Universidad de Muhammad V, Rabat


This article presents the first translation into another language of a key work, in Arabic, by the mystic Sahl al-Tustarī (9th century), one of the first Qur’anic exegetes in the formative period of Sufism. In this Opuscule which, due to its subject matter, I have entitled A Treatise on the Letters (Risālat al-ḥurūf), Tustarī describes creation as a process of epiphany of the divine Word. The cosmos is thus the unfolding of the divine speech. The Qur’an affirms that God begot the world through his Word saying to every one thing: “Be!” (kun). Letters, as fundamental constituent units of speech, are the principles of all things. Among the main esoteric sciences of Islam are therefore the science of letters and the science of the Names of God, matrices of all creation. Later Sufi literature recognizes Tustarī, along with Ḏū l-Nūn the Egyptian, as one of the earliest and most prominent exponents of the science of letters in Islam. Among the heirs of his spiritual and intellectual influence in al-Andalus are Ibn Masarra de Córdoba (10th century) and Ibn ‘Arabī de Murcia (12th century) who, in their respective works on this science, in an explicit and recurrent way refer to his teaching.

Keywords: Sufism, language, Tustarī.

Verses 85-88 of the 3rd chapter of the Qur’an entitled Al ‘Imran (The Family of ‘Imran). The script used for the Arabic text is tawqi’ while the Persian translations are written in a Persian naskh. Tawqi’ is similar to thuluth but smaller and with systematic assimilations between letters ordinarily not joined. Date 14th century. Source Library of Congress

  We hardly know anything about the life of Sahl al-Tustarī (abū Muḥammad b. ‘Abd Allāh b. Yūnus b.‘Īsā b. ‘Abd Allāh b. Rafīfī), a Sufi author of Islam from the 9th century. We can reconstruct part of his life trajectory from the different references that have been collected from Arab and Persian sources, mainly Sufis, especially from contemporary biographers and immediately after our author’s death who offer features of his life in a hagiographic style.

     He was probably born in the city of Tustar, in Jūzistān, to which he owes his nickname, and died in exile in Basra, the famous center for Arabic language studies at the time, in the year 896 (283 H. ). He carried out his pilgrimage to Mecca about the year 834 (219 H.), after which he began his apprenticeship under the tutelage of his maternal uncle, Muḥammad b. Sawwār, who transmitted to him the teachings of the Hadith received from Sufyān al-Tawrī, and those of Ḥamza from al-‘Abbādānī, a spiritual master residing in the ribāṭ of ‘Abbādān, where a highly significant event would have taken place: there Tustarī had a vision of the Supreme Name of God (ism Allāh al-a’ẓam) written on the sky, in the middle of a green light that extended from the East to the West[1].

     Apparently Sahl al-Tustarī did not write his teachings on Qur’anic exegesis himself. His disciples were Muḥammad ibn Sālim (d. 909/297 h.), ‘Umar b. Wāṣil and Abū Bakr al-Siŷzī who carefully collected them and have transmitted them through their writings. The Tustarī teachings were developed at the dawn of Sufism (a mystical, esoteric and initiatory dimension of Islam) and have had a great influence on later Sufi authors. Sahl inaugurates a large number of themes that will be the object of meditation and exegesis throughout the centuries by different Sufi authors until today, among which are the pre-eternal pact between humanity and divinity, the eternal column of the Muḥammadan light, the position that only divinity truly has the right to say “I” or the notion that Satan will be redeemed[2]. Tustarī is presented in classical sources as a direct recipient of the teachings of the early Sufi master Ḍū l-Nūn al-Miṣrī. He in turn exerted great influence on such fundamental figures as Ŷunayd, Ḥallāŷ, Muḥammad ibn Sālim, or al-Ḥakīm al-Tirmiḏī. Sahl’s thought went deep into the Qur’an and the šarī‘a, provoking criticism from certain groups and initiating a properly mystical style with explanations and practices on classical Islamic notions that have become part of the traditional Sufi legacy.


`Umar Aqta’ Section of a Qur’an Manuscript, late 14th–early 15th century Islamic, Timurid period (1370–1507). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

     He is credited with a vast list of treatises in the Islamic bibliography. Ibn al-Nadīm records the number 186 in his Fihrist. We are not certain of the authorship of most of them and many have not been preserved. His commentaries on the Qur’an, collected by his disciple in the work entitled Kitāb fahm al-Qur’ān, have been published under the title Tafsīr al-Qur’ān al-Karīm (Cairo, 1908-1911). You can also consult the collection of sayings by Tustarī —in three parts, with a commentary by al-Ṣiqillī (d. 996/386 H.)–, preserved in the manuscript of the Köprülü collection, No. 727, of Istanbul (one part of which have been published by MK Ŷa’far, al-Mu’āraḍa wa-l-radd, Cairo, 1980). Moreover, numerous fragments of his commentaries on Qur’anic ayahs are cited in Sulamī’s work Ḥaqā’iq al-tafsīr (although they are not accessible in manuscript form, but rather from a table of references and parallel quotations from the ‘Arāfiis al-bayān from Rūzbihān Baqlī)[3]. Other writings attributed to Sahl[4] are either minor or apocryphal[5]. Despite the vicissitudes of his works and his doctrines, the legacy that has come down to us from Tustarī seems to be sufficient to partially reconstruct his hermeneutics and understand his teachings.

