There sometimes appear obscure references to a mysterious language, one which only a few great masters know and teach to a chosen few. It is known as suryaniyya, leading to confusion between this and the historical Syriac language, both in old sources and contemporary studies. Esoteric suryaniyya is primordial (associated with Adam) and specifically linked to the language of the friends of God in Sufism.
I’ve recently noticed shaykh Ibn al ‘Arabī refer to the language spoken by Adam. Later masters, such as ʿAbd al-Wahhab ash-Shaʿrani (d. 1565), and ʿAbd al-ʿAziz ad-Dabbagh (d. 1719) have done the same. Shaykh ad-Dabbagh is an interesting Sufi. He is an ‘ummi. He was not exactly illiterate, but he has not undergone any formal studies. It is also interesting that Shaykh ad-Dabbagh mentions the ‘language’ of very young children (I wonder if some of this language returns to those elderly who are close to death) and also refers to a special language in the Highest Assembly (Diwan).
Parents at times imitate the sound of this primordial language. Shaykh Ibn al-’Arabi says in his Fusus al-Hikam:
“Do you not see how the child has an effect on the older person by the special quality the child has? The older person descends from his leading position to play with the child and rock him in his arms and show himself at the child’s level of intellect he descends to the level of the child’s intellect. He is under subjugation even though he is not aware of it. He occupies himself with instructing and protecting the child, seeing to his needs and consoling him so that the child is not distressed.”
“All this is part of the effect of the young on the old. That is due to the strength of their station. The young have a new covenant with their Lord because they have newly come into being. The old person is further from Him. Whoever is nearer to Allah subjects whoever is further away from Him, just as the elite of the near angels subject the further ones.”
Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir of Algeria writes about the Suryaniyya language that:
“it remained pure from the time of Adam until Idries, also known as Hermes Trismegistus (Hermes, the Thrice-Greatest), who was at the same time 1. prophet, 2. king and 3. healer (…). When Idries disappeared, people changed the Suryaniyya language and caused it to deviate from its origin. They derived their own languages therefrom.”
Hermes (Idries) lived before the flood. Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir of Algeria mentions him (‘builder of the pyramids’) a number of times when writing about the primordial language. The Algerian shaykh states:
“The first language extracted from the Suryaniyya language is the language of India that is the most similar. The Suryaniyya language infiltrated all other languages, like water in the wood.”
When reading about India, I was reminded of the legend of the expulsion of Adam from Paradise. It is said that he descended to Sri Lanka. Would that Indian language be Sanskrit? Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir appears to disagree because he states that the Suryaniyya language is of three kinds: the oldest thereof has the same alphabet as the Arabic alphabet, except for a small number of letters. But perhaps he only refers to the written language and not to the earlier spoken language.
According to shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir, each (!) letter of the Suryaniyya language has a specific meaning. He doesn’t add any examples, but Gustav Dugat in Le Livre D’Abd-El-Kader (1858) gives in note 85 some examples after talking to a certain shaykh Fares, but this in respect to the Arab language. The difficulty is to discover which meaning is attached to each letter. Shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi in his The Openings Revealed in Mecca (ch. 2 and in many other chapters) and in several other books has very extensively dealt with the harvest of unveiling the meaning of the letters of the alphabet.
Luca Patrizi says some valuable things about the Suryaniyya language: (link checked on 6-6-2022):
The Qur’anic reference to the Language of the Birds (mantiq = language, but also logic; the English word semantic is related to mantiq) has led the storyteller among the Sufis, shaykh Fariduddin ‘Attar, to write his Mantiq at-Tayr (The Language of the Birds). Shaykh ‘Abdulwahid Yahya has this to say about the same:
“There is often mention, in different traditions, of a mysterious language called the ‘language of the birds’. The expression is clearly a symbolic one since the very importance which is attached to the knowledge of the language—it is considered to be the prerogative of a high initiation—precludes a literal interpretation. The Qur’an, for example, says (27:15) “And Solomon was David’s heir and he said, ‘O men, we have been taught the language of the birds (ullimna mantiq at-tayr) and all favours have been showered upon us’.”
“Elsewhere we read of heroes, like Siegfried in the Nordic legend, who understand this language of the birds as soon as they have overcome the dragon, and the symbolism in question may be easily understood from this. Victory over the dragon has, as its immediate consequence, the conquest of immortality which is represented by some object, the approach to which is barred by the dragon, and the conquest of immortality implies, essentially, reintegration at the centre of the human state, that is, at the point where communication is established with the higher states of being. It is this communication which is represented by the understanding of the language of the birds and, in fact, birds are often taken to symbolise the angels which are precisely the higher states of being. That is the significance, in the Gospel parable of the grain of mustard seed, of ‘the birds of the air’ which came to lodge in the branches of the tree; the tree which represents the axis that passes through the centre of each state of being and connects all the states with each other.”
