The Sufi interpretation of the letter Alif

Hakim Tirmidhi calls the science of letters (‘ilm al-huruf) the science of the friends of God (‘ilm al-awliya). Shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi gives it lots of attention by writing about it in his second chapter of his masterpiece “The Meccan Openings“.

The alif (the letter a) is isolated in writing. This means that it cannot be written connected to the letter following it. The alif thus symbolizes the transcendent, unqualified essence. The downward stroke of the alif symbolizes universal manifestation from the highest state of Being to the lowest one.

Shaykh ad-Dabbagh has been a so-called ummi, an illiterate, just like the Prophet has been called ummi. The shaykh was not truly illiterate, but in his case ummi implies that he did not receive any formal religious education. By means of inspiration, he has said some remarkable things.

Shaykh ad-Dabbagh related the following, rather peculiar story:

In some non-Arab country there are trained birds above the door of the house and if a thief enters, the birds break into speech and say: “They’ve committed theft” (saraqu), and they pronounce the q like an alif. The bird won’t stop speaking even in the face of threats and menacing gestures, nor will it cease if offered something to eat. In short, it won’t cease even if it’s [about to be] killed.

With this story, the Shaykh indicates what it means to speak the truth and that the good can be taught because the bird, despite its remoteness [from man], was trained so that true speech became its nature.

The alif represents the number one and belongs to the element of fire.

Because of its shape, the alif resembles the numeral 1. It symbolizes the selfness of God as well as His unity. Thus, this letter takes on the archetypal value of the whole alphabet, which it begins and is thus also identified with Adam, the father of humankind (and thus any diacritical sign affirming this letter’s value is identified with Eve).

The three main positions of the Islamic prayer are:

  • Standing, like the alif
  • Kneeling, like the dal
  • Prostrating, like the mim.

These three letters also make up the name Adm (Adam). According to the Sufi Ibn ‘Ata Allah Abbas (d. 1309):

this name (alif) is derived from ulfa (good company), because it unites and agrees (ta’lif) with the other letters”.

For some, however, the alif represents Satan, because like him it does not bow to God.

Shaykh ad-Dabbagh writes about this letter that it “corresponds with the obeying the recommendations, which is part of contraction”.

Henri Corbin has presented us with a French translation of a book of Rajab Borsi called: “Les Orient des Lumieres”. There is a section in it dealing with the secret of the Alif:

As for the science of the points and the circles, it stands at the origin of the knowledges and obscure depths of the esoteric sciences, because the message starts with the letters, the letters start with the alif; the alif starts with the point. The point symbolizes (according to the specialists in the science of letters) the descent of the Absolute Being manifested (zahir0 by the hidden (batin). It symbolizes the beginning by means of the result, that is to say the manifestation of the Ipseity which is the principle of being and which involves neither designation nor indication (i.e. the science of letters is the framework of all the symbols regarding theophanies which of a necessity brings about a apophatic (negative) theology (tanzih; i.e. about the Essence you can only speak in terms of what it is not).

In another part of his “The Orient of Lights” Rajab Borsi states that all the letters are derived from the light of the alif. He states that each letter subsists by means of the secret of the alif, while the alif itself is the secret of the Word. The alif is seen by him as the symbol of the Intellect. The alif is among the letters the First Created from which all the degrees of the rest of the universe proceed. In case you get to know the secret of the alif, then you have arrived at the inward rank of the sincere (siddiqun), and to the inward rank of the near ones (muqarrabun).

Most of the meditations of the Sufis regarding the letters of the alphabet were directed toward the letter alif. Its slender, vertical line is often being used as a comparison for the slender stature of the beloved. Khwaja Hafez says:

There is on the table to the heart nothing but the alif of my Friend’s stature:
What shall I do? My teacher gave me no other letter to memorize!