     The work of Tustarī that we are going to present below is a direct Arabic-Spanish translation of manuscript no. 3168 of the Chester Beatty Collection in Dublin (pp. 166-174), collated with the editio princeps of M.K. Ŷa’far, The sufi Legacy of Sahl b. ‘Abd Allah al-Tustarī, Dār al-Ma‘ārif, Cairo, 1978, who titled it Risālat al-ḥurūf (see pp. 366-371), since there is no title in the manuscript. This work is part of the tradition of esoteric texts that appeared in Islam around the 8th century. This tradition, in a very general way, was split into two branches: the magical-alchemical, represented by the alchemical texts, inspired by works of the Hellenic tradition, which fundamentally aims to reveal the hidden functioning of the laws of the universe; and the one based on mysticism, which sought to achieve a knowledge of reality and the highest truths through the interpretation and contemplation of the letters[6]. To this second branch belongs the work of Tustarī. The Risālat al-ḥurūf seems to have been the source of inspiration for the Kitāb jawāṣṣ al-ḥurūf wa-ḥaqā’iqi-hā wa-uṣūli-hā (Book of the meanings of the letters, their realities and their foundations) by Ibn Masarra of Córdoba (also preserved in the Chester Beatty manuscript no. 3168), a work whose edition and translation I am currently preparing, in which Tustarī is explicitly cited, in recognition of his teaching in the science of letters. The teachings of Tustarī thus permeate the history of Sufism to this day.

     Tustarī devoted this opuscule to describing creation as a development of divine language. It is a short and synthetic treatise on the symbolic value of the letters of the Arabic alphabet. Through the interpretation and contemplation of the letters —of their literal meaning as the bearer of a transcendental meaning— the highest knowledge of spiritual realities is reached. The beautiful divine Names constitute the material parallel to this interpretation which is, ultimately, Qur’anic exegesis.

     Reflection on the signs that are found in the universe thus leads to recognising the divine unity, which is the Supreme Truth (al-ḥaqq al-aqṣà). Tustarī, like Ibn Masarra later, abides by the Qur’anic recommendation to use the intellect to understand the signs that God has deployed in the universe. So he follows what is stated in the Qur’an, where the existence of signs in the universe is pointed out, to which man must apply his reflection to reach the knowledge of God. Reflection on these signs reveals divine unity.

     The Qur’an grants men a unified science. But this unitive vision includes at the same time a distinctive one, which allows to keep the uncreated character of the divine Word and the created character of the letters, and out of which come out these remarks about the initial letters (fawātiḥ) of the Qur’an –also called luminous (nūriyya) or isolated (muqaṭṭa’)–, as well as the statement that the Universe is a Book whose letters constitute or «transcribe» the divine Word.

     The spiritual teaching of Tustarī, such as we know it through the texts, consists of leading the reader of the Qur’anic text throughout the esoteric meaning of the book, transmuting the usual meaning of the ayahs and luminous letters, to allow the Qur’anic exhortations to impact in the depths of the Sufi soul. Each luminous letter is a divine sign, a divine attribute. He who has been instructed in the knowledge of it comes to apprehend an aspect of the Prophecy and to understand an aspect of his own origin. The esoteric science of the Qur’an is the understanding of the divine Names expounded by the Prophet. The 99 divine names are compared to the different degrees that constitute the being and, in turn, correspond to the luminous letters. There is thus a likeness between the order of letters and the order of the being, between the man of letters as a microcosm and the universe of letters as a macrocosm, both manifestations being included in the mystery of divine Unity.

     Indeed, for Tustarī the letters that make up the names are not simple elements of ordinary language but matrix principles. They are at the very origin of the world: in a certain way, as we have observed, they are the Raw Material of all creation, the Primordial Dust (al-habā’). In his work, Sahl gives each letter relevant meanings in the Creator’s project, which makes it possible to explain the process of creation as an articulation of divine language; the Raw Material of the world seems to be consubstantial with the divine Word. In fact, the Qur’an affirms, in various ayahs, that God created the world through his Word, saying to everything: «Be!» (kun). Through this vision of the world as letters we witness the identity of the name and the thing nominated. The thing is inseparable from the name that expresses it, its name is the thing. Henry Corbin[7] presents it as an ontology of its own meaning, where the letter is the Word.

     The whole world displays and manifests the divine language. In turn, the Names of God are the first and elementary forms of this language that becomes progressively more complex. All celestial and terrestrial beings are fundamentally linguistic entities intended to be read and deciphered. This is the hidden meaning of things and names that the Qur’an clarifies for those who know how to scrutinize it. The mystical understanding of the letters thus operates by making the person experience a transformation in being. The science of letters could be called the «operational science of letters», like the science of alchemy.