Let’s continue with the Letterist shaykh Fazlallah Astarabadi. Shaykh who? You’ll find an interview with this leader of the Letterists (Hurufis) here: https://sufi-tavern.com/sufi-interviews/the-lover-of-the-abc/
In his perception, all tangible reality is a materialization of the Divine meta-language. The sounds of the cosmos are the spoken aspect of this meta-language and the physical world is its written aspect. Shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi, by the way, calls a spoken letter ‘spirit’ and the solid written letter ‘body’. I’ll make a short remark about the shape of the letters below. The meta-language has been revealed to shaykh Fazlallah and he could understand all of existence by hearing and reading the cosmos. His teachings for other human beings amount to instruction in the meta-language; the more it becomes a part of your consciousness, the better you understand the cosmos and your own place within it.
Individual letters/sounds of ordinary languages provide the strongest connection to the meta-language. Shaykh Fazlallah’s interpretations provide a technique for breaking and reconstituting language. A fundamental difference between metalanguage and ordinary languages is that different human senses are to be used. Ordinary language can be understood by senses like the ears and eyes, while the meta-language can be understood through the heart. Shaykh Fazlallah made use of the abjad system. There are, however, several abjad systems (Gérard Chauvin in his Le Nom de Dieu writes about eighth systems) each with different implications. The use of the abjad system by e.g. the people of the light gives rise to their own interpretation.
Bektashi Sufis have received an intense Letterist influence by means of shaykh Fazlallah Astarabadi. God’s primal state, an unknown First Cause (the Hidden Treasure), emanated in the form of the Word. This abstract and undifferentiated Word became separated and externalized into certain elements: the 28 letters of the Arabic alphabet and the 32 letters of the Persian alphabet. The Letterists state that these form the elements of the Spoken Word. It is because of their combination that the world we can perceive with our senses came into existence.
The Bektashis say that God’s revelation of Himself through prophets has been progressive: To each prophet has been revealed an understanding of an increased number of letters, i.e. the elements out of which the universe was created.
Adam: 9 letters
Abraham: 14 letters
Moses: 22 letters
Jesus: 24 letters
Shaykh Fazlullah Astarabadi was considered no less than a prophet by the Letterists among the Bektashis. He was put to death because of his claims. He said that he had received 32 letters.
John Kingsley Birge asked an enthusiastic Bektashi Letterist from Albania (The Bektashi order of Dervishes): “How one could be sure that Adam knew only nine letters.” With complete confidence the Hurufi-Bektashi in Albania then took a piece of paper to prove that Adam received 9 letters:
A = 1 [ ا ]
D = 4 [ د ]
M = 40 [ م ]
1+4+40 = 45 = 4+5 = 9.
John Kingsley Birge could not get the proof that Abraham only knew 14 letters. My total for his name in Arabic ابرَاهِيم comes to 259 = 2+5+9 = 16. The Albanian Bektashi Sufi might perhaps point to the Qur’an, wherein the chapter with the name Abraham is number 14.
Bektashis also paid attention to the shape of a letter, as there is a difference between spoken and written letters, the shape of a letter is also important. Let’s take as an example the Arabic letter n, which is written like this: ن. The shape of this ‘fishy’ letter has been compared to Noah’s ark containing a ‘seed’ (the dot) to be brought to safety into the world after the deluge.
Let’s turn to some Letterist examples in western languages. Think of St. Francesco of Assisi in the I Fioretti di S. Francesco dealing with the mystical effects of the letters A! A! A! and U! U! U! Carmela Crescenti gives this example and refers very briefly to Latin and Greek letters in her ‘Ilm al-hurûf – Métaphysique de la langue et des lettres selon la doctrine d’Ibn ‘Arabî. When returning to languages, there is the Lingua Ignota by the twelfth-century German nun Hildegard of Bingen. Is it an inspired language or an artificial one?
I’ve bought James Cowan’s A Troubadour’s Testament some years ago in a bookshop that was selling second-hand books. I bought it because of the word troubadour in the title. A mutrib (مطرب) is a minstrel who causes you to dance and skip about for joy. I don’t remember if James deals with the root of this word in Arabic, TRB, but I know that James is a lover of letters. When James is meditating in his The Book of Letters on the alphabet he mentions men such as Ibn Masarra, at-Tustari, at-Tirmidhi, Ibn al-‘Arabi and Ibn Gabirol, who were active in exploring the mystical properties of the letters: “To them, every word (and by implication, every letter) possessed a light.” “To Ibn Massara,” James says, “the world in its entirety is a book whose letters are the speech of God.”
Shaykh Ibn Massara (883-931) states that there are two sciences, one of the invisible, transcendental world, the other of the apparent and sensible world. The inner meanings in the sciences can be learned through the science of letters. By studying the enigmatic letters at the beginning of the Qur’anic surahs, one can decipher the secret knowledge of the truth symbolized by them.
