are outwardly manifest are fourteen, and those which are hidden are fourteen. So remember what I pointed out concerning the mystery of loci of manifestation and the fact that they act as veils. And remember that God causes effects from beyond them in the Unseen. Keep in mind that the hand which pertains to the outward human form in respect of form corresponds to the attributes of the "handful", while in respect of its inward the human form corresponds to the attributes of the other hand, i.e., the right hand. Finally, take note of the joints (of your hand), you will find that they do not exceed fourteen.

As for the "principles" of which the fingers are the loci of manifestation, they are five and they vary in degree. [7]The highest and most all-encompassing is Knowledge, which is the central principle. To the right are two principles, Life and Power. And to the left are two principles, Will and Word. Each principle has three parts except for Power, for it alone has two. The third part was deleted by reason of two great secrets.

The first secret is that each of the other four becomes connected to all things, in contrast to Power, for its property is limited, not nondelimited (mutlaq). This is because its property only becomes connected to the possible-existents, so its influence is not all-pervading. Among the things which will open the gate of awareness to something of what I have alluded to is the study of the word law ("if") wherever it is mentioned in the Koran and the hadîth literature. It gives news that whatever is mentioned along with it will never happen. [8]This is an instance of "ambiguity". [9]

The other secret is that the manner in which Power becomes joined to the "object of Power" (maqdûr) is not clear. The manner in which it brings about the bestowal of existence is hidden in the limit of obscurity. For the ontological theophany which spreads light (= existence) among the possible-existents -- which are hidden from themselves in the darkness (= nonexistence) of their possibility -- is "unmade". In respect of their realities entified within God's Knowledge, the possible-existents are not described as having been made -- as I have established and clarified in several places in my works.

So if one studies the effect of Power, one can only imagine that it causes the effused existence (al-wujûd al-mufâd) to "become connected" (iqrân) to the possible entity. Sufis other than the Perfect Men imagine from this "connection" a kind of intelligible movement (harakah ma'qûlah) which brings about "joining" (ittisâl). But no movement can be imagined in non-composite (basît), disengaged (mujarrad) realities and meanings. Moreover, "connection" is a relation (nisbah), not an ontological thing (amr wujûdî). So in the eyes of him who looks carefully, what becomes actualized from the meaning of Power's effect? Whoever investigates the situation and gives each thing its due will know that in this respect, here also we have a station of "ambiguity" (ibhâm). Necessarily the thumb (ibhâm), which is the locus of manifestation of Power, has only two joints. For its property is not all pervading, and its effect can not be ascertained without ambiguity. Thus it is appropriate for it to have such a name. This is all in spite of the fact that one cannot claim that Power is not an ontological thing. Rather (one can only say that) the result of its effect is some sort of relation, nothing else.

So ponder what I have mentioned to you. You will come to know that there is nothing among the ontological forms, whether celestial or terrestrial, which is not related to God and ascribed to Him in one of the respects known as the "Names and Attributes". And if you are taken still higher, you will become aware of the secret of the exact-correspondence (mutâbaqah) between outward forms and Unseen realities, the appearance of these realities in appropriate forms, and the correctness of the parallelism (between the forms and realities). And if you are taken still higher, you will come to understand the secret of God as manifest in loci of manifestation, the mystery of His "similarity" (tashbîh) and "incomparability" (tanzîh), and the correct and incorrect mode of understanding each. You will also comprehend the meaning of the Prophet's words, "Verily God created Adam upon His own Form", even though the property of "Nothing is like Him" (Koran XLII, II) is established. So understand! For I have mentioned something for every person of wakefulness and insight who ponders these words. If its riddle is solved, he will gain knowledge of many of the sciences and mysteries pertaining to the Lord and to the engendered universe.

Notes

[1] See my article, "The Last Will and Testament of Ibn 'Arabî's Foremost Disciple and Some notes on its Author", Sophia Perennis, 1978, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 43-58; also my forthcoming book on Qûnawî.

[2] I have recently prepared a critical edition from the following Istanbul manuscripts: Sehid Ali Pasa 138/2, 1369/1, 1371/2, 1394/2; Carullah 2054/1, 2085/7, 2097/6; Haci Mahmud Efundi 574; Ibrahim Efendi 870/1.

[3] The term "Unseen Keys" (al-mâfatîh al-ghaybiyyah) derives from the verse, "With Him are the Keys of the reveal or "unlock" the very nature of the Divine Essence. The cannot be expressed in language, but their first manifestation are the four (or in the present instance) five) primary Divine Attributes: Life, Knowledge, Power and Will (the fifth being Speech or Word). Qûnawî discusses them in great detail in his work Miftâh ghayb al-jam' wa'l-wujûd ("The Key to the Unseen of All-Comprehensiveness and Being"), published on the margin of its commentary by al-Fanârî, Misbâh al-uns, Tehran, 1323/1905-6.

[4] Ibn al-'Arabî refers to the five Names mentioned in the previous note as the "Secondary Keys", while he calls the Unseen Keys the "Primary Keys".

[5] Reference to the Koranic passage where God asks Satan, "What prevented thee to bow thyself before what I created with My two hands? " (XXXIII,75).

[7] Here Qûnawî states that the five principle Divine Names, the "Secondary Keys" referred to above, are symbolized by the five fingers.

[8] Ibn al-'Arabî points out that if it is said, "To God belongs the argument conclusive" (Koran VI, 149) against His creatures, this is because they determine their own destinies through their own realities. So God does not make them go astray. They themselves are responsible for their own error. Nor can He lead them aright. If one protests that God says in the same verse, "If He had wanted, He would have guided you all", the answer is that in this verse the word employed for "it" is law, which alludes to the impossibility of the occurrence (Fusûs al-hikam, ed. by 'A. 'Afîfî, Beirut, 1946, p.82). In other words, the use of the word law shows that the sentence is of the type, "If cows had wings....". Here Qûnawî remarks that by studying the use of this word in God's revelations, one will come to understand that although God is "powerful over all things" (Koran II, 284 etc.), those things are only the possible thongs, i.e., the entities. He cannot perform the impossible. His "omnipotence" is in a sense limited in its scope of activity. Cf. the discussion of the excesses of the Ash'arite theologians on the questions of God's Omnipotence in F. Schuon, Islam and the Perennial Philosophy, London, 1976, pp. 118-51.

[9] The word ibhâm in Arabic means both "ambiguity" and "thumb". Qûnawî points out that the word law in the Koran and hadîth literature seems to indicate that something could have happened, whereas in fact it signifies that it could not have happened. So its meaning is ambiguous. And "ambiguity" alludes to the thumb, which is the symbol of Power.