     The main purpose of Tustarī in this opuscule is the mystical understanding of the fourteen «letters of light». In fact, the Qur’an contains, as an exergue of twenty-nine surahs, mysterious acronyms composed of one to five isolated letters that are spelled out in recitation and do not form any words. In all, fourteen letters, the exact half of the Arabic alphabet. As we will see, Tustarī relates these isolated letters to the original language of the origin of the world, hence the emergence of a cosmological and psychological meaning revealed from meditation on these letters constitutes the core of his work. What differentiates the fourteen luminous or inaugural letters from the other fourteen is, according to him, that these have served as the foundation of the first creation. They are the ones who express the primordial Will of God at the moment in which He brought things into existence.

[Treatise on Letters (Risālat al-ḥurūf)]

In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful.

May God’s blessing and salvation be upon Muḥammad, his family and his companions.

   Sahl ibn ‘Abd Allāh has said concerning the letters:

     God, in His wisdom, has made the letters the foundation from which speech (qawl) is constructed. Speech (qawl) breaks up into many parts (aqsām), each of which breaks up into terms (musammayāt) which, in turn, break up into letters (ḥurūf). And the letters (ḥurūf) break up into the primordial Dust (al-habā‘) and are the foundation of [all] things[8].

     The difference between the human speech (kalām al-jalq)[9] and the speech of God (kalām Allāh) –may He be exalted– is that human speech is established by mutual convention (mawḍū’) and appeal to an agreed terminology (iṣṭilāḥ). [This created word] is a form (ṣīga) [accidental] that gradually occurs and then vanishes in the air, so that it becomes extinct and never endures.

     However, the word of God –may He be exalted– is made up of lasting entities (a’yān qā’ima)[10] and shining spiritual lights (anwār lā’iḥa)[11] that are His will (irāda) and the objects of His knowledge (ma ‘lūmātu-Hu) appearing detached (munfaṣila) from His hidden Mystery (al-gayb). The detaching power (quwwa mufaṣṣila) is the [divine existentializing imperative] kun, which causes the [creator] Word to manifest. This [distinctive, kun] power encompasses the primordial Dust (al-habā’), that is, the letters, since the primordial Dust is the carrier of the letters, which are the uncompounded spiritual power (mufrada), the foundation (uṣūl) [constitutive] of [all] things[12]. Therefore [God] –exalted be He who thus speaks– has said: “kāf-hā’-yā’ -‘ayn-ṣād” (C. 19: 1), making [in this ayah of isolated letters] the letter kāf precede the hā’[13].

     When the begetter word of God  –exalted be He– tells something be (kun) this or that, bringing the thing into existence, [what thus exists] is nothing other but the form [or image] of the thing (ṣūrat al-šay’), a spiritual entity (rūḥāniyya) composed of faculties and spirit that has detached from the Supreme “Be” [the existentializer Supreme Order] (al-kun al-a’ẓam) that God directs to the All (al-kull).

     So that spiritual form (ṣūra) is the word that comes from God (kalima min Allāh) by which it generates the thing (li-kawn al-šay’) and is [likewise] the true essence of the begotten thing (ḥaqīqat al -šay ‘al-mukawwan), which is [also] the will (al-irāda) to beget it and the all-encompassing science (al-‘ilm al-muḥīṭ)[14].

     Philosophers (al-falāsifa)[15] name it the nature of the thing (ṭabī’at al-šay’) and some of them call it soul (nafs). They all agree that it is a divine command (amr ilāhī) that shapes and preserves bodies, protecting them from all obstacles or defects.

     All power, wisdom, generosity[16] and justice, in their entirety altogether with all the attributes that the Creator –exalted be He– has conferred upon Himself, so describing Himself [through revelation], they all exist by means of this power [the begetter imperative kun], they depend on it, by it [God encompasses the totality of] the begotten beings (al-mukawwanāt), in their outer, the manifest (ẓāhir), as well as in their inner, the hidden (bāṭin), and by it they are named ‘begotten beings’ (mukawwanāt)[17]. This aforementioned power has been called [also the] ‘Scripture’ (kitāb)[18] of the beings created in Nature and through it the engendered beings (maknūnāt) have been begotten.

     To God –exalted be His remembrance and sanctified be His names– corresponds a [first] attribute by which He is singled out (infarada) from all things: it is the condition of His Essence (ḍāt) to which the word of God –exalted be His mention and sanctified be His names– refers, by way of explanation (tafsīr), when it says: «He did not beget, nor has He been begotten and He has no peer»[19] (C. 112: 3-4) and when it says –may He be exalted– «There is nothing like unto Him» ​​(C. 42:11).

     A second [attribute] is that by which He acts, brings into being and conceals Himself, and by which He has been named Allāh[20].

     The first attribute is [the name][21] ‘He’ (huwa) [which appertains to the Ipseity or Supreme Identity (huwiyya), the divine Essence]. Cannot you realize that all attributes are based [upon the name] Allāh and this refers to ‘He’ (huwa) and that [the name] ‘He’ [by encompassing the name Allāh] encompasses [thus] the totality of names and attributes?