James Cowan’s The Book of Letters is his last completed work. It was written during his final months in 2018 and he intended it to be his ultimate testimony. He deals not really with the Arabic alphabet, but shows, among other things, his love for the forgotten original sanctity of letters of the western alphabet.
When he says about the letter A that “Some see it as the true Orient of Lights and the first upright letter associated with Adam,” he could as well also refer to the Alif of the Arabic alphabet. I am certain that when shaykh Ibn Masarra would read the cris de coeur of James Cowan, he would be content therewith.
“I must be true to the alphabet (says James Cowan). It is the perfect discursus of my dreams. When I begin to fall asleep at night I see letters spiralling to earth like leaves… How can one not embrace the majesty of the word? Prayer is my secret amanuenses. I listen to its directives. Theophanic words tumble from the lips of saints, men of silence and of the Word. I have met them in desert caves, on forest paths between hermitages, in temple corridors among rock gardens. I have heard their words of welcome uttered in numerous languages – Greek, Italian, Coptic, Arabic, Spanish, Hindi and Japanese. All words are the same. Fraternity is a verb as well as a noun.“
Letters for shaykh at-Tirmidhi contain ‘lights’. James again:
“Each letter in the alphabet contains what medieval French scribes call in their Book of Hours an ystoire. In their careful calligraphic work, bound to desk and parchment as they were, these men used to historiate individual letters and give them visual life. Thus each ystoire becomes an ‘illumination’ filled with immaculate colour, the colour of inner knowledge.”
James Cowan’s The Book of Letters is a return to the purity of language and the sanctity of words. It is his final attempt at genuine metaphysics of language. “Ibn Masarra,” James says, “further emphasized that it is not about providing practical applications or powers to letters, but of penetrating the mystical meanings buried in each one of them.”
Shaykh Najmuddin Kubra informs us about heavenly languages by mentioning books written in such languages. Fritz Meier presents an impressive list of Übersinnliche Schriften on p. 134 of Die Fawa’ih al-Gamal wa-Fawatih al-Galal, the masterpiece of shaykh Najmuddin Kubra.: “There are books of the Unseen, written by God, some with dots, others with figures and again others with letters, but without our kind of expressions. They have curious names…” (and then he presents a list containing about ten titles like Collection of Secrets and Book of Love).
Shaykh Najmuddin Kubra writes in his commentary on the Qur’an that such books have to do with the innermost consciousness (sirr) of human beings. Such writings can or cannot be understood depending on the state of blackness of your nature that makes you forget Divine knowledge. Shaykh Najmuddin Kubra tells about his own experiences and has even made some drawings thereof. These drawings are of the stars, planets and moon in the sky which he interprets in an inspired way.
Fritz Meier then starts discussing the subject of heavenly names. What he writes about the Prophet is similar to the opinion of Zahurul Hasan Sharib. Dr. Sharib, in his meditation on the qualities of the Prophet, says that “Ahmad is his name in the heavens and Muhammad is his name on earth.” Shaykh Abu Madyan, who according to shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi is ‘the shaykh of the West’ – is called Abu’n-Najah in the Unseen world. Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir Jilani – ‘the shaykh of the East’ has received the name al-Baz al-Ashab (the Grey Falcon). In the Qasida Ghawthiya attributed to shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir Jilani, he says:
انا البازی اشهب کل شیخ
و من ذافی الرجال اعطی مثال
I am the grey falcon among the shaykhs.
Who among the people of the Path has received as much as I?
Shaykh Najmuddin Kubra has received the heavenly name Qantarun. This name has no meaning in Arabic or in Persian. In case I understand the shaykh correctly, the name Qantarun means “the one who is insatiable in receiving impulses” – implying the receipt of direct knowledge from God (‘ilm al-ladunni).
The language of the angels, the language of Adam, is called the Suryaniyya language. The Suryaniyya language is the mother of the most ancient human languages. When we are not interested in its etymology (Surya may or may not be related to the Sanskrit word for ‘sun’) and regard it in a symbolic way, then it points to the illumination of the heart. The root S.R.Y. implies the concept of ‘travel’ or ‘journey by night’ (أَسْرَى). When you are performing the dhikr-Allah, the midnight sun may send its light to your heart to guide you. Shaykh Abu Sa’id Abi’l-Khayr says according to Mohammad Ibn-e-Monawwar (Asrar at-Tawhid fi Maqamat-e-shaykh Abu Sa’id):
ذا نحــــــــن ادلجنــــــــا و انــــــــت امامنــــــــا
کفـــــی لمطـــــا یـــــا نـــــا بـــــذکرک هادیـــــا
When we travel in the night and You are in front of us,
It is sufficient for our caravan to recite Your name to be guided.