The meaning of the number four

In all kinds of cultures the number four is closely connected to the order of the world. Think of the 4 phases of the moon, the four heavenly directions, the four winds, etc In Maya cosmology the 4 is very important. The Maya settlements were ordered according to the divine plan: four ways who lead from the holy tree to the 4 directions with guardians at the 4 ends of the village. Examples of the Chinese, the Celts, the Etruscian civilisation, the Byzantines (think of the four-cornered structure of the old Byzantine church), the Hindus and so many others can be given and all of them stress the importance of the number four. And we have not yet spoken about the four and the kabbala, the Hopi-indians, the Sioux, the Tarot…

Islam knows the four holy books, Thora, Psalms, The Gospel and the Qur’an. When you are four years, four months and four days old it is the habit in Indian Islam to recite something for the first time from the Qur’an. Islamic history points to the four righteous caliphs. The number four is a symbol of the universal khilafat as well. In the Othmanic dynasty there were four main functions present at the court.

In Sufism they speak about:

1. shariat
2. tariqat
3. ma’rifat
4. haqiqat

The four worlds are mentioned:

1. nasut (the world of mankind)
2. malakut (the world of the angels)
3. jabarut (the world of power)
4. lahut (the divine world)

For Ibn al-‘Arabi the importance of the number four is clear. He often speaks about it. This would require a study in itself.

The tahlîl (the 36 different Qur’anic attestations of the divine unity) consist of four terms, the first three thereof are always the same, consisting of a negation, followed by that which is negated, then comes an affirmation and fourthly the One Who is affirmed, like in the saying lâ ilâha illa Allâh.

Then there are the divine four:

1. Life
2. Knowledge
3. Will
4. Speech

There are the four in nature:

1. Warmth
2. Coldness
3. Dryness
4. Humidity.

The four humours, the four essential truths and, to finish with the start, the four elements can also be mentioned.