     The name by which Allah named Himself is the name by which He has created creation; it is the supreme light, the sublime Veil, the supreme [grace] (al-mazīd)[22]; it is the Mystery (al-gayb) and the possibility (imkān); it is also the Mother of the Book (umm al-kitāb)[23], the foundation (aṣl), on which lies the totality of what has been and will be[24]; it is also the science (al-‘ilm) by which Allāh has singled and hidden Himself in His Mystery (gayb), according to His word: «He who knows the hidden. He does not reveal to anyone what He has hidden, except to whom He accepts as messenger» (C. 72: 26-27)[25], and in him is found the whole of predestined things (maqādīr) in synthesis, in an undetached way[26], and by means of kun, which is His Word, —Praised be He—, God detaches and makes them discerned (faṣṣala) causing them to come unveiled (gayb).

     This detachment [of the world of the invisible] occurs in a twofold way: [firstly], through the speech (bi-l-qawl) and, secondly, through the act (bi-l-fi ‘l). The speech [that is, the uttered words] (maqūlāt) are all spiritual entities (rūḥāniyyāt), while the results of the acts (maf‘ūlāt) are all bodies.

     The origin of all bodies is water[27], out of which bodies have been shaped according to what corresponds to them. [Water] is, therefore, among the substances (ŷawāhir), the first one that has been shown.

     As for the spirits, all of them are in the concealed inner body (al-ŷism al-bāṭin al-jafī), which is the spirit that contains [that is, that encompasses] water, the carrier of everything, which is also the space [the place-time of the event] (al-makān), and it is also the air (al-hawā’), in which the letters spread out [and articulate]. The origin[28] of the letters is the alif, the noblest and highest among them all. This is followed by the wāw and then the yā’. These three letters constitute the highest category of letters[29]. The alif stands for the rational faculty (al-quwwa al-nāṭiqa)[30] and for the most balanced of the vowels [which is the vowel fatḥa, that is, ‘a’], inherent in the [grammatical case called] naṣb[31].

     This [rational faculty corresponding to the alif] encompasses [in turn] five faculties: reason (aql’), memory (ḍikr), understanding (fahm), reflection (fikr) and imagination (tajyīl)[32]. These are all its faculties.

     The letter wāw on the other hand, stands for the vital animal force[33], it shifts by the most intense and strongest of the vowels that is [the vowel ḍamma, that is, ‘u’], inherent in the [grammatical case called] raf’[34], and it resembles, in relation to corporeal things, the nature of fire[35].

     As for the nature of the alif, this is [analogous to] the nature of the sphere (falak), since [the alif] does not tend either to ‘descent’ (jafḍ), nor to ‘ascent’ (raf’)[36].

     The following faculties correspond to wāw: the visual faculty (al-bāṣira), the auditory (al-sāmi’a), the olfactory (al-šāmma), the taste (al-ḏā’iqa), the touch (al- lāmisa), irascibility (al-gaḍabiyya) and the driving power (al-muḥarrika)[37]. They are therefore seven, in total, the faculties [of the letter wāw].

     For its part, the letter yā’ stands for the natural faculty (ṭabī’iyya)[38] and is linked to the lowliest (anqaṣ) of the vowels, which is the [vowel kasra, that is,’i’] inherent in [grammatical case called] ‘descent’ (jafḍ)[39]. [The letter yā’] has the following faculties: the respiratory faculty (nāšiqa)[40], the grasping or retentive faculty (māsika)[41], the excretory or driving power (dāfi’a), the dividing faculty (qāsima), the translative faculty (‘ādiyya)[42], the shaping faculty (muṣawwira)[43], the begetting faculty (muwallida).

     And these forces operate through the four principles that have to be multiplied by them, which are heat, cold, dryness and humidity. Thus these [resulting] forces, which are spiritual forms (ṣuwar rūḥāniyya), are in total twenty-eight[44]. Fourteen of them are natural (ṭabī‘iyya) and the other fourteen are psychical (nafsāniyya). When their substance is air, they are spirits and souls, and when their substance is water, then they are bodies (aŷsām).

     So, the Scripture of creation (kitāb al-majlūq)[45], when the air is the substance of its letters –that are arranged for bringing out what is concealed within them (gayb), which is their mystery (sirr)– is a saying (qawl) and speech (kalām), and when the substance of its letters is ink (midād)[46], then it is book (kitāb) and visible physical images (ṣuwar muŷassama mar’iyya). And just as the Scripture of creation indicates what His word (qawl) contains, and His word means that what His interiority (gayb) or His secret contains, so the body of the cosmos (ŷism al-‘ālam) with the wholeness of its parts is, in relation to the Originator (al-Bāri’) –may He be exalted–, as the Scripture (al-kitāb) which means His word (qawl) and His discourse (kalām), which indicates what His hidden mystery (gayb) contains –Exalted be He, there is no God but Him, the Lord of the Exalted Throne–. And we cannot offer more than this as enlightenment (īḍāḥ) of this sublime secret, for there would be [e. d., in further enlightenment] a manifest danger of corruption (fasād)[47].

     The noblest ones of all the letters are nine[48], from whose light the other letters receive beauty and splendor, and they are as follows: alif lām qāf ḥā’nūn mīm ṭā’[49] rā’ṣād.