These lines can be interpreted mystically as well; for the alif with the numerical value one, isolated and yet active, became the divine letter par excellence. To know the alif meant for the Sufis to know the divine unity. In case you remember this simple letter, then there is no need to remember anything else.

Shaykh Harith al-Muhasibi had pointed out:

When God created the letters he incited them to obey. All letters were in the shape of the alif, but only the alif kept its form and image after which it has been created“.

This idea was expanded by the unstoppable shaykh an-Niffari, who saw all the letters except alif as ill. Shaykh Fariduddin ‘Attar took up the idea and showed how the different numbers grew out of the alif with the value one and how the letters emerged from it:

When it became crooked, a d came into existence.
With another kind of bend, a r became visible.
When its two ends were bent, a b came forth.
When bending it like a horseshoe, a n manifested itself.

This ‘bending and shaping’ took place to all the letters. In the same way, all the various created beings in the different shapes have emerged from the divine unity.

It is not for nothing that Yunus Emre says:

The meaning of the four revealed books
Is contained in the alif.

It is now clear that the science of the letters of the alphabet constitutes one of the central aspects of Sufism. The term as-simiya, operative science of the letters, looks like al-kimiya, alchemy. This is to say that as-simiya has been seen from the start as a science dealing with the transmutation of the word, just like alchemy deals with material transmutation. You have read that shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi has dealt with the subject almost in the beginning of his Meccan Openings. Each human being is ontologically a divine word.

In one of his contemplations shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi states:

I raised my head and I saw, indeed that (the) alif was in everything. He does so in response to this divine request: “Raise you head and look,” He said. “You will find it written on all things”.

The alif is the underlying principle of all the letters, where it lies hidden, contained in their names and graphical forms. In fact, all the names of the letters include an alif, either explicitly (zahir) in the name: e.g. the letter waw (w) can be written waw, alif, waw or implicitly (batin), in the name of one of the letters of its name: e.g. nun (n) can be written nun, waw, nun.

The alif, a vertical line, is symbolically the original form that gives rise to the others and is the substance with which the letters are modeled. The shape of the Arabic letter b can be seen as a ‘horizontal’ alif. The alif is not confined to any specific degree and therefore it is the symbol of the unconditioned Essence.

In another contemplation shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi tells us: “Then He said to me: ‘The alif is silent whilst the letters speak. The alif articulates the letters, but the letters do not articulate the alif. The letters are regulated by the alif and the alif accompanies them always, without their realizing. The letters are Mozes and the alif is the staff.

The alif is silent means that the alif is not one of the articulated or voiced letters. The letters are articulated. Moses represents the articulation of speech since in the Qur’an 4:164 he is called kalim Allah, the one who speaks with God.

The alif is implicitly present in all the letters, since the letters, when they are pronounced, are a discontinuous flow of air, whilst the alif is a continuous flow, without any determined limit. You could say that by articulating the alif (the flow of expired air) at the points of articulation, thereby segmenting it, the various letters are manifested.

The alif is called the staff, represented as a vertical line. The staff, according to shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi, symbolizes silence, because it is ‘silent’. In spite of its silence, the divine miracle was manifested in the staff of Moses. Similarly, the sign/verse (aya) is in the alif, not in the letters, since only God can produce an effect.

The shaykh ends his contemplation thus:

if you remain silent, everything will be guided by you and if you speak, everything will go astray through you. Rise beyond and you will discover”.

That is why we’’ll stop writing about the alif and we’ll remain silent.

1. Ibn al-'Arabi: The Meccan Revelations; chapter 2.
2. Ibn Arabi: Le Livre du Mim. du Waw et du Nun.
3. Ibn ‘Arabi: Contemplations of the Holy Mysteries.
4. Rajab Borsi: Les Orients des Lumieres.
5. Ad-Dabbagh: Al-Ibriz.
6. Annemarie Schimmel: Buchstabensymbolismus in der Sufi-Literatur.
7. Pierre Lory: La science des lettres en islam.