     The manifest bodies –the seven heavens, the Footstool and the Throne– signify them and indicate their nobility and elevation. And these are the nine corporeal entities (muŷassamāt) [corresponding to the nine letters]. They are also [part of] the letters that God has named as metonymies or symbolic designations (kanā ‘an-hā) in the Qur’an when He says: alif-lr / khy-‘-ṣ / ṭ-s / ḥ-m / q / n[50], and they are the letters of the Pen [first] (al-qalam), the Tablet [preserved] (al-lawḥ), the existential imperative (kun) and the ṣād, gathered in [the sequence of letters] alif-lm-ṣ[51] (C. 7: 1). Following them in rank and nobility are the letters of the Primordial Dust (habā’)[52], the air, the atmosphere (ŷaww)[53], the wind, the cloud[54], the darkness, the light, the fire, the water, the clay, the heaven and earth[55].

   Qur’an manuscript Surat al-Nisa

♦ ♦ ♦


[1] Sahl al˗tustarī, Tafsīr, pp. 17, 24. Anṣārī, Ṭabaqāt, p. 116. Cf. Encyclopédie de l’Islam (EI²), III, pp. 869˗871.

[2] M. A. Sells, Early Islamic Mysticism. Sufi, Qur’an, Mi‘raj, Poetic and Theological Writings, New York, Paulist Press, 1996.

[3] Vid. Böwering, The Mystical Vision of Existence in Classical Islam: The Qur’anic Hermeneutics of the Ṣufī Sahl at˗tustarī, Berlin, Walter de Gruyter, 1980, pp. 113˗24.

[4] Vid. Gal˗s, I, 647.

[5] A complete critical list of Tustarī’s works can be found in Böwering, op. Cit., Pp. 11˗18.

[6] Vid. Rafael Ramón Guerrero, «Ibn Masarra, gnóstico y místico andalusí», J. Solana (ed.), in Las raíces de la cultura europea. Ensayos en homenaje al profesor Joaquín Lomba, Zaragoza, Prensas Universitarias de Zaragoza˗Institución Fernando el Católico, 2004, pp. 223˗239.

[7] Cf. P. Lory, «Ibn Masarra», in Dictionnaire critique de l’ésotérisme, ed. J. Servier, Paris, PUF, 1998, pp. 663˗665.

[8] This same expression wa˗hiya uṣūl al˗ašyā’ is found literally in the Risālat al-ḥurūf of Ibn Masarra. Vid. MK Ŷa’far, Kitāb al˗jawāṣṣ al˗ḥurūf wa˗ḥaqā’iqi˗hā wa˗uṣūli˗hā in Min qaḍāyā l˗fikr al˗islāmī, Dirāsa wa˗nuṣūṣ, Cairo, Dār al˗’Ulūm, 1978 ( Ḥurūf, ed. Ŷa’far), p. 317. In both authors, the First Matter of the world seems to be consubstantial with the Divine Word. The letters that make up the names are not simple elements of ordinary language but matrix principles by means of which the world is begotten. They are, in reality, the Raw Material of all creation. The Qur’an states, in various ayahs, that God created the world through his Word, saying to everything «Be! (kun) »(vid. C: 2: 117, 3:47, 3:59, 7:44, 15: 98, 16:40, 19:35, 36: 82, 39: 66, 40: 68).

[9] Lit. ‘the word of creation’ or ‘creative word’. Jalq means ‘creation’ or ‘creature’, but in many contexts, as in this one, it refers to man as creation par excellence.

[10] Note the correspondence between this term used by Tustarī, a‘yān qā’ima, and the term a‘yān ṯābita (immutable entities) used in the writings of Ibn ‘Arabī.

[11] The adjective qā’ima seems to allude to the ‘verticality’ and the active character of the Supreme Pen, while the adjective lā’iḥa could allude to the ‘horizontality’ and the passive character of the preserved Table (al˗lawḥ). Next, the divine Will is active with respect to the objects of knowledge that are passive.

[12] Vid. note 9.

[13] The imperative kun, symbolized by the first letter of the word and of this ayah, the kāf, precedes and, in this sense, «contains» the primordial Dust (al-habā’), to which the letter hā’ would refer here.

[14] According to the Egyptian edition –which modifies the text– it would be necessary to translate «and it is the will, since it is founded on the science that encompasses everything».

[15] Note that the author distinguishes himself here from the philosophers since, if this were not, he would not use this denomination to refer to them as something different. Like Ibn Masarra, Ibn Jamīs and Ibn ‘Arabī, Tustarī mentions the philosophers without implying that he identifies himself with them. This dialogue with philosophy, in which the referents of philosophical discourse are included, responds to the general intellectual milieu typical of the «cultural koine» of the time, but it does not mean ascription to a philosophical current in a restricted sense. The deeply Islamic character of the intellectual and mystical orientation of Tustarī’s writings does not, of course, exclude contrast and references to terms proper to philosophy.

[16] The Egyptian edition also reads al˗itqān, “the perfect mastery”, which is appropriate in context and would have its scriptural foundation in C. 27: 88.

[17] The term mukawwanāt has the same lexical root K˗W˗N as the term kun.

[18] Kitāb = kun (existential power). Note the importance of this identification. The fact that the ‘existential kun’ is also called a ‘book’ is an allusion to the macrocosmic book of existence and directly links the divine Word with Scripture and with creation. Thus a perfect correspondence between the order of The Being and the order of the letters is conceived.

In the previous paragraphs, the text thus establishes the following correspondences:

kun = kalima = ṣūra = ḥaqīqa = irāda = ‘ilm muḥīṭ

ḥaqīqa = ṭabī‘a = nafs

kun = quwwa = kitāb

[19] In Arabic, lam yalid wa˗lam yūlad wa˗lam yakun lahu kufuwan aḥad (C. 112: 3,4). The fact that it neither begets nor has been begotten is an expression of this transcendent condition of the Essence.

[20] This second attribute is the function or degree of divinity that corresponds to the name Allāh not as a name of the transcendent and unknowable Essence, but as a name that comprises the totality of the distinctive divine names and, therefore, establishes relationships and distinctions.

[21] Although grammatically it is a pronoun, theologians frequently consider it a divine name. It is usual to interpret, especially among Sufis, that all the pronouns with which God refers to Himself in revelation (I, You, We, etc.) are as many divine names.

[22] Lit. ‘the addition’ that is, ‘the height [of grace]’. Allusion to the Qur’anic term mentioned in C. 50: 35 and 50: 30.

[23] The Matrix Scripture. Vid. C. 3: 7, 13:39 and 43: 4. Vid. Ibn Masarra, Ḥurūf, ed. Ŷa’far, pp. 325˗326.

[24] Note the use of apparently contrary terms, light (nūr) and veil (ḥiŷāb), reconciled here: light veils what it reveals, illuminates as well as blinds. The terms gayb and imkān are also associated here, since they both refer to the world of the latent, the potential, that which remains ‘hidden’ or is invisible insofar as it does not exist in act. The first is Qur’anic, while the second is typical of classical philosophical discourse.

[25] The entire passage reads like this: «He who knows the hidden. He does not reveal to anyone what He has hidden, except to whom He accepts as messenger. Then, He makes him to be observed from the front and from the back, to know [God] if they have transmitted [His envoys] the messages of their Lord. He encompasses [in His science] everything concerning them and keeps an exact account of everything» (C. 72: 26-28).

[26] Ibn Masarra frequently uses these same terms (muŷmala˗mufaṣṣala). Vid. Ḥurūf, ed. Ŷa’far, p. 339. On the other hand, it is understood that the predestined things (maqādīr) mentioned in the text are the names of the potential beings, constituted by the matrix letters, before the divine order grants them existence in act in the Book of the Universe.

[27] This primal and original water is mentioned in the following ayahs (trans. J. Cortés):

«Have not the infidels seen that the heavens and the earth formed a homogeneous whole and that We separated them? And that We got out of the water every living being? And won’t they believe?» (C. 21:30). «God created all animals from water (seminal fluid): some of them crawl, others walk on two legs, others on four. God creates what He wants. God is omnipotent» (C. 24:45). «He is the one who created a human being from water, making him related by consanguinity or by affinity. Your Lord is omnipotent» (C. 25: 54).

Also mentioned in the Qur’an is the divine Throne over the primordial waters that preceded the creation of the heavens and the earth (see also C. 10: 3): «He is the one who created the heavens and the earth in six days, having His Throne in the water, to test you, to see who of you is the best behaved. If you say: “You will be raised after death”, surely the infidels will say: “This is nothing more than manifest magic”» (C. 11: 7).

[28] It is read this way in the manuscript. However, the copyist writes a letter ŷīm under the ṣād of the word ‘aṣl’, suggesting that ‘aŷall al˗ḥurūf’ («the most exalted of letters») should be read instead of ‘aṣl al˗ḥurūf’. However, as noted by the Egyptian editor (vid. Ḥurūf, ed. Ŷa‘far, p. 369), by citing this passage in his Kitāb al˗luma‘ al˗Sarrāŷ reproduces the reading aṣl al˗ḥurūf. The comments of Tustarī that Sarrāŷ collects in his chapter on letters and names are an important reference to the authenticity of the authorship of the opuscle (see Sarrāŷ, K. Al˗Luma’ [ed. Beirut], p. 80).

[29] Lit. ‘more distant’ (al˗aqṣā).

[30] Lit. ‘faculty of language articulation’ (nuṭq). In philosophy, the rational faculty.

[31] This is, in general, the accusative or adverbial case. The term naṣb means ‘erect sign’. Ibn Masarra makes a similar use of this and of the grammatical terms that appear later in the text. Vid. Ḥurūf, ed. Ŷa’far, p. 320.

In his work Naḥw al˗qulūb, Qušayrī also establishes correspondences between the grammatical rules and various stages of spiritual progression, proposing a parallel between the nominative and the elevation of the will, the accusative and the activity of the bodies in obedience to God , and the genitive and the humility of the soul before the Creator. Cf. P. Lory, La science des lettres en Islam, Paris, Dervy, 2004, p. 53.

[32] I keep the term in the second form just as it appears in the manuscript, although the use of the fifth form tajayyul is more common to designate the imagination.

[33] The force that is directly related to life (ḥayāt) is called ḥayawāniyya, that is, with animation, the vital force.

[34] The term raf’, which means ‘elevation’ in the common language, designates in general, in grammar, the nominative case, the function of subject and nominal ruler. The grapheme of the vowel ‘u’ is written over the consonants. The second term of a noun rection (iḍāfa), characterized in general by the vowel ‘i’, is subordinate to the ruler, normally characterized by the vowel ‘u’.

[35] The author alludes to the fact that the fire rises, just as the vowel of the nominative —condition of the subject— corresponds to an elevation (raf’).

[36] That is to say, it does not tend neither to the genitive (in Arabic, ‘descent’), nor to the nominative (in Arabic, ‘ascent’). Like the sphere (falak), the alif – symbol of unity – rotates on its axis without going down nor up. Just as the sphere contains everything that surrounds it, the alif foreshadows and contains all the other letters. Like the vessel (fulk) [another possible reading], it neither rises nor sinks. The alif corresponds to the vowel ‘a’ proper, as has been explained, of the accusative and adverbial cases.

[37] Note that the faculties corresponding to the alif are all intelligible, interior, while those corresponding to the wāw and yā‘ are all sensitive, proper to the domain of natural manifestation.

[38] The three letters can be put in relation to the three souls described by Aristotle: intellectual, animal and vegetative.

[39] The term jafḍ, which means in the common language ‘to go down’ and ‘to make descend’, designates in general, in grammar, the use of the genitive case and, therefore, a dependency relation. The yā’ is linked to the vowel ‘i’ that normally characterizes the genitive and is written under the consonants.

[40] Lit. ‘from aspire’.

[41] In the ms., After the grasping force, there is also the imaginative faculty (mujayyila [sic]) that has already appeared previously in the enumeration of the faculties of the alif, among which the imagination (tajyīl) [sic – instead of tajayyul—]. I have chosen to omit it here considering that it is an erroneous addition in the copy, since later (vid note 45 infra) it follows that the forces of the yā’ are seven in total –although in this case the text does not specify the total as in the case of the faculties of the letter wāw— and not eight, as happens when adding the imaginative, which does not correspond to the natural order, but to the intellectual faculties of the alif.

[42] The term also means ‘running’, ‘passing’ or ‘exceeding’ and can be understood as ‘translation’ or ‘flow’.

[43] Or either, representative.

[44] Thus, the 7 forces of the yā’ are multiplied by the 4 temperaments, and it gives rise to 28 forces, which correspond to the 28 mansions of the moon and the 28 letters of the alphabet. On the symbolic meaning of the number 28, vid. A. Schimmel, The Mystery of Numbers, Oxford, Oxford University, 1993, pp. 238˗239.

[45] The manuscript reads kalām al˗majlūq —which is not noted in the edition of Ŷa‘far—, but the word kalām is repeated afterwards, and later the expression kitāb al˗ majlūq is used as the subject in question. For this reason and by affinity with the R. al˗I’tibār –whose author says that «the whole world is a Scripture whose letters constitute His speech»–, I consider it more appropriate to read here “the Book of creation”. See Ibn Masarra, Risālat al˗I‘tibār, ed. Ŷa’far, p. 346.

[46] The lexical root of the word ‘ink’ (M˗D˗D) is the same as that of the word ‘matter’ (mādda) which implies the idea of ​​’expansion’, both in space and time (mudda). The author of the resource that Pablo Beneito has called lexical interreference is therefore used (vid, for example, El lenguaje de las alusiones, Murcia, Editora Regional de Murcia, 2005, p. 162). The author chooses with great delicacy the expressions and technical terms that he uses, fully aware of their significance, constantly echoing the divine Word, the fundamental object of his thought and teachings, the source from which his own discourse flows, which he interprets, as will later do Ibn ‘Arabī and other Sufis, from a hyper-literalist perspective.

[47] It is understood that by revealing more about it, you could make expressions that would cause people without the ability to understand to deviate. The theme of caution and reserve in relation to the secret of divine lordship (rubūbiyya) —and its relation to human servitude— is a constant in Sufi writings. Ḥallāŷ was in fact accused, as is well known, of having spread this secret outside the realm of initiation.

[48] Regarding the alphabets of the languages ​​of revelation, Pierre Lory comments on the doctrine according to which «at each new stage of spiritual growth of humanity, the original divine Names are manifested in greater detail. Thus Adam would have used a nine-letter alphabet, Abraham would have used 14 (half of 28), Moses 22 (Hebrew alphabet)… and Muhammad 28». Vid. P. Lory, Science, p. 55. Perhaps these nine letters mentioned here by Tustarī correspond to those nine letters of the original Adamic language.

[49] I have opted for the variant that the manuscript offers in a margin note, as explained below, where the letter ṭā’ appears instead of the kāf that appears in the text line. This kāf in initial form looks like a dāl, whose spelling is identical to its lower part. This explains why Ŷa’far chose to write dāl instead of kāf in his edition noting (vid p. 370), notwithstanding it might be the letter kāf. Note that the dāl is not counted among the 14 luminous letters, which rules out this possibility, while the kāf does (C. 19: 1). In any case, also the letter kāf —although related to the kun that appears later in the text— poses a certain difficulty here, since it is the only one among those mentioned that does not appear in any of the sequences cited later in the text of the manuscript. (Although it is included in the correction to the margin, which is the version that I consider correct and reproduce in this edition. Vid infra note 51).

In the manuscript, under the enumeration of the nine letters another enumeration appears —added as an alternative or correction— in which the following nine letters appear in this order: alif˗l˗r˗ḥ˗q˗m˗ṭ˗n˗ṣ. Here the kāf has been changed to ṭā’, the letter that begins the sequences of the first ayahs of C. 20, 26, 27 and 28. The alternative of ṭā’, which seems to me more plausible in the context by analogy with others related texts on the letters, poses the same difficulty as the kāf, since it is also not counted among the letters mentioned in the sequences cited below. In this case, when including the ṭā’ in the enumeration, the mention of ṭā’˗sīn (C. 27: 1) or of ṭā’˗hā’ (C. 20: 1) should be added among the sequences cited afterwards, with which we would have in the set effectively, without counting repetitions, the 9 enumerated letters (alif˗l˗r˗ḥ˗q˗m˗ṭ˗n˗ṣ), in addition to the sīn or the hā’ that would necessarily accompany the ṭā’, and not just eight as in the current text (alif˗l˗m˗ṣ˗r˗q˗n˗ḥ).

[50] Alif˗l˗r (C. 10, 11, 12, 14 and 15) / k˗h˗y˗’˗ṣ (C. 19) / ṭ˗s (C. 27) / ḥ˗m (C. 40 , 41, 42, 43, 44, 45 and 46) / q (C. 50) / n (C. 68). This is how the numbering of letter sequences appears in the margin of fol. 171 (ms. No. 3168 of the Chester Beatty Collection in Dublin) as an alternative to the text. This enumeration only mentions the six ayahs with luminous letters that together, without repeating any, include the total of the fourteen enigmatic letters. This is, in my opinion, not a mere marginal note, but a possible restitution of the text. That is why I have chosen this option in the edition keeping the one offered by the text and the edition of Ŷa’far (alif˗l˗m alif˗l˗m˗ṣ alif˗l˗rqn ḥ˗m), whose text is incomplete, in note. If the mentioned sequences are to contain the nine letters mentioned above, then one of the sequences with the letter ṭā’ is missing. Vid. Note 50 supra.

Al˗Būnī, who quotes this writing by Tustarī repeatedly, gives the following version of this passage: «The noblest of all mysterious letters (al˗ḥurūf al˗mu’ŷama) [or, without further ado, the letters of the alphabet] are the nine [sic] letters in whose light the other letters mu’ŷama are clothed, which are as follows: alif lām rā ḥā’ qāf lām ṣād [sic (only seven are mentioned)]. The manifest bodies –the seven heavens, the Footstool and the Throne– signify them and indicate their nobility and elevation. And these are the seven [sic (he has mentioned nine)] corporeal entities (muŷassamāt) referred to by God –may He be exalted– in the Qur’an when He says: alif˗l˗m˗ṣ (C. 7), Alif˗l˗ m˗r (C. 13), ḥ˗m (C. 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45 and 46), k˗h˗y˗’˗ṣ (C. 19), ṭ˗s (C 27) [ṭ˗h according to the Quote of Ŷa’far], and these are the fourteen letters. Al˗Būnī, Aḥmad b. ‘Alī, Šams al˗ma‘ārif al˗kubrà, Maktabat al˗Manār, Tunisia, s. f., p. 81. I understand that it is missing at the end of the text, among the letter sequences, the mention of the letters nūn and qāf with which seven groups of letters and fourteen letters in total would be completed. Unfortunately, there is no critical edition of the Šams al˗ma‘ārif.

[51] The Calamus corresponds symbolically to the letter alif —both because of its verticality and because it is the first of the letters—; the Table (lawḥ) corresponds to the lām, the first letter of the term; the kun would correspond to the mīm, perhaps because it is the letter that grammatically represents and characterizes the place (makān) of the event, because it is the letter of mulk and malakūt, or perhaps because it is —although it seems unlikely— the first letter of the name of Muḥammad, from whose primordial reality all things would have been created; and finally the ṣād, which —perhaps alludes to ṣudūr, ‘appearance’, or ṣayrūra, ‘happen’, as in Ibn Masarra—, corresponds to the final ṣād of the sequence.

[52] And not ‘alphabet’ (hiŷā’), as it appears erroneously in the edition of Ŷa‘far.

[53] Ŷa’far erroneously reads ‘the geniuses’ (al˗ŷinn).

[54] I read al˗‘amā’, a relevant technical term in this context, in accordance with the quote from Ibn Masarra referring to this passage (vid. Ms. Ḥurūf, fol. 155). In the manuscript and in the Egyptian edition, al˗‘imār is read —which does not respond to the terminology of related texts of the time— which would have to be understood with the sense of ‘imāra, ‘construction’.

[55] Twelve realities are mentioned in total. The text does not provide elements that allow establishing a correlation with the corresponding twelve letters, or knowing the reason why they are twelve and not ten (plus the previous four that would add up to sixteen) or fourteen. In the reference to this text that appears in Jawāṣṣ al˗hurūf, Ibn Masarra does not include heaven and earth in this list. If we eliminate them here, we do have fourteen realities then (vid. Ḥurūf, fol. 115).

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